“Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” – George Orwell, 1984
Though the past may be in the past, it is a guide to the future. As obvious as this may seem, it must constantly be reemphasized. One of the more chilling parts of 1984’s Orwellian dystopia is the habit for history to be habitually rewritten to suit the needs of the powerful.
History is an immensely valuable resource in the present day. With so much archived and available via the Internet, one of the easiest arguments to make for present action is to cite a period in history similar to the present. Many arguments for the adoption of the United States Constitution were based on references to the past (The Federalist #17-20 for example).
During the COVID-19 lockdown, there were countless articles (here, here, here, here, here, and here for example) using previous virus outbreaks, especially the Spanish Flu, as guides to handle the current outbreak.
Since historical records are neither permanently set in stone nor recorded by unbiased beings, those who control the means of recording history have a powerful tool to influence future events, and those that interpret recorded history (the media, for instance) are in a position of power as well.
Those wishing to do something about the manipulation of historical narratives have a difficult task ahead of them. It is not enough to become acquainted with basic history. General overviews of historical events will only inform you of the winning narrative, which is not necessarily true. Sometimes the truth makes it into the history books, and other times it doesn’t. Events in history may be unchanging, but the modern consensus about them sometimes changes.
It is not enough to simply read the prevailing narrative and assume that is true. Of course, likewise, it is also not enough to simply read revisionism that challenges the prevailing narrative, because these are not necessarily all true either.
There is a general consensus (a consensus which impacts policy today) that the New Deal was the proper response to the Great Depression. Those willing to read that narrative (The Money Makers, by Eric Rauchway) should also familiarize themselves with the opposing narrative (America’s Great Depression, by Murray Rothbard).
Even centuries later, medieval economic thought is still up for debate, with a Marxist narrative (Religion and The Rise of Capitalism, by R.H. Tawney) and a classical liberal narrative (Faith and Liberty, by Alejandro Chafuen).
Historical figures are up for debate as well. Some almost universally-loved figures, like Abraham Lincoln, have revisionist critics (The Real Lincoln, by Thomas DiLorenzo). Other almost universally-hated figures, like the Borgias, have revisionist defenders (The Borgias, by G.J. Meyer).
Looking around at mainstream media narratives today, it is no surprise that history isn’t so clear. Historians a century from now have plenty of material to cite if they wanted to show that government lockdowns saved millions of lives from COVID-19.
This presents another job for those concerned with history but aren’t willing to dive deep into an endless pile of history books. Historical narratives are built using the resources of the period. Whatever narrative is best maintained during the present day will likely be enshrined in the history books. It is up to us to make sure the truth is widespread so that the true narrative makes it into the history books. Yes, government overreach does quite a bit of damage that has long-term consequences. But the narrative itself of government overreach supposedly working has long-term consequences, as it will no doubt be cited in the future as justification for more overreach.
History is by no means settled. Although famous events and dates may be concrete, the impacts, causes, and underlying truths of many historical events are still being debated, and our modern understanding of past events will have a large impact on how we handle the future. Regardless of ideology, it is our responsibility to ensure that the historical record is accurate, and that we don’t fall for false narratives simply because they became the predominant view.