Propaganda pasts

Zach Wiita

A few months ago, I found myself genuinely surprised with an old British children’s program. I was watching an episode of “Doctor Who,” and the protagonist had come face to face with an ancient hero of his culture. Instead of being in awe, however, the protagonist realized that his people’s idol was the man responsible for threatening the universe in that story.

I was really surprised to see this on a children’s program, particularly one produced almost 40 years ago. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that my surprise, however, reflected a uniquely American view of history that I had been conditioned to expect as a child: the process of “heroification.”

In America, we do not teach our children that our founders and our influential leaders were ever controversial, or selfish, or that they ever made immoral decisions. James Loewen covers this process in his book “Lies My Teacher Told Me.” The Pilgrims had Thanksgiving with the Indians; no mention of King Philip’s War. George Washington won America’s freedom; no mention of his owning slaves. Thomas Jefferson gave us the Louisiana Purchase; no mention of the Native Americans already living on that land.

We often do not tell our children that our founders were human, capable of both great good and great harm. We would never see a children’s program about a man who learns that his culture’s greatest hero was in fact a villain. In America, the leaders of the past are as Apollo and Saint Peter: examples to us in all things.

I find it particularly puzzling that our culture seems so afraid of not painting our leaders as demigods. I may have been raised to expect heroification from textbooks and children’s programs, but I was also raised by a parent who exposed me to alternate views of history. I grew up knowing about the conquest of the Native Americans, the horrors of slavery and other human rights violations in U.S. history.

Hiding these facts alienated some of my later friends once they learned of the dark parts of America’s past, prompting them to write off much of U.S. society as a fraud. But growing up knowing of our culture’s past sins did not stop me from admiring the bright points of idealism in American history, nor has it caused me to view America as cynically as some of my friends and classmates. As is usually the case, hiding the truth hurt more than it helped.

We in the United States would do well to tell our children as complete a history of our culture as we can. We should tell them of the men and women of our history – the inspirational idealists, the scheming cynics and those who were both. We would do well to tell our children stories of heroes who turn out to be liars and villains alongside stories of great leaders. We would do well to teach our children that our past is full of people, not saints.

Maybe then our future will prove brighter than our past has been.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theatre studies major and a columnist for the Summer Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].