Sunday, April 02, 2006

Defending Washington & Revere

I saw Robert Wuhl on an episode of FOX NEWS’ OReilly the other day. Wuhl was promoting an HBO show wherein he, and I quote, “puts a pop-culture spin on history in "Assume the Position with Mr. Wuhl."” According to HBO, “Wuhl plays the most irreverent teacher ever, teaching actual (sic) history from an unusual perspective.”

Let me warn you now that this show is a crock! For HBO to claim that he teaches “actual” history is outrageous! Wuhl claims that ALL history is based purely on the perspective of the teller. His show’s format is him “teaching” history to college students. In this way, I guess he and HBO believes he acquires a measure of credibility.

Do NOT be lulled! On the HBO website, I found a promotional interview with this “pseudo-historian.” I paste key excerpts from it below, and in my answers to them I expose this man for the imposter he “actually” is!

Robert Wuhl: It (his TV special) is basically a monologue done in a classroom, and it's about how pop culture becomes history. By pop culture, I mean whoever the most popular person is at that point in time. People say that life shouldn't be a popularity contest, but life is a popularity contest. And it doesn't make a difference if it's 2005 or 1805. Whoever the most popular person is at that time, they're going to have a lot of weight, whether they're being elected, whether they're being read, whether they're being sought out, whether we emulate them. And what they say and do is going to affect a bunch of other people because the media is printing it and people are listening to them. And that's just the way life is. It doesn't change.

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl attempts to make the point that American history is skewed due to the effects that the “popularity” of historical personalities has had on how our history has been written and remembered. On his OReilly plug for his upcoming HBO show, he takes a huge swipe at American icons like George Washington and Paul Revere.

It is true that George Washington WAS hugely popular, especially in the years after the war. Understandably so, since it was HIS persistence and leadership during the darkest hours of our war for independence that was THE prime reason we won our liberty. Washington was so popular with the American people that he could have been president for life, if he so wanted. Wuhl ignores WHY he was so popular. People loved him because he was deserving of their respect; during the eight years of the revolutionary period he had EARNED it! So, how exactly does Washington’s popularity skew our memory of him?

Bill OReilly, who really did poorly in this segment, made a pitiful attempt to stick up for Washington. Wuhl shouted at OReilly: “How many battles did Washington actually fight in? NONE! How many battles did he actually win? THREE!” I gritted my teeth at that one, and I lost all respect for Bill when he made no retort. For Wuhl to castigate Washington for never having actually “fought” in any battles is hogwash! General Eisenhower, the architect of the allied victory in Europe, ALSO never fought a single battle in his ENTIRE life.

Wuhl shows just how simpleminded he truly is by making these kinds of silly statements; and to say George Washington won only three battles is just plain ridiculous as well. Even if had never won a single battle, just as the North Vietnamese never won a single battle against the U.S., Washington WON the LAST battle at Yorktown, Virginia!

Robert Wuhl: Human behavior doesn't change over the years. People are still doing stuff for the same reasons they did it years ago, which is basically "My God's better than your God." Or "How much is in it for me and uh who's got the hots for you." That's basically where history comes from, those few things.

PhilippinePhil: Huh? What cynical kind of drivel is this guy trying to pawn off as historical discussion? I don’t recall reading anything from the founding fathers stating that their God is better than anyone else’s, because back then we all worshipped the SAME God. Wuhl is trying to inject his personal liberal secularism into our PAST history; that secular stuff is part of our contemporary history. NOW, who is rewriting history?

And his offhand remark concerning who has the “hots for whom” is pure bunk, thrown in purely for purposes of titillation. If he’s trying to make the point that all historical figures are human, and thus subject to human foibles, then he should say that. After all, not much of what is IMPORTANT in our history has had anything at all to do with sexual interests.

Even Clinton’s sexcapades will be nothing but a salacious side note once history is finally solidified into textbooks 50 years from now. President Harding was known to have some pretty wild parties in the White House back in the 20s, but no one spends that much time studying it today; so will it be with “Slick Willy.”

HBO: What was the genesis behind presenting this in a classroom setting and not a comedy venue?

Robert Wuhl: … I think there's a great thirst for knowledge in society today. I think the younger generations really want to learn. I don't think they want to be bored. I think they want to learn by telling a story that incorporates, encompasses something that they can use practically. Something they can relate to. And I think you can learn and you can entertain at the same time. You try to make it as palatable to people today to make them understand it in their terms. It's like when you hear 10,000 people were killed at an event, you say, well that's a big number. But if you get to know one person and they're killed, that puts a face on it. Well, that's what I try to do with history. So we're gonna kill 10,000 people. [CHUCKLES] No. I try to make it fun by telling stories and making people understand how pop culture throughout history becomes history.

