Monday, August 15, 2016
Is History Dead?
As far as many conservatives are concerned the Bushes have been obliterated from history. As we heard from Katy Pierson, Obama is now responsible for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. No longer do we hear any mention of George Bush, much less his father, who got us into this mess to begin with the Persian Gulf War back in 1991.
For the past 20 years there has been a thorough cleansing of history thanks to Fox News and the rise of conservative websites and blogs on the Internet. I suppose we should thank Newt Gingrich for his Contract with America, as it ushered in this brave new conservative world, designed largely to repudiate the liberal past. Bill Clinton had only been in office two years, but that was more than enough time for Newt to have determined Bill would undo everything the great Ronald Reagan had started, and was determined to render Clinton "irrelevant."
Fox News, established in 1996, became the propaganda arm of this brazen vision. By this point, Newt was already struggling to hold his troops together on Capitol Hill as Bill Clinton proved to be a tougher match than he expected, having won re-election. He needed a full media onslaught to counter "liberal" mainstream networks. Roger Ailes, a long-time conservative media consultant was more than glad to oblige. Fox would become the incubator of radical conservative thought, a Heritage Foundation on steroids.
The advent of social media expanded the range exponentially, allowing persons to share stories, memes and snarky comments anywhere and everywhere. Facebook has become a support network for these radicals who feel America has been undone by the liberal establishment. They will buy into virtually any story first appearing on conservative websites and blogs, giving them a validity in the number of "likes" and "shares." No longer are viewers expected to form opinions of their own, but rather distribute manufactured opinions, often in the form of convenient memes that support their staunchly held beliefs.
Still, this conservative media revolution needed some weight. Nothing like books to give the impression of learned opinion. It also helped counteract the liberal writers who had been influencing college campuses far too long with their "revisionist history." Bill Bennett, the Education Czar under Ronald Reagan, had warned us way back in 1986 when the liberals had the audacity to revise the Stanford University humanities reading list to include authors of different color and gender. This was affirmative action at its worst, and we were told by many conservatives at the time that this was the end of Western civilization as we knew it.
Yes, I've beaten this drum before, but I don't think people realize how pervasive this counter-revolution has become. What seemed like a few innocuous conservative screeds in the 80s has grown into a multi-billion dollar book industry that has major publishers like Simon and Schuster and Penguin establishing imprints exclusively devoted to conservative literature. This is no longer the sole domain of Regnery Publishing, which regards itself as the leader in conservative books. These publishers have turned news pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity into bestselling authors.
History has always been subjective. To the victors belong their right to interpret history how they see it. Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, first published in 1980, more or less represented the end of liberal revisionist history and its misanthropic view of America. Reagan ushered in an optimistic vision that would make Americans feel proud of their country once again, not guilty for its past indiscretions. A Puritan faith would be stressed, or as St. Ronnie called it "a shining city on a hill," in his 1989 farewell speech.
Even in the most subjective of liberal history there is usually a grain of truth to be found. Zinn had studied under the giants of American history at Columbia University, namely Henry Steele Commager, David Donald and Richard Hofstadter. You might take exception to Zinn's conclusions but it was hard to question his sources.
Today, we get "armchair historians" like David Barton, an Oral Roberts graduate, who has taken it upon himself to rewrite the biographies of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and tell us the true meaning of the Constitution. Barton, being an Evangelical Christian, offers a unique spin on the early Deists, proclaiming them to be Evangelicals themselves, basing the Constitution on The Bible, despite no direct references. When other Evangelical historians questioned his sources, he cried foul, especially when his publisher stopped printing his Jefferson book because of these objections. Barton grew so livid that he lumped his Evangelical fellows into the liberal academic conspiracy that was determined to silence him, using Glenn Beck's The Blaze to launch his rebuttals.
Howard Zinn took a few hard knocks along the way too. Pier review can be a nasty thing. However, he was eventually vindicated in his view that people's stories should be told, as ugly as they might be, providing multiple perspectives, not just a single deterministic perspective that he believed stifled American history.
What we see today is a return to this deterministic view, with writers like Barton insisting on one overriding arc in American History, that being Christian faith. Little wonder he often cites Parson Weems, who wrote the first biography, or rather hagiography of George Washington, giving us the cherry tree anecdote and other nonsense in his exaltation of our first president.
The problem is that most Americans accept the cherry tree story as fact. It has been inculcated into us since elementary school and takes some effort to excise. Barton is a shrewd manipulator of history, using these old anecdotes and folk stories to cultivate new myths that are much easier to digest than are actual historical events.
Our Founding Fathers were copious journal writers, essayists, amateur historians and scientists. There are literally mountains of manuscripts to sort through, which takes a devotion that in many cases lasts a lifetime. It is much easier to excise little tidbits and build the character of a man around them, turning a complex figure into a simple political tool. This is what Glenn Beck did with Being George Washington, published by Simon and Schuster.
In this ever-expanding media age, it becomes harder to distinguish what is real and what is contrived, and that is precisely what guys like Barton and Beck want. History is no longer something of the past, but rather something that can be bent and shaped and ultimately transformed into new myths that suit a religious and/or political agenda.
To a certain degree, Howard Zinn was guilty of this too. Even more so are his proteges Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick, who gave us The Untold History of the United States in serialized form. Ditto, Michael Moore, who would prefer we don't forget George W. Bush. While there are companion books to these documentaries, their thoughts are meant to be seen and heard, not read, because it makes a much stronger impression that way.
These interpretations of history leave little to the imagination. We are expected to buy into them, literally since these documentaries are usually first presented on cable television and in cinemas, not use them as a point of reference to form our own opinions. Of course, we can always fact-check them, but as is all too often the case these views are accepted at face value, processed into bite-sized memes in the social media or presented in truncated forms by talking heads on television, which is usually about as much energy anyone wants to give to the subject.
When challenged, Katy Pierson stuck to her guns because she knew that the audience she was addressing would accept her view, as this is a view widely promulgated in the conservative media, with anyone of a number of conservative books to back her up.