The Politics of Forgetting

Tim Wise has been all over the Web lately with his article, “What If the Tea Party Were Black?” I had my dose of Wise last week via a six-part series on YouTube that contains his 2007 lecture, “The Pathology of White Privilege: Racism, White Denial, and the Costs of Inequality.” The videos are roughly 10 minutes each and well worth an hour of your time. A transcript of the entire lecture (PDF) is available from the Media Education Foundation. A lot of things jumped out at me, but two things tied in nicely with other reading I’ve done:

1. The self-delusion of the dominant racial group viz. minorities. A Mother Jones piece today by Greg Grandin entitled, “Glenn Beck, America’s Historian Laureate” pointed me to a NYT/CBS poll that found that 52% of Tea Partiers believe “too much [has] been made of the problems facing black people.” For his part, Wise references two polls from 1962 & 1963 respectively — pre-Civil Rights Movement era polls, in other words — where 80% of white people thought black people were treated equally in their community, and 90% of white people thought black children had the same educational opportunities. Tim Wise:

Denial, in every generation: 2007, 1963, the 30s, the 1890s, the 1850s. My point being that, in every generation, the members of the dominant group have said there is no problem, and in every generation, without fail, we have been wrong. And in every generation, people of color, those who were the targets of that oppression and subordination, have said there is a problem, and in every generation,
without fail, they have been right.
For more on forgetting and the consequences of a poor grasp of history, see “The Tea Party’s Toxic Take on History” (Salon) by Ron Rosenbaum, and “Glenn Beck’s Partisan Historians” (Slate) by Michael Lind.

2. The white privilege of forgetting. Wise says, “Victims have long memories… But those who create that victimization have short memories. We [white people] have the luxury of forgetting.” I thought this dovetailed nicely with a book I just finished, Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998). Hochschild (coincidentally, co-founder & early editor of Mother Jones) has a whole section devoted to the “politics of forgetting,” which in this case means forgetting the mass murder of some 10 million Congolese Africans at the turn of the 20th century.

The story told in King Leopold’s Ghost has something for everyone: tragic heroes, back-room political intrigue, crazy familial squabbles — even “one of the most successful feats of pimpery of all time!” Hochschild’s details Belgium’s King Leopold II and his almost single-handed conquest of the Congo (with, of course, the aid & complicity of the U.S. and most of Europe). I, like Hochschild before researching this book, knew very little of this “forgotten holocaust,” save for tidbits of information gleaned from a cursory knowledge of Joseph Conrad. After Leopold’s mad grab for Africa, he personally net $1.1 billion from ivory & rubber trade (begotten from a cruel forced-labor system, not to mention the extermination of half of the indigenous population of the Congo. “The horror! The horror!” Terrible history, but an incredible book.

So: winners do write History, but I belong to a religion that, at its best, is for losers, for underdogs, for the down-and-out and the forgotten. And if that religion has too often, much too often, sided with the powerful & the upwardly mobile, there are patches of history where believes have been among the most ardent of prophets speaking truth to power. And King Leopold’s Ghost records the stories of a couple of these people; most prominently, that of African American Presbyterian Rev. William H. Sheppard. I’ve excerpted Hochschild’s passages about Sheppard and put them into a 10-page PDF; it’s highly recommended reading.

The complementary photos I added are from The Presbyterian Historical Society, as found in this article on Sheppard from The Journal of Southern Religion. It’s also interesting to note that in an interesting afterword to King Leopold’s Ghost written seven years after initial publication, Hochschild claims he understated the role of Baptist & Presbyterian missionaries; this seems, in part, to have been the impetus for his 2006 book Bury the Chains, about “prophets and rebels” in the British anti-slavery movement. If you never get to King Leopold’s Ghost, at the very least read the chapters on Sheppard — and seriously, watch those Tim Wise videos.

Precious: Based on the Story of Racism

It’s still another 3 months until the Oscars are handed out, but naturally buzz is building around certain films. I recently saw Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire, a real contender that’s holding an impressive 91% on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered high acclaim at Sundance, TIFF, and Cannes. Precious portrays a year in the life of Claireece “Precious” Jones, an obese teenager growing up in Harlem in the late ’80s. I won’t record all the sordid details of her life — the molestations, pregnancies, diseases, handicaps, abuses, etc — but suffice to say that life is pretty shit for Precious. It’s a gripping viewing experience, albeit difficult to watch (multiple viewings are out of the question), and the acting by the leads is beyond reproach. Mo’Nique’s (Precious’ mother) final monologue is absolute killer and she deserves an Oscar nod for those minutes alone.

