One writer I like is Malcolm Gladwell. He has the ability to find out things you might not expect and write about them in a very accessible way. His writing is fun.
I love history. The reason is because it is like being a detective to understand it. There is no definitive, perfectly written history book sitting on a shelf somewhere that you can just pull off the shelf and understand an issue perfectly. Instead you must be like a detective, taking pieces of research and putting the puzzle together. Primary sources are an important part of this process. They are the borders of the puzzle. The middle pieces are put together by all means of research that is available.
The surprise comes in when you find that you were presented facts but the narrative that holds them together is bullshit. This often happens on politically charged topics. If you read between the lines and step back for a moment, you can begin to see the bias of the authors. It is very freeing to find that the official narrative of a topic was self-serving. For example, the Gulf of Tonkin incident was the means by which the U.S. justified the invasion of Vietnam. Later we would discover that the entire thing was bullshit, and just a pretext for invading Vietnam.
I do more reading about history than I do writing. I like to explore several sources before figuring out how the puzzle comes together. For example, I learned as a child of the Cold War that the gulag was a concentration like camp where dissidents were sent, often to be killed. The Gulag Archipelago was a true accounting of what it was like. And after Stalin died the gulags were closed.
I discovered many things about the gulags, which surprised me. For example, the number of gulag.pdf was not what I thought.
Second, Solzhenitsyn’s wife discussed about whether his account was fictional or journalistic. Solzehnitsyn Lied pdf.pdf
There were letters from people who lived there, which really was interesting. Further, the CIA also studied the gulag system and wrote reports.
My critics say all of this is whitewashing. Why? Because they don’t like nuance. I am not saying the gulags were good, or that they weren’t bad. Not at all. But to paint a cartoonish description of them that bears no relationship to the facts because “Socialism killed 100 million people” is childish. I suspect this is because people don’t like cognitive dissonance. They are also very fearful.
I want to know the truth of what happened, or at least some approximation of it. This doesn’t frighten me.
What surprises me is how some people absolutely hate looking at what happened. I think it is because it is frightening to learn that what you thought you knew was untrue. It is easier to feel that your reality is solidly based on what you already know. For someone to challenge this is threatening, especially when the person holds different values than you. Sadly, most people don’t know the difference between empirical observations which are subjective to them and objective facts. For example, the Magna Carta was signed in 1215 C.E. That is a fact. Whether you like the Magna Carta, or want it to exist or not is irrelevant. Further, you didn’t personally observe it being signed. But that does not mean it didn’t happen. The other issue is that some matters are theoretical, and you cannot disprove them empirically because they are non observable. For example, I cannot prove or disprove whether love within a family exists or not. If you grew up in a dysfunctional family you may have never been exposed to love, so you may conclude it is impossible. Whereas someone else may have been raised in a very loving family and would conclude that it is a strong reality. Or consider political matters. I live in the U.S. Trump is President. Those are facts. But one person may observe the American economy and say it is doing well, and that Trump is doing a good job. However, I observe continued poverty, suffering, and am unhappy with Trump’s performance. So who is right? Further, let’s pretend someone from China who has never visited the U.S. makes claims about the value of Trump’s presidency and the American economy. Should I tell that person that he has no right to discuss the matter because he doesn’t live in the U.S.? That depends on what he is saying. If he discusses what he believes is going on with the American economy using data from reliable sources, and provides an explanation about the problems of the economy due to neoliberal capitalism that comports with reality, then yes, he does have the right to comment and may even be more “correct” than someone who says everything is hunky dory, even though the data and my experience shows it is not. The Chinese person would not be able to discuss what it is like shopping at Wal Mart in America, and what that feels like. That is an empirical observation he is not qualified to make. So for that he would have to have experienced that. People criticize me for saying the USSR was perfect, for ignoring the realities of what it was like there, and for whitewashing it. This would be true if I discussed the cleanliness of the streets, what a winter was like there, what family life was like, the office culture, etc. I have not observed those things. But I am qualified to discuss the nature of socialism and how the USSR was a Marxist Leninist socialist state, by virtue of objective facts available. If I say it was a command economy then this is provable by actual facts. If I discuss the merits of a command economy vs a market economy, then this is something theoretical that is up for discussion.
The other issue is that people confuse opinion vs facts vs propaganda. Just because you don’t like a fact doesn’t make it propaganda, and thus not true. Further, the best propaganda is true. Something can be true and persuasive. In America people are not taught about these differences. Instead they label whatever they don’t like as “propaganda,” and dismiss it. This makes critical thinking impossible.
An example: watching Mao on Youtube
After having studied the life of Mao, and then watching Western style documentaries from the BBC, Discovery Channel, and some others, I literally started laughing. The narrative is cartoonishly embellished, so badly that the video doesn’t even match the supposed atrocities committed by the socialists. To take this narrative seriously, you literally have to be either high or be mentally retarded.
One thing you learn in these videos is that “Mao can do no right.” Even if he feeds somebody, you later find out it has be be candy, which rotted out the person’s teeth. But the most ridiculous are the numbers thrown around attributed to Mao, saying he killed “75 million people.” So now he is blamed for all the famines, hemorrhoids, heartburn, and the death of all the penguins in Antarctica.
Conveniently, the details that mitigate his actions are simply never mentioned. The fact that the U.S. intentionally prevented famine relief measures to starve the Chinese people into revolt, well, that is conveniently forgotten. Or the fact that Mao helped people get rid of organized crime and drug dealers. Those poor victims. My heart goes out to those traffickers and pimps, too. One important lesson you learn is that seriously, Mao was nice. During the Cultural Revolution there were people who could have been killed, but instead he had them rehabilitated. Deng Xiaoping was an enemy, but he wasn’t killed. He came back later to run the place.
Of course you hear nothing good about the Cultural Revolution. The fact that peasants and students were energized to return to the heart of Marxism, that is not mentioned. The ruling elites in the CCP now must really hate Mao but are too afraid to say it. Can you imagine what Mao would think if he saw what was happening now? He would have to engage in a new Cultural Revolution that would put the old one to shame. No more billionaires in China, and also stop being deferential to the U.S. At least the CCP has some people in Venezuela to stand with Putin.
If you ever want to learn about Stalin or Mao, don’t bother watching a Western documentary. Half of this stuff is outright lies, with footage that doesn’t even match the narrative.
Other reasons studying history is so challenging for many Americans, and why open mindedness and research are important
- Lack of mental flexibility—to understand history you have to be able to get into the minds of others. You have to suspend your judgment to imagine what it was like in another time and with different circumstances. Many people are incapable of this. A historian has to have the heart of an artist to see through the eyes of other people.
- Bias—many people spend their lives parroting received opinions that were programmed into them by their families and schools. Taking in new information causes cognitive dissonance, which is painful.
- Low IQ—your average person is not that smart. Only a smaller subset of the population can actually learn on their own by reading and without a teacher. I am not saying someone has a low IQ because they disagree with me. Not at all.
- Laziness—understanding history is hard work. You have to read primary sources on a topic, double check your secondary sources, and read many of them. Some topics are heavily influenced by propaganda for political purposes.
- Conformity—authoritarian personalities rely heavily on listening to authority figures. They want to go along with the crowd. So they won’t be receptive to listening to views which are not mainstream.
- Nationalism—due to ethnocentrism they cannot detach themselves from the idea of their country being the best, and the enemies of that country as being bad. Alexander Finnegan’s answer to Why is there so much Russophobia on Quora?
- Confusion—many people are incapable of telling the difference between fact, opinion, and propaganda. If you can’t tell the difference you cannot begin to process any new historical information.