A Revisionist's Burden

Nowadays, history is regularly written by the victims, usually in service of a political agenda. Long-remembered slights poison political debate, often with violent consequences.

Issue: July-Aug 2009

Margaret MacMillan, Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (New York: Modern Library, 2009), 208 pp., $22.00.

 

[amazon 0812979966 full] "EVERYONE IS entitled to his own opinion," Daniel Patrick Moynihan once said, "but not to his own facts." Samuel Butler, the nineteenth-century English author, wrote that "though God cannot alter the past, historians can."

Whether modifying facts or opinions, historians have been fiddling with history since Herodotus proclaimed his goal of "preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory." Herodotus divorced history from Homeric myth; he consulted written sources, traveled and conducted interviews, and explained to readers what he knew and what he only inferred. But he rarely let informational accuracy get in the way of a good story, and he had a purpose beyond glorifying the past-namely demonstrating the superiority of Greek self-government to Persian despotism.

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