History

Misusing History, Missing the Point…

Weird things happen in Texas: the Astros cheat in the World Series, the state runs its own power grid that crashes during a rough winter storm leaving millions in the cold and dark, the state has had more Covid deaths than most medium sized countries. The state has created a bounty system to allow Texans – or anyone else – to hunt women who have an abortion, and get paid for it.

Austin, the Texas state capitol, has adopted the slogan: Keep Austin Weird. It works.

Two weeks ago in Southlake, Texas, a suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth, a curriculum director at the local school district told teachers something truly weird. “Just try to remember the concepts of [Texas House Bill] 3979,” the director said. “And make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.”

House Bill 3979 is a reference to the legislation passed in Texas – similar to legislation in many other Republican dominated states – that attempts to prescribe how history is taught. The idea is to apparently make certain “controversial” subjects are presented in a “on the one hand and then on the other hand” fashion.

Holocaust survivors stand behind a barbed wire fence after the liberation of Nazi German death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945 in Nazi-occupied Poland. Surveys have shown that many younger Americans know next to nothing about this history.

Unless you seek to deny that it happened there is no on the other hand regarding the Holocaust, the planned, systematic effort by Nazi Germany to exterminate European Jews in the 1930’s and 1940’s. The mere idea that there is a both sides to the great crime underscores the absurdity of playing partisan political games with history.

Texas has another law going into effect in December that seeks to outlaw the teaching of critical race theory (CRT), which is not taught in high schools. But no matter. Outlawing CRT has become a talking point on the political right, a way to structure history to deny or eliminate the uncomfortable parts. The Texas political history monitors are very prescriptive about what is acceptable history and what is off limits.

As Boston College historian Heather Cox Richardson recently noted the Texas history standards eliminated any of “Frederick Douglass’s writings, the Fugitive Slave Acts of 1793 and 1850, the Indian Removal Act of 1830 that forced Indigenous Americans off their southeastern lands, and Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists defending the separation of church and state. The standards lost ‘historical documents related to the civic accomplishments of marginalized populations’ including documents related to the Chicano movement, women’s suffrage and equal rights, the civil rights movement, Indigenous rights, and the American labor movement.”

What Texas and other conservative states want to teach isn’t really history, but rather scrubbed, sanitized mythology. Or another word for it would be lies.

Understanding the courageous history of the American Revolution, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, is fundamental to the American story. But so is the fact that the Constitution treated millions of Black Americans, held in slavery, as three-fifths of a person, devoid of basic human rights let alone political rights.

Jefferson’s soaring words in the Declaration must be studied and examined but cannot be understood without also grappling with the fact that Jefferson, and many others of the Founding generation, lived contrary to their words. They owned other humans, believing them to be inferior, and were determined to exploit human capital for economic gain.

Americans cannot understand the current raging debate over voting rights without understanding that for millions of American these basic rights were won – or not – in spite of violence, intimidation and systematic efforts to prevent certain Americans from casting a ballot. Congress struggled for years to pass civil rights and voting rights legislation that was resisted at every turn by white politicians who embraced white supremacy.

You cannot fully understand the ongoing debate about efforts to prevent the extinction of Northwest salmon without grappling with the importance of the iconic fish to indigenous Americans, the first Americans whose land was stolen by whites and whose culture continues to be disrespected and marginalized.

This is not comfortable information, but it happens to be true. You can, if you chose, actually study these stories and come away with a deeper appreciation of the long path our country has been on since 1776, or even since 1619. It is a bumpy, often tragic path. But that is what history is. As the conservative writer Michael Gerson said recently, “The discipline of history teaches us to engage with discomforting, distressing ideas without fearing them.’

Here is an example of how history works – and should work – ripped from the headlines. A man many Americans rightly consider an American hero, general and former secretary of state Colin Powell, lived an important and, yes, controversial life.

Not his best moment. Colin Powell makes the case for the Iraq War before the United Nations

Powell’s recent death spawned a host of tributes and assessments. The heroic versions featured the classic American story of Powell’s rise to the pinnacles of power as the child of Jamaican immigrants. Powell might have been president. I for one wish he would have run since a Colin Powell presidency might have altered the awful trajectory of the modern Republican Party. That he didn’t run is history.

But there is more to Powell’s story. He carried the water for the fable that weapons of mass destruction required a foolish and tragic military misadventure in Iraq, a war he might well have prevented. Powell was a brave and decorated soldier, but his role in investigating the massacre of as many as 500 civilians at Mai Lai during the Vietnam War is still in some dispute. Powell was by all accounts a strong and principled leader, but he also came out on the short end of many bureaucratic fights that, had they been exposed at the time, might well have altered history.

The point is: Powell’s history and ours is complicated, nuanced. There is no one way to look at Powell’s story – or the American story – the truth is in the sifting, the understanding, the effort to place in context. That is history.

As the great Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan has written: “As they look at the past, historians learn to behave rather like the examining magistrate of the French judicial system. What happened and why? the historian asks. History demands that we treat evidence seriously … history does not produce definitive answers for all time. It is a process.”

Never has it been more important to grapple with the American story, the strengths and weaknesses of our democratic system, and its fragile nature. Truth be told, if we don’t handle our history better and ignore the cranks and mythmakers the last chapter of the American story is going to be written as tragedy.

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Additional Reading:

If you are inclined…a few good items:


Facebook’s Historian: Professor Heather Cox Richardson

I know many readers follow the amazing work of HCR, who I quoted in my essay this week. I came across this piece from 2018 with lots of information on the professor’s rise to near cult status as an interpreter of our history.

Heather Cox Richardson

“On Nov. 21, 2016, two years after publishing her most recent book, a conservative group by the name of Turning Point USA launched a new website called Professor Watchlist, on which it listed close to 200 college professors who it claimed had, ‘…records of targeting students for their viewpoints, forcing students to adopt a certain perspective, and/or abuse or harm students in any way for standing up for their beliefs.’

“Richardson, who was briefly included on the list, was more annoyed than upset—that her hard work was dismissed as leftist propaganda, that her credibility was in-question, and, most of all, that the forum of academic debate was shamed and discouraged from its pursuit of truth.”

Here is a link to the piece that appeared in the Boston College magazine.


Is Trump running in 2024? The Claremont Institute hopes so

Regular readers know I’m a fan of The Bulwark, a news and opinion site founded by conservative Charlie Sykes and some other refugees from the modern conservative movement.

Charlie has a great daily newsletter, a podcast and contributes to MSNBC, among other outlets. He is always worth reading. A recent piece on the transformation of the Claremont Institute caught my attention.

“Once one of the most prestigious bastions of conservative thought, Claremont now spends its time putting lipstick on the Trumpian wildebeest.

“Trumpism is, of course, less an idea or set of principles than it is a cult of personality and series of angry impulses. But even the ugliest movements have their pseudo-philosophers and their rationalizers.

“And this where Claremont comes in: It is attempting to put a veneer of intellectual respectability on some of the darkest impulses of the right. It’s not at all surprising that Claremont was at the center of the attempt to overthrow the 2020 election.”

Charlie Sykes on Claremont. Wow.


Writing from Home: Lessons from a Novelist-Slash-Small-Town Newspaper Columnist

I love this piece from the novelist Nickolas Butler on writing as an act of service and the power of local news.

“When my wife and I moved our family back to our hometown after fifteen years away, one of the first things we did was subscribe to the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram. And when the delivery-driver pounded a heavy steel stake beside our mailbox and hung an orange newspaper-box along our rural road, I felt a sense of community, yes. I was buying into something that didn’t necessarily make sense, but that was surely bigger than me, or my family. This was another kind of stake—an investment—in local journalism, in local journalists, in our place.”

Pretty good take on the importance of small-town journalism.


Thanks, as always, for following along. All the best.

Great Depression, History, World War II

We’re In This Together…

My dad was not quite 17 years old when the stock market crashed in October 1929, the unofficial starting bell of the Great Depression. As a result, he never went to college. He had no professional training beyond the self-education that comes from knowing how to operate at the business end of every kind of tool.

Yet, he always maintained he was a lucky fellow and never really had to worry, as many of his Nebraska neighbors did, about where the next meal or next mortgage payment was coming from.

In his narrative account of The Great Depression – The Hungry Years – historian T.H. Watkins relates the story of one Nebraskan, Theresa Von Baum, who worked her 80-acre farm with only the help of her sons after her husband’s death. By October 1932, three years into the depression, Mrs. Von Baum had apparently reached the end. She couldn’t make a payment on the $442 mortgage on her farm.

A farm foreclosure sale in Iowa in the 1930’s

The local bank, the carrier of the mortgage, tried to carry her for a while, but the bank failed, and a receiver showed up announcing he was there to organize a sale of the farm, the equipment and the livestock.

Then something amazing happened. As Watkins wrote, “2,500 farmers showed up.” The men surrounded the fellow now holding Mrs. Von Baum’s debt and announced, “We’ll give you $100 for that mortgage. We don’t intend to have that woman sold out.”

After first resisting and declaring that he would re-schedule the sale, the receiver finally backed down. The farmers set about holding their own auction. Cows went for 35 cents apiece. Six horses sold for a total of $5.60. Plows, a hay binder and corn planter brought a few cents. Those measly assets were combined with what the farmers collected among themselves, a total of $101.02. The animals and equipment were immediately returned to Mrs. Von Baum.

