Friday, July 27, 2012

5 Mythic Stories and Real American History

By Gary Berg-Cross

James Baldwin said famously:

“What passes for identity in America is a series of myths about one's heroic ancestors.”

Baldwin is just of many quoted in James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong which exposes a series of such myths. Secularists are often involved in exploring and exploding such concepts as the U.S. is being founded as a Christian nation. It’s often a heated debate as seen in the exchange between Blake Dunlop & Bruce Gourley. The secular Gorley side has to put things in context:

Yes, theocracies existed at the colonial state level prior to the American Revolution (and persecuted Baptists, Quakers, and non-Christians). However, at the insistence of Baptists, Deists, and many others, our founding fathers rejected theocracy and chose a secular government structure. Yes, some states continued to collect taxes for churches into the early 19th century, because some Christians yet yearned for some degree of theocracy. And yes, people of all manner (not just Christians) in the late 18th and 19th centuries spoke to the vague notion of “providence.” John Jay’s reference to “providence” is akin to the deism of most of our founding fathers, as is the formal offering of prayer to a distant universal force or supreme being.

Waldman’s relatively new book Founding Faith contributes some balance to this type of debate. At least according to Beliefnet :-) :

In Lies we see a larger myth challenging effort. Lowen surveyed 12 large books used to teach high school history and in circulation during 1994. What he found, and documented is that American History textbooks seem to portray the American experience in a very rosy optimistic way despite facts that make for a much more checkered story. The coverage is filled with a version of blind patriotism mixed with mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies (see various blogs on American Exceptionalism). Hence the Lies title.

Lowen examines several important topics to demonstrate the divergence from historical facts. Why the discrepancy? There are several reasons including tradition and custom that creates a confirmatory story. Its confirmatory bias working again on a grand scale (as covered in previous blogs). And of course there is the challenge of covering so much material. Book feel compelled to cover every President and boil down conflict in American history losing much of the real story. Some conflicts such as the Civil war or intervention in Mexico and the treatment of the Indians are too hot to handle at times.

Lowen also points out that American history textbooks are approved by school boards and are consciously edited to guarantee that they contain acceptable, dare I say, politically correct perspectives on events. Textbooks authors and their editors avoid difficult topics and steer to what will sell textbooks Add to this the political agenda of rabid, right-wing boards such as in Texas and there is plenty or reasons for problems with the real American stories. Much safer to take an American Exceptionalism tope and say that, sure there were some problems like racism, but great (white and wealthy) Americans overcame it all and here we are now.

In the first chapter, Loewen talks about the process of hero- making which he calls heroification details (both important and trivial) are left out or changed to fit the archetypical mold of the flawless, inhuman "heroes." This Lowen notes is a "degenerative process" that turns "flesh-and-blood individuals into pious, perfect creatures without conflicts, pain, credibility, or human interest “

So we see American history textbooks filled to the brin with biographical vignettes of the very famous. Each of us could create a good list Heroification so distorts the lives of people like Helln Keller and Woodrow Wilson that “we cannot think straight about them.” There is a simple reason Loewen points out. History textbooks are actively edited to present the famous as heroes, minus most all of the negative attributes, so that impressionable kids will not think badly of them in any way and we can all be proud of our country. But in the process we may miss the larger issues which the nation has faced and learn from the failings as well as the success. Below are 5 people/issues that Lowen covers as examples of where the texts often go wrong.


1, Columbus – Columbus is one of only two people the US honors by name in a national holiday. We all remember 1492, and sure enough, all twelve textbooks Lowen surveyed include it. But he notes that they leave out virtually everything that is important to know about Columbus and the European exploration of the Americas. Meanwhile, they make up all kinds of details to tell a better story and to humanize Columbus so that readers will identify with him.”

The truth is that Chris was in it for the fame and fortune.

