Yes, Historical Accuracy Matters
When we get the historical facts wrong — or far worse, allow myths to spread and obfuscate truth — it can take an entire lifetime to correct those misconceptions.
A few days ago, I posted something which raised several questions and even triggered angry comments aimed at me privately. I think there’s an important lesson to be learned here, and I’d like to share my thoughts.
In my Facebook post about track and field legend Jesse Owens, I stated that the infamous “snub,” where Adolf Hitler reportedly stormed away and refused to shake the hand of the four-time gold medal winner at the 1936 Olympic Games was either a misrepresentation of facts or a gross exaggeration spread purely for political demagoguery. The intent here isn’t to argue a relatively insignificant event one way or the other, but rather to demonstrate why getting history correct — matters. In other words, it is essential that we reflect upon history with as close a prism to the truth as is possible.
I noted that the evils of Hitler and the Third Reich were plenty horrific enough without resorting to fabrication and hyperbole. Willful negligence or not, the problem with errors and historical inaccuracies is — they become a fertile breeding ground for conspiracy theories and crackpots. Once the Qs and the quacks of the world latch on to what might legitimately be a historical error, then everything else becomes suspect. They find a tear in the seams, pull, and then the entire fabric falls apart. Conspiracy is born. This is how “they got the Hitler-snub factoid wrong,” eventually devolves into Holocaust denial.
Consider the Kennedy Assassination and our collective reaction to it. That was America’s first real mass-scale obsession with conspiracy, and the aftereffects even linger to this day. Yeah, all the theories surrounding the assassination made for some intriguing speculation. But in the end, after all the investigations and theories, we pretty much know for a fact that Lee Oswald was the lone gunman. Despite more than 600 books written on the subject, after all was said and done, the Warren Commission basically got most of their report right. A few years ago, I had the great pleasure of spending an entire day with Dr. Michael Baden, who was Chairman of the House Select Committee on Assassinations’ Forensic Pathology Panel, and he essentially made that convincing summation.
The point is — when we get the historical facts wrong (or far worse, allow MYTHS to spread and obfuscate TRUTH), it can take an entire lifetime to correct those misconceptions. In some cases, it can take more than a century. As proof, all one must do is observe the divisiveness of Critical Race Theory. Even teaching historical facts have become “controversial.”
While initial interpretations of historical events and people who make history are in many cases wrong, and a reasonable level of skepticism can indeed be healthy, it’s quite another thing to falsify the record of what really happened (think of what many Republicans are attempting to do with the Jan. 6 insurrection). If successful, this becomes a leap into the abyss wearing a blindfold. And that is an abyss that is dark and from which we may be unable to recover.