August 5, 2016 § 22 Comments
I have to admit, I like Clint Eastwood, the artist. He’s the star of one of my favourite films of all-time, The Good, the Bad & The Ugly. And he’s made some mighty fine films of his own. He’s also a complex man. He claims to be libertarian, but he’s supported both Democrat and Republican politicians. He’s called for gun control since the early 1970s. He was also a progressive mayor of Carmel-By-The-Sea, at least on environmental issues. And he’s long been an advocate of environmental controls. And, clearly, since he’s been mayor of his little resort town, he clearly isn’t opposed to government at all costs, nor is he opposed to using government power for the common good.
But, in recent years, he’s become a bit of a loose cannon. His speech at the 2012 Republican Conference, the so-called “Empty Chair” routine, was unforgettable. But this week, he was in the news again, complaining about the “pussy generation.” See, Ol’ Clint is tired of political correctness:
[Trump]’s onto something because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells.
We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff. When I grew up, those things weren’t called racist.
My response? So what? First, Clint Eastwood loves to come off as a tough guy when he’s going off on a tangent like this. Clint Eastwood ain’t no tough guy, he plays them in movies. That’s a big difference. Second, Clint Eastwood is 86 years old. When he was growing up, Jim Crow and segregation existed in the US. Is that what he wants to return to? I presume not.
As for “political correctness,” you know what? I’m sick of this one too. Creating an environment in the world where people feel comfortable, where we are all respected and treated fairly is not a bad thing. It’s easy for a multi-millionaire 86-year old white man to complain about the things that weren’t called racist 80 years ago. What discrimination has Clint Eastwood faced in his life?
And this is the thing, the people who complain about “political correctness” tend to be white and middle class, and quite often male. In other words, they tend to be people who don’t know what it feels like to be the target of discrimination or hate speech, or, worse. It’s easy for them to claim there is no discrimination, no racism in society. They’re not targeted by it. It’s easy for Eastwood to complain about the “pussy generation.”
In short, you cannot complain about “political correctness,” or claim there is no such things as racism, sexism, misogyny, or homophobia if you are of the dominant group in society.
More to the point, a long time ago, a great man once noted that the mark of a democracy was how it treated its minorities. And that is most certainly true. That great man, by the way, was former Canadian Prime Minister, Pierre Elliott Trudeau (the father of current PM, Justin “Hotty Pants” Trudeau).
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.
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
February 4, 2016 § 2 Comments
Yesterday, one of my alma maters, Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia, sent out a video from Facilities about #NationalSweaterDay, which is a Canadian initiative to turn down the heat in the winter, to remind consumers about environmental responsibility (and the cost of heating). The video itself is several years old, but it was circulated again.
To my eyes, this is horrible. A female professor is named “Pinkums” and is addressed as “Miss.” I know from conversation with my female colleagues that they have a real struggle to be addressed as Doctor, or Professor. Oddly I, as a white man, do not. And, frankly, this video is degrading.
News of the video became widely known through the blog of Elise Chenier, a professor at SFU. I was appalled when I came across this and tweeted my shock and dismay at SFU. No university should engage in this. Ever. To the credit of the university, it apologized almost immediately. And the video had long been pulled from circulation. According to the CBC:
SFU vice-president for external relations Joanne Curry later released a statement addressing some of Chenier’s concerns. In the statement, Curry agrees the videos were “inappropriate, sexist, and not in keeping with our equity commitments.”
“As the video was produced by an external vendor, I had not seen it. When I did watch it, I immediately agreed with the feedback we had received,” the statement read.
“We took steps to remove the video as quickly as possible and have followed up with the group who produced and distributed the video to ensure it will no longer be used.”
Note, however, that Curry immediately passes by buck, noting that it was made by an external vendor. But, the university did the right thing, as Chenier notes.
Today, I awoke to find my Twitter feed aflame with trolls. Interestingly, all but two were men. The two women both noted they were “anti-feminist” in their bios. Getting trolled on Twitter is nothing new. It has happened before, it will happen again. I have received all kinds of hate on Twitter, including death threats. But today’s trolling was interesting in the sense that the men, all of whom were white, who attacked me descended into homophobia from the get go. Some hoped I got raped, others told me to perform sexual acts on other men. One threatened to rape me. And then there was the garden variety name-calling.
