Caught Between Rage and a Working Faith

August 21, 2014

"Officer Go Fuck Yourself" aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/).

“Officer Go Fuck Yourself” aiming rifle at protestors and journalists, Ferguson, MO, August 19, 2014. (http://www.deathandtaxesmag.com/).

After the events of the past month — between Eric Garner and the NYPD, Michael Brown and the Ferguson, Missouri PD — I find myself of two minds. My primal mind says, “Fuck the fucking police!” Resist with rocks, with bricks, with bombs and grenades. Go buy a composite bow with composite arrows. Go buy a rifle with a scope, and take out as many of these motherfuckers as I can. Maybe they’ll think twice about putting someone like me in a choke-hold or shooting us with our hands up if they knew we could organize ourselves into vigilante groups, well armed and well adept at escape and stealth, ready to put the likes of Sunil Dutta out of their racist-ass misery!

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD's finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured)  and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (http://www.thegrio.com).

Eric Garner in midst of dying from choke-hold via NYPD’s finest, Daniel Pantaleo and (not pictured) and Justin Damico, Staten Island, NY, July 17, 2014. (http://www.thegrio.com).

The mind I live in and with every day, though, puts the kibosh on such evil yet well deserved plans of action. Because in light of so much police harassment, brutality and state-sanctioned murders, to say that this shouldn’t be a response belies everything all of us know about human nature. Yet my mind says, “No. This isn’t the way to fight. You’re a writer. You’re a teacher. You’re a believer. Use your tools!” So I pray, I always pray, for people to seek and find the light, to forgive and be forgiven, for peace.

But as the New Testament in James says, “Faith without works is dead” (look that one up, evangelical Christians committed to White privilege!). None of us can hope to change our own lives — much less something as intractable as structural and institutional racism — on prayer and faith in God, the federal government and/or science alone. We have to do, too. In my case, writing and teaching is what I do. Posting to my blog about the palpable rage that I know exists within me and many others who have faced brutality because of racism, misogyny, poverty, homophobia, Whiteness and fear. Teaching about “the physical and psychological wages of Whiteness” (thanks, W.E.B. Du Bois via Black Reconstruction [1935]). Being part of the social media crowd demanding humanity and justice for Michael Brown. This is who I am and what I do.

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Me the Evil Blogger at home, Silver Spring, MD, August 1, 2010. (Donald Earl Collins).

Is it enough to assuage my rage, my guilt for not being able to do more? Yes, most of the time. But I have to remind the perfectionist that remains within me, I can’t do much, but I can do something. And, that this isn’t about me, even with as much as I’ve experienced in racial profiling and abuse of power, at home and with police. It’s about all of us. So, if I do buy a composite bow with arrows, I will train to use it well. Just not on other humans, no matter how reprehensible.


US Intervention Issues, Easy To Predict & Do Nothing About

August 9, 2014

An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, as US air strikes in Iraq begin, August 8, 2014. (AFP/US Navy via http://images.smh.com.au/). In public domain.

An F/A-18E Super Hornet takes off from the aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush in the Persian Gulf, as US air strikes in Iraq begin, August 8, 2014. (AFP/US Navy via http://images.smh.com.au/). In public domain.

We’re back at it in Iraq again, albeit on a limited basis. Humanitarian food and medicine drops, airstrikes on ISIS positions near the US consulate in Erbil (also an oil depot, by the way). The saga that has been the twenty-three year quagmire of Iraq, one entirely of our own making, continues. That President Barack Obama has called this intervention one in prevention of “genocide” doesn’t impress me and many others, considering the actions of Israel in Gaza over the past six weeks. I guess one nation’s genocide is another nation’s defense through indiscriminate killing and wounding. The hypocrisy stinks from here to Pluto and back.

