Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Revisionist History...Might Just Be a Good Thing.

I was going to avoid speaking about George W. Bush on this blog for awhile because, though still very much alive, he's essentially dead to American politics.  True, his disastrous presidency will be with us for many years into the future, but he's toxic to everyone but those who still support him behind closed doors.

But I'm only 3 posts in to my blog, and I find I need him. 

As you probably remember, GWB was famous for decrying revisionist history.  He said this:

"This nation acted to a threat from the dictator of Iraq," Bush said. "Now there are some who would like to rewrite history -- revisionist historians is what I like to call them...Saddam Hussein was a threat to America and the free world in '91, in '98, in 2003. He continually ignored the demands of the free world, so the United States and friends and allies acted."

Of course, that's misinformation on just about every level, but what so interests me is W's disdain for revisionist historians.  In this case, he means not really historians but anyone who questioned his war in Iraq.  Bush wanted desperately to pretend the case was closed on his war and we should just all move on.  Silly, yes, but we know he's not a serious man.

Nevertheless, Bush was tapping into a common charge: namely, that historical revisionism is bad.  And often it is, especially when it relates to the (attempted) elimination of grave historical incidents from the record, such as David Irving denying the Holocaust (here's his website, so you can get it from the horse's mouth).  But this is just one example.  The Armenian genocide is another that comes quickly to mind.  Sadly, there are no shortages of such examples, big and small.

But is revisionism always bad?  Of course not.  Not, that is, when the "revisionism" actually updates/corrects the record in a way that more closely gets at an objective truth.  This is what W was so afraid of, that the US and the world would call him on his invented reasons for going to war in Iraq.

But, really, this post is not about that old news.

In the early '90s, the Duke University History Department spoke to this issue when it adopted a resolution responding to a Holocaust-denying advertisement that was famously placed (or, an effort was made to place it) in multiple campus newspapers.  In part, the adoption says (see page 194):

"That historians are constantly engaged in historical revision is certainly
correct; however, what historians do is very different from this advertisement.
Historical revision of major events is not concerned with the actuality of these
events; rather it concerns their historical interpretation--their causes and
consequences generally." ( 82 )

But this post is not about that long ago incident.

No, enough of the big issues.  On to a small issue (with big implications) that I've been thinking about for 10 years, when Jeff Osborne first gave me this photo:

I have long loved historical signs and was immediately fascinated with the obvious one-sidedness of this one.  "Indian Outrages"?!  OK, not knowing (or even really caring) anything about the specifics of the history behind this sign, I am more interested in the frame.  For argument's sake, let's accept the 1929 version of history.  This would then necessitate an historical sign somewhere (ok, hundreds, no, thousands) in this country marked "White Outrages."

And I can just about guarantee you that those signs do not exist.   After all, we know who writes the history....

But fortunately we don't live with the racism of the 1920s.  Oh, we still have racism of course, but it's evolving, which we can discuss later.  In any case, thanks to Jeff (who I went to grad school with at the University of Kentucky; he now teaches at Murray State University and believes that every class is potentially a "mini-revolution"), I tracked down the new sign that has been erected in place of the one above.

It is clearly an example of historical revisionism, but a very good and necessary one, just like those who pointed out how wrong GWB was.

Here's what the new sign says, located on Virginia Business Route 19, 2 miles west of Tazewell (also near the fine town of Frog Level):

"Indian-Settler Conflicts

During Dunmore's War (1774) and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783) conflicts between Indians and colonists often intensified as European powers encouraged Indians from the Ohio region to attack frontier settlers.  Tensions also sometimes increased when settlers moved into lands that were once Indian territory.  Nearby to the south, an early conflict occurred in the upper Clinch Valley, when Indians attacked and killed John Henry, his wife and their children on 8 Sept. 1774.  Additional conflicts took place during this period, including a March 1782, Indian attack on the house of James Maxwell that killed two of his daughters."

This text is from sign X-16, as found on p. 313 of A Guidebook to Virginia's Historical Markers, 3rd ed. (compiled by Scott David Arnold; Charlottesville, VA: U of Virginia P, 2007).


That's quite a different--yes, revised--version of history.  Much more balanced, especially the title.

Oh, it's still sexist (why is John Henry listed by name and not his wife?) and still racist (what outrages did which whites perpetrate against which Indians in the same area?), but it's an attempt to improve our understanding of history.  Maybe the next replacement historical sign (though I won't hold my breath) will get even closer to a truer truth.

Why am I interested in this sign?

Because the original sign got me interested in the language of the historical signs in my very own Lexington, Kentucky, but that's for another post, though here's a sneak peak of that future discussion...


  1. OK, third try on posting a comment. It will either be posted three times, or I give up! I just recently read "An American Wife" It portrays GWB just as you say, "Silly, yes, but we know he's not a serious man." I also found it interesting that her political views were diametrically opposed to his. (smart woman!) One suggestion for your blog - it would be nice if the links could open in a new window!

  2. A "popular trading center," indeed.

    And thanks for sending this along. I'm glad I snapped that photo before the revisions. But I'm also a little sad that something is lost of the objective truth of Virginian attitudes circa 1929. That marker, for a Frog Level/Tazewell native like me, was less a marker about Settler/Indigenous conflict than a marker about what it was like growing up with Appalachian attitudes about race.

    I wonder: do you have any idea who was responsible for the change? Maybe someone from Tazewell complained? That would be nice to know.

    Anyway ... thanks again. The blog entry is a nice context in which to preserve the photo.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Sharon and Jeff, good on multiple levels, as I'm still in "beta" stage on this whole blog thing.

    Yes, Sharon, I thought that, too, about the links, am looking into it. Also, how did you know I posted this, just out of curiosity? I'm still trying to learn the system.

    Jeff, thanks for the further background. You get at why I wanted to start a blog: to keep track of things online. Facebook is mostly for the moment, but I will now be able to easily find these pics for class or other purposes.

    I don't know who is responsible for the change, but I'll query the VA Historical Society and see what happens, and will let you know if I find anything.

  4. I know you posted it because you said so on your fb page and I followed the link!

  5. Ah, roger, ok, Sharon, well that makes sense. :)