Back again!

Oh, hi there. You’re still here?

Ok, so I took some time off to teach and think. Now I’m back to reading and writing. That’s pretty much the academic cycle.

Published in: on June 3, 2010 at 3:19 pm  Comments (1)  

Sexual violence and systems of power

Roman Polanski has been arrested, finally, on an outstanding warrant for the drugging, sexual assault, and sodomization of a thirteen-year-old girl. That girl is now 40-some years old — he’s had 30 years to live in various chateaux in France and Switzerland, make a series of interesting movies, and so forth. Neither the time that has passed nor the talent that he displays in other arenas or any of the mitigating circumstances of his biography (parents murdered by the Nazis, wife murdered by the Manson gang…) changes the fact that he is also a convicted rapist who has yet to serve jail time.

Since this is a history blog, let me throw a little context into the mix. When a story about rape becomes all about how terrible the (convicted, mind you) rapist is being treated, you know you are in a screwed-up place and you should investigate how it came to be this way. Luckily, history can help you out.

There’s an excellent book by Sharon Block (titled Rape and Sexual Power in Early America) that lays out why and when sexual violence against women was considered a crime in colonial America. She argues (persuasively, I think) that what was considered consent depended greatly on who the victim was — and that so-called “great men” began to turn what was clear coercion into a plausible narrative of consent even before the act was done. In fact, since it was to be expected that a moral woman might resist sexual advances even if she was interested (the “your lips say nonono but your eyes say yesyesyes”), the mere fact that a woman struggled was not considered particularly important evidence that she was an unwilling partner in the sex act. In fact, she finds that women involved in rape trials in the colonial period often felt resigned to the act and powerless to stop it, giving up their physical resistance to forestall greater social shame or violent retribution. That’s coercion, not consent, but it was often good enough for courts to demonstrate that a woman secretly wanted sex (even if she was young, poor, and unable to say no.)

What determined who could get away with otherwise felonious behavior? The aggressor’s social standing — typically a “great man” with a powerful social network — was a determinant of who even came to trial. However, the victim’s biographical particulars (class position, racial identity, connections to the wealthy and powerful) became the real issues at controversy in cases that came into court. Once at trial, the greater resources and social standing of a powerful man nearly always carried the case in the man’s favor — the exception being when the victimized woman’s body became a battlefield on which a war between men (rapist versus failed protector) was waged.

Block explains that by 1800, narratives of sexual violence became mostly about a man’s impugned honor against the beastly smears against his good name and social position OR about the harms done to men when “their” women were damaged by sexual aggression (for example, the rape of Patriot women by British troops).

In the Polanski case, we can see echoes of this. At the time of the deed (way back in 1973), there was a widespread counter-story that suggested that the girl involved was a precocious dabbler in sex and drugs and while sex with a 13-year-old was a statutory offense, the sex had been consensual. The grand jury transcripts (yuck, not for the faint of heart or those with a history of sexual violence trauma)
make it clear that this is not the case. There was no consent — a deliberately drug-impaired minor cannot consent to anything. Later, there was an undercurrent of “oh, poor great man, oh poor tragic brilliant artist…”
coupled with “if the rape victim has forgiven, why can’t the legal system?” Well, listen carefully to what the rape victim is saying. She is resigned to the idea that the wrong done to her is never going to be righted. Making your peace is psychologically necessary, but it’s not the same as saying that what happened was in any sense “ok.”

Then there is the “oh, it wasn’t really a rape-rape, for heaven’s sake.” Whatever that means.

My point: there’s a history to the way that we talk about sexual violence that is linked to some rather awful things in the American past and that past doesn’t cease to matter just because you don’t know about it.

Published in: on September 30, 2009 at 3:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

My favorite St. Thomas More quote

Those of you who know me in real life know that I cuss like a sailor. I am, however, attempting to quit (or at least scale way back) because my kid’s getting to the age where she’s beginning to want to swear and I don’t want to be a hypocrite about telling her not to. If it’s really a social drawback (that’s my contention, since I don’t believe in good words and bad words, they are all just words), then I need to act like that’s so.

