Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Making Patriots the Proper Way

With the beginning of the Beijing Olympics, much has been made of East Asia’s humanitarian record. There have been accusations and counter-accusations; issues of humanity and issues of practicality. Plenty has been written by better men than I on these important problems. In this post I will instead address a much smaller issue, but one which is relevant to our day to day lives as Americans: the issue of honest histories.

In the last decade we have witnessed numerous squabbles between China and its neighbor Japan. The specifics of this quarrel are ever changing, but the heart of the problem is simple enough. Japan refuses to acknowledge the war crimes it committed during its occupation of China in WWII. China, for its part, is understandably furious when Japanese textbooks pretend that particularly notorious massacres never took place. Not surprisingly, I have never heard an American politician or popular figure take a meaningful stand on this issue. This is not because Japan’s refusal is insulting and ignorant, but because it is painfully familiar.

As a Coloradan born, and as a Coloradan raised, I am quite well versed in the indignities of that state’s public school system. Over twelve long years I was asked to study United States history several times, often with a strong emphasis on Colorado and the West. Upon gaining some age and intelligence under my belt, I revisited the history of my state, and I must say, we are lying to ourselves and our children. The atrocities committed against the Native Americans are still incredible to behold. Massacre after massacre, lie after lie, our true American history is full of regretful decisions. This is unarguable. But somewhere along the way, we have decided as a society that it is best to pretend that our history was consistently glorious. Certainly there could be beneficent motives behind our willful ignorance; perhaps it is the idea is to make great citizens through obligation to a noble past; perhaps it is the idea that those of us alive today are not responsible for the sins of the past. Regardless of the reasoning behind our shameless editing of history, one thing seems clear: we made mistakes which we pretend never occurred.

Aside from the fact that we certainly can’t be criticizing the Japanese for something that we do ourselves, we must address another troubling consequence. Those elements of our history that are truly glorious have been dimmed by our unwillingness to face the shameful portions of America’s past. How truly noble can a nation be when it fears its own reflection? While we lay claim to Nathan Hale and other honorable patriots we simultaneously disgrace their memory by editing our own. One doesn’t create patriots by lying. They are created by seeing the noble and the ignoble, the honorable and the disgraceful, the great and the terrible. They are created by deciding what part of our history we choose to embody and carry forth into the future. And for that decision it is as essential to remember the Sand Creek Massacre as it is to remember Nathan Hale.


  1. I agree. Why is it that we Americans prefer an easy kind of patriotism - jingoism really - that manifests in flag lapel pins and "support the troops" bumper stickers, instead of honest acknowledgment of our actions and responsibilities? For example, when we discuss casualties in Iraq, we discuss only losses of our brave troops and not the thousands of Iraqi deaths. Are we afraid to face what we have wrought?

  2. I concur, despite a momentary reluctance: for as with everything there will be a trade-off for greater consciousness. Specifically, is it more damaging to be disillusioned later, or to have too good of an idea of the wrongness of the world at a young age? I would argue that the chance of disillusionment never coming to be far outweighs the cost of ignorance which produces naive patriots: shakeable at best, and dogmatic at worst.

  3. I think you have a good point there. Perhaps it would be more appropriate to present the shameful aspects of American History to students after they have reached a certain age. I have to concur that it is in fact useful to have a basis in the awe-inspiring portions of our history before venturing into the shameful. In a limited sense, it seems as though a proper appreciation of the depth of American mistakes requires an awareness of the depth of our successes.

  4. Having recently wanted the film Rape of Nanking, the bitter anger of the Chinese and the shameful denial of the Japanese are particularly understandable. We know from our own examples in Colorado that denial is alive and well. But the acts of a brave few, such as the foreign diplomats and missionaries in Nanking, and the few who look back with passion to preserve the memories of the survivors at Sand Creek are inspirational. (Please see the website http://www.nps.gov/sand/ for details on the national historic site that Clinton wrote into law). I met the handful of National Park Service staff trying to make the site meaningful with a negligible budget from the Bush administration. And this week, road signs were unveiled naming a memorial highway in CO for former gov Ralph Carr - he was the gov who spoke out against Japanese internment at the expense of his political career during the early days of WWII. A few brave people in the midst of fear driven acts of cowardice.