Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World | Review


Otto English is the pen name for Andrew Scott, a journalist that covers history and contemporary politics. His book Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World takes a look at the numerous fictions of history and how and why they have become known to be historical facts.


In the wake of social media, fake news has become an epidemic in itself. And while it is nothing new, people are more aware than ever of the probability of lies and misinformation within the media. As the world rapidly changes with economic depression, rise in right-wing views, political corruption and lobbying, the war against misinformation has never been more palpable. With Otto English’s Fake History: Ten Great Lies and How They Shaped the World, Otto reminds us that fake news has been with us since history was first recorded and no different than today, it is utilised to control the collective mindset of countries all over the world.


What we are taught in schools comprises what we know of history, but do we know the full picture? Otto English delves into the mistruths constantly expelled into the modern consciousness of Britons in the form of Winston Churchill. One of the most notable figures in British history, Churchill’s image is still idolised to this day due to a litany of stories told about him to shape his legend. Many of the stories, sayings or quotes said to have come from the man were fabrications or plagiarisms in order to define him as someone extraordinary to look up to. With every decade comes a new quote usually plucked from a movie to further institutionalise the man as a god among men. In death, the man has almost been elevated to something of a mythical figure, but this couldn’t have come to fruition if not for Churchill’s innate ability to market himself above the man he was. His six-volume series of books, The Second World War, solidified his legend long before he passed, and biographers and admirers have happily played along since.


As is the case of many successful men in history, the influence of the women in his life were brushed to the side. His story is that of one man who overcame the odds on his own, so the role of Clementine Churchill had to be downplayed to coincide with the narrative Churchill’s admirers continue to push in the eyes of the public. As far as they’re concerned, there was no partnership, just Winston against the evil of the world. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests mid-2020, hundreds of millions all over the world were treated to practical history lessons of key figures tied to slavery as their statues were either pulled down or had their removal called for. The protests surged a retrospective look at these figures and Churchill was no different. Many came aware of the man’s views on suffrage, constantly flip-flopping on his stance of women’s rights, his views on Indians, his views on Africa and of course, closer to home, his part in unleashing the black and tans in Ireland.


Otto also touches upon one of the most bafflingly out of reach theories to rear its head within the conspiracy movement, Flat Earth. Again, the idea to impose order on things we don’t understand, to limit the fear of the unknown is the foundation for most conspiracy theorists and exaggerated ancient history has only fostered it. Such as the narrative of Christopher Columbus, a man who is known to have sailed the earth to prove it was spherical. This is a complete lie as we already knew the earth was round but that didn’t stop those from forcing the narrative we know of today. Otto reveals Columbus wasn’t the great navigator many proclaimed him to be, instead, he was an unhinged capitalist motivated solely by wealth. A far cry from the image we see of him today, one that was repurposed to fit the image of a new world, America. While his voyage was courageous, Columbus did in fact not discover America, much to the disagreement of nationalists.


Otto follows onto nationalism and how it continues to shape countries all for the worst. War has always been a major aspect of British exceptionalism, and this has bled over into football which serves to quench the bloodthirst of many nationalists before the next world war kicks off. But only when they’re on the upside of advantage, as Otto recounts England’s loss to Germany in the 1996 European Championship. Britain, still to this day is obsessed with Germany and their history and this was all to accumulate in a clash of football some 51 years after the end of WW2.


“The idea that people born in a geographical region have some common spirit and a common destiny is nonsense, but it’s compelling nonsense.”


British nationalism has gone through numerous revisions to protect the public from the concept of British failure. As seen in war films and the BBC’s Dad’s Army, British exceptionalism is akin to cultism due to the fixation of World War 2. From there Otto sheds light on the lineage of the royal family, a glaring record many British people would prefer to ignore. As Germany has been made to be the arch-nemesis of Britain, the reality of how the royal family have German blood is not only rejected by nationalists but also utilised as an attack against the family by their detractors. Otto goes on to describe the belief of blue bloods, “the idea that some families are ‘older’ than others is patently ridiculous.” The act of delegitimising the royals for having German blood mirrors the Birther movement in America which saw to have then-president Barack Obama removed from the White House over the false notion that he wasn’t an American citizen. It would serve nationalists well to believe in the existence of “royal DNA” but nevertheless it is a lie required to believe in the existence of ‘blue bloods’.


