The Ignorance of Our Outrage: Thoughts on The 1619 Project

I’ve been pondering—and cringing at—a high school memory provoked by the online chatter over the past few days about the imminent publication of “The 1619 Project” in this week’s New York Times Magazine.

I think it happened during my junior year, 1970–71, when an exchange student visited my English class. I don’t remember his name, but he was from South Africa, and our teacher asked him to explain a little about apartheid and how it worked.

“Apartheid”? We-—good (white) college prep students in an excellent suburban California school in a world still a few years away from the international divestment movement—had never heard the word before. We were even more baffled when the teacher and the exchange student between them managed to explain what apartheid was. How could that be, we asked? Even segregation in the American South was on its way out, so South Africa’s complicated racial categories seemed archaic, ridiculous, and outrageous.

My remembered outrage is what makes me cringe today. We had not earned our outrage. I learned the American public school system’s traditional mythologized version of American history: the Founding Fathers were uniformly wise and noble men who created a nearly perfect governing document in the Constitution. And what little we learned of the Civil War involved a few battles between the Blue and the Gray, and a bit about how railroads and modern industrial production benefitted the Union side. About Reconstruction, we heard about carpetbaggers and scalawags who took advantage of and corrupted the new integrated state governments imposed by the victorious Union, and how that corruption and incompetence led to the end of Reconstruction and the restoration of more traditional Southern white-controlled governments.

There’s a slightly different memory, too, from sometime in junior high, of wondering how my civics textbook could point out the differences between the constitution of the U.S.S.R. and the less idealistic way the Soviet government really worked, and fail to note similar discrepancies between the ideals of our own founding documents and our government as it was and is.

Those occasional little glimmers of skepticism, though, never make much headway against our perpetual desire to believe the stories we white people tell ourselves about ourselves. It’s not enough for us to be the aspirational nation, the imperfect people always striving to live up to our ideals. We’d rather be the always-perfect nation, the people who already know best how to live and govern and show the rest of the world our shining example, even if it means we have to ignore most of the damage we have done becoming what we are.

I’m working my way through a long To Be Read list to remedy my ignorance—Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, David Blight’s Frederick Douglass, new U.S. histories like Jill LePore’s These Truths and Alan Taylor and Eric Foner’s American Colonies, Foner’s authoritative Reconstruction, Brenda Wineapple’s The Impeachers, David Treuer’s The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, and countless more. The history is there, if we will only look.

I’m astonished, yet not at all surprised by some of the reaction to The 1619 Project. The New York Times is stoking racist animus in order to sell more papers. Or bringing to light the less admirable parts of our past (and present) is unpatriotic and only damages our standing in the world. But just like Nikole Hannah-Jones in her inspring opening essay, I believe wholeheartedly in that aspirational nation, the one we can all work to make more perfect, the better nation we can create—if we have the clear sight and wholehearted courage to see what we have done to become who we are. Only by recognizing and acknowledging all our people, all our flaws along with all our virtues, do we have a prayer of reaching toward those ideals we are so proud of.

NOTE: The Pulitzer Center’s collection of curricular resources for The 1619 Project includes a downloadable pdf of the NYT Magazine issue itself.

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Filed under Just Because, Learning, Politics, Reading

Oh. DUUHHHHH.

Back when I wrote more often about education, I occasionally posted what I called “DUH research”—usually, reports of academic or clinical findings in education or cognitive psychology that seem so obvious to those of us who’ve spent any time at all paying attention to how our kids learn that it’s hard to believe anybody ever bothered with formal studies. Of course maniacal LEGO kids get to be good at visual geometry. Or those who play games like Yahtsee and poker get better at arithmetic and probability. Or kids who get enough food and sleep tend to be better adjusted and more capable than those who don’t. Duh, right?

My post today is a different kind of DUH post because the duh is aimed squarely at myself. I’ve been in a weird sort of funk or malaise for the past couple of months, not working much on the mystery novel that’s supposedly my main project these days, but not doing much of anything else, either. Which led eventually to a couple days ago, when I found myself on one of my occasional one-question-leads-to-another stream-of-consciousness meandering conversations with myself:

Why aren’t you working on the book?

Don’t want to.

Why don’t you work on something else?

Can’t, because I need to finish the book.

OK, then work on the book already.

Don’t want to.

Oh, get off it. “Want” has nothing to do with it—you get your fingers on the keyboard and get to work, and the work will get done.

But I don’t know where the story’s going.

Why not?

 

A few hours passed like this, with the same basic questions bouncing around and around my brain, until I realized I have no story because there is no story. There are a few characters, composites not unlike many people i’ve know in the fencing world. There’s a setting, a national fencing championship tournament in a huge convention center concrete box, not unlike many I’ve worked through as an official and parent and spectator. There’s a lovingly crafted atmosphere that I’ve tweaked over and over to get the details just right.

And there’s a slight wisp of a plot with empty channels big enough to sail a cruise ship through.

That there is no story was not my big DUH epiphany, though. The big realization was that I DON’T CARE that I have no story. My revelation was that my book wasn’t a story at all, but therapy. I was involved in fencing—as a parent of a relatively accomplished athlete, as a volunteer official, as chair of a major national governance committee, as a member of the board of the national governing body—for over fifteen years. Fencing was a huge part of my life, both incredibly rewarding and unbelievably frustrating. Even though I finished my board term and resigned from my other fencing commitments more than three years ago, it was only last fall that the new fencing season started without me even noticing I wasn’t obsessively tracking national tournament entry numbers and event end times the way I usually did.

In 2009, my first draft was a lark and a catharsis. It was great and unexpected fun to write, not least because I realized that writing fiction—this was my first—could be even more fun than reading it. I was obsessed with it, constantly wanting to get back to work on it to find out what would happen with all my characters. The several abortive rewrite attempts over the next decade have been less fun, but often interesting and useful, and they taught me a ton about writing fiction, what does and doesn’t work and what is and isn’t publishable. Mostly, though, those rewrites were therapy, helping me complete my withdrawal from my fencing world addiction.

So, farewell, fencing manuscript. (Not totally goodbye, though—like most professional writers, I don’t ever throw any work away. I just pack it all into files and stash it in my abandoned/unpublished folder. You never know.)

I’m a teensy bit sorry to disappoint all my fencing friends who had volunteered to be beta readers. And it would have been fun to watch people try to figure out which real people my characters were based on, when none of them were based on real people. (Admittedly, a couple were at first inspired by real people, but that all disappeared in very early drafts.) But now all I have to do is figure out which of the half-dozen other projects rattling around my brain I want to tackle first.

This is going to be fun.

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Filed under Fencing, Writing

The Secret of the Angry Mobs

People* say—at least so I’ve heard-—that the nation is infested with angry mobs.

Must be true, I guess. After all, I’ve been hanging out with an angry mob for a couple of years now.

Let me tell you about my angry mob.

We’ll talk about the “mob” aspect first, and tackle the “angry” part later.

Technically, we’re not a mob.

We’re a pack.

We’re the RATT Pack.

That’s Resistance Action Tuesdays & Thursdays, an informal gathering twice a week in front of the Roseville field office of Representative Tom McClintock (R-Elk Grove**), We’re a silent protest—we stand along the sidewalk, holding our signs and waving at passing motorists, and chat about everything from the latest political news to which BBC mystery series have the best period costumes to where to get the best Indian food in town***.) There are also two weekly support vigils at the local branch of Planned Parenthood, and a weekly vigil at the FBI’s Sacramento field office, located here in Roseville, in support of the Mueller investigation and the general principle of an independent Justice Department.

Barb and Pat, our fearless leaders, maintain communications via an email list. (We used to be more public, but some online and in-person unpleasantness with a local Proud Boy and other trolls led them to take the list private.)

The Tuesday McClintock gathering is the largest of the week, usually with anywhere from 30 to more than 100 people, depending on the latest breaking issues. We’re a varying but fairly stable mix of regulars and more occasional protesters, with sprinklings of teens and kids (less so now that school is in session again), and a few canine participants, some of whom wear their own signs.

(By the way, we are rarely alone out there on the sidewalk. On their spot across the street, there are usually two or three Trump/McClintock supporters. A few times, I’ve seen as many as seven—though on one of those days, there appeared to be fisticuffs among them.)

Back in August, Barb and Pat were kind enough to send out a survey to the 300ish members of the mailing list, so we could find out who we all are and why we keep showing up so consistently after nearly two years. We left our SurveyMonkey questionnaire open for 10 days and received 52 responses. While this was simply a voluntary questionnaire and not by any stretch of the imagination a professional statistical analysis, it seems to be a pretty good representation of the people who show up each week.

For the most part, we’re pretty old. This isn’t too surprising, since we’re out there during the work week, and the 65-and-over crowd is more likely to be free of pesky annoyances like jobs or school. This leads, however, to our favorite insult, usually shouted out by a male 20-something in either a pickup or customized dark coupe: “GET A JOB!” Mostly we get a lot of waves and thumbs-up and honks, occasional bird-flips, and more rarely, “Commies!” or “Traitors! You should all be locked up!”

We do not appear to be the outside agitators we have been accused of being. Most of us live within Roseville or neighboring towns like Rocklin and Lincoln. More than a few, though, drive down from foothill towns like Auburn, Placerville, and Foresthill. (California’s 4th is an odd and large district geographically: roughly 500 miles north to south and 100 miles west to east, mostly foothill and mountain counties, including lots of national forest and park lands like Yosemite, with a populous little blob on its northwest corner.)

