Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Making Stuff Up Is Fun, But It's Not Exactly A Christian Thing To Do.

Breaking news: I've just learned from reliable sources that if Mitt Romney is elected, he plans to practice polygamy in the White House and require all American men to take at least two wives. He will also nuke Iran on his first day in office, followed by an invasion of China. And North Korea. And Pakistan. Oh, also, if you make less than 20,000 dollars a year he plans to put you in a concentration camp, where you will work for the 1%, doing things like polishing shoes and scooping up dog poop. If you are a "job creator" he will provide you with a beach-side villa, fully staffed by the lazy poor.

I am, of course, making all this stuff up, but I have to say it is liberating to play by other people's rules for once. You see, it doesn't matter that none of this is true. I can just say it is, find a publisher for my forthcoming book or movie, and then watch the money roll in.

I'm dwelling on this fantasy because Alicia and I watched 2016: Obama's America this week. I expected it to be a good piece of propaganda, but it wasn't even that. It was just relentlessly stupid. Yet it was disheartening because I know people -- good people, wonderful people -- who have watched it and were intrigued. If you're looking for a refutation of 2016's claims, you won't find it here. That would be a nearly impossible project, not because the movie makes complex arguments, but because you cannot reason with someone who is determined to be unreasonable. Thus the illustration above: if I tell you Romney is going mandate polygamy next year and I'm absolutely assured of it, how exactly would you go about correcting me? You really can't. When people are either unwilling or incapable of making basic distinctions between plausibility and absurdity, reasoned argument simply doesn't work.

That said, I will note just a few random things that really bugged me about the movie.

--Much was made of the fact that Frank Marshall Davis, a mentor figure to Barack Obama, was a communist with a big FBI file. So let's cut through the historical ignorance and racist assumptions here. First, any civil rights person who was anybody in the 50s and 60s had a big FBI file. You know, there was this guy called Martin Luther King who the FBI aggressively persecuted and investigated. Maybe you've heard of him. Perhaps you didn't get the memo, but in mid-century America the FBI were the bad guys. Second, isn't it interesting how in the fevered imagination of the filmmaker, being a black communist in the 1950s is enough to be automatically tainted? Funny how such a sensible choice (for the time) immediately puts Davis under a cloud of suspicion, but you could be a white policeman without drawing any scrutiny. If we're going to criticize a few black men for being communists in the 1950s, we better start lining up about half of white America from the time and ask them why they participated in, enabled, or tolerated a racist police state.

--One of the funniest things about the movie is that it builds its case by relying on Barack Obama's own memoir. Obama has these nefarious plans to cut America down to size, and he revealed it in his own book, but it took a brilliant man like Dinesh D'Souza to come along and expose it I guess. But this actually makes sense. Small-minded villains keep everything a secret. But the great ones, like Hitler and Obama, hide their plans in plain sight -- in their books!

--Weirdly, unless you care about American nationalism or Republican partisanship more than basic morality, you're likely to come away from the first half of the film with a higher opinion of Obama! It actually does a good job of showing how the President's unusual background has given him a more sensitive social conscience and the precious moral skill of seeing complex issues from various perspectives.

--The movie never explains, of course, why President Obama has governed in such a normal way. He has all these horrible, unprecedented plans that no American president has ever had before. And even though he hasn't acted on them, just you wait! He will! See? You can't argue against that. So you may know in your heart of hearts that President Obama is anti-American, but I know just as well that I am actually a cyborg from a distant galaxy. As long as we're making fact free claims, they might as well be fun rather than depressing.

--To sum it up, those who found this movie compelling probably fit one of these categories:

a)  You are a good person who happens to be extremely gullible.

b)  You think having an anti-colonial mindset is a bad thing!

c)  The corollary to b, you suffer from severe historical or moral confusion, or both.

d)  You just like a good conspiracy. You're pretty sure we didn't go to the moon.

e)  You value the Republican party or American nationalism more than anything else.

f)   You are currently yelling at your computer screen, "Wow, Jesse Curtis is a cyborg?"

Beyond this there is one serious point to be made. The filmmaker, Dinesh D'Souza, was until a week or two ago the president of a small evangelical college. He lost his position when accusations of adultery came to light. It is right that his apparent brazen willingness to be unfaithful to his wife and live in violation of Christian principles should cause him to lose his position. But it ought to have been just as apparent that he never should have had such a position in the first place.

