Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Memory and Memorial Day

Last year, Yale historian David Blight published a moving essay on the birth of Memorial Day at the end of the Civil War. It's worth reading again on the anniversary of the first Memorial Day celebration, held on May 1, 1865. Holidays are supposed to be times to remember. But, as the history of Memorial Day suggests, they are just as often times to forget. The following, based on Blight's retelling, shows just what is at stake when remembering and forgetting.

The first Memorial Day celebration took place in Charleston, South Carolina in 1865. The city that started the Civil War with the firing on Fort Sumter lay in ruins at the end of the conflict. In the last year of the war, Confederate soldiers had turned the city's race track into a makeshift prison for Union soldiers. Where previously rich white planters had gathered in a conspicuous display of the wealth extracted from the labor of exploited slaves, there stood another symbol of the Confederacy. In the year of its operation, more than 250 northern soldiers died of illnesses related to exposure, malnutrition, and starvation. The Southern surrender at Appomattox in early April of 1865 left the Washington Race Course and Jockey Club empty except for a hastily constructed mass-grave dug by retreating Confederates.

Union Cemetery at Washington Race Course
After news of the surrender spread, some 28 black workmen, mostly former slaves living in Charleston, took it upon themselves to re-bury the Union dead. They built a proper cemetery. Lined it with a whitewashed picket fence. And on the archway over the entrance wrote the words "Martyrs of the Race Course." Then on May 1, 1865, black Charlestonians, along with white missionaries, soldiers, and aid workers held a memorial celebration on the grounds of the slaveholders' former race course.

Over 10,000 people marched that day. The parade was led by 3,000 black schoolchildren: boys and girls who had previously been kept by law from learning to read and write were the corporeal embodiment of the promise of a new south. They were followed by women bearing flowers, wreaths, and crosses to honor the dead. Black men, civilians marching en masse and in orderly martial cadence were next. Finally, federal troops, both black and white -- soldiers in the great war to end slavery -- marched onto the field. All of them understood the powerful symbolism of a celebration by former slaves to honor soldiers of the war to end bondage, held at a the very site of slave aristocracy's power, a southern pleasure ground-turned Confederate prison. To the participants that day, according to Blight, the ceremony was an the Independence Day celebration for the Second American Revolution. What's the Second American Revolution? How about, in Walter Johnson's words, the largest successful slave rebellion the world has ever known.

Eventually, both Northerners and Southerners would hold memorial day celebrations in the spring time, when the flowers to commemorate the fallen soldiers were as abundant as veterans' graves. And the meaning -- of both memorial day and the war itself -- would be lost to the nation's collective amnesia that set in over race and slavery. Southerners claimed the day to honor the valiant manhood of fallen Confederates. Northerners would drop the racial meaning of the war in favor of the whitewashed Southern version of a "tragic-but-honorable" conflict. And black Americans, both North and South, their contribution to the war, and to memorial day, would be scrubbed from the history for generations.

Hampton Park (formerly Washington Race Course)
The Charleston race track is all but gone except for an oval-shaped path in a large public park in a tony section of Charleston. In a symbolic act of reclamation, the park is now called Hampton Park, named for former confederate general Wade Hampton. Hampton became a white supremacist politician who won the bloody 1876 gubernatorial election with the help of a home-grown South Carolina terrorist organization known as the Red Shirts, whose brand of political violence looked much like another southern terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan. His victory marked the end of "Reconstruction," the North's the ten-year attempt to bring racial justice to the former slave states. 1876 also marked the beginning of a New South shaped in the distorted and twisted image of the old, racial segregation upheld by violent lynching, and a return to the pre-war order of white over black. In many ways Hampton's election, and others like it across the south in 1876, closed a door for years to come on the liberation promised by the war.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Santorum and Statehood: Curious Constitutional Principles

Rick Santorum recently demonstrated both his casual racism and his constitutional ineptitude this week weighing in on the subject of Puerto Rican statehood, claiming that “English must be the main language” before the territory could achieve statehood. His remarks, backpedalling notwithstanding, are telling. This election cycle’s iteration of conservatives can’t get enough of the constitution, the founding fathers, and their original intent. Tea Party republicans, who Santorum is trying to court as the only “true conservative,” continually invoke the founders (as if they were of one mind), while the House of Representatives read the Constitution aloud last year (minus all those passages that dealt with slavery). But how is it that a man who claims such fealty to all things founding can be so very, VERY, wrong?

I suppose we should give Santorum a bit of leeway here. The constitution and the founders are not the same thing (though to hear these guys talk about it you wouldn’t know). But, given the radical right’s love affair with the founding fathers, we can certainly understand the discriminatory and imperialistic undertone of Santorum’s remarks. Indeed, he would be right at home with, say, someone like Benjamin Franklin. He felt the same way … about the Germans

Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion. 

