Mike Lindell thought his documentary would be a “miracle” that would “get us back to being one nation under God.” (Eric Metaxas nods his head in agreement).

The Trump impeachment trial begins today. I’m not a lawyer, and I don’t know what holds-up in a court of law, but how can anybody disagree with the idea that Trump is responsible for the insurrection? The impeachment trial will revolve around one Trump speech on January 6, 2021 and whether or not the impeachment of a former president is legal. But in the court of history, Trump is directly connected to what happened on January 6. The insurrection was Trumpism on display. No Trump, no Trumpism.

Let’s see what some of the former president’s most diehard evangelical supporters are saying these days. Most of them have been pretty quiet on impeachment. They are not writing about it on their social media sites and do not seem to be praying for the president in public ways like they did after the election. While I am guessing most of them do not think Trump should be convicted, they seemed to have moved on to other things, further supporting the thesis that their support for Trump was largely contractual.

Tony Perkins is tweeting about God’s judgment. Something tells me that he has a particular political party in mind with this tweet:

Perkins is continuing his teaching of the Old Testament book of Jeremiah. Apparently a significant portion of this book is about cancel culture. Watch.

Gary Bauer is celebrating a win. Despite this victory I fully expect him to return to the victimization narrative tomorrow. Here is his Facebook page:

Now for some good news. Late Friday, the Supreme Court recognized that the First Amendment’s guarantee of religious freedom still applies during the pandemic by overturning California’s egregious ban on in-person worship.Predictably, the court’s three liberals sided with California’s liberal governor and voted to continue the ban on religious services. The 6-to-3 decision, however, declared that Governor Gavin Newsom could not discriminate against houses of worship by holding them to different standards than businesses were being subjected to. Thanks to the court’s order, houses of worship may now hold in-person services up to 25% or 50% capacity, depending on conditions in various parts of the state. Writing for the majority, Justice Neil Gorsuch explained:”We are not scientists, but neither may we abandon the field when government officials with experts in tow seek to infringe a constitutionally protected liberty. . . No one is barred from lingering in shopping malls, salons, or bus terminals. . . If Hollywood may host a studio audience or film a singing competition while not a single soul may enter California’s churches, synagogues, and mosques, something has gone seriously awry.”

In an op-ed at Fox News, Robert Jeffress is worried about bitterness and division. Wow! This is rich coming from one of the most divisive figures in American religious life over the course of the last four years. Here is a taste of his op-ed:

My concern about next week’s impeachment trial is that once the expected acquittal comes half of the country will refuse to accept it, giving Democrats the ammunition they need to continue their relentless attacks on the former president.  This will be akin to continually picking at a scab, ensuring that it never heals.  

Yes, you read the correctly. Robert Jeffress, of all people, is talking about picking at a scab:

Last week Eric Metaxas spent an hour interviewing Mike “MyPillow Guy” Lindell about his election fraud documentary that appeared on One America News with a huge disclaimer. (The documentary has also been yanked from YouTube). Lindell still believes he has evidence that the Democrats stole the election. He says that his documentary will convince all nine Supreme Court Justices that Donald Trump won the election. In fact, his documentary will be a “miracle” that will get us back to being “one nation under God.” Metaxas believes him entirely and once again invokes the Independent Network Charismatic prophets. Watch this rambling, incoherent, and irrational interview on Metaxas’s Rumble site.

Jack Hibbs, a guy who likes to fashion himself as a historian, is spreading the “Democrats are the real racists” argument. Today he shared this video on Facebook:

Then Hibbs wrote:

Who’s the racist? Truth can sting. Rather than stop the sting byignoring the truth – it would be better to learn the truthand do the truth and so stop the sting. The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that ALL (all means all as in all peoples regardless of their status or ethnicity) should come to repentance. – 2Peter 3:9

I’d encourage Jack Hibbs to read these posts before he starts quoting scripture and asking us to repent.

A Right-Wing Pundit Gets a History Lesson

Kevin Kruse Breaks Twitter Again

This Irresponsible Historical Thinking Has to Stop!

The Falkirk Center does not seem to know that the Mexico City Policy led to a 40% increase in the abortion rate in sub-Saharan Africa.

The San Francisco Board of Education and the “Just-the-Facts-Fallacy”

Last week we called your attention to a decision by the San Francisco Board of Education’s decision to rename forty-four schools. I titled that post “When a school board ignores history.” Now Jonathan Zimmerman of the University of Pennsylvania has offered similar thoughts about the Board’s decision. Here is a taste of his piece at USA Today:

In October 1994, Rush Limbaugh took to the airwaves to condemn a proposed set of national history standards. The standards added new voices — especially minorities and women — and urged teachers and students to interpret history in light of them.

But that was too much for Limbaugh, who questioned the premise of historical interpretation itself.  “History is real simple,” the right-wing talk-show host explained. “You know what history is? It’s what happened.” The real problem lay with blame-America-first people on left, Limbaugh added, who twisted the past to match their politics. Teachers should simply say what occurred, and leave it at that.

My students have learned to call that the Just-the-Facts Fallacy, a longstanding favorite of American conservatives. If we just read the Declaration of Independence, we’ll know that America is a land of freedom. If we read the Constitution, we’ll know that the federal government should be limited. Never mind that Americans have interpreted these documents in radically different ways across time. Look at the words! They speak for themselves.

So I was saddened to see the resolutely left-wing San Francisco Board of Education embrace its own version of Just-The-Facts last week, when it voted to rename 44 schools — including those named for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln — on the grounds that these figures enslaved or otherwise oppressed human beings. Asked whether the board had consulted historians during its decision-making process, the chairman of its school renaming committee said there was nothing to discuss.

“What would be the point?” Jeremiah Jeffries asked, channeling his inner Rush Limbaugh. “History is written and documented pretty well across the board . . . There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened, or it didn’t.”

But the whole reason we’re having this conversation is that history is always subject to debate. The facts about Washington and the others can’t tell you whether we should scrub their names from the schools. For that, you need — yes — interpretation. That’s what history is.

