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The Privilege to Riot

 American history, current events  Comments Off on The Privilege to Riot
May 312020
 

Rage, grief, and frustration at yet another death of an unarmed black man at the hands of the police – over a petty allegation involving a measly $20.00 – lit fires, lit consciences, lit businesses, lit the streets all over the country. In what can only be an escalation of the problem of inequitable policing of black communities, police departments have fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and judgment on the people protesting state-sanctioned violence against them. White leaders in these communities demand order, and that is just the thing that has led us to this place.

Blinded or lacking vision, white folks lecture protestors on the “right way” to respond, and it only brings the echoes of Nina Simone to mind:

“They told me to wash and clean my ears
talk real fine just like a lady
and they’d stop calling me Sister Sadie…
I don’t trust you anymore
you keep on saying go slow”

White communities have had ample opportunities to demonstrate that they will respond and correct the problem of violence against black citizens, but they have failed to do so. The chance for appeals to reason together have passed.

But, whites in positions of power over communities across our country care less for justice than they do for property. Perhaps, they cannot understand why anyone would destroy what they cherish over all else. Store fronts inspire them to affronts, and then they deny blacks violence as an expression of grief and outrage – making public violence a white privilege. Police departments comprised mostly of white men have the power and authority to do violence while society denies it of the others who are only given the receipt of that violence.

Pushing back against mostly-white voices demanding “peaceful” protests, there are those who rightly note that our country was founded on a history of protests and violence. They equate today’s opponents of government oppression with those who fostered the American Revolution. They cover Black Lives Matter with the mantle of Washington, which must rankle conservatives who do not see democracy in the U.S. in the same vein as colonial oppression. This defense – while well-intentioned – misses the history of violence as a privilege in our country.

Until the 1960’s race riots in the United States were mostly eruptions of white communities. In New Orleans, Tulsa, Rosewood, Mobile, Beaumont, New York City, and a host of other places, white people attacked black citizens and their neighborhoods. Today – with our short memories – we associate race riots with black anger, which is yet other way racism pervades our culture and thinking. Negative violent behavior is associated with black communities, though our history demonstrates a horrifying number of mob actions by whites against black citizens.

For the most part, those white citizens have not been held accountable for the murders, arsons, and community devastation achieved at their hands. As Tulsa nears the 100-year anniversary of the destruction of North Tulsa by whites, many of those responsible for that violence remain in histories as prominent leaders (and whose descendants inherited their socioeconomic legacies). Only recently did the almost entirely white City Council finally strip the name of one of the same from a city street. Even that was a five-year effort; the first attempt blocked by a farcical argument that removal would obscure the history involved – as if the honor would magically become ironic if allowed to remain.

None of these white communities suffered for the violence they committed against their black neighbors. Their brutality did not prompt a shared cultural view of whites as savage, violent criminals. It did not lead to economic loss, and instead that burden lay on the black victims who survived the whites’ attacks. Devastated black communities have struggled to rebuild from assaults against them, while the fortunes of their white neighbors continued to blossom – often thanks to the destruction. White privilege is a product of the violence that remains, itself, the prerogative of white supremacy in our society.

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For Their Freedom, We Die

 current events  Comments Off on For Their Freedom, We Die
Apr 192020
 

“LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” – Donald Trump, 4/17/20

Four days ago, armed protestors in Lansing, Michigan carried flags and signs demanding to “Live Free or Die” and “End the Lockdown” in defiance of state orders prohibiting large gatherings and requiring residents to stay at home unless they are engaged in essential business. Some protestors carried menacing-looking rifles slung across their chests or over their shoulders. Others wore pistols holstered at their waists.

The purpose of this weaponry is unclear. Firearms are, of course, useless in combatting the coronavirus or any infectious disease. And, really, lockdown measures have nothing to do with one’s ability to possess guns. Even in blue-state Connecticut, gun shops have been designated essential businesses and continue to operate. The display of arms, then, seems to be a show – weapons as props. Carrying them thusly is certainly speech – a silent message to fellow citizens and those in power.

What is this message though? Do these protestors – who are overwhelmingly male – really mean to say that they intend to fight our government in the streets? Are they actually prepared to engage in combat – bullets and casings flying about on the streets of the capitol? Are their statements in earnest?

