July 16, 2009

Politicizing history in Texas and elsewhere

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at July 16, 2009 10:08 PM

Via Robert Farley, the Wall Street Journal reports on a fight over the history curriculum in Texas schools, which seems to be just a bit politically charged. For example, this proposal:

  • Replace references to America's "democratic" values with "republican" values

While this is the only one that's blatantly partisan, the conservatives on the board are also pushing to de-emphasize the contributions of women and minorities, and to get more religious content into the curriculum.

This is pretty unsurprising, and not just because it's Texas. Probably history curricula have been politicized everywhere, since the dawn of time. Recently I read a book in which the author visited a number of post-Civil-War monuments, and was disgusted at the respect accorded to various Confederate figures in the South. Which in turn reminded me of my experience learning Civil War history in a Virginia public school, where guys like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson were described with a kind of heroic aura about them. There was a real effort to obscure the fact that they were fighting for a truly evil cause: I still remember that when we started the Civil War segment, the teacher explained that we might have heard that the war was over slavery, but this was a naive picture. Instead, we were told that the Civil War arose from a set of complex causes related to states' rights, such as disputes over congressionally-imposed tariffs. Later on in my education, there was a moment of realization that, wait a minute, it totally was about slavery!

And this was a good school in not-at-all-Southern Fairfax County! I can only assume that this was part of the state curriculum. And in a way it's understandable that Virginia would want to whitewash the most shameful chapter in its history, but it's not just about that. It's about white supremacists being able to put up statues of Stonewall Jackson and fly the Confederate flag in the name of their "heritage".

Another example: after living in Virginia I briefly attended a private school in Houston whose mascot was the Rebel (as in Confederate). And while I was there, there was talk of changing the mascot of this nearly all-white school. It's amazing to me the outcry that went up among students and alums, who thought this was political correctness gone wild, and couldn't see what was so offensive about naming the football team after people who fought on behalf of slavery. And of course the vast majority of them weren't racists, they just didn't think about the Civil War in moral terms, partly because of the way the Civil War is taught in the South.

But as much as I love to bash the South, this kind of thing goes on everywhere: look at how the American Revolution is taught in the U.S. versus in Britain. Or the ongoing dispute between China and Japan over Japan's whitewashing of their own war atrocities. So what Texas is doing now is just par for the course (not that it shouldn't be opposed).

Tags: History, Politics

Well said, by the great-great-great grandson of Private Nelson Foreman of the 33rd Wisconsin Infantry, who saw action in the War of the Rebellion under Generals Grant and Sherman at Jackson and Meridian, Mississippi, in the Red River Expedition, the Battle of Tupelo, the Battle of Nashville, the Siege of Spanish Fort, Alabama and who was mustered out on August 4th, 1865 in Vicksburg, owing the United States 70 cents for tobacco.

Posted by: JSpur | July 17, 2009 8:15 AM

I was a bit astounded a few years back when a friend had me read some of the declarations of secession proclaimed by southern states at the start of the civil war. I've only read a few of them, but those are unequivocal in their assertion that slavery is the foremost issue that is driving their secession. South Carolina dedicates the middle third of it's declaration to slavery, Georgia's cites slavery in the second sentence, Mississippi starts their second paragraph with, "Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery," Texas describes itself as, "was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery."

If anyone is ever uncertain as to whether slavery was the driving issue of the civil war, they only need to view some of the declarations of secession in a web browser and search for the words 'slave' and 'slavery'; the documents are peppered with them.

From a quick search:

I grew up in the north and was given the impression that the war was about slavery, but also about state's rights. I really feel it's a travesty that my eduction was not more explicit: the civil was was about slavery; at best, it could be phrased as 'a state right to slavery.'

(I never realized I was quite so fired up about this)

Posted by: Nick | July 17, 2009 8:36 AM

Oh, I should add that I do recognize that all history gets warped and coloured in its retelling. That's one thing that I find so delightful about declarations; they're one of the few things that are concrete. People can offer varying interpretations of the meaning of the words, or of which parts to emphasize, but the words themselves are indisputable (assuming the original source is available and legible).

Posted by: Nick | July 17, 2009 8:40 AM

I know I've told this story, but one of my eye-opening experiences at Georgia Tech was when I walked in the math department lounge and overheard two of my colleagues discussing "The Wars of Northern Aggression". Essentially, my feeling at that moment was one of living in an entirely different world from the one in which I was born.

