Tag Archives: history

The Way We Never Were

One of my favorite books is The Way We Never Were by Stephanie Coontz. I don’t usually re-read books, but I have twice made an exception for this one, and I still dip into it now and then. Coontz is a faculty member at Evergreen State College, where she teaches history and family studies and directs research and public education for the Council on Contemporary Families. 

In The Way We Never Were, Coontz uses history to deconstruct many of the myths we Americans tell ourselves. She takes on the belief, for example, that “we always stood on our own two feet” by enumerating the multiple ways in which government programs have long provided structures enabling individual effort. Addressing the fond belief that teenagers didn’t have sex outside of marriage before our degenerate times, she provides statistics on the number of “shotgun” marriages at the turn of the former century. And so forth. As an introduction to the book notes,

Leave It to Beaver was not a documentary, a man’s home has never been his castle, the ‘male breadwinner marriage’ is the least traditional family in history, and rape and sexual assault were far higher in the 1970s than they are today. 

The basic focus of the book was displayed in the subtitle: “American Families and the Nostalgia Trap.”

Today, nostalgia for the way we never were has become a primary dividing line between people who live in the real world (and who are, these days, disproportionately Democrats) and angry defenders of a society that never existed (these days, disproportionately Republicans.) That is especially the case with Southerners’ defense of the Lost Cause.

As a recent article from the Atlantic put it,

For so many Americans, “history isn’t the story of what happened; it is just the story they want to believe. It is not a public story we all share, but an intimate one, passed down like an heirloom, that shapes their sense of who they are. Confederate history is family history, history as a eulogy, in which loyalty takes precedence over truth.”

In “The War on Nostalgia,” published online today and on the cover of The Atlantic’s June issue, staff writer Clint Smith writes about the myth of the Lost Cause, which attempts to recast the Confederacy “as something predicated on family and heritage rather than what it was: a traitorous effort to extend the bondage of millions of Black people.” Traveling around the country, Smith visits sites that are grappling—or refusing to grapple—with America’s history of slavery, and considers what it would take for all Americans to reckon with the past.

I grew up in small-town America in the 1950s, and have subsequently been astonished by efforts to portray those years as somehow “golden.” Granted, if you were a Protestant White Male, things were pretty good–if you were female, or Black, or Catholic, or (as I was,  one of very few Jews in a very small town), not so much. In college, when I went (briefly) to the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill still had separate restrooms and drinking fountains for Blacks and Whites, and I still remember the large billboard announcing to anyone who could read the planned construction of a “restricted” subdivision (i.e., no Jews or Blacks would be permitted to buy there.)

We can see the power of nostalgia in the current, intense resistance to efforts to teach accurate history. Educators and historians are only now coming to terms with the way American history has been white-washed (or perhaps I should spell that White-washed). I took a number of history classes, but I had never heard of the Tulsa massacre until two years ago. If the Trail of Tears was taught in any of those classes, I missed it.

Nostalgia can be a comforting way to remember many things: my babies’ first words, a stranger’s kindness at a particularly difficult time, a classroom epiphany, a love affair… There is nothing wrong with a nostalgia based upon actual events, even when we recall those events somewhat selectively– with  their “rough edges” removed, so to speak.

But nostalgia for a mythological American past–for the “way we never were”–is pernicious; it’s a refusal to learn from experience, and a way to defend what is frequently indefensible. 

It’s an indulgence we can’t afford.

 

Don’t Know Much About History…

Time Magazine recently reported on what it called America’s “history wars.” The article began by reporting on the results of a survey fielded by the National Institute for the Humanities, and revealed–I know you’ll be shocked–that while 84% of Republicans believe that history classes should “celebrate our nation’s past,” 70% of Democrats think history should question it.

The article took pains to say that the divisions over teaching history weren’t all partisan.

