On his MSNBC Hardball program last week, Chris Matthews was calling Congresswoman Michele Bachmann (R-Minn) a “balloon head” — somebody who speaks freely without knowing anything, about U.S. history, in particular, and somebody who need to go back to school to learn something about history, so that she might finally know something about the things she likes to talk about. I don’t agree: I don’t agree that this is just a case of simple ignorance (like, say, that of George W. Bush’s Press Secretary Dana Perino, as when she admitted that when a reporter in a White House briefing once referred to the Cuban Missile Crisis, she didn’t even know what that was: “I was panicked a bit because I really don’t know about . . . the Cuban Missile Crisis,” said Perino, who at 35 was born about a decade after the 1962 U.S.-Soviet nuclear showdown. “It had to do with Cuba and missiles, I’m pretty sure.”).
In Bachmann’s case — as we can see in the instance of her claims last weekend about slavery and American history which were the specific provocation for Matthews’ remarks — this is far from simple ignorance. However much she may be speaking from her deepest personal convictions, she is engaging in a campaign of devious historical falsehood in which she and others (such as Glenn Beck, and members of the Texas State Board of Education [TxSBOE]) are both promoting and depending on an American public that is historically uneducated, and even mis-educated. By dwelling so exclusively on education in the “STEM” subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) in his State of the Union address, President Obama contributes to the lopsided inattention to social education that perpetuates the national ignorance of history that enables Bachmann and others to continue getting away with this kind of nonsense.
First, here’s a quick (1-minute) clip of Bachmann on slavery:
We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil, and it was a scourge and a blot and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly — men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.
Others have pointed out the obvious historical inaccuracies. For one thing, it is not accurate to characterize the Founding Fathers as having “worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States” (since many were slave owners, and the others compromised in slavery’s perpetuation throughout their lifetimes). And John Quincy Adams, who was indeed active in opposing slavery, was not one of the founders, was not among the founders’ generation, and did not live to see the end of slavery brought about by the Civil War and the Thirteenth Amendment, a couple decades after his death in 1848.
While these might seem like simply factual errors of the kind that could result from simple ignorance, I see something else going on here: a grand mythology is being spun here like a spider’s web, a grand narrative of American Exceptionalism for which Bachmann is casting herself as leading the ongoing charge of liberty and equality (spelled most decisively with a proper American “y“, and not the Frenchie
é). It is in this grand narrative that Bachmann finds justification for calling upon Americans to be “armed and dangerous” in revolutionary confrontation with their government, as related by Andy Birkey in The Minnesota Independent:
In March 2009 on WWTC, Bachmann said, “I want people in Minnesota armed and dangerous on this issue of the energy tax because we need to fight back. Thomas Jefferson told us, having a revolution every now and then is a good thing, and the people — we the people — are going to have to fight back hard if we’re not going to lose our country. And I think this has the potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States.”
To realize this “potential of changing the dynamic of freedom forever in the United States,” Bachmann begins with a reinvention of the nation’s history. Let’s listen to another minute of her talk:
… the founders saw that the history of the nation was not yet written … that was up to us …
“Correcting” the nation’s past (and the Texas Social Studies standards controversy)
Bachmann is not engaging here in correcting the actual problems of injustice in America today: What she is “correcting” is the past itself, joining in the effort to spin a mythological substitute for the story of our country’s past, as it really was, historically. This confabulation of our nation’s history is not just something that Michele Bachmann is doing all by herself. Consider this bit of revisionism by the leader of the right-wing block of the State Board of Education, as they re-wrote the Social Studies standards for the State of Texas:
McLeroy (a dentist whose nomination by Rick Perry for a second term as SBOE Chair had been rejected by the Texas legislature, following his success in damaging the state’s Science education standards) was arguing in support of this amendment to the Social Studies standards document:
The student is expected to:
(A) explain actions taken by people from racial, ethnic, gender, and religious groups to expand economic opportunities and political rights
, including those for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities as well as women,in American society; . . .
