Monday, May 23, 2011

Reading the lines between the lines

I started to reply to Anonymous' comment to my post "The white men fired back. That is the story," and then realized that I was in the process of writing another post on the topic of a recurrent theme in this blog, "what use is history?"


My reply below . . .

Anonymous, I would suggest that you read more closely the two sources quoted in the post. My intention here was to juxtapose two interpretations of the same period of Oregon's history to show explicitly how drastically different these interpretations are.

There are also a number of things I am implying by the juxtaposition of these two interpretations. I could have spent much more time and many more words in an attempt to make more clear and direct what I was implying, but this is a blog and I didn't have the time to spend writing a more thorough analysis. Also, I wanted to point readers to Wilkinson's book, because he has taken the time to go much more into depth on this topic, and has done so far more eloquently than I could.

To bring to the foreground some of the things that the post above suggests but may not make explicit . . .

1) The Oregonian editorial of 1931 is incorrect in claiming that "The white men fired back. That is the story." As Wilkinson writes, "For their part, the tribes also had people who carried out raids, thefts, and killings," BUT "It is a mistake, however, to think of this and later stages of the Rogue River War in terms of equivalency, as a conflict between where blame should be equally allocated between the two sides."

2) Because the Oregonian editorial is wrong, it's informative to think about what interests were served by the all-white, all-male Oregonian editorial board of the early 1930s dismissing a more accurate representation of the historical record vis-a-vis the state's Indian population:
    a) What role might inaccurate representations of history play in both keeping certain social groups in power and undermining the power of other groups?
    b) With the Oregonian's inaccurate interpretation of history, in what ways was the newspaper supporting certain political and social efforts while undermining others?
    c) The editorial suggests that there were some historical interpretations that challenged the received narrative that "The white men fired back. That is the story." Why did the Oregonian editors feel compelled to refute these interpretations? What interests were being served by refuting this evidence?
We would be committing a significant fallacy of historical interpretation if we were to respond to the Oregonian's editorial by projecting our own values and knowledge into the past, and judging the these people on the basis of what might seem to us now to be obvious. This is called anachronism. If we were to judge the Oregonian editors as morally repugnant racists, we might feel superior to them in some sense but we wouldn't necessarily have a clearer understanding of their lives and times.

To help gain a clearer understanding of how and why the Oregonian editors could hold so strongly a view that does not comport with the historical record (as Wilkinson and others have since brought forth), it's more useful to try to understand the context in which their understanding evolved and was perpetuated. The questions outlined above provide some suggestions to gain such context.

Applying this process of historical inquiry and critical analysis to the present, we might also gain some tools to analyze news and editorial content. To over-simplify the questions above, accuracy and inclusion is often well-served both in the past and present when we "follow the money" -- when we ask who is perpetuating a given claim or interpretation and who benefits from having the claim understood in this way.

In summary, I was implying that history is much more than a bland recitation of facts, or a selected string of sources lined-up to unquestioningly support the claims of one ideology or another. One of the most important uses of history is to shed light upon those instances in which a given historical narrative eschews accuracy and ignores complexity to legitimize injustices.

Anyway, I could go on and on, but, again, I recommend you read Wilkinson's book, and then we'll talk further.


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