Taking History Whole (feathers and all)

John Fea, who has (near as I can tell) coined the phrase “Court evangelical” to designate President Trump’s born-again defenders, thinks astute an observation that defenders of Confederate monuments “in Trump’s America” have a flawed understanding of the past.

It is a curious charge to make since if Fea is against “Court evangelicals,” historically speaking that makes him a “Country evangelical,” the party of English politics that most closely foreshadowed the Tea Party (and I don’t think John wants to go there):

Public debt first became a political issue in late seventeenth century Britain, when policymakers started borrowing money on a massive scale to fund expensive trading wars with France. For the first time, owners of capital became major players in the economy and in government. To help pay the debt back reliably, Parliament created a national bank and extended the tax system, which in turn created a class of bureaucrat administrators. This was a major shift for a society where political power had rested with prosperous merchants, farmers, and artisans, and where tax collection had been managed from the provinces by the landed nobility. These groups’ response was, predictably, inflamed. Rallied by the polemicist Henry St John, the first Viscount Bolingbroke, they became vociferous critics of the new arrangements, identifying themselves as the “Country Party,” in opposition to what they called the “Court Party” of London financiers and politicians, which seemed corrupt, unrepresentative, and in thrall to financial interests. The Country Party identified itself as nonpartisan, separate from the formal political organizations of the Tories and the Whigs, but tended to support the more conservative Tories.

The quotation he seems to affirm is this one:

As with much else in Trump’s version of America, the protesters who lined up to defend the monument wish to maintain an à-la-carte relationship with history. They have cloaked their defense of the monuments by presenting it as a recognition of the valor of the men who fought for the Confederate cause.

The thing is, this failure to do justice to history cuts so many ways, not only as in the case of the Court vs. Country parties of English politics, but also with those critics of Trump who might want to tar and feather him for threatening the liberal international order over which the United States has ruled for the last 65 years. Andrew Bacevich shows how history is as much Trump’s friend as his enemy:

In Foreign Policy, Colin Kahl and Hal Brands embellish the point: Trump’s strategic vision “diverges significantly from—and intentionally subverts— the bipartisan consensus underpinning U.S. foreign policy since World War II.” Failing to “subscribe to the long-held belief that ‘American exceptionalism’ and U.S. leadership are intertwined,” Trump is hostile to the “open, rule-based international economy” that his predecessors nurtured and sustained….

You get the drift. Liberalism, along with norms, rules, openness, and internationalism: these ostensibly define the postwar and post-Cold War tradition of American statecraft. Allow Trump to scrap that tradition and you can say farewell to what Stewart Patrick refers to as “the global
community under the rule of law” that the United States has upheld for decades. But what does this heartwarming perspective exclude? We can answer that question with a single word: history.

Or, somewhat more expansively, among the items failing to qualify for mention in the liberal-internationalist, rules-based version of past U.S. policy are the following: meddling in foreign elections; coups and assassination plots in Iran, Guatemala, the Congo, Cuba, South Vietnam, Chile, Nicaragua, and elsewhere; indiscriminate aerial bombing campaigns in North Korea and throughout Southeast Asia; a nuclear arms race bringing the world to the brink of Armageddon; support for corrupt, authoritarian regimes in Iran, Turkey, Greece, South Korea, South Vietnam, the Philippines,
Brazil, Egypt, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and elsewhere—many of them abandoned when deemed inconvenient; the shielding of illegal activities through the use of the Security Council veto; unlawful wars launched under false pretenses; “extraordinary rendition,” torture, and the indefinite imprisonment of persons without any semblance of due process. (The “Global Order” Myth, American Conservative, May/June 2017)

Odd the way that history comes back to bite and turns people from anti-establishmentarians into boosters of obscenely yuuuugggeee institutions that have little accountability to “the people.” The Trump Effect does not get old.

America is not America (part two)

Can we turn anywhere in the past for instruction about refugee and immigrant policy?

No, say the undergraduates at Princeton University:

Trump’s vision for the United States is perniciously fascist — incorporating elements of racism, xenophobia, jingoism, totalitarianism, and misogyny. Worst of all, Trump’s vision is indefinite: His actions have no bounds, and it is unclear when this nation will heal from his actions.

