Barry’s Blog # 401 — Old White Men: Historians as the Gatekeepers of American Myth, Part One of Eight

What went before, as told by those who think they know it. – Gary Snyder

Everything comes to the reader as interpreted by the historian. Everything is seen through the medium of his personality. The facts of history when they are used to teach a moral lesson do not reach us in their entirety…but selected and arranged according to the overmastering ideal in the mind of the historian. The reader is at the historian’s mercy. – Peter Novick

Historian: an unsuccessful novelist. – H.L. Mencken

History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it. – Winston Churchill

I invoke the muse of history, Clio, daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne (Memory).

Clio, Muse of History

Book banning in America dates back to 1637,  a year after Harvard College was founded. Recent efforts across the country have hit their highest level in twenty years,  partially because in 2021 Fox News stoked the Culture Wars by mentioning critical race theory 1,300 times in four months. Now, Senate candidates are going full-paranoid on white replacement theory.

Along with the threats, the levels of comic hypocrisy have gone through the roof. Republicans can’t resist mis-quoting Martin Luther King Jr. One of the groups lobbying for book banning is Moms For Liberty!  Meanwhile, a “scholar” from the American Enterprise Institute suggests, “Ban critical race theory now. States must assert the power to enforce the principles of the Civil Rights Act!” Trumpus establishes the “1776 Commission” to promote “patriotic education”. It suggests that Martin Luther King Jr. would have opposed affirmative action (hint: he supported it).

At least four states have done that, and another dozen are debating the issue, which is – do I really need to say this? – performative idiocy at best, and cynical, unrepentant racism and misogyny at worst. In addition, dozens of states are or soon will be considering anti-LGBTQ bills.   And now we have the mendacious Supreme Court admitting its plans to ban abortion rights by citing a 17th-century witch hunter. Gotta laugh to keep from crying.

Everywhere, reactionaries are scurrying to shore up the latest cracks in the façade of the myth of American innocence by controlling the narrative of history, how it is taught and even if it is taught.

It’s all being done, of course, by Republicans, usually in safely Republican states, meant primarily as entertainment for the choir, since most public and private history education in those states has already been controlled for generations by the racists and religious inquisitors who have served as the gatekeepers of culture and memory in the former Confederacy. I’ve addressed this theme in detail here. Naturally, powerful Southerners want to retain their influence by any means, including perpetuation of ignorance, division of the working class and outright violence.

They want to decide how their – and increasingly your – children think and what they know about two main issues characteristic of 1950s white thinking. The first would accept discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation as reflections of acceptable traditional values. Pure Black and White.

The second – propelled mostly by Democrats – involves reviving the old Cold War narrative of a bipolar world. One side, led by the United States, is allegedly a “free world”, a “global community” whose intentions are universally benign, and that never provokes international conflict. The other, led by Russia and China, so we are told, is a hostile, dictatorial and expansionist world. Pure black and white.

But this essay is pursuing bigger game. For most of human history, the shamans and poets and later the priesthood served as the gatekeepers of culture, channeling their populations into the narrow confines of acceptable opinion regarding everything from personal behavior to national identity to which “Other” people to hate.  The result is what used to be our generally agreed-upon collective memories, which Jeremy Yamashiro describes as

…those representations of the shared past that members of a community hold in common. Collective memory is different from history. Whereas historians aim to create a relatively objective account of the past using rigorous professional standards of what counts as evidence, when members of a community recall their collective past, they do so through the filter of a contemporary set of concerns…These selective renderings help us create imagined communities – nations, races, religions, “the West” – by endowing those communities with a story of continuity and self-sameness across time.

Do historians create objective accounts of the past? Is their work really any different from collective memory? We’ll have to see about that. “There is no such thing as collective memory,” wrote Susan Sontag. “…what is called collective memory is not a remembering but a stipulating: that this is important, and this is the story about how it happened.”

Another way of talking about collective memory is to use the language of mythology. Joseph Campbell taught that a living myth refers past itself to the ineffable, serving four distinct functions. The mystical function introduces the individual to that which underlies all names and forms. It awakens religious awe, humility and respect. Second, the cosmological function explains how the universe works. Third, the pedagogical function defines a moral life as defined by each culture.

