More About Stories v. Reality

Yet another item about that anthology of historical essays. Plus items about pandemics, bestseller lists, wokeness in the military, the attraction of conspiracy theories, and violence on TV.

Slate, Paul M. Renfro and Matthew E. Stanley, 9 Jan 2023: The Habit America’s Historians Just Can’t Give Up, subtitled “If fact-checking could fix us, we’d be a utopia by now.”

Why the animosity toward this book? Sure, maybe correcting misconceptions about history may not save the world, but aren’t they worth noting?

Reading through this piece, the writers seem to think the book unfairly targets conservatives and the right for tendencies that are not necessarily partisan. With numerous examples. Well, maybe so; any generalization risks oversimplifying, and if a generalization is nuanced in some way, critics will denounce it for not being nuanced in another way. Things are always more complex than any generalization claims. And publications will respond to any claim of a generalization — like a new book correcting historical myths — by finding someone take a contrary stance. That’s the nature of journalism.

At the same time, the writers criticize the book’s focus on “Trump-as-exceptional thesis” to exonerating in a sense “past GOP monsters: Nixon, Reagan, and the Bushes, among others.”

Still, these are subtle criticisms. Do the writers find fault with any of the myths and correctives discussed in the book? No; they seem only to find the balance of topics odd and perhaps unfair.

But then we get to this:

If Americans can simply stick to the truth, Myth America implies, we might just defang the insurgent Trumpist right, suture our wounds, and start on the path toward national reconciliation. It’s a bit odd to read a group of historians make this claim, however, as others in the profession have spent the past half-century arguing that knowledge, truth, and expertise are constructed, contingent, and contested, and historical archives (and the study of history itself) often reflect processes of dispossession, extraction, and silencing. Who has the authority to narrate the past? Whose truths appear in dominant historical narratives, and whose get left out? “Facts” are hardly neutral, self-evident, or unassailable. Rather, they are often expressions of power.

Here is the largely abandoned (as far as I can tell) postmodernist theory that nothing (not even science) is ‘real,’ but that everything is a social construction, especially by those in power. But do the article writers endorse this position? Can’t quite tell. Perhaps they expose it to indirectly criticize it.

They do make the same point as the SF Chronicle review I quoted yesterday, seeming to admit that while correcting misinformation is a worthy task, it won’t make much difference. Concluding para’s, beginning with a handy list of “easily disproven conspiracy theories.”

It is unclear what exactly Kruse and Zelizer hope to accomplish through this attempt to “set the record straight.” Of course, the desire to promote evidence-based analysis is an understandable response to birtherism, COVID denialism, QAnon, “America First” ethno-nationalism, the “great replacement theory,” rising antisemitism, “big lie” election claims, vicious attacks on LGBTQ people, and Jan. 6–style insurrectionism—all developments that thrive on easily disproven conspiracy theories. Yet the relentless focus on countering false claims reveals the centrist liberal tendency to see historical falsehoods more as causes than outcomes of political change. For Kruse and Zelizer, the current threat to U.S. democracy appears to center less on systems than on bad actors, whether they be conservative TV personalities, MAGA politicians, or Russian bots, who promote inaccurate and often uncritical historical narratives. There is an ineffectual particularism—not to mention a whiff of elitism—in their implication that historical literacy, informational authority, and the consumption of “better” information can “save our democracy.”

The problem is power, not party or personality or “knowledge.” A better approach might be to question if any private citizen, entity, or corporation, regardless of intent, partisanship, or competency, should possess the power and resources necessary to promote the scale of historical fictions promulgated by the Koch network, various corporate super PACs, or Fox News. Yet despite the inclusion of a minority of essays that do identify the bipartisan, elite nature of our most persistent myths—American exceptionalism (David A. Bell), the demonization of immigrants (Erika Lee), and the idea that the U.S. isn’t an empire (Immerwahr)—Myth America ultimately suggests that misinformation must be exposed and corrected by experts, not drowned out or destroyed through mass struggle and a fundamental transformation of material relations. The result is a work that appeals far more to individual intellect than collective condition or action, meaning that while it works well at distinguishing historical fact from fiction, its political impact will likely be minimal. As we watch the historical profession die before our eyes, we ought to expect more from its crème de la crème.


The issue of whether a book like this will have any effect is, of course, a consequence of the now-truism that you can’t convince most people of anything based on evidence, not if it means abandoned previously held beliefs.


