Weeks, Months, Years, Decades: The U.S.’s “Afghan Albatross”

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On Monday night, President Trump gave his long-anticipated speech announcing his plans for the war in Afghanistan. There were two interpretations of the speech, depending on which pundits one chooses to believe. It was either devoid of content and little more than an attempt to shift the narrative after a disastrous week for the president. Or, it marked the umpteenth time that Trump has pivoted and finally become presidential (I write this just hours after the Phoenix rally, where it appears this pivot turned out to be just as short-lived as the last dozen have been).

One point that all observers agree on, though, is that Trump didn’t discuss specifics of his plan, particularly with regard to troop numbers. Other sources have suggested, however, that a modest increase in troops – in the range of a few thousand – is likely.

According to one analysis of the speech, Trump’s team has carved out a “middle path” that neither ends U.S. involvement in Afghanistan (a key campaign promise) nor does it move the U.S. any closer to victory. Trump is “facing the bleak reality of Afghanistan: there is no fast or politically palatable way to win, but losing quickly isn’t an acceptable option, either.” Instead, the status quo is likely to be maintained, with an American military presence in Afghanistan enduring into the 2020s.

The United States, like the British in the nineteenth century and the Soviets in the twentieth, is stuck in the “Afghan albatross.”

<> on March 30, 2014 in Pul-e Alam, Afghanistan.

It was not supposed to be this way. In his initial speech committing the U.S. to action in October of 2001, President George W. Bush urged “patience,” but he also spoke of the mission in terms of weeks, not months.

Yet a different reality became apparent almost immediately. Soon after Bush’s announcement, the Atlantic observed that “a bombing campaign against the Taliban that was expected to last only a few days has instead continued for almost three weeks, with little indication that it will soon wind down, and military leaders are gearing up for what may probe to be a lengthy ground war.”

It’s likely, though, that even this writer wouldn’t have expected the lengthy ground war to still be on sixteen years later. But here we are.

Observers have offered no shortage of explanations for why things have turned out as they have. The most popular is that the war had unclear goals from the outset. What would define victory? Would it come with the capture or death of Bin Laden? The total defeat of the Taliban? A stable nation with a functioning central government? Add to this uncertainty about goals frequent changes in personnel and not-always-reliable partners, and the recipe for an open-ended war becomes clear.

But there’s a more compelling argument to be made that larger, systemic problems in American society have also contributed to this seemingly endless war. Back in our Memorial Day chat, I mentioned James Fallows’ concept of the United States as a “chickenhawk nation.” Fallows argues that while Americans cheer the military and love the idea of the country having powerful armed forces, few people have any real contact with members of the military in their daily lives. As of 2014, in fact, less than 1% of Americans had served in either Iraq or Afghanistan.

In practice, this lack of meaningful contact with the reality of military life enables wars that drag on endlessly. Policies like Trump’s “middle path,” which perpetuate conflict without victory or defeat, are the policies of a citizenry that wants to enjoy the idea of a military without actually dealing with the consequences of having one.

Earlier this year, the historian Andrew Bacevich described what happens when a country’s population becomes detached and allows the military to engage in perpetual wars. “Members of the national security apparatus,” he wrote, “accept war a normal condition,” and it becomes “an enterprise to be managed rather than terminated as quickly as possible.”

That, Bacevich noted in March, is where we are with Afghanistan. And given the content of the president’s speech, it’s where we’re likely to be for years – if not decades – to come.

 

“…and Friday for Astronomy”

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Yesterday during the eclipse, we saw pictures of thousands of children – boys and girls alike – with pinhole viewers and eclipse glasses, excited see the sun disappear.

Yet we often hear about the dearth of women in STEM fields. Some, like former Harvard President and Secretary of the Treasury Larry Summers, persist in advancing arguments about what women are and aren’t “naturally” interested in or inclined to. But most accept that the imbalance in these fields is due to social and cultural factors, both in terms of shaping the “pipeline” into the fields and in terms of the employment restrictions and sexual harassment women encounter in graduate school and on the job.

It might surprise you, then, to learn that late 18th and 19th century American girls and women regularly studied astronomy in school and continued to engage with it as amateurs as adults.

Take, for instance, twelve-year-old Kate Sedgwick’s curriculum at her New York school in 1832. She wrote home to her parents to let them know her schedule:

In the first place, five out of the six week-days are appropriated to school; on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, besides my French lessons, I have my Italian and music-masters to attend to; on Mondays and Thursdays I go to dancing school, on Tuesdays and Saturdays to the Academy of drawing, Wednesday is the day for French Parsing, and Friday for Astronomy.

Not all young women could go to a private school like Kate, certainly, but among the increasing number of girls who did, her study of astronomy did not set her apart as unique.

Nor did interest in the subject end when formal schooling ended. In 1843, she devoted an entire page of a letter to her father to “the appearance of the comet” and its significance to the Millerites, the Polish Jews, and the “Mahometans.” Her cousin Jane, the same age and living in rural southwestern Massachusetts, prepared papers summarizing astronomical research for her local scientific society. The women of the family, old and young, reported attending “scientific orations” on astronomical subjects.

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“The Great Comet of 1843, as seen from Australia” by Mary Morton Allport

When we think of astronomers today, we think of research scientists working for universities or the government. Since we know women weren’t allowed to hold such positions in the past, it can be easy to assume that they were also believed to be incapable of understanding and producing scientific work, and might not even have been interested.

What we actually see when we look at the period of Kate’s girlhood and young adulthood is two ideas held in tension: the idea that women have the same intellectual capacity as men, and the idea that men and women have two distinctly different roles to play in society. Women could learn astronomy, just as they could learn rhetoric, geography, and history, just like men, but the sexes were to put their education to different, complementary uses.

We may scoff at the idea that one could agree with both of these conflicting ideas, but you’ll hear variations on this theme even today. Just as we don’t want to look at the present lack of women in STEM fields and say it’s because women just aren’t interested or lack natural talent, we shouldn’t assume the lack of tenured female professors of astronomy at Harvard in 1830 meant women weren’t interested in and engaged in the field.

Lest we feel abundantly proud of the progress we have made in women’s education in the sciences, it is good to remember Kate and her classmates set aside “Friday for Astronomy.”


This post was informed by lots of reading on women’s education in the early 19th century, most notably my recent re-reading of Lucia McMahon’s Mere Equals: The Paradox of Educated Women in the Early Republic. For more cool stuff on eclipses in American history, check out Bill Cossen’s “Total Eclipse of the Past” over at S-USIH.

