A LITTLE LIGHT READING
Many books, from Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States: 1492 to Present to Kenneth Davis's Don't Know Much About History: Everything You Need to Know About American History but Never Learned, can tell you what the history books get wrong.
James W. Loewen's Lies My Teacher Told Me tackles the reasons history is written this way, charting the broad gap between competent, sophisticated history -- clearly widely available in the United States, at least at the college level -- and the poor scholarship evident in textbooks for the K-12 set. Herbert R. Kohl's Should We Burn Babar? Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories proposes a Rosa Parks test (very few historians pass it, in school textbooks or elsewhere) and a new imagery for history that emphasizes teamwork.
Still, outright myths serve a purpose in articulating ideals, and some of our myths were created deliberately during the American Revolution and subsequent celebrations of it. As Richard Shenkman argues in "I Love Paul Revere, Whether He Rode or Not", the danger lies not in perpetuating myths but in failing to recognize them for what they are.
The car bomb in The Siege (1998) was slight compared to the terrorist attack of September 11, 2001, in which two airplanes were flown into the World Trade Center (and another into the Pentagon). But is this shocking event more like Pearl Harbor?
What did the US intelligence services know, and when did they know it? Is this the beginning of a long-term campaign of terror? Will Americans be asked to give up freedoms and privacy for some illusion of security? Perhaps this event will at least bring an end to talk of the missile-defense system, shilled by Bush as the best defense against rogue states. Star Wars would not have helped us on Tuesday. The real question today is whether we have the self-control to seek justice rather than revenge.
The US is at a crucial juncture: it must decide whether it celebrates the Rule of Law or is just another 800-pound gorilla, determined to sit wherever it likes. With Osama bin Laden on trial in the court of public opinion (or of media hysteria) and bias crimes already being committed against Arabs and Sikhs within US borders, we can only fervently hope that our government will make the right choice.