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.

Monday, May 31, 2010

History and Democracy; or Why I Can't Stand Ken Burns's National Parks, pt 1: Just the Facts

In a review yesterday morning of a book on classified governmental information and the press, Alan Dershowitz writes, "in a democracy, there should be no permanent secrets, since history and accountability are paramount." Not a bad justification for History in general, I think, and not just of the national security kind. What I took from this is that healthy democracies rely on an educated citizenry to function. Citizens need to understand not just how the government works, what is and is not constitutional, but also where a government came from, what actions democratic societies took in the past, and how history, politics, and power have shaped the society of the present. A knowledge of History, in other words, even though the discipline abhors prophecy, allows citizens to make informed choices on how to correct the injustices of the past, especially in a society such as the United States, dedicated as it is to the principles of equality and liberty.

I'm thinking of these kinds of things as I prepare to go to Alaska to participate in a Teaching American History grant on "The Klondike Gold Rush and Beyond." The TAH program aims to teach primary and secondary public school teachers historical content and methodology that they might not have been asked to learn when getting their education degrees or teaching certification. I'll be in Alaska for an entire week, and one of the topics we'll be covering is the National Parks. So what aspects of history and accountability should we keep in mind when thinking about our nation's public lands?

There's a popular story, or myth really, that Americans tell themselves about the parks: the National Parks were the culmination of the efforts of a few, saintly, forward-thinking individuals, philosophically pure and morally untouchable. These men, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and George Catlin, from the mid-nineteenth century, and John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, and Aldo Leopold from the Gilded-Age/Progressive era, were all ahead of their time. They had the best interests of Americans and their children and grandchildren at heart when they stood up to the excesses of big business to proclaim a small sliver of nature pure and pristine, worth "saving" for generations to come. Indeed, this is how it was told by ersatz historian and filmmaker Ken Burns. Burns's six-episode history premiered this fall amid cheers from TV critics, while historians largely ignored the enterprise. Academic historians have made something of a sport out of critiquing Burns's output, yet this time, the silence from environmental historians was, to my ears, deafening. Perhaps the series was too long, too repetitive, and too ignorant of recent scholarship for historians to even bother.

In Burns's telling this story fits into the history of America because the parks were, in essence, the culmination of the best elements of American democracy, democratizing the very landscape and nature of America, reserving it for the enjoyment of all Americans.

Yet, as I'm about to write a lesson plan for public school teachers about the national parks, I'm worried that they might either a) have seen the documentary, or b) have drunk from the same cultural wellspring of triumphant American progress that Burns writes into all his documentaries. It it not what I want the teachers I spend a week with to remember about the national parks.

What's more, thinking about Burns's documentary in light of Dershowitz's justification for history, it seems to me that Burns's story leads to a more narrow sense of what's possible, and even what is just. In short, Burns's Whiggish hagiography of environmental leaders and their commitment to democracy just doesn't hold up when viewed against the historical record and might work against it's avowedly democratic impulse.

The documentary opens with its thesis: the National parks were, first and foremost, an extension of the essence of the America -- democracy. Burns stresses continuity here as Emerson ends up in the same paragraph as Muir, Roosevelt, and Carl Pope, the current director of the Sierra Club. Roosevelt, Burns notes, justified the park system as being "noteworthy in its essential democracy." In the next breath, 100 years later, Carl Pope asks "what could be more democratic than owning together the most magnificent places on your continent? Think about Europe. In Europe, parks were owned by aristocrats. In America, magnificence is a common treasure. That is the essence of our democracy."

It was at this point that my head almost exploded. Too many not-too-recent histories have been written that directly contradicts this sentiment. For the full story, I suggest you read any of the following: Mark Spence, Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks, Louis Warren, The Hunter's Game: Poachers and Conservationists in Twentieth-Century America, or Karl Jacoby, Crimes Against Nature: Squatters, Poachers, Thieves, and the Hidden History of American Conservation. Together, these books and many others, complicate beyond Burns's meaningless platitudes, the nature and notion of democracy, and whether or not the parks represent a democratic impulse.

