SATURDAY, MAY 29, 2021
Gerson all in on "woke:" In May of last year, the New York Times' Timothy Egan described Bill Gates as "the most interesting man in the world."
In fact, that was the headline on a column Egan wrote about Gates. Today, he has written a darker column about the new and journalistically thrilling Gates / French Gates divorce.
Was Bill Gates ever the most interesting man in the world? Since no such person exists, we can be fairly sure that he wasn't.
Today, at the start of his new column, Egan refers to the way Gates and French Gates engaged in "the careful curating of their image," even in recent years. The fact that they engaged in that curating makes them less interesting people today, even as the "PR team" of one of those players seems to be adjusting the curating of the other's image.
Does it matter what people think of Bill Gates, or of Melinda French Gates? Not necessarily, no.
We'd like it better if the upper-end press corps cared less about such matters. We have a slightly different reaction when it comes to the image, carefully curated or not, of former president Abraham Lincoln, who famously said, in a famous speech, that we committed this awful crime too.
Yesterday, Michael Gerson wrote a column in the Washington Post which carried this eye-catching headline:
When it comes to knowing U.S. history, we should all be ‘woke’
Should we all be "woke" about U.S. history? It all depends on what the meaning of what "being woke" is! In these passages, Gerson describes his provisional meaning:
GERSON (5/28/21): If being “woke” means knowing the full story of your community and country, including the systemic racism that still shapes them, then every thinking adult should be.
It's hard to disagree with that. Of course, since no one ever knows the full story of anything, it all depends on which parts of our country's history we allegedly "thinking adult" might choose to mention and stress.
It all depends on which parts of our history we choose to mention and stress! As we rethink the teaching of U.S, history—as our major newspapers ostentatiously revisit that history—this is an extremely basic point.
In his column, Gerson chose to revisit President Lincoln, if only in passing. As he did, he may have sounded "woke" in the cartoonish sense.
Though it may be good to be woke, it isn't good to be cartoonish. This is what Gerson wrote about the Great Emancipator:
GERSON: William Clark was not only an intrepid explorer, he was the author of treaties that removed more than 81,000 Indians from their homelands. Sen. Thomas Hart Benton was not just the populist voice of “the West,” he was the father of “settler colonialism” and an apologist for slavery. Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation—but merely a few days before he had ordered the execution of 38 Dakota men, which “remains the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.” The 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair was a festival of white supremacy, in which the organizers “assembled living human beings in a zoo.”
That was Gerson's sole direct reference to Lincoln. The quotation comes from a year-old book, The Broken Heart of America, by Walter Johnson, one of them Harvard professors.
Gerson goes on to suggest that Johnson's book may possibly be excessively woke. Along the way, he returns to the Indian wars which were occurring when Lincoln was in the White House:
GERSON: Historians such as Johnson might dwell on historical horrors and put them into narrow ideological narratives, but the events they recount are real. The U.S. government’s Indian wars were often conducted by sadists and psychopaths such as William S. Harney (who beat an enslaved woman named Hannah to death because he had lost his keys and blamed her for hiding them). A White lynch mob murdered a free Black man named Francis McIntosh in 1836, burning him alive while he begged his tormentors to shoot him...
And so on. Like many upper-end journalists, Gerson may seem to be discovering historical facts others have known about all along. He's also making his own position clear:
He disapproves of white lynch mobs, and of sadists and sociopaths. Quite a few of our thought leaders are currently making a point of stating such moral views.
In the process, did President Lincoln perhaps and possibly get thrown under a bus? After all, during those Indian wars, he ordered “the largest mass execution in the history of the United States!” Was Lincoln a sadist too?
Was the Great Emancipator a sadist and a psychopath? It can sometimes end up sounding that way when we let ourselves get a trifle too woke. With that in mind, let's return to our basic point:
Once we know "the full story" of our history, it all depends on what we choose to say and what we choose to leave out. According to the leading authority on the Dakota War, here is some of what Gerson chose to leave out this time:
The Dakota War of 1862, also known as the Sioux Uprising, the Dakota Uprising, the Sioux Outbreak of 1862, the Dakota Conflict, the U.S.-Dakota War of 1862, or Little Crow's War, was an armed conflict between the United States and several bands of Dakota (also known as the eastern Sioux). It began on August 18, 1862, at the Lower Sioux Agency along the Minnesota River in southwest Minnesota, four years after its admission as a state.
On August 17, 1862, a young Dakota killed five German settlers. That night a council of Dakota decided to attack settlements throughout the Minnesota River valley to drive the settlers out of the area. 358 settlers were killed. During the war that followed, the Dakota made extensive attacks on hundreds of settlers and immigrants, which resulted in many settler deaths, and caused many to flee the area. Over the next several months, continued battles of the Dakota against settlers and later, the Minnesota Volunteer Infantry units, ended with the surrender of 400 Dakota. By late December 1862, Minnesota volunteers had taken more than 1600 Sioux captive, including women, children and elderly men in addition to many warriors.
The surrendered Dakota warriors and their families were held while military trials took place from September to November 1862. Of the 498 trials, 300 were sentenced to death. President Lincoln commuted the sentences of all but 38.
We've left quite a bit out; so has the leading authority. That said, every account of American history will always leaves quite a bit out. It all depends on which omissions, and which accounts, seem reasonably balanced and fair.
At the present time, many of our leading journalists are rushing to show us they're woke. In some cases, they may be making up for quite a bit of lost time.
They may have to cut some corners in the process of proving they're woke. Our Town has a new set of Storylines it loves, and some thought leaders in Our Town are imaginably rushing to cut and paste them.
As to what we should tell the kids in school, that's a very difficult question.
What should children be told about our country's history, and also at what age? When such questions come center stage, the dumbness can seem to come from all sides, woke and anti-woke.
As you know, the larger game has already been lost. But what should children be told in school? We may discuss that unanswerable question next week.