What’s Going On?

No really, Laurel Leff wants to know. This isn’t a poltical-rhetorical question but something bigger. What are we to make of the president’s recent nod to Holocaust denial? We need to consider the matter in an open, fearless, and dispassionate way, but how?

For those of us who teach and research the Holocaust and anti-Semitism, the Trump administration’s refusal to mention Jews in a statement commemorating International Holocaust Remembrance Day has been both horrifying and confusing.

Read Leff’s whole piece, and if you haven’t read Deborah Lipstadt on why “Holocaust denial” is an appropriate term here, be sure to follow that link in Leff’s piece too.

Governmental Data Erasure

The following piece contains an important error, which I have highlighted in yellow below. I have corrected the record in a follow-up post.

In the USSR, during certain periods, key individuals were erased from photographs and history when they fell out of favor. Trotsky was perhaps the most famous example. Such attempts to falsify images and textbooks for political ends went further, however. Historical reality itself—not just its interpretation and instruction—needed to bend to the regime’s will. Who knew that such crude reality-bending tools would be used in the United States in the 2010s by the party that credits the end of the Cold War to its hero, Ronald Regan?

The new administration’s erasure of data might be one of its most offensive actions thus far. If lives are not immediately threatened by it, the long term will be a different matter. But how to prove such harm when the time comes? Congressional prohibitions on research into the public health effects of gun violence have been effective so far.

At least there are capable individuals and organizations working to safeguard existing data, as in the case of the Internet Archive and recently erased USDA reports on animal welfare. But how did such a class of reports become too hot for certain politicians to handle?

We once punished tobacco companies for suppressing information, but our public servants actively suppress public health data that doesn’t comport with their worldview. Wouldn’t it make more sense to trust the public and to compete in the marketplace of hard data and ideas? And why not serve the public interest by supporting the research that organizations like the USDA, the CDC, the Department of Energy, and the EPA require to fulfill their missions?

Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History

Earlier this month I did a post on my Hist 100 blog that might be of some interest to readers here, “Contemporary Politics and History.” My audience was primarily freshmen in their first semester at university, most of them too young to have voted in the last election.
Continue reading “Contemporary Political Rhetoric and Teaching History”

Authors of Interrogation Handbook Abuse Their Sources

In a piece called “Mind Games: Remembering Brainwashing” from today’s New York Times, Tim Wiener points to one of the more irresponsible uses of historical documents that I have seen this summer. Apparently “American military and intelligence officers” (he is not more specific) decided in 2002 to examine Cold War CIA studies of Chinese interrogation methods during the Korean War. After all, these Communists were the supposed masters who fed the kinds of fears that later gave rise to a movie like “The Manchurian Candidate.” In one major study the officers found examples of what are now often called “harsh interrogation techniques” when the more negatively valued term “torture” is being deliberately avoided. “They reprinted a 1957 chart describing death threats, degradation, sleep deprivation—and worse—inflicted by Chinese captors. And they made it part of a new handbook for interrogators at Guantánamo.”

The provenance of these techniques might give pause, but here’s the real bombshell:

The irony is that the original author of that chart, Albert D. Biderman, a social scientist who had distilled interviews with 235 Air Force P.O.W.’s, wrote that the Communists’ techniques mainly served to “extort false confessions.” And they were the same methods that “inquisitors had employed for centuries.” They had done nothing that “was not common practice to police and intelligence interrogators of other times and nations.”

This story reminds me of the student who hurriedly pulls a bunch of quotes from a book without actually reading or studying the book as a whole, let alone thinking about its historical context. The student then slaps the material together in a paper that might confirm his own beliefs, but whose conclusions bear no tangible relationship to the source that he supposedly read and analyzed. Is that what happened here? Or was the document perhaps too complex for them? Perhaps they needed to invest in some historians who were not afraid to dig through this kind of thing in an honest manner, no matter what conclusions the documents might suggest.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Ignorance or Deliberate Abuse?

I can’t decide whether the White House is deliberately insulting our intelligence with Bush’s recent appeasement accusations or if they really don’t know anything about Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement. Chamberlain isn’t criticized in history for talking to Hitler, but rather for giving away the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia and with it that country’s means to defend itself against Germany. The difference is not trivial. And what does McCain’s echoing of Bush’s remarks tell us about him? Did he also not learn this bit of history? Or is this just politics? Be that as it may, Kevin Levin is right about this being a teachable moment. The “Hardball” video he posted on his blog is hilarious and sad at the same time.


This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, Clio and Me, on this date.

Good Old Stalin

History can be used to justify all manner of circumstances in the present. Want to justify an authoritarian regime in Russia? Referring to Russia’s present conditions can help, but even more effective can be skillful tradition-building that shows Russia’s long line of great authoritarian rulers. And what better place to start than with history teachers in the schools?

The New York Times published a remarkable article yesterday about a new history guide for high school teachers in Russia. After a brief introduction, it offers verbatim excerpts on Stalin, who comes away smelling like roses, despite his massive purges.

Stalin followed Peter the Great’s logic: demand the impossible from the people in order to get the maximum possible. . . . The result of Stalin’s purges was a new class of managers capable of solving the task of modernization in conditions of shortages of resources, loyal to the supreme power and immaculate from the point of view of executive discipline. . . .

Thus, just like Chancellor Bismarck who united German lands into a single state by “iron and blood,” Stalin was reinforcing his state by cruelty and mercilessness.

It is quite an intellectual feat to bring Stalin into line with both Peter the Great and Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, such relativism reveals something about the Kremlin’s self-image these days. It would be helpful to see the rest of the guide before drawing broader conclusions. Still, does not the following statement recall some of Putin’s own criticisms of democracy in the United States in recent years?

Political and historical studies show that when they come under similarly serious threats, even “soft” and “flexible” political systems, as a rule, turn more rigid and limit individual rights, as happened in the United States after September 11, 2001.

Yes, history textbooks matter.

This blog post originally appeared on my old history blog, _Clio and Me_, on this date.