When you read history, one of the things you pick up pretty quickly is that there is nothing new. Everything has happened before. You can sound high and mighty and say things like people are flawed and always will be and therefore the whole world is cracked with imperfections, which change only in degree and audacity.
Or you can be a jerk and say something like people “have no originality and if we were as smart as we like to say we are, we’d at least find new ways to fuck the world up and cannot move past out our own limbic system.” So much for being the evolved species.
Either way, I ran across a good example in Grant and the battle of Shiloh. Long story short, the South caught the North and Grant by surprise. How much by surprise is open to debate, but even honest journalists struggle with nuance in their stories.
But we don’t have here is honest journalists. We have what Donald Trump sees when he watches CNN and what sensible people see when they watch Fox News. We have this man.
His name is Whitelaw Reid. Writing under the name Agate (and don’t lie, that’s as cool as
hell), he was an ardent Republican and a supporter of those people who were out to get Grant, for a variety of reasons. He wrote a 14,000-word story about Shiloh in which he said many things that were true but then added many details that were, you know, made up. And as always, they were the most graphic and memorable details of the story…in fact, they still resonate today, if for no other reason than Reid wasn’t constrained by what actually happened and was a skilled propagandist.
For example. Reid created a detail in which the Confederates were bayoneting the surprised Union soldiers in their tents while they ate breakfast, a memorable insight that did not happen. In fact, Chernow writes that the consensus on-field position was that there had been no bayonet deaths in the entire battle. Reid’s writing dogged Grant for his entire career (along with similar exaggerations and untruths about his drinking) and Lincoln was under constant political pressure to replace him, inflamed by the yellow journalism.
It goes back past that. Without leaving Chernow’s writing, we can recall the story of James Callendar in Hamilton’s era. And it hasn’t stopped. I give you Troopergate. And I’m only counting the partisanly-inspired fiction jobs, not the incompetent/lazy Janet Cooke or Jayson Blair versions.
It matters because we have the tendency to think that we are in the worst of times, that the world is swirling down the drain, whereas in reality, it is only as bad as it has ever been.