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.
Just a week ago, President Trump signed an executive order suspending refugee resettlement and blocking access to the US for the nationals of seven predominantly Muslim countries in the Middle East. Opposition to this order came together incredibly swiftly, as thousands of Americans went to airports to protest this action.
There are, I think, a lot of reasons that this executive order drew such widespread and immediate resistance. Some have been discussed at length. We think of ourselves as a nation of immigrants. And many, many of us have ancestors only a generation or two back who came to this country as members of despised minority groups. Many Americans also have friends, colleagues, loved ones, and relatives directly affected by the order. And, as sign after sign indicated, years of Holocaust education has taught most Americans that if they come for some other group, your group will be attacked soon enough.
But one thing that hasn’t been remarked on quite so much was the centrality of restrictions on freedom of movement to American understandings of Soviet communism, especially during the latter half of the Cold War. Closed international borders were one of the key things separating the “Free World” from the Eastern Bloc. Tens of millions of Americans – all but the Millennials, really – who still remember this. Continue reading
In the 1970s, in central California, some high school students read Pat Frank’s novel Alas, Babylon in their sophomore English classes. I know this because my grandmother, who went to college in her forties and earned a bachelor’s degree and became a high school English teacher in one of the little farm towns of Stanislaus County, assigned this book in her classes as part of that district’s standard curriculum. In fact, I think this is one of her copies – the 30th printing, hot off the presses of Bantam Books some time in 1974 or 1975.
First published in 1959, Alas, Babylon is a post-apocalyptic novel set in “Fort Repose,” a fictional rural community in central Florida. The premise of the novel is simple enough. Soviet nuclear missiles have struck the United States, including nearby MacDill Air Base. Infrastructure, food supply, law and order – all have been obliterated. The country folk and townspeople who survived the blast must now figure out how to survive the aftermath. They have to figure out not just how to find an uncontaminated water supply, how to find food, what to do in medical emergencies, but how to rebuild the social order: how to protect themselves from lawless outsiders, how to tell friend from foe, how to foster and defend a just and democratic society.
And all the while they don’t know what is happening in the larger world. Have the Russians destroyed the United States? Is there a war on? Is anyone fighting back? Is America still standing?
The passing of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro has been an occasion for academics and intellectuals to talk publicly of the role of Castro in both the Cold War and Third World struggles. Not that these can be separated (nor should they be), but Castro’s outsized influence on both has come back to mind via reading the obituaries about his long life. After hearing of his death late Friday night, I wondered how much attention would be paid to Cuban exploits on the continent of Africa—namely their participation in the Angolan Civil War and stance against South African Apartheid—versus Cuba’s mutually antagonistic relationship with the United States. I also thought about how obituaries of Fidel Castro would be different depending on, a) the ideological background of the person writing them, and b) the location of the publication in which they appeared. Would an obit of Castro written in, say South Africa differ from one written for a mainstream newspaper in the United States? I assumed this to be the case. Therefore, I’ve assembled here just a sampling of obituaries from the United States and across the world.
Little magazines, especially those on the Left, have received some attention here at the blog and at our conference, but little organizations, especially religious ones, fade in and out of view. High-profile think tanks and groups like the John Birch Society have been addressed. But think tanks are a special case for intellectual historians by nature of their work, and have been discussed many times at the blog. And the John Birch Society doesn’t qualify as little, given the number members (60-100,000) and local chapters that existed by the early 1960s.
Since religious history is intellectual history—“without qualification,” in Eran Zelnik’s words (with which I agree)—then perhaps we should pay more attention to little religious organizations that mobilize to effect momentous outcomes, or that symbolize a nexus of key issues.
One such organization has come up in discussions of Phyllis Schlafly’s passing: The Cardinal Mindszenty Foundation. And it just so happens that this one intersects with the activities of Birchers. The NYT obituary for Schlafly provided the following basics: Continue reading
[Editorial note: this essay is the first of two thhree posts that will discuss the recent Stanford forum on intellectual history. The second post will run this afternoon and the link will be provided here. UPDATE 6/5/16 – 5:00 PM: We have received a third essay addressing this discussion — you can find that guest post here.]
