The Greatest Story Ever Told

The greatest story ever told, American version, begins at Plymouth Rock. It’s the story of innocents arriving on virgin shores, triumphing over unprovoked attacks, and boldly heading west, triumphing over unearned hostility and fulfilling their manifest destiny, a destiny that extends across the globe as they export democracy to grateful nations. The occasional moments when the innocents fail to triumph are never their fault: they are the victims of sneak attacks, or insufficient support at home, but they are always in the right. As innocents are.

This story has been heavily edited, of course. One part that it leaves out begins more than a year earlier, when the White Lion docks in Jamestown. It’s the story of West Africans kidnapped from their original kidnappers and sold to the English settlers, inaugurating two and a half centuries of slavery and another century and a half and counting of oppression. Another part of our history that didn’t make the cut also starts at the beginning, the story of the people who were already here when the Europeans arrived, people who over centuries were systematically eliminated, dispossessed, and forced to assimilate.

The greatest story, the official story, doesn’t work unless those other stories are left out. There’s no way to tell a story of righteous innocents building their new Eden on the backs of enslaved people, on land violently cleared of the people who had lived there. It just doesn’t hold together. There’s no way to cry victim when you lose if you’ve left behind so many victims of your own. Leaving out that much from your national story takes a lot of effort, which may explain the anger and violence that seems to erupt when people try to surface the left out bits, when events occasion the telling of the other stories.

McCarthyism

In the last two days we’ve seen the effort it takes to maintain this greatest story and the rage that erupts when the other stories become visible. McCarthy’s speech last night and this morning’s Rittenhouse verdict offer glimpses of these stories at work. The anger, the petulant cries of victimhood, the righteousness. Above all, the innocence, unjustly attacked, defending itself. McCarthy’s unhinged rant didn’t come out of nowhere. The celebrations on the right of the Rittenhouse verdict, the public thanks for the blow he struck for gun rights and “self-defense” when he used the rifle he brought to a protest to kill two people and nearly blow the arm off a third–they didn’t come out of nowhere.

Medic

McCarthy’s America, where friendly congressmen run to their house to get you some antifreeze for your overheating car, is apparently being threatened by outside forces, by China and all sorts of brown foreigners crossing our southern border, and by those among us who coddle them. Rittenhouse’s America has to be defended against protestors, with long guns if need be–and then its defenders get attacked for defending it! This vision of America the innocent, strong but under unfair attack and needing defense, may be most threatened by assertions of what it refuses to see. This is why The 1619 Project has gotten such organized, astroturfed opposition. It’s why Black Lives Matter is Public Enemy Number One when China isn’t enough.

Public Service

The last thirty-six hours have been tough if you’re not a true believer in America’s unerring innocence or in the people who are. We’re just a couple of flipped seats away from McCarthy being Speaker of the House. We are one verdict closer to the cosplay cavalry feeling not just emboldened but invited to mow down protestors. But there’s one messy, hard-to-tell part of the story of the last day and a half that’s falling off the radar and that gives us something hopeful to focus on–the House passing Build Back Better. The people behind it are trying to address the inequities that spring from the history I’m talking about, the stories that some would rather not get told, or taught. If you’re feeling hopeless about where the country is headed, maybe this will help. If you think our flawed institutions can’t address what’s wrong, you’re going to have to ignore what this administration has been working so hard to do. You’ve got to try to see–and tell–the whole story.

Triumph of the Will

Yesterday, after wrangling with my very patient editor over the results of a user review of a new table of contents for my first-year writing textbook, I spent a few minutes trying to remember the name of a textbook from the early 1990s that George Will had railed against in a column as an example of the evils done by Tenured Radicals™. I never did find it, but I did find an old chestnut from Newsweek about which I’d forgotten, Will’s 1991 “Curdled Politics on Campus.” If I remember correctly, this is the Will column that made an appearance in a few of the essays anatomizing the body of work being committed in the early 1990s decrying what they were calling “political correctness.” It ends with this kicker of a paragraph:

Where did we get the ruinous notion that it is the business, even the bounden duty, of schools to produce sweet-tempered neighbors and politically admirable citizens? There is a connection between the rise of that notion–schools as society’s perfecters–and the decline of schools as producers of graduates who think precisely, write clearly, read complex material and bring historical understanding to today’s conditions. Nice neighbors and virtuous citizens are grand, but first things first, please.

