Telling a Story
If you told a lie, my grandmother wouldn’t say, “You’re lying.” She would say, “You tellin’ a story.” The word history contains the word story, and history is just that. Any story told about actual events is, to some degree, a distortion. That doesn’t make it worthless of course. The distortion may actually reveal deeper truths. But in any case, history is always someone’s interpretation. History, unlike science, has an intrinsic subjectivity to it. And history has a purpose. There is no such thing as “pure” history, analogous to pure science. History exists because at least some of us want to understand how we got where we are, and where we might be headed.
I have always been interested in the exploration of space, and many observers have noted that America’s race to the moon was not motivated by noble goals. It was motivated by ruthless Cold War competitiveness. Yet few can deny that very positive results came from the space race. There was a tremendous emphasis on education at the time, particularly in science. A global perspective was gained which helped forward the goals of environmentalism. Three of the Apollo missions brought the world together in ways nobody expected. And huge technological advances resulted, unquestionably improving human lives everywhere.
In a way, this is American history in a microcosm. So much of our country’s story was built on goals that were far from noble. Greed. Colonialism. Dehumanization. Racial supremacy. In many cases the consummation of those goals has been a great deal of suffering and needless death. Yet it is also true that the American experiment has led to a tremendous advancement of human well-being around the world. The spread of democracy, tremendous improvements in human health and prosperity, all can be traced to the story of America.
Not surprisingly, American history books have tended to emphasize the positives and diminish the negatives. The question is whether this is good for the country or bad. I would argue, and I suspect most psychologists and sociologists would argue, that it is very, very bad. To me America is much like a family. A dysfunctional family, with an abusive father. When I see family photographs with smiling faces, the first thing that pops into my head is, what are they hiding? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a great deal. A photograph is a moment frozen in time. And like that photograph, an unwillingness to face the ugliness tends to freeze the family in dysfunction, making it difficult if not impossible to move forward.
American history, as presented in textbooks and school classrooms, often reminds me of family photos full of smiling faces. What are they hiding? If we bother to look, we don’t have to look far. There is plenty of ugliness there. The ugliness does not erase the positives in my view. But pretending it’s not there makes it MUCH more difficult to move forward. And moving forward is NECESSARY, because CHANGE IS INEVITABLE. The only question is what we will change into.
America, like any nation, has lots of ugliness in its past. Understanding the ugliness and how it relates to the present is what enables us to move forward. So why is there so much resistance to exposing it? Probably for the same reason that most families don’t want to talk about their own ugly truths. But for a nation, there’s an important difference. There are some things a nation has to address AS A NATION. Germany had to come to grips with its Nazi period, as a nation, in order to move forward. Rwanda had to come to grips with genocide, as a nation.
When a nation creates unjust systems that cause human suffering, the nation must address the problem as a nation. America, as a nation, supported the institution of slavery. America, as a nation, committed atrocities against Native Americans. America, as a nation, overthrew democratically-elected governments and supported death squads in Central and South America. American conservatives seem to be fond of saying, “I will never apologize for America.” They seem to paint anyone who criticizes the nation as an “America-hater.” This has always been the big problem with conservative ideology, at least as long as I can remember. “America, love it or leave it.” “My country, right or wrong.” These are just different ways of expressing the same idea – that the nation, as a nation, is incapable of doing wrong. But if we look closer, there’s more to it than that.
In 2019, radio personality Phil Valentine authored an article entitled “The America-haters.” In this article he mentions a former colleague who challenged him to come up with a list of Americans who actually hate America. His response? In the article, he cites a Gallup poll showing that only 32% of Democrats were proud to be Americans. The only actual “America-hater” he lists is Louis Farrahkan. And he gives us this: “It wasn’t until 2008 when Michelle Obama was 44 years old that she uttered these words: ‘For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.'” The implication, I suppose, is that you have a choice. You can either be proud of America, which equals loving it, or you can not be proud of it, which equals hating it.
