What History is For

George Washington didn’t show his tax returns

Posted on March 6, 2017. Filed under: Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

…yes, this statement was made on national television last week, in an interview that Bill Maher conducted with Trump supporter and virtual spokesman Jeffrey Lord, who answered Maher’s demand that the current president show his tax returns “as all presidents have done in my lifetime” in this way:

I totally disagree with this. I don’t think he should ever show his tax returns. We’ve had presidents in the United States from George Washington all the way through to Lyndon Johnson who never released a single tax return.

There was scattered laughter in Maher’s audience as people realized the enormity of Lord’s seeming ignorance. Income tax was not instituted in U.S. law until 1913. While an income tax was levied during the Civil War to help the U.S. pay for the war (the Revenue Act of 1862), that was an emergency measure that did not last beyond the war. The 1894 Tariff Act imposed an income tax, but Congress was still debating its constitutionality, and it was not until 1913 that the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, legalizing and instituting a national income tax.

But Lord isn’t ignorant. No, he doesn’t know about the Revenue Act of 1862 or the 1894 Tariff Act, but few Americans do, or need to. Most Americans do, however, know that the U.S. income tax does not stretch back to Washington. There are no cherished stories of Washington traveling to New York City or the new capital, Washington, DC to turn in his 1040-EZ. For Lord to bring up Washington is more than ignorant, and worse than ignorant: it’s dangerous.

Lord is dangerous because he believes the American people are stupid. He’s dangerous because he wants to drape the flag over a breach of trust with the American people. He invokes George Washington to shut people up. We’re not sure whether Lord knows there hasn’t always been income tax in the U.S., but we get the feeling he does, and said what he said to sound a) knowledgeable and b) patriotic. People who peddle you patriotism to cover lies or crimes are un-American, and the opposite of patriotic.

Is the current president hiding criminal activity by refusing to share his tax returns? We have no idea. We will not say that he is, because we don’t know, and that’s not something one should assume. But we do agree with critics that his refusal invites speculation on criminal activity—the worst-case scenario for why he won’t share them.

Those who would defend Lord’s Washington line will say that only pedantic nitpickers would focus on his “little mistake” in the timeline instead of his grand point about individual freedom. They are wrong. Because Lord used Washington in a deliberate attempt to propagandize Trump’s refusal to share his returns as patriotic. That’s the grand point.

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Obama’s farewell address: economics and liberty

Posted on February 6, 2017. Filed under: The Founders, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

On we go with post three in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. President Obama had just spoken about the “call to citizenship” that must reinvigorate each generation of Americans to inspire them to live up to our founding principles.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

Yes, our progress has been uneven. The work of democracy has always been hard. It has been contentious. Sometimes it has been bloody. For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back. But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some.

—He begins with a theme dear to our HP hearts, that America is exceptional not because it’s “great” or because the American people are naturally superior to all others, but because of our founding principles. When we live up to those, America is the greatest nation. When we don’t, when we avoid or reject the hard, contentious, and bloody work of democracy, of ensuring liberty and justice for all, when we stop our forward motion, America is not great. Worse than that, it is a perverted parody of what it is supposed to be. Every generation must recommit the nation to the work of real democracy.

If I had told you eight years ago that America would reverse a great recession, reboot our auto industry, and unleash the longest stretch of job creation in our history — if I had told you that we would open up a new chapter with the Cuban people, shut down Iran’s nuclear weapons program without firing a shot, take out the mastermind of 9-11 — if I had told you that we would win marriage equality and secure the right to health insurance for another 20 million of our fellow citizens — if I had told you all that, you might have said our sights were set a little too high.

But that’s what we did. That’s what you did. You were the change. The answer to people’s hopes and, because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started.

—If you hold up each of these accomplishments against the litmus test of “does it promote liberty and justice for all?”, then the Obama Administration scores very high. Job creation can be good or bad; restricting immigration to “protect jobs for Americans”, or lowering taxes on the wealthy by calling them “job-creators” and promoting the so-far mythical promise of “trickle-down economics” are bad. But in the case of the Obama Administration, job creation was mostly good.

In 10 days the world will witness a hallmark of our democracy. No, no, no, no, no. The peaceful transfer of power from one freely-elected President to the next. I committed to President-Elect Trump that my administration would ensure the smoothest possible transition, just as President Bush did for me.

—Again, this was a speech in front of a large, live crowd, so when Obama began this section, people who did not support Trump booed. That’s why Obama says “no”. We have been alarmed at the HP by the constant hauling out of the old trope that “nothing represents our democracy better than our peaceful transfer of power”. That peaceful transfer is important, but only when we are not handing the presidency to a would-be tyrant whose stated purpose is to destroy the federal government. Then it is right to protest that hand-off of power, and to not go quietly into the brave new world.

Because it’s up to all of us to make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we still face. We have what we need to do so. We have everything we need to meet those challenges. After all, we remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on earth.

