Sunday, November 15, 2009

My Presentation at the History and Fiction Conference at the University of West Georgia: Speaker for the Dead: a Historian’s Tale (Part II)

Post I

The three books that make up the Speaker Trilogy are about Ender's search for redemption. At the end of Ender's Game Ender secretly writes a book, called the Hivequeen and the Hegemon, to explain to humanity that the Buggers were not the monsters everyone thought they were. He writes this book under the pseudonym Speaker for the Dead. Having destroyed his own reputation, Ender disappears. The novel Speaker for the Dead opens more than three thousand years later. Ender is still alive, thanks to the laws of relativity, having spent the vast majority of these years traveling at near light speed. Over this time, Ender's book has become the holy scriptures of a major humanist religion, the Speakers for the Dead. While the Speakers do not have a deity or an afterlife, they believe in the value of all intelligent life. They try to tell the life stories of those who have departed this life in the same way that the original Speaker for the Dead spoke about the Buggers.
 Ender operates under the cover of a common speaker. With him is the last hive queen. Ender's hope is to one day find a world in which the Buggers could repopulate and where humans would no longer fear them. He takes his chance on a world called Lusitania; a world on which humanity has once again discovered an alien race, one with stone-age technology, called the Pequeninos. This new first encounter has come with its own set of misunderstandings. Already one scientist sent to study these beings has been murdered. Ender's will have to stand forth as Speaker for the Dead to not only to rectify his own xenocide but to stop a new one.

speaker tells over the life stories of those who had died not to praise or condemn the dead but simply so that those hearing could understand what the deceased stood for and how they understood themselves. The motive of the speaker is that he believes that there is an inherent value to human existence and that by honestly seeking to come to an understanding of an individual one can come to a greater understanding of humanity as a whole. I see the historian as serving a similar function for modern day society. We are the stewards of the knowledge of societies and worlds that are dead and buried. Their values and all that they stood for are gone and there are few who would even understand them. (Just as our society will one day pass from this earth to be inherited by people who are incapable of even understanding our values and what we stood for.) The historian's task is to serve as a speaker for those who can no longer speak for themselves. Not out of any present day agenda, but simply because he believes that human beings have intrinsic value and that by honestly coming to terms with human beings, even those no longer here, we can come to a greater understanding of present day humanity. This is not to say that the past repeats itself, but simply that it gives a context with which to place ourselves.

The historian studies the past, but more than that he lives in the past. If the past is like a foreign country than the historian is like the intelligence officer who has spent decades living in the country he studies and has more of this country within him than that of his native land. While this intelligence officer may never become a native of the country he studies, he will never again be able to truly be a native of the country of his origin either. Not that I believe that historians are infallible oracles from whom the past radiates through. Just as a person today cannot embody anything more than just a perspective of this world so to the historian is simply an expression of one among many legitimate perspectives on the past.

Being a historian involves being both a liberal and a conservative. The historian is a liberal in that he actively seeks to challenge the status quo. He lives with an open mind and with the possibility of other ways of living one's life. On the other hand the field of history, unlike any other field of study besides for religion, is built around defending tradition, the conservative action par excellence. Not to say that the historian necessarily wants to replicate past ways of living in the present. That being said, if the historian did not believe that there was some real value to traditional ways of life he would have chosen a different field.