“The way American history textbooks treat Columbus reinforces the tendency not to think about the process of domination. The traditional picture of Columbus landing on the American shore shows him dominating immediately, and this is based on fact: Columbus claimed everything he saw right off the boat. On his first voyage, Columbus kidnapped some 10 to 25 Indians and took them back with him to Spain. “

As Lowen further notes:

“ Only seven or eight of the Indians arrived alive, but along with the parrots, gold trinkets, and other exotica, they caused quite a stir in Seville. Ferdinand and Isabella provided Columbus with seventeen ships, 1,200 to 1,500 men, cannons, crossbows, guns, cavalry, and attack dogs for a second voyage.,,,

On the whole Columbus introduced 2 phenomena that revolutionized race relations and transformed the modern world: the taking of land, wealth, and labor from indigenous peoples, leading to their near extermination, and the transatlantic slave trade, which created a racial underclass. All of these are important issues through American history and they start with Columbus and colonization. Understanding the current world is difficult with out this frame.

2. The Indians and those Pilgrims

Lowen notes that “There has been some improvement in textbooks’ treatment of Native peoples in recent years. In 1961 the best-selling Rise of the American Nation contained 10 illustrations featuring Native people, alone or with whites (of 268 illustrations). But and here is the catch most of these pictures focused on the themes of primitive life and savage warfare. This is note the way the early reports on Indians went and such things as primitive life and savage warfare is not supported by much of the modern research cited in Lies.

Loewen discusses America’s shameful treatment of the Indians and the problems with racism. For example, “The American Republic,” the authors of The American Pageant tell us on page one, “was from the outset uniquely favored. It started from scratch on a vast and virgin continent, which was so sparsely peopled by Indians that they were able to be eliminated or shouldered aside.”

Vast and virgin continent? Not according to modern research. The textbooks twist things with selective presentation. Take the Pilgrims, who textbooks say “started from scratch,” when they really started with a fully functional American Indian village previously emptied by European plagues (pg 90 of Lies). Loewen can quote primary sources to the effect of Pilgrims “settlment”, (they proceeded to rob Indian graves to find whatever else they needed!) And the early wars with Indian partners against other Indians.

The ugly truth is that many Pilgrims were thankful and grateful that the Native population was decreasing. Even worse, there was the Pequot Massacre in 1637, which started after the colonists found a murdered white man in his boat. Ninety armed settlers burned a Native village, along with their crops, and then demanded the Natives to turn in the murderers. When the Natives refused, a massacre followed.

Captain John Mason and his colonist army surrounded a fortified Pequot village and reportedly shouted: “We must burn them! Such a dreadful terror let the Almighty fall upon their spirits that they would flee from us and run into the very flames. Thus did the Lord Judge the heathen, filling the place with dead bodies.” The surviving Pequot were hunted and slain. (Quote from Lies)

3. Hellen Keller

Most of us carry a strong image of Helen Keller, the blind and deaf girl who overcame her physical handicaps. Made into a move with scenes in which Anne Sullivan spells water into young Helen's hand at the pump it has been an inspiration to generations of schoolchildren. A McGraw-Hill educational film version concludes with:

"The gift of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan to the world is to constantly remind us of the wonder of the world around us and how much we owe those who taught us what it means, for there is no person that is unworthy or incapable of being helped, and the greatest service any person can make us is to help another reach true potential."

Hellen Keller’s truth is that she was a radical socialist. As Lowen notes:

She joined the Socialist party of Massachusetts in 1909. She had become a social radical even before she graduated from Radcliffe, and not, she emphasized, because of any teachings available there. After the Russian Revolution, she sang the praises of the new communist nation: "In the East a new star is risen! With pain and anguish the old order has given birth to the new, and behold in the East a man-child is born! Onward, comrades, all together! Onward to the campfires of Russia! Onward to the coming dawn!" ~ Keller hung a red flag over the desk in her study. Gradually she moved to the left of the Socialist party and became a Wobbly, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) the syndicalist union persecuted by Woodrow Wilson.

Wilson’s truth is also covered in Lies.

