HNN Post: Past is No Foreign Country

Randall Stephens

I crosspost here part of a piece I did for HNN.

“I don’t believe in change over time.” I wish Glenn Beck would come out and say just that.

I’ve watched quite a few of Beck’s 5:00 p.m. dispatches from disturbia. I’ve seen his maniacal chalkboard talks on fascism and communism, with brisk arrows drawn to “progressivism,” “social justice,” and “unions.” I’ve heard him tar the labor movement with the brush of nineteenth century racism, conveniently ignoring the Knights of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. I’ve spent too much time observing him weave far-fetched moral conspiracy tales on a range of subjects. Maybe I get some sick pleasure watching Beck cry crocodile tears for his American Babylon.

Beck’s political grandstanding and maudlin theatrics are offensive enough. (I can think of no better ipecac for the typical humanities professor.) But it’s his ahistorical theories of the past that disturb me most. Beck, like many conservatives, Christian or not, is incapable of coming to terms with the notion of change over time. What was true for bewigged, knee-breeches-wearing, slave-owning nabobs in eighteenth century Virginia must be just as true for a minivan-driving NASCAR dad in 2010. (Still, few of those NASCAR dads would adopt some of Ben Franklin’s woolly polytheistic notions.) Did America’s public schools once allow Protestant-styled prayers in the classroom? Then they should do so still. Were women once the caretakers of hearth and home? Then maybe they should still be. Didn’t learned folks once believe that the Grand Canyon formed in a matter of days during the flood of the Old Testament? Or was it millions of years in the making, as modern geologists would have us believe? The flood story—biblical, less complicated, more interesting—makes more sense. >>>


Christopher said…
Nice post, Randall. Your thoughts are spot on. I especially like this quote:

"The inability to understand change over time is a basic blind spot for a range of evangelical conservatives and right-wingers of various stripes. Whether they’re talking about the inerrancy of Scripture or the original intent of the founders, what’s missing is a real appreciation for historical processes or an understanding of the uniqueness of the past."
Randall said…
Thanks Christopher. It was cathartic to write it.
Paul M. said…
I share your frustration with Beck's simplistic reading of American history. You've done an admirable job chronicling his errors.

But I do think he deserves a modicum of praise. After all, for all the partisan, anachronistic spin, he is still encouraging massive audiences of Americans to read a pretty impressive assortment of scholarly historical work. For example, check out his interview with Thomas Kidd from several weeks ago:,2933,592997,00.html (there is also a link to the video on the page)

Despite questionable books by David Barton and Peter Lillback, sometimes Beck promotes a worthy monograph that enjoys a significant bump in sales:
Randall said…
Paul: Perhaps that's true. And Beck has had Nial Ferguson on the program as well.

I think most viewers will stick to Beck's playbook, though. Meaning, many won't look for more than what he himself and his chalkboard have on offer.
Jason Parker said…
I don't follow Beck, so I can't comment intelligently on his views. However, the emotional intensity of Randall's reaction to him is curious to me. Reading this little post made me wonder, "Is this the old Heraclitus-Parmenides debate all over again?" I'm just curious, Randall. What is the philosophy that you bring to the table when you read history?
Randall said…
Jason: I feel strongly about this matter, because I think Beck promotes bad history. I would guess that 80-90% of historians, if they watched him in action, would say the same. He has an utterly presentist view of the past and ropes it into his political campaign, regardless of the original context or the complexities of distant issues.

I like E. H. Carr's philosophy of history in his _What is History?_. History, just like the facts of history, is not a self-evident truth. There is such a thing as interpretation. Beck seems to deny that hermeneutics even exist.

Certainly history serves the present and our own values in a number of ways. But I would like to be respectful of the separateness of the past and respectful of contingency, as Carr was, and I hope I don't rip characters violently out of context just to make a political point. I won't try to gussy up Thomas Jefferson as a born-again Christian or remake other founders into 21st century neo-liberals.

I believe pretty firmly that the past should be taken seriously on its own terms. You can't read, say, the Bible and fully understand it without knowing something about the religions of Babylon or Egypt. You can't fully understand rituals and practices like speaking in tongues or baptism without knowing how those practices existed in non-jewish contexts. I remember a fundamentalist colleague once telling me that literalists took the Bible seriously, whereas liberals and mainliners did not. But if this colleague, and the fundamentalists he was channeling, really did take it seriously they would, in fact, want to know much about the complex, nitty-gritty history of the ancient world. He didn't give a hoot about that. People in the Bible, as far as he was concerned, were exactly like him.

Back to the philosophy of history . . . Another book I like, which tends to polarize historians, which deals with a philosophy of history is John Lewis Gaddis's _The Landscape of History_. He writes about the humility historians need in coming to terms with the uniqueness, distance, and strangeness of the past. But he also describes the mastery historians can have when they range over time and space. The difference between the views of Gaddis and those of Beck is enormous. Here's Gaddis:

"What I'm suggesting, therefore, is that just as historical consciousness
demands detachment from-or if you preFer, elevation above the landscape that is the past, so it also requires a certain displacement: an ability to shift back and forth between humility and mastery. . . . [He quotes Machiavelli.]

You feel small, whether as a courtier or an artist or a historian,
because you recognize your insignificance in an infinite universe. You
know you can never yourself rule a kingdom, or capture on canvas
everything you see on a distant horizon, or recapture in your books
and lectures everything that's happened in even the most particular
part of the past. The best you can do, whether with a prince or a landscape of the past is to represent reality: to smooth over the details, to look for larger patterns, to consider how you can use what you see for
your own purposes."
Jason Parker said…
Thanks for taking time to answer my question, Randall.
Paul, thanks for that link to the Kidd interview. I know it's rare that historian who writes about the Great Awakening gets invited to national cable news but I don't know if I could have gone on there like that. Not to criticize Kidd, he can do what he wants, but personally, I would have hung up after I heard "Hello, I'm a producer from the Glenn Be--"

But, hey, I don't think my area of interest really matches well with their program so I guess I'm in no danger of having to make that choice.