Part of How I Study History in 14 Points

1. When studying the United States’s past, no question, inquiry, problem, etc, can circumvent the all important question: how does it help “old White guys”?

2. If United States History reveals few constants one of them is that all too often despite on-going grassroots efforts demanding change very little changes in the way of the prejudices created and enforced by the White, Protestant, Heterosexual, western-European-in-origin cis-Male elite that vastly curtail the opportunities available to every one else, especially political and social minorities.

3. “Reality” is always more complex and multifaceted than historical memory.

4. Everything is deliberate; therefore, everything must be questioned and analyzed.

5. Questions are important, especially if we don’t or can’t know the answer.

6. Everyday artifacts—e.g., food, clothing, movies, cars—tell us much about associated hopes, fears, and experiences.

7. The “Constitution” is much more of a metaphor per se than an actual document. Metaphor might not be the best word to describe my idea, but there is a HUGE gap between the document as written, the document as it is believed to have been written, as it is interpreted, etc. All of these feelings and interpretations are always changing. What was “Constitutional” in 1900 in terms of the Culture of Segregation, for example, was not “Constitutional” in 2000. 

8. Laws are responses to something.

9. Gaps always exist between laws and “reality”/”realities.”

10. History is all about studying the realms of illogic. It’s not supposed to “make sense.”

11. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is a social construction.

12. E-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g is relative.

13. E-v-e-r-y-o-n-e makes history, but only a few make History.

14. Consciously and unconsciously we are learning and making decisions all day, every day.

See also: 

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Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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10 replies

  1. #1. So, in other words, when you are studying the migrations of indigenous populations across the Bering Strait 14,000 plus years ago, the key question is “how does it help ‘old White guys’?” I don’t think so, unless you also think the Pequot Wars in the 1630s helped “old White guys” by eliminating them (along with killing young White guys, women, children, etc.) or think that studying/researching these migrations has given “old White guys” jobs.
    #4. Not everything is deliberate, unless you think the captain of the Titanic deliberately wanted to hit that iceberg. Accidents do happen in history.
    #7. The Constitution is an actual document. That is indisputable, despite what you seem to think (if you’re not sure, you should take a trip to the National Archives and look at the copy on display–or visit the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia). The Founding Fathers set up a system of government when they drafted the Constitution in the summer of 1787, ratified it between December 1787 and early 1790, and implemented it with the election of Washington as president and the establishment of Congress and the Supreme Court in 1789. Since its creation, there have been debates over its intent (leading to the formation of the first political parties in the 1790s over whether it should be interpreted loosely or strictly), but it remains the document that established the government we have today. Yes, it has changed over the years; the Founding Fathers ensured that could occur by providing a means for amending it (which they had not been able to do under the Articles of Confederation without unanimous approval of all of the states). You should take a closer look at the amendments that have been made to the Constitution; some have dealt with issues with elections (see especially #12), some with regulating behavior (#18, #21), and some with civil rights (#14, #15, #19, and, to a lesser extent, #24). By the way, it’s far more than the culture of segregation; remember, in the 1920s it was unconstitutional for states to pass minimum wage laws because it prevented a person from being able to contract to work for a lower wage. Perhaps you should take another look at Madison’s notes from the Constitutional Convention to see what the Founding Fathers did when they overthrew the government in the summer of 1787 and see why they included the Three-Fifths Compromise. Sometimes, decisions have to be made for the larger good that you don’t agree with, as Jefferson found when he had to eliminate the clause condemning the British for the slave trade from the Declaration. While you’re at it, you should also look at writings by Charles Beard and Forrest McDonald on the Constitutional Convention; it’s not always about race.

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    • Thanks for your comment.

      In my first point, I did say the United States’s past. Although this would for sure include the colonial area. Additionally, while I recognize that the TRUE answer to the question “When did US history start” would be “the beginning of civilization.” Really great blog about this here: http://teachingunitedstateshistory.blogspot.com/2013/10/when-does-american-history-begin.html

      But, I wasn’t thinking about indigenous peoples that long ago. They wouldn’t be part of “US History” as it is typically studied per se. Also, this was well before a concept of “White people” developed.

