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.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On Its Own Terms? Very Bloody Indeed...

Last week, and friend and I saw "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," at the Public Theater here in New York. The play is a Rock Musical based on the events of Andrew Jackson's life, especially his fiery brand of frontier populism and, as demonstrated by his acts as president toward Native Americans, his rather unilateral and at times constitutionally questionable expansion of presidential power. Specifically, we learn about Jackson's war with the Supreme Court over Cherokee removal (which produced my favorite Jackson quote: "the decision of the supreme court has fell still born." Now that's an image! Alas, the play didn't use it.).

At lunch the day after, someone asked me what "as a historian," I thought of the play. Immediately I began to worry, I'm pedantic enough as it is (this blog is evidence!), and I hate historians who criticize historical movies for their inaccuracies. I'm uncomfortable with this for a few reasons. First, it is kind of like shooting fish in a barrel (or, as Bart Simpson said on the Homerpalooza episode, "kind of like making teenagers depressed"). But that's because historical movies are rarely trying to be History (and here I'll pause to ask the question what is History, capital "H"? presentations of the past that seek to inform an audience about history, teach people about the past, the past's relationship to the present, and the like). Thus, why should we judge them as such? Outright and intentional lies aside, what's more interesting to me, I suppose, is why a historical story resonates. Or, why it doesn't; on this note, see the epic failure, Amazing Grace, the movie (note to self, what is the deal with explicitly historical movies? That post is surely on its way). And pardon me for being a bit of a partisan of my discipline, but one of the thing that History, as a habit of mind, teaches us, is to take things on their own terms. I suppose my irritation at persnickety or curmudgeonly historians who criticize popular culture's take on the past is that they fail to take those texts (or artifacts, or cultural productions, or what have you) on their own terms. In other words, those criticisms to my ears sound like undergraduate sniping at best, or antiquarian tut-tutting at worst (in the words of one historian, Civil War reenactors are often less concerned with the causes and consequences of the war than they are with the number of buttons on a soldier's blouse).

So if I'm going to take my own advice, I have to think about the play "on its own terms." What are its terms? Political Theater. One of my colleagues at the Museum of the City of New York asked does the play's celebrity rock star status work with Andrew Jackson? Who knows, I replied. The market revolution didn't have a recording industry, much less rock and roll and the consumer society that spawned it. In other words, the question that her question made me ask is, what is the play saying about politics that it makes Andrew Jackson a rock star?

All right, I admit it, I'm not sure I know what Marx meant when he said that history comes around twice, first as tragedy then the second time as farce. An easy read of that is that the references to the past made by politicians and political and economic elite don't really have the nuance and complexity of the actual past (surprise, surprise). Rather, the past gets thrown around, ultimately ripping the facts from the historical context that created them (Bush's "there's an old poster out west, that I recall, that said, "Wanted, Dead or Alive.")

But the whole thing here seems to me pretty farcical from our common definition of the term. And so too is the political theater that is present-day politics, be it George W. Bush or Barak Obama. On the one hand we have Bush's self-styled populism: man of the people cuttin' brush on the ranch in Crawford, Tex.; man of the people railing against Washington insiders even though his father was head of the CIA, Vice President and President of the U.S., and Bush presumably has some relationship to the thing which he professes to abhor -- Washington, D.C. On the other is the very real rock-star status of Obama, especially at the moment of campaign and inauguration: empty figurehead who unites empty-headed people based on their blind devotion (the scene in the play where two starry-eyed kids explain that they met at a Jackson campaign rally could have come straight from a fawning NPR human interest story about the eager earnestness of Obama's "grassroots" supporters).

To me, this is the genius of the play. By drawing explicit comparisons to George Bush and Barak Obama, it seems to be saying that our current politics is high theater. There is nothing new, to be sure, about this critique in the abstract. However, in our current moment of punditry posing as news and the empty shouting and uncivil discourse of the Tea Party right and the 9-11 truther left (a point made brilliantly in the New Yorker recently), I'd argue that we might want to come back to this old critique given our new situation.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Update on The End of the End of History....