This is a man with nothing more than a bachelor's degree, who's once promising career has devolved into writing conspiratorial, utterly baseless screeds with a pronounced racist tinge. Despite this, he was a member in good standing in evangelicalism and the Christian Right. Think about that. You can make stuff up. You can lie. You can throw away any conviction you once may have had and just libel people and ignore some of the most basic teachings of the faith you claim to hold. You can proudly publish books and movies that are contemptuous of truth. For all of this, the Christian Right will pat you on the back. We ought to care about intellectual integrity just as much as sexual integrity.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Christians Who Don't Think The First Amendment Should Apply To Them

A lot of Christians in Texas are upset at the school district that banned cheerleaders from writing Bible verses on banners at the public high school football games. They're so upset that they sued, and a state judge ruled in their favor last week. Governor Perry weighed in too on behalf of the cheerleaders.

I don't think this is very complicated, as is revealed by a simple question for all these good Christian folks, the judge, and the governor. If these cheerleaders were displaying verses from the Koran, would you be passionately defending their right to do so?

The question answers itself. This is a clear case of de facto government endorsement of a specific religion. It seems pretty blatantly unconstitutional.

More than that, it is sad that so many Christians cannot see the coercive nature of these kinds of displays. This is a public high school. Many people want to play on the football team or watch the games, and they expect to be able to do so without facing state supported proselytizing. If we can't see why people might be offended, it indicates we've never really considered what it might be like to be a minority, religious or otherwise. It reveals a lack of empathy.

Can There Be An "Us" Without A "Them"?

Sorry for the awkward grammar, but it's an important question.

For one of my classes this week I was reading some stuff on the broadly defined topic of "history and the other." The heart of it was Edward Said's Orientalism, along with a little piece by Bernard Lewis, who can't fathom why Said's book was well received. There was also an excerpt from Ranajit Guha about British colonialism in India. These texts raise a lot of fascinating issues regarding race and attitudes toward the other, and compel us to think about how cultures define themselves in opposition to outsiders. Historians cannot float above the fray in the assumption that our work is not a part of these processes. Do we serve the otherizing tendency or do we counteract it? Do we write in the tradition of western colonial dominance, or do we seek new paradigms? Edward Said writes against what he views as the vestiges of western dominance in historiography, while Bernard Lewis laments the project to discredit Orientalism.

Said claims that Europe gained strength and an identity for itself in part through a negative association of the Western “us” against the Oriental “them.” If Europe's defining of itself involved acts of cultural and intellectual violence against the Oriental other, what task then falls to the modern historian? I think Said would argue that the historian must explore this period of domination, but is responsible to transcend the lingering intellectual categories that created and were created by such domination. In the most potent question of the text, Said asks, “Can one divide human reality, as indeed human reality seems to be genuinely divided, into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?” That is to say, these distinctions are not merely academic; they have been enablers to war, genocide and colonialism. And, as Said demonstrates by quoting early Orientalists in their own words, Orientalism as a field of intellectual inquiry grew up at a time in which it was inextricably linked with attitudes that are, by modern lights, blatantly racist. Bernard Lewis seems remarkably sanguine about all of this. In the short excerpt I read at least, he does not seem to entertain even the possibility that a field that began with so many dubious assumptions may remain compromised in its modern form.

This is not to say that I entirely agree with Said. Indeed I wonder if at points he gives Europe too much credit. Perhaps it is the nature of how he organizes his subject, or the limitations of the excerpt, but the peoples of the Orient appear basically as the objects of European action. He goes so far as to say that Orientalism was able to “produce” the Orient, and that it assumed such a dominant position that “no one writing, thinking, or acting on the Orient could do so without taking account of the limitations on thought and action imposed by Orientalism.” This sounds like not just dominance, but hegemony, and indeed Said speaks in precisely these terms elsewhere in the text, positing that European culture achieved this hegemony through the foundational idea “of European identity as a superior one in comparison with all the non-European peoples and cultures.” This sense of group superiority hardly seems unique to Europeans, however, nor is it sufficient to explain a literal hegemony in the Orient, beyond one of Europeans' imaginations. Is Said merely critiquing, like Guha, a European construction and subsequent historiography that had false pretensions of hegemony, or is he accepting its reality? If the latter, then he differs with Guha.

