"We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful." ~ C.S. Lewis (The Abolition of Man)
Michael Aubrecht's increasingly partisan criticism directed at conservatives and a traditionalist view of history has become quite perplexing to me. While I have been working on a response to Michael's criticism of the Tea Party's alleged "distortion of history", he recently put up a post featuring this slanderous depiction of several Founding Fathers. I'm not sure what the purpose of this image is supposed to represent. I'd like to give Michael the benefit of the doubt and assume he was being absurd for the sake of it, but the comments which accompany the image make that benefit of the doubt a hard pill to swallow:
"Ever since 'Blog, or Die.' debuted back in 2009, I have become increasingly critical when analyzing the lives of our forefathers. As a result, my blog has become more popular and respected at a professional level. This has led to bigger gigs and better books."
I find that comment a bit troubling. Is that what it takes to "become more popular" and "respected at a professional level" - becoming a critic of our forefathers? I can't see how posting these images accompanied by the silly accusations could possibly be considered "professional." The image is something I'd expect to see in a comic book version of Howard Zinn's A People's History Of The United States. If promoting that version of history is the price of popularity and "respect", I think I'll pass.
There is so much wrong with Michael's post on so many levels, I don't quite know where to start. So, let's just start with the image. Allow me to address each "allegation."
- Washington - Drug Dealer: Yes, George Washington grew marijuana on his farm. He also made entries in his journal about the plant's potential medicinal value and promoted it's growth. However, anyone remotely familiar with the history of hemp knows that during Washington's day, marijuana was grown mainly for its industrial value as hemp as well as for its value in stabilizing the soil. It was not until many years later that marijuana became popular (and illegal) as a recreational drug. Suggesting that Washington was a "drug dealer" because he grew marijuana on his 18th century farm is utterly ridiculous.
- John Adams - Incest: Yes, John Adams married his cousin - as did Johan Sebastian Bach, Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Rudy Giuliani, FDR, Edgar Allan Poe, and H.G. Wells, to name just a few. As a matter of fact, I married my cousin. I've told that story before. My wife and I share the same great-great grandfather and we were not aware of this fact until after we were married. I am quite amused by the fact. But incest? Please. Marrying cousins was actually quite common in colonial and antebellum America. It is still legal to do so in many states, including Virginia. Suggesting Adams committed incest by marrying his cousins is, again, utterly ridiculous.
- Andrew Jackson - Murderer: At least we're getting a bit closer to the facts but, this too is quite a stretch. First of all, dueling was an acceptable social practice in Jackson's day and many a dispute was settled on the "field of honor." Jackson did defy dueling etiquette and took a second shot at one of his opponents, Charles Dickinson. The shot did in fact kill him. However, Jackson was never charged with murder and, even if he had been, would have likely been acquitted.
- Thomas Jefferson - Slave Relations: There is, at least on this charge, some evidence that Jefferson may have fathered children with Sally Hemmings. Most historians are familiar with the story and it would not be all that surprsing, were it true. This was not an uncommon thing in slaveholding societies. However, there is still considerable disagreement and controversey surrounding the allegation. Even the Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello) acknowledges that nothing regarding these allegations has been proven: "Although the relationship between Jefferson and Sally Hemings has been for many years, and will surely continue to be, a subject of intense interest to historians and the public, the evidence is not definitive, and the complete story may never be known. The Foundation encourages its visitors and patrons, based on what evidence does exist, to make up their own minds as to the true nature of the relationship." (Emphasis mine.) Making the allegation as fact is irresponsible.
So, 3 out of 4 of these silly depictions are out and out false. The remaining one is a matter of disagreement. 3 out of 4 of these depictions represent some of the worst and outrageious examples of presentism that I've ever seen.
If you'll read the balance of Michael's post, he appears to be overly concerned that students of history too often idolize those they study, i.e. "hero worship." Certainly that can be true. But Michael seems to be unaware that there are ditches on both sides of the road. Some of his recent comments further suggest that he believes the concept of heroes is immature and unworthy of anyone serious about history. I find that quite troubling, yet reflective of much of what we see in the way many moderns approach the study of history - humanistic and man-centered; even self-centered. Many who would reject a more traditional approach to historiography also see modern man as "master of his own destiny" and totally self-sufficient and amoral - not needing heroes, moral teachers, and examples of courage, self-denial, and patriotism - examples which we are blessed with an abundance of in American history. I don't think that Michael really embraces much of this mindset. Rather, I believe he has unwittingly fallen into this beguiling trap as he has "become increasingly critical when analyzing the lives of our forefathers."
Though not trained as a historian (not that this is necessary to write about history), I know Michael to be sincere and serious about the craft. He's done some good work. I've even helped him in small ways where I could. But somehow, he seems to have been convinced that he must, in the words of C.S. Lewis, castrate--figuratively speaking of course--the Founding Fathers and other American heroes in order to "un-hero" them and remove them from their pedestal, as well as to prove himself a serious historian.
