TV pundit Chris Matthews looked as if he was about to have a stroke the other night because Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann revised U.S. history so that she had the Founding Fathers abolishing slavery.
That kind of historical fiction seems very popular in America these days.
For example, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (see artoon above), a possible contender for the Republican presidential nomination next year, recreated the civil rights movement to spin a tale that was a lot more civil – and a lot less right.
And Constitutional scholars shudder at the nonsense spouted day in and day out by loonies dressed up in period costumes, strutting about with fifes and drums – and guns.
And so on.
But rewriting history to reinforce propaganda is not new.
In school back in Jamaica, I used to wonder how a small force of valiant English soldiers always ended up defeating huge armies of foreigners or how the English navy’s tiny ships always sailed rings around huge armadas, blowing them out of the water. I figured that either the English possessed some magical power or the “foreigners” were all dolts – or both.
Of course, there’s a third explanation: the history we were taught was loaded with “spin.”
I suspect that’s the way it is everywhere.
It’s the way it is in America for sure.
That kind of fantasy can be harmless, and might even be useful in building up a society’s positive ethos. But in Machiavellian hands, it can have diabolically destructive fallout.
Massively inflated American defense spending, for instance.
In a revealing article on TomDispatch.com today, Andrew J. Bacevich, professor of history and international relations at Boston University, spells out the reasons for America’s inability to control military spending; and he blames the popular misunderstanding of history for much of the problem (which is a major reason for America’s economic woes).
Here’s an excerpt:
The passage of time has transformed World War II from a massive tragedy into a morality tale, one that casts opponents of intervention as blackguards. Whether explicitly or implicitly, the debate over how the United States should respond to some ostensible threat – Iraq in 2003, Iran today – replays the debate finally ended by the events of December 7, 1941. To express skepticism about the necessity and prudence of using military power is to invite the charge of being an appeaser or an isolationist. Few politicians or individuals aspiring to power will risk the consequences of being tagged with that label.
In this sense, American politics remains stuck in the 1930s – always discovering a new Hitler, always privileging Churchillian rhetoric – even though the circumstances in which we live today bear scant resemblance to that earlier time. There was only one Hitler and he’s long dead. As for Churchill, his achievements and legacy are far more mixed than his battalions of defenders are willing to acknowledge. And if any one figure deserves particular credit for demolishing Hitler’s Reich and winning World War II, it’s Josef Stalin, a dictator as vile and murderous as Hitler himself.
Until Americans accept these facts, until they come to a more nuanced view of World War II that takes fully into account the political and moral implications of the U.S. alliance with the Soviet Union and the U.S. campaign of obliteration bombing directed against Germany and Japan, the mythic version of “the Good War” will continue to provide glib justifications for continuing to dodge that perennial question: How much is enough?
Like concentric security barriers arrayed around the Pentagon, these four factors – institutional self-interest, strategic inertia, cultural dissonance, and misremembered history – insulate the military budget from serious scrutiny. For advocates of a militarized approach to policy, they provide invaluable assets, to be defended at all costs.
I lived through World War II, and listened wide-eyed to the BBC on shortwave radio as Hitler’s horde swept through Europe and Britain teetered on the edge of invasion and defeat. In those days, the Russians were heroes.
I also lived through the Cold War, and watched TV wide-eyed as President Kennedy called the Soviet bluff in the Cuban missile crisis. The world teetered on the edge of nuclear devastation. In that period the Russians were villains.
Today, the Russians are sometimes allies, sometimes competitors, sometimes a nest of mobsters… depending on the circumstances.
When you live it, history can be a lot more “nuanced” that when you read it.
But there will always be those who package it neatly and plausibly to further their political ends.