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.
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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.
This is the same Lynne Cheney who in 1994 lambasted the National Standards for United States History for including Harriet Tubman while “Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, Jonas Salk and the Wright brothers make no appearance at all.” But the primer’s list of heroes is only one-third white male! Shades of the dreaded standards!
Admittedly, Thomas Edison and the Wrights do get pictured under “Q is for America’s Quest for the new, the far, and the very best.” But they are paired with other pesky women and minorities: Louis Armstrong, Emily Dickinson, Althea Gibson, Martha Graham and I.M. Pei, along with Ben Franklin and Babe Ruth. Again, white males are in the minority.
Elsewhere, Harriet Tubman’s alter ego, Sojourner Truth (actually, the two were very different, but they always appear in textbooks as the twin African-American women of the nineteenth century), makes an appearance under “S is for Suffrage,” along with eight other women. And “V is for the Valor shown by those who’ve kept us free” includes not only Medal of Honor winners Alvin York and Audie Murphy but also Molly Pitcher, the 54th Massachusetts Colored Regiment and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team of Japanese-Americans who fought in World War II.
We can poke fun at the astounding sight of a suddenly inclusive Lynne Cheney, but surely, we must admit, it is a spectacle of progress. Would we have her remain blinkered to view only white males as heroes?
To be sure, her novice status about women and minorities sometimes shows: Thus one of her “S is for Suffrage” heroes is Esther Hobart Morris. Morris hails from Cheney’s “home state” of Wyoming, but Cheney has not done her homework. In 1869, Wyoming Territory passed the first law in the United States giving women the right to vote. Fifty years later, with suffrage on the brink of national triumph, Wyoming Democrats claimed they had started it all, which they had. So a pair of Wyoming Republicans chose Morris, also a Republican but then long deceased, to honor as the force behind that law and as its co-author (with Democrat William Bright). Morris had once served for eight months as justice of the peace of South Pass City. Eventually their crusade bore fruit: Not only did Morris get a rock cairn and an inscribed sandstone slab in South Pass City but eventually Wyoming installed her statue as its initial entry in the National Statuary Hall in our nation’s Capitol.
In recent decades, however, it became clear that Esther Morris had nothing to do with the law. Wyoming’s Division of State Parks and Historic Sites installed a rare corrective on the American landscape: a bronze plaque near the South Pass monuments that states, in part,
After her death in 1902, some historians claimed that Mrs. Morris had helped Bright write the suffrage bill…. However, recent studies indicate that Bright was the only author.
The National Statuary Hall’s guidebook for a walking tour has also gotten the word: It merely credits Morris as being a good justice of the peace, if only for eight months. Trying desperately to supply some reason for her inclusion in the hall, it notes also that “she was present at a dinner in Cheyenne given for Susan B. Anthony” in 1895!
Perhaps that is why Cheney included her in America: A Patriotic Primer.
The real problem with A Patriotic Primer is not with who does and does not make its several lists of honorees. In a famous 1971 speech, “White History, Negro History, Black History,” Vincent Harding showed the real problem with Cheney’s entire inclusionist approach: It leaves out conflict. Not only Martin Luther King Jr. but also Malcolm X can be portrayed as wonderful American success stories–Malcolm rose from the ghetto to speak at Harvard, did he not? But both of them were shot, after all, and to the delight of important elements in our federal government.
Cheney does designate “K is for King.” She writes, “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for justice with prayers, peaceful marches, and some of the most powerful words our nation has ever heard.” But she takes care not to mention or describe civil disobedience, preferring the softer “peaceful protest.” And she takes care not to mention King’s phrases about the “evil system in America” or any other statement with which anyone might ever disagree.
From King’s “I Have a Dream” speech she does not quote “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.'” Instead, she chooses “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” For some years, neoconservatives have used that sentence to claim that Dr. King opposed affirmative action, despite his specific endorsement of affirmative action on many occasions.
