I had no sooner finished my last post, Coffee Party, part II, when I was meandering about the web (I never do "surf" it) and landed on a YouTube video of Michele Bachmann, tea partier extraordinaire, explaining that she became a Republican after reading Gore Vidal's novel Burr. Up until that point, she had been a Democrat, and her first trip to Washington, she said, was to attend Jimmy Carter's inaugural ball.
All that changed as she read Burr, which Wikipedia describes a "a  historical novel challenging the traditional iconography of United States history via narrative and a fictional memoir of Aaron Burr."
According to Bachmann, she was offended that Burr "ridiculed the Founding Fathers."
This aligns exactly with what I discussed in the last blog: Tea Partiers have a vision that wants to pull the good from American history, and they are repelled by the seemingly endless negativity progressives appear to display toward that history, a negativity I believe most progressives understand as an attempt to articulate what the American experience was like to oppressed classes. But as I mentioned in the last post, to some extent it grows distasteful to many people.
Of course Bachmann is playing politics, but her Burr story rings true, and it seems clear in the video that she is heartfelt (or a very good actress) when she identifies her reaction to the book as a defining moment. Her distaste for its denigration of historical figures she "revered" led her to question her political allegiances, and she switched parties. The book's point of view clearly offended her at a deep level. It rings true to me that a visceral moment that shakes a person's deep held convictions would lead to the kind of change Bachmann describes.
That the book is fiction didn't matter. The aesthetic was offensive to her.
Wikipedia contends that the novel was meticulously researched and based on fact: "Vidal did meticulous research of hundreds of documents to come up with his alternative reading of history. In an afterword, the author maintains that in all but a few instances, the characters' actions and many of their words are based on actual historical records."
Bachmann doesn't argue that the book is inaccurate. She argues that it's vision was repugnant to her.
The question comes back to: Can the progressives create a vision that more people find compelling?
This is interesting to me. I share ancestry with Aaron Burr, and my father, an historian, has shelves of Aaron Burr books. He loves Aaron Burr!
My job is to get people excited by history. My focus has been on the activists, pacifists, feminists, rebels, and agitators who make the United States worthy of study. The trick is to align the students on the side of the principles of fairness, equality, and justice and to help them side with the underdog. That's rarely difficult to do. People love the underdog and I find that by using humor quite a bit and by appealing to their sense of fairness, I'm able to tell them about the difficult and sad things in history without overwhelming them. People also love a good story. The history of African Americans, immigrants, laborers, women, and peace-makers are good stories that I find really inspirational because, as Helen Keller reminds us, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is also full of the overcoming of it."
If you write a book, I would love to read it! I think you have exactly the right approach--rather than bashing to overlords, focus on the underdogs. When my husband and I were first married in the 1980s, for a complicated series of reasons we ended up in Newport RI and toured the Breakers--not a servant's tour of the Breakers is offered and I would love to have had the chance to take that and see how the other half lives. I also love the Tenement Museum in NYC. It sounds as if you have deep roots in America.
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