4. John Brown

I thought that I knew the core of the John Brown story. But since it is tangled with racism and the Civil War, the story I heard was a later construction. Lowen puts it like this - “Just as textbooks treat slavery without racism, they treat abolitionism without idealism. Consider the most radical white abolitionist of them all, John Brown.” I didn’t know of his family roots or the events in blood Kansas preceding his raids or what was revealed in the trial or how he was a hero to the North.

Despite the fact that Brown's lawyers may have used the insanity plea to get him off, Brown was hardly thought of as insane during his time. As Loewen puts it in Lies:

(Brown) favorably impressed people who spoke with him after his capture,

including his jailer and even reporters writing for Democratic newspapers, which supported slavery. Governor Wise of Virginia called him "a man of clear head" after Brown got the better of him in an informal interview. "They are themselves mistaken who take him to be a madman," Governor Wise said. In his message to the Virginia legislature he said Brown showed "quick and clear perception," "rational premises and consecutive reasoning," and "composure and selfpossession."

(Loewen, pg. 167).

Lown supports the view of a culturally convenient view of Brown this way:

“The treatment of Brown, like the treatment of slavery and Reconstruction, has changed in American history textbooks. From 1890 to about 1970, John Brown was insane. Before 1890 he was perfectly sane, and after 1970 he regained his sanity. Since Brown himself did not change after his death, his sanity provides an inadvertent index of the level of white racism in our society.”

5. The Government

Most the 12 textbooks describe the US system of government as being as close to flawless as humanly possible. Here are some snippets from Lies.

“What story do textbooks tell about our government? First, they imply that the state we live in today is the state created in 1789. Textbook authors overlook the possibility that the balance of powers set forth in the Constitution, granting some power to each branch of the federal government, some to the states, and reserving some for individuals, has been decisively altered over the last two hundred years. The federal government they picture is still the people’s servant, manageable and tractable.” pg 217 which continues with specific book treaments

“In Frances FitzGerald’s phrase, textbooks present United States as “a kind of Salvation Army to the rest of the world.” In so doing, they echo the nation our leaders like to present to its citizens: the supremely moral, disinterested peacekeeper, the supremely responsible world citizen.”

“Since at least the 1920’s, textbook authors have claimed that the United States is more generous than any other nation in the world in providing foreign aid. The myth was untrue then; it is likewise untrue now. Today at least a dozen European and Arab nations devote much larger proportions of their gross domestic product (GDP) or total government expenditures to foreign aid than does the United States.”

The truth Lowen argues is that there is almost no mention at all, in these textbooks, about the way things really worked including elements of alternative (inckuding conspiracy) theories, abuses of power, or anything else negative.

Lowen surveyed the 12 history textbooks to see how they treated 6 U.S. attempts to subvert foreign governments that occurred before 1973, More than enough time to be covered as history. The episodes were:

1. US assistance to the shah’s faction in Iran in deposing Prime Minister
Mussadegh and returning the shah to the throne in 1953;
2. our role in bringing down the elected government of Guatemala in 1954;
3. our help rigging of the 1957 election in Lebanon, which entrenched the Christians on top and led to the Muslim revolt and civil war the next year;
4. our involvement in the assassination of Patrice Lumumba of Zaire in 1961;
5. our repeated attempts to murder Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba and bring down his government by terror and sabotage; and
6. our role in bringing down the elected Alende government of Chile 1973.

Looked at objectively if these happened to us we would call actions such as these “state-sponsored terrorism.”

Blind patriotism, mindless optimism, sheer misinformation, and outright lies all of which helps to explain why we have lost touch with our history and why high school students hate history. When they list their favorite subjects, history is always at the bottom. They consider it the most irrelevant of twenty-one school subjects; bo-o-o-oring and confusing too. What could be interesting is the recent past, but it isn’t covered and disappears, unexplained down what Lowen calls the Memory Hole. And because important details are omitted the stories it tells are often incoherent.

Picture/Image credits:


Lies book cover:


Lowen with the Texts:


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