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March 27, 2016


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I agree.

It tells me that Scholastic believes that pressure groups are influential enough to exert market power over portraying the Confederacy and Jackson accurately. The channel would be through school libraries, presumably.

This is probably where liberal and regional conservative sentiments (if you know what I mean and I think you do) meet in a strange bedfellows agreement. The latter group thinks Nixon was a liberal and won't defend W.

I don't think anyone can handle the truth about American history. When you and I went to school, we learned about slavery as something that civilization has grown out of, and American slavery as a "peculiar institution" that was the necessary complement, yang to the yin, of the Sir Walter Scott derived southern white gentry. Since that social order had been safely removed back in the 19th century, we 20th century Americans were able to safely ignore any kind of relevance that slavery and racism might have had to present-day life.

We learned about racism, of course, it was a bad thing that we should fight against but as enlightened 20th-century New Yorkers, we couldn't really do much about racism except struggle against it; racist incidents of course happened but it was usually because of individual racists, not because of society. Crucially we did not learn how racism is a) completely socially determined (there are no actual races), and b) an apparently inextricable part of human society that merely changes its expression to fit in current society.

We didn't learn about how sugar plantations worked their slaves to death making molasses to turn into rum. We didn't learn about how the entire southern economy depended on the billions of dollars of value assigned to chattel slaves. We didn't learn about how different peoples in Africa were subjected to the Atlantic slave trade at different times, resulting in differences in slave populations on different Antillean islands and on the North American mainland. We didn't learn about Haiti and the successful revolution there, which must have been fairly mystifying for the Haitian students we went to school with. We didn't learn about the genocides and forced relocations of American Indians and how they continue to the present day with the reservation system.

And you're kvetching because Scholastic is selling a book about presidents that forgets to mention how the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, kept his own blood relatives as chattel slaves until the day he died and used the threat of retribution to them to maintain the half-sister of his late wife in sexual slavery, even while she and he were living in France, a nation where slavery was outlawed?

I actually did learn about a bunch of that stuff in high school. Including the Haiti revolution, though it didn't go much beyond "Toussaint L'Ouverture: total badass."

But the textbook still waffled on the causes-of-the-Civil-War issue, because of some combination of the ghost of the Dunning School and, probably, picky neo-Confederate school boards.

Scholastic just got in some hot water for publishing an anodyne book about George Washington's slaves having a happy time baking a cake for him.

Carlos: Carlos: That makes sense, but there are a few other confusing wrinkles in the book. Two stand out.

First, Harding and Coolidge are presented negatively. (Hoover less so, but in a way I think you'd consider fair.) Now, nobody likes Harding save for a few fans of democracy promotion in Latin America, which may mean only you and me. But Coolidge is a conservative hero, which doesn't figure.

Second, there is weird falsehood about FDR: "By 1940, the world was at war. Roosevelt tried to keep the United States out of it, but when Japan bombed naval bases at Pearl Harbor, the United States declared war on Japan." It is no secret that FDR was not trying to keep the U.S. out of the war. So why repeat it? It seems like a sop to modern liberal families with a pacifistic bent.

JKR: we went to high school together, so I'm finding your post a little odd.

Particularly about Haiti and American Indians. I knew all about the Haitian revolution. Mr. McGuire covered it. (As Matt says, at the level of "Napoleon bad, L'Ouverture awesome," but it was covered.)

And as for the horror perpetuated upon the Indians, multiple classes discussed that. Heck, Ms. Grist's government class spent a whole week on Indian affairs and the U.S. history classes not only didn't cover it up; they focused on it. I learned about the Indian Removal Act at Stuyvesant, not from outside reading.

Nobody talked about Jefferson, but boyoboy did Jackson get bad press in our school.

We had a lot of liberal teachers.

As for racism ... uh, well, this was when Bernie Goetz shot someone, when watermelons were thrown at marchers in Bersonhurst, when those kids died in Howard Beach. (Remember Todd de Jesus? He was from Howard Beach.) Not to mention the palpable white flight still ongoing in southeast Queens and the northeast Bronx. Or the Decepticons! Remember the Decepticons?

Heck, these were the day when we'd go joyriding but Henry and I would always get to drive, because we knew exactly what would happen if Ramon or Ernest were in the front seat.

It was completely impossible to pretend that the legacy of slavery and modern-day racism was irrelevant to our lives.

Did anyone we knew even try?

