Historians/History Historians/History articles brought to you by History News Network. Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 (http://framework.zend.com) https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/category/2 Do We Make Writing on Jefferson Harder than It Really Is?


Merrill Peterson, the preeminent Jeffersonian scholar, writes in his watershed work, The Jefferson Image in the American Mind, “Jefferson was a baffling series of contradictions.” Albert Ellis in American Sphinxstates magisterially that Jefferson’s “multiple personalities” are much like “the artful disguises of a confidence man.” Peter Onuf writes in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, “The search for a single definitive, ‘real’ Jefferson is a fool’s errand, setting us off on a hopeless search for the kind of ‘knowledge’ that even (or especially) elude sophisticated moderns in their encounters with each other—and themselves.” Thus, there appears at the beginning of nearly every Jeffersonian biography, including the best biographers, some statement of or caveat concerning the difficulty, if not impossibility, of getting to know Jefferson. It has become part of the ritual. It is also part of the lure.

Is Jefferson really a “baffling series of contradictions” and an “American sphinx,” and is Jeffersonian scholarship really a “fool’s errand”? Might not such caveats merely be rationalizations for the possibility of scholarly mistakes?

What is frequently missed in reading Peterson’s work is that he is not committed to, as is Onuf, the impossibility of continued progress in coming to know Jefferson. Yet there are for Peterson nodi.


One difficulty is that Jefferson—a man of great intellectual breadth and depth, and a man of uncommon ideals—wrote voluminously and appealed to everyone at some cognitive or visceral level. Because he appeals to everyone at some level, says Peterson, scholars give numerous depictions of him. “In his letters, account books, and other memoranda, Jefferson left ample records of his personal tastes and habits; yet, as with his public record, it was possible to draw from these almost any picture the writer wished.”


Furthermore, Jefferson often dissimulated. “More ardent in his imagination than his affections, he did not always speak exactly as he felt towards either friends or enemies. As a consequence, he has left hanging over a part of his public life a vapor of duplicity, or, to say the least, of indirection, the presence of which is generally felt more than it is seen.”


Moreover, Jefferson was fundamentally a curious immixture of everyday citizen and philosopher. “It was precisely because Jefferson combined, or seemed to combine, the traits of the man-of-the-people and the man-of-vision that he was capable of being mythicized as the Father of Democracy.”


Yet Peterson is clear that those difficulties can be overcome. The perplexity is in the scholars, not in Jefferson. Peterson writes: “The historians could not fairly plead the lack of information on Jefferson. If still fragmentary, it was constantly on the increase. The difficulty was less one of the scholars’ knowledge than of the uses they made of it. The image of Jefferson shattered when they came through the doors of partisan, and perhaps hereditary, prejudice to the interpretation of the facts.” He adds, “If Madison was right [in asserting an early and uniform devotion to liberty and the equal rights of man], as I think he was, the apparent ironies, paradoxes, and contradictions in Jefferson’s life and thought, so much dwelled upon by latter-day scholars, mattered little in the light of this fundamental harmony and clarity of purpose.”


Jefferson indeed was a man of fundamental harmony and clarity of purpose. Because of those enduring qualities, Jeffersonian scholarship might be a dead lift—an inordinately difficult task—but it is not the cul de sacthat scholars habitually claim it is.


There are reasons why scholars—and here I refer to first-tier scholars—make mistakes when approaching Jefferson.


First, there is refusal to take Jefferson at his word. As Peterson states, Jefferson does not always speak frankly. He often dissimulates. The reasons are politeness and guardedness. Jefferson is in the habit of speaking to correspondents in language with which they are familiar and on topics in which they are especially interested. Moreover, dissembling often occurs because of caution. Jefferson was wont, for instance, not to share his religious views with correspondents or the general public—his own family did not know his religious views—for fear of public censure. That fear was genuine. Close friend Dr. Thomas Cooper, for instance, was kept from a professorship at University of Virginia on account of his liberal religious views made public. Had Jefferson’s religious views been commonly known, his political career also would have doubtless been hampered. Such things noted, scholars who are committed to a Protean Jefferson tend to read into or “deconstruct” Jefferson’s writings, when there is no good reason for doing so, and the result is a proliferation of amphigories that follow the whims of scholars. unprofitably lead readers in a number of directions, and tell us nothing about Jefferson.


Second, there is the tendency to read the secondary literature without reading much of Jefferson. This mistake occurs especially on the subjects of race and slavery, where having thoughts of one’s own might be a signal of one’s own racism. On both topics, scholars characteristically remind themselves and other scholars that it is sufficient to glance at Query XIV of his Notes on the State of Virginia,without uptake of Jefferson’s caveat that the views expressed on Blacks are based on limited and biased observations, and to read the writings of Gordon-Reed and uptake her views on both subjects. Jefferson is racist because he owned slaves and freed too few in his life. Furthermore, Jefferson is hypocritical because he politically preached austerity but lived high on the hog and because he preached small government and strict constructionism but went forward with the Louisiana Purchase without constitutional sanction. The result of too much immersion in the secondary literature at the expense of reading Jefferson is scholarly moribundity. I have in my own years of Jeffersonian study found that many of the “contradictions” we find in Jefferson evanesce when one takes Jefferson at his word.


Third, there is aversion or unwillingness to engage critically with others in the secondary literature. In essays and biographies on Jefferson, there is all too little critical engagement with the writings of others. The unfortunate result is a scholarly inertia in the field of Jeffersonian studies, which is somewhat of a fetid mishmash. Just about anything goes and there is little, if any, forward movement. It is one thing to recognize the right of authors to express idiosyncratic views on some issue, but that not to say that all such idiosyncratic views carry the same weight. Some views are not well supported by evidence and those views ought to be weeded out through scholarly critical appraisal. They are not.


Last, there is failure to read what Jefferson readand what shaped his thinking, other than the political literature to which Jefferson had access and that Jefferson assimilated. Jefferson was widely read. He studied the sciences, religion, law, philology, morality, political thinking, and the arts, inter alia—viz., anything that might improve the human condition.


It is said by a grandchild that he was more often seen with a book by a Roman or Greek author than any other author. Authors such as Homer, Tacitus, Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus, and Demosthenes shaped his thinking more than others and lack of acquaintancy with that literature—especially in the original language—and with Greek culture and Roman culture leads to misapprehension of Jefferson’s political, educational, and moral views. I shall go so far to say that anyone who wishes to be a competent Jeffersonian scholar should be trained also as a Classical scholar.


Again, there is Jefferson’s empiricism. He was a dyed-in-the-wool empiricist in the manner of Bacon, Locke, Kames, and Hume and lack of acquaintancy with philosophical empiricism often leads to egregious errors—especially when it comes to apprehension of Jefferson’s views in Notes on the State of Virginia. Empiricism in the manner of Bacon and Newton—e.g., use of hypothetic-deductive reasoning, appeal to simplicity, detailed description without critical commentary—appear in abundancy in the book, especially in the early naturalistic queries. Again, no one without amply acquaintancy with philosophical empiricism—e.g., Newton’s Principia Philosophica and Stewarts’ Elements of the Philosophy of the Human Mind—ought to enter seriously into Jeffersonian studies. That is why Jefferson is often said to be wishy-washy and confused in his Notes on the State of Virginia, when he claims that he is not afforded evidence sufficient to confirm a hypothesis or decide among competing hypotheses—e.g., the strange existence of petrified shells in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of Kentucky in Query VI.


Also, Jefferson took morality very seriously. I have argued in several publications that he was preeminently a moralist. His moral views were shaped not only mostly by ancient virtue ethics, but also by the New Testament, the moral-sense and moral-sentiment literature of his day like Kames’ Principles of Morality and Natural Religionand Hutcheson’s A Short Introduction to Moral Philosophy, religious sermons like those of Rev. Bourdaloue and Rev. Massillon, novels like Cervantes’ Don Quijote, poetry like Shakespeare’s plays and Homer’s Odyssey, and utopian literature like Mercier’s L’an 2440. His moral views were also the grounding of his political views, as the aim of a Jeffersonian republic was not only efficient governing, but also a happy and thriving citizenry in conformance with political liberalism—what I call liberal eudaimonism.


In sum, Jeffersonian scholarship is not a fool’s errand, but it is extremely arduous. It requires that a scholar be of large erudition and widely read in all, or almost all, subjects that Jefferson studied. When the groundwork is done, one might find that Jefferson was a man who was in vital respects much simpler, and less perplexing, than scholars typically portray him.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171191 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171191 0
What I'm Reading: An Interview with Urban Historian Carl Abbott


Carl Abbott is an American historian and urbanist, specialising in the related fields of urban history, western American history, urban planning, and science fiction, and is a frequent speaker to local community groups.

Why did you choose history as your career? 

I’ll attribute it to Scrooge McDuck. In the early and middle fifties, writer/artist Carl Barks created a series of classic Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck comic books that often sent Donald, Scrooge, and the nephews chasing a historical myth or artifact. Along with the story, you could learn about Coronado’s search for Cibola, Vikings in Labrador, and Walter Raleigh’s expedition up the Orinoco in search of El Dorado. There was plenty of fantasy in the comics, but also tantalizing historical nuggets that led naturally to the Landmark Books, a series of history books for kids that my dad brought home from the library, and to reading real accounts of archeology. At one point I thought it would be great to be an archeologist, until I figured that they spent their time roughing it in sweltering jungles and blazing deserts and decided that reading and writing about the past in reasonably comfortable libraries might be more pleasant.  

What was your favorite historic site trip? Why?

Chaco Canyon: There is nothing else like it to remind 21st century Americans about the depth and complexity of our continental history. Tour the grand houses on the canyon floor and then climb to the rim to imagine the trade routes that radiated from what was essentially a metropolitan complex. Hadrian’s Wall and Housesteads Fort provide something of the same imaginative transport into a different past, especially when visited in proper English weather with dark skies, wind, and rain showers. For those interested, Gillian Bradshaw, Island of Ghosts, is a very well done novel that is set at the wall in the 2nd century and speaks to Britain’s multiracial past.


If you’d asked me when I was six years old, it would have been Castillo de San Marcos at St. Augustine (a fort! with high stone walls!! and cannon!!!).


If you could have dinner with any three historians (dead or alive), who would you choose and why?


Charles Beard, Frederick Jackson Turner, and Carl Becker, foundational voices for United States history as a comprehensive scholarly endeavor embracing social, economic, and intellectual history.  I would be eager for their opinions on our current ideas about historical epistemology and on the vastly expanded range of our understanding of past lives and peoples. If I wanted to be provocative, I might add or substitute that historical gossip monger Suetonius to see what juicy stories he didn’t dare put into his Lives, although I’d have to brush up on my high school Latin.


What books are you reading now?


I just finished service on an OAH book prize committee that received ninety submissions, so I feel extremely caught up on certain aspects of U.S. history. I recommend Beth Lew-Williams, The Chinese Must Go, Susan Sleeper-Smith, Indigenous Prosperity and American Conquest, and Julian Lim, Porous Borders.  On the nonacademic side, I have just finished Margaret Drabble, The Dark Flood Rises, a deeply humane novel about the ways that we confront aging and death (it is not depressing).


What is your favorite history book?


William H. McNeill’s The Rise of the West has been dated by decades of global history scholarship from different regions and postcolonial perspectives but it was eye-opening in the mid-1960s for someone who had just been through the Western Civ approach to history. I had the stimulating experience of taking a course on the history of the Balkans from McNeill at the University of Chicago and hearing about his approach to teaching (read a lot of books, close them, talk about what you’ve learned) and to writing (read, take minimal notes, close the books, organize your thoughts, write). I’ve only been able to follow this very challenging sequence a couple times, but I’ve really liked the results. After you revisit The Rise of the West, read Kim Stanley Robinson’s alternative history novel Years of Rice and Salt, which imagines the course of world history if 99.9% of Europeans had died in the plagues of the 1300s.


What is your favorite library and bookstore when looking for history books?


Living in Portland, I have easy access to Powell’s City of Books, a great independent bookstore that’s chock full of interesting finds on its multiple color-coded levels. When looking to order a book online, consider visiting Powells.com rather than defaulting to the first letter of the alphabet.


As a researcher, I’ve been privileged to work in both the Newberry Library and the Huntington Library, two treasure houses for scholars. When you walk out of the Newberry you have all the vibrancy of Chicago to enjoy; when you take a break at the Huntington you can wander its gardens. Chicago may be urbs in horto but that chunk of San Marino is bibliotheca in horto. Because I might have ended up a historical geographer if I had not attended a very small college with no geography courses, let’s highlight the Newberry’s map collection and the Geography and Map Division at the Library of Congress. 


Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?


I am not much of a collector. The old books in our house are Quaker journals and sermons from the 18th and 19th century, passed down in my wife’s family for several generations, which support her writing and teaching on the Society of Friends. 


Which history museums are your favorites? Why?


There’s no way I could show my face around here if I didn’t single out the Oregon Historical Society, where I’ve advised on numerous projects and whose library I’ve used for 40 years. Like all state historical museums, it has been responding to the need to broaden and deepen the “white guys” narrative with very good intent and generally successful results. I serve on a citizen committee to monitor a local tax levy that supports the Society, so I do get an inside view of their efforts to do a lot without enough money. We also need to acknowledge the valuable work of county historical societies and museums all over the country, where public historians are doing their best to add richness and nuance to the old pioneer stories—so a shout-out to the Deschutes County Historical Society (Bend, OR) and Crook County Historical Society (Prineville, OR) for recently inviting me to give talks and providing the impetus for weekends in sunny central Oregon. On big museum scene, I learn new things on each visit to the National Museum of the American Indian. 


Which historical time period is your favorite?


The right question can make any period interesting, but what originally engaged me as a graduate student were the early decades of the 19th century when the territory northwest of the Ohio River was being transferred and transformed from Indian to white occupation and development. This is the area where I grew up and where my family has roots to the 1820s, and I wanted to understand how it had changed with the Miami and Erie Canal, early railroads, and industrialization that would create the technological infrastructure that produced the Wright brothers.


What would be your advice for history majors looking to make history as a career?

Historians should make friends with geographers and other social scientists and take courses in policy research methods. Much discussion of non-academic careers for historians focuses on closely related areas like museums, archives, and historic preservation. Historians with social science and policy research skills have a wider range of options in government and think tanks jobs that should not automatically be ceded to economists. 


Who was your favorite history teacher?


The entire History Department at Swarthmore College when I was there in the 1960s—Robert Bannister, James A. Field, Jr., Paul Beik, and Lawrence Lafore.  Specializing in U.S., French, and British history, they had distinct personalities but all nurtured a love of critical inquiry.  In addition, I have a soft spot for the Chicago historian Bessie Louise Pierce. She was long retired from the University of Chicago by my time there, but attended my dissertation defense and told me quite firmly not let myself be pushed around by my committee (Richard Wade, Robert Fogel, Neil Harris). 


Why is it essential to save history and libraries? 


It’s a truism that we are all our own historians, a point made long ago by Carl Becker and recently reaffirmed by Edward Ayers. We understand our lives and world by the stories we tell about how we—and things in general—got to be as they are. It is the job of folks who are paid to study, write, and talk about history to help people tell accurate and inclusive stories that can be the foundation for a progressive and inclusive nation. That’s as important in Britain, India, Mexico, and every other country as it is in the United States.


The last couple decades have been a good time for public libraries. Cities all over the world have been investing in library systems that are true community learning centers as well as book-lenders.  The list of cities that have found it worthwhile to build new, architecturally exciting downtown libraries is long. Calgary is the most recent entry, but there’s Perth in Australia, Birmingham in the UK, Guangzhou, Amsterdam, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Denver, Minneapolis, and Chicago (which helped to kick off this new wave). It is quite exciting for someone who grew up on trips of exploration to the downtown library in Dayton, Ohio, and it holds promise for civic life. Academic historians understandably  focus on university and research libraries, but public libraries nourish our audience.


Do you have a new book coming out?


I have two shorter books in process for series aimed to introduce topics to general readers. City Planning: A Very Short Introduction is for an Oxford University Press series.  Quakerism: The Basics, which I am writing with my wife, is for a Routledge series. I am trying to build up steam for a book on the ways in which speculative fiction uses and abuses history (galactic empires modeled on Rome, alternative history, etc.) but it is a long way from daylight.



Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171178 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171178 0
What Historians Are Saying: Ralph Northam, Blackface, and the KKK Click inside the image below and scroll to see tweets.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171144 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171144 0
What Historians Are Saying: State of the Union 2019

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171060 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171060 0
The Refugee Camps of Twentieth-Century Britain—Historian Jordanna Bailkin Discusses Her Groundbreaking New Book "Unsettled"

As the United States wrestles with issues of immigration and the status of asylum seekers, the history of refugee treatment can provide important lessons and insights. A primary concern remains how to resettle or encamp non-citizens who claim refugee status because of persecution or violence in their home countries. As lawmakers remain deadlocked on solutions, this fraught process is haunted by accounts of mistreatment of asylum seekers in detention, separation of children from parents, housing of children in cages, and the deaths of children and adults in US custody. 


