How to argue against nationalism
July 12, 2008 9:38 PM   Subscribe

HistoryFilter: What popular historical myths are there about Portuguese and English History?

My friends (one American and one Portuguese) get very riled when I talk about aspects of their histories that aren't positive. Today, I talked about how America had probably been "discovered" many times before Columbus, since the first people (now called Native Americans) had come here. I also mentioned that I'd heard The Chinese and Arabs may have been the first around the Cape of Good Hope.

They told me, in no particular order, that optimistic and/or inspiring history is best to learn as it motivates people, that young people cannot handle grey areas and violence, that poor and uneducated people need to be "protected" from the truth (seriously, they said that), and that these myths were popular because people wanted them to be true. Regardless of my attempts to argue against these points, one thing is clear; I don't know enough about Portuguese popular myths, and would love links to or mentions of information regarding them, if you could please help me out. I have enough info on American myths (Thanksgiving and Plymouth Rock, for example), but to not sound attacking, I feel I should also have some English/British myths (where I'm from) in my arsenal.

Please, does anyone have any suggestions?
posted by omnigut to Education (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I haven't really thought about it, but the modern English mythic history is perhaps centered around Kipling and his contemporaries of the Victorian age. The British certainly have a lot to be proud of from that age, being the world leaders into the age of steam and industrialization, though of course it was far of a bed of roses for the masses, not until the Progressive Era at the turn of the century.

You might want to check out James Burke's book & series Connections, and/or The Day the Universe Changed. These cover some of the dynamics behind the important advances that British scientists and tinkerers have contributed to the modern world.

I really don't know much of anything about Portugal, other than the centuries-old strategic alliance the two kingdoms have honored.
posted by yort at 10:38 PM on July 12, 2008

Portugal's nationalist ideology was pretty much blown to bits by the end of the monarchy, the Estado Novo fascist regime, and then the Carnation Revolution and decolonization. In general, European nationalism in the modern era is quite mild compared to American nationalism, which has suffered fewer turns of fate by an order of magnitude. We measure ourselves by the "good wars" we fought, the Civil War and World War II in particular, while our less-proud moments are peripheral activity that can fall under the realm of misguided defense of the country. The closest we've come to a coup is Watergate.

At the same time, your friends -- despite widely different backgrounds -- seem to be coming from a similar place. I'm not quite sure that your quest for facts or countermyths will so much blow your friends' minds as it will blow up your friendship.

You may want to read some Howard Zinn, but for yourself, not for arguing with them. Zinn will help you understand why certain truths are buried. You might also start with this essay, which is a critique of attempts to reform national myths within a modern context of liberal democracy. In the process it explains how people come to prefer national myths to cold reality. This could lead you (explicitly) to Arthur Danto's Analytical Philosophy of History or alternatively to the oeuvre of Michel Foucault or Noam Chomsky, particularly Manufacturing Consent. Your friends may not be ready to have their eyes opened. If you are, but you lack a grounding in history and the philosophy of history, this is your opportunity to get started.
posted by dhartung at 11:09 PM on July 12, 2008 [4 favorites]

The essays in The Invention of Tradition look at the ideological construction of a British national/imperial mythology.
posted by Abiezer at 11:37 PM on July 12, 2008

one of the best books (and a very quick read) on american myths taught in history textbooks is lies my teacher told me.

I know you asked for english/portuguese, but i just had to plug this one.

As for english/portuguese national founding myths, I imagine you'd need to talk with someone who a) went to high school in these countries, AND b) went to grad school where they unlearned everything they learned in high school. Such a person would be in a position to address your question, I think.
posted by jak68 at 12:00 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

The British school history experience generally misses out the eighteenth century: that whole colonial venture in North America might extend to beating the French in Quebec, but that's about it. The old 'imperial history', though, in which Britons with flags and moustaches bring civilisation to the fuzzy-wuzzies, has been mitigated in recent years by teaching that's somewhat more mindful of people whose ancestry traces itself fairly directly to former colonies.

If you want a national myth, then Robin Hood is a good place to start, because it's one that has been remade to reflect contemporary concerns more or less from the beginning. The current incarnation of the anti-authoritarian Robin Hood ties into the King Alfred myth, the Boudicca myth, and so on.

There's not quite the same historiography that you get in the US: the standard British narrative is 'the Romans invaded, built baths and walls, then buggered off; then the Angles, Saxons and Jutes came along, and the Vikings after that. Then the Normans, and a lot of two-dimensional people until Henry VIII, who was fat and not a good husband. The Spanish didn't invade -- Roundheads and Cavaliers and regicide, oh my! -- the French didn't invade, empire la dee dah, the Germans didn't invade.' Still, something like Norman Davies' The Isles is an interesting contrarian take, and Schama's History of Britain treads familiar ground in unfamiliar ways. There isn't really a national founding myth: Britain sort of just turned out this way.

