5/11 -- Don't Know Much About History.
People who look down their noses at me because I read sordid, awful, terrible things like the recent banned-by-Walmart biography of Timothy McVeigh would be so proud of me. (And for the record, I think it's good that Walmart doesn't carry that book. In fact, it makes me so happy that I think I'll go to Walmart tomorrow and buy a gun to celebrate. God bless America!)
I decided to put aside my shameful interest in true crime and attempt to make myself a Better Person. Last weekend, I picked up a book titled Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know about American History but Never Learned. It takes a sort of "History for Dummies" approach, which means I'm definitely the target audience.
Everything I Never Learned about American History encompasses a time period of roughly 1491 to the present, so the book has no small task ahead of it. In high school, my American history courses always seemed to follow the same baffling schedule:
September to May: Christopher Columbus gets here. Shortly afterward, the Pilgrims land.
May 5th: Teacher abruptly realizes that we've got about three weeks to cover the remaining two hundred or so years promised in the class description.
May 6th to June 1: The Revolutionary War. We won. Yippee! And then we, uh, expanded a lot. And Lincoln got shot. The end.
Pretty sad, huh?
I became acutely aware of my lack of historical knowledge while watching the new quiz show "The Weakest Link." Now, trashy game shows probably shouldn't be a part of my new Better Person lifestyle either, but the "Masterpiece Theater" episode running that night was something I'd already seen. (But if they ever remake "I Claudius," I think Anne Robinson would be just smashing playing a dual role of Livia and Caligula.)
I know who co-starred with Elvis in "Viva Las Vegas" (Ann-Margret). I didn't know when the Treaty of Paris was signed, or even how Paris got involved in the first place.
It's not likely that I'll ever be in a situation where I must answer that correctly or be cast into the lake of fire (unless I reach those pearly gates and it turns out that Anne Robinson gets to decide who goes through), but I started feeling silly anyhow. And curious. I picked up the book hoping to fill in some of the canyon-sized holes in my knowledge. And to purge my mind of all my more prurient and base interests.
The cosmic joke, of course, is that the difference between an account of American history and a true crime novel is ... ummm ... help me out here. Politicians and educators and op-ed columnists bemoan the fact that today's culture is so steeped in violence. Perhaps the more suitable question would be "So when the hell did we ever stop being steeped in violence?" I think the thirst for gratuitous violence must be genetically imprinted on our DNA. I've only gotten up to the mid 1700s in the book and I've already stumbled across enough horrific images for a few months' worth of nightmares. For example:
In 1643, for instance, following the murder of a Dutch farmer, the governor of New Amsterdam ordered the massacre of the Wappingers, a friendly tribe that had come to the Dutch seeking shelter. Eighty Indians were killed in their sleep, decapitated, and their heads displayed on poles in Manhattan. A Dutch lady kicked the heads down the street.
(Before I get any angry e-mails, yes -- I was in fact aware that Americans have massacred the Indians living here throughout the centuries. I don't think my grade school teachers went into much depth about it, but I'm not that historically deficient.)
I'm so sorry. I tried to be more sophisticated and purify my mind. But the grotesque insists on stalking me at every turn, it seems. From now on, I'll stick to re-reading all the books from my Honors English literary courses. I'll sip green tea and marvel at Proust and his madeleines. I'll chuckle knowingly and act like Finnegan's Wake makes one fucking ounce of sense to me.
But first I'll say this: That "Survivor/Weakest Link" crossover show tonight was just pathetic, man.
(Fine. So don't Clix. See if I name a Sea Monkey after you.)