Writing History that Matters

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In her keynote address at this weekend’s Barnes Conference at Temple University, Danielle McGuire spoke to us about writing history that matters; history that does work in the present; history that people actually want to read. If you’ve read At the Dark End of the Street, you know McGuire knows what she’s talking about. The book is easy to read and extremely powerful. And it’s something that nearly anyone can pick up and read because it’s a story that revolves around real people doing extraordinary things. Who doesn’t like a good story?

(A teaser: you know how Rosa Parks, that docile seamstress, got the civil rights movement started because she was tired one day and refused to give up her seat on the bus? Yeah, that story? It’s all wrong. Read McGuire’s book!)

The first real lecture I ever gave was about the civil rights movement. First lectures are often famous disasters, but mine was not. Whatever mistakes I may have made, they were covered by one good move: I relentlessly relied on a few good books, McGuire’s first among them. Because of that, one of the students came up to me after the lecture and said she had never heard the story of the civil rights movement told like that before. She was moved. Thanks to McGuire.

McGuire’s keynote address was funny and inspiring. Here are a few of my idiosyncratic takeaways:

–When I wake up tomorrow, I don’t have to write a dissertation. I just have to write a page. (This is extremely important!)

–Consider putting all the historiography in the footnotes, even in the dissertation. I want to do this.

–Who are the main characters in my story? (I don’t know?….)

–Learn to love editing. Throw stuff down on the page no matter how bad it is. Six dozen edits later, it won’t be bad.

–Read fiction! (What if it’s bad fiction?) Think about the kinds of things that authors of fiction think about: pacing, narrative arc, character development. As historians, we impose some kind of order on the chaos and fragmentation of the archives. We tell stories that are very much our own, that do not exist independently of us. We might as well make them good stories while we’re at it. They don’t have to be bloodless.

–Read James Baldwin. This needs no reason or justification.

–Reckon with the emotional toll of the dissertation. The hardest obstacles are not technical. They’re not even cognitive. They’re matters of spirit. Do I have something worth saying? Am I writing something that matters? Do I have the guts to see it through? To write that bad draft and revise it, to show it to others, is to face over and over again your fallibility.

–Trust your learning; trust your students. After years of marinating in the past, we historians have ways of thinking that are useful to undergraduates. Don’t push too hard. Trust the process. They will not become historical thinkers in a semester, but if you let them see how and why the past has moved you, they will not be unmoved.

Republican-Voting Christians Need To Speak Up Now

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“People will die, but the rich will be so much richer! Ha ha!”

If you’re a Christian who votes Republican, your voice is desperately needed now. Call your Republican member of congress and tell them you oppose the GOP health care bill because it fails to provide for the poor and the sick. If you’re a Christian, these principles are more important to you than limited government.

The Republicans are trying to pass a health care bill that oppresses the poor and sick so that rich people can have more money. The Congressional Budget Office estimates 24 million people would lose health insurance coverage. The best estimates we have indicate that this would cause thousands of preventable deaths every year.

I’ve heard from Trump-supporting Christians who have been offended by my words during and after the election. They didn’t want to be lumped in with the people supporting hatred, racism, and oppression. This is an opportunity for those Christians to demonstrate their sincerity. Do they oppose this cruel legislation? Or do they put party politics above human decency?

Sincerity, good intentions, or ignorance do not absolve these Christians from responsibility. If they think this bill falls under the rubric of “complicated partisan politics” and so they can’t speak against it, they’re supporting oppression. Even if they sincerely believe the lies of the Republican donor class, they’re still supporting oppression. No one is making them tune in to the make-believe world of talk radio and Foxnews. No one is making them believe the self-serving lies wealthy people tell about the economy. No one is making them ignore evidence and sit in an echo chamber. These are the choices they make.

Many of them will respond, “But it’s not the government’s job to provide health care.” If that’s their belief, they have a responsibility to explain why people must die for the sake of their abstract principles.

In sum, if Republican-voting Christians can’t rouse themselves to oppose this inhumane legislation, they ought to step up and have the courage of their convictions. If you want to oppress people, own it and do it proudly.

