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 The TAH program aims to teach primary and secondary public school teachers historical content and methodology that they might not have been asked to learn when getting their education degrees or teaching certification.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.