And that’s the very first lesson, in every class that I teach. When students receive my initial writing assignment, they always ask the same question: do I want the facts, or do I want their interpretations?

And I always give the same answer: I want both. Facts without interpretations don’t matter. Nobody will care about a given event, unless you tell me why we should. And interpretation without facts? We have a highly technical name for that: BS. All history is interpretation, but all interpretations aren’t created equal. The best ones rely on facts, and the worst ones distort or omit them.

Read the rest here.

When a school board ignores history

The San Francisco Unified School District will change the name of 44 schools that honor historical figures, including George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Paul Revere, Winfield Scott, Edward Everett, Thomas Edison, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Francis Scott Key, Diane Feinstein, Marquis de Lafayette, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, Junipero Serra, Philip Sheridan, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Daniel Webster. Read this spreadsheet for explanations.

Over at Mission Local, a San Francisco news website, Joe Eskenazi notes that the school board’s decisions were based on research from Wikipedia and History Channel “Top-10” lists. Here is a taste of his piece:

These are embarrassing, avoidable, and credibility-destroying errors. That’s a shame, because many of the names suggested by the committee are out-and-out no-brainers; if engaged earnestly, most San Franciscans could probably be convinced to accept a lot of these changes.

But that didn’t happen, and this is what you get when you perfunctorily cut-and-paste material from sources that would not be acceptable for a junior high school oral report, and then misstate and misinterpret even that paltry material. 

This could have been prevented by the hiring of a 20-year-old intern fact-checker, of the sort that has saved many prestigious magazine writers from ruin. Or, perhaps, by consulting a historian who knows what he or she is talking about. 

Not only did that not happen, but committee chair Jeremiah Jeffries ridiculed the notion of consulting a historian:

What would be the point? History is written and documented pretty well across the board. And so, we don’t need to belabor history in that regard. We’re not debating that. There’s no point in debating history in that regard. Either it happened or it didn’t, as historians have referenced in their own histories. So, I don’t think there’s a discussion about that. And so, based on our criteria, it’s a very straightforward conversation. And so, no need to bring historians forward to say – they either pontificate and list a bunch of reasons why, or [say] they had great qualities. Neither are necessary in this discussion.

Seriously? My first-year history students know that history is more than whether “it happened or it didn’t.”

Unlike the San Francisco school district, Eskenazi did his homework. His article includes quotes from several historians.

Here is Jim Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association: ““Yes, there should have been historians involved….Whenever decisions are made, there should be people who can provide context and facts. We’ve learned this with covid.” 

Here is Cassandra Good of Marymount University: “If your local government was making a policy decision on science or medicine, they’d ask scientists or doctors.” 

Here is Nicole Maurantonio of the University of Richmond: “The decision not to include historians in the process seems misguided — and assumes a political agenda that is not necessarily fair….To ignore historians suggests that the actors involved are intent on privileging a version of the past that might fit a particular set of interests that might or might not align with history.”

Here is Eric Foner of Columbia University: “If you can only name schools after people who were perfect, you will have a lot of unnamed schools….Lincoln is a difficult character to assess. His greatness, in my view, is his ability to grow. He held very different views at the end of his life than earlier.”

Here is Leon Litwack of the University of California-Berkeley: “This is taking things too far….Lincoln is one of our great presidents. Maybe the greatest. I am very supportive of the efforts to remove the names of slave-holders. I never thought about the possibility this could include people like Lincoln.”

Read Eskanazi’s entire piece here.

Sam Wineburg on how anti-Blackness gets whitewashed in U.S. history textbooks

Yesterday Stanford’s Sam Wineburg, author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts and Why Study History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), dropped an amazing Twitter thread on race in American history textbooks. Here it is:

Listen to our interviews with Wineburg in episodes 52 and 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Is history on our side?

We all believe that we are on the “right side of history,” but as historian Priya Satia reminds us today at Time, we “shouldn’t rely on that assumption.” Here is a taste of her piece:

But the idea that history will judge can be used rhetorically by any side in a contest. Who doesn’t think they’re on the right side of history? This summer, in pushing back against Trump Administration policies, China’s president Xi Jinping assured business executives that his government was “on the correct side of history.” And indeed, Trump’s supporters too anticipate history’s condemnation of those who oppose him.

By deferring moral judgment to the future, this view of history as a source of future judgment enables people to act in a manner that they know to be morally dubious according to their present judgment. Many an avowedly great man has claimed, like Napoleon, that historic destiny put him beyond the ordinary moral world. The strongmen of our time are cut from precisely this cloth.

Indeed, the idea of history’s judgment first emerged to guide the “great”—an idea iconically captured in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrait of the heroic George Washington admonishing the aspiring great man Alexander Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.” Enlightenment philosophers of that era believed that God did not actively intervene in human affairs, but that history nevertheless unfolds according to His Providence. Even seemingly evil events thus conduced toward ultimately benevolent ends. The great must further its fulfillment by studying earlier great lives, thereby also becoming conscious of history’s prospective judgment of their own lives.

When Obama invokes the “arc of history,” he is invoking this providential conception of history. It is his shorthand for the quote associated with Martin Luther King Jr. that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” which King adapted from the sermon of a mid-19th century abolitionist minister. King recognized the inspirational force of such future-oriented belief: “Everything that is done in the world is done by hope,” he told us.

Read the entire piece here.

Were the framers of the Constitution “originalists”?

As a historian, I want my students to understand, as best as possible, the meaning of the constitution in its 18th-century context. This requires them to know something about a world that is long gone. We like to say, with the writer L.P. Hartley, that “past is a foreign country, they do things differently there.”

But there is a big difference between understanding the world of the framers and suggesting that we should still live by that understanding today. Such an approach ignores changes over time.

Such an “originalist” approach to the Constitution also implies that the ideals embedded in the Constitution were not contested and controversial at the time they were written.

