This Fourth of July, many American parents will no doubt be reading Lynne Cheney’s alphabet book, America: A Patriotic Primer, to their children.
If kids pay close attention they will learn a lot, but unfortunately it will be a lesson in obfuscation and distortion. Cheney –the wife of the vice president, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and a noted conservative intellectual — offers a whitewashed version of U.S. history that is morally and intellectually offensive.
Note, for example, the letter T, for tolerance: “Free to think and believe and pursue happiness in our own way, we recognize the right of others to do the same.” No argument with that sentiment; I’m all for tolerance.
But skip back a few pages, to the letter N, “for Native Americans, who came here first,” on a page adorned with drawings of American Indian notables and names of tribes.
Even allowing for the fact that it is an illustrated children’s book and not a detailed history, her N page leaves out some rather significant facts that could be easily summarized. Yes, the Native Americans came here first. Then the Europeans came. Then the Europeans killed almost all the Native Americans and took almost all the land.
I suppose one could claim that the Europeans were T-is-for-tolerant of the Native Americans, at least tolerant of those who accepted less-than-human status and did what they were told. American Indians were free to think and believe and pursue happiness in their own way, so long as they got out of the way of the white folks who wanted the land and resources.
And along the way, those white folks carried out the one of the most successful genocides in recorded human history. Depending on the size of the indigenous population in North America at the time of Columbus’ arrival (12 million is a conservative estimate), 98 to 99 percent of that population was dead by the end of the 19th century.
As native scholar Ward Churchill has pointed out in his book, A Little Matter of Genocide, the fact that a large number of those indigenous people died of disease doesn’t absolve white America. Sometimes those diseases were spread intentionally, and even when that wasn’t the case the white invaders did nothing to curtail contact with Indians to limit the destruction. Whether the Indians died in war or from disease, starvation and exposure, white society remained culpable.
I review that history not so all us white people can sink into a state of guilt; one can’t be guilty for what was done before one was born. The point of telling the truth about the history — of naming this original sin of the United States — is to both establish some minimal level of intellectual honesty and enrich contemporary political debate. So long as Americans lie to themselves (or in the case of Cheney’s book, lie to our children), there is little hope that white America and the United States government can deal honestly with the consequences of that genocide.
White Americans shouldn’t feel guilty about a depraved past we did not create;instead, we should take moral and political responsibility for the resulting inequities and injustices that remain in a society that accords us great privilege.
That kind of honesty would lead us to question why the list of Indian notables on the page includes only one who fought the United States, Tecumseh. Even then, Cheney mentions only his attempts to create a confederation of Indian nations, deliberately excising the fact that Tecumseh’s goal was to expel the white settlers.
Don’t bother looking onthe N page for a mention of Crazy Horse or any other Indian who resisted the genocide. Apparently, they aren’t part of Cheney’s Native Americans.
(To be fair, Sitting Bull appears on another page, though with no mention of his historical importance).
This rendering of the Native American is particularly ironic coming from Cheney, who wrote another book called Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense–And What We Can Do About It. Apparently the truth should be told, except when it interferes with the task of cultivating patriotism in children.
In Cheney’s patriotic primer, H is for heroes and I is for ideals. In my assessment of her primer, H is for hypocrisy and I is for ideologue.
Our children, deserve better.
Robert Jensen is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and author of the book Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream. He can be reached at [email protected]