Avett Brothers Bassist Bob Crawford Talks History

Bob+Crawford+Avett+Brothers+Perform+Toledo+oAki65DA1mOl

Check out Ashley Layne‘s Substream Magazine interview with Bob Crawford, bass player for the Avett Brothers.  Then go to Episode 53 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast and listen to our interview with Crawford.

Here is a taste of Layne’s interview:

So the band definitely has southern roots and deep ties to an historically conservative state, was there hesitation at all to include songs like “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” on the album? Were you scared of being too pointed and divisive?

Well, no. There was a conversation about “Bang Bang” with Scott and Seth. You know what’s great about it is, it’s a conversation starter. So, I think that needs to be pointed out. I think it also needs to be pointed out that the song is written from a personal viewpoint of a real-world situation. So, I think that is important to recognize, as well. This is a song that was good for us as a group, mainly Scott and Seth, because it allowed them to engage in a difficult conversation.

I look at “Bang Bang” and “We Americans” differently. I fell in love with American History in 2004, and I began just reading. I started with the David McCullough books. I had a curiosity about American history that I still have to this day. I have a history podcast called The Road to Now; it’s something I am very serious about. I am getting my masters in history, so when I heard “We Americans” that Seth wrote, I knew Seth was reading Henry Adams so I was like, ’Oh, this is the natural result of Seth reading Henry Adams.’ Henry Adams has the greatest prose of any historian on the face of the planet. To read his historical text is to read literature it’s so beautifully written. Seth also writes beautiful prose and he’s a wordsmith, so, yeah, of course (Seth) nailed the content.

When you read history there were narratives that were, until the past 50 years, not told, but were real narratives. “We Americans” checks out. I often said to Seth, I hope you have a bibliography for this song because historians are gonna want to see it.

I put “We Americans” in the bucket with “This Land is Your Land.” And I think what’s great about “We Americans” is it goes from the idea of patriotism to paying tribute and respect. So the saying I always have is: the good, the bad, the ugly of American History. Being an American, you need to be able to recognize and somehow deal with the good, the bad, and the ugly of American history. I think what “We Americans” does, it recognizes that we need to have a certain love of our country and patriotism, but the song ends with recognizing love of God as being greater than love of country and love of one another as being greater. That’s what it means to me. I think it’s a great song. And, I think it’s a lot different than “Bang Bang” in terms of what’s controversial about it. I don’t think the subject matter of “We Americans” is controversial at all, I don’t think it should be.

Read the entire interview here.

Michael Kazin Reviews Wilfred McClay’s *Land of Hope*

McClayOne of my favorite historians recently reviewed a book by one of my other favorite historians.  Here is Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin‘s review of University of Oklahoma historian Wilfred McClay‘s Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.  (At this point, I can only call your attention to this review. Since I have not read McClay’s book,  I cannot comment on the fairness of Kazin’s review).

Wilfred McClay, a rare conservative historian whose prior work is respected across the political trenches, thinks he can explain what made America wonderful without echoing the nonsense Newt and his ilk hawk to the faithful. In a new survey of the nation’s past, McClay, who sports a hefty title as the G. T. and Libby Blankenship Chair in the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, seeks to impart an uplifting message while still telling the story straight. His book bears the title Land of Hope, with a subtitle that appears pitched to acolytes of Trump: An Invitation to the Great American Story. Serious scholars on the right rarely write such sweeping national narratives, and McClay’s conservative publisher has made quite a production out of this one. It’s printed on expensive glossy stock, the images are numerous and mostly in color, and a handsome brochure with a lengthy author Q&A is included in every review copy.

McClay has clearly written the book with its enormously popular competitor on the left in mind. In the promotional interview, he asserts that Howard Zinn’s famous book is “simplistic melodrama” that appeals to “many Americans who have felt disillusioned by our natural flaws.” He’s not wrong about that. A People’s History does reduce the past to a conflict between a tiny elite animated by nothing but power and greed and a vast majority who always seem to get shafted; he never asks why so many Americans were taken in by what he called “the most ingenious system of control in world history.” Still, Zinn at least made a powerful argument in arresting prose: he condemned the enduring exploitation of the 99 percent by the 1 percent and provided readers with a surfeit of quotes from such eloquent voices as Eugene Debs, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Adrienne Rich who resisted the powerful, albeit with more courage than success.

But McClay has entirely failed to create an appealing alternative to his radical rival. He sheds praise on the nation and its people without explaining why and how they accomplished the deeds he finds so worthy of tribute. Unwilling to parrot the conspiracy-mongering of hacks like D’Souza but still determined to present a past brimming with “hope,” he ends up with a history that is dutiful rather than inspiring.