Why was Franklin so nervous about the obviously-not-white Germans? In the next paragraph he continues:

the Number of purely white People in the World is proportionably very small. All Africa is black or tawny. Asia chiefly tawny. America (exclusive of the new Comers) wholly so. And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth. I could wish their Numbers were increased. 

So, it’s obvious. Let the Germans run roughshod over Pennsylvania and we run the risk of ruining the white race, in general. Now, to us in the twenty-first century the notion that Germans are somehow not white seems absurd, but what shouldn’t be absurd is the American quest for racial purity. I don’t think it’s going to far to say that that quest is part of our political DNA, built into the system of laws that held up the institution of slavery and then Jim Crow segregation which followed. This quest for racial purity dominated the first 200 years of American constitutional law. It’s a legacy that the nation is now trying in good conscience to undo. Well, the nation except Rick Santorum. 

Ironically, that quest for purity is not explicitly built into American expansion. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787 (one of the only laws written during the Articles of Confederation to have lasting importance after the adoption of the federal constitution) established the precedence for the federal government acquiring territory beyond the original 13 colonies and the creation of new states from that territory. There were three stages of government for new territories, leading to statehood. First, Congress would appoint a governor, secretary and three judges. Once the territory had at least 5,000 inhabitants, those residents could elect a territorial assembly and send one non-voting member to congress. Finally, with 60,000, the residents could petition Congress for statehood, draft a constitution, and then become a state. 

Simple, right? So what were the requirements for the state constitution? That “the constitution and government so to be formed, shall be republican, and in conformity to the principles contained in these articles; and, so far as it can be consistent with the general interest of the confederacy.” Also, for the Northwest territories, that there be freedom of religion, the right to a writ of habeas corpus, the benefit of trial by jury, and no slavery. This had founders written all over it. Well, Thomas Jefferson at least. 

No language requirement. At all. What’s more, there is still no federal law mandating an official language of the United States. How could Rick Santorum, former federal lawmaker and candidate to be the nation’s chief executive, not know this basic lesson in history and civics? How can someone who claims to know the original intent of the founders, and who is in Puerto Rico on a campaign stop not know the basic laws governing the entry of states into the union?

This is a frightening story on a number of levels. It’s frightening that Santorum lacks such a basic understanding of the constitution. It’s all the worse that he would fill that gap so quickly with racist pandering.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Remembering the 4th of July

July 4th has come and gone again. So too have the requisite historical reenactments of all things related to the 4th. Though it's the signing of the Declaration of Independence that we supposedly celebrate, the Civil War, as always, was competing for its own spot at the 4th of July table. At Gettysburg National Battlefield, and various other old-timey locations around the country there were reenactments of that famous four-day battle that straddled the 4th of July. What is is about the Civil War that makes it so redolent in our national memory? Or at least in the memory of Civil War re-enactors? And why does the Civil War trump the revolution, even on the 4th of July?

It's not just gentlemen interested in old guns and ladies wanting to practice their flag sewing skills who use the 4th to contemplate historical memory. As popular history's most beloved conflict, everyone, it seems, wants to get in on the love-fest for the war between the states.

Maybe remembering the Civil War as a moment healed rather than a moment divided gives mainstream Americans -- engaged in their own ideological civil war between Red States and Blue States -- hope that we can get over fractious divides. Indeed, the Civil War can be used as a model for burying the hatchet and just getting over it, whatever it was, not by forgetting, but rather by remembering. Selectively, that is. That's what R.R. Reno, a professor of theology implies in an essay entitled "Memory Redeemed," where he used the 4th to quickly segue into a lesson on how Americans chose a "reparative memory" of the Civil War.

To Reno, reenactors, and the acolytes of Shelby Foote and Ken Burns, who stress the Civil War as brother against brother, the valiant deeds of both sides, and the horrible tragedy of the war, what we get is redemption in struggle, trial by fire. Regeneration through violence. Can you hear the plaintive fiddle music? Can you see the heartbreaking sunsets over now-silenced cannon? 

No? Go get your copy of Burns's The Civil War and que it to ... well, any point in the entire 12 hours, really. I'll wait. It won't take long.

That's better. Now with the sound of saccharine music and an actor voice-over explaining to his sweetheart that the war is trying but that heroes exist on both sides, we can begin to understand the logic of "reparative memory." In a brilliant bit of self-congratulatory providential eschatology, the Civil War provided America an obstacle that, once overcome, would wash away the sin of slavery and make the nation more democratic. We should thank those nice men in gray for providing us a way out of all those nasty uncomfortable historical moments that undermine a nation's sense of itself. Tragic pasts overcome are just that, they are finished! How do we deal with the trauma of the tragedy? Why, with narrative convention, of course. They're over! Woo-Hoo! 

