19 April 2014

American history, revised and updated

Last night Vanessa and I watched Jesus Camp, which I'm sure many of you have seen. It brought back some memories of my brief stint in Pentecostal-style evangelical churches. But something caught my ear, and that's a refrain I've often heard from conservatives: a quip about the moral decline of America. They've kicked God out of schools! You can't say "one nation under God!" The gays are marrying! Dogs and cats living together... mass hysteria!

Later in the evening, I came across a provocative article on the Huffington Post which, courtesy of famed photographer Ansel Adams, documented the lives of Japanese-Americans living in an internment camp during World War II.  Here were ordinary American citizens detained in direct violation of their Constitutional rights. It struck me as odd, though increasingly less surprising, that I never learned about that in my many US history classes in grade school.

An unrelated article I read later discussed the global economic and political policies of the US and Britain that provoked the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. I'm not enough of a history expert to ascertain the accuracy of the article, but its thesis seems sound and well-researched enough that it seems reasonable to conclude that the attack on Pearl Harbor wasn't just an act of Those Evil Japs, but a move that resulted from a complex global economic and political scenario. As the saying goes, history is told from the top, and in my younger years I was never given any perspective on why the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor aside from, "They were imperialists".

We were all taught about Christopher Columbus, heralded as some sort of adventurous hero; we weren't taught about his use of torture and mutilation to govern Hispanolia. We're often told about early colonies of the Spanish empire, but we're rarely told about Encomienda – the systematic slavery and forced conversions to Christianity. We're often told about Abraham Lincoln and the abolition of slavery – with some religious conservatives preaching revisionist history that the US was somehow an innovator in abolishing slavery – but we're rarely told about Jefferson Thomas' Biblical justification of slavery, or just how divisive the fight over slavery really was. We're told about the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s, but are rarely shown the lynchings or rioters being beaten and hosed by white policemen which illustrate just how bloody and difficult the struggle for racial equality was at the time.

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I'm by no means trying to demonize my country, but it's worth pointing out that American history is fraught with cruelty and injustice. In just the last decade it was found that we were torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib, and America's global policies continue to be controversial. Religious conservatives have a penchant for portraying American history in a skewed, idealistic light; the 1950s were like Leave it to Beaver – nevermind the inequality of women, the McCarthy hearings, and the segregation of minorities and the violence and injustices perpetrated upon them. World War II is often viewed as a "just war", and in many ways it certainly was; but Ameri


I suppose that in contrast to my cynical conservative counterparts, I see my country as flawed as any other. But I also see progress. I see growing equality and a growing awareness of injustices. I see growing opposition to frivolous and unjust war. I see a growing awareness to economic inequality and the struggles of the working poor. I even see a growing awareness of the cruelty we've inflicted on animals in industrialized husbandry, and increasing pressure for the industry to treat them humanely and for consumers to find alternatives to animal products.

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I feel a bit of frustration at just how filtered my history education was. I'm sure over my lifetime I'll learn much more about the bloody injustices perpetuated by my country. But I'm also optimistic that the more these cruelties come to light and the more honest we are about our mistakes, the less likely we'll be to repeat them. 

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