Read the entire review here.  Later in the review Kazin compares McClay’s one-volume U.S. history with Jill Lepore’s similar effort, These Truths.

Michael Gerson: Conservative reaction to the “1619 Project” is “disappointing”

1619

If you want to get conservatives riled-up these days, just mention the “1619 Project.”  Last week I published an op-ed about the The New York Times  project designed to commemorate 400 years of slavery in America and all hell broke loose.  You can read my piece in the Harrisburg Patriot-News here. (Read some of the 155 comments).

Since the appearance of this piece I have received multiple negative voicemail messages on my office phone.  It took one guy three messages to tell me that I was wrong.  His rant was cut off by the “beep” and then he continued mid-sentence in the next message.  Another caller insisted that I call him back and defend myself against his criticisms. Apparently the piece was republished in a Grand Rapids, Michigan newspaper.  How do I know this?  Because somebody approached me at my daughter’s volleyball game  (she goes to college in Grand Rapids) and wanted to politely debate me.  My posts on the 1619 Project here at the blog drew some intense push-back from commentators.  Some of the comments were so ugly I refused to post them.  Eventually I just decided to close down the comments section.

Not all conservatives are opposed to the way the 1619 project frames American history.  One of them is Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

I am thinking instead of conservative writers who argue that the 1619 Project is a prime example of leftist ideological overreach — that its (mainly African American) authors see the country entirely through the prism of its sins and intend to “delegitimize” the American experiment. In making this case, some conservatives have offered excuses — or at least mitigations — for the moral failures of the Founders on matters of race. The institution of slavery, we are assured, was historically ubiquitous. The global slave trade, we are reminded, involved not just Americans but Arabs and black Africans. Other countries, we are told, took more slaves than America, treated them worse and liberated them later.

The attempt here is to defend the honor of the American experiment by denying the uniqueness of its hypocrisy on slavery. In one way or another, all these arguments ask us to consider the inadequacies of the Founders within the context of their times.

But to deny the uniqueness of American guilt on slavery is also to deny the uniqueness of its aspirations. Americans are required to have ambiguous feelings about many of the country’s Founders precisely because of the moral ideals the Founders engraved in American life. The height of their ambitions is also the measure of their hypocrisy. It should unsettle us that the author of the Declaration of Independence built a way of life entirely dependent on human bondage.

This leads to an unavoidably complex form of patriotism. We properly venerate not the Founders, but the standards they raised and often failed to meet. This is their primary achievement: They put into place an ideological structure that harshly judged their own practice and drove American democracy to achievements beyond the limits of their vision.

Read the entire piece here.

The 1619 Project: A “patriotism not of hagiography but of struggle”

1619

Over at Boston Review, Princeton graduate student David Walsh wonders why the conservative view of “patriotism” is so “fragile.”  He comes up with three reasons for this:

  1. The conservative propensity for “viewing freedom and equality as incompatible.”
  2. Conservatives are invested in the “explicitly racist power arrangements that the 1619 Protect criticizes.
  3. Conservatives “revere history as a source of  incontestable authority, as opposed to a storehouse of fallible human experience.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Attack on the 1619 Project is an Attack on Mainstream Historical Scholarship and Teaching

I am guessing, and it is only a guess, that most critics of the 1619 Project have not read much serious American history, particularly the history of American slavery and race.  Here is Jeet Heer of The Nation:

Damon Linker’s piece at The Week, for example, has given a lot of ammunition to the kind of people who have been responding to Southern Baptist president J.D. Greear.  Linker, like many conservatives, gets caught-up with the phrase “reframe American history.”  He praises some articles in the 1619 Project, but trashes others.  When was the last time he taught an American history course?  Everyone is an expert.

We can debate what the narrative of American history should look like, or whether or not The New York Times proposal is more political than it is historical, but I would say that we cannot understand colonial America, the American Revolution, or much of early American history without making slavery central to the story.  There is just too much good historical scholarship out there to see this any other way.  Yet we have conservatives like Rod Dreher (another pundit who I am guessing hasn’t taught U.S. history in a while) so upset that he has canceled his 30-year subscription to The New York Times.

I have been teaching the first half of the United States survey for over two decades.  We talk about white colonial settlement, slavery, native Americans, political history, religion, presidential elections, democracy, industrialization, southern culture, the Western ideas that drove the American Revolution, Manifest Destiny, and the coming of the Civil War.  How does one teach these things without slavery? Slavery is everywhere in this course. It constantly rears its ugly head.  There is no way to tell the story without it.  It is central. I don’t advertise my course as a U.S. survey focused on “race” or “slavery” and I don’t put such language in my syllabus.  But these topics just come to the surface naturally and start to shape the narrative.

