“Darkness isn’t the opposite of light, it is simply its absence.” – Terry Pratchett
As we’ve previously discussed in the Propaganda Series, propaganda is not always language or images. Sometimes it is the lack of words. It is just as important to “listen to what is not said” as it is to “listen to what is said”. Sometimes though, propagandists try to time travel. They employ a tactic in an attempt to change the present by attempting to change the past. I say “attempt” for reasons that will be clear soon enough.
When a propagandist tries to pull off this particular trick, they don’t need a fancy machine or a black hole or a magic potion as is the staple trope of science fiction and fantasy time travel. They need nothing more complicated than a pen or a typewriter. In the present, a word processor and some basic HTML coding skills will serve that purpose. Maybe Photoshop or GIMP. When a propagandist tries to change the present by changing the past, they don’t call it time travel. No. They don’t call it anything, because they really hope you don’t notice what they are doing. Silence will work often, but they are not above a bit of misdirection. Well executed propaganda does, after all, have much in common with stage magic.
When we citizens and media consumers catch their slight of hand, we don’t call it time travel either. We call it historical revisionism. The Obama Administration was caught red-handed doing precisely that in relation to the Edward Snowden case.
First, let us consider what exactly is historical revisionism. Is the term itself value loaded language? Is it always a bad thing? Is it always propaganda? The term in common usage certainly has a connotative meaning that is not the same as its denotative meaning. As with the word “propaganda“, the connotative meaning is usually pejorative and implies lies, falsehoods and distortions of past events. Also like the word “propaganda”, the term “historical revisionism” has a larger denotative meaning that may or may not be value loaded.
At one level, historical revisionism is simply a scholarly endeavor to rewrite history based on new research or theories that either modify or contradict earlier historical writings. There is nothing wrong with that. Historical revisionism in that context performs a valuable function in the study of history although it is usually hotly challenged within academia as history is an often soft social science where the status quo holds a lot of sway. That challenging environment is also not a bad process by connotation as the process itself of claim and counterclaim often results in a refinement of both theory and the understanding of new evidence in context as well as eliminating false assertions and whole cloth fabrications from being incorporated into our understanding of history as fact. Even so, the study of history faces certain challenges in addition to access to new data. There is (what I find to be most interesting) the challenge that new information from other fields of science present. Genetics, paleoclimatology, paleontology, archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, chemistry . . . even astronomy – all can, do and have changed our understanding of history. There is also some psychological and intellectual challenges to the study of history that can impact historical revisionism. In fact, there are two logical fallacies that historians often fall prey to: the eponymous Historian’s fallacy – when one assumes that decision makers of the past viewed events from the same perspective and having the same information as those subsequently analyzing the decision – and presentism – where present-day ideas, such as moral standards, are projected into the past. Historians also have to contend with the context of the society in which they live. Contemporaneously popular ideology and culture may skew historical revisionism as can political considerations like nationalism. However, as useful as historical revisionism as an academic endeavor can be, it has a dark side and that dark side can most often be seen in how contemporaneous ideology, culture and politics can make history a lie about the past designed to serve the present.
This kind of historical revisionism is what most think of when they use the term as a pejorative. There is a special word for this kind of manifestly bad historical revisionism – negationism. Derived from the French term négationnisme, which means Holocaust denial, the basic idea applies to more than just Holocaust denial, but to making anything a “never was”. This is basic denial as a propaganda strategy/tactic. Negationism also includes the propaganda strategy/tactics of deception, distortion, relativism and trivialization, very often executed to varying degrees as part of the same campaign. The Nazis engaged in wholesale historical revisionism in the form of book burning, altering history and science texts to provide examples of “Aryan superiority”, distorting their history and the history of the Jews and Roma to provide relativistic rationales for their persecution and to trivialize the true scale and horrific deeds done in the campaign of genocide they called “The Final Solution”. This suite of tactics is not unique to the Germans. The Chinese did the same thing during the Cultural Revolution. The Japanese did (and still do) teach revisionist history about the events leading to World War II. The Soviets made historical revisionism into a propaganda art form. In America, we teach grade school and high school kids a sanitized version of American history that does a great disservice to the truths of the effective genocidal campaigns against the Native American peoples.
Clearly, historical revisionism is a value loaded term and, while it can be a good thing for the academic pursuit of history, it can be as a political practice a very dangerous very damaging form of propaganda.
In 2008, Obama had a website that detailed his vision for reform. Until very recently, this website was linked to on the White House official website and provided a valuable tool for comparing Obama’s promises to his performance. According to the Sunlight Foundation, that website in that form could last be viewed on June 8, 2013. Remember that date. It’s about to be relevant. That link to Obama’s agenda and promises is no longer on the White House website and the Change.gov of today is this non-comment of a splash page with a link to http://change.gov/content/home that returns a blank page reading :
Sorry, File Not Found: 404
Invalid URL /content/home
All of the website’s pages are now and have only recently become inaccessible from the site. What was the Obama Administration so interested in making disappear? What needed to be never was? Perhaps they wanted to remove all record of Obama’s campaign promise to strengthen protections for whistleblowers. In case you don’t recall, his promise, once found in the Agenda/Ethics section of Change.gov, went like this:
Protect Whistleblowers: Often the best source of information about waste, fraud, and abuse in government is an existing government employee committed to public integrity and willing to speak out. Such acts of courage and patriotism, which can sometimes save lives and often save taxpayer dollars, should be encouraged rather than stifled. We need to empower federal employees as watchdogs of wrongdoing and partners in performance. Barack Obama will strengthen whistleblower laws to protect federal workers who expose waste, fraud, and abuse of authority in government. Obama will ensure that federal agencies expedite the process for reviewing whistleblower claims and whistleblowers have full access to courts and due process.”
June 8, 2013 was two days after the first revelations were made about the NSA’s phone surveillance program by the then unrevealed Edward Snowden.
Apparently the Obama Administration and their flunkies have no idea how technology really works, but you can’t be held accountable for a promise you made if you (try to) erase all record of it, can you? That’s the whole point of making something never was. Unfortunately for them and their propagandist historical revisionist tactic but fortunately for actual history, memory in the digital age is persistent. The original home page for Change.gov can be seen here and the original content of the Agenda/Ethics page (quoted above) can be seen here.
As noted by Luke Johnson at the Huffington Post, “Prior to the Snowden leaks but after Pfc. Bradley Manning gave classified information to WikiLeaks, the Obama administration launched the Insider Threat program to combat leaks, in part by asking coworkers to keep a close eye on their fellow employees. The program also ordered more protections for those who use proper channels, but four national security whistleblowers have said that they became targets of Justice Department investigations after bringing concerns to the Department of Defense Inspector General.”
I think historical revisionism as a political propaganda methodology is in many ways worse than a simple lie.
Was this an attempt at historical revisionism in the most pejorative sense?
Is there another explanation that defies the timeline of removal?
Could there be other promises made they wish to “never was” in addition to the promised protection for whistleblowers?
What do you think?
Note: This column was originally published at Res Ispa Loquitur (jonathanturley.org) on July 27, 2013. It has been re-edited for presentation here.