The Lure of Bad History

A long time ago, in a state far, far, away, I was a history major.  In answer to the question already forming on the lips of some of my readers, no.  I did not want to be a teacher.  I was a history major because I liked history in general and I liked it a whole lot more than other things that one can major in. I also, quite obviously, had no notion whatsoever of useful majors for lucrative post-college careers.  But that’s not the point of being a history major.  The point of being a history major is the ability to watch movies and then bore your friends with a huffy catalog of historical inaccuracies therein.  Be kind to your history major friends as they do this.  They had to write 20-page examinations of the political situation in medieval France and have no other outlet for this knowledge.

And we do live in a world full of historical inaccuracies.  This is nothing new, of course.  The temptation to reframe history for one’s own purposes (or because of one’s own biases or learned biases) is an eternal one.  What’s important is that we recognize that tendency and work to prevent it from becoming the basis of bad policy.  No, I’m not just legitimizing your friend’s tendency to go on about the problems in the movie Titanic.  (A noble calling in itself.) To some extent, history can be a matter of interpretation, but we can’t just give bad facts and specious interpretations a pass.

And when it comes to Hawaiian history, boy do we have a minefield of inaccuracy.  Whether based on the desire to romanticize the past or a political agenda, very few things have become as distorted as Hawaii’s path to US statehood.  It can even rear its head in a simple corporate publication, as Ken Conklin’s recent article in the Hawaii Reporter demonstrates.  Conklin identifies and corrects a series of inaccuracies in a recent HMSA magazine. The article is worth reading in its entirety, but here is a small sample:

Jokiel writes “In the years following the 1893 overthrow of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, the new government worked tirelessly to eradicate the Hawaiian language.” That’s totally false. Here’s what’s true.

Immediately after the revolution of January 17, 1893 royalist newspapers (both Hawaiian and English language ones) were suspended by the Provisional Government. That’s normal after any revolution. But after a few weeks all the newspapers resumed publication, with zero censorship.

Noenoe Silva published a book in 2004 entitled “Aloha Betrayed: Native Hawaiian Resistance to American Colonialism.” On page 181 Silva says there were both Hawaiian-language and English-language newspapers supporting Lili’uokalani after the overthrow and throughout the Republic period; and also newspapers in each language that were pro-Republic.

When the Republic of Hawaii was created in July of 1894, its Constitution was published in both English and Hawaiian. The continued publication of Hawaiian language newspapers, and publication of the Republic’s Constitution in Hawaiian, clearly disprove Jokiel’s assertion that “the new government worked tirelessly to eradicate the Hawaiian language.”

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