Tag Archives: American history

The 1796 Treaty of Peace and Friendship

By Gardner Weld Allen (1856-1944) - Our Navy and the Barbary_Corsairs_1904

Decatur’s Squadron Off Algiers, by Gardner Allen Weld, 1905.

On June 7, 1797, the US Senate ratified a treaty with Tripoli, which President John Adams signed into law three days later. This Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1796 was one of four maritime agreement between the infantile United States and the Maghrib States (Tripoli, Algiers, Morocco, and Tunis), known in the west as the Barbary Coast. These treaties were meant to protect American ships in the Mediterranean from pirates operating in the region.

The treaties soon failed, largely because of the toll of payments owed to the Maghrib States and the pirates’ continued ransoming of American sailors. President Adams opted to pay the ransoms and tributes, but his slave-owning Southern successor Thomas Jefferson refused to pay the North African states, sparking a war during the first year of Jefferson’s presidency, the first of two conflicts known as the Barbary Wars.

Late during the Obama Administration, several commentators on both the left and right compared Obama’s foreign policies to the Barbary Wars. An article in The Atlantic called US involvement in the 2011 Libyan Civil War “The Third Barbary War.” Others compared the Barbary pirates to ISIS, while those on the far right erroneously claimed that Jefferson went to war with Islamic terrorists.

Both camps miss the point: as usual, those on the right conflate terrorists with literally every other state-with-Muslims-in-it in history, while liberal commentators misrepresent Barbary piracy as comparable to religious terrorism. Historian Max Boot notes that both the US and Britain utilized piracy in the same ways, noting that “the corsairs of North Africa were no more–and no less–piratical than Sir Francis Drake or Sir John Hawkins. . . both of whom operated as privateers” and that “the US government was so attached to this practice that it refused to sign the 1856 Declaration of Paris outlawing privateering as a weapon of war” (8).

Furthermore, twenty-first century US Middle-Eastern policy differs ideologically from Jefferson’s. Edward Said points out that in the US, unlike Britain and France during this period, “there was no deeply invested tradition of Orientalism. . . the imaginative investment [in the Orient] was never made either, perhaps because the American frontier, the one that counted, was the westward one” (290). The US was interested in controlling the narrative, and therefore the economic value, of the American West (e.g. the Louisiana Purchase) rather than North Africa, which is perhaps the opposite of the Bush/Obama/Trump era.

While the Barbary Wars are easy to exploit for ideological op-eds, the pre-war treaties are more instructive. Specifically, the 1796 Treaty demonstrates that the early US conceptualized itself on equal footing with other seafaring powers, and was willing to alter the national identity it presented to that end.

Consisting of twelve articles, the 1796 Treaty proclaims first that there “is a firm and perpetual Peace and friendship between the United States of America and the Bey and subjects of Tripoli of Barbary” (Article I) and that the two states should avoid naval conflicts with one another. As such, the Treaty states that trade “is on the same footing with those of the most favoured nations respectively (Article IX).

Article XI is now controversial for its implications, and is worth quoting at length: “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,-as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of [Muslims],-and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any [Islamic] nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Here, the US emphasizes at length that it does not have a bias against the Maghrib States on religious grounds. Yet Article XI is still out-of-place. In a strictly economic treaty, the US stresses religious difference, or its indifference to religion. Despite Article XI’s clear message, there is overwhelming evidence of a legalized bias against non-Christians after Independence. Gaustad and Schmidt write that “Delaware’s 1776 constitution required all public officials to swear their belief ‘in God the Father, in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost.’. . Pennsylvania in 1790 vowed to deny state offices to any atheist as well as to anyone who did not believe in ‘a future state of awards and punishments.’ Only Protestants could be elected in New Hampshire, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Carolina, and Georgia–according to their constitutions” (131).

