Thursday, December 22, 2011

American History Is Historical Fiction

“It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.”   -- Mark Twain

       To my American friends, and to readers of this site from around the world, I shall make two statements that may help to clarify much that seems murky about American political behavior:

       (1)  The history of America that most Americans believe to be true is not history at all:  it is historical fiction.

       (2)  Most Americans have no idea that statement (1) above is true.  They absolutely, honestly believe that what they believe to be true is true.  If they came to believe in statement (1) above, it would completely rock their lives, personal and political.

       One of the central differences between what I would call "real" history and historical fiction is that real history attempts to refer to records (either official or unofficial), documents, testimonies of real people, and other evidentiary material, explaining some of the how's and why's of "what happened"; whereas historical fiction only refers to "real" history as a basis for overlaying an engaging story of whatever interests the author and is calculated to interest the reader.

       Of course, historical fiction can be not only entertaining, but informative.  It is often quite well done.  However, it can do a serious disservice--its fictions can displace or substitute for true knowledge.  A writer of popular novels can turn to historical fiction and create characters more fascinating and inspiring (or more virtuous, or evil, or colorful) than the real people themselves.  And a Hollywood motion picture about an historical event or person has a remarkable ability to influence a receptive and inquisitive mind into believing that "that's the way it really was." This is accomplished by (intentionally or unintentionally) drawing distorted perceptions into the receivers' minds, where they may be permanently labeled as truth -- because they saw it (or read it) with their own eyes.

       Understand that all Americans -- and I do mean all Americans, from schoolchildren to presidents -- when they learn history, first learn it as a "subject," in a school, from a textbook:  this means that there are facts to be memorized; there are also "right answers," just as there are in science and mathematics; and there will be a test, to see how well those "right answers" have been memorized.  If you score well on the test, then you have "done well in history" -- and what is more, you "understand" it "correctly".

       This is not a new phenomenon in America.  I have read old high school history texts as far back as the 1880's, and the same pattern of instruction is used:  there is a highly selective presentation of facts designed to create a coherent and pleasing narrative about the history of America.  It is how we know that we are always basically the "good guys." (Especially our presidents, who are all men with good intentions, even if they made a few mistakes.)   Some scholars have called this "the Whig interpretation of history," and that is probably a useful label to give it.   But let us call it simply "the Received Interpretation."

       I don't know how you do it in your country, but this is really how we do it here, all the way up to introductory history courses in colleges and universities.  It is of great importance in history departments in America that you demonstrate that you have accepted the "correct" point of view and reflect it in your writing  (some variations are approved, of course).  But if you espouse the "discredited" point of view?  No "advancement."

       See the problem?

       I have not studied abroad (so I can't be sure of my ground here), but I gather that there is a similar situation in many countries.  It goes without saying that it would be an overwhelming problem in any country that has a totalitarian or single-party rule, such as Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, or the like; but sometimes the problem seems to be very similar, and just about as bad, in countries that think of themselves as the most free-thinking and cosmopolitan, such as Britain with its world-wide empire, or Israel with its sense of exceptionality and vocation as a "light to the nations."  My research into these countries suggests that their "versions of history" are as tendentious and provincial and blinkered as America's.  So I am guessing that this is more or less the case everywhere in the world.  I hope there are glorious exceptions.

       I think this goes a long way in explaining why Americans behave politically in such bizarre and destructive ways.  We are operating from false perceptions that we have received from a falsified script.  From the youngest schoolchildren, all the way up through our elective leadership -- representatives, governors, and presidents -- we have been taught these fictions.  Collectively, we act as if we believe them.

       Only the underworld that actually controls our country, its economy, and its government knows otherwise.  And operates according to that knowledge.

       It may be that things are slightly changing.  I would guess that maybe 5% of the population of America is waking up to question the "Received Interpretation."  This has been forced upon us by our recent economic troubles, and our government's unexplainable response to them.  (Unexplained, that is, by the "Received Interpretation.")

       And this deeper questioning has been reinforced by the results of the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as by Ron Paul's campaign for the presidency and the "Occupy" phenomenon.

       It is too early to say, but we may be about to experience an historic paradigm shift in the thinking of the American people.  It could be a shift for the better.  Or not.

*       *       *

       (If you would like to see how American Historical Fiction affects today's thinkers and writers, check out this bizarro-world posting by Jamie Weinstein.)

Comments most welcome.


  1. Read the Jamie Weinstein piece: yep, bizarro world all right.

    What is striking about real history are the patterns that emerge. If you're good at pattern recognition, you'll be good at real history.

    When people tell us that Ron Paul types would have stood by and let World War II happen, I want to say, "Hell yeah!"

    The same maneuvering, the same lies and the same group got us into World War II that recently got us into Iraq. There are people, mostly on the underside of things, that thrive on warfare and obscene amounts of cash. They're constantly looking for conflict and constantly looking for a chance to make an extra billion.

    They're not like us. They're not normal. Their sense of humanity is nill. They're true sons of Hell, as Christ Himself said, and when they make converts, they make them twice the sons of Hell that they are!

    We have a choice. We can fight for these weirdos or we can say, "Nah," and play marbles instead. I'll opt for marbles and let the weirdos fight their own wars and let the boys in Kansas alone.

  2. I would like to see a post where you have the historical fiction, than also have the equivalent historical fact with it.

    You know like a top ten "Historical Fictions." Or better yet "The Great American Myths." Every culture has mythology yet if you ask most Americans what our mythology is almost all will say "We don't really have any." That's because most have accepted the myth as truth.

    Good post. Weinsteins article only demonstrates that you can frame any argument using subjective commentary and loose references to historical events to make an argument about almost anything.

    One gapping flaw in his logic is the fact it was Democratic leadership that ushered in the age of nuclear weapons, not a republican presidency.

  3. 28 pages of comments on that bizarro post, many have made good points.

    I too would love to see a column with myths vs. truths. Or essays on real history.

  4. I think this piece is important for those who are no longer "drinking the kool-aid." For such individuals, it is easy to denigrate those who have not yet come to a similar awakening.

    This piece places the deceived in their proper context -- as deceived human beings. They are not evil, not unregenerate, not depraved.

    Such distinction is essential.

  5. I took an introductory world history class at NKU amd it was probably the best class I have taken. My professor knew about this "historical fiction" and opened a lot of the students eyes to this fiction. One point that really stuck with me was the story of the American revolution. He explained that we know it as the birth of a new country and it was an all out struggle between good and evil, and the "good guys" won. Britain, on the other hand, looks at it like "there were a few colonies in the north America that revolted and we don't really care that much because we're getting most of our money from the sugar cana plantations in central America."

    He referred us to a book called Lies My Teacher told me. It has some good examples of this historical fiction.