Slack chat: Charlottesville

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Erin Bartram: Any ideas for how we want to frame this/limit it? So it doesn’t turn into a collective primal scream?

Chris Bouton: I don’t really have any ideas in terms of starting off, we can talk about the response or the protest itself.

David Mislin: I dunno. I’ve been at collective primal scream since Tuesday.

Erin: Is it worth talking about the difficulty of talking about it with white Americans?

I say this because yesterday I just had a moment of “F*ck it, I can’t just make the same arguments with the same evidence over and over for you.”

David: Yeah, though I guess I’d modify that slightly. There are plenty of white Americans it’s easy to talk about this with. The issue is (like everything else, it seems) no one is willing to reconsider their position.

Chris: Why don’t we use this as the jumping off point.

I’d add to David’s point and suggest that the unwillingness of people to reconsider their positions speaks to a greater truth about dealing with human beings in general. Rational argumentation and evidence won’t convince everyone because many people don’t understand the world that way.

David: I think you’re right, Chris, though I also think the current political polarization in the country has exacerbated the phenomenon.

Chris: And that’s frustrating for people like us, who are trained in critical thinking and believe in its value.

I’d agree on the polarization issue as well.

Erin: That the evidence-based arguments don’t work for the discussion around the Confederate monuments is, to me, what reveals the deeper issue. There’s no way to say German Jewish kids shouldn’t have to go to the Goebbelsgymnasium but black American children should have to go to Robert E. Lee Middle School that doesn’t come down to “one of those causes was bad and one of them wasn’t.”

Chris: The monuments speak to that “Deep Story” that I keep harping on–and for good reason, I think it has a lot of explanatory power. That also highlights the different ways in which the Germans and Americans confronted their pasts. The Germans remembered and made it a societal impetus to learn from it. Americans erased it and constructed a new narrative that absolved everyone of blame. The Lost Cause has had a long reach in American History, Last year, during the presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton referred to Reconstruction in terms of the North punishing the South.

David: That’s the critical point, I think. And to historians it’s not especially surprising, but I think most Americans would be stunned by how much the narrative about the Civil War changed in the span of two decades.

One of the things that strikes me as someone who writes about the late 19th century is that you see these people who literally change their tune in their life. You’ll read their autobiographies from c. 1900 and they’ll talk about how they always thought the Civil War was a mistake when in their letters from the 1860s they were cheering for it.

Erin: I think those switches are often baffling to people, to the point that they don’t believe them, or don’t believe they happen “naturally.” See also: changing views of Indian land ownership.

David: I’m still surprised by them myself.

Erin: Because people are so sure you could never “evolve” like that. They’re sure they never would.

Chris: I’m not really surprised. Guess I’m too cynical.

David: I should clarify. I’m not surprised that people evolve; I am a little surprised by these particular people evolving given their other commitments. But that speaks to Chris’s point about how potent the Lost Cause was.

Chris: Gotcha.

I’ve been thinking of Charlottesville in terms of confronting the Lost Cause legacy, and that it’s taken over a century to begin the process of dislodging it from the public sphere.

David: Yeah. I guess what’s weird to me about all of this is that it doesn’t seem like most Americans have given a second thought to the Confederacy. People are attached to these monuments. Because history. But if you asked them, they’d have no affinity for the figures depicted or the Confederacy.

Erin: Yesterday I saw a clip of Chuck Todd having a revelatory moment about this, saying “Wait, how did I just think it was normal to have statues of traitors around.” You thought it was normal because it was normal. THAT’S WHY WE CALL IT NORMALIZATION, CHUCK.

Chris: Status quo bias?

David: Ah, yes. Chuck Todd’s moments. There have been a lot of those this week.

Erin: (We’d call them an “aha” moment in the classroom, which is where they should happen. You shouldn’t be having them live on air on your own show.)

David: (Sorry for that aside)

Chris: Asides are welcome. We spent an entire chat deconstructing David “Restrained Masculinity” Brooks.

I think part of the issue is that since most people don’t think too much about statues, they assume that they’re there for a good reason. After all, who puts up a statue to something bad? So you have to overcome that initial bias.

Erin: My town has one statue. It’s a temperance statue. Statuary mistakes were made.

But that’s a good point. It parallels the idea that people have that if something’s appeared in print, it must be real and valid, because clearly someone reviewed it.

Chris: Right, because our human brains are inherently lazy and they want things to make sense. And that answer is clearly the most satisfying one.

Erin: It’s makessense stop

Chris: I’ve been rereading Thinking Fast and Slow, so that’s also been in my head a lot. And I think the book’s insights are useful for dealing with stuff like this.

Erin: This sort of gets us to the question of how, as historians and (hopefully) decent people, we “start” conversations. Not conversations with Klan members, but conversations with white people who consider themselves well-meaning, but who hold the views of white supremacy but bristle at the thought of being called racist.

I think we as historians struggle because to us, it’s such a complex matrix, and there’s an avalanche of evidence, and it sometimes all comes tumbling out at once.

But can it be helpful just to get people to think about what “the Confederacy” was? For the first time?

Chris: We’re also dealing with different definitions of racism.

David: Perhaps it’s being avoidant of the deeper issue of race, but I think framing the initial discussion around the question of loyalty/betrayal to the nation is a good starting point, back to the earlier point about why we have statues to traitors.

Chris: As academics, we take a broader and more inclusive definition that not only includes racist acts, but institutional structures as well.

I’d agree with it about avoiding the deeper issue of race.

David: I’m hesitant to go there, because I feel like the statues are a symptom of a deeper problem that isn’t about them in particular. But perhaps it’s a way in to a deeper conversation. Get people thinking about Confederates as traitors, then get them thinking about why the Confederacy seceded.

Chris: That’s a good way to think about it. They’re the entry point into a deeper reckoning with the Lost Cause ideology that millions of Americans think of with pride.

Erin: That’s where people either own it or pull up short – the realization that defending Confederate “heroes” means that you don’t think what they did was wrong. I think that approach can work with some of the “it’s just history, I never really thought about it” crowd.

David: As I sit here, I’m actually thinking about how I’ve taught the Civil War, and realizing that I don’t make a big deal about secession itself. But that’s really the crux of it: I feel like we think about civil wars as wars over the future of a country. But the Civil War started with secession. Maybe that’s something that we should make more of? (and by we, maybe I just mean me?)

Erin: People say “they’re American veterans!” It’s instructive to remind them that these men died under the flag of another country. Put up all the monuments you want in the cemeteries of the Confederate States of America.

Chris: I don’t know how more times I’ll have to say it, but Lee committed treason. He was an officer in the US Army and resigned his commission to take up arms against the United States. That’s treason, pure and simple.

