It’s an old cliché to say that victors write the history of their times, but the opportunists who take full advantage of these biased histories are the ones to keep an eye on.
Every time I think about this subject, I’m reminded of the arrogant school board members in Texas who work tirelessly to make ideological fairy tales out of their students’ textbooks.
Enter Newt Gingrich, who calls himself a historian, but whose selective use of history is less about the truth of what happened in the past than about glorifying his role as a guard and protector of American values. Family values at that. Gingrich’s bombastic views amount to airbrushed history, modified to suit his personal, political, and religious beliefs. He says he lives a frugal life but spends a fortune on jewelry.
Textbook history written with a biased political agenda leads millions of people to embrace a worldview based on lies. Gingrich’s political campaign is over, but his prejudices are a center position of conservatism, namely to reveal our history using grandiose claims that distort the past so severely that it can’t be discussed intelligently. He constantly speaks about American exceptionalism and then offers himself as an example.
Gingrich acts as if he is very nearly alone in his ability to debate the reality of history. But his take on the past is so selective that if it were applied to an individual’s resume for employment, a homicidal maniac could be made to seem like an ideal employee. He is a master at dramatizing superficiality, and his personal history makes one wonder if his mental condition might be diagnosable. What gives him away are his frequent neck-snapping gaffes. When he treads into a given territory, unaware that normal people will find his views about it bizarre, he retreats and revises accordingly. His advocating that poor students could work as school janitors would be a case in point.
Contemporary conservatism has come to rely on ideological history for its very existence or, to be more exact, for its identity. The trouble with using only the high points in your argument is that the resulting view of reality is so skewed it has to be kept in place with arrogance or political muscle because real facts won’t support it. Moreover, once this ethos takes over, it’s nearly impossible to admit ever having made mistakes. When applied to war, this tactic adds a deep-seated barrier to achieving peace.
Most Americans teach their children that it’s appropriate to apologize to anyone whom we have wronged, regardless of whether the act was purposeful or an accident. But when arrogance achieves the critical mass of super-patriotism, as in the rewriting of history, political candidates begin spouting the “I will never apologize for the United States” mantra. Mitt Romney is already on board with this nonsensical assertion. Such rhetoric makes us look like arrogant fools. It’s a glaring, in-your-face declaration that we believe we are better than anyone else on the planet and rules of etiquette do not apply to us.
In his book The Folly of Fools: The Logic of Deceit and Self-Deception in Human Life, anthropologist Robert Trivers points out that we highlight the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492 with three ships that school children are expected to know the names of, but we slip into historical amnesia about his second arrival with seventeen ships in 1493, when he enslaved the local Indians, killing and mutilating them by the thousands and at times feeding their newborn infants to his human attack dogs. You won’t find this kind of information in Texas schoolbooks or in Gingrich’s self-selected historical narrative. And yet, not knowing these things makes us exceptionally dimwitted about the dark side of human nature and the blatant injustices that permeate our past and continuously spill over into the present.
Wrongs can’t be righted if no one knows about them. Moreover, to be in the position of constantly defending false versions of history requires exceptional arrogance, the kind that leads to fervent nationalism and the use of force, which is itself but a short step to the abyss. The exaggerated sense of self-importance that results from constantly censoring history is precisely why the conservative political platform put forth today is so anti-intellectual in nature.
A distorted view of the past leads to a confusing present and inauthentic efforts to fashion a future. Any half-hearted attempt to achieve an objective reading of our history and our present political mess should prove this beyond doubt. An objective study of history should enable us to view the past in a way that brings us together in finding common ground. Instead, censored versions foster arrogance, contempt, and hatred.
Posted: Sunday, 4 November 2012