On the Proliferation of ‘New History’

Historic literacy has reached all-time lows in the United States. In a recent poll conducted in 2020 and reported on by Forbes, only 15% of 8th-graders scored at or above grade level in the subject of U.S. history. This grim statistic should not surprise anyone who’s paying attention as our culture continuously enforces a mindset that every year is year 0, and anything that predates five minutes ago is outdated and irrelevant. Since the greater culture cares little for the events and people that shaped it, it’s no wonder our children don’t either. 

Just as bad, if not worse, as complete historical ignorance is a recent phenomenon that presents a contorted view of history. As opposed to the blank slate of historical naivety, this worldview offers its ill-informed advocates a simplistic model in which to view figures and events from the past.

This new historical lens comes in varying degrees. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, it views people of the past as simplistic, naïve, and superstitious folk who simply weren’t lucky enough to be enlightened by the technology and scientific advancements we have today. Their low intelligence and superstitious nature resulted from a lack of exposure to modern science, medicine, and technology. The more radical view of the model posits that most humans living before the last few decades were foolish, bigoted, and brutally violent. They also lacked critical thinking, empathy, and basic sanitation. Again, the cause is the same: our predecessors simply weren’t exposed to all our modern advancements. This unaspiring view of humanity implies we modern people would be in the same boat without our fancy tech and scientific method. 

I’m not the first to observe this phenomenon. Prominent Twitter user and “Warrior-Poet lifestyle advocate” Alaric the Barbarian (0xAlaric) created a recent thread exploring the trend. Check it out here, it’s well worth the read. In the thread, he coins the phenomenon as ‘New History’. 

So let’s explore some examples of New History, its roots, why it’s so prominent, and what it ultimately reveals about us today. 

New History Amongst the Masses

One of the best places to explore the New History framework is social media. By latching onto seemingly counterintuitive trivial facts about some aspect of history, champions of the New History model can impress their readers with their cynical, yet “realistic”, understanding of history. Their factoids masquerade as nuance that qualify a more romantic view of the past.

The tweet below illustrates one of the fundamental tenets of New History in a concise manner:

The poster reveals his belief that only modern people possess a certain level of morality and empathy – a belief seemingly unchallenged by the fact that, in order to arrive at a more moral society in the present, past humans must have been striving and making progress toward something. Without a basic moral compass, they wouldn’t have changed moral assumptions in a positive direction and modern ideas of morality would never have come into existence in the first place. Ironically, the statement only reveals an ineptitude for empathy in the original poster, since the statement displays an inability to imagine oneself as a citizen of the past. Unfortunately, the sentiment this poster expresses remains widespread. 

Another example from Twitter highlights the belief that basic sanitation was unheard of before modern science. Here, a user mocks a post that encourages a return to chivalry: 

This user’s reaction exposes an identifying feature of New History: an obsessive focus on the grotesque stemming from the presumption that our forebears had no ability – and no desire – to live in a clean, ordered environment. This common yet absurd notion supposes that people wallowed in their own feces before modern plumbing was developed or germ theory discovered. According to this user’s historical framework, ancient man completely lacked any instinctive revulsion to filth.

This ridiculous idea is, of course, historically inaccurate. Humans for millennia have dealt with sewage and basic hygiene. Sure, standards across time have been different and vary greatly from culture to culture, but no medieval knight would have been content to swash about in an armor full of his own excrement. Even medieval peasants, though a full bath was rare, were expected to wash their hands and face daily [1]. Sewage was confined to a cesspit for the underclass while the nobility had toilets and drainage to separate their waste [2]

A final tenet of New History is that, not only were people from the past immoral, bigoted, and gross, they were also weak. In the tweet below, a user suggests that humans were never capable of killing and eating wooly mammoths despite a plethora of physical evidence proving otherwise. One is left wondering about the psychological and physical state of a person that finds any form of human accomplishment so incredulous. 

It’s difficult to understate how ingrained the New History framework is in many Westerner’s notions of the past – so much that institutions must adapt their representations of the past to fit people’s expectations. In one recent twitter exchange, a user suggests that Hollywood must adapt the visuals in historical films to fit the audience’s notion of the past or else be deemed “unrealistic.” 

This tweet highlights another important aspect of New History. It’s not only an idea in the minds of twitter academics. It’s pushed by some of the most influential cultural forces in our society. Let’s explore how in the next section. 

New History in Hollywood

Though common amongst social media scholars, New History is not confined to those with little real-world influence. The collection of beliefs is often encountered through a television screen or at the movies because New History is reinforced by major culture creators like Hollywood. 

Despite the multitude of historical inaccuracies present in most Hollywood period pieces, the focus in this section will be elsewhere. The more pertinent distortion in Hollywood films with regards to New History is purely visual.

