Fake News Versus the Liberal Arts Posted on May 30th, 2017 by

2016 Carlson Award Winner, Eric Carlson, History Department

Eric Carlson

Last December 4, Maddison Welch made a horrific choice. Armed with an AR-15, a shotgun, and a handgun, the 28-year old father of two drove 350 miles from Salisbury, N.C., to a pizzeria in the District of Columbia. He had read articles on social media and watched YouTube videos insisting that Comet Ping Pong was the base of operations for a child sex slavery ring, run by Hillary Clinton, which local law enforcement was ignoring. Welch, who later told The New York Times that the “thought of innocent people suffering” broke his heart, indicated to friends (who all refused to join him) that he was prepared both to kill and to die for what he saw was a greater good. When he entered the restaurant, he fired the AR-15 into a locked door, but having determined that, in his words, “the intel on this wasn’t 100 percent,” he left the pizzeria and surrendered quietly to police. Welch has pleaded guilty to several federal crimes and will be sentenced to prison next month.

Although Welch’s armed response gave it special notoriety, the Comet Ping Pong story was only one of many outrageous ‘fake news’ items circulating on social media during the last election cycle. From the coverage that such ‘fake news’ received in the mainstream media, one would think this was a new thing, dependent on current hyper partisanship and the Internet. It is my sad duty as a historian to report that ‘fake news’ is nothing new. While I didn’t know to call it ‘fake news’ at the time, over 40 years ago when taking an undergraduate history course on medieval England I learned about examples from the 12th century.

After invading and conquering England in 1066, William of Normandy made a grand gesture: both to commemorate his conquest and atone for the sin of shedding blood, he established a Benedictine monastery near the site of the decisive battle of Hastings. Thanks to William’s generous land grants, it soon became one of the richest monastic houses in England. But the monks of what came to be known as Battle Abbey soon had a problem: William’s grants had all been made orally. There was nothing strange about that in the late 11th century, but less than a century later things had changed. By the time the abbey was 100 years old, grants were routinely recorded in writing. If any of the abbey’s land claims were challenged in court, the monks would need documents. They were taking no chances. First, they manufactured credible forgeries of charters from William granting them their lands. Next, they wrote a chronicle – an annual record of the abbey’s history and events that affected it. For centuries, chronicles were the way Europeans recorded and transmitted ‘news’ – in annual, not daily or even weekly, chunks. Battle’s chronicle duly recorded William’s (and other donors’) grants, with details that were nothing but pious inventions. If this all seems a bit dodgy—monks inventing ‘news’ and recording events that technically never took place, at least not in the ways in which they were reported—it was pretty harmless. The grants themselves were real, and all the perpetrators were doing was making sure that the monastery would be able to continue its ministry by protecting its economic resources. No harm, no foul.

As I continued to study medieval history, I soon learned that not all fake news was so benign. Around Easter 1144, an apprentice named William was found dead in the woods near Norwich. It was almost certainly an accident, but in 1149, a knight on trial for murdering a Norwich Jew to whom he owed money claimed that he was retaliating for the Jews’ murder of William. He never proved his charge, but the bishop of Norwich saw its potential benefit. He declared William a saint, killed for his Christian faith by local Jews, and had him reburied in Norwich Cathedral where, he hoped, pilgrims would come to pray and, more to the point, give money. He also commissioned a treatise on William’s life and suffering, which recorded as fact the Jews’ responsibility for torturing and killing the boy.

Thomas of Monmouth’s book was written in Latin and had a relatively limited circulation, since hand-copying was the only method of reproduction available. But the ‘news’ about little William and his alleged torture-murder gradually spread and was embellished: Jews, to mock the crucifixion of Jesus, captured innocent young Christian boys, stabbed them repeatedly, and collected their blood for use in Jewish rituals, including as a key ingredient in matzoh, their unleavened bread. What is called the ‘myth of ritual murder’ or the ‘blood libel’ was subsequently used to explain the mysterious death of a handful of boys and contributed to a growing anti-Judaism during the time of the Crusades, but hand-copying and the use of Latin limited its impact. In the mid-15th century, that changed.

In 1475, when a little boy named Simon, from the city of Trent, turned up dead, the local Jews were blamed. Under torture, many ‘confessed’ to Simon’s ritual murder, confirming the details of the crime in response to their interrogators’ questions. Technology, in the form of the printing press, intervened to give this case a brutal, lethal legacy. We tend to think that inventing the printing press must have been a good thing, since it made all manner of printed materials more widely available and at prices that even humble working people could afford. It certainly played a major role in the expansion of literacy in Europe, as well as Martin Luther’s success. But printing also had a dark, deadly side, because it could just as easily be used to spread ‘fake news’ such as the alleged ritual murder of Simon of Trent. Accounts, some decorated with lurid images of Jews (shown with stereotyped physical characteristics as well as the special hats and circular yellow badges they were required to wear) holding a naked boy spread-armed (in imitation of Christ’s crucifixion) while others stabbed him and collected his blood in basins, spread all over Europe. Details of the Jews’ ‘confessions’ were included, not in Latin but in local languages. Simon’s tomb became a major pilgrimage site, and as ‘knowledge’ of what the Jews had done to him spread in print, accusations of similar crimes began to pop up with greater regularity all over Europe. They continued to do so into the early 20th century, resulting often in either judicial murder or mob action against Jews.