I spent a good amount of time blocking and reporting people today, thinking that this happens everyday to feminists on Twitter. I can only imagine the abuse Chenier is getting right now. There was #Gamergate. Or what about when women suggested that a woman’s face be put on paper money in the UK? This happens every, single, fucking day to women who are threatened with rape and death for calling out patriarchy and male privilege. And we let that happen. Every single one of us. Right-thinking men, in particular. We need to find a way to fix this, we need to figure out a way to marginalize these kinds of men, or the likes of Roosh V. This is not ok.
MLK noted that the problem African Americans in his time faced wasn’t actually an African American problem. It was a white problem. Hence, he worked to raise white consciousness. To convince white people they were the problem and had it in their power to fix racism. By no means have we succeeded, but we have made a lot of progress.
Misogyny and sexism, similarly, is a male problem. But, it seems that sexism and misogyny is considered acceptable for some men. When people are offended by things like the SFU video, they respond with banal statements like “Can’t you take a joke?” Yes, I can. But this isn’t funny. This is the basic laddish response. But then there’s the anger, the violent, misogynist, threatening anger.
Male anger needs to be curbed.
But as much as I want this kind of thing stopped, I still struggle with the basic question of why some men act like this? Is it simply about power? Is it because they feel marginalized? Why do some men feel the need to respond to feminism with vile, disgusting language? And in some of these men, I think it goes beyond words and there is a danger in their threats and fits.
Sadly, I fully expect more trolling in response to this post. The trolling will continue on Twitter. And there will be some nasty comments left on this blog.
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
Rand Paul got in trouble recently for making up quotations he attributed to the Founding Fathers. In other words, Paul is making a habit of lying to Americans, in attempting to get their votes, by claiming the Founding Fathers said something when, in fact, it’s his own policies he’s shilling. Never mind the fact that Paul says “it’s idiocy” to challenge him on this, he, in fact, is the idiot here.
The term “Founding Fathers” has always made me uncomfortable. Amongst the reasons why this is so is that the term flattens out history, into what Andrew Schocket’s calls ‘essentialism’ in his new book, Fighting over the Founders: How We Remember the American Revolution. (I wrote about this book last week, too). The term “Founding Fathers” presumes there was once a group of men, great men, and they founded this country. And they all agreed on things.
Reality is far from this. The American Revolution was an incredibly tumultuous time, as all revolutions are. Men and women, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, brothers, sisters, disagreed fundamentally about a multitude of issues, not the least of which was whether or not independence was a good idea or not. Rarely taught in US history classes at the high school or university level, loyalists, at the end of the War of Independence, numbered around 15-20% of the population. And there is also the simple fact that less than a majority actively supported independence, around 40-45%. The remaining 35-45% of the population did its best to avoid the war or independence, for a variety of reasons.
The Constitutional Congress, then, did not speak for all the residents of the 13 Colonies, as many Americans seem to believe. The Articles of Confederation and the Constitution were fraught affairs, with many of the men involved in their drafting in staunch opposition to each other. Aside from ego, there were deep, fundamental differences in thought. In other words, the Constitution was a compromise. The generation of men (and the women who influenced them, like Abigail Adams) who created the United States were very far from a unified whole, whether in terms of the larger population, or even within the band of men who favoured and/or fought for independence.
Thus, the term “Founding Fathers” is completely inadequate in describing the history of this country between c. 1765-1814. But, then again, most Americans tend to look back on this period in time and presume a single ethnicity (British) and religion (Protestantism) amongst the majority of residents of the new country. In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and that’s not factoring in the question of slavery.
It’s not surprising that Americans would wish a simple narrative of a complex time. Complexity is confusing and it obfuscates even more than it shows. And clearly, for a nation looking at its founding myths, complexity (or what Schocket would call ‘organicism’) is useless. You cannot forge myths and legends out of a complicated debate about independence, government, class, gender, and race. It’s much simpler to create a band of men who looked the same, talked the same, and believed the same things.