Then the farmers “handed the money to the receiver,” Watkins writes. “Probably counting heads and coming to the conclusion that forcing the issue was not likely to get him a cent more – and might get him a broken nose, or worse – he accepted the money as payment in full for the mortgage, got in his car, a drove back to town.”

It’s a small story that makes a large point. Over and over again in the face of financial disaster, genuine despair and what can only be described as the real prospect of societal collapse, Americans found a way – never perfect by any means – to get through the calamity of the worst economic decade in American history. These events, never as dramatic for my parents as for people like Theresa Von Baum, nevertheless helped define my parent’s generation.

My mother never threw away a half serving of leftover mashed potatoes, sure that she would use them somehow, and besides you don’t waste anything. My dad never left a room without switching off a light. He often told the story of his own father, owner of a farm implement dealership that he miraculously kept solvent during the worst hard times, always having an extra dime or two in his pocket for the fellows he met who needed, but couldn’t afford, a cup of coffee and a sandwich.

This generation then went off to war, a war that until the attack on Pearl Harbor, most Americans desperately hoped we would avoid. They went anyway and defeated fascism and then positioned the United States has the most powerful economic and military power on the planet.

Extensive rationing was a fixture of American life during World War II

When we think of these times, if indeed we think of them at all, it is to remember, as the historian David Kennedy has noted, that the global victory over totalitarianism, preceded by awful economic depredation, brought my parent’s generation “as far as imagination could reach, from the ordeal of the Great Depression and had opened apparently infinite vistas to the future … and inaugurated a quarter century of the most robust economic growth in the nation’s history – an era of the very grandest expectations.”

The very grandest expectations. What has happened to this America?

Why have we seemingly lost any sense of collective national will to conquer the challenges of our generation? Why have we selfishly and dangerously divided into warring tribes unable to ask and answer the most basic questions: What do we want for our children? Why do we value democracy? What is my individual responsibility to contribute to a better, more secure, stable society?

My parent’s generation struggled and survived through economic collapse and the most destructive war in human history. We are too selfish, so sure of our opinions, that we can’t unite with national and individual purpose to defeat a deadly pandemic.

One of the legacies of World War II was the beginning of the emergence of a Black middle class in America. Soldiers who fought for their country, seen France or Italy, returned to a country where they were still barely even second-class citizens. It would take another generation, and another for these Americans to begin to overcome the institutional racism of Jim Crow and poll taxes and redlining. Now, we can’t come together to admit that this American story is as much a part of our history as is the tale of that woman farmer in Nebraska.

American GIs marched down the Champs-Élysées to make Paris a free city, captured Mussolini’s Rome and liberated the Nazi death camps, yet there is nothing approaching such resolve when it comes to addressing – let alone admitting – climate change. The GI Bill educated a generation. We saddle a new generation with crushing debt. A refugee crisis on the Mexican border isn’t cause for a national strategy to understand and address why thousands of desperate people from Central America desire to come to the United States. Rather the border is just another polarizing flashpoint to score political points and foster more division.

One could argue – correctly – that America has always been divided, caught in a perpetual tug of war between our best intentions and worst impulses, a country both elevated and crippled by our history. Yet, when America has succeeded, and it has often succeeded, it was because of a shared vision that frequently required sacrifice in service to something greater than oneself.

Those Nebraska farmers who saved Mrs. Von Baum’s little plot in 1932 risked something to help others. They weren’t selfish and self-interested. Today’s America is defined by a mind-numbingly ignorant, selfish and deadly debate about whether it’s a violation of personal freedom to get free medicine to help you and your neighbors defeat a disease that has already killed 615,000 of our fellow citizens.

We can do better because we have done better. We can re-write the current story of division and discord to reflect the values of those long-ago Nebraska farmers – community, caring, sacrifice, others before self. We really are in this together. We can choose to value the future of our country more than we celebrate the self-centered impulses of the moment.

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Additional Reading:

If you are in the market for some additional reading, I have some suggestions…

The Myth of the Golden Years

I always try to read Tom Nichols, a sometimes prickly conservative, who always makes me think. He has a new book – Our Own Worst Enemy: The Assault from Within Our Modern Democracy – and an excerpt appeared in The Atlantic.

Nichols sticks a pin in our embrace of a nostalgic past, among other things. Trust me – it’s worth your time.

“The ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s are remembered now with sepia-toned nostalgia, but mostly by people who could not possibly remember any of it at all. Younger Americans hear tales from aging relatives of affordable homes and safe streets in Los Angeles, or of guaranteed union jobs waiting in Youngstown or Gary, but these are now like legends passed down through the generations. Not many Americans want to think very much about what it would actually mean in social or economic terms to go back and live in those Kodachrome moments in their minds.”

Here is the link:


Cooling Off the Senate

As a writer who has produced two books on U.S. Senate history (and who is working on a third) I have developed enormous respect for the work and people of the Senate Historical Office. The office was established in the 1970’s to preserve the history of the Senate, and obviously to help historians like me. The office produces great material, including a recent wonderful little essay about how the Senate came to have air conditioning.

“There is one complaint lodged against Washington, D.C., however, that has not changed since it was designated as the U.S. capital more than 200 years ago: the summer heat. How to handle Washington’s often stifling heat and humidity has been a perennial challenge for the U.S. Senate.”

Cooling Off the Senate…the link:


Remembering Bob Moses, 1935–2021

Bob Moses, who died recently at 86, was an immensely influential civil rights leader, but so much more. Northeastern University professor Margaret Burnham knew Moses well and she wrote a moving tribute that appeared in The Nation.

Portrait of American Civil Rights activist Robert Parris Moses, New York, 1964.
(Photo by Robert Elfstrom/Villon Films/Getty Images)

“The Harlemite who went to Mississippi in 1960 was not obviously destined to become one of our country’s most creative civil rights leaders. At that time, the aesthetic of Black political leadership required voice, and Bob’s was small and quiet. It required an announced religiosity, and Bob’s was also small and quiet. It required sharp elbows, and a sizable ego, and again, Bob’s was small and quiet. It was leadership as “high art” performance that was at the same time “authentic,” and Bob eschewed performance.”

A great and fitting tribute:


Best race ever? Warholm wins record-setting hurdles race

Norwegian hurdler Karsten Warholm

One of the greatest stories out of the Tokyo Olympics has been the astounding men’s 400 meter hurdles. Norwegian hurdler Karsten Warholm won the Gold, but as the Associated Press put it, also “a world record, a masterpiece and slice of history. It also might have been one of the best races ever run.”

Here is a link to the AP story:

And if you haven’t seen the race, watch it here. Or better yet watch it again. Remarkable.


As always, thanks for following along. Stay safe out there.

History, Politics

Flood the Zone…

In his book about the modern history of tyranny the Yale historian Timothy Snyder writes that the founders of the American experiment were “concerned that the democratic republic they envisioned would collapse.” Those founders drew on history – Greek and Roman – to contemplate “the descent of ancient democracies and republics into oligarchy and empire.”

“History does not repeat,” Snyder writes, “but it does instruct.”

A highly recommended little book that is essential reading in our times

The worrying, dangerous signs are all about. Pick through the headlines and you’ll find, if you care to find, lots of evidence – issues and concerns both small and large – of democratic descent that presages collapse.

Yes, it can happen here. Consider:

A rich friend of the former, and he hopes future, president was indicted this week for using his access to the highest officials of our government to advance the interest of a foreign government. Federal prosecutors characterized what Donald Trump’s pal Tom Barrack did as “extremely serious offenses based on conduct that strikes at the very heart of our democracy.” Barrack is just one of many striking at the heart of democracy.

In Albany, Oregon, a community in the Willamette Valley south of Portland, the brand-new majority on a local school board took, as Oregon Public Broadcasting reported, “a dramatic step … summarily firing a superintendent who had received positive performance reviews and whose contract had just been renewed. Perhaps more strikingly, most of them won’t say why.”

The action was apparently stimulated by “political rifts over COVID-19 and racial equity that have played out nationally.” The campaigns of the majority members of the board who engineered the firing were funded largely by money outside the community. In short: another local school board has become a hot battleground in the raging culture wars that serve to divide Americans and breed a level of intolerance that can lead to something much worse than a debate over how to teach kinds about history.

A variety of indicators tell similar stories. Significant numbers of Americans actually favor breaking the country up. Sixty-six percent of southern Republicans, according to a new poll, support “leaving the U.S. and forming a new country. Those sentiments were shared by 50% of independents and 20% of Democrats.”

Some eastern and southern Oregonians are advancing the fantasy of a “greater Idaho” that would divide the mostly rural areas of Oregon from the allegedly out of touch radicals west of the Cascades.

A climate crisis is upon us that threatens vast disruption of world food supplies and a deepening of global inequality. A pandemic rages for which a proven vaccine exists, but millions of Americans refuse to accept the science and logic that can save them from severe illness and even death.

A huge fire burning for two weeks in southern Oregon is creating its own weather

But…but…in the midst of the division, chaos, controversy and cynicism of daily life it pays – believe me it pays – to live with someone who refuses to play the pessimism card, while still recognizing the perils we face. I’m lucky. So, taking a page from Professor Snyder’s rules for resisting tyranny – and with encouragement from the breakfast table – I offer my own six-part mini-survival guide for our troubled times.