The refugee camp experience of Britain may be instructive in this era of mass immigration. When you think of camps, images of twentieth century Britain probably don’t spring to mind, but British camps housed hundreds of thousands of refugees over the course of the twentieth century in response to an array of conflicts and upheavals. However, the full story of these camps has been virtually forgotten in the annals of Britain’s past. 


To correct this oversight, acclaimed historian and history professor Jordanna Bailkin scoured national and local archives in Britain and interviewed dozens of former refugees, camp workers and local citizens to reveal this mostly ignored and complicated story, as she recounts in her groundbreaking new book, Unsettled: Refugee Camps and the Making of Modern Britain (Oxford University Press). 


With a focus on the period from the First World War to the 1980s, Professor Bailkin discusses the plight of refugees who arrived in Britain, from Belgians, Basques, Jews and Poles who fled war to Hungarians, Anglo-Egyptians, Ugandan Asians, and Vietnamese who faced expulsion and violence. She brings to life the everyday experiences of refugees, British citizens, and camp staff as they made friends, married, gave birth, ailed, died, flourished, failed, and together weathered times of conflict and times of harmony.


Unsettled also delves into the lives of the mobile, displaced Britons who lived in the refugee camps, a prominent aspect of this story that suggests the failure of the British government to adequately provide for its own. Professor Bailkin observes: “Ironically, the refugee camp is where the unsettled nature of Britons themselves became visible.”  


As the book stresses, the policies giving rise to these camps were critical in shaping today’s multicultural Britain and also served as antecedents to the treatment of immigrants and refugees now.


Unsettled offers lessons and warnings for the massive refugee crisis today in its examination of the experience of a modern liberal democracy with refugee camps that brings forth both the humane and the brutal aspects of policies enacted and implemented by Britain in the twentieth century. The book stands as a powerful testament to the idea that, despite differences such as nationality or race or immigration status or religion, people are much more similar than different, especially in their needs and desires and hopes.

Jordanna Bailkin is the Jere L. Bacharach Endowed Professor in International Studies and Professor of History at the University of Washington in Seattle. She specializes in the history of modern Britain and the British Empire. Her other books include The Culture of Propertyand The Afterlife of Empire, which won the Morris D. Forkosch Prize from the American Historical Association, the Stansky Book Prize from the North American Conference on British Studies, and the Biennial Book Prize from the Pacific Coast Conference on British Studies. 


Professor Bailkin generously discussed her new book and her findings on British refugee camps at her office at the University of Washington, Seattle.


Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your new book Professor Bailkin. Your research on this forgotten refugee history in Britain was truly extensive. Did Unsettled grow out of work on your previous book, The Afterlife of Empire, about post Second World War Britain, or was there an event or incident that sparked Unsettled?


Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes. As often happens, you come across a document for a previous project that doesn’t make sense or is disturbing in some way. That was definitely the case for this book. I was looking at a document for The Afterlife of Empire that was about New Towns in Britain, and it was specifically about how to draw immigrants of color to New Towns to prevent their clustering in urban environments. One of the officials quoted in this document made this throwaway comment that “maybe we could get some Ugandan Asians to come from camp.”

I had never heard that there were Ugandan Asian camps in Britain, so I didn’t know what he was talking about or where these camps were. I never found a response to this proposal, though there were other New Towns later that tried to attract Ugandan Asians.

The idea of camps stuck with me because it’s not a word that we associate with metropolitan Britain. What did he even mean by a camp when he mentioned Ugandan Asians? When I started looking into the issue, I found there were 16 Ugandan Asian camps in Britain from 1972 to 1973. They had a lot of euphemistic terms to describe them like “reception centers” or “resettlement centers” and they were also often referred to as camps.

That was the starting point for the book and, initially, it was going to be a book about the Ugandan Asian camps in the 1970s. But, in investigating these camps, I realized there was a longer history of these places being used for other refugee groups. In particular, the Poles had been in camps (after the Second World War) for a much longer time. That made me look backwards and forwards from the seventies and through the whole twentieth century arc of encampment in Britain.


Robin Lindley: What was the historical problem or theme you were addressing in Unsettled?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Britain has long had a sense of itself offering refuge to a number of different people through the twentieth century and an image of its own tolerance and generosity. This image is not necessarily incorrect, but camps are very much at odds with that narrative. That conventional narrative moves quickly from the moment when people fleeing a country where they’re being persecuted to their assimilation in Britain and their integration into a British community. Or, alternatively, their reimmigration elsewhere.

I was really interested in pausing that narrative and focusing on the moments when people were in camps because that’s a moment that both many refugees don’t like to talk about and that the state tends to gloss over in its own history of refugee dealings. It doesn’t fit well with the stories of being self-made and being successful within a single generation, nor with the story of the state’s generosity. Something is skipped over in that narrative. 

Sometimes people stayed in camps only a few days and sometimes for years and I wanted to zero in on this moment encampment in the lives of refugees and the lives of locals, and ask what was it like to live in a camp? What was it like to live near a camp? What was it like to run or volunteer in a camp? What do all of those experiences tell us about the experience of being in twentieth-century Britain that’s not easy to see otherwise. 

What I saw was very unexpected encounters between different groups of refugees, between refugees and locals, and refugees and citizens that were really specific and distinctive to refugees in the camps that didn’t happen other places. And the camps are in many bizarre locations, as you can see from the map in the book. They were all over the place.


Robin Lindley: And the book is organized thematically rather than chronologically.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Organizing it thematically was an important choice for the book. We think of encounters across cultures in Britain as happening in major cities like London or Leicester. I wanted to look at other spaces, some of which were rural and in the middle of nowhere that didn’t have a lot of minority or immigrant populations and to think about when refugees intersect with citizens in these spaces, what did that look like? 

If I had told the stories of refugees in the twentieth century chronologically, it would wind up being divided by ethnicities, so each group would get a separate chapter. I was uncomfortable with that structure as I thought about race and immigration in Britain. I found when I took a theme like resistance or material culture or gender or family, you could see intersections and interactions that weren’t otherwise visible. 

What became the most startling part of the book to me is that there were all of these Britons living in camps that weren’t necessarily authorized, so the cast of characters became richer than I was expecting.


Robin Lindley: Were there a couple of episodes or interactions that particularly struck you?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes. The presence of Britons in these camps was definitely a shock to me. That was something I’d never heard about.

 The Polish camps were probably the places where the closeness between refugees and citizens was the most visible. It might be surprising to us today that the camps were not necessarily places where refugees and citizens were divided from each other, but they could also be places that demonstrated their intimacy and the proximity.

Because I looked at the entire twentieth century, I could see recurrences that were striking to me. Almost every generation of camps would have these twinned accusations of being too luxurious and too barbaric at the same time. That happens with every generation of camps. You get critics of the camps from both directions: saying these people are too coddled and getting everything for free, or that conditions are degrading—depending on the speaker’s views of the welfare state. 

The critiques of the camps are very much a reflection of ideas about the poor and the homeless in Britain. Some critics would say it was terrible that so little was being done for these refugees and we can’t expect people to live like this at all. That incongruity between camps being seen as too barbarous and too luxurious suggested a lot about what people expected states to do for citizens and noncitizens alike. 


Robin Lindley: What sorts of Britons showed up in the refugee camps? Were they mainly squatters or homeless people? 

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Some of them were, especially in the Polish camps. There were demobilized soldiers and their families who squatted in Polish camps. Some of those people had been denied council housing and were designated “problem families” by local authorities. Refugee camps weren’t just used for foreign people who had been displaced overseas, but they were also used by “problem families” who were very much local and British. That was an unauthorized use of the refugee camps.

So, there were squatters and there were also official “centers” for homeless Britons located within refugee camps. The National Assistance Board took over the care of Polish refugees in 1946 and, two years later, reconstituted the way it was treating homeless Britons. In 1948, the Board created a center for homeless Britons inside a Polish refugee camp. Poles and Britons were not supposed to sleep in the same huts, for example, but they had the same cooks, the same warden, and the same stores of clothing. So there was an interaction in this camp that was not necessarily expected.


Robin Lindley: Did authorities just wink at Britons living in refugee camps, or was this situation officially approved?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: It was both. The squatters were completely in rebellion against the state. So that happened without state authorization. And authorities had to make an awkward decision about whether they were going to send in military forces to displace British veterans from the camp for Poles. They decided not to do that, so the squatters stayed. In the case of the Kelvedon Camp, the center for homeless Britons was actually set up by the National Assistance Board so those Britons were there with the authorization of the state. And I also interviewed Polish refugees who remembered English “wayfarers” or “vagrants” walking through the camp or sleeping outside or in ditches, or breaking into huts that refugees had vacated. 

So, there was always a British presence in refugee camps and, in accounts, that’s sometimes openly acknowledged and sometimes not.


Robin Lindley: It’s remarkable that millions of displaced Britons were facing extreme deprivation with food rationing and homelessness following the Second World War, yet the British were willing to assist refugees.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: It’s important to note how many Britons were living in conditions of displacement. Many were living in Nissen huts and experiencing being displaced from their homes. One big question the welfare state had to answer was how to deal with that domestic displacement in relation to stories of the stories of displacement overseas. 

Was it the same to be a homeless Briton bombed out during the Blitz and a refugee from abroad? Are there advantages that citizens have that refugees did not? Were refugees’ needs like the needs of the British poor or the elderly, or were they distinctive because they’d lost their homeland, their culture, and sometimes their place of citizenship? Different authorities had a range of responses to these questions.


Robin Lindley: There seems to be a British humanitarian impulse in setting up these refugee camps. Were they also responding to some legal edicts that required them to house refugees?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: That’s a complicated issue. With many of these cases, the legal right of displaced people to enter Britain was unquestioned, such as with the Ugandan Asians and the Anglo-Egyptians who had British passports. 

One of the peculiarities of refugee history in Britain is that you can be a refugee and a citizen at the same time. 

Although the expulsion of Asians in Uganda did not occur until 1972, even in the sixties British colonial representatives predicted that the new African leaders would kick out their Asian populations, not just in Uganda, but in Kenya and elsewhere. They had to prepare for thousands of “African Asians” who would arrive in Britain and had a legal right to be there. They had to consider where to put them. Would they encourage them to go back to India even though they had not recently come from India? Or encourage them to emigrate to Canada or the United States? The Colonial Office and the Foreign Office considered that question for more than a decade. 

People who remember the Ugandan Asian crisis remember what felt like a very rapid, almost overnight emergency when people were camped out in airports and train stations. The response to these growing crises was to pretend they were not happening so they became emergencies. The state had a real investment in the creation and sustenance of emergencies rather than preparing for what turned out to be almost constant refugee crises. 

There’s a real divide between people who worked with refugees directly such as aid workers who wanted to create long-term or permanent structures for refugee aid, and the Home Office that treated each crisis as discontinuous and disconnected from previous crises, and nothing to do with Britain itself, so that each crisis became its own emergency.


Robin Lindley: You detail the conditions in various camps. In terms of camps, the British are often credited with or blamed for the creation of concentration camps in South African during the Boer War in the 1890s as a means to concentrate, detain and control hostile populations. Does this history tie into your study of the refugee camps of the twentieth century?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: The person who knows the most about the South African camps is Aidan Forth from Loyola who just won a prize from the North American Conference for British Studies for his new book, Barbed-Wire Imperialism. He’s written a wonderful book on the camps in South Africa and also on the enclosure camps in colonial India and argues that these camps are generative and became the model for twentieth century camps. Those camps are more standardized than the camps I look at in Britain, which were very diverse sites where people had a lot of different experiences. 

I would agree that part of what defines a camp in the British or imperial context is the twinned experience of aid and detention. What makes a refugee camp a camp is that it’s a place to receive aid but it’s also a place where freedom is constrained in some ways, mostly in terms of physical and political freedom.


Robin Lindley: It seems that there was a spectrum in terms of detention and freedom in the camps you examined.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: There was a lot of variety. That’s one of the ways that the camps differed the most from one another. Some of them were completely open and people could come and go pretty much freely, and others were under armed guard and surrounded by barbed wire. 

The camps on military bases had more of a restrictive structure to them that preceded the arrival of refugees. But the Home Office also hired private security firms to man the gates of some of the camps, certainly by the seventies and eighties for the Ugandan Asian and Vietnamese camps.

Something I found interesting and thought about doing a new project on is that the company Securicor that provided security at those refugee camps runs immigration detention centers today. This company that started out with security work in twentieth century refugee camps has built a multibillion-dollar industry of detention in the twenty-first century, as I note briefly in the epilogue of the book. 


Robin Lindley: Which populations were most likely to be detained or held in secure areas?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: The idea of detaining refugees starts with interment during the First World War and those internees were actually refugees. The same people could be defined as refugees one day and as undesirable aliens the next.

The Belgians were the first group of refugees in the book chronologically during the First World War. They had a lot of free movement in and out of Earls Court, where many of them were originally placed, but there were rules about where Belgians could settle having to do with national security issues at the time. They tended to be dissuaded from coastal areas and they had to register with local police in certain areas. So there were always some restrictions. 

The Jewish men arriving at Kitchener Camp in the thirties had to apply for permits to leave the camp. And there’s a picture in the book of the big, heavy gate that closes the camp. One simply didn’t just walk out and leave the camp for the day and go out into the town of Sandwich. You had to apply for a pass from the guard. 

Other groups like the Basque children at North Stoneham (in the late thirties) were seen as completely uncontrolled. This was a big problem for camp authorities who were always trying to wrangle these kids back into the camp. There was a barbed wire fence around the camp, but the kids were constantly escaping: running off into the forest or into the town. Some of those kids were older adolescents who didn’t want to be in the camp anymore and just left. 

The anxiety about the porousness of the camp is different in each case, but it’s a persistent anxiety. With the Basque children, the British fear was that they would fall prey to communist indoctrination – either radicalizing Britons or becoming radicalized themselves. With refugees of color, the British worried that they would gravitate towards cities that already had large minority populations and would create “ghettoes.” 


Robin Lindley: It seems there was quite a lot of sexism with officials fearing that local women would seduce refugee men, or that refugee women would seduce local men. Males were also a concern.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Definitely, and in both directions. With the Basque children, there was a concern that English men would come into the camp and try to seduce teenage girls.  And that the Basque teenage boys were feared as trying to corrupt local girls. So many fears and anxieties spilled out.


Robin Lindley: And many romances.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes, especially between volunteers and refugees because many of the volunteers were university students who were actually living in the camps themselves. 


Robin Lindley: Weren’t locals generally tolerant of refugee neighbors?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: That varies a lot, not just in tolerance but in awareness—how focused people were on camp. Did they acknowledge the camp was there? Did they see it as part of the life of the community?

There are a couple of cases in the book where there was close connection between a camp and a town, but there are other places where the camp was ignored and not seen as integrated into the life of the community. 

One of the things I try to show in the chapter on material culture and the environment with the camps on military bases is that these bases had long histories in their communities as celebrated but sometimes resented. The reaction to the refugee camp doesn’t only have to do with prejudice against a particular group of refugees but also with the history of the base and how the base figured into the life of the community. Sometimes the base had been a place of commemoration where people would go to celebrate veterans or to see demonstrations with airplanes. But other times, especially if they had been American bases, there had already been quite a bit of friction between the town and the base, so reopening the base for a refugee population reactivated those older memories and resentments in complicated ways. People had their own relationships with those bases that transcended the moments when refugees lived there.


Robin Lindley: In some situations, refugees were very isolated, especially with small groups of refugees. There were small camps and then the use of those corrugated-metal Nissen huts. 

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: It depends on the camp. In the Basque camp at North Stoneham, there were tents set up in open fields for the Basque refugees. That was a different physical experience than a Nissen hut which was a different experience than in a country home or an estate. So refugees in Britain could have many different experiences of camp life.

For the Ugandan Asians, at times, even one person may have multiple experiences as they moved from camp to camp. As the number contracted and more people settled in communities, many Uganda Asians were moved from one camp to another as a way to consolidate the refugee population. That meant one person might experience three or four different kind of camps that would be very different from each other. 


Robin Lindley: In the US now, separation of refugee families is a controversial issue and children have been separated from parents under the current administration. What did you learn about family separation in these British camps?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: That’s a very uneven story. There were moments when the state promoted reunification of refugee families, and other moments where the state was either inadvertently or explicitly involved in family separation. 

Part of this has to do with the definition of family. The state was not necessarily working with the same definition of family as refugees. With Ugandan Asians, the question was whether to use the British nuclear family definition or the multigenerational definition. They might separate grandparents and grandchildren, but keep parents and children together. 

