May 262008
 

It’s pretty much impossible to talk about the founding of the United States without using religious metaphors and discussing the faith of our founders.  I do it.  I’m an American, and I was reared on the myths that so intertwine faith and politics that trying to pry them apart is like attempting to separate gum.  I grew up in Tulsa, which has declared itself the “Buckle of the Bible Belt.”  On any given day here, you’re liable to find a religious tract on your door or to be approached in public by a stranger who wants to know if you’ve been saved.  You cannot overestimate the importance of camp meetings (now held in massive, air-conditioned auditoriums) and revivals here.  (This of course begs the question:  Why do we need so many revivals here?)  I went to school, learned to drive, and got my first kiss (literally) under the shadow of Oral Roberts — an evangelical faith-healer who built a multi-million dollar ministry traveling the country holding tent meetings (the old, un-air-conditioned kind).  He preached the gospel…and anti-communism.  That’s how it is in America:  the separation between church and state is a sieve.

On the one hand, we want to pledge ourselves to the ideal (more often as a means of preserving the church from the clutches of the state than as a way to promote tolerance), but, then again, we believe that our country was founded by the guidance of Providence.  We believe that we have a divine mission — and being a great and righteous super-power is it.  Thus, our founding legends are more than histories — they truly have a sacred purpose.  It is through these that you come to understand yourself as an American and accept your inherited mantle of righteous obligation.  It’s a birthright.  You are one of God’s chosen people.  I am not being facetious in the least here.  This is our truth.

This, again, explains why we are taught that the Pilgrims are our ancestors — and not the Cherokee.  The City on a Hill now spreads from sea to shining sea.  It is also why we’re taught to revere the Declaration of Independence, which justifies our rebellion and incorporation as a duty to protect the rights that God gave us and set us on our holy path.  Religious leaders speak from the pulpit about how God ordained our purpose in the beginning — this is our Genesis — and guided our Founding Fathers.  They were creating a nation with a calling and divine purpose;  this is what you hear.  Secular scholars and atheists sometimes attempt to discredit that interpretation by insisting that our founders were not religious.  At best, they were deists who did not believe in a living God personally involved in the events of men.  If we as a people did not so dearly treasure the role of religion in our country, that debate wouldn’t be so heated.

The conversation might also be different if we could understand our faith historically.  Modern Christianity is different from the religion as practiced two hundred and fifty years ago.  Even evangelicalism looks different.  Religions — like other human activities — evolve over time and are shaped by persons and temporal events.  Our democracy is different; so is our faith.  There appear to be some consistencies — we seem to have always loved easy salvation — but there are differences too.  Ironically, our historiography contributes to this.  The mantle you receive today is necessarily different than that of our first settlers, who were not indoctrinated to believe in a divine plan.  They could not see our country as a benevolent super-power;  they were just tilling new ground.  They were not fighting international wars to make the way safe for democracy.

As such, they didn’t need to write history that — well, there wasn’t history to write at that point.  It is us, those who come later, that have added the meaning and interpreted historical events as the unfolding of a divine plan (spreading righteousness, freedom, and democracy around the world).  Because we see ourselves as religious people — largely Protestant Christians — with a calling, we write histories describing the unfolding of our sacred destiny and forging a common link through religion with our forefathers.  It serves our purpose.  If we didn’t believe this about ourselves, we’d write different stories.  Of course, if you take out the religion, it really would be un-American.

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 Posted by at 4:01 pm
May 192008
 

I wish someone would write a general history of the United States called “The Rise of Obedience.”  It could outline our transformation from unruly independents to law-abiding conformists and describe the way government transitioned to all-powerful arbiter.  You would never read such a history in any American high school — you wouldn’t even study it in college.  The powers that be like your socialization to remain invisible and professional historians — despite their liberal bent — aren’t really misanthropes.  They are like their fellow Americans:  they like their rebellions righteous, and their love of disreputableness is strictly academic.  You should take careful notes on draft riots, slave insurrections, and violent labor strikes — not overturn your desk and set fire to whatever’s handy and flammable.  Your professors prefer you limit your rabble-rousing to the voting booth.

We are, of course, products of professionalism, progressivism, the expansion of the middle-class, and other trends that have helped define appropriate behavior in our society.  You should work for a living, speak English, house no more than two persons per bedroom, and maintain an acceptable level of cleanliness in your home.  Your children should salute the flag, and you should censor what they watch on TV.  As an adult, you should not inconvenience others with unruly protests, engage in promiscuous sexual behavior, or disrespect the office of the presidency.  Most especially, you should be law-abiding and defer to those in authority over you.  We want an orderly society.  The best way to achieve this end is to indoctrinate you early.  We want you to believe that orderliness is next to godliness — and the American way.

