February 20, 2017 § 8 Comments
We tend to live in ideological echo chambers these days. This is as true of the left as it is of the right and of the centre. But something has shifted in recent months that I find rather interesting. Until 2015, liberals and lefties could, and did, say with smug superiority that they dealt in facts and reality and too many people on the other did not (the latter is proved by the ‘alternative facts,’ or lies, that come out of Whitehall in London and the White House in DC, for example).
But since the autumn of 2016, I have been harangued on Twitter by leftists who trade in alternative facts and lies themselves. In October, I found myself in the cross-hairs of the anti-Hillary Clinton left. I had been having a discussion with one of my tweeps about President Bill Clinton’s attempts to introduce universal health care coverage in the United States in 1992-94. This push was led, to a large degree, by Hillary Clinton. It failed for a multitude of reasons, but the simple fact of the matter is that Mrs. Clinton and her husband attempted to introduce universal health care to the US.
During this discussion, I got attacked, in increasingly vicious language, by two leftists who apparently believed that Mrs. Clinton is the face of evil incarnate. They accused me of lying, and, of course, being a Clinton apologist, amongst other things. Not all that interested in this argument, I posted a link to the Wikipedia page explaining this (note that ‘Hillarycare’ also redirects to this page). Sure, it’s Wikipedia, but it gives a general idea of what happened. Not good enough for one of my accusers. She pointed out Wikipedia is ‘not a primary source.’ No, it’s not. But there is a whole bibliography leading to such sources. So, instead, she sent me links to heavily redacted documents and heavily edited YouTube videos of Mrs. Clinton’s speeches on the matter, including one video that showed her in four different outfits. None of this changes historical fact.
In December, it was British leftists who insisted that white people had been slaves in the United States. This isn’t really anything new, the Irish have been claiming they were brought here as ‘slaves,’ but now this was expanded to include the Scots, English, and Welsh. And they did not mean what people usually get confused, which is indentured servitude. They meant that white people were chattel slaves like Africans. In this case, though, they provided no sources, just their beliefs. And, as one pointed out to me, she was entitled to her opinion. Sure. She is. But she’s still wrong. And I have the realities of history behind me on that one.
And then, a couple of weeks ago, the subject was the Civil War in the US. The Republican Party tweeted a Happy Birthday to the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, claiming that Lincoln united the country. Whatever one thinks of Lincoln as president, and I consider him one of the best presidents all-time (and it’s not just me, as my new favourite Wikipedia page shows), he did not unite the country. Lincoln’s election was the excuse used for Southern secession. So, in the midst of a conversation with a tweep, also an historian on this matter, I got harangued by a lefty.
He insisted that slave owners ‘were killing in the name of slavery from 1856 on.’ He wasn’t wrong. And I could point to events such as Bleeding Kansas in 1854. But, that doesn’t change the simple historical fact that Secession began with Lincoln’s election.
In all three cases, my credentials as an historian were challenged. I have been called a ‘Professor of Bullshit,’ a ‘Doctor of Horseshit.’ I have been called a fascist, and a genocidal apologist (of what genocide, I’m not sure, I’m presuming she meant the genocide of white people sold as slaves in the 18th and 19th century). In all three cases, lefties have based ‘arguments’ on ‘alternative facts,’ or, what I would call bullshit. But all the weight of historical reality meant nothing to them. They didn’t like the facts, so they decided they weren’t true.
This is deeply disturbing.
April 22, 2015 § 10 Comments
Well, Ben Affleck has spoken. And he has said what I would have hoped he’d have said the first go around. He posted on his Facebook page last evening:
After an exhaustive search of my ancestry for “Finding Your Roots,” it was discovered that one of my distant relatives was an owner of slaves.
I didn’t want any television show about my family to include a guy who owned slaves. I was embarrassed. The very thought left a bad taste in my mouth.
Skip decided what went into the show. I lobbied him the same way I lobby directors about what takes of mine I think they should use. This is the collaborative creative process. Skip agreed with me on the slave owner but made other choices I disagreed with. In the end, it’s his show and I knew that going in. I’m proud to be his friend and proud to have participated.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t a news program. Finding Your Roots is a show where you voluntarily provide a great deal of information about your family, making you quite vulnerable. The assumption is that they will never be dishonest but they will respect your willingness to participate and not look to include things you think would embarrass your family.