What the New York Times is proposing in the 1619 Project is not really that radical.  There is actually no “reframing” here. The Times is not as revisionist as it thinks it is.  Just look at any high school or college textbook.  Slavery and race have been central to the study of American history for several decades.

Some Thoughts on the Opposition to the 1619 Project

1619

We introduced readers to The New York Times 1619 Project in this post.  It now looks like there are some people who do not like the newspaper’s attempt to observe the 400th anniversary of the beginning of American slavery.  Here are a few examples:

I am not surprised by any of this.  I knew there would be push-back when I read that The New York Times was framing the 1619 Project as an attempt to “frame the country’s history, understanding 1619 as our true founding, and, placing the consequences of slavery, and the contribution of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are.”

I wonder if any of the aforementioned tweeters have read the essays in the 1619 Project.  Most of them probably stopped after they read the words “frame” and “true founding.”

Historians, of course, have been bringing slavery to the center of the American story for a long time–more than half a century.  The 1619 Project reflects this scholarship and takes it to its logical conclusion.

Frankly, the 1619 project is excellent.  Americans need to wrestle with the legacy of slavery.  I hope teachers will use it in their classrooms.

Newt Gingrich is completely wrong when he says that “if you are an African American slavery is at the center of what YOU see as the American experience, but for most Americans, most of the time, there were a lot of other things going on.” Gingrich is an embarrassment.  (I am especially tough on him because he has a Ph.D in history).

So what were some of those “other things going on?”

Edmund Morgan, of course, showed us that American freedom has always been intricately linked to American slavery.  Pennsylvania farmers in the so-called “best poor man’s country in the world,” pursued their “American” dream by supplying grain to feed West Indian slaves in the British sugar colonies.  As historians Edward Baptist, Sven Beckert, and others have taught us, slavery fueled capitalism and American economic growth.  Even those living in the free-soil north benefited from the wealth generated by slave labor.  As Robert Parkinson argues in his recent book, the racial fears of American patriots had something to do with the way they understood the Revolution.  In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, I trace the history of race and the legacy of slavery in shaping an evangelical approach to political life.  And we could go on.

But there is plenty of room at the “center” of the American story for native Americans, women, working people, white people, and many others.  We can’t forget, for example, that Western ideas, as articulated in some of our founding documents and by people of Christian faith, provided the impetus for the abolition of slavery.

History is messy and complex.  We should make every effort to remember our past.  And now is the time to remember the significance of 1619 and the central role that slavery and racism has played in the making of America.

A Gun Studies Syllabus

Gun Show

The history website Bunk recently directed me to Caroline Light and Lindsay Livingston‘s “Gun Studies” syllabus at Public Books.

Here is a taste:

WEEK 1

“To Keep and Bear”: An Introduction to Gun Culture in the United States

This week’s readings seek to demystify and question what is meant by “gun culture” and to introduce some popular databases by which gun ownership and gun violence have been tracked and studied in the contemporary US.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

WEEK 2

“A Well-Regulated Militia”: Legal Foundations of “Gun Rights”

The week’s readings address the nation’s unique legal foundations, particularly the Second Amendment to the US Constitution, in which a right to “have and bear arms” was articulated, while exploring some of the transitions and exclusionary frames through which “Second Amendment Rights” have taken shape over time.

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

WEEK 3

“To Secure These Freedoms”: Colonization, Slave Patrols, and Early Police Forces

How has firearm ownership and use been protected—or not—via the Second Amendment? Which populations have been excluded from the right to have and bear arms, and in the interest of which power structures?

Secondary Readings

Primary Sources and Multimedia

 

Read the entire syllabus here.

Naval War College Professor Describes Trump’s 4th of July Speech as a “Strange, Somewhat Soviet…Spectacle”

Trump on mall

This morning the New York Daily News published one of the best pieces I have seen so far on Trump’s “Salute to America” speech.  It comes from Tom Nichols, a professor at the Naval War College, a former Republican Senate aide, and the author of The Death of Expertise.

Here is a taste:

Let’s get an obvious point about President Trump’s Independence Day speech out of the way right at the top. It was a bad speech.

It wasn’t bad in the way most of Donald Trump’s speeches are bad, in that it was not overtly objectionable. It was relatively free of the populist claptrap and barely disguised racism that characterizes so many of the president’s rally addresses. In some ways, it was even anodyne, and certainly not even in the same league as his hideous “American carnage” inaugural address.

Instead, it was just a poorly written speech: a long, cliché-plagued, rambling trip through American history that tried to name-check battles and famous people as applause lines. Imagine “We Didn’t Start the Fire” if Billy Joel had been born in 1776 and his producers told him to take as much time as he needed to finish the song.

