Happy 50th Sesame Street!

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Today I was at my local public television/public radio station doing some media with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and took advantage of a photo-op with Big Bird.

I know I am a few days late here, but I needed to do a post in honor of the 50th anniversary of Sesame Street.  The show premiered on November 10, 1969.  I don’t know if I watched that first episode, but I am pretty sure I started watching the show at some point during the first season on Channel 13 (WNET)

I grew up with Gordon, Susan, Mr. Hooper, Bob, Maria, Luis and, of course, Jim Henson’s Muppets.  I then watched thirty years later as my kids got to know some of these same characters in addition to new residents of the neighborhood including Alan, Gabriela, and Gina.  Here is a song from 1998 that brings back memories because I remember watching it (and later singing it) with my daughter Ally:

The Origins of Whiffle Ball

Whiffle

I’ve played a lot of it in my day, but until I read David Kindy’s piece at Smithsonian.com I knew nothing about the origins of the game.

Here is a taste of Kindy’s “How Whiffle Ball Came to Be“:

Patented in 1957, the lightweight plastic Wiffle Ball comes with slots on one side to make it easier to throw curves and other pitches without putting undue stress on young arms. It was invented three years earlier by David Mullany, who got the idea after watching his namesake son playing a makeshift game of baseball with his brother and friends in the front yard of their home. Instead of a regulation ball and bat, they were using a plastic golf ball and broomstick in an attempt to keep from breaking windows or having to chase home runs down the street.

“My father complained his arm was hurting from trying to throw curves with that small ball,” says the third David Mullany, who is currently president of The Wiffle Ball, Inc. “My grandfather figured he could come up with something better for them to play with.”

As luck would have it, the senior Mullany, a businessman who was between jobs at the time, knew someone at Coty Perfume, which at the time packaged its product in a hard plastic container about the size of a baseball. He asked for samples and began whittling designs to see which worked best for pitching. After several rounds of trial and error, he hit upon a prototype with eight oblong cuts on one half of the ball, which made it easy for anyone to throw a curve or other spinning pitch.

The kids loved it and soon Mullany could see the potential for it growing beyond his own front yard. He designed it with William Blamey and applied for a patent in 1954, which was granted three years later under the simple title “Game Ball.” U.S. patent 2,776,139 describes the invention as being durable, lightweight and inexpensive to produce. Because of the holes, it also read, the ball “will vary in flight when thrown and when struck.”

Read the entire piece here.

Song of the Day: Nostalgia Upon Nostalgia

Naples

I found Springsteen’s new album in a bookstore in the Naples train station.  Napoli loves Bruce!

I am really enjoying Bruce Springsteen’s new album Western Stars.  Like I usually do when Springsteen releases a new album, I have been listening to Western Stars on repeat.  (It has been nice to take a break from the Hamilton soundtrack). Last week I was walking and riding around Rome, Positano, San Felice-Circeo, Sorrento, and Capri listening to the album.  Western Stars was released on June 14, 2019.  I am guessing I have listened to it about 100 times so far.  In fact, I am listening to it as I type these words.

So far my favorite song–the last on the album–is “Moonlight Motel.”  Springsteen tells the story of an old roadside motel somewhere in the west.  The narrator spent a lot of time at the motel with a woman he loved.  The relationship is now over (did she die?) and the man reflects nostalgically on the old motel:

There’s a place on a blank stretch of road where
Nobody travels and nobody goes and the Deskman says these days ’round here
Two young folks could probably up and disappear into
Rustlin’ sheets, a sleepy corner room
Into the musty smell
Of wilted flowers and
Lazy afternoon hours
At the Moonlight Motel
Now the pool’s filled with empty, eight-foot deep
Got dandelions growin’ up through the cracks in the concrete
Chain-link fence half-rusted away
Got a sign says “Children be careful how you play”
Your lipstick taste and your whispered secret I promised I’d never tell
A half-drunk beer and your breath in my ear
At the Moonlight Motel
Well then it’s bills and kids and kids and bills and the ringing of the bell
Across the valley floor through the dusty screen door
Of the Moonlight Motel
Last night I dreamed of you, my lover
And the wind blew through the window and blew off the covers
Of my lonely bed, I woke to something you said
That it’s better to have loved, yeah it’s better to have loved
As I drove, there was a chill in the breeze
And leaves tumbled from the sky and fell
Onto a road so black as I backtracked
To the Moonlight Motel
She was boarded up and gone like an old summer song
Nothing but an empty shell
I pulled in and stopped into my old spot
I pulled a bottle of Jack out of a paper bag
Poured one for me and one for you as well
Then it was one more shot poured out onto the parking lot
To the Moonlight Motel

I am struck by the layers of nostalgia in this song.  Obviously the Moonlight Motel was new once.  The pool was filled with water.  The fence was not rusted.  Children played on the property.  One could easily write a song about how the motel has faded and become just another run-down stop in a place on a “blank stretch of road.”  That would be one kind of nostalgia.

But Springsteen longs for the run-down days of the Moonlight Motel, when the pool was empty, the flowers were wilted, and the rooms were musty.  This was the motel where he fell in love.  Springsteen likes to write about things that are in ruins.

