American History is the Story of ______?

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Columbia Exposition of 1893, Chicago.

In a recent exam in my U.S. survey course, I asked my students this question:

“American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of _________?”

I gave them the question in advance because I don’t think surprising them and trying to get them to think historically in a few pressure-packed minutes in the classroom is a very useful exercise. Instead, I wanted to give them plenty of time to chew over the question and think about creating a historical narrative.

As I glance over their responses, what I like about the question is that it really helped them to develop a historical argument and construct a narrative around it. Most students had a sentence in their first paragraphs that literally just filled in the blank. This might seem rudimentary, but it gave a focus and coherence to their essays that they may otherwise have lacked. In the future, students may be able to construct arguments with less scaffolding.

So, here are their responses:

American history between 1876 and 1976 is the story of…

Diminishing provincialism

An empire being built on the backs of the poor

Hardship and struggle

Triumph

Reformation

Defining freedom

National hypocrisy (2)

The battle to achieve the American Dream

Technological advancement

Equality, freedom, and protest movements

Constant conflict from within and the outside

Oppression (2)

An evolving nation

White supremacy (4)

Establishing the American identity

Inclusion and exclusion

Terrorism hidden by good desires and good outcomes

A century that constantly challenged the values held in the Constitution

Supremacy of white heterosexual males

Continual remaking and reestablishment of white supremacy

Struggle and progress

Progress through failure

Growth and progression

Freedom

Pride, courage, and progress

Growth (2)

Americans realizing the power they have

Change

Hardships many endured but no one talks about

Selfishness

The fight for freedom

Resistance

Growth and demise

Deception and disillusionment

Expansion and change

Idealism

Containment and independence

Some of these are head-scratchers, to be sure, and some may be too vague to do much good. But I was pleased with the variety of responses and I thought some of them were quite insightful.

Maybe another step to this exercise is to think about and discuss the difference between historical narratives and making stuff up. After all, these are very different stories the students are telling. How do we know which ones are good? Are they all true? What is the difference between a historical argument and a conspiracy theory? I don’t think we should assume students know the difference.

Martin Luther King 50 Years Later

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King at the front of a march that descended into violence. Memphis, March 28, 1968

In his last Sunday sermon before he died, Dr. King said this:

It is an unhappy truth that racism is a way of life for the vast majority of white Americans, spoken and unspoken, acknowledged and denied, subtle and sometimes not so subtle—the disease of racism permeates and poisons a whole body politic. And I can see nothing more urgent than for America to work passionately and unrelentingly—to get rid of the disease of racism.

In the final months of his life, Dr. King wasn’t beating around the bush. White Americans, he said, embraced racism as a way of life. One way to honor him half a century after his death is to speak in similarly blunt terms. Racism is not just acceptable among white Americans in 2018, it is often honored. Racism is honored every time someone proudly tells you they support the President.

This reversal of norms against public racism is a tragedy. It’s a tragedy when the President of the United States speaks in proto-genocidal language and the American people don’t even realize it. It’s a double-tragedy because it is harmful all by itself while also inflicting wounds by distraction. Many of us (myself very much included) have withdrawn our attention from the ongoing crises of poverty, segregation, incarceration and police brutality. Instead, we focus on the lowest of low-hanging fruit: critiquing the racism of Donald Trump and his supporters.

It’s as if Martin Luther King had spent a lot of time and mental energy trying to convince white people that, actually, George Wallace really was racist. You almost laugh out loud at the thought of it. Of course he didn’t bother with that. King kept his focus on the bigger picture.

50 years after his death, we’re reluctant to face the man who appeared in the Spring of 1968 as a despised and declining figure. Heckled by black power advocates and hated by white conservatives, King struggled to stay relevant in a society that seemed to be coming apart at the seams. The left increasingly saw his program of militant nonviolent activism as irrelevant, while the right looked on it as a profoundly cynical method of extortion.

We honor him now, but 50 years ago most Americans just wanted him to admit defeat and go away. When he died, some white evangelical leaders implied he had only reaped what he sowed.

In our time, American across the political spectrum find their way toward admiration of Dr. King by erasing key parts of his theology and agenda. Much of the left doesn’t want to learn from King about the moral and strategic imperative of nonviolence. To them, King’s Christian activism reeks of respectability politics. The right doesn’t want to learn from King’s radical challenge to the American economy and way of life.

Plenty of people are happy to think of King as a Christian or as a radical. It is harder for us to grasp that there was no or for Dr. King. He was both. Switch the order of the words and you get slightly different connotations—radical Christian, Christian radical—but both connotations work for King.

King’s Christian activism has much to teach us. Among the lessons are these:

The ends don’t justify the means. Your goals don’t make you righteous. Your actions do.

