End of Semester Thoughts on the Idea of Progress in History

Dear HIS 1000 students,

Thank you all for what has been an interesting and challenging semester. I realize this semester has been a particularly challenging one, not only in terms of the individual challenges many of you have been experiencing in terms of the ongoing impact of COVID-19 on your lives and those of your families, but in terms of your adjustment to college life and the expectations of a college course, which many of you are balancing with work and family obligations.

On top of that, the shift from remote to in-person was quite disruptive (although I believe, ultimately beneficial) and the fact that we were all masked during the semester made it harder for me to lecture and had the unfortunate side effect of making it harder for me to get to know you! That said, I want to thank you for your cooperation in sticking to the vaccine and mask mandates, which made our class meetings much safer.

I wanted to leave you with a few words that I hope you will take with you, and remember when confronting your own personal struggles as well as the ongoing struggle against injustice. As I’ve mentioned a few times, I’ve been struck over the semester by what I perceive as the pessimism, even cynicism, you’ve expressed at times in class and in some of your writing. To be clear, I think that these are perfectly reasonable responses to reading and learning about some of the aspects of our history we’ve discussed this semester, such as slavery, racial violence and terror, male domination and gendered oppression, religious intolerance, economic and environmental catastrophe, and war—aspects which, for some of you, may have been quite new, and quite disturbing to read about.

But I want to stress that, while some of these phenomena have taken on uniquely American forms, and while they perhaps appear more starkly hypocritical in the light of our country’s historically unique claim to be founded on promises of equality and democracy, none of them are particularly unique to the United States. Rather, the sad reality is that slavery, racism, intolerance, oppression, greed, and war have appeared in different forms in different societies around the world, throughout the course of human history.

When discussing the concept of progress in human history, I often quote Martin Luther King, Jr. to the effect that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” In other words, progress does occur over long periods of time, but our limited perspectives make it difficult to see, much like the earth’s horizon appears flat unless viewed from a great height, at which point its curvature becomes clear. King himself may be have been inspired by Theodore Parker, a nineteenth-century minister and abolitionist who expressed a similar idea in a sermon published in 1853.[1]

But as I mentioned before the Final yesterday, I thought a quote from another abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, might be more appropriate for this semester. In a speech given on August 3, 1857, commemorating the anniversary of slave emancipation in the West Indies, Douglass said:

“The whole history of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been borne of earnest struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress.” Douglass knew of what he spoke, and I hope you will bear his quote in mind as you go forward in life and confront your own personal struggles, as well as the never-ending struggle against various forms of oppression and injustice.

One more quote, since I couldn’t resist adding this from bell hooks, a trailblazing Black feminist and scholar who passed away yesterday (she famously did not capitalize her name, so that rendering is not a mistake):

“When we only name the problem, when we state complaint without a constructive focus or resolution, we take hope away. In this way critique can become merely an expression of profound cynicism, which then works to sustain dominator culture.”[2]

I can’t think of a better quote that more succinctly states the dangers of succumbing to cynicism, even when faith in progress is difficult to sustain in the light of historical evidence to the contrary.

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1850s

[1] Theodore Parker, Ten Sermons by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience (Boston: Crosby, Nichols, and Co., 1853), 84–85. King’s quote is from a speech made at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. on March 31, 1968, just a few days before his death.

[2] bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope (New York: Routledge, 2003), xiv.

The Many Causes of the Great Depression and the “Unknowables” of Economic History

Like all great events in history, the Great Depression that began with the stock market crash of October, 1929 had many causes. Unlike many events in history, the causes of the Depression are quite difficult to understand, and there is no single consensus, even among economic historians, about what caused it or how to avoid similar crises in the future.

Perhaps this is because of the uniquely complex nature of capitalist economies in a globalized world. Ordinary people, including many historians, avoid the study of economics or economic history because of a feeling that it is beyond the comprehension of non-specialists. Many people seem to believe that elected officials, like the President, have a near-magical power to control things like unemployment levels or the price of gasoline. At the opposite extreme, professional economists often seem attached to ideologies, or to the idea that market forces, which are subject to inherently irrational aspects of human psychology and behavior, can be explained and predicted with scientific precision.

