History in a Post-American World

by Linda Szugyi | March 17th, 2014

Readability

History in a Post-American World

by Linda Szugyi

So I’m finally get­ting around to read­ing a book my dad gave me awhile back. The Land That Never Was is a non­fic­tion account of a self-​aggrandizing Scot who, in the 1820s, swin­dled large num­bers of peo­ple out of large amounts of money by invent­ing an imag­i­nary Cen­tral Amer­i­can nation and appoint­ing him­self ruler of it.

Some peo­ple merely invested in loans backed by fic­ti­tious national hold­ings. Oth­ers traded their life sav­ings for phony cur­rency and phony land grants, boarded ships bound for this phony utopia, and wound up stranded in the untamed jun­gles of the Mos­quito Coast.

Good times, I’m sure.

But that’s not why I’m writing.

The sub­ti­tle of this book is “Sir Gre­gor Mac­Gre­gor and the Most Auda­cious Fraud in His­tory.” While this claim may have been true when the book was pub­lished in 2003, it may now be super­seded in both auda­cious­ness and deceit with the pas­sage of Oba­macare.

But that’s not why I’m writ­ing, either.

I’m writ­ing because the author of this book, David Sin­clair, inci­den­tally pro­vided some his­tory of Simón Bolí­var, a famous fig­ure in the South Amer­i­can strug­gle to gain inde­pen­dence from Spain. (Please enjoy the proper accent marks from the “insert cus­tom char­ac­ter” fea­ture. I won’t be both­er­ing with that again.)

Nor­mally, I would have paid lit­tle atten­tion to the infor­ma­tion on Simon Boli­var, and prob­a­bly would have for­got­ten most of it as soon as I fin­ished the book. Because nor­mally, the name would be com­pletely unfa­mil­iar to me. Simon Boli­var would have been one of many char­ac­ters that played a part in the story of Gre­gor Mac­Gre­gor (whose name I would have remem­bered, because dang what an awe­some Scot­tish name).

How­ever, in addi­tion to the hobby of read­ing, or at least vainly attempt­ing to read, books that my dad rec­om­mends, I also have the hobby of read­ing and then heap­ing scorn upon text­books that chil­dren are forced to study in school. Thanks to the lat­ter hobby, the name Simon Boli­var is famil­iar to me: he was one of the his­tor­i­cal fig­ures fea­tured in a recur­ring side­note, “Char­ac­ter Trait,” in the Har­court social stud­ies text­book Peo­ple, Places, and Change.

In the post His­tory Mat­ters, I dis­cussed the “Char­ac­ter Trait” treat­ment of George Wash­ing­ton in the very same text­book. Of all the things for which to remem­ber the Father of our Coun­try, the authors and edi­tors of this dog’s hash of a text­book chose “cit­i­zen­ship.” Because … well, I can only con­clude that it was the least flat­ter­ing yet most benign trait they could come up with.

Do you know what would have been a great char­ac­ter trait to assign George Wash­ing­ton? Integrity:

17th Sep­tem­ber, 1796 Farewell Address: “I hope I shall always pos­sess firm­ness and virtue enough to main­tain (what I con­sider the most envi­able of all titles) the char­ac­ter of an ‘Hon­est Man.’”

The authors and edi­tors decided instead to reserve the trait “integrity” for none other than Simon Boli­var. At the time I read it, the name meant noth­ing to me. Yet, the descrip­tion of this dude as the “George Wash­ing­ton of South Amer­ica” nat­u­rally rose my hack­les a bit, first because I knew they had screwed GW out of the “integrity” label, and sec­ond because I am wary when­ever some mul­ti­cul­tural fig­ure is casu­ally equated with America’s founders.

Then I started read­ing about Simon Boli­var in The Land That Never Was, and my wari­ness became well-​founded. Accord­ing to David Sin­clair, Simon Boli­var saw him­self not as the South Amer­i­can George Wash­ing­ton, but as the South Amer­i­can Napoleon, “to the extent that he would even stand in the famous pose of the French Emperor, with his right hand tucked inside his tunic .…” (The Land That Never Was, pg. 144)

Now, my sub­se­quent inter­net research (which ate half my Sun­day right up, by the way) did not pro­duce a sim­ple pic­ture of the man who was Simon Boli­var. My point is not to demo­nize him, nor min­i­mize his importance.

