The meaning of historical events are always open to interpretation. Sometimes even the facts are in dispute.
But what are we to make of the latest Tea Party twisting of both historical interpretation and historical fact?
I'm speaking, of course about Congresswoman Michelle Bachman's stunning revision of America's history of race slavery last weekend , and former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin's bizarre revision of the history of of the US/USSR space race during a FOX News interview this week .
In case you missed it, here's what Bachmann told Iowans For Tax Relief, speaking of The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution Bachmann said:
...we also know that the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States.
The line was part of an extended riff aggrandizing our justifiably cherished ideal that "all men are created equal," which also included the following assertion, in all its twisted syntax: How unique in all of the world, that one nation that was the resting point from people groups all across the world. It didn't matter the color of their skin, it didn't matter their language, it didn't matter their economic status...Once you got here, we were all the same.
Of course Bachmann's rap ignored the slave ownership of Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and most if not all the Southern landed founding father; it ignored 70 years of weak-kneed political compromise designed to protect slavery and even expand it, followed by 5 years of bloody civil war, and another 100 years of failed reconstruction, political assassination, racial terrorism, and civil disobedience.
Meanwhile, in a post-SOTU interview on FOX News, Palin seized on President Obama's reference to the US response to the Soviet launch of the Sputnik satellite. Obama's point was that the US response to the Soviets beating the US into space led to a massive national response ending with US manned moon landings. That's the historical fact. But here's Palin's version:
...he needs to remember that what happened back then with the former communist USSR and their victory in that race to space, yes, they won, but they also incurred so much debt at the time that it resulted in the inevitable collapse of the Soviet Union.
Wha? Somehow Palin managed to misrepresent the fact of the space race, then conflate the events of the 1960s with the events of the 1980s. Or, as The Washington Post's Stephen Stromberg writes :
The Soviets didn't have an empire-draining debt problem until some 30 years after Sputnik passed over America. And when they did, it was in large part a result of massive overinvestment in heavy industry, which supported Soviet military pretensions. None of this is to argue that the Soviet economy is anything we should emulate. But let's at least get the basic facts right when we criticize it.
It's a fair guess that Palin thought she was borrowing her "insight" from the mythology of Ronald Reagan, who massively increased America's spending to spur the sort of competitive expenditure that contributed to the ballooning of Soviet debt in the 1980s. According to many conservatives, this was a -- if not the -- crucial factor that catalyzed the Soviet collapse.
But in claiming that the Soviets incurred their consequential debts long before Reagan was president, Palin ends up arguing that the Gipper wasn't nearly that responsible for the USSR spending itself to death. If a reverence for Reagan's anti-Soviet spending inspired her narrative in the first place, then this is incoherent. If she's just making this all up, then she's really also claiming that the Reagan-brought-down-the-USSR narrative is overstated.
Palin appears to be lazily checking a lot of Fox News boxes. She wants to criticize Obama's State of the Union address, so she grabs hold of the Sputnik line. She wants to make a point about debt, so she invents a history in which the USSR had a debt crisis decades before this inference could have made much sense. Even better -- her argument sounds like an implicit vindication of Reagan, but that really just makes it either self-contradictory or hostile to Reagan's legacy.
Perhaps Palin's confusion is to be expected if what reporter John Heilemann told 60 Minutes is true, speaking of Palin's VP Debate prep:
Her foreign policy tutors are literally taking her through, 'This is World War I, this is World War II, this is the Korean War. This is the how the Cold War worked.' Steve Schmidt had gone to them and said, 'She knows nothing,'" Heilemann told Cooper. "A week later, after the convention was over, she still didn't really understand why there was a North Korea and a South Korea.
Certainly ignorance is at the core of what's going on here. The national level of historical ignorance is astounding, witness the Marist Poll finding last summer that a full 26% of Americans could not identify that nation againstwhich the United States fought its war of independance!
But one can't help but wonder how much of this use of false history is a result of the ignorance of these lawmakers and their handlers and how much is a cynical and deliberate exploitation of the ignorance of the electorate. The Marist poll found the highest degree of ignorance about the Revolutionary War among the young, the female, and the Southern--fertile electoral hunting ground for female Tea Party spokespeople like Bachmann and Palin.