Fourth – and most pervasive – the social function validates the social order and integrates individuals within it. Originally, this was a good thing: it oriented people to the mystery by presenting noble figures at the center of the realm who channeled and radiated the blessings that flowed through them from the other world. These figures showed that everyone carried such potential. The word “noble” is related to “knowledge.” A noble, mythologically speaking, is one who knows him or herself. If people still revere royalty in places like England and Thailand, they may be accessing some vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant, underneath the smarmy veneer of celebrity culture

The word “noble” is related to “knowledge.” A noble, mythologically speaking, is one who knows him or herself. If people still revere royalty in places like Britain and Thailand, they may be accessing some vestigial memory of what the sacred King once meant. We know who we are and where we fit in because the gatekeepers have taught us. However, in modern culture, “it is this sociological function of myth that has taken over,” wrote Campbell, “…and it is out of date.”

When I speak of myth in this article, I am referring to it as it has devolved in a world that, as Campbell wrote, is demythologized. That is to say, the first three functions are essentially gone, and we are left with only the fourth, sociological function. In a demythologized world this function is essentially identical with the narratives put forth by the ruling elites to serve only their interests. It does not feed the soul, and when we are honest with ourselves, we admit it.

But we need stories to tell us who we are, even if we know they are false. They provide us with a bare minimum of truth about ourselves, just enough to keep us alive (in Chapter Ten of my book I write about Robert Johnson’s concept of “low-quality Dionysus”). And it’s possible that even such low-quality mythologies may lead us to deeper mysteries.

Myth shapes our values, organizes our experience, brings emotion to our festivals and sacrifices, sets the boundaries of dissent, names the children, sends them off to war and justifies their deaths. It is the most compelling story we tell ourselves about who we are, especially when we hear it from the noble ones, those upon whom we project our own nobility. And frequently it is the story of who we are not – the Other – and why we are periodically compelled to sacrifice the best of our young people in war. For a much deeper understanding, read here.

This effort requires the coordinated efforts of all our gatekeepers. To counter them, Howard Zinn – the guiding spirit of this essay series – wrote:

The more widespread is education in a society, the more mystification is required to conceal what is wrong: church, school, and the written word work together for that concealment. This is not the work of a conspiracy; the privileged of society are as much victims of the going mythology as the teachers, priests, and journalists who spread it. All simply do what comes naturally…to say what has always been said, to believe what has always been believed.

Despite their efforts, more than at any other time in history, we are quickly losing any collectively shared sense of what is real, or true, or to be trusted. With our identities shaken to the core, millions of us are searching for leaders or ideologies to revive some sense of meaning, even if this means a return to racism, misogyny or intolerance of immigrants.

In American secular culture (the South and parts of the Midwest aside), religion has long lost its gatekeeping function. It has been replaced by mainstream media, by consumerism, by the culture of celebrity, and – for the upper middle class – by elite educational institutions, especially in the teaching of our national stories. Since cultural and political gatekeeping no longer reaches us through revealed truth, these secular gatekeepers have assumed far greater importance. I’ve written several articles about gatekeeping in America:

Deconstructing a Gatekeeper

Gatekeepers, Provocations and Cover-Ups

Howard Zinn and the Academic Gatekeepers 

Zero Dark Thirty is a CIA Recruitment Film 

For a long time we’ve known – or should have known – that all politicians lie. But we need to pursue that statement to its antecedents: those politicians went to college, many of them received advanced degrees, and most of those who have risen to the highest levels (including Trumpus, Ted Cruz, Ron DeSantis, Chuck Schumer, J.D.Vance, Josh Hawley, Mitt Romney, Amy Klobuchar, Kirstin Gillibrand, Elise Stefanik and Tom Cotton) attended Ivy League institutions.

America’s elite universities have served, consciously or not, to maintain the mythology of American innocence, good intentions and exceptionalism (which necessarily involves faith in white supremacy and imperial privilege) since the middle of the 19th century. So it can be useful to know who taught these people, and who taught their teachers.

Students interested in journalism, politics, public administration, international relations or the more rarified realms of college teaching all enter what Noam Chomsky calls “a system of imposed ignorance” and emerge from the elite universities as the most highly indoctrinated future gatekeepers:

A good education instills in you the intuitive comprehension – it becomes unconscious and reflexive – that you just don’t think certain things…that are threatening to power interests …which ends up with people who really honestly (they aren’t lying) internalize the framework of belief and attitudes of the surrounding power system in the society…you learn that there are certain things it’s not proper to say and there are certain thoughts that are not proper to have. That is the socialization role of elite institutions…

People within them, who don’t adjust to that structure, who don’t accept it and internalize it (you can’t really work with it unless you internalize it, and believe it)…are likely to be weeded out along the way…There are all sorts of filtering devices to get rid of people who are a pain in the neck and think independently. Those of you who have been through college know that the educational system is very highly geared to rewarding conformity and obedience…The elite institutions like, say, Harvard and Princeton and the small upscale colleges, for example, are very much geared to socialization. (In) a place like Harvard, most of what goes on there is teaching manners; how to behave like a member of the upper classes, how to think the right thoughts, and so on.

