Monday, December 31, 2012

Watch Night

Tonight marks the 150th anniversary of the moment the Emancipation Proclamation became law.  In September 1862, President Abraham Lincoln declared his intent to emancipate all slaves living in rebellious states or sections of states unless the authorities in question agreed to re-join the Union by December 31, 1862.  It is important to note that this proclamation did not outlaw slavery everywhere in the United States; slaves in sections of the country not in rebellion remained slaves until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in 1865.  Even so, January 1, 1863 marked the beginning of the end of slavery as an American institution.

As the author of this interesting Denver Post article points out, the moral question we deem so central was one among several reasons for emancipating southern slaves.  Despite the legacy of the revolutionary conflict and the War of 1812, our most important international relationship was with Great Britain, and throughout 1862 and 1863 the British remained divided on the question of recognition for the Confederate government.  On one hand, these were states in rebellion from the perspective of the United States; on the other, they were important purveyors of raw cotton for the burgeoning textile industry of industrial Manchester and other British manufacturing centers.  Britain had outlawed slavery years before, but until the Emancipation Proclamation placed slavery squarely at the center of the Civil War conflict it remained possible to view the war as a question of state's rights versus federal prerogatives.  Once Lincoln signed his proclamation, the War Between the States became unquestionably a war about slavery--and public opinion in Britain would not stand for an alliance with southern slaveholders.  The rhetoric of defending slavery was present from the earliest days of the conflict.  C.S.A. vice president Alexander Stephens memorably declared slavery the "cornerstone of the Confederacy."  After January 1, 1863 this rhetoric could no longer be minimized or ignored.

African Americans were, of course, eager to see the Emancipation Proclamation take effect, organizing "Watch Nights" on December 31, 1862 to stand vigil in hopes that Lincoln would keep his promise to undertake such a revolutionary action.  On this 150th anniversary, the National Archives will stay open past midnight as the original document is put on display alongside the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution.  Others around the country will keep vigil in remembrance of this transformative event.  Emancipation did not bring the end of suffering, but it marked an tremendously important beginning.  I am thankful for the step toward freedom Lincoln took on behalf of this nation 150 years ago tonight.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Rustin on compromise

I am preparing for my last session of American political thought this semester (!).  We will focus this week on the 1960s, examining texts of the New Left, civil rights and women's rights movements.  No wonder each week feels like a 2.5-hour whirlwind...

I'm enjoying the opportunity to read again through texts like Martin Luther King, Jr.'s moving "Letter from Birmingham Jail."  The power of his prose and the eloquence of his arguments is fresh and invigorating -- and deeply troubling -- every time I read it.  When in the course of this response to a plea from fellow clergymen for "moderation" he begins to write of what it's like to see the injustices and pain of segregation mirrored in the faces of your children, the personal torment of racism leaps from the page in a flurry of searing, semi-coloned clauses.  I'm sure it's the most masterful piece of prose ever smuggled out of a prison on the margins of old newspapers; I suspect it is one of the more masterful ever written in America on paper of any variety.

Today, though, I was especially intrigued by a sentence from a Commentary journal article written by civil rights leader and King ally Bayard Rustin in 1965.  Rustin was speaking to the structural problems remaining in American life even as de jure, or legalized, segregation crumbled to oblivion.  In contrast to some in the broader civil rights movement he favored alliances with other progressive groups, arguing that strength and, thus, political power would come only in numbers.  He cautioned against equating compromise with disavowal of core values.  His words rang true for me in a manner that transcends the context of his movement:

"...the difference between expediency and morality in politics is the difference between selling out a principle and making smaller concessions to win larger ones."*

Our contemporary political leaders would do well to heed Rustin's words.

* Bayard Rustin, "From Protest to Politics: The Future of the Civil Rights Movement," quoted in Isaac Kramnick and Theodore J. Lowi, American Political Thought: A Norton Anthology (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009), p. 1337.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

on the election

While yesterday's presidential election wasn't the squeaker some predicted, Americans clearly differ in their views regarding the direction our country should head.  I realize not all readers of this blog will be pleased with President Obama's reelection, and that's okay.  Regardless of one's views on the parties or the candidates, however, I think we can all be very pleased by the reality that prompts my reflection this morning:

Last night I led a bunch of (very squirrelly, excited-about-their-first-presidential-votes) students through a discussion of the political thought of three important African American leaders at the turn of the 20th century: Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.  Each of these men grappled deeply with the question of how best to protect and develop the rights and aspirations of their people in a desperately oppressive environment.

Then, I came home (having let the squirrelly enthusiasts go forth and celebrate or mourn as the occasion required) and watched an African American president deliver his reelection speech.  These United States have elected a black man to the presidency.  Twice.

I suspect that even today, Washington, Du Bois and Garvey would find themselves with different political priorities.  But boy, would they be proud... and amazed.

Romney's election would not have meant Americans were opposed to the reelection of an African American president -- not in most cases, although I suspect we can all point toward instances in which race played a role in voting decisions.  In this election, of course, we faced the unusual -- and in itself, horizon-broadening -- situation of having a Mormon candidate representing the other party, and it's safe to say the odd individual refused to support Romney for those reasons, too.

That said, the very fact that a black presidential candidate was nominated, and did win, and now has been reelected, speaks volumes for the distance we have traveled.

And I think that's something we all can be proud of.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Informal reflection on women's rights

This is more of a rambling reflection than a properly composed piece, but I wanted to share something that blew my mind the other day -- even though it really shouldn't have.  The information wasn't anything new; I'd known for years, and yet: you know how sometimes knowledge you already possessed can suddenly hit you with particular and even personal force?  This was one of those moments.  I was talking with my 6-year-old daughter about voting.  I can't even remember specifically how the subject arose -- probably something to do with the election and her interest in the "olden days" -- when I commented that women couldn't vote in national elections until 1920.


My grandmother -- who, I'm blessed to say, is still living -- was four years old.  My daughter, whose personality resembles her great-grandmother's so strongly it would force one to believe in reincarnation were the elder representative not still with us, is only two years older than that.  The time when she would not have grown up with a right to vote... when I, the political historian (not that I would've been one then) would not have the right to vote... is in living memory.

Ninety-two years.  That's not very long ago.  I've taught many students about suffrage, but somehow it hadn't struck me so personally before now.  My daughter's presence in this conversation probably had a lot to do with that.  It was one of those moments when the professional becomes personal and for a moment I could glimpse just how important it was -- it is -- to protect, to defend and to advocate women's rights... and just how important it is to teach these things.

My students read several excerpts of documents written by women's rights advocates during the antebellum period in preparation for class last week.  In one of them, Sarah Grimké spoke of "the disproportionate value set on the time and labor of men and of women"* -- in other words, of wage inequality.  In 1837.  The work continues.

* Sarah M. Grimké, Letter VIII, Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and the Condition of Woman (1837), in Isaac Kramnick and Theodore J. Lowi, American Political Thought (W.W. Norton, 2009), p. 520.

Friday, October 5, 2012

A few historically-related thoughts on the first debate

I spent the first presidential debate with an enthusiastic group of GFU students, preparing to be an "expert" on the talk-back professor Q&A panel that followed.  Our subsequent conversation was a rich one, and as consequence of all this I took a few notes that might perhaps be worth sharing as one historian's take...

ROMNEY: Proposed returning responsibility for job training to the states.
This sounded much like the "new federalism" of some Nixon era policies--and like the type of thing Mitt's dad, George, would very much have favored.  This concept of devolving power to the lowest practical level is nothing new (indeed, it's been part of the American political dialogue since our founding).  George, however, was equally concerned with fostering interactions between business and government that emphasized mutual responsibility.  Talking about devolution is all well and good (and we do need to keep trying new ideas); how do we put policy into practice?  This is the essential element I felt was missing.  It's an easy sell to small-government advocates to talk about devolution, but without accompanying structure they're just words.  Perhaps the structure of a debate does not allow for such detail, but it was a recurring theme for me, and not necessarily limited to one candidate or the other.