Under the new standards, students in Texas are not supposed to learn about how expanded opportunities and political rights were achieved through actions by contending groups within the population, but rather that these are the accomplishments of actions taken, simply, “by people,” as when suffrage was bestowed on women by the men, and when racial equality was bestowed on blacks by the white majority and, I supposed, when the rights of workers were bestowed by owners and managers.
This historical revisionism is reflected on a wider national stage by Glenn Beck, who spouts this brand of “history” on his radio and television programs, as well as through his “Beck University.” As Will Bunch reports for CNN:
They see studying U.S. history as a powerful reconnection with their youth. Waiting for Beck’s “American Revival” show in Orlando, Florida, in March, 70-year-old fan Joseph Cerniglia told me he was way too busy for civics lessons when he was raising kids and working as a stockbroker and then cider-maker. “I have learned more from Glenn Beck — learned more about American history and government, from Glenn Beck — than in the previous 40 years of my life,” the retiree told me.
For thousands of followers such as Cerniglia, there is a genuine desire to relearn American history. The only problem is that what they’re learning is bunk. It’s not history as it happened, but rather a Beck-scripted, Tea Party rewrite of history that demonizes Obama, Democrats and progressive activists.
In this alternate reality version of the past, the 20th century’s heroic battles over equal rights for racial and ethnic minorities, women and homosexuals are recast as a march toward socialism and away from the Founding Fathers. Meanwhile, flawed progressive Woodrow Wilson and even Teddy Roosevelt become America’s Lenin and Trotsky while it is the pre-Depression-era Calvin Coolidge who belongs on Mount Rushmore.
A common source for this mythologizing of U.S. history is David Barton, who was hired by the Texas School Board as an “expert” for the writing of their Social Studies standards. As Bunch reports:
More recently, Beck has featured on Fox, at several well-attended “American Revivals” and on his web-based “university” a new right-hand man — David Barton, a key figure in the recent right-wing rewrite of Texas school textbooks — to teach his viewers the much-debunked idea that America’s creation was rooted in Christianity.
Barton’s machine-gun-paced spewing of 18th-century God references and black-robed revolutionary preachers gives less than short shrift to the real achievement of the Founders in separating church and state. In April, Barton told Beck’s 3 million TV viewers that “we use the Ten Commandments as basis of civil law and the Western world [and it] has been for 2,000 years.”
One nagging difficulty with Bachmann’s version of the narrative, even before checking for historical accuracy, is the internal logical consistency of claims about our “self-correcting” character, while at the same time claiming that “once [people] got here, we were all the same” — all free, all equal already from the moment of arrival — so what need was there for correction? I think the key lies in the difference between the spinning of mythology, and what would stand up as real history. Let’s listen for another minute:
And our ancestors, when they arrived on these shores – just think of it – they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions; but unbelievably they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we republished in the Declaration of Independence. How unique in all of the world, that one nation, that was the resting point from people groups all across the world – it didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status, it didn’t matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they have a higher class or a lower class, it made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable! And out of that, e pluribus unum, out of that – out of many, one – that is the greatness and essence of this nation.
Where to begin, with this? Again, there are many others who have commented in terms of inequalities and differences in the situations and opportunities between the British colonists and Native Americans, Africans, and even other European immigrants. Even if we look only at the White colonists and immigrants from Britain, however, there were — from the beginning and before that — severe differences and fierce conflicts rooted in their different origins and unequal stations in life (see references below by Allen, Hogeland, Holton, Nash, and Phillips).
Chris Matthews and other commentators have wondered how she possibly could make such wildly unhistorical assertions against the background of racial, social, and economic inequalities that have generated so much conflict among people in this country from pre-Revolutionary times until today. But to make sense of what she’s saying, I think it may be necessary to listen to those statements once again, but in the context of her narrative of the great Covenant to which all of these “people groups” have “all bound themselves back”:
That’s why I say, there is doubt in the minds of Americans, that we will continue as this great exceptional nation. In his first major address, Abraham Lincoln gave this expression when he said, “the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. We have a task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for Mankind in general, and that requires us faithfully to perform.” For twenty-one generations in America we’ve listened to Lincoln’s words, we have faithfully performed to the next generation. And our ancestors, when they arrived on these shores — just think of it — they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions; but unbelievably they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we republished in the Declaration of Independence. How unique in all of the world, that one nation, that was the resting point from people groups all across the world – it didn’t matter the color of their skin, it didn’t matter their language, it didn’t matter their economic status, it didn’t matter whether they descended from nobility or whether they have a higher class or a lower class, it made no difference. Once you got here, we were all the same. Isn’t that remarkable? It is absolutely remarkable! And out of that, e pluribus unum.
