Monday, March 31, 2014

The People, Marked and Unmarked

One of the pet peeves of most history teachers is when students use the term "the people."  As in the following imaginary exchange:

Me:  Why did the American Revolution happen?
Student:  Because the people wanted change
Me:  [Controls deep rage, smiles]  Could you be a bit more specific?  Which people wanted change?  The Loyalists?
Student:  Well, no not them. 
Me:   So, who then?

And then we go back and forth and still a month later I'll be writing "which people" on somebody's essay and a month after that "which people" on somebody else's test and so on, for ever, and ever ad infinitum, ad nauseum. 

But hey, I'm a history teacher, I signed up for that gig.  That's my job.  Hopefully some of the students, most of the students, maybe if I'm lucky, all the students will stop using the phrase "the people." 

It's a good habit to get into, because there is a certain preciseness in learning how to mark who it is you are talking about.  And in our culture certain people get marked more than others.  There's history and then there's "women's history" or "black history".  Very rarely do you here somebody talk about "men's history" (although more people are starting too).  It's important to mark who you are talking about, because if you don' the default assumption is that you are talking about white folks, or more specifically white men of a particular class.  Their experiences are then defined as "the normal experience" and everybody else's experiences are defined as different or deviant.  Now that's a problem because it's simply untrue.  White men (even if we include all white men, not just white men of a particular class) were never a majority of the population in the United States.  They may have been a plurality, maybe, at some point in time.  But even then, if we account for things like the moving borders of whiteness (Hey, Irish folks in 1840 you aren't white yet! Protestant Germans you are!  Catholic Germans, we haven't made up our minds yet, how much did you say you drink a day?), I think you'd have a hard time finding a time when what we think of the normative experience (white, male of a certain class)  in the past was, well, normal.  

And if we are going to get past that line of thinking in the present, it's important to not get in the habit of thinking of certain experiences as normal and, when you are writing about white guys, to say out loud, I'm writing about white guys and not just assume that a) everybody understands you are writing about white guys because you didn't say otherwise and b) you aren't assuming that everybody's experience was essentially the white guy's experience.

Which is why I have what is turning into a long running issue with Damon Linker, most recently exemplified by this piece.  Now first a few caveats.  One, Damon Linker and I have met virtually.  We are in an email group run by a mutual acquaintance.  Although we have a long running disagreement on the group, Damon has been civil, and even generous to me, even though we have never met and I've been pretty darn critical of his ideas.  I'm a schlub high school teacher and he's a bona fide public intellectual.  He'd be perfectly within his rights to ignore everything I write about him.  Yet,  as far as I can tell, we come from similar backgrounds, economically and socially and, I was surprised to learn, I'm older than he is but not by much.  As Damon would point out (has pointed out to me, in fact), if you were ever to say "white guys of a certain class think this," all you would  have to do to disprove it is ask Damon and me our political opinions or history preferences and you would get very different answers.

That said, Damon and I share a love for 70s pop culture.  I think his taste in the linked to pieces is fantastic.  The movie choices are excellent.  If you haven't seen them, watch them.  The music choices, too, are fantastic.  I love Paul Simon's American Tune.   I love Jackson Browne, I loved Billy Joel until I got sick of him (growing up on Long Island one can o.d. on the local boy).  Yet I really don't like the article. 

By now you can probably guess why.  Damon's arguing that a certain pessimistic inward turn informed the 70s pop culture as exemplified by singer-songwriters and certain film-makers and genres.  The artists and works he focuses on are all working out a certain set of issues that were the concerns of white guys of a certain class in the 1970s.  What does the sexual revolution mean to us?  What does our whiteness mean anymore?  What does it mean to be a man?  When Damon says, "Similar themes resonate through the pop music of the era, especially in the plaintive songs of the singer-songwriters who rose to prominence early in the decade."   He's really talking about male singer-songwriters but he's universalizing their experiences to talk about "the experience" of the 1970s instead of one set of experiences.   How do I know this?  Because he spends a whole bunch of time talking about some great Jackson Browne albums that didn't sell and ignores the best selling singer songrwriter of the 1970s, Carole King.  King's album, Tapestry, was a chart topper for two years straight.  It won just about every major award it could.  And it's held up.  It's got some serious optimism mixed in with the sadness.  The singer-songwriter inward turn veers into a celebration of sexuality (unleashed by the Pill and the women's movement) in songs like I Feel the Earth Move and Natural Woman.  And of course if we move beyond King, Disco was a music of optimism if there ever was one.  Gloria Gaynor belting I Will Survive will make you feel better no matter what.  Taste, however, is taste.  You don't have to like Carole King, or Gloria Gaynor, or Jackson Browne.  However, if you are going to write about the 1970s crisis of white male masculinity, you kind of owe it to all the people in the 1970s who didn't share in that crisis, not to universalize the experience of the white guys.  You owe it to the people of the past, and the readers in the present to be straightforward about whose experiences you are talking about.  It's a good habit to be in.  It's an honest habit.  It's respectful.  And ultimately, it's kind.  Because it invites the next question.  If a lot of white guys thought this?  What did other folks think? 

