Trump on Jackson and the Civil War: Historical ignorance and the decline of the American presidency

By Tom Mackaman
4 May 2017

In recent comments on American history, President Donald Trump conflated the era of Andrew Jackson with the Civil War and insisted that the latter, known then and since as the “irrepressible conflict,” could have been avoided.

“Why was there the Civil War? Why could that one not have been worked out?” Trump asked in his May 1 interview on Sirius satellite radio. He went on to assert that the Civil War upset his hero Andrew Jackson—who had been dead for 16 years at the war’s outbreak.

Trump said: “I mean, had Andrew Jackson been [president] a little later, you wouldn’t have had the Civil War…. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War. He said, ‘There’s no reason for this.’”

It hardly seems necessary to correct Trump’s false statements, which follow February 1 remarks revealing that the president does not know who the famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was. As for his assertion that the Civil War was a calamitous error—in other words, that there was nothing historically necessary about the bloodiest war in American history, the “Second American Revolution” that ended slavery—this is a reactionary and discredited interpretation with its own sordid history.

There is a more salient point: The president of the United States is completely ignorant of the basic facts and chronology of his own country’s history, including its most significant event, the Civil War.

From this troubling fact other inescapable conclusions must be drawn. It is clearly impossible for Trump to draw, in any meaningful way, on the experience of history. He cannot possibly place current events in any broader political and historical context. And if American history is so foreign to him, one can be certain he knows nothing of the history of the countries he menaces with trade war or military attack: Mexico, Germany, North Korea, Iran, China, Russia, etc.

In a narrow sense, Trump’s ignorance is unsurprising. Like the billionaire and multi-millionaire investors and “entrepreneurs” he represents, and for whom money-making is the true and only God, the real estate swindler and reality television personality-turned commander in chief surely sees little use for the past. To the extent that he turns to history, it is transactional. Much like the sale or purchase of a hotel, to Trump every historical event is a unique episode to be selected and interpreted impressionistically from the standpoint of immediate gain.

In a broader sense, however, Trump only epitomizes the long-term decline of historical knowledge in the American ruling class. Consider his predecessor in the White House. While it may be true that Barack Obama did not make such clamorous factual errors as Trump, one will search his speeches in vain for a single memorable or profound reference to the past.

Obama’s knowledge of history was hardly less superficial or dishonest than Trump’s. How could it be otherwise? How could the president who, in the bailout of Wall Street, oversaw history’s greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the wealthy honestly equate himself to Lincoln, who, in the emancipation of the slaves, carried out the largest seizure of private property in world history prior to the Russian Revolution? How could a president who proclaimed his “right” to assassinate without trial those he alone claimed to be terrorists appeal to the democratic legacy of Jefferson and Madison, the authors of the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights, respectively?

To put such names in the same paragraph—Trump and Obama on one side; Lincoln, Jefferson and Madison on the other—is to be reminded of the breathtaking decline in the personnel of the American presidency. Lincoln, though largely self-taught, was an assiduous student of Shakespeare, mathematics and history. Jefferson and Madison ranked among the great thinkers of their day, their huge and well-used libraries filled with volumes on science, philosophy and classical antiquity.

The decline after Lincoln has been steep and protracted. There has not been a real student of history in the White House in the half century since the truncated administration of John Kennedy (1961-1963), who, like Franklin Roosevelt (1933-1945) twenty years before him, was at least able to convey the appearance of an individual at ease speaking about the past. Before them, in the Progressive Era, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909) and the professor-turned-president Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) wrote volumes on history and were named presidents of the American Historical Association after their years in the White House.

These presidents’ use of history was always in the service of an American ruling class, whose revolutionary days had died with Lincoln. For example, Wilson, in his historical scholarship, promoted the myth that the Civil War was a mistake—a false interpretation that Donald Trump now embraces. Wilson did so as part of a larger academic project that sought to bury the revolutionary and egalitarian significance of the Civil War. This was done in the context of the emergence of the US as an imperialist power waging bloody colonial wars abroad while conducting industrial warfare against the working class at home.

