Teaching in the Age of Trump 3


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As seems to be the case for many folks, President Trump’s Friday night pardon of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio hit me quite hard. I’m still not entirely sure why. It’s not the worst thing that Trump has done in his seven months in office. In terms of the volume of human suffering caused, the travel ban is much worse. Nor is it even the most tone-deaf pronouncement he’s made.

My best explanation is that the Arpaio pardon eliminates any shred of ambiguity about where Trump’s sympathies lay with regard to state power and force. Arpaio’s record of abuse is horrifyingly clear. But, as Trump has suggested previously, he has few qualms about the use of force by police, ICE officers, and other officials acting on behalf of the government.  He has especially few qualms when the people on the receiving end of that force are minorities or immigrants.

The Arpaio pardon – and Trump’s views more generally – force us to reconsider how we teach moments when force has been used by the U.S. government against Americans, especially when those Americans are racial and ethnic minorities.

In previous semesters, when I’ve addressed instances of government use of force, I’ve taught them – sometimes without even realizing that I’m doing so – as one-off events that somehow deviate from the norms of U.S. history.


The Tompkins Square Riot

When New York City police beat a crowd made up largely of immigrant workers who wanted economic help in the aftermath of the Panic of 1873, or when Alabama police clubbed Civil Rights protesters on the Pettus Bridge in Selma in 1965, these were, in my implicit interpretation of things, bad events done by bad people. And so were countless others.


Police beating protesters in Selma in 1965

This is the comforting narrative, and it’s certainly the easier one to teach. Sure, a lot of bad stuff happened, we say. But that was then, and this is now. The U.S used to tolerate abhorrent behavior on the part of police and the military, but each bad instance was a one-time thing that society moved past.

As a historian, I know that’s not true. I recognize that these events are connected, and many of them have their roots in larger ideologies of American identity, state power, and the role of violence in enforcing norms.

The uncomfortable truth of the Trump presidency is that it forces those of us who teach to publicly acknowledge this reality: the use of state-sanctioned violence and force against perceived undesirables in the dominant narrative of U.S. history, not a series of unfortunate, unconnected events that exist on the boundary of that narrative.

What previously we knew was true but would have preferred to sidestep for the sake of avoiding controversy in the classroom or ensuring good student evaluations cannot be ignored in the era of Trump.

For me, this has the greatest effect on a special topics course I teach called Panic in America. When I last taught the class, I billed it as a lighthearted course on all the things that have made Americans anxious: strange conspiracy theories, paranoia about certain groups in society, and seemingly perpetual fears about youth. The fact is, though, that even these seemingly lighthearted foibles came at a real cost for disempowered groups. The line from conspiracy theories or paranoia to executing imagined witches or slave conspirators is a very short one. And the people enforcing state power were always those with power and authority.

I fear that the next time I teach Panic in America (which, fortunately, is not this year), it will be a much more somber course. The real history of anxiety in the United States has been the anxiety that generations of Sherrif Arpaio’s have inflicted on countless people – anxiety backed up by force and delivered with the full support of the federal government.


Teaching History in the Age of Trump 2



As Chris mentioned yesterday, we’re taking our inspiration this week from David’s question, which was initially in response to my musing about teaching the Articles of Confederation:

I had raised the Articles because they, like French military engagements and “government programs,” are easy targets for glib “historical” comments, but are actually very complex and thought-provoking – hence the tendency to be glib about them.

As I begin my teaching tomorrow, I feel less inclined to humor those sorts of glib comments, honestly. The past few months – and the past year and a half – have re-emphasized to me how important historical thinking skills are. I’ve spent some time this summer thinking about how well my classes teach historical thinking, and how to make clearer to my students the way historical thinking is a thing that they can and should be doing in their daily lives. As such, I’ve created one new assignment and re-committed myself to an emphasis on ideas and meanings.

