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Rediscovering History

Napoleon's Tomb
Spending as much time travelling as I do, one of the things that strikes me is how differently we all view history. For example, a favourite perspective vortex is to visit the tomb of Napoleon I in the crypt of Les Invalides in Paris and realise that all the terrible stuff I learned in school about “old Boney” was at best only half the story.

As well as the stuff about ruthlessly dominating Europe by armed force (which, of course, is spun differently in Paris!), the walls of his magnificent tomb at the Les Invalides recount how he created a fair system of law, established education for all, created a national network of roads and so much more. I’m sure French children learn all about this but all English children learn is about wars and how we eventually put Bonaparte in his place (a small, remote island).

Re-Discovering American History

The story is the same wherever you go, and it becomes increasingly obvious that the spin we suffer from in the news today is by no means a new phenomenon. Which brings me to a great book I love, called Don’t Know Much About History [US|UK]. It’s a fairly thick, but utterly compelling, book of American history that I read from cover to cover in just a few days when I got my original copy in 2006. It’s divided up into nice small sections to make it easy for us attention-impaired types. Even better, it is just about to be re-issued in a special “Anniversary Edition” which brings it right up to date (including Obama’s election).

Book coverThe reviews on Amazon immediately make it clear that this is the book for me! It seems that the author, Kenneth Davis, includes stuff that’s beyond or alternate to the lessons the average American remembers from school. He’s accused of inaccuracy but anyone who’s read this stuff much will know there’s no such thing – history is written by my side and the other side is inaccurate.

What’s really going on, I think, is right-wing readers reacting to Davis’ undoubtedly liberal bias. Just as the music reviews in The Independent newspaper are immeasurably valuable (I know anything they recommend will be awful and thus save a fortune on bad CDs), so material with a known bias can be some of the richest learning material.

Davis paints a compelling account of how America’s history is a very human history. I realised for example that all the rights protected in the Bill of Rights amending the original Constitution, as well as the Constitution itself, were inspired by actual excesses in the years before independence and proving those today who would void or avoid them are fools, not wise YAGNI advocates. I read how all motives are mixed – the Boston Tea Party, for example, was as much about commercial jealousy as it was about unjust taxation.

And so on, right to the end of the book and George W and then Obama. Undoubtedly Davis has an agenda – he clearly tracks America’s continuing failures over equality for minorities (and even majorities like “women”). We all have agenda, especially those of us who complain about agendas. But the whirlwind tour of American history this book gave me was immeasurably valuable – the biases obvious, the new news enlightening. I’d recommend it.


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