First of all, the impetus for the parks, these historians tell us, came from the American elite who feared that the nature of America (both its landscape as well as its ideological essence) was being ruined not just by rapacious capitalists -- for many of these men were themselves some of the most successful businessmen of the age -- but also the supposed closing of the frontier, the increasing importance that industrialization was having in American society in general, the immigrant hordes storming American shores, the rise of an increasingly vociferous and organized labor movement, and the supposed feminization of American cities and civilization in general.

American elites feared that with the close of the frontier, the essence of American-ness (read: white American manhood) would be lost. Subduing Indians and western lands (were they even separate?), in other words the  frontier experience, had provided what historian Frederick Jackson Turner claimed was a "crucible" where the impurities of the old-world were burned off, and what was left was the pure essence of white Anglo-Saxon masculinity. Or, in other words, the wilderness was where Americans learned to stop being European (effeminate) and start being American (masculine, individualistic, and democratic). What would happen to the nation, now being overrun by swarthy southeastern Europeans -- Greeks, Slavs, Jews -- and slavish Catholics -- Italians, Irish, etc. -- if the wilderness were no longer there, a trial by fire, to unmake the Europeans?

Simply put, the national parks were a rear-guard action by American elites who were increasingly criticized by both the working class as well as by members of their own class, as effeminate. The parks would provide a recreational experience that they hoped would retain some of that Americanizing tendency of the frontier. But for whom?

At their creation, the parks were simply not accessible to the masses. Expensive train tickets, their distance from urban centers of population, not to mention the general code of gentility that governed tourist travel to and in the parks made it all but impossible for most Americans to enjoy the parks (that would not come until the rise of the automobile, an event which no one could have predicted). In other words, strike one against the supposed democratic impulse of the parks.

It would be one thing if the parks were just difficult to access by everyday Americans. But what's more, the model of park creation runs directly counter to any notion we might have of the National Parks being "open to all." Open for what? Most all of the landscapes set aside by the federal government were inhabited and used by either Native Americans as part of their ancestral or treaty-defined homelands or members of the working class. In both instances, the presence of actual people interrupted the elites' understanding of "pristine nature," so park promoters worked to dispossess these people of their rights to the land in question. In short, they kicked them out.

Indians were forced off lands that had been explicitly guaranteed them in treaties with the federal government, or were kept from practicing traditional subsistence practices on those lands. Working-class whites, hispanics, Asians and others who had used the public lands as a supplement to wages earned in the market were also forced to stop. Thus, in the words of Warren, local commons used for subsistence were turned into national commons used solely for recreation. Practices like gathering wood for fuel, hunting game for meat, or fishing to supplement one's diet were either eliminated or tightly policed seasonal activities, eg., sport fishing licenses, hunting permits, and fishing and hunting seasons. What used to be the everyday lifeways of a people become criminalized. Hunting out of season or without a permit was "poaching." Cutting down trees in the Adirondacks for fuel was "stealing" timber. Not coincidentally, as long as you did these things under the supervision of federal authorities -- and not coincidentally, primarily as recreation -- you were fine. What kind of democracy was this?

The growth of federal power represented by these measures was part and parcel of the transition to modern America, complete with a bureaucratic nation-state and highly centralized corporate power. Bringing what was once undifferentiated public land into administrative view (and its inhabitants into the market by outlawing subsistence practices thus forcing them to devote all their labor time to waged labor) is what James C. Scott calls "seeing like a state." It is part of a larger move by administrative bureaucracies to make "legible" the peoples, resources, and lands of a nation. Originally, the federal government had hoped that it would sell off all the public domain to private holders. It was Jefferson's hope that the land gained by American empire would be transferred to individual farmers, creating an agrarian nation of small landholders. However, the landscape of the West complicated that, as did the aggregation of industrial capital and central political authority in the aftermath of the Civil War. You can't farm a mountaintop like Pike's Peak.

As the nineteenth-century wore on, the government began to administer these lands in cooperation with big corporations (railroad land grants, industrial mining, and industrial timber greatly aided this effort). The national parks were just another way to carve up the administrative capacity of the federal government as well as to carve up the public domain into privately owned land and publicly administered land. Because there were individuals inhabiting these landscapes, as Jacoby explains, it also seems reasonable that part of the push for legibility was to push workers into the market, thus making them legible to capital as well.

