Radosh: Don’t Politicize History

October 19th, 2010 at 5:59 pm | 7 Comments |

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Ron Radosh writes:

Having spent a good deal of time writing about the crude left-wing history of our country by charlatans like Howard Zinn and Oliver Stone, I have become wary of politicized history in general, whether it comes from the precincts of the far left or the far right.

This time the culprits are on the right, one of the biggest examples being Glenn Beck. On this website, some time ago, I wrote about Beck’s failure to understand Martin Luther King, Jr. A senior editor of Reason, my friend Michael Moynihan, wrote about Beck’s history and insightfully pointed out that a “tiny bit of knowledge … combined with an enormous Fox News constituency and an unflappable trust in one’s own wisdom, is a dangerous thing. Beck doesn’t demonstrate the perils of auto didacticism, but the perils of learning the subject while at the same time attempting to teach it.”

Now, from the precincts of the left, come two important critiques of both Beck’s and the Tea Party’s historical narrative. The first is a new book from Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian of America’s colonial and revolutionary period. Her book, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History, should be required reading.

Lepore realizes that trying to find a usable past is not only a sin of the right. Indeed, she shows that in the 1970s, the left-wing activist Jeremy Rifkin created what he called “The People’s Bicentennial,” and used the Tea Party as a symbol for his attempt to invoke the Founding Fathers for the left in much the same way Beck and others do for the right today. His group, she writes, was meant to start “a tax-agitating Tea Party, too,” and said Tea stood for “Tax Equity for Americans.” His goal was to obtain “genuine equality of property and power and against taxation without representation,” and the group’s slogan was “Don’t Tread on Me.” Rifkin, she writes, “wrote the Tea Party’s playbook.” (Not surprisingly, Howard Zinn was part of this movement, and his series of books came soon after.)

What Lepore successfully does, however, is reveal the dangers of oversimplification by those who use history for their own political purposes. What she opposes is “historical fundamentalism,” and the false assumptions “about the relationship between the past and the present.” She calls this “the belief that a particular and quite narrowly defined past — ‘the founding’ — is ageless and sacred and to be worshipped; that certain historical texts — ‘the founding documents’ — are to be read in the same spirit with which religious fundamentalists read … the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired … that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, … are therefore incontrovertible.”

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • MSheridan

    I haven’t read any of Radosh’s work before, although I’ve certainly heard of him. Maybe I’ll read more and see why he thinks Howard Zinn is a charlatan. That’s a position I have not heard espoused before and having read Zinn I tend to think I disagree, pending further evidence. However, I have to accord a measure of respect to any scholar who reads the work of other scholars with whom he or she disagrees. Clearly, Radosh does so. I certainly agree with him re: Beck and Skousen.

  • Oldskool

    The current Ignorance Movement is so rapid and far reaching it’s awe inspiring. You’d think concern over “the Constitution” should have been Fear Number One since it was written but it’s only been in the last two years that the phrase has been in circulation and misused by every sign-carrying teabagger out there.

  • ktward

    It’s worth a click to read the entire article, and then head over to David Horowitz’s rejoinder which he ended with this gem:

    You [Radosh] joined an attack [of Beck] on the wrong side at the wrong moment … you chose to join an unscrupulous and malicious wolf pack. Not a good choice.

    An interesting finger for one DH to point, given his and Swindle’s inarguably unscrupulous and malicious treatment of Alex Knepper. Radosh’s gravitas will, I imagine, keep Horowitz from taking it to an ugly place.

  • CD-Host

    I agree with him on Jill Lepore she’s very important to what David is doing on this blog. She would be a good interview subject for Frum.

    As far as Beck IMHO (and the article agres) Beck is really getting his ideas from Elizabeth Dilling via Cleon Skousen. He’s promoting Skousen since:

    1) I’m not sure he realizes they are coming from Dilling
    2) Skousen isn’t an explicit anti-Semite.

    But Dilling is obviously the more famous person. If we are going to discuss Beck that’s where you go. Of course this gets to 40′s politics. Where there was an explicit move to link anti-Communism, isolationism anti-Semitism with sedition. In other words lets just deal with Dilling and Taft the conservatism of that period. I don’t understand how Dilling gets popular in Orange County CA in the late 1950s to get into John Birchers but that’s obviously how Skousen comes in.

    What I think is fascinating is the influence of Palin in bring people like Dilling back. People keep talking about Palin as having no influence when I keep seeing tremendous evidence for the opposite.

  • ktward

    CD-Host: People keep talking about Palin as having no influence when I keep seeing tremendous evidence for the opposite.

    What do you mean by ‘influence’?

    To my mind, Palin’s simply a talented rabble-rouser: she has celebrity, compliments of a mistake that McCain will likely never live down; compliments of that celebrity, she has a well-publicized podium at her disposal.

    She has proved herself remarkably polarizing given her relative short time on the Nat’l political stage. Her measured favorability remains not only so low that she’s not a viable candidate herself for the foreseeable future, but she’s an albatross to some mid-term candidates she endorsed.

    I’m inclined to agree with Greg Sargent’s take on Palin: she’s way more toxic than influential. Both within the GOP and among the general electorate.

    In any event, mid-terms present a success bar she’ll have to clear; if she does, I’ll be more inclined to consider her influential. As well, in the run-up to 2012 we’re likely to learn a lot about the realized influence of both TeaP and Palin.

  • CD-Host

    ktward –

    I’m not quite sure if I see the conflict between toxic and influential. Political thinkers and actors can be quite disliked by the public and still influential. To take an extreme example Bin Ladin was influential though very unpopular.

  • jakester

    Radosh is okay, he was one of the original anti Soviet revisionists. But a guy who has been in Horowitz’s orbit for so long really doesn’t have much credibility complaining about politicizing history