ROMNEY (but Obama didn't challenge this, so in a sense it refers to both): Three percent of small businesses employ half of all small-business employees.
If they employ that great a percentage, how can they still be considered "small businesses"?  Here's an example of where rhetoric (again, not necessarily limited to either side) overshadows critical thinking.  Small businesses are essential and should be protected and encouraged; "small business" has become a shibboleth.

OBAMA: A drop in revenues would lead to severe hardship for people, "but more importantly not help us grow."
Whaaaa?!  I'm sorry, but hardship trumps growth.  Taking care of the least of these is more important than an upward line on the stock market charts.  (I realize one can lead to the other, but the present "recovery" is a good demonstration that the correlation is far from absolute.)  Severe hardship should be a paramount concern for both parties.  Both Roosevelts (TR and FDR) are spinning in their graves...

ROMNEY: "Expensive things hurt families."
Here he was referring to something like taxes, and I'm sorry I don't remember the specifics... but what about such "expensive things" as Social Security and Medicare--each of which he'd spent the past several minutes defending in context of his programs proposals' ability to provide for their longterm stability.  Simplicity in everyday living = good.  Simplicity in politics = often problematic.  The world is more complicated than that.

BOTH: "Middle class families" [times a jillion]
Gee... what about the poor?  What about the working class?  What about single people?  What about empty nesters?  See above comment re: oversimplification.

I realize this is predominantly a list of quibbles, and while critical analysis is important I suspect we'd all be better off if we spent more time appreciating the positive.  In that spirit, here are a couple observations...

ROMNEY: That joke about how delighted Obama no doubt was to be spending his anniversary with him.
I see it as an unmitigated good that with this comment, well delivered and without a hint of malice, Romney demonstrated he has a sense of humor.  Obama has done so on other occasions.  Lightheartedness is, for me, an essential element in a president.  Nobody who can't take or make a joke should have their fingers anywhere near the nuclear trigger codes.

OBAMA: Health care rates have gone up less per year over the past two years than the average rate of increase over the previous 50 years.
First: yay for any deceleration in the rate of health care cost increases.  Second: a long-term historical view!  This pleased me greatly.  Our tendency to see the past as irrelevant to the present and the future harms humanity so.  Any time a politician of either party draws on historical context to give us a deeper and more relevant understanding of the present, I am a very happy camper.

Friday, September 28, 2012

A remembrance of Russell Train

Click here for a post I recently wrote for the "Politics Among Friends" blog of the politics department at George Fox University.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A few thoughts on the Federalists

Life gets busy and suddenly I realize it's been ages since I've posted.  I've been reading through several of the Federalist Papers in preparation for class this evening; my American political theory students have been assigned factional affiliations and will have to rehash the Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist debate over ratification of the United States Constitution.  A worthy enterprise (I hope)... we can always do with a reminder of why our government looks like it does.

I was especially struck by James Madison's commentary in Federalist 51.  Arguing that "Ambition must counter ambition," he asserts the need for checks and balances -- interactions among the various branches of government that were intended to keep any one of the three branches from gaining too much power.  (The Federalists were most concerned about the potential for legislative authority to grow too strong -- see Federalist 48, among other sources.  I look forward to polling my students on the subject of which branch(es) have in practice posed the greatest "threat," if any, throughout our history.) "...what is government itself," he argues, "but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?  If men were angels, no government would be necessary."  Humans not, of course, being angels, the checks and balances of the Constitution are vital.

Perhaps my favorite line in Fed 51 is this: "Whilst all authority in it [government] will be derived from and dependent on the society, the society itself will be broken into so many parts, interests and classes of citizens, that the rights of individuals, or of the minority, will be in little danger from interested combinations of the majority."  A few observations: first, the powers of government are derived from society.  Second, minority rights matter; this isn't just an argument for the will of the majority.  Finally, all of this indicates that compromise was literally built into the fabric of our constitutional republic.

Some among us keep fussing that we need to "get back to the Founders."  Others scoff at the idea.  Perhaps the best approach might be to look at what the Founders actually said.  They weren't oracles.  They had no powers of prediction.  They were in many ways deeply flawed (see the abhorrent slavery clauses, among other examples).  They were also, however, brilliant for their time... and cautious about the future.  The Federalist Papers -- and, to give full credit -- the arguments of the Anti-Federalists were about care and stewardship.  What would best provide for a bright future?  How could any power in society be prevented from gaining the excessive control that leads to tyranny?  Important stuff.  I'm blessed to have the motivation to go back and look at some of these things.  I hope it's a useful evening for my students, as well.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

George Romney and Voluntarism

I've had an article published on the History News Network regarding George Romney's commitment to voluntarism... and some implications for his son's presidential campaign.  Click here to take a look.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Seems the GOP conventioneers have been having a go at the current president and veep for their golfing enthusiasm (and, in Vice President Biden's case, alleged lack of veracity regarding his scores).  There is a certain historical irony in this, insofar as (Republican) President Dwight Eisenhower was routinely lampooned by liberals for his enjoyment of a jaunt around the greens.  Also, anyone supporting Mitt Romney for president really shouldn't be calling extra attention to the pastimes of the well-off in America -- just as anyone who voted for John Kerry might do well to step off the Mitt-has-a-wooden-personality bandwagon.  These people are people, and if they don't do something in addition to their political work they will keel over before a four-year term is up.  They tend to be well-off people, because it's ridiculously expensive to run for office.  This means, in turn, they do well-off-people things like golf.  If they weren't raised well-off, they've probably become so through some combination of intellect, talent and gift for gab.  This might not be ideal, but at present it is the way our political system works.

The preoccupation with golf, however, leads me to a fun little story about the Mittster's dad, Michigan Governor George Romney.  Seems he was quite a golf enthusiast himself -- and he was hardcore in his devotion to the sport as a sport.  No "19th hole" devotee was George.  He made a regular morning habit of rising early and heading for the course, where he would run from shot to shot, pausing only long enough to slap a club in the general direction of the ball before he was off and running again.  Biographer T. George Harris reports he was invariably dripping by the end of his "game."

(T. George Harris, Romney's Way: A Man and an Idea [Prentice-Hall, 1967])

Friday, August 17, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #4

One last thought on our time in Virginia.  I know and teach about the incremental development of slavery in North America over the course of the 1600s.  I realize that early in the century, African slaves and white indentured servants sometimes formed alliances and viewed their plight in class rather than racial terms.  I understand that the institution of hereditary, racially defined chattel slavery did not land fully realized on the North American coast.  In short, I've read my Edmund Morgan* (and I recommend him).

That said: it's highly disturbing how often tours, museums and other institutions refer to those who worked on southern plantations, or doing menial labor in southern towns and cities, as "servants."  They weren't "servants," by and large -- and certainly not after the late 1600s.  They were slaves.  It existed.  It was profoundly wrong.  Yes, it wasn't just a southern phenomenon (in the pre-Revolutionary period, especially) and northerners would do very well to recognize this more openly.  To refer to "servants," however, is to gloss over the past in a way that does damage to our understanding of American history.  We need to know these things.  Ignoring them runs that familiar risk of succumbing to the damaging myopia of the "Lost Cause."

(It's worth noting that some places were far more forthright about slavery than others.  The Shirley Plantation in Charles City, VA, for example, dealt with its legacy well in a permanent exhibit -- all the more honorable given that the property is still in the hands of the antebellum [indeed, pre-Revolutionary] family owners.  Credit where credit is due!  If you're in the area, give it a visit.)

* Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia (1975)

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Read Me a Story: Tuttle's Red Barn

How many times have we passed an old home, barn or other structure and wondered about the people who once lived or worked there?  Tuttle's Old Farm tells a story of American settlement and farming traditions through the history of one family's Dover, New Hampshire farmstead.  By a near-miracle of procreation and dedication, the Tuttle Farm has remained in the same family since John Tuttle arrived in North America in 1632.  Author Richard Michelson proceeds generation by generation through the many Tuttles between John and the most recent heir, who was born in 1997.  Caldecott winner Mary Azarian's beautiful illustrations well complement the pastoral yet sweeping story, which touches upon family life, farming practices, the material culture of the home and changes in the broader economic landscape from early settlement through the end of the twentieth century.  Pinning all of these changes to a single family helps children identify with what might otherwise be impersonal facts and trends.  Today, the Tuttle family operates a large farm stand and adjacent nursery.  I don't need much of a reason to visit New Hampshire -- I love the place -- but if I needed one, paying the Tuttles a visit would suffice.  Meanwhile, I very much enjoyed Michelson's book.

Richard Michelson, Tuttle's Red Barn: The Story of America's Oldest Family Farm, illus. Mary Azarian (G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2007).

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Read Me a Story: The One and Only Declaration of Independence

The 6-year-old has fallen in love with the plenitudinous volumes of the American Girls series, which means frequent trips to the library and much time standing around waiting while she crawls around on hands and knees (under-window shelf) making her latest selections.  Imagine my glee, then, when I figured out that the shelf directly opposite the American Girls section houses the children's American history collection! :-D

Fortunately, the kid has been indoctrinated from a very young age and enjoys learning about "old-fashioned things" and the "olden days."  This means Mom here has had the opportunity to begin perusing some rather nifty children's history.  Some of these books make me want to share, so I figured I would begin doing so.  Note I am not receiving any prompting or remuneration for anything I post to the site, and if anyone ever sends me anything to review (not likely) I'll state this specifically.

My find of the moment is Judith St. George's The Journey of the One and Only Declaration of Independence (Philomel Books, 2005; illustrated by Will Hillenbrand).  St. George cleverly traces the history of the Declaration of Independence as a physical object from 1776 to the present, revealing the many fascinating twists and turns (and shockingly poor 'archival' practice) it has lived through along the way.  The question of what to do with and/or how to protect the Declaration has figured into a remarkable amount of American history, from the years of the War for Independence through the War of 1812, the American Centennial and on through World War II.  St. George smoothly juxtaposes the events of the day with the Declaration's personal journey, making good use of recurring catchphrases to keep children engaged while they learn quite a bit about the nation's history.  The book is fairly text-heavy and best for children old enough not to mind that the pages won't be turning super-frequently.  That said, I heartily recommend it -- my daughter loves it and I'm always amazed by how bits and pieces of what she learns pop out in other times and places.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #3

We think we are awfully smart most of the time here in the contemporary United States, and despite my deep and abiding love for Oregon I'd venture to suggest that my home state (and its urban environs, in particular) can be a bit inclined toward smugness.  We boldly proclaim our green and sustainable, bike-pedaling, locovore, organic aesthetic to the point of parody and beyond (see "television, 'Portlandia'"), and while I wouldn't for a moment suggest that Oregonians and our ilk aren't quite justified in our advocacy of environmentally sustainable practices, we didn't exactly invent the concept.  

Exhibit A:

George Washington's "dung repository," upon which was tossed animal excrement and refuse from Mount Vernon's kitchens.  

In other words, our first president had a very nice compost pile.

The more we go "green," the more we will realize that what we are actually doing is adopting the everyday experiences of those who came before us.  Many of us understand this already, but more awareness might be useful lest we become too subsumed in the progress-as-panacea principle of assuming all that is good will be found in the future.  Much of it will; other things -- like compost -- we figured out a loooong time ago.  The best information about environmental practices is often going to come from the oldest person you know!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Reflections on the District #2

One of the things I find so fascinating about "history" is the reality that it is a constantly shifting term.  The various academic disciplines change and develop, but history grows -- literally -- on a daily basis.  As a result, the parameters we set upon "history" are in a state of eternal adjustment.  I was reminded of this as we perused a "treasures of the Smithsonian" exhibit with my 6-year-old...

Hmm.  She was positively floored there was no mouse, touch pad or other such mechanism involved.  (Wish we could have fired that puppy up for a game of good old "Oregon Trail.")

I am still on the front end of this lived-experience-becoming-history process; I'd love to walk through the National Museum of American History with my 96-year-old grandmother and see what she has to say.  I find resonance with an Apple II; I bet she'd have some observations to share about the World War II exhibit (and the Depression artifacts; and the Cold War sections; and...).

We are, quite literally, history.  It's the story of us -- if not personally, then in the larger sense of shared humanity.  We have only ourselves to blame if we transform it into something dry and dusty.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #2

On a lighter note than my last post, earlier in the day that we visited Petersburg National Battlefield we enjoyed a tour of Shirley Plantation outside Charles City.  Our tour guide was interesting and the plantation's hostess was extremely conscientious in her duties:

I could spend time on the subject of slavery and I'm sure I will by the time this series of reflections is over, because it's necessary and tremendously important.  For the present, however, and because I was impressed by this plantation's owners' willingness to own up to their slaveholding past I am interested in another topic: longevity.  

The Shirley Plantation is intriguing because it is one of few such sites to remain in private hands -- and to be more specific, in the hands of the current generation of a family which has owned it since the mid-1600s.  We toured the first floor... the present Mr. Carter lives on floors 2 and 3.  

This level of rootedness is impressive for the United States, and particularly impressive from a West Coast perspective.  The current farmers of this land do not grow tobacco... because after some ill-informed uncles nearly despoiled the land growing this hard-on-the-soil crop in the mid-1700s, the heir forbade it, having invested considerable time and effort in salvaging his patrimony.  How many of us would consider ourselves bound by dictates delivered by an ancestor over 250 years ago?

Longevity confers roots.  Roots can in turn confer negative resistance to change, but roots can also mean stewardship and identity.  We tend to care more about that which we will have to continue to live with.  In our disposable culture that strikes me as a value with significant merit.  For most of us, nearly 400 years' residence on the same plot of land is going to be a tad unfeasible, and such residence does not, of course, guarantee good stewardship.  The type of rootedness that does generate good stewardship, though, is something worth nurturing.  We are connected to our past; we are also connected to our future.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Reflections on Virginia #1

We had the opportunity to visit the Petersburg National Battlefield south of Richmond last week -- site of the last large siege and series of battles before the Confederate defense of Richmond became impossible and the Civil War ended in April 1865.  Among other episodes of conflict, Petersburg was the site of the Battle of the Crater in July 1864, when Union forces who had been miners in Pennsylvania's coal country burrowed under a Confederate emplacement and planted four tons of explosive powder that blew the Confederates sky-high, created an enormous crater -- and ultimately backfired upon the ill-prepared Union soldiers who stood gaping at the destruction or falling by the dozens into the hell-hole they had created.

Today, evidence of various batteries remains spread over miles of the landscape near Petersburg.  The entrance to the mine tunnel and a big depression in the land remain, as well, and are littered with granite obelisks dedicated to the Pennsylvania soldiers or the Confederate victims.  Preservation of this landscape is a gift to our generation in terms of how well it illustrates the range and scope of this single series of battles.  If one arena of the conflict was this enormous, the full scale of the Civil War's hostilities are almost incomprehensibly vast -- and so, by extension, must be the range and scale of most armed conflicts.  Petersburg is one among many useful reminders of how much effort and destruction went into this war.  One would hope it serves as both memorial and caution.

