Tuesday, February 01, 2005

The meaning of revisionism

The conservative victory at the polls in November 2004 has some inevitable consequences. Since so much of what passes as conservative dogma is actually anti-liberalism, the most significant of these consequences is that many of the progressive advances of the past half-century are being challenged and overturned.

This is true of a broad range of domestic policy issues from abortion to the environment to taxation and economic policy to affirmative action to Social Security, not to mention the implementation of an aggressively militaristic foreign policy. But the conservative-movement enterprise extends beyond mere policy, and appears determined to overturn the very way the populace at large thinks and sees itself.

Historical revisionism plays an essential role in achieving this. Thus, Ann Coulter's rehabilitation of Joe McCarthy in Treason was only the first iteration of this trend. (Trent Lott's nostalgia for Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats was an ill-received version of it as well.) It was shortly followed by Michelle Malkin's defense of the Japanese American internment.

Now we have Thomas Woods' right-wing bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History, which explains why such progressive advances as civil rights for minorities were actually harmful to the nation. Over at Is That Legal?, Eric Muller cuts to the chase by explaining why Woods' extremist background -- he claims to be a co-founder of the secessionist (and white supremacist) League of the South -- is essential to understanding the purpose of this book:
Some will undoubtedly say that it's not fair to call Woods' book into question on the basis primarily of his other writings, and on the basis of the positions of a private organization that he helped found and has assisted. And you know what? If he were a physicist who wrote a book about quarks and string theory, I guess I'd agree that his views (and those of his organization) on politics and race wouldn't really be fair game.

But there is a short, direct line from the rabid anti-statism and wholesale civil rights revisionism of "The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History" to the agenda of the League of the South and its ilk.

This is what we all need to understand about the current spate of historical revisionism: It is occurring in the service of a broader agenda to recast our very understanding of the meaning of our history, and thus the meaning of America itself.

Thus we have the spectacle of the GOP recasting itself as the "party of civil rights," which as Hunter suggests might be laughable -- coming, as it does, from the party of the Southern Strategy -- were it not of a piece with the Newspeak that permeates the conservative march on America.

Sure enough, Virginia Sen. George Allen took the first step in promoting this "new image" for the GOP by joining Mary Landrieu, a Democrat, in sponsoring a resolution apologizing for the Senate's failure to pass anti-lynching legislation in the 1920s and 1930s. (For a little more on the history of that legislation, see the end of this post; for more on the lynching era, see this post.)

There are more than a few problems with this. It is, to begin, with more than a little convenient to be denouncing Southern filibusters at a time when Republicans are hoping to overturn longstanding rules regarding filibusters as a way of attacking Democrats. Moreover, as Kos notes, Allen is not exactly the best person to be apologizing for racially insensitive acts of Congress.

What's especially hypocritical about this, though, is that Republicans are not in any position to regret the fate that befell the anti-lynching laws. After all, this is the same party whose leaders in the House this autumn officially killed the Local Law Enforcement Enhancement Act -- which, had it passed, would have been the first real federal anti-hate crimes statute. Indeed, this same political leadership was responsible for killing a federal hate-crimes bill on two previous occasions -- first in 1999, then again in 2001.

As I've argued at length, there is a real connection between the anti-lynching laws of the 1920s and the currently proposed federal hate-crimes statutes; the latter are clearly descended from the former, and serve largely the same purpose. Today's Republicans should be every bit as ashamed of their current leadership as they are of those Southern conservatives who blocked the national will back in 1922.

Speaking of hate crimes, over at Pandagon, Jesse has written a couple of posts that cut beautifully to the heart of the matter. He also directs us to a report of a Republican effort in New Hampshire to repeal its hate-crimes law, just as the Missoulian recently suggested.

Revising history also means revising how we understand our nation today; it is only possible to oppose hate crimes statutes by flagrantly ignoring the realities of hate crimes in our history, especially the lynching era, and pretending that those realities are all in the past. Likewise, when Republicans recast their image as pro-civil rights, they are abusing the factual course of history.

If the nation succumbs to the notion that progressive advances of the 20th century have harmed us, and becomes intent on rolling back those advances, we need to be realistic about what kind of path this will lead us down. It is not a bright one.

Is anyone on the Democratic side paying any attention to this? Besides Robert F. Kennedy Jr., that is?

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