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Jun 112017
 

Conservatives — and by this I mean those interested in preserving the status quo in our society — have lit upon a new-fashioned fig leaf to cover their racism; their disguise isn’t half as clever as they think it to be, however. Their pretext is to claim that they are defending history from those who want to obfuscate through monumenticide. Posing as preservationists, they oppose removing the monuments, site names, and other honors given to Confederate and racist figures from our past. Conveniently, this sudden dedication to public history blocks efforts to denude southern cities of honorific remnants of our slaver past.

In the New York Times, Gary Shapiro blames the dilemma on “deferred maintenance of history” — whatever that nonsensical jargon means — but what he is trying to get at is that racists and their sympathizers object to removing Confederate emblems because it targets the legacy of white supremacy in our society. Part of disavowing racism is dishonoring it. Conservatives reject that repudiation, which is really just a first step in pursuing true equality in our country. They don’t want change (Indeed, they want to make our country “great” again.), which means white supremacy remains.

Now, while conservatives imagine their position smacks of historicism, intellectualism, and post-racialism — and perhaps it does to those who are historically ignorant (like its proponents), for those with any experience in practicing history, the bias is obvious. Sure, on its face, the traditionalists’ position claims to oppose historical denialism, sweeping the ugly parts of our history under the rug. Staters of this day — and in the future — should know that our ancestors celebrated and promoted racists — and it was certainly, in part, because of their racism. Richmond’s Monument Row lacks the instructive qualities that teach the past while condemning it, however, and it’s this indistinguishability between honor and historical recognition where the conservative approach fails.

Assuming good faith on the part of some traditionalists, it seems obvious that their defensiveness lies in their naivete. They believe, like so many, that history is canon and that mastering it means learning facts about the past. This is not, however, what history actually is. It is a practice — of collecting evidence and putting it together in interesting stories that tell us things about ourselves. A row of statues itself is not a history. It is just a collection of evidence. An exhibit or public history display does more than present pieces for people to observe. They are selected, arranged, and contextualized (with accompanying commentary or through careful presentation) so as to make a statement and encourage learning. Monuments are not historical exhibits. They are honorary displays, and fail as cautionary lessons.

In his essay, Shapiro suggested that adding instructive text and, perhaps, statues of slaves to Monument Row, as a way of rehabbing the display so that it reflects contemporary values. Merely cluttering the space is not the answer, however. More importantly, it makes for bad history. Overwhelming the site with too many statues creates a historical junkyard — not a cohesive, instructive narrative. Further, it does nothing to rectify the moral problem that the Confederate figures would still be recognized, while symbolic Anyman slave figures would perpetuate the dehumanization of black Americans. Presented namelessly and generalized — once more denied specific identities and singular significance like that of the white figures beside them — they would be again denied privilege of individuality, dignity of personhood, and historical actuality thus demonstrated. It’s likely that this kind of historiographical dilemma is unfamiliar to Shapiro and his like, precisely because they have no experience constructing histories. Unfortunately, such ignorance perpetuates discriminatory treatment.

Ours is not the first society to confront a repugnant past. The conservative element in our country does not see in removing Confederate monuments the populist toppling of statues of Vladimir Lenin or Saddam Hussein, however. The traditionalists still respect Lee and Davis; those men are not ignoble monsters to be rejected like the Communist dictator and Iraqi strongman, to them. In part, this is because conservatives are victims of the apologetic historiography they were raised in, which honored Confederate figures. However, those who want to reject racism must choose to repudiate those figures, and willfully failing to do so is a contemporary act of racial prejudice. Fundamentally, disavowing racism requires the dishonoring of these Confederate figures, specifically through their removal. Monument Row cannot be reconstructed. It must be dismantled. And, any deferral of that — especially in the name of history — is a great misfeasance.

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Apr 232017
 

In honor of the 22nd anniversary of the Murrah bombing, I wrote a twistory on the role of chance for those involved. This was inspired by the Oklahoma City Memorial exhibit and a published interview with a survivor. Below are the compiled tweets.

