Erasures from history are hallmarks of dictatorships. Image Source: Business Insider.
History is up for grabs. In the malleable global media, parts of history are being denied, erased or changed beyond recognition to suit new agendas. What is being changed, by whom, and where it is happening, all foreshadow coming trends in politics and daily life.
The Internet has heightened the popular tolerance for manipulated information. The Web also cultivates false memory syndrome. A friend whose intelligence I respect now remembers what he witnessed in Washington D.C. on 9/11 very differently from the way he spoke to me about it at the time. Of course, living witnesses of a historical event can subsequently learn more about an event and revise their opinions of what they saw. But when does memory become myth, instead of history?
PBS's popular science show NOVA explained in 2011 how the World Trade Center towers fell on 9/11 (here). The show was reposted on Youtube. One Youtuber remarks:
"never has a steel building fallen due to fire, yet nova comes up with a real con job. i will never look at nova again with any respect for it,s so called investation,no more donations to p.b.s not for this crap..don,t worry the goverment will cut you guys a nice check. ... 10 seconds to fall yet the pancake thats one floor hits the next and that takes at least 1 second delay befor it falls to the next then after say 10 floors below we get to no fires cold n=hard steel thats not going to break a part like your over heated weak floors and how does the building turn to dust i mean just the boittom floors showed steel bent over hey watch a video by enigers a hole gang from all over the world whio say the goverment theory dead wrong. come on wake up."
"Never has a building been hit with an airliner going 500+ miles per hour and loaded with 10,000 gallons of jet fuel. What the fuck is wrong with you? Certainly you must be trolling or you are mentally ill. ... What a fool. You are stupid enough to believe that when 20 stories and thousands of tons of steel fall on top of each other that somehow a solid structure below it will miraculously stop its momentum? Use common sense. Did you not see what happened that day?"
And another:i have always admired NOVA but this is shameful and does not do justice to the dead .. coverups stink especially from a valued program .. sad sad sad
No amount of empirical evidence will ever dissuade a committed conspiracy theorist. Even lack of evidence of a conspiracy is further evidence of a conspiracy. Following Ockham Razor, the simplest explanation is the correct one. A bunch of guys flew jets into the buildings, the structure was weakened and the buildings collapsed.
And if you think it's an inside job, then I'll repeat what Stephen Hawking said about alien cover-ups, 'If the government is covering up knowledge of aliens, they are doing a better job of it than they do at anything else.'"
When the WTC towers fell on 9/11, it was not just a blow to the seat of western trade, capitalism and power. That tragic day erased a symbolic statement in the west about itself, a statement that this culture had reached a pinnacle of what was achievable. And part of that message included the conviction - drawn from thus far limited experience - that the North American mainland was impregnable to outside attack.
My friend, B., recently dismissed conspiracy theories about 9/11, evil world governments, shadowy banking cabals, HAARP, chemtrails, and Illuminati: "people just CAN'T keep secrets." He's right. A conspiracy theorist would answer: they aren't keeping secrets and we are exposing them. Conspiracy theories do not prove that conspiracies exist. Conspiracy theories concern a loss of faith in reality; they are a soup of speculation from which comes a new hegemonic mentality.
As for the belief that the American government engineered 9/11: anti-statism stems from reality, but not from the reality that many expect. Are governments doing dubious, frightening things with their military powers and civilian technology? Yes. But anti-statism grew from the fact that the Internet is the most powerful tool of mass global communication ever invented. This technology undermines local loyalties to nation-states and challenges traditional cultures. This is why states are under criticism and distressingly edging toward technological surveillance of their citizens. This is why crypto-anarchy and libertarianism are popular. This is why traditional societies have radicalized to attack major nation-states.
But global communications technology came first. We are reinventing world culture and politics to mirror the technology - not the other way around. In other words, the source of change is not the culture, exposed by technology. The change does not start with some secret society buried in the powerful establishments of western nation-states, which only global technology or aggressive traditional cultures can expose. The source of change is the global technology. And the cultural transformation follows. Period.
The Web caters to conspiracy theorists, who celebrate whistleblowers, who appeal to Millennial neo-gnostics. Online videos and articles promise to give missing, secret information which will reveal the 'real history,' 'the whole truth,' and will 'change how you see everything.' There is a cultish gnostic appetite for this kind of thinking. A revival of the early Christian heresy of gnosticism has overwhelmed Millennial mass discourse. It is a value system well suited to the Information Age. Deluged by data, we struggle to find patterns in a flooded, fragmented reality. And gnosticism is the cult of ever-higher synthetic strata of liberating, increasingly god-like knowledge.
As the availability of data increases, the reliability of history ironically decreases. The Internet has made the twisting of history the world's semi-conscious pastime. The Web blurs the lines between professional and amateur historians, between trained and untrained historical judgement, between ideology, the academy, and democratic access to information. Official histories always glossed over brutal, tragic embarrassments, like the horrific Japanese Rape of Nanking. Professional historians ideally challenge those official views, provided they are free to do so. That top-down tradition continues and now adds a layer of amateur online theorizing.
Bronze statue of historian Iris Chang at the Nanjing Massacre Memorial. Image Source: Wiki.
For an example of the mess that can ensue, look to the sad case of the well-known historian of the Nanking Massacre in World War II, a Chinese-American Gen Xer, Iris Chang. A promising young professional historian, she had huge success with her book, The Rape of Nanking (1997). This was the first major English-language account of this event. Chang became a public figure, known for challenging the official Japanese picture of the massacre; according to the Times of London and a 1998 PBS show (cited on Wiki):
...she confronted the Japanese Ambassador to the United States on television, demanded an apology and expressed her dissatisfaction with his mere acknowledgement "that really unfortunate things happened, acts of violence were committed by members of the Japanese military". "It is because of these types of wording and the vagueness of such expressions that Chinese people, I think, are infuriated," was her reaction.
She was also promoting [her third book] The Chinese in America . While en route to Harrodsburg, Kentucky, where she planned to gain access to a "time capsule" of audio recordings from servicemen, she suffered an extreme bout of depression that left her unable to leave her hotel room in Louisville. A local veteran who was assisting her research helped her check into Norton Psychiatric Hospital in Louisville, where she was diagnosed with reactive psychosis, placed on heavy medication for three days and then released to her parents. After the release from the hospital, she continued to suffer from depression, [and] side effects of several medications. Chang was also reportedly deeply disturbed by much of the subject matter of her research.
Chang's mental instability contrasted with the international controversy she stirred up. Prior to her death, she was convinced that she was being followed. Counter Punch argues that Chang stepped into a hornets' nest when she pressed for reparations for massacre victims' families, a demand which embarrassed the Japanese, Chinese and US governments. Chang's third suicide note mysteriously stated:"It all had such a huge impact on her mind," recalls Duan Yueping, then assistant curator of the Memorial Hall of the Nanking Massacre Victims, who worked every day with Chang, guiding her to massacre sites and through stacks of documents and photos. Duan, a tough middle-aged woman who studied the Nanjing atrocities for years and considers herself a seasoned pro, still has nightmares from the stories she's heard and photos she's seen. Chang, she says, worked incessantly in Nanjing interviewing survivors, immersed in graphic pictures and documents, all the while agonizing over why the story was not widely known outside China. By the time she left Nanjing, Duan says, Chang was physically weak but even more committed to telling the story. "The subject matter had to affect her. Perhaps she could not bear it," Duan says, her eyes filling with tears as she pulls out a picture of herself and Chang at a dinner in Nanjing.
There are aspects of my experience in Louisville that I will never understand. Deep down I suspect that you may have more answers about this than I do. I can never shake my belief that I was being recruited, and later persecuted, by forces more powerful than I could have imagined. Whether it was the CIA or some other organization I will never know. As long as I am alive, these forces will never stop hounding me.
Counter Punch's Eamonn Fingleton claims that there was no prominent English language book on the massacre prior to Chang's work for a reason.Days before I left for Louisville I had a deep foreboding about my safety. I sensed suddenly threats to my own life: an eerie feeling that I was being followed in the streets, the white van parked outside my house, damaged mail arriving at my P.O. Box. I believe my detention at Norton Hospital was the government's attempt to discredit me.
We move to Global Research, where a report explores the Chang conspiracy theory which Counter Punch ultimately disavows. GR argues that the medications that Chang was given in Kentucky induced her psychosis. At this point, the author of the Global Research piece, Darrell Y. Hamamoto of the Department of Asian American Studies, University of California, Davis, veers off into strange territory:
there is a sizeable and growing body of literature that traces the less-than-altruistic origins of psychopharmacology in the mind control human experiments conducted by the CIA beginning in the 1950s. Based upon documents that saw limited release due to pressure from the US Congress and its Church Committee investigation, The Search For The “Manchurian Candidate” (1979) by John Marks is a good place to start for those ignorant of government initiatives in mind management and political pacification. More recent publications issued from perfectly respectable quarters (as opposed to those tagged as “conspiracy” buffs) contend that the system of mind control research, development, and application remains in place albeit in a far more sophisticated guise. The pervasiveness of pharmacological mind control is evident to anyone (i.e. anyone not on psychotropic medication) who works in a classroom environment with the current generation of students who have been labeled as “depressed” or plagued by “attention deficit disorder” and are then promiscuously prescribed selective serotonin ... uptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Young people who would otherwise be in prime physical and intellectual condition have been transformed into zombie-like creatures whose flat affect and deadened eyes betray their forced chemical romance with the military-pharmacological complex.