The place where I found this heart wrenching was with single Poles who felt the refugee camp became their family. At some point, single people were kicked out of the Northwick camp. Officials said Northwick would be a family camp and planned to disperse the unmarried refugees elsewhere. But you get these powerful letters from mostly single Polish men saying that the camp residents are their family and that they can’t have their own families because they were injured in the Second World War. So, they really advocated for their own, more expansive definition of family than the welfare state was willing to accommodate. That was a fascinating example showing the challenges for refugees of working with the state’s definitions of family.


Robin Lindley: Did you find any situations akin to what we’ve seen recently with refugees to the US where children are separated from parents and detained and even kept in cages?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: No. I looked at two sets of child refugees: the Basque children and the Jewish children of the Kindertransport. Their parents knew they would be separated from them. 

The brutality of those debates was really about who counts as a child, and that echoes very much today. Now, all kinds of medical technology are employed with Syrian refugees trying to come to Britain. They may x-ray teeth to see if refugees are really children. And there’s all of this anxiety about people trying to disguise themselves as children and slip into the country as children. 

Those very fraught debates go back to the period I’m looking at. There were debates about the chronological parameters of being a child, by which the British mean being young enough to be apolitical. With the Basques, they felt that, as the children became adolescents, they would become communists or become anarchists, and have radical political associations that are disruptive to British political life. Britain wanted to save these innocent children from Franco and fascism but, if they’re too old, they’re no longer seen as innocent but are feared as ideologues who could cause disorder. 

So, there was always this tension about who gets to be counted as a child, and whether refugee children are truly “innocent” children at all. 


Robin Lindley: It seems that many politicians preferred to aid homeless Britons before refugees.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: That story changes a lot over the twentieth century. The refugees became a sign of everything that was wrong with immigration in anti-immigration politics that called for closing the border. But they could also be privileged over ordinary or economic migrants, especially in the sixties. So, there was a lot of ambivalence in how refugees were positioned in relation to others who were mobile against their will or for reasons that they didn’t necessarily choose. 


Robin Lindley: That gets to the definition of refugee, which is also complicated. We usually think of refugees as fleeing persecution or injustice or violence.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: That goes back to the 1951 definition of the refugee, so it’s a Cold War definition. Laura Madokoro has written a terrific book about this issue regarding the exclusion of East Asian from the UN’s definition of refugee. Her book, Elusive Refuge, was influential in my writing on who that UN definition includes and excludes. 

In Britain, this situation is more complicated with refugees who also have the right to legally enter Britain. That’s true for not only the Ugandan Asian and the Anglo-Egyptians, but the Poles were also offered British citizenship because of their military service. So, there’s not always a clear line between a refugee and a citizen in Britain the way there might be elsewhere.


Robin Lindley: And you discuss the Vietnamese refugees following the Vietnam War and the policies of dispersal both in Britain and the US. Was Britain following the US lead in dispersal of Vietnamese refugees?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: I didn’t find any explicit connection to the American imperatives or American precedents. 

Britain didn’t want refugees to cluster in one part of the country but wanted to spread them through the country, especially in areas of low immigrant population. But dispersal was unsuccessful and it didn’t work at all in any of the cases I looked at. The precedent for it that I saw was not an American precedent but rather the British efforts to disperse migrants of color from the Commonwealth. There had been Home Office experimentation in the 1960s when there was thinking about how to get immigrants to disperse. In the end, even conservatives acknowledged that there was no legal way to do this. It was a fantasy that Conservatives had that they could engineer a population map in which immigrants of color would disperse and be less “concentrated.” 

What’s different with refugees is that the camps became mechanisms of dispersal for many camp officials. They were places to hold people while they made up their minds where to settle. Many camp leaders believed that the longer people stayed in camps and the more people went to camp instead of directly into the community, the more control they could have over their place of settlement. You had letters from the Home Office to camp officials saying to remember they couldn’t hold people against their will and to remember there was no legal way to tell Ugandan Asians in a camp that they can’t move to Leicester. But there was an enormous effort to dissuade people—again ineffectively and unsuccessfully. 

One of the reasons people were moved so much within the camp system was to try to accomplish the goal of dispersal. If someone was asked about job plans and said I want to go to Leicester, they might be moved to another camp that is farther away, disrupting all of their plans for finding a job and finding housing all over again.

I think refugees present an opportunity that migrants do not for the state to have more control over where they live. They represent the possibility of controlling the settlement of people of color in Britain that has been tried (and failed) for other populations.


Robin Lindley: The US administration today is raising concerns about criminal refugees. It doesn’t seem, however, that crime was a major factor concerning refugees in Britain.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: There were some attacks on refugee camps by the National Front and other right-wing organizations, but they tended to be around issues of employment rather than crime. There were a few incidents of riots in the Basque camps, which sparked British fears about refugees turning into criminals – all the more so because the Basques were supposed to be innocent victims of fascism. 


Robin Lindley: Was that reaction to Basque children because of a concern about communism in the late thirties?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes, but it also had to do with the definition of a child. There were Basque boys who rioted around poor conditions where they were accused of attacking locals and saying that they were underfed and underhoused. There was a concern about their radical political nature and also a concern about the potential violence of unsupervised male adolescents. I try to look at these incidents in the book from both the perspectives of the Basque boys and of locals making accusations.

In general, the accusation of criminality among refugees did not play a huge role in British debates.


Robin Lindley: Your research was extensive on this forgotten or hidden history—and you unearthed so much. You captured unknown stories that might otherwise be lost.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: One of the important aspects of the research for me was making sure that I spent a lot of time in the local archives. I knew the National Archives well and they were a tremendously rich source. But in the local archives you see that many of the policies dictated by the central government were not being carried out in the way they were envisioned. There were very different executions of the policy reflected in the local record. You also get a different picture on how the camps fit into their local environments. 

Did locals care about this camp or not? Often the local records were more personal and more visceral. The evidence I found about personal connections between refugees and citizens tended to be from local archives. That’s where you see people saying I had never met an Asian person before I started volunteering at this camp. 


Robin Lindley: And you did a lot of interviews with former refugees and volunteers.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes. I did quite a bit of oral history work for the book. That was fascinating partly because people gloss over this moment of encampment in their life and don’t necessarily want to talk about it but, once they did, they had very vivid memories of this time of encampment. And it was a very explicit decision to not only talk with people who had lived in the camps as refugees but also to talk with people who worked with them and volunteered with them to get a sense of the whole of the camp such as the on the ecology and demography of it.

The volunteers were interesting to me because they had mostly been very young, idealistic, anti-colonial, and they saw their time in the camps as pivotal in their lives. I talked to quite a few people who said that experience had changed their lives and that’s why they started in social work or why they worked with the homeless. The also developed an interest in the region or country of the refugees they worked with. For many volunteers, that time in a camp was transformative. 


Robin Lindley: And you noted that some politicians criticized those idealistic volunteers.

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes. They were at odds with the state in many ways. And they often clashed with state authorities within the camps.

Robin Lindley: We’re at a different point in history now in the US and Britain. Britain also has a different legal system, but do you think US can draw some lessons from the British refugee experience that you studied?


Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes, I think there are important precedents because Britain is also a liberal democracy that experienced persistent refugee crises over the course of a century.

One lesson is that because of the intimacy of refugees and citizens, it was never really possible for Britons to distance themselves from camps in the same way that we have all been able to do in the twenty-first century.  

In Britain there was a closeness of contact with refugees in terms of marrying refugees, or sharing material conditions with them, so in many ways Britons could not see refugees as being different from themselves. That’s one lesson for all of us to take away in this new century of camps—that camps don’t need to mark segregation of people, but they can also be places where other kinds of relationships develop. 


Robin Lindley: In the US there’s a general lack of understanding that people from outside the country who feel imperiled have a right to apply for refugee status under international agreements that we have signed onto. Do you have thoughts on the legal requirements or increasing the understanding of our citizens about refugee rights?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: I think this has changed tremendously in Britain as well. One reason my story stops in the 1980s is because that’s when Britain’s laws on asylum became much more restrictive. There were, for example, new punishments for ships that bring people into Britain without proper documentation. Those carrier companies can be fined.

An effect of those new laws was the end of refugee camps in Britain. Some camps were pushed out of Britain to places like the now dismantled “jungle” in Calais. In Britain, the camps have been replaced by detention centers so you have the end of one institution that was supposed to settle refugees and the rise of another explicitly only designed to detain them and ultimately to deport them. Sometimes these detention centers are in similar spaces as the refugee camps and sometimes involve the same security companies that had been involved in refugee camps. So there are continuities from the twentieth century experience. 


Robin Lindley: And the private company Securicor is involved in creating detention facilities in the US too?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes, it’s an international company and is involved in Australia as well. 

I think there’s a definite shift to detention now, but it’s important to remember that the refugee camps of the twentieth century always had elements of detention. The infrastructure of detention has grown tremendously, but it was made possible and facilitated by some of these antecedents of constraining refugee freedoms within Britain. 


Robin Lindley: Are you following up on these issues in what you’re working on now?

Professor Jordanna Bailkin: Yes. I’m very interested in the history of private security and tracing the origins of private security in Britain and its empire. 

I’m also working on a totally different project about friendship and neighbors in modern Britain. It’s a shift to a more cheerful topic! I’m interested in how the state invested in relationships that were not marriage. There’s been great research on how the state regulates romantic relationships and marriage, but I’m really interested in relationships that fall below the state’s radar. Friendship is ungovernable in some ways and yet it’s also essential to the contemporary state.

You start to see by the late forties that the state has an investment in friendship and neighborliness and other social ties outside the nuclear family that makes it seem an altruistic effort. I’m trying to figure out how that happened and whether people did feel differently about their friends, neighbors and families in the wake of some of these economic, social and political transformations that took place with the rise of the welfare state. 


Robin Lindley: I look forward to your new projects Professor Bailkin. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and congratulations on your new book about Britain and refugees, Unsettled.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171020 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/171020 0
What I’m Reading: An Interview With Cultural Historian Surekha Davies

Surekha Davies is a cultural historian specializing in science, visual and material culture, and the entangled connections between Europe and the wider world, particularly the Americas. She is currently the InterAmericas Fellow at the John Carter Brown Library. She formerly taught at Western Connecticut State University, where she was awarded tenure and promotion to associate professor in 2018. Her first book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge University Press, 2016; paperback, 2017), won the 2016 Morris D. Forkosch Prize for the best first book in intellectual history, awarded by the Journal of the History of Ideas, and the 2017 Roland H. Bainton Prize in History/Theology, awarded by the Sixteenth-Century Society & Conference. It was shortlisted for the 2018 Pickstone Prizeby the British Society for the History of Science. Her website is surekhadavies.org.


What books are you reading now?


I’m reading two new books, among other things. One is Martha S. Jones’s Birthright Citizens: A History of Race and Rights in Antebellum America (Cambridge University Press, 2018), a gripping account of how African American activists in the nineteenth century reconfigured how Americans imagined the concept of citizenship: these activists argued that they were guaranteed by birth all the rights of US citizens. The other book is Molly A. Warsh’s American Baroque: Pearls and the Nature of Empire, 1492-1700 (UNC Chapel Hill, 2018). This book uses the movement of pearls around the Caribbean basin and through global markets to weave together an interconnected history of empire, labor, economies, ecologies, taste, and material culture.


What is your favorite history book?


Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park’s Wonders and the Order of Nature, 1150-1750 (Zone Books, 1998) is the ultimate book that keeps on giving. It offers an extraordinary window into European scientific thought through how people imagined the notion of wonder: as an emotion, as a cognitive faculty or thinking tool, and wonders as natural and artificial beings and things that prompted the emotion of wonder in the viewer. I first picked up the book in 2003, at the start of my doctoral program, and its principles still undergird my work. Daston and Park reveal how following historical sources no matter where they take you, rather than drawing arbitrary lines around disciplines, topics, or geographical fields which change over time, leads to a much richer understanding of how past cultures made sense of the world.


Why did you choose history as your career?


I became a historian because I watched too much Star Trek and Cosmos as a child. From about the age of seven, I wanted to become an intergalactic explorer, to meet extraordinary life-forms, to travel faster than lightspeed and then go back in time and meet myself and, generally, to have my mind blown. When I started out as a undergraduate at the University of Cambridge, I was a physics major seeking to specialize in astrophysics. When we got to quantum mechanics towards the end of the first year, I (and everybody else) conceded that faster-than-light space was, alas, unlikely to be invented any time soon: anyone who got into physics in order to be captain of the USS Enterprise had to re-think their life choices. Many of us switched out of physics into disciplines that seemed more likely to offer the intellectual adventures we were after (also biologists who had spent too much time watching Jacques Cousteau and imagining that being a biology major would be all scuba diving and shark cages). A lot of us switched to history and philosophy of science. Pretty soon I realized that the creative analytical brainstorming – and writing– that I most wanted to do fitted perfectly with currents in early modern cultural and intellectual history and history of science.


What qualities do you need to be a historian?


It varies with period and subfield (cultural/intellectual, social, political, and so on). If you work on cultural history or on the history of science or of ideas c.1200-1800, for example, it helps if you are invested in exploring how processes of close reading – of texts, images, or material artifacts – and practices of writing and re-writing constitute analytical work. Put another way, to better understand how and why people who lived half a millennium ago made sense of the world, you have to be prepared to experience your sources deeply, and to go where they gesture, and not go in with preconceived notions of how society, gender, science, or politics are supposed to work. To paraphrase the prolific cultural historian Keith Thomas, smart people believed in witchcraft in the early modern period; our job is to understand why. To do so, historians have to hunt in all manner of material traces of the past (books, manuscripts, images, objects…) to think elastically and most importantly to write paragraphs, chapters, and dozens, even hundreds, of pages. Practicing history well is the opposite of the discrete ‘this, this or this’ of the world of multiple choice exams and lists of names and dates through which the layperson might imagine the discipline of history. Understanding the past involves mental stamina and breadth.


Who was your favorite history teacher?


My favourite history teacher wasn’t officially one of my teachers – it was Julian Swann, professor of early modern history at Birkbeck College, at the University of London, and a specialist of eighteenth-century French political history. Julian gave me my first regular teaching gig, as the teaching assistant leading the seminars for his European History, 1500-1800 undergraduate class, while I was writing my doctoral dissertation. At the time I found political history rather boring: I was much more interested in the history of ideas than in monarchs, battles, or statutes. I had trained as a historian of science as an undergraduate, rather than as a straight historian, so politics was context rather than the central object of study. Julian’s early modern Europe course integrated cultural, intellectual, social, political, and religious themes; his was a cultural and intellectual approach to political history, and it made themes that I had not found terribly exciting before – such as political revolutions or religious change – vivid in their own right.


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


In 2012, when I was an assistant professor at Western Connecticut State University, I taught an upper-level class on the cultural history of monsters from antiquity to the eighteenth century in Europe; it became my most popular class. Something that was surprising, memorable, and rewarding was how the students bonded with two of the set readings: Merry Wiesner-Hanks’s The Marvelous Hairy Girls: The Gonzales Sisters and Their Worlds (Yale UP, 2009), which is about the lives and responses to a sixteenth-century family, many of whose members had a genetic condition which covered their bodies, apart from their faces and the palms of their hands, with hair. Various family members were brought up at court, prized for the unusual physical condition that led viewers to ponder whether they were human, animal, or something monstrous and in-between. The other book was Daston and Park’s Wonders and the Orders of Nature, which I mentioned earlier as my favourite historical work. Students talked about the effect of the physical books on their learning experience, on people who saw them reading the books – both of which carry illustrations of Lavinia Gonzales, one of the hairy children – and related conversations they had started up with friends, family, and strangers who were intrigued by the titles and by the hairy face, framed by a ruff, on the covers. The enormous Wonders book was lovingly nicknamed ‘the brick’; students would unconsciously stroke the cover in class; and their empathy for those individuals who were imagined as monstrous in pre-modern Europe was inspiring.


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?


I would like to see greater boldness in undergraduate curricula. At the cutting-edge of research, the discipline is tremendously varied in its questions, sources, methods, and scope. However, the overriding structuring elements of many curricula remain chronological period and geographical region. In practice, in the archive, the most meaningful chronological and geographical frames depend on the question you happen to be asking. For example, people didn’t wake up one day and switch from manuscript (handwritten) books to printed books; nor did everyone wake up one day in sixteenth-century England and decide to break away from the Church of Rome. Similarly, major historical phenomena did not unfold exclusively within today’s national boundaries or conventions of continental boundaries. One can teach students how to think deeply and analytically about the past, and about its continuing ramifications for the present, through questions and themes that transcend period and place, worked out through careful and detailed study of how particular things and places change over time. Understanding the relevance of historical thinking and knowledge to the present and to questions that transcend later geographical boundaries, and acquiring a deep body of knowledge, are not mutually exclusive curricular goals.


Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?


