Monday, August 21, 2017

I Was Born Ignorant, It's in My DNA

The following comment was posted under a meme that opposed the removal of Confederate monuments. The writer is my age and went to the same high school I did, so you can't blame the amazing ignorance displayed here on Our Crappy Schools today:
Yes American should remember the history off our great nation when people fought to make are country a better place to live for all of are people do think people of our older generations would put up with the bullshit that's going on in our country?? I think not!!
I posted a comment pointing out that the monuments being removed are not memorializing Union soldiers, but Confederate generals who fought to make this country a worse place to live, and were willing to tear the nation apart for that cause.  I'm of "our older generation" too, and you can be sure I'm not putting up with this bullshit.

I admit I was stunned at first by the Orwellian transvaluation of values in that comment.  Though it's also possible that this person identifies with the Confederacy, like many Americans all around the country, and believes that slavery and white supremacy "make are [sic, but the misspelling is the least of it] country a better place to live for all of are [sic] people".

Also this morning, a friend linked to this article. The article itself is good enough; it was the title, "How America forgot the true history of the Civil War," that bothered me.

People should learn accurate history, of course. But there are, as always, a couple of problems. One is that history, real history, is almost always contested: there's disagreement among historians over just about everything more complicated than someone's date of death. (And even that can be uncertain.) Which is why history must be taught with that in mind. Teaching the conflicts, as Gerald Graff puts it.  And I find it intriguing that so many liberal pro-science rationalists object to his suggestion.   As I've written before, most people "want students taught propaganda, not accurate history or Civics.  It's so much easier and safer to inculcate flag worship and to regard the Constitution as Holy Writ than to teach the complexities of American history and the controversies over the meaning of the Constitution."

The second problem follows from the first. Imagine the headline "How America forgot the true history of the Iraq War." That war is pretty well documented, of course, and most Americans now alive can remember it personally -- but how many Americans knew what was going on at the time it was happening? As usual with wars, even when the Bush regime and their defenders weren't simply lying in their teeth about why we must invade, they kept changing their story. Most Americans could probably have told you why we were going to war, and most of them are still alive today to remember it (badly, of course), but different Americans would have told you different things, and would have told you different things at different times.  The same is true of the Vietnam War; most Americans I've talked to have no idea how the US got into it, or when; the US propaganda during the war changed as our leaders found it expedient to gin up support.

Now, imagine a time without radio or TV or the Internet, when newspapers were frankly and openly biased in their news coverage, and political discourse was even less civil than now; when most Americans were barely literate and a sixth-grade education was a considerable achievement. The Confederacy was grinding out lots of contradictory propaganda on the issues that motivated it (and Southerners had been doing it for decades), and so was the Union. As always, the aim was to motivate the base, not to inform them. So, Americans didn't "forget" the true history of the Civil War -- they never knew it in the first place, in large part because no one did.

Noam Chomsky wrote about the problem towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1973, in For Reasons of State:
The government does not really hope to convince anyone by its arguments and claims, but only to sow confusion, relying on the natural tendency to trust authority and to avoid complicated and disturbing issues.  How can we be sure of the truth?  The confused citizen turns to other pursuits, and gradually, as the government lies are reiterated day after day, year after year, falsehood becomes truth.

The mechanism has been perceptively described by James Boyd in connection with the strange story of Dita Beard, Richard Kleindienst, and ITT.  The evasions were “transparent and ridiculous,” but that is irrelevant: “The idea is to bring the public to a point of bewilderment. …”  The lawyer seeks “not to convince, but to confuse and weary.”  In the same manner, the state is content to lose each debate, while winning the propaganda war.

Shortly after the Pentagon Papers appeared, Richard Harwood wrote in the Washington Post that a careful reader of the press could have known the facts all along, and he cited cases where the facts had been truthfully reported.  He failed to add that the truth had been overwhelmed, in the same pages, by a flood of state propaganda.  With rare exceptions, the press and the public finally accepted the framework of government deceit on virtually every crucial point [xxv-xxvi].
This doesn't mean that Chomsky was "prescient," of course; he was describing what was happening at the time.  That we face the same flood of government lies obfuscating the facts is probably not surprising; it's business as usual.  And that's one reason why history is so difficult to get right.