Sunday, March 21, 2010

A brief retort to Sam Tanenhaus

A brief retort to Sam Tanenhaus's NYTimes editorial, "In Texas Curriculum Fight, Identity Politics Leans Right". Needless to say, I was rather peeved by the schlocky pseudo-intellectual tone Tenenhaus takes, supported one is meant to believe, by the never-ending regurgitation of archaic authorial authorities, Arthur Schlesinger most colorfully. Indeed, it is the half-cocked logic of the Schlesinger brand that ultimately takes the day in Mr. Tenenhaus' article--though, really, we should just call it a blog already. Despite tone of the headline, Mr. Tenenhaus seems to see no problem with this situation. This is because he rather condescendingly sees the latest round of cynical Right-wing revisionism as amounting to little more than the same identity politicking of Left-wing Black, gay, Feminist, immigrant, Indigenous Americans, even Socialist struggles for acknowledgment of a history that runs counter to the exceptional narrative of American exceptionalism.

Perhaps Tenenhaus took exception to Tocqueville's accompanying warning, namely it was precisely homogeneity that threatened the formation of a despotic mob who, through the deployment of social stigmatization and shunning, enforced a dominant narrative through the marginalization of those with dissenting opinions or "deviant" life-styles or orientations. This was not speculation for Tocqueville, but a historical observation born of careful ethnographic research and reflection.

It's this propensity towards selective editing of history, typified here by both the Texas School Board and Mr. Tenenhaus, that so-called "left-wing" indentitarian politicos have contested. And doesn't this make all the difference in the world? Can we _really, honestly_ say that conservative Americans are being, of all things, marginalized on the order endured by Blacks, gays, ethnic minorities, or women when textbooks document the history of rather noble agents of change like Oscar Romero or serve to remind contemporary Americans that "founding father" Thomas Jefferson advocated the separation of church and State? Certainly including these counter narratives will displace more traditional, even mythical--remember "manifest destiny"?--accounts. But, in part, that, too, is the point: the conservative movement can claim a mantle representing a tradition centering American self-understanding, only because political subjects who _did not, and still may not_ conform to those norms were marginalized. The list ranges from women, Irish, Chinese, Japanese, Blacks, gays, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Gemans, Indigenous Americans, Mexicans, Creole-speaking New Orleanians, Italians, Spanish-speaking immigrants, and--for a time--any American who "was not with us" as the former Bush administration launched the country towards an ill-advised, fiscally irresponsible, legally criminal, and morally wrong war in Iraq.

Mr. Tenenhaus begins to advance an interesting thesis--that such attempts to domineer history betray a desire to retreat from the present--but this is itself quickly retreated from. Further, though the most interesting moment in an otherwise cliched and tired article, this thesis is sadly unidirectional in its scope. It ignores, for instance, how mis- or mal-educated American youth are vulnerable to the cynical appeals of pundits and politicians who harken to a time and place that never existed--except in the fantasy land of conservative Texan textbooks--with the promise of "returning" America to that idylic, "simpler time". While true that control of the past does not guarantee control over the future, it certainly helps pave the way.

Ultimately, however, what Mr. Tenenhaus fails to understand--and this was the most frustrating dimension of the whole editorial--is that at stake in the education of our youth is the cultivation of our country's future citizens. I think looking at the maneuvers of conservatives in the Texas School Board highlights a significant impulse prevelant in America: rather than face our checkered past, we disavow its existence. Now, such disavowal won't be so hard because we won't even know the history we are disavowing: we will simply be ignorant. There are many pit-falls to such an future: America needs to take seriously a number of profound challenges--peak oil, global warming, the de-territorialization of global commerce and even politics, climate refugees, a staggering National debt, and bio-medical advances to name a few. If we do not have the confidence that similar Americans, just like us, once confronted problems of similar scope and gravity, how will we expect Americans of the future to respond to these challenges? Because, fundamentally, what conservatives are doing is writing out of history all of the _conflict_ that defined the figures historical figures worth studying, and perhaps even revering.

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