Patriotic History Is An Oxymoron

W.J. Astore

In my latest article for TomDispatch.com, I tackle Trump’s call for “patriotic” U.S. history. If normal history is “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” think of Trump’s history as all good and with none of the bad and ugly. It would make for a boring movie, and for boring history as well. Of course, this argument over “patriotic” history is yet another front in Trump’s Kulturkamp, or culture war, in America.

Yet isn’t ironic that Trump, who says he seeks to celebrate America’s greatness, ran in 2016 as a declinist candidate? “Make America Great Again” was his motto: the again suggesting an America that had to be put right, which apparently Trump has done, since his 2020 motto is “Keep America Great.”

A lot of historians will be spilling much ink in the coming decades on Trump and his administration. I have a feeling most of it will not be judged as “patriotic” by Trump’s standard.

Nuking History (from TomDispatch)

There goes our history

Aggravating such essential collective madness in this moment (and the president’s fiery and furious fascination with such weaponry) is Trump’s recent cynical call for what might be thought of as the nuking of our history: the installation of a truly “patriotic” education in our schools (in other words, a history that would obliterate everything but his version of American greatness). That would, of course, include not just the legacy of slavery and other dark chapters in our past, but our continued willingness to build weaponry that has the instant capacity to end it all in a matter of hours.

As a history professor, I can tell you that such a version of our past would be totally antithetical to sound learning in this or any world. History must, by definition, be critical of the world we’ve created. It must be tough-minded and grapple with our actions (and inactions), crimes and all, if we are ever to grow morally stronger as a country or a people.

History that only focuses on the supposedly good bits, however defined, is like your annoying friend’s Facebook page — the one that shows photo after photo of smiling faces, gourmet meals, exclusive parties, puppies, ice cream, and rainbows, that features a flurry of status updates reducible to “I’m having the time of my life.” We know perfectly well, of course, that no one’s life is really like that — and neither is any country’s history.

History should, of course, be about understanding ourselves as we really are, our strengths and weaknesses, triumphs, tragedies, and transgressions. It would even have to include an honest accounting of how this country got one Donald J. Trump, a failed casino owner and celebrity pitchman, as president at a moment when most of its leaders were still claiming that it was the most exceptional country in the history of the universe. I’ll give you a hint: we got him because he represented a side of America that was indeed exceptional, just not in any way that was ever morally just or democratically sound.

Jingoistic history says, “My country, right or wrong, but my country.” Trump wants to push this a goosestep further to “My country and my leader, always right.” That’s fascism, not “patriotic” history, and we need to recognize that and reject it.

Read the rest of my article for TomDispatch here.

21 thoughts on “Patriotic History Is An Oxymoron

  1. Writing as someone who aspired to be an historian before settling on the even less lucrative path of musician/author, I’ll have no truck with revisionist history or “corrected” history that reflects current sensibilities at the cost of deleting inconvenient truths. History is what was, not what should have been by contemporary standards. And as for “patriotic history” … to paraphrase Captain Ahab, God haunt us all if we allow such nonsense to go forth.
    (Roll the bullet scene from The Deer Hunter … “This is this. This isn’t something else. This is this.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes. Of course, history is constantly being revised as we learn more, discover new evidence, see old evidence in a new light, etc. History is always in flux because it’s human; it’s imperfect; you can’t know it all; nor should you just grind facts. There’s always some interpretation to history.

      That said, historians can’t have their own facts. Nor should they ignore facts and truths that are contrary to their narrative.

      Concocting your own narrative, whether by inventing stuff or cherry-picking or exaggeration etc., isn’t history. It’s propaganda — or it’s historical malpractice.

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  2. The Patriotic History begins with Columbus discovering America. Then we have the Mayflower arriving then a peaceful fun-filled Thanksgiving with the Native Americans. Black Africans sold other Black Africans into slavery. The slaves were taught the Christian faith. Everyone knew their place in god’s world.

    The Southern States in the spirit of 1776 rebelled against an oppressive Federal Government in Washington and the man who would be King – A. Lincoln. The slaves were freed and lived happily ever after.

    Once in awhile the Native Americans would resist the civilizing force of the White Man and his god and resist like at the Little Big Horn. Finally the Native American rebellion was crushed at Wounded Knee, many medals were given out to our brave soldiers. There was some collateral damage.

    After that all Americans lived in harmony under the flag of One Nation under Gawd. Capitalism brought prosperity to all Americans willing to Work. The extremely wealthy were there because they worked hard and deserved it. If you were poor it was because You were Lazy.

