Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

November 15, 2013

How Jefferson Lives Now

Filed under: Founders,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:56 pm

The old blog rises temporarily from the grave. Occasionally, I dare to watch television, and I had to share this little dispatch from the land of popular historical perception. One of the current television season’s most successful new shows is Fox’s Sleepy Hollow. This is the one where Ichabod Crane is not a pathetic Yankee schoolmaster, but a time-travelling secret agent whose uses the mystic wisdom of the Founders to fight E-VIL in the present day. You know, George Washington’s magic Bible, John Adams’s secret code, Paul Revere’s silver-lined skull, completely authentic stuff like that. This week, Thomas Jefferson supplied some magic technology, but also comes in for the only non-hyper-reverence the show has yet shown toward any Founder. And there is historical fact-checking. It’s a clever scene, actually, but quite telling of Jefferson’s current highly dubious place in the culture. (This is the best quality video I was able to find. Those who dare can watch the entire show at http://fox.tv/1ih9Bf5).

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.

No mention of what Washington did for a living when he was not handing out secret missions. Magic Bible salesman, perhaps?

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April 26, 2013

Congratulations, Dr. Philip Lampi

Filed under: Uncategorized — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:28 pm

Expanding slightly on my tweet from earlier this afternoon, I wanted to pass on the wonderful news that Phil Lampi, of AAS and “New Nation Votes” project fame, is going to receive an honorary degree from Tufts University next month. Phil has been saluted at length in this space before, so I will keep it brief this time. A true hero of archival scholarship and a real-life “King of New England,” Phil deserves recognition from the academic community more than most of us who are in it, so this honor is much more than just well deserved. Here is the citation from the Tufts press release:

Philip Lampi is a historian. Lampi’s work could change the way historians teach and write about the politics of early America. Without training, a college degree or funding beyond his own modest resources, Lampi traveled the country to gather the single most complete record of early American election results ever compiled. He is now the driving force behind the New Nation Votes Project, the most significant database of early American voting records in existence, sponsored by the American Antiquarian Society, Tufts University and the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lampi will receive an honorary doctor of humane letters degree.

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November 30, 2012

The Brevity Thing

Filed under: Common-Place,Jeff Pasley's Writings — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:47 pm

As my students and editors and listeners and readers and future readers inevitably discover, I possess no tendency toward concise, economical expression — I am much more of an El Duderino guy. That said, I have surprised myself by finding Twitter a much more comfortable venue in which to snark of late. There is something considerably less daunting, and less competitive with other responsibilities, about sitting down or standing up to write 140 characters than the potentially limitless space of a blog post, along with the links and images they seem to demand. I still have stubborn hopes of getting this space more active sson, but for now, I would urge interested readers to follow @jlpasley over on Twitter.  The last few tweets in my account appear in the right-hand column of the blog, of course, but they are a bit more intelligible on the Twitter site itself, where you can see their context. Of course, Joe Adelman and Ben Carp are on Twitter as well — indeed it is only through @jmadelman that I ever learned to tweet — along with a surprisingly large and growing number of historians, especially graduate students and younger scholars. What H-Net email lists were to many of us back in the 1990s, Twitter seems to be to the currently rising generation. I do not like to proselytize about such things, but anyone capable of commenting on a blog or using Facebook certainly has no need to march under the banner of General Ludd as regards Twitter.

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July 6, 2012

Fox News: An American Tradition

Filed under: Jeff Pasley's Writings,Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:33 pm

Not necessarily in a good way!

A few weeks ago, we had a discussion here about where the new partisan media of recent times (Fox News and the blogosphere, especially) fit into the history of American journalism. I had forgotten until the following popped on YouTube that I had addressed this very issue in an interview with C-SPAN at the Organization of American Historians meeting in Milwaukee last April.  A typically slick and polished presentation by yours truly (ahem), but it has been suggested that I post it here, so here you go, Joe. Apologies to the gods of television, plus all of the Facebook people and John Fea readers who have already seen this. Send in your video rebuttals!

 

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June 20, 2012

The Accelerating Pace of Change for Its Own Sake [UPDATED]

Filed under: Academia,Media,Technology — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:17 pm

Can academia be saved from the corporate death cult?

