Oct 252009
Ayn Rand’s been getting lots of press again lately.  Accordingly, I’ve been subjected to various pontifications on her dedication to individualism and rational self-interest in the media.  You could say there are similarities between me and Howard Roark, the hero of her book The Fountainhead.  He is an idealist who rejects the conventional practices of his profession.  I totally understand turning your back on the guild to stay true to yourself and your vision of your work.  I left the historical profession some years back to become an independent scholar.  But, whereas Roark is ultimately celebrated as a great master, I sort through lots of Russian and Chinese spam, have to work a day job, and have no patron to promote me.  Roark and his ego offer little inspiration to me then, but I don’t need Rand’s fictional archetype.  I have a better standard.
Angie Debo was a living, breathing intellectual visionary.  Barred from a position as a professor at a research university because she was female, she worked a number of other jobs — in a museum, as a government researcher, and for a university library.  On the side, Debo wrote a number of books that have become essential in the study of the modern history of Native Americans in our country.  One of these, And Still the Waters Run, was originally withheld by the publisher because of its controversial nature.  It described the systematic theft of land from American Indians by representatives of the U.S. government, despite the fact that treaties with the nations promised them their lands as long as the waters ran and the grass grew.  Debo named names and in 1936, when the book went to the publisher, many of the figures involved were still alive.  They threatened to sue, and the University of Oklahoma Press balked at putting the book out.  It was four years before it was published by another press — largely through the efforts of its Director, who recognized the significance of the work.  Debo’s history was infinitely different than the racist historiography that predominated in the profession then (and still stains our work today).  This was in part because she dared to use oral interviews with surviving members of the Indian tribes as sources and she was critical of government bureaucrats who referred to the Indians as “savages” and looked down on their cultures.  While the male-dominated profession talked of the destiny of white settlers to build a great country here, Debo described the exploitation of the Indians and the injustice done to them.  Her work was unwelcome in the forties and fifties, when patriotism ran high and segregation was still the practice.  In time, however, later generations recognized her innovative interpretations and admirable research.  Now that she is no longer with us, scholars in the field recognize her fine scholarship and dedication to her work.  What’s more, she’s remembered as a “warrior-scholar” who fought to help those she studied, because her work spurred her to do what she could to rectify the injustice that had been perpetrated against them.  Service and scholarship were her virtues.
This is my role model.  She never gave up doing her research and writing independently.  The profession rejected her, but she found a way to continue on her own terms.  In the end, she wrote classics that did nothing less than redefine the field in which she worked.  The guild cannot ignore her work now.  She forced a new historiography from the outside.  This is my aim:  I don’t want anything less than to write revolutionary work on my terms.  The profession may not welcome me or my methods either, but I’m not interested in being in tight with them.  I want to knock them off their feet like she did.  And, I want to make a difference in our society with my work too.  I want it to be useful as well as informative.  I wish to be a “warrior-scholar.”  Debo was the epitome of all to which I aspire.  For me, she is the standard.
 Posted by at 12:12 am
Oct 192009
Being an independent scholar means you make certain conscious decisions about your lifestyle.  You don’t have as much free time as your peers.  You have to remain pretty single-minded and patient to accomplish your goals — it takes time and tenacity to achieve something when you can only devote yourself to it part-time.  You have to turn down a lot of other opportunities or invitations, so that you can prioritize your limited hours and resources properly.  You have to bear the added burden of the cost of your research and tools, since you don’t have university resources at your disposal.  Without the free perks of research library membership, access to academic journals, copiers and computers (even the old dinosaurs available when I was in grad school), you have additional expenses to manage in order to do your research.  I cannot imagine what it would need to be like to have to try to set up your own lab.  It’s quite enough to try to manage my non-experimental work and pay those lesser costs.  You give up a good amount of participation in the culture around you as well, because you just don’t have the time to watch that TV show, go to that movie, or trade high fives on Facebook.  There is always work to do.  The people around you say they understand, but they don’t really.  They can’t.  You know it, even if they don’t, and you keep that in mind when they interrupt you once again with well-meaning distractions.  Yes, on my death bed I really will regret not finding that one document tonight or editing that paragraph.  It is my legacy, and I am in a race with time.
You make these trade-offs in hope that, in going your own way, you will be able to create the work you have inside you without the encumbrances of the “system.”  I knew I had a vision for studying history and I knew it wasn’t like what the guild practices.  I knew if I stayed in the machine, I would have to give up or significantly delay my work.  I would have to waste precious time meeting the profession’s requirements — time that I desperately wanted to spend doing the work that was burning inside me.  In the end, it may take me the same amount of time, but it will be spent how I intended it and, anyway, this is entirely due to the fact that I have to devote the lion’s share of my life to earning a living.  If I had more time of my own for my work, it would go faster.  But, I am a wage slave.  It is the same for most artists.  So, I wrestle with my material needs in order to pursue my higher ones.  I know I have chosen the harder way — the road less traveled — but, it couldn’t be any other way for me.  The way I practice history does not fit with the way the professional system works.  I don’t want an endowed chair or to rise to the top of my field.  When it comes to my practice, I’d prefer to be a visionary.
