Friday, November 26, 2010

Pilgrim's Regress

The Thanksgiving feast is in the past for another year, but the misuse of the holiday for political purposes marches on.

Last Sunday, the New York Times published an illuminating piece about the way Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and various Tea Party figures have tried to make the Thanksgiving story into a parable about the evils of socialism and the merits of capitalism.

The story is worth reading in full, but in short the case is this: the first settlers at Plymouth engaged in a kind of socialistic sharing of property and only succeeded when they abandoned it and embraced capitalism.  The substance of the Times piece demolishes this absurdity.  What I'd like to address is the way the story is framed.

My first objection is to the author's reference to the Tea Partiers as people "who revere early American history."  If there is one thing the subsequent article shows, it is that the people who believe this myth have no respect at all for history.  The same sentence notes, correctly, that Tea Partiers "hunger for any argument against what they believe is the big-government takeover of the United States."

Precisely—they want any argument, true or not.  That is not reverence.  It is blind dedication to ideology, the facts be damned.  For these people, history has no independent reality.  It is merely a tool to be used, it is a means to an ideological end.

The article refers to "competing versions of the story," as if they are both equally valid.  That is simply not the case.  The actual historians quoted in the story show that the Tea Party "version" is not merely a different interpretation, it is simply wrong.  The settlers were not practicing "secular communism," they were engaged in a business enterprise.  This is not a matter of interpretation, but fact.  There was no famine due to "socialist" practices.

The article says: “Historians quibble with this interpretation.”  No, they don’t “quibble” with it.  They refute it.  There’s a difference.  The word “quibble” suggests petty differences over unimportant matters.  What historians note in this instance is the distortion of fact for ideological purposes, and there is nothing petty or unimportant about that.

What strikes me as incredibly corrosive about this article is that real historians are placed on a par with people, who, to put it bluntly, have no idea what they are talking about.  The article refers to “Tea Party historians” but none of the people espousing this view are actual historians.  The three people cited by name are Rush Limbaugh (no elaboration required), Dick Armey (former congressman and economics professor) and W. Cleon Skousen (who was a lawyer).  The article also refers to a web site with a 25-year-old article written by a high school economics teacher.  Not a historian in the bunch.

And, on the other side, a real historian, Karen Ordahl Kupperman: a woman with a PhD in history from Cambridge, currently a professor at NYU, and the author of seven books on American colonial history (two of which won prestigious professional prizes).  And the reader is supposed to see these “two sides” as equal?

As a historian, I could read this article and easily see that there is no "debate" here in any meaningful sense of the word.  But I can imagine a casual reader picking up the paper on a Sunday morning, sipping some coffee, and thinking that there are two equally valid points of view on this subject.  There are not.  There is the view of professional historians who have studied the subject, and there is the lie told by ignorant people who will make things up to suit their political agenda.

Now I know how the evolutionary biologist and the climate change scientist feel.


  1. Now I know how the evolutionary biologist and the climate change scientist feel.

    As someone who is both (I used fossils to determine changes in climate during my research career and teaches about evolution and climate change now), I can tell you got it exactly right.

  2. Nice to have that validated, though I wish it were not so. I think many of today's problems, including today's debt ceiling debacle, go back to this kind of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism. Experts are not always right, of course, but far too many people have decided that experts are NEVER right, or at least no more qualified than anyone else to offer opinions in their area of expertise. That's dangerous.

  3. knee-jerk anti-intellectualism

    I can point to four examples of this, all of which you've touched in during the past year of blogging, three of them explicity--climate change denial, creationism, and America as a "Christian Nation"--and a fourth that I'd call "Flat Earth Economics" but its followers call "common sense economics," which underlies the hysteria enabling the current debt ceiling hostage crisis. There is a large overlap among the sets of people who believe in all four of these fallacies.

    And, yes, disbelieving the experts by dismissing them as elitists is dangerous.