I’m not a collector; I’d sooner consult collections that other people have assembled and are carefully preserving in libraries, museums, and archives. I did, however, collect half a dozen H. G. Wells first editions as an undergraduate, at an outdoor market in Cambridge, England; the experience of owning them was unexpectedly underwhelming, although they were (fortunately) worth more than I had paid for them. I do have a collection of everyday children’s books, mostly published in the UK by Penguin/Puffin/Dragon between the 1950s and 1980s – such stylized cover illustrations, beautiful prose and distinctive plots! – which I assembled as an adult, entirely for my own reading rather than for the sake of forming a collection.


What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?


The last year of writing my first book has been the most rewarding experience in my career so far. I was lucky enough to spend eleven months in Washington, DC, as a fellow at the Folger Shakespeare Library and at the Library of Congress for part of it, and teaching two courses online for a semester (thus remaining in DC between a fall semester fellowship and a summer fellowship). I spent the year making the 400pp book manuscript better: adding things, improving the argument, making the writing clearer, getting feedback on chapters from friends and mentors and incorporating their suggestions. I had a great group of fellow fellows at the two libraries: we went on endless walks, visited museums, cooked and ate well…. There was even a piano in my apartment (I had played seriously enough as a child to contemplate music school before college), and one of the other fellows was a composer and musicologist. I was thus able to play, to compose, and to go to several concerts a week (there are so many free ones in DC, plus all the free tickets my composer friend used to get). It was not the easiest year of my life – finishing a book is not easy! – but the combination of lifting and revising the book, cultural life, friendship, and sending the book into production at the end was wonderful.


One of the most frustrating things about my career has been how slow the academy’s hiring process has been, and continues to be, in coming to terms with the importance of work that transcends the disciplinary, geographical, and temporal boundaries established two hundred years ago. Many questions straddle the chasms between these divisions, as did past lives, events, trading routes, and ideas; there is much exciting work at the cutting-edge of the field. As the present becomes ever more entangled on a global scale, it becomes urgent that the discipline expands its visions in the context of hiring the next generation of historians.


How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?


My PhD is less than a decade old, but I have noticed a number of changes. Many more dissertation projects transcend geographical boundaries and traditional disciplinary divides. No individual can do everything, and much has been learned within the disciplinary framework of the past couple of centuries. Nonetheless, the past doesn’t happen within disciplines: it spills everywhere – life spills across space, time, peoples, cultures, activities… Only by asking questions and following them wherever they lead – even when they take you beyond the traditional historian’s purview of ‘written documents from X archive about Y country’ – can you make the most of the sources that survive. An increasing number of historians are drawing on visual, oral, and material sources. In the US, there has been a welcome expansion of interest and support for scholarship on Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific, regions that have traditionally received short shrift in comparison to the study of the US and Europe. At the same time, the reduced attention given to the pre-modern (say pre-1800) world, including pre-modern Europe, is troubling. Why? You cannot understand the structure of the world we live in without starting at least half a millennium ago. Europe was multicultural two thousand years ago and more; human populations had been travelling for many millennia before that; neither human migration nor cultural intermixing are anything new.


What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?


I’ve come up with my own, something that encapsulates the words of my dissertation advisors: ‘If this is the question, then at what sources should you be looking? And if these are the sources, then what questions can you most meaningfully ask of them?’ If we are to better understand the past, then it cannot be contained by either a question or a source alone; rather, there is a call-and-response relationship between questions that pique your interest and the sources you look at – and very quickly both start to spiral out into rich and messy stories.


That was certainly the case with my first book, Renaissance Ethnography and the Invention of the Human: New Worlds, Maps and Monsters (Cambridge UP, 2016; paperback 2017). When I started the dissertation I thought I was writing about the intersection of the history of reading and the history of knowledge-making. By the time the dissertation became a book, it was about the ways in which early modern Europeans were forced to re-imagine what it meant to be human in response to the visual arguments made by mapmakers who carefully synthesized information from travel accounts onto gridded maps which constituted new forms of knowledge about the world’s peoples. By analyzing manuscript and printed maps alongside prints, natural histories, geographies, costume books, and travel writing, I argued that new mapping techniques made the idea of monstrous peoples deformed by nature central to the category of ‘human’. In an age when scholars, missionaries, native peoples, and colonial officials debated whether peoples of the Americas could – or should – be converted or enslaved, maps were uniquely suited for assessing the impact of environment on bodies and temperaments. By revealing that map illustrations were scientific diagrams rather than fantasies, this book showed the centrality of spatial thinking for early modern science, and urged an expansion of the sources via which scholars study the prehistory of race.


Is this a story about Europe, the Atlantic world, the history of science, the history of art, the history of maps, biology, or geography….? I would say that it is all of them at once, and no less of one for being the other. Interdisciplinarity is not about the margins of one discipline or field intersecting with the edges of another in the manner of a Venn diagram; rather, it is about questions that sew together issues at the heart of one discipline to those at the heart of the next.


What are you doing next?


I’m working on my second book project. It sits at the intersection of cultural and intellectual history, history of science, and art history. Collecting Artifacts in the Age of Empire: Spaces of Disruption, 1550-1725 pursues the impact of New World artifacts on European science and medicine, examining the influence of overseas artifacts and knowledge that entered northern European cabinets of curiosities. Cabinets were epistemic installations: collections organized to generate knowledge and particular effects, strengthening some ideas about objects while eliding others. I am exploring the ways in which cabinets were conduits via which indigenous technical expertise and natural knowledge disrupted notions of the relationship between nature and culture, and shaped the disciplinary formations of biology, aesthetics, and anthropology. Inventing Europe required peoples who seemed not to shape nature; Collecting Artifacts offers a provocation to today’s essentialist approach to culture and to the perception of technology as an Old World invention. Skeins which extend from this project into the present also embody a conduit to public policy. Understanding the origins of classificatory systems is a prerequisite for decolonizing museums, providing context for interventions in debates on restitution, curation, and conservation.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170960 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170960 0
Yesterday was the 100th Anniversary of Theodore Roosevelt's Death. Here's How His Legacy Still Shapes the United States Today. The beginning of the year 2019 marks the centennial of the death of the 26thPresident of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, who passed away at age 60 on January 6, 1919. The impact of Roosevelt was massive, and continues to be so on America a century later. Here are five ways that Teddy Roosevelt’s legacy still shapes the United States today. 


The first and most significant contribution of Theodore Roosevelt to his country was his commitment to and advocacy of conservation of the environment, including promotion of national parks and national monuments, protection of our natural resources for the long term, and emphasizing the need for government and the people to show respect and awe for the great natural wonders of the North American continent.  Roosevelt is regarded as the premier figure who inspired the environmental movement, which fortunately was encouraged and accelerated by many of his White House successors including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama.


Second, Roosevelt emphasized the need for social justice and encouraged “progressivism” from the White House. He was committed to the cause of workers and consumers both in and out of office.  The need for responsible government regulation of corporations was a driving force in his life.  He sincerely believed that many problems in American society could not be resolved just on the state and local level, but needed a national voice for all of the American people—not just the wealthy and privileged.


Roosevelt also shaped the modern presidency as he revived the Presidential office after its decline in power and influence after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In doing so, he became the model for many future presidents including Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman,  Kennedy. Johnson, Nixon, Carter, Clinton and Obama. Presidential scholars in History and Political Science would regularly rate Theodore Roosevelt as a “Near Great” President, ranked only behind Lincoln, George Washington, and FDR. This is quite a feat to hold such scholarly admiration and public renown for an entire century.


Fourthly, Roosevelt saw the absolute need to build the defenses of the United States against any future foreign threat. In particular, he loved and was fascinated with the US Navy. He believed war was at times necessary to protect the great experiment in democracy and the constitutional framework set up by the Founding Fathers.  As part of his perception of world affairs, Roosevelt saw the need for the building of the Panama Canal, and for assertion of American authority over the Western Hemisphere, going past the wording of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 with his Roosevelt Corollary in 1904, and his assertion of the Big Stick policy toward Latin America.  Unfortunately, this created a long-term image of the United States as a imperialist power, not well regarded or appreciated by the independent nations of the hemisphere.


Finally, Roosevelt, while promoting military and naval buildup for protection of the nation, was also a great diplomat. His expansion of American diplomacy and relations with foreign nations helped expand American power in the early 20thcentury. He became very close to nations that would later become our allies—particularly Great Britain and France—and set a new standard for presidential engagement by negotiating the Treaty of Portsmouth which ended the Russo Japanese War of 1904-1905, winning him the honor of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906.  He also took a moral stand toward any sign of aggression in the world as he came to warn of the danger of German aggression at the time of the Morocco Crisis of 1905-1906. He spoke out against the pogroms going on in Czarist Russia during his Presidency, and worked to promote a peaceful co-existence between Japan and the United States in the Far East, due to his concerns over our territories of Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippine Islands. 


These five positive contributions of Theodore Roosevelt have lasted and will continue to have an impact on the American Presidency and the future of the American nation.


Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170867 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170867 0
What Can Historians Teach The Media In The Era of Trump? 4 Historians Weigh In “Truth itself is under attack and expertise is suspect,” stated Kenneth Osgood as he opened a panel at the American Historical Association’s 2019 meeting on Friday afternoon. Featuring historians Nicole R. Hemmer (University of Virginia), Jeffrey Engel (Southern Methodist University), Jeremi Suri (University of Texas at Austin), and Julian Zelizer (Princeton University), “Unfaking the News: Historians in the Media in the Era of Trump” offered helpful advice on how historians can engage with the media and public. Each historian suggested a key insight that historians can offer journalists as they cover political developments under the current presidential administration.


1. Ideological “balance” has limits – Nicole Hemmer

This “crisis of journalism” that has accompanied Trump’s election is not the first time the media has critically reflected on its reporting practices. Many journalists reexamined what they considered “objective” after their defense to political figures and government statistics led to misreporting on the Vietnam war in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Nicole Bremmer argued that today “balance” has become the new standard for how many media outlets attempt to be objective. If a program has one voice from the right and one voice from the left, many consider it as “objective.” As a result, journalists often prefer ideological diversity over other forms of diversity including racial, gender, and class diversity. Bremmer suggested that the media could benefit by understanding that good reporting requires more than ideological “balance.” Perspectives beyond just “right vs. left” can improve news coverage.


2. Bureaucracy matters – Jeffrey Engel

“How did each of us get to the AHA?” asked Jeremi Suri. Most arrived because the employees of the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Agency were operating despite the government shutdown.  As consumers of news and scholars, historians are often focused on the flashy actors and don’t pay attention to what allows the nation to function. Why do our universities still function even though they often have bad leadership and are attacked? Why is society still functioning under Trump? Suri suggested that understanding how the accumulated procedures and knowledge of bureaucracy is an essential part of democracy can improve both historians and the media’s understanding of the current political state.


3. Highlight longterm historical developments – Julian Zelizer

Princeton scholar and CNN contributor Julian Zelizer believes that historians analysis is best when they can get beyond the moment-by-moment explanations for how the current political climate is so polarized. When speaking to the media, Zelizer always tries to make a connection with issues from the past (especially the 1970s) and how things were reconfigured and those events connect to today. That perspective is often difficult to put forward because Trump’s eccentricities are so prominent. Nevertheless, by adopting a long-term timeframe and understanding how deeply rooted the dynamics and dysfunction are, historians can avoid a “Alice in Wonderland kind of moment where everything is happening the same way once again.” Historians need some sense of evaluating what’s a little bizarre and what’s fundamentally dangerous. For Zelizer, accomplishing this sort of analysis requires him to leave partisanship behind and focus on his role as a historian.


4. History Adds Value, Not Just Context–  Jeffrey Engel

Jeffrey Engel considered approached his role differently than Julian Zelizer. Engel asked, How much do we need to be educators, how much do we need to be citizens, and how much do those two roles overlap? While Engel originally believed historians should just provide historical context to current events, after the past two years he believes as citizens historians should also give an opinion on current events and reveal how it effects them. Engel genuinely believes the republic is in danger so historians have a responsibility to go a step further when engaging the public. They should speak to what history means for today and the discuss the values behind that history. To Engel, this means he is always prepared to answer a question as to why something from history is important to the present.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170860 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170860 0
History in Crisis: 5 Challenges to Organizing Graduate Student Workers and 3 Ways to Still Succeed As the number of tenured positions at universities declines, the workload of teaching increasingly falls to adjunct professors and graduate students. In response, many academics have attempted to unionize to demand better pay, benefits, and treatment. At the American Historical Association’s 2019 Annual Meeting, Sarah Siegel (Washington University), Jody Noll (Georgia State University), Ruby Oram (Loyola University Chicago), and Jeff Schuhrke (University of Illinois Chicago) discussed the challenges to anticipate when organizing and methods to still be effective.


1. Anticipate that the university administration will claim graduate employees are students and not workers.

Sarah Siegel testified on behalf of graduate workers at the National Labor Relations Board’s hearing on Washington University in St. Louis’s organizing effort. “You teach your own course but that looks good on your CV,” asked the schools’ lawyers, “so why do you think you’re an employee?” Of course, Sarah responded, everything people do professionally looks good on their CV.

At Loyola University Chicago, a Catholic Jesuit university, the school initially claimed a religious exception for why students should not be able to unionize. According to Ruby Oram, Loyola claimed the graduate workers were “religious workers” and thus the university did not have to recognize their union. When this tactic failed, the university altered tactics and claimed they were students instead of workers.


2. Some fellow graduate students and department faculty will also not consider themselves “workers.”

Convincing many graduate workers and faculty to think of themselves as workers is a challenge, said Ruby Oram. Academics are trained to think of their labor not as work but as a lifestyle. This often hurts the ability to get faculty support because they don’t view graduate students as workers because they don’t view themselves as workers either. “There is an apathy that is the biggest obstacle among grad employees,” said Jeff Schuhrke. “We have to disabuse ourselves of the notion that grad school is a hazing ritual – it’s real work.”


3. It’s hard to organize across disciplines.

Coalition building is often best achieved by discussing grievances one-on-one. But grievances in history are often different than those in the chemistry department. How do we build bridges and come together as a work force?


4. The political climate can affect unionizing campaigns.

Students at the Loyola University Chicago successfully won their case with the NLRB. The university did not respond for eight months. Finally, eight days after President Trump appointed new officials to the NLRB, the university announced it would not bargain with the union.

The Trump appointments at the NLRB have made organizing at private organization harder. The recent Janus vs. AFSCME Supreme Court decision has made it harder for workers at public universities to organize.


5. Even once unionized, the challenges persist.

Even when graduate workers are able to win unionization, the university often continues to resist and resent the fact that there is a union on campus. In Jeff Schuhrke’s experience, his university tried to make the union contract as ineffective and unenforceable as possible. Often, the school seemingly only wanted to avoid liability over grievances rather than resolving them.

Maintaining a healthy union membership is also hard because the potential member pool changes so much with graduation and the arrival of incoming students. Union reps have to explain why the union matters because the new students often don’t know the earlier history that made the union necessary.


The organizers, however, still found ways to obtain gains for graduate workers on their respective campuses like higher stipends, improved health care, and dental insurance. The panelists offered a few key pieces of advice.


1. Find allies when you can.

Several panelists mentioned their efforts to combine forces with other campus workers, adjunct faculty, and even tenured faculty across their university to amplify their efforts. One popular campaign mentioned was the demand that university staff receive at least $15 an hour.

Jody Noll discussed a historical example of the power of alliances. Teachers in the 1968 strike in Florida were successfully obtained bargaining rights because many principals supported their efforts, sometimes even joining in the strike.


2. It’s OK to switch tactics.

After the effort for union recognition at Washington University in St. Louis stalled, the organization chose to switch to direct action campaigns. These campaigns were often effective at garnering specific benefits at the university.


3. Remind the university of their mission.

Universities are there to educate students. They want to appear as benevolent, diverse, welcoming, and beneficial places of learning. Demanding they live up to this promise – and publicly shaming them when they don’t – is often a successful tactic.


Be sure to visit historynewsnetwork.org for more coverage of the American Historical Association 2019 meeting!

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170859 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170859 0
Ok, We Returned the Stolen Bells to the Philippines

US soldiers in the Philippines, Manilla, during the Philippine-American war.


The church bells have returned to Balangiga after 117 years abroad. They last tolled on Philippine soil on September 28, 1901, when the smallest of the three signaled the start of a surprise attack against U.S. troops by the town’s residents, angry at their mistreatment during U.S. occupation. The 48 U.S. soldiers killed in the assault—many of them clubbed or hacked to death in their barracks—comprised the worst single attack upon U.S. soldiers in the decades since Custer’s last stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

U.S. retaliation—Brig. Gen. Jacob W. Smith told his men to turn the province of Samar into a “howling wilderness”—would lead to the deaths of thousands of Filipino civilians and become the most infamous campaign of the Philippine-American War.