Love is not a sentimental abstraction. It is what enables oppressed people to pursue justice without the struggle devolving into zero-sum score settling.

Formal equality is hollow without economic empowerment.

The purpose of economic empowerment of the poor is not to expand the debt-addled money-worshiping middle class. It is to promote the dignity and worth of every human being. Economic justice for the poor is not possible without a spiritual assault on the lies of materialism. People are more important than things. And people will not have their deepest needs satisfied by things. A materialistic society can try to buy off the poor with charity, but it cannot do justice to the poor because materialism causes us to treat human beings as disposable.

Nonviolence is not merely a tactic. It is a way of life that rebukes everything from the violence of American policing to our obsession with guns to our militaristic foreign policy around the world.

Nonviolence does not mean acceptance of double-standards or treating all violence as equal. King rejected violence, but refused to put all violence in the same category. With black neighborhoods engaged in a series of deadly uprisings in the 1960s, King refused to provide the condemnation the white media craved. The violent selfishness of the oppressor is of a different kind and magnitude than the violent groans of the oppressed. King kept the focus where it belonged and rebuked the real purveyors of violence.

Nonviolence does not mean passivity or accepting the premises of your opponent. King bluntly called most white Americans “racist” and “sick.” They saw this as deeply unfair and mean-spirited. But if you limit yourself to discourse within the boundaries of the oppressor’s epistemology you can’t be truthful.

With these lessons in mind we can begin to see why at the end of his life King was talking about the need to fight the interrelated problems of racism, materialism, and militarism. All three are dehumanizing forces. All three are alive and well today. 50 years after Dr. King’s death, we have so much work to do.

History Matters: Remember Well

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A roundup of some recent history matters to remind us that history matters (ha, see what I did there?):

1. A new study puts data to what I’ve emphasized for the past couple of years: many Americans received “Make America Great Again” as a religious message promising renewal for a Christian nation. The study finds that belief that America is a Christian nation was a significant predictor of support for Trump in 2016:

Why did Americans vote for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election? Social scientists have proposed a variety of explanations, including economic dissatisfaction, sexism, racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia. The current study establishes that, independent of these influences, voting for Trump was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage. Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally. These findings indicate that Christian nationalist ideology—although correlated with a variety of class-based, sexist, racist, and ethnocentric views—is not synonymous with, reducible to, or strictly epiphenomenal of such views. Rather, Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.

As I’ve argued before, much of white evangelicalism’s racism is rooted in these flawed understandings of the past.

2. Speaking of flawed historical narratives, here’s a fascinating profile of a leading Chinese historian trying to grapple with the history of the Chinese Communist Party’s murderous policies:

Shen Zhihua, bon vivant, former businessman, now China’s foremost Cold War historian, has set himself a near-impossible task. He wants China to peel back its secrets, throw open its archives and tell its citizens what went on between China and the United States, between China and North Korea, and much more.

Even before the hard-line era of President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has acted like a supersensitive corporation, blocking highly regarded historians like Mr. Shen from peering too deeply. Precious documents have been destroyed, stolen or kept under seal by librarians skilled at deflecting the inquiries of even the most tenacious researchers.

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage,” Mr. Shen, who will turn 68 next month, said over a glass of white wine at a handsome villa hidden behind a high wall in the heart of Beijing. His tousled graying hair, casual jacket and open-necked shirt depart sharply from the buttoned-down party look.

“The party was popular, but after 1949 the party made a lot of mistakes: land reform, the Cultural Revolution, the Great Leap Forward. People might ask: ‘Since you have made so many mistakes, why are you still in power?’ ”

The party is unnecessarily nervous, he argues. “If you look at Chinese history, none can replace the Communist Party. Most of the elite is in the party. The party shouldn’t worry about being challenged. If I was running the propaganda department, I would say: ‘Those mistakes were made in the past, not now, and we need to learn from our mistakes.’ ”

“Chinese leaders have historical baggage” is the understatement of the century. We’re talking about deliberately covering up and avoiding accountability for mass murder, for tens of millions of pointless deaths of their own citizens. The Chinese Communist Party’s lack of openness about its past is deeply concerning for the future.

3. Michael Kimmelman profiles the proposed International African American Museum in Charleston, at the site of the entry point for most of the enslaved people brought to North America. The museum has been a long time coming and is still struggling to raise private funds and public money from a recalcitrant South Carolina legislature:

State Representative Brian White, a Republican who heads South Carolina’s House Ways and Means Committee, is one of those holding the money back. The museum “is not a state project and we have a lot of state needs right now that far outweigh a municipality’s request,” he recently told the Greenville News, citing competing priorities like education.

