History as Myth

In light of Sarah Palin’s, well, “interesting” interpretation of American history — which describes Paul Revere galloping down the causeway, ringing bells and firing wildly into the air, to attract as much British attention as possible — Andrew Sullivan argues that history, to the Republicans, is just another creation myth to be manipulated for social purposes.

For once, I don’t think this is entirely fair. Sure, Palin’s third-grade understanding of American history is hilarious, especially in light of how proudly her followers proclaim themselves to be the direct and exclusive heirs to the colonial tradition. And the halting, confused explanation is especially stunning in light of the simple question that preceded it:

What have you seen so far today, and what are you going to take away from your visit?

I would pay a lot of money to see this woman in a presidential debate.

But we all co-opt, mythologize, and exploit history. It’s practically a Western tradition, at least as old as Rome, where personal histories were wildly distorted to serve as useful morality plays. American democracy is founded on a similar premise: that Rome republicanism — which actually masked a brutal, unequal, and authoritarian society — could form the model for a government where all men are actually equal before the law. It’s a conceit that most of the Founders candidly acknowledged to each other as false. Jefferson especially was well-versed in the classics, and knew what he was doing, but the image was (and remains) valuable.

This is to say, if we’re to upbraid Sarah for this latest catastrophe, we should focus on the ineptitude of her historical appropriation, not the fact of the appropriation. Query, for example, whether Paul Revere riding a horse to protect the militia’s stockpiled arms from the invading British is in any way analogous to Sarah Palin riding a hideously tacky bus to protect your right to unnecessarily shoot animals with AK-47s.


  1. The problem is that the line between history and myth is already paper thin when it comes to Paul Revere and the midnight ride.

    Revere set out from Boston, yes, but in the company of William Dawes, and they were probably not the only riders dispatched. Revere and Dawes made it to Lexington to warn Adams and Hancock, but then Revere got captured by the British, so it was actually a Dr Prescott from Lexington who finally made it to Concord and alerted the militia.

    If it wasn’t for Longfellow and his poetic reinterpretation of history, Revere most likely wouldn’t be considered any more or less significant than a lot of other Revolutionary characters – and Longfellow was pretty deliberately out to create some Northern myths to support the abolitionist cause and later the Civil War. So the question is if Palin is really that much less accurate than when compared to what “actually happened”.

    1. Speaking of the classics, by the way, I’m reading a recent book just now by David J. Bederman, “The Classical Foundations of the Americsn Constitution”. You might find it interesting.

    2. You beat me to it. Most of what Americans “know” about Revere – including what’s been in a lot of textbooks, is a fiction by Longfellow.

    3. I’ll have to get that book. Thanks!

  2. As someone who worked in the history field for several years I will say that Palin’s skewed version of the historic facts is actually more accurate than most average citizens. Unfortunately Americans in general just don’t know their history very well.

    This statement though intrigues me:

    “…Sarah Palin riding a hideously tacky bus to protect your right to unnecessarily shoot animals with AK-47s.”

    What’s wrong with shooting animals with AK-47s? Also, why is it unnecessary?

    1. Hell, what’s wrong with shooting people with AK-47s? Lots of times that’s necessary too and we don’t have enough of it.

    2. That’s intended as a nod to how much the Second Amendment has changed. It’s a little less glorious to save one’s friends their assault rifles to use on bears, than it is to save one’s countrymen their muskets to defend their freedom.

      1. Less-glorious how? Are you suggesting that hunting is less morally okay than killing another nation’s soldiers?

      2. Also – define ‘assault rifle’.

  3. I’ve only ever hunted turkey, and that unsuccessfully, so correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t most, if not all, hunters seek a quick clean kill? I wouldn’t think you’d be able to get that hunting bear with an assault rifle cartridge – in fact, isn’t that the reason 7.62×39’s the only assault rifle cartridge you could legally use to hunt bear with (assuming your state doesn’t have completely whack regs – more on that in a minute)? So, seems to me hunting bears with an assault rifle wouldn’t be a very glorious endeavor since you’d be too likely to injure, but not kill, the bear – unless you put enough bullets into it that you more or less mutilated the bear. Which doesn’t seem very glorious, either.

    Of course, the most glorious way to kill a bear would be with a manual weapon, which realistically means a spear, but the only state I know of that allows spear hunting is Alabama, where the game regulations don’t say anything at all about bears (I guess they don’t have them?) and specify that spears must be hand-thrown and are only valid for use on deer and razorbacks. So, barring spears, the most glorious way to hunt bear is with a traditional non-compound bow, not with a rifle.

    Now the fact that a bear can maul you means hunting a bear with an underpowered gun might actually have some glory in it, if the bear attacks you (although I hear black bears don’t do that so much). Which brings us back to states with completely whack hunting regulations. Namely my state, Virginia. There’s no mention of a requirement to use expanding ammo, there’s no minimum energy requirement for rifles (just a minimum .23 caliber), and the minimum energy requirement for pistols is just 350 ft*lbs muzzle. And that’s to hunt deer or bear. There’s also not any rules I can find relating to arrow size/shape or draw weight for bowhunting. Which means as far as I can tell, it’d be legal for me to hunt bear with a rifle chambered in .30 carbine. Or just with my 1911, shooting FMJ. Or even borrowing my buddy’s Glock 19, again with FMJ. So… would hunting bear with a 1911 be glorious, or just suicidally asinine?

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