(Emphasis added to the text as Bachmann quotes from Lincoln’s speech)
Michele Bachman, meet Abraham Lincoln
Bachman is quoting from Lincoln’s Address Before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois in 1838, which we can read for ourselves to see what he was talking about there. Before we even see the text of Lincoln’s speech, however, we might be alerted by her reference to the “twenty-one generations” of Americans that she says have “listened to Lincoln’s words.” Yes, we can read the speech ourselves; but we can also do the math.
Let’s see now: from January 27, 1838 to January 21, 2011 is almost 173 years. Divide that by 21 generations, and you get just under 8¼ years for each of those generations. Of course, that means each of those generations would need to get started propagating their own offspring, on average, about nine months earlier than that — at just under 7½ years old. (It’s cute when young children insist on being “3½” and not just three years old; but I suppose the difference between 7½ and 8¼ could really matter when it comes to reproducing the next generation of Americans.)
Now that we have done the math, let us now also do the reading. Here is the first paragraph of Lincoln’s address, as it appears in this Collected Works:
In the great journal of things happening under the sun, we, the American People, find our account running, under date of the nineteenth century of the Christian era. We find ourselves in the peaceful possession, of the fairest portion of the earth, as regards extent of territory, fertility of soil, and salubrity of climate. We find ourselves under the government of a system of political institutions, conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us. We, when mounting the stage of existence, found ourselves the legal inheritors of these fundamental blessings. We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them—they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time, and untorn by [usurpation---to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to]* ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.
* “Illegible portions of the text are bracketed as given by Nicolay and Hay.”
Link added for background on Nicolay and Hay.
Emphasis added in brown for words quoted by Bachmann, and in purple for words that Bachmann replaced with her own substitutions.
Bachmann’s alteration of the Lincoln text provides another clue to what she’s up to, and will help us understand her reference to the “twenty-on generations.” To replace “this task” with “we have a task” omits Lincoln’s own characterization of what he saw our task to be. This bit of editing might be accepted simply as a time-saving shortcut.
The other substitution is less innocent: Where Lincoln said “our species,” Bachmann quotes him as having said “Mankind.” Lincoln was a man of Darwin’s time — they were both born on the same day in 1809, in fact — and clearly Lincoln was referring to humans as one species among the species on this planet. It is no innocent mistake or editorial economizing to change Lincoln’s words so that her audience would remain unaware of Lincoln’s usage here.
One thing this shows, I think, is that Bachmann — like Beck and the others – is not really interested in the real Lincoln: the deep, serious, complex thinker and statesman. They are interested in whatever uses they can make of him in the mythology they’re spinning.
In fact, there’s a lot in Lincoln’s speech that could be read as warning against tendencies we see now in Bachmann’s own “Tea Party” movement. For example:
I hope I am over wary; but if I am not, there is, even now, something of ill-omen amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country; the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgement of Courts . . . [p. 109]
And again (eerily, in the wake of incidents culminating most recently in the Tucson shootings):
. . . the lawless in spirit, are encouraged to become lawless in practice . . . . Having ever regarded Government as their deadliest bane, they make a jubilee of the suspension of its operations; and pray for nothing so much, as its total annihilation. [p. 111]
Lincoln explained that the country’s survival since the Revolution should not make his contemporaries overly confident about the country’s future, since, among other developments, people living in the United States for the first half-century of its existence still had vivid first-hand memories of events in the Revolution, which had a “powerful influence . . . upon the passions of the people as distinguished from their judgment,” so that “the deep rooted principles of hate, and the powerful motive of revenge, instead of being turned against each other, were directed exclusively against the British nation” [p. 114]. The question could be asked whether we now see a parallel development, following the end of the Cold War, in which hate directed earlier against the Soviets is now being directed against fellow Americans.
