Twittering Historians

This photo gleaned some interest in my Twitter feed and it got me thinking about history. People were genuinely interested in the photo and the people represented, especially young people. Older people chimed in answering questions. The original poster (who looked to be in her 20s) wrote:

  • My older female relatives never went anywhere without wearing a dress, hose and makeup. Gloves and hats were added for church and shopping downtown at the fancy stores.
  • It was a different time, it was 1970 before girls could wear pants to school, you wore your best clothes to travel, we could use a happy middle from the past and now.
  • I remember the first day I wore pants to school. It was so cool. Prior to that we were allowed to wear them under our skirts/dresses if it was below freezing.
  • Back when having a little respect for what other people had to look at wasn’t a concept to be laughed at. Yes, there was a time when it wasn’t always me me me me me me me. Shocking!


It was interesting to read the comments. Many made blanket statements about the era and who had “rights” ‘and who didn’t. Others made social comments on the superiority of the “goodle days.” Many young people mocked the family in the photo or laughed at the care they had put into their appearance JUST to go to the supermarket. Many young people were convinced that this family had gone shopping after church, not knowing that churches stores were closed on Sunday back in the “goodle days.” Others were sure that black people were not allowed in the store based on the fact that the photo shows a white family. Others were sure that the man would not let the woman shop by herself.

A few old people answered sincerely from their own experience in those days. I did. Someone wrote that it was unusual to see a man at the grocery story and I answered that my dad and I did the grocery shopping on Saturdays. This was answered by mild disbelief and comments that my dad must have been a very unusual man. Well, he was, but that wasn’t why he was shopping without my mom.He was shopping without my mom because pushing the cart up and down the aisles in the store was good exercise for him as his multiple sclerosis encroached more and more on his mobility. AND we got to hang out together, just us two, and do something useful for mom who didn’t drive. A lot of women didn’t drive in the “goodle days.” It was very cool to have a mom who did.

I didn’t spend the day reading all the comments this elicited, but I thought about it a lot afterwards, obviously. In my world my brother and I had a freedom and independence I don’t see kids having today, and peer-age friends have said the same thing to me. “When we were kids, we were out the door ‘by mom!'” I got a wrist watch for my 7th birthday so I could come home when they told me to. There were comments about this, too. I don’t remember many times going out with my whole family like this.

One thing I didn’t see mentioned was that supermarkets were comparatively new at this time. Many (most?) people still shopped at corner stores and butchers and bakers and and and. The centralized location for EVERYTHING was a comparatively novel idea. When I was a very small child, my dad came home with whatever mom was going to cook for supper because the butcher was next to the university where he worked. That style of shopping is still alive and well in Europe.

Most interesting to me was that posters were putting together a very useful view of the times depicted in the photo from varied points of view.

One, the questions the future might ask of the past will be based on its view of normal. Two, answers the past might offer the future are based on the limited direct experience of individuals. If the future really cared about life back in the “goodle days” they would have a treasure trove of authentic voices. The challenge I saw was the inability of the future to suspend its opinions and drop the lens of its own moment and perceive that the past was — as is the present — composed of individual people each responding to the imperatives imposed by his/her own life.

But not just that; these grownups had come of age during the Great Depression. The poverty of the Great Depression was pervasive, grueling. The prosperity they were experiencing? My mom even said, “Comb your hair and put on a dress. You don’t want people to think you just walked off the farm.” My mother’s vision of the farm? Flour sack dresses and hand-me-down shoes. The past brings with it the leavings of ITS own past and the blue jeans I wear every day were, in the sixties and seventies, a radical political statement and residue of “the farm.”

Family Thanksgiving, 1959, Three aunts and a cousin, our house in Englewood, CO

Time, Time, Time

History is like science in the sense that it is very difficult to get to the ultimate, absolute, bottom-of, truth about something. Even personal history is layered in emotion and the fallibility of memory. I began to really understand this when I was researching leprosy in medieval times for Martin of Gfenn.

