Examples of Misunderstood Historical Events
March 23, 2016 2:39 AM   Subscribe

Which events from the last 30 years have been mis-interpreted in the popular consciousness?

I'm working on a web series examining events in recent history that are misunderstood in the present day.

The best examples I can find so far are the 'McDonald's hot coffee' case, which is commonly understood as a lesson about the litigiousness of American society, but is actually an example of the system working as it's supposed to. Or the controversy over 'Ebonics' in the 1990s, which was actually an example of a school system trying to better serve its students, but is generally seen by the public as 'political correctness gone mad.'

What are other examples of events from recent history that are understood one way by people who know little about them, but very differently by people who know a lot about them?
posted by rottenindenmark to Society & Culture (37 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
 
The 1975 Dismissal of the Whitlam Government stinks a lot more if you look closely at it than its usually done.
posted by wilful at 3:54 AM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]




Phonics versus whole language reading instruction in the United States. There was outrage over giving elementary students boring phonics-based books that had little plot to teach them to read as opposed to language-rich books with interesting content.

The reality is that schools used a combination of phonics and whole language. Schools didn't yank all the fun books and give kids those phonics primers only.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 6:02 AM on March 23, 2016 [5 favorites]


The Space Shuttle Challenger didn't "explode" and very few people watched it live on TV, even though a lot of people seem to think they did.
posted by bondcliff at 6:04 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


People forget that Slutwalk was so named as a direct response to a Toronto police officer specifically saying women shouldn't "dress like sluts" if they want to avoid rape. Oh, and dressing "sluttily" is not required - some do so, but plenty show up in regular clothing.
posted by divabat at 6:05 AM on March 23, 2016


This is a favorite subject of mine.
The California energy outages of the early 2000s. It turned out they were being manipulated by Enron. The crisis got governor Gray Davis recalled and Schwarzenegger elected.

Most of my examples are well over thirty years. A favorite: the Irish Famine of the 1840s was not caused by the potato blight. It was caused by the fact that until the early 19th century, Catholics could not own land in Ireland (and therefore not many did at the time of the famine). The Protestant landowners, who mainly lived in England, required the Catholic farmers to sell their crops to pay the rent. Even with the potato blight, the farms were producing enough crops to feed the people, but the landlords demanded they sell the crops. Thus, the famine.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 6:10 AM on March 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Also oyyyy there were so many related to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, feel free to peruse this self-link if you want, but here's some starters:

* Yes there were Muslim pilots. Malaysia's a majority Muslim country, it's not surprising that their staff are going to be largely Muslim. There's no terrorist plot.

* Before MH370 and MH17 soon after, Malaysia Airlines didn't really have a significant history of air incidents. The last big incident was an unsolved hijacking in 1977.

* Re MH17: They were flying at altitudes marked as 'safe' at the time and weren't the only planes flying that route.

* Malaysia Airlines, despite what John Oliver thinks, is not a nickel-and-dime sort of airline. They're a typical commercial airliner - your ticket covers your choice of seat, meals, suitcases, amenities, entertainment, etc.

* The Indian Ocean is HUUUUUUUUGGGGGGGGEEEEEEEE so it's understandable that it's taking them a damn long time to try and find debris. Indeed, taking a long time to find remains of air crashes is not that unusual.

* The tech to track every plane all the time everywhere is not quite there yet due to capacity over bandwidth and such. People are working on it but it's a work in progress.
posted by divabat at 6:23 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


Bill Bucker's error was not the last play, or even part of the last game, of the 1986 World Series.
posted by JanetLand at 7:01 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Oh god - as someone who works in and around education, my biggest one is Common Core. Which, despite what republican talking heads would have you believe, has absolutely nothing to do with the federal government (so the power is already 'back in the state's hands').

As the FAQ on their website clearly states: "The Common Core is a state‐led effort that is not part of No Child Left Behind or any other federal initiative. The federal government played no role in the development of the Common Core."
posted by CharlieSue at 7:07 AM on March 23, 2016 [7 favorites]




This one might be a bit pedantic but President Bill Clinton was impeached by the US House of Representatives, and then was acquitted after trial by the Senate. Impeachment refers to the formal process accusing a public official of a crime and bringing charges and is not synonymous with the official actually being removed from office. The same is true of President Andrew Johnson's impeachment. It is likely that President Nixon would have been impeached and likely convicted and removed from office had he not resigned, but he did, so he wasn't, and now we'll never know.

