Checkered History Checkered History blog brought to you by History News Network. Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:44:26 +0000 Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:44:26 +0000 Zend_Feed_Writer 2 ( Political Uses of the Past

This blog is by Allen Mikaelian. Allen is an editor and writer who specializes in creating meaningful projects for amazing people. He holds a history PhD from American University, is a former editor of the American Historical Association's "Perspectives on History," and lives in Washington, DC.

History matters, and not just because it enriches our lives or provides transferable skills or prevents the past from repeating itself. History also matters because our political class uses it like currency; their perceptions of the past inform their policies, color their rhetoric, and create world views.

A member of Congress recently argued that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, a source of much discontent for the Trump administration, was merely established to bring law to the wild west; now it has outlived its usefulness and can safely be abolished.  A White House spokesperson asserted that the Johnson Amendment, which limits political endorsements by nonprofits like churches, was akin to silencing Martin Luther King. Another member of Congress claimed that the present crisis in Africa is much like the Irish Potato Famine—it was created by politics, not by actual shortages. History matters because our elected officials are making it matter, every day. 

The Political Uses of the Past project collects statements by elected and appointed officials who deploy history and historical comparisons in their speeches, remarks, and arguments. The collection is updated nearly every day and focuses on Congress and the administration. Historians are invited to rate and comment on these statements. As the collection grows, the project will include a database and visualizations (much like what you see here). Much else is possible; much else is in the works. And the stream of historical statements by politicians will provide an incredible amount of fodder for whatever comes next.  

This project has been brewing for a while, but received a strong push as I watched how our political conversations increasingly disdain facts and expertise. This is of course not particular to history, but historical truth is a frequent victim. Historians are pushing back with solid research and writing, and are taking their expertise into the public square with newfound urgency. This project aims to feed that urge. 

My hope is that a historian will see one of these statements and use it as a prompt for further public engagement. The project provides an easy way to do that with a comment form (available to historians after light vetting), but many historians will, I hope, engage by creating longer pieces or find inspiration for lesson planning. Either way, there’s a value in watching closely how politicians are using the past, especially now.  

Each week this blog, generously provided by HNN, will highlight a particularly provocative statement, a new trend, or conversations inspired by recent statements. The project is very open to ideas, suggestions, guest posts, and guidance (which you can submit here). Those who are interested in a daily dose of political uses of the past can subscribe to the project's newsletter. (just provide your email in the “Updates” form on the left side of this page. You will receive one (and only one!) email per day with the day’s updates. Daily updates are also available via Twitter, RSS, and Facebook

As I process the daily onslaught of political uses of the past (read the about page for more on how I’m finding these statements with a nifty bit of machine learning code), I’m finding many more statements than I have time or space to publish, and I’m picking up on some fascinating trends and tropes. Each of these offer opportunities to public-minded historians. 

The Teapot Dome scandal, for instance, is suddenly relevant to the issue of Trump’s tax returns. One of the main talking points on the president’s budget is the idea of 3 percent GDP growth being normal throughout US history. And if the administration wants you to take away anything from Trump’s first foreign trip, it is that the trip was “historic” (check the transcripts—they can’t seem to stop saying it).

These threads suggest different political uses of the past and different ways historians can engage. If Teapot Dome is suddenly relevant, explainers by historians would be a great public service. And perhaps that 3 percent growth figure is true. Perhaps not. Either way, it’s a statement that cries out for the kind of historical context that you’re unlikely to get from an economist. Or what exactly was historic about that trip to Saudi Arabia? This is a nation that has been an ally for some time; are we really facing a turning point in that relationship?  

History really matters; it is a constant background hum in the cacophony on the Hill and in the White House. The daily updates to this project will prove that. The question then is: What are historians going to do about it?

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The Debate over the Lack of Debate on the GOP Healthcare Plan

This blog is by Allen Mikaelian. Allen is an editor and writer who specializes in creating meaningful projects for amazing people. He holds a history PhD from American University, is a former editor of the American Historical Association's "Perspectives on History," and lives in Washington, DC.

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Congress Has a History of Legislating in Secrecy:  Interview with Julian Zelizer 

● Republican secrecy faces mounting criticism as GOP senators work behind closed doors to replace Obamacare

"I love history." —Sen. Cory Booker Senate Floor, June 19, 2017

On Monday, Democrats organized a Senate floor protest, delivering lengthy speeches against what they saw as “shameful” maneuvers by the Republicans to craft the Obamacare replacement bill behind “closed doors.”