And let’s not forget that the entire album draws upon a 1970s California sound that is not around anymore and for which Springsteen seems nostalgic.  This is the music of Glenn Campbell (listen to “Sundown”), Jimmy Webb, and Burt Bacharach (listen to “There Goes My Miracle”).

So many layers.

Listen:

David Lowenthal, RIP

Lowenthal

I never met David Lowenthal, but his scholarship has influenced my work.  I highly recommend The Past is a Foreign Country (1985) and Possessed by the Past: Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1996).

Here is a taste of his obituary at The Guardian:

In 2017 the historian and geographer David Lowenthal, who has died aged 95, gave a lecture at University College London in which he insisted: “Heritage is not history: heritage is what people make of their history to make themselves feel good.” He contrasted the way that individual nations and tribes imagine their own heritage with the conception recently promoted by international organisations, notably Unesco, that heritage must be universal, for the good of all.

A case in point is the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built on a site said to cover locations important around the time of Jesus’s death. Six Orthodox and Catholic Christian denominations own different parts of the church, while two Muslim families look after its entrance. Solutions to the resulting clashes of responsibility are very much needed, just as with other sacred sites in the city.

American-born but British by inclination, David became professor of geography at UCL in 1972, retiring as emeritus professor in 1986. Apart from Unesco, the heritage agencies he advised included the World Monuments Fund, English Heritage, the US National Trust for Historic Preservation and the National Trust of Australia. Never afraid of controversy, he presented cogent opinions on a host of topics, such as the Elgin Marbles, the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford and the role of the Barclay twins on the island of Sark.

He helped make heritage studies a discipline in its own right: the lecture he gave last year was the first in an annual series for UCL’s recently founded Centre for Critical Heritage Studies. In doing so, he pointed to the way history seeks to identify the truth while heritage exaggerates and omits, invents and forgets in order to fabricate prejudiced pride in the past. Heritage is fashioned to “attest our identity and affirm our worth”, an argument he developed further in The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History (1997).

Read the rest here.

More Evangelical Nostalgia

Metaxas at PartyOver at NBC News, Christian author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove reminds us, as I did extensively in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that white evangelicals are very nostalgic people.

Here is a taste:

Trump’s use of nostalgia has helped maintain connections between the Trump administration and a conservative faith community shaped by decades of culture wars. The religious right, which traditionally emphasized “family values,” has nonetheless lined up to support a thrice-married, Casino-owning playboy who flaunts morality and marital fidelity. When asked, Trump’s religious backers consistently point to his support for their issues. But the issues that the religious right taught white evangelicals to focus do not spring from a Biblical concern for widows, orphans, immigrants and the poor. They are instead the white cultural values of order, respect for authority and traditional gender roles.

Prophetic stands and moral outrage are well and good.  I respect Wilson-Hartgrove and others.

But if Christians want to do something to end the nostalgic longings of white evangelicals, they need to consider the long view.  A false view of American history, propagated by the likes of David Barton and Eric Metaxas, is the foundation of this nostalgia-fueled politics.  We must do better at teaching Christians about American history, the history of the Christianity, and historical ways of thinking about the past.  We must throw our money behind these efforts.  If we do not, we will be fighting these battles against evangelical nostalgia for a long, long time.

Yesterday’s Piece in *USA Today*

Trump court evangelicals

Yesterday USA Today published a piece I wrote about Trump and evangelicals.  The editors chose the following title: “White evangelicals fear the future and yearn for the past.  Of course Trump is their hero.”  The article draws heavily from the introduction to Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Here is a taste:

Donald Trump is about to name his second conservative Supreme Court justice now that Anthony Kennedy is retiring. Conservative evangelicals are celebrating. They have been waiting, to quote the Old Testament book of Esther, “for a time such as this.”

For the last year I have been thinking deeply about why so many of my fellow evangelical Christians support Donald Trump.

I have wondered why they backed his zero-tolerance immigration plan that separated families at the border. I have tried to make sense of why some of them give him a “mulligan” (to use Family Research Council President Tony Perkins’ now famous phrase) for his alleged adulterous affair with adult film star Stormy Daniels. Why did so many evangelicals remain silent, or offer tepid and qualified responses, when Trump equated white supremacists and their opponents in Charlottesville, Virginia last summer?

What kind of power does Trump hold over men and women who claim to be followers of Jesus Christ? Evangelical support for Trump goes much deeper than simply a few Supreme Court justices.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

CPAC: “Victimhood” and “Paranoia”

CPAC

The Republican Party is now the party of victimhood, paranoia, and fear.  Sadly, much of its support comes from evangelical Christians–people who are commanded to “fear not.”  There is no hope.  There is no humility.  There is a lot of nostalgia, but very little history.

Over at The Nation, John Knepfl writes about CPAC‘s “red hot rage.”  Here is a taste:

Trump repeatedly warned the crowd that if Democrats were elected they would repeal the Second Amendment, and at one point asked the attendees to cheer if they preferred the Second Amendment or tax cuts. It was a bizarre moment, one of many, but suffice to say the Second Amendment received very loud support. That defensive posture in the midst of a seeming sea change in the gun-control debate was not a coincidence, and a clear sign that the CPAC doesn’t see itself as responsible for the prevalence of mass shootings.

