The Death of Language

October 4, 2017 § 1 Comment

We live in an era where the President of the United States labels anything he doesn’t like as #FAKENEWS.  Last year, we watched Brexit succeed (at least in a referendum) where the Leave side was guilty of inventing several truths that were actually lies.  And one of the President’s surrogates has coined the term ‘alternative facts’ to describe lies.  I wrote about this last year in the wake of the Presidential Election.

The damage to public discourse and the use of language through politicians who lie nearly every time they open their mouth is obvious.  But there is another source of danger when it comes to the actual meaning of words and their usage: sports journalism.

As my friend John likes to note, nothing should ever get in the way of ESPN’s ‘hot take’ on any and all, most notably language and truth.  But it’s not just ESPN.  Take, for example, Canada’s TSN (for those who don’t know, The Sports Network is the largest sports network in Canada, with a monopoly on broadcasting the Canadian Football League; it also holds regional marketing rights to NHL games, as well as Major League Baseball, and various other sports.  It is also 20% owned by ESPN).  A headline earlier this week on TSN.ca states,  that “Pens, Lightning Battle It Out in First 7-Eleven Power Rankings of 2017-18.”

Um, no. The Penguins and Lightning are not battling it out to top the power rankings.  Why?  Because these are entirely subjective rankings created by TSN.  The Lightning and Penguins did not play a game, a play off series or anything for this honour.  TSN’s staff just ranked them as the two best teams in the game.

And so you may not think this a big deal, TSN’s headline writers are just looking for attention to encourage people to click on the story.  Sure they are.  But in so doing, they are messing with the meaning of words.  They are cheapening the meaning of the verb ‘to battle.’

This kind of thing is pretty common in sports journalism, whether through laziness or incompetence, I can’t tell.  But you will notice that around trade deadlines or amateur drafts or free agency periods, sports journalists will tell you about the ‘names’ being thrown around.  Sure, they are names being bandied about (mostly by these very same journalists, who get to make up the news and then report on it).  But names don’t get signed, trades, or claimed in drafts.  Players do.

Maybe you think I’m just a crank for being worried about language.  Good for you.  You’re wrong.

Of course language is mutable, of course meanings of words change over time, and the way we speak changes.  Ever heard someone speak 18th century English?  Or how about the word ‘awful’?  Initially, the word meant ‘full of awe,’ or something that was truly awesome (to use a word that has developed to fill the void caused by awful’s evolution), as in the ‘awful power of nature.’  Today, we would say the ‘awesome power of nature.’  And awful means something that sucks.  But these are changes that have occurred over centuries, and occurred due to colonization, and the like (want to have some fun? Compare the meaning of English words in the UK and the US).

The mis-use of words like ‘battle’ to describe an artificial power ranking that actually has nothing to do with the teams allegedly in this battle is something else entirely.   So is discussing the ‘names’ that were traded.  It’s a mixture of exaggeration and laziness.  And, ultimately, this kind, I don’t know, laziness or idiocy like this renders language meaningless.

 

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.

 

We, The Other People

November 15, 2016 § Leave a comment

constitution

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency last week has many people in the United States worried or scared, or both.  Anxiety is running rampant across the nation.  He was elected with something less than 25% of the vote of the voting age public, which is a problem in and of itself.  He lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.  These are all things we must keep in mind.  Many people are feeling worried about their place in Donald Trump’s America.

Many of us feel like we don’t belong, like the nation held a referendum on our right to exist, and we lost.  People of color, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ people, disabled people and many others find themselves devalued and vulnerable to harassment. Let’s join together to hold the incoming President accountable for the fear, anger and hate he has stirred in our country. Let our voices be heard; we will not allow hatred to hold sway.

We believe that if we speak truth from the heart again and again and again, our words and stories have the power to affect change.  We create a record of our dissent.  We demand our system of government work for us, not against us.  We stand our ground in a way that honors the office of the Presidency and the promises of freedom and justice for all. ’

We, the project organizers, are documentary filmmakers and public historians who are deeply committed to making sure that all people are able contribute to the historical record. We believe that stories matter and that everyone has a right to make their voices heard.

We, The Other People is a project to collect letters from Americans and immigrants who live here.  We are all protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

So why letters? Glad you asked:

Letters to the President of the United States (POTUS) have a long tradition. Revolutionary War veterans wrote to President Washington seeking pensions that were promised but not delivered.  Escaped African American slaves petitioned President Lincoln on behalf of their families. Children beseeched President Roosevelt to help them survive the Great Depression and Jewish Americans pleaded with their President to help get their relatives out of Nazi Germany.   Japanese Americans wrote to Reagan asking him to remember the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as the Cold War raged.

Across centuries, letters to the President have expressed the concerns, hopes, fears and expectations of our nation’s people. They have called on the holder of the seat of power to hear them and to be their leader.

We are collecting them for now on our website.  But, come January, we will deliver them to the White House, to deliver our message for an inclusive United States, to the president.  This will also ensure that the letters enter the official record and eventually end up officially documented in the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

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