Otto continues, as Britain has become an amalgamation of different cultures and backgrounds, with it has come various culinary delights. Culture is shaped by language and has an effect on our relationship with food. What consisted of the British diet before was frozen fish, beans, oven chips, and dining out was no different. Otto focuses on how from the 1960s onwards, migrants from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh were suddenly introducing new recipes never experienced by the palate of Britons. One of the exotic dishes now available to the British public had unfortunately got lost in translation due to the ignorance of Indian cuisine. Such is the case for the “Birmingham Balti”, a base mix of onions, garlic, ginger, turmeric, slat and garam masala cooked in a traditional metal bowl called a “Balti”. Unbeknownst to many, including myself, Otto reveals a Balti is the Bengali and Hindustani term for a bucket used to wash, flush the toilet, or clean your backside. Ignorance holds no bounds.


One of the biggest untruths in history is the belief that all men are created equal as Otto moves onto the miscarriage of justice produced by the illustrated Ladybird books of the late 20th century. Primarily used in schools to teach children to read, these books established the “standard for what Englishness was meant to be.” Only the history of the empire mattered and even then, little light was shed on the brutality that led to its formation. At no point did the illustrations of Britain reflect what citizens experienced in the 70s and 80s, often leaning more towards a fictitious utopian world. This mentality of ‘only our history matters’ has increased tenfold since Brexit. The new world was said to be inhabited by feral savages, later to have their vicious ways unlearnt by the all benevolent white man, who saw the history of slavery repurposed “as voluntary community service.” Otto then delves into the narrative of Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves which wasn’t as simple as it’s written in history books. While he did lead the North into the war to liberate slaves, his views on black people shifted with the times along with his political needs. He was a politician, not the Jesus like figure many books, films and television shows portray him to be. The history of black men and women during the civil war was subtly left out of history books as it did not have a place in how white people wanted to recollect the events.


“Human beings need heroes. So, ordinary politicians become outsized gods, brave women escaping slavery become wonder women, and blemishes and human failings of ‘great people’ and the complexity of their stories get ironed out as their deeds get blown out of all proportion.”


No different than the tall tale of a cleaning lady finding the war plans for Churchill, Adolf Hitler created an urban myth onto himself as Otto moves into the catalogue of films, books, and expertise on the man to which he became a brand of evil to sell on history channels.


Otto states that the man is a figure that represents a marketable horror, occupying the same space as Hannibal Lecter. Many find it uncomfortable to explore discussion on Hitler as Otto puts it, to “understand the man risks legitimizing him”, preventing those from realizing Mein Kampf isn’t the bible of evil it’s feared to be. In reality, it serves as the biggest exposure to the insecurity that Hitler manifested within himself after his failure to become an artist came to a head. Mein Kampf is strife with insecurity as Adolf wasn’t as educated as he portrayed himself to be nor as intelligent as his supporters like to assert. He hated modern art, simply because he didn’t understand it and banned art criticism to seclude himself from disapproval. This bled over into the architecture of Nazi Germany which was ugly in nature as it became the case of bringing everything down to Hitler’s level to further his ego.


Otto continues to shed light on the reality Adolf wasn’t as charismatic as many proclaim him to be, with many of his contemporaries at the time looking down on him. He was a bad military leader due to his embracement of confirmation bias leading to the death of many of his men. All that mattered was being in charge. By keeping Mein Kampf hidden makes it scarier rather than an uncovering of the facade that was Adolf Hitler. This is no different than in China today, as Otto segues to President Xi Jinping, a man that influenced a similar effect in Chinese nationalism. The belief there is that Chinas history is older than others and therefore better. The similarities of these men can also be seen in Donald Trump. No different than Mein Kampf, Trump’s book, The Art of the Deal was a complete fabrication to sell a fugazi brand of success. Otto explains, just like Hitler lied that he was a great painter, Trump lied about being a great businessman though Trump, unsurprisingly went a step further and had someone else write it for him.


The myths of Hitler and Churchill persist and guarantee their place in history books forever, even with the truth opposing their legends such as the case for Napoleon where Otto compares the paintings and medallions of the era to Instagram, the music of the time to YouTube and the papers were Napoleon’s Twitter and Facebook. All possible due to powerful men’s need to weaken and divide enemies which was Josef Stalin’s prerogative.


