It’s Really About Who Gets to Write History

My father, who had a lifelong fascination with history and politics, taught me early about the importance of putting dates on things I wanted to remember.   As a boy I showed him a drawing I was proud of and he asked me if I’d written the date on it.   It struck me as an odd thing to ask, to do, it had certainly never occurred to me.  Then he asked an illuminating question.  

“Well, it may not matter to you tomorrow, or next week, when you did this particular drawing.  But what about if  you find this drawing five years from now, or twenty years from now?  Wouldn’t you like to know when you drew it?”   It turned out I would.  

He also taught me to make sure I put a date on any newspaper articles I clipped out. This brought home to me the fascinating idea that time passed, things happened, took their historical place in a long sequence of events, later creations were created based, in part, on earlier ones, more dead people died, others took life, many things happen every day.  All these things had a specific time when they happened.  Like right now, the way I can type April 11, 2018, the day it is now and the day it will never be again.

History is the procession of selected events seen through the lens of what happened before and after the event.   It is this connecting of the things, giving context, explaining the origins of and the events that flowed from the thing, that is the heartbeat of history.   We humans are geniuses of rationalizing, we invent perfectly plausible reasons to support a case we can make, if pressed.  So the history of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency can be told as an idealistic, progressive one, or a particularly racist one during which the Ku Klux Klan rose again and Americans were whipped up by a skillful propaganda campaign and marched off to die in a senseless European war.  

Of course, Wilson’s presidency was also both of those things and more.  Historians tend, like the rest of us, to take sides.   You can be in the school that defends the violence in the former Confederacy as a natural, human reaction to the savagery of former slaves, or you can be in the school that documents and excoriates the violent  racism that halted government services for former slaves in a very short time and ushered in a century of racist terrorism.  It’s hard to be in both camps. History is a moral exercise for those who write and defend their version of the story.  

The building blocks are the events, the facts, things that actually happened, though they may be in dispute or, often, covered up completely.  If we are missing an important thing that happened, a promise that was violated, an unprovoked series of attacks that called for pay back, it’s impossible to understand why two countries go to war, two people begin punching each other, how a problem finally gets worked out.  Assembling the pertinent facts is an important part of figuring out this convoluted, iridescent, free-style human conga line we call history.   

Fact:  We know that on (or around) July 4, 1776 the British colonists in North America served notice of their demand for political independence from the King of England.  The Declaration of Independence speaks of the burning need to dissolve long time political bands and bonds of kinship, language and affection and blah blah blah.   Self-evident truths we hold so, re freedom and equality, as opposed to King George III, [1] who was a merciless fucking tyrant (fact or not fact).  

Fact:  I was momentarily uncertain about what number George the English King our forefathers rebelled against was.  I remembered George III and then wavered.  I suddenly thought it possible he was George IV.   Some part of me just wanted to type IV, I realize now, because it is Roman numerals and it’s cool the way you subtract the lower number from the higher by putting it in front.  

We can all have this verifiable hard info instantly in 2018.   It took me literally five seconds to fact check the correct name of King George III, the bloke our Founding Fathers rebelled against.    We are in an electronic age where everyone who takes a few seconds to do so can instantly be as factually accurate as the greatest minds of the past.  This is now done in seconds.   It behooves every writer of nonfiction to do it frequently.

 For one thing, nothing hurts your credibility as a narrator as instantly as a factual error.   If you say you’ll never forget where you were when you heard Malcolm X was murdered on February 21, 1973, anyone who knows Malcolm was killed in 1965 will instantly know you are full of shit, at the very least about the date.   Those eight years between the event and when you say it happened were full of rich, charged, explosive days.  A billion significant things happened in those eight years of turmoil and hope.   America was one way going into the 1960s, what can be considered the old, conservative way that the MAGA hats dreamily dream of, and another way entirely coming out of the 1960s.   To many it felt like a revolution.  It certainly was a dramatic swing of the pendulum, from 1965 to 1968, to 1969 and into the early seventies.  It has swung hard the other way ever since, IMHO.

The other reason to be accurate is because you can.  Because it is good, in a discussion of any problem you are trying to solve, to have all of the available information on the table.  That’s one reason the increasing lack of transparency in our corporatized society, in our government, drives me mad.    There was a massive U.S. government surveillance program in operation for years.  The conversations and private emails of millions of us were recorded and stored in a searchable database.   Criminals and terrorists were already wary of this kind of shit and generally took measures not to communicate by unsecured means.  The rest of us were not wary, and had no reason to be, as our private communications were being intercepted and stored by the billions.  

Our presidents gave inspirational speeches about our freedoms and our high aspirations as a great democracy, even as secret prisons existed where people were secretly tortured in our names, even as drones killed countless people in several countries, quietly, discreetly.   Even as we were all being illegally spied on by our own government in a massive data mining operation directed against everybody.