What makes the rancor especially absurd is that not only is the Republican Party in charge of the Executive Branch and both chambers of Congress, but, by all honest accounts, the Trump administration is succeeding in implementing a hyperconservative agenda. CPAC favorites Ted Cruz and Shapiro acknowledged that they had no substantive disagreements with Trump. Nevertheless, the entire event was defined primarily by victimhood and paranoia. The enemies are everywhere: Democrats, socialists, college professors, regulators, black athletes, reporters, “fake news,” the FBI. “They try like hell, they can’t stand what we’ve done,” Trump said ominously.

Read the entire piece here.

The Transactional Relationship Between Christian Right Evangelicals and Trump

Trump evangelical
Below is a taste of Paul Waldman‘s recent piece at The Week: “How ‘values voters’ made a deal with the devil.”  It reminds me of something we recently discussed in my class on Christian politics at West Shore Evangelical Free Church.  I asked the class what conservative evangelicals would do when and if (a big if) they got everything they want.

What would happen if the proverbial dog catches the proverbial bus?  Will evangelicals send abortion doctors to prison? What about the women who have abortions?  Will they be somehow punished?  Do Christian Right evangelicals realize that if they overturn Roe v. Wade it will not end legal abortion in America?  What about gay marriage?  Will they put homosexual couples in jail?  Will they kick Muslims out of the country? Will they require television stations to only show Leave it to Beaver reruns?  What will conservative evangelicals do to respect the liberties of all human beings–people created in God’s image?  Have the conservative evangelicals of the Christian Right thought about these questions?

Here is Waldman:

…But we also have interests: what’s good for us, regardless of what might be good for other people. And there’s a ground where values and interests meet, and that’s where conservative Christians welcomed Trump. They’d like to roll back civil rights protections for gay people, outlaw abortion, and generally engineer a return to a more traditional, patriarchal society. They want that for themselves, but they want to impose it on everyone else as well. And they shrewdly realized that when it comes to the policy decisions that move us in that direction, Trump just doesn’t care. He’d be fine if abortion is legal, or if it isn’t. He’d be fine if gay people can access services without being discriminated against, or if they can’t. What matters to Trump is Trump.

So he and the Christian right made a transactional arrangement: He’d give them what they want (like hard-right judges and an attack on reproductive rights) and they’d stay loyal to him. As long as both sides hold up their end of the bargain, it works.

However, it does mean that those who claim to be of higher moral character because of their reliance on God’s word have to do certain things that are a little uncomfortable. They have to pretend that they believe Trump carries with him a deep religious faith, even though they know it isn’t true. They have to excuse his bigotry. They have to go before the cameras when news of the latest Trump scandal breaks and act as though Trump is a man of the highest character and integrity, despite the mountains of evidence to the contrary.

Read the entire piece here.

The Pros and Cons of Historical Re-Enacting

Confederate Reenactors

Over at The Walrus, Erin Sylvester has written a very interesting and balanced piece on historical re-enacting.  I was struck by this piece because it quotes academic historians whose scholarship has actually benefited from the work of re-enactors.

Here is a taste:

If one major risk of re-enactment is that it romanticizes the past, another is that it is wildly selective: not everyone has a history that would be fun to relive, and few people are interested in playing a slave on the weekend. Inevitably, most history does not get re-enacted. Though most re-enactors are not explicitly motivated by the selectivity, some do enjoy it for nationalistic reasons. It lets them play in an imagined past, free from their pet complaints about the modern world.

Civil War events are among the most popular to re-enact, attracting all sorts of people. And some of those people really want to be Confederate soldiers. Many become interested in participating through a personal or family connection—so if you live in the South, you may have had an ancestor who fought on the Confederate side of the war. And some are then inspired to follow in their ancestor’s footsteps, perhaps too closely. For these re-enactors, it’s not just a fun hobby, it’s tied to something much deeper to their identity—and, in particular, to improving the image of their ancestors by portraying them as honourable and brave.

Kimberly Miller-Spillman is a textiles professor at the University of Kentucky who studies re-enactment costume. In her research, she has come across a number of Civil War re-enactors who are unwilling or unable to switch sides at a re-enactment. Re-enactors will often have both Union and Confederate uniforms, although neither is cheap to assemble, and will go on whichever side needs men. But some, typically men who have a strong political or family connection to one side, simply won’t. At Civil War events, the scale is usually tipped toward the Confederate side, although during the actual war, the Union Army outnumbered the Confederates.

Unsurprisingly, there aren’t many black Civil War re-enactors, and they are almost always on the Union side. Patricia Davis is a professor of communication at Georgia State University who has written about these re-enactors, and she says that many black people aren’t interested in re-enacting because they see the Civil War as a history that belongs to white southerners, or they might be discouraged because they assume that many white participants want to be in an environment where they can be freely racist. The ones who do participate, she has found, often do so because they are trying to educate people. (Similarly, in Canada, most Indigenous re-enactment takes place in an educational context.) “For African American re-enactors in particular, the causes and the consequences of the war are important for them to get across to the visitors at re-enactments, and what they often do in these interactions is they talk about how the history of slavery [and] the history of reconstruction have everything to do with racial inequities in the present,” Davis says. “And then a lot of them emphasize to me as well, visually seeing black men and women working in various ways to secure their own freedoms—they’re letting people know, ‘Look, we didn’t just sit around and wait for Abraham Lincoln and white Union soldiers to free us, we were actively engaged in securing our own emancipation.’ That has a huge impact on black children in terms of their ability to see themselves as important and valuable people.”

