Greater Egret

Monday, December 8, 2008

That Big Old Cultural Divide

The Weekly Standard has quite the nasty laugher this month in Andrew Ferguson's cover story, "The Past Isn't What It Used To Be." This article is basically a conservative hatchet job on the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington D.C.. Political correctness is after all a two way street.

Mr. Ferguson starts his essay by writing that the Museum has been a big disappointment since its doors first opened in 1964. A monolith of bad lighting and dull architecture and deeply boring content. He finds time to insult it's sister museum, the vaunted National Gallery of Art as well - "snoozey(sic), filled with still-lifes and hunks of marble."

The Museum has evidently undergone a renovation, one that I have not yet seen.  I hope that I can visit it one day.
"In ceremonies to mark the occasion, the president delivered a speech, followed by the first lady. Colonial pipers piped and historical reenactors reenacted, and the unavoidable Colin Powell--fast becoming our nation's toastmaster general, as George E. Jessel was to an earlier generation--read the Gettysburg Address."

I guess General Powell is now officially kicked under the bus, how dare he question the neoconservative party line on WMD's? And all this time I thought he was a genuine war hero - silly me.

Ferguson maintains that the Museum was created to illustrate the traditional American way of life - displays that might inspire a love of country or deepen our appreciation for the sacrifice of our forebears.  All laudable and well and good.  Somehow the evil academics and social historian curators  with their "tedious and voguish view of history" have imposed their dark view of America on the museum in the last thirty years.  Their theorizing of history supplanted the rah rah cheerleading that Ferguson appears to favor.

Here's a lovely passage from his piece that I faithfully reproduce: 

Inevitably, the Smithsonian's obsession with social history descended into political correctness--a dismal accounting of American history as an endless manipulation of powerless groups by a powerful elite, punctuated now and then by the triumphant, but always incomplete, liberation of the oppressed. The political critique was implicit from early on. As a former director of the museum told the Washington Post: "We set about to reacquaint Americans with the ambiguity of public life and the ambiguity of American institutions," an effort that drew criticism, he said, from constituencies that were always "reaching for an artificial, false simplicity." The goal, said another curator, was to "challenge visitors' preconceived notions and views on American history and the world around them."

A couple of problems were apparent from the start. For one thing, fewer and fewer Americans had preconceived notions about American history because they hadn't been taught any. And it wasn't a coincidence that all this "reacquainting" ran in only one direction, politically. Thus the family with the squalling kids might have stepped in from the mall with a relatively benign view of their country, based on personal experience, but the museum wised them up pretty quick, as they found themselves relentlessly challenged with ambiguity.

In truth, though, the museum's picture of America wasn't ambiguous at all. It was clear as could be, from the smallest detail to the largest strokes. The United States, as presented in its preeminent museum of history, was a difficult place to love. The biggest exhibit on World War II--the only exhibit on World War II--was devoted to the internment of Japanese Americans. World War I was reduced to a single small display about the role of women. Mention of the achievements of American farmers was restricted to the abuse of sharecroppers. When an exhibit touched on the country's economic system (infrequently), it was to demonstrate capital's exploitation of labor: sweat shops, the busted-up strikes of Mexican farm workers, tributes to César Chávez and Harry Bridges, abandoned textile workers, and the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads and felt the lash for their trouble. Wherever you turned, some artifact was threatening to raise your consciousness.

And the picture was made even starker by what was left out. From Hamilton to Eisenhower, most of the great names of American history had been purged. Little attention was paid to military sacrifice and heroism, diplomacy, national politics, religion, the Constitution, or the bounty of capitalism and its remarkable spread across every race and class.

Over the years, there were occasional public complaints about the dullness and the pitilessly ideological content, some lampoons of absurd exhibits like "A Material World," but mostly the curators benefited from that deference to experts that is another hallmark of the American experience. Finally, though, beginning about a decade ago, people started to notice what was happening at the National Museum of American History--people who could do something about it.

Though our grandchildren will never believe it, the Republican control of Congress offered fleeting moments that brimmed with hope and promise. One such moment came on July 28, 1999, during a hearing of the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration, Sen. Mitch McConnell presiding.

