Which American Life?


"This American Life," Public Radio International, July 6: Sarah Vowell and her sister Amy are on a road trip, tracing the tragedy of their Cherokee heritage along the Trail of Tears. Vowell, an excellent observer, also knows how to make historical connections. She casually sketches in the circumstances and the historical personalities that led up to and were involved in the annihilating event, so you don't notice how much you're learning.

But this is as far as she can go. Faced with the American genocide, the monuments and markers now played upon by school children on a field trip to the aquarium and the IMAX next door, she finds that as she learns more about the Trail of Tears, understanding is not helping her. Instead, "I feel worse" -- angry and helpless. She demands to know, several times, "What do you do with the past?"

Coming back from a station ID, host Ira Glass dryly notes Vowell's "very non-NPR anger."

She concludes, while "driving over graves" and singing along to her favorite Chuck Berry song, a cultural product of her country, that she loves and hates America; that her relationship to her country "feels like that of a battered wife: 'Yeah, he knocks me around, but he sure can dance.'"

And things pretty much end there, remaining in the realm of the personal. In that realm, Andrew Jackson and Chuck Berry are equivalent and must be accepted alike as part of "my country." Because this is a democracy, "we're all responsible for what our government does." There is no distinction between a government and a culture; Jackson, the primary author of the Trail of Tears, is simply a villain, not an instrument of a tacit policy of genocide that preceded him and long outlasted him.

If one does not acknowledge the dangerous aspect of the past, which lies in how it may apply to the present, then, of course, one does nothing. One feels angry and sad, observes that "It's clear that the one character in the story of the Trail of Tears who you can really hate is Andrew Jackson," then goes out for latté.

On a previous program, Vowell arched an audible eyebrow at the canonization of John Brown by Thoreau and Emerson. In quoting the approving assessment of Brown by the New England literati, she clearly did not approve. Elite literary types were pouring on praise for a terrorist loon who broke into the arsenal at Harper's Ferry to start a race war and got his followers killed, along with several of the soldiers they shot it out with. Preserving her personal interpretation, she did not quote Frederick Douglass, who noted that the struggle for the freedom of his people began with John Brown at Harper's Ferry, not at Fort Sumter.

The Cherokee were ousted from their land and annihilated by people who did it because they could, because they had power over their victims. Vowell did not connect the events she was tracing to instances in the present day where this same mechanism can be observed at work. This would take matters out of the realm of the past and the personal.

It would also slap the wistful tear from our eye shed for a tragedy 150 years gone, redirect our safe anger at a dead U.S. president toward the targets in the present, and widen our vision to include the living, and the sights to be seen in dangerous places, from a dangerous perspective.

And that would be very non-NPR -- or non-PRI, its indistinguishable twin and potential merger-mate, which supplies content to both NPR and PRI-affiliated stations.

"Those tears, that anger, cast into the past, deplete our moral energy for the present," wrote historian Howard Zinn in "A People's History of the United States" -- a book, as he introduced it, "skeptical of governments and their attempts, through politics and culture, to ensnare ordinary people in a giant web of nationhood pretending to a common interest."

To do otherwise, he felt, would mean buying into the lie that "history is the memory of states" and that a nation is the same thing as a community, a belief that "conceals fierce conflicts of interest ... between conquerors and conquered, masters and slaves, capitalists and workers, dominators and dominated in race and sex. And in such a world of conflict ... it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners."

Contemplating Chuck Berry's music and Andrew Jackson's politics, calling it "America," and signing off, is evasion, not profundity. Emerson and Thoreau got it. Public radio can't quite get there.

Andrew Christie is a member of the editorial board of the Southern Sierran, the newsletter of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.

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