I am soon to teach an information literacy class on global warming, and I am putting together a series of lectures to explain the topography of the political conversation that happens in this country. This is a long read, but I hope some of you will find it interesting.
Dealing with History
History is interesting, and knowing about how it is made and how it is used is an important part of understanding information. And by information I mean what is in your textbooks, what is on the news, and what is happening in the social message. The social message is a complicated idea, which we will unpack later.
I am going to start by talking about the Boston Tea Party. Not only does the culture that sprang from it challenge the study of global warming and climate change, it is a perfect illustration of how history is manipulated to achieve political ends.
But first, some things about history. People have a tendency to think that there is a concrete past about which they can say, “Well, those are the facts,” and then draw their own conclusions. And people can either accept what happened, or they can practice something that detractors call “revisionist history” where they take that history and distort it to make it seem like it supports one belief system or another.
The complicated thing about this is that the people who claim that revisionist history is bad seem to miss the point that all history, to one extent or another, is revisionist history. That doesn’t exonerate people who use history badly, but it does mean that you have to be wary of people drawing definite conclusions about what something from the past means for today.
No one denies that things happened in the past or that there is no such thing as fact. Obviously, if we agree to the construct of time, we must assent that some things came before others. But the thing is, after a fact has happened, it is no longer an actual thing, it becomes part of a narrative…that is, a story that we tell about the thing. And narratives have peculiar traits that facts don’t. For starters, Jerome Bruner in the Narrative Construction of Reality states:
“We organize our experience and our memory of human happenings mainly in the form of narrative—stories, excuses, myths, reasons for doing and not doing, and so on…Unlike the constructions generated by logical and scientific procedures that can be weeded out by falsification, narrative constructions can only achieve ‘verisimilitude’.”
Narratives are a version of reality. They contain the grain of truth--something happened--but they are not bound to the truth, so long as they are believable. In a sense, it is silly to call a story true or false because all stories are ultimately false, which is to say they are always imperfect renderings of what actually happened. That is not to say that all attempts to draw meaning from history are either pointless or wrongheaded—though for sure some interpretations are more supported by the historical record than others. Rather, it is important to recognize that a quote, a moment, or even an entire event can and will be taken out of context to persuade you of one thing or another.
For instance, according to Breen’s The Marketplace of Revolution, what we think of as the Tea Party and how that led to the American Revolution is a lot more complicated than is usually recognized.
In the short version, there was a tax imposed, the colonists got mad, snuck on board a ship and dumped the tea in the harbor and held up signs that read No Taxation without Representation, and then wintered in valley forge and made plans not to shoot until they saw the whites of their eyes.
And that is kind of right but it leaves a lot of important stuff out, which is a feature of much history. Even if you get some of the facts right on WHAT happened, it is the details of the HOW and the WHY that are most important when trying to use the past to guide the present. What we typically think of as a response or resistance to British rule was not just about getting royalty off our backs because they had been unfair to us (though they had been in the not-too-distant past, at that point). The fact is, the tea the colonists threw in the harbor was being sold to them for a lower price than they were accustomed to paying. So why were they mad?
If I am used to paying $3.00 for a coffee, and then suddenly it costs me $2.50, shouldn’t I be happy?
What if I found out that the government was paying the coffee company a truckload of money each year in order to make the coffee cost less for end-consumers like me? Well, first I would be pleased because coffee is an extremely important part of my life, but second, I might be sort of suspicious about why government was doing that and where that money was coming from. I might even get a little mad if I found out that this coffee company was getting a sweetheart deal from government because of some backroom deal. Plus, you know, it makes me jumpy…and my wife thinks I should give it up for health reasons. And it is so dang expensive. And then there is all the corporate exploitation of 3rd world workers.
Sigh. I might have to give up coffee. Man,that would be hard for me… And if I am ever famous, the history books might read, “And then NearlySomebody gave up coffee because of the coffee tax.” That would be an incomplete version of the facts which someone could later use to argue against taxation, even if closer inspection of my historical record would reveal that I think taxes are a basic, civic responsibility.
But this is pretty much what happened, according to some historians, and there are texts that support these positions: The colonists were not protesting because a tax had been levied on them. They were protesting the fact that the crown had essentially bailed out the East India Tea Company in the same way that our government recently bailed out the banks. The colonists were mad because they had had no say in the decision (ie. No vote or no representation) and wanted desperately to have some control over their own economic futures. It was not just a rejection of British rule, but of British commerce and hegemony, in general.
