His­tory is not a fairy tale to make us happy

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - | @NeilStein­berg nstein­berg@sun­times.com NEIL STEINBERG

Fri­day we saw our pres­i­dent stand be­fore Mount Rush­more and make an im­pas­sioned plea against what he called “a mer­ci­less cam­paign to erase our his­tory” and in fa­vor of what we can call the Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble view of the past.

You re­mem­ber Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble. Or maybe you don’t. That’s one prob­lem with his­tory: There’s so much. Rev. Ma­son Weems wrote about a young Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton cut­ting down a cherry tree. The lad is con­fronted by his fa­ther and con­fesses, “I can’t tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.” Such is the hon­esty of our lead­ers!

In the view of our cur­rent pres­i­dent, who can­not tell the truth, the founders who cre­ated this coun­try were per­fect, while par­tic­i­pants in the na­tional drama who were not white men are flawed, fringe fig­ures, Betsy Ross sewing a flag.

The prob­lems with the Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble view of his­tory are many, but two stand out.

First, it didn’t hap­pen. De­spite Weems call­ing the story “too true to be doubted,” the cherry tree episode was in­vented, his­to­ri­ans agree, to sell books Hence Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble; kind of a give­away re­ally.

Sec­ond, his­tory as a se­ries of saints to ven­er­ate in­stead of study im­plies that these men are re­spon­si­ble for ev­ery­thing that tran­spired. Also un­true — if his­tory were about or­di­nary peo­ple bend­ing to the will of lead­ers, we’d all be hap­pily nod­ding along with Don­ald Trump. When only 38% of us are. The rest are bounc­ing in our chairs, ea­ger to toss him onto the ash heap come Novem­ber.

I can’t stom­ach myths be­cause the truth is al­ways more in­ter­est­ing. Only a false patriot de­mands Wash­ing­ton’s flaws be squinted away. Part of his ge­nius was in re­cov­er­ing from his own jaw-drop­ping tac­ti­cal blun­ders. Ge­orge Wash­ing­ton was a master re­treater; he could slip the jaws of de­feat to fight again bet­ter than any gen­eral who ever lived.

Sim­i­larly, the great­ness of our coun­try isn’t be­cause it’s per­fect, but that it over­came — and, ob­vi­ously, is still over­com­ing — its count­less flaws. The slav­ery and op­pres­sion that, to Trump and his ilk, wreck the story are ac­tu­ally an even greater sort of glory. Look at what was over­come.

Ex­trem­ism and schol­ar­ship don’t mix. We’ve got the Trump­skis on the right, de­mand­ing fairy tales to make them feel bet­ter. On the left, rad­i­cals can be just as bad: To them, Amer­i­can his­tory is a shame­ful char­nel house to be ex­posed, a se­ries of atroc­i­ties re­quired to jus­tify the rev­o­lu­tion they all crave.

You don’t have to choose be­tween Abra­ham Lin­coln and Fred­er­ick Dou­glass. The men ad­mired each other — that’s why it’s silly that kids at the Uni­ver­sity of Wis­con­sin want to re­move their Lin­coln statue. The rep­u­ta­tion of Lin­coln won’t be touched, while they’ll have, per­haps fit­tingly, an empty space at the mid­dle of cam­pus that’ll give high school se­niors one more rea­son to avoid go­ing to Madi­son.

And what’s next? Get­ting rid of

Fred­er­ick Dou­glass, too? Be­cause he cer­tainly was a big Lin­coln fan.

His­tory is bound­less. I’ve read both Sa­muel El­liot Mori­son’s and Howard Zinn’s his­to­ries of the Amer­i­can peo­ple. Both are ex­cel­lent. The for­mer is more pa­tri­otic, the lat­ter more crit­i­cal. Both true and valu­able.

Were his­tory not open to rein­ter­pre­ta­tion, no­body would write new his­tory books. But our past is con­stantly be­ing reeval­u­ated, seen in new light by fresh eyes peer­ing through dif­fer­ent lenses, with hereto­fore ig­nored voices join­ing in our Amer­i­can cho­rus.

Our pres­i­dent is an im­be­cile on whom nu­ance is lost. His fol­low­ers can’t grasp that you don’t need a white man on a horse to find glory. How about an en­slaved peo­ple, brought here in chains, for­bid­den from learn­ing to read, who in six gen­er­a­tions elected a pres­i­dent and forced their op­pres­sors to fi­nally tear down the mon­u­ments to their own ha­tred erected af­ter los­ing the war they dragged us through? That’s a story worth telling your chil­dren.

There’s a clever painting called “Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble” by Grant Wood at the Amon Carter Mu­seum of Amer­i­can Art in Fort Worth.

Wood gives young Ge­orge the head we see on the dol­lar bill. The cur­tain fringe is made of lit­tle cher­ries. And there in the back­ground, al­most un­no­ticed, are Black slaves, a sly re­minder of who gets left out of the fa­bles, un­til re­cently. No pres­i­den­tial pity party is go­ing to change that.


Grant Wood's Par­son Weems’ Fa­ble.

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