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.
November 14, 2016 § 2 Comments
The chattering classes are twisting themselves into knots to try to explain and understand how and why Donald Trump won last Tuesday. How did he win out in traditionally Democratic territory in the Rust Belt? This has been the $64,000,000,000,000 question. Me? I don’t see it as being that complicated.
Underneath it all, there is a very simple economic message that Trump has communicated to his base: he has promised to cut up NAFTA and bring the jobs back. The United States is currently reaping the consequences of ignoring the plight of a sizeable chunk of the population for nigh-on 30 years. They have lost their jobs, their self-esteem, their way of life. Time was, you could graduate from high school on Thursday. And Friday morning, wake up and head over to the HR office of the local factory or plant. They knew you; your dad worked there, so did your uncles and big brother. Your mom worked there, so did your sisters and your aunts. They hired you immediately. And on Monday, you came to work for the first time. And then you stayed there for 35-40 years. You made good money. Got married, had kids, raised them. Eventually, you retired. Your thanks for your loyalty and hard work was a generous pension plan that took care of you in return for giving your working years to the company. But that’s all gone. Deindustrialization. And free trade.
What happened when the jobs dried up? People lost their homes; their cars; their marriages. Alcoholism and addiction became more common. Re-training programs were a joke, they didn’t plan anyone for a new career in computers. Some were lucky and found a new career in the service industry. But making $9/hr to stock shelves at Walmart doesn’t pay the bills. Then there’s health insurance and benefits. With GE, those were all taken care of. Waffle House doesn’t take care of them. Their churches tried to take care of them but most of them weren’t religious to start with. And their politicians? They paid lip service for a bit, both Democrats and Republicans. But then they got bored and got obsessed with other things. And so no one had these dispossessed, under- and un- employed people’s backs.
And as a result, the Midwest joined the South as the lands of cultural carnage. They got written out of the national narrative, except when something stupid happens (don’t believe me, go read this rant from the Bitter Southerner). Think about TV and the movies. Time was, they were set in Milwaukee and Minneapolis and Savannah, GA. Now? Not so much. And when they are, you get Mike & Molly; their characters met at Overeaters’ Anonymous. And besides, it’s set in Chicago. Chicago isn’t of the Midwest anymore. It’s a national city. America no longer tells stories about the heartland anymore. There are no more little ditties about Jack and Diane. Midwesterners don’t see themselves on TV or the big screen, unless it’s a story about them going to NYC or LA. For example, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Or Parks and Recreation, which also began as a mockumentary making fun of Lesley Knope and the residents of Pawnee, IN.
The United States has long been a deeply divided nation. We like to think it’s North-South. It’s not. It’s the coasts and Chicago vs. the ‘flyover states.’ What’s more dismissive than referring the bulk of the nation as ‘flyover’ territory? No one listens to the fears and frustrations of the former white working class. And their visceral anger brings out all their latent fears of mistrust of anyone not exactly like them: African Americans, Muslims, immigrants, LGBTQ, and so on (and this in no way excuses hatred) And then Trumpism occurs.
Donald Trump and his Cult of Personality came along in the 2016 election and he promised to be their champion, to get rid of NAFTA, to bring the jobs back. I get this argument, I think I understand the visceral nature of it as both a son of the working class and an historian of deindustrialization. My family lost out with the first FTA between Canada and the US in 1988. My Old Man lost his job as his company sold out to a larger one south of the border. And the brief period of relative prosperity we had in the mid-80s was gone. He eventually recovered, luckily for us, he was a skilled tradesman, a welder. And my mom was university-educated. But. We lost. And so many others. Their anger is visceral. Even now, 30 years on, I still maintain deep, deep suspicion to FTA agreements, for this exact reason, despite knowing the rational reasons to support it.
But Trump cannot deliver on his promises. If he tears up NAFTA and other FTAs, the American economy will collapse, and so, too, will the world’s. Those factory jobs aren’t coming back. Automation, people. The smallish factories across the region I live in, the South, do not employ more than a fraction of what they used to; automation. More to the point, Trump doesn’t care about these people any more than anyone before him did. He used them to get to the White House, he exploited their anger.
So what is going to happen when all these angry white working class people realize they’ve been lied to, again? When Trump is revealed as nothing more than a false prophet, that anger will still be there. But it will be amped up because he failed to deliver. And they will look for scapegoats, and all the people who already feel unsafe will feel it all the more. Racism, homophobia, misogyny; these will all be amplified. Maybe Trump will mollify them by blaming someone else, another shadowy group that hindered his ability to deliver on his promises as our leader. Or maybe he’ll double down on the elitists, Mexicans, Muslims, immigrants, etc., etc. I don’t feel optimistic either way.