 

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 Posted by at 2:03 pm
Mar 262017
 

Approximately six hundred people live in my mother’s hometown, so, of course, they need a Hall of Fame. More specifically, they’ve created a Sports Hall of Fame. Even more specifically, it’s a plaque on the wall outside the high school gym, next to the cafeteria where they recently held the inaugural induction buffet dinner — so, really, a Hallway of Fame. Anytown, MI to the southeast, home of a lowly Class D athletics program, already has an HoF — though the school rival directly across the state highway does not. Not to be left behind in the Age of Celebrity, Hometown boosters jumped on the bandwagon for the project — developed by the special ed teacher/assistant basketball coach for credit towards her Master’s degree.

The purpose of the high school HoF — bear in mind this town is too small to have its own police department, though the district has an Athletic Director — is “to honor the community’s history and heritage” by recognizing local sports figures. In small burgs like this across the country, life really does revolve around public schools — and, especially, high school sports. It’s one of the realities that perpetuates patriarchal attitudes in rural areas and contributes to our country’s cultural obsession with youth. For places where almost literally everyone in town can be found at the gym, baseball field, or football stadium on a Friday night, what could better celebrate their way of life than a memorial to the athletes and adoring supporters who serve as the leads in the town’s play?

But, there is something disturbing in the notion that the history of our communities — that their central narratives — lie in sporting endeavors and that a community’s character can be found in the amateur physical contests of its children. Are boosters and school papers truly the documentarians of everyday American life (at least of the non-urban kind)? Is our history just a progression of pep rallies and sweaty youthful encounters? Does the captain of the team marry the head cheerleader and rear the next generation of jocks and admirers, ad nauseam? Is that really our heritage?

As tempting as it is to say Tennessee Williams cut to the core of the American experience with his story of Brick Pollitt and the small-town masculine culture that plays out through sports, a community HoF reeks of big-city emulation too. For a nation obsessed with heroes, local guys want to matter, and towns want a sliver of the limelight dominated by urban sports meccas. It’s hard not to mock small-time big-man celebrations, though — they are so obviously comical. Further, with a population base like Hometown’s, how exclusive can the membership be? The unexceptional will surely find their way in, as the search for candidates for the little brass nameplates stretches beyond single-digit classes.

There was a time when lots of Americans played athletics — in independent, work-sponsored, town, and various other leagues. People participated even if they weren’t the greatest, and their unremarkable involvement wasn’t about whether it mattered, as opposed to just being part of a culture of recreational activity. There were less ways to serve as a spectator then, and that probably explains why — now that we have one thousand sixty-seven channels and sports premium packages on — we watch instead of play.

Maybe you lose something by sitting out, while the best of the best get their due credit. If so, it is tempting to say the Hometown HoF is a noble effort to keep mass involvement (and, perhaps, a kind of democracy) alive. At least for local historians, their stories will be preserved, and if you wanted to root around all of the petty HoF’s in this country, you might get an interesting narrative out of it. That you would get the story of the heartland from them is less certain — anymore than that you get anything like the country’s heritage from the national HoF’s.

It’s undeniable, though, that we have a human impulse for history and, at least in our country, for celebrating great men. Choosing to funnel that urge into sports honors as opposed to an arts (side)walk of fame or a historical display dedicated to the work, faith, and political or natural events in a community says something itself about a place. Maybe the folks in Hometown think that the biggest thing about them is that they produced a guy who couldn’t get past the minors because he blew out his liver, but I can assure you, it is not.

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Feb 122017
 

Of late, the ahistoricism of the liberals and leftists in the US has driven me regularly to consternation. I want to participate in the efforts to block abuse of power, corruption, and anti-democratic government action; however, I am unable to find cause with so much of the opposition because its positions are not historically-informed and remain — as liberal thinking often is in this country — limited by its coastal parochialism. The conservatives have long abused history for their purposes, but, now, the liberals have ceded ownership of our past understanding altogether. They think they can play politics by being ignorant of the past. At least the conservatives know you have to have a mythology.

