Tag Archives: Washington DC

I Want Off The Grid Of The Trajectory of American History

In the wake of the deadly attack on the Capitol building by a right-wing mob last week, I have found some of the rhetoric used by those who have condemned the attack as troubling as that used by those who provoked and encouraged it in the first place.

I was not surprised by what I witnessed last Wednesday. Many of our leaders, however, seemed absolutely shocked that a large group of violent imbeciles and cosplaying Punishers could assault this “beacon of liberty.”

Does anyone believe this anymore? While the Capitol dome certainly stands as a symbol of American power, that power has been deployed in the name of democracy far less often than many of our leaders seem to believe. The right-wing, racist violence we witnessed on Wednesday is as American as apple pie. Using violence to protect white power and white privilege is one of the things in which American lead the world, along side women’s basketball and incarcerating people of color.

The historian-turned-pundit Jill Lepore said in an interview on WBUR

On Point Presents: A Conversation with Jill Lepore
Time to Go Off The Grid.

that the events in Washington that left her feeling “speechless” were the sorts of things that occurred in other countries, not the United States. It was unfamiliar. “We are,” she said, “off the grid of the trajectory of American history.”

That is a mess of a sentence, but if it means what I think it means, I have to most adamantly disagree. No, Professor Lepore. What we saw on Wednesday was entirely consistent with American history. And from that trajectory and that grid, I swear to God I want off. That the United States is a nation committed to liberty and equality is the biggest lie in American history. Until we face that fact and address it in a meaningful way there is little hope for change.

This country was founded by treasure-seeking storm-troopers who carried with them across the Atlantic guns, avarice, steel and European religious bigotry. They enslaved and subjugated Indigenous peoples. The settlers who followed them came not for freedom but to extract a living from the soil. Whatever wealth they acquired was almost always built

Or Not: Ostriches Bury Their Heads in Sand
Americans Preparing for a Frank Discussion of Their History

upon the backs of millions of enslaved peoples who worked lands stripped away from their Indigenous occupiers at the point of a gun. There are many stories one might tell about Early America. Most of them are filled with exploitation, intolerance, violence, and greed.

It took a Civil War that killed more than 600,000 people to eradicate slavery, but in its aftermath Southerners and their conciliatory enablers rushed to reconstruct institutions that replicated the restrictions on African-Americans that stood before the war. Meanwhile, the armed forces of the United States continued to march against native peoples who refused to surrender their lives, liberties, and property to the United States.

Look around you. The United States, with less than five percent of the world’s population, is home to a quarter of its people who live their lives behind bars. When most Americans think about Indigenous peoples at all, they conjure images from the past. Few are willing to consider or are aware of the challenges these communities face today, and fewer still are willing to do anything to help.

On the same day that we learned that a stunning, multicultural coalition had elected the first Jew and the first African American to represent Georgia in the Senate, an armed white mob cried foul and stormed the United States Capitol, because they lost what all the evidence shows was a fair and free election. Those who stormed the capitol did not need to fear the inadequate police forces garrisoning the building. They knew, in their lizard brains, that law enforcement in this country too often and in too many ways acts to uphold white supremacy. They feared nothing. For that reason, among others, Wednesday’s violence was so depressing. Not because it was surprising or a new low, but because it was so familiar and so entirely predictable.

This Is Us

When I began my teaching career in Montana in 1994 I found myself often feeling homesick. I had left all of my graduate school friends behind in New York, and my family remained in California. I did not know anyone in Montana yet, and I could already tell that my department was a colossal dumpster fire. I was lonely. Sometimes, at night, I drove my car up on to the Rimrocks that loomed above the city of Billings. There I could tune in to KNX News Radio, a powerful AM station from Los Angeles. It came in pretty clearly. I could hear about what the Dodgers were up to, the frequent traffic reports, and the weather back home. Connections, you know? We find them where we can.

Montana seemed like a foreign country to me. No metropolitan area (if you can call Billings “metropolitan”) is as far from another metropolitan area as Billings. I felt isolated. The music, the food, and the people I cared about–it all seemed very far away.

