This post was written by Teo Rogers, Digitization Student Assistant for the C-SPAN records Digitization Project.
From time to time, this job makes me feel like the Marvel Comics character, Uatu the Watcher. If you’re unfamiliar with Uatu, congratulations; you’re a far cooler person than I’ll ever be. Let me bring you down to my level for just a moment. Essentially, Uatu is a cosmic entity tasked with watching over the Earth, as his full title implies, but never to interfere or to do anything appreciably useful. Now, why do I feel like Uatu? As I go through each folder of C-SPAN viewer mail, I am retroactively watching the country react to historical events—the Gulf War, Whitewater, presidential elections, and so on—with rage, support, and everything in between. Obviously, I cannot interfere with the U.S. population’s personal opinions from the ‘80s and ‘90s. Unlike Uatu, though, who is immortal, I, at least, have the excuse of either: a) not existing until 1994 or b) being too preoccupied by Sesame Street to comment on the divisive rhetorical strategies of Newt Gingrich, for example.
History does tend to repeat itself, though there are sociocultural undercurrents that dictate this pattern and explicitly or implicitly tinge each of the figurative straws that break each camel’s back. Historians describe this phenomenon with the concept of historical contingency, or, pardon my French, the longue durée. This concept holds that no event happens in a vacuum; everything is influenced by some prior condition, milieu, or event, versus the unconnected influences of significant individual actors. Think of it like one long piece of ribbon. Knots on this ribbon could be considered individual events. While there may be distinguishing frays or tatters between the knots, or the knots could be tied in different ways, every knot is made from the same piece of ribbon. At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Where is he going with this?” You should know, dear reader, that I do enjoy a good tangent—in an earlier draft of this piece, I spoke at length about Ancient Egyptian belief systems—but I am restraining myself for your sake.
So. C-SPAN viewer mail and historical contingency. That’s what we’re talking about, tangent-free. Unless you’ve devoted yourself to some sylvan ascetic lifestyle, in which case you wouldn’t even be reading this, you’re aware of the social unrest permeating the country, instigated most immediately by the unjust murders of Ahmaud Arbery (GA), Breonna Taylor (KY), and, George Floyd (MN). The latter two were killed by active police (those involved in George Floyd’s death have been charged, while those in Breonna Taylor’s have only been placed on administrative leave), while Ahmaud Arbery was killed by an ex-police officer and his son. The initial protests in Minneapolis against police brutality towards African Americans have multiplied and magnified in solidarity marches in literally every state and in many other countries, including the United Kingdom, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Greece. In some areas, the interactions between police and protesters have turned violent, as debates over the First Amendment right to peaceful assembly rage in halls of power. Government figures—including the president—have also advocated for an extensive military response against the protestors. Oh, yeah; this is all happening amidst a deadly pandemic.
The protests are once again bringing to light the tarnishes on the picture of Dorian Grey that is American institutionalized racism. It’s a bleak and bloodied history, to say the least, and these protests are not the first of their kind, because of the longevity of the issue (including its role in the formation of the America that we know) and the continuous examples of its many snarling heads, one of which is police brutality toward people of color. Racism and hatred breed monsters among the general populace, historically and contemporaneously. I see evidence of this in the C-SPAN viewer mail that I sort through every day. Between the letters asking for transcripts or videos of a particular program or pointing out Brian Lamb’s biases—somehow simultaneously to the left and right—I’ll see letters opining that minorities are threatening the security of small-town Texas; that apartheid in South Africa was actually good for the African population there; that Nelson Mandela was a Communist thug and a criminal for wanting change and that racial segregation should be reinstated in the U.S.; or that the Holocaust never happened and that the Diary of Anne Frank should be banned for spreading anti-Nazi propaganda. I’m not even touching on the homophobic or misogynistic letters, but trust me, there are a lot of them.
A quick perusal of the comments sections of C-SPAN’s Instagram account (yes, I follow C-SPAN on Instagram; you’re definitely cooler than I am) shows that not too much has changed in terms of rhetoric of intolerance delivered to C-SPAN by its viewers, except for the media by which such comments are made and a more prominent figurehead who often adds more fuel to the fire. Here is where I start to feel like Uatu. It’s 2020. I no longer have the excuses of not being a glimmer in my father’s eye or of being a toddler in the ‘90s, but I’m also not a cosmic being. However, I am a person watching as the social unrest germinates and unfurls worldwide. I watch as violence escalates, and I watch some in government push for even greater force. I watch the same hatred I have read in the viewer mail being spewed online, sometimes even using the same language. I watch this latest knot tie itself onto this apparently permanent strand of ribbon. I watch, but how can I help?
I will never understand the realities of what it’s like to be a minority in America, nor will I ever pretend that I have not enjoyed a plethora of privileges. That does not mean, though, that I should just watch. Although I could not speak out against the vile language and sentiments in some of the viewer mail at the time it was being sent to C-SPAN in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I can speak out about the same kind of language that I’m seeing right now, even if it’s not directed toward me. Though I sometimes feel helpless or useless, we all have a role to play, as a friend of mine sagely put it. C-SPAN’s role may be one of neutrality, but after experiencing the racist vitriol in the viewer mail responding to historic events, I am inspired to not be a passive observer. Perhaps this is my role, then, or at least part of it. I watch yes, but hopefully, in this limited capacity, I can also make a difference.
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