The Washington Post

What really happened with Palin and Paul Revere

It has been brought to my attention by multiple sources that perhaps Sarah Palin was not, strictly speaking, wrong about Paul Revere.

This is wonderful news!

Nobody knows history anymore, so even one person who is capable of correctly iterating a historical fact is cause for much rejoicing.

I should have known, when the Massive Twitter-Based Castigation began after that stop on the Sarah Palin Family Barrel-Fish tour. Say what you will about people on Twitter — or Americans in general — we tend not to be renowned for knowledge of historical facts. This excruciating historical illiteracy has served as the fodder for more facile man-on-the-street TV segments than you can shake a stick at.

Thomas Jefferson? Sure! He’s that guy who — who — weren’t he and Sally Hemings an item? John Adams? Was he on HBO? Abe Lincoln? Isn’t he that guy who hunted vampires and might have been gay? Ulysses S. Grant? They named Land Grant University after him, right? Rutherford B. Hayes? Now you’re just making up funny-sounding names. The only thing I know for sure about history is that Kevin Bacon caused the Cuban Missile crisis, information that I gleaned through watching X-Men: First Class repeatedly in theaters.

In fact, if certain historical figures hadn’t had bizarre sexual habits, we wouldn’t know any history at all. “Oh, Prince Albert,” we say, nodding knowingly. “That rings a bell.”

If ever we agree on a historical fact, we tend to be mistaken — just look at the Moon Landing, or all the people who say Area 51 isn’t filled with Soviet gnomes.

Still, in everyone else’s defense, Paul Revere is a historical figure who has ascended to the level of myth. He is like Parson Weems’s cherry-tree-chopping George Washington, or Molly Pitcher, who watered the Revolutionary troops, or Davy Crockett, born on some mountaintop in Tennessee and killing a bear when he was only 3. Paul Revere was a real silversmith, but the one we hear about is a mythological fellow who rode around trochaically intoning, “One if by land and two if by sea” and shouting “The British are coming! The British are coming!” and wouldn’t have rung a bell if his life had depended on it.

Palin had the story of the real man. But the legend is what matters. It’s as though she’d said, “And George Washington refusing to chop down that cherry tree and telling no tales with regards to that incident that did not transpire.”

If there’s one lesson from this incident, it’s “Never argue with the person who just took the tour.”

But what does it matter?

As Ambrose Bierce wrote, “History is an account, mostly false, of events, mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers, mostly knaves, and soldiers, mostly fools.”

 Besides, I am pretty sure Kevin Bacon was behind it.

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day. She is the author of "A Field Guide to Awkward Silences".


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