“Is This the Union That Lincoln Was Trying To Save?”

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I’ve been playing around with an elective idea on conspiracy theories in American history.  It provides an opportunity to explore issues of epistemology in historical studies as well as the ease with which myth and outright lies can be disseminated and, in some cases, become part of our cultural lexicon.  One of the projects that I’ve considered assigning would allows students to develop their own conspiracy theory using video or some other social networking program.  This would allow the general public to consider it and make a decision as to its veracity or as a means to gauge some of the biases that shape those judgments.  Consider the following short video that attempts to draw a connection between Lincoln, his legal activities with the railroads in the 1850s and the supposed purpose of the American Civil War.  Of course, the individual who put this together believes the content of his video to be true:

It’s not a very convincing video, but please take notice of the comments that follow.  It suggests that for my students to create a convincing interpretation they would have to have a sufficient command of the relevant literature.  So, what would be the goal of such an exercise?  Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction.  It would also reinforce one of my top priorities, which is to encourage healthy skepticism and strong analytical skills in my students.  It may lead to some interesting psychological and/or cognitive observations concerning our ability to engage in critical analysis in a society that thrives on suspicion and distrust of power.

Of course, there are a number of ethical considerations involved in such a course/project.  Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public.  While the deception would not be carried out in the name of this school there is an obvious connection that cannot be severed or minimized.  What is paramount for students to keep in mind is that the end goal is not the deception, but what we learn about the extent to which the public can be deceived.  Consider a recent class at George Mason University where the students created a fictional character and utilized Wikipedia, blogs, and other social networking sites to test the ease with which their interpretations could be successfully filtered through the Web.

I am nowhere near proposing such a course, but it is an idea that I keep coming back to, which means that it is very likely that I will act on it at some point in the not too distant future.  What do you think?

21 comments… add one

  • Brooks Simpson Mar 19, 2009

    “Essentially, I would be asking my students to intentionally lie to the general public. ”

    Isn’t that what all you left-wing PC pinkos do all the time, anyway?

    Long live General Lee, especially as painted by John Paul Strain, and save the Electric Map, now!

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2009

      Oh yeah…I forgot. Thanks for reminding me, Brooks. lol

  • Chris Evans Mar 19, 2009

    Well at least it has the music from the wonderful ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ by Sergio Leone starring Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson. I know its a bit off topic but I’ve read Leone wanted to do a movie on Andersonville.
    Chris

  • Crystal Marshall Mar 19, 2009

    It certainly sounds like an interesting class; however, as you pointed out, there are ethical considerations such as the connection with your school.

    Coincidentally, a friend just forwarded me an e-mail a few days ago concerning the supposed Lincoln/Kennedy connection–I am sure you have seen this e-mail, often titled, “Have a history teacher explain this…” I found it slightly interesting and amusing, especially considering some of the innaccuracies (for instance, it claims that JFK and Marilyn Monroe were together the week before JFK’s assassination, which was impossible given Marilyn Monroe’s death more than a year beforehand). I have seen these types of e-mails before and don’t think much of them. However, a quick Google search pulls up a variety of websites filled with speculations and conspiracy theories regarding this particular e-mail and the coincidences contained therein. It is crazy how much stuff people are willing to believe at face value without taking the time to research the actual facts. The question is, why? I think it gives some people a sense of power if they feel they have figured out the “secrets” that supposedly underlie world events. I think you would have plenty of class material even just researching the history of various conspiracy theories and discussing why many are so susceptible to them. This would truly be an interdisciplinary course as it would combine history, psychology, and sociology. It sounds like your school is close to the University of Virginia so if it were possible to have a psychologist come in and speak about this topic your class, it would help your students gain a broader perspective. Just an idea…

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2009

      Crystal,

      It seems to me that you’ve reinforced my own justification for just such a course. We could talk about the problem of interpretation as well as the psychological/cognitive dimension which helps to explain how we arrive at our beliefs and judgment. I love the idea of bringing different people in from the university community.

  • Rob MacD Mar 19, 2009

    Great (?) minds think alike, Kevin. I’ve been thinking about a create-your-own-conspiracy-theory course too. (And Mill’s hoax course was one of the inspirations.) Will blog about it at some point, but the short version is: I think the potential objections could be dealt with and it has a lot of potential in terms of teaching critical and engaged historical thinking.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2009

      Rob,

      Nice to hear from you. I will keep an eye out for your blog post. The more I think about it the more I can see that the objections can be dealt with.

  • matt mckeon Mar 19, 2009

    What an excellent idea! It works as an exploration of the uses and abuses of the internet, the cultural reasons why certain legends persist, and I hope, an practical exercise in bullshit detecting.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 19, 2009

      Matt,

      Thanks for the comment. The “use and abuse of the internet” is another central aspect of what could be taught.

  • Chris Evans Mar 19, 2009

    The ‘Hidden Agenda’ idea seems really bogus. This seems like “The Real Lincoln” as depicted by Thomas DiLorenzo. These crackpot ideas are really insulting to the intelligence. Its just about tearing historical figures down to size and it is truly silly.
    Chris

  • James Bartek Mar 19, 2009

    Speaking of truth and fiction, are you aware of the “Edward Owens” pirate hoax created by history students at George Mason? I just discovered this myself .