This is the third post here on this subject, but there is one set of villains or enablers we have not talked much about regarding the University of Virginia coup d’ecole: the middlebrow media who just can’t stop trumpeting the glories of “online learning” and especially the entry of Stanford, Penn, and other elite players into the field. For those just catching up to this story, University of Virginia president Teresa Sullivan was forced out by the Board of Visitors partly because she “lacked the mettle” to chop programs that didn’t make money, like classics and German, and refused to have the university jump with both feet into online courses like all the other kids. 1

Actually, UVA was already quite a leader in online teaching, research, publishing, going back to the 1990s. Who put the idea into the Board of Visitors’ big CEO heads that the “rapidly accelerating pace of change” required them to shock and awe the campus into “strategic dynamism”?  The Board of Visitors emails obtained by the Cavalier Daily, UVA’s really impressive student newspaper, reveal that Rector Helen Dragas and her cohorts were directly inspired by gushy articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, all venues where they love to celebrate the smashing of any institution by the Internet as long as it is being done to someone else’s institution. One message that jumped out at me appears at right. Jeffrey Walker, a hedge fund billionaire who sits on the board of Berklee College of Music, forwards Dragas and Vice Rector Mark Kington a Chronicle article (possibly this one) and suggests they go so deep into their research as to watch a YouTube video about the Stanford online course project. 2

At some point the media, and especially the NYT and Chronicle, needs to own up to the role its hyping of online courses and other shiny technological objects has played in poisoning the minds of the business people who sit on governing boards all over academia. So let me address the media for a moment. Reporters and editors covering higher education, it matters what you constantly tout. The busy executives who control our lives in their spare time are much more likely to read your little trend pieces and op-ed columns than they are to sit through a college class or talk to a working professor or read one of our books. Please think through the desirability and plausibility of the higher education apocalypse you are getting the suits so wound up about. Online and hybrid courses will have their place in certain subjects for certain audiences, especially at the introductory level, but until the day that major corporations and elite universities start very publicly recruiting and hiring holders of online degrees for their top positions, brick-and-mortar universities are here to stay. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation may find it groovy to put money into the University of the People (sort of a Wikipedia U., apparently, with courses taught by volunteers), but I am guessing it will be quite a while longer before U of the P alums fill the executive suites at Microsoft, or edit the Chronicle and NYT (Ivy League bastions in my journalism days).  Like most types of “education reform,”  online learning is something that traditionally-educated elites do to others.

At the same time, it is never clear exactly what the process would be by which the “Online Course Tsunami” will destroy conventional academia, unless it is by various Boards of Visitors, Curators, and Regents proactively sacrificing real academics to the the gods of change and “strategic dynamism.” 3 Students enjoy not coming to class, sure, but right now public universities are seeing record enrollments, and the competition for students is based on academic reputation, facilities, and cost, not buzz on the op-ed pages and Chronicle tech columns. (The competition for research money really only turns on the first of those.) Online education might reduce the need for classroom buildings, but I predict that a reputation for herding tuition-paying freshmen into online courses will not turn out to be a very healthy one for a major university to have. (Look for “no online courses” to become a SLAC selling point just like “no classes taught by TAs.) The damage to a sterling academic brand like UVA would be inconceivable, not to mention completely counter-productive. If these board members actually spent much time on campuses outside of meetings they might more easily grasp that students and their parents want the college experience (with the beer, parties, and extracurricular activities) and a prestigious credential, not the pleasure of accessing a shiny new web site.  Board members and administrations clearly think that somehow throwing money at online learning will save them money, against all evidence, but online learning is not the inevitable, annihilating  future of all higher education. It is a current craze that they are rushing to join because they are more familiar with computers and smartphones than scholarship and teaching.

What’s striking to me about the UVA situation, and reminds me of what has happened on my campus with the closing of University of Missouri Press, is that in neither case was there an immediate crisis or catalyst for the sudden, precipitous strike against the core academic values of a great public university. There were ongoing funding issues and new technological challenges to be sure, but nothing that demanded such immediate, self-damaging action. Instead, what we are dealing with is a kind of corporate death cult that worships Change for its sake and does not feel right until some blood is spilled. 4

P.S. “Death cult” is trifle exaggerated, I admit, but here is the excellent song that inspired it, T-Bone Burnett’s “Madison Avenue.” Listen all the way until the end.

