Monday, July 04, 2005

Putting Away Childish Things

Some people never tire of being indignant. The latest frenzy (except, of course, for the six dozen frenzies that erupt while I write this) involves a comment by NBC News Anchor, Brian Williams in reference to the new Iranian president that many believe to have been involved in the 1979 takeover of the American embassy in Tehran. Williams noted in comparison that, "several U.S. presidents were at minimum revolutionaries, and probably were considered terrorists of their time by the Crown in England."

The comment by Williams is a restatement of what should be common wisdom, especially among conservatives -- that human beings are constrained in their perception of reality and tend to view it through filtering and often self-serving lenses. As Pat Buchanan noted, "[o]ne man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter. Or so it would seem."

I can only assume that the British Crown had a very negative opinion George Washington and other Founding Fathers during and after the Revolutionary War. I don't know if the word "terrorist" was in use during the late 18th century, but I'm sure they had others. Samuel Johnson, who is revered by some conservatives had some choice words about Americans in Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson: "He had long before indulged most unfavourable sentiments of our fellow-subjects in America. For, as early as 1769, I was told by Dr. John Campbell, that he had said of them, 'Sir, they are a race of convicts, and ought to be thankful for any thing we allow them short of hanging.'" I'm sure the blogosphere would have gleefully attacked Johnson if it had been around 200 years ago.

In a similar vein, Joseph Sobran looked at the view of the British Crown -- King George III that Americans of a certain age would have learned in elementary school:
When I was a schoolboy we were taught that the American Revolution had occurred because our ancestors were fed up with the tyranny of King George III. They particularly resented being taxed by a government in which they had no vote, and they adopted the slogan “No taxation without representation.” The slightest tax increase drove them to fury.

King George was pretty unpopular in England too. What galled the English was that they were taxed to pay for the French and Indian War in America, which was fought to protect the Americans. In A History of the American People, a marvelously readable book, Paul Johnson notes that in 1764, the costs of the recent war actually fell 50 times as heavily on the English as on the American colonists. The average Englishman was paying 25 shillings a year in taxes to the Crown; the average American, a mere sixpence.

. . . By modern standards, George III wasn’t much of a tyrant. A rather pitiful excuse for a tyrant, really. He falls far short not only of Saddam Hussein, but of our own recent presidents.
I didn't learn in school about how the English were paying a far heavier price to protect our country than were the Colonists, which is fine. I think young children should be taught a relatively uncomplicated, pro-American version of American History with more about the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere than handwringing over slavery.

However, I also think that as we get older Americans should learn a more complex and real version of our history. In 1995 Benjamin Schwarz wrote a brilliant article for the Atlantic Monthly called the Diversity Myth which should be required reading for Americans, in which he noted that "the history we hold up as a light to nations is a sanctimonious tissue of myth and self-infatuation."

"Conservatives" of the Malkin et al. variety cling to the second grade version of American History. They should heed the words of the Apostle Paul: "When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things."

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