Minority Report: Futurologists Need Historians

The 1936 film “Things to Come” brought together H.G. Wells, producer Alexander Korda, and designer and director William Cameron Menzies for a prescient look at the future. (Cover art, Criterion Collection)

Does the name Archibald M. Low ring a bell? The next time you look at your smartphone or watch your television, think of the Professor. He had a role, both speculatively and in actual development, in numerous innovations during the first half of the twentieth century. Low (1888–1956) didn’t invent the lithium battery or wireless telephony, but he foresaw the concepts that serve as the basis for a host of devices, from pocket telephones to television to drones. A prolific author, he wrote more than 40 books on scientific discoveries designed to nurture the public’s interest in science and engineering. The uncredentialed Low, who adopted the moniker “Professor” much to the chagrin of his academic peers, was also an ardent futurist with a social conscience. For example, tormented by London’s noise level, he studied the Tube to find ways to ameliorate its clattering and clanking, hoping to encourage more people to try out this newfangled public transportation. He also believed that residential housing should be modernized and simplified, even be made movable. I admire his panache, his ability to popularize specialized knowledge, and his futurism tempered with social consciousness. His critics labeled him an eccentric and a hack, and they derided his penchant for publicity. But Low’s scientific work was serious: He is considered the father of radio guidance systems, designed a forced induction engine, and wrote about the field that would become known as astronautics. Like his close contemporary H.G. Wells, Low is considered a storyteller first and scientist second, indispensable qualities, one might argue, for a futurist.

Futurists are the topic of a new book, A History of the Future: Prophets of Progress from H.G. Wells to Isaac Asimov, by Peter Bowler, emeritus professor at Queen’s University in Belfast and a historian of science, whom I recently interviewed. Bowler’s book focuses on thinkers and writers in the decades around the turn of the century who invited the public into the laboratory and research lab. Many of these scientists and authors were, in essence, futurologists whose work revolutionized notions of progress and continues to mark our lives to this day. But, as Bowler reminds us, while prognosticating about the future can be liberating, it is also a cautionary tale. At the dawn of the twentieth century, the West viewed itself as triumphant, superior in culture, politics, economics, and science. The idea that Western society was destined to advance from strength to strength inspired pundits and prognosticators, especially those in science, to demonstrate their progressive nature to the people at home and abroad. (It would take a catastrophic war and depression to prove otherwise.) Bowler observes that the West, especially its futurologists, would have been better served recalling their Shakespeare: “What’s past is prologue.”

In our interview, Bowler spoke about what he refers to as “this huge swell of suspicion and criticism concerning the applications of science.” He calls on the scientific community to remember its obligation not only to the field but also to the public: “I think it’s extremely important because without that sense of outreach, scientists risk allowing wild predictions to hold sway. They need to be invigorated to think about the wider applications of what they do. The best way of doing that is by encouraging them to enter into a dialogue with the people who are going to be affected by what they’re doing.”

I would suggest opening this dialogue by sending today’s new breed of futurologists copies of Bowler’s book. Among the first would be Elon Musk. Who else but the SpaceX maverick would have the wit—and the means—to send his own red Tesla into space with the radio playing David Bowie? His aerospace manufacturing and space transport firm has a list of firsts that has made it the envy of NASA. Musk ascribes to futurology to be sure, but, he would do well to read Bowler’s passage on engineer/physicist Robert Goddard, who moved his lab to Roswell, New Mexico, to escape the liquid fuel explosion prohibitions in his native Massachusetts. (My grandmother, Edubijen Garcia, cooked for Goddard and his wife in the mid-1930s and once had to prepare New England-style baked cod for Goddard’s guests, Charles Lindbergh and Harry Guggenheim.) Goddard had friends in high places, but his work was still subjected to scorn and false reports as when Russian newspapers reported in 1924 that a Goddard rocket had taken a man to the moon, a propaganda story ginned up to stimulate Soviet scientists. Chastened, Goddard tempered his dreams about space travel and even refused to join the American Rocketry Society; like his friend H.G. Wells, he had been stung by public misunderstanding and condemnation. Musk, and even NASA, might take note, realizing that grand schemes can result in spectacular (and expensive) public failures that call into question the wisdom of space exploration in a time of more pressing earthbound problems.

