Forest Park in St. Louis, Missouri, is a favorite spot of mine in the downtown area. The park is more than 1,300 acres and houses some of the city’s most popular destinations, including the St. Louis Art Museum, the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri History Museum, and the annual Loufest music festival. It also happens to house three statues dedicated to Missouri Unionists Frank Blair, Franz Sigel, and Edward Bates, and one monument dedicated to the Confederacy and the men who fought for it. Few St. Louisians are aware of these markers, but a couple days ago St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay brought attention to the Confederate monument when he suggested on his blog that “it’s time for a reappraisal” to determine whether or not Forest Park is the most appropriate location for this monument. He has called on a “centennial reappraisal committee” (the monument was dedicated by the United Daughters of the Confederacy in 1914) to consider the merits of the monument. Another suggestion he makes that has not been picked up in local media is whether or not the drive leading up to the monument–“Confederate Drive”–should be renamed with something along the lines of “Freedom Drive” or “Justice Drive.”
I have mixed feelings about this effort, although I think the monument does a fine job of whitewashing the context surrounding the Confederacy’s origins and how the Confederates actually lost the Civil War:
“With sublime self-sacrifice, [Confederates] battled to preserve the independence of the States which was won from Great Britain and to perpetuate the constitutional government which was established by the fathers. Actuated by the purest patriotism, they performed deeds of prowess such as thrill the heart of mankind with admiration. ‘Full in the front of war they stood’ and displayed a courage so superb that they gave a new and brighter luster to the annals of valor. History contains no chronicle more illustrious than the story of their achievements; and although worn out by ceaseless conflict and overwhelmed by numbers, they were finally forced to yield their glory.”
It seems to me that if Mayor Slay considered the Confederate monument that big of an issue, he’d take the lead in calling for its removal without asking a committee of already busy people and institutions to get involved. Perhaps he’s trying to avoid coming off as heavy-handed by sparking discussion about the monument through a blog post and asking a committee to participate in the process. But what do you do with this monument if you remove it from Forest Park? Where will it go and how much money is it going to cost taxpayers to move it? Would the monument be appropriate in a museum setting? Removing the monument from Forest Park doesn’t change the fact that Missouri was a slave state with some Confederate supporters and a star on the Confederate flag. How do we talk about and interpret Missouri’s role in the Civil War and how might those interpretations change if we remove this monument? Do we run the risk of “forgetting” this part of our history?
Something else we need to consider here is that the Confederate Monument–and all monuments in general–tells us about the time in which it was constructed as much as it tells us about the period it wishes to commemorate. Why did the UDC want to include Forest Park within its vast commemorative landscape, and why did St. Louisians in 1914 embrace those memories as authentic and worthy of special commemoration? By understanding how monuments transcend any one particular moment in time, we can actually use this Confederate monument to discuss not just St. Louis in 1844 or 1864 but also 1914 and even 2014.
Renaming “Confederate Drive” might be easier from a financial perspective, but I don’t think you can change the street name unless you also do something about the monument. Renaming the street “Freedom Street” while leaving the Confederate monument in place would probably please Confederate apologists today, but it would send an odd message to the rest of St. Louis and visitors from all over the world who visit Forest Park. We all proclaim ourselves as advocates of “Freedom,” of course, but we oftentimes do not mean the same thing when we use that term.
What do you think?
This year’s Annual Meeting of the National Council on Public History marked my first time as a conference attendee and participant of the meeting (I was there last year in Monterey, California, but as an NCPH employee. I spent almost all of my time at the front desk). As mentioned in my last post, I had an opportunity to participate on a panel about the intersection of theory and practice in public history. I also mentored two public history students throughout the meeting and emceed the Speed Networking session, which I helped organize through my membership in the NCPH Professional Development Committee. Based on the feedback I’ve received I think all went well on my end.
Nashville is a cool city with lots of great music and food. Each night I had a chance to take in the sights and sounds of the city while visiting with many friends, but looking back I think I should have made more of an effort to get out and learn about Nashville’s history. It’s difficult to take much in with such a jammed-packed itinerary of sessions to attend, but by Friday and Saturday I was starting to feel locked inside the conference hotel. Next year I think I’ll take a walking or bus tour of some sort if I’m able to make it out to Baltimore for NCPH 2016.
As for the conference itself, I learned a lot and thought it was great (A collection of post-conference materials can be viewed here). The sessions I attended focused on “comfort narratives” and marginalized histories at cultural sites; communicating history to lay audiences through journalism, video, podcast, and other media; interpreting local history and the Black Power Movement in Civil Rights museums; social activism in public history scholarship and practice; workplace challenges of early career public historians; and doing public history work for the federal government.
