Category Archives: History on the Web
When I was a kid, a friend of mine and I had a weekly ritual. When the school day ended, we made a mad, hell-for-leather dash across a four-lane highway to a small grocery store so we could check out the new comic books.
I never followed any particular titles consistently; I just grabbed whatever looked interesting off the rack. But comics storytelling is cumulative. Story arcs can span multiple issues, and continuity often extends across many different titles in elaborate, self-contained fictional universes. If you only pick up occasional issues here and there, it’s sort of like trying to start watching a soap opera in the middle of the season. For undisciplined readers like me, things could get a little confusing.
Continuity can make life tough for comic writers and editors, especially when you consider that some characters have been around for decades, accumulating intricate backstories in the same way that shipwrecks accumulate colonies of marine organisms. When this complicated web of internal mythology becomes problematic, comic creators use “retconning,” the retroactive alteration of in-story continuity.
Retcons usually take the form of a deus ex machina-like plot device that discards whatever aspects of the mythology are inconvenient and harmonizes between conflicting details. Thus when DC Comics decided to restore Hal Jordan of the Green Lantern Corps to its roster of heroes after Jordan lost his marbles, went on a cosmic killing spree, and died, it was a fairly simple matter to resurrect him and attribute his homicidal tendencies to possession by a cosmic entity.
Likewise, when the head honchos at Marvel decided that single underdog Spider-Man was preferable to responsibly married Spider-Man, they had only to put Peter Parker’s Aunt May in the path of a bullet. Next thing you know, Spidey and his wife made a deal with the demonic villain Mephisto, who spared the old gal’s life in exchange for the Parkers’ agreement to allow him to undo history so that their marriage had never taken place.
By the time Marvel decided to make Spider-Man a bachelor again, I was no longer a regular reader of comics, so I found out about it only when the same friend with whom I used to run across the road to buy comics told me. But even to an ex-reader like me, the news packed a wallop. Die-hard fans were even more upset. One reviewer called it “infuriating and downright disrespectful to anyone who has come to love Spider-Man comics over the years.” And little wonder. This one editorial decision erased over two decades’ worth of character development, sweeping it aside as though it had never happened with apparent disregard for the emotional investment of thousands of readers.
Also…well, Spider-Man’s wife was hot.
One of the reasons pseudohistory irritates me is because those who propagate it are practicing a similar form of cheap, lazy retconning when it comes to the past. The problem isn’t that somebody is proposing something new; that’s an integral part of the process of doing history, and we laud historians who make original contributions when those contributions hold explanatory power. The difference is that responsible scholars craft their interpretations to take account of the preponderance of the evidence, whereas pseudohistorians just set that evidence aside. They toss reams of primary source material and conscientious scholarship out the window like so much inconvenient backstory, while using out-of-context quotations and unsubstantiated anecdotes to the same ends as the deus ex machina plot device.
By ignoring a whole lot over here and adding a few bits over there, practitioners of bad history whip up a whole new self-contained continuity suited to their own preferences. They ignore all our evidence about the Founders’ religious inclinations based on a few spurious quotes, and disregard mountains of contemporary documentation about the Confederacy in favor of a few fabricated stories of black Rebel soldiers. It’s a distressingly cavalier approach to the business of understanding the past.
Granted, it’s a lot easier to play havoc with history in this manner than it is to try to make sense of all the evidence at hand, just as it’s easier to cut the Gordian knot of a character’s backstory with a lousy plot trick than it is to build on a mythology that’s been developed over years of storytelling. But there is such a thing as a responsibility to the truth; indeed, it’s the most basic responsibility of anyone who wants to do history. If your need for a past that validates your own inclinations overrides that sense of responsibility, don’t blame historians when they give you the cold shoulder.
It’s a source of both surprise and amusement to me that the post on the Bat Creek Stone continues to get passionate comments almost two years after it went up. Whenever I glance at the search terms that bring people to the blog, “Bat Creek Stone” is invariably near the top of the list. I can understand that, since it’s a pretty obscure topic and thus there are only so many places on the Interwebs a Google search will take you. But the fact that people continue to post replies is unusual, since this blog gets very modest traffic and it’s rare for any of my posts to generate more than a few comments.
I’m also surprised at the diversity of these reactions. Some people take issue with specific points, while others just seem irate that I was critical of Glenn Beck. Some readers want to use the post as an opportunity to make a case for pre-Columbian contact in general, or for the validity of Mormonism.
I’m not qualified to make a case for or against the Bat Creek Stone. I’m neither an archaeologist nor a linguist. But I have a real problem with a public figure like Beck taking it upon himself to educate his audience about the past and making such a mess of it. Getting one’s facts straight is the first responsibility of the public historian. When it comes to the Bat Creek Stone, it simply won’t do to present it as an undisputed artifact. That’s what Beck did.
I’m not complaining about the reaction the post has gotten, mind you. Far from it. I wish readers would pitch in like this all the time. I just think it’s interesting that of all the subjects we toss around here, this is the one people want to discuss the most.
Ed Darrell has posted an item well worth reading over at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub. It’s a list of warning signs for what he terms “voodoo history,” or bogus pseudo-scholarship, adapted from a similar list originally proposed for recognizing bad science:
- The author pitches the claim directly to the media or to organizations of non-historians, sometimes for pay.
- The author says that a powerful establishment is trying to suppress his or her work. Bogus history relies more on invective than investigation; anyone with an opposing view is an “idiot,” or evil.
- The sources that verify the new interpretation of history are obscure, or unavailable; if they involve a famous person, the sources are not those usually relied on by historians.
- Evidence for the history is anecdotal.
- The author says a belief is credible because it has endured for some time, or because many people believe it to be true.
- The author has worked in isolation, and fails to incorporate or explain other, mainstream versions of the history of the incident, and especially the author fails to explain why they are in error.
- The author must propose a new interpretation of history to explain an observation.
…over at the Lincoln Institute blog. I had the privilege of asking him some questions about his work on Lincoln, which he was kind enough to answer. We’re hoping to do an occasional series of these conversations with Lincoln scholars, so stay tuned.
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