A Call For All Americans To Analyze Their Past
It is time for all Americans to recognize that America is not exceptional. It is not morally superior to every other country on the planet. It is time for us to embrace a conscientious acknowledgement of those things in America’s past that, in acknowledging their existence, threatens to shatter the comfortable myth of American exceptionalism that provides protection from the truth like a blanket provides protection from the cold.
Maintaining a myth of American superiority results in more harm than good. Being unable and unwilling to face things such as: the enslavement of millions of people, the massacre of natives, the endorsement of child labor, the military targeting of civilians in conflicts with Germany, Japan, Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the torture of innocent people at Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib – being unable to face the fact that these events were not just “accidents,” that they happened, and similar atrocities keep happening, leaves the nation unable to learn from its past.
It is time to recognize America’s past for what it is, because we need to learn from it. A people cannot learn from past mistakes when the existence of any such mistakes is denied. Recognizing the facts of American history, which some may wish could be erased permanently, never to be remembered, holds vital importance in regaining the nation’s integrity, and preventing atrocities from being committed in the future by a nation that claims to be a beacon of hope and freedom for the world.
The nation needs to develop an educated citizenry that is capable of thinking analytically and critically about the past, without ideological biases, so that the same mistakes are not made in the future. That cannot happen if intellectualism is condemned, if historians are regarded with hostility, if scholarly pursuits in the interest of understanding the past are gazed upon with suspicion.
That cannot happen if children are taught a blind patriotism for their country, in history classes that romanticize certain figures while masking the context in which they lived or while masking their flaws, such as the tale of Christopher Columbus, who not only did not discover America but also caused the death and enslavement of many natives, or that of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were wealthy white male slaveholders perpetuating a system whose effects are still felt today. When the Confederacy is praised, the extent of slavery in America minimized, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan not even questioned on the basis of morality or necessity, children are taught a blind faith in the goodness of America, a dangerous faith when it comes to future exploits.
As Howard Zinn remarked, “Americans have been taught that their nation is civilized and humane. But, too often, U.S. actions have been uncivilized and inhumane.” An educated citizenry cannot be developed if that continues to happen. Faith in America as a nation should not be based on an uneducated patriotism. Faith in America as a nation should be based on its ability to understand its past and, on the basis of that understanding, forge a better future for itself and the world. Education is the key to that better future.
First, funding for public education must not be cut, but rather bolstered, so that children will have the opportunity to be educated, enlightened citizens with the capacity to think critically and analyze thoughtfully.
Second, history books must not be rewritten in the interest of forging an unquestionable, heroic narrative out of an event that should in reality be regarded with careful thought; history books should not mask the truth but reveal it.
Third, the media must not be used as a governmental or ideological tool to persuade viewers of a certain viewpoint, nor should it neglect to report on a news item that would tarnish the myth of exceptional America – the people deserve the real, unbiased truth.
Fourth, the vilification of teachers must end – they are the knowledge-bearers privileged with the necessary task of educating children, they are treated often with contempt and disdain, and they are not rewarded adequately for their efforts.
Fifth, the silencing of dissenters must stop; it must be remembered that the right to speak is protected in this country, so although a minority might question the morality of the path this country is taking, it is their right to do so, and others cannot silence them.
Sixth, when confronted with a difficult question regarding the past, one that is regarded as controversial, do not simply call out the person asking the question – engage in debate to grapple with the past, rather than divert attention away from it with a red herring.
Seventh, do not be afraid of facing the truth, although it may be uncomfortable and frightening; only by facing our fears can we become stronger as a nation, and learn from not only what we had been afraid to face, but also from why we were afraid.
Eighth, knowledge of the past must be considered valuable, rather than dangerous; those who have knowledge of and question accepted myths of the past must be respected and engaged in debate, rather than immediately denounced as anti-American.
It is not unpatriotic to question America’s past decisions; it is unpatriotic to believe in a flawless America that does not exist. Such a belief does no justice to the nation’s past, or to its numerous victims. Living in denial and claiming, when, for example, hundreds of men, women, and children are massacred at My Lai, that that was not the real America, implying the act was simply a momentary aberration, and such an “accident” will not happen again, ensures that those “accidents” keep occurring. Refusing to question why such atrocities dot the horizon of the past, whether such acts can be morally justified, whether they were necessary, allows the nation to enter a future already darkened with the inevitability of needless destruction. Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, My Lai, Iraq, Afghanistan…When will it end? When will all Americans stop pretending that America is the epitome of morality, and start learning from the truth?
Americans need to realize that learning about and questioning America’s past does not make them anti-American. This country deserves a conscience; it needs a conscience. And by recognizing that, by listening to the conscience afforded the nation by those who question the past, rather than ignoring it, the nation can finally learn from the mistakes of the past and become a true beacon of freedom to the world, rather than making an empty claim to be one. America has the capacity to become a great nation. But it cannot achieve greatness unless the people of this nation realize that America must change.