Historians play a significant role in describing the thin veneer of civilization under which we live, in that their stories of our past colour the perception of our present and shape the direction of our future. But the history of which they write—that is, the actual unfolding of events—comes to us in three broad forms: 1) the unvarnished facts, the scarcest type; 2) the more palatable account-of-record, the most frequent type; and 3) the revisionist version, the most recent and pernicious type.
Take this example of the first type, the actual events. A young boy, often bullied at school, brings his new yo-yo to the schoolyard. While showing it off proudly to his friends, he is accosted by a bigger boy who takes the yo-yo, dazzles the assembled kids with a flourish of tricks, then claims it for his own. To forestall any backlash, the bigger boy gives the smaller boy his old yo-yo, along with a threat that he will be beaten if he complains. The smaller boy, unhappily accepting his lot, would likely write the history of events like this.
The second type, a more palatable account if the bigger boy writes the story, might read like this. A young boy, often bullied at school, brings a new yo-yo to the schoolyard as a gift for the bigger boy who, he hopes, will protect him from his tormentors in exchange for the gift. The bigger boy graciously accepts the new yo-yo, agrees to defend the smaller boy, and in a spirit of generosity, presents him with his old yo-yo. The smaller boy gratefully accepts his lot.
Both these versions take on added import if I mention that the smaller lad is an Indigenous boy from the rez, or a Black boy from the wrong side of the tracks, while the bigger boy is the scion of an influential White family from the better part of town.
The third type of history-writing, the revisionist version, might present the incident like this. A White boy who brings his new yo-yo to school to show it off to his friends notices an Indigenous boy, or perhaps a Black boy, eyeing the yo-yo enviously. Being a compassionate soul, the bigger boy generously gives his old yo-yo to the smaller kid, who is overjoyed to accept it from his munificent benefactor.
These made-up examples are just that, intended to illustrate the differences among the three versions of history we encounter. But only the first example is a true account of what actually transpired.
I—like most of you, I suspect—grew up being taught the second type of history at school, the palatable account-of-record. I learned, for instance, that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492, and that great European nations such as England, France, and Spain undertook to spread the Christian gospel to the heathens who inhabited those vast, new lands. I was taught that Christian evangelizers, in their zeal to spread their religion and culture, gathered Indigenous children in schools far from family and home to provide them an education.
I did not learn in school that the original inhabitants had lived on those lands for millennia before the arrival of the White colonizers, nor did I learn that the invaders brought disease and death to the original peoples whose gold and furs they coveted. I did not learn in school about the horrors of residential schools for Indigenous children, nor about the treaties our government agreed to and then broke. Those learnings came much later.
That more palatable version of history also taught me in school that anti-Semitism was an integral part of the Kulturelle Überzeugungen of the wicked Nazi regime during WW II, and that the Japanese devils waging unprovoked war in the Pacific were spawned by an evil, expansionist empire that had to be destroyed. Both these facts were undoubtedly true.
But I did not learn in school that my own country, in a burst of anti-Semitic fervor, turned away a boatload of Jewish refugees in 1939, people fleeing the Nazis. Nor did I learn of the internment camps in my country to which Japanese-Canadian citizens were exiled during the years 1942-1949, their homes and possessions stripped from them. Those learnings, too, came later.
The revanchistes among us, those who would revise our history, try to tell us now that things like this did not happen—or if they did, it was for the best of reasons. They tell us the people making the decisions in such matters were ‘men of their times’ acting under the moral imperatives of the day, and should not be caviled or condemned by woke commentators holding them to account under today’s standards, standards which have changed radically over the intervening years. These revisionists, it seems, don’t want our children to learn unsavoury truths from our history, lest that knowledge corrupt the pristine past they prefer to present.
The problem is, although neither the palatable or revisionist versions of history accurately reflect what actually transpired, they can and do obscure or even alter the truth, affecting our perception and understanding of past events—and thus, perhaps, shaping our future actions.
As Winston Churchill famously wrote, Those who fail to learn from history, are doomed to repeat it. His countryman and frequent foil, George Bernard Shaw, wrote, We learn from history that we learn nothing from history.
Regardless of which of these men is closest to the truth, what I have learned is that our history-of-record is, for the most part, what the powers-that-be in our society want it to be. Moreover, that record can change to accommodate the whims and needs of the present realities as perceived by those powerful influencers. We are not, for the most part, presented with the unvarnished facts from our history. And that being so, it is not possible that our present and future behaviours can be shaped for the better by learning from our past.
We fool ourselves by thinking otherwise.
We save ourselves by seeking the truth.