Even so, Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt sought to promote the idea that their policies were the outcome of the progressive development of US and world history, a process in which they imagined American capitalism and its governmental forms would go on playing a special, even messianic role. They mustered their idealistic interpretations to contend with scientific socialism, whose materialist approach to history, discovered by Karl Marx, attracted intellectuals, artists and growing numbers of workers and youth.

For these and other reasons, presidents in an earlier period promoted the study of history in the classroom. Not so today. It is not just that the White House in more recent decades has been occupied by individuals ignorant of history, including some whose ignorance was of historical dimensions. The presidency is now a “bully pulpit” in the attack on the teaching of history, as well as art and music, in the elementary and high schools, colleges and universities.

Compare Theodore Roosevelt’s remarks on teaching history and art, delivered at the American Historical Association annual conference in 1912, to Obama’s insipid comment on the same subject, delivered in 2014.

Roosevelt: “History, taught for a directly and immediately useful purpose to pupils and the teachers of pupils, is one of the necessary features of a sound education in democratic citizenship… few inscriptions teach us as much history as certain forms of literature that do not consciously aim at teaching history at all. The inscriptions of Hellenistic Greece in the third century before our era do not, all told, give us so lifelike a view of the ordinary life of the ordinary men and women who dwelt in the great Hellenistic cities of the time as does the fifteenth idyll of Theocritus.”

Obama: “[A] lot of young people no longer see the trades and skilled manufacturing as a viable career. But I promise you, folks can make a lot more, potentially, with skilled manufacturing or the trades than they might with an art history degree… I’m just saying you can make a really good living and have a great career without getting a four-year college education as long as you get the skills and the training that you need.”

It is not that Roosevelt overlooked the necessity of industrial work. But he paid lip service to the ideal, and backed it up with a degree of government funding, that broad access to history and culture was a positive good. In word and in deed, the recent presidents—Trump, Obama, George W. Bush, etc.— attack the teaching of history and the idea of a liberal education. Educational “reforms” such as Obama’s “Race to the Top” have brought layoffs for tens of thousands of social studies teachers and blocked a generation of history, literature, music and art majors from finding work.

Here it must be added that the attack on history has also been waged from within the walls of the Ivory Tower. Highly paid practitioners of postmodernism and identity politics, many of them the leading “theorists” and most highly compensated professors at elite universities—not only in the US, but also in Great Britain, France and Germany—insist that there is no objectively understandable history at all. It is all simply a “narrative” that one creates or discards for present purposes. The archival record left behind by past generations is treated in the most cavalier manner and the pursuit in history of objectivity, facts and truth—terms that are inevitably placed within quotation marks in postmodern texts—is treated with contempt.

If the postmodernist premise about history is true, then why should Trump’s deeply false “narrative” of American history be less valid than any other? Or, for that matter, German historian Jörg Baberowski’s “narrative” of twentieth century history, which relativizes the crimes of the Third Reich? How is Trump’s argument that the Civil War was all a big mistake fundamentally different from that of the advocates of identity politics, such as Michael Eric Dyson, who view American history as a story of unchanging and unending “white racism?”

It might appear ironic that as history closes in on the ruling class, its understanding of its own history erodes, a process embodied in the American presidency itself.

It is not at all ironic. History is a most unwelcome guest at the lavish banquet where the rich gorge themselves at the expense of the working masses. Its most basic lessons must fill the billionaires and their politicians with dread: That times change and at certain points the oppressed revolutionize their times, that masses of people can learn from history and assimilate its strategic experiences, and that the richest and seemingly most timeless oligarchies have fallen—among them the Capetian Dynasty of the ancien regime in France, the Romanov Dynasty of Tsarist Russia, and, of course, the old slave-owning elite with which Trump so identifies.

 

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/05/04/trum-m04.html

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Mark Twain’s democratic ideal: How truth, laughter defeat “sweet-smelling, sugar-coated lies”

“A man at play with freedoms of his mind, believing allegiance to the truth and not the flag rescues democracy”

Mark Twain's democratic ideal: How truth, laughter defeat "sweet-smelling, sugar-coated lies"
Mark Twain

Mark Twain undertook the project of an autobiography in 1870 at the age of thirty-five, still a young man but already established as the famous author of “Innocents Abroad” and confident that he could navigate the current of his life by drawing upon the lessons learned thirteen years earlier as a steamboat pilot on the Mississippi River. As he noted in “Life on the Mississippi,”

There is one faculty which a pilot must incessantly cultivate until he has brought it to absolute perfection. . . . That faculty is memory. He cannot stop with merely thinking a thing is so-and-so, he must know it. . . . One cannot easily realize what a tremendous thing it is to know every trivial detail of twelve hundred miles of river and know it with absolute exactness.

