I recently came across a new blog (Hysteriography — note the wonderful similarity to my handle). I found it because the author, William Hogeland, had a timely post that ran on Salon.com. It was about how self-described “constitutional conservatives” misread the Founding Fathers’ views on public debt. The comments on the article were fascinating. So many of the respondents accused Hogeland of playing politics and being anti-conservative — just because he pointed out that people were getting the history wrong. The assumption was that you must be a partisan liberal if you disagree with them, and, conversely, if you are a conservative, you have to share their view (and defend it, as they were). Well, the commentators were wrong. There’s a third way, and that is to just insist that the history be accurate, whichever side you take.
There are those of us who love to study history. We hate to see the past misrepresented and abused — particularly when it’s out of unnecessary ignorance or with malicious intent. We like to call people out when we see them doing this. It’s a natural instinct. We are protective of our territory and hate to see it wrongly politicized and untrue statements passed off as real history. We want to correct falsities. More that just that, it’s much like wanting to give driving directions to someone who’s clearly lost. In that sense, it’s benevolent — as well as being corrective.
So, you see, I am not the only one who feels this way. There are others like me — a corps of individuals scattered about, who in our own ways stand up against the manipulation of history for political gain. I’ve said it before, and I will say it again: my dream job would be serving as a history police officer. Whenever and wherever politicians and public figures in our country break out false history to give legitimacy to their positions, I would like to be able to issue a ticket for the Misuse and Abuse of History. In egregious cases, I’d like to be able to use a Taser.
When Michele Bachmann claims, then, that the Founders were eager to abolish slavery, I would be there to issue a citation. When Mike Huckabee ludicrously claims that George Washington, et al didn’t believe that one person should be allowed to own another — hence the “all men are created equal” in the Declaration of Independence — I would have license to tase (especially since this is a bizarre attempt at an anti-abortion argument and abortion wasn’t made illegal in most jurisdictions in our country until the mid-19th century, well after the Founders had passed). Lest you accuse me of being anti-conservative, let me add that whenever Democrats want to cloak themselves in the mantle of Camelot by laying claim to John Kennedy’s strong support of civil rights, I want to call them out too. And, apparently neither side is above claiming ad nauseam that our country was founded by believers seeking religious freedom (and that one deserves a tase every time).
The thing is, if we didn’t always want to lie about ourselves in order to score political points or if we were educated enough that no one could get away with bad history, we wouldn’t need a history police. Imagine if, instead of defending a politician who misused the past or even misstated historical facts, the whole of us insisted on a correction. What if that would cost someone real credibility across the board — because being true to the facts (read: verifiable) was the most important thing to us regardless of political party…Oh, now I’m just being naïve and ridiculous. Being human is being partisan, and people lie when it serves their purposes. That’s why people like me — and Mr. Hogeland — take it upon ourselves to act as an informal history police. It’s a natural result of studying the past — wanting to protect it from manipulation. It’s like a sacred duty or public service — and one of the highest forms of patriotism I think there is. It’s a dedication to American history that has no party.