The following is an updated version of an older post:

First, I'm psyched that the Baffler is back. Because of my own interests, I was particularly excited to read Walter Benn Michaels's essay, "The Unusable Past." Maybe it's my geeky fandom of Cormac McCarthy, my continung classroom confrontation with Beloved, or my hagiographic vision of William Faulkner, but I have to say, I was disappointed in Michael's critique. There's a lot there that I applaud. I think he is especially on point with his portrayal of Ayelet Waldman's description of her experiences at the Obama inauguration. I also agree with the second half of his essay which, as one comment on the on-line version of the essay argued, echoes an earlier critique of the novel as an essential technology of individualism (I, however, still like Jameson's "Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism"). I'm not convinced, however, of his criticism of historical fiction:
When Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history back in 1989, he did so with mixed feelings. The good news, he thought, was the ideological triumph of free markets and of the political arrangement most suited to them. Even communists were talking about the importance of being competitive in the marketplace. The bad news was that without “the worldwide ideological struggle” between capitalism and socialism to inspire us, we were in for “a very sad time.” “In the post- historical period,” he wrote, “there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.” The end of history would be good for markets, bad for art.

With respect to at least one art form, market triumphalism has been something of a disaster. The past 25 years have been a sad time for the American novel, and a lot of the best ones have indeed been committed to nothing more than historical caretaking. It’s no accident that Toni Morrison’s Beloved was proclaimed the best work of American fiction over the period by the New York Times or that prominent also-rans included Blood Meridian, Underworld and The Plot Against America. Even younger writers like Michael Chabon and Colson Whitehead have rushed to take up the burden of the past.

Of course, Fukuyama thought that we’d enjoy flattering ourselves by hearing about the great triumphs of our history. And the extraordinary (and otherwise inexplicable) popularity of admiring biographies of the Founding Fathers suggests he wasn’t entirely wrong. But what our novelists have realized is that accounts of the truly horrible things done by and to our ancestors are even more flattering—what we readers really like is to disapprove of other people’s bad behavior. In other words, the denunciation of crimes we haven’t committed is even more gratifying than the celebration of virtues we don’t have.
Thus, even though books about slavery and the Middle Passage, the Holocaust and the extermination of Native Americans are sad almost by definition, it’s also true that the logic that produces them and makes them so attractive is profoundly optimistic. Why? Because trying to overcome, say, the lingering inequities of slave labor (a characteristic injustice of the past) doesn’t involve trying to overcome the burgeoning inequities of free labor (a characteristic injustice of the present). It doesn’t involve criticizing the primacy of markets; it just involves making sure that everyone has equal access to them. So when Beloved reminds us that we are a nation divided by race and racism (and when A Mercy reminds us again), we’re being told that what ails us is lingering racism—not out- of-control capitalism. And when Morrison wins the Nobel Prize and Obama becomes president, we’re being reassured that we are headed in the right direction, even if we’re not quite there yet.
I agree that the fascination with biographies of the founders (to which I would add our love affair with Dorris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, Steven Ambrose, Ken Burns, et al. as a whole) is certainly part of this neoliberal attempt to allow us to feel good about the present using a triumphalist story about the past. For a brilliant example of this, see the historian of slavery Walter Johnson's critique of George W. Bush in Common-Place. That said, there's no way I would include good historical fiction such as Blood Meridian and Beloved (to which I'd add another Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom) in this critique. To say these writers pose the past as a thing overcome is just simply wrong. As both excavations of the past and allegories for the present, Blood Meridian and Beloved explain to us that we are in no way at the end of history. And yes, now's the time for the ubiquitous Faulkner quote: "The past is never dead," Faulkner wrote, "It isn't even past." Just because they fail to front the inequities of global capitalism in the 21st century doesn't mean they exhibit a Whiggish view of history. Far from it. I think Michaels relies too heavily on what reads, for me, as an orthodox Marxism where race and gender (and time, for that matter) exist as epiphenomena rather than as simultaneously constitutive elements of the culture of capitalism that he wants to critique.

