#FakeNews, Memes, and US History

September 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

Sometimes I think that memes are going to be the undoing of all of us.  They tend towards the stupid.  I have written of this before, here and here.  This weekend on Facebook, I came across this meme:

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And once more we have a stupid meme.  The quotation from Lincoln is out of context, and it would appear that Robert E. Lee never said this.  Let’s start with Lincoln.

The quotation here comes from a letter he wrote to the prominent New York City abolitionist Horace Greeley, on 22 August 1862.  Lincoln wrote to Greeley in response to the latter’s editorial in his influential New York Tribune, calling for the emancipation of the Confederacy’s slaves immediately. Here is the full text of that letter:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, August 22, 1862.

Hon. Horace Greeley:
Dear Sir.

I have just read yours of the 19th. addressed to myself through the New-York Tribune. If there be in it any statements, or assumptions of fact, which I may know to be erroneous, I do not, now and here, controvert them. If there be in it any inferences which I may believe to be falsely drawn, I do not now and here, argue against them. If there be perceptable in it an impatient and dictatorial tone, I waive it in deference to an old friend, whose heart I have always supposed to be right.

As to the policy I “seem to be pursuing” as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.

I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be “the Union as it was.” If there be those who would not save the Union, unless they could at the same time save slavery, I do not agree with them. If there be those who would not save the Union unless they could at the same time destroy slavery, I do not agree with them. My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men every where could be free.

Yours,
A. Lincoln.

In other words, for Lincoln, his primary duty was to uphold the Union.  And, as any American historian will tell you, every action he took during his presidency was directed at exactly that goal.  Slavery was not an issue for the Union, it was not why it went to war.  That, of course, changed on 1 January 1863 when Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect.

As for Robert E. Lee, there is no evidence whatsoever he said this.  It is most likely that this fake quote is a mangling of something he did say or write, but I even have my doubts about that.

Lee, of course, was the the Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia for the Confederate States of America, a failed statelet that existed from 1861-65.  During its short lifespan, the CSA did not gain the official recognition of any other state.  And it ended with the massive defeat of the Confederacy’s army.  At any rate, Lee fought to preserve slavery.  Full stop.

Slavery was the primary reason for the secession for each and every of the Confederate states.  It was also the primary reason for the existence of the Confederacy.  Not states’ rights. Not taxation.  Slavery.  And this was what Robert E. Lee fought to preserve.

So even IF this line from Lincoln could be extrapolated to mean something, and even IF Robert E. Lee said what this meme claims, it is irrelevant.  One man ultimately ended slavery, the other fought to preserve it.

But, the meme is not correct.  It is FAKE NEWS.

Margaret Sanger Was Not Who You Think

August 29, 2016 § 3 Comments

Margaret Sanger might be the least understood, most slandered person in American history right now.  Everyday in my Twitter feed, I see arguments over her, her beliefs on birth control, abortion, and African Americans.  She has been latched onto by many on the right as an example of what is purely evil with liberals in the US.  The problem is that the historical reality does not bear out this demonization of Sanger.

Nonetheless, the Twitter warriors persevere:

This isn’t limited to Twitter.  New Hampshire Representative William O’Brien (R) said that Sanger was a KKK member.  Herman Cain, in his run for the GOP presidential nomination in 2011, claimed that the whole point of Planned Parenthood, which Sanger founded, had a genocidal mission to prevent black babies from being born. Last fall, Ben Carson, on his own run to secure the GOP nod, declared that Sanger’s goal was to eliminate African Americans.

The belief that Sanger was a white supremacist and a member of the KKK is a particularly popular one on the American political right  This photo in particular has been circulating for years, after it was uploaded to the white supremacist site Stormfront in 2008:

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While it is true that Sanger gave a speech to a women’s auxiliary of the KKK, both this photo and the supposed message of her talk are lies (she talked to the KKK women about birth control and called it “one of the weirdest experiences I had in lecturing.”).  But, like any good lie or meme, this one is careful to be specific, even offering us a location.  This photo is a photoshopped version of this:

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Very different, no?

