Sunday, March 22, 2009

High Noon

I come from a family of history buffs. My brother can tell you most anything you wish to know about Janis Joplin and he can also recite the entire dialog from movies like Little Big Man. My father is a Civil War buff and George Armstrong Custer authority. Each year he and a friend travel to Montana to visit the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. (This trip has spawned a funny annual exchange between my dad and I. Me: Is Gen. Custer still dead? Dad: Yes son, he is.)

I too enjoy history. As I've written here before, one of my obsessions is the sinking of the Titanic. For the most part, however, like me pa, much of my historical reading focuses on the American West during the nineteenth century. I've read several books about historical figures such as Custer, Sequoyah, Cochise, Geronimo, Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull and, my personal favorite, Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce.

I'm currently reading "Wyatt Earp: The Life Behind the Legend" by Casey Tefertiller. Extensively researched, the author tries hard to separate what we really know about Earp from the multitude of legends that have sprung up over the past 100+ years.

This long preface leads me now to the point of this post -- context.

One problem that contemporaries of any era face is applying present day values and morality to bygone days. What to many in 21st century America might seem shady or vulgar may not have been viewed in the same way in the frontier American West.

For example, Tefertiller details how many upstanding women were involved in various forms of prostitution. While many today may view such involvement as morally bankrupt, in 1880s Tombstone, Arizona, it was taken as a given. There weren't that many jobs available to women on the frontier and, if your relationship with a man came to a sudden end, you still had to eat. So, many respectable women of the era found whoring to be suitable employment.

Another interesting fact is that many of the days lawmen were also professional gamblers and barkeeps. In fact, at that time, many believed gamblers made the best lawmen! This seems to fly in the face of movie depictions of the era. In a whole host of famous films, the law (the guys in white hats) were juxtaposed against the villainous gamblers (the "bad" guys) in a stark morality play of good vs bad. In reality, the lines were often blurred.

The lesson here is to remember that culture and social mores change with time. What is sinful or bad form in one era may be acceptable in the next or vice versa. In essence, it is difficult to judge the character of historical people without a certain amount of an understanding of the context of the day.

This is a point I've tried to highlight again and again in reference to religion. Too often, contemporaries view religious precepts or historical events through the lens of modern life without taking into consideration the context of the then current social structure. When context is lost or ignored, the opportunity genuinely and clearly to understand the situation and message is lost too.

1 comment:

  1. Sure, I agree with you. The concept of right and wrong has to be seen in context.

    In view of that, I think we should NOT use past writings to define our morality. We should use both common sense and the well-being of our fellows humans.

    Perhaps history is not morally useful, but it is still important, in helping us not repeat mistakes of the past.


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