“Americans supported slavery” and other inflexible/flexible history themes

We notice an interesting habit in people’s analyses of the past: in the past, everything is absolute; while in the present, everything is conditional.

In the U.S. today, there are many fraught issues that divide and subdivide the nation. There is no one opinion on Social Security, climate change, the war in Iraq, NSA surveillance, how to intervene in Ukraine, birth control, affirmative action, prison reform, or every other issue facing Americans. We know that there is no single national opinion on these issues. When we hear our own politicians, or foreign observers, describe America as united in their opinion on one of these issues (the BBC World News saying recently that “the majority of Americans dismiss climate change” comes to mind), we immediately reject it, and feel the frustration and irritation of having our complexity misrepresented.

Yet we do not extend this courtesy to the past. When we talk about history, suddenly “the United States” and “Americans” are all one thing:

—Americans supported black slavery before the Civil War.

—Americans believed they had a right to Native Americans’ lands.

—Americans considered Native Americans to be savages.

—Americans were isolationists who did not want to enter WWII.

—Americans hated Prohibition and did not obey it.

—Americans have always been a God-fearing people.

—Americans did not think women should be educated.

—Americans accepted child labor in factories.

—Americans were caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s.

—Americans believed in their Manifest Destiny to settle the West.

You’ve read these statements in textbooks, magazine and journal articles, and heard them on countless historical programs and documentaries. You, like the rest of us, probably wrote them yourself in early school papers. These blanket statements are not only laughably incorrect, they are damaging. They are uniformly negative, and reinforce the stereotype that America claims to stand for liberty and justice for all, but in reality, America is a hypocritical sham. Each of these statement can be easily taken apart and discounted by the most cursory historical investigation. Each of the issues they address were just as conflicted and complex as any of the ones we face today. In reality, Americans had a wide variety of opinions on the issues above, and debated them with the same vehemence we debate with now. Most of them were never fully resolved.

Even the positive lies of uniformity are harmful: “Americans were always self-reliant”, “Americans believed in the value of hard work”, “Americans were always innovative”, “Americans did not trust big government”—each bit of boosterism was crafted, even at the time, to promote a certain worldview, a certain political stance. We can hardly read them now without thinking of their current purposes, which are generally to reject federal social spending, remove federal programs in schools and the workplace, get rid of taxation, and discourage alliances with other nations for any liberal purpose (such as fighting climate change). We independent, hard-working Americans don’t want… fill in the campaign-season blank.

Let’s go forward cutting the past as much slack as we cut the present. Let’s drop the inflexible history and allow it to be as flexible as the present. If we don’t buck the trend of the uniform past, imagine how we will find ourselves misrepresented 100 years from now, to our chagrin—“Americans in 2014 happily accepted NSA surveillance because they valued the convenience of technology more than their right to privacy.”

Puritan social justice (aka Protestant work ethic)

In part 2 of my Truth v. Myth series on the Protestant work ethic, we look at why the Puritans were the first powerful, politically organized group in England to try to wipe out poverty.

First, 16th-century Puritans, like many northern European Protestants, were strongly influenced by humanism. Humanist philosophers, like Erasmus, promoted the idea that all human life had dignity and worth and that human reason could discern right and wrong. Humans didn’t need to rely on revelation from the supernatural, from God, to figure out how to live their lives. Humans were able to reason out which form of society and government best promoted human happiness and then to construct that society and government, and were even obligated to do so. Not using our reason was an affront to the God which endowed us with it.

Now the English Puritans believed in the individual. Their religious beliefs were centered on the individual person seeking God’s wisdom and receiving God’s grace. The only real way to learn about God and what God wanted was to read the Bible. The Puritans, like all Protestants of the time, thought the Catholic method of having a priest read a portion of the Bible to an assembled congregation was a travesty. The passage was chosen in Rome to fill out the church year, it was read out in Latin to people who didn’t understand it, and the individuals in the congregation felt no connection to it. To the Puritans, every person had to be able to read the Bible for themselves, choosing passages based on their own unique spiritual needs, or based on insights gained from sermons or Biblical study groups. Only by reading God’s word, in silent contemplation, might one receive an understanding of God’s will, and the realization that they had received God’s grace–salvation from Hell. Reading the Bible was the only path to discovering one’s salvation (or damnation).

