Jul 302017
 

The divide between academics and lay historians is never more clear than when someone outside the guild engages in history-telling and stumbles into the dilemmas that professionals (and independent scholars) regularly face. Movies based on historical events frequently fit the bill, and because they do reach larger — and different — audiences than scholarly monographs, their representations can actually take on more meaning. While trained historians might parse these films for certain details, responses by non-historians offer alternative means for getting at historical issues. Movie reviews are a window into the artistic effect of popular histories in a way that scholarly reviews of professional writing are not. As such, they are often more telling about where we are as a society than our academic output.

One recent critique serves as a disappointing indicator. The Hollywood Reporter movie critic Todd McCarthy’s review of the new historical film Detroit is tragically oblivious and ignorant: it is seated in privilege and utterly lacks awareness of anything beyond that. McCarthy’s unconscious bias is, frankly, startling. For example, he writes:

“The cop in charge, Philip Krauss (Will Poulter, the kid in The Revenant), is a hideous racist and sadist of the worst kind (he’s also a fictional character, presumably, because whomever he’s based on in real life was found innocent in court and can’t be depicted as doing what the character is seen doing onscreen).” (emphasis mine)

Apparently Mr. McCarthy is so uninformed by the racial history in our country that he believes that if a white cop did something bad to citizens, s/he would be convicted of a crime and not having been convicted must mean that s/he did no violent acts. As noted, this is extreme obliviousness, but it demonstrates poor reasoning generally as well.

Sadly, it’s also the basis for his criticism of the film.  As McCarthy puts it:

“Historically, there’s little question that in Detroit the white authorities were the bad guys, so unless the creative artists are inclined to delve beneath this rendering to examine nuances on both sides, it’s uncertain what the film has to offer other than a punch to the gut.”

To that reviewer, value in a historically-based production such as this lies in moral and psychological examination of the (white) antagonists. While it’s tempting to mock such a position by taking it to its absurdity (replace “Detroit” with “World War II” and “white authorities” with “Nazis” and see what kind of film library you can build), McCarthy has actually stumbled into a historiographical quandary that is interesting to explore.

For those who lived through the racial upheavals of the 60’s and those born since, humanizing depictions of those events have immense value. They raise awareness and build cross-community understanding; they give us context for the issues we are dealing with today. McCarthy even acknowledges the latter:

“It’s impossible to sit through all this and not ponder how things are, or are not, the same a full half-century after the events on display.”

For the reviewer, however, the film’s failure to present the police with more complexity — and here he is assuming that racism can be situated or in some way rationalized, rather than existing as a simplistic ideology — robs it of profitability for viewers today. Obviously, when he talks about viewers, he means white viewers, because for black viewers, seeing an acknowledgment of the harms done to them and their community most certainly has a value in itself. It may even be more important for white Americans to watch such films, though, because it forces them to choose between historical denialism and acknowledging past acts; they are unable to blissfully continue in their ignorance when presented with the history. Hence, the issues here aren’t really about this movie specifically or McCarthy alone. They get to the heart of why we study history and learn about our often unpleasant past.

Historical understanding — be it through monographs, documentaries, historical fiction, or exhibits — makes us conscious about our past and our present and offers us the opportunity to inform our future with that knowledge. In that sense, it might be more valuable to be aware of our dark pasts than it is to take on the mantle of our former glories. As obnoxious as it is to say that there are lessons to be learned from history, it can inspire us to make different choices when we confront our failures from the past.

McCarthy comes thisclose to a historical epiphany just such as this when he notes:

“In its depiction of this cauldron of helter-skelter violence lies the implicit and entirely plausible suggestion that the mainly white police in every instance overreacted to what was going on; if the wee-hours revelers had just been left alone on that first night, it’s implied that nothing untoward would likely have resulted.”

Tragically, he is unable to fully embrace this insight about the possibility of de-escalation, largely because of his insistence — which must be based in racial preference — that the white characters gain focus, rather than it remaining strictly on the black victims. Sitting with the tragedy and trying to understand and even empathize with angry black crowds — which is a very profitable pursuit — is an activity McCarthy says only activists would welcome. Hence, his negative assessment of the picture culminates in this dismissive criticism:

“What we get instead is a ramped up “j’accuse” that will offer forceful connections with present-day incidents for those keen to find them.”

Overcoming this bias — the notion that issues of police brutality and violence in our black communities are for radicals and minority citizens only — is truly the greatest test our histories of this period face. In this, academics share the same challenge as the film-makers here. Is there anything in the art of the storytelling that breaks down that barrier, or does it so control the reader’s view that we have no hope of transcending our divisions through education and understanding?

Surely that is exactly the point of our stories. If it isn’t to build understanding, we really shouldn’t bother. What we don’t need, as a society, is to develop sympathy for the racists or to try to mitigate their behavior in any way. Such character studies might fascinate, but they lack a larger social benefit. They will not help to build bridges and they do not reflect democratic values. Pursuing a better republic requires continuing to tell stories about the victims, to lay the indecencies plain in order to fully face the past and embrace mutual opposition to state-sponsored violence against minority communities going forward. Our histories must accuse. It isn’t the history some want, but it is the history we need.

