What are 'strange Absurdities?'
If a blog post is uploaded and no one is around to read it, does it have a point? I suppose we’ll soon find out.
I’m currently a high school history teacher and a recovering former corporate-sector employee of a very big bank. Who gives a shit what I think about anything? It’s a fair question, but, honestly, I’m doing this more as a way to try to work out my own chaotic, discombobulated ideas than anything else. Whatever readership and engagement that might follow will be a gift.
I’ll start by saying that I feel deeply awful at the moment about the world we live in and the country in which I’m increasingly ashamed to reside. This makes me in no sense unique. To have even the vaguest idea of what is unfolding around us is to know that:
what passes for American democracy is on the brink of collapse;
an unthinkable, moronic stew of technology-driven misinformation and shameless political opportunism is keeping us trapped, senselessly, in a pandemic that has worsened the already-horrendous inequalities ingrained in our society and given birth not only to ever-mutating strains of the virus itself, but also mutating forms of mental health crisis, above and beyond the mortality and sickness and grief that has paralyzed the world for what will soon have been two years, during which each successive day has required more resilience and come at a greater cost, most particularly from the most vulnerable among us
One darkly amusing game to play is to consider how much of the blame for all of this should be placed on Rupert Murdoch vs. Mark Zuckerberg vs. Jeff Bezos vs. vs. the fossil fuel barons vs. the rest – those I have come to think of as the Privileged Uber-Elite (the PUbEs; credit for that shorthand goes to the brilliant person I love most in the world). More about the PUbEs (and from a more global perspective) in later posts.
All of that is to say that very little of what I’ll have to write will be particularly upbeat, as a general rule.
I expect I’ll delve deeper into all of the aforementioned crises (and others) as time goes on, but I thought I would use this introductory post to explain the title of this silly little blog.
One of the especially peculiar and embarrassing aspects of American nationalism specifically is the worship of a cadre of demigods referred to as “The Founding Fathers.” For a time, the historian John Fea published a recurring series on the various, most recent ways in which this pantheon had been invoked – lazily – in the service of some issue of the moment: the soundness of the electoral college; the virtues of classical Greece and Rome; gun rights.
And so it goes. Days ago, Josh Mandel, a candidate for the GOP nomination for the 2022 Senate race in Ohio, for instance, asserted on Twitter that, “The Founders would have tarred and feathered Dr. Fauci.” Let us leave to the side the pathological glorification of the violence that was so fundamental to this country’s founding and that also characterized the Early Republic and, not surprisingly, the prelude to the Civil War.
Mandel’s Twitter bio tells us everything we need to know: “1st Statewide Official in Ohio to support President Trump,” it states. “Marine. Censored by Twitter & Facebook. Fighting to protect the Judeo-Christian bedrock of America.” Mandel, who has the charisma of a molding sponge, appears to be polling ahead of the competition for the Republican nomination to fill the seat being vacated by the retiring and spineless Rob Portman. Among Mandel’s intraparty opposition is the repulsive, Peter Thiel-backed J.D. Vance of Hillbilly Elegy infamy. Vance’s focus in this campaign has been to shed his previous grift on the corporate conference circuit in favor of plowing new depths in the desperate race to out-bottom-feed his Trumpist peers in the primary.
The podcast host Ed Burmila had perhaps the most appropriate response to Mandel’s purposeful idiocy: “[Founding Father and ‘Penman of the Constitution’] Gouverneur Morris died of blood loss while shoving a thin whalebone into his own urethra to try to dislodge a urinary stone, not certain we should turn to them for medical advice.”
Mandel strikes me as, among other things, a sort of bargain-basement Josh Hawley, if such a thoroughly grotesque creature can be imagined. Hawley, one of the elected aspiring fascists most closely linked to the January 6th insurrection, has been a leading voice in the disingenuous and patently racist campaign against Nikole Hannah-Jones’s 1619 Project and one of the more opportunistic crusaders in the wholly dishonest jihad on ‘critical race theory.’
