The news that Palinistas, followers of Sarah Palin, tried to rewrite the history of the American Revolutionary War on Wikipedia shouldn’t surprise anyone who has been following the news media for the past few years. Right-wingers, with a helpful assist from the mainstream news media, have had a lot of success revising our reading of contemporary history. Luckily, they did not have such an easy time of it trying to rewrite the history of the American Revolution.
It all started when Miss Sarah, who doesn’t seem to ever care about a word’s worth, claimed that when Paul Revere took his famous ride, he was warning the British that they better not try to take away our guns. Anyone who remembers elementary, middle school and/or high school history will LOL, scratch their heads quizzically, or maybe just let out a blood-curdling scream of frustration. As we all learn multiple times in school as part of the one-page version of our national history, Revere was warning American patriots that the British armed forces were on the move. Like an equestrian version of a phone tree, Revere warned others who then warned others.
A few days later, Palin embarrassed herself by saying that she got her history right. No one believed her. The mainstream news media, political cartoonists and late-night comics mocked her. Another amusing sideshow.
Any public relations professional with a few years experience could have told Miss Sarah that she should have apologized and said that she made a mistake in the excitement of the moment, that she knew, of course, that Paul Revere warned his fellow revolutionaries that the British regular armed forces were moving their way.
Then came the discovery by the website LittleGreenFootballs.com that the Palinistas were trying, unsuccessfully thank goodness, to edit the Wikipedia article on Paul Revere to match what Palin had said. Little Green Footballs even supplied us with a link to the history of recent Wikipedia revisions of the Paul Revere article.
The result has been yet another wave of ridicule heaped upon Miss Sarah’s grizzled shoulders.
For most of us, who learn always to play by the rules, it seems unredeemably despicable that anyone—let alone a group of people—would try to change history on Wikipedia. How could they stoop so low?
But let’s face it. Right-wingers try to rewrite history all the time. Here are recent examples, most of which were quite successful, of the right-wing rewriting history:
- As National Public Radio mentioned yesterday morning, 10 years ago to the week the temporary Bush II tax cuts were passed and we had a budget surplus. Now we face an enormous deficit, which the right-wing, with the help of the mainstream news media, loudly blames on spending too much on programs that help the hungry, poor, elderly, young and disabled and job-creating programs that modernize our crumbling infrastructure of roads, bridges and mass transit. The real history is that the people, and especially the wealthy, have not been paying enough in taxes.
- In the last election, the total number of people who attended national rallies by progressives was roughly twice those attending the Glen Beck rally. Yet right-wingers have written the history of the election season that has been accepted by mainstream and even liberal voices. That false narrative has many more people attending the Glen Beck rally, which served as the high point of the Tea Party surge, which was another “Potemkin Village” perpetrated on Americans by the mass media.
- Slightly less successful were the efforts of the Bush II Administration to revise the rationale for the Iraq War as a democracy-building exercise once their original lies about weapons of mass destruction and connections to Al Qaeda proved false. The mainstream news media quietly slid into supporting this view, and nowadays news media coverage focuses on milestones of Iraqi democracy and corresponding troop withdrawals. But many people still remember the lies.
- Rich poor right-wing blogger Andrew Breitbart created history when he cut away most of what Shirley Sherrod was saying and turned a boring reasoned speech into a scandal of “black racism,” which most of America fell for, at least until someone decided to do a little fact-checking.
- We don’t know if it will be successful yet, but the right-wing continues to shout the canard that torture was instrumental in locating Osama bin Laden. All the evidence says otherwise, but that usually doesn’t stop the right wing.
So we know that these guys live by a different set of ethics than most of us. They believe that the end really does justify the means. They don’t care about our free marketplace of ideas, only for moving the country towards their ideas.
Where did the Palinistas go wrong in this absurd scandal? It was in their arrogance and stupidity to think that they could turn the country’s opinion about one of the very basic facts drummed into our heads from an early age. It’s the old tabula rasa idea, first discussed by Aristotle. The tabula rasa is a blank slate. That’s what we are when we first hear about anything, be it a new idea or a new product. So the first thing we hear shapes our view of what comes next. That’s why it’s easier to establish an opinion than to change one and why it’s easier to link a new product to a message than to change the message you want to link to an existing product. There is no existing impression with current events, so it’s easy to turn people’s view on what is happening or just happened.
Not so easy with our shared history. People know and love the Romantic product called Paul Revere’s ride. He bravely rode off into the night warning our forefathers and foremothers—all dedicated to democracy and self rule—that the British regular armed forces were coming. How adventurous, brave, cunning and virtuous! So it is taught in read-to books for toddlers, and in every American history course through high school. No one is going to believe it when you tell them he was really warning the British. And when you say that the warning was “don’t attempt gun control,” then most people will break out in crooked-mouth snickers that say “Gimme a break!”
The Palinistas overreached, and we’ve all had a good laugh. But let’s not forget that they and their Tea-publican fellow travelers are trying to rewrite history all the time to justify their radical views.