So I threw myself into my teaching. I had a heavy load, including one section each of the early and recent US History surveys every single semester. I had a lot to do. I felt more tired than I did when I was preparing for my comprehensive exams. What’s more, there was the surprise of teaching a methodology course my first semester. Underprepared, I asked the students to write about a historical event that they remembered with particular vividness. I wanted to talk about matters of memory, and how we measure the historical “significance” of this or that event.

There was one student sitting in the front row. A bit older than his peers. Shocking, white supremacist tattoos appeared on his arms. This was the 90s. Tattoos were still relatively rare. And I had never seen someone with swastikas on their arms before in real life, sitting right in front of me. This student would, by the end of the semester, write a paper about Jacob Thorkelson, a one-term Congressman from Montana who was elected in 1938. Thorkelson was a rabid anti-Semite, and avowedly pro-Nazi. This student clearly looked up to Thorkelson.

All that was to come. In his first essay, this student described hearing of the death of the “Freedom Fighters” in Waco while sitting in a federal penitentiary in Minnesota. It was an effective opening. I’ll give him that. I was hooked. I wanted to read more.

What Happened to the Branch Davidians After Waco? - HISTORY

Waco, of course, was the site of the raid by federal authorities on the Branch Davidian compound commanded by a messianic and well-armed rapist and lunatic named David Koresh. Koresh and his followers set fire to the compound rather than surrender, and 76 of his followers died.

My student wrote this seven months before the Oklahoma City Bombing, and I was entirely unfamiliar with this sort heavily-armed, High Plains, Right-wing nuttiness. It was a fringe view even in Montana. But it did not take long to stumble across this frightened, angry, and racist rhetoric–on weak AM radio stations, especially, broadcast over the sparse landscape of Eastern Montana. I was surprised by the number of my students who believed some truly vile things. But it was the fringe.

Montana is beautiful. There are things about it that I miss. I would love to visit it again. I met some fascinating people. I never expected that the sort of conspiratorial insanity I heard on the High Plains of eastern Montana would move to the mainstream of the Republican Party under Donald Trump. And though this dim-witted tyrant and bully will soon lope off the national stage, I have no doubt that the sort of violent, racist, civic illiteracy that has fueled Trumpism is alive and well. Feed Trump a diet rich in fresh greens instead of Big Macs, and slap an Ivy League law degree on him and a larger vocabulary, and you get something looking and sounding a lot like Josh Hawley.

In the morning before the assault on the nation’s Capitol building, I taught my students about the Paxton Boys. It is a story that really pulls at me. A group of racist thugs, in defiance of authorities who had no interest in standing in their way, murdered peaceful Christian Indians. They killed small children with hatchets, and they mutilated the bodies afterwards. Later that day, while listening in on an AHA Panel featuring the great Tisa Wenger, I received a text from a friend telling me to drop what I was doing and turn on the TV. Another mob, this time determined to disfranchise millions of American peoples of color by throwing out their votes, while carrying symbols of white supremacy, stormed the Senate and house chambers. Two mobs, both racist and violent, both utterly and undeniably American.

We are not special. Our body politic is badly diseased. See how we are.

Musings of an Inebriated Historian

Being a historian in a world so full of needless suffering sometimes feels like a sentence to despair and hopelessness. I am not the first historian to feel this way. A long time ago the American historian Clarence Walworth Alvord looked out a world ravaged by the first Great War and wrote an essay entitled “Musings of an Inebriated Historian.” Historians, he noted, for a generation had celebrated “progress.” They assumed civilization emerged from and prevailed over barbarism, the arc moving ever upwards. Historians reminded their readers and students of that progress, or at least they were supposed to. Like the philosopher George Santayana, who famously declared that those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it, Alvord believed that the story of the past could illuminate the path toward a better future. But then, he wrote, “I remembered that this boasted historical mindedness did not prevent historians of all nationalities losing their sense of toleration and feeling for proportion during the World War.” That realization left him forlorn. What, Alvord wondered, “in heaven, or hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history?” Had the historian, Alvord asked, “ever offered any plausible excuse for his existence?”