Today is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Murrah bombing – an event that will not be publicly commemorated due to the prohibitions against crowds. Those who continue to grieve have stayed home, while these disgruntled ones – their guns displaying implicit threats – rally, with an intent to do harm by blocking streets and a hospital entrance. Are these protestors Timothy McVeighs in waiting? Do they mean to attack our government or injure fellow citizens like the infamous terrorist?

Like McVeigh, they are obsessed with guns. The health and safety of others means less to them than the deadly weapons they carry. They love their inanimate metal more than the people who share their hometowns and homeland. They want to display their arms in places where and at a time when their cause amounts to nothing more than a sideshow. The presence or absence of weapons in public places is meaningless when crowded intensive care units and morgues make clear the difference between philosophical disputes and a pandemic crisis.

Our nation grapples with a 21st century health threat while these protestors remain mired in a cause that should have been buried by the rubble of a fallen federal building in Oklahoma City more than two decades ago. Distressingly, 168 victims may have been an insufficient sacrifice to the gun-lust and ruthless egotism of these fanatics. More victims may be laid low at their demand – though this time by contagion rather than explosion. Their flagrant displays continue to terrorize.

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In Tulsa, Brady Street A Sign of Violent Culture

 current events  Comments Off on In Tulsa, Brady Street A Sign of Violent Culture
Nov 292018
 

For the second time in five years, the city council of Tulsa, Oklahoma is debating renaming a street that originally honored city founder and KKK member W. Tate Brady. Technically, the council changed the name in 2013, the first time it took up the issue. Thanks to a compromise then, Brady Street remained Brady Street, but thereafter it was supposed to honor famed photographer Matthew Brady — who had no connection to the city — as a replacement for Tate Brady. That the current discussion focuses again on the latter Brady’s character demonstrates that the street name continues to be a memorial to his legacy.

This is Tulsa’s version of the monument debate occurring in various municipalities around the South. There are no statues honoring Confederate leaders here. That’s largely because, in Oklahoma, the rebels were Native Americans, and white Tulsans who wanted to venerate the Confederacy in the Jim Crow era wouldn’t erect a monument to Stand Watie, a Cherokee and General in the CSA over the forces in Indian Territory. In lieu of monuments then, heroization took a more ethereal form: the proliferation of hagiographic societies. Tate Brady and his peers — many of whom came from Texas, Arkansas, and other slave states — founded local chapters of the Sons of Confederate Veterans to celebrate their white fathers.

Brady was central to luring the 1918 national reunion of Confederate veterans to Tulsa. He bragged to a state meeting in 1916 about pitching to the national reunion organizers. He claimed one of them asked him, “Gentlemen, are you going to make us and our folks ride with and stop at the same hotel as the n—-rs?” Brady reported that he was “proud to tell them that nothing of the sort would happen if they would come to Oklahoma.” He noted that the state legislature had already enacted Jim Crow laws that “puts the n—-r where he belongs,” segregating “him so that he need not be a stench in the nostrils of the white people of our community.” When held, the Tulsa reunion’s guest of honor was Nathan Bedford Forrest II, Grand Dragon of the KKK in Georgia.

Many of the Sons of Confederate Veterans joined the KKK, including Brady. The violence associated with Klan activities would hardly trouble the city leader. He once assaulted a fellow businessman in public. On another occasion, he participated in the torture of labor organizers, along with the local sheriff. Victims reported that Brady personally applied tar and feathers to their wounds after they had been whipped. Law enforcement officers and other city leaders didn’t hold Brady accountable for these violent acts. His behavior was tolerated because that was acceptable in the city’s culture.

By his own admission, Brady was a Klan member in 1921, when, as a night watchman, he presided over the murder of black citizens and destruction of homes and businesses during the Tulsa Race Riot. It was not the case that Brady used his leadership position to help squelch the massacre or rescue the victims of white rioters. He was not a crusader for justice, the rule of law, or peace — during the riot or its aftermath. Consistently over his lifetime, he promoted violence and intimidation in the community, contributing to a brutal bigoted culture which lingers even as the city approaches the centennial of the massacre.

