Historians and the Creative Process

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When you first start out with the idea that you might like to be a historian it is easy to imagine that historians are scribes of some kind. Novelists, of course, are creators. They have to invent the stories they write. But historians only need to look at old documents and tell us what they say.

Maybe none of us were quite that naive when we started out, but I do think it’s fair to say that until we begin to really write and publish we have no concept of the extent to which historians—and all nonfiction writers I suppose—are engaged in a creative process. We, too, invent the stories we write.

In our age of proud skepticism and militant ignorance it is perhaps dangerous to suggest that historians are “inventing stories.” This could easily be misunderstood. We’re not making things up. But at every turn in a writing project, we encounter questions that require us to be creators rather than mere scribes of “what happened.”

As historians know, but the public might not, choosing what to write about is a creative and rather arbitrary decision. Lots of stuff happened in the past. It could mean lots of things. What do you cut out and what do you include? Philosophically, one could argue that everything is chaos and that there is no particular direction to events. Good luck writing history that way.

Instead of transcribing the chaos, we must make creative decisions that bring order to it. We create a narrative and sense of movement by the people and things we choose to emphasize. We are interpreters of events that don’t explain themselves. We don’t uncover the obvious meaning that was there all along; we bring meaning to it by bringing the past and present into contact with each other.

A few weeks ago there was a question going around twitter about what is obvious within one’s profession but not obvious to the public. For historians, the creative process is one of those things. It is easy for the public to believe that historians are people who know lots of facts about the past. While it is true that we end up knowing lots of stuff, that doesn’t make us historians. Without the work of interpretation—an essentially creative process—we’re just good trivial pursuit players.

Depending what we’re writing about, we may feel we get to know our “characters” in a special way. But we can’t, like a novelist, invent the quintessential episode or perfect bit of dialogue that lets the reader in on our secret knowledge. We have to figure out how all the thousands of things that the person actually said and did can be crafted to present the character we believe we have come to know.

And dialogue! Uggh! Sometimes we wish we could put words in their mouths instead of wrestling with how to communicate the essential meaning of old letters, memos, and speeches written with odd grammar in obscure contexts.

Where does the story begin and where does it end? It has to start somewhere and it can’t go on forever. These are creative decisions that, in the best case scenario, emerge organically out of the story we’re telling. While working on one dissertation chapter in the past couple weeks, an entire new chapter rose up out of the mist, unknown to me before. The ending is still clarifying itself.

One of the oddest things about the creative process is that we don’t make all these decisions at the front end and then write what we decided to write. Maybe there are a few geniuses here and there who do this, but it doesn’t work that way for me at all. Instead, only the act of writing begins to bring the story into view. In that sense, writing feels more like a collaboration—your conscious efforts, your unconscious self, and the historical actors all working together—than a solo project.

Civility Is A Strange Hill To Die On

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John Stennis, one of the most civil white supremacists you’ll ever see.

A restaurant owner asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave and suddenly we’re all debating the future of the republic. Civility or else! We’ve been here before. In my article on the colorblind consensus in the 1990s, I show how the idea of civility was integral to the memorialization of white supremacists in mainstream media. Here’s what I had to say about Mississippi Senator John Stennis:

Stennis had long embodied a particular kind of civility—what William H. Chafe in his classic study of the black freedom movement and white establishment in Greensboro called “a way of dealing with people and problems that made good manners more important than substantial action.” As the memorialization of Stennis would reveal, this sense of civility still held considerable purchase in the white American imagination. As the nation remembered the career of one of its longest-serving senators, Stennis’s civility loomed larger than his policy aims. Many memorializers held up civility as an ultimate good, without scrutinizing the limitations of Stennis’s brand of civility or the white supremacist purposes for which he deployed it.

To be historically minded is to understand that civility has often been used as a deliberate strategy to oppress people. This fact does not in itself mean that we should be actively uncivil. But it should give us pause and remind us that there are higher values–love, justice, peace—which are far more sturdy and uncomfortable and disruptive to the status quo than the concept of civility.

How Children’s History Books Teach Kids Whose Lives Really Matter

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Going to the library and picking up some history books for your kids seems like a wholesome activity, right? Be careful, it’s actually very treacherous terrain! The books you give your kids might be teaching them to be racist. You won’t know it if you’re only on the lookout for overtly offensive passages. You have to pay attention to what’s not there.

Yesterday we went to Valley Forge National Park. In advance of our trip, we picked up the Magic Tree House nonfiction book on the American Revolution. I started reading it to my kids. Whoooo boy.

The book begins by explaining what colonies were and how people got there:

People often sailed from Europe and Britain to begin new lives in the colonies. Some came for freedom to worship as they pleased. Others came for land. Still others came for work.

