A scant 94 years ago, Henry Ford infamously declared in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, that “history is more or less bunk.” Such a statement, coming from the mouth of a great industrialist who approved of Adolph Hitler and was, in turn, highly esteemed by V. I. Lenin, may be taken for what it’s worth. It does, however, raise some interesting questions. Some of these are commonly discussed in the venerable debate about whether historical fact can be distinguished from historical fiction—sometimes rendered prettily as the distinctions between subjectivity and objectivity, normative and empirical statements and “emic” and “etic” observations. As well, there are the dual problems of whether history has a “purpose” and whether any purpose is served by knowing about history. The first concerns the teleological issue of whether there is any point to existence (human or otherwise) at all, and therefore any metaphysical or transcendental meaning to be assigned to historical events. The second involves the practical matter of whether knowing about the past can be useful in assessing the present or planning the future. Simply put, they devolve into “Who cares?” and “So what?”
Most people, including a large number of educators and an astonishing number of professional historians among them do not think deeply about such quandaries. They are not unaware that such quandaries exist, and they may even have a received opinion about them. They might rely upon some bromide, perhaps learned from an introductory lecture or an obsolete textbook. If lucky, their stock responses can rise to the level identified many years ago by John Maynard Keynes, who spoke of “practical men” and “madmen” who openly spurn academic learning that their ideas, however far removed from libraries and seminars, are merely the distilled ramblings of some antique scribbler. They may be able, that is, to express some banality that is all that’s left of a quick quip by Tacitus, Thucydides, Herodotus, Plutarch, Livy or Flavius Josephus, or the great Gibbon, Macauley and Huizinga, and on to contemporary deconstructionists and random postmodernists who have, with some small success, struck these sages down.
As for Henry Ford (or Hitler or Lenin), they may have thought that men of action and not quiet, brooding scholars were important in life; but, if so, their importance can only be understood in the context of their social arrangements and disclosed in the wake of the noise and mess they left in their wake. Men make history, but historians explain what history was made. The triumphs that larger-than-life heroes and villains sought in their various narcissisms, megalomanias and different methods of domination are, in the last analysis, socially constructed.
Lenin, of course, would not have agreed with Ford’s crude outburst, and he certainly had his own peculiar theory of history; however, he did firmly believe that strategic and tactical actions were necessary to the fulfillment of his historical objectives, and he understood well that the imposition of a firm historical narrative was an essential device for propagandists if those objectives were to be achieved. For his part, Hitler also addressed the issue through the application of Goebbels’ “big lie.” Henry Ford? I am not sure if he ever considered such imponderables.
It is, however, required of us as educators that we do consider them. Whether or not we are intellectually located in the discipline of history, it is required of us as citizens that we pay attention to our society’s conventions, customs and traditions. Whatever our academic or vocational specialty—from accounting to zoology—it is important for us to know something of its past, even the very recent past. This was not always the case. The late John Brückman, from whom I learned what little I know of Medieval History, snorted at the application of the term “history” to the study of happenings more recent that the Renaissance. Its writers were merely “journalists”; its subject naught but “current events.” Very few of us hold such an opinion today. There seems to be more urgency to discover what is going on, and there are a few of us who hold “radical” views about how best to learn it. (Radical, of course, derives from the Latin radix meaning “root”.)
For us, we commonly think that the study of history is, at least in part, a exercise in diagnosis that is useful in sorting out the origins and nature of social problems. We observe conditions that distress us and wish to know how they arose. Whence came this lesion or that fever in the body politic. We think of social history in much the way that a physician considers a medical history: Is a particular malady genetic? Is it contagious? Is it bacterial or viral? Is it acute or chronic? And, of course, can it be treated? What is the therapy? What is the prognosis? And, I suppose, what is the cost of curing the disease?
Since most of us are not professional historians, but all of us are in some sense citizens, we look to history for insights into conditions that pain us, frighten us and are called pathological to our communal well-being. Lacking a science of political values, however, we disagree fundamentally about what is a disease and what is not. Using the botched-up political lexicon of the early twenty-first century, people who are called “conservatives” argue vehemently that crime must be punished, poverty is the fault of the poor, moral decay is rampant and the economic woes we see around us can be solved only if we permit market forces to dictate what is produced, how it is distributed and who shall justly be defined as winners and losers by the ineluctable dictates of free exchange. In the alternative, anything that smacks of “socialism” and the intrusiveness of the “nanny state” must be cauterized, surgically removed or amputated depending on the virulence of the malady. At the other end of the spectrum, “liberals” abhor Herbert Spencer’s “social Darwinism,” Gordon Gecko’s conviction that “greed is good” and phrases such as “Drill! Drill! Drill!” They are therefore eager to promote precisely those social programs that give their opponents fits, and to define such measures as corporal punishment of children, capital punishment of murderers and censorship of motion pictures and school history texts as symptoms of social illness.