And yet: the battlefields were also among the most peaceful and pastoral landscapes we encountered on our journey.  We saw bald eagles and wild turkeys, and enjoyed (amidst the oppressive eastern humidity -- three cheers for Oregon's climate) leafy green landscapes and vast fields that guarantee the need for a tremendous lawn-mowing budget on the part of the National Parks Service.  It was nearly impossible, gazing upon these beautiful expanses, to imagine the death and destruction that once littered them.  It all seemed rather... romantic, to use the incredibly inappropriate term that so often characterizes the realm of "Lost Cause" lore.

The Crater

Fort Stedman (Union)

Grass covers a multitude of human sins.  This is a good thing in many ways; it is a useful reminder of human impermanence and a testament to the world's endurance even we throw at it the worst of our human inventions.  I wonder, however, whether part of our fascination with the Civil War has something to do with these elysian green fields.  It wasn't romantic; it wasn't green and pretty.  It was hell on earth.  We need to face that and remember that lest we transmute the quiet beauty into a vision of the past that elides the horrors of war.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Reflections on the District #1


We recently returned from a trip to Williamsburg, VA and Washington, DC.  It was an amazing experience to actually walk upon some of the same ground that the first permanent English colonists trod, see Virginia's colonial capitol and witness the sites of Civil War and Revolutionary battles.  While I don't subscribe to the idea that one must see these places to be deeply informed about them, I do look forward to the next time I need to discuss Jamestown with my students or talk about the Revolutionary era.

I'll share some photos and reflections over the next couple weeks, but for now, a brief reflection: we had the opportunity to see the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC.  The statue is an arresting one (you can see better in the second photo how he emerges to chart a course through the mountain in the background).  What struck me most deeply, however, was that just as we came around the corner of the statue from behind, the elderly lady you can see toward the lower right side of the first photo -- with the tennis-ball-shod walker -- was having her photo taken in front of King.  The poignancy of that moment has stayed with me.  I can only imagine at the trajectory of this woman's life, but what changes she must have witnessed.  Perhaps she simply admired the man; perhaps she was an active participant in the movement.  We have distance yet to cover, but I am thankful for the progress we have made and I hope we can find the moral courage to continue the struggles waged by her generation -- and those before her.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Da-doo-doo, dee da-doo-doo..

I've written previously about historical memory, but it's a topic at the front of my thoughts this afternoon.  We all can talk about where we were or what we were doing when a given event of national or international importance took place.  Ask anyone over the age of about 53 and they'll be able to tell you where they were or what they were doing when John F. Kennedy was assassinated.  We all have personal reference points for the day those planes hit the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.  And in early 1991, I came home home after school and turned on one of my favorite old programs to find that a bulletin was scrolling across the base of the screen.  "Waves" of planes (I'll never forget the use of that word) were bombing Iraq.  War counterposed against a story its star once described as all about love; planes and high-tech weaponry against near-utopian idyll.  The program in question?

You guessed it.

Yes, I realize 1950s North Carolina was far more complex--and troubled--than Mayberry.  That said, there's value in friendship and community... and a legacy of peaceful resolution, episode after episode (no matter how much Barney might have hankered to use those handcuffs).

Rest in peace, Andy Griffith.  We could use a lot more of you and a lot less of those scrolling headlines.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

You know you're a historian when...

... you write a note to yourself in your daily planner to remind the other half that pick-up day for the CSA (as in Community-Supported Agriculture) box is Tuesday this week due to the Independence Day holiday, and rather than farms, the first thing you think of every time you see the note is "why am I writing notes to myself to remind Geoff about the Confederacy?"

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Quote of the Day: This is Why I Teach History

A quote I came across this morning from the late Edward Said...

"What our leaders and their intellectual lackeys seem incapable of understanding is that history cannot be swept clean like a blackboard, clean so that 'we' might inscribe our own future there and impose our own forms of life for these lesser people to follow."
--preface to the 25th anniversary edition of Orientalism

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Jeb Bush on Orthodoxy

Jeb Bush to a gathering of reporters and editors on Monday:

"Ronald Reagan would have, based on his record of finding accommodation, finding some degree of common ground, similar to my dad, they would have had a hard time if you define the Republican Party--and I don't--as having an orthodoxy that doesn't allow for disagreement.  Back to my dad's time or Ronald Reagan's time, they got a lot of stuff done with bipartisan support that right now would be difficult to imagine happening."

Bush is absolutely right.  (It is important to note, in the interest of accuracy, that he went on to decry similar orthodoxy in the Democratic Party.)  There is an irony in contemporary appeals to the principles of the "Founders," because historically speaking, one of the primary motivating forces behind the original structure of the American governmental system was to provide for a system in which independent representatives could use their informed judgment to make decisions in the country's best interests.  This system in its original form was not without its (major!) problems, from overwhelming suffrage exclusions to brutal institutionalized racism.  I think it's safe to say, however, that Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson would all have been scandalized by the thought of pledging fealty to Grover Norquist or mounting legislative battles predicated exclusively upon the foundation of making the other side look silly.

In partisan terms, the scale of our preoccupation with orthodoxy is a relatively recent problem.  Knee-jerk issues have a long and storied history, but until recently they tended to be aligned more closely with region (for example, at various points in history, South = pro-slavery and then pro-segregation; Northeast = pro-tariff; Midwest = isolationist).  The reality that in many cases, these regional blocs shared party identity with others of very different ideological ilk created conditions ripe for deal-making and compromise.  Today's situation is more dangerous insofar as we lack countervailing forces to oppose the pressure of the knee-jerk position.  It is encouraging to see someone of Bush's stature speak out; it will be interesting to see whether and how the conversation progresses from here.

[Quotation taken from wire report in the Oregonian, Tuesday, June 12, 2012.]

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


Yet another example of race's tangled legacy in the United States:

As the article describes, a population of dark-skinned Appalachian residents described as "Melungeon" has been genetically determined to be of mixed African and European ancestry, despite historical claims by many in the population to be of Portuguese or Turkish heritage.  Researchers believe they are likely descended from European indentured servants and African slaves in the colonial backcountry during the 1600s; over time they claimed European ancestry to avoid the severe racial restrictions imposed by the Jim Crow South.

The story of the Melungeons demonstrates what Edmund S. Morgan masterfully explained in his paradigmatic American Slavery, American Freedom (Norton, 1974), and what I hope I manage to convey to my undergraduates in colonial history: prior to the late 1600s, racial categories in colonial America remained fluid.  While many African slaves were confined in chattel slavery (hereditary, descending through the mother), some were able to secure freedom after a given term of service and some even, alarmingly, went on to own slaves themselves.  Meanwhile, European indentured servants sometimes viewed their position as more analogous to African slaves than to those who held them in service.  Alliance across racial lines was far from unknown.  In fact, it was the very threat of this class-based alliance that helped determine the stratification of racial categories by the turn of the 18th century.  Class alliance represented a threat to European slaveholding (and servant-hiring) elites.

The way out?  Solidify slavery as a permanent, hereditary, racial classification -- and give poor whites a population against which they could elevate themselves, however rudimentary the actual elevation.  By clarifying the legal framework of racial slavery, European elites accomplished two goals: provision of a permanent labor force and consolidation of "white" identity in opposition to black slavery.  The poorest white could then share a feeling of "freedom" with the colony's governor.

The Melungeons' heritage predates the invention of ironclad racial classifications in American life.  As such, it helps us understand the contingency of race.  It need never have become what it did.  It is to our eternal discredit that it happened.  Stories like that of the Melungeons will help us better understand this reality--and perhaps, help give us the tools to deal with our past and address our present.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

fun fact o' the day

Reuters--the wire service--initially utilized a wireless approach in collecting the news:

Carrier pigeons.