Anyhow, when reading along about the life and works of Thomas More (a side-effect of watching The Tudors), I am reminded that even saints have problems with potty-mouth when dealing with the likes of Luther:

Come, do not rage so violently, good father; but if you have raved wildly enough, listen now, you pimp. You recall that you falsely complained above that the king has shown no passage in your whole book, even as an example, in which he said that you contradict yourself. You told this lie shortly before, although the king has demonstrated to you many examples of your inconsistency ….
But meanwhile, for as long as your reverend paternity will be determined to tell these shameless lies, others will be permitted, on behalf of his English majesty, to throw back into your paternity’s shitty mouth, truly the shit-pool of all shit, all the muck and shit which your damnable rottenness has vomited up, and to empty out all the sewers and privies onto your crown divested of the dignity of the priestly crown, against which no less than against the kingly crown you have determined to play the buffoon.
In your sense of fairness, honest reader, you will forgive me that the utterly filthy words of this scoundrel have forced me to answer such things, for which I should have begged your leave. Now I consider truer than truth that saying: ‘He who touches pitch will be wholly defiled by it’ (Sirach 13:1). For I am ashamed even of this necessity, that while I clean out the fellow’s shit-filled mouth I see my own fingers covered with shit.

Published in: on July 21, 2009 at 3:48 pm  Leave a Comment  

Franklin Pierce as a bobblehead…there’s a market for that?

I am amazed at the various historical figures turned into bobbleheads. I guess I can understand Franklin Pierce for the crazy collector of presidential plastic, but Hannah Duston? Really? Bloody Hannah, who killed ten of her Algonquian captors as they slept (ok, so they had swung her infant by the ankles and dashed its brains out against a tree…nobody is a hero in war) and ran away, only to come back as an afterthought and scalp them for the bounty money? Hannah, who gets an approving write-up from Cotton Mather for her barbarity (this, after he preaches her neer do well sister into Hell’s mouth for the crime of double infanticide…it was quite the family…). Why the hell would you want a bobblehead of her, complete with the bloody axe?

And I thought my own Henry Hudson bobblehead was a little weird. I’ve come to the conclusion that in a country as large, affluent, and tasteless as ours, there’s a market for anything.

Published in: on July 21, 2009 at 3:42 pm  Comments (4)  

Imaginary Reagan

It turns out that GOP isn’t so sure that Gipper’s the one they should be turning to if they want to return to power any time soon. I submit that this is probably due to the plethora of good new biographies about Reagan’s life and administration.

It’s a historical rule of thumb that anything that happened less than twenty years ago is current events and not easily analyzed by the tools in the historian’s kit. The historian him or herself has been witness to the events, perhaps has strong personal biases, and in any case, will have difficulty obtaining unfettered access to the primary documents necessary to do a good job. In political matters, everyone jockeys for an angle as they try to win in the forums of the history books what they maybe could not elsewhere. Reagan was always self-mystifying and liked a good cheesy story — nothing could have been cheesier than the president who famously couldn’t recall winding up with Alzheimer’s. His critics would have looked mean-spirited to persist in their invective. Until he died, and for a few years thereafter, he could be wrapped in a protective but useful bubble. He was whatever a speaker wanted him to be. He accomplished whatever was instrumental to the speaker’s rhetoric. Need Reagan to singlehandedly end the Cold War? No sweat. Need an unproblematic hero that never cut back-door deals with shady characters? He was your man, direct from central casting.

Now, however, even the most sympathetic of his biographers has had to admit that he was more complicated, more disingenuous, more problematic a figure than he had been back when he could be anything that one wanted to project on that toothy grin and wavy dyed hair. His detractors (and they have evidence in their corner too) make it clear how petty, vicious, and oblivious to suffering he could be.

It doesn’t surprise me that he’s outlived his usefulness to the GOP. He was made of light and shadow. Once the sets have been struck and the script revealed to be contrivance, facts engulf him and historians finally will help drag him offstage.