Our youth, our drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention means that the future should be ours. But that potential will only be realized if our democracy works. Only if our politics better reflects the decency of our people. Only if all of us, regardless of party affiliation or particular interests help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.

—Obama salvages things somewhat by saying even under Trump, we are all still obliged by our founding principles to “make sure our government can help us meet the many challenges we face”, and by reminding us that none of our human potential means anything without our democracy—and our decency, which we may define, once again, as “liberty and justice for all.”

And that’s what I want to focus on tonight, the state of our democracy. Understand democracy does not require uniformity. Our founders argued, they quarreled, and eventually they compromised. They expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity. The idea that, for all our outward differences, we’re all in this together, that we rise or fall as one.

There have been moments throughout our history that threatened that solidarity. And the beginning of this century has been one of those times. A shrinking world, growing inequality, demographic change, and the specter of terrorism. These forces haven’t just tested our security and our prosperity, but are testing our democracy as well. And how we meet these challenges to our democracy will determine our ability to educate our kids and create good jobs and protect our homeland.

In other words, it will determine our future. To begin with, our democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.

(APPLAUSE)

—Before the president transitions into a list of economic wins, we pause to linger over this section, which speaks for itself. All we would add is that our Founders worked long hours to create a system of government that could not only withstand troubled times, but was built to power through troubled times and create a bulwark against trouble. Our system of government is not weak and outdated and harmful and unable to keep us free. Just the opposite. It’s only when we undermine its workings that we expose ourselves to danger.

And the good news is that today the economy is growing again. Wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts are all rising again. Poverty is falling again.

(APPLAUSE)

The wealthy are paying a fair share of taxes. Even as the stock market shatters records, the unemployment rate is near a 10-year low. The uninsured rate has never, ever been lower.

Health care costs are rising at the slowest rate in 50 years. And I’ve said, and I mean it, anyone can put together a plan that is demonstrably better than the improvements we’ve made to our health care system, that covers as many people at less cost, I will publicly support it.

(APPLAUSE)

Because that, after all, is why we serve. Not to score points or take credit. But to make people’s lives better.

(APPLAUSE)

But, for all the real progress that we’ve made, we know it’s not enough. Our economy doesn’t work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class, and ladders for folks who want to get into the middle class.

—In other words, when you have liberty and justice for all, the economy improves. As he goes on to elaborate:

That’s the economic argument. But stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic idea. While the top 1 percent has amassed a bigger share of wealth and income, too many of our families in inner cities and in rural counties have been left behind.

The laid off factory worker, the waitress or health care worker who’s just barely getting by and struggling to pay the bills. Convinced that the game is fixed against them. That their government only serves the interest of the powerful. That’s a recipe for more cynicism and polarization in our politics.

Now there’re no quick fixes to this long-term trend. I agree, our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocations won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good middle class jobs obsolete.

And so we’re going to have to forge a new social compact to guarantee all our kids the education they need.

(APPLAUSE)

To give workers the power…

(APPLAUSE)

… to unionize for better wages.

(CHEERS)

To update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now.

(APPLAUSE)

And make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and the individuals who reap the most from this new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their very success possible.

(CHEERS)

(APPLAUSE)

We can argue about how to best achieve these goals. But we can’t be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don’t create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come.

—Complacency is indeed the enemy of a representative democracy in a world with very few representative democracies.

Next time: tough talk on race

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Watergate and Trump and deja-vu: The Saturday Night Massacre Redux

Posted on January 31, 2017. Filed under: Politics, Revolutionary War, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

We’re rerunning this post from our series on the 1972-5 Watergate crisis because of the Trump Administration’s sudden firing of acting Attorney General Sally Yates. President Trump firing an attorney general who stood up to his unconstitutional requests is all too reminiscent of a horrible 24 hours in our nation’s history, when President Nixon tried to fire his attorney general for refusing to help Nixon break the law. Two attorneys general would resign in what was called the Saturday Night Massacre.

Members of our federal government rose up to save the Constitution and the United States in 1973. They fought for our system of government, which explicitly says the president is not above the law. They knew that we, the people, do have “an alternative” if a president breaks the law—we impeach that president. They knew that Nixon’s actions posed “a grave and profound crisis.” How will the members of our federal government act in 2017?

 

It’s post 5 in our series on the Watergate crisis, and here we come to the most shocking part of the entire event, which is the Saturday Night Massacre of October 20, 1973. We left off last time with the forced resignations and false confessions of Haldeman and Ehrlichman, and the firing of John Dean for deciding he would tell all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee. Bear in mind that Dean knew that the original break-in had been carried out by CREEP and approved by former Attorney General John Mitchell, and he knew that the president had ordered evidence to be destroyed and people to be paid off to keep quiet, but he did not know that Nixon had tried to stop the FBI investigation. No one but Nixon, Haldeman, and Ehrlichman knew that. The only way anyone else could find that out was if they listened to the secret tape recordings Nixon made of all of his conversations, including the one we mentioned last time from June 23, 1972—six days after the break-in—in which Nixon told Haldeman to have the CIA director, Richard Helms, call the head of the FBI, Patrick Gray, and tell him to “stay the hell out of this” in the name of national security. Luckily, only a handful of men in Nixon’s administration knew about the tapes. Unluckily for Nixon, one of them told all he knew to the Senate Watergate Committee, on live national TV.

