History as a Straight Line

“Americans see history as a straight line and themselves standing at the cutting edge as representatives for all mankind.” -Frances Fitzgerald, American Myth, American Reality

Early in my college career, perhaps in my freshman year, I took a course on American Culture which used James Oliver Robinson’s American Myth, American Reality as a textbook.  I recorded the quote above in a journal of quotations I had just started collecting.

I thought of the quote again today when reading an article on revised AP U.S. history standards that will emphasize American exceptionalism.  The revisions were championed by conservative educators and politicians who felt that the previously released standards presented too negative a view of the country.  As Newsweek reported:

The Jefferson County school district in Colorado convened a board committee to review the curriculum, stating that all materials should promote “patriotism” and “respect for authority,” and “should not encourage or condone civil disorder.” The district stopped pursuing the review after hundreds of students walked out of classes in protest. The issue made it to the Republican National Committee, which passed a resolution accusing the AP U.S. framework of promoting “a radically revisionist view of American history that emphasizes negative aspects of our nation’s history while omitting or minimizing positive aspects,” and recommending that Congress withhold federal funding to the College Board pending a rewrite.

The squeaky wheel got the grease and the standards were revised again to try to make everyone on any side of the culture wars happy. One of the teachers who helped craft the redesign told Newsweek that their goal was to remove value judgments from the framework, and let facts speak for themselves.

Of course, history is not made up of “facts” the way mathematics is. History is made up of things that happened in the past between people of different cultures, ideologies, mindsets, and goals trying to survive cold winters, get enough to eat, and to live in society with one another. In the process they trade with one another, come up with economic systems, work, raise children, invent things, create art, fight over resources, practice religions, question their religions and prevailing philosophies, consider different elements of society part of the in-group or the out-group, they invent governing systems and sometimes become migrants or have wars. No nation ever was made up of people of a single mindset. Lots of things happened. Lots of people had lives that impacted other lives. Lots of people had perspectives. Out of the almost infinite pool of “things that happened” a historian must select certain things on which to focus.

For this reason the idea of history being “revisionist” is problematic. Rarely do our educators try to “revise” history by completely changing what happened, for example, saying the first president of the United States was not George Washington but Hiram Rodriguez. “Revisionist” histories are histories that focus on different aspects of the past.

The histories that we read in the good old days never did include all that happened to my ancestors and your ancestors in all its messy and wondrous complexity.  Historians ave to leave out of their stories all manner of events and people.  Early history text writers in the United States chose a patriotic narrative about an America whose ancestry is European, not Native American, Latino or Black. They chose to tell a story that focused on military and economic success with heroes from those realms. The past was already revised by these historians not to include the history of the card game whist, basket weaving, the story of some guy named Oziah who worked hard and followed the rules then died, changes in the way people have conceptualized love, slavery from the perspective of the enslaved, the War of 1812 from the Native American perspective, the biographies of all the people who ran for President and failed, nor did they choose to frame the account of the history of commerce and politics as background to a central narrative on the important business of creating art and culture or raising children or to begin the story of America in the mid-1800s with the first major wave of Jewish immigration. These are all stories that could have been told.

These days when people start fighting about how history should be taught to children, they largely argue about whose perspective should be included and who should be considered part of “us.” Is focusing on Civil Disobedience saying that America is bad and authority should be resisted or is it saying that African-Americans and working class laborers who staged sit ins are part of the American “us” and therefore events that were significant to African-Americans and the working poor are significant to us as Americans?

What rarely gets challenged, however, is the straight line narrative of American history. This can be summed up in the popular political poll question “Do you think the country is headed in the right direction?” The assumption is that history is a journey from something to something else. People on the left are more apt to see social change as progress (hence the label progressive) whereas conservatives are more apt to worry that social change is the beginning of a slippery downward slope to a chaotic society. What they have in common is that they see history as heading in a direction.

