“Why not? No one reads anymore.”
This was Oscar Wilde’s excuse for plagiarism. But it’s becoming something of a modern manifesto. Make up facts? Refuse to admit you’re wrong? Blur the line between history and propaganda?
“Why not? No one reads anymore!” — especially when it comes to the increasingly prevalent pastime of reinventing history.
In recent weeks, there has been a flurry of historical revision. In movie theaters, a mutant Kevin Bacon took credit for the Cuban Missile crisis. On the campaign trail, Sarah Palin retold Paul Revere’s ride and the Internet nearly exploded. Suddenly Paul Revere was riding to warn the British about their colonists’ Second Amendment rights and shooting things and ringing bells. Or maybe he was giving technologies to the Russians. It’s hard to keep track.
Such incidents combine our two most salient characteristics: our Perpetual Rightness and our total lack of any portable knowledge. Why learn facts? Google exists! Why study dates? Let’s ponder How Everyone Must Have Been Feeling. Our historical illiteracy is only exceeded by our inability to admit that we are ever wrong.
Facts once put up a stubborn resistance. You looked them up in books and there they were, unaltered and unalterable, unless someone had vandalized the page and left Patrick Henry shouting, "Give me liberty, or give me Darth.”
No longer. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and facts I found on the Internet.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that the ready availability of fact — or something that can pass for it at cocktail parties — coincides with a sudden burgeoning of historical interest. The Tea Party strolls around in meticulous 18th-century costumes. Glenn Beck visits Mount Vernon and cries. Sarah Palin embarks on a bus tour and takes in the Liberty Bell.
People say that the Internet has done great things for research. But the only thing the Internet has done for research is to make us assume that we never need search for a fact in an actual book ever again.
Sometimes this is embarrassing. Last year, Virginia was forced to recall a set of textbooks because they stated that thousands of African Americans fought for the Confederacy. The book's author admitted that for this information, she "relied primarily on an Internet search."
But last week, this seems to have progressed.
Our public discourse about history is turning into a sort of Bring Your Own Fact bonanza.
Instead of admitting that we misstated the sum of two and two, we are actively trying to make it five. After Palin’s infamous remarks that Paul Revere was “warning the British” on his famous ride, with “shots” and “bells,” suddenly Paul Revere's Wikipedia page broke out in a rash of comments and updates that included notes (italicized) like “Revere did not shout the phrase later attributed to him (‘The British are coming!’), largely because the mission depended on secrecy and the countryside was filled with British army patrols; also, most colonial residents at the time considered themselves British as they were all legally British subjects.”
But then some of the editors at Wikipedia were unsporting enough to remove them.
I can’t imagine why. “Everyone must be allowed to rewrite history all the time because history is kind of boring and nobody really remembers it all that well,” as Aristotle once said.
This is where our history is headed. Once remarks like Palin's would have been flubs. Instead, they provoked whole slews of historians to emerge from the woodwork screaming that We May Never Know What Happened On That Fateful Day.
This worries me.
I don’t like turning my back on history and getting the uneasy sense that it has moved. History is, after all, not living. That is what makes it history. Faulkner said that the past isn't dead – it's not even past. But Faulkner was speaking metaphorically. In general, if your history is up and moving about the cabin, that is an indication that something is seriously amiss.
Martin Luther King Jr., didn’t walk across the Atlantic with Charlemagne promoting The King’s Speech so that people could cavalierly rewrite history this way. As George Washington said, “Sarah Palin is a charismatic figure, but this seems wrong.”
The problem is not that we don’t care about history. We do. Just not enough to learn it.
And this omission leaves us decreasingly able to distinguish fact from fiction. “Fact is what I think,” we cry. “Fiction is what people think who disagree with me. Look, here’s a quote from Google!”
History is shaped in the telling, no doubt, but only in color and emphasis, not points of fact. Some things objectively occurred, and other things did not, incredible as this may seem.
I believe it was Santayana who said that “a country without a memory is a country of madmen.” We love Mad Men!
They say history is written by the winners. As Charlie Sheen has repeatedly informed us, we are all winners. No wonder revamping history is so in fashion, even in our popular culture. Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter? Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? X-Men resolving the Bay of Pigs? Isn’t history great?
Don't retreat, reload, as Gandhi once so memorably remarked.
“I know my American history,” Palin said, insisting on Fox News last Sunday that she was not wrong about Paul Revere. That’s hers. Where’s ours? Maybe it’s online somewhere.
After all, those who don't learn their history aren't doomed to repeat it. They're doomed to rewrite it.