Here is a taste of constitutional historian Jack Rakove’s piece at The Washington Post:

At first glance, questions of original intent seem like ideal problems for historians to solve. How can we determine what the Constitution truly meant except by examining why its clauses were proposed and how they were supported or criticized? The Constitution and its amendments were products of political debates; reconstructing those debates is how one would decipher its “original meaning.”

But the main advocates for originalist theory are lawyers, not historians, and they act under different assumptions. Where historians would be content to describe a set of debates reflecting an array of perspectives, legal originalists want to “fix” the meaning of constitutional terms — to come up with the one best answer to the puzzles that jurists have to solve. They assume the words the framers used had settled meanings and that a conscientious reader — an informed public official, a learned jurist or just a responsible citizen — can understand those meanings without knowing anything about the debates that produced the text.

One problem with this idea is that the founding era was a period of intense conceptual change. Some of the key words and terms in our constitutional vocabulary were subject to pounding controversy and reconsideration. One has to engage these debates to understand how Americans were thinking about these issues at the time. For today’s originalists, that complexity is part of the problem. The records of history are often messy, not neat; speakers argue past each other or engage in rhetorical excess; their fears are dated, their expectations of worst consequences exaggerated.

Rather than accept these aspects of the historical record, today’s originalists prefer to regard the Constitution as a purely legal text, subject to ordinary rules of construction. Yet the linguistic sources they rely on will not provide the answers they seek. There is no adequate dictionary definition of “the executive power” that Article II vests in the president. Understanding what the “establishment of religion” invoked in the First Amendment meant to its framers requires examining the complex ways in which the states had supported the existing denominations of a very Protestant America. As Thomas Jefferson explained in his “Notes on the State of Virginia,” the very word “constitution” had multiple meanings that were still evolving precisely because Americans were trying to figure out how to make written constitutions — their greatest innovation — the supreme law of the land.

Context, context context. As I see it, it difficult to be a historical thinker and a constitutional originalist.

Read the Rakove’s entire piece here.

Here we go again with the “right side of history” rhetoric

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof does not like Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett. That’s fine. A lot of people don’t. But please don’t invoke “the right side of history.” (The political Right does this as well). There are no “sides” to history. Sometimes the course of human activity moves toward the values of Enlightenment progress and sometimes it doesn’t. It is the job of the historian to chronicle and interpret all of it.

When people like Kristof invoke this phrase they are not saying something about history, they are simply saying that they believe in progress. It is a political statement. When Martin Luther King Jr. said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice” he was not making a historical statement, he was making a theological one.

Read his piece “Will We Choose the Right Side of History?

The American founders practiced revisionist history

I have argued endlessly at this blog and in other writings that revisionism is the lifeblood of the historical profession. Over at The Washington Post, historian Michael Hattem reminds us that the founding fathers were also revisionists. Here is a taste of his piece, “Revisionist history is an American political tradition“:

Last week, the White House sponsored a conference on American history at the National Archives. Organized with little advance notice or fanfare, the conference included a few academics and members of conservative think tanks. One of the main targets of the conference was the New York Times’s 1619 Project. Panelists — as well as Vice President Pence and President Trump himself — decried the efforts of those who would “rewrite American history to teach our children that we were founded on the principle of oppression, not freedom.” This rhetoric has been a consistent feature of the culture wars for decades, as conservative media personalities and politicians routinely lament how “revisionist historians” are distorting some previous, fundamentally correct narrative of America’s founding.

But the founding generation themselves actively revised history. Whether it was rethinking the British history that informed their identities as British subjects or, later, refashioning their own colonial histories to better fit with the times, revising history was a crucial part of the American Revolution. It was also a part of the founding generation’s attempts to make the new nation work.

Read the rest here.

When historians on the Left and the Right engage in “the pleasures of condemnation”

Yesterday I wrote about the White House’s conference on American history. Read that post here. Conservatives are cheering the event. Those on the Left–particularly academic historians–are trashing the event.

There are a lot of reasons to be critical about what happened at the White House last Thursday (again, read my post). But I often wonder if those on the academic left are engaging in the same kind of anti-intellectualism, rigid fundamentalism, and cancel culture as those on the right.

Meanwhile, there is a very large intellectual center in America made-up of people on the Left and the Right who are not willing to be pulled to the fringes. I think this large center–a place of open discourse and academic freedom–is articulated best in the recent letter published in Harpers magazine and signed by the likes of Anne Applebaum, Margaret Atwood, David Blight, David Brooks, Noam Chomsky, Gerald Early, Francis Fukuyama, Todd Gitlin, Malcolm Gladwell, Anthony Grafton, David Greenberg, Jonathan Haidt, Jeet Heer, Matthew Karp, Randall Kennedy, Damon Linker, Dahlia Lithwick, Greil Marcus, Wynton Marsalis, Deirdre McCloskey, John McWhorter, Samuel Moyn, Olivia Nuzzi, Mark Oppenheimer, George Packer, Nell Irvin Painter, Orlando Patterson, Steven Pinker, Claire Potter, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, J.K. Rowling, Salmon Rushdie, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Paul Starr, Gloria Steinem, Michael Walzer, Cornel West, Sean Wilentz, Molly Worthen, and Fareed Zakaria.

These signers and other like-minded academics, intellectuals, and thinkers, are calling for the “free exchange of ideas,” which the letter describes as the “lifeblood of a liberal society.” Read the statement here.

Western Washington historian Johann Neem, the author of several books including What’s the Point of College?: Seeking Purpose in an Age of Reform, reflects the spirit of the Harpers letter in a recent twitter thread:


What is historical contingency?

Why Study HistoryParts of this post are based on my book Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

In a recent piece at The Atlantic, Yale historian Joanne Freeman writes about Hamilton: The Musical:

It has also gained new relevance over time, promoting an idea that historians hold near and dear: contingency—the importance of remembering that people in the past were living in their present, unaware of future outcomes. As I’ve taught time and again in college classrooms, the founding generation didn’t know if it would win the Revolution or if the new nation would survive; Hamilton makes this abundantly clear. People were living in the moment, much like us today.

