, Lederhosen, and Genetics


One Thing after Another was working out at the YMCA, as is this blog’s wont, when the following commercial for appeared on the TV:

Kyle (who apparently is a real person) had long thought his family was German. He danced in a German dance group, and he wore lederhosen. When he joined in 2011, he was surprised to find that there weren’t any Germans in his family tree. He had a DNA test done through and found that he wasn’t German at all: 52% of his DNA came from Scotland and Ireland. So he traded in his lederhosen for a kilt. Ha!

One Thing after Another was initially struck by the fatuousness of this ad, but further reflection led to a feeling of some discomfiture. The commercial sends out mixed messages about ethnicity. That Kyle can play the part of the enthusiastic German-American, even though, “genetically speaking,” he is much more Scots and Irish, suggests that ethnicity is a matter of culture not biology. But having found out he was mistaken and that genetic testing proves he is just over half Scots and Irish, he conforms to type and wears a kilt—a move that implies that genes influence our cultural destiny. The whole story is ridiculous on its face. Think of the following thought experiment: a Scot is stolen at birth from a Glasgow hospital and spirited away to Leipzig to be raised by a German family. At fifty, if the story of his origins were revealed to him, would he really feel more affinity for Glasgow than Leipzig? The answer seems straightforward.

In its own silly way, touches upon some important questions about ethnicity and genetics. First, is there really such a thing as being “genetically” one nationality or another? Second, do these genes really influence our culture? To answer the first question, a brief discourse on genetics seems in order. There are genetic differences between groups of humans, but largely because we are a recent species, these difference are very small. These variations don’t seem to matter much except for the prevalence of certain diseases among particular populations, such as, say, sickle-cell anemia and cystic fibrosis (or these populations’ responses to certain treatments). For sure, the distribution of certain genes among the population varies with geography. However, as an article in Nature Genetics points out, the extensive migration and mixture of populations throughout the past have militated against the perpetuation of genetically “pure” groups of people:

Genetic variation is geographically structured, as expected from the partial isolation of human populations during much of their history. Because traditional concepts of race are in turn correlated with geography, it is inaccurate to state that race is “biologically meaningless.” On the other hand, because they have been only partially isolated, human populations are seldom demarcated by precise genetic boundaries. Substantial overlap can therefore occur between populations, invalidating the concept that populations (or races) are discrete types.

Daniel Defoe captured this point quite well in his famous poem, “The True-Born Englishman” (1701):

Thus from a mixture of all kinds began,
That het’rogeneous thing, an Englishman:
In eager rapes, and furious lust begot,
Betwixt a painted Britain and a Scot.
Whose gend’ring off-spring quickly learn’d to bow,
And yoke their heifers to the Roman plough:
From whence a mongrel half-bred race there came,
With neither name, nor nation, speech nor fame.
In whose hot veins new mixtures quickly ran,
Infus’d betwixt a Saxon and a Dane.
While their rank daughters, to their parents just,
Receiv’d all nations with promiscuous lust.
This nauseous brood directly did contain
The well-extracted blood of Englishmen. . . .

The Scot, Pict, Britain, Roman, Dane, submit,
And with the English-Saxon all unite:
And these the mixture have so close pursu’d,
The very name and memory’s subdu’d:
No Roman now, no Britain does remain;
Wales strove to separate, but strove in vain:
The silent nations undistinguish’d fall,
And Englishman’s the common name for all.
Fate jumbled them together, God knows how;
What e’er they were they’re true-born English now. . . .

’Tis well that virtue gives nobility,
How shall we else the want of birth and blood supply?
Since scarce one family is left alive,
Which does not from some foreigner derive.

Defoe’s immediate target was those who attacked the Dutch-born William III of England because the monarch was not a “true” Englishman. Yet Defoe clearly showed why it was so problematic to claim that somebody was “English” (or anything else) by blood. And had he been able to go farther back in time, he could have shown even more examples of admixture. Statements, then, about our national descent are somewhat arbitrary and depend on how far back we go (if we travel far enough in time, we are all African). For example, adjectives like “German” as applied to descent are slippery. Romans invented the word “Germani” to describe the great multitude of folks who lived east of the Rhine and north of the Danube (many of whom had come from farther east); the Romans did not mean to suggest a unity of any sort. “Germany” eventually became a geographic term, and “German” was a cultural expression that emerged in the medieval period. But Germany did not become a unified state until 1871. So what does “German” descent really mean unless applied almost exclusively to the modern period of history?

