The Whites of the Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History – Jill Lapore
Jill Lapore is a professor of American History at Harvard. As a historian, Lapore defends her profession’s critical inquiry into history against historical fundamentalism. That is the tendency to venerate the Founding Fathers with religious zeal and fanatically regard the Constitution and its originalist interpretations as sacred writ. Lapore also criticizes the reverent nostalgia that can’t and won’t cope with the realities of the past such as race-based chattel slavery and the ill-treatment of vulnerable members of society such as women, the old, the young, the poor, the sick and afflicted, and the insane.
Lapore’s argument is that people on both the left and the right practice historical fundamentalism when they refer to the Revolution to advocate for their particular points of view. They misuse history to validate their own positions and promote their own agenda.
For instance, she examines how in the 1970s left-leaning profs and activists viewed the events of the American Bicentennial rather askance. She writes, "Historians mocked the Bicentennial as schlock and its protests as contrived but didn't offer an answer, a story, to a country that needed one. That left plenty of room for a lot of other people to get into the history business." By “other people” she means people who were offended by those who would be skeptical about the Revolution or the motives of figures such as neurotic crank Samuel Adams or smuggler extraordinaire John Hancock.
During the first couple years of the Obama administration, at rallies and get-togethers in taverns, she talks to members in the Tea Party about their use of Revolutionary garb (tri-cornered hats) and patter (“No taxation without representation”) in anti-tax, anti-bailout, anti-Ocare protests.
In the spirit of David Lowenthal’s title The Past is a Foreign Country, Lapore emphasizes that the 18th century has become a very very long time ago. So it behooves us to think hard to see it as it was, not as a golden age that we may wish it to be. She criticizes members of the Tea Party for not appreciating “the distance between the past the present.” Reverence in approaching the past, she says, is not as important as imagination and creativity.
Lapore’s prose is clear, her tone isn’t snarky. The organization suffers a little because she will meander with her juxtapositions of the 18th, 20th, and 21st centuries. I’d recommend it to readers who, like me, want a starting point before getting into heavier deeper scholarly works.