Bill Bigelow, Rethinking Columbus: Towards a True People’s History (via professorpinka)
The context of these words is even more chilling:
This past January, almost exactly 20 years after its publication, Tucson schools banned the book I co-edited with Bob Peterson, Rethinking Columbus. It was one of a number of books adopted by Tucson’s celebrated Mexican American Studies program—a program long targeted by conservative Arizona politicians.
The school district sought to crush the Mexican American Studies program; our book itself was not the target, it just got caught in the crushing. Nonetheless, Tucson’s—and Arizona’s—attack on Mexican American Studies and Rethinking Columbus shares a common root: the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
the attempt to silence stories that unsettle today’s unequal power arrangements.
“There are no problems we cannot solve together, and very few that we can solve alone” - LBJ
“If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich.” — JFK
“The best judge of whether or not a country is going to develop is how it treats its women” — Barack Obama
“We demand that big business give the people a square deal” — Teddy Roosevelt
It is a question that many ask me; a question I often ask myself — why have I spent so much of my life and devoted so much of my time to studying the Presidents of the United States and the Presidency itself? With all of the figures and events throughout all of the eras of history, what is it that always brings me back to this one political office that is a relatively new creation in the grand scheme of things? Why is it that I always move past the Kings, Queens, and Emperors; Pharaohs, Popes, and Prophets; Saints, Sinners, and great Soldiers, and end up focusing on the same 43 Americans?
Perhaps it is the fact that when we are children, Americans are led to believe that any of us can grow up to be President. It’s an inspirational tale, and one that seems to fade as we get older and more cynical. We see that the political system is not the open path that we were promised when we were in grade school. We see that money seems to drive political success and that the opportunity to become President is a reality only to those with famous names, famous fathers, and famously full bank accounts. As children, the Presidency is attainable to any of us, but the cynicism that comes along with maturity forces us to close those doors on ourselves and treat that promise as a myth like Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
Yet, the magic returns if we look more closely at history. If the Presidency was only open to those who were rich or those who had golden names the White House would feature more busts of Rockefellers, Astors, or Vanderbilts. We think of dynasties like the Kennedys or the Bushes and tend to paint their portraits with the tint of nepotism. Then we look closely and see that John F. Kennedy fought and nearly died for his country in World War II, but had to convince many Americans that he was loyal to the Constitution instead of the Pope simply because no other President had gone to the same church as his family. We see that George W. Bush — often portrayed as an intellectually incurious playboy who never earned anything on his own — earned degrees from Harvard and Yale and transformed himself from the restive black sheep of his family to a strictly disciplined machine who never lost an election for an executive office.
Even if you do argue that the Kennedys or the Bushes had an advantage due to their wealth or place in society, take a look at the other Presidents of the past half-century: Lyndon Johnson came from a dirt-poor family on the dusty banks of the Pedernales River in Texas and taught school at a one-room schoolhouse in a poverty-stricken town of Mexican-Americans; Richard Nixon’s family was ravaged by tuberculosis on their failing lemon farm in Southern California; Gerald Ford’s biological father was so abusive that his mother left him just two weeks after the future President’s birth; Jimmy Carter grew up on a peanut farm in rural Georgia; Ronald Reagan was born to an alcoholic shoe salesman in a rented apartment above a small-town Illinois bakery; Bill Clinton’s father died before he was born and he grew up in a household with an abusive stepfather; and Barack Obama was born in Hawaii to a white mother and a Kenyan father who he only met a handful of times. Cynicism blinds us to the truth: anyone really can grow up to be President.
See, the Presidency isn’t solely about ideals or politics — it’s about people. It’s about Americans. A President cannot succeed if he is only the President of his party; he must be the President of all the people, or else he fails. Once he repeats the 35 words in the Oath of Office, he becomes not only a head of state or a head of government — he becomes a symbol, both in his time and in history. The President isn’t referred to as the most powerful person in the world because it sounds cool; the President has the ability to immediately change the world not only by what he says, but by how he says it. No one has ever had that much power or influence because the President of the United States has developed into the most powerful individual on the planet at the same time that it has become easier to instantly communicate throughout the world.