In his essay, Reno begins -- outrageously -- with the famous Faulkner quote: "The past isn't dead; it's not even past." Turning around the original meaning of the Faulkner, this is forgetting masking as memory. Rather than understanding what it was that drove Americans to Civil War in the first place -- the question of slavery -- or thinking about the legacy of slavery, namely racism and Jim Crow, the "Civil War as noble tragedy" denies its own historical context and significance, it's own pre- and post-history. We'd prefer to wonder about the particular ribbons worn by the Louisiana Zouaves than the political consequences of the War. We need to be rooted in history, the reenactment claims, while at the same time eviscerating the history it claims to recover.

The question of whether or not Americans now are redeemed from the "tragedy" of the Civil War (not the tragedy of slavery of course ... and interesting choice of the term redemption) forces us to ask the question: which Americans? Who gets to benefit from this remembering?

The memory of the Civil War is only reparative if we draw our community around racial lines. As David Blight and others have shown, the emancipationist memory of the war -- that the war was fought in order to end slavery -- held by African-Americans and some white northerners, was liquidated by a white supremacist memory of the war in the South and the similarly inflected reconciliationist memory -- let's get back to the business of being (white) Americans -- of white northerners. This is the upshot of D.W. Griffith's racist epic, Birth of a Nation. The Civil War was tragic because the country almost let black people destroy the union. We were just lucky to have the Klan there afterwards to put us back together again. 

Lately, our reconciliation has been scrubbed free of this history as well -- the actual history of reconciliation directly following the demise of reconstruction -- but we would do well to remember that reconciliation was purchased for a price. It was a reconciliation built upon the backs of former slaves, a new racial politics that tried to remake not just the South, but the whole of the United States in the image of the old confederacy. Slavery was dead, but white supremacist social, cultural, and legal institutions were fortified.

And this is the real meaning of Faulkner's notion that the "past isn't dead; it's not even past" (or Marx's traditions of the dead weighing like a nightmare upon the brains of the living). The past lives on in traditions, in ideologies, and in social institutions like the law, like privilege, like wealth, like poverty.

It's also why the battlefield celebration of the Civil War, the reenactors Civil War, Reno's "reparative memory," is so dangerous. "We need to feel the weight of an accumulated, narrated, memorialized past. It gives us a legacy, a place in the world, a place to stand," Reno writes. Sounds good until we remember that the "memorialized past" of the Civil War has a different "weight" for blacks than it does for whites. The memorials to confederate generals that line southern streets, capitol buildings, and campuses, the confederate flag that flies over some southern statehouses or was incorporated into state flags (both of which are protests against integration in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education) and are a reminder that white southerners fought, valiantly even, against the largest and most successful slave revolution in the history of the world. And though militarily unsuccessful, white southerners would do all in their power to limit the consequences of their military defeat. 

Those monuments to that past are what Nietzsche and others tell us, is part of a "monumental history," which seeks to satisfy our previously existing sense of self and to justify the present in all its iniquities. But history should not make us feel comfortable. It is not there to show us how great we are; great because we "overcame" "obstacles" or "tragedies" like slavery. Or great because we were born in the greatness and sainthood of the founders, the constitution, and democracy. That is a history with a trajectory: a straight line of inescapable progress from them to us. But we are not a trajectory. The United States was not inevitable.

In fact, historical knowledge should undermine our sense of ourselves. It should shake our conception of the world. It should make us feel uncomfortable. Memory works against those things by papering over the ideological, emotional, or ethical inconsistencies and messiness of historical reality. For as white Americans decided on a memory of the Civil War that reconciled the battlefield traumas, African Americans paid the price as the United States allowed a moment of possibility for real racial change to pass into ... well, history. As Reconstruction gave way to Redemption, white American's "healed" the "wounds" of the Antebellum period. Black Americans were not afforded that luxury.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Glenn Beck’s History Project: Grades and Comments

Now that summer is here and my grading for the spring semester is over, I'm realizing that there was one person I forgot to give comments to: the conservatives' Historian Laureate, Glenn Beck. In my last post, I wrote about David Brooks's attempts to reclaim the American Revolution, or at least its beginnings, from the Tea Party Right. But there's more going on here than just a battle between different elements of American Conservatism. That battle is a much larger attempt to make History serve a political agenda. Brooks's dispatch is a veritable voice crying out in the wilderness; he simply can't hold a candle to Beck. With a confusing mix of cherry-picked facts and contradictory ideas from legal theory (original intent), evangelism (judeo-christian foundations), and small-government rhetoric (anachronistic anti-federalism), as well as a patina of tweed and chalk dust, Glenn Beck wants to "take the country back." 

I think the historical profession is doing him (and history education) a disservice by letting him go so long without feedback, so here are my comments on Glenn Beck's history project: 

Final Project for History 100: History of the US to 1865. At the end of the semester, each student will give a class presentation on the revolutionary, constitutional, or early national period. In a 15-20 minute oral presentation, investigate and explain any one element of the fifty-year period of US History beginning with the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 and ending with the collapse of the first party system at the end of the War of 1812. 