Another person to whom I’d send a copy of Bowler’s book might be Tom Silva, host of Ask This Old House (PBS), a sister show of the popular This Old House. Recently, Silva visited San Francisco’s Autodesk where designers use lasers and sophisticated milling tools to fabricate furniture pieces in wood and metal. Silva seemed impressed by what the laser cutter could do, but knowing of his accomplishments as a master craftsman and builder, I found it uncomfortable to watch his enthusiasm. He may not be a futurist, but he is like many of us, straddling the fence between the past and the future. As Bowler notes, this tension over making things by automation or by human hands has plagued us for over a century and is unlikely to end any time soon. I am reminded of Buckminster Fuller’s caution that “humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.”

As a young man, Bowler told me, he had been an avowed technophile. Now in his seventies, he admits to being wary of social media and the Internet. “You have to ask,” he says, “is this particular technology or pursuit worth my time?” Or, more to the point: Is the Internet really worth it? “I get a sense people are using all this wonderful technology,” Bowler told me, “but they’re also getting enslaved by it because of what they have to do to keep up to date with all the stuff that’s being thrown at them.” Perhaps the historian has it right, especially in light of recent revelations that Facebook allowed a third party to mine its users’ data during the 2016 presidential election, news that caused its stock prices to dive and led prominent members such as Elon Musk to delete his account in protest. Bowler seems to be voicing the growing concern that we have a moral obligation to consider our plunge into the digital abyss.

Today, with the entrance of private entrepreneurs into the field of space exploration—NASA recently announced that it would partner with Musk’s SpaceX to put an international space station in lunar orbit—the space race takes on a new urgency. Who knows what benefits might be enjoyed by future generations because one individual had the means and the vision to join forces with NASA? Thinkers like Bowler might not only applaud the desire for human flourishing, but also caution that the competing interests or diverging aims of those involved in such a partnership could spoil all the best intentions. In order to calculate fully the benefits and the risks, it might be time to consult a historian like Bowler.

J.N. Campbell is an independent scholar, writer, and editor in Houston, Texas. He is the co-author with Steven M. Rooney of A Time-Release History of the Opioid Epidemic (Springer), due out this summer. His email is campbelln5@yahoo.com.

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The Limits of Corporate Activism

Money to Burn, Victor Dubreuil

“The work that religion, government, and war have failed in must be done by business.” This proclamation appears in the 1928 book Business as Civilizer, written by an enthusiastic advertising executive, Earnest Elmo Calkins. Calkins saw in the success of early twentieth century corporations signs of a new era commencing: America’s “business millennium.” It is not difficult to see the relevance of Calkin’s proclamation today. While Florida’s state legislature has now passed a gun control bill in the wake of the February 14th Parkland High School shooting, the most tangible preventative measures have so far been undertaken by businesses.

As Derek Thompson notes in The Atlantic, more than twenty companies have now cut ties with the National Rifle Association. Two national retailers—Walmart and Dick’s Sporting Goods—elected not to wait out new gun control legislation but announced they would voluntarily be ending gun sales to customers under 21. “We don’t want to be part of this story any longer,” explained Dick’s Sporting Goods CEO Edward Stack in an interview on CNN. Anti-gun activists have now turned their pressure toward new corporate targets, trying to get Apple, Amazon, and FedEx to break ties with NRA.

These forms of corporate activism have become familiar political stories in the age of Trump. Established corporate leaders and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have found themselves moving off the political sidelines and weighing in on highly contentious social issues. As several political commentators observed, President Trump’s economic advisory councils have lost far more members to principled and openly dissenting resignations than his “Evangelical advisory board,” which has remained remarkably intact. The prophetic moral authority previously resting on clergy—particularly amidst the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s—may now rest on our corporate leaders.

Yet this isn’t completely new. Calkins, in Business as Civilizer, was already in 1928 cheering on corporations’ expansion of power into other realms. The efficiency of business, he argued, is sufficient evidence that the “despised business man” can be entrusted to do what government and other institutions have failed at. But this marriage of power, profits, and politics raised as many questions then as it does now. Who ultimately controls a politically “woke” corporate sector? And whose interests are ultimately served? Continue reading

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Introducing the Spring Issue: The Human and the Digital

Person using laptop, overhead view. (Digital Composite)

Are we marching to Estonia?

