Political divisions were once all about spin. When presented with specific facts, polls or data sets, each Party created messaging most suitable to their base. And so the pendulum of political debate swung in a predictable pattern based on a commentary war.
And while the Left and the Right still differentiate themselves based on created commentary, fake news shattered many of the predictable divisions in our political climate. We can’t begin to debate ‘something’ when the basic facts of that ‘something’ are different for each person. We can’t begin to craft a cohesive policy exchange if each side is allowed to create its own set of ‘alternative facts’.
We can list out all the ways our current executive branch skews facts about the present state of our country. We’ve been presented with alternative versions of crowd sizes, voter turnout, health insurance numbers, international dangers and domestic threats.
And while fake news is terrifying and alternative facts are dangerous, a different, more maniacal pattern of comments is starting to emerge: alternative history.
Trump and members of his Administration have publicly created a false historical narrative about terrorist attacks in Atlanta, Sweden and Bowling Green. He has misrepresented historical relationships with specific Asian and Middle Eastern countries. He seems determined to change the narrative about the historical importance of a free and open press.
Creating an alternative past isn’t exactly a new phenomena. States-run schools have been accused of whitewashing the past or not telling the full story of a complex historical narrative. But it is only in recent memory that such accusations have creeped into the national political arena.
When we allow for historical analysis based on antithetical facts to seep into our political discourse, we create a nasty and caustic vision of American society.
When we allow people to make up facts, we erode the very study of history and therefore we erode the very story of our country. This is particularly dangerous today because the study of history helps us contextualize the present moment more than any other field. Not because it ‘proves’ one political side is right; but because it teaches us to delineate evidence from commentary. And when we are able to create a coherent set of evidence-based facts, we are actually able to have a substantive debate.
The way we frame a war, a movement or a moment in history inherently pulls our focus from one part of the narrative to another. That is why there is no one definitive book that is the complete history of anything. You must be open to reading multiple perspectives if you are to understand any aspect of history.
Having a different opinion or arriving at a new conclusion is fine. We learn the most when we are questioned from different perspectives. But reaching a different conclusion by way of alternative facts or fake evidence is dangerous.
We must hold ourselves accountable when it comes to talking and writing about historical events in the context of the present moment. The job of history is not to draw clear parallels or easily defined explanations based on past events. It is the job of history to teach us how to contextualize how individual personalities, social norms and economic tides construct any moment in time. Studying history should not be used as a tool to prove that the past is repeating; it should, however, teach us to recognize patterns and create meaningful commentary based on a thorough set of facts.
We think history is stagnant. It is not. It is susceptible to bias because it is the story of the most biased of creators – humans.
Our past should be our rallying point. It should be how we all contextualize current events.
We cannot accept living with separate and curated versions of the past.
We must ask ourselves the tough questions about how technology, access to media and the seeming ubiquitous nature of alternative facts will shape our politics. But we must now start asking an even deeper question: how will these things shape our past?