The conservative rewriting of U.S. history

April 3, 2010 | By | 8 Replies More

McClatchy has published a video and a written summary of conservatives’ recent efforts to rewrite history.

This evidence-free approach to history is surreal. How can this possibly be happening? It is apparent that these rewrites of history are evidence of the confirmation bias running at full throttle. I recently came across this vivid description of this phenomenon in a book called A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives (2006), by Cordelia Fine:

Reasoning is the vain brain’s of . . . powerful protectorate. This might seem a little odd. Isn’t reasoning supposed to be the compass that guides us toward the truth, not saves us from it? It seems not–particularly when our ego is under attack. In fact, the best we can say for our gift of thinking in these circumstances is that we do at least recognize that conclusions cannot be drawn out of thin air: we need a bit of evidence to support our case. The problem is that we behave like a smart lawyer searching for evidence to bolster his client’s case, rather than a jury searching for the truth. As we’ve seen, memory is often the overzealous secretary who assists in this process by hiding or destroying files that harbor unwanted information. Only when enough of the objectionable stuff has been shredded dare we take a look. Evidence that supports your case is quickly accepted, and the legal assistants are sent out to find more of the same. However, evidence that threatens reason’s most important client–you–is subjected to grueling cross-examination. Accuracy, validity, and plausibility all come under attack on the witness stand. The case is soon won. A victory for justice and truth, you think, conveniently ignoring the fact that yours was the only lawyer in the courtroom.

(Page 13)

Fine adds this additional description toward the end of her book:

Evidence that fits with our beliefs is quickly waved through the mental border control. Counter-evidence, on the other hand, must submit to close interrogation and even then will probably not be allowed in. As a result, people can wind up holding their beliefs even more strongly after seeing counter-evidence. It’s as if we think, “Well, if that’s the best that the other side can come up with then I really must be right.” This phenomenon, called “belief polarization,” may help to explain why attempting to disillusion people of their perverse misconceptions is so often futile.

(Page 108)

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Category: American Culture, Communication, Culture, History, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Rightardia says:

    Conservatives are distorting history. They don't like the scholarly objectivity in Wikipedia, so they have their own Conservapedia.

    Conservatives often claim the Great Depression was caused by Democrats and this was the thesis of a book written by a conservative. Of course, three Republicans had led the country when the Great Depression started.

    Conservatives also claim the Civil War was caused by State's right but the CSA Constitution had the same supremacy clause the US Constitution has. The Civil War actually started because Republicans wanted to stop the expansion of slavery into new federal territories.

    Conservatives appear to want to create an alternate American reality for themselves. It is easy to understand why the two political parties have trouble communicating.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    Rightardia,

    Actually, the republican party was formed to fight expansion of salvery into the territories. However, the Civil war was the result of mostly Republican pandering to the northern textile industries by by placing quotas and highr taxes on the southern states, which had less representation in both the House and Senate.

    Emancipation was, however, used as an issue to rally public support.

    Think of it this way:

    We went into Iraq to secure the profits for the oil companies, but it was much easier to drum up support for an illegal war by convincing the people that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the US and that we would also be freeing his people from oppression.

    Similarly the slavery issue was the rallying point for the events leading to the civil war, but the real causes were based in the profitability of the textile mills which relied heavialy on flax and cotton grown and harvested using slave labor.

  3. Niklaus,

    Whoa, where to begin. The issue of the price of cotton was certainly important at the beginning of the 1840s, but by the late 1850s cheaper cotton was being imported from the United Kingdom (which is ultimately why Britain never recognized the Confederacy—their markets were at stake).

    But the supposedly underrepresented South had an edge—the 5/8s rule, which allowed slave holders to vote their slaves in bulk, each slave the equivalent of 5/8s of the "man." In this way, the South was able to filibuster Federal projects and did so regularly. The South was opposed to the federal land grants to the railroads because they were opposed to the railroads, seeing them as a threat to the Southern economy.

    Lincoln's party intended to force closure on several pending bills and bring to the floor of the Senate the long overdue debate on the slave clause which had been demurred since the Revolution. While the profitability of the North was one issue, there was no contest—the North already enjoyed such overwhelming economic supremacy that, as Shelby Foote noted, "they fought the Civil War with one hand tied behind their back—they conducted the war and built the transcontinental railroad at the same time. the South never stood a chance."

    Slavery was an issue because it also fueled a costly agrarian practice that to this day has cost the South in terms of ruined cropland and a swath of entrenched poverty.

