Friday, January 21, 2011

Eyes Wide Shut

I want to contradict myself.  Or at least appear to do so.

I recently wrote about the apparent futility of efforts to censor some texts.  I suggested that the act of censorship oftentimes calls attention to the censorship's target.  In writing this, I quoted Italian semiotician Umberto Eco on the futility of techniques to aid forgetting: "But this technique allows one not to forget something but to remember that one wanted to forget it."  But now I am writing about a dangerous and frequently effective means of forgetting.

We generally think of "ideology" as meaning a set of beliefs.  But it is more than that.  Ideology includes the stories a group tells about itself in order to explain the meaning and origin of its beliefs.  Also, ideology includes the principles that will guide that group's interpretation of its experiences.   In doing these two things -- explaining the past and guiding the present -- an ideology frequently requires some forgetting or ignoring of facts that challenge its interpretations or principles.

In academic circles, this process of forgetting, hiding, or ignoring is called "mystification."  Terry Eagleton, in his book Ideology: An Introduction, writes that this process "frequently takes the form of masking or suppressing social conflicts."  In this way, an ideology can be "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."

So, one could argue that the revision of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in order to eliminate "nigger" is an example of this.  One could say that if we collectively forget the novels had this ugly word in them, we can more easily accept our national history; doing this could diminish the pain of prejudice, racism, and slavery.  Americans like to think of themselves as freedom-loving and inclusive of all races, but that ugly word reminds Americans that this wasn't always the case.  The solution?  Rather than revise their beliefs about themselves, some Americans find it easier to eliminate the word.  That does not undo the very real history of prejudice, racism, and slavery, but it allows Americans to pretend it does.  That is, it creates "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."

However, I do not believe this example of ideology holds true with the recent revision of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn.  The new edition from NewSouth calls attention to its revision; it may "mask ... social conflicts" but it calls attention to the mask.  Ideology rarely calls attention to itself as a self-conscious effort to shape a story or tell story; instead, it pretends to tell "the truth" about the past or present.

A recent example that DOES illustrate the process of ideological mystification is taking place in Tennessee.  There, members of the Tea Party want to revise the school curriculum to eliminate criticisms of the Founding Fathers based upon their treatment of American Indians or ownership of African slaves.  This effort is particularly interesting in its honesty.

One of their requests for the state government, as reported in the Memphis Commercial Appeal, is that "No portrayal of minority experience in the history which actually occurred shall obscure the experience or contributions of the Founding Fathers, or the majority of citizens, including those who reached positions of leadership.”

Impressive.   It openly says that even THE TRUTH should not obscure the reputation of the Founding Fathers.  Since those truths are inconvenient, they need to be eliminated or diminished.  The Tea Party wants "imaginary resolutions" to the "social contradiction" of the Sons of Liberty denying liberty to others and dealing dishonestly with nations that held North America before their arrival.

So, although I am not alarmed at the effort to sanitize Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn, I do not like this proposed revision of history curriculum.  The Twain scholar who has revised the novels, Alan Gribben, has done so in order to get the books into more classrooms in Alabama, where they often have been excluded because of the word "nigger."  While to some degree the novels present an "imaginary solution," they will make possible a discussion of "social contradictions" by their new presence.  But this effort by the Tea Party in Tennessee functions to eliminate discussion in the classroom.

Although the Tea Party folks are honest about their motivations, I doubt the revised textbooks will be as forthright.  I doubt the book covers will include stickers announcing: "New and Improved!  Now with less truth!"

At a news conference announcing the requests, a Tea Party spokesman said, "The thing we need to focus on about the founders is that, given the social structure of their time, they were revolutionaries who brought liberty into a world where it hadn’t existed, to everybody — not all equally instantly — and it was their progress that we need to look at."

Perhaps the spokesman didn't realize that he was making an argument FOR the inclusion of the contradictions between the Founding Fathers' beliefs and their practices.  How can we measure the progress of liberty without understanding who had their liberty denied and how they gained it?  To measure that progress, we need a discussion of African Americans and American Indians -- and women and Asian Americans and Mexican Americans and homosexuals, etc.  This discussion does not detract from the real accomplishments of the framers of the Constitution, but it does set those accomplishments in clearer context.

Finally, depending upon what the Tea Party spokesman meant by "a world," his statement may also be plain wrong.

If "a world" means the European world that had extended itself to North America, then perhaps the Founding Fathers did introduce a new type of liberty.  But if "a world" means simply North America, then he does not realize there were many native nations here already enjoying all types of liberty not realized in Europe.

