For Columbus Day: History Wars in Other Places

Columbus Day Parade, NYC 2010. Courtesy of Headquarters Marine Corps, Division of Public Affairs, New York City Branch. (CC BY 2.0)

Today we get to celebrate the most problematic of the American federal holidays.

Columbus Day is the day when, depending on your point of view, we either celebrate the opening of a glorious new chapter in the history of Western civilization, or celebrate the slaughter, enslavement, and dispossession of millions of people by self-righteous empires. Or maybe both. Or, and this is really more likely, we celebrate the chance to stay home from work. (Some of us also celebrate Italian-American immigration, but that’s really a regional thing.)

Naturally, this turns my mind toward the patriotic uses of history. And that, in turn, reminds me how much “American exceptionalism,” “apologizing for America,” “blaming America first,” and related tropes have come up during this election cycle. You’d almost think we were back in the heady days of 1994, to hear what certain politicians have said during the 2012 presidential campaign.

In this environment, you really can’t say much of anything critical about American history without opening yourself to the charge that you hate the United States. I’m doing fairly well; as far as I know, I’ve gone more than three weeks without being accused of hating my country.

The most obvious problem with the notion that critics of American national behavior are “blaming America first” is that they’re not actually doing anything unique to the United States or (in most cases) singling it out as worse than other countries. In fact, they’re not even doing anything unusual. There’s no reason to think this kind of historical criticism is somehow aimed only at America, except insofar as American citizens are responsible for the decisions of their own government, not other governments.

People in powerful countries all over the world are critical of what their own nations have done in the past, and nationalists all over the world accuse them of seditious tendencies. It’s downright boring. People critical of America’s behavior are accused of hating America; people critical of China’s behavior are accused of hating China; people critical of Russia’s behavior are accused of hating Russia; people critical of South Africa’s behavior are accused of hating South Africa.

So I was delighted to stumble across a four-part radio special from Australia — “History Under Siege: Battles Over the Past” — which describes how these debates are going in four different Countries That Are Not America. The program begins with Japan, moves on to Argentina, continues with Australia and its “history wars,” and finishes up in France. It’s worth a listen.

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