To this end, historians ballyhoo Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that we were — even in colonial days — a people dedicated to the rule of law.  Even if you ignore the fact that the law is, at times, codified injustice, describing our settlers as legalists and lovers of justice can be a tenuous position.  There has been a bent toward lawlessness even from the early days.  Rebellious Scottish immigrants took up in the western hills of South Carolina and made their own law in defiance of the established system.  At one point, the Governor had to send in troops to relieve citizens from the reign of terror brought by these “Regulators.”  The Regulators were not the only vigilantes at work in those days — which is not surprising given the limited law enforcement mechanisms that existed.  With no police force as we know it today, no prison system, and a patchwork of laws covering a vastly dispersed and heterogeneous population, dedication to the rule of law would actually be shocking to find.  It might be better to describe the colonials as individuals often left to their own devices in the absence of effective government.

The old marriage laws are a prime example of this.  The law imported from Europe required a cooling-off period, publication of intent, and communal assent, as well as the authorized officiating still mandated today.  A lack of empowered public officials and a dispersed community (along with a lack of care and ignorance) made compliance often impractical.  Most marriages then were not actually legal.  The practice was so widespread, the law was eventually changed to match reality.  Imposing the law was unworkable.

Other, more criminal, examples of disregard for the law further discredit the myth of orderliness.  The fourth and fifth most common crimes committed in our early days were “contempt of authority” by regular citizens and corruption and mismanagement by public officials.  The people were disobedient and the authorities no better.  And, this was in a day when the government didn’t legislate much of what it does today.  There were no laws banning abortion, levying income taxes, licensing guns or means of transportation, or regulating the sale of food or drugs.  The government was less invasive, and even then people resented it.  These independent masters were full of their rights and often disregarded the law when it was inconvenient for them.  This is the culture that facilitated the Revolution.

As much as we mythologize our past to make our first-comers upright and law-abiding, that doesn’t make it so.  Efforts to obscure our unsavory past allow us to cling to a fantasy about our noble beginnings.  We can pride ourselves as a people born of purists seeking to leave the corruptions of the Old World behind and righteous citizen-soldiers.  By focusing on formal politics, life in major cities on the eastern seaboard, ideologies, and legislation in the Colonial Period while ignoring the facts of everyday life, our histories promote a legend celebrating a mythical, honorable legacy and heroizing our founders unwarrantedly.  It also helps teach you to behave.

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 Posted by at 6:47 pm
May 142008
 

In 1945, Katherine Anne Porter wrote a stunning critique of “civilized” society, comparing World War II to the medieval practice of herding those with mental disabilities onto ships and sending them off to sea to survive on their own wits.  Porter equated society to that “Ship of Fools” left to fend for itself.  No professional historian would so cynically and thoroughly criticize his or her subject.  World War II is to be rationally explained and even celebrated as the work of the “Greatest Generation.”  In the same way, no one would dare to skewer our sacred beginnings either.  So, we describe our beloved founders as freedom-seeking saints and plucky capitalists-to-be.  It’s Australia’s shame to germinate from penal colony to imperial step-child.  Such a beginning is not fit for a country destined to become the world’s greatest superpower.  We are no Ship of Convicts.  We are the progeny of Providence.

This is another of our founding myths, and it is for this purpose that our myth-makers laud the storm-tossed hardy Puritans who came to a wilderness to make of it God’s new Eden.  Only that story doesn’t fit so well in Maryland or Virginia — which were resettlement colonies for criminals and undesirables (like political prisoners).  It also doesn’t accurately describe the importation of slaves or the genocide of American Indians.  The myth of righteous settlement is not sustained by fact here.  It is more correct to say that we descend from social rejects — religious extremists, criminals, the lawless, and living property.

Social expulsion was a common practice in those days:  You kick out religious deviants (Jews and errant Protestant sects), criminals, malcontents.  The practice was imported to the New World.  Georgia grew out of the English practice of deporting criminals.  Just so, Rhode Island was settled by religious non-conformists banished from Massachusetts.  Throughout the British colonies, many came to this country through indentured servitude — a gentle euphemism for white peonage.  The practice is now considered a form of slavery and is illegal under international law.  Those resettled in this way were paupers, displaced peasants, and unproductive or unruly members of their previous societies.  Thus, between banishment, indentured servitude, the slave trade from Africa and the Caribbean, and forced service from indigenous peoples, a large portion of those settling this country served under coercion.  Yet, we propagate the myth that our nation was founded on the principle of personal freedom.

