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Don’t Know Much About History: Lessons in Presidential (and would-be presidential) Situational Ethics, Plus How “How You Doin’?” as a Trap Question

golfclap by Margot Machado
golfclap by Margot Machado

To paraphrase the eminent Ms. Palin (ignoring for the moment that most of the time she sounds as if she’s having difficulty paraphrasing herself), we’ll ask the current group of presidential candidates ‘How’s that booky learny stuff workin’ out for you?’ In fact, given the consternation evinced by the latest report on the ignorance (historical and otherwise) of our country’s young people[1], we might address the question more broadly—and while we could ask the same of our president, it probably makes more sense to place him in the ‘opportunistically ignorant’ (read: plausible deniability) camp.

In recent weeks, both Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin have made remarks that would seem to cast doubt on their Tea Party bona fides—that is, if you believe that members of the Party are actually interested in the history they supposedly take their inspiration from. While in New Hampshire, Ms. Bachmann held a tea bag up and told the local crowd, “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world in Lexington and Concord!” (If you don’t see the problem here, it’s back to the history books—or the Googlez, anyway—for you too.) We can’t blame Bachmann for not knowing in what state the battle was actually fought (nor can we blame her for such a cheesy visual—did tea even come in bags when the actual Tea Party happened in 1773? Note to Ms. Bachmann: that Tea Party didn’t occur in New Hampshire either), for if this had been an off the cuff remark we wouldn’t comment on it. The problem is that she, or her speech writers, didn’t bother to find out. Which means they either don’t care about our history, or they have such misplaced certitude that they don’t fact check—which in this case would’ve meant spending less than 15 seconds on Google. There are two bit, low circulation magazines that do a better job fact checking (we know—we’ve worked at some of them), and it seems reasonable to expect at least that standard from those who would be president (GWB evidence to the contrary aside, for now).

Meanwhile, while touring Boston, Sarah Palin told reporters that she enjoyed seeing the sights where Paul Revere “warned the British that they weren’t gonna be taking away our arms, by ringing those bells and making sure, as he’s riding his horse through town, to send those warning shots and bells that we were gonna be secure and we were gonna be free.” If the syntax isn’t enough to confuse you, the substance should be—as, apparently, 20% of fourth graders could tell you[2]. But the true comedy came after Ms. Palin’s confusion about Paul Revere (confusion that seemed to include who he was, what he did, how he did it, and whom he did any of it to), when Palin supporters scrambled to alter the Wikipedia entries on Paul Revere to reflect her invented history. Palin herself went through more than her usual locution contortions after the fact in (failed) attempts to justify her version of American History. Perhaps even funnier was Palin’s assertion, after being called on the mangled history, that it was a “gotcha” question from a journalist that had caused the incident—the question, in fact, was “What have you seen so far today and what are you going to take away from your visit?” More gotcha questions for the Palin ‘campaign’ to avoid: How are you? What’s your name? Do you need help tying your shoe, Ms. Palin? If you support abstinence-only sex education then how come your child…(OK, sorry, had to throw one actual gotcha question in.)

And yet, when we look again at Libya and how Obama has decided to ‘interpret’ the War Powers Act (when you search for meaning in a text that doesn’t exist on its own, is interpretation the right word?), the lesson might be that Palin’s rhetorical exercise is exactly what is required of a president. For now we are bogged down not just in three or four different wars (who’s counting, anyway?), but in a semantic argument over the word ‘hostilities.’ In order to escape from the War Powers requirement that a president get congressional approval within 60 days of the start of ‘hostilities,’ Obama has ignored the usually binding opinion of the Justice Department (which called the spade of Libyan hostilities a spade), and instead cherry picked the opinions of his own attorneys and at least one from the State Department who bizarrely found that the Libyan bombing campaign does not represent ‘hostilities’ (introducing, courtesy of Barack Obama, the world’s first friendly bombing campaign).

Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin can learn their relevant history from history books. For Obama we might suggest a different source—his own writings. As he told The Boston Globe, while a presidential candidate himself, “The President does not have power under the Constitution to unilaterally authorize a military attack in a situation that does not involve stopping an actual or imminent threat to the nation.”

Don’t know much about history…even when we made it ourselves, sometimes.


[1] The National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, found only 12% of high school seniors were proficient in history (on the plus side, it found 20% of fourth graders are) [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/education/15history.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=nation%27s%20report%20card&st=cse].

[2] See above fn1.


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