  • Refuse to be a victim. Many of the defendants facing charges for the assault on the U.S. Capitol in January are invoking the defense that the mob made them do it. Nonsense. No one is forcing you to be a political victim. It’s a choice you make. Knock it off. Democracy doesn’t settle disputes by smashing things, but by elections and compromise. You got a grievance, don’t nurse it, use the political system to work for change. Anything less is a call for anarchy, the kind that has crippled effective response to real problems in cities like Portland. Being a victim is easy. Real, responsible political change is damn hard work.
  • Act on your frustrations. But do it responsibly. Give your time, treasure and talent to causes and people you agree with, but at all cost resist the comfortable impulse to support the dividers and the haters. Every town in America has a non-profit or ten that exists to feed the hungry, house the homeless, heal the sick or stimulate our souls. Get off the sidelines and get in the real game.
  • Check your priors, or better yet update them. We all come to adulthood with “priors,” beliefs, notions, ways of seeing things that may or may not be valuable or even correct. Self-awareness is a powerful thing. Most of us are never more certain of what we really don’t know much about.
  • Seek truth, not a validation of an opinion. This is a corollary to the previous thought. You really can find factual information if you want to. Sifting through the garbage is tiresome and demanding but remember as you search, history’s tyrants always seek to confuse and devalue objective reality. The loathsome Steve Bannon, a world-class purveyor of misinformation, said the quiet part out loud in 2018. “The Democrats don’t matter,” Bannon said. “The real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” Don’t believe all the crap out there.
  • Remember that ethics and character count – always. In our tribal society we tend to believe my side can do no wrong and your side is evil. What is commonly missing from this formulation is the fundamental democratic requirement that demands that leaders always operate within widely accepted ethical boundaries, and that they have the character to not lie to your face, enrich themselves in office or abuse their power. Without ethics and character democracy dies.
  • Think about the future. We are all short timers here. What is our responsibility to the next generation and the next beyond that? Most of us won’t be remembered beyond family and friends, but let us live so as to not be remembered for making things worse, but for trying to make things better for a next generation of Americans.

A great challenge of our times is to prevent political and cultural cynicism from becoming self-fulfilling. “If you once believed that everything always turns out well in the end,” Timothy Snyder writes, “you can be persuaded that nothing turns out well in the end. If you once did nothing because you thought progress is inevitable, then you can continue to do nothing because you think times moves in repeating cycles.”

History is not destiny. It is a guide. Get off the sofa. Get in the game to preserve American democracy.

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Additional Reading:

Some things I stumbled across this week that you may find of interest…


Mr. Justice Marshall

Marshall argued and won the Brown v. Board of Education case and became the first Black justice of the Supreme Court in 1967

Stephen L. Carter, law professor, author of fiction and non-fiction, and law clerk to Justice Thurgood Marshall, had a great piece in The New York Times Magazine about the late, great Supreme Court justice and civil rights legend.

“Marshall was among the great storytellers, heir to an American tradition stretching back to Lincoln and beyond. He told stories to teach lessons — and also like Lincoln, he never told the same story quite the same way twice. The message was what mattered.”

Great story. Read it here:


3 Tropes of White Victimhood

I thought this piece by historian Lawrence Glickman was really terrific. He writes about rightwing personalities who knowingly or not are using the same rhetoric around race that was employed by post-Civil War politicians.

“Kilmeade, Carlson, and Robertson all blamed critical race theory, a school of legal thought developed in the 1980s that has become the latest fixation of the conservative outrage machine. But the panic they expressed has a much longer history, with roots going back to white-supremacist rhetoric from before the Civil War—and particularly apparent during the attack on Reconstruction, America’s experiment in interracial democracy that lasted from 1865 until 1877.”

Really significant history here:


I Just Learned I Only Have Months to Live. This is What I Want to Say

And, man I couldn’t get through this without a few tears. From long-time Boston Globe journalist Jack Thomas.

“After a week of injections, blood tests, X-rays, and a CAT scan, I have been diagnosed with cancer. It’s inoperable. Doctors say it will kill me within a time they measure not in years, but months.

“As the saying goes, fate has dealt me one from the bottom of the deck, and I am now condemned to confront the question that has plagued me for years: How does a person spend what he knows are his final months of life?”

It is sad and uplifting at the same time. Here is the link:


Thanks…be well. Get the vaccine.

History, Politics

Erasing History…

The Republican attorney general of Montana last week issued a binding opinion about “critical race theory,” or put another way Austin Knudsen stirred the simmering pot of history erasure. 

In Tennessee, the governor, Bill Lee, a mechanical engineer by training who clearly missed taking any history electives in college, signed legislation that, as the Associated Press reported, bans “teachers from teaching certain concepts of race and racism in public schools, where teachers risk losing valuable state funding if they violate the new measure.”

Tennessee Governor Bill Lee. Let’s just say: He’s not a history major

Idaho, Oklahoma and Iowa have also passed this senseless legislation – a dozen other states entertained proposals of one kind or another – that is really aimed at keeping the culture war at a rolling boil. The controversy has literally nothing to do with American history and everything to do with the pursuit of grievance and anger that drives the overwhelmingly white, nativist wing of the Republican Party. 

Idaho’s embrace of this assault on history and free inquiry resulted in outright elimination of funding “to support social justice ideology student activities, clubs, events and organizations on campus.” The would-be governor of Idaho, Janice McGeachin, has now added her own Joe McCarthy twist to the saga with an “indoctrination task force” aimed at rooting out “teachings on social justice, critical race theory, socialism, communism, (and) Marxism.”

In the Montana case, the small thinking conservatives in charge of state government were immediately slammed by human rights activists, teachers, the American Civil Liberties Union and a host of others. Travis McAdams, with the Montana Human Rights Network, said the attorney general’s opinion “creates unnecessary confusion around racism and how it impacts people in Montana.” Montana’s top legal officer and the state school superintendent, who asked for the opinion, McAdams said “are implying that discussions about real-life examples of discrimination, bias, and privilege are somehow racist, and that is completely false.” 

The folks behind these proposals, and one suspects most of them really couldn’t define what precisely they want to ban, have actually selected an auspicious moment in which to roll out a national discussion of racism and white privilege. They are casting a spotlight on how the overwhelmingly white advocates of these moves seek to re-write history. 

How inconvenient for the Idaho lieutenant governor and the Montana attorney general that their crusade just happens to coincide with the remembrance of the worst race riot in American history, a radical bit of white supremacist mayhem and murder visited on the African American residents of Tulsa, Oklahoma on May 31 and June 1, 1921. 

The aftermath of the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921

Few atrocities in American history have been so completely covered up, denied and re-written as what happened in the prosperous, black Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa one hundred years ago. Historian Scott Ellsworth, a Tulsa native, has written one of several new books about the horrible history. 

As the New York Times said in its review: “Among white Tulsans, Ellsworth encountered a mix of shame and defiance. Photographs and official records had disappeared. Someone had even cut out relevant parts of The Tulsa Tribune before the newspaper was committed to microfilm. Black Tulsans, too, had their own reasons not to revisit what happened. What they had lived through was horrific — Ellsworth himself has likened it to an American Kristallnacht. Many of those who had survived didn’t want to burden their children with such trauma.” 

It should be noted that at least 300 Tulsa African Americans died in the riot, a number that almost certainly understates the death toll, and millions of dollars of property was destroyed. No one was ever charged, insurance claims were disallowed, no reparations have been paid, and until lately no comprehensive accounting has been attempted. This is what erasing history looks like. 

Karlos Hill, a historian at the University of Oklahoma, has published a photographic history of the Tulsa Race Massacre. “An extensive race massacre photo archive exists,” Hill has written, “because so many white participants desired to visually represent and share with other whites their role in the violent destruction of the Greenwood District. White Tulsans’ eagerness to photograph the community’s devastation was reflective of turn-of-the century lynching culture, in which photography was central.” 

Tulsa in 1921 is just one example, one horrible example, of how our nation’s history of racism and white supremacy has been systematically ignored. Perpetuating the myths that these things didn’t happen or weren’t all that important distracts from the continuing struggle to bring about greater racial and class reconciliation.

Without confronting the past we cannot confront the present. It’s really just that simple. 

Dana Thompson Dorsey, an education professor at the University of South Florida, told the Iowa Capitol Dispatch recently: “If you’re going to say that racism can’t be discussed, or critical race theory cannot be in civics or any type of history courses, you’re saying that racism did not exist in America and does not exist in America. That’s not true.” 

“You’re going to be mis-educating students, un-educating students and not allowing them to learn the real history of the United States of America.” Dorsey stresses that real teaching about racism utilizes primary sources, the documents that detail the history. 

Do we really want to put the writings of a Fredrick Douglass or a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or the story of courage and struggle of a Chief Joseph off limits in American classrooms? It’s clear that this wave of punitive legislation and teacher intimidation is aimed squarely at such an outcome. 

The United States is a great, diverse, complicated country. Our collective past exhibits both glory and grief, heroism and heresy. We should not shy from grappling with the full measure of that history. 

The Constitution speaks of forming “a more perfect union.” It does not say it is already perfect. 

