Over the last four years I have rekindled my love for history while also becoming more aware than ever before how complicit the discipline has been in the maintenance of an unjust power structure. Instead of being handmaidens to that power structure we must become, in the words of historian Priya Satia, “the province of mutiny.” We must abandon the conceit that we are mere disseminators of objective facts. We do a disservice to ourselves and to our students when we pretend that neutrality is an acceptable stance. Every story we tell, every fact we recite, and the very curriculum we create involves choices which are inherently political. I think often of something Robin D.G. Kelley said in an interview when asked about how historians can be truthful and political: “I am not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.” The world is not right, yet so often history has been told as if we are exactly where we are supposed to be. In practical terms, what this means for me is that I must work to be more intentional about what I teach; to think through why I present a certain topic or why I discuss that topic in a certain way. I doing this, I have realized that it is too often the case that I simply present material in the same way that I had been taught. That is not good enough. I want to tell better stories, more truthful stories, emphasize different perspectives, include more voices, and break through the distorting effects that racism, nationalism, and imperialism have had on the discipline of history as well as on our world. Have I accomplished this? Absolutely not! Too much of what I bring to my classes are still tools I acquired in the 90’s and early 2000’s from professors who got theirs in the 1960’s and 70’s. But one of the other things I have realized over the last four years is that being a historian is more than just having a degree. It requires an unending process of inquiry, of reflection, of self-criticism, and a willingness to ditch the familiar and make history strange. I find that invigorating, and I hope that when I sit down to do this again during my next review cycle I will be just as dissatisfied with where I am and just as excited to keep doing the work. — JW
One of the key ideas presented in recent episodes is the notion that narratives are a crucial means of justifying and legitimizing the actions of the power structure. There are, of course, many successful examples of narrative construction, but one example I focused on was the Spanish state’s attempts to establish a unifying legitimizing narrative. These attempts, for a variety of reasons, were never quite successful. Lacking a narrative construct that could make sense of the novelty of Spanish-American empire and justify the conquest and rule of faraway lands filled with people with whom the Spanish had no historical relationship, narrative chaos ensued.
Ideally, the power structure within a society is able to establish a unifying narrative that orders and structures how individuals perceive and justify their actions. For example, the accounts of the conquistador class in the Americas often hit the same notes as the traditional Reconquista narratives that they were so steeped in. Thus, in the narratives of Bernal Diaz and Hernan Cortés, descriptions of Tenochtitlan made it resemble Moorish cities of an earlier era while Santiago, the patron saint of Castile, would sometimes show up in accounts of the conquest of Peru just as he did in reconquest narratives (however, in his traditional role as matamoros [the “moor-slayer], he was an odd fit in a context where not a Moor could be found). As much as conquistadors wanted to outfit themselves in the garb of reconquista heroes, the Spanish crown was less comfortable with this narrative device.
For one thing, the original papal grant that justified their rule over their American territories said nothing about defeating the enemies of Christ. Rather, it spoke specifically of the duty to, “lead the peoples dwelling in those islands and countries to embrace the Christian religion.” Just as importantly, by claiming the legacy of the reconquest, the conquistadors were also laying claim to the traditional rewards of the conqueror, including land, titles of nobility, and access to the wealth of the conquered territories. As thrilled as Spanish monarchs may have been with the potential of their American territories, giving so much autonomy to a bunch of unruly upstarts 3,000 miles away across an ocean made little sense given their desire to centralize and bureaucratize their power both at home and in the empire. Thus, as the 16th century went on and the imperial apparatus slowly diminished the autonomy of the conquistadors and their heirs, the narratives that arrived in letter form to the Council of the Indies in Seville became increasingly aggrieved and entitled in tone. One petitioner, Lope de Pilar, wrote to the king in 1570 to laud his own contributions to the empire and complain about the sorry state of affairs under the new Viceroy Francisco de Toledo. Wrote Pilar: “The extravagance of Toledo results in the suffering of more deserving people who with their lances gave him the plazas he now rules.”
Indigenous people also had their own interest in combating the preferred legitimizing narratives of the center. This was true even for those from communities who had allied with the Spanish during the initial conquests. Siding with the Spanish had come with rewards and especially for indigenous elites, during the first generation at least, this could mean maintenance of status, landholdings, and exemption from labor. Yet, if the Spanish crown was grateful for these contributions to its “royal hacienda”, that gratitude was limited. A 1571 letter from one Doña Maria Ramirez to the royal council in Madrid narrated how the family of her recently deceased husband, Juan Serra de Legicamo, who was a direct descendant of the Inca royal line, had remained loyal during the rebellion of Manca Inca. Despite this service to the crown, the family was forced to live off a small grant that only provided 400 pesos a year. Significantly, accounts like that of Doña Maria were not meant to challenge Spanish legitimacy. Rather, as an almost certainly christianized (based on their taking of Spanish names) Incan elite appealing to the center of Spanish imperial authority in the name of her deceased husband whose family was a loyal participant in the establishment of Spanish authority in Peru, she was simply requesting that they be given their proper place in the story.