    We had to on occasion intervene in Latin America to make certain they could enjoy the fruits of Capitalism. With great reluctance we sometimes went to War. When we did go to War – We were the Arsenal of Democracy, spreading American Exceptionalism to all corners of the earth.

    I realize this is just a brief sketch of the New History of Patriotic American History.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. I guess, I should have been a writer for Fox News. News Flash Obama left Corona Vial in W.H. Fox News Team learns. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell will convene a Senate Investigation – Voodoo Doctor called in says Biden stuck pins in a Trump Doll. Proud Boys want to know -Who do we shoot???

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  3. Lots of thoughts on this post and the original article. First, as the saying goes, “History is written by the winners/victors.” Therefore, the Orange One’s “patriotic history” has at least several millennia of precedent. It was reportedly Henry Luce who coined the phrase, “the American century,” referring to the 1900s. The revisionist version of that century omitted many examples of U.S. imperialism while cloaking others (e.g., the installation of the Shah of Iran in 1953, the large-scale invasion of Vietnam circa 1964) in the robes of spreading democracy and freedom. The Project for the New American Century brought us the invasion of Iraq in the aftermath of 9/11, along with subsequent debacles in the Middle East. I doubt the Dumpster is even cognizant of many of such events needing “revision.” He just wants to paint over all the bad stuff, period, with a very large brush, like many leaders before him. He simply openly states his desire to do so.

    As for not needing religion or Christ to believe it’s morally reprehensible to inflict carnage on other peoples, I’d cite atheist existentialists like Sartre, who described a moral contract among civilized humans that has no reference to any dogma. They believed that the mere existence of groups of people in ordered societies mandates a mutual caring for each other’s rights to ensure survival. And so it does.

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  4. A little clarity in the definition of key terms here would greatly help, as in:

    George Orwell, “Notes on Nationalism,” Tribune (1945)

    By “nationalism” I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labeled “good” or “bad”.1 But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests. Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By “patriotism” I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.”

    Clearly, Donald Trump longs for a “nationalistic” history and not a “patriotic” one, as Orwell would differentiate the key terminology. But then, Orwell wrote for a literate English-speaking audience, which rather excludes Donald Trump and the bible-thumping cult calling itself the Republican party. The Nixon-McCarthy Democrats, though, will blame Vladimir Putin and the Russians for American historical illiteracy, which means that America’s junior right-wing faction offers no truly patriotic alternative to Trumpian Nationalism.

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    1. I’d wager that many “foreigners,” including many Russians, know more U.S. history than many Americans.

      American history isn’t mandatory in most colleges; in some high schools, it’s often taught by a non-historian, e.g. an athletic coach.

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      1. And in turn, the non-historian teacher can only impart rote information, so the dumbing-down continues apace. In other words, “patriotic history” is already being accomplished with no action on the Occpant’s part.

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      2. As recently as 6 years ago, my then-high school student niece was “taught” about the Indian Wars by having “Dances with Wolves” shown in class. When I attended an Open House at her school at the start of the next semester, I asked why this was done. The reply was “America has too much history” to cover in a year. Turned out my niece saw several movies over the course of the year, each followed by a test. ugh.

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        1. Yes. In the “good” old days, the gym teacher broke out films and the projector. Now it’s even easier — just load a DVD. Or maybe even stream something. The students may like it too — and give the teacher positive ratings.

          People think teaching history is easy. They say this because they remember physics or math, etc., as hard. Well, I got my BS in mechanical engineering before I got an MA in history and I can tell you doing real history is just as hard as engineering. But it is easier to fake teaching history than it is math or physics or chemistry.

          Maybe that’s why Trump is so adept at faking his own history … because when it comes to history, people often want to believe what they want to believe. And so Trump sold America on the idea he was a “successful” businessman but also a maverick populist who really cared about them.

