Mar 312009
Really, the egotism of professional historians knows no bounds.  I can’t stomach it.  It’s one of the reasons I went amateur.  The pros love to get superior about their knowledge and insight.  Meanwhile, their eyes are full of beams as they eagerly point out others’ motes.
Case in point:  My textbook gives an overview of the historiographical debate over Andrew Jackson’s commitment to “the people.”  Was he, in the end, a real advocate of the common man or a tool of the special interests?  This is the driving question that I can’t imagine any one of my students gives a crap about but to which the book devotes a full page.  From the book:  “In 1855 historian George Bancroft maintained that Jackson himself embodied America, for he ‘shared and possessed all the creative ideas of his country and his time.’ (This is the sort of twaddle that gives nineteenth-century historians a bad name.)”
Twaddle:  noun, silly idle talk: drivel (Webster’s)
Wow, twaddle.  That’s harsh.  Poor nineteenth century historians.  So nice of the book’s author to pass judgment.  Well, we are so much more sophisticated today.  You can’t help but sniff at the old time puffery.  It’s a sign of progress.  Oh, wait.  Another excerpt from the book:
“Whatever his personal convictions, Jackson stood as the symbol for a new, democratically oriented generation.  That he was both a great hero and in many ways a most extraordinary person helps explain his mass appeal.  He had defeated a mighty British army and killed hosts of Indians…Jackson epitomized many American ideals.  He was intensely patriotic, generous to a fault, natural and democratic in manner (at home alike in the forest and in the ballroom of a fine mansion).  He admired good horseflesh and beautiful women, yet no sterner moralist ever lived;  he was a fighter, a relentless foe, but a gentleman in the best American sense.  That some special providence watched over him (as over the United States) appeared beyond argument to those who had followed his career.  He seemed, in short, both an average and an ideal American, one the people could identify with and still revere.”
Damn, it’s such a good thing that historians today don’t write twaddle like those nineteenth century guys.
 Posted by at 8:21 pm
Mar 282009
In a world stuffed full of ideas churning and clamoring for attention, a little advertising is often a necessity.  Products need commercials, and social causes require commemorative days.  Gucci gets photo spreads in Vogue and lung cancer gets The Great American Smoke Out.  The less sexy the cause, the more creative its proponents have to be in raising awareness.  Thus, when Black History Month gained some traction, women’s historians jumped on the bandwagon.  A monthly educational campaign is a great way to promote academics, and anything that can get people to pay attention to the history of women’s work (yawn) is a must for exploitation.
I, myself, can’t stand women’s history.  I can’t think of anything less interesting than a treatise on needle crafts of the nineteenth century — unless it’s a treatment of metalworking of the same time, or the usual ejaculatory blathering about the political philosophy of the founding fathers.  I am not particularly interested in issues of child-rearing or home economics, so much of women’s history is lost on me.  Also, my interest in women’s clubs depends entirely on the format in which the information is presented.  It isn’t a subject I would pursue out of my own curiosity (but, then, neither are men’s clubs).  I always find it insulting when I meet male historians and they assume I practice women’s history.  It’s stereotypical and annoying.  My male professors used to suggest women’s history conferences I should attend — which, of course, they were not attending because (being men) they didn’t do women’s history.  There’s the rub for me on the whole issue.  Female historians began studying women because the male-dominated profession ignored them.  In doing so, they carved out a niche for investigation — and promptly marginalized their own work.  Now, it is a specialty for women, and male historians continue to ignore it for the most part.  Today, the men might throw us a bone here or there talking about the fight for women’s right to vote or something like that in general histories, but every time I have to hear a labor historian (male) talk about Eugene Debs while ignoring Mother Jones or a social historian (male) talk about Anthony Comstock and disregard Carrie Nation, it infuriates me.  Likewise, it makes me crazy when they ignore the history of abortion and the like — even though it was (and remains) a defining political issue of the twentieth century.  Male scholars still treat us as if we were off in that separate sphere and they don’t have to talk about us  — even when we and our issues impact areas outside that sphere as much as or more than men.
It’s a catch-22 in a way.  If we don’t study women’s history, it doesn’t get investigated, but in making it a specialty, it gets marginalized.  The answer is to write history that encompasses the work of men and women together.  We’re still doing a lousy job of that — mostly because hardly anyone’s doing it.  The women historians are just looking at women, and the males are just looking at men.  Noted women’s historian Linda Gordon said that it is necessary to study women alone because their experiences don’t always match the traditional historiography.  We must then “repaint the painting” so that women also fit in.  But, I didn’t pick up the practice of history to judge whether or not the men’s versions were good enough.  I came to play with the big boys and create narratives of my own that compete on the same level as theirs — or, rather, I expect to make them play on my terms:  writing synthetic history that covers women and men of all races and how their lives intersected. I don’t want to repaint their paintings.  I want to blow up the freaking gallery.
