The Good American and the Bad American

Posted on November 5, 2014


It is amazing to me, perhaps because of my own naiveté, how political ideologues “discover” a “new” element in American culture and civilization, and, then the pundits and commentators raise it to the level of immediate and necessary discourse across the land.

Those of the Left and Right claim it as the “high” ground of truth and gospel, and, we’re off, once again, into a theme treated very well thank you in a little book I used more than forty years ago when I was still teaching U. S. history, Conflict and Consensus in American History.

Perhaps Ecclesiastes 1:9 is really true: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.”

Edmund Burke summarized it pithily: “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it,” while one of the most famous modern philosophers, Yogi Berra, commented that “it’s déjà vu all over again.”

What are we talking about here? It is important.

We need to remember once in a while that the real history of America is complicated, not easily reduced to sound bites, and it is marked both by immense controversy and an equally astounding ability to reach consensus in trying times.

Think the Civil War for the best, or worst, example of settling our differences by outright warfare.

Dial up the Great Depression in the 1930s for an example of when it would have been easy for the fabric of our political life to tear apart into anarchy and revolution, but it didn’t.

And try the modern Civil Rights movement for how we reconciled a deeply divided nation and people in a process that stressed peace and consensus rather than violence and differences.

I know many of you can think of all the exceptions. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, not a very good example of peaceful resolution. But, on the other hand, the Civil War freed the slaves, a good end in a maelstrom of death and destruction.
That’s what makes history fascinating. It is not simple.

This is not a fourth grade Alabama history lesson in which the Spanish conquistador Hernan de Soto represents the evil European outrider of conquest and disease, while the Indians of Moundville are super nice people devoted to preserving the environment. The truth is far more complicated. How to render it, whether to fourth graders or a graduate history seminar or in a short OpEd column, is the challenge.

The presenter has to be honest. The reader or viewer has to be discerning.
Recently there have attempts to “clean up” American history in the schools by eliminating as many references as possible to the negative eruptions of hate and violence in our history and instead stressing the “good” history, marked by good will, cooperation, justice, and happiness across the board.

I’m very sorry to tell readers that the truth is we have passed through both phases of the human existence: pathos and terrible hurt and injustices. We have also demonstrated incredible leaps into accord, justice, equality, and even harmony.

To deny one in favor of the other is to deny the truth. In the end, one has to live by the truth. Conversely, you will die, metaphorically and perhaps even spiritually and literally, by the lie.

So it is important to get it right. And where there are differences of opinions or interpretations of what came in the past, discuss them openly and honestly, and don’t cover your prejudices with some political claptrap defending a set of ideas, or ideology, by a very selective choice of examples or evidence.

By the way, this applies to history across the board, globally in the syntax of today. Not all Germans were monster Nazis during the Second World War and not all Japanese soldiers participated in the rape of Nanking. But most Germans and Japanese were taken in by depraved leaders who manipulated them shamelessly.

Today, not all Muslims are wild-eyed Jihadists intent on dominating the world. It is a complicated world, just as our own has been complicated, sometimes noble and sometimes not.

We don’t need to beat our chests in waves of guilt about what has happened or been done in this country over the past centuries. We just need to recognize the realities. I have been reading 1927, a book by Bill Bryson.

It is more than a biography of one year in American life. It is about the entire decade of the 1920s, marked by the magnificent flight of Charles Lindbergh in his solo crossing of the huge Atlantic Ocean, and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. Radical Italian anarchists bombed and blew up people with impunity in the early part of the decade while bootleggers and speakeasies laughed at Prohibition and America kept on merrily drinking in spite of the national law.

We need to remember our heroes, like Abraham Lincoln. But he too had his warts and was not a superhuman incandescent lamp of truth and justice and equality for all time.

We may knock a John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr. into the gutter for sexual peccadillos that revealed an ugly side to their lives. But all three in fact rose and captured a noble side of American life and, indeed, gave it life.

Remember the good and the bad. Condemn the bad, but celebrate the good. Don’t bury one or the other in some politically correct or politically-motivated rewriting of American history. It is fascinating, and instructive, in its own right if you just tell it like it is, or, more exactly, was.

Posted in: History