This meant, astoundingly, that the 16th-century Puritans believed everyone–even girls and women–must be taught to read. This was a wild, liberal, revolutionary plank in their platform. Universal literacy was undreamt of at the time. But the Puritans demanded it; it was the only way people could understand God’s will and the state of their own souls.

Combine this religious conviction with the humanist conviction that all people have value, and you get the Puritan belief that everyone must have the chance to better themselves, both spiritually and materially. For if you are poor, then you have no home, no Bible, and no education. You can never read the Bible, and you can never be anything but a burden on others. So the poor are damned, both on this earth and in the afterlife. On earth, they are disdained and mistreated, and they bring others down with them. In the afterlife, they are damned.

Eradicating poverty, then, was just the first step in creating a government in England which allowed people to live dignified and productive and religious lives. If people are taught to read, they can do business, and make money for themselves, and buy a Bible, and read it and receive God’s grace. At this time in England, capitalism as we know it was just gathering its first steam. Merchants and other businessmen were able to build considerable wealth.

Most of the early Puritans were city-dwellers, mostly in London, and they were self-employed businessmen who were doing pretty well–often very well. They were eventually able to fund the company that sponsored the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (1630). They felt themselves on the cutting edge of a new world, wherein anyone could start a business and prosper if only they were hard-working, literate, and righteous. Everyone should take that path. Poverty should not be encouraged or tolerated.

Next time: Failure in England and determination in America

Howard Zinn and Empire

I’ve just read Howard Zinn’s latest article, “Empire or Humanity? What the Classroom Didn’t Teach Me About the American Empire.” I admire Howard Zinn, but I feel his critiques of America’s sins go only  halfway.

Zinn seems to have had the same experience learning about American history in school that I did: either you didn’t read anything negative, negative things were blandly presented as neutral, or negatives were horribly presented as positives.

For example, either you didn’t read about the Trail of Tears at all, or you just read something like “The Cherokees were removed from the southeast.” Or, you might even get a small celebration of it, like “Once the Cherokees were removed from the American southeast, settlers could take advantage of the rich land.”

Then, like me and most other people who come to love American history, Zinn started reading on his own, and finding out about the atrocities American governments and people have committed.

But Zinn seems to have accepted these atrocities as evidence that the idea that the United States was founded in an effort to promote justice and freedom is a lie. If you check back to my About page, you can read a fuller explanation of why I think this is a mistake.

Yes, Americans have done terrible things to each other and to other peoples. But those failures to live up to the principles we were founded on are just that–failures to live up to real principles that really were set up to guide our nation and make it a successful experiment in real democracy.

If, like Zinn, you see these failures as proof that America has always been a lie, that we have no real principles to live up to, then I believe you simply give yourself cynical permission to be morally lazy. If America was never really different from any other nation, if it has no uniquely good principles to live up to, then why care if we commit atrocities? Why care if we build an empire? If America has always been bad, how can you change it?

Zinn hopes that we have “reached a point in history where we are ready to embrace a new way of living in the world, expanding not our military power, but our humanity”. I get the feeling that he sees this place as a new beginning, to build up from. But we already have a blueprint and platform for living justly in the world–our founding documents, particulary the Constitution and Bill of Rights. We don’t have to make something new and unknown from scratch. We just have to live up to what we already have.

To quote myself, when it comes to our democracy, “we have to keep founding it, over and over, with every generation. Because it is unique. Liberty, equality, and justice for all goes against human nature. A nation founded on those ideals is always in danger of tripping, falling, and giving up. We must always do justice to those difficult ideals and principles for which we stand.”

So to read Zinn is just step one. Read Zinn! Learn the entire history of your nation. Face up to the problems of being an American today. But don’t stop there, depressed and demoralized, feeling like this country is the worst country in the history of the world. Hearken back to the principles we are supposed to uphold, and start upholding them. Then we will indeed reach a point where we can abandon our empire-building and bring good to the world. Like we’re supposed to.