Wednesday, April 08, 2009

History is written by the winners

“The victors invariably write the history to their own advantage.”

–Jean-Luc Picard

Variations on this slogan are fashionable among leftwing college profs. It has also been applied to the Bible by conspiracy theorists like Dan Brown and Bart Erhman.

What are we to make of this slogan?

Well, for one thing, the Bible is a poor candidate to apply this slogan to. In OT times, the winners were the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Egyptians, not the Israelites. In what sense are Jewish slaves and exiles the winners rather than the losers?

Likewise, the winners in NT times were the Romans, not the Christians.

So, if we did apply this slogan to the Bible, then conspiracy theorists like Ehrman and Brown ought to regard the Bible as a reliable source of history–since it was written by the losers, not the winners.

But let’s also consider the slogan on its own terms. Is it true? Why don’t we test this slogan against a contemporary example which we’re all familiar with: how have the winners covered the war on terror?

To begin with, who are the winners and losers in the war on terror? Well, the winners would be the Americans, Brits, and Aussies. And the losers would be the jihadis and counterinsurgents. The underdogs.

So how have the winners covered the war effort? Have the New York Times, BBC, and CNN covered the war effort in a way that portrayed the military and intelligence agencies of the US and the UK in the best possible light?

Or consider the spate of movies and TV shows which came out in the aftermath of 9/11–movies and TV shows which either directly or allegorically depicted the war effort, viz. Rendition, Redacted, Syriana, Jarhead, Traveler, Battlestar Galactica, Stop-Loss, The Kingdom, Fahrenheit 9/11, Lions for Lambs, Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, &c.

The directors, producers, and screenwriters represent the winners, not the losers–right? Jihadis and counterinsurgents didn’t make these movies and TV shows, did they?

Are these Hollywood productions distinguished by their chauvinistic, jingoistic support for the foreign policies of the US and the UK?


  1. Steve, there is a sense in which the winners did write some of the history. Think of Eusebius. We've learned a lot from him, but a lot of his information is dubious. The letter from Agbar to Jesus, for example, is reported as history. John the Apostle wearing a Bishop's mitre. Yet that kind of stuff has shaped peoples views for centuries.

  2. Hi there, John.

    Nothing you specifically say contradicts anything I specifically say.

  3. Let's step back. Surely the problem with this claim -- that "history is written by the victors" -- is that if so it debunks all history. It can't be an objection to the veracity of one book; rather to all books not written in our own time.

    And considering the enthusiasm for censorship, "anti-hate" and other laws to restricy what may be said in our day, just what texts can pass this demand?

    So if it proves anything, it proves too much. In truth it is merely a truism of no practical application. It cannot rationally be used -- as it is -- as a pretext for a speculative rewriting of history to accord with the prejudices of early 21st century liberal America.

  4. Thucydides wrote the History of the Peloponnesian War, but he was not part of the victors.

  5. Steve, if I've learned anything from reading Triablogue, it's that I have neither the means nor the desire to contradict anything that you say. You are kind to say that I didn't specifically engage what you said.

    But I'm interested in this topic of "who writes the history." It seems as if history gets re-written by lots of different people, often based on whim (or less noble intention).

    What about "truth in history" though? That's just a "market economy." Right now, there's not much of a demand for it. How to create that demand? Or foster it? It just takes constant vigilance by people like you to call these things to peoples' attention.