Thursday, June 03, 2010

Sermon: "Patriotism & Memory" (Delivered 5-30-10)

It happens in English classes around our country. Administrators or parents try to ban certain books, removing them from libraries, curricula, and reading lists. It happens in English classes around the country and it happens here. In 2005 a pro-censorship group calling itself “Citizens for Literary Standards in Schools” tried to get the Blue Valley schools to remove dozens of books from classrooms and reading lists. Looking over their list of the books they targeted for removal, I couldn’t help but notice that they were particularly offended by the thought of children reading books written by white women (Barbara Kingsolver, Dorothy Alison), by men of color (Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Richard Wright, Rudolfo Anaya) and especially, especially by women of color. The list of books they hoped to have removed included books by Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou, Julia Alvarez, Sandra Cisneros, and Leslie Silko.

It happens in health classes around our country. Administrators or legislators adopt the use of abstinence only sexuality education, despite it being commonly known that these resources contain incorrect and untruthful information, intentional omissions, and a thinly veiled, conservative Christian ideological bent. (In speaking of abstinence, I cannot help but mention last week’s resignation of Indiana congressman Mark Souder. Souder, a married man, father, grandfather, and evangelical Christian, was such a proponent of abstinence education that his congressional website included a video of him being interviewed about the importance of abstinence education. The creepy interview was conducted by none other than his mistress, a staff member of his with whom he was having an extramarital affair.) It happens in health classes around the country and it happens here. The Metropolitan Organization for Responsible Sex Education has been a critic of the abstinence-based approach used by the Shawnee Mission School District and other school districts in our metro area.

It happens in biology classes around our country. State and local school boards in places like Tennessee, and Georgia, and Pennsylvania attempt to undermine or eliminate the teaching of evolution by putting stickers on biology textbooks or by insisting that intelligent design be taught. It happens in biology classes around our country and we know it has happened here in Kansas. With every election of the Kansas school board we run the risk of the balance shifting and Topeka turning into a circus once again.

And, most recently, these educational battles are being waged around the teaching of history and social studies in the state of Texas. In January and March of this year, the fifteen member Texas School Board changed hundreds of state standards for the teaching of history and social studies. The members of the school board made these changes without the assistance of qualified historians, economists, or even high school history teachers. Consider a few of their bizarre rulings:
They removed Thomas Jefferson from a list of political thinkers who have impacted political revolutions from the 1700s to the present day. They added Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin and also removed the term “Enlightenment ideas” from the standards.

They created standards that emphasized the Christian beliefs of the founding fathers and omitted the standard for teaching the constitutional separation of church and state.

They censored the word “capitalism” from the standards because they claimed its critics had given it a bad name. The new standards mandated that capitalism be referred to as “free enterprise.”

They omitted “justice” and “responsibility for the common good” from a list of characteristics of good citizenship taught to first to third graders. By a narrow vote they failed to also remove “equality” as a characteristic of good citizenship.

They ordered that students learn about Communist infiltration of the U.S. government during the Cold War. One school board member claimed that Senator Joseph McCarthy has been vindicated by historians.

The school board proceeded to conduct its own communist witch hunt. At one point the members voted to ban a book for third graders entitled Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, claiming its author, Bill Martin, was a communist. It turns out that a different Bill Martin, not the children’s author, once wrote a book about Marxism.

The board removed Delores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, from a list of historical figures who exemplified good citizenship. Members of the school board claimed that Huerta did not belong on the list because she was a socialist. However, the board kept Helen Keller and W.E.B. DuBois on the list of acceptable historical figures who demonstrated good citizenship because none of the members of the board were aware that Keller was a dedicated socialist or that DuBois was a committed member of the Communist Party.

The removal of Huerta was part of a larger purge of Latinos and African-Americans from the history books. [It is not a coincidence that the group Citizens for Literary Standards targeted minority authors in the Blue Valley School District.] In Texas, a world history standard on leaders who resisted political oppression dropped the teaching of Oscar Romero. One member of the school board argued that Romero did not rise to the same level of importance as Gandhi and Nelson Mandela because he didn’t have a movie made about him. In fact, the movie Romero starring Raul Julia was released in 1989.

Artist Santa Barraza was removed from a list of Texan artists studied in the seventh grade because one of her paintings depicts a woman with naked breasts. Barraza’s paintings, by the way, were admired and frequently displayed in the governor’s mansion when George W. Bush was the governor. I would have to think that when the artistic leanings of George W. Bush are deemed too libertine and salacious for students, it says something about the school board.

Under the revised standards students are now to learn that Upton Sinclair, Susan B. Anthony, and W.E.B. DuBois were anti-American because their writings presented the United States in a negative light.

Under the new standards students will study Confederate President Jefferson Davis’ inaugural address alongside the inaugural addresses of Abraham Lincoln.

The school board attempted to water down the teaching of the civil rights movement and considered mandating that students learn that one of the unintended negative outcomes of the civil rights movement was, quote, “unreasonable expectations for equal outcomes.” One board member argued in support of teaching that women and minorities owe thanks to men and “the majority” for giving them their rights. Students are also supposed to learn about the “unintended negative consequences” of the Great Society, affirmative action, and Title IX.
And, if any of this leaves you shaking your head, I should mention that I have intentionally decided not to mention many of their craziest and stupidest revisions. I haven’t given you the worst of worst. Not even close to it.

