First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
Our lives are shaped by history. We fight a war one way because we want to avoid the mistakes that we think caused us to lose the last war; we elect one candidate for office because we think he represents a cause that was worth voting for twenty years before, but might well be irrelevant today.
The trouble is that if we don't study history ourselves, we're suckers just waiting for somebody to come up with a lie that he surrounds with all kinds of "facts" that, in our ignorance, we think are actually true.
Even ancient history can be illuminating, partly for what it tells us about human societies and individuals, and partly because of what we learn about the process of remembering, recording, and reinterpreting history.
You know what they say about real estate -- hang on to it, because they aren't making it anymore.
Well, you'd think history would be about the same. Of course, we're making more of it all the time -- every day that passes makes history just that much longer.
The surprise is that they keep making more of it in the middle, where we thought we already knew everything that happened.
The reason is that history is a bunch of stories, and those stories were shaped by the beliefs of the people who wrote them down. This kind of event matters, they think, so that's what they record.
Then, a few centuries later, the stuff they wrote about doesn't matter to the people trying to understand them -- now the researchers struggle to figure out the things that their ancestors didn't bother to write down, or only mentioned in passing.
Some stories are epic -- they define the people who recorded them. Take, for instance, the record of Genghis Khan's reign, recorded in his lifetime and added to by his successors until the Black Death brought an end to the Mongol Empire.
That record was a remarkable history of a remarkable man, told from his own point of view, recording what he thought mattered about his reign.
The trouble was, it also became the defining story -- the scripture, if you will -- of the Mongolian people.
So when the Mongols were ruled by Chinese emperors, Russian tsars, and finally Communists controlled by the Soviet Union, that book became the source of independent Mongolian identity. It had to be suppressed.
And it was. It was almost obliterated from the face of the earth.
But not completely. A hidden copy survived. And from the moment Mongolia won its independence with the fall of the Soviet Union, scholars from inside and outside Mongolia have been laboring not only to translate the book, but also to understand it in its geographic and historical context.
The result of that research, for a popular audience, is Jack Weatherford's book Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.
What Weatherford and his colleagues discovered was that Genghis Khan was not the monster he has been depicted as in recent centuries. Most of the atrocities attributed to the "Mongolian hordes" were actually committed by Tamerlane, a distant "successor" who invoked the name of the great Genghis as he conquered with greater brutality and less success.
While Genghis Khan was nobody's sweetie-pie -- he killed his half-brother in a power struggle over who would rule in their mother's house -- he was, in fact, an ambitious conqueror who meant to forge a real empire that was sustained by trade.
Any city that surrendered to him peacefully, he left in peace, with its rulers in charge of collecting the tribute for the Khan. The only cities he destroyed were the ones that murdered his ambassadors and defied his authority.
Once he had conquered an area, he established a network of protected roads, where merchants could travel in peace from one end of his empire to the other.
It was on these peaceful roads that Marco Polo and many others made the trek from Europe or Turkey or Egypt to China and India. And, ironically, it was because of that Pax Mongolica that the Black Death was able to travel so swiftly from China to the borders of Europe.
Even after the empire fell into pieces, his legacy was so great that all his successors claimed to rule in his name. That's not how people remember a monster. And even those who never saw him, like Geoffrey Chaucer, heard of him as a man of greatness and vision -- a benefactor to humanity, not a devil.
The devil propaganda came later. And it's time to restore the balance, and show him as an unusually enlightened man who raised his people out of barbarism, united them, and came very close to bringing all the old world under one government.
The greatest irony of all? One of the foremost principles of his law was religious tolerance. He had his own religion, but he didn't expect conquered people to adopt it. They got no special advantage if they did. Under his rule, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, and every other group had to treat believers in other faiths with decent respect.
That's what the Middle East needs -- another Genghis Khan. And no, I'm not nominating America for the job. We need to rediscover religious tolerance ourselves ...
Meanwhile, though, the trashing that Genghis Khan's reputation has endured over the years is exactly the trashing that George W. Bush in particular, and America as a whole, is getting right now -- no lie is too monstrous to be disbelieved, not just by our enemies, but by our "allies" in Europe.
