Another Poor Historical Analogy

Today’s editorial by Eugene Robinson in the Washington Post analyzes Condoleezza Rice’s recent reference to the Civil Rights Struggle as an appropriate analogy to the war on terror and the Iraq War.  The comment was made on 60 Minutes in an interview with Katie Couric.  I only hope that 60 Minutes never allows her to play reporter on one of their future segments. 

"Nobody can go back and reinvent the past," Condoleezza Rice told Katie Couric on "60 Minutes" Sunday night. But this nugget of truth came amid a flood of retrospective reinvention in which Rice equated the war in Iraq with the civil rights struggle of the 1960s — and left me wondering whether I was hearing polished sophistry or a case of total denial.

I’m not sure how many more analogies I can handle from this administration – from the Nazis to postwar Europe and now to the Civil Rights Movement. When will it end.

Rice equates the racists who bombed Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls — including Denise McNair, a childhood playmate — with modern-day suicide bombers who kill in the name of jihad. "Some people say, ‘Well, they do it to prove a political point,’ " she said. "Then why go after little girls? Or innocent people standing at a bus stop in Britain or in Madrid?"

The problem as Robinison points out is that it throws all "evil-doers" in the same basket and asks that we conceptualize without drawing any distinctions.

In her interview with Couric, Rice went on to argue that critics of the administration’s Middle East policies are like the racists who contended that black Americans were not ready to participate in democracy because they were "kind of childlike" and couldn’t handle the vote. But that’s a bizarre analogy. The last stand by white racists against integration and voting rights for African Americans wasn’t about patronizing attitudes some whites might have held — it was about power. It was about the knowledge that blacks were not just ready but also determined to exercise the right to vote.

How convenient.  The first problem is that Couric is such a poor interviewer that she failed to force Rice to talk about the problems that plague our policy in Iraq apart from the safety of her manufactured moral high ground as outlined in her flimsy analogy.  If ever there was a time for tough interviewing (in the best sense of the word) it is now.  Robinson rightly points out that Rice’s analogy "makes it sound as if those who disagree with the administration are standing in the schoolhouse door."  Our public leaders should be held to a higher standard when it comes to having to account for their decisions.  Why we allow them to hide in the past is beyond me.

An Awkward Moment

The other day I had an awkward moment in one of my classes.  We were discussing the events leading up to the American Revolution and were focusing specifically on the Boston Massacre.  At some point I made the comment that the act on the part of Bostonians to dress up as Indians was itself disrespectful to the British.  Perhaps I intended to say that the dumping of the tea was disrespectful to private property rights or something along those lines.  Well, one of my students asked what I meant in suggesting that the costumes were disrespectful to the British.  Great question and shows that my students are actually paying attention.  The mistake I made was trying to explain my way out of it when it was clear to me, even as I was speaking, that I had no clue what I meant.  What a stupid thing to do – a mistake that I don’t typically make in class.  Usually I turn to the student and say, “You know…I have no idea what I meant by saying that.”  Problem solved.  That moment served as a reminder to me that the ego always needs to remain in check in the classroom.

Academic Team or What’s Wrong With Our Boys?

In addition to my teaching responsibilities I also coach the Academic Team.  The Academic Team is basically a small group of students that take part in quiz competitions at area high schools, colleges, and even televised competitions.  Today we traveled to Richmond to take part in the first round of the Battle of the Brains which brings together schools from around Virginia.  We also take part in It’s Academic which is recorded in Washington, D.C. in April. 

At first I resisted the assignment when I was asked to take it on last year.  Not only did I not want to give up more free time, I also did not want to take part in a trivia competition.  The idea of memorization simply for the sake of regurgitation rubbed me the wrong way.  I couldn’t be more pleased that I stuck with it.  I’ve enjoyed getting to know the students, and more importantly, it gives certain students an outlet where they can feel comfortable and are able to shine in their area of competency.  Every student needs this kind of outlet and self-satisfaction.  Today we won our first round in a very close contest.  It’s a four-person team and two of our students took part in their first competition.  Needless to say a televised performance can be very nerve racking.  We had a great ride home and had a sense that this season may be more than just a rebuilding year. 

