Our eyes sometimes
play tricks on us, memories of last Thursday's lunch is
often a guess, and we always hear the telephone ring when we don't feel like
talking to anyone. Answers to questions, in the strict sense, are either true or
false, but it should be recognized that 'truth' itself is subject to change and at
any given moment the current 'truth' of something is only another way of
describing a consensually accepted opinion. New information changes
opinion and suddenly we see things in a different light. Keeping up with the
'truth' can get tricky...
When Eric Blair (writing as George Orwell) penned his famous dystopian
novel, 1984, he introduced us to the chilling slogan, "Who controls the past,
controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." While Blair
was directly inferring reference to the mid-20th century totalitarian practice
of not simply killing an enemy, but destroying every record or reference to
the individual, the slogan also accurately described methods employed in
From the tactics
of the Catholic Spanish Inquisition in destroying church
and public documents of convicted heretics, back to the removal of
Akhenaton's name and any trace of his religious reforms from monuments and
statuary by Hor-em-heb and Ramses I in ancient Egypt, we may safely
conclude that it is not uncommon for those in power to change ...history.
The historian's task thus becomes extremely difficult in the face of the
destruction of evidential data, and is further complicated when previous
'historians' get it wrong.
At the beginning of this century
a student of history would have been
expected to be familiar with Homer's The Iliad and The Odyssey, the Greek
writings of Herodotus and Thucydides, Caesar's Gallic Wars, the Roman
authors Livy, Tacitus, and Suetonius, the Old and New Testaments, and the
epic Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbons. Maybe a
further reading list of historical documents and treaties, a smattering of
various sacred texts, and the works of Macaulay, Hume, and Toynbee would
bring the student closer to solid grasp of written history. And then, spanning
a 40 year period which comprised the middle of this century, we would
expect a student to read Will and Ariel Durant's 11 volume The Story of
Civilization (published between 1935 and 1975).
Many other published
histories, both scholarly and popular, have
contributed to our better understanding of the past, but in recent years we
have seen 'history' move closer to the level of a 'scientific discipline', and
farther away from a tale well told. History has changed from a narrative
reconstruction to an analytical assessment, and some would like to see it
change even more.
I initially became
aware of the 'new' history with the release of Fernand
Braudel's The Structure of Everyday Life (vol. 1 of his 3 vols. Civilization
and Capitalism: 15th - 18th Century, New York: Harper & Row,
1981-1984). In much the same way as archaeology matured in the late 60s
and early 70s with the utilization of dendrochronology with carbon-dating,
implementing a multi-disciplinary approach by inviting the participation of
botanists, linguists, and other professionals, and basically changing from the
adventure-charged model suitable for a Howard Carter or Indiana Jones, to a
near-science of demanding exactitude, Braudel was the first (in my humble
opinion) to optimize the potential available for the 'new' history. His efforts
are inspiring in their accomplishment and serve as a gauge which future
histories will be measured against.
Not content to simply
give the standard dates of this death or that war,
Braudel siezes his subject firmly and masterfully addresses the misery of
common economic life, subsistence agriculture and diet, available technology,
disease and its transmission, and on and on. [Note: For a small sampling of
Braudel's details in The Structure of Everyday Life, click here.] Enabled with
such thoroughness a student of history may understand the subject with
causal explanations instead of simply repeating who, what, and when. The
'new' history provides a 'why'.
methodology historians have also benefited from such
advances in technology as numerous dating techniques and genetic testing.
The recalibration of radio-carbon dating pushed back many Bronze Age and
Neolithic sites by hundreds and, in some cases, almost two thousand years.
Our ability to test DNA cleared up the Romanov mystery, has recently
provided insights into the sex lives of Washington, Jefferson, and last week
was being threatened against President Clinton and the long-alleged
relationship with young Danny Williams, a la the novel and film Primary
Colors, but the DNA test proved Clinton was not the father.
students, and the general readership have all welcomed
the improvements made in the study and writing of history, it has become
increasingly difficult to discern 'true' history from revisionist efforts. Many
have acknowledged the debt history owes to the biased narrative and project
that history will never, despite its discipline, wholly abandon its storied
structure. History as the agenda-driven propaganda of a government,
religion, culture, or a hemispheric grouping, thrives in our information age
and shows no sign of slowing down. Taking advantage of our modern
freedoms and resources, there are more 'histories' being published today than
anyone could hope to keep up with.
Pick a group and
more than likely they have their own 'history' which
differs from the histories of others. The well-known and disturbing
movement to deny the World War II Holocaust and the killing of six million
Jews (and other "enemies") by Nazi Germany and their allies has spread from
silly skinheads to middle-aged neo-Nazis to the classrooms of colleges and
universities. [Note: For more on the conflict between revisionist hate and
personal freedoms, click here.] The difficulty arises when a group (or
individual) exercises their right to Free Speech and presents a historicized
opinion. Sometimes, more often of late, opinion is dressed in scholarly
trappings and looks ...'true'.
'scientists' preach against Darwin,
Krishnas get Chuck
Heston to do a voice-over for a prime-time special, claims of a face on Mars,
Atlantis in Japan, aliens in ancient Egypt, and many others are put in front of
the public with pseudo-scholarly footnotes and bibliographies which appear
genuine and impressive, but should only be classified as 'history' if one is
discussing the phenomena of kookiness.
It is a given that
no history will ever be totally accurate and complete.
America's past was recently given a rude awaking upon a closer examination
of the huge gap between what is known and what is presented in the standard
textbooks (for a quick test, clickhere). Truth and history will continue to
change and adapt as we grow and discover more. Our task should be very
simple -- keep up with the changes and avoid any history titles with "Hidden,"
"Secret," or similar words, and any titles which end with an exclamation
mark. The 'truth' really is out there; one just has to know in what aisle of the
bookstore to look.
putting on my glasses,
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