History – The Changing Tides of Revisionism

Essay, Government, Anil Anand

“For better than a century many historians have found it useful to employ a Fabian tactic against critics in related fields of intellectual endeavor. The tactic works like this: when criticized by social scientists for the softness of his method, the crudity of his organizing metaphors, or the ambiguity of his sociological and psychological presuppositions, the historian responds that history has never claimed the status of a pure science, that it depends as much upon intuitive as upon analytical methods, and that historical judgments should not therefore be evaluated by critical standards properly applied only in the mathematical and experimental disciplines. All of which suggests that history is a kind of art. But when reproached by literary artist for his failure to robe the more arcane strata of human consciousness and his unwillingness to utilize contemporary modes of literary representation, the historian falls back upon the view that history is after all a semi-science, that historical data do not lend themselves to ‘free’ artistic manipulation, and that the form of his narratives is not a matter of choice, but is required by the nature of historical materials themselves.”1  (Hayden White)

 

The trend termed by some as revisionism endeavours to re-examine history, particularly leaders who held positions of power and influence. The resulting debate is seen as causing some resistance among those committed to a prevailing narrative on the one hand, and resentment and persuasion among those who seek to reinterpret and expand that narrative on the other. The debate is reflected in protests and politicization, which like too many contemporary issues, has sent opposing views into their corners, with few left to hold the common ground.   

In an earlier article titled “Populism–The Orphan Child of Democracy,”2 I noted that there is a popular movement that draws on a growing sentiment that the social contract advanced by the post-Second World War global order has been illusory. The populism movement has effectively convinced many that the very institutions and policies intended for advancing democracy, peace, social justice, and prosperity have themselves become antithetical to the aspirations of just and equitable social systems. A sense of disillusionment contributes to revisionism and dissent against what many see as failures of the post-Second World War social contract, while others seek reparations for what they see as old-world injustices. There are also those who have grown frustrated and resentful with the democratic institutions that promised to make their lives better, to listen to their voices, and give life to their votes.  

It may be useful to place history into two generalized periods, one consisting of the period of Western expansion and subsequent colonialism and imperialism commencing in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, and a post-Second World War period resulting in the redrafting of national and international boundaries. While my article was primarily concerned with the post-Second World War period, we are examining here the result of the post-imperial era—the broader period from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries onward, leading to what Samir Puri terms the “great imperial hangover.”3 

The following is an exploration of the motivation for, or resistance to, revisionism. This motivation is partly based on what author Mike Mason in Turbulent Empires: A History of Global Capitalism Since 1945 terms a rebalancing between vastly unequal backgrounds and resources of the state and citizens’ private lives.4 

There is a re-envisioning of heroes and symbols: Sir Winston Churchill from the perspective of colonialism, King Leopold from the perspective of his exploits in the Congo, or the Confederate flag from the perspective of Black Americans.  

Grievances are also complicated by an increasing suspicion of the so-called elite—the academics, journalists, scientists, and the educated—among those seeking revision and traditionalists. Revisionists hold elites complicit in the creation, perpetuation, and preservation of a selective history while traditionalists find their narrative too readily eroded through revisionism. Revisionism is based on a reassessment of the attitudes, policies, and actions now deemed responsible for harmful outcomes which marginalized and exploited populations experienced.

The challenge for Canadians and others is not reckoning with uncomfortable and inconvenient revelations. Rather, why has so much history been left out of the collective consciousness of Canadians until recently? And while one might argue that the records have always been there or they would not now be in focus, the fact that there was selective myth-making compels a moral inquest.

The unsavoury policies, actions, and consequences of several of our leaders have simply not been part of the Canadian curriculum. They have been marginalized or worse, justified, through a false construct. It is this reticence to be upfront, critical, and open that has contributed to a more contentious re-evaluation of history today. In effect, the legitimacy and credibility of history itself are now at stake, not unlike the institutions of democracy, governance, economics, and justice.

Progressive societies evolve, but progress also implies that there will be hindsight and a past that is less progressive, perhaps even regrettable. Progress is the basis on which societies undertake the requisite self-reflection, the attribute that distinguishes those sincerely committed to advancement as opposed to those who suppress evolution. It is this social evolution and the experiences that societies undergo, or at least the record of it, which we call history. But there is rightly an expectation that historians will report the facts, the unblemished narrative, for posterity to interpret, assess, and judge. However, this has not been the case; on the contrary, what has been provided is a highly selective, filtered, and censored version of our past, our leaders, and our impact on the world we have left behind. We reap those consequences today.

