By J.F. Sullivan
This has been an odd year for history, politics and religion. While Sarah Palin has provided the media and the rest of the country with many gems, the recent spate of mangled metaphors has illuminated what appears to be something of trend, if not a new strategy when history and religion are combined.
The development of alphabetic literacy (writing with vowels) by the ancient Greeks allowed speech to be directly represented. As a result, reality could be recorded, communicated and preserved in this new form. While originally intended to aid in memory and recall, it instead helped to create a repository (books and scrolls) where information could be stored, not only preserving it, but eventually creating a collection that exceeded anyone’s ability to memorize. By writing something down, it indeed preserved it, but it also allowed the possibility for comparison, which helped to create the concept of history as fact.
In the time before written history, myth was the dominant form of storage for information about history and culture – however, it was never understood as unassailable fact or even fact at all. Myth was neither true nor untrue, it was a story about something important, but its value was not in establishing truth or fact, but rather to convey information in a story. Once history is written down then an historical story becomes fixed and is now comparable. Thus, one can compare any new history to any previous history allowing for the possibility of true and untrue histories, which is why many understand myths as stories that are untrue. While this is ultimately an incorrect way to understand myth, it does highlight a particular orientation toward the veracity of history vis-à-vis myth as well as the general orientation toward the truth value of stories.
Sacred texts, stories, and histories are often seen as true in the same factual way that history is perceived. The combination of these fact-based perceptions of historical and religious stories takes on an added difficulty when the factual truth becomes the standard by which stories are judged. In this way, written mythic stories, be they historical or religious, are seen either as provable by fact or proof of fact. This is the same orientation that has scientists and others scouring the Near East and the Mediterranean in search of archaeological proof of biblical history, or why Plato’s Timaeus and Critias has resulted in millions of dollars being spent in search of Atlantis. In the first case facts (history, archaeology etc.) can verify biblical stories, and in the second, Plato is the factual source from which historical and archaeological research is conducted. This combination of history, religion, and fact is a relatively modern phenomenon and may be fueling current political discourse, especially in the case of individuals and groups operating with both religious and political agendas.
Recently we have been hit with a long stream of metaphors which, when taken together, seem to suggest an orientation toward facts and history that could have serious ramifications. Let’s start with the Tea Party. Their name is a reference to the Revolutionary War era Boston Tea Party, this metaphor combines the mythic history of the United States along with a protest about taxes. While the purpose of the modern Tea Party may be perfectly valid, the metaphor unfortunately is not. One of the primary complaints that inspired the Boston Tea Party was taxation without representation, which is very different from not liking the representation or the policies created by the representatives. Another aspect of the original Tea Party protest was also against a veritable monopoly on tea importation by the British East India Company – equally bizarre, given the traditional big business orientation of some in this group and especially among their Republican allies (this was a very large feature of last week’s New Hampshire Republican debate). While some might argue the ultimate intentions of many within this group, the problem that I am highlighting is the seemingly incorrect invocation of the Boston Tea Party history/legend and what this example illuminates for the larger discussion of history and fact.
The next example is Sarah Palin’s famous “blood libel” comment to describe her being criticized for previously seeming to advocate armed violence in the wake of the Gabriel Gifford’s shooting in Arizona. Palin’s comments understandably caused an uproar, especially given that “blood libel” has a long history that most often refers to false accusation toward Jews for perpetrating alleged violence against children and Christians, which in turn resulted in much actual violence against Jews. By invoking the “blood libel” story, rather than simply saying the connection between her rhetoric and the violent event was false or unrelated, Palin chose to use a term that had an existing history associated with it—that did not speak to the situation in which it was now being used. So what does it mean that Palin and the Tea Party have misused historical/religious stories and data, especially when the daylight between stories about American national history and American Christian sacred history seems so dim?
A recent issue in Idaho may help to put these two previous invocations in context. In this story, a small Idaho town displayed a travelling art show in which a statue of the Hindu deity Ganesh was featured along with many other non-Hindu statues and other works of art. The inclusion and display of the Ganesh statue was protested by representatives of the Kootenai County Constitution Party, who argued that presenting and dedicating a statue of a Hindu “demon” was tantamount to idol worship.
Two elements of this story highlight the most troubling aspects of the trend I want to explore, which results from a bizarre combination of revisionism and ignorance. In this case, the reader is greeted by a strange contradiction in which a Constitution Party, who on their website
declare[s] the platform of the Constitution Party to be predicated on the principles of the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States and The Bill of Rights.
At first glance it seems odd that a group which takes the constitution so seriously would seemingly ignore the first amendment. However, their action makes more sense when you scroll down the page and discover that they also assert that
“This great nation [America] was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” and “the goal of the Constitution Party is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations,” in which, “the U.S. Constitution established a Republic rooted in Biblical law.”