Tellingly, the street that bears Brady’s name runs just along the edge of the boundaries of the old predominately black-owned neighborhood in a commercial district that thrives today as a downtown playground for white Tulsans. Meanwhile, the black community has never regained its financial standing. Urban redevelopment has not resulted in racial diversification in the district — or in obscuring the legacy of the Brady name. Hence the call once again to reassess the propriety of the keeping it on a street sign.

At a recent hearing where city leaders renewed the name change debate, Councilor Karen O’Brien defended Brady, saying people disregard the good things he did, focusing instead on his connection to the KKK. She compared this to students fixating on a math teacher’s error, despite other correct work. Obviously, Brady did more than commit a small miscalculation in promoting violence and white supremacy in Tulsa — just as white Tulsans have more than simply perpetuated divisions in the community in failing to remove Brady’s name from a place of honor all this time.

Four years after the race riot, Brady shot himself in the head at his kitchen table. The violence he embraced claimed even him in the end. This was the legacy he left: an oppressive social order kept in place through vicious means. Tulsa, a city plagued by violence and disturbing disparities of opportunity for minority groups yet today, still bears the marks of Brady’s character, along with his name. Nothing short of a cultural shift will lift the name and the legacy of brutality from Tulsa, and of that change, the city council must give a sign.

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Owning History

 historiography  Comments Off on Owning History
Jul 152018
 

I was startled when I saw journalist Erin Blakemore’s recent Twitter apologia, in which she defended omitting citations in articles drawing on historical research. I wasn’t sure why she felt the need to do so; journalism isn’t scholarly work. Various historians responded, however, with complaints that such was theft of their work. Clearly here, a notion exists that the product — not just the form of presentation, but the history itself — belongs to these authors. It follows then that making use of the knowledge gained from secondary literature is thievery, nullified only by citation.

The historians’ claim springs from the framework of the discipline. Academics search out new areas of inquiry to examine, and success in the field lies in creating novel and compelling histories that make one notable within the profession. Citations are the recognition of historians’ work. Plagiarism — which includes passing off someone else’s research as one’s own — is theft of the intellectual property of another scholar, which, again, is mitigated only by the footnote.

Historians do go to significant expense and effort for their research. They often must travel to archives and other locations to cull through evidence, and grants never cover all of one’s financial obligations. Additionally, monographs represent countless hours of work — research, analysis, writing, and editing. It is one’s life, and having birthed a project, it is natural to have a sense of ownership over it. This is your work.

But, of course, it is ridiculous to suggest that the collective past of a body of people belongs to any one scholar or group of professionals. Firstly, the evidence left for historians to peruse is not theirs; it was made by someone else and most often is kept in places for the public trust (historical societies, museums, etc). The lived experiences this evidence presents are not the historian’s either. A scholar’s past may at best overlap, but histories are not memoirs. They are the stories of strangers, ancestors, and classes of people, rather than the author’s biography. As such, a historian cannot say that the history is theirs in a possessive sense.

Ownership lies solely in the storytelling — the creation of a book, essay, or presentation organizing and depicting the narrative. If a historian is successful with their work, the audience is enlightened, but the knowledge gained is also not owned by the scholar. No one can claim another’s understanding, even if they caused it. An idea once passed to another becomes part of the learner’s knowledge, stored in their memory for their use. It isn’t possible to possess another’s understanding.

Finally, the purpose of scholarship is to inform others. It’s a communal effort intended to better humankind — not enrich an individual researcher. Scholars do not receive remuneration for their interpretations. Acknowledgements are their considerations — benefits to the author, but readers do not purchase a share of ownership. Citations are an intellectual convention that point to a resource. Knowledge, however, has an existence outside of literary sources. You may commodify the histories, but the history cannot be owned.

Scholars err when they confuse compensation for delivery of learning with any claim on the knowledge itself. The work of writing history is altogether separate from the effect it creates. This is the difference between stories and comprehension, and education — the means for learning — undermines intellectual property rights even as it spreads content. We have come to think of the literature as information, when it is really a mode of communication. Hence, the citation belongs to the academy alone (which exists to exchange information). Professionals erroneously believe that novelty creates ownership, but they are the sole perpetuators of that fiction.

