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Fuzzy, Gossip, and Lies – Oh, My!

All that alliteration leaves me tingly

Ran across an interesting article reviewing a new book about dictators here. With tags including 'villain', 'lurid', 'perverse', and 'evil', how could I resist? Egotism, narcissism, torture, genocide, welfare moms - this story (and one presumes the book as well) has it all!

But what really caught my eye was this quote from the author being interviewed.

As a discipline, history is fuzzy and woefully unscientific. History is part gossip, part propaganda, part hearsay, and part theory, often supported by unsubstantiated attribution or outright fabrication.

Eureka! At last I have discovered the root of my fascination with a discipline widely associated with boredom by the majority of my fellow bipeds. But it says right there on the Internet that history has gossip, lies, it's unscientific, and it's fuzzy! What's not to like??

If you think about it this way, your average history class is basically National Enquirer minus the eyes-blacked-out photos of celebrity cellulite. This is a definite plus IMO. Some of the stories they are still shoveling in History 101 are right up there with Enquirer's bread and butter: Bigfoot/UFO/Elvis sightings.

Italian Explorer First European To New World!

Yeah, this guy Christopher Columbus had a pretty big day back in 1492. It used to be taught that he 'discovered America', which is grossly misleading. Not only was he NOT the first (as author Patrick Huyghe points out, in many ways, Columbus was LAST - the Norse were def here before him, as well as possibly the Celts, Chinese, Polynesians, and Libyans. Yes, Libyans.), he never actually set foot on the continental US. The Americas (Central and South) and the Caribbean, yes. The good ol' U. S. of A., nope. BTW in addition to the more recently accepted historical facts about the discovery of the New World, there are plenty of, shall we say, interesting theories not quite reaching 'proved' status. Check out the controversy surrounding the Kensington Runestone, or the academic practices (or lack thereof) of historian Barry Fell, for starters. Gossip! Hearsay! Propaganda!

English Settle North America, Pilgrim-Style

The Thanksgiving myth is beloved, mainly due to the ridiculous feed so many Americans put on to celebrate it. The two days off work and the shopping frenzy known as Black Friday cannot be overlooked. But what exactly are we celebrating? Yes, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock, had a rough go, and likely would have died if it were not for the help of the local Native American population. But they weren't the first European settlers. That would have been the Norse, the Dutch, and even other English before them. They didn't bring civilization to the wilderness of the Americas (ref Inca, Aztec, Maya). And that lovely first Thanksgiving meal did not result in a future of champagne and giggles between Europeans and Native Americans.  There wasn't even any green bean casserole!

Justice Done As Nut-Job Harper's Ferry Attacker Hanged

Who needs Instagram?

What's the first thing you think of when you think of John Brown (if you do think of him at all?)? I bet it is one of three things: his appearance (wild-eyed, unkempt ZZ-Top beard); his mental state (bat-sh** crazy); with his politics (abolitionist) a distant third.

If so, the historic sensationalism that rules the textbook industry has done its job, feeding you the headlines that will sell papers/keep students awake and ignoring the deeper context that will result in broader understanding of historical events. Quoting James Loewen, author of one of my favorite books Lies My Teacher Told Me and by which portions of this post are inspired, "From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he regained his sanity." Meaning of course that Brown's mental state was interpreted differently based on who was telling the tale. But isn't that what sensational Enquirer-type journalism is all about, spin? Was Brown crazy, or was he the Johnny Smith of his day?

So history lovers everywhere, rejoice! Just about anyone in the field can write just about whatever they want about just about any topic, and if they give it enough spin, it will start to sound legit. It's our job to sniff this stuff out! History isn't boring if you stop accepting it all as gospel and start giving everything you read the Royal Stink-eye. Gossip! Lies! And it's fuzzy!

This post first appeared in February 2013.

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