After the fall of Rome — but before Justinian could sweep away her people and her infrastructure — Theoderic the Ostrogoth used this line, and reference to Roman foundational values generally, to prop up his reign as an invader-king. It strains credulity to think the heroes of Rome’s past would’ve easily suborned a foreign presence, or a king, much less the combination of the two. Nevertheless, Theoderic’s over-the-top affiliation with Rome’s past — to the point of adopting a Roman nomen (Flāvius Theodericus), minting solidi in the old fashion, etc. — indicates that he believed, rationally, that defining himself by foundational values would help solidify his hold over Gothic Rome.
Theoderic understood what today’s tea part movement seems to understand, too: foundational myths are abnormally squishy, potent, and steady-state, or regressive. One is rarely asked to honor his forbears by disturbing the status quo. For our example, look no farther than Glenn Beck’s conscious attempt to co-opt the history of America’s founding at this past weekend’s “Restoring Honor” rally.
The remarkable line that defines his overarching thesis is this:
We’ve got to start at the beginning and look at the patterns [in early history]… the first thing they did was pray together.
This is probably true, actually. But while the Founders built a culture permeated by God, they built a government in which He had no official place. Jefferson, exemplifying the Founders’ views towards the blending of church and state, refused to offer prayers ex cathedra for fear that future generations would read his example as a mandate. These men may have invoked divine favor in their ventures, by praying together, but they did not invoke it to write their laws. This is not a trivial distinction.
But it’s one that Beck can easily elide, without drawing too much criticism, because of the traits that make founding myths unique. Due to their importance, the events surrounding them are abnormally well attested. This same importance gives rise to a need to mythologize. Particulars are created and destroyed in the collective memory, for their ability to add to, or detract from, a compelling narrative, one that supports the State.
The result, naturally, is prismatic. Depending on how deep you want to look — only superficially, at the story that emerged, or to the details, first those emphasized, then those discarded — you can create a different story, one that supports your reading of the history. Here, Beck emphasizes particular points from the cultural history of the era, but omits the background and depth that give them meaning. You might as well photograph a shadow.
We — Democrats, liberals, non-theocrats, what have you — are quick to blame the right, and usurpers like Beck, for their acts of historical theft. But we should be quicker to offer our own version of events. In our quest to build a better world — one where gays can marry, where Muslims aren’t blamed for the crimes of terrorists who share their faith in name only, etc. — too often, we succumb to the temptation to treat history as an enemy. Because our forbears enslaved, discriminated and excluded, what can they possibly teach us? But this avoidance accepts as true the right’s narrow premise, that the Founders gave us a static nation. To the contrary, our founding story, unique in human history, is meant to challenge us to build a better future, rather than comfort us with memories of a better past.
We need to be more honest and forceful about what we believe and why. We trust in a “living Constitution,” not because some law professors dreamed it up as a way to legitimize gay rights, but because the document is explicitly a charter of expanding liberty. The liberal account of the founding supports our modern causes, makes a good story, and has the virtue of being a truer account. If we are honest with ourselves, Theoderic’s trick shouldn’t work here. But it will, if we let it.