Aside from the difficulty of claiming that this or that national group is genetically united and fundamentally distinct from others (what does it mean to be 52% Irish and Scots?), there is the question of what role genetics play in the formation of ethnicity or identity. Neo-Darwinists believe that a number of our behaviors have evolved due to natural selection (think of behaviors as diverse as humans’ sociability or the “flight or fight response”). A number of scholars also argue that these biological inheritances were intertwined with cultural natural selection (a “cultural Darwinism”) in which certain practices and behaviors persisted because they gave the social groups that employed them an advantage over others during the Upper Paleolithic period. This theory of cultural natural selection is contested, and the mainstream version of this theory, as it stands now, has to be stretched a great length to claim that biology determines contemporary national culture. Only racists would stretch the argument to that degree.

For example, Adolf Hitler argued in Mein Kampf that Aryans (which he asserted were a distinct and pure biological group) were distinguished by the fact that they were the world’s sole “culture creators” or “founders of culture.” This was a part of their biological inheritance. Should the Aryan race disappear, he claimed, all advances in culture would come to an end. What made the Aryans so uniquely capable of “creating and building culture”? It was not the Aryans’ “intellectual gifts” but rather their idealism that led them to work and sacrifice on behalf of the community—in other words, they had inherited a capacity for “Pflichterfüllung” or devotion to one’s duty.

Is One Thing after Another making much too big a deal about a commercial? Undoubtedly, but to paraphrase The Disposable Heroes of Hiphoprisy, TV and especially commercials are the “director” and the “reflector” of popular ideas. Does One Thing after Another wish to pin nefarious motives on Kyle or No, but claiming that one’s genes predispose one to a particular culture (’s intimation) and arguing that one’s biological inheritance determines one’s behavior (Hitler’s argument) are points on the same slope. ought to be extra mindful about claims it makes about ancestry, DNA testing, and nationality. There’s a reason that Germans have generally been allergic to genealogy since 1945.

Lyin’ Ted, Democrats, and the Ku Klux Klan


With so much excitement surrounding President Trump’s first few weeks in office, one would be forgiven for not following closely former Republican presidential candidate and Texas Senator Ted Cruz. But “Lyin’ Ted,” as President Trump labeled him during the primary campaign, has been back in the news, defending Trump’s nominees for cabinet posts. Cruz’s recent headline-grabbing interview on Fox News caught the attention of One Thing after Another. Cruz may not have been lying, and he may not have been offering up “alternative facts,” as Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway claimed White House spokesman Sean Spicer did shortly after the inauguration.  But he is in need of some historical perspective.

In case you missed it, here’s the story according to the Washington Post:

Cruz appeared on Fox News last week after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren had been cut off on the Senate floor as she spoke against her fellow senator Jeff Sessions’s confirmation to be attorney general. To rebut charges of racism against Sessions, Cruz tried to turn the tables. “Democrats,” Cruz claimed, “are the party of the Ku Klux Klan.” He added, “You look at the most racist – you look at the Dixiecrats, they were Democrats who imposed segregation, imposed Jim Crow laws, who founded the Klan.  The Klan was founded by a great many Democrats.” Cruz is not the first to make such claims. Indeed, One Thing after Another has heard Republicans say similar things in the past, most often in an attempt to deflect charges of racism and insist that it is Democrats who bear the burden of opposition to civil rights for African Americans. If your response is, “Say what?”, then give One Thing after Another the chance to fill in the gaps.

Although Cruz presents his claim as if it is relevant to current debates about race, it most certainly is not. One Thing after Another does not want to impugn the senator’s motives, but this is a distraction at best. Nevertheless, there is some truth in what he says, so let’s get that out of the way first. For much of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the American South was solidly Democratic—the Solid South. Before the Civil War, the Democrats were the party most closely associated with protecting slaveowners’ property rights. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, Democrats returned to power in all of the states of the former Confederacy and eventually disenfranchised the African-American voters most likely to support Republicans. Those white southerners were responsible for imposing segregation and resisting any federal efforts to protect civil rights for African Americans. The violence that the KKK represented helped to reinforce segregation.