Red flags. Alarm bells. Why is it only describing why Europeans came? A page after describing what the trip was like, there is a brief aside:

The colonies also had slaves, who were brought over from West Africa. Most slaves lived on large farms called plantations in the southern colonies. They worked in the fields or as house servants.

There were also American Indians in the colonies. They were there long before the colonists arrived. Many lost their lands as the colonies grew larger.

This is a master class in passive voice and obfuscation. “slaves…were brought…” by who knows who. Indians “lost their lands as the colonies grew larger” because this was inexorable and there was somehow losing without taking. Worse, by putting this material in a separate section after describing why and how people came to the colonies, the authors have made the curious decision to explain what it was like for Europeans to come to America while not describing the same for Africans. They’re reinscribing the hierarchy rather than explaining it.

The next chapter is titled, “Life in the Colonies.” It describes technology, material culture, work, food, education, dress, and the gendered experience of children. It does not mention the experiences of enslaved people or Native Americans. Not. One. Time. After this chapter the groundwork is laid and the rest of the book is a narrative of the Revolution. The whole chapter on “Life in the Colonies” is actually about European life in the colonies.

It is a particular narrative masquerading as a universal one. Instead of trying to describe what colonial society was like, it affirms its exclusions. When your narrative omits vast numbers of people, you’re just reproducing the racist logic of the time: these people don’t belong in the same way; these people don’t matter as much.

These stories are extremely destructive. They teach young minds who belongs, who is important, who has a history. These narratives are racist.

I must emphasize that I’m not talking here about the difficult question of how to craft age-appropriate narratives of traumatic pasts. Good luck telling your 6-year old about the Holocaust! That is a real discussion worth having, and it’s not easy. But this is something else. It’s a deliberate decision to prevent kids from knowing, in a general and age appropriate way, what life in the colonies was like!

It would not have been even a little bit difficult for the authors to at least write a transition sentence like, “For enslaved people, life was much harder.” Then you write a few sentences about what daily life was like for them. Likewise, you mention the diverse approaches different Indian nations took to the expansion of the colonies. This is not rocket science.

I can imagine a certain kind of reader saying that my concerns smack of political correctness. This is not so. If the racism of these narratives doesn’t concern you, can I bother you with the fact that they’re false? At the time of the first census in 1790, African Americans were nearly 20% of the population. There is no good historical reason to decide not to tell kids about 20% of the people in your story. So the political correctness runs in the opposite direction. The story sacrifices historical accuracy to protect white feelings and promote a brittle kind of patriotism that can’t acknowledge the complexity of the nation’s past.

So, go ahead and get those history books from the library. But read them with your kids. And don’t worry, you don’t have to be an expert. You only need to be able to ask some basic questions: what’s not here? Is the story doing what it is claiming to do? What is the author’s goal? What or who is being left out? I went ahead and read that awful chapter on life in the colonies to my kids. But then we debriefed.

Cartoon of the Day: Evangelicals & Watergate Edition

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Paul Conrad, Los Angeles Times, May 30, 1974

Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.

I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.

Sex Was The Last Defense of Segregationist Theology

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Eternity Magazine, July, 1972.

As growing numbers of white evangelicals adopted colorblind theologies in the 1960s and 1970s, many of them continued to draw a sharp line at the question of interracial marriage. Even as they came to believe that we’re all the same in God’s eyes, when it came to sex, it turned out that race still mattered a lot.

White evangelical elites tended to be of the opinion that there was nothing in the scriptures that forbade interracial marriage. They thought it was unwise, but not sinful. When they said as much in magazines like Christianity Today and Eternity, they had to tread carefully. Many white evangelical laypeople were quite certain that interracial marriage was an affront to God. So even moderate views usually generated some irate reader responses.

An example of this comes from Eternity in the summer of 1972. After publishing an article concluding that “Biologically, biblically, socially and statistically there is not cause for alarm” about interracial marriage, the magazine heard from some angry readers. Like the Michigan man who wrote,

I am a Christian and love every child of God regardless of race or color. I have a niece and nephew in Africa who are missionaries.

But when it comes to interracial marriage I am very much against it. We should notice that it is very seldom that a white man marries a black woman. Usually a black man marries a white woman; it’s nothing but lust and sensual desires.

Of course your modern churches, liberals, communists and civil rights forces are in favor of it. Take my name off your mailing list.

A Kentucky woman put it more succinctly:

I did not like the article…I do not and never will believe in mixed marriages. If this trend continues, there will eventually be no white or black people…Discontinue my subscription.

You might chuckle at the “there will eventually be no white or black people.” But it’s a line revealing of this woman’s rejection of the emerging colorblind theology. Why was it self-evident to her that it would be bad if there were no black and white people? Because racial difference, she was quite sure, was part of God’s design. There were very important differences between groups, and though God offered spiritual salvation to all, he did not intend for them to merge together socially, much less biologically. This was her common sense.

