Episode 189: PragerU, the ‘Product Of His Time’ Defense and the White Guilt Amelioration Industrial Complex
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: “Hitler was a product of his time,” historian Kent Gardiner told us in 1975, just 30 years after the end of World War II. “Was Frank Rizzo racist or just a product of his time?” pondered The Philadelphia Inquirer in 2017, about the city’s notoriously racist former police commissioner and mayor, just 26 years after his death. “Christopher Columbus, no saint, was product of his time,” explained a 2013 commentary in the Staten Island Advance.
Adam: We very often hear this sentiment in reference to historical atrocities. Slave owners, colonizers, genocidal tyrants and right-wing bigots from decades or centuries past “didn’t know any better.” They were simply responding to the time and place in which they lived — a different time marked by different social mores, moral standards and laws.
Nima: Now look, it’s perhaps fair to cite this cliché to explain, rather than justify, awkward song lyrics or offensive language and stereotypes used in movies from decades ago. But it’s an entirely different issue with respect to how we venerate and remember the past, especially since, in the most popular cases, famous historical people’s bad actions were roundly criticized at the time.
Adam: Long popular as a catch-all to hand wave away the misdeeds of slave owners, colonizers and warmongers increasingly educational movements on the American Right from Ron DeSantis trying to remake history education to conservative propaganda targeting kids like PragerU, this “product of their time” cliché, and its close cousin, “don’t judge the past by the standards of today,” is making a bit of a comeback, if it ever really went away at all.
Nima: This defensive, superficially appealing cliché is a popular go-to for those who think we shouldn’t criticize the supposedly sacrosanct secular deities of our past either — from George Washington to Ronald Reagan. But the whole concept operates under a glaring double standard: how can we take pride in and venerate the supposedly good things Americans in history did while ignoring and dismissing the bad things? How could we pick and choose our moral inheritance at will? How does the need for us to downplay slavery, colonization and Jim Crow continue to be such a strong political force? And whose interests does this downplaying serve in 2023?
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll dissect the notion that the reactionary forces of history have just been “products of their time.” We’ll explore the ways in which this and related concepts are not only inaccurate, but also convenient instruments of right-wing historical revisionism and how the need to make people feel good about our civic mythology makes for bad history and, as we’ll explain, even worse politics.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by historian Dr. Erin Bartram. She is Associate Director for education at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, and also co-founder and co-editor of Contingent Magazine.
Erin Bartram: When one says ‘people,’ who is the default ‘people’ that is being talked about? I’m thinking of a way that it would crop up, like ‘when people had slaves,’ or ‘when people fought against the Cherokee’ or something, that constantly unsettling who is in ‘the people’ that you are making the subject of the conversation is a really good way to highlight how you’re kind of artificially circumscribing what the discourse is. You get a unitary discourse when you essentially carve out the smallest possible chunk, and then just erase those differences.
Adam: So, today’s episode will be a spiritual successor to Episode 72 about John Stossel entitled, The Libertarian Billionaires’ Inside Man, where we discuss John Stossel’s, as well his whole career, but we also focus heavily on his “educational” “economics” videos that were played in middle schools and high schools. Because the sort of impetus for this was this increasingly popular use of PragerU videos and other conservative, right-wing “educational” material in schools that really went out of its way, as we’ll show in some clips soon, to handwave away things we would call historical injustices, historical atrocities, in a way that makes them seem not only “products of their time,” but oftentimes good or sort of jobs programs. And, you know, we’ve heard this before, this is one of these kinds of great popular lines, this is not maybe something that one will see on the editorial pages of The New York Times, although you will occasionally, as often. But it is something that your uncle says that Thanksgiving kind of thing, right? This is something that guy, the guy with cargo shorts that you meet at a ballgame [says]. It’s a very sort of popular cliché, and we like to talk about popular clichés on this show. And it’s popular for, we’ll argue, very specific reasons, which is to say, it is central to what we refer to as the White Guilt Amelioration Industrial Complex, which is anti-CRT, anti-Critical Race Theory. It’s always been there, but in the last couple years it’s gotten more heightened.
Nima: Yeah, a lot more political traction and a lot more right-wing funding, for sure.
Adam: Which is like, there’s all these lefties, there’s The 1619 Project, there’s all these sort of educated black people who want to make you feel guilty. ‘Don’t worry, the sort of cartoon history you grew up with, that’s still true.’
Nima: And not only is it true, but we’re going to make updated cartoons that are going to have the exact same message. So, as we dig into this, we should first mention that when we talk about PragerU, we are talking about what is formerly known as the Prager University Foundation, informally PragerU. It’s a nonprofit “media organization” that promotes very right-wing viewpoints, on politics, on economics, on sociology and our civic culture. It was co-founded in 2009 by conservative talk show host Dennis Prager, as well as a producer and screenwriter by the name of Allen Estrin, and PragerU is massively funded by right-wing foundations and donors. And what it does is it pumps out this supposedly “educational” content, which is really just part of this white supremacist information complex, which has now, in many ways, just like John Stossel videos of yore, been adopted into public school curriculum to teach children in the American school system about history from the PragerU perspective.
So, to kick off, here’s a clip from a PragerU video — this is real, folks, we swear — where two-time traveling kids, Leo and Layla, go and meet Christopher Columbus. The entire video is an attack on the apparently outrageously woke notion that Indigenous People’s Day should replace Columbus Day on American calendar and in this clip, Columbus explains that, whatever you might have heard about him might sound bad — with the slavery and genocide and such — but hey, man, it’s no biggie, cause, like, everyone was doing it, man. Take a listen.
Cartoon Christopher Columbus: Slavery is as old this time, and has taken place in every corner of the world, even amongst the people I just left. Being taken as a slave is better than being killed, no? Before you judge, you must ask yourself, what did the culture and society at the time treat as no big deal?
Adam: Yeah, so this is something they do in all these little bits. What they do is they flatten and say, ‘Well, everyone did it.’
Nima: And no one really questioned it because this was just the common sense at the time.
Nima: At another point in the video featuring time travel back to Columbus’s time, we have this clip.
Cartoon Kid Leo: I’m sorry, Mr. Columbus, but I heard at school that you spoiled paradise and you brought slavery and murder to peaceful people.
Cartoon Kid Layla: Leo!
Cartoon Kid Leo: Sorry! It’s what I read and heard at school.
Cartoon Christopher Columbus: Caramba! Those are some accusations. The place I discovered was beautiful, but it wasn’t exactly a paradise of civilization. And the native people were far from peaceful.
Nima: Ah, yes, were not exactly peaceful. The natives, don’t worry kids, were savages and therefore, could be genocided at will and we shouldn’t feel badly about that. I like how the Italian Christopher Columbus incidentally is so beholden to his Spanish benefactors that he starts using words like caramba. That’s maybe my favorite part of that video, because all the rest is so grotesque.
Adam: Boy, that sure sounds like you really will like genocide of non-white peoples.
