Thursday, September 25, 2014

Texas Textbooks Redux

Texas is at it again - and now so is Colorado.

As you may recall, in 2010 the Texas State Board of Education decided to whitewash the high school history curriculum in their Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) standards. They sought to sanitize it of any non-conservative content i.e. anything that might reflect negatively on any dead white men. As I wrote in my book, their patriotic efforts got unpatriotic results:

The original curriculum asked students to “explain the impact of the Enlightenment ideas of John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and Thomas Jefferson on political revolutions from 1750 to the present.” But the new guidelines erased the words “Enlightenment” and “revolutions.” Moreover, they also dropped Thomas Jefferson in favor of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, and Sir William Blackstone. The only American political philosopher on the previous list was dumped to make room for two foreign theologians and a hardcore monarchist.

I am not kidding. In his famous Commentaries on the Laws of England, Sir William Blackstone wrote, “The king is not only incapable of doing wrong, but even of thinking wrong; in him there is no folly or weakness.” So, the king is infallible, like the Pope? I am not sure how that qualifies Sir Blackstone as a revolutionary thinker. Oh, but wait, I forgot: the Lone Star State had dropped the word “revolution” too. Perhaps Texas will next replace their state song with “God Save the King.”

This week, Texas is back in the news on this issue for two reasons.

First, a panel of scholars recently looked into how the textbook industry has accommodated Texas so far. No serious historian was optimistic about the prognosis since the new curriculum's flaws were apparent from the start. Edward Countryman, one of the scholars on the panel, had recalled that the school board's fractious drafting process had brought Texas international ridicule. In fact, "When it was done, even the explicitly conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute gave TEKS a D, on the grounds that it amounted to political and cultural indoctrination, a dash of mindless inclusivity, and brute memorization."

As James W. Lowen explained in Lies My Teacher Told Me, Texas is a huge textbook market and accordingly has subtly dictated content for years because publishers are loathe to produce expensive separate editions. Likewise, when the Kansas State School Board passed new standards that mandated intelligent design be taught alongside evolution in 2005, it posed a huge potential headache for biology text book publishers. (This decision was reversed in 2007.) Texas creates the same complication with history texts.

But with TEKS, the former subtlety is gone. James W. Lowen had complained that textbooks were boring because they glossed over conflict and controversy, thereby alienating students from the subject of history. But TEKS attempts to shoehorn the Bible into the Constitution by requiring textbooks to reference the “laws of nature and nature’s God” when discussing political concepts. Summarizing, the panel's findings, Edward Countryman wrote, "We agreed on two big points. First, most of the publishers had tried hard to deal with the situation that TEKS presented. Second, however, dealing with TEKS at all means distortion, or worse."

Second, the Texas State Board of Education had also made news this week by opposing the College Board's national Advanced Placement U.S. History course and exam. High school students who do well on the test get college credit, but conservatives consider it to be rife with anti-American messages. Accordingly, Texas is expected to vote against teaching the College Board's course, although they will allow the students to take the exam using TEKS to prepare. As Talking Points Memo explained:

The controversy stems from the recent overhaul of the AP test, administered by the New Jersey-based College Board, that was meant to de-emphasize memorization. The new exam will be given for the first time in May and includes a lengthy framework to help teachers better-prepare students for the requirements.

Conservative activists, though, have decried the new course, the teachers' framework and even the exam itself as rife with liberal themes and focusing on the negative aspects of U.S. history. Some have even likened it to "mind control" engineered by the federal government.

Government mind control? Oh, the irony and lack of self-awareness.

Not to be outdone, the school board of Jefferson County, Colorado is trying its own hand at historical revisionism. They moved to remove all mentions of civil disobedience from texts and classroom materials intended for the teaching of AP U.S. history. Why? Because, as Raw Story explained:

The right-leaning board-members said they believe history teachers should teach nationalism, respect for authority and reverence for free markets. They should avoid teaching any historical events or acts that promote “civil disorder, social strife or disregard of the law.”

It begs the question of how they would teach about our country's revolutionary origins. Of course, we already know the answer, because it is how American authoritarians have always taught it. As I wrote in my book:  

The conservative version of the American Revolution has no revolutionaries. Radicals were absent and nobody was ever rude, insolent, or disobedient. In their portrayal, people spoke a great deal about freedom but refrained from personally exercising any. In short, conservatives envision the revolutionaries using the word freedom as they do today – without really meaning it.