I’m posting the following link to an article from Business Insider, which does a fairly good overview explaining some of the causes and significance of the Great Depression and New Deal, in response to your questions about this topic (among the causes it suggests are over-speculation, overproduction and underconsumption, the Smoot-Hawley tariff, and, yes, mistakes by the Federal Reserve). But I’m also posting it because I’d like you to see that even such a complex web of interconnected and contested historical causes—even when they concern a topic as complex, and sometimes frankly boring, as economics—are not beyond the comprehension of the average educated person.

The article also briefly attempts to assess the effects of the New Deal. In class I asked you to consider how the New Deal Era represented, not only a stark departure from the idea that government should play little or no role in regulating the economy, but as part of an expansion of ideas about democracy, i.e., , that vast inequalities of wealth distort our country’s democracy as well as its economic health, and that people have a right to a certain degree of economic security . Roosevelt outlined the former view in his “Four Freedoms,” which included “freedom from want” as well as more traditional, individual rights like freedom of speech and worship. But in fact these ideas have a much longer lineage, going back to the republican idea of the res publica or “commonwealth,” as well as the Constitution’s assertion that government has a responsibility to “promote the general welfare.”

Recently, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which pledges $550 billion to rebuild bridges, tunnels, and highways, improve the electrical grid and internet access, clean up polluted sites and replace lead pipes, and etc. Observers, including Pres. Biden himself, have compared this bill, along with the not-yet-passed Build Back Better bill, to the investments in infrastructure and public works programs of the New Deal Era. But it is not yet clear whether it will have the same effect—for one thing, the nature of the economy is vastly different from what it was 70 years ago. Pres. Trump also promised to build infrastructure and bring back manufacturing, but, aside from the Border Wall, seemed to be short on specifics.

One of my goals with the class this semester has been to de-mystify the subject of economic history in general, and the history of capitalism in particular. Like many topics this semester, we have not been able to cover this in as much depth or detail as I would have liked. But, perhaps especially as Baruch College students, many of whom will go into business, marketing, or finance, I think it’s important that you try to grapple with the complexities of the economic systems that have shaped our contemporary world. I would also argue that, as citizens in a democratic society, we have a responsibility to try to understand economics and a right to have a say in the economic decisions that affect all of our lives, and not just leave them to the politicians and specialists who claim to know all.

The Civil War and Civil War Memory in Modern America

In recent years, the Civil War Era and its legacies have once again emerged as contentious topics in the United States. From the Confederate flags incorporated into the flags of several southern states, to monuments honoring famous generals or anonymous soldiers, to battlefields and other historic sites, memories of the Civil War are all around us, whether we are aware of them or not. As cities, states, universities, and other municipalities and institutions have removed or made alterations to a number of historic sites and symbols—sometimes in response to calls by historians or racial justice advocates—they have often faced a backlash from those who view these sites and symbols as part of their “heritage,” or see removing them as an attempt to erase our history.

As historians have pointed out, however, one of the problems with the “destroying history” argument is that most of the nation’s Civil War monuments and memorials were not created during, or even near the time of the war itself, but years or decades later. As the chart below shows, the vast majority of monuments to the Confederacy, as well as schools named for Confederate figures, were created in the first two decades of the 20th century (there was another spike in the mid-1960s, which coincided with the centennial of the war but also with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement). The memorialization of the war during this period was strongly influenced by the mythology of the “Lost Cause,” which argued that the war had not really been fought over slavery, but was a heroic but doomed effort on the part of the South to free itself from the domination and “tyranny” of the North. Promoted by defeated Confederates like former president and vice-president Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens, in popular early films like Birth of a Nation, and by some historians, the “Lost Cause” gained widespread acceptance in both North and South in the post-Reconstruction period as a means of reconstituting the nation and putting the divisive war years in the past. By the mid 20th century, the “Lost Cause” mythology was widely reiterated in school curricula and textbooks.

