Thomas Frank has a great short piece on the Tea Party in the April 2011 issue of Harper’s. It is behind a paywall, so if you don’t subscribe you can probably find the back issue at the library. Frank spends a bit of space in the article showing the historical inaccuracy and general absurdity of the Tea Partiers’ quotations of the Founders. Many of the quotes are made up. A few could not have possibly been said by the Founders, because they contain vocabulary and concepts that were not yet in circulation during the Founders’ lifetimes. His article is, as these exercises usually are, pretty much shooting fish in a barrel, though still entertaining.
Frank’s article reminded me of another
by Paul Harvey. Writing in the aftermath of David Barton’s media blitz
and the extensive criticism of Barton’s history by historians (see for example here
), Harvey claims that such criticisms are a necessary but not really sufficient response. “That’s because Barton’s project is not fundamentally an historical one,” he explains, which means that “historians’ take down of his ahistorical approach ultimately won’t matter that much.”
Harvey may be right, but I’m not willing to give up the battle. To that end, I was free-writing the other day, listing some of the most memorable invocations of the Founders in recent political history. But as I searched for the best howlers, I ran up against a problem. Almost all of the really egregious examples–actually, no, all of the really egregious examples–came from the political Right. I puzzled about this, I assumed that I had not been looking hard enough for historical malapropisms from liberals, I scrutinized my own political bias, and then I read Frank’s article in Harper’s. He noticed the same phenomenon, but offered this explanation for the persistent tendency of the Right to fabricate history:
Painstaking faithfulness to primary documents is one of the shibboleths of academic professionalism. The modern populist right, by contrast, holds academic professionalism in broad contempt; theirs is a sacred mission to rescue history-as-legend from the corrosive influence of liberal college professors and the cynics employed by the mainstream media. It’s a species of reverence that lends itself to error as a matter of course.
And this, alas, leads me back to Harvey’s point that historical correction cannot contend with the deeper misunderstandings and political faiths that motivate this kind of pseudo-history. So, I wonder, what is the best response from historians in the face of rampant historical inaccuracy that is often combined with fervent worship of a false past? Is our task to keep pointing out error, knowing that we will not be headed? I’m afraid that it might be.
But I am still not ready to give up the effort.