My big takeaways from the conference can be summed up in two tweets from other conference attendees:
— Hope Shannon (@HistorianHope) April 16, 2015
— elizabeth catte (@elizabethcatte) April 18, 2015
In my world of interpreting nineteenth century history the “edgiest” history I discuss on a regular basis revolves around discussions about slavery, racism, and segregation. These topics were rather taboo at many cultural sites through the 1990s, and they probably remain so in some places presently. Just today I chatted with a volunteer at a historic home in the St. Louis area who stated that the home’s interpreters never used the word “slavery” well into the early 2000s because “visitors didn’t want to hear about it.” With those sorts of comments from visitors it’s easy to see how even a generic acknowledgement of something like slavery runs the risk of offending a visitor’s sensibilities. There are times when people visit cultural sites simply because they want to have all their prior beliefs about history and contemporary society confirmed and be told that everything will be okay. So it goes.
Interpreters, of course, must do their best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend visitors. But it seems to me that we must also do our best to honestly portray history in a way that doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those whose ancestors’ experiences were shaped by slavery, racism, segregation, or any other form of oppression. The two groups are sometimes one and the same, but more often than not I share these stories solely with people who look like me and come from backgrounds like my own; white, middle-class, suburban, “comfortable.” I talk about oppressed people at work, but less often do I actually talk with oppressed people at work. I think that’s the case at a lot of cultural sites in the United States, for better or worse. It’s far easier to cautiously look over the edge of history from a distance than to walk towards the edge to see what you might find on the other side.
I failed to mention it on the blog earlier this week, but I was in Nashville, Tennessee, from April 15 to April 18 for the National Council on Public History’s annual meeting. I’ll have more to share about the conference in a future post, but it will suffice for now to say that it was a very enjoyable experience. I saw a lot of old friends, made some new ones, and learned a lot in the process.
During the conference I participated in a session with public historians Julie Davis (UNC-Chapel Hill), Lara Kelland, and Catherine Fosl (both University of Louisville) entitled “Theory and Practice: Towards a Praxis of Public History.” (Check out the #PHPraxis hashtag for a collection of tweets from the session). I initially approached this session thinking about some of the ideas I shared in this post about theory and practice in public history, but it soon became apparent that I needed to think beyond that post and re-organize my thoughts to account for new theoretical challenges I’ve faced since leaving the academy for the work force. I did NOT read from a paper when presenting at the conference, but I wanted to write one to help provide focus to my ideas and prepare myself for the session.
I’ve decided to make that paper freely downloadable for readers. If you’d like to have a copy of this paper for yourself, please feel free to download it here. In sharing this paper, I hope readers will find it useful for the select theories I use to inform my own practices as a public historian and for the collection of resources I compiled at the end of the paper. My thanks also go to Andrew Joseph Pegoda and Kelby Dolan, both friends and scholars who reviewed the paper and gave me critical feedback on it. As always, please feel free to leave a comment on this website or contact me via email or Twitter if you have questions, criticisms, or other remarks to share with me about the paper.
The turn of Spring is always an exciting time at work. The weather starts improving, the nearby bike trail teems with runners, walkers, and bikers, and our attendance numbers go way up. It’s a great time of the year for interpreters to roll out new ideas and programs while helping visitors make meaningful connections about history, nature, and themselves. Most folks I interact with during our busy season usually say nice things to me and come away with a positive experience, but there are occasional moments when visitors take a more critical perspective about their experiences. One such moment occurred this weekend.
A visitor came to the park and browsed our museum for about ten minutes. The visitor returned to the visitor’s center desk and asked about the last time the museum had been “updated.” The museum is still relatively new, having been completed in 2007, so another ranger and I said that it had not been updated for that reason. The visitor then responded by saying, “your museum’s content is inflammatory. It says that racism and sexism are still prevalent today and I find that pretty provocative. I grew up during a time when those things were actually prevalent, and it’s not the same today! You have visitors from other countries who visit this park. Is that what you want to be telling them about our country?”
The visitor did not yell these things at us, but they were said in a manner that was very aggressive. It’s the sort of moment when your stomach turns during an uncomfortable situation and you are unsure of how to ease the tension in the room.
I responded in the best way I could while also proceeding with a great deal of caution. I stated that our museum is an interpretive one – a museum where arguments are made about the past and connections are made to present-day issues. Not everyone who visits this sort of museum will agree with the exhibit text, the content on display, or the arguments made within its walls. And, in an effort to acknowledge this visitor’s comments and show that I was taking them seriously, I added that there was probably room to revise the text in a way that was more cautious about contemporary issues. That seemed to do the job; the visitor went on a tour, said nothing else about the museum, and thanked us for a nice visit.
