Recently, it seems, one headline after another has been rooted in the long ago. Poland’s prime minister demands an apology after the FBI director suggests that the Poles were complicit in the Holocaust. Turkey’s president rails against the pope for saying that, a century ago, the Turks committed genocide against the Armenians. Japan’s prime minister asks to amend an American history book that accuses Japanese troops in World War II of forcing Korean women into prostitution — the so-called comfort women.
Day after day, the news is filled with such conflict, not over what is but what was. The past proves to be as inflammatory as the present. \”The past is never dead, it’s not even past,\” observed William Faulkner. In grade school, we learned history was composed of accepted facts and dates that neatly yielded to true-and-false quizzes. As adults, we discover history to be utterly fluid, a changeling that spurns hard facts and cold truths. Far from the calm reflecting pool presented to us in youth, we now see it as a caldron of resentment and recrimination. History does not resolve. It festers.
But these days I am left to wonder what remains of history, and what can be trusted of a past that is forever at the beck and call of a self-serving present. Is anything indisputable? The corpses, the annexations, the genocides are all now punctuated by question marks and asterisks, entangled in the dialectics of nationalism and identity politics. Does historical fact even exist, or is it simply a relativistic construct?
History has always been suspect. More than 2,000 years ago, Herodotus became known as both \”The Father of History\” and \”The Father of Lies.\” More recently, Henry Ford declared that \”history is more or less bunk.\” But today, more than ever, it seems history has hijacked the headlines, become the fault line between friends and foes, and a frontline in the culture wars. It’s not as if we don’t already have enough discord to occupy us without having to dip into the past. But there it is. Today’s lesson: There is no \”was,\” only \”is.\”
Now I confess, I am no scholar. I am but a journalist — a myopic creature of deadlines and foreshortened horizons. But I have always been drawn to history, first as a classics major, then as the author of three books that delved into the past. I have no overarching theory of history, but I am left to wonder whether our relationship with the past has itself undergone a sea change.
Society appears to be in the midst of some sort of tectonic shift, from a culture that identified certain bedrock facts — the historical canon — to one rooted in evidence, which is to say those renderings of the past that support an argument, be it religious, ideological, scholarly, or nationalistic. Even the word \”facts\” is cushioned by quotation marks or air quotes. The abdication of a fact-based study (or its evolution into a nuanced and inquiring discipline) is lauded as a step toward enlightenment and universal enfranchisement. Those who still speak longingly of facts as sacrosanct risk being seen as parochial, shortsighted, and naïve — throwbacks to an earlier and discredited regime. History is now a cafeteria: Take what you like, leave the rest.
Teachers of history have both documented the shift and promoted it. In a 2011 article in The Journal of American History, Joel M. Sipress and David J. Voelker chronicled the transition from broad historical survey courses, laden with facts and chronologies, to a new model. \”Put simply,\” they wrote, \”present-day reformers insist that facts do not and cannot come first. … With the facts-first assumption exposed as a fallacious lay theory of student learning, the entire edifice of the coverage model simply collapses.\”
In its place, we now have \”argument-based courses … organized around significant historical questions — questions about which historians disagree. Students are systematically exposed to rival positions about which they must make informed judgments, and they are asked to develop their own positions for which they must argue on the basis of historical evidence.\”
In such a scheme, historians and students become not merely scholars but litigants, and history the stuff of advocacy in which point of view and identity — racial, ethnic, nationalistic, gender, or sexual orientation — are all equal partners. History becomes more personalized, more tribal, but less communal. What matters is the presentation, not the verdict. In the face of such change, the trick is to preserve logic and evidence, and not have history descend into one grand he-said-she-said.
But increasingly there are those who gainsay the past to advance their narratives, and disregard whatever contradicts them — be it the fossil record, the core samples and global warming, or the abandoned shoes at Auschwitz. For them, an inconvenient truth is no truth at all. Their objective? To seed the clouds with doubt.
Across the globe we war against history. Denial of the past takes many forms. In Japan and Turkey, it is left to the diplomats. In the Middle East, it takes a more virulent form. The Taliban dynamited the 1,500-year-old Buddhist sculptures of Bamiyan. ISIS blew up the ancient walls of Nineveh. The futility of such desecration serves only to remind the world that history does not reside in artifacts but in culture. Toppling the statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square in 2003 did not end deadly rivalries but rather came to symbolize our inability to grasp history’s sway.
