May 262010
One of the most painful aspects of studying history is that it often forces us to face ugly truths about our pasts.  How we react to those truths says a lot about our cultures and what we have learned from our history (or refused to learn).  Our responses indicate our denials, acceptances, repudiations, and other feelings about the stories of our pasts.  Leaving aside issues about how we create those stories, the truths we construct and our reactions to them are complicated insights into who we are and how our history has shaped us to this point.
Sometimes, our responses are ludicrous and telling about our absolute inability to grasp the obvious.  Again, using the example of the recent Arizona legislation regarding the teaching of ethnic studies is illustrative.  Proponents of the law say teaching the history of an ethnic group (or, presumably groups together) is acceptable;  what is not is using that history to promote ethnic solidarity or resentment.  There really isn’t any way to strip the story of slavery in the U.S. from its offensiveness.  It isn’t possible that the story could not cause resentment to black citizens, and it is beyond naïve and moronic to believe that it wouldn’t.  Whites who don’t want to face their culpability here may try to soft-pedal it, but the only persons they are fooling in doing so is themselves.  It isn’t possible to honestly present things like the Zoot Suit Riot, Chinese Exclusion Act, slavery, and Indian removal without causing resentment or building a sense of community among the descendents of those wronged.  Chinese-Americans recognize that it was their participation in that group — and that alone — that made them unwelcome in the U.S. They weren’t barred because Americans came to hate the lot of them individually for personal failings.  The hatred was directed toward them as a racial group.  How that is not supposed to cause them anger toward white Americans, I do not know, but it’s sheer idiocy to think that you can spin that inoffensively.
At some point, whites and minorities have to face one another, acknowledging the truth of the past.  Forcing legislation that minimizes the repercussions and resentments toward the oppressing class does nothing to acknowledge that truth or heal past hurts.  Contrast the law in Arizona with those in Germany making it a crime to deny the Holocaust.  No flinching, no falsification there.  Until we can look unblinkingly at our past without attempting to rationalize or minimize it, we will not have truly learned the lessons of our history — which is why we still struggle with it.  These are not easy lessons to learn.  It’s uncomfortable at the least and haunting at worst.  We can’t resolve these issues and truly make peace with one another until we do though.
The key to this is that we learn to face our history — and more importantly, that white citizens can face the mirror and what they see there.  You are the product of white supremacy, racial terrorism, and discriminatory benefits.  You still profit from this in many ways.  It’s an ugly image.  It’s sickening to accept.  But, when whites can face this, they can face their fellow Americans of other races with honesty and respect.  They can accept the consequences and repercussions of their ancestors’ actions and participate in true reconciliation.  When we can face ourselves and others, then — and only then — can we begin to leave behind the burden of our past (although we will never not live with the legacy).  We have much history to learn before that happens though, and we have not yet come to the point where we can even do that, as the situation in the Southwest demonstrates.
 Posted by at 9:53 pm
May 222010
One of the fascinating and frustrating things about the human existence — its temporality, its material quality, the wiring of the brain — is the way in which our filter works.  You see, we must, because of the nature of our existence, know things through interacting with or perceiving things.  It’s very easy to focus so much on what we see or understand that we forget to be conscious of the way we come to that.  The framework is so much a part of who we are — it is who we are — that it’s invisible to us.  It’s easy not to see it.  It’s like a window pane that when well crafted, we do not observe.
This is not a novel observation I make here, but I raise it to make a point about how the way we understand the world is so shaped by the framework by which we can understand the world.  Often, our cultural and social pre-conditions are so normative to us, that we don’t see them anymore either.  When we were children, we had to learn such things, but as time passes, we come to take them for granted.  You don’t think about how to walk or talk anymore;  you can often go through life on auto-pilot because the lessons are so basic you can do them without thought as you mature.  The same is true with the way we understand the world to work;  we internalize the values taught us and often they are so fundamental that we cannot conceive differently.
And so it is when we come to study history.  The subject may be new to us, but we are pre-conditioned already in how we will read these stories.  Thus, what we learn and how we understand it is already shaped for us.  So it is that the new law passed in Arizona prohibiting certain approaches to teaching ethnic studies illustrates the cultural differences of heterogeneous communities in our country and how we bring our differing views to our history.
Governor Jan Brewer’s spokesperson stated that she signed the legislation because she believes that public school students should be “taught to treat and value each other as individuals.”  The purpose of the law, then, is to undermine class consciousness.  Students will be indoctrinated to see themselves as singular rather than as members of a racial or ethnic group under the law.  Leaving aside the idiocy of this notion (as if human beings didn’t naturally demonstrate a recognition of and, often, affinity for others with the same features as themselves — you will never prevent black people from recognizing their similarity to other blacks or women from finding common cause with other females for example), the real problem of the law is that it is yet another example of and continuation of the cultural war of hegemony that white culture has fought against others in this country since the beginning.  Yet again, whites in authority are snuffing out diversity and forcing their culture on others, and the truth is, I don’t even think they realize what they are doing.  I think the framework of their understanding is invisible to them here.  I don’t think they recognize that this is not a defensive act — it is nothing short of an attempt to undermine any worldview that is not White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.  It is an act of aggression.
In the course of the development of western civilization, the notion of individual rights evolved and this sense of personal standing was further augmented by the Reformation.  As a result of these intellectual developments, the dominant white culture in the U.S. (WASP) predicates everything on these concepts of individual rights and liberties.  They are enshrined in our Constitution, making that framework normative and mandatory for our society.  Unfortunately, not all of our citizens and residents share that particular worldview.  Those from other traditions sometimes come from a culture where the group is valued more than the individual or the value of the individual is measured by his/her role in the group.  Hence, the differences between Cherokee law and white law.   To dominate the Indians, the white-run government had to first attack their culture and strip it from them in order to force them to assimilate.  Thus, for example, they were forced into individual land ownership when they had held property collectively before.  Catholics, too, share a sense of group consciousness, and, of course, Hispanic culture has been largely molded in that tradition (where Catholicism was the official religion of the Spanish empire and its offshoots for so long).  When persons from these non-WASP cultures reside in the U.S., their culture often conflicts with the WASP framework dictated by our Constitution and social organization.  The new law in Arizona completely misses that fact.
