Archive for May, 2014

The World Wars on the History Channel: A review (of both)

Posted on May 29, 2014. Filed under: American history, Historians, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

The History Channel has a new three-part series on called The World Wars. Its premise is that if you follow the individual lives of Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt, MacArthur, and Patton, you will get a complete understanding of WWI and WWII and all the tragedy they entail. The “great man” theory of history has been debunked for a few decades now; the idea that events affecting and relying on the participation of thousands, tens of thousands, or millions of people are entirely created, shaped, led, and even dictated by the desires and actions of one man, or maybe two men (opposing each other), has obvious logical flaws. Most modern historians have proved that to understand anything you have to research the lives of the average people who made it happen, whether they were carrying out the will of the leader or following their own interpretation of what the leader wanted; obeying God, family, or both; out for their own benefit; acting out of confusion or fear; conflicted, dedicated, etc. “Great men” are the products of their society, and it’s a two-way street of influence.

But The World Wars is about Great Men, and a viewing of Episode 1 shows us that that is likely because the History Channel itself is about Great Men. Watching the ads for other HC shows was telling. They are all about men: Mountain Men, American Restoration, Top Gear (about cars), The Hunt, Big Rig Bounty Hunters, American Pickers, Vikings, Ax Men, Counting Cars (about cars). In each show, a few rugged men have some sort of expertise—in cars, logging, hunting, survivalism, etc.—that they pursue in isolation, from the forest wilderness to the cab of a truck to a hot rod garage. We did not see a single woman in any ad for these HC shows. Women are not needed. When only men exist, all men are great. (We did, however, see women in the endless beer and liquor ads, tramped out in the usual beer-ad ways.)

It’s no accident, then, that there are no women in The World Wars, Episode 1. Not only are there no women with speaking parts, there are actually no women at all. The only time you sort of see a woman is in a bar where Churchill is shown talking with other men, and a literally shadowy figure of a woman is also at the bar, so blurred out that you can’t see her face. Women clearly do not exist in the world of the History Channel, where men do everything that matters and only men are affected by the events caused and led by men.

The other failings of the series’ focus on Great Men are aptly described elsewhere. Here we want to focus on some specifics, the little details that are red flags that the truth is not really being told.

1. There are generalizations made that would be hilarious if they weren’t so awful. For example, WWI is described the greatest tragedy of the century in many ways, and “it all started in the slums of Vienna.” We zoom in through a window to see a young Hitler doggedly painting a second-rate landscape. Yes: the claim is made that World War I all started with Hitler. If Hitler had not been born, WWI would not have happened. The mind rebels at this sort of wild idiocy, and we’re pretty sure that if anyone had bothered to proof/edit the screenplay they would have caught this ridiculous sentence and changed it. But no one did, and rhetoric, combined with a burning desire to deliver the Great Man theory, won the day.

2. Another gross generalization is that Pancho Villa’s attack on a U.S. train in 1916 left us “no choice but to declare war”. When is a nation ever left with “no choice” other than war? Worse, the U.S. never declared war on Mexico in 1916.  The most rudimentary review of the facts shows that the U.S. began a limited campaign with one Army unit against Pancho Villa led by General John Pershing. It lasted nine months and failed to capture Villa. It was called off when the U.S. entered WWI in 1917.

3. But because the expedition is called a war, it has to have a war hero, and that is George S. Patton, who served under Pershing on the Villa expedition. He is The World Wars’ Aragorn. Patton is presented as a handsome, brave, super-hero type who never wears a helmet on the Western Front and likes to stare mystically into the distance. They show him strapping a machine gun to a jeep in order to chase Villa, and much is made of this incredible technical innovation. Newspaper headlines are shown talking about the “huge success” of Patton’s mechanized raid on Villa and his men, and the episode repeats this language of absolute victory—and then we see another headline that says “Three Mexicans killed”. So Patton’s huge victory killed three men, none of them Villa. That seems less inspiring.

But we are not allowed to criticize Patton. His interest in tanks is central, because in the end, he is just another Top Gear or Big Rig driver, a guy who loves pimping out big vehicles. Patton is given full credit for “transforming” tanks from their original clunky design, but he did no such thing. He visited the European factories that were revamping the tanks, and ordered some for the U.S. That’s it. But the show even has speakers come on to say Patton is entirely responsible for the update. This crosses the line to outright lying, and is more than a red flag.

