y ability to communicate with the world at large seems to be getting thinner as my laptop flickers fitfully in the darkness. How long before the strained connection snaps is anybody’s guess. But, in the meantime, rather than go down without a fight, I’ll put up some half-jelled goods in the store window, in the hopes of getting back to them later on.
And speaking of half-jelled goods, it’s been quite interesting to watch the evolution (shall we say) of certain recent stories in the new from half-baked rumor to three-quarters baked narrative. We’ve seen a story about snipers coordinated in the fashion of certain terrorist groups morph into another lone-shooter item, for example. And that shooter’s death change from self-inflicted gunshot to the far less plausible-sounding blown up by a robot.
History starts off moist and fluid, and only gradually hardens to a definite form. Eventually that definitive form may be hacked at, refashioned, chipped and broken—and then, still later, mangled and lost in the remorseless stream of time—but in the early stages it is still plastic and formless, ready to assume any shape that the artist desires.
Once it has assumed a form—or often several forms, depending on the teller—it resists change. Not decisively, necessarily—the return of the Shah to Iran by popular acclamation held the stage for a decade or so, before being replaced by a narrative of his being forced on an unwilling people by a CIA plot, now apparently considered to be a solid Truth, unchangeable and unchallengeable. That the ancient Greeks were incapable of higher flights of mechanical fancy is challenged by the finding of a single device in a long-forgotten shipwreck, and history gets reshaped. Discoveries, revelations—and the changing requirements of political and social movements—cause the historical plates to shift, the chronological stars to realign, however you want to look at it.
Did the underlying stuff of history, the actual sequence of events change? Presumably not, though I’m not a philosopher and I don’t pretend to play one on the internet. What changes are the uses to which we put the past, its coherence and relevance to the present moment. The way we perceive its actors and participants. Accounts of the wars of extermination against the native American peoples changed in the mid-twentieth century at least in part because contemporary movements for social justice forced a reexamination of policies of the past and the histories that implicitly supported them. Historians now deliberately sought out previously-overlooked evidence of the motives and tactics of the target population, and the narrative changed in consequence.
Were the old accounts of the pioneer historians false, then, and the newer accounts true? Not necessarily. I mean, yes, there are things that made it into the history books that never happened, sure—but most of the time it’s more a matter of what got emphasized and what didn’t, what got included and what got left out. Whose accounts were considered reliable and whose were looked at with suspicion.
As a classic instance let me cite the question of whether pioneer Indian-fighter Ben Wright attempted to poison a Modoc peace delegation in 1852. The rumor surfaced in print some twenty years later—but all historians rejected it without even considering it, noting it only as an example of the sorts of defamatory statements made in the heat of a controversy. But as such things go it’s actually fairly well documented. We have the statement of one of Ben Wright’s men that he bought strychnine for that purpose. We have the statement of the druggist that he had sold strychnine to Ben Wright’s representative for use in poisoning the Modoc delegation. We have the admission of another of Ben Wright’s men that a member of their expedition warned the Modoc delegation not to eat the meat Wright sent them for a feast. Not surprisingly some more recent books have switched sides and now report the attempted poisoning as a fact. What changed? It wasn’t the available information; it was the willingness of the historian to consider the possibility that a pioneer hero might have acted in a frankly despicable fashion.
So, anyway, for the moment it seems that we have to accept that a lone gunman, babbling threats like a cartoon villain, killed and wounded a dozen officers before being taken out by a robot bearing a bomb. There’s nothing plausible about that scenario at any point—but that’s history for you. And plausibility be damned.