The Author’s Corner with Daniel Rodgers

9780691181592_0.pngDaniel Rodgers is Professor of History Emeritus at Princeton University. This interview is based on his new book As a City on a Hill: The Story of America’s Most Famous Lay Sermon (Princeton University Press, 2018).

JF: What led you to write As a City on a Hill?

DR: “City on a hill” is a phrase almost every American knows. They know its roots in the Sermon on the Mount. Many of them know that the leader of the Puritan settlement in New England used the phrase to describe the society he hoped his countrymen would build in their new world. They recognize “shining city on a hill” as a synonym for the United States that Ronald Reagan and his speech writers polished to perfection. A belief that they had been called to be a “city on a hill” for the world is said to have run through the entire course of American history, carrying the sense of mission and moral destiny that the Puritans had planted at the culture’s very beginnings.

I had taught the Puritan sermon from which the “city on a hill” phrase is drawn in just that way to generations of students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and at Princeton. But like so many other historians and pundits I was wrong. After its writing in 1630, John Winthrop’s sermon dropped almost completely out of sight for three centuries. It was not understood as a founding document of the nation until the 1950s. And, most strikingly, what Winthrop meant by “city on a hill” was radically different from the meaning we routinely give the phrase now. Anxiety, not pride, was at its heart, together with an admonition to charity that we have let disappear from the core values of our political culture. How could changes this dramatic have happened? This book is an answer to that puzzle. It tells the story of a phrase and a text which have become so familiar that their unexpected twists and turns, their disappearance and revival, their radically shifting meanings, and their connections with the world beyond America have been all but forgotten.

JF: In two sentences, what is the argument of As a City on a Hill?

DR: The claim that Americans have always thought of themselves as “a city on hill” to the world is a myth, an invented tradition created during the struggles of the Cold War. The phrase and Winthrop’s sermon were not present at the nation’s foundation; they were revived in the twentieth century, filled with much more nationalistic meanings than they had carried before, and then injected into an imagined past as if they had been there all along.

JF: Why do we need to read As a City on a Hill?

DR: If we are to get an honest picture of our nation and our world we need a less mythic history of our past. The distinctive character of the American nation was not the product of Puritanism or of any single founding moment. It was not the product of an “exceptionalist” history. A great deal of the rhetoric of providential mission and destiny that saturated the American past was a variant on the nationalistic formulas of other nations. The meanings those ideas would carry in the United States were worked out through aspiration, argument, and contention. They are still under construction now. In our post-Cold War world, where no one nation can dominate the globe as the U.S. did in the in the generation after 1945, we need a more realistic and self-critical understanding of our history than Ronald Reagan’s remake of John Winthrop’s words can give us.

At the same time, there are forgotten themes in Winthrop’s sermon worth recovering. When Winthrop announced that “we shall be as a city on a hill” he did not mean that a future American nation would be an object of admiration to all the world. He meant that his social and religious would be visible: open to the eyes of everyone and nakedly exposed to its critics. Its burden was not to radiate its ideals but to try, as best as anxious and deeply fallible persons could manage, to live up to them. Winthrop injected a second strain in his “Model of Christian Charity” too: an insistence that the morals of market and trade would not be sufficient to the project. Sacrifice of private advantage for the public good, love for others, and care for the poor: all these were essential for the “city on a hill” that Winthrop imagined in America. Like the Puritans’ call for self-scrutiny, these, too, are worth remembering.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

DR: I did not imagine I might teach and write history until after I graduated from college. Like others of my student generation I was swept up in the civil rights movement, where I saw a nation changing some of its oldest and ugliest values right under our feet. I went from Brown University in 1965 into the VISTA program to join the “war on poverty.” When I realized that my real love was teaching, I knew I wanted to teach how social and cultural change occurred. History does not move in straight lines without swerves and interruptions. Its course is often crooked and surprising. Why does history sometimes jump its accustomed tracks, for good as well for bad? Many members of my generation thought the answer lay in the history of social movements, and they were not wrong. But I thought the deeper history was to be found in the ideas and ideals persons carried in their heads: in their efforts to make sense of and to change the shifting world around them. I have been writing and teaching about those themes ever since.

JF: What is your next project?

