Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Limits of Popular History

A couple days ago I watched the documentary "Custer's Last Stand" by American Experience. I was surprised by the failures of the show, though I suppose I shouldn't have been. As a public television program beholden to taxpayers and various foundations, it exists, in some sense, to bolster American nationalism rather than challenge it. (It's not that any given historical project must challenge nationalism, but it ought to be able to stand outside of it and treat it as another historical variable to study. In this, American Experience comes woefully short.)

The documentary has plenty of obligatory discussion about the ways Custer makes modern Americans uncomfortable, about how he has gone from hero to something of a villain, about the difficult questions his life and most notable battle raise for our country's history. But these segments are uneasily welded to a broader documentary that adopts Custer's perspective rather than explaining it. As such, it fails to get past the imperialist and colonialist narratives it purports to critique.

I will just note a couple of examples pertaining to language choices. Historians must write and speak with great precision so that the reader/viewer can readily understand whose voice is coming through -- is this the author's view, or the subject's view? Moreover, historians must be attuned to the ways adopting seemingly banal language puts them squarely on one side or another of a conflict.

In a way, the most egregious problem with the documentary is its description of the broader context of White Americans moving West after the Civil War. The narrator describes Americans "settling" the West. When something is "settled" it strongly implies improvement; something wild, unproductive, and barren is "settled." With this euphemism, a process that was marked by violence, disruption, and invasion is transformed into something quite different. The key point is to realize that "settling," which we think of as a neutral and descriptive term, is truly a euphemism. It was used by 19th century Americans to describe processes that we now refer to with words such as war, invasion, ethnic cleansing, or perhaps, genocide. This is not to say that we need to slap an anachronistic label on 19th century actors. But neither can we excuse an uncritical adoption of their language.

The other example is a symptom of the same larger point. In describing an attack on a Native village by Custer's forces on the plains in the mid 1870s, the narrator describes it, in his own voice, as a battle. Yet we're also told that the 100 or so people Custer's men killed were almost all women, children, and elderly men. Custer lost 5 men, perhaps to friendly fire as much as Native resistance. This is an event for which in any context other than American history we would use a different word, such as massacre, slaughter, or atrocity. On the other side of the coin, when Custer and over 200 U.S. soldiers were killed in his "Last Stand" by Native warriors in a pitched battle between legitimate combatants, the narrator describes it, in his own voice, as a massacre.

As I said at the top, these grievous errors occur amid a documentary that openly discusses the unsavory nature of Custer and the forces he embodied. So it is not as if this is an unaware apologia for American exceptionalism. That makes it all the more remarkable, however, and demonstrates just how thorny and difficult it can be to do popular history that is both historically credible and morally alert.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Racial Inequality, Public Opinion, Christianity

As I recuperate from my surgery I'm doing a little blogging. It's a guilt-free break from grad school! The Center for American Progress recently gathered some pretty extensive survey data about Americans' attitudes toward diversity and their support for steps to combat inequality. There is some really fascinating stuff here. For now, I'll just note this chart:

First, I like this question. It's simple, but it gets to the heart of the matter: few people quibble over the ideal of reducing inequality. The sticking point is whether you favor any substantive action to do something about it. Decades of public policy and historical and sociological research have shown that tackling inequality--especially racial inequality--will require robust action. Just as a combined government/civic/church/society/business effort built White supremacy, a similarly multi-pronged and comprehensive approach would be required to tear it down. The good news is that, in the abstract, Americans support that. It is, perhaps, a vague platitude, and as soon as we start talking tax rates we'd be into entirely different territory, but it's better than nothing.

But there are two things that stand out in this chart. First, Whites are dramatically less likely to support efforts to reduce inequality. Second, this is entirely driven by the attitudes of White conservatives. White liberals as a group are actually right in line with African Americans in their support for efforts to reduce inequality. Now, I don't actually think this support runs deep for many White liberals, especially once you get into the nitty-gritty and they see the prospect of losing some of their unfair privileges. But it does suggest that at least on a rhetorical level, White liberals as a group have embraced an ethic that says others' gain is not necessarily their loss, that indeed all are strengthened by policies benefiting the poor. There is certainly a subset of the White population that finds White supremacy so repugnant that they are genuinely willing to endure added personal hardship to see it torn down. It's hard to quantify how large that population is, but anecdotally I've certainly been privileged to see it in action. Contrary to popular perceptions, some of the most committed folks I've known on this front are White evangelical Christians.

