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

The Election and Equal Pay

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Oct 182008

I can’t resist:

In the last presidential debate, Barak Obama raised the case of Lilly Ledbetter and her failed attempt to sue her employer, Goodyear Tire and Rubber, for paying her less than her male co-workers for years and years. The Supreme Court decided that she couldn’t sue for all her lost pay because the law limited her damages to the inequitable wages she’d received for the last one hundred and eighty days of her employment. A bill, called the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, was introduced in the Senate to extend the statute of limitations. John McCain, Obama noted, opposed the bill. McCain’s response? That bill was “a trial lawyer’s dream.”

Actually, Senator McCain, that’s the dream of every working woman in the U.S. We long for the day when we make the same amount of money for doing the same work as men. Clearly, the men in power still don’t get it – or don’t want us to get ours. McCain says women don’t need relief from the courts. What we need is better access to education – then we can get jobs that pay better. The problem with this solution is that census data shows that the more education women get, the greater the disparity of pay between them and their male counterparts. According to figures from the 2000 census (the last official one), a man with a high school diploma averaged $33,037.00 a year. A woman with the same education made $24,253.00 – a difference of less than $10,000.00 annually (which is a sizeable amount anyway). A man with a bachelor’s degree made $53,108.00, while a woman with a college degree made $39,865.00. That’s about $7,000.00 a year more than a male high school graduate and approximately $13,000.00 less than a comparably educated man. A male with a master’s degree made $66,934.00, but a woman with the same level of education made $48,343.00. The difference in pay had, at that level, grown to almost $20,000.00, and these women were making less than men with bachelor’s degrees. So, the more education women get, the greater the discrimination – and McCain supports perpetuating that cycle.

The only good solution under the law is for educated women to use the courts. It’s a trial lawyer’s dream, but it’s also our only salvation. We need more Jane Plotkes. She is a historian who had the nerve to sue her employer, the U.S. Army, for sex discrimination (A. Jane Plotke PhD v. Thomas E. White, Secretary of the Army, 405 F 3d 1092 [2005]). Talk about taking on the old male guard! It isn’t enough for our sisters in factories and mines to sue. The women with higher educational training must join the fight too. They have the most to lose by remaining inactive and the most to gain in suing. It isn’t enough for us to prove ourselves on college campuses. We have to be willing to take our employers to court too.

The truth is we don’t need additional legislation. The Equal Pay Act of 1963 has forbidden disparate pay based on sex for forty-five years. What we need is better enforcement. We need access to salary data. The EEOC should audit companies to verify there’s no pay disparity and take action to enforce compliance with the existing law. Of course, this means expanding the staff and budget for the EEOC – something our male-dominated leadership is not interested in funding. Additionally, women need to be able to get at salary information on their own so they can privately enforce the law. Unfortunately, companies forbid their employees from discussing salaries – which is also illegal – and that ensures that women don’t know they’re being discriminated against so they can do something about it. Our employers will not disclose this information voluntarily either, keeping us ignorant and impotent. What I’m looking for is a candidate who will stop with the patronizing rhetoric and unnecessary ineffective legislation and put some teeth in enforcement.


 Posted by at 8:35 pm

Lynching Tales

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Oct 172008

Since the history my students took in high school was celebratory and uncritical, a good part of my job is disillusioning them. It can be painful to watch. Sometimes, though, I enjoy it in a dark way. I see them feel their betrayal and witness their loss of innocence. I know on the other side they will be better off, and that makes it likeable to me. I guess I’m well suited to the task.

We talked about lynchings this week. My students held the popular notion that lynchings are secret events that take place in the night with few participants. I told them that this was not always the case. Often, these were public events – a crowd (not just men) gathered to watch the brutality and socialize in the shadow of death. People took photographs with the maimed bodies as happy mementos, and these were sometimes made into postcards. The text on one reads: “This was made in the court yard in Center Texas he is a 16 year old black boy. He killed Earl’s Grandma She was Florence’s mother. Give this to Bud Frome Aunt Myrtle” Most appallingly, the witness sometimes took souvenirs – a finger, ear, hair, or other piece of flesh from the victim. They kept these in their homes like I keep ticket stubs from concerts and movies.

At this point in my story, my students felt sick and disturbed. I could tell. It was written all over their faces. Outwardly, I could see their bodies reflect the struggle their minds were having accepting this information – even processing it. In their revulsion, they clutched around for bearings. This truth in no way reflected the positive and uplifting historiography of their public school days. It didn’t even jibe with the popular history they’d encountered in movies, documentaries, or museums. This was so much darker and more troubling. I could tell it seemed unreal to them. It was inconceivable, and the horrific secret was difficult to grasp.

