Month: July 2015

The History Professor Shuffle I: Professor Masur

And now, as Monty Python says, for something completely different. Today witnesses the inauguration of a new series on One Thing after Another. It’s called The History Professor Shuffle. We accost a professor from the department and ask that lucky person to put his or her iPod (or Spotify account or whatever else he or she has) in shuffle mode. Then the professor writes a little something about the first five songs that come up. This idea is not terribly original: One Thing after Another has a faint recollection that The Boston Globe used to run a series like this—except the newspaper used celebrities.

We have no celebrities; all we have right now is Professor Masur. Let’s see what he came up with in the shuffle lottery.

The original plan was to open my iPod, put it on shuffle, and see what came up. Unfortunately, I left my iPod on the airplane when we took a family vacation, so now it’s criss-crossing the U.S. on a Southwest plane. But I still have my iPad, which was synched to my iPod. So here we go!

1) Silentó, “Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)” (2015)

Ummm, let’s just skip ahead and pretend this one never came up.

1b) John Mark Nelson, “Reminisce” (2012)

I guess the title of this song calls to mind the past, though “reminiscing” is far different from the study of history. I don’t know a whole lot about this song. I started hearing it a few years ago on the Minneapolis Public Radio station (“The Current”) that I sometimes stream at work. Nelson is a young musician from outside of Minneapolis, and I think he wrote and recorded this when he was eighteen. It’s a really pleasant song—it has moments when it seems like an entire orchestra is playing, and then moments when it is just the singer and a guitar. I really like the xylophone hook.

Historical connection: Nothing I can think of.

2) The Beastie Boys, “High Plains Drifter” (1989)

This is a good one. It’s from Paul’s Boutique, which I think I owned on cassette or CD when I was younger. (I know I had License to Ill on cassette—I got it for my thirteenth birthday.) At this point, the trajectory of Paul’s Boutique is pretty well-known. When it was first released a lot of people panned it and sales were lackluster. Over time, though, it earned a reputation as one of the great albums of the eighties ( placed it at #3). “High Plains Drifter” is a fun song about an outlaw, his misdeeds, and his brushes with the law. It’s a good enough song that I can forgive the Beasties for using a sample from the Eagles (which I think they did quite a bit on this album). Plus the Eagles sample is balanced out by references to the Band and the Ramones.

Historical connection: It does sound a bit like it could be a true story, but that’s about it. Maybe it has something to do with the Clint Eastwood movie, High Plains Drifter (1973).

3) Michael Jackson, “Break of Dawn” (2001)

This is interesting. When I was younger my older brother had Thriller on record, but I don’t remember ever being interested in Michael Jackson after that. Then at some point a few years ago I got a bunch of music from my younger brother’s computer. One of those songs was Michael Jackson’s “Break of Dawn.” I wouldn’t say I was immediately enamored of it, but it did remind me of another song that I liked—De La Soul’s “Breakadawn,” from their 1993 album Buhloone Mindstate. De La Soul’s song has a hook that sounds like Michael Jackson singing “break of dawn,” which I always assumed they had sampled from his song of the same name. But now that I look at it I realize that Michael Jackson’s song didn’t come out until 2001—eight years after Buhloone Mindstate. It appears that the sample of the words “break of dawn” actually comes from a Smokey Robinson song, which Michael Jackson was presumably imitating in 2001. If that’s not confusing enough, De La Soul’s “Breakadawn” does sample a different Michael Jackson song—“I Can’t Help It” from the album Off the Wall.

Historical connection: Other than my brief history of the sampling, nothing.

4) The Clash, “Spanish Bombs” (1979)

This is a great one. I mean, everyone loves The Clash, right? At some point when I was in college (ca. early-1990s) I was in Madison, Wisconsin and I picked up The Story of the Clash, a double CD “best of” collection. I still have the CDs in a box in my basement, but at some point I transferred the songs onto my computer and then onto my iPad. I’m not going to pretend I was a big Clash fan when I was younger. I knew “Rock the Casbah” because it was their big crossover pop hit when I was about eight, so I heard it on the radio and saw the video on MTV (when I visited friends—my parents refused to get cable, and they still don’t have it to this day). But I probably only knew a few Clash songs when I purchased the double CD. Even now I only know the songs in this collection, plus a hanfdul of others. I’m pretty sure if I had to play “Name that Clash tune” with Professor Dubrulle I’d get smoked.