The Political Uses of the Past Project discovered in these speeches an unusual number of references and appeals to history. The story of how Obamacare came to be was certainly front and center, but senators reached back further, searching for context and comparisons.

Senators referenced the 1993 HillaryCare effort, Strom Thurmond’s 1957 filibuster of civil rights legislation, the debate over whether to arm merchant ships prior to the US entry into World War I, the Constitutional Convention, and the Connecticut Compromise. They gave shout-outs to John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson, FDR, and former Senate Historian Don Ritchie.

The comparisons between what the GOP is doing now and what the Democrats did in 2009 was unavoidable. But the floor speeches went further and evoked the entire history of the Senate. Speeches claimed that the time spent on deliberations back in 2009 broke or challenged all previous records. The Affordable Care Act spent near-record time in markup. Two committees spent more time on the ACA than they ever had spent on any other issue before. And so on.

There’s a palpable anxiety in these statements, and in other statements which try to remind Americans why, historically speaking, we have a Senate. The past is bubbling up in these speeches because there’s a sense that the Senate is at yet another turning point, one potentially larger than the nuclear option dropped on judicial nominations by both sides.

If the Republican senators succeed in passing their American Health Care Act, their secrecy and speed could quickly become the norm. And not just for the Republican majority, but for the next Democratic majority as well. The advantages of holding hearings, listening to experts, and fashioning compromises are harder to see in this hyperpartisan fog. The emphasis for this majority, and possibly for the next, seems to be simply forcing legislation through (and then claiming yet another historical laurel--productivity!).

So a big part of these uses of the past that we saw on Monday, collected below (most of them, anyway), is pure nostalgia. It’s a yearning for a Senate that is either already gone or soon will be.

The Political Uses of the Past Project provides daily updates of historical references by elected and appointed officials. Subscribe to the email newsletter, follow on Twitter, or visit the Facebook page to keep up.

Sen. Bernie Sanders: Length of Obamacare deliberations were record-setting

Sen. Dianne Feinstein: Not since before WWI has there been “such a secret, partisan process for passing a major bill”

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Markup of Obamacare in HELP committee was its longest ever

Sen. Kamala Harris: GOP health care bill “is the least popular piece of legislation in modern history”

Sen. Thomas Carper: Obamacare “looked a lot like” what Republicans offered in 1993

Sen. Ron Wyden: Obamacare Senate session the second-longest in US history

Sen. Charles Schumer: Markup for Obamacare “one of the longest in history”

Sen. Christopher Murphy: Senate not fulfilling role envisioned by Connecticut Compromise

Sen. Cory Booker: Tradition of the Senate is to “slow things down”

Sen. Jeff Merkley: Affordable healthcare within scope of FDR’s and founders’ vision

Sen. Cory Booker: Unlike AHCA deliberations, Constitutional Convention was “public, open, transparent”

Sun, 24 Mar 2019 04:44:26 +0000 0
Congress and the Trump Administration Are Using and Abusing History At Least Six Times a Day Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer with who works with clients and partners in government agencies and think tanks. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. His Political Uses of the Past Project ( collects and catalogs historical statements by elected and appointed officials. 


I wasn’t prepared for the volume. When I started the Political Uses of the Past Project, based on my home-brewed code that scanned public records looking for historical references, I thought I’d find an occasional interesting appeal to the past among the political speeches and public statements of members of Congress and the current administration. I should have been better prepared. Almost all of our politicians, it turns out, are self-styled amateur historians. They operate from their vision of a future America, but they do so with an equally important vision of what the United States was in the past. This is evident in everything from Make America Great Again to the Green New Deal.

So when this project started, it tried to publish, via a blog, every single statement. This effort was quickly overwhelmed. Even after omitting references attached to anniversaries, tributes, eulogies, and casual references to particular dates, there was still too much. But this was interesting in itself, and opened up new possibilities for this still-evolving effort.

The timeline below is the Political Uses of the Past Project’s first attempt to visually display what it has collected. And it takes only a glance to see that the project has been busy. On average, the algorithms that make the project possible are capturing six references a day. When Congress is in full swing, it sniffs out as many as 21. In one month, the project has captured and cataloged 180 political uses of the past. In reality there are doubtless many, many more.

