Monday, March 13, 2006

Carnival of Bad History #5: Who's the Baddest Of Them All?

Welcome to the Fifth Bad History Carnival, the best of the worst! In honor of the "award season," this carnival will be highlighting only the very best. . . .

Lifetime Achievement
Nobody has done more to advance bad history, or to raise its public profile, than David Irving, now enjoying a three year Austrian vacation... For the award citation, I'll cite Deborah Lipstadt, well known from the libel case Irving filed against her:
Censorship laws are not efficacious, especially when, as is clearly the case with Holocaust denial, the fight can be won with history, evidence, and the truth. During Mr. Irving's libel suit against me, his Holocaust denial claims collapsed when we tracked his sources and found all of them predicated on lies and fabrications.
David Irving knew there was a warrant for his arrest. Yet he went to Austria anyway, announcing his visit on the Internet. According to his wife, Mr. Irving thought it would "be a bit of fun, to provoke a little bit." He assumed that, if the Austrians arrested him they would release him with a slap on the wrist. He had even booked a first-class ticket home for Monday night, the day of the trial. Spectators report that he looked "stunned" when his little prank resulted in a three-year sentence. Given that this was a lark designed to provoke the Austrian authorities, and that he could have voiced his protest without entering that country, I am not sure why serious people should feel compelled to make a principled defense of him.

I have repeatedly criticized the notion of Holocaust denial laws, but I have no intention of defending someone who is not only an anti-Semite and a racist, but who goes out of his way to get himself in trouble.
Irving's trial featured a fascinating double volte face in which he sorta repudiated, then reconfirmed, his holocaust denial credential. Orac also has a slightly stronger position on the free speech aspects, but no less contempt for Irving as an historian. As Nic_C says
Perhaps real historians have a duty to challenge damagingly-bad history more publicly and more frequently than they (or some of them) currently do.
Given the relative lack of interest on the part of historical bloggers in this carnival, we've got a way to go...*

Holocaust Denial
The competition in this category is intense, even with Irving out of the running. Though Holocaust deniers and minimizers love to appeal to "reason" and "logic" and "proof," they do so with the same disingenuousness and hype as pseudo-scientific quacks touting "alternative" medicines. However, in spite of the brazen attempt to silence the The Holocaust History Project with a firebomb attack (they are neither surprised nor diminished though some of their archived artifacts were lost), US Holocaust deniers cannot compete with the resources of Iran, which has recently thrown the full weight of its government and academy into the fray. The Tom and Jerry argument gives you some idea of what we're up against...

New Zombie Error
Zombie Errors are those myths that Will. Not. Die. no matter how often you cite the actual facts. In a fascinating case of double zombie, the winner in this category is Upton Sinclair. First, there's the new evidence about Sinclair's belief in the guilt of Sacco and Vanzetti... except that it's not new as eb points out, and doesn't really change anything (though it might come as a bit of a surprise to open-minded lefties who grew up with a firm belief in the absolute innocence of those particular anarchists). Second, there's the question of the connection between Sinclair's muckraking The Jungle and federal regulation of meatpacking: the unfortunate tendency to take Sinclair's novel as truth and the obscuring of industry promotion of federal regulation as a way of promoting themselves.

Honorable mention in this category to the Associated Press, which perpetuates their own error on US responses to Mad Cow Disease.

Late entry: Rick Shenkman recycles a Clinton-era debunking of Congressional censure zombies.

Told You So
This being the three-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War, there'll be lots of 20/20 hindsight going on. dcat (or is it DCAT?) is a reasonably good starting place for some of the arguments. Not all of them, though.

Accidental Historical Fictions
Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code came under fire recently for ... well, for making money. The historians who wrote the boring bits sued for royalties, but it turns out that Dan Brown's mistakes may be his salvation so to speak.

However, I think the prize has to go to "The Lost Millenium," and here I'll simply copy (again) Rob MacDougall's History Carnival entry
A handful of blogs and indeed the mainstream Canadian press discussed The Lost Millenium: History’s Timetables Under Siege. This new book by mathematician Florin Diacu contends the Middle Ages didn’t happen, the Peloponnesian Wars are fifteen centuries more recent than we think, and today’s date is
March 13th, 964 A.D. On A.D./C.E. thing, by the way, be forewarned that the "War on Christmas" has morphed into the "War on Christian Dating"....

Deliberate Historical Fictions
Never let it be said that historical novelists are humorless: Sarah Cuthbertson recently resurrected some satirical "Rules for Historical Fiction" [via]which prompted a whole new round of entries:There are specific rules for various subgenres of historical fiction For those of you who like your historical fiction a bit shorter than novel-length, here's a short history of WWII as an Instant Message exchange.

Presentism: Religion
Obviously, there's too many different attempts to abuse history to justify and/or rationalize one's own position for them all to fit under a single category. I don't know who's doing the bad history here -- it might be everyone -- but the current controversy of the history of female clergy in the Catholic Church has people lined up in pretty predictable ways. This was kicked off, apparently, by an article at Sojourners, and taken up by Paul Gregory Alms and William J. Tighe, Ph.D., among others.

Presentism: Politics
Donald Rumsfeld says that successful wartime presidents are always unpopular and, neatly and fallaciously inverting the syllogism, therefore Bush's unpopularity means he must be doing well....

Runner-up goes to the argument that the cost of the war is actually pretty low relative to its scale and importance, as compared with previous US conflicts. Where's a statistician when you need her?

