The Dumbing Down of History; or, Historians be Damned

Let’s take history back from the historians.

This is the message of History for All by Hashtag History.  Now, I’ve got nothing against popular culture history, so long as it bears some resemblance to actual history (which is why I can enjoy The Tudors but not Sleepy Hollow, for example).  What I do have a problem with is this mentality that intellectual approaches to history are somehow a bad thing, and Hashtag History is certainly not the first to express it.

The Need for Sources

I’ve been accused of being part of the “intellectual elite” multiple times, mostly because of my need for sources for a variety of dubious facts.  “Please cite a source,” is a regular comment of mine, instantly shutting down what would otherwise be an inane discussion revolving around someone’s fantasy understanding of history or politics.

It pisses the hell out of people.  How dare I hold them to such high standards?   It’s like I asked for  Chicago style footnotes.  People seem to think that knowing where your information came from is unimportant and only the realm of academics, and it scares the hell out of me, because it gives you things like this:

Ted Cruz Didn't Say This About Citizenship

Where did these quotes come from?  Nowhere, best anyone can tell.  Politifact.com gave the meme a “Pants on Fire” rating.  According to the article, not only did Cruz not say either statement, he has never made any sort of birther comment.

Then there’s this historical winner:

Erroneous meme about Ishtar and Easter.

That’s not how you pronounce Easter. Eggs and bunnies have nothing to do with her. It would be utterly bizarre to change a goddess of fertility and sex to Jesus.  And why the hell would the Roman Constantine pick on a Babylonian goddess out of all the gods and goddesses out there in history?

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As an Aside: You can get a whole earful of Easter debunking at It’s Eostre Time Again; or, A Parade of Logical Fallacies.

And this wasn’t posted on some 13 year old’s Facebook page.  It was posted on the page for Richard Dawkins’ Foundation for Reason and Science.

Books Going Out of Fashion

There was a time I attempted to write for Cracked.com, and my articles all had a historical bent to it.  Cracked prides itself on funny but factual information.  Good for them.  No, seriously, I really appreciate it.

So I wrote what I considered a substantially sourced article.  And they liked it.  The problem?  My sources came from books.

See, they can’t fact-check without having access to the source (as opposed to trusting that I haven’t bullshitted a source, as has been done for forever among historians, journalists and others).  Thus, all sources must be on the Internet.  They even went so far as to tell me you can find everything on the Internet anyway.

No, everything isn’t on the Internet.  There is, indeed, life beyond the Internet, but we couldn’t invoke such esoteric information.

I was in a religious discussion with a woman who had the most extraordinary, hateful comments to make on the subject.  When I asked for sources, she informed us she didn’t need them, accusing me of being an intellectual snob because I dared to value “books and stuff.”

I wish I had kept a copy of that discussion, because it was truly epic in its failure.

“History for the Masses”

Leave gobbets and referencing to the historians and academics. Let’s give history back to the people and let them enjoy it, through films, pictures or memes. – Hashtag History

Like I said, I’ve never had a problem with not-quite-historical films   Braveheart is amazing to watch.  It’s also historically painful, and I happily point out the errors, precisely so you can enjoy it and not walk away with wrong ideas.   Is that not giving “history back to the people”?  If we’re just pushing historical nonsense, then that isn’t history.  It’s nonsense.

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Then there’s the History Channel, half of whose programming has nothing to do with history, and the other half which sensationalizes it.  Sure, it makes “history” accessible, if blaming the 10 plagues of Egypt on the volcanic eruption of Thera despite no evidence they happened congruently can be called history, which it can’t.

“But it makes people think about the possibility,” people argue.  No, it makes people confuse flights of fancy with solid historical hypothesis which is backed up by facts and stuff.  And that’s the common course of “popular history,” entertaining but only kind of correct, or divorced from actual history altogether.

 

2 comments

  • schofielddea

    Thank you for the commentary on ‘books ‘n stuff’. You are oh so right about the internet—lately I’ve despaired of how little truth is actually easily found and how much is downright wrong. I’ve been going back to the actual academic books!