Finally, this speech is the source of Lincoln’s famous call for a “political religion” to be taught through all the nation’s media and institutions, for all “the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions”:
As the patriots of seventy-six did to the support of the Declaration of Independence, so to the support of the Constitution and Laws, let every American pledge his life, his property, and his sacred honor;—let every man remember that to violate the law, is to trample on the blood of his father, and to tear the character [charter?] of his own, and his children’s liberty. Let reverence for the laws, be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap—let it be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges;—let it be written in Primmers, spelling books, and in Almanacs;—let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation; and let the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the grave and the gay, of all sexes and tongues, and colors and conditions, sacrifice unceasingly upon its altars. [p. 112]
Would Lincoln’s vision of a political religion for the United States be one that Bachmann, Beck, Barton, and McLeroy would welcome? I think the answer is not simple or obvious; but to pursue that question seriously, and honestly, we would need to attend more seriously and honestly to Lincoln’s actual thinking, and the discourses he was engaging with – and that we are engaging with today — than we see Bachmann & Co. doing in all of their mythologizing.
But understanding Bachmann’s discourse as one of spinning a mythology can help us understand the seeming incoherence (e.g., our “self-correcting” of what was [in some sense] just right from the start ["once you got here"], the seeming ignorance of simple facts (e.g., the founding generation’s involvements with slavery, and its persistence until the Civil War, long after their lifetimes), and even reference to “twenty-one generations” of Americans listening to Lincoln’s words from his 1838 address.
Was Lincoln a Mayflower Pilgrim? (Was Moses a Christian?)
First, let’s recall what Bachmann said:
For twenty-one generations in America we’ve listened to Lincoln’s words, we have faithfully performed to the next generation. And our ancestors, when they arrived on these shores — just think of it — they spoke different languages, they had different cultures, different backgrounds, different traditions; but unbelievably they all bound themselves back to this tradition, this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we republished in the Declaration of Independence.
The mindset and world outlook of the Mayflower Pilgrims is hard for us to grasp, much less to share (see Bunker, 2010). Could Lincoln have shared that mentality — so distinctive and unusual even among early 17th-Century Protestants? In what sense can Lincoln be said to have expressed (in words listened to by twenty-one generations of Americans) a “doubt in the minds of Americans” over the prospects for perpetuation of “this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact” and “republished in the Declaration of Independence,” to which our ancestors (you know, from all those “people groups”) have “all bound themselves back”?
Did Lincoln subscribe to the beliefs and world-view of the Pilgrim? Did Thomas Jefferson? And in what ways, and to what extent, can we say that the Pilgrims would recognize Lincoln, or Jefferson, as “binding themselves back” to any covenant contained within the Mayflower Compact?
Those are the kinds of questions that historians know how to pursue. And they could be interesting questions, especially for undergraduates who are at the beginning stages of learning to recognize differences among people at different times and situations in history. A professional historian, however, would see extensive difference. The commonalities, although perhaps enormously important in some respects and from some comparative perspectives, could be rather thin. What about, for example, Bachmann’s comments about diverse languages and cultural origins? Where do we see that in the Pilgrims’ story? (Let’s not look at how the Pilgrim community regarded the native peoples as compared with, say, how they were regarded then by Roger Williams — and what did they do with Williams, anyway? And speaking of the native peoples, when Bachmann says “once you got here…” what about those who did not have to get here, since they were here already?)
But Bachmann’s concern is not with historical understanding and investigation as practiced by historians. Her interest (and more important for the purposes of this blog, the interests of David Barton and the Texas School Board members) is with mythologizing our nation’s past, rather than with understanding it historically, in the way that any historian would recognize it, or any citizen whose interest is not preempted by mythology.
How can I justify this characterization? Instead of dismissively ridiculing Bachmann as Chris Matthews and others have done, dismissing her speech as nothing more than the babbling of an ignorant “balloon head,” I offer my interpretation in the vein of hermeneutical charity: I want to suggest a way that we can understand Bachmann as actually making sense, in terms of the discourse she is speaking within, rather than as spouting nothing but nonsense.
