Taoist mythology, Lanna history, mythology, the nature of time and other considered ramblings

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Location: Chiangrai, Chiangrai, Thailand

Author of many self-published books, including several about Thailand and Chiang Rai, Joel Barlow lived in Bangkok 1964-65, attending 6th grade with the International School of Bangkok's only Thai teacher. He first visited ChiangRai in 1988, and moved there in 1998.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

History as alabai

European history as begun by Herodotus is often but an Arabian Nights gross exaggeration of reality, filled with misdirection and deceit. Herodotus may not have realized his own complicity in deception, although it is doubtful that even he himself would have denied a tendency to slant fact in favor of the in-group of writer and intended reader. The inspirational story of Thermopolae, where he reports a few thousand Greeks fought off over a thousand times as many Persians, is a fine example. The Persians could not have fed so many, and the topology of the battle site is not as Herodotus depicted it. We can accept that there was an important battle there at the time claimed, but what seems miraculous would have been, had it been. Similarly, it's claimed that Alexander of Macedon conquored the known world, 'though he didn't conquor Rome, the Scythians, the Illyrians or all that much on the African continent. That he didn't even touch most of the Indian subcontinent is excused as it wasn't part of the "known world", but that's like saying Columbus discovered America. At any rate, to suggest that he didn't know of Rome is absurd. These narrations are glorifications. All that matters to much of "history" is to make palatable that which is not true, usually a sense of one's own personal superiority, significance and importance above others. Amazing, really, how easily we tend to fall for that illusion, and how cheap the conceit.
Two later examples of accepted gross exaggeration are Sir Richard Burton and T.E. Lawrence ("of Arabia"), British intelligence agency spies who lied as part of their job, but are honored as heroes. Both had problems keeping any sense of proportion, and both were made suspect by their secrets. With both, truth (as so often happens in history) fell before a perceived need for enhanced image. For them, a "native guide" was in no way important, a leader or even significant to success - but rather, simply disposable. Burton didn't need to study falconry to write about it, he merely needed to transcribe what he was told by "natives". That wouldn't have worked in the USA, where he traveled gathering information on the impending split between the states, for use by British intelligence, but if he could have, he'd likely have written like Karl May, the German who wrote adventure stories of Red Indians he had no real personal experience of.
That T.E. Lawrence adjusted his self-presentation to suit his advantage is hardly strange; he'd have succeeded at nothing had he not done so. Yet it takes little to see through the self-glorification, as he occasionally contradicted himself in his writings, as about never sleeping on the way to attack Aqaba, or about receiving a prayer rug as a gift rather than having participated in the looting of a railroad train. Arabs have given little indication of ever actually falling for his posture of working at least as much for their advantage as for his own. They would never have accepted that as even possible, as, indeed, it wasn't. The book title, "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom", doesn't have anything to do with it's contents, and its presentation was only found acceptable through a perceived need for heroes.
Burton is said to have attained fluency in about 30 languages, a preposterous claim as it would mean learning most of them at a rate of about one per year. Margaret Mead claimed to know 40, and also to have attained understanding of Samoan culture in a matter of a couple months. To accept these claims is either to simply not know what it takes to truly learn something, or to be entirely gullible. The claims are exaggerations, useful towards attaining credibility in regards to other claims of whatever merit, some, perhaps, deserved. If something seems amazing and unlikely, there's reason for it. There may be reason for patting oneself on the back, looking for praise and asserting oneself, but egotism has a tendency to not only alienate others, but blind one to one's own failings, making for pitfalls and pratfalls which can prove quite costly, much as the creation of "empire" has always been costly to all concerned.

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