In Dominance without Hegemony, Ranajit Guha argues that the universalizing tendency of the bourgeois state with its capitalist markets ran up against its “insuperable limit in colonialism. None of its noble achievements – Liberalism, Democracy, Liberty, Rule of Law, and so on – can survive the inexorable urge of capital to expand and reproduce itself by means of the politics of extra-territorial, colonial dominance.” Having thus expanded, democracy in the colonial society is a threat to the colonizers, liberty is a farce, and the rule of law is a cheery slogan that dare not be followed, for it would mean treating the colonizer and colonized the same. In other words, the British dominated India, but they did not achieve hegemony, for alongside liberal British values of order, improvement, obedience and rightful dissent, were traditional Indian values of Danda, Dharma, Bhakti and Dharmic Protest. The result was a political culture shaped by “two paradigms,” both capitalist British and pre-capitalist Indian, rather than a culture overrun by a single British paradigm. The problem as Guha sees it is that much of the historiography has, by narrowing its range of vision to the tiny band of British colonizers and their elite Indian collaborators, asserted a hegemony that was never actually achieved.

These are fascinating issues, all the more so when one considers not only the negative effects of cultures defining themselves against the other, but the arguable benefits such practices can produce. For Americanists, for example, there is a line of thought that questions if and how popular democracy would have developed among the white majority were it not for the black and Indian “others” in their midst. Raising the potential benefits of otherization is far from an excuse; it is rather a deeply pessimistic take on the human condition. Still, I find the tone of authors like Lewis rather odd. It seems abundantly obvious to me that European behavior during the era of colonization was utterly self-interested and proceeded from racist assumptions. Surely this must have infected the historiography. Yet Lewis seems unconcerned. In the end we must find ways to write history that does not perpetuate the domination of the past.

Monday, October 15, 2012

"Fucking Mutt"

If the title offends you, and it certainly should, talk to the NYC police department, not me. Check out this audio from a stop and frisk in New York City.

If polls are to be believed, lots of white people think they are as likely to be discriminated against as minorities. There are no facts one can offer in defense of this belief. The reason for it is more basic: lots of us are shot through with racial prejudice and we don't even know it. And we're too defensive and selfish to see the truth right in front of our faces.

Why do people respect law enforcement in this country? It's such an absurd charade. Christians, especially, lament the declining respect for authority we've seen in recent decades. But when the authorities that be are racist and lawless, what are we supposed to do?

I have been robbed, mugged, had a gun held to my head, and then had to deal with the police after these incidents. Years later, I hold no ill will toward the marginalized young men who did these things, but my anger at the racist callousness of the police still burns brightly. Conor Freidersdorf adds:
The stops themselves happen more than 1,800 times per day.

Innocent citizens, who make up 88 percent of those stopped, are often insulted, berated and humiliated. Despite knowing all this, Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly insist that "Stop and Frisk" ought to continue. They can do so relatively secure in the knowledge that the people they know and love will never be subject to the policy, for wealthy people are stopped very rarely, and people with black or brown skin make up almost 90 percent of the stops. As a hoodie-and-jeans wearing grad student, I spent countless hours walking in Flatbush, Park Slope, Morningside Heights, and the Sugar Hill section of Harlem, often doing so late at night. NYPD officers never so much as indicated that they noticed me. Had I done the same thing while black or Latino I'd almost certainly have been stopped and frisked.

Were Martin Luther King Jr. still alive he would be marching against that reality.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Campaigning Against Voter Fraud? The Burden Is On You To Prove You're Not A Racist.

One of the decisive variables that will decide this election is the size of the minority vote, or as the racist far-right would have it, the size of the fraudulent vote. If minorities turn out as they did in 2008, it will be very difficult for Mitt Romney to win. So it is very important to Republicans to bully these voters into staying home. That's why we have all these new voter ID laws and efforts to scrub the voter rolls here in Ohio and in Florida, and why groups like True The Vote are planning to send thousands of poll watchers to minority precincts on election day. And it's why these billboards recently went up in black neighborhoods in Cleveland.

In person voting fraud doesn't happen. Ok, it does, but some people have also been struck by lightning twice. If you think in person voting fraud is frequent, I'm not sure how you're accessing this blog because you apparently don't have an internet connection. Once you discover the internet for the first time, you'll want to check out this really cool feature called "search." You can use it to find out all sorts of unusual things, like facts. Oh and by the way, a Nigerian prince would like to wire you some money.

