Something bothered me about the Liberty Bell, and most specifically about the way American history was told. On arrival to the museum, you are pounded with inspiring stories about the birth of a great, free nation, and how this big, cracked bell embodies it all. It was this bell that that chimed at the signing of the declaration of independence, a document that now shapes the psyche of millions in the 3rd most populous country in the world.
The signing was, no doubt, a momentous day in history, but it seemed to me that it arose ultimately as a result of a power struggle between people who had power and people who wanted power. The War of Independence is a story of oppression and rebellion, and, not unlike many other conflicts the world has seen, was undoubtedly packed with moral grey area and often left one confused as to who to vouch for. This was a feud between members of the colony and other members of the colony. After all, had the British troops emerged victorious and the people living in that part of North America now called themselves British, would many now not be discussing the efficiency of the British in restoring peace, order and harmony? The fact that the battle was between the “great” founding fathers and the “treacherous” British is really of little significance. Attributing a moral denomination retrospectively to each side is merely a way of grooming people into being happy about the outcome.
One such example that this wasn’t some heroic victory for morality lies in the fact that slavery continued for nearly 100 years after the declaration was signed. I appreciate the enormity of the task in making a transition to an equitable America, but it is the intention of the document that ruffles me. If we take that one example (the words “all men are created equal”), it seems much more likely that the motivation of the founding fathers was to break the oppressive hierarchy enforced by the British, than abolish slavery, which, at the time, was working out just fine for the powers that were.
Having said that, the intention of the document alone is not that unsettling or surprising, and I am in a position so far detached from the political climate in the States 236-odd years ago that it is difficult for me to comment. But what I can comment on, is what has been done since. As you meander through the building containing the Liberty Bell, it feels as though mass-produced awe is being forced through your eyes and into your brain. The countless assertions that America is, and will continue to be, a free country, precede walls of uplifting stories and powerful quotes citing the grand victory for good that took place in 1776. Then comes the bell, propped up and shimmering at the end of the exhibit. All that awe and all that pride becomes seamlessly packed into that one symbol. The bell itself transitions from a piece of broken metal into a glorious synonym for strength, unity and pride.
But I felt like I had seen this before, most notably in the Central Asian arc. Not lies necessarily, no, not at all, but the tall tales, the selective disclosure and the symbolism; all to generate a tangible imagery in which to place a nations’ manufactured pride. Historically, it was the kind of tactic with which you could draw a line between “us” and “them”, whoever “them” might mean, and justify why comparisons favoured you. Morality favoured you.
The split bell represented all that was good, and simultaneously represented America itself. But America should be careful: the tighter you wrap yourself in self-righteousness, the more obvious the partition between “you” and “them”.