Lately, Americans have been inundated with negative political campaigning – which is not to be confused with chronic negative politics. The first is date-specific; the latter is the American way.
The preeminent bugaboo of this election is Barack Obama’s association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. , formerly of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Inflammatory snippets from some of Wright’s sermons have filled the communication infrastructure with the posters’ intent to disparage Obama, specifically, and Democrats, generally, by association. The spectres of black racism, anti-American sentiment, and hostility to the U.S. government now haunt white nationalists, and the local GOP in North Carolina is using video from the sermons in negative campaign ads for the upcoming primary there. Of course, negative campaign ads are not new. They remain de rigueur — especially in elections where an “outsider” runs on a reform platform.
One hundred and twenty-four years ago, during the 1884 election, Republicans hit the Democratic candidate, Grover Cleveland, hard with a disparaging campaign. Corruption scandals involving government officials and politicians had plagued the country in the years following the Civil War. Cleveland ran on a “responsible government” platform, courting the public trust and fledgling professional community. Not long after the convention — in Chicago, no less — where Cleveland took the nomination, Rev. George H. Ball of the Hudson Street Baptist Church in Buffalo, New York wrote an article for the local paper accusing the candidate of fathering an illegitimate child. Republicans pounced on the issue. A taunting refrain entitled “Ma, Ma Where’s My Pa?” became a popular anthem. Aghast, one of the Democratic leaders, Charles Goodyear, contacted Cleveland for advice on how to respond. The candidate telegraphed back: “WHATEVER YOU DO, TELL THE TRUTH.” Cleveland’s campaign did not deny the charges. Instead, it acknowledged that he had taken financial responsibility for the mother and boy, while eschewing an ill-fitting marriage. Apparently, the voting public was pacified by Cleveland’s monetary support and honest response. The Republicans made other attacks, but the public elected Cleveland anyway. What they wanted then was honesty — if not virtue — and the one thing the Republicans could not tar Cleveland with was dishonesty.
That snippet goes to show that sometimes negative campaigns backfire. There are many other examples where such tactics succeed, though, so the practice remains. My favorite negative ad comes from the 1930 election for Sheriff in Grady County, Oklahoma. That year, the last recorded lynching in Oklahoma occurred — in the town of Chickasha (pronounced chick-uh-shay) in Grady County. A local black man, Henry Argo, was accused of rape. Relying on sketchy evidence, county officers arrested Argo and put him in the Grady County jail. As too often happened in that day, a white mob descended on the jail with the aim of enacting “popular justice.” The National Guard mobilized, but the mob ultimately reached Argo. He was brutally murdered in the early morning. Two months later, Sheriff Matt Sankey (Democrat) faced re-election to the job he’d held for ten years. He lost by 2,000 votes — and, notably, there weren’t even 2,000 black residents in Chickasha at the time and only about 500 of the black citizens there were voters. Sankey’s opponents urged citizens to “Remember Henry Argo” when they voted. A local activist, a mixed-race woman named Martha Sipuel, went further. As part of her personal campaign against the incumbent, she hung a sign on the family car that read “To Hell With Matt Sankey.”
This weekend marked the thirteenth anniversary of the murder of one hundred and sixty-eight of my compatriots by a fellow American. I’m still grieved. I’m still angry. I don’t understand how the whole country could indiscriminately declare war on Arabs on another continent in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001 when it has already abandoned efforts to combat domestic terrorism that has cost me my own.
On April 19, 1995, Timothy McVeigh blew up the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. We did not rebuild that structure. Instead, we left the skyline permanently changed — as we are. The site is a scar that has become a garden. The tokens, notes, and spontaneous personal memorials left on the fences back then remain, and they far more movingly honor that loss than any statue or well-crafted monument ever could. To read the handwritten notes and review the personal items left behind is to engage the individual — and collective — grief of those injured by that event who still walk this earth. Those of us who remain continue to remember it with our heads in our hands.
The secular war waged by militia members like McVeigh cannot be vilified like we have done with the “jihad.” We cannot blame people “over there” with whom we do not share a common faith or culture. You can’t rationalize McVeigh’s act as simply passionate fervor either. It was one of us so angry at our own government that he irrationally killed innocents who bore no responsibility for any acts that might justify that ire. It’s incomprehensible — even for someone who does not consider herself a patriot. There’s opposition to the unreasonable expansion of the power of government, and then there’s declaring war against the State by murdering children.
I read a history textbook recently that, under the heading “The Rise of Terrorism,” lumps the Oklahoma City bombing with the two attacks on the World Trade Center (in 1993 and 2001) and the bombing of an American commercial jet over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, among other things. I wonder when I see this how future historians will interpret McVeigh’s atrocity. How will they objectively explain one of the darkest days of my life? Will they continue to identify it as part of a burgeoning age of terrorism? Can you even put this event in that context — especially when it was so dissimilar to those other events? Is it really dissimilar — or are McVeigh and Osama bin Laden alike? Or, is it better to compare militia activists to the Weather Underground? Do we reset our time-line then, connecting terrorism of the 1960′s to that of today? As a historian, I am curious to see what the prevailing historiography will be. As an Oklahoman, I still have too much grief to bother with objective explanations of it as a “historical event.” Most importantly, what I fear is that it will become an incident quickly forgotten — a casualty of Americans’ short memories and disregard for the history of the central states.
