History is made every day. The challenge is getting everyone to pay attention to it. – Adora Svitak
I’m browsing through After the fact: The art of historical detection by James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle – an introduction to how historians work and how they painstakingly construct a story from fragments of fact.
What they do is dig – dig and dig and select and discard and keep – like archaeologists except in libraries and collections rather than in mud and dirt.
This idea of digging is interesting – something that applies to anything worth doing.
The more I read and learn the less I trust the idea of shortcuts and hacks as a way to do things.
Many people probably disagree and point to how they have successfully leapfrogged everyone else to become rich/famous/powerful using tricks and strategies they are willing to teach you as well for a modest fee.
But the truth is that to get good at anything takes time – it takes effort and it takes perseverance.
Which is why a culture that focuses on speed and movement may miss the point altogether.
In fact the whole thing has echoes of the Hare and Tortoise story.
As I write this election fever is gripping the nation.
And as it does the stories come out, the news and soundbites and revelations that affect how we think about what is going on.
For a few years now governments have been worried about interference in elections by other states.
People are concerned about rising levels of fascism, racism and antisemitism.
Environmental regulations are being eroded and pollution is getting worse.
Well, that’s what we get from the news and social media anyway.
Now some of this might be true and some might be false and much may actually be at some point in a continuum.
The problem is that most of us don’t know or don’t have the time to get to know properly.
So, should the ones who do know fight fire with fire – fight misinformation with misinformation?
Or should they counter with education and information – put the record straight?
It turns out that most approaches have their complications – and they aren’t really the answer to these problems.
The best way to prevent the extremes that result from shallow, fast thinking is to have an educated, literate population in the first place.
And this comes down to being able to critically analyse what is going on.
Davidson and Lytle give an example of how historians analyse text.
What is written, they argue, tells you as much about the person doing the writing as what’s on the page.
They suggest taking a text through four stages of analysis.
First, read it for what it is – for what it says on the surface.
Then, examine it for what it doesn’t say – something quite hard to do if you haven’t got the drafts that were created previously.
If, however, it puts forward a point of view without examining alternative ones you can question whether it’s balanced or not.
Anyone can put forward an argument but it takes someone who is very sure of their position to set out both sides of a case.
The next step is to look at the intellectual context of the document – what is the reasoning that underpins it.
Finally look at the social context of the document – who is the audience and what is it trying to do?
Right now, for example, there is a lot of focus on how the Liberal Democrats are using statistics in their campaign literature.
On the surface this says that they are running a two-horse race against the Tories – no one else is in sight.
What it doesn’t say is that the argument is based on responses to a rather tortured question – although the question is printed in small type.
What’s the intellectual context here – perhaps that they need to be seen as one of the larger parties rather than a tiny minority?
And what’s the social context – is it that they want the media and the public give them an elevated standing and status because of their position and stance on Brexit.
All the parties face similar issues – as they put out one sided material designed to shore up their core support and appeal to those on the fence.
At the same time who do we trust?
For example, with Labour constantly accused of antisemitism, can we trust the entry in Wikipedia that has nearly 400 sources giving you the facts but not a clear answer?
Or do you focus on a line that suggests that coverage like this is an attempt to use the media and “weaponise it against a single political figure just ahead of important elections”?
The thing with media today is that it’s tribal and fierce and raucous and vicious.
That doesn’t make it right.
Davidson and Lytle’s essays on slavery are especially hard to read – stories that remind you just how badly people can treat other people when they are given power.
Politics is, more than anything else, about power.
And the only thing that can defeat power is the truth.
Which is why you and I must get better at finding it among the facts.