Sunday, April 27, 2008

Opposing Viewpoints

I am very used to dealing with opposing viewpoints. I have spent many, many year’s examining reasoning and arguments back and forth on a great many topics. This is an area that can be very difficult for many people that are not used to having their beliefs challenged. I think what happens to a lot of people is they have had certain beliefs for a long time, been isolated with people of similar beliefs, or just really have taken for granted a lot in life. Then when someone sees something that completely contradicts their point of view there is an initial shock of seeing this happen. This might bring about some fear and anger. It is almost as if someone is telling them the sky outside on a normal day is green. The thought might be the person contradicting his or her ideas is crazy or a crackpot. If you could only see some of the looks I have gotten when I have been seen with a book that others know I probably don't agree with, "What are you reading that for?" It can really be upsetting to others if you talk in hypotheticals to people that are not used to various ways of argumentation even if you have the same beliefs.

This is why the old saying, “one should not talk about politics and religion with others,” came about. Although, I have noticed in my experience, right after that said a lot of politics and religion still comes up. Part of the reason for that is one can never really escape those issues if they are taking the issues of life seriously. Although I keep up on those issues, this blog really is not the place for them; at least not a full discussion of them. Most political viewpoints one has can be strongly opposed by about 50% of the population. I figure if someone really wants those types of debates and discussions they have better places to go.

Even in issues of history strong disputes are certain because, as I just mentioned, one can never really escape the big issues of life. Those issues are always mixed into history. Let me give you some examples.

For quite some time I have had an interest in a Japanese police force called the Shinsengumi. They were a group of samurai hired out to protect Kyoto near the end of the Japanese shogunate in the 1860’s. Eventually, when the Tokugawa shogunate ended and the Meiji era began, those who had not died or left had lost their jobs. Lots of books and movies have been based on these men. I own a bunch. There story has been told in fiction a lot because there is this idea of their strong loyalty and ideals. They would fight to the end no matter what the cause for the authority of the Tokugawa (and Aizu clan who hired them). There is a lot of “if’s” and “but’s,” but that is the favorable side. The other side is much more negative. With the fall of the shogunate brought about the Meiji Restoration. The Meiji Restoration brought about many political changes after the year 1867. Naturally, if one sees the restoration as being good politically then whatever was trying to hold it back would be a bad thing. So, from the negative point of view the Shinsengumi have been described as Nazi like cultists who used their rules and power as an excuse to commit murder. See, a whole political viewpoint may determine how one views the Shinsengumi.

I enjoy reading and watching both perspectives. Some years back I was told that a new book in English about the Shinsengumi by a guy known as Romulus Hillsborough would come out. I knew right away, based on his pro-Meiji stance in previous works, what viewpoint this book would represent. I did not care about that though, but just wanted to see it because it would be the first real book written in English about the subject. However, I knew this might be a problem for those that really advocate a more positive viewpoint of them. It took a long time for the book to come out, but when it finally did it was the way I expected it to be. I have not really kept up with that “fanbase” on this since I left it, but from what I have been told since then the response has had downright hostile toward the book. One of the most recent messages I was forwarded was about a guy who was declaring that the book should be banned and not purchased.

That is the worst attitude one can have when investigating history. In order to come to a greater understanding of anything one must allow for opposing points of view. If there are errors of fact, bad assumptions, etc. so be it because those will be corrected in the overall process. In the long run, more essays and books will come out in response and, the way I look at it, the truth will come out. Also, allowing other points of view allows you to strengthen your own point of view. Can your viewpoint hold up under rational thought? Maybe you have made some simple errors and the other viewpoint helps bring them out. So, although it can be painful, one should welcome other points of view and have a more humble approach. There is tons of stuff that I have had to correct over the years due to different outlook.

The book I was referring to was really written as a popular level book. The author writes more from a narrative approach where he is trying to tell a good story, but also includes themes and facts. To me, that is more of a historical fiction perspective. The book is not a university press book. The difference is that, for the most part, university press books tend to be more professional with scholars in the field. I suspect that a lot of the criticism taken is because it was not written like a professional historian would write it.

I am currently re-reading two old west books that have just come out that are university press books. One, Salt Warriors by Paul Cool, is about the El Paso Salt War in which a group of Mexicans forced the Texas Rangers to surrender. This is the only time that has ever happened. Some time back I mentioned there are three major stories about the El Paso area that could use a movie. This is one of them. The book is to some extent revisionist in that it goes against some of the popular thought of whether the Mexicans were a chaotic mob, but well organized insurgents. I’ll write about it at another date since the book is rather detailed and, in all honestly, rather tough read for me. It is a good book because of this, but you really have to want to know about every person involved in the conflict and not just the conflict itself.