Trying to understand Bachmann’s treatment of the Mayflower settlers as drafters of a covenant to which Lincoln and our ancestors from all “people groups” have “bound themselves back,” I was reminded of an encounter I once had after participating in a public debate on the teaching of Biology in public schools. After the debate a young mother, with her home-schooled children in tow, came up to ask me something about the topic. (Each of her children also brought a question to ask. Each was respectful and articulate, and they had clearly done substantial homework in literatures that most of us know nothing about.) Anyway, in the course of my conversation with the mother, she said that we can be certain that the story in Genesis is the truth, because Moses was a good Christian, so we can be sure that he would not have lied to us.
“Moses, a Christian?” I asked with a smile, expecting her to catch and correct herself. “Yes! Moses was a Christian,” she responded, with an obviously well-rehearsed explanation with a lot of unfamiliar (to me, anyway) terminology.
I remembered this experience when trying to figure out how to charitably understand what Bachmann is saying about Lincoln and the Pilgrims and the twenty-one generations. So, of course, I googled “Was Moses a Christian,” and near the top of the search results I did find “Moses was a Christian,” as the title of a chapter in a book by Douglas Wilson, with “To a thousand generations” as the title of the book (so perhaps he can help us with our paltry twenty-one).
Wilson begins the chapter with a section titled “Covenantal Administrations” — which is perhaps a clue that we might be on the right track for understanding Bachmann’s discourse on “this covenant that was contained in the Mayflower Compact, this covenant that we republished in the Declaration of Independence.” Later in the chapter he explains that in Paul’s epistle to the Hebrews (11:24-26),
Moses is described as choosing between the treasures of Egypt and the reproaches of Christ. What does this mean? He made the right choice; it means that Moses was a Christian. The fact that this sounds odd to us — Moses? a Christian? — simply shows how little we understand the tremendous authority Christ has under the New Covenant. (p. 31)
In this kind of narrative, time is no longer chronological, as it is in history:
It is true that the New Covenant was formally inaugurated at the advent of Christ (i.e. manifested to the world), but, once inaugurated, the power and authority of the Christ of this covenant is seen by the New Testament writers everywhere in the world, and throughout all time. (pp. 31-32)
Modern physics tells us that physical space-time is “warped” by gravity. It appears that in this kind of covenant discourse, historical time is warped into fit with the mythology.
In such discourse, it is possible to say that twenty-one generations of our ancestors have “listened to Lincoln’s words,” words with which he “gave expression” to the covenant contained in the Mayflower Compact and in the Declaration of Independence. Just as Moses is believed to be within the covenant expressed in the Sermon on the Mount, so can Myles Standish be believed to be within the covenant expressed in the Declaration and in Lincoln’s 1838 address. And if the generation of Myles Standish were, in that sense, listeners to Lincoln’s words, that would allow for 21 generations between 1620 and 2011, with almost 18 years between the birth of one generation and their procreation of the next. And if we start with Jamestown in 1607, that allows for more than 18 years. We can get to just over 20 years from birth to procreation, over 21 generations, if we go back to the founding of St. Augustine, Florida in 1565; but it seems a stretch to claim those Spanish settlers as listeners to Lincoln’s words, and I can’t think of any way to go back earlier than that.
Of course, I’m being silly now. Only someone very silly would take the “thousand generations” in Wilson’s title as some kind of literal count — and no more should Bachmann be held literally accountable for her “twenty-one generations” of Lincoln-listeners, within her covenantal discourse. And lest there be any doubt about Bachmann’s membership in such a discourse, her participation in the Family Research Council’s “PrayerCast” to pray away the health care reform legislation is available online, for anyone who wants to try to listen through it.
So we can see that Bachmann is not speaking utter nonsense, if we attend to the discourse within which she is speaking. Our attention to this discourse itself, however, might be seen by some as an example of disrespect or intolerance — or even persecution — of those who share Bachmann’s beliefs (see, e.g., Limbaugh, 2004; but cf. Wolraich, 2010).
