When I was a junior in high school, I took Advanced Placement US History as my social studies elective. This is a university-level course, and a passing grade on the end-of-year exam counts as college credit.
While the exam is a comprehensive overview of the history of the United States, beginning with European exploration to the “new world” up to the present time (which, for me at the time, was the end of the presidency of Ronald Reagan), it focused most heavily on the three decades in American history that were of greatest actual consequence. I hesitate to say that more “stuff” happened in these three decades but you’d be hard pressed — if given the challenge of distilling American history to three non-consecutive decades — to find any decades more important than these three.
- The 1790s. We had just won our hard-fought independence from the British empire, with the biggest complaint being the tyranny of the British government. How do we maintain a semblance of order, especially with regard to commerce and defense, without being equally tyrannical? The constitution, bill of rights, and the actions of the three branches of government were a start.
- The 1850s. Pretty much from the start, the issue of slavery was one of the biggest thorns in the side of the government. After decades of compromise on the expansion of slavery in new American territories, it was inevitable that civil discourse would break down. I’ve repeatedly said that we should be ashamed that it took a war to end slavery, but if you look critically at the decade leading up to the war, the question shouldn’t be “is it necessary?” but instead “why did it take so long?”
- The 1930s. Black Friday. October 29, 1929. Okay. That’s a little over two months before the 1930s actually began, but looking at the start of the Great Depression, its impact on the country, and FDRs efforts to get us out of it, there’s no question that this decade, for all of its complexity, mixes of successes and failures, and America’s role in the world, needs to be examined closely.
I’m not trying to argue that other decades in American history aren’t important. Take the 1890s, as America truly started coming into its own in its global reach (for good and for bad). Or the 1960s, a decade of real turbulence in the midst of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Or even the 2000s, as America came to grips with a terrorist threat that it at least partially fostered.
One thing that’s noticeably missing from everything I’ve said above, is a jingosim that pervades American politics today. The notion that the good ol’ US of A somehow stands above the rest of the world. Indeed, a couple of years ago, the Oklahoma legislature passed a resolution condemning the course for being insufficiently praiseworthy of the country and its history.
But that’s the thing: if you need to teach children specifically to believe something without letting the facts speak for themselves, there’s something wrong with the belief itself. Don’t teach children to be proud of their country! Give them the facts and let them decide if pride is justified.
In February, 2008, Michelle Obama made an interesting comment that still earns her criticism today from those on the right. At the time, her husband, then-Senator Barack Obama started to look like he had a legitimate shot at securing his party’s nomination for the presidency. Couple this with a deeply unpopular sitting president and that gave her hope that, in her husband, maybe the country could start to move away from the more shameful aspects of its history (both distant and recent).
Yeah, I liked it when she said that. That was legitimately something to be proud of.
Donald Trump has just returned from his first trip abroad as president of the US. Where he was treated like a king — Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Israel — he seemed to be in his glory. At the Vatican, he was received politely although Pope Francis seemed to struggle with withholding his disdain.
Now THAT’S saying something. The leader of the Catholic Church, who has dedicated his life to preaching love and forgiveness, has trouble loving and forgiving Donald Trump. Just let that sink in for a minute even before you get to the whole Papal Infallibility doctrine.
But the real problems came when he went to meet with our allies in NATO and the G7 summit. His ego was not stroked the way it was elsewhere, and he demonstrated how little he really knew about America, its role in the world, and the world as a whole. This has nothing to do with any specific policy: the man is an embarrassment, exemplified first and foremost by the image of him pushing Dusko Markovic, the prime minister of Montenegro aside.
Donald Trump really is a walking stereotype: pick any negative image(s) foreigners might have about America and he more or less exemplifies it. Boorish, arrogant, wanting to be the center of attention, claiming to know it all despite being out of his league, trigger happy… The list goes on and on…
There are things in American history and in American culture to be proud of. Donald Trump isn’t one of them.