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Uncategorized – historiophiliac
Feb 122017

Of late, the ahistoricism of the liberals and leftists in the US has driven me regularly to consternation. I want to participate in the efforts to block abuse of power, corruption, and anti-democratic government action; however, I am unable to find cause with so much of the opposition because its positions are not historically-informed and remain — as liberal thinking often is in this country — limited by its coastal parochialism. The conservatives have long abused history for their purposes, but, now, the liberals have ceded ownership of our past understanding altogether. They think they can play politics by being ignorant of the past. At least the conservatives know you have to have a mythology.

As an example, this week at Slate, Yascha Mounk, a political scientist, offered his advice on how to respond to the Trump administration. His suggestions were standard fare, entirely lacking in historical awareness. “Don’t normalize Trump’s actions,” he mandates first, but to do so requires entirely forgetting Operation Wetback in the 50’s and FDR’s “repatriation” program of the 30’s — and all the ways the government has enticed and later expelled foreign labor (particularly from south of the border) throughout our history. Really, we have had the same motivations to welcome and then force out immigrant workers as the Spanish and Mexicans had when developing Texas (with the aid of the filibusteros). Immigration battles are essential to our history — the very essence of normal here.

Similarly, the conflicts of interest from Trump business ties so bemoaned by liberals are also in keeping with much of our history. Those in politics — with their short memories and ahistorical thinking — forget the financial and commercial connections of so many government leaders before. In what way are Trump ties (literally, the neckwear) a greater conflict than the Attorney General of the United States prosecuting railroad strikers while on retainer to one of those companies? I even saw a claim on Twitter that Trump’s conflicts are of the worst sort ever, including slavery! For privileged white persons, this may appear true on its face (though not in substance), but it just demonstrates how ignorant white liberals can be. Historical perspective is lost these days in the frenzy of opposing the current administration.

“Offer hope of a brighter future” too, Mounk suggests. Yes, focus on the future and do not argue with the past promoted by the Right…as if this is possible — as if we could stop history and start with a blank slate. The best future we can make is built with understanding of our past: a true reckoning of our failures and inspirational moments. If you want to sway people who want to Make America Great Again, you have to engage history. Abandoning it to your opponents is an ideological retreat.

In essence, the problem is that conservatives have been engaged in a cultural campaign for some time. They have slowly gained ground since the 70’s with their agenda. They have succeeded at convincing the public of the veracity and righteousness of many of their positions. This has been possible, in large part, because they have catered to the vanity of the majority — promoting a mythology that is so compelling that even liberals buy into it (see Hamilton, musical, for example). So, here we are: afraid of radical bogeymen, embracing irrationality and indecency, and longing to be our racist, sexist, and cruel past once again. There is no political answer to this dilemma. It is an ideological, spiritual, and moral crisis, and the solution lies in our cultural values, narratives, and themes.

The answer is not to return to a mythical time when we were great. The answer is to keep working towards greatness (as an ongoing sense of value rather than a summit), celebrating our achievements along the way. Confidence and hope are not created by voter registrations, homeownership, and job-creation. Rather, those things come from the former. And, that means, liberals have failed to truly undermine the conservative’s efforts and successfully inspire a culture of generosity, openness, and diversity. As long as we focus on political efforts, we will persist in the failure to create a culture of greatness — which is most assuredly not mean tweets, political gamesmanship, cronyism, mockery and disrespect, denial of past wrongs, parasitical economic agendas, indifference to want, discrimination and tribalism, or ancestor worship of slave-owners and racists.

The Founders gave us an ideal. Despite their intents and limitations, it offers us a path to greatness. Plot that. Encourage that. Celebrate that. Stand for that. They’ve gone low. Let’s go highbrow.


 Posted by at 1:51 pm
Dec 052016

The felex_comp_tease_1-nbcnews-ux-1080-600uture is uncertain; the past is familiar and has lost its bite. It’s natural to feel fear of what is to come when the present is troubling. In lieu of courage, memories pacify with pride. History gives us spirit to continue into what gives no promise.

