What Does Rosa Parks Barbie Have to Do with 1619?

So…we now have a Rosa Parks Barbie, apparently. In a way, it seems like a triumph of the Civil Rights Movement, right? But only in a way. Like the conservative backlash against the NYT’s 1619 series, Barbie’s version of history proves once again that there is still an unyielding third rail in America’s public conversations about history.theoharis on barbie

What’s wrong with a Rosa Parks Barbie? One might take it as good news—more progress toward giving children a diverse set of heroes to look up to. As scholars have pointed out, however, the Barbie version of Ms. Parks’ story has been whitewashed. Instead of a devoted Civil Rights activist protesting for decades against racial inequality, Mattel tells children that Parks was only a tired woman who had led an “ordinary life” up until her famous refusal to give up her bus seat.

Why would the toy company want to politely ignore real, established history? It has something to do with the NYT Magazine’s recent 1619 series. That series, about the history of racial slavery in the British Colonies, has sparked a ferocious response among conservative historians and pundits. Perhaps most memorably, Newt Gingrich freaked out about it on Fox News.

As Gingrich declaimed,

The whole project is a lie. Look, I think slavery is a terrible thing. I think putting slavery in context is important. . . . I think, certainly, if you are an African-American, slavery is at the center of what you see as the American experience. But, for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on. There were several hundred thousand white Americans who died in the Civil War in order to free the slaves. The fact is that I saw one reference that The New York Times claims that the American Revolution was caused in part to defend slavery. That is such historically factually false nonsense that it’s embarrassing that The New York Times is doing this.

This leads us to our two big questions. First, why do conservatives—even history experts such as Rep. Gingrich—get so flustered over an extremely uncontroversial position like the one taken in the 1619 project? After all, among historians, the centrality of racial slavery in the founding of the United States is a given. And second, what does any of this have to do with a Rosa Parks Barbie?

My two cents: Over the years, conservatives have been very willing to expand the galaxy of American heroes. In addition to the traditional cluster of Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison, conservatives have been happy to add new heroes such as Martin Luther King Jr., Sacagawea, and, yes, Rosa Parks.

The idea that a mild-mannered “ordinary woman” could stand up to injustice fits in nicely with the traditional tale of heroic America. Sure, there have been problems—the story goes—but heroic Americans have always stepped up to solve them. Even the curse of slavery, Gingrich pointed out, was solved by the self-sacrificing heroism of “several hundred thousand white Americans.”

What doesn’t fit in is the real story of Rosa Parks. Parks, a life-long civil-rights activist, learned from radical institutions such as the Highlander Folk School, and campaigned against racism long past the 1950s. That real story raises questions most Americans are not comfortable confronting. For example, what were the connections between civil-rights activism and left-wing politics? Why did Parks feel a need to keep campaigning for racial justice long after the Montgomery Bus Boycott? Why was the second-class-citizenship she endured so entrenched and durable? What did the Civil Rights Movement leave unsolved?

All those questions point to a fundamental fact about American history that conservatives can’t abide. Instead of a flawed-but-improving land of truth and justice, these questions point to a vision of United States history in which the nation has always been fundamentally formed and guided not by heroism, but by racial (and other) hierarchies.

As I argued in my book about the history of educational conservatism, conservatives have drawn the line when it comes to questioning America’s heroic history itself. Any intimation that the United States has fundamental, formative flaws has always drawn ferocious criticism. Consider, for example, the reaction to a popular textbook series in the 1930s and 40s. Harold Rugg’s textbooks sold by the millions. But when rumors spread that Rugg’s books denigrated America’s unique awesomeness, they crossed a culture-war line.

One conservative critic, Bertie Forbes of Forbes Magazine fame, warned in 1940 that the textbooks guided teachers to criticize the greatness of the United States. When one middle-school teacher was asked by her students if the USA was the greatest country in the world, she looked at her Teacher’s Guide and responded, “No. . . there are several countries in Europe which have as good, if not better, form of government than ours.”

