3.16.2006

history

During my last few years in the US, there was an attitude among many liberals that the country had now - just now - fallen off the rails. There was a steady stream of op-eds and columns lamenting, "Where is the America of my youth?" and "What has happened to American values?" I clearly remember bristling when MoveOn called the invasion of Iraq "unprecedented". If only.

The "Where is the America of my youth?" cry comes from a place of ignorant privilege. It's like when fans talk about "the good old days" of baseball: I always say, when was that, when only white men could play? Or when the players were paid minimum wage and owned by their teams? In the US, the 1950s are the good old days - if you're white. Or the 1970s - if your family didn't have a son in Vietnam. Or the 1920s - if... you get my point.

I felt that people who called themselves liberals should know better than to say the US we see today was ushered in by W. They should certainly know better than to say the US invading another country without provocation is unprecedented. Damn, it's not even unusual!

One of my favourite writers and thinkers, Howard Zinn, wrote this recent column about why Americans were so easily led into the Iraq war. Part of it, he says, can be attributed to Americans' ignorance of their own history.
On the third anniversary of President Bush's Iraq debacle, it's important to consider why the administration so easily fooled so many people into supporting the war.

I believe there are two reasons, which go deep into our national culture.

One is an absence of historical perspective. The other is an inability to think outside the boundaries of nationalism.

If we don't know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. But if we know some history, if we know how many times presidents have lied to us, we will not be fooled again.

President Polk lied to the nation about the reason for going to war with Mexico in 1846. It wasn't that Mexico "shed American blood upon the American soil" but that Polk, and the slave-owning aristocracy, coveted half of Mexico.

President McKinley lied in 1898 about the reason for invading Cuba, saying we wanted to liberate the Cubans from Spanish control, but the truth is that he really wanted Spain out of Cuba so that the island could be open to United Fruit and other American corporations. He also lied about the reasons for our war in the Philippines, claiming we only wanted to "civilize" the Filipinos, while the real reason was to own a valuable piece of real estate in the far Pacific, even if we had to kill hundreds of thousands of Filipinos to accomplish that.

President Wilson lied about the reasons for entering the First World War, saying it was a war to "make the world safe for democracy," when it was really a war to make the world safe for the rising American power.

President Truman lied when he said the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima because it was "a military target."

And everyone lied about Vietnam -- President Kennedy about the extent of our involvement, President Johnson about the Gulf of Tonkin and President Nixon about the secret bombing of Cambodia. They all claimed the war was to keep South Vietnam free of communism, but really wanted to keep South Vietnam as an American outpost at the edge of the Asian continent.

President Reagan lied about the invasion of Grenada, claiming falsely that it was a threat to the United States.

The elder Bush lied about the invasion of Panama, leading to the death of thousands of ordinary citizens in that country. And he lied again about the reason for attacking Iraq in 1991 -- hardly to defend the integrity of Kuwait, rather to assert U.S. power in the oil-rich Middle East.

There is an even bigger lie: the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.

If our starting point for evaluating the world around us is the firm belief that this nation is somehow endowed by Providence with unique qualities that make it morally superior to every other nation on Earth, then we are not likely to question the president when he says we are sending our troops here or there, or bombing this or that, in order to spread our values -- democracy, liberty, and let's not forget free enterprise -- to some God-forsaken (literally) place in the world.

But we must face some facts that disturb the idea of a uniquely virtuous nation.

We must face our long history of ethnic cleansing, in which the U.S. government drove millions of Indians off their land by means of massacres and forced evacuations.

We must face our long history, still not behind us, of slavery, segregation and racism.

And we must face the lingering memory of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

It is not a history of which we can be proud.

Our leaders have taken it for granted, and planted the belief in the minds of many people that we are entitled, because of our moral superiority, to dominate the world. Both the Republican and Democratic Parties have embraced this notion.

But what is the idea of our moral superiority based on?

A more honest estimate of ourselves as a nation would prepare us all for the next barrage of lies that will accompany the next proposal to inflict our power on some other part of the world.

It might also inspire us to create a different history for ourselves, by taking our country away from the liars who govern it, and by rejecting nationalist arrogance, so that we can join people around the world in the common cause of peace and justice.

Howard Zinn, who served as a bombardier in the Air Force in World War II, is the author of "A People's History of the United States" (HarperCollins, 1995). He is also the co-author, with Anthony Arnove, of "Voices of a People's History of the United States" (Seven Stories Press, 2004).
Howard Zinn never fails to inspire me: to learn more history, to think more clearly, to dare to dream about and work for justice.

5 comments:

M@ said...

It's become a truism that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it -- such a truism that it doesn't even register any more. But what people forget is that they repeat it as the dupe or as the victim.

Incidentally I finally picked up Zinn's People's History and have started wading through it. Thanks for the recommendation -- it's really something.

L-girl said...

Incidentally I finally picked up Zinn's People's History and have started wading through it. Thanks for the recommendation -- it's really something.

You are most welcome. I'm so happy you're reading it!

I may have mentioned this at the time, but I found it necessary to read a section, then put it down and read other things, then go back and read another section, moving slowly with lots of breaks.

Not because the reading wasn't engaging, I found it very readable - but because it was so heavy emotionally. First the Native Americans, then slavery, then all the early expansionist wars...

Although the history of resistance is inspiring, the history of oppression is hard to comprehend sometimes.

latour said...

It's become a truism that those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it

"History happens twice: First as tragaedy, then as satire." -Karl Marx

I think the article is well said: too many Americans are too ignorant of their own history, especially when it comes to foreign policy and spreading "democracy" by supporting death squads. It is a problem that we also have in Canada (not as many blatant foreign interventions against democracies, but there are a few where we supported the Americans, such as in Haiti), but I figure it is to a bit of a lesser extent; we tend to at least know about some of the injustices committed in the past in Canada, it's just that a lot of us can't seem to put them in perspective.

Remember 9/11/1973

M@ said...

Yeah, I read up to the revolution in a couple of days and have been digesting that since. It's deep and, honestly, really depressing.

I hate to be cynical but the more you learn, the harder it is to avoid it.

M@ said...

Latour -- I agree with you. One reason I think we have more credibility in the world is that we don't have a history as an imperialist state -- something that the rest of the G8 absolutely cannot claim.

It's far less common that we interfere internationally for purely Canadian gain, and we typically don't do anything internationally without a NATO or UN overseer. That's a pretty important distinction.

(The obvious exception in our history is taking our actual country over from the natives who owned it.)