History in the Buff

15 Jun

I started teaching history a little over ten years ago and have found out something in the intervening years. People want to talk to me about history. In and of itself, that is not a bad thing. It thrills me that people like history and want to discuss it, and I am happy to have a job that people find interesting. After all, I can’t imagine a plumber constantly being asked about fitting pipes or an accountant being asked about ledgers.

However, there is another side to the “let’s talk about history” coin, and I know it before it actually happens. It always begins with a question:

“You are a history buff aren’t you?”

Well, I’m not really a history buff. I am more like a historian, someone who makes their living studying history and providing that information to others. That question always leads to the next one:

“Can you tell me the real story about (fill in the blank)?

When this question comes out of their mouth, I know that I am in a real bind. You see, they don’t want to hear what I think or know. They want me to reinforce what they think they know. Invariably, I have to ask myself a few more questions:

“Do I tell them what the latest research says?” Or,:

“Do I let them continue to think what they want because I am not going to change their mind anyway?”

They are the true history buffs, and they can fall into several categories.

Civil War Buffs – In these parts, this is the worst bunch to deal with. They can be the Sons of Confederate Veterans, the Daughters of the Confederacy, or just someone who is obsessed with the Civil War. I can promise you that they know more about the actual “war” than I do. They know regiments, weapons, troop movements, generals, the names of the horses of generals, and a lot more minute information. There is no way I can talk to them about that stuff. Fortunately, or unfortunately, that is not what they ask about. The question is always:

“What was the Civil War really about?”

This is a no win situation. They have convinced themselves that it is about state rights, and have conveniently left out the part about states having the right to keep slavery legal. It was also about the need to spread slavery into the western territories. In short, it was all about slavery, but I can talk until I am blue in the face and they will not have their minds changed.

A few years ago, a member of the local chapter of the Sons of Confederate Veterans offered our department a sizable donation if we taught the Civil War the “right” way. We turned it down.

Old West Buffs – This category covers several groups: people who like westerns; people who compete in rodeos; people who live in the West; people who wear cowboy hats and cowboy boots. It goes on and on. However, I will use a conversation I had with a Montana rancher to illustrate my point.

Through the years, the rancher has bought cattle from my dad and invited us to see his place. It was a cool experience, but I knew I was in trouble when he found out that I was a historian of the West. I tried to stick with the fun stuff, but he asked:

“What do you think about the way things went with the Indians? Look at them. They don’t work, and they stay drunk. Useless.”

Now, how am I suppose to answer that? I am sitting at a table full of Montana ranchers who make their living off of land that Native Americans were run off from. For all I knew, their ancestors could have fought each other. Was I supposed to say that Native Americans got the biggest screwing ever? Was I supposed to say that they would be drunk too if someone took everything away from them?

I played politician and stayed away from a straight answer. After all, these are people who still believe in the myth of Custer’s Last Stand.

People who play cowboy in the east are almost as bad. They want to hear about the lone cowboy riding across the prairie and living a lifestyle of freedom. They don’t want to hear that it was a job for people who couldn’t anything else. They definitely don’t want to hear that a great many were minorities. And, they would flip upon hearing that cowboys on the trail sometimes found sexual comfort with each other.

Instead, I tell them that it is hard to be a real cowboy without any cows.

Antique Buffs – A lot of people, including old ladies, love to collect antiques. That’s great for them and the pieces they collect. It allows them to hold on to a physical piece of nostalgia, and it protects objects that would otherwise be lost. However, that doesn’t mean I am interested in their collection of dishes.

When an antique person (in interest, not age) finds out my job, they immediately start in with:

“Oh, I should show you my collection. I’m sure you would find it interesting.”

Actually, I wouldn’t.

Old House Buffs – This group is closely related to the prior group. In fact, I could have put them together. These are people who either live in an old home or are involved in the protection of an old home. Now, this is a noble cause because older homes should be protected. I wouldn’t live in one, but I am glad other people do. However, just because a home is old does not mean that it is historic.

Last year, I spoke at a meeting of a group that protects an old home in Nashville. They were nice people who listened intently, but when I was finished they just wanted to talk about how important this place was. Others showed off the work they had been doing on the old places they lived in. I am not an expert on historic preservation and could not do anything except show feigned interest. However, I know that just because a place is old does not mean it is important.

Local History Buffs – These are great people who work in archives and libraries and provide a wealth of information for researchers. However, they tend to place more importance on their local history than is realistic. Not every town has an interesting story to tell or has enough interest to attract tourists. A lot of place have that, but most do not. I am happy that it interests you, but it does not interest me (unless they had a local whorehouse).

For example, my town has pumped up a Civil War battle that was not much bigger than a bar brawl. A sign has been installed to commemorate the event, but the Sons of Confederate Veterans got mad because the map was wrong. Apparently, it had the bar on the wrong side of the square.

Now that I have ranted about people interested in history, I will finish by saying that it is better than the opposite – people who know absolutely nothing. Several years ago, I had the following conversation with a local official. It took place during a meeting about drawing tourism into our community. She began with:

“I don’t see how we can draw people here. We don’t have any history.”

“What do you mean we don’t have any history? We have a university that was founded in 1842 and educated a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. We have the homes of three governors. We have a home that Paul McCartney used to live in. We are the home of Cracker Barrel. We have all kinds of things.”

“Well, we don’t have a presidential home like Nashville does.”

“There have only been 40-something presidents. No many counties have one of those. You go with what you have.”

“Well, I say we don’t have anything.”

With that in mind, if you fit in one of the categories that I bitched about above. I will give you this. At least you have something.

7 Responses to “History in the Buff”

  1. leslinalicia June 15, 2012 at 13:27 #

    I understand the love for an old house and wanting to preserve it. Heck, I can actually take a class for it! People in Savannah love them too, and they all seem to think they are historic when they haven’t even gone through the process of getting put on the local historic site list.

    • surroundedbyimbeciles June 15, 2012 at 15:00 #

      You probably shouldn’t mention my rant about old houses with your preservation friends.

  2. darkcargo June 15, 2012 at 15:24 #

    THANK YOU for this post. This is the same experience with conversations about science.

    • surroundedbyimbeciles June 15, 2012 at 19:54 #

      You are welcome. People get set in their own ideas in a lot of areas. Thanks for the comment.

  3. John June 15, 2012 at 16:17 #

    Ahh, the burden of being educated!

    • surroundedbyimbeciles June 15, 2012 at 19:55 #

      It’s amazing how many “educated” people really aren’t.


  1. Gambling in Another World « Surrounded By Imbeciles - June 29, 2012

    […] He was a man wearing an oxygen tank who had traced his family’s lineage. In short, he was a history buff and was convinced that I was interested in his family history. I didn’t stay […]

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