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October 11 2019

Tear All The Statues Down: The War on Americas Founders

featuring Beverly Hallberg

On this episode of the “She Thinks” podcast, Jarrett Stepman joins to talk about his new book “The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America’s Past”. This is a timely topic as we approach Columbus Day. Jarrett talks about the real motivations behind the push to rewrite history and considers whether or not we can honor the past while acknowledging our mistakes.

Jarrett is a columnist for The Daily Signal, a multimedia publication of The Heritage Foundation, where he writes about how American history informs our present politics. He was a 2018 Lincoln Fellow for the Claremont Institute, and has appeared on Fox News, CNN, and the One America News Network. His columns have been published by The Federalist, The American Mind, RealClearPolitics, and Congressional Quarterly, among many other outlets. Jarrett lives in Washington, D.C

Beverly:
Welcome to "She Thinks", a podcast where you're allowed to think for yourself. I'm your host, Beverly Hallberg.

Beverly:
On this episode we talk to Jarrett Stepman, author of the new book, The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past. I'm thrilled to have Jarrett on, not only because he's a fellow Northern Californian, but also because we are approaching Columbus Day, a day that has recently come under attack by those saying it marks the atrocities committed by Europeans on natives and black people. So today, Jarrett's going to answer some questions on what's really behind this effort to rewrite history and whether or not we can honor our past while acknowledging its mistakes.

Beverly:
Before we bring him on, a little bit about Jarrett. Jarrett is a columnist for The Daily Signal, a multimedia publication of The Heritage Foundation where he writes about how history informs our present politics. He was a 2018 Lincoln Fellow for The Claremont Institute and has appeared on Fox News, CNN, and The One America News Network. His columns have been published by The Federalist, The American Mind, RealClearPolitics, and Congressional Quarterly, among many others, and he currently lives in Washington, D.C. with his wife.

Beverly:
Jarrett, thank you so much for coming on.

Jarrett Stepman:
Oh, thank you very much.

Beverly:
I know many of us know your wife because she works for IWF. Inez Stepman is your wife, and we love having her on the podcast as well, so it seems like the policy in both of you, it's something that you both care about deeply.

Jarrett Stepman:
It certainly is. It's something we share and certainly I have her to thank, especially with the writing of my book for staying up long nights and helping me out with that and my research and editing. She's just wonderful.

Beverly:
Well, we always love having her on the podcast, and I was excited to have you on not because we've known each other for awhile, as I mentioned, you're a fellow Northern Californian as well. It's always a pleasure to meet Californians who have the similar ideologies that we share, which is a little bit unusual for the West Coast, but also because this is a perfect time to talk about your book as we are approaching Columbus Day, a day that people typically, or at least in the past, tended to celebrate and thought of this as a good thing, but these days it's a day that's attacked. Why are we seeing that?

Jarrett Stepman:
I think the attacks on Columbus, they started awhile ago. In fact, they did start in the San Francisco Bay area. I know in 1992 was the first big one where of course it was the 500-year anniversary of Columbus's landing in the Americas. They actually changed the name of Columbus Day to Indigenous People's Day, which at the time I think people kind of wrote it off because it was Berkeley and those sorts of things happen in Berkeley. But this thing has really spread. It's really spread across the country. It's spread a lot of ... most, I would say now a majority of young Americans have a negative view toward Columbus and I think a lot of the attacks certainly came from, especially one historian named Howard Zinn who wrote prolifically in the 70s, wrote a book called, A People's History of the United States, and he pinned the growth of what he thought is international capitalism, things like this, he pinned that on Christopher Columbus. He thought that Christopher Columbus's discovery that created this kind of globalized world in which capitalism would flourish. And of course Zinn himself was certainly a Marxist, a card carrying communist.

Jarrett Stepman:
And so he saw that America's roots, in the Americas, was ultimately a bad thing. That it was somehow it was rotten from the beginning. If you want to say it's rotten from the beginning, you have to start with Christopher Columbus, who of course without Columbus there would be no America, period. It was his journey across the Atlantic and the discovery that he made that made this world possible.

Beverly:
And so this brings me to the question, I think it's really the crux of what your book is about, and that is whether or not we can honor our past, the founders and the founding documents, while still acknowledging that there are mistakes, that it wasn't a perfect history. Why is it that we do see certain activists or bureaucrats, and we'll talk about who is actually behind some of this. Why is it that it almost seems that people in our past have to be perfect if we are going to recognize them or remember them in any way.

