Proclaiming an Idealized History

November 6, 2019
Posted by Jay Livingston

“These people don’t have mothers and fathers. They have Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.”

I read Roger Brown’s excellent textbook Social Psychology at least four decades ago, but I still remember that sentence. It’s from the chapter on the authoritarian personality.  Most people when asked about their parents give more or less objective assessments. But those who score high on measures of authoritarianism paint a highly idealized portrait.

That preference for seeing only the ideal may apply not just to the home but to the homeland.

The sentence came to mind when I was reading a WaPo story today about the Presidential Proclamation making November the National American History and Founders Month. In case you hadn’t heard, President Trump issued that proclamation last week. NAH&FM is a new one, sharing November with, among others, National Family Caregivers Month and Heart Month, which Trump also proclaimed as did his predecessors. But those presidents, since Bush 41 have also proclaimed November as National Native American Heritage Month.  Last week, that proclamation did not appear.

Some people jumped to the conclusion that Trump was substituting the Founding Fathers for Native Americans. Not true. The Native American Heritage Month proclamation did appear on the White House website, though not till  yesterday and backdated to Oct. 31. But the larger point remains: Trump and his hardcore conservative supporters refuse to acknowledge any flawed motives in anything that the US — or Trump — has ever done. That includes the heritage of Native Americans, which on its face certainly raises questions about the motives and behavior of White men in America.

National Native American Heritage Month is a tacit acknowledgment of past sins, as if to say, “Yes, we may have stolen your land and slaughtered your people by the tens of thousands in the process, but we’ll give you a piece of November each year to make up for it.”  Trump’s proclamation does not, of course, mention any of that. Instead, in typical Trump fashion — “this isn’t about you, it’s about me” — it advertises all the wonderful things “my Administration” (the phrase appears five times in five short paragraphs) is doing for Native Americans.

Why add National American History and Founders Month? The proclamation explains. “To continue to advance liberty and prosperity, we must ensure the next generation of leaders is steeped in the proud history of our country.” That sounds nice, but immediately the critics chimed in. “Some historians slammed the statement for an oversimplified and glorified portrayal of a national history that is far more complex.” Well, what do they expect — complexity? From a Presidential Proclamation? From Donald Trump?

Still, the criticism speaks to an idealized version of America promoted by conservatives, and not just in proclamations at Red staters who protest the removal of statues of Confederate heroes, for example, and who continue to display the Confederate flag prefer a history where secession had no trace of tainted motives — motives like racism. In a similar way, conservatives find no impure intent in what White people did in the the westward expansion. Or if they do allow that some bad things happened, they see these in a “balanced” way, much like Trump’s view of the White nationalist rally in Charlottesville (“good people on both sides”).

Here for example is the conclusion to a long article in the right-wing magazine Commentary:

In the end, the sad fate of America’s Indians represents not a crime but a tragedy, involving an irreconcilable collision of cultures and values. Despite the efforts of well-meaning people in both camps, there existed no good solution to this clash.

That was written in 2004, more than a decade before Trump echoed the “well-meaning people in both camps” idea. It is yet another example of belief that even if the US winds up doing terrible things, we should be judged by our intentions. Even if we did kill all those Indians and take their land, our hearts and our homeland are always pure. A happy November to all.

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