History is a canvas upon which the paint never dries. It is the stage upon which proxy wars are waged between those in power and those who are oppressed. Nowhere is this more evident than in China, whose long history is rightly perceived by the Communist Party to threaten the regime. It is why the party is not fooled when its critics cloak criticism in ancient anecdotes, or why, upon the party’s 90th anniversary, in 2011, the government banned TV and film depictions of time travel — lest, observers said, it make happiness seem like a thing of the past. Mao Zedong’s epic war on China’s past during the Cultural Revolution merely reaffirmed that a country can neither erase nor defang history. That has not stopped it from trying. In February it convicted a publisher for collecting stories of persecution in the 1950s.
\”Happy is the country that has no history,\” the proverb says. America’s history is shorter and perhaps less constraining. Still we have much to discomfort us. Counterintuitive as it may sound, the way to distance oneself from the past is to embrace it. This year, finally, Boston’s public-school curriculum will include the city’s dismal record on desegregation and race. And a Southern civil-rights group has proposed memorials at sites of race-based lynchings — though many prefer not to be reminded.
Australia’s National Sorry Day atones for sins committed against aboriginal peoples. Past wrongs cannot be righted, but by acknowledging them we may find some peace and reconciliation.
For every drive to acknowledge past shame, however, there is a counteroffensive. Oklahoma legislators were concerned that the Advanced Placement history courses were insufficiently patriotic. Colorado students protested efforts to elide civil disobedience from history curricula while emphasizing patriotism, respect for authority, and free markets. Millions of Texas students have texts that critics say exaggerate the influence of Moses on lawmakers and extol capitalism. They will learn a different history from that taught in Massachusetts, adding to a schism that will shape not the past but the future.
Like the fish that is oblivious to water, each culture has its historical blind spots. America condemns Iran for denying the Holocaust, but refuses to release an official history of U.S. covert actions in Iran, though they were undertaken more than half a century ago.
In 1994, I visited Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Museum. The then-director spoke of the controversy at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum surrounding a coming exhibition of the Enola Gay to mark the end of World War II. He accused the Smithsonian of sanitizing history, giving short shrift to Hiroshima’s civilian deaths out of deference to U.S. veterans. As compelling as his point was, I was thinking of my own search within the Hiroshima museum for mention of Pearl Harbor. I failed to find it.
I for one would not want to return to a history that is linear and scripted, populated by heroic stick figures in moralistic parables of dubious origin. I see that today’s take on yesterday is more honest. Still, something has been lost. I am all for intellectual honesty, but tolerance and ambiguity have their limits. Beauty may be solely in the eye of the beholder, but history isn’t. I cannot respect a history that does not recognize some kernels of hard fact, some core that resists manipulation.
I fear history by referendum, which, democratic as it may sound, is no more honest than the old survey courses. The Poles may have a point, but allowing Turkey and Japan to pretend that atrocities did not happen is an affront both to those who suffered and to our own moral and intellectual integrity. Japan’s press secretary at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs writes that \”we should be humble before history.\” Agreed. But humility demands putting historical reality before self-interest.
What the past teaches is that few things are self-evident, that the truth is less unbending than we might wish. The European Union has already approved the \”Right to Be Forgotten,\” a measure allowing individuals to scrub their past from the Internet and opening the door for despots and rogue states to do the same.
Still, there is a part of history, small though it may be, that is worthy of conservation, shielded from those who would distort or erase it. Would that we could set portions of the past aside like national parks that would be off limits to mining and the degradations that beset the present, circumscribing some narrow set of sacred facts, rising like great redwoods, that would inspire us to honor what we know to be true even when we wish it were not. There, on common ground, would be a fit place for our arguments to take shape.
But today’s headlines make that seem less and less likely. For now, the narratives of nationalism, political correctness, self-interest, all converge upon the past, claiming it as their own. It is destined to be contested ground. That does not make it any the less worth fighting for.
Author Bio: Ted Gup teaches journalism and writing at Emerson College and Boston College. His books include Nation of Secrets: The Threat to Democracy and the American Way of Life (Doubleday, 2007).