Another woman from Albany, Georgia wrote that the article obviously wasn’t true,

judging by the nations that have fallen because of interracial marriage. Therefore, please cancel my subscription.

This is a fascinating window into a different world. Apparently there was a belief that interracial marriage had led to the downfall of nations in the past. From where did this idea come? How widespread was it? I hadn’t heard that one before!

And finally, a Texas man thought the whole idea of interracial marriage was a moral absurdity:

Now that you have so readily removed all barriers to the marriage of blacks and whites, perhaps you can give us another article in the near future proving to us that cohabitation of humans and beasts is also permissible?

These attitudes—expressed and printed openly in the 1970s—are a sobering reminder of just how anti-Christian much of our evangelical heritage is.

The Pleasures of Finding Gold in the Archive

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While working on a dissertation chapter this morning I was perusing notes I made months ago on archival documents. In this particular case I had been trying to establish a timeline for what I suspected was an incriminating series of events, but the documents were jumbled and fragmentary and I just wasn’t sure what exactly happened, or when.

Sometimes you find tantalizing pieces of evidence and you wonder if you’ll really be able to use them. Can you establish with clarity what exactly they mean?

That was the state of play months ago when I made some notes that made me chuckle today when I rediscovered them. One document is tagged, “smoking gun.” I was on my way to confirming the timeline. Then, dozens of pages later, my notes say:

“Earlier smoking gun! More smoke! The bullet is visibly exiting the chamber!”

I guess I was pretty excited. I established my timeline. And that’s a good feeling.

The Significance of Dehumanizing Rhetoric

Why does dehumanizing rhetoric matter? And what is the significance of large numbers of people being unable to recognize it when it occurs? This is a brief reflection on these two questions.

The point of dehumanizing rhetoric is that it prepares us to treat people in ways we wouldn’t ordinarily treat them. There seems to be an innate human aversion to inflicting grievous harm on other humans. This is why soldiers have to be psychologically trained to kill. Dehumanizing rhetoric and imagery distributed through media to a mass population is one way to dull our innate aversion to harm. It prepares us to intern, enslave, kill, exterminate the objects of the dehumanizing rhetoric.

The examples are, by now, cliché. But no less true. The Americans did it. The Nazis did it. The Hutus did it. Words—the simple and awful power of the tongue—really can make it easier to kill human beings.

One particularly potent example from 20th century American history is the Pacific Campaign during World War Two. As John Dower showed, Japan and the United States encouraged their civilian populations and soldiers to think of the enemy as sub-human. While Germans were often imagined as normal people led by an evil ruler, the Japanese, as a group, were imagined as bestial, unthinking, and worthy of collective punishment. Many scholars believe these attitudes contributed to the American decision to practice more brutal aerial bombing of Japan than of Germany.

Here are some telling examples of how the American public and American soldiers saw the enemy during World War Two:

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This image was published in Life Magazine in 1944 under the heading, “A Wartime Souvenir.”
A young woman’s fiancé sent the skull to her with the note, “This is a good Jap – a dead one picked up on the New Guinea beach.” The photo does not appear to have generated much controversy.
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This particularly hideous image encourages American soldiers to imagine Japanese people as bugs to be exterminated.
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The foreign and non-white enemy as rapist is not dehumanizing in quite the same way, but was a reliable way to create hatred and fear in a white supremacist society
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Monkeys and gorillas are ever-popular comparisons for those who want to deny the humanity of others.

In general, these depictions do not seem to have been controversial in the United States. Japan was the enemy and there was a war to be won.

There are many people who might cringe at these images and yet fail to realize that Donald Trump is trafficking in the same game. Last month, Trump said:

We have people coming into the country, or trying to come in—and we’re stopping a lot of them—but we’re taking people out of the country. You wouldn’t believe how bad these people are. These aren’t people. These are animals.

There was a big debate then about whether he was talking about MS-13 specifically or immigrants in general. Those arguing for the more narrow context were missing the point: Trump’s constant invocation of danger, threat, crime, and rape is designed to make us see MS-13 in our mind’s eye when we hear the word “immigrant.” It is designed to make us see an undifferentiated group worthy of harsh treatment rather than individuals worthy of normal human concern.

That’s why Trump tweeted this week:

Democrats are the problem. They don’t care about crime and want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our Country, like MS-13.

You know the connotations of the word infest. This is why Trump tweeted earlier this year about immigrants “breeding.” Rabbits breed. Humans make love and raise children.

The problem with Trump’s rhetoric is not that it’s rude or intemperate. It is evil, because it treats human beings as less than what they are. Each of us is created and loved by God. Each of us has infinite value. Donald Trump denies these truths with his words and actions, and encourages you to deny them too.