Jarrett Stepman:
Yeah, we see this with a lot of things. We talk about modern day so-called cancel culture. You know, you find one flaw on somebody and you erase them. And I think that to a certain extent we're applying that same rule book to the past. And which of course, and when you talk about the past, which is often sometimes a very different place where people had different values, where the debates were different. If you applied that kind of measure, you'll certainly find that all people in the past were generally flawed as we are. And it is a real danger because a lot of the great things that have been passed down to us or passed down by people who we would disagree with on things, who we would find to be flawed and to have made mistakes.

Jarrett Stepman:
You know, we certainly today ourselves make a whole lot of mistakes and I think this idea that those who we've gotten good things from in the past need to somehow be perfect Zions of our ideology, which I think a lot of what it comes down to. Not everybody in 1492 was going to have the same outlook on the world as a modern progressive, it's just not realistic. And those standards are constantly changing. They're constantly evolving almost day-to-day. You know what exactly is deemed acceptable now, two days from now may not be deemed acceptable. In fact, it may be quite the opposite.

Jarrett Stepman:
And so you apply those standards to people who in many cases are hundreds of years in the past. I think you end up with a skewed view of history. You start to just view everything as bad and evil and you tend to throw out the things that are actually very much good. It ultimately made us feel that our country is great so that we have prosperity and so that we were created as a very virtuous people.

Jarrett Stepman:
You throw those things out and I think you have a very warped view of reality and of human nature, which I think very much is fallen. So I think that's a real danger in this whole movement and which ultimately, we're really going to look at every single figure in American history or world history and put them through this lens. Nobody's going to escape that scrutiny, not a single person. And so is that a healthy way of looking at the past, a healthy way of looking at society now? I certainly don't think so.

Beverly:
And so what do we do then about what people see as the evil of slavery? That it's this dark stain on America's past and people may be listening to you and say, Jared, I agree with you on day-to-day matters, but there's no way to ever excuse slavery and what was done. So how do you put that into context of the past and what do you say to individuals that we shouldn't be honoring anyone who did own slaves?

Jarrett Stepman:
Well, first of all, I think especially it does bother me that people look back and I say, well, how could this person, especially somebody like for instance, Thomas Jefferson, this guy talked a good talk, but he owned slaves and things like that. And I say, look, we have the incredible benefit today to live more or less in a world without slavery. Certainly in the United States, it's been purged from our country. The time that Jefferson lived in slavery was more or less the norm and tyranny was everywhere. There was no free country. Every country, even the ones who are somewhat better than others, were ultimately ones where people lived under various forms of tyranny.

Jarrett Stepman:
It was ultimately people like Jefferson and other founders who I think had the courage of their convictions to say in a society in which a race-based slavery was very much a reality to put in our founding documents the idea that we hold certain truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. They're endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights. That's what's very brave and that's what ultimately made things that are ultimately the standards that we hold them to. I think we don't realize the very standards that we say that they failed on, especially the founding fathers, are the ones that we are using against them. It comes straight from them. We have to acknowledge that the idea of slavery is a great evil and abomination to most of history. That wasn't the case. Most people saw it as just a part of how the world worked and it was perfectly fine, that it was perfectly normal. In our history, I think our country has really trended toward liberty and it is trending toward freedom.

Jarrett Stepman:
And you know, that those tyrannies existed here as elsewhere to me is not the surprise. The surprise is that there's been any liberty at all, that there's been any success and prosperity, especially in comparison to the rest of the world. So that's the kind of context that I think needs to be important. So if we really think that any society that's had slavery is ultimately bad, then frankly all societies are bad, I mean all civilizations are bad. And I think that's a really unhealthy way of looking at things. Especially, when we think about what are people going to look back a thousand years from now and look at us and the mistakes that undoubtedly we will make that I think that we have undoubtedly done wrong. You know, that's just not a healthy view of the world.

Beverly:
So what do you say then, and this is, I'm trying to think of the personal aspect of this, because I have heard from friends who do take personal offense to some of the statues that they see saying that it reminds them of the time of slavery and what happened to the people that came before them. What do you say to those individuals who struggle to look at those monuments and it does remind them of tyranny and what their ancestors went through?