Twain expected the going to be as easy as a straight stretch of deep water under the light of a noonday sun. It wasn’t. His memory was too close to absolute perfection, and he soon ran across snags and shoals unlike the ones to which he was accustomed south of Memphis and north of Vicksburg, an embarrassment he admitted in 1899 to a reporter from the London Times: “You cannot lay bare your private soul and look at it. You are too much ashamed of yourself. It is too disgusting.”

But Twain doesn’t abandon his attempt at autobiography, because the longer he stays the course—for thirty-four years and through as many drafts of misbegotten manuscript while also writing nine other books, among them Huckleberry Finn—the more clearly he comes to see that what he intends is not the examination of an inner child or the confessions of a cloistered id. His topic is of a match with that of the volume here in hand—America and the Americans making their nineteenth-century passage from an agrarian democracy to an industrial oligarchy, to Twain’s mind a great and tragic tale, and one that no other writer of his generation was better positioned to tell because none had seen the country at so many of its compass points or become as acquainted with so many of its oddly assorted inhabitants.

Born in Missouri in 1835 on the frontier of what was still Indian territory, Twain as a boy of ten had seen the flogging and lynching of Negro slaves, had been present in his twenties not only at the wheel of the steamboats Pennsylvania and Alonzo Child but also at the pithead of the Comstock Lode when in 1861 he joined the going westward to the Nevada silver mines and the California goldfields, there to keep company with underage murderers and overage whores. In San Francisco he writes newspaper sketches and satires, becomes known as “The Wild Humorist of the Pacific Slope” who tells funny stories to the dancing girls and gamblers in the city’s waterfront saloons.



Back east in the 1870s, Twain settles in Hartford, Connecticut, an eminent man of letters and property, and for the next thirty years, oracle for all occasions and star attraction on the national and international lecture stage, his wit and wisdom everywhere a wonder to behold—at banquet tables with presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt, in New York City’s Tammany Hall with swindling politicians and thieving financiers, on the program at the Boston Lyceum with Oliver Wendell Holmes, Horace Greeley, Petroleum V. Nasby, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also traveled forty-nine times across the Atlantic, and once across the Indian Ocean, as a dutiful tourist surveying the sights in Rome, Paris, and the Holy Land; as an itinerant sage entertaining crowds in Australia and Ceylon.

Laughter was Twain’s stock-in-trade, and he produced it in sufficient quantity to make bearable the acquaintance with grief he knew to be generously distributed among all present in a Newport drawing room or a Nevada brothel. Whether the audience was drunk or sober, swaddled in fur or armed with pistols, Twain recognized it as likely in need of comic relief. “The hard and sordid things in life,” he once said, “are too hard and too sordid and too cruel for us to know and touch them year after year without some mitigating influence.” He bottled the influence under whatever label drummed up a crowd—burlesque, satire, parody, sarcasm, ridicule—any or all of it guaranteed to fortify the blood and restore the spirit.

Twain coined the phrase the “Gilded Age” as a pejorative, to mark the calamity that was the collision of the democratic ideal with the democratic reality, the promise of a free, forbearing, and tolerant society run aground on the reef of destruction formed by the accruals of vanity and greed that Twain understood to be not a society at all but a state of war. The ostrich feathers and the mirrored glass, he associated with the epithet citified, “suggesting the absence of all spirituality, and the presence of all kinds of paltry materialisms and mean ideals and mean vanities and silly cynicisms.” His struggling with his own paltry materialisms further delayed the composition of the autobiography. For thirty-four years he couldn’t get out of his own way, kept trying to find a language worthy of a monument, to dress up the many manuscripts in literary velvets and brocades.