In person voting fraud isn't common, but racism is. A lot of white Republicans think that they can stand in the tradition of terrorism and poll taxes and it's not really racism because they're just trying to gain partisan advantages and save the country from liberalism. But once you've decided to follow in the footsteps of our ancestors who hated freedom, you don't have anything left to save. You're fighting for a cause and country not worth saving.

If you have publicly avowed your intention to vote for Mitt Romney and yet have remained silent about this racist vote suppression effort, you are complicit in it. Some of us care more about freedom and justice than which party wins, so we get extremely emotional and angry about this.

A 400 Year Old Rebuke Of Racial Division

I'm reading Winthrop Jordan's 1968 book White Over Black for a project I'm working on and was struck by this call for racial equality by the Reverend Samuel Purchas, in 1614!
The tawney Moore, blacke Negro, duskie Libyan, ash-coloured Indian, olive-coloured American, should with the whiter European become one sheep-fold, under one great sheepheard, till this mortalitie being swallowed up of Life, wee may all be one, as he and the father are one...without any more distinction of Colour, Nation, Language, Sexe, Condition, all may bee One in him that is One, and onely blessed for ever.
Despite the archaic descriptions of the different people groups, what stands out here is the recognizably modern sentiment Purchas expresses in opposition to dividing people by skin color, sex, and other characteristics.

Or is it modern? Why am I surprised to see these egalitarian views in 1614? What Purchas describes here is very basic Christian doctrine, but in the 400 years since he wrote those words, we went through a long period of particularly flagrant violation of this doctrine. We're only now recovering these principles. So even today, it is not unusual for conservative Christians to see concerns about racial division as a sign of political correctness or a liberal mentality. That's incredibly perverse, isn't it?

Probably the biggest thing standing in the way of American Christians living as we should is our unexamined attitudes about race and class.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Why Are Americans Turning Away From Organized Religion?

Americans are rapidly turning away from organized religion, and the growth of the religiously unaffiliated has only accelerated in the past few years.
 No religious affiliation in America has grown to 19.6%
Among young people, a full third no longer claim any religious affiliation.
nones-exec-8
What is driving this? I do not claim to have anything approaching a comprehensive answer, but I am confident that we evangelicals are doing our part in de-Christianizing America. Check this out:
nones-exec-15
Look at the huge gaps in perception across a range of metrics between the general public and the unaffiliated. Are churches too concerned with money and power? The obvious answer is yes, and the gap is 19%. Are churches too political? Yes, and the gap is 21%. Do churches strengthen morality? Most people say yes, but the divide between the general public and the unaffiliated is enormous -- 24 percentage points.

I'd say the religiously unaffiliated have a more realistic perspective of the American church than church-goers do. Many people of my generation look at the church and see a movement bent on controlling others, not loving them. They see a church that is much more fond of asserting power than seeking sacrifice.

Perhaps the most interesting divide in the data is the 24 point difference on whether the church strengthens morality. I bet the widespread sense among young people that the church isn't even doing this basic thing is almost entirely about homosexuality. My generation is receiving the church's stance on this issue not as a principled defense of traditional sexual ethics, but as an attempt to perpetuate the marginalization of a persecuted group. (Sorry American evangelicals, but gays know a lot more about being persecuted than you do). My generation looks at the attempt to use political power to keep a small group of Americans on the outside looking in, and they don't see morality being defended -- they see it being attacked.

I'm not saying the church needs to soften its image or give up its principles. Image and principles aren't the problem. A lack of love is. There just isn't enough evidence that we actually care for people. I write this from a place of personal grief. Last night I screwed up really bad. Ok, so one of the boys I was working with was behaving poorly. And I thought he might run right then and there. And so I yelled that most ridiculous of rhetorical questions, "What is wrong with you?" Repeatedly. Until he was cowed.

The boy doesn't have a father. The boy is in constant agony because his father told him he wants nothing to do with him. His only dream in life is to have a real father. And he's angry.

So I was asking the wrong question. What is wrong with me?

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Should Communist Historians Be Beyond The Pale?

The Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm died last week, so one quiet evening I found myself reading this pleasant little article from Paul Gottfried, only to stumble across a startling passage:
To his credit, Hobsbawm never hid his loyalty to the Soviet experiment, and unlike his fellow Stalinist Eric Foner, who scolded Gorbachev for dismantling the Soviet dictatorship, Hobsbawm never grew into a fashionable, politically correct leftist.
Eric Foner, a Stalinist! Say it ain't so! I was just innocently perusing the blogs and now you go and bring Foner into it!