I had a conversation with someone a few days ago who didn’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanizing rhetoric and racist behavior. I choose my words here carefully. I do not say she supported it. I say she was unable to recognize it for what it was. What is the significance of this?

Millions of people don’t know that Trump is engaging in dehumanization. They are being formed by it without conscious understanding of what is happening. That makes the effect even stronger. And it means that masses of people have come untethered from a crucial dimension of reality. Would these people support an American genocide? One hopes not, but the point is that they are already unconscious of dehumanization, already unable to discern reality around them, so there is no telling when or if they will ever come back. God help us.

A Review of John Fea’s “Believe Me”

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A clever cover design draws the eyes’ attention to the “lie” in “believe”

A lot of us remember the sense of shock we felt the night of November 8, 2016. For white evangelicals who opposed Trump, the sense of horror and disorientation were compounded by the actions of our fellow white evangelicals. When we woke up Tuesday morning, we already knew that most of them would vote for Trump that day. But we didn’t know that they would do so in possibly record numbers, or that they would actually succeed in electing their new king.

“I should have seen this coming,” writes John Fea in his new book, Believe Me. The toxic mixture of fear, nostalgia, and desire for power so vividly on display in 2016 was not an aberration, Fea tells us. Instead, it’s part of a long white evangelical tradition. The alliance with Trump may have come as a shock to some, but the roots of this strange embrace run deep into the white evangelical past.

These deep roots are best seen in the most effective chapter of the book, a “short history of evangelical fear.” Fea describes Puritan narratives of moral decline and social decay–narratives begun almost before there was time for decline to occur!–as perhaps “the first American evangelical fear.” As for the Puritans, so for contemporary white evangelicals: fear of national decline is not an evidence-based conclusion; it is a constant presence, part of the basic script by which they understand the world around them.

While historians are often reluctant to draw close comparisons between past and present, many readers are likely to be astonished and impressed by the thick resonance between historic events and contemporary white evangelicalism. It is hard to read Fea’s account of evangelical anti-Catholicism and not draw a parallel to fears of Islam today.

In contrast to Michael Gerson’s recent cover story in the Atlantic that described a nineteenth century evangelical golden age, Fea shows that white evangelicals’ commendable zeal to reform society was inseparable from their anxieties about what was happening to their “Christian nation” and their fears of Catholic foreigners. Also in contrast to Gerson, he does not ignore the fact that the predominant form of white evangelicalism in the South was a white supremacist heresy. For many white evangelicals, Trump’s racial demagoguery was not offensive. It spoke to their longstanding fears.

If white evangelicals, even at the height of their power, have often been afraid, what happens when their worst fears are realized? What happens when they seem to have lost their Christian nation? Hope for the future curdles into an easily manipulable nostalgia, and fear metastasizes into a desperate final grasp for power.

I guess that brings us to the Christian Right. Fea is perceptive in his understanding of it. He describes a decades-old “playbook” of trying to restore America to its supposedly Christian roots by electing the right people to political office. Specifically, it means electing conservative Republicans who will appoint judges to overturn Roe and other decisions held responsible for American decline. This playbook is often judged a failure because Roe is still the law of the land and the gay rights movement has transformed American culture. But Fea astutely notes that there is more than one way to measure the success of this playbook. It has been much more successful in granting a measure of power to a small cadre of white evangelical political activists. As far as they are concerned, this is no small thing.

More important, for millions of ordinary white evangelicals the Christian Right’s playbook has set the agenda for what political engagement looks like and is imagined to be. Fea wants readers to realize that there are healthier ways to think about the relationship between church and state and Christian political responsibilities, but the Christian Right has succeeded in crowding out these alternatives. For many white evangelicals, there is no plan B. When a transparently evil candidate came along, departing from the playbook was not an option.

Make America Great Again was not simply a catchy campaign slogan. It spoke directly to white evangelicals’ nostalgia and offered a salve for their fears. As Fea notes, these impulses are basically selfish. Seeking a return to a time when America was great for them, they overlook the struggles of other groups in American history.

This book is an excellent starting point for white evangelicals who have the courage to become students of their own tradition. Neither dismissing white evangelicalism nor sugarcoating it, Fea writes as a critical insider, one who knows of what he speaks through both personal experience and academic study.

Fea has dedicated the book “To the 19 percent” of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump. It will be a useful resource for people in that camp. It may help them to better understand where they’ve come from and engage in dialogue with the 81%. It is less a criticism of the book than a sad commentary on our times that Fea’s analysis seems unlikely to move many who are part of the 81%.

 

Was The Country Ready For Obama?

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Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:

Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.

“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.

He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”

His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.

In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.

This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:

1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.

In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.

2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.

In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!

3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.

4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexism played a role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.