By bringing attention to this long-forgotten conflict, Balangiga’s bells challenge us to listen again for lessons from the past. But with attention spans shrinking and history itself becoming a battleground in the public sphere, can we accurately transcribe their messages?

American soldiers took the bells as war booty during their revenge-fueled counterattack in Samar. Two bells wound up on a military base in Wyoming; the third found its way to a U.S. infantry museum in South Korea. Filipinos, who gained full independence in 1946 after three centuries as a Spanish colony and decades as a U.S. territory, have long sought their return. 

Observers even thought President Rodrigo Duterte, who mentioned the bells in patriotic speeches, might bring up the issue during his first meeting with President Trump in 2017 (he didn’t). But on December 14, years of public pressure and diplomatic negotiation finally brought the bells to St. Lawrence the Martyr Catholic Church in Eastern Samar.

Americans don’t much recall the sounds of Balangiga. More patriotic strains ring in our collective memory. Our stories of these islands start later, in World War II, when invading Japanese forced haggard U.S. troops on a deadly march in Bataan—or when General Douglas T. MacArthur promised and completed his dramatic return (complete with a staged, shore-wading photo-op) a few years later. Yet even here, the leveling of Manila during its recapture—it became the most destroyed allied city in World War II after Warsaw—largely escapes American recollection.

For Filipinos, by contrast, Balangiga’s bells seem to ring loud and clear—as a ballad to Filipino resistance and sovereignty. But despite Duterte’s use of Balangiga, Filipino popular memory still centers around Spanish colonization and mid-century, American-led liberation from Japanese occupation. The “tiny” war with America at the dawn of the 20th century, when more than 4,000 U.S. troops and up to 750,000 Filipinos lost their lives due to warfare, famine, and disease, is largely forgotten. And Filipino historians, like their American counterparts, still struggle to distinguish national myths and heroes from historical reality.

We Americans needn’t go far to discover reverberations from Uncle Sam’s late-nineteenth century encounter with Asia—we could start with words. “Boondocks” comes from the Tagalog bundok, or mountain. U.S. soldiers passed down in speech racist monikers, too—historians believe “gook,” used by soldiers decades later in Indochina to refer to the Vietnamese, may have begun as “gugu” or “goo-goo” in the Philippines, American slang for their wartime adversaries (white soldiers also called Filipinos the n-word). 

Other premonitions of modern U.S. wars in Asia or the Middle East haunt these early years of American overseas expansion. The black press, for example, was split over sending African American soldiers abroad. “A man who is not good enough to vote for a government,” theRichmond Planeteditorialized in 1898, referring to black disenfranchisement, “is not good enough to fight for it.” Muhammad Ali’s refusal during the Vietnam War to answer the draft echoed this longtime African American stance. Photos from the early 1900s show U.S. troops applying the “water cure” to captured Filipino fighters—a kind of waterboarding without the board. And many U.S. generals in the conflict fought previously in the Indian wars of the western United States, demonstrating an even older provenance to American empire.

Filipino and American historians have done much to uncover our two nations’ shared pasts. But in our efforts to counter jingoistic narratives of American nobility and Filipino haplessness, we U.S. historians, writing from an academy whose top history departments employ very few conservatives, may get trapped within different, uncontested viewpoints. We write critically about the white man’s burden, describing a turn-of-the-century push for colonies that was powered by racist fantasies, but often fail to notice white racism’s other, more isolationist impulses (the specter of non-white “others” coming to the mainland from U.S. colonies abroad may have partly stayed American expansion.) And our penchant for writing “history from below” can, at its worst, cast victims of U.S. aggression as pure and noble, when in fact Philippine society has long held its own brutal hierarchies.

As my research into late-nineteenth century minority journalists in America led me, surprisingly, to the Philippines, it took some time before I encountered Balangiga in U.S. scholarship. Gen. Smith’s murderous Samar trek, by contrast, was widely cited with little or no mention of its direct antecedent. The Balangiga attack can never justify the Samar rampage. But its elision helps posit race hatred as the driving force for American aggression abroad, a common theme in much “race and empire” scholarship. 

Racism is integral to any discussion of imperialism. But listening to Balangiga might mean emphasizing the brutalizing effects of guerilla warfare upon any occupying army. Westerners are often shocked at the viciousness of Japanese troops during World War II compared to the relative restraint of the “greatest generation.” But we need only look at the more prolonged war in Vietnam—or at the brief turn-of-the-century war in the Philippines—to gain a sense of what young men from any culture are capable of, when sent to occupy lands where they’re unwanted.

That’s my limited and, hopefully, humble attempt to hear some strains of wisdom sounding from three recently repatriated bells on the island of Samar. I hope more Americans and Filipinos, historians or not, will tune in, too.


Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170775 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170775 0
What I’m Reading: An Interview With Historian Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir


Sharlene Sinegal-DeCuir is an Associate Professor of History at Xavier University of Louisiana. She received her PhD from Louisiana State University in 2009 and her areas of concentration are in American, African American, and Latin American history.

What books are you reading now?

I am reading several books at the moment, including: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander; Witness to Change: From Jim Crow to Political Empowermentby Sybil Morial; and White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.

What is your favorite history book?

My favorite history books are W. E. B. Dubois’s Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880and Carter G. Woodson’s The Mis-Education of the Negro.There are many more history books that I enjoy and consider my favorites but for me, those two are the classics. 

Why did you choose history as your career?

I don’t actually think I chose a career in history, it chose me. I began my college career as a pre-med major at Xavier University of Louisiana, a small private liberal arts college that is known nationally as being number one for placing African-Americans into medical schools. After the second semester of my sophomore year, I found myself questioning if I wanted to be an MD or if it was the path my parents chose for me. I decided to change my major to history because I remembered how much I liked it in high school and I had decided that I was going to be a lawyer. Fast forward to senior year, I took the LSAT and began applying to law schools, all the while questioning if that was the right choice for me because I realized I LOVED history.

At the last minute, I decided I would go to graduate school instead of law school. I told myself, I was only going to get a master’s degree than go to law school. I had not taken the GRE, had not applied to any programs and had no clue how I was going to get into any program. So being a Louisiana girl, I took myself over to LSU, walked into the graduate admissions department and told them I wanted to earn a master’s degree in history. I was allowed to take courses as a non-matriculating student for a semester while I prepared for the GRE and applied to the actual master’s program in history at LSU. I got accepted into the program and thought, okay, after this, law school. Well, literally right after defending my master’s thesis, the department chair asked me if I would like to stay at LSU and complete my PhD. Without even hesitating, I said yes, and the rest is history. Best decision I ever made!

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

You most definitely have to be open-minded and passionate. You must be willing to allow history to speak to you, no matter how difficult the subject. You also have to have a passion for history because I promise you, those long nights of research, preparing for conferences, writing articles, teaching, etc. can be daunting. If you have a passion for the subject, especially the subjects you teach/focus on, the little things don’t bother you and that passion will be felt by others. I have students every semester that enter my classroom telling me how much they hate history. I always tell them, “no, you don’t hate history; you hate the way it has been taught to you.” If you are passionate about what you teach, the students become passionate, active learners ready to soak up everything. Over the years of teaching, I have had several students change their majors to history after taking one of my classes. I think that’s the most fulfilling part of being a professor.

Who was your favorite history teacher?

I have had several amazing history teachers. Many of my undergraduate professors at Xavier University of Louisiana became my colleagues -- a few have since retired -- but Dr’s Jonathan Rotondo-McCord, Gary Donaldson, Shamsul Huda, and Sr. Barbara Hughes, have all contributed to my love for history.

My PhD advisor at Louisiana State University, Dr. Gaines Foster, is amazing. I remember thinking if I could be half the researcher and professor as him, I would be okay. Dr. Foster just had that quality about him. He was extremely helpful but very stern. With him, I couldn’t cut corners and get away with it. I must admit I was a bit intimidated. I have since had the pleasure of serving on a panel with him. After the panel, he complimented me on my research and my ability to engage the audience. He said I had a presence. I thought to myself…wow! That compliment meant so much to me because I truly value his opinion.

Another graduate school professor that had an impact on me was Dr. Leonard Moore. Dr. Moore had a captivating teaching style that was both engaging and passionate. I served as his teaching assistant for a few years in graduate school and learned a lot about lecturing and the delivery of information.

What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?

Receiving my first student evaluations is one of my most memorable experiences. As a new professor you often question yourself about content and teaching: am I teaching relevant information? Do the students have a clear understanding of the information? And how can I make the information relatable? I remember reading those evaluations and feeling a sense of accomplishment because the majority of the students spoke about how I changed their perceptions of history. I fondly remember one student mentioning that I made a “boring” subject interesting and relatable. Another student said and I quote, “Dr. Sinegal-DeCuir, knows her sh*t,” -- when I am having a hard day, I think of that comment. It makes me smile every time.

It is also very rewarding to get emails, cards, and letters from current and former students expressing the impact I have made on their lives as a professor.

What are your hopes for history as a discipline?

I hope that the discipline continues to embrace diversity. Diversity in interpretations of historic events and diversity in scholars and scholarship. The facts of history don’t change but as long as we are accepting of diverse interpretations, history will forever be relevant.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I don’t have any rare historic collectables but I do have a few sad irons and one antique coffee grinder. I also have a large number of books pertaining to history and a small collection of Christmas ordainments from every museum I’ve visited across the U.S. and overseas. I am trying to start a Clementine Hunter collection; right now I have several prints, my plan is to replace the prints with the original paintings.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career? 

The most rewarding thing about my career is becoming known as a scholar in my field. I have written a New York TimesOp-Ed, appeared on MSNBC with Al Sharpton, and have done a few local interviews about historic events. I enjoy putting myself out there. What is frustrating is that many people dismiss the field of history as not being important or not being as prestigious of a field like medicine or law. 

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

It has become more inclusive to different interpretations of events and to diverse fields. The field of history is no longer limited to a cookie cutter view of the past. Historians are uncovering amazing new stories and revisiting old ones with through the lens of gender studies and minority studies, to name a few.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I have not come up with my own saying but I really like this one, “History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul,” by Lord Acton. We should all be open to understanding the events of the past whether it is our own family history or the history of our country. Don’t hide the ugly truths and only embrace the good, happy times; we should learn from it all.

What are you doing next?

I am continuing to put myself out there through my scholarship. I am in the process of researching and writing a book proposal. 

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170774 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170774 0
When We Really Needed an Anti-Lynching Law Congress Wouldn’t Pass It    

Congressman George Henry White of North Carolina

 Last week Congress unanimously passed the first federal anti-lynching bill. Perhaps Congressman George Henry White of North Carolina, must have finally be smiling. A Black Indian born to an enslaved woman, little made him smile during the grim days that marked the post-Civil War decades. Strong-willed, eloquent and determined, White devoted his life to educating his people. He became a teacher, school principal, and lawyer and in 1896 was elected to the U.S. Congress. 

During his two terms White spoke as "the sole representative on this floor of 9 million of the [Black] population of the United States." While Congressmen ignored him as they regaled each other with “darky stories” on the floor of the house and in its corridors, he fought on. 

Racist cartoon from the period

On January 20, 1900 White introduced HR 6963 the first federal anti-lynching bill. By then an average of three African American men, women and children were lynched each week in the southern states. These festivals of horror and pain drew approving white crowds. Refreshments were served. Lawmen and sheriffs often assisted or led lynch mobs, and southern Governors and Senators offered nothing but praise. No one was ever arrested for this crime.

Congressman White compared lynching to treason and HR 6963 mandated the death penalty for those convicted. It died in the House Judiciary committee that year – and that year 105 Black people died at the hands of lynch mobs.

In 1898 White wasre-elected. He now stood as the last Black survivor of slavery to hold this high office in the 19th century, and the first in the 20th century. 

George Henry White spoke as “the sole representative” of millions of people. He spoke ”in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people: faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people -- full of potential force.” 



In 1898 a U.S. sea invasion under the banner of “Christianity and civilization” seized Spain’s colonies from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. As the U.S. imposed white supremacy on its new possessions, White again bravely stood to remind fellow Americans, “charity begins at home.”

During White's second Congressional term in 1900, North Carolina amended its Constitution to eliminate African American voters and office-holders through a poll tax, a grandfather clause and a literacy test enforceable in 1902. Black people throughout the southern states were being denied any right to run for Congress or other offices.

In his last Congressional speech White denounced the use of "constitutional amendment and legislation" and "cold-blooded fraud and intimidation" to deny the right to vote. 

During the Great Depression of the 1930s President Franklin D. Roosevelt was asked to sponsor an anti-lynching bill. “If I come out for the anti-lynching bill now,” he said, Southern Congressmen “will block every bill I ask Congress to pass to keep American from collapsing. I just can’t take that risk.” Congressman White took that risk over and over again. But his prediction that the South would send others to Congress stalled until the Civil Rights revolution. 

White's courageous service and his retirement by fire are missing from our school texts and college courses. It is unfortunate so few Americans know this brave freedom fighter. Spreading his story today would make it harder to deny people of color their voting rights.


Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170761 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170761 0
Oh No! The Depressing Truth About the Willy Wonka Chocolate Factory Workers

Oompa-Loompa illustration by Joseph Schindelman, copyright © 1964 and renewed 1992 by Joseph Schindelman, from CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY by Roald Dahl. Used by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.


Countless Americans grew up with Roald Dahl’s captivating 1964 children’s book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or with one of its two film versions—in 1971 and 2005. Who knew during all this time that this most beloved story is shot full of white supremacist messages worthy of the Klu Klux Klan?  But now we do, and now is the time to replace this destructive narrative for one that tells healing truths. Netflix has announced that it will create a series of animations from sixteen of Dahl’s children’s tales, and most prominent among them, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. And this past June Newsweek reported that Hollywood is considering yet another film knockoff of Dahl’s story, only this time as “a prequel,” explaining how Willy Wonka “acquired his riches and his legendary chocolate factory.” 

People love an artist's proposal of a black Charlie for Netflix's animated remake of 'Willy Wonka." https://t.co/r05aurYxeu

— HuffPost BlackVoices (@blackvoices) December 10, 2018

Inverting history in a way that would have shocked Dahl, the new film may star the African American actor, comedian, and singer Donald Glover as Wonka. Newsweek quoted Dahl’s widow, Felicity d'Abreu Crosland Dahl, as saying that her former husband’s original scheme was to have Charlie, the boy who finds the golden ticket that gets him into Wonka’s legendary factory, be “a little Black boy.” In a BBC radio interview, she declared it a “great pity” that Dahl (who at the time was married to the American actress Patricia Neal) bowed to his publisher’s wishes and dropped the idea. 

This latest possible remake would go far beyond anything Dahl could have envisioned. But will it go far enough? Does Donald Glover, or anyone else associated with this new effort fully understand what is at stake?

Despite what Felicity Dahl implied, Roald Dahl never considered any black roles for his famous story that were not right out of the Sambo tradition, British imperialism, or slavery. Indeed, the workers for his chocolate factory, the Oompa-Loompas, were slaves. When Charlie and the four other golden ticket holders and their parents first spied the Oompa-Loompas Wonka explained that the workers were not made of chocolate, but they “are real people! They are some of my workers!” He had imported the tiny black people “direct from Africa!” They belonged to “a tribe of tiny miniature pygmies known as Oompa-Loompas. I discovered them myself,” Wonka exclaimed. I brought them over from Africa myself—the whole tribe of them, three thousand in all. I found them in the very deepest and darkest part of the African jungle where no white man had ever been before.”



Wonka informed Charlie and his companions that the tribe had been starving, subsisting on green caterpillars but longed for cacao beans; “oh how they craved them,” he said. He bargained with the tribe and promised that if they agreed to “live in my factory” they could have all the cacao beans they wanted: “I’ll even pay your wages in cacao beans if you wish!”

So, the black pygmies traded their freedom for permanent enslavement and all the cacao beans they could eat. After the tribal leader agreed to stop eating green caterpillars and work for “beans,” Wonka “shipped them over here, every man, woman, and child in the Oompa-Loompa tribe. It was easy. I smuggled them over in large packing cases with holes in them, and they all got here safely.”

Because Britain the slave trade had outlawed the trade in 1807, as Wonka alluded to, he smuggled the slaves into England in packing cases, in conditions that sounded almost as horrific as the Middle Passage. And so that no one would miss the point, Joseph Schindelman’s images of the Oomp-Loompas in the book showed them as animal-skin clad jovial Sambos who just loved their labor.

Drawing by Hanson Booth, in Fremont P. Wirth, The Development of America (New York, 1936), 352.


A slave galley even made an appearance in the book, one powered by the pygmies who rowed on a river of chocolate. To further emphasize the slave analogy, Dahl introduced whips into the tale, “WHIPS—ALL SHAPES AND SIZES.” And why whips? Well, “For whipping cream, of course!”

