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Old 06-25-2003, 12:02 PM   #1
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Is history by definition "revisionist"?

Here we go again...opening a can of worms. I have been following rather closely the details that are coming out about the rationale that Bush used for going to war and how it appears to be unravelling day by day. It's most fascinating to watch the language the administration is using to shift from declarations of assurance "we know Iraq has/had WMDs" to "it had a WMD program" to "don't listen to those revisionist historians". In that vein, I was very interested to read this editorial on the idea of history and revision. Perhaps we could discuss history and those who write it. Or we could just fight about Iraq.

Anyways, full text is here at the Washington Post

excerpt

Quote:
Last week, in a speech to business leaders in Elizabeth, N.J., President Bush dismissed as "revisionist historians" those critics who have begun to question the administration's rationale for invading Iraq. His national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, made a similar claim a few days earlier. They both seem to think there is something suspect or illegitimate about revisionist history.

Yet revising prevailing interpretations of historical events is precisely what historians do. As new evidence becomes available, or new research methods are developed, or the passage of time shifts our perspective, historians revise their accounts of the past and their explanations of key trends and developments: The writing of history is a continuing, collective effort to attain closer approximations of the truth.
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Old 06-25-2003, 12:11 PM   #2
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OMG, this is a book, or maybe even "books". I had to take a class in school called "The Historian's Craft" to get a history degree. The prevailing school of historical thought in the twentieth century was basically revisionist. An Italian, Benedetto Croce, claimed that all history was "modern" history because it's all interpreted in the culture and values that modern historians live in. If I'm writing about Person X who lived in the fourteenth century, am I going to use fourteenth-century values to write about this person? No. You're not going to write about the Grand Inquisitor and use the argument "we needed the Inquisition". At least it makes me shudder that *anyone* might. Burning people at the stake? That's a popular view from a fourteenth-century POV but certainly not a twentieth or twenty-first century POV. So historians aren't necessarily going to use the government's spin on Iraq. They'll depend on other sources.....and their own values. You can't keep that out of your history. There will always be some sort of opinion in it. It's not a "hard" or exact science like chemistry.
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Old 06-25-2003, 01:15 PM   #3
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I'm probably not using the term revisionist in a way many historians would agree with, but I do think that to an extent all history is revisionist. Historians are inevitably looking at an event in retrospect and with information available to them which wasn't available to the actors they are writing about. As verte mentioned, they're also writing from the point-of-view of a 21st century historian and so write from the cultural perspective of the 21st century. I think there's also a tendency for people to label revisionist historians as somewhat unreliable or presenting history with certain biases.
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Old 06-25-2003, 01:23 PM   #4
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it's poor historical writing to force modern beliefs on what you're writing about.

example: writing about attitudes in georgia about slaves in 1820 versus 2003, a good historian would explicate the beliefs of 1820s georgia and give possible explanations about it then contrast it with what we now believe.

it would be wrong to just condemn all of the attitudes of 1820s georgia without an explanation of where the ideas came from and why they were held so closely.


as far as what's happening now, things change week by week.

so writing about it, a historian could say "in an attempt to rally the country, bush said that iraq definately had wmd's. threre was mass skepticism throughout the country over the validity of such claims at the time, but it seemed to win over enough people to make a war on iraq seem vital and necessary."


but it'd be wrong to say "in a blatant lie, bush told the american public that iraq definately had wmds, and chumps that they were, many ate up the false statements released by the government."


