Fake News, Global History Wars, and the Importance of Historical Thinking

By Thomas Peace

In the last week we’ve seen a strong desire to put an end to “Fake News”. With the rise of social media and increasingly savvy revenue generating fake news sites, this is an important intervention (the dangers of which Alan MacEachern addressed here last week). It is, however, misleading to assign blame for Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency solely on this blatant deception. Focus on the “fake news” distracts us from the very real way that some producers of the “real news” (editors, producers and pundits) and legitimately elected politicians (and especially governments) use the media to distort and distract in an effort to cultivate public opinion.

Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in the deliberate (mis)use of history to construct a specific polarized vision of the nation. Globally, politicians and opinion makers (some of whom are admittedly professional historians) have recently turned to un-contextualized facts about their nation’s past for their own political ends, often directly targeting university-based historians and their increasing emphasis on historical thinking over the reinforcement of a national narrative.  Though I am not in a position to argue cause and effect, in this post I would like to suggest that declining enrollments in history programs and classes are perhaps related to the fact that politicians deploying this tactic have recently found electoral success. “Fake news” may be part of the problem, but the problem’s roots go much deeper and relate more directly to established power structures.

Around the world, the past decade has seen the increasing use of narrow definitions of “history” used for explicitly political aims. Though we might anchor such arguments within the culture wars of the 1990s (the Enola Gay Controversy in the US or Black Armbands in Australia), there have been several much more recent examples that point towards a trend.

In Canada, we can of course point to the past decade of Conservative rule for our immediate evidence. Having written fairly extensively on this subject at the time (see here and here), we might turn instead to something far more immediate: last Sunday’s appointment of Steve Bannon as Donald Trump’s White House chief strategist. Though I am skeptical that we will see a robust vision of United States history developed by the President-elect, skimming through the last few months of Bannon’s Breitbart News suggests that debates over the meaning of the past may well shape the U.S. policy agenda.[1]

Though we can only anticipate what this re-envisioning might yield in the United States, recent debates in the U.K. about Brexit point to important interconnections. There, lead Brexiter Michael Gove, took a clear stance on what he views as the appropriate use of the past. As the Education Secretary in 2013, he oversaw an attempted revision of the British history curriculum. At the core of Gove’s much-critiqued proposals was an emphasis on specific politically focused historical details (names, dates and places) over historical thinking processes (which, of course, incorporate these sorts of historical details anyway). Pertinent to the debates about Brexit, critiques of Gove’s curriculum changes centred on its English exceptionalism; emphasizing English history over other parts of Britain and ignoring key events in continental Europe. To put this another way, had they gone through (which they did not), the history curriculum would have reinforced Gove’s own isolationist vision for England. Even though it marks a failure, the political debate around the history curriculum decision no doubt cultivated a climate in which the broader Brexit agenda could thrive.

Equally important for historians in North America are the similar trends taking place in Poland, where the recently elected Law and Justice Party have placed academic historians in their crosshairs. Last month, Jim Clifford addressed the issue here on ActiveHistory.ca by pointing us towards the exchange in Maclean’s between University of Ottawa historian Jan Grabowski and Lukasz Weremiuk, Chargé d’affaires at the Polish Embassy. At issue is a Polish law – still being debated but approved by cabinet – that targets those “who publicly and against the fact, accuse the Polish nation, or the Polish state, [of being] responsible or complicit in Nazi crimes by the III German Reich.” Far from benign, the discourse around the law has already directly affected Princeton historian Jan Gross, a leading scholar of the Holocaust. Late last year the Polish government began to openly discuss stripping him of the country’s Order of Merit. Last week, in an open letter sent to the Polish President, the American Historical Association called his government’s actions “a serious threat to academic freedom, freedom of speech, and impartial historical scholarship.”

In addition to these four cases, I could have also drawn on the way the past is being misused in India to re-envision the country through the lens of Hindu nationalism or the textbook wars taking place in East Asia. In all of these examples, what we see is not the role of fake news, but rather a growing political desire for a single officially-sanctioned historical narrative that dismisses the importance of historical thinking and the critical capacity that it cultivates.

Conflict over how the past is approached, studied and deployed should especially alarm us given the fact that university-aged students in North America seem to be less interested in taking history courses. In September, the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History released results from an online survey indicating that in both Canada and the United States, undergraduate students are enrolling in fewer history courses. The study builds on similar research indicating that fewer students are also enrolling in Bachelor Degree Programs. Though the overall study shows moderate declines, nearly half of the campuses that participated reported a drop in course enrollments of 10 per cent or more over the three years studied; this is similar to the drop in history BAs graduating in the US during the 2013-14 academic year. Given how the past is currently being drawn upon within the political sphere, we should find this declining interest concerning.

These trends also build on anecdotal experiences I have had in which the importance and value of history is dismissed. From prospective parents and students, I’ve heard about how they would like to take history, but worry that it will distract from STEM disciplines or studies in business. The message here is that history might be interesting, but whether it is studied or not will have minimal effect on their lives after graduation. From others, friends and (even) colleagues, I’ve heard about how interesting history courses sound and that they plan to revisit studying the past in their retirement. In this iteration, the emphasis is placed on history as recreation; something we do for fun. From one non-historian colleague, I even heard about how easy I have it in teaching history because the past never changes. From this perspective history is conceived as simply the identification of names, dates and places, requiring little interpretation or analysis. The current and widespread political deployment of the past demonstrates the fallacy of these dismissals. Interpretation of the past matters and it has very real material consequences.

And this is where we must return, to demonstrate how the real news, as opposed to the fake news, fuels these trends. In Canada we could point to National Post columnists like Barbara Kay and Conrad Black as stoking the fire. Without getting into the specific issues each tackles in their columns, both pundits frequently create a binary between so-called historical revisionists and something Kay calls “objective history” (see here for the recent example from which I’ve drawn my language; click here for a more fully articulated and equally recent version of Kay’s understanding of the historian’s craft; Black’s view can be drawn out in these two recent reflections: here and here). Similarly, we could point to Rex Murphy’s or Margaret Wente’s emphasis on what they perceive in North American universities as corruption of the humanities and social sciences.[2] The point here is not the politics involved in the subjects these columnists address, or even their historical interpretations of specific events, but rather that their articulation of academic study, and historians in particular, is anchored in a belief that our work is structured around a mere set of officially correct facts (“objective history”) rather than in the analysis, interpretation and debate that goes into giving those details significance. This latter component of historical work is usually what is absent in the media.

If we are looking for the roots of our present-day political crises, fake news is certainly part of the problem, but we need to take an equally critical lens to the real news and the politicians, civil servants, and opinion makers that mislead the public through their conceptions of history and uses for the past. What we need in Canada – and more globally – is not just an assault on the so-called “fake news” but rather a return to critical analysis in the media and a better understanding of the work of the historian.

Thomas Peace is an assistant professor of Canadian history at Huron University College and an editor at ActiveHistory.ca

[1] In the last six months alone, Breitbart published pieces with history-focused headlines such as “U.S. Students on Track to Learn America is to Blame for 9/11” (Sept 2016); “History Professors Unconcerned with Lack of U.S. History Requirement” (August 2016); “Republican Delegates Encourage Teaching Bible in Schools” (July 2016); “Few Top Colleges Require History Majors to Study American History” (July 2016); “Advanced Placement Tests to Hide History of Religion and Islamic Jihad in Europe” (June 2016); “Seeds of Disorder: High School Courses Now Dedicated to Teaching American Guilt” (Jun 2016).

[2] For examples click here and here for Murphy and here or here for Wente.

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