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On The Veneration Of Historical Persons (with some triggering bits)

Submitted by kmeisthax on Wed, 10/23/2013 - 22:46 in Rants

Aphorisms are short sayings intended to imbue deeper meaning through it's interpretation, designed to be easily memorizable and easily shared. In a way, they're the 1700s equivalent of some of the more slightly thoughtful forms of modern Internet picture captions. I guess this metaphor also makes Benjamin Franklin, a guy who really really liked aphorisms (and espousing their supposed moral truths, especially to French prostitutes, usually during coitus) the 1700s equivalent of your typical Reddit user. All of this introduction and joking gives me a good introduction to a particular aphorism I've been parading around myself:

Ninety-nine percent of all historical figures were slavedriving assholes.

The reasoning behind this saying is a bit more nuanced than you would initially expect, but people with a similar-enough ideological bent to mine probably know what I'm getting at. First we need to focus on the term "historical figures". This isn't the same thing as "historical persons" - a historical person is just someone who lived in a period of time which has long passed, i.e. most if not all people from that period are dead. To become a historical figure requires a measure of veneration and deification; the creation of a new fictional person based upon the historical one that actually lived.

The new fiction that replaces the person's true existence can come into play way before the person has actually died. Indeed, we're talking about mythmaking that happens to anyone who can gain some kind of notoriety, posthumous or no. But a prerequisite for mythmaking is for the person to interact with the mind of another; and more importantly, to gain prevalence with a large number of people who can form their own opinions about a particular person. So a result of this is that historical figures, unlike historical persons, are merely famous people passed through the lens of popular culture.

A result of this process then is that societal elites or celebrities are much more likely to become historical figures than the average Joe. The kicker to any form of elite social position is the fact that it's almost always based on unearned, unexamined, and usually toxic social priviledge. The unearned priviledge gives you the slavedriving part, and the unexamined priviledge gives you the asshole. You see, societies have a knack for going to great lengths to pretend like their priviledge doesn't exist, specifically for the benefit of aforementioned priviledged peoples. And this whole process is subconcious for anyone who's not bearing the brunt of a priviledged person's oppression. So already we're pre-selecting for a population of individuals who are predisposed to be, well... slavedriving assholes.

But part of the whole "ignoring your own priviledge" thing is a related issue with regards to how history talks about historical figures. Most of the "founding fathers" of American history in particular are good examples. You see, there's a pretty big idea in history that stresses viewing historical figures in their contemporary period as opposed to holding them up to modern standards as they will inevitably fall short. And from a purely scientific perspective, this does make a kind of sense. But the issue is that this also winds up biasing and coloring the way historical figures are talked about, especially if ignoring their failings serves some kind of political purpose.

So the overarching theme of the aphorism is that a lot of historical figures that aren't actively hated by some time period's version of America will inevitably have a widespread "whitewashed" version of their overarching story. Unless you're Hitler, popular historical knowledge will feel free to glorify you to the nth degree for having the mystical, untouchable quality of being dead.

Likewise, the effect can run in reverse - the glorification of WWII means that the ideological enemies of that war are subsequently demonized. Hitler isn't just a self-serving politician who tapped into right-wing authoritarianism to build a fascist system. He's a metaphorical (or even sometimes literalized) Satan whose every action is taken as a counterexample of what not to do; and is the popular culture measuring stick for human atrocity. While all of these are perfectly deserved reputations, other Allied and even Axis powers aren't nearly as demonized. America itself was shoving Japanese people in concentration camps and stealing their land; and the Nazis cribbed much from American eugenics programs (or at the very least tried to use them as an excuse for their own during the Nuremberg trials).

Hell, Japan gets an outright free pass on this. Despite still having failed to acknowledge or pay reparations for capturing mostly Chinese and Korean women and sexually enslaving them during WWII (the closest they got was blaming a nonexistent contractor), the outright isolation of Japan has allowed their past atrocities to go relatively unchallenged in American popular viewpoints. WWII is popularly viewed as us fighting against the twin evils of Hitler and Stalin, but Japan was just some asshole that decided to bomb our shit like every other war.


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