History is a messy mix and the growing pains of a post-imperial world order are inevitable. It would have been unimaginable, or only remotely probable, that imperial powers would have been concerned or even anticipated that their colonial subjects might judge them at some future juncture. There was a sense of impunity on the hold of mastery and control—control in almost every sense, including history. And where there were conflicting values, the justifications of the greater good, as determined by the dominant perspective, naturally trumped those of the aggrieved. 

Historians like the late John Ramsden, a professor of modern history at Queen Mary at the University of London, and many others, while agreeing on Churchill’s centrality to the Allied defiance of Hitler, also suggest that much has been left out or marginalized by the slipstream of historical myth-making.5  

An article in the March 6, 2021 edition of The Economist, “Aristofascists: Nazi Parties,” says of Churchill: 

It has become fashionable on the left to dismiss Churchill as a racist. A vandal spray-painted the word on his statue in Parliament Square. During a recent discussion on “Churchill and Race” held in, of all places, Churchill College, Cambridge, panelists competed to denounce him as a racist, white supremacist, and eugenicist.  Churchill certainly said some repugnant things about race. But by the standards of his time he was relatively moderate: he was much less enthusiastic about eugenics, for example, than many heroes of the left such as Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H.G. Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Harold Laski.6

Much more than just being “fashionable,” it is only natural that the views of many, previously set aside, are now empowered by progress, democracy, and justice and are attempting to rebalance that perspective. On May 28, 2021, Germany finally apologized for the genocide of sixty-five thousand Herero and ten thousand Nama tribespeople between 1904 and 1908.7

Another article in the same edition of The Economist, “An Emperor’s Clothes,” on Napoleon’s bicentenary, notes:  

To some he was a military genius, strategist mastermind, and visionary leader who bequeathed to France a centralized modern administration and sense of gloire. To others he is a tyrant and a butcher who squandered French supremacy in Europe on the battlefield of Waterloo. Napoleon Bonaparte, who died in captivity on the British island of Saint Helena at the age of 51, has long inspired both admiration and distaste, even in France. Now, ahead of the bicentenary of his death on May 5th 1821, those rival passions have been renewed.8

Closer to home, a 2015 article in the National Post, “Sure, John A. Macdonald Was a Racist, Colonizer and Misogynist — But So Were Most Canadians Back Then,” notes that the critics are “right on all counts, but the man who founded Canada was the product of an age that made Archie Bunker look like Mohandas Gandhi.”9

Gandhi too is under scrutiny for advocating racial hierarchy and the segregation of South African blacks. Angered by his early writings, a movement tagged by hashtag #GandhiMustFall is demanding that his legacy be re-examined within the context of his racist views.10 Students in England have demanded that the Manchester city council remove a statue of Gandhi, citing his reference to Africans as “savages,” “uncivilised,” and “dirty”; comments which were “well documented throughout Gandhi’s earlier correspondence and writings.”11 Last year, a Gandhi statue was removed from a university campus in Ghana.12

In India, the so-called “Jewel in the Crown,” imperial statues have been vandalized ever since independence in 1947; many were bundled off and shipped to other Commonwealth countries. There are of course myriad similar debates raging about Civil War heroes in the United States, King Leopold’s enterprises in the Congo, and even early explorers like Christopher Columbus.

Samir Puri, in The Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our World, notes that although we are in the first empire-free millennium, we are not yet over the great imperial hangover, which in many respects celebrates the conquest, control, and achievements of empires.13 Viewed through this lens, history has naturally and exclusively been a product of empire makers and empire builders and not those subjected to imperialism.

There can be no simple or concise position on what all this means to everyone, or on how to revise, if revision is even an appropriate term. But we can be entirely certain that the grievance about celebrating imperial-period heroes has much to do with what was excluded from the historical narrative. Many of the facts that have brought about grievances cannot be denied; they are backed by evidence. Nonetheless, we can also be certain that history is complex, neither entirely fact-based nor entirely interpretative, that history has almost exclusively been the purview of the victor, and that it is inevitably bound to politics.  

