It was an important moment in China’s history, memorialized by an iconic photograph. A lone anonymous man, two shopping bags in hand, took it upon himself to stand in front of a line of moving tanks in defiance of the crackdown by the Chinese government at Tiananmen Square. AP photographer Jeff Widener snapped that picture on June 5, 1989. Over two decades later, writer Louisa Lim visited four of Beijing’s top universities and showed students a photo of “Tank Man.” Out of the 100 students she approached, only 15 correctly identified the picture.
Those results were no accident. As Lim explains in his new book, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited, the Chinese authorities had determined to blot out public memory of the protests that gripped their nation 25 years ago.
George Orwell knew why. “The most effective way to destroy a people is to deny and obliterate their understanding of their own history,” he once wrote. Orwell was right. Battles over the past are always about the future.
In America, we face a very different problem. Many on the left who don’t much care for America, free enterprise, or the Constitution are working hard to promote only the most shameful aspects of our history while trying to erase from public memory our most positive stories.
It’s China in reverse. And a very different kind of amnesia is being promoted. “What I find striking is the highly selective view of history that is routinely taught not only in colleges but also in the public schools,” author and filmmaker Dinesh D’Souza recently explained. “This is a view that trolls through American history, isolates a half-dozen facts, pulls them all together, and passes them off as a narrative of American shame.”
And there is real shame in America’s past. From the original sin of slavery to segregation, it seems almost impossible now to conjure up an America where it was legal to own another human being as if he or she were a cow or horse. And it’s hard to imagine an America where it was not legal for black people to swim in the same pool as white people in large parts of our country. Let alone attend the same school or eat in the same diner.
But what irks D’Souza, whose film America: Where Would We Be Without Her opens during the July Fourth weekend, is all of the important American history that’s skipped over. “Most of our young people think that is our history, the shame part alone, and what they don’t realize is that this is an account that jumps all over decades, even centuries, and leaves out huge episodes of America, which is the Industrial Revolution, the spreading of the railroads, the great entrepreneurial and innovation history of America, and the First and Second spiritual awakenings, which transformed the country.”
Regrettably, the American story is being told in large measure by people who don’t like our country and want to change it by erasing those parts of our history that don’t comport with their view of man’s relation to government — and to God. The storyline goes something like this: If only America were less American, the world would be a better place. If only we toned down the emphasis on the individual, and turned up the emphasis on the collective, America would be a better place. If only our Constitution were a “living Constitution,” less concerned with limiting government’s power and more like South Africa’s, a work in progress with an almost endless list of rights and entitlements, we’d be a better country.
As if the document our Founders wrote over 200 years ago isn’t alive and thriving. As if it hadn’t unleashed the God-given potential of a people as no other single document in human history has done.
In America, the government receives its limited powers from the people. That was a revolutionary idea in the 18th century. It still is. We who care about such things have not spent enough time or money on the story of our country. And in the culture wars we are fighting, the biggest cultural battle of them all is over our story.
“We have to know who we were if we’re to know who we are and where we’re headed,” American storyteller David McCullough explained in a 2005 Hillsdale College Leadership Series speech in Phoenix. “How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of this greatest of countries in all time? It’s not just a birthright, it is something that others struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, often were defeated for and died for, for us, for the next generation.”
One thing is certain. The troubles we’re facing today are nothing compared to troubles we’ve faced in the past. “The Revolutionary War was as dark a time as we’ve ever been through,” McCullough continued; and “1776, the year we so consistently and rightly celebrate every year, was one of the darkest times, if not the darkest time in the history of the country.”
“Many of us here remember the first months of 1942 after Pearl Harbor when German submarines were sinking our oil tankers right off the coasts of Florida and New Jersey, and there wasn’t a thing we could do about it,” McCullough observed. “Our recruits were drilling with wooden rifles, we had no Air Force, half of our Navy had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, and there was nothing to say or guarantee that the Nazi machine could be defeated — nothing. Who was to know?”
Those were really dark times. “I like to think of what Churchill said when he crossed the Atlantic after Pearl Harbor and gave a magnificent speech,” McCullough added. “He said we haven’t journeyed this far because we’re made of sugar candy. It’s as true today as it ever was.”
America has been overcoming the odds, and hard times, since before we were born. If Vegas had handicapped the Revolution of 1776, America would have been 1–20 underdogs to make it to the year 1800. But we triumphed over the mighty British army, with a ragtag army assembled on the fly. We overcame the original sin of slavery with a civil war that left America with 600,000 fewer men — in a nation of only 35 million — and with much of the South, including its crops, burned to the ground. Today the South is the fastest-growing region in America, and more African Americans are in positions of leadership there than in any other region in the nation. Could anyone alive in 1865 have imagined that?
We beat the Nazi menace and ended Soviet totalitarianism. We’ve survived runaway inflation, stagflation, and deflation. We survived the not-so-real threats of mass famine, population explosion, the China syndrome, mad-cow disease, bird flu, swine flu, SARS, Y2K, and global cooling, and we’ll survive global warming, too.
We were told in the 1930s that Communism was superior to our way of life, and 50 years later, a new gang of elites told us that Japan’s way was the way of the future. We’re now being told that the way of the future is China’s way — the autocrats’ way.
We’ve survived all of those real and fake threats, and apocalyptic predictions, since our nation’s founding. What we cannot survive is our loss of memory: the memory of who we are, and of how we got here.
“The world is made up of stories, not atoms,” the poet Muriel Rukeyser once noted. She’s right. Stories teach us who we are. So let’s start telling our stories — stories that carry in them everything we know about what’s made our country great; of our families and of how we got here; of our founders, heroes, innovators, and immigrant heritage. Stories about courage and honor and love. And let’s invite our friends to share their stories with us.
Here’s what we’ll learn: Few if any of those stories will include the government as the protagonist. Most will be about the redeeming power of ordinary people to do extraordinary things. As we share the stories, certain themes will emerge: Love conquers cynicism, hope beats despair, hard work is good and laziness bad, accountability and responsibility matter, risk-taking is a fundamental part of life, as is failure, and freedom is the antidote to bondage of every kind.
Those stories will reinforce a simple notion: that genius, beauty, and innovation spring from the most unlikely places, places no central planner or government bureaucrat could ever create or control: the soul and conscience of the individual.
We will be reminded routinely that it is we who are the optimists about human beings, we who believe in the innate brilliance of the American people to solve our own problems, we who believe that human beings are not a pile of cells and membranes but rather living spirits whose rights and talents come from God, not government. It is we who are pessimists when it comes to power and its tendency to corrupt human beings, and we who are pessimists when it comes to the ability of large bureaucracies, whether public or private, to navigate the ever-changing needs and demands of the people they purport to serve.
And it is we who believe in the little guy. It is we who believe in those first three words in the Constitution: We The People.
And here’s the most important by-product of more storytelling: We just might get back our sense of optimism, joy, and love — and our country, too.
So this July Fourth weekend, go see Dinesh D’Souza’s movie. Pick up one of David McCullough’s books and read it to your kids. Go to Hillsdale College’s website and watch some of their great American history courses. They’re the history lessons most of us never got in high school or college.
And then go celebrate the nation’s founding as John Adams instructed, with “pomp and parade, with guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of the continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.”
Talk about bold, hopeful talk. Though America was at the time confined to territory east of the Allegheny Mountains, and people got around only on horseback, Adams was certain that America would one day stretch across the entire continent. That was the American character. And it still is.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network and a senior adviser to AmericaStrong.