LIES JAMES LOEWEN TOLD ME
By Eric Schoen
On October 28, 2008 several hundred student spectators crammed into the Massey Performing Arts Center to hear remarks from this year’s First Year Seminar keynote speaker, sociologist James Loewen. USA Today hailed his work Lies My Teacher Told Me (the FYS “common book”) as “remarkable” and the New York Times called it “a lively critique.” I wholeheartedly agree. Indeed, I found his complete disregard for cogency incredibly remarkable and I found myself offering a lively critique of my own while he delivered his keynote remarks. I found just about everything he said to be reprehensible, including his shameless self-promotion. Equally reprehensible was Belmont’s requirement that all FYS students attend this event. While the school did not require us to listen, I fear a great majority had their ears open.
Loewen opened his address, glorifying Belmont University for selecting Lies My Teacher Told Me as the common book, and proclaimed that, because we were studying his book, we were a step above most students – much more enlightened and intelligent. He then discussed how American history books flub certain details, purporting that we present history ethnocentrically. With that established, he got to the meat of the rest of his sermon—I mean “speech”: whites in America are fundamentally racist, and as a result, so is our historical approach.
James Loewen wants a marriage of racial history, cultural history, and important events. This marriage, in his view, is currently impossible to achieve because materialistic, ethnocentric, conservative America won’t allow it. He argued that our nationalistic pride is unjustified and nonsensical because our heroes are faulted people, and that American history – as told by Americans – created the worldview that screams, “White is Right!” Loewen’s thesis in a nutshell is that American nationalism is really racism.
Our patriotism is racism. Our foreign policy mentality is racist. He even claimed that Skymall Magazine is a racist publication because the majority of advertisements in it contain Caucasians, with only a few black people and “Japanese-looking children.” But Skymall doesn’t create the ads it publishes – the product-sellers do. According to its website, Skymall is a “multi-channel, direct marketer offering high quality, innovative merchandise from top direct markers and manufacturers through its [catalog].” Simply put, Skymall sells advertising space that targets a demographic of businessmen and other air travelers. Where does racism enter?
Loewen delivered his most acerbic comments during the Q&A following the event. Someone asked if the Bush Administration could be construed as a white supremacist regime in its approach to the war in Iraq. At first, he warned against labeling the Bush Administration as anything in particular (even though he labeled just about everything that night). He followed by saying that the Iraq situation was merely “misguided politics,” that Americans felt a duty to save Iraq from Saddam Hussein – misguided by a myopic white supremacist worldview. Loewen seemed keen to discredit Republicans as a whole, arguing that “since the Nixon Administration, the Republican Party has aligned itself with white supremacy.”
This is completely false. To say that a major political party is, in essence, racist—and has been for the last 30 years—is indoctrination. James Loewen should have apologized immediately for saying such a thing. I do not consider myself a Republican, but it offends me that he would be so glib to label an entire political party as racist, especially only six days before a presidential election.
Despite his scathing criticisms, I understand the educational need for this book. To be fair, he does uncover factoids that most American history courses do not explore. However, Loewen should re-work his presentation and take bias out of it. We should not blame Belmont University for his remarks. There is a distinction between James Loewen the man, James Loewen the required reading, and Belmont. I am sure that everyone who attended the speech made their own judgments about it; however, Loewen’s claims should not be left to memory.
Eric Schoen is a freshman Political Science major.