Something Completely Different

Something quite separate from the whole retrenchment drama happened today, which caught my attention. I began reading a book manuscript for the West Virginia University Press. It's a book about Mount Holyoke that was originally a dissertation at UMass. In the acknowledgements, I noticed that my dissertation chair, David Glassberg, was one of the author's advisors. As I began reading the introduction, I was struck by the ways I can already recognize his influence in the approach the author seems to be taking to depicting the mountain as a cultural and a historical artifact as well as a physical object.

I have driven up the mountain to the Summit House several times over the years, although I’ve never hiked up. It will be fun reading about a place I'm really fond of. It will also be a bit challenging, I think, considering it from a perspective and using a historical toolkit that isn't typical for me. I'm just beginning this book, so I may be mistaken, but I think this author is pursuing a much more cultural-historical dimension of environmental history, which I was aware was an important element of David's approach when I was at UMass, but which I didn't pursue myself.

Reading this book, I think, will challenge some of my current thinking and historical focus; which especially right now tends to be oriented toward things that particular people did at particular moments. Not so much about something like a mountain, which stands still through ages as people come and go. Not about landscapes and places as social constructs. Certainly not about the agency of mountains.

This is going to be an interesting read. I'm glad I said yes to the invitation to review the manuscript despite the craziness of the moment.

Anti-Federalists and DVEs

Today I'm processing one of the books I borrowed this summer via Interlibrary Loan, called The Other Founders: Anti-Federalism & the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 by Saul Cornell. As I was writing background notes from the introduction, I was struck by the resonance the ideas in this history seemed to have with the present. The Anti-Federalists were people who objected to the ratification of the US Constitution and later to the Federalist Party that ran the United States from 1789 to 1800 under Presidents George Washington and John Adams.

One of the things that makes the Anti-Federalists difficult to understand is that as an opposition movement, they were not as unified and explicit in their beliefs as the Federalists. During the argument over Constitutional ratification, some of the Federalists' opponents thought the document was too strong and others thought it was too weak. Some people thought its main flaw was that it lacked a Bill of Rights. Others objected to a standing army and the likelihood of greater taxation. While the people who feared growth of a hereditary aristocracy may have also been advocates of greater autonomy for the states, the resistance was largely a coalition. Over 150 pamphlets or broadsheets were printed opposing ratification were reprinted and 10% were reprinted more than ten times. Some of the most widespread were "Hon. Mr. Gerry's Objections to Signing the National Constitution", Samuel Bryan's first and second "Centinel" essays, George Mason's "Objections to the Constitution", Richard Henry Lee's "The Address and Reasons of Dissent of the Minority", and Yates and Lansing's "Reasons of Dissent".

I'm making note of these titles so I can find them and read the particulars of the arguments against the Constitution. Although the Federalist winners largely wrote the history of this period and even chose the name Anti-Federalists in order to mark their opponents as retrograde to national progress, these documents are still available for interested readers. I wonder whether such a record of dissent is possible today or will be allowed in the future? Yes, there were Alien and Sedition Acts during the Federalist era (and later there were Sedition and Espionage Acts under the “Progressive” Wilson Administration), the present moment seems a bit unusual.

Beginning at about
1:23:00 in System Update Episode #118, Glenn Greenwald described a Wall Street Journal story about the Biden Administration's plans to pass domestic terrorism laws and establish "a White House post overseeing the fight against ideologically inspired violent extremists and increasing funding to combat them." A couple of weeks ago Congressman Thomas Massie apparently questioned the scope of these anti-domestic-extremism and censorship measures. Greenwald says the Biden team had announced a "New Domestic War on Terror" even before January 6, 2020 -- and then the events of the "insurrection" only added fuel to that fire and helped justify the claim of immanent "existential" danger. Among the areas the government planned to target:

  • Racially or ethnically-motivated violent extremists,
  • Animal rights/Environmental violent extremists,
  • Abortion related violent extremists,
  • Anti-government/Anti-authority violent extremists,
  • All other domestic terrorism threats (defined as "DVEs with ideological agendas that are not otherwise defined...including a combination of personal grievances and beliefs with potential bias related to religion, gender, or sexual orientation.")


