As you may have noticed by following their writings, conservatives are not sticklers for historical accuracy, especially when they have a point to defend and not a lot of evidence to support it. Get a load, for example, of John Podhoretz explaining how the pro-choice Rudy Giuliani reduced abortions in New York City (though, um, not really) because he cut crime, which is one of “the spiritual causes of abortion.”
Yeah, deadline pressure’s a bitch. But there are some bizarre notions of American history in which conservatives have become so invested they’ve adopted them into their worldview. The best-known example is probably Jonah Goldberg’s notion of “Liberal Fascism“; nowadays anytime a conservative talks about, say, Woodrow Wilson or Hillary Clinton, you may expect him to mention their resemblance to Benito Mussolini. They don’t even have to think about it, even when normal people are gaping at them open-mouthed like audience members at “Springtime for Hitler” — it’s part of the folklore that helps them understand the American experience.
There are plenty of others. I’ve picked out 10 such ideas that are widespread enough to qualify. (In the nomenclature I have treated “Republican” and “conservative” as synonyms because, come on.)
10. The Robber Barons weren’t robbers — they were capitalist heroes.
The overarching task of the conservative historian is to rehabilitate the image of capitalism, even at its most red-toothed and -clawed. Not a hard job, as both our history and culture ceaselessly celebrate the innovative dynamism of American business.
But one of the rare areas in which history teachers are allowed to criticize unfettered capitalism is the Gilded Age of the “robber barons” — Morgan, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Fisk, et al. These men, many of whom first rose to prominence through unseemly wartime speculation, built enormous fortunes on the exceedingly generous terms of the times, which included bribery, monopolies, and stock manipulation, perverting the alleged power of the free market on their own behalf. They were kind of like the Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers of their day — except they never got caught.
Most of us still look on this as a shameful thing. But historians of the conservative-libertarian persuasion such as Thomas E. Woods, Lawrence W. Reed, and Thomas J. DiLorenzo (better known now as a neo-Confederate) look at the robber barons’ dirty records and ask: So what? J.P. Morgan built a nice library!
They tend to skirt the smelly stuff, and talk instead about how Carnegie’s machinations drove down the price of steel — surely you’re not against low prices? And if Jay Gould and Cornelius Vanderbilt paid off legislators to acquire land for their railroads, the railroads got built, and that’s what counts.
Why do they so eagerly defend the robber barons even at their worst? Maybe because, as economist Brad DeLong has noted, the grotesque inequity in American wealth that characterized their era has only one equivalent in U.S. history — that of our own time. And if one’s business is excusing the perfidy and criminality of today’s speculators and swindlers, it is helpful to make heroes of the speculators and swindlers who are their models.
9. Sputnik bankrupted the Soviet Union.
This one comes from the top of the conservative food chain: Sarah Palin. In her Fox News rebuttal to President Obama’s State of the Union, Palin said that the Russians’ “victory in that race to space… incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.”
It has been pointed out that Palin’s version of history is confused on many points. But don’t tell that to conservatives. Among them, Palin’s charisma is so overweening that her bizarre POV is yet defended — in some cases, on the grounds that her “larger and more important point about history” was misunderstood (which then mutated into “Palin was right”), and in others just because, as a poster at Lucianne Goldberg’s site put it, “The left will have puppies because of it.”
Palin’s ahistoricism has since metastasized among her following into an indictment of America’s entry into the space race, which National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg described as “the government tells the people what to do, and it relies on a handful of experts to get it done according to government specifications.”
(It should be noted that Sputnik revisionism didn’t start with Palin; John Bircher Cleon Skousen claimed in the ’50s that the USSR built Sputnik with plans stolen from the United States. It kind of figures Palin would follow in that tradition.)
8. Galileo was a conservative.
You may recall how conservatives made lifelong socialist George Orwell into a neocon icon. Now they’re trying to do the same thing with Galileo.