Yes, Sanger was a believer in eugenics.  So, too, were Winston Churchill, Teddy Roosevelt, H.G. Wells.  Even W.E.B. DuBois believed in aspects of the eugenics, though he was vehemently opposed to the racist viewpoint of many eugenicists, for perhaps obvious reasons.  And, let us not forget that the eugenics movement was one predicated on classism, racism, and almost every other -ism you can imagine.  At its purest, it was a movement devoted to purifying the human race of the disabled, criminal, addicted, and many others.  And that also included racism.  And, of course, eugenics is part of what drove the Nazis and the Holocaust.

Eugenics, however, was a mult-faceted movement.  In the United States, it was not simply a belief in sterilization of ‘undesirables’ and other medical horrors.  Rather, it also included a larger public health movement that sought to make Americans healthier through exercise, the creation of parks, eradication of STDs, clinics for maternal and infant health, immunization, and other aspects of healthy living.  And this is where Sanger’s beliefs largely lay. In a 1957 interview with Mike Wallace, Sanger stated that

I think the greatest sin in the world is bringing children into the world — that have disease from their parents, that have no chance in the world to be a human being practically. Delinquents, prisoners, all sorts of things just marked when they’re born. That to me is the greatest sin — that people can — can commit.

Moreover, a belief in eugenics did not necessarily equate racism in the United States.  To take the case of Sanger: she did not believe in segregation, she opposed Jim Crow in the South.  She was a firm believer in birth control, and she thought all women, not just wealthy, white women, should have access to it.  That includes poor white women, hence the talk to the KKK auxiliary.  But this belief also brought her into African American neighbourhoods in New York, Chicago to open clinics there so African American women would also have access to birth control.  She also worked closely with African American ministers in her attempts to educate black women.

In her actual organization, Sanger would not tolerate racism, and fired people for racism.  More to the point, in 1966, Planned Parenthood honored Rev. Martin Luther King with its Margaret Sanger Award, which is granted to people who work to ensure reproductive health and rights.  King was unable to accept the award in person, sending instead his wife, Coretta Scott King.  She read his acceptance speech, which included this passage:

There is a striking kinship between our movement and Margaret Sanger’s early efforts. She, like we, saw the horrifying conditions of ghetto life. Like we, she knew that all of society is poisoned by cancerous slums. Like we, she was a direct actionist – a nonviolent resister.

Thus, in the end: Sanger was not a racist, she did not advocate mass sterilizations of anyone, let alone African Americans. She was not a member of the KKK.  In reality, she was a rare person in the early 20th century: she believed in racial and class equality when it came to reproductive health.  And she was dead-set opposed to racial segregation and Jim Crow.

 

 

Stupid Memes, Lies, and Ahistoricism

June 27, 2016 § 4 Comments

There is a meme going around the interwebs in the wake of last Thursday’s Brexit referendum and decision.  This meme is American and has appeared on the FB and Twitter feeds of pretty much every conservative I know.  And, like nearly all memes, it is stupid. And ahistorical.

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I watched an argument unfold on a friend’s FB wall over the weekend, where one of the discussants, in response of someone trying to historicize and contextualize the EU, said that “History is irrelevant.” He also noted that history is just used to scare people.  OK, then.

But this is where history does matter.  The European Union is a lot of things, but it is not “a political union run by unaccountable rulers in a foreign land.”  Rather, the EU is a democracy. All the member states joined willingly.  There is a European Parliament in Brussels to which member states elect members directly.  Leadership of the EU rotates around the member states.

And, the 13 Colonies, which rose up against the British Empire in 1774, leading to the creation of the United States following the War of Independence, were just that: colonies.  The United Kingdom is not and was not a colony of Europe.

The two situations are not analogous. At all.  In other words, this is just another stupid meme.  #FAIL

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