It might seem so. According to Nathan Heller in the New Yorker, the small Baltic republic is well on its way to transforming itself “from a state to a digital society.” Under the aegis of e-Estonia, as the nation’s government-led project is called, virtually every service the state deals with, from education to health care to transportation, is being “digitally linked across one platform, wiring the nation.” Savings and efficiencies amounting to two percent of the country’s GDP have already been realized, and cutting-edge innovations, from driverless cars to an elaborately de-centralized system of personal data, are changing the way 1.3 million Estonians (and some 28,000 registered e-residents) conduct business and lead their lives.

Whether you see it as utopia or dystopia, Estonia’s digitopia is where modern societies appear to be heading. Yet as the contributors to this issue ask, how well prepared are we humans for life under the ever-ramifying digital dispensation? Do we even begin to consider what we might be risking when we opt for, or succumb to, the ease, efficiency, and beguilements of online life?

The thread running through the essays in The Human and the Digital, our latest issue, it is that we yet poorly grasp the many perverse effects of the kind of dominion promised by our embrace of the new digital dispensation. To some degree, we are what we make. But when what we make makes us in ways that we fail to understand, the human at the core of culture grows dangerously fragile.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

The full issue, already on its way to subscribers, includes thematic contributions from Christine Rosen, Alan Jacobs, and Leif Weatherby, along with standalone works by Charlie TysonJonathan D. TeubnerS.D. Chrostowska, and Greg Jackson. Browse the table of contents here, and subscribe—if you haven’t yet—here.

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Privilege

The abolition of privileges, at the Monument to the Republic, Paris. Via Wikimedia Commons.

We hear it said a lot these days: white privilege, male privilege, cisgender privilege. It suggests an advantage that is in some way illegitimate. The concept acquired greater sharpness for me recently while reading Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. Under the ancien régime, ennobled families were granted privilege in the literal sense; that is, they answered to a different set of laws (privy: private, leges: laws). In particular, they were exempt from taxation. Making matters worse, one could buy into this arrangement through the purchase of “venal offices,” which granted one the same immunities. One might become an inspector of cheeses, for example. It really was that ridiculous. Such positions proliferated as the fiscal crisis of the 1780s deepened; the sale of offices was a way for the crown to finance its present needs through the sacrifice of future tax revenue.  Those who purchased offices were entered, along with their descendants, into the lists of noble families, permanently exempt from the tax burden.

Meanwhile, one of many forms of taxation that peasants were subject to was the corvée (literally, “drudgery”): The men of a village would be rounded up to perform some public works project such as the building of a road, and for whatever reason this tended to happen during the harvest, just when their labor was most needed at home. It was a bitter injustice.

Obviously, the whole system of privilege was parasitical. It was also quite different from what we mean today when we speak of privilege. According to current usage, it means something like good fortune. In a polemical discussion of education, for example, it will be said that a child who grows up with two parents is “privileged,” from which we are meant to infer that there is something illegitimate about the source of his relative calm and competence.

But it’s not as though such advantages make him a parasite on society. For us, the meaning of the term is reversed. If you are privileged, it means you are expected to contribute more, not less, than someone who is “underprivileged.” But at the same time, your being in a position to do so may be subject to the same resentment that was directed to the privileges of the ancien régime. From the perspective of eighteenth century usage, it looks as though the point of recasting any advantage as “privilege” is to suggest that all inequality of condition is illegitimate, based on an underlying injustice.

But what this injustice consists of is usually not elaborated. If one presses for details (and this is already a breach of etiquette), the reasons offered are often tendentious. The term privilege is used not to make a case but rather to convey a mood. Why is there so much political opportunity to be had by deploying this mood, as a weapon? What accounts for our susceptibility to being cowed by it, or indeed to indulging it ourselves, this fuzzy indignation? In particular, we need to account for the fact that accusations of privilege are most prominent among…well, the privileged. (For example, Ivy League students.) Hold that thought. Continue reading

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Are Honor Codes Still Necessary?

Plaque commemorating the 150th anniversary of the University of Virginia honor system

HONOR PLEDGE
On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/examination.

In the midst of the University of Virginia’s stately grounds, anchored by the Rotunda, Jefferson’s temple to the triumph of reason, it is easy to overlook the small plaques on the walls of UVA classrooms. The inscription they carry is central to Jefferson’s university: “On my honor as a student, I have neither given nor received aid on this assignment/examination.” Desks in the library carry notices with a shortened version of the statement: “On My Honor.”

