My normal shtick is history; it isn't often that I diary on contemporary cultural issues, to say nothing of issuing calls to arms. Nevertheless, every once in a blue moon (heh), these things do intersect, as a recent foray into the swamps of the rightist blogosphere, plus some grokking on "Advanced Conservative Studies," have shown me.
I'll leave it to the diaries of my estimable fellow Kossacks and leftists to speculate on the future impact of the Jock-Strap Jihadi and the new Republican push for TSA Porn Machines - my focus is on a new front in the never-ending defense of American values from its right-wing attackers. While we're busy mopping up the messes he made, conservatives have been stealthily trying to rehabilitate the image of the worst president in US history – and if we don't stick to our guns, the lies they'll be telling to future generations will dwarf anything laid on us by Fox News during the Grim 00's.
The conservative assault on American values has taken a dangerous new turn of late, with some of their intellectual generals deploying their typists to fortify what should be an indefensible position. Against all reason – not to mention historiographical responsibility – they have re-occupied the battered walls defending the actions of the presidency of George the Lesser, and are even now attempting to quietly reconstruct them. They're using techniques pioneered in their takeover of the Republican Party, and they couldn't give a rat's rosy red ass about the factual accuracy of what they're asserting – theirs is a history that works backwards from an already-held conclusion, not a deeper understanding of context.
We on the left, by contrast, have been pretty secure in our view of how The Decider will be regarded by history. Surely, we say to ourselves, any objective look at his policies and their outcomes will result in an assessment that promises to pit Buchananites against Bushies for decades to come. There is some truth to this – as St. Colbert famously intoned, "The facts have a liberal bias."
We cannot, however, take this to mean that Republicans will allow this judgment to stand. The credibility of their party in the 2010 and 2012 elections may hang, in part, on how the public remembers the Bush years, which means they have a vested interest in changing the history of that dark age. It's my sad duty to announce that they're busily at work trying to do so, and that this is yet another flank we're going to have to keep an eye on as we move forward.
Traditionally, changing historical points of view on a society-wide basis has been a rather lengthy process. As time passes, new details surface, passions cool, and evidence is examined by later generations of historians; the result, hopefully, is a history which approaches some degree of objectivity and honesty in its appraisals. That's not to say that views of presidencies can't change, or that the system of historical reflection is meant to be unbendingly self-reinforcing – those perceptions can and do change, usually as a result of new scholarship or a shift in the society's moral compass.
It can happen quickly, too: In my lifetime, Andrew Jackson's hero status has been stripped away, and replaced with an ever-present (even if entirely justified) reminder of his Indian removal policies. Concurrently, David McCullough's 2003 book played a crucial role in sending Harry Truman's legacy on an opposite, more positive, trajectory.
Perhaps someday, society will be so appalled at the very idea of WMD use that the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki will be deemed as morally unacceptable as the Trail of Tears, and "Give 'em Hell" Harry will once again sink in the public eye – but the chances for that to come about any time soon are dismal, if only because there's not a cadre of historians out there calling for Truman's posthumous war crimes trial. There are other reasons that such a perceptual shift has not occurred (several of them much better than the one described here), but these don't diminish the importance of having a few history writers pushing for the shift to take place, together with a handful of demagogues to make the message understandable and a slightly larger group of people willing to evangelize it. As Lenin may or may not have said, "Give me 100 committed, totally committed, men and I'll change the world."
The alarm I am compelled to sound is that conservative thinkers have realized that they are not in control of the historical narrative, and are acting upon it with regards to the Bush Administration. Even as I type and you read, a small group of revisionist historians are stealthily attacking the factual record of the years 2000-2009, undermining its base like sappers digging beneath a fortress wall. If we're not careful, one morning (perhaps soon) they'll succeed, and we'll wake up to find that George Bush is "widely regarded" by "conventional wisdom" as a leader who
fought for justice, for freedom, and for the American way. President Bush understood that this is not a war that we could win in a day or on one front, and that it is more important to be safe and hated around the world, than to be idolized and left open for enemy fire.
The article from which that quote is excerpted, Millenium man of the decade-George W. Bush (DANGER: RedState) by diarist BlackConservative, is an entry-level attempt to conjure into being an historical reality which currently resides mainly in the fantastical theories of conservatism's thin ranks of higher-level thinkers. While its banality precludes it from doing any real harm to the historical record, the diary is indicative of the type of self-reinforcing thinking that undergirds the whole conservative system of logic, and ought to serve as a kind of canary in the coal mine with regards to what we can expect. To wit:
This is the difference between President Obama and President Bush, because President Bush knew that the only justice for terrorists is death. The only reason they understand is on the receiving end of a bullet, and the only negotiation they deserve is whether they want to be shot in front or in the back. No retreat, no surrender, was the mantra under President Bush. We know he was no good on fiscal policy, and that the GOP grew fat with content under W. But on the most important job the President has, as commander in chief President Bush gets an A+.
Not a quote, but an observation: The diary opens with side-by-side pictures of a bulging-crotch Batman and George W. Bush, in full flightsuit-and-codpiece regalia. Quotes interspersed throughout the piece are supposed to draw further parallels between Mr. Bush and the Dark Knight.
For the last eight years, we thank you President Bush, for keeping us safe. As the USA descends into possible chaos, we remember a man who stood strong in the face of evil and never surrendered. A man who spat in the faces of our enemies and was killed in the media and by our own people for not retreating...For doing your job, America and history will look better on you than we did while you were in power. Thank you George W. Bush, millenium (sic) man of the decade.
As mentioned above, this is the consumer-level stuff, the sediment that precipitates out of the slightly more reasoned flights of fancy found at the higher levels of conservative thought. It's roughly analogous to the schooling Meryl Streep gives Anne Hatthaway in The Devil Wears Prada (2006):
Because the thinkers of this sort of discount-bin history have no idea why they think the way they do – a condition which stems from a lack of understanding of context – their writings are mostly harmless, at least until they reach a critical mass of public acceptance. They are dittohead distillations of Rushian, or Beckite, or Hannityan pronouncements, meant to reinforce the party line among the lower-caste Republicans, so the main danger they pose is in their numbers and their frequency. It's that old Goebbels thing:
"If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it."
As a teacher who, because of my District's misplaced spending priorities, is obligated to use a blackboard and chalk (iow, I use one type of rock to write upon another type of rock, as a means of instructing students here in the second decade of the 21st century) while the School Board convenes bimonthly in a conference room with technology straight off the bridge of the USS Enterprise, this comes across as pretty infuriating:
The accouterments, if not the spelling, are those of a legitimate social studies teacher, and Mr. Beck is using them as a type of visual Appeal to Misleading Authority, a logical fallacy of the first order. Mr. Beck is neither a college graduate (he took one class and dropped out in 1996) nor is he a teacher; his assumption of that role is tantamount to my performing brain surgery because I'd taken a single course in biology and bought myself a set of scrubs and a stethoscope.
It's a distasteful, though necessary, component of the conservative plan (plus, it allows Mr. Beck to live out his diploma-envy fantasies). The American education system does indeed include powerful entrenched interests with a progressive bent – is it really a surprise that a teacher's union would support those candidates it feels are friendly to organized labor and public education? – and academia has the facts to back its arguments. These are obstacles which the right may be able to overcome with time and patient chiseling, but far more dramatic (and way, way easier) is to simply adopt the trappings of the learned and present oneself as an expert. All it takes are some stage props, knowing a few buzzwords, and being able to talk about just enough context to bamboozle diary-writers like BlackConservative, who will then obediently repeat the revisions to the rank and file. Rightwing historian Victor Davis Hanson (more on him below) says as much in this defense of Rush Limbaugh's talent at dumbing stuff down:
"It may not be the same as digesting Reinhold Niebuhr or rereading the Federalist papers, but [Limbaugh's ability] is an uncanny talent and for over twenty years it has energized conservatives and reflected a certain populism that was lacking in its Wall Street/silk-stocking past."
-- More on Rush: All these highbrow conservative attacks on Limbaugh keep missing the point, nationalreview.com, March 4, 2009
-- q/v Victor Davis Hanson Hearts Rush Limbaugh, popcivics.com's take on the same article.
