September 11, 2012

Michelle Obama on "doing the impossible"

It's almost impossible for politicians to speak honestly about US history. At the Democratic convention, Michelle Obama proved to be no exception.

Here's what she said in her speech in Charlotte September 4:So today, when the challenges we face start to seem overwhelming–or even impossible–let us never forget that doing the impossible is the history of this's who we are as's how this country was built.

And if our parents and grandparents could toil and struggle for us...if they could raise beams of steel to the sky, send a man to the moon, and connect the world with the touch of a button...then surely we can keep on sacrificing and building for our own kids and grandkids.

And if so many brave men and women could wear our country's uniform and sacrifice their lives for our most fundamental rights...then surely we can do our part as citizens of this great democracy to exercise those rights...surely, we can get to the polls and make our voices heard on Election Day.

If farmers and blacksmiths could win independence from an empire...if immigrants could leave behind everything they knew for a better life on our shores...if women could be dragged to jail for seeking the vote...if a generation could defeat a depression, and define greatness for all time...if a young preacher could lift us to the mountaintop with his righteous dream...and if proud Americans can be who they are and boldly stand at the altar with who they love...then surely, surely we can give everyone in this country a fair chance at that great American Dream.
In response I tweeted:Michelle: "Doing the impossible is ... how this country was built." Yeah, I didn't think we could kill an entire race, but we almost did it.This led to a Facebook discussion with several people, starting with:

That was the biggest challenge by far, right? Clearing the land of those pesky Indians who thought they owned everything?My thought as well...the dangers of propaganda, especially if coming from "your" party....We so want to believe the pretty words! Have to keep seeing through it ALL...It's hard to speak about American history without 1) ignoring slavery and genocide or 2) mentioning them explicitly. Most politicians choose the second route, which is understandable. But still, we should note what they're omitting.A wound can't heal without being seen and aired....I'll forever be an adherent of speaking truth to power...Really, what exactly was so impossible? Building the Panama Canal? The atomic bomb? The moon landing? Other than a few engineering feats like these, I don't see what was so hard about colonizing America. Other than getting rid of the Indians, that is.

Sure, the Civil War was brutal, but that was a self-inflicted wound. Many countries ended slavery a few decades before we did, and without a civil war. So the only "impossible" thing we did was turn a simple rational decision into a bloody irrational one.I agree with all the above, but on the other side we managed to temporarily stem the tide of corporate takeover from we the people from 1912 to 1920. To allow way more people to vote, and to sorta follow the constitution. I'd hate to go back to 1890.But Michelle Obama's standard is "doing the impossible." Many countries have passed antitrust laws, expanded the vote, etc. These things are not only possible, they're relatively commonplace. They don't make America unique or even special.

No one's talking about going back to the past (except Republicans). I'm merely questioning Michelle's American exceptionalism. A lot of countries are ahead of us in health, education, and social welfare. We haven't even matched them, much less done "the impossible."

Indeed, matching them under our present government would qualify as "the impossible."

More analysis

To be fair, Obama gave examples of what she meant. She didn't say anything about killing Indians. Indeed, we could take her mention of skyscraper builders as a subtle nod to the Mohawk ironworkers who raised the Empire State Building.

But looking at her examples more closely, they prove my point. Obama jumped from the Revolutionary War to the waves of immigration that peaked in 1907. She basically skipped the first century of US history. Which isn't surprising because it involved the conquest and theft of foreign territory and the enslavement and eradication of entire races.

What else did she say? Let's see:

  • Soldiers sacrificing for their country? Soldiers in every country do that.

  • Women fighting for the right to vote? Women in most countries have done that, and the US was behind many of its peers in letting women vote.

  • Martin Luther King demanding civil rights? King modeled himself on Jesus Christ and Mohandas Gandhi, neither of whom are American.

  • The Internet? The US launched it, but many countries give people greater bandwidth and access.

  • Gay marriage? Again, the US lags behind many of its peers in legalizing it.

  • Sure, the US has done well in these areas. But its achievements are hardly unique or even special. It has not "done the impossible" except in a few engineering cases such as putting a man on the moon.

    All this is really a side issue, of course. When people like Mitt Romney talk about "building America," they're not talking about the last century of incremental progress. They're talking about the first few centuries of "taming the wilderness." In other words, the bold actions of Columbus, the Pilgrims, the Founding Fathers, and the pioneers. These are the people most Americans think of when they think of the "builders."

    Fact is that the "builders" built America mainly by eliminating the Indians and taking their land. It was perhaps the national issue for the first century of our existence. Indeed, our Department of War existed primarily to conduct war against the Indians.

    So it's a distortion of history to claim America-building leapt from declaring independence to ensuring civil rights. Our history didn't happen without a lot of crimes against humanity. And that makes us a lot like the other genocidal thugs around the world.

    For more on American myth-making, see Geico Ad Features Columbus in Speedboat and No Holocaust Museum for Indians.

    Below:  Nation-building, American style.

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