Most people still have the image of hordes of lepers wandering around Europe ringing their bell or rattling their rattle rasping out “Unclean!” as they begged for food. Probably there were a few lepers out there doing this, but in reality there were never many lepers in Europe. Most of them were crusaders returning from the Holy Land where leprosy was endemic. So where did people get this idea? Sir Walter Scott AND the fact that there are a LOT of medieval buildings that were built as leper hospitals scattered across the countryside. I went into this in depth in my gripping four part series on the Medieval Leper which, to my amazement has barely been read by anybody. Go figure! 🙂

The other thing about history is the further back one looks, the less one sees. At the museum in Del Norte, to which I’m somewhat attached, the director — Louise — is always happy to have “provenance,” that is real honest to god factual information about a thing. But even ancient history is getting some of that thanks to science, Carbon 14 dating and even more exciting, DNA. Almost every day I learn something new about something old that paleo anthropologists have discovered from a couple of molars found buried in a cave in an obscure part of the world. And then, there’s this amazing thing, the reconstruction of heads based on DNA and skeletal fragments.

Oscar D Nilsson

The first time I saw this amazing process realized was when I went to the San Diego Museum of Man to see Ă–tzi, the Iceman. I fell in love with Ă–tzi the moment he was discovered and was really happy to discover that my DNA Haplogroup is the same as his. It doesn’t matter AT ALL other than adding to the mythology that short mountain dwelling people with arthritis are an ancient band. Ă–tzi was comparably easy to reconstruct into a 3-D image of himself because he was frozen in a glacier and had most of his parts and his last meal intact, even after 5300 years. His entire being told a library of stories — with provenance.

More Politics… Sorry

I was thinking last night that people like Trump, his ilk and fan base actually benefit from the system they say is broken and that they want to destroy. Because free speech is a thing in this nation, neo-Nazis and cult groups can flourish. They can use the law to defend the rights that they would, should their movement succeed, take away from others. “My” congress person, Lauren Boebert, who’s so proud of her guns etc. would use those guns against people who have the same right to free speech (and divergent beliefs) as she has. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who voted for Trump’s impeachment, has faced a back-lash from the Trumpists who say she’s not a true conservative. These people are using our system to push authoritarianism, the kind of regime in which they would not have the liberties they’re availing themselves of now.

This all hit me when one of the insurrectionists — Jenny Cudd of Midland, Texas — pled with a judge that she be allowed to take a pre-arranged vacation before starting her jail term.

Cudd’s lawyers have filed a request to leave the country from February 18–21 for a “work-related bonding retreat” in Mexico with her employees and their spouses. Yes Cudd, who was charged with entering a federal building without permission and engaging in disorderly conduct and is not allowed to travel to Washington, D.C., unless it’s for a court appearance or to meet with her lawyers or pretrial services officer, would like to leave the country for a little vacation to Mexico’s Riviera Maya because why not?

The weirdest thing of all, to me, is that she is being allowed to go.

It’s really hard for me to wrap my head around this, but I think what we have here is a government and society that works so well that people don’t even realize where it begins and ends. So many of the insurrectionists seem to have had no idea that they committed a very serious crime against the system they rely on just as they rely on having air to breathe.

I’m not going to go far into the race issue here, even though President Biden did, saying, “No one can tell me that if it had been a group of Black Lives Matter protesting yesterday, they wouldn’t have been treated very, very differently than the mob of thugs that stormed the Capitol. We all know that’s true, and it is unacceptable.” (Vanity Fair)

Race is a big issue, but I don’t think it’s the biggest issue. I think the bigger issue is that these people seem to have had NO IDEA that they were committing a crime, no idea that the law of the land protects their right to protest, no idea that everything they assume to be REAL about their lives in this country is defined and protected by laws. It is our right by the sheer accident of having been born here. That Jake Angeli’s (Q Shaman) mom could demand that her son be fed organic food in prison is a clear illustration of how entitled and ignorant we are as a people. And, her poor, innocent, insurrectionist, conspiracy theory touting little boy is now being given organic food.


The Weimar Republic was a beautiful idea with a constitution that was nothing short of inspiring. It lasted a mere fourteen years from 1919 to 1933, pushed aside by the rise of Nazism. The Republic had the enormous task of reconstructing and redefining Germany after WW I. It had little help from other nations who were angry at it for the horrors of WW I. We are there right now. Our government — which it seems far too many people take for granted — will have a big struggle to rebuild this nation internally from the devastation caused by COVID-19 and internationally from the devastation caused by Trump’s regime. It seems to me that the Trumpists are as dangerous (and as stupid) as ever. Biden has a very hard job and he will have to succeed quickly. This could simply be the silence before the storm.

