Wednesday, July 9, 2008

The (White Man's) "Making of America"

In addition to reading the occasional US Weekly, I also read Time magazine. The latest issue of Time was part of its annual "Making of America" series which "celebrates history by offering provocative insights into the lives of those who shaped the American experience."

Cool, I thought, upon seeing that humorist and political commentator Mark Twain was on the cover of this year's issue. Yet, upon opening the issue and looking at past honorees, I quickly became troubled. Yes, I realize what I'm about to write will cause some people to rally their defensive "unfair identity politics" cry. But you know what? The thing I've learned is that those who make such a cry are also usually the ones whose identities, and yes we all have them, render them the good fortune of not being oppressed in some way on the basis of their particular identities. If you disagree, I should forewarn you that you probably won't like much else of what I say here.

Here we go. Time presents the past honorees who have made America:

Lewis and Clark. Ben Franklin. Jefferson. Lincoln. Teddy Roosevelt. Mark Twain.

See, what troubles me is not who Time chose to honor in previous years. I am not here to deny that the above dead white men made significant contributions to our nation. Rather, I want to ponder who the magazine could have honored but chose not to when it created this very vague and subjective "Making of America" series. By thus far choosing to honor only white men, Time reinforces the common belief that only white men were major players in the making of America.

I mean, seriously guys? This is 2008. Why are major publications still reinforcing this outdated notion?

And by the way, Time, please don't give us a future special on Betsy Ross, the only woman I remember learning about in grade school history. The contributions of women and non-white men are greater, more important, than the feminine sewing of a flag.

Harriet Tubman. Cesar Chavez. George Washington Carver. Jane Addams. Frederick Douglass. Aren't these but a few men and women who also helped "make America"- whatever that vague phrase even means? Once the great white men of the past secured their freedoms and admirably made this new nation, albeit often on the backs of women and non-white men, the work of "Making America" was far from over. I would even go so far as to argue that where the "neutral" and "objective" ideologies of great white men have fallen short, it has often been non-white men and women (and yes some white men too) who have furthered our nation along its path toward greatness and toward fulfilling the promises it makes to its citizens.

And, lest we forget, the accomplishments of dead white men should not be discussed without also mentioning the circumstances as to why white guys have so often played such prominent roles in history. For instance, professor Roger McCain discusses how historically, wealthy white men in particular have had better access to resources than non-white males and all women and how this access has led to their accomplishments:

"Before the 20th century, only the privileged white and male, mostly in Europe and to some extent in North America with very few elsewhere, have had access to those resources. That is wrong and regrettable, but nevertheless a fact about the past. Consider, in a different field, Charles Darwin. Darwin, an heir to the Wedgwood China fortune - one of the vast fortunes of the early 19th century - had the wealth and connections that enabled him to sail around the world and spend his life doing the research that defined the modern biological worldview. He did much of his research at home at his own expense. There may have been others, poor, nonwhite, female, living in areas remote from Europe's great cities, who could have done even more with the same resources. But in point of historic fact, they did not have the resources and so did not do the work."

Combined with the the privileges inherent in male-ness and white-ness, one has to wonder how any white man born into wealth could not be successful? Yes, there have been great white men who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps. I'm not denying that. Life isn't all fun and games for poor and working-class white men. And by the way, here's where Marxist arguments could come in handy for these men, since class is largely invisible in America. Unfortunately, these folks are often too blinded by the "commies are bad" propaganda to realize that class structures need to be challenged and discussed.

But, even without class privilege, poor men are still men and white men still have their whiteness to fall back on. Those traits alone have opened many doors, from a career and education standpoint, that were not and still sometimes are not available to those in our nation lacking such traits. That men have created the myth that it is the unique role of "woman" to raise children and stay out of public life while men attend to the more important task of becoming fully realized human beings undoubtedly accounts for innumerable historical successes and accomplishments of men.

Is it any wonder, then, under these historical circumstances that non-white men and women would organize and engage in "identity politics" in order to gain access to denied opportunities and rights?

But, of course, Virginia Woolf already wrote this story. It's the story of Shakespeare's Sister, the essay in which Woolf ponders whether a woman with the same gifts as Shakespeare would have been denied the opportunities to develop and use them. Think about these issues when you think about the latest Time magazine "Making of America" series.

I, for one, think the following questions would have been infinitely more probing, interesting, and perhaps honest than yet another dead white male circle-jerk celebration:

Would it have been possible for a Marge Twain to have been as successful a writer as a Mark Twain? Would the public have taken her words as seriously as it took Mr. Twain's? Would she have been able to travel as freely throughout the world and without as much fear for her personal safety as Mr. Twain was able to do? In short, would it have even been possible for a "Miss" Twain to "make America" in the way that Mr. Twain supposedly has?

I know what I think.

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