Category: philosophy of history

The Contested Space of Truth and History

The Abu-Ghraib image arguably defined that history far more than documentary evidence or subsequent investigations.

The Chinese appear to have fabricated an image to support a narrative that Australian soldiers committed war crimes in Afghanistan. In the modern media dominated world, negative stories are quickly suppressed and ignored where they can be confidently denied by a robust and well-disciplined communications strategies. However, when there’s a picture, it is more difficult. Audio and video make the story even more difficult, as they lend themselves to blind sharing, hot takes, and indiscriminate proliferation.

In the post-event / post-allegation battle for control of the narrative, and for a definitive version of events, truth becomes defined. The immediate aftermath is the most important time. Witness Bill Barr’s decision to release his (inaccurate) version of the Mueller Report in the US several weeks before the actual report was released; even though it was wrong, and ultimately provably so, the narrative was sufficiently blunted to as to protect his ‘client’, the American president.

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The Politics of Posterity

Titus Livius, or simply Livy, Historian of Rome. The question is why did he write his histories?

In assessing the battlefield casualties Rome suffered in the first thirty years of the second century BC, Livy (c59 BC – c17 AD) estimates 55,000. The classicist Mary Beard distrusts the figures – and that number, she suggests, is far too low. In the first instance, ‘there was no systematic tally of deaths on an ancient battlefield; and all numbers in ancient texts have to be treated with suspicion, victims of exaggeration, misunderstanding and over the years some terrible miscopying by medieval monks.’ In addition, she continues, ‘[t]here was probably a patriotic tendency to downplay Roman losses; it is not clear whether allies as well as Roman citizens were included; there must have been some battles and skirmishes which do not feature in Livy’s list; and those who subsequently died of their wounds must have been very many indeed (in most circumstances, ancient weapons were much better at wounding than killing outright; death followed later, by infection).’ (SPQR, p.131-2)

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