As Greenwald explains, if you question the government's power or object to overreach, you fall into Homeland Security's definition of "Domestic Extremist". The only additional requirement needed for them to be able to justifiably take action against you is that you need to be a "Domestic Violent Extremist" (DVE). I'm a little concerned about how small a step this is, at a time when people who picket at Standing Rock or block traffic on highway exit ramps or bridges are already being classified as violent.

Just to our north, the Canadian government last year frozen assets and denied access to the financial system of people who protested state authority. Canada tried to claim the picketing truckers were terrorists. Is that something that "couldn't happen here"? Really? I don't have that much difficulty imagining that some of my ideas about the urgency of environmental issues or my distrust of government authoritarianism might already be uncomfortably close to what some might regard as "extreme". OF COURSE I have no plans to violently assert my opinions. But does the new focus of the federal government mean I should think twice about attending a march or a demonstration? To avoid being listed as a potential "DVE"? Is there something wrong with a society in which I have to worry about that question in the first place?

Public Debate Today

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Reading Substacks and watching YouTube and Rumble videos lately, it seems there are a new batch of “public intellectuals” who a few years ago would probably have just been moderately popular and influential. However, due to cancel culture and the polarization of the past decade (beginning with Clinton/Trump 2016, and continuing through Russiagate, COVID, Hunter Biden, the Ukraine War, etc.), these people have been declared threats to democracy and censored. This seems to be fairly conclusively documented in the Twitter Files, whatever you think of Elon Musk or Matt Taibbi. As a result, these people‘s voices and messages have become amplified and are arguably more influential than they ever would have been without this backlash.

Some of these people are extremely political, on purpose. RFK Jr. of course, is running for President. But others such as Bret Weinstein, Joe Rogan, Aaron Mate, and Glenn Greenwald are for the most part just presenting alternate takes on what’s happening in the world today, most often backed by solid reporting. That doesn’t necessarily mean that everything they say is accurate or equally important. But the market for attention would probably produce different outcomes, if there wasn’t such a continued effort to censor.

Is there a precedent for this in our history? I’m curious whether the “yellow journalism” of the late 19th and early 20th century deserves more attention? Not to mention the Sedition and Espionage Acts of the “Progressive” Wilson administration. I wonder whether there are histories of propagandistic contagions? According to
The New England Psychologist, “‘Mass formation psychosis’ is a term that was used on the Joe Rogan podcast by a formerly respected medical researcher, Robert Malone, M.D.” Does this description suggest they are seriously considering Malone’s observations? But even if the terminology is new, the concept might be traceable to other contagious ideas like the Red Scare in America or Fascism in 1930s Europe. Has anyone written about this yet?

According to reports, 70% of Tony Fauci’s income (the highest-paid government worker) came from his military work. RFK Jr. mentions this in a long interview with Bret Weinstein. He goes on to say that it’s illegal to create bio-weapons,
unless you are also developing vaccines. Gain of function bio-hacking claims to be “dual-use”, but is it really?

The prolific author Uptown Sinclair (
The Jungle was one of over 100 things he published) said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.“ Beyond self-interest, cognitive dissonance and emotional reactions rather than reason would also obviously be valuable to people who want to get away with stuff. Confusion can lead people to say, “I’m not sure, but to be on the safe side, I’m going to comply.” Add these to the folks who fall in line and obey for the sake of supporting their team, and we may see a lot of smart, well-meaning people doing things like taking the three “vaccines” for flu, COVID, and RSV that are apparently planned for this coming winter. The NIH is calling this combination of respiratory ailments a “tridemic”.

Last year, flu killed 58,000, COVID killed 50,000, and RSV killed 10,000 in America, according to info being repeated in social media. In contrast, the opioid epidemic killed 106,000 Americans in 2021. CDC records suggest that the vast majority of “flu” deaths are actually caused by (bacterial) pneumonia which people become unable to resist after contracting (viral) influenza. So the “flu” situation alone is already more complicated than it is portrayed in public health and media. Maybe we would be better served by understanding the actual situation at a slightly deeper level of complexity? How likely are we to get that, when more than half of TV news is sponsored by big Pharma? Our only hope for trustworthy information may now be the people mainstream media warns us against. I guess we can thank CNN and MSNBC for pointing them out to us.