Source: Southern Poverty Law Center

More disturbingly, perhaps, Confederate flags and other symbols of the “Lost Cause” have long been adopted by segregationists and white supremacists, neo-Confederates, anti-government and pro-gun activists, and other groups on the political right. Meanwhile, Civil War era monuments and memorials have been staging grounds for heated, sometimes violent political conflicts. For the last several years, on July 4th, the Gettysburg National Memorial has become the site of demonstrators, often heavily armed, protesting perceived threats from Antifa and other left-wing groups. The ostensible purpose of the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, which aimed to bring together white supremacists, militia groups, and figures associated with the “alt right” was to defend a Confederate monument in a public park that the city council had recently voted to remove. Heather Heyer, a young counter-demonstrator, was killed by a man belonging to a neo-Nazi organization. Confederate flags were in abundant display both in Charlottesville and at the attempted insurrection at the Capitol building on Jan. 6th, 2021.

Historians have responded to these controversies in a number of ways. Eric Foner has called for monuments to be removed selectively, with new monuments erected to lesser-known Black figures like John M. Langston; while James Oakes has suggested that Confederate monuments be relegated to a specific site or museum, as the Russian government did with statues of Soviet leaders after the fall of the Soviet Union. On occasion, protesters have taken matters into their own hands, destroying the statues of a Confederate soldier on the grounds of the University of North Carolina and a notorious slave trader in Bristol, England. More recently, Scott Hancock, Gregory Downs, Kate Masur, and Hillary Green led a nationwide effort to challenge the narratives at Civil War sites with “more history,” calling for a “day of action” in which historians and others would intervene at Civil War sites with signs and other creative efforts aimed at offering more historically grounded interpretations (Downs and Masur were also instrumental in realizing the Reconstruction Era National Historical Park in Beaufort, SC, the first national park site dedicated to the history of Reconstruction).

Do these efforts go far enough in challenging the false narratives of the Civil War Era that seem to be fueling a resurgence of white nationalism? Should more monuments be removed, despite the potential for backlash by certain groups? If so, who should get to decide? Whose history is “our” history, anyway?

 

 

Today’s Elections and “Critical Race Theory”

Today, Nov. 2, 2021, was an election day in many parts of the country, including here in New York City, where we had the chance to vote for a new mayor, public advocate, and city council members as well as several important ballot measures. I hope you all remembered to do your civic duty by voting today.

However, attention is fixed on a handful of tight governor’s races, including next door in New Jersey, and in Virginia, where Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe is in a close race with Republican Glenn Youngkin, a businessman and supporter of former president Trump.

Although Youngkin has distanced himself from Trump, he has managed to make cultural issues, particularly the teaching of “Critical Race Theory” in schools, a major issue in the campaign. In reality, however, it is highly unlikely that public schools in Virginia, or any public K-12 school in the country, are teaching Critical Race Theory or including it in their curricula. It is unclear what Youngkin or other Republicans mean by “Critical Race Theory”—an until-recently obscure set of ideas and practices used in certain law school and graduate programs—but probably, like the man in this viral video from Twitter (below), they have little idea what it is.

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Or, perhaps more to the point, they know that it sounds divisive and that many white Americans are fearful of the idea of talking about, or teaching, the history of race and slavery and its links to current racial injustices. In the summer of 2020, a conservative activist named Christopher Rufo began pushing the idea that Critical Race Theory was a pervasive threat to American values (and also that it was, somehow, racist), and Republican strategists have embraced the idea ever since. A number of Republican-controlled states have since banned the teaching of CRT from public schools altogether—even though, as already mentioned, there is little evidence that it is actually taught in schools.

It remains to be seen how effective this approach will be, but as of this writing, Youngkin leads McAuliffe—in a state where Biden won by some 10 percentage points—in the vote tallies.

Happy Indigenous Peoples’ Day!

Although Christopher Columbus is often said to have “discovered” the New World in 1492, by this point in the semester it should be abundantly clear that his was a “discovery” only from the vantage point of Europeans, who were unaware of the existence of the American continents. Instead, Columbus and other European explorers encountered an incredibly diverse array of peoples comprised of hundreds of cultural and linguistic groups, from the advanced civilizations and vast cities of the Aztecs and Incas to the semi-nomadic hunting and agricultural societies of the Eastern Woodlands.

