Saturday, July 2, 2011

Everybody's a comedian! And apparently a historian too ...

Most Americans love a good joke.  If you put some thought into it, who really doesn't enjoy a laugh?  We tend to envy the person who can always have a crowd laughing hysterically.   And the problem is too many of us believe we are the comedian when in reality, we're the only ones laughing.   Some people weren't made for delivering humor, whether it be bad material or awkward delivery.

In the same vein, many politicians presume to be some sort of expert historian, particularly when discussing the Founding Fathers.  Less than a week ago, Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN) made headlines for a 'revisionist' view of history. 

During an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Bachmann was confronted about her belief that the Founding Fathers 'worked tirelessly' to end slavery (which in itself was an error).  Bachmann came back with an example of a Founding Father who fought slavery -- John Quincy Adams. 

The problem with that answer?  John Quincy Adams was a child when the American Revolution started and barely the age of 20 when the Constitution was written.  He had no influence in the creation of that document.  He did fight against slavery later, as a member of Congress and as President.  However, to refer to him as a 'Founding Father' is not at all acceptable to the overwhelming majority of historians.

Bachmann made headlines again when visiting the town of Waterloo, Iowa.  She claimed legendary actor John Wayne hailed from the town -- which was false.  However, news agencies did note that convicted serial killer John Wayne Gacy did live in Waterloo for several years.  Ouch.

Bachmann also erred while in New Hampshire by stating the Revolutionary Battle at Concord took place in the Granite State.  Unfortunately for her, that battle happened in nearby Massachusetts.
This isn't to say that Bachmann is unintelligent.  But when running for the presidency, don't speak on matters of which you are not qualified.  And being qualified on these type of issues only requires taking a class coupled with reading (mainly the latter).

Bachmann probably turned a nice shade of red over these statements, but she's not the first (or the last) to blunder history.  Sarah Palin is synonmous with historical/political gaffes.  She practically rewrote the story of Paul Revere's "Midnight Ride."  

During the 2008 presidential campaign, then Senator Joe Biden commented about Barack Obama, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy ... I mean, that's a storybook, man."  Really?  
Politicans really aren't that different from most Americans.  Polls done by research groups such as Pew, Gallup, etc. regularly show Americans lack fundamental knowledge about their own history.  This isn't shocking at all, but the bigger question is why do Americans know so little about history?  Here are a few reasons:

1.  Americans trust Hollywood for the correct version of history.  Doesn't everyone know that Mel Gibson single-handedly rallied the colonists to defeat the British in the American Revolution?  The epic film, The Patriot, tells us all we need to know.  Whenever a new film debuts, everybody becomes an expert after they've seen it.

In 1991, American suddenly became 'knowledgeable' about the assassination of President John Kennedy when Oliver Stone's JFK came to movie screens.  The movie definitely took 'creative liberties' in altering history so badly, that then chief executive of the Motion Picture Association of America, Jack Velenti, stated:
"Does any sane human being truly believe that President Johnson, the Warren Commission members, law-enforcement officers, C.I.A., F.B.I., assorted thugs, weirdos, Frisbee throwers, all conspired together as plotters... ? And then for almost 29 years nothing leaked?

In scene after scene Mr. Stone plasters together the half true and the totally false and from that he manufactures the plausible ... No wonder that many young people, gripped by the movie, leave the theater convinced they have been witness to the truth."1
Other films people derive false history from:  Gladiator, 300, Braveheart, The Bridge on the River Kwai, Pearl Harbor, The Last Samurai.  Plenty of others could be added to the list, but I don't have time.

2.  Poor education.  Some history teachers are not good at what they do.  The education system counts history as one of its four core subjects, but in reality, it's considered an afterthought in comparison to math, science, and English.  Standardized tests such as the ACT don't even have a section dedicated to history/social studies.  Parents and students often dismiss it as unimportant because no one explains how it applies to them.  The combination of these reasons yields little in the way of understanding or even knowing history.  Besides, exmaining our current budget problems also shows they aren't learning math or finance either.

3.  The advent of the Internet.  When a member of our society doesn't know the answer to a question, they turn to Google or Yahoo for an answer.  Searching the Internet is access to a tremendous amount of information, but much of the 'world wide web' is not subjected to critical analysis for objectivity and accuracy. 

4.  No dedication to in depth reading.  American society has turned into a place where attention lasts for no more than 140 characters.  Understanding history requires in depth study and reading, which takes more time than most people care to give.   Most worthwhile endeavors in life aren't completed quickly.  Also, television should not be mistaken for a substitute to reading -- particularly if it involves watching the news.

These reasons explain why many Americans, including politicians don't seem to genuinely know what they're talking about and express genuine shock when confronted about their incorrect views.  With respect to politicians, I wonder if many of them realize they are ignorant about history and simply hope no one calls 'shenanigans' on their factual errors.  

If you don't have the knowledge about an event, person or topic, start reading.  No harm exists in admitting to yourself (or to others) you're pursuing a better understanding.  When called on to speak in front of the camera or a group of constituents, know what you're talking about.  Politicians walk right into these situations by speaking on topics which they are not qualified.


1Weinraub, Bernard. "Valenti Calls 'J.F.K.' 'Hoax' and 'Smear'," The New York Times, April 2, 1992


  1. When is Mr. Washington going to become Dr. Washington?

  2. Probably when people make comments with less sarcasm and a name attached.

  3. Touché, Mr. Washington!

  4. Couldn't the same be said about President Obama and his recent gaffs?