History: A Team Sport

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky, political commentator and social activist, made the following statement, “When the US invades… kills a couple hundred thousand people, destroys country… – that’s stabilization. If someone resists that attack – that’s destabilization.”[1] This statement, although controversial in nature does highlight a problem so often encountered during the general study of history – history from the perspective of the strong and victorious, or in the post-Cold War age, history from the perspective of one’s favorite team.

Traditionally history was recorded by the victor. The objectives of the victor were portrayed as strong and virtuous and the defeated were portrayed as weak and morally inferior. Over the centuries the advancement of technology allowed for a greater record of history to be kept. In addition to formal books recording the history of famous men and battles, newspapers and personal journals acted as the repositories of historical data. These documents were simply waiting to be mined for the valuable information that would then be included in some historical tome. In the modern world, it seems that everything is being recorded, even if not all things are noteworthy or have any likelihood of making their way into a historical study. Yet even with the plethora of data now available to historians, history is still being written by the strong and powerful, whether it be nations or people. Scholars may work to mitigate the efforts of propagandists and publicists, but the general perception of current events is being colored by sensational hype, and recent history is being distorted often by a sense of patriotism or loyalty. The notion that the history making people or events must be categorized either as good or bad, and that the public must then draw up sides, like for some global team sporting event, perpetuates the problems of creating a valid comprehensive record of history. During the decades of the Cold War, people found it rather easy to choose sides, unless of course they lived one of the many newly decolonized nations. These people often found themselves courted and coerced by the superpowers, with their hopes for stability threatened by the opposing teams whose real aims had little to do with stability and had much more to do with simply beating the other side. The Cold War was unique in scale and scope but the tendency for people to choose sides was not. People desire belonging to a group and desire to victory over defeat. Most importantly, people desire justification and acceptance for their choices and actions. Even those who end up on the loosing team wish to be remembered as having been justified in their fight, even if their justification was misguided or their motivation was less than noble.

History is not always kind, and compressive history is seldom a record of winners and losers. Sometimes the most memorable players were not on the winning team and often the winning team was less than honorable in their actions, even if their intent was virtuous. Fans of history can become entrenched in feelings of loyalty and struggle to embrace opposing views, particularly when opposing views criticize their team. Historians are tasked with the challenge of avoiding anachronistic tendencies and personal bias, knowing fully well that even as they attempt to provide a balanced study of history, their audience may have already chosen their favorite team and will not be budged.

[1] Chomsky: “US Invades, Destroys Country – That’s Stabilization. Someone Resists – Destabilization’, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-QFDX7mLqM&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

 

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