Meanwhile, the DOJ has arrested and charged almost 200 of the insurrectionists. You can learn more about that here. But…

Michael German:There is tremendous amount of public evidence that can be used even today to target the most violent actors.I am concerned that the FBI in particular and the Department of Justice are focusing on January 6 as if it a sui generis event, and not recognizing that many of these people had been engaging in violence around the country for months or years.

Victims and Villains?

Yesterday my step-granddaughter had a painful moment of disillusionment, a small meltdown, because she realized that her ancestry was that of the villains, not of the victims. She is not a Native American. She has a mind for fantasy and has been in love with Native Americans since school started. For Christmas I gave her a little treasure of Native American artifacts from my own life, a beaded baby bracelet one of my mom’s friends at the Crow Reservation made for my mom when she was pregnant with me, a little pot made by Maria Martinez, a little mother-of-pearl owl from the Zuni Pueblo.

It made me think a lot about our current world and the twist of its propaganda. There’s no way to deny that Indians were treated badly by white people. No sane person would ever argue that, but the complexity of our lives should tell us something about the complexity of lives of people in previous generations. Especially now, I think, we should be a little humble making our harsh pronouncements. I believe that to understand ourselves, the first thing we have to do is realize that human beings don’t make sense or even, always, know what they’re doing.

I don’t think it’s possible for us to “make it up” to the Indians for what white people have done to them over the years. Can’t be done. We can just go forward from here. And beating ourselves up for the actions of white people hundreds of years ago? The thing we should be doing is recognizing — with relief — that we’re not there now. There’s really nothing more patronizing and hubristic than looking down from some white promontory and saying “I’m sorry for what they did to you. I never would.”

I wanted to talk to her about raiding cultures in general, and about alliances between some tribes and whites, including that between the Crow and the American army. I wanted to try to explain how history — and human action — is never all this or all that, and the best we can do in our time is attempt to do better.

I wanted to tell my little step-granddaughter about the people who lived in Beringia for so many thousands of years and of the great mixture of peoples that have been discovered in the limited DNA we have from their living years and how traces of that DNA are European. I wanted to tell her that science hasn’t figured out completed where they did come from. I wanted to show her that there was no America as far as those people were concerned or at all 30,000 years ago. That “America” is a made up thing, a word we use to communicate an anonymous location on the globe. I wanted to tell her how, when the waters began to encroach on these ancient peoples’ homeland, they just had to move and they did. I wanted to tell her that they didn’t all come at once.

Then I wanted to tell her about my Swiss ancestors who came to America on purpose to escape some of the same treatment that would be leveled on Native Americans, attempted genocide, the imprisonment of adults and kidnapping of children for re-education so they would not grow up Mennonite. I wanted to tell her about her Canadian great-grandmother who was one of the first women in Canada to become a medical doctor. I wanted to tell her about my Irish ancestors who were loaded onto unseaworthy ships and sent off to live or die, who cared? I wanted to tell her about my Scot’s ancestor who was a prisoner of war, enslaved, set to labor in the sugar plantations in Barbados.

I wanted to tell her about the myriad peoples and cultures that crossed the Atlantic on those ships and how the clash of values existed from the beginning. I wanted to talk to her about peoples’ relentless urge to wander, move, migrate and the various incentives that set them on their way. I wanted to talk to her about the perpetual struggle in humanity between good and evil, even within each one of us.

And then, the bottom line, that we are all tenants on this planet set to contend with the vicissitudes of our time.

*—Aldo Leopold, from “The Virgin Southwest”

Family Ties

When I found myself writing fiction that was based on what was known of my family in Switzerland (not much is known; the stories are 98% fiction), I examined my ancestry. I’m not into genealogy, but that was the source of the answers to my questions. Had Rudolf von Lunkhofen had children? Who were they? Where did they live? How about later, during the Reformation in the 16th century? Was the family still there? Who were they? How many? By any remote chance had they been involved in the terrifying events of the time? Were any of them Anabaptists? Then, later, knowing by virtue of my BEING on this continent, that some of them had had to have emigrated, I began looking for THEM.

