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Lies Across America

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  • Clore Daniel C
    News for Anarchists & Activists: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/smygo Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong James W. Loewen Jonathan Sterne Bad
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2001
      News for Anarchists & Activists:

      Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong

      James W. Loewen

      Jonathan Sterne

      Bad Subjects

      Friday, June 29 2001, 9:10 AM

      Public history is everywhere, often taking up our landscape
      in ways we don’t ever notice. I work in a historic landmark
      building, the Cathedral of Learning. It’s a 40-odd story
      skyscraper and apparently the second tallest building in the
      world dedicated to higher learning. On my way from my office
      to teach a course in Frick Arts Auditorium (named for a
      famous strikebreaker) – just after I crossed Forbes Avenue
      (yes, that Forbes) I would pass a statue of songwriter
      Stephen Foster. Foster’s a major historical figure around
      here. Not being into 19th century American music, I can only
      recall that he’s credited with “O Susanna.” I don’t know who
      put the statue up, but kneeling at Foster’s feet is a
      smiling African American, apparently enraptured with
      Foster’s musical skills. In fact, the statue has it
      backwards. Foster borrowed heavily from African American
      musical traditions, yet the statue celebrates Foster’s
      creativity, not the creativity of his black colleagues.

      For weeks I didn’t notice this statue, until one day I had
      it pointed out to me. Public history surrounds us. In our
      own locales, we rarely think about it. When we travel, we
      rarely question it. James Loewen wants us to pay more

      Lies Across America occupied my bedstand for a good few
      months. With its short chapters and straight-ahead prose, it
      qualifies nicely as bedtime reading. But Loewen’s book
      should be a wakeup call. Taking aim at monuments across
      America, he shows how historical sites distort the truth or
      give only a partial view of history. Lies Across America
      reads as a sequel to Loewen’s well-known Lies My Teacher
      Told Me, where he takes apart the lies circulated in
      American History textbooks.

      Loewen is taking aim at monuments and historical sites,
      which together with museums are coming to be called “public
      history” – as in history that the public actually encounters
      and contemplates. As any academic historian will tell you,
      public history is a booming business these days. Besides
      offering an alternative career for History PhD’s in a tight
      job market, public history has been fueled by movements like
      historical preservation that essentially recommercialize
      downtowns, and a resurgent corporate-philanthropic interest
      which is essentially commercializing museums from the
      Smithsonian to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (the latter
      essentially being a VH-1 “Behind the Music” special in 3
      dimensions). Apart from occasional blockbusters like Pearl
      Harbor and Titanic, public history is probably the way in
      which Americans most often encounter history.

      This is why Loewen is so pissed off. And you will be too
      when you read this book. He reads like a cross between
      Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky: he’s got Zinn’s sense of
      history “from the bottom up” and Chomsky’s sense for
      demystifying sacred American myths. A recurrent theme
      throughout the book is American racism. Native Americans are
      often portrayed as aggressors, as attested to by several
      monuments to massacres that never actually happened. African
      Americans are rarely memorialized, except as loyal slaves.
      Racist whites, on the other hand, do quite well. As Loewen
      explains, during the post-reconstruction period, there were
      many campaigns throughout the south to recast the history of
      the Civil War with the confederacy as a heroic project. From
      the 1890s on, monuments went up all over the south
      commemorating “loyal slaves,” race riots by whites seeking
      to overturn local and state reconstructionist governments,
      and confederate leaders. For instance, there are at least
      nine state historical markers that commemorate the burning
      of Columbia, South Carolina during the Civil War. But while
      these markers portray the arson as a Union Army act (under
      General Sherman), it turns out that Columbia was actually
      burned by retreating confederate troops. Rather than being a
      symbol of Union aggression, Columbia was a casualty of the
      Confederacy’s scorched earth policy. Similarly, a monument
      to the New Orleans White League honors an 1874 race riot
      where racist whites retook the city government.

      Like African-Americans and abolitionists, left/labor groups
      take a beating in public history. As Loewen writes, “on
      today’s landscape, [the] history of left-wing politics is
      almost invisible.” A Finn Hall marker in Cowlitz County,
      Washington portrays the hall as a cultural center where
      Finnish immigrants could preserve their heritage. In fact,
      it was built by a communist group whose translated name
      means “Comrades Society.” The marker could tell a very
      interesting story about socialist, anarchist, and communist
      immigrants who left persecution in their own countries for
      the United States. In Centralia, Washington a monument to
      sentinel looks as if it commemorates World War I veterans.
      In fact, it memorializes American Legionaires killed in a
      confrontation with members of the Industrial Workers of the
      World. There is no similar monument to commemorate the
      Wobblies killed in the tragic skirmish.

      When a woman appears on a monument, she is likely to be a
      “generic” female figure, standing for liberty, equality, or
      some other virtue. As Loewen writes, “representations of
      real women from history are much less common that men,
      partly because so many monuments across the United States
      memorialize war.” Many monuments that do not memorialize war
      overlook important real women for less important men.

      Loewen takes a wide cross-section of monuments, writing a
      short essay on each. He discusses the history of the
      monument, what it says happened, and contrasts that with
      what really happened. It is an eye-opening book, not because
      we expect our monuments to tell the truth but because we so
      rarely think about how and why they are lying to us.

      Upon finishing the book, I was struck by how much effort
      conservative forces have put into the telling of American
      history. The American Legion, the Daughters of the
      Confederacy, even the KKK have worked hard to tell their
      side of history in a straightforward way. They have lobbied
      city councils, run historic sites, and where necessary built
      their own. But as Loewen points out, more progressive groups
      have been much less involved in writing this kind of
      history. There’s always a fan of the confederacy to staff a
      Civil War memorial. It’s harder to find someone to tell the
      story of the abolitionists. Though he doesn’t go this far,
      the book could be read as a call to action.

      It’s time to reclaim American history where it’s most often

      Lies Across America is available from Simon and Schuster

      Dan Clore

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