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1 JRCMYP  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 9:51:42pm

Re-capping what I said on the blog "Boston 1775"

I find the fetishism surrounding the US founding politicians to be very strange. Certainly many of these men were ambitious, smart and dedicated people. As a historian (albeit of Early Modern European history) I am interested in the social, economic and intellectual movements that these men were are part of and how they individually impacted early American events. But why this recent need for today's politicians to speak of them in language bordering on hagiography? How does it prop up their own ambitions or the planks of their own party? I'm trying to move beyond being creeped out by all of this and finding some kind of analysis to explain it, and can't.

2 FreedomMoon  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 10:01:15pm

I think a lot of Americans believe that our country is really incapable of doing wrong, and that her past is free of blemishes and wrongdoings. They look at our founding fathers as almost mythical, god-like figures that fought for all the right causes of liberty, morality and justice. Unfortunately this completely fallacy-laden point of view is much more often than not shared by some leading politicians on the right. The "egg-head" liberals who spent their whole life studying in prestigious universities and *gasp* reading books, who are disdained for 'knowin' stuff' would never be caught making these egregious and very critical mistakes because as it turns out they do know a lot, and that includes BASIC US HISTORY. Michelle Bachmann and her like-minded contingent (i.e. the Tea-party) subscribe to a much more simple feel-good logic--that if they think something is right, than the founding fathers thought it too; if they think something is wrong (Obamacare) than like wise the founding fathers would have thought that a Kenyan-born socialist was trying to poo-poo the constitution, turn our country into a communist state and create death panels to euthanize the population. Populism can be dangerous, it creates a platform for a precarious thing called anti-intellectualism. We are already seeing its fruits.

3 JRCMYP  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 10:18:26pm

This is what the blogger-owner said to me (Jen) and others on his site (below in block quotes).

I highly encourage you to read and comment there. He's someone that tries (sometimes successfully, sometimes not) to be neutral to contemporary politics. I admire his choice of topics which seem to invite discourse among historians and contemporary political gadflies alike.

Enjoy!

I find many members of the founding generation very admirable myself, Jen, but don’t understand why some Americans wish to believe they had all the answers. Almost every nation has its founding myth, of course, and politicians have tried to link their causes to Washington (and, to a lesser extent, Jefferson) since the start. But why such a craze for the “Founding Fathers” now? Why is it based on so many false beliefs, quotations, and stereotypes?

One possibility is that some people falsely see that founding generation as more libertarian; they were so in some areas, not in most others. Another is that paleo-conservatives think the further back in the past, the better. Some folks probably see more recent admired Presidents, like Lincoln and the Roosevelts, as too committed to equal rights for blacks. Others might savor the idea of resistance against the government, but want an example more unifying than the secessionism of the 1800s. All in all, I think the appeal is far more emotional than rational.

Timoteo, your comment is ludicrous. Where are the politicians of “the left” in America aggrandizing Marx and Lenin? Where are actual Marxist-Leninist policies? Suggesting such a comparison makes you look clownish and even worse than out of touch.

I know how you feel, Anonymous. Since starting this blog in 2006, I’ve found links to it from a lot of websites that don’t reflect (a) my politics, which is fine; and (b) my standards for historical accuracy, which is more worrisome. Simply because I find the Revolutionary period fascinating, some folks think I must share their political beliefs.

4 Bob Levin  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 10:27:01pm

re: #1 JRCMYP

Perhaps historians are too quiet. If you speak up, then the debate changes from a political debate to a historical debate. When the debate becomes historical, the rules change--there is a standard of proof, there are supporting documents, there is rigor and logic.

The absence of those four pillars allows populism to grow. It's a case of the good people doing nothing and possibly not caring about what grows in their silence.

Historians can't complain about historical distortion because it's the historians who are most capable of stopping it. When history is studied and discussed properly it is the antidote for this fetishism.

The problem doesn't need to be explained, it needs to be stopped.

5 JRCMYP  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 10:45:56pm

re: #4 Bob Levin

Perhaps historians are too quiet. If you speak up, then the debate changes from a political debate to a historical debate. When the debate becomes historical, the rules change--there is a standard of proof, there are supporting documents, there is rigor and logic.

The absence of those four pillars allows populism to grow. It's a case of the good people doing nothing and possibly not caring about what grows in their silence.

Historians can't complain about historical distortion because it's the historians who are most capable of stopping it. When history is studied and discussed properly it is the antidote for this fetishism.

The problem doesn't need to be explained, it needs to be stopped.

Well, yes. But then I caution you to look at the whole climate change debacle. In that case, we are looking at 50 years (at least my understanding) of hard scientific data that has been mindlessly refuted over the last 10 years.

History, on the other hand, is a social science. We can look at the letters, essays, documents and speeches of the "founding fathers" and interpret their intentions, but, honestly, when it's subjected to popular interpretation, all bets are off. Up is down and left is right is common strategic offense. I remember at least 25 years ago talking to my Republican father about South Africa and his insistence on *revisionist history* (he's a very bright man. it made it hard for me to dig into primary sources and understand context. I was young.) Historians step aside from politics for a very conscious reason--we aren't able to do more than assert our interpretations of the past based on our historical interpretation and not our contemporary interpretation. And we don't feel comfortable going beyond that. We don't ascribe to a "truth" no matter what we believe. I've received scathing remarks about my insights because they were ahistorical, and rightly so. The gray areas are what they are and I'll defend them.

6 JRCMYP  Sun, Feb 6, 2011 11:40:53pm

I'm actually very curious to hear what non-historians think. Please comment. :)

7 Bob Levin  Mon, Feb 7, 2011 1:21:57am

re: #5 JRCMYP

I'm not a historian, but I understand the importance of history.

Regarding climate change, I wouldn't tell scientists to go out and work hard to convince the public about climate change. That keeps the scientists out of the laboratory. However, I would say that a new type of engine needs to be invented, I would say that we need new ways to generate electricity. That's the history of technology--people don't always know that they need something until they start using it. Again, the idea isn't to convince people that there is climate change, the idea is to change the way we live. Since the last two centuries have been nothing but changing the way we live, the public is really pretty used to this.

After it's invented, leave the convincing to the marketing department.

(Do you know the story of Silicon Valley? Xerox had all these guys inventing stuff in the basement. Xerox didn't know what to do with the inventions, so they let the guys walk with their patents. Turned out to be Adobe, the mouse function on the personal computer, and other things that we simply cannot live without.)

However, history is about arguing in a way that law is about argument. History is just as relevant as law, but you've got to teach this. Historians need to engage with the public. Please lobby for mandatory AP history exams in order to graduate from high school. Make sure the textbooks are accurate, make sure kids graduate high school with some idea of how to go about telling the difference between what is true and what is not true. Make contacts with news people, blog--become talking heads. And recommend reading. Crusade for cultural and historical literacy.

We don't ascribe to a "truth" no matter what we believe.

You can cite a primary source objectively, right? That's a good start.

I've received scathing remarks about my insights because they were ahistorical, and rightly so. The gray areas are what they are and I'll defend them.

Sounds interesting. If you don't mind, please, relate more of the story.


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