“He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” -George Orwell, 1984.
The advent of the internet and electronic books has propelled the world into an era where history books can literally be rewritten in real time. On the one hand, when new information comes to light (by being declassified for example) it should add to our understanding of the past. On the other hand, you have a very serious danger of history being written with insidious intent to manipulate events. So how in the world is the average person supposed to sort through the electronic babel to figure out what really happened way back when?
We’ve all heard the obvious conspiracy theories: 9/11 was an inside job, the moon landing was faked, and the holocaust never happened. We are quick to dismiss these claims. Maybe, however, we should consider even the most outrageous claims, albeit with a grain of salt. Even if the totality of the claim is baseless, sometimes important details are presented that are overlooked by the collective memory. One just has to remember the Gulf of Tonkin incident to prove that the government does lie to us. The validity of a historical claim ultimately lies within the proof. Of course it doesn’t hurt to be a respected, peer reviewed historian when making controversial claims.
There are much more subtle manifestations of revisionism, however. This lies less in the particular facts, but more in the lens through which they are viewed. Was Christopher Columbus a great explorer, or a perpetrator of genocide? Was the Boston Tea Party a great act of patriotism, or (as some public schools in Texas are phrasing it) an act of terrorism? Was Ben Franklin a genius, womanizer, or both?
There are four major lenses through which history is viewed: political, economic, racial, and sexual. The greatest distortions come when the past is looked through the lens of the present, as opposed to the context of the event. Here is an example:
Looking through the racial lens of today, one may conclude that the Civil War was all about slavery and racism. However, when you consider the political, economic, and racial values prevailing at the time, there is much more at play. First, the issue of the validity of the secession doctrine was a widely debated issue at the time. Even those in New England strongly believed in a state’s right to secede. Abraham Lincoln was a strong, Hamiltonian Federalist, meaning that he favored a strong centralized federal government and denied the validity of secession. Many in the country did not share this view and believed the states needed to maintain their power and sovereignty. The issue of whether the federal government could impose slavery laws on states without a constitutional amendment (which was proposed at the time, but not backed by Lincoln) was even more divisive than the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Supreme Court ruling is today.
There were also economic considerations pushing the North and South apart. The agricultural South was increasingly isolated from the North, selling much of its cotton and other goods internationally. The North and Northwest (now Midwest) had strong trading ties along the lines of meat packing and transfer of technology. Not surprisingly, the North and South had very different cultures and lifestyles. This exacerbated the feelings of a centralized federal government ruling like a king from afar. All of these things and more contributed to the Civil War. Simply put, history cannot be reduced to simple one cause and one effect relationships.
Our prevailing notions of history are not always correct. They are further muddied by interests pushing a narrative that fits their goals. The responsibility falls upon the individual to create a view of history that is as objective and accurate as possible. Only when you have achieved good footing on hard ground can you begin to walk forward.
Georgia Senate Research Office: http://www.senate.ga.gov/sro/Documents/StudyCommRpts/00StateFlag.pdf
Georgia Trend, Embattled Battle Flag: http://www.georgiatrend.com/February-2004/Embattled-Battle-Flag/
TESS, An Examination of Attitudes on the Georgia State Flag Controversy: http://www.tessexperiments.org/data/hutchings307.html
Sons of Confederate Veterans, The Flags That Have Flown over Georgia: http://campjoewheeler.org/Education/FlagsOverGeorgia.html
Sligo Heritage, General Michael Corcoran and the Confederate Irish in America’s Civil War: http://www.sligoheritage.com/archconfedirish.htm
How Stuff Works, How Revisionist History Works: http://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/revisionist-history.htm
Captain Ronnie E. Ford, U.S. Army, New Light on Gulf of Tonkin: http://vi.uh.edu/pages/buzzmat/08972_text.htm