White respondents are more than twice as likely as people of color to feel that the histories of racial and ethnic minorities garner too much attention. Those with a college degree see men dominating the thoughts of historians at nearly twice the rate that non-degreed respondents do. Age is likewise a factor, with people in the 18-29 bracket calling for more attention to LGBTQ history by a 19-point margin, relative to those in the 50-64 age range. The “history wars” are thus polarizing beyond the party affiliations within which they are typically framed.

Of course, as political scientists might point out, people of color, people with college degrees and younger Americans are more likely to be Democrats these days, so the stark differences do map onto party affiliation.

Republicans are doing what they can to add the teaching of history to their arsenal of culture war issues. Thirty-six Republicans joined with Mitch McConnell in sending a scathing letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona, accusing him of endorsing a “politicized and divisive agenda” in the teaching of American history. 

Historian Heather Cox Richardson explained the genesis of that accusation.

On April 19, the Department of Education called for public comments on two priorities for the American History and Civics Education programs. Those programs work to improve the “quality of American history, civics, and government education by educating students about the history and principles of the Constitution of the United States, including the Bill of Rights; and… the quality of the teaching of American history, civics, and government in elementary schools and secondary schools, including the teaching of traditional American history.”

The department is proposing two priorities to reach low-income students and underserved populations. The Republicans object to the one that encourages “projects that incorporate racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse perspectives into teaching and learning.”

This assault comes on the heels of the GOP’s hysterical objections to the New York Times 1619 project. The Times describes the Project as an ongoing initiative that began in August 2019, a date chosen because it was the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery. The project “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative.”

It is certainly possible that historians might quibble over this or that element of the Times curriculum, or that different scholars might bring different perspectives to aspects of America’s history. Those scholarly disputes, however, are not what is animating the GOP assault. 

The current battle over the teaching of history is a battle between two utterly unreconcilable world-views: a semi-religious hagiography/mythology grounded in White supremacy, on the one hand, and an insistence that the study of history be an accurate accounting of where we’ve been–both good and bad– on the other.

As the Time Magazine article noted, and as many students can verify, history classes–especially in high schools (where they are often taught by coaches whose interests are more focused on playing fields) are too often taught as dry collections of dates and facts, rather than as a form of inquiry, an unfolding story in which event A led to reaction B and consideration of how that reaction shaped still other events and attitudes. Accurate history–including good faith scholarly debates over the importance, description or impact  of past episodes– can illuminate how America came to be the country it is, and help us navigate the future.

National myths have their place, but that place isn’t history class.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Context And Clarity

One of the great virtues of Heather Cox Richardson’s “Letters from an American” is her ability as a historian to “connect the dots” and provide context to the news of the day. That context often strips away the non-essentials that can confuse us, and provides the clarity so often missing from the reporting that follows our daily headlines.

A recent letter was triggered by Rick Scott’s angry op-ed excoriating the reaction of what he sneeringly called “woke” corporations to the Georgia election bill. Here’s where the history operates to clarify the moment in which we find ourselves:

The ideological faction that is currently in control of the Republican Party grew out of opposition to the active government both Democrats and Republicans embraced after World War II. But since Americans actually liked business regulation, a social safety net, and infrastructure projects, those Movement Conservatives who wanted to take the government back to the 1920s got little traction until 1954, when the Brown v. Board of Education decision enabled them to harness racism to their cause. With federal government efforts to end segregation in the public schools, businessmen who hated government regulation warned voters that their tax dollars were being used to give Black Americans extra benefits. It was socialism, they said, and it would encourage Black people to step out of their place.

This formula worked. Businessmen determined to cut the government bankrolled Movement Conservative candidates, and people determined not to let their tax dollars go to Black or Brown people voted for them. In 1986, Grover Norquist, a former economist for the Chamber of Commerce, brought together business people, evangelicals, and social conservatives. “Traditional Republican business groups can provide the resources,” Norquist explained, “but these groups can provide the votes.”