As he wandered “aimlessly amidst the shadows of dead ambitions and frustrated hopes, phantoms of many efforts to save the world from its own insanity,” Alvord lamented that the historians who wrote before the war “experienced no difficulty in discovering signs of an upward progress. To them . . . the nations were goose-stepping in serried columns toward a better world, the millennium itself was evidently on the point of capitulating before the onslaught.”

They should have seen the slaughter coming. He should have seen it, too. But he didn’t and they didn’t. And millions died for causes that were not in the end worth the expenditure of a single human life. That progress? It was a lie. He looked out at the wreckage. “After such an error, what right have professors of history to speak?” Alvord thought none. “As I kick my heels on the edge of nothingness’ chasm,” he wrote, “I look as miserable and repentant as I can in my sackcloth suit and shampoo of ashes.”

WHAT IN HEAVEN, in hell, or on earth is the value of a professor of history? Not a thing, it seems, when they fail to ask tough questions and stop casting upon the evidence a critical eye.

My generation of historians, and the generation or generations of historians who have followed me, are not nearly as Whiggish as our profession once was. We know how bad things are, and we know the deep history of our country’s sins. While we are well aware that the world today is in so many ways better than it was in the past, we are far less inclined to focus on progress. We understand the depth of our imperfections. But too many of us still believe in what must be the biggest lie in American history: that he United States was a nation conceived in liberty, committed to justice for all.

If you have not seen this before, you must see it now. And if you cannot see it now, and if you are one of those who supported the President and his hollow sycophants in the Republican Party, it boggles my mind. How could you? We must stop repeating the lie.

REPUBLICANS HAD BEEN at war with historians long before the awful Lynne Cheney declared its “end” in a dismissive attack on the National History Standards which she published in the Wall Street Journal back in 1994. Those of us who teach Native American history have long told our students about all the colonialism, the cruelty, and the violence that rests at the foundation of this nation’s past. But too many of us describe the acts of racism and state-sanctioned violence, as well as the President’s recent strongman posturing, as somehow “UnAmerican.” “This is not who we are,” I hear people say. I am not so sure about hat. The President might lose the upcoming election and he might leave office afterwards–I am doubtful about both of these points–but the type of politics and the attitudes toward race he embraces are as American as apple pie. It is possible that this is who we are.

LET’S SAY THAT YOU and your partner go to see a therapist for some couple’s counseling. “She keeps breaking my stuff,” the husband says.

“Do you break your husband’s stuff?” the therapist asks.

Wiping away a tear, she nods her head.

“Tell me about that,” the therapist asks.

“I try to get him to talk about our problems. Every time I do he shuts me down. He sees neither my pain nor my anger. The only way I can get his attention is by breaking his stuff.”

“How does it make you feel to break his stuff?”

“I’m angry,” she says. “But it feels good for a minute or two, at least. I know it doesn’t make anything better, but I have been trying for so long.”

The therapist turns to the husband. “Do you hear what she is saying?”

“She’s breaking my stuff,” he says. “She admits it.”

“She has,” the therapist acknowledges, “but do you hear what she is saying about the reasons why?”

“I don’t care,” the husband says. “She is breaking my stuff. It’s wrong to do that.”

MOST AMERICANS, who are bad historians indeed, are like that husband as they look out at the riots. White supremacists–and by that I do not mean the assholes with hoods and swastikas and tiki-torches, but all of those who benefit and uphold systems and structures that have historically privileged white people at the expense of peoples of color–will focus on how people protest and not why.

Historians. We are the people who ask why. We must do this even when it is difficult to do so, even when it is frightening. The couple seeking a therapist will never heal by looking at the superficial. Good therapists share much with historians. They seek root causes. Meanwhile, tens of millions of Americans say to those burdened by the weight of injustice, “Why are you so angry?” You’re acting crazy. Stop being such a bitch.” So few of us have stopped and listened, acknowledged the pain, and joined in the efforts to carve a new path for this broken shell of a country.

Like Clarence Walworth Alvord, we can wallow in our despair. We can say that these have been some of the worst weeks in American history. But if your eyes were open, you saw this coming. And if your eyes are open you will see that in so many ways it is not getting better. “Racism isn’t getting worse,” Will Smith said. “It’s getting filmed.” It’s getting worse in all sorts of ways. Only a racist or a sociopath could want four more years of this.