Historians and Journalists

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I get a lot of calls from journalists.  They have increased significantly since Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency.   When journalists call I am happy to oblige.  I see this as an important part of my identity as a public scholar.  It is always nice to get acknowledged in an article, but sometimes a reporter wants to talk to a historian for background information that may or may not make it into the story.  Other times I just don’t say anything profound enough to make the final cut.

Over the years I have had my work–books, articles (scholarly and popular), and blog posts–used without citation.  It comes with the territory.  I have been noticing this of late with my use of the phrase “court evangelicals” to describe the evangelical leaders who support Donald Trump.  (I am grateful for journalists such as Nancy LeTourneau who always gives me credit for coining the term.  Michael Gerson–not so much).

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education, Fernanda Zamudio-Suarez writes about the relationship between historical scholarship and the media.  Here is a taste:

It was getting late, and the 2018 Golden Globe Awards were dragging on. But Danielle L. McGuire, a Detroit-based historian, was still waiting. She was staying up for something much more important than the year’s entertainment honors. She was waiting for Oprah Winfrey.

That night, Winfrey’s speech accepting the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement, in which she presented a passionate argument for the #MeToo movement, electrified viewers and prompted questions about a presidential run.

For McGuire, the speech prompted a different question: How had Winfrey found out about Recy Taylor, one of the women at the center of her speech?

In September 1944, Taylor, a 24-year-old African-American sharecropper, was abducted and raped by six white men while she walked home from church in Abbeville, Ala. Decades before the civil-rights movement reached its climax the NAACP sent Rosa Parks to investigate the situation, and the seeds of the movement for racial equality were sewn, she said.

McGuire’s 2010 bookAt the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — a New History of the Civil Rights Movement From Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power (Penguin Random House) brought attention to a figure who had been largely absent from mainstream history. McGuire had connected the dots between the activists who called for Taylor’s rapists to be prosecuted and the rise of the civil-rights movement years later.

The speech introduced Taylor but didn’t go full circle to the civil-rights movement, And it lacked a reference to McGuire’s work.

Not that the historian was upset. At first she was just surprised that Winfrey was speaking about Taylor. “I was genuinely shocked, like, in a good way,” she said.

McGuire had just returned from Taylor’s funeral. She spent time with Taylor’s family, and helped The New York Times write her obituary. To hear Winfrey tell the story was an extraordinary moment, she said. “You couldn’t ask for a better bookend to somebody’s home-going than have Oprah Winfrey tell your story in front of millions of people and praise your courage,” McGuire said. “And single you out as first, right, a leader. And so it was amazing. I was so grateful.”

She held out hope that Winfrey would mention her book in the speech, but that night she could do without it. “I mean, look, it’s Oprah Winfrey.”

Read the rest here.

Historians Weigh-In on Trump’s War with the FBI

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Vox has collected nine historians to reflect on the Donald Trump’s belief that the FBI is plotting against himSean Illing has gathered responses from Douglas Charles (Penn State), Rhodri-Jeffryss Jones (Edinburgh), Meg Jacobs (Princeton), Carol Anderson (Emory), Ivan Greenberg, Morton Keller (Brandeis), Timothy Naftali (NYU), H.W. Brands (Texas-Austin), and David Stebenne (Ohio State).

Here is Jones:

The contest of wills between Trump and the FBI is not so much a part of a long-term battle between the president and the director of intelligence as much as it is the latest episode in the GOP effort to sideline and discredit the Russia investigation.

When Christopher Wray testified during his confirmation hearings, he assured the Senate committee he was “not faint of heart.” If and when necessary, he would be willing to stand up to the president. And so far, it looks like he’s living up to his promise. However, the fight over the House Republican memo is less about historical precedence or weakening of the checks on the presidency than it is a reflection of the polarized politics we are living through and, more generally, the attack on the credibility of all government institutions.

The memo scandal is a move on behalf of the White House … to tarnish the reputation of the FBI and of the Justice Department, and by extension call into doubt the motives of the Mueller investigation. In that way, it takes us further down the path of turning every development in the investigation into a partisan ploy.

That, of course, is nothing new — think of the attacks on Kenneth Star by the Clinton White House. But here, the charges are not simply that Mueller is an overzealous prosecutor, but rather that the FBI tried to help throw an entire election. The House memo seems like it will suggest that the FBI was implicated in an attempted coup. The long-term significance of the memo release is that it may confirm for some how few in government can be trusted to act in an independent and honest way, even the FBI —which has historically been seen as beyond the partisan fray.