Besides reminding students of the university’s Honor Code—and its enforcement body, the historic, student-run, Honor System—notices like these serve a more elementary (and obvious) purpose: to encourage individuals to refrain from dishonest behavior. A number of studies have demonstrated that moral standards are not self-executing, and that even the most upright person benefits from reminders. In one experiment in 2008, subjects who recited the Ten Commandments before taking a test cheated significantly less. There may be a consensus that dishonesty is bad, but that is not enough; the standards must be kept top of mind.

Like so many other aspects of our society, the idea of teaching honor and integrity has undergone a change, especially in the area of higher education. Colleges have elected to address student cheating in a variety of ways. At Hamilton College, peer proctoring is the norm; at Haverford College, cheaters must apologize to the entire student body via email; at Middlebury College, touting the honor code is a way to sell the college experience to visiting parents but not something strongly enforced. UVA’s honor code is considered effective but, according to its detractors, excessively punitive (one strike and you’re out, also known as single sanction).

In fact, there have been calls to abandon university honor codes since at least the 1930s. According to a 1983 article in the New York Times, the Johns Hopkins administration could not make the code work and didn’t bother to replace it—an associate dean was quoted as saying “The old procedure just wasn’t working.”

A Culture of Omertà

But the new one isn’t working either. During my tenure at Johns Hopkins University, where I earned a PhD in mathematics and served as a teaching assistant in undergraduate math courses for three years, I witnessed a shocking array of dishonest acts. In one semester, more than half of my calculus students copied answers verbatim from the solution bank Chegg, a website which advertises “Homework Help.” (Ironically, Chegg was not helpful at all; in many cases, its solutions are wildly off.) During exams, I often saw eyes wandering onto neighbors’ papers and I intercepted numerous smuggled notes. One student made six visits to the bathroom during a two-hour final exam.

More troubling yet was the unspoken culture of omertà. Every attempt I made to reform the culture in the math program was stymied and every complaint was rebuked. My fellow graduate students opposed my plan to inform the authorities of suspected incidents of academic misconduct, citing a reluctance to “go around the professors.” The faculty members insisted on “settling the matter internally,” which apparently meant keeping the misconduct quiet. And when I wrote a letter to the dean—I did not demand punitive action; I only requested an investigation—I encountered resistance.

In one specific case, four students submitted homework containing a problem they had copied from Chegg. One of them admitted wrongdoing. The university’s dean overseeing student conduct declined to prosecute. In fact, this dean failed to include accounts of the incidents in school records, a blatant violation of university protocol, and, in one instance of the four involved, refused to take the case to trial despite that student’s prior offense. (University policy mandates adjudication with an ethics board in the case of recidivism.) The dean’s proffered reason was that the student had already suffered consequences and, amazingly, that not every answer had been copied. From the dean’s email: “the Professor…has offered [the student] a zero on the assignment given [the student] only used an online source for one question.” But the real reason seemed to be that “The student is a senior and ready to graduate.”

If my university had had an honor system, the tasks of gathering evidence, tracking down the accused, arranging face-to-face meetings, explaining the charges, selecting a sanction, and eliciting confessions would not have fallen to an inexperienced teaching assistant like me. Rather, these functions would have been handled by trained, unbiased groups with a host of resources available to them. Without an honor code, my university quite simply lacked the infrastructure to pursue complaints.

On Duty at the Panopticon

The UVA honor system arose after the death of professor John A.G. Davis in 1840. Davis was attempting to quell a disturbance on the Lawn when he was shot by a student. The incident was alarming to both students and faculty and the honor code was introduced in 1842 to ease tensions. Later, after the Civil War, the code tended to serve Southern notions of gentlemanly honor, but it still remained student-enforced. UVA has changed much since Southern gentlemen were expelled for cheating at cards, but the honor code is still integral. As a recent student chair of the honor committee noted: “The honor system was first created at a time in our history when the University was small and homogenous, a long way from the large, diverse institution we have become. It’s a cornerstone of a place with a long, complicated and sometimes unsavory past. But…the honor system was not intended only for the age in which it was established. The truth is, the fundamental values that the honor system was founded to promote—integrity and trust—are more relevant today than ever.”

