Fake News, George Washington, and the Plight of the Overworked History Educator by Ben Thompson
For any of you who have been unlucky enough to find yourselves unexpectedly tractor-beamed into the horrific quagmire of misery known as the Internet Political Comment Flame War, you’ve almost certainly encountered a particularly wide-ranging and equally-noxious sub-section of humanity that loves to spray the phrase “Fake News” around, repeatedly, in full-capslock, with all the tact and guile of a guest on the Maury Povich Show attempting to shrug off his impending child support payments. These Facebook Ciceros seem to come from every corner of the political spectrum and espouse all manner of ideologies, and it would seem that the only single unifying factor is their iron-clad belief that they can immediately disprove any scientific theory, refute all current events articles, or annihilate any political ideology simply by chiseling their favorite catchphrase into a stone tablet and then using it to mercilessly bludgeon anyone around them who might attempt to form a rational thought.
We like to think of this as a purely modern construct, forged in the crucible of the last calendar year. The Great Flame Wars of 2017, where an enlightened, forward-thinking civilization suddenly devolved into Mad Max with iPads, where Keyboard Samurai duel each other across cyberspace with the soul of our species hanging in the balance.
Unfortunately, the truth is that it’s not really that simple. Because Fake News has been a part of the human condition since the first time people ever bothered to write anything down, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon.
One of the most common complaints a history educator receives is that the information they are providing is simply “wrong”. Regardless of what you’re attempting to talk about, or how many sources you use to back up your arguments, there are still people who like to get really really ridiculously mad about the most seemingly-insignificant things that happened over a thousand years ago. In their rage, these heroic guardians of human knowledge still, for some reason or another, bizarrely feel the moral obligation to definitively tell you how you need to “get your facts straight” and “read a history book”… because clearly they have a far greater understanding than you do when it comes to events that happened halfway across the globe many centuries before either of you were born.
But if we as a civilization can’t agree on what is actually happening in the world right now, how is a historian supposed to write the “real” story of something that happened that far in the past?
Here’s a fun story. In 1274 BC there was a huge battle between the Egyptian Army and the Hittites. The Egyptian Pharaoh, the great Ramses the Second, returned home to Egypt after the fight, and he immediately built a huge monument to tell the tale of how he had single-handedly massacred the enemy forces by crushing them all with badass kung fu like something out of a modern-day superhero movie (or, sadly, a modern-day over-CGI’ed take on “actual historical events” that has been hyperbolized into nonsense). “I was before them like Set in his moment. I found the mass of chariots in whose midst I was, scattering them before my horses!” wrote the Pharaoh, as his artisans carved an awesome graphic novel scene depicting Ramses as a mythical being four times taller than his enemies who kicks scores of Hittites into the stratosphere while shooting lasers out of his eyes.
Yeah… well… recent archaeological evidence of the Battle of Kadesh suggests it is far more likely that the Egyptian Army was almost completely annihilated by the Hittites, and that Ramses probably only barely escaped with his life.
We only just discovered this in the last century. And that battle took place 3,291 years ago.
The first thing to mention here is that History is not Math and it’s never going to be. It’s not two plus two equals four, black-and-white, the angle of a parallelogram kind of stuff. That’s because people aren’t that simple. History is the study of people, and people are weird and they lie and they misremember stuff and they have ambitions, hopes, dreams, fears, and humongous uncontrollable egos. And, unfortunately, this is all we have to rely on when we attempt to interpret history. It isn’t always easy. Tacitus is a great source of Roman history, but he was also a moral crusader and it’s somewhat possible that he didn’t give a fair shake to people that didn’t stack up to his ideal of a “true Roman”. Snorri Sturluson is our only source on a lot of Norse history, but he was writing his works a couple hundred years after the Viking Age and was relying largely on oral history told to him by the descendants of Viking Warriors. A lot of ancient Japanese history makes it hard to separate fact from mythology, but a historian can’t truly discount stories full of gods and magic, because those folks who thought the Iliad was a fairy tale really looked like a bunch of morons when someone actually found the ruins of Troy. And if you’re thinking that these problems would be solved if we’d only saved the Library of Alexandria, I only need to point you to the Totalitarian propaganda machines of World War II or the conflicting articles on your Facebook wall to prove that this is really just a glitch in the human condition.
The irony of the fact that George Washington never actually chopped down that cherry tree isn’t lost on me.
Now, it might be easy to ascribe these historical discrepancies to ignorance, politics, braggadocio or subversive motives (the “history is written by the victors” argument), but I really don’t think that completely covers it. When I do presentations at schools, I like to tell the class to try and think about a time when they were hanging out with their friends at the lunch table, and two of their buddies got into a big argument for some reason. Now, if I went to that lunch table and interviewed every kid there about what happened, I’m going to get a bunch of different stories. Those kids were all there, they all witnessed it, but they all had wildly different experiences. Heck, I could show a video to the class, have the entire class write down what they saw, and I’m going to get thirty different interpretations of the thing that we all just watched happen.
This is the reason why there are twelve people on a jury, and why they all have to agree before we send a person to prison. It’s just too bad that forensic DNA evidence and Carbon-14 dating can’t tell you if a guy was a Good King or a Bad King.
History is mutable and weird and full of contradiction. There are instances sometimes where you’ll have two guys who fought for the same side in the same unit at the same battle and you’ll get two different versions of what they saw. One guy might mention something crazy happening, while the other guy glosses it over. Are they lying? Exaggerating? Misremembering? Sometimes these events are happening in very high-stress situations, where so much adrenaline is pumping through your system that you basically go into full-on autopilot. Like, for instance there was a Gurkha warrior in World War II named Agansing Rai who received the Victoria Cross for killing a dozen enemy soldiers and capturing three machine gun nests, and when a reporter asked him what was going through his head when he was fighting, he simply said “I forget.”
That doesn’t really leave much for a historian to work with.
If I told you that I had an easy solution to this, I’d just be playing into the whole Fake News thing. Instead, I just want to remind you that history is never black-and-white. It’s never “good guys vs. bad guys”, or “this is exactly how it happened and I can prove it”. New research, new information, and new archaeological discoveries come out all the time, and they can constantly reshape and shift the way we view certain historical figures, places, and civilizations. History writers and educators absolutely need to check multiple sources when they’re available, and keep in mind who is writing the work, who (or what) that person is writing it for, when they are writing it, and what their motivations might be. We need to check context and background, verify the legitimacy of the material, confirm information with multiple sources, and keep up-to-date with current research and data that might contradict, change, or shed new light on the way we look at a topic.
And, you know what? We still won’t have the whole story. And you can rest assured that there will be someone right there to call you a moron and tell you that you clearly have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.
Just don’t let it bother you too much. Because they don’t either.
Ben Thompson is the writer and creator of badassoftheweek.com, author of eleven books on various awesome historical subjects, and has appeared on television programs for the History Channel, Discovery, and the American Heroes Channel. He has also written articles for Cracked, Fangoria, Penthouse, Soldier of Fortune, and The American Mustache Institute, currently owns four swords (if you count a letter opener shaped like Glamdring the Foe-Hammer), and can occasionally beat the Star Wars Trilogy arcade game with a single quarter.