Historical connection: The Spanish Civil War, right? Well, sort of. According to this unassailable Wikipedia page, the song juxtaposes the Spanish Civil War with British tourism to Spain in the 1970s. It also includes allusions to Basque separatist terrorists. I’m not sure I understand all of this, but that’s okay—I just like the song.

5) The Clash, “Washington Bullets” (1980)

Two Clash songs in a row? I guess that’s okay—they are sometimes referred to as “the only band that matters.” This song is not on the double CD I purchased back in Madison. I actually purchased it a couple of years ago on iTunes. I don’t think this is considered to be one of the great Clash songs (which probably explains why it isn’t on the double CD. But that doesn’t explain why “Rudi Can’t Fail” was also left off.). It’s from the album Sandinista!, which I think gets mixed reviews (partly because it is so long—thirty-six tracks). I happen to like “Washington Bullets,” in part because it’s another song that features the xylophone (or I guess the marimba, but I’m not an expert on percussion instruments). I also like the organ at the very end of the song. Like “Spanish Bombs,” the song includes what sounds like an attempt to sing in Spanish (in this case, a yelling interlude at the end). I don’t think the members of the Clash actually knew Spanish.

I actually purchased “Washington Bullets” specifically so I could play it in my class on U.S. foreign relations. The song is a nice artifact from the late Cold War. At first listen it sounds like an indictment of American neo-imperialism in the late 20th century. The refrain of “Sandinista” (also the title of the album) refers to the left-wing party that overthrew the American-backed Somoza government in Nicaragua. The song also mentions the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Chilean coup against Salvador Allende, both of which involved the CIA. But I like the song because its message is actually a little more complicated. The last verse suggests the British, the Soviets, and the Chinese also kill and subjugate other people to preserve or expand their own power. In other words, the song is not so much about American crimes as it is about the crimes that great powers perpetrate on the weak.

Historical connection: see above.

Memory in the Former Confederate Capital

Jackson Honor Guard

After our last post about memory and the Confederate battle flag, Casey Breslin ’11, one of our history majors, who has recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, offered to write a post about what he discovered there when he contemplated the town’s history. One Thing after Another was happy to accept his submission–and his photograph above of Confederate re-enactors patrolling around the Jackson monument on Richmond’s Monument Avenue.

Richmond, Virginia, is a city on the rise. Young people flock to it because the cost of living is cheap, the job market is decent, and the atmosphere is everything a young twenty-something could want in a city to start a career. Whether it is a locomotive factory that has been converted into a movie theater or a developer who has transformed an old feedbag factory into an apartment building, Richmond has a unique strain of entrepreneurship that seems to incorporate the past by repurposing it for current ventures.

It is an artistic and musical city (the metal band Lamb of God is based in Richmond) and according to NBC news, it is the third most tattooed city in America with 14.5 tattoo parlors per 100,000 people. Many of the younger residents sport the hipster look and could easily be cast as extras in IFC’s Portlandia. Luckily, they remain and thrive in this diverse southern city. Trade publications and consumer reports consistently rate Virginia’s capital city as one of the most business-millennial-friendly cities in the United States.

Yet, within this cosmopolitan and forward-looking environment, there are many reminders of the four bloody years when the states were not united under one flag. The state capitol of Virginia once served as the capitol for the Confederacy. Its capture, along with that of the Shenandoah Valley (the Confederacy’s bread basket), was the operational goal of the Federal Army of the Potomac. Few other areas in the continental North America were more affected by war than the 100-mile radius surrounding Richmond. To commemorate the Virginian lives that were lost, the city is littered with monuments, museums, and memorial plaques—to the Confederacy.