My goal in teaching history is to challenge students by forcing them to come to terms with the fact that there were sane, moral people who thought in ways that go against everything my students have been taught to believe. For example, most societies in history have tended to be hierarchal in their structure and in particular they have been patriarchal. I take it for granted that all of my students oppose slavery. I wish for them to understand why sane, rational, moral people made different decisions.
I, living in the year 2009, oppose slavery. It is economically inefficient and it undermines the moral fabric of society, both of the slaves and of the slaveholders. The list of objections can go on. Put me back to the United States of 1850 and none of these arguments change, but they are met with different concerns. Slavery is the foundation of the southern economy and the South is unlikely to give up their slaves without a fight that will cost thousands if not hundreds of thousands of lives. As for the black slaves themselves, it is questionable that most of them would benefit. They have not, by and large, been trained to live as free people or to take up the responsibilities of citizenship. With all of my visceral hatred of slavery, it would not take me too long until I find myself negotiating with southern slave holders. How about we agree to allow slavery if slaves are given some legal protections, maybe some limits on work hours and bans against bodily mutilation. And if slave holders refuse to budge we can simply cave in and give them everything. Slavery, as a backward economic system that has no place in our industrial age, will likely die eventually without anyone doing anything. I would shake hands with the Devil, knowing full well what I was doing. Now we know that those in the North who made such calculations failed. The Union did not hold, there was a civil war and over half a million Americans lost their lives. It does not mean that they were wrong.

As for the defenders of slavery themselves, it should be noted that it is possible to justify slavery without turning to racism. There is no problem as long as you operate on the assumption that society is meant to be hierarchal with some people at the top and some below. This does not even have to mean that those on top are in any way better. Even today we learn to live with the reality that we, as Americans, live on top of the economic pyramid, despite the fact that we have done nothing to deserve it, while much of the world starves. Once we enter our post-Enlightenment world where equality and not hierarchy is the presumed natural order then racism becomes the obvious tool to allow us to continue to enjoy the benefits of the hierarchal model.
I want to bring about just a glimmer of a crisis of faith; that just for a moment my students should wonder whether it is we who are wrong and Plato, Aristotle and Jefferson Davis who were right. Not that I want my students to stop believing in equality. On the contrary, I want to make them stronger believers. I would want them to go from simply spouting dogma about equality to actively accepting it, fully aware of the price they pay in doing so. By being aware of the Devil's bargains made in the past my students may come to an awareness of the sorts of deals with the Devil made in the present. For is that not what politics is, a deal with the Devil as you compromise and accept a situation that you do not like in the hope of getting some of what you want and avoid getting nothing.

I often wonder how historians of the future will judge us. By treating our predecessors firmly, but with charity, maybe we can begin to set the ground to receive a similar judgment at our own coming trial when we can no longer speak for ourselves, but need a speaker for the dead to stand in our place.

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

I typed I response to this yesterday that was pretty good; but then I lost it. I can't stand when that happens -- but I digress.

Reading your post I can't help but feel as if your method of justification for the behaviors of people from the past fails to own up to the great potential that men possess. I'll explain why in a bit, but this is surprising because you seem to view those people and those societies in/from the past in high regard; higher regard than I (a non-historian) does. By our modern definition (and maybe even a historical one) "great" men were not those who compromised too often. If anything they were incredibly stubborn and rarely achieved any accolades for their behavior while they were alive.

You present slavery as an example of a social situation where bad moral actions (even for that society, at that time) could be reasoned away by the short-sightedness of the society and their reluctance to compromise their economic foundation. Perhaps I am interpreting this entirely wrong, but why should it be encouraged for the students to empathize with such a mindset and not be critical of it? There were plenty of other individuals from that same time period who were quite critical of the institution of slavery (I don't think anyone is debating that). What you have is a situation where sociology mixes with history and you have an example as to how gross acts of immorality can exist and the society at large puts up with it. Like how the Romans watched people being malled to death by beasts in the Coliseum for sport. Like how our society today retains very little modesty in regards to sex.

In politics, yes you routinely make "deals with the Devil"; but also, if you notice, when you look throughout history, some of the great societal changes came about because either leaders or a group did not compromise -- and took the "all but nothing" stance. Believe it or not, this is not an outright criticism of your efforts. In fact if I were your student, I would find the exercise to be an interesting one. I would just wonder how you could explain away the impetus of ideas that were uncompromising and self-serving; yet impacted history greatly. Your approach would justify the actions of American slaveholders; but not that of the American (Union) government.