Read the entire piece here.

Is Social Media Scholarship?

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Yesterday I was in Northfield, Minnesota where I gave a talk about blogging, The Way of Improvement Leads Home (the blog), and the relationship between social media and civic engagement.  I spoke as part of a series on digital publishing sponsored by faculty and staff from Carleton College and St. Olaf College.  (Thanks to the DeAne Lagerquist for the invitation!)

During our conversation several professors talked to me about the possibility of starting their own blogs.

I don’t pretend to believe that our blogging model at The Way of Improvement Leads Home is normative.  We post a lot here and have developed a unique approach.  So yesterday I tried to suggest some ways that busy academics might make blogging work for them as teachers and scholars.

One model for academic blogging comes from Mark Carrigan in his recent Chronicle of Higher Education piece, “Social Media is Scholarship.”  It is excellent.

Here is a taste:

Before I created a research blog, I used to carry a series of ornate notebooks in which to record my ideas, reflect on what I had read, and sketch out my plans — or rather I tried to carry them. Inevitably I forgot them at the most inopportune moments, reducing me to scribbling notes on scraps of paper, only to fail to transcribe them at a later date. Even when I managed to record my notes, my overly-enthusiastic scrawls often proved indecipherable when I came back to them.

In contrast, my research blog is accessible to me wherever I have a mobile phone or computer. The expectation that others might read my notes forces me to work out what I am trying to say, rather than scribbling down in shorthand ideas that might feel meaningful to me at the time but are often confusing later.

Sharing those blog posts through my social-media feeds often leads to useful conversations — at a much earlier stage in the research process than would otherwise be the case. It creates an awareness of what I’m working on, and has often been the first step in eventual invitations to speak or collaborate. The fact that I can categorize and tag my online notes helps me see connections between different projects I am working on, highlighting emerging themes and deepening my understanding of how the topics fit together. Having my notes online also makes them extremely easy to search, providing a fantastic resource when I am writing papers and chapters.

My point is not that everyone should use a research blog. There are many reasons why it might not be suitable for you: (1) Without a smartphone, a blog would be much less useful; (2) some people find that writing by hand actually helps, rather than hinders, the creative process; and (3) many academics are uncomfortable with sharing work-in-progress online with an unknown audience.

Exactly which technology works for which person will depend on many factors. But in my case, moving from a research notebook to a research blog helped me become a more efficient and effective scholar. Rather than being an unwelcome drain, social media has helped me use my time more effectively.

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

On the Loaning of Books

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Over at U.S. Intellectual History Blog, Robert Greene II has a nice piece on the experience of loaning books to his father.  It reminded me of the power of ideas and the importance of making those ideas accessible to people other than academics.

Here is a taste:

Perhaps not all historians can write for a general audience. When we lament that folks outside the academy don’t (or can’t) read our work, however, we never seem to slow down and think, “Wait a minute. Are we sure our work is that hard to comprehend?” Or to put it another way: is it time for us to stop underestimating what people outside the academy can read, understand, and enjoy?

Again, I only bring this up because I think about loaning monographs to my father and getting his reaction to reading them. Just today, I went home to celebrate his birthday. I was glad to, in addition to handing him his gift, to loan him my copy of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and George Frederickson’s White Supremacy. I handed over The New Jim Crow because my father, during casual conversation last week, mentioned wanting to get the book down the road. Wanting to spare my dad a few bucks, I briefly perused my book shelf before finding it and letting out a small whoop of satisfaction.

Read the entire piece here.

More on Historians as Pundits

WoodwardToday we published two posts on a small debate raging over how historians should engage in public discourse.   After Moshik Temkin published a piece at The New York Times titled “Historians Should Not Be Pundits,” Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller responded at The Atlantic.  Earlier today I discussed these issues with historian and author Amy Bass on her New York radio show (WVOX) “Conversations with Amy Bass.”

Joe Adelman, an American history who teaches at Framingham State University in Massachusetts, has also weighed-in with a helpful critique of Temkin’s piece.  It is published (with permission) below:

Like many historians, I awoke this morning and recoiled when I opened Twitter and stumbled into an New York Times op-ed piece entitled, “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.” The author, a historian at the Harvard Kennedy School, argues that he is concerned by what he believes is “the rapid-fire, superficial way history is being presented, as if it’s mostly a matter of drawing historical analogies.” He then offers examples of such analogies, and suggests that instead historians should address a variety of “historical processes” that led to the current day. I found the essay frustrating (and judging by my Twitter and Facebook feeds, I’m not alone in that feeling among historians), but set it aside to go about my day.