On Friday the 13th, July 1973, White House assistant Alexander Butterfield was asked if there was any type of recording system used in the White House. After some prodding, Butterfield said there was, and that it automatically recorded every word spoken in the Oval Office, Cabinet Room, and Nixon’s private office. Three days later, after the weekend break, Butterfield reiterated this claim. Watergate special prosecutor Archibald Cox subpoenaed Nixon for these tapes. He wanted to listen to them and see if they showed that the president ordered the break-in, had tried to cover it up, or just knew about it. Nixon refused, citing executive privilege and again saying that national security would be damaged if the tapes were made public. Cox said he would only make public information relating to Watergate; if there was none, no part of the tapes would be made public. Nixon still refused and ordered Cox to rescind the subpoena, which Cox refused to do. On Friday, Nixon offered a compromise: he would allow Mississippi Senator John Stennis to listen to the tapes and write a summary of their contents. Cox refused. He did not trust Nixon to give Stennis access to tapes that would incriminate himself. The subpoena stood.

Now the events unfolded that would be called the Saturday Night Massacre, events which threatened the very basis of constitutional law in the U.S. It’s hard to believe that finding out that the president had tried to obstruct a criminal investigation to protect the criminals could be overshadowed by any other of his actions, but what Nixon ordered on Saturday, October 20, 1973 surpasses even that obstruction of justice in its seriousness.

That morning, Nixon told his chief of staff Alexander Haig to call his new Attorney General, Elliot Richardson, and tell him to fire Cox. Richardson had just been appointed as Attorney General by Nixon in April after the “resignation” of John Dean. A few days earlier, on Thursday, Richardson had met with Nixon and learned that he wanted Cox fired if he wouldn’t accept the Stennis compromise. Richardson told the president he felt sure Cox would accept it, but left the meeting already resolved to resign if Cox didn’t. He knew that Nixon would ask him to fire Cox because only Richardson could: as Attorney General, he had appointed Cox as special prosecutor, and only he could fire him. Richardson did not believe the refusal to accept the Stennis compromise was grounds to fire Cox, but Nixon did. After that Thursday meeting, he told Haig “No more tapes, no more documents, nothing more! I want an order from me to Elliot to Cox to that effect now.”

When Haig called Richardson at 7.00 on Friday night to tell him to fire Cox, Richardson refused, saying he would resign instead. As this was happening, Cox (unaware of this call) issued a statement to the press just in time for the evening deadline saying that the president was refusing to comply with a court order “in violation of the promises which the Attorney General made to the Senate” that the Watergate break-in would be investigated thoroughly. Cox’s statement was front-page on Saturday morning, and he was planning to hold a press conference at 1.00. Richardson phoned Cox to tell him what had happened. At the press conference, Cox reminded reporters that only the Attorney General could fire him. Meanwhile, Haig phoned Richardson again and ordered him to fire Cox; Richardson refused. Knowing what would happen next, Richardson met with his Deputy Attorney General, William Ruckelshaus, and told him that he, Ruckelshaus, would be asked to fire Cox once Richardson’s resignation was made public. Ruckelshaus said he would not do it and that he, too, would resign.

Nixon summoned Richardson to his office and told him that if he didn’t fire Cox, Nixon couldn’t meet with the Soviet Premier to work out a solution to the crisis in the Middle East because Brezhnev wouldn’t respect a man who was being publicly defied by a subordinate. Again Richardson refused, and Nixon said “I’m sorry that you insist on putting your personal commitments ahead of the public interest.” Richardson resigned. As Richardson left, Haig was on the phone to Ruckelshaus, telling him to fire Cox. When he balked, Haig barked “Your commander in chief has given you an order! You have no alternative.” Undaunted, Ruckelshaus replied, “Except to resign”, which he did. Finally, Nixon sent a limousine to pick up Solicitor General Robert Bork from his home and bring him to the White House. There, Nixon told him to fire Cox. He had a letter of dismissal ready, waiting for Bork’s signature. Intimidated, Bork signed it. Nixon told him, “You’ve got guts.”

At 8.25 that evening, White House press secretary Ron Ziegler held a press conference announcing the resignations of Richardson and Ruckelshaus and the firing of Cox, saying “the office of the Watergate Special Prosecution Force has been abolished as of approximately 8 PM tonight.”