Read the entire piece here.

Message to Mitch Landrieu: This IS About Politics

Landrieu

We have already sung the praises of Mitch Landrieu’s speech on Confederate monuments in New Orleans.  It is a classic.

Nathan Pippenger, a contributing editor at Democracy, agrees with me.

But Pippenger has a small criticism of Landrieu’s speech. His short piece “Opposition to the Lost Cause Is Still Political,” is worth considering.

A taste:

“This is not about politics” is a phrase that should always set off alarm bells, especially when it comes from a politician. Interestingly, the word “politics” does not make another appearance in the speech. But what else could a political figure making a speech about racist public memorials be talking about? Landrieu’s suggestion might be that the issue is somehow beyond politics—that a democratic argument over the statues would be inappropriate because they are so obviously unfit for public display. But if he truly thinks that, then the persuasive effort offered by his own speech is very strange indeed. Perhaps what he really intended was to say that the issue should be beyond politics, by which he means beyond disagreement: No American citizen should approve of a pro-Confederate public memorial. That is a world worth striving for, but as Landrieu knows, it is not an accurate description of the world we live in. The world we live in is home to many intellectual and political descendants of the Confederacy, and pretending that they somehow exist outside politics, or that they are not enabled by so-called “respectable” mainstream figures, is confusing and misleading.

Instead of marring an otherwise excellent speech with this trite declaration, Landrieu should have said something that the current crisis demands, something we must repeat loudly and often: The question of how we Americans remember our past and, symbolically, draw the boundaries of our civic community is a deeply political one. Indeed it is one of the oldest and most difficult, and something that would certainly be very dangerous to get wrong. The sickening blend of ahistorical nostalgia and white nationalism that currently dominates the White House is proof enough of that. In response to its ascendance, we should not only hope for moral transformations in the hearts of individuals; we should actively work for more just and democratic ways of understanding ourselves, and our history. The significance of that project, and the very activities of public engagement and argument through which it is carried out, is absolutely and necessarily political. Finding and elevating more politicians capable of giving speeches like this one, save that one pesky rhetorical feint, would be a good place to start.

Read the entire piece here.

The “Strange Alliance” Between Modern Life and Nostalgia

Retrotopia2“Make America Great Again!”

If you interpret this phrase historically you need to identify the time period or era that is being invoked by our POTUS.  This is still not clear.  Is Trump referencing the 19th century? The 1950s? The 1980s?

Once the era is identified, historians can then tell us something about what that period or era was like.  Then we can decide, using some system of morality, whether or not the era was “great.”  The interpretation of such a phrase requires the work of both historians and moral philosophers.

Or we can interpret this phrase nostalgically.  This does not require a great deal of historical work and it is often the preferred method of politicians.  It merely requires that we tap into feelings of longing for a bygone era. We don’t think too deeply about such an era.  Instead we merely assume that it was better than the present–a kind of golden age to which we need to return.

Nostalgia can be a very selfish way of thinking in the sense that it focuses entirely on our own experience of the past and not on the experience of others.  For example, people nostalgic for an “Ozzie and Harriett” or “Leave it to Beaver” type of world may not be aware of the fact that other people, including some of the people actually living in this suburban “paradise,” were not experiencing such a world in a way that might be described as “great.” Or perhaps they do know that people were not experiencing such a “great” life in this era, but they just don’t care. Nostalgia can often give us tunnel vision.  It often goes hand-in-hand with a very selective view of what was happening in the past.

From a Christian point of view, nostalgia denies the fact that sin has always been a reality in this world. Golden ages are hard to find because human beings are inherently flawed.

I started thinking about nostalgia again after I read Alastair Bonnett‘s review of Zygmunt Bauman‘s Retrotopia in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Here is a taste:

For many, the past has never looked more attractive and the future more scary. In his last book, the eminent British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, who died in January, turned his attention to this nostalgic mood and labeled it “retro­topia.”

Throughout his long career, Bauman remained fascinated by the paradoxes of modernity. His most important works, such as Modernity and the Holocaust (Cornell University Press, 1989), are exemplars of empirically led critical social theory. In Retrotopia he explores the strange alliance of modernity with nostalgia. The book’s main intent is to dissect the way different nostalgic currents act to both create and cope with a dysfunctional and bewildering present.

Bauman begins by outlining what the late Harvard University literary scholar Svetlana Boym called the “nostalgia epidemic,” a condition that, Bauman tells us, is now “palpably felt at every level of social cohabitation.” He sets out his task as “unraveling, portraying, and putting on record some of the most remarkable ‘back to the future’ tendencies inside the emergent ‘retrotopian’ phase in utopia’s history.” These tendencies are grouped into four chapters: “Back to Hobbes?”; “Back to Tribes”; “Back to Inequality”; and “Back to the Womb.”

Read the entire review here.

Nostalgia is a “valid, honorable, ancient, human emotion.”

nostalgia

I have always been a very nostalgic person.  If you read this blog you may have recognized this character trait.  I regularly get nostalgic about 1970s and 1980s Mets baseball or my childhood in the Catholic working-class world of Northern New Jersey.  My kids get sick of me constantly rebuking their lifestyles with the phrase “back in my day….”  But as a historian, I also realize that nostalgia can be a dangerous thing.

For example, I have written that nostalgia for a time when America was a “Christian nation” can be problematic for moral, political, and historical reasons.  The longing for a golden age of Christianity in America often overlooks the fact that Christians often stood on the sidelines in the fight for justice.  This same longing is historically problematic because one could also make a pretty good argument, based on the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, or the beliefs of the founding fathers, that America was not founded as a Christian nation .  Politically, nostalgia for a Christian America has often been used to shape public policy, particularly on social issues.

Nostalgia can often get in the way of good history and sound moral and political thinking.

Yet I have always thought about whether or not there was anything redeemable about nostalgia.  Rarely do you hear historians, or anyone else for that matter, talk about it in a positive way.  In my book The Way of Improvement Leads Home (2008), I wrote a bit about the power of nostalgia in eighteenth-century America. I tried to call attention to the early American tensions between cosmopolitan pursuits of ambition or progress or learning and the longing for place, roots, and home.  For me, this book was an exercise in how to bring these things together.  In some ways, it has been a life project–thus the name of this blog.

I think this is why I was immediately attracted to Michael Chabon‘s recent piece at The New Yorker titled “The True Meaning of Nostalgia.”  I have never read one of Chabon’s novels, but I hope to get to one of them soon. (Any recommendations?)  In the meantime, here is a snippet of his essay that resonated with me:

My work has at times been criticized for being overly nostalgic, or too much about nostalgia. That is partly my fault, because I actually have written a lot about the theme of nostalgia; and partly the fault of political and economic systems that abuse nostalgia to foment violence and to move units. But it is not nostalgia’s fault, if fault is to be found. Nostalgia is a valid, honorable, ancient human emotion, so nuanced that its sub-variants have names in other languages—German’s sehnsucht, Portuguese’s saudade—that are generally held to be untranslatable. The nostalgia that arouses such scorn and contempt in American culture—predicated on some imagined greatness of the past or inability to accept the present—is the one that interests me least. The nostalgia that I write about, that I study, that I feel, is the ache that arises from the consciousness of lost connection…

Nostalgia, to me, is not the emotion that follows a longing for something you lost, or for something you never had to begin with, or that never really existed at all. It’s not even, not really, the feeling that arises when you realize that you missed out on a chance to see something, to know someone, to be a part of some adventure or enterprise or milieu that will never come again. Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios. It’s the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored, whether summoned by art or by the accidental enchantment of a painted advertisement for Sen-Sen, say, or Bromo-Seltzer, hidden for decades, then suddenly revealed on a brick wall when a neighboring building is torn down. In that moment, you are connected; you have placed a phone call directly into the past and heard an answering voice.

Read the entire piece here.

“Time slips away and leaves you with nothing mister but boring stories of glory days”

Of if you don’t like Springsteen, here is Billy Joel:

“You can linger too long in your dreams. Say goodbye to the oldies but goodies, ’cause the good ole days weren’t always good and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.”

Check out Domenico Montanaro’s piece at NPR on white nostalgia in classic rock ‘n’ roll music.

Here is a taste:

Probably the most famous from this nostalgia genre, though, came out five years later, with Bruce Springsteen’s “Glory Days.” It tells melancholy anecdotes — a man who was a star baseball player, a woman who pines to recapture her sex appeal of a younger day.

Around the same time as “Here Comes My Girl” and “Glory Days,” Billy Joel’s “Allentown,” was released. In 1982, it retold the story of a town that saw shuttered coal factories — despite generations since World War II (there’s that time again) working there, living decent, middle-class lives and spending “weekends on the Jersey Shore.”

But all that collapsed — and there was plenty of blame to go around, from the companies to the “union people” who “crawled away.”

Read the entire piece here.

The Unraveling of White Working-Class America

grandpa

My maternal grandfather, a milkman, died 21 years ago today.

Over at The Wall Street Journal, journalists Bob Davis and Gary Fields have written a very interesting piece about the decline of working-class community in Reading, Pennsylvania. It is titled “In Places With Fraying Social Fabric, a Political Backlash Arises.”  This piece needs to be read alongside the Jedidiah Purdy piece that we posted on last week.  Populist voters are not just hillbillies and tea partiers, they are also members of the white ethnic working class–the children and grandchildren of immigrants who arrived in this country in the decades surrounding the turn of the 20th century.

Davis and Fields argue that “Donald Trump gets strong support where churches, civic groups and safety nets are in trouble.”  It is yet another version of the argument Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam made in his 2000 book Bowling Alone.

Here is a taste:

The buckling of social institutions fundamental to American civic life is deepening a sense of pessimism and disorientation, while adding fuel to this year’s rise of political populists like Donald Trump  and Bernie Sanders.

Here and across the U.S., key measures of civic engagement ranging from church attendance to civic-group membership to bowling-league participation to union activity are slipping. Unlocked doors have given way to anxiety about strangers. In Reading, tension between longtime white residents and Hispanic newcomers has added to the unease.

Read the entire piece here.

