Written by the Victors

It is often said, usually with some cynicism, that History is written by the Victors. There are a number of examples of this principle, one I find the most amusing being our Nation’s own Revolution. British History texts refer to this event as the “Colonial Revolt”, and from this perspective, George Washington and his cronies seem like little more than traitors to their country. This view of History gains no traction on American soil, however, as the Victors of that war have written our texts. From that perspective, George Washington and his compatriots were the “Founding Fathers”, freedom fighters who deserve our loyalty and respect.

Perhaps the most commonly known example from our own History is the Civil War or the “War of Northern Aggression” as it is often called in the South. I won’t belabor the point as it has been endlessly debated elsewhere, but suffice it to say that although the Vanquished have their own version of events — in this case that their rights as sovereign parties to the Constitution were being compromised in favor of Northern interests — it is the Victors who have written the most commonly known version — that they fought the war to bring liberty to the enslaved multitudes in the South. If you ask an average person — even foreign persons and Southern persons themselves, it turns out — what the Civil War was about, they will simply respond, “Slavery.” It is only those few who have studied that chapter of History in detail who may give you a more detailed, qualified, or, in some cases, entirely different, answer.

I point this out simply because I wonder two things. First, does might make right? Does the better man always win? It seems to me quite plausible that the Victor may in some cases have been the undesirable or even (God forbid!) the evil option. After all, the Romans were the Victors for centuries, but weren’t they incredibly cruel to the Vanquished? Ultimately, they themselves became the Vanquished, perhaps as some cosmic payback for their cruelty, but was the resultant millennium of chaos really the better choice? “Video killed the radio star,” so the song says, but was the resulting emphasis on appearance and showmanship over actual musical talent really better for the music industry?

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly — especially if the Victor isn’t always preferable from a purely objective point of view — how often has this gone unnoticed when it happens on a smaller scale, as in the yearly struggles between two sides on various political issues? The History texts which I was taught growing up tended to read with the underlying assumption that the current state of things is better than all previous states, as though History is inevitably marching towards some perfect conclusion. For example a very brief survey of American History might read:

“The colonies won their independence — yay! John Marshall helped solidify the principle of Judicial Review — yay! The Civil War resulted in Freedom for all, preservation of the Union, and a stronger executive — yay! Labor Unions were finally permitted to promote the welfare of the working class — yay! The Federal Reserve was established, finally re-centralizing banking — yay! (Andrew Jackson had previously screwed things up by allowing the Second National Bank to expire — boo!) The New Deal and the later Great Society programs helped rescue people from poverty — yay! America became a major player in World Politics after WWII and used her influence to stop the spread of Communism in Korea and eventually brought down the existing Communism in Europe and Western Asia — yay!”

Were all those things actually good, as the current history texts tend to suggest, simply because they were what happened, because those who pushed for each of them were victorious? Centralized banking is an interesting one — if that brief survey had been written in the late nineteenth century, might it not have instead said, “Andrew Jackson put an end to centralized banking — yay!” Was he right simply because he won? If so, J.P. Morgan et al. who later established the Federal Reserve were wrong but victorious anyway. But if their winning in the end actually means they were right and Jackson was wrong, how could Jackson have been victorious and remembered as being right for so many decades of the 1800s? They can’t both have been right, even though they were both Victors!
This example seems to indicate that the status quo isn’t necessarily the pinnacle of the human experience so far — maybe some of the Victors who have written portions of our history were flat out wrong or even (again, God forbid!) evil men bent on redirecting our country or its people towards destruction or subjugation. Maybe centralized banking encourages boom-bust business cycles more than it solves them. Maybe FDR and LBJ’s social programs have actually caused more poverty than they alleviated. Maybe Truman and Eisenhower’s foreign policy ultimately led to more enemies than it eliminated. Maybe Reagan’s fiscal policies led to more financial trouble than they solved.

Just because things are the way they are because someone got their way and “won” doesn’t mean that things are right to be this way. Even things long established aren’t necessarily right just because they’ve been accepted for so long. Really this all should come as no surprise to anyone — obviously the world is full of bad people who win and good people who lose — but it is disturbing to me how easily we double-think about it, how easily we can condemn the evil which wins elsewhere and turn a blind eye to or even laud that which already won in our own past, how readily we can condemn liberals or conservatives for their inconsistent or destructive views which left us with our current problems and completely ignore the part played by the views in which we ourselves participate.

Just because this is America doesn’t mean everything we do or have done is right or even just the best of limited options. We must question everything, even ourselves and especially any Victor’s interpretation of History (and all the more if that Victor was “our guy”). If something isn’t working, it’s quite possible that the wrong side won somewhere in the past, and the solution probably isn’t to build more laws or regulations on top of the poor foundation they provided us, but rather to try again from scratch or, perhaps better yet, simply to tear it down.

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