Writing the History of the Trump Era

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.

 

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The Truth and How to Deal With it When Studying History

November 19, 2013 § 6 Comments

In two of the books I’ve read recently I found myself incredibly frustrated by the authors’ insistence on “The Truth” and the “True Story.”  It is worth noting that neither book was written by a professional historian, despite the fact that both dealt with historical subjects.  So I began to think about how we historians are trained to think about “truth” in graduate school, how we deal with various truths in the documents, and by obvious attempts at obfuscation by historical actors.  And how we deal with gaps in the sources.

Each author deal with these problems differently.  In Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, I was troubled by Weatherford’s inability to deal with at least one of his sources critically.  Weatherford makes great use of a source called “The Secret History”, which covers the early history of the Mongols in Temujin’s (Chinggis Khan) rise.  I found myself continuously wondering if The Secret History was actually verifiably true, or if it was something to be taken with a grain of salt, which is what my sense was in reading Weatherford’s book.

But the bigger problem came in C.J. Chivers’ The Gun.  Chivers was understandably frustrated throughout his research and writing process by the varying story of the development and proliferation of the AK-47 in the Soviet Union.  Mikhail Kalashnikov himself has published multiple autobiographies, both during the Soviet era and after, and has given countless interviews to the media, both before and after the fall of the USSR.  And in almost everyone of them, he gave different versions of his own biography, of his development of the AK-47 and so on.  I would’ve been frustrated in Chivers’ shoes.

For example, Kalasknikov’s brother, Nikolai, was sent to a Stalin-era prison camp when they were young.  Chivers is frustrated in figuring out what Nikolai’s sentence was.  At the end of the day, I found myself wondering “who cares”?  I am less interested in what sentence Nikolai Kalashnikov received than the fact that he was sentenced to a labour camp in the first place.  And I felt that Chivers spent too much time and space in the book expressing his frustration and inability to get to the fact of the matter there to the detriment of a discussion of the Kalashnikov family’s status as kulaks during Collectivisation during the Stalin era.

Chivers also spends the most time and effort complaining about Kalashnikov’s biography.  He also is downright naïve in expressing his frustration with Soviet-era sources and the multiple truths of the era, as if nothing like that ever happened in the US or any other Western nation.  At any rate, Chivers goes on a long rant about Kalashnikov co-operating with Soviet authorities in the re-crafting of his biography (Chivers prefers the term “white-washing”, which, while being accurate is ahistorical).  Kalashnikov’s family were kulaks, enemies of the state.  They were exiled to Siberia.  No kidding Kalashnikov needed a new biography when he became the inventor of the AK-47, which Chivers makes a strong and compelling argument as the greatest invention of the USSR.  His background as the son of kulaks had to be deleted from the story and a new version be created for public consumption.  To criticise Kalashnikov for participating in this process is almost laughable.  Obviously he had to participate.  He didn’t have a choice in a totalitarian dictatorship.  At least not if he wanted to keep living.

At any rate, it just so happens that, as a public historian, this is the kind of thing I study.  Public historians spend a lot of time looking at how stories get created, whether they are wider cultural stories or individual ones.  If Chivers thinks that what Kalashnikov participated in only happened in totalitarian communist states, he’s deeply, deeply mistaken.  Manufactured histories are part and parcel of almost daily life in Canada and the USA.

But the question of truth is what I’m interested in here.  Fact.  Statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Numbers don’t speak for themselves.  A picture is not worth a thousand words.  Facts are simple things.  Fact: Canadian Confederation happened on 1 July 1867.  But why? And what did it mean?  The why can be answered in many ways, both narrowly and widely.  It can be answered looking at what was happening in the United States, it can be answered looking at British colonial politics.  Or by what was happening in Canada.  Or a combination thereof.  The standard interpretation of what it means is that it was the birth of Canada.  But Canada in 1867 was four provinces, comprised of three colonies.  That’s about it.  It didn’t mean that Canada now had control of its own internal affairs.  That happened in 1848.  It didn’t mean that Canada gained control of foreign affairs.  That happened in 1931.  There was no such thing as Canadian citizenship until 1948.  Nor was the Supreme Court of Canada the highest court of appeal until then.  Canada did not control its own constitution until 1982.  So, in short, facts only cover a very simple corner of the story.  Interpretation is necessary.

To use an example from The Gun: The Ak-47 was developed in 1947.  Or was it?  Chivers does a wonderful job teasing out the details of the weapon’s creation in the late 1940s, to say nothing of the massive re-tooling of the gun that continued into the 1950s.  Even nailing down 1947 as the date of the gun’s creation isn’t as straight-forward as one would think, at least according to Chivers.

So, the truth.  Or the true story.  In my experience, rarely is something billed as the “true story” actually that.  Truth is a messy concept.  And this is what we historians are trained in.  We recognise that the honest truth isn’t necessarily a possibility (or even desirable) in telling a story.  Other things are more important, such as in the case of Nikolai Kalashnikov’s trip to the gulag.  Again, the actual sentence doesn’t interest me as much as why he was sent to the gulag.  In other words, there are varying shades of grey in sorting out the historical story.  And sometimes the actual straight truth isn’t that important to the story.  In the end, Chivers’ story is made all the more interesting for all the work he does in developing and elucidating the various stories of the development of the AK-47 and the various biographies and stories to be told about its inventor (or maybe he wasn’t the inventor, another version of the story could just as easily been that the gun was the result of a collective team), Mikhail Kalashnikov.

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