The malleable past: how easy is it to “fake” history?

Once upon a time on my other blog, I received a comment on an article I did a long time ago about the Rape of Nanking, the horrific orgy of violence visited upon the Nationalist Chinese capital when Japanese troops took it over in 1937. You can read the article at that link to see what happened and what I thought of it, but the comment, very short, questioned: “But did Nanking really happen? Or is this Chinese propaganda?!” I chose not to approve the comment because it was not productive or germane to the real issues in that article, and I also did not want to enter into a pointless debate with the commenter on the existence of an indubitably true historical fact–one which the tone of the comment led me to believe the person who made it does not believe. Over the past few days, though, I’ve thought about that comment and other times where I’ve heard basic historical facts questioned or even flat-out denied. It is certainly not an isolated point of view. There are many people out there who seem to think it’s fairly easy to “fake” history, and that doing so is a common occurrence.

The truth is, though it’s quite easy to misconstrue, misinterpret or draw the wrong conclusions from a real historical event–look what happens, for instance, when politicians start talking about the Munich Agreement of 1938–it’s actually very hard to flat-out fake a historical event, especially a major one. Historical events, especially ones in modern history, leave considerable and often overwhelming evidence in their wake. For the Nanking massacres, which happened 78 years ago, there are voluminous eyewitness accounts from people of many nations, not just Chinese, but also Americans, Britons, Germans, and the Japanese themselves. (There was an international settlement in Nanking at the time). There are also photographs, newsreels, newspaper accounts filed from the scene and nearby, military reports and government documents. In the gruesome case of the Nanking affair there was plenty of human and environmental evidence. At least 200,000 civilians were murdered. Their bodies lay strewn around Nanking and surrounding areas. Rivers ran red with blood. The effort it would take to manufacture all of this evidence, if the Nanking massacres did not really happen, is so staggering as to be impossible.

Proof positive that the Nanking massacre happened: here are graves of some of its 200,000 victims, still being exhumed today.

Of course, this presumes that these pieces of evidence–especially the physical ones, like graves–actually exist. Those who believe in historical “fakery” presume that what is known about history generally comes from books, and if it’s a question of writing a few books or creating some false documents, as opposed to manufacturing false physical evidence, a large-scale fake becomes a much more conceivable prospect. It is true, I have never seen a victim of the Nanking massacre with my own eyes, not least of which because the event occurred decades before I was born. What I know about what happened there in 1937-38 does come principally from books. But books do not just crib from other books. Real works of history–responsible works–rely not on secondary sources of an event, which is to say what people said happened after the fact, but primary sources, which are documentary pieces of evidence from the time itself. History is not a vast weight of hearsay that hangs on the slender reed of one or a handful of accounts whose veracity is taken on faith. Good history is a distillation of vast bodies of evidence, some bits reliable, perhaps others not, but whose compasses generally point in the same direction. This is the essence of history as a discipline. You can easily tell good history from bad history. Historians have to show their work: that’s what footnotes are for.

Nanking is obviously not the only contentious event in history, nor the only one around which accusations or suggestions of “fakery” have been leveled. In 1915, the government of Ottoman Turkey deported vast numbers of Armenian Christians to remote desert locations and left them to die. The Armenian genocide is well-documented with exactly the same kind of evidence we have for the Nanking horrors, but some people–mainly for reasons connected to nationalism–deny that it took place or suggest it is greatly exaggerated. A tiny but very vocal minority of racists maintain that the Shoah (Holocaust) against Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other enemies of Nazi Germany did not take place or is exaggerated. Some particularly extreme forms of conspiracy theorizing about the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 argue that the hijacked airliners that struck the World Trade Center were holographic projections–an incredibly bizarre claim bereft of any sort of intuitive sense, much less any evidence to support it. Yet real people do believe these things.

The Armenian Genocide of 1915 is another historical event that some people claim is “faked.” Here are some of the victims of the massacre. Do they look real to you?

