Faulty navigators make life a guessing game

Alan Sears
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Posted: Oct 09, 2011 12:01 AM

When crossing an ocean at the helm of a ship, navigational skills are of the utmost importance. When driving a car through the night or flying a plane through the sky, these skills are paramount as well. This is because progress is dependent upon not only understanding where one is, but where one has been, and where one is headed.

To approach it in a narrower way, it’s demonstrable that the captain of a ship, the driver of a car, or the pilot of a plane can’t be completely certain of where they are at any given moment, if they have no knowledge of where they’ve been.

These things are analogous to the American who wants to be an informed citizen, and who travels through this life hoping for the betterment of his country. That citizen must know where his country has been in order to understand where it is, and likewise must understand where it is in order to ascertain where it’s going.

Thus, history is a crucial component to understanding. So crucial, in fact, that those who write and teach history should be considered navigators, for they show us the way by showing us where we’ve been.

Our problem is that we are surrounded by faulty navigators:  by historians whose writings are warped by a sexual or political agenda, or by a bald unfamiliarity with the very topic on which they write.  (A blind allegiance to such navigators is no less risky than a ship captain’s blind allegiance to an ocean map drawn by a man who’s never seen or studied or even heard of oceans.)

Sexual and political agendas open the door for history to be rewritten in support of alterations that are in vogue today. For example, there is now a push afoot to recognize U.S. President James Buchanan as “America’s first gay president” on the basis of the work of one historian, who admits that part of the reason he believes Buchanan may have practiced homosexual   behavior is because he finds no proof of him practicing heterosexual behavior.

This type of navigation causes others to read just their trajectory so as to comport with the new historical record. Thus, we’ve seen that the historical society that maintains thePennsylvaniahome where Buchanan spent his last years has actually taken down a portrait of Ann Coleman from over the mantle – even though Buchanan was once engaged to Coleman – all because of the one historian who alleges Buchanan practiced homosexual behavior.

A similar “history” was written about Abraham Lincoln by the late C.A. Tripp. Before his death in 2003, Tripp produced a manuscript contending Lincoln was a practitioner of homosexual acts, evidence ofLincoln’s relations to Ann Rutledge, and his marriage to Mary Todd and the children of their marriage notwithstanding.

To make this label stick, Tripp explained away things like Lincoln’s anguish over Ann Rutledge’s death by saying Lincolnwasn’t saddened over her death so much as he was over “death itself.”

On the other hand, bald unfamiliarity with the very topic on which one is writing has been seen in myriad historical works,  most recently in writings on Columbus that appear to lack the circumspection that makes a history book valuable. Reviewed by Notre Dame’s Felipe Fernández Armesto, the books are indicative of an untrained (natural) tendency to rely on secondary and insufficient sources – translated into today’s vernacular – because they’re easily accessible, instead of pouring over the original documents in the original language as the scholar is trained to do.

In all these things, regardless of the reason behind the faulty history, we must recognize we are losing touch with the places from which we came and as a result are disconnected from the moment in which we now live. Moreover, we certainly cannot know where we are headed.

In the end, faulty navigators make traveling through this life a guessing game.