Scouring history – no longer surveying but revising the past


A recent spate of blatant examples of what I had heretofore known as “revisionist history” set me fulminating on the distortion of our past – the world, the nation, the neighborhood, the family, even venerable public institutions.   For those of us of an age, George Orwell’s 1984 spun a cautionary tale that shaped our youth.  Once we lived through that fateful year and took the mid-life plunge into the Information Age , we realized that “1984-R-Us..”

To give Michele Bachmann her due, she does put a face on the issue of historical perversion.  Her sycophants’ clumsy efforts to touch up Wikipedia to match her gaffes gave us all a laugh and a shudder, though we share a condescending love/hate relationship with Wikipedia for just such reasons,  In reality, the ill-informed Bachmann is the perky tip of the revisionist iceberg described by Steven Thomson in an April 2010 McClatchy article entitled “Not satisfied with US History, some conservations are rewriting it.”

My concern about revisionist history is quite personal and immediate.  I am personally affected by direct experience watching the legacies of institutions blithely tweaked to accommodate political exigencies.  Till very recently I was unaware that in today’s cleaned up parlance we no longer “revise” history, we merely “scour” it!

Scouring is a hot topic in the media, as witnessed by this June 3, 2011 piece about the New York Times published by the WSJ under the headline “All the News That’s Fit to Scrub.”  Just last week the WSJ did a bit of its own in-house scouring when they made their allegations of Moslem involvement in the Oslo tragedy “disappear.”

The fact is, scouring is rife because it is so easy in the readily expunged digital age.  Whether it’s the NYT  or kids’ SAT scores or the ledgers that reveal bad loans, the contemporary record is easy – and tempting – to fix.  In a tempero-centric world, who cares?

My un-scoured opinion, formed in a pre-Orwellian naivete, is this:

  • Scouring the historical record is a societal scourge that demands calling out and correction by the likes of Howard Zinn, if such there be.
  • Scouring the contemporary record is a pernicious reality to be monitored with diligence and curtailed with stiff sanctions, monetary, legal,  reputational if that matters.
  • Digital distortion may be innocent, benign, unintentional or blatantly malicious.
  • Scouring in the digital age presents complexity because we haven’t figured it out yet, but we can make an earnest effort.

Therefore, it remains to the information consumer to hone the fine art of perceptive paranoia.  Once known as “information literacy” the skill was scoured when the curriculum itself was reduced to the basics.  Time to dust off a good idea and give it a catchy 21st Century signature.  Though Perceptive Paranoia probably won’t sell the term does describe the skills and habits needed to discern that which is true.