(Source: Smithsonian, May 2012)

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Relevant? Not really. Fascinating? Yes!

Fun fact to know and tell: in 1900, the 11-year-old Eiffel Tower* was repainted and electrified for the Paris Exposition.  The color of choice?  YELLOW.  While I have not yet had the honor of seeing the Eiffel Tower in person (note the "yet," significant other, should you read this), I am having a very hard time envisioning Gustave's creation in yellow...

* the tower was constructed for an earlier, 1889 exposition commemorating the centenary of the French Revolution.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Comparative Nostalgia

"Nostalgia, it can be said, is universal and persistent; only other men's nostalgias offend."
--Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973)

I read portions of this book recently as background for a paper I've been writing on land-use planning legislation in the state of Oregon in the late '60s and early '70s.  (A Linn County farmer and state legislator--and, clearly, polymath--by the name of Hector Macpherson found Cambridge literature professor Williams' vision of the relationship between urban and rural useful in developing his planning vision.)

Comparative nostalgia... this is a subject worth several books.  Most of us have visions of the good to be taken from the "past."  All I have to hear are the first few strains of the theme music to "The Lawrence Welk Show" and I'm transported to a state of yearning, and my existence barely overlaps with the show's original run.  I long for something I never experienced, and yet I know that what I long for completely elides the realities of pantyhose, artificial homogeneity and the restricted opportunities for women that also characterized the era.  No; I miss people long gone now and the idea of living in the comfort of a large extended family, and Larry cues that world up for me.  I long for the world I've heard about and touched, however briefly, as a child.  Even that, I realize, was not the ideal I create, but that only serves to better demonstrate the way we manufacture our pasts -- we create our own nostalgias.

Your nostalgia, I'm sure, differs strongly from this example... I'm a very strange 33-year-old and I realize that.  To a certain degree this is harmless.  We hold to things that remind us of happiness, contentment, peace or security.  The problem comes when we start to impose too much nostalgia upon the present.  It's one thing to enjoy a rousing chorus of "Calcutta" (or "Stairway to Heaven," or "Johnny B. Goode"); it's another thing to decide X period represents all that was good and true in our past and we should therefore attempt to recreate it in the present.

Why is this such a problem?  The problem comes, I'd argue, in the reality that our present is manufactured from our collective nostalgias.  We combine my past with your past, and her past, and his past, and the product of all of our shared experiences and ideas, beliefs and understandings is today.  We bring our conceptions and our misconceptions with us through life.  The past is an essential tool for learning about our present and planning our future, but we can only do that well when we realize that the past -- despite our nostalgia -- is always going to be more complicated and contingent than our memory (real or imagined) preserves.

Here lies the intersection between nostalgia and history.  If nostalgia is singular, history is plural -- not universal, perhaps, but plural.  History is about the attempt to bring ourselves as close as possible to what really happened while realizing that we are humans living in the context of our lived experience.  My sense of nostalgia makes me a Welk-loving sentimentalist and I don't plan to change that... I doubt I could change that without losing part of what makes me, me.  As a historian, however, I understand and appreciate the complexity of the period during which the man "a-one, a-twoed" his way through ABC Saturday nights and years of syndication, and that helps me -- I'd argue -- attain a clearer-eyed vision for how the past informs our future.

History education, well practiced, will do the same.  I hope it is something I manage to do in the classroom, and I'd argue it is something we should be striving for in the wider polity.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Tidbit: Victorian Vegetarians

This is a bit random, but I was reading a favorite blog on the history of food and cookery this morning and I enjoyed this post on 19th century vegetarianism.  The blogger, a British woman living in Australia with an accordingly great wealth of perspective on food history throughout the British Commonwealth and beyond, shares an article covering a late Victorian vegetarian gathering in New Jersey.  The period author's bemusement is obvious and the information is rather fascinating.  I am not a vegetarian myself, but I have many friends who practice the discipline... this post is a useful reminder that such "newfangled" notions have actually been around for quite a long time.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Principle and Pragmatism

Interesting Gil Troy op-ed piece on ideology and compromise in Republican presidential politics.  Troy argues that "culture warrior" politics is a drag on GOP electability.  This connects to some of the comments I made in my April 27 post.  Of course, I'd argue this could apply to both parties.  It was George McGovern's willingness to become a different sort of "culture warrior" that helped spell his doom in 1972.  Michael Dukakis' refusal to bow to pragmatism in episodes such as the infamous question posed to him about how he'd feel toward someone who assaulted his wife didn't exactly help his prospects in 1988.

Is it right and proper for politicians to avoid strident stands in favor of electability?  At this point we enter the realm of moral quandry.  Is the prize of electoral office and the opportunity (however circumscribed) to effect change once elected worth negotiating one's way through the door?  Or does principle outweigh pragmatism?  Will principle triumph over pragmatism under the right circumstances?  Tricky questions all.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Blog Tour: Christianity and Popular Culture

Welcome to the Thursday, May 3 stop on the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg's Blog Tour on Religion and Media!  As a historian, I am intrigued by the many ways in which religion influences American society (and vice versa).  I had the honor of posing a few questions on this subject to Dr. Mary Hess.  Dr. Hess is Associate Professor of Educational Leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota and a Roman Catholic layperson with a background in both American and media/cultural studies.  She blogs at; more information regarding her publications and research interests is available on the Luther Seminary Web site.  Please join us in this conversation; we look forward to your questions and comments.

1) Where do you see theology most deeply expressed in popular culture today?  Has this changed over time, and if so, how?  What might this signify for the future?

Many years ago Christian historian named Margaret Miles wrote a book called "Seeing is Believing" where she made the argument that we tend to work out our arguments about moral action more often in the movies than in public philosophical arguments. I think her insight may be even more true today. Most of what we care deeply about is only engaged in complex ways in fiction. It's hard to find much in the news that allows for ambiguity, or that attends carefully to historical context. I don't mean to say that we only do this in film, or even that we do a lot of thoughtful work in films! But I think that in order to find places where real theological questions are being engaged in complex ways, you have to go to movies -- or better yet, to long form narrative television (that is, shows that spread their content over many, many episodes in complex narrative arcs).

That's a long-winded way of saying that I think you can find theological questions being raised in a lot of popular culture, but that the more sustained the narrative the more likely you are to find thoughtful reflection. Once I've said that, then I can turn to almost any genre of popular culture and identify interesting work. But theology in popular culture is never as systematic or clear as it is in philosophical arguments.

I'll give you some examples. I think of series like "Six Feet Under," "Deadwood," "Battlestar Galactica" and so on, as examples of television shows that ask difficult questions about human and divine agency; about loss, hope, despair; about forgiveness and reconciliation; about redemption and sanctification. But these shows don't offer uniform -- or even all that recognizable -- theological platforms. They aren't "didactic" about Christian doctrine, for instance. But they do evoke perennial questions, and offer thoughtful reflections.

There are a lot of popular musicians who do this, too. I think here of the music of Johnny Cash, Bruce Springsteen, and U2 to name just a few of my own favorites.

And there are novels -- the Harry Potter series, for instance, are perhaps our most current analogue to the work of C. S. Lewis.

You asked "has this changed over time"? Yes and no. Theological themes have always emerged in popular cultures. At different times in history these themes have been overt and intentional or implicit and hidden. At some times there has been public condemnation of popular culture, and at other times popular culture has been valorized as an explicit carrier of theological content.

I think perhaps what has changed the most in our current era is that the tools for creating and distributing popular content are more accessible than at any previous time in our history. We are moving into what might actually become a truly "participatory" global culture. We're not there yet, but we have the possibility. Blogs, for instance, are a widely accessible form of sharing content. All you need is access to the net, and you can share content in a blog. Yes, we need to think about various digital divides. Yes, we need to be conscious of helping people access and use blogs wisely. But the bottom line is that we now have a medium that is accessible to just about anyone, and which creates a platform for global communication. That is unprecedented and we are only beginning to sense the possibilities.