I digress. Americans now loathe the words “Iraq,” “Middle East,” and “intervention.” Yet after Vietnam, and especially after the end of the Cold War, we should have held our government accountable for any interventions without clear causes, clear interests, and clear objectives. Instead, we’ve been stumbling all over the place, like a drunkard with a car full of bombs and shells, careening from one conflict to another, blowing up people, places and property all along this wild and disgusting ride.

But let’s not act as if this was unforeseen. The most astute foreign policy experts withoutPhDs in Soviet studies (e.g., Condoleezza Rice) knew that any major intervention in the Middle East, whether to protect people or US energy interests, would mean intervening over and over again. All with the potential for geopolitical instability as the interventions would stack up over time.

FRONTLINE logo, PBS, August 9 2014. (http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/art/bigfl.jpg).

FRONTLINE logo, PBS, August 9 2014. (http://www-tc.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/art/bigfl.jpg).

And no, I’m not talking about a 1993 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies or a 1999 conference hosted by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That would be far too obscure and inside-expert to be clairvoyant. Try PBS’s FRONTLINE series of documentaries between 1990 and 2000. They did at least three documentaries predicting this gradual but steady destabilizing of the Middle East with the help of an increasingly interventionist American foreign policy, starting with Operation Desert Shield in August 1990.

Below are the three FRONTLINE documentaries that I watched during the period in which experts predicted the infuriatingly unstable world wrought by capricious US foreign policy, economic dominance and military interventions (all from the website http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/programs):

The Arming of Iraq: Frontline Special (aired September 11, 1990)
FRONTLINE examines how Saddam Hussein built Iraq’s massive arsenal of tanks, planes, missiles, and chemical weapons during the 1980’s. Correspondent Hodding Carter inve[s]tigates (sic) the complicity of the US, European governments, and Western corporations in creating the Iraqi military machine the world is now trying to stop.

Give War A Chance (aired May 11, 1999)
FRONTLINE explores the bitter divide between military and civilian attitudes about where, when, and why America employs military force. In examining the gulf between what American diplomats want and what the military is prepared to deliver, correspondent Peter J. Boyer follows the inevitable collision from Vietnam to the Balkans between diplomat Richard Holbrooke and Admiral Leighton Smith. Their careers, and ultimate clash, represent the most vivid example of this critical foreign policy dilemma.

The Future of War (aired October 24, 2000)
The U.S. Army is experiencing an identity crisis brought on by the end of the Cold War. As it heads into the 21st century, the nation’s largest military service is struggling to keep pace with changing technology, changing enemies and increasingly global missions. FRONTLINE examines the Army’s internal debate between those promoting change and those resisting it, and how todays decisions may impact the outcome of wars fought decades from now.

Emaciated and dead cow in desert, Australia, 2009. (Government of Australia via http://www.nsf.gov/news/).

Emaciated and dead cow in desert, Australia, 2009. (Government of Australia via http://www.nsf.gov/news/).

The last one actually included examples of possible future interventions going into the late-2010s, with a particular focus on Iraq.

So to those millions of Americans who don’t want to dwell on the past and only talk about the vapid and the positive, I say that’s hard to do when we let our past fester like carrion in the middle of the Sahara Desert at high noon. The stink is too obvious to ignore, and apparently was so easy to predict that most Americans ignored it. And all to our peril, past, present and future.


A Children’s Crusade

August 2, 2014

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

Living among the dead, Flanders, Belgium, most likely during Second Battle of Ypres, April 21-May 25, 1915. (http://www.flandersfieldsmusic.com/).

World War I reached its 100th anniversary on Monday. One hundred years ago this week, European imperialism, nationalism, and Social Darwinism/scientific racism all led to what was once known as the Great War. It was a war that would leave ten million soldiers, sailors and airmen dead, another seven million civilians dead from military action, malnutrition and disease, and another 23 million wounded in action on both sides.

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

A British Mark V tank coming out of a trench, France, circa 1917. (Imperial War Museum via http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2013/10/05/).

