Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Putting the Elephant on TV

This morning something occurred to me…sort of the type of thing that knocks you right off your feet. It’s difficult to explain its significance without providing context. Yesterday, I finished rereading Dirty Girls Come Clean, a book written to help women cope with their pornography addictions. Although I think the author, Crystal Renaud of Dirty Girls Ministries, is weak on a number of key points, I admire her courage and insistence on waking up the Christian community to an ever-mounting problem.

Crystal spends a lot of space discussing confession and being honest about your failures as a major step towards healing. This will probably always be something that Christian leaders promote but people find difficult to do. From my own experience, I can say that admitting sin and asking others for forgiveness is probably the most scary thing ever…Okay, second to actual brushes with death.

Anyway, that idea was probably floating around in my head when I was reviewing some documentaries, hoping to incorporate them into my history class. When lecturing on World War II, I usually don’t discuss pro-Nazi sentiment in America – since someone will invariably mention it in the class discussion anyway – but I was in the mood for a change. The Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley has a nice little documentary that includes a short segment on pro-Nazi activities in the area north of Los Angeles. This would be my opportunity to use it.

However, the German American Bund is best known for its Madison Square Garden rally in 1939, an event mentioned in passing in other documentaries. In addition, it was an organization that had been bred and spent its best years in New York, so I turned to Ric Burns’ monolithic New York: A Documentary Film (site), wondering why I didn’t remember anything about the World War II episode. I soon discovered why: There is no World War II episode.

Since my parents had once been involved in the John Birch Society, conspiracy theories must be in my genes. I immediately suspected a PBS cover-up. How can a seventeen and a half-hour documentary that delves head first into a not-so-clean past fail to mention such a famous event? It’s not like this is the most embarrassing thing that’s ever happened in Manhattan. The eight episode series covers the Dutch slave trade, the Civil War draft riots, and enough political corruption to make a Latin American dictator uneasy. These events I’d consider more problematic precisely because of the large percentage of people who believed them to be acceptable. Having garnered limited interest among German Americans and failed to receive Nazi Party recognition, the German American Bund seems to be causing more controversy than would be expected from any other short-lived fringe political movement.

This brings me to my main point: Are the filmmakers behind Rancho La Cañada, Then & Now: The History of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley (site) courageous for being honest about the community’s history? Or are Ric Burns and everyone else involved in the PBS New York documentary cowards for sweeping something out of the textbooks and under the rug? After all, the majority of those likely to see Cañada were probably elderly people who might wish to forget the rallies. It’s not as if many people know about, or care, what went on at Hindenburg Park, sad as it may be. Everyone has heard about New York though, and there were some top historians interviewed in the latter.

Now, suppose there’s a really, really good reason for playing dumb about the Madison Square Garden episode. That still doesn’t explain why World War II is for all practical purposes skipped. I’m sure they could’ve edited out a few minutes about building bridges and skyscrapers to talk about the wartime industrial boom or Italian Americans facing discrimination or one of a billion other things. The fact remains that someone purposely erased an important chapter of New York history.