Russell Moore Apologizes; Keeps His Job

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Russell Moore has apologized to Trump-supporting Southern Baptists, and will keep his job:

A week ago, Moore met with denominational leader Frank Page over an investigation into numerous complaints regarding the ERLC. The criticism centers around Moore’s vocal opposition to Trump and his campaign, his characterization of the faith and motives of Trump’s Christian supporters, and whether such messaging (toward fellow Southern Baptists not DC lawmakers) extended beyond the proper role of the ERLC president.

Moore reiterated and clarified the apology he shared in December, but ultimately stood by his positions.

“I stand by those convictions, but I did not separate out categories of people well—such that I wounded some, including close friends,” said Moore. “I cannot go back and change time, and I cannot apologize for my underlying convictions. But I can—and do—apologize for failing to distinguish between people who shouldn’t have been in the same category with those who put politics over the gospel and for using words, particularly in social media, that were at times overly broad or unnecessarily harsh. That is a failure on my part.”

No word yet on whether Moore’s Southern Baptist opponents who have promoted racism, hatred, lies, and oppression of the poor will apologize for their behavior. Don’t hold your breath!

The Absurd Violence of American Policing

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The aftermath of a no-knock raid in Cornelia, Georgia.

The New York Times today has a great investigation of the dangerous “no-knock” SWAT raids that occur all over the country. The article begins like this:

CORNELIA, Ga. — This town on the edge of the Appalachians has fewer than 5,000 residents, but the SWAT team was outfitted for war.

At 2:15 a.m. on a moonless night in May 2014, 10 officers rolled up a driveway in an armored Humvee, three of them poised to leap off the running boards. They carried Colt submachine guns, light-mounted AR-15 rifles and Glock .40-caliber sidearms. Many wore green body armor and Kevlar helmets. They had a door-breaching shotgun, a battering ram, sledgehammers, Halligan bars for smashing windows, a ballistic shield and a potent flash-bang grenade.

The target was a single-story ranch-style house about 50 yards off Lakeview Heights Circle. Not even four hours earlier, three informants had bought $50 worth of methamphetamine in the front yard. That was enough to persuade the county’s chief magistrate to approve a no-knock search warrant authorizing the SWAT operators to storm the house without warning.

The point man on the entry team found the side door locked, and nodded to Deputy Jason Stribling, who took two swings with the metal battering ram. As the door splintered near the deadbolt, he yelled, “Sheriff’s department, search warrant!” Another deputy, Charles Long, had already pulled the pin on the flash-bang. He placed his left hand on Deputy Stribling’s back for stability, peered quickly into the dark and tossed the armed explosive about three feet inside the door.

It landed in a portable playpen.

It’s a long piece but worth the read. Policing is the most pervasive and intimate way in which Americans face real oppression at the hands of their government. But because this oppression is directed disproportionally at people of color and the poor, people who claim to be skeptical of government power are usually happy to support this kind of government overreach.

How can we stop these immoral and counterproductive uses of state violence? Attention to the issue has definitely waned as the 2016 campaign and now the Trump presidency have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. We need to continue to draw attention to police misconduct and promote the goals of Black Lives Matter. One of the reasons Black Lives Matter is such a noble movement is that its solutions would both improve the lives of people affected by systemic racism and make police officers safer. But too many people refuse to see how violent policing produces toxic feedback loops of distrust and danger for police and residents alike. Indeed, in our gun-obsessed culture, many Americans seem to think safety is achieved through violence. God help us.

Putting Things in Context: How Much Does the U.S. Spend on Foreign Aid?

Part of what historians try to do is put things in context. So today, as the Trump Administration releases a budget proposal with large cuts to foreign aid, it’s worth pointing out that the gap between what Americans think the federal government spends on foreign aid and what it actually spends is enormous:

Figure 5: Public Overestimates Share of Budget Going to Foreign Aid

Around 1% of the federal budget goes to foreign aid, and much of that is actually military spending. These numbers don’t tell us whether foreign aid is effective. But they do show that there is no vast pot of money just waiting to be unleashed for an “America first” policy. Xenophobia is not conducive to sound budgeting.

White Nationalism Is Deadly. Don’t Play With It.