While Columbus’s voyage was undoubtedly an event of great world-historical significance, and deserves to be remembered for that reason, it should also be clear by now—as it was to European observers like Adam Smith more than 200 years ago—that Columbus’s voyage brought about “dreadful misfortunes” as well as “great benefits.” Not only did Columbus and his Spanish, Portuguese, French, Dutch, and English successors massacre and enslave tens or hundreds of thousands of Native people (with Columbus himself personally taking part in atrocities), the so-called “Columbian Exchange” of smallpox and other diseases led to perhaps the greatest single episode of loss of life in human history—with some estimates putting the death toll at 80 million, or about 1/5th of the world’s population at the time, over decades. For these reasons, even other Europeans during the Age of Exploration referred to the initial conquest of Native regions by the Spanish as the “Black Legend,” an acknowledgment of the cruelty of early European colonizers as well as the great loss of life that attended the conquest of the Americas.

A painting said to depict Opechancanough, the Algonquian leader who successfully staved off English colonizers in Virginia until his capture and death at age 92.

Although Native peoples often resisted fiercely, sometimes successfully staving off incursions by European settlers for decades or longer, much of the history of the interaction between indigenous people and settlers in what became the United States follows a similar narrative of dispossession, displacement, and cultural erasure. From a population of perhaps 10-18 million at the time of Columbus’s voyage, today in the United States there are less than 3 million people who claim to be of full Native American ancestry, less than 1 per cent of the population. Not without reason, then, have many scholars and others characterized the policies of the United States government towards Native American peoples in this period of history as constituting genocide.

For all these reasons, some have proposed that it would be more appropriate to celebrate this holiday as “Indigenous People’s Day,” shifting the focus to the history of Native people and their descendants throughout the Americas (and for Italian-Americans who view the day as a celebration of their culture, why not dedicate a new holiday to Amerigo Vespucci, the Florentine navigator who is credited with establishing the fact that the Americas were separate continents, or any one of hundreds of notable Italian-Americans since then?) This year, President Biden became the first U.S. president to officially recognize Oct. 11th as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, breaking a longstanding tradition of celebrating European colonizers while ignoring our indigenous past. Time will tell if this marks the inauguration of a new era in our remembrance of U.S. history, or only the latest battle in the so-called “culture wars” that have overshadowed such national discussions of history, race, and identity since the 1990s.

The Difficulties and Dilemmas of Democracy

One of the big news stories today was the victory of California Governor Gavin Newsom over Larry Elder, in what is known in California as a “recall” election.

As we begin to move towards an exploration of our class theme of Democracy, it seems like an appropriate time to draw on current events to enhance our understanding of what this contested term means, and how that meaning has changed over time and been used (and abused) in different places around the world, including within the United States.

Under California’s unique system, voters can vote an elected governor out of office before the end of his or her term (4 years) by collecting enough signatures to hold a referendum—a special election in which a question is put directly to voters. In this case, many people were angry at Gov. Newsom’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, which included relatively strict mask mandates and forced business closures (not unlike Gov. Cuomo’s approach in New York). Newsom inadvertently added fuel to the fire when pictures were leaked of him attending a 2020 dinner at an expensive San Francisco restaurant, unmasked. The incident added to perceptions of Newsom as a hypocritical elitist who is out of touch with ordinary Californians.

In theory, California’s recall system represents a form of direct democracy—in which questions of great import are put directly before the people, can use the democratic process to unseat the most powerful political figure in the state. But as this New York Times article points out, certain aspects of the process seem fundamentally undemocratic. Under the terms of the recall, only a simple majority—greater than 50 percent—is needed to unseat the governor. But once that threshold is reached, the candidate with the next largest number of votes is automatically elected governor. In practice, that means that, if Newsom had received only 49 percent of the votes, Elder could have replaced him by winning only 25 percent—or only a little more than half the number of voters who voted for Newsom.

The article goes on to cover some of the history of California’s recall system, which dates back to 1911, when voters approved a series of reforms meant to curb the power of railroad corporations, which then dominated the state. But ironically, as the article points out, in recent years referendums and ballot initiatives have been used by corporate interests, such as Uber and Lyft, who can promote their agendas simply by collecting signatures and using the power of the internet and social media.