Nima: Exactly. Journalist John Knefel will recently detailed this very thing in Media Matters, highlighting some of the PragerU animated videos that are now permitted to be shown to students, because as of July 2023, as a deliberate pushback to perceptions of left-wing influence in education, the state of Florida, for instance, under Governor Ron DeSantis, presidential candidate, authorized PragerU as an “approved vendor” for their public school curriculum. One of the PragerU videos that is now approved for viewing by students features a fictional Booker T. Washington emphasizing to two white children that they should never feel guilty about the past. So here is the clip, again courtesy of journalist John Knefel.
Cartoon Booker T. Washington: It’s true, here in my time, no matter how hard we work, sadly, there is still often mistreatment and racial discrimination towards us black Americans.
Cartoon Kid Layla: We’re really sorry that you have to deal with segregation and racism.
Cartoon Booker T. Washington: Your sympathy is nice, Layla, but know that you have nothing to be sorry about. You and Leo have done nothing wrong, and have indeed been quite respectful. Future generations are never responsible for the sins of the past.
Cartoon Kid Layla: Okay, I’ll keep doing my best to treat everyone well and won’t feel guilty about historical stuff.
Cartoon Booker T. Washington: Good.
Nima: Well, that’s one way to put it.
Adam: Yeah. So here, this, of course, is a total red herring without getting too much into it. It’s not like people today need to feel guilty in some moral sense. The idea is you inherit responsibilities based on privilege. So, for example, if my father goes across the street to some other family and steals $20,000, and gives it to me, and then he dies, and then the family across the street comes back and says, ‘Hey, you have that $20,000.’ It’s not that I’m morally responsible, but you do have a certain responsibility for what you inherit. That’s the sort of general idea behind inheriting certain privileges and certain advantages because of historical discrimination. But conservatives, again, because of the White Guilt Amelioration Industrial Complex is all about making you feel better, is obsessed with this idea that the point is like to make you feel guilty for its own sake. And it’s like, no, the point is to say that there are certain historical conditions that we inherit, much like one inherits the, you know, the $20,000 they stole from across the street. And that doesn’t necessarily make it rightfully theirs without any sense of historical continuity.
Nima: And all of this has to do with avoiding any kind of talk of compensation or reparation. And that is very explicit, right? Because, as long as you bear no responsibility personally, and when you bear no responsibility personally by the millions, or 10s or hundreds of millions of people, all those individuals who are currently alive, bear no responsibility for the past, do not have to feel guilty, do not have to make up for anything. And therefore, it ends any kind of conversation about reparation.
Adam: Now, this has been a current in our political and educational discourse for some time. This idea that bad guys, not by way of explanation or context, but by way of hand waving or sort of justifying why we need to not condemn them or speak about them in moral terms, that they are simply “products of their time.” This has been something that’s been around for quite a while. This kind of justification can be seen as early as 1892 in an article from the Memphis Appeal-Avalanche, for example, raised the issue at the four hundredth anniversary of Columbus’s discovery of the Bahamas. This is from Sunday, April 17, 1892:
“New sources of historical information have been found in the archives of Europe. And instead of being a saintly individual who proceeded to discover this country on the most approved Sunday School literature plan, Columbus was as wild a blade has ever sailed the seas over. It is freely charged that in the New World he plundered the Indians in order to satisfy the rapacity of his patrons in Spain, and he also became a slave trader. In short, Columbus was a product of his time, and not much better or worse than the rest of his contemporaries.”
Nima: That’s the best part. It’s like, ‘new information has come to light, new shit has come to light, and this guy sucked. But don’t worry…’
Adam: He was a product of his time.
Nima: ‘…he was a product of his time, and basically everyone else was genociding people on the other side of the globe.’ Don’t worry, he was basically, he was just doing what everyone was doing. Now, it should go without saying, but I’m just gonna say it, Adam, Columbus was worse than the Indigenous people he mutilated, raped, enslaved and killed. We also now know that contemporaries of Columbus condemned his barbarity toward Indigenous people. Sometime between 1499 and 1502, Spanish official Francisco de Bobadilla drafted a 48-page document, including the testimonies of 23 people who had either witnessed or heard about the atrocities Columbus and his men committed. The documents were uncovered in 2006. Historian Consuelo Varela told The Guardian this at the time, “Columbus and his brothers come across in the text as tyrants.” Additionally, Dominican priest Bartolomé de las Casas, who accompanied and initially supported Columbus, later documented the violence visited upon Indigenous people and advocated for laws to prevent their brutal exploitation.
Adam: And, of course, it’s not just Columbus. It was also true for contemporaries who were just kind of older. One February 1906 article from the St. Albans Daily Messenger weighed in on John D. Rockefeller, who was under investigation by US authorities for trust-making. Now, he was the first-ever US billionaire, he co-founded Standard Oil. He had been investigated by journalist Ida Tarbell for monopolistic abuses over a few years prior. The paper stated:
Mr. Rockefeller is a product of his time. He has undoubtedly driven hard bargains, and his measures have sometimes been oppressive. But he is a genuine captain of industry, and the masterly hand with which he conducts his gigantic enterprise commands the admiration of the world.”
I guess since he was, you know, he was born in the 1830s, I guess he was a product of his time. Son of a bitch died at 97! Ida Tarbell was just one example of someone who had lived at the time of Rockefeller, who was one of his major critics. Obviously, President Teddy Roosevelt, among others, were — despite taking money from him — were major critics of Rockefeller, as well. As well as the dozens and dozens of people who had sued him over the years for his unethical, and sometimes illegal, business practices.
Nima: So there were other products of Rockefellers type who didn’t act like Rockefeller, right? It’s not that there was this, you know, singular way that we thought about the world and Rockefeller was just acting on that. No, there was opposition to his actions at the time.
Adam: The whole time, like the whole, like certain Baptist preachers condemned him from the pulpit and refused to take as money. Again, this is something we’ll talk we’ll get to more of their guest, but the idea that there’s one moral standard of every time is not true. It is simply not true.
Nima: Now, let’s leap ahead to the 1970s. Just three decades removed from World War II, this cliché, “the product of their time,” was invoked to defend none other than Adolf Hitler. This was an article in the Jackson Sun from Wednesday, August 20, 1975. That’s Jackson, Tennessee, not Mississippi. The article is headlined, “A Scholar Remembers Hitler.” And it includes this quote. “Hitler was a product of his time. He had been a very good soldier throughout the [First World] War, being awarded two Iron Crosses, one that of First Class. His dress, his little mustache, and his intense hatred of the Jews were all widespread symbols of that between-the-wars era.” Now note, the equating of Hitler’s appearance and deadly anti-Semitism in this article is quite staggering, right? Anti-Semitism was just apparently a symbol, a trend of the time, like the way you wore your facial hair or the suit that you wear. It’s just, it was trendy. It’s what everyone was doing at the time, Adam, no biggie.