All groups have an ideology.  It is impossible to have a society without one, without many.  However, we must remain aware of the ideologies to which we adhere, and we must remain aware of what our ideologies may be making us blind to or encouraging us to forget.  Otherwise, our ideologies can control us rather than us controlling them.  Otherwise, we will be guilty -- as the Tennessee Tea Party seems to be -- of what Emile Durkheim called "the use of notions to govern the collation of facts rather than deriving notions from them."


  1. Wait, please tell me who the Tea Party is. It's not a monolithic movement. You can't blame it for what happened in Tennessee. My next big project is about ideology and how there is no such thing, so we must neither worry about ideology nor do penance to confess its flaws. Racism is not an ideology, nor is militarism or capitalism. These are all clouds that drift around us from time to time and distract us from having sex, eating junk food, and reading Whitman. So discussions like this make me feel like Henry Fonda or Jimmy Stewart in a Hitchcock film. "Really! I swear! I do not have an ideology. I am innocent!"

    I mention all this because you totally convinced me on your last post about Twain and I even told George how smart your argument was. Now you're backing away from smart Scott and giving me ideological Scott. No! This is not what you're supposed to do! Let them do whatever they want to those words in Twain's novels. We're talking about 10th graders who are swimming in hormones, and black students who don't like the word. We're lucky if they read 10 pages of Huck Finn without going to Sparknotes. This isn't worth warring over.

    From what I understand the people who are objecting to the smears of Jefferson et al are objecting to gossip, hearsay, and needlessly intrusive narratives about the founders as individuals. Nobody is going to object to a discussion of slavery and genocide, but I agree with those who think it's not cool to teach 10th graders that Thomas Jefferson banged his slaves and had illegitimate kids. That's none of their/our business and for all we know the whole story's BS.

  2. The Tea Party always presents the dilemma: upper case or lower case? If it isn't a formally organized and centralized group, then can it be upper case? We don't upper case hippies. So, as I wrote this, I switched back and forth. When I double-check the Memphis newspaper story, I see the reporter has it lower case. So perhaps I will do that from now on.

    And they are upset at more than a possible hit to Thomas Jefferson's reputation because of Sally Hemings.

    And your idea that there is no such thing as ideology? That is just a strange idea produced by your own ideology -- the real world doesn't match your belief system, so it is more convenient to imagine there are no belief systems than it is revise yours.

    So go have a great weekend, Bobby! :)

  3. The tea party movement is a reaction to a change in the behavior of the government along lines that the common person finds unfamiliar and unacceptable. It is not a formal organization as The Democratic Party or The Libertarian Party, though it has some organizational aspects to it. It is a grass roots catch all of people unhappy with the direction the country is going in. I believe what the gentleman from Tennessee was attempting to say is that we have a national heritage which is rich and vibrant, and of which there is much to be proud of.

    If one is studying Shakespeare, perhaps it is best not to focus on what in his world would be comedic but in our world would be unacceptably sexist. Is to do so to deny "The Truth"? Martin Luther King Jr. was reportedly a serial adulterer. Is that what we should focus on in studying his contribution to our culture? Just so, in studying our nations founding fathers, perhaps the most important thing to know about George Washington has nothing to do with the fact that at one point he inherited a number of slaves.

  4. wow james whatta way to pretend. i bet you were really good at playing pretend when you were a kid. the purpose of education is to look at, as much as possible given the time alloted, all the aspects of an issue that are in any way relevant, rather than, only those aspects that one random group enjoys. pretending that it is not relevant how native americans or black people were treated, is not merely a bad idea, it paves the way for many many further revisions of history. for example, it is indeed true that hitler was terribly horribly awful, and our participation in WWII arguable turned the tide and helped defeat hitler. therefore, the fact that we too rounded up people (asian americans) and put them in camps, robbing them of their liberty, pride, and all their worldly possesions, is clearly irrelevant. and it's true that germany and japan engaged in wartime atrocities. therefore, our use of nuclear weapons on civilians in hiroshima and nagasaki, and our choice to firebomb the city of dresden into oblivian, are clearly irrelevant and should not be discussed. in fact, since ronald reagon probably did one or two good things, the fact that trickle down economics has not only not been proven to work and that studies show has had the opposite effect as claimed, probably should not be examined, nor should the iran contra affair. in fact, i think all public school textbooks should probably be vetted by the tea party to ensure that, regardless of truth, the american government should always be portrayed in a good light. that way, we will never learn from our mistakes, improve, or admit fallibility, somethign the tea party and in fact GOP should love, because this is the essense of conservatism. go with god.