The problem with Cruz’s claim, of course, is that in his attempt to cast racist aspersions on current Democrats, he ignores the historical development of the American political party system. The current Democratic party is not the same party that formed around Andrew Jackson in the early 19th century or helped to elect men like Grover Cleveland to the presidency in the late 19th century. In fact, for much of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Democrats—like the Republicans—were more a loose national coalition of regional and ethnic factions than an ideologically united party. The various factions did not always see eye to eye on issues like tariffs or workplace regulation, but the goal was to win office and hold power through patronage appointments. So they avoided potentially divisive issues and for the most part did not work to advance any particular ideological agenda. Even when an agenda emerged in the 1930s, the party was not united. Franklin Roosevelt, for instance, tried in vain to purge the Democrats of anti-New Deal southerners.

World War II patriotism emphasized the need for party unity, but the post-war period brought the return of southern outliers within the party. In 1948, a group of southern Democrats were angered about President Harry Truman’s embrace of a civil rights agenda. Known informally as the Dixiecrats, those southerners nominated their own candidate for president—South Carolina’s Strom Thurmond—under the banner of the States Rights Democratic Party. Thurmond won four states in the Deep South that year, but that was not enough to prevent Truman from being elected. After Thurmond’s loss, those Dixiecrats licked their wounds and returned to the Democratic fold. They stayed there, often a thorn in the side of the national party, and because of seniority in Congress often, held significant power and influence within the party.

Although it’s probably not company Cruz would normally keep, his attempt to lump all Democrats in with the Dixiecrats got a shout out fifty or so years ago by none other than Malcolm X. No fan of political solutions to address racial justice issues, Malcolm complained in 1964, “A Dixiecrat is nothing but a Democrat in disguise. The titular head of the Democrats is also the head of the Dixiecrats, because the Dixiecrats are a part of the Democratic Party. The Democrats have never kicked the Dixiecrats out of the party.”

That same year, however, the times they began changing. Former Dixiecrat presidential candidate turned South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond switched party affiliation and endorsed Republican Barry Goldwater for president. Lyndon Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Goldwater carried five Deep South states. Although the Civil Rights Act passed Congress with plenty of Republican support, legend has it when Johnson signed the bill, he reportedly remarked to aide Bill Moyers that he had just handed over the South to the Republican party for a long time to come. At first glance, then, it might appear that white southerners moved to the Republican party in reaction to the national Democrats’ embrace of civil rights for African Americans. And some, no doubt, did.

But, again, that’s not the whole story. Because of demographic change, post-World War II migration into the region, and the popularity of Dwight Eisenhower, Republicans made in-roads in the South throughout the 1950s. In many ways, the Republicans’ white, native-born Protestant homogeneity was a better fit for the South anyway. What is more, the changeover from a Democratic to a Republican Solid South happened gradually. As Democratic elected officials retired, voters replaced them with Republicans. Rather than draw a straight line between opposition to civil rights for African Americans and political realignment, therefore, it is more accurate to see the Civil Rights Movement as part of the post-war reshuffling of the political deck. After the success of the Civil Rights Movement in ending legal segregation, the political issues surrounding race became more complex, and neither party made racial justice matters a top priority.

Our current political party system came together after the dust of the 1960s had settled, in that post-Civil Rights Movement era. By the 1980s, the political parties were more or less ideologically united. It was then that Democrats became “liberals” and Republicans “conservatives,” a trend that held into the 21st century. During his campaign, Trump surrounded himself by people associated with the so-called “alt-right,” but his campaign and some of the promises he made—like a massive federal infrastructure program—make labeling him “liberal” or “conservative” problematic. His election, then, at least threatened to lay waste to that liberal / conservative dichotomy that had characterized the two parties since the age of Reagan. For now, Republicans appear to be grudgingly falling in line behind the president, while Democrats seek a new leader and new issues that can attract a broad base of support. We at One Thing After Another are historians, so we are loath to predict what is going to happen in the future. Nevertheless, this could prove to be a watershed moment for the current party system, and a realignment could be in the works.

