Over at Pajamas Media, Ron Radosh has a thoughtful critique of the way conservatives are politicizing history. His post focuses on Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History and Sean Wilentz recent piece in The New Yorker, “Confounding Fathers: the Tea Party’s Cold War Roots.“
Here is his take on Lepore:
Having spent a good deal of time writing about the crude left-wing history of our country by charlatans like Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone, I have become wary of politicized history in general, whether it comes from the precincts of the far left or the far right.
This time the culprits are on the right, one of the biggest examples being Glenn Beck. On this website, some time ago, I wrote about Beck’s failure to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. A senior editor of Reason, my friend Michael Moynihan, wrote about Beck’s history and insightfully pointed out that a “tiny bit of knowledge … combined with an enormous Fox News constituency and an unflappable trust in one’s own wisdom, is a dangerous thing. Beck doesn’t demonstrate the perils of auto didacticism, but the perils of learning the subject while at the same time attempting to teach it.”
Now, from the precincts of the left, come two important critiques of both Beck’s and the Tea Party’s historical narrative. The first is a new book from Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian of America’s colonial and revolutionary period. Her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, should be required reading.
Lepore realizes that trying to find a usable past is not only a sin of the right. Indeed, she shows that in the 1970s, the left-wing activist Jeremy Rifkin created what he called “The People’s Bicentennial,” and used the Tea Party as a symbol for his attempt to invoke the Founding Fathers for the left in much the same way Beck and others do for the right today. His group, she writes, was meant to start “a tax-agitating Tea Party, too,” and said Tea stood for “Tax Equity for Americans.” His goal was to obtain “genuine equality of property and power and against taxation without representation,” and the group’s slogan was “Don’t Tread on Me.” Rifkin, she writes, “wrote the Tea Party’s playbook.” (Not surprisingly, Howard Zinn was part of this movement, and his series of books came soon after.)
What Lepore successfully does, however, is reveal the dangers of oversimplification by those who use history for their own political purposes. What she opposes is “historical fundamentalism,” and the false assumptions “about the relationship between the past and the present.” She calls this “the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ — are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read … the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired … that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, … are therefore incontrovertible.”
Unless you only want to read books that reinforce your current beliefs, I believe you owe it to yourself to be challenged by Lepore’s arguments. You will find, as I did, much to disagree with — particularly her own political assessments. But she tries to be fair-minded; she went to scores of Tea Party meetings and events, and lets those she interviewed speak for themselves. As she concludes, “The Revolution was a beginning; the battle over its meaning can have no ending.”
Tom Van Dyke says
I found Radosh's next piece more interesting:
Today is publication date of Stanley Kurtz’s new and very important book, Radical-in-Chief:Barack Obama and the Untold Story of American Socialism, published by Simon and Schuster’s Threshold Editions. I have one thing I ask of my readers: Please rush to the bookstore, or go online and order it immediately.
What Kurtz has accomplished is what I thought beforehand to be impossible. He has put the dots together, revealing not only how Barack Obama has consciously dissembled about his past, especially in his own memoir Dreams From my Father, but how since his undergraduate years at Occidental College and Columbia University, he has advanced through life in the milieu and orbit of the far Left radical socialist movement.
Kurtz’s book is not another one of these “Obama is a Communist” screeds, many of which have been published in the past two years, and the names of which I will not mention here. These have been written without thought or research, and from news stories or headlines, and reflect only on the polemical skills of the particular authors. Kurtz’s book is based on extensive research through scores of archives no one has thought of looking at.
So, do we believe Radosh here?