Why Do So Many People Automatically and Angrily Condemn Historical Revisionism?

Over the years, especially in writing for the general public, as opposed to my professional peers, I have been struck repeatedly by the frequency with which certain conclusions or even entire classes of conclusions elicit not merely skepticism, but angry denunciation. Again and again, I have been called a fool, a traitor, or an America-hater because of my commentaries on history and public affairs. Although I take no pleasure in these denunciations, I find myself not so much depressed by them as curious about them. I wonder why people react as they do, especially when my commentary rests—as I hope it generally does—on well-documented facts and correct logic.

I surely do not consider myself immune to errors, of course. But if my facts are incorrect, the critic has an obligation to say why my facts are incorrect and to state, or at least to point toward, the correct facts. If my logic has run off the rails, the critic has an obligation to state how I fell into fallacious reasoning. More often than not, however, the critic resorts immediately to name-calling and to wild characterizations of my statements and my person. Thus, I have often been called a socialist, a Marxist, a conservative, an apologist for corporations or the rich, a (modern left) liberal, or something else that by no stretch of the imagination properly describes me or my intellectual or ideological position.

Certain topics are virtually guaranteed to elicit such reactions. When I write about the welfare state and especially about government programs ostensibly aimed at helping the least-well-off members of society, I confidently expect that critics will assail me as a fascist or as an ivory-tower dweller who has no understanding of how poor people really live and no compassion for them. When I write about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in relation to U.S. economic warfare in 1939-41, I invariably attract angry personal abuse from people of delicate nationalistic sensibilities, from those chronically on the look-out for traitors, and from those who cannot imagine that the nation’s leaders, in general, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in particular, might have deliberately provoked a Japanese attack or refrained from warning U.S. commanders in Hawaii that an attack was coming.

When people are offended or otherwise greatly displeased by historical analysis, they often employ the term “historical revisionism” as a synonym for falsified, distorted, or doctored accounts that fly in the face of what they, their history teachers, and perhaps even the most respected university historians believe to have been the case.

The irony of such use of the term “historical revision,” which makes it practically a swear word, is that revisionism is and always has been an integral part of historical research and writing. As a rule, professional historians do not seek simply to pile up more and more evidence for what historians already generally believe. Historians who proceed in this way cannot expect to make much of a name for themselves. Instead, historians try to find new evidence and new ways of interpreting old evidence that change the currently accepted view. That is, they seek to revise the current orthodoxy. In doing so, they need not be ideological mavericks, although those who are may have an additional reason for their revisionist efforts. In short, revisionism is an unremarkable aspect of workaday historical research and writing. Why then do so many readers go ballistic about it?

One reason why revisionists are sometimes seen as subversives stems from the tendency of historians in general to accept the most fundamental aspects of their own society as right and desirable. So, however much political historians may dispute the details of particular campaigns, elections, and policy-making by elected officials—and such disputation runs rampant, to be sure—one hardly expects these historians to conclude that the democratic process itself is little more than a snare and a delusion, a vast apparatus for fooling the masses into believing that they have genuine control over how they are ruled. And however much military and foreign-policy historians may argue with one another about how various wars were entered into and conducted, one hardly expects these historians to conclude that wars almost invariably hurt the mass of the people and benefit, if anyone at all, only the national leadership, its supporting elite, and a ragtag band of hangers-on (which includes, we might note, the “court historians”).

When a historian strays outside the 40-yard lines within which the bulk of the historical writing and teaching takes place, however, he is likely to be met with the dreaded accusation that he is not an honest, competent, or “respected” historian, but a revisionist—a writer who seeks to propagate socially destructive and utterly unfounded ideas in order to rend the fabric of national unity and undermine the nation’s virtues. Thus, one who challenges the standard account of Pearl Harbor can expect not simply to be disbelieved, but also to be personally condemned and vilified. Readers will say that he dishonors the brave men who gave their lives to preserve our freedoms, and so forth. Many people possess a loaded ideological gun with a hair trigger, and the slightest shake suffices to cause them to fire away. Moreover, they shoot first and reserve their fact-checking and more careful thought for later, if indeed they ever reach that stage.

One is tempted to suspect that such quick-draw reactions reveal an underlying lack of confidence in their own beliefs. If my views are so manifestly stupid and anti-social, why respond to them at all? Is it not more sensible to ignore them than to spend time in lavishing calumny on their author? In the age of the Internet, however, many people seem to get their kicks by denouncing and insulting anyone who offends their own sensibilities and their own cherished beliefs. Anyone who seeks examples of ad hominem arguments may easily collect them by the thousands and perhaps by the millions at the websites that feature news and commentary on public affairs. Every other species of logical fallacy may be found there in abundance as well, but my guess is that the ad hominem fallacy occurs more often than any other. Moreover, few people—even seemingly well-educated people—seem to be able to stay on point. So if a revisionist’s argument cannot be refuted, his critics freely set up and knock down straw men that they represent as the offender himself. Careful reading is not the most notable activity of those who engage in such flailing away. Many attackers do not even complete their reading, but begin their assault on an author immediately, after having read only a few sentences or paragraphs, as they sometimes admit.

Well, nobody ever promised the revisionist a bed of roses, especially if he challenges ideas that are widely accepted and valued. Americans want to believe that their nation is the greatest that ever was, that they themselves are better than other people in almost every way, including morally. They want to believe that at least some of their government leaders were virtuous and heroic, that their soldiers sacrificed more nobly than the enemy’s did, that their country is the last, best hope of humanity, blah, blah, blah. Much of this catalogue of taken-for-granted outlooks and beliefs is ludicrous, but woe unto the writer who laughs out loud at it. “Revisionist, revisionist!” the mobs will cry, expressing the demand that he “get out of the country” and the hope that every species of bad luck and personal misfortune will befall him. If I were one of those social psychologists who enjoy labeling any ideological trait they dislike as a form of mental illness, I might declare that the hair-trigger enemies of historical revisionism are a gaggle of sickos.

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute, author or editor of over fourteen Independent books, and Editor at Large of Independent’s quarterly journal The Independent Review.
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