They were pretty easy to find, even down to the ship on which they sailed — and more.

Luckily, one of my cousins married a Mormon woman, and my mom had been a passionate genealogical researcher in the 1960s, and they’d exchanged information, so the great data base of the Mormon Church had fed into the vast number of places into which one can look for their ancestry. The fantastic Swiss Lexicon told me about my family during the Reformation. I was stunned to learn that two of the Schneebeli brothers had fought in the Second War of Kappel and one of them, the pastor, was killed. As for the rest? I was on my own — within certain parameters — to determine what might have been their lives.

Then, as I cleaned out the boxes in my garage, boxes that I inherited from my mom, I started to photograph (with my phone) pictures I knew I was going to throw out but that I wanted to keep with the thought of uploading them to the pretty extensive family tree I had built on Why did I do that?

For posterity. I did it very consciously for the kids of my cousins and my own niece. The photos — some old photos — are cool and the stories of the people are interesting. I truly love the family I’ve known. I’m proud of them and they interest me. I suspected they might interest the future.

And then came the DNA tests. I did it for fun and learned NOTHING new, but unknown to me, some of my relatives were taking it to. The upshot of that was I was emailed by the daughter of one of my cousins with some sincere and serious questions. I wasn’t as helpful as she might have wished, but at least I showed up on the other end of her messages.

That’s what I wanted. I want them to know those people. So when I find photos, I put them up. Because I knew them (not the very old ones, of course) and have a really amazing memory I feel a kind of responsibility to those people who aren’t here any more to share a bit of them to any of the future who asks. I’m a story teller, after all. ❤

War Memorial in the Back of Beyond

Cold in the back of beyond — single digits but still above 0 F ( +4 F/-15 C), and I didn’t need to let the dogs out at 5 (they weren’t even awake) but I did which means leaving the back door open a little. OH well. It’s cold in the house, but if I’m either surprised or upset, I’m an idiot. You might say, “No, you’re an idiot for leaving the door open,” and I wouldn’t dispute that.

Yesterday I took the little paintings to the Rio Grande County Museum in Del Norte. Incredibly beautiful windy ground-blizzardy day, jewel clear and dazzling. The display turned out to be a couple of lilac branches stuck into some modeling clay. It’s kind of cute, but somewhat unstable.

Trying out the display at home…

The little paintings have their own table in a room that is otherwise reserved for the Rio Grande County Veterans’ stories. Louise Colville, the museum director, has not only put hours of work, but hours of heart into it. On a counter are notebooks that hold the stories of the veterans of all the wars up to (and including) the current fracas. Each veteran has all the pages he/she needs to tell their story. “I had to stop for a while,” she told me yesterday, “it was just too sad.” Many of the pages include photos of grave markers and the obituaries of those who were killed in action.

Now think of this. ALL of WW II has two, slender, three ring binders. WW I has one. There is a Civil War Veteran. The binders are not full to over flowing. Each typed page is placed into a plastic leaf so people can read the stories easily without wrecking the paper. There is so much information in the way the notebooks have been assembled, clearly illustrating how few people have lived here and how precious each person is. This is a database that can’t be Googled. If a kid wanted to research WW II Veterans of Rio Grande County, he or she could find excellent first person sources, but they would have to go to the museum. There are small museums like this one all over America, treasuries of local history, labors of love that are unknown for the most part.

On the wall are some photos — most from Vietnam, naturally, as photos before then might have fallen by the way if they even existed. It was pretty intense. “The only thing that kept my father out of WW II,” said Louise, “was that he was the only son of a farmer.” Her comment made me think about some woman in Denver who, on a Facebook post back in 2016, asked “What’s so damned important about farmers?” I guess they knew the answer to that back in WW II.

As is always the case in the San Luis Valley, we shared stories and opinions. And, small political statement, I’m 100% sure we did not vote the same way in the last major election but I am also 100% sure we agree on most things. I felt again the immense distance between the government in Washington and a tiny county museum in the back of beyond.

The museum is a haven for the objects of the lives of the people who have lived here pretty much since the beginning.