This was disturbing. Foner could not be a Stalinist, you see, because Foner is one of my heroes. How could one write so penetratingly about Reconstruction, Lincoln, and slavery while holding to such an absurd political philosophy? How could one produce truly first-rate scholarship about the past while giving every evidence of being stupid when it comes to the politics of the present?

In any case, before I get carried away, a brief Google search didn't reveal to my satisfaction that Foner ever actually considered himself a Stalinist, though he had some mildly favorable things to say about the Soviet Union over 20 years ago. I also found some conservatives claiming that Foner is an America-hater or some such, which pretty much tells you what you need to know about the caliber of criticism that's been leveled at him. And that's because his scholarship is about as close to unimpeachable as you can get. I'm not sure how one could read The Fiery Trial, Foner's Pulitzer prize winning book on Lincoln and slavery, and conclude that Foner hates America. The exact opposite seems evident. And if he was just an ideologue obsessed with the modern categories of race and gender, his obvious admiration for Lincoln, a racist by modern lights, seems rather puzzling.

But what if Foner were a Stalinist? What are we to make of that? I don't think knowing a historian's political leanings tells us anything about the quality of their scholarship. But can't it be a bit disturbing anyway? I generally hold it as an axiom that there are two kinds of people who are communists right now in 2012: the stupid and the bad. To that I perhaps need to add a third category, the stubborn, like Hobsbawm. His beliefs seem downright anachronistic at the time of his death, but he became a communist at a time in which it was not absurd to be so.

Gottfried's article, by the way, asked some interesting questions. Is there a totalitarian double standard? Do we accept the scholarship of communists in a way that we would not accept the work of the far right? I'm inclined to think there is something to this. Communism killed many more millions of people than fascism, yet am I wrong in thinking that a modern communist is viewed with curiosity, almost like a relic, while a modern fascist is treated as beyond the pale?

If that is the case, I'd venture one point that may go part way toward explaining the double standard, and that is the particularly horrific and racialized nature of fascist crimes. Nazism, especially, never even had any good intentions that could be appealed to, while communism seemed to have idealism (not to mention historical inevitability) on its side as it killed its tens of millions. For the millions of victims, though, whether you're killed because of your race or as collateral damage in the creation of the workers' paradise, you're still dead. And there were a lot more of the latter in the 20th century.

Please don't think I'm joining with the conservative caricature of academia in which every professor is a closet Marxist waiting to indoctrinate your kids. Indeed I think many Americans would be surprised by the degree to which Marxism has been discredited. The mistake many conservatives make is in thinking that American liberalism or the Democratic Party has anything to do with communism or any sort of truly radical leftism. There just aren't that many Americans who think that way anymore, even in academia. But having won the debate, conservatives continue to portray anything to their left as radical and Marxist-tinged, even though it is the Republican Party and conservatism that has been becoming more extreme for several decades, not the left.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Should Christians Be Bad Citizens?

I mean "bad" in a certain sense. Of course we should be civic-minded, engaged in our communities, and concerned about the direction of our nation. But...

It being election time, I've been thinking: are we Christians better American citizens than we should be? If we were really prioritizing our membership in the Kingdom of God first, wouldn't our political system be concerned about the large potential fifth column in its midst, this group of tens of millions of religious nuts who don't care about an American life any more than a Pakistani or Iranian one? Wouldn't it be destabilizing for so many of us to ask our leaders not to assert American interests in the world if it comes at the expense of others? The Obama and Romney campaigns would be confounded to find that their demagoguing about "jobs going to China" does not move us, because Chinese people are poorer and more in need of jobs than we are, and we don't let something as fleeting as nationalism make us forget that.

True, we're told in scripture to submit to governing authorities and honor the king. But I see no reason for that basic act of accommodation to be turned into a chest-thumping patriotism and assertion of national interest. Besides, as some of the earliest Christians showed, the command to submit to government is conditioned upon being able to do so without violating any higher moral principles, such as loving our neighbor and sharing the gospel. Paul may have told the early Christians to submit to Rome, but he didn't tell them to get excited about the armies spreading Roman values on the frontier. Their hope and excitement was reserved for another sort of campaign -- the nonviolent spreading of the message of Jesus.