As an example, this week at Slate, Yascha Mounk, a political scientist, offered his advice on how to respond to the Trump administration. His suggestions were standard fare, entirely lacking in historical awareness. “Don’t normalize Trump’s actions,” he mandates first, but to do so requires entirely forgetting Operation Wetback in the 50’s and FDR’s “repatriation” program of the 30’s — and all the ways the government has enticed and later expelled foreign labor (particularly from south of the border) throughout our history. Really, we have had the same motivations to welcome and then force out immigrant workers as the Spanish and Mexicans had when developing Texas (with the aid of the filibusteros). Immigration battles are essential to our history — the very essence of normal here.

Similarly, the conflicts of interest from Trump business ties so bemoaned by liberals are also in keeping with much of our history. Those in politics — with their short memories and ahistorical thinking — forget the financial and commercial connections of so many government leaders before. In what way are Trump ties (literally, the neckwear) a greater conflict than the Attorney General of the United States prosecuting railroad strikers while on retainer to one of those companies? I even saw a claim on Twitter that Trump’s conflicts are of the worst sort ever, including slavery! For privileged white persons, this may appear true on its face (though not in substance), but it just demonstrates how ignorant white liberals can be. Historical perspective is lost these days in the frenzy of opposing the current administration.

“Offer hope of a brighter future” too, Mounk suggests. Yes, focus on the future and do not argue with the past promoted by the Right…as if this is possible — as if we could stop history and start with a blank slate. The best future we can make is built with understanding of our past: a true reckoning of our failures and inspirational moments. If you want to sway people who want to Make America Great Again, you have to engage history. Abandoning it to your opponents is an ideological retreat.

In essence, the problem is that conservatives have been engaged in a cultural campaign for some time. They have slowly gained ground since the 70’s with their agenda. They have succeeded at convincing the public of the veracity and righteousness of many of their positions. This has been possible, in large part, because they have catered to the vanity of the majority — promoting a mythology that is so compelling that even liberals buy into it (see Hamilton, musical, for example). So, here we are: afraid of radical bogeymen, embracing irrationality and indecency, and longing to be our racist, sexist, and cruel past once again. There is no political answer to this dilemma. It is an ideological, spiritual, and moral crisis, and the solution lies in our cultural values, narratives, and themes.

The answer is not to return to a mythical time when we were great. The answer is to keep working towards greatness (as an ongoing sense of value rather than a summit), celebrating our achievements along the way. Confidence and hope are not created by voter registrations, homeownership, and job-creation. Rather, those things come from the former. And, that means, liberals have failed to truly undermine the conservative’s efforts and successfully inspire a culture of generosity, openness, and diversity. As long as we focus on political efforts, we will persist in the failure to create a culture of greatness — which is most assuredly not mean tweets, political gamesmanship, cronyism, mockery and disrespect, denial of past wrongs, parasitical economic agendas, indifference to want, discrimination and tribalism, or ancestor worship of slave-owners and racists.

The Founders gave us an ideal. Despite their intents and limitations, it offers us a path to greatness. Plot that. Encourage that. Celebrate that. Stand for that. They’ve gone low. Let’s go highbrow.

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 Posted by at 1:51 pm
Dec 052016
 

The felex_comp_tease_1-nbcnews-ux-1080-600uture is uncertain; the past is familiar and has lost its bite. It’s natural to feel fear of what is to come when the present is troubling. In lieu of courage, memories pacify with pride. History gives us spirit to continue into what gives no promise.

Too, in America, our histories lack gloomy endings and repugnant themes. Our myth-makers and professional interpreters give us motivational tales of a land where freedom and democracy flow like milk and honey — even if, sometimes, it must be forced from stricken rocks. Here are stories of inspiration and affirmation: a forward march to the ultimate achievement of humankind.

If Pax Americana is still ascendant, it is the democracy achieved that we recognize. Future birthrights are not yet known. When, then, our now seems tenuous and our way, threatened, we are reassured by memories of achievements past. We take comfort in times after previous storms, when we knew blissful success. We are consoled by post-victory peace — the confidence of which we hope to have once more.