And yet, in the 1796 Treaty, the US publicly reshaped its cultural identity in order to make the treaty more appealing. American culture warriors insist that national identity is non-negotiable, but Article XI contradicts this at an international level. In contrast, the US crafted its national identity as an open slate, not just for states but as a union. From the beginning, malleability was intentional, not a growing list of exceptions to the rule. Malleability was the whole point of America.

I want to argue here that the US had a global consciousness from its inception, and not just when it entered World War One. Instead, it built its global consciousness on the trading and military strategies of Britain and France, as well as its own perception of itself as a frontier space, as a blank chalkboard upon which its leaders could draw and erase American identity.  Like the imagined Frontier, America was made to sustain multiple contradictions in what it was. A savage but easily conquered wilderness, a piratical state against piracy, not built on Christianity but where only Christians can be elected.

The land-owning businessmen who created America self-consciously crafted a flexible state that was easy to change as needed. The problem is that the mechanisms of change, of political dynamics, are still in the hands of economic elites.

The Barbary Treaties demonstrate a deliberate American flexibility, an exchange of identity for financial expansion. If this flexibility is more openly acknowledged, even utilized–if we finally recognized America’s founding blankness–then more people might be able to survive and even thrive in America. Until then, the nation is a chalkboard ruled by people who only know how to use the erasers.


Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace. Basic Books, 2002.

Gaustad, Edward S. & Leigh E. Schmidt. The Religious History of America. Harper Collins, 2002.

Said, Edward. Orientalism. Vintage Books, 1994.

 

Coming Home for Christmas After the Boston Tea Party

destruction-of-tea

The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor, by Nathaniel Currier, 1846, Hand-Colored Lithograph

On December 16, 1773, the Sons of Liberty checked their phones for messages about the plan. Some Tweeted about it as they crept on board the British ship; others posted Instagram pictures of the tea crates they dumped into the Boston Harbor, one after another. #coffeefromnowon. #revolution. #dumptea. Throughout the night, several Sons posted updates on the SoL Forum. Meanwhile, crate after crate of imported tea splashed into the salty, frigid water.

John Adams live-tweeted the affair with considerable criticism, but a new hashtag surfaced: #sitdownjohn. Frustrated, he stayed inside while the protest unfolded. Several Native American pages posted their own frustration that the Sons of Liberty were dressing up as Mohawks, pointing out the inaccuracies and retribution the British might take against them, but the protest continued unabated. Some tagged King George in their posts.

The next morning, King George deleted his Twitter account, then reopened it again to post “Not cool” several times. The Sons of Liberty felt like they had accomplished a good shaming.

A week later, Sons and Patriots returned home for Christmas. The media expressed a disorganized uproar about the protest, with Loyalist blogs calling the Sons of Liberty terrorists and the Sons of Liberty tagging everything #donttreadonme and #goteabagyourself. Some Sons returned to divided families: a Loyalist cousin here, a Quaker moderate in-law there.

It was particularly awkward at the Adams Christmas Party. Refusing to yield his position, John spent the entire time standing up, while his cousin Sam spent his time in a corner liking and retweeting every post of a tarred-and-feathered British tradesman. John called it grotesque of him to like so much shaming; Sam told him to stop shaming him for his views. Sam pointed out that John defended the Red Coats after the Boston Massacre three years earlier, calling him out for defending people who killed Americans; John called out Sam for passively defending a whiny group of protestors. Meanwhile, Abigail Adams drank whiskey in the billiard room and thought very seriously about tarring and feathering both John and Sam. She was, after all, ashamed of both of them. They liked the shock and awe of sharing listicles reinforcing their stances, like preaching to two different choirs. “Ten Horrible Things King George Has Done in Ireland,” “Nine Ways the Revolution Fails at Intersectionality,” “You Won’t Believe the Feathers on This Loyalist Cuck.”

