Memory

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:

italian-immigrants-didnt-wave-italian-flags

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.

galleani

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.

ellis-registry

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.

immigration-cartoon

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

budweiser-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.

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:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/06/business/brian-williamss-apology-over-iraq-account-is-challenged.html?_r=0

Williams subsequently apologized on the Nightly News:

http://www.nbcnews.com/nightly-news/video/brian-williams–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”:

http://variety.com/2015/tv/news/brian-williams-nbc-news-matt-lauer-today-1201523737/

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:

http://www.radiolab.org/story/91569-memory-and-forgetting/

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:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/07/02/declaration-independence-preserving-patriots-faces/NCQtbCprFQuLsvUwODNHRN/story.html

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:

http://www.bostonglobe.com/news/nation/2015/07/07/how-story-about-richmond-confederate-past-came/TWBBghUAuB87rxUS1EXNLK/story.html#

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.”

Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3043803/Ben-Affleck-wanted-slave-owner-ancestor-censored-Finding-Roots-PBS-documentary-s-host-covered-leaked-emails-reveal.html

Gates wrote to Lynton, “Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2015/statements-finding-your-roots/

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/blogs/ombudsman/2015/04/21/who-knew-not-us-pbs-now-says-about-roots-controversy/

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

http://variety.com/2015/tv/columns/ben-affleck-pbs-show-slavery-backlash-1201477211/

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/04/19/even-pbs-isnt-immune-to-hollywoods-big-pr-machine-or-the-influence-of-ben-affleck/

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/ and http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/mission/.)

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.