"All that we are is a result of what we have thought." — Gautama Buddha

 

                                                                                                                                                                     
                                                                                                                                                                         
 
 
 
26 SEP
    Why the Study of History Is in Danger

Forget the severe budget cuts that state governments continue to make to their institutions of higher learningeven as most of those cuts disproportionately hurt disciplines in the humanities. Overlook how a degree in higher education is now valued merely by how much of a salary one can earn with it. And disregard the ongoing trend to turn all of higher education into a vocational finishing school.

All these threats to the study of history pale in comparison to the drive by right-wing ideologues—most of whom wear their profound ignorance as a badge of honor—to alter the study of history at the primary and secondary levels so that it will conform to what they believe the past was. Their efforts amount to no less than the ideological hijacking of the historical discipline as a whole.

What some have called the "history wars" is, of course, nothing new in America. Concerted attempts to shape how United States History is understood and taught are as old as the union itself. But given how critical money currently is to curricular decisions, and how well funded these ignorami now are, the right-wing's ability to take over local school boards and influence textbook adoption processes is far more extensive than it ever has been before. There has been, in other words, no more of an opportune time in American history than the present for this hijacking to occur. Writing for Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald gives a highly accurate picture of what this high crime of the intellect looks like:

 

Did you know Moses played a role in the writing of the U.S. Constitution? I didn’t. Apparently neither did the Founding Fathers, since he’s not mentioned in the Federalist Papers or any other relevant document. But students reading Perfection Learning’s new textbook on American history will think Moses was right up there with John Locke and Charles de Montesquieu in influencing Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their brethren. What role did Moses supposedly play? The textbook claims he contributed the concept that “a nation needs a written code of behavior.” Forget the biblical ignorance shown in suggesting Moses provided the code for a “nation” rather than for the Jewish people, who had no nation (failing to reach the Promised Land was kind of key to the Book of Deuteronomy). Forget the legal ignorance in suggesting the Constitution had anything to do with a “code of behavior” rather than establishing democratic government and the rights guaranteed to citizens. Forget the historical ignorance in suggesting that the first laws came from Moses when the sixth Amorite king of Babylon established one of the first written set of laws, known as Hammurabi's Code, hundreds of years earlier.

Saying Moses played a role in the writing of the Constitution because he showed the benefits of having rules is about on par with saying that the caveman who invented the wheel helped design the first automobile. This claptrap was nothing more than a vehicle to sneak religious training into history classes.

That’s why the book says the following, grammatical errors and all: “During their years of wandering in the desert of the Sinai, Moses handed down God’s Ten Commandments to the Hebrews. These commandments now form the bedrock on which the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian codes of behavior are based. The full account of Moses’ life can be found in the Bible’s book of Exodus.” Yes, a history book is teaching as fact that God wrote the Ten Commandments and gave them to Moses—something that some religious academics who have dedicated their lives to the study of the Bible believe is not a true story. This is not history. It is not even biblical scholarship. It is puerile, gee-whiz religiosity propounded by biblical illiterates to indoctrinate young people while undermining any chance they have of learning how to think like historians.

 

The taking over of history and its replacement with this ideological nonsense are most evident in the south, particularly in that long-time bastion of intellectual excellence and enlightened race relations, Texas. But they're also being felt beyond the Bible belt in supposedly more progressive states like Colorado. The most recent face-off between ideologically strident school-board members and concerned parents, teachers, and students has been unfolding this week in Jefferson County.

As Charlie Pierce notes, the conservative majority on the Jefferson County School Board sought to form a new "curriculum review panel." The criteria for judging what subject material would be acceptable to the panel included principles like "promoting patriotism, respect for authority and the free-market system," while any curriculum that encouraged or condoned "civil disorder, social strife, or disregard of the law" would not make the cut. As one of the dissenting school board members explained, "It's chilling. Does it mean Jeffco will no longer study the civil rights movement, the Boston Tea Party or women's suffrage?" Well, not exactly. Pierce observes how the Boston Tea Party would still be covered, but its historical actors would be portrayed as the great champions of the free-market system; think of Donald Trump or the Koch brothers dressed up as the Iroquois. Actually, given the state of Trump's hair this would not be much of a stretch.

