Benevolent Oppressor: The Emperor of Rome

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One of my pet peeves are histories that make sweeping judgments of a nation or group of people. Hagiography is not history and yet it so easily masquerades as such these days with a generation raised by Zinn’s ilk. There are bad guys and there are good guys and this is a narrative about how the oppressed overcome the oppressors.

Not only is such an approach a recipe for terrible history, it’s boring. Wouldn’t you much rather hear a story about colonials and natives fighting it out, the future unknown and both sides fearful of defeat as they grasp and claw and bash and shoot each other? That’s some Grade A Drama there. Plus it’s true.

But we live in an era of identity-politics, that great crusher of nuance, irony, and fun.

Needless to say, it’s always a treat to read real history and come across lines like the one below: Continue reading

Cultural Appropriation: You Don’t Want To Go Down That Road

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This got my goat the other day.

Maybe it was because my sister sported dreads for a time. For the record, I was against this style choice (the ex’s opposition was based on opposition to cultural appropriation, mine from a sense of aesthetic and biology as her hair wasn’t wired for it).  But if anyone gave her crap for it, I’d give them what for.

The meme above doesn’t make sense at a number of levels, and frankly, the creator undermines him or herself. Continue reading

The Right Side of History? Where Are We Going?

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Contrary to those who claim to know the arc of history or declare themselves on the right side of history, it is more wise than foolish to acknowledge the ambiguities of the present in these troubled times. If the study of the past teaches us anything, it’s that ideas and movements wax and wane, twist and turn. Predicting the future is as dubious as it is interesting. While certain trends seem set, the future, simply put, is wide-open and progress is as common as regression (leaving aside the lofty standards by which we judge such things).

Two poems highlight this dual reality of trends and surprises.

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Harlem: White Guilt, Gentrification, and Historical Consciousness

 

I live in Harlem, but I’m an outsider. Race is the obvious reason for this: I can walk a half mile in Harlem and only see a couple white faces. But race is not the only reason. Many of families in Harlem have lived here for generations. In this way, my status of outsider would be similar in backwoods West Virginia.

A fellow white resident told me he felt like an occupier living in Harlem. This struck me as an overwrought and guilt-ridden way of looking at the situation, but he accurately identified a level of unease. But the unease is diminishing to an extent: young white professionals who want to live in NYC have begun moving into Harlem because the rent is cheaper. Over the past year, I’ve noticed an uptick in white faces. This white migration in turn has begun to contribute to the gentrification of the area and the slow but steady rise of rent costs that will ultimately drive out multi-generational black families. This in turn has led to guilt-ridden condemnation of gentrification—numerous white neighbors argue this line. It’s quite nauseating especially when coupled (as it always is) with cliché anti-cop rhetoric. It’s straight up hypocrisy: if they really cared about preserving black Harlem, they wouldn’t move there. So why do they? Continue reading

The Plot Against America: Counterfactual History and Historical Consciousness

 

What Might Have Been: President of the United States

 

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth is a counterfactual historical novel. The story focuses on a Jewish family by the name of Roth living in an alternative history in which Charles Lindbergh, the Nazi sympathizer, wins the 1940 election on the platform of keeping America out of the war. Despite the consternation of many Jews across America, some prominent rabbis become convinced (not without good reason as it turns out) that Lindbergh’s “Nazism” is calculated to put America in a better negotiating position vis a vis Hitler. Call it politics. Call it the ambiguous future.

Roth’s book emphasizes the unknown. If his story was straight historical fiction, we’d all be able to look up how the story ends. Instead we get familiar ingredients (Nazis, Jews, America, Hitler) but an unclear finale haunts the proceedings. Continue reading

Love The Soldiers, Hate The War

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Brick-Head was talking, and I was, for some reason, still listening. I did not really feel like telling him to leave partly because I assumed he would walk away at any moment and partly because I didn’t feel like getting into an argument with him. My hesitance at verbal sparring stemmed from the fact that, despite not knowing his real name or anything about him, I was pretty sure I had a good feeling as to what sort of person Brick-Head was. He was tall and burly, wearing a sweat-suit that only helped accentuate his impossibly spherical beer belly. He looked to be in his late forties or early fifties and likely spent a great deal of time over a grill with a beer in his hand. I got the impression that he could make it to the final round in a casting call for the new spokesman of Buffalo Wild Wings. I intend none of that to be invective, since there is almost nothing I love more in the world than beer and grilled meats. The problem is that I love my privacy and solitude almost as much, which was why we were on the wrong foot from the beginning.

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