One of the sticking points in the AP framework debate was the interpretation of “manifest destiny.” Should it be presented in a positive light? What was a gain for the European settlers was a loss for the Native Americans. In either case, the underlying notion that there was something inevitable about this change is essentially intact. This is not the only way to view history. Richard Nisbett wrote in The Geography of Thought:

Japanese teachers begin with setting the context of a given set of events in some detail. They then proceed through the important events in chronological order, linking each event to its successor. Teachers encourage their students to imagine the mental and emotional states of historical figures by thinking about the analogy between their situations and situations of the students’ everyday lives. The actions are then explained in terms of these feelings. Emphasis is put on the “initial” event that serves as the impetus to subsequent events. Students are regarded as having good ability to think historically when they show empathy with the historical figures, including those who were Japan’s enemies. “How” questions are asked frequently— about twice as often as in American classrooms. American teachers spend less time setting the context than Japanese teachers do. They begin with the outcome, rather than with the initial event or catalyst. The chronological order of events is destroyed in presentation. Instead, the presentation is dictated by discussion of the causal factors assumed to be important (“ The Ottoman empire collapsed for three major reasons”). Students are considered to have good ability to reason historically when they are capable of adducing evidence to fit their causal model of the outcome.

What happened is the only thing that could have happened, and our job is to recognize is the road that got us there.

Thus, Nisbett writes “The fall of the Roman Empire, the rise of the Third Reich, and the American success in reaching the moon before the Russians, not to mention less momentous events, are routinely seen as inevitable by commentators, who, one strongly suspects, could not have predicted them.”

A month or so ago, you may recall, I ran a guest post by author Juliet Greenwood about her World War I novel “We That Are Left.” The article focused on the largely forgotten role of women on the battlefield.  The introduction to the post also pointed out that female writers outsold their male counterparts in the Victorian era and that women owned a large number of businesses in Colonial America.  Why do these facts come as a surprise? I suspect it is that these historical facts interfere with a nice seamless narrative about linear progress.

It is much easier to tell the dramatic story of increasing freedom for women– a straight line from corsets and arranged marriages to women’s suffrage, 1970s women’s lib, and then Margaret Thatcher, Hillary Clinton and female CEOs– if you leave out the women of previous ages who did the things we imagine they only later gained the right to do.

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Ten Things You Didn’t Know About Identity Theft, (The Novel): Guest Post by Author Laura Lee @LauraLeeAuthor


Thank you to April Wood “A Well Read Woman” for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts on the novel “Identity Theft.”

Originally posted on A Well Read Woman:

Please give a warm welcome to Author Laura Lee, who was kind enough to stop over at A Well Read Woman Blog! The following is Laura’s guest post, where she reveals ten things you didn’t know about her novel, Identity Theft.

Identity Theft is a novel about a bored employee in the office of a rock star, who flirts with a fan online in the guise of his boss, and sets off a chain of events he cannot control.

Enjoy, and leave your thoughts below! :)

Identity Theft
follows three characters and alternates the narrative from their points of view.

Because each main character has a different understanding of reality, it was important to tell the story at different times from each one’s point of view.

All of the main characters, except for one, go by nicknames or assumed names.

Ethan, the character who takes on someone else’s identity, is the only…

View original 1,460 more words

Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Novel Angel

Angel by Laura LeeI recently wrote a guest post for A Well Read Woman on “Ten Things You Didn’t Know About the Novel Identity Theft.” So stay tuned for that. I will let you know as soon as it appears. I had so much fun doing it that I decided to write one for my first novel Angel.

1. A real retired minister inspired the story

The initial spark of an idea for Angel came when I was invited to speak at a conference in Seattle and took a bus tour of Mount Rainier. The driver was entertaining and kept talking about burning out on his old job. Only at the end of the tour did someone ask what his old job had been and he said “a minister.” I thought the mystery of what would make someone leave the ministry to become a tourist guide on a mountain was a great premise. Of course, I know nothing about the actual minister’s story, but he did describe the mountain as “magnificent in its symbiosis” a line that made its way into the book.