However, if the state had little interest in maintaining the status and autonomy of the conquistador class, they had even less in trying to differentiate between natives who had taken part in the conquest on the side of the Spaniards and those who had been conquered. Loyal or not, the increasingly encompassing category of indio left little room for such nuance Indeed, even the residents of the many towns and villages that had neither been subject to any formal conquest, nor had fought against the Spanish invaders nevertheless found themselves treated as a conquered class within the more formal and bureaucratized system of rule that had emerged by late in the 16th century.
One of the most remarkable, illustrative, and ultimately unsuccessful attempts at narrative construction was written from the isolated Andean valley of Vilcabamba. Since 1536, Vilcabamba had served as a sort of rump-Incan state first under the rule of Manco Inca (who had escaped there after a failed rebellion against the Spanish) and then his sons Titu Cusi Yupanqui and Tupac Amaru. For much of the next 40 years Vilcabamaba existed parallel to the increasingly consolidated Spanish viceroyalty of Peru. Viceroy Toledo, however, arrived in Peru with strict instructions to fully establish Spanish legitimacy by rooting out any competing claims. Where Vilcabamba had once been tolerated it was now marked for destruction.
Possibly in response to this new pressure, Titu Cusi, with the help of friendly Spanish friars, crafted his own legitimizing narrative. While the details are interesting, what is far more significant about this narrative is that it represents the degree to which, just two generations since the arrival of Pizarro and his men, even opponents of Spanish rule had assimilated significant elements of traditional Spanish cultural, political, social, and narrative norms. And it was just the most prominent example of this fact. Throughout the Americas significant numbers of indigenous people found themselves, knowingly or not, forced to contest Spanish rule using a language, a set of laws, and even an understanding of history that was not completely theirs. Titu Cusi even noted at one point that if his father’s authority had not been usurped by Pizarro and his supporters, “[he] thought it possible that the Inka dynasty could become a Christian royal house, peers alongside the greatest crowns of Europe.” This was far from a searing rebuke of the Spanish presence in the Andes as much as it was a critique of their specific behavior. Contesting Spanish authority within a framework that was Spanish in design and implementation had the contradictory effect of legitimizing much of the structure of Spanish dominance. Thus, even though Titu Cusi argued that the Spanish actions in Peru represented more of a usurpation of authority than a conquest, his means of making these claims, through a written appeal in Spanish to the “royal conscience” of Philip II, represented an implicit recognition of Spanish imperial sovereignty.
In 1492, even before Columbus sailed west from Cadiz, the great Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija, published the Castilian Grammar, the first work to attempt to establish the rules and grammar of the Castilian language. In the prologue to his work, Nebrija wrote, “Language has always been the perfect companion to empire.” To the extent that this is true, it is at least partially explained by the fact that an imperial language could serve as the vehicle for the dissemination of stories. It is through those stories that norms are constructed, sets of assumptions are established, and an entire framework for ordering, organizing, understanding, and interacting with the world around us can come into being. Thus, one of the most significant legacies of the period of European empires is the manner in which the stories of those empires spread throughout the world.
As the above examples demonstrate, the Spanish empire was relatively successful in convincing people like Titu Cusi, Lope de Pilar, or Doña Maria Ramirez that it was in power. Where it was less successful was in constructing narratives that could create a common belief for why it should be in power. Maybe the reason for this is that the stories it told to make sense of itself to itself were too wedded to a historical context that did not easily fit the realities of cross-oceanic empire. No single narrative thread was able to collectively satisfy the interests of conquistadors, missionaries, and indigenous elites, or the centralizing desires of the Spanish crown. And neither were competing European states convinced by papal grants or traditional rights of conquest. Pamela Crossley has suggested that the early-modern world was one in which the old Medieval universalisms had been dismantled, leaving behind states that were increasingly defined by new particularisms. In the following centuries, on the other hand, certain regional particularisms became universalized and, in turn, helped to “underwrite our current notions of modernity.” Thus, the modern era saw not only the rise of European global empires, but a new set of legitimizing narratives. Notions of civilization, of the nation, of progress, and of race became a set of beliefs that were shared across European borders while helping to define a sense of history that explained and justified imperial rule. These same ideas were then exported around the world as part of the ideology of empire and would ultimately come to define for so many people what it meant to be modern. Of course, other narratives continued and still continue to be told, but increasingly engagement with modernity meant engagement with European storytelling devices. Like Titu Cusi then, those who sought to challenge power often did so using the very language and within the very narrative structure that power had provided them. Such challenges could only ever be partially successful. At best, they could lead to the end of an empire’s reign even as the old narratives have largely continued to rule over our post-colonial world.
Tom Cotton, squidly Senator from Arkansas and cryptofacist rhetorical roustabout, has again courageously volunteered to be the defender of America’s genocidal mythology. In the run-up to this year’s Thanksgiving holiday, Cotton took to the Senate floor amid a worsening pandemic to fire a few salvos from his battlefield bunker, otherwise known as Mitch McConnell’s Senate. His target? Cotton, a former-U.S. Army infantry captain, aimed his right-wing culture gun at the “revisionist charlatans of the radical left” who he says have conspired to ruin American history in a blizzard of political correctness. It seems he is still steamed-up over the NYT 1619 Project and it’s outrageously accurate thesis that slavery is as American as apple pie and turkey gravy.
Cotton began his Senate speech by intoning “This year we ought to be especially thankful for our ancestors, the pilgrims, on their 400th anniversary.” Virtually everything that follows in the speech is lifted wholesale from the standard version cornball white people’s mythology of the first Thanksgiving. Nowhere does Cotton acknowledge that the cornball caricature he calls the story of Thanksgiving is actually not itself 400 years old, but is rather a retrofitted invention of twentieth century hustlers who wanted a suitably white origin story anchored in a colonial past, mostly to alleviate their own racial angst over the spread of Jim Crow and the growth of America’s immigrant population. At one point he actually quotes Calvin Coolidge! If you are hungry for more truth-telling in this vein, check out Philip Deloria’s New Yorker article on “The Invention of Thanksgiving” https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2019/11/25/the-invention-of-thanksgiving
Rather than undertake here the tedious but otherwise so-easy-a-child-can-do-it task of refuting Cotton’s cartoonish claims about Thanksgiving’s history, I am thinking about WHY such a thoroughly debunked narrative gets recycled and splashed around with such apparent élan and devotion. At best, the traditional Thanksgiving narrative survives, as in Cotton’s hands, as a cold historical erasing of both fact and tragedy. Never do these apostles of white nationalism acknowledge, for example, that Native people in the area we call Plymouth Rock had a century of contact with Europeans before the Pilgrim’s showed up, and that they were all too familiar with the slave raiding expeditions that English privateers and mercenaries undertook against Native villages during that time. No mention either of the epidemic diseases unleashed by Europeans that had devastated the Wampanoag people prior to said Pilgrim arrival. Nor any acknowledgement of the ruinous effects on Native men, women, and children of the colonizer wars the English perpetrated after the chummy feast. In fact, in a strange sleight of hand, Cotton’s traditional narrative calls the Native people into a Pilgrim centered story, seemingly out of history’s thin air to have their moment as props on the white man’s stage, and then whisks them off again once the purported ‘Thanksgiving feast’ is finished and they are no longer needed in the smug, whitesplained moment. Indeed, when Cotton proclaims his gratitude to “our Pilgrim Fathers” it is crystal clear that he means white ‘fathers’ – even though the Wampanoag men were over half of the masculine equation at Plymouth. And despite the fact that they kept the Pilgrims from starving, this was not enough to merit them inclusion in the ranks of America’s ‘fathers.’ No. Why? Because Cotton and all the other Thanksgiving hustlers through time imagine America having only white fathers. Might be time for America to take some paternity tests.
So, look, as history, the Cotton ball fantasy of Thanksgiving is all bollocks. But as a symbol of racial conceit, it succeeds fabulously. It stands for what I’ll call the commemorative plate version of history. Unlike, say, the truth and honesty type of history, the commemorative plate version of history is NOT meant to be closely examined, but only held up as a gilded decorative display of white narcissism. The word history comes from the ancient Greeks, and it means to inquire, but that’s obviously NOT what Senator Cotton tail wants anyone to do. In fact, he dismisses the whole fact checking of history as “political correctness.”
That is not to say a commemorative plate understanding of America’s past is not useful to a hustler like Cotton. After all, it offers a simple imaginary picture ideal for display. It will sit in a cabinet or reside on a shelf for years and years and only require occasional dusting. It is ceramic, and thus rigid and unchanging. After a while, you quit thinking about it. It’s like any other dusty little knickknack – inoffensive to the bearer, even if banal, inconsequential, and quietly reassuring, like a ceramic made from the dust of a narcotic.
America is a country learning all about the ruinous effects of overprescribed narcotics. And like oxycotin and fetanyl, this ceramic narcotic of a white nationalist past dulls our senses, warps our perception, and makes us sick. That’s because by insisting on the Thanksgiving story as an origin story, it blocks us from thinking beyond its simple reductionist memes, stifles our imaginative scope, keeps us from more clearly understanding the problems that confront us, and discourages us from imagining solutions. It just sits there, looking like a tacky gift shop tchotchke but acts like an anesthetic on the country’s imagination and stifles needed change. And thus the same people continue to benefit in the same ways for the same morally questionable reasons from the same cold system that the commemorative plate enshrines, just as the same people continue to suffer in the same ways for the same morally indefensible reasons. In that sense, the commemorative plate is not about the actual history at all, it’s just a smug little meme to remind everyone that the ‘land of the Pilgrim’s pride’ is for white folks. Commemorative plates do not concern themselves with facts, after all, but sit voiceless as dusty, leaden symbols of fake patriotism and faux-heritage, a pleasant narcotic for those with privilege. And that’s just the way those Cotton swabs like it.
Now, for the time being, as the active phase of street level protest has paused, reports are coming in detailing the scale of police brutality occasioned by the protests. Lovers of irony will note, how those protests were themselves sparked by the police killing of George Floyd, itself the culminating police misdeed in a long history of police brutality against Black and Brown bodies. During one recent protest in Philadelphia, the police managed to corner a large group of protest marchers off the enclosed shoulder of an expressway, trapping them with no escape, like a hunter might his quarry, before assailing them with chemical weapons and batons, not to mention less imaginative punches and kicks. In the current graphic novel that is America’s militarized police force, it is impossible to miss the editorial comment that such scenes provide from the perspective of power: whatever the Constitution might promise with regard to the right of speech and assembly, the cops are the hammer and the protestors are the nails, and in the name of ‘law and order’ the hammering commences. Lest we see all this as some unfortunate overstepping of bounds, some regrettable overreach, with the lazy ‘both-sides’ responsibility assessment, it pays to remember that, to the contrary, the very system itself was designed for this, designed to do this, and the punch happy and kick happy and choke happy cops are simply playing out the roles scripted for them over the last century of political fear- mongering and military build-up. The whole spectacle signifies the carefully cultivated fear of white Americans, and the decades-long obsession it has unleashed for battling the ‘enemies within.’
