History in Today’s News
The Haymarket Riot myth lives on
Back at the radio again, hearing someone on a call-in show describe the 1886 Haymarket Riot as the beginning of the anarchy movements in the U.S. He described it as “workers were rioting and policemen were killed”. This is certainly what the anti-immigrant, anti-labor union authorities said at the time, but it has long been disproved. No one knows who threw a bomb at police who came to break up a peaceful demonstration in support of an 8-hour workday, but after the bomb killed 7 police officers, a free-for-all ensued, with immigrants, union activists, and anyone else who seemed “foreign” rounded up by the vengeful police and harassed, beaten, or imprisoned. The press blamed “anarchists” for the attack, and equated them with “immigrant” and “worker” and “union”.
Even hitting Wikipedia, of all suspect sources, would reveal a fairly accurate description of the Haymarket Riot. If only people took the time to verify their ahistorical historical claims.
Black History is inseparable from U.S. history…
Listening to the radio, we heard a young black American participating in a Black History Month program say the above: “black history is inseparable from U.S. history.” Why is this disappointing? Because the idea that “U.S. history” is some entity that may or may not include the history of some of its people–its women, its children, its non-white citizens, its disabled citizens, gay citizens, etc.–is simply wrong. U.S. history is the story of black Americans, and vice-versa. Same for all the groups listed above. To say that black Americans have a history that sometimes intersects with U.S. history, sometimes doesn’t; is sometimes part of the story of the U.S., but is sometimes only about black people; that because of racism and slavery, black Americans did not really live in the U.S., influence, shape, and participate in its society, law, religion, economy, and history–basically were not part of U.S. history because they were marginalized–is ridiculous and harmful.
It takes us back to grade school, where one of the HP remembers being taught black spirituals in the American midwest in the 70s. They were taught as part of American folk music, right along with Stephen Foster, “Shenandoah”, and songs of the American west. The students–who were both black and white–thought of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, “Lift Evr’y Voice and Sing”, and other black spirituals as American songs that belonged to everyone of them as Americans. The kids even learned and sang “We Shall Overcome” because they were presented with the idea that both black and white Americans should be dedicated to overcoming racism. Black and white songs were integrated into one musical history of our country, and that’s how it should be. To doggedly separate the black songs out of the history of American music, and teach them as part of a separate black history, that only matters to black people, and can/should only be sung or known by black Americans, is to further the racial segregation we are trying to leave behind.
American history is about black people, women, gays, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, Protestants, the deaf, ad infinitum. Their histories do not sometimes accidentally intersect with the history of the country they built and inhabited. Their histories are not at odds with American history, or contradictions or challenges to American history. Their histories are its history, always.
Bill Maher lets us down
In his latest show (February 2014), Bill Maher upset us all at the HP by complaining that Americans are “Puritans” who hate sex, and called for an end to this “puritanism”. What does one have to do to end this historical myth? Mr. Maher considers himself to be a pretty forward person, but we’re sure that if he ever read actual Puritan descriptions of a) Christ embracing those whom he has saved or b) feelings of friendship between men or c) descriptions of actual human marriage, he would find himself blushing at the frank sexuality, nay eroticism, of much of it. Here’s hoping against hope that 2014 can be the year that we stop referring to prudishness as puritanism.
Leap Day 2012
According to a local MA paper, the will of a Puritan citizen of the town of Ipswich, William Payne, who died in 1661 and willed that his land go to benefit the public schools and never be sold, is being contested. The will has actually been honored for centuries, with the land rented out as seaside cottages and the rent going to support the Ipswich schools. Now the trustees want to sell the land to the tenants, and the people of Ipswich are up in arms. The Massachusetts Appeals Court is hearing the case. I hope that Mr. Payne’s will is upheld, and his antient public spirit honored as he wished it to be.
Valentine’s Day 2012
I was listening to the radio and soemone was talking about modern love/Valentine’s Day and she fulfilled the requirement of saying that it would all have disgusted the Puritans, with their rejection of romantic love. I cannot think of a people at their time who were more into romantic love than the Puritans. They believe that marriage was a reflection of the relationship between people and Christ, and therefore it was to be passionate. Puritans in the 1600s wrote about the importance of the female orgasm. Their commands to love and embrace and kiss and “be with” each other would make us blush today. And if that isn’t enough, some of the descriptions in sermons about how Christ loves his followers are veering toward the explicit.
So the Puritans were not opposed to hot sex and romance. Go ahead and send some flowers in their honor.