P.P.S. Check it out: footnotes!

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The Chronicle of Higher Education had devoted so much space to ballyhooing online courses that Sullivan’s go-slow policy became itself a story, for them, back in April.
  2. I notice as I post this that an excellent article by George Washington University’s David Karpf called attention to the same email.
  3. I started writing this “death cult” post independently, but by the end of the day I was borrowing the cult and sacrifice metaphor from Barbara Fister’s wonderful essay, “UVa, the Cult of Change, and the Uses of Fear“, at Inside Higher Education. So goes the Internet.
  4. Alternate edgy title for this post: “Bring Me the Head of the German Department!”
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June 7, 2012

The Year of Mashing Up Slavery

Filed under: Civil War Era,Film,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:12 am

. . . with vampire slayers and western gunfighters

Historians of 19th-century America, the pop-culture trend of dressing up modern genre tropes in period-drama drag has finally reached us. A couple of weeks from now, the latest big summer action movie will be Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, from the mind of the man who brought you Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. The plot posits a Lincoln who has secretly been using his rail-splitting ax skills on vampires his whole life; it seems that poor Nancy Hanks was actually murdered by bloodsuckers, and young Abe trained himself to become Whigman and fight back.  Slavery and the southern Confederacy are really vampire conspiracies to farm human beings and take control of a nation for themselves. It will take a vampire-aware chief executive to put a stake in their plans. There seems to be some kind of showdown between Lincoln and 20 vampires in a Gone With the Wind-style plantation Big House. Or at least that is what I can gather from the trailer. No time to read the book just now.

I wish had more hopes for the movie being any good — it looks like the kind of CGI-choked living cartoon that is typical of our current cinematic era — but I could not help but feel some bemusement at the trailer‘s opening narration. Abe the Vampire Slayer seems to be writing an historiographic essay in his diary about the superiority of social over political history: “History prefers legends to men, soaring speeches to quiet deeds. History remembers the battle, and forgets the blood. Whatever history remembers of me, if it remembers anything at all, it shall only be a fraction of the truth.”  So what we seem to have here is the labor history of vampire hunting — History from the Coffin Up, I guess you could call it.

For Christmas, well, I will let the eminent scholar of Caribbean slave rebellion Laurent Dubois give you the news, delivered via Twitter last night: “Tarantino does plantation slavery. What could possibly go wrong?” Quentin Tarantino of ultraviolent postmodern gangster movie fame, that is. You may remember his last movie, and first foray into history, Inglourious Basterds, the one where the magic of cinema and a band of Jewish commandos kill Hitler. In Django Unchained, a Roots-ish Jamie Foxx gets rescued from a slave trader’s coffle that seems to have accidentally wandered into Death Valley on its way from Virginia to Mississippi. Django then teams up with his rescuer, a strangely German-sounding bounty hunter, to rid the West of racist crackers and rescue his wife from the vicious planter-and-overseer combo of Leonardo DiCaprio and Don Johnson. We can only hope that some of the mayhem will be scored to anachronistic pop songs; James Brown sounds pretty good in the trailer.

What I find interesting about this new departure in historical action trash is the way both these films seem to represent a shift in a long-established pop-cultural convention regarding the use of the Civil War as “backstory” in adventure fiction. In popular westerns, especially, if the hero was a Civil War veteran, he was almost always an ex-Confederate, usually someone who had been victimized in some way by the Union and went west in exile . Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter of Mars, originally from Virginia, was one of the first. A common western scenario was vividly depicted in Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales, in which a marauding band of “redlegs” in Union army uniforms burn Clint’s farm and murder his family, throwing in the rape without which no ’70s revenge film was complete. He then spends the movie hunting and being hunted by glowering heavies in blue. Conveniently, the ex-Confederate hero never has a word to say about slavery and seems to be remarkably free of racial animosity for a man who had fought to preserve white supremacy. John Carter is the only unprejudiced creature on all of Barsoom, bringing Virginian tolerance and civilization to the Red Planet’s multi-hued warring savages.  (Carter also kills a considerable number of bigoted no-hopers with his low-gravity-enabled super powers.) Josey Wales ends with Clint defending a multi-racial group of social outcasts from a pack of degenerate Union veterans. The convention was going strong right into 2012, with Disney’s John Carter film and the AMC transcontinental railroad drama Hell on Wheels. The latter features yet another ex-Confederate hero who also happens to be the least racist guy around. American culture’s devotion to the idea of lone rebel as the only possible repository of decency, honesty, and freedom — as opposed to the seemingly inevitable perfidy and rigidity of any character who serves an institution like the U.S. government — always seemed to trump the question of which side in the Civil War had actually fought for freedom.

