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:
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:
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?
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.
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.