2) What in the history of Christian engagement in popular culture might inform a thoughtful approach toward the media today?

The example I find myself using most often has to do with how Christian churches dealt with the advent of television, at least in the United States. Christian churches tended to respond in one of two ways. Either they were deeply excited about the possibilities for using television to spread the gospel widely, or they were deeply worried about the ways in which television content was damaging and potentially destructive of Christian faith.

At first glance those two positions might seem very different from each other. But if you think about it, both pretty much assume that the creator of the content controls its meaning. In the first instance Christians saw television as a way to pipe their content to many more people over a much wider area. In the second, Christians saw television as piping negative content directly into people's homes. Television was the "pipeline" through which content was poured, and the person receiving the content was considered to be a pretty passive recipient of that content. So more conservative evangelical churches helped to create the entire Christian broadcasting and publishing world, and more liberal Protestant churches focused on media literacy education, which was going to somehow "inoculate" people against negative content.

Frankly, I don't think either approach was all that successful in the long run. What we've learned, instead, is that media -- whether television, film, digital media, etc. -- are environments in which meaning is made, and the producer of a message does not control its reception. Media literacy educators learned, for instance, that far from "inoculating" people against negative content, we tended to inoculate them against religious community -- because people didn't want to 'give up' the television they loved, and were far more willing to turn their backs on religious community.

So a thoughtful approach to media today takes very seriously the "agency" of the audience. Scholars of digital media speak about "participatory culture" -- by which they mean that consumers of media are very often the producers of it as well. Spaces such as YouTube, flickr, facebook, and so on are the focus of more and more of our attention.

I believe that Christian communities -- indeed, any religious communities -- need to venture into these spaces and reflect on how religious meaning is made there. Rather than boycotting them -- which is something many Christian communities have suggested that we do (a stance which reminds me of early media literacy educators) -- or entering into them entirely uncritically (a stance which reminds me of Christian broadcasting) -- we need to support people in learning how to produce their own messages in these media, and in doing so learn how to be critically engaged with them (which is actually the stance of current media educators). (See, for instance, NAMLE:

3) What can new media teach the church?  What can the church teach new media?  

Wow -- what a huge question! I think I'll start by referring your readers to some wonderful books that explore the shifts that have happened, historically, as new technologies arrive. Books like Elizabeth Eisenstein's "The Printing Press as an Agent of Change," or Jeremy Stolow's work, his book "Deus in Machina" is about to come out. A great short book which is very accessible, is Elizabeth Drescher's book "Tweet if you [heart] Jesus: Practicing church in the digital reformation."

I think part of what new media in OUR era (because there are new media in all eras) might teach us is how to take seriously people's desire to participate and contribute. As Clay Shirky suggests, new media help us to see and take advantage of our "cognitive surpluses." We're learning -- and here Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown's book "A New Culture of Learning" is particularly instructive -- that inquiry-driven, project-based, portfolio-assessed learning is more effective and compelling than our previous more teacher-centered forms of learning have been.

At the same time this more explicit attention to tacit learning requires us to think about what it means to learn through "indwelling" -- and this is one place where churches have much to teach new media. At our best, people in religious communities know a lot about how to shape meaning in spaces that are communal and collective. We know a lot about what it means to "know" when certainty is not the final goal. As Anne Lamott is fond of pointing out, the opposite of faith is not doubt, it's certainty. So how to shape hope in the midst of despair? How to think about ultimacy when faced with mortality? These are questions that communities of faith have much to bring to, and we lodge it most often in the deep bones of our traditions, in the ways in which we "indwell" particular spaces and particular questions. Those of us who are actively participating in new media have much to learn from these traditions.

Here's a question for your readers: What are the historical lenses you think most necessary to put on when thinking about new media and religion?

Friday, April 27, 2012

Coming Soon: Religion and Media Blog Tour (also, some Friday thoughts)

Next week Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg is holding a two-week blog tour in connection with its new concentration in religion and media studies... and Uncle Sam's Attic is the tour's Thursday stop.  Dr. Mary Hess of Luther Seminary, an accomplished scholar in the fields of education, religion, popular culture and new media, will reply to a question I have posed to her--and will pose one for me to respond to, in turn.  Please join us next Thursday, May 3, and share your thoughts!  For more information and a complete list of tour sites, click here.

* * * * * * *

Meanwhile, and at least tangentially related to the topic of the media, I was struck by an article I read the other day regarding Republicans' concerns about the negative effects of the party's protracted primary campaign.  Some notable Republicans are worried that presumptive nominee Mitt Romney will be unable to effectively transition from an "anti" politics toward articulation of a positive vision for the future of the United States.

I was reminded of Democrats' success in identifying Republican nominee Barry Goldwater as an extremist in the 1964 presidential campaign.  While such media milestones as the infamous Daisy Ad were notably uncharitable toward the Arizona senator, Goldwater didn't do himself many favors with his reputation for "anti" politics (i.e., opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964), and his impassioned proclamation at the Republican National Convention that "Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice."  Unable to break out of the vice of negativity--and, quite possibly, insurmountably handicapped by national sentiment following John Kennedy's assassination the previous fall--Goldwater was buried under a landslide of votes for Lyndon Johnson.

But.  The 1964 election was notable for another speech.  In the closing days of the race, a former actor and General Electric spokesman by the name of Ronald Reagan gave a televised speech in support of Goldwater called "A Time for Choosing."  Reagan was polished; Reagan was articulate; Reagan looked nice, and friendly, and presented a positive vision for the future.  While 1964 looked like a dismal failure for the conservative wing of the GOP, in a broader sense it marked the foundation of what would become its most notable success.

Positive vision?  That, Reagan could do, regardless of how Americans have felt about his politics.  And it was remarkably effective for both the man and his party.  Whether Romney can channel similar vision remains to be seen.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Women and Politics

Historian Mary C. Brennan recently posted an interesting commentary on the History News Network site devoted to discussing how politicians, and especially (although certainly not exclusively) conservatives and Republican politicians, have been eager to use wives and women as symbols of motherhood, domesticity and family values.  As she points out, this usage has not been historically static (see the activist roles played by Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt before this trend accelerated in the tumultuous years of the '60s and '70s)--nor has it reflected the true range of female participation in the body politic.

Indeed, as Brennan alludes to and as she and many others have demonstrated in greater detail elsewhere, women were foundational to the growth and development of the postwar conservative movement precisely because they were willing to overstep the boundaries of home and family to become fervent advocates of political causes in which they believed.  In a reflection of the complexity of the time--and of life in general--many times they rationalized their activism in the context of their roles as wives and mothers.  Certainly this was nothing new (see Adams, Abigail, et. al.).  But it was women who organized much of the anticommunist agitation of the 1950s and '60s (Lisa McGirr's Suburban Warriors [ 2001] remains the outstanding exposition of this trend).  It was women who were mobilized--and in turn mobilized each other--as single-issue campaigns became the heart of conservative activism in the 1970s.

Furthermore, as Catherine Rymph describes in her Republican Women (2006) and I have found in my own research, women have formed the backbone of campaign apparatus since long before the rise of second wave feminism in the 1960s.  I came across a particularly interesting case in the story of Jean Young, a Republican activist in Oregon from the 1940s through her death in 1992 who was active in fields ranging from education and the state wage-and-hour commission to electoral reform.  She was a longtime vice chairwoman of the Multnomah County GOP, a state-level party official, a delegate to numerous Republican National Conventions and a tireless campaigner on behalf of candidates for local and state office.

