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Front Page » January 18, 2005 » Opinion » History rewrites due to narrow, fallible memories
Published 3,916 days ago

History rewrites due to narrow, fallible memories

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The other night my youngest son and one of his friends came to me and asked me a musical question.

"Dad, who originally sang Stand By Me?"

My old rock n' roll mind paused for a minute thinking back over all the years I have heard this song. I told him it was some 50's group, but I wasn't sure which one. At first I answered The Coasters, and I knew immediatelly that was wrong. My wife said she thought it might be The Platters, but then we both knew that wasn't right either. We had both heard the song hundreds of times and heard the name of the performer dozens of times.

Problem is, without a reference point in all the rock and roll trivia I have in my head from over the years, I just couldn't discern that specific fact from all the clutter.

The same could be said with those today who want to rewrite our country's history. While it is true that time changes perspectives and often adds new information to situations that wasn't clear at the time of an events occurance or even a few years later, the viewpoints of those who were involved at the time is often lost in the overall portrayed picture.

In recent years American scholars have said that much of what went on in early America was whitewashed and that the truth was very different from what we learned as kids. Certainly as time passes, legends do grow up among people and details about situations get lost. But that doesn't mean that what the latest book or study says about an historical event is necessarilly true either.

For instance, last year I read three different books about the life of George Washington. The earliest printed book I read about him portrayed him much like the stick figure of a hero and almost a God, similar to what most of us learn about him in the early grades of elementary school.

The other books spent different efforts on various parts of his life. One concentrated a great deal on his early life as a young surveyor who trekked through the western woods of Virgina trying to find his fortune. The other concentrated more on his later work as a politician, general and eventually leader of the country. While there have been dozens of books written about him, judging by these three he was certainly no God, because the details of his problems show he was like everyone else; he experienced great losses in his life which depressed him and he also was very interested in money, just like most of the American population. As a general he was brilliant, but he also made dozens of mistakes which cost a lot of young men their lives. His ambivalence toward one of the best leaders he had in the Continental Army, Benedict Arnold, turned a young brilliant officer into a traitor and a pariah in his own country.

In recent years there has been a lot of emphasis on revamping all kinds of American history, everything from the institution of slavery to the cause of the Indian wars in the late 1800's to whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb against Japan during World War II.

New information and research shows us a lot of factual things that went on behind the scenes as well as political intrigue in many areas that people did not recognize at the time.

However, even with all that study and information, no one today can evaluate the mind set of people at the time. And often the events of the day, even with a more informed public, may not have turned out differently. While human beings like to think of themselves as logical thinking entities, they are actually bound up balls of emotion taking action often based as reactions to events of the time.

The fact is that while we think of ourselves as modern, our viewpoints in many ways are just as narrow about a situtation as those who actually participated in the making of that history.

Recently I interviewed a veteran of a past conflict that told me the whole time he was in the war, he really didn't know much about the big picture of what was going on in the theater of action where he was stationed. He did know however what was going on around him very, very well.

Those who stand on the outside of an event at a different time have the advantage of looking back over the whole of the history of the time, but what they generally lack is what that one veteran had; and inside, closeup view.

We should remember when we read something someone has written about history that it is a viewpoint, sometimes with information supplied or interpreted by people with fallible memories and narrow viewpoints.

When my family came up with the truth about who the original performer of the song Stand By Me was, both my wife and I were completely wrong. It wasn't a group, but an individual; Ben E. King. We hadn't been able to come up with the correct answer without looking it up and it wouldn't have mattered if we had been concerned with that answer right after it was released in the middle part of the last century or five years into the new millenium. We still didn't know definitively who it was. Despite years of hearing it repeated over and over again on oldies stations, we still couldn't get it right.

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January 18, 2005
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