Saturday, September 16, 2017

Tonypandy, Another Name for Fake News

In my last semester of college, when I was too busy with student government and other nonacademic pursuits to be taking classes at all yet somehow had a number of credits to complete, I was supposed to have read Josephine Tey’s novel The Daughter of Time in a class called History and Historical Fiction. I could swear I read it (though I know I read the Cliff Notes of Vanity Fair to cover another assigned reading, the only time I ever used those in my academic life, so maybe I only skimmed it). But when I picked up a used paperback of Daughter recently and read it, it seemed completely unfamiliar. I apologize to my professor.

I knew the book revolved around the true story of Richard III and the murdered princes in the Tower of London, but I somehow thought it had something to do with time travel. But no, there’s no time travel, just research and detective work, set in 1950 or so. A Scotland Yard detective, laid up with a broken leg, charges a young American researcher to delve into the files of the British Museum, and together they find that Richard was clearly not the one who did in the little princes.

I won’t give away the name of who they conclude did carry out the murderous acts (though I’m sure it’s easy to look up these days if you want to, and as always, it helps to ask cui bono?), but along the way they raise many interesting issues about how history is written, epistemology, and what we call these days “fake news.”

Their shorthand word for that fake news is Tonypandy, after the Tonypandy riots of 1910. Here’s how Tey’s character, Detective Alan Grant, describes those events and fake news that followed (p. 102):
If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy….

The actual facts were these. The rougher section of the Rhondda valley had got quite out of hand. Shops were being looted and property destroyed. The Chief Constable in Glamorgan sent a request to the House Office for troops to protect the lieges.
In the novel, Grant says the troops never engaged with the strikers at all, though the Wikipedia entry disagrees with that point, but both agree that no shots were fired. One miner died from a head injury (Grant again omits that, saying there were only bloody noses), and there were probably hundreds of injuries from fights and blunt force trauma caused by truncheons. But despite Tey’s fairly innocuous description of the police response to the miners, it does appear that no one was shot by police, let alone soldiers.

Grant concludes his lesson on Tonypandy proper with this:
The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It will never be overtaken now. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing (p. 103).
Another example of Tonypandy given in the book is the Presbyterian martyrs of Scotland. These words are written in a letter by Detective Grant’s cousin Laura, who lives in Scotland:
Scotland has large monuments to two women martyrs drowned for their faith, in spite of the fact that they weren’t drowned at all and neither was a martyr anyway. The were convicted of treason — fifth column work for the projected invasion from Holland, I think. Anyhow on a purely civil charge. They were reprieved on their own petition by the Privy Council, and the reprieve is in the Privy Council Register to this day.

This, of course, hasn’t daunted the Scottish collectors of martyrs, and the tale of their sad end, complete with heart-rending dialogue, is to be found in every Scottish bookcase…. They are even a subject for fine Presbyterian sermons…. And tourists come and shake their heads over the monuments with their moving inscriptions, and a very profitable time is had by all.

All this in spite of the fact that the original collector of the material, canvassing the…district only forty years after the supposed martyrdom and at the height of the Presbyterian trim, complains that “many deny that this happened” and couldn’t find any eyewitnesses at all (pp. 129-130).
When Grant later relays the story of the Scottish fake saints to his young research assistant, he refers to the Presbyterian partisans as Covenanters and puts it into a then-current context:
The Covenanters were the exact equivalent of the IRA in Ireland. A small irreconcilable minority, and as bloodthirsty a crowd as ever disgraced a Christian nation. If you went to church on Sunday instead of to a conventicle, you were liable to wake up on Monday to find your barn burned or your horses ham-strung. If you were more open in your disapproval you were shot. The men who shot Archbishop Sharp in his daughter’s presence, in broad daylight on a road in Fife, were the heroes of the movement…. They lived safe and swaggering among their Covenanting fans in the West for years… (p. 142).
After a few more examples of killings by the Covenanters, Grant continues:
They were actually worse than the IRA because there was a fifth column element in it. They were financed from Holland, and their arms came from Holland…. They expected to take over the Government any day, and rule Scotland. All their preaching was pure sedition. The most violent incitement to crime you could imagine… No one ever stopped them from worshipping God any way they pleased. What they were out to do was to impose their method of church government not only on Scotland but on England… You should read the Covenant some day. Freedom of worship was not to be allowed to anyone according to the Covenanting creed (pp. 142-143).
Whether Tey's rendering of the Scottish situation is accurate, I cannot determine because it's darned near impenetrable for an American reader. She seems to have her own anti-Irish and anti-Catholic bias, for instance, though she's also clearly not a fan of Scottish nationalism either, even though she was Scottish. But despite those caveats, all of this resonates in our current era, including the desire on the part of some in society for theocracy as they define it.

At the end of the letter from Grant’s cousin Laura, she includes a P.S. that merits separate note:
It’s an odd thing that when you tell someone the true facts of a mythical tale they are indignant not with the teller but with you. They don’t want to have their ideas upset. It rouses some vague uneasiness in them, I think, and they resent it. So they reject it and refuse to think about it. If they were merely indifferent it would be natural and understandable. But it is much stronger than that, much more positive. They are annoyed. Very odd, isn’t it? (p. 130)
And that also resonates with today, doesn’t it? People stick to their tribal epistemology, as Dave Roberts calls it, using the "rational" part of their minds to justify what they already concluded in the lizard brain (or System 2 and System 1, as Daniel Kahneman calls these aspects of the brain in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow).

So, as Talleyrand said centuries ago, the more things change, the more things stay the same. Fake news is not new, it just travels faster through social media, with Russian-funded bots to help it it along. Tonypandy lives in Charlottesville and Berkeley and in the rumors of looting during Hurricane Harvey.

Maybe that's almost a hopeful conclusion from all of this, eh? People believed and believe all of these untrue things, but the world keeps going.

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