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
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
Apr 192015
 
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth…
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
And sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread…
— Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye

When the reinforced concrete presence of the supreme authority in your world literally explodes, and the streets are littered with the life work of civil servants made bureaucratic ash and coated in the blood of children, and the chaos and confusion of not understanding the incomprehensible outcome of violence and rage leaves a whole people in stunned immobility — staring unceasingly at live feeds of the heart-breaking mundanity of combing through rubble — you meet an evil you did not know existed before.  Worse, you come to share a sorrow so big that it engulfs your family, your neighbors, your communities, and all within your state.  There is a mass mourning; for 30 days, everywhere you go you are part of a funeral procession — but it’s a wandering cavalcade with no destination.  There is a ground zero but no terminus.  Grief radiates; it dissipates rather than ends.

In the aftermath, we performed public and private rites to express our grief and kept vigils in honor of those we grieved.  We still meet together and speak the names of the victims, light candles, and share comfort.  Every year, on this date, we relive a little and mark the event.  We examine our scars.  The tears come easily and it’s been now twenty years.

We participate in these rituals, which do the very thing the terrorist hoped to destroy: they bind us together and inspire us to do good for one another.  In a rush, we gave of our money, our time, and our tears.  Later, we left tributes and tokens in the fence that became the first, makeshift memorial.  After two decades, we have a space dedicated to encouraging peace and reflection that brings beauty to the ugly, horrible act.  We go there to walk among the chairs, large and small, and to inhabit a horrific minute suspended serenely in a still pool.

Most importantly, we commit to doing acts of service, kindness, or remembrance in honor of those lost and the sacrifices made in that dark time.  Keeping alive what the Memorial calls the “tenderness of the response” to the bombing is our way of honoring, sanctifying, and amending the tragedy.  To do these solemn good acts is to give no place to terrorism.  The antidote to fear and hate is generosity of spirit.  This, too, radiates into the world; like grief, its effect also has no end.

The bomb blast killed many, but the aftermath inspired so many more.  We consciously choose to do good in the world because it’s our way of responding to the bad.  You cannot undo cruel acts, but we can make sure they do not undo us.  With kindness and generosity, we can turn tragedy into a motivation that unites and inspires us to be better.  In our confusion and grief, it was the thing we just knew to do.


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 Posted by at 10:21 am

It Ends

 current events  Comments Off on It Ends
Mar 092014
 
I’ve been working — on an ongoing basis — on a general history of the US.  Although it’s a survey of our past, it is by necessity about growth and advancement.  With our history there are some requisites: you have to deal with the “discovery” and founding of the country; the national expansion across a continental land mass must be described; and the evolution of a confederacy into a superpower begs explanation.  Invariably, when telling a story about how this country got to where it is today, you are talking about building — about coming together and progress (even at the expense of the first inhabitants).  This is the story of migrants and colonists becoming citizens.
 
It is my job as a historian — with this project and with all my classes — to explain how things came to be.  We observe where we are now, and our histories describe the way here.  Constructing tales of this construction is the essence of my historical work.  It is, then, too, my habit.
 
But, I was watching the news the other day, and it struck me that our society seems as if it is unraveling.  I have a sense that we’ve become so enamored of natural law that we are headed to a brutish natural state.  I look at the political divisions in our country, and I wonder if they can be mended.  We have had these fights so many times it seems.  Even at the political founding of our nation, the Federalists and anti-Federalists fought against one another.  We are constantly disagreeing, and I wonder just how long we can last with this as our state in the States.  We must lack the knack for diplomacy because dispute has already led us to civil war.  We tried to reconstruct but it didn’t really take, and eventually we returned to our corners.  Just as we became a superpower, we seemed again to erupt in civil strife. The culture wars began, and there hasn’t seemed to be any domestic peace since.
 
And, I remembered: things fall apart.  In the back of my mind, I know nothing lasts forever.  History is about change, and political unions are as temporal as the people who make them.  Sometimes, nations are reborn.  Sometimes, they are swallowed up by others.  Sometimes, they are glued together with other loose bits at the bidding of men around conference tables.  They do not stay the same though, and mostly, they have endings.
 
I know this — really, we all know this.  We don’t always actively use that awareness in our everyday thinking or analysis though.  We go on as if, because we would have no reason to bother if we only thought about the end. Life must be lived; there is no skipping forward.
 