Abigail had visited a Boston general hospital weeks earlier after a tax collector she had befriended was tarred and feathered at the docks. She remembered the way the hot tar stuck to his skin, the difficulty of pulling it off, the way it stuck to doctors who tried to remove it, making him untouchable, unapproachable. He refused to speak to Abigail for her husband’s politics, and instead stared at the ceiling while doctors treated his burn wounds.

Sam called John a feisty little tea drinker, and John called Sam a caffeinated warmonger. They were on the verge of tarring each other right there at the party, and if they did, Abigail knew that she would pull the dried tar from both morons while they lay side by side, listening to each other’s crying. Even that, she posted on Tumblr passive aggressively, wouldn’t get them to meet one another halfway.

-jk

Before Wounded Knee

wounded-knee-massacre

Photograph of civilians collecting the dead at Wounded Knee.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of December 29, 1890 is widely considered the end of military hostilities between the U.S. government and Native American Indian tribes. The Standing Rock protest today, however, is building up in similar ways to the Wounded Knee Massacre, and although there are key differences, it seems that the relationship between the U.S. government and American indigenous peoples has remained largely the same since 1890.

In 1888, a Paiute man named Wovoka began a religious movement centering around the Ghost Dance. Wovoka’s movement asserted that the Messiah would return as a Native American Indian and the continent would be freed from pioneering and settler oppression, and the Ghost Dance would usher in the Messiah’s return. The movement quickly swept across Native American communities, reaching the Dakotas by summer of 1890.

Followers of Wovoka such as Arnold Short Bull, brought the Ghost Dance to the Lakota Pine Ridge Indian Reservation during a drought and amid numerous treaty violations, which included reduced food rations for the reservation and white settlement on land designated for Lakota use. The Ghost Dance accompanied federally sanctioned violence, starvation, and a small environmental disaster. The U.S. government was suspicious of the Ghost Dance as early as May of 1890, and continued to treat it as a militaristic threat rather than a religious movement. On October 30, an agent for the Pine Ridge office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs wrote a letter to the BIA commissioner indicating that, in his view after observing the Ghost Dance,

“. . . the only remedy for this matter is the use of the military, and until this is done, you need not expect any progress from these people; on the other hand, you will be made to realize that they are tearing down more in a day than the government can build up in a month” (Royer 65).

Here, the BIA acted as an observation tool for the U.S. government, keeping track of Native American Indians forced onto reservations with little water and food. A religious spectacle became a mode of unity, an expression of organization, which the government deemed, without question, a threat. Earlier, BIA commissioner R. V. Belt wrote in a letter dated October 17, 1890, that the Pine Ridge Agency should inform those

“. . . engaged in encouraging the Ghost Dance and other like demoralizing conduct, and inciting and fomenting dissatisfaction and discontent among the peaceably disposed Indians that [the Secretary of the Interior John Noble] is greatly displeased with their conduct” (Belt 75).

Belt went on to describe the Ghost Dance as “bad advice and evil,” and that the Secretary of the Interior will “exert whatever influence he may have over any of the Indians to turn their backs upon the medicine men who are seeking to divert the Indians from the ways of civilization” (75-76). There was a connection of correspondence linking BIA agents at Pine Ridge to the White House expressing anxiety about the Ghost Dance. These agents wanted “peaceably disposed Indians” who did not express discontent.

But all evidence suggests that they had every reason to express discontent. They were surviving a genocide, forced onto difficult land after military engagements against them, after numerous other massacres and battles. It seems that BIA agents and the U.S. government associated Native American discontent with militaristic hostility, conflating the two, because to the U.S., the moment a tribe became vocal, the moment its members made themselves visible, they challenged the established systematic erasure of an indigenous population and the colonial narrative of European settlement on an otherwise unpeopled land rich with untapped resources.

The Ghost Dance as a religious practice did not emphasize military struggle or armed combat. On October 31, Short Bull gave a sermon to his followers, referring mostly to the coming of the Messiah and mentioning combat only once, when he said,

“You must not be afraid of anything. The guns are the only things we are afraid of, but they belong to our Father in Heaven. He will see they do no harm. Whatever white men tell you, do not listen to them. My relations, this is all” (Sitting Bull 65).