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl is simply wrong here—pop culture is pop culture. No good historian, even a lay one like myself, confuses it with history, without first researching and reading. For instance, in Wuhl’s conversation with OReilly, he said that the ONLY reason “pop culture icon” Paul Revere is known today is because of a poem written about him decades later by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Wrong! Revere was properly and duly accredited for his roll in events long before the famous Wadsworth poem. Revere had been a member of the “Sons of Liberty,” a patriot organization in Boston; he had participated in the Boston Tea Party; and he was the one who arranged the “one of if by land, two if by sea” warning signal in the windows of the Old North Church. Revere is also the man who organized the MANY warning riders of that night, men who fanned across the countryside as they alerted the Minutemen of the coming of the British. Wuhl has HIS agenda and he willingly ignores facts to spread his deceitful—more “entertaining”—version of history.

Even Bill OReilly shows his own poor grasp of history, not to mention a surpising prejudice, by acquiescing to Wuhl when Bill claims that the REAL reason Revere entered the annals of history was because of Revere’s great “wealth!” What? Bill, COME ON! Paul Revere became wealthy much later, after the war, as his foundry business expanded. You see? This is why amateurs and dilettantes should NOT try to teach history. Now, people who watch and respect him will be just as mislead by OReilly, as they will be Wuhl.

Still on the subject of Paul Revere, Wuhl asserted to OReilly that since Revere ONLY road his horse about 19 miles into the Massachusetts countryside before his capture that this somehow demeans his feat. I wonder if Wuhl could ride a horse in the dark of night on unlit rutted dirt tracks for even ONE MILE? And remember, Revere was a city dweller, so he did just fine by me. Besides, Revere had guaranteed the success of the undertaking that night by ensuring that there were MANY riders that night.

HBO: So you're both performing and you're teaching. It's kind of like a hybrid?

Robert Wuhl: It's an interesting process because I don't know if I'm actually teaching or if I'm doing a monologue or a one-man show, so I call it a docucomadality show. It's a documentary, it's a comedy, it's a reality show. I first started putting this together in a comedy club, and then tried it out on students in classrooms - realizing that those are two entirely different audiences. …Now, when you do this in front of students, …, you have to be really honest with them. They're looking to you for the truth. They're looking to you for something interesting. You've got to keep their interest going and that's tough, so you better tell them interesting stories. And they have an amazing bullshit detector. So don't bullshit them.

PhilippinePhil: The problem is that Wuhl is quite FULL of BS! And he uses his own careless and prejudiced views of U.S. History to try to change people’s views of our history to match his twisted version of it by degrading and trivializing it; AND he is ABSOLUTELY WRONG about students having “an amazing BS detector.” Students ARE ignorant—that’s why they are students—they KNOW next to nothing. Wuhl seeks them out for exactly that reason…he KNOWS he CAN BS them! He ingratiates himself to them by telling them that they MUST be very smart indeed as they LISTEN to HIM.

He’s crafty in his psychology. Call people smart and they will think that YOU must be very intelligent indeed! Thing is, if he tried that malarkey on honest-to-God historians, they would destroy him, and they would do so quite easily.

Robert Wuhl: Teachers are the most under-recognized, under-appreciated, underpaid people, and yet everybody will say the future of our children is education. But look who's on the low rung -- the teachers.

PhilippinePhil: After sucking up to students, Wuhl curries favor here with teachers; but is he trying to compare HIMSELF to them? I hope not, because Wuhl is NO teacher; but he IS a fraud. After listening to him speak on OReilly’s show, I HOPE he doesn’t try to pass himself off as a teacher, because he’s NOT qualified to hold a “true history teacher’s” books. Although, I must say that Wuhl might be VERY qualified to teach geography to high school students in Colorado, perhaps in the same school as demagogue teacher Jay Bennish?

HBO: How do you go about presenting the material, and what sorts of concepts are behind it?

Robert Wuhl: I've always had a theory that history is basically storytelling, and the key to storytelling is who's telling the story. That's why in the days of the Indians and the free plains, every time that the Calvary won a battle, the press said it was a great military victory. But if the Indians won, it was a massacre. Who's telling the story? That's what it came down to. So I try and tell stories and raise these questions. .

