From the UK Guardian
The US knows its history – but the rallying cries of the Tea Party and others rely on its selective use as a propaganda device
(Think of the importance of Lincoln in today's political discourse, and then try to imagine either Cromwell – England's civil war leader – or Gladstone, Lincoln's contemporary, occupying such a place in British political life today.)|
Indeed, the very premise of the US supreme court as an institution, holding all current legislation and regulations up to constitutional scrutiny, is a striking testimony to the importance of, the sense of nobility of, history in everyday life in America.
Third, while it is true that many Americans can't name their great-grandparents, a surprisingly large number are obsessed with genealogy, able to reel off the names, occupations, origins of generations of ancestors with an ease that would put many Europeans, at least those not born into fabled aristocratic lineages, to shame.
If anything, Americans, with a shorter national history than their European counterparts, are more preoccupied with historically contextualising the current moment than most other nations. The country's great pageants, from 4 July parades to the presidential inauguration ceremony, positively drip with history.
Yet, a flipside to this is that many Americans are also peculiarly prone to misuse history, to selectively prune the historical record to fit the needs of the moment.
In the Tea Party movement and the recent decisions by the Texas School Board to rewrite basic school texts on the civil war, the separation of church and state, the civil rights movement, and other key issues, we see the consequences of this.
The Tea Party takes its name from the Boston Tea Party, the event that, in popular lore, sparked the American Revolution. Yet the original movement out of which the 1773 tea party was spawned had as its slogan "no taxation without representation". It wasn't an anti-government movement, but rather a democracy movement. It had as its premise the inspiring notion that people who were going to be taxed ought to have a say in electing the people doing the taxing and, more generally, in shaping the system of government that controlled their lives. The current Tea Party movement, by contrast, gained its initial momentum from conservatives – who increasingly reject any notion of government as a potential force for good – being on the losing side of a national election in 2008 and disliking the policy consequences of that expression of democratic (and Democratic) sentiment. The modern day Tea Party movement's utilisation of historical allusions is effective, but it is inherently misleading.
Similarly, the Texas School Board deliberations, as well as recent civil war appreciation declarations by southern governors that ignore slavery as a central issue surrounding the "war between the states", were choc-full of historical references. Yet at the end of the day their conclusions were deeply dishonest.
The Texas school board encourages students to learn about far-right contemporary religious figures, and justifies the increased emphasis on such people as Phyllis Schlafly by questioning whether the founding fathers truly wanted a separation of church and state; but, in fact, many of the founding fathers were deists, vaguely religious yet inherently suspicious of specific church doctrine. They were well educated, sceptical, scientifically-minded children of the Enlightenment, more closely attuned to the values of, say, Voltaire or Tom Paine, than to today's fire-and-brimstone fundamentalists.
Meanwhile, Virginia's Republican governor has sought to wrap himself in the mantle of confederate nostalgia by employing a selective interpretation of the civil war that understands that brutal conflict primarily as a battle over states' rights and against the encroachments of a dictatorial central government rather than as a struggle triggered by the south's intractable embrace of slavery. Such a mutated historical understanding inevitably leads to a discourse defined by euphemism. To southerners of a bygone era, the god-awful human consequences of slavery could be camouflaged by talking about a "peculiar institution". To post-civil war southerners, nursing their wounds, the war and its massive loss of life could be romanticised as the "lost cause". Today, with politicians keen to tap into anti-federal government sentiments, an increasing number of political leaders are returning to the discredited notion that southern secession was simply a benign expression of states' rights.
There's a fine line between using historical references as educational tools and using them as propaganda devices. Increasingly, the faux-historical movements of modern-day conservatism are crossing that line. Their rallying cries are historical in timbre, yet scrutinise them closely and they belie a startlingly shallow, incomplete, vision of both past and present. They are, to history, what reality TV is to reality: a carefully constructed charade, an exercise in audience manipulation.