Historians: What Is This Supposed to Mean?

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National Review, September 11, 1962

While researching a (hopefully forthcoming) article about National Review’s treatment of African decolonization and the civil rights movement, I came across the cartoon above. I didn’t mention it in the article because I can’t really make sense of it.

It seems offensive, but what exactly is the message supposed to be? The immediate context around it is an article entitled, “Angola: Terrorists on the Run,” by Ronald Waring, in which he praises the Portuguese Army for its effective counterinsurgency campaign against Angolan rebels.

Waring was especially annoyed by what he saw as biased western press reports that played up Portuguese atrocities while downplaying African ones. Is that why the white figure in the cartoon is blindfolded? There’s a whole lot of weird stuff going on in this image.

The best interpretation I can come up with for this cartoon comes from the broader context of National Review’s view of African decolonization. It saw decolonization as the retreat of western civilization, a retreat enabled by naive American and European liberals who had silly notions of egalitarianism and human equality in their heads. While they prattled on about human freedom, “primitive” black Africans launched crude grasps for power that threatened to return the continent to “barbarism.” White liberals, blinded by their delusions about humanity, refused to see what was happening right in front of their eyes.

Perhaps that sensibility is what this cartoon is trying to depict. But I’d like to know what other people make of it.

Trump’s Big Lie—and the Court Evangelicals Who Believe Him

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“Why should I repent? Stocks are booming!”

President Trump called for unity in last night’s state of the union speech. Though he lies constantly and gratuitously unlike any President before him, calling for unity is a deeper and bigger kind of lie. It’s not a misstatement of fact as much as a coercive attempt to make us all live in the oppressor’s imagination. In that imagined reality, dehumanizing people does not and should not disrupt American unity. Immigrants and Muslims and people of color should be silent and happy no matter what is said about them or done to them.

Out here in the real world, most of us intuitively understand that domination is not the same thing as unity. In fact, it’s pretty much the opposite of it.

The call for unity was a rhetorical flourish delivered in bad faith, worthy of as much serious consideration as any randomly selected tweet from the President’s stream-of-consciousness thumbs.

If the President wanted unity he would start by offering a public apology for his decision to hate human beings, dehumanize them, and oppress them. He would explain why he did it, why and how he became aware of his evil behavior, and how he plans to make amends.

Once the President does that, we can have a conversation and search for common ground. This is a basic evangelical posture toward an evil ruler. We pray for such leaders, but our prayers center on the need for repentance and restitution. In the absence of repentance, we pray that their evil plans would be frustrated.

In contrast, the court evangelicals not only enable Trump, they take the radically anti-Christian posture that he doesn’t have much to repent of. For people like Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress, discriminating against gay people and letting white evangelicals visit the White House are key parts of advancing the gospel. Dehumanizing people and hating them are political positions about which Christianity is not concerned.

Here’s what Franklin Graham had to say yesterday:

With the stock market humming, pay raises and bonuses bristling, unemployment down, ISIS largely defeated, and taxes going down, the State of the Union shows glimmers of hope. Yet, we all know that something is missing. The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided. It takes humility to place your country’s best interests before your own. God’s Word says we all need to humble ourselves before the Lord and He will lift us up in due time. Whatever the State of the Union, as a nation, we need to humble ourselves, pray, and ask for mercy from a God who can sympathize with our weaknesses. Please pray for humility for all those that govern us across this nation, and pray that we the people would humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God.

Sounds nice, huh? Wait, what’s this? “The party out of power would prefer failure. We are divided.” Franklin Graham, an open and ardent Trump supporter, is lamenting that Americans are divided. He believes Trump’s big lie. He doesn’t experience Trump’s dehumanizing words and actions as threats to American unity because they don’t strike directly at his identity and community.

At this point it’s impossible to expect any honest dialogue from court evangelicals, but it would be fascinating to get a real response to a scenario like this: imagine that Trump said native-born white Americans are rapists and criminals in general, that the problem with white evangelical communities is that they have no spirit, that there were good people on both sides after a terrorist attack killed a white evangelical woman, that all Christian immigrants should be banned from entering the country, and so on.

Would the court evangelicals experience these statements as unifying and productive? Would it make them enthusiastic supporters of the President? If they would be bothered by these statements when directed at their own community, why don’t the same statements bother them when directed at other communities? Their refusal to align their lives with the gospel is obvious to everyone but themselves.