Presumably, this kind of logic holds within families too. If you have an abusive father or uncle, you can either be proud of him, which equals loving him, or not proud of him, which equals hating him. If you have a son who’s a serial killer or child molester, you can either be proud of him, which equals loving him, or not proud, which equals hating him. You can’t love him unless you’re proud of him. And there’s nothing in between love and hate.
In actual fact, a Gallup poll in 2020 found that 68% of Democrats were either “extremely proud,” “very proud,” or “moderately proud,” to be Americans. Only 14% said that they were “not at all proud.” I’m guessing that Valentine was considering only those who said they were “extremely” or “very” proud (32%) to be actually proud – that being “moderately proud” somehow doesn’t cut it. Incidentally, 8%, almost 1 out of 10, of independents reported that they were “not at all proud.” The question, “Do you love America?” was not asked. But a different survey by YouGov in 2015 found that 82% of liberals reported that they loved America.
Of course, the blatherings of some radio goober that few people have ever heard of do not represent conservatives in general. Yet the theme is a prevalent one among conservatives who have access to media bullhorns. It is worth noting that pride in America among ALL partisan groups has been declining for years now. The percentage of REPUBLICANS who report that they are “extremely proud” to be Americans has fallen about 20% in the last 20 years. In the 2020 Gallup poll, only 41% of independents reported that they were extremely proud to be Americans. And tellingly, only 24% of non-whites said they were extremely proud, compared to 49% of whites. It is also worth noting that only 34% of women were extremely proud, compared to 50% of men.
It is reasonable to ask why young, college-educated, non-white females tend to be less proud of America than older, poorly-educated, white men. Still proud, but less so. Perhaps it’s because they have a less rose-colored, more reality-based view of the country. But I suspect that the “America” that older, poorly-educated white men are “extremely proud” of is not the real country, but their idea of what the country should be. In this respect they are probably not much different from any other group. The phrase “make America great again” has plenty of strong implications. The biggest one is that the country was once great, but has lost its greatness. To older, white, poorly-educated men, America is absolutely a culture, not a set of ideas. To the extent that this culture has lost its supremacy, America has lost its greatness in their view. An America without this culture in a dominant position is not America at all.
Imagine an America in which Spanish was more frequently spoken than English. In which Tejano music was all over the radio and white people were a small minority of the population. In which Protestant churches of any stripe were few. In which the country was still a democracy and the principles of justice, equality, and tolerance prevailed. Would older, white, poorly-educated American males still consider this America?
In the past, this connection between the nation and a culture was much more explicit. White supremacy was quite overt and unapologetic. There was no ambiguity in the term assimilation. It meant assimilation into white Protestant culture, which was imposed on Native Americans and coerced from others. It was not merely assimilation into the ideals of justice, equality, and tolerance. It was about wearing your hair a certain way, dressing a certain way, speaking a certain way, going to a certain church. This kind of assimilation is still defended by American conservatives.
All of the ugliness I mentioned above – slavery, genocide against Native Americans, the support of Cold War death squads – was defended by American conservatives at the time. Some of it still is. What has changed, what is unprecedented, is demographics. For the first time in its history, America is becoming a minority white nation. This is bound to have a profound impact on the story America tells about itself. Within 10 years, more than 35% of the baby boomers alive today will be gone. This represents an enormous chunk of conservative America. The majority of Americans under the age of 25 will be non-white. Young Americans are voting increasingly Democratic, as you can see here:
Young Americans are increasingly educated and non-white. It is highly doubtful that these young people will stand for whitewashed versions of American history or conservative bloviating about “America-haters.” A whopping 76% of millennials, that is Americans born after 1980, believe that immigrants strengthen the country, compared to only 41% of those born before 1945, and only 48% of baby boomers. This is just one of many examples of how young America thinks of the country quite differently from older America. Are they going to change their minds when they get older? I doubt it.