Revisionist Checklists

ChecklistIn recent months, I’ve spent time reading different books based on alternative history. The most recent, Farthing by Jo Walton, envisions a world built on a premise also put forth in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America where America doesn’t engage in World War II. In Walton’s version, Britain makes peace with Hitler, leaving him the Continent to play on at will. This alternate Britain’s steady slide into its own fascism is the backdrop for a fascinating whodunit.

Revisionist stories, when done well, make for a challenging counterpoint to our reality, often creating opportunities to address issues we might otherwise not be aware of or ignore. In part, I believe that authors who tackle revisionist stories do so based on George Orwell’s analysis of writers:

His subject-matter will be determined by the age he lives in—at least this is true in tumultuous, revolutionary ages like our own—but before he ever begins to write he will have acquired an emotional attitude from which he will never completely escape. (Why I Write)

We have more access to information, both current and historical, than any previous generation. We’re more aware of, or at least more able to learn about, current events. How could storytellers not be tempted to create their own versions? But what happens when people start making lists, lists that then gain authority based on their source?

Dropping Churchill

For instance, this past summer a story popped up about secondary schools in England:

Britain’s World War II prime minister Winston Churchill has been cut from a list of key historical figures recommended for teaching in English secondary schools, a government agency says…although Adolf Hitler, Mahatma Gandhi, Joseph Stalin and Martin Luther King have also been dropped from the detailed guidance accompanying the curriculum, Sir Winston’s exclusion is likely to leave traditionalists aghast…”Teachers know that they need to mention these pivotal figures. They don’t need to be instructed by law to mention them in every history class. “Of course, good teachers will be teaching the history of Churchill as part of the history of Britain. The two are indivisible.”

Not being familiar with English secondary schools, I can’t speak to the average teacher’s ability or opportunity to incorporate information that’s not on an official list. If English teachers are held to similar standards as American teachers (teaching to a standardized test), what happens to these stories?

Knowledge Checklists

When we create checklists of knowledge worth knowing, are we leaving ourselves open to repeating the mistakes of the past? We create a version of a checklist when we limit our sources of information, too. In a way, we’re creating our own revisionist versions of reality when we block out the things that may not support our opinions or that take more effort to understand.

Orwell’s nod to an emotional attitude is equally important to non-writers, too. What are you allowing to shape or drive your opinions and actions?


(Image courtesy of turbojoe. Some rights reserved.)

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February 2008
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