I recently moved to Richmond and had visited it every weekend for almost a year before that. When I got to know the city, I barely noticed the monuments at first. I was excited to be closer to many of the battlefields but didn’t notice the men being commemorated at first. Sure, they are quite large and often have infuriating traffic circles around them, but Monument Avenue is flanked on either side by historic multimillion-dollar homes and townhomes. In effect, Monument Ave is somewhat of a sensory overload, and the monuments, however impressive , do not command the full attention of one driving by in a car.

I first took real notice of the monuments during Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend in 2015. While walking along, I saw Confederate soldiers, with fixed bayonets I might add, marching around the perimeter of the Stonewall Jackson Monument.

I did a quick Google search and realized that I was down in Richmond on Lee-Jackson Day Weekend. This Virginia state holiday is celebrated on the Friday before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Established in the late 1880’s to commemorate Robert E. Lee’s birthday, Jackson’s name was added to it for his birthday in 1904, and then it was merged with Martin Luther King Jr Day in 1983. In 2000, they were formally split, and have since been celebrated separately, but on the same weekend.

The obviously awkward juxtaposition of legacies demonstrates a perfect conflict, once again, the various levels of city, state, and federal government. The legislature in the state house located in Richmond instituted these holidays celebrating the lives of two of the finest Confederate generals, yet Richmond as a municipality declines to celebrate it: no parades, no wreath laying, no services. Many other municipalities in Virginia have elected not to observe it as well. Any commemoration in Richmond proper is done by private citizens like reenactors in the picture. Virginians from across the state meet in the capital building to write laws, yet the city government has since declined, or if I want to be really cute, nullified that potential political football. Imagine that! It appears that in the last few years, Richmond residents are aware of the tensions this holiday can inspire and have chosen to ignore the state’s intention.

Given the tragic event in Charleston, South Carolina, last month, non-observance of the Virginia state holiday on Richmond’s party is the right choice. Once again, state governments must decide how to remember the Civil War in a way that accounts for all of the human suffering that constituted the Civil War. Richmond, as a city, has struck the correct balance as of late.

As mentioned earlier, the 100-mile radius around Richmond was changed forever, and many of the young men who lived there never returned home. I can say with charity and sincerity that it must have been more difficult to accept the outcome of the war living this city, because the reminders were everywhere. On the other hand, a printer from Concord, NH could go home to a similar life. A sensible person can realize this, even while keeping in mind the vile peculiar institution which ended as a result of the war and those who fought to codify and preserve it forever. Memory has blended in with the fabric of this city, much the same way as historic buildings have been renovated to fit current commercial needs.

The monuments in Richmond are large and impressive, but at the same time they are only really visible to people who are actively looking for them and want to remember. Not everyone who comes here is a Civil War buff like me-it’s just a city that has a big Wells Fargo building downtown. In the hustle and bustle, monuments are easily lost. Like so many of the historic parts of Richmond, the monuments are there if you look, but blend perfectly in if you do not—even if some of them have traffic rotaries near them. Many are placed on grass dividers that separate the sides on Monument Avenue, and college students from Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond are often found there playing corn hole and engaging in various types of open container violations. Clearly they aren’t active Confederate sympathizers, and from what I can tell, no neo-Confederate forces have mustered to stop them.

The Confederate battle flag is not near or attached to the monuments, unless people bring it there—which has happened. There are also people who have used the battle flag to protest the lack certain memorials and plaques in part of the city. The feeling towards these people is that they are the dying embers of a far less polite generation. I am not prepared to level charges of racism because I do not know any of them. However, some of these protests are regularly held in an area not far from a synagogue and a historically black church, and I find a certain lack of sensitivity there. A red banner calls attention to itself in a way that violently clashes with the more muted and reserved presence of the monuments.

Richmond still maintains the White House of the Confederacy and the Museum of the Confederacy. These are excellent sites to visit, and they do not wave a politically charged flag for all to see. Rather, they explain to those who wish to know what that flag meant to those who carried it. Everyone benefits from that clear spirit of compromise, and it can hopefully be instructive to similar southern cities who wish to make their streets more welcoming to all southerners.

This is not to suggest that Virginia as whole has no more issues to wrestle with in terms of its Confederate past, or that is has somehow escaped Jim Crow. Far from it, actually. Route 1 is also known as the Jefferson Davis Highway, and this name is currently protested heavily in the more liberal parts of Northern Virginia. Monument Avenue also has a monument to Jefferson Davis, not exactly someone who was on the ground fighting it out with the average soldier. In my Yankee mind, his monument is the hardest to accept. However, in the nineties, one of Richmond’s finest sons, Arthur Ashe, was added to Monument Avenue. The addition of this African-American athlete sparked all the predictable protests and racial tensions. Of course, no monuments have been erected remembering slaves who formed the backbone of the Virginian economy for so many years.

For now it seems, a live-and-let-live approach has the tacit approval of Richmond residents, even if there is a disparity in who exactly is actively remembered. The monuments blend into this busy city, and for the most part, do not disrupt the daily life of your average pedestrian. Those who have waved the Confederate battle flag in protest strike a dissonant note, and when they gather, I can see members of a younger generation view them with embarrassment and annoyance while accepting their right to assemble peacefully. The closest thing to a Confederate soldier these days in Richmond, ironically is the gaunt, bewhiskered peace-loving hipster. He uses his disposable wealth to buy what look like rags, silly felt caps, and he often declines to wear shoes. If you put an Enfield in his hands, however, he’d look like a Confederate private, ready for a forced march around the Federal left flank.

The Confederates in Our Attic: Memory and the Confederate Battle Flag

Digital scan of 4x5 transparency.

As you may recall, on June 17, Dylann Roof, a young, white racist, shot and killed nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Before the murders, Roof had taken photos of himself (posted on Facebook and a personal web site) holding a Confederate flag. In other images, he wore a jacket that had patches of the South African and Rhodesian flags from the apartheid era. The apparent close connection between Roof’s racism, the murders, and the flags led to renewed calls that the Confederate battle flag be removed from the grounds of the South Carolina state house where it had been flying since 2000 (before that point, it had flown atop the capitol dome for the previous forty years). After both houses of the state legislature voted to remove the flag and the governor, Nikki Haley, signed the legislation, the banner was lowered for the final time on July 10. The debates in the legislature and discussions in the press revolved around the meaning and significance of the Confederate flag. In other words, this controversy involved history and memory.

For a blog that drones on and on about history and memory (witness our last post), One Thing after Another has been conspicuously silent about this matter until now. This blog usually uses an online essay as a point of departure for its own meditations, but in this particular case, One Thing after Another has not found anything to its liking. This blog suspects that the lack of suitable material has something to do with the shortcomings of modern journalism. For one thing, journalists do not have proper backgrounds and article-length pieces do not provide sufficient space to treat a complex topic of this sort. For another, much journalism has become a matter of point-scoring rather than an attempt to tease out the complexity of various issues.

Fortunately, through a strange conjunction of circumstances, One Thing after Another has found a very useful work that helps make sense of the question: Tony Horwitz’s Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (1998). Horwitz, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, spent a great deal of time overseas covering a series of wars before returning to the United States.  Confederates in the Attic starts and concludes with a meditation on Horwitz’s own fascination with the Civil War (as a child, he painted a mural of the conflict in the attic of his boyhood home—hence the title of the book). Most of the work, however, is a travelogue that describes Horwitz’s attempts to understand how Southerners remember the conflict and what it means to them. Horowitz visited most of the former Confederate states and spoke to a wide variety of people. These included reenactors, museum curators, white supremacists, municipal officials, members of the United Daughters of the Confederacy/Sons of Confederate Veterans, National Park Service rangers, community activists, teachers, and even strangers in bars, to name just a few. For the most part, Horwitz’s interviewees were everyday people, but he did have an eye for the unusual and fantastic. Among others, he spoke to Robert Lee Hodge, a “hardcore” reenactor who, in his quest for authenticity, never washed his Confederate uniform and oiled his beard with bacon grease; Alberta Martin, who was then considered the last surviving Confederate widow; Melly Meadows, a well-known Scarlett O’Hara impersonator who was a favorite among Japanese tourists; and Shelby Foote, a native of Mississippi who wrote a best-selling history of the Civil War and appeared in Ken Burns’ famous documentary on the conflict.