Forbes warning rugg books

Forbes raises a stink, October, 1940

Not a particularly shocking statement, but it lit a fire under conservative Americans at the time. Sometimes literally. Soon, Rugg’s books were yanked from school bookshelves and rumors spread of book burnings in Wisconsin and upstate New York.

When it comes to Barbies and popular histories, then, we shouldn’t be surprised to find this third rail still firmly in place. We Americans are happy to add heroes to our list. We are happy to have Rosa Parks Barbies as well as Malibu ones. But as a whole we can’t stand to see the big story of our history challenged. We can’t and won’t tolerate public discussions that imply that there are any serious, fundamental, structural flaws in America’s past.

Stupid Question: Are You “Extremely Proud” to Be an American?

Just in time for the Fourth: New poll results prove that Democrats are a bunch of anti-American no-goodniks. But anyone who knows culture-war history will see that Gallup goofed in the wording of this patriotic question.gallup pride

The poll results won’t really surprise anyone. When asked how proud they are to be Americans—“extremely proud, very proud, moderately proud, only a little proud or not at all proud”—fewer and fewer respondents are saying they are “extremely proud.” Among Democrats, the number has slid to a mere 22%, from a post-9/11 high of 65%.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, asking someone if they are “extremely proud” to be an American doesn’t tell us much. For almost a full century now, this kind of phrase has not been a true measure of one’s love of country, but rather a marker of which side you were on. As I argued in The Other School Reformers, following World War I a certain sort of knee-jerk patriotism became a hallmark of cultural conservatism.

Consider the case of Harold Rugg. Rugg’s textbooks were used by millions of American students. Starting in the late 1930s, however, conservatives in the American Legion and other “patriotic” groups attacked Rugg as sneakily socialist. The books, conservatives argued, were un-American because they questioned America’s role as an unqualifiedly positive force in world history.

As have lefties ever since, Rugg fought back. He insisted that he DID love America, but that children should learn about its faults as well as its virtues. As he put it in 1941, he felt

profound admiration and deep loyalty to the historic American version of the democratic way of life.

He also believed that real American virtues were under attack, not by lefties like him, but by

a few false patriots in our midst who, while mouthing the slogans of Americanism, stamp on the Bill of Rights, destroy tolerant discussion of issues, bear false witness and defame the characters and reputations of other Americans who are sincerely striving to honor and protect the democratic process.

These days, too, asking people if they are “extremely proud” to be American seems to be the wrong question to ask. Consider the flip side: With a few exceptions—such as conservative isolationism in the early 1940s—generally the Left has been the side of “peace.” Since the Vietnam War in particular, saying that you are in favor of “peace” has lined you up with hippies and vegetarianism and Jane Fonda.

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Boring…boring…boring from within.

Of course conservatives are also in favor of “peace.” Who isn’t? But any poll that asked Americans if they were on the side of “peace” would get skewed results. It would find that Democrats apparently favored “peace” more than Republicans.

For this Fourth of July holiday, too, with T-diddy promising “brand-new Sherman tanks” in a Stalin-esque military display, it seems perverse to ask people if they are “extremely proud” to be Americans. Ask us if we love this country. Ask us if we are willing to make sacrifices for the common good. Ask us a million different questions and you’ll get a better answer.

What Would Howard Zinn Say?

I admit it—I was confused. I had to read the news from San Francisco two more times before I realized that I had read it right. The school board had voted to destroy a communist-painted mural that depicted US history as the story of slavery and genocide because…it was racist. They didn’t want students to have to see Washington depicted as a slave-purchasing Indian-killer.washington mural 1

First, the historical background: As I described in The Other School Reformers, in the 20th century conservatives fought long and hard to keep what they called “communist” histories out of America’s schools. Books that told the stories of genocide and slavery were repeatedly attacked by groups such as the American Legion and Daughters of the American Revolution as anti-American and subversive.washington mural 2

This week in San Francisco, though, the 1930s-era murals by communism-friendly artist Victor Arnautoff will be destroyed. It’s not that people don’t understand the point of the murals. The school board seems to understand that these murals were meant to criticize Washington’s participation in genocide and slavery. However, the school board decided that these particular anti-slavery, anti-genocide murals were not the best way to teach kids. In the words of the school board’s working group,

