The Question to Ask About Art Robinson's Love of Racist Novels

Last week brought a full-court press from the right-wingers at WorldNetDaily in support of Art Robinson, a Republican candidate for Congress in Oregon running against incumbent Democrat Peter DeFazio about racist books in Robinson's homeschooling curriculum.
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Last week brought a full-court press from the right-wingers at WorldNetDaily in support of Art Robinson, a Republican candidate for Congress in Oregon running against incumbent Democrat Peter DeFazio:

  • David Kupelian wrote that Robinson is a "Ph.D. research scientist of international stature" and "a straight-shooting, problem-solving Reagan conservative who not only loves this country, he understands this country - what makes it work - and is willing to fight the good fight to restore it to greatness and prosperity."

  • Joseph Farah praised Robinson, who "was my neighbor for a few years," as "a renowned expert on the issue of so-called 'climate change,'" "an expert on the issue of civil defense," and "the kind of determined tax and budget cutter we need to replace the tax-and-spend Peter DeFazios of the world." Farah added, "Robinson's scientific background makes him highly qualified to challenge Obamacare and the myth of the carbon dioxide crisis."
  • Barry Farber defended Robinson from charges that he is a racist: "OK. I'm from the South. I've experienced racist candidates. But if you call a candidate a racist, you owe me a galaxy of N-words spoken with feeling, open and unsubtle disparagement of black people, cruel jokes and maybe even a flaming cross and a noose. Otherwise, don't bother me."
  • Farber went on to explain (and downplay) that racism charge:

    Can you guess what's behind the charge of Robinson's racism? When Robinson's wife died in 1988, he homeschooled his six children, all of them now Ph.D.s, as is Robinson, veterinarians or well en-route. Robinson also developed a homeschooling curriculum that sold well and enabled all six children to go to college. An ancillary feature of Robinson's homeschooling program is a bibliography of over a hundred suggested books. In one of those books, written and set in the 1800s in Africa, a white person says something like, "These tribal people act like children. I don't think they're very smart."

    And that's it! The fact that the hero of that book is a black man fighting slavery apparently did not deter the pro-DeFazio dirt-diggers from declaring "Mission Accomplished."

    I wouldn't march even a baby ocelot across a rope bridge that flimsy. Too insulting to the voters' intelligence. But here we are. Robinson the racist! What intensifies the hurt is, I suspect DeFazio and his proxies know Robinson is no racist. And I'm the world's foremost authority on what I suspect.

    Kupelian took his own stab at rebutting the charge:

    One part of "The Robinson Curriculum" is a recommendation that students read as many as possible of the 99 short, classic historical novels for children penned by celebrated British author G.A. Henty (kind of like the "Hardy Boys" books). Now it happens that in one of these 99 Victorian-era books - all of which Robinson personally reprinted and offered to the public as an adjunct to his homeschooling curriculum - one fictional character makes a two-sentence remark while in Africa that could be considered racially insensitive by today's standards. Because of this, candidate Art Robinson is being labeled a racist.

    Yes, I know, it's insane.

    In fact, there's a lot more to the charge than Kupelian and Farber are letting on.

    The book in question is Henty's "By Sheer Pluck," and here's the offending passage, in which Mr. Goodenough, the mentor of the young lad who's the main character, pontificates upon their arrival in Africa:

    "They are just like children," Mr. Goodenough said. "They are always either laughing or quarrelling. They are good-natured and passionate, indolent, but will work hard for a time; clever up to a certain point, densely stupid beyond. The intelligence of an average negro is about equal to that of a European child of ten years old. A few, a very few, go beyond this, but these are exceptions, just as Shakespeare was an exception to the ordinary intellect of an Englishman. They are fluent talkers, but their ideas are borrowed. They are absolutely without originality, absolutely without inventive power. Living among white men, their imitative faculties enable them to acquire a considerable amount of civilization. Left alone to their own devices they retrograde into a state little above their native savagery."

    While Kupelian downplays the words as being spoken by a "fictional character" (and Farber completely misrepresents the level of offensiveness), they appear to be representative of the late 19th century imperialist and racist attitudes in Henty's books.