(For the record, I’ve walked through and read the text in our museum probably hundreds of times. As far as I know there is no exhibit that makes the claim that “racism and sexism are still prevalent,” although the museum does show visitors the virulent racism and sexism of Ulysses S. Grant’s time and it challenges them to think about our own shortcomings with these issues today. I think that is a completely appropriate and necessary position for the museum to take).
There are a couple takeaways I got from this interaction. One is that for all of the talk I hear about avoiding politics when talking about history at work, it is an undeniable fact that any museum exhibit that connects historic issues to contemporary society is inherently political. That doesn’t mean the content under discussion is necessarily “liberal,” “conservative,” or what have you, but public historians and museum practitioners should not be surprised when our interpretations provoke critical feedback that questions the arguments we’ve made. There’s a fine line between what we consider the past and what we consider the present. And there’s a fine line between “connecting history to the present” and “using history to make a political argument about the present.” The precise moment in which history crosses into advocacy is a matter of interpretation, and visitors to cultural sites will make those interpretations whether or not the content on display was intended to be political or not.
I think acknowledging that museums are political is a good thing, however. Obviously I would like for visitor critiques to be conveyed in a constructive and polite manner, but it’s good to see and hear visitors being provoked and talking about the issues a cultural site discusses. One can hope that this person went home and decided to read more about racism and sexism in society today. Who knows. If I could go back in time I might have tried to facilitate a short dialogue and challenged that visitor to further explain why they took the position they did and what they think we could do to improve the exhibit they took issue with.
Another challenge with this interaction is envisioning what history museums today would look like if they took out all connections to the present or if they tried arguing that racism and sexism are things of the past. I just don’t think that sort of interpretation is honest or accurate. Maybe we shouldn’t argue to international audiences that racism and sexism are prevalent in the United States, but isn’t it just as bad to say that we all love and get along with each other? Who’s really going to believe that? And with regards to racism in the U.S., what would it say about a museum like ours–a mere thirty minutes away from the now-infamous Ferguson, Missouri–to make arguments along these lines? Nowadays we might have fewer people who engage in blatant acts of individual racism, but that doesn’t mean that we have solved systematic racism today (or individual racism, of course).
In this era of 24-hour news cycles, partisan clickbait, and social media’s role in perpetuating confirmation bias, I believe museums offer an alternative space to check our prior assumptions and participate in meaningful reflection and dialogue. I’m not sure how to measure the “success” of this visitor’s particular experience and whether our museum achieved the goals of reflection and dialogue, but it was certainly an interesting moment for my own personal reflection as a public historian.
150 years ago today on April 9, 1865, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to General Ulysses S. Grant and the United States military at Appomattox. Today does not mark the anniversary of the official end of the Civil War, as there were several other Confederate armies still in the field at that time, but the end of General Lee’s war signified the beginning of the Confederate States of America’s eventual demise.
Fifty years after the Appomattox Surrender an Indiana veteran put pen to paper and wrote a moving poem about the meaning of the Civil War and how the future of republican governance could have been imperiled had Grant surrendered to Lee. “Corporal” Bob Patterson was a veteran of the 19th and 20th Indiana Infantry Regiments and an active member of the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana after the war. He served as the Indiana GAR’s Senior Vice-Commander in 1895-1896 and dedicated this 1915 poem to his friend and fellow Indiana veteran Adelbert B. Crampton. I found this poem during my master’s thesis research on the Indiana GAR and publish it in full here.
On the great April day when the weak lines of gray
Were confronted by blue in battle array;
When the heart of the nation was throbbing with pain
For its dead and its dying, and the blood of its slain
Was flowing in crimson to the home and the hearth,
And vigils were kept by the nations of earth,
Could Sages then see what the future would be
When the great Grant and Lee met in the shade of the tree
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
So steadfast and true when these strong lines of blue
Stood in solid phalanx and resplendent review
Confronting the gray, and in matchless might
Was forcing the struggle for freedom and right,
When the hope of the nation in the balance lay
And hearts beat fast ‘neath the blue and gray;
Could prophets then see what the future would be
As these leaders strove the master to be
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
In that hour sublime could we know of the time
When slavery would blacken the brightest clime?
Could we tell of the flow of the nation’s blood
In the oncoming rush of secession’s red flood–
Of our own country unknown and unworthy to own
By subject or serf or monarch or throne?
Could philosophers see what the future would be
For the flag of the free on the land and the sea
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
O, the evils entailed had that moment failed
And the flag of the Union at Appomattox trailed!
If the shafts of chivalry had shattered the shield
Of the great Union chief on this hallowed field
And that proud Southern son had there made the terms
To emplant the Union with soul-eating germs,
God could only then see what the future would be
For the land of the free and the home of the brave
If Grant had surrendered to Robert E. Lee?