Adam: Just a few years later, a Letter to the Editor of the Memphis newspaper, The Commercial Appeal, from November of 1979, objected to the proposed removal of a statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate General and first Grand Wizard of the KKK, from a local park. The letter almost comically reads as follows: “Forrest: A Product of His Time. Sure, Forrest was a slave trader in Memphis before the war, but this should not be the cause of the uproar. Many other venerated men of our past were slave traders.”
Nima: [Laughing] We know, we know!
Adam: It’s a bit of begging the question there. A lot of people I think are good were bad. Well, yeah, that’s the first part of the premise is the thing that… okay.
It is true that Forrest commanded…
This is so funny.
It is true that Forrest commanded the troops that perpetrated the Fort Pillow Massacre but Forrest did not instigate the killings nor has any evidence been found that he approved of or engaged in the killings.
Okay. The author continued,
As for Forrest being the first Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, it should be noted that he and many of the Klan’s other leaders ordered the group to disband when he saw the Klan turning violent.
He was changing it from the inside, guys.
Forrest’s racial attitudes would be apparent to most Americans today, but we must remember that he was a product of his time. It is unfair to judge people of our past by today’s standards.
Adam: So what we’re seeing here is a bit of a double standard, which we’re going to, again, get into a little more with our guest, but we want to focus on a little bit here, in case you haven’t noticed the pattern. The reason why we have to level moral judgment against Columbus and all these various slave-holding generals, is because we built statues to them and named cities after them and named military bases after them. So, we are venerating them, which is, by definition, a moral endorsement of the things they did when they were alive. So, the idea of passing judgment, using today’s standards — that ship already sailed, we’re already doing that. The question is whether or not you apply the judgment consistently and thoroughly, rather than based on some rose-tinted view of some good thing they may or may not have done based on some tortured idea that, ‘Oh, we can’t rename this high school after General Lee,’ which they did in my home city of San Antonio actually turned it into a backronym called I think “Learning Educational Excellence,’ but sure, yeah, it’s better than the other thing. And then they say, ‘Well, you know, you can’t judge him by the things he did when he was a Confederate soldier,’ again, by definition, if you’re fighting a civil war, clearly at least fifty-percent of the population did judge you by the standards at the time that the thing you’re doing is bad, right? That aside from, to say nothing of the rest of the world, but this idea that like, ‘Oh, we can’t judge them,’ but you already judged them by naming the fucking high school after them. You’ve made a moral judgment. This is like when politicians say, ‘Oh, don’t politicize a tragedy,’ which is the thing you say when you’re already politicizing a tragedy, but you don’t want competition. You don’t want other people to contest your political —
Nima: Yeah, you’re politicizing it the way you’re politicizing it.
Adam: Right, ‘I’ve already judged him to be good.’ And then you say, ‘Well, actually, he was bad because XYZ. No, no, don’t judge.’ You fucker, you already judged him. You named a goddamn high school or a city or a state or, you know, you build a statue to them or you build a USS aircraft carrier or whatever. Like, we make judgments all the time. And you’ll see this from this PragerU bullshit and a lot of the kind of cargo shorts guy, ‘Don’t judge by the standards of the time’ — it’s kind of this braindead cliché — again, really what it’s saying is ‘Don’t contest the judgment we made, which is obviously normative and obviously positive.’ Obviously, you don’t name cities after people you don’t like, right?
Nima: Yeah, I mean, this idea of characterizing people who loved and defended slavery, or people who committed genocide as heroes — this whole cliché of ‘product of their time,’ relies on the idea that, ‘Oh, well, those things were just more acceptable back then.’ Whenever that was, right? That could be 25 years ago or it could be 500 years ago, and to do the 500 years ago one, here’s another striking example from the Chicago Tribune, this from July 14, 1991, that seeks to convince readers that Christopher Columbus was, again, just like everyone else. The article says, in part, this:
But there is no mitigating Columbus’s cruel exploitation of the natives of Hispaniola when he forced them to pay him tribute in gold, of which there was little on the island. Unable to comply, they eventually rebelled, whereupon they were exterminated.
From a modern perspective, all of this convicts Columbus of rampant racism. But in the 15th and 16th Centuries, most people were not racist as much as “otherist.” Almost all over the world (including among the Indians of America), everyone who was not part of one’s own tribe, city or region was an “other,” ripe for murder, rape, exploitation or enslavement with neither punishment, nor even a guilty conscience as a consequence.
The article would go on to trivialize contemporaneous criticism against Columbus in this way:
There was some dissent. Bishop Bartoloma de Los Casas [sic], who accompanied Columbus on some of his voyages, admired the admiral but detested the way he treated the Indians. He knew how evil slavery was. So did a few others, but theirs were decidedly minority voices.
Nima: Now, I’d like to also note, Adam, that the voices that are deemed part of the majority, clearly do not include all the people who were being killed and enslaved.
Adam: Yeah, they’re not a moral constituency, they don’t get to render a moral vote.
Nima: It’s like we’re only talking about certain Europeans here. That is going to be the moral majority consensus.
Adam: And again, because we named the capital after him, as well as the Canadian province and state, multiple cities like that. We’ve already done the judging. The 2010s and ’20s has seen this cliché pop up from time to time, especially in some of the criticisms both in the UK and the United States of Winston Churchill, who, of course, did a lot of extremely racist shit, but he’s still you know, he held in high regard in the conservative imagination as this kind of great champion of Western culture and sophistication. In a July 2017 piece entitled, “Winston Churchill was larger than life and a perfect character for movies and TV,” the Los Angeles Times called Winston Churchill “flawed” and attributed his colonialism and fierce opposition to Indian independence, as well as the support of using poison gas in Iraq, to “his time.” This argument has appeared ad nauseam in relation to Churchill. The New York Times, even citing some contemporary his criticisms of Churchill, gently called him “controversial” in a 2018 book review. “His views on race and empire were anachronistic even for those times.” Well, that’s an improvement. “The carpet bombing of German cities during World War II, the ‘naughty documents’ that handed over Romania and Bulgaria to Stalin; comparing the Labour Party to the Gestapo — the list of Churchillian controversies goes on.” And the Washington Post asked in a September of 2020 piece, “Churchill’s critics have a point. Does that mean his statue should come down?” But it kind of does, though doesn’t because again, the statue’s a judgment. As Daniel Todman wrote in his 2016 book, Britain’s War, “Even by the standards of his time, Churchill was a savage, racist.” Yeah.
Nima: Again, this is not something that is only a judgment being rendered from today. And I think that that’s so important when we talk about this of his time rhetoric that at the time, as we’ve been saying, there were plenty of people who actually were not racist or were not genocidal. Consider the words of contemporaneous Indian press outlets during Churchill’s prime ministership. In 1951, after Churchill published his 1948 vehemently anti-Gandhi memoir, entitled “The Hinge of Fate,” the Indian newspaper The Tribune published an editorial stating the following:
Mr. Churchill is a great war-time leader. But no man is more insular in his outlook. He has yet to realise that the people of Asia, Africa and the Middle East are entitled to a life of their own. He still thinks in terms of the hegemony of the world by Anglo-Saxon peoples.