Such is not the case however. The concern is not with Bachmann’s beliefs. In this blog, I am concerned with matters of curriculum.
The concern in this case is the need to recognize and to maintain the differentiation between historical discourse, on the one hand, and religious or other non-historical discourse – at least when it comes to setting policy for curriculum in Social Studies. Where other narrative discourses privilege ideological coherence, historical discourse requires evidence, and fidelity to facts.
Sarah Palin, and the Cunning of “American Exceptionalism”
In terms of the ongoing struggles over Social Studies in the schools, the narrative that we see Bachmann spinning is the narrative of “American Exceptionalism” — the same narrative that McLeroy was pushing in asserting that the rights of minorities in this country have been bestowed on them by the majorities. This doesn’t work as an evidence-based account of how things happened historically, but it does serve the political agenda of the mythology.
What is put at risk by this is the informed public upon which our democracy depends. An example can be seen in Sarah Palin’s recent Facebook posting on “America’s Enduring Strength,” in points other than the “blood libel” complaint for which it drew the most attention. As noted by Karen Tumulty for the Washington Post:
Sarah Palin‘s statement Wednesday in response to the Tucson shootings, in which she has found herself at the center of a debate over civility in political discourse, was crafted as both a defense of her own actions and a strike against her critics – but reaction to the statement was dominated by a fresh controversy over her use of the phrase “blood libel.”
With the exception of those words, the former Alaska governor’s statement was remarkable for its careful calibration – replete with references to “the greatness of our country” and other rhetoric likely to resonate with her base. It was also notable that Palin, known for her often-controversial impromptu tweets, waited four days after the shootings and then released a professionally produced, polished seven-minute video in which she read from a script.
Palin spoke of the “enduring strength of our Republic,” described the Constitution as a “sacred charter of liberty” and referred to the “genius” of the founding fathers.
While recognizing Palin’s Facebook posting as a carefully crafted document, Tumulty’s focus is limited to Palin’s statement as it specifically addressed criticism of her as contributing to the rhetorical environment of the Tucson shootings. More broadly, we see Palin’s statement as part of her own ongoing promotion of “American Exceptionalism”:
* * * *
Two years ago [Barak Obama's] party was victorious. Last November, the other party won. In both elections the will of the American people was heard, and the peaceful transition of power proved yet again the enduring strength of our Republic.
Vigorous and spirited public debates during elections are among our most cherished traditions.
* * * *
Public discourse and debate isn’t a sign of crisis, but of our enduring strength. It is part of why America is exceptional.
What’s wrong with Sarah Palin making such claims for American Exceptionalism? As political rhetoric, there may be nothing wrong with that.
Implications for Curriculum
The problem comes when that kind of rhetoric gets imposed on the curriculum in place of real social education. And that’s precisely the agenda pushed by McLeroy’s block in the TxSBOE. An amendment he successfully inserted into the state Social Studies standards dictates the following:
Chapter 113. Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills for Social Studies
Subchapter C. High School
§113.41. United States History Studies Since 1877 (One Credit), Beginning with School Year 2011-2012.
(c) Knowledge and skills.
(22) Citizenship. The student understands the concept of American exceptionalism. The student is expected to:
. . (A) discuss Alexis de Tocqueville’s five values crucial to America’s success as a constitutional republic: liberty, egalitarianism, individualism, populism, and laissez-faire;
. . (B) describe how the American values identified by Alexis de Tocqueville are different and unique from those of other nations; and
. . (C) describe U.S. citizens as people from numerous places throughout the world who hold a common bond in standing for certain self-evident truths.
It would be one thing for high school students to engage in comparisons of factual conditions of liberty, equality, etc. between the United States and other places in the world. That’s exactly the sort of thing students should be learning how to do in Social Studies. But the introduction of this provision in the Texas Social Studies standards — which activists in other states are likely to try to follow — threatens to impose dogmatic orthodox mythology instead of opening up authentic, evidence-based inquiry. (A disregard for fact is ironically already present in the invocation of Tocqueville, who is not responsible for this ideology of “exceptionalism,” and who did not in fact ever even use that word in his book about American democracy.)
