The “we” being the people who live, have lived, and who will live, in the United States of America.
And how should I know who we are?
Well, around about July or August, I don’t know exactly when — because it’s not important, and I’ll reveal why shortly — I started working on an ambitious and somewhat loony personal project: a timeline of American history.
It’s the kind of thing I’ve dreamed about doing for years, when I’d retire. I threw off the chains of wage-slavedom circa the end of April. Earlier that month I’d gotten my third major surgery in a period of two and a half years, and was able to walk again — Huzzah! I felt so damned good that the very idea of going back to work at the bookstore post-physical therapy seemed as attractive to me as whacking myself repeatedly on the head with a cast-iron skillet.
So I retired. Then I took on some hot projects, including writing a Deep Dive piece for the Limestone Post about Lake Monroe’s water. I also took on doing a history of WFHB, the community radio station that carries my weekly Big Talk interview program (Thursdays at 5:30pm on 91.3 FM or anytime online). I squeezed in a fun piece on the cartoon magazine, Funny Times, the editorial office of which has been relocated to Bloomington. And, I decided, it was time to do my dream project.
Funny thing is, I’m busier now than I ever was before retirement. Which I figured’d be the case. Mind, body, and spirit soar when one isn’t laboring under the yoke of…, well, labor. I can’t explain it any better than that.
So, I started drawing up my own American history timeline back in the hot weather months. In doing so, I realized elementary and high schools have been teaching history all wrong for far too many years, something I’ve suspected since I was an elementary-slash-high school student. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, try picking up a copy of James Loewen’s 1995 bestseller, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Thumb through it and get educated on how brilliantly fascinating real history is compared to the white-washed, PR flack, happy horseshit the likes of Mrs. Bertram, Mrs, Schmidt, Mr. Townsend, and Mr. Thalamer taught me — and their counterparts taught you.
The fact that none of us of a certain age were brought by our teacher to within a country mile of hearing about things like the Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, Helen Keller’s socialism, Woodrow Wilson’s white supremacy, the CIA-sponsored coups in Iran and Guatemala, or even the US Navy’s secret agreement with Lucky Luciano’s Mob to ensure New York City’s World War II ports’d be safe from Nazi sabotage is indictment enough.
Most kids say history is among their least favorite classes. Only math class is less palatable to most of them. Of course, there are no lies or whitewashing in math class so I have no idea what to do about that.
What we can do about history class is start telling the truth. Unvarnished, uncomfortable, yet riveting and illuminating truth. I know for a fact I’d be rapt, when in school, reading about Stalin’s spies at Los Alamos, Lincoln’s depression, JFK’s love life, or how the other Project Mercury astronauts chafed at John Glenn’s scoldings to keep their pants zipped.
I began my timeline by googling any and all historical timelines. Each of them misses a lot of stuff that happened in and around these shores and plains. I figured the more timelines I could consult, the more stuff I wouldn’t miss. A lot of timelines are subject-specific, like Ferris State University’s Jim Crow Museum Timeline, the National Park Service’s American Revolution Timeline, or the Watergate Chronology, so they go deeper into their respective events than, say, Wikipedia’s timelines of events in each year, which I used as a skeleton for the project.
All of them, of course, are based on dates and years. Dates and years — those micro-nuggets of data our history teachers stood over us with whips so we’d memorize them as much as our own names. Yeah, I followed that paradigm, indexing each event in American history by year and date. But it really doesn’t matter if the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on the 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, or 9th of December, 1941. What matters is context. What matters is the why and in what relation to any number of other factors.
What matters, for example, in the Pearl Harbor attack was the US had embargoed Japanese oil imports — an act of war — and that Hitler was thrilled upon learning of the sneak attack because he figured the US then would be too busy in the Pacific to care that he was taking over Europe and killing Jews. Context.
In drawing up my own personal history of the United States, I could see how this nation grew and learned — and didn’t learn — and become a mighty empire and championed freedom and democracy and backed tin-pot dictators and claimed all men are created equal and allowed the buying and selling of human beings and…, and…, and…. As Kurt Vonnegut loved to write, and so it goes.
Of all the empires this Earth has seen, ours is the most contradictory, the most baffling, the most schizophrenic. We’ve been good and bad. We’ve been brilliant and ignorant. We’ve pushed the limits of human achievement and stuck our heads in the sand. We’ve created advancements in medicine, engineering, astrophysics, literature, theater, song, sport, and any and all possible fields of human endeavor. We shoot each other, rape each other, rob from the poor, segregate our neighborhoods, launch missiles, pollute the air, and commit any and all crimes against humanity better than any other country.
Why? Because we’re the most diverse country ever to exist. We represent everything good and everything bad Homo sapiens has ever learned to do or can imagine to do, no matter where that Homo came from.
We are humanity.