About a year ago, I created a list for myself of personal areas of focus in history. Each item on the list was based approximately around a hypothetical “lifetime” that may have taken place at an interesting period of history. The idea was to help me immerse myself in this handful of “lifetimes” and to become an expert of sorts in the social milieu that was around at that particular time.
In practical terms, this was meant as a guide to focus my history reading and follow the threads of key themes. Another way to look at it is a set of specializations in history for myself, though I am no academic. This list should also shed light on my biases and why I choose to feature certain books and articles over others on this blog and on the History Considered Podcast. So without further ado, I’m going to share my list below.
- Classical Greece, c. 428-347 B.C. From Plato’s birth to his death, with a special focus on what contributed to the flourishing and decline of Athens.
- Antebellum United States, c. 1787-1865. From the Constitutional Convention to the end of the Civil War, with a special focus on debates about the Constitution.
- Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia, c. 1855-1928. From the reign of Alexander II to the end of the New Economic Policy (NIP), with a special focus on how revolutionary workers’ movements were taken over by an authoritarian regime.
- World Wars, c. 1870-1945. From the Franco-Prussian War to the end of World War II, with a special focus on public policy debates among Allied nations about how to deal with Hitler’s Germany before the outbreak of war.
- Current Events, c. 1985+. From perestroika to today, with a broad focus.
Political activism isn’t a very sexy topic. The crowds of demonstrators, the clashes with police, the long and slow struggle with marginal gains: these lack the heroic glory of the battlefield. With failure to effect change happening as often as success (if not more), one may be tempted to say that activism is ineffective. But I had a paradigm shift about this issue earlier this year when I watched a TYT interview with Van Jones.
In this video, Van Jones talks about why progressives failed to push their agenda forward after Obama was elected. His claim was that social change only comes in America when grassroots political movements pressure the president and Congress to act on a certain issue. This has been borne out in history with such movements as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the struggles for civil rights. The grassroots groups, says Van Jones, relaxed their efforts after Obama was elected, and so failed to provide the necessary push to effect social change.
This argument made me realize the foundational importance of political activism for progressive social change: electing a president or a congressperson is not enough. Another person who keenly feels this idea is Bernie Sanders. Since the beginning of his meteoric rise in popularity during the previous election season, he had argued that he sought to build a movement rather than just run a campaign. It could only take a social movement, he would say, to effect real change in the United States. Sanders has recently come out with a new book about this struggle, titled Our Revolution. (more…)
The election of Donald Trump took almost everyone (who followed the prior campaign news) by surprise. One of those who did see it coming was Cenk Uygur, the host of the progressive online news show, The Young Turks (TYT). His claim was that there was a mood of populism in the country of which Donald Trump took advantage. In a recent edition of The Economist, on the other hand, the writers of that magazine made the case that there was a mood of nationalism sweeping across the United States (and, indeed, the Western world). So which is it: did the election of Donald Trump signal a populist or a nationalist mood in the country?
One theory goes that the populace was simply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in the country, and a leader who appealed to these feelings of discontent (i.e. a populist) could turn this negative political energy in a direction of his or her own choosing. It just so happened that Donald Trump turned this dissafected mood in a nationalist direction. This is the point of view of TYT.
Another theory is that there is a true feeling of nationalism brewing into which Trump managed to tap. This is the point of view of The Economist in their Nov 19 edition. The writers there make a distinction between two types of nationalism. Civic nationalism is the good kind that inspires universal values of caring for what is in one’s realm of responsibility. Ethnic nationalism, the bad kind, is accompanied by habits of exclusivity and xenophobia. There is a stew of nationalist feelings, the theory goes, and it’s up to the leaders of the country to turn it in one direction or another. Donald Trump marches to the drum of ethnic nationalism. (more…)
Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.
TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.
There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)
In the fourth episode of the History Considered Podcast, I discuss new books critical of the right wing in American politics. I also conduct an overview of a new article from the Journal of Ancient History about the contemporary study of Herodotus. Please send your feedback about the podcast to historyconsidered [at] gmail [dot] com.
The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley (2016)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr. (2016)
Dark Money by Jane Mayer (2016)
“Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ancient History, by Hyun Jin Kim (2016)
I have finally recorded the first publicly-available episode of my long-promised podcast, History Considered. Although I’ve recorded two episodes prior to this one (see end of this post) I have decided to feature only the third as the “first,” which I recorded today.