The lesson to be learned from this is vitally important. As much as we might like to, we can’t assume that all will be fine in the end. America’s long-standing faith in its exceptionalism is blinding people to the fact that our constitutional order is fragile, that democracy requires hard work, and that success isn’t a given.

But failure isn’t a given either. The future is always in flux. This may well be the most valuable lesson historians can offer in the current crisis: For better or worse, history doesn’t stop. And for that very reason, our actions and decisions now—today—matter in ways that we can’t begin to fathom. Even passivity, the willingness to let things fall where they may, might have dire implications.

In short, there’s no escape from the urgency of now. We owe it to ourselves and to the future to recognize the meaning of this moment, and to choose our actions wisely and well.

As Freeman points out, historians are always concerned with contingency–the free will of humans to shape their own destinies. People’s choices matter. It is the historian’s task to explain the way people are driven by a personal desire to break free from their circumstances and the social and cultural forces that hold them in place. History is thus told as a narrative of individual choices made by humans through time.

Contingency is thus at odds with other potential ways of explaining human behavior in the past. Fatalism, determinism, and providentialism are philosophical or religious systems that teach that human behavior is controlled by forces–fate, the order of the universe, God–that are outside the control of humans. While few professional historians today would suggest that chance, determinism, or God’s providence is a helpful way of interpreting past events, it is undeniable that we are all products of the macrolevel cultural or structural contexts that have shaped the world into which we have been born. Karl Marx suggested that human action is always held in check by “the circumstances directly encountered, given, and transmitted from the past.” It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.

One prominent example of contingency is the way that historians of the American Civil War have interpreted the Battle of Antietam. After suffering several defeats at the hands of the Confederacy, the Army of the Potomac (the main Northern army under the leadership of General George McClellan), desperate for a military victory, was preparing to meet the Army of Northern Virginia (under the command of Robert E. Lee) in a major military campaign, which would eventually take place at Antietam Creek in Maryland.

About one week before the battle, while the Army of the Potomac was passing through Fredericksburg, Maryland, Corporal Barton Mitchell of the 27th Indiana Regiment found a copy of Lee’s battle plans. There were seven copies of “Special Orders, No . 191” produced by the Army of Northern Virginia, and one of them was now in enemy hands. Historian James McPherson has suggested that the “odds against the occurrence of such a chain of events must have been a million to one,” and “yet they happened.”

The Battle of Antietam turned out to be the bloodiest single day in American history. Over 6,300 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded. But the Union victory on September 17, 1862 , prompted President Abraham Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing the slaves in the South and setting the war on a course that would eventually result in Northern victory. And it was all because someone stumbled across a piece of paper rolled around three cigars lying in a field.

There are several ways that we can interpret what happened in the week leading up to the Battle of Antietam. Perhaps it was mere chance. The late Wheaton College English professor Roger Lundin was not entirely satisfied with this answer. He prefered to see the theological dimensions of contingency. As a Christian drawing from the ideas of fifth-century theologian Augustine, Lundin questioned whether a coincidence like this is every possible:

The history of a nation and the fate of a race dependent upon a piece of paper wrapped around a few cigars in a field? That sounds as uncannily coincidental and disturbingly unpredictable as the claim that a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger could be the son of God. It is, apparently, a law of life that so much depends upon contingent events and the free actions of agents, both human and divine.

Lundin wanted to remind us that, for Christians, contingency gets us only so far. Humans have free will, but it is ultimately exercised in the context of a sovereign God who orders the affairs of his creation. In the end, however, God’s providence in matters such as the Battle of Antietam is a subject worthy of exploration for Christians, but these kinds of theological matters are not part of the historian’s job description. And even for theologians (or Christian English professors), we must always remember that we see through a glass darkly.

Earlier today, Adam Rothman, a history professor at Georgetown University, had a helpful twitter thread on historical contingency:

Not “esoteric” at all professor Rothman! The question of contingency is absolutely essential for teaching the general public how to think historically.

Moral reflection in the doing and teaching of history (part one)

Why Study HistoryThis post is adapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past.

Should historians cast judgment on the past? Is this part of their vocation?

Some believe that the past must be critiqued from the perspective of Christian orthodoxy, critical theory, social justice, the Bible, identity politics, or some other moral system. This approach to history allows us to offer ethical judgments on characters from the past, the ideas they defended, and the movements they were involved with.

Indeed, the past provides us with moral lessons, making the historian–sometimes overtly, but most times subtly (but no less powerfully)–a critic by nature. Historian Philip Gleason has argued that historians have a threefold task: to explain what happened, to ask why it happened, and to ask if what happened was “good.” Those who embrace this vision of history find it imperative to add this moral dimension to their study of the past.

Let’s examine Gleason’s approach to history from the perspective of the American Revolution. We have plenty of evidence from the eighteenth century to conclude that the American Revolution happened. Over the course of about a decade (roughly between 1765-1776), the British-American colonies grew increasingly dissatisfied in their relationship with England, eventually leading to a colonial rebellion, a declaration of independence, and a war. When it was all over, the United States of America, a nation that existed independent of England, had been born. This information would fall comfortably under Gleason’s first point, namely, that the historian is responsible for explaining what happened.

But it is nearly impossible for a historian to tell us what happened without dabbling in some degree of interpretation.  The very arrangement of the so-called facts into a compelling story is itself an act of interpretation. Historians of the American Revolution will decide which facts to include in their narrative or how much emphasis should be placed on, for example, the resistance to the Stamp Act versus the resistance to the Townshend duties.  In the process, these historians are making a case for why the American Revolution happened when it did. They are beginning to apply the Five C’s of historical thinking (context, complexity, change over time, contingency,  causation) to their work.

Questions will arise. Was the American Revolution the product of economic resistance to British taxation by ordinary people in major port cities like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston? Or did the American Revolution happen because educated men–the so-called founding fathers–offered radical political solutions to what they believed to be British tyranny. Or was it both? Something else?