It is hard actually, Adam, to think of a clearer articulation, that sounds like it could have been written yesterday, and yet was written in an Indian newspaper in 1951, a clearer articulation of just the, like, normal pushback on imperial, colonial and racist leaders of any time.
The same year the Indian News Chronicle concluded its own editorial with this line: “Mr. Churchill is incorrigible, hopelessly out of date, and is getting unpopular day by day.”
Adam: Right, so the standards of his time were not uniform. There were multiple standards, competing standards. Within the last few decades or so, this idea of “presentism” has emerged as a pejorative, which refers to the tendency to evaluate historical events and structures using moral standards that we have today. Right-wing and centrist media have decried so-called presentism, sort of a nice buzzword to sort of hand wave away or to have given more sophisticated air to the idea of hand-waving away the veneration of historical assholes, which they view as kind of oppressive in practice. One of the earliest examples of use of this term comes from a 2002 essay by former American Historical Association president Lynn Hunt and titled, “Against Presentism,” in which he cautioned interpreting the past in terms of the present, contending that “presentism, at its worst, encourages a kind of moral complacency and self congratulation,”, and advocated for limiting the use of “identity politics” when studying history.
Moving ahead 10 years to 2012 when the term would appear in the Sacramento Bee. At the time, the city of Sacramento, California had proposed changing the name of Jedediah Smith Elementary School, named after a western US “explorer,” as Smith owned slaves. The paper would say:
Jedediah Smith biographer Barton Barbour said that he fears the mountain man and fur trader’s past is being taken out of context. If owning slaves is grounds for changing school’s names, Barbour said, then there would be no schools named after George Washington.
Nima: Hey! Ding-ding-ding!
Adam: “‘This is what historians called presentism’” — doesn’t it sound so much more high-minded than the PragerU stuff?
applying today’s ethical standards to people who lived centuries ago,’ said Barber, the history department chair at Boise State. ‘It’s misguided. His real legacy as a mapmaker and explorer puts him in the same class as Lewis and Clark,’
— again, still not helping your case —
Barbour said. ‘Yes, he owned two slaves. My sense of it was (after buying a house in St. Louis) like any high roller in that town, you had to own a slave to have social standing. It’s an awful truth. If you condemn someone for that, you will have an endless list.’
Again, you’re getting there, buddy. You’re so close.
Nima: “Dig up, stupid.”
Adam: We don’t really have to name things after these people. We can call everything, like, ‘Cedar Oak.’ So, after that, they renamed the school after a local activist, Leataata Floyd, who fought for better public housing in Sacramento, helped coach and mentor neighborhood kids and taught a children’s Polynesian dance class. This is who the people who were protecting Jedediah Smith were opposing.
Nima: Seems like it’s nice to, like, name a school after someone who, I don’t know, didn’t own slaves. That’s like a trend that should catch on.
Adam: Yeah, again, like there’s no law of nature that says the school needs to be named after this guy. In an especially chilling example from June 2015, New York Times columnist David Brooks, he invoked the term presentism, as he’s done quite a few times, to defend Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The column was published shortly after the white supremacist Dylann Roof murdered nine members of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopalian Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The column read, “The debate about Charleston, South Carolina, Bible school shooting has morphed into a debate about the Confederacy battle flag and other symbols of the Confederacy.” He would go on to say, “The harder call concerns Robert E. Lee. Should schools and other facilities be named after the great Confederate General, or should his name be removed and replaced? … In theory, he opposed slavery once calling it ‘a moral and political evil in any country.’ He opposed Southern secession, calling it “silly” and a rash revolutionary act. Moreover, we shouldn’t be overly guilty of the sin of ‘presentism,’ judging historical figures by contemporary standards.” People love to do this with Jefferson and Robert E. Lee. They’re like, ‘They nominally opposed slavery.’ It’s like, yeah, that makes it worse, that they knew it was bad and they did it anyway, because they’re cowards. Or they’ll be like, ‘Oh, he freed his slaves on his deathbed.’ It’s like, that is a million times [worse] — don’t you see that? So, what’s that line from The Good Place? “You see how that’s worse?”
Nima: “You see how that’s worse,” right.
Adam: You see how that’s worse that they like, waited ’til they didn’t need their slaves…
Nima: Because that means that, like, the men of their time…
Adam: That’s not true! They’re not even the men of their time.
Nima: Right, the men of their time apparently knew how evil slavery is. Right, is like in their time, not was in the past, is in their time and continue to promote it, defend it and benefit from it, which somehow absolves these people from contemporary judgment. It actually is quite, it’s quite remarkable. I will also argue, Mr. David Brooks, judging historical figures by contemporary standards, you know, who is also judging Robert E. Lee, by the standards of his day? The Union Army and people who were currently enslaved then, and free black people in the North who joined the Union Army to defeat the Confederacy. So, the idea that there was a contemporary standard that Robert E. Lee fit into, by nominally, maybe like hand-wringing about slavery, but ultimately thinking it was fine, well, clearly, there was a war over it not being fine. And so even that argument completely falls flat.
Adam: Because again, I want to stress this, like, I’m going to say this now for the 800th time but like, no one’s going out of their way to render a formal judgment on like, random, obscure slave owners from 1832, because that’s not a very urgent political question for today. The reason why we’re rendering judgment on people like Robert E. Lee, because schools are named after him, statues are built to him, Confederate flags, wherever. Like the judgment has already been rendered. That’s the thing, because I think when people say, ‘Oh, well, presentism promotes self-satisfaction, right? Look at the smug liberals going to around…” It’s like, no, no, you’re the one who asked us to effectively make a moral decision rather than just conceding to inertia, right? Sort of historical inertia, right? The force of our, we have already made a choice to venerate this person. And what we’re saying is that, well, if we’re going to do that, then let’s give a complete picture. And let’s cast a moral judgment based on the standards of today, because you’ve already done that, because you built it today, and you’re defending the naming of a place today, you know what I mean? So there’s this thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’re so smug. You know, you’re sort of looking back and blaming this person.’ It’s like, no, no, no, it’s not a cosmic moral decision. It’s not like a god judging him. That’s way beyond my paygrade. It’s a historical judgment based on the fact that we have decided to institutionally, as a government and as a society, venerate these people, therefore, you invite a robust and holistic moral judgment, because you’ve already done the thing where you’ve morally judged them.
Nima: Exactly. And by opposing a fuller judgment, you are defending another current judgment, which is maintaining veneration, which is still a judgment and it is still contemporary because you are continuing to do it. You know, complaints about presentism have raged on and on in the years since. Just about a year ago, in August of 2022, American Historical Association President James H. Sweet wrote an essay insisting that, “This new history” — in which he meant presentism — “often ignores the values and mores of people in their own times, as well as change over time, neutralizing the expertise that separates historians from those in other disciplines.” Sweet referenced his predecessor Lynn Hunt’s 2002 piece, lamenting that the discipline of history “did not heed hunts warning.” Sweet went on to suggest that The New York Times’s 1619 Project, which rightfully argues that slavery is a fundamental American institution, and the right-wing meltdown over it were equally guilty of distorting history. Sweet wrote that both turned history into a “zero-sum game of heroes and villains viewed through the prism of contemporary racial identity. It was not an analysis of people’s ideas in their own time, nor a process of change over time.” In other words, Sweet’s take was extremely dismissive of the work of other historians, especially black historians, who seek to incorporate the perspectives and roles of the oppressed into contemporary understandings of history.