On that level, the “Salute to America” was a flop. Perhaps this was unavoidable, since it was never meant to salute America, but rather to provide the military display Trump has wanted for two years. Like any enforced celebration, it was flat and labored. There were no memorable phrases, no vivid images and no bold proposals — unless you count a promise to NASA stalwart Gene Kranz to plant a U.S. flag on Mars one day. It would have been a challenging speech to deliver even for a better speaker, and Trump, who hates reading from prepared remarks, plodded through it with a strangely detached presence and a certain amount of mushy enunciation, including a weird blip where he referred to the glorious military capture of some airports in colonial America.

And this:

Mining the glories of past military battles while flanked by defense chiefs is the kind of thing Soviet leaders used to do while droning from their reviewing stand in Moscow. It wasn’t patriotic or stirring; it was cringe-inducing. This is probably one of many reasons that former Secretary of Defense James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly — both retired generals — reportedly squashed this idea whenever it came up.

Read the entire piece here.

American Attitudes Toward History

Field Trip

This is exciting news.  Three major history organizations have together received $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a project titled “Framing History with the American Public.”  The project will study American attitudes towards history.  Here is a taste of the announcement at the AASLH website:

AASLH learned this week that we have received a major grant of $479,000 from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for an exciting new project to research American attitudes towards history. The project, called “Framing History with the American Public,” will be completed in collaboration with the Washington, D.C.-based FrameWorks Institute, the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH). Over the next three years, we will carry out a comprehensive, nationwide study of how the public views, interprets, and uses a wide variety of history activities and will develop new tools to strengthen the field’s communications efforts.

“This project could fundamentally transform the way the history field communicates with the public,” said AASLH President & CEO John Dichtl. “As we approach the nation’s 250th anniversary, ‘Framing History’ will empower history organizations to convey their impact in ways that have been proven to shift public understanding.” Inspired by the work of the History Relevance initiative, this project will equip the history community with a new, more effective communications framework.

The history community in the United States contains more than twenty thousand public history organizations, more than one thousand academic departments, and countless history advocates around the country. “Framing History” will not only provide unprecedented detail about how Americans view these organizations and their work, it will build, test, and share tools that all organizations and practitioners can use to positively affect public understanding of the value of history. Whether it’s a historical society communicating with new audiences, an academic department talking with potential majors, or a museum making their case to funders or legislators, this project will provide history practitioners with tools to frame their messages as effectively as possible.

Read the rest here.

Episode 53: When Musicians Study American History

PodcastHere at the podcast, we have often engaged with our collective love of popular music and the history embedded within that love. Host John Fea regularly cites New Jersey state treasure Bruce Springsteen and producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling channels his experience in garage bands every time he produces an episode. It is therefore fitting that they close out the season with guest Bob Crawford (@BobCrawfordBass) of the wildly popular The Avett Brothers (@TheAvettBros).

Sponsored by the Lyndhurst Group (lyndhurstgroup.org) and Jennings College Consulting (drj4college.com).

Mount Vernon CEO Doug Bradburn Explains What It Was Like Giving Donald Trump a Tour

Bradburn and Trump

Doug Bradburn, the CEO of Mount Vernon, gave Donald Trump and French president Emmanuel Macron a tour of George Washington’s estate in April 2018.

Now Bradburn is talking about the Trump visit.  Here is a taste of an article at Politico on Bradburn’s attempts to keep Trump interested on the tour:

During a guided tour of Mount Vernon last April with French president Emmanuel Macron, Trump learned that Washington was one of the major real-estate speculators of his era. So, he couldn’t understand why America’s first president didn’t name his historic Virginia compound or any of the other property he acquired after himself.

“If he was smart, he would’ve put his name on it,” Trump said, according to three sources briefed on the exchange. “You’ve got to put your name on stuff or no one remembers you.”

The VIPs’ tour guide for the evening, Mount Vernon president and CEO Doug Bradburn, told the president that Washington did, after all, succeed in getting the nation’s capital named after him. Good point, Trump said with a laugh.

Here is more:

The president’s disinterest in Washington made it tough for tour guide Bradburn to sustain Trump’s interest during a deluxe 45-minute tour of the property which he later described to associates as “truly bizarre.” The Macrons, Bradburn has told several people, were far more knowledgeable about the history of the property than the president.

A former history professor with a PhD, Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

Trump asked whether Washington was “really rich,” according to a second person familiar with the visit. In fact, Washington was either the wealthiest or among the wealthiest Americans of his time, thanks largely to his mini real estate empire.