I regret my initial thoughts that the issue of slavery not be included in the story. We deserve neither credit nor blame for our ancestors and the degree of interest in this story suggests that we are, as a nation, still grappling with the terrible legacy of slavery. It is an examination well worth continuing. I am glad that my story, however indirectly, will contribute to that discussion. While I don’t like that the guy is an ancestor, I am happy that aspect of our country’s history is being talked about.
Obviously, I wish he had said this last October, but kudos to Affleck to taking this head on. I don’t think anyone can have issue with anything he (or, more likely his PR people) say here. I would like, though, to see him do more than just make this statement, I would like to see a Hollywood mega star actually start a discussion on the legacies of slavery. But. I suppose I’m asking for too much.
April 21, 2015 § 173 Comments
A few years back, I was contacted by the producers of Who Do You Think You Are?, a popular TV genealogy show, to help them with an episode. The show was predicated on tracing the ancestry of celebrities, attempting to capitalize on the boon in genealogy amongst the masses, and was based on a popular British version. For an upcoming episode, they were working with Rosie O’Donnell, whose Irish ancestors had passed through Montreal, living for a time in a long-defunct neighbourhood in the city’s east end.
So I met with people from the show when they came to Montreal, spent the good chunk of a day with them, showing them what mid-nineteenth century architecture in the city looked like, using Pointe-Saint-Charles in the stead of this defunct neighbourhood, which was destroyed by the expansion of rue Notre-Dame in the 70s. Not surprisingly, the majority of the Montreal part was excised from the show, but I did get a wonderful brunch at Quoi de N’Oueuf.
In preparation for their visit, they had sent me the very first episode of the show, from 2010, which looked at Sarah Jessica Parker, then riding high on Sex and the City. It turns out her ancestors had been in Salem in 1692. As the show went to commercial, Parker was waiting on tenterhooks in the archives. Was her ancestor the accused or the accuser? Turns out her ancestor was the victim. I have always wondered how this episode would’ve played out had Parker’s ancestor been one of the accusers?
Would Parker have responded to learning her ancestors were involved in dodgy dealings like Ben Affleck? Affleck was on PBS’ Finding Your Roots last year. The show, hosted by Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is a lot like Who Do You Think You Are?, though perhaps more erudite, given the host and the network. Anyway. Emails released out of that hacking of Sony’s servers a few months back reveal that Affleck is the descendant of slave owners, but he wished that part of the story kept under wraps. No doubt he was embarrassed by this fact.
According to The Boston Globe, Gates emailed the Sony USA’s boss, Michael Lynton as to what to do with Affleck’s request that his ancestor’s slave-owning past be excised from the show. As Gates noted,
One of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors — the fact that he owned slaves. Now, four or five of our guests this season descend from slave owners, including Ken Burns. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?
This led to a discussion about what to do, as Lynton said the information should be kept out of the show; Gates noted the moral problem with this kind of self-censorship. Nonetheless, the episode aired last October, minus the information about Affleck’s slave-owning ancestors.
Now, I get why Affleck might be embarrassed by this information. However. Here we had a wonderful opportunity to have a discussion about the legacy of slavery and imperialism in this country. If Affleck had stood up and said “Yes, some of my ancestors were slave-owners, I’m not proud of that, but it is what it is,” we could’ve discussed the fact that a good number of Americans, including some African Americans, are descendants of slave owners. We could have faced up to this ugly part of history.
History is full of all sorts of uncomfortable things, which should be patently obvious to anyone. Dealing with these uncomfortable truths is part and parcel of coming to terms with history as both individuals and societies. Take, for example, the case of the Armenian Genocide of 1915. Here we are, at the centenary of the genocide, and Turkey, the nation descended from the Ottoman Empire, which committed the acts, refuses to acknowledge its actions. At this point, given the régime change at the end of the First World War, I am not entirely sure why Turkey is so steadfast in its denial. On the other hand, Germany has faced its ugly past in terms of the Holocaust.
Facing ugly histories is the only way we can face understanding and healing. It is the only way to come to terms with the past. And Affleck, who fancies himself a humanist and an activist (and he has done some good work), has missed a wonderful chance here in the name of saving himself some temporary embarrassment.
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.