Richardson points out that the racist and sexist language was initially understated. That allowed supporters–including corporations concerned about their images– to wink at it.  But that was before Trump and his attack on “political correctness”–i.e., civility–brought the racism and sexism out into the open.

In the wake of Georgia’s effort to suppress minority votes and the corporate response, several observers have suggested that we are on the cusp of a realignment that would sever the longstanding relationship between  the GOP and the corporations that have previously supported and funded it. After all, they reason, Republicans may deny the reality of demographic change, but businesses cannot and will not. Corporate America has increasing numbers of minority employees–even in management–and vastly increasing numbers of minority customers. Unlike the GOP, they don’t live in an alternate reality.

It would be very satisfying if Corporate America deserted the Republican Party, but as both Paul Ogden and Richardson point out, small donors are increasingly able to replace any monies that corporations might withhold from GOP candidates.

There is a truism in politics to the effect that voters are more motivated by what they are against than by what they are for. Stirring up anger and bias are, unfortunately, timeless tactics for getting out the vote. With the niceties of “political correctness” stripped away, the departure of most moderates from the party, and the dwindling need to placate corporate and business supporters, today’s GOP is putting all of its electoral eggs in the racism basket.

And as we saw in 2020, there’s a depressingly substantial portion of the electorate responsive to that appeal.

 

 

 

There Once Was A Party…

One of the newsletters I receive is that of Heather Cox Richardson. Richardson is a history professor, and her obviously deep knowledge of U.S. history permits her to contextualize the news of the day in ways that most of us cannot.

A recent letter is a great example. It’s also profoundly sad–at least, to those of us who once belonged to a very different Republican Party.

Richardson begins by reminding us that the GOP’s roots “lie in the immediate aftermath of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in spring 1854.” That was when it became clear that southern slaveholders effectively controlled the federal government– and were using that control to protect and spread the institution of slavery.

At first, members of the new party knew only what they stood against: an economic system that concentrated wealth upward and made it impossible for ordinary men to prosper. But in 1859, their new spokesman, Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, articulated a new vision of government. Rather than using government power solely to protect the property of wealthy slaveholders, Lincoln argued, the government should work to make it possible for all men to get equal access to resources, including education, so they could rise to economic security.

Most of us think of Lincoln as the President who fought the civil war and emancipated the slaves. Richardson focuses on what is considerably less well-known, his policy preferences–especially his belief that government should provide a national infrastructure.

Back then, both Lincoln and the Republican Party believed in an activist government.

Richardson points out that the early Republican Party introduced the first national taxes, including the  first income tax. They used government to give “ordinary men” access to resources. In 1862, the GOP passed the Homestead Act, a measure that gave away western lands to those willing to settle on it. The party established Land-Grant Colleges, established the Department of Agriculture, and provided for construction of a railroad across the continent. They joined with Democrats to build more than 600 dams in 20 western states.

FDR is usually–and appropriately–credited with enlarging the scope of government in order to deal with the Great Depression, but as Richardson reminds us, Republicans who followed accepted the premise that government should provide for the common good–and that it has a special obligation to fund and maintain the national infrastructure.

Three years after he became president, Eisenhower backed the 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act, saying, “Our unity as a nation is sustained by free communication of thought and by easy transportation of people and goods.” The law initially provided $25 billion for the construction of 41,000 miles of road; at the time, it was the largest public works project in U.S. history.

So what happened? Why are today’s Republicans not just disinterested in governing, they are positively allergic to the notion that government should provide for the common good by building and maintaining the country’s physical and social infrastructure.

In this moment, Republican lawmakers seem weirdly out of step with their party’s history as well as with the country. They are responding to the American Jobs Plan by defining infrastructure as roads and bridges alone, cutting from the definition even the broadband that they included when Trump was president. (Trump, remember, followed his huge 2017 tax cuts with the promise of a big infrastructure bill. As he said, “Infrastructure is the easiest of all…. People want it, Republicans and Democrats.”) Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) warns that Biden’s plan is a “Trojan horse” that will require “massive tax increases.”

