Monday, August 05, 2013

National Infallibility

I ran into Howard downtown as I was heading toward the Farmers Market.  He was unloading some homemade folding wooden frames from the back of his old pickup.  They were seven or eight feet tall, and the tops were covered with black plastic bags.  “Can I give you a hand?” I asked.  “These don’t look like tomatoes.  What are you selling?”

“Hey, thanks Ace,” he said.  “And no, they’re not tomatoes and I’m not selling anything.  I’m giving information away.  Our group is putting up an exhibit on the mall.  If you could help carry these over to the fountain area, I’d appreciate it.  A couple of trips should do it.”

“What’s the exhibit about?” I asked, as I grabbed the first one, which he had leaned against a nearby wall.

“I’m a member of the Freedom Legion,” he said.  “This week is the anniversary of the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--Tuesday the 6th for Hiroshima, Friday the 9th for Nagasaki.  We’re putting up an educational exhibit to mark the anniversary.”

“Freedom Legion,”  I said.  “I’m not familiar with the group.  It sounds a little....”

“Yeah, I know,” he sighed, shaking his head.  “The people who are all for shooting other people, or stuffing them in prison, or just shutting them up have already taken the good names.  They’ve pretty much cornered the market on the ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ brands.  That kind of irked us.  We thought we’d try to reclaim ‘freedom’ for people who actually believe in some freedoms besides free markets and the freedom to throw your weight around.”

“How does that tie into your exhibit?” I wanted to know.  “Didn’t the Smithsonian run into some kind of controversy over a Hiroshima/Nagasaki exhibit a few years back?”

He looked at me.  “You remember that, huh?” he said.  “Your memory’s pretty good.  It dates back further than you think--1995, for the 50th anniversary of the bombings.  There was a real stink about it at the time.  We see our exhibit as an exercise in genuine freedom--the freedom to say all the things that the Smithsonian planned to say and then didn’t.  It was embarrassing--and kind of frightening--at how quickly they caved in and self-censored when the American Legion and some congress members started screaming about their original plan for the exhibit.”

“I don’t remember the details, Howie.  What did the Smithsonian do?”

  “Well, they’d intended to lay out a range of perspectives on whether the bombing was justified or not, whether Japan was already on the verge of surrender or not, whether racism or the desire to make a point to the Soviet Union figured in the decision to use the bomb, whether killing all those women and children was justified or not--that kind of thing.  When the stalwarts of the military-industrial complex amped up the criticism, the Smithsonian cut out all of the historically-accurate background and removed all the real-life doubts, qualms, ambiguities, and disagreements you might expect from a decision to incinerate two major cities.” 

“So you’re saying they surrendered to a single vision of history demanded by  people who believed in ‘my-country-right-or-wrong’?”

“Oh, unconditionally.  But I think you used a misleading label, Ace,” he said.  “The people who bullied the historians didn’t take a ‘my-country-right-or-wrong’ approach.  Theirs was ‘my-country’s-never-wrong’.”  It came out of an ironclad view of our national infallibility.  They simply couldn’t tolerate any version of history that wasn’t an American self-love fest.”

“That’s pretty harsh, Howie.”

“Not as harsh as killing maybe a quarter of a million civilians by blowing them up, burning them, or dooming them to a lingering death via radiation sickness.  Not as harsh as watching kids die of leukemia.  Not as harsh as refusing to even look back and learn something from all that death and suffering.”

“I don’t know if I want to listen to that kind of stuff, Howie.”

“There you go, Ace.  That’s the attitude I’m talking about.”

“No offense, Howie, but I’d like it better if you were selling tomatoes.”

“Maybe you’d prefer squash.”

© Tony Russell, 2013

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