My last two posts dealt with a troubling letter and article the appeared a peculiar sort of publication: a history magazine. Perched between the worlds of “pop history”, an unwieldy category to which both much good work and a good deal of dreck belong, and the often duller and less accessible world of professional scholarship, such publications can play an important role in communicating historical research to an interested public. Or, as has happened here, they can propagate unsubstantiated claims, manufactured sources, and thinly veiled trolling of genuine scholarship. But the still unresolved problems revealed by this episode go well beyond the magazine, in both directions, touching academic publishing and the presentation of history in still more popular venues. The abdication of professional judgment and the cynical promotion of spurious “debate” is a common thread.
History Ireland has now apologized for its publication of Mike McCormack’s letter. Meanwhile, Liam Hogan has refuted each of McCormack’s claims in great detail, tracing them to their sources and setting the whole business in the wider context of the Irish slaves myth. But the magazine has remained silent on errors in the article that occasioned McCormack’s letter — among them a block quotation from a source shown here to be spurious. Despite its publication (as “myth-busting” fact, not opinion) of both a nonexistent source and a series of false claims based upon that source, the magazine is still content to let the matter be forgotten in an exchange of letters between reader and author. What’s more, as Hogan’s most recent piece shows, they’ve done it before. Far from treating Irish slavery as a myth in need of exposure, History Ireland has effectively, and repeatedly, helped to prop it up.
In response the magazine invokes the “right of reply”: readers have a right to point problems out, and authors have a right to respond. As far as it goes, this sounds fair: I find a mistake, submit a correction, the author responds, readers judge. The problem is that this does not always go far enough. If I have a different opinion about the meaning of a source, attribute different significance to an event, or have a different reading of a figure’s motives, fine. Different historians read documents, events, and figures differently. But if I find that a source has been fabricated to support a set of claims about the past, or that demonstrably false assertions have been made about significant parts of the past, or that claims have been published which lack any substantiation in identifiable sources, we are no longer talking about competing interpretations. We are talking about the difference between doing research and making things up.
In a form of publication that claims to follow certain standards — that makes this adherence part of its appeal and authority — the “right of reply” is not an adequate mechanism for dealing with violations of those standards. Inasmuch as it gets at the shirking of editorial responsibility, this is an issue that goes well beyond the case of History Ireland, of course. Bruce Gilley’s stupid and now infamous article “The Case for Colonialism” made it into the academic journal Third World Quarterly apparently thanks to an editor overruling the peer-review process. Doing the rounds on Twitter today, meanwhile, is Robert Jago‘s answer to Michael Enright’s insistence that Jago and others meet the stream of pseudo-history poured forth in the Canadian press (by Conrad Black, in this instance) with a bottomless supply of civil, measured, patient disproof. The key point is this:
In spite of all of those thoughtful replies, and the many dozens of others not mentioned above, Conrad Black continued to repeat the same claims, and in spite of his facts being refuted on their own pages, the National Post continued to publish him, apparently, un-fact-checked.
Now, Jago is not speaking as a historian; the repetitive work of disproof he refuses here is imposed not by professional duty but by Enright’s dislike of his tone. Professional historians may indeed be obligated to expose the same lie any number of times. But a version of Jago’s point applies to them too: once a lie has been shown to be a lie, the burden is not simply on the lie’s critics to do their work for the second or third (or fiftieth) time. It is also on editors to do theirs, perhaps for the first.
A history magazine does not make amends for publishing fictions merely by allowing readers to point them out. As a history magazine, it has a responsibility to uphold the standards of the practice of history — not to facilitate cage matches between authors and readers. Its own reputation, as a historical publication, is at stake in the quality and accuracy of the material it chooses to publish. In this respect, we might weigh its pretensions against those of a venue where the right of reply is the one and only law: the public toilet. I’d like to think that alert readers could learn to distinguish between the “robust debates” scrawled on the men’s room wall and those printed in the pages of an academic journal or history magazine — and not just because one of them occasionally gets cleaned. The more we present fabrications, false claims, and clickbait as the essence of free inquiry, the more we pretend that “free speech” entitles lies to endless amplification, the more we erode that distinction.