I remember distinctly one day in a high school history class when we were about to start “learning” about the Civil Rights Movement…again. You could almost hear the collective unvoiced groan of the class. I had leaned over and said to a couple friends, “I think the Civil Rights Movement is the most over-taught thing in school. Yeah, MLK was a great person..we get it already.” They were all nods and yeahs.
While at the time we were just reveling in our (armchair) defiance of the education system, I realized today that this sentiment was actually an indication something deeper. The over-teaching of the Civil Rights Movement de-sensitized us to what had taken place. The Civil Rights Movement was reduced to a handful of protests for black rights, and even further reduced in our minds to yet-another-history-section. We associated the Civil Rights Movement with what we thought of history in general: a thing of the past that has little relevance to today. (The extent of “teaching” how history is relevant involved homework assignments of looking up current events.) This seems so obvious, I don’t know why it hit me only today. Maybe it is because I am not black, so I do not face the same brutality that black people do. It’s something that is not only obvious, but hurts them. Every waking (and sleeping) moment.
A thing of the past that has little relevance to today…this actually seems to be the way our society views history in general. In The Ecological Rift, Foster et al. critique social science for “its growing failure to confront the historical specificity (and thus the hegemonic structures) of present-day society…” (31). By dehistoricizing present-day society (i.e. removing it from the context of all that has happened), Foster et al. argue that we see “a narrow spectrum of time in which social conditions have seemed relatively stable” which gets “translated into a set of permanent conditions, and consequently these conditions/parameters disappear from analysis since they are, in effect, naturalized” (25). However, they also point out that “the historical specificity that defines the present means that conditions, which are commonly seen as simply given, as constituting a kind of permanent equilibrium, can in fact be abruptly transformed” (25).
What teachers of the public education system (unintentionally) communicate is that, yes, the Civil Rights Movement happened in the past, (read: it is over). We have succeeded in making our society better and arriving at an equilibrium. There is no more need for social change. By over-teaching it, they further alienate students from the ideas that the Civil Rights Movement represented. It becomes boring – anything that authorities are trying to pound into my head must be something to resist. They lull students into passivity.
This is essentially an “Ideological State Apparatus,” a concept by Louis Althusser. I recently came across this concept in “Japanese Mothers and Obentos: The Lunch-Box as Ideological State Apparatus” by Anne Allison (1991). (This article was in two of the food/culture books I had checked out so people must think it’s important) Allison introduces this concept by saying that “culture is not necessarily innocent [yeah, who would think the cute obentos would do any harm], and power not necessarily transparent [obviously].” Here is the rest of her summary:
The scholarship of the neo-Marxist Louis Althusser (1971), for example, has encouraged the conceptualization of power as a force which operates in ways that are subtle, disguised, and accepted as everyday social practice Althusser differentiated between two major structures of power in modern capitalist societies. The first, he called (Repressive) State Apparatus (SA), which is power that the state wields and manages primarily through the threat of force […through] mechanisms as the law and police (1971: 143-5).
Contrasted with this is a second structure of power—Ideological State Apparatus(es) (ISA). These are institutions which have some overt function other than a political and/or administrative one: mass media, health, and welfare fore example. More numerous, disparate, and functionally polymorphous than the SA, the ISA exert power not primarily through repression but through ideology. Designed and accepted as practices with another purpose—to educate (the school system, entertain (film industry), inform (news media), the ISA serve not only their stated objective but also an unstated one—that of indoctrinating people into seeing the world a certain way and of accepting certain identities as their own within that world (1971:143-7).
While both structures of power operate simultaneously and complementarily, it is the ISA, according to Althusser, which in capitalist societies is the more influential of the two. Disguised and screened by another operation, the power of ideology in ISA can be both more far-reaching and insidious that the SA’s power of coercion. Hidden in the movies we watch, the music we hear, the liquor we drink, the textbooks we read, it is overlooked because it is protected and its protection—or its alibi (Barthes 1957: 109-111)—allows the terms and relations of ideology to spill into and infiltrate our everyday lives.
