Palin and History
Palin has some odd things to say about US history.
At the onset of her bus tour, Sarah Palin informed it us about connecting with history (via Fox News):
“This isn’t a campaign bus, this is a bus to be able to express to America how much we appreciate our foundation,” Palin said after heading toward the bus carrying her family to famous historical sites on their summer vacation.
Well, she has been touring about appreciating the founding and has had some interesting things to say about the Statue of Liberty and Paul Revere.
On the Statue of Liberty:
“Lady Liberty is the symbol of unity and friendship we have with other freedom-loving nations. It’s also a “warning” of sorts, as France encouraged us to keep democracy alive as the recipient of this gift… basically telling us not to blow it. Thank you for this reminder, France!” she wrote on her SarahPAC.com website.
To augment that quote, last year on that subject she said the following (via the Anchorage Daily News):*
“This Statue of Liberty was gifted to us by foreign leaders, really as a warning to us, it was a warning to us to stay unique and to stay exceptional from other countries. Certainly not to go down the path of other countries that adopted socialist policies,” Palin said to cheers from the crowd.
“He who warned uh, the British that they weren’t gonna be takin’ away our arms, uh by ringing those bells, and um, makin’ sure as he’s riding his horse through town to send those warning shots and bells that we were going to be sure and we were going to be free, and we were going to be armed.”
The first thing that strikes me about all of these accounts is their general level of inaccuracy.
The second thing that strikes me is that they all hold a similar theme: warning. And, more specifically, using versions of stories about US history to bring forth warnings (losing democracy, capitalism, or guns) that are clearly meant to stir contemporary concerns.
This strikes me as a fairly typical deployment of American history, legends, and symbols by American politicians, which is an attempt to validate contemporary political actions by appeals to America’s past. This tactic tends to deploy the past like holy writ (i.e., as some type of inerrant text that holds Truth) and that can sanctify political pronouncements in the now. Never mind that these deployments may be more legend than fact or that that are being used in manner heavily influenced by contemporary views and politics.
Take Palin’s assertion about Revere. She clearly makes the narrative of the midnight ride somehow parallel to contemporary fears in some quarters about government seizure of guns.** It also fits the narrative subscribed to by some (see: Sharron Angle, for example) who think that gun rights are directly linked to the right to rebel.
In regards to the Statue of Liberty, the notion that it was a warning of some kind is odd concept. But, of course, in contemporary politics there is a substantial strain within the GOP that does like to warn that we face socialism (heck, Mitt Romney said as much yesterday) and there has been an sustained attack that the current occupant of the White House is not sufficient American.
A key question, ultimately, is to what degree does Palin actually have this simplistic view of history and how much of this is conscious political manipulation of these legends. I honestly vacillate to some degree on this count, but eventually come down to the former because she has not demonstrated much intellectual depth or academic knowledge. The only reason I entertain the latter is because it is difficult for me to believe that anyone could actually believe this stuff and because she has demonstrated PR acumen, making me at least think it is possible this is deliberate public manipulation.***
My best guess is that she believes the narrative that she is spinning, i.e., that her shallow interpretations of historical events (or the legendary versions thereof) confirm and reinforce her current views of US politics.
In reminds me of the commercials from GOP primary candidate (AL02) Rick Barber, especially the one that featured Barber talking to George Washington and friends (video at link).
AS Dave Weigel wrote at the time:
He appeals to Washington as the owner of a distillery who “knows how tough it is to run a small business without a tyrannical government on your back.” But President Washington presided over, and approved, the first tax levied by the federal government — the 1791 whiskey tax. When the tax met resistance, he approved the assembling of militias to enforce the law and mobilization of agents to collect the revenue. So the Barber daydream of Washington angrily ordering a “gathering of armies” to oppose a tax is… well, entertaining, I guess.
Further, the whole Tea Party label is predicated on this type of misappropriate of history (and, really, the misappropriation not of history, but of legend). On the legend point, the dumping of the tea in the harbor was not contemporaneously called the “Boston Tea Party,” but rather acquired the name in the 19th Century and it was not the catalyst for the Revolution that many think that it was.
In terms of the history, my favorite part is this (from historian Ray Raphael at History.net):
The immediate catalyst was a tax break—not a tax increase—that effectively made imported tea more affordable for colonists. What irked the patriots was that they had no role in the decision.
In the Tea Act of 1773, Parliament left the American import duties in place but decreed that the East India Company would no longer have to pay any duties on tea landing in Britain and headed to America, nor would it have to sell the tea at British public auctions. It could deliver its product straight to American consumers, untouched by middlemen and almost untaxed, save for a modest American import duty. The only people who stood to incur financial losses from the arrangement were American smugglers who had been peddling duty-free tea from Holland.
For the Americans, the fundamental issue was one of self-governance. Whoever levied taxes got to call the shots, including how to spend the money. Parliament insisted on taxing colonists to support—and command—colonial administration. Colonists countered that they were more than willing to tax—and rule—themselves. No more “taxation without representation” became their rallying cry, not “down with high taxes.”
And yet, the Tea Party version of the narrative is that it was about the onerous burden of taxes at the time leading to a rebellious response.
Now, I will say that misusing historical examples does not make someone wrong (nor is it anything new). If, in fact, we were facing the destruction of our democracy, then it really won’t matter if Lady Liberty’s purpose was there to warn us or not.
The real problem here is that we aren’t heading towards socialism, our democracy is not threatened, and no one is coming to take away the guns. As such, the thing that really ought to get people’s attention is not the misappropriation/misinterpretation (or even straight-up ignorance) of history by Palin, it is that her underlying message is utterly flawed.
I will conclude with this: one ought to be wary of people who display ignorance of history, because it does call into question their intellectual prowess and honesty (especially if they are consistently wrong). Also, as much as American history is worthy of study, the citation of the past does not validate, or nullify, the present.
*The quotes comes from a rally held alongside Glenn Beck. If she is getting her history from Beck, that explains a lot.
**And there are still people who think that Obama (or any Democratic president) is secretly plotting to take away guns. A story I have recounted before: during the ’08 campaign I had a student very sincerely ask me if it was true that Obama would take away all our guns if he was elected (and this was a pretty good student). Apparently the student’s father was convinced this was the case and it eventually became clear that the source of the concern was from columns in the NRA’s magazine.
***For my geek friends in the audience, there is a third possibility: she is a Cylon and she adheres to the belief that “all of this has happened before and all of this will happen again” and simply sees the pattern.