You may think Galileo’s an odd choice, because he’s history’s most famous scientific dissident, having been forced by the Catholic Church to deny his heretical finding that the earth revolved around the sun. But it’s not his devotion to truth that makes him attractive to conservatives — it’s his persecution. As they feel themselves persecuted by a liberal conspiracy, conservatives will easily adopt as their avatar any historical figure who suffered and was later shown to be right, regardless of the relevance of his cause to theirs. If you’ve seen The Passion of the Christ, you know how it works.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, for reasons that should be obvious, has long portrayed Galileo’s ordeal as not so bad; why, the Pope didn’t even torture him, he just threatened to, and anyway the Church was only reasonably trying to “prohibit the circulation of writings which were judged harmful.”
Scholarly apologists such as Jonathan Weyer and Paul Feyerabend have amplified the theme, but their heady thoughts were brought crashing to earth by National Review‘s Jonah Goldberg, who in 1999 attacked the “ancient, pro-enlightenment, zealot spin” on Galileo with easy-reading versions of the Catholic argument. (Dinesh D’Souza provided similar arguments at a slightly higher reading level.)
Galileo may have been prosecuted by the Church, said Goldberg, but he was persecuted by “jealous fellow-scientists,” one of whom he compared to James Carville. Actually, Goldberg said, the Church loved Galileo. Admittedly they did try him, but that was “very complicated” — the upshot being that “one need not look much further than then-Senator Al Gore’s treatment of dissenters on global warming to see how modern inquisitions work.”
Thus continued the rehabilitation of Galileo — no longer the enemy of the Church, but the patron saint of global warming denialists. In 2001 the American Spectator called skeptic Lloyd Keigwin “The Galileo of Global Warming” and claimed he made a giant contribution to discrediting a movement that would impose a deadly energy clamp on the world economy….” More recently the “ClimateGate” scandal prompted a new wave of Galileo reclamation, with Daniel Henninger of the Wall Street Journal lamenting, “The East Anglians’ mistreatment of scientists who challenged global warming’s claims… evokes the attempt to silence Galileo.”
7. The Founding Fathers really tried to end slavery.
Even in the exceedingly forgiving musical 1776, the Founding Fathers are shown willing to table the issue of slavery in order to win a consensus for the Declaration of Independence. (It also shows Jefferson “resolved to release my slaves,” which he never did.)
That’s not patriotic enough for Tea Party princess Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, who told a sympathetic audience that “the very founders that wrote those documents [the Declaration and Constitution] worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.” The one “founder” Bachmann cited was John Quincy Adams, who was actually the son of the founder John Adams.
That’s no shock; Bachmann’s theme was right in line with a traditional conservative method of reconciling their fairy-tale vision of American history with the founders’ self-evident hypocrisy. Fundamentalists, for example, frequently cite the founders’ verbal objections to the practice as the inspiration for abolitionism.
The basic idea seems to be that because the Founders were embarrassed by slavery, that meant they were in some secret way fighting against it. Author Paul Gottfried, for example, has argued that “Presbyterian theologians spilled rivulets of ink doing what Cicero and Pliny never felt obliged to do, showing how in their society slavery was being elevated to solicitous education for a backward people. The fact that such arguments had to be provided… underscores the perceived need to humanize a ‘peculiar institution.'” So, like very young children in permissive households, the founders’ dim awareness of guilt excuses them from blame.
It’s hard for most of us to imagine that men who, shortly after the Revolution, countenanced the military suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion would have endorsed John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry, or that George Washington, who tried to solve his dental challenges by having implanting in his gums teeth extracted from his slaves, was a precocious abolitionist. But when you hang out with people in tricorner hats and knee-breeches who think the Founders were guys just like themselves, it’s a little easier to suspend disbelief.
6. Teddy Roosevelt was a socialist.
Theodore Roosevelt was a naval theorist and war aficionado, a lawman in both the Dakota Territory and New York City, and a cheerful imperialist. You’d think conservatives would appreciate him better. But Glenn Beck has helped turn that around, lambasting TR at last year’s CPAC and denouncing his words as “a socialist utopia” which “we need to address … as if it is a cancer.”
