Friday, June 11, 2004

Historical ignorance, part 1
It was inescapable that Reagan's death and funeral would be accompanied by exaggeration of his good features and successes coupled with amnesia about his bad features and failures. This sort of sentimental nonsense was to be expected; it's just how we do death in this country. Opinions of a big person are never higher than at the moment they breathe their last. It's just good manners to let their family and friends have a moment filled with kind words and happy memories. There will be time to correct the historical record later. Those of us on the left that want to figuaratively stand at the funeral shouting "remember Iran-Contra" are just being jerks. The key word in all of that was "opinion." Out of good manners, let the opinions be inflated for the moment.

Out and out historical misrepresentation is another matter. Amid the expected haigiography, we have seen a bizzare tendency in the last week to credit Reagan with things that never happened or that other people accomplished. Atrios caught Tim Russert claiming, "Republicans achieved control of the United States Congress for the first time in 70 years, of both houses, under Ronald Reagan." Under Reagan, Republicans took control of the Senate for the first time in 50 years; they never controlled the House under Reagan.

Atrios takes a bigger shot at correcting the record:
Look, I'm fine with the Peggy Noonan footworshipping. I'm fine with all the "Reagan destroyed the Soviet Union singlehandedly" nonsense. I'm fine with all of these types of things because they're opinions. Some are silly opinions, and there should be some balance to them, but they are still opinions.

What I'm not fine with is all the factual errors that creep into the coverage by supposedly "unbiased" reporters.

The House and Senate did not both come under Republican rule during Reagan's time.

The Berlin Wall did not come down when Reagan was in office.

Reagan is not the president who left office with the highest approval rating in modern times.

Reagan was not "the most popular president ever."

Reagan did not preside over the longest economic expansion in history.

Reagan did not shrink the size of government.

Reagan did preside over what was at the time the "biggest tax cut in history" but it was almost instantly followed up by the "biggest tax increase in history."

Reagan was not "beloved by all." He was loved by some, liked by some, and hated by some with good reason.

What's going on here? Is this nothing more than another example of Americans' famous lack of historical knowledge and perspective or is there something more disturbing going on?

I'm not ready to say this is a sign of the totalitarianization of the right an polarization of our political discourse, but I am ready to ask the question. Are we moving from mere ignorance of the past to a willful rewriting of it? Ignorance leads to silly college essays about George Washington charging up San Juan Hill to free the slaves (real historians know the slaves were on a different hill altogether). Willful rewriting leads to careful airbrushing away of disgraced comrades and crediting the beloved leader with the accomplishments of others.

We have many of the prerequisites of the more sinister version. The secrecy of the Bush administration makes it harder and harder to find out the truth about the inner workings of the government. The mainstream media are concentrated into fewer hands and those hands are closer to our rulers than at any time in our history. The ruling party has at its disposal thugs who are willing to threaten violence to shut down critics. How long will they remain in the realm of just threats? A large part of the electorate has become radicalized, while a larger part looks on, if not favorably, at least passively.

Over the next few days, I’ll expand on this.

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