Special thanks to Damon Linker for encouraging me to write up this response. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

The Fantasticks, me, and rape culture

My two oldest children and I ventured up to NYC today to see a Broadway play.  We played the TKTS lottery and came up with The Fantasticks.  Technically, we did not see a Broadway play, because although the Jerry Orbach theater is located steps from the actual street Broadway on 50th, it is an off-Broadway production due to the small size of the house (among other factors).  This is a show I have a long history with.  I saw it twice at the Sullivan Street Playhouse and was in a production in college.  I was a little worried about seeing the show.  Back in the 80s, the show felt dated.  How could it still hold up?  But hold up it did, primarily because of the efforts of Samantha Bruce, who gave the Luisa character a depth I hadn't really seen before.  She played the 16 year old with a charming mix of naivete and burgeoning sexuality that was both comedic and believable.  My parents weren't much older when they married around the time the play was written so it's not totally unrealistic for a 16 year old to marry.  It's an incredibly difficult job and she was extremely successful at it.  Pierce Cravens (normally the mute) made for a pleasing romantic lead as an understudy fill-in and was a very believable 20.    Jeremiah James (maybe you saw him in Oklahoma as Curly or heard him as part of the theater singing group Teatro) was a knowing El Gallo:  attractive, worldly, and just a bit dangerous.   The rest of the small cast was filled with accomplished Broadway veterans.  The show seemed fresh and alive in a way no 50-year old show has a right to be.  My kids loved it and I found new layers of meaning that I couldn't appreciate in my teens.  (Luisa's keepsake, her mother's necklace, is a symbol for her virginity and she gives it willingly to El Gallo?  Ohhhhhhhhhhh.)  Although the first act is the stronger in terms of music and action and laughs,  the moral is in the second act: that the romances that Matt and Luisa fed themselves on are lies, that there is no teacher like experience, that it can be good, and maybe even necessary to fight pirates and swim naked in mountain streams, but one doesn't build a life doing those things, that romance is child's play but love and living are very serious and grown up businesses and if they are somewhat boring they are ultimately rewarding.   

Of course, the show has been updated somewhat.  The book and lyrics have been altered (by the original team) to minimize the use of the word rape.  In the original, El Gallo arranges the abduction (or rape in the classical sense of the word) of Luisa with the help of Henry and Mortimer.  He does so because the Fathers of Matt and Luisa have staged a feud to make the two fall in love and now must create a happy ending wherein Matt will rescue Luisa from El Gallo and his accomplices.  This was controversial enough in 1986 that my college production got booed the first time El Gallo mentioned the word.  The changes were mostly minor and barely noticesable.  Most often, the term raid was substituted for rape.  But this is why the character of Luisa is so difficult to play.  She has to be someone who is secretly thrilled with the idea of being abducted and even charmed by El Gallo himself, but ultimately someone in charge of her own sexuality.  When she gives El Gallo her mother's necklace, she does so willingly.  And although she regrets it, it's a necessary step in her own education.  I suppose when people talk about rape culture, they are, in part, talking about the trope that filled Luisa's mind:  being swept off her feet by a knowing, handsome, exotic stranger skilled in love and conquest.  Hell, almost everybody. male or female, has had that fantasy at some time or another.  Mrs. Robinson, El Gallo, it's all the same.    When people talk about rape culture, my mind goes to cultural artifacts that glorify abduction and shows like The Fantasticks that appear, at least on the surface, to condone such abductions.  There is a reading that suggests Luisa wants to be raped.  I think that's the wrong reading.  I think The Fantasticks is actually a critique of that reading.   But doing the kind of cultural work to get to the point where most people can critique the abduction fantasy even if they have it from time to time is hard.  To get to the point where we note the difference between fantasy and reality and where the line is, that's a lot of work right there.  Maybe a generations worth of work.  Maybe more. 


This past weekend, for the second time, a former student contacted me because she was a victim of an attempted sexual assault and her college was failing her.  First some background.  The first student who contacted me, Michaela Cross, ended up telling her story rather publicly. You can find it here on CNN where over one million people read her account of being sexually harassed in India.  It touched off a firestorm both here in the US and in India.  But sometimes lost in the discussion was the fact that Michaela's target wasn't India.  It was the University of Chicago that refused to take her complaints seriously and didn't make appropriate treatment options available upon her return.  Like Michaela, the student that contacted me wasn't raped.  She got away.  But she hasn't slept through the night since October.  And her school's psych services department doesn't want to hear it. She feels like she has no place to turn.  She doesn't want to be a "victim" and she doesn't want to leave her school.  But she wants to feel safe again.  I did what I could, made the standard suggestions of finding the women's survivors group on campus, figuring out who had the local knowledge to navigate the bureaucracy to get the right signature on the right form to see the right doctor.  But it shouldn't be that hard.  It shouldn't be that hard at all.  And that's something that's got to change.  That should be easy to change.  Why doesn't it change?

