There’s a quip sometimes attributed to French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, who, when asked in 1919 how historians would view the origins of the just-ended First World War, replied something like, “I cannot say for certain, but I am sure they will not say that Belgium invaded Germany.” His point seemed to be that, while there were a wide range of subsequent interpretations which might be offered, there were a limited set of hard facts to back them up (just so we’re clear, German armies marched into Belgium in August 1914). Clemenceau’s remark bears reflection today, considering how social justice advocacy is reinterpreting a lot of world history. So exactly what are the facts that advocates can draw on?
It’s true that there should always be new data to be uncovered, and new versions of familiar stories are always possible. And much of what we know – or think we know – about the past has been affected by who got to write down the prevailing accounts of it. Finding fresh insights into social history, in particular, has forced us to rethink the standard lessons of kings, popes, presidents, and inventors by learning about how average individuals were really living when all those supposed milestones took place. And from our modern perspective, it’s easy to deplore how Europeans, or men, or heterosexuals erased the historic narrative by exerting an often brutal dominance over everyone outside a small set of favored classes. But the dominance itself is not the problem.
That dominance grew over many centuries of human experience, and arose out of the relative strengths and weaknesses between the thousands of civilizations and the billions of people that have existed around the planet. Over time, some types of civilization and some types of people have consistently proven more numerous or more powerful than others – and yes, they often exploited their advantages in ways which horrify us now. But just how differently could history have unfolded? How plausible, really, are the alternatives? Was there ever an expansionist African empire that crossed the Sahara and the Mediterranean to colonize Europe after the fall of Rome? Did Chinese voyagers sail the Pacific to begin settling the Americas by 1300 AD? Do we know of moral codes across many cultures which sanctified same-sex intimacy and shamed all contact between males and females as unclean? Were there broad traditions of women warriors, priestesses, and royalty consigning men to subservient roles rearing children and preparing food? Did any of those histories actually happen, before some secret plot overturned and deleted their legacies from the official record?
Certainly, some surprising aspects of gender dynamics from distant ages have been neglected by mainstream scholars, just as verified sagas of Asian seafaring and African achievement aren’t commonly known and are well worth researching. Yet other histories have not been “written out,” chiefly because they didn’t happen in the first place – just as others have been long taught and emphasized, because they actually did happen and their global influence extends to this day. It may be intriguing to imagine alternate histories of the world that upset our ideas of what now seem inevitable or “natural” (sci-fi writer Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2002 book The Years of Rice and Salt speculates on the long-term consequences of a Black Death that killed nearly all, instead of just many, medieval Europeans), but it’s not helpful to insist that the alleged victims of our era have been somehow cheated out of a victory they’d rightfully earned a long time ago. History does not award consolation prizes. The Eurocentric, patriarchal, heteronormative chronicles of the past are pretty much the most accurate ones. Before trying to rewrite the story of humanity to accord with contemporary notions of race or gender or diversity, let’s at least get our facts straight.