Whatever happens, One Thing after Another would prefer that political arguments be based on accurate information understood in its proper historical context. Ahistorical claims like Cruz’s make truth a casualty of partisanship. When truth becomes optional and historical context is ignored, then democracy itself is threatened. We historians should not be solely responsible for saving the republic. But until politicians take their responsibility more seriously, anyone concerned about truth and democracy must continue to push back against lies, alternative facts, and the anachronistic use of historical information.


History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part II)

Part II

Part I of this post explored parallels between the 1924 immigration law and President Trump’s 2017 executive order restricting immigration to the United States. Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

While the lessons of history may be ambiguous, we can learn a lot about our own society by looking at how we understand past events. The first part of this post was inspired in part by a picture on Facebook:


There are numerous problems with this meme, not least of which is the attempt to use the past to suggest that the ancestors of white Americans were more noble or patriotic than recent immigrants to the United States. To suggest that early 20th-century Italian-Americans were much more likely to assimilate than their modern counterparts is likely not true. In fact, Italian-Americans in the early 1900s had a reputation that was not all that different from immigrants today. Italians attempted to preserve their culture, often in the face of intense pressures to “Americanize.” Moreover, some native-born Americans questioned whether Italians’ religious faith—in this case, Catholicism—was compatible with American civic life. In other words, Italian-Americans were not that different from other immigrant groups that came to the United States, both at the time and in recent years.

There was another element of the Italian-American experience that bears interesting parallels to today. In 1919 and 1920, terrorists launched a series of deadly bombings in the United States. The culprits were American anarchists who may have been inspired by Luigi Galleani, an Italian-American radical based in Lynn, Massachusetts. The great majority of Italian-Americans were not involved in anti-government activities, let alone deadly bombings. Nevertheless, some Americans came to believe that immigrants—especially Italian ones—represented a very real and dangerous threat to the nation’s security. Galleani was deported in 1919, along with several other Italian radicals. A Justice Department crackdown on radicals included a 1920 raid in Paterson, New Jersey that led to the arrest of twenty-nine Italian anarchists.


Italian Anarchist Luigi Galleani

In this climate of anti-immigrant and anti-radical hysteria, the case of Sacco and Vanzetti gripped the nation’s attention. Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were two Italian-Americans who were accused of murdering a guard during a robbery in Braintree, Massachusetts in 1920. The two men, who were alleged to have ties to Galleani, were tried, convicted, and eventually executed in 1927. Though their culpability has been debated (and research suggests that one or both of the accused were in fact involved in terrorist activities), most historians argue that their trial was hopelessly compromised by the virulent anti-immigrant and anti-radical views of the period.

The fate of Sacco and Vanzetti brings us back to the issue of immigration that started Part I of this post. The 1924 immigration law ostensibly protected the United States from dangerous elements who wanted to destroy American society. Italian-Americans were the victims of these policies. Today, Italian-Americans who want to denounce recent immigrants for their failure to assimilate look back nostalgically to a time when, in their understanding, their great-grandparents came to the United States and admirably and enthusiastically transformed from Italians to Americans. This characterization obscures the long history of nativism in the United States and the debates about security that have often informed immigration policy. It also does a disservice to earlier generations of immigrants, who face intense prejudice and opposition–not unlike immigrants today.

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

History in the Age of Trump: Immigration (Part I)

Part I

Note: The Donald Trump presidency has already caused historians and other observers to look to the past for parallels and guidance. Some commentators have emphasized that Trump’s policies bear striking similarity to earlier periods in American and European history. Others have emphasized that Trump’s administration has broken with longstanding traditions in American political life. This series will attempt to place Trump’s presidency in a historical perspective in a way that contributes both to our understanding of past events and current affairs.

**Links in this essay will open PDF copies of New York Times articles from the 1920s. Links should open in a new window.

The images are striking: immigrants stuck in limbo, having arrived in the New York but detained and denied entry due to new, stricter immigration regulations. Those affected include men who risked their lives fighting for the United States who now find that they are unwelcome in the country they defended. In one case, a woman from the Middle East arrives in the U.S. to be reunited with her husband, a religious cleric who had come to the country legally more than a year earlier. The woman and their young daughter are taken into custody and then ordered to return home, prompting a frantic legal battle over their future.


