Wednesday, August 23, 2017

No room for nuance in NPR's narrative?

In reading a piece on NPR on how "Confederate Statues were Built to Further a 'White Supremacist Future,'" it is clear that Miles Parks only wants to further widen the divisions that have always existed in the United States and which the media, unfortunately, exploits. Parks, and the others he quotes, miss one key element in their anti-monument pep rally : Economics 101.

The chart accompanying  the article shows peaks in when monuments were erected. The majority of the Confederate monuments were erected between 1905 and 1920. (It would be interesting to see a comparable chart regarding Union monuments, but who cares about them, right? They don't fit the narrative. )

Enter the Second Industrial Revolution. In the last couple of decades of the 19th century, and the first 20 years of the 20th century, the United States entered a phase of rapid industrialization. There were numerous new discoveries and inventions, like the automobile. It boggles the mind to think of all the related industries beyond those of the plants of Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler that the automobile created. Oil had to be refined (and shipped), and gas stations, roads, dealerships, and repair shops had to be constructed. All of this would lead to the rise of inns for travelers to stay, and restaurants in which they could eat. Added to this were advances in machinery, tools, electricity and lights, etc., etc. By 1895, the United States had outpaced Great Britain for first place in manufacturing output. Economic growth between 1890 and 1910 was above 4%. People had jobs, had money to spend, and had money to give to civic projects.

There were over 50 Confederate monuments raised in the 1910s and 1920s in North Carolina. The economy could support it. When the stock market crashed in 1929, followed by the Great Depression, the erection of monuments slowed to a crawl. Parks quotes Jane Daily, an associate professor at the University of Chicago as saying "Most of the people who were involved in erecting the monuments were not necessarily erecting a monument to the past, but were rather, erecting them toward a white supremacist future." Hmm. Professor Daily, can you actually prove that, or is that just an assumption? Which people? Where is the documentation?  I've looked into the erection of North Carolina monuments for the better part of twenty years. First, there is no treasure trove of material, usually just little snippets of the past found in newspapers of the time. I've never seen an article, letter, or diary state "Oh, we're against African-Americas. Let's put up a monument so these people know who is still the master, no matter what year it is." Never.  Maybe someone was thinking that , but historians cannot get into the mind-reading business without supporting evidence.  Parks's article also seems to lead readers into thinking that these monuments just magically appeared overnight. The truth of the matter is that it took years for the groups that erected these monuments (mostly women and many of them widows and children of veterans) to raise the necessary funds. In Stanley County, it took ten years to raise the first $6,000. That was in 1880. The monument was not actually finished and dedicated until 1925. In Burke County, the base of the monument was dedicated in 1911, but the bronze soldier on top was not dedicated until 1918.

Economics is not the only subject that gets left out the discussion. What about the African-Americans in North Carolina who also participated in the fundraising or dedication of the Confederate monuments? There is a great picture of the dedication of the Unity Monument at Bennett Place in 1923 that shows an African-American man front and center, sitting on a platform, apparently listening to something going on that we cannot see. Whatever is going on has his attention, unlike the row of politicians, or veterans, behind him, who appear to be mostly asleep. I wish we knew his story. There are other well-known photographs of black men, proudly bedecked in Confederate Veteran reunion ribbons and medals. Their story is complicated, and it needs to be told. 

Certainly, there is no doubt that life for African-Americans in the Jim Crow era was horrible.  Even until quite recently, ridiculous and humiliating rules and assumptions were firmly in place, and they were as appalling and wrong then as they would be now. Not long ago, as our family watched Hidden Figures (an amazing  movie that I highly recommend both for its treatment of the space program and of social issues), our younger child was stunned that anyone would expect someone to use a different coffee carafe because of her race. She had trouble grasping that such nonsense was ever perpetuated in our country, and kept asking "Did that really happen?"  We should all be horrified that anyone could be treated the way African-Americans  (along with many other ethnic groups) have been treated. Perhaps somebody in the process of putting up a monument somewhere did have nefarious intentions, but we do not know that for certain, and if we make assumptions about those people, judging them by our standards, we are not only misunderstanding the past; we are misunderstanding actual people, whose complex lives cannot be boiled down to a slogan or shoved into a box that suits our narrative, whatever it may be.  We should recognize that the past is just as complicated as the present, that people are complicated, and that every era, like every person, is a mixed bag of both good and ill.

In the end, I think just as strong of a case can be made for economics being a driving force behind the erection of Confederate monuments in the nation as the one for the era of Jim Crow. Very likely, some of both motivations, along with others, were part of the mix; people are complicated. At least with economics, it is easier to prove. Just look at the numbers. Perhaps Dr. Dailey's remarks have been taken out of context or truncated.  It is possible her original words were more complicated, reflective of a more complex view of the past than the article demonstrates. While we cannot quantify how good or bad people are, how pure or evil their hearts may have been, we can look at their finances. Unfortunately, early twentieth-century economics doesn't grab readers and viewers, but if the media were more focused on telling a whole picture than on promoting division and fomenting conflict, maybe we would all view ourselves, and our past, with more nuance, and maybe we would be more interested in hearing those complicated stories than in calling names and making assumptions. 

You can read the original article here


Scott M. said...

NPR isn't known as home for geniuses

Daisiemae said...

NPR is terribly biased and just plain stupid. They fired a part-time opera critic because they thought she was a major organizer of Occupy. Whether she was or not is immaterial (she was not). Firing American citizens for their beliefs is reprehensible.

Companies who dictate employees' private beliefs and behaviors are the true Nazi party. That's a frightening slippery slope. Who gets to decide what the accepted beliefs are? And what happens to those who don't march lock step with the dictated belief system?

Losing your job, your livelihood, and pretty much your life because you don't adhere to your employer's belief system is heinous and un-American.

Now, Confederate monuments and people who want to honor their ancestors don't meet with NPR's approved narrative. Who's next on NPR's hit list?

Remember Martin Neimoller's famous poem: First they came for the Socialists...

Who will speak for you when they come for you?