Monday, February 25, 2013

"History, that excitable and unreliable old lady"

Revisionist history has to be treated with the utmost caution - heck, in my opinion all historical narrative has to be treated with caution. (Quote in the post heading is from Guy de Maupassant, Sur l'Eau)

What brought this on? A reading of reviews and articles about Oliver Stone's Showtime TV series The Untold History of the United States. I've neither seen the series nor read the book, so am really not in a position to comment on Mr Stone's views in particular. From threads of comment here and there I picked up the idea that Stone has views about World War 2 that conflict with mine. I could be barking up the wrong tree, however. Commenters may be the real culprits. There's quite a bit of the: "Greatest Generation?" That's rubbish!" kind of attitude slung around; I was happy to note, also some intelligent counter argument.

Anyway, thinking again on this issue which has always irked me: historians, even the most fastidious of 'em, can only view events of the past from the perspective of their own time. It is impossible to walk in the shoes of those who made decisions, carried out orders, lived within the situations in the time in question. And this is the kicker: historians always know the end of a story. That makes an enormous difference. Those characters being written about, and oft critcised, did not know how their story would end. Added to that factor, even contemporary with the event there would always have been multiple perspectives of what was occurring and why. There's no single answer to any question about an event in history.

In the case of revisionist history writers the situation for the reader gets worse. Added to the above, revisionists almost always have axes to grind, their own agenda be it political, religious, financial/attention seeking or other. Such authors will tweak and massage, in insidious ways, what has become accepted history - which is already unlikely to be 100% accurate for reasons offered above.

After typing these few lines and mentioning the topic to my husband, he handed me the day's local newspaper and pointed to a half-page article headed Abe Lincoln's Conflicting Views by Walter Williams. In the first paragraph there is mention of the recent Lincoln movie, a book by Thomas DiLorenzo, said to expose the Lincoln myth: Lincoln Unmasked, and another book, Lincoln Uncensored by Joseph Fallon. The last mentioned author is said to have examined 10 volumes of Lincoln's writings and speeches. "We don't have to rely on anyone's interpretation", says Walter Williams. No, we have to rely on anyone's cherry-picking of items to match their agenda - don't we, Mr Williams?
No one can really know the life of his own day, let alone that of times long past. Always the historian sees as in a mirror darkly, the reds and the golds rendered drab by the shadows of time.
~Earl R. Beck, On Teaching History in Colleges and Universities


mike said...

Forget about the revisionist past...we live in a revisionist NOW. Depends on which talk pundits one amuses oneself, which "relevant" writers each individual entertains, and their source of "news". I have found that most individuals don't seek information from worthy credentials, but instead rely upon their peer associations, usually in twenty words or less tweets and-or texts.

Twilight said...

mike ~~ True enough - but at least we're here - in the now - and have a better chance of sorting the wheat from the chaff. Seeking historical truths we're wearing earplugs and blindfolds, at the mercy of historians and would-be historians. :-)