In these two upcoming films, however, the script seems to have been flipped: we get antislavery heroes wreaking bloody vengeance on monstrous southern slaveowners, some of them literally monsters.  It is doubtless unintentional but still symbolic of the shift that the actor who plays vampire-hunting Lincoln, Benjamin Walker, was previously best known for playing an inappropriately young and handsome version of a pro-slavery president in the stage musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.  It’s sad that it took lurid post-modern mash-ups of exhausted genres for Hollywood to finally get past its infatuation with Confederates, but with so much cultural recycling, I guess every idea has to come to the top of the pile eventually.

[UPDATE: YouTube embeds not working too well here lately, so instead I switched them out for images that will lead to trailers when clicked. NEW UPDATE: Testing new embed plugin below the jump. Let me know if it works.]

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June 4, 2012

University of Missouri Press: A View from Abroad

Filed under: Academia,Missouri,Publishing — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:33 pm

University of Edinburgh professor and dean Frank Cogliano has graciously shared the letter he was inspired to write to my institution’s administration lamenting the scheduled demise of University of Missouri Press. It is a reminder that scholarly publishing has a worldwide reach and an impact that is felt on other continents even it often goes unnoticed in offices right across town. Of course, the following represents Frank’s opinion rather than the official position of his institution – not that we couldn’t use some Scottish intervention right about now:

Dear President Wolfe,

I am writing to you to ask you to reconsider the decision to close the University of Missouri Press. University presses play a vital role in disseminating scholarship that might not otherwise find an audience.

The University of Missouri Press has fulfilled this role admirably over the years. A brief search of the catalogs of the libraries I use most frequently reveals that the University of Edinburgh library holds 266 titles published by the University of Missouri Press. The nearby National Library of Scotland has almost 500 titles published by Missouri. These may not be huge numbers, but they are not insignificant. Moreover they demonstrate the wide range of Missouri’s reach, even as far away as Scotland. As an historian of the United States who teaches outside of the United States I can attest that the output of university presses is vital. It is sometimes very difficult to convey to British students that there is more to the United States beyond New York and Los Angeles. Publications by university presses help to fill that gap. (It’s worth observing, however, that the range of titles in our library published by your press extends far beyond Missouri-related themes.)

I appreciate that these are difficult times in higher education. We are all facing severe budget constraints. Nonetheless I ask respectfully that you reconsider the decision to close the University of Missouri Press. A quality press is one of the hallmarks of major research university. You may find you regret this decision when better times return.

Sincerely yours,

Frank Cogliano

Frank Cogliano
Professor of American History
Dean International (North America)
School of History, Classics and Archaeology University of Edinburgh William Robertson Wing Old Medical School Teviot Place Edinburgh EH8 9AG SCOTLAND

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May 31, 2012

It is a small publisher. And yet there are those who love it!

Filed under: Academia,Missouri,Publishing,Regionalism — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:30 pm

State and Local History, Forever.

Charlie "Mad Dog" Gargotta, assassinated in downtown KC Democratic Club, 1950

That was a title I was planning to use for a future post. I had some scholarly points to make about the power of state institutions, including arbitrary jurisdictional boundaries, to shape society, culture, and economy, and the continuing value of understanding people’s lives and thoughts in particular localities rather than in universal generality or world-historical significance as our academic scientism so often drives us to do. Kansas history and Missouri history were my first loves as a budding junior high historian. Missouri history I particularly loved, and not out of sheer patriotism or parochialism. Missouri’s past is a rich stew, but the elements are often distasteful: pro-slavery guerillas tore the state and its neighbor apart in one era, gangsters brutalized and corrupted it in another, and enough internal armed conflicts broke out at various times to qualify the state as a small Third World nation. Our greatest contributions to world culture include music that was developed to play in brothels and gambling dens (i.e., Kansas City jazz) and the novels of a local bard who got the hell out of Hannibal as rapidly as he could. Then there is our favoritest son, Harry Truman. Sure,  everyone loves him now, but for the much of his time as president Truman was remarkably unpopular, and he presided over the beginnings of some of the worst aspects of the Cold War in his efforts to co-opt Republican criticism.  Back home, his old friends in KC were burglarizing courthouses and assassinating each other while he was in the White House. In more recen

t times, we can lay claim to one of the early avatars of modern evangelical politics, John Ashcroft, and the Vatican of American Pentecostalism, Springfield, that produced him.

