A Working Class Historian Is Something to Be

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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


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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

Jousting The Text — Part I

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Nov 162008

If a sign of wisdom is knowing how little you know, lately I’ve been positively sage.  My efforts to use my lectures to subvert our textbook feel ineffective.  The book is about nation-building.  In the mundane tradition of textbooks, it focuses on politics and “major” national (read: socio-economic) events.  I am trying my best to do brave battle here.  I am morally and philosophically opposed to using politics to write synthetic history (putting the American experience(s) together using politics as a framework).  And, I damn sure don’t want to focus on happenings in New York and Boston to tell our nation‘s story.  My theme this semester cuts counter to the traditional history, so my lectures must needs diverge from the text.  In writing them, I have been frustrated by all that I don’t know.  I lack substantial detailed knowledge — outside my particular areas of specialization — to build the narrative I want to tell.

Again, I find myself cursing my education.  Why couldn’t my studies have been more broad?  Why was it insufficient to give me detailed knowledge?  What am I supposed to do with the generalizations and grand interpretations I learned?  What good does it do me to talk about the rise of industrialization when I can’t give specific examples from particular times and places?  Damn social science and the profession’s need to discover immutable laws and Truth!  The historiography is so big and so small.  Historians have dedicated themselves to the impossible task of knowing like God and are doing a poor job of knowing like human beings in the meantime.  The whole damn thing’s a tower of Babel.

I was trained as a professional:  to generalize about national events.  I want to be able to connect Tulsa with Toledo, Tacoma, and Tupelo, but I lack the information specific to these places to tie them together.  I really couldn’t tell you how commercial culture was the same and different for each.  I know the 1910’s were fraught with race riots;  I can’t tell you ten places where they occurred and what happened at each.  I know the Great Depression was a catastrophic national economic event;  I can’t tell you if it felt the same or different in Arizona and Arkansas.  I was taught generalizations and I learned so few details.

So, now I am teaching myself the things I wanted to learn — I am giving myself the education I ought to have had.  I am trying to break the cycle.  I don’t want my students to be in the same boat as I am.  But, there is so much I don’t know.  How can I teach them?  I have a full-time job.  Where can I find enough time for research and how do you study history without reading the generalized monographs of professional historians (that got me where I am in the first place)?  I can only do so much work in primary sources with my temporal and logistical constraints.  This is why you specialize.  It’s a life’s work to have depth of knowledge in one field.  I want to know it all.

Our text largely ignores religion.  It overlooks medical developments and architecture.  It hardly mentions the police.  There’s so much left out and I want to find a way to put it back in.  My education was wholly inadequate for the task.  I feel like an educated ignoramus.  I am adrift in all that I don’t know, and it’s entirely the fault of the multitude of dunces that taught me.


 Posted by at 2:39 pm

Election, Oklahoma Style

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Nov 092008

I’m not even going to pretend to stick to history this week.  The election was too big — the moment too important.

Obama’s victory in the electoral college was overwhelming.  Of course, Oklahoma went for McCain.  The fact that the national popular vote favored Obama will not convince conservative Oklahomans that they were wrong or sway them to heed popular wisdom.  They will entrench in their self-righteousness and bigotry.  They will take solace in their Bibles.  Like George Bush, they do not question their interpretations — everyone else be damned.

Not a single county in the state went for Obama, but the numbers were interesting just the same.  We don’t hear much about the Native American vote, but that segment of the population here must have been very eager for change.  The county with the highest percentage for Obama (44%) was Cherokee County, seat of government for the Cherokee Nation.  The county with the second highest number was Muskogee County (42%) — right next door to Cherokee County and covering parts of both the Cherokee and Muskogee (Creek) Nations.  Neighboring counties Okmulgee (capitol of the Muskogee Nation since 1867) and McIntosh returned forty-one and forty percent for Obama respectively.  They also have large populations of Native Americans and blacks.  These are rural counties — but racially diverse.

At the other end of the spectrum, Beaver County had the lowest vote for Obama:  eleven percent.  Cimarron County was next at twelve percent.  Interestingly, both of these counties are in the Panhandle.  They have low population densities generally, are extremely rural, and have mostly white residents.  In the 2000 census (the last official one), there were seventeen blacks and seventy-three American Indians in Beaver County — compared to 5,430 whites.  There were eighteen blacks and thirty-two American Indians in Cimarron County, and 2, 700 whites.  I believe a lack of familiarity with persons of other races and prejudice contributed to the votes in these counties.

