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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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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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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A Great Historical Noise

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on A Great Historical Noise
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

Blinded By Privilege

 current events  Comments Off on Blinded By Privilege
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

Is Our Professors Failing Us?

 current events  Comments Off on Is Our Professors Failing Us?
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.”

History So White

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on History So White
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

The Brevity Makes It All The More Cruel

 American history, current events  Comments Off on The Brevity Makes It All The More Cruel
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