Probably most compelling for me is Missouri’s sheer depth of regional confusion. It was a southern slave state that could not join the Confederacy. It also formed the beginnings of the Wild West. Later it became a Rust Belt factory state, a whitebread Midwestern farm state, or Appalachia West, depending on where you looked.  Then there are our two great but thoroughly messed-up cities, Kansas City and St. Louis. Both cities experienced bitter racial divisions owing to populations that included large numbers of blacks and whites who had migrated from the rural countryside, but also segregation systems that were weak and “northern” enough to permit some tremendous achievements and departures in African-American culture, especially the kind that crossed over racially and shaped American popular culture more broadly: Scott Joplin, Count Basie, and Chuck Berry are just three of the most famous examples. There is probably no individual element of all this that is absolutely unique, but any space where you can get (mentally, at least) Meriwether Lewis, Jesse James, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Langston Hughes, and the Mafia together to enjoy some Budweiser and barbecue surely holds some interest.

Evidently the higher authorities at the institution where I work do not agree. That is why, instead of further ruminations on state and local history, I am turning this post into a personal plea. The administration of the University of Missouri System (our campus and three others) announced just before Memorial Day weekend that it was going to close the University of Missouri Press. Opposition is mounting to this move, including a “Save The University Press” Facebook page started by a Chicago publisher’s rep, Bruce Joshua Miller. (Other good follow-ups and comments on the story can be found at the Chronicle of Higher Education, our own local newspaper, and an online journal called Jacket 2.) Readers can find the necessary coordinates in those stories to make whatever kind of comment they might care to on this development. It would be useful right about now for the rest of academia to express its views on this loudly enough for the authorities here in Columbia to hear. I think the administration does care about our reputation, but it may not have realized just how this will be seen from elsewhere.

One of the saddest parts of this for me, and the part that reflects a fairly common attitude around academia, is the utter indifference this move shows toward state and local history. The mission of scholarly publishing in general is disseminating work that does not have mass-market appeal, and hence cannot be published commercially.  A related mission of a state university press in particular is to be the publisher of first and last resort on the history and culture of its state, serving a constituency and a market that — at least in most places — only it can.  University of Missouri Press may never have been the biggest or best of scholarly publishers, but it has performed its role of serving the state admirably. There would be no multi-volume state history without it, or any available modern scholarly work on dozens of important but inevitably Missouri-based topics: for instance, the biographies of forgotten but once-powerful national figures like Senators Thomas Eagleton and Stuart Symington. Thanks to University of Missouri Press, you can actually buy a new copy of James Neal Primm’s Lion of the Valley, a 640-page history of St. Louis from the French and Indians up to 1980 that is an absolute model of a scholarly city history. For any city below the level of New York or Chicago or Los Angeles, the local scholarly publisher is usually going to be the only feasible outlet for a work like that, and now Missouri is not going to have one.  It is obvious that the makers of this decision do not grasp what this will mean for the state. A member of our Board of Curators was quoted to the effect that, “If books are good enough, they’ll be printed elsewhere.” Probably not, actually. The place for local history is in its locality. Scholarly histories of here are best researched here, and they need to published here, especially if — as will be true in most cases — they do not have much national commercial potential. The decision exacerbates the concentration and homogenization of culture that has already produced a situation where people know more, and find it easier to learn about, New York or London or Paris or LA than the places they actually live. I can personally attest to the truth of this observation from talking to my Missouri History students.

It all makes me want to paraphrase Daniel Webster, from his famous defense of what was then a weak little academic institution called Dartmouth College:  ”Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak, it is in your hands! I know it is one of the lesser lights in the literary horizon of our country. You may put it out! But if you do so, you must carry through your work! You must extinguish, one after another, all those great lights of science which for more than a century have thrown their radiance over our land!” It is, sirs, as I have said, a small university press. And yet there are those who love it! And need it.