In other words, the parks represent some kind of neo-enclosure movement, not unlike that of ... Europe! ... a few hundred years before. Sorry Ken Burns, I guess the exceptionalism of American parks isn't so exceptional after all. Strike three!

So what does this tell us about democracy (and History's role in democratic society)? It would be too easy to argue that the parks were simply "undemocratic": as tourist destinations go, the parks today are certainly visited by a wide swath of the American population (not to mention foreign tourists). More interesting to me is what the history of the parks says about democracy itself. To me, it shows how complicated that term is. We take democracy for granted. By that I mean, pundits and propagandists throw around the term as if it's meaning is clear, self-evident, and obvious. But it is none of those things. Democracy is messy, by nature (pun intended). Cleaning it up the way Ken Burns always does only narrows our understanding of ourselves and of the politically possible. Worse, it contributes to a certain black/white, polarized thinking that may play well in the era of Fox News/MSNBC, punditry as fact, but it's not as good for thinking about a complicated place like the United States.

Ken Burns' America? That's not much of a democracy.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Quarters, Anyone? or, History for Pennies on the Dollar

So, a couple weeks ago I wrote a post about the Louisiana purchase. Last Friday was anniversary of the day the treaty was signed, nearly doubling the size of the United States for a mere $15 million, vastly enlarging the scope and power of the newly created federal government, doing so despite the fact that the constitution had no provision (and therefore no guidelines) for such a purchase of territory, and despite the fact that the President of the time, Thomas Jefferson, was an avowed opponent to an overly-powerful central government (specifically the executive branch) and a proponent of a narrow reading, that is a strict-construction, of the new constitution. What gives? Well, to answer those questions, I suggest Peter Onuf's Jefferson's Empire or Roger Kennedy's Mr. Jefferson's Lost Cause.

What interested me was the Wikipedia entry for the Louisiana Purchase. At the middle of the entry, under the sub-headings for "Domestic Opposition" and "Treaty Signing," are two "illustrations": the state quarter for Louisiana -- which includes an image of the purchase -- and a nickel celebrating the bicentennial of the purchase -- which includes an image replicating what was on the peace medals Lewis and Clark carried with them on their journey west. OK, fine. But what are these images doing illustrating an encyclopedia entry about the Louisiana purchase, and one that doesn't discuss the purchase in popular culture?

I've been thinking about state quarters, and coins in general, ever since they started coming out in 1999. Of course our coins and currency has, since the turn of the twentieth century, preferred to reference the great politicians who helped create the nation - the founding fathers (with fiery Democrat Andrew Jackson sneaking in somehow on the twenty dollar bill). Recently, possibly in a move that reflects the largely hollow victory of “mutliculturalism,” we’ve seen women appear on some coins (though always the ill-fated dollar coin: sorry Susan B. and Sacagewea). Many of the quarters, at least those east of the Mississippi, reference some of the state's history, usually, a historical event of some national significance. And finally, in 2004-2006, the mint produced a series of nickels commemorating the bicentennial America’s “Westward Journey” - i.e., the Louisiana Purchase and the Lewis and Clark expedition into that new American territory. 

In fact, if you were to get one of those proof books offered by the U.S. Mint, you'd have a veritable textbook of American history. But what does that textbook tells us about our past? Unlike previous coins which simply reference a single historical figure, these new coins draw our attention to a series of historical moments which, taken together give us a popular, triumphant, Whiggish image of American history. In other words, a progressive story that Lynn Cheney would be proud to have authored.

The history represented on the quarters (and the supporting dollar and nickel coins) can be divided into three groups: the colonial/revolutionary era, nineteenth-century western “expansion,” and the twentieth-century, a hodgepodge of twentieth-century figures which stress material advancement or cultural icons. Of course, many state quarters eschew history altogether (which is certainly true for the South and the West as a whole, which I discuss below), and it would be a fool’s errand to try to make sense out of the representations of all the quarters. But I think it worthwhile to wonder what history is included and what is left out? That said, I’ll make no guesses about, say, the decision of Indiana or Michigan, to shun their state’s history. However, I am intensely curious about why Mississippi and Alabama, for instance, or Washington or Montana might want to leave history in the past.

