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From Game of Thrones to the Vietnam War—check your sources

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Quick recap of Game of Thrones: Noble Queen Cersei does the best she can after her husband is accidentally killed; stupid and disloyal Ned rightly gets his head chopped off; good King Joffrey is tragically murdered by his evil uncle Tyrion.

That sound about right?

I wouldn’t have characterized the first three seasons of the HBO series that way. But in the most recent season, while Arya Stark is in Braavos, she sees a theater troupe performing their version of those events, and that is how the events were portrayed. While we viewers know this is fundamentally inaccurate, the Braavosi audiences only know what they see on stage, and as far as they know, this is what’s been happening in King’s Landing.

There is a cliché that history is written by the winners, but an argument can be made that history is written by the writers. Besides the tautological sense, I am referring to popular writing about historical events, which, by definition, is how most people get their information. Studies (and TV talk show hosts) consistently confirm that most people don’t remember much of the history they learned in the first place, but what they do remember is frequently based on a popular story—a book, TV show, movie, or, in older times, a play.

Sometimes these are dramatizations of recent events; other times they are tales of a mythical long-ago. In both cases, the author’s spin shapes popular imagination about the events and our moral judgments about them.

Little George Washington chops down the cherry tree; cannot tell a lie.

King Henry V justly invades France; inspires troops with epic speech.

Three hundred valiant Spartans try to hold off a massive Persian invasion force; fail, but by example rally the free Greeks.

Brave U.S. troops defend peaceful settlers against vicious attacks by Indian tribes; bring law and order to anarchic frontier towns.

Gandhi employs non-violent protest tactics to bring about an end to British colonial rule in India.

In some of these examples, there is no truth at all; in others, there is a bit of truth mixed in with fictionalization.  In all of them, there is a particular perspective on the events that takes hold in the popular imagination, and for many people that is the extent of their information.

Most people today, if they know anything at all about Henry V, know it from Shakespeare, via Kenneth Branagh. But even in the 1600s, most people’s knowledge of the events of the Hundred Years’ War would come from popular drama, in the same way that most contemporary audiences know about Vietnam from movies such as Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket.

To be sure, education is more universal now than in the 1600s, but for the most part drama is what sticks in people’s heads, whether it’s movies or plays. These dramas can push one into particular emotional responses. It’s difficult to see a production of Henry V and not be inspired by the young King. It’s difficult to watch Apocalypse Now and come away thinking that the Vietnam War was both just and well-planned. This is precisely why Plato was fearful of people forming judgments based on artistic recreations—the craft allows for emotional manipulation.

This can work in any direction—I mentioned examples of Vietnam War films that typically elicit negative emotive attitudes, but contrast that with The Green Berets, a film which has exactly the opposite effect.

Plato was concerned that if we disengage our critical faculties, we can be easily manipulated by narratives into believing what is false. When we watch plays or movies about real events, we need to be on guard against that manipulation, and we ought not to treat them as our sole source of information. Maybe Henry wasn’t justified in invading France. Maybe the Indians shouldn’t have been slaughtered. Maybe there were more than 300 Spartans fighting at Thermopylae.

Popular entertainment can wonderfully enhance our ability to know and judge the past—here I am less fearful than Plato—but we do need to be cautious. Get another source. Seek non-fiction accounts. Consider alternate perspectives. Turns out Joffrey wasn’t really a very good king after all.


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