When History is Shared to Match a Political Narrative
We all know the infamous “fake news” slogan. It’s sometimes an acknowledgment of news that’s actually false, but often a way to delegitimize information that doesn’t fit a political narrative. The “fake news” tag is usually a right leaning way to shut down debate, but the left has their tricks too. One of their current lines of attack is to question the character of the opinion holder, usually by labeling them as being some sort of “phobe” or “ist.”
Regardless of the chosen method to shut down debate, each side is privy to their sharing of inaccurate, or incomplete information. A few days ago I saw this happen in a Twitter thread from Ibram X. Kendi, the author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist.” Kendi is a historian, professor, and prominent voice in the current cultural moment. He and outlets from both the left and right were sharing excerpts from Frederick Douglass’ “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” address that he gave to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in 1852. I point out Kendi’s abridgment of the address because he is a prominent voice right now, and because I saw similar variations of his style of presentation online.
In my reading of Kendi’s thread, I noticed that he had more emphasis on Frederick Douglass’ quotes that focused on criticism and condemnation toward America and its inconsistencies. Kendi shared quotes like these.
“I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me.”
“Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future.”
“The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”
“. . .and you will say with me, that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival.”
“Americans! Your republican politics are flagrantly inconsistent. The existence of slavery in this country brands your republicanism as a sham, your humanity as a base pretense, and your Christianity as a lie.”
Kendi’s abridgment shares some of Frederick Douglass’ harshest critiques, and that’s useful of course, but it doesn’t contextual those critiques against the positive things that Douglass said about America and the Constitution. Here is some of that side of Douglass’ address.
“But I differ from those who charge this baseness on the framers of the Constitution of the United States. It is a slander upon their memory, at least, so I believe. There is not time now to argue the constitutional question at length — nor have I the ability to discuss it as it ought to be discussed. The subject has been handled with masterly power by Lysander Spooner, Esq., by William Goodell, by Samuel E. Sewall, Esq., and last, though not least, by Gerritt Smith, Esq. These gentlemen have, as I think, fully and clearly vindicated the Constitution from any design to support slavery for an hour.”
“ Fellow-citizens! there is no matter in respect to which, the people of the North have allowed themselves to be so ruinously imposed upon, as that of the pro-slavery character of the Constitution. In that instrument I hold there is neither warrant, license, nor sanction of the hateful thing; but, interpreted as it ought to be interpreted, the Constitution is a GLORIOUS LIBERTY DOCUMENT. Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gateway? or is it in the temple? It is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slave-holding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can anywhere be found in it.”
“Now, take the Constitution according to its plain reading, and I defy the presentation of a single proslavery clause in it. On the other hand it will be found to contain principles and purposes, entirely hostile to the existence of slavery.”
“ Allow me to say, in conclusion, notwithstanding the dark picture I have this day presented of the state of the nation, I do not despair of this country. There are forces in operation, which must inevitably work the downfall of slavery. “The arm of the Lord is not shortened,” and the doom of slavery is certain. I, therefore, leave off where I began, with hope. While drawing encouragement from the Declaration of Independence, the great principles it contains, and the genius of American Institutions, my spirit is also cheered by the obvious tendencies of the age.”
To read the full Douglass address, head here, courtesy of the University of Texas at Austin. As you can see — and I suggest reading the speech in its entirety — depending on which quotes you choose, the Frederick Douglass speech can be abridged in ways that fit two different political narratives. His speech is both celebratory and critical. It points out that America is both genius and shamelessly hypocritical. In order to fully grasp the power of what Douglass is saying, the full speech has to be viewed in its entire context.
In all fairness, I’ll be the first to say that writers aren’t always perfect in how they contextualize quotes and their larger context in the writing that they do. There’s frequently more context, history, and even translation gaps in the quotes that writers share. It’s unfair to assume they’ll always have the erudition to place every quote in its proper context, and as a reader, writer, and collector of quotes, I also understand that we sometimes use quotes in good-faith to share ideas we like and add value to our writing. All of these circumstances and other good-faith uses that I haven’t mentioned are fine.
My only criticism, and the reason I point out Kendi’s thread, is that he’s using quotes to lean toward a political narrative. He’s choosing the narrative that’s solely focused on America’s past, and framing America’s founding and current society as a place that’s solely racist, with nothing else that’s redeemable. This is a narrative that’s greatly dividing this country, and it’s one that many prominent thinkers believe is either incomplete or wrong.
Of course, to the extent that slavery is embedded in America is a conversation worth having, but one that requires full context, clarity, and intellectual honesty. That Kendi is a professor, historian, and his books are being read by a large number of people makes his being choosy with quotes worse than that of a blogger or undergraduate student with improper citations. Sharing quotes to fit a political narrative is bad-faith, misleads the public, and further exacerbates the spreading and sharing of inaccurate or less than complete information.
Another bad-faith, incomplete or inaccurate sharing of history has also happened with the Pulitzer Prize winning 1619 Project. Historians have had objections to the project’s analyses of history, some of which you can see below.
- The Fight Over the 1619 Project is Not About the Facts | The Atlantic
- I Helped Fact-Check the 1619 Project. The Times Ignored Me. | Politico
- The “1619 Project” Gets Schooled | Wall Street Journal
- Capitalism vs. Slavery…and the New York Times’ 1619 Project | Reason TV
I bring up these examples of race-related history because we’re in a cultural moment of unrest surrounding race issues. If the history we’re telling ourselves about these issues is inaccurate or incomplete, we’ll only base our understanding of the world on lies. This house of cards will lead to poor decision making, exacerbated unrest based on misinformation, and we’ll further divide the country.
We must compare the different sides of the debate about history so that we get a full circle understanding that gives us a chance to separate fact from fiction. We have to stop ourselves from sacrificing truth at the altar of political expediency.
This issue of inaccurate information sharing of course isn’t only about history. It’s one of the most prominent problems surrounding how we digest news. As a remedy to that, a great source that I’ve turned to recently is AllSides. They’re a news site that shares political stories from across the aisle, placing outlets left, right, and center in a side by side view that shows what they’re saying about the same topic. Once we start to get a grasp for the various viewpoints and the fact that there’s some truth to each position, we’ll start arriving at the compromises that our political institutions accomplish when they’re at their best.