Why do people follow weird pseudo-history?

A little while back somebody began sending me links to some very weird ‘history’ videos and pages on the web, and asking me what I thought.

Kororareka beach in 1838, artwork by Augustus Earle. Earle, Augustus 1793-1838 :Kororadika Beach, Bay of Islands. London, lithographed and published by R. Martin & Co [1838]. Ref: PUBL-0015-06. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23229276

All of it was about an alternative kind of history in which The Truth had allegedly been Hidden by the Establishment (including by Historians) to Intentionally Deceive the Public. All were variations on a baseless fantasy which denied that Maori were the first indigenous people of New Zealand. Instead, the videos claimed that New Zealand was first settled by white-skinned people (naturally) – usually Celts, who were then (again, naturally) killed and eaten by Maori arriving from Polynesia. This alleged ‘secret past’ is, according to the conspiracists, well known to professional historians, Maori and The Authorities. But, the conspiracists believe, it’s been intentionally ‘suppressed’ by these groups. Well, quite. So where’s my bloody hush money then? Well?

Of course the entire conspiracy/pseudo-historical idea is really a facile repeat of discredited, deeply racist, 1890s replacement theory, wrapped in a current agenda. Yah – we’re talking white supremacy here. These same people are also trying to offer other junk history in an effort to discredit the current place of the Treaty of Waitangi, the instrument that defines the relationship between Maori and Crown.

I can’t see the point in engaging such rubbish about New Zealand’s past; it’s trivial to give the lie to what they allege, and the overtones – well, one hesitates to engage with such a blatant moral void. In any case, you can’t reason with extremists. These ones, it seems, regard conventional history as a deliberate lie and personally blame historians for current social trends. In revenge they dump all the hate and anger they can muster, personally, on historians, museum staff, librarians and public employees, and then deny that their targets have any valid right of response.

The relentless flow of links to this rubbish stopped when I finally pointed out that the guy featuring in many of them is publicly reported to be a Holocaust denier and a white supremacist. Curiously, my correspondent didn’t express surprise – ‘oh wow, I didn’t know they were behind it, oops, my bad’. Oh no. I also have no idea what they thought they might achieve by getting me to look at it. I don’t buy that my correspondent was flat ignorant of real history – the material I was sent was too closely themed. Maybe it was an effort to get the pseudo-junk validated by a real historian. Maybe it was soft recruitment. I’ll never know, as I never heard from my correspondent again.

What does puzzle me is why ordinary and normal people (such as my correspondent) get attracted to rubbish history. One can speculate: those who latch on to the ideas might not, themselves, be active extremists. But perhaps they still feel threatened by where society has moved.  Maybe they feel more comfortable believing the stuff peddled by extremists, without actually advocating that extremism themselves. I don’t know. People are complex.

Any thoughts on why people find ‘alternative’ theories appealing, for whatever reason? Is the excitement and interest of the real thing not enough? I don’t know. Any ideas?

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For details of the Treaty – and my take on the pseudo-historical backlash, check out my book Waitangi: A Living Treaty. Available in any good New Zealand bookshop. Or click to buy online.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2019

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13 thoughts on “Why do people follow weird pseudo-history?

  1. What a relief to discover the US isn’t the only place overrun with dangerous crackpots. No doubt there are numerous reasons, but one is that there are those convinced they should occupy a superior place in the world by virtue of having done nothing to earn it. Therefore, they seek to elevate themselves by eliminating others. Racism is one mechanism (which has numerous other origins) and another is alternative history based on “alternative facts.” Quite often they go hand in hand.

    1. I think it’s a general human thing – it’s possible that some flavours of the many human expressions of culture lend themselves to conspiracy theories more than others, not sure. The racist agenda behind a lot of the ‘alternative history’ ideas is usually not well hidden. I remember, a few years ago, New Zealand’s National Library organised a national tour of the Treaty of Waitangi, for education purposes. The touring exhibition and its staff were physically pursued around the country by the Celtic loons, who believe they have found an alternative version of the Treaty which they regard as the ‘real’ one. It’s unsigned and thus meaningless, but that doesn’t stop them. The fact that they’ve engaged that way with contemporary issues makes their agenda when re-writing history to suit themselves pretty clear.

