Ah, Sarah. Where would we be without our Sarah. I say our, though I’m not an American. I’m not even Canadian! But she seems so universal a figure, perhaps through shared language (at least as an approximation of language) than anything else. Her recent assault on facts, as it were, in relation to Paul Revere’s Ride, has left high school history teachers agog (well, the non-creationists at least). As one blogger put it, the real story “is pretty much known by everyone.” This lady clearly doesn’t know that stupider isn’t a word. And by introducing the piece as being about “jabbering imbecile Sarah Palin and her rented tour bus…” we pretty much know where she’d headed with the article, and it is not to Objective City. But we do know what she meant, and we like her energy. Whether comparable trespasses on the lawn of cultural history or not, at least one liberal blogger points out that Obama’s not squeaky clean in massaging history to suit his present needs.
Assaulting national identity and culture seems to strike pretty hard. We anchor ourselves in stories and mythology that in a way define us; we create heroes. Paul Revere’s ride was dangerous, brave, spirited. It was ideologically driven, from an objectively good ideology (we should be independent, we should govern ourselves, and our futures, we should be free!). In Ireland we have our mythology about the Easter Rising, in England there are countless mythologies about monarchs, empire and the civilising influence of Great Britain in the world. And so any assault on the accepted version of that truth is an assault on the nation corporate, an attack on shared values.
Edward Carr’s seminal work “What Is History?” defines history not as a set of facts, but as a dialogue between the present and the past, he sees history as a dynamic thing. It helps us to better understand who we are as a relative thing, just as much as it helps us to declare who we are. Therefore I can claim to be like Paul Revere because I’m brave and defend my people; Sarah Palin can claim to be like Paul Revere because she defends the right to bear arms. Revere himself (or Rivoire, to give him his proper French name) would have faded long ago from the memory were it not for the eulogising and mythmaking of Longfellow, almost half a century after he had died. Longfellow was not entirely true to his research, in order to create an appropriately dramatic scene befitting of his poem, and of the new myth. At the end of the day, whatever happened that night when the British were apparently on their way, the story of Paul Revere’s Ride is both sacred, and quite possibly untrue. But we create these myths, and we persist with these myths, and we change these myths, so that they can define ourselves today, in a cross-generational dialogue. And perhaps Sarah Palin is trying to do just that – to redefine America, or define her America, uncovering a truth where perhaps it had not been seen before.
One outstanding question remains, however. Time is an important factor in myth making. It cannot happen within a generation. The myth needs retelling, reinforcement, third party validation. In the age of the Internet, things happen really really fast. Does history itself become redefined by the internet? Would Carr suggest a different dialogue on the nature of history? The internet is an exceptionally efficient communications mechanism, and as such the nature of communications changes, and the impact of communications (and by extension the myth-making, eulogising, even conspiracy theorising) is more immediate. It may also be that it is also more fleeting, and less sustainable. The internet does not remember very well. New technologies render obsolete the old very quickly. Storage of old stuff is really hard. Language changes faster (have you been pwn3d recently?!). Meaning shifts. In fifty, or one hundred years time, will anyone remember Sarah Palin? More importantly – will anyone remember anything at all that’s more than fifty years old?