On one side of my family I have a cousin with very little experience of the world. He has not traveled, been in the military though he’s of an age that ought to have been drafted, or been to college. He has cocooned himself in right-wing assumptions, a prosperity-based church, and playing the piano in public lounges. Somehow he has locked onto history as a Truth without any consciousness that dates, names, battles, and triumphalism in general are 19th century, totally outmoded by the realization that people rearrange facts to suit their own views, dropping out what is inconvenient. History has been the written work of European white men. Howard Zinn is one of that tribe, but events jogged him out of the groove so that he among others have asked what about the illiterate black woman -- what does SHE know about what happened, let’s say in the American Civil War? Or in Africa today? The answer is "plenty."
I was appalled when my California-suburban cocooned cousin responded to “Je Sui Charlie” with a re-copied list of Moslem atrocities over the centuries, concentrating on beheading and implying that the latest acts are typical. I assume this is to inflame us all with Christian determination to start a new Crusade (send money). Of course, it would be perfectly possible to counter with one of the most systematic industrial beheadings in history: the use of the guillotine to kill thousands, including the French monarchs. In its time it was as rousing, popular, and public as the recent march in Paris.
In Valier there is considerable pride that the village immigrated en masse from Belgium. It seems clear to them that this was because the prairie irrigation project that is the keystone of the area was so attractive. They think of Belgium as being like “Poirot,” the fussy but civilized detective from Masterpiece Theatre. World War I, which was fomenting in the years just before the migration, seems irrelevant to them. Neither do they think of King Leopold II (1835-1909) who took advantage of Belgian law to personally and privately own Congo, based on exploitation of natural resources ranging from rubber to diamonds, which he finally sold to Belgium, the nation, for an enormous sum, much as the Conrad brothers sold their ranch to Cargill for a million dollars.
Leopold’s Congo notorious management makes the Taliban look like beginners. Whippings, amputation, death, and the slavery of the people still echoes in political consequences, including the terrible turning of factions against each other in the wholesale machete murders of neighbors. I doubt you could find more than a half-dozen people in Valier who know about Leopold II and his sowing of dragon teeth. I’m sure Belgians are not eager to talk about it.
A more entertaining example of the use of history for ego-inflation comes from a cousin on the other side of my family who daily at the breakfast table flung accusations of inescapable shortfalls attributed to essential natures of the family. This pompous cousin informed us that the Cochran branch of the family was more prosperous because they were tougher. His evidence was that they arrived in Oregon by walking across the prairie on the Oregon Trail. (The Oregon Trail people are full of pride, something like the Daughters of the American Revolution, which -- incidentally -- includes descendants of the Indian Nations who fought against the Brits.) My cousin said the Pinkertons were relative cream puffs because they came on the train.
His weak sense of chronology had skipped over the simple fact that when the Cochrans came, there WAS no railroad across the continent, though they could have taken ships around South America. There was no Panama Canal yet either. But it WAS helpful that the Cochrans were earlier, when the land of the Willamette Valley had just been taken away from the indigenous tribal people and re-allotted to white people from back East, which was a quick jump to prosperity. I’ll follow up all this later in other posts.
In some ways the Euro-American insistence on channeling everything into one fast, slick, industrial channel owned and driven by profit -- like the railroad -- has been efficient and effective judged by prosperity in the sense of money for the right people. It has also been destructive, mostly to sub-groups of individuals who were sacrificed to national goals, like the Chinese and Irish immigrants who actually built the railways.
This fantasy account of the Pinkerton/Cochran comparison is really rooted in the marriage of our grandmother, a Cochran at a time when the family ran woolen mills and was prosperous enough to cede original homestead land for the Oregon Pioneer Park in Brownsville, OR. She married a man her father considered beneath her, partly so she could escape a critical step-mother. She was vulnerable to protection and nurturing by a fiery, seemingly powerful man, but also vulnerable to criticism -- family-on-family -- about who was better, since her husband’s fiery nature turned out to be more proclamation than alliance-building.
On the other side of the family, cocoon-man’s mother’s history was not known, but her ways were always ladylike and quite English. She was a poet of romantic sentiments and the only aunt I know of who sent her children to church, though she didn’t attend. Only recently was the family contacted by genealogy tracers in England who had identified her mother as one of the King’s Daughters, a euphemism for a huge group of orphans whose parents had died in the terrible plagues like cholera that swept Britain. The children were deported to Canada and Australia with the rationale that the great spaces of land needed people. It was assumed that they would be gladly adopted or at worst become something like indentured servants. Their fates varied with their luck.
Out of such historical movements come a great hunger for stability, for family, and for propriety. This is what IMHO left the grandson welcoming the fundamentalism of religious and political right wingers. In my own sibling cohort, with a mother who aspired to return to the status of the Cochrans who had endowed colleges and enjoyed prestige, we all went to college -- my mother and a scholarship paying my way, and my brothers going on the GI Bill earned by their service in the Marines.
My Pinkerton grandfather and the times played a nasty trick on my mother. Her father paid her way through the first years at Albany College (which became Lewis and Clark) and she actually earned her tuition at one point by raising corn on leased land with a leased mule. Then the Depression meant there was no more money and she had to drop out. What she didn’t know at the time was that as a descendent of the Cochrans, she qualified for a scholarship. Her father knew and did not tell her out of pride. Decades later, when she returned to college, he was contrite and helped her.
Fundamentalisms and conservative movements are sometimes seen in terms of making time stop, of getting control of change, or even returning to times conveniently remembered as “good,” due to a little strategic editing -- more unconscious than planned. Who knew that vaccination and antibiotics would seem to solve the problem of cholera-orphaned children -- only to be replaced by those orphaned by AIDS or drug-resistant TB or famine or unstable families who simply throw out their children. Who realized that if it weren’t for the constant pruning by opportunistic disease and addictions, natural disasters and industrial erosions, the population load of the planet in itself would become a plague?
I’ve just read the final 1995 report of Martin Marty’s “fundamentalism project”. It is meant to be secular, tolerant, inclusive, and postmodern -- abandoning the idea that some sort of climax culture was “modern,” inevitable and permanent. The hope was that violent terrorism could be understood. Marty makes it clear how difficult such a stance can be, partly because the fundamentalist groups war against each other, regardless of what the rest of us do. In the end it’s all families.
In case you didn't take comparative religion classes, this is Mohammed.