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See also: Myth of objectivity, historiography, spin (SharQ's writeup), spin doctor.

 

Short form: Revision — reinterpretation — of existing historical evidence is not limited to Holocaust deniers and minority-oppressors; it is a common method of historical criticism with a long and honorable pedigree. Historians have been reinterpreting history ever since they started writing it.

Long form: Some historians choose to take the large-scale view of human history: they might analyze the relations between the Roman, Persian, and Chinese states, watching how the flow of capital and material goods affected the economic status of each, observing the power struggles between empires, noting how periodic incursions from the steppes of Central Asia affected each nation in turn, recording the spread of religions — Zoroastrianism, Manicheism, Christianity, Islam — to the east and west. Some scholars take a specific approach: they might examine Japanese feudal structures, European monasteries and their bookmaking, or the role of women in the Ottoman imperial court.

However, few can do both, and focus on any one aspect of history tends to force others into what is at best a subsidiary, background role: Scholars of European history and culture will ignore Chinese history except insofar as it affects their chosen study; a student of Chinese history will ignore European historical narratives until they begin to impinge on his region of study. The very act of focusing on one set of details precludes a broader examination of other historical narratives. Depth of study must yield to breadth, and vice versa: a general world history which examined every region and culture in deep focus would sink a library under its weight, and a deep study must block out other narratives in order to remain focused and coherent.

So the very act of deep study precludes absolute objectivity: one set of details must yield to another to retain logical structure and narrative coherence. But this is not to say that such study is necessarily objective: two historians can, starting from the same basic set of facts, making no claims which do not fit those facts, produce entirely different narratives concerning the same people, places, and events. Those who record the action firsthand cannot place the events into their larger context, while those who collect and analyze the source material are constrained by both the biases of their original sources and their own limited vision: every historian promotes a thesis, and necessarily emphasizes those facts which fit his ideas while minimizing or ignoring those which do not. For example:

Augustus

Consider two main narratives of this man's life: the Res Gestae, written down by the Emperor himself, and The Annals of Imperial Rome, recorded by Gaius Cornelius Tacitus a century after the Emperor's death. Both deal with the same events: Augustus' rise to the status of princeps, his consolidation of power, and the achievements of his reign. Both have specific agendas: Augustus wrote a story of himself as a great and effective ruler, while Tacitus, who grieved for the death of the Republic, was much less flattering. Observe Augustus:

"1. In my nineteenth year, on my own initiative and at my own expense, I raised an army with which I set free the state, which was oppressed by the domination of a faction. For that reason, the Senate enrolled me in its order by laudatory resolutions, when Gaius Pansa and Aulus Hirtius were consuls (43 B.C.E.), assigning me the place of a consul in the giving of opinions, and gave me the imperium."
"3. [. . .] About five hundred thousand Roman citizens were sworn to me. I led something more than three hundred thousand of them into colonies and I returned them to their cities, after their stipend had been earned, and I assigned all of them fields or gave them money for their military service."
"18. [. . .] I gave out contributions of grain and money from my granary and patrimony, sometimes to 100,000 men, sometimes to many more."
"34. In my sixth and seventh consulates (28-27 B.C.E.), after putting out the civil war, having obtained all things by universal consent, I handed over the state from my power to the dominion of the senate and Roman people. And for this merit of mine, by a senate decree, I was called Augustus and the doors of my temple were publicly clothed with laurel and a civic crown was fixed over my door and a gold shield placed in the Julian senate-house, and the inscription of that shield testified to the virtue, mercy, justice, and piety, for which the senate and Roman people gave it to me. After that time, I exceeded all in influence, but I had no greater power than the others who were colleagues with me in each magistracy."