Too, in America, our histories lack gloomy endings and repugnant themes. Our myth-makers and professional interpreters give us motivational tales of a land where freedom and democracy flow like milk and honey — even if, sometimes, it must be forced from stricken rocks. Here are stories of inspiration and affirmation: a forward march to the ultimate achievement of humankind.

If Pax Americana is still ascendant, it is the democracy achieved that we recognize. Future birthrights are not yet known. When, then, our now seems tenuous and our way, threatened, we are reassured by memories of achievements past. We take comfort in times after previous storms, when we knew blissful success. We are consoled by post-victory peace — the confidence of which we hope to have once more.

So, Make America Great Again. Bring back a romanticized past that is still with us but feels like it might be lost. Remind us when we can’t feel our privilege — we were better once, and that is still us.

 Posted by at 11:40 am
Oct 302016

I don’t want to beleaguer the subject, but while my last few posts have weighed in on the so-called “safe space debate,” I haven’t quite gotten to the heart of the problem yet. Lost in the blind privilege, earnest ignorance, hostile rhetoric and emotional apologias involved is the value that cleaves the intellectual divide. The same love of righteousness that drove Martin Luther to nail his Theses to the church door inspires the passionate exchanges today. Whereas Luther’s approach was questioning, however, today’s contestants are assertive and sure.

Ours is a society that worships champions, and if the current election demonstrates nothing else, it certainly proves our preoccupation with winning debates. Staters love being right, and now that objective truth has been dethroned, in lieu of that, we claim authenticity or experience. We’ve found new measures of correctness. What we still can’t reconcile is being wrong.

Years ago, C. Vann Woodward suggested that the South — knowing what it was like to be defeated and, worse, on the wrong side on a serious moral issue — could be an example to the rest of the country, wrestling with developing a more mature, realistic self-consciousness as a society. Woodward’s hopes have failed us. The denial — rather than the irony — of southerners remains indicative of the larger white society in our country. As much as the old Confederate states resisted true reconstruction, privileged white Staters generally have pushed back against efforts to raise awareness of inequalities and hazards that exist in our society (though violent push back isn’t a common tactic anymore, thankfully).

White apologists employ a multitude of tactics in their efforts: minimizing the issues, deflecting, reframing the discussion, claiming free speech, and other various tricks. What great lengths people will go to just to avoid acknowledging wrong. In fairness, it isn’t something we celebrate in our culture or a skill we are proud to hone. Instead, we are socialized to excuse or evade responsibility, by any means necessary. In essence, everyone pleads not guilty because there are no final verdicts in cultural debates.

Public relations disasters have taught the image-conscious to master the non-apology, but pseudo-penitents are rarely sorry or admit expressly to being wrong (or privileged). This is especially the case with academics, who are trained in disputing points and interpretations. Never have I witnessed an exchange between scholars where one conceded s/he was incorrect. The academic may adjust his or her output in the future to account for previous error, but s/he doesn’t go back and make a full accounting. We don’t do reconciliations in the US, and this is really indicative of our culture. It’s built into the legal and social structure.

Where professionalism relies on the authority of experts, error undermines confidence in those leaders and the system — or, at least, that seems to be the common take in our country. It wouldn’t seem to bring down the edifice if individuals or groups efficiently acknowledged their error and moved on corrected — it might actually reinforce confidence if done well, but we don’t have a means for doing it and I don’t see scholars writing books that argue against their previous publications. Also, problematically, Staters seem prone to remember the initial error and miss any subsequent atonement, reducing incentives to admissions.

But, that kind of factual or interpretive error seems of a different sort than the kind I’ve written about recently. It’s one thing to misread a document or not gather your evidence broadly enough. Cultural disputes are of more serious stuff. You do far more damage to resist acknowledging racism (systematic, invisible, and not) on college campuses, in places of employment, and on our streets and to dismiss the harm of wrongs done than to flub some historical facts, even intentionally. The stakes are high in these philosophical exchanges, which makes it all the more important that we somehow learn to value humbling as much as achievement. In other words, we may get past our racism and privilege when we turn western culture on it’s head. Or, maybe the two go indivisibly hand-in-hand.


