A Note on the Implied Whiteness of Southern Identity

The African American Intellectual History Society has a thought-provoking piece from sociologist Jennifer Patrice Sims on imaginary and implied whiteness in literature, theater, and film that is worth a read by Civil War historians. I’ll explain.

Sims points out numerous instances in recent memory when black actors were cast for presumably white roles in films like Star Wars, James Bond, and Harry Potter, and how a good number of whites reacted with “incredulity” at these casting decisions. She argues that such reactions occur because book readers and performing arts viewers often assume that the characters in the performance will be white. Whiteness is the default setting. Writers must use explicit language to express to readers that the character is a racial minority, something that does not need to be done for a white character.

It strikes me that I often see a somewhat similar pattern of thinking when studying the Civil War and Southern identity during the nineteenth century. Part of the problem is that many history textbooks and public history sites talk about the Civil War as a fight between Northerners and Southerners instead of a fight between the United States and the Confederacy. The terms are not synonymous. White Southerners in every state except South Carolina formed regiments in the U.S. military during the Civil War, nearly two-hundred thousand blacks–many of whom were born in the South–served in United States Colored Troops regiments, and states generally accepted to be at least partly “Southern” in nature, including Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland, stayed in the Union during the war. The other equally important factor is that blacks born in the South are sometimes not considered “Southern.” As historian Kevin Gannon points out, decades of historical scholarship on the Civil War era has defaulted to whiteness when explaining political and social thought in the South:

Black southerners were not in the front ranks of Manifest Destiny’s advocates, nor did they turn to a states’ rights interpretation of the Constitution in the wake of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. And I would bet that most black southerners saw Lincoln’s election as something other than [a] “catastrophe[.]” Yet, when historians-and by extension, much of the general public-discuss the sectional divide as well as the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, they overwhelmingly deploy the identifier “southern” in the “we-really-mean-white-people-but-you-already-know-that” sense of the term . . . “Southerners rejected the aims of the abolitionist movement, since they threatened the basic principles that defined their society.” Well, again, this is true for many white southerners; for black southerners, not so much.

Indeed, words matter a great deal. Explaining how “Southerners” react to events necessitates further word qualifications such as “black,” “white,” “upper-region,” “Appalachian,” etc., since an entire region of people could never completely agree on a uniform mode of social and political thought.

Confederate veteran and Southern-born George W. Cable offered his own intriguing theory in an 1886 Memorial Day speech in Massachusetts for explaining the relationship between whiteness, Southern identity, and who gets to call themselves a Southerner. He suggested that “Southerner” referred less to the geographical location where one was born and instead reflected a particular way of thinking about the world:

You hear the phrase “true Southerner,” “true South.” . . . where a man or woman is born is no matter. A colored man is never esteemed a Southerner. And there are hundreds of men now in the South of any one of whom you may hear it said at any time, “Why, he is Northern born, but he is a good Southerner.” It is a matter of belief in a social order . . . the white [Southerner] for an arbitrary supremacy, confessedly inconsistent with American liberty, but in his sincere conviction essential to social order and his self-preservation . . . It believes that the preservation of society requires the domination of a fixed privileged class over a lower; that the white constitute this privileged class, and that the blacks do, and must, and shall comprise the lower.

I think there are many other ways–and many of them more positive than Cable’s assessment–to identify oneself as “Southern,” but he offers us some interesting food for thought with this speech.

Cheers

The Transformative Nature of the 14th Amendment

What I affirm is that no state.. nor any corporation or individual wielding power under state authority for the public benefit or the public convenience, can.. discriminate against freemen or citizens." Justice John Marshal Harlan's dissent in Civil Rights Cases (1883). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

What I affirm is that no state.. nor any corporation or individual wielding power under state authority for the public benefit or the public convenience, can.. discriminate against freemen or citizens.” Justice John Marshal Harlan’s dissent in Civil Rights Cases (1883). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

When I look at the Reconstruction Era–particularly the period from 1865 to 1870–I see a time of deep reflection about how and why the U.S. Constitution needed to be significantly changed in the wake of the Civil War. As historian David Blight argues, the Reconstruction Era was a “twelve-year referendum on the meaning of the Civil War,” a time in which remarkable changes in basic ideas of citizenship, political equality, freedom, and the very definition of what it means to successfully achieve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness transformed the United States. I also subscribe to Blight’s thesis that the Constitution before the Civil War was America’s “Old Testament” and that the Constitution since the war is our “New Testament.” Indeed, we today don’t live under the Constitution as it was written before the war, with legal protections for slavery, no clear definition of U.S. citizenship, and voting rights determined by the states largely on the basis of class, property, and skin color (and, of course, gender).

