October 31, 2010

The Tea Party and history

Picked up Jill Lepore's The Whites of their Eyes: The Tea Party's Revolution and the battle over American History yesterday.  Lepore is a great historian, but unfortunately, the very people who need to read this will never know it exists.  This book, after all, lacks a Glenn Beck blurb on the back.  But this book is right in my wheel-house--because Lepore understands that historical narratives like this occur in a cultural context.

I will post more on the book as I work my way through, but found this great line from her introduction on the perils of fundamentalism.
Historical fundamentalism is marked by 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 which religious fundamentalists read, for instance, the Ten Commandments; that the Founding Fathers were divinely inspired; that the academic study of history (whose standards of evidence and methods of analysis are based on skepticism) is a conspiracy and, furthermore, blasphemy; and that political arguments grounded in appeals to the founding documents, as sacred texts, and to the Founding Fathers, as prophets, are therefore incontrovertible.  

That very accurately describes what we see around us, I think, and explains how conservatives can assert that this is "their country," rather than "ours."   None of that makes me feel better, mind you, but it is good to see a historian stepping into the public sphere to discuss how history is written and understood.  And, if I understand her argument, she also is critical of the profession for not helping craft the narrative around the Bicentennial when the nation needed one.

Speaking of that, btw, though I didn't watch the rally, I took great pleasure in reading about Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's "Rally for Sanity" yesterday.  Especially welcome were the wonderful signs.  A few of my favorites:

  • "I spell check my political rage."
  • "I'm generally okay with this administration!1! I just have points of disagreement I'd be happy to talk calmly about."
  • "Please STOP Trying to Take Back 'Your' Country. It's MINE Too! How 'Bout We SHARE?"
  • "Hitler was a total Nazi."


Smitty said...

I will be picking up a copy of this book immediately. I have made that point a few times on my blog (that fundies see the Constitution and the Bible as one in the same, to be read and understood in the same fashion). I really look forward to reading this.

It really goes a long way towards explaining their behavior an talking points; this taking-back of the country from "the other," the prophetic and religious deification of our "founders," etc. It is scary shit because when you inject religious fervor into the history of our country, you lose the ability to have a rational discussion about policy, politics, an history. It becomes the same pointless argument as people arguing over whose deity is the right one.

After the Spartans got their asses handed to them in Iowa yesterday, watching clips of The Rally To Restore Sanity was quite welcome.

Streak said...

Smitty, I was going to mention that this really fit your argument and then simply forgot.

Monk-in-Training said...

"God hates Figs" LOL reminds me of the whole God hates Shrimp thing.

I bet it was fun at that rally.

Smitty said...


I wasn't fishing for a nod...just contributing...but thanks all the same! In my line of work (I am a soulless lobbyist; I don't know if I've ever divulged that here), for as long as I have done it, you start to see trends in politicians and in the things that get them elected. I think where we are now politically was inevitable (in terms of "what it takes to get elected;"). It's hard to articulate all of why I think so in the space of a comments section without hijacking the entire section. Some folks have already said as much, much better than I have, about the role that Rove played in defining pockets of voters and gathering them under one single tent, convincing them all that they actually agree, and closing the door to outsiders. The clear winner in that cacophony of screaming is the religious right, who claims basis for every belief under that tent.

How do we get out of it? More of Stewart's Rally to Restore Sanity, that's how. Letting moderate America speak their moderate tones without fear of being shouted-down by the lunatics.

Streak said...

Well, said, Smitty.

If you ever wanted to say more about your experience in the political process, we haven't had a guest blogger in some time. :)

steves said...

I would also be careful lumping religious fundamentalists together and even lumping them with Constitutional fundamentalists. Granted, this is just my own narrow experience, but there are many relgious fundamentalists that are apolitical and there are also some very politically conservative people that are non-religious.

Streak said...

I don't think we are lumping them together as if they are the same group, but lumping them together as if they approach their prime issue (be it religion or the constitution) using the same methodology.

steves said...

I see your point. My problem with constitutional fundamentalism is that many of the most die-hard 'originalists' don't seem to know that much about the Constitution or the laws of our country at that time. The more I learn, the more I realize that there is still a lot I do not know.

Streak said...

Absolutely, and I feel the same way. Reading the Lepore book reminds me of all that I don't know about the early period. Hell, reading on my area is the same way.

And I would say that your concerns about constitutional fundamentalists absolutely applies to the biblical version as well.

steves said...


Would you say the book is pretty even handed and objective? I think one reason that some people avoid books they should read is that they don't want to be beaten over the head with some kind of biased diatribe. There doesn't seem to be a shortage of those kinds of books and most of the readers seem to already be sympathetic to what the viewpoint is.

This book looks pretty good, in that it is written by someone with excellent credentials. I will have to see if my library has it.

Streak said...

I think she is even-handed, though she clearly doesn't exactly respect the historical knowledge of the Tea Party--nor does that make her book biased.

But she places the Tea Party in a broader historical context and shows how Americans have always invoked the Founders and the Revolution to justify their political opinions.

steves said...

I don't think pointing out errors makes one biased. Unfortunately, I think there are people that tend to deify the founding fathers and misinterpret their actions and writings.