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Agitate, America!: The United States: A history of cognitive dissonance
By Nancy Churchill
A Progressive Visionary
Cognitive dissonance: rationalizing away disharmony by inventing comfortable illusions in situations that create conflict with deeply-held convictions. Or, why people invent lies to justify victimizing others. Bullies use it to blame their victims all the time.
Cognitive dissonance is behind the claim that giving tax breaks to the wealthy will create jobs, for instance. Never did, never will, but if lawmakers can be convinced without proof that it works, the rich get their tax breaks and everyone else pays when the economy collapses. Sort of like the Bush tax cuts of 2001-2003 crashing the economy in 2007-2008.
It’s what James Loewen used to explain the whitewash of American history in his critique of textbooks, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.
And it’s behind a George Will column of Dec. 27, 2004, titled “Let’s not diminish the history of the United States,” praising David Hackett Fischer for “setting the record straight” in his book, Washington’s Crossing.
Fischer’s book was intended to correct the record that Gen. George Washington’s famous win at the Battle of Trenton Dec. 26, 1776, was because of Hessians being “weary from a week of constant vigilance against attacks by local insurgents,” instead of being drunk after a night of partying, as is commonly believed.
Up to that point in the Revolutionary War, Americans had lost every battle, Washington had lost 90 percent of his men, and New Jersey was “tilting toward the crown.”
To make the crossing, Fischer wrote: “Washington rolled the dice, risking everything. Had he lost the gamble … the continent would have been lost. The brief American rebellion would be a historical footnote … and subsequent world history would have been very different.”
Will uses Fischer’s treatise to argue that those who “mock the idea of great persons” have tried to erase Washington’s greatest achievement by claiming that Washington’s army was so weak they could only win because the opposition was drunk and hung over.
In his quest to assail the “intellectual mockers” (liberals, I’m guessing), Will misses the far greater moral found in Fischer’s work, which was that “Washington … often reminded his men that … the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should extend even to their enemies.” Edmund Morgan said that “made the war itself an example of what the Revolution meant.”
It’s not dissonant to recognize that people can do great things despite being deeply flawed. Washington suffered from cognitive dissonence himself, Loewen revealed. After having had positive images of Indians early in his life, victimizing them in the Ohio War of 1790 caused him to shamefully denounce them as having “nothing human except the shape.”
Without Washington’s courageous raid, there would be no America. But it took subsequent mass movements featuring heroes such as Harriet Tubman, Jane Addams, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr., to fulfill what the Revolution really meant.
It did not mean turning the Republic over to the wealthy in the 21st century. Rather, that’s cognitive dissonance.
Highlights of Nancy Churchill’s life are growing up in Congo, Africa, until she was 15, racing stock cars as an adult from 1976 until 2001, and writing as a liberal political junkie since the early ’90s. She lives in Oregon, Ill.
From the Oct. 24-30, 2012, issue