—We have to interrupt our Patton analysis here to talk more about these speakers on the show. They are not fully identified. You see a name and a title: “John Smith, Historian”. The usual data in a lower-third identification is name, title, and affiliation: “John Smith, Professor of 20th century Military History, West Point Academy”.  Speakers are brought in to documentaries to give them credibility. If we see that John Smith has a degree in military history, we believe what he says. But none of the speakers here are revealed to have specific knowledge of the fields they are discussing. We are historians here at the HP, but none of us are specialists in military history. Yet we could have appeared on this show as “The HP, Historian” and said anything we wanted. Some speakers are just identified as authors (“John X, Churchill Biographer”). There are also many politicians and American military officers who are given equal authority with the historians in accordance with the current belief that if you served in the military you are an expert on all military history.

4. Needless to say, there are no female speakers on the show. Women do not exist.

Back to Patton. He is constantly shown crouching on the back of one of “his” tanks in battle with no helmet—he’s too brave. This is reinforced in a scene that actually provoked outright laughter later on: the war is over, and he is training cadets on a firing range. He stands between two targets and tells the men to fire. The bullets fly past him on both sides, but he never flinches. This was inspiring when it was Elrond at the first battle of Barad-Dur. When it is Patton, it is beyond ridiculous. If someone out there can prove to us that Patton stood in the line of fire of raw cadets just learning to shoot at a target just because he was so awesome, please send us that proof.

5. General Douglas MacArthur is presented as a great hero. This was the man who on his own authority gave the order to fire on unarmed WWI veterans in 1932 in Washington, DC, who were peacefully protesting the government’s decision to refuse to pay them the bonus money they had been promised for their service in the war. MacArthur charged the men, women, and children with cavalry and infantry, and used teargas on them. He then set fire to the buildings they were living in, forcing those who had taken shelter there to flee into the attack. When President Hoover ordered MacArthur to stop the attack, he refused. Then when Americans were outraged, MacArthur claimed Hoover never told him to stop. This is the description of a war criminal. But in The World Wars, he is just another Great Man with a vision and guts and bravery and a commitment to his own vision that blots out everything and everyone else, like any hero.

6. The episode makes it seem like Wilson declared war the day after receiving the Zimmerman telegram. There was actually a three-month gap between the two events.

7. This is small, but we began to wonder why all the newspaper headlines the episode uses are from minor papers: Ogden City, Utah; El Paso, Texas; small towns in North Dakota and Louisiana. It’s not like these are not valid papers, but it is more common to see the New York Times, the LA Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, etc. We wonder if they couldn’t get the rights somehow.

These are the red flags. These are the details and major themes that are simply historically inaccurate, and these are the signs that a show is more dedicated to its thesis than the truth, and willing to bend or ignore historical fact whenever necessary to protect and promote its thesis.

Next time, we will discuss an important problem with the main thrust of Episode 1.

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“Americans supported slavery” and other inflexible/flexible history themes

Posted on May 22, 2014. Filed under: American history, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

We notice an interesting habit in people’s analyses of the past: in the past, everything is absolute; while in the present, everything is conditional.

In the U.S. today, there are many fraught issues that divide and subdivide the nation. There is no one opinion on Social Security, climate change, the war in Iraq, NSA surveillance, how to intervene in Ukraine, birth control, affirmative action, prison reform, or every other issue facing Americans. We know that there is no single national opinion on these issues. When we hear our own politicians, or foreign observers, describe America as united in their opinion on one of these issues (the BBC World News saying recently that “the majority of Americans dismiss climate change” comes to mind), we immediately reject it, and feel the frustration and irritation of having our complexity misrepresented.

Yet we do not extend this courtesy to the past. When we talk about history, suddenly “the United States” and “Americans” are all one thing:

—Americans supported black slavery before the Civil War.

—Americans believed they had a right to Native Americans’ lands.

—Americans considered Native Americans to be savages.

—Americans were isolationists who did not want to enter WWII.

—Americans hated Prohibition and did not obey it.

—Americans have always been a God-fearing people.

—Americans did not think women should be educated.

—Americans accepted child labor in factories.

—Americans were caught up in the Red Scare of the 1950s.

—Americans believed in their Manifest Destiny to settle the West.

You’ve read these statements in textbooks, magazine and journal articles, and heard them on countless historical programs and documentaries. You, like the rest of us, probably wrote them yourself in early school papers. These blanket statements are not only laughably incorrect, they are damaging. They are uniformly negative, and reinforce the stereotype that America claims to stand for liberty and justice for all, but in reality, America is a hypocritical sham. Each of these statement can be easily taken apart and discounted by the most cursory historical investigation. Each of the issues they address were just as conflicted and complex as any of the ones we face today. In reality, Americans had a wide variety of opinions on the issues above, and debated them with the same vehemence we debate with now. Most of them were never fully resolved.