But, such essentialism obscures just as much as complexity does when it comes time to examine the actual experience of the nascent US during the Revolution. The disagreements and arguments amongst the founders of the country are just as important as the agreements. The compromises necessary to create a new country are also central. I’m not really a big believer in historical “truths,” nor do I think facts speak for themselves, but we do ourselves a disfavour when we simplify history into neat story arcs and narratives. Unlike Schocket, I do think there is something to be gained from studying history, that there are lessons for our own times in history, at least to a degree: the past is not directly analogous to our times.
Of course, as a public historian, this is what I love to study: how and why we re-construct history to suit our own needs. So, perhaps I should applaud the continuing need for familiar tropes and storylines of the founding of the US.
April 6, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week, Senator Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) had a very clear message to LGBT folk in the United States: “In Iran they hang you for the crime of being gay.” This comes as Cotton’s defence of the now amended Defence of Religious Freedom Act passed by the Indiana legislature the week before.
So this is what is has come to. A senator of this country is telling a group of its citizens that they’re lucky they don’t live in Iran. In other words, shut up. For Senator Cotton the United States should not strive to be leader of human rights in this world. In his mind, the country should just forget the statement that “We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal.” Nope. We should just forget what the State Department says on its webpage:
The protection of fundamental human rights was a foundation stone in the establishment of the United States over 200 years ago. Since then, a central goal of U.S. foreign policy has been the promotion of respect for human rights, as embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The United States understands that the existence of human rights helps secure the peace, deter aggression, promote the rule of law, combat crime and corruption, strengthen democracies, and prevent humanitarian crises.
None of this matters to Senator Cotton. And this is very sad. Politics in this country is a blood sport, at least symbolically. Whenever people throw up their arms and express frustration at the current impasse between Democrats and Republicans, I like to gently remind them it’s never really been any different here, dating back to the first fights in Congress between the Federalists and the Republicans (not, of course, the same party as that today, which dates from the 1850s). On the one side, the Federalists, led by Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, believed in a strong federal government; the Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, preferred a smaller national government and favoured personal liberty, free from government interference.
Nonetheless, there was a general belief in the right of Americans to dignity and a protection of their human rights (unless, of course, one was African American). But we’ve already fought this fight. In the 1960s, Americans sought a “Great Society,” one which provided care for its dispossessed and one that sought to protect its vulnerable citizens. Congresswoman Kay Granger (R-Texas) perhaps summed up how human rights work, including in this country:
Human rights are not a privilege granted by the few, they are a liberty entitled to all, and human rights, by definition, include the rights of all humans, those in the dawn of life, the dusk of life, or the shadows of life.
Cotton clearly has this equation backwards, he seeks to refuse basic rights to LGBT people in this country. It is not just that Cotton’s greatest ambition in terms of equality is to ensure American LGBT people are treated at least as well as the 75th ranked country on the 2013 Human Rights Index (the US, for reference, is ranked 5th). That is not good enough and violates everything that this country is supposed to stand for. And it does not represent the country that the vast majority of Americans hope for.
Tom Cotton should be deeply ashamed of himself.
April 3, 2015 § 6 Comments
Last week, the New York Times published another in a depressing series of articles in the print media about how colleges and universities are allegedly catering to sensitive-little flower millennials, who cannot handle big ideas that challenge their deeply-held beliefs, and how, instead, they seek to create ‘safe spaces’ all across campus, where they won’t come into contact with big, scary ideas. I can never get through one of these articles without seething. See, I am a professor. That means I work and teach on a university campus. I come into daily contact with these millennials. And I’ve come to despise generational stereotypes about them, as much as I despised the stereotypes applied to my generation twenty years ago. The stereotypes are largely similar: apathetic, self-centred, self-obssessed, etc. And, just as they were a ridiculous accusation against Gen X, the same is true of millennials.
The larger problem with these kinds of articles is that they are written by journalists looking for sensation, and supported by their editors looking for clickbait (hey, look, Ma! I used the term ‘clickbait’ in successive posts). These articles are drive-by smearings of academe (not that there aren’t a lot of problems within the system, but journalists aren’t interested in them, because they don’t generate headlines), written without bothering to understand how the academy works, how ideas are exchanged, and how we professors work to challenge and destabilize commonly-held beliefs, even if we agree with them ourselves.