Posted by: Mason Porter | July 17, 2009 1:04 PM

Sadly, whatever changes Texas makes will have an impact on what the rest of the nation reads. Since Texas mandates that all public schools use textbooks off of a particular list, publishers create books to try to get or stay on Texas' list. As a rule they do not change much if anything in their national editions.

Posted by: Katie | July 17, 2009 10:58 PM

I would say that both sides - it was all states rights vs it was all slavery - are both simplistic. It was about the rights of states under the Constitution, and the main point of conflict about those rights was slavery.

However, there was nearly a civil war fought earlier (under Jackson) that wasn't about slavery but about tariffs. If you really want to pick one cause for the war, it was economics - the North's economic interests relied upon blocking foreign trade and developing domestic resources while using cheap immigrant labor, while the South's relied on the export of cotton to Europe and slave labor. These issues brought the North and South into conflict almost from the beginning of the Republic.

I'd also note that "democratic" (little D, not referring to the party) values have only been important to this country since the turn of the 20th Century and the progressive movement of that time. The Constitution doesn't guarantee a democratic form of government - it guarantees a republican form of government (again, little R). The founding fathers actively distrusted democracy, and until the progressive movement, most US senators weren't popularly elected, but nominated by their state governors as the representatives of their states to the federal government.

Anyway, I've got to go to breakfast.

Posted by: Chris L-S | July 18, 2009 11:30 AM

Chris: I'm sure the other economic issues were exacerbating factors, but as Nick says the overwhelming reason cited by the Confederates themselves, the cause that they were willing to commit treason for and die for, was slavery. It's true, as you say, that the South's ideological commitment to slavery was ultimately about economics: the Southern elites relied upon it for their wealth and power.

As for your second point, modern Canada and the UK both have an unelected upper house in their respective legislatures: are you suggesting that democratic values aren't important to them? You are construing "democratic" very narrowly to try to exclude the early U.S., but in fact "republic" in the sense you're using it is just a synonym for representative democracy. To talk about the democratic values of the early Republic is to emphasize that we felt the government should be accountable to the people. After all, the Founders didn't start off the Constitution with "We the representatives."

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 18, 2009 1:20 PM

You make some good points about how we've come to understand the term "democratic", but I don't think you understand the history of that term as used in the United States. First off, remember that the franchise was initially only held by white male property owners. While their racial and gender bias was apparent, there was a very clear thought process behind only allowing property owners to vote. They held that people who owned property had the most to lose in government's actions and would be around the longest to feel the effects of government's actions. Someone who didn't own property had nothing to hold them down, so they could vote and move (mobility at that time was far, far less than today). There was also some elitism at work - if you hadn't been successful enough to own property, then you couldn't be trusted to make decisions that affected those who were.

The party that would eventually become the Democratic Party began life as the Republican Party - so named because of its beliefs in the values of the republican revolution of France. After Thomas Jefferson's election to the presidency and the implosion of the Federalist Party, everyone in government pretty much belonged to the same Republican Party, which gradually devolved into regional factions. This lasted until Andrew Jackson was defeated after the really squirrelly election of 1824, in which John Quincy Adams managed to get the contested election thrown his way in the House of Representatives. Jackson, who had won a plurality of the popular vote, accused everyone of stealing the election from him, and his supporters called themselves Democrats, and sought to include the common (ie non-property owning) people into the electorate.

After the Civil War, the North tried to reshape the South through disenfranchising former Confederates and extending the franchise to free blacks. The progressive movement supported the women's suffrage movement as a way to break the power of corrupt party officials and big city political machines. The irony, as I see it, is that democracy has been expanded in this country as a way for one side to impose their will upon another side - one of the very fears that the founding fathers had in crafting the Constitution. That giving these people rights which there was no legitimate basis to withhold was used as a cynical means to an end doesn't invalidate the fact that they SHOULD have those rights, just that "democracy" in itself was not the goal.

In a way, you can see some of the problems we're facing right now in light of allowing anyone and everyone to have a say in the government. In California, no one wants to pay more taxes, yet we have elected a majority of lawmakers who increase the size of government every year. Politicians in Washington decry big bonuses and salaries given in financial firms just long enough to stop firms that do stupid things from collapsing - keeping big donors afloat while placating the mass of people who think it isn't fair for a company to pay people agreed upon compensation. Lots of old people vote, so let's extend Medicare benefits to include expensive pharmaceuticals. Lots of people fear and distrust Muslims after 9/11, so the government harasses them at airports, spies on them, and throws them into secret prisons.