Otto sheds light on the term ‘disinformation’ and how it was first coined in 1923 when Josef Stalin set up the special disinformation office in Moscow. This was for the sole purpose of destabilizing other countries to stir discontent abroad as to diminish his enemies and when the time came, to rewrite the past. Such is the case for countries that are on the upside of advantage, in order to define their identity, they must find their enemy. Otto talks about the impact of 9/11 and how it has shaped the America we see today. Since September 11th, 2001, America has had a renewed purpose and sense of unity.


The quest to find an enemy and utilize them to define an image was exemplified in WW2 when the Japanese were needed to test out how powerful America was with the dropping of Little Boy and Fat Boy on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively. The latter of which could have been avoided due to Japan’s preparation of surrender. This was simply a means of sending a message to the USSR. Americans have come to justify a lot of atrocities since then due to yellow peril, an intolerance of China and Japan. Otto points out this has only increased in the wake of the coronavirus, as Trumps Administration had cultivated a new enemy in foreigners. A lot of the failings of the pandemic was blamed on China who became a scapegoat for all of Trump’s blunders in tackling the virus.


A willingness to buy into a man’s lies is what leads us to a cult of personalities like Hitler and Trump. None of these men live up to the stories and so must be preserved by their supporter’s lies throughout history. We’re currently living in the most peaceful period in history, though fake news threatens the stability of every country it’s disseminated in. Unlike generations before us, we now have the means to acknowledge the truth from fiction as we learn more in the information age. While this has given way to new methods of spreading untruths, we have the ability to document it in a way unlike ever before. To not do so is to allow future generations to fall into the trenches of deliberately disseminated falsehoods designed to undermine history in favour of self-serving goals to maintain and control the power of people. What Otto English covers in this book may already be known to some but the compilation of some of the worlds most notorious lies covered all in one medium provides a bigger picture of how unequipped we were and still are in defending the truth. All we can do to fight this is no better put than Otto himself:


“Human beings can do astonishing things when we rid ourselves of the menace of illusory superiority and embrace knowledge instead.”

You can buy Fake History here:

https://www.waterstones.com/book/fake-history/otto-english/9781787396395

https://www.allenandunwin.com/browse/books/general-books/history/Fake-History-Otto-English-9781787396401

Undoing Drugs: The Untold Story of Harm Reduction and the Future of Addiction | Review

Maia Szalavitz is an author and journalist focused on neuroscience, addiction and drug policy. She has written for the likes of High Times, VICE, The New York Times and The Guardian. Her newest book, Undoing Drugs, provides a comprehensive history of North American harm reduction movements, which arose as a response to the frightening AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. It details the harm reduction movement’s evolution from the late ’70s onwards. Groups like ADAPT (The Association for Drug Abuse Prevention and Treatment) and ACT UP (The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) and later, organisations like the DPA (Drug Policy Alliance) and the NHRC (National Harm Reduction Coalition) are explored. Undoing Drugs covers a range of topics across drug policy; the devastation of AIDS, the fight for supervised injection facilities, overdose prevention via Naloxone, compassionate changes to addiction and pain treatment and the emergence of national drug reform organisations.

The book is a tribute to ‘The Goddess of Harm Reduction’, Edith Springer, who is credited with introducing the harm reduction concept to America, thanks to a meeting with Allan Parry. Parry ran a successful harm reduction programme with Doctor John Marks in Liverpool, England. At one time, they were legally prescribing unadulterated, safe doses of heroin and cocaine to drug users. They also ran a needle exchange programme where they’d provide sterile needles in exchange for used ones, which they would safely dispose of. Clean needle programmes weren’t something that had been successfully organised yet in the States. Initially, they focused on educating injecting drug users on how to clean needles out with bleach and water, before re-using or sharing them. The book credits an exhaustive list of players in the harm reduction movement, from those mentioned above, to people like Yolanda Serrano, Jon Parker, Michelle Alexander, Dan Bigg, Stephanie Comer and Dave Purchase. All made valuable contributions to harm reduction in different periods, but tragically, not all of the groundbreaking and inspiring figures in this movement would survive to now, due to overdoses or illnesses.