So, Make America Great Again. Bring back a romanticized past that is still with us but feels like it might be lost. Remind us when we can’t feel our privilege — we were better once, and that is still us.

 Posted by at 11:40 am
Oct 302016
 

I don’t want to beleaguer the subject, but while my last few posts have weighed in on the so-called “safe space debate,” I haven’t quite gotten to the heart of the problem yet. Lost in the blind privilege, earnest ignorance, hostile rhetoric and emotional apologias involved is the value that cleaves the intellectual divide. The same love of righteousness that drove Martin Luther to nail his Theses to the church door inspires the passionate exchanges today. Whereas Luther’s approach was questioning, however, today’s contestants are assertive and sure.

Ours is a society that worships champions, and if the current election demonstrates nothing else, it certainly proves our preoccupation with winning debates. Staters love being right, and now that objective truth has been dethroned, in lieu of that, we claim authenticity or experience. We’ve found new measures of correctness. What we still can’t reconcile is being wrong.

Years ago, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the South — knowing what it was like to be defeated and, worse, on the wrong side on a serious moral issue — could be an example to the rest of the country, wrestling with developing a more mature, realistic self-consciousness as a society. Woodward’s hopes have failed us. The denial — rather than the irony — of southerners remains indicative of the larger white society in our country. As much as the old Confederate states resisted true reconstruction, privileged white Staters generally have pushed back against efforts to raise awareness of inequalities and hazards that exist in our society (though violent push back isn’t a common tactic anymore, thankfully).

White apologists employ a multitude of tactics in their efforts: minimizing the issues, deflecting, reframing the discussion, claiming free speech, and other various tricks. What great lengths people will go to just to avoid acknowledging wrong. In fairness, it isn’t something we celebrate in our culture or a skill we are proud to hone. Instead, we are socialized to excuse or evade responsibility, by any means necessary. In essence, everyone pleads not guilty because there are no final verdicts in cultural debates.

Public relations disasters have taught the image-conscious to master the non-apology, but pseudo-penitents are rarely sorry or admit expressly to being wrong (or privileged). This is especially the case with academics, who are trained in disputing points and interpretations. Never have I witnessed an exchange between scholars where one conceded s/he was incorrect. The academic may adjust his or her output in the future to account for previous error, but s/he doesn’t go back and make a full accounting. We don’t do reconciliations in the US, and this is really indicative of our culture. It’s built into the legal and social structure.

Where professionalism relies on the authority of experts, error undermines confidence in those leaders and the system — or, at least, that seems to be the common take in our country. It wouldn’t seem to bring down the edifice if individuals or groups efficiently acknowledged their error and moved on corrected — it might actually reinforce confidence if done well, but we don’t have a means for doing it and I don’t see scholars writing books that argue against their previous publications. Also, problematically, Staters seem prone to remember the initial error and miss any subsequent atonement, reducing incentives to admissions.

But, that kind of factual or interpretive error seems of a different sort than the kind I’ve written about recently. It’s one thing to misread a document or not gather your evidence broadly enough. Cultural disputes are of more serious stuff. You do far more damage to resist acknowledging racism (systematic, invisible, and not) on college campuses, in places of employment, and on our streets and to dismiss the harm of wrongs done than to flub some historical facts, even intentionally. The stakes are high in these philosophical exchanges, which makes it all the more important that we somehow learn to value humbling as much as achievement. In other words, we may get past our racism and privilege when we turn western culture on it’s head. Or, maybe the two go indivisibly hand-in-hand.

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 Posted by at 9:29 am
Sep 132016
 

A friend recently brought up an article from May’s New Yorker: The Big Uneasy. I’d read it when it was first published but revisited it with new eyes after the mention. In between, I’d read a few pieces — and posted some — on race-related topics and the unease that Nathan Heller references in his essay here about free speech on college campuses. My second read — probably more critical than the previous — left me surprised at the obliviousness of so many of the white leaders (I won’t say “intellectuals”) on college campuses. Their privilege blinds them, and it’s disappointing that they, of all people, understand the disconnect on campuses so poorly.