But the essay has stuck with me for three reasons, so here I am to respond. First, the headline (which was almost certainly not written by the column’s author), which is delightfully ironic in placing the construction “X Shouldn’t Be Pundits” at the corner of Main Street and Broadway in Punditville, USA (i.e., the New York Times opinion page). Second, the essay employs a series of straw men. Somewhere out there, the author assures us, are historians making “facile analogies” between the politics and personalities of 2017 and Adolf Hitler, Richard Nixon, and Huey Long. Sure, I’ve seen a few of those pieces, and so have you, but they are far from the majority of work that historians have done in the past six months. Even when I have seen essays that employed analogy, they were rarely “facile.”

It’s particularly useful here to note that Temkin is wrong in one of his examples, in which he claims that C. Vann Woodward avoided analogy in his classic study, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. One scholar quickly found evidence that Woodward had specifically said that he did use analogies, and in direct reference to Strange Career.

So historians are using analogies, but there’s a very good reason for that: analogies are in the air. I hesitate to generalize broadly at the risk of committing the same sin I just condemned, but anecdotally I can offer from the classroom and public talks in the community that one of the more common frames people use to ask questions is, “so is X like Y?” Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no, but it’s an impulse that seems common (at least among my own students and the audiences I encounter). In my own case, I demur on questions too much about the late twentieth century, since it’s far outside my research specialty. However, I will engage on most analogies that deal with the Civil War or earlier, and use what’s offered in the question to work towards an effective answer. As Woodward notes in the tweeted quotation, analogies aren’t meant to capture direct comparison, but rather a way to set something familiar side by side with something less so.

Prof. Temkin wants historians to engage the public and offer factual and nuanced portraits of the past. I agree. But especially when speaking outside the profession, whether in an essay for a news publication, at a public talk, or in the classroom, that means we need to start with where our audience is and work from there. And many of them are working from analogy.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

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Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.

“Made By History”

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“Instead of making history, we are made by history.”

Made by History” is a new blog that the Washington Post launched today.  Here is a taste of the press release:

The Washington Post today launched Made by History, a new blog in The Post’s Outlook section that will explore parallels between today’s political climate and history.

“Outlook often publishes posts that draw from history to contextualize current events, and we’re excited to have created a home in our section for this type of analysis,” said Mike Madden, deputy editor of Outlook. “Through the deep historical knowledge of our contributors, Made in History will broaden readers’ views of this political moment and introduce them to diverse scholarly perspectives on the latest news.”

The blog will feature commentary from 75 historians from nationally renowned universities and institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and more.

“It’s an exciting time to be a part of The Post,” said Brian Rosenwald, historian at UPenn and Made by History’s Editor-in-Chief. “We believe that our contributors will add a unique level of insight and expertise to the ongoing political discussion that many of The Post’s pieces currently generate.”

I am glad that the folks at “Made by History” are writing for a public audience.  This has the potential to be a great blog.  I know that I will read it and comment on it regularly here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

The editors write: “The blog will feature commentary from 75 historians from nationally renowned universities and institutions including Harvard University, Yale University, University of Pennsylvania, University of Virginia and more.”  Not sure what to make of this sentence.  I just hope the writers don’t end up preaching to the choir.

Read a “welcome” post by the editors here.

 

Tips for Public Writing

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Over at Inside Higher Ed, academics Christopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost offer “10 Challenges for Scholars Writing for Wider Audiences.”  Schaberg and Bogost are the editors of Object Lessons, a book and article series “about the hidden lives of ordinary things.” During the 2017-2018 academic year they will be conducting four NEH-funded workshops for scholars who are interested in reaching larger audiences with their writing.

Here are some of their “challenges”:

Scholars need not choose between reaching the public and impressing their peers. They can do both. The deciding factor in whether the public appreciates an article or book is not the subject matter; rather, it is the manner in which the subject is made to connect with readers’ interests and concerns. Likewise, ordinary people are perfectly capable of digesting difficult, technical and specialized material as long as the writer explains that material clearly and concisely. Even most scholarly authors prefer reading stuff that doesn’t require physical suffering. But habit, pride and maybe even shame make this topic a forbidden one. And so we end up with the same hard-to-read books and articles.