Young was not an ideologue; rather, she was a party loyalist.  Even GOP maverick Tom McCall, Oregon's governor in the late '60s and early '70s, earned her support.  Intriguingly, however, it was in 1970 that she encountered the limits of political organizing.  Young was placed in charge of a "Women for McCall 70 Club" charged with entering a new realm of female Republican politicking: fundraising. Women had accepted the responsibility of voting wholeheartedly, she told her putative supporters; women outpolled men by two million voters in 1968.  Women were, however, lacking in another area of political responsibility: fundraising.  "I hope that we can show the men of the Party that we women can do other things that count beside fold letters and lick stamps," she told a colleague.  Unfortunately, however, Women for McCall 70 raised only about $7,500 of its $28,000 goal. (1)

With Women for McCall 70, Young came up against a significant limitation to women's organizational prowess: money.  Soliciting donors from the community of women activists ran up against the realities of female political voluntarism.  Without income, women could fold the letters and lick the stamps; they could not write the checks.

The question, however, remains: which is more important, funding or activism?  In our money-driven political system it is easy to answer "funding."  The story of political activism, and conservative political activism in particular, however, seems to indicate that the answer may not be so clear-cut.  Young failed in her fundraising endeavor, but she and many thousands of party loyalists like her--and their ideologue counterparts--played a pivotal role in determining the agenda and the success of countless campaigns around the country.

On NPR this morning I caught a quick snippet of a story about how contemporary campaigns are having a difficult time recruiting student activists in light of the poor economy and students' preoccupations with survival and jobs post-graduation.  Meanwhile, some of the female networks that earlier provided the legwork for political campaigns have evaporated in the reality of two-income families and over-scheduled lives.  Have we created a vacuum for funding to take precedence?  What does this spell for our future?  If we are unhappy with such an outcome, how might it be altered?  The answers are not clear-cut, but the historical context provides important ballast to the debate.

(1) Undated [c. 1970] form letter from Jean Young, box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; August 6, 1970 letter from Young to "Tip," box 1, folder "Women for McCall 70 Club I"; "Keep Oregon, Oregon.  Keep Tom McCall" Newsletter, September 18, 1970, box 1, folder "McCall 1970"; all Jean Young Papers, Mss 1863, Oregon Historical Society, Portland, Oregon.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Onward and Upward

I've been seriously derelict in posting to this blog.  I've felt long on frustration and short on inspiration lately in the world of life-more-generally, but I know full well that if I am to translate my "I should be doing x and not doing y" into actually doing x (and not y), I need to move beyond nightly self-recriminations for time ill-spent and actually start accomplishing things.  So, step one: engage in the online behavior that is constructive for me (blogging and reading other useful blogs) and cut back on the behavior that sends me into destructive cycles of angst.  Also, cut back on online time and wheel-spinning more broadly and use my hours on things more productive, like scholarly reading.  And laundry.

In that spirit, since it's a beautiful day and I should be getting back into a fascinating book by William Robbins on the subject of Oregon's recent environmental history (Landscapes of Conflict), I leave you with an example of a useful blog -- for me, at least, in my work as a historian.  The blog in question is that of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History.  While I would not categorize myself as an "intellectual historian," I do harbor a deep fascination with the ways ideas have influenced society.  I see the influence of ideas upon my own work, and would like to engage in this arena of study more deeply.  The various contributors to this blog rarely fail to leave me energized as a scholar (even if, as happens occasionally, they leave me completely bewildered).

Onward and upward... and out to the patio.  Robbins awaits.  More to come.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Mike Wallace (1918-2012)

[Photo credit]

Alas; the end of an era. As someone who named her cat after Walter Cronkite, it's hard for me to see these icons fade away. Mike Wallace was a controversial character -- and he was, above all, a character -- but I mourn the loss of a truly "national" media in the LBJ-only-needed-3-Oval-Office-TV-sets-to-catch-all-the-news sense of the term. I realize this system had its shortfalls, but I feel there was an advantage in the reality that a less polymorphous media world forced us to communicate to at least some degree with each other. Today, we speak in parallel. More may speak, and this is a good thing. But when we speak in parallel, we fail to intersect. Mediating the challenges of our multivalent existence is something we will need to come to terms with if the new world is to represent any improvement over the old.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Quote of the day

"History, as nearly no one seems to know, is not merely something to be read. And it does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do."

--James Baldwin, quoted in Daniel T. Rodgers' Age of Fracture (2011)

Friday, March 2, 2012

Santorum and Seuss

I'm glad to hear GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum has retracted his comment about his unsavory biological reaction to John F. Kennedy's famous 1960 speech to a gathering of Protestant ministers... it's the height of ahistorical lunacy for a Catholic presidential candidate to decry the efforts of another Catholic candidate to dispel concerns about loyalties in an era when anti-Catholic sentiment remained rife. Indeed, a significant chunk of the core of Santorum's support today would have ignored him entirely in 1960 precisely because of his religious faith. Ridiculous, yes. But historical fact? Absolutely.

It was only over the course of the tumultuous 1960s that conservative evangelical Protestants and Catholics began to contemplate an alignment in defense of mutual interests. Even into the 1970s, conservative sociopolitical causes such as the early pro-life movement remained tenuous and split because some Protestants were leery of joining forces with Catholics. This notion of a unified Catholic-evangelical Protestant voting bloc is a very recent phenomenon. We can continue to debate important questions of church and state, but without an informed foundation these discussions will never progress beyond hollow shouting matches.


On a lighter note, happy birthday, Dr. Seuss! I sent the kid off this morning in her pajamas, books and panda bear in tow, for her elementary school "read-in." Theodore Geisel's contributions to the world of reading are many and various, but somewhat less known is the role he played as a political cartoonist motivating support for World War II. Many of his cartoons lampooned isolationist sentiment and emphasized the dangers of Naziism, but he also prodded Americans to examine their own prejudices and motivations:

June 11, 1942

Unfortunately, despite warnings such as the above he did result to racialized caricature himself, especially as concerned the Japanese. Nonetheless, his cartoons tell an important story of the complicated road to American engagement in the Second World War. For more, see the PBS Independent Lens Web site here.

Friday, February 24, 2012


I've been disheartened by all the news this week about the burning of the Koran by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan -- and by comments made by some national politicians concerning this crisis. What seems to be missing is perspective upon what this practice constitutes.

If many Americans learned forces from Afghanistan or anywhere else had burned piles of Bibles, they'd be offended by this lack of regard for a book so many consider holy -- and rightly so, because such an action would demonstrate a fundamental disregard for the validity and significance of Biblical faith for Christians. The thing about the Bible, however, is that a majority of Christians place far less importance upon the physical book itself than upon its role as a means of illuminating and informing Christian faith. Some Christians believe it to be the literal word of God; most believe it to be the inspired word of God. Christians read the Bible in many different languages and translations. It is a tool -- an essential tool, but a tool -- for understanding God's plan and God's promises.

The Koran, on the other hand, is believed by observant Muslims to be the literal word of God (Allah), transcribed verbatim by Muhammad, God's messenger. It remains in Arabic because that was the language in which Muhammad is said to have transcribed it, and the literal words of God should not be translated in a way that would inevitably alter their meaning on even the slightest level.

Understanding the level of importance given to this book helps us better realize just how offensive it is to contemplate burning the Koran. This is not just a holy book; this is the literal word of God for Muslims. And over ten years into America's involvement in Afghanistan, somehow some people remained so tone-deaf to Islamic culture as to believe burning this word of God was an acceptable idea.

If we cannot gain a better understanding of the cultures which which we interact around the world, we are doomed to an endless cycle of violence and reprisal.