The 14th amendment (1868) is particularly noteworthy for its sweeping changes to America’s legal boundaries. The amendment defines citizenship as a birthright or through a naturalization process, puts a check of the power of states to deny the right of “life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” and demands that all citizens be given the equal protection of the laws (no more laws like Missouri’s 1847 law banning blacks from learning how to read or write, whether they were free or enslaved). It also broadens the power of Congress by giving them the power to pass legislation to enforce this amendment. The equal protection clause continues to be a point of contention in legal practice, with the Library of Congress stating that the 14th amendment “is cited in more litigation than any other amendment,” from legislation regulating religious practices in schools to gay marriage and much else. Regardless, the 14th amendment more explicitly and specifically explains that achieving political equality among U.S. citizens is a goal of the federal government.

Without diving too much into contemporary politics, I sometimes wonder if the ideals of political equality stated in the 14th amendment are either taken for granted or openly scorned by some Americans today. For example, former Presidential candidate Ron Paul’s 2008 and 2012 platforms were based partly on the idea of abolishing the 14th amendment, and columnist George Will, citing an inaccurate law review article, argued in 2010 that birthright citizenship can and should be abolished from the constitution. And what about all of the recent flighty rhetoric about “getting back to our constitutional roots,” “Make America Great Again,” or the popular impulse (at least on social media) to proclaim oneself a “constitutionalist?” Is this rhetoric calling for a return of American governance and liberty based on the pre-Civil War, “Old Testament” constitution? I would venture to guess that the answer differs based on who you’re talking to. But I can’t help but question what, exactly, this rhetoric purports to reclaim from American history. What are we trying to get back to?

Cheers

Addendum: To be sure, the 14th amendment has its shortcomings and has sometimes been defined by the Supreme Court in a very narrow fashion. In Civil Rights Cases (1883) seven of the eight justices argued that the 14th amendment only applied to state actions and not the actions of individuals and private groups. In other words, it prevented racial discrimination by the state, but not racial discrimination by private individuals, business owners, and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Additionally, Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which argued that racial segregation in public facilities was legal, was justified on the basis of the 14th amendment, claiming that such segregation was legal provided that the facilities were “equal.” Moreover, the amendment did not ensure voting rights to blacks because there were fears among the Republican Party that Northern whites would reject the amendment (numerous Northern states had already rejected state referendums on the question after the Civil War), and it did not provide citizenship to Native American Indians throughout the country. It was also the first time the word “male” was inserted into the Constitution, much to the anger of Suffragists who promoted women’s rights and suffrage qualifications. Check out the National Constitution Center’s resources on the 14th amendment to learn more.

 

What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events? (Part 2)

One of the reasons I enjoy blogging is that it gives me a chance to hash out thoughts, ideas, and theories that may not be fully developed in my mind. Blogging for me is as much about asking questions about how and why we study history as it is writing essays that aim to inform readers on a given historical topic that I’ve studied. Indeed, asking questions about the fundamental theories the underlie the act of historical thinking and the intellectual contours of the profession is a necessary challenge all historians must address. In doing so, we better position ourselves to sharpen our methodological tools while simultaneously improving upon the ways we explain the importance of studying history to the rest of society. Doing a better job of answering the question “why study history?” has been a central challenge of my career as a public historian so far, and I’ve thankfully learned a lot not just by reading books but also blogging out my ideas and receiving constructive feedback from thoughtful readers.

With my last post I delved into the importance of having “historical perspective” when analyzing current events. Does it help to have historical perspective? If the answer is yes, then how so? My thoughts were shaky and I had no conclusive answers. Thankfully a number of commenters stepped in and offered some brilliant thoughts.

From Christopher Graham of the American Civil War Museum:

I think the comparisons of better/worse are not the right way to frame the questions and leads us to dumb debates over better/worse and that’s not very good history.

What historical perspective should be teaching us–aside from the overwhelming complexity that defies a better/worse narrative–is how this process of historical change works. We should be asking–where is the intentionality that represents tradition and systems, and where does contingency and the unexpected that shape sensibilities and events intersect with it? How does that inevitably make things different–not necessarily better or worse, just different. And how do we identify those historical processes at work in current events? The answer reveals that we should be looking widely for motivations for change, should be ready to accept the unexpected, and that it is a dynamic process.

