Alternate Histories

Cover Art

I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.)

In 1995 James Loewen published a survey of high school American history textbooks called Lies My Teacher Told Me. (A revised edition came out in 2007.) I read it when it was new. I was a year out of high school and hadn’t really connected with history. (Or, in retrospect, much else. I don’t think my real education began until I graduated.) So I was intrigued by the message of Lies My Teacher Told Me. It’s not just you, says Loewen: your high school history classes really were as boring as you remember.

In chapter 13 of the 2007 edition, Loewen quotes an “activity” from The American Journey. It asks students to arrange, on a timeline, several recent events including “Iraq invades Kuwait,” “Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims sign peace agreement,” and “Sandra Day O’Connor named to Supreme Court.” But… why bother? As Loewen points out, “There is no important causal or logical connection among most of the events… The activity merely asks students to memorize the order of unrelated occurrences.”

This is how most high school history textbooks are written: as eight hundred pages of dry factoids. They’re compilations of historical moments loaded with names and dates–the students need something to memorize, after all. About half of what I remember from history class is memorization.1 Once I memorized the Gettysburg Address and the preamble to the Constitution. I don’t remember understanding what the Address or the preamble meant, but I parroted the words well enough to pass the class.

What’s missing? Mostly cause and effect. Okay, so we have this list of things that happened. Gettysburg! Teapot Dome! The Hawley-Smoot Tariff! How did they happen? What did they mean? This stuff isn’t absent from textbooks, but the books really don’t like spending time on it. Take the Civil War. Through the first half of the 19th century free states and slave states were locked in conflict–almost a cold war–over the expansion of slavery into the territories: any new state would add representatives to Congress and tip the balance of power. It wasn’t until after high school that I understood the whole picture, the throughline from the Missouri Compromise to the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Bleeding Kansas and Harper’s Ferry to the war. In high school, slavery was just something that went on in the background until the Civil War suddenly erupted in 1860. In high school, history seemed to come in bits.

Remembering history class is like remembering a James Bond movie. A Bond movie exists to deliver big action set pieces–car chases, fights, explosions, and for some reason a lot of skiing. Movies are a narrative medium, so the set pieces need connective tissue–some kind of plot that explains why Bond is handcuffed to a nuclear bomb in Fort Knox. But the audience isn’t interested in the connective bits, and more importantly the writer and director aren’t interested in the connective bits, so the connective bits are aways perfunctory. Half an hour after the movie is over the set pieces are all we remember. If you asked me why Bond was chasing Blofeld on a bobsled course at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service I couldn’t tell you.2

History is not a James Bond movie. Causes and effects are ninety percent of what history is about. Why not emphasize them? Well, for one thing, rote memorization is easy to test. Ask a class to explain the causes of the Civil War and you’ve got thirty essays to read and grade. But that’s not the main reason.

Textbook publishers like controversy about as much as vampires like getting invited to the church cafeteria for spaghetti and garlic bread. They’re mortally afraid of offending anyone–anyone at all, left, right, or off the political charts. A parent gets pissed off, a school board backs down, and they lose sales. Whether publishers should be afraid is an open question. I think most parents and school boards are more indifferent than publishers assume. Still, rightly or not, they live in constant anxiety. When I remember my old school textbooks, I imagine editors and barely-qualified ghostwriters working under their desks.

A history book needs a narrative. Textbooks, in their quest to avoid making anybody feel bad, settled on exceptionalism. The United States is born to greatness. It’s had its problems, but they’ve been solved! It never backslides! It only gets better! Kurt Vonnegut once tried graphing plots along an axis of “good fortune” and “ill fortune”. When something good happened to the hero, the graph line climbed above the center line; when something bad happened, it dropped below. On the Vonnegut system, the textbook story of America starts at the center line and keeps climbing. Its heroes are foible-less paragons whose cracks have been so smoothed over they no longer seem quite human.

The complete and honest history of the United States is a fascinating, epic, often inspiring story, but it’s not this story. Real history is spiky and awkward. If you want to turn it into a smoothly flowing Henry Moore sculpture, sometimes you have to sand down any protruding facts. For example, most students aren’t told why early English settlers had such an easy time moving into North America: up to ninety percent of the locals had died in plagues brought by earlier European explorers–ordinary European diseases to which Native Americans had no immunity. When the Pilgrims disembarked from the Mayflower, they found cleared land and planted fields waiting for them! Some textbooks invent new facts when reality doesn’t inspire. When reading history textbooks for Lies, James Loewen discovered that, faced with the alternately dull and embarrassing facts of Christopher Columbus’s journey to the Americas, most retreated into fantasy–one textbook tells how Columbus received his funding at the very last minute as he dejectedly rode away from Spain on a mule.

But usually the facts themselves aren’t that controversial–everybody agrees the Civil War happened, and when. The people who deny hard facts are so far off in their own little worlds even textbook publishers don’t fear them. The bitterest arguments erupt over what the facts mean… and this is where we come back to the history-as-factoids approach.

When we look for meaning in history we’re mostly looking at how events connect–we’re looking for story. Focus on moments, go vague on connections, and you can sell your textbook to anybody. Maybe even the scary weirdos who still insist on calling the Civil War the “War Between the States.”

Most of us graduate from school with a sense of events as islands in a sea of nothing… a history of unconnected dots and no numbers to tell us where to draw the lines. Textbooks–and history classes–treat historical moments as separate modules, and mostly leave it to students to piece them together into… something. Maybe the boosterish story told by the textbooks.

But maybe, long after graduation, when all they remember are the parts where George Washington chopped down a cherry tree and Abraham Lincoln blew up Jefferson Davis’s hidden volcano fortress, some former students will take the facts they remember and the facts they find in whatever sources flatter their worldviews and piece them into a story that makes sense to them. Whether or not it’s true.

  1. I also remember films. This was back in the day when films meant actual film–light projected through celluloid–so they weren’t convenient to set up… but as long as the films were running the teacher didn’t have to do any teaching, so we got loads of them. ↩

  2. My favorite Bond is George Lazenby. There, I’ve said it. ↩