History Matters

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French anti-Semite Charles Maurras (AP)

The traditional double meaning applies to today’s title: these are matters of history, and history is important. Here is a quartet of recent stories from around the world illustrating the point that human beings are blessed—or doomed—to remember the past. That makes the ongoing project to remember well, with empathy and critical thinking, a crucial part of responsible citizenship in every society.

The New York Times reports on a remarkable recent discovery in Alabama:

Lorna Gail Woods had heard stories of the Clotilda since before she could speak. In the evenings, her grandmother would hold her on the porch and tell her the tale of how her great-great-grandfather came to Alabama on the last known slave ship to come to the United States.

They were brought by force, her grandmother would tell her, by an American businessman who just wanted to win a bet. Her great-great-grandfather Charlie Lewis was the oldest of 110 slaves bought in West Africa, chained in the hull of the Clotilda and sailed across the Atlantic to the Mobile-Tensaw River Delta in Alabama in 1860. But after the slaves were unloaded, the crew burned the ship, and its wreckage was never found, so many people doubted the story.

“My grandmother would tell us the story so we wouldn’t forget and so that we could continue to tell the story,” Ms. Woods, 69, said over the phone in a warm, Southern cadence.

On Monday, the story that Ms. Woods’s family — and many like hers in Africatown, the historic neighborhood of about 2,000 on the shores of the delta just north of Mobile — had passed down for more than 150 years became much more real.

On that day, Ben Raines, a reporter for AL.com, published an article in which he told of discovering the charred wooden remains of a boat believed to be the Clotilda. A team of archaeologists who visited the site said that based on the dimensions of the wreckage and its contents — including charred timber, iron drifts — the remnants were most likely those of the slave ship.

In Poland, new legislation has raised old questions about the Holocaust:

JERUSALEM — Legislation in Poland that would outlaw blaming Poles for the crimes of the Holocaust has prompted swift and furious condemnation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and Israeli lawmakers across the political spectrum.

The measure, which passed in the lower house of the Polish Parliament on Friday, would make it illegal to suggest Poland bore responsibility for atrocities committed on its soil by Nazi Germany during the occupation in World War II.

“The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it,” Mr. Netanyahu said in a statement on Saturday. “One cannot change history, and the Holocaust cannot be denied.”

Mr. Netanyahu said he had instructed the Israeli ambassador to Poland to meet with the Polish prime minister and express his disapproval.

The bill, which would need approval from Poland’s Senate and the president to become law, sets prison penalties for using phrases such as “Polish death camps” to refer to concentration camps set up by the Nazis in Poland.

This is controversial in part because the Nazis found willing collaborators across Europe, including in Poland. The French ought to know this too:

The name Charles Maurras evokes the darkest currents of the French past: strident nationalism and obsessive anti-Semitism. This, after all, was a man who advocated denying Jews citizenship because — to him — they could never be anything but traitors.

Despite this legacy, the French government included his name in the 2018 edition of the National Commemorations, an annual project to mark the anniversaries of notable figures and events. Maurras, for instance, was born in 1868, 150 years ago. In the text, he is described as an “emblematic and controversial figure.”

Following swift, sharp fallout over the weekend, Françoise Nyssen, France’s minister of culture, announced Sunday that the entire press run of the 2018 commemorative books will be recalled and reprinted without mention of Maurras. Her decision, she said in a statement, was meant to “remove the ambiguity” that was “likely to divide French society.”

For many, however, there was no ambiguity in the first place.

“Maurras was until the end of World War II the most prominent anti-Semite in France and the Number One enemy of liberal democracy,” said Zeev Sternhell, an expert in the history of French fascism and an emeritus professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, in an emailed statement.

“He was the intellectual leader of French hard nationalism until the end of Vichy. It was no accident that he had been sentenced to life in prison,” Sternhell said, referring to the French regime that collaborated with Nazi Germany in World War II.

Meanwhile in East Asia, tensions between Japan and South Korea continue over Japan’s atrocities during the Second World War:

The presidency of Donald Trump has triggered an unprecedented collapse of Brand America and sets the bar exceedingly low for global leaders. Yet Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Trump’s closest if not only friend among them, deserves special scrutiny for his recent refusal to apologize to South Korea over the horrors endured by tens of thousands of women treated as sex slaves by the Japanese military during the 1930s and 1940s.

There is a “been there, done that” aspect of South Korean-Japanese relations. These frenemies have never reached a mutually acceptable understanding of their shared past. Today true reconciliation has become even more elusive due to democratization in South Korea. Until the 1990s, South Korean authoritarian governments kept history caged, avoiding historical controversies in order to maintain good relations with Tokyo, which supplied them with significant economic assistance in tacit compensation for the indignities and abuses suffered under Japanese colonial rule (from 1910 to 1945). But the advent of freely elected governments unleashed smoldering popular resentments, and Koreans demanded recognition of what they endured. Politicians responded by tapping into these unresolved grievances for political gain.