Let's face it, most people are more interested in celebrities and sports than politics or national affairs, yet their vote counts just as much as yours or mine. I would love to come up with a way of figuring out who SHOULD get the franchise, but barring that I want the power of government to be as limited as possible to stop it from hurting us.

As far as Canada and the UK go, both of their upper houses are feeble and ineffectual, with real power being wielded by the Houses of Commons. Both countries are also welfare states where the rights of the people have been reduced in favor of "protection" from the government.

Posted by: Chris L-S | July 18, 2009 7:42 PM

It's certainly true that we are more democratic in practice now than we were at the founding. But classical Athens also limited the vote to male property-owners, and it would be crazy to say that they didn't have democratic values: they invented it! In the events you describe, the franchise was extended to more and more people in a series of events starting at the American Revolution (in which we went from nobody having a say in government to having at least one class of people with the right to vote). That sounds like democratic values to me. And at each step in this process, whatever their internal motives, the people advocating change used rhetoric that recalled the words of the Founders, "all men are created equal" and so forth. In other words, they appealed to the long-standing democratic values of the country to push for a better implementation of those values.

In California, I don't see the problem being one of uninformed voters being allowed to vote; rather, it's what they're voting on. Because of ballot initiatives, most of the state's expenditures are locked in and only a small fraction is subject to the discretion of the legislature. At the same time, the initiative process has produced a rule that makes it almost impossible for the legislature to raise taxes. It's a great argument for representative democracy: most people don't have the expertise to make policy directly. But I don't think it's an argument for not letting uninformed voters vote at all. Remember Condorcet's jury theorem: uninformed voters aren't as much of a problem as you might think.

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 18, 2009 9:03 PM

The problem, as I see it, is much more one of a tyranny of the majority. Athens is a great example - during the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians won a crucial naval battle over Sparta and her allies, Arginusae. However, a storm resulted in the deaths of many Athenians, and the polis held their generals accountable by trying them and executing them as traitors. This literally cut off the head of the Athenian war effort, and later generals became much more cautious, even choosing not to return to Athens after expeditions to avoid a similarly unjust trial.

An example of democracy running over people's rights is right here in California - Proposition 8. Because we democratically voted, a class of people that the CA Supreme Court had declared has the right to marry lost that right.

So I'd say that emphasizing the "republican" nature of our government over the "democratic" nature is a good one - we should hold our leaders accountable, but we are NOT a democracy in the purest sense. An emphasis on democracy also allows foreign governments who rely on rigged elections or ethnic majority elections a level of legitimacy they really shouldn't have. In my mind, the legitimacy of a government lies in how well it protects its people's rights, not just that people cast a vote.

Posted by: Chris L-S | July 18, 2009 9:30 PM

Of course tyranny of the majority should be avoided, and only a straw man version of "democratic values" doesn't acknowledge this. We can value democracy while at the same time recognizing that we don't need to be the most extreme form of democracy. And nothing in the definition of a republic ensures individual rights either: it just refers to a specific implementation of democracy.

The notion that rigged elections are a problem only because we care too much about democracy is new to me. I would say that both protecting the rights of the people and being accountable to the people are necessary conditions for legitimacy. They're not mutually exclusive.

And it's not as if autocratic states don't try to appeal to republican values for legitimacy: just look at their names. Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, People's Republic of China, Islamic Republic of Iran. And states like these usually have the trappings of republican government, such as a legislative assembly (that perhaps can't be voted out of office).

Posted by: Arcane Gazebo | July 18, 2009 10:19 PM

Fair enough - I guess it just boils down to semantics of what those words mean to us. I would maintain that in this country we are losing sight of WHY this country was founded. From my own primary school education this was left out, instead going with the simplistic discussion of "democracy" and majority rule. At least if you put in "republican" values instead of "democratic" values, you have to talk about representation and the purpose of government.

I didn't mean to imply that being accountable to the people isn't important. Looking at Locke's ideas, the Declaration of Independence, and the Federalist papers, the fundamental right of the people is to reform their government. What the government DOESN'T exist to do is to meet the people's needs or to provide them services, particularly at the expense of other people's rights. I read somewhere that democracies only exist until the people realize they can vote themselves generous benefits from the public treasury and make someone else pay for it.

That is the problem I have with "democratic values".

Posted by: Chris L-S | July 18, 2009 10:47 PM
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