Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pride Overcometh

Sorry, there is nothing on earth that screams "America"
louder than Ben Franklin and Mark Twain having
a discussion on the torch of the Statue of Liberty
at daybreak.
A couple weeks ago I got the chance to wave to Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. They waved back from the stage as the curtain dropped.

Jess leaned in to me. "I didn't realize that this is what history is to you," she said, with a bit of derision in her voice.

I understand my wife's derision. Disney World is not the first place that comes to mind when most people think of powerful and meaningful history. But for me, it is where I began to find the magic in history.

I say magic because that's what history is. History is that moment you can wave to Benjamin Franklin and he waves back. It's that moment you can watch Mark Twain softly knock ashes off of his cigar.

When I was a kid, that was embedded in my psyche as the ultimate expression of what history can do. And it's fundamentally what I try to do through my study and interpretation of history. I don't build animatronic figures or construct massive theme parks. But I do try to breathe life into the past for fleeting moments. Those moments are too often so fleeting, tiny whiffs of what the past might have been like. But when the stutter of the authentic experience, the reality of yesterday, seeps through, it's magic. Like waving to Ben and Mark.

And it's not all antiseptic. Ben and Mark, their pneumatic actuators wheezing as they loll in a rocking chair or walk into Jefferson's loft, have a few tricks up their sleeves for the interpreter. The American Adventure raises some very potent moments of introspection for the American interpreter.

At an early moment in the show, Mark Twain quips to Franklin, "Well, listen to the proud elder statesman."

And Franklin replies with, as you'd expect, an apropos aphorism: "Mr. Twain, pride is one of our national passions. Even those who overcome it, are proud of their humility."

My gears have been turning since I heard that line again. I must have heard that line in that very theatre at least a half-dozen times in my life, at different stages and ages. But it still gets me. The complexity of that moment in the script, when an imagineer chose those words for that pseudo-Franklin, is amazingly powerful to me.

Americans are proud. It is almost the single most powerful defining element of our national character. Americans are a proud people.

But what does pride mean? And what does pride do? Can it poison the story, tilt it? Does pride cause us to trivialize history?

Maybe. Perhaps our pride clouds our collective perceptions of the past. Americans have good ideas, make good decisions, craft good inventions. Might our pride make us less likely to investigate the ideas of our forebears? Might pride make us less likely to doubt the wisdom of the decisions our ancestors made? Might that pride mean we embrace outdated innovation simply because it's our own ingenuity? Does pride mean we are inherently biased from the start?

It has always boggled my mind that many of the same Americans who embrace and display the Confederate flag proudly and (sometimes) defiantly also underline their stalwart patriotism and pride in the Stars and Stripes. Perhaps even love of the Confederate Flag, a symbol of the very antithesis of the United States, is borne of American pride. We are proud of the decisions of Americans. And it was, afterall, an American decision to attempt to dismantle America itself.

The Confederate flag argument is a facile one, I know, but it points to the large bias we don't always address. Can Americans ever interpret America, or is exceptionalism always going to haunt our forays into meaning-making because it is embedded in our cultural DNA. Interpretation is about multiple perspectives playing off of one another. But when you have a horse in the race, can you really be an honest broker of all of those opinions?

Denying women the right to vote:
another of the sins of the past we must
rededicate ourselves as too good to repeat.
But maybe there is hope. Remember bionic-Franklin's Americans who are, "proud of their humility." What if we can harness our belief in exceptionalism and use it as our very window of investigation?

Ultimately, there is a major difference between these two types of pride. One, the facile pride of blind flag waving, is simply asserting that America is so good, we could never have made a mistake.

But imagine churning the pride into something else. Imagine a pride that says to each American, in their heat, that America is so good that we must, as a society, acknowledge, publicize and atone for every moment we've made mistakes in the past. We can shift pride from a blind reaction to a powerful moment for healing and adventuring into a better future.

It's the reason we should never forget crimes like American slavery or Indian removals. Each generation must relive those sins, from now until eternity, precisely because we should be a better nation than that. We should strive to be better than that. We should be proud of a nation that can overcome yesterday's sins today, and avoid them tomorrow.

Afterall, we aren't making a nation for today. America is the promise of tomorrow. Or as Ben says perched atop the torch of the Statue of Liberty as the sun rises in the east:

"I may have invented these bifocals I'm wearing, but I can assure they are not rose-colored.
Mr. Twain, the golden age never was the present age, but with human liberty we can fulfill the promise and meaning of America. To everyone a chance, believed Thomas Wolfe, to all people regardless of their birth, a right to live, to work, to be themselves, and to become whatever their visions can combine to make them. This is the promise of America!"

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Name Calling: It's What's Not There That Matters

Perhaps Lincoln left behind some
sour grapes at the Wills House in 1863.
The article in the Adams Sentinel May 17th, 1863 was innocent enough.

David McConaughy, prominent local lawyer, moderate Republican and progenitor of the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was passing along a simple request. "I am very anxious to have a collection of trophies and interesting relics from the Battle-field of Gettysburg," Margaretta Meade wrote to McConaughy. The famed General's wife was appealing to Gettysburg to create one of the central attractions for the Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia that summer.

"I am sure," Meade continued, "that you will agree with me in thinking that a collection, coming from a place, which will always be memorable in the history of our country, will be an object of great interest and curiosity."

And Gettysburg responded.

McConaughy traveled the town. Reading his list of signatories in order is like walking Gettysburg's streets door to door. First, McConaughy climbed Seminary Ridge and had Dr. Schmucker and Dr. Krauth at the Lutheran Seminary. Then he returned to the center of town, rounding the Diamond and garnering support from aging tavern owner John H. McClellan, shopkeepers John L. Schick and George Arnold along with newspaper editor John T. McIlhenny. Down Baltimore Street, McConaughy met the Fahnestock Brothers. Ricocheting across the town, the journey ended on the campus of Pennsylvania College, where professors Huber, Muhlenberg, Stoever and Jacobs signed their names.

Through that journey across the borough, gathering the names of nearly every upstanding moderate and Republican town leader, one name was conspicuously missing: David Wills.

A missing name might not seem earth shattering at first. But there might be more to the omission than simply missing Will's door, forgetting a street in town. McConaughy after all lifted the heavy knocker on Joel B. Danner's front door, spitting distance from Wills' home and office.

The date of Margaretta Meade's request and McConaughy's response shed a bit more light on the question. The wife of the great hero General of Gettysburg wrote McConaughy on April 1st; the local lawyer replied with his attached list of supporters almost immediately. But the note wasn't published in the Sentinel until May 17th.

The letters appeared May 17th, long after the call and long after shells need be collected. But it did appear just 7 days after the Adams Sentinel briefly announced that, "Persons having articles for the 'Great Sanitary Fair,'" could drop their wares and goods at, "the general depository for the county." And that depository just so happened to be, "at the house of David Wills, in the Borough of Gettysburg."

McConaughy would not be outdone. Wills had his laureled Cemetery; McConaughy had his prestigious Memorial Association.

And if David Wills' wife was grasping for the honor of coordinating the county's support of the war effort, McConaughy would at least leave a breadcrumb trail of evidence that he too deserved some of the accolades and credit.

Even a simple request for help, a fundraiser to support the troops, can get perverted by petty local politics.