In Appreciation of David Brion Davis

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David Brion Davis has passed away. I first encountered his books some ten years ago, well before I decided to become a historian. When I read Inhuman Bondage, I was mesmerized. It wasn’t just his command of facts or the clarity of his interpretations. It was the sense that he wrote with a nuance and understanding of humanity that was as much philosophical and theological as historical. I’m sure it was because of books like this that I began to contemplate the possibilities of history as a profession.

Read the first chapter of Davis’s The Problem of Slavery in the Age of Emancipation and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s a discussion of the meaning of dehumanization and animalization in American slavery that ranges across history, psychology, and theology to draw a portrait not merely of a particular moment in time, but of the human condition we all share. Davis was interested in whether humans who were treated and spoken of as animals “were ever literally seen as ‘only animals.'” He joins Kwame Anthony Appiah in arguing that the answer is no, that indeed, the excesses of cruelty humans inflict on each other while calling them lice or cockroaches and the like suggests a recognition of their humanity. You don’t bother trying to humiliate a cockroach. Thus we have the invention of “animalized humans” as seen in the Americas, in Germany, in Rwanda. Davis writes,

Given the Nazi example, it is worth noting that the antipode of this animalizing can be seen in a universal tendency to project our potentiality for self-transcendence, freedom, and striving for perfection onto images of kings, dictators, demagogues, and cultural heroes of various kinds. This form of idolatry, which ancient Judaism fortunately singled out as the most dangerous sin facing humanity, can also appear in various kinds of narcissism and egocentrism, as when an individual imagines that he is godlike and free from all taint of finitude and corruption…

This is a history book? Yes! And it’s great.

In any event, the creation of “animalized humans” can produce a mental state in the victimizers and spectators that disconnects the neural sources of human identification, empathy, and compassion, the very basis for the Golden Rule and all human ethics. In extreme cases, this means the ability to engage in torture or extermination without a qualm. But the focus on extreme cases can obscure the fact, emphasized by David Livingstone Smith, that “we are all potential dehumanizers, just as we are potential objects of dehumanization.” No doubt many situations arise, especially in war, where people kill or inflict pain without misgivings and without any explicit animalization. But the victims must still be dehumanized in similar ways. And animalization, which also appears in such group differentiations as class, caste, and ethnicity, as well as race, clearly makes the process easier for large collective groups.

Davis was always interested in the universal human condition. But he gave no reprieve to the specific pathologies of America:

The psychological mechanism of animalization has been so deeply implanted in white culture, with respect to African Americans, that most white Americans have been unaware of their usually unconscious complicity as well as the significant benefits they have reaped from their ‘transcendent whiteness.’

I don’t want to derail an appreciation of a great historian, but I will note at this point that understanding Davis helps us to see more clearly how the current administration is not merely misguided or incompetent, but is in fact a profoundly evil enterprise playing with the worst of our human impulses.

Davis lived an extraordinary life. He was a World War Two veteran! He has written humbly about his awakening to racism through his own very uncomfortable experiences with black troops as a young soldier. His life bridged very different social and historiographical eras, from Jim Crow and a history of slavery encrusted in myth and racism, to a flourishing post-civil rights era historiography bursting with new insights and anti-racist perspectives. He did more than his share in bringing about this momentous change.

It is fitting that the great historian of abolition, Manisha Sinha, just published a long and respectful reappraisal of Davis’s career in the February issue of the American Historical Review. In the conclusion of that piece Sinha wrote, “nearly all historians of abolition must still begin with Davis’s initial attempt to delineate it.” Not a bad legacy.

Are Southern Baptists Ready To Face Their Past?

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Some Southern Baptists are trying to reckon with their tradition’s shameful past. The Washington Post reports:

More than two decades after the Southern Baptist Convention — the country’s second-largest faith group — apologized to African Americans for its active defense of slavery in the 1800s, its flagship seminary on Wednesday released a stark report further delineating its ties to institutionalized racism.