We come to these recommendations due to the continued historical and current trauma of Native Americans and African Americans with these depictions in the mural that glorifies slavery, genocide, colonization, manifest destiny, white supremacy, oppression, etc. This mural doesn’t represent SFUSD values of social justice, diversity, united, student-centered. It’s not student-centered if it’s focused on the legacy of artists, rather than the experience of the students. If we consider the SFUSD equity definition, the “low” mural glorifies oppression instead of eliminating it. It also perpetuates bias through stereotypes rather than ending bias. It has nothing to do with equity or inclusion at all. The impact of this mural is greater than its intent ever was. It’s not a counter-narrative if [the mural] traumatizes students and community members.

Indeed, the activists who opposed this mural came from the left, not the right. It was not the honest depictions of slavery and genocide against which they protested, but rather the depictions of African Americans and Native Americans solely as victims, slaves, and corpses. As one anti-mural activist told the LA Times,

Our students deserve better. We don’t need to see ourselves portrayed as dead Indians every single time we see ourselves portrayed in any type of art or in any books. We don’t need that. . . . We know our history already — our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.

washington mural 3As another anti-muralist told the Washington Post,

It is time to erase the dominant narrative of the dead and defeated Native American. . . . It is important that our public schools are a place for all students to learn and be educated in a safe environment.

After reading these arguments, I felt like I understood the objections better. Perhaps the school board is not merely echoing the sentiments of right-wingers and trying to block any depiction of the ugly side of US history. Rather, the goal is to give students a deeper “counter-narrative.”

Still, as a history teacher, I’m feeling nonplussed. It is difficult enough to talk about racial violence and imperialism in class. Literally whitewashing an attempt to show those histories doesn’t seem like the best way to get those important conversations going.

It’s Not Only Right-Wingers Who Get Schooled

It was embarrassing. Yesterday, NPR’s Cokie Roberts said a bunch of stuff about the history of abortion that just wasn’t true. After an academic historian exposed the goof, NPR had to retract the whole thing. Why did Roberts do it? Because to be a “real” historian, you don’t need a tenure-track university job or a PhD from an elite graduate program, but you do need to think a certain way about the past and be willing to spend the time to understand the past correctly.Dr Thompson Tweet Roberts apparently couldn’t be bothered.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are probably sick of hearing about the ways academic historians “dunk” on right-wing history pundits such as Dinesh D’Souza. In those cases, academics such as Kevin Kruse debunk the false historical assertions made by pundits for purely political purposes, like when D’Souza claimed that the Republican Party was the true anti-racist, pro-civil-rights party. When D’Souza and other right-wing pundits like David Barton make their bad history, they tend to cherry-pick factlets without giving full weight to the broader, truer historical picture.

Yesterday’s case was different. NPR’s Cokie Roberts did indeed make a political point using history. She argued that today’s pro-choice politics assume that abortion was common—and dangerous—before Roe v. Wade. But Roberts did not just pick out a few truish facts to make an untrue argument. Instead, she misinterpreted the past based on her own lazy methods.

Originally (NPR has since removed Roberts’s goof), Roberts said,

there are many articles by abortion rights proponents who claim the procedure was so common that newspapers advertised providers. Look, I did a search of 19th century newspapers and couldn’t find them.

Dr. Lauren MacIvor Thompson, an historian at Georgia State University, quickly pointed out the huge hole in Roberts’s argument. Perhaps Roberts really had done a search of newspapers, but as a bad historian, she did a bad search. Roberts searched for phrases such as “abortion” and “birth control,” phrases that weren’t used in the 1800s, and found out—surprise, surprise—that they weren’t used in the 1800s. Her faulty conclusion? Newspapers did not advertise for abortions in the past.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, Roberts made two huge mistakes that any trained historian would have avoided without even thinking about it:

1.) Roberts assumed that the terms we use were the same as the terms used in the past.

2.) Roberts did not take time to understand the historical context for her quick database search.