Back in the distasteful days of Richard Nixon’s presidency, a certain “enemies list” was said to be compiled and passed around the dark corridors of the West Wing. Names on that list represented targets of political opportunity for the loyal operatives and true believers in Nixon’s gothic and racially and culturally streamlined vision of America. Having been nearly counted out of American politics just a few years earlier following his loss in the 1962 California governor’s race, Nixon rose again in 1968 like a jowl cheeked phoenix from the political ashes to win the 1968 presidential election. His comeback catapult was a promise to America – at least the white majority who voted him in – to deliver a strict dose of ‘law and order.’
‘Law and order’ was a political dog whistle phrase referring to the ‘enemies’ who had risen up in the psychedelic and multicultural 60s, enemies who, as it turned out for Nixon, were a necessary commodity when selling law and order to white America. How could the sheriff be a hero, after all, if there were no bad guys? White Americans loved the western movie High Noon, but how would it have looked if Gary Cooper mustered all that courage only to find no enemies when the clock struck 12:00? Just lunchtime I guess. The whole thing hinged on a simple logic: no enemies, no disorder; no disorder, no law and order problem to solve.
Fortunately for him – unfortunately for the nation – Richard Nixon was among the most talented seers of enemies this country had ever produced, and he understood perfectly the Machiavellian rule that nothing succeeds politically like fear. His whole brilliant formula was a simple bit of beginning algebra that any eighth grader could grasp: start with the variable E(i), meaning imagined enemies, multiplied by F cubed, representing exponential fears, equalling P squared, totaling the political power accrued. Nixon first showed off his skills in the equation of fear-mongering and enemy-baiting as a young California congressman just after WWII. He catapulted into prominence while serving on something called the House Un-American Activities Committee (really, that’s what it was called). Known by its initials as HUAC, this was a clown-committee of toxic white racist congressmen whipping up a fear of domestic communism by declaring war on America’s ‘enemies’ – that is to say, the enemies here at home. These were people identified by HUAC as ‘subversives,’ or when the evidence was thin, as ‘potential subversives,’ and thus even if not exactly Communist red, then at least a shade of pink. So, whether communist crimson or just pinko commie, as Nixon famously once said of his democratic opponent in a California Senate race, HUAC would leave no stone unturned. And Nixon was their hero, a man climbing up a political ladder of fear and enemies that he helped to build. Fed with raw intel by the FBI, Nixon & HUAC fiendishly smeared, accused, and alleged their way into tarnishing and (sometimes) destroying the reputations and careers of their fellow Americans. They even called Gary Cooper himself, the actor who played the sheriff character in High Noon, to testify for the committee, name names, and point fingers at those he suspected of being communists in Hollywood. No trials. No judges. And a low standard for ‘evidence’ that included heresay, rumor, guilt by association and a whole playbook of other dirty tricks. It was, said the writer Lilian Hellman, herself targeted by HUAC, a perfect scoundrel time. And those branded in the HUAC witch-hunt were stamped as disloyal, as enemies of the state. “We were at once the most powerful and insecure country in the world,” remembered writer Maureen Howard.
And by the time he unexpectedly reached the White House in 1969, Richard Nixon fronted an entire phalanx of stiff- necked, bourbon drinking, utterly toxic, white male Republican racist politicians (in America they’re known as conservatives). Their stock-in-trade was ‘law and order’ and they fanned the moral panic of the (also) white middle class of taxpaying, voting, and mostly suburban mothers and fathers, now terrified at what their baby boomer kids had become in the swinging 60s. These kids, remember, were also white, drafted from the Mickey Mouse Club and their sleepy Leave It To Beaver suburbs, straight into the culture wars of the 60s, and the maelstrom of sex, drugs, and anti-war protest. That last bit – protesting America’s Viet Nam War – was enough by itself to balloon Richard Nixon’s enemies list, and one of those he famously targeted, the ex-Beatle John Lennon, he tried to deport from the country. When you throw in a civil rights movement, a black power movement, a Black Panther Party, an ex-Beatle, a Latino farm worker movement, and – oh, what the heck – a sexual revolution and ‘bra burning’ feminism, the whole thing looked like a sumptuous buffet line to Richard Nixon, with bowls and plates and trays of enemies piled high, just for the taking.
