Wednesday, September 24, 2014

History is not what you were taught in school

News Item: Hundreds of students walked out of classrooms around suburban Denver on Tuesday (9/23/2014) in protest over a conservative-led school board proposal to focus history education on topics that promote citizenship, patriotism and respect for authority, in a show of civil disobedience that the new standards would aim to downplay. The proposal from Julie Williams, part of the board's conservative majority, has not been voted on and was put on hold last week. 
Huffington Post Sept. 24, 2014

An open letter to Julie Williams of the Jefferson County School Board:

Dear Julie,

It appears that you are in need of a reality-based lesson in U.S. history. Having studied that history in every learning environment from grade school to graduate school, I offer this thumbnail sketch:

In the 15th and 16th centuries wealthy and powerful European kings wanted to increase both their wealth and power and so used conquest cloaked in religion to colonize newly-discovered land in what is now the Americas. Their agents established settlements and colonies in the Americas, exploiting the natural resources to send wealth back to Europe. After a time the colonists got tired of paying taxes to the European kings, or decided they wanted to be rulers themselves, or a combination of these, and they began separating from the European kingdoms. Some of the separations were bloody revolutions in which thousands of peasant farmers were persuaded to die for the wealthy landowners, thus securing independence. 

Once independent, the new American nations relied on slave labor to build their economies and on the eradication or violent subjugation of native peoples to gain access to the natural resources. This wasn’t just an American phenomenon, by the way; Europeans colonized great swaths of Africa, Australia, and Asia with the same practices, again often wrapped in the thin cloth of religion.

By the middle of the 19th century some Americans with consciences began to gain some power in the United States and at least ended slavery, although it took the deaths of hundreds of thousands more peasant farmers and urban poor to achieve this. The genocide against native people continued unabated until nearly the 20th century.

Having gained complete control of the continent, the European Americans finally began to build what would become the most powerful and wealthiest nation/state in history. Society in America, as everywhere else in the world, was composed of a few very wealthy people earning most of the money and owning almost everything and the vast majority of people earning and owning comparatively very little.

This process of building the United States of America required the destruction of hundreds of thousands of families and resulted in the needless deaths of hundreds of thousands of peaceful people through violence, starvation, and neglect.

The old European empires, finally stripped of most of their colonial assets, began to exhaust themselves, first in a grinding, muddy, nasty war and then in a worldwide conflagration. The process, which took up nearly half of the 20th century, was the bloodiest time in world history. Mechanization allowed the generals to magnify the horror of war almost beyond comprehension. The United States, using its indomitable wealth and power, emerged from this period the unchallenged world power, a position it enjoys to this day.

In our popular culture, this is all covered with a veneer of idealistic concepts like liberty, equality, and independence and infused with religious justification in order to persuade the vast working class to provide even greater wealth to the wealthiest few. The veneer is often painted in bright patriotic colors.

Unfortunately, Julie, the rest of the world has the ability most Americans lack; they can see beneath the veneer to the reality underneath. We are no better, and certainly no worse, than any other empire that has come before us. But we are far from being John Winthrop’s imagined “city upon a hill.” The only thing truly exceptional about us is the mythology of American Exceptionalism.

Only by teaching our children the real history of the United States can we begin to mold future citizens into people with consciences who will make sure that the horrors of our own history never occur again.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Lift a glass to bourbon this month

It’s understood among us ink-stain’d wretches that good things are to be celebrated whole-heartedly, and I believe nothing deserves celebration more than one of humankind’s greatest achievements, that being the fermentation, malting, and distillation of crop-based fluids. Here’s to beer, wine is fine, and whiskey is … well it is simply the nectar of the ancient gods. Civilization, the learned among us will say, is possible only with systematic agriculture. I agree, for only the routine planting, cultivation, and harvesting of grains, fruits, and vegetables can support the making of decent booze.

And so to the point: September is National Bourbon Heritage Month, and if you thought I was rowdy on Saint Patrick’s Day back in March, wait until you see me celebrate National Bourbon Heritage Month. One of my favorite hobbies is drowning ice cubes in amber liquid, and friend, I ain’t talkin’ about tea.

Some of the best writing I’ve ever done was composed under the influence of bourbon and, yes, there is a dollop within reach as I write this. My favorite pour is Jack Daniels which, while not marketed as a bourbon, is technically one of the better bourbons available today. My dream is to one day be able to afford a barrel of Jack Daniels Single Barrel. This is the finest liquid gold to ever come out of Lynchburg, TN. The distillery will select a premium 12-year-old barrel, bottle it, box it, and shrink-wrap the whole thing, along with the barrel it came out of, and ship it to you. You have to make arrangements through a local liquor store, and state and federal taxes make the price vary, but suffice it to say that if you flinch at dropping fifteen large on a damn fine whiskey, son, you’re out of your league here.

Yep, I’m out of my league here.

Still, some great writers have changed the face of American literature while sipping my go-to libation: Old Crow Kentucky bourbon. Legend has it that two of my heroes – Mark Twain and Ulysses Grant – did their best work while partaking of the dirty bird. President Abraham Lincoln (a liberal Democrat by today’s standards) famously told Grant’s critics to find out what bourbon Grant drank and he’d send a cask of it to each Union general.

While Grant wasn’t much of a wordsmith, his one great literary contribution – his memoir – is long on plain-spoken prose and completely lacking in self-justification. That he wrote with such clarity, precision, and frankness while choking to death on throat cancer is nothing short of amazing. I would point out that the cancer is generally blamed on his smoking, not on his drinking.

I do not smoke.

Twain, on the other hand, defined the turn-of-the-century American man of letters with a pen in one hand and a glass of bourbon in the other. I won’t say that Twain’s best work went on paper while he was imbibing, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did.

My son the chef insists that I imbibe only Colorado’s own Brekenridge, and while it is by far the second-finest bourbon I have ever tasted (nothing can touch Blanton’s, including my wallet) it is also a very expensive pour, and something I reserve for special occasions. Or, as I tell my wife, “Honey, any time I can drink Breck, that’s a special occasion.”

The worst bourbon I’ve ever tasted is something called Wyoming Whiskey, distilled in small batches in Kirby, WY. It is, like its namesake state, raw and unsophisticated, and best enjoyed disguised as Coca-Cola™.

Whatever your daily pour, whether it’s humble Old Crow, staunch Jim Beam or the ethereal kiss of caramel and hint of mint of Blanton’s Private Reserve, join me this month, won’t you? Let’s hoist two fingers of the good stuff in celebration of a truly all-American beverage. And the oftener, the better.