More broadly, the nationalism we take for granted did not even exist at the time of Christianity's founding. As such, it must not be important to living a Christian life. As Christians, we have a citizenship that predates nationalism and will continue long after nationalism is gone. It is all too easy for us to take the way things are -- a world of competing nation-states -- and assume that's the way things ought to be. Or, to think that in perfecting the nation-state we are doing God's work.

Perhaps we can use nationalism for our own purposes (to put it crudely) but it seems to me a sort of ironic detachment is appropriate. When we get so energized by patriotism or politics, I think it often indicates that we are, somewhere deep inside ourselves, getting our citizenships out of order.

Or, to put it much more succinctly, isn't the old "God and country!" idea heretical? Are there any Christian grounds for patriotism? Doesn't patriotism, almost inevitably, lead us to "otherize" fellow people for whom Jesus died?

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Thoughts For Sunday

Funny how indifferent we can be to the things God cares about. In Ezekial 22, God took Israel to task for failings that have a sadly familiar ring:
The people of the land practice extortion and commit robbery; they oppress the poor and needy and mistreat the foreigner, denying them justice. “I looked for someone among them who would build up the wall and stand before me in the gap on behalf of the land so I would not have to destroy it, but I found no one. So I will pour out my wrath on them and consume them with my fiery anger, bringing down on their own heads all they have done, declares the Sovereign Lord.”
God does not look the other way when the big banks and payday lenders do their predatory practices. God is not indifferent to the treatment of illegal immigrants in the United States. And to God, the untold numbers of poor Pakistanis living under the terror of our drone attacks are not out of sight, out of mind.

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

When Anger Is Righteous

The latest big "reveal" from the far right is a 2007 video of Barack Obama speaking before a black audience. And he's angry. And he says words like "we" and "our." And he praises Jeremiah Wright. And he criticizes the response to Hurricane Katrina. What this all adds up to, as Rush Limbaugh knows, is that Obama is a black radical determined to bring down the United States as payback for its sins.

The substance of this manufactured controversy is absurd. The speech was reported on at the time and was open to the media. Last night on Hannity, he and Tucker Carlson breathlessly showed clips of Obama saying all sorts of outrageous things, like maybe we should focus on building infrastructure in poor areas that are under-served instead of building another excess highway in the suburbs. Apparently Hannity, Drudge and the rest of them have never spent much time around normal Americans. They obviously don't know any of my coworkers who had to travel 2 hours both ways from the south side just to make it to their minimum wage job. Any person with any decency knows its more important to extend the red line in Chicago than to build another highway in the collar counties.

Anyway, that's a rabbit trail. What's the larger point? On Monday I wrote this, and it's applicable now:
I think the discomfort is not because social history is literally going to reduce attachment to our country, but because some people do not want to face the alienation that has been there all along. My sense is that there is among some white people a deep resentment about having to be reminded of our national failures. They are proud of their country, patriots to their core, and they can't imagine why everyone does not feel the same way. 
Hannity, Drudge, Carlson, et al are besides themselves because they have Barack Obama on tape showing anger about racial injustice. In the minds of these execrable men, drawing attention to racial injustice is itself the injustice. Acknowledging the influence of race is itself racist. They are so far removed from the agony of real life, so far from North Lawndale, so far from the daily "quiet riot" Obama spoke of, that they cannot fathom why everyone does not think exactly like them. Privileged white males to the core.

I'm glad to see a video like this. I sure hope Obama was angry, and I hope he's still angry. If you're not angry about racial injustice, I have trouble trusting you. If you're not angry, I'm not sure how to relate to you. I understand that many of us have not had the experiences necessary to open our eyes. I can respect that. But these men take it upon themselves to explain the truth to millions of people. They have audiences of millions, and as such their responsibility is heavy. Yet all they know to do is demand that everyone see the world exactly as they do. These men are not necessarily bad, nor are they necessarily stupid, but they have to be one or the other.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Was Nat Turner Right?

TNC has been holding an ongoing discussion on this question, and it's a pertinent one because it raises important issues about double-standards in how we think about violence, and it exposes our lopsided historical memory. We have lots of Jefferson Davis highways and Robert E. Lee memorials. Nat Turner boulevards? Not so much.