“Bilingualism and multilingualism are inherently divisive.” — Rep. Randy Terrill (R), Moore, OK 
“It is incumbent upon Americans to encourage immigrants to rapidly assimilate by learning the English language.” — Rep. Randy Terrill (R), Moore, OK 
Sometimes, the ahistoricity of Americans — and, definitely, Oklahomans — makes me crazy. Being ignorant of their history, they say ignorant things about their present.
Representative Terrill has introduced a bill to make English the official language in Oklahoma. Of course, this legislative proposal has prompted outcry from the Indian nations, who feel that this is yet another attack on their culture. It is, but, actually, Terrill’s motivation is to attack Hispanics — not Native Americans. Last session, he presented legislation “cracking down” on illegal immigrants, who are stereotyped as Hispanic or Mexican. Terrill says his purpose with the new bill is to reduce government costs, but after reading some of his public comments (“We have thousands of illegal immigrants coming across our southern border every day.”  ; “The fastest-growing parishes in Catholicism are non-English-speaking, and a good portion of them are illegal aliens.” ), it’s hard not to see this as anything but a pretext for discrimination. Terrill is upset that Oklahoma might need be bilingual — or maybe what he fears is that white non-Hispanics might have to learn a second language. How outrageous! Incensed, Terrill wants to force immigrants to “assimilate” — with all of the negative connotations normally associated with that word. The legislator and his ilk, of course, ignorantly ignore the fact that immigrants do already assimilate — because of economic and social necessity rather than legislation. Why Terrill feels that the dominant white culture in Oklahoma is so tenuous is unclear.
Now, here’s the ahistoricity that rubs: Oklahoma lies in the territory that was previously part of the Spanish holdings in what is now the United States. It is popular in the U.S. to believe that our country was founded by English settlers. Roanoke, the first permanent English settlement — which only lasted three years, was founded in 1584. The Spanish established a permanent seat in Florida in 1565 (St. Augustine) — almost twenty years before Roanoke, and that settlement lasted. During the time following this founding, the Spanish continued to colonize much of our country under the name “New Spain.” In 1598, they organized the New Mexico Territory, establishing Santa Fe as its seat in 1610 — ten years before the Purtians hit Plymouth Rock. In 1682, the French laid claim to the part of New Spain — and unclaimed territory — fed by the Mississippi River. In 1763, the French gave up this holding, the “Louisiana Territory,” to Spain. The Louisiana Territory, of course, included the main of Oklahoma (The Panhandle was part of Texas and, therefore, a Spanish holding already.). While the English colonies developed on the east coast, the Spanish continued to expand their settlements in the southwest and along the west coast — founding San Diego in 1769 and Monterey in 1770. San Francisco was established the same year as the “American Revolution.” San Jose was organized in 1777 and Los Angeles in 1781. At the turn of the nineteenth century, the Spanish returned Louisianna to the French, who promptly sold it to the U.S. in 1803. This is how Oklahoma joined the United States.
Of course, if those who came west from the English colonies to settle in Oklahoma assimilated into existing society, they should have learned Spanish — or French, or (later) Cherokee, or Creek, or etc. They did not. Instead, they forced Anglo-centric culture on existing residents. These settlers did not assimilate. Why should Hispanics, then? If Terrill really believes in assimilation, he should embrace Hispanic culture rather than resist it — since it visited Oklahoma long before English society. He will not — because our history is repeating itself: white Anglo-centric culture here won’t tolerate cultural pluralism. Which just goes to prove that not only do we not know our history, but, also, we haven’t learned a damn thing.
Although it’s tempting — as it is April — to inagurate my blog with a rant about how women’s history actually perpetuates the marginalization of females and women’s issues, it’s more true to me to talk about how our approaches to history are shaped by our personal histories. How we study ourselves is directed by how we became ourselves.
I might be more interested in researching women’s associations and settlement houses, if I came from the kind of people involved in that. The grandmother I knew best didn’t work for pin money — she worked to feed her children when her drunken bum of a husband didn’t. My other grandmother — who I really only knew as a widow — stayed at home. I don’t know if her domestic arrangement can be best described as two partners operating in separate spheres though. You could argue that, rather, they shared the sphere of alcoholism. Perhaps she drank at home and he out with the boys, creating separate spheres of addiction. Even then, though, her story doesn’t fit conventional interpretations of women’s roles and domesticity. She was no activist or frustrated hopeful limited by a patriarchal system. She drank.
My mother worked outside the home against her will — her struggle against sexist employment discrimination wasn’t born of principle. She had three demanding, chirping innocents to provide for. Like my grandmothers, she had no professional aspirations or college degree. They were clever women though.
I’m not curious — because I don’t come from that — about priviledged suffragists and middle-class reformers. I am grateful to them, but I don’t want to spend my life trying to convince male historians to pay attention to their work. That isn’t because I don’t know that they helped pave the way for me too. It’s because I don’t know what it’s like to come from women confined in a strictly domestic sphere. I only know intimacy with women who engaged on an unequal playing field with men.
I might be more interested in domesticity if that linked me to my women — or even to my father, who still won’t let me cook for him. When I was a little girl and the Equal Pay Act was yet empty legislation, he told me: You can be anything you want to be — except somebody’s secretary. Matriarchy was normal for me, and I identified with the Count of Monte Cristo instead of A Little Princess. My affinity, then, lies with Mother Jones rather than Jane Addams. And, I am more interested in telling stories not bounded by spheres — stories that use inclusion to talk about our similarities and differences. I am well aware that this bent is born of the legacy I inherited and how I’ve embraced that. In this, I am no different from any other historian.