Daily Archives: February 8, 2011

A reader tells me what it was like back in the day and then lets me know what a jerk I am

The other day I got a particularly irate complaint on an older post in which I’d argued that Glenn Beck is a bit too credulous when it comes to stories about George Washington.  Something about these Beck posts really brings out the vitriol in people; I’ve got to stop doing them.

Anyway, this reader touched on a couple of my pet peeves, so I thought I might address his comment in some detail here.  His unedited remarks are in italics, mine inserted in plain type:

Isn’t it ironic that people who can’t even remember a world without electric lights (like Glenn Beck’s detractors) can tell us all about colonial times in America better than Mr. Beck can…?

Not really.  People who can’t remember a world without electric lights have access to colonial documents, books about the colonial era, colonial artifacts, and so on.  If being born before the advent of electricity is a requirement for discussing the colonial era, then I’m afraid Glenn Beck is in the same boat as the rest of us.

Well guys, I spent my first years in a log cabin–without electric lights, indoor plumbing or a telephone–and it wasn’t all that long ago…

Okay, this is Pet Peeve #1.

If his point is that living without electricity or plumbing gives you some unobtainable gnosis into the eighteenth century, I hope he’ll pardon my skepticism.  The problem here is that Washington’s life and times were about more than a lack of electricity and plumbing.  Knowing what it’s like to live without modern conveniences is of precious little help in determining whether George Washington really prayed at Valley Forge, which is the sort of thing I was dealing with in the post to which he responded.

If we follow this line of reasoning out to its conclusion, then I must have some insight into the childhood of John F. Kennedy which you don’t, because although I was born many years after his death into a family that did not consist of New England aristocrats, both JFK and I grew up with electricity and plumbing.

Look, as I’ve said elsewhere, personal experience has serious limitations as a means of understanding the past.  If you’re a former infantryman who served during WWII and you’re writing about mid-twentieth-century combat, then you’ve got a real leg up on the scholar who was born in 1968.  But if you’re trying to make sense of eighteenth- or nineteenth-century battles, your best bet is to go to the primary sources and the relevant secondary literature.  Likewise, I seriously doubt that merely growing up in a house with no phone lines is going to give you any profound insight into the lives of eighteenth-century Virginia planters.

There is a fundamental “otherness” to the past which is more pronounced the farther back in time we go, and this otherness is an insurmountable obstacle to the history-by-personal-experience approach, unless we’re talking about history that happened within the span of current lifetimes.  The fact that this gentleman is alive and breathing indicates that he probably doesn’t have any direct knowledge of the Revolutionary era.

Funny, I have a slightly different opinion of what Mr. Beck is trying to do than you have. Could it be that I have just a little bit different perspective about our country’s origins than you have–and maybe I have seen and experienced some things beyond your wildest imaginings…!

I don’t know; I’ve seen some pretty crazy stuff.  I actually met Bob Saget once.  I’m not making this up.  Remember those episodes of Full House when they all went to Disney World, and Saget was trying to propose to his girlfriend but could never find the right opportunity?  I was there with my family and I got to be in the background during the Indiana Jones sequence.  I’ve got a picture of me and Saget and my dad somewhere.  (That would make an awesome post, come to think of it.  I need to find it.)

And then when I was in grad school I went to a Shakira concert in Detroit, and when she did “Whenever, Wherever” she bellydanced while wearing a lit candelabra on top of her head.  You don’t see that every day.  I would’ve gone to see her on her next tour when she was in Atlanta, but I’d wasted like four hundred dollars on a birthstone ring for my girlfriend, so I couldn’t really justify spending the money on tickets so soon afterward.  And then that same girl dumped me by e-mail a week or two after that.

I mean, getting dumped is lousy enough, but what really had me peeved was the fact that Shakira was going to be performing only four hours away, and I’d knocked myself out of seeing it.  The only way I’d buy jewelry for a woman again would be if she actually was Shakira or if I was married to her.  Of course, Shakira’s got loads of cash, so she probably wouldn’t care about jewelry.  You could probably just take her to Baskin Robbins or something, and she’d be like, “Hey, it’s cool.  In fact, I’ll buy.”

Okay, where were we?

Why don’t you guys find something productive to do with your time–like finding some ANSWERS to our problems–maybe beyond the scope of “community organizing”…?

Ah, there we are.  This is Pet Peeve #2, the old “scratch someone who doubts your favorite historical myth and find a flaming liberal” routine.  I took issue with something Glenn Beck said about George Washington, so therefore I must be a left-winger.

Is agreeing with Glenn Beck’s historical claims a requirement for conservatives?  I really hope not, because I don’t particularly care for an interventionist government myself, but I have yet to listen to one of Beck’s historical lectures that did not involve the ladling out of more horseflop than most ranch hands move in an entire afternoon.  Remember his segment on Native Americans, when he tried to draw comparisons between Indian monuments and Egyptian pyramids?  Remember his lecture on the Dead Sea Scrolls, the one that was so riddled with mangled statements—mixing up the DSS with something about Constantine building an army and placing them in the wrong century—that listening to it was embarrassing to the point of physical pain?

Can’t I oppose leftist politics and at the same time maintain that, when it comes to history, Glenn Beck is an uninformed buffoon? Do I have to agree with everything the man says in order to oppose liberalism, even when he’s saying things that have nothing to do with modern politics?

Anyway, I agree that it’s very important that we find some answers to our problems.  But since this is a history blog, I tend to spend more time discussing past events here than current ones.  This, alas, is pretty unavoidable. Most history involves the past—practically all of it, in fact.

Perhaps we can compromise on this.  At least let me finish this post, and then I might take a crack at the AIDS crisis in Africa.  Then I’ll look into the national debt; I’m pretty sure I can make some headway there.

At least drop the snobbish know-it-all attitude…!

Well, no promises on that one.  But I’m actually glad he brought that up. Coincidentally, I was hammering out some remarks on that very subject when I got this comment.  So in the next post we’ll look at my snobbish know-it-all attitude and I’ll try to explain my belief that not all ideas are created equal.

But first, duty calls—I’m off to find some answers to our problems, beyond the scope of community organizing.  History blogger, awaaaaaaayyyyyyyy!

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