Jarrett Stepman:
Well, I think there's a couple of ways of dealing with this issue. First of all, I do think that there's a necessity in building statues and monuments to new heroes very much, I think we sometimes lose sight of that. I do talk once in my book about building a statue of Christopher Columbus, who at one time came under attack by weirdly enough by a white supremacist, the Ku Klux Klan. It was something of a tribute to Italian Americans and Catholic immigrants. Building up a statue with ... there was a statue down the street of a man who, Samuel Morris, who was kind of a notorious nativist and he was very much against Catholic immigrants. They decided to build a new statue that celebrated the things that they truly believed in. And I think that while I think it's very important. Some statutes around the country may ultimately be people they decide to bring them down, and I think that yeah, we do sometimes have to evaluate these things on an individual basis.

Jarrett Stepman:
But a lot of other statues, we have to understand what they were there for. There was one statue in Atlanta, that was a so-called Confederate statue that was actually a peace statute. It was one that was built to say that there should be peace after the war and there should be an end of the bitter feelings and then a mob basically gathered and tore it down. So people didn't really even think through exactly why the thing was there to begin with. And I think that it is really important in this whole debate to be measured in the way we look at these things and understand the context of why the statutes were there. Build more positive statutes who I think the things that our society does celebrate.

Jarrett Stepman:
Because at the end of the day, we don't want to just go through the past and just target, well that person makes me uncomfortable, tear them down, and I like this guy, so we'll build him up. I think that ultimately at the end of the day we're better off as a society coming to an understanding about those in the past, even those who we very much disagree with. There are a lot of historical figures in American history that I do not favor and they have statues around the country and to me, that starts a debate about what they are and what they stand for. Just going around and looking for statutes to tear down I think doesn't really do any good.

Beverly:
And I also think too, and on that note, and I agree with you in that so much about paintings and statues and fill-in-the-blank of the different ways that we remember the past, it always teaches a lesson, some good lessons, some bad lessons. And I thought it was really interesting, an article that you wrote, you talked about, I believe was a George Washington mural, was it in San Francisco, that they were trying to take it down out of a school, when actually it was depicting some of the challenges of slavery and everything else during that time. So the school completely lost the context of what this painting was trying to achieve.

Jarrett Stepman:
Yeah, that's exactly right. And I think that's what we've seen in a lot of these arguments about these statues and monuments is you don't even get the basic try and understand what it's there for. That one is I think quite dramatic. The person who painted that mural, he was a communist basically. He was a guy of the hard left at one time and it's amazing to see that you have these activists today who say, well, that thing was offensive. They completely missed the meaning of the mural entirely. They just said, well, it's offensive, you just got to get rid of it. And they did eventually put a ... apparently they've covered it up now, which is really quite absurd. And I think that that is the problem too, is that I don't think there's really any kind of attempt to understand what these things are there for. I think this is kind of the power politics of the modern day. You simply, if you like it, you keep it. If you don't like it, then you just completely get rid of it, you shut it down, you silence it.

Jarrett Stepman:
And I think that's a common tactic that we see. We see that in social media, we see that in the cancel culture politics of today. And I think that's an unhealthy attitude for any society to have. We're a society that should be a free people who can think for ourselves. And I think unfortunately a lot of these debates, I think there are a lot of politicians in particular who use statues and use monuments and use them as a kind of a scapegoat. They say, Hey look, the real problems you have aren't crime or bad schools or the problems of our city, they're really the statues and we need to take all those down.

Jarrett Stepman:
I saw this happening in Baltimore. They were very quick to go after statues in Baltimore. The mayor was very much a for it. And eventually she got busted for corruption charges, just like three of the last four mayors. And I'm thinking, well, you know, I don't think the problem was the statutes, I think the problem was that the schools are bad, that this place has a lot of crime and a lot of violence. And so I think a lot of it's used as a kind of scapegoat and they inject it in these historical debates when there are a lot of other problems that are not being addressed.

Beverly:
And I think this brings up this question, which is who is behind this effort? We know that it's been a growing thing to want to tear down statues and tear down anything of our past. Where did this originate from and who is carrying this out today?

Jarrett Stepman:
You know, I really do think it's the far left in this debate, because I think there are many, and even you know, what you think of is just liberals who in America who still ultimately want to preserve America's past. I think that there's this widespread belief that the founding fathers were generally good, that America was built on something that was generally good and it's worth protecting. But I think there is a growing group of, I would say hardcore activists. You know, these are the acolytes of people like Howard Zinn, the far left historian, and they have basically gathered a lot of power and especially in American institutions, our schools, our higher education K-12. They look at America as fundamentally broken. They think it's opposed to their ideas. A lot of them are collectivists, a lot of them are socialists. They know that American ideas and culture have been an impediment to their ideas, just nationally.

