We previously discussed the perennial, wide-reaching campaign by right-wing fanatics (which nowadays means most Republicans and other assorted folks who mistakenly label themselves as “conservatives”) to construct a parallel universe with a powerful media machine cranking out “alternative facts”. Inevitably, this includes rewriting history. It seems that every time you turn around, you bump into another resource they’ve spawned to try to warp the past to fit their ideological narrative.
There is a whole series of books called Politically Incorrect Guides to a variety of topics, many history-related. There’s a website called Conservapedia to serve as the counterpart to Wikipedia, because you know, ordinary reality has just too much of a leftist bias. (Although by no means do they rule out gaming the system on Wikipedia itself.) There’s another site called Infogalactic, which does exactly the same thing. There’s PragerU and all kinds of other websites to overwrite the “leftist indoctrination” on university campuses. And on and on and on.
Many of the myths they promote have been around for some time: Columbus was a good guy; the United States was founded as a Christian nation; the Crusades were just self-defense; the Second Amendment was intended to guarantee individual gun ownership; climate scientists formerly believed in “global cooling”; Margaret Sanger was a racist eugenicist; McCarthy was a benevolent and patriotic hero; Reagan ended the Cold War and ushered in a feel-good era of patriotism and prosperity and solid American values.
But they’re not content merely to believe in alternate timelines themselves. They won’t rest until they force everyone else to believe them too.
If you pay attention to some of their talking points about history, you may get the impression that consistency isn’t exactly one of their virtues. It was Democrats, they remind you, who defended the Confederacy. (True enough.) But if Democrats try to take down their own monuments, it’s “hands off our monuments” and “you’re trying to erase history.” The evil Democrats were the heart of the Confederacy, and yet the Confederacy was a noble cause. The evil Southern Democrats started the war, but it was really a war of Northern aggression. The evil Southern Democrats fought a war to defend the evils of slavery, and yet the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery. And slavery wasn’t really that bad. And so on.
As you might notice, they even possess the phenomenal ability to use actual facts in a revisionist manner. They delight in pointing out that the Democratic Party of yore championed slavery, and founded the KKK, and opposed civil rights legislation. All more or less true. (Well, the one about the KKK is a big stretch. It was founded by Confederate veterans who perhaps were nominal Democrats, but the organization had no party affiliation or objectives. Come to think of it, the one about opposing civil rights isn’t exactly true either.) But they are revisionist in what they omit: namely, that the Democratic Party of yore is not the same as the Democratic Party of today. It underwent a drastic transformation many decades ago, as did the Republican Party.
Actually, it isn’t just that the wingers ignore these drastic reversals. They deny that they ever happened at all. Some of them have gone on a rampage of disinformation lately to deny that the GOP’s notorious “Southern strategy” ever happened. It’s all just a “Leftist myth”, they say. If so, somebody forgot to inform the GOP strategists themselves. They have acknowledged the tactic for decades.
Right-wingers also point with glee to the fact that a larger percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Again, that’s superficially true, but it’s also a gross oversimplification; there were far more Democrats in Congress, and most of them hailed from Dixie. But when you break down the vote by Northern versus Southern politicians in both the Senate and the House, Democrats kicked ass in every division.
By 1964, the Democratic Party had already been rejecting its bigoted past and embracing its more progressive mindset. The GOP had begun doing just the opposite. In effect, they more or less switched positions. Today’s wingers, however, try to deny that double transformation by insisting that not that many individual politicians literally switched parties at the time. No, really. That’s their “refutation” of the “switch”.
Republicans these days are really, really emphasizing the racist and bigoted distant past of the Democrats to draw attention away from their own racist and bigoted immediate present. It’s a tactic called projection, which we’ll be examining in the near future. It has even included the wildly dishonest tactic of rewriting history to claim that fascism is a movement of liberal/ leftist origins. This audacious, bizarre (and hugely successful) lie is so special that it’s also going to get its own discussion here soon.
Ben there, dumb that
One of the silliest (and therefore most popular) right-wing revisionist books of late has been The Right Side Of History by Ben Shapiro, to whom we’ve devoted far too much space already. It’s an interesting choice of title, particularly since Shapiro has previously said that right side of history “may be the most morally idiotic phrase of modern times”. (Still trying to picture what “morally idiotic” looks like on a concept graph.) But he knows a golden opportunity when he sees one; the title of this book is an attempt to co-opt yet another phrase popular among the left, and recast it to mean whatever the reactionaries want it to mean. It happened with “political correctness”. It happened with “social justice warrior”. It happened with “fake news“. And now, looks like it’s happening with “right side of history”.
The essence of Shapiro’s tome is that Western Civilization (another term that means whatever he wants it to mean) is the niftiest ever in the history of the galaxy; and what has made it so nifty has been its embrace of equal parts religion and reason; and that specifically the Judeo-Christian religion (as if they were one and the same) is by far the superior flavor; and today America is in its sorry state of decline because people have neglected religion. It’s really really hard to make up your mind which component of this thesis is more idiotic and naive. There’s just so much to pick from.
You’d have to have your head inserted a mile into your posterior to believe that Americans have been turning their backs on religion. As a distinctly secular American, I only wish I didn’t have it thrust in my face everywhere I turn. And whether Western Civilization (however defined) is the greatest depends, of course, on how you define greatness. Ability to obliterate the planet with nuclear weapons? Check. Amount of money spent on frivolous goods in shopping malls? Ditto. Wisdom in electing leaders? Not always so much.