    A PBS bio of Henty states that his books "are notable for their hearty imperialism, undisguised racism, and jingoistic patriotism," indicating that they they went out of print for a reason: such attitudes fell out of fashion decades ago.

    And far from being "classic historical novels," a scholarly paper on Henty's work points out that they contain a "formulaic structure" and imparted "a discourse embodying the British imperial ideology." Of "By Sheer Pluck," the book containing the above offending passage, the paper states:

    However, no such race-crossing is seen in By Sheer Pluck, a novel set in West Africa. On the contrary, "stereotypes about Africans begin to emerge as the setting shifts from England to the west coast of Africa" (Logan, "The Myth" 130-131). When Frank and Mr. Goodenough disembark from the ship on the coast of West Africa, the latter immediately warns the boy that "the negroes of Sierra Leone are the most indolent, the most worthless, and the most insolent in all Africa" (113). (4) This racist view is further reiterated and broadened through the boy hero Frank's observation of a troop of baboons:

    in the distance Frank could hear the shouts of some natives, and supposed that the monkeys had been plundering their plantations, and that they were driving them away. The baboons passed without paying any attention to him, but Frank observed that the last of the troop was carrying a little one in one of its forearms. Frank glanced at the baby-monkey and saw that it had round its waist a string of blue beads. As a string of beads is the only attire which a negro child wears until it reaches the age of ten or eleven years old, the truth at once flashed upon Frank that the baboons were carrying off a native baby. (153-154)

    The direct implication of this incident is that Henty's hero, even though he is knowledgeable about species, cannot really see a physical difference between a black baby and a monkey. (5) Therefore, the incident stands out as a striking expression of Henty's racialist perception of the Africans. As a result, early in the novel Henty establishes in the minds of his readers where he believes the natives of West Africa stand in the biological evolutionary chain. Furthermore, as statements about the intellectual capabilities and character and moral traits of the Africans come into play, the culturally-constructed racial stereotypes are also added into the picture.


    Not surprisingly, the core idea in Mr. Goodenough's statement was in line with a declaration made by the Anthropological Society in 1864 "that black children develop only up to the age of twelve" (Green 233).

    Obviously, Henty did not become a racist on his own. In a sense, in his novels, he was responding to the public sensitivity about the Empire, colonisation overseas and the discourses accompanying these concerns. In other words, his novels were both the reflections and the reinforcements of popular assumptions held by the majority of the British people in his own time.

    The real question here is what Robinson does with Henty's books in his homeschool curriculum, particularly given that, in Kupelian's words, he encourages students to "read as many as possible." What guidance is given to homeschooling instructors in addressing the offending passage in "By Sheer Pluck" and other similar offending passages that presumably exist in other Henty books? Neither Farber nor Kupelian discuss this.

    To the contrary: Kupelian touts how Robinson's homeschooling curriculum "apparently works pretty well, as today all six of Art's children either have doctorate degrees or will shortly. One has a chemistry Ph.D., two have doctorates in veterinary medicine and the last three are all in the Oregon State University graduate program working toward their Ph.D.s in nuclear engineering."

    Like any good capitalist, Robinson will happily sell you Henty's books (though they are old enough to be in the public domain). The Robinson Books page for the series -- you can buy all 99 for $1,199 in hardcover, $699 in paperback, or $99 on CD-ROM -- describes them as featuring "Henty's heroes of honesty, integrity, hard work, courage, diligence, perseverance, personal honor, and strong Christian faith are unsurpassed." No mention is made of the racism and imperialism that pervade the books.

    Robinson himself, meanwhile, is on record praising Henty's works: "G. A. Henty wrote at a time when the teaching of a deep Christian faith, high moral character, sound ethical principles, a strong work ethic, simple personal humility, and self-confidence based on real accomplishments were considered essential to the education of each young person. This is in sharp contrast to today's tax-financed schools where these values are deliberately excluded." It seems he doesn't want to talk about the racism stuff either.

    The fact that Robinson apologists like Kupelian and Farber are working so hard to deflect the racism issue without explaining how Robinson's curriculum handles Henty's racism and imperialism leaves wide open the possibility that it isn't addressed at all.

    That seems like something Robinson ought to explain, but it's clear that WND is too far in the tank for Robinson to bother with any genuinely serious investigation. Any other takers out there?

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