History in an Age of Fake News

Historians in the News
tags: Fake News

Patrick Iber is an assistant professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

We work and live in a time when historical knowledge has become intensely politicized. That knowledge is political is hardly new, but the rise of Donald Trump has heightened the polarization. His administration governs with a torrent of disorienting dishonesty, and his cry of "fake news" seems to mean less that the news in question is false than that it tells a story about him that he finds discordant with his self-image. Journalists — writers of the first draft of history, as the cliché goes — have struggled to balance their responsibility to reporting discovered facts with reporting the views of those who reject those facts.

In this political climate, scholars — and historians in particular — face analogous challenges. On the one hand, our work is increasingly in demand by those seeking perspective on an uneasy present. On the other, our work can meet with outright disbelief and ideologically driven skepticism. It is sometimes dismissed, in effect, as "fake history," in an analogy to "fake news." Is there anything that can be done to prevent basic historical facts from going the way of climate science, seen essentially as politically motivated rather than the result of serious professional study?

One possible response to this charge is to insist on the neutrality of the empiricism of historical methods. It is a tempting argument, but unlikely to be a fruitful one. Much of the resistance to the basic facts of American history comes not from complex disputes about interpretation but essentially from a politically motivated confidence game. Dinesh D’Souza’s books and films, for example, are cynically inept, but no amount of correction from careful historians like Kevin M. Kruse and Heather Cox Richardson will cause him to admit a mistake. The Confederate and neo-Confederate monuments that dot the American landscape do not stand as interventions in historiographical disputes; they are there as assertions of white supremacy. The problem is not that there is honest disagreement among historians — the problem is that there is a market for pseudo-historical grift.

That is because, however committed to a neutral empiricism in method, the work of history is inevitably political. It is political precisely because politics requires myth-building: Politics makes use of powerful stories that guide our understanding of the world. These might come in the form of myths of the legitimacy of power, or myths of a national, regional, or racial past. As these myths are made out of the raw material of historical events, they depend on remembering, but also on forgetting.

Yet, as Eric Hobsbawm wrote, the historian's business "is to remember what others forget." Perhaps this is one reason they can be unpopular. It may be a normal human tendency to want to have pride in our university, our town, our state, our country. Historians can be bothersome, remembering past practices that no longer meet changing moral standards, or never did. We know the kinds of stories that people tell to make themselves powerful, and we see through them. The modern origins of the historical profession lie in court recorders’ describing the glory of the king and burying unpleasantness. But now we often do the opposite. The job cannot help being political, as long as storytelling and mythmaking are part of politics. ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education

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