Riveting the idea that these black pygmies were Wonka’s property, to which he could do whatever he wanted, the Oompa-Loompas were subject to hair-growing medical experiments and product testing that turned the little pygmies into blueberries. The entire Wonka enterprise relied on slavery and complete racial subordination.

Dahl, as he later confessed, grew up with an imperialist frame of mind. While in prep school, for instance, and dreaming about gold and an adventurous life that might be awaiting him in Africa, he remarked, “Sometimes there is a great advantage in traveling to hot countries where niggers dwell.” He carried that attitude to Africa just before World War II when he labored for the Asiatic Petroleum Company in the former German East Africa, then known as Tanganyika. His imperial enterprise and his experiences with the servants he commanded, and whom he labeled “boy,” and the native Africans he encountered, would shape his racial views and tincture almost all his future writings.

Even in 1982, long after the NAACP had condemned the way he presented Africans, and after he dropped the black Oompa-Loompas in the revision of the book, he continued in the same vein. His first draft of The BFG, the friendly giant at the center of that book emerged as the very worst imitation of a Zip Coon figure, a black, flat-nosed, giant with “thick rubbery lips . . . like two gigantic purple frankfurters lying on top of the other.” For once, an editor spoke up. Dahl’s new editor, Stephen Roxbourgh at Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, properly denounced Dahl’s characterization as a “derisive stereotype.” Dahl conceded the point, responding: “the negro lips thing is taken care of.” 

If we are to surmount the ugly legacy of Dahl’s work, the kind of imagination that Lin-Manuel Miranda applied to his blockbuster Alexander Hamilton is necessary. But to create a counter-narrative of America’s origin story that attacks white supremacy racial subordination, Miranda needed not just talent and imagination, but awareness, facts, accurate knowledge of this nation’s (racial) past. It’s a lofty goal, but it can’t be done right without the awareness that history and knowledge brings.

For a full analysis of Dahl’s attitudes and his writings, see my essay “Innocence Betrayed: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the Deep Roots of White Supremacy,” http://www.processhistory.org/yacovone-dahl-racism/



Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170755 0
So I Became a Historian—Now I’m Telling How It Worked Out

Although what has happened to history as a major is being disputed as I write, it is clear enough that “something is going on.” This essay is written entirely for an audience currently puzzled about “what to major in.” Because the author majored in history at three universities way back when (Emory, UGA, and Stanford), he has something to say on the subject. He not only survived as a history major, he flourished. Now 101, and obviously very active, he weighs here how it has been all these years to face life as a history major under seven important employers. Read away!

The idea here is for me to tell you, the Reader, about my long preparation for a life in history—and how it worked out. I intend to be candid, truthful even when it hurts, and now and then just a bit prideful. I expect you to emerge 10 percent better prepared to stick with (or abandon) your decision to become a history major.

My opinion is, you see, that a totally informal, conversational, recitation about the interaction between my history major and my life will be a good way for many a student to pass the time. I do know one thing for sure: History as subject matter has been far more than relevant to what happened to me as I have lived on to over 101 years of age. That’s right: born October 10, 1917.



I don’t believe I took any history courses in my two high schools in the vicinity of Philadelphia. In that jr/sr year I did read several books akin to history, by Roy Chapman Adams, Lincoln Steffens, David Fairchild and others, but I didn’t know that. 

Now we’re in college (Emory University, on a nice scholarship). Sigma Chi didn’t seem to care what I majored in, so OK. Right off the bat in the first quarter was a required history course, “Europe Since 1500,” I think. It was competing with half course, Slide Rule (where I made 100) and Spanish (which I flunked, making three A’s at the same time). I have to say I was humiliated, so at year’s end I dropped my engineering major. Soon I decided to major in journalism where there were more A’s, and a C (barely), in accounting. Soon it was pre-law, only because in that major, I was free to take just about anything I wanted—and I wanted to explore the curriculum. Surely a little of this sounds familiar to you. Right? What about history?

Well, there were all kinds of Southern history courses; all were entrancing and appealing to the mostly native Georgians dominating the class. English history was exotic. In fact, I liked those history courses and especially the term papers that were always required.

I had no idea at the time that the maybe eight term papers I wrote in 1936-39 were conditioning me for a life of research! Yes, it’s true. Footnotes, ibid., op. cit. and Bibliography were infiltrating my cosmos and I was evolving deep down inside, whether I knew it or not.

But history didn’t have a monopoly on my life at the time. I pitched baseball to five victories in a row in class competition. Though offered a tennis scholarship at Duke University, my father turned it down. I loved abnormal psychology. Three law courses: law of the press, constitutional law, and international law, using that Law Library, skewed me toward a legal career.

Philosophy, and a course in logic were exciting. Oh: I should mention elective Bible – its history, only. At the end came an Honors assignment to study every aspect of the New South and be examined. Lots of history (mostly Southern).

That summer after finishing Honors with six other graduates who stood with me in Glenn Memorial Church, a letter came from the history professors with the second of 12 scholarships I was going to get—with and without application. They were buying me!It was summer, 1939. I put aside those law books (secondhand from Gainesville, Florida), and returned to Emory for a Masters Degree, taking anything historical that I wanted, doing any thesis – so long as it was historical (Royal Government in Colonial Georgia with a sophisticated title, rooted in really original sources). I was entranced with 17th century England. And, for a time, Ancient Greece and Rome…. Anthony and Cleopatra somehow caught my full attention. And why not?

Now, the powers that be maneuvered a full year history grant at the University of Georgia under a very productive senior faculty member. But he wasn’t there! Anyway, I continued to learn much too much about The South. Whoa. 

World War II was coming for the United States, we wise ones thought in spring 1941, so I took up weightlifting and signed up with a recruiter for something military. Given the chance, I walked out on the Marines, and on September 25 I was called to active duty in a secret Intelligence unit of the Navy that seemed delighted with my history major. (It’s hard to believe they insisted that their recruits be “a third generation American.”) I was first an enlisted yeoman; then, luckily, an Ensign. Trained, two months, in “stuff.” I was the best, of many hundred, in the obstacle race, at NITSI-Naval Training School, Indoctrination, Quonset Pt, R.I. (Richard Nixon graduated in the next class, August, 1942.) As I lived that first military experience I admit that I don’t recall anybody asking, “What was your major in college?” I thought everybody would care.

My war career lasted over 4 years and involved major leadership on my part; nobody from the Admiral’s staff paid any attention to me; I ran the huge barracks at NAS Alameda alone, but with lots of Master at Arms and Compartment Cleaners working hard. I wrote a clean formal book on the subject of barracks administration, never published at 165 pages, when the Bomb ended the war unexpectedly. I wrote pamphlets spelling out things. 

This barracks officer was popular! My history major was a howling success. Why? I could do almost anything that was needed! It turned out that I had taken a “paperwork skills” concentration; it was adaptable; I was literate; I was used to getting things done. At war’s end they wouldn’t let me out for four months because I was “valuable to the demobilization.” They offered me instant Lieutenant Commander if I would stay in. I didn’t, but later I decided to stick with the Reserves and put in 23 years total.

Postwar, I did advanced personnel work at Mercer University, for the Veteran’s Administration. I could authorize all kinds of remedial services and classes for the disabled. Next, I was employed on a 12 month contract at University of Miami, for 2 full years. I taught a heavy load of Western Civ and US Survey. It was time for Stanford, where I majored in history (with a political parties minor) and finished in June 1951. God bless the G.I. Bill.

I got three large grants after Stanford, doing tricky research and writing. My family was happy. Now (1953 to 1958) I pretty much founded the field of social welfare in American scholarship. A famous figure in San Francisco said I should fathom “The welfare needs of the people of California, and how they are being met” for the famed Commonwealth Club. They expected a big book. In three years they got one: California Social Welfare. Original, 108 tables, 100 pages of law, about 600 pages; some bullying of organizations public and private was part of “research.” Bodies I battled ranged from IRS to county and private units. 

It was one of three books I now wrote on social welfare, having never studied a word on the subject or heard of it. Here were philanthropy and foundations; adoptions and birth control; charity; government programs of aid; religious units financing things. Prentice Hall went all out to produce the 5,000 handsome copies of California Social Welfare and they disappeared. Next I drafted, over and over, on a full year grant, Welfare in America, a beautiful book including photographs and poems. Oklahoma issued it twice. 

Then after exciting New York City committee work with the American Heart Association, a weekend a month, I wrote for them the influential, The Heart Future. That newsworthy book made the news columns of the New York Times.

This yesterday history major was now to be interviewed in New York City repeatedly by organizations wanting me to work for them. I flew, from Santa Monica each time, but my collie said “no” to leaving the Pacific Ocean permanently. (There were offers, and quasi chances. One, possibly, was to direct the national FDR Infantile Paralysis unit. Rockefeller checked in with a research study. A mental health unit wanted me. All NYC.)

Groups stepped forward to help me along. I was the editor for things American at a great encyclopedia, but despised the working conditions. Then I was part of the scholarly Bureau of Medical Economic Research at the American Medical Association in Chicago. My financing during those years is of little interest but I do think it pertinent to mention that at one point when first enrolled for unemployment insurance in Chicago, I was referred to Midas Muffler, who wanted a head of “Research.” I wish I had ventured a visit, so I might say at this point something about “history and mufflers,” but I accepted a great alternative offer at that very moment.

We moved around, and we changed allegiances, but we survived. We were solvent. I was in a Marquis book already (and later another) but renown was in no way as important as contentment.

However, we must admit at this point that there had been for me a happy marriage in 1944 and the birth of two exceptional children. All three made their marks in life, in a very big way.

Now we turn to the tour-de-force: I became a general, final, editor for administration at The RAND Corporation, THE think tank, in Santa Monica. Enroute to the next step, I had aided three famous intellectuals prepare their books, for a year, half a year, a quarter of a year, fulltime in each case. Those books amounted to something! They were on FDR, Space, and thermonuclear war. I had to learn in a hurry and do a “perfect” job. Then I helped on a book about the cost of ulcers to society; planets in other systems; Laos; and more. That history major had built me for a think tank life.

I founded two oral history projects (RAND’s, Truman Library). Did maybe twenty long and really vital interviews at RAND. I also ghosted an important Harvey Mudd speech for the general manager. They used it to raise funds for some time, I heard.

Now came misfortune, as funding modifications unexpectedly demanded by the Air Force put me in a bind. How would I as a history major like to edit, henceforth, for engineering? I wouldn’t. The sciences? No, no. Sorry, children, I know you love the ocean and I love town hall and other things, but “it’s over.” Opportunities with gigantic corporations in “aerospace” got a no.

I had a few tough months. Interviewed by “history chairmen” I always heard “but you’re senior to many history faculty and certainly to me! Clark Kerr in two pages said his California system didn’t hire interdisciplinary people. I should have waited a decade; then they sure did!

Now in the mid 1960s, I rejoined academia. That is, I came in at “the top” of a rather small place: Professor of History and Social Science and Chairman, Social Sciences Division, at up and coming Southern Oregon College in Ashland on a twelve-month contract. I did it for seventeen years, most of it anyway. Directing and living with seven departments I found I had developed all kinds of—what shall we say?—maybe “talents.” I could DO things and avoid many hazards.

Sudden illness (a heart infarction) in time brought early retirement. It was the same thing that hit LBJ in 1956. Retirement? Really? 

There isn’t much drama from 1980 to 2018. It’s been articles, and books all over the place, including four months (with my wife, Beth) working for Chapman Colleges World Campus Afloat. She was secretary to the cigar smoking ship’s dean. Lord!

It may be of some interest that during my years as Quasi-Dean teaching regular sessions and summers, I taught twenty-three different courses. It was necessary to fill slots when abruptly necessary. 

There was membership for two decades on the United States Civil Rights Commission for Oregon. President of the Rogue Valley Symphony. Earlier, it was Sigma Chi; now it was fifty years and more in Ashland Rotary. Son was an Eagle Scout, daughter an ardent Girl Scout.

So: Let’s talk about “history” not quite in the erudite manner to be found now and then on the History News Network, but as, well, something I blundered or maneuvered into in the 1930s, ignored in the early 1940s, lived with solidly thereafter to 1951, and apparently got paid enough when affiliated with it to support a family—and to be happy—for several decades (actually, a lifetime).

I see nothing to be gained at this point in conversing about all that “who’s who” and “distinguished” stuff I picked up enroute, nor do I want to list books I wrote (eighteen) or helped others to write (maybe ten). Do take note of this plain fact: In my years as a historian I gave very little attention to the idea that I was “out of the ordinary” and said little about it—despite having endured and profited from nine (yes, nine!) years of university instruction, all told. 

I would like to say here that “any history major could have done it.” But I really don’t know. I had handled major morning paper routes in high school; worked in my dad’s engineering office on ordinary stuff in summers; gotten little or no advice or “tutoring.” You could have. Yes.

I guess what I want to say is that one nice thing about majoring in history is that you may keep getting abler. 

Back in the early 1930s I had no idea what I wanted to be. Taking history courses was “a way out.” It postponed decision. I kept getting more knowledgeable, yes, apparently smarter, but: I didn’t have to do anything about it. The world around me kept thinking I could DO whatever they had vaguely in mind. Sure enough, I mostly could. They didn’t seem concerned and neither did I.

Over a period of twenty-three years in the Naval Reserve, I was forced to take and teach all kinds of odd courses. Nothing to it. I always took them—yes, and over time, taught them, too. I can run things. Now, where did I learn that? I can DO things. How come? A 355 page book on SPACE requested by Congress was prepared by twenty geniuses in 1959. I was asked to precis it to a mere seventy-two pages. Yes!

Some are entranced at my editorship of American history, geography, and biography at the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I did do significant and important work there and liked the occupation of an editor.

I guess that those twenty-five books per “field” at Stanford on history, political parties, union labor, really seven fields in all, taught me something in addition to history, right? That is, “I can survive and sorta prevail in our world.” Why not? I did major in history! 

I am published in quite a variety of learned journals, because a history major refuses to be sequestered. The Bornet bibliography goes to maybe 30 pages of fine print, 1933 to date. 

So choose your major, you male or female student enrolled “somewhere.” There is a future family out there for you to create and support by being a teacher or professor—or lots of other things. Your father and mother are going to have to assume that you do know what you’re doing by majoring in history. Have a good life, next generation historian, if that’s what you decide you want—and life decides to let you become! Welcome to my academic fraternity, and good fortune attend ye, as you live from now to the very end of your highway. 

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170747 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170747 0
We Wanted to Publish an Illustrated History of the Holy Land. We Couldn’t Make Everybody Happy.

Even in these troubled times pilgrims flock by the thousand to the Holy Land. Many have a religious motivation: they want to walk “in the footsteps of Jesus” or to see the land of the patriarchs. Often, however, despite the best spin that the tour guides put on it, what they actually see is “the land of Herod” and the buildings of the Crusaders or the Ottomans. What is more, when they consult their digital maps or guidebooks, they will not find “the Holy Land” anywhere depicted. As a political definition of turf it simply does not exist. Indeed, it occurs as a name only once in the Hebrew Bible/ Old Testament, never even once in the New Testament, and again it is extremely rare in the Qur‘an.

In devising this Illustrated Historywe were therefore guided by other than purely political—or sometimes even historical!—concerns. Rather, we wanted to outline the history of that part of the Levant that has seen the birth of two of the three great monotheistic faiths and has been of central concern to the third. This has had three particular consequences.

First, in terms of geography the boundaries we have worked with have been varied, depending on where the action relevant to the faiths was based. While the region around Jerusalem is always most prominent it was necessary usually to go further north as well, but only sometimes to include, for instance, the territory of present-day Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, of ancient Assyria and Babylon (in modern Iraq), and even of Turkey, the heartland of the Ottoman empire.



Second, our chronology has also been determined by the goals of the book. Although some of the earliest human remains world-wide are found in the Carmel caves, and although Jericho has often been called the oldest city on earth, we in fact start with Abraham, whose name has in recent years come to be associated with the three Abrahamic faiths. And perhaps I might add here that we stop in 1918, not because that was the end of the Holy Land but because we wanted resolutely to avoid any danger of contaminating that notion with current political claims and counter-claims. We are historians, not specialists in international relations.

And thirdly, while of course the political history of the nearly three thousand years we cover is given full attention, the focus throughout is on how the land has provided the setting for the development of three great faiths. To help with this, we decided not only to include chapters on what I like to call the normal “hunks of history,” but also three on matters peculiar to religion but in one way or another shared by all of them: pilgrimage, holy places, and sacred texts. Such social/cultural matters are quite as much an element of history as kings and battles.

So at a minimum, this book should prepare people for a better understanding of what one actually sees on the ground, whether visiting in person or only as an armchair pilgrim. It is remarkable how an increased knowledge of history can enrich the appreciation of landscape and the built environment, turning what sometimes looks like a confused jumble of remains from widely differing periods into an intelligible whole. I have seen people’s appreciation of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, for instance, completely transformed once it is explained to them why things are as they are and how they developed from very different-looking beginnings.