Take, for example, the story of a course at Arizona State University called “US Race Theory and The Problem of Whiteness.” FoxNews host Elizabeth Hasselbeck attacked the course, after talking to a student at ASU. The problem was that the student Hasselbeck talked to wasn’t enrolled in the class, and she herself never bothered to talk to the professor. No, instead, Hasselbeck instead ranted about the problems with this kind of course, in predictable fashion. This led the professor of the course to doxxed and to receive death threats.
But back to the Times article. I was going to write a strongly-worded riposte to it here, but my wife beat me to it. So, instead, I point you, gentle reader, over to Margo’s blog, as she says what I wanted to say in a much better fashion.
April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments
Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation. She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US. She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part. Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still. That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny. Her music is catchy as all get out. Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars. But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick. In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom. The chorus goes:
Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.
RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.” Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did. On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian. FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness. FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers. That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.
As Morozov argues:
FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.
The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.
Wonderful. Sign me up. Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out. Or whatever. This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites. Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe. I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby. Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments. But he doesn’t any more. His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain. This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald. I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid. In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up. And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).
Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez. Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage. In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling. The Globe makes more money off this than real news.
Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically. FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet. And many people will think this is a great thing. But it is not. Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives. As Morozov argues,
[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.
In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle. In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there. Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health. Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet. Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency. Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room. But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state. Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.
Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.” The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy. They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world. Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.
And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing. It can democratize. It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter. Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter. And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek. And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone. But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world. And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.
Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)
Eggers’ dystopia is fiction. The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real. And why should we be surprised? As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Land, sometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money. The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything. Greed drives us. And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out. Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.
February 26, 2015 § 15 Comments
Jeff Jacoby is the resident conservative columnist at the liberal Boston Globe, the main Boston newspaper. Jacoby is a very intelligent man and while I rarely agree with anything he writes, his column is usually well worth the read (as long as it’s not about climate change; he is delusional on this matter). But yesterday, Jacoby set a new low.
In yesterday’s column, Jacoby ponders President Obama’s religion. He takes to task reporters who asked Wisconsin Governor (and Republican presidential hopeful) Scott Walker about whether or not he thought the president was a Christian. I agree with Jacoby thus far. I don’t see the relevance of any of this to either Obama as President or to Walker as a prospective candidate.
Walker, of course, couldn’t resist. He said he didn’t know if the president is a Christian. This is a disingenuous response if there ever was one. Jacoby then notes that Americans as a whole seem confused on the matter:
[Walker] has plenty of company.
During the president’s reelection campaign in the summer of 2012, the Pew Research Center polled a national sample of registered voters: “Do you happen to know what Barack Obama’s religion is?” More than one-third of the respondents — 36 percent — said they didn’t know. Only 45 percent identified the president as a Christian; 16 percent said he’s a Muslim.
That was the seventh time in a little over four years that Pew had measured public awareness of Obama’s religion. The first poll, back in March 2008, had yielded almost identical results — 36 percent couldn’t name then-Senator Obama’s religion, while 47 percent said he was Christian and 12 percent answered Muslim.
Indeed. But this is where Jacoby goes right off the rails:
Over the years, the president has made numerous comments on religious topics, and his messages haven’t always been consistent. It isn’t hard to understand why a sizable minority of Americans, to the extent that they think about Obama’s religion at all, might be genuinely puzzled to put a label to it. Honest confusion isn’t scandalous.
This is NOT honest confusion. Obama’s religious beliefs aren’t that complicated, he’s a Christian who doesn’t go to mass often, like most Christians. What this is is racism. This is the same racism that drove the Birther movement. I severely doubt if John McCain had won in 2008, or if Mitt Romney had won in 2012, their religious beliefs would ever be a topic of discussion. I seriously doubt that 36% of Americans would have no clue about the president’s religious beliefs. As for the discussion that Obama is a Muslim:
public opinion polls show that despite liberal denial, at least one in five or 17% of Americans recognize that Barack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.
This is the first sentence of an entry on Conservapedia on “Obama’s Religion” (the bold is in the original). Note the “is” after the word “Obama” and before the word “a.” Jacoby is dead wrong to go down this road, because this is exactly where he is going.