Adam: And that’s the key right? Its contemporary understandings. It’s pop understandings. People’s understandings of history come from popular culture, they come from fucking Hamilton, and shitty John Adams biographies and the History Channel. And, again, what we name things after, people we name things after statues, places, etc., historical markers, pop history in high school and college, all of which have moral narratives with good guys and bad guys already. We already have the the cherry tree in Washington, and ‘I cannot tell a lie’ and the founding fathers and the sanctity of the constitution. Like, we already have cheesy fucking moral narratives that’s already been done, the toothpaste is out of the toothpaste bottle. That’s been the case for hundreds of years in this country, we’ve always had these moral narratives. But then the second some black scholar comes along and tries to complicate that it’s ‘Oh, well, you’re just you’re you’re being too moralistic.” And it’s like, what the fuck do you think…
Nima: ‘Don’t tread on my mythology.’
Adam: Right, it’s like it’s ‘I’m shocked to find, you know, mythology is going on in this establishment’ from Casablanca. And it’s like, that’s all we fucking do in this country is mythologize and create good guys, what fucking planet are you from? And so again, what they’re really mad at is that they’re getting competition, that people are problematizing and complicating those narratives. And then they say, ‘Oh, well, you’re being too moralistic’ and it’s like, what’s more moralistic than naming of fucking city after a slave owner? Nothing. That’s like the ultimate- we’re not, you know, putting on a, writing an essay in some obscure journal is is not remotely in the same category as naming places, colleges, universities, cities, towns, aircraft carriers.
Nima: The name of a kid’s public school, where they are forced to watch PragerU videos.
Adam: Of course that’s a moral endorsement, that’s obviously that’s what it is. And so everyone gets to feign like, ‘Oh, we were just the neutral arbiters of history until these uppity identity politics historians came along.’ And it’s this feigned neutrality and this feigned like, ‘Well, we were just the bespectacled historians.’ It’s like bullshit. Everyone knows that history has a popular narrative, that is where it has political purchase. And everyone knows that that popular narrative has been shaped with cartoonish depictions of us his relationship with slavery, colonialization, genocide — on purpose.
Nima: To talk about this more, we’re now going to be joined by historian Dr. Erin Bartram, Associate Director for Education at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut. She’s also the co-founder and co-editor of Contingent Magazine. Dr. Bartram will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Dr. Erin Bertram. Erin, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Erin Bartram: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: We want to begin by discussing the trope in question: what you call a cliché statement about history, that is as common as it is pernicious, that ‘you don’t want to judge people by the standards of their time.’ This is something, of course, that’s popular in general, but it’s become increasingly popular with a lot of these John Stossel/PragerU-type videos that are actually going into classrooms and, to some extent, have been in classrooms for decades already. I know I had John Stossel videos when I was in class, and a lot of the curriculum revamping at local school boards in, I think it’s fair to say, more conservative places — they very much are obsessed with getting this idea across of ‘don’t be too hard on the guys that we have statues for and named cities after,’ basically. What we call in this episode, The White Guilt Amelioration Industrial Complex. It’s soothing, right? You need to give a pacifier to people who are angry. I want to talk about that kind of conversation-ending cliché. In your opinion, what kind of messy questions does it avoid? And how often do you hear it in your professional and academic capacity?
Erin Bartram: Well, starting with the last question, almost comically frequently. So, it’s a thing where sometimes when someone will bring it up, to do exactly what you said to end a conversation, or at least to redirect it away from something difficult, like coworkers will look at me like ‘oh, boy,’ and I’m just like, ‘Yeah, I’ve thought about this a bit.’ It is particularly common when you’re talking about someone where the speaker either feels an affinity, personally, it’s someone they hold up as a hero. Or just, more commonly, they’re talking about someone who reflects who they are now, not just ‘did so and so have this bad opinion,’ but ‘did someone in a similar social position to where I am now, do this in the past?’ It’s never done in an objective “historical” way. It’s always about, I don’t know, if it’s projection really, but it’s always about the fact that people are already doing the thing they’re cautioning you against, which is making meaning for themselves out of the past. And they don’t want the meaning they have made, that is in some way central to their understanding of themselves, to be challenged or disrupted in any way. And I think you run into it in the weirdest places. I think, in some really common areas, that are the kinds of things that upset people with Greek statues in their Twitter bios.
Adam: Yeah, yeah.
Erin Bartram: But it can crop up anywhere. And it is a thing where it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve just told me something about yourself without intending to.’
Adam: Well, because it’s weirdly defensive, right? Like, let’s take it maybe something that isn’t as loaded, let’s say like, ‘King Tut’s parents were brother and sister.’ And if I said, like, ‘That’s probably not a good idea to marry your sister and have children because it’ll make your children deformed.’ And someone said, ‘Hey, don’t judge by the standards of our time!’ I’d be like, ‘Wait, are you pro-consanguinity?’ It’s a weird, you know what I mean? Like, it’s a weird, defensive thing to say. Again, if I said, like, ‘You’re not supposed to raze and destroy entire cities, because I don’t know, some god told you to,’ no one would get all super defensive about that. You be like, ‘Well, yeah, obviously.’ But if you say like, ‘Slavery is bad,’ they’re like, “Whoa, whoa, come on now!’ So it’s like, clearly there’s something there.
Erin Bartram: Well, and it’s weird, because they will very definitely stick up for things in the past that they would nowadays not say are okay. So, it’s this weird retroactive defensiveness. And I wonder, some of it, I think, must be tied into something that I experienced all the time, when I was teaching, essentially Whig history. This idea that, for a lot of my students, I remember, one of the last lessons we would do was on the way that Gen Z is often more likely to support torture than older generations, in part because of the way it’s been really normalized on TV, and they would really be upset about it. And I’d be like, ‘Well, we just covered the period when I was a kid last week. And we did like us interfering in Central American regimes and all this stuff.’ And they were like, ‘But yeah, but it’s different, because this is when we were alive.’ And I used to sort of joke, ‘I didn’t know your birth heralded the dawn of a new age.’
Nima: And a new standard of morality.
Erin Bartram: Yeah, but also, the inverse would be true, that often it was shocking to students that Puritans thought sex was fine, because they had to have invented modern sexuality. So, I think so much of it is actually down to [the fact that] people have no real sense of how long ago the past was. And I work and think about that a lot., because I largely work with children who really, developmentally, have a different idea of it, because their entire memory is five years. There’s actually very little sense of how long ago any bit of the past was, and how close anyone’s morality is to the morality of people in the past. I think they just know, ‘I don’t want these people to be implicated in something bad, because it’s hard to stand up for yourself. And so I’m just going to kind of cut this off.’ I think, also, some of it is, and I’ll be honest, I deal with this a lot. I am a woman who does history and it means that most middle-aged white men think I know almost as much as they do naturally, about the past by virtue of having a PhD.