 Posted by at 4:04 pm
Mar 252009
Oklahoma isn’t a particularly scholarly place.  It seemed, when I was in Massachusetts, that the factory workers there read Nietzsche in their spare time and you could talk deconstruction with the produce man at the local market.  They are a grossly over-educated lot.  It was stunning after living most of my life in a state where over a quarter of the residents still don’t graduate from high school (and they’re not dropping out to join the educated underground).  You can tell what people value by the libraries they build (when I travel, I take pictures of the libraries in the places I visit as part of my photographic record).  The central library in Tulsa is shit.  It looks like a dump.  It’s got a ridiculously limited book selection — from which you might have been able to cultivate an up-to-date education thirty years ago.  There have been multiple bond issues on ballots to fund building a new downtown library but they’ve all failed.  Instead, we’ve built an arena and bought a new city hall (read:  corporate bailout for the owner who went bankrupt).  What construction money the library system has goes to the south side to build “community centers” — that is meeting spaces that also house some books.  Our libraries here tend to serve more as public spaces than education facilities.  It’s who we are.
If you have an intellectual bent, like I did growing up, you definitely feel outside of the norm here.  You have to treat your scholastic curiosity like an illicit secret because sharing it only gets you distaste from your peers.  Anyway, I always thought it was ironic that two of the greatest writers of the 20th century were from Oklahoma.  If you want to talk intellectual and scholarly, it doesn’t get any better than Ralph Ellison and John Hope Franklin.  I don’t think it’s coincidental that both were black and personally shaped by the Tulsa Race Riot.  Both come from families that prospered in Tulsa at a time when the literacy rate among blacks was higher than it was for whites.  Also, both had a profound sense of the role of history in society.  Both were historians of a sort.  Franklin was, of course, a classic academic historian who broke down racial barriers in the profession and pioneered black history as we know it today.  Ellison used fiction to illustrate how the nameless and faceless masses that make history get ignored by those who write it — or fail to leave records of who they are.  Ellison shaped me more philosophically, but Franklin set the standard for me in writing sound, factual accounts of events.  I am proud to come from their literary tradition.  I’ve claimed it for myself, whether or not it actually fell to me.
Ellison left us some time ago, but today, Franklin became part of the subject he devoted his life to studying.  He no longer is.  Now, he was.  He has become the subject of historical study — even if it is only of the recent past.  I am proud to say that I heard him speak a couple of times, and he autographed his memoir for me at his last signing in Tulsa.  He was lucid and inspiring to the end, and it pained me to hear the younger generations refer to him as an “Uncle Tom.”  We have moved on.  His ideas were no longer cutting edge in recent years.  He was 94 years old — modern in a post-modern time.  But, his contribution to the historical field was no less important, and it will continue to shape the study of American history for years to come.  Like a rudder, he directed our uncharted possibility.  Because of this, we are changed — for good and always.  I wanted to commemorate his life and work then.  A native son, he was the antithesis of Oklahoma, really, and the whole country is the better for it.
 Posted by at 10:19 pm
Mar 192009
Texas has always been a borderland of overlapping cultures.  Because of this, rapid and extensive influxes of foreigners remain a concern for leaders there.  Undeniably, illegal immigrants moving in have altered society there significantly.  Residents have feared that these aliens would undermine the culture — since they did not speak the language or belong to the dominant church denomination and they did not share the political ideology of the established system.  Understandably, the governing leadership has sought ways to control immigration and keep out the undesirables.  Attempts at limiting the number of immigrants has failed miserably though.  Illegals ignored the law and snuck across the border, where they lived clandestinely — outside of the system.  So many came in, the government could not round them all up and force them out.  At the same time, the government’s worst fears were realized.  The culture was being undermined.  The year was 1796, and the government’s solution:  ban all Anglos from permanently settling in New Spain.  It didn’t work. Immigrants from the fledgling nation, the United States of America, came west — eagerly joining in the booming ranching economy growing in Texas.  Some of them brought slaves too, which created legal and cultural difficulties as Hispanic law reflected the Catholic Church’s prohibition against slavery.  Further, these Anglos brought their republican values, threatening the monarchist system in Texas (a province of New Spain).  The government’s fear of the illegal immigrants wasn’t paranoid or irrational.  They were right.  These newcomers brought a political and cultural rebellion.  Eventually, they fomented the birth of the Republic of Texas and its ultimate annexation into the United States.