Mistaking Coincidence for Causation or Conspiracy
The idea that the July 4th deaths of Jefferson and Adams were suicides (followed by several others) has to rank as one of the sillier unfalsifiable theses offered in the last quarter. But for sheer bravado and scale, the award has to go to the environmental scientists who can't tell the Black Death from an Ice Age.

Fraud or Stupidity? You Decide
This also could go in the category of "how 'balanced' journalism perpetuates bad history" because the unveiling of a Chinese world map which claims to be an 18th century copy of a 15th century map (that's 1700s and 1400s, for those of you frustrated by century conversions) has produced a whole spate of articles about them most of which spend most of the time recounting Gavin Menzies' "Zheng He discovered America" fantasy without pointing out that the date on this map is actually several years prior to that purported event. Menzies himself has moved on, actually, to the idea that the Mongols, not the Ming, did the actual discovery.... The fact that the whole argument's been debunked in great detail (by Robert Finlay, among others) gets mentioned "below the fold" if at all.

Miscellaneous Honorable MentionsThat's it for this edition of the Bad History Carnival! Thanks to John McKay for creating the carnival and giving me the chance to host! Thanks to Sharon Howard, Ralph Luker, and everyone else who posted announcements and submitted material.* Most of the errors in this carnival are other people's mistakes and misunderstandings, but for anything which I'm responsible for, feel free to drop me an e-mail or leave a comment and I'll correct what I can....

The next edition is scheduled for June: volunteers for Host for that or for future editions are welcome! And please don't forget to submit articles as you write them, or see them.

* - Yes, I'm complaining: the number of independent submissions from the historical blogosphere was pitiful, in spite of the publicity I got from some of the best-read bloggers in the 'sphere. Given the educational potential, political abuses and cultural damage of bad history, I would have thought that they'd be lining up to host and flooding the inbox with submissions. Nope.


L said...

Bad History is in my Top 5 Blog Carnivals and this installment is fantastic. It'll keep me in reading material for at least a couple weeks. Excellent job!

Anonymous said...

The worse the history, the better the carnival! Great job, and thanks for the links to my old post.

Anonymous said...

Oops - that "anonymous" was me.

M said...

Wow, who would have thought I would have the same post featured in the History Carnival and the Carnival of Bad History! I shall never trust Modern Drunkard Magazine again...

dcat said...

Thanks for the link. I am not even consistent myself with dcat/DCAT.

Anonymous said...

here's my silly inversion of the "ripping yarns" rules. i'm not sure if writing by these rules would make a yarn more interesting or less...

Ripping Yarns v.2

1. No native Indian ruler is to be trusted. [well…change this one and it just wouldn’t be a ripping yarn, would it?]

2. The hero pines for England/Scotland; upon reaching there (after arduous travails), he finds it only indifferent pleasing and wonders what he had been remembering.

3. None of the hero’s influential relatives like him, and they gossip about him with the Viceroy behind his back.

4. The hero comes up against a sneering Russian aristocrat and is intrigued by his commanding, self-important manner. He studiously mimics the aristocrat’s dress and attitude and uses them to great effect in his personal interactions.

5. The baddies forget to cut the telegraph wires to HQ/Calcutta/London, but the plot isn’t affected because a section of the wire has acquired a break on account of the new guy in charge of maintenance spends most of his time drunk.

6. The most experienced soldiers set out with not only enough water for the march, but an oversupply of medicine and vitamin pills as well, and miss the battle because a few of the lieutenants insist on stopping and sharing some with a struggling village they pass along the way.

7. The plot of royal intrigue and the parallel romantic thread are completely eclipsed by a violent clash between Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists.

8. Most of the characters are anonymously low-ranking, with nearly indistiguishable names; about half that number rank around lieutenant; we meet one captain, but he dies within two pages when he is accidentally shot by a new recruit, and he plays no role in the plot.

9. All hairy naked wandering holy men are indeed holy men. The few English public school types who got such nonsense into their heads were sensibly persuaded by their mothers to stay in England.

10. The heroine dies because the good crowd all failed to realize that there were actually rail lines around and instead tried to carry her to the hospital on the hero’s outstretched coat.

Anonymous said...

It's an honor just to be nominated. :)

Anne Zook

Jennie W said...


Anonymous said...

re: your concern about the lack of blogsphere candidates -- maybe we expect so little from that medium that it isn't worth trying to find the bad ones.

A bit like bothering to nominate News of the World for making up stories.

Ahistoricality said...

Thanks to all for the comments and links! I've wanted to host this carnival since it was first announced, and I really am enjoying it, from the research to the writing and now the "sit back and watch the links roll in" stage.

Two quick addenda: Miriam Burstein, aka The Little Professor, has joined the historical fiction rules crew with her Rules for Neo-Victorian Fiction, which are clearly the result of her extensive research in this field.

Second, more generally, I didn't find a lot of blogged material in the "historians behaving badly" category, but I highly recommend HNN's Historians in the News roundup (which does have an RSS feed) which regularly highlights the lowlights of the profession...

Natalie Bennett said...

I wonder if there was a technical problem with the nominations, because I definitely sent you one, and quite a decent one, if I say so myself ..
Wonderful story, pity about the book...
An extract:
"... really, how could Laidler fall for that old "babies on bayonets" story about a pregnant woman being burnt alive, the stress bring on labour, then the baby being thrown back into the flames? Surely he must know that Christian story has been around, and repeated endlessly about different victims, since the early Roman persecutions?"