Published in: on June 16, 2009 at 2:42 am  Comments (3)  


Worth reading in its entirety. It was decided in 1966 but it has so much to say about the types of interrogation methods that can be used in a democratic society and insists that the process by which one acquires evidence must have integrity for the evidence to be used in a court. I was two years old when this was decided and I don’t remember it being anything more than an interesting necessity in cop shows of my youth, but I have a bone-deep personal belief in how one has to investigate the past with rigor and integrity that may have something to do with the time in which I was raised.

Anyhow, here you go:

This was brought up by a post over at Edge of the West, where the poster was speaking of the existence of “torturable classes” of people. My mind, of course, flew as it always does to our historical struggles with class, race and bodily integrity.

Published in: on June 12, 2009 at 3:14 am  Leave a Comment  

Same-sex sexuality in 17th century British North America

Thanks, Nick, for bringing Larry Kramer’s long rant about Richard Godbeer to my attention.

Sex and sexuality is a tricky thing to research and same-sex relations even moreso, because as Kramer points out, direct reference to one’s sexual behavior could get you killed. Ok, now that I’ve said that, let’s lay down some historical parameters. Academic historians of gay and lesbian life are reasonably sure that the permanent cultural identification of one’s self as a queer self is a 19th century phenomenon — that homosexuality as we know it (as a set of cultural and social identifications, self and community and institutions) is a historical creation of modernity. So, to say “oh, there were guys getting it on with guys in 17th century British North America” is a historical truth. It really did happen. However, to make the leap about what that sex/affective relationships meant to the participants or the society they were in is quite another — that’s an interpretation that requires a lot more evidence to support.

In my mind, Kramer is leaping from “men having sex with each other” and “men writing passionately to each other” to “they must have been gay, gay, gay just like me and anyone who doesn’t believe that is either self-hating or a bigot or possibly both.” He sees himself as locked in a desperate fight for legal recognition of human rights and so he’s eager to see the past through a lens of political convenience. I think if you look more broadly at the context of what’s going on, though, you’ll see that he’s making leaps that a historian just can’t make. The academic discipline requires proof of either orientation (an demonstrable enduring sexual or romantic preference for men) or activity (“wasn’t that great sex we had last weekend, Roger?”) or both.

Kramer argues that’s too high a bar to set and impatiently cries cover-up. He points out that because of our standards of proof, we’re silencing the gay past. That might be. In fact, I rather think he’s right. However, that’s the hand that a guy like Richard Godbeer is playing. He’s not being timid or self-hating. He’s being accurate. He’s refusing to substitute his speculations about what did or didn’t happen for evidence. So, while I applaud Kramer’s challenge to our epistemes about the history of sex and sexuality, he’s petulantly kicking on one of the most gifted historians of same-sex relations currently practicing in the US.

(As an indignant aside: Godbeer actually PUBLISHES books, real books, really well-researched and well-written books that have advanced the study of same-sex sexuality in concrete ways. He teaches and he lectures and he writes his ass off; I can and do use his work in my classes on early America. Kramer, on the other hand, is a hell-raiser who has taken thirty years to amass a 4,000 page manuscript of unpublishable shit which may never see the light of day and cannot be used by anyone. And he’s going to play the critic? Girlfriend, please.)

Did early British male colonists have sex with each other? Yes, they did. We know more about Mass. Bay than the Chesapeake, but we have legal records about same-sex relationships in the Chesapeake. We know that Jamestown officials grudgingly condoned men living in common households as a way to manage labor (including young Indian and English boys) to try to turn a profit for the Virginia Company’s investors. We know that they feared that the young “duty boys” were being sexually abused. We know that they thought than an all-male colony was undesirable and so company officials shipped off wives for Virginia. We know that gender (like race) was a central organizational category for classifying human hierarchy and that when confronted with the confounding person of Thomasin Hall (a hermaphrodite who changed outward performative representations depending on whether it was more economically advantageous to be a man or a woman), their solution was to garb Hall in both pants and an apron. These were not people who were gender-bending pioneers, but rather people who believed in truth in advertising. If you’re interested in a good study of this, you should try Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs. She writes a whole chapter on Hall.