In the article, Allison goes on to explain how obentos are used in nursery schools nationwide in Japan to enforce ideologies about conformity and gender-roles. In the same way, the over-teaching of the Civil Rights Movement in the US public education system enforces not only how the state wants us to see the 1960s, but also ideologies that maintain social order in American society. Noam Chomsky has expressed what these ideologies are:
See, the idea that people could be free is extremely frightening to anybody with power. That’s why the 1960s have such a bad reputation. I mean, there’s a big literature about the Sixties, and it’s mostly written by intellectuals, because they’re the people who write books, so naturally it has a very bad name—because they hated it. You could see it in the faculty clubs at the time: people were just traumatized by the idea that students were suddenly asking questions and not just copying things down. In fact, when people like Allan Bloom [author of The Closing of the American Mind] write as if the foundations of civilization were collapsing in the Sixties, from their point of view that’s exactly right: they were. Because the foundations of civilization are, “I’m a big professor, and I tell you what to say, and what to think, and you write it down in your notebooks, and you repeat it.” If you get up and say, “I don’t understand why I should read Plato, I think it’s nonsense,” that’s destroying the foundations of civilization. But maybe it’s a perfectly sensible question—plenty of philosophers have said it, so why isn’t it a sensible question?
As with any mass popular movement, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on in the Sixties—but that’s the only thing that makes it into history: the crazy stuff around the periphery. The main things that were going on are out of history…” (On Anarchism, 29)
Maybe the “main things that were going on” involved average people taking a risk by voicing their opinions and challenging ideologies they did not believe in. What the people with power in society want is for us to think that we are powerless as individuals to create change, only heroes and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. are able to do that. What the people with power in society want is for us to look back on the 60s with fear, and forget that social change was made possible by people like you and me banding together. This forgetting, is the same as Foster et al.’s “dehistoricization of society” and also what Nathan Schneider calls “amnesia” in the context of the Occupy movement:
With the exception of a few shared mythologies about our founding slaveholders and our most murderous wars, we like to imagine that everything we do is being done for the very first time. Such amnesia can be useful, because it lends a sensation of pioneering vitality to our undertakings that the rest of the history-heavy world seems to envy. But it also condemns us to forever reinvent the wheel. (On Anarchism, Introduction, ix)
When students ask school teachers why we should learn about history, they often answer, “So we don’t make the same mistakes.” But this implies that the same things won’t happen again, when they have, and still do, again and again. It’s ironic that what they are doing actually reinforces the our inability to be prepared for “mistakes.” They are reinforcing the “amnesia.”
As someone who was indoctrinated in this education system and therefore bestowed with this “amnesia”, I had gone about blindly pursuing what society says I should in life, until I realized they were things I didn’t want to pursue, until I realized that there were things about society I wasn’t cool with. But because of the “amnesia”, my discontent and anger turned into frustration and futility. I couldn’t see how it was possible for an individual to change the ideologies of a whole society, of social, economic, and political structures that have been created and perpetuated for centuries. I was right, of course, an individual can’t. But since then I have heard repeatedly, if you join with others who feel the same, then you can.
Despite this, the “amnesia” is still strong, and I am still not fully convinced of the power of grassroots. I sway between feeling like we are on the brink of another socio-political revolution—with things like BlackLivesMatter, Fightfor15, the Supreme Court ruling for same-sex marriage, the Greenpeace activist climbers against Shell, HeforShe, the Slow Food movement, Bernie Sanders—and feeling like it’s all so hopeless we should all just opt for voluntary human extinction. But I recently read something that has changed my perspective. In this conversation, Noam Chomsky is talking about working within the state system even though he believes in anarchy (not “chaos” as the state wants you to think, but anarchy as a concept in social philosophy, the idea “that every form of authority and domination and hierarchy, every authoritarian structure, has to prove that it’s justified—it has no prior justification […and] the burden of proof for any exercise of authority is always on the person exercising it” (On Anarchism, 32-3) ):
Despite the anarchist “vision.” I think aspects of the state system, like the one that makes sure children eat, have to be defended—in fact, defended very vigorously. And given the accelerating effort that’s being made these days to roll back the victories for justice and human rights which have been won through long and often extremely bitter struggles in the West, in my opinion the immediate goal of even committed anarchists should be to defend some state institutions, while helping to pry them open to more meaningful public participation, and ultimately dismantle them in a much more free society. […] The deeper visions should be maintained, they’re important—but dismantling the state system is a goal that’s a lot farther away, and you want to deal first with what’s at hand and nearby (On Anarchism, 40).
This idea can be applied to any kind of goals for social change. Yes, a world without racism or sexism or homophobia or wage
labor slavery is very far away, but the way to get there isn’t to go for none all at once. It takes steps. Sometimes those steps lead to a run and the momentum turns into large-scale social change, but when that happens, we can’t just stop after celebrating a few victories. We need to fight that amnesia and remember that this process of changing society is ongoing, that we’re continuing a process that has been going on for generations before us and will continue generations after us—it’s called “history.”