As I was thinking these things, I suddenly became very sad.  I was sick-at-heart sad.  Of course the first part of our history is how it comes together, and, by necessity, the later part is how it ends.  It occurred to me that quite literally, I could be living in the coming apart period (although, really, we might ultimately describe the unraveling as beginning even while the weaving occurred).  It could be that in a couple of generations I could be explaining the previous republic to students.  Or The Republic, should we move on to something else.  (Hello, techmocracy.)  In the future, I might likely be explaining, then, how we came not to be.
 
It seems likely to me that it won’t be one nation, indivisible much longer, and that we might become three or four or five nations for whom the Union is like the empires of old.  We might be better neighbors than we are family, but it saddens me just the same.  I like being a Stater, and the notion of choosing to which fragment I would go depresses. I think probably I am not the first citizen to foresee this outcome, and it might be some time coming still.  It no longer seems to me, however, that the Union is something to which we commit our lives, fortunes, and sacred honors. My historical perspective on this has, very sadly, shifted.
 
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 Posted by at 1:42 pm

What's In a Name Change

 current events  Comments Off on What's In a Name Change
Sep 022013
 
Recently, our local city council considered a motion to change the name of a street downtown, which honored a city founder who was also a Klan member and involved in various acts of violence against political opponents.  Depressingly, the Council found a compromise that allowed them to pretend to rename the street while actually preserving the same surname on it.  It resolved none of the lingering racial issues in our city (in fact, it probably exacerbated them) but incurred financial costs just the same (thankfully, donations save the taxpayers from added insult to their pocketbooks to go with the injury to their civic sensibilities).  In any case, there was a lot of talk about the role of history in relation to this incident.  I will confess that it was sometimes painful to listen to laypersons pontificate on the same without any substantive understanding — but it was a good reminder that Everyman is his/her own historian.  I spoke at the council meeting where it was opened to public comments, and I post here what I said then:
 
Like so many other Tulsans, I want to weigh in on the matter of renaming Brady Street.  I support the change and ask you to vote in favor of it.
 
I have taught history for some time, and it always strikes me how little people understand its power.  Every semester, to illustrate that, I tell my students this story:
 
When I was an undergrad, I had an instructor whose son was in an accident and developed amnesia (true story, by the way).  She told our class that when she was taking her son home from the hospital, they stopped to eat.  As they were looking over their menus, he grew increasingly agitated.  When she asked him what was wrong, he said:  ”I don’t even know what to order.  I know what all the words mean, but I don’t remember eating them before.  Do I like hamburgers?”
 
I tell this story because it demonstrates how important memory is to making us who we are.  We simply can’t make choices or function well without it.  Who we are is shaped by what we’ve experienced.  History is our collective memory and makes us who we are as a group.  The memory of what has happened to us as a community shapes the choices we make together — whether we know it or not.  Today, we face an important challenge because what we are really doing is trying to come to terms with our history and make choices based on that for our future.  This is a momentous thing.  Very rarely do we come to such obvious crossroads in life.  There is a wealth of opportunity here.  We can continue to dismiss the past and try futilely to forget it, or we can do the ugly work of wrestling with the difficulty of making a new response.  I say after almost 100 years, it’s time we do the latter.
 
This dilemma has, unfortunately, been characterized as a black v. white issue — south Tulsa v. north Tulsa.  In looking at it that way, we fall into the same pattern we have since the riot happened.  Black versus white is the legacy of that riot.  We have to find a way to get past that, and it’s high time we did so.  Truthfully, the issue here is really white Tulsans deciding how we are going to embrace the blame for that event (which we have failed to do so far).  We have benefited from the riot — you cannot look at the booming district that now sits on the site of those old burned out houses and not know that.  The owners are no longer the people who once lived there or their offspring.  And, white Tulsa did not have to spend money on rebuilding after the disorder; it had sound homes and businesses upon which to continue to build.  That was not the case for north Tulsa.  Most importantly, white Tulsans did not have to live in fear that the more powerful members of their society — including leaders like Tate Brady — would do them great physical harm.  Black Tulsans, however, did have to grow up under that cloud.  It shapes who you are.  It shapes the choices you make.  It impacted the way the civil rights movement played out (and stalled) here so many years later.  For example, in 1968, the federal government barred discrimination in housing.  Our state law did not match that until the mid-80’s, and we still struggle with housing discrimination in our city today.  It is undeniable that the riot and the race relations that developed after it still affect us. White Tulsans must come to terms with this legacy.  We cannot say “well, that wasn’t me.”  As Abraham Lincoln noted in his 2nd Inaugural Address, there is a woe that is due.  It has now come to this generation to decide what it will do with this mantle.
 
