The Challenges of “Imagined History” 1

Refusing to let facts get in the way of a good belief system

By Chris Simmons

I’ve long witnessed a widespread phenomenon I call “Imagined History.” Simply put, it is one’s past as we would have liked it to have been. It’s a perverse form of nostalgia in which we look back and see our actions – and those of our ancestors — as more enlightened and nobler than they actually were.

Wars provide virtually unlimited opportunities for us, collectively, to whitewash our past and re-invent ourselves. For example, Americans’ perceptions of the Revolutionary War — THE event that gave birth to the United States — are grossly distorted. I offer as evidence three fundamental truths about the war to which most present-day Americans are oblivious.

1. An estimated 70% of all colonists opposed or were neutral on the issue of independence from Great Britain. Thus, the present-day liberty of the United   States rests, in part, squarely on the shoulders of a small group of malcontent colonists.

2.  I said in part because long forgotten is the role that France, Spain, and the Netherlands filled in secretly providing supplies, ammunition, and weaponry to the revolutionaries starting in early 1776. More specifically, France provided 90% of the gunpower used by the patriots throughout the war. As a result, George Washington’s triumph at Yorktown was as much a French victory as it was “American.”

3.  The October 1781 surrender of General Cornwallis at Yorktown did NOT end the war. The conflict dragged on for two more years before finally ending with the September 1783 signing of the Treaty of Paris.

Poet Lucille Clifton was right:  “the saddest lies are the ones we tell ourselves.” History itself is neither good nor bad. Events – life-altering or mundane – occur because of the means, motives, and opportunities capitalized upon by individuals. Recasting these actions to make us feel better about ourselves or others actually has a long-term debilitating effect. When we deceive ourselves about where we’ve been, how can we really understand who we are?

Additionally, when we fail to accept the past as it actually occurred, we sabotage our ability to foresee opportunities and challenges. Having lost this “forecasting” skill, we become unable to shape our future and fall victim to our imagined histories.

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