We study history in all its messy, contradictory, troubling, ennobling and confusing complexity because history helps us understand where we are going as people, as a society, as a country. We won’t ever get better – more perfect – by denying our past. 

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Additional Reading:

For your consideration…a couple of other things I found of interest this week…

Time to End the Filibuster

A really good overview of the current debate in Washington about changing Senate rules. Darrell Erhlick of the Daily Montanan with good insight here.

“While the name has its roots in the 18th Century (with pirates nonetheless), the concept and practice in the United States Senate is much younger, not being implemented in a modern form until 1917. Known officially as ‘Rule 22’ in an arcane set of parliamentary rules for America’s upper legislative chamber, the rule has changed and morphed into what a panel of experts has described as a ‘minority veto’ of legislation, requiring most laws to receive 60 votes – a supermajority – rather than a simple majority of 50-plus-one.”

The Kingfish, Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long, mounted a famous filibuster

Read the full piece:


Native Tribe in Maine Buys Back Land Stolen 160 Years Ago

It’s part of a growing movement.

“It’s a spiritually important place for the tribe, filled with graves from devastating smallpox, cholera and measles outbreaks caused by white settlers.

“In 1794 it was officially granted to the tribe by Massachusetts for their service during the revolutionary war. But after 1820, when Maine became its own state, colonialists changed its title, voiding the treaty. In the 1851 census there were 20 Passamaquoddy living there, in 1861 there were none.”

From The Guardian:


A New Government in Israel. What It Means for the U.S.

“The new government will be a welcome respite for a U.S. president busy with domestic politics and eager to avoid a fight with Israel. The new prime minister, the right-wing Bennett, will be preoccupied with managing an unwieldy coalition. He’s likely to lower the temperature with Washington, temporarily subvert Netanyahu’s obsession with blocking the Iran nuclear accord, and try to refrain from provocative actions toward Palestinians certain to rile his centrist and left-wing partners and collapse the fragile government.”

From Politico:


The Bipartisan Appeal of Ted Lasso

What’s not to like…

I love the series and am glad its coming back. Apparently not everyone in Europe agrees.

“In truth, people overseas might not be as charmed by Ted Lasso as us Yanks; The Guardian panned the show last August, as did an Irish Examiner sports columnist who groused about ‘lazy American stereotyping’ and wrote that ‘this show may do more for Anglo-Irish relations at this very difficult time in our history than the Clintons ever did.’ The notion that kindness could be an American export didn’t entirely compute over the past few years—certainly not when the head of state was insulting everyone in sight.”

Fun story. Read the whole thing:


Thanks for reading. Take it easy out there.

History, McCarthy, Politics

The Paranoid Mind

“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in a famous Harper’s essay in 1964. 

Hofstadter, who won two Pulitzer Prizes for his work, entitled his essay “The Paranoid Style of American Politics,” and in that essay he traced the long arc of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that he contended is a reoccurring theme in the country’s history. 

The essay, easily found online, is worth reading in the context of, oh, the state legislature in Idaho coming within one vote of defunding the most popular public television system in the country because one legislator had been listening and recorded “a full page of concerning language.”

Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter

Or in light of a legislative decision to forgo a $6 million federal grant to facilitate early childhood education because the money – this grant was authorized during the Trump Administration – would facilitate “indoctrinating our children at a younger level.” One lawmaker said it was really bad news that the whole sordid mess was full of the obviously questionable concept of “social justice.” 

Many people are saying that certain notable figures – think Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, Pope Francis – would be shocked to learn that discussing “social justice” is now controversial. 

Or consider the bright lights of the Iowa legislature – what is it with the “I” states – who are considering placing new restrictions on public schools and universities “related to staff or student training dealing with racism, sexism and discrimination.” Similar moves have traction in Idaho and other conservative states.

Elsewhere under the golden dome of the Iowa statehouse, conservative legislators grilled a local school superintendent recently over her district’s Black Lives Matter curriculum, developed in part, the school official said, to “address incidents of bullying, lower graduation rates and higher disciplinary rates of students of color.” Imagine a local educator being concerned about her students in such a way? 

Another Iowa legislator admitted his bright idea, he wants to have the Iowa attorney general review presidential executive orders before they became effective in his state, was clearly unconstitutional, but he still felt compelled to make his point. He did, but the point made was just a little different than he intended. 

At the same time back in Idaho a gang of some of the most fevered right-wingers want to strip the Republican attorney general of much of his authority to legally represent state agencies. They don’t like the way the AG reads the law. Idaho’s chief lawyer was one of the few Republicans chief legal officers unwilling to countenance the frivolous post-election lawsuit out of Texas seeking to overturn the presidential election. You will remember that lawsuit died faster than a mayfly, but apparently embracing crazy legal theories and spending tax dollars to advance them is a new conservative value. And calling BS on such things is apparently a defunding offense.  

All of this conservative paranoia from Boise to Des Moines and points in between has one unifying theme: grievance. The angry minds on the right of American politics are perpetually pissed off. A constant state of aggravated outrage is the essence of modern conservative thought. 

Young kids are encouraged to burn face masks on the steps of a state capitol to protest an effective public health measure. Fox News and its followers fume over a decision by the Dr. Seuss Foundation – a private entity, by the way – to cease publication of a half dozen children’s books with clear racist portrayals of people of color. All a piece of the outrageous affront directed at conservatives by a liberal society. 

Idaho children burn face masks on the Statehouse steps in Boise

Richard Hofstadter wrote his essay when Joseph McCarthy’s grievance against liberals, Hollywood elites and homosexuals was still fresh in the American mind and in the wake of Barry Goldwater’s angry claim that “extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” but he could well have been writing last week. 

The modern rightwing, Hofstadter wrote 57 years ago, always feels dispossessed. “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.”

Hofstadter’s old essay reads like last night’s Tucker Carlson script or a last year Tweet from the Prince of Mar a Lago. Conservative politics has been reduced to curated performances of assorted grievances. The agenda on the right from banning transsexual students from sports, politicizing the response to a pandemic or censuring the rare conservative who bucks the party line is not about policy or even principle, but rather anger and grievance and making someone else pay. 

Something is happening. Something is changing. Somebody not like me is causing this outrage, damn it. And I’m not happy about it. In fact, I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore. 

Hofstadter didn’t know about the Tea Party or Trump or Hannity, but he would not have found any of the anger they possess surprising. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms,” he wrote, “he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1950

As you consider the paranoid nature of so many conservatives today – the outlandish conspiracy theories, the big lies about election fraud, the absurd notion that a nuanced examination of American history is a socialist plot – you see the paranoid line stretching back to McCarthy, the John Birch Society, on and on. 

As Hofstadter noted, some of us look at history and see a confusing, contradictory mishmash of good, bad and indifferent, somethings to condemn, others to celebrate. The paranoid on the right suffers that history, as well, but also deals with constant fresh fantasies, and there is always grievance. And that must be frightening, so frightening that thousands acted on their fantasies and grievance and violently attacked Congress two months ago. 

Paranoia on the far right is an enduring reality of American politics. At key moments in the past when the phenomenon went from merely crazy to seriously dangerous the conservative party rejected the worst of it. We’re waiting to see what the conservative party will do this time. 


Additional Reading:

My carefully curated – right – list of things you might want to read now or later…

6 Questions Officials Still Haven’t Answered After Weeks of Hearings on the Capitol Attack

I wonder – constantly – how many Americans are just ready to move on from the horrific events of January 6, 2021 when a violent mob stormed the U.S. Congress. And, yes, we really do need to get to the bottom of these events. While the legal and law enforcement work continues questions still go unanswered. Pro Publica has a good take on what we still don’t know.

The January 6, 2021 insurrection in Washington, D.C.

“During more than 15 hours of testimony, lawmakers listened to a cacophony of competing explanations as officials stumbled over themselves to explain how America’s national security, defense, intelligence and law enforcement agencies allowed a homegrown enemy to put an entire branch of government in danger during the attack on the U.S. Capitol.”

A good backgrounder.


Conservative Donors Have Their Own Cancel Culture

A fascinating piece in The Atlantic about the battle over the University of Texas school song. Some Longhorn football players want the song, with its Confederate nostalgia, discarded. Big donors aren’t having it.

Link here.


How The Anti-Vaxxers Got Red-Pilled

What happens when a global pandemic, a vaccine resistance movement, and the age of conspiracy collide? A black hole of misinformation that poses a grave threat to public health

A good read in Rolling Stone:


Thanks for following along. I appreciate your feedback and if you know someone who would appreciate receiving these columns and related material please encourage them to sign up or let me know and I’ll take it from there. All the best.

2020 Election, History

History Informs Us…

History, if we study it, is a teacher. It informs us and provides valuable perspective on the challenges of our times.  Consider…

“To one foreign reporter he explained the secret of his success: ‘keep your heart a desert;’ because loyalties and friendships had to give way to the one important objective: power…there is no right or wrong in politics, only force.” – Historian Denis Mack Smith on Mussolini in 1923

. . . . .

“President Hoover, blamed by the Bonus Army commander for the bloodshed here yesterday, called out the United States Army troops to end ‘rioting and defiance of civil authority.’” – Brooklyn Times Union, July 29, 1932, reporting on the president’s decision to use troops under the command of General Douglas MacArthur to rout thousands of out of work World War I veterans who were protesting in Washington to force payment of the bonus they were promised for service in the Great War. 