That’s an aside.

Erin: I mean, it’s not, because it leads to another common response that we have to grapple with: “Well, he was defending his state.”

Chris: Which is a pretty weak argument because there were plenty of Southern-born officers who fought for the Union.

David: Yeah, though I can see how that argument would resonate with certain people.

Chris: The defending his state is an argument about loyalty and we all like to think of ourselves as loyal.

David: But I also think that people can understand misguided loyalty.

Chris: And in the case of misguided loyalty, he can be forgiven for that.

“We’ve all made mistakes.”

Erin: And it furthers the “it was about states’ rights” argument.

David: I mean, if people need to think of Lee as a tragically misguided figure who was blindly loyal to his state with its abhorrent system of slavery, I could live with that.

It’s not ideal, but it’s also not deserving of a statue.

Chris: That last point is the most important one.

Erin: And it speaks to the same low bars for heroism we see today. No one should be applauding the CEOs of that dumb council.

Chris: Right, they did the bare minimum.

David: Yet they did more than the Evangelicals!

(another aside)

Chris: Yes, they did.

Erin: I mean, even in David’s scenario, Robert E. Lee was privately dismayed, furrowed his brow, and voted through the cabinet nominees anyway.

David: And tweeted his reservations!

Erin: And much like today’s GOP heroes, his dismay was false. He owned slaves, they own and benefit from the system they tut-tut.

And that’s a *charitable* reading of the Lee myth

Chris: He’s the Marco Rubio of the 1860s?

Or is he the Mitch McConnell?

And as David said, even under that favorable reading, he’s still not worthy of a statue.

Erin: Maybe he’s just the 1860s John Kelly.

David: I was going to say John McCain.

Chris: I was thinking about McCain, but McCain’s vote against the health care vote complicates that a little bit.

Erin: I still want to punch a hole in a wall rather than have another one of these conversations, which is not a great place to be in a week and a half before the semester starts.

David: If it’s any comfort, I’m on leave this fall and am sad I don’t get to have these conversations with students (the grass is always greener, I know)

Chris: I’d be happy if more people read the Confederate Constitution or the SC Ordinance of Secession

David: Does any of this change plans for teaching?

Erin: I mean, I’ve been struggling a lot with how to deal with the “history doesn’t really matter” crowd. As my roommate put it, those people are now saying “history doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t care that it matters to and affects you, my classmates.” I’m far more anxious about apathy than I am about having these conversations, and part of that is just because, as a white woman, I can have them with greater impunity. That’s where I think I, as a professor, need to spend my whiteness capital.

David: Yeah, I’ve seen some of that too. Not just “history doesn’t matter to me,” but “this person’s viewpoint doesn’t matter to me, and I don’t care that it matters to you, my classmates.”

I guess I’m feeling more motivated to push back at that with greater force than I have in the past

Chris: Concluding thoughts?

Erin: I think my thoughts are that as much as I don’t want to have these conversations and beat my head against the wall…I still do.

And even if I don’t want to, I have to. The moral imperative is too great.

David: Yeah, I think you’re right, Erin.

I’ve been thinking back to some students I had who were really dismissive when we read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book, dismissive in a way that was quite racist, and I should have pushed harder against it. I think we all have an obligation to do that, even when we don’t want to. Because Charlottesville is what happens when we don’t.

Chris: And the pushback against Confederate monuments is growing, so this issue isn’t going away. Especially if 45 continues to tweet about it and make slippery slope arguments and false equivalencies.

Erin: He is worried about history being “erased,” so I guess we need to make sure history – and historical thinking – aren’t!

David: Yup. But if we’re still chatting about this next week, I’m having a drink before we start. (edited)

Erin: :cocktail emoji:

Chris: Agreed

Understanding Charlottesville 3: The Courage to Act in a Ghastly Time

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In the days since Charlottesville, one of my favorite tweets from the past year has begun to appear again: “If you ever wondered what you would have done if you’d been alive in the 1930s, now’s your chance to find out.”

This message provides a powerful reminder that each of us can choose to be an active participant in the history-making events taking place around us. The future is not inevitable. Neither is our role in shaping it.

This is a particularly important reminder given how out of control things seem at the moment. In the last week, as in many weeks during 2017, we have experienced a year’s worth of events: the president seeming to goad North Korea into nuclear war on Twitter followed closely by the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville that culminated in the brutal attack and murder of Heather Heyer. Yesterday, as things seemed perhaps to be returning to whatever normality exists these days, President Trump delivered his stunning press conference in which he declared that “both sides” were at fault in Virginia.

The silver lining of the week, if such a thing can be said to exist, is that public figures who generally project an air of detachment or objectivity – news anchors, late-night hosts, and the like – have found the fortitude to denounce the president and the larger culture of hate and racism that he has refused to reject.

But having the courage to denounce bigotry and hatred in the larger culture is difficult, especially when elected officials tacitly support such views.

Recognizing that moral courage is always difficult is one of the most important lessons of history. I appreciate the suggestion to consider how we would have acted in the 1930s because it also invites us to think about how the people of that time responded to the rise of Fascism.

I recently found an original copy of A Great Time to Be Alive, a collection of sermons from World War II by Harry Emerson Fosdick. Fosdick was one of the most famous American ministers of the day, and as the pastor of New York’s Riverside Church he had enormous influence. The title of this collection of sermons was meant to be jarring. Really, he acknowledged, it was a “ghastly time to be alive.”

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Fosdick’s point was that it was the ghastly times of history that had the potential to produce better societies, even great ones, provided the people living through them had the courage to change things. “One who knows history knows that in just such times as these, turbulent and revolutionary, whole generations have been brought to their senses.”

The problem, Fosdick declared, was that complacency kept people from coming to their senses. People “love to play safe by staying put,” he wrote. “There is in humanity a natural timidity.”

When we in 2017 imagine the world of the 1930s and 40s, and ask ourselves what we would have done had we been alive, we imagine stark contrasts. There were good guys and bad guys. The good guys of this “greatest generation” knew what they were supposed to do, and they did it without a hint of doubt or apprehension.

Going back to historical sources from that time reveals more complexity. People knew that what was happening around them was wrong. But, like us, this seemingly heroic generation struggled to muster the courage to act. A sense of being overwhelmed by rapidly shifting events and a deluge of world-changing circumstances is not unique to our moment of history.

If we in 2017 feel overwhelmed or anxious about acting, we shouldn’t feel that we are somehow less courageous than previous generations. We aren’t. Our struggles to act were theirs as well, but act we must.