The year-long study by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary found that all four founding faculty members owned slaves and “were deeply complicit in the defense of slavery,” R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the seminary, wrote in his introduction to the 72-page report he commissioned.

The report also noted that the seminary’s most important donor and chairman of its Board of Trustees in the late 1800s, Joseph E. Brown, “earned much of his fortune by the exploitation of mostly black convict lease laborers,” employing in his coal mines and iron furnaces “the same brutal punishments and tortures formerly employed by slave drivers.”

The report provided largely harsh assessments of the seminary’s past actions, even as it at times lauded the institution for racial strides.

Many of the founding faculty members’ “throughout the period of Reconstruction and well into the twentieth century, advocated segregation, the inferiority of African-Americans, and openly embraced the ideology of the Lost Cause of southern slavery,” that recast the South as an idyllic place for both slaves and masters and the Civil War as a battle fought over Southern honor, not slavery, Mohler wrote in his introduction.

The faculty opposed racial equality after Emancipation and advocated for the maintenance of white political control and against extending suffrage to African Americans, the report said. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the seminary faculty relied on pseudoscience to justify its white supremacist positions, concluding that “supposed black moral inferiority was connected to biological inferiority,” according to the report. And decades later, the seminary was slow to offer full support for the civil rights movement, advocating a “moderate approach.”

The seminary’s public reckoning comes as universities grapple with the darker corners of their pasts amid passionate challenges from students and faculty. At colleges across the country, protesters have toppled some Confederate monuments, while other statues remain the subjects of fierce debate.

“It is past time that The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary — the first and oldest institution of the Southern Baptist Convention, must face a reckoning of our own,” Mohler wrote.

I have not read the report, but the outline presented here is a positive step. White evangelicals desperately need to retell our histories. We should praise institutions that begin to do so, however imperfectly. In the Southern Baptist archives one finds historical surveys defending the SBC’s racial record from its inception. Some articles describe how concerned Southern Baptists have always been for the spiritual welfare of black people. These are post-civil rights era rationalizations, offered at a time when people should have known better. Explaining how Southern Baptists really did want the people they were torturing to go to heaven is not a good look, especially when written in the 1980s.

This report seems to be a step beyond those earlier rationalizations. That’s a good thing. It is vital for the SBC’s future, as for evangelicalism’s, to be able to understand the past in a more humble way. Rather than seeing the evangelical tradition as the protector of orthodoxy, white evangelicals must come to see that they are inheritors of a tradition that was often hateful and heretical. Without this self-understanding, white evangelicals can’t possibly engage responsibly with those the movement has harmed.

It will be interesting to see:

a) how Southern Baptists on the ground react to this report.

b) whether it will be paired with any meaningful action.

c) whether other Southern Baptist and white evangelical institutions will follow the lead of SBTS and examine their own racial histories.

Was The Country Ready For Obama?

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Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:

1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.

In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.

2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.

In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!

3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.

4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexism played a role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.

Slavery Might Influence Your Political Opinions

9780691176741Nearly 70 years ago, in his classic study of southern politics, V.O. Key wrote, “Whatever phase of the southern political process one seeks to understand, sooner or later the trail of inquiry leads to the Negro.” Key’s explanation for the uniqueness of southern politics was the line of black-belt counties (so named for their soil) stretching through the Deep South and along the Mississippi River. These rich agricultural counties had high black populations because of their central role in the antebellum slave economy.

According to Key, the dominance of these counties in their respective states created a sectional bloc in national affairs, while factionalizing politics within the states themselves. Exerting an influence out of all proportion to their population, white elites in these counties built a uniquely southern brand of politics concerned with their very particular circumstances. As Key wrote, “In these areas a real problem of politics, broadly considered, is the maintenance of control by a white minority.”

Contemporary scholars have built on many of Key’s findings. These counties are definitely unique, and the white voters in them are among the most conservative and racially reactionary in the country. Why is this so?