The recitation of facts and the interpretation of those facts fall squarely within the realm  of the historian’s work. But Gleason wants to push the vocation of the historian even further. He wants us to ask whether or not the American Revolution was “good.” One way of getting at this question is to ask whether the colonial rebellion that formed the United States was justified. Does the founders’ willingness to keep slavery legal in their new nation make the Revolution immoral? What about the violence and bloodshed? Is war ever right? At this point, historians move from being chroniclers or interpreters of past events to moral arbiters. These questions can no longer be answered directly through archival research or the close examination of primary sources. Such questions can only be answered by an appeal to some kind of moral system. (Historian David Hackett Fischer uses the phrase “the fallacy of metaphysical questions” to describe an “attempt to resolve a nonempirical problem by empirical means.”).

Historians have long been divided over how these kinds of moral questions relate to their work. It is important to remember that until the professionalization of the study of history in the late nineteenth century, historians had no qualms about imposing moral judgments on the past. History was written to tell the story of winners and losers in an epic struggle for power, to critique or praise the nation, or to reveal the hand of God at work in the world.

For example, the Roman historian Tacitus claimed that the “highest function” of studying the past was to “let no worthy action be uncommemorated, and to hold out the reprobation of posterity as a terror to evil words and deeds.” His goal was not merely to chronicle what happened in the past but to glorify the “worthy” and condemn those who were “evil.” The professionalization of history in the late nineteenth century made history into a science. Historians were not required to be detached observers, chroniclers, and interpreters of the past.

With the rise of the research university and the creation of academic disciplines, historians resisted the temptation to moralize about the events and people of the past. Based on a new division of scholarly labors, historians argued that it was their responsibility simply to tell and explain “what happened.” They would leave the moral pontificating to their colleagues in religion, theology, and ethics. Or as Fischer argues, the exercising of moral opinions in historical writing is “inconsistent with a serious and disciplined inquiry into what actually happened. It would make history a hand-maiden of moral philosophy.

As the twentieth century progressed, some of the world’s most prominent historians came out strongly in opposition to the idea that historians should make moral judgments. In 1954 Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the esteemed founder of the Annales School, referred to “that…satanic enemy of true history: the mania for making judgments.” E.H. Carr (1892-1982), the noted historian of the Russian Revolution and the Soviet Union, proclaimed that historians who dabble in the “unhistorical” practice of making judgments “renounce” their vocation. Herbert Butterfield (1900-1979), the Christian historiographer, believed that to make moral judgments in history is to engage in “the most useless and unproductive of all forms of reflections.” Henry Steele Commager (1902-1998), one of the greatest American historians of the 20th century, described moral judgments in history as a “futile” exercise. He argued that the practice of praising America’s commitment to freedom or castigating its toleration of slavery ultimately offended his readers:

The assumption behind this expectation is that the reader has no mind of his own, no moral standards, no capacity to exercise judgment;…he depends upon the historian to do this for him. Are those mature enough to read serious histories really so obtuse that they cannot draw conclusions from facts that are submitted to them? Is there really a danger that students will yearn for slavery or rejoice in the inquisition or admire Philip II or Adolf Hitler if the historian does not bustle in and set them right?

Several recent historians have agreed with Block, Carr, Butterfield, and Commager. Richard J. Evans has suggested that historians who use terms such as “wicked” or “evil” in their narratives of the past “will only succeed in looking ridiculous.” He says that historians will always be forced to address morally charged issues from the past, but they should engage such issues in their writing and teaching with historical arguments as opposed to “moral or philosophical ones.” Evans uses the case of American slavery as an example. If historians want to show that  American slavery was a morally corrupt institution, they should not appeal to the Bible, religious teachings, the conscience, or some other type of moral system. Instead, they should demonstrate, using solid evidence from the past, that slaves suffered, starved, grew sick, and even died as a result of their oppression. He concludes that “overloading the historian’s text with expressions of moral outrage will add little to the argument.” Most readers and students of history already know that American slavery was a morally reprehensible institution, so why use a book or lesson about slavery to hammer home this point? Instead, historians are required to explain “the attitude the slaves and slave owners had toward it and why, and what were the larger historical forces behind its rise and fall.”

Another modern historian, Brad Gregory, has argued that the personal moral convictions of historians are “simply and literally irrelevant to understanding the people whom one studies.” When historians impose their own beliefs on people or events in the past, they limit their ability to fully understand them. Gregory calls on historians to “bracket” their convictions when interpreting the past. Such bracketing is neither “naive chimera” nor “impossible.” Gregory realizes that casting aside deeply held convictions will be difficult, and he even takes a shot at fellow historians by suggesting that many of them are “constitutionally incapable” of harnessing their moral opinions, but interpreters of the past should try it nonetheless. “Imperfect self-restraint is better then none.”

Stay tuned tomorrow for part 2.

David Blight: An “educated and civil society” is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama”

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Yale historian David Blight talks about the differences between history and the past on the “Live the Best Version of You” podcast. It is a nice introduction to how historians work and how the work historians do must contribute to our democratic life.

Listen:

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A few great lines:

  • Historians always work with their “umbilical cord” connected to the archives, but all research must be “rendered into a narrative.”
  • Good historical story-telling is always going to “convince” some people and “offend” others. This, Blight says, is the “beauty” and “fun” of history writing, but it is also contributes to the “perils” of history writing.
  • “It is the obligation of the trained historian to get close to truth as we can.”
  • In this world of subjectivity and opinion, “every now and then people seem to want a historian” to tell us “what really happened.”
  • “Some of the best history is written by people who have a good hunch.”
  • “History is what historians do,” but “memory is what the public possesses.” Everybody “has a sense of the past in their head” and it usually comes from family and roots.
  • “Stories take hold in the public mind that may or may not be directly connected to the history historians write, and hence memory can be therefore much more sacred than it is secular because people tend to say ‘I believe in this story.'”
  • “We have to find ways to reduce” the distance “between public memory and history….This is the historian’s duty.”
  • Blight calls for a “tolerant, educated, civil society” that is “open to each other’s stories” and “open to the essential pluralism of the human drama and human experience.”
  • Blight quotes William James: “The enemy of any one of my truths, is the rest of my truths.” We are obligated to challenge our own beliefs.

