“History is written by the victors…”
I recently wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the New York Times in response to an editorial purporting to describe the “woke worldview.” I mention this mostly because it occurs to me that maybe no one reads the letters anymore: apparently, the Comments Section is where the action’s at!
But also because this exercise had me thinking about the claim that “history is written by the victors.”
This idea, attributed to Winston Churchill, is that our understanding of history isn’t complete or objective, but tends to privilege the version of events of those in power. But it seems to me that this idea has powerful resonance in our present cultural conversation as well.
For example, I suspect we can all agree that there is a virtuous telling of American history, culture, society, etc. that emphasizes the positive side of our nation’s story: who we are, what we are, where we come from, where we are going, etc. This story is deeply rooted, important, and powerful. It is also incomplete. Many perspectives, facts, voices, and interpretations, etc., in our collective story are left out, obscured, or even reinterpreted in distorted ways.
These errors and gaps aren’t random: they are specifically tied to who is in a position to tell our story and, all too often, they advance a specific and narrow narrative that supports the position or version of events of that narrator. They also tend to emphasize powerful and intellectually satisfying binaries: right and wrong, winners and losers, good and evil. But the truth, invariably, is more complex and messy.
Take the story of our nation’s founders. One version of their story, indeed – the one many of us were taught as children – is that they were visionary men of virtue, committed to unassailable values, who passed down to us a mostly “perfect Union” for us to nurture, cherish, and protect. From this perspective, it would seem unwise, arrogant, even dangerous to question the wisdom of these moral and intellectual giants. On the other hand, we know that these men were morally and intellectually imperfect. They were products of their specific time and culture and they did, said, and believed things that we would find – universally – unacceptable and abhorrent today.
Why does this matter? Because it is objectively true, and this truth allows us to acknowledge that these were men – not the Gods that our stories can make them out to be. And in acknowledging their messy, complex humanity, we create space to examine and understand their legacy critically. Our eyes can be open to a wider, broader reality of truth and complexity about the democratic project they bequeathed to us and what it means to nurture, cherish, and protect our shared nation and community.
Ultimately, this is our work at Maine Initiatives. We believe that if we are willing and able to come together in community, being open to the fullness of who we are, who we have been, and who we are becoming – the good, the bad, the ugly – only then can we build a better future, together.
Peace and love,