The Uses and Misuses of History

Since approximately the start of the tea-party movement two years ago, everyone in public life seems to have become an amateur historian, drawing teachable lessons from the American past. These claims on our common heritage range from the legitimate to the fantastical, with occasional unintended side trips into the realm of comedy.

Ironically, the most avid pursuit of historical revelation has come from the conservative side of the political spectrum, among Republican presidential aspirants, where serious scholarly examination of the past (or anything else for that matter) is in short supply. An exception must be made for Dr. Newt Gingrich, the celebrated million-dollar “historian” for mortgage guarantor Freddie Mac, who actually does have a PhD and has authored numerous historical tracts.

There’s less to the Newtster’s self-proclaimed professional accomplishments than meets the eye, however. Dr. Newt’s brief academic career amounted to a few years in the history department at West Georgia College (not exactly the Ivy League), whose members eventually denied him tenure. His pseudo-scholarly contributions since then have largely consisted of grinding out formulaic moneymakers on familiar patriotic and religious themes, mostly for obscure publishing houses with a right-wing bent.

Crucial to maintaining Gingrich’s political visibility in an increasingly evangelical GOP was undoubtedly his Rediscovering God in America: Reflections on the Role of Faith in our Nation’s History and Future (2007), which argued in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary that the Founding Fathers intended no barriers between church and state; it won the enthusiastic endorsement of the Christian Right’s Jerry Falwell. These days, the secular Newt is singing the praises of Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, a polemic notable for labeling FDR’s entire New Deal a failure.

Gingrich gives the history profession a bad name, twisting his interpretations to fit political needs, but at least his conservative revisionism is to some extent reality based. The same cannot be said of his fellow contenders for the 2012 Republican nomination.

Rick Perry, for example, who matriculated in animal science and cheerleading at Texas A&M, thinks his native Lone Star State entered the Union in 1846 with an option to secede at any time, an option he would exercise today should conservative “liberties” be threatened; the intervening Civil War, which permanently settled the secession question, is something Perry evidently missed in history class.

Governor Rick also has problems with the US Constitution and its application over the years. Like other GOP presidential hopefuls, he views the founding document as a static tabula rasa, not a living thing open to evolving interpretation in response to changing times. He holds this firm opinion notwithstanding 200 years of modifying amendments and interpretive Supreme Court decisions, resulting in a weird reading of history that denies the constitutional legitimacy of the federal income tax and the popular election of US senators (products of the 16th and 17th Amendments, respectively), as well as federal spending for healthcare, transportation, education, and social-insurance programs like Social Security.

At least Perry knows where Texas is relative to the rest of the country and when it became a state. That makes him a towering intellect compared to some of his Republican fellow travelers. Sarah Palin, whom right-wing true believers still pine for, thinks Revolutionary War icon Paul Revere was all about warning the British to lay off gun control, ringing bells (!) and firing weapons as he rode through Concord and Lexington in apparent anticipatory celebration of the Second Amendment.

Palin’s political twin and competitor in the historical illiteracy sweepstakes, Michele Bachmann, knows all about Concord and Lexington, too; she just doesn’t know where they are. New Hampshire, not Massachusetts, is her best guess. This pales, however, next to Bachmann’s absurd claim that the revolutionary generation worked incessantly to end slavery, when in fact they embedded it in the Constitution for three-quarters of a century, leaving poor Abe Lincoln the task of cutting the Gordian Knot.

These blunders can be written off as laughably harmless examples of Bush-like incuriosity and lack of learning, but more seriously, they betray a desire to instill Founder worship as an antidote to progressive “Hope and Change.” The GOP’s politicized view of the past is this: Those who created the nation were conviction conservatives, and they produced a sacred document (the Constitution) to ensure that their creation would reflect the proper ideology.

More than just conservative, America would be a Christian nation; ideally, it would be an expression of what some modern critics have called an exclusionary Christian Zionism, leading to a unique “biblical capitalism” — a libertarian, laissez-faire acquisitiveness buttressed by belief in a vengeful, antistatist Old Testament God. It’s a construct whose key tenet is a denial of the separation of church and state, as the “Christian” Founders supposedly intended.

Unfortunately for the Christian Right, its spokespersons wear historical blinders. The most prominent of the Founders, including Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, and Washington, were not Christians at all; they were Deists. They believed in God or “Providence,” but not in revelation or the divinity of Jesus. More to the point, they absolutely adhered as pragmatic secularists to a separation of church and state — to the extent of enshrining it in the First Amendment to the purportedly sacred Constitution.

Either out of ignorance or out of deceit, the self-styled historians of the political Right have been plainly misusing history to bolster their ideological agenda. But if history can be misused, it can also be used correctly, and at least one political figure, Barack Obama, has begun to apply it properly.

Obama has focused not on the Founders, but on the 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, from whom he has drawn several timely lessons: first, we’re all in it together economically; second, the free market requires sensible public regulations; third, the extreme socioeconomic inequality afflicting us is a stain on the nation and must be eradicated; fourth, the endangered middle class must be saved to guarantee a prosperous and democratic future.

Reprising TR’s famous 1910 address at Osawatomie, Kansas, heralding the Progressive or “Bull Moose” insurgency of two years later, Obama called on Dec. 6 for a liberal reaffirmation looking forward, a recognition that activist government can and must be a force for the common good. Teddy, recalling his own rhetorical Armageddon, would surely have approved this use of history.

Wayne O’Leary is a historian in Orono, Maine.

From The Progressive Populist, February 1, 2012


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