Tag Archives: revisionism

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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Bias or No Bias: Howard Zinn and the role of the Historian

his·to·ri·an  (hĭ-stôr’ē-ən, -stōr’-, -stŏr’-) noun. (1) A writer, student or scholar of history.  (2) One who writes or compiles a chronological record of events; a chronicler.                                                                                                                   — The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2004.

As neat and simple as it seems, the definition of the term “historian” morphs into murky territory.

Investigator, researcher, documentarian, professor, storyteller, alarmist, revisionist—all these labels fit into the job description.

Yet when it comes to Howard Zinn, the celebrated historian who passed away recently, the role often devolves into one of two directions: either as the master editor/revisor of the historical narrative or a storyteller of an altogether different story.

Zinn tried to be both, and it is this dichotomy that intrigues me…as well as frightens me. 

Of course, the first stop is looking back at Zinn’s seminal work, A People’s History of the United States.  First published in 1980, and revised in numerous additions, People’s encapsulates Zinn’s mission in history: to shatter the prevailing narrative of American history, driven by leaders, generals and “old white men” and create a new arc of historical analysis based on social and economic movements from below.

It was among the first “bottom up” histories of our country, and it still provides useful insight.

We know today that the upheaval and fluidity of American society cannot be ignored when it comes to history.  After all, Washington needed an army.  Carnegie needed workers.  Lincoln needed conscripts.  Jefferson needed concubines (just kidding).

Zinn did make sure that those left out of the prevailing narrative—the working class, minorities, immigrants, etc.—have a definite and active place in the story.  For the most part, this is completely justified.  In a democratic society, the arc of history is indeed a tug-of-war between the ruling elites from above and the working masses below.  Until the 1960’s, the elites have won out.  The historical literature of this country has largely been constrained to the wealthy, educated Caucasian elite, holding a monopoly on the written word in America. 

Zinn wanted to make sure that those who truly did the heavy lifting were not forgotten, but celebrated.  For this, all historians should be grateful.

Yet it is the subsequent direction of his work that made me fearful.

 Instead of providing an alternative arc or a complementary narrative, Zinn’s outlook has been accepted by the Left as a new orthodoxy.  His “textbook” has become required reading in classrooms throughout America.  Much of Zinn’s ideology, as well as the historical content, are taken as fact by many in the academic community, simply because it runs counter to the conservative antecedents of history.

This is the problem.  Zinn himself said that his work was not “an unbiased account.”  Yet even he sees that People’s shouldn’t be completely objective, but rather an account of those left out based on the contrarian bias.

Yet isn’t history about finding the truth, no matter how painful, and dealing with its effects?  Does one bias necessarily ameliorate another?  They’re both wrong, aren’t they?

I’ve tackled Zinn-like postulations before, in my look at Native Americans.  Take a look at this sentence from Chapter 1 of People’s:

“What Columbus did to the Arawaks of the Bahamas, Cortes did to the Aztecs of Mexico, Pizarro to the Incas of Peru, and the English settlers of Virginia and Massachusetts to the Powhatans and the Pequots.”

This is the kind of blanket statement that Zinn peppers throughout his text.  While it is accurate that Native Americans were mistreated by European explorers and settlers, often in horrific numbers, Zinn rarely puts any nuance to this story.  The whites are the enemy, period.

What Zinn neglected to mention were the internecine wars between the Aztecs and their subject peoples (which Cortes exploited), the recurrent—and powerful—Inca insurrections that lasted well into the 18th century, and the complicity of other tribes, such as the Mohegans, Narragansetts, and Wampanoags in the problems with the Pequots.  I guess all that doesn’t fit on a pamphlet very well.

In his zeal to make up for past wrongs, Zinn painted with such a broad brush that the detail work got lost in the rollers.   Whitey has to look bad regardless of the cost.  This makes for great propaganda, but terrible history.

A professor of mine once told me that even the great philosophers of Western civilization—Plato, Aristotle, Kant, even Marx—understood that there is no answer to that all inclusive question “What is truth?”  Yet the academic mind understands that there is still value in searching for that truth.