Jarrett Stepman:
I think that our embrace of individual rights, the Constitution and things like this again are seen as an impediment, and I think they know that that's a huge roadblock for them and so they want to separate Americans from their past, which is a cultural tradition of liberty. They want to separate from that to basically introduce new doctrines. They want to replace the old ones with new and what those new ones are I think, we look at polls. I think it's very clear where things are going in certain respects. At the same time we see polls that show that Americans, especially younger ones, have some of the lowest scores when it comes to understanding of civics and history. We see at the same time a huge rise in young Americans who say for instance, that they embrace socialism over capitalism and things like this. I do think that there was a huge ideological element here.

Jarrett Stepman:
You teach Americans to think that their country has been broken fundamentally, that it's against them, that it's just oppressive, that the people who came before them meant them ill, and you convince them that, Hey, well we have all the answers for you. We're going to start a brave new world year zero and we're going to wipe away all of the past and all of it's sins and we have a brave new perfect future ahead of you if you only just embrace socialism or whatever it is. And I think that's really what some of the motives are behind this stuff. I think that's what's really turned this thing into a national movement rather than one that just starts with local battles over history and things like this. I think this is why it's such a potent national movement in this country.

Beverly:
So where do you see the battle going next? So I think this has been an issue that's been ramping up, there is the war on statues, there's a war on certain holidays, of course not just Columbus Day, but also Thanksgiving. There's the war on America in general and the ideals and it was founded upon what you just talked about, but where do we see, or where have you seen as you research this issue area and follow it very closely. Where is the war going now?

Jarrett Stepman:
It's undoubtedly going ... it's really challenging the founders in particular. That may almost seem cliche at this point, but I really do think that that is the big one. I think we saw this recently with the New York Times launching the 1619 project, which I think had an interesting beginning. They were studying slavery in America and its history, which I think is an important topic. But right from the beginning they started saying, you know, we aim to reframe American history to say that the true founding of America was 1619 when slavery was first introduced, not 1776, which I disagree on. The historical details that actually slavery did exist in the America's long before 1619, but I also disagree that America's heart and root is 1619 rather than 1776.

Jarrett Stepman:
I think that that battle in a weird way takes the side of those who argued for slavery. Just before the civil war and their belief that America should be founded and based on race-based slavery. They're taking that argument and picking it up instead of the argument of Abraham Lincoln and in connection I think to the founding fathers that America was basically founded in liberty, in the Constitution and the individual rights I think we've come to embrace.

Jarrett Stepman:
So I think that is the battle ground. I think for large parts of our history, the founders have been almost untouchable. The Americans have always celebrated them and thought that George Washington was this great man of our founding and that Jefferson's words were an inspiration, something to reinvigorate us. I think if the founders fall America falls, that's really what we are. It's come down from what happened, our revolution. So to me that is ... certainly a lot of other figures are under attack and we talk about Christopher Columbus, talk about the pilgrims and the Puritans and talk about many other figures. But that's kind of the last straw in this debate and I think that's going to be a ferocious one.

Beverly:
And in your book, talk about, so what does this all mean? And you mentioned the importance of informed patriotism. What does that mean to you? I'm sure there are people listening to this podcast who maybe they're concerned about what their kids are learning or what the grandkids are going to know just about America and it's founding. What is informed patriotism and how do we help the next generations with the history and teach them and the importance of it, and it's important to learn lessons. What do you encourage people to do?

Jarrett Stepman:
Yeah, it comes specifically from Ronald Reagan's farewell address that he calls for Americans to embrace informed patriotism. That it was something at one time was much easier in America if you didn't, he said, if you didn't get it in your school, you get it from your community, you would get it from popular culture, you get it from Hollywood. And I think a lot of those things have disappeared. You don't get it from Hollywood, you don't get it from popular culture, you don't increasingly, certainly don't get it from your schools. And so unless you have parents that are highly engaged and help you along that path, you don't get anything.

Jarrett Stepman:
I was very fortunate when I was a young man, my parents and I came home from school and they asked what I learned, this was the 50th anniversary of D-Day, I think one of the most important days in all of human history. My school didn't teach about that. My father actually confronted my public school teacher and said, you know, why isn't our son learning about American history? You know, there are a lot of young people now who were not much older than him that died so that others could be free. And my school, the teacher didn't do anything. They said, well we're sorry. And so my parents pulled me out and put me in a private school.

