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Fairy Tale History: The Root Of America's Problems
We Tell Ourselves Lies
When young children are taught history, it’s not expected that they should be told a deep and introspective story with a lot of nuance and historical accuracy, including context and analysis. They can’t understand much and so reality must be simplified to the same level of complexity as other stories they are told.
But in America a chief cause of so many of our underlying problems is that so much of the population has never grown beyond this level of understanding. For millions of Americans the simple storybook retelling of what happened has in fact become the truth of what occurred, and then opportunistic politicians and movements take advantage of this fractured reality to advance their agendas.
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This has manifested most recently in the conservative movement’s exploitation of “critical race theory.” Now, there has to be a distinction made between the real version of critical race theory, the academic study of racial issues and their impact in America, and what Republican politicians, conservative punditry, and Fox News are truly talking about when they invoke critical race theory: Actual facts about Black People and the history and role of Black people in America.
The right didn’t suddenly become seized with interest into esoteric academic topics, but rather conservative activists like Christopher Rufo decided to demonize an academic topic for the tried and tactic of appealing to racism to motivate Republican-inclined voters. What the right is saying every time it brings up “critical race theory” is “we need to stop talking about Black people and instead get back to making the entire world about white people, which it always should be.”
And the way they get there is by appealing to the fake version of history that is pounded into so many Americans for years and years of their academic lives in K-12 education. Via laziness and repetition, combined with outside forces that have shaped education curricula, we collectively learn a fairy tale. While it is understandable that young children aren’t exposed to the horrors of chattel slavery in their kindergarten classes, or told about the subordinate role women were forced into in America’s early days, or how Native Americans were systematically killed and had their lands stolen from them, it is a failure that these topics aren’t as familiar as the founding myths.
All countries have their shared national origins, but in America it tends to resemble something like a Marvel Comics-level myth. A ragtag band of indomitable white men invoke the cause of freedom and liberty and create a “perfect” country, the end. Then you hear that same story, again and again. And even when admirable efforts are made to include diversity in that story, instead of truly adding layers of complexity, those other stories are subjected to the same sort of absurdist simplification.
We end up with a situation where America transitions from the comic book exploits of George Washington, the Captain America of the 1770s in the American mythos, to the fable of Martin Luther King Jr., where only one specific speech is ever invoked (and definitely don’t look into the details of it) and then racism is simply ended. Never mind that the fact that the very same Washington owned slaves and profited handsomely from slavery is merely smoothed over in this narrative. It is a collective mess.
For far too many Americans, it is only in the world of post-secondary education, in those purportedly far left colleges and universities that the right portrays as communism factories, that a more nuanced and accurate version of our history is even broached.
Because so many believe the myth is fact, it becomes easy for the right to demonize the left as anti-American for seeking to address the lingering effects of the sins that are inextricably intertwined with American history. The mere act of accurately addressing history is attacked as heresy. This happens all the time but was at a fevered pitch during President Barack Obama’s historic presidency. For so much of the right, racism was “solved” by Dr. King’s speech and Obama’s election “proved” this, it meant that he was perverting reality by acknowledging the continued existence of racism while serving as the first Black president. For the conservative movement this so often served as a cheap and trite way to rile up their base of voters to increase Republican power at the polls. It was this wave of history ignorance that led to the failed presidency of Donald Trump.
What can be done about the fake history industrial complex? It isn’t an easy topic to handle because the mythology is so deeply ingrained in the American psyche. In fact liberalism buys into a version of this as well, as can be seen through the smash success of the play “Hamilton” or how so may on the left will invoke the idea that protest ended the Vietnam War while ignoring the landslide victory of Richard Nixon in 1972 and the fact that America didn’t leave that war until 1975.
Dispelling national mythology isn’t easy, especially in America. But one way to do it is to merely stand tough. For too long the left has allowed the right to run roughshod over this topic, owning the narrative. Simply asserting for the inclusion of a more complete and accurate founding narrative, such as the much-attacked 1619 Project, is a vital way to do this. To improve how the topic of history is handled, the right’s narratives have to be challenged, debunked, and dismissed. Allowing them to drape themselves in the flag and to manipulate the narrative of America’s founding and continued success has been a mistake.
Like with so many of these battles, the side with reality and truth on its side has been reluctant to engage in advocacy, out of a mangled belief that the facts can “speak for themselves” and that “ultimately the truth will win out.” That isn’t true and never has been. Facts need advocates, they need shameless promoters, reality has to be sold.
History is vital and it is the foundation of efforts to move ahead and improve. We’ve allowed conservatism to pollute our history and the collective understanding of it to the point where far too much of the population is left without knowing what is real and what is fake. It’s time for the myths to die, but they won’t go dark on their own — the fight must be engaged.
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