This story is a little bit off topic, but it’s the kind of thing that helps to explain why I feel that cable TV shows and book publishers have an obligation to take responsibility for the content they provide to the public, and to recognize that large segments of the audience don’t have the expertise to critically evaluate the difference between fact and “entertainment.”
In Vermont, and eighth grader wrote to her state senator proposing that the state have an official Latin motto in addition to its current English motto. Local TV station WCAX ran a story on the issue, and its Facebook page lit up with rank ignorance from viewers who were not able to tell the difference between Latin, the language of ancient Rome, and Latinos, people of Latin American origin. This resulted in a horrifying display of idiocy, xenophobia, and nationalism.
Here is a sample of what some Facebook users had to say:
I thought Vermont was American not Latin? Does any Latin paces have American mottos?
The pre-1956 de facto motto of the United States, e pluribus unum, which still appears on the Great Seal and is required by law on U.S. coins, is in Latin.
This may seem like a silly story, but it goes to the deep strain of xenophobic nationalism that permeates American debates about history. Recently, the conspiracy site Godlike Productions had a thread devoted to America Unearthed, and it quickly degenerated into a stew of nationalism, racism, and religion. Take this comment for example:
This whole American Indians were here first bullshit is wrong. There's this stone there are the giant red heads that the Indians killed in a cave, and also there is all the Egyptian stuff in the Grand Canyon. Don't go all wounded knee on me.
The rejoinder came from an Afrocentrist who explained that Native Americans were “really” a mixture of America’s primeval African colonizers and a later “Mongoloid” invasion.
These different types of ignorance are not wholly unrelated, nor are they new. In 1893, Thomas Sinclair gave a speech in which he explained that pseudohistoical claims about how the Scottish noble Henry Sinclair discovered America and improved the Natives with his white genes were necessary to combat the scourge of Latin peoples who were threatening to overrun America with their non-Anglo-Saxon cultures:
But to some of the brightest minds of America the burning question has of late been whether the Latin or Saxon race is to have the supremacy of their country; the intense activity of Roman Catholicism contrasted with the apathy of Protestantism giving philosophers and statesmen pause as to the near results, notwithstanding the power of science and reason. The glorification of Columbus in the discovery centenary of 1892 was an aid towards the threatened Spanish or Latin domination; and Scandinavian energy has been in movement, especially at the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, to counteract the southern tide, by ascribing the discovery of America to Norsemen of the Teuton stock, including, as principal factors, the English and the Dutch. Caithnessmen [i.e. the Sinclair bloodline], especially of Canada and the United States, have the strongest personal interest in such a gigantic Armageddon contest of blood and belief, if it is to be early fact. (Caithness Events, p. 178)
Today, similar trends are manifesting in the battle over the content of textbooks and the push against the Advanced Placement U.S. History test for high school students, which many conservatives denounced for increasing the emphasis given to women and minorities and social history over the traditional emphasis on the Founding Fathers and federal politics. The College Board, which administers Advanced Placement, strongly denied the criticism as a “blatant disregard for the facts.”
In short, though, history is a proxy for politics and serves as a way for groups to define themselves and their place in the world. Truth is, by and large, subservient to utility.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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