Today, Anglos in Texas and other parts of the southwest bemoan the influx of Hispanics (ironically into a territory that once belong to Spain and Mexico).  The aliens don’t speak the language and the don’t adopt the dominant culture, they say.  They want to limit Hispanic immigration and couch their concerns in language that barely conceals the racism driving the demand for tightening border controls.  You see the irony here, of course.  A couple of hundred years ago, the Spanish said the same about Anglos and were trying to devise how to keep the English out.  The similarity of the situation and responses is amusing, if disheartening.
As a historian, you want to look at similar situations like this and ask:  what does this tell us about people generally?  Are there similarities that cut across cultures?  Perhaps we are not as different as we think.  Faced with an identical “problem,” the governments of Texas responded in the same way — even though in the 1700’s it was the Spanish in charge and today it’s Anglos.  So, maybe this is how governments tend to respond to cultural threats.  They try to enact controls that are ultimately ineffective.  Or, perhaps, they don’t tend to see the writing on the wall until too late and by that time, their draconian measures are pointless.  Maybe it demonstrates that prejudice cuts across cultures (recognizing, of course, that race is a problematic concept here where both Anglos and Spaniards are white and the differences are more cultural than cosmetic).  Is bigotry a human quality that endures through the centuries?  It seems so, and it appears that participation isn’t limited to WASP’s.
If we want to *learn* from our history, it seems that we should consider alternative responses to influxes in immigration.  It appears from these two instances that efforts to crack down are futile.  Immigration influxes do lead to cultural shifts.  Maybe we should learn how to work with which way the wind is blowing.  Fighting the change seems to invite a hostile response.  In particular, it seems that the border with Mexico will always be an issue because of the intermixing of cultures.  The American southwest is Hispanic and Anglo.  All considerations of “immigration problems” must begin with that understanding.  Maybe then we could even redefine the “problem.”
 Posted by at 4:52 pm
Mar 152009
We’ve had two presidents who were historians, and both were boobs.  Bush I don’t have to explain.  Freaking Woodrow Wilson brought us the curse that is Daylight Saving Time.  Actually, he was ripping off the Germans, who implemented it during World War I to reduce their energy costs.  We followed suit shortly thereafter as part of our war effort.  After the war, Wilson campaigned for the League of Nations and keeping Daylight Saving Time.  His moral justification for DST?  He liked to golf and it extended playing time into the evenings.  It didn’t really matter that we didn’t keep it anyway, though, as his playing days were cut short by an incapacitating stroke.  DST made a return as part of the war effort again on the second World War go ’round.  Again, the purpose was to conserve energy by extending the day — although I never understood how you save yourself any more time or energy, as you have to use lights when you get up in the dark with DST and the length that the sun stays out is not in any way controlled by how we measure how long the sun stays out.  The big star we spin around doesn’t have a pause button.  Anyway, days are longer in the summer in any case, but that’s the laws of nature at work — not Congress.
After WWII, the use of DST became a state’s rights issue.  Local jurisdictions determined what would apply in their areas.  It wasn’t until 1966 that Congress set uniform standards for the country.  Thereafter, states that went on DST had to do so on the same date — and, of course, stop at the same time too.  There was an exemption, however.  The states weren’t required to follow DST, but if they did, they had to comply with the congressional legislation.
This leads me to my confusion.  In the last few decades, there’s been a lot of crazy talk about state’s rights and some kind of delusion on the part of certain conservatives that this may be a going concern.  They want to pretend like the Civil War didn’t decide that issue and that there isn’t case law establishing the authority of the federal government over the states.  Now, there’s even more insanity:  talk about state nullification of the stimulus package passed by the U.S. Congress recently.  Yeah, sure, states can declare acts of Congress unconstitutional and ignore them — oh, wait, no the Supreme Court already called “dibs” on that and the Lost Cause was kinda, uh, lost.  So, no, the State of Oklahoma — red as it wants to be — cannot strike down the stimulus act.  The conservatives here (and in Texas) can bluster all they want to about state’s rights, but just because I want to give myself the power to declare federal holidays or tax moratoriums or Historiophiliac Day doesn’t mean that I can.  Conservatives are claiming a power here they do not have, but, interestingly, they aren’t doing anything with the one they’ve got.  Farmers hate DST;  it messes with their payrolls and daily schedules.  There’re a lot of farmers in Oklahoma.  The conservatives in power could strike back at the federal government by refusing to participate in DST.  I would like that.  It throws me off for a whole week having to alter my world one hour (can you imagine what a day would do?!).  A number of farmers, construction workers, and others whose hours are set by sunlight ignore DST anyway.  Why not declare our freedom from federalism and throw off the yoke of DST?!  Fight the oppression of the clock!  Now that we’ve got lights in baseball, we don’t need the time change anyway.  It only helps the greedy retailers who already control Christmas.  Don’t give them the summers too!  If anyone was really interested in encouraging Americans to save more and spend less, they’d do away with DST.  We can’t even prove that it save us all that much in energy and costs anyway.  Down with DST!