2. There is an unpublished sequel to Angel

Over the course of the next year and a half after the release of the novel Angel, I wrote a second novel from Ian’s perspective. It begins with Ian at age 13 losing everything in a house fire and ends in the present just after same sex marriage was legalized in the state of Washington. After completing it, I decided not to try to publish it.

3. Ian Finnerty’s name is a play on “infinity “

My father was an author and when he passed away he left many partial fiction manuscripts. One very sketchy idea was for a novel about an alcoholic pilot named Ian Finnerty who flew a traffic helicopter and went by the name “Captain Infinity” on the air. Ian sounded like a young person’s name and the connection to “infinity” seemed a propos for a character who is described as an angel. So I used it as an homage to my late father. In the unpublished sequel to Angel, by the way, Ian’s middle name is revealed to be Armstrong.

4. Paul Tobit’s name is a reference to the apocryphal book of Tobit

Paul’s name came much later than Ian’s. I do not write novels in sequence and for much of the writing I was still calling the main character “the minister” because I didn’t have a name that quite felt right. His name finally came when I wrote the scene where the minister introduces himself to Ian. “I’m Paul,” he said, and I thanked the character for finally letting me know what to call him. It was not a conscious reference to St. Paul, but may have been a subconscious one as St. Paul’s epistles come up in the text.

Paul’s last name, however, was chosen consciously. It is an allusion to the book of Tobit, which was part of the version of the Bible known as the Septuagint and is still part of the Orthodox and Catholic Biblical cannons. It is one of the most ancient angel stories we have. It recounts how God sent an angel, Raphael, to heal Tobit who has suffered pretty much all of the smiting the Bible can dish out. He’s been left alone, impoverished, blind and even the birds shit on him. Raphael is described as “one of the seven angels who see the face of God.” The angel introduces Tobit to his bride, Sarah (thus Paul’s wife was named Sarah). By taking a leap of faith and trusting the odd advice of the angel, Tobit gets his sight back and finds love. (Although not with the angel.)

5. The denominational language that Paul wrestles with is from the United Methodist Church

Paul’s denomination is purposely never identified in Angel. It is a denomination, unlike the Methodist church, which I believe moves pastors to different parishes after a given time, where a minister can stay as long as he and the congregation are happy with one another. In writing the book, I studied the statements on human sexuality of the Presbyterians and Methodists. The Presbyterians changed their policies between the time the book was written and published but the Methodist church still used the language which appears in Angel about homosexuality being “incompatible with Christian teaching” and about “self-avowed, practicing homosexuals” not being allowed in the ministry. Shortly after the book was released, in fact, Rev. Amy Delong was tried by the UMC under that language.

6. The book is set in the year 2007

As I recently explained in a blog post, laws and culture have changed so fast regarding LGBT issues that it is possible to pretty much identify the exact year that Paul and Ian spent together by a reference to the states in which same sex marriage was then legal.

7. Ian’s friend Ray is of Egyptian descent

In Angel, Ray is described as being of “some vague ethnicity Paul can’t quite place.” In Ian’s unpublished book he is described this way: “Ray Shenouda was the definition of tall, dark and handsome. Of Egyptian descent, he had black hair and nearly black eyes, strong cheek bones and he spent way more time in the gym than Ian ever would, at least until someone got the idea to install an open bar there. He was, by any objective standard, extremely good looking. Ian recognized he was attractive, but Ray’s good looks stirred nothing in him, and this seemed to be mutual. During that one month when Ian was broke and crashing on Ray’s couch, they had played around a couple of times just to try things out. Actually, it was two and a half times. The third time involved too much alcohol, a few half-hearted gropes and the sudden realization on both of their parts that it was kind of a stupid thing to keep doing.”

8. The interior, but not the exterior, of Paul’s church is inspired by a real place

In order to have a sense of physical space in the church, I visualized the interior of my own church, which is a modern structure. The exterior, however, is a traditional gothic church with an attached cemetery. This is the kind of thing you can do in fiction. In the church office where I worked there is a bathroom right behind the office manager’s desk. An editor balked at the description of this unrealistic layout, but I left it in.

