A nation with no pride in its past will feel little confidence in its future.
If citizens look upon the origins of their society with guilt and confusion, they’ll find scant reason to identify with its fate or to repair its shortcomings. The current notion that America’s undeniable power and privilege rest upon shameful foundations poisons our public discourse, embitters the national mood, and paralyzes all efforts for constructive change. We worry over anti-Americanism abroad, but echo its primary charges here at home. While all objective indications identify the residents of the United States as among the most fortunate human beings on the planet, much of the public refuses to acknowledge our blessings because, according the widespread acceptance of politically correct America-bashing lies, we don’t deserve them.
Those who embrace the idea that the USA came into being through vicious genocide against native populations, built its economy through the unique oppression of African slaves, facilitated corporate exploitation of immigrant masses, and damaged countless other nations with its imperialist policies, will naturally assume that we’re paying the price for these crimes and abuses – viewing an allegedly dark present as the inevitable product of a purportedly dark past. Negative assumptions about our guilty forebears allow contemporary Americans to wallow in self-pity without accepting blame of any sort for our much-discussed sorry state. In a typical aside, New York Times book reviewer William Grimes laments that American “success…came at a price….for the descendents of the colonists, who have inherited a tainted legacy.”
This ‘tainted legacy,’ this endlessly analyzed burden of embarrassment and apology, has brought a bittersweet or even decidedly sour flavor to great national celebrations that formerly featured joy and jingoism. For Thanksgiving, 2007, the Seattle City Schools sent out a letter signed by the district’s “Director of Equity, Race & Learning Support” and addressed to all faculty and staff warning that for many students, Turkey Day represented “a time of mourning, of remembering how a gift of generosity was rewarded by theft of land….As currently celebrated in this country, ‘Thanksgiving’ is a bitter reminder of 500 years of betrayal….”
Columbus Day provokes similar controversy on a yearly basis, with angry demonstrations against the unwelcome encroachments of white interlopers in the pristine New World paradise they polluted with their disease-ridden, gold-hungry presence. Our previous observance of the birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln has given way to the anodyne and insipid “Presidents Day,” in which we’re supposed to commemorate all inhabitants of the White House – the incompetent as well as the inspiring, the scoundrels along with the secular saints. We’ve added a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., but while sanctifying the memory of a great and courageous advocate of brotherhood we inevitably use the occasion to recall, yet again, our ugly history of racism. That same history now factors into the Fourth of July, with pointed reminders that some of the most prominent figures in the struggle for Independence (Jefferson, Washington, Patrick Henry) owned slaves. Meanwhile, when it comes to the sparklers, cherry bombs, and other fireworks that comprise the festival’s most hallowed tradition, many (if not most) of today’s celebrants secure such ordnance at Indian reservations – another ironic connection with the most painful elements of the nation’s past.
Even Memorial Day and Veterans Day have lost some of their flag-waving, patriotic fervor and taken on a distinctly mournful, even skeptical edge. We now make a point of recalling dubious as well as heroic wars, and taking note of those members of the military who sacrificed and served in our most controversial recent conflicts. The Vietnam Memorial in the nation’s capital has not only become an improbably popular tourist attraction, but now serves as a major focus for both national holidays honoring the armed forces –an association that takes the mood a great distance from the parades, picnics, brass bands and flapping banners of prior generations.
In fact, the Vietnam experience and the associated dislocations of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s helped to dissolve the patriotic consensus that had endured for two centuries, and promoted poisonous lies about the national character. The United States waged deeply controversial wars long before the conflict in South East Asia, but in all previous cases a sweeping, one-sided victory (as in the War with Mexico) or at least a concluding, climactic battle that gave the illusion of overall triumph (as the Battle of New Orleans provided a stirring coda for the otherwise frustrating War of 1812), allowed divisions to evaporate and wounds to heal. Losing a war, however, does nothing to solve the punishing disputes surrounding it and to some extent the brutal Communist conquest of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos insured that the arguments about the war would resound through succeeding generations. U.S. failure gave credibility, if not confirmation, to those anti-war protestors who had decried our “imperialist” foreign policy, and chose to identify their nation as “Amerika” – the Germanic spelling meant to echo the Nazis, while the inserted “k” recalled our homegrown “KKK.” Once you’ve associated your native soil with genocidal fascists and white supremacist thugs, it’s tough to return to singing the praises of the land of the free and the home of the brave – even after ultimate victory in the Cold War, a new period of American hegemony, and the evanescent surge of unity and defensive pride following the terror attacks of 9/11.
By that time the tribalism of the ‘60’s had become a more or less permanent feature of our national life with identity politics and jostling interest groups taking the place of any homogenizing notion of Americanism. African-Americans, feminists, Latinos, gays, Asians, the disabled, hippies, Native Americans – each aggrieved segment of society demanded justice and redress, competing for recognition as the most victimized and gypped. The competitive victimhood encouraged even privileged people to affiliate with some marginalized cohort or synthetically assembled “community,” and to shun any assimilation into the bland American middle.
With all the suffering subgroups clamoring so colorfully for recognition and sympathy, the once respected mainstream looked suddenly, simultaneously, guilty and boring. “Black is Beautiful” and “Never Trust Anyone Over Thirty” became trendy slogans, while any suggestions that “White is Beautiful” or demands to “Respect Your Elders” drew only derision and hostility. The old national motto, “E Pluribus Unum” – out of many, one – sounded intolerant, disrespectful of difference and diversity, as the ideal of a melting pot gave way to a “gorgeous multicultural mosaic.” The concept of an overarching, unifying, non-ironic definition of American identity looked less and less plausible.