As for participation, some of us are fanatics, who get to every event. Some of us are “most Tuesdays” types, and some come once a month or less, though many of the less frequent attendees are those from more remote areas  of the district, who have to drive one to three hours to get to Roseville.

We’re a reasonably accomplished group, too. The survey asked an open-ended question about participants’ personal background:

Tell me a little about your education, work background, and/or hobbies. If you’re retired, what did you do before you retired?

Education
Some college (less than 4 years, includes 2-year degrees) – 7
Bachelor degree – 19
Master’s degree – 7
Ph.D – 2
D.Pharm – 1
(Also, 2 respondents specifically mentioned that they were law school dropouts)

Occupation
Agriculture/farming – 2
Animals (veterinary & wildlife) – 2
Arts professions (including art, craft work, photography, music, writing & journalism) – 8
Business administration – 1
Education (including teachers, administrators, school librarians, special educators) – 16
Food & beverage services (including restaurants/catering, retail grocery) – 4
Government (civil service & postal service) – 2
Health professions (medicine, nursing, pharmacy, psychology) – 7
Inventor – 1
Legal/paralegal – 1
Military – 3
Phone company – 1
Religion – 1 (rabbi)
Science & engineering (including engineering, computer industry, & biotech research) – 5
Small business (including accounting & finance, human resources, real estate & property management, general contracting, miscellaneous non-food retail) – 13
Social services (including social work, child welfare, disability services) – 5
Transportation – 1

Hobbies
Art & photography – 3
Bicycling – 2
Dogs/cats – 2
Fishing – 1
Gardening –3
Golf – 1
Hockey – 1
Knitting – 4
Mahjong – 1
Motorcycle riding – 1
Music, singing, dance – 7
Racquetball – 1
Reading – 4
Rock collecting – 1
Spending time with family & friends – 3
Travel – 4
Volunteer work – 1
Walking/hiking/camping – 3
Yoga – 2

Politics & activism – 5
Devout Christian – 2
LGBT issues & rights support – 4
Hobbies on hold until Trump is gone – 1

That’s us. That’s who we are. Just like most people you know. Essentially, we’re your neighbors, your friends, your families, the people you work with, the people you buy from and sell to, and see around town every day.

And yet… there we are every week, making a point of getting ourselves to that sidewalk.

Why?

Partly it’s that there are specific issues that concern us. In the survey, I provided a list of issues, along with the option of adding others, and asked respondents to check all that were important to them. I plugged the responses into a spreadsheet, from which it is transparently clear that we are not a group of single-issue voters. Check it out for yourself by clicking on the link (and just hit your back button to come back from that PDF):

RATT Pack Issues

But it’s more than just abstract concern about issues. I also just straight out asked “Why do you participate in RATT Pack events?” Here’s a sampling of the responses:

• Because our country has taken a drastic turn in the wrong direction. I can’t sit back and watch. I want to do everything I can to help turn things around.

• Tom McClintock must go

• Doing something positive with like-minded people helps my soul. Educating the public about our Evil Regime helps my fears.

• As a retired military nurse, it breaks my heart to witness the destruction of our democracy this administration is doing.

• Get Jessica Morse elected…👍🏻

• Keeps me hopeful

• We have had presidents at war with the environment before, but NEVER this destructive. If we don’t protect and nurture the earth, how can it protect and nurture us?

• My country is at risk. The lies, the bigotry, the evil is more than I can accept.

• I don’t want my grandchildren asking why I didn’t do something

• So I can live with myself. To stave off post-election depression. I am politically active and this empowers me. I was a Teach For America teacher in Louisiana and am dedicated to educate myself and try to be part of the solution.

• I want to align myself with worthwhile causes. McClintock must go and I want to help make that happen.

• I can’t stand by and do nothing.

• As the mom of a 6 year old girl and aunt to 11 year old twin girls I see the threats to their success, health and well-being under attack. They are strong girls. They speak up but how can we stop the trainwreck that is just shoving them aside and invading their chances at a full and happy life by removing choices and opportunities that fulfill them and really extend through out their lifetime. I never want them to feel that they are less than . . . but our administration is constantly berating and insulting good female human beings is ludicrous.

• Bring attention to people of the defects of the current administration and our Congressman. Show that there is support for resistance to these policies. Also helps motivate me to see others who think the same

• Partly social therapy (I’m not alone!), partly to make a statement, partly (when NRA nuts or Proud Boys show up) to practice my John Lewis civil disobedience skills.

• Flip the 4th!

