Accountability, History, Identity
By Robert ShetterlyAmericans Who Tell the Truth
I begin every talk I give with the creation story of the portrait project — telling the story of the propaganda, lies, fear, racism, and jingoism that the George W. Bush administration proclaimed to make the preemptive attack on Iraq seem necessary to the American people. I recite it over and over because public and legal accountability are absent, the truth has been erased from history. Neither the war makers nor the corporate media wants this truth told. The media shares responsibility for not having questioned the lies, choosing cheer leading for war instead.
Without accountability, textbooks can’t — or feel no obligation — to investigate. That’s not their responsibility. It would be impossible to tabulate the cost and horror perpetrated of this ongoing war. The most severe judgment, if any, made in the US press is that the war was a mistake. There is a profound difference between a mistake and a crime. One apologizes for a mistake. Nazi’s were hung for a similar crime. On Veterans’ Day this year (November 11, 2018) George and Laura Bush were awarded the Liberty Medal for their service to US veterans. In reaction to such an award one doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. But there is no doubt about the intention of the award — to further obscure the truth, to violate history. George Bush betrayed US soldiers by sending them to kill and die for imperialism. Neither this country nor its Constitution was ever in any danger from Iraqi aggression. [The award was presented to Bush by former Vice-President Joe Biden.]
Recently the Texas board of education decided to remove slavery from its school textbooks. When a story isn’t told, or its truth is altered, it slips from memory, slips from the accumulated identity people internalize by knowing their common history. As strong as the desire is for all of us to deny the worst we do, if we eradicate the worst, we have no idea who we are. All the social facts, customs, conditions, injustices, ramifications still deriving from that past are now free-floating, causeless. What, then, is the explanation for lynching, Jim Crow, segregation, racism if slavery never happened? Maybe, then, racism doesn’t exist? What, then, was the reason for the Civil War? Was it really states’ rights? Where did all these African Americans come from and why are they struggling socially? Must be their fault.
And why is Iraq a failed, decimated, chaotic state? Something in the DNA of Arabs? Muslims? Where did ISIS come from? What’s wrong with these people that they can’t embrace the democratic model so generously offered by the US? Why is their relationship to oil so unstable compared to the stability of their great neighbor Saudi Arabia? Don’t they know the US sacrificed a lot to rid Iraq of its evil dictator Saddam Hussein, so why don’t they pull themselves together. Out of gratitude.
If we don’t repeat real history, the fabric of history has its most important threads removed. We keep the threads that tell about symptoms, but discard the ones that explain cause. No one is guilty then; no one caused these things, no one need be held accountable. The symptoms must have spontaneously generated from the flaws of the victims.
By selectively removing the causal threads from the historical fabric, we enable a mythic story to be told. It’s like telling the story of purple without mentioning red and blue. Or telling the story of smoke, but denying fire. Like reporting a story of a multi-car pile up on the freeway, but neglecting the snowstorm. Who benefits from such selective telling? Perhaps, in the story about smoke, the arsonist gets away. The arsonist gets a medal for treating people for smoke inhalation? Institutions, think tanks — academic and political — gather enormous support so they might endlessly discourse on the phenomenon of fireless smoke. The fabric wears mighty thin.
A story without causation promotes innocence where there is guilt, makes history into a contest of competing advertisements that disguise and replace the truth. The search for identity becomes a trip to the costume shop or the plastic surgeon. America, like a celebrity, comes strutting down the street. People say, “Hmmm…. Did she have work done? Chin lifted? Teeth whitened? Birthmark removed? I hardly recognize her.”When the people are gone who remember the truth, the next generation will accept the makeover at face value.
It’s for this reason that Bryan Stevenson opened the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama this year. It tells the story of racism in the US from slavery to mass incarceration with a special section as a Lynching Memorial. How would the Texas School Board explain the purpose of this museum? Stevenson’s intent is not simply to say, These were real people, we need to remember them. It also says that these were real people who risked their lives to make the professed ideals of this country real for them (and all of us) and they were tortured and murdered for their trouble. They believed in the inherent dignity and rights of their people and were murdered by other people who insisted that dignity and rights belonged only to them. We all need to know their story or we don’t know who we are. Bryan Stevenson believes it’s only by telling this story that we finally escape being imprisoned by it, that we can transform it into a story of mutual healing because we tell the same story. Our story.
Slavery doesn’t go away if we deny it. The Iraq War doesn’t become a Noble Cause if we lie about it and give George Bush a medal. We sure as hell don’t know who we are if we refuse to admit the truth. And people who insist they do no wrong, will continue to commit atrocities and call them good.
I wonder if George and Laura really think they deserve the Liberty Medal? I mean, really? Will it be framed and hung in a special place in the Bush Presidential Library? I guess it should be. The core of the Bush presidency was a lie. The sheer enormity of the lie deserves a medal. Neither the law nor the corporate media nor religious institutions called them on it. And because they didn’t, the history books won’t. Artesian springs of misery will endlessly flow from that lie. Americans will continue to claim we are great because we are good. Trump will want to be as good as Bush so he might qualify for the next Liberty Medal. Trump’s lies, although multitudinous, have not yet killed as many people as Bush’s, so he’s got work to do. Meanwhile we are all imprisoned in the tomb of the Unknowable American. Well, not quite unknowable; other people in the world see through our mask of exceptionalism. That’s OK. We wear it to fool ourselves
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