It is a longstanding problem that will probably always be with us. In a 1901 speech entitled "Training That Pays," American treasure Mark Twain expressed his contempt for this kind of indoctrination passed off as education that conservatives advocate. He spoke at meeting of the Male Teachers Association of the City of New York after New York Superintendent of Education Charles H. Skinner. Skinner gave a speech entitled "Patriotism for the Young." He advocated the new overseas imperialism that Mark Twain hated. Twain's classic rebuttal drew a stark line between patriotism and nationalism and remains relevant today: 

If patriotism had been taught in the schools years ago, the country would not be in the position it is in to-day. Mr. Skinner is better satisfied with the present conditions than I am. I would teach patriotism in the schools, and teach it this way: I would throw out the old maxim, ‘My country, right or wrong,’ etc., and instead I would say, ‘My country when she is right.’ Because patriotism is supporting your country all the time, but your government only when it deserves it. [emphasis original] 

So I would not take my patriotism from my neighbor or from Congress. I should teach the children in the schools that there are certain ideals, and one of them is that all men are created free and equal. Another that the proper government is that which exists by the consent of the governed. If Mr. Skinner and I had to take care of the public schools, I would raise up a lot of patriots who would get into trouble with his.

EDIT - 10/08/15:

And, flashing forward to the present day, here's a McGraw-Hill geography textbook actually calling slavery "immigration" and slaves "workers." I'd say the phrase "whitewash" was never so literal, but I imagine there are countless other equally apt examples.

Of course, it is the logical consequence of conservative thought. In a mirror incident, this Iowa talk radio host has suggested enslaving undocumented immigrants. This king-maker in the Party of  Lincoln actually asked “Well, what’s wrong with slavery?” Conservatives: Burying the Irony Meter on a daily basis.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Jefferson and Orwell

Regarding my previous post, a friend commented to me that the dead do not get angry or disappointed, so there is no point in worrying about what the founding fathers thought.

I partially agree. But as a history student, I am interested in how we got to here from there. History is the study of change over time, and thus a subject that change-averse conservatives do not look too hard at. They would rather fetishize the past than actually try to understand it. Their "respect" for it is really an ignorant and shallow infatuation. To them, the past is at best a vague and convenient vehicle for their idealizing tribal imagination and at worst a tool or weapon to seize authority with. Serious study would spoil the adolescent enthusiasm and ruin its utility for them.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a lot about allowing society to evolve and adopt new ideas. I have quoted him on this topic before. But this quote on shrugging off the dead hand of the past is especially relevant here, in part because it is quite literal:

Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons,
not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

Speaking of the Citizens United ruling, as I was previously, I think we can accurately extrapolate from that quote Mr. Jefferson's likely opinion on corporations being made immortal persons. And that is not without worth today. As George Orwell wrote in his dystopian novel 1984, "He who controls the past, controls the future." It is a question of plotting our trajectory by bending the arc.

In fact, Thomas Jefferson gives us one potent example at the start of  his next paragraph:

I was glad to find in your book a formal contradition, at length, of the judiciary usurpation of legislative powers; for such the judges have usurped in their repeated decisions, that Christianit
y is a part of the common law. The proof of the contrary, which you have adduced, is incontrovertible; to wit, that the common law existed while the Anglo-Saxons were yet Pagans, at a time when they had never yet heard the name of Christ pronounced, or knew that such a character had ever existed.

Hopefully, Tony Perkins will someday familiarize himself with both quotes.

Bottomed on Corruption

Apparently, the Family Research Council's Tony Perkins believes that the Founding Fathers would oppose overturning the Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United ruling - the one that effectively makes bribery protected "speech." Alexander Hamilton and John Jay probably yes. Hamilton actually advocated corruption. But I imagine most of the others would probably applaud the recent Senate vote that moved the proposed constitutional Amendment forward. For example, it would not be recklessly speculative to suggest that Thomas Jefferson would be on the opposite side of the issue from Hamilton. As I wrote in my book:

Of course, I am not arguing that the founders all agreed. There were reactionaries as well as radicals. For example, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay felt wealth should run the country and they had no problem saying so. In fact, Hamilton
had actually advocated corruption as a desirable mechanism toward that end. He was an admirer of the British Parliament in which votes and government posts were then openly bought and sold. It kept the rich in control because only they could afford to buy legislation. Hamilton said, "Purge that constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impractical government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government that ever existed." This prompted Thomas Jefferson to claim, "Hamilton was not only a monarchist, but for a monarchy bottomed on corruption." If Hamilton were alive today, he would no doubt join the GOP in opposing campaign finance reform."