Forcing students to understand themselves as individuals is to indoctrinate them into the WASP tradition and, in doing so, force its hegemony over their other cultural traditions (religious or otherwise).  The law, then, is a continuation of the practice of attacking diversity, and this is largely unrecognized on the part of those who want to dominate.  They don’t even realize that this is what they are trying to do.  They have a sense, I think, that they are taking on group consciousness, but I think they are doing so in order to “Americanize” these students.  They are teaching them the “right way” to approach life and racial/ethnic relations in this country — that is, the way certain white people would prefer it.  They do not realize that this perpetuates resentment toward whites because it is so in keeping with our previous attempts to force out other cultures and worldviews.  So, when the governor thinks she is promoting individualism, she does not see that this is, also, a form of racial and cultural domination.  Her view of the framework through which she sees is too dim.
 Posted by at 11:28 am
May 092010
In the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church (then the only Christian church in western Europe) — which was dominated by men — held that women were inherently bad and sinful creatures.  They were temptresses and tools of the devil.  All were Eves in the garden luring men to sin.  Males were the more virtuous sex.  They were also the more intelligent and logical sex.  This was due to the fact that, unlike women, they did not have free-floating uteruses moving about their bodies.  It was the instability of this mobile organ that caused women to be hysterical (a word from the same root as uterus in the Greek).
Thankfully, the Age of Enlightenment brought new insights — not the least of which was related to the new practice of the autopsy (leading to the discovery that the uterus does not, in fact, roam).  Women were still considered the less intelligent sex though, which apparently demonstrates a continued belief in a correlation between muscle and mental ability.  Enlightenment thinkers also believed that, unlike men, women were prone to imbalances of the humors causing emotional fits and impairing rationality — making them essentially valueless in a society that worships the rational.  Time and effort were not to be wasted on the education of women and morons then.  The idiots were locked away, and the women married off to a legal master.
But, a funny thing happened on the way to industrialization.  The invention of time-saving devices and development of a middle class allowed women the luxury of spare time for a change.  To the people of that age, a proper use of this time was studying religious texts and nurturing children.  These activities seemed harmless enough — even virtuous.  The young American republic was in need of such nurturing and a new notion of womanhood developed that fit the bill.  So, women who now had means and opportunity to have influence outside of their homes spent their time on moral causes and religious activities that were considered appropriate for their sex.  As the nineteenth century dawned female devotion to religion (in a time when enlightened men’s religiosity waned) led to a new view of women:  now they were considered the more inherently moral sex and men were  brutes that needed saving.  As mothers with biological urges to nurture, women were endowed by God or nature with the traits necessary to prepare the next generation of citizens for their civic and moral duty.  Thus, women became the champions of virtue and the voices of righteousness.
Capitalizing on this belief, women continued their activism as the nineteenth century wore on.  They were ardent abolitionists, reformers, and advocates of education, healthcare, and later, birth control.  They sought to wage war on war, and germs, and male lust.  They moved into professions for which they were believed to have a natural inclination:  social work, nursing, teaching.  Opening higher education to women in these fields eventually led to opportunities for them to move into other fields like history, science, and law.  With their natural talents and their educations, they continued their march into productivity outside the home — sometimes at the request of their government (to aid in war efforts) and other times to help themselves (in advocating for the vote or simply to support their families).  Many of these women became convinced that they were men’s equals in their abilities to reason, work, and lead.  Increasing affluence in the United States as the twentieth century unfolded meant even more opportunity for women to become educated and find ways of working outside the home.  These growing opportunities inspired women to push for even more, and a new movement for women’s rights was born.  This time, they managed to get legislation passed to protect them from discrimination in the workplace and politics.
But there were those, ideologues wedded still to the nineteenth century notion of women’s worth being tied to their roles as wives and mothers, who fought the march of feminism.  Some of these were women themselves.  Most notably, Phyllis Shlafly became an author, activist, and agitator working against the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment and the feminist movement.  Shlafly argued that a woman’s proper role was to care for her family.  So, in between conventions and interviews and speeches, she raised her six children and cared for her husband.  After Mr. Shlafly’s death in 1993 and after her children were grown, Shlafly continued in her conservative activism…as a single woman.  Today, at eighty-five years old, she remains a vocal and fiery force in politics, if not quite the visible figure she was at a younger age.  Still, she remains an important ironic figure for American women.
So, today — on Mother’s Day: a holiday that celebrates the value of women as mothers (and note that we still don’t get days to celebrate our value as contributors to society in other ways) — it is worthwhile to honor the contradiction that is Shlafly and so many women in the United States.  While defining her value as a wife and mother, she made a career in the public sphere.  She was well-educated, smart, and driven.  She wrote books and gave speeches and became active in causes that took her outside of her home and away from her family many a time.  She was and is essentially an anti-feminist feminist.  But, every time she railed against equal rights and got on her nineteenth century soapbox, she participated in the chipping away of the notion that the value of women is solely in their ability to incubate and nurture the next generation.  Yes, they have a biological purpose, but clearly, they have the will and ability to do other things as well.  Women in the twentieth century redefined their roles, and women will continue to do so in the coming century.  On this day, a throwback to older notions of the value of women, it is useful to recognize the irony that being virtuous mothers has brought and how even today, we still so often define our worth in society this way.
 Posted by at 10:48 pm