Back from the Woods

I'm back from the Boundary Waters and getting ready to orient my days around my fall teaching, research, and other activities. I'm going to try to reduce my reliance on technology. Not wearing the Apple watch anymore. Ordered an inexpensive analog-mechanical wristwatch which I'll wear some of the time and my pocket watch other times. I wonder whether I could stop carrying my iPhone all the time. Leave it in my office at work?

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That's not to say I'm not going to continue trying to be somewhat organized and keep track of what I'm working on, how far I walk, when I exercise, and what and when I eat. I'm just going to begin doing that in writing in a planner or on my computer (like this writing I'm doing in Obsidian), rather than via a bunch of apps. The upside is this will save me the annual subscription fees to these apps. At the end of the year, I may even consider dropping my Crossfit membership and doing my workouts in my own home gym. I'm getting value from the "obligation" I feel to go three times a week, based on the high cost of membership. I'm still learning new movements and techniques. So that's money well-spent, I think. But I don't LOVE it enough to keep going once I know what I'm doing, I suspect. This year is a reintroduction for me, to fitness training. Hopefully I'll be able to continue it on my own and get even more out of it, going forward.

During the Boundary Waters trip, we canoed and portaged all morning, found a campsite at the new lake, and then relaxed in hammocks, fished, and swam in the lakes in the afternoons and evenings. The fishermen were pretty successful and we had a couple of good meals of pan-fried Northern and Largemouth Bass. Although the area along the US-Canadian border was pretty extensively logged about a century ago, there were some decent-sized white and red pines and my interest in writing an international history of the pine lumber industry was renewed. I think the scope of this project has increased to the point where the story will probably begin in the Colonial Era on the East Coast and conclude in the 20th century in western Minnesota (the end of the forest and edge of the prairie). That's a very wide geographic and temporal range, so I'll need to come up with some other ways of limiting the focus to make the story interesting and digestible.

I'm sitting in a coffee-shop writing this, waiting for a colleague from the English Department who wants to collaborate on creating a zero-textbook-cost path through the English major. That will be another project I'll be working on this year and I'm looking forward to getting on with that in the fall. The university I work at is facing a budget deficit and "retrenchment". Under our union-negotiated contract, reductions in tenured faculty require the actual elimination of positions and our financial situation is bad enough that it may possibly require a reduction of programs. So even if I get tenure, I won't necessarily have job security. But rather than worrying about that, I'm going to try to focus on pursuing what interests me and trying to make it interesting to others. A fairly big part of that will involve producing history that is available to the general public as well as to my students. I don't intend to try to earn a living on YouTube or Substack unless I absolutely must. But I'm less convinced than I once was, that there's a clear path available to me to continue working in Higher Ed until I'm ready to retire in a decade or so.

Rhetoric vs. Reality on the 4th

Yesterday HCR wrote a short (for her — I typically think her Letters From an American are too long) 4th of July post, reminding us of the most famous words of the Declaration. She immediately recognized that the claim that it was “self-evident” that ”all men are created equal” was a sentiment that only applied to white men and not to the large numbers of blacks, Indians, or women that together formed most of American society at the time. Notwithstanding that contrast with reality, Heather echoed the belief of many historians that the founders were reaching for an ideal and that “America was founded on the radical idea that all men are created equal.”

I’m willing to accept the claim that there was an awareness in the Continental Congress that equality (at least in terms of equal status at birth for white men) was a goal the new nation should claim (especially to distinguish itself from Great Britain)
and should maybe strive towards. The primary sources I have my students read suggest they were already well aware of the problem of slavery in this early convention and the “sectional” positions for and against it in the North and South were beginning to form before the US was even a nation. But so far, the first three paragraphs of the post are similar enough to what one might have seen in history books or 4th of July memorials that I wouldn’t have bothered to comment.

It’s in the fourth paragraph that it goes off the rails a bit, in my opinion. Heather makes a turn and announces, "What the founders declared self-evident was not so clear eighty-seven years later, when southern white men went to war to reshape America into a nation in which African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish were locked into a lower status than whites. In that era, equality had become a 'proposition,' rather than 'self-evident.'”

