Thursday, August 20, 2015

Conservative Revisionist History: digging a little deeper into the politics of a minor modern controversy

Professor Richard J. Jensen
Recently I have come across multiple references to what widely seems to be a losing battle between a conservative history revisionist and a child history buff, regarding the 19th century.  This is significant not only because the kid pretty thoroughly spanks the old white duffer, but because revisionist history is a key political agenda item for the right, ranging from their policies to propaganda. 

It must sting, being routed by a mere girl, and a liberal.

In particular denial of very real discriminatory and violent victimization of certain groups, such as native Americans, blacks, progressive waves of voluntary immigrants, and those persecuted for religion (Catholics, Jews and Mormons, and more recently Muslims) is a key point on which the right are relentless.  The past intolerance of conservatives haunts them, even as they continue that intolerance and bigotry in the present against all of those groups as well as against women.  Consistently, bad historians like Jensen want to discredit the very real bigotry these groups suffered, while at the same time consistently playing the bogus white victim card.  Jensen is very keen on 'nativism', which is the bias of established immigrants and their descendants, against new immigrants.

This provides a fascinating lens through which to view a range of controversies, from the revisionist history the right has attempted to foist on advanced history classes in high schools for qualification for college credit, to the political campaigns on the right dealing with issues of discrimination in voting rights and on the topic of immigration.

The two adversaries in this particular informational and intellectual battle are a 14 year old girl in the 8th grade at the same school attended by the Obama daughters, Sidwell Friends, which some might consider a bastion of liberal education.  While the retired professor was previously predominantly teaching in Illinois - the state from which Obama was elected president.  Professor Richard Jensen taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago, from 1973 to 1996.  He is also a editor at Wikipedia, which notes he has strong ties as well to Conservapedia, a right wing revisionist source noted for errors of fact.

President Obama taught at the very prestigious University of Chicago Law School from 1992 to 2004, and began his career in state government representing Chicago in the state legislature from 1997 to 2004.  While it is impossible to know if the two men ever met, they clearly represent the opposite sides of both the educational and the political spectrum from that geographic area, a difference now being continued by a new generation.

I find this new battle over revisionist history particularly interesting from a personal perspective, because when I took high school honors history around the same age, back in the days of the dinosaurs, as it seems now, my own teacher, a PhD in history, REQUIRED that we do research into primary sources, much like that done by this 14 year old. 

In doing similar research, I found not only very much the same information as this young woman, but additional primary source material in the historical museums at the state and local level, that documented fear and discrimination against most of the large waves of immigrants that tended to overwhelm those who were already established.  I've SEEN this kind of evidence myself at her age, without using google, seeking out primary sources.  Each wave received its own discrimination, not only the Irish, but also Germans, Scandinavians, southern and eastern Europeans, and the Chinese, to name a few, with additional religious bias against Catholics and Jews associated with the southern Mediterranean and eastern European / Russian Jews getting singled out for particularly virulent bias.  As a general rule, anyone who was not a native speaker of English as their first language was targeted then, as now, by those who were bent on bigotry and fear of the 'other'.  Anyone who was more WASP - (perceived as)white anglo-saxon protestant (Christian) - received less demonizing than those who were perceived to be more different in key categories.  For example, up until the last century or so, Irish immigrants were not considered 'white', to give an example of crazy justification for bias, even though they are clearly primarily a Caucasian ethnicity, and spoke an accented English dialect.

From wikipedia (ironically) by way of Upworthy. 
(Let me know if this looks like ethnic and racial bigotry to you, particularly in the part of the caption that refers to superior and inferior races, that would likely lead to job discrimination, of the kind Jensen is denying, and that would carry over into employment as well as other aspects of normal civil life.):
Or did you know that the Irish weren't even considered "white" until the last hundred years? So while you probably won't witness much Irish racism in 2015, the reverberations from that suffering surely still exist.

An actual illustration from a 19th-century scholarly text. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

The evidence for these waves of discrimination are frequent, and obvious. To deny them or to ignore them requires a massive effort of ideology driven intellectual dishonesty, which is what we are consistently seeing from the right, and it is more extreme the further to the right the ideology.  This is nothing less than a denial of large collections of evidence.  This is on a par with claims that slavery was benevolent and good for black Americans in history, and denials of the facts of evolution or that the earth is only 6,000 years old.  They might as well claim the earth is flat, or that the sun orbits the earth.

