December 12, 2016 § 6 Comments
Way back in 2009, failed Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin took her feud with the media to a new level. She began referring to it as the ‘lamestream’ media, bitter as she was about the justifiable questioning of her qualifications for the position, amongst other things. Her nomenclature, though, became a crystalizing moment for many on the far right, as they now had a catchy and witty term to describe the media. The far right had long had a problem with the mainstream media, which tended to dismiss them as nut jobs or worse. Indeed, far right sites like Breitbart, which had already been in existence for two years by the time Palin came up with her term, had been critiquing the allegedly liberal media. Breitbart, though, was just the most successful of these far right sites, most of which, including Breitbart, descended into conspiracy theories, hate speech, and vague threats against minorities.
And then Donald Trump happened. Trump, a life-long moderate Democrat from New York City, saw an opportunity. Clearly he was a student of Joseph Goebbels’ theories of propaganda. Goebbels, who was the Nazis’ spin doctor, noted, most famously, that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes a truth. But Goebbels also opined that propaganda works best when the manipulated group believes it is acting of its own free will. This is not to say that Trump is a Nazi, of course (though some of his followers clearly are). It is to note that Trump is a master manipulator.
All throughout the primaries and into the main presidential election, he carried out a series of feuds with the media. He refers to the New York Times as ‘failing’ in nearly every tweet about it. He even carried out a feud with Megyn Kelly of FoxNews. In that, he seemed to break with every expectation of a conservative candidate, as Fox has long been the conspiracy-driven, nearly fake-news media darling of the right (lest you think I’m biased, liberals have MSNBC, and it’s not like the far left doesn’t have its own issues with the media). It probably helped that Fox was in a crisis of its own at the time, with head honcho Roger Ailes being forced to step down due to a sexual harassment scandal.
Trump, then, coalesced an already-extant movement that developed in the wake of the rise of Barack Obama, the first African American president, and his candidacy for the presidency. Trump’s candidacy, though, took this until-now fringe movement into the mainstream, most notably through Breitbart and the appointment of its CEO, Steve Bannon, as his campaign CEO before appointing him as the Chief Strategist of the nascent Trump administration.
Trump’s media campaign and discourse has been nothing short of brilliant, even if it is nefarious and repulsive.
July 31, 2013 § 2 Comments
Three times in the past three days I’ve been reminded of what it is that we historians do. And let me be clear, by “historian,” I mean academically-trained holders of advanced degrees who study the past. Yeah, call me pretentious or whatever. I don’t care. The first reminder I got was the now notorious interview of Reza Aslan by FoxNews concerning his new book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. In the interview, Aslan had to continuously remind the FoxNews host that he was a trained historian, not just some Muslim dude writing about the founder of Christianity. Jesus Christ isn’t usually a topic I find interesting, but after hearing the NPR interview wherein Aslan actually got to discuss the book, I almost want to read it. Almost.
The second reminder of what it is that an historian does came yesterday. Against my better judgement, I got involved in a Twitter discussion with a conspiracy theorist. I should’ve tuned out when he told me that Pierre Elliott Trudeau, whom many (including me) consider Canada’s greatest Prime Minister, was a communist. Trudeau, you see, made Canada communist. But, wait, there’s more! The communist path was paved for Trudeau by his predecessor, Lester B. Pearson, who was PM from 1963-8. Pearson, this guy claimed, had been named by a Soviet spy before US Congress as having passed on secrets to the Soviets during the Second World War. I have, believe it or not, seen this claim before, I have a vague recollection of having read something of it in connection to the Gouzenko Affair. The author of whatever this piece was addressed the Pearson claim in a footnote and gave his sources. As an historian does. My interlocutor, however, did not consider this enough. He dismissed this academic article as a MSM source (mainstream media) and biased, blah blah blah. I found myself thinking of Aslan repeating ever-so-patiently noting what it is that makes him qualified to speak on the subject of Jesus Christ. I thought, well, let’s see, I’ve read somewhere around 5,000 books and articles over the course of my career. Maybe more, maybe a little less. I am trained to critically assess an argument, its logic and its evidence. As are all the rest of us academic, professional historians. My interlocutor had offered up a Google search as his “proof” that Pearson and Trudeau were dirty commies. But he dismissed my evidence as “nothing.” Ah, wonderful, anti-intellectualiam. Carry on then, good sir, and good luck with your alternate reality.
The third time I was reminded of the historians’ path came today when reading The Times Literary Supplement. I allowed my subscription to lapse last fall. I regret that. I just renewed, and the first new issue came yesterday (note geek excitement here). In it comes a review of Brian Levack’s new book, The Devil Within: Possession and Exorcism in the Modern World, by Peter Marshall. I thought several things of this book and its review. The first was it appears to have been a colossal miss in terms of Public History. Levack is bedeviled (pun intended) by the fact that it is well nigh impossible to rationally explain possessions. And yet, people continued to believe they happened. I’m more interested in that cognitive dissonance, I must say. Anyway. Towards the end of the review, Marshall opines that “The folie de grandeur of historians is that we are conditioned to believe we can explain anything.” Huh. Not sure I agree with that. Certainly, the rational, positivist bent of our training is given over to such pursuits. And we tend to take on rational topics, things we can explain. Certainly, anything I’ve tackled in a research project from undergrad to now fits into this category. But there are some things that are harder to explain. Like, for example, the life and times of Jesus of Nazareth. Or a belief (or unbelief) in God. Or, possessions, demons, and exorcisms. Here, the historian is left with this cognitive dissonance, of attempting to conduct a rational discussion (and argument) about something that may not actually be rational. Herein lies my interest in exactly that dissonance. What is it that makes people persist in their beliefs? Even in the face of all rational evidence to the contrary (as in the case of, say, possessions)? The very fact that the subject of discussion is not explainable is exactly what makes it so interesting. So, in a sense, then, Marshall is incorrect, historians cannot explain anything. Nor should we wish to.