Anxieties over Native Americans not listening to those attempting to defeat, control, indoctrinate, and relocate them culminated in the military’s arrival in November at Pine Ridge, to keep the peace. Following Royer’s suggestions, the military became a remedy to stop the Ghost Dancers from breaking down what the U.S. government had built up. Cavalry divisions arrived at Pine Ridge, forcing surrender and disarmament. On December 29, in the process of disarming a few Ghost Dancers, a rifle went off, and soldiers panicked after being informed that an armed insurrection would take place. Fueled by fear and rumors, soldiers fired at the Ghost Dancers, and a massacre ensued. There were casualties on all sides as some Ghost Dancers attempted to defend themselves. Estimates vary, but up to 300 Lakota were killed, most of them unarmed, many of them children.

The logic leading up to the massacre might be difficult to track, but was built on a number of assumptions. First, that Native Americans practicing a large, organized demonstration was the equivalent of cultural and military dissent, or in other words, a problem. Second, that the only way to “solve” the problem was through the use of military force. Third, that expressing dissatisfaction with an understandably bad situation was unacceptable.

One of the defining features of the 21st century is the blurring of police and military forces. In a post-9/11 surveillance state in which citizens and combatants are considered difficult to distinguish from one another, the police and military begin to serve similar functions. While this fact has become more obvious in recent years, and while there have been many instances in the U.S. in which the state treated its citizens as combatants, this has always been the case for Native Americans. Since the founding of the United States, Native Americans have always been designated a threat to westward expansion simply by their presence, their visibility, their voice. Historically, soldiers keeping peace and soldiers engaged in combat have served the same purpose for the U.S. when engaging its indigenous population.

I’m not a proponent of the notion that history repeats itself; I find it too simple. However, the events surrounding the Standing Rock protest are eerily similar to those that led up to the Wounded Knee Massacre: Native American Indians express discontent over treaty violations, land abuse, and environmental disasters, and as a reaction, a militarized police force steps in. Tensions have already resulted in violence against protestors and the arrest of journalists for covering the events. Contexts may be different, but the logical framework the U.S. uses to understand and address the protest remains almost identical to how the U.S. addressed and understood the Ghost Dance. Whether or not there will be another massacre remains to be seen.

Coleman, William S. E. Voices of Wounded Knee. University of Nebraska Press (2000).

Wounded Knee Massacre,” Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, 2011. Accessed October 30, 2016.

Samuel Huntington, Donald Trump, and the Repetition of History

HistoryIn one broad stroke, noted punchline and GOP Presidential overdog Donald I.C.U.P. Trump has resurrected a myriad of painful moments in U.S. history when he called for the “total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the United States” yesterday. His statements come at a time when most politicians have been giving historians stomach ulcers.

To begin with, Trump now represents the latest incarnation of anti-immigration Nativism. Initially opposing all immigration beginning in the 1850s, the Nativist movement was most successful in the late nineteenth century when the U.S. government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 during the “yellow peril,” a prolonged period of xenophobia against migrants from East Asia, specifically (but not limited to) China. Such hostility resurfaced when President Roosevelt passed legislation to round up and intern all Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the United States during the Second World War.

In the past four decades, as numerous migrants from Mexico and other parts of Latin America fleeing the drug wars and the effects of NAFTA entered the United States, xenophobic rhetoric prompted another wave of anti-immigration policies. For a long time, I thought Maricopa County Sheriff Joe “Tricky Dick” Arpaio embodied anti-immigration attitudes. And then Trump came along.