And herein lays the problem. This group’s particular interpretation of history and religion are not borne out by data, and seem to represent a preferred historical story rather than an evidentiary-based one. This is absolutely their inalienable right to believe, but it poses some significant challenges. Once written history becomes factual, the possibility exists that history can be manipulated and distorted by altering the facts and the data from which the supposed factual history was derived. It is in the midst of that potential manipulation, combined with the blending of national history and sacred history that creates a hazardous relationship. If facts are the standard by which history (and by extension religion) is authorized, then a misrepresentation of the facts or a complete re-write would seem to be highly problematic.
We have spent years going through numerous challenges to the Darwinian Theory, because of its apparent conflict with religious teaching, which then resulted in the scientific-sounding intelligent design theory as an alternative to evolution. However, I think this latest trend is a bit different. What the Constitution Party’s platform and reimagining of the founding fathers’ orientation and intention offers is not an alternative interpretation of history, but a rewriting of history that is based, not on new data or alternative theories, but rather on a preference for an unsubstantiated national history that fits a religio-political agenda.
Some may see this as a small group with fringy ideas, but their activities are eerily in line with those in Texas who successfully passed their own revisionist curriculum that, according to the NYT’s James McKinley, stresses
the superiority of American capitalism, question[s] the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government and present[s] Republican political philosophies in a more positive light.
This orientation toward the founding fathers and constitutional mythology was also expressed in more politically correct language by Tim Pawlenty in the New Hampshire Republican debate.
Another recent example of this phenomenon is Sarah Palin’s now infamous mangling of the Paul Revere Story. Even Fox News’ Chris Wallace, who has been known to be partisan on many occasions, called Palin on the flub, but much to the dismay of everyone, she not only didn’t cop to the mistake but proceeded to spin the story so that her version was actually spot on (according to her). While this may have appeared no more than political weaseling and/or an inability to admit to any errors, what happened next was even more interesting.
Palin supporters, undeterred by facts or accepted legends, attempted to literally rewrite Wikipedia so as to match Palin’s story. This tactic is far more than spin or fervent support of a celebrity and represents a trend we should all be watchful for. Most historians, along with most scientists, recognize that their theories or interpretations are only as good as their data, and I would hope most would be willing to revisit their ideas and theories in light of new data. Because history is based on available data, it is always an interpretation, but that does not mean it is subject to what we might call ‘imagineering.’ What this trend suggests is that rather than adjusting ideas and theories based on data, some individuals (or groups) in conflict with existing historical data simply rewrite history to suit their needs.
When this type of revisionism involves both national and religious history, the trend becomes particularly troubling. After all, if a group can be a Constitution Party and effectively ignore aspects of the very document that they believe is foundational to their organization simply by altering history for their own ideological ends what then becomes of religious history if similar groups see the national mission as a religious and political hybrid that is open to the same revisionism? Unfortunately that question has already been answered by the Conservative Bible Project which is rewriting the bible without all of the “liberal” and “left-wing” language.
The real danger that comes from this trend is not that it is occurring, but that the combination of ignorance and a lack of critical thinking skills could result in the very data changes that many of these groups are seeking. If the textbooks, history and religion all change then there will be little defense for actual data. As it stands, this is already beginning to happen, not just from the alarming number of people who seem perfectly happy to change facts regarding established history or science, but they do so from a continued lack of basic knowledge about history or religion. Case in point, Steve Anthony, from the same city group in Idaho who approved the display of Ganesh admitted, “I’ll be quite honest with you, some people didn’t know it was part of the Hindu culture.” (Cole Heath, KREM.com) While this is not a surprising occurrence, it does add to the difficulty. If the dissemination of fabricated data and revisionist history becomes the norm and no one is able to refute it, then the revision becomes the real and history and religion can be changed. The end result is that someone else’s god can be turned into a demon violating the Christian biblical foundation of America and a dyed-in-the-wool enlightenment deist (like Jefferson) becomes the equivalent of protestant evangelical Christian. It also poses a serious challenge to learning if facts become malleable and educational training and development is not dependent upon facts, but rather on the religio-political orientation of the school board, state or nation in which one is educated.
Post Script: A recent report in the journal, Media Psychology appears to confirm some of the concerns raised in this article. Through “media priming” viewers, readers or listeners may be emotionally and behaviorally influenced by exposure to media –http://bodyodd.msnbc.msn.com/_news/2011/06/13/6851542-watching-jersey-shore-might-make-you-dumber-study-suggests) – thus, the impact of exposure to unsubstantiated claims and unsupported history may prime people for more of the same, and potentially result in an inability to distinguish between the two.