“The earliest settlers here came with the Spanish conquistadors. Their descendants are here in the valley,” Louise tells me, her voice filled with wonderment. I share her wonderment. That bit of history is one of the things that attracted me here in the first place.

An exhibit of clothing at the Rio Grande County Museum

Cult of Personality

One of the the best movies I’ve seen in EVER is The Death of Stalin: A Comedy of Terrors. True, you need a very dark sense of humor. It might even help to deepen your appreciation if you have lived some of your life under totalitarianism. Admittedly, my little venture into totalitarianism was brief and mostly happy, but I definitely got the big picture on what it is and means.

The film shows — in an almost factual way — the last night of Stalin’s life and ensuing events. The focus of the film is on the central committee, its fears, rivalries and corruption. The humor is grimly slapstick. The committee is brilliantly played by a bunch of actors I don’t know and two I do — Michael Palin and Steve Buscemi. The director is Armando Iannucci about whom I know nothing except this film is a masterpiece.

One of the puzzling things to me about history is that the entire burden of stories of atrocities against humanity during the 20th century rests on Hitler, somewhat unfairly. It’s suspected that more than 20 million people were killed under Stalin’s leadership. How could a funny movie be made about this? I’m not going to tell you. The film isn’t for everyone, but I laughed out loud several times.

The Death of Stalin carries a meta-message warning of the dangers of personality cults. Like Chairman Mao, Stalin was a real (not merely hyped) hero and beloved by his people (many? most? some?) but for thirty years, he maintained his power through death lists, sycophantic followers and an ignorant public. One revelatory (and darkly funny) scene shows Stalin lying on the floor unconscious in his Dacha. The committee cannot figure out what to do. When they finally decide to bring in a doctor, one of them says despairingly, “But all of the good doctors are dead or in gulags…”

Don’t Beat Up My Friends

Yesterday I read an article from The New York Review of Books, “Super Goethe” by Ferdinand Mount.

More or less it is a review of a recent biography of Goethe by Rudiger Safranski, Goethe: Life as a Work of Art. I made it most of the way through this book until I realized that having read Goethe’s autobiographies (with a grain of salt and a grin) this book was, for me, gratuitous. I didn’t finish it. Goethe wrote a LOT about himself and I felt OK having let him tell his tale. I don’t take issue with Safranski’s book. This review, however?

I have a huge problem with retroactive judgements of historical figures and this review concludes with the intimation that, in another time and another place, Goethe would have been a Nazi.

Maybe that’s true, maybe that’s false. No way to know that because Goethe did not live in another time and another place and just because Weimar is near Buchenwald doesn’t mean Goethe would have been a prison guard, or worse, but Mount concludes his piece with, “I am not the first to note that included among the sights of Weimar in the Michelin Green Guide is Buchenwald.”

I happen to love Goethe, but that doesn’t mean I “know” him. I can’t. But when I look at the past I try to see past the hazy fog of intervening historical events to what had NOT yet happened.

  • In Goethe’s time, there were only the beginnings of what would be the Industrial Revolution. Marx was born when Goethe was 69.
  • When Goethe was a young man and made a journey to Switzerland, the United States of America was three years old and did not yet have a constitution.
  • Voltaire was alive; the Age of Enlightenment was in full force.
  • Goethe lived during the French Revolution. What he saw of it, what he knew of it, would have been FAR different than what we know of it. From Goethe’s perspective it was wanton death on the streets and the destabilization of life for millions of ordinary people.
  • Goethe was the son of a lawyer. Education in his family was extremely important, but it was not the common lot of most people to have the chance to go to school.
  • There was no “Germany.” That geographical blob on the map was a very loose assemblage of small duchies, principalities, etc. Imagine a big hunk of land broken up into hundreds of very vulnerable Liechtensteins and Monacos. When Goethe — or anyone at that time — wrote about “German cultural identity” they were writing about something that didn’t exist.
  • Goethe -SAW war. He was sent to be a correspondent about fighting in the Alsace. His descriptions of this are harrowing. He was never the same person afterward, either. He wrote about refugees from war, too, and problems they had becoming part of the culture to which they had refugeed.
  • Mount has written that Goethe admired Napoleon, a statement that is — miraculously — both true and false. They met. Napoleon could speak of Goethe’s novel, Sorrows of Young Werther but apparently had no directly knowledge of Faust. Goethe admired Napoleon, but only up to a point. Because Goethe was ALIVE at the Napoleonic moment, he would NOT have seen Napoleon the way I do or the author of this article does.
  • Science — as we understand it — was new. The scientific method was being, at that time, defined. Goethe was a contemporary of Newton. Goethe was himself a good scientist and far more influential than most of us are aware.

