False histories composed to push ideological narratives pose severe dangers to democracy.
October 22, 2023
Honest history is a valuable guide to understanding key issues relevant today. African-American Economist Thomas Sowell wrote:
“History whose integrity has not been compromised by contemporary agendas is not ‘irrelevant’ to our times. On the contrary, it can often be of great value, not only in correcting factual errors but also in dispelling feelings and attitudes that needlessly encumber our lives today… Honest history deflates such distractions from the task of dealing with today’s problems today.”
The supplanting of honest history with ideologically motivated revisionism has been a pervasive tactic of totalitarian regimes, theocracies, and terror groups, among others. The dystopian world of George Orwell’s classic novel 1984 contains the line:
“Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.”
Ideologically-motivated educators and activists have promoted revisionist histories reflecting their biases and agenda to supplant traditional histories in classrooms. Dr. Sowell wrote:
“Far more insidious and dangerous [than failure to teach history] is the promotion of a history created as a projection into the past of current notions and agendas.
“History, with its integrity as a record of the past intact, is a gold mine of experience from many times and peoples under a wider range of circumstances than any given generation can find in its own time. Contemporary plans, theories, beliefs, and hopes can be checked against the record of what has happened in the past when similar notions were put into practice. Merely to discover how often the same ideas have occurred to others, centuries ago, can be a sobering experience for those inclined to become carried away by supposedly new and brilliant insights about an unprecedented situation. But history cannot be a reality check for visions when history is itself shaped by visions.”
This corruption of history poses problems of bias and circular logic. Rather than testing beliefs and ideas based on their historical results, history itself is filtered through an ideological lens. Distorted history is unhelpful and misleading to efforts to ascertain true principles, but instead serves as propaganda for indoctrination.
Most of the methods of information control expounded in Orwell’s 1984 have manifestations today, whether blatant or subtle. The Telegraph (UK) observed:
“the [disinformation] problem is not limited to bots and professional propagandists. Many of those spreading untruths and half-truths online are those who used to be known as the verified, ‘blue-tick’ brigade: the journalists and commentators who work for some of the world’s most prestigious media empires.”
“For all the concern about misinformation, and the dubious attempts by partisan figures to become arbiters of truth, the biggest problem is surely that we are so often told by those in a position of authority not to believe what we see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears.”
Propagandists in media, academia, and elsewhere have attempted to dispense with inconvenient facts by simply ignoring them as if they did not exist, dramatically curtailing their audience. The New York Times’ Walter Durranty covered up the murder of millions of Ukrainians by Stalin in the 1930s even while winning a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting.
By privileging ideologically favored sources which refuse to cover a story as “reliable” while excluding disfavored outlets that do, the story can sometimes be kept out of ostensibly “neutral” reference sources like Wikipedia or dramatically reduced in exposure.
Burying key stories to escape notice is a similar tactic. Large-scale atrocities, such as the murder of an estimated 100 million people by socialist governments in the twentieth century, has been downplayed to a stray Wikipedia link in this way. Only in 2001 did the New York Times apologize for burying coverage of the Holocaust during the Second World War. Laurel Leff’s 2005 book Buried by the Times chronicles the Times’ involvement in greater detail. The NYT has yet to apologize for running a favorable profile of Hitler only days before the Second World War and for downplaying Hitler’s rabid antisemitism as mere political posturing.
When inconvenient facts cannot be entirely buried or obscured, propagandists turn to any means possible to discredit them. Today, biased partisan fact-checkers and cherry-picked partisan “experts” are engaged to provide cover for favored agendas and to discredit unfavored ones. These “fact checkers” build credibility by research on low-controversy topics while maintaining an arsenal of rhetorical tricks and evasions to reach ideologically favored conclusions as needed. Researchers have acknowledged that the processes employed by so-called “fact checkers” are not scientific.
Dr. Sowell notes that the core problem is not that elimination of bias is impossible, but that many revisionist historians are not honest. Rather than attempting to aggregate and assess the data as fairly as they can, many deliberately withhold or obfuscate evidence contrary to their favored conclusions. This approach has been designated as “motivated reasoning” in literature evaluating the failures of expertise. Whatever the academic credentials of such writers, this method and its products are propaganda rather than science. Dr. Sowell wrote:
“There has been much hand-wringing about the difficulty or impossibility of achieving objectivity in writing history. If there is anyone who is objective, it is hard to imagine how others who are not objective would know that. The unattainability of objectivity is too often a distraction from something more mundane that is quite attainable but is often absent—honesty. When facts about racial or ethnic groups that are both known and relevant are deliberately suppressed because they would undermine a particular vision, doctrine, or agenda, then history is prostituted and cannot serve as a check against visions, because facts have been subordinated to visions.”
