TV & Radio
The danger of trying to put a 'positive' face on the past
- Jonathan Zimmerman
Sunday, May 7, 2006
San Francisco Chronicle
In 1950, a U.S. Senate committee released a report on the "employment of homosexuals and other sex perverts" in the federal government. The report warned that gays "lack the emotional stability of normal persons," so they could be easily blackmailed by Communist spies. Newspapers claimed that 10,000 gays had infiltrated federal agencies, posing what Sen. Joseph McCarthy called a "homosexual menace" to national security.
So if California passes a bill requiring instruction about gays in history, will students hear about this sordid chapter of our past? I doubt it. That's because the bill's supporters -- like so many of us -- regard history as therapy. They want the gay kids to feel good.
Listen to the bill's author, Sen. Sheila Kuehl, D-Santa Monica, one of the Legislature's six openly gay lawmakers: "Teaching materials mostly contain negative or adverse views of us, and that's when they mention us at all." By requiring schools to teach about the "role and contributions" of homosexuals, Kuehl argues, her bill will help gay kids overcome the stigmas that surround them.
Maybe so. But it will also distort the past, exaggerating the exploits of heroic gays and neglecting the continued discrimination against them. Most of all, this approach will allow all of us -- straights as well as gays -- to evade the complex and painful history that we share.
It has happened before. In the 1920s, when anti-immigrant sentiment was at its zenith, a wide range of ethnic groups fought to insert their own heroes into America's grand national narrative.
Polish Americans demanded that textbooks include Thaddeus Kosciusko, the Polish nobleman who aided our revolution; Jewish-Americans pressed for Haym Solomon, a merchant who helped finance it; and blacks celebrated Crispus Attucks, the first American to die in it.
Oh, yes, and German Americans wanted textbooks to include Molly Pitcher. Why? You guessed it: she was German! Her birth name, some said, was Maria Ludwig; and eventually, thanks to German pressure, the textbooks said so as well.
Germans also claimed Abraham Lincoln as one of their own, providing an easy target for satirists in the press. "The German origin of Honest Abe clashes with the Italian theory (of) L'Inchiostro, meaning 'the ink,' '' one newspaper teased. "The Chinese theory proves direct descent from the famous Lin family. Abraham Llyncollyn was Welsh beyond a doubt, and the origin of Abraham Linsky-Cohen needs no further explanation."
Worst of all, these ethnic groups helped block a more critical, complicated reading of the Revolution itself. During these same years, historians began to question the longstanding myth of freedom-loving continentals against tyrannical Redcoats. Roughly a third of Americans fought on the British side, we discovered, while many people in England supported the Revolutionary cause. Even more, the leaders of America's freedom struggle often practiced -- and defended -- the enslavement of African Americans.
But very little of this complexity entered the textbooks, thanks to the combined efforts of our newly multicultural patriots. If we rejected the glorious tale of America's birth, ethnic activists said, we would diminish ethnic contributions to it. Each group "could have its heroes sung," as one editorialist observed, but no group could question the underlying melody that united them all.
Fast-forward to the 1960s and 1970s, when blacks and Latinos inserted a whole new set of great men -- and even a few great women -- into our history texts. Crispus Attucks took a bit part, or disappeared altogether; leading roles went to Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.
Even as textbooks included these new activists, however, the books gave little sense of what the heroes were acting against: white racism.
A real examination of racism would interfere with the optimistic themes that still permeated the texts, as reflected in their sunny titles: "Quest for Liberty," "Rise of the American Nation," and so on. Nor did the books discuss the less-than-heroic involvement of Africans in the slave trade, or of Latinos in the genocide of Native Americans. After all, the purpose was to make the kids feel "positive" about themselves. And only "positive" information would do the trick.
So if the bill about gay history passes, we can expect another round of heroes -- this time, of course, gay heroes -- to enter the books.
But that won't help us address the really tough questions about American history, writ large. Why have gays suffered so much discrimination, during the McCarthy era and into the present? What does that say about our nation -- about its conceptions of love, of family, and of "freedom" itself?
Nor can we expect any criticism of homosexuals: once heroes enter the pantheon, they become as sacred as all of the other gods. So the texts might discuss how gays bravely fought AIDS during its early years, promoting education and safe sex. But we'll never hear the unlovely coda to this happy tale: in the era of protease inhibitors and the Internet, some gays have reverted to the destructive practices that spread the disease in the first place. It happens to be true, but it isn't nice. Forget about it.
So say it loud, and say it proud: Walt Whitman! James Baldwin! Harvey Milk! But please, don't say anything bad about these gay Americans -- or about anyone, really. Remember, the first goal here is to feel good. The truth comes second.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century," scheduled to be published in the fall by Harvard University Press.
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