Friday, September 26, 2008

Despising the Message/ Messenger

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Abraham Lincoln, 2nd Inaugural Address

Had a rough day last Saturday - and days recovering from it. (Praise God those symptoms passed!) The last few days we've had another storm - a nor'easter this time with 30-60 mph winds. (Its a sea storm that spins the other way. They don't name those.) This gave me plenty of time to catch up on my reading. I finally got deeply into "Lies My Teacher Told Me" by James Loewen.

It turned out to be a very thought-provoking book, and as those are dominating my thoughts, I feel like sharing them. So here's my book report! lol

I read a lot of histories, even as a kid, and I thought I could see through all the spins and deadly-dull verbiage of the average textbook. Nope! I had never realized the history - and the implications - of a number of very basic terms used - like "settler" - "frontier" and even the reason for continually focusing on the living of only the nomadic plains Indians and the desert dwelling Navaho. I knew how incomplete it was, I just didn't realize there was a purpose in the focus. I thought they had just gotten over-fascinated by two groups in particular.

I always wondered why Helen Keller was so often pushed at students, long after her personal fame would have naturally faded. I assumed it was as an encouragement for those with disabilities.

Apparently, that was only part of it. She was also seen as proof that 'anyone' can make it - even though she realized herself, in time, that her story would have been far different 'had she lacked the benefits of her environment and station.' Some wealthy factory bosses created a tour just for her to show the poor people they so grossly underpaid that 'anyone' can become a success. Actually extremely few people got the training, breaks, pay, or mentoring that made lasting financial improvement likely - until the unions - which they were then fighting - and which have since been largely undermined. Most textbooks now suggest unions are an anachronism - even as pay continues to fall and jobs get sent to underpaid people overseas.

Helen Keller felt she was being used to fool the poor, and she grew angry about the exploitation described to her, eventually becoming a radical supporter for Debs & others. I knew she had been an advocate for handicapped persons, and for labor reforms, but somehow didn't take in how far she went - and why. Nobody likes to be used as a tool. I don't guess I blame her.

& If this fellow is correct (and his bibliography at the back is impressive), we've all of us received a serious snow job over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson too. I had no idea he'd been so racist in his administration! I read very little of our foreign involvements in the Latin countries in WWI years.

Its been awhile since one of these 'correction' books had so many shocking things in it I didn't know already. I never expect a book like this to fill in outlines of many events - as they usually stick to overview, but in order to show why the textbooks he studied were doing a disservice to the historical events he covers, Loewen does go into some detail. I *did* know that Lincoln was truly for the freedom of all peoples, and that the quote most often used against him is both out of context and incomplete. I did NOT realize to what extant the Lincoln- Douglas debates altered public opinion in his own time (that they were important in and of themselves) - and probably that of the participants themselves as they went along. It was a fight for the conscience of the nation. I don't think anyone ever mentioned before that one of the things Douglas threw at Lincoln was Lincoln's previous efforts to repeal the 'runaway slave' legislation that had made escapees at risk all over the US. I certainly didn't know how low down, and abusive Douglas had been to Lincoln. I really was surprised how openly ugly and ungentlemanly the opposition had been. I mean, they prided themselves on their good manners back then! Lincoln's Second Inaugerual speech is also a shocker. I think I had heard a bit of it before, but its worth reflecting on.
Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-men’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn by the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”

Imagine any public leader saying something like that now...

The thing that surprised me most, was Loewen's recognition that the biggest historical decisions made for the majority of people were based on moral & practical considerations - or on unenlightened self-interest by a controlling faction. History is very much about whether our forebears chose the high road or brawled over the low.

He pointed out as early as his chapter on Columbus, that the earliest descriptions of the Native folk the big C encountered, allowed that they were handsome, intelligent, and reasonably generous. After they'd been mistreated awhile, he describes them as 'brutish, savages' and worse, deserving the atrocities his men inflicted. Loewen gives this as a classic example of "cognitive dissonance" - the psychological term that explains adding insult to injury, by recasting your victims in an ugly light in your own mind.

It is due, the psychologists say, to the ego's desire to feel good about self, even when doing evil. When the ego has chosen to abuse another, aware that its choices are inconsistent with keeping that good opinion of itself, the base temptation will be to despise the victim. The abuser will use every social stereotype and magnify all real and imagined personal failings of the victim(s) to justify their own behavior before others (and self).

Now this makes it very hard for victims to be heard with fairness by their abusers. They may appeal to whatever ethical constraints their abusers should have, but this common mental attitude then devalues whatever truths the oppressed may speak. They don't have to listen 'to the likes of you.' [I had never understood this sort of deafness before. Truth is truth no matter who speaks it.]

Many such abusers go on until they have 'vindicated' themselves by getting as many as possible to agree with the abuser that the harm was deserved, and would have been done by anyone else there 'who had the guts.' If not significantly opposed, The arrogant abuser will eventually demand a form of praise/homage for their screwed up acts & beliefs about the victim(s).

Somehow, I had thought repentance was a more common occurrence than it seems to be.

I knew about this principle, after a fashion. I just didn't recognize it as a mainspring of history! Psalms & Proverbs mention repeatedly the way attackers justify their garbage, and hate the oppressed even worse when allowed a measure of success. The Prophets spoke plainly about these issues! God hates it!

To some extent the history of colonialism/imperialism seems to be largely an exploration of the way the greedy & powerful de-humanized those they dispossessed & abused, and finally even enshrined their bad opinion of them into law to oppress future generations!