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 Posted by at 5:27 pm

It Was About McVeigh’s Guns

 American history  Comments Off on It Was About McVeigh’s Guns
Apr 192018
 

Well before he became a mass murderer, Timothy McVeigh was a boy who liked guns. He would shoot with his grandfather as a youngster and joined the National Rifle Association in the mid 80’s when he got his hunting license. Later, he joined the Army, where he had access to many more weapons. Those who served with him described him as obsessed with guns – this from a group with a generally higher interest in guns than most of the population. McVeigh had begun collecting guns by then and, reportedly, was subsequently in the habit of sleeping with one. He stashed them about, wherever he lived and smuggled them on base while serving. A potential love interest dropped him because she found his all-consuming focus on guns tiresome. Guns were his passion, and he told fellow soldiers that he was concerned that the government would take them away.

After leaving the Army, McVeigh continued to work with guns – as a security guard and, then, selling them on the gun show circuit. He became active in gun-rights advocacy, sharing reading materials with those he knew, mixing with ideological extremists, and writing letters to the editor. He sent Rep. John LaFlance of his home state of New York a letter in an envelope stamped with the advertising slogan: “I am the NRA.” That was in 1992; later, he would disavow the group because he thought it hadn’t done enough to stop gun legislation that passed soon after.

In 1989, a man named Patrick Purdy had turned an AK-47 on schoolchildren at Cleveland Elementary in Stockton, CA. He killed five of them – all under the age of ten – and wounded thirty-two others. Purdy’s gun was a Chinese make, and President George H.W. Bush signed an Executive Order banning the import of assault weapons from China thereafter. Five years later, President Clinton would sign another Executive Order limiting imports of guns and ammunition from China. By then, Congress had responded to public safety concerns by mandating background checks through the Brady Act (1993) and passing the Federal Assault Weapons Ban (1994). The NRA was unable to stop passage of these bills, succeeding only in getting a ten-year expiration inserted in the prohibition legislation.

McVeigh was already riled then by the disastrous enforcement actions in Ruby Ridge, ID (1992) and Waco, TX (1994), which he saw not simply as excessive enforcement leading to an inexcusable loss of lives. His rants against government tyranny weren’t about the 4th Amendment or Due Process. His concern was the threat to gun sales and possession. The assault weapons ban, he told his comrades, was the last straw. It was time to “take the fight to the enemy” with a retaliatory strike against ATF agents and others engaged in gun law enforcement. He saw himself as a crusader for the sacrosanct ownership of guns.

Of course McVeigh had a weapon on him as he fled the scene of the bombing. It was not then legal to carry a handgun on you concealed, which prompted his arrest when a patrolman pulled him over for a motor vehicle violation. “My gun is loaded,” he warned the officer. “So is mine,” Trooper Charlie Hanger responded. In the end, the gun regulation did get McVeigh. He missed the effective date of legislation authorizing concealed carry by just a few months.

The NRA that he thought was too ineffective had been working for some time to get state laws passed allowing carrying handguns in public. In the 90’s and first decade of the 21st century, it successfully pushed concealed carry legislation. Since then, the NRA agenda has included the ability to carry a weapon openly and eliminating licensing and permit requirements. Twenty-three years after the bombing, citizens around the country travel in public spaces free to carry guns where McVeigh could not. Far from eliminating gun ownership – thanks largely to NRA lobbying – governments at the state and federal levels have made it more permissible to introduce weapons into public spaces.

McVeigh didn’t live to see the expiration of the assault weapon ban, which has reintroduced sales of guns like the AR-15 that Nikolas Cruz used for his shooting spree two months ago at a high school in Parkland, FL. McVeigh owned an AR-15 too. NRA lobbying efforts have thus far blocked another ban on such guns – despite mass shootings in Colorado, Connecticut, Nevada, and any number of other places over the years. Instead of the gun-free society that McVeigh feared, our country is awash in handguns, rifles, and variants of deadly weapons. He didn’t need to martyr himself; the cause has been ascendant.

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Histories Without Depth

 American history, historiography  Comments Off on Histories Without Depth
Mar 042018
 

This is not a review.

In general, I gave up reading history books some years ago. The academic ones are so little worth the effort, and I am no longer compelled to “be up on the secondary literature” as I am no longer member of the discipline, so it’s not a necessary requirement to skim them assess their interpretations anymore. I’ve been training myself in the art of historical story-telling — something my academic training was at cross-purposes with — so if I have any interest in reading historical non-fiction, it’s of the popular history varieties. I’m doing research in how non-academics put together their stories.