“That is what Trump was really the most excited about,” this person said.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about Trump and American history in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

But the problem with Donald Trump’s use of American history goes well beyond his desire to make America great again or his regular references to some of the darker moments in our past–moments that have tended to divide Americans rather than uniting them.  His approach to history also reveals his narcissism.  When Trump says that he doesn’t care how “America first” was used in the 1940s, or claims to be ignorant of Nixon’s use of “law and order,” he shows his inability to understand himself as part of a larger American story.  As Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson wrote in the wake of Trump’s pre-inauguration Twitter attack on civil rights icon John Lewis, a veteran of nonviolent marches who was severely beaten at Selma: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”  Gerson describes Trump’s behavior in this regard as the “essence of narcissism.”  The columnist is right: Trump is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself.  Not all presidents have been perfect, and other have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies; but most of them have been humbled by the office.   Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.  Trump, however, spits in the face of this kind of historical continuity.  This isn’t conservatism; it is progressive thinking at its worst.  Alexis de Tocqueville once said, “Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries.  Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is a danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.” 

Sam Wineburg, one of the country’s foremost scholars of historical thinking, writes:

“For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.”

I chatted with Bradburn in this episode of his Mount Vernon podcast and you can listen to our interview with Bradburn in Episode 17 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Robert Westbrook Reviews Jill Lepore, *These Truths*

These TruthsOver at The Christian Century,  University of Rochester intellectual historian Robert Westbrook reviews Lepore’s These Truths: A History of the United States.  Here is a taste:

Even if Lepore in some respects falls short on her own terms, it would be churlish in the end not to salute her for realizing her ambitions as fully as she does. She has laid down a marker for anyone who would try to contain the history of the United States within a single volume. She says that “the work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist.” I find it hard to believe that she really believes this assertion. In any case, she has fashioned a work of history that is at the same time a telling work of social criticism and of expansive moral imagination.

She also says that her book “is meant to double as an old-fashioned civics book.” It does. This is not a particularly distinguished genre, but her contribution to it is among the best ever published, despite its shortcomings. She is right to say that “the past is an inheritance, a gift and a burden. It can’t be shirked. You carry it everywhere. There’s nothing for it but to get to know it.” We Americans might all profitably include her effort to get to know our past among the books we stuff in our backpacks to read by flashlight as we try to ascend from the deep, dark hole into which our republic has fallen.

Read the entire review here.

David Blight and Lisa Brooks Win the Bancroft Prize

BrooksBlights wins for Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom.

Brooks wins for Our Beloved Kin: A New History of King Philip’s War.

Congratulations!

Here is a taste of an article on the winners at The New York Times:

A mammoth biography of Frederick Douglass and a new study of the 17th-century colonial American conflict known as King Philip’s War have won this year’s Bancroft Prize, which is considered one of the most prestigious honors in the field of American history.

David W. Blight’s “Frederick Douglass, Prophet of Freedom,”published by Simon and Schuster, was cited for offering “a definitive portrait” of the 19th-century former slave, abolitionist, writer and orator “in all his fullness and imperfection, his intellectual gifts and emotional needs.”

Lisa Brooks’s “Our Beloved Kin,” published by Yale University Press, was praised for how it “imaginatively illuminates submerged indigenous histories,” drawing readers into “a complex world of tensions, alliances and betrayals” that fueled the conflict between Native Americans in New England and European colonists and their Indian allies.

The Bancroft, which includes an award of $10,000, was established in 1948 by the trustees of Columbia University, with a bequest from the historian Frederic Bancroft.

Blight

 

Jill Lepore’s “New Americanism”

These TruthsHarvard’s Jill Lepore is calling for a new national history in a piece at Foreign Affairs.  I am assuming much of this piece draws from her most recent book These Truths: A History of the United States.

Here is a taste of “A New Americanism: Why a Nation Needs a National Story:

In 1986, the Pulitzer Prize–winning, bowtie-wearing Stanford historian Carl Degler delivered something other than the usual pipe-smoking, scotch-on-the-rocks, after-dinner disquisition that had plagued the evening program of the annual meeting of the American Historical Association for nearly all of its centurylong history. Instead, Degler, a gentle and quietly heroic man, accused his colleagues of nothing short of dereliction of duty: appalled by nationalism, they had abandoned the study of the nation…. 

“We can write history that implicitly denies or ignores the nation-state, but it would be a history that flew in the face of what people who live in a nation-state require and demand,” Degler said that night in Chicago. He issued a warning: “If we historians fail to provide a nationally defined history, others less critical and less informed will take over the job for us.”

