9 July 2006 - Sunday


This morning, I had a brief exchange with an odd person. Having spoken with this person before, I knew I could expect odd things. In this case, our conversation took an unexpected historiographical turn.

He asked about my school situation. I explained that I'm now out of college and will pursue a doctorate in history. He nodded. Then he developed a facial expression suggestive of indigestion.

"History's good," he said, very seriously. "Just don't try to rewrite it."

I could not recall expressing any particular desire to do such a terrifying thing. But he continued, "History is what it is." That seemed to end the conversation, as far as he was concerned. He headed for the door.

I could hardly have argued with that last comment. History is, indeed, what it is. So are poetry and the moon and bunny rabbits and paint swatches.

Thinking things over after he left, I came up with how the conversation should have gone. "Just to clear things up, sir, which history do you forbid me to rewrite?" I would have asked. The one where the Confederate states seceded to protect slavery, or the one where they were lodging a protest over tariffs? The one where John Kerry was decorated for valor, or the one where he was practically a draft dodger? The one where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans were imprisoned wrongfully, or the one where that measure was justified by American national security?

I have a strong hunch about which position he would take on each of those questions. And in each case, his hypothetical version of history is the newer one, the one written as a partisan backlash against the dominant interpretation.

Who started this "revisionist history" meme, anyway? And why do so many electricians and accountants think they can tell me how to be a proper history student?

Just to set things straight as well as I can: The past does not change except by piling up. History, however, is a flawed human attempt to imagine what the past was like (in terms we can understand today), and to explain how it got that way. Until our historians reach omniscience, history will remain open to revision.

| Posted by Wilson at 14:28 Central | TrackBack
| Report submitted to the Humanities Desk