“Objectivity is too often a red herring. No one makes the impossible demand that mathematicians be objective but that does not mean that the logic of geometry or equations depends on how each individual chooses to look at it. Nor can a mathematician who gets his geometry or equations wrong take refuge in the truism that no one is objective. Neither should historians be able to find refuge in such truisms. None of this denies that there are honest differences in interpreting history. But that in turn cannot deny that there are also dishonest differences. The pretense of looking at history from someone else’s point of view—that of the downtrodden or the dispossessed, for example—is just one example, for neither today’s author nor reader can achieve such a feat when discussing the past…”
“To look at history as a matter of taking sides is to turn the human failing of bias, which mars what we do to a greater or lesser extent, into a principle that is to permeate—and pollute—our whole endeavor. It is an all-or-nothing argument, that if we cannot completely eliminate bias, then we should give it free rein, perhaps even congratulating ourselves for having admitted our biases. Perfection is not attainable in any aspect of human life but does that mean we should turn imperfections into virtues? Does the fact that we cannot eliminate 100 percent of the impurities in air or water mean that we should celebrate smog or polluted water and boast of our realism?”
Various examples of the instrumental use of history have been cited. For one example, Dr. Sowell wrote:
“The form in which the story of slavery has reached most people today has been along the lines of the best-selling book and widely-watched television mini-series, Roots by Alex Haley. Challenged on the historical accuracy of Roots, Haley said: ‘I tried to give my people a myth to live by.’ This instrumental use of history – or purported history – is open to the same objections as other instrumental myth-making. First is the objection to falsification itself, that the damage which this does to the general level of understanding and trust in a society is incalculable, and can easily outweigh, in its long-run consequences especially, any immediate good that might be expected from an expedient of taking liberties with the truth. Second, even the short-run benefits are by no means clear. Has a sense of special grievance helped advance any people – or has what happened in centuries past been a distraction and an incitement to counterproductive strife, much as territorial irredentism has been?”
A more recent example is the New York Times’ 1619 Project. which took “credit” for inciting violence and destructive riots across the United States in 2020. The 1619 Project been widely repudiated for factual errors and fallacious claims by reputable historians and for cynical distortions and omissions. 1619 author Nikole Hannah-Jones has acknowledged that her project “rewrites history” to achieve an ideological agenda, stating:
“I like to say the 1619 Project is the red pill in The Matrix. You read this book and suddenly you start to question your reality…and then you try to subvert it. I want y’all to do that.”
Its fictitious narrative, ideological bias, and overtly subversive goals were no obstacles to the 1619 Project being adopted by thousands of U.S. school districts, pushed by hyperpartisan teachers’ unions.
False histories composed without integrity to push ideological narratives pose severe dangers to democracy and human liberty. Awareness of true history and critical approach to revisionist narratives is essential to avoid societal manipulation by motivated partisans and demagogues.
 Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 2005. New York, Encounter Books. E-pub edition, p. 252.
 Timothy, Nick. “Elite disinformation is a far greater problem than fake news on Twitter.” The Telegraph (UK), October 22, 2023. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/10/22/gaza-war-israel-hamas-disinformation-twitter-social-media/
 Tabarovsky, Izabella. “How ‘The New York Times’ Helped Hide Stalin’s Mass Murders in Ukraine.” Tablet Magazine, October 22, 2020. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/arts-letters/articles/walter-duranty-ukraine-new-york-times-mr-jones-agnieszka-holland
 Frankel, Max. “150th Anniversary: 1851-2001; Turning Away From the Holocaust.” New York Times, November 14, 2001. https://www.nytimes.com/2001/11/14/news/150th-anniversary-1851-2001-turning-away-from-the-holocaust.html
 Mauer Simpson, Hedwig. "Herr Simpson at Home in the Clouds." New York Times, August 20, 1939. https://www.nytimes.com/1939/08/20/archives/herr-hitler-at-home-in-the-clouds-high-up-on-his-favorite-mountain.html
 Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 2005. New York, Encounter Books. E-pub edition, p. 244.
 Sowell, Thomas. Black Rednecks and White Liberals, 2005. New York, Encounter Books. E-pub edition, p. 104.
 Harris, Leslie M. "I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me." Politico, March 6, 2020. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/03/06/1619-project-new-york-times-mistake-122248
 Sandefur, Timothy. "The 1619 Project: An Autopsy." Cato Institute, October 27, 2020. https://www.cato.org/commentary/1619-project-autopsy
 Gonzalez, Mike. "At Least Nikole Hannah-Jones Is Honest About the 1619 Project’s Goals." Heritage Foundation, Feb 28, 2023. https://www.heritage.org/progressivism/commentary/least-nikole-hannah-jones-honest-about-the-1619-projects-goals