An open letter to John Green about American history

John Green in Crash Course
John Green in Crash Course (screen cap from YouTube)

Mr. Green! Mr. Green! Aren’t you stepping into a political minefield by doing your next Crash Course on American history? Don’t you realize that you are not only alienating viewers who aren’t American, you’re alienating viewers who don’t share your political views? Won’t that hurt sales of The Fault in Our Stars?

The people John Green might offend with his take on American history are too busy banning his books to watch Crash Course anyway. But the fact that our history has become so politically contentious is dangerous not just to him, but to all Americans. To explain, I’ll share a story about Me from My Past.

My views of America were shaped by the Boy Scouts and my Midwestern Republican mom. This was before Fox News, so she wasn’t one of those “liberals are evil and must be destroyed” Republicans that we have today. Still, she grew up during World War II and developed a deep patriotism and gratitude about being American. In turn, she instilled in me an unquestioning love for America the Beautiful.

Then in high school, I took a history class called “Dissent and Protest.” My teacher, Alan Benson, covered aspects of American history that weren’t so spacious-skyed and amber-waved. Since I took this class in the aftermath of Vietnam and Watergate, he had plenty to cover. At first, I was angry. “How dare he!” welled up inside of me. I let it pass, and I listened. I wound up agreeing with a lot of what he said. I was able to reconcile the image of America The Beautiful that my mom gave me with the America The Flawed But Still Beautiful that I got from Mr. Benson and my friends.

I think we as a culture have adopted the same perspective. For example, we can’t ignore the cruelty of slavery and racism, but we can look to Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, and Barack Obama as examples of how we learned and grew as a country. Conservatives have a similar perspective. They can be angry about Roe v. Wade and gun control and still love America. To us, the United States is less Superman and more Batman — flawed, vulnerable, and morally ambiguous, but still a good guy.

And it’s important that we see ourselves as the good guy. History is the story we tell about ourselves. It is our way of telling ourselves who we are, why we became who we are, and what matters to us. We always want to be the hero of our own story, even if we have acted less than heroic at times. When we overcome our failings, we become even more heroic in our eyes. This is why we are more comfortable with, and even prefer, the image of America The Flawed But Still Beautiful.

But what happens when we don’t see ourselves as the hero of our own story? We can’t see ourselves as a villain — our psyches can’t handle it. Instead, we may feel the need to deny, to lie, or to see ourselves as the victim. When we see ourselves in these ways, anything we do, no matter how horrible, is justified. That’s what sociopaths do.

Yet, that’s what some people want to do with history, like Texas wants to do with its textbooks. You don’t like the facts, so you change the story to fit the self-image you want. It may make you feel exceptional, but it is a false exceptionalism. It’s like the alcoholic who believes he doesn’t have a problem, until he finds himself handcuffed on a curb trying to explain he only had a few beers, and the accident was the fault of the single mother who is being wheeled into the coroner’s van.

As Americans, we can’t lie about the past. We can’t lie about smallpox blankets, the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, or nuclear tests that caused tens of thousands of cancer deaths. We can’t ignore Henry Ford’s antisemitism, or John F. Kennedy’s philandering. We can’t, and we shouldn’t. To do so would turn us into a sociopathic nation, blinded to our faults until they overcome and destroy us.

History is made by people. Because people are weak, flawed, and conflicted, so are the nations we create. But we are also capable of redemption and renewal. Confronting the ugliness in our national history can help us look at and overcome the ugliness in our own lives. Facing the truth is the only way we can become exceptional. So, I look forward to John Green’s Crash Course American History with this in mind.