This movement that lashes out against historical figures has effectively convinced people that the very figures whose policies are glorified for advancing social justice, anti-racism, and prosperity are themselves antithetical to the aspirations of just and equitable social systems promised by the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As the first chairperson of the UN Commission on Human Rights, Eleanor Roosevelt championed this document, celebrating it as “the international Magna Carta for all mankind.”14 Historians and societies driven by narrow perspectives and political agendas have whitewashed the injustices and harm done to those who were subject to imperialism and suffered exploitation and racism. This is at the core of the resentment and global revolt against the singular interpretation of imperial-period heroes.  

Timothy Stanley, in “The Struggle for History: Historical Narratives and AntiRacist Pedagogy,” notes that historical narratives contribute to popular racism in at least three ways. 

First, like all narratives, they are selective: 

Insofar as historical narratives purport to represent the pasts of persons, institutions or territories, they help to constitute and justify the relations acted out within popular racisms. Through their selections, by articulating certain things and being silent on others, they establish relations between persons, their pasts and various territories (physical and institutional).15

The revisionist movement, for lack of a better term, is therefore represented by people who have grown frustrated with, and resentful of, the glorification of leaders, policies, and institutions that marginalized, indentured, enslaved, mutilated and murdered millions through the imperial powers’ economic and social advancement. The grievance is as much against a system that has been selective in articulating certain things and being silent on others, especially those that victimized, marginalized, or exploited others.

As products of the Canadian public education system, many of us grew up with the history of the discovery of Canada, the early settlers, Upper and Lower Canada, the Hudson’s Bay Company, and so on. We studied from texts not unlike The Illustrated History of Canada.16 Many of us grew up in awe of the works of Pierre Berton, who some call “the man who taught Canadians how to think of themselves.”17 Yet, many of us have only just now begun to uncover the context within which Canada’s considerable, supposedly peaceful achievements were made, the prevailing sentiments, and resulting policies.

It is suggested that it’s unfair to judge the past through the lens of the present. That may be true to some extent. It may be more appropriate to argue that the policies and attitudes of leaders yesterday and today reflect the prevailing values of their societies and that leaders should not be judged in isolation or without consideration of the prevailing circumstances.  

James Daschuk, in his award-winning work Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life, documents how Sir John A. Macdonald directed federal officials to deny food to First Nations, and even boasted publicly about keeping the Indigenous population “on the verge of actual starvation” to save government funds. Daschuk’s conclusion: “The uncomfortable truth is that modern Canada is founded upon ethnic cleansing and genocide.”18

It is problematic for many that in 1885, Macdonald felt that the Chinese would take white people’s jobs, that the prospect of having white working classes living alongside Chinese could lead only to “evil,” and that they would breed a “mongrel” race in British Columbia and threaten the “Aryan” character of the Dominion:19 

If you look around the world you will see that the Aryan races will not wholesomely amalgamate with the Africans or the Asiatics. It is not to be desired that they should come; that we should have a mongrel race, that the Aryan character of the future of British America should be destroyed by a cross or crosses of that kind.   

Macdonald did not conjure these sentiments and policies on his own; he reflected the popular sentiment. “On the whole, it is considered not advantageous to the country that the Chinese should come and settle in Canada,” he said. “That may be right or it may be wrong, it may be prejudice or otherwise, but the prejudice is near-universal.”20

Macdonald’s policies resulted in the Indian Act and Indian residential schools, and Macdonald’s sentiments contributed to the creation of the residential schools as recorded in the House of Commons: “When the school is on the reserve, the child lives with his parents who are savages; he is surrounded by savages. He is simply a savage who can read and write.”21 

Macdonald is not alone in being subject to scrutiny. Many of us outside of the United States ardently admire Abraham Lincoln. In fact, one of my most memorable moments was my first anxious steps up onto the Lincoln Memorial, leading to the awe-inspiring and humbling sight of the seated Lincoln. And yet, Lincoln too has provided many paradoxes, leaving those who choose to examine his life with perplexing dichotomies.

Although the United States was not an imperial nation, it was the product of imperialism that introduced slavery to the continent. The U.S. was a nation torn by a civil war fought to end slavery, a nation that continues to struggle with the “righteousness” with which its Southern heroes fought to defend their right to own slaves. But even the Great Emancipator reflected views that are difficult to reconcile. Anyone reading Lincoln’s fourth debate at Charleston, Illinois delivered on September 18, 1858, before some twelve thousand attendees will likely find it hard to believe that Lincoln stated the following:

While I was at the hotel to-day, an elderly gentleman called upon me to know whether I was really in favor of producing a perfect equality between the negroes and white people. [Great Laughter.] While I had not proposed to myself on this occasion to say much on that subject, yet as the question was asked me I thought I would occupy perhaps five minutes in saying something in regard to it. I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, [applause]-that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.22

It is perplexing how history can dismiss such defining statements, even if they are difficult to reconcile with Lincoln’s greater character. Exclusion of an opportunity to grapple with the meaning, context, and effect of such words diminishes Lincoln. It contributes to the creation of an artificially cleansed construct and victimizes the rest of us as the objects of what someone else thinks we deserve to know; worse, it denies us the right to make our own assessments of the world we live in.

Undeniably, the injustices of slavery, apartheid, colonialism, imperialism, and the genocide of First Nations peoples have all been tapped as catalysts for reform. History is for the first time subject to re-examination by the newly informed. This is happening not in the context of the victor through whose lens history books, museums, art, and statuary have so far been interpreted, but through the empowered lens of the previously marginalized.23

Stanley suggests that the second way by which historical narratives contribute to popular racism, is in helping to constitute “imagined community”:24

Insofar as a narrative presupposes a subject whose story can be told, individuals in claiming a history as their own also constitute themselves as a fictive community.  Yet, at the same time, others are excluded from the narrative and from its community.  Thus, by excluding certain people and their real or imagined pasts from the narrative community, historical narratives themselves discursively and culturally construct the exclusions and inclusions of racisms.25 

It is difficult to deny that victor bias, political influence, and privilege all exert sway on how, how much, and what history describes. History as a pedagogical tool must, among other goals, serve to indoctrinate respect, loyalty, and pride in the institutions and foundations of social systems, and a sense of belonging among citizens. This goal is more easily achieved in homogeneous rather than heterogeneous societies.

The preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights notes that a disregard and contempt for those rights have resulted in barbarous acts, and therefore recognizes the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all humans as the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.26 The struggle to uncloak historical editing seems to flow into this declaration. When historians decide whose story is more valid, they send powerful messages about the status of communities and people.  

Adam Hochschild’s book, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, offers perhaps the most damning example of denial. The book offers an overview of the period from 1895 until 1908 when King Leopold II of Belgium ruled large parts of Congo, claiming them as his own. His brutal, exploitative regime relied on forced labour to cultivate and trade rubber, ivory, and minerals and was responsible for atrocities, including murdering people for failing to meet production quotas.  

Infamous photos capturing these atrocities are widely available and they demonstrate an evil inclination for greed and the domination of 10 million people. One photo captures a man sitting on a low platform looking at a dismembered small foot and hand belonging to his five-year-old daughter, who was later killed when her village did not produce sufficient rubber. Chopping off the limbs of enslaved Congolese was a routine form of retribution when Leopold’s quotas were not met.27

As a study guide notes:  

This is what makes the story so interesting and important to tell; that and the fact that as late as the 1970s, hardly anyone outside the country had any idea of the atrocities perpetrated in the Congo under Leopold’s rule. Even the Belgians, who gained control of the Congo after Leopold sold it to them in 1908, had no collective cultural memory of the mass murder enacted there under the direction of their own king. Hochschild himself admits to having known nothing about the Congo, despite his own professional interest in human rights history, and the book he writes is a deliberate and explicit contribution to uncovering what he calls one of the “silences” of history.28

Colonial history has been barely taught in Belgium. The country’s education minister has, however, announced that secondary schools will teach colonial history beginning next year.29

Egalitarian societies are identified by their commitment to self-examination, to being inclusive, just, and progressive. Self-reflection and a society’s ability to learn from history’s lessons are essential for social progress.  

Differences and conflicting worldviews can be reconciled—they don’t have to be intractable.  Perhaps the most profound example of this has been South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission following that country’s emergence from apartheid. The truth is that empire-building was not a universally benevolent undertaking; it was not egalitarian, altruistic, just, or even moral. However, the world is bound to that record and the trajectory of human development built on that history. The challenge is not to deny that history can be both good and bad, or to defend it for the sake of defending it, but rather to reveal it, understand it, and move forward.

