Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Truth or Consequences

with 3 comments

It’s almost 4:30 in the afternoon, and on most days I wouldn’t be here trying to write a blog post. 

I get up very early in the morning.  On the best of days, my 4:30 is like your 9:30.  I’ve been up and running around for hours, done a full day’s work on both writing and teaching, and I’m ready to just fall over and let myself be incoherent.

And this has been far from the best of days.  I have what is probably the tail end of my traditional beginning of the term cold–and that really is good news, because sometimes it’s a beginning of the term pneumonia, and I hate that stuff–

Anyway, I’m worn out and incoherent from the off.

And, on top of that, when I came back from teaching my single class, we had a two-hour-long power outage, which occassioned a lot of everybody running around being petrified that They Were About To Do It Again.

If you don’t know what I mean, try googling “CT” “power outage” and “October snowstorm.”

But here I am, and the reason for that is that I’ve been hoping to be able to get on and say something for a couple of days.

Cheryl mentioned “national myths,” and I want to protest–to the extent that we use the word “myth” to mean “not true,” I do NOT want to teach schoolchildren “national myths.”

I suppose that that is one way you could go about doing what I was talking about, but it’s not the best way, and it’s not necessary.

It’s perfectly possible to tell the national story without mythologizing it–in either direction.

We don’t have to tell stories about George Washington and the Cherry Tree to teach the significance of the 4th of July–any  more than we have to go into paroxysms of silliness about racist old white male slaveholders who cared about nothing but securing their own property to note that slavery was wrong and a bone of contention from the beginning.

I don’t know what it is about human beings, but most of us seem to think that a story about nastiness and badness (preferably with an unhappy ending) is ‘true-er” than a story about people doing good and noble things.

We also want our historical figures to have personal lives that match the moral purity of the cardboard-cut-out characters in very bad children’s books. 

That’s why, I think, so many of us, when we do find somebody we admire, do all we can to just blot out any part of that person’s life that would make us uncomfortable or upset.

Welcome to the endlessly delusional cult of Che Guevera.

In the real world, of course, people are never so all of one piece.  Great men are seldom good ones.  Good men are seldom great ones.  And then you get a figure like Robert Carter, whose decades of twisting confusion do not make the stuff of Hollywood movies, even though in the end he was the single one of the Founding Fathers who actually, truly did the right thing about slavery.

If only he’d had the sense to do it with his head held high and his eyes blazing, and not a single moment of indecision or confusion or fear.

If only he’d been a cartoon superhero, and not…just like us.

I don’t want to tell lies to schoolchildren, I want to tell them the truth, and I want to tell all of them the same truth.

Somebody once asked W.H. Auden what children should learn in school, and he said, “It doesn’t matter, as long as they all learn the same things.”

I think it does matter, but I get the point about the same things–we build a common identity by building common experiences.

There was a lot more of that in the Fifties and early Sixites than there is now, and not just in the content of the schoolwork being presented in tens of thousands of public schools. 

We had only three television channels, so we all watched the same programs.  Our high schools had football and cheerleaders and proms.  We could meet up on college campuses or draftee-populated boot camps hundreds of miles from home and still have things to talk about.

It feels to me like there is less and less of that lately.  We’ve become alien to each other in ways more fundamental than I’m used to. 

Half the reality shows I come across on television–you REALLY have to keep the remote out of my hand after 8 pm–seem to be “laugh at the stupid hillbilly” shows.

Our political discourse sounds like two alien races from two different planets that hate each other on sight.

It’s getting virtually impossible to find people to do things like run library bake sales or coach Little League or man the tables at the charity store.

We’re either all Americans together, or we’re a lot of little interest groups only out for ourselves.

And I know there are people who say that’s what we’ve always been–

But they might be a bit surprised when the reality finally gets here.

I have no idea if I’ve made any sense at all.

