Tuesday, March 4, 2014

. . . history that didn't happen . . .

Book review:
Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992.
261 pages

Dowd's "A Spirited Resistance" provides some examples of considering "history that didn't happen."
For every account of "history that happened" there might be a complementary book of "history that didn't happen."

It's important to emphasize that people and groups in the past continually faced decision options and critical choices and conflicting imperatives to act, as we do now. People and groups in the past continually made unique decisions in the face of uncertainties and competing exigencies, as we do now.

The "history" of an individual or a group is a distinct track, forward in time, of decisions and choices and events, some discretionary, some imperative, some unavoidably random. This process continues through a welter of known and unknown alternatives. This ever-changing process of life is unique in retrospect, but it is increasingly, incomprehensibly variable and complex as we consider the prospects for the future at any point in time.

Thus, the "history that happened" is one of the possible histories that could have happened. It never was inevitable. There is difficulty enough in reconstructing, analyzing and understanding the actual "history that happened." The discovery and illumination of the course of history, however well done, is profoundly insufficient for the student of history.

Any possible, speculative scenario of historical events is a "history that didn't happen." Any version of the "history that didn't happen" is potentially a compelling object of interest, and there are limitless different versions. There is an effectively boundless scope of interest in such histories, and a wide range of probabilities that they might have occurred.

To be clear, popular accounts of so-called "alternative history" or "what if?" history are not suitable exemplars of this theme. An historical treatment that focuses on a single, arbitrary "what if?" scenario for a known historical event or extended historical process is of course a "history that didn't happen," but it is a special case. For example, a speculative presentation of "The South Won The Civil War" can be entertaining overall, even instructive in detail, but it is flawed. The author has the benefit of hindsight and cannot avoid using it. Of necessity, the author must repeatedly, expansively and arbitrarily choose alternative versions of what actually happened; the probability of occurrence of such a single, massively multi-variable alternative actually is vanishing small. Why bother writing or reading it? One may imagine that simultaneous nasty influenza outbreaks might have sidelined all the generals in both camps on July 2 in Gettysburg. The probability of such a scenario is vanishingly small. This scenario may be entertaining, but it does not merit serious consideration. It is imaginable, but it adds little to our understanding of history. The popular "what if?" approach to history is almost always arbitrary, eccentrically narrow and overwhelmingly improbable.

A structured, exploratory consideration of "history that didn't happen" could be useful. Such a structured approach, for example, could include:
·                     examination of the knowledge, values and motivation of historical actors;
·                     identification of realistic, feasible alternative decisions and reactions that might have occurred at specific points in time or throughout an event in process;
·                     analysis of decision factors that were considered or ignored by the historical actors.

This approach envisions a retrospective presentation of history that illuminates reasonably feasible alternative courses of action, and clarifies possible explanations of why the actors did not make such decisions or pursue such courses of action. This concept does not assume and generally would avoid any attempt to prove that any particular alternative decision or action would have been better or should have been chosen. The point of this essentially objective reconsideration of history is to clarify the motives and expectations of the actors, and to gain a broader and deeper appreciation—in analytical contexts framed by hindsight—of what they thought was happening, what they wanted to happen and what they thought was possible or probable, all without the benefit of foresight.

A poignant example is Jared Diamond's question in "Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed." It includes a chapter on the almost complete deforestation of Easter Island and the cultural decline of its people who had depended on the trees for canoes, construction material and fuel. Diamond asks: "What did the Easter Islander who cut down the last palm tree say while he was doing it?" (p. 114). By extension, what did the rest of the Easter Islanders say while he was doing it? Of course, with hindsight it's obvious that cutting down the last tree was not a good move. Was it obvious in the 17th century on Easter Island?  It would be interesting to attempt to reconstruct the ax-man's knowledge, values and motive: could he have not known it was the last tree? Was he concerned about preserving his
essential environment? Did Easter Islanders desire a tree-less landscape? Was the last tree worth a million bucks? Forward-thinking, environmentally sensitized Easter Islanders could have started planning earlier to figure out how to conserve a minimum number of trees or develop substitutes for transportation, construction and fuel. What are some possible elaborations about why that didn't happen? Was any such attempt actually made? Was tree-cutting strictly a commercial activity? Were there any social/religious/cultural imperatives regarding tree cutting? Was that ax-wielding Easter Islander a hero or a villain?

Now, back to Dowd and “A Spirited Resistance.” Apparently, a fundamental constraint to the success of the 18th century pan-Indian prophets on the East Coast was the persistent obstruction of many neutral or accommodationist chiefs who rejected their prophets' call for both violent and spiritual resistance to the Anglo-American authorities and settlers. These neutral chiefs sought to co-exist in relative peace with the Europeans. This internal division among the native Americans and the longevity of the ill-fated nativist movement suggests many questions.

In hindsight, it seems, at least superficially, that the ultimate dominance of the Europeans was inevitable. Did none of the chiefs in the late 18th century recognize this imperative? What arguments did both the nativist and neutral leaders use in their private councils to minimize their prospects for failure? How did their knowledge, values and motives sustain their doomed objectives for decades? Is it possible that the prophets might have been substantially successful if no internal Indian strife had existed?

Dowd says the inter-tribal and intra-tribal conflicts in leadership actually bolstered the motivation of the nativists, who argued that the neutral chiefs' failure to respect Indian cultural and spiritual values was partly to blame for the degradation of their culture and way of life. Did the neutral chiefs make the same criticism of the prophets? By implication, Dowd suggests that most nativist and accommodationist chiefs were doing their honorable best for their people. This viewpoint should be challenged; can it be confirmed? What was the motivation of the prophets and nativist chiefs? Did Tenskwatawa share personal attributes with Martin Luther King? with Billy Graham? with Elmer Gantry?

What primary military, political, economic and cultural factors were important to the neutral chiefs and to the prophets? Was their strife righteously motivated and conscientiously implemented? How much of it, if any, was simply opportunistic, localized internal wrangling for political power and personal prestige? Did the warriors and the people and the clans who actively supported the chiefs fully understand the implications of their commitments? Did the warriors follow Tecumseh for glory or for their informed vision of a better future? Did any Indian chiefs believe there was a third version of doing "the right thing"?

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