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 So this was a strange objection to me: what is wrong with revising an outdated account to bring it in line with the evidence?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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