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Right-wingers such as Moms for Liberty lost traction across a swath of school board elections this week. In one of the most contentious locales, the Central Bucks school district in Pennsylvania, Democrats swept the Moms for Liberty crowd from office after a bitter and costly campaign. The political battles over books and school curricula and cultural representation seems to be turning in liberals’ favor. But politics is only beginning to catch up to other cultural vectors, which have been running way ahead. Outside the fortified GOP strongholds of Austin and Tallahassee and Pierre, out on the open range, conservatives are getting massacred. Culturally speaking, of course.
Director Martin Scorcese said he shot his new film, “Killers of the Flower Moon,” a story about greedy white men preying on wealthy Native Americans, so that it wouldn’t be “about all the white guys.” Whether a Hollywood movie starring Leo and DeNiro can realistically be about something other than the white guys is a question that seems to answer itself. Even so, scarcely a week goes by without some corner of American culture revisiting American history to place Black people, or Mexicans or Native Americans nearer the center of the national narrative. This vital wave of new scholarship – New York University just announced a new Center for Indigenous Studies and a major to go with it – is not simply about changing perspectives.
A wholesale refashioning of American myth is under way in acclaimed works such as “Indigenous Continent,” by Pekka Hamalainen, which chronicles centuries of Native American tribes artfully parrying the thrusts of European invaders. In books such as Claudio Saunt’s “Unworthy Republic: The Dispossession of Native Americans and the Road to Indian Country,” white Christian nationalists, convinced that God gave them a greenlight to overrun a continent, are not merely being jostled by indigenous actors at center stage. They are changing roles with them.
The American tale used to herald the civilizing influence that white Europeans brought to bear on “savages” from Africa and indigenous America. Contemporary historians more often paint the savagery white. Vicious conquistadors, brutal slavers, rapacious land grabbers and vengeful mobs who lynch the innocent and steal from the hard-working are the pale-faced demons of the emerging American story.
Jefferson Cowie’s “Freedom’s Dominion” won the Pulitzer Prize for history earlier this year. Its leading white character is arguably the mob. Cowie describes greed-fueled assaults on law and treaty by 19th century Southern whites whose conduct was so vicious that even President Andrew Jackson, no friend of natives, was alarmed. After usurping land and pushing natives on a misery-soaked westward trail, the white people launched the violent cataclysm to safeguard slavery.
The end of war produces no halt to the bloodlust. Cowie details a Reconstruction-era massacre of Black Alabamians attempting to exercise their newly won franchise. It’s a landmark pointing to a new era. Slavery recedes, and Jim Crow’s brutality begins. White savages form the violent bridge between.
History is likely the most important arena in which the American past is under reconstruction. But the barrage encompasses a lengthy popular front. In Percival Everett’s fantastical 2021 novel, “The Trees,” history comes home to roost as contemporary descendants of white lynch mobs are magically, ritually, murdered in revenge for their ancestors’ depravity. “Hamilton,” Lin-Manuel Miranda’s multi-hued retelling of the Founders, with a poor immigrant as hero, is now the 4th highest-grossing musical production of all time.
It’s hardly surprising that conservatives are upset about this assault on cherished myths, and are meeting it with repression. Why do children’s stories about the Civil Rights era generate such visceral MAGA opposition, including passionate demands to ban books in schools and libraries? Because the savages in these stories are not hatchet-wielding Indians on the prairie or slaves bound on ships from Africa. They are Southern white Christian conservatives who blow up little girls in church, shoot Black heroes in the back and murder courageous young men under the cowardly cover of a Mississippi night. A book about little Ruby Bridges making her way to school is a color-coded key: Who knows what contemporary political mysteries it might unlock for a precocious reader?
Preserving a heroic role for white conservatives is no easy task. How do you tell an honest story of the Civil Rights revolution, for children or adults, in which white conservatives are not the bad guys? How do you tell an honest story of the Civil War in which Southern White conservatives, killing with the blessings of a racist God, are not an affront to decency? What is the likelihood that Trump and his minions will be portrayed, in credible history or art, as something other than crude authoritarian thugs? And why is it that time and again white conservatives pose a threat to American pluralism? Unable to square history’s unflattering circles, conservatives increasingly opt to do away with history altogether.
There was a time when mindless natives whooped and scalped their way through the stylized plains of 1950s Hollywood. Conservatives continue to view that era as a cultural lodestar. But the old sets have been struck. The story is under revision. New actors are being cast in the role of savages. Many played their part in history with unnerving conviction. We are still reeling from the effects.