Thursday, April 13, 2017

Reckoning with History

Sculpture at Dachau by Nandor Glid.
What is the connection between patriotism and history?   We visited detailed exhibits about Nazi Germany in Nuremberg and at the Dachau concentration camp outside Munich and learned about what happened at Heidelberg University in the 1920s and 30s at the University's museum.  Everywhere you turn, it seems, the Germans are dealing with the Nazi past. According to one US visitor to Germany (on a random website I found), the Germans cope with the Nazi past by simply rejecting patriotism and nationalism.

I am reminded of what Howard Zinn says in the first chapter of his influential People's History of the United States, a book often assigned in Exeter history courses:
We must not accept the memory of states as our own.  Nations are not communities and never have been. 
Just before I traveled to Germany I had read Richard Rorty's Achieving Our Country.  Many people on the left, perhaps including Zinn, he writes,
find pride in American citizenship impossible, and vigorous participation in electoral politics pointless.  They associate American patriotism with an endorsement of atrocities: the importation of African slaves, the slaughter of Native Americans, the rape of ancient forests, and the Vietnam War. Many of them think of national pride as appropriate only for chauvinists (7).
At the exit from Glid's memorial sculpture.
On the other side, are the American exceptionalists, dominated by conservatives who seem unwilling to confront America's dark past. They often generate controversies like the ones in which high school history textbooks and a cabinet secretary referred to slaves as "workers" or "immigrants."  Rorty calls for a patriotism of the left, which focuses on our commendable ideals and the struggle to achieve them while also acknowledging the ways in which we have failed, in the past, to live up to those ideals.

And speaking of acknowledging America's dark past, check out this video describing a museum under construction in Alabama by the Bryan Stevenson's Equal Justice Initiative to consider America's historical legacy of slavery, segregation, and racial violence.

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