In this, I follow in the great footsteps of Angie Debo, one of the foremost — no, I think, THE foremost independent scholar of the twentieth century.  She was, like me, a historian and non-academic.  Despite her PhD, she could not secure a full-time professorship.  She worked here and there as a museum curator in the middle of nowhere west Texas, a public works researcher during the Great Depression, and a librarian (ultimately at Oklahoma A&M — my alma mater).  She did not marry or have a family.  Instead, she worked.  She worked for her pay and again on her own to research and write her own histories.  In all, she published thirteen books and countless articles.  This is a noted achievement that requires amazing sacrifice and patience.  Debo was dedicated, if devalued.  Today, her portrait — the only of a woman — hangs in the rotunda of the Oklahoma state capitol building.  When I am there, I like to visit her — to recognize her hard work and tenacity, to reinforce my own, and to celebrate our likeness.  I am her.  She broke a trail that I now travel.  Because she did it, I know it can be done.  That sustains when I get discouraged or delayed.  I am the dedicated independent scholar.  I am Debo’s daughter.
 Posted by at 12:49 pm
Oct 072009
The textbook on conditions for workers in the post-civil war period:
“Workers were confused about their destiny;  the tradition that no one of ability need remain a hired hand died hard.  They wanted to believe their bosses and the politicians when those worthies voiced the old slogans about a classless society and the community of interest of capital and labor.  ‘Our men,’ William Vanderbilt of the New York Central said in 1877, ‘feel that, although I…may have my millions and they the rewards of their daily toil, still we are about equal in the end.  If they suffer, I suffer, and if I suffer, they cannot escape.’  ‘The poor,’ another conservative said a decade later, ‘are not poor because the rich are rich.’  Instead, ‘the service of capital’ softened their lot and gave them many benefits.  Statements such as these, although self-serving, were essentially correct.  The rich were growing richer and more people were growing rich, but ordinary workers were better off too.”
In fact, they were so much better off, that they celebrated by going on strike, denouncing their bosses, and otherwise resisting their employers’ control over their work to the tune of 12,000 times between 1881 and 1894.  That’s almost a thousand labor disputes a year.  Oh, yeah, they were happy with their conditions.  That’s why some of them went vigilante — beating up their supervisors, threatening them, burning down company property (in the amount of $7 million in today’s dollars in one major strike).  That’s why their wives stood on riverbanks calling for their men to kill strikebreakers, soaped railroad tracks to intentionally derail trains carrying products to market, and assaulted factory guards (and then taunted them for being beaten up by women).  Working-class families went on protracted strikes, and they didn’t just walk in circles on a picket line yelling “Hell no, We won’t go!” in front of the factory gates.  They brought their children and guns to their rallies, and if the Pinkertons shot at them, they shot back.  They threw rocks at strikebreakers and drove them out in the night.  Scabs got more of the same.  Laborers banded together with their fellow workmen to increase the strength of their bargaining power.  This was class war, not high tea.
To suggest that they did better working in dirty, unsafe conditions for below-subsistence wages than they would’ve working on a farm or in a “factory” during our pre-capitalist days is false and misleading.  The author clearly has an agenda.  He can make this claim only by taking excerpts out of context and ignoring the facts.  The book does not describe the breadth and intensity of labor disputes in the late nineteenth century — because that would be detrimental to his argument (and show him for the callous apologist that he is).  He doesn’t say what contemporary cost estimates were for workers and their families to live decently (even without medical care, substantial savings, or buying a house) back then.  That way, when he talks about what they earned, you don’t have a frame of reference by which to judge.  This is the worst kind of scholarship, and it is through chicanery like this that students are socialized to worship the free-market system.  The shift to a capitalist system was gory, violent, chaotic, and hostile.  An untold many literally died as human sacrifice to free-market greed.  The atrocities of maimed children, mine cave-ins, factory fires, and the like demanded regulation and legislation to assure that the capitalists did not continue to rape the working class.  This is what put us on the path to a regulated economy.  Regulations are not mere inconveniences or artificial impediments to the free market.  This is not bookish theorization.  This is justice!  Pathetic attempts to white-wash the atrocities of the Gilded Age are an insult to the martyrs who made the economic growth of the United States possible and to all of us who benefit from the lessons we learned from their sacrifice.
 Posted by at 5:33 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