Scholars don’t know what a “market” is, even when they write for a specific scholarly audience. The process of evaluating a work for whom it might reach and why is simply foreign to scholars — especially humanists. Almost all book proposals include a section on the book’s supposed audience, but it typically gets filled with celebrations of a project’s “uniqueness.” Uniqueness is not necessarily a virtue. Work needs to reach people who have previously been reached by other, similar work. Academics can benefit from thinking of their work as having a market and considering how comparable titles have fared in the marketplace of ideas and books.

This isn’t for everyone. Not every scholar will or should be destined to reach a broader, more general audience. It is not more or less scholarly or more or less righteous to do so. Each scholar must figure out how their individual talents and disposition can best be put to use. Similarly, recognizing that colleagues and peers might have different talents and dispositions, and concomitant publishing trajectories, can help produce greater scholarly harmony. 


Read the entire article here.

Is Trump the New Nixon? Historians Debate the Usefulness of Analogies

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At The New Republic, Graham Vyse asks this question to several historians and gets several different answers.  This, of course, should be expected.  Historical analogies are always problematic.

Rick Perlstein, for example, describes “the whole concept of the ‘historical parallel’ as perverse, and bearing little resemblance to actually mature understanding of the present in light of the past.”

Kevin Mattson says “For God’s sake, if you don’t see an analogy there, where the heck do you go for analogies?”  He says “quite honestly, I don’t understand where [Perlstein’s] coming from.  I’m kind of at a loss.”

Luke Nichter says: “I guess, as a historian, it’s not in my training to work hard to get my name in the press…At the end of the day, my bread and butter is contributing to our understanding of the past, not of the present.”

And here’s CNN’s own Tim Naftali: “Engaging the present is not a professional obligation for an historian,” but he does add “anybody who’s studied Nixon and Watergate has an obligation to be a resource so that nothing like that ever happens again.”

Read the entire piece here.  It is a great conversation about the role of the historian in public life and the relationship between the past and the present.  Where do I fall? Somewhere in the middle, but I resonate the most with Perlstein. Go read Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.  🙂

Trump’s Remarks Are Drawing Historians Out of the Ivory Tower

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Check out Graham Vyse’s piece at The New Republic in which he suggests that Donald Trump is radicalizing American historians.

I am not sure if “radicalizing” is the right word here.  Historians have been radicalized for a long time.  The professions leans heavily to the left.

But Trump’s misuse of the past seems to be getting more historians out of the ivory tower and into a deeper engagement with the public.  This is a good thing.

Here is a taste of Vyse’s piece:

But Trump also presents a challenge for historians: how to use their expertise to counteract Trump’s ignorance, but without appearing partisan. “You’re entering into a very heated world with a very heated president, so you have to be careful not to be an advocate. It’s very tempting for many people,” Zelizer said. “It’s difficult to figure out the proper tone with which to object to Trump’s positions,” Greenberg acknowledged. “Nobody wants to look biased.”

Some historians fear that, given how partisanship increasingly dictates what Americans believe, many Americans will believe Trump’s alternative history. “Before you know it, we may have a new term: history deniers,” said Yale University historian David Blight. Avoiding such a future “may mean more of us have to become public spokespeople about history than we were in the past,” Blight said. “When the most powerful man in the world speaks historical nonsense, we have to speak out and say so.” “I think we are very much in a similar role as climate scientists,” Lichtman added. “There are truths of science. There are truths of history.”

For Blight, the trouble is that Trump rose to power despite these truths—despite the established danger of demagogues, the historic viciousness of prejudice, and the broad consensus that expanding rights for women and people of color has strengthened societies. “You spend all your years and all your life trying to teach history, and then to see this man elected—I felt historians had failed,” he said. “We’re working in every medium we can—from film, to museums, to writing books. But we’re up against the Fox News view of the country, which we don’t reach. We don’t even know how.

Vyse’s piece focuses on Penn State historian Amy Greenberg, but it also quotes Allan Lichtman, Julian Zelizer, and David Blight.  The latter three are all historians who do speak to the general public.

Read it all here.

 

Academics as “Public Utilities”

giving-adviceI get about 3-4 requests like this a week:

I’m writing you today because as part of my Fine Arts Lab course, I am creating a theatrical design book for an imaginary production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. … I was hoping that you could answer a few questions I have on the direction/production of theatre: When directing with companies/schools, or do you work with shows that are selected for you? [sic] If the former, how do you go about selecting a show? If the latter, how do you start gathering your ideas for the show once it’s given to you? Do you create a design book for shows that you work on/direct? If so, describe it. How did you get involved with the directorial side of theatre? How long have you been directing shows? Do you have any advice for a person looking to direct their first show?