So, what does all of this mean? In the short term, not much. It looks like Texas is going to do the same thing as Kansas and vote the bums out. It seems likely that a new, more moderate school board will undo all of these revised standards. There was a fear that if these standards stood it would pollute the teaching of history in the rest of the country. All Texas school systems use the same textbooks and for a long time textbook companies tended to write all of their textbooks to the Texas standards. (This is the only reason that people who didn’t grow up in Texas still remember the Alamo; textbook companies stood to lose a lot of money if they didn’t make the Alamo a big deal.) However, new publishing technology and the use of the internet means that Texas no longer has the absolute stranglehold it once held over the teaching of social studies in the United States.

So, why then have I spent the entire first half of this sermon talking about the not-so-excellent adventures of the Texas school board? The reason is memory.

History is about memory. It has to do with remembering events, people, movements, objects, cultures, moments, and eras from the past and then interpreting their meaning. And, history has to do with allowing those interpretations and explanations and understandings to inform our lives today in the place we find ourselves in.

Stop for a second and consider what it means to censor Latino historical figures from the history books, especially in a state like Texas whose school-age children are “majority minority.” Stop for a second and consider what it means for a unit on contemporary trends in popular culture to include country music but exclude hip-hop. Stop for a second and consider what it means to say that it is overly negative to teach about the influence of Ida Wells, an African-American journalist who called the nation’s attention to the practice of lynching, or author Upton Sinclair, who called the nation’s attention to the plight of the working class and the rampant corruption present in industry.

Maybe the Texas school board will adopt a sane set of standards. Or, maybe they will continue to make up a history that fits their own dogmas, their own agenda. But, this worries me even if it has absolutely no bearing on how history is taught in Kansas. I can’t subscribe to a position that says, “Do what you will but do not tread on me.” What if every state wrote its own version of history? We’d have a Texas version and a Kansas version and a Missouri version and a New York version. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a value in learning local history. But, if every state’s school board behaved like the one in Texas, our memory, our understanding of our past, and our understanding of ourselves would be fractured and arbitrary.

As Unitarian Universalists, one of the hallmarks of our religious tradition is the speaking of the truth. One of the things that tend to define us as a group is that we are committed to the speaking of truth, even when that truth is unpopular, even when speaking the truth is costly. Those who come to Unitarian Universalism from other faith traditions don’t come to us so much because they don’t believe the teachings of that other faith tradition. No, rather they come because they feel that continuing to attend that other church is an act of dishonesty on some level. (We’re the only Unitarian Universalist church in Johnson County, but there are dozens and dozens of churches with larger numbers of members who would claim a Unitarian Universalist theology. We just get the really honest ones.)

This commitment to truth is so important to us that it is embodied in one of the key sections of my covenant with the congregation. That covenantal agreement declares that the pulpit shall be free and untrammeled and that I am ethically bound to speak the truth as I see it without fear or favor. The corollary to the freedom of the pulpit is the freedom of the pew, the idea that you are not supposed to listen to me and accept what I say just because I say it. Instead, it is your responsibility to pass what I say through the fire of your own thought and to decide for yourselves whether what I say is true.

The Declaration of Independence contains those famous words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” The Declaration of Independence is such an honest document. Most of us think of this text and remember phrases such as “inalienable rights” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But, the bulk of the declaration is a list of grievances, complaints, and indictments against the British government, a declaration of the truth of the situation.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day. It is a solemn day set aside for the remembrance of members of the armed forces who died in service to their country. Using the freedom of the pulpit with which I have been entrusted, let me say that Memorial Day has always posed a bit of a challenge for me. What hasn’t been a challenge is having a sense of reverence and respect for the dead whom we honor. What has been challenging is when I feel forced to fit the hundreds of thousands of men and women we remember into some kind of grand, universal narrative.

The truth is that our nation has fought all kinds of wars. They have been revolutionary, a war fought to secure our own sovereignty. They have been civil, a war fought to preserve the union. We have fought wars against the native peoples in our own country. Some of our wars have been imperialist, a word that the Texas school board has banned, opting instead for the word, “expansionist.” Some of our wars have been economic, fought to control routes of trade. Our wars have been fought both for reasons of ideology and they have been based on cold, pragmatic calculations. Wars have fought to support allies and to forge allegiances.

Jon Krakauer’s newest book, Where Men Win Glory, tells the story of the life and death of Pat Tillman. Unless you know a member of the military personally who has died in Iraq or Afghanistan, Pat Tillman’s name is probably the first name that comes to your mind if you are asked to name a casualty. If you’ve never heard of Pat Tillman, let me sketch out his story. He was a star college football player and then a star in the NFL for the Arizona Cardinals. Following the 2001 football season he turned down a $3.6 million NFL contract and enlisted in the Army and became an Army ranger. He served in Iraq and then in Afghanistan.

On April 22, 2004, he died in Afghanistan. The top echelons of the United States military orchestrated a cover-up, fabricating the details of his death and lying to his family about the circumstances of his death. Tillman was killed by “friendly fire” and many believe that his death was not accidental but intentional on the part of his fellow soldiers. What is true is that both before and after his death, Tillman was used as a propaganda tool. Conservatives claimed him as an exemplar of conservative values. Liberals portrayed him as a dumb jock. The truth is far more complicated. He was known to read religious texts including the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He described himself as not religious. He was intrigued by the political thought of Noam Chomsky. He was an outspoken opponent of the war in Iraq, calling it “illegal as hell.” The truth is he doesn’t fit into a simple narrative.

The story of Tillman is not the point, though. The point is about truth. The greatest way to do a disservice to memory, the greatest way to do a disservice to history, is to lie about it. The greatest way to violate the integrity of the lives of members of the military is to lie about their lives and their deaths. The greatest way to violate the history of our nation is to lie about it. We can and must live with the truth because we can and must learn from the truth, because the truth allows us to actually know ourselves. There is nothing more patriotic than truth. Without truth, memory cannot become sacred.