It’s so funny to hear people complaining about the blue laws that close businesses around holidays; for instance, in some states, liquor stores can’t be open on Monday if Christmas falls on a Sunday. I have heard these laws called “the old Puritan blue laws” a few times now, which is hilarious. As loyal readers of the HP know, the Puritans did not celebrate any holidays (since every day was created by God, each was equally important), and therefore did not stop commerce—or drinking alcohol—for holidays. Even on fast days called for prayer and fasting when there was a problem, people drank their usual mild ale and conducted commercial transactions.
So blaming the Puritans for laws they would not have understood in the least is unfair, and an example of how we have distorted the lives of these early Americans. For their sake, buy some alcohol somewhere.
Michelle Bachmann on Myth Tangent, Winter-Spring 2011
Rep. Bachmann made two claims for myth in quick succession: on January 25, while speaking to Iowans for Tax Relief, she stated that “the very founders that wrote those documents worked tirelessly until slavery was no more in the United States….Men like John Quincy Adams, who would not rest until slavery was extinguished in the country.” On March 12, speaking to the Republican Liberty Caucus of New Hampshire, she said “You’re the state where the shot was heard around the world at Lexington and Concord, and you put a marker in the ground and paid with the blood of your ancestors.”
Of course, dedicated readers of the HP, as well as most Americans, know that the Founders did not end slavery, but inserted a protection of slavery into the Constitution, and that John Quincy Adams, who died in 1848, did not live to see slavery “extinguished” (in 1863). They also know that the Shot Heard Round the World was fired in Concord, Massachusetts, not in New Hampshire.
Bachmann defended herself by saying the media has it out for her—“all 3,400 members of the mainstream media are part of the Obama press contingent”, according to Bachmann. “Only if a conservative makes a misstep is it considered interesting.” She also claimed that while the Shot was fired in Massachusetts, it is New Hampshire that still honors it.
These seem to be more “missteps” rather than defenses. Al Gore never said he invented the Internet, but the “mainstream media” has permanently hung that “misstep” around his neck. And someone running for president likely should not say that the residents of one of the states—Massachusetts, in this case—are not real Americans who honor our independence.
“The real problem are the arrogant elites in D.C.,” said Rep. Bachmann. But it seems the real arrogance is to say you are a student of American history and the Constitution, to make clear errors in representing both, and then deny that it matters. Either the Representative believes that Americans are too ignorant to catch her mistakes, or that she is too important to be held accountable for her mistakes. Either one is bad news for Americans.
Patriot in the Streets, September 2010
I was listening to a discussion of the debate about the proposed Muslim center at the World Trade Center site in New York on the radio when the reporter went into the street for comments from average Americans. Most people were surprisingly level-headed about it all, but one woman went above and beyond. Speaking on the theme of religious freedom as promised by our Constitution, she said: “The U.S. wrote the Constitution. If you wrote it, and you’re not adhering to it, who’s the enemy?”
Truer words never spoken. I was proud to be an American as I listened to one anonymous citizen of this country speak for and embrace the principles our nation was founded on. Never underestimate the power of those founding ideals to make the world a better placc, the difficulty in living up to them in the real world, or the benefits of doing so.
They should stop calling it the Tea Party, May 2010
NPR was running a call-in news program this week about the Tea Party political organization in which members were urged to call in. Many did, and consistently stated that the main planks of their platform are smaller government and less/no taxation. While these are not uncommon political party platforms, they have no relation at all to the goals of the men in the original Boston Tea Party.
The Boston Tea Party happened when a group of Bostonian men threw the tea on British ships into the harbor. They were afraid that Bostonians would buy the tea once it was unloaded from the ships. They didn’t want the tea to be sold in America because when it was, customers would pay the tea tax Britain had recently put on tea. Revolutionaries didn’t want any taxes to be paid to Britain—NOT because they were anti-tax, but because they wanted to have a say in their own taxation. The American revolutionaries were not anti-tax. They just didn’t want to be taxed without having representation in the British Parliament, their own government.
They also were not anti-government. They desperately wanted a comprehensive government that would utterly change people’s lives. The government they ended up creating affected almost every aspect of its citizens’ lives, telling them whether they could carry guns, speak out in public, punish those who spoke out in public, bring religion into government, etc. They were the original pro-government party because they believed the government they were creating was revolutionary and would set the entire world on a different path if executed properly.
So let the current Tea Party program believe and do what it wants, but it needs a new name, for historical accuracy’s sake.