Conflict also disappears from her “V is for Valor” page: One illustration commends “brave American soldiers [who] fought in the jungles of Vietnam.” Never mind that they did not fight to “keep us free,” that they did not win, that their defeat did not result in the loss of our freedom and finally, that those who fought to end the war in Vietnam, in and out of the military, were equally brave.
Avoidance of potential conflict must also account for her bizarre choices under “I is for Ideals.” Here Cheney submits the following list, in chronological order: Mount Rushmore, Sitting Bull’s Grave, the Alamo, the Portrait Monument, the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Civil Rights Memorial and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Hardly a list of ideals! Mount Rushmore, of course, pictures four Presidents. Regarding its ideals, Lame Deer, a Lakota leader, summed up its message as well as anyone:
These big white faces are telling us, “First we gave you Indians a treaty that you could keep these Black Hills forever, as long as the sun would shine, in exchange for all the Dakotas, Wyoming, and Montana. Then we found the gold and took this last piece of land, because we were stronger, and there were more of us than there were of you, and because we had cannons and Gatling guns…. And after we did all this we carved up this mountain, the dwelling place of your spirits, and put our four gleaming white faces here. We are the conquerors.
Sitting Bull’s Grave is even more problematic, because it turns out he was buried twice! At Fort Yates, North Dakota, where in 1890 Native American policemen killed him, a handpainted sign nailed
to a tilted wooden post says simply, “Burial Site of Sitting Bull.” Cheney’s illustrator, Robin Glasser, shows us the more elaborate tombstone across the border in Mobridge, South Dakota. This monument dates only from 1953, when a group of enterprising grave-robbers from Mobridge drove to Fort Yates with a backhoe, dug up the grave, stole the bones and scurried back across the state line.
For years the Roadside America website has displayed images of both gravesites, along with such other attractions as the World’s Largest Replica Cheese (Wisconsin, naturally) and America’s Only Two-Story Brick Outhouse (New York State). Exactly what American ideals does the Mobridge grave exemplify? A certain twisted entrepreneurship, perhaps, damn the moral consequences. For that matter, the events leading to Sitting Bull’s arrest and death–our illegally taking the Black Hills because gold had been discovered there–also amount to twisted entrepreneurship, damn the moral consequences. So maybe the monument is appropriate.
The Alamo presents its own moral quagmire. The key ideal for which the Anglos contested Texas, the one freedom Mexico would not grant them, was the freedom to own slaves. That’s not the full story, but it is a key part, and an element the “Daughters of the Republic of Texas,” who own the site, never mention.
Two of Cheney’s ideal sites do represent ideals, at least biographically: the Portrait Monument of Susan B. Anthony, Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (colloquially known as “Three Ladies in a Bathtub”) in the rotunda of the Capitol, and the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery. Two others, the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, show respect and perhaps grief for our war dead but make no claims for their idealism.
Ideals can be controversial. Mine might not be yours. If we phrase them so we can all agree on them, they might become so vague as to be content-free. Obviously we do not want to think about them, certainly not argue about them, at least not while reading A Patriotic Primer. We just wanna feel good.
So how do we deal with books like this primer? Surely not by teaching children the opposite of ethnocentrism: “America is the most evil nation,” as an unreconstructed Stalinist said to me in the aftermath of 9/11. Such a judgment is even less warranted than Cheney’s frenzied flag-waving.
America’s children need the skills to do their jobs as Americans. What are their–our–jobs as Americans? Individually we may be bus drivers, investment bankers, sociologists–but surely our job as Americans is to bring the America of the future into being.
Looking at the past, thinking about American history, can surely help our children do their job as Americans. For example, understanding what caused antiracist idealism to increase during and after the Civil War, then what caused it to wither in the period 1890-1925, only to resurface after 1954, can help us perceive what actions now might increase the chances for racial justice in America. The same is true for gays in the military, what to do about Saddam Hussein, whatever.
What George W. Bush needs from our children and from the rest of us, whether he knows it or not, is for us to think. Not flag-wave, not America-bash, but think.
Unfortunately, thinking is the last thing Lynne Cheney means her book to provoke. In this sense, while unabashedly nationalist, America: A Patriotic Primer is profoundly unpatriotic.