And from Andrew McGregor of Purdue University:

I think a lot of folks who talk about historical perspective, talk in terms of compare and contrast, which, to me, isn’t really what history and historical perspective is about. I think one of the problems that your are wrestling with here is that questions like “how did we get here?” (which are an important question to ask!) are inherently teleological. Similarly comparing and contrasting almost always involved some sort of value judgment (progress or declension). Neither approach is very emotive or humanistic (to deBoer’s point), which forces us to rethink how we understand and tell the history of “victims” (for lack of a better word). I think historical perspective works best, when we are use it to understand and get inside of moments, ideas and arguments, cultures, to better understand the lineage of people’s experiences, creating what might be termed a historical empathy built through examples and understandings of the past. This is much more easily done we analyzing how and why people make certain arguments about the Confederate flag or the R*dskins mascot, but when talking about structures and processes (like criminal justice and policing) we sometimes lose that humanness in how we tell, explain, or understand history. I’ll stop rambling there, but I think my overall point here is that we need to be conscientious of keeping a humanistic historical perspective instead of falling into lazy patterns of analysis that are often flawed.

Both of these comments redirected my thinking on historical perspective towards a new direction. It’s perfectly natural for us to compare and contrast the conditions of contemporary society with those of past societies – it’s all we can really do since we can’t predict what the future will bring. But in focusing my thoughts on comparing past and present through a better-or-worse dichotomy, I failed to grasp all the different and dynamic ways historical thinking challenges us to assess the present beyond a simple progress/declension narrative. Historical thinking includes all that Christopher and Andrew mention in their comments; finding the intersection of intentionality and contingency, analyzing change over time, and exploring ideas, cultures, and experiences in a way that goes beyond making subjective judgements as to whether things are better or worse today.

Cheers

What is the Benefit of Having “Historical Perspective” When Analyzing Current Events?

The above tweet from linguist and writer Fredrik deBoer got me really thinking about the meaning and purpose of having a historical perspective when looking at contemporary events. deBoer was responding to a recent essay by Jonathan Chait entitled “It Is Not 1968.” Chait argues in that essay that the country is actually more unified in its views towards Black Lives Matter and police reform than social media may suggest. He argues that recent op-eds and commentaries from a number of conservative political leaders and thinkers indicate a shift in thinking that is more sympathetic to BLM’s grievances. “[Democrats and Republicans] may not agree with Black Lives Matter on the exact scope of the problem, but the two sides have a shared sense of its existence — no small achievement in a country where the two parties cannot even agree on such questions as climate science — and broad moral contours,” he explains. Chait sees these developments as a genuine victory for “reasoned, evidence-based progress.” We as a country are doing better than we were in 1968 and should ultimately proceed with caution before making any rash historical comparisons.

But deBoer pushes us to take a wider perspective and consider how the families of Philado Castile, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and many black victims of police violence might react to Chait’s declaration of forward social progress and “historical perspective” when the price of such progress has been paid in human life and the loss of their loved ones. What good is it to say “things are better now” when the threat of violence at the hands of police still remains for many people of color today? What good is it to tell someone that “it is not 1968” when the challenge at hand is living in 2016? Are there times when “keeping things in perspective” prevents us from taking steps to ensure a better world tomorrow?

I made a similar argument a couple years ago when I wrote about the events in Ferguson, events that occurred within a short drive to my own house here in the St. Louis area. I appreciated the historical perspective that numerous writers offered in attempting to explain the looting and violence that hit the area (including a long history of urban riots in places like Watts and Detroit and others led by white supremacists for different reasons that completely destroyed cities like Memphis, Wilmington, and Tulsa), but I simultaneously suggested that such historical perspective probably offered very little solace to the victims whose businesses were destroyed amid the chaos. Likewise, I imagine any claims suggesting that police practices are more humane today than fifty years ago are probably true but of little solace to the residents of Ferguson and surrounding areas whose local governments used their police force and municipal court system to raise funds through petty fines and fees for offenses that were not a threat to the community.