Now we all know that tricky Dick face planted into a big poo pile of imagined-enemies called Watergate a few short years later, but not before he plunged the country into another war. This time it was called the ‘War on Drugs’ and soon it became it’s own separate buffet line in the smorgasbord of enemies. As the Nixon administration fixer, John Erlichman, later recalled it:
You want to know what this was really all about? The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
And with that, a new and more potent calculus of fear was promptly created, this time adding D-squared (drugs) and R-cubed (race) to the formula in what became a full blown algorithm of arrest and mass incarceration, stretching into our own time of anti-racist protest. Here was a ready-made racial trifecta of white-feared ‘crackheads,’ ‘crack whores,’ and ‘crack babies,’ all of whom were depicted in the mainstream white media during the 80s and 90s as black, poor, violent, and known to be living in ‘crack houses’ (just for good measure) in the ‘inner cities.’ So irresistible to white politicians was this witches brew of white racial and class fears, that even mainstream white media types like Tom ‘the Greatest Generation’ Brokaw and liberal white wine-drinking democrats like Joe Biden, Bill Clinton, and Hillary Clinton, got in on the act, and joined their toxic, racist, and bourbon-drinking conservative colleagues across the political aisle. Together they passed a massive crime bill in ‘94, modestly called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. In Nixonian terms, they promised a ‘tough on crime’ solution for the ‘inner cities’ designed to defeat this new class of racialized, drug-crazed enemies. Although Tupac knew ‘both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight,’ the clear aim of the bill was racial, and as Hillary Clinton said, it was the black ‘superpredators’ terrorizing the white-psyche that symbolized that aim. With mass arrests and massive investment in a domestic arms race that militarized the country’s police force, Officer Friendly soon gave way to Officer Rambo, and white America gave up on civil rights in favor of mass incarceration. The newly enhanced formula of fear paid off with all-star quality stat lines:
Now the United States is home to 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prisoners. Black men make up 6% of the U.S. population, but 40% of the prison population.
And so here we have arrived, with a president elected on a campaign of fear, who openly scorns democrats, the media, and protestors alike as enemies, valorizes the use of force against them, and publicly eggs on the police to commit more violence still. Even down to his vulgarity, Trump is a product of the Nixon fever dream, connected by the dark totems of Roger Stone and Roy Cohn, and standing here looking back from the moment of George Floyd’s killing and the police violence that has followed, it is easy to connect the dots from Derek Chauvin to Donald Trump to both Clintons to both George Bushes, to that Gary Cooper wannabe Ronald Reagan, to Richard Nixon and HUAC and the whole obsession with enemies and the militarized police state it has wrought. Let us speak no more of reforming this system, which after all is doing what it was designed to do. And let us not be swayed by the threat of further dark consequences. As Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, “It is always a great crime to deprive a people of its liberty on the pretext that it is using it wrongly.”
It is time. We have to start over.
As did millions, I watched in horror the killing of George Floyd by an expressionless Minneapolis cop named Derek Chauvin. Then, with breath out of turn, I watched in despair as a militarized police force, stretching from NYC to L.A., unleashed a storm of rubber bullets, batons, and chemical weapons against my fellow Americans for daring to exercise their first amendment rights of speech and assembly. I watched in disgust as a President who crowed about ‘dominating,’ disappeared into a White House bunker to fiddle while the country burned. As I write today, that same president brazenly risks public health, of both body and soul, to hold a rally with his overwhelmingly white base, in the very town, Tulsa, Oklahoma, remembered for one of the worst episodes of white racial violence in the country’s history.
To make sense of the whole sad scene, I could only conclude that the big story we tell about ourselves as a country has made us sick.
I have grown convinced of this after 30-plus years of teaching U.S. History. No matter how I’ve tried to populate that history with the truths of social justice, of America’s failed promises and prejudicial treatment of Black people, Native American people, Latino people, immigrants, workers, and women, I have rarely dented the hard outer shell of the ‘American Progress story,’ colored as it is by a story of white heroes, white triumphs, and white nationalism, just as it was originally designed to be in the traditional curriculum model. No matter how direct and seemingly irrefutable was the evidence I presented of the corrupt and violent betrayals of justice in our past, too many students, of all colors, would simply fall back on the brainwashing of that well worn catechism drilled into us as kids, the ‘progress story,’ and that pleasant narcotic of America as the “land of the free.” Like a muscle reflex, the student essays would conclude with a variation on the refrain that, despite some ‘bumps in the road,’ America’s history was now going in the right direction, and trending toward “liberty and justice for all.”
Want an example? In the U.S. History survey it is customary to teach a section on “Westward Expansion.” We study the decades-long military campaign from the 1860s-1890s, by U.S. military forces to destroy Native American independence, and thereby remove the ‘obstacles’ to white expansion. This expansion often proceeded through the deliberate killing of native women and children, in places spread across the West from the Washita River of Oklahoma to the Tule Lake of California, from Sand Creek, Colorado to Wounded Knee Creek, South Dakota. Here is a sobering toll of destruction that students often lament for its cruelty and barbarism. Yet, pointedly, many nevertheless blithely accept it, for without it, they write, “we wouldn’t be the country we are today.”
The country we are today.
