“Good historians try to tell the truth about what happened.”

Mon Sep 1 00:12:11 2008

“Describing the British retreat from Concord and Lexington on April 19, 1775, historian Louis Birnham simply narrates the story:

‘The mood of the British soldiers was murderous. They surged around houses along the route, instantly killing anyone found inside. Some of the regulars looted whatever they could find, and some were killed while looting by Minutemen who had concealed themselves in the houses. Houses with fires in the hearth were burned down simply by spreading the embers about. Generally, those homes without fires on the hearth escaped destruction because it was too time-consuming to start a fire with steel and flint. As the column approached Menotomy, the 23rd Regiment was relieved of rear-guard duty by the marine battalion. Colonial fire reached a bloody crescendo in Menotomy, and again British troops rushed house after house, killing everyone found inside, including an invalid named Jason Russell.’

“The author could have said, ‘The criminal and bloodthirsty British soldiers acted horribly in what they did to those poor, innocent people, and those wicked British soldiers killed in the act of looting houses got what they deserved.’ But readers don’t need such coercive comments, and they often resent them. If you present the details, you can trust your readers to have the reactions you expect. You waste time and seem a little foolish if you preach at them.

Richard Marius, A Short Guide to Writing About History

The idea of truth seems very misleading in this context. Both the statements, the one by Birnham and the other offered by Marius and Page, could be considered “true” in that there is documented evidence of the events that they describe. Yet while reflecting available evidence they offer divergent interpretations. Sure one is offered as a bad example, but it is easy to imagine many contradicting interpretations that are not coercive or preaching. None of them would necessarily contradict known facts, but all lead to different, potentially “true,” conclusions.

One person uses the term “casualty,” another the word “collateral damage,” a third might use the words “genocide,” “holocaust” and “massacre,” while yet another chooses to pass over the subject and address other events and issues that are of greater interest or relevance. The Korean War of 1950-3 still receives a good deal of attention and is, perhaps ironically, known as the “Forgotten War.” In the same year as the Korean armistice a US-backed coup ousted the democratically elected prime minister of Iran, Mohammad Mosaddeq. This event is virtually unknown to most Americans. It is outside our typical historical discourse. While both of these events still have strong repercussions in today’s political situation, historians address one with some regularity and pay very little attention to the other. “Korean War” returns over 7 million results on Google, while “Mosaddeq coup” returns barely 20 thousand. Our language, interpretation, approach and even choice of subject matter may have greater impact on our “truth” than we tend to accept.

“Truth is a thing of this world: it is produced only by virtue of multiple forms of constraint. And it induces regular effects of power. Each society has its own regime of truth, its ‘general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true; the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements, the means by which each is sanctioned; the techniques and procedures accorded value in the acquisition of truth; the status of those who are charged with saying what counts as true.”

Foucault, Power/Knowledge (p. 131)


~ by severalfourmany on September 1, 2008.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: