Tag Archives: accurate history

“Don’t Know Much About History”

That old Sam Cooke tune should be Justice Alito’s theme song.

Distortion–or flat-out lying–about history hasn’t previously been a feature of Supreme Court decisions, although it’s nothing new in political discourse. (Remember the people who argued against same-sex marriage by insisting that marriage “has always been between one man and one woman,” despite the fact that the statement was demonstrably false? Even if you ignore biblical history, more than half of the world still recognizes plural marriage.)

Alito’s recitation of history in Dobbs has been rebutted by historians, and its falsity was recently the subject of a lengthy essay in the Guardian. 

As the essay notes, Alito claims that a reversal of Roe v Wade “restores the US to an unbroken tradition of prohibiting abortion on pain of criminal punishment [that] persisted from the earliest days of the common law until 1973.”

This assertion, however, is easily disproven.As historians have exhaustively explained, early American common law (as in Britain) generally permitted abortions until “quickening”, or perceptible foetal movement, usually between 16 to 20 weeks into a pregnancy. Connecticut was the first state to ban abortion after quickening, in 1821, which is roughly two centuries after the earliest days of American common law. It was not until the 1880s that every US state had some laws restricting abortion, and not until the 1910s that it was criminalised in every state. In the wake of Dobbs, social media was awash with examples from 18th- and 19th-century newspapers that clearly refuted Alito’s false assertion, sharing examples of midwives and doctors legally advertising abortifacients, Benjamin Franklin’s at-home abortion remedies, and accounts of 19th-century doctors performing “therapeutic” (medically necessary) abortions.

The essay also emphasized that anti-abortion fervor was not motivated by the moral or religious beliefs generally cited by anti-choice activists.

In fact, the first wave of anti-abortion laws were entangled in arguments about nativism, eugenics and white supremacism, as they dovetailed with a cultural panic that swept the US in the late 19th and early 20th century as a result of the vast changes in American society wrought by the conflict. This panic was referred to at the time in shorthand as “race suicide”

The increasing traction today of the far-right “great replacement theory”, which contends that there is a global conspiracy to replace white people with people of colour, and has explicitly motivated white supremacist massacres in the US, is often said to have originated with a French novel called The Camp of the Saints by Jean Raspail. Published in 1973, the same year that Roe v Wade enshrined American women’s rights to reproductive autonomy, it is a dystopian account of “swarthy hordes” of immigrants sweeping in and destroying western civilisation. But there were many earlier panics over “white extinction”, and in the US, debates around abortion have been entangled with race panic from the start. 

As a similar post at FiveThirtyEight.com put it,” the anti-abortion movement, at its core, has always been about upholding white supremacy.”

Historians point to the numerous newspapers, lectures and sermons that led to the original criminalization of abortion by warning that Catholics and other foreign-born immigrants were likely to outnumber Protestant, native-born Americans. The essay cited one representative example– a 1903 editorial pointing out that the Protestant population of the US was increasing by 8.1% while the Catholic population was increasing by 21.8%, and characterizing those statistics as an “alarming condition of things.” The article noted that there were “on the average more than five abortions a month, none of them in Catholic families”. In case the message wasn’t sufficiently clear, the piece was headlined “Religion and Race Suicide”.

When the resurgent Ku Klux Klan paraded in Louisiana in 1922, they bore banners that read “White Supremacy”, “America First”, “One Hundred Per Cent American”, “Race Purity” and “Abortionists, Beware!” People are sometimes confused by the Klan’s animus against abortionists, or impute it to generalised patriarchal authoritarianism, but it was much more specifically about “race purity”: white domination can only be maintained by white reproduction.

The article is lengthy, but well worth your time to read; it contains a meticulous recitation of the thoroughly racist roots of opposition to abortion. My only quibble is that It gives only a nod to the White male patriarchy embedded in the numerous religious dogmas that require the subordination and submission of women. Without the benefit of that moral “fig leaf,” I doubt whether its clearly racist roots would have carried the movement so far.

I do absolutely agree with the essay’s conclusion:

The assault on women’s rights is part of the wider move to reclaim the “commanding place” in society for a small minority of patriarchal white men. And, as Alito’s decision shows, where legal precedent and other justifications cannot be found, myth will fill the vacuum.

No matter how ahistorical that myth…

 

Preferred History

A few days ago, I came across a Facebook post that spoke to the current frenzy about “critical race theory.” The post was actually directed at defenses of confederate statutes and the confederate flag, but what really struck me was the following litany about the contents of most history classes. 

You learned about Helen Keller instead of W.E.B, DuBois
You learned about the Watts and L.A. Riots, but not Tulsa or Wilmington.
You learned that George Washington’s dentures were made from wood, rather than the teeth from slaves.
You learned about black ghettos, but not about Black Wall Street.
You learned about the New Deal, but not “red lining.”
You learned about Tommie Smith’s fist in the air at the 1968 Olympics, but not that he was sent home the next day and stripped of his medals.
You learned about “black crime,” but white criminals were never lumped together and discussed in terms of their race.
You learned about “states rights” as the cause of the Civil War, but not that slavery was mentioned 80 times in the articles of secession.
Privilege is having history rewritten so that you don’t have to acknowledge uncomfortable facts.

At the conclusion of the list was the following: “Racism is perpetuated by people who refuse to learn or acknowledge this reality. You have a choice. – Jim Golden”

I don’t know who Jim Golden is or was, but I think this list is an excellent illustration of what is at stake in the current fury over the teaching of history.

No history class can cover every aspect of America’s past. Selectivity is inevitable–but it is abundantly clear that the selection incorporated into most high school history texts and consuming the majority of class time in most of the nation’s schools has been wildly unbalanced. 

How many American high school students have been taught that the Civil War was about “state’s rights”? What percentage of them were ever confronted with this statement about  the genesis of the war?

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery—the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin …

The quoted paragraph is only one of several that can be found at the link–which is to an article from the Atlantic by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates simply assembles the official statements of the “Southern Gentlemen” who led the Confederate States into secession.

Elsewhere, I found  this one, from Alexander Stephens, Vice-President of the Confederacy, rebutting the position of the abolitionists:

Our new Government is founded upon exactly the opposite ideas; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. 

The only state right that was being defended was the right to own black human beings. American students have a right to know that.

Granted, a curriculum that only included the information that is currently not being taught would be as one-sided and inaccurate as the curriculum that is still predominantly in use. What is needed is a syllabus balanced between the good and bad, the beautiful and ugly– lesson plans that accurately show students where we have been, and how far we have come–lessons that would provide them with a context for deciding how far we still have to go.

Most of the people in my age cohort didn’t learn actual history–we were spoon-fed an inaccurate, Whitewashed mythology that didn’t prepare us for the shock most of us felt when we learned the less admirable elements of our past. Thanks to the work of historians and scholars, however, we now know a great deal about those less admirable elements, and revelations continue to emerge.

All the White Nationlists’ hysteria about Critical Race Theory will not succeed in obscuring the reality of America’s Original Sin. What it doesn’t obscure is the racism that prompts it.