Thursday, March 18, 2010

Ronald Reagan Was My Favorite Founding Father

The news out of the great state of Texas lately has been all about history. Or, rather, the version of history that the conservative Texas school board wants to present. After deep concern was raised with some of the perceived liberal spin on the curriculum, politicians in the Lone Star State have decided to mandate the teaching of certain elements of history in their textbooks.

Now, I'm not opposed to absolutely everything they're doing. I think rejecting a proposal to teach the importance of hip hop in the early 21st century was probably for the best. Yeah, I know, progressives are supposed to get all melty at the profound cultural ramifications of Lil' Wayne. Lord knows there are plenty of dissertations out there about the Sociopolitical Subtexts of "She's a Ryder." But ultimately, it seems as historically significant as the Lindy. Meaning, it's a footnote, or a little pull-out box.

But much of the rest of their proposals are just a Lil Crazy. There is, of course, the requisite Reagan hagiography, as American conservatism continues to celebrate the 20th centuries' least sentient president. There is also a new mandated defense of McCarthyism, coupled with a requirement to present the inaugural address of Jefferson Davis alongside that of Lincoln's. Thomas Jefferson has been deemed inadequately Christian, so out he goes. Similarly, there's to be a de-emphasis on the Enlightenment's role in American revolutionary thought. The word "democracy" has also been booted, in favor of "republic." I'm sure this has nothing to do with the fact that the board is Republican.

This is deeply annoying, sure. But it's a profoundly human habit. It is, in fact, quite Biblical. Take, for instance, the significant thematic differences between the Deuteronomic books of Samuel/Kings and the Chronicles. In 1 and 2 Samuel, which is an older record, King David is presented as gifted, passionate, musical, and charismatic. He is also presented as being deeply complex, filled with Clintonian desires of the flesh, tormented by loss and betrayal, and strongarmed by his Machiavellian majordomo Joab. At the end of his life, the Deuteronomist's historical account shows him as feeble and helpless, an impotent shell of himself, manipulated by Bathesheba and Nathan into giving power to Solomon.

But the Chronicler, who was writing at the time of the building of the Second Temple, well, they've got a totally different picture of David. As the archetypal King over Israel in a time when Israel was looking for heroes, David needed to be perfect. So all of the imperfections kinda sorta got edited away. David became the King of Kings, the noblest and wisest and most perfect King that ever has been. Those awkward stories about sex and betrayal and loss? Never heard 'em. David was for the Chronicler what Reagan is for today's conservatives: A Perfect Head of Hair On The Dear Leader of the Shining City on a Hill.

Problem is, when we wander away from the real, and start turning the complexities of the human story into perfect airbrushed's not a good thing. In the absence of the real, and in the absence of at least striving for objectivity, societies have a tendency to fail to self-correct. And folks who uncritically consume their own propaganda invariably end up in Very Bad Places.