Holding area at Ellis Island.

These stories do not describe events that took place in the past week—they describe conditions in 1924, just after Congress passed legislation that dramatically reduced the number of immigrants eligible for entry into the United States. The new law created bottlenecks at American ports, including Ellis Island. Critics of the law were dismayed to note that soldiers who had fought in World War I but later left the country found themselves stranded, uncertain of when they could return. Other opponents complained that the law unfairly targeted certain ethnic groups. Italians, who had made up a large percentage of immigrants to the United States since the early 1900s, saw their numbers slow to a trickle. Religious minorities also suffered under the new law; the family mentioned in the opening paragraph were Jews from Palestine.


On this blog, we try not to overstate the link between past and present. Immigration restrictions in 2017 are not the same as in 1924; America now is very different from America then. Nevertheless, President Trump’s executive order has drawn attention to America’s historic position as a beacon for immigrants, along with its equally long history of trying to exclude “undesirables.” Trump’s critics are right: his executive order is un-American, a betrayal of our core principles. At the same time, it is also quintessentially American, a modern manifestation of the nativist tendencies that have always existed in this country.

Part II of this post explores the fears that immigrants in the 1920s were violent radicals who threatened the American way of life. It will also consider how that history relates to current attitudes, and provide another illustration of how past events can be misconstrued in a modern context.

Trump’s Executive Order, Immigration, and Budweiser’s Super Bowl Commercial


On January 31, Budweiser posted its 2017 Super Bowl commercial on YouTube. In the last week, the video has been viewed over 20 million times. The one-minute ad, entitled “Born the Hard Way,” presents a series of fictional vignettes depicting the 1857 voyage of Adolphus Busch, Budweiser’s founder, from Germany to St. Louis.

Released only days after President Trump’s executive order, which severely restricts immigration from seven nations, suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days, and bars Syrian refugees from the United States, “Born the Hard Way” has ignited a huge debate across social media and the internet. On the one hand (and One Thing after Another paints with a broad brush), those who support President Trump and the travel ban, because they wish to safeguard the security of the country, see the ad as an implicit rebuke. On the other, many interpret the commercial as a moving tribute to the centrality of immigration to the American experience.

What surprises One Thing after Another is the visceral reaction to an advertisement that probably would not have raised eyebrows a couple of years ago. Why is the social media world so sure that a representation of a German immigrant’s journey in 1857 is an assault on the travel ban imposed in 2017 against predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East? The analogy seems a bit of a stretch, even if Adolphus Busch is greeted in New Orleans by an unsavory character yelling “Go back home!” in his face. Why did Sarah Palin tweet “Budweiser Debuts Super Bowl Ad, and Its Politically Charged Message Has Americans Speechless”? Why did Stacey Dash, formerly of Fox News, write, “Dear Budweiser, your immigrant founder came here to make beer, not bombs (so spare me the heavy handed ad)”? Why is Brietbart convinced that Budweiser is playing politics? Why is there a movement afoot to boycott Budweiser (and see here) for making a supposedly political commercial?

A number of the claims made by critics seem a bit off-target if one looks at the genesis of the commercial. According to Adweek, work on “Born the Hard Way” began eight months ago (long before it seemed likely that Trump would become president) and forms part of a broad, long-term, multifaceted campaign to win back market share. The main role of expensive Super Bowl commercials within this campaign consists of building the brand (a one-minute spot during this year’s game will probably cost $15 million while the commercial itself cost $2-$3 million). The idea of showing the origins of Budweiser emerged in October 2016, and a script (the twelfth one considered) was approved around Thanksgiving of that year. According to Laura Rowan, group strategy director at Anomaly (the creative agency that participated in coming up with the idea), “This is the story of the original self-made man, one of the founders of the American Dream, making it the hard way, and his path that all came after him followed.” Rowan’s use of the phrase “the hard way,” along with the commercial’s title, link this effort to the phrase “brewed the hard way,” which has been the centerpiece of Budweiser’s message for the last couple of years (see Budweiser’s Super Bowl XLIX ad).