This allows her to claim that the leaders of the Confederacy were trying to change a settled, self-evident truth into a proposition that could be argued. I’m sorry, but this seems to stand in direct contradiction of the reality of the situation in 1861 America, where “African Americans, Indigenous Americans, Chinese, and Irish”
were ”locked into a lower status” than white men. In the South, the North, the East, and the West. Even if we give the Founders the benefit of the doubt and say they held equality as an ideal they wanted the new nation to strive towards, America had not yet become that. Lincoln did not ask in the Gettysburg Address passage Heather quotes whether a nation could be broken by people who disagreed, but whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.” I think the key to his question is, “conceived and dedicated” but not yet achieved.

I’m not going to defend the Confederates at all, but I don’t think they were trying to break away from a nation of freedom and equality to create a new hellscape of slavery and “reshape America into a nation in which certain people are better than others”, as Heather claims. So I don’t think she succeeds in drawing an analogy between then and now: that the “idea of human equality” is an American achievement rather than an ideal and that there’s a new group of evil Confederates who want to undo that reality. While I agree with Lincoln that we should “highly resolve” that the sacrifices of those Americans who fought for union and democracy should not be in vain, I think Heather misses the point. Lincoln’s sentiment is laudable but his history is aspirational, not accurate. I understand why Americans mistake the rhetoric of the past for reality, but why do historians?

At St. Olaf

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Yesterday I spent some time sitting in Northfield Minnesota in front of the Chapel and Commons of St. Olaf College. It was about a four and a half hour drive from Bemidji (and then back) to pick up my son Gio, who had been at a music camp there this past week. The campus is on a hilltop at the edge of town -- although not too far out, since I just heard a train horn at a crossing near the Malt-O-Meal factory. Carleton College, the other school in this town, is right up against downtown.

Yes, there are two pretty well-regarded private Liberal Arts colleges in this town of fewer than 21,000 people. This one, Olaf, sits on a hilltop and feels a bit separated from the rest of the world. I walked a couple of miles, circling around the campus a couple of times and zigzagging across all its paths. It reminded me a bit of Hogwarts, although for that matter, in spite of being much closer to downtown, Carleton has a pond and an island with a little meditator's labyrinth.

Admission to both these colleges is very competitive and once admitted students' families can expect to pay a "family contribution" of at least $25,000. My son will not be going to either of these, although he has done summer programs at each. Instead, he will be attending the largest university in the state system for which I work. Will he receive a different education at a state university? Probably. Will it be one that is more in line with his interdisciplinary interests? I hope so.

These questions remind me of the issues currently faced by Higher Ed. What are we doing? For whom? And will it make a difference to our students lives? The answers to questions like these are on a lot of people's minds right now, because they appear to be changing. The
All-In podcasters this week argued about the effects of the recent Supreme Court decision overturning Affirmative Action in college admissions. The “besties” (as they call themselves) tended to focus on admissions to elite schools such as Harvard and Stanford, although there was at least a mention of "all public institutions that take government money." I think Chamath said (I was listening on my drive down so I didn't see who said it) that there was a sense among some advocates that racial quotas were designed to right the wrongs of American history, but only for a time. Whether they have achieved the original goals of leveling the playing field is sure to be debated. But an interesting data point in this debate is that many of the people who agitated for this change were Asian students who felt they were being discriminated against; denied places despite having top credentials.

Another big issue that arose in the
All-In Podcast discussion was legacy enrollment. This is granting spots to the mediocre children of alumni. Although I generally agreed with the speakers that this should be prevented, it also reminded me that in the case of many elite institutions, educational credentials may not really be the whole point. Because educational achievement isn't the whole point. A big part of it is access to a community. The dumb son of a Harvard alum or big donor may actually have better "prospects" of joining the ranks of the plutocracy than the most brilliant minority student, and attending the school will introduce him to the people with whom he’ll be running the world in 25 years. I'd also question the value of adding diverse faces to the class picture of the next generation of plutocrats. Shouldn't we be trying to reduce the outsized role of this group on ruling supposedly-democratic America, rather than jostling for spots in the photo?

In any case, I wonder about the role of institutions like this one, where I was sitting in partial shade in a quiet quad, waiting for a concert to begin. It certainly isn't identical to either Harvard or the state university, and that may be an important point. Higher Ed is big and has many functions in our society. I think the part of it to which I contribute (preparing students to live and work in a complex society) is more valuable than socializing the children of elites. But even this is changing, as we reimagine what type of world we think we're trying to prepare these students to live and work in.

