Tag Archives: American History

Monday’s Mtg: What is the legacy of the 1980s?

If you can remember the decade you weren’t there.  Wait, that’s the 1960s. Anyway, we did a meeting on the 1960s (pre-blog) and on the 1970s, too. They were pretty good ones, I thought, even though admittedly it is a little arbitrary to consider ten year periods as distinct epochs, especially ones with first and last years ending with zeros.

Still, most CivCon members were alive in the 1980s. Where were you? What do you recall as significant about the 80s? Did the events and trends you thought were important then still seem that way now? If you were not an adult in the 1980s, what did you learn about it and how? What’s the consensus on what came out of that decade?

Below are the usual ABC-level discussion questions,  and links to timelines of events to refresh your memories and to some commentary on a few of the big things that happened or trended in the 80s.  I will start Monday’s mtg with a “Where were you” question for the group and we can go from there.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. Where were you? How did you experience the 1980s? How did the perch you viewed it from affect your perspective?
  2. Major events of the 1980s: USA + abroad? Which ones were foundational from today’s perspective and which were ephemeral?
  3. Major changes in U.S. culture and people’s lives, same questions?
  4. Looking backwards: How inevitable was what happened? What about the 1980s could (should?) have gone differently?
  5. 30 years from now? What might we infer from our 1980s vs. now assessment about how history develops and how well we can predict what things today will have lasting significance?

SUGGESTED BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK:  Is it hard to be a man these days?

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Monday’s Mtg: Does history have a direction or purpose?

I think this will be a really fun topic. We love our history in CivCon. Yet, this one asks a bit more of us than usual. Determining what “history” is and how and why it moves the way it does can get very complicated very fast. An entire subfield of philosophy is devoted doing so. It’s called the Philosophy of History, and some of the giants have wrestled with its questions, including Voltaire, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Vico, and Foucault.

But, those links are more FYI. For our purposes, I think just asking some of the basic, big questions about history would be a good way to start our discussion. It also might guarantee we go a bit deeper than History Channel-level generalizations about what history’s direction or purposes might be.

Now, many religious people, obviously, claim history has a divine purpose and/or end-point. YMMV. But, secular people also like to believe that history is governed by comprehensible rules and mechanisms. Some of the philosophers and historians have even seen predictable cycles and scientific laws in history. We can talk about those, too.

If I can find the time this weekend I will work up a short opening presentation on some of this stuff. Try to peruse some of the recommended readings or at least briefly ponder questions like these, please.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS –

  1. What: What is “history?” Just facts and events? Which events and whose facts? Does history contain a central narrative, or do we make one up? Is history more myth and rationalization than science?
  2. Why: How can historical cause and effect be determined and combined into mechanisms? How complicated is contingency? Can we detect an overall narrative or meaning to history that isn’t just self-reflection?
  3. Who: Who/what drives history? Role of big, impersonal forces (e.g., economics, science/technology, war, cultural interaction) versus individual agency and chance?
  4. Direction:/purpose
    1. Is there a natural direction to history? Are we “progressing?”
    2. Does history repeat or move in cycles?
    3. Does biology or some other natural force provide us a purpose?
  5. Lessons: Types of lessons from history and their use/misuse.
  6. Examples: What is your favorite and least favorite Law of History / theory of history’s purpose/direction?

OPTIONAL BACKGROUND READING –

NEXT WEEK: Can California resist Trump’s agenda?

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: 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 should U.S. school children be taught about history?

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 –  

Next Week (Oct 10): Will America’s death penalty fade away?

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?