That the problem here is privilege is painfully clear. The activist students Heller describes (Why are we to care about their coffee flavors?) are favored in being the best and brightest, courted aggressively by elite private schools. I tried pointlessly to reconcile them with the young people of various minorities I’d taught for so many years. None of my students had the naiveté Heller described — probably because they were working class kids attending night classes at a satellite campus of a regional university rather than National Merit scholars at Columbia or Oberlin. They had no sense of entitlement — or even the notion to make demands of their school.

What my students mostly knew and the activists in Heller’s piece were painfully learning through the reality of equal opportunity in America is that the system is based on generations of white/monied privilege. As Heller puts it: “Today, [minority students] are told that they belong there, but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities…In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class.” These students trade bringing diversity to campuses through their presence for gaining access to the same means of success that were established so long ago for well-off white men.

I think Heller condescends toward the minority characters he portrays. He paints them as young and idealistic, but he doesn’t seem to get that the old guard he describes is obtuse and privileged. At one point he uncritically posits: “Wasn’t free self-expression the whole point of social progressivism?” This is the rationale of the white leadership at Oberlin in his piece. It’s a shocking position in both its historical ignorance and its entitlement.

Of course, free speech was not a value of the Progressives. Their goal was to apply scientific and organizational principles to social problems. Their intent was to coerce and “Americanize” immigrants into a certain behaviors. These were proponents of Social Darwinism and eugenics. They weren’t at all interested in helping minorities have more of a voice in society. That educational leadership is that ignorant about this historical legacy is disappointing and discouraging.

They fail to see that the university system was intended to be exclusive and professionalization, a means of behavioral and doctrinal control. How many schools refused to enroll people of color or women for many years? And, where there were schools for African-Americans and females, the goal was to socialize them into certain ways of being — and especially to submit to the authority of white male authority figures like scholars, judges, and doctors. Be a nurse who answers to a licensed physician instead of an independent midwife — you see?

But, in Heller’s piece about Oberlin, there’s a more contemporary kind of privilege at work as well. Note what he says of Wendy Hyman, an English professor there: “Hyman started college in the eighties. Her generation, she said, protested against Tipper Gore for wanting to put warning labels on records.” When I read this, I laughed and cringed simultaneously. Hyman and I are of the same generation, but I was not involved in protests about censorship back then. Frankly, I didn’t have money to spend on much of a music collection when I was in school. The labeling fight was for kids from advantaged backgrounds — not me.

I did go to my first protest in college, however — though it was in the mid 90’s when I was finally able to finish years later. The Ku Klux Klan was having a rally where I lived on the same day as my graduation. I opted to skip the school ceremony and join the protest instead. I wasn’t driven to do so because I had lots of minority friends or because I was some flaming social justice warrior. I was a white kid raised to believe in equality and understood already that I had a stake in getting involved too. White people needed to repudiate racism. So, I did.

I don’t know how I got that and Hyman got into free speech, but my experience demonstrates that people our age were capable of knowing that equal rights and anti-discrimination were causes to get behind then — which makes it incredibly evident why we still need to champion them today. That Hyman was able to worry about getting to listen to her favorite singers drop f-bombs instead says a lot about her priorities and privilege. The need to take a stand against racism wasn’t less recognizable in the 80’s — or in the 70’s or 90’s.

It’s not just a random obtuse professor at fault here either. Hyman’s not the only one in the article with that level of obliviousness about the failure to deal with ongoing discrimination in our culture. Other instructors Heller interviewed professed activism on free speech and/or anti-war issues, but these leaders didn’t indicate a history of similarly fighting racism or sexism. Their cited causes worked to expand their privilege, not spread it around to others. It’s this problem that continues to create issues on campuses where minority students bump up against ceilings and find themselves again marginalized. They are smart enough to recognize the discrimination when they see it.

Sadly, it’s their professors who don’t seem to get it. Ironically, Heller inadvertently cuts to the heart of the problem when he says: “Generations of professors and students imagined the university to be a temple for productive challenge and perpetually questioned certainties.” Apparently, that was all well and good when the challenges were against in loco parentis or censorship. Today’s educational elite, which remains predominately white and male, seems oblivious to the fact that their certainties — like that free speech is the heart of college exchanges — might be questioned too — or worse: wrong.