But the victory then sealed on that hallowed field
And the halo of glory that moment revealed
As the flag of the bold was seen to unfold
With the plaudits of nations in the gaze of the world;
Be it in shelter of house or shade of a tree;
The sages, prophets and philosophers could see
The guards of the Nation were there in avant
When angels in chorus all joined in the chant
While Robert E. Lee made surrender to Grant.
Since at least the 1990s the National Park Service has largely succeeded in bringing attention to the underlying causes of the Civil War to audiences who visit relevant battlefields and historic sites. At the beginning of the war’s sesquicentennial in 2011 the Department of the Interior and the Park Service’s Washington leadership rolled out a five-year plan to commemorate the Civil War through the theme “Civil War to Civil Rights.” This initiative aims to remind park visitors of the war’s destruction and violence, but does so in a way that explicitly links the struggle to end slavery in the 1860s with the struggle to end segregation, disenfranchisement, and extra-legal violence against African Americans in the 1960s. Civil Rights Era parks like Central High School and Brown vs. Board of Education have also participated in “Civil War to Civil Rights,” although to what extent I’m not sure. Ultimately, the Park Service is using the Civil War sesquicentennial to “facilitate a deeper and broader public understanding and awareness of the significance of the events that precipitated the war, the war and its military actions, and Reconstruction, and the relevance to contemporary issues that are the legacy of the war” (6).
This approach has its advantages and disadvantages. I personally believe that discussing the underlying political, cultural, and economic tensions that precipitated the Civil War is appropriate and necessary when interpreting at a Civil War battlefield, and I believe we can do so while also honoring the soldiers whose choice to participate in this war may have transcended the concerns of Union and Confederate political leaders. By discussing slavery at Civil War battlefields and related historic sites I believe we offer our audiences a better context for understanding the coming of the Civil War that is also more historically accurate than focusing exclusively on military maneuvers and the mutual honor of those who fought in the war.
“Civil War to Civil Rights” and earlier initiatives like it offer an interpretive framework for addressing the war’s origins and the connections between the 1860s and 1960s, but how the history in between this 100-year period (especially Reconstruction from roughly 1863 to 1877) can and should be interpreted remains an open question. While I have no doubts that Civil War and Civil Rights sites are discussing the legacy of Reconstruction in some of their interpretive and educational programs, there are no Reconstruction-related sites within the NPS agency or a ten-year interpretive plan/theme in which to make that period a central focus of interpretation. And I agree with Bob Pollock when he states that “I believe most people make the automatic mental jump from the Civil War to the Civil Rights movement of the 1950-60s when they hear the theme ‘Civil War to Civil Rights,’ which is, I’m sure, what was intended. The jump from the Emancipation Proclamation and Appomattox to visions of Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and lunch counter sit-ins is understandable since so many of us were actually living during that latter time period.”
If the above statement is correct, then it seems to me that “Civil War to Civil Rights” is only one theme in a number of themes that are worth exploring about the Civil War’s legacy. What about women, Native Americans, or Asian Americans and their struggles for civil rights? By focusing almost exclusively on the story of emancipation, Jim Crow, segregation, and nonviolent protest during the 1950s and 60s when we discuss “civil rights,” we run the risk of too narrowly defining the “Civil War to Civil Rights” narrative as a story only relevant to African Americans instead of a narrative relevant to all Americans. These sorts of narrow meanings pop up in other contexts too: “Gender” is not just a women’s issue, “immigration” is not just an issue about undocumented immigrants, and “poverty” is not just about poor people. These issues should have importance to everyone. “Civil Rights” should have meaning to everyone because the abridgement of one person’s rights could affect all of our rights.
In 2013 the legendary activist and Congressman John Lewis was arrested for the forty-fifth time in his life for blocking traffic to the U.S. Capitol during a demonstration in support of immigration reform. Following his release an African American woman from California called his office and asked why he cared so much about immigration. Lewis stated the following in a television interview about that call:
We all live in America, we all live in the same house, the American house. And I’m not going to segregate my concern for human rights . . . I didn’t get arrested for black people alone. I got arrested for all America: blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian-Americans, and Native Americans, and it was not about [segregating] my concerns and my feelings . . . I’m not going to give up on my convictions. I have a conscience to live with.
As we conclude the Civil War sesquicentennial, we can take pride in the remarkable interpretive changes we’ve made to incorporate slavery and emancipation into the American Civil War’s narrative. It’s my hope that we can now find ways to discuss the immediate aftermath of the Civil War and show visitors how the ongoing struggle for human rights has meaning to all of us.
