Saturday, February 24, 2024

A Liberal Dose, February 22, 2024 "The Illegal Act of Teaching History in Tennessee"

 



A Liberal Dose

February 22, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“The Illegal Act of Teaching History in Tennessee”

 

I have spoken often in this space about the spate of “divisive concepts” laws passed by our state’s general assembly, which impose draconian restrictions on how subjects such as race, gender, and so on may be addressed in a classroom. Each one is a little worse than the last, and further abridges both academic freedom/free speech and teachers’ ability to convey the truth about history. So it is not really surprising that a new one, the worst yet, is currently making its way through committee at the state capitol.

First, let’s revisit the history and context of this phenomenon (something they used to let historians do). The whole thing got a huge jump start in September, 2020, when then-president Donald Trump went on a tirade about “critical race theory” and the New York Times “1619 Project.” The former is the study of how legal systems have been affected by race, and the latter is a study of slavery’s fundamental role in establishing the colonies that became America. There had been a lot of pushback that summer by conservatives who were insulted by the protests that occurred after the murder, that spring, of George Floyd.

Immediately after Trump made it a national issue, legislatures in red states started proposing what at first were called anti-critical-race-theory laws (and Fox News started talking about it around the clock). That catchphrase has faded, and now the same thing is being done over “DEI” (diversity, equality, and inclusion initiatives.) Tennessee was no different. They started out with laws pertaining to K12, and with the next wave expanded it to public universities. Not coincidentally, at the same time school libraries around the country (as a result of new state laws) started removing books about race, gender, LGBTQ+ issues… and even the Holocaust. Like the other red states who did so, Tennessee’s laws specified a list of “divisive concepts” that were now illegal in the education system: implicit bias, systemic or structural racism, male chauvinism and patriarchy, and etc. Even books about people like Rosa Parks and Jackie Robinson started getting tossed out.

The first drafts of the higher ed laws called for immediate termination of any professor who taught about these things, until they realized that academic freedom concepts (so far) upheld by the Supreme Court give professors a lot more protection than high school teachers. Now the threat is that any student who is made to feel guilty, or uncomfortable in any way, by classroom material or discussion can sue the professor. Imagine what it would be like to be a minority in such an educational system, and find that any discussion about any suffering your people (or you) have experienced must be curtailed by law, because it might make someone else (who’s probably not a minority) feel bad. As a Cherokee friend of mine said, “My people were victims of genocide. That hurts MY feelings.” Imagine, too, how unprepared students are going to be when they go out into the real world lacking basic knowledge students in most other states received.

So what is the newest version? HB2348/SB2610, which would be an amendment to an existing law about the crime of supporting terrorism. It “prohibits an entity supported in whole or in part by public funds from knowingly providing meeting spaces or other forums, including, but not limited to, electronic and print platforms, to a designated entity by which the designated entity may solicit material support, recruit new members, encourage violent action, or advocate divisive concepts” and makes it a class-E felony.

A felony. Related to terrorism.

What kind of groups could this prohibit? United Campus Workers. American Association of University Professors. NAACP. Native American groups. Heck, the Democratic Party. They all oppose these laws, and the suppression of academic freedom and free speech.

Supporters of these laws are people constantly complaining about “cancel culture” and “erasing history.” And who often “encourage violent action.” Seems it only applies to one side.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE

 


Saturday, February 17, 2024

A Liberal Dose, February 15, 2024 "Civil War Historians and the 14th Amendment"

 


A Liberal Dose

February 15, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“Civil War Historians and the 14th Amendment”

 

Last week, the Supreme Court took up the issue of whether Colorado can bar Trump from the presidential ballot based on the 14th amendment, and heard oral arguments. It may be several weeks before they release a ruling. Observers and pundits are leaning toward the belief that Colorado’s ruling will be struck down, as all nine justices seemed to express doubts about whether the amendment applies to presidents (since they are not mentioned specifically), whether that section can be executed without Congress passing a specific law to do so, and (mostly) whether it is wise or fair  for one state’s decision to affect the outcome of a national election.