DR: After five books which have won more than their share of prizes, As a City on a Hill may be my last book-length project. But I love the essay form. I’ve written about radically changing ideals of work, about continuities and disruptions in political language and culture, about the transnational dimensions of U.S. history, about the dwindling place of the “social” in contemporary American ideas and culture and, now, about the lives of a “foundational” text. These all remain concerns of our current moment. We’ll see where they take me.

JF: Thanks, Daniel!

 

Will There Be Another Billy Graham?

d5271-billy_graham

Tim Funk of the Charlotte Observer asks this question and tries to answer it.

Here is a taste:

Ask Graham biographers and religion scholars today who will be the next Billy Graham, here’s their answer:

Nobody.

“I don’t think any single person will be ‘the next Billy Graham,’ ” says William Martin, author of “A Prophet with Honor,” long considered the definitive biography of Graham. “That’s in part because evangelical Christianity has become so large and multifaceted – in significant measure because of what Graham did – that no one person can dominate it, regardless of talent or dedication. It’s just not going to happen….”

America was a very different place when the young Billy Graham emerged.

He made his first national splash on the eve of the 1950s, a decade in which America – then fighting a Cold War against atheistic communism – added “under God” to its Pledge of Allegiance and started printing “In God We Trust” on its paper currency.

The preacher who came to be called “America’s pastor” thrived in this climate of religious revival: His image – wavy hair, burning eyes – showed up on magazine covers and in living rooms via the infant medium of television.

I agree.  There will never be another Billy Graham.  American culture is too fractured. The culture is too religiously diverse to sustain a Christian evangelist with a national reach like Graham had in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. Graham and his predecessors–George Whitefield, Charles Finney, D.L. Moody, and Billy Sunday–all functioned in a largely Protestant culture.  No more.  Graham was the product of a particular time and place that no longer exists in the United States.

Another Kind of “Identity Politics”

Last night I posted a piece on identity politics and the teaching of history. The post engaged with Columbia University history professor Mark Lilla’s critique of identity liberalism.  It is not my intention here to revisit what I wrote except to say that Lilla was employing a fairly common understanding of the phrase “identity liberalism,” namely the propensity to celebrate our differences (race, class, gender, sexual identity) in a way that makes them more important than our common identity as Americans.

In his critique of Lilla’s piece at The Junto blog, history professor Jonathan Wilson reminds us that “identity politics” goes well beyond the usual liberal categories of race, class, gender, and secular orientation.  Wilson writes:

Lilla’s argument overlooks the fact that Americanness itself is a particular constructed identity—and therefore, that any politics of the national common good is an identity politics. Lilla writes:

We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. [Emphasis added.]

However appropriate that recommendation may be strategically or as a matter of proportion, it is still a recipe for a form of identity politics. It requires asserting that Americans share a common interest simply by virtue of that group membership. It implies members of the nation owe a loyalty to each other that they may not owe to other groups—and which may override other important forms of human affinity and fulfillment.

I am guessing that Lilla would probably agree with Wilson here, although he would probably say that he was using “identity liberalism” in a very particular way in this piece–a way that most people who read it understood.

In response to Wilson’s post (in the comments section of The Junto), blogger and American historian Ann Little wrote:

I’d say the first identity politics party in American history was the Republican/Democratic Republican party. We can at the very latest say that by the time of Andy Jackson and when they began calling themselves Democrats it was clearly a party organized around white supremacy, with proslavery and imperial expansion at its center. So, DUH! Identity politics is just what we used to call politics before all those troublesome women and nonwhite people had the audacity to assume they had a claim to citizenship rights too.

While Lilla used the phrase “identity liberalism” in a very specific way, both Wilson and Little won’t let us forget that politics was one of the original forms of American “identity politics.”  I agree.

In February 2016 I wrote an op-ed piece published at Fox News about why the founding fathers–George Washington especially–did not like political parties.  The context for the piece was the Senate’s refusal to follow the Constitution and vote on Barack Obama’s appointment of Merrick Garland to replace the late Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.

Is it fair to say that Washington saw political parties as a form of identity politics?  Yes.

After I quoted from Washington’s 1796 farewell address, here is part of what I wrote:

Washington worried that political factions—such as today’s Republican and Democratic parties—weakened American’s commitment to the common good.  Political partisanship, he believed, promoted the worst forms of selfishness.  It undermined the “we” in “We the People.”