Bobby Hitt, South Carolina’s commerce secretary, by contrast, has pointed out that the museum will help attract businesses to the state. It adds a work of architectural dignity. And as for educational value, plainly it fills a gap.

“This ain’t a black project,” as Bakari Sellers, a former Democrat in the state legislature, put it to the Greenville News. “This ain’t a Charleston project. This is an American project.”

Or as James Baldwin said, “If you know whence you came, there are absolutely no limitations to where you can go.”

One recent morning I toured the site with Mr. Hood and Michael Boulware Moore, the museum’s president, then we looked out over the harbor. Mr. Moore said his ancestors were among the slaves who arrived in shackles at Gadsden’s Wharf.

His great-great grandfather was Robert Smalls, who commandeered a Confederate ship, turning it over to Union forces and winning freedom for himself, his family and his crew. Smalls became a crusading state legislator and United States congressman during Reconstruction. He brought free public education to South Carolina.

A plaque honoring Smalls was installed on a squat little pillar downtown not long ago. Mr. Moore showed me a picture of it.

Think, the Stonehenge set from “Spinal Tap.” The memorial looks tiny, and is periodically obscured by bushes.

Not far away, a big statue on a huge round pedestal, at the tip of the battery facing Fort Sumter, honors the Confederate Defenders of Charleston.

Symbols matter. The past is present. The museum would clearly be good for more than just business.

4. Finally, a sobering profile of “Nazi hunters” concerned about Europe’s blindness to its past:

Serge and Beate Klarsfeld are not only Europe’s most famous Nazi hunters. For more than five decades, they’ve also been the vigilante enforcers of the continent’s moral conscience.

The husband-and-wife team — through painstaking research and often daring exploits — has tracked down murderers from the suburbs of Damascus, Syria, to the jungles of Bolivia. They pushed for the arrests and ultimate convictions of former Nazis and French collaborators such as Maurice Papon, Paul Touvier and Klaus Barbie, known as the Butcher of Lyon. And they have documented the stories of thousands of French Jews sent to the Nazi gas chambers.

Their mission has been to seek justice, but also to force a European reckoning with questions of complicity and culpability in a war many people preferred to forget. It was largely their influence that prompted President Jacques Chirac, soon after taking office in 1995, to acknowledge that “France, home of the Enlightenment and the Rights of Man . . . broke her word and delivered the people she was protecting to their executioners.”

Yet today, at the respective ages of 82 and 79, Serge and Beate Klarsfeld say they are horrified by the state of affairs in Europe and beyond: the rise of right-wing populist movements, and now governments, across the continent, often fueled by support from young voters. The parallel forces of nationalism and xenophobia, once again permissible in the public sphere. The apparent desire — from Poland to the United States — to play with the truth of the past so as to alter the norms of the present, the norms the ­Klarsfelds spent decades upholding.

“The young today don’t know hunger. They don’t know war,” Serge said in an interview at the Klarsfelds’ office, reclining at a desk piled high with the kind of documents he and his wife have used for years to build their dossiers. “They don’t know that the European Union brought to Europe so much, and they don’t know that the generation that came before them worked so hard for what there is.”

There’s a theme in all of this, right? Bad memory of the past supports injustice in the present. We’ve got to try to remember well.

The Vietnam War was a War of American Aggression

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Vietnamese propaganda, 1965: “Only by fighting the invading Americans will our country be truly independent and free”

Historian Christian G. Appy has a great article in the New York Times this week on the Vietnam War. (I also recommend his recent book on the war and American identity.) After all these years, Americans are still reluctant to take a clear-eyed look at that war. What was the nature of the conflict? What was the United States doing? Appy writes:

Was America’s war in Vietnam a noble struggle against Communist aggression, a tragic intervention in a civil conflict, or an imperialist counterrevolution to crush a movement of national liberation? Those competing interpretations ignited fiery debates in the 1960s and remain unresolved today. How we name and define this most controversial of American wars is not a narrow scholarly exercise, but profoundly shapes public memory of its meaning and ongoing significance to American national identity and foreign policy…

In the decades since 1975, all three major interpretations have persisted. Some writers and historians have embraced President Ronald Reagan’s view that the war was a “noble cause” that might have been won. That position has failed to persuade most specialists in the field, in large part because it greatly exaggerates the military and political virtues and success of the United States and the government of South Vietnam. It also falls short because it depends on counterfactual claims that victory would have been achieved if only the United States had extended its support for Diem (instead of greenlighting his overthrow), or tried a different military strategy, or done a better job winning hearts and minds. However, the war as it was actually conducted by the United States and its allies was a disaster by every measure.

