Wednesday, May 26, 2010

15 Patriotism

Today, our blog will move away from Fast Food Nation in particular to reflect on the whole semester in general. This reflection is in two parts: questions of patriotism, and then questions of theory.

Many of you have been posting reflections about patriotism all semester. The Marlboro Man is patriotic, you have written, and the people who promote Turner's frontier myth do so out of patriotism. I have no idea what the word "patriotic" means to you in these sentences. Really, I have no idea whether the fictional Marlboro Man character is a good citizen or not. The word "patriotism" seems like a full word, but it can be quite empty.

Some Orange-County public-school teachers, in the 1960s, were attacked for teaching unpatriotic, liberal versions of American history. The people who organized these attacks went on to organize the new right that dominated late-twentieth-century American politics, helping to elect Nixon and then Reagan. Your county is actually surprisingly powerful in national politics, and surprisingly significant -- but that is a story for another time. Here, I am interested in what this meant for Orange-County history classes. 

In response to those early-60s attacks, I think that many of the history classes in your local school system retreated to a very narrow version of patriotism, limiting themselves to relaying only the positive aspects of our past. You probably learned about slavery, but not about coerced labor in California's missions, or about sweatshops. Overall in my CSUF classes, a surprising number of students have never heard of Japanese internment. I think this is a shame, partly because I believe, with George Santayana, that those who don't remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

For some people coming out of the Orange-County public school system, the fuller perspectives offered in an American Studies class can be shocking. Some people call this field "Un-American Studies." So I want to tell you as clearly as I can that I feel a patriotic love of America. To explain this, I am going to dare to disagree with Shakespeare: I don't think love is blind.

Lust is blind. Immature love is blind. But I believe that real love, mature love, is a love that knows the loved one's faults and still loves.

So for me, knowing America's faults does not keep me from loving America. For me, actually, the faults are part of what I love. I love that this country has the freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry that we can honestly explore our past. I even love that Americans, in the past, have not always acted on our highest ideals of "we believe all men are created equal." Our failure to consistently live up to that pledge means that our ideals are high ideals, worth striving for. It means that our ancestors are humans, not Gods. They are worth learning from. Their struggles with diversity, with environmental issues, with limited perspectives, with economics, and more, may help illuminate our own struggles with similar issues.

As young children, you may have thought your parents were perfect. As adolescents, you probably discovered that your parents have faults. As adults, now, many of you will reach the maturity to still love your parents, faults and all. That kind of maturity to love your imperfect parents is the same kind of maturity that I mean when I talk about mature love of country. That's the kind of patriotism that I believe American Studies promotes, at its best.

So what else have we learned this semester, beyond a new twist on traditional patriotism?

Your midsemester evaluation asked what you think you will remember a year from now. Many answered that you will forget most names and dates. A few of your classmates will remember Disneyland, because they have a personal connection, or rodeo queens because they found that reading fascinating. By now, some will remember a distaste for fast food. One person wrote that what he/she learned was "time management," because this class was burdensomely challenging -- but that same person added, "Also seeing something from another's perspective, comsidering the variety of questions and respsonses." That is the deepest thing I want you to remember.

I expect you to forget names and dates -- but I hope you will remember that smart college history goes far deeper than memorizing names and dates. Here's what one of you wrote you will remember:
Race is made up, there are a lot of myths, conquest more than frontier, images are deeper than they look. Especially that my ideas are okay as long as they are proved and analyzed.
That's an excellent synopsis of my goals for this class. I hope that's what many of you will take with you, and eventually teach to others, too. You are now all historians.

We focused on the frontier so that you could see how history works, following the historical debate about the frontier, using varieties of evidence and a multitude of perspectives. I hope you understand that American Studies often focuses on many other issues, not just the frontier. You can take dozens of other American Studies classes and never hear Frederick Jackson Turner's name again. I hope that some of you will indeed be inspired to take other American Studies courses at CSUF.

Yet whether you take other formal courses or not, I hope you will keep using the kind of thinking you have learned in this course: asking questions, assessing evidence, looking from multiple perspectives, honoring diversity, and experiencing what might be a new kind of patriotism.

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