The other aspect of this that I enjoy is the chance to work with boys who have an intellectual proclivity.  While my school has instituted an academically rigorous curriculum we have not done a good job encouraging our male students.  To put it simply, it isn’t "cool" to display your intelligence or show intellectual curiosity at my school if you are a boy.  I have yet to figure this out, but I see it everywhere.  For example, I organize a speakers’ series which involves outside guests every other week during our lunch hour.  These are informal talks and attendance is not mandatory and while the program has been around now for three years the audience is made up predominantly of girls.  Keep in mind that I am not suggesting that the boys at our school are not intelligent or do not earn respectable grades; for some reason they have difficulty acknowledging their intellectual curiosity in a way that is publicly visible.  This growing gap between boys and girls has been a popular theme in recent years in the news.

Academic Team is one way to fill this niche where they can revel and express themselves in a way that is safe and enjoyable.  Don’t get me wrong, I love the thrill of the victory, but knowing that this outlet is filling an important gap at our school is reward enough.

Looking For A Change Of Profession?

How about an endowed chair in Civil War and Reconstruction history at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts?

Civil War and Reconstruction/ Endowed Chair: Stonehill College seeks a candidate for a tenured associate or full professor position in Civil War and Reconstruction and African American history (1848-1900).  The successful candidate will begin appointment as the first Lawrence and Theresa Salameno Chair in History (three-year term with possibility for renewal). A commitment to undergraduate teaching and a strong record of scholarship are required.  The Salameno Chair, the first endowed chair in the College’s history, offers a creative intellectual and professional opportunity for a teacher/scholar who can generate intellectual excitement around his/her area of expertise in ways appropriate to an undergraduate institution.

Perhaps a position teaching the Civil War at West Virginia State University is more up your alley:

The Department of History at West Virginia University is soliciting nominations and applications for an Eberly Distinguished Professorship in Civil War Studies, to begin August 16, 2007.

I’ve come across more and more positions focused specifically on the Civil War/Reconstruction/Southern History over the past few years.  Perhaps as we get closer to the Civil War Sesquicentennial we will see even more.

Where History and Myth Meet: Winnie Davis

I am just about finished with Joan Cashin’s new biography, First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War (Harvard University Press, 2006).  It is well written, includes just enough analysis, and is based largely on manuscript sources.  This is the first modern scholarly biography of Varina Davis.  I was struck by Cashin’s analysis of Winnie Davis, who was popularly known as the "Daughter of the Confederacy."  This was due to her decision to accompany her father on a trip through the South beginning in 1886 to take part in celebrations of the Lost Cause.  What most people don’t know is that  the identification of Winnie as the embodiment of everything that was noble and pure about the "Old South" and the Confederacy was manufactured.  From Cashin’s biography:

The title was factually correct, since Winnie was born in Richmond in 1864, but she did not remember the war and actually knew little of the South.  In many respects she was scarcely an American, having spent almost half her life abroad before she returned to the States in 1881.  In Karlsruhe [Germany, where she attended school] she kept a scrapbook with numerous mementos from such figures as Bismarck and Moltke, and a few images from her native country, including the Confederate flag.  She was fluent in German and French, and her accent when she spoke English was mittel-European.  Sometimes Winnie had to look up words such as gingham in the dictionary, and she made mistakes in usage, as if she were trying to translate German noun constructions into English.  She is best described as a transnational figure–unlike her mother, an American who was drawn to European culture, or her father, who felt homesick in the Luxembourg Gardens. (pp. 247-48)

What is interesting and ably argued for by Cashin is that not even Varina Davis would have provided for a more honest vindication or confirmation of the Lost Cause mantra.  Her support of the Confederacy was challenged throughout the war and her decision to reside in New York City following the death of her husband alienated and upset many white Southerners.  She even published a very positive account of Ulysses S. Grant in a New York City newspaper.  This was a complex woman who was born in Natchez and was educated in the North and later studied under a private tutor from New England; in addition, she maintained contact with Northerners even during the war and after it had been deemed illegal by the Confederate government.