This is the image we want to have of ourselves.  This is the kind of boosterish historiography that befits the founding of a mighty nation.  Who among us wants to be ashamed of our beginnings?  We want to believe in progress, but you don’t want to start with quite such disreputable beginnings.  Even in America, the ideals of self-redemption and the self-made man have their limits.  So, we promote a mythological origin that makes us feel good about our founders — which isn’t so much about our patriotism as it is about how we lie to ourselves.

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 Posted by at 8:34 pm
May 052008
 

You did not study American history in public school because the benevolent State wanted you to know the Truth.  Neither was the purpose to make you a critical scholar on the subject nor to cause you to question our collective moral position.  From day one, you were being socialized, through the promulgation of American myths, into nationalistic conformity.

Firstly, you were taught that the United States is the proper heir of the British Empire.  Your textbook led you to believe that our country was born of Anglo culture.  Popular religious sources told you that we descended from repressed Englishmen seeking religious freedom — and school boards dominated by white Protestants pushed that contention into your training.  Civic-minded authorities designed a curriculum for you to study that would obscure our non-Anglo beginnings and magnify our connection to England.  By way of lies, sins of omission, and obfuscations, then, you learned to wear the mantle of Anglo-Protestantism and worship at the altar of our first founding myth.

Because the powers that be want you to embrace an Anglo-centric view of our beginnings, history textbooks give little attention to early courses before moving on to an entree of English colonialism.  The books begin with oh so brief explanations of indigenous migrations and hurry on to the “discovery” of the continent by white Europeans.  The suggestion here is that the history that took place prior to white colonization is unimportant, worthy of scant study, and that our history really picks up with the coming of the colonists.  The historiography, therefore, covertly reflects the theme of Manifest Destiny overtly taught to you in explaining westward expansion.  Following the summary (and dull) enumerations of exploratory voyages by Columbus, et al. come detailed descriptions of the founding of Roanoke and extensive treatments on the settling of the Massachusetts Bay Colony.  Again, your attention is called to these focal points to encourage you to see these English settlements as humble beginnings for the rise of a great nation.  Because the authors — white Protestants with an affinity for the Brits and scholars from the east coast who dominate the writing of history in our country and like to write about their own — want to make this history preeminent, the stories continue by developing almost exclusively as chronicles of the expansion of the American Colonies and their role in the British Empire.

We are used to this historiography.  It is familiar.  We have been indoctrinated into it.  This is not the only way to tell this story, however, and with a different purpose, we could deviate from it.  If we had a view to truly embrace our multicultural past, our histories would begin with much fuller treatments of Native American cultures.  Rather than just highlighting their migration patterns and summarizing their socio-economic structures (i.e. agricultural versus hunting societies), students could study Indian laws, customs, religious practices — even, perhaps, their founding myths.  This tack would treat these cultures as valuable and give them more equal footing with white society.  This fuller treatment would also do justice to the pre-Columbian (before Christopher Columbus) past, instead of unjustly boiling hundreds of years into a week or so of lesson plans.  This done, the curriculum could continue on to the coming of white Europeans.  Thereafter, the story should be split — giving equal time to colonization of the south and west by the Spanish, French settlements in the north and along the Mississippi River, the development of the British colonies along the east coast, and the enduring — and adapting — cultures of the American Indian nations.  Studying these four major cultural sources (and I know there are problems in lumping together often disparate Native American societies) would deemphasize our English roots — making them appropriate to scale — and give warranted attention to other cultures that have contributed to the nation’s development.  We pay so much lip service to multiculturalism in the U.S., but our historiography belies our professed value.  Adding blurbs about Sacajaweja and Pocahontas to the existing historiography does not make it multicultural — and, therefore, reflective of who we truly are as a people.  The flaw is central to our myth.  Only a complete reinterpretation of our history with a multi-pronged approach can rectify.

It is possible to write such a story.  To do so, however, requires dedication to a different view of our past (not Anglo-centric) and to the abandonment of our beloved founding myth.  This reinvented historiography would demonstrate more fully that this country truly is a melting pot (which it is) and rebuff the patronizing tokenism that has plagued our story since the multicultural movement began (and the status quo took steps to placate critics with tokens).  The State and a vast historiographical conspiracy, however, stand against this.  These do not want subtle scholarship or wisdom.  They want conformity and good citizenship.  You are being socialized to believe.

(Note:  I am well aware too that this kind of shift in the historiography necessitates a shift in our traditional division of our history into two parts, cleft by the Civil War.)

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 Posted by at 7:36 pm