Lynne Cheney sees the world in black and white. Or, rather, in red, white and blue. Or at least she would have young Americans see it that way. She begins this forty-page children’s book with a textbook example of ethnocentrism:
I wrote this book because I want my grandchildren to understand how blessed we are. I want them to know they are part of a nation whose citizens enjoy liberty and opportunity such as have never been known before.
Of course, Lynne Cheney has not seriously contemplated the levels of “liberty and opportunity” in, say, the Netherlands or Canada today, or Choctaw society in 1600. She doesn’t mean her declaration as a serious statement of comparative history–it’s just nationalist cheerleading.
Americans fortunate enough to have lived in another country for an extended period or to attend a college that prompts students to rethink such pat evaluations will not be convinced by these sunny pronouncements. Nor will Cheney’s twenty-six alphabetical entries–“A is for America,” “B is for the birthday of this nation,” etc.–win them over.
But then, this book isn’t aimed at adult readers. It’s not intended to be thought about. It may not even be intended to be read but merely to be waved, for it includes no fewer than 120 different images of the Stars and Stripes, from front cover to back.
But let’s think about it anyway.
Perhaps the empty nationalism in A Patriotic Primer does more good than harm. After all, Abraham Lincoln, among others, was favorably influenced by Parson Weems’s equally silly A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. Lincoln believed that the Founding Fathers were great men. At the outset of the Lincoln-Douglas campaign, speaking on July 10, 1858, in Chicago, he said:
“I should like to know if taking this old Declaration of Independence, which declares that all men are equal upon principle, and making exceptions to it–where will it stop? If one man says it does not mean a Negro, why may not another say it does not mean some other man? If that Declaration is not…the truth, let us tear it out! [Cries of ‘no, no!’] Let us stick to it then, let us stand firmly by it then.”
Eventually, taking America’s founding ideals seriously, Lincoln brought the rights of man back to life in a nation that was not letting them influence public policy.
Maybe somewhere out in Nebraska, or rural Alabama, or even in Somalia, waiting to immigrate to the United States, some boy or girl will similarly be made more idealistic about our nation’s possibilities and will become a better future leader because of this primer.
Certainly America-bashing is not the antidote to the unthinking–even antithinking–nationalism that Cheney provides.
Moreover, Cheney has done her best to look like a multiculturalist. “H is for Heroes,” for example, and she lists a dozen: Abigail and John Adams, Jane Addams, Clara Barton, Frederick Douglass, Nathan Hale, Chief Joseph, Sam Houston, Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson and Harriet Tubman.