Updated to fix grammar errors. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Context Matters: Or How to Fisk the Hell Out of Stupid People (History Edition).

Spring is always a busy time here in history-teacher land.  There are classes to teach, papers to grade, and people that are wrong the internet who need to be corrected.  So we have to kill two birds with one stone today and talk about an important history skill and correct somebody who needs more correction than all the spelling mistakes in a second-grade classroom.  Fasten your seat belts, folks; it's a two-fer Friday!

Today's important history skill is context.  Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke identified Context as one of the 5 Cs of Historical Thinking along with Change Over Time, Causality, Contingency and Complexity. (If you haven't seen that article before, read the whole thing, I'll wait).   Context means, among other things, understanding a primary document within it's time frame and how both the author and the audience derived meaning from it.  It means putting aside your agenda, and trying to get into the minds of the people of the time.  It's a really important skill for historians and history students.  And apparently Christina Hoff Sommers missed all the classes in it, or forgot them when she wrote this tripe for Time magazine. [1]

Philosophers, it should be noted, are not known for liking context, having a preference for the universal and timeless.   Maybe that's why she baselessly claimed that Free To Be You and Me was created as a piece of media propaganda designed to create a genderless world.  Sommers was born in 1950 which means she's old enough to remember Free to Be when it came out but too old to have been in the target demographic.  I was born almost two decades later, and not only was I in the target demographic, I practically was the test audience.  Free to Be started as a column in Ms. Magazine called Stories for Free Children.  I know because my mom carefully clipped them out of her issue every month and gave them to me and I read them all (or she read them to me).  And I liked them.  In 1972 if you were a boy who was skinny and uncoordinated, there wasn't a whole lot out there in boy culture for you.  Stories for Free Children helped fill that gap.  They were funny, they were touching, and they never talked down to you or preached at you.  They were just stories about people trying to be themselves and the moral was usually just that:  be yourself.  So when Free to Be appeared on TV with it's iconic theme song (a song so influential college post punk bands would cover it twenty years later and if anybody can score me a copy of the Walt Mink version have at it). 

So let's look at how Sommers misreads the context of Free To Be.  First there is the assertion that Free to Be's main goal was to create gender-free children.  For evidence, she points to a dialogue between two babies wherein the boy wants to be a cocktail waitress and the girl a fireman.  Except she neglects to mention that the babies are voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas and the skit is clearly played for laughs.   (Watch it here if you don't believe me).   She also targets Ladies First, which is not about destroying concepts femininity but about pulling your own weight and acting appropriate in a given context.  And again, played for laughs.  She somehow ignored Carol Channing's tour de force takedown on housework.  These stories used comedy and exaggeration to challenge stereotypes - not advocate for a genderless world.  Let's remember what school looked like in 1974. Around 1974, my gym teacher told me girls couldn't be captains for choosing sides in gym (mom called the principal).  In 1974, most girls had extremely limited opportunities to play sports at all.  In 1971, less than 300,000 girls played sports and comprised less than 1% of varsity athletes.  In 2012-13 over 3 million girls played sports in high school and comprising about 40 percent of high school athletes.   That's a pretty hefty increase. But hey, that's just sports, right?  What about the real world?  In 1970, only 10 percent of doctors were women, now it's a third.  In 1970, only 5 percent of lawyers were women, now it's a third.  Women, weren't in those professions in part because of sexism in admissions, but in part because people actively discouraged women from joining those fields.  That's why we needed Free to Be You and Me.  So that

"every boy in this land, grows to be his own man
every girl in this land, grows to be her own woman...

to a land where the horses run free
to a land where the children run free
where you and me are free to be you and me."

It wasn't about making girls play with trucks or making boys play with dolls.  It was about letting kids make up their minds and exercise agency over their lives.  It was about the ability to dream your own future and try to bring it into reality.  It was an important and valuable dream then.  And it still is now.  Sommers does real violence to the past when she claims that Free to Be was something that it clearly was not.  And she diminishes the very real impact the show had and the real change it helped effect.  Sommers is a bad, bad historian.  And she's a bad historian because she doesn't understand context.  But that's ok, the most popular track from the album can help her out.  Take it away two-time pro-bowler, member of the Fearsome Foursome, dude who captured RFK assassin Sirhan Sirhan and all-around general bad-ass and needlepoint god Rosey Grier: 

[1] Sommers, you might remember, is the former Philosophy professor who managed to single-handedly set back media attention on problems in boys' education by blaming feminism rather than (as she later admitted in the new edition) misguided policies often framed as "zero-tolerance".