Don’t Know Much about History
Remember that old song? “Don’t know much about history, Don’t know much biology, Don’t know much about science books . . .” It sounds like much of America these days. You may be familiar with the famous quote by poet/philosopher George Santayana, that those who fail to learn the lessons of history are condemned to repeat it. That sounds just like us, too. We must be the worst history students in the world.
We didn’t learn from Vietnam about getting involved in Asian land wars, did we? And of all the countries that never attacked us, we pick Afghanistan to invade and occupy. It isn’t for nothing it’s called “the graveyard of empires.” The Mongols, Alexander the Great (he had to marry the Princess Roxanne to win the peace), the British, then the Russians from 1979 to 1988, it has never been conquered. $2 billion a week it’s cost us for over ten years, although not as much now that we’re preparing to declare victory and leave.
The late 19th Century was known as the age of the robber barons, wealthy, powerful industrialists like Standard Oil, U.S. Steel, and the railroads. They exploited laborers, hired private armies to attack or kill union organizers, were able to heavily influence government through bribery or intimidation, and squashed competitors by gobbling them up to form monopolies. The Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890 put an end to most of that, and it wasn’t till ninety years later that Reagan quit enforcing it, a practice that succeeding presidents have gone along with. So here we are again, with the new robber barons — the Koch brothers, WalMart, Exxon-Mobil, BP, Monsanto, and on and on. Chalk up another F.
When George W. Bush and his buddies were whipping up a “coalition of the willing” to invade Iraq, another country that never attacked or threatened us, France had the good sense to say no, thank you. The Right went hysterical, and “Freedom Fries” were born. You remember that, don’t you? Or any kind of progressive platform to give back a little power to the shrinking middle class would be greeted with, “What, you wanna become like France?” Meaning France, where the majority of the work force is unionized, and everyone has national health care. That France. Many of these people don’t know that without the French fleet at Yorktown, we might still be a British colony today. France gave us the Statue of Liberty in 1884, as a good will gesture. How many Americans know that?
The modern Tea Parties were named from the original incident in Boston Harbor. But they either forgot, or never knew, that throwing that tea overboard was not a rebellion against their own government, but the British. Specifically, it was a response to the Tea Act of 1773 that heavily favored the British East India Co. It was a rebellion against a corporate behemoth. Today’s tea party rallies are heavily sponsored by corporate behemoths like the Koch brothers-funded Americans for Prosperity.
High school textbooks have excised our labor history. Students don’t learn of the tremendous sacrifices made by people, going back over a hundred years, to get workers organized to have some say in their work places. They’ve never heard of Matewan, the Haymarket riots, the Ludlow Massacre, the Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire, or Joe Hill. The 8-hour day, 40-hour week, sick leave, paid vacation, pensions, safe working conditions, all came from blood, sweat, and unions. Over thirty years of Reaganomics has decimated the unions. With the loss of unions come lower wages and benefits for everyone.
Eighty-nine years ago next month was the Scopes trial in Tennessee. John Scopes was arrested for teaching evolution to high school students, which was against the law in that state (and others). And today, creationists are still demanding equal treatment for their Bronze Age Jewish fairy tales. They even came up with a pseudo-scientific name for it that sounds vaguely credible — intelligent design. The Designer is still a white Republican male.
We were lied into a “war” with Iraq, and it’s not the first time it’s happened. Remember the Maine? It blew up in a harbor in Cuba during a minor rebellion against colonial Spanish rule. It was blamed on the Spanish and used as a pretext to go to war by those standing to profit, like newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst. One of the reporters and artists sent there, painter Frederick Remington, cabled back to his boss that there was no war. Hearst replied, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war.” And “Remember the Maine!” became the cry to battle. In 1964 was another lie, the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, a false flag operation blaming the North Koreans for attacking the U.S.S. Maddox, and giving President Johnson the excuse to go whole hog into South Vietnam. Today, Iraq is degenerating into sectarian civil war, and who does the media ask what our response should be? Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, L. Paul Bremer, Douglas Feith, and the other very same war criminals who got us into that quagmire in the first place! It’s unbelievable.
Fundamentalist conservatives like to tell us this is a Christian nation, that all the Founders were Christians. They’re either being willfully ignorant, or outright lying. They even trot out the inscription on the Jefferson Memorial to prove their point. It reads: I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” The problem is one of context. The quote comes from a letter he wrote to his good friend Dr. Benjamin Rush, in 1800, when he was running for President. Rush had warned him that the Philadelphia clergy were attacking him, calling him an infidel. Jefferson was a deist, and when he wrote the Declaration of Independence he used the term “Nature’s God”. John Adams crossed out “Nature’s” in the draft, and Jefferson added it back again.
The letter to Rush begins, “I promised you a long letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten.” Further on, directly referring to the Philadelphia clergy and others who had attacked him, he wrote: “The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly, for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me; and enough too, in their opinion.” It’s a whole different meaning, isn’t it? John Adams and Patrick Henry were devout Christians, but most of the Founders were either Unitarians or deists. That’s why you will not find a single mention of God or Jesus in the U.S. Constitution. In another letter, this one in 1814, he said, “Christianity neither is, not was, a part of the common law.” It shall be, though, if the Christo-fascist fundamentalists keep gaining power. They are delusional, and dangerous to any free state.
You’ve probably heard about how poorly American students rank in math, science and reading. We’re way down there, and seem to fall further down with each new report. I’m afraid it’s even worse than that. An article in The New York Times (June 14, 2011) reveals that American students are less proficient in their own history than in any other subject! Well, what can we expect, when very little teaching is being done in our schools, except how to score higher in the next series of standardized tests. And the History channel seems more interested in Nazis and reality shows than real history. So we’re likely to keep failing the grade yet again, and having to retake the course. We’ve become like the Bill Murray character in “Groundhog Day,” endlessly repeating, and repeating. I worry about the future of a country who knows so little of its past.
“History! Read it and weep!” — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle