Sorry For Ruining Your Visit

On Friday my wife and I headed up to Frederick, Maryland to catch a concert with Brad Mehldau and Joshua Redman.  This was my first visit to Frederick in a number of years and I have to say that I was blown away by the development in the downtown area.  We did a little walking before grabbing a bite to eat and then made our way to the beautiful Weinberg Center theatre.

From there we headed to D.C. for the rest of the weekend.  Yesterday was a beautiful day for a long walk so we decided to head on over to Arlington National Cemetery.  We walked through most of the cemetery, including the area that was operated by the Freedman’s Bureau.  You can find a large number of USCT’s, civilians, and former slaves buried in Section 29.  From there we walked up to the Lee-Custis mansion and then made our way to the Confederate Monument.

My wife has never seen that monument so I did a bit of interpretation for her.  I pointed out a number of features, including the decision to represent both Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri with the rest of the former Confederate states as well as the images of loyal slaves and what appears to be a black Confederate soldiers.  It’s a wonderful representation of the Lost Cause at the beginning of the twentieth-century.  In addition to the monument I mentioned President Woodrow Wilson’s participation in the dedication of the monument as well as his decision to segregate federal office buildings in the capital city at around that time.  My wife and I talked quite a bit about our thoughts about the monument, which is what we normally do when confronted with such structures.  Our instincts are to question and try to understand.

There was one other couple looking at the monument and although we did not exchange words I could tell that they were visibly upset with our comments.  Perhaps they thought that this was simply a monument to the soldiers buried in a ring around the monument.  If I had to guess they probably believed that what I was saying was disrespectful to their memory and service to the Confederacy.

Anyway, sorry for ruining your visit, but I do hope you learned something about the site.

Show Your Confederate Gay Pride

A number of you passed along this link for the “12 Funniest Items of Confederate Flag Memorabilia.”  While I got a kick out of the Confederate flag toilet paper and “sexy, fiery Confederate flag,” I have to say that the gay pride flag t-shirt takes the cake.  Actually, the blending of a symbol that has become so closely identified with conservative white men and even bikers, along with the colors of the gay community raises a number of questions.

  • Is it possible for gay men to openly express their pride in Confederate heritage?
  • Would the discovery of an individual’s sexuality threaten their standing as a legitimate member of the Confederate heritage community?
  • Were there any gay Confederate soldiers?
  • Were there any gay Confederate officers?
  • Were there any gay Confederate politicians?
  • What was the frequency of gay sexual encounters in Confederate ranks during the war and were those parties any less Confederate?
  • Were there any gay “Christian Warriors” in Confederate ranks? Could there be a gay Christian Warrior in Confederate ranks?  [After all, status as a slaveholder doesn't seem to be a problem for some.]

A few of these questions can be answered by consulting Tom Lowry’s book, The Story the Soldiers Wouldn’t Tell: Sex in the Civil War while others are simply meant to provoke thought.

Why Political History is Really, Really Important

My AP America History students began yesterday’s class by considering the following list of assorted acts and agencies that appeared on my white board:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
  • Occupation Safety & Health Administration
  • National Transportation & Safety Board
  • Endangered Species Act
  • Clean Air Act
  • Aid to Families with Dependent Children
  • Adjustment of Social Security to Inflation

I asked my students to draw conclusions about the political affiliation of the president responsible for this list of acts and agencies.  No surprise that to a student they agreed that the president must be a Democrat/liberal.  When asked why, they cited the obvious, including the expansion of the welfare state, the control of big business through environmental acts and the overall increase in the size of the federal government through the creation of new agencies.

That, in and of itself, wouldn’t be so interesting on its own.  What surprised me was the number of students who went further to point out that the programs listed above reflect a socialist agenda.  Students moved freely between references of Democrat, liberal, and socialism.  No doubt, much of this rhetoric is the result of the 24hr spin/entertainment machine that is our mainstream media.

At one point a student correctly identified the programs and acts listed as comprising much of Richard Nixon’s domestic policy, who as we all know was a Republican.  Having done the reading for the day a number of my students quickly adjusted, but the fact that the unidentified list failed to lead them to a Republican president somehow needs to be explained.

I don’t spend much time watching entertainment news in the form of MSNBC, CNN, and FOX, but many of my students do get their news from television sources.  Spend a few minutes with Glenn Beck and Keith Olbermann and you would think that Republicans and Democrats have absolutely nothing in common and that the principles they hold are fundamentally contradictory.  Throw in the “political strategists” and other assorted hacks and you have a picture of American politics/ideology that has almost nothing to do with reality.

The history of the Republican and Democratic Parties makes little sense when viewed through the lens of a vicious reductionism that interprets every move by the federal government as socialism or any other -ism for that matter.  On this view, it seems to me that we must conclude that Richard Nixon must have been a card carrying member of the Socialist Party.  Perhaps we should also throw Theodore Roosevelt into the mix as well.  History can be instructive in forcing my students to acknowledge that while Democrats and Republicans differ on fundamental issues they do not stand in principled opposition to one another.

The last few days in class have impressed upon me the importance of placing our own partisan debates in a broader context.  We could follow the media machine and rewrite our political history by shaping it in a way that conforms with our own contemporary categories or we can attempt to diffuse it by tracing the debates through the last few decades.  When we do so we find a much more complex picture and one that forces us to acknowledge a certain amount of consensus between the two political parties.  Perhaps we need it now more than ever.

Just a thought.