      True – accidents happen. But there are all kinds of other deliberate choices involved with any “accident.” Also, the point here is much more directed at understanding all of the hows and whys and a reminder not to take anything as a given.

      Please look back at what I wrote on this post (and elsewhere). I directly acknowledge twice in this posting that there is an actual document. I’m also well aware of all of the associated historiography.

      If you haven’t read it, the new book “Slavery’s Constitution: From Revolution to Ratification” is very good.

      And everything–since Western societies developed notions of racialized discourses and categories and especially in the United States, all one needs to do is study its full history–is absolutely about “Race” or as I say to emphasize the socially constructed nature “racialized mores.” This article (“How Race-Studies Scholars Can Respond to Their Haters”) does a great job of providing various answer to your comment “It’s not always about race.”
      https://chroniclevitae.com/news/583-how-race-studies-scholars-can-respond-to-their-haters

      Liked by 1 person

    • I forgot to follow up on your comments about the Pequot. The Pequot were completely exterminated in this war. All were killed or sold into enslavement. That for sure “helped” “old White guys” and was the game they played again and again.

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  2. Not replying to Andrew, but to Karen:

    #1 — the author clearly identifies “United States’s past” — not the ancient history of a continent, pre-textual history. It’s certainly legitimate, when texts are created, to examine the rhetorical ecology and ask cui bono. In the case of the US, where “old white men” write the overwhelming number of texts, declarations, resolutions (public and secret), the inquiry as to how the dominant culture benefits certainly is valid. As to “giving jobs” — that would only be one component of helping the dominant culture. The dominant culture benefits in multiple ways more than short-term job security with its rhetorical mastery, creation, dissemination (and lack thereof), and subversion of its texts and the historical effects of those rhetorical decisions. I’d be happy one day to look at some political decision and the texts that surround it that actually benefit some population other than the “old white guys,” but — including the Voting Rights Act (and its decimation this year), I can think of none.

    Your #4 is a red herring fallacy. The Titanic disaster was not a pure accident as much as it was a series of incompetent decisions from engineering design to the wireless officer’s delay in sending ice warnings to the bridge. Every one of those incompetent decisions was a deliberate one, though their tragic consequences could not have been fully foreseen.

    Further, I see no conflict in the author’s claim that the Constitution is “more than” a metaphor than an actual document. Even your own argument supports that comparison. Of course there are physical pieces of paper in the Archive which were written upon, signed, that give a materiality to our sense of the document, but it was not received on Mt Sinai and has no universal truth to it. Similarly, the Standard Kilogram in Paris is more a metaphor than an actual kilogram — the definition of the kg has changed since the Standard’s original smelting because its original purpose has changed, and the scientific environment which uses the kg has changed as well. We may refer to the Standard Kilogram nostalgically as if it’s a “real” thing, but real scientists refer to it only metaphorically and necessarily use the re-interpretation of the measurement for their actual need.

    Finally, I have to disagree with the simple comment, “it remains the document that established the government we have today.” That is a grossly simple expectation that today’s oligarchy is in some way bounded by a document from 1787. Right or Left, this vision of our system of government seems blind by the realities of a government that long ago abandoned the checks and balances intended in 1787. I see that claim as invalid as those who claim “the United States was founded as a Christian nation” because one small group of colonists happened to establish a very small village for religious reasons, while the vast majority of nation-builders came over for the obvious reason — to profit from natural resources and people of color. Thus, the nation was not founded on Judeo-Christian principles as much as profit-making motives which we see today as the driving force of each branch of government, its military, and their primary stakeholders — corporations, not private citizens.

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  3. I wish one of my teachers would have told me that history is not supposed to make sense. I’ve been trying to make sense out of what humans do my whole life :/

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    • The psychologist in me still tries (too often) to understand the behavior of others! People are irrational. I guess it makes some more sense when we consider how “young” we are as a species. All kinds of unconscious forces–DNA, biology, etc–exert force over what we do and don’t, can see and can’t. Thanks for your comment!

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  1. The Supreme Court, (Male) Whiteness, and Why Today’s Decision “Makes Sense” « Andrew Joseph Pegoda, A.B.D.

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