We love to talk about the lessons of history in this group. Searching our website I count half a dozen meetings on the “lessons of” some particular historical event. We have had meetings on judging the successes and failures of various U.S. presidents, and we discussed which were the best and worst ones. (I think we may have to update the Worst list pretty soon.) We even spent an evening asking “how will future historians judge us.” I always enjoy these meetings.
Monday’s topic is about historical judgment, too. But, it is a little more challenging, I think. By asking us which moral standards we should be using to render historical judgments, the topic asks us to judge ourselves as well as the past. It compels us to make explicit the moral values that always lie behind our historical judgments, even if they usually are left unspoken. History only has lessons (and heroes and villains) if we supply the moral metric.
Also, there’s a sub-field of philosophy that wrestles with issues like what history is, to what uses it can be put, and how the present colors our perceptions of the past. It’s called the “philosophy of history.” I believe. I will try to learn a little bit about the field’s basic concepts and use it on Monday to guide our discussion. I think the true art of the meeting will be if we can learn to think about this stuff in different ways.
I will also make a short list of historically-controversial people and events and ask the group about them as needed (e.g.; Jefferson, the Confederacy, Truman/Hiroshima, Malcolm X, etc.).
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Our 2011 meeting on how will future historians judge us and last year’s mtg on Thomas Jefferson’s legacy..
- Should we condemn our ancestors’ moral failures?
- The problem of “presentism.” Recommended.
- Useful perspectives:
- The past is so distant to us that it is hard to imagine what people were like – or should be expected to have been like. Fascinating.
- Ask yourself this: How might our descendants judge us? Recommended.
- Conservative POV: Howard Zinn and other leftists distort history to teach moral lessons, leading to bad history.
NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?
Sometimes my topic ideas are not too well thought out. This one came out of several articles I read recently (in the links) that argued we should revive the idea of a shared American cultural literacy. Cultural literacy is the common knowledge necessary for good citizenship and mutual understanding in a society. Promoting it would involve our educational system focusing on teaching young people a certain set of facts and concepts about history and civics/government, art and literature, religion, geography, and so forth. Adoption of the Common Core and other educational standards spurred this renewed debate over the merits of a common cultural literacy, as have rapid shifts in American demographics, the rise of social media, and other factors. I thought it would be a nice break from our polarizing political topics.
It’s not just that the cultural revanchist Donald Trump got elected president by promising to speak for (some) Americans that feel culturally disrespected and to restore a decidedly pale-hued lost national greatness. I had forgotten that the concept of cultural literacy was controversial when it was first introduced in a book by a
British American academic in 1987. Some progressives opposed the idea flat out, arguing that anything that smacked of a state-sanctioned list of approved cultural knowledge would be more oppressive than instructive. Conservatives, already up in arms over the rise of multiculturalism and historical revisionism, pushed back.
We got a taste of how this conflict still rages a few weeks ago when we discussed what U.S. school children should be taught about history. I am sure that any movement to revive cultural literacy in today’s political climate would get sucked right into the culture wars.
Complicating cultural literacy further is the way we share cultural information (and values and resentments) these days via social media. Maybe cultural norms and changes get transmitted faster or more efficiently. Maybe it’s liberating and promote tolerance. Ha, ha. As those of us that have lost Facebook friends over Trump’s election can attest, the Internet also Balkanizes culture (especially resentments).
Given all of these crosscurrents, I’m not sure yet how Civilized Conversation should approach the idea of a 21st century American cultural literacy. Ponder these discussion questions and I will see you on Monday.
DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –
- What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
- What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
- Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
- Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
- What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- The history of teaching common cultural literacy in American education. Recommended.
- Common Core embodies the idea of cultural literacy – and vindicates its author. Cultural literacy is more important than ever in our diversifying nation. Both recommended.
- Lacking basic common cultural knowledge harms members of disadvantaged groups the most (PDF 6pp).
- But, the internet makes it easy to fake cultural knowledge.
