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Sunday, December 02, 2007

Why is it important to challenge the myths that constitute American folklore?

History Lessons: How Textbooks From Around the World Portray U.S. History, by Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward
Founding Myths: Stories That Hide our Patriotic Past, by Ray Raphael
reviewed by Dan Skinner
For thousands of years political thinkers have recognized that myths are essential instruments of political power. Plato’s vision of a well-ordered republic famously employed a Myth of Metals to justify inequality. Similarly, Nietzsche argued that myths were necessary in the creation of national identity and, indeed, for human life to propel itself forward.
Two recent books, Dana Lindaman and Kyle Ward’s History Lessons and Ray Raphael’s Founding Myths, make great strides toward challenging some conventional myths and broaden our understanding of American history. Raphael works within the interstices of American mythology to reveal the genealogy of fictional stories central to the American “founding.” Lindaman and Ward demythologize American history by compiling textbooks from nations with which the US has engaged. From their vantage points, both reveal the highly myopic and provincial perspective that often shape American understanding of American history and, indeed, all national myths.
Two central questions underscore both books: Why is it important to challenge the myths that constitute American folklore? And what have been and are likely to be the consequences of these myths? If they are simply benign stories of heroism that make Americans feel proud and help forge a national identity, why not let them persist?
One of the brightest and most illustrative moments of Raphael’s book is his short chapter on the famed order given by American generals at the Battle of Bunker Hill to “wait until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has taught generations of Americans that the Revolutionary War was an intimate and personal war of brave individuals confronting their British oppressors. As Raphael explains, “In Revolutionary times, we prefer to believe, the glory of war was not diminished by impersonal slaughter.” Thus, the war of independence would be seen quite differently if the bloodshed were the result of out and out massacre, as war often is. More importantly, this myth propagates a dangerous view of war that World War I diaries have refuted and the poems of Siegfried Sassoon have given voice to; the fact is that people can often motivate themselves to kill other humans only so long as they can’t see the “whites” of their opponents eyes, that is, dehumanization drives war. It is for this very reason that generations of war psychologists have had to desensitize soldiers in order to kill – victory often depends upon the namelessness and facelessness of “the enemy.”
The glorification of war, as Raphael illustrates with his demystification of Paul Revere’s ride, the fictitious Molly Pitcher, and Sam Adams as patriot par excellence, requires that heroes and their stories be continuously created and maintained. Raphael sees a paradox, here, arguing that “The image of a perfect American in a mythic past hides our Revolutionary roots, and this we do not need.” In reconsidering American history, Raphael contends that Americans will be able to discover that only stories of real people doing real deeds can be the source of a true patriotism, and to do he seeks to peal away the layers.
While Raphael questions the widespread historical assumptions that constitute American identity, Lindaman and Ward are revisionist historians in the most literal sense. Revisionist history is an inevitably controversial practice as Americans—as is true of any people—are uncomfortable questioning the veracity of the stories they were told as children. But Lindaman and Ward return “revisionism” to its perspectivist roots to re-vision, or take a second look at, a historical moment from a different vantage point.
This is precisely what anyone truly concerned with understanding history must do. As we have seen, from Herodotus and Thucydides to such contemporary historians as Doris Kearns Goodwin and Arthur Schlesinger, all historians take perspectives. Sometimes they even lie for tragic effect or narrative flow. Recognizing this, Lindaman and Ward help us to reconsider our own history from perspectives that official American doctrine does not allow. As one might expect, these perspectives are not attempts at rewriting “Truth,” but rather of making it clear that Americans are as biased in the writing of history as other nations. Just as Raphael shows us how perspective and the national imperatives that shape it effect how we see ourselves, Lindaman and Ward demonstrate how other nations view the history of their involvement with the United States.
One of the most exciting of their chapters deals with what Cubans simply call “The Missile Crisis.” Unlike American textbooks, which point to an unprovoked act of aggression by Soviet Premiere Nikita Khrushchev, Cuban textbooks describe the “crisis” as a reaction to continued threats from American “imperialist forces” such as the Bay of Pigs Invasion of 1961, as well as a logical response to assassination attempts on Fidel Castro. An excerpt from a Canadian text reveals yet another perspective, focusing on Kennedy’s unilateralism: “Neither [Canadian PM] Diefenbaker nor his ministers were consulted—much less informed—about the decision [to ready American military forces and nuclear capabilities for war]. The prime minister was furious that a megalomaniac American president could, in effect, push the button that would destroy Canada.”
Several of Lindaman and Ward’s entries serve to broaden the usual treatment of events offered by American textbooks. A chapter from Nigeria on the Atlantic slave trade, for example, frankly acknowledges the financial benefits Nigeria received from selling off its own people, while an excerpt from Zimbabwe blasts its master, Great Britain, for forcing the African colony into slavery. The British entry, in turn, praises itself for being among the first nations to ban slavery.
Lindaman and Ward’s book is timely and important. At a moment when the credibility and standing of the United States in the world has been called into question, and where political candidates increasingly need to prove their willingness to act unilaterally in order to be considered “strong” by the American electorate, understanding how the world is taught to see America is in the best interest of the nation. This is a matter of pragmatic political strategy – if not to attain respect and trust, then as a matter of long term national security. Whether or not he is right, George W. Bush’s claim that the United States has always been a force for good is not a view shared around the world, and many important clues to the “global test” that John Kerry rightly suggested the United States should consider can be found in History Lessons.
Perhaps more important, these books call into question whether a nation so deeply invested in a set of national myths can make decisions that will make it stronger or help it to pursue the equality or justice to which American founding documents lay claim. For example, the contemporary myth of a cheerful heterosexual nuclear family that has never in fact existed is being used to deny rights to gay and lesbian citizens. Similarly, a decade ago, Reagan’s legend of the “welfare queen” conditioned many Americans to believe that efforts to combat poverty were nothing more than a waste of tax dollars. National mythologies that conveniently serve the interests of economic or religious factions, or that are used to mobilize a nation for war, can have real and serious consequences.
These revisionist historians do not advocate denying America the right to a past. But the spirit that unites both books is the conviction that any nation’s guiding assumptions must be continually re-examined before they can serve as a sound basis for future action. History Lessons and Founding Myths show that looking back and reconsidering history is a prerequisite of the very possibility of moving forward.
Dan Skinner is a graduate student in political science at the CUNY Graduate Center. [Home] [Latest Issue] Logos 4.1 - winter 2005© Logosonline 2005

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