Another revision of history is a book by Gavin Menzies, 1421: The Year China Discovered America.
Menzies makes a strong case for Chinese navigators reaching both the west and east coasts of North and South America seventy years before Columbus. Not only that, but the maps generated by their great voyage of discovery were precisely the maps that inspired Prince Henry the Navigator and, later, Columbus to seek out continents and islands that Europeans had never visited.
The trouble with Menzies is that, unlike Weatherford, who brings a proper skepticism to his research, everything that might support Menzies' cause looks like evidence. The silly is treated with as much enthusiasm as the solid. The result is that he weakens his thesis with one hand while strengthening it with the other.
Still, by the end of Menzies' book, you can't help but think it likely that the Chinese fleets did accomplish pretty much what Menzies asserts that they did. There are enough ancient records that were hitherto ignored by Western historians (or suppressed for various reasons by Chinese leaders) that we can be sure that something happened, and Menzies, when he's working in his own area of expertise -- ocean currents, winds, and coastlines -- makes a solid case.
Neither of these books, however, is "revisionism" for its own sake. That's quite a different thing, when an ambitious historian looking to make his bones or an ideologue with an axe to grind takes the existing evidence and "reinterprets" it to get a predetermined result.
Another word for that kind of revisionism is "propaganda," and we have no shortage of it in our time. An example is the kind of lies being told about America and Israel in the Muslim world today. In that twisted form of "revisionism," Israel and the CIA conspired to blow up the World Trade Center and blame it on poor innocent Muslims.
And if the Muslim extremists win their war, breaking the will of the West and dominating the world, that's the version of history they will attempt to enforce.
Just as the Communists insisted that only a Marxist interpretation of history could be taught in the countries they ruled, so also every generation, with more or less rigor, attempts to supplant "old" history with "better" history.
We're lucky that, here and there, hidden away in jars by the Dead Sea or in somebody's attic in Siberia or in some old library in an obscure monastery in China, a few documents survive that allow truth-seekers to cut through many layers of past "revisions" to recover something closer to, but never exactly equal to, the truth.
There's nothing better than reading lots of history -- especially history like these books, which challenge accepted lore -- to help immunize you against the propaganda of our day.
A thorough grounding in the many versions of the past can help greatly in sorting through the many versions of the present.
When reporter after reporter at the recent news conference insisted that President Bush either apologize for 9/11 or explain why he wasn't going to, it was impossible for anyone grounded in history to think that this was anything other than the enemies of the President trying to lay a trap for him.
Think about it -- they weren't asking him about a story, they were trying to provoke him into making a story. They weren't recording what happened, they were trying to make something happen.
And since there was no answer Bush could give that would not provide a wonderful sound bite for his opponent in the upcoming election, the President's only choice was to remind them that it was Al-Qaeda that hijacked the planes and slaughtered the innocents.
After all, Bush had far less information about 9/11 than he had about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But he's supposed to apologize for not acting on the almost useless information he had about 9/11, and also apologize for acting on the extensive and reliable evidence he had about Saddam's WMDs?
But the enemies of the President are struggling mightily to construct any version of the recent past that will cause people not to vote for President Bush, and to conceal any version of history that will reflect badly on his opponent.
For instance, we got endless accusations that Bush did not serve honorably in the National Guard during the Vietnam War, simply because he did not make a strong impression on one fellow's memory.
But nobody dares to ask why Kerry's "heroic" service in Vietnam was so remarkably brief, and just how serious his three purple-heart injuries were. His propaganda is treated by the press as a given.
And, given the political slant that dominates in the American university today, it's likely that for several generations, the propaganda of one side will be taught as "history."
Look at your kids' textbooks. Watered down and slanted beyond recognition, they make even the second-rate history that we baby-boomers got read like works of genius.
And since people my age -- fifty-plus -- actually remember some of these events, it can be alternately amusing and horrifying to read what our kids are taught about events we lived through.
Yet when the younger generation votes, they are filtering everything through the lens of the history they've been (mis)taught. Unless, of course, they've read enough real (i.e., non-textbook) history to see it all illuminated by the bright halogen skepticism that comes from knowledge.
Copyright © 2004 by Orson Scott Card.
Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.