One of the chief complaints directed against multiculturalism in general and its historical narratives in particular has long been that they preach cultural (and other kinds of) relativism, a sense that there is no single truth so much as a set of competing ideas and voices. Certainly one of multiculturalism’s historicist goals has been and remains to destabilize long-accepted truths and narratives, to force Americans to acknowledge how much those “facts” have been created by particular communities and perspectives and thus have left out or papered over at least as much as they have included. But in the best versions of this kind of history—and I believe those best versions constitute the vast majority of multicultural scholarly perspectives and works—the result of that destabilization is not intended to be the absence of truths or histories but rather more inclusive and thus more accurate ones, narratives that do significantly more justice to the real facts of our national past and identity.
Whether you agree or disagree with that characterization of multicultural historical narratives, though, I believe all AmericanStudiers can agree on one concurrent and very ironic irony: the most vocal and visible 21st-century proponents of the “traditional” American historical narrative, and most especially the unquestioned current leader of that movement, preacher and pseudo-historian David Barton, are practicing a form of history that not only does not rely on accepted facts or narratives, but instead often blatantly ignores or falsifies them in order to make its contemporary and political points. I said the same about Palin and her Paul Revere narrative, but as the first link below illustrates, Barton takes this kind of partisan history-making to an entirely different and much more sweeping level: in the clips featured there, he argues (among other nonsensical historical falsehoods) that the Founding Fathers favored creationism over evolutionary theory (even though the latter did not exist for another eighty years) and that they not only were not slave-holders, but in fact fought the Revolution in opposition to England’s embrace of slavery. Barton has made his name through his arguments that there should be no separation of church and state, that in fact the Founding Fathers intended America to be a Christian nation in every sense; yet as strikingly inaccurate as those arguments are (as the second link makes clear, and as I have argued elsewhere in this space, most fully in March 11’s post on the Treaty of Tripoli), they seem positively convincing compared to these latest and even more ludicrously false ideas.
“So what?,” you might ask (maybe not, if you’re reading this blog—but some might ask, at least). Barton espoused these latest theories on a Christian television show on a Christian network, and so he’s preaching to the converted. There are a couple main responses to that question, both I believe vitally important. For one thing, folks like Glenn Beck and Mike Huckabee believe that all Americans can and should learn from David Barton’s visions of our national past and identity; Beck has made Barton the go-to American history teacher in his Beck University, and Huckabee has argued that all Americans should be forced “at gunpoint” to listen to Barton’s ideas. But for another, and even more important, thing, I don’t believe for a second that the people watching that show, nor the people who watch and listen to Glenn Beck or Mike Huckabee, don’t deserve and need just as full and accurate visions of American history and identity. To cede those large audiences entirely to charlatans and frauds like these, to give up in the battle—and it is most definitely a battle—over which visions of America they will hear and read and know, over whether they’ll come to believe entirely false and ludicrous or much more accurate and meaningful versions of our history and culture, would be the worst thing that those of us who care about America and its future could ever do.
There are a hell of a lot of us in that position, and an equally significant number who are far better-equipped than Barton to help Americans know and understand and carry forward American narratives and realities. It’s pretty damn ironic that it’s Barton getting so much airtime, and more ironic still that he makes his case by arguing against what “revisionist” historians have done. But you know what would be the most ironic possibility? If Barton himself inspires enough of us real historians and AmericanStudiers that we turn the national conversation into something much different, and infinitely stronger, as a result. Let’s give it a shot, huh? More tomorrow,
PS. Three links to start with:
1) A story on Barton’s latest nonsense, with video evidence of same: http://www.rightwingwatch.org/content/barton-founding-fathers-were-against-teaching-evolution-american-revolution-was-fought-slave
2) A very thorough debunking of most of Barton’s overall arguments and ideas: http://www.positiveatheism.org/writ/founding.htm
3) OPEN: What do you think?
Great thoughts Ben. Thankfully, I've never read anything by Barton, and your post has convinced me to not even look him up. I wonder, is there something about conservative Americans that attracts them to these sort of simple, generalized, symbolic narratives? I am genuinely confused by that. I listen to something like Palin's Paul Revere fiasco and am just repelled. But it seems like a lot of people hear a word like "freedom" or "guns" and get all warm and fuzzy inside. I just can't relate, at all.ReplyDelete
How do you engage with people who won't or at least don't want to listen. As you said in a later post this movement is becoming a church in and of itself and arguing with dogma is incredibly difficult. Usually trying to start this conversation just leads into being called an elitist or out of touch with American values. The ignorance on display here is at best intentional and at worst welcomed with open arms.ReplyDelete
Hi Mike and Anonymous,ReplyDelete
Thanks for the thoughts. I think to a degree everybody likes simple and symbolic narratives, so a main key for me in my ongoing work is to find ways to connect some of America's more complex and difficult histories to those kinds of narratives, and thus, in a way, to redefine American values in these new ways. Ideally I see cross-cultural transformation as an example, something that can be pretty simple and symbolic but better reflect the much more complex communal realities and stories behind it. That's the goal, anyway!