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Racist Congressman Steve King

This week, Iowa Congressman Steve King has had something of a coming out party as a white nationalist. King’s racism has been on display for years, but rarely has he articulated it in such robust ideological terms. It seems that the shackles are off. And with the Trump/Sessions/Bannon triumvirate at the helm of the executive branch, why not? King’s racist ideology is ascendant in the twenty-first century.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We Americans are lazily optimistic, defaulting to the assumption that things will work out in the end even if there is no particular reason to think so. On no question are white Americans, in particular, more lazily optimistic than the problem of racism. We are moving onward and upward forever!

And yet.

If we understood race for what it is—something constructed in history, contingent and changeable—perhaps we could better see how dangerous is our optimism. Whiteness itself is an identity forged in conquest. As biology, it’s an absurdity. As a way to organize difference and deploy power, it has proven to be extraordinarily meaningful. It’s not that white people conquered and enslaved. It’s closer to the mark to say that these historical processes created white people.  And to the present day this white identity bestows material advantages. That’s why political mobilizations that invoke whiteness as such are always reactionary and oppressive.

That’s why white nationalism is dangerous and profoundly evil. It is a denial of our common humanity; it is the negation of Christianity. That so much white nationalism appeals to a kind of cultural Christianity only reveals how heretical much of the so-called Christian world actually is.

It is white nationalism—not democracy or human rights or racial equality—that is ascendant here and in Europe. That this claim is controversial shows how ill-prepared we are to deal with resurgent racism. A congressman declares his racist ideology and most of us scramble to reinterpret, to condescend, to do everything but take him seriously and assume that he actually means what he says. A President becomes a political figure in the first place through the use of racist rhetoric, and we sit around arguing about whether doing racist stuff makes someone a racist.

I am so tired of the magical thinking, the condescension, the attempts to coddle racists and tell them that, after all, “you don’t really mean that, do you my boy?” To call Steve King a racist is not to insult him. It is to give him the respect we all want and deserve: to have our ideas taken seriously. I’m tired of a world where the pro forma denial, “I’m not a racist,” counts for more than what one actually does. This is a post-truth world where Paul Ryan is considered a good man because he is clean-cut and sounds earnest. It is downright rude to evaluate him on the basis of what he does. It doesn’t matter that he supports racism. Everything is symbolism. Nothing matters.

But all of this does matter. We lazily assume that American history is linear and on an upward trajectory. It is just as likely that a country that began in genocide and enslavement will circle around to a similar ending. We will avoid that kind of outcome in some distant decade or century not because of an historical inevitability or any innate goodness, but because of the tireless efforts of ordinary people willing to become, as Dr. King said, coworkers with God. Right now, we’re playing footsie with one of the most destructive ideologies in human history, an ideology responsible for the death of millions of people. Steve King is not your eccentric uncle. He’s a sitting Congressman espousing the ideology of terrorists like Dylann Roof.

I’m tired of the nominal Christians that think supporting this resurgent white nationalism is something other than a rejection of Christianity. I’m tired of the symbolic Christianity that says Jesus will save your soul and then you’re free to go oppress everybody else. Here, too, we’d do well to take each other seriously and count our actions more important than our intentions.

“I am tired of reading about them.”

Campus Life, an evangelical magazine for high school and college students, began publishing a few stories about African Americans in the late 1960s. This didn’t sit well with some readers. One gets the sense the editors got a kick out of publishing some of the more strident responses. From Birmingham, Alabama, Frank George wrote:

There is too much propaganda about Negroes. I am tired of reading about them.

Old letters to the editor are often fascinating. This one’s a classic. Sadie Caine, librarian of Perry Christian School in Marion, Alabama, was also annoyed. She wrote:

When Campus Life comes to the library of Perry Christian School, it is thrown into the wastebasket immediately. The high Christian standards of our school necessitate the elimination of all degrading reading materials. Please cancel our subscription.

One of the devil’s best tools in trying to spread atheistic Communism is through the infiltration of religious groups.

This, too, is classic. Someone should look into whether or not Perry Christian School was a segregation academy. A quick google search turns up that the school is still around, though it has a new name. It was founded in, wait for it…1965. The school’s description of its history is fascinating:

Knowing that only the truth of God’s Word can build Christian character to reform American society and family life, John and Bobbie Ames grieved over the loss of moral absolutes and methodologies, namely Biblical reasoning and old-fashioned logic. Being unwilling to sit back and do nothing, they took their children out of the Perry County School System and started their own little school in Marion, Alabama, in 1965.