OK, that’s disingenuous. Sometime in the future, I’ll draw this argument out more explicitly in a longer more pedantic post. But for now, let me be honest. In my mind, these dollars, quarters, and nickels tell a profoundly disturbing story of the American past:

Colonialist Dreams, Imperialist Nightmares
Let's start at the beginning. Virginia. The Chesapeake. The first English speaking outpost in North America. Ignore the fact that 1) the coins obliterate pre-columbian history all together and largely forget any story of contact; and 2) in classic America-the-Inevitable, there is no history -- even of other European imperial schemes -- worth remembering besides an Anglo-American one, hence no Coronado on the Arizona or New Mexico Quarter. Instead, we have a great example of Virginia’s recurrent bid to out-colonial colonial Massachusetts. As if to buttress the constant cries of “WE WERE FIRST” emanating from that amusement-park nightmare known as Colonial Williamsburg, the Virginia quarter shows a ship sailing into Jamestown (the quarter’s release date marked the 400 anniversary of the founding of that colony. The image of the ship fails to mention (nor could it, of course) the demographic disaster that was Virginia; the colonies brutal dispossession of Natives; the fact that the colony depended on the labor of a near-permanent peasant class in England recently ripped from their lands during the enclosure movement; nor the violence of the class war that erupted periodically between indentured servants and their ancestors on the one side and tidewater elite on the other, a tension only resolved with the colony’s hearty adoption of racial slavery over indentured servitude. Virginia is for lovers! (Maryland finishes out the history with an image of the state’s capital building, finished in 1779; though one wonders if this is a reference to the revolutionary era or just an iconic image. I think it’s the latter).

While Connecticut settled on the “Charter Oak” for its quarter (where the early settlers wrote the charter for the colony at the moment of its founding), New England and the mid-Atlantic states take up where Virginia left off and chose to focus on the revolution. We have minutemen (Massachusetts), and people who look like minutemen (Delaware?). Washington crossing the Delaware to defeat those damned Germans at Princeton (New Jersey), and Pennsylvania obliquely referring to it’s role in ratifying the constitution (someone had to be the “keystone” state). Mel Gibson’s Patriot would be proud. Hey, what about the other New England states? Why no puritans? No Roger Williams and Ann Hutchinson? Maybe too many images of the colonial era together would have made it hard for viewers to ignore their sum-total: colonialism.

Additionally, possibly fearing the dominance of Lexington, Concord, Paul Revere, Bunker Hill, and the veritable industry that is David McCollough’s John Adams, New Hampshire and Rhode Island opted for tourist symbols. New York, on the other hand, decided on something more befitting its status as first city of the Free (Market as well as) World: the Statue of Liberty. Why talk about the past when you own the present (and have a rather heavy mortgage on the future that you hope you won’t default on).

The Strange Career of Southern History
But wait, there were thirteen colonies/states, you might be saying to yourself. That leaves … that’s right, the southern section. Let’s see, Georgia? A peach and an oak tree. South Carolina? Tree, Flower, Bird: palmetto, jasmine, and wren. North Carolina? Oh right, the Wright brothers. Southern states beyond the original 5 that did chose historical images, like North Carolina, chose stories from the supposedly politically neutral twentieth century (not only do the southern states ignore slavery, but also its legacy: segregation; i.e., no Booker T. Washington or Tuskeegee - college, syphilus study, or airmen, Martin Luther King, Jr., Freedom Riders ... you get the picture). What's on the Alabama quarter? Helen Keller. Keller is also memorialized in statuary in Alabama, a move supported by Alabama congressman and red-baiter Spencer Bachus. I guess no one told Bachus that Keller herself was a socialist? Oops. Well, moving on. Tennessee, music. Well, fair enough. Arkansas? Diamonds and rice. Duh! Louisiana? The LA purchase, as mentioned above. Missouri? Lewis and Clark. See below. All right, that leaves two southern outliers and one from the heart of the South. The outliers: Florida and Texas. Florida chose Spanish Galleons to the Space Shuttle. At least they did change over time. Texas, it hardly even seems like a question, has an iconic outline of the state and its iconic Lone Star, from the days of the republic. 