Areas of Concern: Intellectual History and the Challenges of Academic Globalism
by Matthew D. Linton
On May 24, a public discussion of the oft-asked question “What is Intellectual History?” was held at Stanford University. The discussion was organized by students in response to the university’s decision not to grant associate history professor Aishwary Kumar tenure. For students and faculty supportive of Kumar’s tenure case, his work tracing planetary flows of political and moral ideas is essential to showing how concepts create global communities. The value of intellectual history is in its ability to move across space highlighting the “channels of communication” across nations and cultures. Intellectual history, for Kumar and others, is a potent tool for tracing the genealogy of how globalism was constructed and who has benefitted most from its creation.
While the centrality of ideas to the history of globalism should come as welcome news to most readers of this blog, the Stanford discussion highlights the challenges and shortcomings of another method – interdisciplinary area studies – in retaining its relevance in a university emphasizing global continuities instead of regional specificities. As Robert Harrison, a professor of Italian literature and contributor to the Stanford discussion eloquently stated, “Area studies falls short of the goal or idea of what has been called global education. We need a form of history that gets inside of those who do the thinking in a given society or culture.” Harrison’s comment raises two interconnected problems that the area studies method has struggled with since its inception in the early 20th century: 1) how to integrate diverse area studies into a single program of global education, and 2) if area studies can create independent theoretical concepts without grounding in a single discipline.
The following post comes from Rebecca Denne and Rachel Fulk. Denne is a first year graduate student in IUPUI’s Departments of History and Library Science. She is interested in public history and archives. Fulk is a first year graduate student in IUPUI’s Department of History. She is a teaching assistant with interests in post-1945 American history and women’s history. They were both students in Ray Haberski’s spring semester course on post-1945 United States history.
Immediately after the Cold War came to a surprisingly quiet end, many conservatives (and not a few liberals) attempted to cement the Cold War as a “good war” in the minds of the American public and proclaim a specific place for it in American collective memory. But the American people did not buy into this historical narrative. Instead of acceptance, the public condemned and questioned Cold War decisions and strategies. As a result, historical sites around the United States with the job of explaining the Cold War often apologize for actions of a nation that, at least in the conservative view, “won” the Cold War. Continue reading
As a follow up to the great Jackie Robinson documentary shown on PBS last week, today I am going to create a brief list of works to read about Jackie Robinson, his legacy, and the America in which he lived. These works provide context for Robinson’s public stature. Jackie Robinson, as a documentary, provides a fascinating look at American life in the twentieth century. These readings will provide further commentary. As always, feel free to add more in the comments section.
Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship that Shaped the Sixties
by Kevin M. Schultz
387 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, 2015
a review by Mike O’Connor
In the Showtime series The Affair, Noah Solloway is a high school English teacher, unsuccessful novelist and seemingly happy family man. In the manner of the middle-aged American male that he is, he attempts to find something that he believes himself to have lost by beginning a torrid affair. As the relationship blossoms into love, Noah destroys his home and family and even loses his job.
The turmoil provides the inspiration to write a second, sex-obsessed novel…about a middle-aged man who has an affair. The book rockets to the top of the best-seller lists and makes Noah a literary celebrity who now has difficulty staying faithful to the woman for whom he has left his wife. Noah is a destructive presence in the lives of everyone close to him, and the sexual obsession that drives his literary fame only underscores his immaturity and self-absorption. The show makes this point abundantly clear when Noah meets with a boorish Hollywood producer who wants to make a movie of the book. The producer expresses how impressed he is with Noah’s work, claiming that he courageously writes about sex in a way that is no longer welcome in our “politically correct” age. The climax of his catalogue of praise arrives when he calls Noah the “literary son of Norman Mailer.”
Erik Christiansen. Channeling the Past: Politicizing History in Postwar America. (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013) 302 pages.
Review by Nick Witham
In a 1955 episode of the CBS historical education series You Are There entitled “The Emancipation Proclamation,” viewers are presented with an on-the-ground news report relating the responses of various Civil War-era Americans to Abraham Lincoln’s famous executive order. In presenting this televised historical re-enactment (if we can call it that, given the interpolation of TV journalists into the fray), You Are There broke with the mainstream of 1940s and 1950s US historiography by presenting the events of 1 January 1863 through the eyes of recently freed slaves. As Erik Christiansen relates in his excellent 2013 book Channeling the Past, in one amazing and powerful scene, viewers watch “as the slaves transform themselves into full citizens,” thus rendering the words and actions of their President “almost irrelevant.” This was a dramatically different version of Civil War history than that presented in school and university textbooks of the period, and, in Christiansen’s view, was the result of a politically motived script penned by a screenwriter with a distinctively leftist perspective on the US past: blacklistee Howard Rodman (135).