Don’t know much about history…

The problem with the world is that everyone is a few drinks behind” Humphrey Bogart

I know when I’m watching a bad interview on TV or the Internet. The question comes up: “What was the most influential book you read in (high school, college)?” Standard answers include the Bible, Catcher in the Rye, Atlas Shrugged (though not in MY crowd), A Separate Peace, A Tree Grows In Brooklyn. You know the list. Common interview question among the punditry.

Well,  I know I’m a dweeb. But I hereby admit that one of my favorite books in that formative time was a reference book. Mom subscribed to Saturday Review, and one of the columnists was a man named Tom Burnam. On one particular week, his column was titled something along the lines of ‘Stuff I’m tired of knowing about that I have to explain to people’. It included false word etymologies (the expression ‘tip’ doesn’t come from ‘to insure proper service’—it was a thief’s expression in England), debunked wive’s tales (fresh liver placed on an injury never saved anybody, ditto raw meat applied to a black eye), Shakespeare couldn’t spell his last name the same way twice, there’s no ‘lost art of hardening copper’… etc. Response to this column was apparently quite big, and Burnam started thinking there was more to this. Thus came the Dictionary of Misinformation in 1975, followed by two editions of More Misinformation. It’s a worthwhile read, although it hasn’t been updated since the 1970’s.

I think Burnam’s book was absolutely part of the zeitgeist of the 1970’s, when a whole slew of things Americans thought they ‘knew’ were proven wrong. It was the decade of  Watergate,  the Pentagon Papers, and the Church Hearings into the illegalities and secret operations of the Intelligence community , along with a score of lesser sea changes and reversals that challenged the status quo. The decade was marked by a slew of liberation movements–everything from the Native American uprising at Wounded Knee to the early days of the Gay Liberation Movement (the Stonewall riots had happened in 1969).

My point in this history recitation is that I come to my skepticism naturally. I was a very very lonely kid in High School, as I was one of the few defenders of Richard Nixon to the very end. After his resignation, it turned out that most of my peers had been right. Thus burned, I began looking at contrarian points of view. Who knows, the people in charge are always ready to lie.

This is all prologue to my story. Over the past few days, I’ve gotten involved in some really contentious arguments with people over a variety of subjects–everything from Reagan’s presidency to the debt ceiling debate and the nature of the tax cuts pushed through in the fiscal cliff debacle. Along the way, I realized that the problem wasn’t that I had differences of opinions with the people I was arguing with (though the phrase ‘differences of opinions’ is putting it mildly). The problem was that many of the people I was arguing with didn’t know the things I knew, either out of lack of coverage by what passes for mainstream media, or because they’ve chosen to filter out the things that don’t fit their narrative. It isn’t like all the big newspapers in the US carried banner headlines on June 27, 1986 when the International Court of Justice ruled that the Government of the United States had engaged in war crimes in Nicaragua (among other charges). The US denied that the ICJ had jurisdiction and demanded that the vote be taken in the United Nations. That vote was 94-3 against the United States (only Israel and El Salvador voted with the US), which ignored the vote. I know that. Nicaraguans know it. Most Americans don’t.

Now here’s the rub: If I bring this factoid up during a discussion, you can argue that it was not upheld by the UN, that it was Soviet-inspired propaganda, that the ICJ didn’t look at all the facts. But if we’re going to have a functioning society, you can’t say IT DIDN’T HAPPEN. Information like this has never been easier to find and look up.

Iraq’s non-existent WMD program was ginned up to justify our invasion. Google it.

The same with Iraq’s non-involvement in 9/11. Google it, or look up the 9/11 Commission report.

The same with Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands with Saddam Hussein at the height of the Iran-Iraq war and the Reagan administration assisting Iraq in its war against Iran. This at the same time the Reagan administration was supplying Iran with TOW anti-tank missiles and other weapons in the arms-for-hostages- deal that was Iran Contra. It’s kind of understandable that the Iraqis wouldn’t think of us as an ally worth trust.

And though I’m mostly picking on Republicans here, there are plenty of things that the Democrats are not called on. Democrats don’t want to bring up Clinton’s championing NAFTA, or signing away Glass Steagall (which made the financial meltdown of 2008 not only possible but perhaps inevitable). And  Clinton was the first president to bring up the idea of privatizing Social Security and investing the trust fund in the Stock Market. Facts are party-neutral.

One of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s favorite sayings during his Senate years (and it’s a saying which probably predates him)  is relevant here: “You’re entitled to your own opinions. You’re not entitled to your own facts“.  We cannot have a real conversation about how to resolve our various crises if we can’t even agree on what constitutes fact versus legend–or wishful thinking.


  1. Another grand slam. Thanks Dan.
    But please let’s give Saint Ronald his due. The assault on Glass Steagall (begun really in ’77 by a gang of thugs that eventually ended up in Herr Reagan’s financial junta or as they’re more cynically but perhaps more accurately referred to: The Handlers) was brought to a fever pitch during the Ronald McReagan years. What Clinton signed away was a dead useless shell. Much like what would be cast in the ravine after the field dressing.
    I mean, you know… let’s give credit where credit is due.

  2. Understood that Glass-Steagall and NAFTA were leftovers from Poppy Bush and were on Clinton’s desk from the beginning. But Clinton threw poor people under the bus by ‘ending welfare as we know it’, an act for which Moynihan never forgave him (after the vote, he took Clinton aside and told him that should the economy turn sour again, it would be virtually impossible to rebuild the safety net). Remember too that as big wheels in Arkansas, the Clintons weren’t exactly union-friendly (Hillary sat on Walmart’s board of directors for six years in the 80’s and didn’t exactly stand up for the rights of the employees).

    Just saying.

  3. I like to point out to Clinton devotees that during his 8 years of rule the number of people reduced from the welfare rolls (a feat for which he is vehemently lauded) equaled the number of folks that were thrown in prison! I do find a marked difference between the average european reaction (of sober shock) and the average american response of “so what?”

  4. […] a month ago, I posted an article about the problem of not having a common history in the United States. And by that, I meant that […]

  5. This is a ggreat blog

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