The nation was shocked. The way they experienced it, they woke up to read Cox’s claim that the president was refusing to obey a court order. Then they watched his press conference at 1.00 PM where he outlined his rightful claim for the tapes. Then they heard an 8.25 PM press conference saying that Cox, Richardson, and Ruckelshaus were all fired, and that the president had declared the Watergate investigation over. It was abundantly clear that Nixon had eliminated three men whom he was afraid of—what was he afraid of? What did he think they would discover if they had the tapes? And more importantly, would the president’s illegal, unconstitutional firing of the special prosecutor be allowed to stand? was the president above the law? Could he do whatever he wanted, no matter what? As commander in chief, if he committed a crime, did the American people “have no alternative” but to let him do it, and to quietly accept an imperial presidency?

The name “Saturday Night Massacre” may seem overdone—like the “Boston Massacre”, in which only five people died. But what was being massacred was the Constitution, separation of powers, and the rule of law that said that in the U.S. no one, no matter their position, is above the law. The coverage on the news that night reiterated this perception of danger:

John Chancellor, NBC News: Good evening. The country tonight is in the midst of what may be the most serious Constitutional crisis in its history. The President has fired the special Watergate prosecutor, Archibald Cox. Because of the President’s action, the attorney general has resigned. Elliott Richardson has quit, saying he cannot carry out Mr. Nixon’s instructions. Richardson’s deputy, William Ruckelshaus, has been fired.

Ruckelshaus refused, in a moment of Constitutional drama, to obey a presidential order to fire the special Watergate prosecutor. And half an hour after the special Watergate prosecutor had been fired, agents of the FBI, acting at the direction of the White House, sealed off the offices of the special prosecutor, the offices of the attorney general and the offices of the deputy attorney general.

All of this adds up to a totally unprecedented situation, a grave and profound crisis in which the President has set himself against his own attorney general and the Department of Justice. Nothing like this has ever happened before.

Nothing like this had ever happened before. Nixon had thrown down a gauntlet to the nation: you must accept my power to live above the law. I will not be questioned. How would the nation react?

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President Obama’s Farewell Speech continues, despite the best efforts of the Trump Administration

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: Bill of Rights, Civil Rights, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

So now we continue with our close reading of the Obama farewell speech, despite the Trump Administration removing the transcript from its location at whitehouse.gov/farewell. Along with pages on LGBT rights, climate change, health care, and civil rights.

Our transcript source is now The New York Times, for as long as it is allowed to post it.

We left off in part 1 with President Obama talking about his time as a grassroots political organizer in Chicago:

Now this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and they come together to demand it.

After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea — our bold experiment in self-government.

—Those last two sentences are so critically important: we must participate in our democracy in order to uphold it. It doesn’t matter what kind of change you want. You have to act for it, and support others who take action.

That action should be informed by nothing other than our founding principles:

of due process before the law…

of equality of opportunity…

of no discrimination based on race, creed, or sex…

…of liberty and justice for all. Any change, any movement, any one that does not support these things is un-American. So erasing gay people and non-white people is not supporting our democracy. It is un-American.

It’s the conviction that we are all created equal, endowed by our creator with certain unalienable rights, among them life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It’s the insistence that these rights, while self-evident, have never been self-executing; that We, the People, through the instrument of our democracy, can form a more perfect union.

What a radical idea, the great gift that our Founders gave to us. The freedom to chase our individual dreams through our sweat, and toil, and imagination — and the imperative to strive together as well, to achieve a common good, a greater good.

—These founding principles are indeed a gift and an imperative. We have to work to maintain them—they are not self-perxetuating. We will have them for as long as we want them. When Americans top wanting everyone in this country to be treated as equal, our democracy will end.

For 240 years, our nation’s call to citizenship has given work and purpose to each new generation. It’s what led patriots to choose republic over tyranny, pioneers to trek west, slaves to brave that makeshift railroad to freedom.

It’s what pulled immigrants and refugees across oceans and the Rio Grande. It’s what pushed women to reach for the ballot. It’s what powered workers to organize. It’s why GIs gave their lives at Omaha Beach and Iwo Jima; Iraq and Afghanistan — and why men and women from Selma to Stonewall were prepared to give theirs as well.

—All of those examples in the second paragraph are concrete manifestations of “liberty and justice for all.” All of the people mentioned are true Americans.

So that’s what we mean when we say America is exceptional. Not that our nation has been flawless from the start, but that we have shown the capacity to change, and make life better for those who follow.

—It would seem the president had been reading our blog! Especially our About page.

When we face people saying they want to make America great again, we must ask them what they mean by that. Whose lives will be made better? What should be changed? What exactly isn’t great? How can we solve problems by expanding civil rights rather than curtailing them?

We’ll leave off here for now. Next time, the ridiculous red herring of “the peaceful transfer of power.”

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…the Obama Farewell address is no more on the Trump whitehouse.gov site

Posted on January 20, 2017. Filed under: U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , |

Post 2 in our series close-reading the Obama farewell speech has started ominously.