 Posted by at 9:29 am
Oct 242014
There’s a natural but unsettling feeling of not-belonging that comes with being in a new place. Nothing gives you a sense of the familiar — not the street leading to your new “home,” not the local pub, and most certainly not the faces of the strangers all around you. You are a visitor or a transplant. You are a stranger.
I left a place I know, and by “know” I mean I have a history there — and I am familiar with its history beyond me.  I came to know it through my time and experience there.  Temporality of knowing is fundamental to the human condition.  We must have time with something — with a place, with people — in order to know it or them.  Experience is the only way to get beyond the instantly observable.  That is, to have a conscious understanding of something.
Can I navigate this new place?  Yes, with difficulty.  I get lost.  I look things up.  I have to ask for help.  With tools, I can be functional here, but I do not know it.  I don’t understand the signs in the windows of houses I pass or the unfamiliar traffic patterns or the beer selections.
In time I will.  If I stay, I will know these things — and the more serious history and aspects of the place too.  I can come to understand the socio-economic conditions, the culture, the habits and mores of the folks here.  Now, I guess at it, but I can come to have such an awareness of it that I take its familiarity for granted.  Then I will have a history here.
There’s no getting around it: belonging — knowing — requires historical experience. Making history here will take some time.  Until then…
     ”The whole family hadn’t one member buried here. Everybody was
     on the surface of the country, flat on his feet, selling watermelons,
     or plowing a row of vines.
     We were in Fresno, but we were nowhere, too.  How could we really
     be in a place until death had caught up with one of us, and we had
     buried him and knew he was there?”
     – William Saroyan, “Madness in the Family”
 Posted by at 11:33 am


 Uncategorized  Comments Off on Twistory!
Jan 012013

To kick off the new year, I’m doing something a little different.  For the next couple of weeks, I’ll be tweeting a history — posting a new piece each day.  At the end, I’ll put it all together here on the blog.  In the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter, if you use that, or by viewing the tweets on the side widget on the blog home page.  Either way, I hope you enjoy the experiment.


 Posted by at 10:32 pm
Jun 102012

I’ve compiled some older entries together and published them as e-pamphs for the Kindle through Amazon.  Both are part of my “American Conspiracy Series” on how our historiography functions as propaganda (especially in public schools).  One is on patriotism and the myths of the Founding Fathers, and the other is about the development of capitalism in the US.  The essays are irreverent, sarcastic, and fun (but pointed).  It was a neat little project putting them together in a digital pamphlet.

Also, then, I now have a “Store” page — with links to the e-pamphs on Amazon for the curious.