Grade and Comments for Glenn Beck 
Grade: D

Glenn,
As a teacher, I applaud your enthusiasm and excitement about America's past. Good job, Glenn! But, like a lot of students at this stage of studying history (the beginning), you've chosen simplicity over complexity. Remember, Glenn, our job is to demonstrate the nuances of the past, not shove them all into a single idea. But don't worry, you've got lots of room for improvement! :) 

On the plus side, your report does have a strong thesis. Roughly translated it's this: the first fifty years of the United States (beginning at the start of the Revolution) was single event whose meaning is clear and simple. The founders, the declaration of independence, and the constitution (singular, a holy trinity, if you will, of Providential history) fought to establish Christian principles, a weak central government, and a free market society (which are apparently completely complementary). 

That said, Glenn, this thesis has some major problems. First, I think you tried to take on too much. Trying to boil down the entire fifty-year period into a single idea misses the main point: the events that began with the colonists' opposition to British revenue measures and ended with the collapse of the first party system of a new republic is better understood as a series of related but distinct historical periods, each with their own story. There's a reason why we spent more than just one day on these fifty years. Remember, in class we talked about "The Imperial Crisis": the politics after the Seven-Years War, then the road to independence, and then the Revolutionary War itself. Even that was only the first part of the story. We followed this by sorting out the aftermath of independence: multiple days on the successes and failures of the Articles of Confederation, the creation of the Constitution, and then the Ratification debates. And finally we put the constitution into practice by looking at the different administrations of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. These different periods are notable not for their coherence but for the many political and ideological struggles that ensued over the very things you claim are self evident: the role of religion in the new nation, the relationship between popular sovereignty, state governments, and national governments, and finally the nature of the American economy and the government's involvement in it. In short Glenn, what you claim to be settled facts were actually a series of hotly contested issues (whose meanings are still not settled today!). 

Next, you make it seem like the "Founding Fathers," the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution are one and the same. They aren't.

While the periods embodied in these terms might be marked by some continuity -- especially the ideology of republicanism shared by the patriots -- you left out a lot of the change in the first fifty years, and that seriously undermines your argument (remember, history is the study of change over time). The protests against the Sugar and Stamp Acts, the Townshend Duties, the Declaratory Act, and the Coercive Acts might have culminated in the Declaration of Independence and the relatively weak national government of the Articles of Confederation. However, you ignore what comes next: following the Revolution some Americans saw disorder in protests by western farmers and an inability of the national government to protect the interests of a minority. This perception created a hunger for a stronger central government and what we got was the constitution. The two moments and what they produced: the declaration and the constitution were very different. 

The same is true for the constitution as seen through your lens of "the original intent of the founders." In your quest to prove your limited government thesis, you ignore the conflict in the heart of the constitution: between its centralizing tendency and the protections promised by the first ten amendments (the Bill of Rights). If you had used the Federalist Papers you would see this tension (not a singular essence) between two of "the founders" writing in defense of the new constitution. Alexander Hamilton argued that the government was going to be active and energetic while James Madison claimed it would be restrained and inactive. Which is the "original intent"?

Similarly, don't lump all "the founders" into a single unified group, Glenn. The three important issues that you claim the founders were unanimous on, were three of the most hotly contested ones. Limited government? During the Washington and Adams presidencies the federal government sent a force of 10,000 soldiers to crush a protest of high taxes and opposition politicians were jailed for calling the president bad names. Free market society? Washington's secretary of the treasury, Hamilton, argued for, and got, a national bank and high tariffs to encourage American manufacturing. And finally, there is the question of religion and government. Remember the first of history's 5 C's; Context, Glenn, is very important. The members of the founding generation were a relatively heterodox group when it came to religion: Diests, Anglicans, Evengelicals, Quakers, the odd Catholic thrown in for good measure. And their religious beliefs, like all beliefs, have a history. Their Christianity was not like your Christianity. In fact, your Christianity, Mormanism, literally didn't exist yet. Washington didn't pray to Jesus Christ, take communion, or show up to church on a regular basis because he wasn't a Christian as we understand it. More importantly, the distance between the beliefs of the most fervent evangelicals were ardently countered by those more skeptical, like Jefferson's Diest beliefs (and what are we to make of Jefferson's lines expressing an "intent" to draw a wall between Church and State? Again, which founder are we supposed to listen to?).

Glenn, I'm trying to point out that what you make simple and unified was actually complex and contradictory. Just shouting that the founders wanted a weak executive or a government divorced from the economy, or had a preference for "Judeo-Christian beliefs" doesn't allow us to understand why some wrote differently, and some, when in power, they acted in an opposite way. 