In an essay at Beck’s site, R.J. Pestritto, a professor at the conservative Hillsdale College, said that while “the progressives were elitists; they looked down their noses at the socialists, considering them a kind of rabble,” nonetheless “the progressive conception of government closely coincided with the socialist conception.” Pestritto was given room to defend his and Beck’s views in the Wall Street Journal. And the Ashbrook Center’s Ken Thomas concluded that Roosevelt “pushed centralization of power far further than circumstances justified.”
Now even when conservatives defend Roosevelt, they qualify their enthusiasm, saying while he went wrong with his statism, he did do some good things, like subjugate foreigners and so forth.
You might wonder why conservatives have chosen to start picking on the guy from Mt. Rushmore. One explanation may be that they were sick of hearing liberals say, oh, if progressive taxation is socialist, then what about TR, was he a socialist too? Now, instead of sputtering, they can just say yes.
5. Conservatives swept MLK and the Civil Rights movement to victory.
Many modern conservatives would be shocked to hear this, as they are convinced that Republican conservatives defeated the Klansmen of the Democratic Party to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and realize King’s dream.
They usually start with the Civil War, at which time Republicans really were African Americans’ better friend among the Parties, and then slide on up to the Civil Rights Act — skipping Strom Thurmond leaving the Democratic Party over segregation, Truman’s integration of the Armed Services, etc.
They point out, rightly, that a greater percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Act in both chamber. They generally don’t recall that nearly all the Democratic opponents were Southern, nor that President Lyndon Johnson, who had pushed for the Act, reflected afterward that the Democrats had “lost the South for a generation” — which turned out to be accurate, plus a decade or two, as Southerners abandoned the Democrats in consequence of their race-mixing ways.
To this day, though they are unsupported by later political developments (such as Tea Party pet Rand Paul’s criticism of the Civil Rights Act), conservatives will claim King and civil rights for themselves, and react to the continuing, massive disposition of black Americans to vote Democratic as an act of stunning ingratitude.
4. Margaret Sanger was all about the eugenics.
Margaret Sanger is known to most normal people as the feminist pioneer who fought law and superstition to educate women to better methods of birth control — mainly condoms and early diaphragms, as opposed to the caustic chemicals and folk remedies desperate women had previously used, sometimes disastrously, to prevent pregnancies.
In the course of her crusade, Sanger made common cause with a variety of world figures, including Jawaharlal Nehru, Reader’s Digest founder DeWitt Wallace — and followers of the pseudoscience of eugenics. This last was an unfortunate choice, to put it mildly, as eugenicists championed forced sterilization and even managed to get laws passed mandating it in some states.
Sanger’s own writings show that eugenics was for her a hook for spreading the word about contraception, rather than the other way around; preventing unwanted pregnancy was her life’s work. Still, it’s a fair cop, and her eugenics endorsements — like H.L. Mencken’s anti-Semitic remarks and Robert Byrd’s Klan membership — are a dark spot on an otherwise admirable reputation.
But ask a modern conservative about Sanger, and you’ll find they’ve got her backwards — eugenics is literally all they know about her. Though they talk about eugenics as if it were still a popular movement, they usually don’t condemn the prominent churchmen and scientists who supported it, not the Rockefeller and Carnegie Foundations, nor Charles Lindbergh, nor Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, et al. It’s always Sanger who symbolizes it — which is rather like portraying Ezra Pound as the head of the Third Reich. Not only lowly lunatic fringe figures, but also big-time wingnuts like Jonah Goldberg and Michelle Malkin take this approach.
It’s not hard to guess why: As the recent Lila Rose Planned Parenthood sting reminds us, conservatives aren’t just against abortion — they’re against anyone who offers women any alternative to childbearing whatsoever. By portraying America’s First Lady of Contraception as an enemy of freedom, they may hope to mask their their own authoritarian ambitions.