In any event, it is this kind of thinking about building a brand and capturing market share that led to the production of “Born the Hard Way.” As Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Marketing for Budweiser, asserted:

It’s true, Adolphus Busch made an incredible journey to this country, and that’s really what this is about. It’s about his vision, his dream, everything that he does to achieve that. . . . Even though it happened in the 1850s, it’s a story that is super relevant today. That’s what we’re honing in on; it’s the pursuit, the effort, the passion, the drive, the hard work, the ambition, that’s really what this is about more than anything else. . . . There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country. . . . We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.

In other words, the Budweiser ad was intended as political, but not in the way that everybody seems to think. Instead of using the story of the company’s immigrant founder to express the value of immigration, it sought to extoll the virtues of hard work—an idea that it believes its consumers share.

Budweiser’s argument seems to make sense. Family-owned firms (or firms that have a long tradition of family ownership—Budweiser passed from the Busch family to InBev in 2008) are very proud of their founders and history. One has only to remember how Ford Motor Company produces encomiums to Henry Ford or the way Hewlett-Packard reverentially refers to David Packard and his famous garage in Palo Alto. It is entirely possible that a company enamored of its founder and his virtues might not have stopped to think about the different ways in which his story might be understood.

At this point, readers may start thinking that One Thing after Another is letting Budweiser off the hook by exonerating it of playing immigration politics. Yes and no; you should read on. This entire incident reminds this blog of three related points with which many historians (and scholars in closely related fields) will be familiar. First, crying foul because Budweiser has produced a “political” ad is naïve; all messages, whatever the medium, are political. An ad supporting immigration is just as political as a commercial touting the value of ambition, determination, and hard work. Through the act of associating certain images and ideas with a product, commercials are engaged in politics, whether it’s in the name of selling soft drinks, cars, cleaning supplies, or Snuggies. And if you stop for a second to think about the entire purpose of commercials—getting people to buy stuff that they might not otherwise want—you realize that commercials are a supremely political act.

Second, the kerfuffle over this commercial shows how important history is to popular political culture. Even those who know so very little about history understand that narratives about the past can either offer precedents for present-day actions or delegitimize them. Budweiser sought to use a small slice of history (albeit fictionalized) about its single-minded founder to burnish the image of its beer. But Budweiser could not retain ownership of the story as it became consumed by contemporary politics; it goes without saying that political groups are desperate to control narratives of the past.  In the case of “Born the Hard Way,” the question went from “Don’t you want to buy beer from a company that is as committed to its product as its founder, Adolphus Busch, was?” to, “Does the experience of Adolphus Busch and other German immigrants in the mid-19th century express the value of a less restrictive immigration policy in 2017?” One Thing after Another would like to think that Budweiser has performed an important service by inadvertently presenting this question to the public. Many responses to the commercial, though, seem to indicate that debate on this topic has become a dialog of the deaf—an occasion for expressing shibboleths rather than an opportunity for exchanging ideas.

Still, the third point might offer us some hope. The debate concerning the commercial makes One Thing after Another think of “reader response criticism” as developed by Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and legal scholar. Fish argues that readers do not interpret an objective text—rather, they make the text in the act of reading. The only reason so many readers produce the same meaning from a text is because they belong to an “interpretive community” which has been trained to read in much the same way. This idea, of course, can be extended to visual media, including commercials. Budweiser may have intended to produce a tribute to the bootstrapping character of its founder, but the time and place are such that Americans have read a statement about immigration. In some ways, this situation is more promising than it appears. It would seem that divided as the United States is at this point, we still have enough in common to belong to the same interpretive community. We have all produced the same text and agree on its significance—but we disagree on its value.

Martin Luther King, Jr., the Comics, and Biography


This past Martin Luther King Day, in the comic strip Curtis, the title character asks at the dinner table—“Makes me wonder how history would have played out if Dr. King was never born, or never assassinated?” His family’s response is dumbstruck silence. Many historians might have been hard pressed to respond cogently to the fictional eleven-year-old’s question as well.

