Non-indigenous North Americans are always attributing wise sayings to Native Americans, or to ancient Chinese proverbs. Some are said to be from Chief Seattle, others supposedly come from “Ancient Indian Lore.” This afternoon, I came across a plaque on a hiking trail with the familiar saying, “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I may remember, involve me and I will understand.” It was followed by the phrase, “Native American Saying.” Interestingly, a quick search on the internet reveals that this saying is attributed varyingly to Native Americans and to ancient Chinese proverbs.
The people who attribute these things to Native Americans apparently don’t bother to research which tribe, if any, actually said it. it just seems like something wise people of the Earth would say.
“Speak softly and carry a big stick,”
- Ancient Native American saying
This sort of superficial glorification dehumanizes Native Americans and Chinese people just as negative stereotypes do. Not every mysterious sounding soundbite has its origins in ancient or indigenous culture. On the other hand, Native American and Chinese cultures are among the oldest on Earth, so it makes sense that there would be a lot of wisdom developed by these cultures and passed down through the ages.
This is in contrast to the United States of America, a country that invented itself not too long ago and is constantly reinventing itself. Although people brought bits of wisdom from outside cultures, much of it seems to have been thrown away in the race toward modernization. The country as a whole has an amazingly short attention span, and lessons learned are quickly forgotten or twisted to fit changing political and popular sentiment. So, while in 1979, the Vietnam War was widely considered to have been a disastrous tragedy borne of imperial arrogance, in 2003, the popular “wisdom” was that we just didn’t try hard enough to win. No wonder it was so easy for the government to get us into Iraq.
This sort of rewriting of lessons can happen much faster than the span of a generation. In 2008, the war in Iraq was Bush’s terrible, unnecessary war based on lies, and in 2010 the “surge” was successful and therefore retroactively justified the war.
The Unites States is a land of competing interests constantly working to reframe public perception of reality for political advantage. The most successful efforts to shape public opinion are those that consciously try to eliminate all negative feelings about our country and ourselves. Americans don’t want to feel guilty, so we teeter back and forth between believing that all is well because we live in the best of all possible situations, and all is not well because outside forces (some of which reside within our borders) are bringing us down.
Advertisers say that a potential customer needs to be exposed to their message seven times before they will buy a product. Now, the mass media has enabled pieces of propaganda to reach people hundreds, if not thousands of times in a week. Messages with political intent are repeated with such frequency that customers are buying them at an alarming rate. In such a climate, there’s no time for wisdom to form.
Maybe that’s why kitschy wisdom attributed to ancient peoples is so attractive. Perhaps we yearn for an understanding of our world that is permanent. Perhaps we want to wake up tomorrow with the same truth that was in place when we went to bed.
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