~ Winston Churchill
Too many of us believe that the history we have been taught in school or through other outlets of our culture is a collection of facts. We think of it as more science than art. Sure, there may be facts we haven't uncovered yet, just as there may be unknown sub-atomic elements that science has not discovered, but when we do, it will just be another addition to the table of known facts we already have.
This may be stated a little too strongly, but I don't think it is too far from true. This belief, however, is very naive and does not take simple human prejudices into account. It only takes a very simple thought exercise to realize how this works in practicality. Think for example of how the people of Japan may think of the dropping of the atomic bomb compared to how Americans view it. Or how the people of the southern states may have viewed the war between the states as compared to those from the north. Even now as you think of these examples, you can't help but think that you know the truth about these events. But do you? Could it possibly be that you may be a victim of your own prejudices?
And what of Churchill's assertion that victors are the ones who write the history? Do you find it hard to believe that in the former Soviet Union, or perhaps Mao's China, the official history of those countries and the greatness of their leaders might have been a bit...skewed? I remember in the cold war years of my childhood the jokes on television where a stereotypical Russian character would say of some wonderful, obviously American invention, "We had it first. Russia invented that." This was a comedic acknowledgement that in the USSR, people were propagandized that Mother Russia was the most wonderful, advanced nation on earth. I recently heard the story of how, in an attempt to further show their supremacy over the West, Soviet leaders allowed the movie The Grapes of Wrath to be shown in theaters. They sought to show their people how bad things were in American in this depiction of Depression-era migrant workers. The plan backfired, however, when Russian audiences were amazed that even poor Americans had automobiles.
But what about in America? Are we immune to such biases and purposeful manipulations? Well, almost from the beginning of our country, people have, let's say sought to direct the narrative to their own benefit. Our second president, John Adams complained bitterly after his retirement that the Republican supporters of Thomas Jefferson were guilty of spreading a revisionist account of the founding and elevating Jefferson's role above that of himself. Joseph J. Ellis, in his book Founding Brothers relates that,
"Despite his brave posturings of nonchalance and indifference, Adams was, in fact, obsessed with Jefferson's growing reputation as one of the major figures of the age. As Adams remembered it, Jefferson had played a decidedly minor role in the Continental Congress. While he, John Adams, was delivering fiery speeches that eventually moved their reluctant colleagues to make the decisive break with England, Jefferson lingered in the background like a shy schoolboy... Now, however, because of the annual celebration on July 4, the symbolic significance of the Declaration of Independence was looming larger in the public memory, blotting out the messier, but more historically correct version of the story, transforming Jefferson from a secondary character to a star player in the drama."We know, for example, that Abraham Lincoln used iron-fisted tactics to suppress any dissenting opinions in the press of the time. We know that our government used Hollywood and the press as full blown propaganda ministries to support the correct public perception of the World Wars and Korea. And the examples go on and on.
Why does it matter? Well, history should indeed be a collection of facts. But when, through either bias or cynical, deliberate manipulation, the truth of the facts are distorted, they can be used to garner support for everything from ill-conceived domestic policies to immoral and illegal wars. The truth matters and we cannot leave the telling of the truth to politicians and bureaucrats.
The truth matters and we cannot leave the telling of the truth to politicians and bureaucrats.In 1850, Frederic Bastiat wrote, "This is the way an opinion gains acceptance in France. Fifty ignoramuses repeat in chorus some absurd libel that has been thought up by an even bigger ignoramus; and, if only it happens to coincide to some slight degree with prevailing attitudes and passions, it becomes a self-evident truth." This is as true today in America, with our 24/7 news cycles and social media, as it was in Bastiat's time...maybe more so.
We must be willing to challenge our long-held and inherited beliefs about history. We need to face the possibility that what we have always known might not be the whole truth, but only what the victors want us to know. In this modern age, though, the truth is out there to be discovered and acted upon. You just have to care enough to find it. But, as Jeff Riggenbach of the Mises Institute says, "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. The horse has to want a drink. The American electorate has to want the truth about American history. Too many Americans don't want the truth...any truth. What they want is mythology that will confirm their prejudices."
What about you? Can you handle the truth?