Years ago, I taught history of a particular kind – American Public Address. This is the study of documents through american history which either directly affected or directly reflected the issues of their day.
As any responsible professor would, I included some of the abolitionist/anti-abolitionist documents. (One of the things which makes APA fun is that it’s all about primary documents. No reading what people 150 years later want you to believe. You read what’s out there, just like any historian, and come to your own conclusions. It requires you to use your brain and learn to defend your arguments, two things which appear to be endangered abilities in the public sphere of the United States these days.)
I was new to teaching APA; this was my first time. I was frustrated by my students statements. I recognized their kind; as a TA I had taught Gender studies of various sorts, and the same thing happened. Students would say, “Oh yes, it was awful then, but that’s old. It’s different now.”
In gender studies, I’d turned my students into anthropologists, studying artifacts such as men’s and women’s shoes to see if things were in fact that different from the days of footbinding. Of that, some other post perhaps.
History, though, was harder, because of course we indeed have the 13th amendment to the Constitution. Even the most noisome racists wouldn’t publicly admit to wanting it repealed. The result is that in this time and place, every student had a facile response. Pro-slavery arguments were ridiculous. We have learned better.
I am an historian, and an organizer. Each informs the other; basically, I’m a Gramscian. Theory informs praxis; praxis informs theory. We can’t divide them, because they’re an essential dialectic. History never just happened; something always caused it. The good historical fights are about what and how, but I’ve never actually met someone with a fondness for the study of history who believes in a series of magical occurrences where the Truth simply imposes itself on reality and everything changes.
And yet, so far as I could tell, this is what young people believe. Textbooks contain a small nod to causation, but they’re so busy trying to give students “facts” that the entire question of how it happened, how it could happen again, how events hundreds of years ago might in fact build the basis for the next glory or disaster, simply can’t be addressed. “Facts,” as the antics of the Texas school board reminded us this month, and Frances Fitzgerald documented years ago, are those bits of information which, when put into a textbook, do not make us uncomfortable. They are divorced from time and culture, and therefore safe.
When I faced this barricade with my students, I tried leading them to see parallels. We sat in a circle and I told them a situation where you own a dog – a dog you need for various reasons, not a pet. Perhaps a dog to help you hunt, or help guide you, or something like that.
Someone from hundreds of miles away disapproves of your relationship and use of the dog. They are members of the Animal Liberation Front, and it’s clear that you are exploiting the dog and denying its natural needs. They write essays about you, suggest obscene things about your relationship to the dog, and eventually, open the gate to the kennel where you keep the dog and entice it to run off. They take it to the wild and release it, to live as it “deserves.”
How do you react?
Later, I thought perhaps I should have used the example of a more classic barnyard animal – a horse – because the emotional involvement with a pet clearly got in the way of my lesson with some students. However, everyone started coming up with objections – the dog was property, so that was theft; the dog existed in cooperation with the owner, so you were harming both of them; the dog had been raised tame, and could never survive on its own in the wilderness, so the Animal Rights people were simply subjecting it to a harsh death.
I was actually fortunate to have in my class one student who was himself an Animal Rights activist. He parried their objections – if an animal doesn’t want to be kept, it’s not theft, the owner’s belief the dog needed him or her was simply sentimental, there was no way of telling whether the dog would survive or not in advance, but if it died, at least it died on its own turf, as an animal deserved; and finally, he had in fact found a dog being mistreated by its owner in that way and released it as described.
The students, shocked, simply stared at him. This was a private university, and this department probably claimed the best students on campus; they had never encountered someone so very different and apparently crazy.
I finally interrupted the silence. “What we have here,” I told them, “are 15 slavery apologists and one abolitionist.”
The arguments had to eventually be steered back from the dog to slaves of a long-dead day. The class was mixed, and finally my best African-American students burst out at me (one of the interesting things I found with the privileged youth in my class is they considered it rude to contradict the teacher, so he was definitely going against the cultural norm.) “But people are not dogs!”
That was the crux, and I have yet to resolve the difficulty. Everyone there would agree with that – save for the one “abolitionist”. And that was the point. How did they know? How did it get to the point where all these young people from over the country, but mostly the midwest, whether or not they believe in evolution, assume that people are not animals or anything like animals? And how do they start understanding that not believing animals are people in some way is cultural, not an absolute?
I did my best to show that in the antebellum era, North or South could in fact comfortably structure people into different kinds. In fact, around the Revolutionary Era non-class attributes had in fact increased, particularly race, because discourse about the Rights of Man and Universal Rights stubbed its toe on the reality that (thank you Orwell!) some animals were more equal than others and needed an explanation for why that was all right.
Thus they developed an avoidance of class struggle by classifying people into human and subhuman (ie Blacks, Irish, etc.) before they got to animals. Of course, they were happy to continue their biases against people based on education, dialect, religion (the Irish were loathed as much for being Catholic as for being a “subrace”) and any other attributes those in power could apply, but race was particularly visible.
They stretched their minds as much as they could. I never was able to come up with a way to take them further into the idea that events in history are not necessarily inevitable, no matter how much people want to believe it, through that exercise, even refined through the years (but after that sadly missing an animal rights activist to stretch their brains just a little further).
Fortunately, professors have whole curricula to use for their most important theories, and I knew things were getting better when I found my whitest, most male, and most privileged small group passionately arguing if one could be both Capitalist and Christian during the Social Gospel/Gospel of Wealth week. My students trusted me not to myself be advocating for slaves as the equivalent of dogs, though they remained a trifle bewildered that I’d bring it up like that.
This long explanation is in the way of being a long introduction to a short theory. We all live downstream from history, and when it floods, we’re shocked, and when there’s a drought, we’re shocked. I am vulnerable to that as well. I lived in a time when I and my friends truly believed there was going to be a revolution any day now and I still am not quite sure what went wrong. I watched Occupy, and cheered them, but by now I no longer believe that the U.S. will ever get it right. It feels more like the Weimar Republic than the 1990s Philippines, and I’m definitely more a member of the Frankfurt School than the Sons of Liberty.
Nonetheless, I’d prefer swimming upstream to giving up any day. I watch people like Jon Stewart, who’s obviously well-educated and can use his brain, and feel hopeful that there are more people like that out there somewhere; even if the lunatics have taken over their D.C. asylum.
So this is my plea for the day: regardless of what side you’re supporting, try to see what those on different sides might see as good reasons. Not so much the reasons they give, but the reasons they take for granted. Understanding your opponent is the first step to changing them. Converting right wing Christians to protecting the poor won’t be as easy as converting anti-gay people in power to accepting gay marriage, but that did happen, over time.
Remember that. Over time. The first thing we had to do, in the early 90s, was convince our own “leaders” to get out of the way; no major gay rights group actually wanted to work for gay marriage 20 years ago. I hope other people have at least that good a memory.
Now there are all sorts of unexpected people supporting it. Times change. That’s the point of history. That, and they never change in one direction only. We just keep arguing, at every site of struggle