To be sure, I do think it’s a good thing to have historical perspective. There’s a song by Billy Joel, “Keeping the Faith,” where he cautions that “the good old days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” I always liked that line because it warns us to avoid being overly sentimental about the past while demonstrating that the potential for a better tomorrow is always there. But at the same time I see issues with that thinking when real problems in peoples’ lives today are minimized and dismissed, especially when those people are truly disadvantaged. At its most extreme we see the worst perversions of “things are much better today” when people say things like “slavery was a long time ago. Life is so much better today and everyone is treated equally, so get over it!” That viewpoint isn’t helpful for solving the problems of today and is ultimately another way of telling someone to shut up because their concerns aren’t valid.

What are the advantages of viewing contemporary problems with a historical perspective?

Cheers

Why Did The Confederate Constitution Ban the International Slave Trade?

"Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA," The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Three Scenes From the Slave Trade in the USA,” The Illustrated London News, September 27, 1856. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Last year I wrote an essay about Ulysses S. Grant and a number of claims on social media alleging him to have owned slaves during the Civil War. Using primary sources in Grant’s own writing I demonstrated that these claims were completely false, and that a number of statements alleged to have come from Grant were actually made up quotes by people with too much time on their hands. The only enslaved person known to have been owned by Grant was William Jones, whom Grant freed in St. Louis in 1859. I wondered aloud if these claims intending to paint Grant as a slaveholding Union general spoke to a larger desire to portray the Civil War as a conflict that had little to do with slavery as a cause of the war. After all, how could the war be about slavery if the savior of the Union was a slaveholder? Moreover, I argued–and the credit for this argument goes to historian Brooks Simpson–that Grant’s views one way or the other towards slavery were irrelevant for understanding the causes of the Civil War since Grant had no political role in the coming of the war or the decision of eleven states to secede from the Union. He was a clerk for his father’s leather good store in Galena, Illinois, at the beginning of the war, far removed from the political crisis emerging in Washington, D.C. with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

The other day I received three comments from a person eager to contest that essay, and one of his arguments (which had nothing to do with the subject at hand but is nonetheless revealing) seems to suggest that the Confederate Constitution could have been seen as calling for the eventual end of slavery in the Confederacy because it banned the international slave trade. Again, it wasn’t all about slavery! This claim is an interesting one and worth exploring further. Does it have any merit?

The U.S. Constitution states in Article 1, Section 9.1 that the international slave trade would be closed in 1808, but that Congress could not prohibit the trade until that time. The Confederate Constitution was in most regards almost an exact copy of the U.S. Constitution, and Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution also bans the international slave trade within the Confederate states. There are two significant changes in Article 1, Section 9.1 of the Confederate Constitution, however. One is that while the U.S. Constitution only vaguely refers to “the Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit,” the Confederate Constitution clearly stipulates that the subjects under consideration were “Negroes of the African race from any foreign country.” The other extremely significant change is that the Confederate Constitution did not call for a complete ban on the international importation of slaves. An additional clause stipulates that slaves from “the slaveholding states or territories of the United States of America” (which were now considered part of a foreign country) could still be imported into the Confederate states. The Confederate Constitution, in other words, still allowed for the importation of enslaved people from the border slaves states and Western territories like New Mexico that had not yet seceded from the Union.

This is when the date of the Confederate Constitution’s ratification comes into play. That constitution was adopted on March 11, 1861, roughly one month before the firing of Fort Sumter to start the Civil War. At that time there were only seven states in the Confederacy, and eight border slaves states remained in the Union: Missouri, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware. Banning the international slave trade was one method by which the Confederacy aimed to convince these states to secede, especially in the case of Virginia, whose economy by 1860 largely revolved around the interstate slave trade and the shipping of slaves to the South and West. By allowing the slave trade to continue between the U.S. and the Confederacy, the Confederate Constitution allowed the uncertain border slave states a chance to continue selling their slaves to the Confederate states in the short-term while they debated their next step. In the long-term, after these border slave states had ostensibly left the Union and joined forces with the Confederacy, their continued financial interests in the slave trade would not be challenged by international trade with slaveholding countries in South America, Africa, and elsewhere. Removing all protections for the domestic slave trade and embracing a “free trade” approach ran the risk of lowering the price of slave labor and putting border state slave traders out of business. There was also an international motivation for banning most of the international slave trade. The Confederacy attempted to make a pitch for support from European countries like England and France that had already banned slavery by demonstrating that they were willing to ban parts of the slave trade, even though they really had no desire of ending slavery as a whole any time soon.

Through these examples we can clearly see that the Confederacy’s banning of most of the international slave trade in its Constitution was not done in the hope of eventually abolishing slavery in the Confederacy, but to strengthen its domestic slave trade while hopefully winning points with England and France.