That war, a mostly European war of the great world powers, was itself based in the idea that Western culture and technologies would make this a quick and winnable war of dominance, for Germany, Britain, France and possibly Russia. The first war planes, the first tanks, the first submersibles, along with mustard and chlorine gas, nests of machine guns and trench warfare. It’s amazing how small-minded these so-called great powers were a full century ago, and so remarkable that we’ve grown beyond this thinking today!

Actually, not so fast! Our world seems to have learned little from the lessons of the First World War, repeating practices that leave the globe perpetually on the brink of chaos and potentially in peril of annihilation. We’ve seen this with the Second World War, with the Cold War and its myriad proxy wars in the Global South, with post-Cold War aggression in the Balkans, the Middle East, Sub-Saharan Africa, and with US preemptive aggressions in the Muslim world. Ethnocentrism and ethnic cleansing in the name of a religion (or a lack thereof, in a couple of cases) or nationalism has been a part of modern war since World War I.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK,  June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Poppies in field between Kelling and Weybourne, North Norfolk, England, UK, June 2002. (John Beniston via Wikipedia). Released to public domain via CC-SA-3.0.

Imperialism and colonialism and resistance to both in the name of freedom, or too frequently, another form of ethnocentrism and religious nationalism. Name a given nation, and you have some strain of Western imperialism and colonization, resistance and ethnocentrism and nationalism (religious, anti-religious or otherwise) running through their recent history. India, Pakistan, the former Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, the former Yugoslavia, Perón’s Argentina, Pinochet’s Chile, the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia, South Africa and apartheid, Israel and Zionism and settler colonialism, Japan and its military occupation of China, just to name a few. The First World War unleashed these forces this week one hundred years ago, a Pandora’s box that we will need to destroy, for it’s obviously too late to close it.

One of Sting’s songs from his first solo album, The Dream of the Blue Turtles, is titled “Children’s Crusade” (1984). It’s the story of Britain’s blind march into the First World War, the wasting of a generation of youth in the name of the empire, juxtaposed with the UK’s heroin and drug epidemic of the early 1980s.

Young men and soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

Though not his best work, Sting’s “Children’s Crusade” has made me think more than once about the brutality of humanity and this inherent need to dominate other human beings, as well as the lands and resources for which vulnerable people have been cleansed and displaced. He should update it for 2014 this way:

Midnight in Gaza, Twenty Fourteen
Bombed and shelled hospitals, pawns in the game
Ashes and sackcloth, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

And all for a century-old crusade of nationalistic paranoia, imperialistic abuse, and dehumanizing ethnocentric warfare.


An “Acting White” Conversation

July 28, 2014

Two Oreo Cookies, February 6, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia).

Two Oreo Cookies, February 6, 2011. (Evan-Amos via Wikipedia).

Two years ago, a conservative woman engaged me in what became an increasingly vitriolic conversation on “acting White,” blind loyalty and political ideology. The below only covers (for the most part) the “acting White” part of the conversation.

 Apologies for commenting here but the Star Trek one [my blog post Why Ferengi Are Jewish & The Maquis Are Latino from 2011] had comments closed. In light of your thoughts on positive or negative stereotypes, how do you feel about the cultural phenomena of “acting white” term in Black community? (in case it needs explaining, that’s a derogatory term – by Black community – for a minority child who studies hard. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Acting_white)

To which I responded:

Given how my life has evolved over the past four decades, I think I understand what “acting White” means. But the fact is, African Americans have a diversity of opinions on this issue. There are some Blacks, though, who believe in the idea of an authentic Blackness, which I’ve written about as an educator, historian and from a personal perspective over the years. Part of this is generational, and part of this is socioeconomic in nature. And this issue of authenticity has been around since the days of slavery, so it’s not new. What’s new is the increasing push-back from Blacks of various backgrounds about this issue of “acting White.” Bottom line: those who use this phrase tend to be anti-intellectual, distrustful of higher education and as bigoted as any other group in American society toward “others.”

