Hard Truths, or When Little Truths Frustrate the Big Ones

 current events, historiography  Comments Off on Hard Truths, or When Little Truths Frustrate the Big Ones
Dec 232010
It must be Christmas — that season of human goodwill — for this week the political pundits declared that Haley Barbour’s run for the presidency is over before it began.  Now, pass the eggnog.  At issue is Barbour’s sunny recollection of the desegregation of public schools in his native Mississippi.  Liberal bloggers have labeled him “revisionist” in his version and racist for his characterization of it.  Aww, dammit, now it’s a history fight and I have to get involved.
For the record, when asked why there wasn’t any violence when the public schools in his hometown of Yazoo City finally desegregated in 1970 (16 years after the Supreme Court made segregation illegal in Brown v. Topeka Board of Education) — when there was marked violence in other places — what Barbour said was:
“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it.  You heard of the Citizens’ Councils?  Up north they think it was like the KKK.  Where I come from it was an organization of business leaders.  In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said that anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town.  If you had a job, you’d lose it.  If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there.  We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”
Of course the Citizens’ Councils (originally called the White Citizens’ Councils) are infamous for being organizations started precisely to fight integration and preserve segregation in the South.  A number of historians have written accounts of the groups’ works and racist agenda.  This information is common knowledge.  Thus, critics have gotten up in arms over Barbour’s apologia for these despicable organizations.  They accuse Barbour of abusing history and minimizing the trauma of the civil rights movement.  Interestingly, the articles about the subject note the history of the Citizens’ Councils and point out that they were known as the upscale or “country club” Klan.  The members were generally local leaders and businessmen — men of standing.  These were not angry, violent crackers.  They were bankers, lawyers, businessmen, and community notables.  Their tactic was to use economic force to prevent integration.  It was in fear of economic reprisals like the councils used that parents in Birmingham stayed home and let their children protest segregation.  They were afraid that their bosses would fire them if they were involved, and the family’s economic viability would be questionable — and they were right.  Business owners and bosses did use their economic power to quash activism.  Citizens’ Councils were just larger, well-organized, community-wide versions of this financial coercion.  Thus, it would be wholly inaccurate and offensive to suggest that they were proponents of integration.
If that’s what Barbour actually said, I would be inclined to call bullshit myself, but let’s look at his words.  He does not suggest that the council in Yazoo City promoted integration.  What he said was that they wouldn’t stand for violence as a tool to fight integration.  They opposed the Klan then (which was not always the case in every town in Mississippi, but communities do vary in their practices) and used economic means to achieve their ends (and undermine democracy, by the way).  Accordingly, Barbour is confirming what the evidence and histories have already told us.  He did not alter the history or falsify it.  The righteous indignation of his critics who claim to be protecting history is unwarranted then.
What they really want to object to is the sense of Barbour’s statement — that it smacks of tolerance or admiration for Citizens’ Councils, which were abhorrent organizations in many ways.  They ignore, then, the truth of what Barbour said about his local history in an effort to defend the larger history of the civil rights movement and Citizens’ Councils generally.  In actuality, both of these positions may be accurate, even though they seem to contradict one another.  This is a common problem in dealing with generalizations in history.  The limitations of general histories mean that you can’t always give detailed specifics about variations on the theme.  Thus, when we talk about slavery, we talk about how poorly slaves were treated and the limitations placed on them.  What we don’t always do (again, this is in general histories as opposed to detailed monographs) is give all the minute details about regional difference in slavery practices.  For example, in some places, slaves were successful at getting their masters to accept the task system, wherein they were required to work a certain allotment of tasks in a day rather than to work a full day (from sun-up to sundown) necessarily.  When they finished their tasks, they were done for the day, whether it was noon, 4:00pm or 10:00pm.  In other places, though, slaves were worked all day long as their masters saw fit.  This is just one example of the kinds of variations that often get lost in summaries of larger events.  There just isn’t enough room in a book to cover everything, so historians use generalizations for convenience sake.
Barbour’s comment brings up just such an incidence.  In some places, school integration was met with violence and armed resistance.  They had to have a military escort for the black students who integrated Central High in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Ole Miss was the site of rioting when James Meredith first enrolled there.  But, in other places like Yazoo City, the integration was unwelcome but not forcibly resisted.  That fact is true to that community and says something about the people there (and apparently the documentary record confirms this about the town).  Most especially, it points to the reason that racism has remained so stubborn and why discrimination is still so difficult to eradicate — in all parts of the United States.  That is that the discrimination has become subtle, non-violent, and economic in nature.  It still exists and is manipulated by the men (and now women) of power who dominate American communities.  It is harder to identify then, harder to hold those responsible for it accountable, and harder to get consensus to resist (as you don’t get the same obvious sympathy for that as you do for little black girls dying in a church bombing or young people beaten or assaulted with fire hoses on national television).  The discrimination is now genteel, which makes it more palatable to many.  This clandestine racism is what Barbour represents to civil rights supporters and what is so disturbing.  He is not abusing history;  he is abusing the economically less powerful (which usually in our country includes disproportionate numbers of minorities).  Hence, the need for the war on poverty continues:  our segregation is now an economic reality instead of a legal structure.  Remember this at the mall this holiday season.
 Posted by at 1:50 pm

