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fake history

7 may 2024

I ran across Jo Teeuwisse's Fake History on social media, and figured the book would be a fun collection of debunkings. It is that: some are more fun than others, some are more detailed, some are more salient. But any collection of 101 items is going to be uneven.

I like Teeuwisse's elaborations of common-knowledge factoids that turn out to be far more complicated once you explore them. "First interracial kiss" and "first same-sex kiss" on TV are widely known to have taken place in Star Trek (1968) and EastEnders (1989). And in a sense, when something gets a lot of play, it is for most purposes a "first." But Teeuwisse shows how, depending on how you define "interracial" and "kiss," both when-questions have a lot of different answers.

Teeuwisse is good at these TV tracers. A viral image of a soldier in full German WW2 uniform, checking his cellphone, is either evidence of time travel or … no, of course, it's a film extra. But what film? Teeuwisse patiently establishes that it's a given episode of a 2016 Czech TV series.

She also likes to trace photographs, though the amazing thing is not the fakery but the idea that anyone on social media would take some of the fakes seriously. A photograph (198) of a bearded dude from 1567? What kind of history are these kids today learning if they think photography existed in 1567?

Sometimes Photoshop is involved (a robot hanging out with buffalo soldiers, 263). But sometimes fake viral photographs are trick images of venerable vintage. Teeuwisse reprints one of a man apparently testing an old-timey football helmet by running full-tilt into a wall (213). The image just looks fake, and it is, but it is more documentary fiction than fraud. Teeuwisse establishes that there really was a guy in 1912 who tested flight helmets by head-butting walls. Photography of the period couldn't freeze him in mid-collision, so somebody in 1912 awkwardly collaged a still of him onto a background of a wall, as if at the moment of impact. In an odd way the fake is real.

Several of Teeuwisse's tracers are of the "they never said that" type, items that Garson O'Toole covers more thoroughly in his web and print work. She cites O'Toole, and it's all fine, but you're better off reading him directly.

Better are her longer discussions of things we're certain we know about the dismal reaches of medieval and early-modern society. Everybody was dirty, had appalling teeth, had to drink beer instead of water, emptied chamberpots out of windows, and ate heavily-spiced food because it was all rotten – right? A little thought, even before reading the patient explanations, would suggest that we'd all have gone extinct a thousand years ago if things had reached that level of desperation. Instead of that, we were clean and safely-fed and kept our water supplies pure. Or our ancestors, did, anyway, despite the general lack of modern conveniences.

Teeuwisse, Jo Hedwig. Fake History: 101 things that never happened. London: W.H. Allen [Penguin Random House], 2023.