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.