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Last week’s Russian invasion of Ukraine brought to mind Bill O’Reilly’s 2017 interview with President Donald Trump. When the Fox News host inquired how the President could respect “Vladimir Putin — a known killer,” Trump angrily snapped: “We’ve got lots of killers...What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”Unlike many Americans, I was not shocked by Trump’s take on our national shortcomings. By then, I was well-aware of his bombast. More importantly, I had just retired from forty-plus years of teaching United States history and had often addressed unbecoming aspects of our national story.While such irreverence might cost me a job in today’s Tennessee, it reflected the times in which I came of age — personally and professionally. Throughout the 1970s and 80s, revisionist historians challenged sugar-coated accounts of our past that I learned as a school boy and that the likes of Walt Disney, John Wayne, and countless historically-ignorant politicians reinforced. While the more radical of those views have been qualified, few respectable historians have abandoned this overall more honest and inclusive take on our past.
Where Mr. Trump and I immediately parted company was how one should respond to these unpleasant insights into our national story. As befits his confrontational personality, his record as a businessman and in office, and disdain for expertise, Mr. Trump shares Mr. Putin’s cynical view that the long history of “man’s inhumanity to man” justifies continuation of the same.Cynicism implies “concern for only one’s self-interest and disregard for appropriate and acceptable standards to achieve those ends.” None of us are immune to this very human impulse. Indeed, I often “joke” that my greatest personal goal is to live a long life with mind and eyes as wide open as possible and die without ever succumbing to cynicism. The verdict on that aspiration is, of course, still out. No day goes by that cynicism’s snare does not tempt me.Our social institutions are similarly vulnerable. The suggestion that the “ends justify the means” appeals to all political persuasions and has repeatedly hijacked the prophetic, ethical messages of the world’s many religions. Hence politicians and the Church share reputations for hypocrisy. As the extreme form of an essential human attribute, cynicism is devious — making the path from healthy realism to skepticism to a metastasizing cynicism slippery and treacherous.Like our current pandemic, cynicism is highly contagious with lethal societal consequences — particularly for free and open societies that require trust and respect among a diverse citizenry. Frightened, gullible, intellectually lazy citizens and deceitful, opportunistic leaders are all that is necessary for cynicism to fester and corrupt human communities, and we have plenty of both in 2022. The algorithms that inform today’s social media and 24/7 news disguise this cynicism — making it even more lethal and all of us even more vulnerable.
Can we counter cynicism? Yes, even if we will never eradicate it. This brings us back to how my response to our nation’s past failings differs from President Trump’s. Considering his frank acknowledgement of our national shortcomings to Mr. O’Reilly, I find Mr. Trump’s leadership of those who demand a sanitized version of our national past particularly cynical. Our Tennessee state legislature’s response to Critical Race Theory and their decision to fund in our schools only approved versions of our nation’s history is only one example of this dangerous cynicism.Perhaps there are teachers somewhere who teach “hatred for the US Constitution, our Founding Fathers’ wisdom, our voting system, [and] our whole way of life.” But I never met one. And those who defame educators with such sweeping generalizations pose a greater threat to our free society than we who they seek to muzzle. Those who proclaim, “America Love it or leave it” fail to acknowledge that undiagnosed ills can never be ameliorated. Pretending our human failings never existed is intellectually dishonest and not a sign of love.When I taught students about American actions that many now consider questionable, I always strove to restore those behaviors to their proper historical contexts. For example, when students asked how our forebears could have allowed slavery to exist or why racism persists, I pointed out that almost every non-slave in Ante-Bellum American society benefitted — financially and psychologically — from “the peculiar institution.” Indeed, by modern standards, most Whites who sympathized with Blacks (including Abraham Lincoln) were racist. Ironically, such ugly sentiments persist in part because we are a free society.We should not judge the past by our norms. Nor should we allow past shortcomings to lower our inherited aspirations. In that spirit, I teach American history as a “story of becoming” — 240-plus years of striving to attain the admirable but elusive goals set forth in the preambles to our Declaration of Independence and Constitution.Should you question my love for our country or my commitment to “a more perfect union,” I challenge you to uncover such in any of my columns in this spaceYou might also consult with the more than 4,000 students I was privileged to teach. Perhaps they will also tell you that they are better equipped to counter cynicism than had they been fed an ill-informed, misleading version of our past that would have insulted their intelligence and integrity.Mark Banker is a retired teacher and active historian. He can be reached at [email protected]
Mark Banker is a retired teacher and active historian. He can be reached at [email protected]
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