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 –
- What is nostalgia? Are there different kinds of it or motives for it? What psychological and sociological functions does it perform?
- Are Americans really more nostalgic than usual these days? Why? Who is the most/least nostalgic and what does that tell us?
- 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?)
- Who and what do they blame?
- How did nostalgia get weaponized for our current political era?
- Can politics really restore any of these things? What do people want our leaders to do?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Nostalgia is good for you. Recommended.
- Every U.S. generation…
- Consumerism drives a lot of our nostalgia. Interesting.
- Technology could change nostalgia A LOT. Even more interesting.
- Don’t panic over nostalgia its’ mostly harmless. It’s a misplaced yearning by both Left and Right.
- Panic. Trumpism is…
- The traditional family: “The way we never were.” [link fixed]
- Let’s not yearn for the Cold War.
NEXT WEEK: Sanctuary cities.
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 –
- Wiki entry on transitional justice.
- It’s been used in different countries.
- U.S. Govt paid $4 billion to Native Americans recently, but it wasn’t reparations.
The Case for U.S. Slavery Reparations –
- The Case for Reparations, by Ta Nehisi-Coates, The Atlantic Monthly June 2014. Your sole must-read, even though it’s long.
- In support of his argument and reparations. Okay, okay – includes a short summary of Nehisi-Coates article.
- His argument does NOT rest on calling today’s White people racists. Recommended.
- Reparations by one estimate would cost less than Trump’s tax cut.
The Case Against –
- From the moderate Right.
- From the Right. Nehisi-Coates rebuts it here. Both recommended.
- From the pissed-off-at-the-very-idea Right.
- From somebody on the White Left. Meh.
NEXT WEEK: Encouraging healthy lifestyles – How much govt activism is too much?
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?
I think you will all be amazed at what a fascinating – and controversial – topic the teaching of history in American schools has become.
History curricula have changed a lot since most of us were in school. First, as I will explain in my opening remarks Monday, just based on California’s (900-page!) teaching guidelines, history requirements are more demanding and thorough than what I was taught. I’m not sure kids learn a greater quantity of facts. But, in parallel with other efforts to teach young people critical thinking skills, history and social science these days have a heavy focus on analytical concepts, comparative analysis, and independent thinking.
Second and of much noisier political concern is the assault on, or perhaps the long overdue replacement of, the standard narrative of U.S. history we absorbed. The one that saw U.S. history as a slow but steady triumphant march of democracy and progress that emphasized the actions and POV of the dominant White majority. Over the last 10-20 years, academic historians, political and social activists, school boards, and state legislatures have rewritten large parts of our kids’ history textbooks/instruction to be more inclusive, less triumphant, and more critical (honest?) about our past.
Now, the United States famously has no national educational standards, not even for math and reading much less the more politically-sensitive social sciences. Most states don’t even have state-wide educational standards for history, leaving it all up to individual school districts. There are no Common Core history standards.
But, there are some forces converging us towards common history instruction nationwide. All U.S. students must take an identical standardized history test in grades (I think) 5, 8 and 11, thanks to No Child Left Behind. But, the brand new Every Student Succeeds Act has made how states use those tests voluntary, reversing the intent of NCLB. The College Board, the giant non-profit testing organization, has its own recommended Advanced Placement history standards which many (some?) states/districts use. California is one of 17 states with statewide history requirements and it just did a huge revision of them. Confused on who requires what? Me, too. I’ll sort it out better by Monday, but my point is there is some consensus on what American kids should be taught about history and very specific requirements in our state.
Also, everybody’s a critic of what standards do exist. Conservatives hate CA’s newly-revised, “leftist” history curriculum. Progressives hate the ways the College Board revised AP history in response to conservative complaints. There are Right versus Left textbook wars in many states, especially since 2010 when Texas introduced some um, bold changes to how textbooks cover the Civil War and Segregation.
So, I thought this would be a great topic for us, though I don’t think our entire discussion should be reduced to politics or squeezed into right-versus-left framing. There are a lot of thought-provoking but less partisan social, cultural, and even pedagogical issues we can get into. And there’s world history and the historical part of civics education, too.
