Sunday, July 4, 2010

HERITAGE VS HISTORY

I'm reading a fascinating new book called North Country: The Making of Minnesota by Mary Lethert Wingerd (just out from the University of Minnesota Press.) It's about (per the flap copy) "the complex origins of the state--origins that have often been ignored in favor of legend and a far more benign narrative of immigration, settlement, and cultural exchange." Specifically, it's about the dynamics between Native people and Europeans in the 200 years pre-statehood, up until the brutal U.S.-Dakota War in 1862, which she dubs Minnesota's Civil War. 

Early on, Wingerd writes:
But heritage does not suffice as history. As scholar David Lowenthal points out, heritage is crafted to affirm what we wish to be true about ourselves, whereas history strives (albeit imperfectly) to discover the truth about the past. History, of course, is far more complex and problematic than heritage. History must come to terms with injustice and tragedy as well as achievement, asking hard questions that heritage, steeped in nostalgia, tends to obscure.
This is something I'm thinking about on the Fourth of July, an ambivalent holiday for me. Fireworks, pretty. Barbecued veggie burgers, fine. Day off, delightful. But the explosions send poor Emmett under the table trembling, and, when I'm inside soothing him and unable to see them, the sounds make me think of what it would be like to live in a place where explosions do go off outside your door, and how terrifying that would be. (Much sympathy to the PTSD veterans.) After all, they are mimicking war. And, to take it back to Wingerd's words, the Fourth is such a holiday of heritage, not history: a day when people celebrate what we wish to be true about America, what we want to believe about the nation and its origins. There's a wilfull innocence to the American independence narrative, almost teenaged in its naive the-students-take-over-the-school triumph (but now look who's the principal), and this must be the genesis of American love affair with the idea of the rebel. James Dean, teen movies, the cowboy, the so-called Minutemen at the border (a shame their fame usurps these ones), the rock-star figure, the Tea Party, figures that are almost exclusively white and male--they're all born from this.

And I too love the rebel figure, albeit in other forms than above. I just wish the collective American imagination could encompass all the people who protested and fought for freedom and the liberty to live their lives within these borders we made up, who were imprisoned, enslaved, cheated, banished to reservations, and killed for doing so. In America. 

On a pettier tack, the other thing that gets me on the Fourth of July is that I can't stand the American flag, on a purely aesthetic level. For me: irredeemable. It makes me think of tacky straw hats and marching-band music. As a kid I used to look at the FLAG entry in our old World Book Encyclopedia and gaze with envy upon the bold, interesting flags of places like Aruba, Bhutan, South Korea, Swaziland. (The CIA factbook has them all on one page--almost all the Caribbean nations have really cool ones.) 
Emmett Johnson: scared of fireworks.

2 comments:

casey said...

I was thinking Sunday night about how sick fireworks are, scaring all the dogs and sending veterans into PTSD-addled break-downs. My poor brother.

At least Emmett wasn't in North Portland, home of fireworks craziness, this year.

Amy said...

Check out the Isle of Man flag!