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Ten days ago, Minneapolis StarTribune sports writer and journalist Sid Hartman passed way at the age of 100. He started in the newspaper business when he was nine years old in 1929. 1929! He went from his start at a downtown news run for the Minneapolis Tribune to weekly columnist with over 21,150 bylines. It wasn’t a surprise that a centenarian passed away, rather, it was a cause of unexpected disquiet. Sid was a Minnesota institution, as reliable and ever present as a Minnesota sports fan’s disappointment. Even on the morning of his death, his column ran. And I’m sure, just as every Sunday, my dad had his copy of the Star, flipped to Section C, read Sid, and promptly folded it with a stout grumble. Sid was never flowery, rarely so elegant in his writing to overshadow that he was more reporter than columnist.
I appreciate that Sid valued the facts, hard and cold though they may be. Living through a World War, economic booms and busts, a man on the moon, and the internet age, he undoubtedly had a unique perspective on the human condition related to history, even if reported through the lens of sports. But I wonder how, in the era we live in now and the immediate future, our history will be written by the next generation?
It’s often attributed to Winston Churchill, but the phrase ‘History is written by the victors’ has early iterations in France from 1842, “[L]’histoire est juste peut-être, mais qu’on ne l’oublie pas, elle a été écrite par les vainqueurs” (The history is right perhaps, but let us not forget it, it was written by the victors). But who, exactly, are the victors? And is this statement really even true?
The current political climate poses a serious challenge to America’s recorded and retold history, certainly. The 1619 Project; the underlying intent in the Constitution towards the rights of slaves and women; the motivation of President Lincoln’s decision to engage in the Civil War – all have been subject to heavy debate. So too, is the proper place and celebration of symbolic monuments of past generations. Heroes and cultural icons such as Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Christopher Columbus, even the emblematic Mount Rushmore have fallen under the harsh glare of self-appointed history editors, themselves looking to rewrite or erase everything giving off so much as a whiff of the problematic.
I think it’s the cultural victors who are in control of current history, rewriting it to further their goals of shaming us into the desired future, even if it means lying about the past. There is nothing that happened in the last decade or two that fundamentally changed the facts of history. What changed was the priorities and value historians placed on some events over others in order to create a certain narrative. Columbus’ journey was a ground-breaking event not only for global exploration but in settling the Americas. The American Experiment was a revolutionary idea that brought freedom, liberty, and hope to countless millions of people. But because Columbus was stigmatized with a colonizer label, and our Founders were slaveholders, their statues are defaced and torn down in cities across the country; Columbus’ ‘Day’ is shunned in favor of Indigenous People. Even the moon landing, a cause for all of America to stop and collectively participate in one of the greatest accomplishments of all mankind…ah but there is the problem! Mankind. When we were celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing, the New York Times published an op-ed criticizing it for lacking the diversity found in the feminist-forward, Soviet Communist Cosmonaut program. After all, Comrades in space should include women, too.
The academic historians hold court in their tenured posts, lecturing from the books they spent years crafting, as if history was an empty mold in which they can pour their thought and feelings. But history is also shaped through the cultural lens held by proceeding generations. World War I is often forgotten behind the much more popularized Second World War. Citizen Soldier, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers celebrate the Greatest Generation in books, on film, and on television. The valor shown and gallantry of the mission has so far outweighed some attempts to tarnish the overarching victory of good against evil.
Conversely, ask a young person now what they think of the Vietnam War and they probably relate to something from Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, or even Forrest Gump. Filmmakers (I’m going to go out on a limb and assume a mostly politically-liberal persuasion) transferred their dislike for that war to their portrayal of soldiers, military and political leaders, and the conservative cultural status-quo. America saw a burgeoning news commentary as a means of swaying public opinion. History as it is written uses the image of America as indecent and corrupt to pound us over our heads like a cudgel until the idea becomes a motto for a generation. The ensuing massacre at the hands of Pol Pot is somehow an afterthought to the horrors of America’s participation in Vietnam. But not many popular films have been made about the Khmer Rouge. Apparently, it’s more marketable to villainize a generation of young American men instead of Communists. The crossover popularity and lure of fame was the standard set by Michael Herr. A war correspondent for Esquire during Vietnam, he went on to co-write Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. Those tales are now etched into the collective memories of Americans, while journalist and novelist Tom Wolfe’s works such as The Right Stuff and Radical Chic don’t carry the same pop-culture weight.
It’s important not just how history judges us, but who gets to be the judge, and ever closer, the executioner. The writers of history determine who are the ‘winners’ and ‘losers.’ Those labels tend to stick. The crumbling of the Christian reputation and lessening influence it has on collective American society is not solely laid at the hands of the Catholic Church abuse scandal, but at the caricature of the slack-jawed lemmings, science deniers, and myth believers as H.L. Mencken wrote about in his satirical account of the Scopes Trial. There are plenty of the same shallow interpretations of political and cultural icons: Gerald Ford as the clumsy dunce and Sarah Palin as the doddering air-head, both Saturday Night Live portrayals that became the accepted reality. Some are outright lies. The New York Times’ headline, “Bush Encounters the Supermarket, Amazed”, made George H.W. Bush into an isolated fuddy-duddy who didn’t even know how a grocery store worked! The same high-minded intellectuals and journalists who see themselves as real-life players in All the President’s Men portray the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg as the patron saint of women (and abortion), while writing think pieces wondering who is really raising Justice Amy Coney Barrett’s seven children.
Which brings us to today and looking at the first two decades of the 21st century. Will this snapshot in time reflect accurately the crises, the victories, and the injustices we’re now living through? Already, the Obama Administration has dug its heels into being scandal-free. Will our grandchildren ever know of the Iran Nuclear Deal or the Great Recession? The Trump Administration went through an impeachment trial only months ago. It’s now memory-holed because it was found to be based on a hope and a dream by the #Resistance Left.
As Time’s clock ticks mercilessly onward, it sharpens our perspective the further into the future humanity trudges along. There is only so much space in the halls of time; only so much patience for separating fact from fiction. Will the White House intrigue and uncouth tweets be what remains of this Presidency? Will the pandemic be a mere blip on the screen of global events or will a victory such as realized peace in the Middle East be the world-changer that makes for a lasting legacy?
If we were all promised 100 years like those given to Sid Hartman, what in our lives would be written about in generations to come? For America’s history, it is writing about the balls and strikes, the wins and losses, often rewritten to satisfy today’s standards, fairness be damned. Reporting and recording the events of our time for reflection tomorrow was the soul of Sid Hartman. Now, the narratives useful to shape tomorrow are written for history, today.Published in