High School Debate

This morning I read another article about the degeneration of High School debating into a highly censored space, where students can be disqualified not only for addressing topics that are out of bounds but also apparently for things they may have tweeted or posted on social media completely outside the context of the debate. This is alarming, but seems to fit with our society's current fascination with "de-platforming" anyone who seems to have stepped over the line in any aspect of their lives, at any time in the past. The worst aspect of this story, to me, continues to be the apparent lack of any type of self-awareness in the National Speech and Debate Association (NSDA). I'm just going by what I've read, since I was not a debater in high school and have never interacted with this organization. But I have visited the website and I've read many of the "paradigms" judges publish and they really are out there. Most of the ones I sampled were elaborate explanations of the judge's own beliefs and worldview. As I had imagined debate and judging, I would have expected these personal beliefs to be irrelevant. At least beyond a basic commitment to fairness and impartiality.

I imagine some of these "activist" judges would argue that due to the legacy of systemic oppression (racism, sexism), there may still be some entrenched, invisible assumptions that create disadvantages for some debaters, and that they are trying to level the playing field. But do you really do that by announcing that arguing a position or even favorably mentioning a perspective will automatically result in points off or even disqualification? And in any case, does replacing one set of vague, ill-defined, and largely unspoken biases with another really level the playing field? I thought debating was about collecting evidence, building an argument, and then performing a rhetorical act. The NSDA used to be called the National Forensics League, after all. I imagine we have all heard stories about students instructed to argue the position they disagreed with, on a controversial topic, who learned a lot in the process. How would that ever happen if there's a "right" and a "wrong" position and those arguing the wrong side are predestined to lose?

The other thing that was alarming about the article was that students were actually
rewarded for shifting from debating the issue at hand to ad hominem attacks on their opponents, if they could find something embarrassing the opponent had said on social media. Ratting out other high-schoolers for ideological missteps rather than refuting their arguments in the debate. In addition to being creepy and inculcating a culture of informers that smells a bit like 1984, I think this also reinforces a very binary world-view of good vs. evil. There is no nuance. People are not allowed to be inconsistent, or to hold opinions they may not have fully thought through. Or to be wrong on a particular issue but also perhaps have something meaningful to contribute elsewhere.

This avoidance of nuance and inability to deal with complexity is crippling public discourse. It shows up everywhere; even in the comments section of this story, which I wasn't able to participate in, since it's limited to paid subscribers. As I've observed before, I think this is a flaw of the way some people run their Substacks. Not only is it a disincentive to people to read and engage with the writing (my immediate reaction to locked comments is to consider unsubscribing, and frequently I do) but much worse, it creates an echo-chamber of like-minded commenters. In my opinion, this inevitably dumbs down the discourse. People feel free to make unsubstantiated assertions that they know their fellow enthusiasts won't challenge. An example is the series of comments on "Capitalism" in this comments section. The author of the article had identified himself as a fan of free markets, which wasn't that close to the main point of the article. But a bunch of commenters expressed their opinions about how capitalism "works" and "Communism/Socialism" doesn't, or how capitalism has been around since "somebody set up a fruit stand" in the distant past. Or what type of "communism" the commenter thinks Putin is using in Russia today.

I guess it's possible that even in a more open discussion forum people might have been equally sloppy in their thinking. But it seems like the closed forum creates a safer space for folks to take shortcuts. It's more permissible to avoid specifying what definition of capitalism or socialism they're using or at what scale (fruit stand or global economy?), because like-minded people can be trusted to "get it". Doesn't this fairly rapidly devolve into speaking in coded phrases and ultimately dog-whistling? We dislike Putin and we dislike communism and Russia used to be the USSR, so Putin is a communist. And Bernie is a socialist, so he must be working for Putin. Maybe it's unfair to judge a blog post by the quality of its comments, especially on a site where there are multiple contributors. But doesn't it make you wonder what these paying subscribers are expecting from
this Substack?