Agnotology is the study of deliberate ignorance. Deliberate ignorance is easy to spot in our culture. Examples include the insistence that Hitler was a communist because he led the National Socialist party. Or that because Lincoln was a Republican and he freed the slaves Republicans cannot be racist. These are both fallacies. Clearly. Yet, there are people in the United States who will argue to their death that these are truths. These kinds of beliefs are easily perpetuated in the so-called Information Age. Scrolling through my Twitter feed on any given day, I can find any number of un-truths passed off as truths (especially by “facts” accounts, that claim to only tweet fact). These un-truths get re-tweeted for all sorts of reasons, of course, but an un-truth repeated often enough eventually becomes believed as truth. Thus, the editors of Conservapedia can, with a straight face, claim that “17% of Americans recognize that Barrack Hussein Obama is a Muslim.” And how did 17% of Americans come to believe that Obama is a Muslim? Because this lie has been repeated often enough that some people have come to believe it.
Jacoby disingenuously opens this can of worms in yesterday’s column. Jacoby is smart enough to know that the “confusion” over Obama’s religious beliefs is irrelevant. He is also smart enough to know that this confusion is a fine study in agnotology. But, instead he appeals to the lowest common denominator and uses his column to perpetuate ignorance.
February 18, 2015 § 6 Comments
It is Black History Month. Specialized history months exist for a reason. They exist because black people, indigenous people, immigrants, LGBT people, women, etc., all get written out of history. Take, for example, a typical US History survey course. Usually US History survey courses at the college level are split into two parts, the first covers the period to Reconstruction, usually with the break coming in 1877; the second part goes from then to today. In the entire broad expanse of American history, nearly every single textbook I have ever reviewed with an eye towards using reflects a triumphalist narrative of progress. Certainly, some focus more on the people than the politics and wars, others focus on culture. Some have a narrative centring around the American fascination with freedom and liberty.
But, still, the narrative is dominated by white men. Indigenous peoples are the stars of the period before colonization, but that’s usually no more than a chapter. Then they share centre-stage with the colonists. Then they disappear from the narrative until the Trail of Tears in the 1830s, and then make a cameo during the story of Western expansion. Women are almost entirely invisible from the main narrative; women, especially, get shunted into little featurettes, usually at the end of the chapters. Possible exceptions are Seneca Falls in 1848, the 19th Amendment (sometimes), the Second World War, and Second Wave feminism to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in 1982. As for African Americans, they feature, sort of, in the story of slavery. But even then, the textbooks tend to represent slavery from the Euro-American perspective: why slave owners thought slavery just, why Northern abolitionists sought to end slavery. Rarely do we get actual glimpses of the slaves themselves. Then, after a brief light of Reconstruction, African Americans disappear until the Civil Rights Era of the 1950s and 60s. And that’s it. Thus, there is a need to focus on the history of a minority group, to focus on the contributions of that group, whether singly or collectively, to history. Hence, Black History Month.
The very existence of Black History Month, however, is a result of racism. The weight of history can be felt every single day, whether individually or collectively. We feel our own histories, but we also feel the weight of societal history on us every day. Where we are and what we have is in part a response to history. As a middle-class, white, heterosexual man, I have privilege, all of which comes from history and the way in which society has been moulded by it. Men benefit greatly from patriarchy, but not all men benefit in the same way from patriarchy. For some men, their access to patriarchal privilege is modified by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and class.
I got into a Twitter argument today over George Zimmerman and his murder of Trayvon Martin three years ago (Martin would have turned 20 next Thursday, 26 February). The content of the argument doesn’t matter so much as what the argument represents. Trayvon Martin was suspect to Zimmerman because Martin was black. He aroused the neighbourhood watch captain’s suspicions for “walking while black,” a pretty common occurrence for black men and women in the United States.
Racism is very real. And it is historic. It doesn’t have to come with name calling and threats of violence. It comes in more peaceable ways, too. It is subtle, it is silent. But it’s still very real. Racism against black people has a long, long history in the United States. But this was inherited from the British. The British, and other European nations, were the ones who thought it acceptable to enslave Africans and sell them at auction for profit. British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool became rich off the slave trade. In the United States, though, racialized slavery reach its apogee. And this history still weighs down American society 150 years after the Civil War ended.