Republicans under Lincoln provided the first justifications for investing in the nation, and for taxing citizens to fund those investments.

The government had a right to “demand” 99% of a man’s property for an urgent need, said House Ways and Means Committee Chair Justin Smith Morrill (R-VT). When the nation required it, he said, “the property of the people… belongs to the [g]overnment.”

I probably wouldn’t go as far as Morrill, but it’s hard to rationalize what passes for philosophy in today’s Republican Party with the party’s history–not just the devolution into White Supremacy, but the 180 degree shift from policies supportive of the common good to policies favoring the wealthy.

Remember that old TV ad that told us “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile”? This isn’t your father’s (or grandfather’s) GOP, either.

The Echoes Of History

I just finished reading The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland, James H. Madison’s deeply researched and very readable account of Indiana’s history with the KKK. To say it was sobering would be a considerable understatement.

Madison, an Emeritus Professor of History at Indiana University, is often referred to as the “Dean” of Indiana historians, and this recent book, published by IU Press, is a good example of his meticulous approach and his ability to place historical events in a larger context. He cautions us that the malcontents who currently affiliate with the Klan and other white nationalist organizations are very different from those in the broad-based movement that included thousands of “good Indiana citizens” in the 1920s–a movement that effectively took over the state’s political establishment for a time.

Times change, but sometimes less than we might hope. After reading the diatribe Becky shared in yesterday’s comments, I was especially struck by its echoes in Madison’s description of the Klan’s 1920s appeal:

In churches, town halls, and public parks, Hoosiers heard the warnings. People not like us were tearing down our religion and our country. Enemies were rising up. The Klan could identify them. The Klan could show 100 percent Americans who they should fear and how they should fight.

I don’t want to overstate the case. We really have come a long way from the hysteria of the 1920s, and the susceptibility of enormous numbers of Americans to fear and hatred of “others.” But as Trump devotees remind us, an uncomfortable percentage of Americans still respond to messages of division, threats of  displacement, and hostility to people they perceive as different from themselves.

I grew up in Indiana, but Madison’s book expanded considerably on what I’d known about Klan dominance in the state. I’d heard about the passage of a state law authorizing sterilization of people deemed “defective,” but I was totally unaware that our first state constitution denied African-Americans the right to vote, or that its replacement in 1851 (affirmed by a large vote) “excluded African-Americans from taking up residence in the state.”

I knew that the Klan had been active in Indiana politics, but I was surprised to read an excerpt from a New York Times article reporting that the “Indiana Klan had a machine that made [New York’s] Tammany seem amateurish,” and depressed by assertions that “85% of the [Republican] party were Klan members.”

I was also largely unaware of the degree of anti-Catholic fervor the Klan tapped into–although I do recall a couple of people telling me in 1960 that Catholics were stockpiling firearms in church basements, and that if John F. Kennedy won the election, the Catholics would mount a take-over. (I thought those people were nuts. It didn’t occur to me that such a myth was widespread, but evidently it was.)

It was impossible to read this history without discomfort, or without hearing its echoes in today’s fringe precincts. Madison pointed out, for example, that the  Klan constantly whined, consistently characterizing white Protestants as “victims” and seeing any and all social change as a descent into immorality, crime and godlessness. I had been unaware of the Klan’s considerable role in pushing for Prohibition, its suspicion of public libraries (!), and its savvy use of that new communication device called radio. “This new technology helped create the imagined community of like-minded Americans separated by distance.”

And I’d known nothing about the Klan’s “aggressive” education agenda–bills to require (Protestant) Bible reading in the public schools, to allow the state to approve all textbooks in both public and parochial schools, and ensure that curricula advanced “patriotism and Americanism.” (Where have we heard that lately?)

I recommend the book.

As Santayana warned, those who don’t know their own history are doomed to repeat it.