Let’s take a closer look at just one event drawn from that self-congratulatory epoch celebrated in American popular culture as ‘How the West Was Won.’ A few days after Christmas, 1890, on the frozen snow-swept plains of South Dakota, near a place called Wounded Knee Creek, U.S. Army troops took aim with powerful wheel-mounted rifle cannons, called Hotchkiss mountain guns. The Army had first acquired the guns years earlier after its famous defeat at the Battle of the Little Bighorn, a defeat brought on when the commander of the 7th U.S. Army cavalry, George Armstrong Custer mistakenly assumed he would be firing on mostly women, children, and old people. A fatal mistake. Custer’s forces were met instead by an angry hornet’s nest of Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapaho fighters. Now, in 1890, Custer’s old regiment, the 7th Cavalry, looked forward to payback, ready to complete the work of killing old people, women, and children begun years earlier. The gleaming, wheel-mounted Hotchkiss guns they now readied were purchased by the Army from a French firearms company, founded by an expat American named Benjamin Hotchkiss. In the Army’s 1878 ordinance report, the guns were deemed well-suited for “efficient service on the frontier,” capable of firing a two pound shell accurate up to 1500 meters. They were purchased, in other words, specifically to target non-moving targets, like the old and infirm, women, and children, not the swift riding fighters.
At Wounded Knee, the Hotchkiss guns were positioned by the soldiers of the 7th at much closer range than the 1500 meters promised, really no more than a couple of acres of frozen ground. They proved lethal, just as advertised. Soldiers opened fire and within minutes had torn open and laid waste to some 200 native Lakota women and children, whom they’d ordered to come out from hiding, under the pretense of being taken into custody. When the killing stopped and the acrid air of burned gunpowder dissipated, the soldiers dug a mass grave into which they later flung the frozen bodies, entombing them in the frozen earth.
Within 18 months of the Wounded Knee massacre, a hired police force of Pinkerton ‘detectives’ and Pennsylvania state militia opened fire on and bayoneted striking workers at the Homestead steel works in Pittsburgh, many of whom were immigrants, killing seven workers. The steelworkers were fighting wage cuts, long hours and dangerous conditions, and efforts by management to break their union.
Just the price of doing business for ‘being the country we are today.’ The country of George Floyd, a militarized police force, and Donald Trump and the Tulsa rally.
It is not the students who are really at fault here, it is the story itself that we tell wrapped in the conceits of white nationalism. The facts of Wounded Knee are not really in dispute, and the massacre was really just the culminating event in a long train of crimes committed against native people by U.S. armed forces in the name of American national ‘progress.’ And other domestic conflicts like the Homestead Strike, on different ground with different people, immigrants and workers, would repeat dozens of times in the coming decades in various places and in various industries – but always under the same guise: denial of the workers’ right to protect themselves against iron fisted management and hired guns, a denial justified in the name of ‘progress.’
Yet, these days we cram these contrary facts of American history into the small pocket drawers of semi-apology, of “senseless tragedy” or “unavoidable conflict,” where they remain just out of sight of the main narrative presented in the much larger roll top desk of “American Progress.” What chance do those aggrieved facts really have of teaching us anything about ourselves and the gross injustices in our own time when they are papered over by the belated semi-apologies and celebrated proclamations of liberty and progress?
Does a national story, established and built on the twin premises of progress and white racial supremacy, really allow for that?
Society tends to see education as transactional – give something, get something. We should see education as transformational – a fundamental transformation of our selves and our world.
And we should insist that the histories we learn, speak to the needs of the living and to the demands of equity and justice for those living in the present, in the history of now.
Instead of the stories that keep us sick, we must privilege the stories that make us well. And that means more voices and more stories drawn from those pocket drawers, and brought to our more spacious and reconstructed center desk, a center desk freed of the distortions of white nationalism. Those stories must be told in the context of broader timelines, a much-wider geography of the Americas, and in service of the facts of widely diverse people, and not in the service of some imagined racially-narrated national progress. Thus, BIPOC could be freed from the stories of perpetual oppression in the national frame, because no longer would those stories need be fitted into the oppresssive frame of triumphal national progress. And those millions of diverse peoples otherwise pinned down in the plains, in the fields, and on the streets by those narratives, will be likewise freed from those captive stories.
Put simply, we need truer, more inclusive histories freed from the burdens of white nationalism. We need better stories, because we need better, healthier, freer selves.
Have been reading in the news reports and headlines of “rioting” and “looting” and “crimes” and “thugs”. Just tonight the NYT headline read “As chaos spreads, Trumps vows to end it now.” But you know, I think it is really just misplaced modifiers, or dishonest storytelling, or more likely, fraud.
Consider, the actual history of America reads like a criminal rap sheet, a tortuous catalog of crimes running from Plymouth Rock to Donald Trump – a criminality very likely unmatched for its breadth and depth in the history of nations. It sought to sweep aside an entire continent of its many and diverse native cultures and peoples, and corralled by force the survivors of this genocide onto cast off reservation lands. This genocide was celebrated as ‘manifest destiny’ by America’s white population with an entire genre of books and movies mythologizing the perpetrators of genocide as heroes to be worshipped.