Trump has sewn together the ugliest components of American history into a monster that we call, most of the time, Donald Trump. Most recently, he has stapled onto himself an apparatus of xenophobia’s academic wing, an American scholar named Samuel P. Huntington (here is where you should spit on the ground). Huntington (spit) was a historian and theorist whose most notable argument, the Clash of Civilizations argument, outlined his conceptualization of a post-Soviet world: that cultural struggles would replace the ideological struggle between capitalism and communism. Huntington (spit) then proceeded to divide the world into seven or eight civilizations: “These include Western, Confucian, Japanese, Islamic, Hindu, Slavic-Orthodox, Latin American and possibly African civilization” (Huntington). Here, he divides the world into western culture, three religions, a Chinese philosophy (in a country ruled by communists), a continent, a country, and possibly another continent. The existence of Africa apparently confused the once-time director of Harvard’s Center for International Affairs.

Samuel “P for Prick” Huntington (spit) argued that Islam and the West (apparently not defined by Christianity) have been in a continual cultural clash, and will invariably struggle against one another in the post-Soviet world.

Trump has unburied the Clash of Civilizations argument and stitched it into the nonsensical monstrosity of his platform, synthesizing it with so many other terrible moments in U.S. history ranging from internment to immigration blockades. Trump is the amalgamation of every sin the United States has committed. The argument itself is an insult to all of us.

The Clash of Civilizations argument requires the essentializing of both Western and predominantly Muslim states, as well as the reduction of 1.5 billion Muslims to a pre-packaged cultural image. There are many underlying assumptions here: that there are no Muslims in the west (false), that Islam is incompatible with the west (false), and that all western citizens fall into another pre-packaged image (false). In order for the Clash of Civilizations argument to work, every single American has to look, think, and act a certain way.

I believe Trump is the kind of American Huntington (spit) had in mind. A vote for Trump is a vote for our tarnished past. A vote for Trump is a vote for the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Internment, a militarized borderland, corporate colonization of Native lands, unsound control of personal privacy, and a legislated bigotry against Muslims that will only isolate Muslims globally, providing vulnerable populations for terrorist organizations to recruit from. A vote for Trump is a vote for Samuel P. Huntington (spit).

The world is not divided into a handful of civilizations. The world is a malleable collage of cultures, languages, religions, identities, all merging and overlapping. We need not clash. It is not inevitable, but a rhetoric of violent domination, surveillance, and authoritarianism will result in more bloodshed. Propaganda always results in violence, and Trump’s call for halting Muslims from entering the country is simply anti-Muslim propaganda. Propaganda against the United States contributes to violence against American citizens, just as propaganda against Planned Parenthood contributes to violence against doctors and patients, just as propaganda against Muslims contributes to violence against Muslims, and at the dizzying epicenter are the instigators of that propaganda, a historiography of hatred stretching back centuries.

We do not need to repeat history. We should strive to be better than our past. It’s not that hard to do if we pause and recognize that we are not chess pieces engaged in unending struggle. We are humans, insurmountably flawed but invariably changeable, improvable, and far more complex than the caricatures dripping out of what I will politely call Donald Trump’s mouth.

-jk

60 Things to Do Instead of Shopping on Black Friday

Birds

 

