Tag Archives: history

Restoring Trust

I’ve concluded that we Earthlings are in a race between self-destruction and human ingenuity.

On the one hand, we have what I’ll call the “forces of darkness” (okay, probably more accurately described as the forces of human cupidity and stupidity)–rejection of lifesaving vaccines, denial of climate change, what’s-in-it-for-me political corruption, belief in wack-a-doodle conspiracies, and the massive amounts of propaganda and fake news that reinforce our divisions into warring tribes.

On the other hand, there are all sorts of promising efforts to address these threats to humane (and human )civilization. I’ve posted about some of them. The question, of course, is: will humanity descend into a destructive and possibly terminal dark age before these  corrective measures can take effect?

Scientific and technological efforts to combat pandemics and the worst effects of climate change will either prove themselves effective or not. Misinformation, disinformation and propaganda will actually be much more difficult to defeat, and as a mountain of research has shown, the result of our current information environment has been a massive loss of trust–in government, in the media, and in a wide variety of social institutions.

There are a number of efforts underway to combat misinformation and propaganda, to sift the wheat from the chaff–to distinguish what is factual from what is Foxified–so that citizens and future historians (assuming we make it to a future) can have confidence in the  veracity of the information they rely upon.

One of those efforts is using blockchain technology to confirm that accuracy. Starling Lab, a nonprofit academic research center, is using blockchain’s decentralized ledgers to help preserve historical data of importance to humanity. The goal is to restore integrity both to asserted facts and to the internet itself.

Jonathan Dotan is the founder of Starling.

The ultimate goal, says Dotan, is to help curb misinformation at a time when images are often used out of context to advance political and ideological agendas. But doing so requires more than building tech to facilitate the authentication and the storage of data. Starling is also creating an interface that allows third-party experts—lawyers, historians, forensic analysts, journalists, and more—to offer context and clarity about an image or video, creating what Dotan calls “a distributed form of consensus.”

“Capture, store, and verify—that’s critical in our minds to help create a proper chain of custody,” he says. And unlike other organizations that are working on similar ways to attach metadata to images, Starling, which operates between USC and Stanford, is academic, not-for-profit, and entirely open source. Its system doesn’t require a centralized entity to put a stamp of truth on any content.

Starling’s system can also be used to document the historical record in real time. In a Reuters pilot, the news service’s photographers used the lab’s technology to certify images of the 2020 presidential transition, even as its legitimacy was under attack. Starling has also built prototypes with Syrian human rights organization Hala Systems, which has been exploring how to use the lab’s so-called image provenance technology in court to present evidence of war crimes. Starling and Hala are currently working to encrypt, authenticate, and preserve social media content from Telegram and TikTok that documents the war in Ukraine.

The initial project–and the largest–involves downloading and preserving the USC Shoah Foundation’s Holocaust archive.

Stephen Smith, the foundation’s executive director, says this is particularly important at a time when disinformation campaigns seek to downplay the greatest horrors of our shared past. “The competition over history is very real,” he warns.

No kidding. (Ask teachers in Tennessee...)

My techie son has explained blockchain to me. Several times. I still don’t understand it, but I’m willing to believe that the technology builds trust. With Bitcoin, for example, every transaction is recorded on a ledger that’s shared among several “distributed nodes.” The sheer number of copies of the ledger make it hard to change or manipulate.

Blockchain’s uses aren’t limited to finance.

With the Starling Framework, Dotan is applying the same basic idea to storing information. “The idea is that end users could host a critical piece of data—be it a testimony of genocide or record of transaction,” he says. “The end result is that, paradoxically, the more that you spread out information and provide computation in a distributed fashion, the more trusted it could be.”

Dotan has started hiring and partnering with experts across disciplines, including law, journalism, and human rights. The goal is to ensure that important information is accurate, and becomes part of the historical record, from Syria and Ukraine to Washington, DC.

The linked article has much more detail on the social and technical challenges involved.It’s  long, but worth your time to read. It gives me hope at the same time as it gently reminds me that I have no idea how today’s technology works….

 

 

Texas, Education And The Holocaust

It sounded like snark.

When the reports first emerged that a Texas school administrator was advising schools to teach “both sides” of the Holocaust, I assumed that some late-night comedian was making a point. After all, what are the arguments for genocide? But I was wrong. Texas–where the governor insists that life-saving vaccines are optional–wants schoolchildren to have the benefit of “both sides” of the argument whether it’s okay to murder six million people.

The Guardian, among other news sources, has the story.

A Texas school district official told educators if they kept books about the Holocaust in their classrooms, they would have to also offer “opposing” viewpoints in order to comply with a new state law.

In an audio clip obtained by NBC News, Gina Peddy, the executive director of curriculum and instruction for Carroll independent school district in Southlake, offered the guidance to teachers during a training on which books teachers can keep in classroom libraries.

