The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

No, not the 1966 classic Western movie. I’m thinking about the problems of history. I am by no means an expert on how we must understand history. I do declare my love for the subject, and I have collected an eclectic library of historical events. I do not have advanced academic degrees in history, and my written opinions will not shape the opinions of future historians. And yet, I do have opinions, and I am witness to a number of changes that are dramatic, and in some ways refreshing, and in other ways very problematic.

It is quite possible that some of the changes will become an academic standard, and history books will become completely useless, until new books are written with more accurate presentations.

There is a cultural “sea change” in our social fabric. Views that were once on the edge of social acceptance have morphed into center stage opinions. Some of this is based upon the increased concerns of “social justice” in response to events that have become important to current culture.

It is true that some of these events are the end result of many years of beliefs that are basically flawed. Beliefs that have grown from insignificant errors, that have found fertile ground in thoughts, or ideas that have major social errors.

Unfortunately, there are other problems in history that have always been there, or at least obviously apparent from the earliest written records. As historians we try to read these things in context, with the caveat that society had not developed the finer points of civilization. I disagree, I think that much of our problematic history was a societal choice, and that other more ethical choices were available, but rejected.

So now what can we do with the factual history we are left with? For me it will be a constant search for the truth. In most cases it will be a mixture of realities from different parties. The old adage of ‘history is written by the victors’ is something to consider. Another is ‘history is written by the literate at the expense of the illiterate’. Another is ‘history is written by the side that benefits the most from the narrative that is presented’.

It is difficult, but we can research most of these points. It is more difficult to research the opposing sides. In some cases the victors made considerable effort to destroy all records that existed in the defeated culture. This creates the historical problem of “omission”. Often our guesses create a higher standard of ethical positions that are not merited by the actual truth. Historians should not guess.

I’m writing this because I believe humans will always have a choice of “the good, the bad, and the ugly.” And the problem is that all three are subjective and open to debate, and criticism.

One would think that “the good” is a safe bet. What could be wrong in writing about “the good”. This is probably the most dangerous area in history. There are few “good” absolutes. Some folks even say there are none! I’m not that cynical, but I do agree that universal agreement on “good” has a long way to go. Our worst historical events are based upon a disagreement upon what is best, and for who it is best.

The “bad” is actually much easier to isolate and write about accurately, even if technically “bad” is also subjective. There hasn’t been too many cultures where deceit, murder and theft were the highest societal standards. In some cases it may have been okay to treat strangers, or foreigners, as sub species, but not generally.

The “ugly” is where most reasonable histories are found. The higher standards are articulated, and the failures are documented. In general, that creates an “ugly” written account. It is very hard to be proud of the most ugly events. Even the best of the “ugly” is embarrassing, and it seems so unnecessary.

Considering that a lot of history comes from the actions of humans, we have a responsibility to modified our actions, creating more good than bad, and making the “ugly” more beautiful. That does take a stand on moral absolutes, but I’m okay with that, providing there is tremendous effort taken on both sides.

In the meantime, I try not to get trapped in the dungeon of “bad history”, or to ‘cancel our history’ because it is “ugly”. Going down that road is living with opinion makers who create narratives for their own agendas. History is living, history is exciting, and history is always surprising.

About johndiestler

Retired community college professor of graphic design, multimedia and photography, and chair of the fine arts and media department.
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