But in the 1970s, studying the nation fell out of favor in the American historical profession. Most historians started looking at either smaller or bigger things, investigating the experiences and cultures of social groups or taking the broad vantage promised by global history. This turn produced excellent scholarship. But meanwhile, who was doing the work of providing a legible past and a plausible future—a nation—to the people who lived in the United States? Charlatans, stooges, and tyrants. The endurance of nationalism proves that there’s never any shortage of blackguards willing to prop up people’s sense of themselves and their destiny with a tissue of myths and prophecies, prejudices and hatreds, or to empty out old rubbish bags full of festering resentments and calls to violence. When historians abandon the study of the nation, when scholars stop trying to write a common history for a people, nationalism doesn’t die. Instead, it eats liberalism. 

Maybe it’s too late to restore a common history, too late for historians to make a difference. But is there any option other than to try to craft a new American history—one that could foster a new Americanism?…

“The history of the United States at the present time does not seek to answer any significant questions,” Degler told his audience some three decades ago. If American historians don’t start asking and answering those sorts of questions, other people will, he warned. They’ll echo Calhoun and Douglas and Father Coughlin. They’ll lament “American carnage.” They’ll call immigrants “animals” and other states “shithole countries.” They’ll adopt the slogan “America first.” They’ll say they can “make America great again.” They’ll call themselves “nationalists.” Their history will be a fiction. They will say that they alone love this country. They will be wrong.

Read the entire piece here.  I find myself largely in agreement with Lepore, although I still need to read her book.  (It’s sitting on my nightstand as I type!)

Jill Lepore Talks “These Truths”

These TruthsThis is a great interview with Jill Lepore, author of These Truths: A History of the United States.  I am really looking forward to reading this book.  I hope to find a copy in my mailbox when I return to the office today.

Here is a taste of Sean Woods’s interview with Lepore at Rolling Stone:

Are there dangers for the historian when you’re trying to make the past relevant to the present?
Yeah. Absolutely. Historians talk about the fallacy of presentism, that is, if you’re too interested in what’s going on in the present, you will adjust your past to justify your preferences about the future. That is a sound caution. On the other hand, if people who are cautious and careful and concerned about evidence and argument and method refuse to talk about the relationship between the past and the present, then the only people who will be doing that will be Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly.

So much of popular American history is about the Battle of Saratoga or the Battle of Brooklyn or World War II. And I wonder if that’s because so many of the historical books have been written by men and military history is something men get very jazzed about.
Most popular history is either military or presidential and has little sense of the incredible force and political power of social movements and protest movements, and doesn’t have any way of understanding a politics that doesn’t involve the White House. You wouldn’t write a history of this era and say everything was Trump, although that is what everybody thinks in the moment. Everybody’s fallen into the Trump vortex. But if you pull back, you go like, “OK, well actually there’s a lot of things going on.” And among them we get Me Too and Black Lives Matter. These are a really important part of realignments. Nor would you write a history of the Me Too movement without talking about Trump. Because a lot of Me Too is the proxy war on Trump. And a lot of Trump’s followers are actually engaged in a proxy war on Me Too. They’re inseparable analytically in the world that we live in. So why do we accept a public history that imagines that there’s presidential history and then there’s also a history of political movements. You have to look at them together. And you know, it’s hard and it’s a mess, but it’s also really illuminating.

Read the entire interview here.

*BUNK* Picks “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as Best American Religious History Read of 2018

BUNK is a history website founded by award-winning American historian Ed Ayers and edited by Tony Field.  It is published by the University of Richmond.  Read more about it here.

Today I learned that BUNK chose my Atlantic Monthly piece  “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as the best American history read of 2018.  (Of course, if you want the extended argument, get a copy of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

This means a lot to me, especially in light of the other winners.

Here are the winners:

Narrative History
The Train at Wood’s Crossing [Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe.com]
The long-forgotten story of a Charlottesville lynching is unearthed in a lyrical and deeply researched piece of writing that twists together strands of personal, local, and national history.

Honorable Mention:
The Counterfeit Queen of Soul [Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine]

Local History
As Goes the South, so Goes the Nation [Imani Perry, Harper’s]
A Thanksgiving trip home to Alabama occasions this tour de force through the state’s twisted past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Little Mayors of the Lower East Side [Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Lapham’s Quarterly]
In the Hate of Dixie [Cynthia Tucker, Bitter Southerner]

Legal History
Black Lives and the Boston Massacre [Farah Peterson, The American Scholar]
Do you know the story of Crispus Attacks, the black man who was the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War? If so, it’s probably incomplete. In this compelling essay, a law professor explains why, and what the omissions have to do with the struggle for racial justice today.

Honorable Mentions:
Separation of Power [William Hogeland, Lapham’s Quarterly]
No Law Without Politics (No Politics Without Law) [Jedediah Purdy, Law and Political Economy]

Religious History
Evangelical Fear Elected Trump [John Fea, The Atlantic]
Fea, a scholar and practitioner of evangelical Christianity, offers a nuanced take on four centuries of people “failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God.”