A few days ago the distinguished Columbia University historian Eric Foner wrote a fine piece on the relevancy of Reconstruction to the United States today. Foner neatly summarizes a lifetime of Reconstruction scholarship in the essay and convincingly argues that as long as society continues to discuss, debate, and define the meaning of U.S. citizenship, rights, and democracy, “how we think about this era . . . forces us to think about what kind of society we wish America to be.” The essay is well worth your time.
Foner and other historians–most recently Douglas Egerton–emphasize the importance of understanding the very beginning of Reconstruction from roughly 1863 to 1868 and the ways policy decisions, legislation, and constitutional amendments during this period simultaneously expanded civil rights for all Americans while limiting the success of various initiatives that included meaningful land reform and educational/healthcare opportunities for newly freed African Americans. President Abraham Lincoln began this process by offering amnesty to most Confederates as long as they laid down their weapons and accepted the abolition of slavery. That vision for Reconstruction expanded shortly before Lincoln’s assassination when he called for expanded voting rights for free blacks and black veterans of the Civil War.
After initially stating his intention to make treason “odious” following Lincoln’s death in April 1865, President Andrew Johnson did an about-face and allowed for the creation of remodeled Southern state governments mostly run by ex-Confederates who quickly enacted “black codes” that limited African Americans’ abilities to obtain land, own property, set the terms of their labor and employment, and move freely in public spaces. President Johnson, more so than any other person during the Civil War’s immediate aftermath, held the power to shape the terms of Reconstruction. His desire for the quick return of former Confederate states into the body politic on the basis of white supremacy reflected his deeply held belief (stated in his 1867 message to Congress) that blacks possessed less “capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”
Johnson’s role in Reconstruction cannot be overstated, but the process of establishing new governments in the South and enacting new legislation to create and protect African American rights did not end with Johnson’s departure from the Presidency in 1869. As the Edinburgh Review remarked that year, President Ulysses S. Grant faced the enormous task of “[binding] up the wounds left by the war, to restore concord to the still distracted Union, to ensure real freedom to the Southern negro, and full justice to the Southern white” (Simpson, 133) while building support for the proposed 15th amendment to the Constitution, which would grant all males regardless of color the right of suffrage.
With the exception of a few notable studies by Brooks Simpson, Josiah Bunting, and Jean Edward Smith, however, U.S. Grant’s efforts to end Reconstruction on the basis of political equality and federal protection of civil rights remain understudied by historians and largely misunderstood by the public. And Grant, for whatever reason, doesn’t get much attention or acknowledgement from Foner. Grant hardly shows up in Foner’s magisterial study of Reconstruction, and when he does, it is usually negative and heavily reliant on William McFeely’s well-researched but extremely unbalanced biography of Grant that appeared only a few years before Foner’s publication (We’ve discussed McFeely on this blog before). Where is U.S. Grant?
Foner’s perspective on Grant seems not to have changed much since 1988. In the New York Times piece linked above Foner only says that “There was corruption in the postwar South, although given the scandals of New York’s Tweed Ring and President Ulysses S. Grant’s administration, black suffrage could hardly be blamed.” In other words, the biracial state governments in the South during Grant’s presidency had their issues, but they weren’t nearly as bad as Grant’s corrupt administration, which is apparently the only noteworthy aspect of his presidency.
Scandals were certainly a serious problem in Grant’s administration, although the vast majority of these scandals occurred during Grant’s second term in office and some are just “claims” of corruption. There’s even an entire Wikipedia page devoted to these scandals. But focusing exclusively on scandals and corruption ultimately leaves us with an incomplete assessment of Grant’s Presidential performance and blinds us to other meaningful accomplishments worth noticing.
Just like the debate about Grant’s drinking, we must strive to clearly define our terms. One person’s definition of “corruption” can be completely different from another person’s, and that was certainly the case in Grant’s time. Frank Scaturro convincingly shows in President Grant Reconsidered that many of the “corruption” charges levied towards Grant came from disgruntled office-seekers and prominent New England politicians like Charles Sumner who took umbrage to a Westerner with little experience in political office calling the shots in the White House and appointing people to his inner-circle without consulting Sumner and his fellow Washington elites. White Democrats north and south also lobbed charges of “corruption” towards Grant and his fellow Republicans based on their opposition to black political rights and the use of federal power to enforce the stipulations of the 1867 Military Reconstruction Act and the 14th and 15th amendments. To use the bayonet to enforce these laws was a “corrupt” excuse for democratic governance according to Democrats (although the use of extra-legal violence to intimidate, lynch, and murder African Americans apparently didn’t constitute a violation of democratic principles).