If you are making a screed about the education of most suburban white people in America, I agree. But if you're talking about the educational and lived experience that you and I had three decades ago, well, then I can't say that your statements match my memories or journals.

Can you explain? I'm scratching my head.

Noel, you raise valid concerns. Looking back on my formal education, I believe that it neglected to address the systematic role that racism has played in American society from the earliest days through now.

As for the Goetz incident, and Michael Griffith in Howard Beach (1988), I was certainly aware of them at the time, but I blamed individuals while thinking that racism was declining in society at large. I am much more pessimistic these days.

Matt: They really published a book about George Washington's happy slaves????

(Head hits desk)

JKR: You're a good man. You were a good man thirty years ago.

Ironically, a more cynical view of American history --- and the American present --- might lead you to be much more optimistic.

For example, take a look at this book from 1968: The Second Civil War, by Garry Wills.

(Hat tip: Carlos.)

If that's what you expected the future to look like, then we've done pretty well.

For some there's a sense that children require stories with a clear-cut hero and villain or they'll not identify with America and its historical figures. This tendency doesn't always fit a clear ideological pattern.

The book probably tries to straddle the line between mythologizing history (as some school boards prefer) and recognizing America's historical figures as flawed human beings with a mixture of good and bad motivations.

I'd like to know how the authors handle Reagan. Is he mythologized or treated more evenly?



Fairly, with one partial exception. "He tried to improve the economy by cutting taxes and creating jobs. At the same time, he increased spending on the military to keep the United States safe. The government spent more than it earned in taxes. In his second term, Reagan worked to bring the Cold War to a peaceful end. When he left office in 1989, many people believed the world was a safer place."

The partial exception is "creating jobs." What does that mean? It's practically the definition of "improve the economy."

If you want to be pedantic, over the course of his two terms federal civilian employment rose by 436,000 and the active-duty military increased by 54,000. But somehow I'm not sure that's what Laurie Calkhoven meant.

I don't think she meant anything, and that bothers me, even in a book aimed at 10-year-olds and being read to a three-year-old.

I think the content is shaped to fit a zeitgeist that categorizes Presidents as "mythological figures" (Founders+Lincoln), "good but real people" (FDR, Reagan, etc), "villains" Nixon, non-entities (the rest). Presidents are shoehorned into caricatures at the loss of accuracy.

Jackson is ignored because his military heroism, common man populism, racism, and gangster behavior don't jive into an easy to categorize figure. So he's minimized. I don't get the negative tone on Coolidge though. He seems like one that would be shoehorned into the non-entity category or possibly better when he ran against the arch-segregationist Democratic Party of John W. Davis (who argued for segregation in front of the Supreme Court as late as 1952).

Economic right-wingers are currently in the process of turning Coolidge into an unsung mythic hero. Interesting to see someone going the other way when they won't also demonize Reagan.

... of course, Alexander Hamilton is turning into the musical hero of our time.

And without, AFAICT, any undeserved mythologization.

I understand that Treasury has a schedule for redesigning its bills and I understand that there are good reasons to put a woman on one. But I will be very annoyed if they take Hamilton off the ten while leaving that bad Richard Daltry impersonator on the twenty.

Swap Jackson for Tubman. That's justice.

Of course, there is the fifty. But having read Grant's memoirs, I have a soft spot for him, even though he was a lousy chief executive. This line about the Southern war economy always struck me: "The occupation of the colored people was to furnish supplies for the army."

Occupation of the colored people. Respect, General.

Which brings us back to the issue at hand: for every Jackson, there is a Grant. There is no need to whitewash the bad ones.

I'd heard some grumbling that the musical de-emphasizes the pro-rich-businessmen quality of Hamilton's economic positions, while justly celebrating his opposition to slavery. I understand it also compresses some events for dramatic economy (making the Hamilton-Burr duel primarily about the 1800 presidential election, which it was not). But this is all within bounds for Broadway.

The pro-rich-businessmen position is there, but the anti-position is taken by Jefferson, whose characterization is the least evenhanded of the major American figures -- but not inaccurately so. Part of the ongoing cultural reevaluation of the man (which the Irish diplomat Conor Cruise O'Brien predicted twenty years ago).

(Burr is surprisingly complex, and Miranda has said he thinks he gets the best songs. Washington is more than suitably heroic. The cast recording has proven to be very popular in the household, though I've given up on explaining why I laugh at some of Miranda's borrowings.)

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