- Civic literacy: Our mtg last year on ignorance as a political problem:
- U.S. civic ignorance is shocking and a big problem. Highly recommended
- Or: It’s kind of a problem.
- But informed voters are easier to deceive voters (recommended) and the Internet has NOT helped.
- A 33-question quiz on civic literacy. Off-topic a bit, but how did you do?
Next Week (Nov 28): How do progressives interpret the Constitution?
I have been reading a lot of religious history the past few years. So, I thought we could explore the relationship between what have been called the “two Jesuses:” The Christ of Faith and the Jesus of History. How do both secular and religious people think about and reconcile the two? Do they even try?
Seeking out the historical Jesus” has been an entire field of scholarly study for more than a century. Since there is almost no mention of the man outside of the Bible, experts analyze the text of the New Testament to try to determine which parts are more likely to be authentic and which might have been added decades later by the Bible’s many authors.
Taken far enough, this method has led some non-Christians to argue that the Historical Jesus was very different from the Christ of Faith. Thomas Jefferson was one such person (albeit he was still a Christian). He rewrote the Gospels for his own use, excising all of the supernatural stuff. No miracles. No afterlife. No resurrection. No claim by Jesus that he was divine. To Jefferson, Jesus was the world’s best ever moral philosopher, but only that. Today, secular people love this notion because they prefer their Jesus as an ethical teacher, not the risen God or Holy Spirit or whatever.
The historical Jesus can also refer to the evidence that he actually did or did not exist, based on clues pulled from non-Biblical sources like Roman historians, archeology, and one’s opinion on how likely it is that the man around whom an entire faith revolves was just made up by men writing less than 50 years after the made-up events. (One of this week’s links below summarizes the arguments against Jesus ever existing. But, FYI, my understanding is that this is a tiny minority POV.)
My interest, FWIW, is broader than just separating historical fact from Apostolic exaggeration. People have been arguing about what Jesus really meant to say for 2,000 years, obviously. But, I wonder how do Christians and the other great ancient religions deal with the uncertainty inherent in relying on 1,000+ year old sacred texts that might or might not accurately reflect the thoughts of God/their prophets?
On Monday I won’t have much to say by way of introduction. This topic is a bit beyond me. Still, maybe read a few of the links below, or just show up and we can dig in.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Did Jesus really exist?
- The Historical Jesus:
- Which Jesus should matter?
- The Gospels’ accuracy:
- The Gnostic Gospels:
- 52 books left out of the Bible but rediscovered in 1945.
- How they’re different and show a different Jesus from the one in the New Testament. Recommended
- Optional and long, but fun:
- New Yorker essay on the Jesus revealed in the Gospels.
Next Week (8/22): Why has economic productivity slowed recently? Is it permanent?
Today’s “boat people” fleeing the Middle East for Europe are just the latest in a long line of water-borne refugees fleeing wars and chaos. Carl, who has some personal experience in this, wanted us to talk about what most people old enough to remember it think of as the Boat People: The 1.2 million Southeast Asians that fled the aftermath of the wars in Indochina in the 1970s-80s. Most of them that resettled in the United States were Vietnamese, many of Chinese or Hmong descent. But, there were also tens of thousands of Cambodians, Laotians, and others.
I won’t be at Monday’s meeting. Too bad because I remember these events pretty vividly. I remember we faced the same hard questions and anguished choices the Europeans are facing today over their refugee problem. What is our moral responsibility to these people? Which countries should let in how many? Who should screen them and using what criteria? How can we help the host countries near the war zone that are overwhelmed with asylum seekers? Should some refugees be sent back to their home countries against their will (some Vietnamese boat people were)?
And, I recall the fierce political opposition the Boat People inspired, not just here but in other countries – including, BTW, Germany and Great Britain. In 1975 when Saigon fell, everybody was generous. As migrants kept on coming in large numbers year after year, not so much. Yes, a lot of that opposition was racist. But 1975-85 were tough economic times, too. A lot of Americans did not want to compete for jobs and government resources with an unexpected new wave of immigrants from countries that we had already sacrificed 57,000+ of our young men to defend.
