The (Not Entirely New) Republican War on American History

The GOP struggles to control the past.

Row of students in a primary interracial classroom. Afro american girl paying attention to the teacher.
Photo Credit: CristinaMuraca

Headline #1—"Oklahoma Republicans may have outlawed Advanced Placement courses":

Oklahoma Republican legislators are debating whether Advanced Placement courses should be taught in their state's public schools. Let's pause to absorb that, shall we? Oklahoma lawmakers do not want their state's students to be able to take classes that will allow them to earn college credit while still in high school, thanks to a far-right conspiracy theory about the College Board's latest AP U.S. History framework. One bill currently being considered would specifically ban the AP U.S. History course, while some legislators think that an anti-Common Core law passed last year may already apply to all AP courses.
Headline #2—Georgia Republicans latest to propose airing of right-wing propaganda as 'history' in public schools:
Georgia wants to "encourage" middle schools and high schools in Georgia to show the latest right-wing propaganda project of an admitted felon in history classes. Which is totally cool, though, because, you see, this six-pack of Georgia right-wingers only wants to show this propaganda because they are convinced ... convinced! ... that history classes are already a cesspool of left-wing propaganda.
Conservative contempt for academia has long been established, the conservative euphoria over Scott Walker's lack of a college degree being a recent example. But this goes deeper—this is not just a curious strain of anti-intellectualism that has long been a staple of Republican rhetoric. This is a war on the study of American History itself, and it seems entirely plausible, if not likely, that the driving force is far more about contemporary politics than it is about historical dispute about interpretations of the past.

Follow me past the jump for an explanation of why the War on History might have more to do with 21st century politics than events of the prior centuries.

 

Despite the fact that these two legislative assaults on the study of American History in schools are recent, by no means do they exist in isolation. Republican attempts to alternately stifle the study of American History, or attempt to retrofit common historical interpretations to better fit Republican ideological values, have been around for years.

Our own beloved Hunter offered a Sunday Kos essay on this exact subject nearly four years ago. In it, he perfectly encapsulated the longheld conservative zeitgeist on the subject of legitimacy in academic fields:

To repeat myself: a hallmark of the modern conservative movement, including punditry, elected officials, and the base itself, is that science and knowledge is only valuable to the extent to which it can shore up conservative beliefs.

A historian is a "proper" historian if their history produces a perceivable conservative message. A work of art is "good" if it embraces a conservative position, and is "bad" if it is seen to promote a liberal one (often resulting in calls to remove the offending artwork – say, a historical mural depicting workers, etc.) A climate study is considered credible if it produces a conservative result, and is considered a conspiracy if it produces a perceived "liberal" one – which is to say, a result that a conservative listener does not like. The credentials of said scientists do not come into play, nor does the relevant process of peer review, nor does the relative scope of one study versus another: all of those things can be dismissed outright.

Without question, Hunter's argument that part of the conservative rancor on the subject of American History (amid other topics) is based in a desire to suppress interpretations of history that do not offer affirmation to their preferred worldview is a big part of the puzzle. But I suspect that it is not the only part of the puzzle.

It has long been a staple of left-of-center critiques of the media that the press has been cowed into a supplicant state as it relates to coverage of conservative politicos due to fears of being labelled as "the liberal media." As Eric Alterman wrote in his decade-old essay on the subject, "Working the Refs":

Using the very same media outlets that they complain don’t give their cause a fair shake to lodge their complaints, they know that slamming the other side is little more than a way to get their own ideas across, while drowning out opposing voices. Some have even admitted as much. During the 1992 presidential race, Rich Bond, then chair of the Republican Party, outlined the right’s game plan, saying that "There is some strategy to it [bashing the 'liberal' media]. If you watch any great coach, what they try to do is ‘work the refs.’ Maybe the ref will cut you a little slack on the next one."
In other words, "working the refs" means that by incessantly claiming to be the victims of media witch hunts, this means that every criticism in the press of a conservative politician, or the actions of said politician, should be automatically discounted, or even ignored, because ... after all ... everyone knows that the press has a consistent axe to grind against "us."