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Jul 082017
 

Once, when I was in grad school, I went to an event with some union friends, and I was challenged there by an international student who demanded an explanation from me, as a student of history, why Americans did not celebrate May Day. I sighed, knowing what was coming, but proceeded anyway to talk about the labor movement in the U.S. My inquirer quickly cut me off to announce that it’s because of our society’s hostility to all things communist (and communist-tinged). Frankly, these kinds of interactions tend to be common when people discover you’re a historian: folks pretend to ask you to weigh in on something, but they really just want to announce their own thinking on the subject. Everyone thinks they know history.

They do not, and for two reasons. The first is that what people have been taught about history — including me — is oftentimes wrong or incomplete. Thus, people do not always know things as fully or as well as they think they do. Trust me, I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself over the years; learning is an ongoing process (which sometimes requires unlearning; ALWAYS show your work). Historians are slightly less susceptible to scholarly hubris (hence, they will defer to a certain degree when they are not experts in a particular area), and it’s in good part in keeping with the old saw that being educated means you are aware of all you don’t know. Laypersons, however, lack this humility almost entirely, which leads me to the second reason for their ignorance: a misunderstanding of what history is.

The downside of professionalization is that people have come to believe that history is a set of facts to be discovered and mastered. In reality, it is a practice: the mining of evidence which is then scrutinized and shaped into a useful narrative that provides insight into who we are as people. History is created, not found. Historians get trained in doing that — haphazardly, often, and uncritically, often, but at least practiced in it. Laypeople are not, but they insist on acting as historians anyway because they erroneously believe that their use of facts is historical.

Historians are, themselves, to blame for this ignorance. They tried to turn the discipline into a science and reduce the work to data that could be analyzed and reported. This led to the misconception that historians are merely more conversant in the facts than non-experts, and that insofar as they know the facts, non-historians function on the same footing as historical experts — as if years of practice simply translates into a greater assimilation of data. After going through the analytical process with me in class, students are quickly disabused of this nonsensical belief. Still, it pervades our society, which makes it so painful to participate in public conversations today.

Sweet baby Jesus, it’s so noisy out there. I used to think I had something to offer to the discussion, but so much of what dominates is superficial, ignorant, and mean-spirited. Who wants to be a part of that? What’s the point? It’s like trying to raise an umbrella in a tropical storm. The public is unteachable; no intellectuals seek paths less traveled. Everyone knows everything about politics and history and stays firmly within the bounds of their suppositions. There’s too much “J’Accuse…!” and not enough of The Crucible.

Truthfully, I find many of the conversations out there pathetically uninteresting. It’s horrifying to see how many educated people are so uncritically possessed by their 21st century-mindsets and historical biases that they tweet or opine the most ridiculous claims. Did you know this is the most divisive time in US history — eclipsing the hostilities of the actual Civil War? Did you know no previous presidents or politicians so blatantly abused their offices or used them to their own advantage — forgetting Teapot Dome, the old spoils system, and even passage of the Fugitive Slave Act by a government dominated by slave-holders? Really, the white middle class is losing its shit of late while minority critics loudly proclaim this the Nation it’s always been. It’s embarrassing as a white person, this modern-day Columbian discovery.

Again, all of this drama and errant thinking represents a failure by the historical profession. In celebrating the Founders, we have failed to educate people on the way the deferential society and personal power truly worked. In shutting ourselves up on college campuses to debate historical minutia with one another, we have failed to educate the public effectively. Case in point: I recently read a review of William Hogeland’s new book, Autumn of the Black Snake in which the historian-reviewer points out that the story therein is familiar to scholars, though not to larger audiences. The reviewer suggests it’s commendable for Hogeland to popularize the history, when, truthfully, it should signal historians’ abject failure at education (but, a boon for Hogeland, anyway). They know; they don’t ground. I wrote a whole book on this topic that will never see the light of day because it wouldn’t sell.

Anyway, the predicament leaves us with a lot — and I mean A LOT — of artless invectives dominating our current national dialogue verbally-abusive exchange. Educated columnists ignorant of their ignorance (or carelessly so because they are lost in their own rage) rant, stuffing their exclamations with half-baked or obvious and, often, unrelated historical facts. A bleating flock of historians appear on pedantic TV “magazines” and Op-Ed pages to hold forth in self-righteously angry, measured tones information that is uninspiring, unperceptive, and unprofitable. There’s no room for subtle creative voices. Our culture celebrates armband politics; it makes you wonder that we have landed anyone on the moon, tamed wild rivers with massive dams and birthed livable cities in uninhabitable places, or constructed frameworks of knowledge that have shaped perceptions for centuries. We still have no history that helps us understand ourselves. Most certainly, don’t look for it in all the noise.

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 Posted by at 3:22 pm