Throughout a standard education in U.S. History, one is undoubtably to hear the phrase -- or cliche -- "History is written by the winners." I don't know who coined it, but I remember, when I first heard it in those halcyon days of High School, it was easy enough to absorb its obvious truths and then, like most people, quickly dismiss it. When you're a student and just trying to get through those traumatic years of adolescence, there is no real reason to question further -- If History is written by "the winners" then what part of the picture is missing? Also, we won, right?
As I mentioned in an earlier post, I have only recently discovered the scholarship of Noam Chomsky. I was 15 when Good Will Hunting came out and it was the first time I ever heard a reference to Chomsky's Manufacturing Consent, and in the same scene, Will makes reference to Howard Zinn's People's History of The United States. Both books and, indeed, both authors are usually stigmatized as "radicals" and shoved neatly to the side of more conventional approaches to U.S. History. Both these professors hold mirrors up to American life and history and by marginalizing their voices, we have lost something invaluable: a sense of who we are and the country in which we live.
I admit, that if only for literary purposes, I much prefer reading the standard version of American history. I marvel at our relatively young nation's ability to have so quickly embraced an almost mythical creation narrative -- great men, in defiance of the tyrannical ruler from a distant land, established what is in my opinion one of the great works of art in history. For many, including myself, this myth is enough to embolden endless patriotism, but our understanding of our "Founding Fathers" and this period of our history must delve further if we are to truly grasp the nature of their intentions and the limitations of our country.
We hold the Bill of Rights today as an almost sacred document, yet there remain glaring anachronisms within its text (the whole thing about quartering a British soldier). We often overlook the plight of the Native Americans involved in America's "Manifest Destiny" expansion. The truth is that the founding fathers were not perfect men -- they understood all too well their own limitations -- and it took decades of atrocities and the Civil War for us to finally get rid of one of America's most relied upon institutions, slavery. There are endless examples of haineous and absure acts committed by past leaders, not the least of which is the duel pictured above between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.
I don't need to go through all the nonsense etched on the underbelly of U.S. History, for that you can read Zinn. The process that those of us interested in America -- and who claim devout patriotism -- must undertake is akin to those moments of our youth which sparked our adolescent angst -- when you first see your father cry or the epiphanies that lead you to the fact that your parents are not the embodiment of perfection. Just as it became clear that your parents were human, so it must be revealed that your homeland is deeply flawed. While at first this may be tough to accept (hence those years of adolescence), it is a necessary step towards self-realization and maturity. As we come to discover, those prelapsarian versions of your parents weren't true and that the love you have for them after the fall is that much deeper because of it. Realizing your parents are imperfect brings them down to you, painfully exposing what is also flawed in you, but the end result is an understanding that leads to empowerment.
It is the same with our relationship to American history and to our current government. When we place our officials on untouchable pedastols, we strip them of their human qualities and, by doing so, we blind ourselves to the plain reality of their faults. (Side note: It is almost paradoxical Americans liked Bush cause he was just a regular guy, and many of those who elected him for this reason refuse to accept the limitations and faults that their "regular guy" president has.) Accepting the defects of our govenment and the human frailties of our leaders is not unpatriotic; in fact, it can deepen ones patriotism, for if our leaders are flawed like we are then what is stopping us from becoming leaders ourselves. We each hold a stake in this country and it's future narrative, but before we work together towards a "more perfect union", we must first embrace its past and present imperfections. Winston Churchill once said, "Democracy is the worst form of government..." at face value a cynical take, but then he added, "...except for all those others that have been tried." So we must first admit that we were dealt a less than great hand, but it's the best out there and it remains encumbant upon us to improve upon it.
Voices of dissent or criticism are not "radical"; they are necessary. If Chomsky and Zinn are "radical" it is only because they wish to provide us with an alternative (and extremely necessary) lens through which to view ourselves -- as lens usually omitted from standard education. The real truism is that when our History is syphoned through the winners' pens, we all lose something.