And despite all of that, what really makes the President fascinating is the simple fact that it is just one person. Since George Washington was first inaugurated on April 30, 1789, there have only been 43 Americans who have experienced the immensity of the Presidency and faced it with only the same skills and tools that every other human uses for their jobs each day. These men are not superheroes, nor are they villains. They are responsible for great achievements and momentous accomplishments, but more often than not, they falter. Sometimes, they fail us because the challenges are too difficult to overcome. Sometimes, they make honest mistakes. Sometimes, they make dishonest choices. They make us proud and they disappoint us.
We often make the mistake of downplaying the ability of humanity. We excuse ourselves or defend our failures by noting that we “are only human” — as if our status as the most advanced being to ever live is somehow not enough; as if we succeed by accident in spite of ourselves rather than because of our unique capabilities. I do not see humanity as a fragility, yet I believe we frequently overlook the fact that our Presidents are, first and foremost, people. They have families and weaknesses to balance out and sometimes overtake their strengths. They are fathers and sons and husbands and brothers and friends. They are placed at the helm of a living, breathing, untamed nation and we want them to guide us through whatever storms we may face. We want them to help make our lives easier, but we tend to forget that they are living their lives, as well. They are people. People charged with a great task that only their fellow Presidents — the fellow members of what Bob Greene calls “the most exclusive fraternity in the history of the world” — can truly fathom.
We look at our Presidents — and all of our political leaders, really — and we see people who we put in office to work miracles. They know what they are getting into when they run for President, but their sacrifices are often overlooked. When they do not triumph, we are merciless in our condemnation. They understand this and they accept this, but we don’t thank them nearly enough. We expect so much out of them because we have placed them in such a high position. Yes, it is a position that they asked to be entrusted with, but we often have unrealistic expectations and require immediate satisfaction.
As Robert Ardrey famously wrote in African Genesis, “We were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”
It is easy — too easy — to denounce our Presidents, especially if the little letter next to their name identifies them as belonging to a political party that is opposite to ours. I am guilty of it. You are guilty of it. That will never change. And on this day — Presidents Day — it is easy to recognize the Presidents who are the reason behind Presidents Day being observed in February, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. What we should try to do on this day, however, is to appreciate all of our Presidents. All 43 men who made the ultimate sacrifice that comes from putting your entire life through the trial that is a Presidential campaign. No President has ever sworn to uphold the Constitution and entered into office with bad intentions. Not a single Commander-in-Chief moves into the White House so that he could leave the United States worse off than when he assumed office. Their service may not please everybody. Their service may not please anybody. But it is service. It is the fulfillment of a duty entrusted to few Americans and rarely appreciated by enough Americans.
In American and Americans, John Steinbeck described the unusual dynamic between the President and the American people in one of the most perfect paragraphs ever written on the subject:
“The President must be greater than anyone else, but not better than anyone else. We subject him and his family to close and constant scrutiny and denounce them for things that we ourselves do every day. A Presidential slip of the tongue, a slight error in judgment — social, political, or ethical — can raise a storm of protest. We give the President more work than a man can do, more responsibility than a man should take, more pressure than a man can bear. We abuse him often and rarely praise him. We wear him out, use him up, eat him up. And with all this, Americans have a love for the President that goes beyond loyalty or party nationality; he is ours, and we exercise the right to destroy him.”
We can — and WILL — focus on the failures of our Presidents every other day. It is one of the beautiful aspects of our nation — the freedom to be ugly towards others. I don’t write that facetiously and I don’t mean to come across as overly righteous. I am as guilty, if not more, as any other critic or cynical historian. But it is Presidents Day and while I am constantly reading and writing about the Presidents, I rarely take the opportunity to offer my gratitude and appreciation for their service, whether they are Democrats, Republicans, Federalists, or Whigs.
So, today I say thank you to a Virginian with regal bearing who led his nation through a risky rebellion against the world’s most powerful empire and turned down the title of King in favor of simply becoming “Citizen”. I thank a portly and stubborn man from Massachusetts whose integrity set a standard for honesty in government. I thank the dreamer in Monticello whose words gave beauty to the the normally bloody work of revolution. I thank the diminutive thinker from Virginia whose small stature belied the fact that his Constitution gave his country a foundation, a backbone. I thank his Tidewater neighbor who nearly died fighting for independence and set forth the doctrine which forever established the United States as a global power.
