In my intellectual life I frequently find myself gravitating toward the unusual or uncommon, and I’m not sure as to why. Perhaps when I hear most people saying that something is X and then suddenly hear someone say that something is Y, it gets my attention. It reminds me of a study that was done about the attractiveness of facial hair on men. The study found that facial hair is considered more attractive when most of the men in an area are clean shaven, and visa versa, when most men in an area are bearded, it’s the clean shaven guy that gets the most attention from women. In other words, it’s about rarity. The rarer something is, the more attention it gets. Now this doesn’t always work well with dating, but it does apply to simply getting attention, and perhaps that’s why I’m drawn to the ideas that are not the norm.
I used to fear the rise of China until I read George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years, which put my thought about China’s position as a world power into a radically new perspective. The same thing happened when I read Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism and John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars (for that last one I thought that all YA novels were terrible). So this idea of having your perception changed to what is not the commonly held view is not in and of itself bad. At least two of these three things have become publicly accepted since I read them. But at what point does going for an unorthodox idea cease to be open mindedness and turn you into a contrarian?
Pseudo-History is one of these areas where normally I would be all over that alternative viewpoint, but instead feels a bit off. Determining what is Pseudo-History can be difficult, especially because it can be easily mistaken for Revisionism or Apologetics. But before I go any further we should define Pseudo-History.
Robert Todd Carroll, a former Professor of Philosophy at Sacramento City College, developed a list of criteria for determining whether something should be considered “Pseudo-History”
(Robert Todd Carroll)
It treats myths and legends as literal truth
The more recent a historical event has occurred, the more evidence and sources we have for it. This is because there has been less time for people to have lost the sources, be it by the destruction of written sources, or simply misplacing them in a giant collection. Because of this we don’t have sources for everything that has ever happened, and there are so many things that have happened that we will never know about.
The other reason we don’t have sources for everything that has happened is because some cultures did not develop writing. When a culture does not develop writing they are dependent on oral history which is subject to changing overtime due to faulty human memory and embellishing, and if people die before the knowledge is passed on than the knowledge is lost.
Because of this what few sources we have become precious. However, many of these sources describe supernatural events. The more militant atheists/secularists will automatically throw out any sources claiming that divine intervention caused an event (Though they are more forgiving of these sources if they are from religions that are no longer practiced). They are right to be skeptical, but to outright dismiss them because of this is faulty. This is where a trained historian is needed to examine documents such as these to ascertain the truth.
A Pseudo-historian will not question anything from these sources unless it does not support their conclusions.
It does not question its sources
This goes along very closely with treating myths and legends as literal truth. Though it’s not on the same scale as believing Beowulf is a literal work of history, historians need to be careful with all sources, especially ancient ones. Ancient sources are more likely to contain supernatural elements in them. The biggest reason to be careful of ancient sources is because it is hard to verify them. So few ancient cultures had writing systems, and even fewer have writings that have survived. There are so many stories of libraries being destroyed that it’s a wonder how any sources from ancient times have survived. One of the reasons we have been forced to accept ancient sources on face value for so long was because we had little else to go on. When the only stories about King David come from the Old Testament, it’s difficult to verify the validity of the account, or if the person even existed.
More militant academics have taken to discounting many ancient sources, simply because there are no other corroborating sources. This is something you should be wary of. Because there are no other sources telling the same stories doesn’t mean that you should ignore them. It just means you need to be careful and determine whether or not this story seems out of the blue for other stories from its region of the world, or if it conflicts with other corroborated sources.
It is used primarily for a political agenda
Have you ever read a history book and felt like the focus of it was to get across a political agenda rather than a historical survey? According to Robert Carroll this is a sure sign that something is Pseudo-History.
The first text that comes to mind when I think of history texts with a primarily political agenda is Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Since its publication in 1980 it has become the standard for Marxist Historians, and in a not insignificant way, has become the orthodoxy of modern Academia. This is happening despite most objective reveiws of the text labeling it as unreliable history. However, because of the Marxist tendencies of much of Academia the book is treated with kids gloves, and even the Marxist Historians who view the book as bad history give it a positive review in order to promote the interpretation.
Is A People’s History of the United States a Pseudo-History? It’s easily arguable. Zinn himself said that the book was motivated more by politics than by historical accuracy. This particular instance is up for debate, but that’s the kind of thing you need to look for. Unfortunately it is difficult to parse. One man’s Pseudo-History is another man’s suppressed truth.
It Denies the existence of historical truth
This is where Pseudo-History begins to enter the realm of doublethink. For those who are unfamiliar with that concept, it’s when you hold two contradicting beliefs as equally true. What makes this doublethink is the Pseudo-Historian holding myths and legends to be true, while denying the existence of historical truth. This mindset is often justified by people claiming that because all sources are biased in one way or another, than no sources are completely reliable. This is true, but the Pseudo-Historian takes this one step further by accepting all of their own sources as true, while denying the validity of others, despite not believing in objective truth.
Histories should not be compared by traditional academic standards
What this means is that sources should be compared on moral and political truth rather than accuracy, probability, or consistency. Do you remember that scene from the third Indiana Jones movie when Indie talks to his class about Facts vs. Truth?
This is the issue here. Facts are not things that are discovered or created, they are simply acknowledged or denied. When you deny a fact you are incorrect. Facts are things that you cannot argue into or out of reality. Examples of facts: Water is wet, fire is hot. These two things cannot be reasoned out of existence. There is nothing to argue.
But truth is far more fluid. “God is Dead” or “God Exists” are statements of truth, which can be argued and reasoned, and whether they are true or false does not change reality. Water is no less wet if God exists or not, but non factual things, such as your view of human nature does change. Much of Pseudo-History is focused on moral and political truth, rather than on historical fact. They are trying to tell a narrative that matches a moral code, which may or may not be good fiction or life perspective, but it’s not good history.
Claims there is a conspiracy to cover up the real history
This is the be-all end-all root of all Pseudo-Historians. They always believe that there is a cover up of the truth by the powers that be. This is what makes most Pseudo-Historians fall within the realm of conspiracy theorists. The “Truth” is so obvious that the only possible reason people don’t know or believe their “Theory”, is because the powers that be don’t want people to know, usually for some kind of political or economic reason.
There have been histories and texts that have been suppressed by governments. The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn was actively suppressed by the government of the Soviet Union. The Truth About Muhammad by Robert Spencer, is still banned in Pakistan and most other Muslim majority countries. And India has banned Smash and Grab: The Annexation of Sikkhim by Sunanda Datta-Ray.
Like most of the criteria for what makes someone or something Pseudo-History there are circumstances when that particular characteristic is justified. The key is knowing when. With the cover up of history, most of these historical and current examples are done by governments for political reasons, which lines up with most cover up theories. It’s easy to dismiss the ones that talk about lizard people or major scientific or technological discoveries being hidden, but what about the ones that talk about covering up a mistake of the government? This is where things get tricky, and all we can do is hope that history trends toward facts and truth.