Archive for January, 2021

The Great American Experiment goes on

Posted on January 20, 2021. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Colonial America, Politics, The Founders, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Way back in November 2008 we posted “The Great American Experiment”, an essay describing the election of Barack Obama as president as an instance of the triumph of our ongoing experiment in creating true democracy in the United States and the world.

We re-run it today, as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take their oaths of office, with a few updates for 2021.

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America is an experiment. From at least the time of its first white settlement, and likely for centuries before that, America has been a place where people came to experiment with doing things differently. It’s been a place to gamble, to see if you could be one of the lucky ones who could buy land, support yourself, marry and create a new life and a new family future in a stable, new land. You gambled on the weather, politics, your own skills, and your own ability to commit to the experiment of living in America, and being an American.

During the 18th century, the experiment deepened, as Americans began to speculate that they could form the first democratic nation in modern times. Intense experimentation went on from the 1760s to 1787, as Americans adapted and invented forms of government fit for the scope of their needs, the gaping hole of their inexperience, and the high and intense expectations for their future.

On and on went the experiment: could we create a strong and stable centralized government? Could we grow without destabilizing? Could we solve the problem of slavery? Could we truly create a melting pot in which to forge Americans out of peoples of all nations? Could we give women the vote? Could we accept Jewish people as true Americans? Could we desegregate? Could we assure civil rights regardless of sexuality?

Every time Americans experienced failure, or had the rug pulled out from under them, whether by natural disaster or human disaster (like stock market crashes, Depressions, war, and injustice), they had to stop and think: is it worth it? Do our high expectations just set us up for disappointment? Is it really possible to have a strong, wealthy, powerful, modern country that is also just, fair, free, and equal?

Our momentum from the Founding onward propelled us to believe that it is possible. We took pride in attempting the unlikely, in dedicating ourselves to making the seemingly impossible possible. We did it because we knew our history began when we committed ourselves to the biggest experiment humans can attempt: liberty and justice for all.

America’s story is one of constantly tackling the big—the biggest—problems, ahead of everyone else, with very little to guide us but those Founding principles that nag at our conscience. And each time we’ve made progress, extending civil rights to more and more people, it’s been because that old spirit of taking a gamble, of performing the ultimate experiment, took over and led us to the right decision.

As we think today about what divides Americans, we think it boils down to the fact that some Americans no longer want to experiment. They want to close the lab down. We’ve gone far enough into the unknown, making it known, they say; now let’s stop—let’s even go backward. We were wrong to conduct some of our experiments in liberty, and that’s the source of all our problems. Gay people shouldn’t be treated equally. Black people shouldn’t run the country. Women shouldn’t hold high office. Muslims shouldn’t be granted habeas corpus. Democracy itself is weak and corrupt–we need a military and religious dictatorship to undo every advance in civil rights and the pursuit of happiness, because somehow freedom and happiness are destroying America.

Whenever one of those Americans talks about the problem with our country today, they talk about how we should be like we once were, back when white people who defined marriage as one man-one woman and were Protestant veterans built this nation. They feel they are losing their birthright, their legacy.

But those Americans are wrong. What their ancestors really were was scientists. Experimenters. Radicals who always considered the impossible possible. A people with near-supernatural qualities of optimism and defiance and willingness to go into the unknown and make it their home, to make the amazing the norm. They defied the status quo. That’s how they built America.

Americans who want to end the experiment are few, but boisterous. They clamor at the national microphone. But Americans who know that there is no America without the experiment will keep at it, and they will persevere. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are such Americans, and their election is proof that the lab is still open, and that America in general will always be at the drawing board, expanding its concept of liberty and justice and equality until we finally fulfill the founding principles that created this nation so long ago.

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A call to action, January 2021

Posted on January 11, 2021. Filed under: American history, Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

Our democracy is under open attack. Americans who have long considered our system of government to be the source of all our nation’s problems have at last acted to overthrow it by invading the Capitol building in an attempt to stop the certification of a fair and legal presidential election.

These people have been taught to hate “the government” at least since the days of President Reagan, who claimed in his January 20, 1981 inaugural speech that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”

This was the official start of an alternate American history, one that identifies all government, but particularly our federal government, as the enemy of American freedom and individuality. This imaginary history describes a “great” America that was controlled by white Christian men, where there were no homosexuals, non-Christians, or feminists, and all immigrants were “honest, hard-working” white Christians.

Those of us who study and love actual American history have always had to fight against this fantasy American history.

We’ve done our best to teach the people we talk with about the real history of race, sex, religion, immigration, and politics in America.

We do this tirelessly because the study of real American history is always the study of the struggle to fulfill the unique mandate of our founding documents, which commit Americans to promoting the general welfare by acknowledging the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, and have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We take pride and pleasure in helping people understand the importance of the pledge of allegiance they make to stand up for liberty and justice for all.