I think belief in the ability to “fake” history stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of how we know what we know about the past, and how pervasive the past really is. The statement “history is written by the winners” has some truth to it, but it’s also deceptive, in that it suggests the past is infinitely malleable and that control of sources of information is relatively easy to achieve. In the real world it’s a bit tougher than that. History textbooks that are written badly, whether from incompetence or some sort of political or social agenda, can and sometimes do distort the past; there are recent examples in the U.S. South of textbooks and school curricula that minimize or gloss over the facts of slavery or misrepresent the causes of the Civil War, for instance. Inexcusable as that is, though, it does not change the fact that thousands of books have been published utilizing the first-person narrative accounts of slaves who testify to what they saw and experienced with their own eyes. All one has to do to find them is go to a library. More recent events are much harder to control. There are literally tens of thousands of people, most of them still alive, who saw planes strike the World Trade Center towers. If you went to New York City with the intention of finding one of those people, and stood in Times Square and shouted, “Was anyone an eyewitness to 9/11?”, within seconds you would be talking to someone who was actually there, and no one who wanted to “spin” the event would be able to control what they told you. If there was no reality to an underlying event, the lack of real-world corroboration would be instantly recognizable.

History is not a process of blind trust. It’s not about simply parroting what someone else said, as if all historical knowledge is a big game of Telephone where one generation of historians whispers something into the ear of the next, and truths are assumed to be true because you trust who told it to you. This is not how history works. History is a messy, complex, unwieldy process of making sense of traces that exist in the present of what happened in the past. You can’t fake something like the Rape of Nanking, the Armenian genocide or the Holocaust. It’s just not possible. The implications, interpretations or meaning placed upon historical events is complicated and easy to get wrong, but the actual reality of events in the past is, in the vast majority of cases, absolutely verifiable. To believe otherwise is to live in a fantasy world. So the short answer is, yes, the Rape of Nanking did happen. If you doubt it, go find the evidence for yourself–no one is hiding it.

The header photo (of the Lincoln robot at Disneyland) is by Flickr user Loren Javier and is used under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The modern photo of Nanking massacre victims being unearthed is by Flickr user R0016619 and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 2.0 (Attribution) license. The other photo is in the public domain.

“Dazed and Confused” turns 25: a double groovy flashback to the 1970s (and 1993).

Today is the 42nd anniversary not of an event, but of a depiction. Richard Linklater’s classic film Dazed and Confused, which came out in 1993, depicted one day in the life of an Austin, Texas high school. That day, as clearly identified in the first scene of the movie, was May 28, 1976, the last day of school.

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I’ve loved Dazed and Confused since it came out and I’ve probably seen it over 50 times, and I always watch it again every year around the end of May. Today it’s a cult classic, known for having launched the careers of Matthew McConnaghey, Ben Affleck, Anthony Rapp, Adam Goldberg, Marisa Ribisi, Parker Posey, Milla Jovovich and others. It also attempted to be an honest, unvarnished look at the real lives of high school kids in the 70s, warts and all. Unlike many people, I don’t think Dazed and Confused is about drugs, though there are a lot of drugs consumed in the movie. That’s just the way the 70s were. Dazed and Confused isn’t really about much at all–it has no plot and the character arcs are subtle at best–but it’s still an amazingly cool and honest movie.

The famous “Gilligan’s Island” debate from Dazed and Confused shows how pop-culture obsessed teens were in the 1970s. (They still are).

What’s even more amazing is that the movie itself is 25 years old this year. I remember when it came out in 1993, and it’s hard to believe it was a quarter of a century ago. For those of you who remember the early 1990s, and perhaps even the 1970s in real life (which I do, although I was very young), here’s a statement that will blow your mind, man.

Today in 2018, the original release of Dazed and Confused is farther back in the past (25 years) from the present than the time frame of the movie was from the date of its original release (17 years).

This scene toward the end of Dazed and Confused is arguably the highlight of Matthew McConaghey’s deeply creepy performance…which probably made him a star.

For all its pop-culture references and groovy drug-soaked hazing, Dazed and Confused is a surprisingly melancholy film. The subtext of its characters’ aimless wanderings around Austin in 1976 is a cipher for the way young people’s lives have felt, increasingly since the 1970s: somewhat aimless and without much of a point. The middle 1970s were the end of the decades-long economic boom in American society that followed the end of World War II. With factories shuttering and jobs lost overseas, a dispiriting foreign policy adventure in Vietnam, the cynicism of Watergate and the very beginnings–through the energy crisis–of a global reckoning with climate change, the 1970s were not a very fun time to be young. And it’s only gotten worse since then.

