Where left and right agree about history.

26 11 2010

I’ve been tempted to say something about this new conservative Thanksgiving-as-celebration-of-failed-socialism obsession, but others have handled that better than I ever could. However, I think this part of the argument is noteworthy because of what it gets right:

And despite his problems evaluating the recent Manhattan real estate market, [Rush] Limbaugh had another look at the one from 1626. “We got shafted when we bought Manhattan,” he claimed, saying that European settlers initially paid a Long Island tribe that didn’t own the land, then had to repurchase it from the actual owners. “We got scammed … we got hosed … we paid for Manna-hata twice because a bunch of Native Americans scammed us.”

Compare that to this from James Loewen’s revisionist classic Lies My Teacher Told Me (p. 121):

“What a bargain! What foolish indians not to recognize the potential of the island! Not one book points out that the Dutch paid the wrong tribe for Manhattan. Doubtless the Canarsees, native to Brooklyn, were quite pleased with the deal…The Wekquaesgeeks, who lived on Manhattan and really owned it, weren’t so happy.”

Of course, Limbaugh thinks the people who bought Manhattan were Pilgrims (rather than Dutch) so maybe I should be more circumspect with my praise.


Glenn Beck has not been to the mountaintop.

28 08 2010

One of my Facebook friends just posted Martin Luther King’s speech from the Lincoln Memorial 47 years ago today. It was a nice touch in the face of that Glenn Beck rally, but I think the greater contrast between speeches from these two very different people is with this one:

If Beck’s “people” ever made it to the promised land, Beck would be out of business.

Update: Oh boy. Thank goodness for peer review.

Apparently professors are no longer allowed to hold opinions.

12 06 2010

I first noticed the controversy about the “Cry Wolf” project when Ralph linked to everything written about it a couple of days ago. My first inclination was to chuckle and move on, but the more I read the more I’m convinced this is an excellent teaching moment for understanding why the left and right in this country spend so much time talking past each other.

I think this all boils down to competing paradigms. The criticism of “Cry Wolf” is based on the traditional notion of hypothesis testing. Scholar ponders bog question. Scholar creates theory. Scholar tests theory. If the theory is true, then you publish it.

The “Cry Wolf” folks are working off a paradigm that’s so prevalent in Academia that I never even heard the name for it until after I left graduate school: Rational Consensus. Everybody provides a little piece of the puzzle with their individual research. From all those pieces, a consensus can emerge that will be the closest thing we can get to truth. That truth will shift as the nature of the research shifts, but that’s a good thing since it means that understanding can incorporate new research that will come along later.

As I never clean out my e-mail, I actually still had the “Cry Wolf” solicitation letter in my inbox. The assumptions of the Rational Consensus Paradigm are right there at the surface from the beginning:

Today, as in the past, the fight to transform American politics and policy takes place on a battlefield in which ideas, narratives, and the construction of a politically driven conventional wisdom constitutes a set of highly potent weapons. Too often conservatives in the Congress and the media have captured the rhetorical high ground by asserting that virtually any substantial, progressive change in public policy, especially that involving taxes on the wealthy or regulation of business, will kill jobs, generate a stifling government bureaucracy, or curtail economic growth.

But history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are “crying wolf.” We therefore need to construct a counter narrative that demonstrates the falsity or exaggeration of such claims so that the first reaction of millions of people, as well as opinion leaders, will be “There they go again!” Such a refrain will undermine the credibility and arguments of the organizations and individuals who use such dire social and economic prognostications to thwart progressive reform.

Horrors!, says K.C. Johnson (via Ralph again):

In short, the Wolfers intend to reverse customary academic procedure (researching the evidence, and then attempting to ferret out the truth). They have already established their truth: that “history shows that in almost every instance the opponents of needed social and economic change are ‘crying wolf.'” They look to pay academics to assemble evidence that will “prove” the foreordained truth.

No K.C., they already have their opinion. The truth, as they used to say on the X-Files, is out there. While K.C. certainly isn’t guilty of doing this, if you carry this no preconceptions position to the extreme you get some pretty ridiculous outcomes and as this is a political issue the extremes are easy to find among Ralph’s original links. When I first read this, for example, I almost spit up:

These professors’ ties to the labor movement and the glorification of its struggles are indisputable – which is fine, being that their interests reside in that area. But it does lead to the question: Should these professors be allowed to use our higher education system to push their progressive political ideologies in the guise of disinterested academics?

I think most would answer simply: no. Our publicly funded schools should be institutions of unbiased research, not propaganda vehicles for a particular ideology — especially one with longstanding and well-documented ties to the Communist movement.

Labor History = Labor unions = Communists. Red-baiting. Pure and simple.

While I have developed many interests, I started my career (and to a great extent still am) a labor historian. I didn’t develop an interest in the subject by studying it, I studied it because of my interest in the subject. If you treat history as some kind of disinterested, hypothesis testing science, all kinds of scholarship along these lines would immediately become suspect. I can hear it now: “You can’t study women’s history because you’re a woman. You’re not properly disinterested!”

Of course, in the eyes of the Right, all this scholarship is inherently suspect already, which is precisely why ther’ve throwing around words like Academia-Gate in the first place. They’re looking for proof of their preconceptions.

What does Rand Paul think about the government restricting child labor?