There is a deeper matter, however, which is of interest, if not challenge, for all whose knowledge of the history of this region is derived primarily from the sacred texts of one of the religions or another. Proper historical narratives are the result of painstaking research which combine information from a variety of sources, and in some cases these were not available to writers long ago or even, from time to time, quite recently. To mention just the most obvious of these, it is only really in the past century that we have discovered and deciphered many of the records from the nations of antiquity who impacted the Holy Land: Assyrians, Babylonians, Arameans, Egyptians, Persians, and so on. These obviously often fill out the picture presented in familiar sources (such as the Bible in antiquity) and help us to realize that both sides had their axes to grind in ways that historians have to take into account.

Again, archaeology has refined and developed its techniques in transformative ways so that excavation is no longer just a treasure hunt but a vital tool for filling in the longer term trends in agriculture, domestic as well as public architecture, and other such cultural stages in the way of life which determines much of the path along which history evolves. This is all obviously to be welcomed.

These newer data can also challenge deeply-held positions that are based only on an inherited knowledge of the story. Naturally each author in this volume has to present the data with all the clarity that she or he can muster, and we are aware that sometimes people will find this disturbing. The authors of each chapter were therefore specifically asked not to alienate the reader but rather to lead him or her gently through the evidence that cannot be ignored by anyone wanting to maintain their intellectual integrity. 

As editors we concluded our preface by saying that “we do not believe that the results of modern historical research are in any way incompatible with the continuing use of the Bible as scripture.” We also added that our hope is that “through such understanding appreciation of what each of the faiths had to offer may be deepened without the hostile fragmentation which has characterized much of the history we trace here and which still, sadly, is prevalent in the modern world.”

 As is often said in the present climate, the Holy Land sometimes sounds like a contradiction in terms. It is up to each reader to work through how their faith or their cynicism will take these points on board, but of one thing we are certain: it cannot be done by refusing to face up to the history which is here outlined by expert scholars on the basis of the best knowledge currently available to us.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170743 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170743 0
What I’m Reading: An Interview With Historian Stacy D. Fahrenthold  


Stacy D. Fahrenthold is a historian of Middle Eastern migrations, and she is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of History at University of California, Davis. Her book, Between the Ottomans and the Entente: the First World War in the Syrian and Lebanese Diaspora, 1908-1925 (OUP, March 2019), examines the politics and activism of a half million Ottoman subjects in the Americas when their home empire fell. She studied at Georgia State University and Northeastern University, where she received her PhD in 2014. Dr. Fahrenthold tweets from @SDFahrenthold.


What books are you reading now?


I’ve been reading mostly about borderlands as I prepare a new comparative history course on the theme of “bans and border walls.” Laura Robson’s States of Separation: Transfer, Partition, and the Making of the Modern Middle East offers insight into how the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire after World War I abetted massive programs to remove, displace, and resettle refugees, with consequences to the present day. Camila Pastor’s The Mexican Mahjar: Transnational Maronites, Jews, and Arabs under the French Mandate examines the politics of Middle Eastern migration to Mexico, casting new light on these bordering practices beyond the region itself. And I recently revisited Ruben Andersson’s Illegality, Inc.: Clandestine Migration and the Business of Bordering Europe, which reveals the economies enabled by border policing. It touches on smuggling, military armament, and incarceration in the contemporary Mediterranean.


What is your favorite history book?


My answer to this question probably changes every season, but at the moment Melanie Tanielian’s The Charity of War: Famine, Humanitarian Aid, and World War I in the Middle East is certainly a contender! Tanielian tells an important story about the First World War from the position of the Ottoman home front. It’s a must-read for anyone interested in the impact of war on civilians, in the Middle East or beyond.


What qualities do you need to be a historian?


A willingness to fail frequently, and a commitment to failing a little bit better each time. 


Who was your favorite history teacher?


I was fortunate to have many fantastic teachers and mentors as I studied. Isa Blumi taught me to question the received wisdom of traditional historiography. Christine Skwiot challenged me to read widely and pay attention to footnotes. Ilham Khuri-Makdisi taught me to never give up the dogged pursuit of new sources, and to honor the stories I find as best I can. 


What is your most memorable or rewarding teaching experience?


A couple of years ago I taught a course on World War I in the Middle East, and students worked together to produce a digital newspaper capturing Ottoman perspectives of the war using primary sources they found in their research. The paper, called World War Alla Turca, followed the historical timeline as we progressed through the syllabus, and my students found an impressive array of digital resources in Middle East history.


What are your hopes for history as a discipline?


I sincerely hope that historians stop taking the bait in our national conversation about the humanities-as-failing. I worry about the impact of “meme-ification” of crisis rhetoric on our prospects as a discipline. Of course, there are many amazing scholars already combatting austerity, meeting the challenges of reduced enrollment, and confronting popular distrust in our institutions. They inspire me and I think that they represent where we’re headed.


How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?


Economic austerity in the U.S. and political instability in the Middle East have combined to make accessing archives much more difficult over time. But on the other hand, a new culture of collaboration among researchers and digitization of primary sources has made my work more enjoyable, too.


What are you doing next?


Since finishing the book, I’ve started a new project on Middle Eastern migrants who encountered border police during their journey. It builds from my ongoing data mining project that has tracked hundreds of state attempts to halt, detain, or surveil Syrian, Turkish, and Assyrian individuals across the Americas. It’s really exciting, in part because digitization projects undertaken by regional archives have made these police records more accessible. The stories are also intrinsically microhistorical and engaging to read.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170721 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170721 0
Is Monticello Monetizing Race at Jefferson’s Expense?

Thomas Jefferson's Monticello, By Martin Falbisoner - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0


Consider this simple syllogism: Slavery is bad; Thomas Jefferson owned slaves; so, Thomas Jefferson was bad. Consider this simplistic precept: Racism is bad. Both are anything but profound and certainly not illuminating, but they typify, with due consideration for hyperbole, the quality and blinkered approach to Jeffersonian scholarship in the past several decades. The focal issue has been Jefferson’s racism, and the issue within the issue has been his assumed relationship with Sally Hemings. Jeffersonian scholarship has become an exercise in battology—a useless, fatuous repetition of the same claims but with a slightly different twist. “Jefferson was a racist but he really loved Sally Hemings” versus “Jefferson was a racist and he raped Sally Hemings,” and so on. Those twists are what merit publication. The collision of radically different, but historically reasonable, ideas, needed for advances in historical scholarship, has become anathema.

Yet there is a place for simple syllogisms and simplistic precepts. They were, for instance, a significant part of a youth’s education in antiquity. The ancient Greek and Roman Stoics commonly used such syllogisms and precepts to hammer home lessons concerning happiness. Simple syllogism: One always benefits by having more of a particular virtue; too much wealth can bring ruin; so, wealth is not a virtue. Precept: Virtue is the sole good. For the Stoics, such simple syllogisms and simplistic precepts were not meant to be profound or provocative. They were uttered to reinforce virtuous behavior with the aim of equanimity. They were especially useful for children, whose rational faculties were too undersized and inchoate to appreciate the richness and complexity of circumstances, which were for those persons of full rational maturity, for the Stoics, the true determinants of virtuous behavior, not simple syllogisms or simplistic precepts. Uttering that wealth is irrelevant to happiness is itself not sufficient to mollify someone experiencing bankruptcy. Yet knowing that wealth itself is irrelevant to happiness is, in the words of French psychologist Jean Piaget, complete assimilation and accommodation of the principle such that it becomes part of the fabric of a person. That takes decades of agonizing critical thinking—of thinking through some issue to understand how it applies in all circumstances, of thinking through what makes a life meaningful. Once assimilated and accommodated, living consistently with the principle is easy.



Issues of slavery and racism are equally complex, and cannot be understood by uttering simple syllogisms or simplistic precepts as scholars today are wont to do. Slavery is known to have been practiced in Ancient China as early as the 18th century B.C. and continued to be practiced till the twentieth century. Slavery was also practiced in India, in parts of Asia, in the Middle East, and even in Africa, where Blacks enslaved other Blacks. So prevalent was the institution that it was taken for granted prior to the American Revolution. Said John Jay: “Prior to the great revolution, the great majority or rather the great body of our people had been so long accustomed to the practice and convenience of having slaves, that very few among them even doubted the propriety and rectitude of it.” It is mostly with the ascendency of Enlightenment thinking, with its twin postulates of liberty and equality, articulated for illustration by Jefferson in his Declaration of Independence, that slavery has become vital and vibrant in scientific, moral, and political discussions.

The driving force behind Monticello, the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, has for at least two decades been using the issue of race as an enticement for bringing people to Monticello. It is unclear whether that strategy has worked to bring visitors, but it has brought it grant money.  It began with their scholarly take on the 1998 DNA report, misleadingly titled “Jefferson Fathered Slaves’ Last Child,” on Jefferson’s paternity. Their report, published in 2000, stated that Jefferson was very likely the father of Eston Hemings and probably the father of all other children of Sally Hemings. In June, 2018, and by appeal to no new evidence, they pronounced, in a new exhibit on Sally Hemings, that the relationship was fact. “In the new exhibit exploring the life of Sally Hemings, her choices, and her connection to Thomas Jefferson, as well as in updates to our related online materials and print publications, the Foundation will henceforth assert what the evidence indicates and eliminate qualifying language related to the paternity of Eston Hemings as well as that related to Sally Hemings’s three other surviving children, whose descendants were not part of the 1998 DNA study.” They have also brought to bear the question whether Hemings was raped by Jefferson. What a tantalizing suggestion, and to my mind a sleazy one!

That they claim, concerning Jefferson’s paternity, to be merely asserting what the evidence indicates is to me astonishing. As one who has taught logic and critical thinking for some 30 years and has published four books in that area, I admit to being flummoxed by that assertion. Thorough analysis of all the relevant evidence points to lack of a relationship, though I admit that I cannot make that utterance with a high degree of probability. I have never done that. We just do not know! Proof that something suspicious is happening is this: If the evidence is so compelling that we can safely state the relationship is factual, then why could not TJF have seen that some 20 years ago? The evidence has not changed.

The situation at Monticello is toxic. They are unwilling to aim to settle the issues of Jefferson’s paternity and of his avowed racism by rational debate concerning the evidence, or even concerning what ought to count as evidence. Members of TJF—and many of them are, I suspect, sufficiently unfamiliar with Jefferson to be judges of the issue of paternity—have elected themselves to be the sole arbiters of Thomas Jefferson’s legacy, which is no longer open to debate. Their influence extends to the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies, run by the vice-president of TJF, as well as University of Virginia Press. They control who comes to the center and what books related to Jefferson get published. TJF’s depiction of Jefferson, jaded as it is, has won the day. It is now no longer necessary to recognize others who disagree with TJF, to read their arguments, to assess critically those arguments, and to engage in debate with them.

What is the next step?

The next step, doubtless, will be to remove or disallow all the excellent books in Monticello’s library concerning arguments for skepticism or anti-paternity—Dr. Robert Turner’s Scholars Commission Report, Cynthia Burton’s Jefferson Vindicated, and William Hyland’s In Defense of Thomas Jefferson. There is no need to remove my Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings—as well as books that paint Jefferson in a favorable light. It, and my numerous other books which I have published on Jefferson’s philosophical thinking (e.g., Thomas Jefferson: Moralist: Jefferson’s Political Philosophy and the Metaphysics of Utopia: and Thomas Jefferson’s Bible: With Introduction and Critical Commentary) and have nothing to do with Sally Hemings, but take us deep into the mind of Jefferson, have never been at their library.

What is worse, as New York Times reporter Farah Stockman says, is that TJF “is phasing out the popular ‘house tour’ of the mansion, … [thereby] radically changing what is experienced by the more than 400,000 tourists who visit Monticello annually.” Why would TJF phase out a popular tour? Why is that significant? Tourists will no longer see the Great Clock; the Native American artifacts; the numerous paintings (e.g., Bacon, Locke, and Newton); the many busts (e.g., Jefferson and Hamilton, face to face); the library sorted according to Memory, Reason, and Imagination; the inventions and gewgaws (e.g., the dumbwaiter, the revolving bookstand, and the polygraph); among other things. Tourists to Monticello will be kept outside to see Sally Hemings’ room and the slaves’ quarters at Mulberry Row. Jefferson’s beloved Monticello might soon be a shrine to Sally Hemings, even though we do not know whether she and Jefferson had a relationship (see my article on HNN)!

To the objection that Monticello ought to be principally about Jefferson and not about slavery or Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed replies:“Some people come here and say, ‘I didn’t come here, to a slave plantation, to hear about slavery.’ There’s nothing to do but keep pushing back.” To her, it has become a shoving match. Monticello is not Jefferson’s home, but a “slave plantation”—her agenda is plain—and visitors to it will hear about that whether or not it suits them. The comment plainly betrays the political posture of TJF. There is a good reason to keep on shoving. Monticello was awarded NEH grants in 2018 totaling nearly one million dollars! The focus on race is being handsomely rewarded, even if truth is deserted. Who cares if the number of visitors radically declines if grant money keeps pouring in? 

While it is laudable that members of the TJF wish to be viewed historically as paladins of human rights, they are doing so by constructing an image of Jefferson that is warped by political ideals. Their Jefferson is an opportunist, hypocrite, racist, and perhaps even rapist, and they do not give voice to scholars who disagree. The climate is authoritarian—certainly not in keeping with Jefferson’s republican thinking.

Historical truth and a pro-human-rights agenda are not inconsistent. In pressing too hard, too fast, for the latter, we do so at the expense of the former, and the accounts of the past we leave behind to future generations become no more reliable than Homer’s Iliad—a story founded on historical truth, but overwhelmingly colored by fancy.

Yet I am, like Jefferson and perhaps naively, convinced of the good judgment of people over time. As the issue of race is a hot potato, Jefferson will continue to be a fall guy, and perhaps the quick monetary rewards of a focus on Jefferson’s racism will be a template also for short-term success at Poplar Forest. One can only hope that that will not be the case—that The Corporation for Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest not will sell out their souls for money.

In the meantime, we must do what we can and also exercise patience. As Jefferson writes to Dr. Thomas Cooper (7 Oct. 1814): “We cannot always do what is absolutely best. Those with whom we act, entertaining different views, have the power and the right of carrying them into practice. Truth advances, and error recedes step by step only; and to do to our fellow men the most good in our power we must lead where we can, follow where we cannot and still go with them, watching always the favorable moment for helping them to another step.”

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170713 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170713 0
75 Years Ago Ernie Pyle Wrote a Tribute to a Dead World War 2 Soldier

Captain Henry T. Waskow, United States Army - By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use


In this war I have known a lot of officers who were loved  and respected by the soldiers under them.  But never have  I crossed the trail of any man as beloved as Captain Henry  T. Waskow of Belton, Tex. 

Journalist Ernie Pyle was a household name during the Second World War.  Millions at home consumed his dispatches from various theatre's of battle, carried in more than 300 Scripps-Howard newspapers across the country, with the same devotion they reserved for v-mail they received from their loved ones in harm's way overseas. 

Pyle's most famous column eulogized Henry Waskow of the 36th infantry, who died December 14, 1943—75 years ago—when he was struck in the chest by a German mortar in the fighting that raged in the mountains south of Rome.  If it had not caught Pyle's attention, his death would have been lost amid the casualty numbers coming out of that exceptionally bloody front. 

For three days Pyle waited at bottom of the trail where mule teams were bringing down bodies. “This one is Captain Waskow,” he remembered hearing that cold, moonlit night as he eavesdropped while the men of his unit approached, one by one, to offer their sad and awkward goodbyes.     

Pyle knew when to let a scene speak for itself, and the starkness of the words he chose to describe this one only added to their weight and power.  “I sure am sorry, sir,” said one soldier, his voice trailing off.  Another knelt down and, for several minutes, held his friend's hand, lost in thought. Before joining the others as they moved up the road to the next assignment, he paused for an extra moment, to “gently straighten...the points of the captain's shirt collar, and then he sort of rearranged the tattered edges of his uniform around the wound.” 

The intimate, closely-observed details of this column struck such a chord with Pyle's audience that Arthur Godfrey decided to read it aloud on his syndicated radio program, and it would be adopted for war bond drives in much the same way as Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the flag raising at Iwo Jima a year later. 



And so we should pause, to remember the work of Ernie Pyle, and the life of the young army captain he so nobly memorialized—one of eight children, born to a family of Dust Bowl sharecroppers, the class president at his tiny high school, an aspiring teacher, a humble and caring man who went the extra mile for his men, and who, like so many others, sacrificed his future, for ours.     