I thank John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson — political enemies, but Americans who entered into the service of their country as teenagers and died while still providing guidance as old men. I thank Martin Van Buren for ensuring that there was an art to American politics. I thank William Henry Harrison whose brief Presidency overshadowed decades of military service on the frontier. I thank John Tyler for his decisive succession upon Harrison’s death, which created a blueprint to answer an otherwise murky Constitutional question. I thank James K. Polk for honesty and an unparalleled work ethic. I thank Zachary Taylor for selflessly attempting to block the evils of slavery before his untimely death. I thank Millard Fillmore for his advocacy of literacy and his work to calm the sectional storms. I thank Franklin Pierce for his attention to duty in the face of horrific personal tragedy. I thank James Buchanan for fifty years of service to his country, often overseas.
Appreciation for Abraham Lincoln is not hard to find, and I’m not going out on a limb for thanking him for preserving the Union that I live in today. I thank Andrew Johnson for his unmatched loyalty — the only Southern Senator to remain committed to the Union. I thank General Grant for the tenacity and fearlessness in fighting the Civil War. I thank Rutherford B. Hayes for an honest Presidency and a decorated military career. I thank James Garfield for his energy and grieve for what might have been if not for an assassin’s bullet. I thank Chester Arthur for transforming himself into a reformer. I thank Grover Cleveland for never giving up. I thank Benjamin Harrison for proudly representing his country and his family of patriots. I thank William McKinley for his generosity and kindness. I thank Theodore Roosevelt for being an inspiration in so many ways.
On this Presidents Day, I thank William Howard Taft for his sense of justice. I thank Woodrow Wilson for his patience. I thank Warren G. Harding for his eloquence and openness. I thank Calvin Coolidge for his conservatism. I thank Herbert Hoover for his ingenuity and enterprise. I thank Franklin D. Roosevelt for helping to save the world from genuine evil. I thank Harry Truman for his straightforward leadership. I thank General Eisenhower for making sure our grandfathers were given everything they needed. I thank John F. Kennedy for opening the New Frontier.
I thank Lyndon B. Johnson for freeing American from bondage — not just African-Americans, but ALL Americans. I thank Richard Nixon for a full life of service that didn’t begin and end with Watergate. I thank Gerald Ford for helping us heal. I thank Jimmy Carter for his humanitarianism. I thank Ronald Reagan for communicating in a way that made us feel safe. I thank George H.W. Bush for over 50 years of honest, underrated service. I thank Bill Clinton for stability and growth. I thank George W. Bush for the moment with the bullhorn on the rubble. I thank Barack Obama for once again giving me hope and making me believe.
Yes, I thank all of the Presidents. Good and bad, effective and ineffective, legendary and unknown, Democrat and Republican and Federalist and Whig. In the future they will make us proud and they will disappoint us, but I’ll continue stocking my shelves with books that they write and which are written about them. I’ll continue hoping for the perfect President to appear. I’ll continue writing about them, complaining about them, supporting them, and trying to understand them. And through it all, I hope there are days like Presidents Day where I stop myself and try to remember to appreciate them. I hope that I don’t just wait until those sad days when we gather as a nation to bury them. If I can do anything with my writings, I hope it will be to do more than simply educate readers on what these Presidents did or did not accomplish. I hope that I can somehow illuminate who they were as people because that is where the true greatness is in our leaders. And, really, when push comes to shove, that is the appeal of any history. Once you sift through the bold-faced names, italicized quotes, romantic locations, important dates, and memorable events you find — at the heart of all history — stories about people.
Happy Presidents Day.
American settlers also used guns and protected themselves and their family’s from Indian attacks, claim jumpers, and much more. If they had outlawed guns because Billy the Kid killed some people where would we be today? Still living on the west coast, ruled by England?
I love this. The conclusion is kind of ehhhh, but what IF Americans couldn’t use guns?