By turns, the book is funny, informative, depressing, and reflective. The beauty of this travelogue is that Horwitz does not tell his readers what to think. For sure, his sympathies are clear (Northern victory was a good thing, and racism has no place in the modern world), and he subtly pushes certain themes to the fore. Nonetheless, he displays a fair amount of empathy with his interlocutors as he allows them to tell their stories. What emerges from this book is a complex picture of Southerners’ relationship to the Civil War. The South is perhaps the most distinctive yet misunderstood region in the United States. It is often referred to as the “Solid South” to describe its political unity, but as Horwitz reveals, the area contains an enormous diversity of opinion; Southerners think of the war and the Confederacy in wildly different ways. As Horwitz encounters everything from members of the Ku Klux Klan to those who would prefer to ignore the war altogether (or who have even forgotten it), it becomes clear that the memory of the conflict frequently has little to do with the conflict itself—indeed, it has everything to do with what is happening now. For white supremacists, the flag is about halting integration and preserving the white race. For businessmen and municipal leaders, the Confederate past represents an economic opportunity. For those left behind by the economy, Confederate heritage is a way of holding onto a distinct identity associated with traditional, community-oriented values in the face of a rapacious capitalism often identified with the Yankee. For reenactors (especially the “hardcore”), the war, crazy as it might sound, is a portal that allows them an opportunity to travel in time. For those interested in genealogy, the knowledge that a great-great-grandfather fought in the conflict provides a thrilling connection to the greatest event in American history—one in which they feel pride as they contemplate the prowess of Confederate arms. For conservative politicians, the Confederacy is about states’ rights and the necessity of halting Federal encroachments on individual liberties. For Southerners fatigued by the way in which the rest of the country caricatures them, the Confederacy has become a kind of ideal that they can use to counter those stereotypes. For those in Fitzgerald, Georgia (you’ll have to read Horwitz’s book), the war’s main meaning is associated with reconciliation. For progressives, the Confederacy is an embarrassment. The list could go on and on. For sure, all of these categories overlap to some degree, but the war’s meaning varies from person to person, and it would seem that the significance of the Confederate battle flag, like any other symbol, is mutable and multifarious.

Of course, when it comes to memory of the Confederacy in the South, the most profound division exists between whites and African Americans. Although, unsurprisingly, African Americans tend to see the Confederacy in a dim light, Horwitz finds a surprising diversity of opinion among this community. One of the things that Horwitz finds most disheartening about this division between whites and blacks, though, is that de facto racial segregation is reflected in mutually irreconcilable interpretations of the war. Up to a point, he argues, there is a “live-and-let-live” stance toward the Confederacy in which each side remembers the past in its own ways but has ceased dialogue with the other. This attitude is reflected in the expression “You Wear Your X, I’ll Wear Mine.” For blacks, “X” stands for Malcolm X and an increasing intolerance of white privilege. For whites, “X” is the St. Andrew’s cross or saltire of the Confederate battle flag.

Paradoxically, in light of this profound division, Horwitz also finds that memory of the war is fading among a younger generation of both Southern whites and blacks. This development is both positive and negative. On the plus side, the baggage associated with the war seems to have diminished, presenting the possibility that one source of division in Southern society might dissipate. On the minus side, this forgetting is part of an increasing ignorance of history that leaves younger people less equipped to deal with contemporary social issues and more vulnerable to the fabrications of various crack-pots. For Horwitz, this forgetting is symbolized by the degree to which malls, box stores, fast food restaurants, and residential developments have encroached upon Civil War battle sites and, in some cases, completely overrun them.

At the end of the day, the big, difficult question that requires resolution is whether the Confederacy or some part of it really can be celebrated. Is it possible that the Confederate experience can provide the South with a usable past? Horwitz himself asks this question without providing an answer. Ulysses S. Grant, who was a sensitive and perspicacious observer, got to the heart of the matter in his Memoirs (1885) when he described the preliminaries to Robert E. Lee’s surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox:

What General Lee’s feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassible face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter, were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

As we contemplate the Confederacy, then, we must ask ourselves if it is possible to separate a heroic struggle from a bad cause. And that is one of the most important questions we can mull over as we think about the Confederate battle flag.

