Procrustean History: Obama Manipulates the Past to Fit the Narrative

"In Greek mythology, Procrustes was a highway robber who tied travelers to his bed and made them fit; if their legs were too short, he stretched them; if they were too long, he cut them off."

Dictionary of Classical Mythology

President Barack Obama's famous (or infamous) Cairo address of June 4, 2009, has been subjected to the unrelenting scrutiny of many reputable observers and distinguished political scholars -- and found egregiously wanting. It is replete with distortions, fabrications, lacunae, misconceptions, inaccuracies, lies, exaggerations, and outright historical fallacies. There is scarcely a passage without its resident howler. I do not have the space to run through this near-interminable list here -- anyone with a decent knowledge of history or ready access to a search engine can trawl for himself -- but I will provide two exemplary instances of historical error.

As has been repeatedly pointed out, Obama's allusion to Islam's "proud history of tolerance" which can be seen "in the history of Andalusia and Cordoba during the Inquisition" is a blooper of major scale. Islam flourished in Cordoba chiefly during the tenth century; the Inquisition began to wreak its havoc toward the end of the fifteenth. If the president can drop five centuries from the historical calendar without skipping a beat, one is surely entitled to suspect the pondered validity of many of his other calculations.

Less conspicuous but no less telling is his blunder respecting the initial, de facto recognition of the United States. For Morocco was not the first country to recognize the U.S., as Obama mistakenly, or disingenuously, claimed. The honor goes to the Netherlands, via its Caribbean dependency of St. Eustatius one year earlier. On November 16, 1776, on the authority of the island's governor, Johannes de Graaf, an American warship flying the Grand Union Flag was given an armed salute, thus officially recognizing the United States as a sovereign nation. (Some say the Danish island of St. Croix got there several weeks earlier, but the record is unclear.) For this act of lèse majesté St. Eustatius was bombarded by the British. The price paid by this brave little island might have been worth remembering.

Obama is a classic example of a shrewd but poorly educated political impostor who has managed to achieve immense power -- not very different, except in the outer gloss, from, say, Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. But Obama's flagrant ignorance, or deliberate rewriting of the historical record, is only an expression of a much larger and indeed commonplace tendency to misconstrue the past in the interest of a set of comfortable preconceptions. This is, at bottom, among the main reasons he was elected: he reflects both the cognitive deprivations and jaundiced mindset of what has come to be called "liberal" culture. And "liberal" culture in the West is pretty much the name of the game these days.

We live in an era in which those who actually know and study history are becoming a vanishing breed. Instead, we embrace "narratives" that play fast and loose with even the most ascertainable facts in order to maintain a favored reading of political and historical events, in other words, to reinforce our prejudices or emotional needs. We do not scruple to invent "truths" if necessary and, as if we were reprising the antics of Procrustes, have no compunction in either racking or dismembering the annals of the past. In the contemporary milieu, it is almost as if having truth on one's side -- demonstrable truth -- is a liability or a very weak ally, a highwayman's quarry.

As a result, the crisis in which the West now finds itself is largely one of its own making and is rooted primarily in the false relation it has entered into with history. Its response to the tangled exigencies of the contemporary world is grounded in a willful and Procrustean tendency to reconfigure the past in such a way as to decomplexify or distort the issues which confront and environ us. In effect, we lay the past upon the iron bed of our received assumptions and then proceed to adjust it to the frame's dimensions. The past is consequently made to conform to the mold of the West's majority prejudices while at the same time appearing to offer an explanation for the convolutions of the present -- which for this reason remain unamenable to our best efforts at understanding and amelioration.

The process by which we manipulate the historical muniment is twofold, involving on the one hand a selective bracketing of episodes and periods in the life of a nation and on the other a deliberate rewriting of the dynamics at work in the life of a people. History is either politically truncated or mythologically stretched, as it were. And this double process has proven highly effective in creating a climate of obscurity and misapprehension from which, barring a crucial change of mind and heart, it seems unlikely we will emerge. This binary disposition is nowhere so evident as in the popular effigies of America and Israel.