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History can be dangerous but historians can find paths to truth

A-lie-gets-halfway-around-the-worldCHRIS OVERLAND

ADELAIDE - Reader Martin Auld has expressed the view that history is written to legitimise those in power and he has concluded that history can be dangerous.

In arguing this, Martin is echoing the words of George Orwell in his novel '1984' where he wrote that “who controls the past controls the future”.

In the novel, the ruling regime was constantly revising history to meet its current needs, even to the extent of fabricating new ‘historic’ records to erase inconvenient truths or falsehoods and replace them with new ‘facts’ that met its political needs.

As Orwell foresaw, we now live in an era where distinguishing between truth and falsehood has become very difficult at times. Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin are but two examples of leaders who routinely lie to their constituencies.

However, this behaviour is hardly a recent development. Political, business and religious leaders long ago discovered that they often can achieve their ends by using a combination of evasion, half-truths and, sometimes, telling the most egregious and self-serving lies.

For example, Julius Caesar’s account of the Gallic Wars was primarily written to raise his prestige in Rome and so the facts and their interpretation as related in that work are regarded by historians as suspect, at least to some degree.

Later on, English rulers like Henry VIII and his daughter Elizabeth I became very artful in presenting fiction as fact so as to cultivate an entirely misleading image of themselves and the Plantagenet dynasty to their contemporaries and to history.

William Shakespeare and many others then proceeded to burnish the reputation and image of the Plantagenet’s based upon sometimes entirely false notions of their actions and motivations.

It is said that when Winston Churchill was asked how he thought history would treat him, he said it should treat him very well. When asked why he was so confident that this would be the case, Churchill responded, “Because I shall write it”.

It is pertinent to note that Churchill also famously said that “a lie gets half way around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on”, so he knew that when it came to writing history the advantage lay with the person who got in first.

Churchill’s subsequent book on World War II, whilst justly praised for its magisterial scope and erudition, tends to gloss over or even omit some facts that might tend to shed a less than flattering light upon its author.

All this means that historians are invariably faced with the task of teasing out the objective truth from the various self-serving fictions and delusions that feature so prominently in the historic record.

This is why different histories about the same events can sometimes reach markedly different conclusions about the motivations and actions of historic figures.

As an historian, I would dispute that history per se is dangerous but I would agree that it can be dangerously, even maliciously, distorted.

A critical question to ask about any history is who has written it and why. It also is important to confirm, in so far as this is possible, that the author reports the known facts accurately. Errors of fact or omissions can powerfully influence how history is presented and understood.

Ultimately, how the agreed facts are interpreted is, of course, where the reader must form his or her own opinion about the veracity or otherwise of what any author is asserting about history.

In the context of Papua New Guinea, I do not think that its political leaders care one jot about history. Their eyes are fixed firmly on the here and now and, in too many cases, on maximising personal benefit from their time in office.

If and when one of today’s leaders feels moved to write their version of history, it is highly improbable that it will be other than almost entirely self-serving.

Typically, politicians do not write “warts and all” accounts of their time in office. As they did in politics, they seek to justify themselves and burnish their reputations, not report the unalloyed truth.

For this reason no political memoir is fully reliable even if the facts are broadly correct and the author full of good intentions.

History can indeed be dangerous but a wary and careful historian can usually find a path to the truth even if it is long, tortuous and highly contested.

Happily, there are some people in PNG who are seeking to find and record the truth about the history of their peoples and cultures.

This is likely to be a more fraught task than they imagine but they should speak their truth and fear not, especially to those in power.

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