The Slipperiness of History

Not to put to fine a point on it, but there has been a lot written about the 2013 US Government shutdown.

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My Pocket reader is stuffed with articles from the New York Times, New York Magazine, Red State, and Al-Jazeera, most of which I will probably never read unless I want to relive the haze of the last few weeks.   Instead of reading through them all and trying to analyze what exactly went on and why, the focus of this post will be on one particular article and the points it raised.  I do this because this article combined two things that I not only like — contemporary perspective plus historical imagination — but this combination is not in any way unique.  It appears not only in much of our contemporary journalism but it occurs throughout history.  More importantly, the combination of the contemporary and the historical underlies the way in which we use (and misuse) history, namely to make a point that relates to today’s society.

The Furies Never End

Frank Rich published a piece entitled “The Furies Never End” on October 13th in New York Magazine, four days before the end of the government shutdown, in which he argues that we’ve seen this mess before — and hints that it will come again.


He starts out by debunking the idea that the more extreme members of the Republican Party who called for the shutdown are not a fringe minority of their party and don’t come from areas of the country all that demographically different than other Republicans or Democrats.  Even the fact that most of this radical group are white men doesn’t exactly shake things up. To counter the argument that right-wing Republicans are the majority, Rich notes that it’s really the moderate Republicans –“of the nearly extinct George H.W. Bush persuasion”– who are the smaller (and dwindling) minority of the party.

Rich then goes on to argue that the real shift in the Republican party was the addition of Southern Democrats during the second half of the 20th century.  It was this group,  fed up with Johnson’s “Great Society” and the expansion of the federal government, that caused the Republicans to adopt their hostile stance against government.  In addition, the fact that this group was largely Southern helps to explain the animosity towards those who are Southern but like the Federal Government (Bill Clinton) and the open racism towards non-male, non-white, (and presumably non-Christian) politicians (Barack Obama).  Once this point is introduced, Rich spends the rest of the article bouncing back and forth between contemporary events and politics of the anti-Bellum and Reconstruction eras to make his point:  crazy people in politics trying to shut down the government isn’t new, and it’s all because of the South.

The Uses of History

The “cherry-picking of history” is not a new phenomenon. As far back as written record (and probably in pre-written time as well) we as humans have been shaping and interpreting selected sections of the past.  As such, the consensus on such behavior is not positive.  Those who “cherry pick” facts are derided as uncritical, manipulative, and deceitful.  As a public, we often counter such cherry-picking with the claim “but you missed the context.  Anyone can just create a perfect picture (or data set) and say that it reflects reality.  How do we know your proof is real?”  With such a critique, one would be tempted to conclude that people would shy away from the use of history or historical examples in proving a contemporary point.


Yet despite this, we humans still do this all the time.  What is illuminating about Rich’s article is that it is a perfect example of the past is commonly used to prove a present point — and how that past only becomes important to us when it relates to the present.

Arguably, Rich is setting out to convince the reader that “the radical Republicans” are not a new phenomenon and they’ve been trying to shut down government since the beginning.  His use of John C. Calhounv, the anti-Bellum senator from South Carolina who was deeply suspicious of the Federal Government and believed that the minority should be able to thwart the majority (as well as Calhoun’s nickname “the Great Nullifyer”) is meant to drive home the point.   Likewise the reference to Jefferson Davis’ arguing that seceding from the Union is a means of preserving the Constitution, also fits into this boat.  So far, nothing too crazy.

You may remember John C Calhoun from your US I History Class. He and Andrew Jackson pretty much hated each other.

Yet Rich doesn’t use this evidence to show that ideas about the Federal Government, Congress, or the Constitution have always been contentious.  He doesn’t give us a detailed (or even a short, succinct) description of how some members of Congress tried to counter laws or policies they didn’t like.  Instead, he uses examples that fit his particular argument and leaves the reader to fill in the rest.  Since Calhoun famously hated Majoriatarianism and since he was a Southern Senator who defended slavery, he is just like other contemporary Southern Senators and Representatives who are racist, anti-Government, and thought that their minority views were enough to hijack the majority.

The same tactic is then used to discuss the creation of the Republicans as a far-right, socially conservative majority.  According to Rich, Southern Republicans came into being as a result of Barry Goldwater.  Before Goldwater, all those racist anti-Federal Government Southern Congressmen were Democrats.  After Goldwater and the LBJ years they moved to the Republicans, taking their crystalized hatred with them.  Thus, we have the Tea Party. Again, Rich doesn’t give the readers a detailed history of a progression (if any) from those who supported Goldwater to those who supported the Government Shutdown.  Instead what we have is a simple substitution, as though each component is equal in every respect.

That is what strikes me as fascinating regarding our general use of history. We look to the past to find similarities that help us to explain what is going on in our present.  We also pull people, places, and events out of their respective times and project them onto ours, as though historical context  wasn’t an issue.  Yet if we tried to write a history of the Tea Party (or the Government Shutdown) without talking about our contemporary surroundings (say, without mentioning the historical significance of Barack Obama’s election), it would be pretty useless.   We’d be left with nothing but a bunch of holes.

Ultimately, Rich is not writing history.  He is writing an essay in which historical people and events are used to make his point.  What is interesting is that, Rich’s article already is history in and of itself.  It is one person’s attempt to understand and explain to others who the Tea Party is and their reasons for shutting down the Federal Government, a move that many others thought (and still think) was a pretty dumb one.  It’s one of the reasons why I saved it to Pocket. If Rich is lucky, some version of the article will still be around in 50 or 100 years.  Then it will be the chance for new readers to mull over Rich’s words and, perhaps, point to them as evidence for their own understanding of contemporary times.

Or maybe not. Perhaps you’ll just use it to prove your point.