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)
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.
Today and tomorrow we’ll look at recent publications about one of my favorite periods in history: Russia at the time of World War I. Part 1 will focus on books about society at that time, while tomorrow I will preview works about the war and revolution themselves. I have not read these books and am merely sharing here what looks interesting to me in recent scholarship and why.
The first work is called Lenin and the Logic of Hegemony: Political Practice and Theory in the Class Struggle and is by Alan Shandro. One of the most fascinating historical turns in my mind is how in 1917 a grassroots movement dominated by workers councils turned on itself through the hands of the Bolshevik leadership and stripped rights away that were promised to the workers in the early days of the revolution. This new work seems to shed light on how this was seen as politically necessary by the nascent Soviet leadership.
Next up is Rebecca Mitchell’s Nietzsche’s Orphans: Music, Metaphysics, and the Twilight of the Russian Empire, published merely a week ago on Jan 5. The German philosopher had very interesting ideas about music, believing it to be the one form of art that most convincingly created a ‘new reality’ in the mind of a person (from what I remember of my readings of Nietzsche). Mitchell’s book shows how Russia musicians took this to heart and yearned to find in music a different vision of life in contrast to the chaos going on around them in society.
Finally, the “heavyweight” of the bunch is the work, The End of Tsarist Russia: The March to World War I and Revolution by Dominic Lieven. The author is a leading Russian history scholar, but unfortunately the reviews of the book on Amazon seem a bit mixed between praise for original research and complaints about the style of the work. Nevertheless, I think the new ideas may be worth the slog if you’re interested in fresh scholarship about these historical events.
Today let’s look at a small selection of upcoming new history titles from the University of North Carolina Press (UNC Press). Again, these are works that struck my curiosity from their catalog rather than books I have already read.
First up is The Virgin Vote: How Young Americans Made Democracy Social, Politics Personal, and Voting Popular in the Nineteenth Century by Jon Grinspan. This one is interesting because we are in an election season, and young people of my generation don’t vote (but they should! though I am sometimes guilty of this myself) as often as their elders. I never would have thought that this was not the general trend in earlier times.
The next original work is The Voyage of the Slave Ship Hare: A Journey into Captivity from Sierra Leone to South Carolina by Sean M. Kelley. The events described in the book took place in the mid-1700s and explores an overlooked segment of African-American history: the first-generation slaves brought to the American continents.
Finally, for anyone interested in podcasts and the new upsurge in popularity of talk radio, this work by Jeff Porter could be a worthwhile read: Lost Sound: The Forgotten Art of Radio Storytelling. Today’s great podcasts have their roots in the shows of storytellers who honed this craft on the airwaves when radio first became widespread in the early 20th century. This is their story!
Thanks for “tuning in” to these new blog posts. I will continue to look at new history works from other university presses as well as from popular publishers in the days to come.
An upcoming study in the New York University Law Review finds that the U.S. Constitution is losing favor as a model for new constitutions around the world, reports the New York Times. Since the 1960s and 1970s, when the American document witnessed its height of popularity, foreign governments have turned to more progressive constitutions such as the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms for inspiration.
The N.Y. Times article suggests three reasons for the decline in popularity worldwide of our Constitution: (1) America’s decreasing influence and reputation, (2) conservative judges’ insistence that the original intent of the Founding Fathers be considered in rulings, and (3) the absence of rights that are featured in other nations’ constitutions (e.g. rights to travel, food, education, and healthcare).
Should these be causes for concern for Americans?
Addressing the first reason, I think the greatest blows to American reputation happen when the U.S. initiates wars of questionable cause. American involvement in Vietnam and Iraq (2003-2011) soured America’s image around the world during a time when we needed support for broader conflicts (Cold War and the War on Terror, respectively). We should become more wary of beginning a war. (more…)
Below is a survey of books that were published in the past month or so and look to me like interesting reads (note: I have not actually read these books yet, and these are previews not reviews).
War of 1812
This year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Many overlook this conflict, but it inaugurated important changes for America. During the war, America tried unsuccessfully to invade Canada, Washington D.C. was invaded and burned by the British, American Indian unification efforts (which were supported by the British) against the colonists were dealt a punishing blow, and the lyrics of the “Star Spangled Banner” were composed. After the war, British and American relations began to improve until eventually the two nations became each other’s closest ally in the 20th Century.
Several new books are being published in commemoration of the anniversary. Three that were released last year—two popular ones by George C. Daughan and Stephen Budiansky and a more scholarly one by Kevin D. McCranie—focus on the naval conflict. But the best new overview of the War of 1812 is by J.C.A. Stagg and is due to come out on March 31 of this year.
The book I’m most excited to read, though, is David Hanna’s Knights of the Sea: The True Story of the Boxer and the Enterprise and the War of 1812. The ships HMS Boxer and USS Enterprise dueled off the coast of Maine on a brisk autumn day. The captains of the opposing vessels were later buried together in a dual funeral on the American shore, inspiring the poem “My Lost Youth” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. (more…)