There are several problems here, a few of which started to surface while I was watching. Early on, I distinctly remember thinking, “This would be a terrible film to show to racists.” Some of my questions were further muddled by two writers who are among the few to categorically denigrate Precious. They are, respectively, “Pride & Precious” by Armond White, and “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire” by Ed Gonzalez. [if you only read one of the two, read White’s]

Let me state up front that I am deliberately choosing to interact with two other writers because I do not feel capable on my own. As a privileged white male, I’m going to confess ignorance at the start and admit that I have more questions here than answers. However, even I have to start to wonder about rave reviews given to a film that unabashedly portrays an obese black girl stealing a bucket of fried chicken and devouring every piece herself. (more…)

End of America

I watched The Rape of Europa the other night, a documentary about the Nazi theft of art during WWII. I was struck by how hard it is to learn lessons from the Third Reich. Compare anyone or anything to Nazi Germany and the conversation is effectively over (see: Godwin’s Law). I think part of the problem is that many people mistake comparison for identification. The result is that we’re essentially cut off from learning anything meaningful from that era — surely there’s more to take away than simply “Hitler bad, America good.”

Naomi Wolf is one writer who’s attempted to learn a little more from the rise of Hitler. She’s examined Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy in an effort to discover what steps usually happen before a dictatorship takes over.
Here are her “Ten Steps to a Fascist State,” or “How to Turn an Open Society Into a Closed Society:”

1. Invoke an internal and/or external enemy
2. Create a secret prison network
3. Employ a paramilitary force
4. Set up an internal surveillance system
5. Infiltrate and/or harass citizens’ groups
6. Engage in arbitrary detention and release
7. Target key individuals
8. Restrict the press
9. Equate dissent with treason
10. Subvert and/or suspend the rule of law

“Fascist America, in 10 Easy Steps” looks at how all ten of those have been implemented in the US in the last 8 years. Her book End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot fleshes out the argument even further. She has a documentary out called End of America as well, which can be viewed for free on the SnapFilms website.

If you don’t have time for a documentary, amuse yourself instead with Republicans gone wild. This blog also seems to be collecting videos of Republican asshattery. There’s a good deal of Democrats also acting loony in those videos.

Bigot on Wednesday, Churchgoer on Sunday

Sen. John McCain likes to depict the bigots in his party as fringe elements, a few “bad apples.” It’s become less obvious that this is so considering how widespread the nasty attacks have become.

The state of political discourse: from leaders — Rep. Westmoreland (R-GA) openly calling Obama “uppity” — to laymen (see above) the Republicans seem to feel very free to fan the flames of prejudice.
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We’ve Got a Long Way to Go

Happy Martin Luther King Jr Day. This morning on US-42 there was a parade honoring MLK, made up of a 100+ black students. Most were holding signs saying “Never Forget,” “We’ve Got a Long Way To Go,” “Keep Pushing” and so forth. There were cop cars in front and behind, keeping watch as everyone ambled up the highway. They were only a couple feet from the stopped traffic, from me, and I’ll admit I was uncomfortable at everyone staring me down. While most were just waving and laughing, their leader (at least he was the first in line) looked squarely at me and shouted, “Thanks for not enslaving us anymore.” Backhanded racism in a parade celebrating Martin Luther King Jr? We’ve got a long way to go indeed.

The Confederate Flag is Racist. Period.

I just read a news story about some hockey players who are being punished for displaying the Confederate flag in a local parade. And I’m reminded that the CU Student Handbook, while forbidding obscene room decorations, makes no mention of racist or hate-filled messages adorning walls.

“The decor of your room should leave no doubt that this is the room of a Christian university student. This simply means that all decorations, wall hangings, posters, computer screen-savers/backgrounds, etc. are to be in harmony with the standards of the University. This excludes pornographic literature; obscene, suggestive, irreverent or sacrilegious slogans; or room decorations or other material not considered supportive of university policy.”

Those boys who I saw hanging the huge flag undoubtedly have never heard of my blog, but if they did I would hope they get the message the displaying the Confederate flag is ignorant and racist no matter how you look at it. I know it’s a part of “Southern heritage” but so is Nazism for Germans. So is that whole “world war” thing for Japanese. But celebrating the darkness in one’s past inescapably condones it. South, you lost the war over a century ago. Go home, give it up, get ride of your flag. See also: Battle Flag Still Hot Topic.