Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dump Jefferson, That'll Show 'Em

By Kelly Jean Cogswell

Americans never let a good fact get in the way of imagining a glorious past and even brighter future. I expect a remake of "Annie" any day now announcing that the sun will come out tomorrow, with the next chairman of the Fed telling Americans to bet their bottom dollar on it, buy a nice new car and drive off into the sunset.

France, by comparison, seems increasingly caught in a gloomy web of truth and sorrow that even a cheerful tune won't chase away. When study after study confirms an overheating planet, and weirding weather is embodied in a flooded Brittany coast and snowy southwest, the French tend to bend under the weight of science, and acknowledge something must be done -- as long as it doesn't cut too deeply into corporate profit margins or increase government debt.

The legacies of colonialism and religious wars are likewise dissected at length, along with tyrants from Torquemada to Hitler that can not be erased from history, at least not any time soon. In Paris, you can find plaques on elementary schools testifying "Thirteen Jewish students from this school died in concentration camps." "In this school, twenty-nine children were sent to the camps." Every month there's another made-for-TV movie set in occupied France.

Instead of imaging themselves created in the image of God, the French continue to cast a skeptical eye at human behavior and accept that homo not so sapiens evolved from apes. When Alexandre Dumas, the mixed-race writer of the Three Musketeers (1844) had to respond to racist taunts, he replied, "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."

This doesn't mean Europe is perfect. You pretty much get the picture when you know that a French director recently gave the extremely white GĂ©rard Depardieu a curly wig and brown make-up so he could play Dumas in a movie. Still, that's film.

In Texas, the State Board of Education has decided that reality itself is fluid, and above all as word-based as the fundamentalist religion that its stalwarts practice. Control the textbooks, get something down in paper and ink, or scratched into stone on a deserted mountaintop and there's a magical transformation of history. Darwin really is a liar and idiot, the British were the architects of American slavery, and white Americans were the driving forces of the African American civil rights movement.

Erase a few names here and there, and Texas can be changed from story of Native Americans and Spanish colonists into the single-handed creation of Anglo-Americans like Sam Austin, in which the Indians were mere transients and the Spanish didn't contribute so much as one pinky finger until their descendants saw how good the whites had it and immigrated from Mexico bringing fajitas, instant taco mix, and Salma Hayek.

Get out your Wite-Out, and the deist founders of the United States become bible-thumping Christians. Change a bit more and the nefarious Thomas Jefferson who wrote extensively about the Enlightenment and the "separation between church and state" no longer can be considered a real influence on revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, though he lived in France for years as ambassador of the young United States.

Texans have begun to revolt under this tyranny of idiocy. They've refused to re-elect some of the school board members, and protested appointments. Unfortunately, committee replacements can be almost as bad. One of their additions last spring was Peter Marshall, a Yankee preacher who likes to explain natural disasters from California wildfires to Hurricane Katrina as God's punishment for tolerating queers.

Delete, erase, proclaim.

It's not the first time Thomas Jefferson has been given the boot. I went to Transylvania University in Kentucky and was lucky enough to be among the twenty or so students that were awarded Thomas Jefferson scholarships. Before I left, the grant named for this former president, architect, philosopher, author of the Declaration of Independence, yes, and slaveholder, was renamed for William T. Young, the famous (and rich) horse breeder and peanut butter manufacturer.

I couldn't help feeling diminished. There was a brief revolt of "TJ" scholars, but apparently the name was changed in gratitude for continuing gifts. It was sold, in other words, and the dough was more important than the name. Now, young scholars, instead of aspiring, however imperfectly, to equality, liberty and happiness, and an enlightened world guided by reason, can aspire to... what? Sandwich fillings and the inbreeding Kentuckians are already accused of, whether man or beast?

I shouldn't worry. After all, The sun'll come out tomorrow. Ya just gotta hang on come what may. Tomorrow! Tomorrow!

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