This makes perfect sense to me, although I can only speak anecdotally. I grew up in white working class America.  I am the son of a general contractor and a housewife.  I am the grandson of a milkman and a Teamster.  My extended family are (or were) plumbers, carpenters, police officers, linemen, mechanics, tavern-owners, beer distributors, backhoe operators, secretaries, and housewives.  My mother’s side of the family built our local volunteer fire company. Somewhere in my parents’ house is a box of bowling trophies I earned from the Saturday morning leagues I participated in as a kid.  We spent our Labor Days, Memorial Days, and July 4ths with one another–throwing horseshoes, playing softball, swimming in an above-ground pool, solving the problems of the world over hot dogs and beer, and going to parades and town carnivals that featured ferris wheels and other rides mounted on trucks.

It was a good childhood, although I now know that my parents shielded me, my brothers, and my sister from the hardships.  It was also a pretty white upbringing.  I think there were one or two African Americans in my graduating class.  I don’t remember any Latino classmates.  My elders were suspicious of newcomers who did not look like us. As a young boy this attitude was hard to ignore.  The real divisions in my community were class-based.  I lived in the older, more working-class part of town.  The other side of town was decidedly upper-middle class and professional.

The world of my childhood no longer exists.  Sure, some of my family still live in the North Jersey town where I grew up, but they will be the first to tell you that it is a very different place.  The working class community of my youth has been replaced by new housing developments–lots of so-called McMansions–filled with white collar immigrants from non-western countries.  (This is largely because the school system in my home town remains very strong).  The small Cape Cods and split-levels that still dot the landscape look like they are remnants of some strange universe that existed long ago.  Most of my extended family is gone.  My grandparents’ generation–the generation that helped build this town–has passed away.  Some of my parents’ generation is still around, but others have retired and moved elsewhere.  They probably feel the loss harder than anyone.

Most of my extended family–especially my parents and their siblings, siblings-in-laws, and friends are probably going to pull the lever for Trump in November for the same reasons that the people in Reading, Pennsylvania will be voting for Trump.  Some really like Trump.  Others are voting for him because they hate Hillary and especially hate Obama.  Many of them are Christians and thus believe that a vote for Trump will help them bring back (through Supreme Court nominations) the morality of the Christian nation that has been lost.  Or at least this is what they are told by their favorite conservative talk radio hosts.  But a vote for Trump, they believe, will also bring back jobs and in some small way restore the sense of community that they have lost.

Does Bruce Springsteen Explain Donald Trump?

Born-in-the-USAAndrew DeYoung has written a very interesting piece at The Stake suggesting that the message of Bruce Springsteen’s songs resonates with the concerns of people who are supporting Donald Trump for President of the United States.  It is a nuanced piece that I need to spend a little more time thinking about, but it is definitely worth the read.  See some of my initial thought below.

DeYoung writes:

It’s February 29, 2016, the night before Super Tuesday, and Bruce Springsteen is singing about choices. The Boss is performing at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center, his latest stop on a national tour celebrating the release of 1980’s The River. Each show on the tour includes a live performance of the double record in its entirety, and Bruce has just come to “The Price You Pay,” the album’s third-to-last cut.

You make up your mind, you choose the chance you take
You ride to where the highway ends and the desert breaks
Out onto an open road you ride until the day
You learn to sleep at night with the price you pay

“The Price You Pay” is an ode to unintended consequences. It’s a song about making tough decisions unsure of how they’ll turn out, about taking a turn down a dark road that might just as easily lead to ruin as to glory. It’s an appropriate song for the night before the Minnesota caucuses, when voters will choose which presidential candidate they’d like to represent their party in the fall—a choice with uncertain outcomes. That choice seems to be pretty far from the crowd’s mind right now, though. They’ve come here to be distracted from their problems, not reminded of them. And Springsteen is doing his best to oblige, the 66-year-old rocker singing and dancing and running around the stage with the energy of a much younger man.

But I’m thinking about Donald Trump all the same. The New York businessman has transformed the presidential race on the Republican side with his promises of border walls, mass deportations, a halt to Muslim immigration. He’s publicly supported torture and other war crimes. He’s bullied his opponents. He’s said racist and misogynist things like it’s his second nature.

If the Republicans choose this man as their presidential nominee, and if America chooses him as its president—what price would the country pay for that choice? America made great again? The rise of fascism? Something in between? It’s hard to say.

Such thoughts might seem out of place at a rock show—except that the crowd here at the X tonight is a Trump crowd. That’s an oversimplification, of course—there’s no way to reliably judge the political proclivities of 15,000 strangers. But it’s certainly true that Springsteen and Trump appeal to similar demographics. The Boss is the workin’ man’s rock star, and the crowd here tonight skews white, skews old, skews working class. That’s Trump’s core constituency, too: his supporters are generally white, not college-educated, and blue collar.

Again, DeYoung’s piece is a lot more nuanced than the excerpt I have chosen above.  He knows that Springsteen’s politics and message (especially in his last several albums) are much more in line with Bernie Sanders than The Donald.  But he also recognizes that Springsteen’s songs about economic hardship, the brokenness of everyday life, the reality of sin, and the slow but steady decline of American industry and industrial towns are also things that Trump supporters are concerned about. And he also knows about the whole George Will/Ronald Reagan/”Born in the USA” controversy in 1984.

But I do wonder if DeYoung’s assessment of the crowd at the Excel Energy Center on February 29 is correct.  I have been to a lot of Springsteen shows in the last ten years. Indeed, the crowd is white and the crowd is old(er).  And yes, there are probably some people in the audience who did not go to college.

