Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Who Were Those People, Anyway?

People use history for all kinds of purposes, not a few of which are nefarious. I know next to nothing about Korean history, but I recognize what’s going on in this article about disputes between China and South Korea over the identity of early inhabitants of the Korean peninsula. Research recently published in China continues a very old assertion that what we call Korea was really just an extension of China from around 2000 BC to around 1000 AD. Korea, not surprisingly, rejects this notion. (Oh, and what’s up with being able to listen to the story read by either a female or a male announcer?)

Assertions about the identity of historical peoples almost always are linked to present-day claims about territorial rights or political power. In the Balkans, many people expend a great deal of energy trying to prove that this person or that person was a “Serb,” or a “Bulgarian,” or an “Albanian,” so as to claim rights to some scrap of land in the here and now. In the Middle East, you can find people who will tell you that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian,” and there never was. You can also find people who will tell you that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of any Jewish or Hebrew kingdoms in the ancient past. The motivations behind these claims are obvious.

The problem with claims like these is that quite often the terms we use today were unfamiliar or meaningless to people in the past. The term “Indian” (in the American, not South Asian sense) had no meaning whatsoever, indeed, did not exist, before the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. There were no substitute terms for it either. The peoples of the Americas had no word to distinguish themselves from Europeans, Africans, and Asians because they did not know those other people existed. The words they would have used to describe all the peoples of the Americas probably would have translated into English as “human,” because for them, the Americas were the entire world.

In our country, people today argue over whether the Founding Fathers were Christian. Well, define “Christian.” Were the ancient Egyptians black? Well, define “black.” People mix and mingle, cultures mix and mingle, and there are no pure strains, genetically nor culturally, that stretch back over the centuries. It’s a fools errand, but as long as people believe that whatever their great-great-grandfather did justifies whatever they are doing now, people will keep arguing about these things.

1 comment:

Jim said...

This is an enduring problem. Everything from Clash of Civilizations to Multiculturalism seems to suffer from it (though I'm fond of the later, it's not without its drawbacks).

There's a point where we need to deprioritize our origins. If only in the name pragmatism.