A new book argues that what we are seeing in this region is the direct legacy of slavery on contemporary political attitudes. I plan to read the whole thing, but for now I am settling for the introduction, which the publisher has made available online. The authors write:

We argue in this book that political attitudes persist over time, making history a key mechanism in determining contemporary political attitudes…We argue that Southern slavery has had a lasting local effect on Southern political attitudes and therefore on regional and national politics. Whites who live in parts of the South that were heavily reliant on slavery and the inexpensive labor that the institution provided…are more conservative today, more cool toward African Americans, and less amenable to policies that many believe could promote black progress. By contrast, whites who live in places without an economic and political tradition rooted in the prevalence of slavery…are, by comparison, more progressive politically and on racial issues. These regional patterns have persisted historically, with attitudes being passed down over time and through generations.

Wouldn’t it be ironic if you oppose reparations for slavery because it was “too long ago” but the influence of slavery on your own political views is actually the reason you oppose reparations? Ha.

The correlation the authors describe has been understood for a long time. It is a powerful clue, but it doesn’t establish cause.  How can they demonstrate that slavery and contemporary political attitudes really are linked in a causal way?

I’ll be curious to see how these authors, as political scientists, build a theoretical framework for making this argument. In brief, they contend that the link between slavery and contemporary attitudes has been transmitted by a mixture of institutions (Jim Crow laws for example) and “family socialization and community norms.” Knowing what we do about how sticky political affiliations can be across generations, it would be hard to believe that the political influence of a centuries-long society-defining institution like slavery could dry up in just a century and half. The trick is to try to measure and show that influence in a tangible way.

A lot of people don’t realize that there is an influential white southern political tradition based on opposition to the post-civil war constitution, democracy, and human rights. This is one of the most influential political traditions in American history. We don’t like to think or talk about it as much as the tradition of equality and freedom, but these visions have been running alongside each other throughout our history. It’s still active now. For voters influenced by that white southern political tradition, Trump’s racism and hostility to the rule of law likely make him more appealing, not less.

History Matters: Remember Well

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A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

Evangelical Theology Can Be Anti-Racist

This is a follow-up to the last post. The Times mentioned a sermon Pastor Robert Morris preached last October. Here is that sermon:

You probably don’t have the time or inclination to watch it so I’ll try to make my comments intelligible whether you’ve watched it or not. Then I’ll compare it to a talk from another white evangelical figure, Timothy Keller.

Morris’s sermon is a fascinating mixture of provocation (he says he’s talking to “ignorant white people”), folk beliefs (races come from Noah’s sons), and inspiring one-liners (you have to take the time to see things from others’ perspectives). He wraps it all up in familiar evangelical tropes about the need for revival.

Morris seems to have given little thought to what race is. As best I can tell, in Morris’s schema race = skin color. And those skin colors/races came from Noah’s sons. One was black, one was white, and one was brown. We know this, Morris says, because of the meanings of their names. Ham, he says, “means hot and black.” No, it doesn’t.

From there he turns to a bizarre discussion about how “a dark skinned person does better in a hotter climate.” This was one of the major points apologists for African slavery made. In all of this, he appears to be completely unaware that he is brushing up against centuries of white supremacist and pro-slavery thought. He is not advocating the so-called “curse of Ham” defense of slavery here, but he’s coming far closer to it than he probably realizes. His adoption of erroneous centuries-old etymological assumptions about the meaning of “Ham” combined with a literal interpretation of Noah’s descendants as the origin of race seems to lead unavoidably to the conclusion that black people were in fact cursed. I’d like to hear him talk about this more. I doubt he’s aware of the implications of his words.

Morris goes on to try to shock his audience with the idea that Adam and Eve were brown and there are black people in the Bible. This is the Christian parallel for the worst sort of Black History Month celebrations, where we locate random “contributions” from black people without dealing with the bigger picture.

One might have hoped that Morris would bring real theological reflection to his task and explain how an evangelical interpretation of scripture is brought to bear on racism in our time and place. Instead, specificity of any kind is Morris’s greatest enemy. He wants to speak as broadly as possible, so as to appear to say a lot while saying very little. So of his seven points we get things like, “racism is evil.”

