Monday, August 16, 2010

Historical Relativism

Glenn Beck and Our 'Stolen' History
How is it that one set of people know for sure what it means to 'take America back'?

Over the past few months, I've tried to have fun pointing out the historical bumbling of public figures great and small. I have reminded Sen. Jim DeMint that the economies of western Europe boomed after World War II and did not decline "into economic stagnation," even though he thought they should have because of their embrace of socialism. I broke the news to Rand Paul, erstwhile messenger of today's tea party movement, that the original Boston Tea Party was ablaze with "criticism of business," and I took a look at the syllabus of errors being drawn up by the Texas State Board of Education.

Our heroes may be flunking history, but it's not because they don't care for the subject. It's because they love it so.

These days, people wear three-cornered hats to protest meetings and, according to an account in Sunday's Washington Post, try to enlist the support of the George Washington impersonator at Colonial Williamsburg for the tea party rebellion. Mr. DeMint's bestselling book, "Saving Freedom," includes in its pages both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Joseph Farah's "Tea Party Manifesto" does the same. "Glenn Beck's Common Sense," written by the Fox News personality himself, includes the text of Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet of the same name.

In one sense, our historical mania is nothing new. Americans have argued over the meaning of the American revolution since the day it ended. As Harvard historian Jill Lepore reminded me when I talked to her a few days ago, both Whigs and Jacksonians grabbed for the mantle of the Founders, as did Confederates and Unionists during the Civil War. So did the New Left in the 1960s. Claiming some special kinship with the revolutionary generation is simply what American political actors do. It is the oldest game in the book.

What distinguishes the current revival of interest in revolutionary times, according to Ms. Lepore, whose book about the tea party and history will be published this fall, is "historical fundamentalism." It's a way of understanding the past as "an incontrovertible argument. There is a narrowly defined past that is sacred to us as Americans." We have special historical documents, which "can be read as scripture. They come alive for us the way we need them to come alive. They cross time."

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Associated Press
T.V. host Glenn Beck

But to these fundamentalists comes the inevitable question: Why do so many others disagree with them? How is it that one set of people knows for sure what it means to "take America back" but another set keeps contradicting them?

Glenn Beck has the answer: It's because "our history is being stolen from us," as he announced on his program a month ago.

"Progressives have been changing history for about 100 years," the entertainer intoned, sitting next to a pile of textbooks. "They knew they had to separate us from our history to be able to separate us from our Constitution and God."

Besides, history is simply too important to be left to historians. For one thing, as Mr. Beck charged on another occasion, historians are biased: "See, what happened is, historians have been going back and trying to piece things together and bring in their own ideas instead of going back to the original sources, and that's really the problem."

But in Mr. Beck's monologues, I guess, no opinions ever intrude. He gives us the fundamentals. All is presented as we know it must have been.

And so we attend to Mr. Beck's nightly lectures, with his famous chalkboard standing by to lend scholarly gravitas. We sign up for what the entertainer calls Beck University, where learning is divided into three rubrics: Faith, Hope and Charity, each discipline assigned a particular founding father as avatar.

But between the history-mindedness of the right and that of the left-wing radicals they despise, writes Boston College historian John Summers in a recent issue of the New Republic, there is a curious kinship. "Everyone today wants their country back, by way of their own, 'alternative' history," Mr. Summers writes.

So too with the right's understanding of high-school textbooks as collections of radical lies, which is a sort of faith-based inversion of a longstanding left-wing complaint. "If you look at the textbooks," says James Loewen, author of "Lies My Teacher Told Me," an influential account of high school textbooks, "they basically portray an America that never did anything wrong, and if it did do anything wrong, it was an innocent mistake."

Our ideal image of the past obscures reality, and our desire to understand patriotism as an act of daring—subject to persecution, even—easily overwhelms the fact of anodyne, patriotic textbooks. We hold the most conventional views, but we imagine ourselves to be rebels for holding them. And so we sign up for a course in Faith, embracing this baseline rule of the new history: Wishing is what makes it so.

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