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        2. Michael Pate (Australian), Ralph Moody (St. Louis), Espera Oscar de Corti (Iron Eyes Cody, Italian American from Louisiana) played a lot of Indians in movies and television – also Michael Ansara, Chuck Connors and tons more. At least Jay Silverheels was indigenous Canadian (real name Harold Jay Smith). Often enough real indigenous nation’s people were extras behind them.
          Or cowboys, all those white cowboys when you would have seen mainly brown and black ranch hands, not to mention not a lot of trigger-happy gun-toting fight at a glance saloon goers.
          Or the Treaty of Guadelupe-Hidalgo which was broken before it was signed. Or that famous Mexican independence day, Cinco de Mayo – actually not, and not even big in Mexico, just a celebration of a single battle won in a war that was lost against the French in the mid 1800’s. Hardly to mention the Alamo and all the totally wrong nonsense, including John Wayne’s version.
          Or… or or or.
          I realize I could go on for days, at least and only get started on an introduction to how we learn what we think is history. Often ludicrous. But in a large and mostly unseen way very corrosive to our concept of who we are and from there how we treat the world around us.
          Or years of Ted Koppel and not one mention I can remember of Mohammad Mosaddegh. I worked with Iranian waiters at the time and was ignorant enough to sympathize with what had happened in Iran at the revolution. The embassy takeover and hostages had no setting for me. Just crazed savages who suddenly, with not reason attacked our embassy, and embassy!!!! I thought. How uncivilized. How ignorant I was. And never once did our mainstream media give me a hint where it came from.
          Same for the Palestinians. I didn’t know they existed until the Munich Olympics. Once again, savages, uncivilized, without a context. Zionists teaming up with anti-Semite Lord Arthur Balfour and taking advantage of anti-Semitic desires for countries to not absorb Jewish refugees fleeing from pogroms. Or that … and … I should not get started.
          Seems as though the first 20-30 years of my life I was learning about the world and how it worked. Or, more like, learning the Kabuki script for how it worked. Since then I’ve been getting disillusioned again and again (i.e. educated) and reworking my understanding of context.
          And we still learn our history (past, current and future) from movies and cheesy television depictions of “the world.” The worst sources. But then most writings and art in the past was state propaganda, for thousands of years. And the “MSM” still takes “dictation,” so to speak, without question, from “high sources.” (I said I was going to stop, stopping now.) Thanks for my mini-rant.

          Liked by 1 person

        3. I took an undergrad class at Northwestern University several years ago. The teacher told us he was going to show American Beauty and I begged him not to do so saying that all of us could see the movie at any time on our own. We were attending the class to get the benefit of what the teacher and our classmates had to offer. None of the other students, far younger than I (as was the teacher), offered any support for my position.

          A movie can be valuable for learning, but reading material is unquestionably valuable for any class and would a teacher propose that the class sit and silently read the text for an entire session?

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  5. Point well taken about Orwell’s literate audience. That section of the population has decreased significantly in the last 50 years or so. I’d not read those comments by him before, and thank you for providing them. As always, he proves to be prescient, as well as admirably precise in his use of language and masterful with analysis.

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  6. Thank you W.J. for always leading us toward a better understanding, we surely will perish because of a lack of knowledge.
    I want to encourage all to explore patriotism and reach into the roots of that experience where we are all entwined and connected to one another searching for nourishment in the soil of creations brilliance. Unfortunately we are trying to draw our vitality from a toxic and polluted medium that is artificially fertilized and certainly a long long way from being certified organic. May I suggest a wonderful read from a very brave soul that has strengthened my garden and re-mineralized the earth beneath my feet. I have drawn nourishment from his infusion of written words through his articles and his first book. This particular gardener in our beautiful Edenic paradise goes by the name of Daniel A Sjursen; and he served our republic well as a US Army Major. He pours his heart out to us all in his new book titled so appropriately Patriotic Dissent. As with many veterans, his understanding of what patriotism consists of, was burnished in the blazes and fury of war’s combat and a burning passion for knowing through literature. He defines that mysterious word, patriotism, in a beautiful heart centered thought process; and it will fortify and energize your weariness, giving strength to keep on keeping on. What a blessing he is; a treasure that is rare in the land we inhabit. You too will be strengthened by his words; and we all need to let him know that we appreciate his effort to tread a road that is sadly strew with scorn and derision. We should be holding each other up; and Daniel is doing his best to hold up his end of this patriotic bargain we share together. He is a marvelous instructor.
    Tom, talked a bunch about Lindsey G’s judicial betrayal that was a grand opening to Mr. Astore’s words today at Tom Dispatch. Since the Supreme Court will be a topic in the coming weeks I feel I should leave you with a bit more nourishment. In 2003 I was involved as a shop steward, educating future stewards at our state training seminar. I came across this article and researched the topic of Judiciary ; but used the bones from this piece I read at Mother Jones as a foundation and expanded upon it to call our union to action; hoping they would take this topic back to their locals and energize their fellow union brothers and sisters into the needed action. Horrible concern is the best description I could come up with at that time for the sensations that flowed through my body’s circuitry . Today the feelings have matured into a blue lament for what has transpired.
    The article to find from your favorite search engine will be titled…
    The Making of Corporate Judiciary, it was written by Michael Scherer and appears at Mother Jones. It describes how big business quietly funded a judicial revolution and corrupted our nation’s independent court system so very effectively, that there hardly exists any fair expression of honesty from our federal benches. It is one of my all time favorite reads and today it just doesn’t speak, it hollers.
    In the 1970’s the wrecking ball on benefited labor began from the pen of the despicable justice Lewis Powell jr., and his ideology continued to be weaponized against any support still in place from the New Deal. This is a description of a master stroke of that poisoned piece of art. There are a few old names we are all familiar with now, that Michael S. introduces us to in the beginning of their corrupt careers , and isn’t it interesting the roles they play for us on today’s stage. From Bush’s Brain ( before he was junior’s brain); to Justice Robert’s before we were “blessed” with Citizens United. There is a society where this evil was spawned and the article introduced me to that Federalist Society that is supposed to be a pure unspoiled pool of clear jurisprudence. Well, miss Amy, our newest SCJ wanna be, swims in those waters because she has a membership to that club.
    Being an independent sort, that despises our culture of contest; I will just say that I could care less what party practices these dance steps, left foot or right, that’s not the issue. What this is about would be a lack of fairness, and a dishonest expression of who we represent ourselves to be before humanity, and the creator of it. Major Daniel has taught me that this is the furthest incarnation from what a citizen calling themselves a participating principled patriot could ever become. ✌🏼❤️🙏g