An excellent recent case in point: Scott Walker. When Walker punted on a reporter's question as to whether President Obama was a Christian, the conservative reaction was neither to hail Walker's answer, nor to criticize it. It was, instead, to excoriate the media for asking the question in the first place. The headline in a National Review commentary on the matter was succinct: "The Media’s Embarrassing Scott Walker Spectacle."

In the nearly unanimous opinion of the right, the fault was not on Walker for an absurd response to what should be a very simple question. It was on the media for asking the question, which clearly showed an underlying animus toward Walker that, in all probability, ought to disqualify them from any future commentary or analysis about his presumptive presidential bid.

The problem is: the question is a fair one. Can someone who wants to be president manage to resist the temptation to offer an absurdist pander that has its roots in an "otherness" argument that can easily be interpreted through a racial lens? After all, the reason Walker got the question is because one of his most high-profile supporters, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, made an even more strident criticism of Obama, in which he questioned his love of country, and he did so at a Walker fundraiser.

None of which, of course, matters to the right. To them, the story is that the media was mean to Scott Walker. Which is example #943,394 (in their minds) that the press is out to get them. Which is how a joke of an outlet like Fox News manages to gain such a faithful following. By constantly reinforcing conservative talking points, even at the expense of basic journalistic accuracy, they become the "fair" outlet in the minds of their devoted right-of-center audience.

Viewed through that lens, it becomes incredibly easy to understand why there is a renewed attack on how history is taught in schools. Having successfully (to some extent) worked the refs on interpretations of current events, the right is now training its guns on "working the refs" on interpretations of the past.

Consider the rationale for some of these recent examples of conservative attempts to implement revisionist history in classrooms under their purview. In 2010, when the state of Texas revised its statewide standards for social studies, one of the conservatives of the board gave a fairly typical "work the refs" interpretation of their rationale for tweaking the existing standards:

“We are adding balance,” said Dr. Don McLeroy, the leader of the conservative faction on the board, after the vote. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”
Dr. McLeroy did not hold a doctorate in American history, or any branch of the social sciences, for what it is worth. He is, in fact, a dentist.

Last year, the Huffington Post outlined several examples of how the Texas standards fail to square with the broad consensus of historians on a wide range of issues. Among the alterations, the new standards defended McCarthyism as having been vindicated by later evidence. In addition, any references to Jim Crow laws had been cut from the standards, according to HuffPo.

The same philosophy has permeated the most recent two attempts to undermine the study of history in American secondary schools. The recent attempt by some Florida legislators to foistD'Souza's documentary as part of the history curriculum was rooted in the same rhetoric:

Bill sponsor state Sen. Alan Hays told the News-Press that it is needed to counter "erroneous" information being taught in history classrooms, which he said is overly negative. "Frankly, it's embarrassing that we allow these lies to be taught in our school system," Hays said. "Unfortunately, our parents and our school board members have not kept up with the misrepresentation of American history that is being perpetrated in our school system, and this movie gives a totally different view."
Coincidentally, Hays is not only also not a historian by trade, but he, like McLeroy, is a dentist.

Perhaps more disturbing is the entirely plausible notion that something is more sinister at work here than merely "working the refs" to try to present a sanitized (err ... positive) view of American History.

For example, it is far easier for conservatives to reintroduce Jim Crow-esque voting restrictions that largely fall on the shoulders of minority voters if history classes are compelled to pretend as if racial discrimination never existed in America in the first place.

It is easier to enact economic policy that is the essential re-enactment of the Gilded Age if any criticism of said Gilded Age is muted, on the grounds that it paints an image of America that is not celebratory.

It is easier to deny civil liberties to people if, as the Texas social science standards are compelled to do, it is drilled into students heads that said denial is vindicated over time by ferreting out souls with evil intent, and all at no real "cost" to the rest of the citizenry.

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The quotation from Santayana would seem appropriate here, except that it does not appear to simply be a matter of being unable to remember the past. It is more about wanting to erase any recollection of the more troublesome aspects of our past, so that some of the solutions to those past abuses and usurpations can be undone with a lesser amount of complaint. That this is argued under the cloak of wanting to somehow prevent the reputation of the nation from being sullied is what makes this recent surge doubly disturbing.

 

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