In recent decades, a number of historians — particularly younger scholars trained in Vietnamese and other languages — have developed various versions of the civil war interpretation. Some of them view the period after the French defeat in 1954 as “post-colonial,” a time in which long-brewing internal conflicts between competing versions of Vietnamese nationalism came to a head. As the historian Jessica Chapman of Williams College puts it, “The Vietnam War was, at its core, a civil war greatly exacerbated by foreign intervention.” Others have described it as a civil war that became “internationalized.”

While these scholars have greatly enhanced our knowledge of the complexity and conflict in Vietnamese history, politics and culture, they don’t, in my view, assign enough responsibility to the United States for causing and expanding the war as a neocolonial power.

Let’s try a thought experiment. What if our own Civil War bore some resemblance to the Vietnamese “civil war”? For starters, we would have to imagine that in 1860 a global superpower — say Britain — had strongly promoted Southern secession, provided virtually all of the funding for the ensuing war and dedicated its vast military to the battle. We must also imagine that in every Southern state, local, pro-Union forces took up arms against the Confederacy. Despite enormous British support, Union forces prevailed. What would Americans call such a war? Most, I think, would remember it as the Second War of Independence. Perhaps African-Americans would call it the First War of Liberation. Only former Confederates and the British might recall it as a “civil war.”

I would reverse Chapman’s formula and say that the Vietnam War was, at its core, an American war that exacerbated Vietnamese divisions and internationalized the conflict. It is true, of course, that many Vietnamese opposed the Communist path to national liberation, but no other nationalist party or faction proved capable of gaining enough support to hold power. Without American intervention, it is hard to imagine that South Vietnam would have come into being or, if it did, that it would have endured for long.

Read the whole thing for Appy’s thoughts on why this matters today.

I recently taught the Vietnam War to my U.S. survey class. I emphasized a few points that I think are fundamental to understanding what actually happened in Vietnam:

1) The United States opposed democracy in Vietnam.

The 1954 Geneva accords established a temporary division between north and south. A 1956 nationwide election was to unify the country. The United States did not want that election to happen because American policymakers assumed, correctly, that Ho Chi Minh and the communists would have won. As elsewhere around the world during the Cold War, defending democracy or human rights was not an American priority.

2) Nationalism was a more potent force in the conflict than communism.

As the propaganda at the top of this post illustrates, the Americans had it exactly backward when they described Vietnamese communists as communists first and foremost. From the Vietnamese perspective, the more salient fact was that they were nationalists fighting against generations of foreign rule.

3) The United States was not defending the nation of South Vietnam; it was trying to create the nation of South Vietnam.

The military escalation of 1964 and beyond was the result of political failure. The United States tried and failed to create an artificial nation out of the temporary Geneva settlement. In the absence of popular legitimacy and shared national purpose for the South Vietnamese government, the United States propped it up through brutal military force.

4) In the United States, the human cost was overshadowed by the psychic toll on the American identity and social fabric.

U.S. actions led directly to millions of deaths in southeast Asia in a worse than useless conflict. But Americans tended to focus on their own wounds. After My Lai, the murderers became heroes. Georgia Governor Jimmy Carter urged citizens to “honor the flag as [Lt. Calley] had done.” A popular song put these words in Calley’s mouth:

While we’re fighting in the jungles they were marching in the street; While we’re dying in the rice fields they were helping our defeat; While we’re facing V.C. bullets they were sounding a retreat.

The United States wasn’t defeated in Vietnam, many Americans believed. It was stabbed in the back by its own citizens. Appy’s book has a lot of insightful discussion of these attitudes. I was especially struck by this excerpt:

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On the other hand, some parents made no excuses for what their children did in Vietnam:

One of the American soldiers at My Lai was Private Paul Meadlo. While guarding a group of about sixty Vietnamese who had been rounded up and made to squat down, Lieutenant Calley approached and ordered Meadlo to “take care of them.” At first, Meadlo did not understand. “Come on,” Calley barked, “We’ll kill them. Fire when I say ‘Fire.'” Meadlo obeyed. The villagers were about ten feet away when the two men began firing their M-16 rifles on automatic. After killing many of the Vietnamese, Meadlo stopped. With tears streaming down his face, he turned to a buddy, shoved the M-16 toward him, and said, “You shoot them.”

Two days after the massacre, Calley ordered his platoon to walk through a known minefield that had recently caused American casualties. Most of the men ignored the order, so Calley took only a small squad. Paul Meadlo was ordered to walk point carrying a mine detector. Calley grew impatient with Meadlo’s careful movements and ordered him to stop sweeping and pick up the pace. A few seconds later, Meadlo stepped on a mine. His left foot was blown off. When an evacuation helicopter arrived, he seemed to be thinking more about My Lai than his missing foot. He screamed at Calley: “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? This is God’s punishment to me, Calley, but you’ll get yours! God will punish you, Calley!”