 Posted by at 11:10 pm

But Some Are Selfish Dicks

 Uncategorized  Comments Off on But Some Are Selfish Dicks
May 082012
To be gifted is to gift to the world of your gifts.  If you live in a capitalist country, you will receive the lowest compensation the market will tolerate for said gifts.  If you live in a non-capitalist country, I really have no idea what your life is like, and I don’t let myself dream about how a world that does not revolve around profit functions.  Anymore.
If you are anti-capitalist, the pay floor for your talents will make you bitter.  If you are anti-capitalist and idealistic, you really do make gifts of your gifts — or at least find ways to funnel them through non-profits.  Straight-edge means you don’t drown your bitterness with drugs, and hardcore means you don’t put advertising on your site/blog/messages.
See, when you have talent — and that talent has no military or especially commercial application — there’s lots of talk about what you owe to the world of your talents…unless you expect a living wage for that, in which case the world doesn’t owe you anything per Mark Twain.  That’s how it works.  Gifted people owe the world their work but no one owes them any reward or just compensation in return.  Seriously, try opting out of this arrangement.  You will be shunned.
Last October, Mark Pilgrim (a software developer and author of multiple books and a blog about programming) committed infosuicide.  The digital version of offing yourself involves not just closing your means of connection to the online world, but also removing your work from the web too.  It’s an intentional act of rescission of your gifts to the community.  Pilgrim had been that idealistic sort in that he advocated for open source work (free for all to use and improve) and he offered his insights to others at no cost.  The common assumption after his infosuicide was that Pilgrim no longer wished to connect online because he sought greater privacy.  If that was all he wanted though, he need not have scrubbed his work.  He clearly wanted to do more than just opt out of digital involvement — he took his work with him so that others would no longer have it.  This is an absolute rejection of the community — not just of your role in it, but in having contributed to it at all.  Pilgrim didn’t just want to leave; he didn’t want to leave a legacy either.
Reactions were swift and of two kinds:  some were immediately concerned that he might be literally suicidal or mentally ill with a potential to be a threat to himself or others.  Someone called the police.  Word came out that Pilgrim was fine and annoyed at being bothered.  Tellingly, he did not issue a reassuring statement or even post a demand for others to back off  – such was his seriousness about leaving his digital life.  The second response to Pilgrim’s abrupt online end was anger.  A poster on one article summarized the fury:  You are a selfish dick if you don’t leave your work out there for others to use even if you want to leave.  Tech savvy users lambasted Pilgrim’s actions and asserted vehemently that he had violated his social obligation to the community in “taking his ball and going home.”  Since that time, others have worked diligently to undermine Pilgrim’s retreat.  They have put up sites that “mirror” the work contained on his old sites so that even though his are no longer there, his work is available through other sources.  They will force from him what Pilgrim no longer wishes to gift them, and yet, no one considers that stealing (as he is attributed).  No one cares that he is free to do what he wishes with his own work, including destroying it.
And then there is this example:  In 2005, historian Alwyn Ruddock passed away.  She had been working for years on research regarding English maritime exploration of the new world and had promised to show that before Columbus came along, the English had already begun tapping the resources of North America.  She died without publishing her research.  Ruddock, like Pilgrim, elected not to leave her work behind for the benefit of others.  She ordered her research destroyed and it was shredded before the academic community acted to salvage it.  Thereafter, Dr. Evan Jones of the University of Bristol undertook a project to recreate Ruddock’s work by retracing her steps.  Thus, Jones too refused to respect Ruddock’s ownership of her own work.  Like the online sources who reposted Pilgrim’s writings, Jones and his co-workers will force Ruddock’s knowledge from obscurity.  They have had some success.  Just this last week, information emerged that scholars have confirmed the discovery of evidence regarding loans made by Italian financiers to English mariners (specifically, John Cabot) for voyages to “the” new found land prior to 1492.  Still, of Ruddock’s actions, Jones stated:  ”I have an enormous respect for Alwyn Ruddock as a scholar. But I can’t respect her decision to destroy all her work. She did what is the antithesis of everything that historical research is about — she sought to destroy all her findings. I can’t and don’t accept that.” (See Ruddock article here.)  In other words, Jones thinks Ruddock was a selfish dick for refusing to leave it for others.
I wonder if there really is any social obligation in writing or scholarship — or in just being gifted.  I suppose this topic is near and dear to my heart of late, as I have committed a sort of partial infosuicide recently.  Ironically, what brought me back was an interest in being productive and sharing that work with others.  I want to reach the community.  However much I shy away from being out there personally, I like being in it productively.  Still, I’m not sure that I owe humankind any gifts — particularly as it doesn’t seem much appreciative of them for the most part.  I can’t help but think that notions of a social contract are just a way to force gifts from others;  is it just stealing through socialization?
Maybe Pilgrim’s and Ruddock’s actions were ultimately signs of humility.  Perhaps both knew that with the clues at hand, others would resurrect or recreate their work and there would be no lasting blow to the betterment of mankind in the end.  They just didn’t need credit for it themselves.  Or, maybe neither person cared about the community at large anymore — they grew to despise it enough to withhold their gifts from it absolutely.  Who can know if it’s a profound hate or incredible modesty at work here.  But, that is a judgment about motives and the outside world clearly cares little about that.  It only wants what it can use from you.  Thankless or not, it will have it, and if you resist, there will be work-arounds.  Then, you will have infamy instead of honor;  history will not release you regardless.  You will be remembered, you selfish dicks.
 Posted by at 8:46 pm
Jan 062012

