The Image of the State: How History Becomes Propaganda… and Doesn’t Make Sense
By Paul Rosenberg
As much as I love history now, I found it a confused jumble when I was in school. I was able to memorize the dates and events (for whatever that was worth), but I could find no depth to anything I was taught: it had no meaning, no purpose, no clarity.
I spent decades digging through books and museums before I located the problem, which is this: The history you were taught in school wasn’t exactly a lie, but it was selectively presented. Useful facts were presented to you and less useful facts were excluded.
The big question, of course, is this: Who decided what was “useful”?
In the case of schoolbooks, the answer to the “who decided” question is simple: The group that paid for the books.
As a result, textbooks present the history that makes government look good. The government pays for all those books, after all. And since private schools typically end up using the same books, their students are affected right along with the kids in government schools.
The truth is that history books are written to justify the rulership of their place and time. That’s precisely the wrong way to write history, of course: mandating that the past must justify our current way of life, then fitting facts into that framework.
In other words, nearly all textbooks support a specific political conclusion. And since most authors and editors dare not deviate from the norm, privately produced history books usually toe that same line.
But the important fact here is not that governments do bad things—it’s that we’ve never been exposed to the great lessons and truths of history. Our intellects have been robbed.
I’m doing my part to republish those lessons and truths in my newsletter, but my reach—especially compared to textbooks—is microscopically small.
So for today, I want to do two things:
Explain why governments have to manipulate history.
Give you a few examples of how it happens.
Legitimization Is Job #1 for Government
Governments have no choice but to mold history, and the reason is simple: legitimization is indispensable to them. The populace must believe that supporting government (giving it their wealth and blood) is a higher and more important concern than their own lives. Without this, government would have to survive on fear and pain alone… and that isn’t a winning proposition.
So, convincing people to spend their lives servicing government is job number one for any successful state. This has always been true, whether the state in question was a monarchy, theocracy, democracy, socialist republic, or whatever.
And among the best ways to secure long-term legitimacy is to train the populace to see the current regime as the necessary and obvious end of human development. And that requires history to lead to this glorious present.
For example, the Goths, trying to replace the Romans as the lords of Europe, promoted their own creation myth, saying that their race began at the battle of Troy—the same place the history of Rome was said to have begun. The story was a ridiculous fraud, but they promoted it, and their people believed it just the same. The story associated the Goths with Rome, making them their logical successors.
But the lie of the Goths did even more than to make their rule look like an inevitable development—it allowed their people to elevate themselves in importance, and that has an instinctive draw, no matter how patently false the story may be.
The same self-praise trick continues throughout the world today. Frenchmen are given reasons to think that they (and their state) are superior. Italians are given reasons why they’re special, and so on. We’re repetitively trained in this (mostly at school) with pledges, anthems, and patriotic stories. This goes on in more or less every political entity on the planet. It is necessary to effective rulership.
Truth Is an Also-Ran
Truth, as compared to the urgent need of state legitimacy, is an also-ran when it comes to history textbooks—a minor concern. The great modern example of this is the Armenian Genocide.
This horrifying event was nearly written out of American textbooks, as well as those of many other nations. Truth has been sacrificed in order to keep the bosses of Turkey happy.
Since it was the Turkish hierarchy that ordered and/or allowed the Armenian Genocide, they’d rather that the event vanished from history. And since Turkey sits in such a strategic place, the US and many others are quite willing to squash the truth if it will please the Turkish rulers.
I’ve spent decades in the publishing industry, and I happened to work with one of the editors who was forced to make these alterations. He was at his desk one day when his phone rang. The voice on the other end introduced himself as an official of the US State Department. My friend asked him what he could possibly want. “It’s about the history book you’re editing,” the man said. “We need you to cut back the section on the Armenian genocide.”
My friend was horrified and complained that it was the true history. “Yes,” said the man, “but we need to keep the Turks happy.” My friend’s 2-3 pages on the Armenian Genocide was reduced to 2-3 paragraphs, and it was a triumph that he got that much space.
This story is hardly unique, but most people involved learn to shut up about their stories—they cause too much trouble, and most people don’t want to know anyway.
The modification of history, however, is done indirectly more than directly. The educational institutions of the West are effectively government agencies; their money and approval to operate comes from government—and everyone involved knows it. As a result, they keep their areas of inquiry in line with what makes their employers happy.
College students know very well that voicing the wrong political opinions can take a solid point off their GPA, and it can be horrifying to hear how grad students are treated. Likewise, if the professors begin to step out of line, they are quickly (and unpleasantly) brought into conformity.
For example, nearly all anthropology and archeology programs are deeply focused on “state formation.” The state is at the center of their theories, their investigations, and their conclusions. To write a contrary paper would be career suicide.
I suspect that government officials rather seldom need to call universities the way they called my friend at a private publishing house. At this point, there really isn’t any need. The legitimization of government is de rigueur throughout the entire Western academy, and most of the Eastern academy with it. It’s just the way things are done these days.
And that’s why history never really made sense. Making sense wasn’t a primary concern.
It wasn’t that you were stupid.