Today’s America: Myopic and Assholier Than Thou

A traveler’s perspective on how the U.S. can find itself again.

I’m going to start with an analogy. I’m very proud of this analogy.

I’m 5'2. And I’m talking feet here because I’m an American and, even though I live in Europe now, I still can’t convert inches to centimeters. 5'2 is pretty short, if that helps my non-U.S. friends. Salma Hayek is 5'2. Feel free to imagine I look exactly like Salma Hayek.

Now, because I’m very short, I don’t have a great sense of exactly how much taller people are than me. They’re just… taller in general. It’s not until I see myself in a mirror with them or in a photo that the height difference becomes a thing. You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but I’m still shocked and offended every time. It’s upsetting to be faced with the reality that you are literally a fraction of the person someone else is.

Americans have a similarly limited perspective on history.

We think history started a million years ago when Columbus brought Christianity to a brand new, mostly empty holy-land. Thanksgiving happened… the Revolutionary War happened… we invented liberty, freedom, justice… the Civil War happened… it was totally our idea to end slavery…we invented electricity, diversity, movies, cars, saved the day in WWI and WWII… we invented jazz, boobs, the Great American Novel, 9/11 happened (never forget), we invented the internet,… and BAM! Coolest country on the block. Everybody obviously either wants to fuck us or be us.

That shit would’ve gotten me a solid B on a history exam where I grew up in Arizona. And you know that’s how a good portion of the country thinks. How do you think Trump happened?

Anti-quarantine protesters holding signs outside the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday, April 20, 2020. Photo via Kate Landis / PA Post

When I was a tour guide in San Francisco, I used to joke with European tourists that they had so much more history than we do. I did this because I was an asshole, flippantly blowing off thousands of years of Indigenous American history (known as the “Pre-Columbian era”) as though it wasn’t my responsibility to learn it. I’ve thought so many times over the years about how I’d go back and change my tour.

For one thing, I wouldn’t start the story of SF from the time of the Gold Rush (1849? The hell was I thinking?), I’d start it from the actual beginning. Human beings have lived in what’s now known as the Bay Area for at least the last 12,000 years. Gary Kamiya states in his book, Cool Gray City of Love, that “The oldest skeleton found in [San Francisco] is that of a female, unearthed during excavation for the Civic Center BART station in 1969, dating to about 5,000 years ago”.

That’s 500 years before the Great Pyramid of Giza was built.

Ok, I don’t look like Salma Hayek but that’s me and the paw of the Sphinx. Way to feel tiny, huh? / Photo by Katlyn Roberts

As an American, it’s easy to blow off any history without a building or monument to point to. Where I come from, buildings over a hundred years old are considered “historic”, but they dominate landscapes and conversations. This gives us a spectacularly skewed idea of how much happened in the world before our own culture came along and of who gets to have a voice in that culture. We end up subconsciously assuming all the gaps in our knowledge can be eliminated by smooshing everything together under the “olden times” umbrella.

I get an icky feeling in my stomach at having to admit to you how smooshed my internal historical timeline was before I started to travel. These days, I dedicate my spare time and energy to fleshing it out. I’m an avid watcher of The Great Courses, I listen to multiple history podcasts, I read books like The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, I spend all my money on travel, and I somehow figured out a way to turn history into my whole “thing”.

Obviously, there are a ton of history nerds in the U.S., but a lot of people don’t have the opportunity to travel or study in their spare time. Others are repelled by history because they never heard a story that made them feel respectfully represented or because the stories only poked at open wounds. Others can’t be bothered because “America first”.

When I was a teenager in Arizona, the bookstore only had one copy of the new edition of our history textbooks and I happened to be the lucky duck.

The editions were pretty much the same, except that I kept noticing missing sentences in mine. My revised version still had a chapter about WWII, but the writers had omitted every single other reference to the Holocaust throughout the book. As if we didn’t need to be reminded. As if it was an isolated incident.

“You grow up, you go to school for a little bit and they teach you about one America, but then you learn that there’s another America.”