We are ever-ready to show other Americans how the language “all men are created equal”, with its assumed meaning of “white men”, was a starting point from which generation after generation of Americans expanded rights to include women, non-white Americans, and all citizens of this country.

We don’t pretend that American history is a rose garden of justice and triumph. But we help people understand that we have a unique national conscience that drives us, each generation of Americans, to live up to our founding principles, that won’t let us settle for less, that makes us despair over injustice and recommit, over and over, to creating a more perfect union.

Today, in 2021, we must do even more.

Today, we must rise up to take real action against the terrorists who would destroy our democratic government. Not just by issuing statements of dismay, but by actually mobilizing protests in the streets and online.

There is no line between “history” and “current events”, between “studying history” and “talking about politics.” Today’s political event is tomorrow’s history. We can’t divorce our study of American history from political activism in the name of justice.

This is a time for action as historians. What can we do?

We must first demand that emergency actions be taken to remove a treasonous president, and the treasonous members of Congress who voted to overturn a legal election.

We must fearlessly identify anti-democratic, racist, nativist activities and groups and explicitly call them out as enemies of our democracy. This is not the time to call for “trying to understand.” If we pretend not to understand tyranny and terrorism after studying it for years, we are part of the problem.

We must acknowledge the magnitude of the terrorist overrunning of our Capitol and Congress. We cannot tell the public this is just another in a long history of anti-democratic activism. If we minimize what happened on January 6, we help Americans to normalize it, and we are part of the problem.

We must teach Americans their real history, which does not include a once-great America in the undefined past that only a dictatorship can restore. We must teach Americans that our history is one of success and failure in the never-ending pursuit of liberty and justice for all, and that only when we do that work are Americans truly great.

We must speak out to interrupt lies and hate speech. If you are called on to give commentary in any public forum, speak bravely and clearly about the anti-democratic terrorism taking place in the United States, and make it clear that we are bound as Americans to call it by its name and fight against it.

We must refuse to find, provide, or tolerate excuses or justifications for hate speech and for physical acts of terrorism.

We must give talks and write articles and have discussions where we explicitly connect what we learn in American history to the politics of the present day, and the American mandate to create a just and democratic state.

There is open war in America today. If historians can’t or won’t take action in this moment, then we really are just useless “history nerds” and academics, escapists who hide our heads in the sand of the past.

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Truth V. Myth: Trump Executive Order On Diversity Training, concluded… we hope

Posted on January 4, 2021. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , , , , |

Today, part the last of our series on the Trump Administration’s September 22, 2020 Executive Order on Combating Race and Sex Stereotyping (find the official White House version of this executive order here). We race through the concluding sections, noting the final problematic statements therein.

Sec. 8. Title VII Guidance. The Attorney General should continue to assess the extent to which workplace training that teaches the divisive concepts set forth in section 2(a) of this order may contribute to a hostile work environment and give rise to potential liability under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. 2000e et seq. If appropriate, the Attorney General and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission shall issue publicly available guidance to assist employers in better promoting diversity and inclusive workplaces consistent with Title VII.

–More of the same here; the noble Civil Rights Act of 1964 is perverted to support anti-diversity training and the debarment (see Sec. 7(b)) of contractors who provide real diversity training.

Let’s hit the final section for an ill closure:

Sec. 10. General Provisions. (a) This order does not prevent agencies, the United States Uniformed Services, or contractors from promoting racial, cultural, or ethnic diversity or inclusiveness, provided such efforts are consistent with the requirements of this order.

b) Nothing in this order shall be construed to prohibit discussing, as part of a larger course of academic instruction, the divisive concepts listed in section 2(a) of this order in an objective manner and without endorsement.

(c) If any provision of this order, or the application of any provision to any person or circumstance, is held to be invalid, the remainder of this order and the application of its provisions to any other persons or circumstances shall not be affected thereby.

(f) This order is not intended to, and does not, create any right or benefit, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or in equity by any party against the United States, its departments, agencies, or entities, its officers, employees, or agents, or any other person.

DONALD J. TRUMP

THE WHITE HOUSE,
September 22, 2020.

–One might laugh aloud if it weren’t for the sheer malice and evil intention of this final section. Subsection a represents a terrible perfection of perversity, saying this order purporting to describe diversity training does not prevent any entity from providing diversity training. It’s so clear that the Order precisely does prevent all agencies from promoting diversity and inclusion that the authors are either subconsciously driven to defend themselves or just enjoying their terrible power. Subsection b follows the same. Subsection c is a logical fallacy, and Subsection d is, we hope, boilerplate text, and not something assembled for this particular and particularly anti-democratic Order.

This Order may well be rescinded by the incoming Biden Administration, but that is cold comfort. The wedge has been driven into our democracy from the top down by a small number of people who are all too happy to destroy our democratic traditions. They are easily split from democracy. Let’s hope that as the wedge goes down into the full population, we find that Americans as a whole will resist the fracture.

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