Rewriting History: What Goes Around Comes Around

In the early Sixties, South Carolina state law mandated that children in both the third and eighth grades receive instruction in the state’s history.  As randomness would have it, my first tour of the annals of the Palmetto State coincided with the centennial celebration of “The War Between the States.”  Lessons about “Caw-Caw the Indian boy” competed with classroom drills in which we swiftly assumed fetal positions beneath our tiny desks.  (Charleston with its Polaris submarine base offered an inviting target for those Cuban Missiles).  Also, on the domestic side, in the background, we could detect a soft growl of discontent rising in the throats of what my family politely called colored people, who, as the ad populum argument went, were being stirred up by “outside agitators.”   

Times, you might say, were a-changing.

Not in the teaching of South Carolina history.  Preserved in our textbook, time-honored “statements of fact” explained that the vast majority of slaves were well-treated, that unfair tariffs had sparked the Civil War, that the Ku Klux Klan had provided a public service during the dark days of Reconstruction, that Pitchfork Ben Tillman was a man of courage, that the textile industry promised a potential economic stimulus that might propel the state back into its former glorious position as the cultural vanguard of the nation . . . 

When I first started teaching high school in the Mid-Eighties, I still encountered traces of these old arguments, particularly concerning the paternalism of slavery and the predominance of tariffs as the cause of the War. To counter the latter argument, I found copies of Declarations of Causes of Seceding States and highlighted in blue all of the sentences that referred to slavery. Believe me, the unhighlighted patches were about as prevalent as peanuts in Hershey bars. However, back in the day, I, too, believed what I had read. As an eight-year-old, I applauded the Klan of yore, those white-clad knights who had cleansed my native state of nefarious scalawags, carpetbaggers, and, yes, Negroes.

Flashforward a half century. The descendants of Pitchfork Ben have again taken to the streets eager to “retake their country” from Woke radical Democrat communist fascists.

Screeching in ALLCAPS, Trump, as he likes to refer to himself, predicts that he will be arrested this week:



Well, he’s certainly riled up this “patriot.”

Meanwhile, the right wingers who run state schoolboards are co-opting Joseph Stalin’s tactics by rewriting US textbooks and removing books from the library. From The New Yorker.

In late January, at Greenland Pines Elementary, kids attended a party for an annual event called Celebrate Literacy Week, Florida! There was an escape room and food trucks. Brian Covey, an entrepreneur in his late thirties, came to pick up his daughter, who’s in second grade, and his son, who’s in fifth. His kids looked confused. “Did you hear what happened at school today?” his daughter asked. “They took all the books out of the classrooms.” Covey asked which books. “All the books,” she said. Covey’s son had been reading “Measuring Up,” a coming-of-age story about an immigrant to the United States from Taiwan. Students who read from a list of pre-selected books, including this one, were rewarded with an ice-cream party. “They even took that book,” Covey said.

In Manatee County a group that calls itself Community Patriots Manatee is reaching out to “WOKE BUSTERS” calling out to “Warriors” that it needs “Digital, Investigative, and Boots on the Ground.”[1]

What do these disaffected MAGA screechers and rightwing school boards have in common besides a contempt of the Other? They’re reactionaries, of course. They seek the status quo ante of the past, the good old days when the government stayed out of their lives (those glorious days before Interstate highways and VA hospitals).

Of course, the irony of their Orwellian neo-newspeak is lost on them. “Patriots”= those who tried to violently disrupt the legitimate election of the President of the United States. MAGA “Christians” call for violence to eradicate their enemies.

Chance are that their children – and the children of Woke Floridians for that matter – won’t be able to check 1984 out of their school libraries.

And as far as teaching history goes, schools may very well revert to the indoctrination I suffered when I studied South Carolina history way back then. It’s just a different type of indoctrination than the Anti-Woke indoctrination they so fear.

Anyway, I think I’ll forgo my V-8 this morning and have a bloody mary instead.

*1] I don’t know if it’s by design or ignorance, but they have adopted Trump’s penchant for randomly capitalizing common nouns.

[2] BTW, in my last two years of teaching, I taught 1984 to 9th graders. Here’s a link to a teaching guide I created for teachers tackling the novel. 

Unjoyful Noises

A dozen years ago when I chaired Porter-Gaud’s English Department, I received a parental email so shrill it made a banshee keen sound like Barry White love talking. 

One of my colleagues in the New Testament unit in 8th grade English had assigned the Gospel of Thomas, a compilation of “Jesus sayings” declared heretical by the early Church Fathers Origen and Hippolytus of Rome. Here’s an example:

His disciples said: On what day will you be revealed to us, and on what day shall we see you? Jesus said: When you unclothe yourselves and are not ashamed, and take your garments and lay them beneath your feet like the little children (and) trample on them, then [you will see] the Son of the Living One, and you will not be afraid.

Gospel of Thomas Saying 37

Anyway, this email (which I long ago deleted) seemed to have originated from the windblown sands of ancient deserts, the Land of Thou Shall Not, the land where graven images are taboo, where Jezebels are stoned to death. The email actually contained this suggestion: “(see Origen).”[1]

* * *

On the Monday morning after my confirmation c. 1964, Bishop Gray Temple administered to me my first communion in the church pictured above, and my fellow communicates and I breakfasted afterwards with the Bishop and my parish priest Steve Skardon at the (unfortunately named but elegant) Squirrel Inn in Summerville, South Carolina.  The ritual had seemed (sort of) holy to me, and at breakfast the men wearing the collars were not in the least bit patronizing.  They were literally gentle men.  Afterwards, Father Skardon dropped me off to school.  He respected my father, who was not a gentle man, who saw the world much differently than Father Skardon, but my father respected Steve as well. In fact, the last time I saw Father Skardon was at a wedding in Florence in 1977, and the first thing he asked me was how my father was doing.

