[For TomDispatch Readers: Parts of the essay that follows have been adapted from The End of Victory Culture, my history of the Cold War and what it was like to grow up in those years. A personalized, signed copy of that book is available at our donation page for a contribution of $100 (or more), as are Anand Gopal's remarkable new history of America's disastrous Afghan War, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes, and Nick Turse's bestselling classic on an earlier American disaster, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam. Tom]
Mapping the Chinese Conquest of the Planet
Exterminatory Worlds, Then and Now
By Tom Engelhardt
In high school, I was one of those kids you probably loved to loath. You know, the one who grabbed a front-row seat and every time the teacher asked a question waved his hand so manically that he was practically screaming, me, me, call on me! But truth be told, amid all the things that made me unhappy in those years, school -- actual schoolwork -- wasn't one of them. Yes, I was confounded by the math problems in which the current of a river flowed at one speed and a boat was heading the other way at a different speed, and a few more bits of weird information were tossed into the eddies and you were supposed to do something with it all. But generally speaking I enjoyed school.
I liked my teachers -- at least the ones who challenged me to think or, as we would start saying only a few years after I was out of high school, "blew my mind," the ones who seemed to bend the world in interesting directions. I liked to learn. I liked to read by myself in my room. I went to the local library regularly and came home with piles of books. I was a dino-nerd (with the American Museum of Natural History's T. rex on the brain), and a Civil War nut (no Bruce Catton volume went unread) with a sideline in advanced sci-fi. And it being the 1950s, I harbored the sort of nuclear fears that you barely thought about and didn't really speak about, but that, in my case, appeared repetitively in unsettling dreams in which I found myself wandering through an atomically devastated world.
I was, above all, fascinated by history, in part perhaps because my parents were of a post-immigrant generation in flight from their past. Undoubtedly, that fascination represented an early, particularly nerdish form of rebellion (not that anyone noticed). Perhaps it was also comforting to nail myself into a narrative of American life in those years when the past, as my parents and so many other Americans saw it, was hardly worth thinking about, not when the future was so promising.
But let me hasten to add that not every class in high school thrilled me. There was, for instance, my American history teacher. He was a grey-haired ancient (though undoubtedly younger than I am now) who had, we kids then assumed, been passing news of the New World on to students since at least 1776. He must once have been inspirational, but by the time I came along he was lecturing off ancient notes on yellowed paper. I used to imagine those notes dissolving into a cloud of dust with the first gust of wind through the window by his desk. I was then teaching myself a version of American history at home at night and I couldn't have found the daytime version less impressive.
The textbook we used then -- I still have it -- was Living in Our America: A Record of Our Country, History for Young Citizens. Unit One ("The Beginnings") started with this poem:
"In our great country can be found factories
with parking lots of full of automobiles --
not just cars of officials and factory owners,
but cars of the workmen, too.
"These cars are something more than pieces of
machinery to own and ride around in.
"They are symbols.
"They are symbols that in our country we can
and do earn much more
than a bare living.
"They are symbols, too, that their owners are free --
free to live in city, town, or country,
free to move on to other work,
free to seek other ways of life,
free in body and spirit."
I'm sure history texts are just as uninspiring today, but in different ways. After all, I was living then in the American Age of Steel, so long gone that -- who can remember?
On Becoming a "Red Chinese" Subject
Recently, going through some old files, I stumbled across an artifact from the ruins of that era. A map I had made on a single piece of white paper hidden inside that very history book, open-faced on my desk while I fiddled away my time, bored out of my gourd, barely listening to our teacher drone on. That document is as much an artifact of a lost world as the poem, but far more complex and confusing.