In a recent press release touting his Naziesque “Love America Act,” Hawley, too, turned to the old gods in claiming that, “We have to make sure that our children understand what makes this country great, the ideals of hope and promise our Founding Fathers fought for, and the love of country that unites us all.” The legislation would “[r]equire students to read the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Pledge of Allegiance and recite portions of these foundational texts at certain grade levels” and “make schools ineligible for federal funding if they teach that the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Pledge of Allegiance are the product of white supremacy or racism.”
The “Love America Act” is of a piece with the Third Reich’s interventions in education, imperial Japan’s Rescript on Education, and the long-standing efforts by fundamentalists here in America to suppress the teaching of evolution. And the problem is not limited to the public school system, either:
The Guardian published a story just today that reports the following:
While public school textbooks suffer from their own blindspots, a Guardian analysis has found that private schools, especially Christian schools, use textbooks that tell a version of history that is racially biased and often inaccurate. These textbooks, used in thousands of private schools, many of which receive tens of thousands of dollars in public funding every year, whitewash the legacy of slavery, frame Native Americans as lesser and blame the Black Lives Matter movement for sowing racial discord.
And it’s not only Christian schools in red states or rural areas; elite Manhattan Prep Schools, too, have also been targeted by wealthy parents suffering from brain worms carefully incubated by Fox News and the New York Post
What the “Love America Act” calls for is the distortion – the erasure – of the truth, in favor of fascist indoctrination. Hannah Arendt, the theorist of totalitarianism, wrote that, “The aim of totalitarian education has never been to instill convictions but to destroy the capacity to form any.” (emphasis mine). More recently, Timothy Snyder noted that, “Memory laws undermine democracy. They divide citizens into those who accept the official version and those who contest it, those who can be allowed to participate in politics and those who cannot. This is evident in the United States, where memory laws will whitewash voter suppression.”
Tragically, none of this should be surprising. Florida Governor Ron Desantis, who has received glowing coverage from outlets like the New York Times and Politico on his presidential aspirations – glossing over the long-standing, ever-worsening path of destruction delivered by COVID in his state – has spearheaded the state’s efforts to ‘ban critical race theory’ from schools and is presently threatening to “withhold salaries of officials who enact school mask mandates.” Spoiler alert: much of the contemporary ‘journalism’ being produced by what we’ve tended to consider mainstream outlets WILL NOT AGE WELL.
What passes as “conservatism” in this country and others depends upon and promotes literally-deadly ignorance. Certain corners of the Washington press are already grossly aroused by psychopath Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s plans to visit critical presidential primary state Iowa ahead of a possible 2024 run. This has been said before, but it’s all like Veep, except beyond parody – very fucking real. Any writer or pundit still engaged in “horse race” analysis of the life-or-death politics of our era should be both ashamed and shamed.
Censorship of the truth; the GOP’s embrace of pseudoscientific lies – these are all what might be called “strange absurdities.” Strange absurdities have been fundamental (defining?) aspects of this country since before its founding – but this is not some novel observation of my own. It was recognized with piercing clarity on the eve of American independence, not by one of the “Founding Fathers,” but by an enslaved woman, about 21 years old at the time, who had come to be known as Phillis Wheatley.
Wheatley’s biography is hazy. Elizabeth Winkler has written about the problematic nature of our main source for details on Wheatley’s life, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. has explored how the historical memory of Wheatley evolved over time. But what we’re reasonably sure of is that she was originally from the West African coast, enslaved, and then taken on the barbaric Middle Passage, in this instance to Boston.
Biographer Vincent Carretta explains what seems to have happened upon her arrival in July 1761 (emphasis mine):
Her small size and missing front teeth told potential buyers that she was only about seven years old. She was what was called a refuse slave, one whose age rendered her of little market value. To the Boston merchant John Wheatley, however, she was the gift he wanted to give his wife, Susanna. His new purchase had been stripped of her African identity to be made a commodity on the eighteenth-century global market. Her new owner renamed her after the slave ship that had brought her to America. The little girl who had been enslaved in Africa continued on her improbable journey to become the founding mother of African American literature, Phillis Wheatley.