Moreover, Michael assumes because one focuses on the positive and heroic aspects of American history, one must necessarily ignore the negative aspects or even forget that these heroes had human faults. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. But that's not really the issue. The trend of denigrating American heroes and American exceptionalism is considered quite chic and "sophisticated" by many in academia and on the professional left. As I've noted before this mindset is, in most cases, much more about the writer or historian doing the "critical analysis" than it is about the subject of the analysis. It ostensibly elevates the historian "above it all" and puts him on a "higher plane" than those who write "celebratory history." Again, man-centered and humanistic to the core. Much of the "more recent scholarship" which embraces this faddish trend is, quite simply, ego driven. As historian Will Durant wrote: "To speak ill of others is a dishonest way of praising ourselves." That quote reminds me of something I once heard Bud Robertson say about Robert E. Lee: "Robert E. Lee never existed [in the minds of some] because we don't have a Robert E. Lee today."
And therein lies much of the problem. A narcissistic, egotistical society and culture obsessed with immediate gratification and one that has rejected its founding principles finds it impossible to believe that a Lee or a Washington, with their towering characters and principled examples of self-denial and patriotism, could have ever existed. The typical modern, full of self and educated (he thinks) to the point of a smug, arrogant cockiness, simply cannot conceive of the selfless, heroic acts of which we read in the lives of these men, as well as so many others which have contributed to America's exceptionalism. The example of some of these heroic figures in American history necessarily causes some self-doubt among moderns regarding their own self-awarded superiority. Can't have that. Unable to measure up, it becomes easier for the modern to tear down.
Much of this tearing down is also rooted in a distaste for America's history, for a whole variety of reasons, including much of academia's leftist political agenda. Andrew McCarthy made note of this some time ago at National Review's website:
What most frustrates Americans is that we are a happy, optimistic, can-do people ceaselessly harangued by media solons, delusional academics, post-sovereign Eurocrats, and the Democrats who love them. While we free and feed the world, they can’t tell us enough that we’re racist, imperialist, torturing louts. We know it’s a libel, an endless stream of slander. But we also know it’s an absurd libel. We’re tired of hearing it, but taking it too seriously would give it power it doesn’t deserve. (Emphasis mine.)
McCarthy expresses the anger that many Americans feel about this whole issue, including me. It is one of my pet peeves and a frequent topic of posts here. I am passionate about challenging these notions which is why I'll write long posts on the subject like this one. But all is not bleak. I recently had the pleasure of reading a piece by Gregory D. Foster, who is a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Fortunately, not all academic historians have rejected American exceptionalism and the worthy and legitimate concept of American heroes. Professor Foster's piece--very eloquently--addresses the current fad of "hero-bashing" and the preference for pop-culture idols and celebrities over traditional heroes. He has given me permission to include his article in this post. Here are a few choice excerpts:
Thomas Carlyle, the 19th-century Scottish historian, said: "Society is founded on hero worship." Historically, that may once have been true. It may even be true of other societies today. It certainly isn't true of America. We are a society of celebrity worshipers, voyeurs of the rich and famous. We are infatuated by celebrities. We idolize them. We grovel in their presence. We try to look and be like them. We mistake them for heroes. To most of us, who you are and know is much more important than what you do or stand for.
Celebrities, though, are qualitatively quite different than heroes, markedly inferior to them in fact. The celebrity is nothing but a person of celebrity, well known for his well-knownness (as historian Daniel Boorstin put it), famous for being famous. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and Walter Cronkite are celebrities. Michael Jordan, Barry Bonds, and Tiger Woods are celebrities. So too Bill Gates, Ted Turner, and Donald Trump, Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson, even John McCain and Colin Powell.
Heroes, in contrast, are transcendent, mythic, seemingly superhuman figures who combine greatness with goodness. They may have charisma, presence, and "gravitas"; they must demonstrate courage, vision, and character--selfless character. Heroes have stature, if not size. Nelson Mandela and Vaclav Havel come quickly to mind. Non-heroes and anti-heroes lack stature, even if possessed of size. Bill Clinton, the quintessential postmodern anti-hero of our day, who demeaned and diminished most of what he touched, comes even more quickly to mind.
Professor Foster concludes his piece with this admonition:
Why do we need heroes today more than ever? First, because we are all followers at heart. We praise and preach leadership, but we practice followership. Consciously or not, we constantly seek someone beyond ourselves to tell us when and how high to jump. Better that we relinquish ourselves to someone worthy of adulation and veneration than to the many charlatans and demagogues who prey on us.
Second, we are adrift, wandering aimlessly in a post-Cold War intellectual and spiritual desert, unable to remember who we are or whither we should be tending. There must be someone of supernal dignity and virtue who can lead us out of our anomie and ennui.
Third, we are cynical, disillusioned, drained of the respect that would justify placing unconditional trust in public figures who presume to claim our allegiance. So, we turn to athletes and entertainers for escape.
Finally, despite our self-deluding sense of superiority as a country--you know, world's only superpower and all that we are less than we could be as individuals and as a people. Ultimately that's what heroes do for us: They make us mere mortals want to be better. As Emerson observed: "Great men exist that there may be greater men."
Would that we could find among us someone who is up to this great task. There's an empty pedestal waiting to be mounted. (You can read the complete article here.)
I think its important to further point out that many pop culture icons have very public moral failings, or flaunt a very amoral persona. Perhaps that is the reason that many prefer to idolize these figures. Down hill is much easier than up hill. Sadly, it seems it is easier--even preferable--for our culture to identify with a Paris Hilton than to identify with a George Washington.
Source of image: PunditKitchen Warning: this site has some rather salty language and images.