PhilippinePhil: Wuhl’s “progressive side” is in full bloom with this comment. I don’t know what modern history books he has read lately, if any; but no decent history book written in the last 50 years tries to “spin” the American Plains Wars based on the press reports of that era, or any of our wars for that matter, the way he’s describing. Now, if he’s trying to say that the labels of “wrong” and “right” depends on who writes the accounts, now that I CAN agree with. But, if he wants to get into questions of ethics, now that is another story altogether.

For instance, lets talk historical morality by using a 3-part Ethics Class exercise:

1) the Aztecs slaughtered hundreds of thousands of other indigenous people in The New World, long before the Spanish came along and ended that Aztec butchery.

2) Rhetorical question: Who was more “evil,” the Spanish or the Aztecs? When it comes to the facts of history, it just doesn’t matter. I say let the events and facts speak for themselves.

3) Then again, would the U.N. go into Mexico today, if the Aztecs made a comeback and began ritual slaughter once again?

It’s the “what ifs” like that that make history so appealing to me, but MY interest is based on facts, not prejudice.

HBO: Can you think of anyone from history who got a bad lot, or did the good work but didn't get their due?
Robert Wuhl: Oh, there's a lot of them. That's a question I was always asking when I was doing the research for this show. I would ask historians, who deserves better? Well I don't know if he deserves better, but Benedict Arnold is an interesting story. If you think of his life in terms of today's corporate world, he was basically passed over for promotion about four times. He gets shot in battle and gives up his leg, and then a guy gets promoted over him. And after about the fourth or fifth time, you'd start to say, who else is offering what? I've done all this work for you, I'm not getting the gig here and it doesn't look like you're going to win. So I'm going to go to the other side. Everybody thinks he was hung. He wasn't, he wound up living the life over in Great Britain, and his wife had a lot to do with that. So Benedict Arnold, although there's no way around the fact that he was a traitor, I understand him.
PhilippinePhil: Again, what in the heck is Wuhl talking about? Benedict Arnold was the classic flip-flopping traitor. As an American, he fought bravely and well against the British Army WITH the American Army. He became disillusioned, and flopped over to the Brits; BUT what makes him so detestable is that he did so while STILL in the uniform of the Americans! Wuhl leaves that part out and it’s a very crucial component. We rightfully despise Benedict Arnold because he was a vile turncoat.

Hey Wuhl, pick a side and stay with it. If Wuhl thinks that pursuing the side of opportunity and self-aggrandizement is “understandable” then I feel sorry for him; and truthfully, I DON’T UNDERSTAND YOU Wuhl!
Robert Wuhl: Now, on the other side, you go to England, and George Washington is considered a traitor. Here's an English guy, he's working for the English, and he does a 180. So again, who's telling the story?
PhilippinePhil: Mr. Wuhl! George Washington was born in Virginia. The English NEVER considered him English! If they had, and if they had TREATED him and ALL OF US like English, then there NEVER would have been a revolution, because there would have been NO NEED for it! This is the kind of moral equivalency that liberals LOVE to spew, and it drives me bonkers. They cherry pick data that suits them, and pass off biased opinion as fact.

Mr. Wuhl, How exactly does George Washington do a 180? He was born American and he was ALWAYS an American, or Virginian if you will. It was the English who treated the Americans as NOT worthy of the rights of Englishmen, and that’s WHY George joined and LED the revolt. He risked his life and his family’s fortune and future BECAUSE it was the RIGHT thing to do.
Wuhl seeks to do what many in our progressive universities seek these days, to denigrate our lily-white, and very Christian founding fathers. Why do they do this? It’s obvious—because these brave and selfless men stand for everything that progressives do NOT. Our founders were Christians, they were white, and they believed in black and white principles, NOT in shades of morality. Now I could care less that they were white, but progressives find this fact to be utterly repugnant.
I have to ask: Why is this guy Wuhl supposed to be qualified in anyway to teach any of us history, especially to students who might not know any better? He’s an actor and a comedian, and worse, he’s got his prejudices, which may not be all that apparent to the unsuspecting, and that makes him even more dangerous in my eyes. He’s Hollywood, so guess what side of the political and moral road he falls? It should take you one guess—(Right?) Wrong!


Amadeo said...

Wow, Phil:

This is a very exhaustive point-by-point rebuttal.

I do watch the Factor regularly but not this episode.

But then again, this "pop-culture" look at history has been gaining attention for quite sometime now. I suspect because the typical consumer is attracted to these unorthodox, at times racy, presentations of some aspects of history, especially relating to American history.

Remember that recent claim about the homosexuality of dear old honest Abe? From another "acclaimed" historian.

Nick Ballesteros said...