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 Posted by at 9:49 am
Sep 052016
 

The Atlantic ran another article this past week about safe spaces and free speech on college campuses. I generally think the to-do about these matters is overblown, but among “educational elites” this is a thing. After news got out about the University of Chicago’s letter to incoming students regarding the topic, concerned parties weighed in again — hence, the piece in The Atlantic.

Reading it, my takeaway — and I’m sure it was entirely not intended — was that much of this “debate” is fueled by poor scholarship and educational failure. As described by Dr. Levinovitz in the essay, the participants seem to have ideas about higher education that I find disturbing and perplexing. Safe space proponents, he says, insult and undermine discussion; meanwhile, he maintains you have to offend and have antagonistic exchanges to develop minds. Both approaches are negative and suggest the core issue is an altogether different thing than the points of debate. I don’t think the problem is free speech or censorship, so much as it is a failure of our academics to provide proper training in learned exchanges.

Levinovitz argues against safe spaces and then (ironically) complains that students don’t feel safe to share their opinions, especially on their religious convictions, in his Religious Studies classes. I wonder if he is confused about the purpose of his academic offerings or thinks that he is teaching Christian Apologia 101 rather than Intro to Religion. Religious Studies is not theology; it’s purpose is to understand varieties of religious thought — not to learn how to argue your faith. That the professor cannot appreciate the difference between the two is troubling and begs the question as to how he can instruct students in critical analysis of religious topics and teach them to approach the topic with sophistication.

Really, why would students debate their religious beliefs in an academic environment? Isn’t the obvious purpose of studying religious thought different than that? You don’t need to go to college to learn to espouse your beliefs. WordPress is glad to host a blog for you to do just that on your own, and there are safe spaces — churches, temples, etc — where you are free to make statements of faith to your heart’s content. The purpose of studying religion in higher education is of a different sort: it’s to learn, through reading and analysis of different religious writings, to understand a variety of sacred thought and culture.

Frankly, no one gives a shit what a nineteen year old who has never studied a topic before thinks about it. The point of education is to expose students to different ideas and teach them to analyze those takes so they can have well-formulated positions. Professors should be exposing students to thinking in their disciplines and teaching them to critically approach their topics — not encouraging them to profess their uneducated opinions. If an instructor is doing the latter instead of the former, they fail their students and their professional responsibilities. Worry first about your students having informed insights before you worry about where they will have the freedom to say them (and they may just be able to swing the last part for themselves — as the current kerfuffle shows).

I fear for the state of higher education if professors do so poorly in “teaching” their students, and, again, one need not attend a university to learn to shout down those with differing opinions, so they fail too if they aren’t teaching students how to debate issues with respect — and evidence.* The first day of every one of my classes includes setting ground rules of civility and welcoming participation. It’s part of my role as instructor to facilitate that and ensure that the class succeeds in it.

Where will students learn to be collegial if not in college? Differences of intellectual thought are normal and require practice to handle well. Training is necessary, and that includes in how to engage learnedly. Educated debate is most definitely not — as Levinovitz asserts — combat, nor it is a violent activity. My God, if you think it’s that, you are doing it wrong and should never be training novices in the way that they should go. First, do no intellectual harm, sir. Civility should be essential in any good education.

A combative view of ideological differences and discussion is a recent plague in our society, and from Levinovitz’s description, it appears common on both sides of the free speech/safe space debate. Disrespectful discourse indicates a failure of higher education in America doing what it exists to do. Our professors apparently do not know better, regrettably, and are not (or cannot) teach their students what they do not know to do. It seems we lack the shared value of respect toward others, and I oppose that. If we cannot hold each other in regard in our differences, safe spaces are not the solution — it’s reform of the educators charged with training us to do it.

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*As opposed to making random biased assumptions not based on evidence like that there is a correlation between those who complain the “loudest” about the need for safe spaces and bitching about the cultural appropriation of yoga. Is there an actual study proving this connection? Who would fund that? I mostly need to know because I have actual research that needs funding and that source apparently gives money to any old “inquiry.”

Jul 282016
 

In the 19th century, Friedrich Nietzsche argued that studying the history of great men is useful in that it inspires others to do great things like their heroes. In essence, good histories model noble behavior for later generations to emulate. Today, we like to think of history as more instructive than inspirational — at least our academic histories aim to be educational. The histories we see in movies and on TV, though, is more of the stirring sort. The new release Free State of Jones is a case in point.

The movie tells the story of Newt Knight, a farmer from Mississippi who lead a spontaneous revolt against the larger Confederate rebellion in 1864. Far from a pragmatic Unionist driven by a sense of nationalism, Knight’s a character who transcends the racism of his time and embraces equality between whites and former slaves — he’s a 21st century hero from the 19th century. He fights for a cause and not a political convenience. Knight is the Nietzschean ideal, inspiring and (unpretentiously) noble, and the film is suited to inspirational aims.

Many critics have faulted the film and its depiction of Knight for promoting the “white savior” trope. Here, the protagonist is the prototypical hero so often celebrated in our fictions and non-fictions. He’s the good white man who saves the day — and the former slaves who join him along the way. Vann R. Newkirk II called the picture’s portrayals “textbook examples of how not to have conversations about white privilege, ‘allyship,’ and black struggle.” It is surely that, but the movie seems to have less humbling and enlightening aims anyway. It’s an inspirational story intended for white audiences about liberality and leadership, and it tells us quite a lot about our time.

That a film starring a southern movie star repudiating the Confederacy on the merits of slavery is a mainstream offering is startling in itself. Ten or twenty years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been made. Indeed, it’s obvious predecessor, Glory, a notable film in the white savior genre, demonstrates the traditional good-Northern-hero version, which is more consistent within the trope. Nearly 30 years later, the Free State of Jones is reconstructing southern heroes in the same vein — even better, the hero here discovers his righteousness rather than his biases. Times have changed.

That it’s a true story offers something of theoretical value to white viewers — particularly southerners. Knight is someone they can aspire to emulate. They need not remain bound by the racist bigotry to which so many southerners cling. Instead, they can see themselves in the everyman hero of the movie (pure and successful, instead of conflicted or intolerant) and choose to do better than those around them. Indeed, they might be inspired to actively fight against racism in their society like Knight.

Of course, in embracing that mantle, there’s a danger that southerners can also conveniently excuse themselves from guilt or responsibility for generations of wrongdoing. Knight’s character is sure to stoke the “not-all-white-people” crowd and provide cover from acknowledging participation in the fruits of privilege. Again, though, that white southerners might want an anti-Confederate hero at all says something about today. We will have to see how the movie fares in the southern states to get any kind of handle on that. It would be quite something for them to even want to trade Robert E. Lee for Newt Knight though.

If this sounds like a new spin on the Civil War, it’s important to note in what ways it is not. Firstly, even our scholarly treatments of the Civil War do tend toward the white savior story. In most college US history classes, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe feature far more prominently than Robert Morris or Solomon Northup (and probably even Frederick Douglass) in lectures on abolitionism. Racism still pervades the stories we tell about that, and in that sense Free State of Jones fits with the usual narrative. Freedom from slavery is still presented as something granted to black Americans, rather than earned or taken by them (even in partnership). That’s part of the appeal for white audiences, consciously or not: these stories are ones of white people being noble and righteous. It offers something great with which to identify.

If abolitionism is often the testament of the magnanimity and nobility of whites in our histories, the civil rights movement of the 20th century belongs to America’s black citizens, who were the agents standing in righteousness there. You’re likely to find Martin Luther King, John Lewis and Fannie Lou Hamer in US history textbooks covering the freedom movement, but a typical US history course wouldn’t mention white allies much, if at all — except John and Robert Kennedy in all their complicated squeamishness (and Lyndon Johnson and his unheroic pragmatism).

Therein lies a lot of the great divide in the US. For many Staters, the civil rights movement — and the Black Lives Movement — pits “us” against “them.” The heroes are black and the villains are white — or the heroes are white and the troublemakers are black (or other minorities). Either way, it’s a conflict between racial communities that our histories seem to encourage that segregates us.

The question the allure of Free State of Jones and its ilk suggests is: could relations be less antagonistic if white Americans had a savior to admire from the civil rights movement too? Do white people just need a white hero? Would that allow them to buy in more emphatically on civil rights the way they do on abolitionism?

It’s possible — but, more importantly, is it good? White savior stories only perpetuate white supremacy, portraying whites as benevolent change-makers and minimizing the agency of black actors. So, even if successful, those narratives get us no closer to being allies or working together in true equality. Sadly, the buddy-cop film fits that ideal better than the usual historical narrative. It’s possible our society benefits more from 48 Hours et al than noble histories then. If so, our historiography fails us, doesn’t it?

Change will not come to our society without conscious effort; racism and discrimination will not be gently let go — and certainly not by white citizens who are blind to their privilege. That kind of advance requires a cultural shift, to which movies as well as scholarly works need to contribute. In the meantime, you can get the star power to open a film (again) depicting a white savior, but America seems very far from any inspirational ally trope. That historical blockbuster still eludes us.

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 Posted by at 9:17 am
Feb 292016
 
In just over sixty years from first contact with European and white adventurers — less than life expectancy in the US on average today — the native population in Hawai’i declined by more than 75%. Much of this death was the result of the introduction of diseases to which Hawai’ians had no immunity. Sailors and well-meaning missionaries brought with them germs that decimated the established communities there, rapidly and mercilessly.
 
Once established, white settlers introduced political and cultural changes as well. They convinced even the king to embrace western ways, including individual land-ownership. In 1848, King Kamehameha III issued the Mahele — a decree that permitted Hawai’ians to own land, which was previously solely a royal prerogative.  Two years later, the Kuleana Act allowed foreigners to purchase real estate from native sellers. For the children of missionaries, this offered the secular option of pursuing agricultural endeavors rather than the Lord’s work, and those who were not called chose commercial farming instead.
 
Sugar was the premiere cash crop, and two of the Big Five — as the biggest sugar producers became known — were started by these sons of evangelists (the others by various enterprising white men).  The growers’ dominance of the economy led to equally significant political power, and they effectively served as a de facto oligarchy controlling the Hawai’ian economy and society. Several were instrumental in the 1893 bloodless coup that overthrew the monarchy and created the Republic of Hawai’i. They were again involved in annexation of the territory by the US.
 
By 1920, only 24,000 native Hawai’ians remained on the island, with only 10% of island real estate still owned by these survivors. Today, just a quarter of the state population claims any native ancestry. The social, political, and economic order there has been completely upended and remade — in great part through the effort of the powerful sugar companies.
 
Recently, Alexander & Baldwin announced that it is shutting down it’s last sugar plantation. After 145 years, the corporation — one of the Big Five,  founded by missionaries’ sons Samuel Thomas Alexander & Henry Perrine Baldwin is abandoning it’s once fertile agricultural pursuit. With the end of this year’s sugar harvest, the 675 employees of the once powerful company will join a workforce that has long since left field work behind — their skills as relevant in the 21st century as the intentions of their employer’s founders.

Alexander & Baldwin’s parents hoped to save and civilize the Hawai’ian people, while their sons hoped for the American dream — transplanted to an island paradise. The cost for it all was thousands of native lives and the end of many traditional ways and practices. What a stiff price for a mere 150 years of commercial success. It seems an utter waste that such sacrifice shouldn’t lead to more permanent structures and noble accomplishments.
 
A bitter aspect of this “White Man’s Burden” is the cruel brevity that demeans the Hawai’ians’ horrible loss. For a few generations of wealth, the better part of a society was lost. The blow seems too great for the reward. The white men’s success was too dearly bought. Now that we can measure its duration and close the history, the brutality of its temporality becomes woefully apparent.
 
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 Posted by at 11:27 pm