Thursday, February 17, 2011

Revolutionary questions

About two weeks ago, Pip dug out from the far end of our bookshelf two children’s biographies that had belonged to me as a kid and had somehow managed to survive all my subsequent moves and book purges. One recounted the life of Thomas Jefferson. The other was about Benjamin Franklin. Re-reading these books for the first time in about two decades, while popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were toppling dictatorial governments in the background, made me very aware of the almost magical ease with which the transition from revolution to stable democratic governance occurs in America’s founding mythology. This awareness made me question whether this mythology will ultimately do my children a disservice. Will it lead them to expect at an intuitive level that any dramatic break from established patterns will resolve itself neatly and in a way that is universally good? And, as such, will this expectation lead them towards a naive embrace of revolutionary change at the expense of careful and programmatic efforts (such as happened with the Bush-Rumsfeld strategy for creating a democratic Iraq)? My own experience makes me think that this is not a totally ridiculous question.


First let me explain why I use the term ‘mythology’ instead of ‘history.’ Usually the term ‘mythology’ is used to describe the stories of gods and heroes told in times or places where the explanations of science do not predominate. What is sometimes lost in the retelling of the tales of Hercules or Prometheus or Beowulf is how these stories functioned in their time to explain how the world came to be what it is and why certain practices or institutions or values were important. Myths are mechanisms for transmitting cultural knowledge across generations. The ‘truth’ of a myth lies not in the factuality of the characters and places and dates it contains but in the themes and relations that play out within it.

When mythology is understood in this way, the only difference between it and history is the historian’s claim that the events described “really happened.” At her core the historian is a story-teller. She takes details gleaned from various sources and spins a narrative thread of power, destiny, hubris or luck that pulls those details together and makes them comprehensible. It is this thread that is the critical element of the knowledge or meaning we seek to gain from history. While I am not suggesting that the facts are irrelevant, a focus on the factuality of a historian’s account can often distract our attention from the work that the account’s narrative thread performs. Mythology brings no such distraction.

The power of this narrative thread is even more significant when it comes to presenting history to children. We talk to kids about basic facts and important people in order to give them a foundational understanding of a historical event. Not only do these necessary simplifications demand a strong narrative to make them understandable (and interesting), they also blur facts that may complicate or confuse that narrative. As a result of this blurring, historical figures in children’s books are usually not real people. Instead they represent clearly defined values or ideas that support the direction of the narrative. In many respects, this makes stories told about, for example, the Founding Fathers very close in form to ones told about the gods and goddesses of Mt. Olympus.

I spent some time as a child idolizing America’s Founding Fathers. This was in part because I have a genealogical relationship with one and in part because I lived in southern Virginia where, if you want to, you can feel a strong residue of the American Revolution and the early years of the United States all over the place. I certainly did. I learned early on that the state motto, “Sic Semper Tyrannis” or “thus always to tyrants,” was adopted as a direct challenge to King George III and the British Parliament. I was very proud that Virginians wrote the Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson), commanded the Continental Army (George Washington), and crafted the Bill of Rights (James Madison). I enjoyed visiting places like Monticello (the home of Thomas Jefferson), Mt. Vernon (the home of George Washington), Red Hill (the home of Patrick Henry), Colonial Williamsburg, and Yorktown because they gave me the sense that the place where I lived was critically important to the very beginnings of my country’s existence.

All this exposure to America’s founding mythology made me particularly open to consuming any story that included the possibility of a democratic revolution. I have eagerly watched the fall of the Berlin Wall, the events of Tiananmen Square, Yeltsin’s rise in Russia, protests in Iran, independence in East Timor, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the democracy protests in Georgia and Ukraine, and the recent events in Tunisia and Egypt with an almost naïve sense that history is being made in the most positive of ways. While I know my history well enough to understand that the reality of these situations is complex and difficult, the mythological narrative of the American Revolution that I learned as a child still inclines me to believe in the idea that these events will ultimately enable people to gain their “inalienable rights” to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”


The power of this mythology is also such that the critical documents of America’s founding – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights – sit in my mind in much the same way as they do in the National Archives: side by side. These are some of the narrative high points of America’s founding myth and their cohesion within this myth make it difficult to remember that the Declaration and the Constitution were separated by 11 years and the Bill of Rights was added another four years after that. I often forget that the Constitution was at least a second try at forming a functional government and, even after its ratification, was by no means a guaranteed success. These complications don’t fit into the narrative thread that I originally learned.

But what if they did? What would it mean if the National Archives displayed the Articles of Confederation in between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? What would it mean if we added a person like Daniel Shays – the Revolutionary War veteran and debt-ridden farmer from Massachusetts whose rebellion laid bare the impotence of the national government under the Articles of Confederation – to the pantheon of the Founding Fathers? What would it mean if those books Pip pulled from the shelf mentioned the uncertainty, turmoil, and failure of the United States in the first years after the revolution? Would he react differently than I do to stories of revolution? Would he sense a little less magical destiny and a little more struggle and trial in the core of his American identity?

I don’t know, but I want to give something like this a try. The practices that this kind of struggle demands – experimentation, negotiation, perseverance – represent qualities I want my children to embrace in both their politics and their personal lives. It will serve them much better than the aura of predestined greatness that pervades the current version of America’s founding mythology.

Interested in stories about our family or just some thoughts about being a parent in this day and age?

Take a look at my blog at

There's a new post every Thursday.

No comments: