Over Christmas break I read historian Jill Lepore’s The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). Part historical analysis, part personal narrative, Lepore constructs her text by juxtaposing the lives of Revolutionary-era Americans and the larger-than-life events which surrounded them with the claims and actions of present-day “Tea Partiers,” that amorphous group of right-wingers who surged into media prominence following the election of President Obama.
Her argument, it seems to me, is two-fold. First, the book is a meditation on the contested nature of American history, and the uses through time of the American Revolution, in particular, to justify the present-day politics of a given group. Whether it is the Civil Rights activists of the 1950s and ’60s or the far-right constitutional originalists of today, arguing that your plan of action is somehow connected to the founding of the nation is a short-hand way of claiming political legitimacy. This part of her narrative is somewhat politically-neutral — that is, it is possible to recognize that people all across the political spectrum marshal historical precedent in aid of their present-day agenda.
Second, by juxtaposing the stories of Revolutionary-era Americans (principally Benjamin Franklin, his destitute sister, and their mentally-disabled kin) with stories about present-day Americans who identify with the Tea Party ideology, Lepore is making two value judgments. One: the Tea Party movement is telling a story about the American Revolution that is not just conservative spin on established fact, but in fact ahistorical quasi-religious magical thinking. “Every generation tells its own story about what the Revolution was about, of course, since no one is alive who remembers it anymore,” she writes in the Prologue.
But the Tea Party’s Revolution wasn’t just another generation’s story — it was more like a reenactment — and its complaint about taxation without representation followed the inauguration of a president who won the electoral college vote 365 to 173 and earned 53 percent of the popular vote … It wasn’t only that the Tea Party’s version of American history bore almost no resemblance to the Revolution I study and teach. This was true, but it wasn’t new. … What was curious about the Tea Party’s Revolution, though, was that it wasn’t just kooky history, it was antihistory (7-8).
In short, the Tea Partiers conflate the past with the present and believe, in a mystical fashion, that their struggle is literally the exact same struggle as that engaged in by the “founding fathers” over two centuries ago. The passage of historical time is irrelevant; spatial-temporal context no longer matters.
Obviously, to an historian, this sort of ahistorical thinking is problematic when applied to events that did, indeed, happen in a time and place bound by the passage of time.
The second value judgment Lepore makes is more implicit than explicit: she is calling into question the Tea Partiers’ assumption that the values they are fighting for are values Revolutionary-era Americans would either have understood or would have sympathized with. Lepore’s eighteenth-century figures are vulnerable, faltering human beings — a far cry from the iconographic imagery that depicts heroic white men in frock coats and a soft VistaVision filter. Phillis Wheatley, dragged from her childhood in Africa and brought half dead on a ship from African to America where she is sold to the Wheatley family, marries and dies in childbirth; Benjamin Franklin’s sister Jane Mecom who spent her life scrabbling to keep her family out of the poorhouse and outlived all but one of her twelve children; Franklin’s brother who went mad and was shipped off to the countryside where he was looked after by a farmwife who kept him chained in the barn like a wild animal.
Would these historical figures, Lepore seems to be asking, have really taken affront at the notion of universal health care? Laws designed to protect the rights of blacks and women from discrimination and violence?
History moves on, Lepore is arguing, and those who believe the greatest honor we can pay the “founding fathers” of our nation is by strict adherence to what (we think) they imagined for themselves is a woefully narrow vision of what we as a people can achieve. To deify the people who populate the past, to seal off the possibility that their vision could have been flawed, or limited, by their own particular time and place — just as ours is limited by our own less-than-infinite imaginations — to imagine that living up to their example is the best we can do is to, ironically, betray the very visionary thinking that led to the Revolution in the first place. That is, it was a beginning, not an end point. It was a break with the past, not an exercise in nostalgia or fixity.
Reading Lepore reminded me of another recent analysis of the far-right’s relationship with history: Sean Wilentz’s discussion of Glenn Beck and what he owes the conservatives of the Cold War era (published in the 18 October 2010 edition of the New Yorker). Wilentz was interviewed about the piece on Fresh Air by Terry Gross (audio and transcript available at NPR), with whom he discussed Beck’s deployment of history and antihistory rhetoric.