A common criticism of honor codes is that integrity ought to be a given. An explicit statement of morality should not be necessary. But UVA’s honor code—in fact, the honor code at any university—is predicated on the belief in students’ essential virtue and that the mission of the university and the individual’s own flourishing are best served when accountability for misconduct rests not with professors but with peers.

Rather than begin by accepting students’ fundamental orientation toward virtuous behavior, Johns Hopkins cultivated an atmosphere of mutual distrust between professors and students, one ripe for rampant cheating. In fact, things devolved into a near-police state. Students were routinely required to show school photo-identification cards and to sign their names before handing in their tests. One fellow TA compared exam proctoring to duty in a Panopticon. The climate was harsh—almost militaristic—but even these drastic measures were ineffective. Students were never expected to acknowledge the simple premise that they were there to learn and that their work should be their own. And so cheating persisted.

“As confidence in our social institutions collapses,” UVA professor Chad Wellmon recently observed, “the university is, at least in theory, ideally suited to be a beacon of public discourse and democratic and intellectual ideals and virtues.” UVA English professor Michael Suarez says, “Honor calls us to be honorable to each other, not merely by not committing transgressions, but also by doing reverence to the other in our midst.” The answer it seems is that, yes, honor codes can offer a better model for moral formation in the modern university.

Benjamin Diamond earned his PhD in mathematics from Johns Hopkins University in 2017.

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Shame: An Argument for
Preserving “Those” Monuments

Two of the Clark Mills equestrian statues of Andrew Jackson, Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (left) and Jackson Square, New Orleans (right); photos: Leann Davis Alspaugh

Audio brought to you by curio.io, a Hedgehog Review partner.

On July 4, around 8 am, the French Quarter was wild with heat. I walked up St. Peter’s and took a left on Bourbon, where street cleaners hosed off the previous evening’s bacchanalia of regret. At Canal, I went left and by the time I reached St. Charles my glasses were fogged with humidity. I crossed Poydras and went to Camp Street. From there, I went right and my pulse quickened, anticipating the famous absence I’d traveled here to witness. I was making this walk well after the press had left town and well before white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, to experience the empty plinth where a statue of General Robert E. Lee once stood.

But then my geography got rusty. I was expecting to see the conspicuous display of emptiness about two blocks straight ahead. My body tensed in anticipation. But crossing Andrew Higgins Street, I looked right to make sure all was clear, and it was in that nanosecond that I unexpectedly got a direct view of the nothingness that was indeed something and—a reaction I don’t typically have—I gasped.

The image moved me: Robert E. Lee, that icon of the Confederacy, that bronze statuesque symbol that once lorded several stories over New Orleans, was, after 132 years, gone, relegated (for now) to municipal storage. And there I stood, a white person who, by virtue of my whiteness, benefits daily from the legacy of slavery, and took in this poignantly empty column, feeling the power history in a way I’d never before felt it.

Weeks earlier, with rare eloquence, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, drove home the emotion in a remarkable speech. The Times-Picayune called it “one of the most honest speeches on race” delivered by “a white southern politician.” Landrieu, in the aftermath of the statue’s removal from Lee Circle, explained to a city that’s 62 percent black how “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” A lot of people said it and I agreed with them—Amen.

And so there it was: a seamless convergence of media, morality, and message. The removal of a city’s offensive Confederate-themed statues, a speech that will be anthologized, the humility of a public figure, a frank look at the reality of racism, and now this eerie lone column, a stark and unifying exclamation point on a Southern landscape. And yet, in spite of myself, something in my gut told me that General Lee should have stayed.

The Problem with Jackson

Before leaving the French Quarter for Lee Circle, I spent a few moments in Jackson Square contemplating the lone statue of Andrew Jackson. As an historian, I knew Jackson fairly well. I knew he was a slaveholder. I knew he was a man who built his identity around killing Indians. I knew that his reputation as an ethnic cleanser helped get him ousted from the twenty-dollar bill.

Knowing all this, I wondered how this swaggering crusader for racial purity still sat lionized atop his rearing horse, tipping his hat to the city he saved at the Battle of New Orleans, the city that, as it purged its obvious symbols of the Confederacy, refused—as Landrieu did—to include in that purge a figure who helped make the Confederacy possible.

