Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Well, Someone's Cranky About Identity Politics.....

Edward Rothstein is in full old white man crank mode in his review of recent museum displays around the country. Rothstein evidently doesn't like the stories of non-white men getting told, as least in an exclusive fashion:

Me! Me! Me! That is the cry, now often heard, as history is retold. Tell my story, in my way! Give me the attention I deserve! Haven’t you neglected me, blinded by your own perspectives? Now let history be told not by the victors but by people over whom it has trampled.

And why, after all, should it be any different? Isn’t that the cry made by most of us? We want to be acknowledged, given credit for our unique experiences. We want to tell our stories. We want to convert you from your own narrow views to our more capacious perspective.

I am exaggerating slightly — but only slightly. In recent years, I have been chronicling the evolution of the “identity museum” or “identity exhibition,” designed to affirm a particular group’s claims, outline its accomplishments, boost its pride and proclaim, “We must tell our own story!”
And what specifically is getting Rothstein's undies so balled up?

First, the site of the president's house in Philadelphia (which was the nation's capitol before Washington, DC):

Instead, during eight years of controversy, protests and confrontations, the project (costing nearly $12 million) was turned into something else. Black advocacy groups pressed the National Park Service and the city to create an exhibition that focused on enslavement. Rosalyn McPherson, the site’s project manager, emphasized in an interview that the goal was to give voice to the enslaved. Community meetings stressed that slaves had to be portrayed as having “agency” and “dignity.” A memorial to all slaves was erected, inscribed with a roster of African tribes from which they were taken — a list that has no clear connection to either the site or the city.

The result is more than a little strange. One black advocacy group’s leader, Michael Coard, who was placed on the site’s oversight committee, wrote an angry, influential essay on the Web site of his organization, Avenging the Ancestors Coalition, that was just in its analysis of historical neglect, but distorting in its all-consuming strategy. It would allow no differentiation and qualification, treating the site almost as if it were the Slave Market of Charleston.

Second, an exhibition about Muslim science at the Hall of Science in Queens:

The exhibition also pays minimal attention to the very element that made Baghdad so important before its destruction in 1258: the cosmopolitan impact of interacting cultures. Influences are casually mentioned when they should be sharing center stage. Persian pre-Islamic breakthroughs, the confluence of innovations from China and India, the heritage of Christian scholarship from Syria, the importance of Byzantine Christianity with its links to ancient Rome, and the scholarly preoccupations of the region’s Jewish communities — these are scarcely noticed, minimized or ignored. The main point made about one of the few non-Muslim figures mentioned — Musa ibn Maymun (better known as the 12th-century Jewish physician and philosopher Maimonides) — is that his work demonstrated the influence of “Muslim colleagues” and drew on “Muslim philosophy.”

The show’s mission, we are explicitly told, is to “promote” Muslim heritage internationally and to strengthen Muslim identity and pride. Nearly a million people are said to have seen it in London and Istanbul and in smaller touring shows. The avidity of the acclaim is embarrassing: a version was shown at the United Nations and in the British Parliament. Classrooms in Britain have embraced its curriculum materials. Yet much of it is politically motivated exaggeration.

While I doubt Rothstein is a self-avowed conservative, like Stanley Fish, he's clearly very uncomfortable with modern identity politics. I think Rothstein's real agenda is summed up in his discussion of the presidential space in Philadelphia:

Moreover, the scanty historical background presented in the exhibition’s annotated illustrations is almost mischievously diminishing. During the 10 years in which Philadelphia was the national capital and Washington and Adams were shaping the new country there, what we see of the “upstairs” world is this: unrest (riots opposing Adams’s policy regarding France), protest (against the Jay Treaty), fear (a yellow-fever epidemic) and hypocrisy (Washington is shown with a disdainful look as he awards a medal to a proud Seneca Indian leader). And the architecture of the site makes it seem as though we are standing in an open-air ruin.

The result: an important desire to reveal what was once hidden ends up pulling down nearly everything else, leaving a landscape as starkly unreal as the one in which Washington could never tell a lie. It is not really a reinterpretation of history; it overturns the idea of history, making it subservient to the claims of contemporary identity politics.

This suggests Rothstein thinks of history in the old consensus model of the 1950s. What Rothstein's uncomfortable with in the end is the idea of American history as conflict. Thus, key stories of the period, including the yellow-fever epidemic, protests over the Jay Treaty, and slavery are less important than the heroic George Washington pulling together the young nation. I haven't seen the exhibit (in fact, I've never even been to Philadelphia, much to my shame), but I'd be shocked if I didn't read the exhibit as partially about Washington's service to the country. That should be part of such an exhibit. However, this was a country built on slavery. George Washington was a slaveholder. That needs to be part of the story. That Rothstein is outraged that local African-American leaders want their stories told with "dignity" is probably the single worst line of his article.

What I'm reading about this exhibit suggests it presents the complexity of American history in a modern, multi-cultural, and complex way, with nods toward environmental history, American foreign policy, Native American history, African-American history, and political history. I really want to visit this exhibit. Rothstein's anti-multicultural rant reminds us of how contentious American history remains, particularly for an older generation weaned on a white male Euro-centric view of the past and present.