Responding to the heated protests of parents, teachers, and students, one of the right-wing ideologues on the school board presented her view of what the learning of American history should be all about:

 

Last, when it comes to history I believe all children graduating from an American school should know 3 things: American Exceptionalism, an understanding of US History, and know the Constitution.

 

The severe grammatical flaws of the sentence are the only thing you need to notice when it comes to ascertaining how much intellect these ideologues typically possess. But these aside, her comment raises more questions than answers. When she speaks of "American Exceptionalism," is she speaking about the long legacy of brutal slavery and white supremacy in this country? The exceptional homicide rate in the U.S.—by far the highest of any developed and highly technological country in the world over the past 50 years? The astounding number of guns that civilians have felt the need to possess to protect themselves since the Reagan (counter)revolution? The ongoing and abysmal rates of poverty, hunger, and homelessness in such a wealthy nation? And shouldn't any understanding of U.S. history include "civil disorder, social strife, and disregard of the law," especially since they were all necessary for the country's founding? Moreover, does knowing the Constitution include the fact that for the first 130 years of its history a clear majority of Americans were not entitled to all the rights contained therein?

To paraphrase a famous line from The Princess Bride, I don't think "U.S. history" means what she thinks it means.

UPDATE: More gems of insight from the school board member who cannot write a correct sentence.

 
 
17 SEP
    Now For Something Really Funny

Want to read something really funny? It doesn't get much better than Chuck Norris giving a history lesson in which, among other things, he cites the Battle of Tours in 732 as evidence that terrorists in the Middle East will take over the entire world unless President Obama grows a pair.

It would be even funnier if a small share of the American people didn't read such detritus and actually think that they had learned something.

Here's Norris at his best—meaning, of course, the teaching of history at its worst—whereby he attempts to make historical equivalencies involving Neville Chamberlain, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, and Obama:

 

Obama isn't the first to have a foreign policy of blissful appeasement and too-little-too-late interception. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain did it with the Nazis. President Gerald Ford did it with communists. President Jimmy Carter did it with the ayatollahs. And here we go again with Obama.

 

Rule number one for making sense of history: whenever someone tries to draw multiple parallels like this, stop your reading right there, close the browser window, and go watch cat videos on YouTube. Here's rule number two: whenever a battle from the eighth century is used to make a point about foreign policy in the twenty-first century, look up from your screen, turn off your electronic reading device, go to the top floor of twenty-two story building and throw the device out of the nearest available window—I don't care whether it's a Kindle, a lap-top, or your iphone. Just throw it and don't look back.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoy historical debate and still believe that history can be informative for present-day matters. And I'm not looking down on those daring enough to put on the hat of amateur historian at the local bar during happy hour. But when a washed-up actor who made a name through cheesy martial-arts movies and one of the most violent television serials ever is allowed to make a mockery out of such a serious subject, it's time to conclude that this whole internet thing may be the worst development to come along since the Bubonic Plague.

You want to know what appeasement in history is really all about, Mr. Norris? Are you truly willing open your eyes and learn of a past "as it really happened,"—to quote your newest hero, Leopold von Ranke? Then take this cue from Charlie Pierce:

 

Promising them if they hold the hostages, they'll get a better deal from another president. Unfreezing the assets almost as soon as you take the oath. Secretly selling them advanced weaponry because you had use for the profits of this illegal arms sale to fund an illegal war.

That's what appeasement looks like.

And that wasn't Carter.

That was the next guy.

 

Meanwhile, Clio—the Greek muse of history—is sitting down and having herself a good cry.

 
 
31 AUG
    How Can You Solve a Problem That You Don't Believe Exists?

Nicholas Kristof’s Sunday column in the New York Times has crystalized much of my thinking about matters of race in America over the past three weeks.  Since the killing of Michael Brown on August 9 many in the United States have grown increasingly polarized over not only the protests that followed the death but also the police’s heavy-handedness toward African American men and even more broadly, the lack of economic opportunity and political influence in black communities.