Of course this notion didn’t just rise in the late 1980s–it’s what countless educators and writers on the subject since and before Matthew Arnold have expressly wished education to be. Will and company–Bill Bennett, Lynne Cheney, E.D. Hirsch, Allan Bloom, Harold “No Relation” Bloom, &c.–just didn’t like the turn in what educators thought the nation’s young should be learning, about just what “politically admirable” entailed.

What struck me last night about this column was that it reminds that there’s nothing all that new about today’s backlash against teaching about the US that in today’s parlance is described as “woke.” Then it may have been about teaching Toni Morrison alongside Shakespeare; today it’s about the idea that the country might have a history of racism. But it’s always been about painting any impulse to recognize that the official right wing story of the US leaves things out, things it would be good for people to know about, as disloyal.

What’s also striking me as especially “grand” about this column this morning, on rereading it in the car waiting for a high school soccer game to start, is the tone. It’s not just the unexamined notions that helping students gain a fuller picture of America is somehow opposed to good writing and clear thinking and that the behavior that might spring from that knowledge is merely “nice,” producing “sweet-tempered neighbors.” It’s also the disdain that drips from Will’s pen. It’s the same disdain you’ll hear on the right these days as they inveigh against critical race theory, though expressed with fewer four -dollar words and more fake populist folksiness.

So when you hear Josh Hawley or one of the many other fake populists mobilizing racism for the good of their careers railing against what they’d like their voters to believe we’re teaching in school these days, think of the early 1990s and its earlier wave of ginned-up outrage against the crimes allegedly being committed around America’s quads, and don’t buy what they’re selling. Think of George Will and the way he mocks the idea that education has the potential to make better citizens–not citizens who will wave the flag and keep quiet but citizens who will try to make the country be a little better. Ask yourself if this is what your want out of your fellow citizens–blind flag-waving–and remember what that can turn into in the right hands. And then remember how silly his writing about baseball was.

For What It’s Worth

What have I been up to, nobody asks? For an hour or so yesterday morning, here’s where I was:

The protest took place across the street (in an Approved Protest Zone, natch) from this:

The “grand opening” of this $200-something-million dollar building–planned on the promise of state funding that largely never materialized (the absence of which necessitated a giant loan that drove up the cost of the building considerably) and with hopes that it will be a model of the kind of partnership with business that is supposed to save universities from the precipitous loss of state funding (a decline actually only made steeper by privatization, but that’s another conversation)–provided the occasion to protest a just-expired-with-no-request-from-upper-administration-for-the-board-to-vote-on-an-extension classroom mask mandate: no masks and no vaccination requirement in the middle of a pandemic does not exactly seem like Precision Health. Of course, stuck far across the street thanks to rules restricting protest created after the campus protests of 2015 got nationwide attention and not the good kind, the Coalition of Graduate Workers and a few fellow travelers were easily ignored by the administrators, state politicians, and local businesspeople celebrating this future white elephant, back-slapping while they schmoozed on the grave of public higher education.

The state politicians who were asked to stand and be recognized would not characterize the occasion in this way, just as the members of the administration and the local business community wouldn’t. Who wouldn’t support advances in medicine (though of course many of them didn’t)? What could be better than private support, for everything, always? And many of them would hear the protests and commentary such as this, should it ever reach them, as ingratitude and disloyalty and more evidence of why, as in 2015, faculty and students can’t be trusted to have a say in the way public universities are run. And not a few of those would have feelings best expressed by some of the vocally disapproving who drove by, including the young gentleman who gunned his engine after shouting “this isn’t California” at us and the slightly older truck driver who tossed his paper mask out the window with a laugh. The politics that have contaminated public health and resulted in untold additional unnecessary deaths and long-term illness, like the politics that have so harmed the standing of higher education and the treatment of workers–this way of seeing the world, this morphing of the already unjust country-club conservatism into the deadly far right we have today–has become a pandemic. And if it doesn’t kill us, there’s no escaping that we will be seeing long-term effects.