But that is somewhat of a segue into the second thing that is so noticeable about this chart, because most White evangelicals fall into the conservative category, and less than half of them said they would support new efforts to reduce inequality. I think it is important to be precise about what this might mean. It doesn't mean conservative Whites are uniquely bad. But nor does it mean it's a mysterious statistical quirk. It's actually excellent evidence of the value conservatives Whites continue to place on their supremacy in American society. Why should a privileged group support efforts to reduce inequality when it is the beneficiary of the current inequality?

The other thing that might be mixed up in this is attitudes toward government. Many conservative Whites are much more concerned about activist public policy than they are about our society's deep-seated inequality born of racist practices. This is an explanation, not an excuse. I have no quibble with conservative perspectives on government's proper role. It should be stated with clarity, however, that Christian conservatives must not elevate their perspective on size of government (a matter of preference rather than morality) above the need to combat racism (a moral imperative rather than a preference). I feel quite certain about this. It doesn't necessarily imply any particular stance on public policy (I've known White families deliberately raising their kids amid poverty and shooting and I'm pretty sure voting Republican while they did it). But what I see much more often is Christians who actively reject the ethics of their faith, pretending that particular views about government's role are Christian principles, while fighting racial inequality is a liberal concern rather than a Christian mandate.

It's hard to thread the needle, but I do think we need to be able to insist on certain sets of priorities that are Christian or not, without distilling those priorities into a particular political agenda that becomes a litmus test of faith. It is sometimes difficult to withhold judgment, though, when we feel that people's political agendas reveal their priorities so loud and clear.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Maybe We Should Establish That Americans Have a Right to Vote?

For the class I TA the students had to create a constitutional amendment. There were plenty of fairly frivolous ones reflecting a distinct college freshman outlook (lower the drinking age, etc). The most popular choice was a gay marriage amendment. A couple others that were surprisingly popular were a balanced budget amendment (which would be horrible policy but it sounds good!) and a drug testing amendment for everyone receiving public assistance. This one was fairly shocking to me. I don't think it occured to the students that most of them would have to be tested (pell grants or federally subsidized student loans) and their grandmothers too (medicare and social security above what they paid in). I'm being too literal, of course. We all know that only certain kinds of government handouts, to certain kinds of people, "count" as handouts. All the rest is the just deserts of a hardworking citizenry.

Anyway, that was all prelude to the constitutional amendment I would propose if given the chance. At first I thought something to do with education would be useful, to require the breakdown of our immoral system of segregation and inequality. But actually doing that via constitutional amendment could get extremely complicated really fast and could cause more harm than good. I'll leave that to others to think through. My amendment has the advantage of being at once desperately needed and extremely simple, with zero negative externalities.

It's simply this: we need a constitutional right to vote. Most people probably aren't aware that we don't already have one. We should pass an amendment that establishes an unequivocal and unalienable right to vote. (Yes, serial killers on death row would be able to vote. Get all your outrage out now.) What a robust and explicit right in the constitution would do, I imagine, is make it much more difficult for states to try, as they are now, all sorts of underhanded tactics to reduce voting participation.

This amendment would not have a chance at this point, though. The reason is that the White countermovement that defeated the civil rights movement decades ago is still active. People don't realize that there is a proud American tradition, embraced by many of the founders, that sees voting by common people as deeply dangerous. The thing that is so frustrating about the current political climate is that average people have so thoroughly rejected those anti-democratic norms that the proponents of vote suppression have to invent causes out of whole cloth: now they're "protecting" the vote and ensuring its "integrity," preventing "fraud." It's so deeply cynical and disgusting.

The racial component of this is interesting too. For many states, one of the major perks of their vote restrictions is that they disenfranchise astonishing percentages of their Black population because they don't allow felons to vote, in some cases even those who have served their time. (Of course, these people often wind up in the system in the first place because of racism.) There is perhaps no other area of public policy in which the gap between rhetoric and reality is so large. The vote suppression laws that are rampant now are racist laws. Yet in many quarters being honest about these basic facts is the offense, not the laws themselves. John Stennis would be so proud.