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So, as a direct follow-on from the last post, I was intrigued by Michael Moynihan’s article for The Daily Beast which attacks Oliver Stone’s new collaboration with Professor Peter Kuznick on an alternative history of the US, The Untold History of the United States.

I do not have the expertise on US history to engage with the merits of Moynihan’s critique of the book (and he is scathing of it) but I am interested in the broader issue of revisionism and how past events are interpreted. His criticism of ex post facto reasoning can be levelled at academics and commentators irrespective of discipline or nationality. And there is a particular relevance here in Ireland given that we are embarking on a “decade of commemoration” (click the link for an excellent overview of the rationale for commemoration).

Our “decade” refers to 1912-1922, the period in which modern Ireland emerged, fighting for its independence from British rule. Interestingly, perhaps a measure of continuing sensitivities, our Civil War period (which carried into 1923) is excluded from this official “decade”. Given that we are now in a (mostly) peaceful political state north and south, there is an opportunity to reflect on that revolutionary period without the overt parallels to the Provisional IRA campaign which influenced historical interpretation throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

The interesting question is the extent to which historians can engage with historical facts and events without bringing political ideology to bear. Is this possible or realistic? Can facts be neutral or are they always open to interpretation? Is it possible or even desirable to have a settled or consensus view of the past? And, at the risk of sounding elitist, do non-academics like Oliver Stone have the skills to write authoritatively about a subject in which they have no particular qualification? Certainly there is a recent trend for populist history – note BBC political journalist and English graduate Andrew Marr’s modestly titled A History of the World, with accompanying eight part BBC TV series.

It seems to me that a reader, viewer or listener must bear in mind the context in which a particular historical event is being discussed and the motivation of those discussing it. That is not to dismiss out of hand those views with which we do not agree but to acknowledge that, just as the past is important in explaining our present, the complexity of history is in shifting interpretations.