(Part III — There’ll Be No Pelters Here)

Here’s the thing that no one wants to say out loud about Occupiers taking to the streets: it is the unspoken threat that they will turn violent that makes people take careful note of them. That hint of danger from groups loose in our cities — it’s ominous; it’s disturbing; it invites resolution. The innate urge to protect oneself and one’s own immediately reacts to crowds of the vocal and disaffected on the prowl. You prepare for danger and move to eliminate any hint of a threat. Hence, you cannot ignore the protesters in the streets.

This sense is significantly amplified in a society built around the sanctity of property.  In a place where it is considered completely legitimate to take a life to protect your flat screen TV or expensive jewelry, any disorder is immediately perceived as a threat to (sacred) stuff.  Oh, my God!  They broke a window.  Can it get worse?  They spray painted graffiti on a statue of Robert E. Lee.  The indignities!  You know, the world will end if anything with a value greater than $500.00 is destroyed.  That’s felony protesting there.  In the greatest turn of irony ever, conservative pundits online are in a tizzy because some protesters set fire to their own stuff.  Where will it end if they don’t even have regard for their personal property?!

(As an aside, this is part of the reason that the government cracked down on Native American practices — the potlatch and fire ceremony — in the 19th century.  As rejections of wealth and materialism, these acts conflicted with capitalism, and they, therefore, had to be stopped.)

Do you know who can least afford to have their property damaged?  Psst, it’s not the one percenters.  Burning your own shit is a powerful statement when you’re unemployed or living paycheck to paycheck.  It’s economic immolation.  Like the hunger strike, it’s an act of sacrifice that pricks the conscience.  Of course, it’s actually more alarming to many that it’s a rejection of commercialism and materialism, otherwise known as the American way.  There is perhaps no greater sin against consumerism.

So, these hooligans are on the loose, lacking any regard for the value of things — theirs or others’ — or the propriety of compliant behavior.  They say they renounce violence, and some of them have even tried to prevent it.  That threat, though, it haunts conservatives (even if they see that the system does unfairly favor the rich) — because they think the bell tolls for them.  Really, it serves the movement best that this unspoken fear does linger.  Truthfully, the monumental changes wrought by the Progressives in the early 20th century were driven by their fear of growing masses of disaffected poor people, who fought back and caused substantial unrest standing up for themselves.  The law didn’t help them.  They couldn’t turn to the government.  So, they filled the streets, sometimes exercising their 2nd amendment right to bear arms.  There was violence, and though we are removed in time from this now, the past lingers. We could return there again.  Great recessions and depressions have driven Americans to violent acts many times before.  It is possible — even with the domesticated citizenry of today — that this spirit reawaken and  we experience a return to the way it was.  The regulatory state and welfare society diffused unrest in the past, but it fails us today.

It could be that the peace of the post-World War II age was an anomaly and we have passed that historical moment. Perhaps we are now at a turning point, transitioning to a new paradigm.  At this juncture, we do not know.  There lies the incentive for the establishment to do as it did in the 20th century:  institute reforms that ameliorate the worst of the effects of systemic inequities on the middle and working classes.  The people were not in the street when the disparities were not so great.  The wealthy elite has forgotten past lessons and gotten too greedy.  It needs to return (at least some) power to the people to preserve the system.  Otherwise, it may be that restraint gives way as the squeeze continues. Desperation fuels violence  — and revolution.  Perhaps, it will come to that.