The Wheatleys’ daughter, Mary, evidently went on to tutor young Phillis in English and Latin. Phillis also studied the Bible and became an ardent Christian. By the time she was 13, she’d written her first poem and was published in the Newport Mercury in 1767. More followed, and by 1771, Phillis was also being read in London. She was the “first African American of either gender to publish a book of poetry,” and the “second woman (after Anne Bradstreet) to publish a book of poems.”
I would argue that Wheatley’s most searing and enduring insight into America can be found not in any of her poems, but instead a letter that she wrote to Mohegan minister Samson Occom on February 11, 1774, more than a year before she gained her freedom and less than two months after the Boston Tea Party. The letter is remarkable in part because it demonstrates that Wheatley was deeply immersed in the discourse of the so-called “Enlightenment” that helped propel the Atlantic Revolutions that were soon to unfold in the American colonies, France, Haiti, and Latin America; the letter makes reference to “Liberty” and a universal “Love of Freedom” and, radical at the time, to the notion of the “natural Rights” specifically of people of African descent. (Always read Jamelle Bouie, but definitely read him on race and the Enlightenment).
Wheatley’s sharpest turn of phrase comes toward the end of the letter, in which she discusses her desire in the context of the revolutionary early-1770s to “convince [colonial proponents of slavery] of the strange Absurdity of their Conduct whose Words and Actions are so diametrically opposite. How well the cry for Liberty, and the reverse Disposition for the exercise of oppressive Power over others agree, I humbly think it does not require the Penetration of a Philosopher.” In other words, it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize that crying out for liberty and freedom while also ruling over and profiting from a slave society is the height of hypocrisy.
Wheatley calling out this ridiculous contradiction anticipated the strikingly similar, anti-revolutionary rhetoric of the English writer Samuel Johnson in his 1775 pamphlet Taxation No Tyranny. Johnson had been tapped by the British PM to push back on colonists’ claims that burdensome taxation from the mother country was tantamount to ‘slavery.’
“We are told, that the subjection of Americans may tend to the diminution of our own liberties; an event, which none but very perspicacious politicians are able to foresee. If slavery be thus fatally contagious, how is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of negroes?”
The point is that Wheatley perceived, even before the nation’s founding, that its revolutionary aspirations were constructed on shaky, paradoxical grounds. Carretta and others have referred to her as the “founding mother of African American literature,” but I would suggest that she was also a founding mother of the ongoing struggle for Black freedom in America. Subsequent leaders such as Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, and Hannah-Jones have continued Wheatley’s legacy of exposing the hypocrisies – the strange Absurdities – that have shaped us.
The Declaration of Independence asserts “that all men are created equal” and stipulates that “Liberty” is among men’s “unalienable Rights.” It is a strange Absurdity, indeed, that the country that was born (in blood) from said Declaration was fuelled by chattel slavery for nearly another century, and then devised new and creative forms of Black subjugation; expanded on the basis of genocidal settler colonialism; and followed the lead of the Spanish in instituting the concentration camp, indeed rebooting the practice again in 1927, 1942, and 2019.
This is all a long-winded way of saying that the primary thing I want to do with this blog is explore such strange Absurdities, past and present, with the perhaps-naive aspiration of thinking about a future in which strange Absurdities no longer define us.
Hannah-Jones has discussed the particular kind of patriotism that underpins the 1619 Project. There is a debate to be had on whether such a thing as a healthy American nationalism can or should exist, but if the answer is yes, then embracing and celebrating figures like the woman who came to be called Phillis Wheatley has a role to play in it. It feels safe to assume that Hawley and supporters of his “Love America Act” would disagree.
In a follow-up post, I’ll write a bit about how this Founding Mother interacted with some of those who have long been upheld in the Founding Father pantheon: George Washington (he was a fan); Benjamin Franklin (another fan); and Thomas Jefferson (not a fan).