As a father of a second grader, I have taken a keen interest in my son's educational experience. Sure there's the basic reading, writing, and arithmetic but this is a point where social studies and history begin to emerge in the curriculum. So far this school year, he has learned about the lives of many of the great men and women of American history George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington Carver, Amelia Earhart, Martin Luther King, and Davy Crockett (my choice) just to name a few. As to be expected, these iconic figures are built up to mythic stature only to be torn down at a later date. T.S. Eliot summed it up wisely, "Humankind cannot bear too much reality," and that is especially true of second graders. And it's not as if the tearing down process is necessarily a bad thing.
Often we learn that these vaunted historical figures were not gods but flesh and bone like the rest of us whose lives consisted of vices and poor judgment. Take the life of civil rights pioneer Martin Luther King for example. Can anyone imagine the civil rights progress made in the 60s and 70s without his steadfastness and moral authority? It is simply unfathomable. But John Meroney in an article in the November 2011 issue of The Atlantic gives credence to a viewpoint not widely held by the public or mainstream historians. Meroney delves into the strange tumultuous triangular relationship between MLK, J. Edgar Hoover, and the Kennedy brothers. The general consensus has been that Hoover as head of the FBI ordered wiretaps on King to discredit him. But the wiretaps were ordered by attorney general Robert Kennedy as a means to keep track of Kings communist associations (no matter how innocuous) which if were known would greatly derail civil rights progress. In the course of collecting intelligence on possible communist ties, evidence of lurid sexual activity was discovered. Had this information gotten out to the general public, it could have proven far more damaging to the civil rights cause than any potential communist ties. Upon hearing of the tapes, Jackie Kennedy called King a "terrible man and a phony" somehow ignoring her own husbands sexual escapades which weren't on anybody's radar screen at that time. Meroney chastises the portrayal of Hoover in Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar as some kind of voyeur as he listens to the tapes of Kings debauchery. Hoover, often characterized as a closeted gay who was a public homophobe, racist, and corrupt is seen in a much better historical light according to Meroney's analysis. Not that Hoover didn't have his own issues, but Meroney points to a KGB disinformation campaign that later helped feed into the negative public perceptions of Hoover. He also points out the many times Hoover ordered FBI protection for King as he traveled the south. Facts like these wont be found in J. Edgar. But rehabilitating reviled public figures can only go so far. Conservative firebrand Ann Coulter's attempt to defend communist witch hunter Joe McCarthy in her book Treason didn't attract anyone outside of her small circle of friends. And while one may point out some admirable qualities about the despised, it has been said that even Hitler loved his dogs. There is the revision of history and then there is the out and out fabrication of it.
But films are where students are learning history. Who wants to read a boring history book? And anyway who writes those textbooks and what is their agenda? But even the highly regarded film Lincoln contained some glaring historical inaccuracies. At least Oliver Stone in his film JFK admitted that what was produced was being offered up as a counter myth to the myth of the Warren Report. As far as my son goes, I did have to explain fantasy versus reality when he asked me about the film Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.
What if some of the seminal events in American history didn't happen as reported or not reported at all? Did Paul Revere even take that fateful horseback ride that Henry Wadsworth Longfellow so eloquently wrote about in his poem Paul Revere's Ride. Author Richard Shenkman in his book I Love Paul Revere Whether He Rode Or Not questions the traditional historical view of Revere's exploits. It has been shown that at the very least Revere wasn't able to complete his journey and he most assuredly did not utter the words the British are coming. What if the Wright brothers were not the first in flight? What kind of historical chaos would spawn from that assertion? But the highly regarded Jane's All the Worlds Aircraft has laid out a compelling thesis that Gustave Whitehead beat out the Wright brothers for that distinction by two years. A German immigrant, Whitehead commandeered his airplane called the Condor above the streets of Bridgeport, Connecticut on August 14th, 1901. According to a recent CBS news story, this has ruffled some feathers at the Smithsonian Institute. It seems there's a lot at stake in keeping the Wright brothers in the historical spotlight.
As my son grows older, he will learn that what he was taught in second grade was a sanitized version of American history. But once those great historic figures are torn down, they can be seen as they really are: flawed, sometimes debased, fallen saints but still great. I love Dr.King, Paul Revere, Davy Crockett, and yes Billy the Kid who wasn't even a part of this discussion. J. Edgar Hoover? I'm not quite there yet but certainly see him in a better light due to diligent research by writers like John Meroney. Ah...the shifting sands of history.