It’s also worth mentioning that a good number of Confederate supporters–although probably not the majority–supported the idea of re-opening the slave trade precisely because they knew it would help lower the cost of slave labor. James Paisley Hendrix, Jr.’s 1969 article in Louisiana History shows that support for a reopening of the trade increased greatly in the 1850s, and that a Southern convention in 1859 passed a resolution saying as much. The New Orleans Delta reflected these desires when they wrote an editorial in support of opening the trade, arguing that “We would re-open the African slave trade [so] that every white man might have a chance to make himself owner of one or more Negroes . . . Our true purpose is to diffuse the slave population as much as possible, and thus secure in the whole community the motives of self-interest for its support.”

So yeah, slavery had something to do with all of this.

Cheers

A Quick Review of Sanford Levinson’s “Written in Stone”

Sanford Levinson - Written in Stone

A couple weeks ago I had the distinct privilege of meeting Dwight Pitcaithley, former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and currently a part-time history professor at New Mexico State University. Dr. Pitcaithley is an intellectual thinker and public historian that I really look up to, and it was great being able to participate in a workshop he put on about the causes of the Civil War for my work. In the course of the workshop we got wrapped up in the whole Confederate icons debate and he recommended that we read Written in Stone: Public Monuments in Changing Societies by Sanford Levinson, a law professor and Constitutional scholar at the University of Texas Law School. Written in Stone clocks in at a very short 140 pages and I finished reading it a few days ago. I recommend it as a worthwhile read for those interested in this topic.

Although Written in Stone was published in 1998, it reads as if it was written in the past year. Levinson addresses all of the controversial icons that have either been removed or put under intense scrutiny in recent months, including the Confederate flag at the South Carolina State Capitol, Monument Avenue in Richmond, and the statue to the Battle of Liberty Place in New Orleans, among many others.

Levinson’s legal training allows him a unique perspective on this topic that I hadn’t really considered until reading this book. One of the big questions of the book is whether the state “can properly honor anyone, or celebrate any particular views” in a fair fashion. Can the state celebrate its history and honor that history thorough public commemoration? One view is that public commemoration by the government should be ruthlessly neutral and regulated the same way religion is via the establishment clause of the Constitution, neither aiding one religion, all religions, or one over another. In this view one might look at the celebration of “American heroes” as a form of civil religion that could be deemed unconstitutional and is at the very least in bad taste. But Levinson argues that a “neutral” approach to historical commemoration is naive and impossible to achieve. While he acknowledges that the state runs the risk of dominating the intellectual marketplace, he asserts that the state does have a role in that marketplace, from politicians giving major policy speeches to public school teachers and school boards determining what textbooks will be used in the classroom to educate students. He also cites United States v. Gettysburg Electric Co., an 1896 Supreme Court case in which the Justices unanimously determined that the federal government could confiscate land from an electric company since the land in question, which the government intended to use for housing Civil War monuments, constituted a “public use.” Chief Justice Rufus Peckham’s opinion expressed the idea that preserving the land for monumentation and public use “manifests for the benefit of all its citizens the value put upon the services and exertions of the citizen soldiers of that period.” So, in sum, the government can engage in public acts of commemoration through monuments, flags, and other icons. This right is a double-edged sword, however, as what constitutes what is worthy of public commemoration is very much contested.

Levinson makes a number of arguments about Confederate icons in Written in Stone. He argues forcefully that the taint of racism, slavery, and opposition to Civil Rights that is so often identified with Confederate iconography makes the erection of new public iconography honoring the Confederacy in poor taste and something he would reject. At the same time, however, Levinson opposes the idea of taking down older, preexisting icons. He instead calls for them to either stay in place, to contextualize them, provide a counter-monument, and/or relocate them to a museum, all of which he prefers to outright demolition. At the end of Written in Stone Levinson offers nine different solutions for addressing the Jefferson Davis statue at the University of Texas, all of which are worth considering. (Last year that statue was removed from UT and relocated to UT’s Briscoe Center for American History).

