Who Controls the Past Controls the Future

Rick Santorum is exercised lately over “a conscious effort on the part of the left to desensitize America and what American values are so they can be more pliable to the new values they would like to impose on Americans.”

Santorum’s got it backwards.

First of all, the fight isn’t to suppress American history,  it’s to define it. The officially sanctioned view of the past promoted in the schools has powerful implications for how kids see today’s issues, and who the good guys and bad guys are.

And second, the version of American history which Santorum lionizes, and wants to return to, was itself a radical departure from earlier views.

The received version of history under the American curriculum which the World War II generation grew up under — what I call the Little Red Schoolhouse narrative — dated back to around 1890, and reflected a perceived need on the part of ruling elites for the American people to get their minds right.

Americans had been divided by labor wars from the period leading up to Haymarket on, approaching the scale of a civil war. During the Depression of the 1890s, they showed every sign of becoming even more radicalized. Coxey’s Army marched on Washington, the Pullman Strike nearly turned into a general strike, and Jay Gould was threatening a capital strike and lockout by the plutocratic Robber Barons if Bryan won the 1896 election. Big Bill Haywood’s Western Federation of Miners went on to form the nucleus of the I.W.W.  (Wobblies), the bugbear of “Law-n-Order” types for the next thirty years. The owning classes in America, to put it bluntly, were terrified by the prospect of revolution.

So in the period from the 1890s through the end of WWI, they came up with a new religion of 100% Americanism:  The Pledge of Allegiance, Old Glory, and the American Legion. But the post-1890 ideology of 100% Americanism, reflected in the Little Red Schoolhouse ideology of which the Right is so fond, was itself utterly un-American.

This country was founded by hellraisers, troublemakers and anti-authoritarians who overthrew their own governments. Can you imagine what Joe McCarthy would say about that? And many of the officers in the Continental Army — including George Washington! — had been officers in the colonial militias who’d fought in the French and Indian War and sworn solemn oaths of allegiance to the King. That’s right: Our “Founding Fathers” were traitors to — gasp! — their Commander-in-Chief!

“Old Glory” — originally the military flag flown by the Continental Army — was never even an object of especial reverence by most Americans until after the War of 1812. In fact for most of the previous time the military flag was flown only over military installations, and the U.S. Civil Flag (do a Google image search), which looks completely different, was commonly flown over civilian facilities of the U.S. government.

You really have to wonder why these modern blue-nose Republican Stepford Wives revere the American Revolution so much, considering that so many people who thought like them were tarred and feathered by our beloved “Founding Fathers.” The answer, of course, is that the “Founding Fathers” have become authority figures to these people.

As Voltairine De Cleyre put it, in “Anarchism and American Traditions,” it’s hard to even figure out from the version of American history taught in the schools why they even call it the “American Revolution” — as opposed to just another patriotic foreign war against the British.

Just quoting Paine and Jefferson these days (without mentioning their names, of course, and thus appealing to their authoritarian cred as Founding Fathers) is enough to get you dismissed as an “anti-government extremist” on MSNBC and as an “anti-American” or “blame America firster” by the Tea Partiers.

So the right-wingers, and the representatives of the propertied classes, have been just as eager to create a fabricated version of American history, in order to “impose new values on Americans.”

Americanism is un-American.

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