Recent weeks have shown a new front in the public battle over the American past, namely the formerly innocuous AP US History curriculum. One school board in Colorado decided to whitewash it of anything "unpatriotic," leading to walkouts by brave students. (Like the young people in Ferguson, they give me hope for the future.) For daring to present a version of history that actually complies with the college courses that AP courses have always pretended to emulate, the curriculum has been assailed by conservatives, much as they went apeshit over the NEH's proposed history standards in the 1990s.
As a child of the nineties, I'm not exactly enthusiastic about the return of the History Wars, but I guess they are inevitable. These kinds of fights are nothing new. I was reading Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge recently, and was reminded of the (literally) violent opposition to new school textbooks in West Virginia in the 1970s.
I am interested in examining exactly why the History Wars have returned with such vehemence. Most of it has to do with Tea Party conservatism, which was called something else back in the 1970s, but was still the same force opposing textbooks that dispensed with a hagiographic vision of the American past. Radical conservatism relies on a certain narrative of American history more than perhaps any other political movement. They constantly make appeals to the "Founders," who they have transformed into divine figures who can do no wrong. America to them is a kind of tool for God's will on earth, an "exceptional" nation bringing the light of freedom to the world.
The evangelical/fundamentalist flavoring of the Tea Party colors its historical vision. America can do no wrong, since it is divinely inspired. To point out any shortcomings, or how the Founders were not perfect and actually even fought with each other, is heresy. This leads to some rather odd attempts to resolve contradictions, like Michele Bachamann's claim that the Founders had intended to do away with slavery from day one and were successful. When someone points out that actual, professional experts think these interpretations are utter poppycock, it only inflames the anti-intellectual resentments of the Tea Party masses, making their resistance that much stronger.
Unfortunately, the rankly inaccurate and self-serving narrative of American history propagated by conservatives has some institutional power behind it. Unlike liberals, conservatives have used school board elections to push their agenda. It's rather inspired, actually, since most voters no little about the candidates and vote in small numbers, meaning motivated conservatives can vote their favored ideologues into power. Like the rest of their radical brethren, they hear on Rush or see on Fox News that the liberals are at it again making their children hate America, and so thunder back with their denunciations.
On a deeper level I think they also know that a more critical and honest view of American history is damaging to their political prospects. Knowing the centrality of racism, sexism, and economic inequality to this country's history might make young people want to combat those demons in contemporary society at a time when conservatives want to pretend they don't exist. Knowing America's imperial history and all of the wars waged for profit and conquest might make them question whether they want to be cannon fodder in the next conflict. The success of radical conservatism can be partially attributed to vast public ignorance of the past, and conservatives aim to keep it that way. It ought to be the fervent, tireless mission of my fellow historians to ensure that they do not succeed.