And you can forget application. We need things like “healing” and “understanding” and “revival.” Everything was interpersonal. You won’t hear anything about power. If anyone in that church walked out knowing what they were actually supposed to do they’re much better mind-readers than I.

I believe Morris was well-meaning. Does that make it better or worse?

Now, in contrast, here’s Tim Keller giving a talk on “Racism and Corporate Evil.”

I won’t dwell on this at any length. But the contrasts are huge, and it’s not just because Keller is actually engaging with serious people who have thought about these issues (he discusses Michelle Alexander and William Stuntz). The bigger contrast is that Keller is being more evangelical than Morris. It’s very hard to find in Morris’s sermon a robust sense of the gospel and how it shapes Christian understanding of race. For Keller, that’s the whole point.

In Keller’s talk, whether you agree with it or not, you have to reckon with it as a serious attempt to think about racism in the context of an evangelical reformed view of the gospel. As Keller builds his case, he shows how it is precisely his evangelical view of sin and grace that compels him to think in terms of corporate responsibility. Thus the Christian who claims to believe that “in Adam all died” but then turns around and says “I never owned slaves, why do I have any responsibility?” is not connecting the gospel to American life.

From a cultural and political point of view, Morris is the true evangelical figure in this comparison. But from a theological perspective, Keller’s more sophisticated argument is also the more evangelical one. Where Morris offers vague tropes infused with lingering assumptions of southern white culture, Keller shows that taking responsibility for systemic injustice is a logical consequence of his evangelical theology.

We don’t need to try to convert congregations like Pastor Morris’s to political liberalism. That’s not the point. But maybe we can try to persuade them to take Christianity more seriously.

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 Sense of Loss Fueling Christian Right Politics

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Last night some remarks Roy Moore made several months ago resurfaced. Back in September, the LA Times reported:

In response to a question from one of the only African Americans in the audience — who asked when Moore thought America was last “great” — Moore acknowledged the nation’s history of racial divisions, but said: “I think it was great at the time when families were united — even though we had slavery — they cared for one another…. Our families were strong, our country had a direction.”

I want to hear from the reporter about what might have been contained in the ellipsis, but it’s hard to imagine a context that makes this ok. There are two main ways to read this. One is that the united families he speaks of were white and he is ignoring the existence of black people. The other is that he is resurrecting the old saw that says while slavery wasn’t good, at least black families were together.

Either way you read it, the statement is hateful and dehumanizing. For the record, historians of slavery estimate that around a third of enslaved families in the antebellum period were broken up by sale. In any case, these families were not legally constituted and had no legal recourse in the face of every imaginable assault on the family: sale, assault, rape, child abuse, and so on.

Though Moore’s words reveal the mind of a racist extremist, they also reflect a sensibility that is quite common in the Christian Right. The movement’s politics are fueled by an extraordinary sense of loss and nostalgia.

Christian Right activists are forever trying to recover a lost golden age. They look to that nineteenth century moment when evangelicalism was at the center of American life. From public schools to universities, religion was honored. The nation’s foundation was secure. Then came the inroads of Darwinism, mass migration, urbanization and industrialization, then the sweeping cultural changes of the 1920s. Suddenly the country seemed so much more complicated.

The 1950s were an echo of that nineteenth century golden age. Never had the American public been so faithful in church attendance, and in the battle against communism America’s leaders publicly called for divine aid. Faith was once again honored in the public square. Hierarchies of sex, gender, and race were intact.

Then it all came crashing down in the 1960s. Sexual revolution, youth rebellion, Supreme Court decisions taking God out of schools. For the white nationalist evangelicals, the oppression of black people in these supposed golden ages is a feature. Others in the Christian Right are simply not thinking about black people at all. Because black people are not a part of their imagination, not a part of the community of full human beings, it is possible to read American history as a story of unmitigated decline.