But my visitor to my blog wasn’t done, not by a long shot:

Sorry, Wasn’t too clear in my question. Do you feel that the fact of how widespread it is in the culture (both the use and the lack of disapproval) has any *material* consequences to the socioeconomic outcomes for Blacks as a group in the 1990-2020 period? It’s clear that you disapprove of it, but do you feel it is a problem that **must** be fixed for Blacks to succeed (beyond mere “bigotry is bad” angle)?

In response, I broke down the assumptions embedded in the previous comment:

Is your head in the sand?, July 28, 2014. (http://www.thelifecoach.co.nz/).

Is your head in the sand?, July 28, 2014. (http://www.thelifecoach.co.nz/).

Your assumption here is troubling, as if 40 million African Americans all think alike on this topic. Sure, there’s a slice of Blacks who have a litmus test for “authentic” Blackness, and for them, those who can’t meet this test are considered “acting White.” But no, there’s no agreed upon definition for either in African America. Your premise supposes the sociological or psychological effect of this is a lower socioeconomic status for African Americans. Keep in mind that since the 1970s, more than 50 percent of Blacks have been middle or upper middle class, while the poverty rate for Blacks has varied between 25 and 33 percent over the past 40 years. Your question ignores other factors, including de-industrialization, expanding economic inequality, and structural racism as factors that have far more effect on social mobility than a cultural litmus test that a small slice of Blacks strictly adhere to.

There’s more, much more, and the comments section under About Me from the period August 30-September 3, 2012 has the rest. The assumption that I was protecting the race under a false sense of loyalty. The idea that Blacks who were otherwise equal in intelligence and from equally impoverished backgrounds were doing better than her because of affirmative action and other forms of alleged “reverse racism” (whatever this fiction is). My response was to treat her like one of my ideologically bull-headed student for whom facts and scholarly research matter about as much as ants inside an anthill.

President Barack Obama’s recent comments about the meaning and implications of “acting White”  has made me think about this issue — again. The fact is, there may well be individuals who decide to not go to college or medical school, take certain jobs or listen to Pearl Jam because of their notions of “acting White” and “authentic Blackness.” I know there are — including a friend of mine who committed suicide sixteen years ago after deciding to not go to medical school over this whole issue. But the idea that large groups of Blacks in poverty or as practicing Afrocentrists are avoiding success and education because it may be too White for them? Absolute bullshit! Period. Anything to come up with a simple-minded excuse to cover up structural racism, residential segregation and poverty as the factors for lack of Black social mobility when compared to Whites.

“Acting White,” or at least, being “not Black enough,” comes out of the following (between my experience and thirty years of research):

1. The idea that “acting White” = not cool. That’s all. Not about intellect per se, but more about the constant expression of high intellect in casual situations, or at least, lacking the ability to switch up from high-brow to colloquial language. I’ve been in this situation many times, with neighborhood kids in Mount Vernon, New York, at MVHS, at the University of Pittsburgh and even in my own classroom.

2. “Acting White” = doing things that Blacks have only seen Whites do. In this case, beyond language, it could include forms of dress, having eclectic music tastes, or eating fried chicken with a fork and knife. Or, more seriously, taking a political position that others can easily perceive as being against the interests of African Americans. I can attest to the comments I’ve gotten for embracing “White” music as part of my overall repertoire over the years.

3. “Acting White” = not wanting to be around or like other Blacks. In my experience, this applies even more within African American families than it does to Black neighbors, classmates or friends. My Mom wanted me to go to college, but she also wasn’t comfortable with the idea that college would change the way I saw her and the rest of the world. She was especially not happy when I decided to go to graduate school, because it meant that I might no longer be able to relate to her and my brother.