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May 14, 2012

The Secret History of Rush’s Acceptance Speech

Filed under: Conservatives,GOP,Historic sites,Missouri — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:42 pm

One of this spring’s highly sporadic postings covered the impending monumentalization of Rush Limbaugh at the Missouri State Capitol, so it seemed appropriate to notice the final result of that controversy. The Republicans in the Missouri legislature kept the Dittohead faith, and had Rush’s head officially installed earlier today. They were so proud they tried to keep tried to keep the ceremony a secret:

UPDATE: Rush Limbaugh recognized in secretive ceremony at Missouri Capitol

Monday, May 14, 2012 | 3:31 p.m. CDT; updated 4:16 p.m. CDT, Monday, May 14, 2012
BY DAVID A. LIEB/THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

JEFFERSON CITY — Conservative commentator Rush Limbaugh was inducted into the Hall of Famous Missourians on Monday during a secretive ceremony in the state Capitol as police stood guard to keep out any uninvited political opponents of the sometimes divisive radio show host.

Limbaugh, a native of Cape Girardeau in southeast Missouri, addressed a crowd of more than 100 Republicans during a closed-door event in the Missouri House chamber. Speaking from the chamber’s dais, he thanked his family for their support throughout his career, denounced liberals and Democrats as “deranged,” then helped lift a black curtain off a bronze bust of himself, which he hugged — head to head — for photographs.

The timing of the ceremony was kept secret until shortly before it occurred, and then only Republican lawmakers, other invited guests and the media were allowed into the chamber to watch — an attempt to avoid any public disruption after Limbaugh’s selection was criticized by Democrats, some women’s groups and other political foes.

Limbaugh, 61, arranged for a guest host to handle his radio show Monday so he could be at the Missouri Capitol. He repeatedly declared how humbled he was by the honor.

“I’m stunned. I’m not speechless, but close to it,” Limbaugh said to the laughter of the friendly crowd. “I’m literally quite unable to comprehend what’s happening to me today.”

The talk show host was selected for the Hall of Famous Missourians by term-limited House Speaker Steven Tilley, a Republican who like Limbaugh is from southeast Missouri. Tilley wants to display Limbaugh’s bust in the Capitol alongside other members of the Hall of Famous Missourians, including President Harry Truman, Mark Twain and Walt Disney — but that plan has already faced controversy.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon’s administration released a memo Monday indicating that a state board — not the House speaker — has the authority to determine what items are displayed in the third floor Capitol Rotunda where the busts are located. House Minority Leader Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City, also asserted that Tilley has no legal authority to order Limbaugh’s bust to be placed in the Capitol Rotunda.

“The secrecy and exclusion of the public demonstrates that even Republicans are embarrassed at honoring someone who recently called a female college student with whom he disagreed a ‘slut’ and a ‘prostitute,’” Talboy said.

There is something quite emblematic about the current GOP that they held the dedication of a public monument in private.

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April 24, 2012

Sympathy for John Fea, Kirk Cameron Not So Much

Filed under: Conservatives,Religion — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:54 am

My heart went out to the tireless John Fea earlier today. Trying to keep the faith as a responsible historian, a good Christian, and an extremely active blogger, he seemed genuinely downhearted to have gotten caught between the Far Right and the Professional Left. All the man has done is write a book that tries to carefully and accessibly sort through the vexed issue of the Founders’ intentions toward Christianity, and blog rather ceaselessly against the historical distortions of those he charitably calls “Christian nationalist authors” like David Barton and Glenn Beck. Just for exposing himself to so much of their simulated thought, the man deserves the thanks of a grateful nation. So what happens? On a busy Monday morning, last week of the semester no doubt, he threw up his hands a little at a particularly smug and mendacious chat between Barton and Beck on GBTV, promoting Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies: “I don’t even know where to begin with this video,” Fea sighed, hoping some other bloggers without papers to grade could get this one for him. “Barton’s book is currently ranked #31 at Amazon. It is really sad that the American past is being manipulated for political propaganda in this way. I say this as an historian and an evangelical Christian.”