Even looking at how the world has changed since 1993, when the film came out, deepens the sense of melancholy. There was plenty wrong in American society (and the world) 25 years ago, but it seems to pale in comparison with our problems now. I don’t think a Dazed and Confused can be made in the future about the experiences of young people today. At least it wouldn’t resonate the same way.

Cruising…but where to? Even the characters in Dazed and Confused don’t seem to know.

Dazed and Confused is something of a double artifact. Clearly it intends to be a document of certain lives in the 1970s, and what it was like to grow up in that time. But the way it was assimilated culturally in the 1990s, and how it’s resonated since then, speaks also to the time it was made. It really is a kind of double flashback, and a fascinating one.

The poster and the screenshot at the header of this article are presumably copyright (c) 1993 by Gramercy Pictures. I believe my inclusion of them here is permissible as fair use. I am not the uploader of any video clips included here.

Happy birthday to the Chrysler Building, the Art Deco jewel of a vanished age.

On May 27, 1930, 88 years ago today, the Chrysler Building in New York City first opened to the public. At that time it was both the tallest building and the tallest free-standing structure in the world (there is technically a difference), at 1,046 feet surpassing the 40 Wall Street building–which is today named after that odious man with the bad hair–and the Eiffel Tower in each of those respective categories. More important than the stunt of being the world’s tallest building, the Chrysler Building was the most stunning exemplar of Art Deco architecture ever created and an important work of art in its own right. For most of the last century its illuminated silver crown has served as the jewel of Manhattan. Though not quite as tall as the Empire State Building, which opened not long after, the Chrysler Building remains, in my opinion, the most beautiful building in New York City and possibly in America.

Although it’s named Chrysler and was the headquarters of the car company from the 1930s to the 1950s, the Chrysler Building was not owned or paid for by that company. Instead it was the brainchild of the CEO, Walter P. Chrysler, who owned and named it and wanted his children to inherit it. It was designed by Paris-trained architect William Van Alen, one of the fathers of Art Deco architecture, and built on land actually owned by the Cooper Union and leased to Chrysler personally. Construction began in September 1928 in the midst of a huge building boom in midtown Manhattan. That year was the climax of the Roaring Twenties, with the American economy booming in almost every sector, and New York City was in the captain’s chair. Chrysler envisioned a steel building that would embody the spirit of the machine age. In addition to the elaborate crown, Chrysler and Van Alen decided to festoon the top of the building with bizarre steel gargoyles deliberately reminiscent of the hood ornaments of Chrysler luxury cars. Despite its steel exterior the building was constructed mostly of brick.

Then, before the building was finished, disaster struck–not physical but economic. The stock market crash of October 1929 plunged the United States into the Great Depression. The Chrysler Building was almost finished–in fact the top spire was delivered on-site the week before the first of the two great crashes of October 1929–but its prospects were already grim. With so many companies out of business, who could now afford the expensive floor rents? The Chrysler Building’s main rival, the Empire State Building, found itself in a similar quandary; it was in the design phase at the time of the crash. Large stunt buildings like this were suddenly no longer profitable.

Chrysler charged ahead, though. What else could he do? On May 27, 1930, the building opened to the public. Architecture critics were surprisingly lukewarm, some denouncing the bold Art Deco design as a worthless gimmick that would cheapen the New York skyline. Chrysler stiffed Van Alen for part of his fee, and the architect had to sue to get him to pay up. The building was a magnet for the super-rich. The top habitable floors contained the infamous Cloud Club, an all-male members-only restaurant and, before Prohibition was repealed in 1933, speakeasy. In addition to Chrysler, Pan American Airways was also headquartered here, and Pan Am CEO Juan Trippe’s office was near the pinnacle. His office is depicted in the 2004 Martin Scorsese film The Aviator (Alec Baldwin plays Juan Trippe).

Over the succeeding decades the Chrysler Building’s fortunes waxed and waned. The Chrysler Corporation left in the 1950s, and Pan Am in the 1960s to what is now the Met Life Building. In the late 1970s the building was sold to new owners and extensively remodeled; I recall reading that tons of garbage dating back to the 1930s was found in the basement which had just been piling up. The Cloud Club closed permanently in 1979 but sat vacant until the early 21st century. (It must have been spooky and interesting to visit during those empty years). In the 1990s and 2000s new owners and remodels came one after another. Today the company that owns the building is 75% controlled by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council.

