Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Neverending Story

How do you tell a story that highlights some of your worst characteristics?

This question arose in class last night, in response to two things:
1) The approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War, and
2) Helle Dale's assertion that "President Obama’s tendency to begin his speeches to foreign audiences with an apology for American history hardly contributes to a positive national 'narrative.'"

As Professor Quainton noted, from 2011 to 2015, we can look forward to commemorations of ever decisive battle, speech and political act that shaped our country's history 150 years ago. While no living Americans participated in the war, many are descendants of slaves and slave owners, Yankee and Rebel soldiers, war profiteers and spies, nurses and ladies aid society members, abolitionists and lynch mob participants--and even those whose families immigrated after the War between the States ended have been shaped by the narratives it set in place.

It is impossible to discuss the war without acknowledging that it arose, in part, in response to institutions that permitted the subjugation of one segment of the population for the purpose of benefiting another. And it is impossible to acknowledge that without admitting that such institutions still exist, albeit in altered and less overtly opportunistic forms.

And that brings us to the second point, which was fairly controversial. I wasn't alone in disagreeing that acknowledging past mistakes (I disagree with the use of the word "apology" in this context, but that's another matter altogether) doesn't contribute to a negative national narrative. On the contrary, I think it shows reflection, discernment and humility, all attractive characteristics. Far from weakening America's image, I think it shows strength of character and openness.

In the case of the Civil War, I think it would be impossible to discuss the war openly and honestly without recognizing the political and cultural wrongs underlying it. But how is it to be done in a meaningful and positive way? Politicians might want to pay attention to a recent UNESCO event on slavery highlighted on the State Department's blog. The even involved students and teachers around the world participating in a moderated discussion on the theme "Expressing our Freedom through Culture." The event involved collaboration, modern technology and thoughtful analysis, enabling many voices to contribute to a narrative that included both the horrors of the past and active responses for the present and future.

That's how you tell a story.

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