The Imagination Sets the Terms

Ta-Nehisi Coates in a new interview:

I think we as political writers — and this is one of the reasons why I’ve been making comic books and other things — we can argue with people up one side, and down the other. You confront them with facts, and they’ll just look away. They’ll completely look away.

Because our politics occurs within the imagination of the citizen. If I don’t believe that black people are human, it really doesn’t matter what you say to me about policy. So the question is: How do we decide who gets to be human and who doesn’t? How do we decide who our heroes are, and who our heroes aren’t? All of that is tied together in the stories we tell ourselves. …

Willie Horton, the welfare queen. These things are dangerous because of their impact on policy. But they’re also dangerous because of how they make black people look in the white American imagination. And in some cases, in their own imaginations. Because it’s the imagination that sets the terms for what’s possible in terms of policy. And so popular culture matters. It’s a part of it too.

—Ta-Nehisi Coates, interviewed by Eric Levitz in “Ta-Nehisi Coates Is an Optimist Now,” New York, March 18, 2019

Who Gets Historical Empathy?

winslowhomer-waterfan

On Sunday, the Nebraska political scientist Ari Kohen learned he had been mentioned in a former student’s white-nationalist chat messages. I heard about this when Matt Gabriele, a medievalist, pointed out Kohen’s news on Twitter.

“They’re in our classes y’all,” Gabriele warned historians. “What’s your pedagogy?”

It’s a good question.

Teachers of history (and related fields) who imagine we can argue students into rejecting white-power ideology are mostly mistaken. Although white power involves many false beliefs, it amounts to nothing less than a conception of basic human social bonds and the nature of personal selfhood. Freeing oneself from such a hell of the imagination requires more than hearing refutations.

(That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t refute false ideas. The “backfire effect” is probably overblown. But refutation is only going to get us so far.)

Work of the imagination is required.

In this context, I’m among the historians who think the most powerful specialized tool we have for combating toxic ideologies is “historical empathy.”

But there’s an important problem with the way some of us try to use it.

Continue reading “Who Gets Historical Empathy?”

Don’t Be a Teacher Steve King Would Like

Speaking with the New York Times for an article published today, Congressman Steve King seems to have put one of his few remaining cards on the table:

Mr. King, in the interview, said he was not a racist. … At the same time, he said, he supports immigrants who enter the country legally and fully assimilate because what matters more than race is ‘the culture of America’ based on values brought to the United States by whites from Europe.

‘White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive?’ Mr. King said. ‘Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?’

Those of us who teach American history—especially those of us who appear to be white—have a responsibility to design history courses that will refute the impression Steve King says he got in his.

“Our history and our civilization” are not white. From the beginning, and continuously to the present, the territories and societies that became the United States have involved and incorporated and held captive, as well as excluded and expropriated, non-European and non-Christian peoples.

The story of America, told honestly, is not a white story. It may indeed (unfortunately) be a story of white supremacy—but whiteness is not the story of “us.” Neither were the dominant cultures of the United States created by simply transplanting some supposedly European cultural essence to the western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, it is very easy for even truthful history teachers to fail to challenge the perception their students have already received long before they reach our courses.

In 2019, let’s make sure our students would have a very difficult time getting the impression Steve King got.