I’m especially excited to do this topic now because in September I got the chance to lecture several local (Helix, Mount Carmel) high school social studies and speech classes on various topics. These modern high school students were an impressive lot. A great deal is expected of them academically and they work very hard. Let’s honor them by having a great discussion of this – I told you so – really interesting topic.
Below are some optional readings on what current history educational standards are and why they are controversial. My opening remarks will be limited to trying to summarize what kids are supposed to be taught about U.S. history in California under the just-revised curriculum. Also, we have a new topic list to be handed out, thanks to Linda and Aaron.
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Good overview of recent disputes over how U.S. history is taught. #1 read.
- Not enough time is devoted to teaching history.
- California just updated the history curriculum to be more inclusive and culturally-diverse. Conservatives hate them. Both recommended.
- AP U.S. history controversy:
- Textbook Wars:
Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?
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?
This one was Bruce’s idea. I love it, but I would add a second part to it: Why should the Founders’ vision of the appropriate powers of government still matter to us? The latter is a very important question, IMO, not because I think their views no longer should matter but because I think they do. Conservatives often say we that (1) the Constitution strictly limits government to a size and scope far smaller than it is currently and that many of the federal government’s functions should be returned to the states as the Constitution “intended; and (2) we are bound to follow their recipe for government’s power and reach in perpetuity. IMO, it’s a No or at best a highly-qualified Yes-but to both. First, the Founders clearly believed that future generations of Americans could and should be allowed to think for themselves. That’s why they created a republic in the first place. Therefore, as some of the Founders said explicitly, the Constitution allows us to adapt governmental powers as long as doing so remains faithful to fulfilling the document’s purposes. Second, 225 years of applying the Constitution provides us knowledge and perspectives the Founders just did not have. So, of course we need to, for example, regulate commerce and protect privacy in ways they did not foresee.
But, conservatives have an important point. The Founders created the Constitution to be above and a priori to law and politics. Under it, the people are sovereign and governments’ powers are limited. The Constitution also separates powers between different branches and levels of government in some cases. The document does bound government’s functions and reach and the Constitution cannot mean whatever today’s exigencies and show of hands say it means.
So, what are we to discuss, exactly, in this fascinating but broad topic? I don’t know about Bruce, but I think we should start by asking ourselves why the Founders wanted to limit government’s power and whether those reasons still make sense in the modern world. That does not give us our topic’s answer, but it’s a good start.
- Why did the Founders create the Constitution? What problems were they most worried about?
- How did the Constitution expand and limit government’s powers? How revolutionary and democratic was it, really?
- Did they intend these limits on the size and scope of government to be permanent?
- To what extent should we in 2015 be bound by the Founders’ understanding of governments’ proper powers and organization?
- What rules should guide us on judging what is permitted change and what is not? Is there a way to interpret the Constitution’s meaning that takes both original intent and the needs of a modern United States into account?
SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –
- Yes, the Founders’ opinions still are relevant today. Recommended.
- But, they did not mean that governments’ powers should never change to adapt to changing circumstances:
- The Founders wanted and expected us to think for ourselves. Recommended.
- The Constitution is impossible to interpret mechanically, anyway.
- A conservative explains that the Founders created the Constitution to be flexible, to let future generations adjust to changing times. Recommended.
- Or, maybe they did mean to permanently limit what government can do (Conservative POV) :
- The Constitution’s federalism sharply limits the federal govt’s powers, and we have to live with it. (Our 11/14 mtg on federalism had good links related to this)
- But, must we? Two conservatives debate whether we are obliged to dismantle Federal safety net because it’s not an enumerated power. Recommended.
- Right-wing POV: “28 fundamental principles of the founding fathers.” Just wow. But recommended.
- Mistakes: Was the Constitution just wrong about some things (beyond the stuff corrected by amendments)? Is it…
- Schools of Constitutional interpretation: A short primer on a very complex topic.
Next Week: The Sermon On the Mount.