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A Progressive Defense of Not Disrupting Everything

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Reading Blevin’s piece “Digital History’s Perpetual Future Tense,” I realized why I felt unsatisfied by the material we covered and discussed last week. We spent a lot of time in class on the democratic dissemination and consumption of history, but we did not discuss what the emergence and development of digital history means for the creation of historical work. Blevin’s piece touches on one of three concerns I have been harboring about digital humanities in general and digital history in particular, all of which relate to the back-end, creator-side work of doing history: the death of historical argument, the death of expertise, and the possibility for the spread of misinformation to a wide audience.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 I am being a bit melodramatic in my characterization of these concerns, and I acknowledge that Blevin is merely calling for renewed commitment to historical argument in the field in addition to the already existing work that focuses on public engagement and accessibility. But I’m afraid I am a bit of a positivist, and although I very much support more democratic access to knowledge, on an ideological level, I understand the primary project of all scholarship to be about the quest for truth. After all, the problem with Time on the Cross was not merely that its conclusions were offensive, but also that they were not well supported by the evidence. Historical argument, like many other tools of the Enlightenment, should not be thrown out merely because those who have historically wielded them have been almost exclusively straight, white, cis, and male. With all due respect to Audre Lorde (for real), I believe we need the master’s tools to dismantle his house.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Which leads me to my second point: in our quest to open and democratize the creation of historical work, we must not throw the baby of Expertise out with the bathwater that is White-Supremacist, Heteronormative Patriarchy. That may seem a needless caution to lob at a group of academics, but I do sometimes worry that the leftist push for a total disruption of traditional academic systems may send us perilously close to the far-right anti-intellectualists whose rise has led so many pundits and political commentators to speculate that we have entered a “posttruth age.” We do need experts, and we do need gatekeepers. But let us have QTPOC gatekeepers, not a door flapping open in the breeze.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 To be perfectly clear, we very, very much need diverse voices and histories in the field (and everywhere else). But if the purpose of education is to create informed citizens, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson (and please forgive me for paraphrasing Audre Lorde and Thomas Jefferson in practically the same breath), then we need that information to be accurate, and we need those most able to accurately interpret the past to have the loudest bullhorns.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 My third concern, about the spread of misinformation, is really just a potential, terrifying consequence of the previous two. In their introduction to Digital History, Cohen and Rosenzweig touch briefly on the issue of maintaining historical accuracy and authenticity in the flattened landscape of the Internet, but I would argue that they dismiss these worries rather too quickly. They assert that “in general, the web is more likely to be right than wrong,” and offer a single piece of supporting evidence in defense of this claim, which is that Googling “Gettysberg” produces far fewer webpages than a search of the correctly spelled “Gettysburg.” From this they conclude, rather suddenly, that “the existence of misinformation on the web is no more of a problem than its existence in the rest of society.”

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 I think this issue requires far more discussion, at the very least because the misspelling of “Gettysburg” is not actually the sort of misinformation we ought to be worried about. Perhaps in the halcyon days of 2005 this seemed a reasonable conclusion, but we have seen in recent years several alarming examples of crowd-sourcing gone terribly wrong. The post-Boston-Marathon-bombing fervor on reddit that led to the web-shaming and real world harassment of an innocent man comes readily to mind. In cases like this, the stakes are revealed to be quite a bit higher than those of a simple spelling error.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 We may decide that these risks are merely the price we must pay for more democratic access to historical resources, but I think the question is at least worth discussing. Indeed, I would disagree with Cohen and Rosenzweig that misinformation on the web is no worse than anywhere else in society. The Internet has enabled those with beliefs that are not merely abhorrent (one might even say deplorable) but also demonstrably false to make one of their own a major-party candidate for President of the United States. I do not mean to embrace some sort of Himmelfarbian neo-Luddite stance here, but radical populism poses a very real threat to the health of our democracy and the literal safety of those who live in this country.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 We have a major-party presidential candidate who claims to have seen Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the destruction of the Twin Towers on September 11, who maintains that President Obama literally founded ISIS, and whose support comes from “Birthers,” 9/11 Truthers, and Holocaust deniers. We need expert historical argument now more than ever.

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Source: https://dhpraxisfall16.commons.gc.cuny.edu/2016/09/18/a-progressive-defense-of-not-disrupting-everything/

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