As Dr. Thompson pointed out, 19th-century newspapers really were full of advertisements for abortions and other anti-pregnancy medical interventions, but they used different language to describe them. Back then, newspapers referred to “menstrual regulation,” “medical relief,” “curing irregularities,” and so on.

Let’s be clear: There is absolutely no reason why someone needs a PhD or a tenure-track university job to be a “real” historian. All kinds of people do great historical work everyday, whether they are middle-school teachers, stamp collectors, historical re-enactors, or hard-working journalists.

What Cokie Roberts did is different. She skipped the hard work necessary to understand the past and instead accepted her own flitting google-search to be decent historical evidence.

All the News That’s Fake to Print

Teachers don’t get freaked out easily. But our new world—in which the President denounces journalists as “enemies of the people” and news coverage he doesn’t like as “fake news”—has altered the world of classroom teaching already. Peter Boyer recently warned that Trumpism might kill the New York Times. In schools around here, at any case, it’s already dead.

New York Times Trump

Who will be the ultimate loser in this fight?

Here’s what we know: Boyer took a look at the long and contentious relationship between Trump and the Times. As NYT reporter Jim Rutenberg argued back in 2016, Trump forced some journalists to question their core beliefs in non-partisan journalism. As Rutenberg wrote,

If you view a Trump presidency as something that’s potentially dangerous, then your reporting is going to reflect that. You would move closer than you’ve ever been to being oppositional. That’s uncomfortable and uncharted territory for every mainstream, nonopinion journalist I’ve ever known, and by normal standards, untenable.

And Boyer concluded,

The unavoidable takeaway from [Rutenberg’s piece] was that Donald Trump, in shattering the norms of presidential politics, had baited the elite news media into abandoning the norms of traditional journalism—a central tenet of which was the posture of neutrality. That certainly seemed to be the case at the Times, which soon began to characterize dubious Trump statements as “lies” in news reports and headlines, a drastic break from the paper’s once-indelible standards.

What does this have to do with today’s classrooms? Everything.

I’m lucky to work with a group of smart, engaged history teachers. Recently, we were looking at some material from Stanford’s History Education Group. The goal of one lesson was to help students evaluate arguments made online, in places like Facebook threads.

Facebook Argument_edited

News, Fake News, and Damned Lies…

The SHEG folks offer a mock-up of a potential Facebook debate about gun control. They want students to be able to differentiate between substantive arguments with good evidence and claptrap. As SHEG writes,

Successful students will notice and compare the sources each user provides. Anya links to an article from a mainstream, national newspaper. In contrast, Grace’s chart comes from a group that lobbies against restrictions on gun ownership.

The hope was that students would recognize the superiority of a New York Times article over a partisan, pro-gun organization. Unfortunately, that’s not how it works any more. The teachers I met with immediately warned that their students would tend to think that the New York Times was untrustworthy and politically imbalanced. Teachers knew their students would not trust the New York Times or consider it a “mainstream” reliable source.

Boyer warned that Trumpism had put “the news media’s bond of trust with its audience . . . under strain.” In classrooms around here, at least, that bond of trust is more than strained. It has already snapped.

The Wrong Way to Talk about Civics Education

We just can’t do it. As educators and Americans, that is, we can’t agree about what “civics education” is supposed to be doing. We do know one thing, though. The way to understand it is not by doing what one pundit recently attempted.civics textbooks

Why is it so hard to teach civics? As I’ve argued in these pages and in books such as The Other School Reformers, the problem isn’t that no one cares. It’s not that people think schools shouldn’t teach kids to be good citizens. Rather, the problem is that Americans can’t agree on what “being a good citizen” entails.

Think about it: How enthusiastic would you be if your tax dollars supported student activism in a cause with which you disagreed? Say, for example, that kids in a high-school civics class took their project to the streets, protesting against a local abortion clinic? Or, for the other side, what if students marched out their civic responsibilities in a gay pride parade? Either way, real-life student civic engagement is not usually something that controversy-averse public school administrators can support.