Even before Thomas Paine had published Common Sense undermining the divine right of Kings, British North Americans were fighting about how they should respond to what they deemed increasingly tyrannical English rule. But the fights didn't stop there. Those connected to the long story of the first years of the American Republic fought constantly about how to proceed and what it meant after the fact. The Revolutionary generations fought amongst and between themselves. And yes, there was more than one Revolutionary generation. The folks that got us to independence were not the same folks who got us to the constitutional convention and the first federal administrations. But even if we lump them all together -- the Founding Fathers -- what emerges, Glenn, is conflict, not concordance. We're clearly still engaged in these disagreements today. 

Maybe that’s the source of your problem, Glenn. You try to turn History into contemporary politics. That's a dangerous game for both the right and the left. More importantly, it's against the first rule of historical writing: be historically empathetic. Don't let your contemporary beliefs keep you from taking the past on its own terms.

But don't worry! These are comments to consider for revision, and remember, that's what history is, revision. The story is never complete, so keep trying! I hope to see you next term!

Friday, June 11, 2010

TAH Skagway Websites



For the teachers at the Teaching American History Klondike Gold Rush Colloquium, first, I wanted to say that y'all were fantastic: your enthusiasm and passion made the colloquium so much fun! THANKS!

Second: here are the list of websites that we talked about in class:

Alaska History:
http://www.akhistorycourse.org/

For more images of the Klondike:
UW Digital Collections (In the search box, type "Klondike" or "Yukon")


Maps of Rail Connections:

Images of Nature:

Jim Crow Images:

General Jim Crow:

History of immigration:
http://www.ellisisland.org/


Ludlow "Massacre"
http://www.du.edu/ludlow/index.html

Women Working Website:
http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/ww/index.html

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The New “F” Word: The Right Fights over the Founders. Part I Ideological Origins?

It’s an indication of the confused state of American Politics, when an ideological tent as large as the supposed "modern American conservative movement" goes up in spectacular six-alarm style flames like it is now. I know I shouldn't, but I'll admit, I get certain glee (I'm not proud here, just honest) watching politicians and pundits on the right eat their own. Witness David Brooks as he dismisses Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, British sojourner in the American colonies, and supporter of American liberties on the eve of the Revolution with Great Britain.

Paine's Common Sense has since become a buzzword, shorthand for Tea Party activists who (simultaneously and anachronistically) evoke both the founding -- read small government, tyrannical executive authority, blanket patriotism, shorn of any historical context -- and the supposed no-nonsense Truth and obvious righteous rightness inherent in the tea party movement; i.e., it just makes "common sense." Needless to say, also shorn of any historical context.

So what is David Brooks doing trashing Paine? There's something rotten in the state of Kansas. The unhappy marriage (or is it a state-sanctioned civil union? I’m not sure) between reactionary Christian-conservative evangelicals, working-class white Reagan Democrats, Wall Street free market-fundamentalists, and Bill Buckley intellectual-type conservatives is quite simply falling apart. If the Right had a Facebook page, its relationship status would read "It's complicated." 

Clearly, Brooks and others of his ilk (the ideological descendents of Buckley) are trying to reign in the rampant, and I'll agree quite crazy, Sarah Palin-Rand Paul Populism of the current Tea Party season. Oh, if only history could, in that old cliché, repeat itself as when the populist insurgency of the 1890s -- which combined a hatred of corporate monopoly with a hatred of African Americans and immigrants -- was co-opted by the Progressives of the first two-decades of the twentieth century. The result? An expansion of the administrative state, attempts to curb the excesses of corporate power, and calls on the super-rich to be morally accountable for how their wealth was gotten. But history, no matter how the conservatives want to tell it is not cyclical. Oh well. But, man, they are sure interested in telling it these days: Glenn Beck, David Brooks, Peter Lillback, Jack Goldstone, David Barton, and good old Lynne Cheney.

With all these claims on the American Revolution, there's bound to be some disagreement, I suppose. But it's getting nasty.

So what is Paine's mortal sin according to David Brooks? He’s a man with a plan. In other words, Paine is an idealist in the age of Enlightenment who shares too much with … who else? The French philosophes who, according to Brooks, thought a better world can be imagined and then brought into being. Stupid French (read worthless liberal egg-heads. I'll have those Freedom Fries now).

In other words, more David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, less Descarte, Rousseau, and the other French guys whose single names (why don't they have two names?!?!) are hard to pronounce. But it's two Englishmen that Brooks uses to explain the split: Thomas Paine and Edmund Burke. 

Brooks says that Paine believed the past to be of no merit (not true, btw: Paine argued that the past is not inherently of any merit, just, or moral. There's a difference). Brooks is better with Burke, which is no surprise; Burke has long been the darling of conservatives of Brooks's ilk. Burke believed, in Brooks's telling, that people "serve as trustees for the wisdom of the ages and are obliged to pass it down," hence, conservatism. Conserving the supposed wisdom of the past. There's a moment when Brooks (whose commentary I usually hate with a passion I reserve only for the smug punditry), almost comes across as thoughtful, telling his readers: 
We Americans have never figured out whether we are children of the French or the British Enlightenment. Was our founding a radical departure or an act of preservation? This was a bone of contention between Jefferson and Hamilton, and it’s a bone of contention today, both between parties and within each one. 