Odds and Ends

AlterNet, Alex Henderson, 9 Jan 2023: Kevin McCarthy’s debt to the ‘anti-science resistance’ is a recipe for ‘epidemiological disaster’: virologist

Expect more pandemics, and inadequate responses to them to the extent that Republicans are in power.


Salon, Sarah K Burris, 9 Jan 2023: Did Pence put himself on the bestseller list by buying copies of his own book?, subtitled “On November 9, Pence spent a hefty sum at an online bookstore, according to financial reports”

This wouldn’t be the first time conservatives have bought their own books to get them on bestseller lists. (Whereas Michelle Obama has no problem keeping her book at the top of bestseller lists.)


Washington Post, Paul Waldman, 9 Jan 2023: Opinion | What the right’s war on ‘wokeness’ in the military is really about

Congress just gave the military a staggering $858 billion for the coming year; if there’s one thing the two parties agree on, it’s that we should shovel as much money as possible at the Pentagon. Nevertheless, Republicans are convinced that the military is being rapidly destroyed from the inside by “wokeness,” a catchall term that refers to any development related to a social issue that conservatives don’t like.

The evidence they present for this alleged crisis is comically weak. But this isn’t about evidence, or the actual nature of warfighting in the 21st century. It’s about discomfort with modern society, deep insecurities about the changing nature of manhood, and an impulse to delegitimize institutions, even those conservatives used to revere.

Many examples. Ending:

Unlike joining the actual military, service in the culture war is easy. You don’t have to suffer through boot camp, or follow orders you don’t like, or risk your life. All you have to do is stay mad.


Finally, a nice essay by Adam Lee about the truth of conspiracies.

OnlySky, Adam Lee, 5 Jan 2023: The boring conspiracy, with the overview line “The real conspiracies are obvious and boring—not secret and sinister.”

Lee gives examples, but they’re not the point.

Conspiracy theories, like religion, seem to have a natural appeal to the human mind. They resurface again and again, sprouting like tenacious weeds pushing up through the cracks in civilization. They cling like creeping vines to every event of great significance, from presidential assassinations to terrorist attacks to natural disasters. Often, the conspiracy theories themselves stay the same from one era to the next, with the only difference being who’s supposedly in charge.

The other common trait of conspiracy theories, also like religion, is that they’re all but impossible to dislodge. Any evidence that we should see, but don’t, becomes proof of how good the conspiracy is at covering its tracks. Any evidence that outright contradicts them can be explained away as a false flag planted by the conspirators to throw people off the scent. Like any story, it morphs like an amoeba to engulf inconvenient facts.

Again and again, humans prefer stories to reality. Lee goes on to explain how conspiracy theories are *comforting* — they reassure their adherents that the world isn’t random, but that someone is in control, even if it’s an evil someone. And that “it’s not your fault”: “conspiracy thinking tends to flourish among people who feel powerless, disenfranchised or outcast.”

Followed by further examples of the harm that conspiracy theories have promoted. Blood libel against Jews; Satanic ritual abuse; QAnon; COVID-19 conspiracy theories. And a final point: conspiracy theories are fun.

There’s one other trait that these fanciful conspiracies have in common and that goes a long way toward explaining their staying power. It’s alluring to believe you’re one of the enlightened few who understands how the world really works. It’s exciting to picture yourself as like the protagonist of a movie: the rebel, the truth-teller, the prophet who’s proven right in the end. It creates an exhilarating surge of righteousness to imagine that you’re fighting the good fight against absolute evil. Modern variants like QAnon even have a participatory element, encouraging adherents to “decode” its nonsense messages and figure out what’s going on behind the scenes.

In a word, conspiracy theories want to be fun. That’s a big part of their appeal. And that’s exactly why we should distrust them.

Real life isn’t a Hollywood story or a comic book, with thrilling twists and long-buried secrets that hold the key to victory and a clean dividing line between crusading heroes and cackling villains. Those scenarios are too neat, too simplistic, too obviously intended to be emotionally satisfying. They’re intellectual junk food.


This reminds me of another notion I thought about recently, and tried to research. It’s about the continued popularity of crime dramas on TV. Studies have been done comparing the number of crimes depicted on TV to the actual number of such crimes in reality, and my recollection is that — as with so many other things — the stories on TV exaggerate and misrepresent reality. This is one reason it’s so easy to scare voters about crime. And when I say that I tried to research, my Google search found quite a number of studies on the topic, but all from professional journals whose articles could not be accessed without payment. I will be alert for evidence about this notion forthcoming. The big issue is: why are people so attracted to dramas about crime? Perhaps another aspect of the way stories, even those about criminals, help make sense of the world.

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