However, the outcome is not yet guaranteed. The Supreme Court often issues rulings that do not conform to what it LOOKED like they were thinking during oral arguments. Sometimes when Justices ask hard questions of one side, and even seem dubious about their position, it is to give that side the opportunity to address those points. So (unless a ruling is released between the time I am writing this and the time you read it) it could still go either way, at this point. I think it’ worth pointing out that the questions all nine Justices asked are in line with the arguments John Gottlied made in his column in this paper in response to mine, whereas the arguments made by the Colorado Court align with those I made, so we’ll see which way it falls. I would like to mention, though, the role historians have played in this process.

Whereas it was prominent law scholars (including some conservative ones) who first introduced the question of the 14th Amendment and Trump’s eligibility a few months ago, several of the most prominent and respected living historians of the Civil War and Reconstruction have contributed directly to this case. Two groups of them wrote amicus curiae briefs in favor of Colorado’s position, laying out their arguments in great detail (all of them arguments I have made in previous installments of this column). An amicus curiae, or “friend of the court”, brief is a statement presented to a court in support of one side or the other, usually by experts in the topic at hand. It is something historians often do. In my American Indian Law class, I structure the research paper assignment as an amicus brief in support of the Native American tribe of the student’s choice, in which the student presents themselves as a professional historian and explain the context, history, and current political meaning of a given controversy between that tribe and the federal or state government.

The first of these two briefs was written and signed by four historians, two each from Harvard and Yale. These included Drew Gilpin Faust and David Blight, two of America’s most prominent Civil War historians. The other one was signed by 25 historians, including my mentors Vernon Burton and David Roediger (both of whom were on my dissertation committee, and both of whom have justifiably won many accolades for their influential scholarship). Others on that list included James McPherson (probably the most famous living Civil War historian), Steve Hahn, Kenneth Noe, Nell Irvin Painter, and George C. Rable. Even well-read lay readers with an interest in the Civil War will recognize many of these names. I was initially invited to sign this one, as well, but it was decided that my specialty (Native Americans in the Civil War and Reconstruction) might be too narrow to help the efficacy of the document. It was a huge honor just to be asked, though.

You can easily find the text of both these briefs online, and I encourage you to do so. Even if the Supreme Court decision goes against removing Trump from the ballot, my arguments for doing so did not come out of left field; they are the consensus of professional historians in my field.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE

 


Thursday, February 8, 2024

A Liberal Dose, February 8, 2024 "Dr. King's Words on Conscience, Action, and Courage -True as Ever"

 



A Liberal Dose

February 8, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“Dr. King’s Words on Conscience, Action, and Courage -True As Ever”

My MLK Day speech was canceled for snow, so -for Black History Month- I am presenting it here. I begin with a lengthy quote from a Dr. King speech in 1968:

“We are coming to ask America to be true to the huge promissory note that it signed years ago. And we are coming to engage in dramatic nonviolent action, to call attention to the gulf between promise and fulfillment; to make the invisible visible. Why do we do it this way? We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality …until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action.

“Great documents are here to tell us something should be done... Nothing has been done. And I submit that nothing will be done until people of goodwill put their bodies and their souls in motion. And it will be the kind of soul force brought into being as a result of this confrontation that I believe will make the difference.

“One day we will have to stand before the God of history and we will talk in terms of things we’ve done…  I’m not a consensus leader. I do not determine what is right and wrong by looking at the budget…. I’ve not taken a sort of Gallup Poll of the majority opinion. Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher for consensus, but a molder of consensus. On some positions, cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right? There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must do it because conscience tells him it is right. 

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. We shall overcome because Carlyle is right—'No lie can live forever.’ We shall overcome because William Cullen Bryant is right—'Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.’ We shall overcome because James Russell Lowell is right—as we were singing earlier today, ‘behind the dim unknown stands God, Within the shadow keeping watch above his own.’ “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope… we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.”

END QUOTE.

My summary: We have to take action on what our conscience tells us is right. For 55 years Americans have been asking themselves: what would I have done if I had been around during the civil rights movement? And answering themselves: I know I would have stood up for what’s right.

Would you? What are you doing today? Because the civil rights movement is not over. The civil rights movement is not then. IT IS NOW. We are living in a very inexpedient and impolitic time for speakers of truth about history. And for that matter, about the present. We live in a political climate where it has become dangerous to speak truth.