Finally, though elements of ideology (which Michaels finds lacking in contemporary fiction) are less explicit in Beloved, neither it nor Blood Meridian ignore it. What is McCarthy's Judge if not the nineteenth-century's Romantic "ideology in action"? His monologues are explicit excursions into philosophy and combined with the book's plot, demonstrate the logical links and consequences of science and empire in the service of market expansion.

Maybe what I actually take issue with in this piece is not Michaels's interpretation of Morrison or McCarthy, but rather his read of class, ideology, and the institutions that make up the present world system. In other words, his critique reads like orthodox Marxism: unless you're addressing -- explicitly, and flat out -- issues of "class" then all you're doing is useless identity politics. But in a world where we know that "class analysis" is more than just straight-up relations to the means of production, race and gender matter. More importantly, what is class in America these days? I'm still not sure. But what I do know is that a reliance on an old and static understanding of these terms doesn't seem to explain much about our world. In the meantime, I think I'm going to read A Mercy.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Time and Space

So, as part of my blogging renaissance, I've taken to reading more blogs as well. Or at least going back to those few blogs that I've read at least once and trying to "follow" them. BLDGBLOG is one such site, and though my blog is primarily concerned with history, and therefore time, I'm also interested in places and spaces -- they have a history too (and play a role in other histories). I was particularly interested in Geoff Manaugh's discussion of three new books that examine the various links between military ideology and planning and the development of cities both at home and abroad.

Discussing the rise of "feral cities" -- labeled elsewhere as "megacities" or "megaslums" -- Manaugh notes how recent scholarship has uncovered a disturbing historical and contemporary relationship between military planners and city planners leading to an increasing sense that modern urban spaces are "cities under siege," which is also the title of one of the books that he reviews. From his review:

In his new book Cities Under Siege, published just two weeks ago, geographer Stephen Graham explores "the extension of military ideas of tracking, identification and targeting into the quotidian spaces and circulations of everyday life," including "dramatic attempts to translate long-standing military dreams of high-tech omniscience and rationality into the governance of urban civil society." This is just part of a "deepening crossover between urbanism and militarism," one that will only become more pronounced, Graham fears, over time....

In any case, Graham's interest is in the city as target, both of military operations and of political demonization. In other words, cities themselves are portrayed "as intrinsically threatening or problematic places," Graham writes, and thus feared as sites of economic poverty, moral failure, sexual transgression, rampant criminality, and worse (something also addressed in detail by Steve Macek's book Urban Nightmares). All cities, we are meant to believe, already exist in a state of marginal ferality. I'm reminded here of Frank Lloyd Wright's oft-repeated remark that "the modern is a place for banking and prostitution and very little else." ...

On one level, these latter points are obvious: small infrastructural gestures, like public lighting, can transform alleyways from zones of impending crime to walkways safe for pedestrian use—and, in the process, expand political control and urban police presence into that terrain. But, as someone who does not want to be attacked in an alleyway any time soon, I find it very positive indeed when the cityscape around me becomes both safer by design and better policed. Equally obvious, though, when these sorts of interventions are scaled-up—from public lighting, say, to armed checkpoints in a militarized reorganization of the urban fabric—then something very drastic, and very wrong, is occurring in the city. Instead of a city simply with more cops (or fire departments), you begin a dark transition toward a "city under siege."

So, what follows is my far less measured response than Manaugh's review:

Uhm, really? Ever since Mike Davis’s brilliantly disturbing excavation of dystopic Los Angeles, critical geographers and urban studies scholars have painted a picture of the post-modern city as a site of unceasing surveillance, state-sanctioned violence, and an overbearing police presence. The books reviewed on, Joe Flood’s, The Fires, Mike Davis’s recent Planet of Slums, and Stephen Graham’s Cities Under Seige, continue this critique. What emerges in both impressionistic generality and some piercing qualitative detail, is a radical shortfall from the hopes and dreams of the urbanists of the 1960s-1990s, and the prophecy of a nightmarish future for urban dwellers the world over.