Thus we find Eric Foner in an ironic position with his stance on Grant. The historian who has done so much to inform our thinking on Reconstruction over the past twenty-five years and who has done so much to give African-Americans their rightful agency in the creation of U.S. history has seemingly accepted a sentiment popularly embraced by angry white supremacist contemporaries who accused Grant of corruption because he sought strategies for ensuring fair elections and the end of political terrorism against African Americans. They weren’t the only ones who crowed about “corruption,” of course, but the larger point is that we should take some of these claims with a grain of salt before dismissing Grant’s entire legacy as President.
Those of us living in the United States are told repeatedly that our economy is on the right track towards recovery after the devastating Great Recession of 2008. We are told that unemployment is now under six percent and that the country is actually facing a “skills gap” that needs to be filled by qualified, college-education students. Things are going well, we are told, so if you’re struggling to make ends meet it’s probably your fault.
There is no doubt in my mind that many people are doing better today than seven years ago, but it is hard to give myself a clear and positive assessment about the work I’ve done or what I need to do move in the right direction in the future. The recession hit during the latter half of my undergrad career. Staying positive about my abilities and education was extremely difficult after applying for nearly thirty-five middle and high school teaching jobs in 2011 without so much as an interview. Those of us with liberal arts training have been exposed in recent years to the ad nauseam debate about whether or not the humanities are in crisis, the adjunctification of higher education, and arguments about the impracticality of a liberal arts education in an economy supposedly thirsting for more skills-based employees in healthcare, technology, and STEM jobs. And within the public sector the talk is all about sequesters, government shutdowns, meager budgets, and financial backlogs that threaten to destroy important public resources. Young people are leaving the federal workforce largely because of the lack of opportunities available to them. Are things really going as well as we think they are?
These sorts of pressures have real consequences for the workplace environment. When the financial mentality is “cut cut cut,” the space in which to experiment with new procedures and ways of thinking (and to make mistakes along the way) rapidly diminishes as “we can’t do that” and “we’ve always done it this way” mentalities creep in. The time for training, collaboration, and sustained dialogue decreases. When more experienced employees retire and go unreplaced, the remaining employees often end up doing more for less while the quality of the product potentially suffers. When the path to career growth is stifled by few opportunities for meaningfully gainful employment, one faces feelings of complacency, self-doubt, and frustration.
Another consequence of the recession, in my opinion, is a collective fetish for “practicality” and an obsession with solutions in both education and the workforce. Within the digital realm Evgeny Morozov diagnoses this phenomenon as “technological solutionism,” which he defines as a desire to fix everything through an abiding faith in the power of “objective” numbers and big data to solve all our problems through quantification and tracking (hello, standardized tests!). Thus if you have a complaint or criticism about society, politics, or your workplace, your concerns are only valid insofar as you also offer a “solution” (preferably with numbers) to the problem at hand. Online and in real life I see and hear things like “talking about a problem without offering a solution is just whining;” “my office is open, but don’t come to me with your problems unless you also have a solution;” “that article was really interesting, but it offered no solutions.”
I want to defend complaining and criticism while also suggesting that one doesn’t have to offer a solution for a complaint to be valid.
Complaining and solution-giving go both ways, of course. The mopy Eeyore character that complains incessantly about their loved ones, the weather, or politics drives us all crazy. Conversely, if you get criticized at work by a superior, you’d expect that such criticism would come with a solution to help you avoid the same mistake in the future. That’s what leaders get paid to do, right? The same goes for our elected politicians, who are ostensibly paid to work together in solving pressing social and economic issues within society. And a fundamental element of education lies in the importance of helping students enhance their problem-solving and critical thinking skills.
That said, when we dismiss complaining and criticism as frivolous, annoying, excuse-making, or the fault of the person complaining, we run the risk of ignoring legitimate concerns about systematic shortcomings and abuses of power. Demanding that a person stop complaining and that “it could be worse” disregards the fact that a person can be grateful for their position in life while at the same time wishing for the betterment of themselves, their family, and the rest of society. Sometimes throwing the burden for devising a solution onto the otherwise powerless complainer reflects a superior’s inability to consider their own personal responsibility for the problem at hand. For example, a professor telling a student that they chose the wrong career path is easier than considering his or her complicity in recruiting that student for their program and taking the student’s money for tuition. Telling a college athlete that he or she should be silently grateful for their free education disregards the ways college athletics exploits its “student-athletes” for financial gain. Furthermore, a problem does not solely exist as a problem because a solution exists as well. A broken computer remains broken if your supervisor sends you back to your desk because you didn’t offer a solution for fixing it.