Understanding Charlottesville 2

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I’ve been thinking through what happened in Charlottesville this past weekend. I won’t say I’ve been trying to “make sense” of what happened, though, because it already makes sense. It makes too much sense, unfortunately. Chris noted that it’s wrong to cast this as a class issue instead of a race issue. It’s also wrong to cast this as a gender issue instead of a race issue. Gender is involved because it’s a race issue.

It hasn’t escaped notice that almost all of the marchers were white men, which has been the basis of critiques of a culture of “toxic masculinity” and defenses of the marchers like this infamous, now-deleted tweet in response to a British WWII veteran:

DHHIZKcXkAEEOFO

As to the idea that being called a Nazi will turn you into one, others have had pithier responses to that than I could ever muster.

On the other hand, the fact that the woman murdered was white seems to have allowed some people avoid the fact that white women perpetuate and benefit from white supremacist patriarchy, even as they are stuck in its oppressive matrix.

To understand this and grapple with it honestly, we have to start with ideas of the “natural” docility, sweetness, and gentleness of white women that really took hold in the 19th century.[1]

As Thavolia Glymph argues, this idea of white womanhood helped support a dominant vision of the kind, gentle slave mistress who brought civilization and domestic tranquility to the plantation household, essentially excusing white women from their participation in a violent slave system. These ideas, combined with a desire to see gender solidarity among female slaves and their mistresses, led generations of white female scholars to repeat this narrative. They privileged white female textual silences over copious black female testimony to the pervasiveness of white female violence, like the testimony of Lulu Wilson, who noted that her master Wash Hodges was just mean, but his wife “studied ’bout meanness.”[2] White women not only benefited from white supremacy in the abstract, they perpetuated it through violence.

Just as women perpetuated white supremacy in the age of slavery, they continued doing it as part of of the Klan. If you want statistics, Kathleen M. Blee’s Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s is full of them. Blee also offered two arguments as to why women in the Klan had been so understudied. First, scholars assumed women who joined the Klan, or indeed any right-wing organization, were essentially nonpolitical “pawns of politically engaged men,” be they fathers, brothers, or Klan leaders. Second, she argues that scholars assumed Klanswomen were “socially marginal” which led them to join organizations to unsettle the existing order and practice, in today’s terms, the politics of resentment. The first assumption carries forward ideas of 19th century white womanhood, while the second should sound familiar – it’s the contemporary insistence on Trump supporters and white supremacists as purely marginal/poor/working-class despite evidence to the contrary.[3]

Both Blee and Glymph demonstrate how the myth of white female goodness obscures and excuses the racism of American white women. Glymph argues that we shouldn’t ignore the home as a site of power and politics, and Blee demonstrates how even when white women join the Klan and put on robes and march through the street, their public, politically-engaged racism is excused and written off.

But white women didn’t have to join the Klan in the 1920s, nor do they have to join the Vanguard of America today, to benefit from and perpetuate white supremacy.

Nor does participating in this white supremacist system prevent white women from holding other “progressive” views that benefit them, just as Klanswomen could still argue for increased women’s property rights. White (liberal, feminist) women help perpetuate and increase de facto segregation under the cover of “good schools” all the time.

We should still acknowledge how much of white supremacist patriarchy is built around a narrative of “protecting” white women that corresponds to these older ideas of white womanhood. While black men were lynched as punishments for economic/political/social success or aspirations, the public narrative was often that they were being punished for sexual crimes against white women. This is the history and rhetoric the president was drawing on  when he opened his campaign calling Mexican immigrants rapists, and when he recently deployed some red-meat erotic racism at a “campaign-style rally” by talking about immigrants as “animals” who “slice and dice” young (white) girls.

And let’s not kid ourselves that white women were throwing themselves at the feet of the lynch mob, begging them to cease; Emmett Till’s accuser admitting she lied was only surprising if you had your head in the sand. But it is worth noting the white supremacist terrorism of the years after the Civil War, while directed mostly at black men and women, also targeted white women who had transgressed racial boundaries by engaging in romantic/sexual relationships with black men.[4]

The exclusive right to white women’s bodies is an important part of the cultural heritage white men were marching to protect in Virginia. It’s also why, when these protests led to the death of a young white woman, the very person this ideology is supposed to protect and revere, who was protesting against their march, white supremacists had an explanation close at hand, one that has clear historical roots: the murdered young woman was fat, promiscuous, childless, and socially associated with non-white men. In this framework, by choosing not conform to the white supremacist ideal of white womanhood, this woman had lost her right to protection, and deserved no more than the non-white people she had chosen to ally herself with.

The treatment of Heather Heyer is the exception that proves the rule, however. We may not have seen lots of white women marching this past weekend, but the marchers went home to the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters they were marching to “protect,” and were welcomed back with open arms. White women might not always be carrying the torches, but they know what aisle they’re in.

  1. The longer history of the role gender played in creating/shaping racial ideology in America is important and valuable, but the difficult thing about patriarchy is that there’s no easy place to start, so I’m starting here. Read Kathleen Brown’s Good Wives, Nasty Wenches, and Anxious Patriarchs, though. It’s wonderful.
  2. Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household 
  3. Kathleen M. Blee, Women of the Klan: Racism and Gender in the 1920s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 102. It is also important to note that since it’s on the Second Klan, Blee’s not just talking about Klanswomen in the South, but rather Indiana, Pennsylvania, Oregon…
  4. See Martha Hodes, “The sexualization of reconstruction politics: White women and black men in the South after the Civil War” Journal of the History of Sexuality 3, no. 3 (1993): 402-417 and Lisa Cardyn, “Sexual Terror in the Reconstruction South,” in Battle Scars: Gender and Sexuality in the American Civil War, ed. Catherine Clinton and Nina Silber (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 140-168.

Understanding Charlottesville

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As I’ve been grappling with the events that rocked Charlottesville, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “6 Books that Help Explain Trump’s Win” from the New York Times.  In explaining the motivations of Trump voters, the media have often stressed the working-class roots of Trump’s support. The New York Times’ list tilts heavily towards this class thesis with books like Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Isenberg’s White Trash. This theory holds that the new global economy and its shift away from blue-collar jobs has left behind Trump voters economically disadvantaged. Yet empirically, we know this isn’t true. The Washington Post pointed out Trump garnered much of his support from middle and upper class voters. According to FiveThirtyEight, education rather than income was the best indicator of voter preference. Additionally, the marchers this weekend had plenty of money for guns, body armor, and Tiki torches. Class, then, doesn’t explain Charlottesville.

Race does.

