Friday, 4 July 2008

July 4th and invented traditions

As may have been evident from the previous posts Unsung scientists and Views of the countryside, I very much enjoy iconoclastic analysis of history. A particular rich lode arises from July 4th and its annual (understandably) adulatory focus on the iconic events of the founding and formative years of the USA (for instance, The Stylistic Artistry of the Declaration of Independence).

As an interesting antidote, check out the website of James W Loewen, a sociologist who has written a number of books on how American history is distorted in various media such as monuments and textbooks. I have a copy of Lies My Teacher Told Me, whose target is US school textbooks. They won't tell students that Helen Keller was a Communist. They often omit a major war, King Philip's War. They won't show that the term of office of Woodrow Wilson, remembered as an enlightened and moderate president, involved more invasions of other countries than any other period of US history. Loewen's website has an on-line quiz, with surprising answers.

The book covers American history from ancient to modern: the now well-known history of Pre-Columbian colonisation; the mythology surrounding the first Thanksgiving; the Indian Wars; the invisibility in textbooks of America's racist past; the similar invisibility of anti-racist movements; and modern history such as poverty in the 20th century and the acts of Federal government, particularly destabilisation of elected foreign regimes. Throughout, Loewen argues, textbooks either omit facts or present them in a pro-mainstream light; students will never be told that mainstream America, in its historical past, did anything that was less than perfect, or even morally wrong. Meanwhile, they miss out on real history that is, if anything, more remarkable than the official version, such as Squanto, whose travels "make Ulysses look like a homeboy".

Loewen's second book also looks interesting: Lies Across America, examples of how monuments celebrate non-existent history - rather as Jebediah Springfield in The Simpsons is commemorated as killing a bear, although "modern historians recently uncovered evidence that the bear, in fact, probably killed him" (see The Telltale Head transcript). Loewen's Top Ten Silliest Historical Sites has examples such as the Indian massacre that never happened and the log cabin birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, built 30 years after his death.

The work of historian Ray Raphael is in the same vein. Without denying the remarkable history behind the origins of the USA, his book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past shows how those origins have been mythologised through iconic representations. For instance, John Trumbull's 1818 painting The Declaration of Independence 4 July 1776 shows a presentation that never took place (see The Art of War: an illustrated '1776'), and Leutze's painting George Washington Crossing the Delaware shows a flag that didn't exist at the time of the 1776 event depicted. Other examples include Paul Revere's Ride (whose reality has become buried in the fictional Longfellow version), Patrick Henry’s "liberty or death" speech, the "shot heard round the world" at Lexington and Concord, Sam Adams and Molly Pitcher, of which none appear to have been viewed as of contemporary significance. Raphael argues that such myths, while culturally understandable, are actually destructive, in encouraging people to think of history as shaped by a handful of superhuman figures rather than collective action of the people, the ideal on which the USA was founded. The book's introduction is online, and there's a July 4th 2007 interview, American Mythbuster, at

Incidentally, this is not an anti-American post. This kind of invented tradition is common to all history that relates to cultural identity, and July 4th merely highlights it for the case of the USA. Examples in the UK would be the reinvention of the British Royal Family as the House of Windsor since 1917, and the cultural fixtures stereotypical to Scotland - kilts, bagpipes, and family-specific tartans (see The Highland myth as an invented tradition of 18th and 19th century and its significance for the image of Scotland). Nevertheless, the USA, with its strong patriotism and tightly-focused founding period based on memorable revolutionary events, seems especially prone to such mythologising.

- Ray

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