Mind you, this is the same Tony Perks who thinks that trying to overturn the Citizens United ruling amounts to Christian persecution. It was not Thomas Jefferson, but I seem to recall that somebody famously drove the money changers out of the Temple of Jerusalem with a whip in hand.

I am pretty sure it was not Tony Perkins either.

This Island Earth

Okay, conservatives. Let me spell it out for you: We are all on the Island. You like to think you are the Skipper, but you are actually a strange, hateful amalgamation of Gilligan and Mr. Howell who inexplicably loathes the Professor and has anger management issues in general.

The point being is you keep fucking things up for the rest of us.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Cowboys and Aliens

It is a tricky thing to pull off a historic atrocity analogy. You have to be very careful with them and you are probably better off just not trying. And, as I have written so many times before, conservatives compulsively rush in where historians fear to tread. So I don't want to mimic their mistakes.

It is, therefore, with great trepidation that I follow conservatives into this treacherous territory. But, I have two analogies which I think might help explain the situation in Palestine to my fellow Americans.

Let's start with this familiar story. Europeans arrive in a promised land with superior firepower and inform the brown inhabitants that God gave them this land. This may involve giving Indians small pox blankets or planting landmines in Palestinian olive orchards. Note: I am using the word "Indian" here because I will use the word "native" to refer to both Native Americans and Palestinians in this analogy and I want to avoid confusion. This first analogy writes itself and it is totally obvious how it will play out, but bear with me.

From the very beginning, there are atrocities on both sides. In America, scalping was practiced by Indians and Europeans alike. In Palestine, the practice was bombing. Many Israeli politicians were at one time terrorists themselves who had targeted civilians as well as military targets during the British Mandate. As with early America, atrocities continued on both sides long after nationhood was achieved. We had elected Andrew Jackson president and the Israelis had elected Ariel Sharon prime minister. Israel's apologists claim that Palestinians never wanted to share the holy land. Well, Irgun and the Lehi did not either. Hard right Zionists insist they must actualize a "Greater Israel" consisting of all the territory that biblical Israel had conquered. For Ingrun, this included Jordan. The "Manifest Destiny" parallel should be obvious enough.

In any self-perpetuating cycle of violence, both sides express outrage that is simultaneously heartfelt and ridiculously hypocritical. Such is the inherent nature of all ongoing feuds. But the lopsidedness of the conflict makes the outrage of the strongest party even more absurd.

In both early America and modern Israel, you had/have three main groups - natives, settlers, and the army. The army is supposed to keep the peace between the natives and the settlers; but since the army is made of the same ethnicity and nationality as the settlers, there is zero even handedness. If a settler kills a native, he gets a slap on the wrist - if that. If a native kills a settler, it triggers a punitive strike on the entire native community. This tacit incentive system gets exactly the results you might expect.

In both cases, the natives are restricted to the most barren land and their sources of sustenance systematically squeezed. The strongest side rarely bargains in good faith. Needless to say, this exacerbates resentment and cynicism on the weaker side. Human beings being human beings, the stronger party becomes a bully. The infamous Zimbardo prison experiment illustrates how quickly this can take place.

I am not trying to romanticize anyone. If the situation were reversed, their roles would be too. Nor am I denying that underdogs often get romanticized. Anyone with an elementary sense of fairness is apt to to romanticize an underdog unless their sympathy is already locked-in for the other side for some other reason - often for having been the underdog on some previous occasion.

Victims becoming bullies is a pretty familiar trajectory in human history. I would not be the first observer to remark that colonists who came to our shores fleeing religious persecution in England had no problem being persecutors themselves. Benjamin Franklin beat me to it in his June 3rd, 1772 Letter to the London Packet:

If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practised it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England, blamed persecution in the Roman church, but practised it against the Puritans: these found it wrong in the Bishops, but fell into the same practice themselves both here and in New England.