    More than that, however, was the assumed prerogative of Southern slaveholders to send bounty hunters north to retrieve runaway slaves. If they couldn't find the ones they were after, they tended to grab any black man or woman they found, free of not, and this was violation of Northern states rights and they loudly complained.

    Slaves, as it has been said many times, were not at issue so much as the disjunction of the two economies. For national expansion of any kind to take place without continual border wars like Kansas, one economy had to dominate.

    The Republican Party was, therefore, founded as the party of business, true, but at the time they were radicals and the Democrats, especially in the South, were the stalwart conservatives.

    Even so, the war might not have been fought had South Carolina not started the whole nonsense by seceding. It stopped right there being a question of economics and became a question of the Union, which Lincoln saw as paramount. Southern states, in a fit of pique, had sworn they would secede should Lincoln be elected, and they began promptly to carry out that threat, removing the entire issue from the arena of civil debate. Sentiment in the North rather quickly became "let'em go if they want to, and don't let the door hit them in the butt on the way out." Lincoln had to combat persistent disaffection in the North in order to press the war. If it had all been about profits, he would have yielded quickly and we would today be a very large version of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, with a very prosperous north attached to an exhausted, retrograde south.

    The simplest statement that can be made about the Civil War is that "it began with an issue at hand, but events quickly overtook everyone."

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: Thanks for all of the background. I've often wondered how things would have turned out (especially today) had the North simply allowed the southern states to leave. How convinced are you that (had that happened) we would have had a "very prosperous north attached to an exhausted retrograde south"? I sometimes wonder whether a permanent schism might have lessened the cultural wars and avoided a huge bloody real-life war. And I wonder whether a completely detached south might have become more northerly on its own, culturally speaking (and whether the north might have become more southern culturally speaking). Maybe the top half of the U.S. would have become the southern state's version of Canada: non-threatening good neighbor . . . Or would the north have built a big border wall to keep out the southerners seeking to immigrate once the south exhausted its natural resources? Or would fighting two world wars together (if that actually had happened) have forged a strong alliance between the north and south? Or would Germany have prevailed in WWII due to a divided U.S.? So much to consider.

  4. Good questions, Erich. I am convinced that the North would have continued prosperous. The whole issue of which new states would enter as slave states or free would have ceased to be an issue since the South would no longer have a vote in Congress over the matter.

    The South for its part was doomed. It needed to expand. Jefferson understood this very well. The destructive nature of plantation agriculture meant southern aristocracy had to move steadily from one plot to the next as the land was exhausted. The Civil War was fought over liebensraum, literally. There was even an abortive attempt to send a colony to Central America. If the North bottled the South in with a majority of free states, the net effect would have been gradual starvation for the South's way of life. Yes, they would have been forced to change, but as a separate country they would have had to knock on the North's door and ask nicely for aid.

    The evolution of the North and the South clearly shows the different seeds from which they came. The North was settled by Puritans and other disaffected while the South was dominated by landed gentry—Cavaliers. (Jamestown, for instance, was destroyed by the Indians because the aristocratic English idiots thought the natives were their natural servants and when they didn't bring food the English went out to force obedience.)

    How this might have played out in the 20th Century is a good question. I suspect gradually northern industry would have taken over much of the South, eventually supplanting Southern culture or driving it to the margins.

    Lincoln was not prepared to put any of this to the test. In his mind, the long overdue Constitutional adjustment on the part of slaveholder did not give them moral grounds (or legal) to secede.

  5. Erich Vieth says:

    A comment featured on Andrew Sullivan's Daily Dish regarding the psyche of the South:

    "A successful political coalition in America cannot be dominated by the South, as the GOP currently is. The South is a distinct region in America, significantly different in history and political culture from the rest of the country. Moreover, regional identity in the South is manifested substantially in opposition to the rest of the nation. A political movement dominated by the South will necessarily manifest a political culture that is more similar to that of the South than to that of the rest of the nation, and that political movement is also going to absorb this oppositional element of Southern identity, and will necessarily become overly invested in intellectual shibboleths. What looks like epistemic closure is really just identity politics."

  6. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    As a Southerner, I sometimes feel as if I'm being steamrolled over. I have met people from other parts of the country, who are surprised to find that people (and life) in the South is not like something from the comic strip Li'l Abner.

    There are cultural differences between every region of this nation. The GOP is not dominated by the South. Southern media is dominated by the GOP.

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