Thoughts on Teaching History

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My friend Caleb dropped the first half hour of his edit of our conversation. In it is the part where he observes that we need to be careful about assuming our students have the same type of reaction to history as we do. He said something to the effect that he has to remind himself he was the “weird kid” in class who was super interested in what the teacher was droning on about. I was the same, of course. Always sitting in the front row. Reacting to the professor almost as if we were having a one-on-one conversation. Asking and answering questions.

These are all things we hope to see in our own classes, and sometimes we do. More often though, in my experience, the classroom fills from back to front. Students typically only answer questions when I actually call on them, not when I ask a question of the group. Some students stop coming to class if they determine they will not lose points toward their final grade by not attending (I think they DO lose overall, because they probably retain less from reading the chapter than from the lecture. But I don’t take attendance).

But really, when I think about it, my students are NOT me. Very few of them are even History majors. A larger number are in the Social Studies Education program, preparing to be high school teachers. But most of the students in my surveys (which due to their much higher enrollments means most of my students overall) are checking a “Liberal Education” core requirement box. My surveys fulfill the “History and the Social and Behavioral Sciences” goal. They also fulfill either the “Human Diversity in the United States” goal or the “Global Perspective” goal. They also all help fulfill a “Critical Thinking” requirement, although they aren’t listed as such (pretty much ALL courses at my university supposedly meet this goal, so it isn’t listed on any).

I’ve said several times in the past that I’m very interested in trying to make history relevant to the present for people, and I think about my surveys along these lines. I do think it’s helpful for members of the public to know some basic facts about the past. For me, it’s the same idea as the saying “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.” Similarly, if you know nothing you can be convinced of anything. This has been one of the big downsides of having all the world’s info on your smartphone, and I suppose ChatGPT may only exacerbate the problem.

In any case, I think it’s important for students to learn some info about the past. Especially some info that challenges the “Master Narrative” they have been taught all their lives. And I’m not just talking about the half-assed social studies I was taught in high school by guys whose first priority was coaching football. Even students who have taken APUS or Concurrent Enrollment “college in the high school” classes have often been “taught to the test”, which requires coverage of a fairly limited range of topics. These ARE, I admit, some of the “must-know” bits of info about our past. But it’s not my goal just to revisit that familiar territory.

What I’d prefer to do is to take students to places they might not otherwise have seen. Like a tour guide that leaves the well-worn path for some interesting side trips. The key to these explorations off the beaten path, though, is that they need to enhance the overall picture and give the traveler a more complete understanding of the territory. And it needs to be relevant to their actual lives. So what can I add to survey-level history that will enhance my students’ understanding AND be relevant to their present lives and futures? A couple of things come to mind:

  • The idea that what happened was not inevitable. Understanding the contingency of the past, I think, may suggest to them that the present and future are similarly “not a done deal”.
  • Awareness of the contested nature of all big social choices. This involves seriously considering the perspectives on both sides of an argument. I’m not expecting students reading a primary source in which a Southerner defends slavery to agree with the author. But I WOULD like them to try to understand why the author thinks so, whether the position is sincerely believed, or whether they are reading a rhetorical rationalization.
  • A sense that the past involves choices made not only by “Great Men” but by people like themselves. How did those people make those choices? How did they make their voices heard? Hopefully, this exposure will suggest to students that they too will have the opportunity (and responsibility) to do the same in their lifetimes.

I was talking with my fellow History faculty yesterday and we agreed there are periods in American History that remind us A LOT of the present moment (we actually agreed that in addition to the first Gilded Age of the 1920s, the decade of the 1840s seems particularly resonant). There’s a limit to how directly you can call attention to those similarities. After all, history only “rhymes”, it doesn’t repeat itself. And it’s a bit anachronistic and “presentist” to make this type of correspondence the one and only focus of a history course. But I do think it’s valuable to connect the dots a bit, especially for general students who are not aspiring historians. And it may be interesting to them, too.

Books and Confirmation Bias

I got an ad from Amazon for Jill Lepore's new audiobook, called Who Killed Truth? Like HCR's new upcoming volume, Democracy Awakening, I suspect this Lepore book is a lightly-edited collection of blog posts and short articles. There's nothing wrong with curating and revisiting a set of explorations of ideas that have stood the test of time, I guess. People still read George Orwell's essays that were based on things he saw happening around him in contemporary politics and culture. But is that what these books are going to be?