This is an e-mail that a theater professor recently received from a high school student whom she had never met.  It is the focal point of Harvard professor Robin Bernstein‘s piece at The Chronicle of Higher EducationYou Are Not a Public Utility.”

How should one handle this kind of request?  I get them a lot in January and February when students are working on National History Day projects.  But I also get them from adults whom I have never met.

Bernstein suggests some helpful things to consider when these e-mails come.

  1. You are not a public utility.  People are not entitled to your time.
  2. When deciding whether or not to respond consider how much care and time the e-mailer put into his or her request.  Does the correspondent say please?  (Is the correspondent e-mailing on the recommendation of another professor–perhaps someone that you do know).
  3. It’s OK to say no.

Since I have put myself “out there” as a blogger and an advocate for American history I always try to respond to these queries and help where I can.  I do not always respond immediately, but I do try to take these requests seriously.  If I do not respond it is likely that the e-mail got lost in my inbox and I forgot about it.  This sometimes happens.

Having said that, I get some requests from correspondents who do see me as a public utility.  For example, I recently received a twitter message (that’s right, a twitter message) from an undergraduate student at an unnamed Christian university who was writing a historiography paper on my work.  The student asked me if I could answer a series of questions and do so by the end of the day so she could finish her paper and hand it in on time.  I said no and tried to gently explain why contacting me in this way was not a good idea.

I should also add that these kinds of requests often take a lot of time to fulfill.  I think this must always factor into one’s decision as to whether or not to respond to them.  College and universities rarely reward this kind of public work (not even as a form of “service”), so be prepared to do it on your own time.

Two Princeton American Historians Discuss the Election of 2016

KruseCheck out Princeton historians Sean Wilentz and Kevin Kruse discuss the 2016 presidential at a Princeton alumni event from back in February 2017.  (Thanks to History News Network for bringing this video to my attention).

Here is a taste of the transcript:

Sean Wilentz: I take it our charge is to be historians. Whether you reacted to the events of Nov. 8 with elation or despair or something in between, I think it’s been difficult to get our heads around what happened. Our charge is to try and lend some historical perspective, to put our own loyalties aside for a moment. Thinking historically means trying to understand where this all fits in the recent past, and everything that led up to the recent past, to try and understand the larger historical dynamics that brought us to the place that we were on Nov. 8, and what that portends for the future. I think that’s what we’re here for.

Kevin Kruse: Look, I get asked to comment on the present, or, God forbid, to make predictions about the future, and I always have to remind people that as a historian my professional training is in hindsight. As historians we can look back on snap opinions made after other big elections and see just how wrong those were. After 1964, lots of accounts had said, “My God, this is it for conservatism. You’ll never see a conservative president in America again. Barry Goldwater has killed it. Liberalism is here to stay.” After 1980, “Well, the New Deal is dead. It’ll never come back. It’s going to be swept off the face of the Earth by the Reagan revolution. Social Security is on its last legs.” After Obama in 2008, “Well, we’re now in a post-racial America. Racism is gone. Congratulations, we did it.” 

So there’s this trend of overreacting to a presidential election, and we have to remember that a presidential election, for all of the very real ramifications it has on contemporary politics and policy, is but one data point in a much larger stream. And it’s a data point that I think we need to take in its proper context, because we had 123 million votes cast in this election. If you moved 50,000 of those in just three states, we’d be talking about President Hillary Clinton today, and drawing a whole bunch of other wrong, big conclusions about what that meant. 

SW: Well, let’s look at the proper data point in order to start to understand this. Certainly something happened 50 years ago, and you mentioned the Johnson–Goldwater election. A rupture did occur, I think, in American political life about the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Vietnam War, and then Watergate. And I think, in some ways, anything we’re talking about is still a product of that rupture. 