None of that is the point this morning, however. One civics-ed commentator recently demonstrated another related challenge when it comes to discussing civics education. Robert Pondiscio of the marketeering Fordham Institute recently unintentionally underlined why it is so difficult to know what students are really doing in schools, when it comes to civics education or anything else.

That wasn’t Pondiscio’s point, of course. Rather, he was trying to articulate a need for a more traditionalist vision of proper civics education. He was hoping to push teachers to teach

A lifelong love of liberty. Of freedom and the rule of law. A lifelong love of America.

Pondiscio thinks schools aren’t doing this. And he wants to prove it. That’s where he runs into trouble.

As school-watchers know, it is infamously difficult to know what goes on behind the classroom door. Creationists warn their followers that public schools are cramming gay-friendly atheism down children’s throats under the guise of science classes. Atheists fret about religious zealots using public schools to cram hate-filled fundamentalism down children’s throats.

So how did Mr. Pondiscio come to his conclusion that public schools are not teaching kids to love America? The wrong way. He looked at the mission statements of America’s 100 biggest public school districts. What did he find?

Well over half—fifty-nine of the one hundred largest U.S. school districts—make no mention of civics or citizenship whatsoever in their mission or vision statements. . . .  The words “patriotic” and “patriotism” do not appear at all. Neither does “America” or “American.” Not even once.

Proof that American teachers are not teaching students to love this great land? Of course not. If Mr. Pondiscio had instead asked 100 of America’s best teachers to paraphrase their districts’ mission statements, he would have found that zero of them could do so.

On the other hand, if he asked 100 social-studies teachers if they tried to help students understand what Pondiscio calls “a sense of gratitude, for the blessings of liberty, our Constitutional freedoms, what it’s taken to secure those things for us, and for thoughtful pride and patriotism”, he’d find much different results. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that most American social-studies teachers out there teach some version of those goals.

So why bother with school-district mission statements? Like so much other bad punditry about America’s public schools, writers can use mission statements if they want to make a point. In reality, though, district mission statements have only the tiniest effect on real teaching.

The real lesson here should be a sober warning about the difficulties of understanding what really goes on in America’s schools. If we want to do more than rile people up, we need to be humble about what we think we know about real teachers and real classrooms.

Trump’s S-Word 2020 Gamble

Will it work? Personally, I hope not. As a historian of American conservatism, however, I think it could turn out to be a winning strategy. And I’ll hazard an easy prediction right now: Schools and rumors about schools will continue to play a key role.

Here’s what we know. In his SOTU speech this week, President Trump harped on the dangers of socialism. As he put it,

Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence—not government coercion, domination and control. We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH might be scratching their heads and asking why Trump is taking on a dead issue. Who worries about socialism anymore? The Soviet Union collapsed, China is careening forward with its some-pigs-are-more-equal-than-others capitalism, and Cuba seems poised to renounce its long socialist practice.

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Unreasoning s-word school terror, c. 1949.

Indeed, the socialist pressure these days comes from a different direction, from the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both loud and proud democratic socialists.

Some lefties think Trump is making a big mistake by focusing on the s-word. As John Nichols wrote in the Nation,

while Trump may think “socialism” is a scare word, and while many prominent Democrats may get scared when it is referenced, Sanders is comfortable discussing the ideology.

Nichols and other hopeful progressives look at recent Gallup poll results for encouragement. It seems more and more young people are expressing confidence in socialism.

gallup socialism

Changing attitudes…?

Let me be as clear as I can about this: I hope it’s true. I hope new majorities of American voters see the wisdom of policies such as health care for all, affordable college tuition, and aggressive economic policies to help lower-income Americans. I hope that the s-word has lost its enormous power to stop useful policies dead in their tracks.

But I don’t think it has. Any candidate—including Trump—can win instant and powerful support by screaming about the dangers of socialism. Maybe I’m scarred by my time in the archives, but I can’t help but remain impressed by the powerful emotions generated by the s-word.

For example, in the middle of the twentieth century anti-socialist conservative activists in the Daughters of the American Revolution went to great lengths to sniff out any traces of socialist subversion in America’s public schools. Their intense investigations would be hilarious if they weren’t so destructive.

