07/18/2011 12:22 pm ET | Updated Sep 17, 2011

Behind Michele Bachmann's Twisted History: The Fear of Complexity

I'm glad to see all the discussion sparked by my last post (No Mistake: Why Michele Bachmann Is Trying to Rewrite History). That post explains how Michele Bachmann's alternative history of the founding fathers comes from the debunked teachings of Evangelical pseudo-historian David Barton. Some of the comments on the post, though, reflect the resilience of Barton's influence. And they highlight what I think is one of the main forces driving Bachmann and the right wing on their flight into irrationality: the fear of complexity. In place of it, the right wants to substitute radically simplified fictions, whether about history, or about climate change, homosexuality or the debt ceiling.

A couple of examples from the comments:

1) The view of Democrats as champions of civil rights is false. The truth the elites don't want you to know is that Democrats fought against civil rights for much of our history, and Republicans are its champions. The GOP's deepest shame on civil rights dates from the 60's. That decade saw the party of Lincoln betray its roots by adopting the Southern Strategy, wooing the racists who were then being abandoned by the Democratic Party. Before the 60's, it was the Democrats who had an unholy bargain with racists. Democrats readily recognize that. Unlike the current version of the GOP, Democrats are not rewriting history to make their positions of today look better.

2) The idea that the original Constitution protected slavery is based only on a distorted reading of the "three-fifths clause". The founders actually intended that clause as a clever ploy to erode slavery, by reducing the representation of Southerners in Congress. The Constitution protects slavery in not just one but three places (some argue there are more):

The three-fifths clause was not an anti-slavery ploy, but a compromise among paradoxes: The anti-slavery side would normally have demanded full personhood for slaves -- except that would have given the pro-slavery South a large advantage in Congress, when all those slaves were counted up in the census. Meanwhile the pro-slavery side's stance implied non-personhood -- but that would have given the anti-slavery Northerners the advantage, and in any case was morally unacceptable to many of those Northerners. The three-fifths clause attempted to resolve these paradoxes.

The truth, as usual, is complex. But complexity is what the right-wing historical revisionists don't like. They prefer to reduce it to binary choices of right-wrong, good-evil. We see this on the extreme left, too, where some argue that because the founders did not extend full rights to slaves, women or Native-Americans, they were no better than any other white, male oppressors. For that matter, we see it among Islamic fundamentalists, who believe that because America does some things wrong, it does everything wrong.

What all these people seem to have in common is an inability to cope with complexity. Complexity results inevitably from our ever-expanding knowledge of reality, and so is one of the core challenges posed by living in the modern world. Much of the turmoil we now see around the world originates with those who are failing to meet that challenge. Things were a lot simpler when we knew less, so their solution is to try to know less once again. No doubt this also driving a lot of substance abuse.

But the trouble with knowledge is that -- absent a Dark Ages, or unconsciousness -- it's hard to make it go away. We need to learn to handle it, to live with complexity. We should be able to celebrate the courage and genius of the founders, and the magnificence of the Constitution, without having to pretend away their flaws. We should be able to debate interpretations of history without falsifying history itself.

It is that falsification, not their opinions, that is the risk posed by Barton, Bachmann and their fellows. Democracy depends on freedom of opinion based on a shared trust in evidence and reason. Without that shared trust, opinions just become a matter of who has more power. Ironically, this is where American right-wing extremists line up with French, left-wing post modernists.

It's not surprising that at the center of David Barton's revisionism is his attack on the Constitutional separation of church and state: he wants to make everything a matter of (Evangelical Christian) faith. As the founders understood so well, that is fundamentally undemocratic.