Monday, February 16, 2009

Revising or Re"vision"ing?

I think Evan's post goes a long way toward explaining why the oft-derided "historical revisionism" isn't always bad. But I would like to make some caveats to his points.

First, I think most of what Evan talks about in terms of the accessibility of information and the role of technology has less to do with "historical revisionism" as it is traditionally thought of, and more to do with revising facts. Revising happens constantly, and insofar as it is done accurately it is almost always a good thing. Technology (both social and material) like wikis accomplish this by broadening the sources of information and incentivizing those sources to be self-policing. Who shot first in South Ossetia? How many Palestinians did Israel kill? How many middle age white males voted for Obama? These are facts that should go through as much revising as it takes to get to the cold, hard, truth.

But historical revisionism is very different - and I think it hinges on a new "vision" of what the history of a situation was, rather than a revising of the facts about that history. For example - when Charles Beard challenged the idea that our founding was the culmination of an Enlightenment experiment in liberty. Or when the story of the Civil War gets written as a war over slavery... or the tariff... or states rights. The facts of the 1860s haven't changed substantially (although certainly we do still revise those facts) - but the meaning of those facts does change - and that change is what I tend to think of as "historical revisionism".

Now, having said all that and having distinguished between two strands that I think Evan talks about simultaneously (revising and revisioning), I would definitely still agree with Evan's assertion that "historical revisionism" isn't always all that bad. After all - as Evan says, much of our historical memory is derived from the memories of those who actually experience the history. And if that memory is tainted or distorted to begin with, then perhaps some historical revision is in order.

I'll close by drawing attention to a recent historical revisionism fad - claiming that the New Deal didn't work or was counterproductive. A chief culprit in this school is Amity Shlaes, of the Council on Foreign Relations . Now, I haven't read her book - but I have read her articles and reviews of her book, and she provides a new vision of the New Deal by assuming:

1.) Work program jobs aren't actually jobs

2.) The Dow Jones is the best indicator of economic strength (despite the fact that the Dow Jones is an index of the price of a handful of products - in this case, corporate stocks) rather than GDP, which is a measure of all products.

3.) Don't include the defense budget in federal spending, even thought it was the single biggest components of federal spending in the 40s, and

4.) Pretend that the brief, sharp downturn in 1937 was a result of the deficit spending of 1933-36 and not the budget balancing of 1937.

It is one thing to "revision" the past by ascribing new meaning to old facts. For example, if (God forbid) the United States ever does turn into a socialist state, historians will probably reevaluate Roosevelt as the founding father of that slow march to socialism, and will probably revision the New Deal as the first American "five year plan". If we slip into socialism, that characterization may or may not be accurate. I feel that as long as they get the facts right, ascribing significance to those facts based on the current context of the times is reasonably fair. We know the scientific revolution was a success and not a real challenge to the Church because of the perspective we have. A Vatican historian in the 1600s might not have known that, so our "revision" of that history is appropriate given the information we're privy to.

But what Shlaes and others are doing is not providing a new vision to frame old facts. They are fundamentally changing the facts themselves. I think this is where historical revisionism is the most dangerous - when the past is forced into a certain mold, not because of the new context or information that future generations have - but because new generations have new ideological imperatives to make it fit the new mold.

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