I have been thinking about writing this post for some time. But I caution you the avid reader, just because I have devoted considerable thought to something does not mean I have advanced it thoroughly!
You have been warned!
This post is, what I would view as the first in a series, concerning the historian in the modern era. Recently I have participated in a number of media projects which have used a historical basis to convey information to the public. The first was a television based genealogy programme, the second a play.
Both sets of people were incredibly pleasant to deal with (probably not always the case!) and both seemed to take my concerns regarding factual accuracy at face value. But dare I say without fully understanding why I was so concerned about it. The journalist can print/publish a retraction should something they say be factually incorrect. However the historian has a slightly larger concern. If a statement in the present is wrong, then some recent memories may be changed; they may be more malleable and can be changed again without upsetting a narrative thread massively.
However if the historian errs, then the past is altered, sometimes with long lasting consequences. These consequences (or ripples if you will) have a ‘knock on’ effect forward in time, which by the very nature of linear based timelines, MUST displace thought and conclusions based on now altered facts and arguments. Therefore logically a new narrative must take the place of the old one, resulting in a ‘new’ history being written, a new narrative being accepted, being taught in schools to a new generation.
This is nothing less than the social engineering of an entire generation.
And the inaccurate historian can create havoc.
The reason why historians stick to facts, the reason they must insist on correctness and accuracy of not only their sources but also their argumentation and reasoning is directly related to the above facts. Without accuracy and dedication to accuracy, then the historian runs role risk of tacitly supporting the construction of a flawed narrative, which may alter the perception of the past in ways which often last far beyond the instigating portrayal, often in the media.
Two good examples would be the film MICHAEL COLLINS and the debate surrounding the scholarship of the late Peter Hart. You’d be genuinely surprised to discover jist how many people thought the British fired at the GPO in the manner depicted in the Neil Jordan film, instead of sniping from the ends of Sackville Street! Or those who STILL believe that the Auxiliaries drove an armoured car onto the pitch in Croke Park to initiate the massacre!
The (ongoing, posthumous) debate concerning Dr. Hart’s secret sources and the alleged false surrender at the Kilmichael Ambush has generated (to paraphrase) “more heat than light.” The withholding of his attributable witness sources and allegations ranging from academic fraud, to stupidity, to outright lying and deception have irreparably damaged the debate surrounding the incident. In this instance Dr. Hart must shoulder a significant portion of the blame, as it was his initial allegations rubbishing the claims of a ‘false surre’ that ignited matters. What he should have done was secure an impartial third-party to review his unmasked sources and then to vouch for them should they be credible. But alas, poor scholarship and not a small measure of stubborness led to entrenchment and now we may never truly learn of his reasoning.
This, disastrous debacle, is a very solid reason why the dreaded R-word has been received so poorly in Irish Historical scholarship; in truth all ‘new’ history is revisionist in natureand content, if not aggressively so in outlook.
But I digress.
When engaged on a project the historian must ALWAYS endeavour to put factual accuracy to the forefront and should it be necessary, they must be willing to defend that accuracy with dogged determination and righteousness. This stubborness (of which the author has a personal and genetic stockpile) must not be aimed at sheer awkwardness (less the “Ulster Says No”), but rather should be couched in terms appealing to commonsense and should convey a genuine, sincere and professional desire to uphold an accurate, reasoned and logical truth.
While sometimes this approach will fall on understanding, but ultimately unsympathetic (not meant in the negative sense!) ears, nonetheless every reasoned effort must be made, within the framework of the project, to assure accuracy. Where accuracy is compromised, often in the case of artistic licence, such deviation from the truth must be clearly acknowledged, preferably audibly or in writing! This is to protect both the audience and the historian and also to indemnify the latter from persons claiming that historical accuracy has indeed been compromised.
There’s no business like show business, especially not for a ‘Temporal Engineer’/Historian!