I don't know if it counts as a historical event exactly but the 2004 documentary Supersize Me was ubiquitous in pop culture at the time and arguably was what pushed McDonalds to eliminate the supersize option, but was actually pretty dishonest in its presentation. Academics have failed to replicate Spurlock's results and there is evidence he misrepresented what he actually did and ate.

Not sure if this one is an "event" per se either but crime rates have consistently fallen across the US since the early 1990s. Public perception has not recognized this fact.

This is more than 30 years but the Kitty Genovese murder is popularly remembered as the classic example of the bystander effect where a group of witnesses do nothing to prevent or report a crime. While the bystander effect may be real, the facts of the Genovese murder don't fit it. In reality people did call the police, most of the "witnesses" were unaware the attack had occurred or only heard portions without realizing the seriousness.
posted by Wretch729 at 7:40 AM on March 23, 2016 [11 favorites]


Rosa Parks wasn't the first person to resist bus segregation by refusing to give up her seat. From Wikipedia: "Others had taken similar steps, including Bayard Rustin in 1942, Irene Morgan in 1946, Sarah Louise Keys in 1952, and the members of the ultimately successful Browder v. Gayle lawsuit (Claudette Colvin, Aurelia Browder, Susie McDonald, and Mary Louise Smith) who were arrested in Montgomery for not giving up their bus seats months before Parks." Also, in her autobiography, she wrote that her refusal wasn't about being physically tired after a workday.
posted by neushoorn at 8:52 AM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]


Al Gore, while serving as a Senator in Congress, spearheaded the High Performance Computing and Communications Act of 1991, which eventually served to promote internet access beyond universities and reach into the private sector. He was a crucial factor in turning the government-funded internet into the commercial behemoth we know today. The act also funded other projects that produced things such as NCSA Mosaic (which begat Netscape Mosaic/Navigator, etc).

During a CNN interview in 1999, Gore said the following:
"During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our educational system."
This clumsy wording quickly mutated into the meme "Al Gore thinks he invented the internet", subjecting him to wide ridicule and countless jokes that last to this day. Many prominent internet pioneers have risen to Gore's defense...but were lost in the noise.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:34 AM on March 23, 2016 [9 favorites]






The importance of social media to what was commonly referred to as "the Arab spring" was highly exaggerated. Then there was a backlash denying it played any part at all. The truth is much more complex, as noted in this Guardian article.
posted by FencingGal at 10:03 AM on March 23, 2016


The myth of Zouheir, a 'hero Muslim security guard' in Paris.

Also, the myth of US soldier Jessica Lynch "fighting to the death", being shot and stabbed, then tortured by her Iraqi captors, and ultimately rescued by US special forces in a dangerous raid . The truth is much less heroic and dramatic. Mind you this is a case where intentional wartime propaganda (and bizarrely, an official biographer) is the source of the myths, rather than just the public being misinformed, or not understanding. However, even though the the myths have been debunked I expect a large proportion of the population would still recount the story according to the initial spin.
posted by Kabanos at 10:21 AM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


A lot of people still think singer Cass Elliot (Mama Cass) died because she choked on a ham sandwich. The physician who first examined her noted a sandwich by her bed and assumed she had been eating while lying down (a particularly egregious error, given that the sandwich was untouched). This took off and became a sort of joke (ha ha - fat woman dies from eating). In reality, she had a heart attack, the cause of which is disputed. In addition to being obese, she had a long history of extreme crash dieting, which would have weakened her heart.
posted by FencingGal at 10:45 AM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Similarly to the Billy Buck play, the 1980 Olympics Miracle on Ice was not the gold medal game. That came two days later.
posted by sixpack at 10:56 AM on March 23, 2016 [3 favorites]


The Republican idolatry of Ronald Reagan has caused many distortions in the popular consciousness. For one instance (Berlin Wall), see here.
posted by SemiSalt at 12:05 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Al Gore was mentioned above being misquoted. Similarly, Sarah Palin never said, "I can see Russia from my house." That was Tina Fey's impression of her on SNL.

The idea that an Alaskan governor had foreign policy experience with Russia started on Fox News. The Daily Show called out Fox's assertion as bullshit. In her first major interview, ABC's Charles Gibson asked her to comment on the idea, and Palin correctly said Alaska shared a maritime border with Russia and had hosted trade-based missions specific to Alaskan/Russian fisheries.

It was only after that part that she spun off the rails.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 12:49 PM on March 23, 2016 [1 favorite]


The Space Shuttle Challenger didn't "explode" and very few people watched it live on TV, even though a lot of people seem to think they did.

