The complexity of history tends to undercut the simple moral fables politicians like to tell. That’s why they are often so keen to put it in a box.
In 2006, the state of Florida signed into law a rather strange provision:
The history of the United States, including the period of discovery, early colonies, the War for Independence, the Civil War, the expansion of the United States to its present boundaries, the world wars, and the civil rights movement to the present. American history shall be viewed as factual, not as constructed, shall be viewed as knowable, teachable, and testable, and shall be defined as the creation of a new nation based largely on the universal principles stated in the Declaration of Independence.
The original wording of this provision makes its target clear: “the revisionist or postmodernist viewpoints of relative truth.”
There are echoes of this approach in Michael Gove’s blast at historians who take a different view from him of the First World War.
Despite insisting that: “There is, of course, no unchallenged consensus. That is why it matters that we encourage an open debate on the war and its significance.” Gove seems unhappy with anything that doesn’t conform to the view of the War prevalent in Britain prior to the nineteen sixties. The alternative narrative is a ‘myth’ pushed by the left for political reasons in the spirit “of an undergraduate cynic playing to the gallery in a Cambridge Footlights revue rather than a sober academic contributing to a proper historical debate.” This is not the language of a man interested in an ‘open debate’, it’s someone using ad hominem attacks to try and shut one down.
As he himself acknowledges he is himself using material produced by historians who are engaged in revising the revisionist history of the Sixties. Trying and lock in this new view and protect it from further revisions is a move with no intellectual basis.
This narrative of WWI as a just-war matters to Gove because he believes that it illustrates that“for all our mistakes as a nation, Britain’s role in the world has also been marked by nobility and courage.”
The ability of history to disrupt comforting stories like this is why many politicians find history as a living entity so frightening. Better that it stays fixed than being subject to constant revision. That way it can become a reassuring piece of our mental furniture.
The excellent How Things Work elaborates on this point in their piece on ‘revisionist history’
In popular culture, revisionist history has become synonymous with telling lies or embellishing the truth. For instance, in 2003, President Bush used the term “revisionist historians” in reference to the media covering the war in Iraq. He claimed that certain reporters had wrongfully questioned the reasons for invading the Middle Eastern country and muddied the public’s opinion of the conflict. Some professional historians didn’t take kindly to Bush’s comment because it cast an unflattering light on the academic study of history. After all, they reasoned, all histories are revisionist at some point. A few years later, in 2006, Florida passed a law banning “revisionist and postmodernist history” from being taught in the state’s public schools . The language of Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill stated that students should learn facts, not “constructed” elements of American history — essentially equating revisionism with lies.
Why does revisionist history have a bad reputation? First, it’s associated sometimes with highly contentious theories, such as Holocaust denial. Recall the public furor in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University, when he stated that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Historians emphasize that people who deny the events of the Holocaust during World War II aren’t practicing revisionist history but rather negationism. Another revisionism-related scandal occurred recently in Japan, also concerning World War II. The general of the Japanese air force authored an essay asserting that Japan was bullied into Pearl Harbor by the United States and only engaged in combat as a defensive measure .
This brings up the issue of credibility that has marred the field of historical revisionism. When you hear a new theory about, say, who shot John F. Kennedy, you have to consider the source. Is the author a peer-reviewed scholar or an amateur historian? What kinds of research methods were involved? Is the author motivated by fame and fortune — or is he or she in true academic pursuit of the facts? And even when the source checks out as legitimate, revising an accepted historical narrative can be controversial. The public tends to view revisionist theories of well-known historical incidents tied closely to its own lineage with more skepticism than those regarding more obscure events . It’s well-known that Mary Todd Lincoln was mentally instable, but you can bet that if a historian proposed a similar claim about her husband Abraham Lincoln, people would scoff at the notion. Such a revelation would challenge Americans’ collective memory of President Lincoln, whereas someone from another country probably wouldn’t have as much difficultly accepting it.
In the end, only a small quantity of revisionists histories are eventually accepted as fact . Yet the rise of modern historical revisionism in an academic environment has had a significant impact on the discipline. It’s leveled the playing field, so to speak, of recorded history by addressing the victims as well as the victors and everyone in between. Despite the skeptical public regard for it, the discipline of revising history will continue as long as we come up with new questions to answer and fresh angles to analyze. Sure, the narratives aren’t always as Hollywood-ready when they get the revisionism once-over. At some point, we probably want to believe that the people who shaped our national identity were wholly altruistic and morally upright because, in a way, their characters also define part of our own identities. But as everyone knows from his or her personal history, the past isn’t always as rose-colored as a young president refusing to tell a lie or an epic romance between an Englishman and a Native American princess.
We might expect the squashing of debate by Jeb Bush but Gove is an intelligent man who fancies himself an intellectual. He really should know better. Sadly Gove seems more interested in protecting a pleasant view of Britain’s history than in ensuring that it’s fair and accurate.