winners and dissenters

There are some interesting discussions over at Beliefnet and Britannica Blog on the question of who writes history. The discussion was triggered by comments in Alan Ehrenhalt’s book The Lost City. Ehrenhalt suggests that the traditional dictum that says that history is written by winners should be replaced by the idea that history is written by dissenters. That is, history is written by the people who are in some way unhappy with their society and so feel compelled to write about it in order to critique it. Here’s an excerpt from the book (quoted from the Beliefnet post):

While it is often said that history is written by the winners, the truth is that the cultural images that come down to us as history are written, in large part, by the dissenters — by those whose strong feelings against life in a particular generation motivate them to become the novelists, playwrights, and social critics of the next, drawing inspiration from the injustices and hypocrisies of the time in which they grew up. We have learned much of what we know about family life in America in the 1950s from women who chafed under its restrictions, either as young, college-educated housewives who found it unfulfilling or as teenage girls secretly appalled by the prom-and-cheerleader social milieu. Much of the image of American Catholic life in those years comes from the work of former Catholics who considered the church they grew up in not only authoritarian but destructive of their free choices and creative instincts. The social critics of the past two decades have forced on our attention the inconsistencies and absurdities of life a generation ago: the pious skirt-chasing husbands, the martini-sneaking ministers, the sadistic gym teachers.

I am not arguing with the accuracy of any of those individual memories. But our collective indignation makes little room for the millions of people who took the rules seriously and tried to live up to them, within the profound limits of human weakness. They are still around, the true believers of the 1950s, in small towns and suburbs and big-city neighborhoods all over the country, reading the papers, watching television, and wondering in old age what has happened to America in the last thirty years. If you visit middle-class American suburbs today, and talk to the elderly women who have lived out their adult years in these places, they do not tell you how constricted and demeaning their lives in the 1950s were. They tell you those were the best years they can remember. And if you visit a working-class Catholic parish in a big city, and ask the older parishioners what they think of the church in the days before Vatican II, they don’t tell you that it was tyrannical or that it destroyed their individuality. They tell you they wish they cold have it back. For them, the erosion of both community and authority in the last generation is not a matter of intellectual debate. It is something they can feel in their bones, and the feeling makes them shiver.

I think there’s something to Ehrenhalt’s observation. The happy person, content with his or her job, busy raising a family, spending spare time with friends, and so on, is probably not the person mostly likely to go write a book about what it’s like to live in his or her community. But why should the perspectives of happy, content people matter less to history?

I am puzzled, though, as to why this insight about dissenters should be taken to be a challenge to the claim that history is written by the winners. I thought the traditional dictum involved a contrast between different sides of warring parties (i.e., between the parties that conquered and the ones that were conquered), but it seems that dissenters typically stand in contrast, not to a warring party, but to the rest of their own society that usually tolerates them to greater or lesser degrees. By and large, our sources for colonial American history come from the winners, i.e., the Europeans, not from the losers, i.e., the Native Americans. It seems quite consistent to me to think that history might be written by the dissenters of the winning societies. It might also be worth drawing a distinction between tolerated dissenters and hunted dissenters. The Anabaptists in sixteenth-century Europe were clearly dissenters, but they weren’t writing the histories. It’s hard to write histories when you’re running about in the woods trying to avoid being burned at the stake. The social critics of the American 1950s experienced opposition, to be sure, but they typically weren’t hiding from executioners, i.e., they were able to write books.

That said, Ehrenhalt and the writers of the blog posts linked to above (they really are both worth reading) are quite right to note that our view of history is often skewed in favour of the dissenters.


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One Response to winners and dissenters

  1. fustianist says:

    Not to comment on my own husband’s post, but that seems to be true about the literature I read. Many authors are wealthy and upper-class (i.e., winners who have the leisure to do what they like), but also those who set themselves against others of that crowd. Take Virginia Woolf, my pet author of late, who was born into upper-class society, but who was uncomfortable with the society balls and dinner-invitation-chasing crowd that would have been the norm. She and her sister helped form a group of artists and critics who certainly tried to step out from those guidelines, and wrote about the society people in rather scathing terms.

    I’m also reminded of the common saying that prevails in creative writing: no one writes about the happy people, because they don’t have very interesting stories to tell; it’s those in pain who really feel. I have always thought that to be malarkey, but it’s true that creative writers are often more driven, determined, and desperate than the average lot. I can’t say that I desire to become a tortured soul just so that I can prove them wrong and write a story about the happy-go-lucky! It’s a bit difficult to be a winning dissenter of the winning dissenters. Critics, however, get to be well-fed, happy, and age gracefully. Academics get the cushier side of the coin.


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