Japan has changed, too. The rise of revisionists such as Abe, who embrace an evasive and exculpatory view of history, complicates Tokyo’s relations with Seoul. Japanese conservatives also play the history card to whip up their base, and Abe has been at the forefront of this movement to restore pride in the nation by whitewashing Japan’s Asian rampage (1931 to 1945) and trying to recast it as a war to liberate Asia from Western imperialism. At least 15 million Asian ghosts haunt that outlandishly rosy reinterpretation.

At the end of 2015, under pressure from Washington to get over history so that the three allies could upgrade ties, Tokyo and Seoul concluded an agreement aimed at resolving the festering “comfort women” issue. Although touted as “final and irreversible,” this diplomatic deceit was doomed not only because the public overwhelmingly rejected it but also because it lacks empathy toward the victims.

We look to the past for identity and meaning. But too often we forge our sense of belonging at the expense of others. Nationalist parties around the world, including the GOP here in the U.S., are forever worrying that hand-wringing about past misdeeds will tear at the national fabric and weaken our resolve. On the contrary, refusing to seek reconciliation and restitution makes future conflict more likely. Power fused to narratives of national righteousness does not make societies good; it makes them cruel and stupid.

The Moral Stakes of Contingency

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North Carolina Congressman George H. White, elected during the Republican-populist alliance of the 1890s.

Historians are almost allergic to the word inevitable. We talk about contingency, about the what ifs, about the choices people make and how they matter. As we look at the past and see how complex and interconnected everything is, we ponder how history-making events might have turned out very differently but for seeming coincidences, unpredicted variables and—the greatest variable of all—human behavior that defies expectations.

Last week students in my U.S. survey class read an astonishing document from Frederick Douglass. In 1869, Douglass bluntly defended a vision of American society built on diversity and universal equality. At a time when most Americans saw diversity as a problem to be solved, Douglass declared there was nothing wrong with diversity that equal rights wouldn’t solve. In many ways, the document feels incredibly contemporary. Students were naturally sympathetic to it, in contrast to the other materials we read promoting human inequality.

But their sympathy only got them so far. When asked if Douglass’s vision was actually possible to implement in the 1860s and 1870s, the students said it was not possible. The implication—though they didn’t say it in so many words—is that the revival of white supremacy after the civil war and reconstruction was inevitable.

Today, I presented a lecture designed to challenge the assumption of inevitability. Though the end of reconstruction is traditionally dated to 1877, we talked about key moments in the struggle for interracial democracy in the twenty years after the final withdrawal of federal troops from the South.

I emphasized that much of what we imagine would be required to implement Douglass’s vision was actually put in place during his lifetime. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 did much of what the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would later do, only to be struck down by the Supreme Court in 1883. The Lodge Force Bill of 1890 would have established federal oversight of elections not so different from the system later created by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. After passing the House it fell to a Senate filibuster.

For decades after the withdrawal of federal occupation, black southerners continued to vote in large numbers and wield political power. In fact, they forged interracial coalitions with white populists and, in the case of North Carolina, took over the entire state government. After winning big in the election of 1894, the fusion party promptly enacted a reform agenda to relieve poor farmers, invest in public education, and expand access to the voting booth. So popular was this agenda that in the election of 1896 the interracial alliance actually extended its gains. Democrats were almost completely wiped out of the state house and senate.

White supremacists won the election of 1898 not with better or more popular ideas but with more violence. Amid a campaign of relentless demagoguery encouraging poor whites to think about their racial status rather than their class interests, Democrats used violence and intimidation to keep people from the voting booth. In Wilmington, having failed to win the local elections even with such tactics, white militias simply attacked and overthrew the government by force.

Faced with interracial political alliances between poor whites and poor blacks, white elites in the South made the writing of new constitutions a major priority. These constitutions drastically restricted the right to vote using poll taxes, literacy tests, and grandfather clauses. Provisions that were colorblind on their face, they were designed to completely eliminate black voting. They also disenfranchised hundreds of thousands of poor whites.

It took white southern elites the better part of four decades to establish a new system of white supremacy on the ashes of the old. In that time of flux, the forces of democracy might have won. What if the federal government had ensured free elections? What if the Lodge Bill had passed? In the end, after much struggle and violence, the terrorists won. But they almost didn’t.