For decades, a hulking bronze statue of former president Theodore Roosevelt atop a horse, flanked by Native American and African men on foot, greeted visitors at the entrance to the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The statue and the position of the two nameless men subservient to the powerful white man evoked racial hierarchy, colonialism, debate, and years of protests. While many visitors might not have thought much about the statue’s grandeur and intricacy, both First Nations peoples and descendants of slaves would have been confronted by very different, possibly conflicting thoughts about their sense of belonging.  

Interestingly, Roosevelt’s great-grandson, Theodore Roosevelt IV, who sits on the museum’s board of trustees, stated: “The world does not need statues, relics of another age, that reflect neither the values of the person they intend to honor nor the values of equality and justice…The composition of the Equestrian Statue does not reflect Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy. It is time to move the Statue and move forward.”30 

The “silencing of history” reflects the failure of historians and educators who did not tell the whole story. The challenge, therefore, is not in deciding if history needs reassessment, but in how we respond to the dissonance that revision will inevitably cause. 

Third, Stanley notes: 

…historical narratives effect racist denial unless they are self-consciously aware of how racisms constitute the categories of the narrative. In the absence of fully historicized understandings of racism, racism can be variously represented as eternal and natural, as the product of recent changes or as belonging to a long distant and dead past. In any case, both the contemporary and historical realities of racisms are underplayed and marginalized.31

So, revision is and should be part of a healthy pedagogical process. The rearview that history provides is a record of change, revisions, and progress. But history also serves to enable group-think among those who share a status quo and at the same time the otherization of those who don’t—the notion of a hero and anti-hero or protagonist and antagonist.  

The storytelling about Louis Riel and Métis–Canadian conflicts of the 1870s and 1880s is another example of history undergoing an extraordinary adjustment. Once regarded by some as a madman and misguided religious zealot, Riel is today celebrated as a visionary who fought for the rights of his people against an encroaching tide of settlers and who helped establish the province of Manitoba. Hanged for treason in 1885 at the North-West Mounted Police barracks in Regina, Riel is now paradoxically a national hero.

As an official government of Canada website notes: “Although his legacy has always been controversial, his status as a rebel, highlighted by many non-Métis historians and political scientists, has been largely replaced by that of a visionary whose principles resonate with many Métis and Canadians today.”32  

The Métis–Canadian experience is in part an art of remembrance, survival, and storytelling. For some, these examples create dissonance and confusion and are the reason that many struggle to understand history.  

Desmond Morton, one of Canada’s greatest and most prolific historians, noted that Canada’s military history is unlike that of her closest allies. We have no military heroes like Britain’s Marlborough, Nelson, and Wellington. We have no period of conquest such as Napoleon’s continental empire. Unlike the U.S., our nation was not born of revolution and conflict. Nor was it torn apart by civil war and recreated as a regional power and, after 1945, as a superpower. Moreover, for the most part, our wars have been others’ wars. The War of 1812, the Boer War, and the world wars of the 20th century have resulted from other nations’ aggression and failed diplomacy.33  

When asked why our federal government wants people to think that Canada, which did not exist in 1812, won a war that nobody won, Morton noted that myth only serves one purpose: someone’s deliberate and self-serving interest.34 

Nicolas Mayer-Rossignol, the mayor of Rouen, France wants to replace the imposing bronze statue of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte on horseback that stands outside his Normandy town hall. In 2005, Jacques Chirac refused to commemorate the bicentenary of Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz. In May 2021, President Emmanuel Macron laid a wreath at Napoleon’s tomb to mark the bicentenary of his death; meanwhile, talk show hosts continue to debate whether Napoleon’s legacy is damaging or beneficial for France.35 But in the process, every French citizen will be familiarized with Napoleon, and gain a better understanding of his role in history, his frailties, strengths, accomplishments, and disasters.  

Napoleon Bonaparte was responsible for some of the worst military losses in Western history, including the loss of the fleet at the mouth of the Nile to Horatio Nelson, and the loss of as many as six hundred and fifty thousand troops and hundreds of thousands of horses in the disastrous invasion of Russia. He brought the empire crashing down a second time at the battle of Waterloo. Napoleon was exiled twice and died in isolation on the island of Saint Helena, a British possession in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, in 1821. His body was repatriated in 1840.  Yet he is today one of history’s most heroic figures; now entombed in a six-layered sarcophagus of red quartzite beneath the dome of the Hôtel des Invalides in Paris.