At the same time America forced millions of dark complexioned men, women, and children into brutal enslavement, and for two and a half centuries coerced their forced labor without compensation and for the exclusive profit of their white enslavers. The nation’s economic take-off and territorial growth was the direct result of this calculated plan of mass enslavement. Many of the nation’s boasted “Founding Fathers” were themselves slave owners and wrote a Constitution that prolonged the enslavement of human beings and protected the legal right of enslavement for future generations of white slave owners. America was one of the last western nations to formally abolish the legal enslavement of men, women, and children, many years and even decades after other leading nations did so, and then only AFTER the most destructive war in its long history of wars – a civil war full of war crimes that saw Americans slaughtering 700,000 of their fellow Americans on America’s soil – before seeing slavery abolished. After that enormous bloodletting, Abraham Lincoln, himself the victim of a violent assassination, said such destruction could only be possibly justifiable if the nation experienced a ‘new birth of freedom.’ The nation did NOT choose that course but instead legally enforced 100 years of racial caste called Jim Crow, and carried out a bloody and barbarous campaign of racial terrorism called lynching, directed at the descendants of those who had been enslaved. Thousands of acts of terrorism perpetrated by whites went unpunished by any laws and were celebrated as a patriotic birthright, unlamented by whites. The direct purpose of this terror campaign was to ensure the permanent subservience of the one race to the other under a code of humiliating and demeaning racial prejudice and segregation. Histories were rewritten and invented to justify this arrangement, statues to slave owning soldiers were erected in the name of ‘heritage,’ and the most popular motion picture in America’s history, Gone With the Wind, romanticized it. In the meantime, generations of school children, including children of the subjugated racial caste, were required to swear allegiance to a country in the name of ‘liberty and justice for all.’ Jim Crow, when finally repealed as legal statute, was replaced by a ‘War on Drugs’ led by a militarized police that resulted in the mass incarceration of black men, giving America the largest prison population in the world.
As a nation of immigrants, this immigrant-hating nation has for the entirety of its history routinely discriminated against its own immigrant peoples, beginning with the Puritans almost 400 years ago, the supposed exemplars of ‘religious freedom,’ who persecuted and hung Quakers and burned ‘witches.’ To survive withering hostility, despised immigrant populations chose assimilation and often joined the next generation’s drumbeat of anti-immigrant hatred directed at new classes of immigrants. In this way, a pitiless cycle of nativist scorn and discriminatory laws was projected from Anglo against German, German against Irish, Irish against Chinese, Irish and Anglo against Jewish and Italian, Anglo against German (again), and all of these assimilated groups against Filipinos, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and, infamously, Japanese, going so far as to mass incarcerate them during World War II. More recently the crowded list has made room for anyone from Muslim countries. A few months ago a Federal Court ruled in favor of Donald Trump’s immigrant ban against people from African countries (and, for some reason, Kyrgyzstan). Trump, it’s worth noting, is himself the grandson of a German immigrant to America.
And yeah, so it seems the headline writers got it wrong. All the crimes have already and repeatedly been committed – a fact that James Baldwin explained almost 60 years ago:
“The American Negro has a great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling; that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in piece.”
We want a new world. We need a new story.
In Vincent Leung’s Politics of the Past in Early China, he refers to various early Chinese thinkers seeking out exemplary personages in the past to serve as models for present behavior. These thinkers were a diverse group who wrote and thought across a wide swathe of temporal space, yet settled on a relatively small set of “canonical, popular figures,” who they could then mobilize for a range of ideological purposes. To these men, the past was a small place inhabited by a small number of people and discussed amongst a similarly small elite literate clique. The past was so small, in fact, that, as Leung notes, an early 20th century Chinese historian found that “…the earlier the supposed time of a historical figure, the later he made his first appearances in the received corpus.” The paucity of the accepted historical record was such that they seemingly needed to invent heroes to make up for it.
No such limitations would appear to exist for those of us in the contemporary world. Our past is an infinite place populated by a countless number of potential heroes. Despite this, it sometimes seems that our collection of exemplary individuals is just as limited as those that the thinkers of early China could reference. Sure, each of us has our own pantheon of personal heroes, but my love of Barry Bonds does not have the same cultural cachet as Confucius referencing the actions of the universally revered (at least among that tiny minority of historically aware elites) King Wen of Zhou. As a society, though, our canon of heroes is a tired group of presidents, politicians, soldiers, scientists, and celebrities. Some member of this hallowed group stand out mostly for the fact that their monstrousness swamps their supposed heroism, while others are marked more by basic competence than brilliance (It reminds me of the bit by comedian John Mulaney where he notes that by the standards of the NY Post “…a hero is any man who does his job: ‘Hero Tutor Teaches After School’”).
To be sure, the concept of heroism is itself impossible to define, depending as it does on the personal priorities of the individual, but that’s all the more reason not to passively accept the heroes that we are handed. It is liberating to realize that you don’t have to defend Thomas Jefferson’s slaveholding or, conversely, to realize that Frederick Douglas had more to say about liberty than TJ ever did. JFK’s assassination may have been tragic, but he was also a callow, pill-hopping, plagiarizer blessed with good looks, a good back story, and good speechwriters who nearly plunged the country into WWIII. My point is not to tear down our national heroes (although that’s fun too), but to suggest that in the infinite possibilities of our past, we don’t have to settle for these flawed paragons of national greatness. I also must note that even flawed people can make positive contributions to the world. If perfection is our standard the Hall of Heroes would end up awfully empty. As a starting point, I propose that if we must promote individuals to hero status let us look for people whose words and actions speak to their selflessness or who advocate for causes that they themselves might not even benefit from or who speak up or speak out even when there is no penalty for staying silent.
Whatever the standards for heroism are, at the very least we shouldn’t have to compromise our principles or values by elevating and then defending tragically flawed or downright villains into this pantheon of exemplary individuals. If we need heroes at all, then let’s find them outside our usual collection of racists, slaveholders, and warmongers. The historical record is large, the possibilities are endless, and we can do better. After all, the perfect may be the enemy of the good, but you know what else is the enemy of the good? Privileged assholes whose shitty behavior gets excused in the interests of nationalist myth-making.