Loewen gives it as the root of our current problems with racism, the continual problem with our rapidly jaded leaders, and our frequent lack of sympathy for the poor and oppressed in our daily lives. Our books claim EVERYONE has a fair shot to do or be anything they want. Not a wonder if those who hold the advantages don't look too hard at what they were given, and what a difference it makes. He makes a good case. I was just astonished that this cognitive dissonance issue became the philosophical heart of his book, as it is incredibly close to saying that all history is about choosing sin & self or choosing justice & kindness to others - and then justifying your choices - even to the next generations in your textbooks.

It is absolutely tripping to read the quotes by our Founding Fathers that frankly flattered the Iroquois League, when they were acknowledging their ideological debt to them in forming the Articles of Confederation, and contrast it with the abuse heaped on those same Native peoples later, when their governing body chose to back the British who had sworn to prevent further theft of their lands by 'settlers.' Some of this was due to the high feelings any war will provoke in those who 'choose the other side' - but some, yes, was cognitive dissonance, because the colonial authorities could not & would not promise to uphold Native American rights to expel European-descent squatters or hold full property rights under their law - and these were plain justice issues as far as the Native Americans were concerned.

He shows how slavery rapidly challenged the motivational ideals in a number of the founding fathers, and the social pressure the more southern colonial leaders faced to continue holding slaves or be counted out if they released them. He showed the spread of the social cancer that eventually used 'race' (genetically stable melanin amounts in families) to define value and rights of everyone. If your solar reflectivity could be used as an easy way to mark winners from losers, how about gender? How about wealth? How about age groups? How about distinctive religious practices? Our beliefs about liberty, very much influenced by the culture of the Native Americans, has been under siege ever since the beginning - when their rights were so often ignored. Its hard to realize how often the early discussions of our Founding Fathers took a bad turn - in order to keep slavery, and bless the ambitions of the greedy and the hopes of the desperate.

The best bit thus far (I haven't finished the book) was a hypothetical showing what he would expect to happen in a strapped economy if everyone with the last name "L" was suddenly 'accused' of being sub-human (assuming no one could change their name). Soon people whose name began with other letters might start looking hopefully at the possessions of neighbors that did have unfortunate surnames. If public sentiment sanctioned the abuse, agreeing to consider this segment as a target, they could quickly find themselves being openly insulted & provoked, then stripped of everything they owned, then killed. After all - they were sub-human. They had 'no rights worth worrying about' (a phrase that was actually used repeatedly in history). If mass murder was not allowed, they would be ghetto-ized- sent to reservations, or similarly imprisoned, with few hopes of normal life left to them. The 'survivors' would soon recarve the social pie without those surnamed "L" getting anything like a fair share, and tell them to grateful for what little remained! Within a single generation, the textbooks would cast it all as ancient history, establishing a staute of limitations via trained public opinion, and imply that the "L" people had incited the trouble they faced. "L" people - like all other people probably would resist, and even strike back, but as the losers of history they would receive little justice until & unless many in the society became aware of the truth and expressed regret for such behavior. Some changes MIGHT be made then.

Never in the history of mankind - not even in Nazi Germany or Stalinist Russia - has there lacked at least a few reformers - usually religious, but all idealists - who stood up and denounced the evil intended, regardless of what it cost them. I was fascinated by his research which showed that when the nation repented (at least to some degree) - the messenger was also honored -though he/she might still be killed by an extremist on the other side (IE: Lincoln). If the nation did NOT repent, then the messenger often died and would be deliberately forgotten for a season. The time came, however, when the nation became embarrassed for what had once been done, and then they dusted off the records and sang the praises of the good guys among us who prove we weren't ALL like that (IE: Bartolome de las Cases) Apparently mankind is still killing its prophets...and then building shrines to them later.

Loewen points out that those who dared bring a message of conscience into a controversy, got smeared personally by those who didn't want to hear. Cognitive Dissonance definitely played a role. Loewen offers a well-documented example of Helen Keller receiving this treatment. Helen Keller rebutted a bit of her abuse by simply contrasting quotes of the very same public speakers before and after her social epiphany. Papers & editors had called her 'extremely intelligent, generous, independent-minded, evidence of what the indomitable human spirit can achieve' as a young person on tour of factories, mines & mills - but said she was 'still a bit brutish, grasping, famous by chance, and one who is being fed opinion by others that she can't possibly understand' only a few years later when she was trying to use her fame to combat social injustice. Suddenly she's a brainless nobody for saying what they didn't want to hear? Ouch. Poor Lady.

So here we have a long book of victims, their abusers, those who championed justice, and those who are inclined to belittle such people...and why...with a lot of detailed history included. I am seriously impressed with this author.

Now this is not a perfect book. While Loewen goes on at some length about the necessity for complete fairness and openness in the history we teach our children. He didn't always succeed himself - which somewhat excuses reviews I have read mentioning a 'politically-correct' bias.

Loewen's mention of early Indian massacres chose to highlight the cruel, treacherous poisoning of Indians at West Point in 1623 - a story I happen to know well. He does NOT however mention that this was in retaliation for massacres of Colonials in 1622 at a party to which the Indians were invited. On a silent signal, they had risen up and slaughtered their hosts, young and old alike. That was also awful, treacherous, inhuman - and killed at least as many people.

Loewen puzzled me by carefully documenting the deplorable resurgence of racism in the US from the 1890's -1920's - but remaining unable to recognize the plainly ascribed source for its respectability in source documents I have read- the rise of the theory of evolution (and scientific materialism) which increasingly displaced Christian ethics as a basis for human governance. He actually asks why it happened, as if there was no way to know. Very strange.

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