Perhaps not coincidentally, it looks as though Perry County came under a court desegregation order in 1966. This was after a lot of other Alabama counties faced desegregation orders in 1963. Perhaps Mr. and Mrs. Ames saw the writing on the wall. As any good fundamentalist knew, the mixing of races was another one of atheistic communism’s nefarious plots.

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The Barbaric President

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“And…scene! You looked very presidential, sir. You can go back to watching TV now.”

Help me out, historians. Has any president ever made a public accusation as reckless as the one President Trump made this morning? I can’t think of anything approaching this.

Back in January, I gravitated toward the idea of barbarism as my most basic framework for this administration. This framework is holding up well.

We see barbarism in the Bannon/Miller/Trump wing of the administration’s complete lack of appreciation for history and the achievements of modern civilization. We saw it when Trump accused John Lewis—of all people!—of being all talk and no action. We see it in his flippant calls to Make America Great Again, with no apparent reflection on the history to which he refers, and no apparent understanding of why this call is a threat to millions of Americans.

As a historian and a Christian, I have both historical and theological reasons to believe in such a thing as human nature, and to take a dim view of it. So I count it as a big win when people are able to live under governments that are not entirely predatory and that avoid things like famine and genocide. These are not natural conditions to be taken for granted. They are achievements to be carefully preserved. Trump demonstrates no appreciation for this. Instead of a sense of human limits and tragedy, President Trump claims that there is nothing he cannot fix.

We see barbarism in Trump’s utter rejection of truth. Other Presidents have lied, usually with strategic purpose in mind. But Trump attempts to create his own reality and compel millions of people to join him in it. Even many of Trump supporters acknowledge that he sometimes says or tweets things he should not. But the consequences of false and malicious statements are much more severe when a President makes them. When a President rejects reality, tens of millions of people stand ready to follow him. This tears apart the fabric of civil society and democracy, eroding the common ground that is necessary for dialogue and learning to occur. President Trump seems unable to appreciate the pleasures of learning from others, or participating in civic functions, or reading books. His ego determines what is true from moment to moment. From the perspective of Christian theology, attempts to create our own reality represent a rejection of the reality of a transcendent God.

We see barbarism in Trump’s demagogic nationalism, in the way he elevates the nation above the worth of human beings. Trump demonizes vulnerable populations to boost his agenda of nationalist aggrandizement. As unchristian as nationalism is in general, Trump takes it to a more extreme level, crudely encouraging Americans to count our lives as more valuable than those of other human beings.

We see barbarism in Trump’s greedy self-enrichment at the expense of the public he is sworn to serve. The full dimensions of this corruption is not yet possible to determine because of Trump’s unprecedented financial secrecy and his refusal to make ethical arrangements for his business affairs.

And we see barbarism in the wanton cruelty of this administration. Dara Lind had a roundup yesterday of some of the recent arrests and deportations of undocumented immigrants. Under the pretense of keeping the country safe, people are being oppressed for no reason at all. There ought to be a very high bar to clear before separating families. Only a grave threat to an individual or the public justifies breaking families apart. These arrests obviously don’t come close to meeting that standard. They are plainly cruel, and their circumstances raise legitimate questions about whether there is a deliberate strategy of intimidation and retaliation. (See Daniela Vargas’s story).

It is difficult to imagine the stress and fear millions of people in our country are facing right now. I don’t know how you get up every morning and go about your responsibilities not knowing if you’re going to be able to put your kids in bed that night. God is close to these suffering people, and God resists the Christians who support this oppression. Let’s not pretend this is very complicated.

Immigrant advocacy groups are saying that these kinds of arrests mark a departure from the Obama years. To the extent that there is also continuity, God forgive me for not being more vocal years ago.

Christians are called to pray for those in power. I’ve found myself praying for President Trump more than I ever prayed for President Obama. These prayers are not status-quo protecting mushiness. They’re not about giving sacred endorsement to the state’s actions. They’re prayers of concern for the public good. They are given with the knowledge that our leaders bear heavy responsibilities for which they will give account. So when we see evil rulers such as President Trump, we pray for their repentance. And we pray that in the meantime their barbaric designs will be thwarted.

