Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sunday Reading

History 2.0 — Steven Thomas of McClatchy Newspapers looks at the trend of conservatives rewriting history to make it fit their agenda.

In articles and speeches, on radio and TV, conservatives are working to redefine major turning points and influential figures in American history, often to slam liberals, promote Republicans and reinforce their positions in today’s politics.

The Jamestown settlers? Socialists. Founding Father Alexander Hamilton? Ill-informed professors made up all that bunk about him advocating a strong central government.

Theodore Roosevelt? Another socialist. Franklin D. Roosevelt? Not only did he not end the Great Depression, he also created it.

Joe McCarthy? Liberals lied about him. He was a hero.

Some conservatives say it’s a long-overdue swing of the pendulum after years of liberal efforts to define history on their terms in classrooms and in popular culture.

“We are adding balance,” Texas school board member Don McLeroy said. “History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left.”

The effort in Texas and nationwide is controversial, however, even among many conservatives. McLeroy was defeated in a recent primary after he led the campaign for a more conservative version of history, a defeat that the National Review, a leading conservative organ, called “sensible.”

While even some conservative intellectuals say that some of the revisionist history is simply wrong, at the core, the effort reflects the ever-changing view of history, which is always subject to revision thanks to new information or new ways of looking at things, and often is viewed through a political lens.

“History in the popular world is always a political football,” said Alan Brinkley, a historian at Columbia University. “The right is unusually mobilized at the moment.”

“Part of the tide of history is that it’s contested terrain,” said Fritz Fischer, a historian at the University of Northern Colorado and the chairman of the National Council for History Education. “We should always be arguing and questioning what happened in the past.”

It’s not just historians who contest history, however. It’s also politicians and pundits.

The left has done it.

Fischer cited the case of controversial former University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill, whose essay claiming that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were the fruit of illegal U.S. policies became a cause celebre. Fischer said Churchill “ignored a lot of evidence and made some up to promulgate a particular political belief.”

Now, it’s the right.

“There’s clearly a political impetus behind this that connects to the issues of today,” Fischer said, such as labeling President Barack Obama a socialist. “But when history is ignored to do it, that can be dangerous.”

To be fair, if the only example that can be summoned forth to illustrate the left’s rewriting of history is Ward Churchill (who I remember as a crank from my days at CU), it’s thin gruel. No credible historian supported his point of view and the Colorado Board of Education did not adopt his viewpoints as the foundation for high school history texts.

You are entitled to your opinion of historical facts. But you’re not entitled to rewrite history to make it fit your view of it.

More below the fold.

Fair Warning — Leonard Pitts, Jr. warns that you’ll be furious after reading his column.

In March 2006 a 20-year-old Marine, Lance Cpl. Matthew Snyder, was killed in a motor vehicle accident in Iraq. His family probably thought that the most painful blow imaginable. Truth is, their pain was only beginning.

Cpl. Snyder’s death, you see, came to the attention of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Westboro, for those who do not know, is no more a church than is your average gas station toilet. According to published reports, it claims about 75 members, most of them kin to its leader, Fred Phelps. And Phelps preaches a ”gospel” of anti-homosexuality that is grotesque even by the standards of fundamentalist hate.

It is his thesis that because America has embraced ”fags,” God is punishing the nation. God’s instrument of choice? Dead soldiers. ”Thank God for dead soldiers,” he says. Phelps has taken to spreading this message at the funerals of service men and women — noisy, hateful protests that grieving families are forced to endure on one of the worst days of their lives.

So in March 2006, Westboro protesters showed up at St. John’s Catholic Church (”St. John’s Kennel” in their formulation) in Westminster, Md., for Snyder’s funeral, reportedly carrying signs depicting male sex and slogans like ”Semper Fi Fags.”

Are you furious yet? This isn’t even the bad part.

For the record, no one — Westboro included — has accused Matthew Snyder of being gay — not that that should matter. But the church’s bizarre argument is that the death of every dead serviceperson should be celebrated as God’s punishment of a gay-tolerant nation.

Cpl. Snyder’s father, Albert, sued the ”church” for disrupting his son’s funeral. In October 2007, he won a $10.9 million verdict. Last September, an appeals court tossed that verdict out.

Nor is even that the worst of it. No, the worst is that the court recently ordered Snyder to pay Westboro’s legal bills. You heard me. Snyder, who makes $43,000 a year, must pay $16,500 to the people who made a circus of his son’s funeral. ”You can do the math,” says his attorney, Sean Summers. Snyder has been forced to seek donations online (www.matthewsnyder.org). Westboro says it will use the money to give the same treatment to another grieving family.

