Adventus

"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"It is impossible for me to say in my book one word about all that music has meant in my life. How then can I hope to be understood?--Ludwig Wittgenstein

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Looking Backward (but not too far backward)



The biggest problem with any discussion of historical based arguments on the internet (or, be fair, cable TV) is that the problem can never have roots older than the age of the person complaining. Take this Slate article as an example.

The problem of how popular culture views American history dates back to 1993 according to that article, despite the fact it quotes an historian writing about the problem in 1925. But that's so long ago! Better to stick to a time frame more favorable to recent (!) memory.

I mean, I remember the '60's and how Dr. King was not a beloved figure, a reality that shocked Chris Hayes a few years ago when he saw some news footage of King being interviewed as if he were more a trouble maker than a sainted icon.  I didn't learn anything in Texas public schools about slavery in Texas history, or that it was the real reason people died at the Alamo and fought Santa Anna at San Jacinto.  I learned the John Wayne 1950's version of history, that virtuous white people battled the evil Mexican government for "freedom!"  No mention that that freedom included the freedom to enslave people who weren't white.  The Civil War, likewise, was the War Between the States for state's rights and not just because of slavery.  I learned the truth about both much, much later, and it was "revisioninst history" (kinda like history by Commies) when I did learn it.  That term was already old and grey and completely worn out by the time Rush Limbaugh revived it in 1993. (Yup, I remember that, too)

And all decent Americans hated Communism and socialism (gateway to communism) and never looked to the government for anything (except clean water, safe food, roads, railways, airports, national defense, interstate commerce, contract and commercial law, traffic laws, police and fire departments, schools, athletic events and team sports for children, public stadia and arenas for professional sports, regulation of the airwaves so FM music wouldn't be played on AM stations (I remember when AM stations PLAYED music) and kept pirate radio like Wolfman Jack south of the border where they couldn't stop him, but wanted to.

And nobody talked about how socialist Medicare was, or Social Security, or most of the New Deal programs that saved the country from revolution (but again, I learned that much, much later, because America was great and never on the brink of collapse, economically or otherwise) and the Civil War was just a Minor Inconvenience although it created the Damn Yankees of popular Southern lore, and the Great Depression was just a great inconvenience that people got through with grit and not with government help at all (my father insisted to his dying day that "WPA" stood for "We Piddle Around," because that's what he heard when he was a child in the Depression years before war, the greatest of all government programs, lifted all boats up to the bounteous free-flowing river of the '50's).  We certainly didn't talk about all the laws that kept blacks and whites separated because my family had nothing against black people but it was fine they couldn't go to school with me (until they could, in 1971.  25 years later "liberal" Austin was still resisting integrating its schools and making sure they were all treated equally.) because that's just the way things were and it didn't do to dwell on it or try to hard to change it, or want to change it too fast.  And here, if you don't hear Dr. King's diatribe against "WAIT" ringing in your ears, you need to stop and read his "Letter from Birmingham Jail" again.  (I finally read that in the new century, although I read Dick Gregory's autobiography when it was fresh and new, and also read "Black Like Me," which opened my eyes somewhat to what life for black Americans was like.)

I remember a great deal of history buried or overlooked or ignored.  I remember the publication of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, a cataclysm in a decade of them that is now mostly ignored again, where the very existence of Native Americans mostly comes up because of Elizabeth Warren, but never otherwise.  That was a massive recovery of history, too, because for most of us history came through movies from Hollywood.  For years the Alamo in San Antonio had a huge oil painting hanging above the entrance door depicting Davy Crocket bravely fighting off the invading hordes of Mexican soldiers as they clambered over the walls of the doomed mission turned fort.  Davy looked a lot like John Wayne, because the painting was a gift from Mr. Wayne after making his version of the intrepid stand for freedom to own slaves (never mentioned in the movie, of course), and the scene was one from the movie.  Neither was any truer to history, but it hung in the shrine of Texas history.  Today the truth of the battle, and the complexity of the situation, including the involvement of Mexicans on both sides of the battle, is better reflected in the walls of the Alamo than it was when the Daughters of the Republic of Texas kept it as a shrine to ideals that existed only in imagination, and only 100 years after the fact.

Old times there are not forgotten, but they're not remembered too accurately, either.

Like violence, historical amnesia is as American as cherry pie.  Ask Howard Zinn.  Ask any historian alive today.  Any historian, that is, who doesn't write popular clap-trap that continues to tell us what we want to believe.  Some probably still think Abe Lincoln was born in a log cabin he built with his own hands, and that George Washington did chop down a cherry tree, even though that was a lie invented by a biographer writing for children to teach them the virtues of honesty ("Tell a really good lie, kiddies!").  American history is full of self-serving foolishness and blatant lies and comforting falsehoods.  Is it really any surprise that the NYT "1619" project is annoying so many conservative writers? It would be more of a surprise if it didn't.  We've ignored the reality of slavery for 400 years. Did anybody really pay attention to the descriptions of slavery in Toni Morrison's Beloved?  Maybe for about as long as we did the violence in "Django Unchained," but one was a revenge fantasy, and one was a novel, and neither really affected the national conversation.  Hell, we imagine today that Martin Luther King floated down on clouds, told us he "had a dream," we all held hands and sang "Kum ba yah" and then went off for three days at Woodstock, and Dr. King floated back into the clouds again and everybody was happy.

The Civil Rights Act?  The Voting Rights act?  Wasn't that always the law?

Well, until Reagan took office.

I'm aware of the "Great Man" theory of history which most conservatives and whites still cling to, and they don't like it upset by "revisionist" historians who look at diaries and newspapers and records of history from ordinary people, unless it's not too much about upsetting things, like the way Ken Burns' documentary all but buried the issue of slavery in cards and letters and heartfelt feelings from lots and lots and lots of white people, when it wasn't being silent so the solo violin could play and Garrison Keillor could pour his honeyed voice over everything and make it alright again. That war should have destroyed us, but Burns is careful to leave us with the impression it was really more of a series of unfortunate events.  (I'm being too harsh, but how much of that do you recall being about slavery, and how much of it was about, in Auden's deathless phrase, "men who thirst at nine who were to thirst at noon"?).  Pepys is the exception that proves the rule, Churchill is the man who shaped British history and wrote his version into history, at least for most Americans.  The problem, ultimately, is not that a few white men whose opinions "count"  are upset by the effort of the New York Times, the problem is ultimately how we understand history and our place in it.  Reinhold Niebuhr was lecturing us on that when Time Magazine decided he was the most influential theologian in America.  And who remembers him now, or his Irony of American History, or his even more magisterial The Nature and Destiny of Man[sic]? That's all so pre-1993, it's like ancient history or something!  Better to stick with what we can easily find on the internet, and remember from our own experience to recollect and piece together.

I guess.

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