I thought about all of this again as I watched CNN’s Michael Smerconish grill RNC communication’s director Sean Spicer about Donald Trump’s response to the CIA announcement that Russian hackers tried to influence the 2016 election. Watch it here:

At the 2:45 mark  in the video Smerconish wonders why Americans of all parties are not upset with the fact that Putin and Russia has influenced a presidential election.  If Smerconish is correct, and I tend to think that he is, then “identity politics” (or, as Little puts it, just good old fashioned political partisanship) has now gotten in the way of the national security interests of all Americans, regardless of political party.

Yes, the Cold War is over.  The Soviet Union has been gone for over 25 years.  But if Putin represents some kind of revival of the Russian threat (as Mitt Romney correctly implied during his 2012 presidential run) then it looks are response to this threat will not follow the Cold War model of unified resistance. Whatever collective outrage we have had in the past about Russians trying to influence American life seems to have now been subordinated to party politics.

And it’s not just the end of the Cold War that has caused this decline of national unity in the last two or three decades.  I think it’s time re-read (and perhaps blog about) Daniel Rodgers’s Age of Fracture.

Finally, I have been wondering what Putin thinks of all of this.  Perhaps something along the lines of the final scene in one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” As the martians look down and watch the once good people of Maple Street destroy themselves,  one of them says (at 27:45 the mark in the video below): “They pick the most dangerous enemy they can find, and it’s themselves.  All we need to do is just sit back and watch…We’ll just sit back and watch and let them destroy themselves.”

The First “Dream Team”

1964statedepttour0011

Bill Russell, Tommy Heinsohn, KC Jones, Bob Cousy, Oscar Robertson, Jerry Lucas, Bob Petit, and Hank Gola.

It was the team that played 19 games in Poland, Romania, Egypt, and Yugoslavia as part of the United States State Department goodwill tour in 1964.  The team was coached by Red Auerbach.

Robertson tells the story of this “Dream Team” at The Undefeated.  Here is a taste:

A State Department official who knew Red asked him to put together a team to tour Russia, Yugoslavia, Poland, Romania and Egypt following the 1964 NBA season. The Russians took a look at the roster Red had put together and decided not to admit us into the Soviet Union.

In the other four countries, we were welcomed with open arms. For one thing, they knew our games were likely to sell out, and the gate receipts would help build their local basketball federations.

Read the entire piece here.

“A Stop at Willoughby”and Escaping to the Past

My family has a New Year’s Day tradition of watching the Twilight Zone marathon on the Sci-Fi Channel. (This year the marathon extends over several days).  Rod Sterling’s show appeared on network television in the early 1960s.  Many of the episodes revolve around Cold War themes–either directly or indirectly.   When episodes focus on the tension between individualism and social conformity, individualism always comes out on top.  Louis Hartz must have loved this show.

One of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes is “A Stop at Willoughby.”  I actually wrote about it in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

…For others, the past is useful because it provides an escape from the pressures and anxieties of modern life.  One of my favorite episodes of the 196os television show The Twilight Zone is titled “A Stop at Willoughby.”  The episode features a stressed-out New York advertising executive, named Gart Williams, who is growing tired of the corporate rat race and an overbearing wife who only married him for his ability to provide her with a comfortable upper-middle-class life in the suburbs.  One day on his train commute from New York City to his home in Connecticut, Gart falls asleep and dreams that the train, which has turned into a late-nineteenth-century rail coach, has stopped at a placed called “Willoughby,” and the year is 1888.  The conductor tells him that Willoughby is a “peaceful, restful place, where a man can slow down to a walk and live his life full measure.”  Gart glances out the train window and sees a small town with an old-fashioned bandstand, high-wheeler bikes, horse-drawn carriages, and couples strolling through the park.  He eventually wakes from his dream, but he becomes fascinated by this town that his imagination created.  The following week Gart Why Study History Coverdreams again about Willoughby and tells himself that the next time the train stops at this fictional town, he is going to get off and leave his old life behind.  After another stressful day at work, which leads to a mental breakdown, Gart quits his job and boards his train back to Connecticut.  He dozes off again and starts to dream about his late nineteenth-century paradise.  This time he gets off the train at Willoughby, where he is greeted by the town’s friendly residents who invite him to join them in their idyllic life.  At this point, fitting the eerie nature of The Twilight Zone, the scene shifts back to a modern-day train conductor standing in the snow over Gart’s lifeless body.  He tells the police that Gart shouted “something about Willoughby” as he leaped from the moving train to his death.