I do not agree with Levinson on all points. I think he over-emphasizes the power of contextualized wayside markers as effective educational pieces for addressing the troubling history that something like the monument to the Battle of Liberty Place aims to venerate and celebrate. I think most people who view public icons with wayside markers don’t bother to read the markers or only skim them without really making a strong effort to interpret their meaning. I also think Levinson downplays the fact that many Confederate icons in public spaces like town squares and campus buildings have always been a point of controversy within local communities, particularly ones with a large African American presence. The recent debates may be new to many people, but they are old hat for those who live and work in communities where they see these icons on a daily basis. If the themes and messages of the Confederacy are too tainted and too offensive to be honored through newly constructed public iconography, then why should local communities be saddled with past Confederate icons that no longer represent the values of those communities? Are there times when taking down and destroying an icon is the most appropriate measures for ensuring healing, reconciliation, and closure from the past? I believe there is, such as when the Confederate Flag was lowered from the front of the South Carolina State House and when the city of New Orleans announced its intentions to remove its monument to the Battle of Liberty Place. I would say, however, that such drastic measures should only be a last resort and used sparingly on an individual basis. There are certainly times when contextualization, removal to a museum, or simply doing nothing are also appropriate.

Be sure to check out Levinson’s book if you get the chance.

Cheers

Navigating the Intersection of History and Contemporary Politics

What it feels like to be a historian looking at contemporary politics.

What it feels like when a historian sees a politician abusing the past for his or her own ends.

Many of us who study history do so in part because we are curious to see how our current society came to be. When discussing anything like education, economic, or foreign policy, it helps to see how policies, theories, laws, and ideas have evolved over time. There is a seductive quality to historical thinking. Sometimes, for better or worse, it leads us to believe that studying the past can offer us stability, order, and a better understanding to the world. We should be cautious, however, about drawing hard and fast conclusions about what the past can really teach us about the present or what it can do in terms of mapping out a foundation for future policy. Likewise, we should be very cautions about drawing comparisons between historical events and contemporary politics. I’ve been seeing a lot of these types of articles lately. But of all the reasons one may be inclined to oppose Donald Trump’s presidential bid, I don’t think Zachary Taylor’s rise to the Whig party’s Presidential nomination in 1848 as an “outsider” candidate and the subsequent fall of the Whig party in the 1850s is one that would prevent many people from voting for Trump, even if there are some similarities between the 1848 and 2016 elections. (It also bears pointing out that Ulysses S. Grant was very much a political “outsider” when he accepted the Republican party’s nomination in 1868, and the party turned out to be just fine with him at the helm. So it seems like there is no accepted wisdom when it comes to choosing outsider candidates based on historical precedent).

Ultimately I think there is a very fine line between studying history for the sake of understanding changes over time and how things came to be, and studying history as a means of forming future policy. I often get lost in the gray area of the intersection of history and politics when thinking about the importance of historical thinking as a way of making sense of the world. I do think there are some connections to be made between past and present. Here in the United States I don’t believe it’s a mere coincidence that the states where the harshest anti-LGBTQ legislation has been passed are also the states that most ardently supported Jim Crow laws and resisted the Civil Rights Movement in the recent past. And yet at the same time I understand that the people of the past were not like us. There’s nothing suggesting that today’s society will act a certain way because of what happened in the past. I don’t believe that history repeats itself. But how we understand the past is contested in part because we disagree about the historical connections and comparisons that make sense for explaining the world today. As a society debates its history and competing interpretations vie for the most compelling understanding of the past based on available evidence, politics fills the void left by an uncertain, incomplete, and inchoate understanding of the role of history in shaping present circumstances.

Are there any “lessons of history” to be gleaned from studying the past? There are a few that come to mind for me.

One “lesson” is that humans are complex figures and nothing is predictable. Historical precedents often give us imperfect answers for solving contemporary problems. At the same time, while I value the contributions of social scientists in politics and economics, I tend to look upon their predictive models with great skepticism because they value generalizations that dismiss statistical outliers over complex interpretations that take a more holistic view of societal thinking, which is what historians try to do most of the time. That does not mean social science has nothing to contribute, but only that there will be incorrect predictions at times and human behaviors that go beyond numbers and trends. Nate Silver screws up sometimes.

The other lesson is that “progress” is a double-edged sword that always comes with a trade-off. The invention of standardized time in the 19th century provided order to an industrializing world and ensured more efficiency and larger production capabilities in a capitalist economy, but it also made people slaves to the clock and killed many workers who yielded under this unforgiving economic structure. The development of the world wide web, the internet, and smartphone technology quite literally gives us the world at our fingertips, allowing us the chance to access tens of thousands of books, articles, and bits of information that people in the past would have never had access to. And yet at the same time we have become addicted to our phones. The internet is full of misinformation that spreads like a wildfire through social media and poorly-written memes. Whether or not we are truly smarter than those who lived before this technology is very much an open question. And, as Evgeny Morozov has so convincingly demonstrated, the internet doesn’t make us freer and in fact can be used to prop up authoritarian governments. I subscribe to the Walter Benjamin theory of progress and his conception of history as a storm that we crash into while we have our backs to the future.