As Carl will explain in my absence, many of the Boat People of the 1970s-80s had a kind of happy ending. The international community eventually resettled over 2 million of them, mostly in developed countries, with the United States taking the most. They joined a long historical list of boat people (see links), from Cubans (1980s) to Haitians (1980s) to European Jews (1940s).
You would think we’d have this down by now.
Anyway, on Monday evening Carl will give his take on whatever happened to the Indochinese Boat People and what lessons we perhaps should have learned.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Who were the Boat People of the 1970s?
- A profile of today’s Vietnamese immigrants in the USA.
- Other 20th century boat peoples:
- Right now boat people in Southeast Asia! A Burmese minority is fleeing genocide. Recommended.
- Parallels between ‘70s Boat People and today’s refugee crisis:
Next Week: What does today’s science fiction say about our culture?
Borg on the fourth of July!
April 13 was Thomas Jefferson’s 273rd birthday. I sent a card and signed all your names. On Monday, Jim Zimmerman, our historian, will be our guide as we discuss Jefferson’s life and legacy. In the past few years, Jefferson’s complex legacy has become fodder for a new generation of historians that hate the guy, love the guy, or condemn/claim various pieces of him.
Outside of the academy, both Right and Left have wrestled with Jefferson in recent years. Conservatives sometimes claim him as the founding father most opposed to centralized big government and as much more traditionally Christian than historians generally allow. Liberals struggle with the paradox of the towering polymath that authored the Declaration of Independence and founded the Democratic Party while keeping a plantation full of slaves, some of whom he raped (Sally Hemings) and few of which he even bothered to free in his will.
So, lots to chew on. I’ll be there on Monday. But, I will leave it to Jim to run the meeting and you all to discuss history through any lenses you wish to peer through. I think our discussion should be wide-ranging, like Jefferson’s intellect, his accomplishments, and his dark side.
Here are a few basic readings on Thomas Jefferson and commentaries on aspects of his legacy that have been in the news lately.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Basic info on Jefferson:
- Controversies of late:
- Today’s historians are furiously debating Jefferson. Recommended.
- Why both Right and Left claim a piece of him. Recommended.
Or audio! A 30-minute podcast on same.
- Wiki Sally Hemings entry.
- Party politics of late:
- Conservative POV: A long (20+pp) defense of Jefferson by historian Sean Wilentz. He’s reviewing a 1997 Ken Burns film on Jefferson.
- FYI, for fun: What liberties with history did the new Broadway musical “Hamilton” take?
Next Week: Causes of deteriorating U.S. race relations/politics
A quarter of a century after it ended, the Cold War has turned into a frequently-used metaphor some of our current conflicts. It’s often said that the United States is in a new Cold War with Russia, and Iran, and China, and North Korea. Cyber war is Cold War, apparently.
I suppose labelling every conflict as a new Cold War is better than the metaphor Republican presidential candidates have started using to describe our war with ISIS: World War III. Still, such liberal use of the Cold War label grates on me. Since New Year’s Eve 2015 will mark the 24th anniversary of the dissolution of the Soviet Union (the Cold War ended in 1989 or earlier, arguably), I thought it would be a fine time to discuss the Cold War both as history and metaphor.
Most of us lived these events of course. I followed them pretty closely from my lowly perch as a grad student in international relations (1987-89) and then as a congressional analyst. If you were not around in those days as an adult, it is hard to describe how astonishing the Cold War’s sudden end seemed. The “what-was-the-Cold-War?” descriptions for history students that I find on the Internet don’t just fail to convey the sense of dread in those days. To me, they seem puzzled by the whole thing. What was all of the fuss about?