A citizen named Edward Snowden made this information public, at the risk of his own life and/or freedom.   Obama said he would prosecute Snowden under the Espionage Act of 1917, amid bitter arguments over whether Snowden was a traitor or a patriot.  The Espionage Act Wilson signed into law criminalized what, to my understanding, would have otherwise been protected speech if it arguably “aided and abetted our enemies” in a war declared mostly for American ambitions on the world stage (and the recovery of billions loaned by our banks to England, France and other “good guys” in that war).  

The Espionage Act carries the death penalty (though I don’t recall anyone being convicted and executed, though a few popular outspoken opponents of the World War spent years locked up behind it).   Under his own legal rationale and precedent, if Obama could have directed a missile at Snowden he would have been within his new presidential rights to have Snowden reduced to a pile of steaming chopped meat.  Other American citizens met that fate even though they were not charged with anything, let alone a crime that carried the death sentence.

Facts are all we have to defend us against incoherence.  They are not magical tools, but they’re the only ones we have to make sense of what is otherwise incomprehensible.   When you read a well-researched, well-told history you get the feeling you understand more than when you read something you cannot help thinking is a bit stilted, written by a partisan.   Was the Klan really the modern-day equivalent of the knights who protected Christendom from infidels as Woodrow Wilson seemed to believe?   (Well, maybe so, if you think about some of the excesses of the Crusades).  I don’t have a ready example at the moment, but hopefully you can take my point.   

When you are given a story with a piece that just doesn’t make sense, you are probably being given a story with a crucial fact or two left out.   This happens quite regularly.   I will tell a story of outrageous, unaccountable customer service in my local post office; the postal supervisor will tell a story of an unappeasable customer with an angry attitude who would not give him a break, or listen to reason, and in the end told him to go fuck himself.   Both stories are true, and even accurate, but both stories leave out crucial pieces that are harmful to the storyteller’s version of events.  

If I hadn’t been frustrated with the lack of acceptable service, or even an explanation for that bad service, things might have gone differently.  Since I grew increasingly frustrated, every time the supervisor called me “sir” it was like he was jabbing me with a sharp blade.   I countered with a tart legal argument about my contract with the Post Office.  That must have enraged the supervisor, who had no answer except ‘machine error.’   Since he’d been repeatedly stabbing me with the indisputable truth and a dozen “sirs” and I was not backing away, the supervisor had to turn up the icy politeness.   An asshole dance needs to be danced by at least one complete asshole, but it usually involves two.

Which reminds me of what sent me to write this in the first place.   Who gets to tell the definitive story?  Clearly, in world events, we must piece together history as best we can, according to our knowledge and our prejudices.  What about in our personal life?  Surely that is a sphere where we can exercise some control that is impossible when understanding and assessing, say, the strange and fabulous career of Donald Trump. [2]

Much in human life is inexplicable, we don’t always proceed by logic or common sense (see, e.g., footnote 2  below).   Some things are explainable and make sense, if we have all the facts.  That affable, funny, affectionate father of yours that your mother spent years enraged at?  Did you know how he regularly put you are your siblings at risk, gambling all of his money on stupid bets that never paid off, resorting to illegal means to get the funds to place these all or nothing bets?   Ah, without that hidden fact, how can you ever understand your mother’s anger?  It was righteous anger, she was mad for a good and concrete reason– every time she was lied to and had to bail the liar out of a legal jam by working overtime to pay his debts.   That he never expressed remorse or gratitude?  The rancid cherry on top of the shit pie.  But we all smile and pretend we understand, even the things we will never know.

The facts matter, they really do.   They are all we have by way of understanding any sequence of events.   As for those who write the final history, they are free to highlight or omit any fact that advances their story.  The feeling of being written out of history?   There is nothing like it.



[1] I originally called this man King George IV, then had merely to click the first words of the sentence “King George” before “during revolutionary war” popped up and I instantly confirmed that it was indeed as my hunch had it, George III, the guy mad with Porphiria who had his physicians running through the palace halls carrying covered pots containing his stools.  

[2]  I have been wondering lately about the current president’s ill-fated actions in Atlantic City some years ago.  He opened a casino that was very successful.  He had boxes of hundred dollar bills sent to him whenever he asked.  Then, for whatever reason, he opened a second casino, a competitor to his first.  The second one did well too, there seemed to be plenty of business for both.   He then decided to build the world’s largest, most luxurious casino, his Taj Mahal, and borrowed $675,000,000 to build it, at 14% interest.  The Taj opened and it was only a matter of time before all three were bankrupt.  

One can only wonder: what the fuck?   I am at a loss to imagine the rationale, outside of hubris and boundless greed, for opening three businesses to compete against each other, particularly when the first two are making excellent money. There are facts we would need to know to understand this colossal WTF, facts it is unlikely any of us will ever learn.  The story itself tells us a lot, even without the missing WTF?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s