Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Difficulties of Teaching Modern American History

The fall semester has been over for a while now.  The inevitable pile of grading that has to be done before any thought of holiday cheer can happen in an academic household has long since been put away, and the holidays have been well and truly cheered.  It was a good semester in many ways.  My classes were fun to teach and my students were interesting and, for the most part, interested.  I was well treated by both my department and several different campuses, when all was said and done.  I had a friend to carpool with on the long drive to Mid-Range Campus.  Life was good.

Still, there was one troubling aspect.

I’ve been rewriting the last third of my US2 class for the last year or so – two full run-throughs of the course now.  You have to rewrite classes now and then.  This is especially true with any history class entitled “Something-something-something to the present,” as every day there is more of it.  Plus my thinking on how the basic mechanics of post-WWII American history has worked – the underlying things that make what you see turn out the way you notice – has shifted considerably in the last few years.  You can only tweak it so long before you have to do a complete teardown and rebuild it from top to bottom.

The previous structure of the post-WWII part of the class was all about limits and limitlessness. 

In the immediate aftermath of WWII, so the old version goes, the US felt that it was effectively limitless and it could remake the world as it chose.  Accordingly it adopted a number of policies and shouldered a number of burdens with this in mind – the Bretton Woods System, the Containment of Communism, and NSC-68 in foreign policy; the Politics of Growth at home.  This kind of world was a place where it was un-American for people to be left out of the growing prosperity, where you could give to the poor and the marginalized and not mind the rich because there was always more to go around.  The Great Society was based on this kind of thinking as were most of the early phases of the social protest movements of the 1960s, such as the Civil Rights Movement.

This mindset basically worked until the mid-late 1960s, when cracks first appeared in the foreign policy angle – notably because of Vietnam – and then in the 1970s it fell apart completely.  We discovered limits to both our role in the world and to our own economic and political power at home, and the next four decades became a story of how the return of the Zero-Sum World played out at home and abroad.  The Zero-Sum World is a world of limits and harsh struggles over scarce resources, and if you think this doesn’t apply today you can look around you.  It’s also a much more conservative world, where generosity can be seen as foolhardiness and a general sense that things were once better pervades throughout.

This was a useful framework for hanging the major developments of post-WWII US history upon, and in some ways – particularly the initial part – it remains embedded in the fabric of the class. 

But over time the pesky little details that seemed to resist being explained by this framework became more and more apparent, and I began to think that a more important focus for this unit of the class would be the sharp turn to the right that we’ve experienced over the last forty to fifty years. 

How do you get from a place where Barry Goldwater is considered a right-wing extremist to a place where Goldwater is bitterly describing himself as a liberal on some issues because his party and the country in general have moved that far rightward?  How do you explain the fact that by any rational post-WWII standard Barack Obama is a moderate conservative – throw an Amy uniform on the man and there is precious little daylight between him and Eisenhower – yet there are legions of Americans who will look you in the eye and tell you with an absolutely straight face that he is some kind of howling Socialist?

That process is interesting.

It usually takes me two to three renditions of a new course or a complete rebuild (which is more or less the same thing) to get things down to my satisfaction – to get it to where the story flows naturally, the points build on top of each other, and the evidence fits without being either distracting or overwhelming.  Until then there is a lot of volatility.

Take, for example, the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1970s.

There is a huge shift in American politics in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  As the social protest movements radicalized after about 1966 or so, they began to shift their focus from economic and legal issues (segregation, equal pay, free speech) to more cultural issues.  “The personal is political,” they said.  While this shift therefore begins on the left, it ends up being adopted wholeheartedly by the right, who realized that they had essentially nothing to offer most Americans in economic or legal terms – the vast majority of Americans are objectively better off under Progressive economic policies than under laissez-faire for the simple reason that supply-side economics do not work in a demand-side economy, for one thing, and for another a legal defense of inequality is a non-starter in a nation whose founding creed specifically argues otherwise.  If the right wanted to reach voters they needed to shift the grounds of politics to something that they could win on, something that hid the inequalities that inevitably result from the economic and legal policies they espoused.  That something turned out to be “values.” 

I put the scare quotes in there because “values” becomes something of a buzz phrase that may or may not have anything to do with actual morality.  I’ll stop doing that now, though, as even I find it aggravating.

When you shift the basis of politics to values, suddenly supply-side economics is about “freedom” rather than taxing the poor to benefit the rich.  Suddenly taxes and indeed all dollars-and-cents issues get lost in the shuffle of moral debate, making sane fiscal policy unreachable.  Suddenly treating the marginalized and the oppressed with the dignity they have long been denied is a threat to good old fashioned American values, because the world as it was is changing and They are coming for You, whoever They are and whoever You are.  Suddenly compromise is impossible, because nobody wants to compromise their values – and more importantly, nobody wants to be seen compromising their values. 

In the long run this shift makes the country essentially ungovernable, as we are discovering here in the 21st century.