The Rape of Nanking gained western notoriety when it was tagged the 'Asian Holocaust'; Global Research asserts that the history of this massacre eases relations between China and Taiwan, while deflecting western criticism of China's current policies:
Even more curiously, this story skirts back to western banking cabal and Illuminati conspiracy themes. Global Research hints in a sudden mess of subjunctives that Chang's historical investigations might have come too close to imperial Japanese plunder of gold, precious gems and priceless artifacts. The loot came from across Asia and those treasures ended in the United States via the Philippines. This booty is suspected to have funded the postwar economic recovery of Japan. At this point, Global Research brings Chang's saga full circle to the American economy and Richard Nixon:Predictably, assertions that ultranationalist Japanese elements in some way were implicated in the death of Chang appeared online and in print almost immediately after the news of her suicide appeared. She became a martyr for the truth in the Peoples Republic of China but especially among overseas Chinese in the US. In the former case, reminders of the “Asian Holocaust” perpetrated by Imperial Japan has been a useful tool in the hands of the communist oligarchs to deflect attention from the tens of millions of fellow Chinese that were sacrificed to consolidate power during the reign of Mao. Today, orchestrated anti-Japan agitation via the internet helps maintain one-party dictatorial control in a nation roiling with internal conflict and rebellion in its far flung regions.
So long as the work of Iris Chang satisfied the agendas of the different interest groups, governmental entities, and political factions that benefitted from the good will and public sympathy garnered by The Rape of Nanking, she functioned as a useful asset. But with her final book project, thorough and meticulous researcher that she was, Chang independently of the Seagraves might have uncovered truths that would undermine the very foundation of the US monetary system, which had been taken off the gold standard by President Richard Nixon in 1971. Not coincidentally, early in his political career Nixon reportedly received large cash payments from Ferdinand Marcos, who as dictator of The Philippines enjoyed political and generous financial support from the US. Ed Rollins, former campaign director for Ronald Reagan, wrote of ten million US dollars allegedly handed over by high-level political operators from the Philippines. Indeed, structural corruption has defined the relationship between the US and The Philippines from the start. Quite possibly Chang had found during the course of her research and political involvement on behalf of those who experienced profound losses during wartime that her own American government was complicit if not at the center of the multiple holocausts of the twentieth century.
Darrell Hamamoto is a professional sociologist. But he can still be an amateur historian. Part of finding a historical narrative in a body of data includes historical judgement. People often create communities around finding 'the real truth' on the Web, but it is the community building, not the finding of the truth, that is their dominant experience. They might be dealing with fanciful conspiracy theories or faked information. In those cases, obviously, the historical narrative they create together is false, an online urban mythology.
But they can also be dealing with verified facts. And even in this case, they can select a series of facts and put them together into a narrative that is not true. But because they want to find the truth, they will mistake the happy online communal experience of finding 'the truth' together and making sense of a chaotic world for finding the truth in the narrative they have constructed. Just because the building blocks they used were all true does not mean that the outcome they created was not false. The warning sign that this might have happened is the sense of communal renewal and certainty among people trying to find the real truth in what they perceive as a previously incomplete history.
It is not necessarily the case that online amateur - or professional - researchers would create a false narrative. But it is easy to line up the wrong facts in the service of a larger, online community-building process. Less high-minded people would not be searching for the truth. But for those who seek it, they can find it with verified data. Historical judgement involves finding the set of facts most likely to delineate the likeliest historical narrative that one hopes come closest to a possible objective reality. That includes stepping back from the demands of the contemporary environment, and possibly finding a narrative that is alien to contemporary expectations, hopes and sensibilities.
Therefore, if your first instinct tends toward Hamamoto's the-US-government-did-it option, despite all rational sense, ask yourself why. How many hornets' nests are there? Here are some recently-circulated headlines which show malleable history drifting about on the Web:
- How Accurate are Memories of 9/11? Scientific American (6 September 2011)
- Palestinian university students' trip to Auschwitz causes uproar, WP (12 April 2014)
- Palestinian professor criticized for Auschwitz field trip, UPI (14 April 2014)
- What in the world: German students laugh about Holocaust, BBC (25 April 2014)
- 'Unprecedented' global study finds 1 in 4 adults anti-Semitic, CNN (15 May 2014)
- Killing the Count, Al-Jazeera
- Holocaust Faker Explains himself - Admitted Lie will be Made a Movie Anyway, ABC News via Internet Archive
- Dear Leader Review - A Telling Account of the Madness of North Korea, The Guardian (25 May 2014)
- Epic Poems and Espionage: A Q&A with North Korea's Former Poet Laureate, Maclean's (27 May 2014)
More dangerously, this is a drift toward a fundamental shift in existence. Professional historians are supposed to give an account, as verified and vetted as possible, of reality, even if that reality is subjective. The way that concept works ideologically is increasingly strange. Reality is an ever more contested idea, especially in the fields of philosophy, religion and politics. Objective reality has been challenged as a source of social standards and laws, given that subjective realities and personal perceptions differ widely. The alienated individual and his or her social experiences became the source of 20th century Marxist justice against exploitative class monoliths and associated dictated objective standards in capitalist societies. But since the 2000s, hyper-individualists such as libertarians have defended objective reality, once associated with the values of the collective. Moreover, they claim that that the collective which must be dismantled is Marxist, not capitalist. It is as though there has been a political battle over who can lay claim to the individual in the post-Postmodern age and whether the individual can be held up as humanity's universal standard, and if so, how.