Brooklyn Times Union – July 29, 1932

. . . . .

“What Hoover should have done was to meet with the leaders of the Bonus Army…Hoover should have sent out coffee and sandwiches and asked a delegation in. Instead he let…MacArthur do his thing…[he] has just prevented Hoover’s re-election.” – Franklin Roosevelt reacting to the rout of military veterans in 1932.

Douglas MacArthur commanding troops in the streets of Washington, D.C. in 1932

. . . . .

“At the venerable Heidelberg University, a philosophy student named Hannah Arendt was working on a doctoral dissertation…when news came of the [Reichstag] fire…years later she told an interviewer that the fire ‘was an immediate shock for me.’ From that moment, she said, she felt ‘responsible. That is, I was no longer of the opinion that one can simply be a bystander.” – Historian Benjamin Carter Hett on the burning of the German Reichstag in 1933, the event that allowed new chancellor Adolf Hitler to consolidate power under the Nazi Party.

. . . . .

“No people ever recognize their dictator in advance. When our dictator turns up, you can depend on it that he will be one of the boys . . . and he will stand for everything traditionally American.” – Columnist Dorothy Thompson in the 1930s warning that fascism could come to America.  

. . . . .

“[Marshall] Petain almost immediately issued a number of constitutional acts which in effect gave him absolute power, and adjourned Parliament until further notice. The Vichy regime was born.” – Historian Julian Jackson on how Vichy collaborators in 1940 discarded French democracy to make common cause with the country’s Nazi occupiers

Vichy collaborator Petain meets with Hitler

. . . . .

“Every new totalitarian step is clothed in some righteous-sounding slogan. This, indeed, is not the Japan that we have known and loved.” – Joseph Grew, U.S. ambassador to Japan, in a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in 1940. 

. . . . .

“There is little hope for us until we become tough-minded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.” Nobel Prize acceptance speech of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964.

. . . . .

“My favorite poet was Aeschylus. He wrote: ‘In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.’ What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.” – Robert F. Kennedy speaking extemporaneously in Indianapolis on the night Dr. King was assassinated in 1968.

Robert F. Kennedy tells an Indianapolis crowd about the death of Dr. King in 1968

. . . . .

“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.” – Donald J. Trump Inaugural Address, January 20, 2017.

. . . . .

“In the history of the Republic, no President has ever ordered the complete defiance of an impeachment inquiry or sought to obstruct and impede so comprehensively the ability of the House of Representatives to investigate ‘high Crimes and Misdemeanors.’ This abuse of office served to cover up the President’s own repeated misconduct and to seize and control the power of impeachment—and thus to nullify a vital constitutional safeguard vested solely in the House of Representatives.” – Article II, Obstruction of Justice, in the impeachment of President Trump.

. . . . .

“In interviews and posts on social media in recent days, current and former U.S. intelligence officials have expressed dismay at the similarity between events at home and the signs of decline or democratic regression they were trained to detect in other nations. ‘I’ve seen this kind of violence,’ said Gail Helt, a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia. ‘This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse. It really does unnerve me.’” – Washington Post reporting on the alarm of U.S. intelligent analysts. 

Outside the White House – 2020

. . . . .

“President Donald Trump faced withering criticism in the hours after spurring a violent incursion against apparently peaceful protesters for the purposes of staging a political photo opportunity — provoking rebukes Tuesday from local and state executives, congressional lawmakers, faith leaders and even foreign governments over the extraordinary show of force amid converging national crises.” – Politico reporting on the use of military forces against civilian demonstrators outside the White House

. . . . .

“In life’s unforgiving arithmetic, we are the sum of our choices. Congressional Republicans have made theirs for more than 1,200 days. We cannot know all the measures necessary to restore the nation’s domestic health and international standing, but we know the first step: Senate Republicans must be routed, as condign punishment for their Vichyite collaboration, leaving the Republican remnant to wonder: Was it sensible to sacrifice dignity, such as it ever was, and to shed principles, if convictions so easily jettisoned could be dignified as principles, for . . . what? Praying people should pray, and all others should hope: May I never crave anything as much as these people crave membership in the world’s most risible deliberative body.” – Conservative columnist George Will, June 1, 2020.

The photo op of our times

. . . . .

“In due course, historians will write the story of our era and draw lessons from it, just as we write the history of the 1930s, or of the 1940s…They will see, more clearly than we can, the path that led the U.S. into a historic loss of international influence, into economic catastrophe, into political chaos of a kind we haven’t experienced since the years leading up to the Civil War. Then maybe [Lindsey] Graham—along with Pence, Pompeo, McConnell, and a whole host of lesser figures—will understand what he has enabled.” – Anne Appelbaum, a Russian-born historian of totalitarianism, writing in The Atlantic.

. . . . .

Consider.

History, if we study it, is a teacher. It informs us and provides valuable perspective on the challenges of our times.  

—–0—–

Additional Reading:

Trump and the American Idiocracy

Richard North Patterson writes in The Bulwark: “Perceiving the infinity of all they can never know, true geniuses are disinclined to overstate their gifts. By contrast, Trump is a classic exemplar of the Dunning-Kruger Effect, named for two psychologists who demonstrated that the less knowledgeable and competent you are, the more you believe in your own superlative abilities. Such benighted folks, wrote Dunning and Kruger, not only ‘reach erroneous conclusions and make unfortunate choices, but their incompetence robs them of the . . . ability to realize it.’” Read the entire article.

A Report From Occupied Territory

James Baldwin’s remarkable article from The Nation in July 1966 reads like it might have been written this week.

James Baldwin

Baldwin wrote: “Now, what I have said about Harlem is true of Chicago, Detroit, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and San Francisco—is true of every Northern city with a large Negro population. And the police are simply the hired enemies of this population. They are present to keep the Negro in his place and to protect white business interests, and they have no other function. They are, moreover—even in a country which makes the very grave error of equating ignorance with simplicity—quite stunningly ignorant; and, since they know that they are hated, they are always afraid. One cannot possibly arrive at a more surefire formula for cruelty.” Read it here.

The Marshmallow Test Donald Trump Is Failing

Anne Kim writes in Washington Monthly that the rush to “return to normal” from the COVID-19 pandemic could backfire spectacularly, which is to say very badly. “The next few months will pose a crucial test of our national resolve and set the country’s trajectory for years to come. Americans need a leader who is honest about the difficulties that lie ahead, undaunted by the scale of the task, and willing to do take on the arduous job of navigating the nation’s recovery. In other words, they need the exact opposite of Trump.” Here is the link.

The Exact Moment Plot Against America Takes A Nose Dive

My friend Dr. Richard Drake, the Lucile Speer Research Professor in Politics and History at the University of Montana, authored an entertaining takedown of the HBO mini-series based on the Philip Roth novel. Richard writes: “As television, The Plot Against America benefits from some powerful acting performances and a dazzling exhibition of period automobiles, décor, and fashion, but it confirms the general rule of not going to the movies for history.” Read the piece in The American Conservative. (By the way, D. Drake is the author most recently of Charles Austin Beard: The Return of the Master Historian of American Imperialism.)

And…Wallace Stegner: Writer

Wallace Stegner

New York Times film critic A.O. Scott had a great piece recently about Stegner.  Scott says, “Stegner was critical of the individualistic ethos of the West in all its manifestations: romantic, entrepreneurial and countercultural. Sometimes that makes him sound like a left-wing critic of capitalism, sometimes like the deepest kind of conservative. His commitments to ecology, family and community against the forces of modern economic development leave him jarringly and thrillingly resistant to the ideological pigeonholing that has become our dominant form of cultural analysis.” Read the whole thing.

Thanks for following. Take care.

History, Politics, Trump

Too Smart to be President…

I have always thought that Bill Bradley, the one-time United States senator from New Jersey, could have been a great president. Basketball fans of a certain age will remember Bradley as a standout star at Princeton, a place known more for quantum physics than baseline jump shots. Bradley, an All-American, postponed his professional career in order to attend Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, then played 10 seasons in the NBA — the Knicks retired his number — and was then elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

In his famous 1965 New Yorker article on Bradley titled “A Sense of Where You Are,” the writer John McPhee quoted Bradley’s high school principal as saying, “With the help of his friends, Bill could very well be president of the United States. And without the help of his friends he might make it anyway.”

“Dollar Bill” Bradley, too smart to be president

My wife also liked the idea of Bradley as president, but was more realistic. “He’s too smart to be president,” she said, and she was right.

I’ve been thinking about the three-term senator recently, while reflecting on the intense interest in the young, smart and amazingly well-spoken mayor of South Bend, Ind., Pete Buttigieg. The 37-year old Navy veteran of Afghanistan is the openly gay mayor of an old rust belt town and improbably he has vaulted from nowhere to the top tier of Democratic presidential aspirants. His cable news appearances have left the most jaded political observers impressed. Buttigieg easily offers insights from what is clearly a close study of history. One of his favorite books is the Graham Greene classic, “The Quiet American,” a novel that explores the perils of political hubris.

Buttigieg speaks several languages, including Maltese, and reportedly taught himself to read Norwegian so he could read a favorite author in that language. By contrast, I can think of one candidate for president who couldn’t spell lutefisk, let alone describe it.