The first place you really see this shift happening on a national level is with Nixon’s Southern Strategy in 1968.  The Southern Strategy is an attempt to move the Southern Democrats alienated by the Civil Rights Movement into the Republican Party permanently – not because treating blacks as actual real-live American citizens threatened white jobs but because treating them that way struck those whites as counter to the way the world ought to work.  It was a threat to their values, in other words.  The Southern Strategy works exactly as advertised.  Those voters abandon the party that had opposed civil rights for blacks in the 1870s and move into the party that opposed them in the 1970s, where they remain to this day – the backbone of the GOP and the heart of the social conservative movement.

And once you understand that, you understand a lot about where the Religious Right comes from.

The first time I ran through this version of the class I did a fair amount of handwaving as to the connection between the emergence of the large and influential evangelical voting bloc in the 1970s (if the personal is political, what is more personal than faith?) and the fact that this bloc becomes a hard and fast part of the right wing.  But from a historical perspective that identification is strange.   Christianity – and specifically evangelical Protestantism – has often been a liberal and reforming force in American history and the most prominent evangelical politician in America in the 1970s was Jimmy Carter, whose personal faith led his politics toward the left of the American spectrum (which is not that far left in broader Western Civilization terms, but that’s another story).  How does this group become the central pillar of the New Right? 

In the first run-through of this rewritten class, I simply attributed the change to “conservative activists” and left it at that.  But that vagueness felt unsatisfactory, so I decided to dig a bit further into the specifics of how and why those activists made that happen.

If you listen to social conservatives today – the sort of people who have turned the GOP from a once-proud defender of Jeffersonian small government and Gilded Age laissez-faire capitalism (coherent intellectual stances, whether you agree with them or not) into a hive of batshit insanity where Rick Santorum, Michelle Bachmann, Sarah Palin, and Ted Cruz are somehow considered legitimate candidates for office rather than walking advertisements for the importance of taking one’s medications – they will tell you that the primary impetus for the emergence of the Religious Right was their outrage over Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that removed restrictions on a woman’s right to have an abortion.

This is untrue. 

The mainstream evangelical position on abortion in the late 1960s and early 1970s was essentially pro-choice.  “God does not regard the fetus as a soul, no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote Bruce Waltke, an evangelical theologian at the Dallas Theological Seminary, in 1968.  “The Law plainly exacts: “If a man kills any human life he will be put to death” (Lev. 24:17). But according to Exodus 21:22-24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”   In 1971 the Southern Baptist Convention called for all Southern Baptists to work for legislation that would allow abortions in many cases, including the emotional and mental health of the mother.  And the Roe v Wade decision itself was hailed by W. Barry Garrett of the Baptist Press: “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”

The court case that launched the Religious Right – and with it the heart of the modern definition of conservative in America – was a far more obscure case known as Green v. Connally, where a US District Court ruled that private schools that practiced racial discrimination – banning blacks from entering, segregating them if they were admitted, and so on – were not entitled to tax-exempt status under federal laws.  Tax-exempt status is not a right – it is a gift of taxpayer money, and it comes with strings.  Those institutions who do not respect the rights of American citizens do not have the right to public money.

When the fundamentalist Bob Jones University saw its tax-exempt status revoked in January 1976 for its racist practices, right-wing leaders such as Paul Weyrich seized on it as a pretext to organize the emerging evangelical voting bloc into a right-wing force.  They did this by working to convince those voters that religious liberty was at stake – that the message of Christ was about hating one’s neighbor and that this trumped any responsibilities American citizens might have to the Constitutional requirement to treat other American citizens as American citizens.  And this, too, worked exactly as advertised.

Indeed, you still hear this nonsense being spouted today and taken far more seriously than a thinking person could possibly imagine, as anyone who has paid attention to the issue of gay marriage will attest.


This is the origin of the Religious Right.  This is where it comes from, the notion that being required to treat fellow Americans as Americans is somehow a burden.  The bottom line is that the Religious Right and the social conservative movement that derives from it and currently dominates the American right wing is rooted entirely on a defense of segregation.

But, comes the counter-argument, what about all the economic issues that conservatives ramble on about so much?  The smaller government, libertarian-themed waltz that gets played over and over again on right-wing radio?  This, say those in that camp, does not follow from that.

Actually it does, and the originators of the New Right in the late 1970s and early 1980s were quite open about that.  They saw no problem with it.  They were defending their values, which included such things, and that was that.

Lee Atwater was one of the architects of the New Right and later served in the Reagan Administration and as the campaign manager for both Reagan in 1984 and Bush Sr. in 1988.  He was the guy who brought you the Willie Horton ad.  And in a remarkably candid 1981 interview, he laid out exactly how those issues are connected and how you get from opposing civil rights to cutting government services, in language that was at once direct and appropriately racist.  “You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger,’” he said.  “By 1968 you can’t say ‘nigger’ – that hurts you, backfires.  So you say stuff like ‘forced busing, states’ rights,’ and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract.  Now you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. … You follow me – because obviously sitting around saying, ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘Nigger, nigger.’”

