Editor’s Note: I got the idea for this article from watching one of those old “sword and sandal” historical movies called “The 300 Spartans.” A pretty good movie, it did have the one major historical flaw. It made it seem as if the Spartans were fighting to defend Greek democracy and freedom against the Persians. Of course, the problem is that the one value the Spartans had no regard for was freedom, living as they did in a society totally based on slavery. It made me think of the Old South, with its plantation economy and its theoretical reverence for the concepts of freedom and patriotism.
who’s taken Psychology 101 will be familiar with the concept of cognitive
dissonance — the stress caused by attempts to reconcile conflicting beliefs or
deal with new information that contradicts an existing view. It afflicts smart
conservatives who want to believe George W. Bush was a good president or Glenn
Beck is an incisive thinker, as well as sensible liberals who feel they really should
respect Al Sharpton.
the 1990s, a white suburban jury’s acquittal of L.A. police department thugs
filmed beating Rodney King caused violent civil unrest. Black thugs filmed nearly
killing Reginald Denny during the subsequent riots weren’t convicted either.
These were similar events with similar outcomes, yet they bred conflicting
reactions from conservatives and liberals, as well as white and black people.
Two decades later, the acquittal of conservative icon (and thug) George Zimmerman for stalking, then killing an unarmed Trayvon Martin isn’t really the same as Derrin Wilson’s exoneration in the death of Michael Brown, who was no “gentle giant” and shouldn’t be anyone’s hero. But, once again, different audiences have had opposite reactions.
need to accept that police who kill minorities — from Luis Rodriguez, murdered
on video in Oklahoma in February, while not resisting arrest, to Eric Garner,
choked to death on video in New York, while barely resisting arrest — aren’t
always paragons of law enforcement. At the same time, liberal activists
shouldn’t just dismiss ex-NBA star Charles Barkley’s point that looters are
“scumbags” and his sensible assertion that many minority neighborhoods would
be the “Wild West” without a police presence.
Not all black men killed by the police are martyrs, most law enforcement officers are dedicated public servants and each of these “he said, he’s dead” tragedies needs to be assessed on its own merits. Regardless, it was heartening to see students from several Fairfield County high schools take enough interest in social justice to walk out of school to protest the exoneration of Eric Garner’s killers.
Without slighting law enforcement overall, these students called attention to the fact that racism and police brutality remain serious problems. As Benjamin Franklin said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
Also encouraging was a Colorado student walkout protesting plans to politicize their high school curricula by removing references to America’s historical oppression of minorities and the poor. Students and teachers rejected Republican school boards’ desire to edit lesson plans and censor history to reduce the sort of cognitive dissonance that might cause students to question nationalism, authority and free-market economics.
conservatives objected to what they called “liberal” versions of events,
which might be
“historically true,” but could turn students against “companies,
corporations and wealthy Americans.” Student protest leader Ben Smith was more
focused on integrity and reality, asserting that, “Negative parts of American
history aren’t necessarily unpatriotic. We need to know these things, so we
don’t repeat them.”
it’s mildly surprising that students in mildly liberal Colorado stood up for
the integrity of their textbooks, it was absolutely shocking when school boards in
conservative Tennessee enraged the GOP National Committee by rejecting
right-wing efforts to edit out some of the darker parts of American history to
make the curriculum less “leftist.”
surprisingly, the Texas Board of Education has put a conservative stamp on its
history programs, stressing the merits of capitalism and Republicans, as well as
the founding fathers’ commitment to Christianity and their contempt for church/state
separation. This is just what you’d expect in a state that’s still unsure
whether to teach evolutionary biology or to use the official science textbook of
the Bible Belt — the Book of Genesis.
concept of American
exceptionalism demands that our history be glorious, that all our actions be blameless
and that Americans always be “the good guys.” This continues to make the teaching
of U.S. history controversial and problematic. For example, most Americans view the
Battle of the Alamo as a fight for freedom, but one of the proximate causes of the war for Texan
independence was Mexico’s abolition of slavery, an action that Southern immigrants to
Texas found intolerable.
have always been a bit irony-impaired. This is a country in which the line
“All men are created equal” was penned by a slave owner, and our
Constitution specifies that black men are three-fifths of a person. Our
treatment of Native Americans has been genocidal, and Andrew Jackson, whose
Indian Removal Act (aka “The Trail of Tears”) wiped out thousands of
Indians, is considered one of our greatest presidents.
Americans also feel a great deal of cognitive dissonance regarding immigration. We’re all immigrants and enjoy pretending that we welcome them, but this is self-serving mythology. When in our country’s history have we ever welcomed immigrants? Think of the phrases “No Irish need apply,” or “Irishmen and dogs: Keep off the grass.” The only immigrants we’ve ever truly welcomed were the Africans, who weren’t arriving willingly.
American presidents have done some terrible things. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus during the Civil War, FDR interned thousands of Japanese-American citizens during WWII, and we’re the only country ever to have dropped nuclear weapons on civilians. The Bush administration routinely tortured suspected terrorists, and President Obama’s drone attacks have turned innocent women and children into collateral damage.
Joyce described history as “a nightmare,” and pretending ours is an
exception would be unrealistic. Philosopher George Santayana said, “Those
who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” but even those who do
remember it, repeat it anyway. At a minimum, what’s required is remembering
example, America has developed a love affair with the antebellum South. For many
of us, the more than 600,000 men who died in the Civil War were fighting over a
romantic “Cause,” so, naturally, there were no “bad
guys.” In truth, one side committed mass treason against the United States,
killing their fellow Americans to preserve “states’ rights,” which mainly
involved their right to buy, sell, exploit and abuse their fellow human beings. Robert
E. Lee and Jefferson Davis were fortunate not to be hanged as traitors.
movies such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone With the Wind (classic films
with vile messages) glorified slavery and the Ku Klux Klan and helped legitimize
more than a century of Southern resistance to civil rights. I can’t help
wondering if we’d be a better nation today if we’d taken a more honest view
of our past.
of conscience (e.g., John McCain) are ashamed of the CIA torture report, as well
as the way police occasionally treat minorities, but you can’t just pretend
that bad things never happen (unless you’re Dick Cheney). The cognitive
dissonance created by hiding from our past can’t be mentally healthy in a
nation already so ideologically divided.
We don’t need to pretend that America is some utopian “City on a Hill” or “The New Jerusalem” to feel that we’re one of the best countries that’s ever been. We may not be perfect, but we can be honest about our past, and still be proud of our history.
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