Among these effects we can count last week’s passage of a bill that would effectively gut tenure in the Georgia state system and the new addition to the collected rules and regulations of the Missouri system, snuck in under cover of the alleged COVID-caused need for pay cuts, that essentially strips away the protections of tenure. We can also count the astroturf “movement” noisily imposing itself in state houses and school boards across the country, fighting against critical race theory, which they don’t understand and don’t care to, as long as they can paint those who want to teach the unsightly history of race in this country as, well, disloyal ingrates.

I wrote this tweet the other day, thinking not of my university administration’s decision not to protect its workers and students because (we are left to assume) the political cost would be too great but of all of the other ways in which the educational and scholarly missions of higher ed were being undermined and faculty pointing that out were being made to feel disloyal and ungrateful:

For what it’s worth, the same goes for countries. (And, as was pointed out to me, this is true for students and alumni, staff and retirees, librarians and university press workers.) Under the current ideological undertow we’re experiencing, in which the outgoing tide of the far right attempts to pull us under as it goes, there’s no such thing as loyal dissent. “If you don’t like it here, leave” is somehow still a thing people think and say. What if we said, with patience but with volume, If you love it here and don’t like what’s happening, work to change it. If you value the university and its workers and feel they are being undervalued and mistreated, fight for them. If you love the country and don’t like what it’s becoming, fight for it. We can say these things. We should say them as often as we can, in public. We should speak up for public goods–for public education, not just higher but primary and secondary. We should speak up for all of the things that should be public goods–health, education, workers’ rights. Because really, it, all of it, is about public health in the end.

Signs

Tonight a neighbor sent a group text to say that she had been out walking her dog and had seen an unfamiliar pickup truck drive up and down our dead-end street, removing Black Lives Matter signs from the front yards. A number of us texted back that our signs were gone. One neighbor’s front-door camera captured a short movie of the truck rolling down the street while somebody ran from sign to sign, pulling them out of the lawns. The neighbor who’d seen this happen was rattled–it was later in the evening, the street was dark–and I imagine we all were, hearing about it. When I went outside to check on our sign, I walked up and down the street, and I don’t know what I expected to see, but everything looked different.

Last night at my city’s school board meeting, the agenda for which included a vote on extending the mask mandate, the board president had to ask police to clear their meeting room after the board’s rules of decorum for public comment were violated. The woman whose behavior led to the meeting being stopped is anti-vaccine and anti-mask, as her frequent comments on the city health department’s social media posts have made plain. She’s captured on the livestream of the meeting wearing a thin blue line t-shirt and a Trump mask. On local radio this morning she repeatedly claimed that she was being “silenced.” Her shirt and mask spoke volumes.

Not to put too fine a point on it: these events are signs of the times. The country is falling apart. The worst president we’ve had could be back in the White House in four years, if he’s not in jail. There are governors who are mandating that there be no mandates in their states, trading the safety of their constituents for their votes. It’s just a few feet of ground in the culture war the GOP is fighting nationwide, from the Capitol to local school boards. Schoolteachers are being told they can’t teach the history of race in the country. Texans are being deputized to arrest fellow Texans if they exercise their right to make their own reproductive health care decisions. The battles in this war are less and less tactical and more and more scorched earth. It’s far from inconceivable that the peaceful transfer of power will be a casualty, and with it, our democracy.

