Fake News

Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/11/hollywood-history-churchill-getty-trust-fiction?CMP=fb_gu

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

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History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:

italian-immigrants-didnt-wave-italian-flags

There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.

galleani

Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.

ellis-registry

Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.

immigration-cartoon

On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Historians and the Fight against Fake News

fake-news

In an article that appeared in a recent issue of Smithsonian.com, Kevin Levin decries the recent prevalence of fake news and recommends that history teachers are especially qualified to take a leading role in educating the public about the difference between this counterfeit article and the real thing.

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/remedy-spread-fake-news-history-teachers-180961310/

Levin begins by defining fake news as “deceptions” that “play to the readers’ worst fears” for the sake of “maximizing visitor hits” to “generate massive revenue” on web sites. Levin quotes Neal Gabler who writes that the point is not to present an “alternative truth . . . but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a word where there is no defense against lies.” Levin points out that the advent of the internet, which has allowed just about anybody to post information online, has facilitated the proliferation of fake news. In the age when print media dominated, he argues, librarians and others could serve as the gatekeepers to information, “allowing for a certain level of quality control.” Since then, however, technology has “quickly outpaced educators’ ability to police or even guide students as to how best to search [sic] and assess online information.” The result is not only that fake news has proliferated, but that large numbers of people also give credibility to these stories. Having laid out the problem, Levin asks historians to help solve it by teaching students how to assess they information they gather online. After all, so the argument goes, historians are expert at the “critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources.”

One Thing after Another is flattered whenever someone calls upon historians to solve this or that problem. And this blog is just as discouraged as anyone else at the ubiquity of fake news. However, One Thing after Another is somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for success in this battle, no so much because it doubts the hearts and minds of historians, but because the problem Levin contemplates is more massive and deep-rooted than he seems to realize.

Levin’s focus is somewhat myopic in contemplating this issue and its solution. Levin’s article aims mainly at fake news (which merely seeks to make a buck), but in an aside, he seems to understand that only a thin line divides this phenomenon from misinformation that has clear political objectives (e.g. propaganda). He never stresses the close relationship between the two, does not appear to grasp  what makes them so dangerous to the public, and does not explain why they should be countered so vigorously. Getting facts wrong does not merely lead to poor performances in Trivial Pursuit or bad grades in history courses; it divorces our politics from reality which can only lead to terrible consequences. What makes this problem so difficult to contend with is that history itself shows that people have long been susceptible to misinformation.

Levin, along with many others, seems to see the influence of dubious news of uncertain provenance as something new. For example, by declaring “post-truth” the word of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary gives credence to the notion that fake news and other sorts of misinformation are a product of the early 21stcentury. According to the OED, “post-truth” is an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition, however, does not describe a particularly novel state of affairs. History is replete with examples of peoples who were convinced by appeals to dearly held prejudices or who were inspired to act upon unfounded rumors that corresponded with cherished beliefs. One has only to recall the reaction of the slave states to John Brown’s raid or the activities of French peasants during the Great Fear. In many ways, fake news and post-truthiness remind One Thing after Another of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (1964). Hofstadter discussed a longstanding rhetorical tradition in American politics which was characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” where “style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than with the truth or falsity of their content.” He continued by associating this paranoid style with a series of episodes in American politics including the anti-Masonic movement, the Know-Nothings, populism, and McCarthyism. In other words, it seems clear that the species of lie that Levin worries about is part of an ancient, intractable genus.

It is for this reason that we have cause for pessimism. Pace Levin, many people are not purely rational animals who are willing to change their opinions when confronted by facts. We are all reluctant to give up our shibboleths and world views. It is here that we should recall Hofstadter’s speculation that the paranoid style is “a persistent psychic phenomenon” that consistently affects “a modest minority of the population.” However, he argues that under the right circumstances, this minority can “be built into mass movements or political parties.” When our tendency to grasp falsehoods is encouraged by fake news or misinformation, untruth begets untruth, until we are, as Gabler puts it, set “adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies.” It is in this world that the paranoid style thrives. As Hofstadter put it:

A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

Don’t we all know somebody like that?

Hofstadter’s reference to the value of a historical sensibility brings us back to the question of what historians ought to do when confronted by this contemporary cocktail of fake news, misinformation, the internet, and the paranoid style. For one thing, the burden of truth cannot become the historian’s alone. The difficulty is so vast and entrenched that other public figures must share in the work, especially two classes of people held in low esteem these days: journalists and politicians. However one feels about journalists, it is obvious that they are crucial to dealing with this problem of fake news or misinformation (although one could argue that soi-disant journalists are the problem). But why politicians? In this case, One Thing after Another is inspired by Walter Bagehot’s comments in the introduction to the second edition (1872) of The English Constitution. Bagehot, who was then editor of The Economist, wrote a new introduction to this classic work in an attempt to forecast changes wrought by the Reform Act of 1867, which had redistributed representation in the Commons and expanded the size of the electorate by reducing the property threshold for voting. It is in this context, where the franchise had been extended to the upper portion of the working class for the first time, that he made the following observations:

The mode in which the [political] questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them. No doubt when statesmen live by public favor, as ours do, this is a hard saying, and it requires to be carefully limited. . . . What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives those in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. . . . And so he will both guide and benefit the nation. But if, especially at a time when great ignorance has an unusual power in public affairs, he chooses to accept and reiterate the decisions of that ignorance, he is only the hireling of the nation, and does little save hurt it.

The relevance of this excerpt (and others in The English Constitution which state something similar) is that Bagehot saw political leaders as bearing an educational responsibility to the nation, a task they shared with journalists. For sure, this view of politicians and journalists was based on a low opinion of the new electorate and a fear that if left to its own devices, working people might engage in class politics. And Bagehot wrote in a different era when the upper classes still dominated national politics and media outlets were limited. Still, the point stands. One Thing after Another wonders if we have completely lost the sense that politicians ought to educate the electorate instead of saying whatever is necessary to win votes from their base.

Pointing out that journalists and politicians are a necessary part of the solution only reveals how large the problem is. In the meantime, historians (imperfect as they themselves are) can only hope to contain the influence of misinformation, not eradicate it. They must labor like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, knowing that in the long run they cannot win, but that it is the right thing to do.