 Posted by at 12:54 am
Mar 112009
It isn’t just the selfishness of the conservatives in Oklahoma that rubs.  Their oppressive approach to dominating politics and culture with a willful disregard for the concerns of others and smug endorsement of “might makes right” as a political theory particularly grates.  Add to this the incredible civic ignorance of the populous, and you have the barrel of monkeys that is Oklahoma.
Recently, Representative Lewis Moore (Republican) — a member of the Oklahoma state legislature — proposed legislation making it mandatory for students to recite the pledge of allegiance in school.  It isn’t enough that students can say the pledge if they choose to do so;  it must be forced on all to comply.  There is no consideration here of the religious or civic beliefs of an individual who may choose not to recite the pledge.  Moore doesn’t care.  He wants to make you do it anyway.  And, since he can’t mandate that adults do it every morning in their places of business, he foists the requirement on a place the government can control:  public schools.  Thus, little children become the pawns in a game of Culture War I:  Patriotism Ascendant.
Conservatives posting notes on the local news websites are thrilled with the bill.  What this country needs, they say, is a return to old fashioned values.  Kids need to pray and pledge allegiance to the flag in school again.  This is the way to instill values in them that will make our country a better place.  Why would you not want to pledge allegiance, they demand to know.  You ungrateful pig;  you should honor our flag or get out of our country.  The fact that they’re promoting fascism rather than the democratic values our country is supposed to propone is completely lost on them.
The problem with their position — aside from the oppressive patriotism issue — is that their actions spring from a font of total civic and historical ignorance.  If they had any historical knowledge on the issue, they would know that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1943 that it is unconstitutional to compel individuals to salute the flag (West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette).  As it violates the religious tenets of some faiths, compulsion runs counter to the individual’s right to freedom of religion.  Citizens may choose to say the pledge, but they cannot be forced to do so.  This decision, by the way, was handed down prior to the addition of the words “under God” to the oath.  It couldn’t pass constitutional muster even without that phrase.  In recent years, a man in California challenged the pledge on principle — he claimed that his daughter’s rights were infringed in having to say the pledge with those words in it.  They should be dropped from the pledge altogether, he argued.  The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed, opining that the phrase promoted monotheism (belief in one god) and the government was not allowed to promote any religion over others.  The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court (Elk Grove United School District v. Newdow, 2004), which threw it out on the grounds that the man suing did not have standing to bring the matter to court (since he was not the custodial parent of his daughter, on whose behalf he sued — the parents had divorced and the child lived with her mother).  The case was refiled (after the man gained shared parental custody) and is pending before the Ninth Circuit Court again.  The expectation is that the court will reaffirm its previous ruling, and the conservatives here in Oklahoma are mad at the federal court there in Califiornia — over which they have no control — so they are taking it out on the citizens of our state.  If they were familiar with the legal history, however, they would see they are on the losing end and quit trying to pass laws that will be ultimately struck down (after costly legal proceedings).
Compounding the historical ignorance on the subject is a glaring civic imbecility.  Of all persons, legislators should have an understanding of the way our government works.  Clearly, Moore does not — and neither do the conservative posters online.  They suffer under the delusion that the Oklahoma state legislature can over-rule U.S. Supreme Court decisions.  See, they are still playing under “state’s rights” rules — only everyone else has been playing “federalism” and they’ve been doing it since, oh, the Civil War ended.  While their quixotic jousts with windmills may be romantic, they forget that Don Quixote did what he did because he was insane and that he foolishly attempted to apply simple rules of chivalry to complicated modern problems (which is what makes him a comic figure).  In any case, a course in Civics 101 should be enough to teach the fascisti that they do not have the authority to go against the rulings of the federal courts.  You would think, being the patriots they are, that they would have a better understanding of the workings of the government they allegedly support.
