Revising History: The Not-So-Subtle Ways We Interpret the Past

Posted on February 8, 2022


We play with our children with words. “Roses are red, violets are blue, sugar is sweet, and so are you.” We learn, in fact, to communicate. Then something happens along the way. Someone says, “hey that’s not always true, we have white roses,” or something equally silly that challenges what the words say.

Some of us study and write history. And others read what we wrote and say something like, “hey, that’s not true. I’ll write the truth.”

Presto, we have invented something in history called “revisionism.” We historians don’t always just repeat the past record, although we do a lot of that. We “revise” our historical interpretations according to a bunch of criteria, one of the most popular being the “rules” and “thinking” reflecting the day. Or contemporary affairs are reflected in how historians write about the past.

I don’t need to explain revisionism to you all. Abraham Lincoln is a good example. He’s a hero or an unscrupulous cad according to the way we write about him. Nothing changes the facts; what he said and what he did. But he was a complicated man who lived through a most complicated age, and you can find “proof” for your characterization of him easily.

Project 1619 carries revisionism a step further. It characterized the British view of African slavery in the Revolutionary War period, for example, one way; when in fact, it was another way. That’s called false, erroneous history. We do that too, but we disguise it as revisionism. Or, as Mark Twain, observed, “it’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled.”

Or why was Julius Caesar assassinated on the floor of the Roman Senate in 44 B.C.? Because he was a lousy dictator of course. Or perhaps it was jealous rivals. Which one was it? In today’s world, perhaps all his enemies “offended” him, and the Romans did not take offences lightly.

What is, in fact, the truth of the matter? It is not only an important facet of history that keeps a lot of historians employed, but truth is, after all, what should drive us. Or, as Pontius Pilate washed his hands as the Jews demanded that Jesus be executed, but could find no proof in Roman law or practice to do so, asked, famously, “what is truth?”

That truth is what we are seeking. CRT, DEI, Project 1619, for example, all propose their own truths. They are unequivocal about this. Ours is the ONLY truth.

Others say, ok, have your truth, but DO NOT stop us from challenging you, questioning how you arrived at your axioms, sobriquets, ideologies. That option is at the heart of the freedom of speech and expression, at the very core of classical education.

A liberal education, which Sylvia Parker, Secretary of a new group challenging CRT and DEI across the State–Alabamians for Academic Excellence and Integrity– has so well articulated over the past few weeks, months, is based on the OPEN search for the truth. What really drove us or somebody to do or say what they did or said?

 The liberty to search and define that truth is FUNDAMENTAL to our system of government and our way of life. Deprive us of that, and you drift—slowly or incidentally—into authoritarianism or dictatorship

A good modern example of truth and lies is Black Lives Matter. Perhaps it is not yet a historical phenomenon by however we measure what is “history” and what is “contemporary.” But it has been exposed as a tax evading, multimillion dollar enterprise enriching a few of its leaders. BLM supporters claim it is helping the Black man. It’s not, but the leaders’ point of view can be summarized: “don’t contradict or confuse our truth with the facts.”

My students wouldn’t have gotten far in one of my smaller classes or seminars with that kind of thinking. For example, when studying Fidel Castro’s Revolution in Cuba, 1959, one might be tempted to claim that it brought a lot of good to a lot of people. What is the truth?

Was it a boon to an ignorant, suffering populace in Cuba? Or not? The Revolution, in its early stages, did improve literacy and education on the island. But then it degenerated into a dictatorship of Castro and the communist party, and liberty and freedom were sacrificed to obedience to the dictates of the communist rulers, and over a million Cubans fled the island in the past half century.

Many opponents were executed by Fidel’s brother Raul. The “paredones” of Cuba (up against the wall) are a famous reflection of how Fidel dealt with the opposition, in spite of all his talk of democracy and liberty.

Many young people across the country have been silenced by fear of criticism and the accusation of being racists, misogynists, white supremacists, etc. by twisting the truth to meet political goals. Don’t let that happen. Restore free and open inquiry, especially in higher education, to where it belongs if we are to keep a way of education and government committed to freedom and liberty.

Published in Substack, Monday February 8, 2022.

Posted in: History