“A Stop at Willoughby” is a popular episode because we can all relate to the plight of Gart Williams.  We all long for a world that has been lost–a haven where we can escape the pressures of daily life.  The past, or at least the re-creation or re-enactment of the past, can provide such a haven.  One website describing Colonial Williamsburg encourages potential visitors to “escape to the 18th century in the world’s largest living-history museum.”  Renaissance Faires attract thousands of visitors each summer, where attendees wear period clothing and come back each weekend to immerse themselves in a different time.  Other people prefer to visit a historical site or read historical fiction or nonfiction books as a kind of time travel to a world that was simpler.  These kinds of nostalgic longings fuel a billion-dollar tourism industry.

As David Lowenthal writes, 

“The past offers alternatives to an unacceptable present.  In yesterday we find what we miss today.  And yesterday is a time for which we have no responsibility and when no one can answer back.  Some prefer to live permanently in the past; others elect to visit it only occasionally.  Even if today is rewarding and the past no golden age, historical immersion can alleviate contemporary stress.”

For some, the practice of getting lost in the past is a great form of therapy.

The Author’s Corner with Mary Rizzo

Mary Rizzo is Assistant Professor of Professional Practice and Associate Director of Public and Digital Humanities Initiatives for the Program in American Studies and the History Department at Rutgers University–Newark This interview is based on her new book, Class Acts: Young Men and the Rise of Lifestyle (University of Nevada Press, 2015).

JF: What led you to write Class Acts?

MR: I grew up in the 1990s, which was a time when a lot of really interesting subcultures, like skaters, riotgrrrl, and grunge, among others, flowered. It was also a moment when it seemed like no sooner then a subculture was formed than it was commodified by some giant corporation (we might call this Hot Topic-ification). What this meant was that the politics of authenticity was a constant topic of discussion among me and my friends, even if we didn’t know to call it that. When I got to grad school in American Studies at the University of Minnesota, I wanted to examine the prehistory of that 1990s moment, to understand how that process that I was observing had changed over time. I was also always interested in class identity, which is really under discussed in the US. By examining how young men tried to subvert their class background through style and how that became part of mass culture, I brought those two interests together.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Class Acts?

MR: When young middle-class men in the 1950s and 1960s adopted working-class styles it was both an effort to be cool that traded on their class and race privilege and an attempt to critique how middle-class masculinity was defined in the Cold War era. By the late 1960s and the 1970s, though, the rise of lifestyle marketing commodified these class acts to define lifestyle as a chosen identity, disconnected from material circumstances.

JF: Why do we need to read Class Acts?

MR: After I sent my final manuscript off to the publisher, I was watching tv at the gym and a commercial came on for a household fragrance spray. The tag line was, “Smell like the lifestyle you deserve.” I only wish I had been able to get that in the book! The word lifestyle has become so ubiquitous in our culture that commercials like that one can use it and assume everyone understands what they’re saying. But when we dig a bit below the surface, it becomes clear that lifestyle has a slippery definition. I was amazed to find out that the word lifestyle was really pretty new, only becoming commonly used after the 1960s. So, I wanted to explore the ideological work that the concept does in different historical contexts.

As I show in Class Acts, lifestyle turns identities based in material realities into consumer goods that seem to be equally available to everyone. But they are not. Some people, like African Americans, become the source material out of which other people build their lifestyles. For the fashion industry, for example, black culture and black models have been used to represent an exotic “them,” rather than being part of “us.” Lifestyle is used in politics as well. I open and close the book with discussions of the 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns. As another presidential campaign heats up—in which candidates who are wealthy and recipients of vast amounts of corporate money again will fight to be seen as just regular folks with lifestyles like the rest of us—we need to have some critical engagement with that term.

JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?

MR: I still get a thrill out of being called a historian! There are two main reasons I fell in love with history. The first is my mother. She grew up poor and only became middle class after marrying my father. Her stories about the New York City of the 1950s and 1960s were so different from the world I grew up in. When she told us about urban renewal displacing her family, or how women weren’t allowed to work enough hours to earn benefits at the grocery store she worked at, it made me want to understand why those things happened and how she—and by extension me—got from there to the Jersey burbs. Equally as important were the history teachers I had in high school and college. They were always the most engaging and, frankly, the wackiest, teachers I had. They made learning challenging but also fun. I remember one day in 10th grade history class we were going around the room telling our teacher what we wanted to write about for our final paper. I said Napoleon and, without missing a beat, he responded, “What do you have a complex?” That kind of joke, which treated us like adults, also assumed that we knew something already. Plus, I loved the content. History seemed to be about telling fascinating stories. I hope I’m doing those teachers justice with my own work.