Nima: Sure, almost as much.
Erin Bartram: So, I think some of that is, ‘No, no, no, but I’ve read I’ve read a book about this–’
Adam: By Bill O’Reilly.
Erin Bartram: Or, ‘by David McCullough, or Ron Chernow,’ or the kind of Father’s Day table book.
Adam and Nima: [Laughing]
Adam: I thought you’re gonna say ‘airport,’ but that’s actually way worse.
Erin Bartram: I have, I will, you will not be surprised, this is a topic I have written on extensively. So, I think…
Adam: [Still laughing] Father’s Day history. Oh, that’s brutal.
Erin Bartram: Whereas my dad is happy when I give him the history of Boston baked beans, so who knows? But it’s amazing how quickly it gets deployed in these conversations. Like, people just know it as an ender. And they are so surprised if you push back and say, ‘Well, yes, maybe we should–’
Erin Bartram: ‘–we should do this judging thing.’
Adam: Because, fundamentally, they want it both ways, right? This is the asymmetry that’s never made sense to me. They want to have pride in the past. They want to have the, you know, the B-2 flyovers and the F-22 flyovers, and the sort of sentimental schlock about pride in the founding fathers and all this kind of constitutional huffing and puffing about what the Framers wanted. And you know, we celebrate it. We have like, what, five, six, seven, eight different patriotic days of the year, that some version of ancestor worship, but then they don’t want to have the bad stuff too. And it’s like, if you’re gonna take the good stuff, like you have to also take the bad stuff. Especially when you hold it up as this kind of the sacred, ordained by God, kind of providential narrative, that it’s like, ‘Well, okay, well, which one is it? I mean, was it sacred or is it…?’
Nima: Well, you can learn history and you can learn from history, but if you try to reckon with history, that’s like a bridge too far, right? There’s this notion, maybe, that there’s, you know, an attack on history is also seen in many ways, and you just said this, Erin, like, it’s an attack on an identity a lot of the time.
Erin Bartram: Yeah. And I think, Adam, that point you made it, that like, you can’t actually be proud of and want to claim a connection to the good choices–
Erin Bartram: And then also say, but the bad ones don’t count. That’s like, we’re calling balls and nothing else. It’s just balls and hits, right? No strikes count. It’s so obviously about identity, in a way that it often feels — to extend the baseball metaphor — I mean, it feels like I’m being lobbed a softball. Or even like it’s being put right on the, you know, the old tee-ball tee again, but it isn’t easy. Because when you push back and have that conversation, I might as well be talking to a wall. It is a self contained discourse of the meaning of history that seemingly can’t be punctured. The arguments we’re talking about, it’s the thing where, if this cliché, doesn’t end the conversation, they end the conversation. Right, right. And I’m just like, well, please enjoy your day. And I don’t know what to do at that point.
Nima: Thanks for coming, please exit to the gift shop. So, one aspect of this conversation that I’m really intrigued by is the idea that nowadays in our present day, we have myriad perspectives, different sides of the aisle, different political persuasions, there’s a whole spectrum of belief and knowledge. But, in this mysterious past, whenever that may be, whether it was in the ’50s, or the 1450s, right, 1950s or 1450s or 50 BC, somehow at those different points, there was like a singular mono culture, right? And you have written, Erin, this that one major problem is that at no point in time really has there been a single standard to judge things by you’ve written this, “To shield them from criticism or judgment because the rightness of enslavement was a ‘standard view’ is to erase the fact that no society even a culturally and religiously homogenous one has a standard view of anything. There are always disagreements and factions.” So, Erin, I’d love to dig into this a bit. Can we discuss the most common topic that this cliché is thrown around to defend, as we have been discussing, the evils of American slavery? How do you view the utility of the cliché of the standard of the time when discussing this topic? And what, in your opinion, is the political utility and import of this concept in contemporary discourse?
Erin Bartram: Well, I’ll start with a thing that I used to use in teaching that I see and think about when reading journalism and commentary all the time now. That, when one says ‘people,’ who is the default ‘people’ that is being talked about? I’m thinking of a way that it would crop up, “Well, when ‘people’ had slaves,” or “when ‘people’ fought against the Cherokee” or something that constantly unsettling who is in ‘the people’ that you are making the subject of the conversation, is a really good way to highlight how you’re kind of artificially circumscribing what the discourse is. Like, you get a unitary discourse when you essentially carve out the smallest possible chunk, and then just erase those differences. Going back to all of our patriotic holidays, how much do you think it would really annoy the “founders,” that they’re sort of painted as though they all agreed with everything? I mean, you can only do that by literally erasing the whole first constitution that we had. That’s where I think the identity thing might link in because you’ve got it pared down to a certain group of white men and then you can just assume they probably all thought the same thing, which would be news to them. But, like, one way that it comes up a lot in the work I do now. So, every month I put up at the museum, some little short bit from Twain’s writings that tends to be unfamiliar. And I have up this month this section of his autobiography. So, this is written, you know, about 10 years before he dies, so 1897–98. He says, “In my schoolboy days, I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing. The local paper said nothing against it. The local pulpit taught us that God approved it. If the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery, they were wise and said nothing. In Hannibal, we seldom saw a slave misused on the farm. Never.” And this is a piece I use in programs all the time. I often just start with the first line, “I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it.” And I asked people, ‘Was there anyone around him growing up who maybe thought that slavery was wrong?’ And I have never had a program with teenagers or with adults, where anyone instantly said, ‘Well, yes, enslaved people probably thought it was wrong,’ I always have to say, ‘Please remember that enslaved people were people,’ and then it happens. But it’s so much the default, to just not think about the people who had different opinions, even if they were just white men with slightly divergent opinions. But I think it’s the most pronounced. And then there’s just the erasure of it that I think you see with slavery, and that I think you see with black civil rights in the 20th century. Because people don’t want to grapple with how long people fight for things before they happen. The idea that, like, well probably abolitionists just did some stuff for a couple years, and then the Civil War happened, or no one thought about civil rights until the mid ’50s and then it happened. When, in fact, there are long histories of dissent and activism and, in fact, the changes don’t happen. And then, that’s the thing, that nothing changes for a very long time and then all of a sudden, it does. But I think that sort of other challenging aspects of thinking historically reinforces and helps kind of flatten what the range of possible ideas was at any given point.
Adam: Yeah, and of course we’d be remiss to point out that, even in the context of slavery, this is even by the standards that the PragerU guys set out, it’s like, that’s not even true either. I mean, the southern United States is one of the last, I mean, again, you has a northern United States where it was illegal. You had an A/B, right, it was made illegal in 1794 in France. Of course, they brought it back, but then they got rid of it again. In the 1840s, sort of, Britain got rid of it sort of, for the most part, and most places on Earth, especially by the 1850s-60s, it was illegal. And this was not some, like, radical or fringe point of view, this was actually the standard. The southern United States was deviating from the standard. Even by their own criteria, the idea that somehow this was like a normal thing was just not true. And again, we have an A/B test within the United States, you know, not to sort of give the North too much credit, but, like, we had an A/B test, like there were the states with it and the states without it. In fact, it was the central reason for the conflict.
