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It’s Summer: Let’s Tee Up Some History Shorts

June 19, 2012, 8:59 pm

Obama may have made history by being the first president to golf in cargo shorts.

Word has it that all of us will be wearing shorts on Thursday, as the temperature rises into the high 90s. So let’s start the chilling with a…

Cold War Cultural Revival. You thought that the membership of the American Studies Association, the Modern Language Association and the Organization of American Historians had collectively driven a stake through the heart of American Exceptionalism. But someone from the Republican National Committee fished your old copies of Frederick Jackson Turner and Lionel Trilling out of the book donation box at the local library.

In April 2011, your favorite Radical twigged you to a Sarah Palin speech in which she explained that her appearance at the Iowa State Fair was intended, not to launch a candidacy, but to listen to “the individual Americans who want the exceptionalism put back in this country.” (Just for fun, say that in a loud, squeaky voice with some broad vowels.)

Numerous Republican candidates (including Mitt Romney, the presumptive nominee) are now on the American exceptionalism bandwagon. In response to this onslaught of Cold War intellectual chic,  President Barack Obama has also adopted “American exceptionalism” as a catch phrase for the coming fall campaign. What gives?

We at Tenured Radical are not sure how these candidates think American exceptionalism translates into an actual foreign policy. A more detailed explanation of what they might mean can be obtained here from GOP foreign policy wonk Robert Kagan, who advised the Bush and McCain campaigns and is now sitting on Romney’s shoulder. My guess is that most crowds who come to political rallies think that “American exceptionalism” is a new way of saying  ”we love/they hate our freedoms.” This translates to: United States interests, values and priorities trump the interests, values and priorities of all other people around the world.

Over at Foreign Policy, Uri Friedman has helpfully produced a brief chronological history of this zombie concept. As Friedman notes, it is grounded in a long American intellectual tradition, but has “only recently entered the political lexicon, after it was first uttered by none other than Joseph Stalin. Today the term is experiencing a resurgence in an age of anxiety about American decline.” (Hat tip to 3 Quarks Daily.)

For Fans of Doing Recent  History who are also subscribers to the New Yorker (sorry! it’s behind the firewall): Jane Mayer’s “Bully Pulpit: An Evangelist Talk Show Host’s Campaign to Control the Republican Party” (June 18 2012) is worth a fast-forward in the issue. It’s about Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a leading media figure among Christian conservatives.  Mayer does a terrific job of showing how all the far right’s agenda’s cohere in a program of national conservative evangelical reform, with a good sketch of how one branch of Christian history came to this place.  By leading with the recent resignation of an out gay Romney aide, Mayer also demonstrates what a perilous position Romney is in as he tries to balance his moderate social politics, and his mainstream Mormonism, with his need for Christian voters in November.

Speaking of Zombies…..Rachel Maddow has characterized Politifact.com as an organization that exists only to “sully the whole concept of fact-checking as a meaningless brand” and as a “zombie eating our brains.” But how does she really feel? Check out Maddow’s hilarious rant here. If you have ever spent time with the Truth-o-Meter™, by which Politifact ranks things public figures say on a scale from True to False (the worst kind of false is “Pants on Fire!” where the scale is consumed by orange flames), keep reading.

Over at AHA Today, Jim Grossman and Allen Mikaelian investigated the Truth-o-Meter™ and as it turns out, when Politifact does its research, they contact scholars like you and me (well, not exactly like me, because they never have called me.) Focusing on last year’s controversy about whether it was “appropriate to reference ‘Jim Crow’ when discussing the rash of new laws and measures further regulating who can vote and under what conditions,” Grossman and Mikaelian found that:

On this issue, they’ve consulted prominent historians, legal scholars, and political scientists. Our colleagues on the list include such historians as Eric Foner, Robert Korstad, Glenda Gilmore, Jane Dailey, Alex Keyssar, William H. Chafe, Thomas Adams Upchurch, Leslie V. Tischauser, James C. Cobb, Randall Miller, Paul A. Cimbala, David Colburn, Morgan Kousser, and Michael Fitzgerald. The Politifact editors clearly have made an effort to get the best thinking on the subject.

However, research is not always definitive for the Truth-o-Meter™. As you might expect, scholars sometimes believe the same thing for different reasons, and can draw different conclusions from the same evidence. On the Jim Crow question, the diversity of opinion was particularly striking. ”The range of perspectives in Politifact’s analyses has been striking, especially across disciplines,” Grossman and Mikaelian conclude: “the legal scholars and the historians often see this issue differently.”

As a collective, historians — regardless of their politics — produced responses about the perseverance of Jim Crow that were likely to confuse the Truth-o-Meter™, whereas legal scholars produced responses that the Truth-o-Meter™ could collate. When historians cite the similarities between Jim Crow and contemporary policies aimed at reducing the political influence of voters of color, they also tended emphasize the ways in which racial repression is continuous over time, even though it appears in different guises and degrees. Thus, for historians, “Jim Crow” can have a cultural and political shadow long after its factual demise.

Legal scholars, however, tend to perceive the differences between past and present — the framing of the laws, their application and their effects — as producing different phenomena. In other words, whereas legal scholars may believe that racial repression continues, when Jim Crow laws were voided, Jim Crow ended; if some people of color do legally vote, then change has occurred and we have entered a different legal moment with different causes, effects and cures.

Department of Rising Stars: Congratulations to the 2011 Berkshire Conference of Women Historians Article Prize winners! With award citations, they are:

Agnes Kefeli for “The Tale of Joseph and Zulaykha on the Volga Frontier:  The Struggle for Gender, Religious, and National Identity in Imperial and Postrevolutionary Russia,” Slavic Review 70, no. 2 (Summer 2011).

“Kefeli has conducted research in an impressively wide-ranging array of Russian, Tatar, and central Asian sources to describe how a popular thirteenth-century religious text was reread and reinterpreted in later periods to challenge or reinforce religious and national categories in a borderland region. Employing diverse methodologies ranging  from textual analysis to ethnographic field work and oral history, Kefeli deftly untangles the complex history of how traditional Muslims, reform Muslims, and Orthodox Christians read the same text differently. She tells a dynamic story of religious conversion and ethnic identity formation, highlighting the contested role of women in religious texts and the active participation of women in the spread of Islam.”

Betty Luther Hillman for  “’The most profoundly revolutionary act a homosexual can engage in’: Drag and the Politics of Gender Presentation in the San Francisco Gay Liberation Movement, 1964-1972,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 20, no. 1 (January 2011).

“Hillman’s tight focus on a particular place and time uses unusual, fragmentary, and ephemeral source material to build an in-depth understanding of the multiple meanings of drag as cultural practice. She goes inside the nascent sexual liberation movement to define the conflicting understandings and demands of different gay groups as they debated whether this form of gender transgression subverted or confirmed ideas about homosexuality and conventional gender roles. The author offers persistent insight on matters of gender and performance in language characterized by clarity, grace, and an absence of jargon.” Via Don Romesburg, co-chair of the Committee on LGBT History.

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