When People Talk About History, They Just Make Things Up

You can take the old Murray Rothbard quote and replace “economics” with “history” and the quote would have just as much value,

“It is no crime to be ignorant of history, which is, after all, a specialized discipline and one that most people consider to be a ‘dismal science.’ But it is totally irresponsible to have a loud and vociferous opinion on historical subjects while remaining in this state of ignorance.– Murray Rothbard (modified)

I’m certainly not a history expert but when I do my research, I’ll voice the truth. I can’t speak the same for others.

Take an ABC documentary on the Roaring Twenties titled, “The Century: America’s Time – 1920-1929: Boom to Bust”. In this documentary, they start off by describing the prohibition era, stating, “[…] the 18th amendment became the law of the land. The sale and consumption of alcohol was now illegal.” But a very easy read of the 18th amendment begs to differ,

After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.– Constitution, 18th amendment, Article I

The 18th amendment did not prohibit the consumption of alcohol by any means. The documentary crew brings a banker on for an interview who says,

“There was prohibition, but oddly enough, nobody payed any attention to it.”– Craig Mitchell, Banker

This isn’t true either. Jack Blocker writes in an article concerning prohibition and mental health,

“We forget too easily that Prohibition wiped out an industry. In 1916, there were 1300 breweries producing full-strength beer in the United States; 10 years later there were none. Over the same period, the number of distilleries was cut by 85%, and most of the survivors produced little but industrial alcohol. Legal production of near beer used less than one tenth the amount of malt, one twelfth the rice and hops, and one thirtieth the corn used to make full-strength beer before National Prohibition. The 318 wineries of 1914 became the 27 of 1925. The number of liquor wholesalers was cut by 96% and the number of legal retailers by 90%. From 1919 to 1929, federal tax revenues from distilled spirits dropped from $365 million to less than $13 million, and revenue from fermented liquors from $117 million to virtually nothing.– Jack Blocker, 2006

Historian Mark Moore writes,

“Arrests for public drunkennness and disorderly conduct declined 50 percent between 1916 and 1922. For the population as a whole, the best estimates are that consumption of alcohol declined by 30 percent to 50 percent.”– Mark Moore, 1989

Dills et al. (2005) looked at previous years to analyze the correlation between alcohol crimes and alcohol usage in the nation and found a correlation of r=0.95. While early in Prohibition, they saw the drunkenness arrest rate rise a sizable amount, by about 1923 the arrest rate leveled out 36-52% below the national average before prohibition. Of course after controlling for other variables, this got lower but it was still between 20-30% below the national average pre-prohibition. None of this data on alcohol consumption really matters but to say prohibition didn’t have any of its intended effects is false.

One other thing, while less noteworthy and less important, is they say in the documentary prohibition was enacted by the 18th amendment. But the government didn’t have a way of interpreting what all was counted by “alcohol” in the 18th amendment so prohibition did not actually begin until the Volstead Act was put in place.

While we’re in the 1920’s, a really odd one I heard was my US History teacher. He was describing the beginning of the Great Depression and said because so many people lost their jobs and were poor, they resulted to committing crimes.

I have no clue where he got this. No source I could find said this; he simply made it up. James Wilson writes,

“Further, during the Great Depression, when unemployment hit 25 percent, the crime rate in many cities went down. … As the national unemployment rate doubled from around 5 percent to nearly 10 percent, the property-crime rate, far from spiking, fell significantly.”
– James Wilson, 2011
This is the complete opposite of what my US History teacher said. As the title suggests, sometimes people just make things up when talking about history. They don’t bother to fact check anything or look into it at all. They’ll just spew what they want to.

One other one comes from a live action film from 2003 called Luther. I realize the necessity to make things dramatic, but the belief is stuck strong in a lot of peoples heads regardless. Martin Luther, just prior to the Reformation, is said to have gone up and had this dramatic pinning up of the 95 propositions. This is portrayed in the film and in many peoples minds.

The truth is this isn’t what happened. Martin Luther’s pinning was actually nothing special besides the spread of his writing and how they were relevant at the time. Jacquez Barzun writes in From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 To The Present,

“Nor was he performing a unusual act. He was a monk and professor of theology at the newly founded university of Wittenberg[…], and it was common practice for clerics to start a debate in this fashion. The equivalent today would be to publish a provocative article in a learned journal.”

– Jacques Barzun, 2000

The reason this fits in is the whole “pinning of the 95 propositions” moment is told by European history teachers and the liking to be so grand and dramatic, similar to how it is portrayed in the movie. This thought comes from absolutely nothing whatsoever – just a silly anecdote they made up.

When talking about history, there are already narratives in place. While having these narratives, counter-evidence is not the easiest to find. History is not something you can always quantify. It’s always amazed me how historians have been able to paint such clear pictures of times that we don’t have videos, pictures, or anything from besides some writing. The thing to take home from this is to be wary and always do as much research as possible. People can get away with lying about history a lot and have no consequences whatsoever.

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