9. Gay men are still not allowed to donate blood under current FDA guidelines

A pivotal plot point in Angel revolves around the annual church blood drive. Under current FDA guidelines, which date back to 1985, a man who has had sex with another man– even once– is banned for life from donating blood. The FDA has proposed a change in policy which would only ban donations for one year, but which would continue to ban any non-celibate gay men from donating.

10. A second edition of Angel is set to be released on November 10

Quote of the Day: On “Urban Pioneers”

…the phrase “urban pioneers” is perpetually problematic especially in this city. Let’s all just take a moment to remember the original “pioneers” who came through Detroit…The issue with the idea of pioneers is that historically they are treated as if they discovered something. Detroit has been here. People live here, have lived here, have raised generations of their families in Detroit proper. No amount of cheap studio space is going to allow artists or anyone else to move in and act as if they found something new. And to be very clear, it’s not brave or bold, it’s strategic opportunism.- Casey L. Rocheteau, on the Write House blog.

I read the above article immediately after this one from The Metro Times which points out that Detroit’s latest renaissance has also seen the number of black-owned buildings downtown fall by as much as 75 percent.

Who Should ‘Scape Whipping?

My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

God’s bodykins, man, much better: use every man
After his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?
Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less
They deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.
Take them in.

“Use every man after his desert and who should ‘scape whipping” is one of my favorite lines from Hamlet. It came to mind today as I read an article in Bondings 2.0.  Bondings is an LGBT positive Catholic publication which does a lot of reporting on how the church as an organization and how Catholics as individuals respond to social change.

In one article Jesuit friar Thomas Reese makes a well-reasoned case that U.S. bishops have a tradition of making accommodations with civil laws that do not match their stated beliefs, notably the way the church responds to divorce and people who have been remarried. Therefore, he writes, there is no reason the church should expend resources and energy trying to fight same sex marriage.

(Christian ministers of many stripes have become so accommodating to divorce that they use a passage from the New Testament in which Jesus specifically says people should not divorce as if it were instead a prohibition against gay marriage.)

Bondings said Reese’s  “analytical response (to the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage equality) stands out over the rest of them for its incisive distinctions and its hopeful suggestions.”  While I applaud the article overall, one troubling thing kept jumping out at me. Reese repeatedly makes the case that the Catholic church can change its approach without “endorsing the lifestyle.”

Today, Catholic institutions rarely fire people when they get divorced and remarried. Divorced and remarried people are employed by church institutions, and their spouses get spousal benefits. No one is scandalized by this. No one thinks that giving spousal benefits to a remarried couple is a church endorsement of their lifestyle.

If bishops in the past could eventually accept civil divorce as the law of the land, why can’t the current flock of bishops do the same for gay marriage? Granted all the publicity around the church’s opposition to gay marriage, no one would think they were endorsing it.

Reese goes on to say:

…Catholic colleges and universities that provide housing for married couples are undoubtedly going to be approached for housing by same-sex couples. Unless the schools can get states to carve out an exception for them in anti-discrimination legislation, they could be forced to provide such housing.

But since they already provide housing to couples married illicitly according to the church, no one should see such housing as an endorsement of someone’s lifestyle. And granted all the sex going on at Catholic colleges and universities, giving housing to a few gay people who have permanently committed themselves to each other in marriage would hardly be considered a great scandal.

The italics in these quotes are mine. Reese re-assures his peers that churches still have the right to express anti-gay views and to fire clergy for being gay, or for whatever reason they see fit.

I’m struck by all of that hang-wringing over whether or not an institution can be considered to be “endorsing” the lifestyles of anyone it does not actively condemn. In this, the church seems to have the mindset of a junior high school student who is afraid that if she is seen with the wrong people she will be judged uncool. It is generally taken to be a sign of maturity when you stop shunning those who you think might make you look bad and stop worrying about how other people might feel about your friends.

