Revising History Part I: The Meaning of Denial
History, as a gestalt, is preciously, uniquely human (I’m assuming here that dolphins, crows and cockroaches don’t fool with time as we perceive it). We are able to experience our lives, and their contexts, only in retrospect – as each moment passes instantly into memory it’s the recollection of things past that forms the basis of whatever understanding we might have of continuity and meaning.
Like any human endeavor, the process of recording historical occurrences is not flawless – it’s fallible, subject to interpretation and misinterpretation. However, the purpose of creating histories should be to promote the acknowledgment that facts exist outside our own desires. History, as a discipline, recognizes that past actions not only happened but also have consequences. History is the record of those reverberations rippling through time. Whether on a personal or national level, history asserts: I (we) did this…that happened…and something developed from it. History is the ultimate accountability – the record of human choices.
Remember pre-Photoshop photographs? Few doubted that those images — the napalm-drenched Vietnamese girl, the stills of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, Walker Evans’s poverty-stunned sharecroppers – told the truth. By ‘truth’ I mean that people believed that they represented something objectively factual, real beyond the manipulations of the photographer.
Written history, since its medium (writing) doesn’t create a direct record of events, is more prone to construal. Nevertheless, history (individual or societal) is the best thing we’ve got for determining what, in terms of actions, is true. One can argue that truth is, by its very nature, subjective, but hey: things happen. The invasion of Iraq was planned well in advance of 9/11. The Khmer Rouge murdered millions of people. Bill Clinton did have sex with “that woman.” Wishing won’t make it not so.
One motivation for altering history is to deny that something in fact occurred. Several recent notable instances come to mind. Who can forget the smearing of John Kerry’s Vietnam War record by the partisan and thoroughly discredited “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth“? Who didn’t shudder when Iran’s Mahmūd Ahmadinezhād (who seriously needs a personal shopper) called the Holocaust a “lie” and a “hoax”?
In a book just out by Marc A. Thiessen, this former Bush speechwriter makes a number of claims against an overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary. In his eagerness to portray Obama as weak and naïve, and to serve as apologist for the Bush agenda, he asserts that not only was the Bush Administration uninformed about Al Qaeda prior to 9/11, but that “enhanced interrogation techniques” (which, BTW, are NOT torture) provided information that thwarted a host of post-9/11 attacks.
A little benign denial is a temporary coping mechanism that has its uses. We all know what can transpire in the dentist’s chair, but telling yourself “that root canal really won’t hurt much” might get you through the door.
One, however, is in denial when the facts contradict one’s beliefs, such as: Since the earth is 6000 years old, dinosaurs and people must have coexisted. To be in denial is to make a wholesale claim with a much more interesting, and often obscured, subtext — that to acknowledge the reality, the truth of what one is denying, is to face the moral necessity of reexamining one’s beliefs.
The consequences of being in denial can range from the personal – that lump is just a cyst – to who we are as human beings – the Holocaust didn’t really happen. To be in denial about something that presents itself as a moral imperative is an act of spiritual cowardice. Much better that denial be in the service of personal courage — to use a dash of delusion to propel oneself into facing up, and standing up.
Of course some history needs revising. The Caucasian-male-centric version of our own national trajectory not only neglects many of the contributions of minority groups, including women and African Americans, but, perhaps worse, whitewashes atrocities like slavery, the ethnic/cultural cleansing of native peoples, war crimes, the exploitation of the environment, to name but a few. Realizing that the winners write history can be the first step toward reinterpreting facts through the lens of wisdom and a more inclusive perspective. However, such reconsideration of scope or meaning doesn’t transpire into permission to twist facts to suit an agenda. There’s a better word for that: it’s called lying.
photo credit: www.foghlaim.ie/Staffpage.htm