Category Archives: History

Monday’s Mtg: What Should Americans Be Nostalgic For?

Candidate Donald Trump’s explicit appeal to nostalgia, to “make America great again,” was one of the keys to his victory. We never “win” anymore and he alone (!) knew how to return us to our former greatness. It would be essay to do, actually, since the only thing keeping us from a restoring this glorious past was weak leaders. Political sophisticates laughed it all off, confident that, like other populists, he was just telling folks what they wanted to hear, that the best of a gauzily-recollected past could be easily restored through force of will.

Who’s laughing now?  More specifically for Monday’s meeting, what did President Trump mean about making “us” “great” “again?” What did the voters that responded to it hear? Why are so many Americans so nostalgic suddenly and why? A sea of ink has been spilled already trying to answer those questions, so I thought we should take our best shot.

I imagine our main focus will be trying to understand why and how Trump marshalled a vague nostalgia and those beliefs’ ongoing role in our current political crisis.  But, I think a close look at the phenomenon could be enlightening in other capacities.  The study of nostalgia appears to be its own little sub-field in social science these days. According to Professor Google, experts believe that feeling nostalgic about the past (whether a real or imagined past) is common.  It’s normal and even healthy. Every generation pines for the good old days.  Even these kids today, with the hair and the clothes and the Mary Jane.

But, a lot of people have commented on the dark undertone of today’s highly-politicized nostalgia. Trump’s vision of an American Carnage is of a glorious past betrayed by domestic traitors and rapacious foreigners.  It’s zero-sum and divisive, authoritarian, and pretty much unobtainable the way he promised it.  Still, in my opinion voters’ desire to go back to happier times should not be haughtily dismissed as only a desire for restored White supremacy or U.S. hyper-dominance and imperialism.  I think we could have a great discussion on many aspects of this topic, not just the worst ones.  Maybe using these questions.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
  2. Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
  3. What specifically do (some) people want back? (e.g., personal/physical security? Economic opportunity/independence? Societal respect? Societal morality or hierarchy? Racial, ethnic, or gender privilege? National prestige/domination?)
  4. Who and what do they blame?
  5. How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
  6. Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Sanctuary cities.

Monday’s Mtg: Lessons of the Six Day War, 50 years later

It started on June 5, 1967, and was all over by June 10. In response to Egyptian military mobilization and naval blockade, Israel’s air force attacked Egypt pre-emptively. Syria and then Jordan joined in, backed by other Arab countries, and Israeli ground forces fought and won on three fronts. An armistice (not peace) was signed on June 11.

As you know, the Six Day War transformed the Middle East and U.S. foreign policy. To quote a 50th anniversary NYT retrospective the war “tripled Israel’s landmass overnight and gave it dominion over the lives of more than a million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.” It also gave Israel control of the Sinai desert and Golan Heights, killed off pan-Arabism, and set the stage for five more decades of war and strife.  Just for starters.

I don’t really have an agenda on this one. I know there is a lot of historical controversy concerning a number of revisionist histories of the Six Day War and its immediate aftermath. I just don’t follow these issues closely enough – nor do I have the time – to link to all of the major POVs and arguments. I just thought it would be interesting to try to take a half-century perspective on the war’s legacy. Perhaps some of you are well-versed in this particular era.

Here is some general background on the Six Day War and a few retrospectives.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

NEXT WEEK:  What should Americans be nostalgic about?

Monday’s Mtg: Reparations for African-Americans, Yes/No?

It might seem odd to discuss a subject like this these days. Our current president embodies White grievances against minorities and foreigners and he has elevated outright White Nationalists to key government positions.

But, I’ve got some reasons. First, this topic compels us to examine American history from a different perspective than most of us are used to doing. The case for reparations for some form of reparations for African-Americans is not intended as a kind of punitive damages or monetary apology for slavery. As reparations’ most articulate recent advocate argues, it is about the edifice of exploitation that today’s White privilege stands atop right now and going forward. Maybe it’s a bad, wrong argument. But, it is about the present and future as much as the past.

Another reason is that acknowledging the truth of terrible historical injustices and in some instances and in some form compensating the victims is an accepted principle of international law in the 21st century. It’s called “transitional justice,” and it has been tried in a number of countries, such as Germany (reparations to Holocaust victims) and South Africa (truth and reconciliation commissions).

Lastly, the subject of reparations for African-Americans had a brief moment of prominence a few years ago for a reason that is erfect for this group: Because of a single, extraordinary article. “The Case for Reparations” in the June 2014 Atlantic Monthly was written by a brilliant young African-American intellectual named Ta Nehisi-Coates. I linked to it below, and to some representative critiques of its conclusions and recommendations.

If you have never read the Nehisi-Coates piece I highly encourage you to do so before Monday’s meeting.  His argument – which are entirely about what happened after slavery ended, BTW – are not above criticism, obviously. But, at the least he makes a strong case for seeing our country’s history in a new (for many of us) light.

I am out of town this week.  Be nice to each other.

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Restorative justice has been / is being used –

The Case for U.S. Slavery Reparations –

The Case Against –

NEXT WEEK: Encouraging healthy lifestyles – How much govt activism is too much?

Monday’s Mtg: Which moral standards should we use to judge historical figures?

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 –

NEXT WEEK: Jewishness – Faith, ethnicity, culture, or nationality?

Monday’s Mtg: What does “cultural literacy” mean?

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.

Oopsie.

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 –

  1. What is “cultural knowledge?” Whose culture / what knowledge? Can cultural values be separated from mere facts?
  2. What is cultural literacy and why did Hirsh argue its importance? Why the furious opposition and ardent defenders?
  3. Is there really a big conflict between cultural diversity and common cultural literacy?
  4. Are the ways we transmit cultural values and knowledge changing nd does it matter?
  5. What principles do you think should guide search for common cultural info/concepts/values? Who should decide?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –  

Next Week (Nov 28):  How do progressives interpret the Constitution?

Monday’s Mtg (8/15/16): Does the “Historical Jesus” Matter?

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 –  

Next Week (8/22):  Why has economic productivity slowed recently?  Is it permanent?

Monday’s Mtg: Whatever Happened to the Boat People?

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 –  

Next Week:  What does today’s science fiction say about our culture?
Borg on the fourth of July!  

Monday’s Mtg: Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.

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 –

Next Week: Causes of deteriorating U.S. race relations/politics

Monday’s Mtg:The Cold War – Causes and Consequences.

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 –

Next Week: Ho, ho, ho.  How is a religion different from a cult?

Monday’s Mtg: Assessing Bill Clinton’s Presidency

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?)

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  1. What was Clinton elected to do? What did he promise to do?
  2. Achievements: What was accomplished during the Clinton years in terms of:
    • Domestic policy,
    • Foreign policy,
    • Politics (building an enduring political movement and coalition)?
  3. 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?
  4. So, how good or bad a president was Bill Clinton?
  5. Any lessons for how Hillary would or should govern if elected?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

Next Week: Cry, Robot. Will technology revolutionize the nature of work?