Actually, both so-called conservatives and so-called liberals have a dodgy record on textbook censorship. Liberals want to expunge offensive language and stereotypes related to racial or other minority groups from school texts (thus making The Merchant of Venice and Huckleberry Finn inappropriate for children), whereas some especially odious conservatives in Texas wish to remove Thomas Jefferson from US history books and substitute the Geneva-based sixteenth-century theologian and generic party-pooper John Calvin. But that’s another story.
The point here is Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes. It is an important book. It’s subject is a contemporary American political phenomenon called the Tea Party, which isn’t exactly a political party, but which seems to be in the process of taking over or, at least, influencing and altering the fate and fortune of the Republican Party.
Lepore’s work is especially enlightening for citizens of the United States of America, but it is also in interest to people who worry about the fate and fortunes of Americans. It is also fascinating for people who live in countries in which some version of the Tea Party is gaining support. For anyone who has been spared knowledge of this group or movement (call it what you will), it presents as a form of right-wing populism, sometimes with signs of libertarianism and occasionally—especially when people like Sarah Palin and Christine O’Donnell appear as its representatives and apologists—with a serious streak of Christian fundamentalism). For some conservatives, it is a tonic. It embraces patriotism, small government, a certain antique view of the US Constitution, a commitment to hard work and a disgust at freeloaders and frauds, and such virtues as self-reliance, honesty and personal responsibility. It is, as mentioned, also attractive both to people who do not “believe in” evolution and reject what they imagine is the gay and lesbian “lifestyle” as well as people whose moral views are quite open-minded and whose understanding of science is at least minimal.
To others, it is a reactionary movement which can be usefully compared to the brown shirts and black shirts of the previous century, a cruel, racist and authoritarian collection of alienated, ignorant and hate-filled people who are being transparently manipulated by the rich and the superrich to blame their vulnerability in a fragile economy on citizens like themselves who are easily scapegoated for problems not of their making.
In Lepore’s book, the Tea Party emerges as an amorphous, perhaps embryonic association which is challenging not just American political practices but education as well. Responses among academics concerned with American history range from the mocking derision to at least mild panic. The Tea Party self-consciously associates itself with America’s revolutionary origins (the original “tea party” being a euphemism for a protest against British taxes of tea in which an uncertain number of Massachusetts colonists destroyed over 300 chests of tea, upon which a small tax had recently been applied by the British Parliament). It claims to represent the true spirit of America. Its pretence of non-partisanship is belied by its fervent opposition to President Barack Obama and the Republican affiliation of its founder, Senator Ron Paul. Originally a libertarian movement, it is currently a relatively loose collection of more-or-less autonomous groups that display disparate aspects of American anomie. Though short on organizational and ideological consistency, the Tea Party is strong in terms of its funding and media support.
The Tea Party is noisily promoted by Rupert Murdoch’s unintentionally comic Fox News network (sometimes called Faux News or—my own contribution—Pho Gnus). It roils with cash from the Koch brothers whose private wealth is exceeded only by that of Bill Gates and Warren Buffett. It is the provocative anti-establishment scion of the very establishment it pretends to oppose.
The Kochs, incidentally, are the children of Fred Koch, a top leader of the infamous John Birch Society and an oil tycoon who branched out into dubious commercial products from Dixie Cups to Lycra.
In a number of ways, the Tea Party is the heir to a long American tradition. Just two years ago, Kim Phillips-Fein, another cogent analyst of American political life, wrote of a series of “Invisible Hands” (the title of her 2009 volume). She identified politically influential “populists” from the DuPont sponsorship of the American Liberty League, which was organized to defeat Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s reforms including Social Security, the Securities and Exchange Commission and Child Labour Laws to the John Birch Society which inveighed against the Communist Plot to take over America and impose legislation like Lyndon Johnson’s Medicare. Screaming that Barack Obama is an “alien,” a “Muslim” a “socialist” (or a “Nazi” … it doesn’t seem to matter much) is now well within the Tea Party litany.
