Tag Archives: politics and history

In which there is a hard truth.

2 Sep

So Sady Doyle over at Tiger Beatdown1 made a fantastic post linking to a piece she wrote at Salon’s Broadsheet, specifically on Sophie Tucker, who was this fantastic, badass performer in the early part of the century, but who got her start performing in blackface. More generally Doyle is focusing on an important truth about history, namely that, as she says in the subject line of the post on her blog, “History Is Uncomfortable“.

I guess this ties in a bit with what I said before, about how history is hard to impose a narrative on and maybe we should consider that difficulty as a warning not to. There’s any number of motivations the Serious Historian could ascribe to Tucker for her blackface career: Doyle notes that “biographer Armond Fields contends that she was told to put on blackface, not because she was fat, but because she was Jewish. The burnt cork did not hide pure privilege, but a different kind of marginalization, less acceptable because it was authentic,” and later speculates for herself that “at first, her bossiness and appetite may have been acceptable because they promoted a stereotype: a big, sassy, sexual black woman was easy to laugh at.” There are, like, a billion papers you could write here, and also probably a lot of novels or short stories or biopics, too, I am just saying.

This is sort of a constant theme for me: this fine line one has to walk in studying history between an observer’s detachment and a humanist’s sensibilities. I don’t think I’d say—and this is why I don’t think I entirely fit in in academia, that and my inability to go for more than a few minutes without capslocking—that you shouldn’t judge the actions of historical figures, because those who forget the past blah blah blah, but you have to remember as you do so that the past really is another country, and then some: they didn’t just wear different clothes and use different technology, they thought differently. Values and mindsets were different, and saying “no one should be doing this today”, or even “no one should have done that” period is not at all the same as saying “I can’t understand why that would have happened”. History doesn’t happen in a vacuum. But then, of course you can’t get stuck in detachment mode, either, because the past may be another country, but it’s the one we’ve come from in getting here and so it’s a part of us.

Also I mix my metaphors like crazy, that’s probably another reason I’m not good at academia.


In which I explain to Chris Matthews that correlation is not causation.

28 Aug

So Chris Matthews was on The Colbert Report the other day, talking about his special on the Kennedys, and he said something that kind of irked. I was sort of thinking it might just be that I misheard or he misspoke, but whatever, I guess it’s ~timely~.

Colbert: Why the Kennedys, Chris? Why talk about these guys now?

Matthews: Because I can — because I think American politics for the last forty or fifty years would’ve been completely different without them. I think they changed everything. I think — you wanna ask me why?

Colbert: Why?

Matthews: Okay. Well we can start with they saved us from nuclear war in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, the two Kennedy brothers, they created the civil rights movement, back before they came along they had “white only” on restrooms, “white only” on soda fountains, water fountains, all across a big part of the —

Fortunately at this point, Stephen Colbert interrupts him to say that he loved JFK’s “I have a dream speech”. This is good because otherwise I would have to punch Chris Matthews. Unfortunately he then goes on to get a little defensive and say “well, they did it, they did civil rights, they created it”, so seriously, Chris Matthews, shut up.

I don’t disagree that the Kennedys had a huge impact on the face of American politics, actually, nor that they did a lot for the civil rights movement, but to credit them with creating it is so fucking stupid and offensive and detracting from the actual black people who were involved from the beginning, I can’t even. There’s this phenomenon in some geek circles, a movie trope referred to as what these people need is a honky, and I’m going to rely on that to describe what Chris Matthews is crediting the Kennedys with doing here.

Leaving aside how offensive this is — or, actually, let’s face it, just getting offended from another angle, becuase it’s me we’re talking about here — this also shows a huge level of ignorance of history, because no, the civil rights movement did not actually begin in the 1960s. Leaving aside that “the civil rights movement” can refer to a whole boatload of different things (lol trying to get historians to agree on anything), and assuming for the moment that Matthews is referring to the American movement of the mid-20th century, the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka was handed down in 1954, and Rosa Parks was arrested in 1955. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in 1960. JFK and RFK did a lot to help the civil rights movement (as, for that matter, did Ted) and that’s awesome and deserving of respect and recognition, but they did not fucking create it.

In conclusion: no, Chris Matthews, no.

In which I tl;dr crankily.

27 Aug

SO HERE IS THE DEAL: I kind of wife George Washington. If I had to marry a Founding Father I would totally marry him, because he seemed like a genuinely decent dude and when he was young he looked like Jason Isaacs and he was about as progressive as a dude who owned slaves could be (and even in that regard, the hypocrisy of championing ~liberty~ while owning other human beings weighed on him and he eventually freed them in his will, although it is still kind of dickish to wait until you and your wife are good and dead before you bother to do anything). As that ridiculous parenthetical no doubt suggests, though, I also recognize that he was not perfect, and, you know, that the dude owned other human beings. I don’t think recognizing that he was a human being and he did some shitty stuff in addition to the great stuff makes me some whackjob bent on ~slandering~ his character.

Which is just a roundabout way of saying oh, fuck off, drummer from Steppenwolf.

This is my sticking point, I guess, this notion that somehow, we all share this all-or-nothing thinking. Yes, clearly because I recognize that the people involved in my country’s history were people, and therefore capable of making stupid human mistakes and holding human prejudices and biases and grudges, I must therefore hate everything about my country ever. The unfairness of it — and that it comes from people who immediately turn around and trash a large percentage of the population as being incapable of being right about anything ever at least as much as they claim we characterize them as being incapable of being right about anything ever — is what gets me, I guess. And goodness knows I’ve met enough assholes on my own side of the political fence to understand how the frustration can go both ways, so idk, I guess I don’t really have a solution.

I guess I ultimately feel like to interpret so selectively (from either side of the fence, really, because I don’t doubt that there are tunnel-vision types amongst liberal historians, too) — to so refuse to see anything in history but what fits the narrative you want to impose on it — to impose a narrative at all, in some cases, or at least to do so religiously — is to miss half the fun of history. IDK, people are just so ridiculous and can be so awful sometimes, and then the same people can turn around and be so awesome too. Andrew Jackson was what we Serious Historical Experts refer to as a “stone fox”, but he also committed ethnic cleansing. FDR got us out of the Depression, but he also imprisoned American citizens in concentration camps. Basically everyone involved in this book seems to be doing exactly what they are accusing us of doing and trying to fit history into his own neat little narrative, and nothing irritates me like that does.

Probably I will do a second post where I go through what’s in the editorial reviews point-by-point, because all of them are making me go “um, no, no, no, I do not know a single person who believes this, or not in the context that you are presenting these facts”. Well, no, that is probably not true; I’m sure I do know people who believe some of these things, and in fact some review even points out that the title is “needlessly provocative”, but then goes on to be super-condescending about libruls and basically lose whatever credit I was giving him.

Good times!