On the other hand, most of the people I meet at Bruce shows in places like Philadelphia, State College, Hershey, and Baltimore are solidly middle class folks (they can afford the $150.00 ticket) who were raised in the working class and remain nostalgic for certain aspects of that upbringing.   They are mostly educated.  I am guessing a lot of them were first-generation college students in the 1970s and 1980s who are now paying tuition for their own kids to go to college. (Bruce played a lot of college campuses in the 1970s).  Many come to the show with their families, rather than with their drinking buddies from school. And if they do come with their drinking buddies from school, they spend more time reminiscing about the “Glory Days” than the social ills that Springsteen’s music tries to address.  Most of them come to hear “Dancing in the Dark,” “Hungry Heart,” and “Born to Run” over “The Price You Pay,” “Shackled and Drawn,” “The Wall,” or “Death to My Hometown.”   Some of Springsteen’s social justice message might even offer a stinging critique to the lives they have chosen to live.

Springsteen is still attracting the same people, but they are no longer living in the 1970s world of working-class struggle that probably drew them to his music in the first place. I am sure that there were some Trump supporters in the audience in Minneapolis, but I would imagine that the crowd was also politically diverse.

Read DeYoung’s entire piece here.

Evangelical Voters and Nostalgia

Trump hatRobert P. Jones is the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of the forthcoming book The End of White Christian America. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, he argues that evangelicals in America are not “values voters” any more.  Instead, it is more accurate to describe them as “nostalgia” voters.  As Jones puts it, these voters make up a  “culturally and economically disaffected group that is anxious to hold onto a white, conservative Christian culture that is passing from the scene.”

Here is a taste of Jones’s article:

The American Values Survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, where I’m the CEO, found that heightened anxieties about cultural change and economic worries are strikingly prevalent among white evangelicals today. Two-thirds of white evangelicals say that immigrants are a burden to the country because they take American jobs, housing, and health care; and nearly six in 10 say it bothers them when they come into contact with immigrants who speak little or no English. Nearly three-quarters of white evangelicals say that the values of Islam are incompatible with American values and way of life. More than six in 10 believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. On the economic front, eight in 10 white evangelicals believe the country is still in an economic recession today. And most notably—in a question that demonstrates the importance of the last word in Trump’s campaign slogan—more than seven in 10 white evangelical Protestants say that American society and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s.

Jones’s conclusions fit well with what I argued recently about Trump’s appeal to evangelicals on “cultural issues” such as the threat of Islam and immigration.

The last sentence of the snippet I posted above is striking.  I remember a few years ago sitting with a bunch of thoughtful evangelical Christians trying to solve all the problems of the world over a one-hour lunch.  Someone in the group was complaining about how American culture has become more coarse.  I seem to remember this person making a reference to the increase in sex and violence on television.  I think his remarks were made in the larger context of the way our kids are exposed to these things at a much earlier age. We all nodded in agreement.

A few others then gave examples of how the moral fabric of America was eroding. They were all good points.

Finally, an African-American woman seated at the table offered a different perspective about moral progress or the lack thereof.  Because she was a serious Christian, she acknowledged the concerns of the other white people in the group.  But she rejected the idea that American society had “changed for the worse” in the past century.  Instead, she talked about the moral progress that had been made in the last hundred years, particularly in relationship to the role of African Americans and women in society.  How could anyone think that the 1950s were better than today?

A few weeks later I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation at a Christian college in the Midwest.  One of the speakers was a very popular African-American pastor from the South.  He made it clear that the best time to be an African American in the United States was “right now.”  Granted, I am sure that this pastor was outraged about what has happened in Ferguson or Baltimore.  There is a lot more work to be done in the area of race-relations in the United States.  But he ultimately took a long view–the view of moral progress.  Things are better in America today.

Every now and then someone asks me a question that goes something like this: “If you could travel back in time and live in any historical era, which one would it be?”  People are usually surprised when I say that I would live in the present.  Sure, I often get nostalgic for lost moral worlds where some things may have been done better than in the present.  (For example, the music of the 1970s is much better than what passes for popular music today!). But would I really want to go back? I don’t think so.  As a historian I have a pretty good sense of what happened back there.

By the way, you may be wondering why I was speaking at a conference on racial reconciliation.  The African American pastors who organized the conference were sick and tired of listening to Christian nationalists like David Barton trying to tell their fellow evangelicals that America was founded as a Christian nation.  These Christian nationalists, the pastors argued, were nostalgic for a golden era of the American founding that did not exist. They pointed out over and over again during our weekend together that the founders owned slaves and believed that blacks were inferior to whites.. How dare Barton and others say that we need to return to the moral and “Christian” values that apparently founded this country!

If Robert Jones’s survey is correct, then it makes perfect sense that white evangelicals would flock to a candidate who wants to “Make America Great Again.”

The Nostalgia of John Kasich

kasich

In his speech after the New Hampshire primary, Ohio governor John Kasich became nostalgic for an older America—the America of his mailman father who was one of many workers responsible for the fabric of face-to-face community in the small western Pennsylvania town of McKees Rocks.. He called for a more compassionate, empathetic, and caring America—a place where people sit on their front porches, give each other hugs, and love their neighbors.