I can honestly say that even with all this, I’ve never met anyone who deliberately practiced self-sabotage in their education or in any other area of their lives to avoid “acting White.” That this is a topic of conversation at all confirms that Americans love living in denial of all things connected to racial inequality. Especially the structural racism from which they draw a benefit — material and/or psychological — every single day. Calling “acting White” a theory is an insult to the scientific method and to all Blacks, including those who’ve used the term over the years.


Brother, Can You Spare Me A Job?

July 26, 2014

Screenshot from "Brother, Can You Spare Me a Dime" video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

Screenshot from “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime” video/song (song originally recorded in 1932), July 26, 2014. (http://youtube.com).

In the past five months, there’s been much debate and derision over the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper Task Force and Initiative. Most of it has centered around the exclusion of girls and young women of color from the initiative, as if the problems affecting Black and Latino males aren’t the same ones affecting Black and Latino females. Poverty, a resource-poor education, lack of entry-level jobs leading to careers, woeful access to higher education, lack of access to public services. These effects may lead to different responses from boys/young men of color and girls/young women of color, but the problems that effect vulnerable populations of color are no respecter of gender.

There’s other problems with the initiative, even if President Barack Obama and the White House were to ensure the inclusion of Black and Latino females in the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative tomorrow. It’s an extremely racially paternalistic initiative. On the face of things, it’s not much different from the work Booker T. Washington did a century ago via the William McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt administrations and with money from White philanthropists such as Henry Huttleston Rogers (Standard Oil), Julius Rosenwald (Sears), and George Eastman (Kodak).

Sure, in the case of Washington, The Rosenwald Fund built a few thousand schools, and the philanthropists contributed money to Washington that would build an endowment for Tuskegee. Still, that money came with strings attached. Most of the schools built weren’t high schools, were geared toward what we would call low-level vocational education today, and certainly weren’t part of any agenda to end Jim Crow. For all the good Washington was able to do through these robber-baron era philanthropists — especially in reducing Black illiteracy — it took Black migration out of the South to lead to lasting changes around notions of racial progress and the idea of segregation as the norm for a representative democracy.

As for My Brother’s Keeper, I am reminded of a passage from my Boy @ The Window about my very first full-time “office” job in the summer of ’87, in between my graduation from Mount Vernon High School and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh. It’s about my working for General Foods (now Kraft Foods) in Tarrytown, New York as part of their Operation Opportunity program.

Screen shot 2014-07-26 at 11.10.49 AM

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers (originally published in 1984), July 26, 2014. (http://goodreads.com).

Beyond the $1,022 the program saved on my behalf — which would go toward room, board and two textbooks for my second semester at Pitt — there really wasn’t much about this program that was opportunity-inducing. Operation Opportunity seemed like it was a checkmark that General Foods could put in its “doing good” column. It provided an opportunity to observe others and do menial tasks without actually promising anything that would help me even a year later, as I went through the summer of ’88 unemployed, and the first week of my sophomore year at Pitt homeless. Not to mention, I picked up a terrible cold in the heat of a 98-degree-July day while spending two hours in a meat-locker-of-a-trailer doing measurements on Jell-O pudding pops!

Now I have no idea what the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation or Magic Johnson Enterprises intends to do to be keepers of brothers, or brothas, for that matter. But all too frequently, these efforts turn into one-time experiments or corporate-responsibly checkmarks. As my friend and colleague Catherine Lugg has said more than once over the years (albeit, on education research, not specifically on this), social change and diversity efforts are far more than just “bringing a pet to class.” The idea that we need to learn how to work hard is yet another myth that this initiative will perpetuate, whether it’s a success or a failure.

It’s not hard to figure that poor children and young adults of color need more access to public health services, more resources in their formal education, more and better quality food to eat, and more nurturing. Whether any of these kids or young adults — male or female — can obtain these resources without racial paternalism, experimentation or other strings attached, I for one remain extremely skeptical.