My point is to heap scorn upon our edu­ca­tion text­book indus­try. Not only do they over-​simplify the rich and com­plex sto­ries of nations in a way that makes all of them inter­change­able and there­fore vir­tu­ally mean­ing­less, they can’t even get the basic facts right.

To wit:

IMG_5784

In 1811, Boli­var first freed his native Venezuela.”

Um, no he didn’t.

It may or may not be fair to coin Simon Boli­var the “George Wash­ing­ton of South Amer­ica.” The com­par­i­son was made early. George Washington’s fam­ily even sent Boli­var a medal­lion with a lock of George Washington’s hair inside. On the one hand, he eman­ci­pated slaves, and he spoke pas­sion­ately about free­dom, and he fought pas­sion­ately to free his native land from Span­ish rule.

On the other hand, his author­i­tar­ian incli­na­tions led him to draft a con­sti­tu­tion that cre­ated a life­time pres­i­dent and a highly restricted suf­frage. Also, he once wrote “I am con­vinced, to the very mar­row of my bones, that our Amer­ica can only be ruled through a well-​managed, shrewd despo­tism.

It may or may not be accu­rate to say that Simon Boli­var embod­ied the trait of integrity.

But it is def­i­nitely not accu­rate to say that Simon Boli­var freed Venezuela in 1811. Accord­ing to The Land That Never Was, Boli­var gave an impor­tant speech in favor of Venezue­lan inde­pen­dence in 1811. (pg. 142) He joined the mil­i­tary effort to oust Spain months later, and promptly suf­fered a crush­ing defeat at Puerto Cabello that was so bad he wrote, “my soul is crushed to such an extent that I do not feel able to com­mand a sin­gle infantry­man.…” (pg. 142)

Hey, folks at Har­court. The first attempt at inde­pen­dence in 1811 failed. Span­ish troops recon­quered the colony. The Span­ish weren’t beaten until 1821, and Venezuela as an autonomous nation wasn’t founded until 1829.

Just, you know, tech­ni­cally speak­ing. Not that his­tory really mat­ters to a post-​American world.

I’m actu­ally going to add a short bio to this week’s post. I never did iden­tify with mod­ern lib­er­al­ism, pos­si­bly thanks to my mid­dle school social stud­ies teacher who was so mean and also so biased that she told us lib­er­als were gen­er­ous and con­ser­v­a­tives were stingy. I knew any­thing she said couldn’t pos­si­bly be right. I write at No One Of Any Import, and if you’ll just sub­scribe and be patient I’ll write some­thing very enter­tain­ing there soon.

by Linda Szugyi

So I’m finally getting around to reading a book my dad gave me awhile back. The Land That Never Was is a nonfiction account of a self-aggrandizing Scot who, in the 1820s, swindled large numbers of people out of large amounts of money by inventing an imaginary Central American nation and appointing himself ruler of it.

Some people merely invested in loans backed by fictitious national holdings.  Others traded their life savings for phony currency and phony land grants, boarded ships bound for this phony utopia, and wound up stranded in the untamed jungles of the Mosquito Coast.

Good times, I’m sure.

But that’s not why I’m writing.

The subtitle of this book is “Sir Gregor MacGregor and the Most Audacious Fraud in History.”  While this claim may have been true when the book was published in 2003, it may now be superseded in both audaciousness and deceit with the passage of Obamacare.

But that’s not why I’m writing, either.

I’m writing because the author of this book, David Sinclair, incidentally provided some history of Simón Bolívar, a famous figure in the South American struggle to gain independence from Spain.  (Please enjoy the proper accent marks from the “insert custom character” feature.  I won’t be bothering with that again.)