If the last eighteen months have shown us anything, it’s not that “kids these days” have a poor grasp of what we’d call civics, it’s that all people in this country do. My new assignment, described here, uses the NHPR podcast Civics 101 to help my students shore up their civics knowledge. I didn’t need the 2016 election to show me this was a problem, though. As I noted:

Even though many of my students – certainly those from Connecticut – took a civics class within the last five years, they often struggle to understand the contemporary structure of the U.S. government and the ideas behind it. This makes it hard to teach the history and evolution of those structures and ideas, not least because students sometimes can’t see just how different things are.

Helping my students to think more about civics connects to the broader emphasis I will be bringing to bear in my classes this semester with renewed vigor: things mean things. I generally have a pretty Socratic approach in the classroom, though I know its limits, but I am going to really push myself to push my students to think through the ideas behind the systems.

For instance, most of my students don’t know that direct election of senators hasn’t always been a thing. When they learn that it wasn’t a thing in the first half of the nation’s history, they make sense of it pretty easily by saying things were different then. To be quite honest, I often have students argue that slavery could have been made “less bad.”

These responses remind us that the notion that the past is a foreign country can be really dangerous, as we have seen in recent discussions about monuments to white supremacy under the guise of honoring the Confederate dead. I’ve seen an awful lot of people say “Things were different back then, people thought differently” and then move on.

If I ask my students if they’d accept enslavement under the conditions they propose, or even accept an amendment that canceled out the 17th Amendment, they say “of course not!” This year, I want to push them harder to think about why these ideas are so repugnant to them, to think about why they are so quick to say they were nbd in the past, and to think about what it actually meant on the ground for people and the systems they created and engaged with.

The supposed foreignness of the past enables and is enabled by a refusal to acknowledge the diversity of people and opinions in the past. I always push students when they say “people” but mean ” white people” or “men,” and I’m going to do that more this semester. Because “people” didn’t put up those statues, the same way “people” didn’t need to be persuaded that slavery was bad. Just because things were different in the past doesn’t mean that everyone in the past agreed with them, and I can push my students to think about whose dissenting voices and views might be erased by thinking of the past this way.

When thinking about how to approach this semester, I lamented to a friend that I felt I had little patience for students who could say “History doesn’t really matter” right now. She replied that people who say that are really saying “I think history doesn’t matter for me, and I don’t care that it matters to the lives of other people in this classroom.” That framing really helped me understand why I was so anxious and and even angry, but it also reminded me that I had a way through this.

Historians have ways of thinking that break down the notion that any of us are outside of or disconnected from the past. Those ways of thinking reveal to us the systems we inhabit and re-create every day and the way those systems are shaped by everything that has come before.

We also have ways of thinking that encourage empathy and understanding, ways of thinking that help break down the notion that any of us can ever be disconnected from the people around us.

This can be really unsettling for students of all stripes. I have had students break down in tears in class upon comprehending anew the gravity of American slave culture. I have also had many students react quite angrily to the notion that our contemporary culture, one in which they have many unearned advantages, is the legacy of a past culture in which they would have had even greater advantages.

This is basically what I see when a student really starts to engage with the past.

I’m scared of this semester, honestly. My university has a high Jewish population, and a significant international population. Last spring, we had an uptick in the amount of antisemitic and anti-Muslim graffiti on campus, graffiti that is always there, to some extent. The JCC down the street got numerous bomb threats. We got a letter from the university president telling us what to do if ICE approached us on campus. All the professors got email from a white supremacist group saying it had a presence on campus. Some students felt emboldened to voice more racist, ableist, sexist, and xenophobic ideas in the classroom, ideas that have always been there in their speaking and writing. This is all on top of the normal low-level stuff that comes with being a young female professor teaching women’s history.

But I can’t not do it, you know? I don’t just mean because it’s my job. I have the ability to teach young adults how to be more critical thinkers and more understanding people. So I’m heading into the classroom tomorrow, and I’m ready.