All historians sift through the historical record and cherry pick the facts that will best buttress their arguments. Again, some gatekeepers are nothing but liars and con men who faithfully serve the powerful. Some of them are honest racists and propagandists for empire. But the most convincing are the ones who have emerged from these institutions as true believers in the myth of American innocence.

David Ramsay (Princeton) is considered the father of American historical writing. His 1789 History of the American Revolution insisted that what defined the new nation was not the usual bases of nationality but a special destiny “to enlarge the happiness of mankind”. Following him, most 19th-century historians would elaborate history as myth in the idea of America as a unique embodiment of freedom. They would influence the common assumption that territorial expansion and genocide of the Native Americans was “extending the idea of freedom”.

Some would still excuse men such as Thomas Jefferson who never freed their slaves as “men of their times”, men who were so blinded by their prejudices that they simply did not know any better. Ta-Nehisi Coates, however, writes that even Jefferson’s cousin John Randolph did free his slaves, and

…In the two decades after the Revolutionary War, so many planters freed slaves that the proportion of free blacks in Virginia increased from less than one percent in 1782 to 13.5 percent in 1810…The notion that Jefferson was merely following the crowd, and that everyone else did the same thing is convenient for us.

At some point a historian must – or ought to – look deeper. Let’s dispense with the excuse that men didn’t know better. If they didn’t, it was because of their own moral failure. Ten of the first twelve presidents (and two others) were slave owners, as were 27 Supreme Court Justices. These men knew precisely what they were doing, and how they were profiting. And they surrounded themselves with other men who were smart enough to articulate justifications for their actions – and teach them to following generations.

How did the leadership of the exceptional nation that had only recently proclaimed that all men are created equal justify themselves? The French philosopher Montesquieu explained:

It is impossible for us to suppose these creatures (Blacks) to be men, because, allowing them to be men, a suspicion would follow that we ourselves are not Christian.

Slavery was big business. Most early American fortunes were derived at least partially from it, and most 18th-century intellectuals (with many exceptions) grew up taking it, or at least the assumptions of white supremacy, for granted.

Religious authorities were still the primary gatekeepers. But in Colonial America this necessarily had to do with race. Two of the period’s most influential preachers, associated with the First “Great Awakening”, Jonathan Edwards (also a President of Princeton) and George Whitefield, owned slaves. In the South, preachers (including college professor and Woodrow Wilson’s father) J.R. Wilson continued to justify slavery during the Civil War and for decades afterwards. Pastor Thornton Stringfellow wrote that slavery “…was incorporated into the only National Constitution which ever emanated from God”.

However, sociologist Orlando Patterson writes that well into the 20th century, “The cross – Christianity’s central symbol of Christ’s sacrificial death – became identified with the crucifixion of the Negro.”   Clergymen presided over many lynchings from 1880 onwards, and perhaps 40,000 of them joined the resurgent Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s. White supremacy was inseparable from Southern religion, wrote theologian James Sellers; therefore, all threats to it took on mythic importance:

Segregation is a system of belief…It therefore becomes a holy path, complete with commandments, priests, theologians…

Psychologist Joel Kovel asserts that there are two kinds of racism. One is the obvious dominative racism that developed in close contact (including the legal privilege of rape) between master and slave. The second – aversive racism – arose from Puritan associations of blackness with filth, and it was strongest in the North. In the 1820s the French visitor Alexis De Tocqueville noticed that

Prejudice appears to be stronger in the states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists; and nowhere is it so intolerant as in those states where servitude has never been known.

The two colonies with the strongest religious foundations – Massachusetts and Pennsylvania – were the first to outlaw “miscegenation.” Five early presidents of Harvard owned slaves, and the University is only recently beginning to admit how much it profited from slavery.

For the entire 19th century, Ivy league professors were among the gatekeepers of the Northern consensus on race. Since that time, elite educational establishments have maintained that essentially religious function: preventing, or at least marginalizing, heresy. They especially target those tasked with maintaining our sense of identity through construction of memory: the professional historians and those they mentor who go on to become teachers themselves. To understand how we got to this point, we’ll need to look at the history of history in America. 

Read Part Two here.

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