Having placed the new system of segregation on solid legal and electoral ground, white supremacists in the South promptly began to spin myths about it. Suddenly this new system was not new at all, but a natural state of relations between white and black, a tradition, an inevitability. Tell that to the 1,000 black government officials in 1890s North Carolina.

In the Jim Crow south, inevitability was the ideology of the oppressor and the complacent. Contingency was the resistor’s hope.

This was why it was important for Martin Luther King to write from a jail cell in Birmingham in 1963 that progress was not inevitable, that time would not heal wounds. Civil rights for all was not an idea whose time had finally come. It was an old idea—known and tried and fought for generations before—and now the civil rights movement was trying to rebuild what had been so tragically lost.

Maybe if enough people were willing to make themselves, in King’s words, “coworkers with God,” the passage of time would indeed bring progress. But maybe, had the dice landed slightly differently a century before, had a few more people been willing to act, Dr. King wouldn’t have been in Birmingham at all.

More Evidence that Churchgoing White Evangelicals Are Trump’s Base

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In and around white evangelicalism there’s a long debate about exactly how popular Donald Trump is and who the self-described white evangelicals are in all those polls. Some white evangelicals have continued to insist that polls are capturing the opinions of Trumpist “cultural evangelicals” who aren’t actually connected to local churches. Others say that the polling largely captures the reality of what white evangelicalism has become.

Reuters has a large ongoing rolling poll average that gives us another data point in this debate. It allows you to filter the data by a lot of different attributes. It shows some fascinating results.*

Let’s combine the polling from the last month and progressively narrow it down to smaller populations:

Trump approval/disapproval among:

Public: 38.3% / 57.0%

Ok, the public is not happy with the President.

Whites: 47.9% / 47.9%

White Americans are evenly split.

White born again Christians: 65.4% / 30.5%

Two-thirds of self-described “white born again Christians” favor Trump. Now here’s where it gets interesting. If the “cultural evangelical” thesis is correct, self-described white born again Christians who rarely attend church will be more supportive of Trump than self-described white born again Christians who frequently attend church. Let’s see:

White born again Christians who attend church several times a year: 61% / 36%

Hmmm. Less favorable toward Trump than white born again Christians overall. What about more faithful church attenders?

White born again Christians who attend church every week: 70% / 27%

White born again Christians who attend church more than once a week: 80% / 17.6%

For what it’s worth, there you have it. Reuters thinks it’s the people in church every time the doors are open that are most supportive of Trump. Assuming for a moment that the data points to something real, it raises questions about what’s driving the correlation. Obviously it’s multi-causal, but it’s worth asking whether there is something about these church environments themselves that make faithfully engaged people more likely to support oppression.


I’m not good with statistics so tell me if I’m getting something wrong here. Obviously the more filters you add the smaller the sample size and the larger the margin of error. But these results align with other polling data that seems to refute the talking point that “cultural” evangelicals are more supportive of Trump than faithful churchgoing white evangelicals.

 

Notes from the Classroom: First Day

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I never know quite how to start a new semester. I’m teaching the second half of the U.S. history survey (since 1877) and decided to do a little group activity to get students thinking about change over time in this crazy 140 year period we will be studying.

I divided them into five groups and assigned to each group a roughly 30 year period (the contemporary group got a shorter time) and asked them to come up with the three biggest changes/events/transformations they could think of during those 30 years. Here’s what the first class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Plessy v ferguson; New states in the west; Gilded age (industrialization)

Group 2 to 1936: World war 1; Great Depression; Prohibition

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two (holocaust); Civil rights movement; Cold War (space race, second red scare)

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate, Clinton’s election; End of Vietnam war

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11-> Afghanistan; Election of Obama; Tech (smartphones)

An interesting list, heavy on politics and war. I’m extremely skeptical that Clinton’s election was one of the three most important events between 1967 and 1996, but hey, make the argument!

And here’s what the second class came up with:

Group 1 to 1906: Ellis Island opened; Plessy v ferguson; Wright brothers

Group 2 to 1936: Great Depression; World War One; White Women’s suffrage

Group 3 to 1966: World War Two; Civil rights movement; Cold War

Group 4 to 1996: Watergate; Moon landing; Clinton impeachment

Group 5 to 2018: 9/11; Internet/social media; Increasing social acceptance (lgbt, first black president)

Another list heavy on war and politics. Clinton’s impeachment as historically significant seems more on the mark than his election, but on the other hand, he had to get elected to get impeached. Causality! Group 2 initially said “women’s suffrage” and then a black student pointed out that we’re effectively talking about white women’s suffrage. Sharp thinking.

