I'm still in the eighth season of 7th Heaven. I don't know what it is about that show, but it does make me think!
On today's episode, Ruthie Camden and her boyfriend, Peter, are working on a class project for Presidents' Day. (I take it they don't get the day off!). They come up with an idea: Everyone else in the class will be presenting reports on how great Washington and Lincoln were. Why can't they do something different--something that will stand out, impress their teacher, and get them an "A"? Peter points out that the media love to bash Clinton and Bush, so maybe they can create a fictitious old newspaper that treats Washington and Lincoln in the same way. And, if they can't find anything in the library, they'll make something up. They're in a hurry, after all, since the project is due the next day!
As I listened to their conversation, I thought that their idea was brilliant. We tend to idolize the founding fathers, but they weren't necessarily idolized when they were alive. They had their critics! So what is wrong with exploring other perspectives on American history?
But Ruthie's teacher hates the idea. She threatens to take Ruthie and Peter to the principal. Eric Camden gives them a lecture on how great Washington and Lincoln were. And so they give a revised paper, one that praises the two Presidents. As they read their paper, it sounds pretty banal. But then I see why they'll get an "A": standing beside them are Eric, Annie, Kevin, and Lucy, dressed as George, Martha, Abe, and Mary Todd (respectively).
Their initial idea impressed me, on some level. Why? Because I've had a long flirtation with alternative interpretations of history. For example, my history textbooks always presented FDR as a great President, but the right-wing books that I read called him a socialist. In elementary school, I read encyclopedia articles about the founding fathers, and the anti-Federalist position made more sense to me. After all, it believed in a weak central government, and that was my ideological orientation at the time: less government means more freedom. And, since Washington was somewhat of a Federalist, I guess I was on the non-Washingtonian end of the spectrum (retrospectively speaking).
As far as Lincoln goes, I've read articles by Thomas DiLorenzo, an economist at Loyola College who loves to bash Honest Abe (only that's not what he calls him). For DiLorenzo, Lincoln was an authoritarian who dramatically expanded the power of the federal government. His warmongering led to a loss of civil liberties, a trend that DiLorenzo sees today. (So I guess Tom's not a Bushite conservative!)
DiLorenzo is often associated with the neo-Confederate movement, and that gives people bad vibes. So does DiLorenzo believe that slavery was a good idea? As far as I can see, the answer is "no." According to DiLorenzo, Lincoln was not always anti-slavery, even as President. In DiLorenzo's view, the Civil War wasn't even about ending slavery. Rather, the North wanted to keep the Union together to preserve all that revenue the South was bringing in. In neo-Confederate thought, slavery was on its way out, anyway. For people like DiLorenzo (and Ron Paul), there didn't need to be a war to end that institution!
I'll leave it to the historians to settle those issues. I'm just saying that there is more than one way to look at the past. I wish Peter and Ruthie had read some DiLorenzo (assuming his books were in their local library). Instead, they made things up about Washington and Lincoln.
While part of me liked Ruthie's idea, part of me could identify with the teacher and Eric Camden. There was a quality about Washington and Lincoln. Washington chose not to be king, even though he could have pulled it off. I mean, he had widespread support! He'd just led his people in war. And Lincoln wanted to forgive the South after defeating it. "With malice toward none, with charity for all," he said, demonstrating his Christian convictions.
What makes America a great nation is that it comes from good stock. Great people founded it on the basis of noble ideas. And children in American schools should receive a positive vision of what America is all about. What's more, we are in desperate need of real heroes. From a certain point of view, tearing down our founding fathers is the last thing that we should do.
In the 1964 right-wing classic, None Dare Call It Treason, John Stormer attacks the American educational system as leftist. He cites with disapproval a history textbook, Todd and Curti's America's History, which states the following about George Washington:
"Outwardly, Washington seemed to most people somewhat cold and overdignified. After his death, American patriots developed a myth of his godlike qualities...(pp. 184)."
Stormer then quotes J. Edgar Hoover, who denounces the assault on American heroes and patriotism (172).
Overall, I got a lot of patriotism in my elementary school. Every morning, we said the Pledge of Allegiance (except for the Jehovah's Witness boy, who just stood). We sang patriotic songs in music class. We even put on a play about the U.S. Constitution, in which I recited the preamble. (I didn't know what all the words meant, but at least I could pronounce them!) In fifth grade, my teacher told us that America is the best country on the face of the earth, while the Soviet Union is a land of atheism and slavery. I definitely learned about America's greatness when I was growing up!
In middle school, we got the same rosy picture, but with a little more nuance. In my eighth grade history class, our teacher was showing us the George Washington miniseries, with Barry Bostwick and Patty Duke. On it, George was looking at Sally Fairfax with a shy, entranced, bumbling look. (As many readers may know, George supposedly had a relationship with Sally Fairfax, even when he was married to Martha. And Sally was married to someone else during their alleged romance!) A girl in my class observed, "I think George likes Sally!" My teacher chuckled and said, "Yeah, George and Sally had quite a relationship!" And this teacher was about as Republican as you could get!
And so our founding fathers had qualities that embody what this nation is all about. And, yet, they had their flaws as well. But doesn't that make them more admirable? At least it means they were real people.
7th Heaven is somewhat of a conservative show. More than that, it's a cheery conservative show. On the episode I saw yesterday about the Iraq War, the pro-war side got the last word! So why am I unhappy about that? Didn't I get sick of liberals always getting the last word on The West Wing? And you all know my objections to Eli Stone! Maybe I'm just too saturated with the liberalism of the entertainment industry. I expect every show to cover politics the way that Norman Lear did, and that's not always the case. And that may be a good thing!
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