He and Gray Temple possessed a quiet confidence.  The sins of the flesh that they knew we would commit in the next few years did not terrify them. The Gospel Of Thomas did not enrage them.  They understood Thomas was an alternative text that shared roots with the canonical gospels in that long process from word of mouth into writing.  They understood that Yahweh-Nazarene-Ghost did not literally oversee translations from Aramaic to Greek nor guided the hands of scribes throughout the centuries to insure no deviation of the texts.  They possessed imaginations. They had embraced the Enlightenment and understood that myths can convey the most profound truths. In other words, they understood that the Bible was not literally true.  If asked if Augustus Caesar ever decreed that you had to travel back to your hometown to be counted in a census, they would have said no, that was an invention to establish Jesus in the line of David, etc.  

And, I suspect, they realized that despite their canonizations, Origen and Hippolytus of Rome, were, not to put too fine a point on it, fanatical to the point of insanity, and that it would not be such a good idea to have their millennium-old decrees dictating 21st Century curricula.


Steve Skardon

Not long after my first communion, I witnessed a remarkable act of courage, Father Skardon preaching integration to a seething segregationist congregation. 

Although I stupidly held my father’s bigoted viewpoint at the time, this man standing before a hostile audience pronouncing what was heresy to them made a profound impression on me.  I am ashamed now to admit that I didn’t like what he was saying – that Blacks deserved the same social and political rights that whites possessed – but his demeanor as he calmly faced those angry parishioners profoundly affected me: Summerville’s own Atticus Finch.

Having a half-Baptist family, I felt much more comfortable at St. Paul’s than at Summerville Baptist, where the carpets were blood red and the smell antiseptic.  St. Paul’s offered the redolent pleasures of candle scent; Chanel No. 5; and the occasional exhalation of last night’s Makers Mark, the somewhat sweet but unpleasant odor of sin.  Our Church League Basketball team had the words “Episcopal Fifths.” on our jerseys. Father Skardon did not seem to mind.  

Those harsh life-negating deserts of origin/Origen seemed thousands of years and thousands of miles distant.  The liturgy and accompanying rituals were life affirming.  The sermons tolerant, forgiving.  The cerebral cortex (logical discourse) rather than the brain stem (babbling in tongues, etc.) held precedence.  

After all, we lived in a semi-tropical climate.

[1] Origen, a 3rd Century Christian scholar, is the poster Eunuch for taking Biblical texts too literally, e.g., “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of God.” Or, to put it another way, “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out and cast it from thee.” To cut to the chase, both his left and right testicles offended him, so he castrated himself or had a friend castrate him. Origen had condemned the Gospel of Thomas, as heresy hence the suggestion to consult his writings. 

Southern Gothic Surveillance Meets Two Deadly Sins

Darkness has Crept in at Midnight by James Christopher Hills

The Alex Murdaugh murder conviction saddens me, not because I think he’s innocent, but because I didn’t want it to be true, didn’t want to believe that the Sophoclean shit show the prosecution posited could be real, that a father could premeditatively gun down his son, splattering his brains, then utilizie a different weapon to gun down the mother of that son, shooting her five times, the final shot to the head.

[Cue Kurtz: the horror, the horror.]

I was chatting with a stranger at the bar at Chico Feo yesterday afternoon about the trial and about the ubiquity of surveillance. I mentioned that Siri, Apple’s arbitress[1] of data, sang like – if not a canary – like a soulless automaton out of Orwell, providing law enforcement with information about how many steps Alex had taken, how fast he was walking before and after the event. The black box of his Suburban also ratted him out, digitally informing SLED that his SUV had hit seventy on the bumpy dirt road on his way to the house of his Alzheimer’s ridden Mama in the dark of a night as black as any in Southern gothic literature. 

It out Faulkners Faulkner.

The stranger had his own story about super-surveillance. I didn’t know this, but there are magnetic (for lack of a better word) homing devices that you can affix to someone’s car and track its movements just like they did in the Bond movie Goldfinger.

He had purchased several and affixed one to his then girlfriend’s car because he correctly feared that she was cheating on him. On the last day of their relationship, he drove to where her car was parked, discovered her as she was leaving an apartment complex, and thanked her for showing him what kind of person she really was. 

Happily, no shots were fired. Even, at least in his telling, the recrimination was mild-mannered.

Anyway, in this case, even if his girlfriend didn’t possess a cellphone and drove an early model computerless automobile, she still would have been busted.

Let’s face it, Big Brother’s corporate siblings, his little brothers, our cell phones, automobiles, etc. are watching us, and we pay them to. Could the knowledge our every move is monitored move us to emend our sinful ways. After all, if we don’t slaughter our families, cheat on our lovers, or binge watch Monkees videos, we have nothing to worry about.

[1] Even though I consider myself “woke,” I like the sound of feminine suffixes, and, on another topic, realize that the personality that is Siri is not an employee but merely a voice strung together with ones and zeroes. 

If my grandmother hadn’t been diagnosed with terminal throat cancer at the age of 42, you wouldn’t be reading this sentence.

You’re writing your autobiography. What’s your opening sentence?