I just read a very short critical essay by Simon Schama on the fabulists and mythologizers at the recent GOP National Convention:
Here’s one paragraph:
In Mitt Romney’s breathtakingly edited version of the recent past, Republicans secretly rejoiced at Obama’s election, while only reluctantly coming to the conclusion that his policies had wrecked the economy. Yet history tells us that four years ago the American financial system was hanging over the abyss by the thread of the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) that a Republican administration and secretary of the Treasury had put in place, and for which the hypocritical deficit chickenhawk Paul Ryan had voted, even as he strained every muscle to get his district’s share of the stimulus package that he now denounces Obama for perpetrating. And recall also that the whole near-terminal calamity was caused by the unregulated derivative market whose freedom to destroy what’s left of the American economy the likes of Ryan and Romney cannot wait to reinstate.
At the bottom of the post is an editor’s note that explains that when this was first posted it claimed that as Nixon’s Secretary of HUD (Mitt’s Father George) did his best to foster segregation in US Housing. That was corrected. It was just the opposite of the essay’s first claim.
I recommend the essay as much for its authorship as its content. The note explaining that it originally contained such a glaring mistake is just one more reason to take it seriously. Any historian who admits to passing on historical errors is offering evidence of his/her devotion to truth as opposed to a vanity for never making a mistake. Schama points to a great many historical mistakes made by speakers at the GOP convention many of which have been repeated ad nauseam by commentators since the convention. I presume loyal Republicans will be as indifferent to them as race horses wearing blinders.
Coincidentally NPR ran a very interesting story this morning on a scientific investigation into the possibility that humans can willfully forget painful or inconvenient truths. Apparently they can. (I could have told you that. The fuzziest period of time in my memory, post toddlerhood, are two miserable years of teaching in Proctor right after I graduated from college.)
As for the author of the post. I have two Schama books one on the French Revolution and one on the Dutch Tulip bulb mania. I’ve not gotten around to reading either of them yet. I well recall walking through the building on Columbia University’s that houses most of its History faculty. I was looking for historian Eric Foner’s office when I saw Schama’s name plate on a near-by door. Columbia has a serious history department and has since my Grandfather George Robb got his master’s degree from Columbia in 1915.
This summer has been lost to me for my own history writing. I’ve been preoccupied with contractors and grand children. To clear my mind I began reading history books and just finished the fourth one in two months. Three of them were by historians who have earned Pulitzer Prizes. The first was Swerve, followed by Caro’s Passage of Power, then Goodwin’s Team of Rivals on Lincoln and I just wrapped up with a short book by another noted Historian Michael Beschloss’s Presidential Courage.
I’m so smitten reading addictive histories that I’ve spent the past few days going over lists on the Internet of highly regarded histories and ordered eleven of them last night. (all at deep discounts for used books) I don’t know how I’ll read them and research my own book now that the school year has swallowed up my Grandchildren again. Even so, while I’m waiting I’ve started another book that’s been on my shelf for the past eight years: Sea of Glory. The preface and first chapters are cracker jack.
Here’s the list from Amazon:
An Army at Dawn 1st (first) edition Text Only
Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (P.S.)
Thaddeus Stevens: Nineteenth-Century Egalitarian (Civil War America)
Hans Louis Trefousse
1920: The Year of the Six Presidents
The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America
Mr. Speaker!: The Life and Times of Thomas B. Reed The Man Who Broke the Filibuster
Polk: The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America
Walter R. Borneman
The War That Made America: A Short History of the French and Indian War
The Routledge Historical Atlas of Presidential Elections (Routledge Atlases of American History)
Batavia’s Graveyard: The True Story of the Mad Heretic Who Led History’s Bloodiest Mutiny
The Internet has simply made possible things I was reaching for with great difficulty 40 years ago. Some examples of my early efforts:
All through my college years I asked everyone I knew which professors they most enjoyed so I could take the most stimulating classes I could.
As a sophomore I was on a committee established by the Student Senate to run a massive teacher evaluation program of the entire college faculty by students. We had questionaires printed out for all students and asked them a series of questions about their teachers and then printed a thick booklet for interested students to use in signing up for classes. Coincidentally, my Dad was the president of the Teacher’s Union and told me that a lot of the faculty was worried about the possibly unfair appraisal by students who had gotten poor grades.
For a few weeks after I graduated I went to dozens of highly regarded teachers and asked them which historical books they would recommend I read to further my education (I ended up reading very few of them)
I often rationalize that my failure to be a very successful politician is due at least in part to my penchant for honesty which I hasten to add is not the same as truth. The former is riddled with prejudice but has the virtue of acknowledging the flaw. Truth is truth although just what is true is hotly debated by both honest and dishonest people.
As a junior high school kid I recall being very interested in the story of Faust and Mephistoples. Faust trades his soul to the Devil for unlimited knowledge. I was very interested in such knowledge even though I knew my puny intellectual powers could never attain it. (It turns out that Faust also gets unlimited pleasure in the bargain but I only know that from reading the link to Wikipedia that I just provided. That’s not what interested me back then although I was also giving a lot of thought to the Lotus eaters in Homer’s the Odyssey)
The books I’ve ordered are meant to fulfill two wishes. I want them to be 1. page turners and 2. a wealth of information to fill gaps in my past reading. Unlike Faust I’ll never be omniscient but at least when I kick the bucket my soul will not belong to someone else like the GOP. They wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway – they’ve been shortchanging Lincoln’s soul for ages.
NOTE UPDATE April 29,2020 I just found this post looking for something else. In case anyone else ever stumbles into it a note about the books I mentioned buying. As of 2020 I had read four of the books from cover to cover and half of the one on the Speaker of the House. I buy books to tempt me to read them when I find time. I get around to lots of them but many more are like planes circling the airport waiting for traffic control to tell them to land.