Hello Phil. Just dropping by to say... GOTCHA! The latest article you read was for my April 1 post. For April Fool's Day! Never in my life would I be able to buy a brand new car out of boredom. :-) And no, I'm not materialistic. Honest.

Kevin said...

In the interest of full disclosure, my name is Kevin and Phil is my older brother.

Okay, now, this post should put to rest any doubt about what a heavyweight this guy is with regard to American and world history.

Victor Davis Hanson, Niall Ferguson, forget about it. This guy can hang with anybody.

I don't know if Mary Felton is still alive, but she would be proud.

PhilippinesPhil said...

If anyone is wondering, I"m way up north in Cagayan doing some outreach work with WWII Filipino veterans. Its very exhausting, but rewarding work. My next post will tell you all about it! Till then...

Unknown said...

I was looking into wuhl's discussion about how a warrant was being served in Boston and that it allowed soldiers to search all houses in a neighborhood, etc. And that that was part of what led to the Boston Tea Party. I had never heard that before and I googled it to see if I could find anything. I came across your blog.
I graduated from college and took many a history class. History never interested me...NEVER. Since I graduated from college 4 years ago, I have been more and more interested in learning more about events. And it is different when I am actually interested in finding out about something as opposed to it being "shoved down my throat." And now when I learn something, I actually commit it to memory as opposed to learning it for a test and forgetting about, as the majority of people do.
I will not believe everything wuhl says...I will not believe everything you say. It however makes me is the whole reason that I am here looking was an interesting program that made me re-think everything that I had been taught.
The main thing is question it.
The fact of the matter is I enjoy the way Wuhl presented his ideas. It worked for me a 27 year old...the same reason I will watch the Daily Show and the is the same material from Fox and CNN, etc, but it is at the same time entertaining..and I will take what John Stewart says with a grain of salt...just like I would with Oreilly and any other anchor.
There is a saying that it is not just about the song, it is also about the singer. Inventing a product nobody wants is as good as not having a product everybody wants. It is that combination of a good product that people want, even if they did not realize that they wanted it or would like it if offered.
And if Wuhl puts something together that makes people who are not real interested in studying history, start thinking about it, he is hitting an audience that history professors cannot.
All that history teachers mainly teach to are people who are interested in learning history. What Wuhl seems to have done, at least in my case and others after seeing reviews online, is make people who have not even thought about any of the "facts" taught years ago being wrong, stop and think. It is presented in a different package.
Yes I absolutely agree that his facts should be does seem ridiculous that it would not be fact undermines the whole show. If it is entertaining but based on bs, then it really is not good.
And I think a good thing for that show would be to either have his sources available online, where he got his information, or even maybe an expert there at the show to recap any errors, etc. (Does seem they should be caught beforehand)
Fact of the matter is, I think if this thing is improved upon, it can really do a service to making people think about things that they would have otherwise not been interested in.
Last thing I will leave you with is I read something about Wuhl being second-rate, B level, washed up or whatever as well as you saying that Wuhl is "an actor and a comedian, and worse, he’s got his prejudices"
Everyone has their prejudices...everyone. It should be up to the viewer or listener to question what they are hearing from who. I understand you saying how is wuhl qualified to teach history, he's an actor and comedian. How was Reagan qualified to lead a country...Schwarzeneggar a state. I really cannot stand when people say you're an actor, singer, etc you can't do anything else. Should Bono stop trying to help other countries and the world because he's a singer and should only sing??? It would be okay for Bono to do that if he never sold an album?

Also...are you on tv..scratch that, a medium that I was already tuned into as opposed to actively seeking that information out...did you make me stop and say "robert wuhl is doing something on history, let me check it out." He is a known name...not as big as Brad Pitt, but he is someone that people know. I would never have seen it if he was not attached to it...him or someone else of note. If this show was not done, I would never have given second thought to Paul Revere, or Washington not being the actual first president. You may want to check out Uncle John's bathroom reader...they have little facts about history not being 100% accurate may want to tear that apart too.
Some people will hate the song and some people will hate the singer...and some will hate both.
Whether it is music, tv, movies, classes, etc. we have the choice to turn it off, change channels, ignore it, etc. We also have the "freedom" to make a blog and say what we think, be it praise for what it does right or scolding for what it does wrong.
I understand your side of things and agree with you on some, but Wuhl was able to take ideas and stories that were dull and for me and I would say the majority of the country, forgotten or not paid attention to outside of a classroom, and get people talking about them again...I think there is something to say for that.

PhilippinesPhil said...

Glad your interested in history now Jeremy, but remember, people like wuhl will cherry pick info to make it match up with their vision of the world. Sounds like you might already be onto that. Good for you.