Not long ago I was discussing the famous Sons of Liberty who sparked the events leading to the American Revolution. We grow up hearing of their exploits as heroic, bold, and founded on the highest principles. Yet there is an alternative account too. If their deeds are described devoid of historical context they have all the attributes we would associate with terrorists. It was violent, destructive, thuggish, and as fueled by hate as principle.
The traditional historian will tend to whitewash these historical figures and focus only on the ultimate outcome, an independent nation, and assume that because it exists it is good, and therefore whatever led to it was also good. The radical revisionist will brand them as evil and by extension whatever their deeds may have helped to accomplish must be bad and the right thing would have been no revolution at all.
Something about the history of whatever political jurisdiction we grow up in makes us incredibly dumb when it comes to analyzing actions and individuals. If your dysfunctional neighbors had a nasty divorce that you knew about only through the grapevine, would you immediately proclaim one side just and the other unjust? You’d be smart enough and staid enough to stay out of it and understand that both sides are equally likely to be in the right, if there even is a right at all. Yet people few centuries ago with whom we share little in common got into complex conflicts and we feel the need to come down hard for or against one side or the other.
Free yourself from the patriotic reading of history which demands good guys and bad guys. You don’t need to pick sides. You can admire or be repulsed by all sides in historical epochs, or simply admit ignorance and have no feelings whatsoever. The need to find the “right” side always results in fact-bending and uncomfortable association. It makes you dumber and less happy, as there is always some alternative version you feel the need to respond to or stamp out.
History is not a football game where your team either wins or loses based on what the textbooks say. It’s a bunch of messy stuff that already happened, and who was more or less wrong or right has no bearing on your life today unless you let it. Don’t shackle yourself to the deeds of dead strangers. If you want to understand history, move beyond good and evil.