The claim that Western Civilization has progressed steadily on twin legs of faith and reason can be made only by someone who is utterly ignorant of history. Fanatics of faith have held back progress, persecuting free thinkers and banning and burning books along with “heretics”. Religious faith inherently clings to tradition; reason is what propels the human race toward the future. And when reason is allowed to operate relatively unmolested is when civilization actually advances. True, some great innovations have been made by religious individuals; but that doesn’t mean that such innovations have been made because of religion. Many, many innovations have also been made by non-religious individuals — probably even far more than we realize, since sometimes secularism has been punishable by death.
The lauding of the Judeo-Christian tradition in particular as the catalyst for a superior civilization requires a deeply ethnocentric chauvinism that heavily glosses over the achievements of other cultures dominated by other religions. The Chinese, for example, invented the printing press several centuries before Gutenberg. And the Islamic world was leading the planet in the development of science and mathematics during Europe’s Middle Ages; among other things, it gave us the numerical system we now are so reliant on. (One must wonder if Shapiro is among the 56 percent of Americans who say that Arabic numerals should not be taught in schools.) And to top it all off, he attributes the supposed superiority of Western Civilization to its embrace of two religious traditions of Eastern origin.
In trying to buttress his grotesquely contorted theme, Shapiro inevitably resorts to cherry picking facts he likes and ignoring the ones he doesn’t. But he also just concocts facts whenever he needs them. He claims that Nazi Germany rejected Judeo-Christian values (again, as if they were inseparable) and then mentions that it also murdered millions of people, apparently meaning to suggest that the former was the cause of the latter. In reality, the Nazi attitude toward religion was complicated and even contradictory. In any case, while Nazis certainly rejected “Judeo” values, many of them enthusiastically embraced Christian values, or at least Christian beliefs. (It’s questionable that anyone ever really has embraced Christian values.) Nazi soldiers wore belt buckles inscribed with the motto “Gott mit uns”, and Hitler himself declared that by exterminating the Jews he was doing the work of the Almighty.
Ben isn’t content just to rewrite the past. Like many other right-wingers, he gets a running jump at his craft by rewriting the recent present as well. Here’s one glaring instance from the book:
To take a minor example, in September 2017, Republicans and Democrats clubbed each other savagely over the exact same policy: President Obama had issued an executive amnesty for certain children of illegal immigrants, the so-called DREAMers;  had revoked that amnesty, but called on Congress to pass a legislative version that would protect the DREAMers. Democrats called Republicans cruel, inhumane; one congressman called  “Pontius Pilate.” Meanwhile, Republicans called Democrats lawless and irresponsible.
Over the exact same policy.
The exact same policy. Even though they’re exactly opposite. What else would you expect in a book written by a guy who’s said that climate change is no big deal because if flooding ever should put the coasts underwater, people can just sell their houses and move.
One of the most interesting cases at many levels of rewriting history, both of the distant past and of the recently present, concerned Candace Owens, whom we alas have also discussed before. First of all, speaking at an event for Turning Point USA (a fanatical right-wing organization) in 2018, she said:
Whenever we say “nationalism”, the first thing people think about, at least in America, is Hitler. You know, he was a national socialist, but if Hitler just wanted to make Germany great and have things run well, OK, fine. The problem is that he wanted—he had dreams outside of Germany. He wanted to globalize. He wanted everybody to be German, everybody to be speaking German. Everybody to look a different way. That’s not, to me, that’s not nationalism.
Wow, how much revisionism can we possibly cram into one brief statement? First of all, there’s the characterization of Hitler as a “national socialist”; he may have appropriated the term “socialist”, but that doesn’t mean that’s what he was. Then she labels Hitler a globalist rather than, as he really was, an imperialist. There’s a huge difference — globalists want to cooperate with other nations, and imperialists want to conquer them. But her biggest sin of all is saying that if Hitler hadn’t wanted to expand his ambitions outside his homeland, then “OK, fine”. Never mind his minor little habits like, well, genocide.
It took several months of fallout (some of it from fellow wingers) from her comments before she addressed the controversy. And how did she address it? By huffily claiming that her remarks were taken “out of context”. But neither she nor any of her defenders has ever suggested, nor is it possible to conceive of, some context that would make her words sound even halfway intelligent, informed and civilized.
Things got really unreal on April 9 when the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on hate crimes and white nationalism. The GOP was able to pick its own special expert spokesperson to testify at the hearing. And whom did Republicans pick? You guessed it: vacuous Youtuber Candace Owens — a good indication of how much contempt they have for the whole idea of trying to scrutinize and combat fascism.
California Representative Ted Lieu, clearly disgusted by this tasteless grandstanding, greeted her by playing a recording of her own words. And evidently hearing her own words was just too much for her to take. She responded in a puerile snit, insisting again that she was being quoted (by herself) out of context. She then launched into a series of revisionist lies. She claimed that white nationalism is a mere bugbear conjured up by leftists. She claimed that there has been no rise in hate crimes in recent days. She said that the KKK was a leftist organization. She repeated the myth of the Southern Strategy “myth”. She repeated the lie that Hitler was not a nationalist, since he “killed his own people”. (Um… Candace, the Nazis didn’t regard the Jews as their own people, nor even as people at all. It might benefit you to stop watching PragerU videos long enough to pick up a history book for a few minutes.) More recently, by the way, she has said that blacks were better off during the first hundred years after slavery than they are now. She must really, really be aching to get her skin bleached.
In the aftermath of this farce of a hearing, Owens and her fans engaged in yet another bout of revisionism, declaring that she had “owned” Lieu, and “destroyed” the Democrats, etc. etc. They even proclaimed that the chair of the hearing, Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY) lied about her when he misunderstood one of her comments–a very easy mistake to make given her customary dishonesty and acrimony.
Maybe Republicans knew what they were doing after all. They made a mockery of a hearing about hate crimes and white nationalism, and in the process blew a big dog whistle to their rabid base. And took one more step toward reshaping history, distant and recent, in their own image.