Thursday, April 28, 2011

Historical Histrionics: Case Studies in European, American, and High School Dramatics

I started this as a quick reply to Carolyn's comment, but it quickly grew out of hand, so it has morphed into it's own post.

She said, "I would have gotten the Allende question! Well...I would have gotten it within +/- 2 years. But that's also because one of the first papers I ever wrote in Spanish was on the Allende-Pinochet coup."

Of course she would, but then, she took Spanish in high school and actually spent a semester in Spain. I'm jealous. I took French in school and was offered a slot for a language immersion summer program in France, but didn't take it for a variety of reasons. Mostly, I went on an anxiety trip, convinced my family couldn't afford it, and worried that if I didn't take a PE class that summer, I wouldn't graduate, thus delaying my escape from HSE high school. I spent the summer thinking, "I could have *gasp* been in Paris right now, *pant* but noooo, I have to run laps around this *wheeze* ($^& track..." I've always regretted that missed opportunity.

French Personalities

Still, I did acquire a fair amount of French history during my five-odd years studying the language. I could give you a brief bio (like two sentences) about Vercingetorix or Charlemagne. At a stretch, I might even still be able to manage it in simple, stammering French. Not specific dates, but general time frames. And definitely their crazy stories.

I could tell you stories about Clovis, first Catholic King of the Franks. According to legend, after winning a battle, he drew his sword on his own people and bullied them into jumping into a river and getting "baptized" as Christians. Rather more direct than Constantine's approach.

I once entertained Jon on a date by explaining how the modern French language's aversion to "borrowing" words like "computer" is all the fault of Cardinal Richelieu, who died over three centuries before the things were even invented.

I could tell you rather a lot about Napoleon. I have fond memories of the IU interview where a lady asked me about Napoleon's career, and I said, "He crowned himself" -- her eyebrows shot up, looking impressed -- "in, um..." (I did some rapid mental calculations, trying to add on years after the Revolution) "...well, it was early in the nineteenth century. Probably somewhere between 1800 and 1805." (She informed me, by the way, the correct date was 1803.)

I remember reading once about how Charles de Gaulle drove the Allied command crazy. I remarked to Jon, "Poor Eisenhower. All those egomaniacs in one theatre. Rommel and Hitler probably annoyed him far less than Montgomery, Patton, and de Gaulle. At least he didn't have to take on MacArthur, who was probably the equal of any three other self-deifying generals..."

I like European history in general, and also took a little German. I could identify Otto von Bismark or Ludwig II of Bavaria. (He's the crazy guy who was obsessed with Wagner, built Neuschwanstein, bankrupted his duchy, was declared legally insane, and then drowned under mysterious circumstances.)

I admit, however, that my grasp of Latin American history is quite weak.

Latin American "Learning"

Lesse, everything I know about the history of Central and South America, off the top of my head.

First, there were the Jaredites. Then the Nephites. Also the Maya, Aztecs, and Inca. (With some overlap. I think Book of Mormon scholars hypothesize the Maya and Nephites correlate.)

Then Columbus, followed by the Conquistadores. Then colonization and lots of Catholic missions. ("Loot, then colonize" doesn't sound like a good strategy to me, but what do I know? Not a lot, as demonstrated.) Next, the Line of Demarcation, negotiated by the Pope, is why Brazil speaks Portuguese and everyone else speaks Spanish.

Some tangential involvement in the Napoleonic wars. Simon Bolivar and various independence movements. Then the Monroe Doctrine, which all the major powers ignored at the time, though they stopped new colonies for other reasons, like (I'm guessing) the British navy.

Then another charming century or two of revolutions, coups, guerilla warfare, attempts at democratic reform, more coups, experiments with socialism, shifting alliances, more coups, drug cartels, and mostly-botched US meddling, etc. Many of the states are doing much better these days than they were in the late eighties, when I first started paying attention. On the other hand, we now have Hugo Chavez. Joy!

So, Carolyn, how did I do? Do I get a C, at least? Or do I need a remedial class?

Speaking of history class, one of my favorite high school stories involved...

An Error of Epic Inaccuracy

Once upon a time, during my junior year, I was sitting in French class, brooding about my bleak, bored, and depressed existence at "This stupid high school in the middle of a cornfield, which claims to be one of the best in the state but doesn't offer any AP classes."

At least French, taught by Madame Selke, was almost up to my standards. (She herself was an excellent teacher who did great things for my accent. I was annoyed because the official grammar and vocabulary curricula were mostly repeats for me.)

Then she started a unit on French history, and I perked up. Madame assigned us to do group presentations about various historical figures. I forget who I did; probably Robespierre, who was always a favorite of mine after Mrs. Johnston's ninth-grade simulation of the Revolution.

Anyway, this three-person group, which included a GPA-obsessed girl named Holly (names have been changed), her best friend, Betty, and Betty's boyfriend, stood up and started doing a presentation about Henry IV in halting French. I quickly caught the problem and started grinning. I looked over and caught Madame Selke's eye. She looked less amused, but then, she was a native Frenchwoman.