Brian Williams, Memory, and History

Brian Williams from "NBC Nightly News" answers a question during the panel for NBC News at the NBC Universal sessions of the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Pasadena, California January 10, 2010. REUTERS/Phil McCarten (UNITED STATES - Tags: ENTERTAINMENT) - RTR28QDN

In his recent essay, “The Examined Lie: A Meditation on Memory,” which appears in The American Scholar, James McWilliams, Ingram Professor of History at Texas State University, examines the “misremembering” of former NBC news anchor Brian Williams. You may recall that Williams landed in hot water when a number of anecdotes that he related on NBC’s Nightly News proved false. What undid him (and eventually led to the uncovering of a number of other untruths) was his story about how the Chinook helicopter that he was riding in was forced down in Iraq in 2003 after being hit by an RPG. For an interesting take on the way he changed this story, take a look at this New York Times article:

Williams subsequently apologized on the Nightly News:–in-an-effort-to-honor-and-thank-a-veteran–i-made-a-mistake-394007619827

He also submitted himself to an interview with Matt Lauer on NBC’s Today in which he admitted that he had employed “a sloppy choice of words”:

Whether or not we accept Williams’s mea cupla, for McWilliams, the episode raises important issues regarding memory and history.

In a nutshell, McWilliams highlights the “messiness of recollection.” Memory is far more fragile and malleable than colloquialisms like “etched into my brain” suggest, and researchers have found that recollections of combat are particularly prone to inconsistencies and exaggerations. For more information on what science has to say about the messiness of memory, check out the following podcast from Radiolab:

Stories about combat and more mundane events, such as road trips, family reunions, or senior week, change with each telling; storytellers unconsciously embellish their tales for their listeners. We accept such embellishments or “lies” when family and friends tell stories, because nitpicking a good yarn is rude and “good stories” bring people together. McWilliams consequently hesitates to condemn Williams’s fabrication of his helicopter being forced down by enemy fire in Iraq, “given what we now know about the instability of memory, as well as the crucible of war, there’s ample space … [for] a more charitable assessment of Williams’s misremembering episode.” Rather, he uses the Williams incident to meditate on the fragility of collective memory or history.

Collective memory is just as prone to inconsistencies as individual memory. McWilliams writes, “the histories we collectively create and identify with are often similarly abstracted from the truth, driven by motives that may lurk in an unconscious netherland, serving larger, and sometimes darker, motivations.” Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and 9/11 are part of our collective memory. The commemoration of these and other events are the glue holding the United States together. They help define what it means to be an American. However, the stories etched into our collective memory often misconstrue what actually happened. For instance, John Trumbull’s iconic painting, Declaration of Independence, depicts a scene that never happened. For more on that particular story, check out the following opinion piece from the Boston Globe:

Trumbull Declaration of Independence

Given such inaccuracies, it isn’t surprising that collective memories are unstable, often contested, and regularly misused. Debates over public monuments, most recently discussions of Confederate monuments in the South, for instance, arise over whose collective memories are being commemorated and what is being remembered as the following article from the Boston Globe indicates:

We may want the objective truth about an event (who, what, where, when, and why), but there is no single historical truth. We continually modify and add new information to our collective memories, and with each addition, the stories we tell hopefully become more nuanced and inclusive. With luck, McWilliams suggests, more inclusive stories and more precise reconstructions of familiar stories will help us to relate with one another better and therefore serve a “higher purpose than mere truth.”

So, instead of being aghast at Williams’s misremembering or horrified that we didn’t learn about _____ (reader can fill in the blank) in our high school history course, we might want to consider why people tell the stories that they tell.

History is more than just the recounting of events (what happened); it is also what people thought happened in their own time and in former times. The stories we tell help us to make sense of our world and our place in it. Unfortunately, like all memories, collective memory can be messy. While this is disconcerting for many people, this messiness provides the grist for the historian’s mill. And, if the Brian Williams story helps us to meditate on the nature of memory and history, we might find more to take away from the story than a simple exposé of a “liar.”