But, like Bill Bradley, I suspect Mayor Pete may be too smart to be president. The current occupant of the White House has so devalued competence and intellect that it may be difficult for many voters to conceive of a real brain in control of the nuclear codes. As for drawing on history to inform current policy, well, what a quaint notion that is. Harry Truman used to check out stacks of books from the Library of Congress. The current occupant gets all he needs to know from Fox News and his Twitter feed.

The president of the United States who actually suggested that aerial tankers be used to fight the tragic fire at Notre Dame in Paris is an artifact of a country where education, particularly education about history, has been so diminished that Donald Trump could actually say a while back that Abraham Lincoln was a “great president. Most people don’t even know that he’s a Republican, right? Does anyone know? A lot of people don’t know that.”

For more than a generation, conservatives, while systematically diminishing public education and bemoaning “elitism” in higher education, have led an assault on expertise and embraced a corrupted notion of history. Charlatans of pseudo history, such as Bill O’Reilly and Dinesh D’Souza — one fired for harassing behavior of co-workers, the other jailed for making illegal campaign contributions — have created a lucrative right-wing “history” industry that may be impressive propaganda, but couldn’t withstand the vetting a typical seventh-grade research paper endures.

The President of the United States at Mount Vernon…giving “branding” advice

During a recent visit to Mount Vernon, the home of the first American president, Trump suggested that George Washington had erred by not doing a better branding job with the estate along the Potomac. Should we remind him that the nation’s capital is named for, oh well, never mind.

One White House aide, accentuating the obvious, pointed out that Trump’s lack of historical knowledge, not to mention basic interest in history, isn’t a big problem because most of his supporters simply don’t care. “If anything,” one handler pointed out, “they enjoy the fact that the liberal snobs are upset” that Trump doesn’t know history.

We’ve all seen the research showing how historical literacy has been diminished. Lots of young people can’t place the American Civil War in the right time period. Many don’t know that we fought with the Russians in World War II and faced them down in the Cold War. Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and Watergate seem as relevant to many as stories of the ancient Greeks.

And you might well ask why you should care if a national leader doesn’t have a working knowledge of Lincoln or can’t grasp the significant of the NATO alliance?

Award-winning Princeton historian Kevin Kruse provides an answer.

“History offers lessons,” he says, “in what was tried before and what was not, and what worked before and what did not.” Moreover, Kruse says, “The study of history imparts critical skills in assessing evidence, weighing the differences when contradictions arise, forming a coherent narrative and drawing conclusions from it.”

We are fated to live in perilous times. Democracy is in retreat across the globe. Basic truth is under assault. Institutions at every level — the courts, the press, the Catholic church, among others — are diminished and in decline. And in such an environment, the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation reported recently that a majority of Americans in every state except Vermont would fail a test based on questions in the U.S. citizenship test. In Idaho only 41 percent of those surveyed could pass.

If we can’t bring ourselves to embrace the smart leaders and the dim bulbs remain content to distract us with empty slogans and shiny diversions, then we’re on our own. The fundamental test of our times involves being smart enough to know enough to think for ourselves. It starts with grappling with our history.

Civil Liberties, History, Trump, World War II

And then it was too late…

“This is the United States of America. It isn’t Nazi Germany.”

                                  – Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), in an interview on MSNBC, about the Trump administration’s policy of separating migrant children from their parents at the border.

—————

The venerable Senator Feinstein is correct; we are not Nazi Germany – at least not yet.

But we are beginning, in some remarkably troubling ways, to resemble the ill-fated Weimar Republic that preceded Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933. A chilling new book – The Death of Democracy – tells the story of how a cultured, sophisticated people – Weimar Germany was the land of Richard Strauss and Bertolt Brecht, the home to Nobel Prize winners – tumbled into deep political division and then widespread street violence and then a dictatorship and tragedy.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett writes that the 1919 constitution of the Weimar Republic “created a state-of-the-art modern democracy, with a scrupulously just proportional electoral system and protection of individual rights and freedoms.”

There is an authoritarian playbook

“If Germany had long prided itself on being the ‘land of poets and thinkers’ then in the 1920s it seemed to surpass even itself. And yet somehow, out of this enlightened, creative, ultramodern democracy, grew the most evil regime in human history.”

We still wonder how it happened and why.

Part of the answer, Hett writes, was a breakdown in what was regarded in Germany as acceptable political behavior. Brown shirted toughs took to the streets intimidating political opponents and “others” – Jews and Communists, in particular. German politics became deeply polarized, while nationalism and a national sense of grievance grew. Jews were scapegoated as part of a vast global conspiracy that was somehow tied to Communism.

Hett argues, compellingly and disturbingly, that the rise of the Nazis was in large part a response to globalization and economic change. Major Nazi political theorists actually adopted a policy of “autarky,” the notion that “a country can cut itself off completely from the world economy and rely on its own resources, no imports, no exports, or foreign investments.”

Proving the old saying that “the only thing new is the history we haven’t read” is this remarkable statement from Hitler in 1928. “The German people have no interest,” he wrote, in a “German financial group or a German shipyard establishing a so-called subsidiary shipyard in Shanghai to build ships for China with Chinese workers and foreign steel.” Such an arrangement would not benefit Germany since, Hitler said, jobs that should benefit Germany would not be created in Germany. As the historian Hett notes, “The political mobilization of the late 1920s, especially among those Protestant groups who would become the Nazi base, was mostly about Germany’s vulnerable position in the world economy and financial system.”

German President von Hindenburg with Hitler in 1933

When the German conservative establishment – business leaders, the military, Protestant evangelicals and importantly Great War hero Paul von Hindenburg – eventually turned to a bombastic Austrian veteran who preached a virulent form of nationalism heavily doused with racial animus – Jews were his “vermin” – Adolf Hitler became the German chancellor. His Nationalist Socialist Workers Party had never commanded more than about 30% of the popular vote before he reached the top of German politics.

“These conservatives could have stopped Hitler in his tracks,” Hett writes. “Instead, they chose to use him.” Business leaders liked his talk of an expanding German economy, higher tariffs and his plans to crack down on labor unions. Military leaders, smarting from how the Great War had ended, appreciated Hitler’s pledge to rebuild Germany’s armed forces. Evangelical Christians flocked to him because he seemed to promise that he would marginalize other Catholic backed political parties.

Within a matter of weeks after being appointed chancellor, Hitler, a brilliant communicator with a flair for the theatrical, had consolidated power to himself. The burning of the Reichstag – the German parliament building – four weeks after he took office was a galvanizing event, an excuse to create a police state. Hitler blamed the fire on Communist conspirators, almost certainly a lie, and historians still debate whether the Nazis staged the whole thing.

Without regard to facts, Nazi paramilitary brown shirts began locking up political opponents, silenced the independent press and deepened the Nazi party’s appeal to very conservative German farmers and small business people who craved stability.

The Reichstag burns in 1933 – the pretext for Hitler’s police state

“The key to understanding why many Germans supported him,” Hett writes, “lies in the Nazis’ rejection of a rational, factual world. Hitler himself, in the words of his biographer Joachim Fest, was ‘always thinking the unthinkable,’ and ‘in his statements an element of bitter refusal to submit to reality invariably emerged.’”

Hitler assumed dictatorial powers in Germany thanks to a series of lies, boasts, grand promises and raw appeals to emotion, racism, hatred and strength. Many Germans thought the strutting, one-time postcard painter with the pasty complexion simply wouldn’t last. But while he played his role Hitler could be a necessary evil – a tool – to crush the liberal left, the trade unions, intellectuals and elites. History is made of such horrible miscalculations.

There are, of course, no perfect historic analogies. Each generation stumbles ahead or falls behind on it’s own accord, but it is also true that history contains valuable lessons that we would be wise to heed. This is such a moment.

Dehumanizing…

When politicians say, as the American president did recently, that “We cannot allow all of these people to invade our Country. When somebody comes in, we must immediately, with no Judges or Court Cases, bring them back from where they came. Our system is a mockery to good immigration policy and Law and Order. Most children come without parents.” We would be well advised to take them at face value. The American Constitution, of course, guarantees due process – to everyone regardless of legal status.

Dehumanizing your opponents is a tried and true tactic of authoritarians. When the president of the United States calls Hispanic or Latino human beings “animals” or “thugs” or “vermin” and refers to an African-American congresswoman as “an extraordinarily low IQ person” it is impossible to see such language as anything but dehumanizing.

By responding to the congresswoman’s incendiary and profoundly improper encouragement of harassment against Trump Administration officials with his own taunts – “be careful what you wish for” – the president doubles down on a politics of confrontation and demonization.

The United States, 1942

Former first lady Laura Bush explicitly compared the administration’s recent border separation strategy with the infamous “internment” of Japanese-Americans in 1942, one of the most egregious violations of civil liberties in modern American history. The actor George Takei, who with his parents was interned in one of the camps, has written that two big lies, including the fiction that a law exists demanding the separations, have fueled the authoritarian border policy.

“The second lie is that those at our borders are criminals, and therefore deserve no rights. But the asylum-seekers at our borders are breaking no laws at all, nor are their children who accompany them. The broad brush of ‘criminal’ today raises echoes of the wartime ‘enemy’ to my ears. Once painted, both marks are impossible to wash off. Trump prepared his followers for this day long ago, when he began to dehumanize Mexican migrants as drug dealers, rapists, murderers, and animals. Animals might belong in cages. Humans don’t.”