Honorable Mention:
The Fight to Define Romans 13 [Lincoln Mullen, The Atlantic]

Reported History
We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage [Christine Kenneally, Buzzfeed News]
A devastating longread based on years of interviews with alleged survivors of systematic abuse.

Honorable Mentions:
Payback [Natalie Y. Moore, The Marshall Project]
A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity [Erin E. Tocknell, Bitter Southerner]

Labor History
A Culture of Resistance [Charles Keeney, Lapham’s Quarterly]
The teachers’ strikes that sprang up around the country last year caught many observers off-guard. Here, Keeney explains why labor activism in red-state West Virginia is not the anomaly it may seem to be.

Honorable Mention:
Where Did it All Go Wrong? [Gabriel Winant, The Nation]

Watery History
In the Dismal Swamp [Sam Worley, Popula]
As is the case with each of the honorable mentions below, this piece defies the terra firma of historiographical categorization, combining currents of environmental, cultural, political, and local history into a profound exploration of what it means to “drain the swamp.”

Honorable Mentions:
The Water Next Time? [Danielle Purifoy, Scalawag]
The First Floridians [Jordan Blumetti, Bitter Southerner]

Historical Reenactment
Natural History in Two Dimensions [Whitney Barlow Robles, Common-Place]
Another fascinating genre-buster that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know?—?and then some?—?about the lost art of fish-flattening.

Honorable Mention:
Revisiting an Explorer’s Northwest Passage ‘Disappointment’ After Nearly 230 Years [Brian Castner, Atlas Obsura]

Museum Review
Real Museums of Memphis [Zandria Felice Robinson, Scalawag]
A gut-punching portrait of Memphis by a daughter of the city, written from the shadows of the National Civil Rights Museum on the occasion of MLK50. “[W]e have to keep track of how our memories and experiences are being gentrified in a notion of progress that has no meaningful proof or original referent.”

Honorable Mention:
Our Nukes, Ourselves [Kelsey D. Atherton, The New Inquiry]

Debunk
How Social Media Spread a Historical Lie [Jennifer Mendelsohn & Peter A. Shulman, Made by History/Washington Post]
When an erroneously captioned photo of a KKK march went viral, the authors sprung into action, correcting the record and explaining how Google, Wikipedia, and other digital platforms amplify the falsification of the past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant [Anna Flagg, The Marshall Project]
We’re Never Going to Have Our “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?” Moment [Rebecca Onion, Slate]

Obituary
An Obituary for Orange County, Dead at Age 129 [Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times]
A clever use of the form to give historical context to L.A.’s midterm election results. “The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades.”

Honorable Mention:
Larry Eisenberg, 99, Dead; His Limericks Were Very Well Read [Margalit Fox, New York Times]

Reputation Revision
Living With Dolly Parton [Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads]
Wilkerson grew up in East Tennessee idolizing the region’s most famous native daughter. Now a historian, she sets out in this lyrical, personal piece to more fully understand Parton’s enduring appeal in the post-industrial South.

Honorable Mentions:
Why Tamika Mallory Won’t Condemn Louis Farrakhan [Adam Serwer, The Atlantic]
Paul Bremer, Ski Instructor: Learning to Shred With the Bush Administration’s Iraq War Fall Guy [Aaron Gell, Task & Purpose]
My Fellow Prisoners: On John McCain [George Blaustein, n+1]

Origin Story (Culture)
Bad Boys [Tim Stelloh, The Marshall Project]
A fascinating piece that chronicles the unlikely story of ‘Cops,’ one of television’s most successful, influential, and polarizing shows ever.

Honorable Mentions:
How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music [Simon Reynolds, Pitchfork]
The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty [Walt Hunter, The Atlantic]
My Dad Painted the Iconic Cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and It’s Haunted Him Ever Since [Robert Silverman, The Outline]

Origin Story (Trumpism)
How Do We Explain This National Tragedy? This Trump? [T.J. Stiles, Zyzzyva (via Lithub)]
There was no shortage of contestants to this category in 2018. And while no single account can do justice to all the factors responsible for our current moment, I especially appreciated Stiles’ personal, wide-ranging, and not altogether pessimistic approach to the question.

Honorable Mentions:
Trumpism Before Trump [Robert L. Tsai & Calvin Terbeek, Boston Review]
The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult [Pankaj Mishra, New York Times]
The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity [Daniel Denvir, Jacobin]

Origin Story (Plastic)
American Beauties [Rebecca Altman, Topic]
Before Americans had to learn to reuse their grocery bags, they had to learn to thrown them away. Behold one of my favorite pieces of the year, chronicling the rise and fall (hopefully not in a tree near you) of the plastic bag.

