Friday, April 22, 2011

Much Ado About Revisionist History

Greetings Cosmic Americans!

As you must surely know by now (as I mention this often), I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet for people discussing the Civil War. Youtube and Twitter are of course my favorite virtual forums - they never disappoint.

I have noticed something that, as a historian, I find really really really interesting. The word "revision" seems to carry a negative connotation. And individuals all over the place hold the so-called practitioners of "revisionist history" with the greatest contempt.

Now this comes from both ends of the political spectrum. Those who finger point and accuse don't necessarily fall into any easily defined category.

But the way I understand things, people who are screaming about revisionism are kinda missing the point. The words "revision" and "revisionist" have simply been reduced to a code for information that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. (Bitter??? Table for one).

Here's the deal my angry f-bomb dropping friends. Revision is what historians do (and lots of others, too). If we didn't revise, there would be one book on the Civil War. We would all read it, and that would be it.

Oh sure - historians can write with a bias, and what they write can certainly be a reflection of the times in which they live. But is this by definition a bad thing or something that we simply must come to terms with and be aware of? What we learn about history and historians can tell us a lot about ourselves as interpreters of the past. If you really want to impress your friends at parties - get in to historiography. Now that's some revision we can talk about. Are there noticeable differences in books written before and after the Vietnam era (to use one sorta obvious example)? You betcha.

But all of that aside, I believe that revision is the essential ingredient to reconstructing the past. New evidence always surfaces somewhere, differing analysis produces thoughtful conversations, new insights lead us to reconsider something we may have thought we knew...but didn't.

In other words - you can get all bent out of shape if someone challenges your precious beliefs. But instead of dismissing that person as a "revisionist" in derogatory fashion, why not just have a look at what they are saying, weigh the arguments in terms of credibility, see if their evidence holds water. Do you really want to learn anything - or do you just want to hold fast to what could very well be long outdated?

I am open to fire away.



1 comment:

  1. "The words �revision� and �revisionist� have simply been reduced to a code for information that disgruntled would-be historians disagree with. "

    I think this is reducing the concept of revisionism to its lowest common denominator and in effect you might be losing what it really means. You stated "Revision is what historians do," this is a tad simplistic. Of course, I do agree that a form of "revision" (though I would use the term, reassessment) is present in almost all historical scholarship. Indeed, each new generation of historians are products of their environment and will reflect on the past based on those values and morals. They have to have a basis for interpretation. But that is not what I have come to understand "revisionsim" as meaning.

    For example, as Peter Novick describes in his wonderful book "That Nobel Dream," in the post Vietnam era there was this "cold war revisionism" that was spurred on by a "congenial climate." The goal was not a new and deeper understanding, it was political and the desire was for a "usable" past for present needs.

    I think Bernard Bailyn described the dangers of revisionism and its aim best. He wrote, "There is always a need to extract from the past some kind of bearing on contemporary problems, some message, commentary, or instruction to the writer's age, and to see reflected in the past familiar aspects of the present." But without "critical control, this generates an obvious kind of presentism, which at worst becomes indoctrination by historical example."

    Historical context, for one, is lost on students when this form of presentism is produced in the books they read or the schools they attend. So I don't see it as sour grapes when one historian challenges one's ability to disassociate themselves from the nature of the event. When one's emphasis is not on reassessing the past as honestly as possible and instead produces a "useable" historical past for an agenda today (and one political in nature) -- that is where the true concern about "presentism" lies. History becomes a device for the historian, not objective study.