Thursday, June 9, 2011

Hitory and the No Nothings

In the late 1840’s, and right up through the middle of the Civil War, American politics was dominated by a group called, the No Nothing Party. They were a spoiler party in American politics, inconsistent and ignorant, making it very difficult for President Lincoln to govern. The No Nothings were virulently anti-immigrant – the Irish at that time and anti-abolitionist. They wanted to keep their racial and economic purity and their country for themselves and like themselves and didn’t want any Papist immigrant or inferior negro competition for their jobs and values. And they were oafishly proud of their ignorance. Facts, contradictions and hypocrisy were irrelevant to them.

Sound familiar? It should. Now the no nothings are called the Tea Party and have found shelter in the Republican Party.

To the no nothings of old and of today, history and the constitution were not verifiable facts, open to some interpretation, but rootless ideas without fixed meaning and meaning only what they, the no nothings and tea partiers, said they were. So we have Sara Palin saying Paul Revere was riding to warn the British – and she sticks to it, but gets a chuckle and a pass from the media, even tho this is far from the first time she’s done this. Glenn Beck says conservatives started the civil rights movement. Michele Bachmann, says the Founding Fathers abolished slavery. Is it really healthy for a nation if its leaders do not know its history?

Of course not; but since these people are ‘leaders’ or what seems to pass for leaders, they must reflect their constituencies, right? Unfortunately that’s correct, they do reflect a nation that is fast becoming ignorant and amnesiac. Recent research found that a majority of seniors at our best colleges could not identify any words from the Gettysburg Address nor explain the significance of Valley Forge. They did not know because they had not been taught. Nearly 40% of 12th graders did not know the purpose of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and only 14% could explain a factor leading to US involvement in the Korean War.

“History,” Leonard Pitts said, “is the master narrative of who we are.” It’s our shared story, our communal culture, what binds us together. Given the current level of ignorance, is it any wonder, we are unable to build consensus and make progress with the important opportunities ahead of us? “History is not dust,” Pitts says. “Nor is it myths to comfort us. Nor is it a lever we twist to gain political advantage.

“How can our children write the next chapter of a story they don’t even know?” How indeed…?

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