Debating the Narrative of History
Updated: Jan 12, 2022
The Statue of Liberty has symbolized different ideals for different generations. Much like our view of national symbols, our interpretations of history affect our political beliefs. (Luke Stackpoole/Unsplash)
Politics is very much a discussion about the future. Broadly speaking, partisan differences arise from contradictory visions for the future of America. The political landscape is a constant back-and-forth between opposing efforts to shape and reshape the nation to conform to a set of beliefs.
But politics is also framed by the past. The question of what kind of a nation America will be is answered by what we believe America was founded to be. And in the past year, to the backdrop of racial unrest, our perception of history has shaped our beliefs about social change, equality, and legislation. Put simply, history ― and the way it is interpreted ― affects the nation’s social and political views.
Understanding Historical Revisionism
Depending on who you ask, historical revisionism (also known as revisionist history) has a variety of connotations. Holocaust deniers of the 1970s called themselves revisionists, despite being discounted by the vast majority of historians. Revisionism has been associated with Marxism and used as an indictment between communist regimes. In 2003, President Bush accused critics of U.S. involvement in Iraq of practicing “revisionist history,” equating revisionism with falsification. But despite negative associations, the actual definition of historical revisionism is much less loaded.
In historiography, revisionism is simply the practice of refining interpretations of history to reflect new information, such as newly discovered documents or scientific evidence that points to a different history from the traditional consensus. History is not an exact science. Historians often rely on evidence-based inferences from the materials that are available to them to piece the past together as accurately as possible ― but these are still inferences. New methods of uncovering history (such as carbon dating) prompt historians to review traditional accounts and, if needed, revise their understanding. This is a constant process.
According to historian James McPherson, “revision is the lifeblood of historical scholarship. History is a continuing dialogue between the present and the past. Interpretations of the past are subject to change in response to new evidence, new questions asked of the evidence, new perspectives gained by the passage of time.” McPherson, an acclaimed Civil War historian, is a Pulitzer Prize winner and previously served as president of the American Historical Association.
Most of the time, revisions of this nature encounter little resistance. But revisionism becomes more controversial when historians begin to question moral judgments and motives and reevaluate the significance of certain events and trends. For example, while the fact that Christopher Columbus set sail in 1492 is hardly disputed, historians differ sharply in their interpretations of his motives. The traditional account of Columbus’s voyage frames him as a heroic explorer. More recently, however, more historians have postulated that he was motivated by the prospect of gold or imperialism. Was Columbus a courageous sailor or a greedy conqueror? The answer we choose has the potential to influence the ways we think about the origins of American history.
Historians agree that revisionism is an important part of arriving at the most accurate account of the past. But divisions emerge when historians draw conflicting conclusions based on the same facts, and in recent years, it’s become clear that these disagreements are very much relevant to modern politics.
Slavery, Race, and the 1619 Project
One of the most contentious issues in the last year alone has been racial justice. A number of events can be identified as the immediate catalyst, but many racial justice activists point to America’s history of slavery and the racial disparities that continued to persist despite the end of slavery in 1865 and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Supporters of movements such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) have attributed modern inequalities to systemic racism and white supremacy. Conservative critics refute this assertion as an unfair representation of facts, with many believing that institutionalized racism is not a significant cause of racial disparities.
The debate over whether racism is systemic or not has polarized Americans. But it is not just another instance of political discourse caused by disagreement on a single issue; it delves into contradictory narratives of American history.
In 2019, The New York Times released the 1619 Project, an initiative aimed at readjusting American history to begin not in 1776, but 1619 ― the year in which the first African slaves were brought to America. The central idea of the project is that slavery has shaped America throughout its history. The 1619 Project received both high praise and sharp criticism, dividing leading historians. Supporters lauded it for drawing attention to the overlooked effects of race and slavery. Critics charged it with misrepresenting and over-generalizing history (for example, a number of historians disagreed with the project’s suggestion that the American Revolution was motivated primarily by a desire to preserve slavery from the abolitionist Britain).
But whether the 1619 Project is accurate or not, the fierce debate over its revisionist ideas points to more general implications: historical interpretation is important. How we view the history of slavery, race, and inequality (and whether we view it as one story, or many) contributes to our beliefs about present-day racial justice ― such as critical race theory, which posits that racism and white supremacy have shaped nearly every facet of American society in order to perpetuate racial oppression. Different narratives of the past lead to different conclusions about the merits of critical race theory and other social views.
Politicians rightly grasp the implications of the history we teach. That’s why the 1619 Project is controversial outside of the world of historians, and why legislators spar over school curriculums dealing with the history of current social issues ― for instance, whether we teach slavery as the main cause of the Civil War or not has the potential to change students’ views on American heroes, beliefs, and origins. History is ingrained in the identity of our nation. If politics can be called a struggle over opposing versions of America’s identity, history is integral to the present.
How do we get history “right”?
Short answer: we can’t.
Even Nikole Hannah-Jones, the historian behind the 1619 Project, said that “history is not objective...people who write history are not simply objective arbiters of facts.” Her statement doesn’t discredit the work of historians, but rather, sheds light on its complexities. We can’t present a single objective version of history as the absolute truth. Two different points of view can draw two different images of the same historical event ― and both can be factual. It’s important to strike a balance: it would be a misunderstanding to dismiss all revisionist history as skewed, but we must also recognize that the work of interpreting historical evidence and constructing a proper account is affected by point of view, individual values, and current social context.
The purpose of this article is not to tell you which version of history is correct. It would be disingenuous to ignore the fact that even leading historians are divided over the legitimacy of the 1619 Project. History is complicated, especially when it is so closely tied to current, polarizing issues. But this article is intended to demonstrate that the way you interpret and understand the past has real ramifications on the present. Polarization goes beyond disagreeing on surface-level issues ― it is often linked to very different versions of history.
NCJ believes in presenting the objective truth, but often this is a complicated business of intimately woven fact, inference, and interpretation. We’re not advocating any particular narrative of history, but we are urging you to pay attention to the history you believe. Humans are prone to subjectivity. Searching for the truth involves awareness of the complexities of history, careful examination of your own beliefs, and a willingness to engage with multiple points of view, regardless of whether you choose to agree or disagree.
The collective memory of American history will shape views of the present. We must decide how we will remember. The debate over history, then, is of utmost importance.
Sources & Further Reading