In the early 1960s, for example, Mississippi DAR leader Edna Whitfield Alexander warned of the dangers of Bobby Squirrel. The BS incident took place in a popular kids’ book used in schools, Ask For It.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAs Alexander asked in the pages of the Monitor Herald (Calhoun City, MS), January 3, 1963, “Have you ever heard or read about a more subtle way of undermining the American system of work and profit and replacing it with a collective welfare system?”

In that period, as well, conservative activists used their newsletters and mailing lists to spread terrifying rumors of socialist intrigue in the nation’s public schools. As this flyer warned, students nationwide were planning socialist revolts in school.

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Conservative activists reprinted flyers like this and included them in newsletters, c. 1959.

It was a ridiculous thing to panic about. Its ridiculousness, however, does not take away anything from its incredible political power. To a depth that progressives can’t hope to fathom, Americans have always been terrified of the prospect of socialism in our country.

It hasn’t gone away. As one conservative pundit wrote recently,

By making resistance to socialism a lynch pin of his 2020 campaign, Trump will be helping to right this extremely dangerous situation, giving cover to students being indoctrinated in our classrooms and to their increasingly alarmed parents.

Maybe it doesn’t need saying, but I’ll say it anyway. There IS NO “extremely dangerous situation” in American classrooms due to creeping socialism. It just doesn’t exist. The real dangers in American public school classrooms come from inadequate funding, cruel and imbalanced disciplinary practices, and rampant economic segregation.

Nevertheless, though I hate to say it, I think the sort of knee-jerk terror many Americans feel at any whisper of the s-word will prove Trump right. If he continues to portray himself as the bold defender of American freedoms against creeping socialism, he stands a chance of victory.

School Dictatorship by Facebook

What do conservatives want out of schools? In Brazil as in the USA, it’s a familiar checklist: communist subversion out, LGBTQ+ stuff out, union power out. In Brazil’s case, the new right-wing president has given conservatives new hope. But unlike in the past, Brazil’s conservatives have a new weapon at their disposal: Facebook.

bolsonaro

Hear no evil…

As reported in The Economist, President Jair Bolsonaro has energized right-wing school dreams in Brazil. We shouldn’t be surprised. Bolsonaro won the election in spite of—or because of—his inflammatory anti-gay statements and nostalgia for the old dictatorship.

When a presidential candidate promises to bring back torture, makes rape jokes, and brags that he would rather see his son dead than gay, it’s not a shocker that his policies move schools in right-wing directions.

In Brazil’s case, that means fighting the influence of Brazil’s most famous educational thinker, Paolo Freire. It also means an attempt to ban what Brazilian conservatives call “gender ideology.” Brazilian conservatives consider the left-wing ideas of Freire to be a blight on Brazil. As one right-wing group put it, Freire’s teachings turned

Innocent illiterate people into illiterate communists.

The plan? Bolsonaro has promised to

Take a flame-thrower to the ministry of education and get Paolo Freire out of there.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, those things are similar to what USA conservatives have wanted in schools for a long time. Conservatives here, too, have fretted about communist subversion, tried to get rid of the “homosexual agenda” in public schools, and threatened to eliminate the Department of Education.

What might be new, though, is the Brazilian strategy to enforce their right-wing changes. As The Economist reports, conservative activists have taken to Facebook to enforce their vision of proper public education. As one conservative teacher told students on Facebook,

“Attention students! . . . many doctrinaire teachers will be disconcerted or revolted” by Bolsonaro’s victory. “Film or record all partisan manifestations that . . . offend your freedom of thought or conscience.”

Bolsonaro’s Facebook page apparently includes video clips of left-wing teachers in action, including one in which a teacher shouts at a student,

I fought for democracy and you’re here talking about that piece of crap Bolsonaro.

Or another in which a teacher warned students not to listen to

idiotic police officers or your lowlife pastor.