The Education Front is one of the messiest in the entire Domestic Theater of the Republican War on American Values, and the Republicans have made significant, if not tide-turning, gains in recent years. Vouchers are still out there, waiting to redistribute your wealth to some private Christian madrassa, the charter schools movement is still trying to put lipstick on a pig, and the state-level threat posed by school "reform" snake-oil salesmen is perhaps at its highest-ever level. Regrettably, President Obama chose one of America's chief proponents of lowering the academic bar for his Education Secretary, and has publicly stated that the odious No Child Left Behind Act should be tinkered with, rather than being taken behind the wood shed and put out of its misery.
It's this last that's the key to the Republican effort to destroy American public education: by establishing a system that will invariably result in a sizeable number of public schools being labeled "failing," then de-funded and corporatized, they are ensuring themselves that a malleable, ignorant electorate of the type most feared by the Founding Fathers will long endure. In this environment, faulty curriculums are foisted upon school boards with political, rather than educational agendas, and the result is pseudoscience like Of Pandas and People or blatantly re-written "history" of the sort cooked up by David Barton and "scholars" of his ilk.
So, having taken steps to assure themselves of plenty of impressionable, fascism-ready future voters, and having misappropriated the trappings (and, occasionally, the language) of educators, what's left for the Mouthpiece-level fixer of the Bush legacy to do? Do they simply shout into microphones and cameras all day?
Well, that's part of it – Goebbels again:
- but they actually perform a couple of important filtering functions, as well. Like most reactionary movements, Teabggerism, et al, is profoundly anti-intellectual, and practitioners are usually quite happy to leave it up to the media personalities to draw the distinction between "good" intellectuals and "commie" intellectuals. In other words, the media personalities determine which few pointy-headed intellectuals are worth listening to, and provide reassurance to their believers that some academics are actually on their side.
"The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over"
It's the Mouthpieces who have to dice up the interpretations handed down from their intellectual Sith Lords (more on those guys in a minute), so as to make them palatably understandable to the dittohead rank and file. This often involves some finesse, as the Mouthpiece-level revisionist is usually only marginally better educated than the drones s/he addresses, and they have accordingly raised verbal side-stepping to a high art form. When this system of Wikipedia-a-couple-of-minutes-before-going-on-air-based knowledge fails, hilarity can ensue:
- but the truth is, they've been at this so long, and their techniques are by now so refined, that they are a difficult opponent to take on. That Boulder High kid was the exception, not the rule; most left-wing guests, as well as callers to rightist propaganda shows, are not as well-prepared, not as erudite, and frankly, not as brave as he was in the face of Mr. O'Reilly. Besides, when local wingnut radio personalities start to lose, they thrash like a shark just pulled onto a boat's deck (see top vid), and they'll use any method at their disposal to extricate themselves from a situation in which they'll be exposed for the dumbasses they are. What lowly caller, for example would have managed to keep the clown in the Hardball video from hanging up on him, had the clown's technicians (and not Chris Matthews') been in charge of the microphone's "off" button?
This level of the conservative elite has ensconced itself in strong fortifications with narrow, defensible approaches – it doesn't make much sense to try to attack them directly. For engaging them, the best approach is also the most laborious: their acolytes must be exorcised of the demons of ignorance, or at least rendered inert as far as spreading their anti-intellectual gospel goes. This can only be done by counter-evangelizing – we can't simply rely on the facts being on our side (or that conservatives will suddenly start to regard them with anything but contempt), or on the hope that the good guys are suddenly going to pull things together in the final frames.
If there's anything that the history of history shows, it's that the subject is prone to abuse by those who would lead their countries down nefarious paths. We must protect the history of our nation from those who would alter it – by knowing it so well that we don't fall victim to conservative word-parsing or other re-interpretation ploys, and remembering to use the conservative strategy against them. They know it's easier (and usually more cost-effective) to leave stuff out than it is to expand knowledge, even if they pay a price in terms of firepower. I propose we pack heavy for the coming battle, and that we do our best not only to pin down the other side's strongholds of misinformation with a constant barrage of factual artillery, but to use grenades of contextual knowledge against the soldiers in the enemy ranks, as well.
Rush Limbaugh is not a philosopher of history, politics, or anything else. Neither is Glenn Beck, or Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, or any of the rest of them. Similarly, the conservative view of history does not come from a consensus of the rightist sheeple –they simply mouth what they're told to mouth. And let's face it: at this, too, they're better at maintaining ranks than we are. This is why we should leave the totalitarian-army, rote-repitition tactics to them, and fight back the same way the US fought the Second World War: with an educated force that gives its officers and troops pretty wide latitude in how to attain their objectives.
As Markos Moulitsas described in his 2006 book, Crashing the Gate, conservatives have spent decades funding research outfits, think tanks, and even their own diploma-mill universities in an effort to train the next generation of GOP henchmen and provide an imprimatur of contemporary intellectualism for a core philosophy that has remained essentially unchanged since the late 19th century. So it is that a policy derided in the 1890s as "feeding the canaries by feeding the horses" has been updated to "trickle-down economics" for our more mechanized times, though the Republican idea of race relations has generally remained stuck at the "we fought the Civil War, what the hell else do you want?" stage.
But training a new wave of Boehners and Vitters and translating Social Darwinism into modern law and language are not the only functions of these conservative think tanks: they also do serious policy analysis (and now, academic revisionism), and are the architects of the messages that the Mouthpieces broadcast. It's here that we find the guys with the White-Out (in more senses than one) and the editing pens, guys already hard at work in the effort to first salvage, then gild, buff, and polish, the legacy of George W. Bush.
In the wake of Francis Fukuyama's decline and fall, Vicor Davis Hanson has become one of the leading historical standard-bearers for the conservative movement. Dr. Hanson, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is a classicist and well-regarded military historian of the old school – titles include Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (published in the UK as Why the West Has Won: Carnage and Culture from Salamis to Vietnam) and The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece - who believes firmly in the idea of Western and (especially) American exceptionalism. Through his website, syndicated Tribune Media column, and his weekly gig at National Review, VDH, as he's known, provided the theoretical underpinning (and historical OK) for much of the neocon foreign agenda.
Now he's turned his attention to the Augean task of de-mucking our collective memory of the Age of the Decider. In A Fairer Verdict On Bush (subtitled "A reassessment of the 43rd president has already begun"), published on his website on December 30, 2009, Dr. Hanson opens with a broadside of bs:
Critics are tallying the Bush administration's pluses and minuses, and some consensus is emerging that in time George W. Bush, like Harry Truman, will be seen in a far more favorable light than his low poll ratings reflected.
Ibid., as are all Hanson citations which follow
By "some consensus," Dr. Hanson must mean he and whoever else was hanging around his kitchen last weekend, but whatever; his piece isn't designed to be a critique of research undertaken by others – no, this version of history is all Victor Davis Hanson. (don't worry about the irony of hoping that Bush's reputation will someday rise to the level of a New Deal Democrat: VDH is a registered Dem, though he hasn't voted that way for president in over a decade)
He goes on, praising George the Lawgiver for bringing the light of democracy to those who knew it not, while willfully ignoring the reasons that selfsame president was giving to the public as to why we needed to invade:
Millions in Iraq today enjoy the opportunity of consensual government unimaginable in the era of Saddam. Iraq, in short, is Bush's Korea: a messy and controversial war against authoritarian evil that in time will be vindicated by the growth of a constitutional society in place of a monstrosity.
Again with the Truman thing, only this time VDH is slyly not passing along any observations about how long it took the Republic of Korea to reach a state of "consensual government" in a "constitutional society" (hint: the country was ruled by a series of military juntas from 1961 until 1992, and didn't experience a peaceful transfer of power between parties until 1997). That's the thing about making wildly fanciful predictions – since it's understood that one can't be proven right until some undisclosed point in the future, one can't be held liable if the thing doesn't come to pass – any complaints are simply cans to be kicked down the road for recycling at a more convenient time.
Dr. Hanson goes on to regurgitate the standard talking points on Bushian success – he kept the mainland safe, al-Qaeda is broken and on the run (plus, the Middle East now hates bin Laden), and because President Obama and the media now support torture and a keeping the field phones humming at Guantanamo Bay, the American public is ready to give Mr. Bush a pass on human rights violations. He completely bypasses any "minuses" that he might have been hinting at in that first paragraph – Katrina goes unmentioned, as does No Child Left Behind. Mr. Bush does get credit, however, for having "instinctual worries," regardless of whether or not they were acted upon:
And the debits? The Bush administration spent too much money during the first term, running up deficits and discrediting the revenue enhancements that accrued from his tax cuts. That said, Bush's instinctual worries about closer monitoring of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were right; their defenders in Congress were wrong.
Gracious acceptance of partial responsibility for the collapse of the US economy aside, is that really where the bar is being set here? Being right when Congress is wrong? That's easier than falling out of bed.
Ever since the presidency of Ulysses Grant, Republicans have blamed the failings of underlings for a lack of stellar performance at the top. Here again, the Historian Laureate of Wingnuttery doesn't disappoint:
Finally, Bush placed an inordinate amount of faith in less than competent loyalists. A Michael Brown or Scott McClellan would have been over their heads as small-town bureaucrats. Others such as Alberto Gonzales, Harriet Meyers and Karen Hughes were simply unable to overcome media charges that they were mediocrities.
Brownie's incompetence killed many hundreds of Americans, so no argument there, but Scott McClellan's main crime is...what? Writing a less-than-flattering memoir? He lied just fine, back when he was Press Secretary. The lack of rationale continues into the second sentence, in which the thrust of the argument seems to be that if the media had just laid off, Alberto "I don't recall" Gonzales' memory might have improved, Harriet Meyers would be coaxing Solomon-esque wisdom from her Supreme Court, and the Muslim world, bedazzled by the PR brilliance of Karen Hughes, would love us.
Dr. Hanson goes on to assert that BushCo was "one of the most corruption-free administrations in memory," apparently resting upon the twain ideas of the "unitary executive" and "IOKIYAR." This is an example of an outright lie that can easily fester into an accepted bit of Conventional Wisdom if we're not careful. Though the criminality of the Bush Administration is readily apparent to anyone reading the record sans rose-colored glasses, it is a detestable truth that the Republicans are able to counter with a simple, "Well, he didn't get busted for it, did he?" This shifts the conversation to the Feckless 110th Congress (or any number of other piss-poor reasons that Democrats failed to use the Mandates of '06 and '08 to wrest control of nation back from the corporatists), and away from Bushies Behaving Badly.
The closing paragraph of Dr. Hanson's essay is the most sinister, for it contains several unspoken assumptions designed to push any applicable Overton Windows in his direction:
In time, historians will come to a fairer verdict of George W. Bush; in the meantime such a favorable reassessment has already begun.
Note the implication that the verdict to date has been unfair, and that all that's required for we hysterical historians (hysterians?) to see George W. Bush in a better light is for some time to go by. As an historian, Dr. Hanson knows better than this – for every Harry Truman with a rehabilitated reputation, there are two James Buchanans who remain in the cellar, no matter how many decades pass. To the best of my knowledge, no one's out there asserting that Buchanan was good president because the country waited until he was almost gone to descend into civil war, and I seriously doubt that "he did his damn job after receiving a 3000-murder wakeup call" is going to hold much water on Mr. Bush's behalf in the future.
The portion after the semi-colon represents the marching orders. In upcoming shows, expect Messrs. Limbaugh, Beck, Hannity, et al, to state unequivocally that a re-assessment of the Bush years is being undertaken by the historical community, and that "leading figures" like Victor Davis Hanson showing conclusively that the left had it wrong all along. This will vindicate the beliefs (and miscast votes) of the Neandercon rank and file – all they need to hear is that some egghead with a high falutin' sounding name interprets history the way their gut tells them it ought to. Their ideology thus sanctified, they then go into their trenches and start firing the same ammunition, over and over, until the good guys weary of the battle and leave the field.
George W. Bush was plenty destructive to our nation's ideals while he was in office, though as an historian, I have to wonder if his most damning legacy will be in the form of the precedents he set. Many historians of Rome have pointed out that there could have been no Julius Caesar without a Sulla to provide blueprint for dictatorship, and if we don't continue to push for investigations and a true recounting to the deeds of the Bush Administration, I fear that someone a few election cycles down the road will base an outright totalitarian power grab upon a Bushian model of executive privilege, secrecy, and revocation of civil rights.
Expect to be accused of "playing the blame game" or some variant thereof as you fight for an objective telling of the history of the Bush years. It's annoying, but stay resolute: we must not allow ourselves to retreat in the face of implication-laden accusations that we're "blaming" Bush: we are, and we should be. He is to blame for many of the ills that have befallen our nation – and our descendents deserve a factual recounting of our times, not political spin deployed in a fog of populist anti-intellectualism. As we need to force Republicans to learn, while repetition can make a lie more true, it does not make a fact more false.