Mass Bay was perhaps more complicated. Puritans both believed in the civil nature of marriage (not a sacrament, but a contract between man and woman) and the necessity of locating everyone who settled with them within a heterosexual family unit. They actively broke up male-male householding arrangements and executed sodomites.

On the other hand, just to throw a wrench in the works, Richard Godbeer (yes, the very same one that Kramer dogged on) has discovered a prominent man who had repeated (and not clearly consensual) sexual relations with a male servant and has written at length about the perplexity of the community about how to deal with the social repercussions. He concludes that the cross-class and arguably non-consensual nature of the sex (being a bad master), even more than the sodomitical aspect, was the core problem. Puritans believed that everyone was a sinner, after all — sodomites were just a different sort of lustful fallen person. Likewise, it’s clear from the effusiveness of their writing that they were some highly erotic people and when men wrote to men, they poured their hearts out.

Honestly, I understand Kramer’s frustration but I have to say that a group of people that would advertise in newspapers for “teeth from Living Bodies” to make dentures and people who thought that the vagina was a penis merely turned inside out are not…you know…just like us. The past is a foreign country and they did things differently there, including sex and sexuality.

Published in: on May 20, 2009 at 4:19 pm  Comments (10)  

The tragedy of war

…is not that people die. It’s that they die for nothing. If war worked as a method of conflict resolution, doesn’t it stand to reason that we would quit having them?

Don’t get me wrong. I am moved by the stories of the Civil War. Who could think about the climb uphill at Fredericksburg, over a stack of tumbled bodies and inching up a blood-slicked hill only to be cut down near the top, and not feel the futility of it all. I am haunted by the sunny field laying before Cemetery Ridge where a slow-moving line of Confederate soldiers strode, waiting for the grapeshot to tear them apart, the line rising and falling out of sight of the Union men who chanted “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” as the line came on to their death.

It was not for nothing, but it’s very hard to say what it was all for. Slavery over? That’s a big thing, but I have to think hard about whether it was really the case that the Union Army accomplished that. I think the contrabands themselves (and yes, there were many in that category who also joined the Union Army) put that issue on the table and kept it there. And if this was the meaning of the war, then is it acceptable that the soldiers of the Confederacy died for a ghastly immoral system only? My personal gut response — not completely evidence-based, though I could support my bias if I tried — is that it is not enough to impose the winner’s narrative. Some joined for money and didn’t run because their ideas of manhood didn’t let them. Others fell in love with the grandeur of it and thought that they could not miss out on their part in the biggest event of their lives. I’m guessing that most of the CSA foot troops didn’t give a rat’s ass about slavery but weren’t going to be bossed by anyone. They got sold out by their leaders and once dead, got piled up in pieces, not to reknit until the next Harrowing.

I feel like I owe a little complexity to these dead men. Not bogus “honor” — the reunifying handclasp of white man to white man that excised slavery from the story and made the Civil War sound like an inexplicable bar fight between two mean drunks — but something else. I try to teach the big ideas (ideas you would die for) or the defining beliefs (beliefs you would kill for) but it always comes out unsatisfying and nonspecific. You wind up with a war that kills 2% of the US population and that still hasn’t been successfully resolved (see 2008 electoral maps) and damn if I can make it sound plausible. I still haven’t found the heart of it.

Lincoln struggled with it too and finally realized that the living can only finish the work. It’s not on us to consecrate or to make it mean something. We just have to finish the work as best we can.

Published in: on April 28, 2009 at 12:01 am  Comments (3)  

The Paranoid Style

If you read Stephen Channing’s Crisis of Fear, you’ll see that he argues that South Carolina fire-eaters whip themselves into a paranoid frenzy of overheated rhetoric and overreaction, creating a climate whereby every action by the federal government was scrutinized and interpreted in the most dramatic negative way possible. Terrified at the prospect of the end of slavery, worried that the federal government would in essence sign the death warrants of SC slaveholders, radicals swept into power in 1860 at a time when their most paranoid fantasies appeared at least somewhat plausible. Their inability to find common ground (and the cultural differences between Northern and Southern societies) precipitated SC’s leap to secession.

