In recent months I’ve been loaning my father various history books. Part of it is to, quite simply, make some space in my apartment. But for the most part, it’s my way of making my parents part of my scholarly life again. As I’ve written here before, my parents are the primary reason I’m in graduate school. Their reading habits became my reading habits. With my father squeezing in some time to read when he’s not at work at his truck driving job, I wanted to repay the favor.
Last week I wrote about the importance of the 1990s to current trends in intellectual discourse. Today, I’d like to zero in on one story of the decade: Bill Clinton’s attempt to handle race relations during the 1990s. We would do well to remember how a Southern Democrat, facing a country continuing to wrestle with the legacy of the Civil Rights Movement, navigated the intractable problem of racism in modern life. His 1997 Presidential Commission on Race, which “celebrates” its twentieth anniversary this year, is the best example of how he tried to deal with race. The fact that the commission is virtually forgotten, despite the participation of notables such as historian John Hope Franklin, speaks both to the tumultuous nature of Clinton’s second term, and the nation’s forgetfulness on the recent history of race and American society.
Two recent essays have caught my eye in recent days, forcing me to think even harder about the importance of history to modern political and cultural debates. Both illustrate to me the reason why recent history is such a crucial aspect of the historical profession. While it is often easy to use comparisons to the nineteen-sixties when talking about the chaos of modern politics—and we should all brace ourselves for next year, which will mark numerous fifty-year anniversaries for the calamitous events of 1968 (you were warned)—or the “malaise” of the nineteen-seventies, it is time to also think about historicizing the nineteen-nineties. Events in that decade say as much about our current predicaments as much as referencing the Cold War, the Civil Rights/Black Power era, or the “Age of Reagan” of the eighties.
Over at the African American Intellectual History Society’s Black Perspectives page, a roundtable on the writings and legacy of historian Gerald Horne has had me fascinated for the last week. I joked before the roundtable began that the Horne roundtable was going to be the highlight of my birthday week. All humor aside, though, the roundtable has proven to be a critically important read—perhaps the most important online writing from a group of historians in 2017 so far. This is not meant as hyperbole, because Gerald Horne deserves a much, much larger reading audience.
Suber, Peter. Knowledge Unbound: Selected Writings on Open Access, 2002-2011. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2016. 436 pages.
The full text of the book is freely available here, as an open access (OA) publication.
Review by Scott Richard St. Louis
Cards on the table: during my undergraduate years, and more recently as an early-career professional, I have found it lamentably true that conferences tend to lack a felt coherence. Even when these gatherings convene around various themes, the splintered arrays of concurrent activity often fail to inspire the development of robust intellectual community: something that can persist long after the flights home have landed and the CVs are updated. This is a bleak assessment, given the tremendous potential that such community can entail when it becomes both durable and open to new participation, especially for younger scholars. Even so, this perception is almost definitely not mine alone. In fact, it is thrown into stark relief every time an abundance of meandering presentations are inflicted upon overtaxed audiences from reams of double-spaced Times New Roman. I am exaggerating for effect, of course, but only for the sake of appealing to an observation I take to be fairly common, albeit difficult to act upon productively. Happily, in any case, exceptions to the rule are plentiful. (Thanks in no small part to this wonderful blog, I would count the Society for U.S. Intellectual History among them!)
As the United States approaches a Memorial Day holiday a deeply—and it seems, hopelessly—divided nation, I find myself contemplating the life and tragic death of an American soldier. He did not die in Afghanistan or in Syria. His life was not taken at the hands of ISIS, al-Qaeda, or some other foreign adversary. Instead, he died right here in America. This brave soul died at the hands of a fellow American. His story is one most American historians are familiar with but most Americans choose to forget. Richard Collins III, who had just been commissioned as a U.S. Army lieutenant, died at the hands of a white supremacist. His tragic fate is a reminder of the honorable, and yet also tortured, legacy of the African American soldier in American history.
In the last six months, it has become a trend among intellectuals and academics to mine the past for thinkers to whom we can look to for guidance in how to address the “Age of Trump.” Hannah Arendt and Richard Hofstadter have, not surprisingly, become the leaders in this renaissance of thinking about oppressive regimes abroad and at home. Thankfully, other scholars have critiqued this, reminding us that African American intellectuals, among many others, embody a tradition of fighting government tyranny at home. For many Americans, fear of the government, concerns about the trampling of their constitutional rights, and desperation to find hope during hopeless times, is nothing new during the Trump Administration. It is merely day to day life in America.
The bringing down of a nineteenth century moment dedicated to white supremacy and terrorism in New Orleans last week has reminded all of us of the ways in which Civil War and Reconstruction still loom large in American memory. Arguing over old neo-Confederate monuments, or state support for flying the Confederate flag, has a new lease on life in both an “Age of Trump” and an “Age of Black Lives Matter.” That the nation is at a crossroads of race and memory right now—just as the United States wrestles with both the legacy of Barack Obama and the presidency of Donald Trump—is not a surprise. But events since the Charleston massacre of 2015 prove that the debate over memory in American society is never-ending.
A continuation of guest poster Chris Arnold’s series on King Kong and American intellectual history.
And the Prophet said:
” And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty.
And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day,
It was as one dead”
With these faux ancient words Merian C. Cooper gave life to the powerful 20th century American version of Beauty and the Beast archetype that is the myth of King Kong, As Richard Slotkin posits
“Myth expresses ideology in a narrative… myths are formulated as ways of explaining problems that arise in the course of historical experience. The most important and longest lived of these formulations persist over long periods of time.”[i]
The King Kong myth has had at least 6 major iterations in just over eighty years. What accounts for this vitality? Did the Kong myth offer successful solutions to cultural problems impacting Twentieth Century America? Which problems were these? A fruitful approach to answering these questions begins with an examination of the myth’s initial creator.
Guest Post by Daniel S. Goldberg
Several weeks ago, Representative Jason Chaffetz (R- Utah) found himself the target of some acid criticism in multiple news outlets for attempting to justify some of the provisions in the AHCA by stating that ‘people may have to choose between iPhones and health care.’
Predictably, a storm of controversy erupted. Opponents of Rep. Chaffetz’s perspective pointed out the basic functional significance of a smartphone for more marginalized groups, including taking the time to note how smartphones were important for disease management, family and community care, public health, etc. This matters a great deal because the vast majority of health care services (by volume) actually happens outside of inpatient settings, and frequently outside of clinical settings at all. There is little doubt that smartphone access is material to the informal caregiving that places such tremendous demands on the resources of caregivers and intimates. There is no reason why more disadvantaged groups would be excepted from this assessment.