Twenty months later, journalists tracked down Meadlo in his hometown of Goshen, Indiana. They found that most townspeople supported the young veteran and what he had done at My Lai. “He had to do what his officer told him,” said the owner of a pool hall. “Things like that happen in war. They always have and they always will,” said a veteran of World War II and Korea.

Meadlo’s parents, however, did not agree. His father, a retired coal miner, said: “If it had been me out there I would have swung my rifle around and shot Calley instead–right between the God-damned eyes. Meadlo’s mother said this: “I raised him up to be a good boy and did everything I could. They come along and took him to the service. He fought for his country and look what they done to him–made him a murderer.”

In Social Movements, Shame Is A Powerful Weapon

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The March for Our Lives rally in Washington, D.C.

How does social change happen? In idealized stories of earlier reform movements—abolition, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement—we like to tell ourselves that in certain critical moments the public can experience a moral awakening. In the civil rights era, police brutality mediated through the new technology of television supposedly shocked the conscience of the nation and led to reform. Is this really true?

The question matters because the answer shapes the strategies we believe contemporary social movements ought to pursue. Does a movement win when it has persuaded a majority of people of the righteousness of its cause? Do appeals to a shared moral sense drive change? Or do more aggressive tactics work better? Should a movement try very hard not to offend opponents? Or should it heighten the contrast between two sides?

Without discounting the grain of truth in narratives of moral awakening, I think we need to be more clear-eyed about how change often occurs. It is true that becoming a society that no longer countenanced slavery was a massive moral shift. But that shift in imagination was measured in generations, not months or years. It is true that the civil rights movement moved the moral conscience, but in the short term it looked less like an awakening and more like a grudging acceptance of change.

As much as we’d like to believe in moral awakenings, Americans didn’t suddenly repent of the horror of racism when they saw John Lewis getting his head bashed in. Instead, politicians, celebrities, employers and pastors began to tell people that it was no longer socially acceptable to be racist. Wanting to be considered good people, and wanting to see themselves as good people, white Americans decided racism was bad. The Trump era shows how paper-thin that judgment remains even half a century after the height of the civil rights movement.

But that doesn’t mean the movement’s gains weren’t significant. Moving the boundaries of social acceptability and implementing concrete policy changes are huge victories. Even as the Black Lives Matter movement has receded from the headlines, it has shifted boundaries and is driving policy changes in local police departments and DA offices. Such shifts don’t just follow moral change; they often precede it.

We may now be seeing the standards of social acceptability moving on the related issue of guns. To win, social movements need to have more than a compelling moral case. They need to be able and willing to raise the costs of inaction. (This doesn’t mean resorting to violence. There’s good political science evidence showing that violence in the civil rights era was counterproductive.) You raise costs by making politicians fear for their jobs, businesses for their profits, and people for their reputations.

We’re seeing movement on all three of those fronts. Republican politicians in suburban districts are making noises about the need for action. The Trump Administration at least wants to appear to be doing something. Many major businesses are not even trying to straddle the issue anymore and are instead taking actions that align them squarely on the side of the gun control activists. And the NRA is becoming more unpopular as its spokespeople and supporters reveal themselves as heartless extremists. A new poll out this morning shows that more Americans strongly disapprove of the NRA than strongly approve.

That strong disapproval number is important. In my ideal world, activists could simply present their righteous cause, lay out the evidence, and lovingly appeal to the moral intuition we all share. In the real world, while we should try to do all those things, we must also rely on the power of shame. The gun control activists will win, in part, by making people feel that it is disreputable and shameful to be associated with the NRA. They will win by making people feel that this is something that “good people” simply don’t do.

Activists can win by shifting the boundaries of what is socially acceptable. Sometimes one generation’s embarrassment can become the seeds of a future generation’s convictions. Yet recognizing the power of shame does not mean we must be cynics about the power of love. People on the opposing side need to have a way to back down without feeling like they’re losing everything. This need not be zero sum. Without love, activists can become nothing more than would-be oppressors, lacking only the power to crush their opposition. With love, activists can gladly welcome every convert, however late to the game they may be. We cannot afford to be complacent about our own condition. We are flawed people seeking positive change. The problem of evil is the problem of me. I do not have the vision, the wisdom, the love, to see clearly all that can or should be done. That’s always important to remember.