In fact, that might be giving Mike Davis too much credit. Film has long been fearful and critical of urban spaces: Fritz Lang's Metropolis, not to mention the more contemporary versions of it -- Blade Runner, Robocop, Police Academy (1-7), as well as Minority Report and Children of Men. In other words, we get it, cities suck.

With important caveats, however, I’m just not convinced.

First, I am less familiar with the current efforts to police the megaslums of the Global South, and my knowledge of these places comes only from personal travel. Dar es Salaam felt broken while Accra just seemed sprawling. Neither, however, felt too terribly "policed." But maybe these are too small to fit into the category that these books talk about. One wonders how many cities do make the cut? Or, how much of the world’s population currently resides there? Are the smaller urban areas necessarily going to “mature” into these dystopias of state-sponsored surveillance? Why the need for prophecy?

Second, I’m uncomfortable making any real claims here not just because I haven’t read this literature, but, more importantly, my critiques will probably collapse under their own contradictory weight given the criticism that I am going to make about such dystopic fantiasies when it comes to cities defined as “western” “modern” “first world” or in the “global north.”
The crux of my qualms is this: does this scholarship recapitulate the ideology of fear that it seeks to excavate? Here’s how it might do this: first, bringing to light the subaltern existence of the inhabitants of these “megaslums” and “feral cities,” even if to expose the structural inequalities inherent in uneven development, seems to fetishize urban poverty both at home and abroad. (And thus my fear, does my rant also rely on problematic distinctions between "first" and "third" world?) 
I mean, I love L.A. So do the people who live there. It seems an arrogant and paternalistic judgment of the bare life existence of the people who dwell in these places to take such a consistently negative view of all aspects of urban existence. Mike Davis the intellectual descendant of Jacob Riis. Can someone discuss the people that live in these places as something other than a set peice to demonstrate how crappy new urban areas are? Is this just the geographical equivalent to a crude version of “false consciousness”? Can I at least get some divided consciousness up in here?

Also, can we name a city in the United States other than Detroit where this is really the case? Poor fucking Detroit; it’s the Critical Urbanists’ whipping boy. It's so unanimously reviled, so consistently made the poster child of the supposed complete failure of cities (and the inevitability of all otehr cities to fail in the future) that my friends who recently moved to Ann Arbor (yes, she's an academic at Michigan), parade their love of Detroit like a badge on their sleeve, a fact which further brings to light the radical disjuncture between these nightmarish visions and at least some peoples’ lived reality (though, I'm sure the response here will be that Ann Arbor residents are simply slumming it).
But really, what makes inhabitants of these hellish spaces stay in these places if they suck so bad? I fully accept the fact that geographical mobility is not a simple question of “free will,” nor is the globalized wage labor market one that encourages “individual choice” based on something as seemingly innocuous but wholly loaded as “preference.” (Those “Most liveable city” lists are a particularly insidious ideological consequence and constitutor of neo-liberalism. As if the whole world can simply “shop” for a place to live irrespective of all factors of geography -- distance from natal geographies and kin networks, regional economies, career paths, and the labor market in general. This might be the ultimate “consumption” of place.) I realize the annihilation of space and time is a goal but ultimately a practical fiction. Still, these cities draw inhabitants to them for reasons other than simple economics, and inhabitants concievably get up in the morning with the capacity to do more than just endure their existence. So, what gives?
I wonder, given the relative gains and improvements in the “broken cities” of the deindustrialized 1970s U.S., have these scholars simply exported their critique because of its basic bankruptcy in the United States? Guess what? New York City kind of works. Los Angeles, the Westin Hotel included (I’m looking at you Fredric Jameson) is, for many of its residents, rich and poor alike, a decent place to live. 