Eventually faced with the approaching sandbar of his death, he puts aside his pen and ink and elects to dictate, not write, what he construes as his “bequest to posterity.” He begins the experiment in 1904 in Florence, where he has rented a handsome villa in which to care for his cherished, dying wife. To William Dean Howells, close friend and trusted editor, he writes to say, “I’ve struck it!” a method that removes all traces of a style that is “too prim, too nice,” too slow and artificial in its movement for the telling of a story.

“Narrative,” he had said at the outset of his labors,

should flow as flows the brook down through the hills and the leafy woodlands . . . a brook that never goes straight for a minute, but goes, and goes briskly, and sometimes ungrammatically, and sometimes fetching a horseshoe three-quarters of a mile around and at the end of the circuit flowing within the yard of the path it traversed an hour before; but always going, and always following at least one law, always loyal to that law, the law of narrative, which has no law. Nothing to do but make the trip; the how of it is not important so that the trip is made. 

Twain’s wife does not survive her season in the Italian sun, and at the age of seventy-one soon after his return to America, he casts himself adrift on the flood tide of his memory, dictating at discursive length to a series of stenographers while “propped up against great snowy white pillows” in a Fifth Avenue town house three blocks north of Washington Square. He delivers the deposition over a period of nearly four years, from the winter of 1906 until a few months before his death in the spring of 1910, here and there introducing into the record miscellaneous exhibits—previously published speeches, anecdotes and sketches, newspaper clippings, brief biographies, letters, philosophical digressions, and theatrical asides.

The autobiography he offers as an omnium-gatherum, its author reserving the right to digress at will, talk only about whatever interests him at the moment, “drop it at the moment its interest threatens to pale.” He leaves the reader free to adopt the same approach, to come across Twain at a meeting of the Hartford Monday Evening Club in 1884 (at which the subject of discussion is the price of cigars and the befriending of cats) and to skip over as many pages as necessary to find Twain in Honolulu in 1866 with the survivors of forty-three days at sea in an open boat, or discover him in Calcutta in 1896 in the company of Mary Wilson, “old and gray-haired, but . . . very handsome,” a woman whom he had much admired in her prior incarnation as a young woman in 1849 in Hannibal, Missouri:

We sat down and talked. We steeped our thirsty souls in the reviving wine of the past, the pathetic past, the beautiful past, the dear and lamented past; we uttered the names that had been silent upon our lips for fifty years, and it was as if they were made of music; with reverent hands we unburied our dead, the mates of our youth, and caressed them with our speech; we searched the dusty chambers of our memories and dragged forth incident after incident, episode after episode, folly after folly, and laughed such good laughs over them, with the tears running down. 

The turn of Twain’s mind is democratic. He holds his fellow citizens in generous and affectionate regard not because they are rich or beautiful or famous but because they are his fellow citizens. His dictations he employs as “a form and method whereby the past and the present are constantly brought face-to-face resulting in contrasts which newly fire up the interest all along like contact of flint with steel.” Something seen in Paris in 1894 reminds him of something else seen in Virginia City in 1864; an impression of the first time he saw Florence in 1892 sends him back to St. Louis in 1845.

The intelligence that is wide-wandering, intuitive, and sympathetic is also, in the parsing of it by Bernard De Voto, the historian and editor of Twain’s papers, “undeluded, merciless and final.” His comedy drifts toward the darker shore of tragedy as he grows older and loses much of his liking for what he comes to regard as “the damned human race,” his judgment rendered “in the absence of respect-worthy evidence that the human being has morals.”

Twain doesn’t absent himself from the company of the damned. He knows himself made, like all other men, as “a poor, cheap, wormy thing . . . a sarcasm, the Creator’s prime miscarriage in invention, the moral inferior of all the animals . . . the superior to them all in one gift only, and that one not up to his estimation of it—intellect.” The steamboat pilot’s delight in that one gift holds fast only to the end of his trick at the wheel of his life. Mankind as a species he writes off as a miscarriage in invention, but he makes exceptions—a very great many exceptions—for the men, women, and children (usually together with any and all of their uncles, nieces, grandmothers, and cousins) whom he has come to know and hold dear over the course of his travels. The autobiography is crowded with their portraits sketched in an always loving few sentences or a handsome turn of phrase. Humor is still “the great thing, the saving thing after all,” but as the gilded spirit of the age becomes everywhere more oppressive under the late-nineteenth-century chandeliers, Twain pits the force of his merciless and undeluded wit against “the peacock shams” of the world’s “colossal humbug.” He doesn’t traffic in the mockery of a cynic or the bitterness of the misanthrope. Nor does he expect his ridicule to correct the conduct of Boss Tweed, improve the morals of Commodore Vanderbilt, or stop the same-day deliveries of the politicians to the banks.