Written by janeh

January 31st, 2012 at 9:52 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Truth or Consequences'

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  1. The myths-are-powerful people I read years ago thought they were true; ways of stating truths that couldn’t be expressed literally, if I recall correctly. That’s another usage.

    I think you’ve a better bet settling for partly-true myths with partly-heroic figures and focusing on the true and heroic bits, particularly if you’re talking about children’s stories. Lies we tell children, Pratchett calls them. Putting only them in removes the personal frailties of th heros; adding the frailties tends to be taken as an indication that there is no heroism and are no heros, so why bother doing anything more than muddle along? Like other things, as we grow up we learn – if we are taught – that there are many kinds of heroism, and that it’s probably more heroic to be an ordinary bumbling human who manages to do something that’s right even if it is unpleasant or dangerous than it is to be someone who’s always right and never does anything wrong.

    Some people are happily anticipating the end of nationalism when we WON’T all be Americans or Canadians or Australians or whatever. Looking around the world today, I think they’re insane since with the help of self-determination, nationalism and its baby cousin, ethnic loyalty, seems stronger than ever. (I’m using ‘nationalism’ here as a kind of shortcut for identity and loyalty to something bigger than oneself, not merely the political form.) And I’ve never been quite sure what sort of society these people think will arrive in the wake of nationalism, or how it will be formed. What myths will animate it, in other words – because something will rush in to fill the gap where we used to identify ourselfs as members of a nation, and that nation as one whose members mostly thought X and tried to do Y.


    1 Feb 12 at 8:06 am

  2. “We’re either all Americans together, or we’re a lot of little interest groups only out for ourselves.
    And I know there are people who say that’s what we’ve always been–
    But they might be a bit surprised when the reality finally gets here.”

    Ask them yourself when the time comes. I don’t think it will be very long now–five, maybe ten years to the crisis requiring a national will and sense of identity which no longer exists. My guess? It won’t be their fault–not because their actions didn’t lead there, but because it wasn’t what they intended. What they intended was impossible.

    And yes, it DOES matter what that common story is. You can tell about the bloody footprints on the road to Trenton, and you can can tell about the Creeks who fought alongside Andrew Jackson being driven from their homes afterward. Both are true. Tell only the first type, and you’ve sanitized history to the point of lying–but you’ve set a high bar for sacrifice in the national cause. Tell only the second type and you’ve told two lies–the second being that there is no common cause worthy of sacrifice. That sort of common story is getting easier to find, and it will lead to exactly the result you specified.

    And now a word in favor of George Wasington. Yes, he was a slaveholder. Yes, Robert Carter freed all his slaves. But Washington never sold a person without that person’s consent–which he never got. He lived well within an admitedly good income, and in his will freed his slaves on his wife’s death, his savings establishing a considerable trust fund used to set the former slaves up in trades, and to provide for those who could not make a living for themselves. Robert Carter may be more appealing, but if a thousand tidewater planters had followed Washington’s example, it would have broken slavery in the United States in a generation.

    And that is not generally taught either. I suspect it’s because while we don’t mind completely fictional heroes, real-life men who live in accordance with their moral codes make a lot of our teachers very uncomfortable.

    (As for Carter being the only one to “do the right thing” I’d also like to know what more John Adams Ben Franklin or Alexander Hamilton might have done? Not every founding father was slaveholder to start with.)

    And I’m not going back to three TV channels. I remember those three channels.


    1 Feb 12 at 4:53 pm

  3. A little (okay, more than a little) late, but I’ve got a new job and my time for internet diversions is reduced.


    ” “well, if they Chinese workers are more flexible, better trained and more self disciplined than the American workers are, the Chinese workers deserve to win.”

    Really Jane? That’s what you took from the whole article?

    If it were only about productivity, Americans would do fine. If it were only about base pay — then how is it Germany can pay *its* workers on the order of $40/hr, provide free health care?

    And remain internationally competitive?

    I have to get ready for work, so here’s a slide show, the first few slide are of particular interest:



    2 Feb 12 at 9:47 am

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