Why? Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction was an “unfinished” revolution. I would suggest it was a failed revolution. Either way, as Foner rightly notes, Reconstruction failed because African Americans were left free, but impoverished, as the racist mindset that lay behind slavery sill existed. And let me remind you that many, if not most, northern abolitionists were just as deeply racist as southern slave owners. Where they differed is that the abolitionists thought it immoral for someone to own another person. The Civil Rights Era didn’t happen until a century after the Civil War. And today, we live in an era of backlash against the Civl Rights Era.
All of this, though, is due to the weight of history. On this continent, racism pre-dates the founding of Canada, the United States, and Mexico. In the United States, it dates back to the founding of Jamestown in 1608 and the Pilgrims reaching Plymouth Rock twelve years later. The very idea of British superiority over black Africans underpinned the colonial project here, as settlers had the same ideas of their own superiority over the indigenous populations. Thus it is perhaps no surprise that racism is so deeply ingrained in society. And this is not a uniquely American problem. Look at Canada, Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Russia, Brazil, the Netherlands, etc.
For those of us who have spent their lives fighting against racism (and various other forms of oppression), we are fighting back against the cumulative weight of history; we are trying to push a massive weight off us. And until we do, we need to call out racism, but we also need to understand the reason for Black History Month this month. And Women’s History Month next month. And Native Americans’ History month in November.
February 6, 2015 § 2 Comments
I watched The Punk Singer, the documentary about Kathleen Hanna, the frontwoman of the Riot Grrrl band, Bikini Kill, as well as Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin, the other night. Hanna was, essentially, the founder of the Riot Grrrl movement back in 1992; she wrote the Riot Grrrl Manifesto. I’ve always been a fan, and I remember going to Bikini Kill shows back in the day. Hanna would insist the boys move to the back of the crowd and the girls come down to the front. And we listened to her. She was an intimidating presence on a stage. The girls came down front so they could dance and mosh and not get beaten to a pulp by the boys. Early 90s mosh pits were violent places, and they got worse as they got invaded by the jocks after Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and a few other bands went mainstream. Bikini Kill never did, but their shows, as well as those of L7 and Babes in Toyland, still attracted these wider audiences, at least the gigs I went to. Hanna and Bikini Kill were unabashedly feminist. If you didn’t like, you could just fuck off.
Yesterday in class, in a very gender-segregated room (women on the left, men on the right), we had an interesting discussion. We were discussing Delores Hayden’s The Power of Place, about attempts to forge a public history on the landscape of Los Angeles that gives credence to the stories of women and minorities. So. I asked my students if women were a minority. To a person, they all knew that women are not a minority, at least not in demographic terms. Women are the majority; right now in the United States and Canada, around 51% of the population. But. Women are a minority in terms how they are treated in our culture, how they are second-class citizens, essentially. The women in my class all knew this, they were all adamant about it. The men stayed silent, though they nodded approvingly at what the women were saying.
Despite the fact that close to nothing has changed in the mainstream of our culture, that we still live in a rape culture that is designed to keep women de-centred and unbalanced, I was so happy that my students knew what was what in our world, and I was so happy that the men knew to keep their mouth shut.
In The Punk Singer, Lynn Breedlove, a queer feminist writer, singer, and punk, noted that feminism is about the struggle of the sub-altern, about the struggle of the oppressed. And feminism should fight for the oppressed, no matter the fight, be it race, sexuality, or class. And I had this lightning bolt moment. This is why I have always been pro-feminist. I had a prof in undergrad who argued that men cannot be feminists; feminism is a movement for and by women. Men could be allies, in fact, they were welcomed, but it was a women’s movement. Hanna reflects this, she has always worked to create a space and a voice for women, and men were welcome, but in a supporting role. I like that.
I was raised by women, and my mother instilled this pro-feminism in me at a young age (thanks, Ma!). But, feminism (along with punk) helped give me the tools I need to emancipate myself from the oppression of class. From these two movements, I gained a language of emancipation. To recover from being told by my high school guidance counsellor that “People like you don’t go to university,” because I was working-class and poor. Richard Sennett and Jonathan Cobb, in a 1993 book, talk about the ‘hidden injuries of class.” Hidden, yes, but still very real.