Rhode Island considers a name change 10.09
Rhode Island’s official name is “State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”. This antient name comes from the early English settlement of the area. English settlements were called plantations because that’s how English people believed one took possession/ownership of land—one planted a garden on it. In her fascinating book Ceremonies of Possession in Europe’s Conquest of the New World 1492-1640, Patricia Seed explains that different Europeans had different notions of what made land officially theirs: holding religious ceremonies (France); reading out a statement saying the land was now theirs (Spain); mapping it (Portugal); and planting gardens (England). That’s why England called all of its colonies, all over the world, plantations.
The Rhode Island legislature wants to drop “Plantations” from the name of the state because of its terrible and unique definition in the United States. When we say “plantation,” we mean slaveholding estates. No one wants to say they live on a plantation today.
But that change shouldn’t be made in Rhode Island’s case. It’s like the man a few years ago who got in trouble for using the word “niggardly”, which means miserly, because people thought it was a racial epithet against black people. Providence Plantations was the ultimate good-faith settlement, originated by Roger Williams, and has nothing to do with slaveholding. Providence Plantations operated on principles of real equality and personal freedom and was unique in that respect among all the American colonies, and perhaps all European colonies anywhere. Yes, Rhode Island became a major slaveholding power later on, but that is not why it was called Providence Plantations. The slaveholding part is a terrible contradiction of the Plantations part in Rhode Island’s case.
So leave the name, which is proud, but continue the education.
Dump the Voting Rights Act?
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 put an end to discriminatory practices used mostly in the South to keep black Americans from voting. The most common unconstitutional practice was t0 require black people to pass a “literacy” test in order to qualify to register to vote. The fact that these tests were written in a way that would allow very few rural black people—or white people, had they been tested—to pass them (reading legalese from the Constitution aloud, with points deducted for every word the white proctor “felt” you mispronounced, to give one example from Alabama) is beyond the point. There is no “fair” test people should have to take before they can vote.
Now there is a small movement afoot to repeal this Act. Its proponents say the Act is unfair because it is only required in Deep South states, plus Texas, Arizona, and Alaska, these being places with a long and well-documented history of keeping black Americans from voting. Rather than apply it to all 50 states, they feel that “in the age of Obama” it is no longer necessary.
For as long as we record human history, smallpox was a killer disease. In the 20th century, a vaccine was invented. Now smallpox is something we only read about in textbooks. Therefore, some people say it is “gone” or “cured” and we should no longer vaccinate. The simple logic showing that ending vaccinations would allow smallpox to return somehow escapes them.
In Boston, the skyrocketing murder rate of the 1980s was brought down sharply by a concerted effort on the part of police, after-school programs, schools, churches, and community centers. Once the violence was well down, the program was discontinued because it was so clearly “unnecessary.” By 2000, the murder rate was back up to the top of the pack for American cities.
The Voting Rights Act should be applied in all states no matter what “age” we are in. Programs that work don’t eradicate problems, they keep them at bay. I think one would be hard-put to argue that racism in the U.S. has been eradicated.
Inauguration Day is coming! – January 2009
Barack Obama will swear the Oath of Office with his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s bible; it doesn’t get any better than this.
We all knew the Cold War wasn’t really over – August 2008
Or at least I did. Did people really believe that once the Soviet Union collapsed, decades of entrenched thinking about the west would dissolve? That Russia would not nurse resentment and shame at the endless “we won” celebrations in the west? That all those nuclear weapons would just be safely buried somewhere, out of sight, out of mind, out of the question?
Russia is run by Putin, who is determined to make Russia the world’s greatest superpower, and he isn’t above using war, terrorism, or nuclear materials to do so. And the invasion of Georgia this August is so familiar it’s creepy: most of the great wars in history began with a small, controversial action that caused a lot of tension, then were resolved by the invader seeming to back off, but really the whole thing was just a practice run for the real war.
So while we feel relief at Russia’s backing off in Georgia, we should know it is temporary, and that future history thesis-writers will study that action as a precursor to the next great war.
Amending the Constitution made easy! – 7.8.08
I see that former Secretaries of State James Baker and Warren Christopher have headed a committee to decide which branch of our government has the power to declare war. Every news report I’ve heard on this has stated the obvious: the Constitution says only Congress has the power to declare war.
But that’s just a trifling detail to this committee, and to everyone else, and the committee has decided that the president can declare war, but only after “consulting” with Congress. Worries that this is just one more step in solidifying an imperial presidency have been brushed aside.
I never knew amending the Constitution was so easy! Look how people have struggled to pass an Equal Rights Amendment, or an Amendment banning gay marriage, or abortion. These groups have struggled through the established procedure for amending our Constitution when they apparently could have just set up a committee and gotten the job done in days, not years.
How is this possible? I don’t know. And nobody seems to be asking.