His purpose is therapeutic. A man at play with the freedoms of his mind, believing that it is allegiance to the truth and not the flag that rescues the citizens of a democracy from the prisons of their selfishness and greed, Twain aims to blow away with a blast of laughter the pestilent hospitality tents of a society making itself sick with its consumption of “sweet-smelling, sugar-coated lies.” He offers in their stead the reviving wine of the dear lamented past, and his autobiography stands, as does his presence in this book, as the story of an observant pilgrim heaving the weighted lead of his comprehensive and comprehending memory into the flow and stream of time.

Excerpted from “Mark Twain’s America” by Harry Katz and the Library of Congress. Published in October 2014 by Little, Brown and Company. Copyright © 2014 by Harry Katz and the Library of Congress. All rights reserved.

 

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fairhas suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, shortened for TomDispatch, introduces “Magic Shows,” the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly.

 

http://www.salon.com/2014/11/01/mark_twains_democratic_ideal_how_truth_laughter_defeat_sweet_smelling_sugar_coated_lies/?source=newsletter

“The Roosevelts”: Ken Burns’ economics lesson for America

The new PBS documentary examines how New Nationalism and the New Deal saved the country from capitalism’s excesses

, Next New Deal

"The Roosevelts": Ken Burns' economics lesson for America
Scene still from “The Roosevelts”(Credit: PBS)
This originally appeared on Next New Deal.

Next New Deal Ken Burns’s superb documentary, The Roosevelts: An Intimate History, is in many ways a celebration of leadership, of the triumph of personal will over adversity, and of the belief in the age-old American story that each of us – no matter how burdened by life’s tragedies – has the capacity to accomplish great things.

The film also has much to say about the transformative nature of government: the idea, which all three Roosevelts shared, that it was the responsibility of government to serve as the primary guarantor of social and economic justice for all Americans – not just the privileged few at the top. It was this belief that formed the basis of Theodore Roosevelt’s New Nationalism and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, and this belief that helped inspire Eleanor Roosevelt’s efforts to craft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that was ratified by the United Nations just three years after its 1945 founding.

What is often overlooked in this story is the role that all three of these remarkable leaders played in helping to preserve the American free enterprise system, of trying to mitigate the worst excesses of capitalism, not only out of a desire to protect the American people from exploitative labor practices or fraudulent financial dealings, but also out of a desire to protect our very way of life during an era when liberal capitalist democracy was under siege in much of the rest of the world. As the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., once remarked, the twentieth century in many respects can be viewed as a struggle of ideologies, a time in which the anti-democratic forces of fascism and totalitarian communism were on the march, so that by January 1942 at the height of the Second World War, there were only a handful of democracies left on the planet.



In the rhetorically charged atmosphere of the mid 1930s, FDR’s critics alleged that the reforms he instigated under the New Deal were designed to take the country down the path to socialism. But nothing could be further from the truth. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and granting labor the right to organize were all inspired by the desire to provide the average American with a basic degree of economic security within the capitalist system. So too were the many financial reforms that brought us the likes of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The same argument could be made about Theodore Roosevelt, whose decision to take on such conglomerates as the Beef Trust or the Northern Securities Rail Company was driven by the desire not to destroy big business but to limit monopoly and restore the cut and thrust of the free market. In short, both men were motivated by the idea that the federal government had a responsibility to make capitalism work for the average American.