historical writing needs objectivity - to show either side no matter what it shows.
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Old 06-25-2003, 01:39 PM   #5
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Lilly, it's true that it's lousy history if you don't explain why people did the things they did, whether it be slavery or Inquisitions. What I'm saying is that you're not likely to come down in favor of slavery or Inquisitions. Why did they think it was OK to own slaves in Georgia in the 1820's? I happen to have a Georgia slaveowner in my own ancestry! They tended to use Calvinist, or determinist, "logic", to justify the ownership of slaves. Nowadays the only people who are going to use this "logic" are the Klan and people of their ilk who still want to keep the "races" separate. Even the idea of "race" is in disrepute; nowadays it's "the awful idea that should have gone to the grave with Queen Victoria". They used to think it was science, and biologists *used* to use race in genetics. It's no longer done. Likewise no church people worth their salt are going out to round up heretics or alleged witches or whatever. I spent a whole semester studying the Salem witch trials and earlier witch trials in Europe and all of the theories about why they had witch trials. This didn't involve "let's go out and burn witches". It's more like "what went wrong in Salem and the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1692"? There was a political crisis going on. The Colony's political officials had been sacked and called back to England for making a mess of things. We *had* to talk about the political crisis, not just the religious/philosophical basis of the witchcraft beliefs. They didn't discuss politics in the witch trials in Salem. This is what Croce was talking about, and what we do. Because history is a "soft" or social science (like psychology and sociology) it's going to have a certain degree of subjectivity. You can't keep it strictly clean of opinion the way you can chemistry or other hard sciences. Even chemistry is open to differing opinions. I learned a theory of atomic structure in freshman chemistry that's currently in disrepute. It was controversial when I learned it. There was even a dispute between some of the chemists and mathematicians over this at my school! So.....just try keeping all opinions out of this stuff. It's not going to happen.
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Old 06-25-2003, 02:07 PM   #6
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I think what is happening is that in history as in most other disciplines, there is a shift away from the modernist tendency to see the world as a neat organized system that could be quanified and analyzed purely objectively. With more awareness of the diversity of the world, we realize more and more that history is a narrative and as such it is always going to be subjective and will be revised based upon who is doing the telling.
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Old 06-25-2003, 02:21 PM   #7
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I think also this links into the idea that revisionist history is necessarily bad. There are some historians who tend to think that the label 'revisionist' necessarily means unreliable or biased. IMO that couldn't be further from the truth: all historians necessarily write through their own 'conceptual lense' (oh boy, I'm quoting 1st year political science now ) and can't ever be truly unbiased. I think revisionist historians simply look at historical events taking into account information which has become available in the time since that event occured.

And I agree with what sula and verte have said in this thread.
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Old 06-25-2003, 02:53 PM   #8
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the reason why historians look upon revisionist history as unreliable or biased is because by nature it is.

let me explain.


i did a paper about the temperance movement last semester. i used a book of published journal entries by catherine catt who basically led it. it was all "the drink is the devil" blah blah. i used it for perspective, not as an objective source.

catt's history of the temperance movement was revisionist. biased. good for use by historians, but not necessarily alone (i found a journal of a staunch alcoholic too - offset it nicely).


it's relativist history and alone is unreliable.


seeing history as a narrative is completely correct sula. it falls in line with literature quite nicely (can't really understand one without the other). the point of it though is to get as many perspectives as you can from all sorts of perspective narratives and compile them to see what similar elements are in each narrative.

history
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Old 06-25-2003, 03:49 PM   #9
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How exactly are you defining revisionist, Lilly? :curious:
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Old 06-25-2003, 04:57 PM   #10
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In the postmodernist sense, all history is inaccurate and revisionist, because all history is crafted with subjective biases. Even if one transcribes an event or videotapes an event in its entirety, it is never objective, because the transcribed event is highlighted according to the transcriber's definition of "important" and a video tape records only what the camera man subjectively points at.

I tend to agree with postmodernism on this subject.

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Old 06-25-2003, 06:56 PM   #11
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Yes, I'm definitely from the postmodernist school of historical thought. You can't completely take the bias out of history. I'm not necessarily talking about people like Catherine Catt and the temperance movement. I think the temperance, or prohibitionist movement was, and is, a complete joke. I have cultural values that make me believe that. Two of my maternal great-uncles were alcoholics during Prohibition! I had another ancestor, from West Virginia, who was in the early Prohibitionist Party, in the 1870's. We found his membership card in an old family Bible. He obviously did not consider this stuff a joke. He also lived before Prohibition was tried.
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Old 06-25-2003, 07:00 PM   #12
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I guess the answer can be summed up as "Yes".
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Old 06-25-2003, 07:19 PM   #13
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Quote:
Originally posted by nbcrusader
I guess the answer can be summed up as "Yes".
Yes!!
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Old 06-26-2003, 09:27 AM   #14
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and thus endeth the happy friendly thread.

lol.
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