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From Barnes & NobleThe Whole Truth
Historian James W. Loewen took a trip across America, and what he found made him very angry.
In his previous book, the controversial and bestselling Lies My Teacher Told Me, Loewen attacked the myths prevalent in high school textbooks. In Lies Across America, he leaves the classroom and hits the road, and he's shocked (exclamation marks abound in this book) to find the same myths and lies at the very sites that are supposed to teach visitors about the country's history. Museums, plaques placed at childhood homes and massacre sites, roadside markers, and gilded statues all offer a "warped" view of American history and serve to create a "landscape of amnesia."
Despite the occasional emotional outburst, Loewen is a lively, engaging guide as he travels from California to Maine. He convincingly demonstrates that slavery, segregation, and the slaughter of American Indians are either completely ignored or utterly misinterpreted. For example, Sutter's Fort, a California attraction, celebrates a site where Indians were not only enslaved but where more than 8,000 were massacred. In Michigan, a bronze statue celebrates Orville Hubbard, a mayor who is valorized for "speedy snow removal" and other civic contributions. Yet there's no mention of the fact that Hubbard was a staunch segregationist who ran a "Keep Negroes out of Dearborn" campaign.
Loewen's book is an effective exposé of the persistence of racism, but it is not merely an attack. The truth, as Loewen reveals it, is often more interesting than the feel-good myths. The sites offer bland portraits of genuinely fascinating heroes and villains. One would never know that Helen Keller, the blind-and-deaf pioneer, was a radical socialist. Sites inform visitors that author Willa Cather "wrote from her heart wonderful tales," but, according to Loewen, she also arrived at the University of Nebraska dressed as William Cather, her opposite-sex twin. The town of Amherst and the University of Amherst celebrate a war hero who, in fact, helped spread smallpox among Indians, a people he referred to as "the vilest race of beings that ever infested the earth."
Loewen notes that Americans "rejoiced when East Germans toppled their statues of Lenin" yet are unlikely to topple their own monuments to evil men. Americans encouraged postimperialist African nations to change their names (e.g., Rhodesia) but a brouhaha would take place if such a tactic were attempted in, say, Amherst. If vandalism and renaming are too radical, Loewen insists that we still "must tell what happened, without the public relations puffery of local boosters." But it's hard to image that towns like Darien, an all-white Connecticut enclave, will take Loewen's suggestion and mount a sign saying, "Darien is still overwhelmingly white; some clubs within it still keep out African-Americans, Catholics and Jews. Thus, Darien poses a problem for the New York metropolitan area and indeed for the nation."
Loewen's angry and witty exposé will surely spark debate. While civic leaders might take issue with his report, the irony is that Loewen actually makes the history of small towns and dead people interesting and lively. His book does what so many sites and museums don't. It presents history as tragic, violent, and dynamic, full of devious eccentrics, arrogant villains, and inspiring heroes.