Truth v. mythologizing the past

Posted on August 16, 2018. Filed under: Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We were reading an interview with Jason Stanley, who has a new book out called How Fascism Works: The Politics of Us and Them. Of course when he mentioned truth v. myth, the HP’s bat senses were alerted:

Q: Anti-intellectualism has been present throughout much of American history. How is the kind of anti-intellectualism linked to fascist ideas different? Or is it the same?

A: Our suspicion of elites and what could be seen as anti-intellectualism can be healthy at times; we can see the American philosophical traditions of pragmatism and empiricism in this light, which can in fact serve as counterweights to the grandiose myths of fascist politics. But even this version has proven to be a weakness, one that makes us more susceptible to being manipulated politically. We have seen this play out in the case of climate change, where essentially apolitical scientists were successfully demonized as ideologues. We also have a history of what I think of as more classically fascist anti-intellectualism.

Fascist anti-intellectualism sets the traditions of the chosen nation, its dominant group, above all other traditions. It represents more complex narratives as corrupting and dangerous. It prizes mythologizing about the nation’s past, and erasing any of its problematic features (as we see all too often in histories of the Confederacy and the Reconstruction period, or of the treatment in history books of our indigenous communities). It seeks to replace truth with myth, transforming education systems into methods of glorifying the ideologies and heritage of the members of the traditional ruling class. In fascist politics, universities, which present a more complex and accurate version of history and current reality, are attacked for being places where dominant traditions or practices are critiqued. Fascist ideology centers loyalty to power rather than truth. In fascist thinking, the university is simply another tool to legitimate various illiberal hierarchies connected to historically dominant traditions.

If readers of the HP know anything, it’s that history is complex. That’s why we end up writing so many 12-part series on what seem like the simplest events. Anyone looking for a quick fix on the “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” sermon we all read in college or high school, or on the Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech, or “Who was Anne Hutchinson?” will look in vain for the “short version,” the crux of the argument, in the first 3 or even 4 posts. A lot of context has to be set to make sense of that crux when it does come.

So while the words “Welcome to our series on…” may strike boredom or terror in the hearts of HP readers, we feel that in the end that careful and thorough setting up of a problem or question or person or event is necessary. That’s all we have to say here.

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Truth v. Myth: “Born Fighting”

Posted on August 5, 2011. Filed under: American history, Colonial America, Revolutionary War, Second Amendment, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , |

Senator James Webb (D-VA) published his book Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America in 2004; the Smithsonian Channel just broadcast the video adaptation recently. It was aired in two parts. Part 1 focused on Scotland, beginning with Hadrian’s Wall, and followed the eventual appearance of Protestantism in Scotland, the conflicts with England over non-conformism, and the recruitment of Protestant Scots by England into the north of Ireland to settle land seized by the English government from Catholic Irish landholders (thus changing the Irish population, it was hoped, and calming the place down for English rule). The Scots encountered growing hostility from the native population they were helping to colonize, and after the siege and battle of Londonderry, in which they received no help from England in beating off the Catholic Irish, many of the Scots—now called Scots-Irish or Scotch-Irish by the native population who did not accept even those born in the country as Irish, left for another English colonial land: America.

This first part of the documentary was not perfect, but it was at least technically accurate in most of its details. The second part goes dramatically off-course into the damaging kind of us-vs-them, who’s-a-real-American, America-is-about-violence, and racial politics that is characteristic of myth. We’re going to take the time to rebut the myth perpetuated by one of our Senators because it’s important to call people in high office on the damage they do to historical truth and our own citizens’ perception of what our country stands for.

Like most people who have a thesis that one group of people, one invention, one idea, etc., has shaped the course of world history, Webb consistently makes statements about the Scots-Irish that could be true of any group. “This culture shaped America”, he begins, “…creating the very basis of American democracy.” Which culture that is part of America has not shaped it? Which culture has left no imprint on our government, political history, treasured ideas, or important battles? And since our democracy has been constantly evolving since 1775, no one group can claim to have established the basis of that democracy. (If you had to choose, you’d have to say Americans of English descent. The men who framed our government and put its ideals and principles into law were overwhelmingly of English background.)

Webb’s elevator description of the Scots-Irish is “fight, sing, drink, pray”. This to him sums up their willingness to fight any war, their resolve and determination, their rebellious refusal to submit to “outside” law, and their strict morality. Again, it’s not hard to think of other groups do not have the same reputation: the Irish, Greeks, and Mexicans come to mind. But Webb begins part 2 with the story of the first Scots-Irish in America, again recruited by the English to put down the locals and act as colonizers. Scots-Irish people settled in Pennsylvania on the borderlands between Quaker settlement and Native Americans. Webb describes their experiences there in what he calls “the unimproved wilderness”. The word “wilderness” comes up frequently, and is never questioned as inaccurate (as the land had been settled, hunted, and known by its native inhabitants for millennia). The Quaker refusal to fight is mentioned repeatedly, and seems to be put out there to deride the Quakers and anyone else who questions the value of violence and war. This is a theme that runs through the show.

