This is the first in a multipart series on bogus origin stories. A brief explanation of which is below:
The best description of our generation's relationship with history is, for me, not that we think the past is dead, nor is it that we think the past is past, it's an October 2012 lawsuit by the Faulkner estate against Sony Picture's for referencing the aforementioned cliche in Woody Allen's "Midnight In Paris". Put another way: as humanities and history departments are routinely sacrificed on the unquestioned altar of STEM and our understanding of what came before retreats to a sort of neo-primitive oral history, the process question of how we document history becomes less important than the political question of who has the resources and means and lawyers to own and manage its increasingly meme-oriented dissemination.
One of the most under-analyzed phenomena of this wiki-truth era is that of the bogus origin story. The garage-based tech startup, the great man ah-ha moments, the scrappy band of nobel idealists setting out to change the world. Tales whose version of events are more and more - largely because of resource drain on formalized history - composed, curated, and told entirely by the organization in question.
I know how tempting these ad hoc branding exercises can be. Indeed, I, myself have dabbled in this messy enterprise. Nothing too lofty or strictly inaccurate per se, but an embellishment here, a composite there. When selling one's self or one's company or one's politics origin myths are as important - if not more important - than money or IP or even luck. They provide the moral justification and urgency necessary to build large systems and win over customers and converts alike.
As such, one of the things I'd like to achieve is a critical examination - based on primary source documents - of the various origin stories of the most powerful corporations, ideological movements, and political narratives. In the larger war against mythology, I believe skeptically analyzing origin myths can be a healthy diagnostic to teasing out larger patterns of bullshit.
Quick primer: The AEI is the once prominent "neoconservative" think tank whose hawkish brand of arm-chair warriorism was seeded in the 90's but blossomed in influence post-9/11. Sharing several members - and a physical address- with the Cheney-led and Iraq War cheerleading Project for the New American Century, the AEI and its alumni John Bolton, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Pearl and William Kristol made up the nexus of power in the Bush administration.
[Note: all claims that I cite on AEI's website are consistent with their official, entirely citation-free, internal history provided to me by their in-house historian, Karlyn Bowman. I choose not to cite this history directly because Karlyn asked me not to and she was, for a fascist, pretty cool.]
CLAIM: THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE ASSOCIATION (AEI'S FORMER NAME) WAS FOUNDED BY LEWIS H BROWN IN NEW YORK CITY IN 1938
This story is, naturally, also the official wiki-truth.
THE AMERICAN ENTERPRISE ASSOCIATION WAS STARTED AS THE "EDUCATIONAL DIVISION" OF ANTI-UNION LOBBYING ORGANIZATION, THE TRANSPORTATION ASSOCIATION OF AMERICA IN CHICAGO IN 1939.
Lest you have doubts that it's the same "American Enterprise Association", here's an article from the Evening Independent from 1949 detailing how Lewis H. Brown's AEA was caught twice sharing a New York City HQ address with the Transportation Association of America.
When presented with the obvious bullshit of the official narrative their in-house historian Ms. Bowman responded, "I just don't know. The coincidence does seem pretty great."
The fact is there is no evidence Lewis H. Brown was, in anyway, associated with the AEA before its 1943 incorporation in Washington D.C. There also exists no evidence the AEA ever incorporated in New York State at all - a necessary antecedent to having a "chairman" in the first place. When I asked AEI to produce any evidence of their activities before their incorporation in Washington D.C. they could not, insisting the earliest documentation they had was from March 1943.
This would also, perhaps, explain why there's no mention of either Lewis H. Brown or the John Mansville Corporation in the official history written for their 60th anniversary celebration in late 2003 (not to be confused with their 75th anniversary in 2013?)
The image of New York City industry leaders upset by the trend of government overreach wanting to build a forum where academics could combat economic policy is a fiction. It was, instead, started en masse by a well-established business lobby to lobby congress against any policy they deemed "State socialism".
This particularly goofy myth is repeated time and time again in AEI's internal literature. The general impression being that FDR's White House c.1939 was overrun by a bunch of left-wing ideologues who haphazardly threw around money but were not Serious Economists™. This, as it turns out, couldn't be further from the truth.
"...there were no economists in the Cabinet"
The head of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, Jr. was a trained orthodox economist as was long-serving Labor Secretary Frances Perkins who, in addition to having a masters in Economics from Columbia, was the first female cabinet member in American history. Maybe lady economists don't count?
"...the chairman of the Federal Reserve Board (was not an economist)"
This one is not technically a lie, but it is bullshit. It's true there wasn't an economist as the Fed Chair, nor was there before and nor would there be until the Nixon Administration.
Though Wikipedia refers to him as one, it is true that the Fed Chair in 1939, Eccles Mariner, was not an "economist" as such. But, then again, neither had any of the Fed Chairs before been nor would they be until Arthur Burns in 1970. The reason being is that Fed Chairs were typically chosen from the banking profession not academia. It also bears mentioning that "economist" in the 1930s was still a rather esoteric professional distinction typically used only for those who taught it. Indeed, the first Nobel prize for Economics wasn't given out until 1969.
"There is no Council of Economic Advisers"
The Council of Economic Advisors was created by the Employment Act of 1946, a bill signed and lobbied for by FDR's successor, Harry S. Truman and was originally opposed by the business community. I guess the criticism here is that FDR lacked a time machine?
"When Long time AEI economist Herbert Stein arrived in Washington D.C. where there were no economists... "
Yes, and he wasn't one either. In 1939 Herb Stein was a 23-year-old with a B.A. in philosophy and though he would go on to be an influential "free market economist" in the 1940's, the father of Ben Stein wouldn't actually get any formal degree in economics until 1958 when he earned his PhD in the subject at the University of Chicago.
The point of this refrain - aside from reminding thinking persons that "economist" is a rather malleable and ideologically loaded appeal to authority - is, of course, to give the illusion that Washington during the Depression was run by a radicals who didn't understand the "science" of Economics until the Objective, Reasonable (see: corporatist) Herb Stein and Milton Friedman came to town and rescued our government from the clutches of Marxist extremists. The fact that this myth is supported by claims that are manifest bullshit is, of course, unimportant to the pseudo-academics of AEI.
Power, and the mechanisms of propaganda, are rarely sexy. Indeed, most "big" lies are but the slow, compartmentalized effect of hundreds of tiny lies. Most of which, when seen in isolation appear either trivial or innocent or both.
As current AEI head Arthur Brooks attempts to relegitimize, in the run up to 2016, an ideology that was rightfully discredited by the spectacular and unquestioned failure of the Iraq War and Bush's cynical brand of "free market militarism", it's important to remember that lying about and bullshitting and reframing corpratist adventurism - rather than any fidelity to truth - isn't a bug of the American Enterprise Institute, but its primary, animating feature, or what early neoconservative philosopher Leo Strauss referred to as "the noble lie." That the American Enterprise Institute stemmed from a band of idealistic businessmen fed up with socialist overreach rather than the coordinated, 300-city propaganda effort of a powerful anti-union lobby is part and parcel with this mindset. Brooks, like Strauss and Kristol before, understands that aside from the occasional 40-yard bombs of yellow cake uranium or Soviet terrorism funding, the back and forth of who controls history (and thus conventional wisdom) is a tedious and quiet game of inches. Tiny lie after tiny lie. With Obama's poll numbers dropping and the threat of another "Bush" administration looming overhead, it's essential we not let them add up unnoticed.
This piece originally appeared in April 2014 on citationsneeded.com