Where I’m going here is that in these times of stagnation and uncertainty we must strive to become better listeners rather than telling others to stop complaining and criticizing. Anthropologist Sarah Kendzior captures the heart of my argument in elegant fashion:
People hate complaining because they do not like to listen. When you listen to someone complaining, you are forced to acknowledge them as a human being instead of a category. You are forced to witness how social systems are borne out in personal experience, to recognise that hardship hurts, that solutions are not as simple as they seem. You are forced to trust, and you are forced to care. In complaint lies a path to compassion.
When we listen, we acknowledge the humanity of others and the value of their voice. When we listen, we acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers and that we need to work with each other to develop sound solutions. I can’t solve all the world’s problems, and I will certainly criticize problems that bother me. But ultimately I must listen before I speak, for in listening there is a path to empathy, learning, and understanding.
P.S. Just in case anyone forgets I have a disclaimer page, I will repeat that the views expressed here are mine solely and do not represent anyone else or any institution.
During my training at the Grand Canyon a few weeks ago I had an opportunity to go with a group of fellow trainees to the nearby town of Tusayan to watch a National Geographic film about the Grand Canyon. The film–“Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets”–is about fifty minutes long and is billed as one of the longest-running and most popular IMAX films in the United States. It attempts to tell the Canyon’s story from both a cultural and natural perspective, blending the history of indigenous populations and Euro-American explorers with vivid descriptions of the Canyon’s natural wonders.
I found the film bizarre.
Sure, there are nice visuals and stunning shots of the Canyon, but the underlying narrative of historical progress throughout the film drove me crazy. I’ve been thinking about the film ever since I got home.
Part one of “Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets” begins thousands of years ago with members of a native group gathering water, crafting artwork, and socializing with each other at the Canyon. A narrator explains that the native peoples of the Grand Canyon had their own unique cultural practices and so-called “superstitions” before another native group donned with war paint and weaponry suddenly attacks the first group. Mothers scream, children run through dangerous hills, plateaus, and trails in fear of their life, and a general sense of pandemonium overwhelms the viewer.
The film then flashes forward to 1540, where Spanish conquistador Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his band of explorers travel through the woods of present-day Northern Arizona. The explorers are searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola (“gold”) when a friendly Hopi Indian (in contrast to the “superstitious” and warring indigenous groups of earlier days) leads Coronado and his men to the Canyon. Epic symphonic music starts playing in the background as Coronado takes a knee and stares in awe at the view. He has “discovered” the Canyon!
Part two moves to 1869, the year in which a one-armed Civil War veteran by the name of John Wesley Powell led a group of ten men in a remarkably fascinating exploration through the Grand Canyon (the journey really was amazing). A disembodied voice narrates excerpts from Powell’s diary (although he sounds like he couldn’t be less interested in the topic) as viewers observe his group traveling through the dangerous Colorado River conducting scientific observations and experiments throughout the area. Powell’s exploration garners national attention and inspires future journeys to the Canyon for scientific analysis during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One also notes during this part how Powell is able to speak in his own voice and use his own words to describe his experiences while the native groups previously documented in the film are silenced.
Part three places viewers in the present day. A typical family comes roaring down the rapids of the Colorado River in a raft as everyone smiles, laughs, and gets soaked by the river. The last scene shows a man flying in a small plane and soaking in the view of the Canyon as the sun sets in the background. The end.
What we see in “The Grand Canyon” is a Whig interpretation of history, an inevitable march towards scientific progress and enlightenment. Backwards, “superstitious” Indians were the original settlers of the Grand Canyon, but their cultural beliefs and constant warfare presaged their eventual disappearance from the area. As the Indian groups disappear, nineteenth century Euro-Americans explore the area and “discover” the Grand Canyon. They commence scientific analyses of the land that include studies in geology, anthropology, archaeology, and ethnography. These studies convince political leaders of the need to provide federal protections for the Canyon that bar future settlement, artifact stealing, and other destruction of the resource. The Grand Canyon’s establishment as a national park culminates in the contemporary use of the area for leisure, adventure, inspiration, and escape from modern society. Even though there are actually Indians, scientists, and educators at the Canyon today, they all disappear from the narrative at the end of the movie. The message is that we have conquered the Grand Canyon from the dangers of nature and undesirable people in a way that allows today’s society an opportunity to quench their thirst for the enjoyment of the Canyon’s scenic beauty unimparied.
Narratives of historical progress such as the one shown in “The Grand Canyon” fall flat because a story of inevitability in which we know everything will turn out okay is ultimately a boring story hardly worth remembering. A story about the past that emphasizes the greatness of the present says more about us today than it does any sincere desire to understand the past from the perspective of the people who lived during the period under discussion. And as James Loewen explained a few years ago, “[the] ideology of progress amounts to a chronological form of ethnocentrism” that places bad things like warfare, racism, corruption, and misogyny in the distant past away from our supposedly advanced and enlightened contemporary society.