Meanwhile, the atomization of liberalism is complete. Dominant liberal thought agrees that there is no objective reality that can be unambiguously equated with truth and ideas of right and wrong, and stand as the whole underpinning of ethics and morality. Liberalism seeks social harmony through an individual's well-meaning, yet sometimes tenuous, engagement with the 'intersubjective.' In this system of thought as it now stands, there can be no social consensus based on a higher value of objective reality, only on relative realities which are interconnected.
Nevertheless, all political sides retain an old-fashioned understanding of history as an account of reality. Despite all the rhetoric about constructed realities and subjective identities in scholarly circles, this underlying sense reveals a persistent faith in objective reality. At some point, all implicitly assume, we hit bedrock of actual experience in time. We may not agree on what happened in World War I, but we all agree that something we call World War I occurred.
Professional and amateur historians obsess over the idea that the basic nature of history is not really being challenged. Rather, history is deemed incomplete. If only the gaps could be filled, the untold stories told, the whole truth explained, then we would be able to align our flawed and fraying subjective opinions with (cough) objective reality. This is why everyone, from conspiracy theorists to respected professors and public intellectuals, insists that we listen to 'the whole, untold history' as they see it. In fact, these accounts add just another layer of meta-narratives, and the actual divinators are not the added gnostic layers of knowledge, but the media, organizations and institutions being used to provide these accounts (see my related, earlier post on how technology changes Detroit's history, here).
In short, for most people, whatever the theorists and ideologues say, 'objective reality' remains robust as an assumed category of experience in daily life. Even during the days of the early Web, around 1995 to 2010, observers reassured us by drawing a Cartesian mind-body duality between Cyberspace and Meatspace. The line was drawn, not blurred. Today, living on the Internet has exploded to the degree that daily experience is shifting away from that comforting, mundane, divided foundation. Everyone still thinks objective reality can be found, and we want it to be there.
Again, no one still immersed in Postmodern debates imagines that subjective and objective realities have both left the building. But they have. For example, commentators might focus on the question: is it all right to fake a history of domestic abuse for a good cause? They would not see that it is better to ask: why does the fleeting buzz of a faked history make us more aware of the cause than a real history of domestic abuse? Why is the fake more real than the real? Where does the moral integrity of experience lie? Answer: it now lies outside the objective and the subjective!
A November 2009 focus piece at Fordham University, a Jesuit-founded institution, on professor of philosophy Babette Babich, discusses how these dilemmas have brought Babich to Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), especially the latter's work, Being and Time (1927 - read it for free online, here). Babich feels that we are not conscious of how technology and its virtual, fake and constructed realities are changing everyday real life, which is normally anchored in experiences of, and perceptions of, time:
Babich teaches Internet-savvy students a course on technology and values, which incorporates Heidegger’s notion that “technology leads science.”
What he meant, for example, is that without a microscope, scientists would not have been able to discover the structure of a cell; without the Large Hadron Collider, no so-called “God particle.” Heidegger even suggested that modern technology challenges natural science and alters humanity’s way of being in the world.
“That concept was a big shock to me,” said Babich, who credits Heidegger with getting her out of biology and into philosophy. ...
“The question of technology is one of the most important questions in all of philosophy because we, as human beings, live with technology and live on its terms. Something like the Internet is so immediate to us … so intimate in our lives, that we take it for granted and may not realize that it actually plays a role in shaping our thinking.”
Already, Babich noted, the social scientists—including psychologists and sociologists—are looking at the effects of the Internet and cell phones on humans and behavior. ... She compares the online world of virtual reality to the view within Plato’s Cave, from a parable in Plato’s The Republic. In the parable, human prisoners have lived their lives chained in a cave, facing only a blank wall. The shadows projected on the wall by real things passing behind them are the only reality they know.
“The Internet gives us shadows to look at, which we take for reality,” said Babich. “When children are harmed because of a posting on the Internet, one can see that, to them, it’s the real thing.”