Feb 172012
 
If you are going to use history for your evidence, I absolutely insist that you use evidence in your history.  I am growing ever tired of talkers, writers, and activists promoting poor history in order to serve their ideological ends.  This practice takes the shape of individuals vaguely citing historical event(s) as support for their positions — but behind that, really, is an effort to present oneself as an expert:  I know about this and am educated/wise/insightful enough to make the comparison — which makes my claims more impressive or convincing.  (A good number of the people I see doing this are not actually historians, by the way.)  Usually, the form of the presentation makes it impossible to ask follow-up questions — and follow-up questions I have.
 
The irony of this kind of educated conversation is that it has become clear to me how very ignorant people are — even smart and successful people — about historical events.  For example, I’ve heard a number of individuals now condemning violent tactics in political protests and proponing non-violence as the better way with statements that seem to indicate that their knowledge of the examples they cite are limited.  They point to Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. as leaders of successful political movements — and sometimes contrast them with figures like Malcolm X.  But, before we can have a conversation about the most effective tactics, we have to ground this conversation in actual historical facts.  We can’t use history as our guide if we don’t look at the evidence.  In order to do that, pundits and proponents need to support their positions with concrete examples and no longer simply rely on a voice of knowing authority.
 
Here, then, are some of my follow-up questions:
 
1. For those referencing Gandhi:  What did Gandhi do specifically that successfully ended British rule in India?  Please directly link an event/action(s) with Indian independence in your explanation.  Was there anything problematic about his positions and, if so, what were these issues?  Were there other contributors to the independence movement?  If so, did they also embrace non-violence?  What did they do as part of this movement?  How did independence finally occur?
 
2. For the MLK proponents:  In what ways specifically do you think King’s actions directly led to changes in civil rights in the US and what rights did he influence (Do you mean voting, desegregation, housing, or what?)?  Did he instigate these tactics himself?  Was he always successful in his efforts and if not, what were the issues there?  Were other actors involved in the movement too and did they agree with King?  What actions did they take?  Did they all embrace non-violence?  What effects, if any, did their actions have on changing civil rights?
3. For those invoking Vaclav Havel:  Were the Czechoslovakian protests always non-violent?  How did they begin?  What actions specifically were taken (violent and non-violent), and how did these directly cause the overthrow of the government?  What were the cited aims of the protesters/activists?  Was this a reform movement or revolutionary one?  (Incidentally, these same questions should be asked whenever anyone cites other Eastern European movements too.)
 
4. For those denouncing Malcolm X:  What specific violent actions did he engage in with which you disagree?  What actions did he take generally and did any of these directly link to changes in civil rights in the US?  Which rights are those, if any?
 
I’m not trying to be hateful here.  I just think that many of these people talking don’t actually know the history that they are trotting out in any real detail.  I don’t know it all, and I practice history.  I generally avoid making generalized statements then.  When I do speak, I use specific examples in a limited way, and I have been doing a lot of research on these matters to educate myself lately, precisely because I don’t know all the answers.  I insist that you give me your evidence then — in order to educate me and so I can decide for myself based on the real facts (and give the whole evidence — don’t omit the part that makes your position look bad).
 
I know these people are probably not used to being historians, but if you’re going to do the work, you have to be held to the same standards.  Otherwise, I call BS.
 
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 Posted by at 12:22 am
Feb 032012
 

I honestly don’t know why people are acting incensed about presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s impolitic statement that his primary concern is the middle class.  If you’ve watched the news, read popular blogs, and followed the public discourse (including input from the Occupy movement) in the last couple of years, it would be readily apparent to you that the middle class is pretty much everyone’s main interest.  The number of voices calling for a return to a war against poverty are few.  No, what the American public has become consumed with is the shrinking and even destruction of the Made-in-the-USA middle class.  This, in most minds, is the great tragedy in our venture capitalist system.  Romney just said it artlessly.

Underneath this popular worry is the reality that most people are and aspire to be middle class.  I know, in America you’re supposed to want to strike it rich — and most people will say that’s what they want — but realistically, they know they won’t make it.  They may hope to be wealthy, but they angle to be middle class…because that’s a decent life.  You can be proud of being middle class.  There’s a social respectability and cultural desirability there.  That status still allows you to claim the honor of hard work without the shame of bounced checks.  You get to enjoy some luxury without having to feel guilty that you are blowing enough money to send someone’s kid to college.  It allows you to believe you still serve God and not Mammon.

Most people in the US self-identify as middle class (even if they can’t define it).  They claim it, and even feel entitled to it.  It’s an identity that can be worn with pride — unlike poverty, which is a sign of low moral character and ignorance according to our popular thinking.  People who are poor are too dumb to get professional jobs, too lazy to do the work to get ahead, and too low-class to aspire to better.  Under a social hierarchy defined by wealth, the poor are American untouchables.  You have to violently shun that status at all costs.

This kind of thinking has not always been the norm in the United States though.  In fact, it’s relatively new.  Being poor — a life of honesty and debt and beans and patched clothes — that used to be something many Americans were proud of.  There was a celebrated sub-culture around that.  Will Rogers said:  “I can remember when a man could be considered respectable without belonging to a golf club.”  This was a guy who was internationally known but embraced a simple persona fitting for his 10th grade education and rural background.  In the 1940’s, Woody Guthrie recorded an album originally called Bed on the Floor, which was later changed to Poor Boy.  His folk tunes were full of the difficulties of a life of want but joy in life with other poor folk and pride in manual labor.  Meanwhile, American audiences made movie stars of Ma and Pa Kettle and their humorous, illiterate ways.  And, don’t forget the Capra-corn:  It’s a Wonderful Life celebrated the honor of poor virtue over corrupt wealth.

Later, in the 60’s, President Johnson declared war on poverty and Fannie Lou Hamer proclaimed: “We serve God by serving our fellow man; kids are suffering from malnutrition.  People are going to the fields hungry.  If you are a Christian, we are tired of being mistreated.”  These attacks on poverty, however, were in no way condemnations of the poor.  Rather, they were efforts to ameliorate the worst of the effects of hunger and deprivation on that segment of our population.  Into the 70’s, popular culture still reflected families struggling with mortgages and living outside of excessive consumerism without treating these figures as lesser than or morally challenged.

Then the Gospel of Wealth came along, and being poor turned into a mark of those forgotten by God.  Soon, the working class family on Roseanne would stand out as a strange anomaly on TV — even as it connected with millions of Americans whose lives so reflected that representation.  I guess time and credit changes all things.  Items that used to be luxuries or marks of a life of leisure are now commonplace.  Even in working class neighborhoods of my city, I see women — and girls — with manicured hands and nicely highlighted hair.  It seems like everyone has a smartphone and Coach purse.  The old markers of class are so unreliable today.  Americans try so hard to look the same now, and invariably, that sameness is middle class.  Even the “ghetto fabulous” image is about affluence without actual wealth.  No one wants to be the Joads or the Youngers and look their (lower) class.  Most importantly, no one cared that the poor were getting poorer as the 21st century unfolded — until the middle class started joining them.  Then, everyone got up-in-arms about wealth inequality.  Whatever we do, we must, by all means, protect the God-bless-American middle class.  It’s of the utmost importance to us all.

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 Posted by at 12:18 pm