Szalavitz experienced a major shock in 1990, when she first learned of the link between shared needles and HIV. She describes the ‘utter hell’ of waiting on HIV test results for two long weeks, before receiving the welcomed news that she hadn’t contracted it. It was at this point in her life that she decided that educating people about harm reduction and helping to introduce public harm reduction measures was precisely what she would devote herself to doing. Like Doctor Carl Hart, Szalavitz examines the racist origins of the war on drugs. She tells that even alcohol prohibition in the US had racist reasoning behind it: ‘..many white Protestants felt their power was threatened by rising numbers of immigrants from Germany, Ireland, and Italy, as well as Eastern European Jews. Prohibition was seen as a way to take back control.‘ She touches on the precedent set by The Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914 and explains how in 1930, Harry Anslinger, as the first Commissioner of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, fought for a strict federal ban on cannabis on the premise that weed ‘would seduce white women and lead to widespread insanity among previously pure white youth‘.

He ignored 29 of the 30 Doctors he interviewed about cannabis, who said that it wasn’t harmful enough to ban. This reckless anti-drug attitude would continue later, most notably with Presidents Nixon and Reagan. Szalavitz outlines the public mindset, from the ’60s onwards, as follows: ‘..illegal drugs had been firmly linked in the American mind with poor, Black, and brown criminals — and the stereotype of the “addict” as a lazy, devious, and violent sociopath mapped perfectly on to the racist stereotypes many whites held about those groups. With a compliant media, it was easy to blame violence and poverty on drugs — and not the socioeconomic circumstances that actually do lead people to problematic relationships with substances. It was also easy to spike fear that the evil drugs used by poor Black and brown people would soon be coming for innocent white babes.‘ Elsewhere, she quotes a lawyer, who said the following about crack cocaine in a New York Times op-ed in 1986: ‘If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are the failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years.

It’s apparent from these descriptions of the anti-drugs rhetoric of US authorities that the narrative on drugs has long been manipulated by those in power, to avoid taking responsibility for the neglect of various social issues and as a means of scapegoating ethnic minorities, particularly African Americans. The narratives of traditional and dominant twelve-step recovery programmes are challenged, such as those found at Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, where their only measure of success for an addict is total abstinence from intoxicating substances. Addiction is viewed as a ‘progressive disease’, such that if someone changed from buying crack every weekend to smoking a joint once or twice in a month, that person would be labelled ‘still using’ and ‘not in recovery’. This is because ‘progression of the disease’ is seen as inevitable, meaning that in their view, such an instance of seemingly controlled cannabis use ‘will ultimately spiral back to chaotic crack addiction’.

Szalavitz also covers the Housing Works organisation, which was founded to combat homelessness and addiction through the provision of free housing. The organisation was based on the ‘Housing First’ premise that it’s ‘highly unlikely that someone living in an unstable setting or entirely without shelter will be able to quit alcohol or other drugs while still on the street.‘ Along with the likes of Stand Up Harlem, they were shown to have tremendous success in reducing chronic homelessness and by extension, addiction rates. They stood in stark contrast with housing provision programmes that demanded the near-impossible from drug users – that they be entirely ‘clean of drugs’ before granting them accommodation. Root causes for many people who end up in damaging life scenarios are mentioned by the author, where she states: ‘Virtually everyone who ends up homeless, addicted, mentally ill, and HIV positive has a long history of childhood trauma, typically compounded by the experience of racism and the extreme distress and social rejection that comes with living on the street or being incarcerated.

Although Undoing Drugs is often heartbreakingly tragic, it is a vitally important book that highlights the success of applied harm reduction and the contrasting failure of continued ignorance and stonewalling. It considers the countless people who take drugs who are routinely stigmatised, marginalised, and de-humanised due to conservative, hardline drug policies. The key message throughout is an urgent need for the powers that be to adopt a more humane and effective approach for drug policy. Emphasis is placed on the importance of protecting human lives above all else. Maia Szalavitz‘ book is full of data that proves the success of initiatives which treat drug users with respect and dignity, helping them to stabilise themselves and restructure their lives enough to feel ready to quit the drugs that they were disrupting their lives with in the first place. Perhaps by now, world leaders should be sitting up and listening keenly to the likes of Ms. Szalavitz, instead of ‘being tough on drugs’.

* The Green Lens would like to thank Hachette Books for providing us with a review copy of this book.