What is history?

December 21, 1970, The White House.
The day Elvis Presley, the King of Rock-n-Roll, decided on a whim to meet President Nixon.

It’s easy to be cynical about history and dismiss it with a slogan. “History is,” or so they say:

  • a set of lies agreed upon.
  • a pack of lies about events that never happened told by people who weren’t there.
  • gossip well told.
  • written by the victors.
  • the sum total of things that could have been avoided.

Such sentiments hold elements of truth, but their wit outweighs their wisdom, and they should never be mistaken as a profound or final judgement on the subject. The first four statements assume that history is inherently untrustworthy and more likely to be fictitious than factual. The last treats hindsight as foresight, imagining that those who came before us where mostly fools and we could have easily made better choices in their shoes.

Jacob Peter Gowy’s painting, The Flight of Icarus (1635-1637).
In Greek Mythology, Icarus’s father, Daedalus, constructs wings from feathers and wax, but warns his son not to fly to close to the sun. Icarus is so enthralled with the thrill of flight that he forgets his father’s warning, causing his wings to melt when he climbs too high, and he plummets into the ocean. 

Before there was history, there was mythology. Myths may have some basis in fact, e.g. there may have been a man named Daedalus who lost his son Icarus at sea, but the central point of a myth is not to record what actually happened; it is to answer questions like, “Who are we?” “Why are we here?” and, “How should we behave?” Icarus is a story about the danger of hubris, of a man thinking himself a god, and not listening to your elders. It is about knowing your place in the world and paying the ultimate price if you violate those limits. 

Culturally specific stories define the culture to which each of us, “belong,” or believe ourselves to belong. They teach us about right and wrong, good and evil, normal and deviant, etc.; as our ancestors understood these concepts. And while these things are true for “us” (people in a given tribe, nation, culture), they are not the same for all human beings. 

History is something different. History is a genuine effort to record the past, as it actually happened. And while the significance or morality of any given event may be interpreted very differently by different groups of people, the actual events are the same for all human beings. Now, before you call me naive, or downright stupid, and claim that I am suggesting all historical accounts are 100% accurate, allow me to put in, “a few, uh, provisos. Ah, a couple of quid pro quos.” So to speak.

History is susceptible to fakery and mistakes. It can also be used in a very mythological way, to indoctrinate people into a culturally acceptable worldview. But history is a science, an amorphous social science, rather than the “hard” or “pure” sciences, to be sure, but a science nonetheless. It is scientific in its pursuit of objective facts, from which we can draw logical conclusions. Like any other science, its practitioners can be wrong, intentionally or unintentionally, but the best way to dispute falsehoods is with a better application of the science in question, not an abandonment of that science. If someone tells you that 2 + 2 = 5 you don’t say, “That’s wrong so I’m never doing math again.” Instead, you use math to determine what is right. 

“History is always debatable,
but not all ideas are equally valid.”

What I often run into, particularly from conspiracy theorists, is this idea that any given story is just as likely to be true as the, “official story.” “After all,” I have heard time and time again, “you weren’t there, so how do you know what happened?” This treats history as if it were nothing more than mythology, or even pure fiction, with no objective means of determining what it true. In general, the further we go back in time, the less source material we have for any given events and the more we are dependent on the accounts of historians who were not subjected to present day ideas, like peer review, but even these ancient historical narratives tend to have a number of advantages over myths. Things like:

  • We typically know who wrote these portraits down and something of their background/biases. If, for example, we only had Christian accounts of how the English King Richard “The Lionheart” lead his greatly outnumbered men at Jaffa in 1192, forcing the frightened Muslim army into retreat, we might be less inclined to believe that such a Herculean feat took place. Fortunately, for Richard’s reputation and our own piece of mind, we have Muslim sources who confirm the fact that he deserves his accolades. He was a fierce and selfless bravery leader.
  • We can independently verify people, places, and actions within a story to assess how much it is rooted in actual facts and an honest exploration of reality. I once had an online exchange with a man who thought the Bush Family were one of the greatest evils the world has ever seen (collaborating with the Nazis, shooting JFK, orchestrating 9-11, you name it); there was no accusation on the Internet he was inclined to disbelieve. I could easily tell, however, that his historical footing was off balance from the get-go, when he told me how the Bushes were from, “Old Texas Oil Money,” and that’s all they really cared about. In reality, even the most Texan member of the family, George W., was born in Connecticut and only moved to Texas when he was nearly two years old, then he lived in California for a year or so, before returning to Texas. And the extended family has never given up their estate in Kennebunkport. Furthermore, it is true that George H. W. Bush had some success in the oil business, and his first son less so, but they were never big power players in that community. Now, I realize that we all make mistakes, but when your “mistakes” only serve to support the predetermined conclusions you want to get to, clearly it is not history that you are interested in. 
  • The fact that something was written down, or documented in another way, at a particular point in time sets up certain limitations from that time onward. The Roman Historian Suetonius Tranquillus wrote about Julius Caesar more than 150 years after the murder of the First Caesar, but he was able to draw upon people and documents that we no longer have access to and he was certainly more accurate than Shakespeare’s fictionalized version of Julius Caesar, written nearly 1,500 years after Suetonius passed away and dedicated to the pursuit of good drama, far more than the pursuit of the facts. 

There are some events in the past for which we only have one source; nothing more than a story that someone heard. The Greek Historian Plutarch, a contemporary of Suetonius, tells such a tale of the young and arrogant Gaius Julius being captured by Cilicians Pirates in his, Life of Julius Caesar. But this is still more than just a myth, because we have a track record by which to judge Plutarch and his work. And, in general, the further we move forward in time, the more we have interlocking fragments of evidence by which to determine past events; from personal diaries and first hand accounts to government documents and news reports, from business receipts and memoranda to and personal notes to emails.

Constructing history, particularly in the present day, is analogous to building a jigsaw puzzle from a pile of pieces with no box cover image to guide you. At first it can be very difficult, but the more you fit the seemingly random bits together, the more you restrict the possibilities of what the greater whole has to tell us. Even when you inevitably find that you are missing some pieces of information, you are not completely at a loss to understand what you are looking at. If you have all, or even a substantial part of the very distinctive Gateway Arch, you know this is a photography of St. Louis, and not New York City or the surface of the moon. You may not be sure when the photo was taken, or any number of other questionable details, but that does not mean that you are only left with questions and no answer. As I have frequently said, “History is always debatable, but not all ideas are equally valid.”

One of the big problems I have with conspiracy theorists is the fact they do not respect history or the process by which it is constructed. Instead, they look for puzzle pieces that clearly do not belong, or they simply make them up, and say, “Look at that! I found a piece that has the head from the Statue of Liberty on it, so maybe this really is a photo of New York,” or, “This piece looks like the surface of the moon to me, so how can we say that this photo was taken on the earth, let alone in St. Louis?” Conspiracy theorists are extremely intellectually dishonest, but, sadly, they are often very affective.

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