Within hours, Fea found himself censured as an Ivory Tower academic by Kyle Mantyla of People for the American Way. Here is a quote from Mantyla, and the plaintive response of its target, from John’s blog:

Fea is an Associate Professor of American History at Messiah College and the author of the excellent book “Was America Founded As a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction” which I wrote about several times last year, and his comment raises a question that I have been wondering about for a long time, which is why bona fide historians seem so unwilling to take a stand against Barton and his partisan manipulation of history. 

For academic historians to generally remain silent as Barton’s brand of pseudo-history becomes increasingly popular seems, to me, to represent a serious disservice to their field of expertise. Barton’s brand of partisan history remains popular, at least in part, because actual historian so rarely speak out against Barton’s flagrant misuse and misrepresentation of history.

Fea laments that Barton’s book is so popular while simultaneously saying he doesn’t even know what to say about this video.  Those two things are not unrelated. 

If historians, and especially evangelical historians like Fea, remain reluctant to get involved in the task of debunking and discrediting Barton and his pseudo-history, they can expect to continue seeing books by the likes of Beck and Barton at the top of the best-sellers list.

Reluctant to get involved?  Unwilling to take a stand?  Granted, I am extremely busy trying to survive the Spring semester here at Messiah College and thus decided to take a pass on critiquing the latest Barton interview with Glenn Beck, but I would hardly say that I have been “reluctant to get involved” in challenging Christian nationalist views of history.

Having said that, I am a bit jaded and tired.  Thirty years ago Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, and George Marsden wrote The Search for Christian America in order to debunk the faulty views of history promoted by an earlier generation of Christian Right activists.  The book provided thoughtful Christians with a guide to make sense of the faulty views of American history being promoted by the likes of Jerry Falwell and Francis Schaeffer. But as I mentioned in my talk at the Cushwa Center at Notre Dame earlier this month (with Noll and Marsden present), the book did little to stop Christian nationalists from using the American past to promote their political agenda.  In fact, one might argue that the Christian nationalist view of American history, thanks to David Barton and Wallbuilders, has grown stronger since the appearance of The Search for Christian America.

In the end, Mantyla is correct.  Professional historians need to be willing to challenge Barton’s view of the American past.  I think Was America Founded as a Christian Nation made an indirect attempt at doing this.  But individual professors writing books can only make a small dent.  We do not have the kind of organization and donor base of a place like Wallbuilders.

I have tried to think about a creative way of engaging the public more fully on these questions and many others related to the role that American history can play in forging a more civil and informed society.  Many have encouraged me in my efforts and patted me on the back for trying, but very few have been willing to get behind the vision in any meaningful way.  Perhaps I have not worked hard enough.  . . .

I will continue to press on, but I can’t do it alone.

File:Kirk Cameron at the 41st Emmy Awards cropped and altered.jpg

Ahem. John is probably quite right that the rest of us should pitch in, but having logged a few thousand hours at academic history conferences, I am not sure that a lot of what we have to say is likely to be listened to by people who have been forewarned about historians by the likes of, say, TV’s Kirk Cameron, star of Growing Pains.  Cameron has a new career as a right-wing Christian activist, and told CNN all about us:

“No one is more guilty of cherry picking evidence than those who bow to the god of political correctness, especially historians,” Cameron said. “Everyone is going to select the information that is important to their thesis. If you’re bent on being politically correct, it’s very easy to fall into that trap.”

The CNN piece is actually worth reading for its rare-for-journalism efforts to correct some of Barton’s errors while only counter-balancing them with Kirk Cameron. Nearly as good were some of the comments on John Fea’s blog, especially the thoughts of one MikeW, who doubted that much could be done to de-program Barton’s devotees, but did have suggestions about what historians could do:

So that’s where I believe you, and your fellow professional historians and educators need to continue to focus your efforts. Keep teaching our children the actual history of America, and teach them about the scientific method and to think critically about history and historical evidence. Show them how to recognize a conspiracy theory when they see one, and that there are no short cuts in the quest for knowledge, no matter how convincing they may seem.

I am sure you are doing all of those things — though I would be interested to hear if there was a venue in college where professors can teach students (not just history students) about the likes of Barton and their duplicitous ways. Perhaps there is a place for offering a general course on skepticism and conspiracy theories given how prevalent they have become in America today (and not just in the field of history)?

That is a good idea, though I can tell you students do not always like it when you rain on their moon landing hoax parade, or spend too much time on Antimasons.

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