George Will gets it wrong – 6.10.08
I turned on the radio in the middle of an interview with George Will just in time to hear him claim that “they were burning witches at the stake at this time in colonial Massachusetts.” I suppose he was saying this to support some claim that people were benighted back then. I hate to tell Will, but no one was ever burned at the stake in colonial Massachusetts. That happened in Europe, not New England. In New England, supposed witches were hanged.
It doesn’t make it any more acceptable that people were executed for witchcraft, but it’s important not to tell ourselves lies about our past, no matter how small.
Reconstruction still struggling – 5.12.08
I noted last month that the Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to requiring photo ID for potential voters. Now, inevitably, we see the negative consequences. Not even a month after the decision, states are returning to the shameful post-Civil War practice of preventing non-whites and the poor from voting.
A New York Times story today describes how Missouri has decided to demand birth certificates proving U.S. citizenship. Do you have a copy of your birth certificate handy? Do you know how to get one? Do you know what it costs, how long it takes, and what you have to do to prove you should have a copy–i.e., that you are you?
I got a copy of my birth certificate two years ago and it required online access to get the job done. Think about it: what agency in the state you were born in handles birth certificates? Do you know? If you don’t know, how do you find out? You go online. If you can’t go online, you make a trek to the library reference room. Then you write a letter. Weeks later, you get a letter back explaining what you need to do, and how much money to send. Weeks after that, you get your copy.
All of this is difficult to impossible for the elderly and the poor. According to the Times story, a lady in Missouri got a letter back from Mississippi, her state of birth, saying it had no record of her birth. Well, of course not. She was born in a poor backwater, in her parents’ home, with no documentation of it. Just like my own grandmother. My father and uncle, born at home in the 1930s, had no birth certificates. My grandmother had to make a trip to “town” to the local judge to get birth certificates made for her eldest son in the early 1950s when he wanted to join the Army.
Why require this proof of citizenship? Do voting officials in Missouri really think a person with no foreign accent, a driver’s license, or utility bill is an illegal immigrant trying to …vote? (I can think of worse threats.) That a 70 year-old lady with a Mississippi accent is actually an illegal Mexican?
No. They simply want to make it hard for undesirable Americans to vote. It is an urge to “clean” the voting lists that goes back to the founding period. Wealthy, educated people think that poor, under-educated people are stupid and that they will vote against the interests of the wealthy. So they simply keep the poor and under-educated from voting.
After the Civil War, southern whites prevented black Americans from voting by requiring poll taxes, proof of citizenship (which no former slave had), or just by standing with guns in front of the polling station. Why? They didn’t want black Americans to vote for policies that would help them. They wanted white Americans to vote against those policies. And they succeeded, killing Reconstruction.
What’s happening today is miserably similar. The paper barrier has been erected; how long before the guns also appear?
Supreme Court Thwarts Reconstruction – 4.29.08
We are really in a bad phase with the Supreme Court, akin to the disgusting and degraded 1890-1920 period. There are times in our history when the Court, out of fear for the vested interests of the majority, simply decides to put the brakes on democratic progress. Today was such a day.
Today the Court decided 6-3 that states can require photo ID of people who come to polls to vote. The majority opinion used the phrase “voter fraud,” saying that’s what they were preventing.
But the opinion also began by acknoweldging that there was “no evidence” of voter fraud. But the risk, it said, of voter fraud was “real.”
There was no evidence given to back up this claim that we are on the brink of widespread voter fraud. The only documented voter fraud we know of was carried out by Republican party operatives in the 2004 presidential election, presumably by people who had driver’s licenses. And nothing has been done about that. So why now?
The reason we don’t require ID to vote is that in our own past, this was used to keep black Americans and immigrant Americans from voting. This measure is clearly meant to do the same thing: to keep poor black Americans and “illegal” immigrants from voting (all immigrants are seen now as illegal, somehow).
Wherever you require an ID, you are putting constraints on representative voting. It’s not Klan members standing with guns in front of polling stations, as it was for almost a century after the Civil War, but it’s a step in that direction.
Bull in front of the Pope – 4.7.08
I see that the president stated during the papal visit to Washington yesterday that “when our founders declared our nation’s independence, they rested their case on an appeal to ‘the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and that he interpreted that phrase to mean that the Founders were all devoted and traditional Christians.
Deciding whether the Founders were Christians, and if so what kind, is a booming industry right now. I won’t get into that because I don’t have the expertise. But I will say that any president of the United States should know that “nature’s God” in the mouth of a Founder is not a reference to the traditional Christian God, but to the inherent dignity and worth of humans as natural beings. Each of us is born with natural rights to equality of opportunity that no one is ever justified in taking away. Our nation was founded on principles dedicated to preserving and promoting natural rights.