Disregard for factual truth has become an earmark of the rhetoric of American Exceptionalism, as illustrated by this synopsis in the Slatist blog of comments on Obama’s State of the Union speech:
Boehner: Obama Doesn’t Believe in American Exceptionalism
President Obama may not have used the words American exceptionalism during his State of the Union address Tuesday night, but he certainly seemed to be promoting the idea. He talked about things that “set us apart as a nation” and what we do “better than anyone else.” He asserted that America is “not just a place on a map, but the light to the world” and “the greatest nation on Earth.” Pundits noticed: Paul Glastris “was delighted to see the president wisely and deftly weave the theme of American exceptionalism throughout his State of the Union address,” and Ron Fournier said Obama “joined the pantheon of presidents who, in turbulent times, wrapped their political agenda in the comfortable cloak of ‘American exceptionalism.’ ” Apparently Republicans didn’t see the same speech. . . . “They’ve refused to talk about America exceptionalism,” John Boehner told CNN’s Kathleen Parker Wednesday night. . . . Steve Benen can’t believe it. “The gang that creates its own reality,” he says, “just doesn’t know when to stop.” Greg Sargent is more entertained than irritated: “Obama has hailed America dozens of times as the biggest, baddest, bestest, richest and most awesomely powerful country in the history of the world,” he says, but he’s starting to think conservatives “would prefer that Obama didn’t use such language, and are repeating this claim again and again in hopes of making it so.”
Read original story in The Washington Monthly | Thursday, Jan. 27, 2011
It is important to recognize that such departures from the honest truth are not matters of inadvertence — or, in the case of Michele Bachmann, mere honest ignorance; rather they are matters of cunning and contrivance. Let’s reconsider Bachmann’s comments on slavery (which I will quote again here, so you don’t have to scroll back to the top):
We know there was slavery that was still tolerated when the nation began. We know that was an evil, and it was a scourge and the blot and a stain upon our history. But we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States. And I think it is high time that we recognize the contribution of our forbearers who worked tirelessly — men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.
Although critics have ridiculed Bachmann for not knowing the chronology, not knowing that John Quincy Adams was not one of the founders, and maybe not even knowing that John Quincy Adams was a different person from John Adams, the second President, I think a closer reading and viewing provides affirmative evidence both that she did know these things, and that her speech was crafted to perpetuate, and take advantage, of ignorance of these matters on the part of at least some in her audience. She does not just say “the founders,” she says “the very founders that wrote those documents,” while imitating the action of hand-writing the documents. She didn’t say “founders” broadly as a reference to the early decades of the Republic; she spoke deliberately to tell her audience that she was talking specifically about the “very” authors of the founding documents. At the same time, she wanted to substantiate her claim about them “working tirelessly” to put an end to slavery; but to do that, she would need at least one plausible example. She decided she could use John Quincy Adams as her example, EVEN THOUGH SHE DID KNOW HE WAS NOT THE SAME PERSON AS HIS FATHER, AND THAT HE WAS NOT ONE OF THOSE “VERY” FOUNDERS — that’s why she substituted the word “forbearers” in place of “founders,” so that she could avoid an explicit factual misstatement, while expecting that this slippage would go unnoticed, so that she could still establish the impression which she had contrived to make rhetorically. It seems to me that this contrivance accounts for her use of the word “forbearers” at this specific point, which would otherwise be both unexpected and unexplained.
Even if this could work politically, however, such discourse makes for dreadful social education of the citizenry. People who are learning to swallow this kind of mythologizing discourse are learning not to pay attention to particulars, not to ask about the meaning of the narrative, and not question the factual validity of claims that are being stated or implied.