Notes from the Classroom: Teaching the History of the Present

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Bill Clinton, a leading villain of the history of the present

I’ve structured my U.S. history survey course to go right up to the present day. The last lecture of the semester is title “The Radicalization of American Politics, 1994-2018.” I do so with some trepidation, but I have several compelling (I think) reasons for it.

1) Over half of the class is made up of journalism majors. They will spend their careers in the world of 24 hour news cycles, and they will be much better at their jobs if they can put the news in historical perspective.

2) Communicating the inherent difficulty of thinking through the noise of the present to discern what is historically significant is part of the teaching objective. In the last week of the semester, I will be explicit about the speculative nature of this project. Thinking about our knowledge and perceptions as provisional is inherently humbling and can lead to better thinking.

3) It allows me to teach about the Trump era without letting Trump intrude on the whole semester. I’ve been very deliberate about avoiding Trump in my teaching this semester. If connections between the Trump Era and the Gilded Age suggest themselves to students, fine. But I’ve been determined not to recast the American story on the basis of the fleeting events of the past two years. Precisely because we don’t yet know how historically consequential this moment is, or its denouement, I’ve tried hard to let the significance of other eras stand on their own terms.

This restraint is easier for me when I know I’ve got that last lecture at the end of the course. Talking about the past with reference to Trump all semester would be inimical to historical thinking. But it would also be strange to go through a whole survey of modern U.S. history without communicating to students the unique features of the present moment of crisis. By the way, I’m eager for any suggestions about how best to do that.

One simple rule of thumb is to think about how Trump is different from past Republican presidents. That way you’re removing some of the partisan emotion from it while encouraging students to understand how and why we ended up with a president who rejects the post-Watergate norms of the presidency, 70 years of bipartisan American foreign policy, and matters of the rule of law and the constitution previously thought to be settled.

4) I’m trying to model thinking historically about the present as I prepare students for their final assignment, a “time capsule” project. I’ve never done anything like this before and I don’t know if it will work, but it goes like this:

The premise is that you are creating a “time capsule” that you imagine historians will open 100 years from now. What will be important for them to study?

You will identify a contemporary (in this century) event, process, person, movement, cultural change, technology, or other phenomenon that you believe is of historic significance. You will briefly describe its history and context and make an argument that justifies the historic significance of your choice. Your objective is to cut through the noise of the present and think in a longer time-frame than we’re used to thinking. In hindsight, what will people think was unique or important about the early twenty-first century?

Having made your choice and argued for its historic significance, you will select three primary sources that are essential to understanding it. You will offer a brief analysis of each source and explain why it will be useful for historians to study it a century from now.

I’ve cut out the details, but this is the conceptual gist of the assignment. It is still over a month away so if anyone has words of caution or ideas to make it better, there’s still time for me to change it! In my ideal world, students come away from this assignment having exercised intellectual muscles they didn’t know they had, and might even be interested in using them in the future.

Why Is There No Conservatism In The United States, Part Two

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I recently asked why there isn’t conservatism in the United States and referred to the postwar American Right using the seemingly paradoxical phrase “radical conservatives.” After digging around a little bit yesterday, I came up with some intriguing connections to this train of thought.

In the first edition of National Review in 1955, William F. Buckley famously wrote that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it…”

You read this and it sounds like traditional conservatism. Looking backward, seeking to stop or at least slow down change. But in that same editorial Buckley said this:

Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.

I had not realized that as early as 1955 Buckley himself used the phrase “radical conservatives.” It’s not just the phrasing that is revealing. It’s the overt contempt for the moderate right, the disdain for the Eisenhower wing of the Republican Party. This is an insurgent outsider mentality.

A kind reader also sent me an October 1964 National Council of Churches document entirely devoted to sounding the alarm about “The Radical Right.” I need to peruse the document more, but some mainline Protestants were clearly alarmed by the new visibility of radical conservatism in the context of the Goldwater campaign.

I also came across the influential historian Richard Hofstadter’s thoughts on what he called radical “pseudo-conservatism.” In 1962, Hofstadter wrote:

The political character of this movement can be helpfully delineated by comparing it with true conservatism. The United States has not provided a receptive home for formal conservative thought or classically conservative modes of behavior. Lacking a formidable aristocratic tradition, this country has produced at best patricians rather than aristocrats, and the literature of American political experience shows how unhappy the patricians (for example, Henry Adams) have been in their American environment. Restless, mobile both geographically and socially, overwhelmingly middle-class in their aspirations, the American people have not given their loyalty to a national church or developed a traditionally oriented bar or clergy, or other institutions that have the character of national establishments. But it is revealing to observe the attitude of the extreme right wing toward those institutions that come closest here to reproducing the institutional apparatus of the aristocratic classes in other countries. Such conservative institutions as the better preparatory schools, the Ivy League colleges and universities, the Supreme Court, and the State Department–exactly those institutions that have been largely in the custodianship of the patrician or established elements in American society–have been the favorite objects of right-wing animosity.