“….a Yankee Doodle Dandy
A Yankee Doodle do or die.
A real live nephew of my Uncle Sam
Born on the Fourth of July.”
Eighty years later, Ron Kovic appropriated the phrase “Born on the Fourth of July” for the bestselling memoir and movie about his shattering experience as a paralyzed, abused, deeply disillusioned Vietnam vet. With the Oliver Stone film’s release in 1989, everyone who encountered the title received it with a snicker or smirk, understanding Cohan’s high-stepping glorification of flag and homeland as an embarrassing relic of insular and ignorant nationalism.
In a strange sense, this same isolation and exceptionalism fed the most fashionable of the anti-American lies: the public remained so unsophisticated about all the other palpably imperfect nations of the world that the USA’s shortcomings and failures looked singular, unprecedented. Histories of mass murder, backwardness and barbarity hardly diminish the fierce pride of other nationalities. Oscar winning director Ang Lee recently noted the overwhelming importance of unquestioning patriotism to all those who claim Chinese identity: “Chinese patriotism is not supposed to be negotiable. To us that’s a black-and-white thing. You sacrifice yourself – how can you let China down?” Politicians and pundits in the People’s Republic hardly agonize about thousands of years of conquest and colonialism over “lesser” peoples at the edges of the Middle Kingdom.
Similarly, European states with vastly more destructive and savage histories than the United States feel no need for apologies, hand-wringing or wrenching self-criticism. Guy Sorman, author of 20 books on French politics and public affairs, commented in the Wall Street Journal (December 4, 2007) about the themes in government schools in France: “The very content of education is discriminatory. The history of colonization is taught as if it were a glorious feature of French history. In Senegal, on his first official visit to Africa, Mr. Sarkozy regretted the violence of colonization but insisted on the good intentions of the French colonizers, out there to bring civilization to the ‘African man’ who had ‘not entered history.’”
Compared to other world powers, America deserves guilt less but struggles with it more. Our French cousins celebrate Bastille Day with abandon, joy and unapologetic pride, despite the ugly stains on the Tricolor. For Mexicans and for Mexican immigrants in the United States, Cinco de Mayo doesn’t provide an occasion for brooding meditation on the pain and disappointment and injustice that’s always characterized our turbulent neighbor to the south. Ironically, the one national holiday observed in America with the most unalloyed elation and pugnacious pleasure is St. Patrick’s Day, which seldom, even in the most boozy stupor, gives rise to remorse over the failings and foibles of the children of Eire.
Some might explain this American penchant for harsh self-criticism as a product of our higher ideals and more lofty aspirations. Through most of its long, tortured history, no one ever really expected Russia to serve as a “light to the nations” or a “shining city on a hill.” The United States, on the other hand, has long expected to remake the world in our image, and often succeeded in that endeavor. The fact that we have attempted more shouldn’t obscure the fact that we’ve also achieved more, and stumbled less other nations with significant roles in world affairs. In baseball, even the most fearsome (and well-paid) power hitters will strike out occasionally, or hit into double plays. It’s inevitable to feel special frustration when All Stars fail to deliver, but these high expectations shouldn’t focus attention on failures alone, and obscure all the home-runs and solid hits delivered the rest of the time. The soaring ambitions of the United States didn’t lead to humanity- crushing disasters, but instead helped to inspire more success for more people – Americans as well as others—than logic or experience would have deemed possible.
Acceptance of the bitter lies about America undermines the ongoing aspiration that alone can power the United States in its continued role as the mighty engine of human betterment. Without shared gratitude for the innumerable advantages that hard work and history provided to the present generation, we will suffer the insecurity, unease and self-hate associated with undeserved good fortune.
An American Indian academic and musician named David A. Yeagley (an enrolled member of the Comanche Nation) tells a sobering story about one of his students at Oklahoma State University-Oklahoma City. A “tall and pretty” girl with amber hair and brown eyes, she spoke out in a class discussion about patriotism. “Look, Dr. Yeagley,” she declared, “I don’t see anything about my culture to be proud of. It’s all nothing. My race is just nothing.”
“Look at your culture,” she continued. “Look at American Indian tradition. Now I think that’s really great. You have something to be proud of. My culture is nothing.”
Concerning this unforgettable interchange, Professor Yeagley observed: “The Cheyenne people have a saying: A nation is never conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.
“Who had conquered Rachel’s people? What had led her to disrespect them? Why did she behave like a woman of a defeated tribe?
“They say that a warrior is measured by the strength of his enemies. As an Indian, I am proud of the fact that it took the mightiest nation on earth to defeat me.
“But I don’t feel so proud when I listen to Rachel. It gives me no solace to see the white man self-destruct. If Rachel’s people are ‘nothing,’ what does that say about mine?”
And what does it say about each of us if we see ourselves as heirs to “nothing” – to only a tainted legacy and a heritage of shame? To accept and recycle prevalent slanders about our country shows neither courage nor sophistication, while promoting impotence, self-pity and paralysis. An accurate appreciation of the past remains altogether indispensable to the survival of communal connection, individual liberty and the pursuit of happiness.