If the colonists had just been mad, they could have stolen the tea and kept it for themselves. But no, it was more deliberate than that. They rejected the tea. In fact, there is a story in the Breen book about an old man name Withington who happened to find a crate of tea that had washed ashore, and being ignorant of what had happened, thought, “What a stroke of luck!” He took it home thinking to drink some and sell the rest, but when everyone found out about it, it caused some real problems for him. Eventually, the colonists ended up confiscating his tea and burning it. Then he went to trial, where it was determined that his sins had been inadvertent and he meant no harm.
This all seems rather drastic considering that even if people had bought the tea the money would not have gone to the British government or the East India tea company. They were not just looking to make a quick buck or rip someone off…they were sending a message that they wanted no part of an entire system. It wasn’t just that they did not want to contribute to it financially, it is as if the goods were tainted and unacceptable in the new society. So keep in mind when we talk about the Boston tea party that these people were not just ticked off about taxes…but about a whole system of elites who were big enough to fix prices and make decisions that would affect them without ever having to put it up for a vote.
So why do we believe one thing and not the other?
Richard Dawkins introduced us to the idea of memes back in the 70s. His idea was that that ideas and culture were spread in a way that was similar to a biological process. Messages survive only if they are able to adapt to and change with present society…like how evolution works And if they are successful at changing, they get transmitted to future generations….the ecology or the environment being the human brain and the social network. And in some ways tradition and culture are kind of like that, they spread from person to person, creating something like a social message… the idea that X is the right thing to do or that Y is cool and Z is out of fashion. If you get buzz and hype behind a message, it will go far…no matter how incorrect it is. Just because that’s how it works. Ever heard the saying that a lie will travel halfway around the world before the truth even puts its pants on? There ya go.
It is easier to say, “They were mad about taxation,” than it is to say that it was a complex, philosophical response to British hegemony. Because everyone hates taxes and most people don’t know what hegemony means.
So how does this affect us today? In The Invention of Tradition, Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger talk about "invented tradition" as ritualized or symbolic practices that serve to "inculcate certain values and norms of behavior." Think of the many rituals we have here--parades, holidays, the air and water show highlighting the Blue Angels, or saying the pledge of allegiance before sporting events, whatever... All of those things serve to tie us to the past and make clear ...in a subtle way... what we SHOULD value if we want to be good Americans and decent citizens.
Hobsbawn stresses the importance of repetition in this process, and I would add that the repetition can be something that happens in your mind—a thought pattern or a way of thinking about a new fact so that it changes in accordance with the reality that we have been conditioned to know and accept. These things are good in that they provide continuity and stability for a society and its people … they are bad because they can sometimes keep us from seeing the present as it really is or from anticipating the future.
But history is filled with people who, ironically, have misrepresented history in order to justify something they wanted to do in the present…and they presented incorrect versions of history…or very simple versions of it anyway…in order to help persuade people into believing that what they wanted to do was perfectly reasonable and in accordance with how things had been done in the past.
This is a logical fallacy called appealing to tradition, by the way…but it is a pretty frequently used rhetorical strategy.
Curiously, after the buzz of the Boston Tea Party—known originally as the destruction of the tea—died down, it was not much talked about among the colonists. Not for 50-60 years, anyway. By then, most of the people who had taken part in it had died…and the fact entered a sort of twilight zone of public memory…which is ripe for mythologizing. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party, about George Robert Twelves Hewes, one of the last surviving participants in the destruction of the tea, is in part about this twilight zone. There are two biographies about him, both of which were written in the 1830s. They are the first recorded instances of people calling it the Boston Tea Party, which was sort of a politically-nice name for the destruction of the tea. It made it all seem friendlier and less threatening. But the mythologizing that occurred turned normal men into heroes, turned sometimes random events into precise plans, and summed everything up into a cause-and-effect story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In short, it had been turned into a narrative so we could talk about it more easily and so that we could present the outcome as the desirable product of an ordered series of steps. It confers the notion that all of this was pre-ordained, in a sense.
This is part of what Hobsbawn notes is “the conscious process in almost all countries, especially during the 19th century, through which elites and popular movements created rituals, symbols, and texts of a politically usable past.” Because I suspect it was known that a community would hold together better if the people felt that they had a shared reverence for certain things...or a shared vocabulary for talking about ideas, or a shared admiration for symbols that represent ideas. What does the bald eagle mean?