So there you have it. I was actually just echoing Hofstadter and I didn’t know it. Well, I could have found myself in worse company. I’ll take it.

The Power of a Good Biography

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I’m reading George Marsden’s Bancroft Prize-winning biography of Jonathan Edwards, and it’s reminding me of being a kid. When done well, biographies can be incredibly immersive experiences, far more so than any movie or television series (in my humble opinion, of course). When I was young biographies were key entry points into history and they made my imagination run wild. It was, and still is, hard to believe that other people have existed and lived different lives from mine. (Think about it).

Entering into the life of a person in another time and place and following it through to its conclusion can be extremely sobering and inspiring. It also has the happy effect of assuring me that I’m thoroughly average, will always be average, and can bask in the freedom of not being A Great Man of History.

I think I would like to write a biography in the future. But I am puzzling over the ethical dilemmas of the genre. I remember when I finished my master’s thesis (which, though not strictly a biography, had some biographical features and focused in particular on John Stennis) the chair of the history department asked me, “Wait, do you like this guy?” Because Stennis was a white supremacist it was a loaded question! And I thought the answer ought to have been obvious, but perhaps it wasn’t. I had tried very hard to understand Stennis, and I firmly believe that there’s no such thing as a historian understanding their subjects too well. But…who we try hardest to understand is an important choice, one with consequences.

At the outset of Jonathan Edwards, Marsden asks us to try to understand Edwards in his time. He wasn’t an American or an evangelical, and he couldn’t imagine social hierarchy as anything but a good thing. So far so good. But I’m not sure Marsden’s commendable sensitivity to understanding Edwards extends very well to other actors in the book.

As much as I feel I understand Edwards, so much of the world around him seems largely invisible in this book (so far; I’m 300 pages in). Why are the Indians so opaque? Why are the enslaved so invisible? To say that they were so for Edwards for long stretches of his life tells us a little about Edwards but isn’t itself a reason to render them so in a new history.

These are old qualms that have been much discussed and argued over, but I’m still confused about them. And it seems to me that biography may be a genre particularly vulnerable to this problem. Nonetheless, I see why Marsden won the Bancroft Prize. It’s a great book.

Jonathan Edwards strikes me as the sort of person I want to encounter from the safe distance of the printed page and several hundreds years. From that distance he is quite fascinating. I don’t know that I would have wanted to hang out with him. He was incredibly intense about everything.

That reminds me: the other biography I’m just now getting into is Victor Sebestyen’s new life of Lenin. If only to prove that you can always make connections between things, I would say what makes Edwards and Lenin similar is their singular focus to see their principles through to their conclusion (I admit the results were considerably bloodier in Lenin’s case).

Back to Edwards: I didn’t know anything about him beyond the sorts of things you read in general surveys of the era. (Indeed, the dirty little secret of this whole enterprise I’m engaged in is that I don’t yet know much about the history of evangelicalism!). I’m fascinated by the way Edward’s views appear to scramble and upset so much of the evangelical tradition that in one way or another claims some descent from him.

He was a revivalist who believed deeply in hierarchical authority. He sought and achieved ecstatic spiritual experiences, and he was obsessed with reason. He brooded over the machinations of the Devil and the depravity of people, and he believed the millennium might be close at hand.

I’m especially interested in Edwards’ views of the relationship between church and state and of God’s plan for New England. Do we see in Edwards the “poisoned root” I referred to the other day? I need to know more.

A White Evangelical Historian Weighs In On Gerson’s Article

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You’ll want to read this.

John Fea, professor of history at Mesiah College, is one of the more thoughtful commentators around combining a historical perspective and evangelical faith as he brings his expertise to bear in the public sphere. He’s the guy who coined the phrase court evangelicals and he’s got a book (see above) coming out later this year that’s sure to be insightful.

Here’s some of what Fea has had to say so far about Michael Gerson’s article in the Atlantic. Like me, Fea noticed that Gerson’s 19th century golden era of evangelicalism was seen with rose-colored glasses:

In his Atlantic piece, “The Last Temptation,” Michael Gerson discusses the first half of the 19th-century as a time when evangelicals led social reform movements to end slavery.  We could also add other reform movements to his story, including efforts to curb the negative effects of alcohol, the crusade to win the vote for women, the movement to reform prisons, and the evangelical commitment to the education of urban young people through Sunday Schools.  All of these reform movements had roots in the genuine desire of “revived” evangelicals (products of the Second Great Awakening) to apply their faith to public life.