Erin Bartram: Well, and there’s also the fact — and I think this is kind of goes against the general understanding of Whig history itself –
Adam: Do you want to familiarize our listeners with what Whig history means?
Erin Bartram: For me, I think the simplest way to think about it is just ‘everything’s getting better every day.’ Like, yeah, the idea that I think shows up in this too, that not only was the past demonstrably worse, but also that people were stupid in the past, which I think also contributes to this. This idea that, like, well, they they didn’t have the brain power to think, but also they had the brain power to make the quote unquote greatest system of government in the world, who knows? But that one thing I think is really important is that even the conversation around enslavement and its moral worth, and its economic validity, and all of these things, like, compare the conversations of the 1780s with a couple of decades later. It’s the introduction of cotton that changes this conversation. That there’s these ideas, ‘Well, maybe it’ll die out’ and all this kind of stuff, or ‘Maybe it just won’t be economically useful anymore.’ But that the actual moral conversation around enslavement can have gone from ‘This isn’t so good’ in the halls of Congress to ‘Nope, we need to double down on this and we need to do all kinds of things to ensure it continuing.’ I think that kind of thing ends up being really confusing, because it’s like, but how could they have thought it was bad? Or like, at least not that great? And then all of a sudden been like, ‘No, actually, it’s the best thing and we need to double down on it.’ And I guess the only answer is like, because this is people. And that’s kind of, like, I don’t know if this is news to you, but there it is.
Adam: Thomas Jefferson never worked a day in his life. He just sat around and read. Why do you think he had such a big library, because he had people doing all his work.
Erin Bartram: Doing all his work.
Adam: That’s a pretty sweet deal if you’re the guy on top.
Nima: And yet his occupation, I believe, like pre-president is listed as farmer.
Erin Bartram: Farmer.
Adam: Yeah, I’m sure he was out there all day, milking the cows.
Nima: Tilling the soil.
Erin Bartram: Yep.
Nima: Let’s dissect one more of these kind of common topics that gets the ‘people of their time’ treatment is about the Age of Exploration and maybe more specifically, the brutal actions of someone like Christopher Columbus, right? So, one can almost set their watch to this type of discourse every October but as many have noted, even by the standards of the early 16th century, what Columbus did solicited outrage at the time, namely from critics, like Bartolomé de las Casas. So, how does this kind of cliché work, also to erase people who stuck their necks out at the time, I mean contemporaries, not just like, let’s revisit history and analyze it from our current notion, but literally, at the same time, people that really went against maybe what was, you know, prevailing moral standards, but were present at the time and did something different, thought something different, took moral stance, regardless of how popular they may have been, or how supported they were by current power structures. So, what do you think is lost by the assumption that everyone at a certain given point in time just sort of agreed on the same moral precepts?
Erin Bartram: Yeah, and I think Las Casas is a great example to start with, because this isn’t even one lone voice saying, ‘Hey, this was Columbus guy, going against every rule we have set up here, like, lots of people think he’s terrible.’ But I think this kind of gets back to some of the stuff we talked about earlier that before we were saying, you know, you can’t hold someone up as a hero for their good choices and then just ignore their bad choices. But you also can’t hold someone up as a model who stuck their neck out and did something brave, without recognizing that that’s a brave hard choice, because you think that was the morally good thing to do. So, the other people weren’t doing the morally good thing. And we always say, people love to imagine what they would have done in the past and I’m sure you’ve heard this cliché, ‘Whatever you’re doing now, is what you would have done in the past,’ which is why it’s useful to talk about a range of forms of resistance and the utility of voting for abolitionist politicians or whatever it was obviously, less relevant in… Columbus didn’t lose an election. But I think it’s not so much that it erases people who have stuck their necks out, but it kind of diminishes whatever you’re going to say about them. If it was a brave thing for them to have done this, if they had some kind of moral clarity that we can applaud, then at least everyone else — and I think this is really where it, this is what it usually is — it’s not that everybody else was an actively evil participant. What they probably were was a coward. And that’s probably what we all would have been to. That’s the thing that I think, people are not necessarily thinking, ‘I also would have participated, I would have had encomienda, I would have enslaved people.’ No, often the people who go to this cliché, they want to admire someone like Las Casas, but they don’t want to have that expectation put on them. They don’t want it to have to be a normal thing to make a brave stand, because they know, ultimately, that’s not a thing that they were going to do. Everyone imagines that they would be the hero that would have sheltered someone or hidden someone or helped someone escape and, in fact, what they would have done, is walked by and not looked at their neighbor.
Adam: Yeah. And of course, in many ways, it’s sort of there’s something very childish about wanting there to be these kinds of, because it again, I think it does come back to a sense that both slavery and colonialism, especially — and Columbus being the kind of the kind of first mover of European colonialism — it calls into question the broader foundational myths. Again, this is why we have holidays for these people. They have holidays for a reason, because they reinforce an ideological premise of our form of nationalism, which is I think it’s fair to say, sort of historically, a white supremacist nationalism. City on a Hill, settling/ colonizing project, Manifest Destiny, blah, blah, blah, all the cliché you want to throw at it, but all of which is true. And that when you sort of attack that you attack something deep and personal and emotional. And this is why the White Guilt Amelioration Industrial Complex is so popular and gets such funding from some of these, you know, 90-year-old coal barons or whatever. And, of course, there are kind of liberal versions of it too. But it’s increasingly popular in these kinds of right-wing McHistories, it does attack something very kind of basic and fundamental about their positions of power and their place in the world. Because if you do say, like, look, it doesn’t really matter that you’re in this kind of Whig history or this sort of narrative of progress. It doesn’t really matter that the country you’re loyal to is that it be axiomatically good. Again, it’s something that a child needs, right? A child sort of needs their, their narratives to be simple and neat and clean. And it’s something I do think, it is maybe even slightly universal, but it’s very profound in this country and this is why a lot of Republicans really double down on this anti-Critical Race Theory stuff, because it’s very much about making people feel good about themselves, for want of a better term. And there is something very kind of visceral and emotional about it, right? It’s not a rational thing, like you talked about. And again, as someone who does popular education, you’re more, I think you’re more, you’re far more authoritative on this, I think, than anyone else because you deal with this dopey shit all the time. So, I mean, again, without pathologizing too much I mean, do you kind of see it as something that is fundamental to their identity? Or is that maybe being a little too ungenerous?
