Blogs > Cliopatria > Hot Mess (3 of 3)

Sep 7, 2011

Hot Mess (3 of 3)

Robert Reich, consistently a top contender for the honor of being our dumbest public political figure, warns today that Republicans are planning to move backward in history. And get ready to give up your brass helmets, kids, 'cause we're going way back: "A Perry or Bachmann wouldn't just take us back to the 19th century. They'd take us back to the stone age."

That's why Texans pound out their grain with big rocks, in case you were wondering.

But the Perry-Bachmann Overdrive is just the most extreme edge of the GOP nostalgia for the past, as Reich concedes. In fact, he allows, most Republicans are just nostalgic for the days of William McKinley, "when the federal government was small, the Fed and the IRS had yet to be invented, state laws determined worker safety and hours, evolution was still considered contentious, immigrants were almost all European, big corporations and robber barons ran the government, the poor were desperate, and the rich lived like old-world aristocrats."

Well, good heavens. Imagine living in a world where big corporations and robber barons ran the government. You'd wake up one morning and read that the Treasury Department was run by Goldman Sachs executives, big corporations had received over a trillion dollars in secret public loans, and GE wasn't paying any income tax on billions of dollars in profit. And imagine, just imagine, living in a world where the poor were desperate. And the rich would live like old-world aristocrats, no less. Imagine how awful it would be to live in that world. Fuck you, Robert Reich, you miserable dimwitted jackass.

The model of history in which adherence to one political ideology moves you forward in time and adherence to another political ideology moves you backward in time is The. Most. Inane. thing that you can possibly believe about the past. It's a signal from people who aren't worth listening to; it's the "Leave Britney Aloooooooone!!!!" of history and politics.

I began this short, odd little series of posts with the intent of examining the ambiguity and strangeness of the past, the distinctly mixed performance of historical actors; part two of the plan was to compare the complexity and strangeness of historical text to the "History is Progress!" narratives that we create out of that warped cloth. I'm all out of patience for the full dimensions of the original plan, and the comments to previous posts suggest that you probably are too. But honestly examining what living human beings did in the context of their own moment, it's usually difficult -- not always, but usually -- to figure out who represents progress and who represents the retrograde. Historical records are marked by ambiguity, mixed agendas, personal greatness and personal pettiness, political clarity and bizarre personal fits of tetchy behavior. Some historians are extraordinarily gifted at finding this mix of clashing characteristics.

Most progress digs out its own traps and sinkholes. Muller v. Oregon was an extraordinary moment in the history of worker protection; the decision in the case was secured by one of the great Progressive documents of the twentieth century, a brief built on the allegedly empirical findings of social scientists and proving that women were inherently sickly and weak.

A great step forward, apparently. Let's not go back in time.

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