We put in the URL for the speech that we referenced in our first post—whitehouse.gov/farewell—into our usual search engine. The first time, we got a page with a photo of President Trump and VP Pence (which we didn’t think to get a screenshot of) giving a thumbs up and asking us to Make America Great Again.

We typed the URL into the field at the top of the page, and got a page with only this message:

no-farewell

We searched for it on the whitehouse.gov site and got this:

screen-shot-2017-01-20-at-2-25-53-pm

We tried the link from Google—same result.

We had thought maybe we should pause parsing Obama’s farewell to address the Trump inaugural address; now we’re not sure how to proceed. An attack so blatant on people searching for the Obama address, with the Trump/Pence screen that only comes up once, has shocked us for the moment. We won’t be silenced, so we’ll be back very quickly, but this deserves a stand-alone post.

Go try it yourselves. Then come back for our series.

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Trump and the Great American Experiment

Posted on November 10, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, The Founders, U.S. Constitution, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

Today we’re re-running a post written at the very start of this blog, for reasons that will become evident as you read, on the second day of living in anticipation of a new presidency that is dedicated to perverting and destroying America’s founding principles.

From this point on, the HP is going to increase its focus on civics, our founding principles, and the fight for liberty and justice for all under the Constitution, because all Americans will need that information going forward into a Trump presidency that will not only allow that man to exercise his ill-judgment, but open the door to all Americans who have no faith in their nation’s founding principles. To destroy those principles is treason. The HP fights treason in all forms.

So, with a quote from the great Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison’s antislavery newspaper, we begin this new era:

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen;—but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest—I will not equivocate—I will not excuse—I will not retreat a single inch—and I will be heard. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.

 

America is an experiment. From the time of its first white settlement, 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 became landowners or lawyers or independent merchants. 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?

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, I 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.

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. To define those ancestral Americans as merely white or straight or Christian strips them of their most stunning feature, their 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. Barack Obama is such an American, and his 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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I just sued the school system… start with your history teacher

Posted on October 17, 2016. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , |

We’ve been hearing that argument about public schools in the U.S. being modeled on factories more and more lately. You’ve likely heard it; it’s summed up in the Prince Ea video “I just sued the school system!!!”  The idea is that grade schools were meant to run like factories, brutalizing students by making them sit in rows and raise their hands to talk and move when a bell rang, all so they would be good factory workers. And we, sadly, continue to run them this way today.

Where to start. First, factory workers in the early 20th century did not need to know how to read or write or do arithmetic, so why would future factory workers go to school at all?

Next, children worked in factories at ages as young as four years old, so there was no going to school first, working in a factory on graduation. (See our post Why was there child labor in America?)

Last, factories and child labor within them were established long before the 20th-century version of public school education was created.

So let’s look at U.S. public schools at the turn of the 20th century. These are the sort of images we find of them:

school-1school-2school-3

These schools developed in our early 20th century cities. It’s not how schools in America have always been (the cherished one-room country schoolhouse was the norm). When immigration to the U.S. increased exponentially in the 1910s, we suddenly had millions of children in cities, and most of them had parents who wanted at least some of them to go to school. Sending all of one’s children to school, not just the eldest son or smartest boy, was possible for the first time in America because school was free. If the parents were both working and didn’t need their children to work, too, all of the children could actually go to school.

So because we were—and still are—the only nation on Earth to promise a free public school education to all, we built big schools with lots of big classrooms and put lots of desks in them. How else could a teacher manage a class of 30-40 students? And since classes had to be big to educate everyone, there had to be rules like raising your hand to talk and sitting still and moving only when the bell rang or it would be chaos. It wasn’t to mimic factories. It was the only way at the time to educate everyone. Some big-city tenement blocks in the 1920s had 500+ kids living on them—just one block! The hundreds of neighborhood schools that were built to educate them all had to operate a little like machines just to get all their students through.

To try to shame present-day American schools for still following this pattern, to a certain extent, is ridiculous. First, most grade schools have abandoned sitting in rows at desks all day to allow students to work in small groups, have “rug time”, and other ways of moving around during the day. To a lesser extent, many junior high and high schools do this as well. It’s been a long time since most American students sat down in the morning, got up at lunch, sat down after it, then got up to go home. (In fact, students today are the ones who don’t get recess—a once-standard part of the American school day.)

And another reason it’s unfair to shame the U.S. is that one reason we still have rows of desks is that we are still one of the few nations trying to educate all. To compare us, as is always done, with Finland or Singapore is crazy. Those are small, racially and ethnically homogenous states with no vast income inequalities. It’s easy to teach students who all start at the same place and have the same background and language. And in most of the world, education stops for most children after grade school; in those nations where it continues, by the time students reach the equivalent of U.S. high school, they are divided into students who are going on to college and those who aren’t, and they are educated separately and pretty unequally. The test scores that Finland and Singapore present to the world are just from their college-bound students.

But that’s not how we are. We still try to educate everyone, no matter the differences in race, income, language, ethnicity, and learning ability. We fail. But we still try. It’s still our goal. So any solution we come up with has to work for our situation, which is unique in the world.