Under the guise of protesting the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee, these marchers came to protect white supremacy. They couched their racism in appeals to “culture” and “heritage.” Protestor Peter Cvjetanovic explained

I came to this march for the message that white European culture has a right to be here just like every other culture… However I do believe that the replacement of the statue will be the slow replacement of white heritage within the United States and the people who fought and defended and built their homeland. Robert E Lee is a great example of that.

Cvjetanovic’s words echo the Deep Story outlined by Arlie Hochschild in her interactions with members of the Louisiana Tea Party. They see themselves waiting patiently in line for the American dream only to see others—African-Americans, women, Jews, homosexuals, immigrants—unfairly cut in front of them. The line-cutters, Hochschild’s Tea Partiers and those like Cvjetanovic think, don’t deserve it. They’re getting an unfair advantage and along the way they’re undermining everything we believe in. As Cvjetanovic admits, they believe in white supremacy.

John Judis’s definition of right-wing populism also is instructive to understanding Charlottesville. Right-wing populism, Judis argues, condemns the class of elites for being undemocratic and out of touch with American values. As importantly, it identifies and attacks those getting special treatment from elites. Who’s getting special treatment according to those gathered at Charlottesville? Take a look at their banners and the Nazi and Confederate flags and the answer becomes obvious. African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, women, LGBTQ Americans, and anyone who isn’t white (and predominately male—though we should not overlook white women’s roles in upholding white supremacy).

This morning, a friend of mine asked me this morning why people marching with the Confederate flag would march alongside those bearing the Nazi flag. Those symbols, he pointed out, had vastly different connotations and came from different places and time periods. Their ideologies, it seemed, were not really compatible. I told him to think about what these groups have in common. They share a love of Cvjetanovic’s “white heritage.” They lay the blame for the decline of white heritage in the similar places. They don’t apportion the blame in the same ways, but it’s close enough.

They also feel emboldened by a President who has stoked the flames of white resentment and until a few hours ago, refused to condemn white supremacy. Throughout Trump’s presidential campaign and presidency, he has viciously attacked Mexicans, immigrants, women, Muslims, LGBTQ, and other Americans. He has blamed them for America’s economic and social problems and decried the special treatment he felt they received from the Obama administration. He has packed with white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers from Steve Bannon to Stephen Miller to “Dr.” Sebastian Gorka. Trump won the endorsement of former KKK leader David Duke and then refused to renounce Duke’s views. Unsurprisingly, Duke attended the Charlottesville rally and declared, “This represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back. We are going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump. That’s what we believed in.” In Charlottesville, marchers wore MAGA hats and believed that Trump “said he loves us all.”

White racial resentment has always been a crucial component of Trump and his supporters. If we want to understand Charlottesville, we would do well to keep that in mind.

Hillary Clinton, Preacher: The Perils and Possibilities of a Modern Social Gospel Leader

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Like many historians of American religion, I read Emma Green’s Atlantic article “Hillary Wants to Preach” with great interest.

On one level, Green’s piece situates Hillary Clinton in a well-worn narrative in American politics: the redemption story. Americans love tales of public figures redeeming themselves by discovering a new purpose in life after a heart-wrenching failure (see: Carter, Jimmy). Following her surprising lost to Donald Trump last November, Clinton would seem a prime candidate for such a narrative. The prospect of a failed presidential candidate finding new meaning as a pastor is a story so good that if it weren’t true, the media would likely invent it anyway.

In reality, though, Clinton’s faith commitments are nothing new. The particular insight that she has contemplated seeking ordination might represent a new nugget of intelligence. But Clinton has long signaled that many of her policy commitments are grounded in moral and religious convictions.

During the 2016 campaign, observers rightly situated Clinton within the Social Gospel tradition. This set of beliefs, which emerged in American Protestantism during the early twentieth century, holds that the salvation of the individual is of little value without a corresponding effort to improve society. In other words, it isn’t good enough for individual Christians to withdraw from their communities and live piously. Rather, they must engage in political and social activism to transform the world around them for the better.

The Social Gospel has returned to the news recently, as progressive Americans have sought to cultivate a vibrant Religious Left to combat the entrenched Religious Right that contributed to Trump’s election. The multi-denominational – and at times interfaith – Social Gospel movement provides a key template for a modern Religious Left. Believing it their duty to bring the “Kingdom of God” to Earth, Social Gospelers wedded their faith to a range of political causes, including worker’s rights, good government, and anti-militarism. At their movement’s height in the early twentieth century, Social Gospel ministers enjoyed access to political power and were some of the foremost proponents of progressive political causes.

If Hillary Clinton does step back into the public sphere as a lay or ordained preacher, she would become the most prominent American in decades to champion the progressive values of the Social Gospel.

US Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks at the Foundry United Methodist Church's bicentennial service

More importantly, Clinton has the ability to articulate an updated vision of the Social Gospel that avoids some of its earlier failings.

In its early form, the Social Gospel presented a religious challenge to established wealth and power. As time passed, though, its message of gradual improvement increasingly became coopted by the forces of wealth and power. Political and business leaders found that by adopting the language of the movement, they could tame some of the most strident social critiques of the day.

Some of the most damaging attacks on Clinton during the 2016 campaign reflected concerns about a similar phenomenon. According to her critics, Clinton, with her ties to Wall Street, represented the interests of a corporate progressivism that sought to ease the worst social ills without actually combatting them.

In her new role, Clinton might channel the original prophetic message of the Social Gospel. Freed from the dependence on established interest groups that is a necessity of a presidential campaign, she could now offer a bolder vision for the future of the United States grounded in progressive religious and moral values.

The other major criticism of the Social Gospel was that its optimistic message of progress failed to address the very real suffering in the world. In the wake of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Holocaust, the cheery religious vision of the early 1900s no longer seemed sustainable.

The need for progressive religion to be grounded in realism seems especially urgent as we watch the rapidly deteriorating situation with North Korea and the rising potential of a large-scale military conflict. In this way, too, Hillary Clinton has the potential to be a pivotal figure. Clinton’s measured approach to politics, which she demonstrated during her tenure as a U.S. Senator and as Secretary of State, would ground her modern Social Gospel in the realism often absent a century ago.

Hillary Clinton is ideally situated to become the leading public exponent of a modern Social Gospel. Assuming that role, should she choose to do so, might well prove to be her most enduring legacy.

Ahistorical manifesto about gender? Dealbreaker!

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I’m currently on vacation and, whether it’s responsible or not, trying to avoid the news and thinking historically about it. But even in a self-imposed bubble, and the bubble imposed by spotty internet and phone connections, some things break through.