Today Henry Waskow lies buried in a military park in Italy with thousands of his fallen comrades, a long way from home. “I would like to have lived,” he wrote in a heartfelt letter to his family, to be opened in the event of his death.   

But since God has willed otherwise, do not grieve too much, dear ones, for life in that other world must be beautiful, and I have lived a life with that in mind all along.

I will have done my share to make this world a better place in which to live. Maybe when the lights go on again all over the world, free people can be happy and gay again.

If I failed as a leader, and I pray God I didn't, it was not because I did not try.

You can read Pyle’s tribute to Captain Henry Waskow here.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170707 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170707 0
In Memory of the Man Who Was Identified with the “God Is Dead” Movement


God still spoke to his prophets during the 17th century English civil wars. Oftentimes God thundered in paradoxical aphorisms that sounded heretical or blasphemous. Sometimes, two centuries before Friedrich Nietzsche, God would declare his own death. For the members of the dissenting religious sects that functioned as the pamphleteers for these ideas, theology was a radical practice. Faith didn’t exist to bolster things-of-this-world, but rather God’s decomposition allowed for a fecundity where new meanings could grow. Subsequently, groups with colorful designations like the Muggletonians, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Grindletonians, the Philadelphians, the Behmists, the Familiasts, and the evocatively (and appropriately) named Ranters produced some of the strangest and most beautiful theological work in Christian history.

Theirs was a fervency before the sublime altar of Nothingness, a wisdom prostrating itself before an empty throne, holding to the 18th century visionary poet and prophet (and possible enthusiast for Muggletonianism) William Blake, who wrote that “men forgot that all deities reside in the human breast.” This dictum reverberates in the prophetic work of Blake’s great theological reader, our contemporary Thomas J.J. Altizer, who passed at the age of 91 on Wednesday, November 28. His former student Alina Feld, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Hofstra University, remembered Altizer as “an indomitable gadfly awakening all slumbering, lukewarm hearts and minds,” a voice more at home with the radicals of the 17th century than with the bromides of contemporary conservative Christianity.

Altizer is associated in the popular imagination with the best-selling 1966 Time article about his and others’ contributions to the “Death of God” movement which tried to reconcile Christianity and Judaism to Nietzsche’s infamous declaration about God’s mortality in The Gay Science. Altizer, who was then a professor in the religion department of Emory University, was joined by Fr. Paul van Buren at Temple University, Rev. Gabriel Vahanian, Rabbi Richard Rubenstein and William Hamilton. These scholars drew upon the philosophy of Nietzsche, as well as more recent theologians like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Paul Tillich, asking what it meant to have faith in a faithless world. Altizer wrote that “modern man has known a moral chaos, a vacuous nihilism dissolving every ground of moral judgment, which is unequaled in history,” where God’s silence is louder than any Hosanna.



Consequently, a radically honest theology must be crafted in response. Time religion editor John T. Elson explained that this diverse assortment of thinkers “believes that God is indeed absolutely dead, but proposes to carry on and write a theology without God.” Radical theologians understood that to confront the horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, one couldn’t return to the platitudes of mainstream Christianity as uttered by someone like Billy Graham (who denounced Altizer from his pulpit). In opposition, Altizer declared in Toward a New Christianity that“If Protestant theology has reached the point where it is closed to the challenge of atheism, then it has ceased to be the intellectual vanguard of Christianity.”

Altizer was arguably the most radical of featured thinkers in Elson’s essay, though what endured in the wider culture was less its author’s quick tour, but rather the stark red-and-black cover which asked “Is God Dead?”Altizer attracted instant notoriety, which dogged him throughout his life. Even more problematic, however, was the reduction of such a subtle and multifaceted theology to a single magazine cover. Lissa McCullough, an adjunct professor of philosophy at California State University Dominguez Hills and editor of The Call to Radical Theology, explained that the controversy has threatened to obscure Altizer’s significance. In her opinion “Altizer began to work out and publish his most original theological work… well after the so-called death of God debate faded,” with that infamous cover threatening to overshadow the “most important theologian of the second half of the twentieth century.”

Born to wealthy parents in 1927, Altizer was raised among Charleston, West Virginia’s high society. A direct descendant of Confederate general Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, Altizer would reject the reactionary politics of his upbringing, as well as the conservative Christianity which acts as its handmaiden. Writing in 1966’s The Gospel of Christian Atheism, Altizer argued that “the radical Christian maintains that it is the Church’s regressive religious belief… which impels it to betray the present… reality of Christ.” Altizer would receive his bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees entirely from the University of Chicago’s famed divinity school. During this period, he attempted to become an Episcopal priest, but was rejected after a psychological evaluation in which he revealed both his personal experiences of Satan and his revelation of the death of God. After a short stint as a professor at Wabash College, he would move to Emory University where he would first develop his infamous theology.

His appointment at the school would last from 1956-1968, and while the university was a defender of his academic freedom, Atlanta was not necessarily the most conducive to so heretical a thinker – the Methodist Church which governed Emory having officially denounced him. He would spend the final three decades of his academic career at SUNY Stony Brook, retiring to the Poconos in 1996 where he continued to write, the last of his over 20 books published just a few months ago. Too often ignored by literary scholars, Altizer’s engagement with Dante, Milton, Blake and James Joyce revealed a tradition of interconnected Christian epic, whereby such poetry can be understood as the unfolding revelation of a single work. Within those writings, Altizer presents a “comprehensive and systematic accounting of Christian faith,” as McCullough told me, but unlike more recent systematic theologians, Altizer’s has the “unorthodox twist that it seeks to recapture the transformative apocalyptic energies and potentials of primitive Christianity.”

Altizer can be an esoteric thinker, conversant with poetic metaphor as much as logical syllogism, the better to synthesize Nietzsche and Blake with Paul and Augustine. McCullough explained that “Altizer’s conviction is that the historical church reversed the real emphasis of Jesus’s teachings,” and in that regard he stood with both the ancient Gnostics and the early modern dissenters in excavating a radical Christianity opposed to profane reality. Altizer wrote that the “the original heresy was the identification of the Church as the body of Christ,” a species of idolatry that inevitably corrupted faith. Identification of such corruption is a mainstay of political theology. It was the diagnosis of Lollards denouncing the medieval Church, of the Protestant reformers denouncing Rome, and of Anabaptists denouncing everyone. What makes Altizer fascinating is that he stands against any organized Christianity, seeing the very idea as contradictory. His theology holds that the “exalted and transcendent Lord is a sufficient sign to the radical Christian that Christianity has reversed the movement of the Incarnation.” By way of paraphrase to the eastern faiths which fascinated Altizer, the spoken Christ is not the real Christ, and should you meet Jesus on the road you must crucify him.

His is a systematized theology of all of the subversive, radical, counter-currents implicit within Christianity. I see him as the most full-throated modern manifestation of those groups mentioned earlier. He is of the tradition of John Reeve, founder of the Muggletonians, who demanded that you should “look into thy own body, there thou shalt see the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell.” Altizer draws from the same well-spring as the preacher Theaurau John Tany who sang that the “Soul is of the essence of God/There is neither hell nor damnation,” or of the Ranter Abiezer Coppe’s belief that radical faith existed to “overturn, overturn, overturn.”

Altizer and his precedents sang in tongues of fire; they were theological astronauts. McCullough told me that Altizer’s thought was “committed to the ultimate sacredness of life in this world, here and now, rather than a heavenly realm after death,” and in that I hear Reeve who thundered in one pamphlet that you must “look into thy own body, there thou shall see the Kingdom of Heaven and the Kingdom of Hell.” Far from a purely atheistic negation, this perspective was intoxicated with God, for by erasing those distinctions between the almighty and everything else there was the promise of making the world a Paradise.

Anyone who met Altizer couldn’t help but be struck by a similar God-intoxication, even with his reputation for “Christian atheism” (or perhaps because of it). Seventeenth century non-conformists understood that theology and rhetoric are equivalent, and spectacle was central to their teachings, be it the Leveller Gerard Winstanley destroying hedges which separated private estates, or the Quaker John Naylor marching into Bristol by donkey on Palm Sunday. Corresponding with him through email and having met him several times, I can attest that Altizer had a similar countenance. Meeting him at the first conference of the International Society for Heresy Studies held at New York University in 2014, my impression was of having conversed with an actual prophet.  Imagine Blake in a red blazer over a Hawaiian shirt, standing at Broadway and W. 4th.

Altizer’s keynote was a fire-and-brimstone sermon for God’s funeral delivered in an Appalachian twang. Gregory Erickson, an NYU English professor, as well as an organizer of that conference, recalls that Altizer signed off an email with “For I am a Preacher at heart and a Preacher of that Death of God which is Resurrection and Apocalypse at once.” Something arresting about these “statements [that] would come thundering out of him, in his writing and in person,” as Erickson recalls. Jordan Miller, co-editor of The Palgrave Companion of Radical Theology, which contains some of Altizer’s last work, remembered his early encounters. After a lecture to an undergraduate class that Miller was enrolled in, Altizer gave a copy of The Gospel of Christian Atheism to him. Miller explained that “Like a good, southern preacher” Altizer kept copies of his books to give to “any independent bookstore he passed on his travels.”

For Altizer, faith and doubt were unified together in their own strange ecstasy, and paradoxical divine atheism gestures to a God bigger than the one circumscribed by scripture. Miller told me that Altizer’s rejection of Christianity in “consort with powerful and oppressive institutions” allows for a new and “meaningful theology in a tragic world.” Altizer’s is a difficult path, the theologian writing that “passage through the death of God must issue in either an abolition of man or in the birth of a new and transfigured humanity.” Yet as Miller explains, this theology is “not escapist. It embraces the world in its love the world.” From Miller’s perspective, it is precisely this sort of radical faith which is a “true antidote to toxic evangelicalism and the milquetoast theology of the privileged.”

Altizer was the latest of the dissenters, the final nonconformist, who promised intimation of salvation in a universe without redemption. He knew the score, writing that for “the Christian who bets that God is dead” there are risks of “both moral chaos and his own damnation.” Yet Altizer was a betting man, and what he gained was a type of liberty. Such was the Blakean imperative, what he describes in Godhead and Nothing as “theological language [that] is a truly universal language,” which is the “absolute No… a darkness which is finally the darkness of God.” Blake wrote with thundering truth that “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s.” By such standards Altizer, who died on Blake’s birthday, was one of the freest of people.

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170687 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170687 0
Now that the Bush Funeral Is Over with, We Need to Talk Honestly About the End of the Cold War

Germans stand on top of the Wall in the days before it was torn down - By Lear 21 at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0


Related Link How People Are Remembering George HW Bush

Imagine a superpower founded on a revolution inspired by Enlightenment values (often honored in the breach), great violence liberally applied and mostly badly remembered, and a myth of exceptionalism and superior progress that even its critics find hard to fully escape. 

Our superpower’s global reach and bite commands if not the respect then at least the fear of the world in a manner second to no other state on the planet. While its adventures abroad are often less than successful and leave corpses and ruins in their wake, it is or feels so strong that that doesn’t teach it much. 

Its domestic politics are close to stagnation, as visitors can quickly guess from its almost comically decrepit infrastructure so clearly not in sync with the ability of its scientists, engineers, and workers or its claims of indispensable leadership. 



Its ruling elite is irrationally and obstinately wedded to hoary old dogmas – originally imported from dour European ideologists – about the relationship between the economy and politics. Increasing numbers of its ordinary citizens, meanwhile, are not only unhappy about specific policies but – much more worryingly – about the system as a whole, its principles, institutions, and representatives. 

There is a widespread and plausible sense that the elites – in politics, the economy, and the media – have built themselves a privileged world of careerist cynicism, lying as a way of life, corruption without limits or regrets, and, last but not least, gross impunity. 

This loss of faith in the political and social order is reflected in the rise of a desperately dark sense of humor. Especially the young wonder with increasing trepidation what fate awaits them in the world their elders have unmade. Even some former insiders and dissident elite members speak of the deep perversion of the system they know so well. Some citizens are even doubting the literally fundamental ideas and heroes of the original revolution. 

This is, of course, a description of the late Soviet Union, the other superpower of the Cold War and the only state that, for now at least, could ever claim to have – very unwisely – challenged and stood its ground against post-World War Two America, for a while and at crippling cost. 

Despite all the well-known differences, it is also, equally obviously, a description of the USA about one generation after the Cold War ended and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Where doctrinaire anti-capitalism mightily helped the Soviets dig their own grave, doctrinaire pro-capitalism might still do the job for their old nemesis, especially under conditions of expensive militarism, another similarity. 

And where the simple-minded veneration of Lenin, the Soviet founding father, could not survive the deeply unsatisfying reality of the state he created, perhaps the flagrant flaws of American politics may finally end up toppling slave-holding founding fathers from their pedestals as well. 

Certainly, the American Dream has already lived longer than its Soviet rival. But must it live forever? The Soviet one did not, and – most disturbingly – it died with a suddenness that took many observers by surprise. As the title of an influential post-mortem of the Soviet Union has it, “everything was forever, until it was no more.”  

Yet despite – or because? – of this bleak picture, we have just seen a collective outpour of nostalgic triumphalism. Intriguingly, it focuses on the American leader during whose reign the Soviet Union breathed its last, George Bush I. After his passing away, most of the US media have exploited the traditional convention of the eulogy – to speak nothing but good of the dead – to engage in a collective fit of national self-adoration that Pravda might have been proud of. Almost everything about this exhibitionist wave of nostalgia is wrong. Bush I was not a kind king, but a ruthless wielder of power, at home and abroad.

Let’s focus, however, on just one element of this love fest for the powers that be – or at least were – namely the bizarre yet popular claim that Bush I managed the end of the Cold War well. This is factually misleading and chockfull of bad politics as well. Here is why: First of all, the Cold War did not end under Bush I, the Soviet Union did. The Cold War was over by the time, Bush I came into power. If we want to be nice to an arch-conservative American president for making a contribution to ending it – by taking Soviet initiatives seriously – that would be Ronald Reagan. 

Why does that matter? Certainly not because Reagan must have his share of the glory. As almost all presidents, he will always be served well enough with adulation, deserved or, mostly, not. What we lose by misdating the end of the Cold War is a sense of how unlikely it was, not, at that point, because of the Soviets but because of the American establishment. Reagan’s one positive contribution to world history – after the war scares of 1983 which he helped bring about – was to go against the blob. Ironically, he did so precisely because he had that “vision thing” that Bush I would later mock. It was not the WASPs and their vaunted get-things-done sobriety that helped end the Cold War, but the wild-eyed if oddly placed utopianism of a former Hollywood actor. Thus no, this is not a lesson about trusting traditional elites to manage the world well – sorry, Ross Douthat.  

We also gain something by conflating the end of the Cold War and that of the Soviet Union – and that is even worse, namely a blinding bias: If we pretend that the Cold War only ended when and because the Soviet Union disappeared, we imply that this was a war that could only end with the total defeat, even the annihilation – if, in this case, mostly peacefully – of the opponent. That is, of course, a favorite illusion of the American right and, alas, center. 

Here, the end of the Cold War morphs into the greatest case of successful regime change yet – and an eternal reminder that there are no alternatives. Thus, the lesson implied is to never seek compromise with irritatingly, obstinately, unbearably other Others but, instead, insist that they become like us, whether they want to or not. Yet, in reality, compromise – if much in favor of the USA – is exactly how the Cold War really ended. 

Put differently, it is a fallacy to believe that the USA won the Cold War because the Soviet Union lost it. Yes, the Soviets did lose it, but America, fortunately, initially only took advantage withoutinsisting on winning. That was the key to its end.

Which brings us to what happened afterwards, namely Bush I beginning to mess up the ensuing peace (an endeavor then continued by his successor Bill Clinton), in two ways at least: just after the Soviet Union had ceased to exist, in his State of the Union Address of January 1992, he could not resist crowing about America having won the Cold War, quite blasphemously, invoking higher powers as well. Indeed, he rubbed it in, making a point of insisting that the Cold War had not “ended” (his scare quotes) but been won

And he presided over a war against Iraq that demonstrated that the post-Cold War “New World Order” would be one of America having it its way even more than before. In both instances, he did not create but helped along the Russian bitterness and self-pity that has since grown strident. He also promoted the American elite arrogance that has since grown self-defeating. 

It’s not as if America could not learn anything from looking at Russia, but it has a habit of getting the lessons wrong. Watching Putin, it fails to see that his attempts to influence its politics are much less important than the deep capitalist-oligarchic convergence between the two countries. 

Looking at the end of the Soviet Union, America fails to see that what lost the Cold War for its old best enemy was the hubris of super-powering-while-declining. What then killedit was its own failure to address its glaring flaws at home quickly and effectively enough and, of course, a ruthlessly self-interested elite that put its own careers, power, and profit above everything else.    

Sun, 17 Feb 2019 03:20:31 +0000 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170676 https://historynewsnetwork.org/article/170676 0