TNC gets right to the heart of the matter:
We recoil in horror at Turner massacring women and children. But in several of the primary documents, men countenance genocide in response to Turner (or the next revolt). How different was the scale of Turner's violence? We have, in the records of Virginia, men killing Native American women and children over land disputes. Does Turner stand out because of the massacre, or because of the fact that the massacre was perpetrated by a slave in revolt?
In a subsequent post he notes the difficulty in sorting through sources that are primarily from a white perspective. There are a few gems to be discovered though:
But from the world of myth--a world which I believe to be just as important as the historical--the evidence is rich. This slave song for instance is beautiful not simply in its rendering, but in all the space it leaves for our interpretations:
You might be rich as cream
And drive a coach and four-horse team,
But you can't keep the world from moving round.
Nor keep Nat Turner from gaining ground.

And your name it might be Caesar sure
And you got your cannon can shoot a mile or more,
But you can't keep the world from moving round
Nor Nat Turner from gaining ground.
Again, some good questions: 
Enslaved black people lived in a world where "freedom" was the norm. We know that unfreedom was the actual norm in the 17th and 18th century for much of the world. Is it "Western" or "American" to feel that freedom is destiny, that there is no power on earth that can stop "Nat Turner from gaining ground?" And surely some African-Americans in Virginia deeply resented Turner's actions, given that it was met with a wave of repression. Was that frustration transmitted in the mythology? Or do such memories (much like the memory of the loyalist during the Revolutionary War) vanish as they become inconvenient to the times?
I don't really know the answers to any of these questions, but tentatively I would say yes, no, yes. I think we take it for granted that freedom is good, that it is achievable, that it advances. My sense is that most people in most times and places have not even had much of a concept of freedom that we would recognize, much less that it would progress. As for mythology, it is successes and heroic defeats that lend themselves to it, not the frustrations of those quietly put down in waves of repression.

After going through some documents showing white Virginians threatening genocide in response to Turner's rebellion, TNC concludes:
I raise all of this to further buttress a point which I have pushed since I began this exploration: The American slave society, at its very core, was a system of existential violence. Perhaps it shocks us to read men so easily contemplating ethnic cleansing. But why? Is there really such a difference between the weight of the former crime, and the willingness to effect through sale the banishment of someone's mother, father, son, daughter, wife, husband to oblivion? And not just to do so rarely, or under great duress, but to effectively hold it as a business model? I maintain that the systemic retailing of enslaved black people is only a shade away from systemic murder. If you believe that it is your right to destroy family whole families, why would you not believe it was your right to destroy a race? 

Monday, October 1, 2012

Social Historians Are Just Revealing What Was Already There

Continuing with the question of whether the social history of the past 50 years has undermined national cohesion and patriotism, last week Tell Me More interviewed Lupe Fiasco about his new album. In one of the songs he says he can't pledge allegiance to the flag. He was asked if this was just poetic license. His response? Absolutely not:
"When I was a little kid, actually my whole family — my mother and father — instructed us not to say the pledge of allegiance in school. ... They wanted us to understand fully — fully — not just haphazardly and for the sake of making my teacher happy — they wanted us to understand fully what we were doing at that young age, and what that means, and what America is, and what is your place within that."
Here's the song itself. It's quite powerful.

So here we have a kid who is explicitly taught by his parents that he is not to say the pledge of allegiance, and he is taught exactly why his family takes that stance. He grows up to write lines like this:
Now I can't pledge allegiance to your flag
Cause I can't find no reconciliation with your past
When there was nothing equal for my people in your math
You forced us in the ghetto and then you took our dads
The belly of the beast, these streets are demons' abs
I'm telling you that setup in them sit-ups is so sad
The system is a slab
One response is to say, "see, this is the problem with discarding traditional history that instilled pride in one's country and a sense of progress." Another, I think more realistic, response is to say that both his parents instructions and his current writing come from a very traditional strain of African-American thought that has nothing to do with what a bunch of balding white historians write or don't write.

As I wrote Saturday, the idea that history that exposes our flaws or questions the inevitability of progress is somehow a great threat to citizens' love of country implies that those who have experienced the American story as one of oppression need a historian to come along and tell them they've been oppressed. Suddenly, then, I guess they go from flag waivers to anarchists.

I think the discomfort is not because social history is literally going to reduce attachment to our country, but because some people do not want to face the alienation that has been there all along. My sense is that there is among some white people a deep resentment about having to be reminded of our national failures. They are proud of their country, patriots to their core, and they can't imagine why everyone does not feel the same way.

I've said this for years now: it is reasonable to disagree with someone who is not proud of America. But if you cannot understand why they don't share your pride, you're just using history as your own personal morality tale to make you feel better.