Signs matter. In times like this, they matter even more. Two strangers came on my street tonight and stole my sign out of my yard, and did it up and down the block. This isn’t just an annoyance or even a disconcerting violation of my property. In the words of the woman who disrupted the school board meeting, it’s an attempt to silence. I know that people on both sides of the cultural divide (I was going to say widening cultural divide, but I don’t actually think that’s true) have signs that proclaim their beliefs, and that many on both sides believe that what their signs say is correct. I also know that, despite the disingenuous cries of cancel culture, the right in this country wields the rhetoric of silencing far more frequently and viciously than the left, and that it’s not just a tactic, it’s the point. The Attorney General of my state would like to make the teaching of whatever he wants to pretend is critical race theory illegal. He’s sending a signal to voters that he’ll work to silence the voices talking about race in America, in the past and the present.

Some see yard signs and t-shirts and bumper stickers as empty gestures, signals of virtue but hardly action. The shadowy figures seen in my neighbor’s front-door camera recording must think otherwise or they wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of stealing our signs. Just like the neighbor who just texted us to ask if anybody knows where to buy more signs so we can get them back up.

Listomania

children running from critical race theory

Today I learned that my town made The Daily Wire, Ben Shapiro’s reactionary online rag, because teachers signed a pledge the Zinn Education Project wrote to give educators an opportunity to express their opposition to laws attempting to stifle the teaching of anything to do with the country’s sordid history regarding race, under the guise of stifling only the teaching of critical race theory, which the people writing these bills don’t understand or care to understand, because it’s not the point.

This summer, The Daily Wire did humanity the service of breaking down the signers of this pledge by state and by town so that its readers could look up their town and, if they were lucky, storm their school board meetings armed, like Johnny Iselin with his 57 card-carrying communists, with Names. They proudly published this list–taken from the carefully hidden Zinn website–as if it were an exposé.

57 Varieties

The truth is that legislators and attorneys general in states like mine (blessed with the estimable AG Eric Schmitt, who never met a frivolous, career-boosting lawsuit he didn’t like, whether it was about curriculum, public health measures, or insurrection) and helper-hacks like Shapiro know what they’re doing. They are using fear to run things and to run for things. They know what their base is afraid of, and they’re afraid too. They are afraid that there are more of us than them, and more all the time–more people who believe that the truth will set us free, or at least will set the children who are taught it free, more people who understand that it’s not weakness but strength to admit the truth of the past, more people who recognize that things need to change, and, most frightening to these people, more and more people of color. And just like the men in power 150 years ago, a hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, they don’t want to lose that power. So they try to make their constituents afraid of their own children’s teachers.

I’m proud of those teachers. Put them on a list if you want to, Daily Wire. I’m on that list too, even though I teach in a university, not a high school, because I wanted to express my opposition to these efforts to bully our teachers out of teaching the truth. I’m not the target of the people who scream at school board meetings, but I damn well stand with them, and you should too.

The Last Refuge

The other day I received an email from my employer inviting me to attend a ceremony described as being held “in recognition of the 20th anniversary of Patriot Day.” This is not the first email of this kind I’ve received from the university, but it’s the first time I’ve noticed this curious wording. The twentieth anniversary of Patriot Day?

I’ve never liked the use of the term Patriot Day for the anniversary for the 2001 attacks. I’ve never been comfortable with 9/11 as the term to use to refer to the day itself: I think making it easier to refer to that day, giving it a short, catchy brand name, makes it easier to instrumentalize it, to use it whip up nationalist fervor. It stands in the way of understanding the events of the day, their causes, and the way they were used as an excuse to institute improper policies and start wars. And I’ve never been comfortable remembering the day simply. It was a bad day for me as a New Yorker and as a person–my sister lost her husband in the north tower, I spent the day trying to get back downtown from the Bronx and then going around to local hospitals looking for and not finding my brother-in-law–and along with those memories of that bad day and the days after, I have the memories of everything people have done in its name since then. (I wrote something for the local paper about this on the anniversary in 2011.)