Again, at the end of the Pennsylvania section, Webb says that the “flood” of Scots-Irish immigrants that followed “would eventually transform America”, and again it’s a claim you could make about anyone, including the English, French, and Germans who preceded  or came along with the Scots-Irish just about wherever they went.

It is almost funny when Webb describes the pioneers in the Shenandoah Valley who “carried their few belongings with them” (unlike all other pioneers?) into the “wilderness” only to discover “they weren’t alone”. The fact that the land was inhabited is, of course, the first indicator of its not being a wilderness. The Native Americans whose land the pioneers were settling are basically presented as threatening, though it is of course the natives who were threatened by white settlement and claims of land ownership.

When the French and Indian War began, Webb says, the Scots-Irish fought eagerly and made their name as “unflinching fighters”. He characterizes their attitude as “This is my land and I’m going to stay here and protect it and if I have to, I will fight for it.” Which again is the precise attitude of every group of people in human history who have been in a war on their own territory. Only the Native Americans, in this case, really had the right to say it.

Already, Webb is making a case he will repeat many times: the Scots-Irish a) like to fight, b) are brave (really braver than anyone else), and c) show their independence by fighting. The first tenet really discredits the second two. People who like to fight aren’t really brave, and they don’t fight for independence, but because it’s what they do. The Scots-Irish on the frontier fought because that’s what they had been hired to do by the British governors who brought them in (payment being the right to settle and the grant of religious freedom) and they wanted to keep the land they had settled. That is not really about bravery or independence.

In fact, we have seen the Scots-Irish now as established colonizers, people with no hesitation to help a colonial power destroy native people in return for those people’s lands. It is odd that this is never addressed in Webb’s tale of the Scots-Irish as freedom-loving people who always fought tyranny.

His description of the period between the end of the French and Indian War and the beginning of the Revolutionary War is, politely put, difficult to understand. “Britain tightened its grip over America’s east coast. And now, isolated from British colonial rule to the east, the Scots-Irish frontiersmen settled into their American roots… and turned their backs on bigotry in America’s colonial towns”.

The bizarre inaccuracies—British rule had always been most present on the east coast (which is why the British brought in the Scots-Irish to colonize the western frontier); but after the war concentrated more and more on controlling the western frontier; as frontierspeople the Scots-Irish had always been isolated from coastal society; and bigotry is never relegated to urban areas (see plantation life)—slowly make sense only as the show goes on and Webb talks about Andrew Jackson. Webb reveres Jackson, and has apparently bought into the idea Jackson and his followers evangelized for, that “elites” were running America and a cabal of “aristocrats” in the cities was ruining the nation. The idea that Jackson put power in the hands of average people is not true; he put his friends and financial backers into federal office regardless of their qualifications, he was a wealthy slaveholder, and he had no special regard for the rights of the “little guy”, as any Native or black American would tell you.

As for the idea that the previously isolated Scots-Irish were isolated still after the war, it’s not really true. Germans and Huguenots moved in large numbers into the American south from the mid-1600s right up to the Revolutionary War. Many of the Germans were Protestants unable to worship as they wished at home, and of course the Huguenots left everything behind in France to come to America in the name of religious freedom. Webb would have viewers believe the Scots-Irish were the only people in America (maybe in the world) who sacrificed for their freedom of religion, left everything behind, and braved the hardships of the frontier with no help from outside. All of the colonies of the south were first settled, of course, by the English. Most of them were non-conformists, just like the Scots-Irish, who refused to compromise their faith and left all behind in the name of freedom. In North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky, the Scots-Irish came in after the Huguenots and Germans.

The Revolutionary War saw many Scots-Irish enlist, just as it saw many members of all the groups in the colonies enlist. Webb focuses on the Battle of King’s Mountain of 1780, in which 900 Scots-Irish militia men routed 1200 British soldiers. The British, rigidly sticking to “European battle formation”, were mown down by the sniping Scots-Irish who were smart enough to use guerrilla tactics. Webb states there were 500 British casualties and 28 American. The ragged, poor militia “destroyed” the British army.

But it wasn’t completely that way. The British did not remain in formation, standing still waiting to get shot, but instead made repeated bayonet charges, which, while unsuccessful in winning the battle, at least made some sense. Of the five American militia leaders, one was of Huguenot descent (John Sevier), two were governors, two served in Congress, and two served in state legislatures; three were born into wealth, and one married into it. So the leadership was not completely rag-tag. The casualties were 244 killed, 163 wounded, and 668 taken prisoner for the British, and 29 killed and 58 wounded for the Americans. One reason for the high British death count was that the militia men continued firing after the British put up a white flag.

We’ll end this post with Webb’s second bizarre leap away from historical fact: he claims that “In 1783, America acknowledged the efforts made by the overwhelmingly Scots-Irish militiamen in the south in the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution”. First, the Second Amendment was adopted in 1791 with the rest of the original Bill of Rights (the Constitution wasn’t written and ratified until 1787). Second, a starkly modern political agenda is expressed here as historical fact. Webb goes on to say basically that people in the south care so much about gun ownership because they were once frontiersmen, and the frontiersman’s duty to protect his family over time turned into a right “for people with a long history of mistrust of the central government. There’s a saying around here: I’ll give up my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.”

Where to begin. First, what region of our nation never had a frontier? Is it that the north was never frontier land? The west? Every region of the present United States began as frontier land, where people had muskets or rifles to hunt with and to fight Indians and to use as part of the local militia in times of war. Second, either gun ownership is about self-reliance (the frontiersman) or it’s about not believing in government. If it’s that southerners never trusted the federal government, that’s not about the frontier. That’s a mistrust of the federal government that was shared by New Englanders, Mid-Atlantic states residents, and every other region you can think of. That’s what made creating the federal government in 1787 so difficult; even the “elites” on the east coast had their doubts about it turning into a tyranny. (It’s funny that this suspicious government is the one that made a special Amendment to preserve the rights of the Scots-Irish. One wonders what prevented them from looking more kindly on such a government.)

Webb, I think it’s fair to say, is looking at 1791 through the lens of 2011 and 1865 to say that the south is right not to trust the unfair northern government that oppresses it today and has oppressed it since the end of the Civil War. (You’ll see why I say this in the next post.) But the Second Amendment was not written to give people a way to create a state; our Founders believed that our system of law, our democracy, would keep people safe and free. It’s our government and the laws it is based on and that it enforces that create our liberty, independence, freedom, whatever you like to call it. Guns are not law, they are an alternative to law. So I quarrel with Senator Webb’s description of the origins of the Second Amendment, and the validity of the southern (as he calls it) attachment to weapons. The Amendment was not written as a thank-you to the Scots-Irish, and it is not about substituting gun ownershp for centralized government.

Next time: Jackson, the Civil War, and how the entire middle class is Scots-Irish

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Truth v. Myth: Roger Williams

Posted on September 4, 2010. Filed under: 17th century America, Puritans | Tags: , , |

Roger Williams is a rarity: a Puritan minister who is viewed with great sympathy by modern Americans. How did this happen?

In this T v M series, we’ll look at Williams and learn his full story, and surprisingly, the basic outcome will remain unchanged, in that Williams did become a sympathetic and visionary leader we can all admire today. But it was a long road for him, and most Americans would not recognize the early Roger Williams. His struggles involved many important Puritan leaders, the powerful church at Salem, and at one point the attention of the entire Puritan population in New England. Williams was the closest thing to a celebrity—a rule-breaking, emotional celebrity with devoted fans and bitter enemies—that ever existed in early Puritan New England, and he came close to self-destructing before he found his way.

Williams was born to wealthy London parents (his father was a merchant) in 1603. He graduated from Cambridge in 1627 as an Anglican minister but he could not take up a position in an Anglican church because sometime during college, Williams had become a Puritan. This was not completely surprising; Puritanism was active in the universities, where bright and inquiring men were exposed (whether deliberately or by accident) to the newest ideas. Puritanism was also a very intellectual faith, well-suited to scholarly men.   

Since he could not stand in a pulpit, Williams took a position as private chaplain to the family of Puritan lord Sir William Macham. In December 1629, he married Mary Barnard. Williams knew that the first group of Puritans were planning their journey to America, due to launch just four months later in April 1630. In fact, he had been made aware of those plans by the Puritan leaders themselves, showing that Williams was already becoming a well-known and well-esteemed Puritan leader himself. But he did not join them. Why? There are likely several reasons. First, Williams had a good position in the Puritan household of an influential man, and might have hoped to effect change at home in England. Second, he had not yet been persecuted for his faith. Third, and significantly, Williams was already finding Puritanism too compromised; he was becoming a Separatist (someone who wanted to leave the Church of England rather than reform it as the Puritans wanted to do).

By the time Williams left for America with his wife Mary later in 1630, he was an opponent of the Anglican Church and the Puritan program. How was he to fare in Puritan New England?

Next time: Williams makes waves in Salem.

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