Thatcher, The Internet and Good and Bad History

No one has the right to spend their life without being offended

Philip Pullman

De Mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est [or, roughly, speak no ill of the dead]

Chilon of Sparta

Yesterday, one of the most influential British politicians of the last hundred years passed away. Margaret Thatcher, or Baroness Thatcher to give her her proper title, died of a stroke in bed at her suite at The Ritz Hotel in London, aged 87.

As a man yet to hit 30, Thatcher occupies a strange place in my life – I was 6 or so when she was ousted by her party. Barely conscious really, and certainly not that engrossed with the politics of the day. Yet despite living the vast majority of my life in the period following her 20 year premiership, she has arguably had more impact on the way I live my life than any other person. The fabled “Iron Lady” exists to me as myth, her deeds legend; seemingly ancient history yet also achingly current, with the consequences of her decisions rearing their (ugly) head(s) almost constantly.

Depending on your standpoint she was either tyrant; smashing the trade unions, fighting a pointless war over the Falklands, Poll Tax… or hero; moderniser, an example to women everywhere, someone who resurrected an ailing economy seeing the future of “the market”. She was polarising in the truest sense of the word.

As with any public figure who passes away, her death was immediately plastered all over News websites, rolling 24 hour news channels, and of course the new ‘Town Square’, of Twitter and Facebook. Someone visiting either one of these sites was met with The Good, The Bad and The Incompetent.

First, the Incompetent, or to paraphrase Home Alone – Les Incompetents:

[Aside: This is only one of a whole host of similar tweets. I was staggered by the widespread display of ignorance. Yes, you’re young – we get that, but how hard would it be to find out a fairly well known fact. It is moments like this where I start to think that the web savvy youth who refuses to watch TV in the living room, and refuses to pay for music, and finds everything they want online actually doesn’t exist, – even my Mum, a lady of some advanced years, can type a name into Google.]

Anyway, back to the point, and back to The Good:

And then, The Bad:

The Sabotage Times deploying what turned out to be a highly obvious sort of ‘joke’.

For a character so polarising, this was always going to happen. What happened next was what I found interesting, many people, upon seeing the negative half of the Thatcher discourse became extremely angry and claimed that it was in bad taste to criticise the dead – seemingly personally offended at the criticism being exacted upon the deceased lady. Not least, was former Tory MP and self proclaimed Thatcherite Louise Mensch:

[As another brief aside, if one were being even slightly cynical – the chicklit author and recent émigré  has clearly taken this occasion as an opportunity to get traction for Brand Mensch, a review of her Twitter profile alludes to a media appearance schedule that is impressively large. Less impressive than sycophantic is her RT’ing and mentioning of other political giants such as The Guv’nor, Arnie, and even Obamarama himself.]

Mensch, justifiably feels that it is perhaps too soon to be attacking a woman whose body was not yet cold. The recently dead remain untouchable in much public discourse, pristinely preserved in their finality, at least until the first quick and cheap jokes emerge as text messages on your phone. But is this correct, especially in the case of a person such as Thatcher? Glenn Greenwald astutely notes that this is one of the final taboos, posting this on his Guardian blog, he argues

“This demand for respectful silence in the wake of a public figure’s death is not just misguided but dangerous. That one should not speak ill of the dead is arguably appropriate when a private person dies, but it is wildly inappropriate for the death of a controversial public figure, particularly one who wielded significant influence and political power…..But the key point is this: those who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren’t silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person’s death to create hagiography

It’s a brilliant, timely piece of writing, and I’d encourage you (yes, YOU) to read it. It reminded me of a conversation between some of my friends one morning at the end of my first year at University during the traditional exam season which brings the Summer term to a close. I met two of my friends on the steps of the Humanities building to discuss the History exam they had just finished. The postmortem they were conducting revealed that the central question posed to them in the exam paper was “Explain the differences between good History and bad History”.

One of the two piped up that her answer involved “Good History, so things like the The falling of the Berlin Wall, the Civil Rights movement in the US, the signing of the Magna Carta… and Bad History, things like Stalin’s purges,  the holocaust….”. Her class mate had long stopped in his tracks, and was aghast at her seemingly naïve and unquestionably stupid response. This response had obviously totally missed the point.

As David Foster Wallace points out in his review of Bryan A. Garner’s Dictionary of Modern American Usage, even dictionaries suffer from the ideological and political leanings of their authors. If  a dictionary suffers from this, then historical analysis certainly does. The difference between Good History and Bad History lies not in the nature of the accounts being reported, but in the analysis and the bias inherent in any manmade recollection of past events.

Greenwald’s central thesis is that we must be allowed to see both sides of the story when it comes to people, that this avoids the creation of ‘Bad History’. I would posit that this is even more important now, in the internet age. When I, the 29 year old, was at school, History, and all kinds of other data, was reasonably “static”. The textbooks in libraries and in our book bags changed only once every 5 years as new editions were published, and even then, the changes were minimal.

We now live in a world where knowledge is increasingly fluid, as the printed page becomes more and more subservient to the digital word. The Encyclopedia Britannica ceased to exist in print form last year after 244 years, killed off by the economics which allow a website like Wikipedia to thrive without the need for professional historians, or indeed humans. Choose an entry on wikipedia, scroll all the way to the bottom, and you will find a date. This date tells you when the page you are reading was last edited. In some instances, this will be months or even years ago. In many instances, it could be just moments ago.

As Internet activist Eli Pariser notes in his popular TED Talk, and in the book of the same name, a Filter Bubble is emerging around us – more and more of the content we are exposed to online is dictated not by a traditional reference system as we have in libraries, but by algorithms. Little lines of code which make decisions on our behalf, often because of things we’ve done in the past or even because of things our friends have done.

The likes of Google and Facebook would argue that these lines of code are designed to help us navigate seas of content and time after time, find the content that is relevant to us. More of the content we want, and less of the content we dont. But, these systems can be ‘gamed’ – the sole objective being to appear higher and higher up the search listings. The chart below, from a report by Search Engine Marketing specialists Optify shows that the higher up the rankings a page appears in Google, the more people will click.

This is Choice Architecture in action, the “nudges” of Thaler and Sunstein, popularised by the Behavioural Economics movement, even adopted by Thatcher’s political descendant David Cameron as a buzz-wordy theory about how to control political hot potatoes such as obesity or saving. As Thaler and Sunstein show, choice architecture can be used for good – as in the example of a lady organising the school canteen to promote fruit and veg over chips and burgers, but this science’s application could also be to our detriment.

The algorithms which create the Filter Bubble Pariser discusses are not dangerous because they help us decide, but because we are often largely ignorant to their presence.  It is in this context in which Glenn Greenwald’s argument is so salient. Remember for a second our ignoramus twitter user, @xcarlywhitex , and imagine that she in some near future scenario tries to discover just who Thatcher was. Discourse which seeks to paint a disproportionately fair picture of ones deeds could, in an algorithmic world, paint a severely distorted picture to an onlooker. In a world of information increasingly created not by people, but by links and algorithms, it is more important than ever we speak the truth, clearly, loudly and proudly no matter who we could potentially offend and we must realise that the importance of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history should be of interest to us all.

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