Mr. WILENTZ: Right. Well, Glenn Beck is trying to give you a version of American history that is supposedly hidden. Supposedly, all we historians -left, right and center – have been doing for the past 100 years is to keep true American history from you. And that true American history is what Glenn Beck is teaching.
What interests me as an historian, is how Glenn Beck’s version of American history, it isn’t new. It isn’t hidden. It’s been out there for 50 years. It’s pretty much what the John Birch Society – that they’ve been teaching for 50 years.
It’s a version of history that demonizes the Progressive era, particularly Woodrow Wilson, sees it as the beginnings of America’s going down the road to totalitarianism, which ends, in Beck’s version, with Barack Obama.
It’s a version of history that is beyond skewed. One history professor said that, you know, it’s not worth a pitcher of warm spit. But of course, that’s what Beck expects us to say. He lives in a kind of, you know, Alice in Wonderland world, where if people who actually know the history say what he’s teaching is junk, he says that’s because you’re trying to hide the truth.
As an academically-trained historian who also has strong sympathies with the anti-elitist strain in American culture, I find the far right’s use of history deeply frustrating. On the one hand, I understand on an emotive and even political level the frustration and feeling of disenfranchisement expressed by many of the folks for whom Beck’s message about America’s past strikes a chord. Ersatz though their reading of the American past may be, their frustration with mainstream narratives that they feel have gotten the story “wrong” certainly bears a strong resemblance to the complaints many on the left have made over the past half-century or more.
The difference, I would argue, lies in the desired goals of these revisions. Those on the left (generally speaking) argue that history should be more inclusive, more self-reflexive, less a celebration of those in power and more an interrogation of how they got to have such power, and at whose expense? There is a strong small-D democratizing ethic in these historical inquiries, wherein no historical event or person is off-limits to be re-interpreted, personal actions and consequences large and small examined anew. Such a vision of historical analysis and deployment of historical narratives in relation to present-day problems opens the door to creativity, to imaginative interpretation, to asking new questions of old sources.
On the right, Glenn Beck and the Tea Partiers in Lepore’s account resist this democratizing impulse. Granted, they exercise their own democratic right to offer fresh interpretations of history, regardless of professional credentials. Yet the irony is that they turn around and use that right to challenge what they see as the mainstream (or “lamestream”) narratives on behalf of the powerful rather than the disenfranchised.
That is, they champion not those whom history has forgotten (the enslaved Africans, the poor, the ill, the working mothers with children, the spinster women, the poor, the poor, the poor) but instead they seek to rehabilitate those who have long had their pick of champions: the Founding Fathers. In the right-fundamentalist, inverse version of American history, the crisis is not that so few peoples’ historical stories have been told — but that since the mid-twentieth-century too many peoples’ stories have been told. And too many different versions of those stories, so that their favored version no longer holds (to the extent it ever did) center stage. Figures and events whom they hold as sacred are not being treated with due deference by academic historians, by politicians, by the public.
What’s the motivating factor? After reading Lepore’s book, I came away far from certain. In fact, I was most struck by the way in which the Tea Party activists with whom Lepore spoke were reluctant (or unable?) to articulate their own economic vulnerability under the current system — and resistant to imagining how (say) universal, tax-funded health care could benefit them and their families. As one man, George, explains to her,
My little girl, when she was three, she got real sick. Had to be in intensive care for ten days. Had to have a tracheotomy. I had shit for insurance. The hospital sent me a bill. Ten thousand dollars. I got a second job; I sent the hospital one hundred bucks a month. That was the right thing to do. This [the new health care legislation] is wrong. People want something, they have to work for it (100).
A personal narrative that I, or Lepore, or no doubt most of you would read as an object lesson in why this country needs to provide universal access to affordable health care, George deploys as an object lesson to precisely the opposite end: he got that second job, he paid the astronomical health care bills because it “was the right thing to do.” And because, he believes, the Founding Fathers would have approved.
What is it going to take to convince the Georges of the world that maybe another possible “right thing” would be to ensure that his little girl — and all other little girls just like her — were given access to medical care that didn’t involve their parents taking on second jobs? I sure as hell don’t know.