- Benjamin Franklin, The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, ed. by Leonard W. Labaree et al. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1959, 19:163-68.

And as historian V.G. Kiernan wrote of the Dutch winning their independence from the Spanish Hapsburgs:

It did not escape comment that the Dutch were no sooner gaining their freedom at home than they were depriving other people of theirs, an inconsistency repeated by several European nations later on. But they were only doing to Asians what they were ready to do to their English neighbors, co-religionists and allies in their war of independence. In 1623 the English at Amboina were seized, tortured and killed.

- V.G. Kiernan, The Lords of Human Kind: European Attitudes to Other Cultures in the Imperial Age (Boston and Toronto: Little Brown and Company, 1969), 11.

But, sympathy or bias aside, it is a tautology worth examining that the side with the most power has the most power. That side has the most control of the situation and can best end the cycle of violence. It has the brunt of the responsibility for escalating or de-escalating things. Likewise, a policeman probably does not need to empty his pistol's clip into an unarmed black teen with his hands up.

Moreover, the "pox on both houses" opinion ignores the fact that one side are the invaders and the other is the resistance. I don't endorse nail bombs any more than I endorse scalping, but it is moronic to be shocked or get morally indignant when the natives strike back with whatever paltry resources they have. That is just going to happen as naturally as gravity. It is a tragedy the same way tornadoes, volcanoes, or earthquakes are - except instead of cold fronts hitting warm ones or tectonic plates grinding together, it is people. The only difference is that people can do something about it. But the people who can do the most about it are, by definition, those with the most firepower. America and Israel are both young countries that share the same original sin.

Okay, this native analogy is probably not very original. But I have another analogy. Imagine, if you will, an interstellar invasion of Earth. The Red Dawn fantasies of paranoid survivalists notwithstanding, no nation could possibly conquer the United States at this time. The absurdity hamstrings any suspension of disbelief. So, why not go for broke, be a geek, and imagine an Independence Day-like alien invasion from outer space?

Realistically, how would we react in that situation? Would we distinguish between civilian and military when they begin bringing their families over? Of course not. We would do our utmost to convince them that Earth is not a safe place to bring your spouse and offspring. And if their military technology were so advanced that any assault against them was a de facto suicide mission, how long would it be before some of us just started strapping bombs to ourselves in acknowledgement of the cold, dark logic of our new circumstances?

Probably less than fifty years.

And religion has a way of inserting itself into life and death situations. Religious difference would certainly piggyback on to the conflict. Obviously, all differences would be instantly highlighted, but once again the fear of death would magnify religion even more. Warring nations are quick to claim that God is on their side. Even when both sides share the same religion, they may still call it a "crusade." But when the religions are different, things get uglier. The crusade rhetoric becomes more likely, if not inevitable as George W. Bush unthinkingly illustrated. The distinction between "patriot" and "martyr" would blur for most people - most probably immediately. And the alien invaders would no doubt call us crazed, fanatical "animals" as a result.

Again, the dynamic would be as natural as gravity.

Perhaps at this point some conservative will call me a human race-traitor for my dim view of humanity. On the contrary, like that great citizen of the world Thomas Paine, my loyalty to humanity is solid. I share his original humanist patriotism. It is the opposite of narrow, tribal nationalism. And what Paine had to say on the origin of property is relevant to the issue of nationalism too:

It is deductible, as well from the nature of the thing as from all the stories transmitted to us, that the idea of landed property commenced with cultivation, and that there was no such thing, as landed property before that time. It could not exist in the first state of man, that of hunters. It did not exist in the second state, that of shepherds: neither Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, nor Job, so far as the history of the Bible may credited in probable things, were owners of land. Their property consisted, as is always enumerated, in flocks and herds, they traveled with them from place to place. The frequent contentions at that time about the use of a well in the dry country of Arabia, where those people lived, also show that there was no landed property. It was not admitted that land could be claimed as property. There could be no such thing as landed property originally. Man did not make the earth, and, though he had a natural right to occupy it, he had no right to locate as his property in perpetuity any part of it; neither did the Creator of the earth open a land-office, from whence the first title-deeds should issue.

- Thomas Paine, The Life and Major Writings of Thomas Paine: includes Common Sense, The American Crisis, Rights of Man, The Age of Reason and Agrarian Justice, ed. Phillip Sheldon Foner (New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1993), 611.