We have long debated whether great people shape history through their actions or if broader impersonal forces shape historical events and the participants. Martin Luther King, for example, was not the only civil rights leader, and undoubtedly other leaders would have pushed the civil rights agenda forward in the 1950s and 1960s without him. Yet, through his soaring rhetoric, King put his indelible mark on the movement. The story of King’s life has consequently become for many Americans the story of the Civil Rights movement in the mid-twentieth century.

Though many academic historians have shied away from biography recently, the lives of great men and women are still the primary way that most people learn about the past. People like biography because it enables readers to form mental pictures of the events or actions described and thereby allows readers in a sense to walk in another’s shoes. Biography essentially makes history more accessible and real for readers than jargon-laden academic texts do. In the process, biography provides a good introduction to the politics, economics, social hierarchies, and morality of various times and places that facilitates more mature historical analysis. Biography effectively opens the door to greater historical awareness.

Biography does not need to be just a parade of great men and women either. Many projects are underway today to write biographies or biographical sketches of regular people. Such projects open the door to innovative pedagogical collaboration between teachers, students, and public history organizations. For instance, Saint Anselm students in Professor Salerno’s American Women’s History (HI 359) recently prepared biographical sketches for a national database on militant suffragists arrested in demonstrations during World War I.

Renewed interest in biography might not quell historians’ ambivalence with the genre or put to rest long-standing debates regarding causation (that is, the relative weight of individual action vs. impersonal forces). Still, more appreciation of biography by professional historians will allow us to participate more fully in public debates—even with fictional characters in the funnies.

Curtis’s creator, Ray Billingsley, of course, was not really interested in historians’ debates when he penned his strip. Rather, he rightly wanted to highlight how different American history would have been without Martin Luther King—or how the world would have changed had he lived longer.

Historians and the Fight against Fake News


In an article that appeared in a recent issue of, Kevin Levin decries the recent prevalence of fake news and recommends that history teachers are especially qualified to take a leading role in educating the public about the difference between this counterfeit article and the real thing.

Levin begins by defining fake news as “deceptions” that “play to the readers’ worst fears” for the sake of “maximizing visitor hits” to “generate massive revenue” on web sites. Levin quotes Neal Gabler who writes that the point is not to present an “alternative truth . . . but to destroy truth altogether, to set us adrift in a world of belief without facts, a word where there is no defense against lies.” Levin points out that the advent of the internet, which has allowed just about anybody to post information online, has facilitated the proliferation of fake news. In the age when print media dominated, he argues, librarians and others could serve as the gatekeepers to information, “allowing for a certain level of quality control.” Since then, however, technology has “quickly outpaced educators’ ability to police or even guide students as to how best to search [sic] and assess online information.” The result is not only that fake news has proliferated, but that large numbers of people also give credibility to these stories. Having laid out the problem, Levin asks historians to help solve it by teaching students how to assess they information they gather online. After all, so the argument goes, historians are expert at the “critical evaluation of bias and perspective in primary sources.”

One Thing after Another is flattered whenever someone calls upon historians to solve this or that problem. And this blog is just as discouraged as anyone else at the ubiquity of fake news. However, One Thing after Another is somewhat pessimistic about the prospects for success in this battle, no so much because it doubts the hearts and minds of historians, but because the problem Levin contemplates is more massive and deep-rooted than he seems to realize.

Levin’s focus is somewhat myopic in contemplating this issue and its solution. Levin’s article aims mainly at fake news (which merely seeks to make a buck), but in an aside, he seems to understand that only a thin line divides this phenomenon from misinformation that has clear political objectives (e.g. propaganda). He never stresses the close relationship between the two, does not appear to grasp  what makes them so dangerous to the public, and does not explain why they should be countered so vigorously. Getting facts wrong does not merely lead to poor performances in Trivial Pursuit or bad grades in history courses; it divorces our politics from reality which can only lead to terrible consequences. What makes this problem so difficult to contend with is that history itself shows that people have long been susceptible to misinformation.

