The Past is Another Country

. . . but not another planet!

This was pounded home by two teachers in grad school who had done a lot of research among Native Americans and African-Americans. “Indians are not space aliens.” As you can imagine, the undergrads blinked, wondering what on earth the prof meant. She went on to explain, pointing out that Pawnee had and still have the same motivations and needs as other people, and behave in many ways just like every other human on the planet. The First Nations were not ecological saints living in perfect harmony with their environment. They left campfires unattended and burned their camps down as well as destroying the grass they needed for their herds. Buffalo jumps wasted enormous numbers of bison. Today they drive pickups and cars, they go on dates, they wear jeans, and the grouse about taxes and bureaucrats and the price of milk and why the sweetcorn in the grocery store isn’t all that good and man the price of cattle is low this year.

The past is the same way.

It’s easy to get enraptured with a very different time and place and to make far too much about the differences. At the same time, you can just as easily pick up a world history book and find the author (or a pundit on TV, or the writer of a history TV show) talking about how horrible people were back then and how evil X was and why didn’t the Russian tsars make serfdom illegal back in 1600 because we all know it’s evil. Or how the Catholic Church should have allowed women into the clergy in the middle ages. Or making a big deal because Y historical personage was gay/lesbian/other even though there’s no documentation about it and those terms were a thousand years from being coined. Because everyone has always known X, and the people of 1600 are just like those of today except they didn’t have iThings.

And I want to take that book and wall it. Or throw a pillow at the TV.

No, X was not considered evil back then (it still isn’t in a large swath of the world). No, Y was not gay, despite what John Demos reads into court cases in Puritan documents in the Plymouth Colony. The word didn’t exist, and employment concerns could have been the driving force, not “latent homosexuality” expressing itself by favoritism and then hostility to younger cow herds. (To cut Demos a little slack, he’s a Freudian historian.) Medieval Europeans, Moghul-period Indians, and the Inca were not just like modern people. Yes, they had similar basic motivations (survival, territorial expansion, seeing their offspring thrive, jealousy, greed, seeking pleasure) but their mental furniture was quite different.

To give one example, the individual as an individual had no place. People were part of their family, clan, tribe, village, with reciprocal duties. The individual would be very hard pressed to survive without the rest of the family/village, especially women. Europe, especially western Europe, began to be a little different after Christianity spread its subversive message that all are equal in the sight of G-d, and that all have an inherent dignity and right to be treated decently. But that still applied in theory far more than in practice. You going your own way, trying something new, could bring doom on a settlement in a harsh area, and it made perfect sense for the village elders, or your priest, to come down hard on someone who threatened everyone else’s livelihood. Even into the 19th century, when landlords in Russia tried to introduce new crops and farming techniques, the peasant communes balked and refused because they feared starvation if the experiment failed. Better to stay poor but have some food rather than risking everything on something new.

In places with more room between hunger and society, you tended to see more innovation, and more space for individuals. But even so there were constraints. We’ve gotten used to looking back and saying “Oh, that’s the proto middle class, and this is a woman who was unfairly deprived of a teaching position at the University of Berlin even though she was qualified, tisk tisk.” I suspect the university’s version of a hiring committee said, “She may have the qualifications but we don’t know. She learned from her husband but will the students listen to her? She is a woman, and that alone might distract them. And she has a household to manage and a family to raise. It is better that she do what she should for her family, and we’ll hire a man who knows things and doesn’t have to worry about children and won’t distract the students. And as Luther said . . .”

That may be one of the hardest things to learn when studying history. How do you get inside the mind of someone from another time? How do you, as much as possible, see through the eyes of the tsars and their people, who were always worried about the descendants of the Mongols repeating what Genghis Khan had done so well? How do you try to make sense of the legacy of the Thirty Years War in Prussia, of living in a place with no natural defenses (like Poland and Ukraine)?

But you can. It’s a different country. It’s not a different planet!

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2 thoughts on “The Past is Another Country

  1. Actually a lot of Indians don’t grouse about taxes, because they don’t pay them.

    • True, if they are members of an Enrolled Tribe, but there are a few exceptions. And if they work off the reservation, there’s still payroll deductions, just slightly different. Or so it was 8 years ago. I have no idea what may have changed since then.

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