20 05 2010

I watched that Rachel Maddow interview with Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul last night, and was duly shocked by the guy’s extremist views. I was outside digging up grass most of the day, so I’ve only just been reading the reactions of others who share my opinion. The thing is, I wasn’t really shocked by his opposition to the Civil Rights Act. I expect that from libertarians. I was shocked by this:

Does the owner of the restaurant own his restaurant? Or does the government own his restaurant?

If forced integration is akin to a government take over of a private business, I finally understand why Republicans throw the word “socialism” around like rice at a wedding. Too bad, they don’t understand what the word means. They’re all rights and no responsibilities.

This leads me to wonder if Rand Paul supports any government regulation at all? Ezra Klein (via Andrew Sullivan) has some excellent questions along these lines designed to get an answer out of him:

Can the federal government set the private sector’s minimum wage? Can it tell private businesses not to hire illegal immigrants? Can it tell oil companies what safety systems to build into an offshore drilling platform? Can it tell toy companies to test for lead? Can it tell liquor stores not to sell to minors?

As a historian, I’d be interested in learning whether Paul supports the ban on child labor in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. He mumbled something about a Commerce Clause debate last night which, like the Civil Rights Act, is the Constitutional provision which that ban hangs upon. Certainly, it is a far-reaching use of government power that interferes with the operation of private businesses, just like the Civil Rights Act. The justification for using that power is to protect the rights of children, even if their parents could use the money that the little tykes could earn.

So which is it Mr. Paul, the rights of businesses or the health and welfare of children? Alas, I suspect I already know the answer.

Best. Historical top-ten list. Ever.

16 05 2010

Top ten worst Popes. Via Gawker, of all places. Or come to think of it, knowing the way Popes used to behave the link from Gawker makes tons of sense.

This is exactly why I hate teaching the Civil War.

11 04 2010

“Objectivity” is hard when you’re dealing with people who have selective amnesia. Here’s Jon Meacham from this morning’s NYT:

As the sesquicentennial of Fort Sumter approaches in 2011, the enduring problem for neo-Confederates endures: anyone who seeks an Edenic Southern past in which the war was principally about states’ rights and not slavery is searching in vain, for the Confederacy and slavery are inextricably and forever linked.

That has not, however, stopped Lost Causers who supported Mr. McDonnell’s proclamation from trying to recast the war in more respectable terms. They would like what Lincoln called our “fiery trial” to be seen in a political, not a moral, light. If the slaves are erased from the picture, then what took place between Sumter and Appomattox is not about the fate of human chattel, or a battle between good and evil. It is, instead, more of an ancestral skirmish in the Reagan revolution, a contest between big and small government.

There is nothing noble about racism and treason. And if the Confederacy was a test of the virtues of small government, that was only because the Confederate government was completely dysfunctional

Eric Foner answers for his liberal crimes.

17 03 2010

Eric Foner on Stephen Colbert. Yes, you read that right. The subject is the Texas School Board textbook standards, and it’s must-see TV.

Howard Zinn was a breath of fresh air.

28 01 2010

I must be doing something right as a historian since my e-mail box started filling up with Howard Zinn tributes before I even saw the news that he had died.

I went to a Howard Zinn speech before I ever read one of his books. It was Madison in the early-1990s and I must have been the only history grad student in the audience who had never even heard of A People’s History of the United States. I distinctly remember my reaction, though: I couldn’t believe he was saying such things. I had simply never encountered an all-out assault on the Heroic Master Narrative of American history before. I didn’t agree with everything he said, but the notion that one could even contemplate mounting such an attack was absolutely exhilarating

Running into Zinn’s actual scholarship, I was less impressed. I loved A People’s History the first time I read it, but the more I learned about American history in general the more I realized its flaws. I think of it as a book to give precocious 15-year-olds who think that history is boring. Hopefully, it can then serve as a gateway to better-researched stuff.

To me Zinn’s best book is his autobiography, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train. Besides the fact that the title is the best metaphor for discussing historical bias that I’ve ever encountered, it is much easier to enjoy without qualms as you can’t expect him to be objective when he tells his own story. Lifting a sentence from it quoted in the Boston Globe‘s obituary:

“From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’ ; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it. This, of course, was a recipe for trouble.”

As I remember it, he argues that since kids grow up with the Heroic Master Narrative of American history their whole lives, he doesn’t need to give that side of the story. We all already know it far too well.

I think this perspective is why his books have sold so well. People who don’t know anything about history from the bottom up are probably just as surprised by his arguments as I was when I first heard him. He will always be a breath of fresh air to people who pick up his works for the first time.

How much of the Bible do you have to ignore…

27 12 2009

…to think that Jesus was wealthy? There’s that stuff about the rich man, the camel and the eye of the needle; there’s the whole episode with the money changers and the temple; and if he was born rich why did Mary give birth in a manger? Surely they could have bought their way into the inn.

The turn of the last century had the Social Gospel. We’re stuck with these “Prosperity Gospel” people who apparently don’t make any pretense of actually reading the book they claim to revere. Isn’t there any piece of the liberal Christian tradition left in America these days?

Update: Matthew 6:19 (from The Sermon on the Mount):

19 Lay not up for yourselves treasures upon the earth, where
moth and rust doth consume, and where thieves break through
and steal :

20 But lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where
neither moth nor rust doth consume, and where thieves do not
break through nor steal.

If Jesus was wealthy, he was a gigantic hypocrite.

The history of Halloween.

31 10 2009

My daughter asked me about this earlier today and I was ashamed I couldn’t answer her. But not anymore…

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