Monday, February 20, 2012


One of the assignments I give most of my U.S. history survey students is a basic map quiz covering the 50 states. Most of them ace it, but it's worth it to me to throw a few points their way in exchange for the guarantee -- one I have learned the hard way not to take for granted -- that when I talk about the Illinois Central RR taking rural African Americans north to Chicago during the Great Migration, the "Deep South" states of Alabama and Georgia, the Lewis and Clark Expedition's trail through Montana and so on that they actually know where I'm talking about. As Americans we take the diversity of our geography for granted, and on the whole we've been remarkably successful in creating an identity as "American" despite the incredibly different lives we lead based upon the physical geography and climactic conditions of our many landscapes.

I was struck by this as my little family snowshoed with good friends into the Mount Hood National Forest this weekend to stay in a hut on the side of the mountain. This would not be an experience we would have been having, were we still residents of Los Angeles... unless, of course, we made our way into the mountains east of the Los Angeles Basin, where we might experience similar snowy conditions and hills in a somewhat different landscape. In Minnesota, we could have had the snow and even colder temperatures, but we certainly wouldn't have had the mountains or the same type of forest. In Texas, of course, we'd have had neither, and in Florida not only would we have been overdressed, but we wouldn't have been chuckling at the fact that my husband's first-aid kit included tools for dealing with snake bites.

Characteristics of unity (even in our fractious times) within diversity. The story of our nation, expressed with varying degrees of success... and also, perhaps, a good mantra for this blog. I'm tiring of the categories I created for postings several months ago, and in the spirit of remaining active I'm planning to take a more free-form approach in the future. Thank you, as always, for taking the time to read!

Friday, February 10, 2012

Muse of the Week: Primaries

Apologies for missing this week's "Webfoot Wednesday" posting. I've been catching up following some extra lectures at the university where I work (a very welcome honor, but some additional work). The events of this week's caucuses and the seemingly unending fracas in the GOP regarding the party's proper direction have had me thinking about the way in which we have chosen presidents throughout American history and the implications of our most recent model.

Many citizens no longer realize that until the 1960s, the vast majority of states did not proffer presidential primaries. While local or state-level primaries were a more common feature, and a few states ranging from New Hampshire to Oregon did offer them at the presidential level, most delegate support was garnered via more private deliberations between state party officials and the candidates' organizations. A colleague in the field by the name of Michael Bowen has recently published a fascinating book on the development of ideology as a significant factor in presidential nominee selection titled The Roots of Modern Conservatism: Dewey, Taft and the Battle for the Soul of the Republican Party -- I highly recommend it.

The most significant factor for many party officials -- who were concerned above all with patronage -- was that a nominee be "electable." This required him (since at this point it always was a him) to be widely appealing. Primaries, however, have come to emphasize a different set of qualifications. Party primaries bring together the most motivated of partisan voters -- this is their opportunity to influence the nomination process and they take this task seriously. Partisan voters tend to privilege ideology more highly among their criteria for candidate selection. This makes them less concerned with overall electability; they want to see someone of an amenable mindset as nominee, and often believe strongly enough in this ideological worldview to deem it acceptable by the rest of the nation. The overall result is a system that favors more ideologically polarized candidacies.

We can see the influence of this system in the news today. Mitt Romney continues to be viewed as the most widely "acceptable" candidate within the GOP field by many opinion leaders. Voters in primaries and caucuses (another example to exert direct pressure), however, have divergent opinions. It is safe to assume that in a pre-1960s electoral system, Romney would become the Republican nominee, end of story. While that continues to seem the most likely outcome in 2012, however, the selection process remains far more contingent.

Is this is a good thing or a bad thing? Well, the contemporary process does provide more opportunities for citizens to exert influence. This could be regarded as a positive thing. It could be argued that we enjoy a more distinct set of choices come fall. On the other hand, when one party's race is highly contested, the ongoing fight provides a hefty supply of general-election ammunition for the other side. One has to assume someone in President Obama's reelection campaign is gleefully recording each and every attack proffered by the likes of Gingrich, Santorum and Paul. As well, more ideological polarity renders consensus politics far less feasible and helps contribute to the partisan deadlock in which we find ourselves in Washington, D.C. One's final verdict in many cases depends upon the relative importance one assigns to each of these goals. Understanding how recent developments have shifted the contours of politics, however, at least renders us capable of recognizing why the political landscape looks so different today than it did in 1950.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Muse of the Week: Anachronism

This afternoon my students will be selecting a sticker from an envelope that will determine whether they become a 1912 election advocate of Woodrow Wilson, Democrat, or Theodore Roosevelt, Progressive (but a longtime Republican). Accordingly, the Wilson stickers are blue and the Roosevelt stickers are red... but I became curious about when this red state/blue state dichotomy emerged and found an interesting article in the NYT archive that tells the story. Turns out the pattern emerged as recently as the 2000 election; prior to this date, red and blue were used more or less interchangeably.

I was already aware the pattern didn't extend as far back as 1912, so I am intentionally engaging in a bit of historical anachronism for the sake of student clarity and the opportunity to introduce the term "anachronism" in class. Anachronism is, of course, the misapplication of ideas, beliefs or artifacts in a different historical context. That extra wearing a wristwatch in a movie set in Roman times? Definitely an anachronism. The capri pants Beezus wears to school in my daughter's recent edition of Beverly Cleary's 1952 book Henry and Beezus? Also an anachronism (and one that drives me slightly batty).

More problematically, we tend to apply our ideas, principles and presuppositions to earlier times in an attempt to make sense of our past. We would never have done x, y or z because we would "know better." We project our beliefs about a given time period upon the period itself, failing to recognize that inherited tradition can vary drastically from past reality. Does this mean we cannot judge the serious deficiencies in our past, or use the lessons of the past to inform our present and future decisions? No, I'd argue it does not. If we understand the context of time and place, we can draw informed conclusions and avoid presentist positions. This is one of the central enterprises of historical scholarship. Careful understanding is necessary, however, if we are to avoid the pitfalls of anachronistic thinking. So, I'll pass out my stickers and prompt our discussion of the term... and I hope the lesson takes hold.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Webfoot Wednesday: Capitol

"In the souls of its citizens will be found the likeness of the state, which if they be unjust and tyrannical then will it reflect their vices, but if they be lovers of righteousness, confident in their liberties, so will it be clean in justice, bold in freedom."

I'm not sure where this quotation comes from originally, but I came across it the other day in a book by the late Oregon governor and U.S. senator Mark Hatfield, who reported it was chiseled into the balcony just below the doors that lead to the governor's office in Salem. Words worth bearing in mind... we get what we ask for.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Muse of the Week: Technology

Sixty-one years ago today, the United States began testing atomic bombs in the Nevada desert. Currently, government officials are negotiating compensation for those whose health was adversely affected by these tests.

I'm entering the period in my United States history course when Americans increasingly believed science and technology offered the keys to the kingdom of endless abundance and an increasing standard of living. Standardization and efficiency would create the largest consumer-goods juggernaut the world had ever known. Science could offer unparalleled medical benefits ensuring longer, healthier lives for people from all strata of American society. But... there is always a but. The very standardization and efficiency the early twentieth century so prized often failed to accommodate worker's rights or appreciate the unique contributions that immigrants' cultures might have made. The science that could result in so many medical and technical advances also spurred practices ranging from eugenics to the aforementioned atomic bomb. And, of course, so many of these advances also created the unintended or unrecognized consequences of waste, resource exploitation and the diseases of overindulgence--and even the good things have not always made it to the rest of the world.

In the contemporary world, we struggle with competing visions, even within our own minds (if mine is any indication). Technology must be carefully weighed and measured if we are to make wise decisions about our future. Prior assumptions that technology represents an unmitigated good no longer hold water. How will we negotiate this complex path?

I hope the Nevada testing grounds prove a useful example. Past outcomes cannot predict the future, but they can help us see patterns and tendencies. We would be foolish not to absorb these lessons.