There’s no question that removing a Confederate era statue—a monument put in place to remind blacks that they would never have equal rights—is a symbolic expression of justice. My own reaction to Lee’s absence proved it. But the persistence of Jackson led me to realize something was wrong. It made me wonder if there might be something too easy in the symbolism of Lee’s removal, an ease that exonerated white progressives from doing something far more challenging and consequential for the cause of racial justice than tearing down statues, spitting on them, and sending out virtue signals on Instagram.

After my Jackson-to-Lee walk, I met with Richard Marksbury at a coffee shop near Tulane University. Marksbury, sixty-six and white, is a cultural anthropologist who directs the university’s Asian Studies Program. Of all the arguments marshaled against the statue removals, Marksbury’s stood out for their rigor and manner in which he delivered them—not as a caveat-generating academic, but as an activist affiliated with the all-volunteer Monumental Task Committee, a group founded in 1989 to “restore, repair, and forever maintain all the monuments located in the city.”

Marksbury’s case was this: The white citizenry of New Orleans agreed in 1884 to celebrate Robert E. Lee by erecting a monument to his legacy. Even if that choice was, in Landrieu’s words, on “the wrong side of history and humanity,” it was made without ambiguity by racists interested in furthering the myth of the lost cause. That fact alone—history left the monument there as a kind of primary source for us to interpret—legitimates its right to stay put. “If something is there for 130 years,” Marksbury said, “it’s just part of the landscape.”

I thought, no—not valid. The notion that a memorial should be preserved because, at some point in time, an empowered group of citizens deemed an evil ideology worthy of memorializing only seems reasonable if history is apolitical, unemotional, and entirely relegated to the past. But history is none of those things. Infused in the heated politics of daily life, history is what left me in shock in the shadow of Lee’s empty pedestal. History is what turned Charlottesville into a war zone. History burns those who get close.

But Marksbury, if only in an indirect way, had a point. He directed my attention to Audubon Park. There, he explained, “you will find a statue of the Buffalo Soldiers.” He said, “Do you know what those soldiers did to the Native Americans? They mutilated them. So, what about the feelings of Native Americans? If you’re going to take down Robert E. Lee, you’ve got to take down the Buffalo Soldiers.”

And as for Jackson, he noted that when Take ’Em Down Nola—the organization dedicated to removing New Orleans’s racially offensive monuments—demonstrated to have Jackson removed, they were absolutely right to do so. “Landrieu,” he said, “could have appealed to the emotions of the Native American community.” But he “remained silent.” It was a silence that kept ringing in my ears.

Sloppy History

Marksbury’s argument does not condemn the removal of Confederate-themed monuments. It condemns inconsistency. One can argue that the NOLA removals were history in the making and that, in time, the moral logic underscoring that approach would be equally applied to other symbols of racism—including Andrew Jackson and many others. That would be good (if extremely ambitious) history. But that’s not what was happening in New Orleans. The mayor and city council removed Lee and other confederates while explicitly refusing to touch the image of Jackson. It was sloppy history.

Politicians can get away with that. But professional historians cannot. When I exchanged emails with Victoria Bynum, author of several books on the myth of the Lost Cause as well as The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (which inspired a 2016 Hollywood movie), she was adamant that the public expression of history be scrupulously accurate and consistent. “I so fervently want the true history of the Civil War understood at the popular level,” she wrote. “And it saddens me that so many Americans, and not just Southerners, actually believe that the Civil War was not caused by slavery.”

Of course, she’s right. But was removing statues of confederate generals the right way to achieve historical accuracy in public space? (Bynum, for the record suggested the monuments go into a museum.) Again, it could be. If we honestly intended to take the logic underscoring Lee’s removal to the necessary extreme then we might get on with the massive project of de-anthologizing the public landscape of all racist vestiges. Or, acknowledging the difficulty of consistency on this point, we might instead rethink the logic behind statue removals altogether.

From the Bottom Up

One transformation that has touched the entire historical profession over the past two generations is the idea that we should do history “from the bottom up.” What kind of history was done in New Orleans when the statues came down? In a sense, it was top down. You had a white man who, largely through his own initiative and the power of his position as mayor, swept historical markers from their pedestals. Landrieu’s speech was grand. But shouldn’t skepticism be stoked when a May 26, 2017, editorial predicts that “as Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable 1860 Cooper Union Speech about slavery propelled the little-known Illinois lawyer toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, so might Landrieu’s Gallier Hall speech prompt Democrats to give the Louisiana mayor a closer look”? We should ask: Who tangibly benefits when Lee goes missing and General Jackson—of the Battle of New Orleans fame—stays put?