For more information on the data, why I’m doing this, and where the effort is going please visit the project’s “About” page and the paragraphs underneath the timeline below. For now, the project hopes historians will consider whether they have anything to say about this abundant use of history by our elected and appointed leaders. Historians have the expertise to fill in the substantial gaps left behind by steamrolling political rhetoric. They have long been encouraging each other to engage more directly with the public. They have protested the decline of truth-telling in general, not just in history. Here, in this searchable timeline, are 180 opportunities for public engagement, sparks for discussions, and prompts for essays, blog posts, op-eds, and classroom assignments. And this represents merely one month in the nation’s politics.

The timeline will be updated frequently. More visual presentations will follow. And the project is eager for feedback and ideas about where to go next.

If the timeline below seems cramped, a larger version is available here.


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Mike Pence Says the US Has Been "A Force For Good in the Middle East" for "nearly 200 years"; Here's How Historians Responded Allen Mikaelian is a DC-based editor and writer. He received his history PhD from American University and served as editor of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. The Political Uses of the Past Project collects and checks statements by elected and appointed officials. This is the first installment of what will hopefully become a regular feature of the project. Read more about the project here. Contact the editor of the project here.

Vice President Pence: "For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East"

For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, the United States has been a force for good in the Middle East. Previous administrations in my country too often underestimated the danger that radical Islamic terrorism posed to the American people, our homeland, our allies, and our partners. Their inaction saw the terrorist attacks from the U.S.S. Cole; to September 11th; to the expansion of ISIS across Syria and Iraq — reaching all the way to the suburbs of Baghdad. But as the world has witnessed over the past two years, under President Trump, those days are over. —Vice President Michael Pence, Remarks, Warsaw Ministerial Working Luncheon, February 14, 2019

Historians say...

Eight historians responded to our request for comment; their full statements and recommended sources are on the Political Uses of the Past page).

The vice president starts with the 1833 treaty with Oman, and so shall we, even though it’s an odd place to start. As Will Hanley of Florida State University noted in his reaction to Pence’s claim, the treaty itself is a piece of routine boilerplate, not so different “from dozens of other 1830s agreements between Middle East authorities and representatives of American and European states.” But there was at least one innovation, as Hanley explains: “The Sultan of Muscat inserted a clause saying that he, rather than the US, would cover the costs of lodging distressed American sailors. A more accurate statement [by Pence] on this evidence would be ‘For nearly 200 years, stretching back to our Treaty of Amity and Commerce with Oman, representatives of the United States have pursued standardized agreements in the Middle East and enjoyed meals that we haven't paid for.’”

Vice President Pence made this broad statement at a ministerial meeting on terrorism, but his mind was primarily on Iran. His intent was to draw a contrast between the United States and Iran, with the former being a “force for good” in the region and the latter being a perpetrator of continual violence. But by going back to 1833 to reference a routine and fairly boring trade agreement with a minor kingdom, he appears to be grasping at straws.

If Pence was looking for good done by the United States in the Middle East, he could have asked some of the historians who reacted to his statement. He may have learned from Joel Beinin how “American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region.” He may have been interested to hear from Indira Falk Gesink that "after World War I, most of those polled in the regions surrounding Syria wanted the US as their mandatory power (if they wanted any)." He may have learned from Lior Sternfeld how the United States has sponsored “schools, universities, and orphanages” and took a stand against its European allies and Israel during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

But if he had asked and had learned about these efforts, he would also have learned from Professor Beinin that many of the missionaries who established these schools went to work for the CIA in the postwar period, “so even the very best thing that Americans have done in the Middle East since the early 19th century was corrupted by government efforts to exert power over the region in order to control its oil.” And Pence would have also had to hear Professor Sternfeld tell about the 1953 coup in Iran that cemented a brutal regime in place for the next quarter-century and how, as described by Professor Gesink, "from that point on, US actions in the Middle East were guided by demand for oil and anti-Communist containment." Finally, he would have had to hear about how much that 1953 coup has to do with our relations with Iran now.