In the end I like what historian Ian Beacock has to say about history and contemporary politics. To wit:

Do we need to banish history from our public life? Of course not. But we ought to think more carefully about how we put it to use. Appeals to the past are most valuable, and do most to strengthen our democratic culture, when they help us see more potential futures: by showing events to be contingent and complex, turning us away from simplistic models and easy answers, and reminding us of the terrific, terrifying creativity that drives human behavior. In practice, that means we should spend less time trying to find the perfect single equivalence between Trump and politicians past and more time reflecting on broader patterns. More than particular historical analogies, we need historical thinking.

Cheers

General Robert E. Lee’s Treason Case

Photo Credit: National Archives

Photo Credit: National Archives

I wrote this essay a couple of days ago for work. You can read more about General Lee’s Parole and Citizenship status here.

***

On June 13, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee wrote an important letter to General Ulysses S. Grant. Six days earlier a U.S. District Judge in Virginia named John C. Underwood had handed down a treason indictment against Lee for his role as a Confederate military leader during the Civil War. President Andrew Johnson supported Underwood’s prosecution of Lee, who could have been tried for treason because he was not included in the president’s amnesty proclamation for the majority of former Confederates. “I came to Richmond to ascertain what was proper or required of me to do,” Lee wrote to Grant. “I am ready to meet any charges that may be preferred against me, & do not wish to avoid trial.”

General Grant opposed the idea of prosecuting Lee for treason. He argued that the terms agreed upon at Appomattox granted parole to the surrendering forces. They exempted Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia from further prosecution since they promised that the defeated Confederates would “not be disturbed by U.S. authority so long as they observe their parole and the laws in force where they may reside.” To turn back on these terms and indict Lee for treason would damage the reputations of both the U.S. government and General Grant personally, hindering future efforts to reunify the country. Johnson and Grant argued over the matter for four days until Grant threatened to resign his generalship. Johnson relented and on June 20 his Attorney General James Speed ordered that no paroled officers or soldiers be arrested. General Lee would be granted amnesty and not tried for treason. His citizenship, however, would not be restored until a posthumous ceremony featuring President Gerald Ford in 1975.

If You Don’t Like Being Stereotyped, Don’t Stereotype Others

Twitter can be a really weird place sometimes.

We’ve had another mass shooting here in America. As is the case for every other shooting that’s gained national attention since the advent of popular online venues like Facebook and Twitter, many Americans turned to their social media accounts after the Orlando Massacre to express grief, find consolation within their networks, and express their political opinions about what problems need to be addressed to ensure a better future for the country. As much as some people would love for the country to come together in the wake of tragedy and put politics aside, the easiness with which social media allows us to amplify our views to a large audience is too tempting for many users. I am sympathetic to the idea of scaling back the personal opinions during trying times such as these, but I’m realistic enough to know that national tragedies often become politicized before the blood is dry.

And so it was no surprise to me when I came across this dumb meme on Twitter the other day. Of course someone had to turn this tragedy into a statement about the true victims in this country. Yes, those folks who like waving Confederate flags and celebrating the ideals of the Confederacy who face cultural persecution and impending death by a lethal dose of political correctness.

White Supremacists Lack Spelling Skills

The message seems clear enough. The perpetrator of last year’s Charleston Massacre, Dylan Roof, is a known white supremacist who proudly posed with Confederate flags in numerous pictures before the shooting. In response, there have been efforts throughout the country to reassess and in some cases take action to remove Confederate icons and symbols from public places of honor. We can see that whoever created this meme believes that as a supporter of Confederate heritage, he or she is being perceived as racist for waving the flag, and that the actions of one person are unfairly representing the views and values of an entire group of people. That’s actually a fair point to make. Self-identified interest groups, whether political, social, or cultural, often maintain a spectrum of views that are sometimes hard to generalize about. Certainly we can all agree that most Confederate heritage defenders are not bent on committing a mass shooting to incite a race war, as Roof hoped to do.