Putting that aside, there is a practical problem with this whole “endorsing” thing. What aspects of a person’s “lifestyle” warrant scrutiny? Look around you at the vast variety in the ways of life of your friends and associates. I am willing to bet that there are life choices that almost everyone makes that you would not personally “endorse” but then, who asked you?

If you wanted to play judge, though, I am sure you could find a Bible verse or several to support your distaste for your neighbor’s choices.

Should churches allow people with poor dietary habits and sedentary lifestyles to take part in services, even to serve as ministers? Does that constitute an endorsement of gluttony and poor health? Should the faithful refuse to serve obese members at the church potluck in order to demonstrate their disapproval of the lifestyle? Should pious business owners have the right to refuse to serve fat customers to preserve their religious freedom?

If you allow parents who are too strict or too lax with their children to take part in your religious education program would doing so constitute an endorsement of their parenting styles?

If you allow the church gossip (or gossips) to take part in coffee hour, are you endorsing gossip?

Is allowing a banker to be a prominent member of the church an endorsement of usury?

Incidentally, my book Broke is Beautiful recounts the story of the 19th Century Irish priest, Father Jeremiah O’Callaghan who gave many sermons against church’s tacit endorsement of usury and his outspokenness did not sit well with his superiors. While the church was not ready to reverse its stand that usury was a sin, it was too pragmatic to be comfortable with a priest who branded some of its most influential and prominent members as sinners. O’Callaghan was dismissed. He spent years protesting his firing and writing pamphlets about the sin of usury before eventually resettling to the United States.

I really could go on and on, but I won’t. My point is that if you only want to associate with those whose lifestyles you can fully and unquestionably endorse in every way, you’re destined to be very lonely indeed.

SWF Seeks Book Reviewers

9460332_origI am on tour at the moment, and don’t have as much time to post as I do in my other– non-touring– life. So for the moment I just wanted to remind you that I do have a fairly new novel, Identity Theft and that there is an upcoming blog tour to promote it which is looking for reviewers and interviewers.

When the rock star she idolized responded to her e-mail, Candi was thrilled. When he started to flirt with her, she thought all her dreams could come true. The fantasy takes over her entire life, but none of it is true. The man of her dreams is not a rock star at all, but a bored office worker whose internet game quickly spins out of control.

Laura Lee’s second novel, Identity Theft, is now available. It is a humorous, thought-provoking examination of the state of the self in the 21st Century full of surprising plot twists.

It explores celebrity, online relationships, the loss of professional identity that comes with insecure employment and how inner reality is often at odds with outer image.

Pluralistic Ignorance

I learned some new jargon via Sociological Images. You may recall that a few years ago, while I was promoting my novel Angel, I came upon a study that showed that Christian ministers, as a group, believed they were more accepting of gay rights than their congregants. Christian church members, on the other hand, thought that they were more accepting of LGBT rights than their pastors. That is to say, each group wanted to come out as pro-gay rights, but was afraid the other party was not ready to make a change. The ministers were afraid they would alienate their congregations, the congregants were afraid of being out of step with the minister.

A few days ago Sociological Images reflected on the controversy surrounding the confederate flag and concluded that something similar has been at work in the South:

My guess is that what’s going on is not a sudden enlightenment or even much of a change in views about the flag. To me it looks more like the process of “pluralistic ignorance.” What these people changed was not their ideas about the Confederacy or racism but their ideas about other people’s ideas about these matters. With pluralistic ignorance (a term coined by Floyd Allport nearly a century ago) everyone wants X but thinks that nobody else does. Then some outside factor makes it possible for people to choose X, and everyone does. Everyone is surprised – “Gee, I thought all you guys wanted Y, not X .” It looks like a rapid change in opinion, but it’s not…

…With the support for letting that flag fade into history, it looks as though for a while now many Southerners may have been uncomfortable with the blatant racism of the Confederacy and the post-Reconstruction era. But because nobody voiced that discomfort, everyone thought that other Southerners still clung to the old mentality.

You can read the entire Sociological Images article here.