As the Washington Post’s Anne Applebaum wrote last week: “It is worth noting how often the president repeatedly conflates refugees with illegal immigrants and MS-13 gang members. This is not an accident: He has targeted a group and given them characteristics — they are violent, they are rapists, they are gang members — that don’t belong to most of them. He then describes them with dehumanizing language. Democrats, he has tweeted, ‘want illegal immigrants, no matter how bad they may be, to pour into and infest our country, like MS-13.’ The image of ‘infestation’ evokes, again, vermin and lice. A few weeks earlier, he spoke of MS-13 as ‘animals,’ once again making it unclear whether he meant actual gang members or simply those who distantly resemble them.”

Or as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote recently, “Dehumanization has a natural progression. It starts by defining a whole race or ethnicity by its worst members — say, rapists and other criminals. It moves on to enforce generally applicable laws and rules that especially hurt a target group. Then, as the public becomes desensitized, the group can be singled out for hatred and harm. It is the descent, step by step, into a moral abyss.”

Fearing Globalization…

When the president of the United States, against most credible advice and in the face of much history about how global trade works, imposes tariffs on imports from the nation’s closest allies and threatens retaliation against American companies it’s difficult not to conclude that he is playing on old fears about globalization.

Denigrating a Free Press…

When the president of the United States on a daily basis denigrates “the fake news” and criticizes news organizations and reporters by name it is impossible not to see parallels to the Nazi manifesto that declared that editors and contributors to newspapers “be people’s comrades” and that “newspapers which violate the general good are to be banned.”

The president has now actually uttered the words “enemy of the people,” a term Stalin often used, to label the press that routinely still calls out his lies and incompetence.

————-

            “One of the basic tools of fascism is the rigging of elections – we’ve seen that trialed in the election of Trump, in the Brexit referendum and (less successfully) in the French presidential elections. Another is the generation of tribal identities, the division of society into mutually exclusive polarities. Fascism does not need a majority – it typically comes to power with about 40 per cent support and then uses control and intimidation to consolidate that power. So it doesn’t matter if most people hate you, as long as your 40 per cent is fanatically committed. That’s been tested out too. And fascism of course needs a propaganda machine so effective that it creates for its followers a universe of “alternative facts” impervious to unwanted realities. Again, the testing for this is very far advanced.”

Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times

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Americans, long content to embrace our myth of “exceptionalism,” now are grouped with a growing list of nations around the world where democracy is in retreat. Yes, it is happening here. We are exceptional, but not in the way Ronald Reagan or Franklin Roosevelt envisioned.

A new report by European researchers contend that 2.5 billion people – a third of the world’s population – now live in countries where democracy is on the run. As the study indicates, “In recent years, the number of nations that are becoming more democratic has declined, while the number ‘registering significant change toward autocracy’ has increased. Even worse, ‘the population living in the 24 countries backsliding on liberal democracy”—a list that includes Russia, India, Brazil, and, yes, the United States—‘far outnumbers the population living in advancing countries.’”

“A much larger share of the world population is experiencing autocratization [than] democratization,” the researchers note. “This translates to a major reduction in the enjoyment of rights and freedoms.”

One can look back over the tumultuous last 18 months of American history in one of two ways.

One type of analysis would say: True enough, Donald J. Trump has upset a lot of traditions and norms in American politics. Other presidents have been liars, exaggerators, provocateurs who upset the status quo. We may not like all his language or emphasis, but the United States has been around a long time and navigated many challenging times. Trump has attacked judges and journalists, trashed Democrats and tarnished his GOP critics, but the system still works. We’ll be fine.

Another version of the same facts might well reach an altogether bleaker conclusion. The systematic dehumanizing of refugees and immigrants will last well beyond the current occupant of the White House. The disparagement of the independent press undermines, perhaps permanently, a vital check on misconduct and abuse of power. The criticism of judges, the claim that a special counsel investigation is “a witch hunt” and the suggestion that due process is an outdated concept are broadly damaging to the concept of the rule of law. The widespread abrogation by Congress of oversight of the executive branch – few oversight hearings, little if any complaint about manifest ethical transgressions and embracing policies and approaches Republicans would once have rejected totally – is an historic erosion of the time-tested systems of checks and balances. Nationalism, anti-globalism, trade wars, a growing cult of personality around Trump all show a clear and dramatic break with American values. This cannot end well.

Historian Benjamin Carter Hett notes several times in his profoundly important book about the fall of the Weimar Republic that most Germans in the 1920s and early 1930s really didn’t want violence in the streets, didn’t want to see the “liberal” values of an enlightened society crushed, but for most it was difficult to tell in real time how bad things were becoming. And then it was too late.

“Few Germans in 1933 could imagine Treblinka or Auschwitz, the mass shooting of Babi Yar or the death marches of the last month of the Second World War,” Hett says in summing up what happened. “It is hard to blame them for not foreseeing the unthinkable. Yet their innocence failed them, and they were catastrophically wrong about their future. We who come later have one advantage over them: we have their example before us.”

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Civil War, History, Trump

The Price of Historical Ignorance…

      “Great president. Most people don’t even know he was a Republican. Does anyone know? Lot of people don’t know that.”
       President Donald J. Trump riffing on Abraham Lincoln. 
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I just finished reading a remarkable new book that has nothing and everything to do with the historically ignorant fellow who now occupies the Oval Office. The book – The Vast Southern Empire: Slaveholders at the Helm of American Foreign Policy by Matthew Karp – details, in a manner I have never fully appreciated, the political stranglehold southerners held over American foreign and military policy prior to the Civil War.

Karp, a historian at Princeton, has produced a truly fine book that not only manages to make interesting what might seem to be a dry subject in American history – pre-Civil War foreign policy – but he also illuminates why slaveholding southerners fought so hard to shape the country’s international posture. Spoiler alert: It was all about preserving slavery and its perceived economic benefits not only in the United States but also in much of the western hemisphere. Cuba and Brazil, for example, were slave nations and southerners reckoned that the U.S. could best preserve its “peculiar institution” by encouraging its survival, indeed expansion, in the hemisphere.

Southerners and others favorable to slavery dominated the American government and particularly our foreign and military policy, until 1860. Karp makes the observation that, “the antebellum president least sympathetic to slavery,” Zachery Taylor, “owned 300 slaves.” Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 was therefore seen as a profound threat to the “peculiar institution” and by the time Lincoln took the oath of office in 1861 the path to disunion was well worn by the secession of seven southern states.

Zachery Taylor, the president prior to the Civil War most hostile to slavery, and he owned 300 slaves.

“The national triumph of the Republican Party, a political organization that existed almost entirely in the non-slaveholding North, had no precedent in the history of the United States,” Karp writes. “Never in eighty years of American existence had the country been governed by a chief executive who openly opposed black servitude.”

Donald J. Trump doesn’t operate at this level of historic detail or nuance and never will. His amazing comments a while back seeming to express surprise that Lincoln was a Republican should have had every GOP precinct worker in American scratching their heads in disbelief. And his remarkably incoherent recent ramblings about Andrew Jackson and the Civil War present in striking relief just the level of the man’s lack of awareness, or even more seriously, his lack of interest.

Why Was There a Civil War? 

Trump’s ignorance of history, and I’m talking just basic eighth grade level stuff here, was fully on display recently when he told journalist Selena Zito, “People don’t realize, you know, the Civil War, if you think about it, why? People don’t ask that question, but why was there a Civil War?”

The guy who likely couldn’t pass the civic and history test immigrants take to qualify for citizenship then opined that his new hero Andrew Jackson, dead 16 years before the Civil War began, was “really angry” about the whole business.

CIVIL WAR: APPOMATTOX, 1865.
The Surrender of General Lee to General Grant, 9 April 1865. Oil on canvas by Louis Guillaume, 1867.

“I mean, had Andrew Jackson been a little later you wouldn’t have had the Civil War,” the president said. “He was a very tough person, but he had a big heart. He was really angry that he saw what was happening with regard to the Civil War, he said “There’s no reason for this.’”

Actually there was a reason – a very good one – for the Civil War: slavery.

It should probably be no great surprise that a president who wants to end federal support for libraries – the arts, humanities and public broadcasting, too – has a more tenuous grasp on American history than anyone who has ever occupied the office.

Trump’s historical – and historic – ignorance is no small, laughing matter, but rather deeply dangerous, potentially catastrophically so.  For as the esteemed Columbia University historian Eric Foner has said, “History does inform the present, and it should. That’s what I mean by a ‘usable past’: 
a historical consciousness that can enable us to address the problems of society today in an intelligent manner.”

Trump’s Drunk History…

Writing in the New Republic Jeet Heer compared Trump’s historical ignorance to the “inebriated ramblings found on Comedy Central’s Drunk History.” We have come to expect a basic level of intelligence from the chief magistrate about the nation’s history, but Trump could no more pass a basic history quiz – an AP history course would leave him muttering – than he can speak in complete sentences. It is profoundly obvious that this vacuum of basic knowledge impacts policy and priorities, sometimes dangerously so.