Opponents also argue that such special elections are also extremely costly—the current recall effort cost the state $276 million—and distract from important issues at critical times, in this case as California confronts the ongoing pandemic as well as a series of wildfires and other environmental issues related to climate change.

In the past, recall elections and other ballot initiatives have had a tremendous impact on California. In 2003, then-Governor Davis was replaced by actor Arnold Schwartzenegger after a recall effort. Proposition 13, a referendum aimed at reducing property taxes, has been blamed for the declining quality of California’s public schools since the 1970s, and in the 1990s, a majority voted to deny certain benefits to undocumented immigrants under Proposition 187.

In this case, Gov. Newsom defeated the recall effort by something like a 64 to 36% margin. The lopsided result was blamed on the extreme ideas of his Republican opponent. Elder, a conservative radio talk-show host, has a history of making disparaging comments about women, opposes the minimum wage and abortion, and said that the descendants of slave owners, rather than the descendants of slaves themselves, should receive reparations (Elder himself is African American). These views are out of step with the majority of Californians, but the terms of the recall election made it possible that Elder could have won—before today’s result, many were predicting a close election.

What do you think? Is California’s recall system truly democratic? If not, what reforms could be taken to make the process more representative? What is democracy anyway, and why does it seem to be such a hot topic in 2021, after a century or more in which America’s system of government appeared to many to be among the most stable and democratic in the world?

The 20th Anniversary of September 11th

 

Today is the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001—an event which took place before many of you, the students in this class, were born, but which continues to shape our experience in ways both acknowledged and unseen.

Whether you are aware of it or not, many of you are among the first generations of college students who were born after Sept. 11, 2001—a milestone of sorts for those of us who remember that day vividly as something that shaped us in the prime of our lives, and have struggled to convey the meaning and significance ever since as witnesses and teachers.

For those of us who are able to remember that day in detail, it brings back a plethora of conflicting emotions: shock, horror, rage, disbelief, and, for far too many of us here in the New York City area, the unfathomable grief that attends the loss of a friend, family member, or loved one, even many years later.

At the same time, it is worth trying to consider 9/11 as an historic event—meaning that, among other things, we try to understand and evaluate it more or less objectively. How does our understanding of the events of 9/11 change if we view them as part of a continuum with the past and/or as an indicator of change over time, rather than as a seemingly random event with no history or context, as the sudden appearance of passenger planes headed towards the Twin Towers seemed to so many of us that day?

Another question we might ask is, “how has the United States changed in the twenty years since 9/11?,” Posing such a question almost unavoidably asks us to confront the deeper question of whether those changes have been for the better or the worse. Coming on the heels of a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan—the longest war in our country’s history, with failures spanning two decades and multiple presidencies, from President Biden’s responsibility for the withdrawal to President Trump’s signing of the terms of the agreement with the Taliban, to George W. Bush’s fateful decision to go to war in the days and weeks after 9/11—it feels like an especially appropriate time to contemplate that question.

In the twenty years since 9/11, there have been many excellent books, essays, documentaries, and think-pieces written about the events of that day and what has transpired since. Unfortunately, there has also been a tremendous amount of misinformation, disinformation, racially- and religiously-motivated hatred, and conspiracy theories. One of the questions we will try to address in this class, is how to distinguish between valid, less valid, and implausible or deceptive interpretations of historical events. With an event like 9/11, where there is still much that remains  unknown (and will probably always remain so), and where emotions are particularly raw, it can be particularly hard to separate fact from fiction. One place to start is the 9/11 Memorial and Museum, which has an ongoing and ever-changing series of exhibitions and events. If you have the time for a longer series, and feel you can handle a more unstinting look at what has transpired in our country in the years since 2001, I also recommend the Frontline documentary “America After 9/11.”

I invite you to weigh in on this blog post with your thoughts and comments, with a gentle reminder to keep your comments respectful and to avoid repeating unfounded facts or conspiracy theories. Although we will not return to this subject until the end of the semester (and probably only briefly then), I hope that by that time, we will have filled in enough of the gaps in our knowledge of American history as to begin to put the events of Sept. 11th, 2001, in perspective. Only then can we address the bigger question, which falls to all of us, but particularly to you as members of the coming generation: Where do we go from here?