Jarrett Stepman:
And I think for a lot of Americans, I think it's important, especially if your school is failing to teach about American history and civics. You know, I believe very strongly and an issue my wife works on very much, which is the issue of school choice, and being able to pull your child out of a failing school and get them to a place where they do teach American history, they do teach about civics. And even beyond that, I think we live in a mass information age and while I think a lot of what's out there kind of obscures the truth, that you can find a lot of primary documents about history, you can find a lot of information that's fairly widely available on just the truth of our history.

Jarrett Stepman:
And you know, it's amazing what's out there in the modern environment, even though there's a lot of garbage, there's a lot of great information that helps you inform yourself about the greats of our history, learn about Frederick Douglas, learn about Abraham Lincoln, learn about the founders. I think this certainly is available. It's about Americans who care enough to go seeking the truth. And I think it's about also creating an education environment that's much better so that Americans can find that true so it's not obscured.

Jarrett Stepman:
And so I think this whole movement can be confronted with facts. You know, I hope I did that in my book, The War on History. I hope I at least gave some people some information and some understanding of their past, not just the founders, but going through the generations that upheld what ultimately became the great country of the United States, which we live in today. And I do hope I've certainly informed and helped people understand that and have the arguments, especially if they're debating somebody who doesn't think of America was ultimately a great country, and they think that America isn't a country that we should be proud of. So I do think that there's a lot of room to battle back.

Jarrett Stepman:
And I think there's a huge audience of Americans who want that message. They're tired of what they hear in Hollywood. They're tired of what they hear on TV and they're disappointed what their kids bring back from school. And I think there's a way to take a stand, maybe it's a small one in a local community, maybe it's writing a letter to the editor, or if a statue is under attack in your community and you think is of a person that needs to be admired. So to me there's a lot of battlegrounds and we talk so much today about what's going on in Congress, what's going on in the world, but this is a battle for the heart of America and I think it's important that it really needs to be won.

Beverly:
And final question for you, this is more my curiosity. So you're talking about a topic that's pretty contentious for many people. What has the war been against you since this book came out? What's it been like for you?

Jarrett Stepman:
Well, I think there were a lot of people who want to end what I'm doing. They don't like this idea that somebody is going out and defending Christopher Columbus and things like this. Columbus on our college campuses now, it's unfortunately an extremely unpopular figure. And I think I defend people who have become unpopular for one way or another. I defend Theodore Roosevelt. There are a lot of people who have some issues with him. And so I get a lot of those attacks and to me, it's about battling back with simply the truth and the facts as they are. You know, in my history, I don't try to create a sunny, rainbows and sunshine view of history. History is very complicated sometimes and it's healthy to try to understand those complications and to think through those things.

Jarrett Stepman:
So, my book is a positive defense of the past. I come from a position that these figures were ultimately good for America and this country was built on great things. But certainly there are a lot of people who want to take that down a notch. And you know, I certainly get criticism on that and I'm sure I will get a lot more. It certainly interferes with I think the narratives that are out there that America was really never great to begin with, which is a powerful and rising one. It's contending with unfortunately a lot of what goes on in our elite institutions in America, our early schools. So there's a huge wave of opposition to this idea of should we have a positive history of America's past at all.

Jarrett Stepman:
And so fortunately there are a lot of people like myself who believe that we do. So, yes, I'm sure to get a lot of attacks and I've already gotten some attacks, certainly online. But to me, I think this country was founded on great things. I think it's worth defending and I think it's worth having the courage to stand up and defend it. You know, there were a lot of people a lot braver than I was who faced a whole lot more to make sure that I had a country that I had a freedom and to me, that makes it all worth it and whatever attacks I get it is worth it, because I'm not going to back down in what I believe about America.

Beverly:
Well it's a thought provoking book with a lot of historical fact in it. It's great. People should go out and get, it's called The War on History: The Conspiracy to Rewrite America's Past. Jarrett, thank you so much for joining us today.

Jarrett Stepman:
Thank you so much.

Beverly:
And thank you for joining us. Before you go, I also wanted to let you know of a great podcast you should subscribe to in addition to, She Thinks, it's called Problematic Women, and it's hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Lauren Evans, where they both sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or problematic women, that is, women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so-called feminist left. Every Thursday hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for Problematic Women wherever you get your podcasts.

Beverly:
Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks, do leave us a rating or review on iTunes, it does help. Also, we'd love it if you'd share the episode and let your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes.

Beverly:
From all of us here at the Independent Women's Forum, thanks for listening.


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