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May 19 - How ‘fake history’ has powered the rise of America’s right-wing


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 5 months ago '06        #1
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May 19 - How ‘fake history’ has powered the rise of America’s right-wing
 

 



“Fake news” is everywhere, both as an actual product and a false accusation. But a deeper phenomenon, fake history, is a big part of how we got here. Donald Trump’s signature slogan, “Make America Great Again,” depends on a historical narrative of American greatness, swiped from Ronald Reagan, and a hazy peak in that past that Trump has never felt it necessary to identify.

This has been a long time coming. Back in 2010, with the Tea Party riding high in the news, Nils Gilman (author of “Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America“) wrote a blog post, “Rightwing productions of history,” that brilliantly explained how fake history empowers the right — which writes “history” for immediate propaganda value, with only the most tenuous concern for what actually happened historically — while academic history was too nuanced and complicated to help the left in those terms.


“There’s an underlying irony here, which is worth underscoring,” Gilman wrote. “While the political right has largely lost the interpretive battle for the American past among professional historians, they remain far more sensitive than the political left to the political importance of dominating popular understandings of key episodes from the past.”

The surprise election of Trump may have shaken things up, however. There’s been a flood of popular writing about histories of populism, authoritarianism and threats to democracy since November 2016. Where all this leads is unclear, but at least the political importance of history has become a vital concern for the left as well as the right — which creates new possibilities. To better grasp how we got here, Salon sat down to interview Gilman about his insight from the Tea Party’s heyday, and what inklings it can provide for the days ahead.

What led you to write “Rightwing productions of history” in 2010?



00:00

There were a lot of things going on at that point. One had to do with the contested legacy of the Vietnam War, and counterinsurgency. There was a whole series of books coming out at that time written by various people who are not academics. Some of them were more or less credible sources: scholars but not academics. There’s a very strong consensus among academic historians about the historical legacies of counterinsurgency programs, and the counterinsurgency program in Vietnam in particular. Basically, the last successful counterinsurgency waged by a power in the global North against power in the global South was — and this is somewhat arguable — Malaya in 1961, although Malaya became independent shortly thereafter [as the nation now called Malaysia], so it’s almost a rule-proving exception.

During the high colonial period, there were many insurgencies that were put down. What brought colonialism to an end, more than anything else, was the rising failure or inability to put down insurgencies in Algeria, in Vietnam and so on.

That was the dominant consensus view among academic historians. Now [in 2010] the U.S. finds itself embroiled in trying to lead the counterinsurgency in Iraq. And that historical view of counterinsurgency wasn’t going to work as a usable past for people who are trying to foment contemporary counterinsurgency programs in Afghanistan and Iraq. So a series of books started to appear — some of them more credible as histories than others. Max Boot (who I’ve known since college) and Mark Moyar (who my wife has known since college) are people I would certainly call credible intellectuals — they aren’t just making up bullsh*t. But they are very much engaged in a project of writing history that’s informed by the need to create a past that works for present political purposes.

I should note that I was actually working as a consultant at the time, trying to help people in the U.S. government try to think more historically about the insurgency processes they were engaged in.

You said “there were a lot of things going on.” What else did you have in mind?

There was also this domestic issue, which is that there are a lot of stories to tell about the past, not just one. If you ask almost any academic historian today, “What was the primary cause of the U.S. Civil War?” the absolute overwhelming consensus is one word: “slavery.” You know, complicated multi-causal factor, but you boil it all away — no slavery, no Civil War, right? But that’s not a narrative that a lot of people are very happy with.

In fact, it wasn’t the predominant narrative for a long time. It wasn’t the dominant narrative really until the 1960s and ’70s when there was a whole new historiography on that. And there are people who want to contest that history now. There’s this whole industry of people funded by right-wing think tanks and right-wing benefactors, who are interested in creating a narrative about the past which is useful for particular political projects in the present.




I actually think the political right is much better at this. Partly because they lost the academy, they want [to win] these battles to a very large extent, and are hyper-aware that the way the narrative about the U.S. past has solidified over the last generation or two makes it much harder for them to pursue certain kinds of policies. So that’s the general frame for the piece.

At the beginning you wrote, “Over the last 40 years of production of American history, historical memory has been quite radically transformed.” How would you explain to a layperson what you meant by that?

There’s different dimensions to it. One major factor is that, 30 to 40 years ago we got civics lessons in schools, which were historical stories that were told to present the political values of the country. The Revolutionary War was an uprising against the despotic foreign government, and against taxation without representation. There was education about the republican virtues. There was a story told about the rising arc of freedoms in the history of the country. These things were all told in a pretty explicit way. My kids are school-age now. They don’t get that kind of explicit civics lesson anymore. This is part of the retreat of public institutions from engaging in moral suasion in general and American civic life. So that’s one part of the story.

At the same time, there’s been a real change in many of the dominant narratives about the U.S. past. Academic historians have increasingly told stories in the name of inclusion, social histories. Fifty years ago, the dominant kinds of historiography focused primarily on political elites. The social history of revolution, which began really in the 1960s, and then became the dominant movement in the ’70s and ’80s, was about teaching history “from below,” as the saying goes.

This was the history of various working classes and oppressed groups, and groups that had been written out of history. Because the political history focused on elites naturally was the history of “dead white men,” as the saying goes. So people became interested in telling stories about the history of women, of working-class people, of African-Americans. This is done in the name of inclusion, but when the stories get told, they also become stories of oppression. As those became the dominant stories, the history of the past was no longer a history necessarily of the arc of history bending toward freedom. It was a history of a long series of only slowly, haltingly and hesitatingly overcoming oppressions — centuries of suffering. This became a story that was much less celebratory of the American past.

That created problems.

It contrasted very sharply with the kind of story that, at the same time, Ronald Reagan wanted to tell about his shining city on a hill, a glorious beacon that all others look out to. So you started to get a stronger and stronger divergence between the kinds of stories told. Certain political factions in the country — nationalists, and also darker forces like white nationalists, and people who were actually interested in perpetuating these oppressions that these social historians were trying to decry — were not very happy with this turn of historiographical events, where the dominant story was no longer a celebratory story about elites building a great and powerful country. It was instead the story about various kinds of predatory elites who had oppressed large segments of the country, not to say the rest of the world.

That was a much less useful history for people who wanted to promote U.S. power, plus the power of certain constituencies within the country. They recognized that the understanding of the past that has become the dominant view of academic history was an actual block for them to be able to enact the kinds of policies they wanted to enact. So alternative history started to be written, not by academic historians but by other kinds of people.

You tweeted recently about best-selling “historians” not being academics. What’s the significance of that, as you see it?

The fact that Bill O’Reilly is the best-selling “historian” in the country I think tells you two things. One is that there’s a huge amount of demand for different kinds of stories than the ones told by academic historians. Second — and this is a point I really want to make — why is Bill O’Reilly spending his time writing histories? Two things: One is he feels that having the kind of story he wants to tell about the past is important for his political project, and two, he sees that such histories do not exist.

It’s not just Bill O’Reilly. Jonah Goldberg wrote a ridiculous book called “Liberal Fascism,” where he argued that contemporary liberalism is a direct lineal descendent from fascism, just because there are some resonances between the anti-classical liberalism of FDR and the anti-classical liberalism of the fascists in the 1930s. There were a whole variety of different anti-classical liberalisms that arose in the context of the Great Depression. It was a major rebuke of classical liberalism, and the question was what to do about it. One answer was fascism. Another answer was communism. A third answer was the kind of mixed economy that FDR put together.

FDR is actually another very important figure in this. FDR has had, I would say, close to a cult following among American liberals, generally celebrated by American liberals as the greatest president of the 20th century.

I must have read a dozen books on him as a teenager.