All right then. But what about the cultural capital of the South - home of the president of the confederacy -- Mississippi. Iconic plantation homes? (after all, the Mississippi Welcome Centers on Interstate 20 and Interstate 55 architecturally reference plantation homes and much of its tourism is built upon a southern “heritage”). Hmm. Nah. Well, what about cotton? The local gentry in Mississippi is fond of wearing caps and T-shirts emblazoned with the cotton symbol (you know, "the fabric of our lives"?) That should be fine, I mean, it is what Mississippi built its economy on. It's both past and present. Uhm. Nope. Cotton is probably too closely coded with slavery, or at least its post-reconstruction iteration: sharecropping. Fine. How about magnolias? Like some of the other southern states, they chose nature over culture, always a good idea.

How can this be that the fundamental fact of southern history, the thing that made the south and makes it still cohere, racial slavery and its visible legacy, be ignored. I suppose it’s not a very difficult question to answer. We certainly wouldn’t memorialize the hegemony of southern slaveholders. Could you imagine a coin form Virginia with Landon Carter or William Byrd? Nah. Me neither. So how would we memorialize slavery? I suppose a coin with the image of unsuccessful enslaved revolutionaries Gabriel Prosser or Nat Turner wouldn’t quite do either. But what about the sanitized icons of slavery? Frederick Douglass (Maryland) Harriet Jacobs (North Carolina)?

To be fair, it isn’t simply the south; no New England state chose to acknowledge its reliance on southern agriculture for the growth of its banking or industrial economies. I can see it now. Instead of a nice sailing yacht, Rhode Island chooses that propagandistic image of a slave ship packed tight with captives (created by abolitionists, not by slavers teaching others how to ply the trade).

Westward the Course of Empire
It would be easy to demonize the south for its willful ignorance of slavery, but such a move has a direct parallel in my home region: the West and its history with Native Americans. It is also at this point that our textbook turns the page. The problem of slavery settled (no mention of the Civil War, of course), now it's on to the "Winning of the West!"

Western history is, on the coins, even more sacharinely nostalgic than numismatic southern history. The coins fit perfectly into our general West of the imagination. The Louisiana Purchase is followed up by Lewis and Clark, who are represented on Missouri's quarter, as well as the "Westward Journey" nickel set. From there we move, lock-step with Frederick Jackson Turner, to the pioneers in prairie schooner traveling past Chimney Rock (Nebraska), then to the Golden Spike Ceremony at Promontory Point (Utah), after which comes the cowboy (Wyoming's ubiquitous "Let 'er Buck" and Montana's haunting dessicated cattle skull), and finally to John Muir supposedly saving the nature that Western expansion ironically put at risk when it brought with it not the gentle stewardship of Jefferson's yeoman farmers, but rather the real engine of empire, industrial exploitation. By the way, John Muir and Yosemite's half dome are on California's quarter

OK, I'm sorry, but where in the hell are the Indians? Did they, in a fit of Jeffersonian imperialist nostalgia, simply disappear at the progression of civilization? A dying race? Oh wait, no, no. Here they are: Sacagewea. Our coins are lousy with Sacagewea. We've got Sacagewea on Missouri's quarter, serenely paddling with Lewis and Clark in a dugout canoe. (in what might be the only purposefully ambiguous image, my friend the Historian Flannery Burke wonders if the crew are they going upriver or downriver, out or back, curious or exhausted. It's a nice moment of ambiguity in an otherwise relentlessly progressive narrative. But it doesn't save the narrative.) Call me crazy, but I just can't get behind this politically correct (in the worst way) vision of native-white cooperation. Not taking anything away from Sacagewea, or her role in the expedition, but, where the hell is power in this image? It's neutered, literally, by the image of the Indian maiden. 