Let’s look again at Palin’s rhetoric on the “exceptionalism” of America’s electoral democracy:
In speaking of our “exceptional nation, so vibrant with ideas and the passionate exchange and debate of ideas” as “a light to the rest of the world,” Palin asks her readers and listeners to believe that the quality of political discourse is regarded by “the rest of the world” as something exemplary or superior to what they experience in their own countries, at least in terms of “the passionate exchange and debate of vibrant ideas.” Is that true? That would be an excellent question for students to explore in Social Studies classes, seeking out examples from other countries, exploring how political discourse in America is actually regarded by people in other countries, and wrestling with criteria and standards for asking how our discourse deserves to be assessed in comparison with that in other countries. How does the quality of political discourse in our electoral contests compare, for example, with that in the elections held last year in Brazil?
For one thing, American students would surely be amazed by how familiar the Brazilians, Germans, Japanese, or South Africans are with our U.S. history and contemporary politics, compared with how much Americans are aware of theirs. Does this difference simply reflect how things just are, and should be, given the relative power and influence of the United States throughout the world?
Coming more directly to a focus on political discourse and electoral democracy, should students in the U.S. see our process as the world’s best — as “a light to the rest of the world” — or could our process be improved, by learning something from what happens elsewhere?
For the purposes of social studies, we should not ourselves presuppose the answers to such questions. Our purpose should be to help students acquire the knowledge and ability to pursue questions of this kind. For that, they need at least to encounter these as questions, which is exactly what the mandate to teach “American Exceptionalism” is meant to preclude them from ever doing.
Questions concerning the quality of our political discourse are noted here as providing just one example of an area in which the difference between fact-based and myth-based discourses can be substantial; but the questions in this area also illustrate the urgency of Social Studies questions as not being merely matters for abstract hypothetical contemplation — especially, in this area of concern, in light of the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. The quality of political discourse in this country is not merely something given, it is something that has been, and will be, determined by decisions made as matters of public policy. If the people are to have any role in determining the outcomes of these decisions, they will need to be aware of them, and to know how to assess the issues. It will not suffice to simply have been told that in such matters what goes on here “is a light to the rest of the world.”
The mandate to teach “American Exceptionalism” as official doctrine has now been inserted into Texas Social Studies standards, but the issue will undoubtedly be raised in other states in the near future.
In Texas meanwhile, conflict over how this mandate will be imposed through the textbook adoption process is yet to come.
Those who worked to bring about this mandate have made it clear that they will be insisting on a textbook approval process that will be conducted on the basis of political representation, rather than on academic expertise (see, e.g., here and here). People who care about social education need to be prepared for these upcoming conflicts.
And tt is not only in Social Studies that the integrity of textbooks and curricular materials is being threatened. (Click here for an interesting precedent, and one possible approach to defending textbook integrity.)
- Allen, Thomas B. Tories: Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War. 1st ed. New York: Harper, 2010.
- Bunker, Nick. Making Haste from Babylon: The Mayflower Pilgrims and Their World: A New History. 1st American ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010.
- Hogeland, William. Declaration: The Nine Tumultuous Weeks When America Became Independent, May 1-July 4, 1776. 1st Simon & Schuster hardcover ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 2010.
- Holton, Woody. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Hill and Wang, 2007.
- Limbaugh, David. Persecution: How Liberals Are Waging War against Christianity. 1st Perennial ed. New York: Perennial, 2004.
- Lincoln, Abraham. “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions” (January 27, 1838, Address before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois). In The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1, edited by Roy P. Basler, 108-15. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953.
- Nash, Gary B. The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America. New York: Penguin Books, 2006.
- Palin, Sarah. “America’s Enduring Strength.” (January 12, 2011), text: http://www.facebook.com/note.php?note_id=487510653434 ; video: http://vimeo.com/18698532 .
- Phillips, Kevin. The Cousins’ Wars: Religion, Politics, and the Triumph of Anglo-America. New York, N.Y.: Basic Books, 1999.
- Wilson, Douglas. “Chapter 2: Moses Was a Christian.” In To a Thousand Generations — Infant Baptism: Covenant Mercy for the People of God, by Douglas Wilson, 21-38. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2007.
- Wolraich, Michael. Blowing Smoke: Why the Right Keeps Serving up Whack-Job Fantasies About the Plot to Euthanize Grandma, Outlaw Christmas, and Turn Junior into a Raging Homosexual. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo, 2010.
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