Listen to the entire interview here.

 

Ed Ayers: The “past can’t be reduced to static variables and predictable outcomes”

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Here is the University of Richmond historian‘s piece at Medium:

History is best explained by supple narratives of sequence, change, and consequence. We call those narratives stories. All humans understand stories and explain themselves and their worlds in stories. Even children can handle ambiguity and change, mistake and result, growth, and triumph. We intuitively turn to stories in novels, films, and video games to explain history. We should do the same in our classrooms.

The story of the American Civil War, for example, can be told even to young students with three main characters and plot lines. First, the states of the Confederacy wanted to establish their own nation where the future of slavery could never be infringed upon or threatened. The second plot line is that of the United States, which went to war to defend its existence and eventually discovered that it could not do so without destroying slavery.

The third plot line is that of enslaved people, who did everything they could to escape and then destroy slavery from the first moments of the war until after formal battles had ended. Two-hundred thousand African American men played critical roles in preserving the United States, as well as in winning black freedom. Other enslaved people, of all backgrounds, risked their lives to free themselves.

Students presented with variables rather than solutions quickly see that the principles describing the physical world do not apply to the multivariate and chaotic world of history. While that might be alarming at first, it will engage and teach them in more profound ways. Trying, and even failing, to solve a problem is more satisfying than finding the correct answer in the back of the book — especially if that answer only appears to be correct.

Read the entire piece here.

*The New York Times* covers the “clash of the historians” at SHEAR

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Jennifer Schuessler has written a fair report on what happened last weekend during (and following) the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) ZOOM panel titled “Andrew Jackson in the Age of Trump.”

Schuessler quotes from the second blog post I wrote about the session and its aftermath. (I did not speak with her). I also invite you to read my initial response to the panel here. I am returning to the topic now because my message boxes are starting to fill again.

Anyone who has followed the SHEAR controversy will be familiar with much of Schuessler’s piece, but she has also done some additional reporting, including an interview with Dan Feller.

Here is a taste:

In an interview, Mr. Feller, 69, a professor at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said it wasn’t the historian’s job to defend or condemn. What he questioned, he said, was the insistence on seeing Jackson purely as someone “who just wanted to kill everybody,” as well as what he sees as a politicized approach to writing history.

“The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy,” Mr. Feller, who called himself a lifelong Democrat, said. “But because both sides have identified him with Trump, for opposite reasons, we are now reading Jackson through the lens of Trump.”

And he was unapologetic about the panel, which he noted had been approved by the society’s programming committee and Mr. Egerton last fall, as one of 39 at a planned conference. (The others have been postponed until next summer.) The paper had been circulated weeks in advance, he said, adding that he had received no criticism before the panel.

As for his use of the phrase “redcoats and redskins,” he said it was a reference to a common phrase in older scholarship, and had “implied quotation marks” around it. “I have never volitionally used the word ‘redskin’ in my life, period,” he said.

Read the entire piece here.

After reading Schuessler’s piece, re-reading Feller’s paper (including a close reading of the footnotes), and listening to the Q&A for the third time, I honestly don’t see why what happened at this session merited the removal of the SHEAR president and such a backlash.

  1. I did not see Feller trying to defend Jackson, as some have accused him of doing. It seemed like he was trying to understand him, which is what historians are supposed to do. As Feller writes, “The point in the paper is not that Andrew Jackson is a good guy or a bad guy….”
  2. For example, Jackson was indeed a white supremacist. But isn’t it possible that Jackson understood the status of Lyncoya differently than he did his Black slaves? Is it wrong for a historian to suggest this kind of complexity? If such nuance existed in Jackson’s mind, then shouldn’t the historian call attention to it? Or are such arguments now out of bounds?
  3. If Feller doesn’t believe that Jackson’s Indian Removal was “genocide,” should such a view result in a public condemnation by the SHEAR Advisory Council, the SHEAR Nominating Committee, or the SHEAR Program Committee? Isn’t this a matter of interpretation?
  4. If Feller argues that Jackson’s use of the word “pet” to describe Lyncoya is more complicated than what a few younger scholars have suggested, does that merit the kind of trash talking directed at him on Twitter and the public shaming of the man? I imagine that the public shaming will be a lot worse now that The New York Times has covered this.
  5. Was Feller dismissive of younger scholars and women scholars? Well, he was certainly hard on them. But he also disagreed with their interpretations. It appears that he read the work of these scholars and found them wanting. Where then do we draw the line between “disagree” and “dismiss?” If Feller had disagreed with these scholars more politely would that have been okay? Or is Feller being condemned simply because he disagrees with female and junior scholars? If the latter is the case, then I see this as a problem. If we are trying to find out what is true about Andrew Jackson, and the leading authority on the subject has a different opinion than junior scholars, shouldn’t his views be taken seriously?
  6. Of course it is also essential for senior scholars to treat other people–especially junior members of the field– fairly and respectfully. If members of SHEAR feel marginalized we should take their voices seriously and listen. As a white male, I have learned a lot of hard lessons on this front, especially in my own academic institution. Indeed, SHEAR has always been an old boys network. This needs to change and it is changing. Feller was a lot harder on younger scholars than I would have been, but I am not sure that this rises to the level of demonizing him and ousting the organization’s president.
  7. In my opinion, the entire point of historical scholarship is to make an argument based on the rigorous reading of the evidence. Historians will disagree on how to read such evidence. Sometimes newer scholars will challenge long-established scholarly orthodoxy and in the process give us a better understanding of what happened in the past. But just because an argument is new doesn’t mean we have to automatically accept it. Of course many who believe that scholarship should always be progressing onward and upward, leaving all older interpretations behind in a manner that C.S. Lewis described as “chronological snobbery,” will disagree with me here. And that’s OK. But let’s debate and exchange ideas instead of turning out the mob. As Johann Neem wrote yesterday, we need more and and a little less or.
  8. Of course any such debate must take place with charity and a sense of intellectual hospitality. This is a lesson for Feller, Twitterstorians, the SHEAR leadership, and all of us in the academic profession.
  9. Feller told Jennifer Schuessler that the use of a racial slur at the end of the Q&A was meant with “implied quotation marks.” This is what it sounded like to me as well. Those final couple of minutes were very confusing, but I will once again refer to the last paragraph of Andy Shankman’s response to the plenary session. It seems that both Feller and Harry Watson were familiar with this phrase and were using it in their discussion of the “slaughtering” of British soldiers (“redcoats”) at the Battle of New Orleans. Feller was trying to make a point about Jackson as a general in the War of 1812. He only used this phrase because he thought one of the panelists had said it earlier.

