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. 


  1. Somebody I once read said that history is the process of leaving things out. Linker wrote at the end that his article is about "the distinctive contribution of the '70s to our cultural history." All he needs is a CYA sentence at the beginning saying "this is what is interesting and distinctive about the '70s", and then it's not a disprovable argument.

  2. Or even, "white guys made some great art working through what the changes of the 60s meant in the 1970s".

    But there are lots of other ways he could have not made a universal claim. He informed me via email that he doesn't think he's made a universal claim.

  3. See, your version is the Tedious Qualifier rendition--whatever it gains in accuracy it loses in interest. (White Guys vs. the Rest--c'mon.) I do think Linker is making a universal claim--as I say, he just needs to put explicitly "this is what is good, interesting, and distinctive about" in front of "seventies music". Who made the good, interesting, and distinctive music is not, in the final analysis, as important as whether it is good, interesting, and distinctive.

    If you're going to argue against this, you need to write your own article arguing for a different 1970s pop culture canon, as distinct to the 1970s as Linker's, but with a different tone. Simply saying But Complexity! And All The Jelly Beans! doesn't hack it.

  4. I'll say to you the same thing I said to Damon which is this: I think Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon made great singer songwriter music in the 1970s. I think their music feels really different. Nobody would have a problem with saying "hey, white women were dealing with some stuff in the 1970s and it led to some really great music with similar themes". Why do people have a problem with saying "white men were dealing with some stuff in the 1970s and it led to some really great art with really similar themes."

  5. But what were the themes? And are they distinctive to the 70s? That's the meat of the argument you have to make.

  6. Just to be clear. Are you asking me about Damon's artists or the women singer-songwriters.

  7. You seem to be indicating that the women singer-songwriters form your alternate distinctive tradition. I suppose you could also argue a different tradition based on the same artists--in fact, that would be rather nifty! But either way, I want to know the substance of the tradition, not just the external characteristics of its troubadours.

  8. Yikes, I seem to have lost my response but very quickly, yes. The substance is this: grounded in the personal experience, excited by the sexual revolution, cautious about men but open to them, yet also cynical. Evidence,Helen Reddy I am Woman, the King songs I mentioned, Joni Mitchell's love songs (A case of you, Carey, Coyote, etc.etc.), Carly Simon's Anticipation and You're So Vain (for the cynical). The singer songwriter tradition in country is exploring a lot of these issues as well (Loretta Lynn in The Pill) but the production often killed these songs. Plus every Tammy Wynette George Jones duet.

  9. Eh, voila, now you have a counter-argument! I leave its disproof as an exercise to the Linker.

    Or we can synthesize a new argument about how your two traditions jointly express a larger 70s Tradition ...

  10. I don't know if it is a counter-argument as much as a parallel argument. "This, too, was going on." There are moments of cross over, Carly Simon, in particular was in artistic dialogue with her many romantic/musical partners. I think to do the counter-argument that Damon's just wrong about the 1970s, you would have to do Disco. But a) disco is great dance music but not great art and b) there was so much active pushback against disco from the get go that it's political/aesthetic meanings were far more contested. Which isn't to say that disco isn't fascinating or important, just that it's message of sexual/racial liberation was far more openly contested to ever even make a claim to being "the 70s experience" in the way that the artists Damon talked about could be.