I will never know who Goethe really was. I like that he wrote very direct erotic poetry. I like that he was irreverent and reverent with life and language, both, at the same time. I appreciate his intellectual curiosity. I like that he believed a person needed to constantly learn, to explore, to nurture curiosity. In the time in which Goethe lived, there was no big push to specialize, and he didn’t. I like that he asked, “What if?” I appreciate his willingness — desire — to learn. I admire his resilient sense of wonder. I know he was misogynistic and thought people who wore glasses were trying to be something they’re not. I don’t know if he would have liked me; I even kind of doubt it. But, that’s OK. I probably wouldn’t have known him if I had been alive during his lifetime. But I’m not. I’m here, now, and I have been able to reap the fruits of his long lifetime of work. I like that he composed poetry such as this:

From fall to fall a thousand streams are flowing
A thousand more are plunging, effervescent,
And high up in the air the spray is glowing,
Out of this thunder rises, iridescent,
Enduring through all change the motley bow,
Now painted clearly, and now evanescent,
Spreading a fragrant, cooling spray below.
The rainbow mirrors human love and strife;
Consider it and you will better know:
In many-hued reflection we have life.

(Faust Part II, Act I, trans. Walter Kaufmann)

Featured image: The Rhinefalls, ink sketch by Goethe


I study history. I especially like primary sources. I then use what I’ve learned to create lives for imaginary or semi-imaginary people. I read everything I can — popular literature is very important to me as I try to gain access to a world that is not my world. Context is important. I study paintings that are contemporary to the era in which I’m interested to see what surrounded people in their lives and what commanded their focus. I am as thorough as I can possibly be. I’ve been complimented by historians on the accuracy in my books, but I try very hard not to overburden my character’s lives with some scholarly rant about the world they live in.

All I can ever know about the past is that I cannot ever live there and that’s important. Where were they that I am not? What did they do to bring this world — my world — into being? That matters.

One thing I’ve learned is that we don’t know much about them. Our knowledge is a chamber of fading echoes. A few figures stand out for a generation or two (sometimes longer) as an emblem of the past — but that figure will always exist in our time and for us. For example, we relate to Anne Frank because we know about her, but every time her story is interpreted it becomes more OUR story and less her story. We know Marilyn Monroe wore a size 14, but we imagine that to be the SAME size 14 people wear today (it wasn’t. It was 34/26/34. I know. I sewed which means I studied the backs of pattern packages to find out what sewing notions I needed and the yardage for my size, back then, a size 9, 32/23/32). We talk about the fifties and the “Father Knows Best” family without thinking that their real-life counterparts had grown up during the Depression and lived through WW II. Many of them built their families in a world very different from the world their parents had known. We don’t even think that “Father Knows Best” was entertainment, not documentary.

We forget what Hitler really was; we define fascism as anything we don’t like. We don’t even remember that Hitler was not the only one, not even then. We don’t think of Stalin, Tojo or Mussolini. It’s too much for us. We want it simplified, and then we forget it was not actually simple; we made it so.

Goethe said it very well during his trip to Italy when he was in his 30s. He loved art — painting — and wondered at the time if he were an artist. He studied everything he could before his trip and when he GOT to Italy, he was stunned. He said that there were thousands of “lesser lights” whose work he’d never heard of, never seen, did not even know existed but which were lovely, necessary and important. The same is true looking at any historical moment, any historical figure.

We look at the artifacts of time and assemble them into categories WE have made up in OUR time. Example, because Giotto’s work is different from the other “medieval” painting we know of, we class him as a Renaissance painter but conveniently ignore the years in which he was painting. We extend the arbitrary classification to fit our expectations. We don’t even ask “Why did Byzantine art have such a hold on painting for so long?” (Byzantine art being an arbitrary label) It’s a good question to ask, though, and the answer is beautiful, (I’m not telling) and worthy of respect. We call the Middle Ages the dark ages, but in fact, it was a time of rapid progress in almost every area — science, art, architecture, public safety. The European city — with brightly painted buildings — was born during the “dark” ages.