The inquiries that challenge our understanding of history today are similar to those of the past. History has always been subject to revision. It would be short-sighted to view the re-examination of history today as some novel revisionism when in fact history has always been revisionist, and it is no more uncomfortable or inconvenient today than at any other time in the past. History is storytelling; the perspective, morals, protagonists, and antagonists depend on the storyteller. 

History should always endeavour to seek the truth about the past and the present—even if the truth is unfavourable or unpleasant. In the final analysis, our heroes are us; they cannot be perfect. At the same time, different individuals will inevitably apply different standards and expectations at different times, for very different reasons.  

History has always been a factual and a poetic process for externalizing ourselves through the recognition of great events, adversities, and heroism. History serves as the greatest epitaph of all, and we therefore naturally resist any desecration of it; however, consensus about its meaning and impact is never easy, and almost always contested. 

Every human event, activity, or encounter is subject to both the factual as well as the interpretative. History depends on the perspective and experience of the participant and observer, their resources (scholarly and social), and perhaps more importantly on the conscious or subconscious intent and purpose of the storytelling. As the famous economist, historian, and ethnographer Thomas Sowell cautioned: “Some things are believed because they are true, but many things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.”36

History depends on the inclusion of new information, and on study, didactic inquiry, and pedagogical scrutiny. However, the cost of this sometimes means abandoning what we thought was long-established for something newer, something different from what we have become accustomed to, for better or worse. It is a challenge to the socio-cultural context that we assumed had shaped our sense of self. Without that process, history would be no more than a stagnant epithet. As British historiographer Keith Jenkins notes:

Yet the price paid is a considerable one. It has resulted in the repression of the conceptual apparatus (without which atomic facts cannot be aggregated into complex macrostructures and constituted as objects of discursive representation in a historical narrative) and the remission of the poetic moment in historical writing to the interior of the discourse (wherein function as an unacknowledged—and therefore uncritical—content of the historical narrative). 

We therefore, resist revision based on unclear, incomplete, or uncertain facts, or because it challenges our poetic self-identity—the characteristics we idealize in our heroes and as a consequence, ourselves.

Today, revisionism endeavours to re-examine the roles, contributions, decisions, and legacy of many prominent figures, such as Lincoln, Gandhi, Churchill, Leopold, and Macdonald, to name a few. Such re-examination is uncomfortable, contentious, and at times divisive; but it is neither novel nor surprising.  

Jenkins, in his book Re-thinking History, aptly describes this challenge as:

Every discipline, I suppose, is as Nietzsche saw most clearly constituted by what it forbids its practitioners to do. Every discipline is made up of restrictions on thought and imagination, and none is more hedged about with taboos than professional histography—so much so that the so-called historical method consists (without any notion of what the relation of “story” to “fact” might be) and to avoid both conceptual over-determination and imaginative excess (i.e., “enthusiasm”) at any price. 

History often creates unrealistic expectations of our heroes; as much as our heroes are imperfect.  History has always been interpreted, filtered, and cleansed through someone’s lens, preference, or capacity. And why should we expect history to be exempt from group-think, the absurdity of romanticism, or market demands for treatises written within socially acceptable boundaries? Or, for that matter, the fraying and forgetting, and the marginalization of the uncomfortable pieces of the puzzle that are unsuited to our vision of the portraits and temples we construct in reverence for our heroes?

History requires critical-thinking skills so we can recognize the biases of expression—whether an event is discussed in the first place—and biases of description, or how the event is portrayed while also appreciating the troubling paradoxes of the past.37 History cannot resist the inclusion of new information—this must after all be the price of entry to the sphere of history for anyone who by that standard of inclusion is to be remembered by history. 

History is a tapestry that is subjectively objective, factual, and poetic. Its impact often fully manifests some time after the event and is open to universal participation, interpretation, and re-interpretation. Heroes have either reluctantly or willingly purchased a seat at the school of pedagogical inquiry. They cannot, nor should they, be excused from the inquiry of those who form the tapestry of human history.  