Just as New History is a relatively recent phenomenon, Hollywood’s incorporation of its ethos is recent as well. Even within the past half century, attitudes and representation of the past have shifted in the film industry. When one compares films depicting historical events from the mid-20th century to period pieces of the last two decades, a stark difference can be observed. 

Older films tend to have a vibrancy in their visuals that newer films lack. The colorful costumes and sets of classic Hollywood invites an idealistic interpretation of historical events. On the other hand, recent films lack this rich color palette, and its creators opt for a blueish gray filter in an attempt to emphasize the gritty, dirty atmosphere of the past. 

An example will serve to show the disparity between the differing styles. Let’s contrast two films from different eras depicting the medieval world. El Cid (1961) and The King (2019) both focus on nobles from the middle ages, albeit slightly different time periods: the late 10th century for El Cid and the early 15th century for The King. Nonetheless, as a general juxtaposition they work to show vastly different approaches to depicting historical events. We’ll focus only on the aesthetics.

In El Cid, a vibrant world is shown with colorful, decorated characters. The costume design and lighting create a beautiful film where the viewer is immersed in a world of gallantry and chivalry. A romantic view of characters and events is impressed upon the viewer. 

Juxtaposed to this gallant world is the atmosphere portrayed in The King. A bleak, gray environment envelopes the cast who wear grim expressions on their faces. A blue/gray color filter is applied to the film which gives it’s characteristically moody feel. The gloomy images leave viewers uninspired.

To be clear I’m not making any judgements on the quality of these films, I’m simply contrasting the mood that their aesthetics elicit. I’ve chosen to highlight the aesthetic styles from a contemporary historical film and an older historical film because the aesthetic choices artists make often signal how a society feels about a certain topic, especially when that artistic style is repeatedly used in association with said topic. These two films are characteristic of their times and represent the feelings that this period of history evokes in different generations – one a vibrant, colorful past, the other a bleak, dirty world. Despite what the major themes or messages are in these films, their artistic choices affect the viewer on a subliminal level. 

The current cultural climate is infested by perpetrators of New History, from the smug twitter historians to overpaid Hollywood writers. It should be no wonder why this perverted history trickles down into the culture though, as we shall find out when we take a look at the focus of our next section: actual historians.

The Rise of New Historians

Even those whose profession it is to study the past, historians, are often no better at representing history than the agenda-peddlers discussed in the last section. Perhaps no historian is more renowned for advancing New History than Howard Zinn, the left-wing historian whose work, A People’s History of the United States, continues to occupy countless U.S. history classrooms even 40 years after its original publication. 

The effect that Zinn’s work has had on the public’s view of history is massive. An article from the Federalist notes,

“Zinn’s book has affected the way an entire generation sees their country. Most of the debates in the public square today have been influenced one way or another by Zinn’s ideology hidden in the guise of history.” [3]

Zinn’s work became famous for tearing down “false” notions of the great accomplishments in American history. He posits that America was never a place of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but rather the arena for class exploitation where the rich or well connected oppressed the poor, outcasts, and minorities. Professor Sam Wineburg of Stanford University writes: 

“With dozens of… outlandish suggestions and grossly dishonest rhetorical tricks… Howard Zinn has succeeded in convincing a generation of Americans that the nation Abraham Lincoln truly called ‘the last best hope of Earth’ is essentially a racist criminal enterprise built on murdering Indians, exploiting slaves, and oppressing the working man.” [3]

Zinn’s worldview shaped the future historians we are now left with today. His work can be seen as a precursor to more egregious misrepresentations of the past like the 1619 Project, which suggests that America was founded specifically for slavery. The mindset of many of these historians, inspired by Zinn’s zeal for finding a new “take” on the past can be boiled down to: “the past was a hell-hole for most people and all your favorite heroes actually sucked.” 

Here’s a prime example from an expert: 

After further reading, one finds that the title is mostly click-bait, and the author qualifies it by breaking down the logistical failures of the Spartan state rather than critiquing their famous military prowess. However the title still betrays a sort of contempt for its subject matter, where instead of highlighting the weaknesses of Sparta, the author chooses to slander the ancient city in a mocking fashion. Even the picture associated shows a flabby, defeated looking modern man instead of an athletic, hardened warrior – a more accurate aesthetic to represent the elite fighters of ancient Greece. 

The subtitle in the screenshot above also reveals a growing trend among historians. There seems to be an attempt to link the appreciation of certain historical figures and events with fascism or far-right political proclivities. This tendency suggests that those accusers are often using history as a tool to further their own ideology. This brings into question their motivations for studying the subject matter. Rather than possessing a keen curiosity prompting an honest exploration of figures and events of the past, some historians might use their revisionist interpretation of history as a bludgeon to beat their own cultural ideology into the brains of unsuspecting would-be history lovers. 