But then this person engages in the very same behavior he or she criticizes in others by complaining that they can’t make generalizations and demeaning comments about an entire religion and ethnic group without being called a racist! “You’re called racist if you speak out against Islam.” Well yes, that’s what happens when you make generalizations and stereotypes about an entire religion or ethnic group based on the actions of one person and deem them inferior to your own group. Apparently Dylan Roof’s actions do not speak for all Confederate Heritage advocates, but Omar Mateen’s actions speak for all Muslims around the world. Get the picture yet?

There are all different sorts of radical ideologies that worry me, not the least a group like ISIS. But I think there’s a lesson to be learned here. If you don’t like being stereotyped, then don’t stereotype others. If you take exception to being called a racist, then don’t engage in racist behavior. If you don’t like seeing a radical appropriate and define the message of your group, then take actions to change the perception and redefine the message. And please, for the love of God, check your spelling and grammar before sharing these silly memes.

Cheers

Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon Are Not the Only National Parks in the United States

NPS Logo

If you’ve turned on the news within the past month and heard something about the National Park Service, it was most likely bad news. Indeed, the media perception of late is that the agency is crumbling apart amid the weight of too many visitors (and too many visitors behaving stupidly), broken down facilities, and staffing shortages. A baby bison died after visitors thought it was smart to put it in their car; a man died at the Norris Geyser Basin hot spring after walking off the designated trail; another group of six people were kicked out of a park after being spotted walking across a hot spring and putting their lives in danger. All of these events, of course, occurred at Yellowstone National Park, arguably one of the most popular national parks in the entire country.

It’s true that record-breaking attendance numbers, maintenance backlogs, and staffing shortages (!!) exist within the National Park Service. For these reasons the agency’s #FindYourPark Centennial campaign has been scrutinized in some quarters for privileging access to resources over the preservation of those resources, and a powerful essay from conservationist Erica Prather on Medium going around on social media now calls upon the Park Service to abandon the #FindYourPark campaign for a #ProtectYourPark campaign and for visitors to change their behaviors for the good of the natural and cultural resources now in danger.

I agree and disagree with Prather. She proves that EPA air quality standards and human-wildlife interactions are becoming a problem at many national parks, and I agree with the general sentiment that more visitor education about park safety and the importance of protecting our parks are sorely needed. But overall her essay is alarmist, exclusionary, and elitist.

Prather argues that one of the central flaws of #FindYourPark is that “social media [ensures] that they’ve already been found.” She comes to this conclusion, however, because she narrowly defines the NPS and the #FindYourPark campaign as applying only to the 59 sites designated as “national parks” and not the entire agency’s 411 sites that include national historic sites, national monuments, national seashores, national battlefields, and much else. The sites designated “National Parks” are apparently the only ones that count in Prather’s book. Yes, people are undoubtedly aware of most if not all of the “national parks” within the agency, but are they really aware of all 411 sites or the fact that the NPS includes not just sites with wildlife and scenic views but also historic sites that tell the story of the United States? I have my doubts. Recent studies indicate that historic site visitation throughout the country is actually down since 2002, and there are many non-“national park”-designated sites with less than 40,000 visitors each year who are struggling for audiences.

Ultimately I think it’s important to understand two things. One is that for all of our concerns about visitor stupidity, the vast majority of visitors are good park stewards who support the NPS. Roughly 25 people die at the Grand Canyon annually, which is obviously terrible, but there are also more than 5.5 million annual visitors to that site. Let’s not blow things out of proportion. The other is that what happens at the big national parks whose names start with a G or a Y are not necessarily indicative of what happens at other places. #FindYourPark applies to William Howard Taft National Historic Site and Agate Fossil Beds National Monument as much as it applies to Grand Canyon National Park or Yellowstone National Park. We should always value the importance of conservation and protection, but it doesn’t mean that we should ever stop promoting the value of all our national park sites and encouraging people to visit them. We can do all of this at the same time. Isn’t it a good thing to have lots of people interested in visiting your site as opposed to none at all?

National Parks enthusiasts also need to stop forcing park newcomers to experience these places the same way they do. I do not mean to suggest that breaking the rules and putting people and resources in danger is in any way acceptable. But let’s stop telling people to “hike without a camera” or portray people with cell phones as selfie-obsessed narcissists who view national park sites as “Six-flags style places to visit and check off the bucket list.” There are many ways to experience a national park site. Visitors should be allowed to enjoy their time in a way they see fit as long as they don’t break the rules.

Want to bring your phone? Great, just make sure to get my good side:)

Cheers

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