Students and the Joys and Travails of College Teaching

July 16, 2014

Argentina's Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Argentina’s Pablo Zabaleta lies on the pitch as Lionel Messi stands beside him after losing to Germany in the final, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, July 13, 2014. (Francois Xavier Marit/AP via http://usatoday.com).

Maybe not to that extreme, but there are circumstances where teaching a college course can be a joy or torture or even sometimes both at the same time. Some of this has to do with the actual nature of the course, some of it with my disposition, some of this with the types of students that walk through the door. But, in teaching somewhere around sixty courses since ’91, working with a civic education nonprofit and consulting with another one, I’ve found two large categories of students who have made teaching more enjoyable over the years, though not always an actual joy. One group has been graduate students, the other high school students aspiring for college.

There are a number of reasons why, of course. Some are pretty easy to understand. High school students aspiring to go to college or taking college-level courses are often ambitious and motivated, students who are amenable to learning. Graduate students often aspire to be better at their specific profession of study, which in my experience, has this group of students essentially aspiring to be some version of me. Even the brown-nosers in both groups tend to have the motivation necessary to be better students, or at least, to look like they’re better students.

It also has helped over the years that the several hundred high school and graduate students who’ve been in my classrooms have actually wanted to be there. Doing a week in Washington to learn how Capitol Hill really works, or a summer course at Princeton on AP US History or taking one of my undergraduate course over the years at the University of Pittsburgh, UDC and UMUC, those students (and their parents) made the choice to take those steps. Those students wanted to get into a college of their choice, to be well prepared, to make themselves better students, and perhaps even, better people.

History graduate students have choices, for the most part, in terms of which graduate seminars they take and in their specific cultural, geographic area and time period focus. In my experience teaching school of education courses, though, at Duquesne and George Washington University (courses like History of American Education, Multicultural Education or History of American Education Reform), the students I’ve taught in those courses chose to be there. They chose to read as many as eight books in eight weeks, to write term papers and research papers and do original research. Those students wanted to become better as teachers, as researchers, and in a few cases, to become college professors themselves.

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country's World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/worldcup2014/).

Ready and waiting: 500,000 Germany supporters await the arrival of the country’s World Cup stars, Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, July 15, 2014. (AFP/Getty via http://www.dailymail.co.uk/).

So what’s different teaching undergraduate courses with undergraduate students? Well, they’ve tended to complain the most about general education requirements, ones that require them to take a course in US or World History (my African American History students are generally happier about taking the course). But that’s not all. A fair number have treated me as their enemy, not as their professor or a teacher invested in their learning. Of course these students were in school to complete a degree. But college was no longer an aspiration. It was now a reality, with all of the responsibilities and complications that come with the five-year march toward a four-year degree. For traditional college-aged students, there have always been competing interests, the need to organize a life that involves working 15-20 hours per week and some semblance of a social life, and attempting to figure out a major (often not history).

With my adult learners, those pressures come from at least three directions. The personal pressure to perform academically, the workplace, familial and parental pressures, and the pressure of learning how to be a college student on the fly. Add to this mix the general lack of academic preparation for college for those over twenty-five. All of this has frequently led to a combination of insufficient motivation to learn — even when I’ve explained the “what’s-in-it-for-them” piece — and a quiet hostility toward the process of college matriculation. For this group as a whole — traditional college students and adult learners — aspirations can frequently turn into Being and Nothingness, or rather, a state of being and meaninglessness.

This mindset has been the most difficult aspect of my job as a teaching professor over the years. It’s somewhere between extremely hard and absolutely impossible to teach students whose minds have been closed to learning or self-improvement, whose idea of an education is a piece of paper and a rubber stamp. That most of those students who’ve made my work most difficult are undergraduates isn’t surprising, though. That’s part of the job.

Still, there are times where I miss those days when I taught or worked with high school students fully motivated to get into college, who already had a sense of where they wanted their lives to go. There are times when I miss a grad student angling for a higher grade or with a real interest in my writing and research. For better and sometimes for worse, at least they’re interested in the learning enterprise.


