written July 6 2005
Americans were busy enjoying the Fourth of July this past weekend, but how many of them took the time to think about what they were actually celebrating? Rather than a celebration of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, many Americans see the Fourth of July as simply an opportunity to gather with friends and family to barbecue. And to cap it off, they get to watch some spectacular fireworks.
Relatively speaking, the Fourth of July is one holiday that Americans tend to know something about. Most know that it involves America’s independence from Britain and, if nothing else, that the day has some patriotic significance. But Memorial Day, which began after the Civil War and was adopted nationally after World War I to honor all those lost to war, has become little more than a day for shopping. Department stores compete over who can offer the best “Memorial Day Sale” and some people actually wish each other a “Happy Memorial Day.” Similarly, Veterans Day is all too often seen as just another day off work, rather than an occasion to honor the nation’s veterans.
At the same time, Cinco de Mayo is celebrated in parts of California and throughout the Southwest—and it’s not even an American holiday. In fact, it’s not really a Mexican holiday, either, but rather a regional one. Cinco de Mayo marks the defeat of the French by Mexicans at the Battle of Puebla in 1862. Judging by President Bush’s embrace of Cinco de Mayo and its rising popularity, it could very well be heading toward national holiday status. Should it become so, the entire country will be celebrating an event centered on just one state in Mexico.
Then there are the birthdays of two of America’s greatest leaders, which have been conveniently squeezed into one holiday with the bland title of Presidents Day. Few of the glories of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are still attached to the holiday, making it little more than a day of leisure.
When it comes to the Founding Fathers, their departure from public awareness has roots. Otherwise known as “dead white men,” the Founding Fathers have largely been deemed untouchables by the politically correct crowd, because many of them were at one point slave owners. Never mind that it’s unfair to judge historical figures by modern standards: one doesn’t condemn an entire career because the person was less than perfect. If we were to consign every figure that embodies both positive and negative traits to the ash heap of history, there would be few left to honor.
A Berkeley elementary school recently became the focus of this debate when a petition was put forward to change its name from Jefferson to Sequoia. Because Thomas Jefferson owned slaves, some students, staff, and parents wanted to change the name to something less “offensive”—and because a tree is hardly controversial, Sequoia was chosen. Although the school board ended up vetoing the name change, the divisiveness at the heart of the matter was evident in the reaction of disappointed supporters. They insisted on pitting the issue as white-against-black even though opposition to the name change was spread across the board. After the hearing, they melodramatically sang, “We Shall Overcome.” Somehow I doubt that the leaders of the civil rights movement would have ranked this a pressing issue.
Such attitudes bespeak a worrisome trend toward historical revisionism. Schoolteachers now have to be meticulous about teaching history, lest they offend or in any way disturb the students. Unfortunately, this sensitivity only extends to minority students and not their classmates. As a result, American history textbooks mostly recount a series of injustices perpetrated solely by white men against minorities, women, and indigenous people.
But this approach does little to unite students of different backgrounds, except perhaps in derision of their country. As Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, once put it, “No other nation in the world teaches a national history that leaves its children feeling negative about their own country—this would be the first.”
When not promoting discord, American history textbooks present an airbrushed fantasy devoid of unpleasantness. According to a Washington Times article, guidelines put forth by textbook publishers in California include the following banned words: “man,” “mankind,” “aged,” “able-bodied,” “backward,” “fairy,” “imbecile,” “suffragette,” and “waitress.” Through such omissions, students are being denied an accurate, not to mention interesting, view of their own history.
Religious Heritage Erased
The attempt to try and erase America’s Judeo-Christian historical heritage has followed a similar path. Based on a “separation of church and state” that never actually appears in the Constitution, groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union and individuals like Michael Newdow (who tried to have “under God” taken out of the Pledge of Allegiance) have attempted to remove every representation of Christian religion from American life. Hence Ten Commandments sculptures that have sat peacefully in front of city halls and courthouses for years on end have suddenly been deemed dangerous to the republic. Of course, there are some less than altruistic motives involved, as evidenced by the fact that the ACLU rakes in millions of dollars in taxpayer-funded attorney’s fees on these lawsuits. But at the heart of the matter is the effort to shape American history to meet a particular political outlook.
If these organizations were consistent in their pursuit of public spaces unhampered by religion, they would also apply it to cases involving other religions. But the presence of Buddha statues in the Japanese Tea Garden in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park or the calling to prayer five times a day over loudspeakers from an Islamic mosque in Hamtramck, Mich., seem to engender no such objections. This transparent double standard points to hostility not toward all religions, just Judeo-Christian religion.
Probably the most ludicrous example of this revisionism was the altering of the Los Angeles County seal last year. The seal was designed in 1957 to represent various aspects of California history. To this end, one of the panels contained the likeness of the Hollywood Bowl. Accompanying the image was a minuscule cross, which, according to the city Web site, represented “the influence of the church and the missions of California.” It was of course this cross that had the ACLU in an uproar, and it demanded that the offending symbol be removed under threat of yet another lawsuit.
Despite great public opposition and many an article penned against the act, the seal was altered and the cross excised. In its place was a panel depicting a mission—but with nothing to mark its significance—while the figure of the Goddess Pomona (representing agriculture in another panel) was replaced with the likeness of a Native American. While the latter alteration could be argued, the L.A. Board of Supervisors did a disservice to the legacy of Catholic missions in California with the former. No doubt the ACLU was thrilled, but it’s the American people who will ultimately pay the price. The idea that aspects of history we’re uncomfortable with or that we dislike because of our own political beliefs can simply be censored is a dangerous one indeed.
Perils of Retouching the Past
It was Stalin who mastered the art of revising history for the perpetuation of his own power. “The Commissar Vanishes,” a fascinating book and exhibit by David King, details Stalin’s efforts to purge his political enemies from public consciousness. Mostly he did it by having those he’d had killed or imprisoned in his Gulags airbrushed out of propaganda photos. He also had his own photos altered to make himself appear more commanding and added images of people to inflate crowd scenes. In this way, he was able to effectively erase history and replace it with his own version.
Rather than expunge American history, we should embrace it, warts and all. For if we continue to allow a few to dictate what aspects of our heritage are considered acceptable, we risk losing all of it. Indeed, these attitudes don’t exactly unite the country, and that may be what’s at the heart of such pursuits. Everyone knows that a citizenship with no sense of national identity or history is unlikely to be a patriotic one. Instead what we see is balkanization, whereby various ethnic or religious groups co-exist but with no connection to one another. America’s future as a cohesive whole is seriously weakened under such circumstances.
What happens to a nation that doesn’t honor its own history? If we don’t heed the words inscribed on the National Archives building in Washington—“The heritage of the past is the seed that brings forth the harvest of the future”—we may just find out.