Bachmann, Burr, and Patriotism
How about a break from arguing over the mandate?
I’m in the middle of Burr, Gore Vidal’s fictional account of the life of America’s most reviled duelist. Why am I reading it? Well, the only other work of historical fiction I’ve read from Vidal was a pretty fun read. And Michelle Bachmann says that Burr turned her into a conservative.
I admit this piqued my curiosity. Bachmann doesn’t cite something from the conservative canon (Rand, God and Man at Yale, Conscience of a Conservative etc) as part of her conversion moment. Burr was what really stuck. Vidal’s irreverent take on the founding generation was apparently too much for Bachmann to bear.
Here’s where I admit I’m biased: I’m really enjoying the book. Burr as imagined by Vidal is a tremendously funny character. And I’ve always been interested in historical revisionism, so an insider-y account of the revolutionary generation is right up my alley. I also think that historical fiction can be genuinely illuminating: As told by Vidal, Jefferson’s casual indifference to political violence is reminiscent of Lenin. Washington, meanwhile, is transformed from the father of his country to one of the most incompetent generals in history. I don’t think of Jefferson as a proto-Bolshevik, of course, but Burr is a useful reminder that one of the man’s most celebrated phrases involves a tree of liberty getting periodically refreshed by bloody conflict. And Washington, for all his political and strategic acumen, has never been regarded as a brilliant military tactician.
So it”s a good read, but I don’t think Vidal’s characters should be taken too seriously. In the novel, Burr is an old man whose memoirs are quite clearly selective and influenced by self-interest or self-regard. His remembrances are a corrective to nostalgia for the revolutionary era, not an objective account of the period.
So why would anybody feel threatened by this book?
I really think this sort of thing is telling, if only because it elides the difference between nationalism and patriotism. A nationalist like Bachmann can’t stand the thought taking the Founders down a peg or two, even in a work of fiction. Anything that questions the official hagiography surrounding Washington or Jefferson is a threat to our founding mythos. You might think I’m exaggerating, but this extends beyond her dislike of Vidal’s fiction. She quite literally misrepresents the historical record to erase the Founders’ blemishes.
I consider myself a patriot, but I’ve always been uncomfortable with this peculiar brand of nationalist myth-making. It reeks of dishonesty. More importantly, it suggests a sense of nationalistic insecurity I just don’t feel. I truly believe I’m lucky to have been born a citizen of the United States. I think it’s self-evident that we live in a remarkably free, remarkably prosperous country. Acknowledging our faults and the faults of our predecessors does nothing to shake this conviction. But then, I’m not cowering in the corner, terrified that a novel is going to somehow undermine the very real accomplishments of men like Washington, Jefferson, or Hamilton.
History is complicated, and we’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way. But patriotism shouldn’t depend on a selective national mythology. After the illusion is shattered, what’s left? For Bachmann, nothing at all.