We may also ask ourselves what we mean when we talk about “progress.” Who benefits from progress and who loses out because of it? What are the consequences of progress, and what gets lost in the struggle for what we consider to be an enlightened society? What is progress?
Not too long ago I finished reading Brian Matthew Jordan’s recent publication about Union Civil War veterans, Marching Home: Union Veterans and Their Unending Civil War. The book was a real treat for me, thoroughly researched and written in a stylish prose that expert and layperson alike could understand. There have been many fine Civil War veterans’ studies over the past five years and this one definitely competes with the best of them. I highly recommend it to those interested in Civil War veterans or just veteran culture in general.
Scholars like David Blight, John Neff, Stuart McConnell, Nina Silber, and others have largely focused their studies on lingering debates about Civil War memory between Union veterans and between Union and Confederate veterans. These studies are crucial to our understanding of the ways Civil War veterans dealt with, understood, and communicated their interpretation of the Civil War’s meaning to each other and the rest of society. Yet these studies–partly out of necessity–look to the words and deeds of veterans who established themselves as political and cultural elites in the years after the war. Contemporary discussion about Civil War veterans, therefore, revolves around things like monuments, memorials, commemorative holidays, and school textbook wars that are largely shaped by the perspectives of veterans who had the finances, prestige, platform, and inclination to take the lead in shaping the public memories of the war.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. I myself have contributed to this discussion and have an article coming out later this year on the Grand Army of the Republic and Civil War memory in Indiana. Jordan, however, throws new light on our understanding of Civil War veterans by focusing less on the memory battles of the postwar years and more on the daily, lived experience of being a veteran in a rapidly changing society that sought healing, reconciliation, and closing from the Civil War. More so than any other book I’ve read on these topics, Jordan shows us how the mental and physical scars of battle wreaked havoc on many veterans stuck in a mental time void between the horrors of the past and the pains of the present. Equally important, Jordan demonstrates that not all Union veterans were necessarily interested in the pomp and circumstance of Grand Army of the Republic parades, writing memoirs about their experiences in the war, or contributing money to erect a monument at a Civil War battlefield.
Gary Gallagher wrote a largely positive review of Marching Home for the Washington Post, but he suggests that the book “raises questions regarding context and proportion.” To wit:
How many of the 1.8 million veterans floundered and felt estranged from the nation they saved? How many carried psychological and physical scars that markedly affected their ability to function productively? Were civilians so widely insensitive? Soldiers who fought in battles undoubtedly retained hard memories, but most got on with their lives and fit well into postwar society . . .
Perhaps most important, evidence of respect for Union veterans abounds. Far from being quick to forget what soldiers had done, ordinary Americans found ways to acknowledge it. Decoration Day (now Memorial Day), which began in 1868, featured speeches, parades and other events honoring the dead and veterans. Military service during the war translated into political success, at every level, for decades after Appomattox (five of the six men elected president between 1868 and 1900 had fought in the Union army). States, counties and municipalities raised monuments to Union soldiers — many with inscriptions similar to the one in Pasadena, Calif., dedicated in 1906: “Erected By The Citizens Of Pasadena To Perpetuate The Memory Of The Defenders Of The Union ’61 to ’65.”
I think Gallagher is being a bit unfair here. Of course there’s no doubt that veterans had political success or that many had a positive transition back into postwar society. But expressing acknowledgement of veterans through monuments or commemorative holidays comes with its own political baggage. Some veterans suffering from debilitating pain and living on a meager pension may have viewed the use of public and private funds for monuments as an extravagance better spent on providing care to living veterans. As my future article will show, younger generations had no qualms about re-purposing Decoration Day from its original intent (decorating soldier graves and quietly reflecting on the meaning of the Civil War) in favor of leisurely pursuits like attending sporting events, gambling, drinking, and partying that had nothing to do with acknowledging the efforts of Union war veterans. Moreover, there were plenty of civilians who simultaneously admired veterans who gained political and social prominence in the postwar years and looked down with contempt at veterans who struggled to find gainful employment, grappled with alcoholism, or begged for a pension to supplant their lingering disability. As Jordan argues in Marching Home, these particular veterans were often viewed as something less then men and were instead labeled as government dependents unwilling and unable to get over the war or take care of themselves and their families.
Gallagher might be right that the stories Jordan explores don’t necessarily account for the mass of Union veterans’ transitions to postwar society, but his study asserts that neither can we accept the arguments of historians like Stuart McConnell who have argued that Civil War veterans had a “relatively easy transition” to postwar society (21).