I was very surprised these lists were not more tech heavy. I thought technology would be an easy thing for students to grab onto when they thought about change: lights, cars, planes, radio, tv, atomic energy, etc. But we had few mentions of it.

I asked students to remark on what they found interesting or surprising about the lists, and then I asked them to think about what kinds of change we didn’t put on our lists. They were pretty quick to identify that we were missing cultural changes (especially in the sense of popular culture). Other changes students mentioned were environmental, commercialization, and religion. In both classes I added my own suggestion because no one mentioned it: intellectual change. Students could readily identify large events in the realm of politics and war, but the lists did not directly include changes in the realm of the mind.

I used these discussions to make a few fairly obvious points. First, there’s been a lot of change! The way we understand ourselves and the world around us is bizarre and unusual; it’s different from the way Americans thought 140 years ago. I don’t think students understand that in a deep way, which is why our lists were heavy on outward events rather than more formative but harder to define changes in thought and culture. Second, our lists were not right or wrong as much as they were peculiar. I emphasized that our lists reflected our time and place and identities. They’re not good or bad, they’re just ours. Might they tell us something about what we believe is important in both the past and the present? Do they say something about what we think we ought to study when we study history? (Or maybe they just tell us what’s easiest to look up on a smartphone when you’re in a hurry).

After thinking so much about change over time, it was a natural transition into discussion of Flannery and Burke’s 5 C’s of historical thinking. All in all the class was probably more blah than scintillating, but I thought the exercise was fun.

Cartoon of the Day

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Kenyan political cartoonist Victor Ndula provides a geographically precise depiction of Trump’s imagined Africa.

Remarks like the ones President Trump made yesterday are viscerally upsetting and are damaging in their own right. We’re correct to respond to them. But we should also try to keep our focus on policy and respond just as forcefully to cruel and inhumane actions, such as the end of Temporary Protected Status for immigrants from El Salvador and Haiti. Trump’s negative comments about these places are drawing more outrage than his oppressive actions toward them.

This kind of behavior is yet another occasion to publicly lay down the marker we must keep laying down in our Christian circles: every day a Christian wakes up supporting Trump is a day they wake up engaging in wilful and open sin. They are mocking the gospel of Jesus Christ and have broken fellowship with the church.

Event: The Letter from Birmingham Jail at Eastern State Penitentiary

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This Martin Luther King Day weekend, come out to Eastern State Penitentiary for reading and discussion of the Letter from Birmingham Jail, a defining document of the civil rights movement.

Readings will take place throughout the day Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. See the Eastern State site for details.

The great Dax Richardson will be voicing Dr. King. Temple’s Minju Bae and I will facilitate the discussions and provide historical context. Monday’s sessions will also feature readers from the community.

In past years, these readings and discussions have been powerful times of reflection and dialogue. I’ve been privileged to participate in this event during a whirlwind of change over the past few years. In 2015 and 2016, the black lives matter movement made the discussion of the letter feel extremely urgent. In 2017, after the election of Donald Trump and the palpable turn in the national mood away from attention to racial injustice, the letter took on a different hue. Who knows what this year will bring!

Whether you’re able to come to a reading or not, if you’ve never been to Eastern State, you should go! It is an astonishing historic site. In recent years Eastern State has won major national awards for its top-notch exhibits and programming. Their exhibit on mass incarceration is sobering and deeply relevant.

The Story the Terrorists Told

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Our Mississippi was the main history textbook used by Mississippi public schools during the 1950s and 1960s. I encountered this book a number of years ago while working on my thesis and had forgotten all about it. While doing lecture prep today I discovered it again. Here’s what Mississippi high schoolers in the civil rights era were learning about the Ku Klux Klan:

In 1866, a secret organization, the Ku Klux Klan, was founded in Tennessee. It quickly spread throughout the South. The purpose of the Klan was the protection of weak, innocent, and defenseless people, especially the widows and orphans of the Confederate soldiers. Besides this worthy aim, the Klan had another purpose – that of restoring the political power in the South to the educated and responsible white men who formerly had held it…The Ku Klux Klan did its work effectively and well. One after another, unfit and corrupt people were removed from office. Not only the Negroes but also the carpetbaggers and scalawags were visited, and little by little these people became afraid to use their influence.”

People nurtured on these stories would find it very difficult to act humanely in the present. Folks, historiography matters a lot!