The other book I am currently re-reading is the most radical book I have read in a while. The Feud that Wasn’t: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin and Violence in Texas by James Smallwood is a rather hostile point of view in regarding something called the Sutton-Taylor feud. You can see there might be a problem right away because the book even disputes that there was a feud. I’ll have to come back to this at another time because to explain what has traditionally been called the feud would take a long blog entry in itself. Let me point you here:

In the feud traditionally understood, after the Civil War in the United States, the Taylor family got in a dispute with the Sutton side. The Sutton side is really not a family since Bill Sutton was the only participant, but it represents the law enforcement side. The Taylor’s were seen as outlaws who preyed on the cattle in the area. The Taylor’s saw the cattle as free to those who could catch them; this was known as mavericking (taking unbranded cattle). The Sutton side saw this as cattle rustling. I am really simplifying things here, but that is how it is traditionally understood.

Lots of books have been written on the feud. Most of them are from the Taylor point of view. Finally, a book has come out that gives more of the other side of the story. The author, James Smallwood, has written a lot in regards to the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. This book is another part of his view of the bigger picture. Now I am glad that the Shinsengumi fans I knew of are not into the Taylor family history. They really could not handle this. Smallwood is very hostile to what he calls the Taylor crime ring. In his view, the Taylor ring not only represents the family, but a lot more outlaw individuals associated with them. On each page he seems to constantly indict the Taylor’s with murders, rapes, racist acts, etc. as recorded by local law enforcement, the state police, and eventually the Texas Rangers. Again, some of the politics of the time period influences how one sees the Taylor family and the law enforcement of the period. If you think the south was mistreated during reconstruction by Yankee abusive rule then you might be sympathetic with the Taylor side. On the other hand, if you see the people like the Taylor’s as unrepentant confederates, criminals, and racists who were fighting a second civil war during reconstruction you probably will take the law enforcement side.

I have had some sympathy for the Taylor side from what I have studied in the past. Some of what Smallwood has presented is rather shocking. Some I would have expected. In Some instances I think he is rather biased and assuming the worst possible interpretation of the situation. At times I do not really care for the way he uses his sources in presenting the material; part of that maybe because he was limited to 200 pages and could not give full quotes of his sources. What is going to have to happen is a full examination of his sources that are mostly taken from the National Archives. However, when it is all said in done, I welcome a book like this. It helps in understanding the overall process of trying to figure out what was going on with the violence in Texas after the Civil War. Smallwood has filled in some of the details in some instances I have not found elsewhere. I think it will be a great thing to see further books on the subject and those in response to it.

I had to write a long blog to get out some of this. Seeing someone contradict what you believe can be a bit unnerving. It may produce fear and anger if you are not used to it. If you really are after truth then you will welcome it. It will help you reflect on what you really believe and whether would you really should believe it. I can not say I will do this with every entry I talk about regarding this, but I do try to give you sources for both sides when I can. At the end of the day, it is not up to me to figure out what you believe regarding anything in history or life. I will tell you what I think, point to a few sources, and it is up to you to figure everything out for yourself.

Let me give you some sources and alternatives. Regarding the Shinsengumi:

Hillsborough, Romulus. Shinsengumi: The Shogun's Last Samurai Corps. North Clarendon: Tuttle Publishing, 2005.

The next book is not so much an alternative point of view, but a university press text. The Shinsengumi are practically footnotes in this book. I wanted to refer to this book because it is done by a professional historian. There is a completely different style of doing history in both books. This is not a cheap shot at Hillsborough because he is using a historical narrative approach which is good when writing a story for the general public. Totman, on the other hand, is not so much trying to tell a story, but give you solid reasons for why the shogunate fell using historical sources.

Totman, Conrad. The Collapse of the Tokugawa Bakufu, 1862-1868. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1980.

Regarding the El Paso Salt War:

Cool, Paul. Salt Warriors: Insurgency on the Rio Grande. College Station:Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

As I mentioned, a great detailed and epic book, but IMO not the easiest of books to read; okay, for those of you that obsess over everything in the old west I am not talking to you. There are a bunch of earlier books, but let me just give this one by Sonnichsen. He had a stand alone version with just the Salt War section, but one might as well just get this one for the extra feuds. It maybe good to read this one first then compare with the above book.

Sonnichsen, C.L. Ten Texas Feuds. University of New Mexico Press, 2000.

Regarding the Sutton vs. Taylor Feud (or No Feud):

Smallwood, James. The Feud that Never Was: The Taylor Ring, Bill Sutton, John Wesley Hardin, and Violence in Texas. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2008.

For the classic telling of what traditionally was called the feud I again refer to the other book by Sonnichsen about Texas feuds. This book covers lots of other interesting feuds so it is worth getting.

Sonnichsen, C.L. I'll Die Before I Run. New York: Devin-Adair, 1962.

For a free account that is actually pretty good from the time period download the Victor Rose book:

The Texas Vendetta, Or, The Sutton-Taylor Feud

or go to the google page HERE.