The directive came as part of a training session during which a fourth-grade teacher was reprimanded for having a book on anti-racism in her class.

It followed the passage of a new Texas law that requires teachers who discuss “widely debated and currently controversial issues of public policy or social affairs” to examine the issues from diverse viewpoints without giving “deference to any one perspective”.

At the training, Peddy advised teachers to remember the requirements of the new law, according to the audio. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” she said, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives,” which prompted a teacher to ask how one could oppose the Holocaust.

Given that this is Texas, one distinct possibility is that Gina Peddy has no idea what the holocaust was. Teaching accurate history–okay, history–is evidently not a priority for Texas school systems. After all, this is a state that celebrates a fictitious version of the Alamo, a state that passed a law banning the teaching of Critical Race Theory, despite the fact that it wasn’t being taught and despite considerable evidence that the legislators and governors involved in the frenzy couldn’t have defined it if their lives depended on it.

If Texas’ governor and legislature weren’t so determined to make themselves ridiculous–not to mention dangerous– it would be unfair to pick on the state. After all, twenty-two states have passed laws prohibiting their public schools from discussing “uncomfortable” elements of the nation’s historical bigotries.

The directive to “teach the other side” joins the equally asinine efforts to “teach the controversy” over evolution. Religious zealots who denied science created the “controversy” and then used it to justify bringing religious dogma into science classrooms. People desperate to protect their children from the less glorious aspects of American history seized on a theory being pursued by a subset of legal scholars–creating the “controversy”– and are using it as blunt instrument to defend the indefensible.

In fact, Texas’ current embarrassment is just the latest iteration of the persistent American divide between people who want the public schools to educate and those who want them to indoctrinate–between those who want to limit the nation’s schools to the inculcation of skills needed to participate in the economy, and those who want educators to encourage intellectual curiosity and growth.

The order to “balance” condemnation of the holocaust with–what? Mien Kampf?–was entirely foreseeable. After all, the attacks on school boards (in all fairness, not just in Texas but around the country) have come almost exclusively from parents and others demanding that history be whitewashed (pun intended), turned into soothing stories that allow Americans to brag about “exceptionalism” and who believe political rhetoric about the country’s past, unblemished “greatness.”

Unfortunately, their preferred stories aren’t history, and if they are taught in place of history, they’ll ensure that we keep making the mistakes that have kept us from greatness in the past.

 

 

 

 

Vouchers And Disinformation

I have posted numerous times about the myriad ways in which advocates of “privatization” and “choice” in education have contributed to the hollowing out of America’s civic structure. “Choice” sounds great. Providing citizens with a wide freedom of choice–of religion, politics, lifestyle– is a quintessentially American goal. The problems occur when institutionalized choices promote division and undermine civic cohesion.

In far too many communities today, the “educational choice” being offered is the opportunity to shield one’s children from intellectual and cultural diversity. Vouchers provide parents with tax dollars that allow them to insulate their children from  one of the very few remaining “street corners” left in contemporary American society. Whatever their original intent, as vouchers work today, they are mechanisms allowing parents to remove their children from public school classrooms and classmates that may be conveying information incompatible with those parents’ beliefs and prejudices.

In virtually all states with active voucher programs, including Indiana, well over 90% of participating schools are religious– vouchers have allowed sympathetic courts to do an end-run around the First Amendment’s separation of church and state. I’ve previously posted evidence that fundamentalist religious schools are teaching creationism rather than science--but it isn’t simply the science curriculum that is being corrupted by dogma. As a recent article from The Guardian reports, those schools are equally likely to distort accurate history.

One history textbook exclusively refers to immigrants as “aliens”. Another blames the Black Lives Matter movement for strife between communities and police officers. A third discusses the prevalence of “black supremacist” organizations during the civil rights movement, calling Malcolm X the most prominent “black supremacist” of the era.

Legislatures and boards of education around the US are currently engaging in acrimonious battles about how issues of race and equity are taught in public K-12 classrooms – the latest culture war in a decades-long fight around whose stories and contributions get highlighted in school. But largely left out of this conversation has been the education provided in private schools, thousands of which have quietly been excluding diverse voices and teaching biased versions of history for years.

The textbooks reviewed by the Guardian are used in thousands of private religious schools–schools that receive tens of thousands of dollars in public funding every year. They downplay descriptions of slavery and ignore its structural consequences.  The report notes that the books “frame Native Americans as lesser and blame the Black Lives Matter movement for sowing racial discord.”

As Americans fight over wildly distorted descriptions of Critical Race Theory–a manufactured culture war “wedge issue” employed by parents fighting against more inclusive and accurate history instruction- -the article correctly points out that there has been virtually no attention paid to the curricula of private schools accepting vouchers. As the article notes,

Private schools, unlike public ones, receive little oversight or restrictions when it comes to curriculum. In truth, thousands of private schools are currently teaching history through a racially biased lens.