Since it’s a busy Christmas week, on Monday night I’ll give a very brief opening on theories of the Cold War’s causes and why it resolved so peacefully (for us). Then, I want to hear what you think both about the causes and outcome of the conflict and about the promiscuous (IMO) use of the Cold War metaphor. I think the big payoff this week will not be learning cool new facts about the history we all passed through, but rather will emerge from our comparing the Soviet threat and our responses to it to the threats we currently face and our responses to them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Cold War’s beginning and its causes:
- The Middle:
- The End:
- Today we’re way safer than in the Cold War. Recommended
- We need a new Cold War, so we don’t fight a new hot one. Recommended.
- New Cold War candidates: Syria is one (?). Iran is another; Or, baloney, no it is not.
Next Week: Ho, ho, ho. How is a religion different from a cult?
By my count, Bill Clinton – our 42nd president and possible future First Gentleman – will be the seventh presidency our group has evaluated. We’ve done Jackson, Wilson, Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, and Obama’s first term. We also debated the best and worst presidents and the power of the office itself. The topic of George W. Bush’s tenure may have come up a few times, too, but my mind’s a blank.
We already know that Bill Clinton never will be on Mount Rushmore. He fought no major American wars nor battled any terrible economic catastrophes. He had to share power with his Republican tormentors and with some conservative Democrats. So, he spent most of his presidency compromising and triangulating. Conservatives despised him and progressives distrusted him.
Yet, Bill Clinton’s presidency was a consequential one. Moreover, he left office still popular, scholars are ranking him in the top 10 all-time presidents (!) these days, and his wife is running implicitly on a platform to bring back her husband’s era’s widely-shared prosperity. I also think we need to rethink Clinton’s presidency in light of 14 years of post-Bill perspective.
As I indicated last meeting, I will open Monday by listing the major accomplishments, good and bad, of President Bill Clinton. Then, I’ll take a brief stab at providing some context I think might be helpful to us in evaluating his presidency (and, maybe his wife’s?)
- What was Clinton elected to do? What did he promise to do?
- Achievements: What was accomplished during the Clinton years in terms of:
- Domestic policy,
- Foreign policy,
- Politics (building an enduring political movement and coalition)?
- Evaluating him:
- Context: How were the domestic and international contexts within which he operated different from todays?
- Credit: Does Clinton deserve all of the credit/blame for these achievements, or do others share both?
- Standards: By what standards was Clinton judged at the time? How might those standards be different today?
- So, how good or bad a president was Bill Clinton?
- Any lessons for how Hillary would or should govern if elected?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wiki ‘presidency of Bill Clinton” entry.
- A better recap of his foreign policy achievements
- Why was he so despised by conservatives? A cultural explanation. (NYT)
- Liberal POVs:
- Conservative POVs (relatively positive ones!):
Next Week: Cry, Robot. Will technology revolutionize the nature of work?
I’ve been wanting to talk about the Sermon on the Mount for a while. No matter what your religious views, this sermon by Jesus as chronicled in Matthew 5-7 arguably is the most influential ever recorded utterance by a human being. I think it’s commonplace to say that the Sermon on the Mount is the core statement of Christian values and Jesus’ main guidance to Christians on how to live and act. I feel that our group’s discussions of religion are always at arm’s length. We focus on historical and structural factors that influence the action of religious people, but never on their actual avowed beliefs. So, this should be interesting.
But, very hard. They’ve been debating what Jesus meant in his sermons for 2,000 years, obviously. Even the simple, straightforward language of the Sermon on the Mount gets complicated in the interpreting. Opinions differ even on who Jesus’s advice was meant for, much less what he meant. It will help us to know a bit about the historical context of Jesus’ ministry and when and how and by whom the Gospels were written. But, no one “knows” for sure what Jesus meant in every respect, of course. Differences in interpreters’ denomination and faiths lead to different interpretations, too.
What could we ever add to all that? I propose we all start by reading the Sermon on the Mount. It is not long and I’ll bet some of us never have red it or haven’t in years. Beyond that, I’ve found a little bit on the historical context of the Jesus movement and the world he lived in. And, I’m going to skim through a book I once red on the subject, What Jesus Meant, by the Catholic historian Gary Wills. (See links for a review of it).