(I'll tread gently here, but the more interesting British national myths aren't English, and owe a fair bit to Mel Gibson and a lot of historical projection.)

The standard narrative? Well, 1066 And All That lives on, and Carry On Up The Khyber casts a long shadow.
posted by holgate at 1:17 AM on July 13, 2008

They told me, in no particular order, that optimistic and/or inspiring history is best to learn as it motivates people, that young people cannot handle grey areas and violence, that poor and uneducated people need to be "protected" from the truth (seriously, they said that), and that these myths were popular because people wanted them to be true.

This is almost the opposite of education. Can some teachers here point out some education/sociology studies/books that address this? (Alternately, you could just tell them that this is condescending, insulting claptrap.)

Young people have terrific bullshit detectors, and know when their teachers are being lazy about those "gray areas." They can't handle violence? Too bad for everyone, because it's on the news nightly. Likewise, if poor and uneducated people need so much protection, why aren't your friends rushing to protect them from exposure to crime?

Yes, people love inspiring stories and heroes. There's room for true stories instead of propaganda, though. And since we're all human and are familiar with the fact we ourselves are not perfect or always selfless, it's not terrifically hard to understand that heroes, being human, are similarly flawed.
posted by desuetude at 9:33 AM on July 13, 2008

American Colonies explores a lot of the foundation myths of (among others) English and Portuguese colonial expansion, with particular attention paid to the strategies of brutality and resource control deployed by pretty much all parties in the struggle for dominance.
posted by meehawl at 9:44 AM on July 13, 2008

Well, I am Portuguese and in no way do I agree from protecting people from the truth. Yet, I hope you understand the importance of founding myths in the creation of a national identity. Let me tell you that I find the Portuguese as patriotic as the americans although both peoples have a totally different temperament. Allow me a bit of stereotyping for the sake of a short argument that's going to fit into a Mefi post. The optimistic, can-do attitude of the americans finds it total opposite in the fatalistic, melancholic portuguese. But whereas Americans proud themselves of being "the greatest nation in the world", the portuguese pride themselves of having been it once...which may account for the melancholy and a strange contradictory self deprecating whining...

So, you're trying to rebuke beliefs that give ground to the basis of their patriotism - which isn't a "normal" love for their country but rather something both might feel they are entitled to feel more than others since their countries "deserve" it as they can find historical reasons for supremacy.

By the way, the still active Portuguese patriotism is a leftover of the 20th century fascist propaganda when all the past glories of the country were invoked and people were brainwashed at school. So, for instance, I'm the product of a post-revolution school system where I was taught that the Portuguese pretty much started slave trade, killed all the indians and raped their wives and all the gruesome bits that went with that former glory but, yet, I was surrounded by adults that despite learning this later on were still telling me about the "myths". I don't think that's going to die anytime soon since everyone loves a happy story rather than facts.

I'd love to know if there is historical evidence of other people going around the Cape of Good Hope but that's just me liking to know random stuff. Even if you can find reliable historical sources that can prove it, my answer will be that it doesn't really matter. What matters is that the Portuguese exploit is a turning point in the economic history of the world much more than a nautical feat. Or else, knowing who arrived first where is of relative no importance compared to who actually profited and knew how to use the discovery to their own benefit.

Having said that, you can try to annoy - because that's what you're doing, it's like trying to prove wrong some religious person's beliefs which always leads to nowhere - your Portuguese friend with this one:

D. Sebastião didn't die or disappear in Alcácer-Quibir but instead cowardly fled the battle and tried to find refuge in Spain where his uncle the King promptly had him murdered plotting to get the Portuguese throne (which he did). And this seems to be true as some documents from spanish spies have been unearthed recently in Spain that corroborate this version (can't find any links but according to an ex-President of Portugal they are in the archives of the Red Duchess). As far as rebuking founding myths are concerned this is a great, great blow and to my mind the most cruel thing you can tell a patriotic pt about their history. But everyone will conveniently agree that the Spanish made this up as this will completely shatter the Portuguese hope that a King will come one foggy day and restore the former glory (keep in mind I am a post-1974 child and I was told this myth as a kid). I think this explains it well.

A fun one:

Tea was introduced to England by a Portuguese Queen (although her husband was also a tea drinker himself before meeting her) - of course, she can always argue that's the simplistic popular version and that with Catherine came the dowry of Bombay which provided a steady and cheaper supply of tea.
posted by lucia__is__dada at 11:30 AM on July 13, 2008

one of the best books (and a very quick read) on american myths taught in history textbooks is lies my teacher told me.

A poorly-researched and self-satisfied book that sometimes replaces old lies with new ones (Ie: the Iroquois inspired the US Constitution). Awful book.
posted by LarryC at 11:43 AM on July 13, 2008 [1 favorite]

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