The dial tone is nearly a century old, leading the New York Times to do a magazine piece on it. The article is interesting, and you should read it, but it made me think of the life and death of technologies. Something like the dial tone has already largely disappeared from American life. My daughter will likely have no idea what it was. Phrases associated with disappearing technologies will shift out of everyday use:
And “video cassette recorder:”
Something much less familiar, pneumatic tubes, which were quite frequently used in the mid-20th century:
My sense is that technologies go from being leading-edge to being standard to being old fashioned to being antique. At first, a new technology is a marvel, then it is assumed, then it is past it, and then they are answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. Ten years ago, an author might have given their fictional character a…
It was difficult for the national organization to find members able to serve as officers and to complete all of the administrative tasks. In their last roster, published 10 years ago, the pages listing the deceased members outnumbered those listing active members.
“The guys said, ‘I was all for staying. My shipmate came to the convention with me. He’s gone now and I don’t feel like coming,’“ said Kraus, 91, of Crescent Springs, Ky.
The organization officially disbanded this year. Local chapters could continue if they felt like it. The memories–a few of them–survive in a form, in oral…
On this day of mourning, there are further revelations about how badly the Bush Administration bungled in the run up to 9/11 (and stealing a meme from Brad DeLong). During the summer of 2001, the intelligence community desperately tried to warn President Bush that Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda had an attack planned against the United States. The August 6 Presidential Daily Briefing was entitled, in about as direct a way as possible “Bin Laden determined to strike in United States.” That PDB came out as part of the work of the 9/11 commission. But that was not the only briefing that summer, according to the New York Times:
The direct warnings to Mr. Bush about the possibility of a Qaeda attack began in the spring of 2001. By May 1, the Central Intelligence Agency told the White House of a report that “a group presently in the United States” was planning a terrorist operation. Weeks later…
For historians, the fun of presidential election season comes when candidates start playing games with history. Often this takes the form of “you don’t know me, but remember that great guy? I’m like that guy.” The thing is, politicians generally don’t know squat about that guy; they’re just looting the iconography of civilization for their own momentary convenience.
Case in point: Paul Ryan tries to get voters to understand him by saying,
“You know what I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. I have a bust of Winston Churchill in my office right now,” Ryan said. “Winston Churchill probably got it right when he said the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, so I think we’re at that point. This is an inflection point, this is a choice of two futures.”
Winston Churchill, of course, did not have politics anything like…
Not to pile on, but there’s also this, in the new Democracy. Unlike the aforementioned TLS essay, the whole thing is online; here’s a short excerpt:
The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.
Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun…
From Robert E. Lee’s obituary, the New York Times October 13, 1870:
In [Lee's] farewell letter to Gen. SCOTT, he spoke of the struggle which this step had cost him, and his wife declared that he “wept tears of blood over this terrible war.” There are probably few who doubt the sincerity of his protestation, but thousands have regretted, and his best friends will ever have to regret,the error of judgment, the false conception of the allegiance due to his Government and his country, which led one so rarely gifted to cast his lot with traitors, and devote his splendid talents to the execution of a wicked plot to tear asunder and ruin the Republic in whose service his life had hitherto been spent.
Lee’s application for amnesty and reinstatement as an American was lost for more than a century. Rediscovered in the 1970s, it led to Gerald Ford signing legislation that pardoned Lee and made…
Students in my Civil War class tend to be fascinated by the disjuncture between the Lincoln of memory, who stands tall as the Great Emancipator, and the Lincoln of history, who only very gradually embraced emancipation as a necessity of war and then later as a moral imperative.* One of the crucial moments in that evolution was the controversy over treating slaves as contraband of war, an episode during which several of Lincoln’s generals, in fall 1861, outstripped their Commander-in-Chief and began practicing not-quite-emancipation on the ground. They refused to return slaves that crossed the Union lines to their former owners, leaving those people in an odd situation: not quite free, but no longer enslaved either.
The BBC has a story up about one of the sites where that controversy played out: the South Carolina Sea Islands. I have to admit that this is the kind of article that …
Whoopi Goldberg’s reaction on first seeing Star Trek’s Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols. Apparently Nichols almost left the show because she had a Broadway offer, until a chance encounter with a fan changed her mind.
That fan was Martin Luther King Jr. Nichols recalls their conversation:
One of the organizers came up to me and said that there was someone who wants to meet you; and he says that he’s you’re best, biggest fan and I’m thinking it’s a Trekkie! [laughs] and so I said certainly and I got up and turned around and maybe 10 or 15 feet coming towards me I see Dr. Martin Luther King and I remember thinking whoever that little fan is, he’s going to have to wait, because here’s Dr. King, who walks straight up to me with this big, magnificent smile on his face and says, “I’m the fan!” because I’m sort of looking around for someone else, and he says, “I am…
There’s a transition between memory and history that happens as events stop being personal experiences and start being records. As the generation that experienced a certain era (World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, 9/11), begins to disappear from the scene, that era becomes “historical” in a way that it wasn’t before.
So, too, when the remnants of an era begin to disappear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
This process can be fast. My first year students this semester were 10-11 years old when 9/11 happened, and they remember it much less distinctly than I do.
It can be slow. The flagship of Admiral George Dewey’s Asiatic Fleet from the Spanish-American War, the USS Olympia is still open for public viewing…
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This blog is a blog about history, Yiddishkeit, and the Muppets, neither exclusively nor necessarily in that order. And as William Gibson said about this very blog (no, really), “History can save your ass.” Yiddishkeit and the Muppets are just extras.
is the associate director of the Cornell in Washington program and a senior lecturer at Cornell University. He teaches courses on European history, modern military history, guerrilla war, and the role of popular will in waging war.
is a professor of history at UC Davis. He is the author of A River and Its City: The Nature of Landscape in New Orleans, which won the Abbott Lowell Cummings Prize in 2004, and his new book, A Misplaced Massacre: Struggling Over the Memory of Sand Creek, will be published by Harvard University Press in fall 2012.
is a professor of history at UC Davis. She is the author of Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11 (Oxford, 2009); Red Spy Queen: A Biography of Elizabeth Bentley (North Carolina, 2002); and Challenging the Secret Government: The Post-Watergate Investigations of the CIA and FBI (North Carolina, 1996).