History vs. Propaganda
- Myth or History? by Elizabeth H. Boone
- Myth or History? by Joyce Marcus
- Mixtec History? by John Pohl
- History? by William T. Sanders (1926-2008)
- Is History Objective? by Linda Schele (1942-1998)
- A Journalist's Perspective by Jane Bussey
- Fiction and Reality by Elena Poniatowska
- History vs. Propaganda: A Brazilian Example by Thomas E. Skidmore
- "Official" History by Rodolfo Stavenhagen
- Propaganda and Art by Raquel Tibol
This debate examines the issue of history vs. propaganda, of myth vs. reality, of what constitutes evidence. The speakers include archaeologists, anthropologists, art critics, historians, and for good measure, journalists and writers. If in the past, history was defined as the story of “winners” and “losers” told from the perspective of the winners, we see from the speakers that this arrangement has changed somewhat. Since before the development of the French “annaliste” school of historiography (in fact since the philosopher Herder) scholars have attempted to construct methodologies which take into account the losers, the periphery—to look at things from the bottom up, from the outside in, to depart from what has been labeled the “one-damn-thing-after another” school of great event-based histories. This has included discussion of the objectivity of historical accounts and the investigation of how myth and narrative intertwine with historical events. The process has a reflexive aspect, which attempts to widen the type of evidence that is admissible in the “court” of interpretation. One might say, “where one stands relates directly to where one sits”—the context of the observer takes on a significance approaching that of the context of the observed. This implies that “context” is dynamic not static and that all history involves a filtering process whether the filtering is being done by pre-Columbian nobility, colonial ecclesiastics, Allied governments after World War II, or by present-day social scientists. In terms of the historical-archaeological record, to record is to interpret, to justify, to guide, sometimes to vanquish and/or to venerate.
Dictionaries define “propaganda” as organized propagation of a doctrine by use of publicity and exaggeration. History is defined as the study and interpretation of past events. Where do these two things intersect or separate?
The speakers represent different points of the spectrum regarding the possibility of historical objectivity. Indeed, Schele begins by stating, “The whole idea that there’s such a thing as objective history, to me is a misnomer. If history were objective, we would never have to rewrite it. But history, even among the greatest university historians, is a continual process of redrawing, reevaluating and reconfiguring our understanding of the past to match our expectations for the future with the tools of the present….All history of all time is a kind of propaganda.” Stavenhagen adds: “Here in Mexico, there is also a very serious problem with writing a new history—in the way the new history responds or doesn’t to the canons of those who teach in the universities, to “objective” or “neutral history, to history based on sources, or the way this history reifies or vindicates cultural positions which are—why not say it?—ideological positions. History is rewritten every generation, but the subject of history is rewritten as well.”
Boone, Marcus, Pohl, and Sanders all deal with the dilemma of myth vs. history and the archaeological record. At what point can dates recorded in stone or in codices be said to refer to actual historical fact? How can this be measured against climatological, geological, or archaeo-astronomical evidence. What efforts can be made to check histories with other less socially-constructed sources? An analog might be how the biblical book of Genesis might be measured against the fossil record, or how the issue of whether Pontius Pilate was actually in office during the time when procedures were conducted against the historical Jesus—what contemporaneous sources can be consulted outside the testimony of the Bible itself. The speakers question whether even the concept of a distinction between myth and history existed for pre-Columbian peoples in the strict sense of today. Were foundational accounts meant to be explicitly interpreted as historical fact or as justifications of the present or as predictors of the future or as all of the above? How does one identify the difference between intentional falsification and error in the archaeological record.
Marcus comments, “Mesoamerican rulers linked their reigns to mythical ones when gods and ancestors, mythical ancestors, supposedly ruled. By a process known as euhemerism noble ancestors turned gradually into heroes, then semi-divine intermediaries, and sometimes actual deities. While even a clever propagandist might not be able to deceive his contemporaries about his immediate ancestors it is very clear that the ancient Maya, the Aztec, and other groups sometimes borrowed distant ancestors (including deified ancestors) just to legitimize their claim to the throne. In fact, some of the most spectacular genealogical displays we have may have been the work of nobles who were not really in the direct line of succession.”
The speakers discuss modes for assessing the intentions and purposes of the patrons of these great sculptural, pictorial, and literary pieces. Sanders and Marcus speak to the difference between “horizontal” and “vertical” intentions—was a piece intended to convey information laterally only between and within elites (horizontal) or was it intended to codify information for the masses (vertical?) They also discuss the implications of the type of archaeological record which remains—one culture leaves stone stelae, another leaves codices. Is this due to climate, natural disaster, warfare, or other reasons. How do we weight what remains? How do we impute what was lost?
Tibol takes us into the twentieth century with her discussion of the Mexican muralists. Rivera, Siqueiros, and Orozco are most famous for embodying the ideology of the Mexican Revolution in public spaces; they were the precursors of the mural movement of the US during the New Deal best expressed in the projects of the Works Progress Administration under Franklin Roosevelt. Were these murals didactic history or propaganda? Tibol makes some interesting distinctions regarding the contexts of their painting, seeing the process as an on-going “negotiation” rather than as a simple attempt at propaganda.
It is often said that today’s journalism is tomorrow’s history. Bussey (a journalist), Poniatowska (a journalist and novelist), and Skidmore (an historian) the symbiotic relationship between journalism and history—how practitioners use each other as sources, the problems entailed in seeking “objectivity”, how error and serendipity can affect the historical record, how history is used by “winners” and “losers” to explain and justify actions, and how that process of historiography can engender serious consequences in the future.
Finally, Poniatowska speaks to the difference of cultural climate between the US and Latin America for journalists, historians, and writers—the difference in the roles they are called upon to play—and the significance of this different cultural climate on distinctions between fiction and non-fiction.