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.”