Eleanor Roosevelt concurred with these ideas, and in spite of her reputation as a left-leaning reformer, spent much of her considerable energy in the post-1945 world arguing in favor of the World War II monetary and trade reforms that helped launch the globalization of the world’s economy. In her May 21, 1945 “My Day” column, for example, ER spoke out in favor of the 1944 Bretton Woods accords which established the International Monetary Fund and International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank. Here, she argued in favor of the stabilization of currencies, because in the past there had been much speculative trading in this area, which resulted in “economic warfare” that in time brings us to “shooting warfare.” And she had this to say about the establishment of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development:

Some foolish people will ask: Why do we have to concern ourselves with the development and reconstruction of the ruined countries? The answer is simple. We are the greatest producing country in the world. We need markets not only at home, but abroad, and we cannot have them unless people can start up their industries and national economy again and buy from us. If Europe or Asia falls apart because of starvation or lack of work for their people, chaos will result and World War III will be in the making. In that event, we know that we will have to be a part of it.

Hence, ER insisted that we needed “both the bank and the fund for our own security, as well as for that of the rest of the world.” She then urged her readers to write to their Senators and Congressmen in support of the treaty, for as she so eloquently put it:

Whether you are a farmer or a merchant, whether your business is big or little, you are personally affected by it. Even if you don’t sell directly to a foreign country, you are indirectly affected – for the prosperity of the[foreign] country means your prosperity, and we cannot prosper without trade with our neighbors in the world of tomorrow.

As is so often the case, when we look back we see that the challenges of the past are not that different from the challenges we face today. Once again we face a world where the free-market system is in desperate need of reform; a world where income inequality has reached levels not seen since the gilded age; a world where the specter of long-term unemployment and limited opportunity has dimmed the hopes of an entire generation; a world where poverty and a lack of opportunity have given rise to anti-democratic extremists that threaten the very lives and well-being of millions. Yet sadly, and unlike the heady days of the first six decades of the twentieth century, our leaders in Washington seem incapable or unwilling to shape a response to these many challenges befitting the legacy of such great political figures as Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

A great deal of this can be attributed to the irresponsible behavior of many members of Congress, particularly among the members of the extreme right, whose obstructionist policies and rigid anti-government ideology have played a significant part in rendering the 113th Congress one of the least effective and least respected in American history.

But we should also never forget – as Ken Burns and his outstanding script writer Geoffrey Ward have reminded us through this outstanding film – that we too must share part of the blame. For as much as we may admire the leadership of the Roosevelts, none of their accomplishments would have been possible without the support of the American people. Leadership, after all, is a dynamic process that requires the cooperation of the both public figures and the public, and if we are living in an age that seems incapable of producing transformative government, we need to recognize that in a democracy it is the people who bear the final responsibility for their fate.

Franklin Roosevelt perhaps put it best when he urged the American people to recognize that “government is ourselves and not an alien power over us. The ultimate rulers of our democracy are not a President and Senators and Congressmen and Government officials but the voters of this country.”

 

 http://www.salon.com/2014/09/27/the_roosevelts_ken_burns_economics_lesson_for_america_partner/?source=newsletter

No Thanks to Thanksgiving

 

 


 

Instead, we should atone for the genocide that was incited — and condoned — by the very men we idolize as our ‘heroic’ founding fathers.

 

One indication of moral progress in the United States would be the replacement of Thanksgiving Day and its self-indulgent family feasting with a National Day of Atonement accompanied by a self-reflective collective fasting.

In fact, indigenous people have offered such a model; since 1970 they have marked the fourth Thursday of November as a Day of Mourning in a spiritual/political ceremony on Coles Hill overlooking Plymouth Rock, Massachusetts, one of the early sites of the European invasion of the Americas.

Not only is the thought of such a change in this white-supremacist holiday impossible to imagine, but the very mention of the idea sends most Americans into apoplectic fits — which speaks volumes about our historical hypocrisy and its relation to the contemporary politics of empire in the United States.

That the world’s great powers achieved “greatness” through criminal brutality on a grand scale is not news, of course. That those same societies are reluctant to highlight this history of barbarism also is predictable.

But in the United States, this reluctance to acknowledge our original sin — the genocide of indigenous people — is of special importance today. It’s now routine — even among conservative commentators — to describe the United States as an empire, so long as everyone understands we are an inherently benevolent one. Because all our history contradicts that claim, history must be twisted and tortured to serve the purposes of the powerful.

One vehicle for taming history is various patriotic holidays, with Thanksgiving at the heart of U.S. myth-building. From an early age, we Americans hear a story about the hearty Pilgrims, whose search for freedom took them from England to Massachusetts. There, aided by the friendly Wampanoag Indians, they survived in a new and harsh environment, leading to a harvest feast in 1621 following the Pilgrims first winter.