Can we change our public schools to make them better? Are there better ideas out there than rows of desks? Yes. But to Prince Ea and all the others, we say reform all you want, but don’t tell people that American schools were developed by evil heartless people to indoctrinate and crush children when it was completely the other way around.

(That said, we liked Prince Ea’s video debunking the concept of race, which is indeed completely made up and not real.)

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David Duke and the Klan and the NAAWP are deplorable

Posted on September 27, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Politics, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s not that hard to just say it. While Mike Pence feels that it crosses some line of civility to say that people who work for the destruction of black and Jewish Americans through terror and legal oppression are deplorable, we know that it doesn’t. It’s not “name-calling” when you accurately describe a hate group as hateful, and it’s only wrong to call a hate group “deplorable” if their actions are objectively recognized as nothing to deplore. Even in the midst of the racist backlash going on in the U.S. today, few people are willing to say out loud, on TV at least, that they don’t deplore hate and terror.

The two most important exceptions to this, of course, are Trump and Pence. Trump persistently uses hate speech against Mexicans, women, liberals, and anyone else he feels at odds with. And for someone who won’t stoop to “name-calling”, Mike Pence’s decision to run with Trump, who thrives on name-calling, is hard to understand.

David Duke’s life-work of fighting for the rights of white people is certainly nothing new in this country. There have always been white racists in America, and they have always found supporters. That’s why Duke can pursue his hate activism so glibly, describing the Republican Party as a “big tent” that welcomes all—including members what he describes as the “nonviolent Klan.” And that’s why Trump is afraid to denounce Duke; it would rob him of some votes.

But it’s not just fear. Trump just doesn’t see anything wrong with Duke. He sees him as a successful politician who leads a fairly large coalition of voters, and who has ties to a political organization that may once have been kind of a problem but is now just a kind of hard-core Republican base, along Tea-Party lines. If you don’t like the Klan or the National Association for the Advancement of White People (Duke’s new org), you’re just a knee-jerk liberal who doesn’t understand that the members of these groups are just good working-class Americans trying to get a fair deal by fighting big politics and the liberal oligarchy.

It is an insult to Republicans and even to some Tea Party members to make them equivalent to the Klan and white supremacists. And it’s an insult to all Americans to pretend that hate is a particularly American virtue. The Klan and all white supremacy groups are based on hate and they do nothing but advance hate and terror and death. There is no way to look at our nation’s history and deny this, and there’s no way to look at these groups’ present actions and deny it. There’s no grey area, or room for argument, or polite listening to “both sides of the story”. There’s one story to tell and it’s that the Klan and all white supremacy groups are repellent. That’s not a “liberal” stance. That is the truth, unaffected by political party.

It’s clear that “liberal” is becoming a code word on the right for “non-white”—for people, white or not, who fight for the civil rights of non-whites. The neoconservatives who use “liberal” as a shorthand for everything wrong with this country don’t have to call liberals deplorable because that meaning is built into their usage of the word. In a reversal of the pattern of oppressed groups taking hate words and turning them into badges of pride (“queer”), neoconservatives are trying to take a positive word and turn it into a badge of shame.

As historians we take the long view of things. Sometimes that’s reassuring. Other times it’s not. In this case, it’s depressing to see that the playbook for terrorizing black  Americans, and anyone else who supports them, that was written in the early 1800s still alive and well and having new life breathed into it. The only ground for optimism is that the civil rights movement in this country is as old as the hate it fights. So we keep fighting. As Eyes on the Prize puts it, “The one thing we did right/was the day we started to fight.”

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Truth v.uninformed consensus: Wikipedia, Giuliani, et al.

Posted on September 9, 2016. Filed under: What History is For | Tags: , , , , , |

We read about the latest edit-a-thon of Wikipedia, recently held by Dr. Elizabeth De Wolfe and carried out by students in her Introduction to Women’s and Gender Studies course at the University of New England. As Perspectives on History puts it,

A Wikipedia user survey reports that the average “Wikipedian” on the English-language version of the site is male, formally educated, and from a majority Christian, developed country in the Northern Hemisphere. This lack of diversity, according to a Wikipedia essay on systemic bias, reproduces imbalances on the site that extend (in the realm of history) to a lack of women’s history, the histories of people without access to the Internet (primarily “people in developing nations, the poor in industrialized nations, the disabled, and the elderly”), and the histories of minority demographic groups, which in the United States include African Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans.

Edit-a-thons are a popular model for highlighting these topical weak spots and encouraging broader participation in editing the site. Often hosted by libraries and museums around a particular theme, edit-a-thons provide participants with both the in-person training and the sources needed to create entries. But even the most successful edit-a-thons are no match for the second, more treacherous set of barriers that are built into the site and hinder its representation of history.