By the way, I do not think it entirely coincidental that the original way to salute the flag was to extend your arm with your palm facing up.  Because of the horrifying similarity to the Nazi salute, President Roosevelt suggested during World War II a change to putting your hand over your heart.  This became the accepted standard that remains to today.  Also, it is interesting to note that the founding fathers never said the pledge of allegiance.  It was not adopted until the 1890’s, and, anyway, their flag was different than ours.  I don’t know if that means you should question their patriotism or not, but if they did alright without it, I don’t see why the rest of us have to be compelled to take the oath.
 Posted by at 5:46 pm
Mar 042009
What a difference a couple hundred years make!  The first foreclosure crisis in the U.S. was the government’s fault.  Today, we’re looking for government to bail us out of a debacle of private market-making.  The difference between the two and contemporary responses tell you everything you need to know about the difference between us and our founding fathers.
After the Revolutionary War, Massachusetts owed a good deal of debt, borrowed to pay for its share of the war effort.  In order to raise money to pay the debt, the state increased taxes — particularly property taxes.  This squeezed small landowners especially.  To make matters worse, foreigners holding notes on the debt demanded payment in gold and silver.  At that time, paper money served as an I.O.U. redeemable for precious metal.  The state didn’t have enough gold and silver on hand to pay the debt, so it demanded tax payments from citizens in specie (metal).  Of course, poor farmers didn’t have gold or silver on hand.  Most citizens back then didn’t see much actual money in their lifetimes.  They lived on commercial credit and bartered frequently for goods and services.  When they couldn’t pay their property taxes to the state, it started foreclosing and many small farmers even went to debtor’s prison.   Citizens were outraged and the foreclosures threatened to do havoc with social stability by displacing farmers and their families.  There was no such thing as the welfare state in those days, so financial assistance for homeless families was very limited (to private charities and churches that relied on the ability of supporters to give — assuming they hadn’t been foreclosed on by the government too or bled dry paying their own taxes).  The farmers — who were largely Revolutionary War vets — decided this warranted a second revolution and took up arms against the state.  Under the leadership of Daniel Shay, they undertook armed resistance, including surrounding the courthouse in Springfield in 1786 so the court could not meet (and thereby uphold or issue evictions).  In early 1787, they marched to the federal armory (also in Springfield) to steal weapons and ammunition for their cause.  A militia representing the state took up after the rebels and fighting ensued.  Three were killed and a dozen more wounded.  The rebellion fell apart after this and Shay escaped to Vermont.  Eventually, measures for relief to deal with the growing recession in Massachusetts made their way through the legislature and order was restored.  In the meantime, the state economy struggled and landowners largely survived through self-sufficient farming (a fallback most Americans do not have today).
This local rebellion had national impact because armed insurrection and concern about being able to deal with such threats were important, legitimate worries for a young country born of revolt.  Massachusetts had appealed to the federal government for help in  dealing with the rebels, and Congress could do nothing  — even though the federal armory was under threat.  This incident (along with tariff and funding issues) prompted the leadership in the states to decide that a stronger centralized government was needed to replace the weak one set up under the Articles of Confederation.  Shortly after this incident, then, the convention was held that drafted the Constitution we still use today (ratified in 1788).  The new government had an executive branch and the head of it — the President — had command over the military.  Thus, when rebellion broke out in Pennsylvania in 1791 over the tax on whiskey, President Washington led troops in to put the revolt down.  The stronger centralized government prevented a repeat of Shay’s Rebellion, providing a mechanism for response.
So, the end result of the first foreclosure crisis was a new re-formulated government.  That new government was stronger with more powers than the previous.  This history suggests that foreclosure crises end in significant governmental change — a nearly bloodless revolution ushering in a successive republic.  Perhaps that’s why there’s so much stuff and nonsense about a socialist takeover today — supporters of the status quo fear that this foreclosure crisis will end up birthing a new government as well.  When Thomas Jefferson learned of Shay’s Rebellion, by the way, he applauded it.  He wrote that a good rebellion was beneficial for a country now and then, and you shouldn’t go more than twenty years without a little bloodshed to keep the government in line.  The blood of martyrs and tyrants, Jefferson said, was revolutionary manure that fed the growth of liberty.  Only time will tell if this housing crisis will spread some liberty shit around.  I doubt it.  People are too eager begging the government that is to solve the problem.  The revolutionary impulse is dead, and rather than replace the government that let them down, today’s domesticated Americans expect it to do better given a second chance.  Confidence in second chances breeds laxity in government though, and we have only ourselves to blame when our failure to hold government accountable leads to ineffective governance.
Yep, what a difference a couple hundred years make.
 Posted by at 12:13 am