My most recent reading was Killers of the Flower Moon — a book that has garnered some praise and is apparently in the running for non-fiction book awards. Author David Grann is a journalist, and I was curious to see how he would approach the history. Also, the subject is one that I have peripheral familiarity with as I am from Oklahoma and have studied some Native American history.

Gliding through the book, I couldn’t escape the feeling that the story was disappointingly shallow. The superficial tale was noticeably researched, but there wasn’t a complexity or depth behind it providing a backdrop for the story. There was so much history about Oklahoma and the time period that could have been included that would have enriched the story greatly. For example, at one point Grann recounts the Osage’s desperate appeal to Senator Charles Curtis for help and protection. How much more poignant would that plea seem if Grann had developed Curtis as a character, exposing his assimilationist positions?

And, there was more. Grann seems to accept at face value that Governor Walton was legitimately impeached for corruption (thus supporting Grann’s points about impropriety in government in the state), but those knowledgeable about the subject understand the role of Walton’s anti-KKK activities in his removal from office. In a place where the governor is vulnerable to conspiratorial schemes for taking action against racial violence, what hope had the Osage — a racial minority — for justice?

Less ominously, why wasn’t Frank Phillips, founder of Phillips (66) Petroleum and a rich, powerful figure in state, a resource for aid for the people who granted him honorary membership in their nation? Grann describes the oil barons flocking to Pawhuska to bid on oil leases, but beyond that, he doesn’t examine their roles at all. Phillips was a noted collector of Native American art and artifacts as well as drilling rights, so his absence in the mystery is glaring. His failure to intercede is telling, for someone who regularly welcomed Native leaders to his ranch and celebrated territorial society. A historian approaching the subject would delve into such inquiries and recognize the value of interweaving these and other historical points (these few are just examples) into the story. Therein lies the difference between a journalist and a historian approaching the subject.

I don’t mean to single Grann out here. Indeed, the superficiality in his book is something I find common in history books penned by untrained historians. They know their immediate subjects — at least to a degree — but they aren’t steeped enough in other relevant histories to dig more deeply into their work. There’s more to extract (and it’s obvious to a historian), but they don’t even know what is there to mine. Sadly, no one will go back to more richly treat what Grann has already popularized now. It’s a loss and so typical of the lightweight histories that dominate the best-seller lists today.

More depressingly, the Osage murders remain a novelty this way — a curious story worthy of passing interest that never gets incorporated into the larger account of race relations, justice, and economics in the history of the State and States. Context would bridge the gap in this tale, but a journalist wouldn’t see the lack — and historians are too busy with their monographs and professional interests to bother. The result is perpetuation of the simple narratives that seem so indicative of US histories. There’s always so much more to the stories than the stories themselves.

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 Posted by at 7:29 pm

History So Scary

 historiography  Comments Off on History So Scary
Feb 022018
 

The Washington Post recently ran a piece on its history blog, Retropolis, about the 1918 Spanish flu. Aside from scaring the bejesus out of folks, I’m not exactly sure what the purpose was. I guess people are interested in reading about the deadly outbreak, what with this year’s miserable flu season. The history is timely. It’s relevant — but is it useful?

After outlining the spread of the influenza outbreak during World War I and providing some shocking reports for effect, the article warns that we as a society are vulnerable to another such epidemic in the future. Quotes from medical experts drive home the potential threat. Current vaccinations are insufficient to prevent another deadly event, and today’s medicine doesn’t offer a cure. We could, then, see a repeat of a widespread outbreak, the blog entry warns, and similarly succumb.

Reading the essay — and it was compelling and a bit terrifying, so very effective — I wondered what the draw on a piece like this is for lay readers. It encourages fear of the influenza virus, but it offers no suggestions for action you can take in light of the threat to protect yourself (because there isn’t much). The entry isn’t informative in that way, which makes me wonder about the author’s view of the purpose of history.

Clearly, here is a historian who, thankfully, does not buy into that old saw about studying history so as not to repeat it. There’s no salvational element to this tragedy; it is utterly lacking in instructional value. Instead, the story’s appeal seems strictly in the entertainment vein. Here is the historical version of a horror story. It’s history designed for titillation and drama: non-fiction art to excite dilettantes.