But this is not a departure from Americanism. There is nothing specifically un-American about Trump’s executive orders or rhetoric. The American Nightmare is an American Reality. Only when we realize that “living up to American values” is to sanction Trump may we wake up from this horrid dream.

Immigrant exclusion based on race, religion, or national origin is an American pastime. The Alien and Sedition Acts, arguably the first discriminating immigration act, were signed into law in 1798. Following this was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act; in response to popular racist and xenophobic anti-Chinese sentiment, the act “required the few nonlaborers who sought entry to obtain certification from the Chinese government that they were qualified to immigrate.” The act was extended into the 20th Century with the Geary Act, and its effects were not effectively reversed until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

The Chinese Exclusion Act is only one of many governmental measures to marginalize those deemed a “threat” to white civilization. Notably, the United States is guilty of genocide against Indigenous tribes. The Trail of Tears, perhaps the most infamous atrocity committed against an Indigenous tribe, resulted from Andrew Jackson’s abuse of presidential power to seize Native lands and force thousands into what is now Oklahoma. More than 4,000 died on the journey, with hundreds of others dying upon arrival. Trump’s executive orders in support of Keystone XL and the Dakota Access Pipeline is a continuation of the United States’ regnant disregard for indigenous peoples, not an anomaly.

Cold War policy isn’t much help either:

There was another way to become a refugee, an immigrant, and eventually a U.S. citizen. According to immigration law, if a migrant was on American soil, even if one had entered illegally, one could claim asylum, arguing that the applicant had a “well founded fear” of persecution if returned home. Only two thousand or so persons won asylum annually in the 1970s. For example, the government denied asylum to most of the Haitian boat people during the 1970s and deported them. After the 1980 refugee act incorporated the new UN definition of refugee status in place of the anticommunist one, and when the civil wars in Central America escalated, the number applying for asylum skyrocketed. More than 140,000 applied in 1995, for example, and by the end of the 1990s the backlog reached several hundred thousand. Haitians came by boat, but tens of thousands of Central Americans illegally crossed the border separating the United States and Mexico. The State Department and the INS insisted they were mostly illegal immigrants who should be deported. INS officials in Florida did modify policy slightly toward Nicaraguans. An official said that he could not deny asylum to Nicaraguans when the United States insisted that the government of that country was undemocratic and that the CIA-backed contras were trying to overthrow it. Nicaraguans still had difficulty in winning asylum status, but their approval rate was more than double that of their neighbors. In 1989, for example, 5,092 Nicaraguans won asylum, compared with 102 Guatemalans and 443 Salvadorans.

Friends of these contestants for asylum insisted that a double standard was being applied: Cubans merely had to get to the United States, but Central Americans had to win their claims on an individual basis. Many undocumented immigrant Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Hondurans, Haitians, and Nicaraguans did adjust their status due to an amnesty for undocumented immigrants passed in 1986. As noted, the law covered those in the United States before 1982, but for others fleeing violence in Central America after that date individual asylum was required, which was even more difficult to demonstrate when the civil wars in Central America ended in the early 1990s. Fewer than 10 percent of Salvadorans, Guatemalans, and Hondurans were granted asylum in 1999—up slightly from the rate of the 1980s but less than half of the general approval rate. Those who came after the IRCA amnesty were left in limbo, although minor modifications in immigration policy did permit some to remain. Moreover, once these Central Americans won asylum, they were eligible to adjust their status to that of regular immigrants and could then use the family preference system to sponsor their relatives. For example, in 1996 Haitian immigrants numbered 18,386, with 8,952 of these under the family preference system and another 4,815 coming as immediate family members of U.S. citizens who were exempt from the quotas. Comparable figures for Salvadorans were 17,903; 8,959; and 5,519. Data for Hondurans and Guatemalans were similar. The United States did permit Salvadorans and Hondurans the right to stay temporarily in the United States when earthquakes and hurricanes struck in the 1990s. These temporary stays, called temporary protected status (TPS), were not asylum; when TPS ended, the undocumented aliens were expected to go home.

But who cares about history? I know some evangelical historians who care but for some reason their historical perspective means moral disapproval (with a dose of self-approval).