What has broken through? Some dude at Google thinks he’s discovered the Truth About Women and he’s sorry/not sorry but it’s just The Truth.

There are two main historical points to make about this “manifesto.” The first is that there’s a long historical record of people like the author making the claims he’s making. The second is that his claims are historical, even though he claims that science makes them ahistorical; these ideas have a long history, but they aren’t just “the way people have always thought.”

There’s an important difference between believing a group of people has a particular role to fill in society and believing a group of people is fundamentally biologically incapable of filling anything other than a certain role in society. These two beliefs often overlap, and are related, but they’re not the same.

Despite popular assumptions that everyone in The Past thought women weren’t capable of rigorous intellectual work because they were biologically flawed and controlled by their reproductive organs, that’s just not the case.

In the early years of the American republic, parents of the upper and rising middle classes sought out rigorous academic educations for their young daughters, with curricula that would stress out today’s tweens and their parents: multiple foreign languages, history, rhetoric, geography, philosophy, and natural and physical sciences, along with dancing, drawing, painting, sculpting, and singing or playing a musical instrument.

To us today, these might look like college prep tracks, but that wasn’t the point of these educations. Depending on who and when you’re talking about, the point of educating young women was to allow them to participate in educated, cultured conversations, to be good and pious Christians, to be good members of the republic, to assist their future husbands in keeping a business going, and to develop strength of character through rigorous study.

That a woman could do all of this, and study the same things her brothers did, didn’t fundamentally change what her role was in society. But her designated role in society didn’t mean she was inherently incapable of rigorous intellectual work either.

By the middle of the 19th century, the United States had undergone significant social changes in the decades since independence: rapid colonization of the continent, industrialization, marked changes in agriculture, the explosive growth of the slave economy, and, important for our purposes, a significant increase in the number of women receiving academic educations that went beyond reading, writing, and sums, both in private academies and common schools. Some were even going to new co-educational and women’s colleges, and pushing to open up even more men’s colleges to women.

In the latter half of the century, there was a backlash against the education of women, but this time, it was explicitly rooted in physical difference. Rather than arguing that women’s education disrupted society because it causes women to forget their obligation, scientists argued that women were incapable of the intellectual work they had been doing, because of different brain sizes or the inexorable control of the uterus.

Others argued that women’s intellectual labor was physically dangerous to them, as it took essential nutrients and energy away from a woman’s childbearing capacities. This could, in turn, endanger the nation, and educated white women were accused of contributing to “race suicide,” their selfish desires for education contributing to a declining white birth rate. When women started to outnumber men in the teaching profession, men raised the specter of a generation of “feminized” boys who had lacked appropriate male role models in the classroom. Rather than opening up long-standing male colleges to women, the end of the 19th century saw the creation of very separate women’s branches.

We can see this “crystallization” of sex differences, as Rosalind Rosenberg put it. We can see the historical moment when people started to make a new claim about the differences between men and women. People didn’t always think this way. But rooting this claim in biological/physical difference helped make it The Truth in the minds of many Americans.

Mr. Google Manifesto makes claims about “natural” differences between men and women and he believes those claims are therefore unassailable, existing outside history and culture. The fact that even in in fairly recent American history we can see competing ideas about gender roles, competing ideas about what is “natural,” and even competing ideas about what exactly determines those roles should give the lie to his claims.

And if all that doesn’t convince you, let’s just consider his claim that women are naturally less tolerant of stress. Seriously? In a world where I am asked to give this sort of claptrap the benefit of the doubt, even as a thought experiment:

*This essay draws heavily on Rosalind Rosenberg’s Beyond Separate Spheres, Catherine Clinton’s The Other Civil War, and Margaret Nash’s “Rethinking Republican Motherhood: Benjamin Rush and the Young Ladies’ Academy of Philadelphia.”

 

 

The Populist Explosion

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This is the fourth in a series of posts reviewing the NY Times’ 6 Books to Help Understand Trump’s Win. The first three installments are here, here,and here

John B. Judis. The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports, 2016.  

Opposition to neoliberal economic policies that caused the Great Recession, John B. Judis argues, connect the emerging populist movements in Europe and the United States. Judis successfully contextualizes the presidential campaign of Donald Trump within this broader historical and global perspective. Judis’s nuanced analysis argues that Trump did not arise from a vacuum. Nor was his political ascendency wholly unique or without historical antecedents. Rather Trump’s campaign (Judis’ book appeared before the election) emerged out of specific American traditions of populism and opposition to neoliberal economic policies of the late 20th century.

Judis embraces a broad definition of “populism.” Recognizing that populist movements have arisen at different times in American history and under a variety of circumstances, Judis rejects any rigid definition. He writes that “There is no set of features that exclusively defines movements, parties, and people that are called populist—from the Russian Narodniks to Huey Long, and from France’s Marine Le Pen to the late congressman Jack Kemp” (13). Instead, he builds off the definition of historian Michael Kazin. Kazin stresses that populism is not a political ideology that fits the traditional spectrum of left-center-right politics. Rather it is a political language, a logic that defines the world in terms of relations between the ordinary people—consisting of different classes—against a self-interested and anti-democratic elite.

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Judis, however, takes Kazin’s definition one step further, differentiating between right and left-wing populism. Left-wing populism, he explains, is “a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top” (15). Right-wing populism, on the other hand, targets its anger at elites and a third group that the elites are protecting. This distinction between the different strands of populism is especially useful in understanding the difference between the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. In his campaign and subsequent presidency, Trump has blamed Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims, LGBQT+ Americans, women, and other marginalized groups for America’s woes. Sanders, meanwhile, fixed his gaze solely on Wall Street and commercial banking institutions. Thinking back to Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in their Own Land, Judis’s understanding of right-wing populism fits well in her deep story of the Louisiana Tea Party. These marginalized others (in whatever form) that right-wing populists demonize are the line-cutters who Hochschild’s Tea Party interviewees resent.

By focusing on Trump’s political beliefs and placing them in the context of right-wing populism, Judis has offered some much needed historical context. He’s also levied an implicit criticism at the mainstream media who ignored Trump’s political support and did not take him seriously as a political candidate. Trump’s opposition to NAFTA, for instance, echoes the populist rhetoric of Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot. As Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, by ignoring the underlying strengths of Trump’s message and the composition of his electoral coalition, news outlets like the New York Times massively underestimated Trump’s ability to win the presidency. So when he did triumph on Election Day, they were left scrambling to explain what had happened. Had outlets like the Times bothered to contextualize Trump within this populist movement, like Judis did, they may have taken the possibility of his election more seriously.