Or, worse yet might this scholarship be engaging in some kind of unintentionally ironic cultural imperialism? No doubt the police presence in American cities is more sophisticated and entrenched, but can we really draw comparisons between Sadr City and Omaha? I applaud their provocation, but in the end kind of chuckle at the absurdity of the comparison. And that absurdity only draws our attention back to the cities of the Global South in a prurient gaze, glad to be living in the modern American ecotopias Portland, Ore., or Bozeman, Mont., or Brooklyn, New York.
My intent here is not to deny the core truth of these trenchant critiques: someone needs to be the person making the most radical argument in the room. But I think it’s important to recognize some of the problems that this particular line of thinking smuggles into the discussion. I, for one, don’t pretend to know a way around this dilemma, but I wonder if there’s a scholarship that can both reckon with and reconcile the continuing workability of many cities on the planet and the ways that the people of the world inhabit them. And maybe here is a place to come back to the fundamental distinction between (and discomfort I have with) the Global North / Global South. I am entirely convinced that there are broken cities. Should we be surprised that Sadr City is listed among them? Or, for that matter, Lagos? Both represent places constructed by the basest and most unforgiving inequalities of global capitalism. But New York? L.A.? I mean, I love L.A.

Monday, April 12, 2010


OK, I'll stop doing "this day in history" soon. I promise. But today's too big to let slide. Because 149 years ago on this day self-styled Confederate Soldiers fired on 127 U.S. Army soldiers (13 of them musicians) at Fort Sumter in the harbor in Charleston, South Carolina. There's a word for this. I've been hearing conservative commentators throw it around lately when discussing our current President. Hang on, it's "Treason." Yeah, that's about right.

At any rate, thus began the military conflict that would spark the most successful slave rebellion in North America (as Walter Johnson argued, what else do you call nearly 200,000 African American soldiers, the majority of them previously enslaved, taking up arms against their former masters in a war than ended legal slavery in the United States?).

Real quick, on slavery as a cause of the Civil War: to paraphrase Dr. George Forgie, a former professor of mine in graduate school, of course slavery was the cause of the Civil War, and not "states' rights." Were white southerners fighting for the right to ... Secede? Really? That would be akin to your parents coming home and telling you that they were getting a divorce and when you asked them why they were splitting up, they answered "because we can."

Yet, the Civil War was part of a larger battle over the centralization of political power in the modern nation state. Similar battles were being fought in other newly forming nation-states. In the U.S., it happened to tip the scales of political power in favor of a strong centralized government, a political battle still being fought but with centralized power decidedly in the driver's seat.

So I guess on both counts, it didn't so much turn out like the confederates had hoped. However, I suppose if you're the governor of Texas, you can still try.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Start the bidding at ...

On this day 207 years ago, the French foreign minister Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord offered American diplomats Robert Livingston and James Monroe all of the Louisiana territory, what became the Louisiana purchase. Woo-Hoo! Let the games (of American imperialism) begin! Ahem, I mean western "expansion."

Thomas Jefferson had sent Livingston and Monroe to Paris in an attempt to purchase New Orleans from the French, as Jefferson was fearful that Napoleon had designs on another North American empire. When Monroe and Livingston offered $2 million for the Crescent City, the French minister, much to the surprise of the American diplomats, countered with all of Louisiana for $10 million. Napoleon had grown weary of the New World ever since that pesky slave uprising in Haiti, er, I mean Saint-Domingue, had created the second independent republic in the western hemisphere and had signaled that European colonization might not be so cheap and easy as was once thought. So focusing his efforts on total European domination (think Moscow ... in winter ... nice one), he looked to dump the French claims to North America.

The irony here? Louisiana had only recently been Spanish territory. The Spanish, never very good at policing the far margins of their new world empire, were afraid that Americans might cross the Mississippi and begin squatting in Northern New Spain. So the Spanish had secretly transferred their rights to the French hoping that Louisiana would become a buffer zone, preventing Americans from encroaching on Spanish territory. So fearful were the Spanish that they had only agreed to the transfer on the explicit condition that the French never cede the territory to the Americans. Damn that Napoleon was sneaky.

Though Talleyrand offered the Americans all of Louisiana on this day, the negotiations weren't completed, however, for almost another two weeks. So (cliffhanger) ... stay tuned!

Confederacy of Dunces

When it comes to Civil War history, Virginia's governor get's a D. Before being called out by ... well, just about everyone, Bob McDonnell declared April Confederate History Month, which, for him was (no surprise) all about state's rights.  After heavy criticism, he changed his tune and added a paragraph on the role slavery played in the causes of the war. How magnanimous.

Wait, isn't he the executive of a state whose legislature issued a formal apology for slavery? Way to go.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Sweet Home? Alabama

This past weekend I traveled from Atlanta, Georgia to Jackson, Mississippi on Greyhound. A mechanical mishap with my 1973 International Scout in Jackson the previous week meant that this was the second time in three days that I was traveling that particular stretch of Interstate-20. My eastbound trip to Atlanta included precious little time in places we stopped – just enough for a plate of pulled pork in Anniston, Alabama (“bar-b-que is the truth,” proclaimed the man behind me as I opened up the styrofoam container). However, on the westbound trip back to Jackson, we had an hour layover in Birmingham. So with time to stretch our legs, my traveling companion Whitney, and I decided to check out a little bit of Birmingham.

Our immediate goal was the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) on 5th Ave. and 16th St., a short ten minute walk from the Greyhound station downtown. A prurient fascination that all northerners, i.e., those who grew up outside of the states that still had legal slavery on the eve of the Civil War – Yankees, if you stay in the South long enough to get called that – had gotten the better of us. Besides, it had been over 15 years and a Ph.D. in history since I had been to the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. What else do you do in Birmingham on a Monday afternoon?

After we got our bearings, we started down the street to the museum. Barely a block from the bus station our walk was interrupted when we noticed an arresting pair of signs along the sidewalk. Set one right after the other, some four or five feet apart, the markers stood probably around six feet tall and two-and-a-half feet wide. The first, marked A16, had a silhouetted figure cut out of the center, while below a short paragraph gave context for the civil rights marches during the Christian Holy Week in 1963 and beneath it was a small map of the downtown Birmingham with the locations of other similar markers. Behind it, on another sign of the exact same size was emblazoned a photograph of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., being led away in handcuffs by a police officer. Text at the bottom of this sign told more specifically about King’s strategy of using the week between Palm Sunday and Easter as a time to bring attention to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s campaign in Birmingham, what another marker called “the most segregated city in the South.” On the back of the sign in large white type against a bright orange background was a stirring quote from a participant talking about the marches. The signs, one local resident walking down the street told us, “will lead you straight to the Civil Rights museum. Just follow them to the Kelly Ingram Park.”

The Birmingham markers tell a radically different story than most of the South’s memorials, monuments, roadside markers, and plaques on designated historic buildings that declare, to whomever might be listening, the official story of the past. Historians call these displays “public memory.” As W. Fitzhugh Brundage in The Southern Past, and David Blight in Race and Reunion have explained, institutionalized memory – given permanent form and sanctioned in the shape of monuments and markers – has often been a way for those in power to justify their position. Official memory often takes the form of a reactionary nostalgia or Whiggish history that makes the status quo seem right and proper.

The typical southern historical marker was one that promoted the “moonlight and magnolias” Gone With the Wind myth of the antebellum south, a place where slavery and the concomitant racial regime that it created never existed. Alternatively, signs marking civil war battlefields tell a great deal about military movements and heroic stands but nothing about the context or politics of the Civil War. Drive the 444 miles of the Natchez Trace Parkway and you get an antiquarian’s wet-dream, practically an encyclopedic account of the Lost Cause Myth: plantation homes to stop at and while away the time under groves of ancient trees punctuate road signs marking the tragic story of brave southern men fighting valiantly – “brother against brother,” always “brother against brother” – in a war that created “heroes on both sides.” A war for what, of course, the typical sign fails to mention (just look at Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell's proclamation declaring this month "Confederate History Month").

