We're big, we're smart, we're human: we'll muddle through.

Some personal history today, and I hope that it is not too boring!

Mrs. Duersch was my high school civics teacher, some number of eons ago. You know: back in the day, when there actually were high school civics courses.

I have mostly forgotten the class itself, although I do remember that we studied the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights and all the later amendments. (Note to self: see if local high school still does this.)

In one segment Mrs. Duersch had us fill out 1040 forms. Whatever we may think of the income tax (and I rather hate it), later when I had to fill out my first 1040 for real I was grateful I’d had a practice run in high school.

But what I remember most is this: Mrs. Duersch kept up an effort the entire year to convince us of the horrors of the Soviet system, but it always seemed to come down to the idea that in Soviet Russia we wouldn’t have a choice of what color shoes to buy — they’d be brown or black, and that was it. Perhaps she thought that was the only way to get through to materialistic American teens, or perhaps that was the only argument she ever made that got through to me (a rather typical materialistic American teen at the time, artsy though I was) and therefore is the only one I remember now.

There she was: middle-aged, dowdy, in her own frumpy brown shoes, earnestly exhorting us to oppose the Soviets and their lack of free choice.

And really, we did oppose Soviet communism, I think. Oh I know I wanted life to be “fair” and “safe” for everyone — as the unconscious budding socialist I was — but I also wanted it to be “free” for everyone, and Soviet communism was obviously not “free”, whatever color of shoes the Russians may have been able to enjoy.

One day Mrs. Duersch showed us a film about the United States sending wheat to the Soviet Union, saving people there from famine. Until today I remembered this film as being about the famines of the early 1930s. While trying to research it just now, I’ve realized that it must have referred to the famines of the 1920s, as in the early 30s Stalin forbade anyone to speak of the Holodomar, or of famine occurring at all in the Soviet Union. He even pressured journalists to refrain from reporting it. There don’t seem to be any reports on the United States sending ample grain supplies to the Ukraine in the 1930s; on the other hand, it is documented that the American Relief Administration and other international aid agencies sent plenty of food to Russia in the 1920s (right up to the moment they realized that the Soviet Union was selling its own grain supplies for cash to aid in industrialization; nice scam, that).

Anyway, Mrs. Duersch showed us this film, and despite the seriousness of its subject, it made me laugh. That’s because, as a musician, I noticed how the music was minor and slow and set in lower instruments whenever the film was discussing the Soviets or the famine; but the moment the Americans were mentioned, the music switched to trumpets in a major key. To me, that’s propaganda at its finest: most people don’t actually hear music, it just flows over them and affects their mood.

I objected to Mrs. Duersch that she was showing us a propaganda film. She tried to defend the film: this really happened, it was important for us to know. I insisted that even though that was true, it was still a propaganda film because of the way it played on our emotions. I turned an entire room of students against her that day.

I suppose I still believe it was a propaganda film. But I’m sorry I made such a big deal of it. We did need to know that history, and now we no longer do. I think we clung to our mockery and our perfectionism too long, long enough to do real damage to our appreciation of our own heritage. Perhaps others didn’t but I did: I held on far too long to that idea that our heritage is flawed; that we love our country because we have been propagandized into it; that we aren’t perfect, and therefore our goodness is suspect. It wasn’t until this decade that I began to realize that American society may have forgotten why we are the way we are, why we are not like Europe, and what we’re doing here, anyway. That little thing called American exceptionalism was lost to me until very recently.

Mrs. Duersch, I apologize. You were trying to teach us and to warn us. Yes, perhaps you could have been more relevant; or perhaps in the arrogance of youth I would not have been open to your message no matter how you presented it. But I was so busy resisting your propaganda that I never noticed how easily I was overtaken by the propaganda of others. I was cynical about the wrong things.

And come to think of it, the restriction to brown or black shoes is a darn decent metaphor for the loss of freedom. To our modern elites, after all, we can have anything we want, as long as it’s good for us (and the spotted owls and the whales and the planet).


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