Three other Confederate monuments also came down around the time of the Lee statue removal, leading some lesser-known citizens suggested a bottom up approach. News reports called their behavior criminal acts of vandalism. But one might more charitably label them interpretations of public history made by the disenfranchised. At the base of the Robert E. Lee monument, someone spray-painted the phrase “white supremacy is a LIE” in sharp black letters. There we go, I thought.

Such a brutally accurate interpretation—obviously illegal and, if allowed to run amok, pointless—was in its singularity of expression and incisive moral commentary a far greater challenge to the myth of the Lost Cause than the nothingness that now rests on the pedestal. Plus, the motives in this case were clear—to bring truth to the monument—and nobody’s political prospects were improved in the process.

With that tag, truth spoke to power because the embarrassing emblem of that horrible power remained in place to be witnessed and interpreted. Certainly, we can take a cue from the vandals and find ways to demonize these relics with appropriate levels of scorn—new explanatory plaques come to mind—rather than sending them crashing once and for all to the pavement. And—more to the point—certainly there could be greater benefits for racial justice and historical understanding by engaging in ongoing interpretations of what these monuments mean in the here and now.

Forgetting How to Feel Shame

While taking an Uber car in New Orleans, I passed several streets named after slaveholders (or those who condoned slaveholding)—Henry Clay, Zachary Taylor, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Washington. Prompted by this observation, I asked my driver, an African American business owner in his forties, what he thought about the statue removals. He paused and looked at me hard in the rearview mirror. “Taking those statues down was a bad idea because they reminded white people what was done to us.” Then he added: “We are not educated.”

It took me a moment to realize what he meant by “we” and “educated,” but what he was saying was that white people don’t know how to feel shame. We haven’t been taught how to confront the troubled history and legacy of slavery in a way that demands our sustained discomfort and puts us at risk in public space. True, by wishing the statues away, we justifiably honor the crushed feelings African Americans experience when living amidst monuments that once honored slavery. But less justifiably, by wishing these statues away we also ease the guilt of progressive whites who, for altogether different reasons, also hate looking up to Lee, Jackson, and, dare one say it, Mr. Jefferson.

Don’t worry about me, my Uber driver was saying. Worry about you. He wanted, in essence, whites to swallow a healthy dose of shame, and to bring that struggle to bear on our thinking about racial justice. However paradoxically, the white supremacist thugs who marched through Charlottesville only intensified the imperative. They further demanded that the rest of us, as we witness (and die from) their violent hatred, connect the awful racism of the past to that of the present through a bridge paved with shame, the kind of shame that, from the bottom up, can overwhelm the utter lack of it that currently swaggers at the top of American politics.

If that becomes the goal we choose to pursue with our remaining Confederacy monuments—and I cannot think of a better way to use public history—then we might take a note from the New Orleans vandals and begin to add to, rather than subtract from, the existing textual landscape.

That is exactly what the civil rights lawyer, MacArthur Foundation fellow, and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), Bryan Stevenson, is doing in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI marked Montgomery with a series of historical plaques acknowledging the warehouses used in the city’s slave trade. This effort, in addition to EJI’s current project to build a national memorial dedicated to lynching victims, defies the city’s antiquated markers to the Confederacy (of which there are more than fifty). And what do you think Stevenson wants whites to feel when staring at lists of the lynched? Not a sense of ease. Not a sense of relief.

Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame, this cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness. And if that’s what we’re in for, if that’s what must happen for us to inch toward true racial reconciliation, then moving Confederate monuments out of sight becomes less an act of racial justice than yet another expression of the same white privilege that got us into this mess to begin with.

James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

 

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Introducing the Fall Issue: The End of the End of History?

illustration by Jesse Lenz

Although Francis Fukuyama never said the triumph of liberal democracy was inevitable, his qualified declaration of the “the end of history” captured the optimistic, sometimes naive tenor of the early post-Cold War era. But how quickly that confidence faded! Unmistakable signs of history’s resumption began to appear less than two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In its 2008 annual report on political rights and civil liberties around the world, the democracy watchdog Freedom House took troubled note of the reversal of progress in a number of key countries in South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and the former Soviet space.