The blood libel was not the only ‘fake news’ spread by the printing press. Some of it was as benign as the Battle Abbey fraud. In the 16th and 17th centuries, news reports of monstrous births – “Woman in Bavaria gives birth to twelve snakes!” or “Baby in Scotland born with head of cow!” – or strange apparitions in the sky, presented in verse and set to popular tunes, were presented as warnings from an angry God: Repent – or else! God was angry about many sins – dancing and card-playing, football games on the Sabbath, women dressing too much like men, men dressing too much like women. Particularly offensive was the willingness of His people to tolerate witches. Witches were using power granted by Satan to make butter and beer go bad, sicken cattle, kill children. Much like what happened with the myth of ritual murder, the printing press made possible the carnage of the European witch-craze by disseminating not only the ‘news’ of what witches had done in particular places but also the template that told amateur inquisitors what to look for when they tortured the accused. Torture, as it is wont to do, led its victims to tell their torturers whatever they wanted to hear, and these cases – like those of blood libels – were in cheap vernacular print, confirming (and occasionally adding to) the template, and leading to still more accusations and more deaths. Every one of my History Department colleagues could add examples from the places and periods they study and teach about right up to the present, when the Internet has magnified what the printing press did.

“Gosh, Professor Carlson, thanks for ruining Honors Day with your depressing talk,” I imagine you are thinking at this point. Fear not. It’s time for, if not a happy ending, at least a constructive suggestion or two. And this is where the Liberal Arts, and particularly History, come in. Italian Renaissance humanists, who were largely responsible for assembling our model of the Liberal Arts in the 15th and 16th centuries, valued the study of history very highly. Many considered it the most useful of all fields of study. History doesn’t repeat itself; the circumstances surrounding any given situation can never be exactly repeated. However, as the humanists recognized (as do we), some situations can be comparable to things in the past, and history can be useful by showing what worked and what didn’t in these past situations. More bad news, I’m afraid. Past efforts to thwart the murderous consequences of fake news have failed utterly. With both the blood libel and witch hunts, denunciations and prohibitions issued by higher-ups, such as Popes and Holy Roman Emperors, and exposés by scholars, were simply ignored. Accusers, certain they had proof of guilt, assumed their betters were misled, out of touch with reality, or corrupted by the Devil, and went about their murderous business. When our political or spiritual or intellectual leaders today have denounced fake news, they haven’t fared much better, and there’s no reason to expect that to change. Insanity, as the saying goes, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I do believe that there is a potential fix – but the problem has been here for centuries and it would be unwise to expect a quick, easy solution. The remedy is a Liberal Arts education – in the sense used by the Italian Renaissance humanists. “Liberal” comes from the Latin word liber, meaning ‘free’. To be a citizen in medieval and early modern Europe required being free: not being controlled by anyone. Only free people could act in the public interest, instead of the private interest of those on whom they depended. This reasoning was used to deny rights of citizenship to women but also to servants and even people who lived in rental housing. But the humanists recognized that simply being free was not enough to equip people to make wise decisions: they needed education in a wide range of fields – the Liberal Arts.

Citizenship has been extended in ways that the humanists could not have imagined and would not have approved, and somewhere along the way we lost the notion that citizenship should be pared with a type of education that equips us to be free and responsible to each other with our freedom. We especially lost appreciation for historical thinking. All across the U.S., enrollments in history courses are declining (as they are generally for all Humanities) in part because they are no longer seen as ‘useful’ or ‘practical’. What could be more useful, more practical than being able to tell Truth from Not Truth, to tell facts from lies? Historians teach how to think historically, how to be historians – and that means above all how to be critical of the sources upon which we base our narratives of the past. Lurking in our consciousness whenever we encounter a source is the question: “Really? Why should I believe you?” What could be a better way to defang fake news than to equip everyone not only with the instinct to ask that, but also the skills to detect and discard suspect sources?

Perhaps I am preaching to the converted here: you all decided that there’s merit in a Liberal Arts education, or you wouldn’t be here. Students we recognize on Honors Day aren’t the Maddison Welches of this world. Maddison Welch may not have killed anyone when he fired his AR-15, but he is facing at least seven years in prison and a felony record for his actions in Comet Ping Pong. All because he didn’t know how to – or even that he should – be sure that (to use his words) his intel was 100% before believing and acting on it. As Mark Twain once said: “It ain’t what you know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” It is not enough to educate ourselves, or to send our children to Liberal Arts colleges where they will (dare I dream it?) take a history course or two. If we are going to thwart the lethal potential of fake news, we all need to become missionaries for the Liberal Arts and, especially, for critical and historical thinking. It’s not up to Pope Francis, Senator Elizabeth Warren, the New York Times, or your professors to drive a stake through the heart of fake news; it’s up to each of you. Time to get to work!

Eric Carlson
Professor of History and 2016 Edgar M. Carlson Award Recipient
Presented at Honors Day 2017


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