Of course, the Birmingham markers were not about slavery and the Civil War, they were about the legacy wrought by slavery, the war, and its aftermath: the strange career of Jim Crow. The Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail markers told a harrowing story of brutal law enforcement, sophisticated segregationist laws, intransigent southern elites, and courageous civil rights workers. There are two series of markers. The first, entitled “The March to Government” follows the movement’s frontal assault on state-sponsored segregation and highlights laws and protests of those laws that marked the Jim Crow South. “The March to Retail” focuses on both black-owned business as well as the movement's boycott of white-owned business in the 1950s and 60s and shows how Civil Rights workers engaged consumerism as a mechanism for change. I was struck by the honesty and clarity of the signs, and what seemed to be Birmingham’s willingness to confront a more controversial aspect of its past. The creators of this heritage trail should be congratulated for putting together such a affecting display of public history and one that will no doubt be of great use to educators and of great interest to tourists in the near future.

That said, the more I think about these signs and their existence, the more I wonder: is Birmingham “confronting” its past, or is it commodifying it? The link to tourism (after all, I was a tourist that day) is what has troubled me since my visit. The Civil Rights Heritage Trail along with the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute were named by the Alabama Tourism Department the 2009 Attraction of the Year. Given that the South is littered with “heritage,” primarily of the plantation home variety, does this mark a shift in America’s willingness to examine its complicated history? Or is something else going on, here? I wonder if this million-dollar installation is demonstrative of the larger mainstreaming of the “The Movement,” a new politics of nostalgia that contains the more radical critiques of anti-racism by acknowledging certain grotesque elements of history, only to point out their supposed passing. King and Civil Rights in Alabama have become iconic; fire hoses and dogs allow present-day Americans a sense of distance and superiority from some atavistic racial regime. That was “the past.” It’s over. Safely confined by History, the literary fiction that allows a society to note “the end” of past eras.

But History is just that: a mode of ordering the world. Like fiction, it trades in a set of literary devices that allow us to make sense of the past and to understand our relationship to it. What is the relationship to the segregationist past conjured by the Heritage trail. To what end the conjuring?

Of course, I don’t want my criticisms to diminish what is accomplished by these signs. The twin trails – “The March to Government” and “The March to Retail” – are both excellent examples of how public history can address and engage aspects of the American past that are very much part of our current politics. But, does this periodization paint too rosy of a picture?

The more explicit state-sponsored machinery of segregation was dismantled thanks in part to the efforts of the women and men chronicled in these signs. But what about the segregationist legacy left in its wake? The more subtle and far-less legible elements of racism still built into state structures? Additionally, what about the unequivocal link between poverty and blackness that marks much of, not just the south, but the nation as a whole (which King himself was bringing the nation's attention to when he was assassinated in Memphis)? A linkage that my recent bus trips on Greyhound, and my short layovers in various downtown bus stations, only underlined.

No one heritage trail can address all of these issues, to be sure, and the BCRI, at least, stresses continuation in the struggle for equality. But I fear that for certain viewers, the heritage trail and the sculptures in the park might run counter to their creators’ intentions. Instead of exhuming a past that many would like to forget, it might actually help to mark its supposed passing – a funeral, perhaps, for those dark times when discrimination was the order of the day, as if Jim Crow were overturned, racism were conquered, and such discriminatory practices would never, ever, be tolerated in our enlightened American present.

Back ... from the past

So, I started this blog as a means of making sense of a trip to Italy that I took with my father two years ago. Unfortunately, my blogging was interrupted by a motorbike accident and resulting broken leg that kept me from getting to an internet cafe. That hiatus, I hope is over. I just got back from a trip down south and my head is full of ideas. Hopefully, I'll make good.