    Also, I’m going to admit to a major guilty pleasure on History Channel or H2 or something—Ancient Aliens. I get such a kick out of it and its offshoot, “In search of Ancient Aliens’. But I don’t take it as more than a highly entertaining, sci-fi ride around ancient sites.

    So, to my question/comment re: the whole Easter/Oestre thing – Bede (great as he was) was an Englishman who no doubt wasn’t extremely familiar with Germanic pre-Christian history. Grimm would have been more ‘up’ on it, but let’s face it, as you said, he was a story-teller. Germany suffered a lot of loss during it’s wars, so maybe anything else that might have been written was lost. Or, is it possible it just hasn’t been found yet? Or perhaps translated? Only the Romans would have really written anything on Germanic customs, Right?
    I grew up in Germany and travelled all over Europe. The cultural differences in countries are surprisingly stark. Germany is really the only country that calls Easter something like what we do: ‘Ostern’, rather than a version of the Latin ‘Pascha’. If, as is known, Constantine and other Emperors allowed local tradition to be absorbed by the empire and hence, Christianity, why is it such a stretch to theorize that Eostre’s or Ostara’s rites and symbols were mixed up in the Spring traditions. Germany has had plant and animal symbols in folk art for millennia, that are distinctive and the Angles clearly brought a lot of that early culture with them to Britain. For example, hedgehogs in art are ubiquitous to both countries, but you don’t see them as much elsewhere. In fact, most of the English Christian holidays look closest to Germany’s (the queen of Christmas!)
    So where did the bunnies and eggs and flowers come from? What’s with all the spring nature stuff mixed up with the Christ’s resurrection? As with a lot of stuff surrounding Christian holidays in Europe, It only seems to make sense when viewed through the lens of Christianity swallowing up local religious custom. In the case of Easter, given the origins of modern English (language) and the history of the Angles mixing in with the Britons, well, it’s obvious.
    Is there really nothing in the Roman historians’ writings mentioning a Germanic goddess of those names and their attributes? I often wonder what we’d find if we could pillage the Vatican library and have everything translated. And put online!!
    Lastly, I’m not Christian–don’t view the world through a Christianity-centric lens. But when I consider how quickly and easily African slaves and Native Central and South Americans mixed their religions with Catholicism, I can easily extrapolate an Ostara/Eostre scenario—NOT in the sense of their ‘story’ being laid over by Christ’s, but that her symbols were incorporated into our modern-day non-religous activiteis (egg-dyeing/hunting, flowers, sweets, bunnys, etc). It’s just impossible to believe all customs died out in favor of a mono-theist-mono-culture.
    I realise the gist of your post was about facts and proof. But just like acknowledging the illogic of a Canadian-born man of a Cuban immigrant (who wants to be Prez) dissing the birth of Obama, can we not acknowledge the likelihood of a cultural morphing scenario for Easter—a word, Germanic in origin, that had to come from somewhere, right?
    Time to consult some German Universities—A POINT FOR THE INTERNET! A lot of them have English versions of stuff.
    Lastly, just want to thank you for your blog. I really enjoy it. Even if I’m going to keep holding onto the hope of Easter (only the word and the non-christian aspects) coming from a pagan goddess. It’s just too juicy (and logical).

  • Rory

    I worry that more people will become like the “books and stuff” person. As a self proclaimed history geek this really bothers and frightens me. I heard something on the radio the other day that sums it up. The show host said we are on our way to becoming a population similar to the characters in the movie Idiocracy.

    Next point. I wish more Christians especially the ones in the extreme knew more about the origins of the different holidays such as Easter. I think if they did they would be more tolerable of non Christians.

    Lastly on the History Channel. About a year ago my family cut the cable as it were and started watching shows on the computer. A big contributor to that decision was channels like the History Channel. Again, as a history geek I realize that maybe watching what I consider a rehash of D Day is completely new to someone who knows nothing about it but the narrow subject matter was driving me (and my family to an extent) crazy. I would have loved it if they had really dug into areas that weren’t covered in high school or college history text books. There is a ton of stuff that happened during WW II alone to keep the viewers busy for a few years. The HC also seemed to have an obsession with Nazis so much so that we started calling it the Hitler Channel.

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