YDS: The Clare Spark Blog

March 14, 2012

History as trauma

Bruce Bartlett

This blog started out as a meditation on Bruce Bartlett’s Wrong on Race: The Democratic Party’s Buried Past (Palgrave Macmillan, 2008). (For a conversation between the author and Clarence Page, see http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/204475-1.] A better discussion is here: http://bloggingheads.tv/videos/1494. Glenn C. Loury, professor of economics at Brown University is a far sharper partner to Bartlett, and enunciates the same take on elite micromanagement of racial politics in the universities as the views advanced on my website. For a graduation speech that explicates Loury’s view of “identity” see http://today.brown.edu/articles/2008/09/loury.)

Bruce Bartlett has been a widely read policy adviser to the Republican Party; he says that he has libertarian leanings; he seems to have switched to the Democratic Party recently. But in the very last words of his history of the close ties of the Democratic Party with white supremacist doctrines, he writes “The purpose of this book is to encourage Republicans to compete for the black vote and at the same time show blacks why they should be receptive if Republicans should ask for a hearing. Blacks deserve better than being pawns in the political game. It is very much in their interest to be players. But that won’t happen unless they are willing to loosen the ties that bind them almost exclusively to the Democratic Party, the party to which their greatest oppressors belonged (p. 194).

This blog attempts to complicate Bartlett’s proposed outreach to black Americans by the Republican Party with some thoughts gleaned from another book that I have been reading: Robert C. Scaer, M.D., The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, and Disease, second ed. (Routledge, 2007). Dr. Scaer, a neurologist, lays out a materialist explanation for psychogenic illnesses that stem from earlier traumas, such as military combat, assault, rape, incest, spousal abuse, lack of mother-child bonding, child abuse, torture, messy divorces, and other stressors that may be re-enacted even when the traumatized individual suffers from mild shocks, such as whiplash. Scaer does not mention the teaching of history as one possible source of trauma, but I have observed in my own grandchildren that when such horrors as chattel slavery in the American South are taught at an inappropriately early age, the student may be terrified to the point of trauma; s/he can find no safe place to hide from the predator, especially when leftists proclaim that white supremacy will endure until there is a violent overthrow of the status quo. And the same may be said of other events in U.S. and world history: the destruction of indigenous peoples, or the mass death that was enabled by mechanized warfare, starting with the American Civil War. And of course, the teaching of the Holocaust is another potentially traumatizing practice. Add to these gothic moments, the impending destruction of the environment advanced by deep ecologists.

In Bartlett’s book, his notion of reparations suggests free college scholarships to the descendants of slaves, but he does not consider teaching the dubious origin of race theory itself as a strategy. I remind  the reader of my blogs that “race” is a social construction, not an objective fact. Race thinking is filled with nonsense such as the “one-drop” rule for blackness. We are all in the same species, whatever the variation in physical characteristics. What racists do is to claim that “race,” a collective category, predicts mental and emotional characteristics, usually within a hierarchy. Who turns out to be the top dog depends on the group constructing the hierarchy. For a German Romantic’s view of the hierarchy see http://clarespark.com/2010/10/18/the-dialectic-of-multiculturalism-helvetius-herder-fichte/. Obviously, a Chinese or Japanese nationalist would have a different arrangement of the hierarchy of races, as would Pan-African nationalists such as James Cone (http://clarespark.com/2009/10/31/the-offing-of-martin-luther-king-jr-and-ralph-bunche/).   If you watch the dialogue between Glenn C. Loury and Bruce Bartlett, cited above, you will hear Loury criticize the notion of race as such.

Glenn C. Loury

I don’t look to ultra-social conservatives in the Republican Party to consider trauma or to deploy any other toolbox that smells like neo-Freudianism, for such believers are not worldly, in contrast to Dr. Scaer and other mental health professionals. Indeed, as fundamentalists, these denizens of the far Right are not in history at all, for this world is but the prelude to a better one, and disasters are part of God’s plan. (See http://clarespark.com/2009/07/04/unfinished-revolutions-and-contested-notions-of-identity/.) It is no accident that the impetus for education reform through school choice is emanating from within the Democratic Party (though Milton Friedman suggested it long ago), with little encouragement from social conservatives demanding local control and the choice of a religious education. For public schools are a scary site that could alienate the child of the ultra-conservative from the family of origin. What all of us need to do, whether we are of the [modernized] Center Right, or Independents or Liberals, is to think of the curriculum as a mine field when we attempt to teach the dark side of human history. I could have entitled this blog “Freezing fear in the classroom.” We may be traumatizing and re-traumatizing our children, not willfully, but as a side effect of our ignorance of the effect of the emotions on physical health; an ignorance that subsequently diminishes our capacity to be rational actors in a representative republic. In our attempts to educate the young are we teaching learned helplessness? For the youngster cannot change the awful past we transmit with the best of intentions.

Perhaps the current vogue for vampires, zombies, and other terrifying monsters (e.g. wolverines as illustrated), is a defense mechanism by adolescents and pre-teens and even younger children; i.e., identifying with the cruel individuals and events that they can never master in their own real lives. But this is a defense only, and does not get us closer to releasing the terrors that remain locked within the psyche, and that might be among the potential cause(s) for auto-immune diseases. Lest anyone be discouraged by this blog: Dr. Scaer argues that medicine is still in its infancy. It is a great advance in human history that we are learning so much about the physiology of stress, as opposed to relying upon supernatural explanations for the ups and downs of living. Perhaps one strategy to mitigate learned helplessness (not within the scope of Scaer’s book)  is to relate through education and through popular and high culture how both inviduals and groups have banded together to overcome threats to survival. Call such tactics a promising form of preventive medicine. For part 2 of this essay, see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/18/history-as-trauma-2-rosebud-version/.

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3 Comments »

  1. I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but I give my highest recommendation to Jonathan Shay’s book “Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character.” Shay is a VA psychiatrist specializing in PTSD, and he maps the experiences, symptoms, and self-reports of his patients onto the psychological descriptions in the Iliad in great detail.

    Look at the chapter “Berserk” and see if you don’t see Ahab.

    Comment by Bob — July 4, 2012 @ 8:01 pm | Reply

  2. [...] Also the first segment of this two-part series, see http://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/. Like this:LikeBe the first to like this post. Comments [...]

    Pingback by Feminism and its publicists « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 18, 2012 @ 9:36 pm | Reply

  3. [...] of disabling responses to traumas. This blog will comment further on the material introduced here: http://clarespark.com/2012/03/14/history-as-trauma/. I have finished reading Robert Scaer MD’s book, The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation, [...]

    Pingback by History as trauma (2), Rosebud version « YDS: The Clare Spark Blog — March 18, 2012 @ 8:20 pm | Reply


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