I would love if the City of Tulsa — instead of being what people point to as an example of intolerance and backwardness — chose to demonstrate how to handle such things a better way, and with dignity and grace.  I believe we can do this.  I look at the Murrah Bombing Memorial and know that the people here know how to set the standard for handling our history with decency and maturity.  It is time that we do so with the riot.  This will be a harder task because it means owning up to a great failure and harm.  We are not alone in this, and I think it might be helpful to look at how other places with similar histories have dealt with theirs as inspirations for what — or what not — to do.  This dilemma is solvable — and even better, it offers us a bridge to a more positive future.  The way we choose to treat our past today will affect our potential for the future.  I ask you to choose the option that leads us closer to reconciliation and hope.  To do so, it is necessary that we make this change as a sign that we repudiate that past and, in breaking away from the legacy left to us by Brady and his peers, set a unified path forward.
 
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 Posted by at 11:27 am
Apr 182013
 
This week, three people in Boston became terrorism’s latest fatalities.  We don’t know yet if the bomber or bombers selected the Massachusetts state holiday Patriots’ Day for the attack in order to send a political message in particular or if it was just a large crowd at a public event that proved irresistible to those responsible.  Was it a statement about American patriotism?  A nod to previous events on this date in past years?  Or, was convenient opportunity — what with a large milling crowd about — to blame?
 
Speculation immediately rushed to the obviously political:  it was a violent Patriots’ Day protest timed, like that for the anniversary of the siege at Waco, because of the bomber’s leanings.  Of course, Timothy McVeigh targeted the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995 as a show of solidarity with the Branch Davidians raided in 1993.  Later, two students at Columbine High School in Colorado would go on a shooting spree, and the record they left behind indicated a preoccupation with the events at Waco and Oklahoma City.  Their bloody eruption was similarly slated for mid-April.  Just six years separated the three tragedies, and they have become linked in our public consciousness for their violence, their anger, and deadliness.
 
These previous incidents serve as context for the Boston bombing — infusing it with meaning before there is even any semblance of understanding to be had.  Were it a lone event, it would be met with the confusion and grief of Oklahoma City or the indignation over Waco.  But, there is a past, and having been here before, we have fear and expectations.  We have experience with this grief.
 
Immediate responses acknowledged this history.  The connection in timing with Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado — western tragedy moved east and colored further by the trauma of Fall, 2001 — invariably arose.  On Twitter, in news reports, online, and in conversation, observers cited this historical combine.  It is now a list.  It’s a macabre tally:  here are our relevant deadly massacres.  We can itemize it now, our terror.  It’s a frightful grouping of like horrors.
 
I have carried the Oklahoma City bombing with me for eighteen years now.  It’s become a permanent part of my life.  It changed me.  Being so defining and unique to me, my immediate reaction is resisting the listing.  Others may want to combine these events, but they do not go together for me.  In my experience, there is the One and then there are the others.  It feels belittling to fuse them — to act like they were the same.  No, I think.  In scope, in tone, in perpetration, Oklahoma City still stands alone.  In the crudest of measurements — the body count — it eclipses the others.  In civic devastation and impact on public access and security, it is again the greater.  As an internal attack on our government, it remains unique.
 
I am certain that my resistance to combining these events is defensive too.  I am protective of my sorrow and insulted at attaching it to “lesser” tragedies.  I have a bias, and I know it.  You can’t be fair when it comes to your broken heart — and I don’t believe you ought to be.  Still, after thoughtful consideration, the Murrah bombing must be the greater woe:  it was, tragically, our introduction to an age of terrorism.
Truthfully, as similar as they are in our minds, none of the three are much like the others.  The dark motives behind them differed, as did the targets and tools.  It is a kind of dishonor borne of laziness and convenience to connect them.  It simplifies and, worse, obfuscates, and this is the opposite of knowledge.  We are temporal in nature, though, and the timeline rules our understanding.  We can resist it; our spirits can rage against it; but, the fact of the matter is that we have known these several tragedies in our experience.  We have been wounded by each, and we revisit them annually as dictated by the calendar.  April is heavy with sorrow — large and small, multiple and grotesque.  Unavoidably, there is a list.
 
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 Posted by at 9:35 pm