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.
November 28, 2016 § 2 Comments
Fidel Castro died this weekend. He was 90. Whatever you think of him, and I am largely ambivalent, he was a giant of the past half century. He was the dictator of a tiny, poor Caribbean nation with a population about that of New York City, and yet, he was a giant on the world stage. Even after the Soviet Empire collapsed and all that support for Fidel’s Castro dried up, he maintained power. Of course, his was a totalitarian state and, yes, dissent was dealt with harshly. And, yes, millions of refugees fled in dire circumstances for the United States.
But, what I take issue with is the New York Times declaring that Castro was “the fiery apostle of revolution who brought the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere in 1959.” Um. No. He did not bring the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere. It was already here. One of the two major belligerents of the Cold War, the United States, is located just north of Cuba. The CIA, meanwhile, was already running around Latin America by the time Fidel and his revolutionaries marched into Havana in January 1959, overthrowing the corrupt American puppet-dictator, Fulgencio Batista.
In 1948, the United States interfered in a civil war in Costa Rica in favour of José Figueres Ferrer, in order to rid the country of Communist rule (hint, Costa Rica wasn’t communist). Six years later, in 1954, the democratically-elected President of Guatemala, Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán, attempted to seize land belonging to United Fruit for a land redistribution programme. Instead, he incurred the wrath of the CIA, which, at best co-operated with, at worst, bullied, the Guatemalan Army, forcing Guzmán to resign. I could go on.
And at any rate, the Cold War came to the Western Hemisphere in 1945, a cypher clerk at the Soviet Embassy in Ottawa (Apparently the Times needs a reminder that Canada is in the Western Hemisphere?) walked out of the embassy and wandered over to the Ottawa Journal newspaper offices to tell his story. It took awhile, but Gouzenko became the first defector to Canada, complete with Soviet secrets.
The Times‘s headline about Castro bringing the Cold War to the Western Hemisphere is simply factually wrong. And this is what concerns me. History and facts DO matter, and to play fast and loose with them is dangerous. It leads to mis-information running rampant in society. We are currently reeling from revelations of the role of fake news sites in the Presidential Election. The New York Times, however, is usually regarded as the leading American newspaper, amongst the most well-regarded globally. It would behoove the headline writers, writers, reporters, and editors of the august institution to learn history.
November 18, 2016 § 6 Comments
Liberal news media sites are all a-gog with the rise of the ‘post-truth’ politician. Donald Trump is the most egregious example, nearly everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie. But Boris Johnson. Nigel Farage. Marine Le Pen. I could go on. It’s so bad that the venerable Oxford Dictionary has named ‘post-truth’ its word of the year for 2016.
I do not like the term ‘post-truth.’ I believe this is a case where a spade is a spade. These politicians are liars. They’re lying. They tell lies. Untruths. Fibs. Fiction. Calling it ‘post-truth’ normalizes their lying. It makes it seem ok. Like, we’re all in on the joke. Like none of this matters.
It matters. Deeply. In the country I live, the United States, we have just elected a president who has determined that Donald Trump speaks the truth exactly 4% of the time. Four per cent. A further 11% of his public utterances are ‘mostly true.’ And 15% are ‘half true.’ But half-true is still a lie. I learned the term from a lawyer friend, who notes lawyers love terms like this, because it means something is essentially a lie, but because there’s some factual veracity to it, it’s copacetic. So. Even if we want to be generous to Trump, 30% of his public utterances contain factual veracity. The other 70%, the overwhelming majority of what he says? Well, they’re ‘mostly false’ (19%), ‘false’ (34%), and the remainder, 17%, are what PoliFact calls ‘pants on fire,’ as in that children’s rhyme: ‘Liar, liar, pants on fire!’
Yes. The United States has just elected a man who speaks God’s honest truth 4% of the time he opens his mouth in public.
This is not ‘post-truth.’ This is lying. Donald Trump is a liar. Boris Johnson is a liar. Marine Le Pen is a liar. Nigel Farage is a liar. We need to call this what it is if we wish to combat it. The decisions people like Trump and Johnson get to make as head of state and government minister, respectively, impact the lives of millions of people, and not just in their own countries.
A lie is a lie is a lie.
August 29, 2016 § 2 Comments
Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now. Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans. She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US. The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.
Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:
This isn’t limited to Twitter. New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member. Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.
The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:
While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”). But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location. This photo is a photoshopped version of this:
Very different, no?
Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics. So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells. Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons. And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine. At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others. And that also included racism. And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.
Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement. In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors. Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living. And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that
I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.
Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States. To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South. She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it. That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary. But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control. She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.
In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism. More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights. King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King. She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:
There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.
Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK. In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health. And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.
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.