A twitter user observes similar trends in historian’s attitudes:

I don’t suggest these views or interpretations are held by the majority – or even a very large number – of historians today. Perhaps the loud minority tends to garner all the attention in our shock-driven media climate. Nonetheless it has become increasingly prominent in the last several decades. 

Why is New History Becoming So Popular?

Though many throughout history have viewed their own time as the apex of human civilization, a complete admonishment of a culture’s own roots is a relatively new phenomena. This hatred of all things old has caused a rupture in our society between who we were and who we are. Rather than viewing ourselves as a continuation in a long line of human struggles and triumphs, we now stand elevated and apart from every person before us. We fail to see historical figures as people similar to us, and certainly not figures to emulate. Men from the past are an alien species to be studied and dissected – not to be humanized. 

So how did we develop such a contempt for the past? Why is our society’s representation of history so distorted, making it almost impossible to relate to figures predating only a few decades ago? I suspect technological addiction has played a significant role in our clouded view of history.

Many of our lives are ruled by technology keeping us from the outside world or “real” things. We encounter our social circles, conflicts, and entertainment through a 24-inch computer monitor or phone screen so we can carefully cultivate our acquaintances and pick only the battles we are equipped for. We scurry from AC unit to AC unit so we never have to experience the humid, sweat-inducing heat of the hot summer climate. Refrigeration keeps our food cold until we’re hungry so we don’t have to think about when our next meal will be. Electricity keeps the lights on into the night so we’re not beholden to the sun for all our activities. The wonders of our technological and scientific achievements allow us to live a life customized perfectly to match our preferences. We are comfortable yet completely dependent on the advancements the modern world has gifted us. 

This reliance is what separates us from our distant past, and is the ultimate “side effect” of the modern world. In this comfortable state of infantilized dependence on our artificial world, we have difficulty imagining what it would be like to live in the “real” world: a world without smartphones, internet, or electricity, without air conditioning, refrigeration, microwaves, or automobiles. These modern advancements are our barriers to understanding the motivations and behaviors of past figures because they have a stranglehold on our ability to perceive the world today

Thus, we’re left feeling a little less human because of this dependence. We can’t help but feel slightly out of place due to insecurities about our abilities to live without modern comforts. ‘New Historians’ then project these shortcomings onto the figures of the past, assuming that their perception of what life would be like without these comforts is how our predecessors must have experienced reality too. New historian’s projections onto ancient man stem from the deep-seeded contempt of their own flaws brought about by their modern artificial environment. They judge our ancestors to be immoral, weak, and gross because deep down, they know they might embody those imperfections if they were to somehow be transported to some pivotal moment in ancient history.

And so our society views history through a clouded lens, one that sheds little light on the reality of our forebear’s lives. Failing to see the full picture of the past, we color in the gaps with our own warped perceptions, crowding the frame with our biases until there’s no awe left to entice future generations to respect the past.

Final Thoughts

How can we ensure our view of history is accurate and doesn’t fall into the trap of New History without overly-romanticizing the past?

A good rule of thumb is to never assume that our predecessors were any less intelligent than we are. This means taking them seriously. Considering we study the past to learn about the extremes of good and bad, right and wrong, it would be expedient to earnestly learn what we can from them. To denigrate them reveals the deepest contempt for ourselves because our view of history is a mirror reflecting our own vices and virtues. 


[1] https://www.worldhistory.org/Medieval_Hygiene/

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_water_supply_and_san


2 thoughts on “On the Proliferation of ‘New History’

  1. Good Lord, Adam, I got as far as the moral compass before I erupted in a spew of words that would have made a drunken sailor proud. My husband and I are in the middle of a chat with a fellow who attended a conference held by a group whose mission is: “to build communities that provide an informal and important forum for the presentation and discussion of research at the frontiers of science.” So The Best People Ever.

    He tells us there were people there who did not know who Copernicus was. Sigh.

    Related, I came across “The Mangling of American History” by David Gordon at Minding the Campus. I’d blogged about it in 2012. Excerpt from it is here: https://www.bigfoodetc.com/2012/12/03/dont-know-much-about-history-2/

    Link there is dead but I’ll check Archive.

    Enjoy your stuff! Thanks.

    1. haha! It’s sad, but I think nowadays I’d be surprised at those who actually DO know who Copernicus is. Sigh….As your blog post alludes to, history has taken a back seat in almost all curriculums. Math and science are pushed which is great, but history is so important to understand our foundations as a culture and people.

      Always good hearing your insights. Thanks!

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