Some aspects of the conventional story are true enough. But it’s also true that by 1637 Massachusetts Gov. John Winthrop was proclaiming a thanksgiving for the successful massacre of hundreds of Pequot Indian men, women and children, part of the long and bloody process of opening up additional land to the English invaders. The pattern would repeat itself across the continent until between 95 and 99 percent of American Indians had been exterminated and the rest were left to assimilate into white society or die off on reservations, out of the view of polite society.

Simply put: Thanksgiving is the day when the dominant white culture (and, sadly, most of the rest of the non-white but non-indigenous population) celebrates the beginning of a genocide that was, in fact, blessed by the men we hold up as our heroic founding fathers.

The first president, George Washington, in 1783 said he preferred buying Indians’ land rather than driving them off it because that was like driving “wild beasts” from the forest. He compared Indians to wolves, “both being beasts of prey, tho’ they differ in shape.”

Thomas Jefferson — president #3 and author of the Declaration of Independence, which refers to Indians as the “merciless Indian Savages” — was known to romanticize Indians and their culture, but that didn’t stop him in 1807 from writing to his secretary of war that in a coming conflict with certain tribes, “[W]e shall destroy all of them.”

As the genocide was winding down in the early 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt (president #26) defended the expansion of whites across the continent as an inevitable process “due solely to the power of the mighty civilized races which have not lost the fighting instinct, and which by their expansion are gradually bringing peace into the red wastes where the barbarian peoples of the world hold sway.”

Roosevelt also once said, “I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe nine out of ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

How does a country deal with the fact that some of its most revered historical figures had certain moral values and political views virtually identical to Nazis? Here’s how “respectable” politicians, pundits, and professors play the game: When invoking a grand and glorious aspect of our past, then history is all-important. We are told how crucial it is for people to know history, and there is much hand wringing about the younger generations’ lack of knowledge about, and respect for, that history.

In the United States, we hear constantly about the deep wisdom of the founding fathers, the adventurous spirit of the early explorers, the gritty determination of those who “settled” the country — and about how crucial it is for children to learn these things.

But when one brings into historical discussions any facts and interpretations that contest the celebratory story and make people uncomfortable — such as the genocide of indigenous people as the foundational act in the creation of the United States — suddenly the value of history drops precipitously and one is asked, “Why do you insist on dwelling on the past?”

This is the mark of a well-disciplined intellectual class — one that can extol the importance of knowing history for contemporary citizenship and, at the same time, argue that we shouldn’t spend too much time thinking about history.

This off-and-on engagement with history isn’t of mere academic interest; as the dominant imperial power of the moment, U.S. elites have a clear stake in the contemporary propaganda value of that history. Obscuring bitter truths about historical crimes helps perpetuate the fantasy of American benevolence, which makes it easier to sell contemporary imperial adventures — such as the invasion and occupation of Iraq — as another benevolent action.

Any attempt to complicate this story guarantees hostility from mainstream culture. After raising the barbarism of America’s much-revered founding fathers in a lecture, I was once accused of trying to “humble our proud nation” and “undermine young people’s faith in our country.”

Yes, of course — that is exactly what I would hope to achieve. We should practice the virtue of humility and avoid the excessive pride that can, when combined with great power, lead to great abuses of power.

History does matter, which is why people in power put so much energy into controlling it. The United States is hardly the only society that has created such mythology. While some historians in Great Britain continue to talk about the benefits that the empire brought to India, political movements in India want to make the mythology of Hindutva into historical fact.

Abuses of history go on in the former empire and the former colony. History can be one of the many ways we create and impose hierarchy, or it can be part of a process of liberation. The truth won’t set us free, but the telling of truth at least opens the possibility of freedom.

As Americans sit down on Thanksgiving Day to gorge themselves on the bounty of empire, many will worry about the expansive effects of overeating on their waistlines. We would be better to think about the constricting effects of the day’s mythology on our minds.

Robert Jensen is a professor in the School of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and a board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest books are Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, and We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out. He can be reached at rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Read his articles online here or join his email list here. Twitter: @jensenrobertw.