Calling the anniversary of that day Patriot Day proudly reprises the Bush administration’s approach to the events of that day, and it’s why I’ve never liked it. Referring to the day itself as Patriot Day in this announcement just strikes me as perverse. It was a day. People got out of bed, had breakfast, got coffee, got on planes, went to work, died for reasons and for no reason. My brother-in-law was patriotic; that’s not why he died. He died because he went to work. He didn’t die so neocons could get their wars and oil profiteers could get their profits. He didn’t die for Halliburton or for Blackwater or for the other people who make money off of war. Two decades later, these two wars prosecuted in patriotism’s name are finally over. As we watch the evacuation unfold and the blame be misassigned, as we hear the lies about who and what we care about and why we were there, maybe for once we can stop pretending.

History Is What the GOP Doesn’t Want You to Teach

(As Fred Jameson once said.)

So I’ve been teaching it and talking about teaching it. Gave a long talk at The Story Center of Kansas City’s Mid-Continent Public Library Tuesday night (on Facebook Live, recorded here: https://www.facebook.com/watch/live/?v=461105401624401&ref=watch_permalink) on Missouri writers, which is hard to do without talking about the state’s special history of race, capitalism, and empire.

If a funny bit sticks out of the side of your state, might be a story

I also wrote a short thing for Modernism/modernity‘s blog In These Times (https://modernismmodernity.org/forums/posts/cohen-2016-project) in which I use Walter Johnson, Walter Williams, and no other Walters to talk about why it’s important to be able to teach these kinds of things, especially in These Times.

Always quote your colleagues, even if they’re just quoting someone else

You don’t have to watch the long talk or read the short thing, of course, but if you want to pick one, pick the short thing, and share it with people if you think it’s worth the clicking. I think it’s an important subject and hope you do too. Use hashtags. Like #CriticalRaceTheory, #1619Project, my newly invented and surely not catching on #2016Project. If there’s anything we can do to keep these bills legislative stunts only rather than watching them become laws, we should do it.

It’s #SidelinePoetry All the Way Down

And we haven’t hit bottom yet. (But there’s still time! One more weekend left in the season.) These new poems are from league play two Sundays ago (the first) and from a tournament this past weekend (the rest), all in the glorious, glorious state of Kansas. *

One critic to whom I am related noted a certain pessimism creeping into the poems a few weeks ago, to which I can only reply with this from late Saturday:

not bottom yet

… so there’s that. It’s not you, world, it’s me, or the length of the season, of the semester, and/or of the legislative session. And I don’t edit these things, they just pop out on Twitter, so the mood they got written in is the mood that shows up in them. I will also note a personal tendency in these most recent poems, which I think is more pronounced than in past ones, or maybe I’m just hiding it less, and certainly no one cares either way. I’ve got grading to do and something to write for someone about the aforementioned shit show in Jeff City, so here are the poems, which are supposed to be just for fun anyway, yes?

It’s just another story.**


*https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2020/feb/02/trump-kansas-city-missouri-super-bowl-tweet

**that was for the Clash fans. For all of you, a video:

Oh God Not More #SidelinePoetry

They did this over and over again

Once upon a time, long before you were born, soccer was played on fields (made of grass) that popped up here and there–next to schools, in public parks, maybe in a field surrounded by trees. (I know!) Now the fields are made of crumb-rubber infilled synthetic turf–“blades” of grass-shaped polypropylene or polyethylene attached to a backing material, upon which is poured two to three pounds of ground-up tires per square foot. And you often find these fields in soccer complexes, some of which sell naming rights (Scheels All Sports paid the small sum of $625K for the rights at Overland Park Soccer Complex), all of which prominently feature multiple fields divided by vinyl-coated chain link fences, sometimes elaborate concessions operations, and dedicated spots for medal-awarding and picture-taking, because ultimately if there are no losers, the soccer will have just been for helping players develop and possibly for fun. (I know!) Should you find yourself in one of these complexes, puzzling over what to do with the five hours between the last game and the finals (your prayers that your child’s team will miss the finals so you don’t have to drive two hours home in the dark having failed because you are godless), try to find a park where you can sit on the grass in the sun, near a dam and some trees, and watch ducks do what can only be described as playing.