Sunday, January 4, 2015

Creating History: A Follow-up

In my post of October 18 I was thinking about how we all create a particular past by, to some extent, choosing the objects that populate it.

A related idea was very commonly voiced during the recent midterm elections.  Some significant number of voters have their own favored news sources.  The choice of a single source may perpetuate itself; the accuracy of a unique source of news is apparently confirmed by a lack of engagement in self-criticism or self-correction.  In this circumstance the electorate can therefore develop (or be manipulated into) discreet outlooks that are politically useful, but at the cost of increasingly alienating them from those others with a different viewpoint--to the extent, even, that any other viewpoint becomes so incomprehensible that the only explanation for it must be stupidity or malice.

That's something we can see practically every day in our politics.  But I thought of another example.

I have been interested for some time in reading a Spanish account of the Spanish Civil War.  Twenty to twenty five years ago I read Antony Beevor's account of it, and it struck me as fairly balanced.  I had the bad judgment to lend the book to a judge on the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, and I never got it back.  So I was thinking, my Spanish is much improved these last two decades, maybe I should tackle ithe subject in Spanish.

So I was looking on Amazon Spain and ran across what looked like a pretty good general account of the war, a Historia de la Guerra Civil Española, by Ricardo de la Cierva.  As is sometimes the case, after ordering a book I became curious about the author.  Now the literature of the Spanish Civil War is still fiercely heated, and soon I became aware of rather bitter animosity on the part of some against de la Cierva.  I learned that he was, and remains, a franquista, a Franco partisan who served as a cultural minister in some of the last Franco governments.  His partisanship is arguably understandable, since his father, a supporter of the Nationalists, was imprisoned and then murdered by the Republicans as the Nationalists closed in on Madrid.  

That's not to say that de la Cierva is a fascist.  "Reactionary" is a word that would probably be used by his more polite opponents.  He seems to characterize himself as one who values the "old Spain," the Spain of Catholic monarchy over a more traditionalist society of peasant farmers and middle class artisans and merchants.  His more vocal critics call him only a "historian" (in quotation marks); his own great criticism of writing about the war, especially that written in English,  is that it too often ignores primary documents (to which he, as a government insider, has had some advantage of access).

These are not things that will put me off reading him.  One of the interesting things about Spain--not exactly unique, but perhaps more pronounced than elsewhere--has been its ambivalence about the modern enterprise, its alleged backwardness in the face of a challenges from bourgeois capitalists, anarchists, socialists and communists.  Spain seems now to have "caught up" with the rest of Europe--for better or for worse--but the civil war seems to have been fought, in part, over that whole issue of the implications of modernity, and I think, therefore, it could be enlightening to hear the story from what was, militarily, the winning side, but, culturally, the side that is probably now losing. 

In doing so I will undoubtedly be given to sympathizing with those whom many think beyond the pale.  Franco is associated with fascism, and it was, and has been, the work of the Spanish left to paint him so.  I'm not so sure myself,  The English Communist historian Eric Hobsbawm, whose leftist credentials are surely impeccable, states right out that Franco was not a fascist (though his coalition undoubtedly included them).  

In any case, Hobsbawm raises the interesting issue that, though I give second thoughts to reading a historian tagged by some as a fascist, as, in any case, an unreconstructed franquista, it never occurred to me to be particularly "on guard" with a communist like Hobsbawm.  Perhaps it's because I've read quite a bit of Marxism, and though I can't accept it as a real science, or as defensible ideology in practice, I can certainly respect its implicit promotion of those who labor so that the few can live at ease.  It is one of the great virtues of Hobsbawm's four volumes on the making of the modern world that they pay attention to the obscure as well as the great, the suffering of the many as well as the triumphs of the few, the price paid by the voiceless for the "progress" of the world.  One would think that those topics should be more front-and-center in Christian historiography.

The upshot is the same.  In a world filled with angels and devils, who all write their own books, we owe it to ourselves not to confine ourselves to our own little tribe, but to also sup occasionally with the angels and with the devils, hoping thereby not to become trapped in our own untested assumptions--but also keeping one's own long spoon handy, just in case.

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