Over at the History News Network Randall Stephens has a great post on the way in which the political Right distorts history by failing to grasp the concept of “change over time.” His primary target is Glenn Beck:
Beck’s political grandstanding and maudlin theatrics are offensive enough. (I can think of no better ipecac for the typical humanities professor.) But it’s his ahistorical theories of the past that disturb me most. Beck, like many conservatives, Christian or not, is incapable of coming to terms with the notion of change over time. What was true for bewigged, knee-breeches-wearing, slave-owning nabobs in eighteenth century Virginia must be just as true for a minivan-driving NASCAR dad in 2010. (Still, few of those NASCAR dads would adopt some of Ben Franklin’s woolly polytheistic notions.) Did America’s public schools once allow Protestant-styled prayers in the classroom? Then they should do so still. Were women once the caretakers of hearth and home? Then maybe they should still be. Didn’t learned folks once believe that the Grand Canyon formed in a matter of days during the flood of the Old Testament? Or was it millions of years in the making, as modern geologists would have us believe? The flood story—biblical, less complicated, more interesting—makes more sense.
Ahistorical logic knows few bounds. Beck applies his shoddy history to the left, too, which he dispatches with relish. If members of the California Workingmen’s Party or the American Federation of Labor hated blacks and Asians in the 1870s and 1880s, then they must still hate them. Was Woodrow Wilson a white supremacist? Then it follows that progressives today are, too. Maybe the New Left adage about a usable past should be retooled as a mis-usable past for Beck, Christian Nation historians, and the like. (I wonder what representatives of the NAACP make of Beck’s “use” of Martin Luther King.)
Stephens’s criticism is on the mark. It echos the similar argument I am making in the introductory chapter to Was America Founded as a Christian Nation: A Historical Introduction. (Available in February).
But I wonder–does this failure to see change over time only apply to the Right?