— Lizzo, on the murder of Ahmaud Arbery

My nazi book wasn’t an isolated incident. A recent article in the New York Times exposed radical differences in textbooks across states. Some of these text books play down slavery, some omit new restrictions on gun ownership, and some completely dismiss the cultural history and contributions of people of color.

Photo by Jeffrey Hamilton on Unsplash

Three years ago, I moved to Barcelona, Spain. I now have so many more opportunities to travel than I ever could have imagined, but I find I can’t go anywhere without realizing that something I learned as a kid was dead-wrong.

Take, for example, my trip to Bruges, a nearly perfectly preserved medieval city in Belgium. There, I found myself face-to-face with stories, art, and architecture that dated back to the 12th century and I realized… oh shit, I’ve really been sleeping on this time period, haven’t I?

I suppose I had this vague idea in my head that everybody back in those “olden times” lived in, or approximate to, castles. That the king had all the wealth and power and everybody else just sort of… peasant-ed around. You know. Like in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Or Disney movies.

But this had been a bustling trading town with no castle in sight, and the historic center of it was filled with stone houses, churches, pubs, hospitals, and post offices that were hundreds of years older than the U.S. has been a country.

Bruges, Brussels. October 2019. Photo by Katlyn Roberts

On my way back through Brussels, I stopped in a vintage book shop (because that “old book” smell they pump out into the street is even better than the waffle smell). That’s when I came across the most incredible leather-bound travelogue of Belgium, published in 1908.

The book was in English, written by Scottish historian George William Thomson Omond, and every other page contained beautiful paintings of different historical sites in Belgium.

I flipped to a random painting, pulled aside the thin, protective paper, and found myself face-to-face with a familiar scene. It was Blinde Ezelstraat “Blind Donkey” Alley, built in the 1400s and named for the nearby breweries that blindfolded their donkeys to keep them from getting dizzy when they stepped onto the treadmill at the malting plant.

I whipped out my phone, found a picture I’d taken there, and I compared the two right there in that bookshop:

LEFT: Painting of Blinde Ezelstraat “Blind Donkey” Alley in Bruges by Sir Amédée Forestier (1907). RIGHT: A photo of me in the same alley (2019).

To a blind-ass American, this type of thing is insane. Here I was, looking at a painting from over 100 years ago, and the scene was exactly the same today! Exactly! Down to the red trim on the windows and the gold statues on top of the arch. How crazy is that?!

Anyone from the “old world” (that’s a messed-up term, it’s all equally old) is laughing at me right now. And I know for a fact that G.W.T. Omond, the author of the book, would find my excitement ridiculous. I know because I bought that book and I finally got around to reading it:

“Some houses are old. Others are of no earlier date, apparently, than the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries.”

My god, how disgustingly modern of them.

And of Market Square in Bruges, overseen by a massive belfry built in 1280, a square that’s seen multiple political uprisings, the invasion of Napoleon (who burnt down the city’s most beloved church just a block away), the Netherlands taking over, Belgium taking over, canals being built, railways being built, two world wars, and multiple pandemics now, Mr. Omond had this to say:

“At first sight, this Market-Place, so famed in song, is a disappointment. The north side is occupied by a row of seventeenth-century houses turned into shops and third-rate cafés. On the east is a modern post-office, dirty and badly ventilated, and some half-finished government buildings. On the west are two buildings which were once of some note — the Cranenburg, from the windows of which, in olden times (he said olden times!!!) the Counts of Flanders, with the lords and ladies of their Court, used to watch the tournaments and pageants for which Bruges was celebrated.”

Market Square, Bruges, Brussels. October 2019. Photo by Katlyn Roberts

The difference between how Mr. Omond and I see the same historic square is telling. There’s a bit of a trade-off, I think. I may be historically ignorant, self-important, and my timelines may have been all off but, hell, at least I’m able to get some joy out of looking at a building from the 17th or 18th centuries. I’ll probably go up and touch it. I’ll probably have a competition with whoever I’m traveling with to see who can touch the oldest thing that day.

