Editor’s note: There will be no blog post tomorrow. I’ll be taking the day off to celebrate Christmas.
It can be easy to look at crazy claims on the History Channel, laugh at them, and dismiss them outright as too stupid to be believed. But it’s important to remember that a lot of people accept what they see on TV as true. I learned yesterday that my brother’s barber is one of them. He’s an older Italian-American man who is curious about history and science but not particularly well versed in it. He asked my brother if he had seen History’s Hunting Hitler and proceeded to give a lengthy review of how the program, which alleges that Hitler escaped to South America after World War II, had changed his view of the war. “They showed so much I never knew happened,” he said. Rejecting gentle suggestions that the program may not actually be true, he insisted that the TV would never intentionally show programs that weren’t founded on facts.
It’s a reminder that TV has a powerful influence in an era where emotion, belief, and the appearance of truth are more important than facts. Indeed, studies have found that people with strong emotional beliefs actually double down on those beliefs when confronted with facts. Truth, it seems, makes belief in falsehoods stronger to avoid cognitive dissonance. The Donald Trump phenomenon, and what one expert called its “strategic” use of misinformation to appeal to its supporters’ basest instincts, is the same thing on a bigger stage. Indeed, it’s probably no coincidence that the biggest purveyor of lies as emotional truths used to be a reality TV star.
Ever since Donald Trump became the GOP frontrunner, I’ve noticed that I stopped receiving the usual weekly set of complaints from readers who are outraged that I would dare suggest that fringe history claims have a racist or ethnocentric component. Now that we have an unapologetically xenophobic candidate who draws major support from white supremacists and racists, it seems that it is no longer either outrageous or upsetting to suggest that TV programs and books that cater to the same audience as Trump also contain sub rosa messages of racism. The media messages we see in programs like Ancient Aliens and America Unearthed catered to this audience before it was popular to do so, and in many ways the stories we heard on cable TV were the canary in the coal mine presaging the trends that took some time erupt into the mainstream.
It reminds me a bit of when I published The Cult of Aliens Gods back in 2005. At the time, I made mention of Jacques Barzun’s claim, from the year 2000, that Western civilization had entered into decadence and decline. In 2005 and 2006, this outraged reviewers and readers to no end, and I received more complaints about even an indirect suggestion that the United States was a declining power than any other material in the book. I don’t get those complaints anymore; the idea is now such a truism that readers pass over it without remark.
Perhaps it is increasingly obvious that pseudo-history programs, in appealing to the angry old white man demographic, share certain assumptions and perspectives with angry old white men’s politics. This is especially interesting given that the people who make pseudo-history claims on TV are, by and large, political liberals. Nevertheless, they find themselves enmeshed in narratives of white nationalism that they cannot quite escape, despite their best efforts, because they have adopted and adapted preexisting narratives that are closely tied to Victorian, Edwardian, and Interwar racism, colonialism, and imperialism. The story becomes the tail that wags the dog, existing almost beyond the teller.
On the other hand, sometimes you just end up in the dark heart of the Internet’s racist conspiracy fringe without even trying. Yesterday I linked to a blog post from 2012 that displayed a photograph of a supposed cuneiform “cellphone” from thousands of years ago. The author of that post found mine and became outraged that I had referred in the same post to the country of Israel, which he does not recognize on account of extreme anti-Zionist belief. He and his followers bombarded me on Twitter with anti-Zionist propaganda, which gradually merged into Nazi references and 9/11 anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about how the Jews faked the whole thing for the benefit of Israel. It was just another reminder that goofball claims about history are only the tip of the iceberg, the visible part of a vast and monstrously raging id of racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, xenophobia, homophobia, and every other expression of uncertainty, anger, and fear that threaten to overrun society.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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