History is not a fairy tale to make us happy
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.
THE GREATNESS OF OUR COUNTRY ISN’T BECAUSE IT’S PERFECT, BUT THAT IT OVERCAME — AND, OBVIOUSLY, IS STILL OVERCOMING — ITS COUNTLESS FLAWS.
Grant Wood's Parson Weems’ Fable.