As a historian, then, imagine my discomfiture when I read about the extreme right-wing reaction to a Department of Homeland Security warning (pdf) about the rise in homegrown security threats, particularly a rise in recruiting efforts among white supremacist militias. It was commissioned by the Bush administration last year and is the other half of the document that focused on left-wing domestic terror threats from groups like WTO protesters, the Animal Liberation Front, Earth First, and so forth.

On its face, it’s a pretty sensible warning. In times of economic crisis, there does tend to be a rise in racist/skinhead organizing. Couple that with the apocalyptic prophetic movements that are afoot, unemployed bitter people, John Galt fantasists, returning stop-lossed vets suffering from untreated PTSD, paranoid gun hoarders buying up machine guns on the black market and stockpiling ammunition, and your garden-variety pissed off cranks who have their pet single-issue that they’re on about, and you have a pretty volatile mix. It would be stupid not to put out some public safety warnings, really. (And yes, all this really is going on now.)

Two words: Tim McVeigh. An ex-vet anti-government militia-loving gun hoarder who was drawn to an apocalyptic view of religion and saw himself as an instrument of vengeance. It’s probably prudent to be on the lookout for people who have gone beyond the bounds of protest and into the area of “going to blow shit up.” It indicates a federal governmental department who understands that you reap what you sow.

So why is this being interpreted so intemperately? I hate to bring it up, but we do have a black president and there are some people who have had a problem with that. I have heard more than one of my southern relatives dismiss him as the Nigger Messiah. During the election, who didn’t receive earnest e-mails from their fundamentalist family members about Barack HUSSEIN Obama being the Muslim Anti-Christ? (Ok, maybe that was just me. Your mileage may vary.) His race, his policy initiatives, their errant beliefs about his religion and his nativity, their fears about gun control and immigration and the whole nine yards — it’s all been crammed down into the same can of crazy, which is now full to bursting with a toxic spew for some desperate folks. I can see where some of the same crisis mentality that obtained in 1860 might be alive and kicking now.

However, there are major differences in play. The Sunbelt is now filled with people originally from the North. National and international media markets reach everywhere — it’s hard to see how Fox could come close to the rhetorical hold on a region that the Charleston Mercury exerted. Most Southern counties are more purple than red. Unless the numbers lie, the administration has strong support nationally. Sure, the fringe is vocal and bless them for their indignance and their exercise of their rights to protests and petition. But I think that what we’re seeing here is the desperation of a tiny minority that knows that they are a tiny minority — and thus might be driven to radical violent acts hoping to spark a revolution.  

John Brown, anyone?

Published in: on April 18, 2009 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Secession in the 21st century

Just in time for my US Survey class to be reading about the sectional crisis:

Georgia’s Senate Resolution (nullifying federal law and authorizing secession) which passed by a 43-1 margin

Similar measures have been passed in both houses of the Oklahoma legislature and in the South Dakota House.

And Texas governor Rick Perry’s recent diatribe about seceding from the US and the bill before the Texas House that he’s supporting.

Never you mind that Texas v White (1869) made secession illegal (if the carnage of the Civil War hadn’t been a huge clue that it wouldn’t be well-regarded in the future). Texas v White explicitly rules that acts of secession are null and that all states in rebellion had never actually left the Union during the Civil War, as the Union was envisioned to be perpetual. Under Article Four of the Constitution, moreover, the federal government has a duty to insure that states provide a republican form of government for their citizens, something it obviously couldn’t do if states could just pull out willy-nilly. While some post-rebellion legal theorists considered places like Texas conquered provinces whose loss of representation and political dependency left them more analogous to Indian nations, a majority on the Supreme Court (5-3) ruled with Chief Justice Salmon P. Chase.

Nullification has never worked as a legal strategy. It didn’t work when Calhoun tried it. It didn’t work when the Confederacy tried it. It’s not going to work now. However, if the congresspeople in question are so all-fired jumped up about shooting off their guns, there’s a place over near the Pakistani border where we could use all the firepower we could muster. Why don’t they sign on up for military service if they feel the urge to blow the hell out of something?

Published in: on April 18, 2009 at 3:27 am  Leave a Comment