As some of you know, I have also written on Trump’s use of Jackson, particularly in the context of white evangelical support for Trump in 2016.

This then leads me to the quotation that Schuessler pulled from the blog:

The SHEAR debacle has very little to do with history and a whole lot to do about politics. This is why many Americans–including the thousands of people I engage with on a daily basis– don’t trust us and our scholarship.

On the first sentence of the quote:

As I noted above, it seems as if SHEAR has decided that certain approaches to historical scholarship are unacceptable. Current president Amy Greenberg is quoted in the piece. She says that Feller’s paper does not representative SHEAR’s “standards of scholarship.” I am surprised by this. I thought Feller’s paper was an excellent piece of scholarship. Of course it is SHEAR’s prerogative to draw its own boundaries, but this seems like political censorship to me.

A quick word about my use of “political” here.  All historical scholarship is political. I will be the first to argue that our social and cultural location in the present shapes how we view the past.  As David Novick reminded us several decades ago, “objectivity” is a “noble dream.”

But when I said that this was all “about politics” I was talking about SHEAR as a professional organization. In any professional organization, those in power decide what arguments are acceptable and unacceptable. Since every member of the Advisory Board, Nominating Board, and Program Committee agreed on the decision to condemn Feller and oust Doug Egerton, and I have heard privately from dozens of SHEAR members who disagree with one or both of these decisions, it tells me that this was a political power play, whether the leadership of SHEAR understands it that way or not.

CORRECTION (July 28, 2020): It has come to my attention that the Advisory Council of SHEAR never took a position on condemning Feller and has not done so.  Moreover, the Ex Officio (and voting) members of the Advisory Council did not sign the letter calling for Egerton’s ouster. This latter point is explained in a statement from current SHEAR president Amy Greenberg).

And now on to the last line of the quote.

I have spent much of my career trying to bridge the gap between the work of professional historians and the public. I spend a lot of time talking to history teachers. I also train 7-12th grade history teachers.

I also speak and write to evangelical Christians, a group with a long history of anti-intellectualism that desperately needs to think more deeply about American history as it relates to race, gender, and the relationship between church and state. (For example, if you read this blog, you know I have been working hard to teach my audience that systemic racism is a real thing). The number of negative messages I received from SHEAR members and other scholars this week pales in comparison to the number of e-mails I get each week from those who attack me from the Right or question my religious faith.

When I started this blog I made a commitment to entering the fray. As I wrote at The Panorama in late 2019, this kind of work is not for the faint of heart. I’d like to think I have remained consistent in my convictions throughout it all. Or at least I have tried.

I got into this mess (or as Frank Cogliano and David Silkenat called it “SHEAR MADNESS“) because at least ten of my readers asked me to comment and help them make sense of what was going on. They watched it all unfold on Twitter and were left with many questions about Andrew Jackson, Trump’s use of Jackson, slavery, public discourse, and the nature of the historical profession. Many of my readers love history and think it is important, but they come from all political stripes. A lot of them–liberals and conservatives– don’t trust academics because they seem to sing only one political note.

Finally, let’s put things in perspective. Let’s remember that while SHEAR is cleaning house and marking boundaries, there are millions of people deciding right now whether they will pull a lever for Donald Trump in November. They are listening to the very bad historical arguments about “Making America Great Again” emanating every day from their car radios and computer screens. They are having history-based debates with their families and friends. They are trying to make sense of the American founding and how it relates to our current political moment. They want to know what to say at a town hall meeting devoted to tearing down a monument or renaming a school. They are trying to use history to build community in the places where they live, work, and have their being.

There are K-12 teachers who need help trying to figure out what to do with the 1619 Project, how to talk to parents about what should and should not be happening in a history classroom, or how to start a conversation with students about race in America. Some are just trying to defend the study of history against school boards intent on giving it short shrift in the curriculum.

There are parents asking about what kind of materials to use as they try to teach history to kids who may not be going back to school in the Fall due to COVID-19. They want to know if there are one or two books they can read that will help them.

While some historians are on Twitter bashing Dan Feller, there are history professors standing face-to-face with white supremacists at Civil War battle sites trying to convince them the war was about slavery. Others are fighting for their professional lives because their administrations are cutting tenured faculty.

I know these people exist because they have reached-out to me (or I have reached-out to them) in one way or another over the course of the last few months. As an educator–both in the classroom, the church, and online–I have worked hard to build their trust.

I hope those who remain in SHEAR will strive to develop a professional society that celebrates diversity, lifts up the voices of  junior scholars and graduate students, respects the work of seasoned members of the profession, embraces honest debate and conversation, and tries to reach as many people as possible with good early American history.

 

Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton opposes “cancel culture.” Unless, of course, it is the 1619 Project

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I just learned today that Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton is trying to pass legislation to prohibit schools from using federal funds to teach the New York Times‘s 1619 Project. (If you are unfamiliar with the 1619 Project, read our coverage here. We’ve collected most of the pertinent articles).

This week I am doing Q&A sessions with about 100 hundred high school teachers enrolled in my Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History course on British North America. They are watching a series of lectures I recorded with Gilder-Lehrman back in 2015 and I am meeting with them live via ZOOM to answer their questions.