What are you going to do? Because dangerous as it might seem, no one is siccing attack dogs on you, or cracking your skull with nightsticks, or shooting you down in the street. So what excuse do we have?

Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again. Are we going to hide in a bed of comfortable lies, or are we going to rise up with the truth? Are we going to stand, with a clean conscience, before “the God of history”, or are we going to kneel before a god of lies?

There comes a time when one must take the position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular… and that time is now.

We shall overcome.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party and the board of the Tennessee chapter of AIM (American Indian Movement)-Indian Territory. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 

 Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE



Friday, February 2, 2024

A Liberal Dose, February 1, 2024 "Why Is Everyone Talking So Much About the Civil War?"

 


A Liberal Dose

February 1, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“Why Is Everyone Talking So Much About the Civil War?”

 

I want to preface this week’s piece by mentioning the passing of Donald Holman, who was one of my “opposite numbers” on this opinion page. I did not know him personally, but I know many of his kinfolks and we had many friends in common, and I know he was a valued and loved part of our community. God bless his family.

I spent the last three weeks talking about Nikki Haley’s slavery comment (or lack thereof) and why we know what the Civil War was actually about. I realize this is on top of a lengthy series I did earlier in the year about the history of slavery, so some of you may be tired of hearing me talk on the subject -I understand. As a historian, I am tired of HAVING to talk on the subject because so many people need reminders about this basic component of American history and the legacy of it. So this week I am going to wrap that topic up (for now) by explaining why it’s important and what it means today.

It is not a bizarre coincidence that Lost Cause Ideology has taken such a strong hold among many contemporary Republicans (notice I do not say “all Republicans” -and rarely if ever do so). It is less about the history of the past than the politics of the present, as is often the case about so many things. Some Republican governors, in support of the Texas governor’s disagreement with the federal government over whether it’s okay to allow undocumented immigrants to drown or to flat-out kill them, are actually calling back to the Civil War and using former Confederate terms like nullification and even secession. Terms, by the way, which have long been generally considered proven invalid by the Civil War. For them, stating that the Civil War was about states’ rights and government overreach fits in with their modern policy goals. If one could highlight those ideas -without adding or acknowledging the context of slavery -one could also circumvent the conclusion that the war was connected to race or racism, either, and many modern conservatives are heavily invested in denying the existence of institutional or even implicit, unconscious, racism.

This is why it is people under thirty who are most likely to be historically ignorant of the role slavery and racism have played in our nation’s story. It has gotten minimized, misidentified, or outright ignored in public schools the last several years (after a period, from the 1970s to the early 2000s, when it was finally being addressed in classrooms). There is a similarly shocking lack of accurate understanding among young people about the Holocaust. This is often, as is the case in Tennessee, enforced by law in majority conservative states. The ball was really started rolling in this effort by former president Trump in the closing months of his presidency, when he started harping on “critical race theory” and how allegedly un-American it is. All the conservative legislative efforts that have come in the wake of that have been attempts to ride Trump’s coattails with his base and to return U.S. education to the triumphalist narrative that was the norm in schools before the Civil Rights Movement. Same with the book banning. It is ridiculously transparent, no matter how much plausible deniability they try to bake into the wording of the laws.

If the story we tell about ourselves is that nothing bad or negative has ever been true about our country, the implication is there is nothing that needs to be overcome or fixed now (which flies in the face of the Constitution, which was set up to be amended over time). We are then producing a citizenry that is incapable of actually understanding what is going on around them, and why, let alone have the capacity for empathy toward those Americans who are not just exactly like them.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

 Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE



Friday, January 26, 2024

A Liberal Dose, January 25, 2024 "Understanding WHY the Civil War Was About Slavery"

 


A Liberal Dose

January 25, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“Understanding Why the Civil War Was About Slavery”

 

Last week I presented several primary source documents demonstrating that -at the time the Civil War started -Confederate government officials were clearly saying that protecting slavery and white supremacy was the reason the southern states seceded and formed a new government, and the reason they were prepared to fight. Now I am going to explain WHY that was.

First, as most readers are aware, Lincoln stated clearly that he did NOT want to end slavery in the South. What was the problem, then? The big argument was whether slavery would be permitted in NEW states in the West. Why would northerners not want slavery to “spread”?