Here is one link of many to the specific story:

From the Smithsonian Magazine:
Keeping you current

Teen Schools Professor on "No Irish Need Apply" Signs

Armed with a Google search and a theory, a 14-year-old enters the fray on a longstanding historical debate

This week, a 14-year-old made headlines for her epic takedown of a popular theory put forth by University of Illinois history professor Richard Jensen, Ben Collins reports for The Daily Beast.
The historical business practice of posting “Help Wanted! No Irish Need Apply” signs in windows and newspaper want ads to deter Irish workers has become part of America's cultural history and a powerful symbol of the discrimination faced by Irish immigrants at the turn of the last century. But for decades, Jensen has suggested that it was more myth than fact.
Here’s how Jensen’s argument goes: the signs were actually extremely rare and perhaps nonexistent, and the myth of the signs persists due to a popular song entitled “No Irish Need Apply.”
Jensen received backlash when he first published his theory, and the debate flared up again this March with the publication of numerous think pieces about St. Patrick's Day. One of those articles made it into the hands of eighth-grader Rebecca Fried, who turned to Google for more information.
To her surprise, she got results. The Washington Post's Moriah Balingkit reports that newspaper archive databases turned up dozens of work ads from the 1800s with the “No Irish Need Apply” caveat spanning a number of professions and U.S. states. According to Fried's findings, which were published last month in the Journal of Social History, the New York Sun newspaper ran 15 “No Irish Need Apply” ads in 1842 alone.
Driven more by curiosity than by academic fervor, Fried poked holes in the theory with a few calculated keystrokes. Jensen quickly responded to her work, arguing that the teen misinterpreted the data and that the signs were still quite rare. When Casey Egan at Irish Central first reported the story, the two went back and forth in the article's comments.
Though the debate about "No Irish Need Apply" signs may still be raging in the comments section, Fried’s work proves that the signs and the discrimination they represented did indeed exist — and that anyone with a curious mind and a nose for research can challenge the historical status quo.

I have long contended that conservatives are poorly informed, believing inaccurate things on a basis that is both broad and deep.  Their errors run the gamut from just plain crazy and faked to willful ignorance and incomplete information of the selective, cherry-picking variety.  I cannot imagine that this publication back in 2002 when Jensen originally published it was well received, but I would not be surprised if it is included in some form in Conservapedia, or if it is one more little cog in the broader propaganda effort to deceive voters from the right.

I would argue that in the very abstract of Professor Richard J. Jensen's original 2002 publication, the selective facts which he includes, which tends to limit immigrants to only the most menial and low paying jobs, much like the racial ceiling in employment experienced by native American and black Americans, and subsequently other groups, from Europe, and Asia, and more recently Hispanic immigrants, IS in itself the very essence of discrimination, not a total absence of employment.  These employment discrimination policies were also reflected in a broader range of discrimination, from education opportunities to housing to voting rights to where someone could travel during certain hours.  Discrimination is never ONLY about being barred from ALL jobs.  To pretend otherwise is the core of intellectual dishonesty.

Here is the abstract for Jensen's original abstract. Not only do the original 'NINA' signs remain extent, but so do many similar signs for other groups in our history.  What I find particularly of interest however is the end section, where Jensen tries to play the classic conservative white victimization card -- that it was WASPs who were the victims of the Irish, not the other way round:
Abstract Irish Catholics in America have a vibrant memory of humiliating job discrimination, which featured omnipresent signs proclaiming "Help Wanted--No Irish Need Apply!" No one has ever seen one of these NINA signs because they were extremely rare or nonexistent. The market for female household workers occasionally specified religion or nationality. Newspaper ads for women sometimes did include NINA, but Irish women nevertheless dominated the market for domestics because they provided a reliable supply of an essential service. Newspaper ads for men with NINA were exceedingly rare. The slogan was commonplace in upper class London by 1820; in 1862 in London there was a song, "No Irish Need Apply," purportedly by a maid looking for work. The song reached America and was modified to depict a man recently arrived in America who sees a NINA ad and confronts and beats up the culprit. The song was an immediate hit, and is the source of the myth. Evidence from the job market shows no significant discrimination against the Irish--on the contrary, employers eagerly sought them out. Some Americans feared the Irish because of their religion, their use of violence, and their threat to democratic elections. By the Civil War these fears had subsided and there were no efforts to exclude Irish immigrants. The Irish worked in gangs in job sites they could control by force. The NINA slogan told them they had to stick together against the Protestant Enemy, in terms of jobs and politics. The NINA myth justified physical assaults, and persisted because it aided ethnic solidarity. After 1940 the solidarity faded away, yet NINA remained as a powerful memory.
NINA remains as a powerful memory, because it is a real memory, and it is real history from which we need to learn important lessons. Conservatives don't want those lessons taught, or learned.  It undermines white privilege and power.  To people who live by fact, which largely includes both liberals and most independents, this is an example of right wing lying, and propaganda. To the right.... it's just business as usual by one of their right wing authorities engaged in calculated pandering dishonesty.

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