This “profoundly disturbing deterioration,” as Freedom House put it, has continued, and not only in countries with fragile democratic institutions. The most recent survey found that “in 2016 it was established democracies—countries rated Free in the report’s ranking system—that dominated the list of countries suffering setbacks.” The report’s authors went on glumly to note that the US election of 2016 “raised fears of a foreign policy divorced from America’s traditional strategic commitments to democracy, human rights, and the rules-based international order that it helped to construct beginning in 1945.” And if this were not enough, they pointed to a growing “nexus” of mutual support between authoritarian regimes and populist movements in both weak and strong liberal democracies.

It would be somewhat reassuring to think the United States is the “exceptional nation” resisting the tide. But President Donald J. Trump’s casual, sometimes caustic, disdain for democratic norms and his inexplicable coziness with Vladimir Putin and lesser authoritarians have raised concerns in America and abroad, particularly among traditional allies.

Disturbing as the behavior of the forty-fifth president is, honesty compels us to recognize that Trump’s presidency is less the cause of America’s democracy woes than the product of them. Surveys and studies, including The Vanishing Center of American Democracy, published by the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture last year, reveal a steady decline in Americans’ confidence in their political institutions as well as various other bulwarks of a liberal and civil society. A declining faith in democratic norms has only exacerbated the culture war divisions of the last four decades, divisions that have in turn been intensified by what some call a new class war between “credentialed” elites and (mostly) white lower-income earners who see their fortunes declining. And as many have noted, democratic norms are bound to suffer when there are no shared conceptions of truth or objectivity, and when all products of journalism are dismissed, from one partisan angle or another, as “fake news.”

Is it time to declare the end of the end of history, as we tentatively suggest in the title to this issue’s theme? More fundamentally, is there something deeply flawed in what many people have long believed was the crowning achievement of the Enlightenment: not merely the idea of governments of, for, and by the people but states undergirded by commitments to personal and civil liberties. Are we witnessing the exhaustion of the once-vital liberal tradition that supported our politics, both its progressive and conservative strands, and which made politics a (relatively) civil enterprise, and compromise a desirable outcome of that enterprise?

The contributors to this issue propose widely differing answers to these questions. But all agree that the questions are urgent and the stakes are high, not only for America and other liberal democracies but also for the relatively stable global order that emerged after World War II, an order built on faith in the universal worth of liberal principles.

We will be releasing a select number of essays and reviews from this issue on a rolling basis during the coming weeks, starting with the following two:

Here’s what subscribers can already read: “The Tragedy of Liberalism,” Patrick J. Deneen; “Not Melting into Air,” John M. Owen IV; “Why Nations Matter,” Wilfred M. McClay; “Technocratic Vistas,” Jackson Lears; and “What Is to Be Done?,” by William A. Galston.

Other contributions include essays by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon and Phil Christman.

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Missing Michael Cromartie

Flyer from Protestants and Other Americans United for Separation of Church and State (1960). Via Wikimedia Commons.

Michael Cromartie was a rare figure in public life. An evangelical Christian, he devoted much of his work at the Washington-based Ethics & Public Policy Center to shedding light on issues that too often fueled the angriest culture-war disagreements over the place of religion in the public square. Until his recent death after a long struggle with cancer, he was rightly hailed as a bridge builder between journalism and religion.  Twice annually, he hosted the Faith Angle Forum, which, as Ross Douthat explained in a eulogistic column for the New York Times, invited “prominent journalists, members of one of America’s most secular professions, into extended conversation with religious leaders, theologians and historians, the best and brightest students and practitioners of varied faiths.” In a tribute on the website Real Clear Politics, journalist Carl Cannon wrote that “Cromartie did more to ensure that American political journalism is imbued with religious tolerance, biblical literacy, historical insight, and an ecumenical spirit than any person alive.”

I found myself missing Cromartie as I watched (and participated in) the reaction to New York Times reporter Laurie Goodstein’s description of the religious community of Professor Amy Barrett, nominated by President Trump to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. (Barrett’s hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee garnered some attention after Senator Diane Feinstein opined: “The dogma lives loudly within you.”)

Goodstein’s article has many problems, but what made me think of Cromartie was what the article and some responses to it revealed about the deep misunderstandings and biases of some of America’s more prominent religion journalists about some of the most basic practices of millions of American religious believers. These kinds of misunderstandings are all the more troubling at a time when the words and actions of our president have exacerbated divisions in our nation. Continue reading

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