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Is There A Way To Express An Absolutely Accurate History?
Without validating time travel, that is...
If we’re all still here, sound off. At this writing, the Russians are talking nukes again.
History is part legend, part fact, but mostly interpretation of those who have gone before us
Attributed to George Santayana
This again, yes.
Historical accuracy is one of the most challenging things to achieve for several reasons, the first being the record is incomplete, woefully incomplete. Before there were cameras in every hand, pocket, purse, or on every light pole in most urban and suburban environments, accurate records of the past relied on photographs that could be altered. It also relied on eyewitness testimony that could be faulty or outright fabricated.
The only sources of historical truth are faith in sources and time machines.
So, once we’re confident in what we’re going to say or show, how do we create our own absolutely accurate and unimpeachable interpretation of what happened way back? We can’t. Yeah, that’s right.
We cannot express an absolutely accurate history of anything. Period; full stop.
That’s not so, you cry. Why, you ask? To answer that, I’ll have to go to the field of entertainment…
You're far too keen on 'where' and 'how' and not so hot on 'why'
Ian Gillan; Gethsemane, Jesus Christ, Superstar
Yes, the who, the what, and the where are always easy; the why is not just elusive; it’s impossible to know. We can describe events we haven’t seen, but we can’t say for sure why all of them happened because motivation is not just hard; it changes with time.
And we add dialogues we’ve never heard (at our peril). But we don’t understand why they did all those things or if they said them, not for sure. One of the biggest problems I have with history books that describe events and people before the 20th century is their inclusion of dialogues, speeches, and other utterances that we cannot verify, that we take for granted must be true because…well, because. Most scholars get these tidbits from other, earlier scribes who just copied what somebody else said, who copied what someone else said, ad infinitum; ad nauseam.
We don’t know what someone said in the past before there were recordings, and we often get those wrong.
Famously, Athenian general Pericles is said to have given a funeral oration in 404 BC that is praised as “a eulogy of Athens itself” by some. It soars with rhetorical flowering, with the roots of concepts like equal justice under the law, reaching positively Shakespearean heights of eloquence.
But we don’t know who wrote it or even if Pericles delivered it.
Let that sink in for a while. What we know of it comes from Thucydides’ (c 460-c 400) History of the Peloponnesian War, a book that’s been translated repeatedly. Some considered this work a founding document of the modern historical method because it listed events chronologically. He also made liberal use of quoting speeches, like Pericles and other Greek generals, all of which had to have come from means other than actual recordings. But it’s been done over and over for two thousand years. Can we know, for sure, that it is now what it was then?
Can we rely on historical speeches? I say no.
One feature of my non-fiction writing that irritates some readers and scholars is that I don’t quote personal utterances that have not been recorded reliably and transcribed. In The Devil’s Own Day, there are plenty of bon mots that other scholars add willy-nilly without a thought of provenance. I didn’t, and I won’t, because we have no reliable means of verifying those statements. When we wrote Why the Samurai Lost Japan, I adhered to the same rule, though it was easier to prove the few direct quotes we have there. I’ve been following this practice for a long time. This frustrated some of my professors in college, even after I explained my reasoning. I even declared that historical accounts that are not backed up by physical evidence aren’t reliable either. That puts rather large blocks of our history on shaky ground. I say, “yeah? Then what?”
I’m being picky? Really? Look at the title of this week’s newsletter again.
What’s worse is making speeches part of the historical record continues today. Just look at the US Congressional Record. It’s full of speeches made by statesmen that scholars quote repeatedly. However, many of them were never delivered. Congressional rules allow members to insert “material” originally meant to enable the insertion of responses to speeches that the members were not present to respond to when they were delivered. Perfectly reasonable, but not explicitly called out in the rules. So, for three months before the publication of the quarterly Record, Senators and Congresspersons can stick whatever their little hearts desire into the record that future scholars will use. And consumers of their wares will expect that they made those speeches on the floor. Many of them were not, and there’s no good way of knowing which were and were not.
And this has been going on for two centuries.
And there are no assurances about the stuff we recorded, or like Armstrong’s announcement as he stepped onto the lunar surface, as most of the world thought they heard.
So, unless you’ve got a time machine, you will not have any assurance that what you see, what you read, or what you think you see or read is the absolute truth because there’s no way of expressing it with accuracy and, more importantly, reliability. We can try all our lives, and there’s no way to know for sure.
What do YOU think? Can historical truth ever be absolute and in the books? Drop down and tell the class yes or no.
The Safe Tree is the culmination of the lives of the four young people you met in Stella’s Game and that you followed avidly in Tideline. Or did you? Anyway, it’s about friends, but it’s also about historical accuracy. Titanic misunderstandings have ruled the lives of all four friends all along…and misunderstandings have had deadly consequences.
A word in a rushed, panicked declaration; the intonation in a statement. These are important, and they are difficult to capture or document…at least, not in the ‘70s when there wasn’t a camera every three feet.
The Safe Tree: Friendship Triumphs is available in paper or E-book from your favorite booksellers or me if you want an autograph.
What Happens When Historical Claims Are Proven Wrong?
Who Put The Dip In The Dip Da Dip Da Dip?
On 21 May:
1553: Lady Jane Grey married Guildford Dudley at Durham Palace in London. As we all know, Lady Jane was England’s shortest reigning queen for all of nine days in July 1553 before they beheaded her to ensure that Mary would be crowned after the death of Henry VIII. It was even more complicated than it looks.
1982: British troops landed at San Carlos Bay in the Falkland Islands as a part of the effort to retake the Falklands from Argentina. You thought the succession was complicated…
And 21 May is NATIONAL AMERICAN RED CROSS FOUNDER’S DAY. On this day, in 1881, they founded the ARC in Washington, DC.