3. Women were better off before they got the vote.
Perhaps because they are not usually associated with the extension of rights to the disenfranchised — or because American women tend not to vote the way they want — conservatives are a little squirrely about women’s suffrage. Some rather defensively insist that “conservatives and libertarians played central roles in drafting and ratifying” the 19th Amendment, so there. Others, like National Review‘s John Derbyshire, Ann Coulter and the editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, affect to be against women’s suffrage, either in clumsy emulation of H.L. Mencken’s playful remarks on the subject, or because they’re assholes.
But among conservatives a consensus is forming that women were better off when they didn’t have the vote. The notion does not seem to be based on the premise that women don’t deserve the vote, mind you, but that it is extraneous to their real interest, which is to live in a pre-feminist society.
Last year Jacob G. Hornberger of the Future of Freedom Foundation asserted that Americans were freer in the 1880s than they are today. When called on it, Hornberger said okay, maybe black people and women weren’t so free. But this prompted George Mason professor Bryan Caplan to ask, “In what ways, then, were American women in 1880 less free than men?” Their lack of franchise, sexual autonomy, etc. struck Caplan as irrelevant: Such women lived in an era before gun control or the Department of Education, so, he judged, they were by definition more free than now.
Discussion generally ran against Caplan, but he had his high-profile defenders. At the Atlantic, Megan McArdle said, “The overwhelming majority of women in 1880 would be positively horrified by the prospect of living my life. Not only is it flagrantly immoral, it violates much of what they themselves thought of as the core of womanhood. Should we get excited about women being denied the right to go to medical school, who did not want to go to medical school?” We may imagine 19th-century women who did not want to go to medical school raising their fists in approval.
Others suggested that if conservative women didn’t come out ahead, then women’s rights were merely ephemeral. Last year Concerned Women for America celebrated the 90th anniversary of the 19th Amendment thus: “Women Won the Right to Vote 90 Years Ago; Conservative Women Still Fighting the Media for a ‘Place at the Table.'” “90 years after the 19th Amendment,” wrote Lori Zingano at RedState, “Democrats are actively seeking to figuratively repeal the amendment” — that is, by promoting “the myth of a wage gap” between men and women and disapproving of Sarah Palin. Thus, she said, Democrats “are striving for a form of reverse-suffrage, wherein every woman must walk in lockstep with their ideology, or you are not a ‘real’ woman.”
It is probable that, put under harsh lights and in front of a crowd, any of these people would declare himself or herself an avid women’s suffragist. But among themselves they almost never mention women’s rights without observing how insignificant they are alongside their own idea of the way things ought to be.
2. Darwin is a menace to Western Civilization.
You will from time to time hear about how some conservatives, at least, are cool with Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. But they’re usually discussing the science of evolution — and on that score, they still can’t bring a majority of Republicans onto their side.
On the philosophical implications of man evolving from monkeys, prominent conservatives have long believed and still believe that, in the words of Center for a Just Society Chairman Ken Connor, Darwin would have us believe that “God is simply a creature of our imagination. Human beings emerged gratuitously from the primordial ooze. Since we are the product of mere chance, we have no inherent dignity, value or worth.” And that just ain’t right.
Thus at the Conservative Book Club you can buy The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design, which assures us that “Darwinism — like Marxism and Freudianism before it — is simply unfit to survive,” and you can buy from the Conservative DVD Club films like How the Cambrian Fossil Record Disproves Darwin, and so on.
Some intellectual cons who can’t quite go full knuckle-dragger try to finesse their way out of it. Dinesh D’Souza noted that, while “evolution does seem to turn many Christians into unbelievers,” the discovery of evolutionary principles didn’t sour Darwin himself on God — Darwin’s own bitterness over the death of his child did that; and when the evil Thomas Huxley later tied evolution to atheism, the embittered atheist Darwin supported him by becoming “increasingly insistent that evolution was an entirely naturalistic system, having no room for miracles or divine intervention at any point.” If Darwin had been in his right mind, of course, he’d be singing Glory Hallelujah.