Take it as a reminder that what is legal is not necessarily right. I admit to being conflicted. I am a strong believer in the First Amendment and in the principle that freedom of speech means nothing unless it is protected for the vilest among us: even the flag burner, even the anti-Semite, even, as in this case, the intellectually incontinent. On the other hand, the protections are not absolute: There is no First Amendment right to threaten or to libel.

So surely we could carve out some reasonable exception that would keep a Fred Phelps from intruding upon the solemnity of a private funeral. Of course, those are legal questions and I am content to leave them to legal minds.

I am consumed with a human question: How addled by hatred do you have to be, how niggardly of spirt, shriveled of soul, and just plain crazy, to do what these people have done? To use one of my mother’s favorite expressions, these “Christians” are going to knock the bottom out of hell.

While we await that lovely day, this case is bound for the Supreme Court where Summers will continue representing Albert Snyder for free. I asked the attorney why and he told me that he’s a veteran and has a brother doing a third tour in Afghanistan.

”I would be appalled if someone did something like this at my funeral.”

You’d like to think that’s unimaginable. But we live in a country where it’s anything but. For better — and some days, for worse — those are the rights people like Matthew Snyder die to defend.

One small correction to Mr. Pitts; the court ruled that Mr. Snyder must pay WBC’s legal costs, not fees. That means he pays for the filing and paperwork expenses, not those of his attorneys. A small but important difference. And it still stings.

Our First Gay President? — Hendrik Hertzberg speculates on who was really was the first American queen.

“President Obama—Our First Gay President?”

So asks Tom McClusky, an official blogger for the Family Research Council, a leading Christianist organization, in his headline over a recent post. Here’s his reasoning:

It was argued during his two terms in office that Bill Clinton was “our first black President” because of his supposed liberal policies that would benefit African-Americans (though I’m not quite sure what President Clinton did, that he wasn’t forced to do, that would benefit any minority except for Chinese monks with political donations to spend.) With that argument shouldn’t Barack Obama already be our “first gay President” due to his liberal policies pushing the homosexual agenda?

Clever sally about the Chinese monks, eh what? Let it not be said that Christianists are incapable of making a funny.

Blogger McClusky does not seem to be aware that the “first black President” notion (a metaphor, not an argument) belongs to Toni Morrison, even though he links to a copy of the piece in which she famously said it—her contribution to a special Talk of the Town symposium in which prominent writers reflected on the impeachment travesty. But Morrison’s point, as McClusky would have known if he had read what he linked to, had nothing to do with “liberal policies that would benefit African-Americans”:

Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.

That—plus the fact that “the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution,” with the result that “he was metaphorically seized and body-searched”—was Morrison’s point.

If the standard is “liberal policies that would benefit African-Americans,” then Clinton was not the first black President. He was, at a bare minimum, the eighth, following Lincoln, Grant, the two Roosevelts, Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, and Carter. Obama—an actual black person who, notwithstanding Morrison’s doubts, was actually elected during the lifetime of our actual children, except the really little ones still in diapers—is the ninth.

The interesting question is this: Who was the first gay President?—not by Family Research Council standards (“liberal policies pushing the homosexual agenda”), by authentic Toni Morrison standards (“every trope” of whatever—in this case, gayness).

My guess: Thomas Jefferson. Here’s my reasoning:

1. America’s first foodie. Imported, from Italy, the first pasta-making machine in the Western hemisphere.
2. America’s first, anyhow most prominent, oenophile.
3. Obsessed with getting Monticello exactly right. Extraordinarily interested in furniture and interior decoration. Houseproud.
4. Never remarried after becoming a widower at age thirty-nine.
5. Questionable hair color.
6. Slender. Despite gourmet tendencies, never developed pot belly.
7. Birdwatcher.
8. Francophile. Mad about Paris.
9. Lisped.
10. Affair with Sally Hemings admittedly a complication, but DNA tests not totally, absolutely, a-hundred-per-cent conclusive.
11. Flirtation with Maria Cosway all talk, no action.
12. Made a point of insisting that “all men are created equal.”
13. Er, that’s it.

P.C. disclaimer: We’re dealing here with tropes—i.e., stereotypes. So no fair complaining on that score.

Otherwise, suggestions and/or objections welcome via email.

(H/t: Right Wing Watch)

Doonesbury: What a guy.