…Wikipedia is not designed to showcase expertise, and for good reason, explains Rosemont College associate professor Michelle Moravec: “The Wikipedians recognized early on that they were going to end up with academic wars if they allowed academics to edit entries that they themselves are the field expert in.” However, Wikipedia’s alternative to expertise—consensus—introduces its own biases. In theory, “if enough people weigh in you’ll eventually reach un-bias,” says Moravec. “But anyone with a brain would realize that’s nonsense. You’ll get the most persistent opinion winning.”

Founded in 2013, the Wiki Education foundation seeks to bridge these gaps between Wikipedia and academia by facilitating partnerships between them. The foundation provides online training and guidance for classroom projects designed to counteract some of Wikipedia’s weaknesses while working within the strictures of the site’s core policies. University of Texas at Austin associate professor Daina Berry worked with Wiki Education to develop a project for her Black Women in America undergraduate class. Berry says that she used the tension between Wikipedia’s standards and those of historical scholarship to teach her students about the false ideal of “neutral writing” and “the challenge of researching women and people marginalized from the historical record.”

The HP applauds these efforts to break the uninformed consensus that Wikipedia can fall prey to. And it leads us to return to a topic we covered a while back: getting history right.

We notice, as historians, that certain popular stories about historical figures are repeated in textbooks and other learning material even though they are untrue. The most glaring example we can think of at the moment is not from American history, but it’s illustrative: almost any resource you read will say that when Henry VIII divorced Catherine of Aragon, he renounced the Catholic Church and became a Protestant, and this was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in England.

We are exposed to this story frequently as scholars of the English Puritans. The truth is that Henry remained a devout Catholic to the end of his life, persecuted Protestants, and rejected the Reformation. What really happened was that Henry made himself the head of the Catholic Church in England (not the head of a new Protestant Church), putting himself in place of the Pope. The English monarch was now the head of the Catholic Church in England, and this is why it was so dangerous to be a Protestant during Henry’s reign—to reject Catholicism was not just a religious act but a political one. It was to reject the authority of the king, and as such Protestantism was treason, and punishable not just by excommunication but by death.

Protestants would labor in secret during Henry’s reign to sway the Church of England toward Reformation, and under Henry’s successor Edward VI, who actually was a Protestant, and a fanatical one, the C of E did become Protestant. But under his successor, Mary I, a fanatical Catholic, the C of E returned to the authority of the Pope, and Protestants were notoriously persecuted. Mary’s successor Elizabeth I maintained a middle ground, making the English Church the mix of Catholic and Protestant practice that it remains today, and after the brief experiment of Puritan rule under Cromwell, the Anglican Church was set to remain a Protestant sect with many lingering Catholic elements.

But all that is less clear-cut and dramatic than saying Henry VIII was mad at the Pope and so he became a Protestant.

It’s also easy to blur things unintentionally, as the BBC website does when it says “His break with the papacy in Rome established the Church of England and began the Reformation.” Yes, the break with Rome gave English Protestants hopes that the Catholic Church in England would be reformed, and paved the way for Henry’s son Edward to receive a humanist, Protestant education (carefully hidden from Henry), and for Elizabeth to one day enact a gentle shift to middle-ground Protestantism that would be challenged once more during the English Civil War but restored under Charles II and, after one last threat from James II, securely established.

…but that long string of events stretching  from the 1534 to 1688 is not the story you get from the line “Henry began the Protestant Reformation.”

So a general consensus is built by people who have not devoted time to studying the English Reformation that Henry was a Protestant. This view becomes so well-known that it is repeated in many venues, including history materials meant to teach students about English history.

That’s the problem with an uninformed consensus—it creates stories so well-known that when you point out that a story is wrong, you are the one who seems crazy. As editors of history materials, we know that when we correct items like Henry VIII broke with  the Catholic Church, or Anne Hutchinson was persecuted for being a woman, or the Pilgrims left Holland for America because their children were turning Dutch, we often get flack. Does it really matter? we are asked, by educators. Isn’t the general gist correct?

We insist that it does matter. It’s funny that you would not be allowed to get away with error in football stats, identifying the designer each star is wearing at the Oscars, or summarizing TV show plots online, but misrepresenting the actions of U.S. presidents, founders of major religions, or civil rights leaders is given a pass.

Why is it acceptable to learn fictions about the important people and events that have created the world we live in today? Each error in those narratives is worse than just a mistake; it is a misrepresentation of the actions, decisions, and factors that have impacted millions of lives and created the social and political problems or solutions we experience today. Unfortunately, the double standard seems to say that accurately describing what landmark Supreme Court decisions made possible in the United States is less important than getting all the plot twists of Game of Thrones down right on a fan site.

During today’s presidential election, the truth is taking an unusual beating from Donald Trump, who will seemingly say anything he likes whether it’s true or not. Few people seem equipped to call him on this. Chris Matthews stood up to Rudy Giuliani’s truth-bashing recently by refusing to let him skim over a question or start spouting lies made up on the spot. You can see that here. What Matthews did is what every good historian should be doing right now, as lies flood our media at an unusual rate and misrepresent our shared past.

