Thursday, July 06, 2006

Alternative Histories

The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice. ~Mark Twain

I suppose I ought to be happy that we have history programming at all. Were it not for the Discovery-History channel set, we'd be dependent on Public Television to dole out a program or two every few months, when it didn't interrupt their normal bland fare.

The trouble is that the D-H axis has a pretty standard bill of fare, too. Pharonic Egypt is always popular, particularly if you can mention the pyramids or a curse or two; Rome, particularly Pompei, and Greece are fairly standard; the Maya, Aztec, and Inca civilizations get some air time, with special emphasis on human sacrifice; and, somewhat more rarely there are programs on China, and more rarely, Japan.

There have been occasional breaks in the monotony, shows on the Etruscans, for example, and, thanks to the DaVinci code, many programs on the Bible, Jesus, and early Christianity. Now that they've been made, we'll see them on a reasonably frequent basis for a while. There have been occasional forays into the Neolithic, thanks to Stonehenge and Otzi, the iceman. But there is a strong tendency toward Western Civilization.

Now, this is not going to be a rant against dead-white-guy-history. On the contrary, all history is important, including the history created by dead white guys. But, there is a lot of history out there to learn, which these channels seem to miss. Here are some things I'd certainly like to learn more about.

The Hopewll and Cahokia civilizations – Before the English, before the Spaniards, there was a reasonably advanced civilization along the Mississippi. They built impressive mound structures and left artifacts, a good many of which got plundered or plowed under before their significance was recognized. Clearly there were communities linked by commerce, which implies a good deal of sophistication. The links between these peoples and the later Native American tribes would definitely be interesting to learn about.

Pre-Pharonic Egypt – Oh, sure, we had The Rock hosting the Scorpion King, which hasn't been shown since the movie tanked. But there was a great deal of Egyptian civilization before the Pharaohs. In fact, the Egyptian climate underwent significant change, which caused major changes in the development of the agrarian societies around the Nile at this time. With the insistence of the likes of Graham Hancock and Sam Osmanagic, among others, that advanced civilizations existed 10,000 years ago, it would be nice to get a real picture of what the world was like, say, 5,000 - 7000 years ago.

The Settlement of the Americas – Before Columbus, before the Vikings, there was some group that found its way from Asia – or possibly Europe – to North America and rapidly found their way down to South America some tens of thousands of years ago. There's a lot of debate about how this occurred, ranging from the old Bering bridge theory to ancient mariners navigating from Asia along the ice to the New World, to ancient mariners from Europe doing the same thing along the Atlantic ice. Now this is a wide open area for theorizing upon each discovery, and many are doing so (Tom Koppel's book Lost World is a good example of some recent discoveries, along with some interesting theories). So why do we not get some programming concerning these early adventurers?

Early Chinese Civilization – Clearly, a lot was going on before the Chin dynasty was founded. After all, if there hadn't been several kingdoms already in place, Chin wouldn't have had anything to conquer and unify. Where did these nations come from? How long were they around? And what about their interactions with European cultures (as evidenced by the Caucasian mummies found in the deserts of China)? Just as with pre-Pharonic Egypt, pre-dynastic China must have been a fascinating place.

Japan, too – Lately, there has been a little more about Japanese history, with the emphasis on Samurai warriors, with blood-curdling demonstrations of watermelons being hacked by Samurai swords (what do all these weapons demonstrators have against watermelons anyway?). Japan has a richly complex history before and after the Samurai ascendancy, and it would be most interesting to learn of it. It would be well to understand one of the most economically powerful countries in the world.

Islamic Civilization – One of the D-H channels did a very good program not too long ago about the Koran. Now, it's difficult to do some programs like this since no images of the Prophet are allowed. This really shouldn't be a problem, but, since TV is a visual medium and since programmers like to fill time by showing old masters' paintings of nudes purporting to be the Queen of Sheba or Cleopatra, not having paintings of Mohamed and family and friends to keep throwing on the screen poses a problem. Despite this they did a good job. Now, how about some programming on the Moors or the Ottoman Empire? It would be interesting to come to understand why some Islamic rulers have been tolerant of other faiths while others indulged in pogroms and terror.

And what about Africa? -- There's this entire continent which has had civilizations coming and going for thousands of years. So what do we hear about? Egypt and australopithecus. It's just a wild guess on my part, but I'll bet a lot more was going on around this land mass during those hundreds of thousands of years. Recently, History broke down and did a program about the Kingdom of Kush. That's a start, but there's so much more to which we could be exposed.

That's just a short list. It's not that these topics have never been covered; as with the Koran, an occasional attempt has been made to cover these topics. But these shows are few and far between. The D-H axis prefers to bury us under pyramids, acropolises, and aqueducts. Well, there's a lot more history out there, and we need to know it.

Besides, it's really interesting stuff.

No comments: