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Nov 282017
 

Jul 302017
 

The divide between academics and lay historians is never more clear than when someone outside the guild engages in history-telling and stumbles into the dilemmas that professionals (and independent scholars) regularly face. Movies based on historical events frequently fit the bill, and because they do reach larger — and different — audiences than scholarly monographs, their representations can actually take on more meaning. While trained historians might parse these films for certain details, responses by non-historians offer alternative means for getting at historical issues. Movie reviews are a window into the artistic effect of popular histories in a way that scholarly reviews of professional writing are not. As such, they are often more telling about where we are as a society than our academic output.

One recent critique serves as a disappointing indicator. The Hollywood Reporter movie critic Todd McCarthy’s review of the new historical film Detroit is tragically oblivious and ignorant: it is seated in privilege and utterly lacks awareness of anything beyond that. McCarthy’s unconscious bias is, frankly, startling. For example, he writes:

“The cop in charge, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, the kid in The Revenant), is a hideous racist and sadist of the worst kind (he’s also a fictional character, presumably, because whomever he’s based on in real life was found innocent in court and can’t be depicted as doing what the character is seen doing onscreen).” (emphasis mine)

Apparently Mr. McCarthy is so uninformed by the racial history in our country that he believes that if a white cop did something bad to citizens, s/he would be convicted of a crime and not having been convicted must mean that s/he did no violent acts. As noted, this is extreme obliviousness, but it demonstrates poor reasoning generally as well.

Sadly, it’s also the basis for his criticism of the film.  As McCarthy puts it:

“Historically, there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, so unless the creative artists are inclined to delve beneath this rendering to examine nuances on both sides, it’s uncertain what the film has to offer other than a punch to the gut.”

To that reviewer, value in a historically-based production such as this lies in moral and psychological examination of the (white) antagonists. While it’s tempting to mock such a position by taking it to its absurdity (replace “Detroit” with “World War II” and “white authorities” with “Nazis” and see what kind of film library you can build), McCarthy has actually stumbled into a historiographical quandary that is interesting to explore.

For those who lived through the racial upheavals of the 60’s and those born since, humanizing depictions of those events have immense value. They raise awareness and build cross-community understanding; they give us context for the issues we are dealing with today. McCarthy even acknowledges the latter:

“It’s impossible to sit through all this and not ponder how things are, or are not, the same a full half-century after the events on display.”

For the reviewer, however, the film’s failure to present the police with more complexity — and here he is assuming that racism can be situated or in some way rationalized, rather than existing as a simplistic ideology — robs it of profitability for viewers today. Obviously, when he talks about viewers, he means white viewers, because for black viewers, seeing an acknowledgment of the harms done to them and their community most certainly has a value in itself. It may even be more important for white Americans to watch such films, though, because it forces them to choose between historical denialism and acknowledging past acts; they are unable to blissfully continue in their ignorance when presented with the history. Hence, the issues here aren’t really about this movie specifically or McCarthy alone. They get to the heart of why we study history and learn about our often unpleasant past.

Historical understanding — be it through monographs, documentaries, historical fiction, or exhibits — makes us conscious about our past and our present and offers us the opportunity to inform our future with that knowledge. In that sense, it might be more valuable to be aware of our dark pasts than it is to take on the mantle of our former glories. As obnoxious as it is to say that there are lessons to be learned from history, it can inspire us to make different choices when we confront our failures from the past.

McCarthy comes thisclose to a historical epiphany just such as this when he notes:

“In its depiction of this cauldron of helter-skelter violence lies the implicit and entirely plausible suggestion that the mainly white police in every instance overreacted to what was going on; if the wee-hours revelers had just been left alone on that first night, it’s implied that nothing untoward would likely have resulted.”

Tragically, he is unable to fully embrace this insight about the possibility of de-escalation, largely because of his insistence — which must be based in racial preference — that the white characters gain focus, rather than it remaining strictly on the black victims. Sitting with the tragedy and trying to understand and even empathize with angry black crowds — which is a very profitable pursuit — is an activity McCarthy says only activists would welcome. Hence, his negative assessment of the picture culminates in this dismissive criticism:

“What we get instead is a ramped up “j’accuse” that will offer forceful connections with present-day incidents for those keen to find them.”

Overcoming this bias — the notion that issues of police brutality and violence in our black communities are for radicals and minority citizens only — is truly the greatest test our histories of this period face. In this, academics share the same challenge as the film-makers here. Is there anything in the art of the storytelling that breaks down that barrier, or does it so control the reader’s view that we have no hope of transcending our divisions through education and understanding?

Surely that is exactly the point of our stories. If it isn’t to build understanding, we really shouldn’t bother. What we don’t need, as a society, is to develop sympathy for the racists or to try to mitigate their behavior in any way. Such character studies might fascinate, but they lack a larger social benefit. They will not help to build bridges and they do not reflect democratic values. Pursuing a better republic requires continuing to tell stories about the victims, to lay the indecencies plain in order to fully face the past and embrace mutual opposition to state-sponsored violence against minority communities going forward. Our histories must accuse. It isn’t the history some want, but it is the history we need.

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Jul 082017
 

Once, when I was in grad school, I went to an event with some union friends, and I was challenged there by an international student who demanded an explanation from me, as a student of history, why Americans did not celebrate May Day. I sighed, knowing what was coming, but proceeded anyway to talk about the labor movement in the U.S. My inquirer quickly cut me off to announce that it’s because of our society’s hostility to all things communist (and communist-tinged). Frankly, these kinds of interactions tend to be common when people discover you’re a historian: folks pretend to ask you to weigh in on something, but they really just want to announce their own thinking on the subject. Everyone thinks they know history.

They do not, and for two reasons. The first is that what people have been taught about history — including me — is oftentimes wrong or incomplete. Thus, people do not always know things as fully or as well as they think they do. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself over the years; learning is an ongoing process (which sometimes requires unlearning; ALWAYS show your work). Historians are slightly less susceptible to scholarly hubris (hence, they will defer to a certain degree when they are not experts in a particular area), and it’s in good part in keeping with the old saw that being educated means you are aware of all you don’t know. Laypersons, however, lack this humility almost entirely, which leads me to the second reason for their ignorance: a misunderstanding of what history is.

The downside of professionalization is that people have come to believe that history is a set of facts to be discovered and mastered. In reality, it is a practice: the mining of evidence which is then scrutinized and shaped into a useful narrative that provides insight into who we are as people. History is created, not found. Historians get trained in doing that — haphazardly, often, and uncritically, often, but at least practiced in it. Laypeople are not, but they insist on acting as historians anyway because they erroneously believe that their use of facts is historical.

Historians are, themselves, to blame for this ignorance. They tried to turn the discipline into a science and reduce the work to data that could be analyzed and reported. This led to the misconception that historians are merely more conversant in the facts than non-experts, and that insofar as they know the facts, non-historians function on the same footing as historical experts — as if years of practice simply translates into a greater assimilation of data. After going through the analytical process with me in class, students are quickly disabused of this nonsensical belief. Still, it pervades our society, which makes it so painful to participate in public conversations today.

Sweet baby Jesus, it’s so noisy out there. I used to think I had something to offer to the discussion, but so much of what dominates is superficial, ignorant, and mean-spirited. Who wants to be a part of that? What’s the point? It’s like trying to raise an umbrella in a tropical storm. The public is unteachable; no intellectuals seek paths less traveled. Everyone knows everything about politics and history and stays firmly within the bounds of their suppositions. There’s too much “J’Accuse…!” and not enough of The Crucible.

Truthfully, I find many of the conversations out there pathetically uninteresting. It’s horrifying to see how many educated people are so uncritically possessed by their 21st century-mindsets and historical biases that they tweet or opine the most ridiculous claims. Did you know this is the most divisive time in US history — eclipsing the hostilities of the actual Civil War? Did you know no previous presidents or politicians so blatantly abused their offices or used them to their own advantage — forgetting Teapot Dome, the old spoils system, and even passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by a government dominated by slave-holders? Really, the white middle class is losing its shit of late while minority critics loudly proclaim this the Nation it’s always been. It’s embarrassing as a white person, this modern-day Columbian discovery.

Again, all of this drama and errant thinking represents a failure by the historical profession. In celebrating the Founders, we have failed to educate people on the way the deferential society and personal power truly worked. In shutting ourselves up on college campuses to debate historical minutia with one another, we have failed to educate the public effectively. Case in point: I recently read a review of William Hogeland’s new book, Autumn of the Black Snake in which the historian-reviewer points out that the story therein is familiar to scholars, though not to larger audiences. The reviewer suggests it’s commendable for Hogeland to popularize the history, when, truthfully, it should signal historians’ abject failure at education (but, a boon for Hogeland, anyway). They know; they don’t ground. I wrote a whole book on this topic that will never see the light of day because it wouldn’t sell.

Anyway, the predicament leaves us with a lot — and I mean A LOT — of artless invectives dominating our current national dialogue verbally-abusive exchange. Educated columnists ignorant of their ignorance (or carelessly so because they are lost in their own rage) rant, stuffing their exclamations with half-baked or obvious and, often, unrelated historical facts. A bleating flock of historians appear on pedantic TV “magazines” and Op-Ed pages to hold forth in self-righteously angry, measured tones information that is uninspiring, unperceptive, and unprofitable. There’s no room for subtle creative voices. Our culture celebrates armband politics; it makes you wonder that we have landed anyone on the moon, tamed wild rivers with massive dams and birthed livable cities in uninhabitable places, or constructed frameworks of knowledge that have shaped perceptions for centuries. We still have no history that helps us understand ourselves. Most certainly, don’t look for it in all the noise.

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 Posted by at 3:22 pm
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.

m[-_-]

 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