It wasn't much noticed at the time--nothing beyond a glancing story in the Washington Post a few days later. The rules committee oversees the Smithsonian Institution, and the only witness this day was Michael Heyman, the Smithsonian's then secretary. Presumably Heyman arrived prepared for the usual dishwater back-and-forth about budgets and construction timetables. McConnell had other ideas. He had recently visited the NMAH. He'd heard some unkind things about the museum, he said, rumors about persistent bias in the exhibits, unpatriotic slants on the country's history. He wanted to see for himself.

"I saw quite a lot," McConnell told Heyman, "and much of what I saw, I didn't like." In exhibit after exhibit, McConnell said, he had sensed "a drift toward political correctness"--the consistent implication that American history was at bottom a story of exploitation and repression. An exhibit on 19th-century immigrants, he pointed out, had dwelt exclusively on "the dark side of capitalism," suggesting that the social and economic improvement of the nation's immigrant populations had been owing "to luck, just luck," rather than hard work, ingenuity, and a uniquely free political and economic system. An exhibit on Indians of the Southwest had an equally anti-American, anti-Western bias.

"For example," McConnell said, "in the New Mexico Pueblo exhibit, references are made to 'invasive forms of Christianity.'" He didn't like the sly pejorative. "Invasive!" he said. "The characterization seems more apt for a parasitic virus, a plague, than as a means of describing the evolution of Christianity in this country."

Now, if Mr. McConnell or Mr. Ferguson for that matter, would take the time to actually research the history of the Spanish and church's subjugation of the native population,  
they would be hard put to typify the brutality, murder and servitude of the Pueblo, Cherokee, Navajo or Mission Indians as just another step in the christian evolution of America.

I love America as much as the next guy, but think that Selma, Bull Connor and the lunch counters are as important to our national dialogue as the birth of the steam engine and Betsy Ross's flag. Those that don't remember the past are...oh, I forget...

We are ill served by Ferguson and his ilk's flag waving. 

hot steamy love toetapping republican congressmen sending morse code messages from airport bathroom stalls triple xxx


Anonymous said...

We are ill-served by your blatant disregard for what has become common parlance in the PC world, the world you ass-pire to. They are now referred to as 'First Americans' or 'First Amerikanskis' if you have that pink tinge to your philosophic polksack, not forevermore to be 'Native Americans' as they whose be bornt in San Fernando Valley receiving rooms be just that, no matter their feather. Dig it deeply.

Blue Heron said...

Tried to call twice - money's in the bank.



Anonymous said...

Human Events, a Republican conservative think tank book publisher? also has a current book out, red hot off the press; "The Un-Politically Correct History of the Civil War"*

[sic]The South never fought the North over any slavery issues! That's what the liberals want you to think.
(*should be called The Un-Politically Correct Sybil War of racist Right Wingers")

Anonymous said...

Just a few observations:

"Anonymous" is so entangled with his own convoluted syntax and self-styled "intellectual" neologisms that one can barely make out his message.

It - his message - may be in there, wanly lurking in the forests and thickets of his "would be 'hip'" word constructions. But it would be simpler for him to just come right out and say it, plainly.

Until then, the exchange between him and RS ("Blue Heron") remains nearly as solipsistic as one of Wallace Stevens' more complex poems.

Setting the above to one side, and groping (with the aid of an Ouji board) for the meaning of this exchange, I would simply like to agree with the statement that very few Americans have any solid sense - whether fragmentary, or overarchingly entire - of their past at all. As De Toqueville said, in Volume II of "Democracy in America," we are nearly all of us "slaves to the present moment."

I love the term which Gore Vidal coined long ago:

"The United States of Amnesia."

(Note: No harm or personal insult is intended, men. I just had to weigh in on this one.)


Blue Heron said...

Well said Judge - there are many anonymous posters, but this particular one has a native olfactory brand that is all his own. And I can follow his tortured syllogisms quite easily. What does that say about me?

Forgive him father...

Anonymous said...

'We are not in a Democracy, we are at an auction' attributed to the car in front of me. Also 'The only certified experts are the ones people are stupid enough to believe', Joe Weider (yeah, that Joe Weider).

Anonymous said...

I love your comment, but seriously Judge, Please!!!! quit the William F. Buckley, Thesaurus...I know bigger words than you jargon. Save it for the district attorneys who are impressed with your World Book Dictionary logic.
(Ditto on the no-harm rule) Anonymous PWTT

grumpy said...

anonymous, aka lost in translation...

grumpy said...

forgot to mention, i love the Joe Weider reference, nice one there...