History is Safe
Originally published July 2020
Some people spend countless hours deleting digital memories and dumping personal bits and pieces at the curb, thinking they can erase the past. However, history is not easily manipulated. The past is not captured and secured by objects and artifacts.
History is what the word implies – a story. The artful search for patterns and order among the random and extreme. A narrative crafted from a variety of sources and perspectives. A story developed through the examination and evaluation of theories, facts, opinions, misunderstandings, and lies, and all weighed against the evidence. History fills in gaps and provides a voice to the silent.
Historians are tasked with finding and evaluating the evidence and developing the story. They conduct their research from the elevated perspective that today gives us over yesterday. From this height, they can be, as historian John Gaddis observes, "in several times and places at once and they can zoom in and out between macroscopic and microscopic levels of analysis."
Contrary to repeated sensationalized cries, history in this country is not being erased, altered, or killed. The removal of a statue from a town square or a name from a building no more erases the historical narrative of a person's life, their accomplishments, failures, and influences than digitally removing a person from a group photo erases their existence or impact. You might successfully remove a single reminder or a mark of recognition, but the history remains in the collective; letters, notes, memos, manuscripts, drawings, photographs, and recordings. It is captured in the reflections and observations of others and preserved in the articles, books, and papers of journalists, researchers, writers, and academics.
History also cannot be effortlessly rewritten or changed. Marc Bloch, in his highly regarded work, The Historian’s Craft, makes the astute observation that “with ink anyone can write anything.” Like the meticulous diagram of a family’s generations redrawn and rerouted by the evidence of DNA and the discovery of personal documents, putting something in writing and repeating it for decades doesn't make it true. Today anyone with thumbs can tweet, text, and post. Simply rewriting or attempting to reframe words or actions doesn’t erase their existence. It merely adds to the evidence available for study and interpretation. The phrases, “That’s not what I meant to say,” or “not what I intended to do,” are not a soft cloth rubbed against the dry erase board of life’s history classroom, wiping the slate clean.
History is sometimes marred by the intended or unintended bias of its authors. Which is why history is weighed and considered in its entirety, not on individual narratives. Politicians, protestors, and pundits play a role in history, but they do not control it.
History isn’t right or wrong and doesn’t pick sides. Short term efforts to try and guess where history is headed in an attempt to influence the journey are futile against the expanse of the landscape it travels.
Historian John H. Arnold says history is an argument between the past and the present, between what happened and what will happen next. History’s varied arguments are ongoing. They expand and contract based on the availability of evidence and the nature of its sources. Evidenced is discovered and verified, refuted and buried, or overshadowed by doubt.
The narrative feeds on knowledge and continues to grow. History has achieved what humans desire—the ability to live forever.
History’s arguments play a critical role in our lives. Because as Arnold observes, arguments create possibility. The possibility for change. We should stop wringing our hands about history’s artifacts and relics and instead consider what its narrative indicates might be possible today.
History doesn't currently need us to protect, shelter, preserve, or save it. Our past is taken care of. It's our future that is at stake.