Even the positive lies of uniformity are harmful: “Americans were always self-reliant”, “Americans believed in the value of hard work”, “Americans were always innovative”, “Americans did not trust big government”—each bit of boosterism was crafted, even at the time, to promote a certain worldview, a certain political stance. We can hardly read them now without thinking of their current purposes, which are generally to reject federal social spending, remove federal programs in schools and the workplace, get rid of taxation, and discourage alliances with other nations for any liberal purpose (such as fighting climate change). We independent, hard-working Americans don’t want… fill in the campaign-season blank.

Let’s go forward cutting the past as much slack as we cut the present. Let’s drop the inflexible history and allow it to be as flexible as the present. If we don’t buck the trend of the uniform past, imagine how we will find ourselves misrepresented 100 years from now, to our chagrin—“Americans in 2014 happily accepted NSA surveillance because they valued the convenience of technology more than their right to privacy.”

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The Periodic Table of the New Deal

Posted on May 13, 2014. Filed under: American history, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum has assembled a periodic table of the people and organizations that made the New Deal, 1933-8. From the RFC to the RA, FDR to Thomas Corcoran, every program and every person working on the New Deal are represented. The programs are chronological, the people are alphabetical. On the back of the chart are brief explanations of each. This is a fantastic tool, doing exactly what a graphic organizer should—making the scope of a project immediately clear, while harnessing its near-chaotic size and mess of acronyms into a smooth and instantly comprehensible order that can be taken in at a glance.

Check it out at the FDR Library website! You can hover your mouse over each block and get the information. We tip our hat to the people who came up with this great idea.

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Lincoln (on Real Time)

Posted on May 7, 2014. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, The Founders | Tags: , , , |

The HP was delighted to hear basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skillfully counter Bill Maher’s leading negative question about President Lincoln on Maher’s show Real Time last week.

The two were having a discussion about Clippers owner Donald Sterling, who had just been heavily censured by the NBA commissioner for his racist screed on the phone a week or two earlier. They ventured into many different issues of racism in America society and history,  including the question of, as Maher put it, whether to cut the Founders slack for their slaveholding because they were “of their era”—i.e., they grew up with slavery and didn’t know any better. Kareem said no, no slack is allowable, because there was never a time when people did not know that racially based slavery was a tool for destroying the enslaved race (our paraphrasing). Kareem mentioned Alexander Hamilton’s abolitionist views, and Bill Maher proffered Ben Franklin as well, but then fell into the usual trap about Lincoln: that he was an unrepentant racist and proslavery president with an unjust reputation for ending black slavery in the U.S.:

Maher: But you know Lincoln had some harsh words about the black people…

Kareem: Yes he did, but you have to say that Lincoln evolved. In 1858 he had some harsh things to say, [but] by the time the middle of the war had come around he realized what needed to be done, so you have to give him his credit for evolving quickly and understanding what really was at stake.

Kareem must be reading the HP! For this is the point we make in the first post of our series on Lincoln, Slavery, and Racism. Everyone is of their time in that they imbibe certain attitudes, beliefs, and social/political systems as children, but when they grow up, they inevitably re-evaluate those attitudes, beliefs, and systems. Most people decide to uphold them, for various reasons (tradition, the desire to avoid trouble, real support, no new ideas to offer). But some, like Lincoln, decide to reject them. They decide to be better than their society, and to forge a new attitude, belief, or system to bring more justice to the world.

We appreciate Kareem’s easy yet firm rebuff of the anti-Lincoln myth, and hope it does a lot of Americans and others a lot of good.

(P.S.: The tags for this post group together what are surely the strangest bedfellows in the world: “Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Maher, Abraham Lincoln, Donald Sterling”.)

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The American Promise of Johnson’s We Shall Overcome speech

Posted on May 1, 2014. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , |

As we enter part 6, the last post in our series on President Lyndon Johnson’s March 1965 “We Shall Overcome” speech, we look at the context of the speech—how it was made, delivered, and received.