”SeeEndnotes”

  1. Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2014).
  2. Anil Anand, “Populism – The Orphan Child of Democracy,” Frontier Centre for Public Policy, September 29, 2020, https://fcpp.org/2020/09/29/populism-the-orphan-child-of-democracy/.
  3. Samir Puri, The Great Imperial Hangover: How Empires Have Shaped the World, (London, UK: Atlantic Books, 2020).
  4. Mike Mason, Turbulent Empires: A History of Global Capitalism Since 1945, (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2018). 
  5. John Ramsden, Man of the Century: Winston Churchill and his Legend Since 1945, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002).
  6. Staff, “Aristofascists-Nazi Parties,” The Economist, March 6, 2021.
  7. Staff, “Germany Officially Recognises Colonial-era Namibia Genocide,” BBC News, May 28, 2021,  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-57279008.   
  8. Staff, “An Emperor’s Clothes,” The Economist, March 16, 2021.
  9. Tristin Hopper, “Sure, John A. Macdonald Was a Racist, Colonizer and Misogynist — But So Were Most Canadians Back Then,” National Post, January 24, 2015, https://nationalpost.com/news/canada/sure-john-a-macdonald-was-was-a-racist-colonizer-and-misogynist-but-so-were-most-canadians-back-then
  10. Soutik Biswas, “Was Mahatma Gandhi a Racist?” BBC News, September 2015, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-34265882
  11. Staff, “Manchester Students Want Statue of ‘Racist’ Gandhi Rejected,” BBC News, October 16, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-manchester-50062791
  12. Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi is Deeply Revered, But his Attitudes on Race and Sex are under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny
  13. Samir Puri, The Shadows of Empire: How Imperial History Shapes Our World, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2021).
  14. Eleanor Roosevelt, “On the Adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” United Nations General Assembly, December 9, 1948.
  15. Timothy Stanley, “The Struggle for History: Historical Narratives and AntiRacist Pedagogy,” Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education 19, no. 1 (1998): 41–52.
  16. Craig Brown, The Illustrated History of Canada, (Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys Ltd., 1987).
  17. Thomas Rogers, “The Man Who Taught Canadians How to Think of Themselves,” BBC,  https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20160928-the-man-who-taught-canadians-how-to-think-of-themselves
  18. James William Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Indigenous Life. (Regina, SK: University of Regina Press, 2013).
  19. Hopper,  “Sure, John A. Macdonald Was a Racist…”
  20. Ibid.
  21. Mark Kennedy, “‘Simply a Savage’: How the Residential Schools Came to Be,” Ottawa Citizen, June 2, 2020, https://ottawacitizen.com/news/politics/simply-a-savage-how-the-residential-schools-came-to-be
  22. “The Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858: Fourth Debate, Charleston, Illinois, September 18, 1858,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, https://www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate4.htm
  23. Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1999).
  24. Stanley, “The Struggle for History…” 
  25. Ibid.
  26. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, United Nations, https://www.un.org/en/udhrbook/pdf/udhr_booklet_en_web.pdf
  27. Georgina Rannard and Eve Weber, “Leopold II: Belgium ‘Wakes Up’ to its Bloody Colonial Past,”
  28. “King Leopold’s Ghost Summary and Study Guide,” Super Summary, https://www.supersummary.com/king-leopolds-ghost/summary/
  29. Rannard and  Weber, “Leopold II…”
  30. Meagan Flynn, “Theodore Roosevelt Statue, Flanked by African and Native American Men, To Be Removed in New York,” Washington Post, June 22, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/06/22/theodore-roosevelt-statue-museum/
  31. Stanley, “The Struggle for History…”
  32. The Office of the Commissioner of Official Languages of Canada, “The House of Commons Recognizes Louis Riel as a Founder of Manitoba,” https://www.clo-ocol.gc.ca/en.
  33. Peter Brown, “Review: Desmond Morton, A Military History of Canada,” Manitoba Historical Society, University of Winnipeg, Manitoba History, No. 13, Spring 1987, http://www.mhs.mb.ca/docs/mb_history/13/militaryhistoryofcanada.shtml.
  34. Matt Henderson, “Reflections on Truth, Myth and History in Lead-up to Louis Riel Day,” CBC News, February 14, 2015, https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/reflections-on-truth-myth-and-history-in-lead-up-to-louis-riel-day-1.2957514.
  35. Staff, “An Emperor’s Clothes,” The Economist, March 16, 2021.  
  36. Thomas Sowell, “Economic Facts and Fallacies,”
  37. Jacoba Urist, “Who Should Decide How Students Learn About America’s Past?” The Atlantic, February 24, 2015,  https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/02/who-should-decide-how-students-learn-about-americas-past/385928/.

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Anil Anand is a research associate with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. 

Photo by Giammarco on Unsplash.