JF: What is your next project?

MR: My next project looks at cultural representations of the city of Baltimore from 1954-early 21st century. For a city of its size, Baltimore has been represented over and over again, from the films of John Waters to The Wire (among many others). I’m fascinated by the interplay between cultural representation and cultural policy. How do the imaginary cities created by artists affect the real cities that we live in? How does public policy shape (intentionally or not), the kinds of cultural representations that artists create? What’s been amazing about working on this project is uncovering forgotten cultural texts, like Chicory, a poetry magazine that published work mainly by blacks living in Baltimore’s poorest neighborhoods from 1966-1983, and putting them alongside the more famous examples I use. It’s also been a thrill getting to talk to the people who made this art! I’ve interviewed theater directors, writers, actors, and editors so far.

JF: Thanks, Mary!


World Vision and Anti-Communism

Over at The Anxious Bench blog, David Swartz of Asbury University explains the anti-communist roots of World Vision, the Christian relief agency known for its child sponsorship programs and efforts at fighting poverty and hunger among children and their families around the world.  Swartz says that World Vision, founded in 1950, “operated from a posture of full-throated, flag-waving Christian Americanism.”  He calls it “an authentic creation of the Cold War.”

Here is a taste:

World Vision, established in 1950 both to help Korean orphans and to stem the expansion of communism in Korea, framed the conflict in apocalyptic terms. “Like a deadly red plague spreading out in all directions,” founder Bob Pierce wrote, “the massive force of Communism has spread over the globe until today it claims over one third of the world’s population.” Pierce produced popular films called The Red Plague and The Poison of Communism. In between caring for orphans, building hospitals and supporting American GIs, World Vision staged a huge evangelistic crusade in Seoul. Pierce framed the event dramatically: “With Communist jet bombers poised only twenty seconds from Seoul as these words are written, the Seoul Crusade might well prove to be one of the most strategic evangelistic efforts of our day.” For American evangelicals in the immediate postwar era, defeating communism and spreading the gospel were companion efforts. Each utilized a rhetoric of liberty. America would protect the human rights of peoples threatened by the tyranny of Marxism. Then they would be positioned to receive spiritual liberties offered by Christ.
World Vision moved quickly past its Cold War origins. Even before the demise of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s, World Vision had de-Americanized as recipient nations from Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa became full partners of World Vision International. The dominance of the U.S. office was replaced by a United Nations-style confederacy. But that’s a post for another time.
This reminds me of another anti-communist crusader mentioned in Swartz’s post:

Philip Jenkins on "Witch Hunts" and Joe McCarthy

Philip Jenkins wants us to stop using the phrase “witch hunt” to describe American investigations into communism during the Cold War.  The phrase, he argues, should be removed from political discourse.  Here is a taste of his piece at Real Clear Religion:

To speak of a witch-hunt evokes a whole mythological system. In the original witch-hunts of sixteenth or seventeenth century Europe, thousands of innocent people were tried and punished for crimes of which they were not just innocent, but which were actively impossible, such as riding on the back of a goat to a personal meeting with Satan. Witch panics served to focus fears and anxieties within hungry and war-torn communities in desperate need of scapegoats.

Real witches, by definition, did not exist. 

And that is the implication of the phrase when applied to the twentieth century. When Congressional committees dragooned left-wing activists before them to answer humiliating questions, they were (we think) investigating imaginary crimes by non-existent witches. This picture is consecrated in American culture by Arthur Miller’s heavy-handed allegory, The Crucible. Once you accept the witch-hunt idea, you have a ready-made system of near-diabolic villains, and a heroic martyrology of saints and innocent sufferers.

In the Communist case, though, the “witches” really did exist, and genuinely posed a threat. For some thirty years now, we have had excellent historical studies by such scholars as Ronald Radosh, Allen Weinstein, John Earl Haynes and Hervey Klehr, and they demonstrate a picture of American Communism absolutely at variance with the myth. At its height in the 1930s, the US Communist Party had at least 75,000 open members, including many well placed in key strategic industries. There was also a penumbra of clandestine members, of unknown scale.