Conservatism didn’t fade away at all. It was just clearing its throat, if you will. Certainly something happened, and it had to do with civil rights, and it had to do with foreign policy, and how the two collided. And it had to do, I think, with — and this is very pertinent to what happened in November — the legitimacy of the political parties and of the political system, between the credibility gap of the late ’60s that was laid at Johnson’s door, and then Watergate. And I think what we’re seeing today, in part, can be seen as the final denouement of the delegitimization that occurred back then. Wilentz

KK: That makes a lot of sense. If we think back to that period from the mid-’60s to the mid-’70s, you can see all sorts of … for lack of a better term, the establishment cracks up. First and foremost the political firmament, the kind of postwar consensus, for all of its flaws; people believed there was a certain center of gravity there, a certain trust in the political system that gets badly eroded first by Vietnam and then obliterated by Watergate. There had been a certain trust in the postwar economy, a sense that the industrial economy, in its kind of catering to a consumer culture, was constantly on the rise. That, too, peaks at about the same time for a different set of reasons: the rise of deindustrialization; the new competition from abroad, like West Germany and Japan; the shift of factories to places from China to Mexico. So the manufacturing economy starts to crumble, too. And then there are changes that I think we would regard as good: The crack of the old racial order and the old systems of segregation, the old systems of immigration restriction — those fall in ’64 and ’65, and set apace a brand new world, a world that is much more open but I think a lot more chaotic, too. And so the ground had shifted underneath people’s feet in a variety of ways, all at the same time. 

Read the entire transcript here.

 

Historians and History Teachers in the Age of Trump

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Last week I got a nice note from a former student. Let’s call him Patrick.

Patrick is a recent college graduate and a relatively new history teacher. He wrote to tell me that his middle-school principal recently praised him for his good work in the classroom.  In the course of their conversation the principal said, “history is important, particularly now.”

Patrick’s principal is right. Good history is always important, but it is especially needed in times of great social and political change.  We are living in a day and age when historians and history teachers must serve as a “check” on presidential power.

Donald Trump gave history teachers a gift when he released his executive order banning immigration from 7 predominantly Muslim nations. When the 9th Circuit Court refused to overturn a federal judge’s decision to stop this ban, classroom lessons on the separation of powers came took on new significance. The Executive Branch went too far and the Judicial Branch, at least for the moment, put a stop to it.  Chalk it up as a victory for the Constitution.  The facts of the textbook met the realities of current events.  This is every history teacher’s dream.

The separation of powers is not the only way to keep the President of the United States in check.  A free press holds the government accountable to the people. Freedom of speech and the right to assemble, as we have seen in American cities every weekend since Trump took office, is a means of getting the President’s attention and exercising dissent.

It is time that those of us who are called to teach and write about the American past must use our First Amendment rights to be part of the dissent.

Sometimes our public work as historians is as simple as correcting the historical record when it is being abused by those in power.

For example, earlier this month Kellyanne Conway, a senior official in the Trump White House, introduced us to something called the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

I imagine that there were people who saw and heard Conway’s conversation with television host Chris Matthews and believed her claim that two Iraqi refugees in 2011 led a “massacre” of Americans in the town of Bowling Green, Kentucky.  By claiming that such an event happened (it did not) and giving her fake story a historically-sounding name like the “Bowling Green Massacre,” Conway was trying to instill fear in ordinary Americans.  It was a blatant attempt to fabricate history in order to justify her boss’s immigration ban.  History teaches us that tyrants often manipulate the past to buttress their power.

Historians quickly debunked Conway’s fake history, but the damage had already been done.  The day after the Conway’s interview with Matthews I was speaking to a Trump voter who referenced the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a Muslim terrorist attack that could have been avoided if Trump’s ban had been in place in 2011.  A poll by Public Polling Policy found that over half of Trump supporters still believe that the President’s executive order is justified by the “Bowling Green Massacre.”

Historians might also show that Americans have been banning immigrants based on country of origin or religious faith for a long time.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 excluded people from coming to the United States on the basis of their race, ethnicity, or country of origin. The Johnson-Reed Act, which banned most immigration from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, remained in place until 1965.

Historians must remind us, in this age of Donald Trump, that we as a nation have not always lived up to our highest ideals.  Their work can remind us that we have failed in the past and encourage us, perhaps this time around, to follow our better angels.

But most importantly, historians offer ways of thinking about the world that we desperately need right now.  History teachers challenge students to make evidence-based arguments. They spend time showing students how to write footnotes and cite sources correctly because they do not want them to speak or write in public without research to support their conclusions.  They counter “fake news” with facts.

In this regard they teach the nation’s young people how not to be like Donald Trump.

