Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Untold history -"Always the historian sees as in a mirror darkly, the reds and the golds rendered drab by the shadows of time"

 From a strip by Bill Watterson: Calvin & Hobbes
At a loose end one afternoon this festive season, I turned to Netflix, began watching Oliver Stone's documentary series The Untold History of the United States, recently added to the Netflix menu. I didn't realise until some time afterwards, while searching my tags for something else, that I had mentioned Oliver Stone's series in the past - in Feb. 2013 - when the series was originally aired, on Showtime.

Here's what I wrote in 2013:

Revisionist history has to be treated with the utmost caution - heck, in my opinion all historical narrative has to be treated with caution.

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 Di Lorenzo, 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?

Having now seen three or four episodes of Mr Stone's series, as far as the cold war period, I've yet to decide whether to continue. There wasn't anything presented that I hadn't seen or read before, and more than once - nothing really "untold". Emphasis by Mr Stone and his co-writer American University historian Peter J. Kuznick, is more focused on Henry Wallace (how different would things have been had Wallace been FDR's Vice-president, and president on FDR"s demise?) Also, there's some strong emphasis on Russian involvement in World War II without which, outcomes and the present as we know it, could have been very different.

So far, Messrs Stone and Kuznick aren't revising as much as simply re-focusing historical detail, of which most viewers will already be aware. The facts have long been available, just not emphasised in exactly this way, at least not often.

On two or three occasions in the early episodes, I noticed some jabs at The British Empire and felt a wee bit of antagonism creeping in. Back in the time of British Empire-building, that was "the thing to do" - build empires - every European country was having a go at it! It's altogether wrong to look at events and aims critically through 21st century eyes without taking into consideration the atmosphere of those times. Britain itself had been occupied by, and had been part of, the Roman Empire. In 1066, William of Normandy conquered England. During the reign of Henry II, England was part of the Angevin empire, which included Ireland and most of western France....Some good bite-size historical information on the British Empire is here: at The British Empire Through Time.

The empire-building bug infected certain sectors of the human race almost from Day One - it does still! I suspect that Americans like to point the finger at the wrongs of British Empire builders and colonialists (and admittedly there were many wrongs) to allow themselves to feel a tad better: "We are bad but THEY were worse!"

If I can get myself in the right mood to continue watching the rest of this series, more on the topic could well be posted in due course.

Today's post title, by the way, came from this quote:
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
My archived blog-post on Oliver Stone himself (and his almost astro-twin) is HERE.

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