Apparently, the only Indian image that we can handle is Sacagewea who is also pictured, with child on an ill-conceived dollar coin! The gendered and racial politics here are stupifying. The only Native American we can have is a watered-down maternal figure of white fantasy who we remember because she helped us "win the west," i.e., like our mythical Squanto we can imagine her a race traitor who actively took part in the colonization of the native peoples of North America. In other words, she makes us feel better because "the Indians did it too." The earth-mother mystique, we need to remember Sacagewea with a baby, domesticates American imperialism. We don't mind recalling this "westward journey" and using it as a synecdoche for the imperialism that was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. 

Finally, I also wonder if she somehow is a stand-in for the millions of Americans' insistence on their own mythical native heritage. Why is it so many people have a Cherokee grandmother? No has a Cherokee grandfather (and an implied white grandmother!). As if some kind of phenotypically lost native "blood" gives contemporary whites the ability to opt out of white guilt? 

But wait, it gets better. The peace medal nickels represent medals that Lewis and Clark "presented to Native American chiefs and other important leaders as tokens of goodwill at treaty signings and other events," according to the U.S. Mint. Apparently the commemorative Thomas Jefferson debt-induced dependency theory nickel didn't make it past the planning stages. What did get made though, was the American Bison nickel, "recognizing the American Indians and wildlife encountered by the Lewis and Clark expedition." Come on, U.S. Mint! Seriously? You're going to use a animal to "recognize" American Indians? I thought we were done equating Native Americans with wildlife, racializing savagery ... the whole bit. Let's have a whole Indian coin series: Buffalo, beaver, bald eagles, wolves, salmon, and snakes. I think that would pretty much cover it. I mean, who needs people? I think even George Catlin is rolling over in his grave.

Maybe I'm being to harsh (though I doubt it), for many state quarters of Western states chose natural scenery as their representative image. And while that might seem a denial of history, I think it fits perfectly well with our popular narrative of American history. First, we all know that, other than the frontier, the West has no history, or at least no history that matters. So, unless you can jump on the Lewis and Clark, Oregon trail, transcontinental railroad, yee-haw cowboy bandwagon, you better go with something else (though, I was surprised that nary of placer miner showed up. I mean, we're talking about precious metals here!). Nature! I think western nature is even more appropriate than southern nature for another reason. Western history is natural history. In a place so utterly devoid of historical events and significance -- beyond of course, the Frontier -- and a place so steeped in geologic time, natural history simply is western history. Hence Colorado's mountains, Washington's salmon, Alaska's Grizzly, Arizona's Cactus, Oregon's Crater Lake ... you get the picture. 

There is one Western state that, if it doesn't break the mold, it certainly tweaks it: South Dakota. South Dakota, in a perfect pique of post-modern pastiche chose Mt. Rushmore. I love the South Dakota quarter for its ability to blend, blithely and remorselessly, all the necessary elements of our representational memory. It's got chutzpah. Nature? Oh sure, it's got that. It's a damn mountain after all. History? What can be more historical than four -- count 'em four -- presidents on one quarter. But wait, what about Indians and imperialism? And here's why South Dakota wins the prize: Rushmore is part of the beleaguered Black Hills. It's perfect, we've got sacred Indian land, once reserved to the Sioux by treaty only to be taken, during the Black Hills gold rush, by George Armstrong Custer, no less, which was then stamped, hegemony-like, with the image of American History so as to erase, or rather obliterate with pick, chisel, and dynamite, the actual historical past of that land. The culture of imperialism just doesn't get more bald-faced than that.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Platonic relationships ...

I was reading recently about conservative writer Thomas Sowell's latest book, Intellectuals and Society, where he rails against the role supposed "intellectuals" played in the more terrible and tragic events of the twentieth century and it got me thinking. If you aren't familiar with Sowel, you can read his bio at Stanford's Hoover Institution website.

First two caveats: I'm not an intellectual historian, so some of my comments may be way off the mark. Second, I haven't read Sowell's book, only his two recent columns written to sell his latest effort, whose argument is relatively compact: liberal intellectuals are a) generally wrong about what happens in the real world, and b) generally responsible for philosophically justifying the worst excesses of twentieth-century authoritarian government. In other words, ideas matter, but when those ideas are the arrogant paternalistic, utopian fantasies of dreamy liberals, the law of unintended consequences seems always to apply.