(Henry IV, who instituted religious tolerance, among other things, is a famous and beloved figure in French history. To Madame, this was probably like an "ignerint Yank" messing up on Queen Elizabeth the First while talking to a Brit.)

She interrupted them brusquely and told them, in French, "Wrong guy. You're talking about Henry IV of England. Go back and do some real research. You can re-present in two days. You might even, possibly, be able to salvage a passing grade..."

Holly, predictably, started to cry. That was her response to everything. "I got a B- on this calculus test. I think I'm going to cry!" she would announce, and then burst into tears. Followed immediately by "But I'm ranked number nine in the class! This might knock me out of the top ten! I'll never get into college...[Wail]" (This despite the fact her parents had been pre-paying her tuition to the Florida university system for years.)

I still wonder, to this day, how they could have made such an error. Granted, the French and British aristocracy intermarried and conquered each other over the years. Acquitaine, Normandy, and other provinces endured political tug-of-war. Henry VI (of England) was even briefly declared king of both nations, but that didn't last.

Still, you'd think a modicum of research would alert them to the difference between "Guy who usurps the English throne and kills his nephew(s), 1399" and "Guy who converts to Catholicism so he can be crowned King of France, 1594." I mean, two centuries!

I found the entire thing hilarious. It also demonstrated one of the reasons I was never obsessed about class rank. I was interested in getting good grades, of course, and I played the numbers game as much as necessary, but I never let the fear of "But I might get a B in that class!" stop me from choosing challenging coursework. The most important thing was acquiring a real education, which included knowing how to [*snicker*] apply sanity tests to research.

(Does it count as a "creative anachronism" if it's unintentional?)

Holly was a classic example of putting grades over learning. She used to ask me for help with her homework; once she had a current events question and muttered "you're so smart!" when I answered "Jean-Bertrand Aristide used to be the president of Haiti. There was a coup there recently, he fled to the U.S., and President Clinton is considering sending troops to intervene." This simple explanation would have been unnecessary had she ever read a newspaper. Instead, she spent all her time on rigid homework, cheerleading, and boys.

Of course, she was just being a typical teen-age girl, while I was most decidedly...not. No wonder I didn't date much. I had my own drama over that, naturally, but never enough to make me act like an airhead.


History, for me, is about stories. It's less about exact dates and more about broad sweeping movements. It is the biographies and interactions of fascinating personalities. Learning from past mistakes and trying not to repeat 'em. But, mostly, it's about expanding my scope of things to satirize. Obviously, there is much to mock in the modern world, but why limit oneself?

Just yesterday, Eric asked me a question and I found myself summarizing the career of Charles the First (of England), concluding with "He might have tried a variety of strategies after being captured. He could have argued, 'I'm incompetent, but not evil!' or pretended to be penitent, or tried to negotiate a settlement of voluntary exile. Instead, he looked haughtily at Oliver Cromwell and said 'You have no right to put me on trial. I do not accept this court's authority; I can only be judged by my peers, which means other heads of state. You people are so unequal to me, I think I'll just ignore you.' So the Puritans went "Uh huh," and chopped off his head anyway..."

I may take a few liberties with the facts. Hollywood does it all the time (and I critique them), but if it helps the dramatic arc of my story, then it's okay.

Feel free to mock my summary of Latin-American history. After all, if I run out of historical anachronisms to satirize, I must needs create mine own.

While you're doing that, I'll reflect on my own personal history, and one of the best moments of an otherwise horrible year. Henry IV. Heh, heh, heh.


Jenny Wendorf said...

Oh my gosh,

Every time I hear about that MacArthur guy I want to squeeze something. He was an egotistical maniac.

On another note, I thought I'd mention something about Latin American history. Though I can't claim to be an expert in the classics - I took normal classes in high school so I'm pretty much self taught on anything that matters - I've had to do a little research in Mesoamerica for the novel I'm writing.

So as far as the Book of Mormon correlating, there are a lot of different theories. The one I think that is the most plausible was a paper presented at the recent academic conference held on the Book of Mormon, sponsored by Brigham Young University in Washington DC.

The first day of this conference was on Joseph Smith, the next was on the Book of Mormon, and BYU invited professors of any faith to come and present their papers. They had it linked to the church video website a year or two ago, but it's been awhile.

Anyway, they've just recently discovered a smaller nation of people who existed right in the Panama Canal region. People had always assumed that when they mention the ocean on the west and the east of their empire meant they were talking about South America, and that they must have had a huge empire. Well, nearly every true historical document tends to make slight overstatements about how cool they are. The Jews do it in the don't jump all over me here ...and that's just one more thing that makes the Book of Mormon read as authentic - it's people, even it's writers were patriotic, and they saw their nation as being bigger on the world stage than it actually was. It is now supposed that it is found on the land bridge between North and South America, (Panama region) and the Nephites were wedged in extremely close with three or four other small Empires. Their population density was enormous. In fact, it was nearly as high then as it is today all over Central and South America.

The only reason it seemed so desolate when the Spanish came was because there had been pestilence and famine for a few decades before they even got there.

Back to the Nephites:

Basically, some agreement was made between the other Empires and the small Nephite Empire was over run. I can't remember their name...It started with a K...something or other. It just gives me chills when I think about it this way. Their geography is a near perfect match to the description and they were completely devistated at the right time in history. They were SO devastated, that there were NO signs of settlement discovered until recently. No living descendants to remember anyone was even there. Creepy huh? In fact, some scholars couldn't believe the similarities between the group and the story in our scriptures. They are starting to ask, "where did that farm boy get that book?" Many of them are certain he had something legitimate, even if they still don't believe he was a prophet.

To the Aztec:

So I know the most about the Aztec because they were my focus. At some point this big king guy - excuse my layman's terms but the names are weird and I'm too lazy to look them up - came from the North and established Tenochtilan...or something along those line. It was considered a sacred city.

Jennifer Wendorf said...


He founded it and in only a matter of a few hundred years it went from being a city-state to an empire that had assimilated many neighboring city-states. In their religion they believed that sacrifices must be made to their gods in order to be successful in war. Usually the trophies of the battles (the prisoners or refugees) were thus offered up as sacrifices - nice.

They looked at it as actually being merciful, so that person would not have live with the shame or as a slave for the rest of their lives.

Also, they would try to capture instead of outright kill in many cases. Even living descendants will tout...well what's the difference where you kill them? They are still you're enemy, and at least we were revering our gods. Talk about twisted traditions, huh?

Anyway, this empire rose and fell in only a few centuries. I believe it came together in about 900AD had reached its height in 1300AD roughly and of course was in decline by the time the Spanish came.

They were already in major decline by then, or they MIGHT have given the Spanish a run for their money. Academics fight over whether climate change, or disease did the most damage. The North American continent was experiencing a century long drought at the time.

In fact, the Annisazi in the North American West were influenced by the Aztec and had some trading ties and religious diffusion. They were the ones that built all of those empty dessert cave city things.

They look really eerie in a way.

Well anyway those were being built and lived in, when the Aztec were at the height of their power. Then the drought came and the Annisazi were forced to disperse from their cities and resort to organizing themselves into tribes because the only way to live in a parched time like that is to be nomadic and form into small roaming groups.

It's the most efficient use of human effort to graze for sparse water and other food sources for cattle and such things. Sort of like how Abraham and the current Beduan live.

Anyhow, people imagine that the Native American tribes have always been these nomadic wild bands, but in many cases this giant drought caused all of these different peoples to disperse the way they did - especially in the west where the drought would have been the most prevalent.

North America is actually known for having these super long droughts ever thousand years or so. There are fears that were are starting one now - hence the reason why water is in short supply. We haven't felt the affects yet because we can drill into the water table under the ground, but ground wells are also becoming exhausted.

I saw a report on PBS of farmers in California turning their farms into water drill operations because they could get more money from drilling for water than they could for growing food - plus the plants would also take water to care for.

Anyhow, it really fits what it says in the song, "Given this land if we live righteously."

It's no joke guys! ;)

Okay, that's my bit.

Great conversation! I'm glad to have been invited. :)

Carolyn said...

You could have always switched to studying abroad in college, Gail! You would have had to beg the parents for a plane ticket, but otherwise it's not that expensive!

As for your Latin American History, I might give you a C. You forgot the original Haitian revolution, which is of critical importance, well before Simon Bolivar et al. It's also not a very persuasive or argumentative essay, as such "historical" essays are supposed to be in academia.

You did do an accurate broad sweep. And you know enough of the highlights to quickly find more information on wikipedia, and then start serious research from that summary.

The key feature I feel you left out is the Latin American religious history! (Both Cheryl and I love that). The indigent tribes --> catholocism --> pentecostal and/or megachurch boom is fascinating.

I particularly enjoy two features of religion in latin american public life, which I wrote papers about. First, that because of the utter corruption and failure of their states, the churches have more or less become the governing and/or welfare institutions. But second, the state is annoyed at this power-grab, so a lot of them are actually constantly trying to demonize the role of the Catholic church in particular. Mexico nearly passed a bill last year which would have forbade public officials from even speaking about their religious beliefs / religious affiliations / religious basis for voting decisions in any of their government duties.

If you want a good laugh though, read Latin American constitutions (in Spanish! it's more fun that way), and then read the news.

Gail said...

@ Jenny -- wow, that was some fascinating information. Thanks!

@ Carolyn -- you're right about Haiti, of course. In fact, I do know a little bit about Toussant L'Ouverture and the slave rebellion. I just don't think of Haiti as being part of "Latin" America, since it was a French colony.

I remember when Cheryl was taking that "Protestantism in Latin America" class. She told me about it at the time, and I agreed it was interesting. I think she said something about employers liking to hire Protestants because of their work ethic. Which I thought was funny, given their "grace only" perspective...

The Mexican law you mentioned reminded me of the French headscarf law. One of the legacies of Henry IV (of France) was religious tolerance. But in France, that idea developed as "absolutely NO religious displays" instead of "almost ANY religious expression".

You know perfectly well I can't read constitutions in Spanish. Though it's funny to try "translating" based purely on cognates and context, it's something I prefer to do briefly, and in online conversations. Silly Carolyn.