      Apropos a totally different matter – I enjoy reading your blog posts, but the system keeps asking me to re-enter my credentials virtually every time I try to ‘like’ or comment, even if I am already logged on to WordPress. Not sure why – might be a self-hosting thing, WordPress.org vs WordPress.com – but I am actually reading your posts and very much appreciate your thoughts and words! 🙂

      1. Thanks for the info on my website, which no one has ever mentioned before. I think (think!) I fixed it in my settings. Good gosh, that would account for why people seldom comment, especially twice. I always figured it was because I’d raised the bar on boring. Okay, truthfully, I assumed it was because I’m unpublished beyond a book of poetry. Thanks again, I really appreciate it!

  2. Generaly vacuity? Innocence? I work with a girl at work who’s intelligent but is convinced crystal skulls have meaning and horoscopes are fact. I feel some people find reassurance in whatever does it for them. The harsh reality of everything is difficult for some to accept. Innit.

    1. I suspect in some cases innocence is a large part of it, though in the material I was being sent, the underlying agenda was about as subtle as being run over by a large polka-dot painted steam-roller equipped with sirens and flashing lights, all the while being serenaded by a large brass band playing ‘Subtle Times are Here Again’.. Dunno, maybe uninformed people discover this stuff and it appeals to them? I think intelligence has little to do with it; the issue is emotional satisfaction in the content.

      Apropos horoscopes… I know someone who used to assemble the ‘Your Stars’ column for the local paper. The copy was purchased from a supplier and cut, re-written or organised on the spot to fit the column length they had available. Bit of a mix-and-match.

  3. I think sometimes it’s an attempt to find a more palatable solution for a situation people feel is overwhelming. Just the other day I overheard a guy saying to his pal (walking by my place) “This climate stuff. I keep thinking there’s something they’re not telling us. Like maybe the earth’s axis has shifted or something.”

    1. I think there’s definitely a sense of being overwhelmed; there are also so many unknowns in the detail, though the reality of anthropogenically-driven climate change is clearly proven. I do find the conspiracy ideas around that one quite funny. If only the science community (and the historical, etc etc) actually co-operated to the point where (a) they could be called ‘they’, and (b) they trusted each other enough to actually hide anything. 🙂 I’ve seen it said that if there was the slightest hint of a climate change conspiracy among the science community, the whistle would be blown on it faster than you can say ‘feud’.

      The odd part is that if Earth’s axis tilted differently, the climate would certainly change! It does precess, on a 26,000 year cycle, but is kept in check by the tidal effects of the Moon, luckily. Of course there’s a video as to what would happen if it didn’t: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zjwh4nSPEs0

      I actually own some of the software mentioned in it. I might set up my own scenario & see what it generates.

  4. Not sure why people get attracted to pseudo history- maybe it just taps into whatever confirmation bias someone has? Which maybe explains why someone can dismiss one conspiracy theory and embrace another? (I think there’s a lot of psychological factors that contribute to people being inclined to tilt towards conspiracy theories as well, especially if we’re afraid or don’t feel in control of a situation).

    1. I think the ‘feeling in control’ issue is a big one when it comes to conspiracy theories. It’s easier to believe a few simple principles (‘they are hiding the truth from me’) than to accept the complexities and unknowns of reality. I’ve seen some suggestion that it’s hard-wired – this approach was, apparently, a survival mechanism during the hunter-gatherer days. The funniest conspiracy I’ve seen is the ‘mud flood’, in which ‘they’ (meaning governments, historians, The Rothschilds or whoever) are hiding a ‘truth’ about the past in which the world was flooded with mud in the eighteenth century but then rebuilt and the ‘truth’ suppressed. You can tell, apparently, because of so many buildings today with half-height windows at footpath level. I’ve even seen efforts to ridicule New Zealand’s well-established history (in which I work professionally) to ‘prove’ that the place was settled by Europe well before it was, in order to explain buildings in downtown Wellington with such construction. The possibility that these windows were designed to light basements and deliberately built at footpath level is, of course, never raised…

      1. Very true. And yeah I’ve seen similar arguments. Oh wow- that is one hell of a conspiracy theory! You almost couldn’t make it up 😉 hahaha! I guess the whole “logical explanation” schtick just isn’t as fun to people as coming up with nonsense 😉 (I guess that’s the thing that I can’t get my head around with conspiracy theories: it’s not the believing in the nonsense in the first place- it’s the continuing to believe in nonsense, despite there being explanations and evidence to the contrary).