Which brings us—finally—around to the angry aspect of our angry mob. Anger seems almost too small a word to describe the emotion we feel as we consider why we keep showing up for RATT Pack. Fury, maybe, or rage. But it’s not a helpless rage. And that’s the secret of the angry mobs the title refers to. Our anger is our fuel.

You see, when we finish our pleasant hour with the RATT Pack, we’re not going home to stream Netflix (though that has its place). We’ve got other work to do. We’re members of Indivisible groups and local Democratic clubs and Sierra Forward and environmental groups and the ACLU and the League of Women Voters and the California Alliance for Retired Americans. We’re canvassing and phonebanking and registering voters. We’re doing voter outreach at high schools and new citizen ceremonies, and searching out infrequent voters to turn them into voters this year and for years to come.

As a matter of fact, it’s Tuesday morning and almost time to leave for RATT Pack. Plus, I’ve got a data entry shift coming up a little while after that at Jessica Morse’s local campaign field office. If we don’t flip the House this November, it won’t be because I didn’t do my part. But before I go, let me leave you with a quote from Rebecca Traister’s Good and Mad, her new book about women’s anger and how and why our society so often treats it as a problem, and how it can be a positive, useful force, that long-term fuel we’ll need for the years ahead.

The task—especially for the newly awakened, the newly angry, especially for the white women, for whom incentives to renounce their rage will be highest in coming years—is to keep going, to not turn back, to not give in to the easier path, the one where we weren’t angry all the time, where we accepted the comforts of racial and economic advantage that will always be on offer to those who don’t challenge power. Our job is to stay angry . . . perhaps for a very long time.

“It is probably going to be years,” Emma Gonzalez told reporters in 2018 about her battle against the gun lobby. “And at this point, I don’t know that I mind. Nothing that’s worth it is easy . . . We could very well die trying to do this. But we could very well die not trying to do this too. So why not die for something rather than nothing?”

________

* Some people, anyway.

** As a resident of Elk Grove, Rep. McClintock is himself represented by Rep. Ami Bera (D-Elk Grove), and has never lived in his own district, which partially accounts for the creation and continuing energy of the RATT Pack.

*** Mehfil, definitely.

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Filed under Politics

The Very Rich Man Who Was a Patriot

(Cleaning up miscellaneous files today and came upon this, which I wrote early last year but never published, for reasons I no longer remember. Self-indulgent, definitely, but just a tiny bit comforting, too, in the way that pure fantasy can sometimes be.)

Once upon a time, in a faraway place (or maybe not so faraway), there was a very rich man. This very rich man owned many properties and made many deals all over the world, and came to believe that his vast wealth and properties proved he was more clever than other people.

So the very rich man decided to run for President. He made many speeches to very large crowds of people who admired his wealth, and many who even thought he was almost as clever as he believed himself to be. Eventually, even though more people preferred other candidates, the very rich man was elected President.

And so it came to pass that the very rich man, now President, was visited by several government officials with a report on how a foreign nation had influenced the country’s news media and voters, and had perhaps even manipulated the very rich man’s own campaign.

The very rich man was shocked to his core. At first, he resisted believing what he had been told. But as he read and reread the report all night, and considered the evidence it presented, he realized its conclusions were incontrovertible.

In the morning, the very rich man called a press conference to discuss what he had learned. “I have been an abject fool,” he said. “I convinced myself that I knew more than everyone else, that my own arrogant conception of common sense outweighed any facts, any knowledge, any expertise other than my own.

“But my own hubris is not the only problem now burdening our nation. We are also faced with the fact that my Vice President and several members of our Congressional leadership were completely aware of the foreign intervention and chose to ignore it in order to preserve their own positions of power.

“I am releasing a report to to Congress and to the public, naming these self-serving officials, and urge the Congress to move with the utmost dispatch to impeach and remove them from our government. Once this is accomplished, I myself will resign as President.”

Encouraged by a deluge of calls and letters and emails from citizens, Congress acted quickly. After half a dozen separate impeachment hearings, the House chose a new Speaker, a long-serving, well-respected, experienced Member of Congress; the Senate likewise replaced its Majority Leader.

The very rich man then kept his promise and resigned. He was replaced by the newly elected Speaker, who was herself replaced by another well-respected and experienced Member of Congress. Inspired by the newfound integrity and patriotism of the former President, the Congress proceeded to pass a Constitutional Amendment to eliminate the electoral college in favor of a popular vote for President, to strengthen voting rights nationwide, to enact comprehensive immigration reform, effective gun control, and single-payer health coverage, and to make significant progress dealing with climate change.

And everyone lived happily ever after.

(I told you it was a fairy tale. But it made a nice break from calling my Senators and Representative.)

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Filed under Miscellaneous ranting, Politics