Shades of the old segregation academies.

The Guardian reviewed dozens textbooks produced by the Christian textbook publishers Abeka, Bob Jones University Press and Accelerated Christian Education, three of the most popular textbook sources used in private schools throughout the US. These textbooks describe slavery as “black immigration”, and say Nelson Mandela helped move South Africa to a system of “radical affirmative action”.

The Abeka website boasts that in 2017, its textbooks reached more than 1 million Christian school students. The Accelerated Christian Education website claims its materials are used in “tens of thousands of schools.” One of its textbooks still refers to the civil war as the “war between the states,” and has a section titled “Black immigration”–characterizing the slave trade as “sometimes unwilling immigration.”

With respect to Reconstruction, the Accelerated Christian Education textbook contained the following characterization:

Under radical reconstruction, the south suffered. Great southern leaders and much of the old aristocracy were unable to vote or hold office. The result was that state legislatures were filled with illiterate or incompetent men. Northerners who were eager to make money or gain power during the crisis rushed to the south … For all these reasons, reconstruction led to graft and corruption and reckless spending. In retaliation, many southerners formed secret organizations to protect themselves and their society from anarchy. Among these groups was the Ku Klux Klan, a clandestine group of white men who went forth at night dressed in white sheets and pointed white hoods.

Unsurprisingly, the books were equally biased against homosexuality and same-sex marriage.Science denial, bogus history and homophobia are unlikely to prepare students for life in contemporary American society.

The U.S. Constitution gives parents the right to choose a religious education for their children. It does not impose an obligation on taxpayers to fund that choice, and we continue to do so at our peril.

 

Will It Work?

I have previously made the point that solving our social and political animosities requires an accurate diagnosis of their causes–or at the very least, recognition of the elements of contemporary life that are feeding those animosities.

If, as many sociologists and political scientists believe, the roots of much contemporary discord can be found in the economic inequality that characterizes today’s U.S.–if that inequality provides the fertile soil for the racism and tribalism that are tearing us apart–then efforts to address economic insecurity should substantially ameliorate that discord. 

In one of her daily Letters from an American, Heather Cox Richardson assumes the accuracy of that diagnosis, and notes that the Biden Administration is pursuing policies that should  mitigate some of the worst of our current economic disparities:

Trump and his loyalists feed off Americans who have been dispossessed economically since the Reagan revolution that began in 1981 started the massive redistribution of wealth upward. Those disaffected people, slipping away from the secure middle-class life their parents lived, are the natural supporters of authoritarians who assure them their problems come not from the systems leaders have put in place, but rather from Black people, people of color, and feminist women.

President Joe Biden appears to be trying to combat this dangerous dynamic not by trying to peel disaffected Americans away from Trump and his party by arguing against the former president, but by reducing the pressure on those who support him.

A study from the Niskanen Center think tank shows that the expanded Child Tax Credit, which last month began to put up to $300 per child per month into the bank accounts of most U.S. households with children, will primarily benefit rural Americans and will give a disproportionately large relative boost to their local economies. According to the Washington Post’s Greg Sargent, “the…nine states that will gain the most per capita from the expanded child allowance are all red states.”

Other elements of administration policy should also be ameliorative: the infrastructure bill will bring high-speed internet to every household in the U.S.; it will also provide $3.5 billion intended to reduce energy costs for more than 700,000 low-income households.

Richardson is a historian, and history teaches us that economic distress has often provided an impetus for the surfacing of bigotries that folks are less likely to express in more prosperous times. A number of scholars, for example, have pointed to Germany’s runaway inflation–and national humiliation–in the wake of World War I as one reason for the country’s receptivity to Nazism and willingness to express long-simmering anti-Semitism, and more recent academic literature supports the thesis that that economic scarcity promotes racial animus. 

As an article in Time Magazine reported, numerous studies have demonstrated that economic scarcity influences how people treat those outside of their own social groups. (There is also a “chicken and egg” element to the relationship between economic anxiety and racism–a column in the Washington Post reported on one study that suggested racial resentment may be driving economic anxiety, not the other way around.)

Democrats often bewail the tendency of low-income voters to cast ballots “against their own interests”–a complaint that assumes (I believe incorrectly) that those interests are economic rather than cultural. A somewhat different but related question is whether a significant improvement in the economic situation of low-income Americans will “take the edge off” and moderate the expression of their cultural fears.

The Biden Administration’s policies will go a long way toward answering that question–and America’s future is riding on the result.

 

The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. 

In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,

Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, a man’s home has never been his castle, the ‘male breadwinner marriage’ is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. 

The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.

As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,

For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.

I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was,  one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)

We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.

Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with  their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.

But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible. 

It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.