In general, the eastern half of Oklahoma had higher support for Obama — in the thirties and forties percentage-wise.  The western half of the state polled in the teens and twenties.  The exception to this was Comanche County in the southwest.  Comanche is home to Fort Sill — an army base with a varied racial and ethnic population and site of a scandal this past summer when wounded veterans were relocated there from Walter Reed Hospital and stuck in quarters filled with mold.  (The soldiers’ civilian advocate was fired when he blew the whistle to the newspapers.)  I believe those factors influenced the vote in Comanche.

Recently, a transplant from California was lamenting to me about how conservative Oklahoma City is.  While that’s true compared to other state capitols, the voting percentages show a more liberal bent there (42% for Obama) than in Tulsa (38%), the other major city in the state (which interestingly voted less favorably for Obama than rural McIntosh County to the southeast).  You cannot claim that the capitol is a seat of conservatism for the state then.

Interestingly, four counties voted Democratic in the race for U.S. senator.  The Republican incumbent handily won re-election with the support of the other counties, but it is significant that four counties bucked the Republican trend.  Those counties again were Okmulgee, McIntosh, Muskogee, and Cherokee — those that polled highest for Obama.  It is interesting that Obama did not take the majority in those counties when the Democratic challenger for the U.S. Senate did.

The fact that most of the eastern half of the state (which is more populous than the western half) voted for Obama 30-40 percent when his campaign wrote off Oklahoma says something.  I believe it was possible for him to take Oklahoma had there been a better presence here.  The local campaign was woefully unorganized and actually turned away volunteers.  A more substantially run grass-roots campaign here could have led to a striking shift in the heart of conservative country.  Better leadership could’ve made the eleven to twenty-one percentage point difference in the vote to squeak out a win, and cooperation with energized Native American voters may have been the missing ingredient.  Failure to tap into a disaffected Hispanic vote was also a grave error.  It still would’ve been a tough campaign — even with these supporters — and, apparently, the local Democrats weren’t up to the fight.  I don’t blame the national for reserving financial resources for states with more electoral votes, but such a shameful showing from home-grown Democrats is inexcusable.  Next time, Obama should recruit Native American organizers to manage the state campaign and forget the white yellow-dogs.


 Posted by at 5:28 pm

Some of the Funniest People I Know Are Dead

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Oct 262008

The best part of being a historian is that you get to meet all kinds of interesting people.  Some of them are really funny.  I often find them more amusing than people alive today.  Unfortunately, they’re dead.  The conversation is a little one-sided then.

My two favorite editorialists are Will Rogers and Finley Peter Dunne.  No one quips like that today.  Rogers said voters would support Prohibition as long as they could stagger (drunk) to the polls.  That’s good stuff.  Dunne, who wrote using the persona of an Irish bartender, could skewer the Supreme Court like no one else I’ve ever read.  Of the crusade against vice, Dunne said:  “Th’ polis becomes active an’ whin th’ polis is active tis a good time f’r dacint men to wear marredge certy-ficates outside their coats,” and be ready “to bail out their wives whin they’re arrested f’r shoppin’ afther four o’clock.”  Both Rogers and Dunne had folksy deliveries and were superlative humorists.  I like reading them just because they make me laugh.  I find them entertaining — every much as or more than most “humorists” today.  I often wish that editorialists these days were that funny.  The opinion page nowadays is so serious.  We used to have a sense of humor about politicians.  I think we’ve lost a lot of that.  It’s a sin now to have an anti-authoritarian bent — particularly if it’s flagrantly, humorously disrespectful.  I wish someone would poke fun of the contemporary illegal alien crackdown the way Dunne made fun of the crusade against vice in the early 20th century.  Really, it screams for a good lampooning.

Americans today often consider themselves more sophisticated than their ancestors.  This is bunk and a sign of the ignorance that marks ahistorical thinking.  If you spend some time with old humorists, you quickly learn that their critiques were intelligent, insightful, and irreverent.  These writers held no illusions about politicians as noble statesmen.  Corruption was rampant in the 1920’s and these critics had a heyday with that.  They didn’t get up on some moral soapbox and decry conditions in solemn plaintive tones.  Instead, they attacked with sarcasm and biting satire.  These were excellent critiques, but they were downright entertaining too.

Lately, I’ve been subjected to editorials endlessly sermonizing on the importance of this year’s election.  It’s the most significant election in American history some of them claim.  The stakes are high:  the survival of our country depends on it.  Blah, blah, blah.  What crap — and I say this as a great fan of hyperbole.  If exaggeration isn’t funny, though, it’s just ridiculous rigmarole.  I’ve started rolling my eyes a lot and pining for some good old fashioned, laugh out loud critical satire.

This is the entertainment value of history.  It’s not just educational.  It’s also amusing fun.  Some of our ancestors were pretty funny, and being a historian, I get to spend a lot of time with them.  You can call it research, but it’s also pleasure.  They may be dead, but they crack me up.


 Posted by at 4:16 pm