Former Republican governor of Indiana Mitch Daniels has a column in the Washington Post
in which he bemoans America’s historical illiteracy, its growing lack of empathy, its tribalism, and the “sneering denigration of American history and, it seems, almost all who made it.”
One of today’s premier historians has written that “historical illiteracy is the new normal.” How dismally true that is. The list of basic facts today’s Americans don’t know is too embarrassing and discouraging to repeat. The fundamental civic concepts of which majorities of both young and old are ignorant is equally appalling.But it’s not just historical illiteracy that has Daniels perturbed, it’s also the fallacy of presentism, by which “the values, mores and conventions of the present day are used to judge, almost always harshly and sanctimoniously, our predecessors.” Although he doesn’t explicitly say it, it’s pretty clear who is to blame for this woeful state of affairs: those divisive, America hating PC leftists. Who else?
No, really, who else? When your party controls the White House, both houses of Congress, the Supreme Court, thirty-two state house, twenty-six governorships, and when your agenda has been driving American politics, including education policies, for the better part of thirty years but the country still sucks, who, really, are you going to blame?
Well, certainly not Mitch Daniel’s own party and its jihad against public schools. No, their open, systematic, decades long attempt to undermine, defund and destroy public education in this country has nothing to do with our historical illiteracy. No, nothing at all. It’s not Republican education policies like No Child Left Behind. It’s not Rush Limbaugh routinely calling teachers “union thugs,” nor is it the Texas Board of Education’s decision to remove Thomas Jefferson from high school history textbooks and replace him with sections on Phyllis Schlafly and Jerry Falwell. And, of course, it has nothing at to do with starving schools of funds to pay for tax cuts.
Naw, those aren’t to blame. The real problem is leftists and their arrogant presentism.
And let’s also ignore the fact that the last two Republican presidents have been functional illiterates, men who scorn book learning and boastfully rule from gut instinct, and that their apologists and enablers like Mitch Daniels have no problem with this, even when those gut instincts lead us down bloody rabbit holes like Iraq. And let’s also forget that the current secretary of education is a fundamentalist Christian billionaire with no background in education and who wants to completely privatize all schools, despite that fact that charter schools, on the whole, don't perform much better than public schools.
But that’s not the problem. It’s those PC lefties who can’t get over slavery who are to blame.
It’s never the fault of anyone who actually has power and influence in this country, you see (unless, of course, they happen to be liberals, especially black liberals with funny names, in which case they’re responsible for everything evil under the sun). No, it’s never the fault of conservative policies or institutions, nor is it the fault of the militant, pig ignorant anti-intellectualism that is consciously promulgated by AM radio and conservative news networks among the Republican base, which has created a country where seventy-seven percent of people believe in angels, fifty-five percent think that the Founding Fathers wanted America to be a Christian theocracy, but less than forty percent believe anthropomorphic climate change is real. It’s produced a cultural climate that is so intellectually debased that creatures like Michelle Bachman, Sarah Palin, Louie Gohmert and, of course, Donald Trump, spring naturally from the soil and rise effortlessly to the top of our political life.
As for our lack of empathy and growing tribalism, which are are part of what Daniels calls our “burgeoning culture of estrangement,” well, I can’t imagine where that comes from. Maybe after we get all of those serial killer rapist Mexicans out of the country, we'll have time sit back, grope some p***y and calmly reflect on the problem.
As for presentism, Daniels is quite right. You can't judge historical figures based on the moral standards of the present, but he's not really concerned about this. What really bugs him is that some people just have a different view of things than he does: “A better reading” he says “is that the story line of America, with all its imperfections past and continuing, is about the steady expansion of human freedom and unprecedented, widespread material prosperity.”
It’s not the fallacy of presentism that's his problem. It’s that not everyone holds the same Panglossian view of American history he does. Some us would argue that those “imperfections past and continuing” aren’t mere blemishes that can be ignored and covered over, that they’re not incidental roadblocks on America’s onward and upward march of progress, but are in fact deeply salient features of American history and national life, and that you can’t gain a full understanding of this country without taking them into account. It’s not a “sneering denigration” of the American past to point this out.
Besides, the material prosperity that he notes is shrinking, and the expansion of freedom which he cites as our great virtue is never more than one terrorist attack, one executive order, or one Trumpian fit of “presidential greatness” away from being snuffed out and taken away, possibly forever.