Ah, David Brooks! What's going on? Are you making a thoughtful argument.

But … wait for it. Unable to withhold his own judgmental irksomeness, his butter knife-blunt wit ruins a perfectly good sense of nuance. The French and the Tom Paines, intellectual ancestors to both liberal technocrats and Tea Bagging nut-jobs, have won! The proof? "Polemicists" on the right and left have crowded out good thoughtful Scots-minded moderates like himself. But not to worry, (check out the non-polemical Brooksian tone):
There is the stubborn fact of human nature. The Scots were right, and the French were wrong. And out of that truth grows a style of change, a style that emphasizes modesty, gradualism and balance. 

Yes, David Brooks. Sooooo modest.

Ah, the self-satisfaction that comes when sitting at the junction of Right and Wrong. Brooks's view is that those Frenchies were the ones that history, especially American history, has proven wrong. I think Brooks has been spending a little too much time reading How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in Itwhat appears to be the latest entry in the nationalism book marketing wars. Otherwise known as Blank: How the Irish/Greeks/Jews/Insert Ethnic Identity here Changed the World/Saved Civilization/Fundamentally Altered the Course of Human History.

But I digress.

For Brooks, the idealists got it wrong because human nature is not revolutionary. The mechanistic view of the world that the Scots gave us -- the right one, mind you -- suggests that society changes slowly and that big plans to remake a social order are doomed to fail. It’s not surprising that the Scots gave us Newtonian mechanics, industrialization, and economics, while the French left us with liberté, egalité, and fraternité. Stupid French.

Of course Brooks ignores that in the hands of politicians, or rather, when these folks were in the position of politicians, like his hero Edmund Burke, even this philosophy helped to create plans to remake the social order, just at a different speed. Like a machine (a metaphor of the world both sides shared), the plans for society the Scottish/English Enlightenment created were simply geared at a lower-ratio.

Brooks dresses ideological preference and political posturing in the guise of history. Needless to say, that p*sses me off. He prefers what he calls the sober, slow-path-to-reform sensibility of the Scottish Common-Sense realists to the fiery, social-order-overturning, revolutionary sensibility of the French and apparently their English speaking ideological cousins, the two Thomases: Paine and Jefferson.

But even Brooks’s cynical painting of Paine with a French brush won’t play at Tea Party rallies. To the Tea Party folks, Paine’s radical critique of centralized authority is fundamental to their way of thinking. So too is Paine's eschatological sense of human perfection: the theory that we are trending toward a perfect end of days. This perfectionism is too deeply ingrained in American political thinking to be nudged by Brooks facile arguments. From the Puritans’ City on a Hill, to Manifest Destiny, to Bringing Democracy to the Middle East Americans believe that they can create a better world. Not surprisingly, the evangelical right, with its vision of millennial perfectionism, is one of the main streams of this movement (so was the radical left, though post-modernism and relativity have gone some distance to dampen that kind of arrogance). In the end Brooks is fighting a losing cultural battle. What’s more American than the Pilgrims?

Yo! David Brooks, learn to pick your battles, dude.

And yet …

In a weird democracy-of-information, wikipedia kind of way, if we step back, all this hubbub actually gets us closer to the full story. It's just hard to pick out the narrative signposts amidst all the conservatives' shouting (That’s not hyperbole. They actually shout. Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin: stop yelling, you're hurting my ears). So I guess I should thank this current culture war within conservatism, at least it’s giving us a fuller picture.

Which is to say, "The Founding" was not a single moment driven by a single ideology, Brooks is right about that. The American revolution, and the turbulent creation of the United States of America that followed, was part of an expansive historical current, the confluence of many different, related but conflicting, ideological streams. It was both Hume and Rousseau. And America still is. There is no single meaning to the period because, if it doesn't exactly contradict itself, at the very least, it is large; it contains multitudes. The problem is that Brooks is too simple-minded to hold the question open (or at least, nuance doesn’t make for good punditry).

More importantly, it's the unfinished, conflicting nature of the revolution that is its particular genius: Scottish reform or French revolution (in Brooks's telling), or was the Revolution radical or conservative. Also: central authority vs. local authority, individual liberty vs. community welfare, agrarian nation or industrial nation. Just to name a few (and to stress that it was more than just "two sides"). To indulge in a little American exceptionalism, those messy tensions are what drive American history. And History is not a decider. "The Scots were right, and the French were wrong"? Whatever, David Brooks. Why don't you and Francis Fuykyama go hang out at the end of history ('cause that’s not eschatological at all).