Among the more insightful things Kristof mentions is a 2011 study by scholars at Harvard and Tufts that revealed how whites, on average, believe that anti-white racism was a bigger problem than anti-black racism.  “Yes, you read that right,” Kristof remarks with an air of incredulity. I can hardly believe it either.

Another observation that I found spot-on was that the ongoing inequality and gaps of opportunities between whites and blacks in America “constitute not a black problem or a white problem, but an American problem.” Understanding that inequality hurts all of us is the only way that we can address this problem and work to alleviate it, especially in light of the emphasis many Americans place on the principle of self-interest.

But since many in the U.S. maintain that such inequality is largely a figment of the liberal imagination, Kristof provides these startling statistics:

 

• The net worth of the average black household in the United States is $6,314, compared with $110,500 for the average white household, according to 2011 census data. The gap has worsened in the last decade, and the United States now has a greater wealth gap by race than South Africa did during apartheid. (Whites in America on average own almost 18 times as much as blacks; in South Africa in 1970, the ratio was about 15 times.)

• The black-white income gap is roughly 40 percent greater today than it was in 1967.

• A black boy born today in the United States has a life expectancy five years shorter than that of a white boy.

• Black students are significantly less likely to attend schools offering advanced math and science courses than white students. They are three times as likely to be suspended and expelled, setting them up for educational failure.

• Because of the catastrophic experiment in mass incarceration, black men in their 20s without a high school diploma are more likely to be incarcerated today than employed, according to a study from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Nearly 70 percent of middle-aged black men who never graduated from high school have been imprisoned.

 

Kristof nevertheless acknowledges that progress against racism has been made.  But his point is that the gains have been relatively modest, thereby calling into question the labeling of our times as “post-racial.” Anyone who is willing to observe American society with an open mind can find plenty of evidence that white supremacy remains a pervasive fact of life in this country.

So why does it persist while at the same time we have seen remarkable progress against the social ills of sexism and homophobia?  As Kristof makes clear, attitudes toward homosexuality changed markedly the past twenty-five years because many came to know a homosexual personally—at schools, in workplaces, within one’s own family—and accordingly came to acknowledge that he or she was, above all, human.  But consider this map from Reed Jordan and reflect on the implications of our school systems remaining largely segregated:

 

School Segregation

 

Racism persists in the United States because it is so deeply entrenched, particularly from institutional and socio-economic points of view.  And given how many whites in this country maintain that “anti-white racism” is more of a problem than “anti-black racism,” the chief impediment to greater racial equality lies in the massive failure to even acknowledge that de facto segregation—a milieu of separate and unequal—is a reality in this country.  We need to wake up, and we can do so by first being mindful about how and why despite the best efforts of many in the long march toward race equality, white Americans found ways—overtly and covertly both—to perpetuate racist notions and deny or impede “the other.”  In other words, we have to know our history: one in which white supremacy was too often front and center.

 
 
27 AUG
    Making Sense of Ferguson

How can we make sense of recent events in Ferguson, Missouri without considering the imprint of the past? There's no way that they can be understood while at the same time ignoring the long legacy of racism and racial tension in the United States. The bottom line is this: we ignore such a legacy at our own collective peril. Not only does racial tension further exacerbate the troubles of this nation's permanent underclass, which has formed markedly along lines of color; it also profoundly diminishes the union as a whole. Until a vast majority of people in the United States realize that we are all interconnected—that whenever one race or demographic is belittled, dehumanized, and denied basic rights and equal opportunity, the whole country will suffer for it—we should expect to see sporadic outbreaks of Ferguson-like unrest throughout the country. What a shame.

Among other things, the events in Ferguson illustrate the long and troubling relationship between African-Americans and predominantly white local police forces. As Ta Nehisi-Coates shows, none of this new and therefore it should not strike us as some kind of historical aberration:

 

Among the many relevant facts for any African-American negotiating their relationship with the police the following stands out: The police departments of America are endowed by the state with dominion over your body. This summer in Ferguson and Staten Island we have seen that dominion employed to the maximum ends—destruction of the body. This is neither new nor extraordinary. It does not matter if the destruction of your body was an overreaction. It does not matter if the destruction of your body resulted from a misunderstanding. It does not matter if the destruction of your body springs from foolish policy. Sell cigarettes without proper authority and your body can be destroyed. Resent the people trying to entrap your body and it can be be destroyed. Protect the home of your mother and your body can be destroyed. Visit the home of your young daughter and your body will be destroyed. The destroyers of your body will rarely be held accountable. Mostly they will receive pensions. 

