Monday, January 13, 2014

Spinning History

“History is written by the victors” is a line attributed to various historical persons (including Napoleon and Churchill) but is likely older than any of them. It’s just as well that no one can lay clear claim, because it isn’t true. Official history (where such a thing exists) is written by the victors, true enough, but the losers (or, if none survive, their sympathizers) never stop scribbling, and their views sometimes become dominant in the end.

Many historians are oblivious to their own biases and spin, while others engage more or less openly in advocacy. An example of the former, which (one hopes) should be uncontroversial at this late date, is the republican disposition of Plutarch; on the other hand, Julius Caesar promoted himself in his accounts, as politicians tend to do.

Advocacy is not necessarily a bad thing. The diatribe by the Old Oligarch (aka pseudo-Xenophon) against the 5th century BC Athenian constitution is one of our best sources on how Athenian democracy worked, for the simple reason that you can’t condemn something effectively without describing it. Procopius of Caesarea in the 6th century AD gives us the full gambit of approaches. Wars is a pretty straightforward account of the military campaigns under the Emperor Justinian that restored Roman rule in much of the West. On the Buildings, beyond its core architectural subject matter, is a relentless panegyric of Justinian and Theodora, apparently intended to curry favor with the two. The Secret History, which Procopius wisely directed to be published posthumously, is one of the most entertaining hatchet jobs of all time, describing Justinian and Theodora as “fiends in human form” and blaming them for the deaths of “a myriad myriad of myriads” of people. (This literally is a trillion, so it’s safe to assume he just meant “a whole lot.”) The three together give us a pretty complete picture.

More recently, Charles Beard’s classic 1913 An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States clearly is influenced heavily by Marx. Present-day English historian Paul Johnson (Modern Times) is unabashedly conservative in his views and interpretations. Both authors are worth reading and neither’s work is negated by the particular perspective.

Currently I’m reading 1968: the Year that Rocked the World by Mark Kurlansky, a journalist/historian whose work Salt: a World History I previously enjoyed. Born in 1948, he was strongly sympathetic with the radical New Left during the 1960s, which he experienced first hand, and hasn’t changed his mind since. He announces his slant at the get-go: “I am stating my prejudices at the outset because even now, more than three decades later [2004], an attempt at objectivity on the subject of 1968 would be dishonest.” I agree. The book has numerous strengths, not least of which is its global view. For those who didn’t experience the 1960s – even for those who did, but from a different spot – this is a valuable peek inside a revolutionary era and mindset. I would recommend supplementing it, though, with another viewpoint – for example that of British historian Dominic Sandbrook who emphasizes the strong conservative trends that underlay the same period. Then open Tom Wolf’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968), which gives a vastly better sense of “being there” than either.

It seems that more than ever we are disinclined to read or listen to whatever clashes with our own views. No doubt this always has been a human tendency, but today the proliferation of information sources makes it possible for us to choose only those news outlets, pundits, bloggers, and magazines that are congenial to our ideology. (Our own preferred sources are just being honest, of course: only those favored by our opponents are biased.) It is a tendency that should be resisted. By and large, the folks on the other side of the fence are not really stupid, crazy, or evil – no more (not much more, anyway) than the folks on our side. They just look at things another way. The reading of competing histories is a good way to stay in practice. If we can’t be flexible enough to do this with regard to issues now so distant as those of 1968, it’s hard to imagine understanding (and respecting) our opponents today.

Seeing all sides doesn’t prevent us from driving our own way, but we are less likely to crash or to run over pedestrians if we don’t black out the windows on one side of the car.

Wild in the Streets (1968)


  1. You make a good point. It's good to hear both sides of an argument. Often times it makes things more interesting and offers more shades of grey, but it can also reveal interesting points about your favored approach.

    Contrasting histories has been on my mind lately. I just listened to a podcast called 12 Byzantine Emperors that really did a great job delving into that civilization and painting a picture of it that was much different from traditional views (decadent, aimless and ultimately decaying from the moment it was created). The writer felt that the Byzantine civilization is responsible for much of the Renaissance (in a round about way) and for forcing the Turks to take the long way around to Spain before invading Europe, something that bought valuable time for all those dark age folks to get caught up enough to actually deal with the Turks.

    1. That sounds like a good podcast. I agree completely about the Byzantine Empire. Not only was it Europe's front line for centuries, but it preserved Classical literature and civilization up until the day in 1453 when the walls of Constantinople fell. This was long enough for the intellectuals in a revitalized West to be able to appreciate the scraps they recovered from the ruins. Classical literature did indeed power the Renaissance. So very little of the once vast Greco-Roman literature survives (fortunately much of what does is among the best, by the ancients' own estimation), but virtually none of it would have come down to us without the long holding action fought by the Empire. (The Byzantines still called themselves "The Roman Empire" to the very end, of course; they never thought they had transitioned into anything else.)

      It's funny how caught up one can get in long-past disputes when reading history. I remember a class I took in GWU on the history of the early [US] Republic. The Federalists and Republicans in the class got pretty angry at each other sometimes.