“The tradition of all past generations weighs like an alp upon the brain of the living.” — Karl Marx
“…there has been enough of poison spread in this country during the past years and months, and this poison has had an effect on people’s minds. We must face this poison, we must root out this poison, and we must face all the perils that encompass us…” — Jawarhalal Nehru
“Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana
Each of the above quotes is ultimately about how we, in the present, interact with the past. The last, by Santayana, is by far the most oft-quoted and also the one that most misunderstands what history is and why it is important. In the “Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte,” Karl Marx better encapsulated what the past means to the present. Lastly, in his 1948 speech announcing Gandhi’s assassination to a stunned nation, Jawarhalal Nehru identified that some of the legacies of history are, in fact, poisonous. Ultimately, the past is important as something that lives within all of us regardless of whether it is remembered or forgotten.
The above quoted line from Marx is part of a larger statement about the legacy of the past on the present. In discussing the events that followed the February 1848 revolution in France he amended Hegel’s observation that, “great historic facts and personages recur twice,” by adding, “once as tragedy, and again as farce.” The point he was making goes far beyond the cliché that history repeats itself: “Man makes his own history, but he does not make it out of the whole cloth; he does not make it out of conditions chosen by himself, but out of such as he finds close at hand.” Those “traditions of all past generations” are often the things that are the easiest to grasp and thus as we act in the present we often do so by placing ourselves in the stories of the past. We fill roles previously played by predecessors and in doing so we “assume their names, their battle cries, their costumes to enact a new historic scene in such time-honored disguise and with such borrowed language.” In other words, when the French acclaimed Louis Bonaparte it was not because they had forgotten the past, but because they remembered it too well.
Does that mean that we should forget history in order to escape its legacy? I would be a poor historian if that were my recommendation. We do need to understand that the past is not a series of objective facts that can be plucked from the tree of knowledge to reveal “how things really were.” Neither can we rely on memory — clouded as it is by our own psychologies, biases, and the passage of time — as a source of historical truth. In the end, history as a discipline is much better at illuminating who we are in the present than who we were in the past. The tired old debate about the “original intent” of the “founding fathers” is as misguided as it is worthless. It is hard enough to get a handle on the inner workings of even those who we are closest to much less long-dead personages that lived in radically different cultural and intellectual contexts. We can see, however, that they left us a founding document within which slavery was enshrined. And it is possible to trace that legacy to the establishment of a racial caste system in this country; to war, to Jim Crow, to lynching and violence, and to our current political and social structures and institutions that continue to disadvantage people of color in the contemporary United States. The past is not separate from the present, in other words, it is constitutive of it.
The quote from a devastated Nehru came as he sought to make sense of the murder of Mohandas Gandhi, his dear friend, mentor, and hero, to an Indian nation still just four months removed from the triumph of independence and the tragedy of Partition. The speech that Nehru gave was extemporaneous, yet expressed his clear understanding of the legacies of the past. “The light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere,” he began, but later corrected himself: “The light has gone out, I said, and yet I was wrong. For the light that shone in this country was no ordinary light. The light that has illumined this country for these many years will illumine this country for many more years…” Gandhi, the man, may have been gone, but his message, his spirit, and his influence were woven into India. The fabric that made up the nation, however, had many threads and those of Gandhi were accompanied by those that helped produce his murderer Nathuram Godse. The product of a long-gestating Hindu nationalist movement based on the ideology of Hindutva (“Hinduness”), Godse saw Gandhi as a traitor who failed to understand that only Hinduism could provide Indians with “the incentive to national solidarity, cohesion, and greatness.” To Nehru, then, this horrific act was not just a a single isolated event since it was product of many of the same forces, the same past, that had produced Gandhi himself. As a result, when Nehru implored his people “to root out this poison…and face all the perils that encompass us,” he did so out of fear for what would happen if that poison was left to do its work on the body politic of India.
Yet, for all Nehru’s warnings about the presence of a poison, the aftermath of Gandhi’s assassination demonstrates the difficulty for those in the present to engineer the remembrances of those in the future. Nehru’s wish was for the message of Gandhi to live on while that of his murderer would fade from memory. The reality was very different. The Hindu Mahasabha Party of which Godse was a part, did break up following his trial, but reconstituted itself in the 1950’s under a different name. After several more iterations it reemerged as the Baratiya Janata Party (BJP) in 1980. In 2014 the BJP emerged as the ruling party in India under Prime Minister Modi, a position it still holds today. The following year, right-wing Hindus used the occasion of the anniversary of Gandhi’s murder to promote an effort, “to build a temple to honour Godse, a man they now describe as a hero for ridding the nation of Gandhi.”
Santayana treats remembrance as something objective and uncontested. The past, however, is not reducible to a series of lessons that can smooth our path to progress. It is instead complex, messy, and infinite and failing to understand that almost always serves the interests of the powerful. In a different speech at a different time, Nehru tempered his optimism about India’s future with a sobering reminder that “the past clings to us still…” To paraphrase Marx, the past doesn’t just cling to us, it does so with the weight of “all past generations.”