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  7. Interesting article. I like TomDispatch.com but often don’t make it to the end of the overlong articles. The worthwhile parts (mostly the theses) are usually found at the top, followed by interminable support and riffing.

    Some might appreciate a little insight into how history is told (as opposed to made). I like this definition (3rd of 3) of historiography at dictionary.com: “the narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria.” The suffix -graphy indicates “the study of,” so after a fashion, it’s a methodology being described. Constructing a history (note indirect article) means taking facts, events, dates, demographics, etc. and shaping them into a narrative (story), so there’s always an interpretive filter of selection, emphasis, and bias. It’s unavoidable. Good historians try to correct against their biases. I’m aware of several alternative histories that go against mainstream tellings of history. Trump’s patriotic history would be another, stating its bias up front with no apology.

    Just as with news and fake news and alternative news and conspiracy theories (and politics) that purport to narrate events from a more immediate perspective (closer in time) than the typical history book, one must determine for oneself how to synthesize the competing narratives and who among those promoting an interpretation of events has earned one’s attention. This blog (not my comment) has passed the test for me.

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  8. Whew, just caught up on original article and stream of comments to date! Again, I will strain to be concise (do I ever succeed, though?!). “My country, right or wrong.” Mark Twain severely criticized that figleaf for a nation’s atrocities. USA is indeed “my country,” having been born here and lived here all my life. But I don’t pretend to not see its warts. Trump only fairly recently felt a need to rile up his base anew with his claim that history books in some school districts (he may’ve said “most,” I’m not sure) teach an “anti-American view of history.” He attacked the late Howard Zinn by name as a leader of this foul trend. I believe The Donald threatened to seat a commission to look into this evil activity (headed by Bill Barr, perhaps?–“Sedition!” that’s what is!). There are always contentious deliberations on a district by district basis over what books are acceptable, etc. These are decided district by district and/or state by state. US Constitution gives POTUS no authority to intervene. Trump could only apply leverage by threatening to cut off Federal aid. In short, this is a ridiculous fantasy of his. I would like to see a single textbook in use anywhere in public “education,” at any level, in this country that tells the truth about the American War in Vietnam, to take a topic very important to me. If the events at My Lai are even mentioned, I imagine they’re passed over in one sentence. Behold Mr. Ken Burns and his 18-hour PBS series on Vietnam from a few years ago. He reportedly spent a decade, and $30 million of corporate donations, and “Gollllll-ee, Sgt. Carter!” he couldn’t come up with a single overriding TRUTH of that war!! Like the simple truth that it was utterly unjustified from the outset. It used to be that “History is written by the victors” but, USA being “the Exceptional Nation,” it is exempt from this trend. Though the US military colossus was defeated by People’s War in Southeast Asia, we’re still told the war was a noble effort, undertaken in good faith by well-intentioned people and could’ve been won if not for limp-wristed, yellow-bellied Members of Congress who lacked the will to fight on. Why, heck, a single platoon of soldiers as tough as Donald J. Trump, turned loose on Vietnamese soil, could’ve wrapped the whole affair up in under a week!! Right, Mr. Trump?

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