At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important that historians try to get the past right — to describe it accurately, to base their claims about it on evidence, and to represent the sources from which that evidence is drawn fairly. Historians face mounting challenges in public discourse from dishonest, misleading, or made up visions of the past. The value not only of expertise but also of historical truth is subject to cynical derision from a number of directions — not only populist, racist, and authoritarian segments of the right but also, more often implicitly, administrative elites and comparatively mainstream media outlets. In such conditions it is vital that historians differentiate clearly between interpretations of the past that are substantiated by sources — which may vary — and fabrications, however well loved or well meant by those who propagate them.
That the obvious still needs saying has been made clear in two linked episodes over the past week. Both concern a single publication, History Ireland. Published in Dublin and billing itself as “Ireland’s only mass-circulation history magazine“, this periodical has both a significant non-academic readership in Ireland and elsewhere and a number of academic historians on its board — as well as a slew of big names among its “Patrons“. Inasmuch as it presents the fruits of professional research to a wide audience in an accessible and attractive format, it is well placed to contribute to public knowledge of history and thereby to the quality of public discourse about both past and present. By the same token, it is also well placed to do a lot of harm.
The episodes that made this clear overlap and are still unfolding. The first to become “public” via Twitter, which I will discuss here, concerns a letter to the editor decrying Liam Hogan — whose work debunking the “Irish Slaves” meme has been mentioned here before — as a “bigot”, and recycling various long-debunked myths, notably one about seventeenth-century Montserrat’s population being made up largely of “Irish slaves”, and another about “the pairing of young Irish girls with Mandingo warriors to breed a better slave more capable of working in the burning sun.” (The letter, by Mike McCormack, “Division Historian” of the New York State Board of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, Division 9, largely repeats an older blog post. Its publication in History Ireland is memorably discussed here.)
For obvious reasons, History Ireland‘s decision to publish, without comment, a letter containing both a personal attack on a scholar and the assertion of known falsehoods as historical facts provoked a critical response from historians. The only public editorial response, to date, has been a lame redirection to the magazine’s policy on “right of reply“. This reads as follows:
Right of reply
History Ireland magazine is committed to the considered airing, debating and critiquing of issues related to Irish history. We have an established twenty-five year record of doing just this.
In the course of such debates we appreciate that views may need to be corrected or modified, or challenged. To this end, and subject to deadlines (see above) and space, we offer a right of reply to anyone who feels their views have been misrepresented or unfairly portrayed. We will never turn away a considered and reasonable response.
Sanctimoniously promising Hogan a right to reply to this abuse does not explain or excuse the decision to publish it in the first place. Unless, that is, a commitment to “the considered airing, debating and critiquing of issues” means publishing any comment, including assaults on the character of a scholar who has disproven a myth, and unless accepting any “considered and reasonable response” means publishing the fantasies of any loon who deigns to reuse a blog post. At the very least, a magazine that proclaims its attachment to “the highest academic standards”, “witty, pithy, well-written prose”, and “considered and reasonable” comment might explain to which category it believes the letter belongs.
In my own initial response on Twitter, I wrote:
History Ireland is in part a venue for professional historians to reach a wider audience. It has numerous senior scholars on its board. Publishing or linking to known fabrications as if they are legitimate views of history gives them a scholarly imprimatur and new life. It presents an opposition between established facts and debunked myths as a legitimate disagreement between historians. It puts legitimate research using historical sources on a footing with fabricated sources and internet memes.
Most reactions to this were positive. But one suggested that not re-publishing McCormack’s recycled blog post would have amounted to censorship, and that Hogan’s work should be able to withstand criticism. The first claim is obviously false, and not only because the content of the letter in question had already appeared elsewhere. The second is a red herring. A crank’s right to call Hogan a bigot does not entail History Ireland‘s duty to publish and thereby amplify the slur. Nor does lending a larger platform to already discredited myths, as History Ireland has done here, advance any meaningful historical “debate”. It is, at best, a cynical obfuscation that drives clicks by muddying waters research has made clear.
Publications like History Ireland have the capacity to improve the quality of public engagement with the past by presenting current work and new debates, and by treating misrepresentations of the past as such — whether by choosing not to publish them (whether as letters or anywhere else), or by publishing them with appropriate commentary or corrections. If its own pretensions are to be taken seriously, indeed, the magazine has the responsibility to distinguish substantiated historical claims from discredited fictions. It seems to prefer stirring a very old pot.