Adding insult to injury was their sense of betrayal. “Why hadn’t I ever heard this before?” they asked. They felt victimized by the sanitized history they had come to rely on. In documentaries and books, they had never been presented with the truth that their forefathers (and mothers) laughed and celebrated as a body dangled. My students had tried to be informed. They watched the History Channel and read, but the absolute real gruesomeness had never been exposed to them. Historians had lied to them, and they were now bitter to learn of the sin of omission.

And now they know. Their understanding of America and race relations here is forever changed by this detail. I don’t think I exaggerate at all in saying this. They will tell their friends and family, passing on the story to other uninformed citizens, and then they will all be informed. I will have succeeded in my duty to educate them.

I don’t really relish the task of being the bearer of evil tidings, but I can’t abide keeping the truth from them. They’ve been lied to enough. Next week, in order to let them judge for themselves so they can really know, I’m bringing pictures. To see them yourself, go to


 Posted by at 7:43 am

We’ve Come a Long Way, Ladies

 American history  Comments Off on We’ve Come a Long Way, Ladies
Oct 052008

There’s been a lot of talk about sexism lately, and it seemed to me a good time to consider how far we’ve come. Many disparities remain, but, on the face of it, the law, at least, is now (supposed to be) neutral in its regard to the sex of the parties before it. This was not always the case. There was a time when the law was intentionally biased against women – and judges added insult to injury in applying it. I’d like to offer an example from a divorce case from North Carolina in the mid-nineteenth century. The wife filed for divorce on the grounds that her husband beat her twice (with a horsewhip once and a switch the other time), and the matter went to the state Supreme Court. I will quote at length, because I think the court’s decision speaks for itself:

“The wife must be subject to the husband. Every man must govern his household, and if by reason of an unruly temper, or an unbridled tongue, the wife persistently treats her husband with disrespect, and he submits to it, he not only loses all sense of self-respect, but loses the respect of the other members of his family, without which he cannot to expect to govern them, and forfeits the respect of his neighbors. Such have been the incidents of the marriage relation from the beginning of the human race. Unto the woman it is said: ‘Thy desire shall be to thy husband, and he shall rule over thee’: Gen. iii. 16. It follows that the law gives the husband power to use such a degree of force as is necessary to make the wife behave herself and know her place.”

“It is sufficient for our purpose to state that there may be circumstances which will mitigate, excuse, and so far justify the husband in striking the wife ‘with a horse-whip on one occasion and with a switch on another, leaving several bruises on the person,’ so as not to give her a right to abandon him, and claim to be divorced. For instance, suppose a husband comes home, and his wife abuses him in the strongest terms – calls him a scoundrel, and repeatedly expresses a wish that he was dead and in torment; and being thus provoked in the furor brevis, he strikes her with the horse-whip, which he happens to have in his hands, but is afterwards willing to apologize, and expresses regret for having struck her; or suppose a man and his wife get into a discussion and have a difference of opinion as to a matter of fact, she becomes furious and gives way to her temper, so far as to tell him he lies, and upon being admonished not to repeat the word, nevertheless does so, and the husband taking up a switch, tells her if she repeats it again he will strike her, and after this notice she again repeats the insulting words, and he thereupon strikes her several blows, — these are cases in which, in our opinion, the circumstances attending the act, and giving rise to it, so far justify the conduct of the husband as to take from the wife any ground of divorce for that cause, and authorize the court to dismiss her petition, with the admonition, ‘If you will amend your manners, you may expect better treatment”…So that there are circumstances under which a husband may strike his wife with a horse-whip, or may strike her several times with a switch, so hard as to leave marks on her person, and these acts do not furnish sufficient ground for a divorce.” (Joyner v. Joyner, 59 N.C. 322 [1862])

This was the court’s finding despite the fact that there was no evidence that the wife in this case had done anything “to induce such violence on the part of the husband.” The mere fact that such justifying circumstances existed was enough for the judges (male) to dismiss the wife’s divorce petition. As long as there was the possibility that unruly, disobedient, and disrespectful wives existed, all men were excused for beating their own wives (“deserving” or not). My own ex-husband only tried to strike me once, and I guess you know who swung first.


 Posted by at 2:02 pm