But let’s not forget that evangelicals were also, often at the very same time, involved heavily in some of the darker moments in the American past.  They were trying to limit Catholic immigration out of fear that Catholic immigrants would undermine their Protestant nation.  The Southern ministers and laypersons who experienced intense revivals in Confederate army camps were, in many cases, the same people constructing a sophisticated biblical and theological argument in defense of slavery.

Fea also shared some more personal reflections the piece inspired:

Like Gerson, I have come to the conclusion, after much soul searching in the wake of November 8, 2016, that the word “evangelical” is worth defending.   I still believe in all the things that the word stands for–the “good news” of the Gospel, the authority of the Bible, the centrality of the cross, and the need to engage with the world from the perspective of these beliefs.

I appreciate Gerson’s autobiographical reflections about his evangelical upbringing.  I also spent some of the most formative years of my life within evangelicalism.  But unlike Gerson, I was not a cradle evangelical.  I converted as a teenager.   While I am fully on board with Mark Noll’s assessment of evangelical thinking in the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, I can fully say that my conversion is what actually led me to pursue an intellectual life and instilled me with a sense of vocation that continues to animate my work.  My Catholic upbringing played an important role in my moral formation, and I will always be a fellow traveler with my Catholic brothers and sisters,  but it was evangelicalism that brought meaning and purpose to my life.   It still does–at least on the good days.

I know that many former evangelicals read this blog.  I understand that they are angry and bitter and critical.  I see it in their posts and comments and published pieces.  I saw it in the way they responded to the death of Billy Graham.  I get it.  I don’t know how folks can live with such anger and bitterness, but I get it.  Don’t get me wrong, anyone who reads this blog regularly knows that I have a lot of issues with evangelicalism.  I have had my own moments of anger and bitterness.  But I see those disagreements, to borrow from Noll, as “lovers quarrels.”

I wouldn’t say this on every day, but it’s a lovers quarrel for me as well. Disavowing evangelicalism is a little bit like disavowing my personhood.

Why Isn’t There Conservatism in the United States?

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William F. Buckley

In 1984, Eric Foner wrote an article asking, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” In that spirit, I present this deliberately provocative and messy think piece. I’ll be giving a lecture on the rise of modern American conservatism after World War Two to my U.S. history survey class later this month. If I framed the lecture in the terms below, would it work? Does this argument hold up at all? What is it missing? What are the most obvious counterarguments? I threw this together without looking at any primary or secondary sources so I cringe at all that I’m surely glossing over here. Is there something to be said for this?


My key argument today is that modern American conservatism arose as an insurgency from both the intellectual margins and the populist grassroots. During the dominance of the New Deal coalition from the 1930s to the mid-1960s, conservatism seemed to be pushed to the margins in American politics and elite culture. Now, to be sure, you might look at the 1950s and say, gosh, wasn’t the whole American mainstream conservative? But this question fails to understand how American politics and culture looked from the perspective of the conservative insurgents.

They sought a radical conservatism (and I use this seemingly paradoxical phrase deliberately) that would upend the moderate consensus in American life and usher in their vision of a society of localism, laissez faire economics, and social order. Thinking about the New Right as an insurgent and radical force helps us to think about how and why American conservatism became so distinctive. Often when we talk about conservatism in a broader global context, we might think of the conservatism of landed elites stretching back into a feudal past, the conservatism of certain European Catholic parties, the conservatism of a very class conscious British society.

The United States, for all sorts of reasons, did not have those conditions. So, just as historians have asked, why didn’t socialism ever take root in the U.S? We might dare to ask the question, why isn’t there conservatism in the United States? This is a deliberately provocative and simplified question, but it helps us to think about the paradox of radical conservatism, a “conservatism” that sought to not conserve and preserve as much as transform.

Because the New Right found itself blocked out of the mainstream of both major parties, it assumed the posture of political insurgency from a very early date. The nomination of Barry Goldwater in 1964 was not a case of a conservative party choosing a conservative nominee. It was a shocking takeover of a moderate party by the insurgents. Modern American conservatism never lost that insurgent and radical quality, even after gaining power, and that has had profound consequences for American life.


The lecture would go on to discuss both populist conservative forces (especially women mobilizing at the grassroots) as well as intellectuals like Buckley and Hayek (yes, I know he wasn’t American!). One of the things I want to avoid is the conflation of conservatism with backlash and reaction. The New Right had goals it was fighting for, not just changes it was reacting against. I also think the framing of “radical conservatism” and “insurgency” could be helpful for setting up the very end of the semester when we talk about the contemporary radicalization of American politics and conservatism’s inability to govern.