Levin, along with many others, seems to see the influence of dubious news of uncertain provenance as something new. For example, by declaring “post-truth” the word of 2016, the Oxford English Dictionary gives credence to the notion that fake news and other sorts of misinformation are a product of the early 21stcentury. According to the OED, “post-truth” is an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” This definition, however, does not describe a particularly novel state of affairs. History is replete with examples of peoples who were convinced by appeals to dearly held prejudices or who were inspired to act upon unfounded rumors that corresponded with cherished beliefs. One has only to recall the reaction of the slave states to John Brown’s raid or the activities of French peasants during the Great Fear. In many ways, fake news and post-truthiness remind One Thing after Another of Richard Hofstadter’s famous essay, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (1964). Hofstadter discussed a longstanding rhetorical tradition in American politics which was characterized by “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy,” where “style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed and advocated than with the truth or falsity of their content.” He continued by associating this paranoid style with a series of episodes in American politics including the anti-Masonic movement, the Know-Nothings, populism, and McCarthyism. In other words, it seems clear that the species of lie that Levin worries about is part of an ancient, intractable genus.

It is for this reason that we have cause for pessimism. Pace Levin, many people are not purely rational animals who are willing to change their opinions when confronted by facts. We are all reluctant to give up our shibboleths and world views. It is here that we should recall Hofstadter’s speculation that the paranoid style is “a persistent psychic phenomenon” that consistently affects “a modest minority of the population.” However, he argues that under the right circumstances, this minority can “be built into mass movements or political parties.” When our tendency to grasp falsehoods is encouraged by fake news or misinformation, untruth begets untruth, until we are, as Gabler puts it, set “adrift in a world of belief without facts, a world where there is no defense against lies.” It is in this world that the paranoid style thrives. As Hofstadter put it:

A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

Don’t we all know somebody like that?

Hofstadter’s reference to the value of a historical sensibility brings us back to the question of what historians ought to do when confronted by this contemporary cocktail of fake news, misinformation, the internet, and the paranoid style. For one thing, the burden of truth cannot become the historian’s alone. The difficulty is so vast and entrenched that other public figures must share in the work, especially two classes of people held in low esteem these days: journalists and politicians. However one feels about journalists, it is obvious that they are crucial to dealing with this problem of fake news or misinformation (although one could argue that soi-disant journalists are the problem). But why politicians? In this case, One Thing after Another is inspired by Walter Bagehot’s comments in the introduction to the second edition (1872) of The English Constitution. Bagehot, who was then editor of The Economist, wrote a new introduction to this classic work in an attempt to forecast changes wrought by the Reform Act of 1867, which had redistributed representation in the Commons and expanded the size of the electorate by reducing the property threshold for voting. It is in this context, where the franchise had been extended to the upper portion of the working class for the first time, that he made the following observations:

The mode in which the [political] questions dealt with are discussed is almost as important as the selection of these questions. It is for our principal statesmen to lead the public, and not to let the public lead them. No doubt when statesmen live by public favor, as ours do, this is a hard saying, and it requires to be carefully limited. . . . What is mostly needed is the manly utterance of clear conclusions; if a statesman gives those in a felicitous way (and if with a few light and humorous illustrations, so much the better), he has done his part. He will have given the text, the scribes in the newspapers will write the sermon. . . . And so he will both guide and benefit the nation. But if, especially at a time when great ignorance has an unusual power in public affairs, he chooses to accept and reiterate the decisions of that ignorance, he is only the hireling of the nation, and does little save hurt it.

The relevance of this excerpt (and others in The English Constitution which state something similar) is that Bagehot saw political leaders as bearing an educational responsibility to the nation, a task they shared with journalists. For sure, this view of politicians and journalists was based on a low opinion of the new electorate and a fear that if left to its own devices, working people might engage in class politics. And Bagehot wrote in a different era when the upper classes still dominated national politics and media outlets were limited. Still, the point stands. One Thing after Another wonders if we have completely lost the sense that politicians ought to educate the electorate instead of saying whatever is necessary to win votes from their base.

Pointing out that journalists and politicians are a necessary part of the solution only reveals how large the problem is. In the meantime, historians (imperfect as they themselves are) can only hope to contain the influence of misinformation, not eradicate it. They must labor like Dr. Rieux in Albert Camus’ The Plague, knowing that in the long run they cannot win, but that it is the right thing to do.