“Last Fourth of July, my wife and I attended a brass band concert of toe-tapping patriotic music, including my favorite, John Philip Sousa’s “Liberty Bell March” and ending with his always popular “Stars and Stripes Forever.”
We enjoyed the concert, but throughout it, I kept thinking about the assertion a man made as he handed out copies of the U.S. Constitution to all concertgoers. With each copy he distributed, he opined, “Be sure to read this because it’s not being taught in school anymore.”
Lo and behold, I found that all of these states did, indeed, teach the Constitution, although some went into greater depth than others.
Also, last year I was a speaker at a patriotic society dinner at which one of the other speakers observed with a straight face that: “George Washington isn’t even mentioned in history textbooks anymore,” to which a seemingly knowledgeable audience nodded in agreement.
Again, to check the accuracy of that assertion, I later examined several college and high school American history textbooks currently in use, and every one gave our country’s first president his due.
Some people contend that there is a conspiracy by educators to emphasize the negative aspects of our past and drop the mention of anything that frames the United States positively. Why do we have to teach our students certain disturbing aspects of our nation’s history such as the lynching of African Americans or how we mistreated Indians, they argue? This concerns me.
Manipulating or fabricating the facts of history to suit one’s argument is unethical according to the principles of scholarship proclaimed by the American Historical Association. These standards are notably similar to those prescribed to journalists. It was one of the first things we learned in graduate school, along with several other ethical canons. These include:
- Do not plagiarize;
- Do not ignore contradictory evidence;
- Reveal any biases you might have;
- “Tell it like it was” based on solid factual evidence; and
- Do not intentionally distort evidence to prove a point.
Indeed, we historians stress the importance of basing our arguments upon correct information, and we strive to practice what we preach. There is a term referred to as “historical denialism,” which means a misrepresentation of the historical record to reinforce one’s argument. Examples of this kind of distortion of the past include denying the Holocaust, the Armenian genocide and Japanese war crimes.
A textbook used in Virginia public schools as late as 2010 posited that thousands of African Americans fought in the Confederate army, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson, an assertion that was not made until the last quarter of the 20th century and lacks solid evidence to support it.
The novel is set in a time when the government relies on intentional misrepresentation of the facts, secret surveillance and the blatant manipulation of historical evidence to substantiate its arguments. An independent free press has been eliminated, thereby allowing only state-sponsored information to be used to inform the public.
We can find real examples of Orwell’s portrayal of the deliberate manipulation of information about the past during the last century by a central authority in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, Communist China and North Korea.
There is another, almost opposing form of denialism, however, that in its use has become influential today — social media. Whether it is current events or history related, information coming out of social media today often is unfiltered and unedited for its accuracy.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, but abound now on social media such as the so-called “birther movement” that denied the legitimacy of the Obama administration under the claim that he was not born in the United States. Nation of Islam’s leader Louis Farrakhan has contended that the federal government deliberately created AIDS in an attempt to decrease the nation’s African American population. Both sides of the current impeachment debate have resorted to conspiracy theories in an attempt to reveal the treachery of their political opponents.
On the surface, these theories seem outlandish. Most reasoned people do not accept these reported conspiracies as legitimate, although the current president seems all too frequently swayed by them. He and others who depend on social media as legitimate sources of information would do us all a favor if they did some simple background investigation rather than accepting them at face value.