Jill Lepore knows all this and more as well. Yet, she maintains a measure of “fair and balanced” reporting that would be unthinkable in the media arm of the movement she discusses. She keeps calm and resists the temptation to expose completely the cartoon-like version of the worldview of the American Founding Fathers that flows from Tea Party speakers, appears on their banners and signs and finds its way into the multifaceted works of broadcasters such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. This is not just a point-by-point refutation of the account of American history as seen in the Tea Leaves. It is a serious book about history and historiography which moves the debate from the Washington Mall and the streets of Wasilla to the editorial pages of sober journals and the Common Rooms of respectable colleges. By doing so, she is able to sensibly deconstruct the Tea Party narrative and place it in the context of American history—a subject of scholarship and the maintenance of historical memory rather than their partisan competitor.
Lepore’s topic, though it might seem “ripped from today’s headlines,” is more significant. It stands in a line of revisionist volumes that have addressed iconic figures from the founding fathers to Lincoln and beyond, each seeking to assess changes in the popular imagination of the past. At stake is not only the understanding of historical personalities, events and processes, but also of the public interpretation of such matters as memories and reconstructions, reimaginations and outright fantasies and lies are created more for the purpose of advancing political ideas today and tomorrow than with more accurately or fairly describing, analyzing and judging the past.
In writing about the Tea Party and its version of the past, Lepore criticizes what she calls its “historical fundamentalism,” but she does so from what sometimes seems to be a disinterested perspective.
The Tea Party, it appears, perceives itself as the present-day embodiment of the same dissenting tradition that inspired the birth of the nation. For it, President Obama may not quite be a bizarre reincarnation of King George III, but he is no less than a latter-day purveyor of his policies, practices and political philosophy. In thinking this, the Tea Party is actually making a case for the notion of the United States as a country possessed by a civil religion with sacred leaders and sacred texts—one nation, under a Christian God with a litany and a homily for all.
W. L. Morton, the fine Canadian historian, put it well when he claimed that Americans are like religious converts who disposed with their past and were thus compelled to invent their future. Americans, he said, were united at the bottom by a revolutionary covenant, whereas Canadians were united at the top by allegiance to the Crown. However much that may describe Canada, it certainly encapsulates the United States. The “founding” is a mythical beginning from which all things flow. Success lies in maintaining allegiance to the myth of origin; failure is the price of disobedience to the sacred, ageless past. Hence, American exceptionalism. Hence, America as the shining city on the hill. Hence, the view that the sayings of the founders and the sacred text of the constitution are divinely inspired, immutable and the expression of holy will.
Much as religious sects that claim to be inspired by the same text yet come to opposite opinions about its meaning, Americans have been in a seemingly eternal struggle about what their revolution was actually about. Nothing demonstrates this more than quarrels over the first to amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America: What is free speech? What is the right to bear arms? It finds its practical expression in the judgments of the Supreme Court, and it sets off vitriolic confrontations when what are sometimes called “activist” judges attempt creatively to apply eighteenth-century language to twenty-first century circumstances. Of course, some of the most “activist” decisions of all, such as the recent declaration that the right to free speech guarantees the right of business corporations to give uncontrolled amounts of money to political parties for their electoral campaigns, are called “originalists” or “strict constructionists” by there defenders. It all depends on that old question: Cui bono?
Lepore deals with such issues in reflections on the recorded history of the origins and development of the United States of America, its founders and its iconic documents, and also on her encounters with Tea Party supporters and their somewhat less thoughtful and certainly less well-informed contentions about similar matters.
Confronting leaders and enablers of the movement has risks. The folk who comprise the Tea Party are easy to ridicule. They are tempting targets of derision. Taking snide shots at them wearing signs inviting Mr. Obama to return to his birthplace in Kenya, or accusing him of being a dictatorial leftist when he is plainly a centre-right brokerage or, as Rahm Emanuel labels him, a “transactional” leader (i.e., a middle-of-the-road deal-maker) is to dabble in hubris.
There are legitimate questions about American origins, and principled opponents of what Americans call liberalism occasionally have valid or at least coherent and plausible arguments. Insofar as a study of the Tea Party involves philosophical debates about what was, is and will be somehow good for the American people and all the people who are touched by the policies and practices of the United States, it is well to give what Americans call conservatism or libertarians their due. Moreover, insofar as the facts of American history are contested (as they are and evermore will be), no presumptuous truth claims can be made without due diligence. This is not to say that any consensus will be forthcoming, nor that any settled agreement would ever be permissible for the historical narrative is not one that can be judged permanently and unmistakenly true. Indeed, it is precisely this sense of “fundamentalism” and claims to “truth” that is among the most unsettling aspects of the Tea Party in its most virulent and proto-totalitarian form.
Howard A. Doughty teaches cultural anthropology and political economy in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College, Toronto, Ontario. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.