  1. Sleep in and eat a breakfast of turkey sandwiches from last night’s Thanksgiving dinner.
  2. Go for a walk around the block.
  3. Ruminate upon the life the turkey you ate for breakfast must have lived and decide the turkey was named Phyllis.
  4. Feel disappointed that the air is not as cool as you remembered in childhood in a quaint New England village and wonder if the consumption of turkey is involved in the warmer temperature; decide that it is not and keep walking.
  5. Read your favorite novel.
  6. Write your favorite novel.
  7. Write your friends’ favorite novel.
  8. Rake the leaves in the yard.
  9. Take a nap.
  10. Try yoga.
  11. For those already practicing yoga, try being a couch potato.
  12. Play a board game with your family.
  13. Donate to a charity.
  14. Write to your governor (about anything, guns, refugees, mashed potatoes)
  15. Volunteer at a refugee center.
  16. Make a really excellent quesadilla.
  17. Make a really horrible quesadilla and vow to do better next time.
  18. Try peyote.
  19. Put off your novel for next November.
  20. Pet your dog.
  21. Pet your neighbor’s dog.
  22. Have a philosophical conversation with your neighbor’s dog after the peyote kicks in.
  23. Adopt a dog.
  24. Adopt a highway.
  25. Clean up trash on somebody else’s adopted highway because Troop 1620 just isn’t pulling their weight.
  26. Plant a tree.
  27. Hug a tree.
  28. Apologize to a tree because the peyote is still doing its thing.
  29. Have a face-to-face conversation with your neighbor.
  30. Learn how to have a face-to-face conversation after spending several minutes staring at your neighbor’s face looking for the “like” button.
  31. Eat another sandwich made from Phyllis’s leftovers.
  32. Clean the kitchen.
  33. If you cooked Thanksgiving dinner last night, tell your in-laws to clean the kitchen but micromanage from the side.
  34. Find a special on the History Channel about Thanksgiving.
  35. Tally up every historical inaccuracy in the History Channel’s Thanksgiving special. Trust me, this is fun.
  36. Research the actual history of Thanksgiving. Trust me, this is depressing.
  37. Go for a hike in the country’s last remaining wilderness, but not after researching the history of Thanksgiving. Knowing whose land you’re traversing is also depressing.
  38. Have a conversation with your family.
  39. If the conversation does not last more than thirty seconds, have a conversation with your family about politics or religion.
  40. Go through your closet and look at where your clothes were made.
  41. Wonder how many children were involved in making your clothes. Cry.
  42. Take a selfie and put it on the Internet with forty-seven hashtags; when nobody likes it, passive aggressively like everything posted by all your online friends. Cry.
  43. Wrap yourself in the fear that digital isolation will engulf you forever. Drink.
  44. Throw your phone against the wall and break it, but don’t look at sales for a new phone.
  45. Delete all your social media accounts in a frenzied attempt to purge your soul of online superficiality, then regret it ten minutes later. Drink or cry; either one works here.
  46. In picking up the carcass of your phone, realize that it too was made by sweatshop labor.
  47. In a panic-induced rage, tally up the countries all your products were made in, pin them on a globe, then despondently spin the globe.
  48. Eat more turkey.
  49. Realize that global capitalism is a machine that chews up human dignity by forcing the participation of all members of society through its universal institutionalization over the past five hundred years into every aspect of culture, religion, and language, and has imprisoned millions in an inescapable superstructure that will devour all that is beautiful from the world in the last few remaining decades of human existence, leading you to the epiphany that the very holiday of Thanksgiving was just the beginning of consumer culture in America, pitting puritanical fundamentalists against innocent indigenous populations in survivalist competition and setting off a continual narrative of colonialism, imperialism, and consumerism.
  50. Burn down your house. Cry and drink.
  51. Wish you still had some peyote left.
  52. Accept the firefighters’ invitation to join them for dinner.
  53. Give your last remaining dollar bills to a veteran in need.
  54. Observe the camaraderie of firefighters convivially eating leftovers.
  55. Find that the only remaining products inside your house are a guitar and the last slice of pumpkin pie.
  56. Pick up the guitar and strum a few chords as the sun sets and your neighbors walk their dogs, who give you strange looks as they pass you on the street.
  57. Realize that reactionary property destruction is an insufficient coping mechanism. Crying and alcohol and peyote are also insufficient, though understandable.
  58. Walk down your street strumming your guitar late into the night beneath the stars. Proceed to be overcome by the beauty of the moment for ten to twelve sweet minutes of peace.
  59.  Recognize that you are still connected by art to the human spirit across time and space (despite the mechanical oppression of corporate power struggles played out upon your very body through the food you eat and clothes you wear).
  60. Be thankful that American history is not just a pattern of consumerist oppression but also of communal unity, from Native American resistance movements to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the unpublicized heroism of the decisions made by thousands of people on a daily basis to count their worth in friendship, creativity, and community, and not in cheap, unneeded products on sale for crazy-low prices. Crying is optional (but recommended) here.