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edward_Owens

  • James Bartek Mar 19, 2009

    OK – duh. I see you’ve mentioned it directly in your column. Guess I ought to read a little more closely before I scroll to the comments!

  • Will Hickox Mar 19, 2009

    “These crackpot ideas are really insulting to the intelligence. Its just about tearing historical figures down to size and it is truly silly.”

    It’s also about making a name for oneself off the gullibility of others. People like DiLorenzo know that a good portion of the population will believe anything they see in print or on a screen, provided it’s packaged prettily and has big names endorsing it. I’ll admit that I was taken in by Oliver Stone’s “JFK” until I did some research and realized the film is just a breathtaking exercise in paranoia.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2009

      Will,

      While I do believe that DiLorenzo is a poor historian that does not necessarily render his interpretation as a “conspiracy theory.” It’s just bad history.

  • Will Hickox Mar 19, 2009

    “So, what would be the goal of such an exercise? Well, in a class on conspiracy theories it might provide students with some insight into the general public’s ability or interest in discerning truth from fiction. ”

    A recent work of popular history (but valuable nonetheless) provides some historical background. Conspiracy theories and hoaxes are most successful when they dwell on topical matters. “The Sun and the Moon” details a New York newspaper’s reports in 1835 that intelligent life had been discovered on the moon. The author shows that many people, including some leading minds, were taken in by the hoax because it was compellingly written and appealed to a prevalent fascination with astronomy. While less convincing on a national level, the “Lincoln was gay” theory has had a small measure of success thanks to the current fascination with gay culture. Also, as P.T. Barnum knew well and as the book shows, there is generally no feeling of outrage when such “theories” (hoaxes) are disproved because Americans love a good story, “humbug” or not.

  • John Cummings Mar 20, 2009

    So, they show that compelling piece of artwork as having appeared on an issue of “Union Pacific Magazine”. Can someone find that magazine and fill us in on what Union Pacific has to say about the subject? It might be interesting. Is there other material that could be consulted beyond this single video? There seems to be an immediate bias here. Is there any attempt at checking what you term a
    “conspiracy theory”? If Ken Burns or Dateline presented this information would it warrent greater attention?

    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2009

      Go for it, John. Why do you need me or anyone else to uncover the secrets of Lincoln’s connections to Union Pacific. I am fairly well versed in the Lincoln literature and have never come across evidence that would confirm or deny the claims made in this video. The onus ought to be on the creator of the video. Surely, you don’t expect me to seriously consider such a clip as serious history – do you? Again, if you want to investigate, more power to you. By the way, this has nothing to do with being biased since the creator of the video hasn’t given us much of anything to be biased about. I am biased, however, in the sense that this is nonsense as serious interpretation.

  • John Cummings Mar 20, 2009

    Wow Kevin, get offended why don’t you? You pose questions, I pose questions. Your blog is designed to stimulate debate, why would you recoil at my participation?
    I have taken an interest and have found, based on the style of the cover design that it is probably the February 1922 issue of the magazine. It would be strange as heck to see if any of the video’s talking points actually derived from the magazine article. Did the creator of the video acurately utilize the material from this source or was there great liberty taken in its interpretation? I can not immediately condemn something upon a gut reaction, especially one that originates from an abhorrence toward anything smacking of SCV stylings. As an inquisitive historian I have to refrain from prescribed avoidance and give room for a healthy examination of all materials out there. There may a shred of truth to be found and throwing down a gauntlet would be shortsighted of me. It may also be that some things got stretched out of proportion by those who produced the video. But I can’t be comfortably sure of it until I actually see what Union Pacific Magaine itself said in that February 1922 issue.
    So I will let you know as soon as I can achieve this.
    I am so very sorry that you took my posit as an attack upon you. Kevin, you stimulate! That IS your goal here is it not?
    We do have mutual friends Kevin, and I would hope that when you are next looking to visit the Fredericksburg area we have an opportunity to meet. I had looked forward to meeting you at the Kirkland monument ceremony but my schedule ending up not permitting it that day.
    I think that some day we will relish these exchanges as good cerebral stimuli.

    • Kevin Levin Mar 20, 2009

      John,

      I wasn’t offended by anything you asked. Sorry if I came off a bit too strong. That said, while I agree that healthy skepticism is always welcome, I don’t take seriously a few images and vague commentary as an indication of anything worth pursuing. So, we are back to my initial point, which is to suggest that if you are interested in the claims made in the video than you should pursue it. I also look forward to a chance to meet in person.

  • Toby Mar 20, 2009

    Dig the spooky music!

    Is it the title theme from “Once upon a Time in the West”?

    Henry Fonda played against type as a deadly killer in the film; he also played Lincoln in “Young Mr Lincoln.” Are they trying to get across that our hero may be a villian?

    The video certainly is a spaghetti western, or maybe a dog’s dinner….

  • Jeffry Burden Mar 20, 2009

    Good Lord…can anyone in the Stainless Banner Society proofread?

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