Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution (2023) and How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America (2021)

A May 18, 2023 New York Times article, which I accessed through the Toronto Public Library website, is entitled: “The Decade That Cannot Be Deleted.”

The article is concerned with history and historiography.

Click here for previous posts about historiography >

An excerpt from the article reads:

When the Cultural Revolution comes up in American conversation, it’s generally in debates over the rise of group think and mob mentalities, performative outrage on Twitter and on college campuses. Parallels certainly exist: Political leaders fomenting cultural wars, polarization reducing differences of opinion to signifiers of ally and heretic, and the media resorting to shouty sloganeering over considered debate.

But Branigan’s book offers an equally important cautionary lesson: the perils of ignoring or distorting history. What a country downplays in its historical record continues to reverberate, whether it’s the Cultural Revolution in China or the treatment of Native Americans and the legacy of slavery in the United States. And just as Xi Jinping can censor China’s recent Covid record, so can America attempt to whitewash events — the results of the 2020 election, the insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021 — in its own recent past.

Near the end of Smith’s “How the Word Is Passed,” the author describes his grandparents’ experiences of segregation in the South, which took place just a decade before China’s Cultural Revolution. “Black-and-white photographs and film footage can convince us that these episodes transpired in a distant past,” he writes, “untouched by our contemporary world.” But as his grandmother tells him, “It was for real, and I had lived it.”

The article refers to two books, which are listed below along with their accompanying blurbs.

Red Memory (2023)

Red Memory: The Afterlives of China’s Cultural Revolution (2023)

A blurb reads:

‘It is impossible to understand China today without understanding the Cultural Revolution,’ Tania Branigan writes. During this decade of Maoist fanaticism between 1966 and 1976, children turned on parents, students condemned teachers, and as many as two million people died for their supposed political sins, while tens of millions were hounded, ostracized, and imprisoned. Yet in China this brutal and turbulent period exists, for the most part, as an absence; official suppression and personal trauma have conspired in national amnesia. Red Memory uncovers forty years of silence through the stories of individuals who lived through the madness.

How the Word Is Passed (2021)

How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America (2021)

A blurb reads:

‘How the Word is Passed’ is Clint Smith’s revealing, contemporary portrait of America as a slave owning nation. Beginning in his own hometown of New Orleans, Smith leads the reader through an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks – those that are honest about the past and those that are not – that offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in shaping our nation’s collective history, and ourselves.

Additional resources related to historiography

The above-noted books bring to mind three additional resources related to historiography.

The Propagandists’ Playbook (2022)

The Propagandists’ Playbook: The Propagandists’ Playbook: How Conservative Elites Manipulate Search and Threaten Democracy (2022)

A blurb (paragraph breaks have been added) reads:

A sociotechnical society must consider how data-driven and algorithmic systems impact decision-making at both the macro-level, such as policy and culture, and the micro-level, such as voting and purchasing. Tripodi applies social theory to her empirical research on how communities make meaning and engage with data-driven and algorithmic systems in everyday life. Her data reveal that conservative elites use media platforms in unintended or unanticipated ways, threatening the democratic process.

The Propagandists’ Playbook peels back the layers of the media manipulation machine and reveals why conservative elites are so effective at exploiting their constituents’ worldviews and media practices. Tripodi gives examples of keywords, frames, and co-optive tactics to give readers an idea of what this information ecosystem looks like.

Ultimately, her findings are much broader. They represent a more nuanced understanding of the keywords and processes conservative pundits and politicians rely on to amplify, validate, and normalize white supremacist logic. This book is also a call to action for how we can break the disinformation loop. Most efforts reactively target misinformation, but to treat “information disorder” proactively, we need more ethnographic research on how cultural logics and contextual media literacy are exploited.

After finishing this book, some might ask how search engines like Google can fix an increasingly bifurcated internet. But Tripodi believes that’s the wrong question. What she observed is an ever-evolving sociotechnical issue and the vulnerability is democracy. Remaining obsessed with a fix, misses the root of the dynamic at play-conservative elites are leveraging cultural frames, and without an ethnographic lens, their tactics remain invisible. Disinformation is not a bug in the code, it’s a feature wielded for political gain. The seven steps she outlines form the Propagandists’ Playbook.

Knowing the concerns of their audiences, leveraging a media network, drawing on conservative forms of media literacy, understanding how information flows, seeding the internet with information, connecting old ideas to new thinkers, and then encouraging audiences to engage in a curated form of self-discovery create a powerful disinformation circuit. By revealing these tactics and methods for manipulating information, Tripodi hopes that this book will help break this decades-old disinformation cycle.

You Are Here (2021)

You Are Here: A Field Guide for Navigating Polarized Speech, Conspiracy Theories, and Our Polluted Media Landscape (2021)

A blurb reads:

A novel analysis of social media network manipulation that shows how everyday users can limit the spread of harmful, misleading, and objectively false information.

Legacy of Violence (2022)

Legacy of Violence: A History of the British Empire (2022)

A blurb reads:

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian: a searing study of the British Empire that interrogates the country’s pervasive use of violence throughout the twentieth century and traces how these practices were exported, modified, and institutionalized in colonies around the globe.

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