Yesterday, we talked about the colonial Chesapeake and, as might be expected, most of the conversation revolved around race, slavery, and the 1619 Project. My comments about the Project focused on several points:

  1. The 1619 Project has some serious historical problems, especially in its claim that the American Revolution was primarily about preserving slavery.
  2. We cannot ignore the relationship between slavery, race, and the American founding. (Several teachers, for example, had read Edmund Morgan’s American Slavery–American Freedom).
  3. We should not hesitate to use the 1619 Project in our classrooms if we think it might help students understand issues of systemic racism.
  4. Very few essays in the 1619 Project are written by historians.
  5. The claim that the 1619 Project should be the final word in the classroom concerning the subject of slavery, race, and the historical roots of American identity is a claim that is insulting to history teachers. Which leads me to my final, and most important point:
  6. Much of the debate over the 1619 Project in the classroom fails to grasp the nature of good history teaching. While citizenship and equitable coverage is certainly important, the primary goal of the history classroom is to get students to think and read historically. This requires a sensitivity to bias, context, authorial intent (sourcing), close reading, and complexity. As Sam Wineburg says in Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, students should not only learn what a document is saying, but also what a document is doing. If this is our goal, then why should we be afraid of the 1619 Project? Use it in class, interrogate it, and teach your kids to read it like any good historian would read a document.

Read Cotton’s “Saving American History Act.  Here is an opinion piece at Forbes.

What I wrote about John Lewis in *Believe Me*

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p.176: “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 unite 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.’

p.185: “As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the face of terror on Bloody Sunday. Such audacity requires hope.

Believe Me 3d

How does a historian think about the past?

Why Study HistoryAdapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The past is everywhere. Take some time to think about the many ways you have encountered the past today. Perhaps you shared a memory with a family member or looked at some old photos on Facebook. Or maybe you spent some time thinking about how the past has shaped who you are today. The past serves our needs in a variety of ways. We consume the past in hopes that it will inspire us, provide an escape from modern life, and tell us who we are as individuals and communities. We enter the past in search of people like us, and we invoke the past in our political and cultural debates. We cannot escape its presence in our lives. So why not embrace it? As we will see below, attempts at making the past relevant must be done with caution, but we should not be shy about linking the past to the present.

If you are a historian, part of your responsibility is to inform the general public about the way the past connects to our contemporary lives and to help the members of your community use the past to make meaning of their lives. As those living in the “here and now,” we are in constant dialogue with the past, whether we realize it or not. As long as we remain products of an American culture that celebrates the individual and his or her quest to bring order to life, we will live in a paradoxical relationship to what has come before us. The past will always serve as a temper to the progressive vision of a better world, but we will appeal to it endlessly in order to make that world a reality.

We must also always remember that the past is akin to a foreign country. Historians have the important task of visiting this world and explaining it to others through the books we write, the lectures we give, the lessons we plan, and the exhibits we curate. It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own.

Historians are tour guides. It is important to always keep this in mind as you engage the past. Your success as a historian or a student of history will depend on how effectively you are able to use your research paper, essay, or presentation to bring lost worlds to life for your readers and hearers. But this will not be easy since our natural inclination–our “psychological condition at rest”–is to consume the past for our own purposes to try to remake the past in our own images.

As an exercise in understanding, any serious study of the past requires us to attempt to humbly walk in the shoes of people who have inhabited this earth before us. This is why Stanford University history pedagogy expert Sam Wineburg has called the practice of historical thinking an “unnatural act.” It it this role of the historian–the role of a tour guide through foreign cultures–that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.

David Blight gives Joe Biden some advice about monuments

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David Blight has been a voice of reason on this whole monument debate. In a piecepublished yesterday at The New York Times, he offers Joe Biden some historical advice. He suggests that Biden should establish a task force devoted to “our roiling national confrontations over monuments, memorialization, and the learning and uses of history.” A taste:

The Biden campaign might take its cues from the Congressional Black Caucus. In recent weeks under the leadership of Representatives Karen Bass, Sheila Jackson Lee and Barbara Lee, among others, the caucus has proposed a commission on reparations for slavery and segregation, a separate commission on the “legacies of slavery,” a quest to remove all 13 Confederate monuments from the Capitol, and a robust bill on criminal justice reform and policing that includes an appeal for a federal anti-lynching act, an idea now 99 years old.

Mr. Biden and his campaign should support this effort, not by endorsing one specific measure after another, but by creating a serious task force or commission that would first comparatively study the issues of “repair,” monuments and memorialization, and promoting a richly pluralistic version of American history to the largest possible public. A wide array of cultural institutions have been doing so for many years.

Mr. Biden could name someone like Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian and the founding director of the National African-American Museum of History and Culture, to lead such a task force. Representative Bass would make a great co-chair, as would Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico. If Mr. Bunch considers the role a conflict at this point given his position, perhaps former President Barack Obama could take the initial role as chair. He possesses a demonstrated sense of history and would lend tremendous prestige.

Appoint to the commission museum professionals, historians, curators, art historians, writers, practicing artists, some members of Congress and perhaps some citizens who have long demonstrated informed interest in advancing a proud but diverse and contradictory American story for the ages. The chaotic process of the monument wars needs national leadership, not to tell local leaders and groups what to do, but to provide research, informed guidelines, best practices, new and imaginative ideas — a history — to the challenge of making a “new” national memorial landscape.

The task force should not merely provide lists of new “heroes,” nor any “gardens” of monuments. Perhaps we need to think of memorializing ideas, concepts, epic historical movements and events. Men on horseback had their day aesthetically. Let’s have the courage to imagine government as a source of creative engagement with our most difficult pasts, our most harrowing tragedies, our renewals and our enduring values. Let’s not look for purity in past or present, but let imaginations soar. Assemble people who have already been doing this for much of their lifetimes, however messy, conflicted or strained the task.

Read the entire piece here.