On Revisionism: A Case Study

My college campus had what might be called a “token conservative” newspaper. Its general tone seemed, in hindsight, to be that of running prank, as if they knew they were expressing a minority opinion that was unlikely to gather a friendly audience, so they figured they might as well go all out and generate as much outrage as possible. At times, it seemed like they were being contrary for its own sake; for example, their issue before Columbus Day. The university did not count this as a holiday, and did not cancel classes for it. Stating their intent to boycott class that day, they defended Columbus’s legacy as an accomplished explorer who deserved to be celebrated, and the idea that he was a slave driver or bloody conqueror they brushed off as mere revisionism.

At the time, I was pretty well aware of the facts supporting the darker side of Columbus’s expeditions. There is primary source attestation to conquest, enslavement, and other atrocities. So this was a strange objection to me: what is wrong with revising an outdated account to bring it in line with the evidence?

Now, this seems even stranger since I’m aware that revision is something  academic historians do all the time. There are “revisionist” schools of thought on historical events, meaning only that they challenge a long-established orthodoxy. In this sense, the subject of my last book review could be seen as a positive example of revisionism: in 1491, Charles Mann refutes various long-held myths about the history of the Americas before European contact and summarizes new lines of research. But on the other hand, there is a kind of revisionism that does deserve to be used as a slur, and which it seems is much better known. Revisionism here is not really a process of revision at all, but distortion for an agenda. I recently wrote about an example of this playing out in the media.

It might be worth looking at a slightly more sophisticated example of the form than a hasty retroactive defense of a political celebrity. It’s not just the desperate and the inane who abuse history to suit their own ends. Sometimes, very smart and knowledgeable people apply their intellect to the purpose of historical propaganda. My subject today is An Empire of Wealth: The Epic History of American Economic Power (Amazon link) by John Steele Gordon, a sanguine look at American economic history which studiously avoids letting the eye stray to some very ugly places.

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Palin Vindicated? Not so fast.

It is in some ways unfortunate that it took Sarah Palin to end my month-long campaign of laziness, but I am glad something did, and glad that Palin’s defenders have provided such a useful example of my earlier discussion of how (not) to use and interpret history.

By now, the facts of this latest gaffe should be pretty well known. Sarah Palin, visiting Boston as part of her nationwide tour, gave an interesting account of the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere:

He who warned the British that they weren’t going to be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and by making sure that as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells, that we were going to be secure and we were going to be free.

It’s a baffling description. Most educated Americans have a very basic understanding of this event which is not, itself, grounded in rigorous scholarship: “The British are coming!” is a line lifted from a poem, but wasn’t something Revere said. Still, the basic outline is clear that Revere’s ride was intended to warn Americans (i.e., British colonists in America) about the actions of the British (i.e., the regular British military). Palin’s narrative seems to take a radical departure. According to her, the point was to warn the British that the Americans intended to revolt, with special emphasis on keeping their guns, and that his means of communicating this were bells and warning shots.

I didn’t have an in-depth understanding of this historical event, but I was pretty confident that this was a very confused account. Certainly not something worth rewriting history for. But imagine my surprise to learn that Palin was right, and historians agree! What are we to make of this development? Has a media “gotcha” backfired? Should we wipe the egg off our faces? I don’t think so.
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