First Things author Peter Lawler made a noble effort, writing that as Darwinism shows that “our happiness comes from doing our duty to the species as social mammals. .. this account of who we are is basically conservative. It promotes family values—including such insights as people who come from large families are generally happier….”
Nice try, Poindexter! But, as with so much in conservative thinking, Jonah Goldberg iced the cake with his statement that while “I disagree with those who would lump Darwin with Freud and Marx… I don’t think one can glibly say that just because the book was scientifically correct (speaking broadly, we’ve discovered lots of new things since then) and pioneering, doesn’t mean it can’t also be harmful. Darwinism certainly led to many horrors and abuses across the ideological spectrum….”
This thing goes way back and, despite the efforts of some pointy-heads, conservatives aren’t backing off it anytime soon.
1. FDR: History’s greatest monster.
If you have aged grandparents still living who remember the New Deal, or are among America’s prominent historians, you will hear nothing but good from them about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the president who shepherded America through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
Conservatives have never felt that way, of course — back in the day they went to the Trans-Lux to hiss Roosevelt, and FDR welcomed their hatred. For some years they were obliged to keep their anger at FDR on the down-low — after all, wasn’t Reagan a Roosevelt fan? Plus there were many more people then than now who actually remembered that presidency, and it didn’t play well to contradict their memories.
Lately, though, conservatives have gotten back to the Trans-Lux, and this time they’re not just hissing. “FDR’s public works only exacerbated the Depression,” says The American Conservative. “The New Deal was harmful medicine for a struggling economy,” claims The American Spectator. “Faced with a similar crisis, there cannot be more than one in a hundred who would now recommend FDR’s specific curatives” — at least, not among the hundred the Spectator would ask.
A book by right-wing factotum Amity Shlaes called The Forgotten Man, all about how FDR prolonged the Depression, has gained a place of honor on conservative bookshelves. As you may imagine, the Wall Street Journal reviewer loved it — “Ms. Shlaes rightly reminds us,” he wrote, “of the harmful effect of Rooseveltian activism and class-warfare rhetoric.” The reviewer did mention that “one question that Ms. Shlaes never quite answers is just what Roosevelt should have done to beat the Depression beyond practicing a Coolidge-like passivity.” But no true conservative would need to ask such a question: Of course FDR should have done as Tea Partiers counsel be done for our current depression: Cut the deficit and screw the poor.
When the book was criticized by John Updike (what does he know about books? Or the Depression? Oh, he lived through it? Well, what does he know about books?) Ross Douthat leapt to condemn Updike’s “solipsistic flapdoodle”: “FDR could have given us the fireside chats and the rhetoric of government action” that Updike’s dad admired, said Douthat, “and yes, even the stronger safety net without the counterproductive attempts at centralized planning and the relentless scapegoating of business.”
Ah, what might have been! Any previous U.S. policy may be reexamined, and no administration is sacrosanct. Who knows how things might have been better or worse had James Knox Polk chosen not to pursue the Mexican-American War? But it is evident that the current wave of anti-FDR sentiment coincides with the rise of Democratic power in the last half of the previous decade, and anti-Rooseveltians are always eager to explain how FDR’s disastrous presidency — to which the American people, for reasons unknown, returned him for four terms — is an ominous warning for the allegedly similarly socialistic Obama.
Clearly the War on FDR is a proxy struggle with the (substantially less aggressive) current president — they seek to make activist government look foolish, in hopes of preventing it from being tried again. But then, in a way all their other historical revisions are also directed at their current enemies. They go through the ghost of Margaret Sanger to stymie feminists; through the shades of Galileo and Darwin to warn off scientists; through the late MLK to get at voters whose enthusiasm for a black president thwarts their own electoral ambitions, etc. For them, history, like everything else, is just politics by other means.