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Published: August 27th 2004
I left Newport News this morning on the Amtrak train to New York City, and along the way I read several chapters in "Lies My Teacher Told Me," by my Vermont homeboy James Loewen, which follows up quite nicely on a conversation I was having with my boss Mary. Yesterday she half rhetorically asked, "Why don't more Americans know about the terrible atrocities our goverment has done?"
I replied, ''Education. Or a lack thereof." My homeboy James Loewen offered up a quote by Helen Keller that extrapolated upon the American tradition of willful ignorance. Helen Keller pointed out,
"People do not like to think. If one thinks, one must reach conclusions. Conclusions are not always pleasant."
It is not pleasant to consider that, for instance, the United States has not promoted democracy in the Middle East. In fact, the US has a track record of suppressing democracy & supporting dictatorial, repressive regimes. A CIA-backed coup in Iran toppled the democratically-elected goverment and installed the Shah, who set the example for Saddam Hussein in violently repressing internal dissent. When the Shah was toppled in a popular revolution, fueled in large part by justifiable anti-American sentiment, the US turned to Iraq as an ally, ignoring Saddam Hussein's already-demonstrated proclivity for mass murder and fascism. When Iraq invaded Kuwait with the explicit neutrality & implied consent of the US, America turned to the autocratic Saudi Arabians. The mere fact that 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers hailed from Saudi Arabia should illuminate the opposition to American support for the House of Saud.
But by & large Americans do not consider such questions. It is an all too familiar example of what psychologist Leon Festinger has called "cognitive dissonance." We modify our opinions to bring them into line with our actions or plans of action. We ignore the unsavory or ambiguous episodes in our own history. Or, as Friedrich Nietzsche put it,
"Memory says, 'I did that.' Pride says, 'I could not have done that.' Eventually, memory yields."
And so we declare America the defender of democracy, conveniently ignoring the all-too-numerous moments in history when America has toppled democratic goverments and crushing popular uprisings. In wartime we rally around a president who himself avoided wartime military duties. We sing odes to the ''Land of the free & the home of the brave,'' ignoring constitutional usurpations of the Patiot Act & the cowardice of a cruise missile.
Yet whatever the realities of the American experience, they do not diminish the idealism of the American dream. Patriotism does not require blind adherence to dogma, but rather honest, reasoned consideration of how the American Dream can be transformed into the American experience.
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