The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Pericles: A Biography in Context by Thomas R. Martin (2016)
Pericles and the Conquest of History by Loren J. Samons II (2016)
The Grand Strategy of Classical Sparta by Paul A. Rahe (2015)
The Classical World by Nigel Spivey (2016)
The Marketplace of Ideas by Louis Menand (2010)
“Baltimore Teaches, Göttingen Learns,” American Historical Review, by Emily J. Levine (2016)
Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.
First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.
Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.
An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.
I’m always on the look-out for interesting perspectives on history. The books I will feature today are just such finds. I again have not ready them yet, but they do look intriguing enough to spend a few evenings with.
The first one is Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging by Sebastian Junger. Author of The Perfect Storm, Junger in this later work–which came out on May 24–examines humans’ instinctual tribal affiliations and the powerful alienation that happens when modern society fails to organize itself into meaningful and productive tribes. I think that “tribe” is an interesting category with which to study history, and personally agree with the general points made about the importance of tribes to human life that are mentioned in the book’s synopsis.
The second book is Noam Chomsky’s Who Rules the World?, which was released on May 10. Chomsky is one of my personal heroes because, though I don’t always agree with him, he argues his points dispassionately and always buttresses them with hard facts. Although he usually takes an axe to established modes of thinking, I think there has been a growing awareness in society that America is not in the best of shape. Perhaps his and society’s views are converging. Either way, his perspectives are always provocative of thought.
I heard about the third work on the radio–fittingly, since it was published in April by StoryCorps. This is Dave Isay’s Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work. I’ve been on a longish search for my own “calling” in life, so philosophical works such as this are appealing to me. It seems to be a collection of stories describing everyday people’s relationship to their work–some as humble as a popcorn seller at a baseball game (this is the one I heard about on the radio). It promises to be an inspiring look at human creativity in even the unlikeliest of places.
Today we’ll look at an eclectic selection of books about colonial America in the second installment of this “series.” As I always like to mention, I have not read these books yet; I’m earmarking them rather as interesting works to check out later.
The first book is Revolution: Mapping the Road to American Independence, 1755-1783 by Richard H. Brown and Paul E. Cohen. This seems to be essentially an atlas for the Revolutionary War which uses the beautifully-designed maps made during that time period to tell the story about battles and other important events. In an era before photography, creative works like these help to better illuminate in our minds what happened during those important years.
Our second work is about perhaps as unique an individual as you can find in this era. Turk McCleskey has written The Road to Black Ned’s Forge: A Story of Race, Sex, and Trade on the Colonial American Frontier. Ned Tarr was one of the first freed black landowners in America, was a community leader, decided to take two wives (both white women), and had to fend off efforts to reenslave him by his former master’s son. Sounds like a fascinating read about an individualistic personality in history.
Lastly, we have a work by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Joseph J. Ellis, called The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, works like these about the Constitutional era, I think, are very important to dispel the myths that are thrown about by politicians about what ‘the Founders intended.’ Often those Constitutional era debates were as messy and varied in their arguments as any modern political discourse, so even grouping “the Founders” together into a single category can be a simplistic rhetorical trick that is not reflective of the variety of history.
Today we’ll take a look at books about colonial- and revolutionary-era America that have come out this month or last.
First up is The Fever of 1721: The Epidemic That Revolutionized Medicine and American Politics by Stephen Coss. The tagline really caught my eye for this book — the events of 1721 prefiguring the revolutionary events of 1776. Also, in a fascinating twist, the author is neither a professional historian nor a journalist but rather works in marketing. Very unique, especially to be published by the likes of Simon & Schuster for his first book! This would be a good author to interview for my ever-elusive podcast.
Next up is Washington’s Immortals: The Untold Story of an Elite Regiment Who Changed the Course of the Revolution by Patrick K. O’Donnell. The work is about a single regiment during the Revolutionary War who fought a rear-guard action to protect and evacuate the rest of the Continental Army during the Battle of Brooklyn.
Finally we have The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government, written by Fergus M. Bordewich. I feel like books about the early American government are especially important today because “the Founders” are often invoked in an inaccurate way by our politicians to serve whatever agenda may be convenient for them. The truth is often more messy and complex than the mythologies and legends we may create about the past.