Most people fueled by this politics of loss say that of course they think slavery was bad. Of course they don’t want a return to Jim Crow. But they fail to see how even such basic claims—“slavery is bad”—if taken seriously, challenge their politics of loss.

What’s most striking about the Christian Right’s nostalgia is its extraordinarily narrow scope. The narrative of loss speaks to the historical experience and memory of a minority of Americans, but they insist that it defines the national story. For Roy Moore and his supporters, the idea that there are people in the world who aren’t white middle-class Christians, and they matter too, is a disorienting shock.

If You See Something, Say Something

Confederate Flag Future

This weekend at a community celebration in white, small-town America, terrorist flags waved in the air. As children laughed and scampered about and people bought their glow sticks and funnel cakes, no one seemed to pay much attention to the symbols of evil the cart vendors pushed threw the crowd.

Of course I’m being deliberately provocative, but provocation can be a useful tool to awaken our deadened moral imaginations. Confederate flags at a community fair are evidence of cultural pathology. As far as I could discern, their presence stirred no resistance from the community.

I talked to one of the vendors pushing his little cart through the crowd. As best I can recall, the conversation went like this:

Me: “Hi, are these flags for sale?”

Vendor: “Yeah buddy, they’re $15 bucks, which one do you want?

Me: “No, I’m not going to buy one. I know you’re just doing your job, but this flag is wildly offensive.”

Vendor: “No it ain’t; I just sold one to a black woman down the street.”

Me: “Oh, really?” (It seemed a transparent lie, not least because there were almost no black people there)

Vendor: “It’s history. If you don’t know your history it might offend you.”

At that he rushed on, seeking to avoid engaging, and I declined to harass him further. (For the record, I’m a historian.)

About 15 minutes later he came through our section of the crowd again and the Confederate flag was gone. I assume someone bought it. But maybe, just maybe, he took it down.

If people in your community were waving ISIS flags you would notice. We need to reframe our understanding of how despicable confederate nostalgia is. There must be no tolerance for it in your community. Confront people lovingly and politely, but don’t remain silent and become complicit in their sin. If you see something, say something.

What’s in a Name? When It Comes to the History of American Slavery, the Stakes Are High

georgia 1860s.jpeg
Enslaved people in Georgia, 1850s.

Last week in my lectures on evangelicalism in the nineteenth century, I never used the word “plantation.” Inspired by Edward Baptist and this recent article from the Smithsonian Magazine, I relentlessly referred to “slave labor camps.” For example: “Many enslavers built churches at their slave labor camps to promote a theology of submission to authority.”

In my lectures, “masters” did not “own slaves” who worked on “plantations.” Instead, they enslaved people and compelled them to work in brutal conditions.

Now here’s the interesting thing: I made this interpretive move unannounced and did not draw attention to it. None of my students commented on it or asked any questions about it. Indeed, it’s not even clear to me that they understood I was talking about plantations.

Now, it seems to me we need to have a debrief about last week’s lectures. We need a conversation about how language shapes historical interpretation and our remembrance of the past. I think I need to ask my students directly what words I might have used instead of “slave labor camp,” and ask them why they think I used the words I did. Perhaps I could ask them what words or images or associations the word “plantation” brings to their minds, and then ask the same of the phrase “slave labor camp.”

Depending on how they answer those questions, I may ask them to think about whose perspective is foregrounded depending on which phrase we use. Neither phrase is neutral.

I don’t know how this little debrief will go, but one possible point of conclusion is to take this in the direction of memory and culture through the lens of something like Gone with the Wind. My concluding point of emphasis is that only in a white supremacist society could something as awful and barbaric as the 19th century southern plantation become encrusted in layers of nostalgia and romance.

Because of white supremacist memory, “plantation” no longer actually signifies that to which it refers. A place of inhumanity has become a symbol of a lost world of southern gentility. I intend to keep using “slave labor camp” instead, but I’m very curious to hear my students’ thoughts about it tomorrow.