Two main reasons, neither of which was tied to fighting racism or protecting Black people. First, the political: due to the 3/5ths Compromise, slave states could count 60% of their slave population toward their state population in the question of how many House of Representatives members that state could have. This meant that southern states wound up having significantly more Congressional representation than was warranted by the actual number of CITIZENS they had, which gave them a lot of political power in Washington. More new slave states would mean more new pro-slavery, pro-South members of Congress, in both houses (as each new state gets two Senators, as well- and this combined number is how we come up with how many electoral votes each state has).

Second, the economic: people in the North, by the 1850s, were championing what historian Eric Foner has called Free Labor Ideology. This does NOT mean you’re getting labor done for free -rather, it is the belief that the labor of free people, performed for wages, is superior to slave labor because it protects and improves the position of white working-class people. Where you have African slavery, white people’s labor is not in demand. Further, if a new state allowed slavery, all the best land would be bought up by plantation owners -which would hurt poor-and-working-class white people who hoped to claim small parcels of land for individual farms, and would also hurt those same people if they wanted instead to get a job in industry. While there were lots of abolitionists in the North, they were never in the majority (and were often hated, even beaten or killed, by their neighbors). The only racial concern most white northerners had… was protecting the interests of their own, and that meant preventing the spread of slavery.

Why were southerners so worried about being able to spread slavery? Two reasons. One, the political: if a bunch of new states form, and they do NOT have slavery, southerners would find themselves outnumbered in Congress, and one day Congress could ban slavery. Second, the economic: slavery existed, by the mid-nineteenth century, primarily to support cotton agriculture and give planters higher profits by having cheaper labor costs. However, so much cotton was being grown in the South that the soil was becoming moribund. Everyone knew you SHOULD rotate your crops or rest your fields, but nobody was willing to be the one to do it- and lose a year’s worth of cotton profit for that field. The fields, therefore, were “drying up.” The planter class needed NEW lands, for new fields, to plant more cotton (using slave labor, if they wanted to maintain their profit margins). So, in their thinking, if slavery was blocked from spreading to the West, the lifestyle of planters would become unsustainable. Merely blocking slavery, to them, was an attempt to kill it.

In the 1850s, southern Congressmen pushed for laws that enabled the federal government to force free states to help catch runaway slaves, whether they wanted to or not. They also opposed laws that would allow each new state to take a vote on whether to have slavery or not- Southerners wanted to force them to have slavery. Where’s the states’ rights in either of those things?

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.

Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE



Thursday, January 25, 2024

A Liberal Dose, January 18, 2024 "How Do We Know the Civil War Was About Slavery?"

 


A Liberal Dose

January 18, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“How Do We Know the Civil War Was About Slavery?”

 

As noted last week, more and more Americans are not naming slavery as the principal cause of the Civil War. While this used to be common in the South, it is now the case around the country.

It is not true of professional historians of the period, though. Professional historians, by definition, base their assessments on documents from the time. Here are some pertinent ones.

“The Cornerstone Speech,” given by Alexander Stephens, VP of the brand-new Confederacy, in Savannah on March 12, 1861. He spent a big part of that speech explaining why he thought the Confederate constitution was superior to the U.S. constitution- because “The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution — African slavery as it exists amongst us — the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.” There you have it: the VP said the Confederacy was formed, and a war was about to start, over the idea that slavery is “the proper status of the negro.” Whereas the framers of the original constitution believed in equality for all, Stephens said, “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests upon the great truth, that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery — subordination to the superior race — is his natural and normal condition.” 

Only eight days earlier, at his first Inauguration, Lincoln had said, “One section of our country believes slavery is right, and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong, and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”

Georgia’s declaration of secession said, “The people of Georgia… present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.”

The South Carolina declaration said, “An increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery, has led to a disregard of their obligations.”

The Mississippi declaration said, “In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course. Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world.”

The Texas declaration described their state “as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as negro slavery-- the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits-- a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time.”

