February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.
February 14, 2017 § 4 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, I was asked how future historians will be able to tell our history? We live in what is allegedly a post-fact era. First things first, whatever you want to call it, post-fact, post-truth, alternative facts, these are all just lies. I have already commented on this. Nonetheless, whether this is just a re-labelling of lying, we are still in this cultural moment. Every day the Trump administration deals in what White House Counsel KellyAnne Conway calls ‘alternative facts.’ What is the truth now, my interlocutor wanted to know?
I have been asked this question in a variety of ways in the past year and it is a real challenge we face. But we don’t face in terms of future historians, academics and journalists are already facing the problem. Michael A. Innes, a good friend of mine, has been thinking about this of late too. He notes that
Media outlets come in all shapes and sizes. Some are loud and boisterous, while others are more stoic. “Newspapers of record” are a recognized form of the latter. Some try to report what happened, while others try to convince readers why and how they happened. Media output, in other words, can serve more than one purpose, and only one of them is to provide researchers and analysts with a source of evidence needed to determine the factual basis of past events: what happened, when it happened, who was involved, what they said about what happened and so on. Reconstructing past events is a tricky business, and some media environments are so highly politicized – the rhetoric so overheated and contentious – that verifiable facts are almost impossible to discern from the collection of color and misdirection in which they’re embedded.
Indeed. The reconstruction of the past is indeed a tricky bit and I will go further than Innes and argue that it is an inherently political act. This is true whether it’s on the minor scale, such as I did in reconstructing a version of the history of Griffintown, Montreal (and yes, I am enjoying linking my own book). But it’s also what societies and cultures do anyway.
When we reconstruct the past, we do so from a variety of sources, including printed records, including government documents, diaries, published work, literature. We also use film, TV shows, documentaries, and music. We use oral sources, both those already collected and ones we collect. And we also make use of the digital: Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, blogs, etc. We have to make decisions in what gets included in our reconstructed histories.
Historians, we tend to go further than journalists. Innes notes that some media outlets report on what happened, whilst others focus on why and how they happened. And quite often the latter try to convince you of the version of events they are pushing. This is the difference between, say, The New York Times and Breitbart, or the CBC and FoxNews. The Times and the CBC deal in facts in reporting the news, and editorials are clearly labelled. In the case of Breitbart and FoxNews, there is a blurring of ‘news’ and editorials.
When I teach, I always remind my students that we are more interested in the how and the why of history, we need to move beyond facts and into interpretation. How do we do that? Logic and reasoning. We use other scholars as guides. We read what other historians have written on the subject, or an analogous subject. We consider their interpretations based on the evidence. We agree or disagree. Or we agree and see another possibility. And so on.
Back in Grade 2 or thereabouts, my teacher introduced us to the who, what, when, where, why and how? The key questions for all situations. So in writing history, we begin with the who, what, when, and where. We establish the facts. And we establish these from our sources. Even in this post-fact era, there are still facts. They still get reported, they’re still plain to find in doing research. And from there, we ascertain the why and the how.
So how do we source that in the post-truth world? Innes notes the guerrilla archiving of data, creating an archive of truth and records of the real world to counter the post-factual. But there are other, more simpler ways we do this through the ‘reading’ of our sources, whether they are government documents, newspapers, novels, films, music, Twitter, and so on. When we read these sources, we do so within a cultural context, of course. And we do tend to have strong bullshit detectors.
My MA thesis tells the story of the Corrigan Affair, which erupted in Sainte-Sylvestre, Quebec, in late 1855 when neighbourhood bully, an apostate, Robert Corrigan, was beaten to death by a gang of his Irish-Catholic neighbours at the county fair. When his murderers evaded capture for the next six months, all hell broke loose in a highly sectarian Canada. Anglo-Protestant politicians and newspapers were beside themselves over the fact that these Irish-Catholic ‘hooligans’ managed to evade the state’s attempts to bring them to justice. They did so through the help of their neighbours and an intimate knowledge of geography of the Appalachian foothills of southern Quebec.
The local Anglican priest in Saint-Sylvestre, Rev. William King, was ground zero for the ‘alternative facts’ of the Corrigan Affair. In daily dispatches to government ministers and the Quebec City press, Rev. King constructed an alternate reality where the Irish-Catholics of Sainte-Sylvestre were parading around openly armed and threatening Anglo-Protestant, beating them nearly to death for fun. He told of marauding gangs of Irish-Catholics breaking into homes in the middle of the night and tearing homes to pieces and beating the men and boys of the house. Rev. King’s invented reality was accepted verbatim by government ministers and the Quebec City press.
So how did I find out what happened in Saint-Sylvestre in the fall and winter of 1855-56? I reconstructed events through a mixture of sources, both government and official and vernacular. I relied on petitions from the Irish-Catholics of Saint-Sylvestre, who claimed to be brutalized by the Orange Order. I relied on the French Canadian press of Quebec, which watched both sides with bemusement. I read the depositions of the French Canadians of Saint-Sylvestre, who were similarly bemused by their neighbours’ actions. and from these varying sources, I reconstructed the events of the Corrigan Affair. I learned to tell fact from fiction, or at least something that looked more likely to have occurred than not.
And this is what historians will do when they tell the story of our time. They will look at the lies that are produced at the White House and then compare that to what other sources say about what is going on, including the media, but also our Twitter feeds, our Facebook posts, our Reddit commentary. Maybe even blogs like mine.
We will continue to examine history as we always have, sifting through varying and contradictory versions of events to reconstruct what actually did happen. And, of course, being a public historian first and foremost, I will be fascinated by the myth-making at the White House, and the puncturing of that myth by the rest of society, about the hows and whys we choose to remember this time.