Historians who replied to our request for comment could not find much “force for good” in the historical record. Instead, they find “death, displacement, and destruction” (Ziad Abu-Rish), support for “the most ruthless and brutal dictators at every turn” and the “most fanatical and chauvinistic nationalist and religious forces at every turn” (Mark Le Vine), “intense and destructive interventions … characterized by public deception, confusion, and mixed motives” (Michael Provence), "a moral compromise with authoritarianism"  (Indira Falk Gesink), and actions that have “contributed to breakdowns in security, widespread violence, and humanitarian disaster” (Dale Stahl).

Homage to the Shah after coup d'état, 5 September 1953, The Guardian - Unseen images of the 1953 Iran coup.

Three historians below recommend The Coup: 1953, The CIA, and The Roots of Modern U.S.-Iranian Relations by Ervand Abrahamian, and this book is incredibly pertinent today. Previous historical accounts and justifications by 1950s policymakers made the coup all about Mosaddegh’s unwieldiness to compromise or said it was all about winning the Cold War. Abrahamian instead shows that it was about oil, or, more specifically, “the repercussions that oil nationalization could have on such faraway places as Indonesia and South America, not to mention the rest of the Persian Gulf.” And for this, Iran and the Middle East got, courtesy of the United States, the brutal Mohammad Reza Shah. The shah crushed the democratic opposition, filling his jails with thousands of political prisoners, and left “a gaping political vacuum—one filled eventually by the Islamic movement.” And so here we are.

Mike Pence’s incredibly blinkered statement can be viewed as an extreme counterpoint to the right-wing view of Obama’s Cairo speech, in which the president mildly acknowledged that the US had not always been on the side of right in the Middle East, and that its history of actions have come back to haunt us all. Such things, it seems, must not be spoken in the muscular Trump administration, even if it means abandoning an understanding that might actually be useful. “For me as an historian,” Mark Le Vine notes below, “perhaps the worst part the history of US foreign policy in the region is precisely that scholars have for so long done everything possible to inform politicians, the media and the public about the realities there. Largely to no avail.” Indeed, Mike Pence here appears intent on utterly blocking out history and historical thinking, even as he dreams of a long and glorious past.

Browse and download sources recommended by the historians below from our Zotero library, or try our in-browser library.


Ziad Abu-Rish, Assistant Professor of History at Ohio University

I'm only going to tackle the "force for good" claim, without getting into the claims about Trump compared to his predecessors or the notion of "radical Islamic terrorism." Let's give Vice President Pence a chance at being correct... Read more

Joel Beinin, Donald J. McLachlan Professor of History and Professor of Middle East History, Emeritus, Stanford University

American missionaries established some of the leading universities in the Middle East: The American University of Beirut, The American University in Cairo and Robert College in Istanbul. The Medical School of AUB is among the best in the region... Read more

Indira Falk Gesink, Baldwin Wallace University

I think this is a much more complicated question than is generally acknowledged. On the one hand, some American private citizens have had long-lasting positive impact—for example the founding of educational institutions such as Roberts College, the American University in Beirut (originally the Syrian Protestant College), and the American University in Cairo. At that time, the US generally was viewed positively in the region. ... Read more

Will Hanley, Florida State University

It's not possible to use historical evidence to support a black-and-white statement like "The United States has been a force for good in the Middle East." Even if it were possible, the slim 1833 treaty between the US and the Sultan of Muscat is meager evidence. ... Read more

Mark Andrew Le Vine, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, UC Irvine

This statement is ridiculous even by the standards of the Trump administration. The US has been among the most damaging forces in the Middle East for the last three quarters of a century. ... Read more

Michael Provence, Professor of Modern Middle Eastern History, University of California, San Diego

The United States had no role in the Middle East before 1945, apart from private business and educational initiatives. Within a couple years of 1945, the US tilted toward Israel in its first war, began overthrowing democratic Middle Eastern governments, and propping up pliant dictators. ... Read more

Dale Stahl, Assistant Professor of History, University of Colorado Denver

I see this statement as "more or less false" because there are clear examples where the United States has not had a positive influence in the Middle East. One needn't reflect very far back into that "nearly 200 years" of history to know that this is so. ... Read more

Lior Sternfeld, Penn State University

While the US had some moments where it was a force for good, with projects like schools, universities, and orphanages, it was also a source for instability in cases like the 1953 coup against Mosaddegh that overturned the course not just of Iran but of the region in its entirety. Read more


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