Iconic photo of French Marshall Petain, the leader of defeated France – Vichy – meeting Hitler in 1941

Trump recently displayed his ignorance about China and Korea. He clearly doesn’t understand the complicated history of Russia and Ukraine or that his statement that Canada has treated the U.S. badly is total bunk. Trump’s open cheerleading for the far right National Front in France betrays a stunning lack of understanding of modern French history. If Trump knew anything about Vichy it must be that they bottle good water.

The president’s claim that it will be easy to bridge the Israeli-Palestine divide is the boast of someone who has never heard of the Balfour Declaration or has only a fragmentary understanding of the history of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. Trump’s essential arrogance is on display in all these areas and a dozen more and his grasp of how history relates to current issues is driven by the worst possible combination of ignorance and hubris.

One more example: Journalist Dave Owen is out with a new book on the Colorado River, the over appropriated liquid lifeline of the American Southwest. As part of his reporting on the challenges which confront the Colorado, Owen talked at some length to candidate Trump. Owen’s assessment of Trump’s knowledge of the issues is both brutal and a quite typical of nearly everyone who has studied the guy.

The Colorado River basin in the American Southwest

“He knows as little about water as he does about anything else,” Owen said of the president. “He said you could solve your problems out there with a big pipeline to bring the water in, or you could do that thing when you take the salt out of the ocean – desalination.

“He definitely thinks there’s an easy solution, and he’ll discover that it’s really complicated. Water is a lot bigger than he is, and it will defeat him. The relationships, the legal structures, the international agreements – it’s all beyond anything that he could possibly comprehend.”

Any westerner with even a passing understanding of water, its uses and the complicated and contentious history of the resource knows that the president’s policy prescription – a big pipeline – is not just ridiculously naïve, but completely unrealistic.

A growing group of American historians have joined the “resistance” to such fundamental ignorance. Penn State historian Amy Greenberg recently told The New Republic, “I haven’t critiqued a sitting president before. I’m a historian.” But Trump’s broad misunderstandings and extraordinary lack of knowledge have her “speaking out in favor of elected officials knowing basic, elementary level U.S. history.”

“If we had an undergrad who wrote what Trump said in an essay,” Greenburg said of the president’s Civil War and Jackson comments, “that student would not pass that exam. That student would fail.”

A particularly pernicious aspect of Trump’s fumbling around with Civil War history is that it helps embolden the still very active “revisionist” view of what America’s great tragedy – the Civil War – and its enduring historical stain – human bondage – meant in the 19th Century and how those battles continue to play out.

Lee Circle – as in Confederate General Robert E. Lee – in New Orleans.

As historian Manisha Sinha noted recently in the New York Daily News, If nothing else, President Trump and the Republicans are making Civil War revisionism great again. A couple of weeks ago, North Carolina GOP state Rep. Larry Pittman argued that Abraham Lincoln was ‘the same sort (of) tyrant’ as Adolf Hitler, and was ‘personally responsible’ for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in an ‘unnecessary and unconstitutional’ war.”

The revisionist arguments go all the way back to the post-Civil War memoirs of various players in the great national conflict and was cemented on the silver screen with the epic 1939 film Gone With the Wind, a classic film that is also a classic case of spinning the war and its aftermath into a glorious narrative of chivalry, state’s rights and an elegant way of life.

Look no further than the current turmoil in New Orleans where Mayor Mitch Landrieu has led the charge to remove various Confederate monuments that the mayor says don’t illuminate southern history, but rather distort it. Demonstrators waving Confederate flags have disrupted the removal and contractors doing the work have received death threats. The entire episode, as the New York Times notes, “demonstrates the Confederacy’s enduring power to divide Americans more than 150 years after the cause was lost.”

Having a historically ignorant president stoking the already hot embers of “why was there was a Civil War” is simply piling on the racial and other divisions Trump has ridden all the way to the White House. He may be ignorant of his country’s history, but the ignorance serves his own, but not the nation’s, political interest. A president who cannot differentiate between Chinese and Korean interests in the matter of nuclear weapons or who views Middle East peace as a simple deal to be hashed out on the golf course only serves the interest of confusion and chaos, a dangerous mixture in a hair trigger world.

Harold Evans, a distinguished British historian and journalist, has the perfect way of describing what Trump (and others) do when they distort or refuse to understand history. “Dishonest leaders,” Evans wrote recently, “have learned nothing and forgotten everything.”

The United States in 2017 – this is where we are. Hug a historian, or at least read one. You will be doing what our president can’t and won’t do.

Higher Education, History, Wilson

Air Brushing Woodrow Wilson…

I begin from the premise that activism on college campuses is a good thing. Any society should want engaged, involved, opinionated, activist young people.Princeton-University-logo

It is also a premise of mine supported by much research, that many Americans have at best, a cursory knowledge of our history – our complex, often contradictory history. A lack of historical perspective (and knowledge) leads in many unfortunate direction and, I submit, contributes to the often “fact free” debates about politics and public policy that increasingly dominate news coverage and political debates.

American Historical Amnesia…

We have, for example, a continuing and often uninformed debate about “American exceptionalism,” the notion that the United States above all other nations is favored and that the U.S. always acts out of the best, most unselfish motives. It’s a myth, but no Republican candidate for high office would dare point out, just to cite one example, that some of our continuing trouble with Iran dates to the CIA-sponsored over throw in the 1950’s of the democratically elected government of that country.

We continue to debate whether the great defining event in the nation’s history was brought about by the founder’s inability to deal with the inhumanity of human bondage. The Civil War never ends and neither do the arguments about the Confederate battle flag as a symbol of white supremacy.

Surf the Internet and you’ll find crazy theories about the attacks on the World Trade Center and whether Neil Armstrong actually walked on the moon. Follow the political campaigns and listen to people who aspire to the nation’s highest office talking absolute nonsense about things that are absolutely knowable. Historical illiteracy is a dangerous condition in a democracy.

Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President
Woodrow Wilson, the 28th President

So, to connect the dots: it seems fine to me that Princeton students debate the legacy of the man who made their school a world-class university, served as governor of New Jersey and two terms as president of the United States. That Woodrow Wilson was also a racist, and even by the low standards of his day a virulent one, is also part of his legacy.

Wilson: Not Either/Or…But Both…

But the Princeton debate about Wilson really requires that we struggle with the nuances of his legacy, as well as the contradictions of the national story. The effort to really understand American history requires that we frequently hold two – or more – conflicting ideas in our heads at the same time. Wilson’s legacy is that he was both an unreconstructed racist and an enormously important president.

As the accomplished University of Chicago legal scholar Geoffrey Stone argues, “It would, of course, have been great if Woodrow Wilson, like some others of his generation, had directly challenged the morality of racial segregation. It would have been great if he had not believed in the principle of white supremacy. But, like all of us, he was a man of his own time, and he should be judged accordingly.”Wilson - Fed_Reserve

The substantial Wilson legacy, also part of the effort to judge the man and his times, includes creating the Federal Reserve System, the income tax, wage and hour laws, the Federal Trade Commission and appointing the first Jew – the great Justice Louis Brandeis – to the Supreme Court. Wilson’s arguably naïve and idealistic notions about international relations in the wake of World War I nonetheless created a theory of America’s role in the world that persists to this day. For good or bad, and I’d argue for good, there would be no United Nations today had there not been Wilson’s vision for a League of Nations.

Thus, as Geoff Stone says, “when all is said and done, Wilson should be judged by Princeton, as he has been judged by historians, not only by the moral standards of today, but by his achievements and his values in the setting of his own time.”

History is full of things we might conveniently forget, but does that really help the Princeton student’s quest for true equality?

All Had Feet of Clay…

You need not embrace Wilson’s racism to appreciate the importance of his presidency whether at Princeton or in Washington, D.C. You can repudiate Jefferson’s slave ownership, while marveling at the language of his Declaration of Independence. Lincoln saved the Union and trampled on civil liberties, just as Wilson presided over some of the worst abuses of civil liberties in modern history.

Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, the most important in the 20th Century, helped create modern America, including the establishment of lasting institutions like the Securities and Exchange Commission and Social Security. Roosevelt led the Allies to victory in World War II, but he also interned thousands of American citizens merely because they were of Japanese-American descent and refused to buck public opinion to assist Jewish refugees fleeing Europe’s horrors. Roosevelt never appeared to have a second thought about such decisions, which must be included in a significant part of his legacy.

Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau and Wilson in Paris in 1919
Lloyd George, Orlando, Clemenceau and Wilson in Paris in 1919

Teddy Roosevelt was an occasionally reckless warmonger who was also the greatest conservationist to ever sit in the White House.

American history, like all history, is fascinating because the people and events are complicated and contradictory. It forces us to look at the conflicting realities of our ideal by placing the great and the terrible side-by-side. Woodrow Wilson fascinates and bedevils us not because he was perfect, but because he was far from perfect and still matters. Rather than erase his legacy we should learn from it. Understanding the lessons of a racist president of a hundred years ago really should help us grapple with the reality of the racism that still pervades America in 2015.

You don’t need to be steeped in American history to know that the country with all of its flaws and marvelous accomplishments remains a work in progress. Scrubbing out the flaws of a Wilson, a Jefferson or a Lincoln, all of whom were part of the progress and examples of some of the greatest flaws, doesn’t illuminate, but rather obscures.

Better to debate Wilson than forget him or worse yet air brush him from the far larger American story.