Talking Tocqueville Too Much

July 5, 2014

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Alexis Tocqueville caricature (1849), by Honoré Daumier, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. (Wikipedia). In public domain.

Every year for at least the past thirty years, without fail, I’ve read at least one article, seen or read at least one book, or watched at least one commentary about the great Alexis de Tocqueville. These are almost always about the French political theorist’s grand tour of America in the early 1830s and his affirmation of America’s exceptional democracy, egalitarianism and lack of permanent social classes. Over the years, I’ve found these all too frequent comments and examinations of a long-dead tourist vomit-inducing.

Tocqueville may have gotten it right, that America and its democracy was in a unique position in 1833 to take off and become a powerful nation, if given the time. But he didn’t understand America at all, at least, not really. Tocqueville didn’t understand how central inequality was to the development of America’s unique and exceptional democracy. He assumed, quite wrongly, that any issues of inequality in our then young nation were limited to the American South, where cotton was king and slavery was the backbone of the economy. Tocqueville only saw slavery as a moral dilemma of debasing humanity — slave owner and slave — and not as a political or economic one. So what if he predicted the rise of the US and Russia as world powers if he didn’t predict the American Civil War?

The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 -- there's always Eric Williams' Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward E. Baptist (due out September 9, 2014 – there’s always Eric Williams’ Capitalism and Slavery [1944]), July 5, 2014. (http://bn.com).

Tocqueville looked at America outside of the South and saw an egalitarian and agrarian society, one unconnected to the slavery located south of the Mason-Dixon line and spreading southwest across the Mississippi River. Where did he think the money came from to finance plantations, to ship the raw materials of these plantations overseas and to buy more slaves? How did Tocqueville think these plantation owners could turn cotton into cloth and tobacco into cigarettes and cigars? Much of it came from bankers and merchants in New York, Boston and Philadelphia, and from the factories of New England and New York. Slavery was the backbone of the rise of the American economic system, and was America’s industrialized foundation. Period.

Tocqueville argued that America was unique because of its lack of a permanent class system, particularly an aristocracy. Our country’s democracy, in fact, guaranteed the constant churning of social mobility. Tocqueville must’ve been high on the tobacco leaves he sniffed in his tour of Virginia! While the nation had shed most of the obvious symbolism that came with wealth in Europe, Tocqueville had completely ignored that for the first half-century of US, only rich, land-owning White males could vote (and in many cases, hold office). Only in the five or ten years before his tour of the US did non-propertied White males gain the right to vote.

On top of this, though most Americans were farmers in the 1831-33 period, American urbanization had already begun. American cities didn’t have the age or splendor of European ones, to be sure. But what Tocqueville didn’t recognize was that wealth was already beginning to be concentrated in cities like Philadelphia, Boston and New York, in the form of commerce, in banking, and in the beginnings of modern industries. And though large-scale exploitation of poor and uneducated Irish immigrations wouldn’t begin for another fifteen years, the exploitation of poor, native White (and frequently, female and child) labor was already well underway, pulling Whites from countryside to cities in the process.

"World's Highest Standard of Living" poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by  Margaret Bourke White, February 15, 1937. (ThunderPeel2001 via Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws -- low resolution.

“World’s Highest Standard of Living” poster with Black flood victims in bread line, Louisville, Kentucky, by Margaret Bourke-White, February 15, 1937. (Wikipedia). Qualifies as fair use under copyright laws — low resolution.

And this is the man who so many of my historian and political scientist colleagues like to cite and quote? Especially around Independence Day! Sorry, but if I did a two-year tour of, say, South Africa right now, and predicted their eventual greatness because of their unique racial democracy and rapid economic development, who’d take me seriously by 2200 CE? Maybe MSNBC host Chris Matthews‘ great-great-great-great grandson, who would then claim South African exceptionalism based on my predictive power from 180 years before.

 


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