Lumpers, Splitters, and Historical Honesty

I could not help but think of a recent post at CTC while preparing for class on Turkey and the United States today. In his chapter from Islam and the West, “Other People’s History,” Bernard Lewis takes aim at those who accuse Orientalists (those who study the Middle East, China and India for starters) of intellectual imperialism, as if the study of non-western civilizations arises from a “predatory” or “larcenous” interest in “other people’s cultural possessions.” He goes on to say that scholarship should be competent, fair, honest, and not distorted by “loyalties and purposes.” But these considerations “are of no importance to those who believe that all scholarship or, rather, all scholarly discourse is ideological and that their ideology, and therefore their scholarly discourse is better or stronger because it is openly avowed and, more especially, because it is theirs.” He goes on to describe this disregard for even-handed scholarship in the following way:

“You want to study in my archives, read my literature, talk to my people, work on my history? Then you must pay your respects to my point of view, you must promote my national aspirations as I may from time to tie define or redefine them.” To comply with this requirement, the historian must choose for himself and demand of others a presentation of history that includes only what in the present climate of opinion is seen as positive and excludes, and if called upon denies, anything that in the present climate of opinion is seen as negative. (122)

This description of biased history resembles Ken Howell’s description of the “Classic” Roman Catholic approach, in “Three Frameworks for Interpreting the Church Fathers,” for examining the early church (and arguably for the rest of Roman Catholic history). What Howell describes is not necessarily cynical about “objective” historical frameworks. But he does affirm that “true” historical account has to conform to a certain bias in favor of “the home team.”

An honest historian working within the Classic Catholic Framework (CCF) will face all the diverse and varied expressions of Christian belief brought forth from the relevant texts. He will, however, ask different questions about those texts from those who work in the CPF (Classic Protestant) or the MCF (Modern Critical). Central to inquiry in the CCF is the notion of witness. Witnesses point to something greater and more enduring than themselves. In the CCF, the goal is to study the relevant witnesses in order to discover the deposit of faith which is the doctrinal content of the Christian faith. This approach assumes continuity across space and time. That continuity may not be total or exhaustive but it has essential qualities and characteristics which are transmitted over time.

Howell’s goes on to contrast this with how Protestants approach the early church:

The problem posed by the Protestant interpretation of early church history was as follows: how do you know what in the Fathers should be taken as binding and what should not? The Protestant answer was clear if not always easy to apply in practice: measure the Fathers against Scripture. Of course, the learned Roman Catholics believed this was an insufficient answer. How does one know if one’s interpretation of Scripture, which is being used as the criterion of judging the Fathers, is correct? The criterion of “the unanimous consent of the fathers” turned the Reformation’s answer on its head. It said that the way we know what interpretations of the Scriptures are legitimate is by the universality, antiquity, and consensus of the fathers. In this view, what was unanimous among the fathers, such as the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in the Eucharist, was binding on the church. What was not unanimous, such as how the creation narratives of Genesis were to be interpreted, was not binding.

I know that in Reformed circles some historians have argued, following the Dutch Calvinist w-v notion, that “objective” history is impossible and that the bias of faith in understanding the past adds value — it sees the hand of God at work or the importance of religious “values” where a non-believing historian miss them. Howell not only seems to follow this rejection of academic neutrality, but he adds criteria for studying the past that in my view rig the game before it even starts. He says that a historian needs to find continuity and unanimity among the church fathers.

This is sometimes what historians call lumping. That is, they take all positions and force them into a kind of consensus so that difficulties, tensions, even contradictions are ironed out of history. On the other side are splitters who recognize disagreements, discrepancies, rivalries, and discontinuities. I myself prefer the splitting model if only because the vacuous term “evangelical” is supposed somehow to make sense of the Assemblies of God and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, or Calvinism is supposed to make sense of Scott Clark and Nelson Kloosterman.

If you pushed most historians, even though they complain about lumpers in their ranks, most would concede that the craft of history errs on the side of splitting because humans rarely agree, ideas are contested, and free societies (at least) inherently nurture disagreements (though the history of the human race is littered with intellectual combat). This is why Howell’s use of the word “honest” is curious. A Roman Catholic historian who must find consensus and unanimity may be honest. But people who see differences where others see the same thing can well ask whether the lumpers are truly being fair to the past. Funny, not even the Bible approaches salvation history as a lumper does it is hard to imagine a time in the sagas of the Israelites or the really early church (REC) when everyone agreed.