But New Yorkers have never lost their affinity for their shining steel jewel, and almost every movie set in New York features it prominently. The boom-time, jazz-fueled Art Deco age of the late 1920s was history even before the building opened, but despite being an anachronism for literally all of its existence, somehow it’s managed to become timeless. Not many of the blocky brutalist monstrosities that now infest Manhattan can make that claim.

The header photo is by me and is copyright (C) 2005 by Sean Munger, all rights reserved. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.

The vanished emerald city: the Dublin of James Joyce’s “Ulysses.”

June 16, 1904 is arguably one of the most famous dates in Irish history, although nothing of any note actually happened on that day. It’s famous because that’s the day on which James Joyce’s novel Ulysses, originally published in 1922, takes place. Continually ranked as one of the greatest novels of the English language–if not the greatest–Ulysses certainly represents a pinnacle in Irish cultural history. It’s also a remarkable snapshot, frozen in time, of the city of Dublin as it existed at the dawn of the 20th century.

Ulysses, as many people know, takes place all in one day, and it doesn’t have much of a plot. It begins in a Martello tower–a cylindrical defensive tower commonly built throughout the British Empire in Napoleonic times–with a conversation between Stephen Dedalus and Buck Mulligan, and then the focus shifts to Leo Bloom who spends most of that day (June 16, 1904) wandering around Dublin. He walks on a beach called Sandymount Strand, has a glass of wine at Davy Byrne’s Pub and visits Glasnevin Cemetery. The book happens almost exclusively in Leo Bloom’s head, excepting the opening scenes and the famous soliloquy by his long-suffering wife, Molly Bloom. Ulysses mimics, in structure and basic cast of events, Homer’s classic text The Odyssey.

Like most European cities on the eve of World War I, Dublin in 1904 was in the midst of profound change. It was not really a heavy industrial city, but as Ireland and Europe increasingly industrialized Dublin became a locus of unskilled unemployed workers. They lived in squalid tenements and found diversion in a part of the city known as Monto, a red light district where crime and prostitution were common. This area is depicted in Ulysses. At one time it was the largest red light district in Europe. Famous as the place where Prince Albert–King Edward VII, who was on the throne of England in 1904–supposedly lost his virginity, Monto is gone now, having vanished by the end of the 1920s after Irish independence and a series of police crackdowns and religious reforms.

Davy Byrne’s Pub is popular among fans of the book, especially on June 16 which is known as “Bloomsday” after the main character. There are countless walks and re-creations of the novel in Dublin to celebrate it and the city.

Indeed much of Ulysses’s Dublin is now gone or changed dramatically, particularly in the years not long after 1904. Twelve years after Ulysses takes place–and in fact during the writing of the novel–Dublin’s streets ran with blood during the Easter Rising of 1916, the largest-scale uprising against British rule until Irish independence came in the early 1920s. That event too changed Dublin forever, and political violence either directly or indirectly related to the end of British rule made the city a crucible of conflict. Although the seeds of social change are visible bubbling through Dublin’s streets in Ulysses, the kind of place the capital became in the 1920s is very different than the city described in Joyce’s pages. History has a way of altering the fundamental character of the places it touches.

Some of Joyce’s landmarks are still there and remain relatively unchanged. Davy Byrne’s Pub, at 21 Duke Street, is still there and open for business. It really was there in 1904 and today you can still go in and get a gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of wine, as Leo Bloom does in the novel. Glasnevin Cemetery, which opened in 1832, is still around too, and since 1904 has served as the last resting place of many of Ireland’s prominent figures, including Eamon de Valera and Michael Collins. The Martello tower at Sandycove has since been turned into the James Joyce Museum. In fact Joyce himself really did stay here in September 1904. His visit to the place was the impetus for the opening scene of Ulysses.

Ulysses is undoubtedly an important contribution to world culture. It’s possible that no other achievement in Irish letters will ever quite match it (though of course it would be awesome if something did). However, more than just a great novel or a rumination on the human experience, Ulysses can be seen also as a historical document. It froze in amber the sights, smells and moods of Dublin at the turn of the 20th century. Fiction can sometimes be history too, as James Joyce shows us.

