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Ought we to beware of history? I'm afraid so.

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Jul 06, 2012

A recent note in Chesapeake Bay Magazine reminds us of problems in the writing of history. This is from the issue for July 2012:

“No, Captain John Smith and his merry crew didn’t make it all the way up the Susquehanna River…. Nor did the famous explorer make it past the fall line of the James River. Nor the upper Nanticoke. Nor any part of the Chester River. But that is apparently no hindrance to those areas becoming part of the Captain John Smith Chesapeake National Historic Trail, the nation’s first virtual national park.”

History has always been highly colored by the prejudices of those telling the tale. Along the same lines, it was Winston Churchill, himself an historian, who admitted that “history is written by the victors.” Catholics know this well, and perhaps English-speaking Catholics most of all, for the dominant narrative of the history of English-speaking peoples constantly ignores, denigrates or vilifies the contributions of the Church. An understanding of these contributions was deliberately expunged from England’s collective memory in the 16th century, creating a massive prejudice which continues to the present day.

Increasingly it seems that history is being dressed up and altered purely for entertainment purposes as well. The quotation above is but one example. Similar historical tampering is the stock-in-trade of the History Channel which, because of its name, is widely believed in the most outrageous of presentations, which often seem calculated to avoid both critical investigation and historical context wherever these might interfere with the enjoyment of the viewer.

Of course we can see the difficulties involved in the accurate presentation of history. All we need to do is notice how often several sources give completely differing accounts of contemporary affairs. Not only are witnesses unreliable on questions of fact, but most organizations which cover events tend to report them according to their own passionate biases. Consider the coverage of the March for Life, for example, or of any political convention.

Moreover, sometimes critical data is missing, as in the current famous case of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence is heatedly portrayed by different groups using irrelevant or misleading data which has nothing to do with what actually precipitated the confrontation (which, so far at least, nobody apparently knows other than the defendant). But depending on what you read, you may or may not realize that almost nothing is known; you might consider the matter to be fully-documented or, worse, totally obvious without investigation.

History is no different, and it is frequently revised according to what the historian in question wishes to prove. A particularly comical example is the effort of the gay Yale University historian John Boswell to trump up evidence for gay male bonding ceremonies in the medieval Church. His silly historical data was tossed aside years ago by those who actually know something, but you can find references to Catholic male bonding ceremonies everywhere on the web, or at least everywhere it suits someone’s purposes. In a culture in which people constantly manipulate their perception of reality to make things come out the way they want, problems with the historical record—like problems with every other form of truth—are growing daily by leaps and bounds.

It’s a good reminder to all of us to be careful with the truth, to attempt to express what is or what has happened as objectively as possible, without letting our perception be colored by what we want to be the case, or even by what may appear to us at first glance—and especially without any deliberate manipulation to advance a particular agenda. But it is also a good reminder not to expect similar efforts from those who are happy to embrace any relativism that suits their mood. This is just one more aspect of what Pope Benedict has called the “dictatorship of relativism”, which is also a dictatorship of dishonesty. It comes from a culture which constantly says: “Read my lips: Whatever I say is right.”

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  • Posted by: bkmajer3729 - Jul. 07, 2012 1:14 AM ET USA

    "Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no." Difficulty is same sort of thing is at work w/ many regarding the Faith - how do we know true history presented about Christ is...well...true? History is written by the victors. Comment not made to question the truth of our Faith. Too many are infected with "relativism" and no longer able to come to independent decisions without suspicion. Not suggesting blind trust to everything - a most difficult problem within our culture.

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