I mentioned the title to my wife Steph and her reaction was, "Who's gonna read that book? The people who hate Fox News." When I told Steph I was going to quote her, she said don't, because that had been a sort of automatic hot take rather than a fully-formed judgement. But I think it's a valid question. I have been critical of HCR and others for feeding the blue echo-chamber with daily summaries of news from the "Republicans Suck" food group (to paraphrase the "Useful Idiots" formula they attribute to Matt Taibbi's father). On one hand, it does make sense to build an audience by producing a consistent product that meets their expectations in some way. On the other, my gut tells me that pandering isn't the ideal way to do that, although it's certainly a popular technique in today's media.

Maybe Lepore and HCR don't feel like they are pandering, but rather that they are expressing their particular points of view which just happen to fall squarely into the middle of a current culture-war camp's POV because that group is following their lead. This is possible, but I question the circularity of this chicken/egg dichotomy. Seems a bit like the definition of a filter bubble and I think authors can be as easily caught in them as readers.

But that said, what then is the formula for developing and growing an audience more organically? I don't have as much of a problem, I have to admit, with journalists who have a predictable POV. But I DO tend to prefer reading people who can surprise me. Seymour Hersh, for example, has arguably uncovered issue after issue of US government error or malfeasance, ever since the Vietnam era. But although I look at him as a historical source and value his ongoing exposition of these themes, I don't rush to read every new article of his that drops. I don't seem to be seeking news or commentary that strokes my confirmation bias. I want to be somewhat surprised.

I'm also not a fan of one-sided accounts. While I tell myself that much of the time, the author of such an account probably feels they are setting the record straight by providing a counter-narrative to a dominant story which is so well-known as to not need repetition; the problem is, the dominant story that was obvious at the time may not be a decade later. So it seems like an author ought to try to be a bit explicit about situating the story or interpretation in a context.

A final sort-of pet peeve I have (I'm hoping these issues will be useful as hints to myself and others how to write well, and not just a series of complaints!) is the author who can't see their (I was tempted to use the pronoun “his” because in the past it has usually been a he -- but that may be changing) own cultural assumptions. This is a problem not only for historians but more generally for people critiquing culture. My book club is currently reading Simon Winchester's
Knowing What We Know, and I'm getting a bit of a whiff of this in the first hundred pages. He has been going on, for example, about how "western knowledge" has been superior to "eastern"; to such an extent that it has even been grudgingly embraced by people in places like India who objected to all the colonial baggage that came with it. Winchester seems completely (deliberately?) unaware of historical and ongoing economic imperialism (globalization) that is a factor in a nation such as India's choice to follow a high-technology path integrated in western-dominated markets and financial structures rather than adopting the small-producer self-sufficiency advocated by people such as Gandhi. The conclusion that "western knowledge" is objectively better based on such a shallow depiction of a single historical example...just bugs me.

I'll probably have more to say about Winchester. And probably Lepore's and even HCR's new books, since these narratives and perspectives are getting a lot of attention and being accepted uncritically by a lot of readers.


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I'm sitting in the Student Union at Minnesota State University in Mankato. It's orientation day and my son Gio is in a session for students only, where he is choosing his classes. After that, we'll begin the 5-hour trip back north to Bemidji.

I went to this university in 2006-7, when it was still called Mankato State. Since then it has grown to become the second-largest campus in the state, after the University of Minnesota's Twin Cities campus. We just had lunch in the new dining commons, which was excellent. The fountain between the Union and the Library is sparkling in the sunlight. I'm vicariously very excited for Gio, and although it's hard to be sure I hope he is too.

There are seven universities in the Minnesota State system along with 31 Community and Technical Colleges. That makes it one of the largest systems in the US, along with SUNY and Cal State. Like the rest of higher education, the system is currently facing a number of challenges including demographic changes (fewer high school graduates), the after-effects of COVID, and even more recently, generative AI. Over the next 2 to 5 years, quite a bit could change. My suspicion, which I've mentioned a bunch of times lately, is that in the long(ish) run, the disruptions of technology will shift the emphasis (value? job prospects?) back toward activities that are truly human. That could be a boon to people in the Humanities, including me and Gio. In any case, it's an interesting time to be in higher ed, either as a student or a teacher.