But this is not relegated only to the past. When the new group of conservatives started calling themselves the Tea Party, was that an attempt to appeal to tradition?
Were they trying to use an invented past to give themselves legitimacy?
Regardless, the idea spread like wildfire, and a few years ago the news and social media were inundated by stories about the tea party. They built an excellent buzz using traditional media, social media, and email forwards, all advancing the idea that they were “Taxed Enough Already.” It is interesting to note that at the time taxes were at the lowest rate they had been at in 60 years. It didn’t matter because once a claim goes viral, there is no stopping it.
Anthony DiMaggios Rise of the Tea Party asserts that any exploration of the tea party is also an exploration of how “business interests dominate society through the power of ideas and the pull of material affluence.” If you investigate it, you find that the Tea Party was mostly created by political elites who wanted to confer the sense that their pro-business, anti-social safety net agenda was a grassroots movement or that it came from the demand of everyday people…and was not just the natural byproduct of corporations giving a bunch of campaign contributions to elected officials in order to get them to write pro-business laws that might arguably be against the best interests of the voting public.
In other words, the business elites are co-opting the political process without giving the voting public a place at the trough and calling it the Tea Party. Ironically, this is the same kind of arrangement that the original Boston Tea Party was protesting AGAINST.
Meanwhile, these rituals, symbols, and texts are still alive today. As a side note, the poet Alan Davies once wrote in an essay called Peer Pleasure, that our language is becoming a brick. That is a weird way of saying that we only know what DOG is because we can define it by what it isn’t. We know for instance that a dog is not a cat. But as languages change over time, as all languages do, the space between words gets smaller and the distinctions become harder to understand. Consider that good was good until people started using “cool” in the 60s and seventies, and then it morphed into “bad” in the 80s, and then bad became awesome, and I don’t really know what came after awesome because I stopped being cool a long time ago.
In the same way, political discourse suffers the same effects. And this is sometimes a conscious creation by the elites. If you are a patriot, it means you are a republican, if you are a republican it means you want to abolish regulations, which means you are pro-business, which means you are in support of the oil industry, which means that global warming must be a liberal conspiracy.
Meaning can be encoded into language, so people say one thing but mean something slightly different…and perceptive listeners pick up on it. It is known as the “dog whistle effect.” Politicians say something and their constituency hears it loud and clear, but those who are outside of that culture hear nothing out of the ordinary. In this way they can be assured that a candidate ascribes to their worldview…without his having to risk alienating swing voters. In some places, the phrase, “I am for neighborhood schools! Because children should get to go to the school they are most comfortable in,” actually means, “I will work to keep black kids out of your white schools.”
So who are these elites? These people who decide traditions, make big political maneuvers, and pull the wool over our eyes?
It isn’t really as insidious as it seems. Fringe people talk about conspiracies and an all-powerful cabal that works tirelessly to manufacture events, cover up the truth, and keep hidden the fact that one person is the most powerful person in the world and is pulling strings constantly to make things happen as he wishes. Those are always fun stories, but the truth is that mostly it is just people working toward their own financial best interests who, given a measure of power, collude with other powerful people to increase their power.
A friend of mine once told me that most wars in world history could be traced back to 10 or 12 rich and influential families. I have not researched that but it has the feel of truthiness to it. But no, the real story is not as exciting. According to Benjamin Ginsberg, “Assumptions about the functioning of a guided free market are not especially controversial. Those segments of media that can reach a substantial audience are major corporations and are closely integrated with even larger conglomerates. Like other businesses, they sell products to buyers. Their market is advertisers, and the product is an audience, with a bias towards wealthy audiences, which improves advertising rates.” The market promotes those sources that appeal to buyers and hence, a pro-business bias is virtually inherent.
Working through these channels, those with the capital to drive discussion in the public sphere have the opportunity to frame the discussion however they would like before the message is to be publicly consumed. Often, in what Noam Chomsky calls ‘manufacturing consent’ a decision is made about how the nation will proceed on a given topic, and then the media are deployed to convince us that this path is the one we want. As media conglomerates grow larger and single owners own more and more of the public airwaves, it becomes easier to distort history, easier to create buzz, and easier to manufacture the consent of the public.