Do we want to settle for that from our history though? Shouldn’t it do more than feed our curiosities? What’s the point of knowing things just to know them (or to be spooked by them)? I find myself inclined to history that is more substantive than that, and I wonder: do other historians not feel the same way? Do they just want to be experts in an interesting catalog of past happenings? Why get a PhD for that?

There’s so little space in popular outlets dedicated to historical inquiry that I hate to see it squandered. You want to be relevant and compelling, yes, but we ought to aim to make art that does more too. I’m frequently at a loss as to what the aims of my peers are on this point. It leaves me despondent to think the profession’s aim is simply a trivial pursuit.

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 Posted by at 12:25 pm

Repeals and Bans Spur New Plans But Fascism Will Never Hurt Me

 current events  Comments Off on Repeals and Bans Spur New Plans But Fascism Will Never Hurt Me
Dec 292017
 

Usage data tells us that the most frequently searched word on the Merriam Webster website is fascism. Over the course of the dictionary’s digital existence, no other entry has been as popular to look up with our literate public. Imagine what this says about its mostly American audience. Of all the ideas that could drive our curiosity, it is a political label — and one filled with negative meaning rather than hope, inspiration, or national ideals — that we feel the need to understand more than any other.

Undoubtedly, this trend was long fueled by the ignorant anti-Obama segments of our polity, and just as surely, those searchers have been supplanted in the last year by the shrieking opposition to Trump. To both, the political label has been bandied about by editorial voices on the attack, inciting fear and framing public conversations with accusations. This denigration — this slur — This is fascism! — has become so common as to prompt widespread searches yet so poorly understood as to require definition.

Everywhere, dire warnings that fascism is at work in our country — threatening our freedom — inspire fear via the dramatic labeling. A fascist does such things! These are the signs of fascism! Self-proclaimed — and possibly legitimate — experts charge on social media, and in op-eds, and through television appearances that the threat of fascism is upon us. You must understand, this is fascism!

In response, audience members turn to the dictionary for understanding. What is this fascism? How do we define it? They have become familiar with the label, but the concept is still strange. This begs the question, what good is the label? Why fear the word? Isn’t what is bad about fascism the things that define it, rather than the word itself? So, why the urgency for labeling? Words are representations; it isn’t the letters in that particular arrangement that threaten.

Here is the problem with politics — with political terms and theory: people too often value the labels in themselves. Look, they say, this thing is a sign of fascism. Or, look here, this other thing is a sign of fascism. They stir up concerns that fascism is upon us. But, what is the point of showing the evidence to convince someone of the danger in the label, instead of the word being shorthand for terrible occurrences afoot? It’s as if people care more that they should win others over to the vocabulary than that they object to fascist actions.

We know the threats that come from fascist movements because we know the historical stories of their deeds. Think of the Nazis’ Final Solution or the White Terror in Francoist Spain. The tragedies and harms that we have record of show us what we should fear repeating. The word fascist doesn’t matter; it’s what it represents that brings us harm. We should hope to avoid reliving — or experiencing a variation of — the terrible events we know to have occurred under former fascist regimes.

So, it is the history of these powers that should inform us, but we are bludgeoned instead with terminology, which sends us running to the dictionary for understanding. There, Merriam-Webster gives us examples to describe fascism that, ironically, echo the evidence presented to alarm us of fascist creep in our political culture. Our understanding circles, and dizzyingly, we flit between sources with understanding before us but resisting true comprehension.

What good does it do us to debate whether fascism has come to our country instead of simply committing ourselves to act on the matters that present to us? We are too consumed with political theory, neglecting the historical evidence that enlightens and — more importantly — dropping our focus from participating as our current story unfolds. The purpose of categorization is understanding, but it becomes a distraction if the labels replace our care for actual experience — or worse, responding to abuse. Be moved by historical tales and the histories we are now making. React to your present. Let later scholars define it.

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Token Advances — a #twistory

 American history  Comments Off on Token Advances — a #twistory
Nov 282017
 

What’s the Point of This Business Anyway?

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on What’s the Point of This Business Anyway?
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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