Being Honest with History


There’s an old adage: we have more to fear from our certainties than from our doubts or insecurities. I find that to be a powerful message. One we seem destined to relearn as we witness our culture becoming more and more certain about more and more stuff. Where is our humility? Where are the lessons of history? We can flip back the pages of our long story and find time and time again how incorrect our previous selves were in their strongly held positions. Can we ignore all that?

Today we seem determined to celebrate “the certain,” listening only to those who agree with us and demonizing anyone who holds a different view. I understand this stems in part from a sense of fear and anxiety. But this polarization does not serve us well, and will not likely end well.

One of the unfortunate symptoms of this is our habit of electing officials who pride themselves in not playing well with others. Spending their time declaring ideology without any attempt to govern defeats the purpose of our legislative form of government. As Noah would advise, no awards are given for predicting rain, only for building arks.

Sometimes I think we forget that this is an experiment. Our form of democracy started out as a fragile proposition in opposition to more repressive societies. But there is no universal law that guarantees our way of life will be sustained. Why do we act that way? We seem to feel that our privileged position in the world is a birthright, like some sort of natural resource. In this delusion we neglect our history – which illustrates that this success in large measure is the by-product of exploiting a lot of other people.

Part of the problem is that we have reinvented history to serve our purposes, we choose which part of history to listen to, and we even teach our children those edited versions hoping that if we leave out the more incriminating parts, those memories will magically go away. History is not so forgiving.

(For specifics on the reimagining of our history there are many sources. For just a couple examples look at Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen, or “High School History Textbooks: The Danger of a Neutral Democracy” by T. M. Abdelazim where he notes: “Publishers are faced with the challenge to retell the story of America without insulting any persons or groups. In other words, history textbooks (are) concerned more with market logic than democracy’s dialogic…perhaps such timid inoffensiveness fattens the bottom line, but it disastrously cheats our students of better understanding the rousing, conflicting, unpredictable social experiment they will soon inherit.” Or a new book Jacksonland by Steve Inskeep that offers insight into our “grab” of indian territory.)

We live in a wonderful democracy. And we are trying to export our ideal to far off places around the globe. But we should acknowledge that parts of our model are quite broken at the moment, and that the road to this version of democracy was neither straight nor smooth. Our story is filled with many inspiring passages, but it also includes some chapters that were quite dark, smudged with violence and oppression, stories of injustice and exploitation, some of which are still central to our way of life today. These stories need to be visible alongside the marvelous stories of our success and creativity.

In that omission we leave our citizens ill prepared to deal with a world that is all too aware of our faults and which is busy trying to hold us accountable for them.  This delusion we pass on to ourselves makes it harder to address our shortcomings. And leaves us deaf to what is at the heart of today’s global angst.

I think we owe it to ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren to be honest and transparent about our history. Will it make difficult reading? Sure. Will it tarnish the luster we like to think we have? Maybe, but that luster is an illusion as well. What is more important is that if we are not honest in our account of our history, how can we claim to be trustworthy?

If we want to be the beacon of light to the world, to attempt to influence a generation of bored angry resentful young people, we need to acknowledge and confront our own missteps. Anything less only reinforces the opinion that we are less than the ideal we claim is our vision and our promise.

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