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John B. Judis

As with his definition of populism, Judis embraces a broad definition of neoliberal. He defines it as “the modification, but not wholesale abandonment, of New Deal liberalism—support for the New Deal safety net, but beyond that priority to market initiatives” (40). According to Judis, the 1970s saw the emergence of Japan and Western Europe as manufacturing powerhouses. The subsequent flooding of the world market with manufactured goods drove down profits. Declining profits prompted companies to shift production overseas or to non-unionized areas where they could pay workers less. Open immigrant policies created new pools of cheap labor that exacerbated these problems. The governments of the United States and nations in Europe had two choices: directly intervene or let the market figure out a solution. They could either institute price controls and take a more direct control over their economies or cut taxes, regulation, and  social programs and let the whims of the free market solve the problem. Eventually embraced by the Republican and Democratic parties, these neoliberal policies reached a crisis point during the Great Recession prompting a populist backlash.

 

Judis’s book packs a hefty analytical punch. Yet in providing context for the populist response to the Great Recession, he’s telling a story that isn’t over yet. He details the rise of right-wing movements across Europe that led to Brexit and Denmark’s draconian immigration policies. Yet in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election, the right-wing populist wave in Europe seems to have crested. Marine Le Pen made it to the French presidential run-off, only to underperform her polls against Emmanuel Macron, a center-left technocrat in the mold of Barack Obama. Under the snap election called by British Prime Minsiter Theresa May, UKIP (the UK-Independence Party) lost its sole seat in Parliament. Similar far-right parties in the Netherlands, Austria, Finland, and Bulgaria have all seen their popularity wane. As FiveThirtyEight has pointed out, Trump’s election seems to have jolted Europe left.

The Populist Explosion is the first of the “Six Books that Explain the Election” that has tried to put Trump’s campaign and subsequent election into an American and global context. This much-needed perspective points out that rather than seeing Trump’s election as an earth-shattering moment, it was a logical and possible outcome of the Great Recession and decades of neoliberal economic policies.

Chat: David Brooks’ manly virtues

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Erin Bartram: In his weekly column, the more prominent of the two white men named David on the New York Times opinion pages wondered “where have all the real men gone?” Frustrated with the “varieties of wannabe manliness” he sees on display in the White House – the Bannonesque, the Scaramuccian, and the Trumpy – he urged us to consider his understanding of a Greek understanding of manliness instead. Be like the Greeks, he urged, which to him means be like John – Wayne, McCain, or Kelly. That, he believes, will rescue us from the “crisis of masculinity” we face today. Rarely will historians sanction the phrase “Throughout American history…” in a paper, but sometimes it feels like “Throughout American history, there has been a crisis of masculinity.” Today, we’re going to talk about how Brooks is using history to talk about gender roles, and how by doing so, he’s engaging in a long American tradition of freaking out about whether men are being the right kind of men. For once, the fact that we’re both 19th century American historians means we’ve read a lot about this.

Chris Bouton: It’s telling to me that Brooks immediately jumps to the Greeks as his exemplar of masculinity. He initially seems to idealize the Greek view of masculinity, but then complicates it. Suggesting that Greek views of masculinity had destructive elements.

Which of course, it did. The Iliad is all about honor and masculinity and its destructive force.

Then he pivots back to the US, where he sees 2 historical examples of the “magnanimous man.” George Washington and George Marshall, why those two? He never explains.

Erin: Another good Anglo name!

Magnanimity seems to be the key difference for him. If you look at his list of qualities, the one that he says is the problem is that the manly man is touchy: “He is outraged if others do not grant him the honor that is his due.” Frankly, it’s amazing he didn’t use George Washington as an example more thoroughly, or as the center of the piece.

Chris: And being magnanimous is about being generous to others, especially those below you. Brooks is writing in a frame of honor and masculinity, that there are those who have honor and those who aspire to it in some way, but fail

Erin: It sounds like the courtesy manual my students read in class, much like the one GWash copied over himself – respect thy superiors, despise not thy inferiors. A truly manly man (like a true aristocrat) just is, and doesn’t need external validation.

Chris: He’s also endorsing hierarchies of manliness and honor, but honor always relies on external validation. If honor is reputation, then it requires a societal judgment. At the top of his hierarchy are the Johns and the Georges and the thread that runs through all of them (McCain, Kelly and Washington, Marshall) is the military.

Erin: That, I think we can say, is something that is true and has been true for men and women, though the aspects of reputation/honor judged have been different.

Chris: Right they’re judged by different standards, but there is a judgment.

Erin: He’s trying to craft a definition of manliness that blends selflessness and sacrifice with the other manly virtues that are important to him. The willingness to fight, in a particular framework, is important. Would he consider MLK an ideal man? Or Father Daniel Berrigan?

Chris: Yes and as your framing question suggested, there’s nothing particularly new about it. Other than it’s been given the David Brooks gloss with crimes against the English language like “thrusting masculinity.”

How can masculinity thrust?

Erin: It can’t, that’s why it’s in crisis.

Also as a woman living in America, the crisis of masculinity is certainly thrusting itself into my space all the time

Honestly, much of my US I survey course centers around this perpetual, evolving crisis of masculinity, so Brooks’ paean to a masculine ideal of the past is familiar and frustrating. [I get that he wanted to go with Greece, but I was surprised not to see Cincinnatus in here]

Chris: I think this is a good chance to dig at the historical roots of this perpetual crisis.

Erin: As I think about how to get at those historical roots, I’m already expecting the question on the first day of my women’s history class in a few weeks, one that I always get: “So when did patriarchy…start?”

Chris: From the moment human beings attained sentience?

If we understand patriarchy as a social system of control, then from the moment those social systems/relationships began to emerge

Erin: Correct.

In terms of a colonial North American context, I think most of us think of gender order as one of the man things that informs the values of this colonial space, one that then shapes the racial system that emerges here. Whether you’re talking Edmund Morgan or Kathy Brown, you’re hard pressed to get away from the importance of particular ideas of what men deserve and expect in Anglo-Virginian society.

Chris: And what their concordant responsibilities are.

Brooks’ definition of a magnanimous man struck me as very much rooted in the American colonial/Revolutionary past. I’ll drop the whole quote in for context.

The magnanimous man has a certain style. He is a bit aloof, marked more by gravitas than familiarity. He shows perfect self-control because he has mastered his passions. He does not show his vulnerability. His relationships are not reciprocal. He is eager to grant favors but is ashamed of receiving them. His personal life can wither because he has devoted himself to disinterested public service.

Erin: He wants republican masculinity.

