Sunday, September 5, 2010

I Built a Connection and All I Got Was This Lousy Uncertainty

One of the things Dr. Mary Brown tried to teach us in our writing classes was to make connections. If you can attach something tangible to something abstract, you have a clear metaphor at your fingertips with which you could shape into whatever point you are trying to make, whether artistically or factually. She also tried to teach us how to murder our darlings, but I obviously didn't pay attention to that advice.
So I blame her for this bold post. It's her fault I keep my eyes peeled for those small similarities. Yes, those minuscule similarities that can connect two extremely different points in history, two of the most fascinating moments in history, according to yours truly. That's right. I am building a bridge between 9/11 and the Norman conquest of England.

I know what you're thinking. He's a madman! He's lost his marbles! Nobody would want to go to his birthday party! It isn't the events themselves. It is the subsequent chronicles of each event that mirror each other in a peculiar way that I want to discuss. We're treading dangerous waters now: how we approach history.

Let's start in Normandy. For the past month I have been slowly making my way through Andrew Bridgeford's book 1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you recall from many posts back, I fell in love with the story of 1066 that began decades before with King Cnute. The trail of facts that lead William the Conqueror to the throne of England, however became muddy in my readings. It was my hope that this book would reveal some of the hidden facts and bring to light how William took the crown. To my surprise, Bridgeford had a little more to say than just the facts.

His book follows the Bayeux Tapestry scene by scene, explaining as it goes along. However, his theory from the outset of the book is that the tapestry was created by the English rather than the Norman victors to explain the events of 1066. For hundreds of years it was assumed that the stitching spelled out the steps of the Norman conquest from the Norman point of view. Bridgeford offers clues throughout the different scenes on the tapestry as well as within the margins to back up his theory.

Here is where we get into trouble. I agree with the ideas that Bridgeford is trying to make. I believe, as some do, that Harold visited Normandy not to tell William that the crown of England was his but rather to try and rescue his brother and nephew. I also have my doubts about how much of a relationship King Edward actually had with William and what was really dealt between them. Even though Bridgeford and I see eye to eye on this subject, the way he is going about proving it is extremely bothersome.

I have not seen the Bayeux Tapestry myself, so I am probably stepping out of my field of experience for this. But Bridgeford is drawing conclusions from the embroidery, with support here and there from ancient historians like Eadmer. Are these sources enough to fulfill our theory? Again, I don't disagree with Bridgeford. It is simply that I don't know if I can put my trust in the hand gestures of an embroidered soldier that may or may not have been restored on a thousand year old piece of cloth. And don't get me wrong, I think it is a marvelous and beautiful piece of historical art, but with the tools of the trade at that time, could the eyes of Duke William really be saying something specific?

The answer is that I don't know. And perhaps Bridgeford doesn't quite know either but he has gathered enough evidence to develop his theory. It certainly got me wondering, though. His theory shows us that this old tapestry tells more than one story. And though many historians believe in a truth, another truth has existed for some time along side of it. Of course, it doesn't change the outcome: William and the Normans took over England and it was forever changed. But how we remember the story is still thwarted with missing details.

Can you see the bridge being built?

Fast forward a thousand years to September 11, 2001.What happened that day is indisputable. The towers were hit by planes and they came down. Thousands of Americans lost their lives. But the story of how it happened is riddled with holes, and two truths live beside each other: the official story embraced by NIST, the Commission Report, and millions of Americans AND the idea that something more than terrorists on planes brought down those towers, which is held tightly by the 9/11 truth movement.

I put the pieces together in my head last night at a 9/11 Truth presentation in my town. Graeme MacQueen and Laurie Manwell came down from Canada to talk about their different research. Most of what MacQueen said I had already heard and Manwell's topic barely connected to the events of 9/11. However, she talked about something that struck a chord. She has been studying the psychology of democracy and how leaders and politicians can convince his or her constituents of different things. She referred to the story of 9/11. What a massive heap of tangled facts and half-truths, yet it was constructed, whether by terrorists, our own government, or anyone else, perfectly. We had a victim. We had an enemy. We felt vulnerable. And we were ready to believe whatever we were told because we were scared. And, as MacQueen pointed out, most of the people who are now part of the 9/11 Truth Movement began by believing the official story only to come across some detail that did not quite add up and began to question more.

Yet, in the history books, there will be the story of the terrorists flying the planes into the towers. Just as the tapestry tells the story of the Norman conquest. Yet on the outskirts of history lie these alternate versions. Explosives were used to bring the towers down. The tapestry was sewn by English hands to show the cruelty of William the Conqueror. How do we know what to believe? No longer do the victorious write history. Sure, they get the larger chunk, but a portion goes to the skeptics, the victims, the losers, the conspiracy theorists.

And so how do we approach history? If our story of 9/11 is so similar to the English/Norman story of 1066, what's to say that in 1,000 years, people will be none the wiser and debates will still go on about who is to blame? Do we accept the versions given to us, or we do we search, as Bridgeford has done, for another possible explanation? If we choose the former, we remain ignorant, lost in the dark and unable to learn the lessons history gives us. If we choose the latter, we make an inexact science that much more unstable. Two sides to everything.

But that is what makes history fascinating, doesn't it? Frustrating, too. Just like a good painting can be interpreted many different ways, history can be looked at from many different angles. Some histories, we know, are much more straightforward. We have letters and journals and facts upon facts. It's those mysterious characters and events, like Napoleon Bonaparte, like the wild ride of 1066, like the curious circumstances that surround 9/11, that keep our palates wet.

So I built a bridge and crossed it, and now it feels that we are more lost than we are found. Maybe the answer is to choose a side and run with it, like our friend Andrew Bridgeford, who, though his resources may be shaky, has nevertheless given us a new perspective on an established piece of history.

Keep your eyes on the truth, history fans. And keep those palates wet.

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