-jk

Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror: A Brief History of the United States

Civil WarThe current state of American History in public schools reminds me of this old Monty Python sketch:

“Hello, good evening, and welcome to another edition of Blood, Devastation, Death, War, and Horror,” a host begins. “And later on we’ll be talking to a man who does gardening” (Season 3, Episode 4, aired Nov. 9, 1972). Students in American History classes, much like Monty Python’s audience, expect one thing (blood and horror, American history), and get something else entirely.

Last year, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson accused AP U.S History standards of painting America in such a negative light that students “would be ready to join ISIS” upon completing the course. Mr. Carson’s statement may have been a bit exaggerated; despite the fact that students who completed AP U.S. History courses did not rise from their chairs, move to Iraq, and become serial rapists who behead children, the standards for teaching an Advanced Placement U.S. History course changed to paint a less brutal portrait this nation’s history, and by extension emphasize American Exceptionalism.

Historians and history nerds, myself included, lamented these changes, but not because they revise history. Historiography is in a constant state of revision as new evidence and perspectives surface, and as our contemporary understanding of ourselves changes the way we see the past. But most historical revisionism is inclusive, while the College Board’s revisions are painfully exclusive.

History is the process of unburying the dead and interrogating the bodies about how they lived. The deeper we dig, the more we compress time and space, and the closer we find history’s ghosts among ourselves. Perhaps we start to see these ghosts wandering among us. Perhaps we even start to notice that the dead are clawing out of their graves demanding that we listen. The changes made to the AP U.S. History standards are an attempt to rebury and silence the dead, ultimately a vain but nonetheless disheartening act.

For those unfamiliar with the term, American Exceptionalism is the current ruling monarch in a long succession of myths intended to make the U.S. look better than it actually is, and thereby justify any of its actions at home and abroad. Its predecessor myths include Manifest Destiny, the notion that white American pioneers had the exclusive right, as sanctioned either by God or superiority of heritage, to claim and tame all land in the American West, despite the indigenous populations already living there. Another popular myth is America’s Predestination, which asserts that the United States was not only an inevitability, but a holy fate of history, a part of God’s plan, even.

All historians worth their salt know that nothing in history is inevitable. Such an explanation removes human agency, and therefore human responsibility, from our lives. American Exceptionalism feeds upon its predecessor myths; if America is supposed to be, so too are the consequences of its actions, and by that logic, the U.S. can do no harm.

But the truth is that America has done, and continues to do, harm. If America is part of God’s plan, then chattel slavery and Native American genocide are also part of God’s plan. If America really is exceptional, does that mean Arizona only became exceptional in 1912? Did the Southwest miraculously become unique only after the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848? Were Japanese Americans suddenly not exceptional between the years of 1942 and 1945? Did the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 limit the potential exceptionalism of Chinese immigrants? Was U.S. involvement in the ousting of democratically elected leaders in Guatemala, Iran, and Chile an exceptional act? What about the House Un-American Activities Committee? What about the fact that the Southern Colonies went into the American Revolution fully aware that British judges were already passing sentences threatening the institution of slavery, and that a declaration of independence was the only way to preserve their plantations? Is the prison-industrial complex a truly exceptional institution worth upholding because it is a by-product of the United States?

American Exceptionalism is a downright lie. No textbook would dare claim Germany is exceptional because of its history, nor that Russia or Great Britain or India are exceptional, predestined countries. I do not intend to suggest that America is an intrinsic evil, either. The United States is guilty of a plethora of injustices, just like Germany, Russia, Great Britain, and India. Like those countries, who gave us Bach, Tolstoy, Monty Python, and Bollywood cinema, the United States has let bloom flowers of its own: our greatest export remains our jazz, blues, hip-hop, rock ‘n roll, rap, and bluegrass. But nothing makes us exempt from our crimes.