Exactly. I mean he was celebrated as the guy who saved the country from the worst political fate. He saved American capitalism, he won the war. There were all sorts of things about him swept under the rug in those kinds of hagiographic narratives, matters relating to African-American civil rights, the Japanese-American internment, etc. So there was some dissent. But basically, FDR was treated as a really important figure.

Republicans have had an explicit campaign to try to displace the memory of FDR as the greatest American president of the 20th century with the memory of Ronald Reagan. I think John McCain has an explicit project to make sure that more sites in the U.S. are named after Reagan than FDR. Why is that? It’s a concerted campaign to control the symbolic understanding of the past.

One of the important things you highlighted is the asymmetry involved. There’s very little concern with getting the past right among conservatives, while among professional historians there’s so much concern with getting it right that it becomes difficult to have a usable past.

This goes to the style of academic writing, which makes it hard to reach popular audiences. Every year the best-selling histories, whether they happen to have a particular political project or not, tend not to be written by academic historians. That’s partly because of the stylistic job pressures within the academy.

There’s a second dimension, which is that academic historians, for the most part, are motivated by trying to get the story right, and to understand the balance, the complexity and the nuances. Academic historians will always tell you two things: It started longer ago than you think, and it’s more complicated than you think. Complexity is the enemy of clarification, for political purposes. Political communicators have to make strong, clear statements. It’s not useful for them to be nuanced.

In a larger context, there is a parallel here with what’s happening in the sciences, whether it’s “intelligent design” vs. evolution, or the attacks on global warming. Chris Mooney in “The Republican Brain” argued that the liberal tradition sees reason as the search for knowledge, but that’s not what the science actually says. Our complex minds actually developed from being social animals. It’s relationships and persuasion that the mind is much more attentive to.

I’m not a neuroscientist so I can’t speak to that directly, but it certainly sounds plausible. There is a fundamental relationship between liberalism — not welfare-state liberalism but skeptical, open-minded, non-dogmatic liberalism, a willingness to revise accepted positions that is central to the mindset of an effective scientist — that are antithetical to political systems that are entailed by dogma. So there is a connection there.


 https://www.rawstory.com/ .. to-f*ght-back/
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 5 months ago '19        #2
Gold Face  11 heat pts11
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A long a*s editorial about nothing

As if liberals arent full of sh*t as well

Donald trump was a spit in the face of the establishment

Posts like these scream. Let’s just go back to the status quo

And that’s the problem

Y’all are battered wives
-5   

 5 months ago '17        #3
Ymmot  24 heat pts24
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 Gold Face said
A long a*s editorial about nothing

As if liberals arent full of sh*t as well

Donald trump was a spit in the face of the establishment

Posts like these scream. Let’s just go back to the status quo

And that’s the problem

Y’all are battered wives
Trump is the most establishment president we've ever had. You're still falling for this obvious ploy.
+1   

 5 months ago '04        #4
skillahmang  3 heat pts3
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This country is full of idiots.

 5 months ago '17        #5
Ymmot  24 heat pts24
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It's crazy how they're trying to re-write history and make the confederates seem like they were good guys too. They're trying to make the slave owners look like good people. This reminds me of trump trying to say there were very fine people on both sides in Charlottesville, trying to give white supremacists a pass. All part of the plan; and it's working too. You got kids like @, who claims to be hispanic, defending white supremacists. Doesn't seem like he realizes what he's doing, but the fact that trump has these dudes borderline co-signing to this sh*t speaks volumes.

 5 months ago '06        #6
Kingme  23 heat pts23
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This article explains why the right is obsessed with bogus conspiracy theories, Alex Jones, and "reverse racism" etc and why education is important.
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 5 months ago '05        #7
hily 
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I think we are at a place in time where we have access to information and we start thinking so which Founding Father, president or historical figure wasn't complete sh*t or half sh*t?
There's some people who can see both parts of the person, and there's others who say well slavery was just what people did so NBD. Or people just murdered people etc.



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