One perhaps surprising source of hope is that so far Trump often appears more interested in playing President than in being President. He favors splashy announcements and grand claims, symbolic victories with very little substance. He is easily distracted, and seems to spend much of his time dwelling on personal slights and watching cable news. This isn’t good for anyone, but it’s probably better than the alternative of a focused, competent President intent on doing harm.

Notes from the Classroom: Telling Transnational Stories

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Because my class is about immigration, I thought the statue of liberty deserved its own lecture this week. It was a story that took us from French abolitionists and the conceiving of a monument to emancipation, to pogroms in the Pale of Settlement in the Russian Empire, to the hapless fundraising efforts of a committee in New York, to the life of Emma Lazarus and her obscure poem that would later become indelibly linked to the immigrant story and American identity.

It was also a chronologically expansive story that raised questions about memory and the shifting meanings we attach to symbols. When the statue of liberty was dedicated in 1886, none of the speakers mentioned immigrants. As everyone knew, that’s not what the statue was about. At the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1936, President Roosevelt spoke about nothing but immigration. As everyone knew, that’s what the statue was about. In many ways, it was the immigrants themselves who had made it so. As I tell my students, whatever the American Dream was, it was not only made in America.

Then on Wednesday we went from Fiddler on the Roof to the massacre at Wounded Knee. While the Russian Empire made life increasingly difficult for Jews—and while the statue of liberty was being dedicated—the American Empire was wrapping up its counterinsurgency campaigns in the West. In the U.S., it was only in this period in the decades after the Civil War that the state was actually able to exert effective control over all the territory it claimed. In the process, it increasingly claimed the right to tell minority populations where they could live, what they could do, and even the religious practices they could engage in. State violence against despised minorities was crucial to the turn of the century mass migration that formed modern America. While Russian violence made immigrants and refugees, American violence paved the way for their arrival and transformed immigrants into settlers.

I argued that this claim is not an abstraction or a metaphor, but a tangible reality on the ground. Take Pennington County, South Dakota, for example. It is home to Rapid City, and adjacent to the Pine Ridge Reservation where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred. It is built entirely on land guaranteed to Native Americans by federal treaty. In 1890, less than two decades after its founding, 18% of its population was foreign born. They came from Canada and Germany, Ireland and Sweden, England and Norway. By 1910, there was a small contingent of Russian Jews too. Their opportunity was inseparable from the dispossession of others.

There are probably very few historians being trained now who would argue against the importance of telling transnational stories. But it’s easier said than done. When we tell transnational stories, it usually means there are a lot of balls to keep in the air. Sometimes they don’t all stay up. On Monday, I said meanwhile and suddenly we lurched from New York to Ukraine. These transitions were abrupt enough to be comical. After the lecture, a student emailed me to ask me what the point was. That makes it sound more disastrous than it probably was. The student was quite engaged and had incisive questions. But one of my main points had lacked clarity and she wanted more information. Good for her!

When we tell transnational stories, the contexts we need to be familiar with multiply quickly. This is one reason we might shy away from attempting it in the first place. I am not a historian of Russia; what errors might I introduce in my brief characterization of the 1881 pogroms? Will this broader story aid student understanding, or will my own imbalanced knowledge—heavy on U.S. national history—only confuse the story?

But the payoffs can be substantial, perhaps especially in the case of immigration history. Most immigration is by its nature a transnational act with connections to multiple countries. It doesn’t make historical sense to only focus on the destination country. This is one reason I’ve assigned Tara Zahra’s new book.

There are also broader benefits to be gained. I’ll note just one. There is no adequate way to deal with questions of American exceptionalism while teaching only an American national story. Transnational history helps us to engage more productively with notions of national identity and the meaning of America. If we’re only telling a national story and students hear about the millions of people who came here seeking opportunity, they may be inclined to think the United States is exceptionally good. But then when they hear about the discrimination and violence aimed at these immigrants, they may think the United States is exceptionally bad. But if we come to class thinking the U.S. is the best and leave thinking it’s the worst, we’re just as myopic and American-centric as when we started.

A broader framework upsets both assumptions, allowing students to see that millions of people were also immigrating to other places in search of opportunity, and that they faced hardship and discrimination both in their home countries and in their new destinations. It enables us to see a more nuanced and complicated story about how opportunity and oppression moved alongside each other, and about the millions of immigrants who came to America with the dream not of becoming Americans, but of returning to their homelands as soon as they could.