Europeans have a much better sense of their timeline and they’ve learned important things such as “how to not be fascists” and “how to provide healthcare to citizens” and “how to not drink bleach”, but man, do they seem bored by it all.

Staring up at that belfry from 1280 got me thinking about something I’m embarrassed to admit I’d never considered before – what was going on in America then?

I grew up thinking we didn’t have as much history in the U.S. as other countries did because I was under the mistaken impression that the Pre-Columbian era was lost to us. I was taught that Europeans came in and decimated the native peoples, along with their history, and that the U.S. feels super bad about it but, like, what can you do?

This is so, so wrong on so many levels.

Today, 6.6 million people in the U.S., or 2% of the total population, identify as Indigenous. The narrative that they were wiped out completely and their stories lost forever is a lie that only serves to disempower the remaining population.

Absolutely, Post-Columbian Americans have a lot (A LOT) to feel guilty about, but guilt isn’t an excuse to smoosh the majority of America’s history under the “olden times” umbrella. You can’t just pretend they’re ghosts and ignore the desperate need for public apologies, restitution, and a total overhaul of how we teach American History. The U.S. is selling itself short.

I wish someone had told me about Montezuma’s Castle.

Montezuma Castle National Monument, Arizona. (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Montezuma’s Castle is an architectural and engineering marvel in my home state of Arizona, built about 100 years before the Belfry at Market Square in Bruges.

It was named by European-Americans who stumbled across the site long after it was abandoned. They assumed that any massive archeological structure in the Americas must have been built by the Aztec Emperor, Montezuma, which is like stumbling onto an ancient temple in South Africa and calling it “Tutankhamun's Other Tomb.”

This structure was built by the Sinagua community long before Montezuma was born and it’s definitely not a castle. We’ve established that not everything’s about castles. It’s more like a high-rise apartment complex for multiple families who farmed and traded along nearby Beaver Creek. It was built so high up most likely to protect its residents from rising floodwaters.

Ironically, Hopi and other native consultants say dwellings like this were meant to recycle back to the earth after people left, but this structure housed residents for so long (300–400 years) and was so ingeniously built into the protective alcove in the rocks, it’s stood the test of time even after the community migrated away and blended with other tribes.

The even larger dwelling that was once built into the same cliff face just a few yards to the left actually did successfully recycle back to the earth, leaving behind only holes in the rock indicating where rooms and wooden beams had been.

5 miles to the north are irrigation canals and a spring water well, thought to be shared by multiple different tribes in the area. This makes the name the Spanish explorers chose for the tribe, Sinagua (Spanish for “without water”, due to how dry the land was when they came across it), just as stupid as “Montezuma’s Castle”, as the well contains a near-constant volume of spring water to this day, even in times of severe drought.

Model of the interior of Montezuma’s Castle. (Public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

I think there’s something bittersweet and profound about the idea that part of the reason Arizona has so few actual structures from the Pre-Columbian American era is that these tribes purposefully built them to dematerialize. It’s such a stark contrast to the “constant growth” mindset that powers the U.S. economy today, the one that’s building a wall on the U.S./Mexico border and sticking its name on every hotel, golf course, and stimulus check it can get its hands on.

With so many crises facing the U.S. today, it’s time to ask ourselves — what, exactly, do we want to outlast us? Our respect for our people, land, resources, and history, as per our oldest and richest traditions? Or the “land of the free, home of the brave, greatest country on Earth” narrative we’ve been spouting for less than 300 years and have yet to live up to? I may be short, but I can see past the hype now.

Anyway, if we all get wiped out and future explorers stumble upon one of Trump’s towers, I hope they call it “Napoleon’s Dick”.

Navajo Nation had at least 3,204 identified cases of Coronavirus and 102 confirmed deaths as of Monday evening. They now have the highest infection rate per capita of any region of the U.S.

Members of the community are rallying to help protect the elders and the most vulnerable, but they need the rest of the world to step up too. Ireland just returned a 173-year-old favor to the nations by donating and the story will definitely make you cry.

Help Navajo and Hopi families by donating to their relief fund.

Katlyn writes about history, travel, and culture… with some snark.

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