history, Non-Teaching

Colbert & Palin: The “Truth” of the Past, Wikipedia, and Historical Re-enactment

All three of those elements came crashing together pretty humorously in a bit Stephen Colbert performed last week on his show, “The Colbert Report.” The particular topic of his segment had to do with Sarah Palin‘s description of Paul Revere‘s ride and the subsequent media response that followed her (disjointed, as Colbert makes clear) description of the event.

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Certainly Palin’s description of Revere’s ride and the “accuracy” (or lack thereof), is an interesting topic, and one that Colbert addresses satirically throughout the piece. However, having consumed a lot of post-modernist Kool-Aid over the past five years, I’m pretty well willing to recognize that all descriptions of historical events are constructions of the past, none of which can ever embody the actual substance of “how it actually was” — the great goal of the nineteenth century German historian Leopold von Ranke (and something I’ve touched on earlier). While Palin’s portrayal doesn’t have the rigorous grounding in primary source material that say, David Hackett Fischer’s account does, it does reflect an interesting cultural moment in the United States as the country’s history plays an ever-more prominent role in political discourse and campaigning. (For more on that topic, see Jill Lepore’s New Yorker article and her recent book) . However, what’s far more interesting to me is the way that the past, and in particular a “national” past, is constantly harnessed for such (often) divergent ends by politicians, scholars, and others. This isn’t just a Tea Party thing (although it’s most prominent with them); it’s something that happens with politicians of all political stripes. In this respect, any portrayal of the Founders (which has such a unique deity-esque, cult status in this country) that emphasizes their “national” consciousness retroactively projects a modern worldview onto individuals that didn’t have those same conceptions, definitions, and word usages.

Sarah Palin's Paul Revere

Image by cayobo via Flickr - Original "Tom the Dancing Bug" cartoon by Ruben Bolling.

I found the segment’s discussion over the conflict that took place on the Wikipedia page for Paul Revere to also be really interesting. This contestation again speaks to the power of encyclopedias (which have now been supplanted by Wikipedia in terms being the go-to-reference authority) for their ability to convey “facts” and provide a definitive account of what happened. The fact that the Wikipedia page for Paul Revere got locked down by the site’s administrators suggests 1) how immediately different interest groups will work to find popularly accepted channels to convey their worldview, and 2) how poor many people’s critical lenses are when evaluating the sources of information they use. I was actually a bit disappointed that the Paul Revere Wikipedia page hadn’t gone all meta and included a self-referential section that talked about the controversy surrounding its editing/vandalism (a semantic distinction that will vary depending on your perspective).

However, this phenomenon of putting critical blinders on also seems to crop up in the journalistic scandals that result when news outlets immediately run with a story initially presented on Twitter. This new, widespread access to popularly-consulted forms of communicated — Wikipedia and Twitter amongst others — enables people at the grassroots level to have a rapid and dramatic impact on what the general public considers “fact” as they rush to push out material that serves their purpose. (Which, to get all meta on myself now, seems to be what I’m doing with this post. Hmm.) This same phenomenon also seemed to be at work in Anthony Weiner‘s immediate denials about his indiscreet postings to Twitter, as his first line of defense was, “My Twitter account got hacked,” a plausible, albeit weak, defense against his own wrong-doings that was based on the egalitarian nature of the modern internet.

Colbert’s final bit, which challenged even his impressive deadpan delivery skills, also points to the widespread appeal of and notion that historical re-enactment can shed light on the way the past “really happened.”

Stephen Colbert's Midnight Ride - Image courtesy of Colbert News Hub

While the incredible absurdity of Colbert’s re-enactment is pretty well evident to all audiences, I wonder how many degrees of difference separate this over-the-top performance from the types of re-enactments (most of which, in the United States, focus on the Civil War), that Tony Horwitz wrote about in Confederates in the Attic? At the core of all re-creations, does a desire to experience the “reality” of the past simply serve as a way to validate one’s own modern-day perspective on what “actually” happened? Of course, dressing up in heavy, tick-infested, woolen uniforms does lend one an air of historical authenticity (or modern-day clinical insanity). Nevertheless the re-creation can never escape the contemporary moment in which it is imagined, executed, and experienced. Colbert’s re-enactment took on the tone of the ridiculous by clearly highlighting the modern elements — the mechanical horse, him wearing a suit, and the ceremonial tossing of gunpowder over both his shoulders. However, it seems like Colbert was just being truthful about any attempt to know the “reality of the past” through a re-enactment as the contemporary forces that shape it inevitably move to the fore no matter how much one tries to turn a blind eye to them.


One thought on “Colbert & Palin: The “Truth” of the Past, Wikipedia, and Historical Re-enactment

  1. Pingback: ONE Vision for Humanity « A Taurean View on a New Era

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