History teachers challenge students to enter imaginatively into the thoughts and motivations of the people they encounter in the past.  They teach students to listen before judging and to empathize before criticizing.  They want students to consider the public statements of our leaders in context, and to call them out when they play fast and loose with the past for the purpose of political gain.

There is nothing in the U.S. Constitution about the role that historians and history teachers play in the checking of presidential power.  But we need them now–perhaps more than ever.

Scott Culpepper’s “Call to Courageous Christian Scholarship” in the Age of Trump

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Scott Culpepper teaches history at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa. In a guest post at The Anxious Bench he exhorts Christian scholars to courageously pursue their vocations in the age of Trump.  It is a wonderful piece.  Here is just a taste:

Christian scholars are indeed a subversive influence.  Critics are right in labeling us a subversive influence if what they mean is that we subvert the subordination of facts to falsehoods calculated to sway popular opinion, the substitution of shallow shibboleths for deeper reflection, and the sacrifice of principle on the profane altar of political expediency.  And there will be a greater need for us to keep on subverting these things with all the energy we can muster in the age of Trump.

The times call for renewed conviction, creativity and courage on the part of Christian scholars.  The masses may not know they need us, but they need us.  The endorsement of popular influence as a virtue in the framing of our American republic was predicated on the hope that education and character formation would equip people to exercise their rights intelligently.  No one is better prepared than Christian scholars and the institutions they serve to provide this kind of education infused with serious attention to character formation.

In a time when forces abound that pressure Christian scholars to adopt a posture of compliance to fit in, we need more than ever to stand up and stand out unapologetically.  All clouds pass in time.  When they do, a new generation will build on either the ruins or the foundations of the past.  That generation sits in our classrooms today.  We have the opportunity to model something very different from what they are seeing on the national stage in both church and state.  May Christian scholars in the age of Trump have the courage to give the masses what benefits them rather than what has been mandated in their name.

Read the entire piece here.

Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

Historians (and assorted others) on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle

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Is Donald Trump the next Andrew Jackson

Andrew Ferguson, Richard Brookhiser, Allen Guelzo, David Reynolds, Jill Lepore, Robert Merry, George Nash, Eric Foner, Amity Shales, George Will, and Jon Meacham have contributed to a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “History Repeats as Farce.”

Here is a taste:

“Ransack history how you will looking for antecedents, there aren’t any,” says George F. Will, the dean of conservative columnists. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, dismisses the journalistic temptation to ask: “ ‘What is this like? What are the parallels?’ I tend not to think that way.” She believes 2016 is “uncharted territory, really. It’s not like any other election, in a deep, structural way, because there are too many variables and no constants.” These include the potential for “gross abuses of power” by a President Trump, new modes of mass communication like social media and what may be an epochal political realignment.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James Polk, thinks such a shift is under way. The status quo is never permanent, and the post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cold War consensus about globalization and internationalism, he says, “has been killed by Donald Trump, for all his flaws and limitations. What we know from history is that when the identity and definition of the nation is at stake, the politics gets very intense.”

In such periods of upheaval there is often “a recrudescence of populism, a revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites,” says George Nash, who studies the postwar conservative intellectual movement. He distinguishes between “anti-capitalist” left-wing versions that oppose wealth and corporate power, like the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the last century, and more recent “anti-statist” right-wing populism that opposes big government, like the tea party (circa 2009, not 1773). Mr. Trump’s ideology confounds, he says, because it is “a hybrid of both manifestations.”

Eric Foner, of Columbia University, also sees Mr. Trump as “reflecting things that have been around in our politics in one form or another and now somehow joined together in one campaign.” The businessman is a merger of Ross Perot in 1992, who “raised the question of the loss of jobs through trade agreements,” and George Wallace in 1968, “appealing to white people’s sense that they’re losing out in some way.”

Read the entire piece here.

Writing History for the Public

a1b2a-writingI am almost positive that at some point in the last seven years I have written a post with the same title as this one, but I am too lazy to check.  (OK–I just checked. A few have come close, but it looks like I have not written anything with the exact title).

I have stolen the title of this post from Jaime McClennen’s short post at Historical Communication.  If you are a graduate student or academic historian interested in writing history for the public I encourage you to check out some of McClennen’s links, including pieces by Michael Hattem and Liz Covart (published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), and some of my own reflections on the subject.  (Thanks for the link, Jaime!).

Here is a taste of my January 2016 post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing for Public Audiences“:

…If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, gave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Read the entire piece.

No Empathy for Trump?

Darryl

Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.