The War on Folklore

 American history  Comments Off on The War on Folklore
Dec 122010
I’ve had an epiphany.  I know it’s early;  Epiphany isn’t until January.  That’s when Christians celebrate the incarnation of the Messiah.  That used to mean celebrating his birth — or his taking human form.  Nowadays, his birthday has been shifted to December, and subsequently, the importance of Epiphany has dwindled.  American Protestants hardly mark the day anymore.  They’ve put all their money on Christmas.  That’s the big holiday now.
December 25 is the one day a year that almost all retail and employment spaces are closed, that the vast majority of Americans mark in some special way — either in spending time with family, giving gifts, eating a special feast, or participating in an associated cultural tradition (like watching the Charlie Brown Christmas Special), that is celebrated in music and verse (Hello, Rockin’ Around the Memorial Day tree?), and that most American children look forward to like no other.  It’s cultural importance is such that all Americans are affected by it, or preparations for it, or the aftermath of it.  You couldn’t find an American who doesn’t understand the significance of Christmas.  It’s hard, then, to comprehend how this special day is the victim of a culture war — on the ropes and staggering to find its legs after repeated hits.
Yet, there it is, reeling from the “War on Christmas” and its body blows:  renaming nativity scenes “holiday displays,” calling them “holiday parades” rather than Christmas ones, and wishing others “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.”  But, conservative Christians aren’t taking it lying down.  They are fighting mad and fighting back.  They demand we put the Christ back in Christmas and embrace the traditional (religious) meaning of the season.
Of course, this position makes glaringly clear that they are woefully ignorant about the holiday and its history.  It wasn’t even celebrated in the early days of the church.  I don’t think, though, that anyone is going to judge the Apostle Paul poorly for his failure.  Still, if it’s good enough for Paul, it isn’t good enough for me.  To be a Christian today, you have to embrace the season and mark it with a variety of activities that were either swiped from the pagans (putting up an evergreen tree in your house) or are secular in nature (giving gifts and cards).  Even the date was taken from pagan tradition (or that’s just an amazing coincidence, according to some religious scholars).  The Puritans and Quakers — some of our significant founding people — refused to recognize Christmas because of its pagan connections and its lack of Biblical reference (the New Testament doesn’t actually tell us when Jesus was born).  Thus, the purists rejected the practice and sometimes punished those who kept it.  Back in that day, though, Christmas was a holiday marked by excesses and carousing.  It wasn’t until Christians co-opted it as it became a popular secular holiday in the late 19th century that it became a respectable family event.  It was at this time that it began to become ingrained in American folklore.
The history of Christmas is not unwritten.  There is information on its pagan and commercial influences all around.  Yet, there are many who refuse to accept that it is anything but a sanctified day meant to mark the birth of Christ that has been the practice of Christians for millennia.  This isn’t true but the myth is sacred.  Those of us who are interested in promoting accurate history can talk until we are blue in the face;  certain numbers of Christians will continue to believe the tradition rather than the truth.  The folklore is stronger than the history.
I’m not really sure if those who believe the myth are being willfully ignorant — they know better but they choose to embrace the false story because it serves their purpose or preference better — or if they just really believe the folklore so strongly that the evidence against it seems incredible, impossible to believe.  Is it just that trying to convince them otherwise is like trying to tell them that water is not wet and the sun does not shine?  Is it that fundamental to their understanding of the world that it cannot be a fallacy?  Thus, they don’t doubt the true history;  they merely dismiss it.  It’s fabricated nonsense made up by anti-Christian activists…and probably communists.  I am not either of these, but I am dedicated to the correction of false myths and the spread of accurate history (as we can know it).  I often feel, though, that I am fighting a losing battle and that the ignorant cannot be educated on this one.
I think I thought that it was just a matter of giving people the correct information.  It would spread, and no one would tell the myth anymore.  If they knew better, they’d do differently, I assumed.  I realize now, though, that this is bigger than the story of this singular annual event.  Christmas has become part of the fabric of our culture.  People can’t really conceive of an America without it — even though that was the case for a long time.  What’s more, Americans can’t imagine Christmas as anything but a strange mixture of religious and commercial activities.  The two are bound together — and I guess that’s just a reflection of our capitalist culture.  In that sense, the pleas of pastors wishing for a return to a mythical spiritual holiday of the past are as much of a futile effort as those to promote a more historically accurate understanding of the day.  We are both fighting an uphill battle against our culture and our socio-economic structure.  It’s more than a battle for Christmas;  it’s a war with American folklore and the way we understand our world.  Talk about taking on Goliath.
I wonder then:  is there any point in fighting against the social, cultural, and political tradition that dominates our communities?  Are we uselessly jousting at windmills in this?  The false faith is so strong.  It’s like bailing water as you drown in the ocean.  It’s nearly impossible to undermine the folklore because people so *want* to believe it.  They prefer the story.  At best, they probably just shrug at the evidence otherwise and continue “as if.”  It’s their faith, literally.  Anyway, what will the truth do for them?  They aren’t going to give up the holiday and I wouldn’t ask them to do so.  It’s nice to pretend once a year that we all want peace.  The story of Christ’s birth reaffirms their religious beliefs — which again I support — and adds spiritual value to what is otherwise a shallow commercial event.  I’d really rather it be more meaningful for them than that.  It’s only when they try to infringe on others or dismiss others’ religious or secular holiday practices that I want to remind them of the real story.  When they get sanctimonious about their position, then I want to point out that the emperor has no clothes.
I have a nativity up in my home;  I don’t insist that my atheist neighbor do the same.  When he says Christmas, he means Santa;  I get that.  I’m not going to harass him with baby Jesuses.  I’m pretty sure he doesn’t care whether I’m Jewish or Satanist or whatnot — as long as my dog doesn’t go in his yard.  But, there are others that care very deeply what the two of us do to mark the holiday.  In that sense, I guess my motive in this battle royale is really a libertarian one — which is a whole other part of the American tradition.
So, Happy Holidays!
 Posted by at 11:22 pm