Friday, June 10, 2011

Palin, Guns, and Paul Revere: History as a Prop

Lots of people have been having lots of fun with Sarah Palin's latest adventure in American history (no one more than Stephen Colbert, whose "reenactment" of Palin's description of Paul Revere's ride is hysterically funny).

In case anyone missed it, here's how Palin described Revere and his famous ride:

"He who warned, uh, the ... the British that they weren't gonna be taking away our arms, uh, by ringing those bells and, um, by making sure that as he's riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that, uh, we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free ... and we were gonna be armed."
Watching it, I had a teacher's response. This is the student who hasn't done the reading, and doesn't know the material, but feels compelled to talk anyway. There's no need to rehash how badly Palin mangled the story (Andrew Sullivan has a good summary here).  I'm more interested in why she felt the need to say anything about Revere in the first place.

In her subsequent interview with Chris Wallace, which is now infamous for Palin's refusal to admit any error, she made this revealing statement when asked what she was doing on the bus trip:

"I'm publicizing Americana ... and how important it is that we learn about our past ... we need to make sure we have a strong grasp of our foundational victories so we can move forward."
The reality, of course, is that Palin is not the least bit interested in learning about our past.  She is only interested in using it for political purposes.  So how was she trying to use it here?

She spoke about Revere because she wanted to make the story into a parable about the Second Amendment.  She told Wallace that Revere's message to the British was

"you're not gonna take American arms. You are not gonna beat our own well-armed persons, uh, individual private militia that we have."

In this particular Palin word jumble, we can make out the language of the Second Amendment, but significantly mixed with the modern interpretation of the individual right to bear arms.  The result is a new Palinism: the internally contradictory idea of the "individual private militia."

Having visited the Revere historical site, Palin had decided that the important point about Revere's ride was that armed Americans protected their arms against seizure by a tyrannical government, and one way or another, she was going to make that point, casting the Obama administration as the British, and herself, of course, as Revere.

Palin was asked: "What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?" She seized upon what she now insanely calls a "gotcha" question to talk about Revere, not because she wanted to talk about history, but to make a demagogic political point about gun control.

She's not talking to people who know the Revere story, or care about telling it accurately.  She's talking to people who know, despite the lack of any evidence whatsoever (or perhaps because of the lack of evidence), that the Obama administration is going to take their guns.

It is useless to try to correct Palin about the facts of history.  She does not care.  History, for such a person, is nothing more than a prop.  It has no independent reality.  It has only immediate political purpose.  It can be twisted, contorted, refashioned into whatever shape the present moment demands.

Nothing speaks more eloquently to that point than the attempt by Palinistas to alter the Paul Revere Wikipedia page to conform to her version of events.  They support her contemporary beliefs, and so history must be changed to fit her opinions, however mistaken they may be.

This isn't respect for history--it is contempt for history.  We can only hope that history returns the favor.

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