- What is the Sermon on the Mount? Who wrote it (in Matthew) and what’s in it? How sure are we that it is faithful to what Jesus said?
- Context: How does knowing the historical context of the Sermon help us to understand what was meant; e.g., the Jewishness of both Jesus and his audience, conditions in ancient Israel, etc.?
- Was it meant to be taken literally, or does it use figures of speech?
- Was it presenting a minimum requirement, or a picture of perfection?
- Were its commands timeless, or for a specific period?
- Did it extend the Law of Moses, or entirely replace it?
- Was it for everyone, or only a chosen group?
- Politics: Is there a political message? Was Jesus a political revolutionary, or is that inaccurate?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Wikipedia entry briefly explains Sermon on the Mount’s basic content, historical context, and schools of thought on what it all means.
- Full text: Read one.
- The much shorter Sermon on the Plain, from Luke. The “social gospel” believers are very big on this one.
- We know very little about the historical Jesus.
- A few commentaries I found, FWIW:
- The importance of the “Jewishness” of the Sermon on the Mount and of Jesus’ challenge to Judaism. (A Jesuit site) Recommended.
- Via Lace: A pastor she loves has a series of podcasts on the meaning of the Sermon on the Mount. Some good history and context in, for example, this one and this one..
- Book I read, What Jesus Meant: Reviewed at Slate and by the NYT. NYT piece recommended.
- Political uses: President Obama has invoked the Sermon on the Mount as a statement of progressive values.
Next Week: What Is Intelligence?
I think this will be the first topic we’ve done suggested by Ali. It’s a good one. Already I’m learning that how Europe came to dominate the globe in the last 200 (as opposed to another region of the world, like Asia or Africa or Latin America) is a hugely controversial topic. You may, like me, know a bit about the “how the West beat the rest” issue from reading one of the popular history books on the subject that have been written in the last 20 years. Maybe you read Guns, Germs, and Steel (Jared Diamond), or Civilization: The West and the Rest (Niall Ferguson), or maybe you’re old-school and prefer Max Weber’s Protestant work ethic theory. There are many other theorists and theories, it seems.
Even if you’ve never pondered the reasons for the West’s century+ of dominance, you’ve got to admit it’s an intriguing question. Why did Cortes and Pizarro sail west and conquer the Aztecs and Incas and not the other way around? Why didn’t India colonize Great Britain? What lurched Europe forward and held the rest back? And, what do the answers tell us about the 21st century, with China and India and others becoming major powers in their own right while other countries still lag or go backwards?
There are many theories. Ali asks us to consider one that has been debated for a century, albeit sometimes with discomfort: Was the key reason for its success simply that the West had a superior culture – or at least a culture that led much more quickly to industrial and military development? Other theories discount culture. They say the reason for Western dominance had more to do with geography, resource endowments, financial organization, or just plain luck or path dependency (I’ll explain what that is).
Anyway, I’m looking forward to another good meeting that integrates history, sociology, and politics. Ali: If you want to open the meeting just let me know. Otherwise, I’ll do a brief summary of the main schools of thought to the extent I’m familiar with them.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
The West got there first because it had…
- Favorable geography and natural resources: The Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis. Recommended.
- Two specific resources: Coal to fuel their machines, and access to the vast resources of the New World. If not for these, Europe would not have surged ahead and conquered.
- No (Niall Ferguson). It was six big cultural and technical advantages: Competition among its many small nations, rule of law and property rights, science, medicine, consumerism, and a better work ethic. Recommended.
- More detail on Protestant work ethic.
- These six other/same factors (Jack Goldstone).
- Colonialism. Colonization destroyed indigenous scientific revolutions and infrastructure. Recommended.
Next Week: Why are so many rhetorically–valued jobs so low-paying? (Zelekha’s idea)