The plan, clearly, is to shine a right-wing social-media spotlight on teachers. If they endorse rights for LGBTQ people, they can be “outed” for it. If they teach a sympathetic vision of socialism, everyone will know about it. If they teach anti-Bolsonaro ideas–the thinking goes–then right-wingers can target them. In Bolsonaro’s Brazil, at least, conservatives hope that Facebook can offer a new way to pressure teachers and schools to conform to their vision of proper public education.

Will it work? So far, some teachers have reported being threatened and disciplined for their anti-Bolsonaro or pro-LGBTQ classroom comments. Back in the twentieth century, USA conservatives tended to fight against textbooks instead of individual teachers, because they usually couldn’t find out much about what classroom teachers were actually doing on a day-to-day basis.

I wonder if Facebook will allow conservatives to take their fight right to the teachers themselves.

The Dangers of Dunking on D’Souza

Whose history is the “real” one? For the past few months, Princeton’s Kevin Kruse has been conducting a master class in responding to partisan punditry in the field of US History. As I argue this morning at History News Network, though, Prof. Kruse’s efforts are not likely to convince many conservatives.kruse dunk twitter

I won’t re-hash the argument, but if you’re interested, click on over and check it out. And if you’re really curious, you can also follow the discussion about Twitter on Twitter.

Heresy and the Death of the Sniff Test

It can’t be real. That was my first impression when I saw pix of the blasphemous billboard circulating around the interwebs. It just looked too hokey and too perfectly outrageous. But, as Sam Wineburg is telling us, we need to be asking different questions these days. Our old-fashioned sniff tests are way out of date. What’s worse, even Wineburg’s hopeful prescription can’t help us with some problems. Namely, as with this billboard, political realities have gotten so bizarre I’m losing hope that any of us will have much luck discerning the true from the troll.

trump christ

This can’t possibly be real…can it?

It looks so perfectly anti-Christian that I was sure it had to be a spoof. And spoof it may be, but at the very least it seems to be a real billboard. According to Snopes,

The billboard is undoubtedly real, though it is not yet clear who paid for it and when it was erected. A spokesperson for DDI Media, the St. Louis company which owns the billboard itself, told us they could not share such information.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally don’t care about heresy, but I am absolutely flummoxed that any self-identified Christian would equate the Donald with The Christ. The entire episode seems like more proof of Sam Wineburg’s new argument. We can no longer trust our sense of what “looks” and “feels” real and legitimate. It’s just too easy to fake it.

Among other things, Professor Wineburg describes his study of internet readers. He asked ten academic historians to decide which group was more trustworthy based on their websites, the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics. One (ACP) is a legitimate professional organization of doctors. The other (AAP) is an anti-gay splinter group.

Turns out, these historians—all of them hyper-trained to read and decode complicated texts—weren’t very good at figuring out how to evaluate on-line legitimacy. As Wineburg writes,

Typically, the historians would size up a site within seconds.  Snap judgments were often based on a site’s “look” or its official-sounding name. . . . [one] chose the established American Academy of Pediatrics, not because of differences in the organizations’ stature or pedigrees (he never ventured beyond the two sites to learn about these organizations respective backgrounds), but because of the fonts on their webpages.

As Wineburg points out, evaluating online information based on these sorts of impressions is woefully out of date. Back in the wild 1990s, we used to be able to evaluate information based on the look of the website. Shoddy graphics, sketchy organizational details, and over-long web addresses were all easy give-aways.

These days, those markers are simply too easy to fix. A fly-by-night extremist organization can have a website that looks and feels legit.wineburg why learn history

Wineburg has hope. Students and the rest of us can learn better tools to detect online fraud and fakery. We can learn to read the web laterally instead of trusting any one website.

As this billboard episode shows us, though, perhaps we need to be more concerned than that. For me, the billboard appeared fake not only because it looked poorly made, but because its message was so outrageous. So, yes, I thought it was fake because it looked kind of blurry and because it didn’t include any information about its source. But I also thought it was fake because no Christian could possibly have intended to advertise such a blatantly blasphemous message.

Yet someone did. Clearly, the old fashioned sniff tests can’t help us anymore. Fake information can look real. Even worse, though, ideas that would have been too hateful to see bruited about in public spaces now seem common.