Friday, 28 November 2008

Who the Heroes Are

I'd like to add a hearty "me too" endorsement of this Matthew Yglesias blog post on the subject of American history. Specifically, the teaching of American history. Specifically, the teaching of American history as a heroic narrative.

It reminded me of something that has been a latent undercurrent in Obama's speeches and public statements for a long time, and that strikes me as a useful way of reclaiming the American legacy. Conservative cultural critics - like Mark Steyn referred to above - like to bemoan the supposed "anti-American" instinct to frequently talk about terrible things that were done in America and to highlight the victims of these atrocities. What they seem single-mindedly incapable of understanding is that it is possible to view these awful deeds - slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese internment, oppression of woman - as things done BY Americans to others, it is in fact appropriate to view them as things done TO Americans by others. That the slave was an American and that the rise from slavery, however tragic the need for it was ultimately a story of success for those Americans. That Rosa Parks was an American and that the bravery to act as one strong woman in those times and in that place is something Americans are right to be proud of. That generations of women lived tough, admirable lives across this country and ultimately fought for their right to vote and to be treated as equals. And that that's an American story.

American history can rightly be taught as a heroic narrative. Here's one example of how that could work:

Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

She was born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldnt vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.

And tonight, I think about all that shes seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we cant, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes we can.

At a time when womens voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbor and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that We Shall Overcome. Yes we can.

A man touched down on the moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change. Yes we can.

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