How is it that Americans can be so ignorant of American history? We all go to public school where we ostensibly learn something about American history – beyond George Washington and his cherry tree, that is – and there is a veritable smorgasbord laid out before us when you add libraries, bookstores, and internet together. It’s all there for the taking. All you need is a desire to know.
To judge from the result, most people lack this, and it is a lack felt severely on the Right. Let’s face it, in today’s political climate we love to beat each other over the head with the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson said this, Ben Franklin said that, but what’s behind those quotes? How many of them are accurate? What was their context? Does the quote accurate portray the lifelong viewpoint of the man in question? Not likely. Peoples’ views change over time. The Founding Fathers changed over time. Republicans love to quote an anti-federalist Jefferson but ignore the President Jefferson who became the strong Executive he feared all his life up to that point.
I’m certain that deficient education in American history is responsible for many of our problems today. The situation in Texas will only make matters worse by privileging ideology over fact. It’s true that history is more than just a collection of facts; it is the interpretation of those facts as well. It is also true that a complete lack of bias is impossible. We all have points of view, we all operate out of a context just as did the authors whose writings we are discussing. But we ought to at least try to be impartial and unbiased in our interpretations, and more important still, intellectually honest enough to admit when the facts don’t fit our thesis.
That’s the scientific process. Abandon your thesis and find a new one, because that’s all you can do when the facts don’t match up. Don’t invent a false narrative and populate it with false quotes or quotes taken out of context; don’t simply continue to insist the Founders intended this or they intended that, without offering any proof.
Look at Sarah Palin, whom FOX calls a Constitutional Expert despite her inability to name even a single Founding Father (George Washington on continued prompting from Glenn Beck and maybe a hastily scribbled message off camera), or her insistence that America was founded on Biblical principles and the Constitution on the Bible…has she even read the Constitution or does she have only a vague awareness that a document called “the Constitution” is floating around somewhere?
Conservative think-tanks are as guilty as conservative candidates. Look at the “Claremont Institute” for example:
The mission of the Claremont Institute is to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life. These principles are expressed most eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, which proclaims that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.” To recover the founding principles in our political life means recovering a limited and accountable government that respects private property, promotes stable family life, and maintains a strong national defense.
Seriously? According to the principles of the “American Founding” the “all men are created equal” enshrines the idea essential to liberal democracy that all are equal before the law. But that is not the case. It is demonstrably not the case that conservatives want this to be true. The LGBT community can attest to continuing bias. I’m going to have to point out here that the Founders were speaking of more than the right to bear arms or the states having certain rights, which seem to be the complete contents of the new Republican version of the Constitution. And where in either the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution (which you significantly fail to mention) is any stress laid on “stable family life”? And have you picked up a history book recently? The young republic had no standing army, let alone a “strong national defense.”
You have to wonder how all these folks can take 1+1 and get anything other than “2” – but they do, all of them, pundits, candidates, and think tanks alike. Ideology has become so central to their narrative that facts can be dismissed at a whim. The narrative need bear no resemblance to what actually took place, despite that smorgasbord of evidence all around us.
There is an old expression that not reading when you know how is worse than not being able to read and you wonder where the shame is. If you want something central to the “Founding principles” you have only to look at education. Yet the Republicans are as anti-intellectual as they come, crying for the abolition of the Department of Education; it’s almost as if they are at war with the Enlightenment, and in truth it seems they are, even if they’re unaware intellectually that such a thing existed or took place (they don’t read, after all).
So I’m with them – absolutely – let’s get back to founding principles, but let’s get back to the real founding principles, not the ones you make up and support with non-facts or invented facts, but the founding principles supported by the evidence. At least be honest enough to admit that you want something because you want it to be true, not because it was ever true, or ever intended to be true.
Hrafnkell Haraldsson, a social liberal with leanings toward centrist politics has degrees in history and philosophy. His interests include, besides history and philosophy, human rights issues, freedom of choice, religion, and the precarious dichotomy of freedom of speech and intolerance. He brings a slightly different perspective to his writing, being that he is neither a follower of an Abrahamic faith nor an atheist but a polytheist, a modern-day Heathen who follows the customs and traditions of his Norse ancestors. He maintains his own blog, A Heathen’s Day, which deals with Heathen and Pagan matters, and Mos Maiorum Foundation www.mosmaiorum.org, dedicated to ethnic religion. He has also contributed to NewsJunkiePost, GodsOwnParty and Pagan+Politics.