Honorable Mention:
Disposable America [Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Reconstruction’s Legacy)
Today’s Voter Suppression Tactics Have A 150 Year History [Gregory Downs, Talking Points Memo]
There was a ton of terrific writing this year about Reconstruction, but this one stood out. It widens the lens on the story of disenfranchisement, explaining that “though rebels perfected the art of excluding voters, it was yankees who developed the script.”

Honorable Mention:
Citizens: 150 Years of the 14th Amendment [Martha S. Jones, Public Books]

Commentary (Historic Preservation)
The Archivists of Extinction [Kate Wagner, The Baffler]
The said archivists are none other than the contributors to a Flickr page devoted to images of defunct Kmarts. If that seems intriguing to you, I promise you that it is. Come for the Kmarts, stay for the withering critique of capitalist destruction.

Honorable Mention:
The Death and Life of a Great American Building [Jeremiah Moss, New York Review of Books]

Commentary (80s Movies)
In the Dark All Katz are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia [Samuel Ashworth, Hazlitt]
With what is probably the finest opening line of any on this list, this piece is a poignant meditation on nostalgia, the Borscht Belt, and why Dirty Dancing is actually a Jewish horror film.

Honorable Mention:
Brett Kavanaugh Goes to the Movies [Marsha Gordon, The Conversation]

Commentary (Covert Operations)
Did You Know the CIA ______? [Malcolm Harris, n+1]
In this review of Errol Morris’ latest miniseries, Harris examines the inability of Americans to confront the crimes that have been committed in their name. “If cold war is the name for the third world war that didn’t happen, what’s the name for what did?”

Honorable Mention:
The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling[Peter Beinart, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Statue of Liberty)
Sentinel [Francesca Lidia Viano, Places]
To read about the Statue of Liberty’s origins is to become ever more aware of the contradictions baked into America’s most cherished symbols. I highly recommend chasing this read with the Slate piece below, which pushes the story forward into our crazy modern times.

Honorable Mention:
Who Does She Stand For? [Paul A. Kramer, Slate]

Commentary (Futility of War)
A Hundred Years After the Armistice [Adam Hochschild, New Yorker]
A standout in a year full of WWI retrospectives. Among other things, Hochschild tells us that more soldiers were killed after the Armistice had been signed than would die on D-Day in Normandy 26 years later. They died, in other words, for no political or military reason whatsoever.

Honorable Mention:
Remembrance of War as a Warning [Christopher Preble, War on the Rocks]

Commentary (Country Music)
Canon Fodder [Shuja Haider, Popula]
Another fun read from Popula, on policing the genre boundaries of popular music. If you’ve ever winced to hear somebody say that they like all kinds of music ““except rap and country,” then this one’s for you.

Honorable Mention:
Agriculture Wars [Nick Murray, Viewpoint]

Periodical Single Issue
Boston Review, “Fifty Years Since MLK” [Forum V (Winter 2018)]
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Boston Review published a knockout of an issue that was, in many ways, the perfect antidote to Dodge’s Superbowl ad from a few weeks earlier. Every article is a must-read.

Honorable Mention:
The Baffler, “Tramps and Millionaires” [Issue ?42]

Recurring Series
Overlooked [New York Times]
An ongoing effort by the Times’ obituaries desk to remember the lives of notable women who were left out of the paper of record the first time around.

Bibliography
Confederate Monuments Syllabus [Kevin M. Levin, Civil War Memory]
If there’s one person up to the challenge of keeping track of the latest skirmishes in the Confederate monument wars, it’s Levin. He recently compiled this wide-ranging collection of online resources in an effort to help teachers and students make sense of it all.

Anthea Hartig is the New Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History

Hartig

Congratulations!  Hartig is the first woman to hold the post in the museum’s 54-year history.  She comes to Washington D.C. with a Ph.D in history from the University of California-Riverside and experience at the California Historical Society and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.  From 2000-2005 she taught history at La Sierra University, a Christian (Seventh-Day Adventist) school in Riverside.

Graham Bowley has the story covered at The New York Times:

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has a new director, who will be the first woman to hold the position in its 54-year history: Anthea M. Hartig, currently the executive director and chief executive of the California Historical Society.

Ms. Hartig begins her new role in Washington, overseeing 262 employees and a budget of nearly $50 million, on Feb. 18. She will be the first woman to be director since the museum opened in 1964, the Smithsonian said. In her new role, in 2019 and 2020, she will open three exhibitions that are part of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Initiative, #BecauseOfHerStory. She will also complete the revitalization of the museum’s 120,000-square-foot west wing.

Read the rest here.