David Brooks! Dude. Stop explaining the world with "human nature." It's a stupid argument. Wait, can I play the history-as-universal-lawgiver game? All history is complex. See? I've answered everything but explained nothing. But there's a difference. At the end of the day, the real truth of history -- complexity; that societies are different across time and space; diversity not universality -- opens up a conversation, it doesn’t end it. Human nature? That’s something you shout at someone when you are tired of arguing with them. Where can you go from there? But, difference? That forces us to look further. And those with a true sense of history know that.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Letting History Speak for Itself; Or Why I hate Ken Burns, pt. 2: Theories of History

In my last post, I criticized filmmaker Ken Burns for what I thought were glaring omissions in his series on the national parks in the United States. To be honest, I have trouble with all of his output as a historian and a teacher (full disclosure: my frustration of him was cemented when he came to a college where I used to teach and arrogantly dismissed my students' solid questions and criticisms. At one point he denied that he was a historian, instead, claiming that he just told stories and that all of his films were "just about love." I still don't know what that means). So, if Burns is a bit dismissive of the past -- the facts of history -- he also hates History: the habits of mind and critical thinking skills taught by historians as tools to understand the past and the world around us. To demonstrate, I'd like to look at his two most recent film, The National Parks, and The War.

The National Parks: The Worst Decision?
Let's start where we left off, with The National Parks: American's Best Decision. First, a caveat: clearly, the series was a pointed political jab at conservative criticism of overreaching federal power. The parks were part of a larger explosion in federal power and administrative authority during the "Progressive" era, a term conservative pundits lately have been trying to load with hatred almost equally insidiousness as their smear campaign against "socialism" and "liberal." It seems obvious too that in an era of global warming skeptics and the general dismissal of the environmental movement in particular, the documentary also acts as a defense of environmentalism and stewardship. Politically, I'm with Burns on these fronts. But historiographically, I'm appalled. 

What do I mean by this? Burns makes analytical choices and historical assumptions (no problem here all historians do that; they call them arguments), and then he turns around and denies that he does so. Burns refuses take ownership of his authorship. Take for example the fundamental premise of the parks documentary -- the parks were, like America, inherently democratic. All right, let's ignore for now that there is a question about whether or not the U.S. was an experiment in democracy (democracy being something of a four-letter word to many of the founders who linked it to notions of mob-rule; the constitution being, in some ways, a solution to the overly-democratic exuberance of some Americans following independence and peace with Britain). This is a huge debate among historians. It is by no means settled, but no where does Burns acknowledge this.

What's more, Burns completely hides the fact that recent historians of the parks have interpreted the parks (radically) differently. Indeed, to watch all 12 hours of this documentary (did anyone?) you wouldn't even know that he's engaged in an argument. This is because for Burns, history is not interpretation, it is fact. It is The Past, unmediated. Historians, according to Burns's logic, contort the past while he simply reports it. Hence, he's not really even a story-teller. Or, rather, the story's he tells are not written by him. That's disingenuous.

But Burns's obsessive singularity and simplified sense of the continuity of the American past runs roughshod over more than just debates about the democratic leanings of the founders or the exclusionary policies of the early Park Service. For him, democracy itself is an unchanging, universal platonic value. It, obviously, has no history (I wonder if Burns knows that he's marching lockstep with conservative thinker Francis Fukuyama?). We see this at the beginning of the National Parks when Burns deploys Teddy Roosevelt's words about the parks -- that they are democratic -- as if that's the whole story.

Yet, when I hear Roosevelt declare that the parks are essentially democratic, the historian in me wonders what made him utter those words? In what forum did he say this? Who was his intended audience? What were others saying about them at the time? Indeed, when did he say this? During the fight to start the park service? At the end of his life? What did democracy means to Roosevelt's generation at that time? We don't know, but these questions are important historical questions (historians never take people's explanations for the past at face value; we're not that naive).

The parks were part and parcel of a revolution in the federal government's land management bureaucracy. They were part of a larger conflict between power at the state level vs. federal authority. They also helped redefine the nature of the public domain and private property at the turn of the century. In light of these (and a host of other historical developments, it's important to contextualize Roosevelt. Burn's isn't interested in that.

Directly following, Burns marshals a number of other voices to beat the drum of  parks-as-democracy-in-action. As if the nature of democracy or Americans' understanding of it has gone unchanged since the inception of the republic, Sierra Club director Carl Pope chimes in to reinforce Roosevelt, as if they were contemporaries of each other and of Thomas Jefferson. But given the radical shift the word democracy has undergone since the founding (not to mention since the Greeks used it a millennium ago), are Pope and Roosevelt even saying the same thing? Who's in, who's out. Who's a citizen, who's an other. What is democracy good at, where does it fail? All these notions have changed over time. They have a history, but Burns's film denies that, because Burns himself denies history.