Sorry, but it did explode. An O-ring on one of the SRBs didn't make a tight fit, and allowed a leak of hot gas to strike the external fuel tank. It burned through and permitted the liquid fuel inside to detonate.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:43 PM on March 23, 2016 [2 favorites]


Graham Chapman did not die of AIDS. It's true that he was gay, but he was also a pipe smoker and he died of throat cancer.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:45 PM on March 23, 2016


Less-recent than 30 years, but: all of the actual evidence says Lee Harvey Oswald killed JFK, and he did it alone.
posted by Pseudonymous Cognomen at 7:18 PM on March 23, 2016 [4 favorites]




very few people watched it live on TV, even though a lot of people seem to think they did.

I'll agree with that part, bondcliff, and if you're meaning the orbiter itself didn't exactly blow up, true; but the launch vehicle assembly including the Challenger was certainly torn apart by the explosion of its external tank, as detailed by Chocolate Pickle.

Came in here to post a previously about the McDonalds coffee case, but unfortunately the actual TMCM link it references isn't working now. (And I'm not sure it's about something that could actually be characterized a "historical event.")
posted by Rash at 11:33 PM on March 23, 2016




Oh, I have another one. Carrie Buck, the subject of the infamous case of Buck v. Bell ("three generations of imbeciles are enough"), was not actually intellectually disabled (then known as "feebleminded"). She was an average student who was poor and lived with foster parents. She was committed to an institution after becoming pregnant from rape.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 11:49 PM on March 23, 2016


Oh god - as someone who works in and around education, my biggest one is Common Core. Which, despite what republican talking heads would have you believe, has absolutely nothing to do with the federal government

This is not true. Yes, states created Common Core, but did so as a reaction to the federal government:

On February 17, 2009, President Barack Obama’s Race to the Top program was signed into law, inviting states to compete for $4.35 billion in extra funding based on the strength of their student test scores. On Mar. 13, 2010, Obama proposed an overhaul of NCLB, promising further incentives to states if they develop improved assessments tied more closely to state standards, and emphasizing other indicators like pupil attendance, graduation rates and learning climate in addition to test scores.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:11 AM on March 24, 2016


Bra-burning didn't happen.
posted by The Toad at 6:53 AM on March 24, 2016 [3 favorites]


but the launch vehicle assembly including the Challenger was certainly torn apart by the explosion of its external tank

This isn't the place to get into a debate so this is the last I'll say but the Shuttle was torn apart due to aerodynamic forces. The "explosion" was the fuel in the external tank igniting after it was torn apart by the SRB breaking loose, but the shuttle didn't fail because it exploded.

Just to stay on topic, it is true that Bob Dylan was booed when he went electric at the Newport Folk Festival but the booing was because of the poor sound quality and the short set, not because he was plugged in.
posted by bondcliff at 7:10 AM on March 24, 2016


This isn't the place to get into a debate so this is the last I'll say but the Shuttle was torn apart due to aerodynamic forces. The "explosion" was the fuel in the external tank igniting after it was torn apart by the SRB breaking loose, but the shuttle didn't fail because it exploded.

The "Space Shuttle System" consisted of the Orbiter, the External Tank (ET), and the Solid Rocket Boosters (SRB's). So, the SRB failed, leading to the ET explosion, leading to the Orbiter breakup. To be pedantic, the Shuttle exploded.

Bottom line, it was a sad day. I didn't see it on TV. I did see it with my eyes from my backyard. It still sucks. I change the channel the when footage comes on.
posted by jeporter99 at 7:59 AM on March 24, 2016


"Returning Vietnam War vets were spit on instead of welcomed" is an enduring story but it's very difficult to find documented cases of it.
posted by werkzeuger at 11:41 AM on March 24, 2016 [2 favorites]


Vaccines don't cause autism.
HIV was not developed as a biological weapon.
The CIA didn't create an inner-city crack epidemic.*

* Wait, wait, hold up there. That one's still unsettled.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:56 PM on March 24, 2016




Be sure to look at the great Wikipedia article on common misconceptions. Not much recent history there, but it might still be useful.
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:53 AM on April 13, 2016 [2 favorites]


Much longer than 30 years ago, but Bruce Carlson had an interesting three part series about Neville Chamberlain on his excellent My History Can Beat Up Your Politics podcast.

TL;DL : Chamberlain was obviously wrong about Hitler, but there was a lot of pressure on him at the time to attempt a diplomatic solution, and he actually played an important role in the rearming of Great Britain.
posted by panama joe at 11:38 AM on May 10, 2016


« Older TL;DR I offended a guy at a party in a reallly......   |   What's reasonable to expect men to understand... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.