His central question itself is clunky and simplistic: "Whether [intellectuals'] role has, on net balance, made those around them better off or worse off is one of the key questions of our times." First of all, is this one of the "key questions of our times"? Who's asking this question? Populist-baiting conservative pundits, certainly, but few others. Maybe among "intellectuals" like Sowell it's a "key question." But really, is it the historian's job to be so judgmental of the past? I would answer, again, no. Our job is to take the past on its own terms, to assess causality and contingency, to figure out how societies have been put together, and why they changed over time. But even if we are here to judge, where are the quantitative metrics? Better? Worse? Sowell's critique collapses in on itself for "better" and "worse" are themselves idealist measuring sticks, platonic forms floating somewhere far outside of the material world that he wants us to live in.

So, just when are we supposed to be idealist and when are we supposed to me materialist? My head hurts. His argument seems to be a contradictory an attack on idealist philosophy more than anything else. Contradictory because some ideas, he likes, and some he doesn't. And that opinionated preference seems to be the foundation of his argument.

What guides his choices? We can ignore the role of intellectuals, at least Sowell does, when their ideas yielded obvious material benefits, or in his words, "progress." He uses airplanes and the Wright brothers as an example: "The Wright brothers, who fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying, were by no means intellectuals." OK, I suppose. However, 1) let's ignore their DaVinci-like drawings made over the course of their career as aviation inventors; 2) let's ignore the fact that they literally wrote the book, all intellectual-like, on military aviation strategy; and -- following number 2 -- 3) in Sowell's flacid better/worse dichotomy, we also have to ignore, I suppose, the human misery that airplanes have wrought: air wars, bombing, and death; atomic destruction; economy-class seating (I know, I know, that's snarky, but the point here is to show the pointlessness of Sowell's critique: what is better? What is worse?)

Ultimately, Sowell's terminology -- "better" and "progress" and "advances" -- are all just material advances. I would actually prefer the term innovations. But even these material innovations are just the material consequence of the ideas of "intellectuals." A fact he freely admits but fails to comprehend the consequences of! Take his Wright brothers example again. The Wright brothers "fulfilled the centuries-old dream of human beings flying." I put this definition of the term dream squarely in the category of the intellectual. When we scratch the surface and begin to understand what his ideas hinge upon, the Wright brothers story is theoretically the same as his critique of the roll supposed intellectuals supposedly played in the Holocaust: "Scarcely a mass-murdering dictator of the 20th century was without his supporters, admirers or apologists among the leading intellectuals." The Wright brothers are to flying, what Hitler was to genocide. Why are the only intellectuals that matter the ones who are tied to the tragic material consequences of history?

Maybe this is the problem of using History as a judgmental lens: Sowell, like so many who use the past solely to comment on the present, cherry-picks his history; his judgments are a la carte. Why? Because we all know that history is too complex to "judge." It is not susceptible to econometric cost-benefit analyses. The rest of us don't practice history-as-judgment because it offends our sensibility as historians, a general discomfort with the excesses of presentism. In Jill Lepore's words "seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification." In other words, history isn't supposed to make us feel self-satisfied, it is supposed to make us feel uncomfortable. Sowell's words, to me, ring of self-satisfaction.

Finally, beyond his argument ni specific, I wonder if my real problem with Sowell is actually a problem with intellectual history. Who are these "Intellectuals"? Sowell's list in the Jewish World Review column, "journalists, teachers, staffers to legislators or clerks to judges," seems haphazard; and his definition -- those who "create ideas" -- also seems like a fairly flimsy straw man. I thought that cultural history has taught us that "intellectuals" don't have a monopoly on either creating or disseminating ideas. Those who lack either the access or desire to formally codify their ideas in places that we have defined as the purview of intellectuals still create ideas. Those ideas have currency in society. They move people as much as the ideas of intellectuals. In other words, the class of folks that we traditionally call intellectuals -- those who produce texts and art specifically geared to the explication of ideas -- simply don't operate in a vacuum. I recognize the distinction between intellectuals and others, but in place of the wall that some traditional intellectual history places between them, I would substitute a road.