“History is more or less bunk.”
“How do they know that? Were they there?”
—Donald J. Trump, responding to historians’ criticisms
The following rating scale attempts to take into account factual accuracy, currency, context, and fit. A brief description appears below the table, along with a guide to historical fallacies (which you can jump to here).
- Facts largely accurate, but somewhat lacking in relevance, missing some important context, or incomplete.
- Misses some important aspects of current professional research and interpretation
- Use of history provides partial insight into policy formation or understanding.
- Facts have some truth to them, but are incomplete or decontextualized in important ways.
- Contains a reflection of current professional research and interpretation, but misses almost as much.
- Use of history provides only vague insights into policy formation and does little to increase understanding
- Facts are mostly wrong, incomplete, distorted, or lacking in context.
- Scant attention paid to current professional research and interpretation.
- The history referenced is largely irrelevant to the policy discussion at hand and contributes little to improved understanding.
So It’s not Just the Facts?
It’s not hard to get historical facts right and still be completely wrong. Historical work depends heavily on context and interpretation. The “what” is relatively easy. The “why” is much harder. And context—the “what else”—is all-important. Ratings on this site will attempt to capture all the above.
Here’s an example. Recently, a historically based partisan attack made the rounds: Democrats were largely responsible for the founding of the Ku Klux Klan, according to several lawmakers and pundits. This is by and large factually accurate. But it also ignores 150 years of intervening history that included the Civil Rights Movement, the Civil Rights Act, the Southern Strategy, several realigning elections, and much else. The statement may be accurate, but it is so radically detached from context and other historical events that it’s hard to say how it captures a historical truth, especially when we consider the context of the statement itself. In the case of this statement, what’s left out is just as important as what is said.
Checkered History asks historians to take into account facts, interpretation, and context when rating political uses of history. In addition, ratings on this site take into account how well the statement fits. Does the political use of the past help the public better understand the policy or issue at hand? Does the historical record fit the policy? Or are the links between the past and present in this case so tenuous that the past should perhaps be let alone?
Historians contributing to this site may also select historical fallacies that apply to the statement at hand (selected fallacies appear as tags attached to the statement’s page). The fallacies, largely adapted from David Hackett Fischer’s Historians’ Fallacies: Toward A Logic Of Historical Thought, are an insight into how historians think and critique. The intention here is not just to ding the speaker for failure to follow the rules. This project has something more constructive in mind: to put historical thinking on display and help highlight the unique contributions historians can make.
A list of fallacies with explanations appears below. This list is highly abbreviated in both breadth and depth and will generate plenty of quibbles, but hopefully it will serve as a rough guide and introduction to a complex topic.
The ratings are a quick take on the political uses of the past featured here, but hopefully readers will also dive into the constructive commentary. When a speaker makes a true statement, the historians’ commentaries add to it; when a speaker gets it wrong they show how to do it right. In this way, this collection of political uses of the past will try to move the conversation past partisanship and toward a better understanding of how to listen to and question our histories.
The statement draws overly broad conclusions from a sample that may be too small or unrepresentative.
Heroes and Villains
The statement distorts history through the creation of simplistic heroes and/or villains, who have either utterly pure or utterly evil motivations.
The statement analyzes an event using terms or a framework that did not exist in the historical moment referenced.
The statement reflects an analysis that looks only at the aspects of the event that seem to lead to the present day, ignoring facts and events deemed to be out of the supposed mainstream of history.
The statement reflects a resistance to interpreting historical facts or events, and a belief that historical facts can only be collected and studied as self-contained objects.
Reduction of a long-developing trend into a single turning point, often ignoring origins or treating something quite old as new and revolutionary.
Statement relies on an idea of an archetypical epoch, is blind to the complexities of that era, and often implies that this golden age can be recovered.
The belief that if a thing succeeds and improves over time, it must be morally correct. So-and-so did this, so it must be the right way to go.
Lessons of History
The belief that direct and unequivocal guidance can be pulled from history without reference to the differences between a current situation and the past situation.
Reduction of a complex set of causes to a single cause or a limited set of causes, insistence on a uniform set of causes, or blaming a single person or group, when actually the causes were very diverse.