 Posted by at 11:43 pm
Jun 262010
If you do an internet search for “working class historian,” you will get a list of links to sites about the history of  working class people and scholars researching in that field.  The moniker “working class history” covers a wide variety of topics all related to events and practices involving the laboring class.  In previous times, historians further broke their fields down more strictly by theme.  Some covered working class people’s struggles with their employers.  This was “labor history.”  Then, there were social and cultural historians who were interested in the habits and mores of the working class who focused on their lives outside of work.  “Working class history” is an umbrella that allows historians to delve into both — recognizing that these issues tend to bleed together and human beings don’t compartmentalize the different aspects of their lives the way historians do (interestingly a strong division between personal and professional lives is generally a marker of the middle class — making it ironic and inappropriate then to approach working class subjects in that manner).
However, even this broader approach to the subject matter continues in professional historians’ tradition of defining their work and identity by the same.  What they are is limned by what they study.  Rarely do historians define their work in other ways.  Occasionally, some will inject their politics into their titles.  Thus, you get “feminist historians” and “Marxist scholars.”  Funnily, it almost never works the other way.  I’ve yet to find a professional who identifies him- or herself as a “reactionary historian,” although there most certainly are some.  Generally, however, historians avoid putting too much of themselves in their labels.  The idea behind that is that their work is born out of a largely objective standard leading to one truth that holds for all or that the person of the historian is irrelevant to the story.  I know, it’s laughable, but it’s true.
The other funny is that American historians are practically obsessed with the notion of class (and race and gender).  That’s why there’s such a thing as working class history.  They dedicate a whole field to what these workers and their families undertook.  Also, cultural and social historians love to write about “highbrow” society and its devotees and the rise of the middle class as well.  You can’t avoid the subject of class in American histories.  Of course, that’s other people.  It’s important to talk about their class.  Historians just don’t much talk about their own classes.  These they ignore, and it’s the height of idiocy to do it.  To quote John Lennon:  “And you think you’re so clever and classless and free.”  As much as scholars love to delude themselves that their class is irrelevant and does not touch their work, they are monumentally wrong.  Which is another reason I’ve chosen to reject bourgeois professional history.  I really am not one of them, and after a brief foray into their domain, I don’t want to be.  So, if you want to be a working class historian, well then just follow me.
 Posted by at 11:34 pm
Oct 012009
If you ever want to go bat-shit crazy, try locating documents from the nineteenth century on the internet.  You can buy all kinds of useless crap on the web — a bajillion oddities, collectibles, and trinkets — but good luck trying to find old newspaper articles on the Molly Maguires, Pinkertons, or Susan B. Anthony getting arrested for voting.  You can find lots of secondary sources (pontifications by others on the topic) about these subjects, but no one wants to post the actual documents.  And, the Library of Congress — whose job is to preserve such records and make them available to the public — is a worthless piece of crap as far as providing access to resources.  It apparently possesses all of the Pinkerton Detective Agency records (a donation from the owners) but, despite hosting a hundred boxes of documents, it hasn’t managed to put a goddam one on its website!  This means that wealth of resources remains unavailable to the majority of the public the freaking agency is supposed to serve.
What’s more, web capitalism screws researchers looking for contemporary records from private sources too.  While it is understandable that newspaper and magazine publishers, for example, want to try to find ways to offset the costs of digitizing their records, it is grossly unfair to push it off on the public.  It assures that access to primary sources is available only to those with the disposable income to deserve it.  The internet is a fucking elitist web of interconnected sites whose sole purpose is to hawk anything valuable — including knowledge.
Now, the shit it will offer for free — dancing babies, imitative amateur videos, sex-exchange sites, and e-cards — these are the hallmarks of the noble republic.  Also, they are markers of the scholarly bent of the American people.  We rush to make these pearls available to all, while preserving research gems for the worthy elite.  And, the real losers are my students for whom I am trying to open up a world of knowledge…on my empty pocketbook.
 Posted by at 10:29 pm