Chris: “Mastering passions” not reciprocal relationships, “disinterested public service.” He’s swallowed John Adams whole

Erin: Musical interlude #1

And it’s quite clear what historical ideas of masculinity he sees in the White House: Jacksonian masculinity, the liberal individual.

Chris:

Unrestrained by passion – “peacocking” as he describes it.

Erin: And “touchy,” which I took to mean: if he does the baseline decent thing in a situation, he gets pissed when you don’t give him a cookie for it.

Chris: I’m struck by this idea of “touchy” since it gets at the root of the “crisis.” So much of masculinity and honor culture depends on that public acknowledgement, and when men don’t get that acknowledgement, they’re “touchy” about it, because they measure their honor against one another. Go back to Achilles sulking in his tent.

Erin: Frankly it’s why his use of McCain in this situation is a bit of a tell. It reveals to us that when he says there should be no peacocking, he just means “not tooooooo much.”

Chris: And the problems come when the personal sense of honor doesn’t align with the public.

Right, because McCain’s vote on the health care bill was a masculine performance.

Erin: The two other Republican women – who embodied every one of the virtues he calls “manly” – just voted and got it over with.

Chris: He won, in Brooks’ eyes, honor for himself through his public behavior. In this case, McCain’s personal honor and his reputation were aligned (from Brooks’ perspective)

Erin: His column put me in mind of Amy Greenberg’s book Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire. She talks about two kinds of masculinity in the mid-19th century – restrained and martial.

Chris: Yes, I’ve been thinking about Greenberg this whole time.

Erin: Brooks, like so many other men we study, seems desperate to find a way – or at least a living example – of blending the two.

Chris: Because a man should exercise self-control, but also needs to be able to kick some ass when needed. There’s a recognition that neither type of masculinity can solve the “crisis.” Restrained men can be too passive and martial men too violent.

Erin: And “his personal life can wither” because another person is supposed to take care of that anyway.

Chris: George Marshall had Mrs. Marshall to care for the children and the like.

Erin: He never says it, but there’s one thing that’s at the core of his ideal masculine world, one thing that I think he thinks is missing. The magnanimous man never takes favors (charity) and can think about public disinterested service only if one part of his life is secure. Without the economic security and credit he thinks men are due, they can never be the kind of men he wants.

Chris: To go back to the American Revolution context, he must free from dependence, he must independent.

Erin: Bingo.

Chris: Hence property owning requirements for voting and office holding. Now all of these colonial/Revolutionary men who proclaimed this ideal were in debt up to their necks…

Erin: And they were in debt even with the unpaid labor of their wives, children, and slaves.

Chris: Jefferson needed that French wine!

Erin: And when most white men can’t meet those requirements, the choice is either tell men they can’t vote even though their fathers could, or change the way one becomes eligible to vote.

I mean, I don’t actually want to read this column, but I would like to know, given what he claims as “manly” here, what is left for women? I’m not sure he actually even cares that much, so intent is his focus on men.

Chris: And that’s also historically fitting.

Erin: Defining white masculinity against a variety of dependents.

Chris: Exactly.

And it’s no wonder that masculinity is always in crisis when you look at the arguments and assumptions underlying it.

Erin: It also reminds us of the ways that Obama’s masculinity was constantly questioned. His fashion sense? Effete. His refusal to get angry? Submissive. His mustard choices? Elitist and possibly gay.

Chris: Out of all the figures that Brooks cites, Obama’s masculinity came closest to his definition. In terms of his behavior in office, I mean.

Erin: Absolutely, though I think few who read Brooks and agreed with him would acknowledge that.

He didn’t even let his private life wither away! He could do it all!

Chris: And that’s why his fashion sense is effete, his lack of anger meant he was submissive etc. You can’t be more masculine/honorable, he’s from a historically dependent and marginalized group.

Erin: I’m thinking of François Furstenberg on autonomy and Manisha Sinha’s great piece on reading the caning of Charles Sumner in the context of racialized masculinity. IIRC, she argues that [Preston] Brooks’ caning of Sumner, rather than challenging him to a duel, was essentially to communicate “If you’re going to associate yourself with enslaved people, I’m going to treat you like one”

Chris: Brooks did not treat Sumner like an equal.

Erin: Musical Interlude #2

And that’s the thing [David] Brooks consciously or less consciously avoids: that a key part of American ideas of masculinity involves hierarchy and dominance and differentiation from those not capable of full independence.

Chris: Yes, these ideals of masculinity that he’s mourning and celebrating all rely on notions of inequality.

Erin: Without saying as much, by defining manliness this way, and only including white men as examples, he communicates as much.

Chris: His examples of masculinity tell us everything we need to know. Greeks, the Georges, and Johns.

Erin: Not, as we saw, the Hillarys, the Elizabeths, the Kamalas.

Chris: The Lisas and the Susans.

Erin: They’ve got those characteristics in spades, but sorry, David Brooks has reserved them as “manly virtues.” At best, a woman displaying them remains invisible. At worst, she’s pilloried.

Chris: Brooks’ work is so rooted in this veneration of Western Civilization and its traditional masculine heroes. It’s like he was born a century too late. Or should’ve been teaching Solon in the Classics Department at Harvard in 1840.

Erin: I believe those are the qualifications listed when applying to be a columnist on the NYT opinion pages. Seriously, we’re pretty close to explicit faculty psychology with this column.

Chris: Or your ability to turn conversations with cab/Uber drivers into sweeping generalizations about globalization. That’s right I’m coming for you Thomas Friedman and your the world is flat BS.

Erin: Can’t A Man Get A Manly Sandwich Anymore?: The Collected Columns of David Brooks

Chris: I feel like we missed one other key piece of the column. David Brooks wrote the words “it’s man-craving all the way down” and I’m pretty sure he has no idea the other connotations that phrase could take.

Erin: I mean, he uses the term “man-crush” as well, which makes me wonder how he’d process 19th century male friendships.

Chris: To turn away from the joke, his unconscious use of language reveals the hetero-normativity of his understandings of masculinity. After all, he ignores the Greek understanding of masculinity which involved same-sex relationships and was intimately tied up in these ideas of honor. Why does Achilles go back into battle? Because Patroclus dies.

Erin: And Trump’s adoration for Putin is marked as something inappropriate, stemming from Trump’s own masculinity issues.

Give me a primary source of a dude talking about manliness and I can have a fruitful discussion with any group of students.

Chris: Seriously, look how long we’ve talking about it.

Erin: I guess, David, we’ll call it a draw: you get to keep having your column, and we get to keep thinking it’s wrong.