Kasich reminds us that nostalgia is a powerful thing.  It can make us long for lost worlds.  The Ohio governor’s small town-upbringing may have been idyllic, but historians know that not everyone growing up in 1950s America can relate to this kind of childhood.  The history of the 1950s, as opposed to nostalgia for the 1950s, is much more complicated and complex, dark and oppressive, for those who were not fortunate enough to participate in Kasich’s safe, white-working class world.

Nostalgia is so powerful because it usually contains kernels of truth.  Neighborliness and the strengthening of the bonds of local community are good things.  So is the American Dream that Bernie Sanders preaches.  So are the ideals of political liberty that our founding fathers held so dear.  So is limited government.  All of these things will make us a better society.

But invoking the past to get us there will always be problematic because for every western Pennsylvania working class neighborhood there was a black neighborhood in Alabama dealing with segregation; and for every family who experienced the American Dream there was another family who did not. For all of the virtues of the Reagan era that the GOP presidential candidates love to extol, there was also Iran-Contra, the cutting of social programs, and the raising of taxes in 1983. For every founder who defended liberty, there was another caught up in the ugly legacy of slavery.  And let’s not forget that early 20th century progressives had a horrible track record on race and immigration.  Just ask Princeton University as they wrestle with the legacy of Woodrow Wilson.

This is the difference between history and nostalgia. But I don’t see our political candidates learning this lesson anytime soon.  Let’s face it, nostalgia works much better than history for those with the primary goal of getting elected.

On the Occasional Failure of Mets Magic

I have been a sports fan my entire life.  My aunt and uncle gave me my first subscription to Sports Illustrated when I was seven years old. The next year they bought me a subscription to The Sporting News.  Somewhere in the attic at my parent’s house in New Jersey those magazines are stacked in chronological order alongside similar piles of Baseball Digest, Sport and thousands of baseball, basketball, and football cards.  I don’t know why I never took this collection of memorabilia out of the attic. Perhaps I want it to stay there as long as possible.  Nostalgia can be a powerful thing, especially when it is applied to the favorite teams of our childhood years.

Much of my childhood revolved around the New York Mets.  This morning I was telling a friend that my first real memory of Mets baseball was watching the Bud Harrelson (I loved Bud Harreslon!) and Pete Rose fight in game three of the 1973 National League Championship Series.  As a Jersey kid growing up in the 1970s I spent countless hours in my backyard, baseball bat in hand, simulating imaginary Mets games.  I knew the roster by heart:  Grote, Milner, Milan, Harrelson, Garrett, Jones, Staub, Unser, Seaver, Koosman, Matlack, McGraw, Apoodaca, etc.  I acted out complete nine-inning games and, of course, the Mets always pulled out the victory in the bottom of the ninth.  On at least one occasion our neighbors asked my parents if everything was okay with me.  I was the weird kid next door who spent an hour or two on a Saturday afternoon swinging a bat, talking to myself (I would impersonate Mets announcers Bob Murphy, Lindsey Nelson, and Ralph Kiner), and imitating the wind-up of Tom Seaver, my boyhood hero.

After 1973, being a Mets fan was not easy.  My imaginary games in the backyard–games in which Mets Magic always prevailed in the end–represented an alternative universe that was far removed from what was actually happening at Shea Stadium.  The Mets had two winning seasons between 1974 and 1983.  They would not make the playoffs again until 1986, my junior year in college.  And what a year that was! I vividly remember where I was and what I was doing in game 6 of the NLCS. Many of you will recall this 16-inning marathon against the Houston Astros.  It was one of the greatest games in baseball history.  I must confess that I did not watch the entire game.  After the tenth inning I had to go to basketball practice.  Fortunately, between drills and water-breaks, my coach let me run out of the gym into a nearby lobby with a television set so I could check the score.

And then there was game 6 of the World Series.  I was in a packed dorm lobby with a few Mets fans and a lot of anti-Mets fans and Red Sox fans.  I felt like I was watching a miracle take place that night. It was even better than the hundreds of imaginary games that took place in my backyard over the years. Any die-hard Mets fan can chronicle the events that occurred in the bottom of the 9th. Gary Carter’s two-out single to get the rally started. Bob Stanley’s wild pitch.  The Buckner mishap on the Mookie Wilson routine grounder and the image of Ray Knight crossing the plate.  When we got back to my dorm room my roommate (who was also a Mets fan) popped Arrowsmith’s “Sweet Emotion” into the tape deck and we picked up a couple of hockey sticks and played air guitar (or something close to that) in front of the Mets pennant hanging on the wall. We were pouring with sweat. Our throats were sore.  We were exhausted physically and emotionally.  Bring on game seven!  “Mets Magic!”

Last night, as the Mets batted in the bottom of the ninth trailing the Royals 7-2, I could not stop thinking about game six against the Red Sox. My rational faculties were momentarily suspended and the raw emotion that can only come from a lifelong loyalty to a baseball club took over.

But Lucas Duda, Michael Conforto, and Wilmer Flores are not Gary Carter, Kevin Mitchell, and Ray Knight.  Wade Davis is not Calvin Schiraldi or Bob Stanley.  Like 1973 and 2000, 2015 was not our year.

The magic of youth fades, but it never disappears.  Next year I will hope for a revival of Mets Magic, but I will also put my hope in the ever-maturing arms of Harvey, DeGrom, Syndergaard, and Matz.

Let’s go Mets!