President Johnson had not planned to give the speech at all; he was sending his Voting Rights Act bill to Congress and usually when presidents send a bill to Congress they attach a brief message to it and that’s all. Few presidents will make a public speech to Congress urging the passage of a pending bill because a) members of Congress don’t like being pressured publicly to pass things, and b) if the bill is not passed, then the president loses some clout. But at the last moment—the day before the speech was given—Johnson decided this particular bill needed more than a note. We have applauded speechwriter Richard Goodwin for drafting the We Shall Overcome speech in record time, working overnight on the 14th/15th, with Johnson’s direct order to use “every ounce of moral persuasion the Presidency had… with no hedging, no equivocation”. Goodwin delivered on that request. The actual title of the speech was “The American Promise”, but like so many things in U.S. history and culture it became known by a different name—Johnson’s use of the dynamic civil rights promise “We Shall Overcome” destined the speech to be known by that name.

The genius of the speech, and of Johnson’s delivery, lies in its ability to make voting rights for black Americans personal for all Americans. As Americans, they inherited a mission, and if they refused to carry out that mission, they were betraying their country. This was at the very start of some public doubt about the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, when calling on people to fight for their country was beginning to ring hollow, but here was a forum where everyone could be on board—or, at least refusing to get on board was much more difficult. If Americans weren’t sure they were fighting for liberty and justice in Vietnam, they could be very sure they were fighting for it at home, in the form of voting equality. This was a goal that suited both the radical agenda of social revolutionaries and the more square patriotic agenda of their elders. It even made “summoning into convocation all the majesty of this great government” (not something many average Americans, let alone hippies, could have said without blushing) seem not only necessary, but just and commendable and faith-inspiring.

By calling on the nation to fulfill its covenant with God and man, Johnson made passive acceptance of racial discrimination impossible and a kind of passive action to end it possible: that is, Southern Congressmen who did not want to vote for civil rights legislation could do it with the excuse to their constituents that the president had made it impossible not to, that the tide had turned, and that everyone was going to have to find a new way of getting around. No one likes it, they might say, but that’s how it has to be now. Appealing to the ideal of America itself, rather than existing constitutional amendments that some might say should be overturned, forced opponents of civil rights into the untenable position of arguing against America itself, of betraying the nation’s identity, of being un-American.

Reaction to the speech was very positive and action was swift. As Garth Pauley puts it in his book LBJ’s America: the 1965 Voting Rights Address:

In their coverage of his speech, many journalists lauded the president for invoking and affirming “the most sacred and deeply held convictions of a nation,” which brought “the present chapter of the struggle for human rights into proper perspective.” Citizens echoed these sentiments in their letters and telegrams to the White House. And when editorialists urged swift passage of the president’s bill, their appeals employed the language of Johnson’s narrative: The New York Times even suggested passage was a foregone conclusion because a “people that has responded unflinchingly to every trial of national purpose . . . will not fail this test.” Moreover, following President Johnson’s speech, members of Congress deliberated voting rights legislation using the language of America’s destiny, promise, and purpose. Senators and congressmen claimed that the nation must “make good on its promise… [to] fulfill the revolutionary dream of freedom and equality for all Americans” by “passing a bill which [sic] fully insures that every American… has the right to vote”—which will represent a step “along this nation’s honored march toward further fulfillment of our traditional goals of equal opportunity and equal treatment.” Congress indeed passed the final voting rights bill less than five months after Johnson’s speech. The president signed the Voting Rights Act of 1965 into law on August 6, emphasizing at the signing ceremony that America had righted a historical wrong, enacted its sacred principles, confirmed its promise, and now would endeavor to “fulfill the rights that we now secure.”

Pauley goes on to speculate about the ability of a president today to refer to and rely on a shared moral high ground in America to gather support for a bill, and it’s a thoughtful note to end this series on:

Finding a shared moral language out of which a president can fashion a persuasive appeal is difficult. President Johnson effectively grounded his appeals in a potent narrative that focused on public morality–his listeners’ civic duty to keep and fulfill the sacred American Promise. But as the citizenry continues to become more religiously and culturally diverse, less schooled in the narratives of the nation’s history, more aware of how such narratives can be used to justify depraved causes as well as honorable ones, and perhaps less influenced by the moral authority of the presidency, presidents may find it especially tricky to build moral consensus through oratory. Consider this problem from a perspective afforded by studying Johnson’s speech. He used oratory to help secure the significant public good of equal voting rights, primarily by appealing to the American Promise–of which the Constitution is one expression–rather than the Constitution itself. But could Johnson have crafted such a stirring, persuasive appeal on the basis of constitutional guarantees alone? Would his listeners have found it as moving, meaningful, and motivational? Would we find it as eloquent today?

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