For centuries people thought Greek and Roman statues were always white, that white marble had a special significance to them — it did but because it was a good surface to hold paint and keep colors true. How about that?

Often we look at the sincere people of other eras and don’t afford them the respect they deserve. We forget that their world had tensions just as ours does. That it was complex and competitive, and they were also lost and confused a lot of the time. That their aspirations and hopes might not have fit the narrow compass of their lifetimes. That their imaginations were stultified by their beliefs, the expectations of others, social norms (which we judge rather than we learn about) and they — like us — mostly did the best they could. The further back in time, the fainter the echo. We were bored learning about this stuff in school. History is too much for us. We have our own moment to contend with.

As did they.

If you study history, you can be surprised. If you study it enough you’ll be humbled. It is Samuel Beckett saying, “Try, fail. Try again. Fail better,” across millennia.

The Story of China — a “Review”

I just finished watching the PBS series and I’m left with a churning anger inside, a resentment. Ultimately it’s propaganda. The narrator — a British historian named Michael Wood — clearly loves Chinese history from a British historian’s perspective. He waxes enthusiastic for what he understands to be ancient Chinese traditions (ancestor worship for example) without ever considering how some of those old traditions actually hurt people and led to suffering over the years.

He paints in wide swaths to reach the final conclusion that now that China is capitalist, everyone is happy again.

He makes no effort to understand China at the time Chairman Mao (and others, not even his followers) wandered the countryside doing things like teaching the peasants to read. This British historian speaks only about the rural Chinese as vast numbers of people and he calls their villages “remote” — the villages are not remote at all in a world that is traveled on foot; they are only remote if you want to take a plane… They were not remote to the people who lived in them in the early and mid twentieth century and that is one reason for the incredible success of some of China’s most interesting revolutions, including Mao’s revolution at the end of WW II.

I love China so much I cannot even express it. I came home in 1983 and wondered where in the hell I had been, what in the hell had I seen. I spent the next decade figuring that out. I had been in a world so different from anything in my experience that I owed it an open mind, as open as possible, anyway. I was lucky to have been there only a few years after the end of the Cultural Revolution. I saw the damage done to what I would now call “tourist attractions” (historical sites); I heard the stories of people who had survived the persecution. I read the fiction written in China throughout the 19th and 20th century. I did everything in my power to see how the streets with which I became familiar had come to be.

I saw legless men walking on their arms, their torso supported by a block of wood hung from the shoulders by suspenders. I was dumbfounded when a man tried to sell me his child. I spent Chinese New Year in a remote, rural fishing and farming village with no plumbing, no electricity but surrounded by friends. I spent an afternoon with two old men who owned an art store in the Fragrant Hills, their dream come true, the reward from their government for their having gone on the Long March. I woke up every morning to The East is Red. I lived there in the middle of the “one child policy” — which this historian calls “misguided” but which I know pertained only to urban Chinese and was designed to prevent further population explosion and another famine like that in the late 1950s. I don’t have words, as I’ve said before.

I would never ever in a million years attempt a conclusion about the progress or regress of Chinese society based on its political ideology or power structure. That this “historian” has done that upsets me a lot. Yes, it’s better to have than to have not. It’s far better to eat than it is to starve. It’s better to have an education for your kids than not, but what Chairman Mao accomplished (and I don’t like the man, I think he was unspeakably evil, and DJT reminds me of him) was real. The Maoist years ultimately served as a bridge for all Chinese — not just urban Chinese — into the modern world. In 1950, China’s rate of literacy was only 20% — an important point this historian did not mention.

Communism has many commonalities with traditional Chinese Confucianism. No, they are not the same, but the organization of an extended Chinese family is not so different from the organization of a work unit and most Chinese villages are FAMILY villages…

I don’t even think a Chinese can write the ultimate truth about China. I know I can’t. But when it comes to history I hate it when a historian negates complexity and reduces history to the events that interest him and the line that supports his biases.

All this being said, it is a captivating series and well worth watching.

Photo: Fish market in Guangzhou, 1983