Postmodernism and political correctness have replaced truth, leading the nation toward a path of chaos and disorder, says Lynne Cheney, author of the just-released "Telling the Truth" (Simon & Schuster).
From 1986 through 1992, Cheney, who has a doctorate in English, chaired the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), an agency she now contends should be eliminated in favor of privatized funding. She also is former editor of Washingtonian magazine and has taught at several colleges and universities.
"The thesis of the book is that we have fallen into a time when we think that there is no truth, that there are only various stories that we construct, and that every story is as valid as any other," says Cheney, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a weekend host of CNN's "Crossfire." She cites the O.J. Simpson double-murder verdicts as examples.
"Johnnie Cochran was a postmodernist of sorts," she says. "He suggested that the jury construct a story that wasn't about whether or not O.J. Simpson was guilty, but about whether it was time to send a message to the system that African Americans were not fairly treated by the justice system."
Although numerous jurors have said their decision to acquit was not based on race, Cheney doesn't buy it: "I don't think that it's possible to arrive at the conclusion that they did on the basis of the evidence that was presented."
In her book, Cheney, 54, applies her thesis to education, the workplace, the legal system, the arts, journalism and politics:
". . . It has affected schools, where in the name of group politics, students are taught fantasy rather than fact. . . . It has changed cultural institutions such as museums, where curators now see politics as an important part of their mission. It has affected private lives, as psychotherapists, believing objective truth to be an outdated concept, urge patients to lodge accusations of sexual abuse even when there is no evidence to support such a charge. It has changed public life, as journalists have come to disdain objectivity and as public figures have felt less and less constrained by reality."
The primary culprits, she contends, are universities and the '60s generation of intellectuals. Cheney--married to Richard Cheney, who was defense secretary during the Bush Administration--has been a critic of the National History Standards developed at UCLA, funded in part by a grant she signed while with the NEH.
The proposed voluntary standards are intended to serve as guidelines to teachers and text publishers, outlining what elementary and high school students should be expected to know. Cheney says the standards give an overly gloomy, skewed version of history arrived at through a process driven by orthodoxy and political correctness rather than a search for truth.
"Although the standards for U.S. history neglect to mention that George Washington was our first President or that James Madison was the father of the Constitution, they do manage to include a great deal about the Ku Klux Klan (which appears 17 times in the document), Senator Joe McCarthy and McCarthyism (cited 19 times), and the Great Depression (cited 25 times)," she writes.
UCLA history professor Joyce Appleby disputes Cheney's criticisms.
Opposition, she says, has been based in politics, not history, she says.
"I don't think this has anything to do with history," Appleby says. "I think it has to do with nostalgia and the politics of nostalgia. The attack has come from the right, and I think it's a part of a desire to believe that once everything in America was just perfect and solid and clean and good, and then along came the New Deal and the War on Poverty and everything went to hell."
Appleby is past president of the Organization of American Historians and a member of the National Council for History Standards, which oversaw and approved the standards.
Opponents are "judging it by the memory of what they were taught when they were in the classroom, and it was a celebratory story and it was one in which the complexities and diversity of American past had been leached out, but it was that story that was the inaccurate, distorted one," Appleby says. "This is about the scholarship of the last 30 years. Pick up any college textbook and you will find the same inclusive story.
"I think Lynne Cheney genuinely wants to have women and people of race and immigrants in American history," she adds, "but she doesn't realize that if you include them, you have to change the story line, because their lives were not ones of unmitigated success. You have to include stories of suffering and of oppression and discrimination."
Appleby says the standards have gained widespread support from the history profession, including 17 past presidents of the American Historical Assn. and the Organization of American Historians.
Two independent review panels recommended last week that the standards be revised rather than scrapped, contrary to Cheney's determination that they should be dropped.
"If they didn't exist at all, I don't think it would be, given the very flawed state they're in right now, a great loss," Cheney says. "If the whole project were junked at this point, it would not be a great loss."
While it is important that history reflect contributions of African Americans and other groups that were excluded in the past, the standards have taken inclusiveness to an extreme, she says, at the expense of other traditional historic figures.
"I'm not saying that in some past life we arrived at some golden age where we knew what the truth was in a better sense than we do now," she says. "I do believe, though, that 50 years ago we had a more appropriate respect for the idea that the truth was what we were trying to get to."
Cheney was controversial throughout her years with the NEH, accused by critics of politicizing the agency.
In 1986, she pulled $50,000 of funds to promote "The Africans," which appeared on PBS.
The NEH had provided $600,000 to help fund the project, but after viewing the series before its release, Cheney demanded that the project remove the NEH from its list of credits, claiming the project violated its grant application.
She called the series "an anti-Western diatribe," and said it was "politically tendentious."
Cheney and her husband, who have two children, live in the Washington, D.C., area but are planning a move to Dallas.