The Treacherous Rainbow of Identity Politics in History

“The thing is, you cannot judge a race. Any man who judges by the group is a pea-wit. You take men one at a time.” ~ Sergeant ‘Buster’ Kilrain, in Gettysburg (1993)

I’m always uneasy when government messes with actual classroom instruction—even when it’s for the best intentions.

The day before I left for California, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law SB 48, an education bill designed to acknowledge the achievements of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) individuals in California and American history. Furthermore, the bill thwarts educators, administrators and school districts from advocating instruction or material that discriminates against said individuals.

It’s a law that really only adds to the current law acknowledging women and minorities—an amendment that, at least in California, is a long time coming. Obviously, more traditional sectors of the state are up in arms over this.

Yet I wouldn’t have thought that a metropolitan newspaper not affiliated with Rupert Murdoch would also be fanning the flames.

The Sunday of the 17th, the Los Angeles Times printed a blistering editorial condemning SB 48 as an affront to free expression. While citing the importance of the gay rights movement—and the dangerous right-wing politicization of education in Texas—the Times nonetheless asserts that

“…politicians shouldn’t be dictating what material appears in textbooks. Besides, do we really want textbooks to include the details of a historical figure’s sexual orientation even when it might have nothing to do with his or her role in history? And does it make sense to require that portrayals of gay people focus on “contributions” and not anything that could be construed as negative? Real history is richer and more complicated than feel-good depictions.” ~ Los Angeles Times editorial, July 17, 2011

I know some gentlemen in West Hollywood that will be cancelling their subscriptions.

However, the folks at the LA Times (shrill as they are) may have a point. Let’s look at the new amended law piece by piece:

“51204.5. Instruction in social sciences shall include the early history of California and a study of the role and contributions of both men and women, Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups, to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America, with particular emphasis on portraying the role of these groups in contemporary society.”

Not much of a value judgment here, but who’s to say all these groups actually contributed all the time everywhere? Could it be all those Pacific Islanders that threw spears during the Boston Massacre? The disabled regiment that flung their wheelchairs up Marrys’ Heights at Fredericksburg? The enslaved African on Thomas Jefferson’s plantation that kept admiring women’s petticoats and just wouldn’t mate with the girl of the master’s choosing?

Fine, these are extreme, even silly examples. Yet it gets to the concerns many educators have about things like this: Who is the arbiter of what a contribution is, an achievement, the “correct” or “accurate” role of a group or individual in society? The law gives no indication as to who’s responsible—and the state doesn’t seem to step up to the plate with a curriculum or sample units.

“51500. A teacher shall not give instruction and a school district shall not sponsor any activity that promotes a discriminatory bias on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Does this include activities that, on the surface, seem divisive, but are meant to prove a point about discrimination and prejudice—activities like role-playing, viewing/analyzing propaganda films from Nazi Germany, scrutinizing literature from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan, etc.? I use lots of material that California would probably throw me in San Quentin for, but that doesn’t make me a bigot.

“51501. The state board and any governing board shall not adopt any textbooks or other instructional materials for use in the public schools that contain any matter reflecting adversely upon persons on the basis of race or ethnicity, gender, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, or because of a characteristic listed in Section 220.”

Of course, this includes works by Plato, Aristotle, several Biblical authors, Martin Luther, William Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jane Austen, Mark Twain, T.S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway, Voltaire, Rousseau, George Orwell, William Faulkner…get my drift?

“60040. When adopting instructional materials for use in the schools, governing boards shall include only instructional materials which, in their determination, accurately portray the cultural and racial diversity of our society, including:

(a) The contributions of both men and women in all types of roles, including professional, vocational, and executive roles.

(b) The role and contributions of Native Americans, African Americans, Mexican Americans, Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, European Americans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Americans, persons with disabilities, and members of other ethnic and cultural groups to the total development of California and the United States.

(c) The role and contributions of the entrepreneur and labor in the total development of California and the United States.”

Ok, so we have some direction now. “Governing boards,” i.e. district boards or boards of education, will make the determination as to what is offensive or not.

That means the LA County Schools should be following the same guidelines as those in money-loaded Orange County or the rural hinterland of the north, right?

This is a lot of nitpicking, but it serves to show how politicizing these seemingly innocuous laws can be. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging the important roles of diverse groups in our great history—GLBT, white, black or otherwise.

Yet shedding light on a darkened past does not always yield positive results.

First, not every group contributed to American history all the time. We’re a big country, a country of regional contrasts and diverse populations that were both mobile and provincial. Sorry, but that’s the facts: some people just didn’t have a huge impact on certain places. The missions of Spanish California would’ve heard about the American Revolution, but scarcely anyone would’ve actually gone to enlist in the Continental Army.

Furthermore, a group or individual’s achievements often have little, if anything, to do with their identity. Their labels may have helped or hindered them in society, such as Blacks and other minorities, but their achievements are often singular, and can also transcend any petty labels foisted on them.

Also, and this is especially true of GLBT studies, there is a tendency to find and pigeonhole people into groups that (a) don’t really belong, or (b) didn’t do anything that important. I worry that historians and textbook authors will scour for evidence of petticoats and makeup amongst the closets of the Founding Fathers to find anyone—ANYONE—that is both GLBT and important. Even worse, the zeal to “out” historical figures could lead to misapplying or even falsifying evidence to prove a point.

Finally, and definitely most importantly, many individuals of “disadvantaged” groups did some not so nice things—a fact often whitewashed in many textbooks. Many of the slave rebellions in the New World involved gruesome violence on the part of the enslaved people themselves. Native American conflicts also involved acts of butchery at times. Were they justified? They certainly had a reason to be so angry.

Yet a burnt house and a bludgeoned infant cannot be erased from memory—nor should it.

History is not just about the good times. The bad times, the bloody times, the gruesome, gory and horrifying times are often more important. It often takes a crappy situation, an act of weakness or a horrible mistake to show the true depths of human character.

To take into account only the accomplishments of a group negates the very real human qualities of the individuals that, in the long run, probably make more of a difference.

While the State of California probably had the best of intentions with SB 48, the law leaves a lot of unanswered questions—questions that may best be left to the educators themselves, with guidance from administrators and academics.

In the pursuit of historical truth, inclusion is almost always preferable to exclusion. Yet the zeal to include everyone should not blind us to the inconvenient facts…

…and the destruction of the truth does no group any good.

 

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