Do you think it’s an accident that right-wing policies consistently harm non-white Americans far more than anyone else?  Do you think it’s an accident that all of the big issues being thumped by right-wingers today – “law and order,” “voter fraud,” “welfare reform,” on and on – are just new and more abstract ways to say to suburban and rural whites, “Black people!  BOO!”?  Think again.  They’re designed that way – they’re dog whistle issues harping on themes only the initiated can hear, designed to give plausible deniability when called out but otherwise crystal clear to those who understand.

It’s interesting these days how when armed criminals threaten to shoot the officers sent to enforce the law conservatives cheer the white ones – Cliven Bundy and his band of deadbeats, for example – but bitterly condemn the black ones.  The Second Amendment has a long history of being for whites only, after all.

The Atwater quote is the link that makes the connections clear, the prism through which this underlying mechanism can be brought into focus.  It sums up the shift from economics to values, grounds the New Right in its racist origins, and explains much of the next forty-plus years of American politics in a way that allows students to connect disparate events that might otherwise seem to be coincidences or randomly unrelated events.  They’re not random.  They’re not coincidence.  And they sure as hell aren’t unrelated.  If you want to understand the politics of the last forty years or so, the Atwater quote is pretty much essential reading.

But how do you use that in a class?

Even if you preface it with the kinds of language warnings that are now required to protect the sensitive ears of the modern student from any kind of historical authenticity when it comes to offensive words (and don’t even get me started on that issue), the fact is that these issues are tricky to bring up in a classroom setting.  As Ferguson burns and Eric Garner asphyxiates in an illegal chokehold, how do you even broach this topic without turning the classroom into a battlefield?

I never did figure out how to do it this past fall, and that troubles me. 

It seems dishonest to punt on the Atwater quote, to leave it out in the interest of preserving the illusion of peace in the classroom.  It certainly made the rest of the semester make less sense than it otherwise would have done – the events became divorced from their underlying mechanisms, turned into seemingly unrelated things and students walked away from the class thinking it was just a collection of random observations, many of which they did not like very much.  The last couple of weeks of the course really didn’t hold together well as a coherent narrative that way.  Without that coherence, students felt free to dismiss the class out of hand rather than trying to grapple with the interpretation presented.

I don’t ask that they agree with me.  I do want them to grapple with what I say, though – to consider it and determine rigorously whether and how their own views should change or not.  What they think is their business; that they think is mine.

I’m hoping I can figure out how to be more complete about this transition and the mechanics that make it go during the upcoming semester, how to tell the whole story without sacrificing either authentic historical reality or classroom peace. 

We’ll see.

8 comments:

S.Hunts said...

Best of luck to you in figuring out how to convey this clearly (and honestly) to your students. More people need to understand how we got from the '50's to where we are today. And maybe, just maybe, they'll then decide they don't want to be part of today's right wing "values" voters when they know what the values being supported actually are.

David said...

Thanks, and welcome to 4Q10D!

They may decide that, though that's beyond the scope of my class. Mostly I just want them to understand that things were not always as they are now - that what 21st-century Americans regard as "conservative" is a very different animal than what people in the 1950s or even the 1980s regarded as "conservative." That the US has shifted very far to the right and now routinely espouses policies that would have been considered extremist insanity by those earlier conservatives. And that this shift has had consequences for the nation as a whole.

LucyInDisguise said...

I have 22 blogs bookmarked which I follow regularly. Of the top 5, you and Jim over at StonekettleStaion are my 'Never Miss' blogs.

As an avowed history buff, I could probably do 4 pages on why this type of post is what keeps me coming back here.

I hope it will suffice to say 'THIS' is what enamors me to you. I've said it before, and will repeat it again now; I know how hard it is to bring your work to this blog, but please, keep it up as frequently as you can bear.

Lucy

David said...

Thanks, Lucy! I appreciate the kind words. :)

I will do my best to keep these coming.

Unknown said...

Yup. Wow. So on target. I hope you keep working on how to get this dialog going, provide some insight. Really decent post, thank you.

David said...

You're welcome, and thank you as well.

It seems an important subject, and I wish I had better answers as to how to make it work in my classroom. But I will continue to try to figure that out.

raddad said...

A conservative friend of mine, posted this in response: That quote literally elides an important qualifier atwater gives. It claims that the Atwater quote literally elides an important qualifier Atwater gives. I don't disagree with you that the Right uses racism in many forms to consolidate political power, I am just not sure this quote is the smoking gun that many say it is

David said...

It does elide the qualifier, but I'm not convinced it was as important as your friend thinks it was.

In my lecture notes I included the whole quote, and perhaps that would be one avenue for debate on this - how important was that qualifier?

Thanks for the idea.