So whoever wrote the speech for the president didn’t really understand what s/he was writing, or our founding principles. Which is embarrassing for all of us. Hopefully, the pope was not listening.
Absolut Amnesia – 4.12.08
I was just reading at Lapham’s Quarterly about the controversy over the Absolut ad running in Mexico that shows… well, people keep saying it shows most of the southwestern U.S. as part of Mexico. What it really shows is a pre-Mexican War (1846-7) map of North America. The difference is that in 1845, let’s say, the land that is now the states of California, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado was Mexican land.
So the ad is not showing the U.S. suddenly taken over by or losing states to Mexico in 2008. It shows the losses Mexico suffered in the Mexican War in 1846-7.
The ad is meant to speak to the memory of the Mexican people, not to insult U.S. citizens. It’s ironic that Americans who support invading Iraq are angry at this remembrance of our own invasion of Mexico.
Taxes and Democracy 101 – 4.11.08
This is more like Civics in the News, but it does concern a historical understanding of how the United States’ democracy is meant to function.
I was listening to a local radio show on the struggles of towns to provide a good education when the cost of education keeps rising, mostly because of unfunded or underfunded mandates like No Child Left Behind and special education.
Politicians bemoaned asking people to pass tax overrides to pay for education. “You can’t keep going to the taxpayer for the money,” one said. “At some point, it has to come from the federal government.”
Let’s stop here and answer some remedial questions about how our government works:
Where does federal money come from? (mostly from taxes)
Who pays taxes? (mostly local taxpayers)
So if money for schools comes from the federal government, who are local officials getting their school money from? (the taxpayer)
This odd blindness in America is widespread. I’m sick of paying taxes for [X], people will say. Let the government pay for it!
When informed that “the government” is us, and gets most of its money from our taxes, they immediately become angry about that. Often, these people are already anti-tax, always bellowing for tax cuts.
Here’s how it works, Americans: we pay taxes to get services. Pretty simple. If you want money for schools, roads, elder services, mental health services, and more, then you have to pay taxes to get them.
I remember when I was in New York and Pataki won the governor’s race in a landslide by promising to drastically cut taxes. Once in office, he announced plans to shut down several of the state universities. People were enraged, and he had to back down. (And maintain the current taxes.)
But how did they think he was going to do it? to run the state government on substantially less money? If you cut taxes, you must cut services.
Taxes are not the problem. Mismanagement of government funds is the problem. One that can be solved by involved citizens participating in their democratic process to make sure funds are spent wisely. So let’s all do that, rather than wonder when the government will step in with money that is somehow conjured out of the air.
What makes America great? –Not Americans (per se)! – 4.8.08
I recently heard this excerpt from a John McCain speech: “The Democrats think government is what makes America great. I know it is the heart of the American people that makes America great.”
Senator McCain has clearly never read my blog.
The hearts of the American people are no different than those of any other nation’s people. It is indeed our form of government that sets us apart, and has made the United States remarkable. Our democratic federal government, based on equality of opportunity and on preservation of natural rights, is all that makes America different from most other nations.
So it’s our form of government that needs to be preserved by whoever becomes president. Not government itself, but our form of government: if our representative democracy, based on the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, is not fueling our government, then we’ve lost everything. So it’s not government per se that makes America great and needs to be strengthened. Every nation has a government. It’s our form of democractic government, so under fire, that needs our help.
So write Sen. McCain an email and fill him in on that.
Reminder: The Constitution Does NOT Encourage Torture – 4.8.08
I was looking back over the February 2008 BBC interview with horrible Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, in which he scorns those who cannot see that the Constitution supports torture–and puts forward the idea that torturing people is a rational way to get information from them.
Scalia repeatedly refers to torture as “smacking people in the face.” It would be refreshing if that were the sort of thing happening under American hands, instead of waterboarding, et al. “Is it obvious that what can’t be done for punishment can’t be done to exact information that is crucial to society?” Scalia asks. “I think it is not an easy question, to tell you the truth.”
What’s even worse than this is Scalia’s answer to the question of whether America permitting torture will lead other nations to do the same. “I don’t look to their law. Why should they look to mine?”
Let me refresh Justice Scalia on why they are looking to us: we are the original democratic government of modern times, and we invented almost all of the functions and principles of representative democracy based on preservation of natural rights and equality of opportunity. Such governments are in the definite minority in the world.
Therefore, if we trash our democratic principles, a very big light goes out. And other lights follow.
So let’s all help Justice Scalia, and all our justices, remember what they’re supposed to be doing.