        1. Yeah the ‘mudflood’ theory is total crazypants cuckoo territory. There are videos, including about NZ where the video-maker is basically trying to prove his case by finding what he thinks are inconsistencies in the wording of, for instance, the Encyclopedia Britannica entry on NZ, thus proving something was being hidden and the authors were too stupid to get their story straight. Sigh. (As an aside, that entry was written by W. H. Oliver, who I knew and who was NZ’s foremost historian of his day – and a lot of the government website history the same ‘mudflood’ guy cites was written by personal friends of mine in the field – all people of solid talent and integrity).

  5. This subject could generate PhD theses galore if anyone got interested, but, as it happens, I’ve been thinking about something similar lately.
    First, one of the things I’ve noticed over the last 4-5 decades in history books used in public schools here in the States is that they don’t seem terribly concerned with accuracy. Most of that has to do with fundamentalist Christians, but “white nationalism” is most likely a factor. So people with an agenda either modifying or entirely rewriting “history” isn’t really confined to the woo fringe. Those folks might be the froth bubbling to the top of whatever’s boiling.
    Second, it seems to me there’s a terrible, almost a neurotic, need to be right about something with some people. The “something” should be treated as a variable depending on the individual or perhaps a group of individuals. “Right” shouldn’t be seen as “factually correct” in this context. That “need” often, in my observation, has to do with some deep-rooted fear or insecurity in the individual. Further, the thing is that if their wish were granted, the “need” wouldn’t disappear, it would just shift targets, so to speak. I sometimes think criminal prosecutors suffer from this, especially the ones who deliberately hide exculpatory evidence or even manufacture incriminating evidence. Consider the similarities involved in the behavior.
    Third, it’s worth noting the possibility of a relationship between this particular sort of woo and religious mania. Religion is about assertion of propositions as fact without proof. This has been going on with humans for millennia. As an historian you can point to numerous examples of very bloody religious wars fought over points of doctrine — doctrine, mind you, not land or anything else material (well, not ostensibly) — that to anyone on the outside seems utterly ludicrous, on the order of the Star Trek episode about the two aliens fighting each other because they were bi-colored, but on opposite sides. However, in the particular context you cite here, I find it interesting that the actors seem to be looking for something that bears colorable resemblance to “facts.” They aren’t simply arguing arcane dogmatic principles, they’re trying to find something concrete.
    It might also be worth noting that in general there are few if any societies or groups in our entire species who routinely make a careful distinction between subjective and objective realities. There are things one could believe with all one’s heart, and still realize that you could never demonstrate to anyone else the objective reality of that belief. The key to that particular realization is understanding not only that it’s “real” only to you, but that there’s no threat to your own personal identity (“belief system” or whatever) if no one else believes it. One accepts that latter as an objective fact, demonstrable if only in an empirical sense.
    Hypothesis, then, or at least a part of one: to what extent has the modern “cult of individuality” (in the sense of the individual being the most important thing regardless of anything else) undermined the individual’s ability to discern objective from subjective reality? Taken to the extreme, the narcissistic two-year-old believes what he wants to believe because he’s the be-all and end-all of the Universe, and no one can tell him different. We might perhaps have a case study of that in the White House.
    But that’s another subject entirely…!

  6. I think mainstream history is always re-written, usually two-generationally, to engage with contemporary values. And that gives the re-write a compelling feel. The difference between the ‘colonial era’ histories that featured up to the mid-twentieth century and the post-colonial histories produced during its last decades is a case in point. One effectively reversed the interpretation of the other. Into this, often, is infused additional information that usually emerges with fresh research – giving a sense of ‘truth’ to new interpretations. And to the extent that additional empirical data is valuable, these are more insightful than the old. But at the same time, we have to understand the frameworks around which any new interpretation is built.

    To me, that’s a given when it comes to history; it’s how I was taught to understand it. But I find – often – that there is a view outside the profession that history must somehow have a ‘final truth’. The fact that history has been re-written by the lunatic fringe to suit contemporary agendas – notably that of white supremacists – all the while calling to empirical data as if this proved what was being wrapped around it, underscores the problem. As you say, it has aspects of religion about it; certainly of faith in a particular viewpoint.

    Hmmn… narcissistic two-year olds with far too much power. I have a post coming up Saturday (NZ time) about this. Sort of…

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