The photo at the top of this article depicts Dublin as it was in 1897, only a few years before Ulysses takes place. The photo of Davy Byrne’s Pub is by Wikimedia Commons user DanMS and is used/relicensed under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license.

Through a glass, darkly: the great Seattle windshield pitting epidemic of 1954.

At the end of March 1954, a few residents of Bellingham, Washington, a suburb of Seattle, happened to notice that the windshields of their cars had developed a few pits, dings and scratches. The damage was reported to police. Officers in Bellingham assumed that vandals were taking pot-shots at peoples’ windshields with BB guns. Then, inexplicably, the phenomenon began moving south, hitting the towns of Sedro Woolley, Mt. Vernon and Anacortes.

The Anacortes pitting outbreak, which began on Tuesday, April 13, galvanized law enforcement. Police, eager to stop the BB-gun-toting vandals, began setting up roadblocks around the town, hoping to intercept the culprits before they moved on to another municipality. Police at the roadblocks carefully inspected cars coming in or going out of Anacortes, and many more windshields were discovered to have been affected. Local residents began flooding the police stations with reports of recently-discovered windshield pits. Despite the efforts of the police to trap them in Anacortes, the vandals somehow managed to escape. By the end of the day they had struck Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and 75 Marines were mobilized to go around inspecting all the cars on the base. They found more than 2,000 windshields had been damaged.

By now, with thousands of cases of mysterious windshield pits spreading like an epidemic through the area, the authorities realized it couldn’t be kids with BB guns. Some other agency must be at work. But what was it? Cosmic rays? Some sort of atmospheric event? Fallout from recent nuclear tests drifting across the Pacific? No one knew.

windshield pitting 1954

An Anacortes police officer examines alleged windshield damage, April 1954.

The epidemic of windshield damage attained crisis proportions when it struck Seattle proper the next day, Wednesday, April 14. The first report of windshield damage in the city came in at 6PM, from a car parked in a city lot. Three hours later a motorist reported his windshield pitted at 82nd and Greenwood Avenue. The next day, April 15, the Seattle Police Department was inundated with reports of windshield pitting. Everybody was being affected–cars in auto sale lots, public parking lots, cars parked on the street, even police cars parked in precinct lots were suddenly showing strange dings and craters in their windshields. Some people even reported seeing the damage occur spontaneously right before their eyes.

On April 15, government at the highest levels got involved. The Governor’s office called the University of Washington and asked that a panel of scientists be immediately created to study the phenomenon. Amazingly, a telegram about the windshield pitting epidemic even went to President Dwight D. Eisenhower at the White House.

The UW scientists conducted a spot-check of 84 cars on their campus. They correlated the data by the kind of damage, the age of the car affected, and where on the car it appeared. Curiously, it seemed almost always that windshields were affected; back and side windows generally were not. If it was some atmospheric effect–radioactivity or cosmic rays–why wouldn’t auto glass of all kinds be affected? It also seemed that older cars were much more susceptible to the damage than newer ones. Although there were reports of cars on auto sale lots suffering damage, they turned out to be used cars–the new cars for sale still had pristine, undamaged windshields.

whidbey island NAS

Whidbey Island Naval Air Station was one of the key vectors of the strange epidemic of windshield damage in Washington State in 1954.

So what happened? What was causing the mysterious epidemic? The scientists were unanimous: nothing was happening at all. People were suddenly noticing minor damage on their windshields because they heard about the “epidemic” spreading. The dings and pits were there all the time, caused by flying gravel or other routine road hazards.

Indeed, the Great Seattle Windshield Pitting Epidemic of 1954 is a very interesting and unusually clear example of what psychologists and sociologists call a “collective delusion”: a false but barely plausible idea, spread by the media and word of mouth, which behaves very much like an outbreak of infectious disease. A similar thing happened in New Jersey in October 1938 during Orson Welles’s famous “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast. Nothing becomes something, and the something becomes self-sustaining. It’s a fascinating example of crowd psychology.

I dare you to go outside and look at the windshield of your car after reading this article. I’ll bet you suddenly notice some strange minor damage that you were certain wasn’t there before…