Just like Germany, which must confront the Holocaust; Russia, which must confront the gulags; Great Britain, which confront colonialism; and India, which must confront the one million people who died in its partition with Pakistan, the United States does not have the right to run away from its past, because no matter how far we run, the past will always catch up.

Unburying and interrogating the dead does not allow for discrimination. We must listen to every ghost of our past. As a historian, I believe the dead always have something to tell us, forever on the tips of their tongues. Shutting our ears will only make them shout louder at us.

-jk

Boots on the Ground

Civil War Soldiers

Statue Commemorating Civil War Veterans

Some of the best advice I received about historical research is that oftentimes the surest way to find sources is to have boots on the ground and look for sources in person. This usually involves going into public archives or getting access to private ones, but I’ve heard tales of finding rare documents forgotten in the trunk of a car or simply on display in a book fair. This week, while visiting family in Appleton, Wisconsin, I decided to experiment with boots-on-the-ground-history.

March to SocialismI discovered that historical research is more than just skimming through a few letters. It’s detective work, a methodological investigation, and I did not rise to the challenge. As I prepare to go to graduate school to study creative writing, I worry that I may leave history behind. History is close to my heart, but requires a patient diligence.

McCarthy

Statue of Senator Joseph McCarthy

The challenge of in-person research yielded a few interesting results. Appleton’s public history emphasizes its positive qualities, such as the fact that magician Harry Houdini claimed it as his hometown, though he was born in Hungary. There is a museum with an entire floor devoted to Houdini’s life and work. However, another famous man claimed Appleton as his hometown, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who engaged in congressional witch hunts during the early 1950s to remove suspected communists. Popular opinion has since turned against McCarthy, but as journalist Edward R. Murrow said in an open challenge to the Senator’s unethical methods, “He did not create this situation of fear, he merely exploited it.” Now that Red SpiesMcCarthy is remembered as an aggressive demagogue, his hometown has taken a statue of him that once stood in public view and placed it in a museum’s bottom floor, under the stairs.

Apart from some obscure anti-communist propaganda, one from 1950 and the other from 1967, a World War One Dough Boy memorial statue and a Civil War memorial statue, I could not find any major historical documents in Appleton’s history, simply because I did not look that hard. It is not surprising that they hide McCarthy’s image and highlight a still-popular celebrity. Any research on the Cold War in Wisconsin daily life would require interviews with those who remember it, access to radio and news archives, local newspapers, and other hidden sources. Perhaps I might be able to dig up a few rare pieces of propaganda if I looked deeper, or uncover a story of Cold War espionage, but such research requires more time and energy than I can offer. I’m not a specialist, or a driven detective. I am, for the time being, only an interested amateur.

Patriotic WWI Statue

Doughboy Statue Commemorating World War One Veterans

Perhaps I can one day conduct better historical research. Perhaps I will one day dare to dig deeper, open doors that should not be opened, find people who have answers. I was inspired by a year-old article about Amor Masovic, who has been looking for burial sites from the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in 1995. That massacre, part of the Bosnian Genocide, was the first act of genocide on European soil since the Holocaust, and one that the world ignored for years. Today, the perpetrators still live side-by-side with the families of the victims, and reconciliation is a great challenge. But Masovic pursues burial grounds, is still looking for the missing victims to piece together the community of Bosniak Muslims that existed before the massacre. He’s been working for nearly twenty years and there are still bodies unaccounted for.

Will I ever be such a researcher? Will I ever contribute to as admirable an effort as Masovic? It’s unlikely, but I do not want to leave history behind. I’m too compelled and too haunted by its ghosts to allow myself to give it up completely. History truly is obsessive, and maybe the only way to make a difference is to simply embrace that obsession, dig my boots into the ground, and dig as deep as the past will allow.

-jk