September 11, 2010
One thing that drives me crazy is the misuse of history to make political points.
I've seen Tea Party conservatives doing this—claiming that they have the true interpretation of the founding of this country, and that it means their political opponents are illegitimate. And I've seen left-wingers do it, too. History is history—it took place under sets of circumstances that rarely apply to today's world. It's important to understand how our history unfolded, how our times came to be, but it shouldn't be treated like holy scripture in a theological debate. History must be understood in its own context, not our own.
Here's an example from the political left, one that warps a tale from the life of Cornelius Vanderbilt to make a point about American "imperialism." You can read it over at the Daily Kos.
It's convincing, because it gets many of the details right. But it gets important things wrong. Most of all, it leaves out huge facts that completely change the nature of the episode. Here are a few of the main errors and omissions (you'll have to read the story to make sense of these corrections):
1) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt offered far lower rates to California than the federally subsidized Panama steamship route, which isn't identified in the story.
2) Doesn't mention the fact that the British had seized Greytown/San Juan del Norte from the Nicaraguans to prevent Americans from building a canal there. It was an outpost of British imperialism.
3) Doesn't mention that both the British and Nicaraguans agreed that Vanderbilt's ships shouldn't be charged port fees.
4) Doesn't mention that the town was populated mostly by Americans who had gone there hoping to cash in on the transit route.
5) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt was not involved in the management of the company during the bombardment; Joseph White, who was counsel, not chairman, did indeed request the destruction of the town. He was Vanderbilt's enemy.
6) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt fought William Walker, and organized and funded the operations that kicked him out and restored Nicaragua to the Nicaraguans.
7) Doesn't mention that Vanderbilt's route across Nicaragua never reopened because the Nicaraguans didn't want to risk having North Americans in the country again.
8) Doesn't mention that the noncompetition payment made Vanderbilt's rivals immensely profitable, since it gave them a monopoly. He later competed against them and again radically lowered the cost of travel between America's coasts.
9) In sum, without claiming that Vanderbilt was a moral hero or that the people of Greytown really deserved to have their town wiped out, we can say that this isn't a story of good guys and bad guys, or even of American imperialism. It's more like a story of the United States recklessly punishing some civilians, many of them vandals, by way of interfering with British imperialism.
Please, study history for enrichment and understanding—don't wield it like a weapon.