Saturday, March 06, 2010

Revisionist historians: just doing their job

My friend Jim over at The Critical Bookworm blog wrote a recent entry which began: I was reading through a few articles on the death of revisionist 'historian' and wannabe polemicist, Howard Zinn.

Jim's piece wasn't really about Zinn but it got me onto a topic that's often got me going. Leaving aside the specifics of Zinn, who did a great job of expanding the narrow, sanitized conventional history to tell a much fuller truth, the scorn with which the phrase 'revisionist historian' is typically used has always amused me because it seems to miss the point.

The very job of all historians is to continually look at the 'standard' narrative of historical events and see if they hold water. They are constantly investigating to see if there are documents, perspectives and what not that haven't entered the historical record or, quite often, that have been deliberately ignored for political and propaganda reasons.

In other words, their job is to REVISE. The JOB of historians is to be revisionist.

Authors don't write a single draft of fiction and move forward without at least looking back at it, tweaking it, REVISING it and, nearly always, showing it to those with other points of view to get their feedback. Nor do you write a single draft of history (which, as the saying goes, is journalism) without doing those things.

Can you imagine if the only historical record of the run-up to the Iraq Aggression were the now-discredited Judith Miller New York Times reports on Saddam Hussein's mythical weapons of mass destruction? Thank goodness some historians and others REVISED this record.

History is not like math where two plus two always equals four always and everywhere. It's this precisely clash of ideas and points of view that makes history so compelling and dynamic. Countries which refuse to examine and discuss its standard historical narrative (written by the winners, as another saying goes) are invariably sclerotic societies in decline and, quite often, ones extremely prone to civil war and violence. Think the Balkans or the Middle East . Would American society really benefit from a rigid, Soviet-style official history revised (without discussion of course) only when political leaders felt it expedient? I think not.

All historians are revisionist. It's their job.


Jim Sullivan said...

Which would be why I put the sneer quotes around the word historian, and not revisionist.

You misrepresent me with this small but crucial point. My own issue isn't with revisionism, Zinn's or any other scholar's.

My issue is with Zinn's scholarship, which I believe to be both blatantly polemical(not necssarily a bad thing) and shoddy.

While I'd be happy to debate Zinn's work on its merits or lack thereof, you'll get nothing but agreement from me about revisionism.

Brian F said...

My contention is that the phrase revisionist historian is redundant. If you agree, then I'm not sure why you'd include the word revisionist in the first place.

The point of this piece wasn't to criticize you or to argue about Zinn but to make the point about the oft-used phrase revisionist historian. I didn't think I quoted you out of context or misrepresented your views, but if I did, I apologize. It wasn't my intent.

Jim Sullivan said...

There's no need to apologize, Brian. I wasn't offended. But the piece did seem to use my own words as a jumping off point. About a view I don't necessarily espouse. I thought it needed a bit of clarification is all.

"If you agree, then I'm not sure why you'd include the word revisionist in the first place."

Because he's usually labelled with both terms, applicable or not. And I have a harder time with the historian label than the revisionist label. In retrospect,maybe I should have just called him a revisionist.