Howard Zinn saw a chapter of history that was clearly neglected.  This is commendable.  Yet his ideology got in the way of the history, so much so that I question whether or not Zinn was a decent historian at all.

Attached is a copy of Zinn’s seminal work from History Is a Weapon, a website that focuses on progressive revisions of history.  Please feel free to read it, or reread it, and give your opinions.

In re-reading this thing, I honestly think Zinn could spin a good yarn.  But it’s a crappy history book.


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The Battle for the Textbook: Texas rewrites its social studies

I get a lot of use from my textbook. 

Whenever my LCD projector’s a bit too low, two or three Grade 4 texts oughta do the trick.

That is the extent to which I use these relics. 

The Information Age of the 21st Century has effectively rendered a textbook obsolete.  As soon as established theories and truths are set in paper before yawning students (who sign the inside cover along with drawings of the male member) alternate discoveries and revisions make them outdated even before they come to press. 

In spite of this, many districts across America continue with the hard-bound behemoths of our youth, and with good reason.  At least in math and science, they provide solid resources that can be preserved year after year.  On paper, this means saving on mountains of copying worksheets and more time copying useless memos.

Yet the composition of textbooks is a thorny issue, especially when it comes to social studies.  Deven Black recently sent me an article from the Texas Tribune entitled “Hijacking History.”  It details the sausage-like process of establishing standards, solidifying content and even copyediting of a state textbook for social studies. 

Texas’ education system is fairly unified in that the entire state uses the same set of textbooks.  It’s a huge state, so the publishers kill their own young to get the contract.  What goes into the textbooks, however, can often become a political tug-of-war between conservatives and liberals, as evidenced in the article.  This has tremendous implications for the classroom, as the struggle at the board level affects what is read in on the page.

Essentially, “Hijacking History” is about this left-right struggle, and how it affect s the whole process.  Take Joe McCarthy, for example.  Bill Ames, a conservative activist and member of one of the State Board of Education’s curriculum-writing committees, fights to “rectify” McCarthy’s legacy by including information about actual Communist infiltration in the US government. 

When it comes to including minority acheivements, the infighting can get downright petty.  Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez, for example, were supposed to allow space equally to Barry Goldwater and Billy Graham.  So Justice Marshall, who argued before the Supreme Court in 1954 to end segregation in public schools, has to share his shelf with a southern preacher who claims “voices” speak to him.

Look, even as a conservative, I don’t buy these arguments.  Yes, I know about the Communist infiltration.  McCarthy’s paranoia was somewhat justified–somewhat.  However, if in laying down wood a few planks must fall, then McCarthy let some real two-by-fours fly.  In the grand scheme of things, he did a lot of harm along with his good intentions. 

Don’t get me started on Billy Graham, it’s a no-brainer: Thurgood Marshall wins by a mile.

What amazes me, however, is the push for “American Exceptionalism.”  We’re going to tell students not only that the United States is the greatest, but also that it is immune to the heaves and throes of world history.  According to some really out-there right wing wierdos, the US, by divine design, cannot topple like the  empires of old.  A thousand year “reich”, perhaps? 

America will endure forever–Jesus said so.  And I know because he spoke to me in Dixie-accented English, just like he did in the Bible. 

What a crime.  What’s a bigger crime is that these inane arguments will somehow end up in a textbook that will be taken as gospel by thousands of educators too lazy to offer a dissenting viewpoint.

The lesson is clear: building a textbook, or a curriculum, is never easy.  You always end up pissing off somebody–believe me, I know.  The balance of ideas and viewpoints is important.  It is also important to include the voices of those Americans who have long been silent, either by force or by neglect.

  Be careful, though…there is such a thing as TOO fair.  Don’t let the facts get buried in the need for political compromise. 

 If you insist on using a textbook, please PLEASE understand that it isn’t Biblical truth.  Even the Bible isn’t biblical truth, for that matter, but I’ve pissed off the evangelicals enough for one night.  Always try to stress alternative viewpoints, especially if they do not necessarily mesh with your own.

If all else fails, use a textbook for what they’re best at–as a  paperweight.

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