 

One might conclude that Nehisi-Coates is going over the top here, but I'm not so sure. Appreciating a perspective like his—especially given how soundly rooted it is in a history largely absent, side-stepped, or forgotten in the popular American mind—is as necessary as anything else in understanding the death of Michael Brown, the African-American response to the killing, and the disgraceful counter-response by some in local police forces.

What strikes me more than anything of the past two and a half weeks is how tone-deaf the Ferguson and Saint Louis County police forces have been, which lends credence to the critique that local police are functioning with a siege mentality. The military accoutrements that such police forces now possess, of course, only reinforces that perception. But at the same time I think we all need to be careful about painting police forces with such broad strokes so as to dismiss every officer as racist. The racial animus that these police forces help fan are due as much to structural realities—a virtually all-white police force in a predominantly African-American suburb, for example—as to the personal attitudes of some police officers.

As if the military machismo of the local police were not enough, though, there is also this unmistakable image that speaks volumes about where we are on race as a nation. As Charles Pierce put it:

 

They left the body in the street.

Dictators leave bodies in the street.

Petty local satraps leave bodies in the street.

Warlords leave bodies in the street.

A police officer shot Michael Brown to death. And they left his body in the street. For four hours. Bodies do not lie in the street for four hours. Not in an advanced society. Bodies lie in the street for four hours in small countries where they have perpetual civil war. Bodies lie in the street for four hours on back roads where people fight over the bare necessities of simple living, where they fight over food and water and small, useless parcels of land. Bodies lie in the street for four hours in places in which poor people fight as proxies for rich people in distant places, where they fight as proxies for the men who dig out the diamonds, or who drill out the oil, or who set ancient tribal grudges aflame for modern imperial purposes that are as far from the original grudges as bullets are from bows. Those are the places where they leave bodies in the street, as object lessons, or to make a point, or because there isn't the money to take the bodies away and bury them, or because nobody gives a damn whether they are there or not. Those are the places where they leave bodies in the street.

 

In the United States of America? In 2014? This fact alone is nothing less than a national disgrace.

There will be no winners coming out of this tragedy. Yes, perhaps it will send more law-and-order whites to the polls in the fall, thereby strengthening the electoral hand of the GOP. Yes, perhaps the African-American community in Ferguson will politically mobilize, vote more in local elections, field more candidates, and thereby be able leverage more local institutional influence. But such political gains seem hollow when stacked against the needless loss of life for one young man.

The most relevant question now is this: where do we go from here? Even if charges are brought against the officer who shot an unarmed Michael Brown, and even if he is convicted (which I strongly doubt will happen), what good can come out of this tragedy? Our nation needs to take a good look at itself with the help of an honest understanding of our past, including how we have got to a point whereby some in the police have a defacto open season on unarmed African-American men. We also need to take a look at what makes good policing: how it involves a working relationship between police officers and those whom they are sworn to protect—not shoot. And we need to find more constructive ways of dealing with the desperation and absence of opportunity in so many urban and (increasingly) suburban neighborhoods. These, it seems to me, are the only ways that we can prevent more Fergusons down the road.

UPDATE: For those who persist in believing that African American men are not singled out by predominantly white urban police forces, consider this story highlighted by Conor Friedersdorf. One reason why we don't know of more stories like this is because they simply were unable to be videotaped. Or as Donald Rumsfeld might say, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

 

some blogs and sites that I follow:

A great site featuring diverse political and ideological perspectives, often on a wide range of issues.
Usually irreverent and occasionally insulting, Pierce's writing is pointedly partisan yet also humanitarian at its core.
Nehisi-Coates always provides a thoughtful and historically-rooted perspective on issues of race in America.
   
   
THE ARCHIVES: SPRING 2014