It can be hard to know when you are not being told the truth; all we can recommend is that the next time someone on TV is telling you what the Second Amendment ensures, or what Lincoln thought about civil rights, or what the Boston Tea Party was about, take the time to find a reputable article by a scholarly author and read it. Then read a few more. You will most likely get to the truth, and find that you are actually willing to spend that much time studying the history of your country, your own history, because it’s interesting and because it explains the world you inherited and because the truth, as they say, has this uncanny ability to set you free.

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Civil War 1860–and 2016?

Posted on August 11, 2016. Filed under: Civil War, Politics, Slavery, What History is For | Tags: , , , , , , , |

It’s the last post in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign, in which we leave the campaign and think ahead to its logical and inevitable conclusion—the election of a president.

Again, our point of comparison between the 1860 and the 2016 presidential campaigns is sectionalism. In 1860, slavery drove sectional division north and south. In 2016, as we say in our first post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

Sub out “slavery” for “gun control”, “immigration”, or “religious freedom”, and you find that the language used in the 1860 campaign is strangely similar to the language used so far in the 2016 campaign.

We don’t know who will win the 2016 presidential election, but it seems fair to say that the reporting of Election Day in 2016 will be much like the reporting from the New York Times on Election Day 1860:

…The return of Napoleon from Elba did not a greater excitement than the returns of the present election. All day yesterday the inquiry was in everybody’s mouth, “What’s the latest news?” Newspapers were in demand… Every bus that carried its dozens of citizens businessward in the morning was a reading-room, a political meeting-house and a pseudo stock board, all in one. Some read the papers, some fought the bloodless battle over again, bringing their batteries of profound argument to bear upon the proposition that “they knew Lincoln would be elected”… In the streets, in the restaurants, in offices and counting-houses such was the tenor of the talk, and the character of the occupations of all to whom a leisure moment came.

Change out “newspaper” for “Internet” or “TV” and it fits pretty well. Change out “Lincoln” for “Clinton” or “Trump” and again it seems likely. One hopes that the battles after the 2016 election results are in will be bloodless; as we know, the returns in 1860 heralded the shedding of more American blood than anyone could have imagined even on November 7, 1860, when it was obvious to most Americans that sectionalism, created and exacerbated by the enslavement of black Americans, had driven a wedge so deep into the country that nothing short of a war seemed powerful enough to dissolve the sectionalism and mend the breach.

Today, Trump denies that he was inciting people to murder when he said on August 9 that the “Second Amendment people” might find a way to stop Clinton from naming Supreme Court justices if she is elected president, but this was just the most egregious of many calls to violence and bloodshed that we’ve heard in this country over the past year of campaigning, all, so far as we have seen, coming from the conservative side of the liberal-conservative sectional divide that is currently rending our country in two.

It’s hard to imagine another Civil War being fought today over liberal-conservative sectional issues. But as we said back in 2008 in Union or Slavery?:

Think of it this way: what if right now, as you sit reading this, the United States was in danger of civil war. Some group of states had actually written up papers outlining how they would secede, and they had the power and the foreign backing to do it. Imagine that every week you read about how these states—let’s say 15 western states—were ready to actually sever their ties to the U.S., and leave the nation with 35 states and a big hole.

It’s impossible for us to really imagine this. We are faced daily with serious threats to our economic, intellectual, and political unity—there’s constant talk about red and blue states and how the coasts hate the  middle and vice-versa, etc.—but we cannot imagine this translates into a threat to our actual political unity. We can’t picture facing the possibility that civil war would break out over these issues and that the United States as we know it would cease to exist.

And all over one political and social issue. An important issue, to be sure, but not one that you thought could destroy the United States. Say it was illegal immigration. It’s been simmering for decades, but it’s begun to boil in the past 10 years, and people’s emotions are getting stronger about it. What do you think will happen in this situation?

Well, you expect it to keep dragging along as a divisive issue that will someday get enough minor legislation to die down, and be replaced by something else. Inertia or a solution, those are the options.

You never expect it to cause an actual civil war, with people in your state fighting people from another state. You don’t expect to see armies formed in the western U.S. states to fight the U.S. amed forces. You don’t expect to have your home destroyed by battle next year.

And that’s the way Americans viewed slavery in the antebellum years. It was a divisive issue, and was getting hotter after 1848, but civil war? Really?

The current election is causing great anxiety for many Americans on both sides of the sectional divide, but no doubt few are ready to believe that it could spark another Civil War. As we’ve seen in the Times‘ coverage of 1860, they were loathe to believe it, too; to the very end they kept reflecting the belief that somehow the proslaveryites would gradually back down and accept the fact that they no longer controlled political power in Washington. They were wrong. And those who believe today that one side or the other will back down from civil war may also be wrong. We devoutly hope they are not. But our trip back in time to the 1860 election has, sadly, inspired more fear than hope on that issue.

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