Burns's denial of History is part of a larger denial of himself as an author of histories. Teddy Roosevelt, important in creating the parks, told us that they were democratic. It must be so. Then he uses Pope to corroborate. Pope's long career in the environmental movement makes him a better subject of this history than an author of it. But this is a common tactic of Burns who claims that his stories emerge from the past unadulterated by analysis. The facts, he seems to say, speak for themselves. Covering his own narrative hand, disavowing any authorial intent or even decision, allows Burns to make these claims that his stories are somehow above the petty squabbles of academics. We can trust that his history is simply, the truth.

Ken Burns's War on History
The apotheosis of this denial isn't so much The National Parks, for at least that documentary includes historians (though at one point Burns calls Lee Stetson a "John Muir Scholar." Stetson is an actor who does a John Muir show at Yosemite, and does the voiceover for Muir in the documentary. Though a fan of John Muir, it's unclear what makes him a "scholar"). Burns is at his history hating most in his 2007 multi-part documentary, The War.

The fundamental historiographic premise of The War is that World War II is best told and understood through the recollections of veterans. The constant cry from Burns's media machine about The War was that the 15 hour documentary presents history as it really was, “unmediated.” In one interview Burns told Jon Stewart that he wanted to do "bottom up history," not the history of generals and weapons and tactics. This line was picked up and parroted by every sycophantic reviewer. As one critic from Alabama wrote, The War was
authentic social history, since Burns uses only firsthand accounts of experiences by the troops on the ground (as opposed to the generals and military experts) and interviews people from all facets of life (rather than historians and experts). Only those who were alive during World War II tell stories; there is no secondhand, hindsight analysis by telegenic historians or academic talking heads. There are no celebrated intellectuals to tell us what it all means.
This vision of an objective knowable past posits historical sources, especially the “unmediated” recollections of those involved (Burns refuses to acknowledge the possibility that the 50 years since the war do anything to those recollections) that give us an unmediated access to the past. With the authority of his unimpeachable sources in tact, Burns can then claim to not being a narrator in the traditional sense, but one who simply recounts what really happened.

The payoff for his denial of authorship is that any criticism of his narrative choices simply hits a wall of denial. His narrative choices, it turns out, weren’t his choices. That’s just how the past played out (The War was heavily criticized for documenting only white soldiers.

The genius of the film was its ability to translate recollections into facts. Burns listed no historians (There is a whole politics to how Burns labels those who appear in his films: there were veterans who spoke who were historians, but Burns chose not to label them as such). Because there are no experts, indeed, no consciousness (or at least no explicit acknowledgment that what we are seeing is constructed) of the constructed aspects of the story, what we hear becomes what actually was. Burns's narrator has no more authority than the individual veterans. For Burns, history from the bottom up is not simply how the ground understands the past, but that understanding is the truth of the past.

Just as Burns is unwilling to acknowledge memory in his work, so to is he unable to acknowledge how memory functions as (or even complicates) his “evidence.” The result is that Burns’s War keeps us from understanding the why and how of the war, the elements of historical analysis. Instead, his description hides itself as analysis, but does not come to terms with that analysis. It is inherently deceitful because description, or reportage does not allow for critical engagement: description comes off as that which simply is, it is the essence of Roland Barthes’s evacuation of contingency. Thus, we are left with a popular vision of the war, its causes, and its complications, that Burns rewrites into historical truth.

In other words, Burns presents the words of the veterans as fact. They are never analyzed them or put into context. One particularly insane moment comes when a veteran explains that at first, the men didn’t believe the way the government portrayed the Axis. But then, as they start fighting the war, that propaganda becomes real to him (and to us as an audience). This happens, right after a rare black veteran opens up the question of the hypocrisy of fighting a war for democracy in a profoundly undemocratic nation. Thus the one open space where the contradictions of the past can be confronted and at least analyzed, Burns immediately closes by laying over a soundtrack of propaganda about this war being for freedom and against (what else but) slavery that white veterans then affirm.

Burns denial of his own authorship as a historian ultimately serves his primary goal: popularity. Many commentators have tried to explain Burns's immense popularity, so let me enter the fray. My bid for  Burns's undeniable success: he tells stories that Americans already know. Burns refuses to make Americans uncomfortable with his history. Instead, he would rather reassure them that what they think about the past is true. His documentaries are largely documentary versions of the popular myths of history. He is unabashedly universal in his themes and speaks often about human experience that make us all the same. When he came to my school, he spoke repeatedly of the "universal experience of battle." That was what constituted a historical subject. What that meant for women or those who have not experienced war (and whether or not they contributed to history or were indeed even part of humanity), he refused to say. In fact he dodged the question.

Long ago academic historians gave up on the idea that human beings and the societies they create are essentially the same over time. Some romantic historians of the nineteenth century liked to see humankind in this way. Historians of the twenty-first century (even the twentieth century) believe the opposite. History is not supposed to make us feel comfortable, to justify where we're at, to explain our present moment as the inevitable conclusion to a past that is prelude. No, by showing us the near infinite variety of human experience over time and space, the perspective of history is a profoundly uncomfortable position.