Augustus, Res Gestae Divi Augusti, extracted from http://classics.mit.edu/Augustus/deeds.html

Compare Tacitus:

"When after the destruction of Brutus and Cassius there was no longer any army of the Commonwealth, when Pompeius was crushed in Sicily, and when, with Lepidus pushed aside and Antonius slain, even the Julian faction had only Caesar left to lead it, then, dropping the title of triumvir, and giving out that he was a Consul, and was satisfied with a tribune's authority for the protection of the people, Augustus won over the soldiers with gifts, the populace with cheap corn, and all men with the sweets of repose, and so grew greater by degrees, while he concentrated in himself the functions of the Senate, the magistrates, and the laws. [. . .] He was wholly unopposed, for the boldest spirits had fallen in battle, or in the proscription, while the remaining nobles, the readier they were to be slaves, were raised the higher by wealth and promotion, so that, aggrandised by revolution, they preferred the safety of the present to the dangerous past. [. . .] Thus the State had been revolutionised, and there was not a vestige left of the old sound morality. Stript of equality, all looked up to the commands of a sovereign without the least apprehension for the present. [. . .]"

Tacitus, Annals of Imperial Rome, extracted from http://classics.mit.edu/Tacitus/annals.1.i.html

Consider that Augustus and Tacitus were describing the same events, and see how much a historian's preconceived point of view shapes his record of history; this is just one example of how two historians can take the same set of facts and come up with entirely different interpretations. (I could produce any number of examples, but these two will suffice.) Now, the passage of two millenia affords us a certain detachment from the events surrounding the rise of the Roman Empire; more recent narratives still inflame passions on both sides of the debate, as the conflicting opinions of the early Roman writers must have done in their own era. So how about more modern cases of revisionism, especially those which move the heated debates from the ivory tower into the public eye?

The histories of certain minorities have been given short weight in the narratives constructed by the white European culture which, until recently, held sway over American intellectual life. Contributions by minorities to American history have certainly been downplayed in the past; are they now overplayed, as 'compensation' for generations of neglect, or have they merely received their rightful place as part of the overall narrative? The histories which will decide this question are still being thrashed out. Is any emphasis placed on one set of phenomena over another necessarily an act of bias? Yes, but remember that every historian is biased. Has political correctness gone too far? That's not so easy.

Naturally, someone accustomed to one idea of history is going to perceive an interpretation that goes against his preconceptions as biased — which it is, but who has the right bias? Whose ideas get precedence? Which narrative of history is 'correct'? That is the crux of the issue, nearly impossible to resolve because of its intense subjectivity: every history writer, thinking his ideas right, will fight tooth and nail to defend them. What's to be done, then?

In an ideal world, we wouldn't have balance sheets totting up the textbook pages and museum floor space allotted to the Plain- and Star-Bellied Sneetches, nor would we cry foul whenever either group got more than its proper amount of paper or floorboard. Rather, the star, or lack thereof, on the belly of a historical Sneetch would be ignored in favor of his or her real importance to the historical narrative. We would also remember — and challenge — our own biases whenever we set out to write history, since only then could we approach — but not reach — an impartial perspective.

 

Another related, though separate, issue is that of historians who invent facts to prove their theses — but that's a different subject. There are also some historians who deliberately deny inconvenient facts which blow their theories to pieces; they are, if not outright liars, at least intellectually dishonest. Remember, though, that these cases are extreme, and extremists are poor representatives of the group as a whole. For a good example of how the same unchanged evidence can be revised and reinterpreted by successive historians, go read note 3 over here. That is revisionism at its best.

The conclusion:

All history is revisionist; all history advances one viewpoint over another; all historians would do well to remember this.

Commentary and criticism is welcome.


Sources:

  • The two works quoted. (The Internet Classics Archive has granted blanket permission to copy and redistribute these works for non-commercial and educational use, and I think this writeup qualifies. If copyright issues arise, contact me and I'll either find a public-domain translation or translate the quoted sections myself.)
  • Several undergrad history classes at McGill University.
  • The nodes linked above, especially myth of objectivity, helped develop my ideas.
  • Also worth reading as an example of well-done revision: A People's History of the United States.

Thanks go to izubachi, gwenllian, Gorgonzola, legbagede, mauler, and StrawberryFrog.