I could go on and on. But let me conclude with a resolution passed in Cookeville on April 22, 1861, urging Tennessee to secede. It was written by Judge Erasmus L. Gardenhire:

"The antislavery party is the enemy of the Union and the Constitution, advocating the equality of the negro and the white races and the abolition of slavery. To accomplish this the antislavery party has been organized and now constitutes the dominant party in all the free States. And now, having possession of the Federal government in all its departments, it is attempting by conquest and coercion to carry out its damnable heresies entertained for many years toward the South and its institutions.”

But wait, you say, what about states’ rights? I say: states’ rights about what? Slavery. Nikki Haley said the federal government had stepped on “the rights and freedoms of the people.” Their rights to do what? Enslave other people.

I will wrap up this topic next time with a more detailed explanation. For now- the documents speak for themselves.

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE



Sunday, January 14, 2024

A Liberal Dose, January 12, 2023 "Why Nikki Haley Could Not Say the Word 'Slavery'"

 



A Liberal Dose

January 11, 2024

Troy D. Smith

“Why Nikki Haley Could Not Say the Word ‘Slavery’”

 

As you probably know, a couple of weeks ago Nikki Haley, at a town hall appearance, was asked this question by someone in the audience: “What was the cause of the Civil War?”

Her initial response: “Well, don’t come with an EASY question!” implying that this was an extraordinarily complex subject. She followed that with a long, rambling answer that, no joke, would take up this entire column if I quoted it verbatim. The gist was, she claimed the Civil War was about government overreach, “the role of the government and what the rights of the people are.” The questioner expressed shock that she could give such a long answer and not once mention slavery. “What do you want me to say about slavery?” she asked. This has proven to be very controversial, because reputable historians almost universally name slavery as the primary cause of that conflict, which is what we all USED to be taught in school, and USED to be considered common knowledge.

Surveys have shown, though, that more than half of Americans do not name slavery as the primary cause of the Civil War -and that number grows larger every year. Interestingly, the age group least likely to name slavery is those under thirty, which to me demonstrates the de-emphasizing of accurate history in public school in recent years, which is probably further demonstrated by the fact the age group MOST likely to correctly identify slavery is those over sixty-five. Also interesting: almost an equal percentage of Southerners and non-Southerners identify states’ rights as the primary cause of the war, so it’s not a regional thing.

Still, even given all that… most people I’ve talked to who do not believe slavery was the primary cause of the war will qualify their answer by saying things like “It wasn’t JUST about slavery” or “slavery was a factor, but not the biggest one.” Nikki Haley went on forever naming off (mostly irrelevant) things and never ONCE mentioned slavery at all. By the next day she was explaining herself: of COURSE it was about slavery, everybody knows that, she was just naming off the OTHER things. But that was not the question posed to her. She has also dug her hole deeper by saying (again, no joke) that she had Black friends growing up. And that no one cares except the media. And that the questioner was obviously a Democratic plant -as if only a Democrat would ask such a question or complain about her answer. Which is, actually, very telling.

Over the last several years, a certain segment of the Republican electorate -probably much higher among die-hard Trumpists -has embraced the iconography and history of the Confederacy, and minimized the role (in the war and in American history) of slavery. The fact that DeSantis criticized Haley’s response is especially rich, given that it’s his state that wants to teach kids slavery was beneficial for Black people because it taught them a trade. I think there are two things going on here: one, conservatives love a good states’ rights, anti-federal-government-intervention argument. Two, if the Civil War was not about slavery, then neither was it about race or racism, and we can therefore declare those things nonexistent.

Nikki Haley is not dumb. She knows that a good percentage of the Trump base that she wants to win over believe fervently that slavery was not the cause of the war, said belief reinforcing or buttressing a lot of their political beliefs (or vice versa). She knew an accurate answer would offend them and cost her their vote. Her (non)answer was purely political.

But the fact so many people are developing such views only emphasizes the need for teaching more accurate history -not less.

Many of you will not agree with my assessment about the basic question. Next time I’ll lay out why slavery is the only correct answer, with evidence.

 

--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech and serves on the executive committee of the Tennessee Democratic Party. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.


Buy the book A Liberal Dose: Communiques from the Holler by Troy D. Smith HERE



You can find all previous entries in this weekly column HERE

A list of other historical essays that have appeared on this blog can be found HERE

Author's website: www.troyduanesmith.com

The author's historical lectures on youtube can be found HERE