Teaching History in the Age of Trump

Welcome to Teaching Trump Week. Our theme this week comes from our own David Mislin, who pondered on Twitter recently:

So how does the Trump presidency inform our teaching of American history? I have thought a lot about David’s question in terms of the American history survey, since it is the broadest audience that most of us reach. The rest of the post below explores a few of the themes that I would explore and see as especially crucial in using the Trump presidency to inform our understandings of American history.

“This is America”—Normally I begin my survey class with the fall of Byzantium. The death of the Eastern Roman Empire marked the closing of Christian access to the trade routes of the Middle East, forcing Europeans to find new ways to reach the West. This year, I would start by putting one of those memes (like the one below) that we’ve all seen floating around up on my PowerPoint. I’ve scripted my opening below.

Screen Shot 2017-08-28 at 2.26.51 PM

“We can all sympathize with the sentiment being expressed here. That we, as Americans, in times of need, set aside our differences and help one another. That whatever differences we may have we will rise to the occasion and give aid and comfort to our fellow human beings. And that those who espouse fascism, white supremacy, and other ideologies of hate have no place here. They are fundamentally un-American. It’s an argument that, to borrow from Lincoln, appeals to the better angels of our nature. Yet it’s also a lie. The truth is both of these images are America. The unity and the division. The helping and the hate. And if we have any hope of understanding our past and using it to inform our present and future, then we have to recognize that the history of America is the history of BOTH of these ideas.”

Adversarial Media—In a political environment where the sitting president frequently attacks journalists as the enemies of the people and there entire media outlets shaping and disseminating conspiracy theories and misinformation, it’s worth remembering that a partisan press has been a staple of the republic. Pro-Jeffersonian newspapers attacked John Adams’ as a “hideous hermaphroditical character which has neither the force and firmness of a man, not the gentleness and sensibility of a woman.” Later, the man responsible for many of these attacks, James Callender, switched sides and levied charges against Thomas Jefferson of having fathered children with Sally Hemings. In the 1820s, pro-Jackson newspapers accused John Quincy Adams of selling a white girl into slavery to the Russian Tsar during his term as ambassador to Russia. Anti-Jackson papers, meanwhile, accused Jackson’s wife, Rachel, of bigamy.

As with any partisan media, there was a mixture of truth and lies. Adams was not a hermaphrodite. His son did not sell a girl into white slavery. Jackson’s marriage to Rachel had been bigamous at its beginning since she had not divorced her previous husband. Jefferson, it turns out, did father children with Sally Hemmings. If we want to understand the origins of Fox News, InfoWars, Breitbart, and other right-wing media, then we need to look at the broader history at play here. That way we can uncover what’s new (and not) about how the operate and manipulate their viewers.

The Meaning of American Freedom—This is an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of a unifying theme that can span both sections of the American survey. It’s obviously influenced by Eric Foner’s The Story of American Freedom. It’s a useful marker for the big moments in survey classes—the Revolution, Jacksonian Democracy, the Abolitionist Movement, Civil War, Reconstruction, Women’s Suffrage Movement, Civil Rights’ Movement—to see both continuity and change. How do the proponents of any of these movements justify their actions? How do they incorporate themselves into the history of America?

I would then ask students to look at President Trump’s understanding of America. What does he believe makes America great? What makes America weak? How does this fit in with what has come before it? And most importantly, what do students think about this? Where do they see themselves fitting in?

Hindsight Bias—Armed with the benefit of hindsight, students are overly critical of historical figures who fail to measure up to modern standards. Working class people drank too much. Everyone was a racist. The students know exactly what they would’ve done in the past. If they were slaves, they would have rebelled or run away. They would have been abolitionists, suffragists, or Freedom riders. The truth, of course, is that few if any of them would have done those things. But now is their opportunity to put their principles to the test. What will they do? Will they march? Will they protest? Or will they stay silent?

Those are the questions that only the students themselves can answer, but informed by everything they learn in the classroom.

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.


“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.”


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:


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.