Normally, I would have paid little attention to the information on Simon Bolivar, and probably would have forgotten most of it as soon as I finished the book.  Because normally, the name would be completely unfamiliar to me.  Simon Bolivar would have been one of many characters that played a part in the story of Gregor MacGregor (whose name I would have remembered, because dang what an awesome Scottish name).

However, in addition to the hobby of reading, or at least vainly attempting to read, books that my dad recommends, I also have the hobby of reading and then heaping scorn upon textbooks that children are forced to study in school.  Thanks to the latter hobby, the name Simon Bolivar is familiar to me:  he was one of the historical figures featured in a recurring sidenote, “Character Trait,” in the Harcourt social studies textbook People, Places, and Change.

In the post History Matters, I discussed the “Character Trait” treatment of George Washington in the very same textbook.  Of all the things for which to remember the Father of our Country, the authors and editors of this dog’s hash of a textbook chose “citizenship.”  Because . . . well, I can only conclude that it was the least flattering yet most benign trait they could come up with.

Do you know what would have been a great character trait to assign George Washington?  Integrity:

17th September, 1796 Farewell Address:  “I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain (what I consider the most enviable of all titles) the character of an ‘Honest Man.'”

The authors and editors decided instead to reserve the trait “integrity” for none other than Simon Bolivar.  At the time I read it, the name meant nothing to me.  Yet, the description of this dude as the “George Washington of South America” naturally rose my hackles a bit, first because I knew they had screwed GW out of the “integrity” label, and second because I am wary whenever some multicultural figure is casually equated with America’s founders.

Then I started reading about Simon Bolivar in The Land That Never Was, and my wariness became well-founded.  According to David Sinclair, Simon Bolivar saw himself not as the South American George Washington, but as the South American Napoleon, “to the extent that he would even stand in the famous pose of the French Emperor, with his right hand tucked inside his tunic . . . .” (The Land That Never Was, pg. 144)

Now, my subsequent internet research (which ate half my Sunday right up, by the way) did not produce a simple picture of the man who was Simon Bolivar.  My point is not to demonize him, nor minimize his importance.

My point is to heap scorn upon our education textbook industry.  Not only do they over-simplify the rich and complex stories of nations in a way that makes all of them interchangeable and therefore virtually meaningless, they can’t even get the basic facts right.

To wit:

IMG_5784

“In 1811, Bolivar first freed his native Venezuela.”

Um, no he didn’t.

It may or may not be fair to coin Simon Bolivar the “George Washington of South America.”  The comparison was made early.  George Washington’s family even sent Bolivar a medallion with a lock of George Washington’s hair inside.  On the one hand, he emancipated slaves, and he spoke passionately about freedom, and he fought passionately to free his native land from Spanish rule.

On the other hand, his authoritarian inclinations led him to draft a constitution that created a lifetime president and a highly restricted suffrage.  Also, he once wrote “I am convinced, to the very marrow of my bones, that our America can only be ruled through a well-managed, shrewd despotism.

It may or may not be accurate to say that Simon Bolivar embodied the trait of integrity.

But it is definitely not accurate to say that Simon Bolivar freed Venezuela in 1811.  According to The Land That Never Was, Bolivar gave an important speech in favor of Venezuelan independence in 1811.  (pg. 142)  He joined the military effort to oust Spain months later, and promptly suffered a crushing defeat at Puerto Cabello that was so bad he wrote, “my soul is crushed to such an extent that I do not feel able to command a single infantryman. . . .” (pg. 142)

Hey, folks at Harcourt.  The first attempt at independence in 1811 failed.  Spanish troops reconquered the colony.  The Spanish weren’t beaten until 1821, and Venezuela as an autonomous nation wasn’t founded until 1829.

Just, you know, technically speaking.  Not that history really matters to a post-American world.

I’m actually going to add a short bio to this week’s post.  I never did identify with modern liberalism, possibly thanks to my middle school social studies teacher who was so mean and also so biased that she told us liberals were generous and conservatives were stingy.  I knew anything she said couldn’t possibly be right.  I write at No One Of Any Import, and if you’ll just subscribe and be patient I’ll write something very entertaining there soon.

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