Friday, May 28, 2004

South County Hears the Other Side

Two months ago, I posted on how South Kingstown High hosted a lecture by radical left historian Howard Zinn. Many parents, led by Rod Driver, were outraged at the High School slipping in such a biased speaker under the radar. A compromise was agreed upon, and the school promised to schedule another historian to counter Zinn's anti-American vituperation.

That day finally came, and Stephen Thernstrom, a history professor from Harvard University gave a talk to the school. According to Thernstrom, many historians portray American society as unjust, imperfect and hypocritical. These historians believe that, "The American story is basically a story of noble ideas that are rarely lived up to," Thernstrom said. Further (to quote from the ProJo article):

The social history professor then proceeded to debunk that notion as simplistic. He retold textbook examples from what he claimed were lesser heard perspectives.

Take the suffrage movement, he said. That story is often told in the context of America holding women back, denying them their voting rights for years. In fact, he said, the United States led the world in developing a more emancipated view of women.

Immigration is commonly discussed in terms of restrictive policies meant to limit the influx of newcomers into the United States, he said. The fact is that, despite those restrictions, millions still braved dangers for a chance at America's promise.

"The ships ran both ways. They didn't [leave America]," Thernstrom said. "That tells us something about our society that isn't emphasized today."

He also addressed Zinn directly:
In his March 2 talk, Zinn criticized American leaders' motivations in invading Iraq: "Oil has been at the heart of American foreign policy in the Middle East for years."

Tingle denounced Zinn's message as "poisonous venom."

Thernstrom began by saying he would not deliver a "political sermon" nor would he debate the words of Zinn, who is a political science professor emeritus at Boston University.

He did, however, dismiss Zinn's book A People's History of the United States as "a very long political pamphlet." (Note the site to which I linked for Zinn's book). He admitted he had not fully read the book, but compared its historical perspective to an Oliver Stone movie. Others agree, including at least a few also on the left.

Thernstrom was challenged on some of his views, for instance:
Douglas Carr, chairman of the social studies department, prodded Thernstrom to talk about affirmative action. Thernstrom and his wife Abigail co-authored a book about education reform, No Excuses: Closing the Gap in Learning (Here's a positive review and here are a slew of other, mostly positive, reviews).

He argued that affirmative action policies can defeat their intended purpose by placing people in academic settings beyond their qualifications.

"Predictably, you're going to be struggling just to get through school," he said.

And a few students waded into the fray as well:
Thernstrom gamely sparred with senior Dan Levin and junior Justine Stroble about America's dropping of atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Levin asked if Thernstrom was implying that the lives of American soldiers were somehow more valuable than those of Japanese.

Thernstrom replied that valuing American lives above the enemy was simply standard, and good, military policy.

"When the other side is killing people, you want to kill as many people as you can," Thernstrom said.

Stroble pointed out that had the United States invaded Japan, American soldiers' lives would probably have been lost. Dropping the bomb targeted civilians, women, and children, she said.

That, said Thernstrom, is "a troubling fact of modern warfare."
Here, Thernstrom may have been better served to cite the few studies that have indicated that even Japanese civilian lives were saved in the long run by dropping the bomb. (Here is a good explanation about these kind of second-guess questions). This is a deeply complicated topic still open to debate (here's a good summary of the debate). In short, had the U.S. invaded the Japan home islands, the Japanese people would have undoubtedly intensified their total war policy and vastly more women and children would have been killed by conventional weapons than were by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One doesn't have to look too far for proof, Dresden, Germany is a perfect example, as were firebombings of other Japanes cities, of the damage that conventional firebombing could do. Besides, is there any doubt that if the Japanese had developed the bomb first that they wouldn't have used it on the United States?

It is interesting, that a similar recap of the Zinn talk revealed only one challenge, from a student. The reason these speakers were ostensibly brought in was to create such a dialogue. It appears as if Thernstrom did so, with both educators and students. For some reason, Zinn was not similarly challenged by a single faculty member. To me, this is most troubling. Finally, Thernstrom spoke about more contemporary events:
It is still unclear how the current war will play out, said Thernstrom, who recalled protesting the Vietnam War on a soapbox in Boston.

The United States, he said, is divided into 9/11 people, and 9/10 people. He and President Bush are 9/11 people, he said.

"The world changed after 9/11," he said.

This is something it appears many have forgotten. Hopefully, Thernstrom succeeded in convincing some students to look at things with a bit more contextual background. Mostly, I hope he showed that is indeed all right to love their country, warts and all.

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