Erin Bartram: Well, I’ve been thinking about, I’m up here in Connecticut, a place where I didn’t even really realize till fairly recently, how deeply Italian southern New England is, I just sort of think of these things as default, because that’s what’s around me. But, you know, one of the arguments around Columbus Day, which in our state is no longer Columbus Day, but one of the arguments around preserving it is this is actually the reason we have it, it’s important for Italian-American heritage and all of this. So, even drilling down to the historical roots of it aren’t often enough to get rid of it. Because it’s, in fact, a holiday that celebrates a time before an immigrant group fully ascended into white dominance, that really, when they say, ‘Well, we’re celebrating this, but it’s actually to celebrate, to celebrate this.’ But then you say, ‘Hooray, you did it!’ Like, it’s sort of framed like we’re celebrating memorializing the Acadian Expulsion or something like, ‘You did it. Good job, you, you moved on up.’
Adam: Like, why don’t we celebrate, like, Italian Nationalism Day, you know or something? Like, we celebrate Columbus for a very specific ideological reason.
Erin Bartram: Exactly. And when it’s sort of like, well, have a different day or do something different. Or think critically about the position that Italian immigrants were in. And do we really want to get into this? Do we really want to talk about how in fact, Ellis Island didn’t change your family’s name, your family changed its name because it wanted to blend in? Do we really want to dig into that? Oh, no, we don’t want to dig into that either. So it’s really hard, I think, to have these conversations. And I think that this is, doing museum work, teaching in classrooms, that 95% of what you’re doing is dealing with what people have brought to you. And that’s so much of what popular historical discourse is, which is why, in fact, and this is really difficult for me, because of the, like, real nerd that I am: facts are not a retort or response, they’re not an effective way to further the conversation, because it’s not like, ‘Oh, you have a bad set of facts about things. Let me give you the good facts or the more complicated facts,’ Our favorite way is to say, ‘Oh, it’s actually a little more complicated.’ We’re not even talking in the same register. It’s facts and feelings.
Adam: I do want to say, this is like a little bit of a to-be-sure here. It’s not as if there aren’t generalized moral standards that were different throughout the centuries, right? And I want to be clear here.
Nima: Well, right, like, let’s actually talk about the difference between understanding historical context and what the kind of bludgeon of this ‘judging by the standards of the day’ argument is actually supposed to do. And as a historian, actually, I’d love for you to speak to this, Erin, this idea that like, context is really important and it doesn’t mean that everything is the same now as it was, you know, then — whenever then is or was — but why context is important, and how the ‘standard’ argument has a very ideological purpose that is not a historical purpose.
Erin Bartram: Yeah. And this is the tough part, because you really want people to think about context and all of this kind of stuff. But also, like, let’s be real, we would not think about the past if we weren’t using it to think about the present, like, and to make judgments and to compare other people’s lives to ours. And in fact the idea that we would ever look at another time or a place without judgment is just the most ludicrous idea. We can’t even look at another human being walking down the street without making a judgment and assessing. I do wonder, because you brought up this idea that, like, of course, people would say ‘X is bad.’ But one thing that I observed a lot was that, like, we would do the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and students would be appalled. But then we do, basically the same conversation about stuff in the ’90s. And I would get responses and I’d write them all down and it’d be like, ‘Folks, this is exactly what everyone in the teens said, that the closer it came to your life, the more you were –’
Adam: When you say ‘the ‘90s,’ do you mean like the sort of Nicholas Kristof, pro-sweatshop editorials…?
Erin Bartram: The 1990s, exactly, yep, absolutely. That we would, it would be the same ‘Well, they can afford to live on less’ and all, like, just all of the stuff, it was exactly the same. So I think that’s another layer of complexity.
Nima: Well, you know, by the standards of the nineteen-teens and ’20s, they had far better, moral judgments than we did in the ’90s. Clearly, clearly is what it’s the inverse of that argument. I love that.
Adam: Well, it’s supposed to happen in Bangladesh, it’s not supposed to happen here.
Erin Bartram: That’s exactly it. There’s sort of this sense of, I’m not just closing down this conversation, I’m giving you a pat on the head, you’re getting too wound up about these things.
Adam: Well, if you can’t judge it, then you can’t venerate it either. You can’t have it both ways.
Erin Bartram: But the people who say this are deeply used to having it both ways.
Adam: As a matter of course, I understand that. But like, in principle, like the response is like, great, you don’t want to judge anyone from the past, then let’s get rid of every single schlocky patriotic day where we talk about how great, I mean, it was let’s do it, let’s get rid of everything was just not let’s do no judgments, good or bad and see how that goes for you. Oh and also you have to rename all the cities that are named after these fucking slaveholders too while you’re at it.
Erin Bartram: Well, and for me, I guess it’s this, it goes right along with the discourse about statues and all of this kind of stuff. Because people generally assume, like, ‘Oh, you’re a historian, you must be sad to see history go,’ and I’m like, ‘Can I be right up there at the front with the rope as we’re pulling down?’
Adam: I love the idea that statues are history. That one of the dumbest brain worms. Like, statues aren’t history, it’s just some guy built it in 1962.
Nima: In 1962, someone made a general statue, which makes it now like this thing.
Adam: It’s not a historical artifact.
Erin Bartram: But that’s the thing when you’re like, Oh, well, we can put this in some contexts. And we can see when you started flying this flag, and when you started doing all of these kinds of things. But I guess for the metaphorical pedestal, and I work in the Museum of someone, I don’t have qualms about this, about someone like Twain getting knocked off a pedestal, because I don’t put him on one to begin with. That’s not why he’s an interesting person for me to study. And in fact, I often find him exceptionally interesting for how much he models these kinds of behaviors. The ‘Oh, I stopped being the worst kinds of racist, can I still go to a minstrel show? Can I have a little, do a little racism?’ The extent to which he can bring himself up to the general white liberalism of the people around him, but not further, what pushes you on these kinds of things, like, he’s a great model for that. But he wants says, like, he gets in his head, like, oh, I should, I should write a book about lynching. I should write about this. I need somebody, hire me a girl to do all the statistics. And he is friends with Booker T. Washington, like Tuskegee has been keeping these statistics but Ida B. Wells had literally published Southern Horrors: Lynch Law like the year before and had a her press burned and everything. I mean, just real classic level, ‘Oh, I just thought about this, I must be the first person to have ever thought about it.’ And so that makes him, I think, for me, a really good example of how you can be a real dumbass about this kind of stuff and often, that is, if he is someone you have really built up as this paragon of, he’s the cutting edge of progressive ideas and stuff and he’s on his back foot the whole time, okay, so you learn something about him. But I also haven’t invested a lot of my self-worth in him or people like him, whether it’s Twain or anybody else. And I honestly wonder, like, part of the conversation, we’ve talked about race and colonialism. But like there’s a real gender dynamic here. I actually am trying to think of a time, I’m sure it’s happened, but I primarily think of a certain kind of person saying this cliché to me and it’s usually a white man. Their age has stayed the same as I’ve gotten older, but I wonder what that has to do with this idea of identity and inheritance from the past? I have no answer to the question I just posed. But it just struck me that I don’t really think about women saying this to me. I wonder if they just don’t have the same people in the past to hold up like this?
Adam: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s also who writes the checks for PragerU is going to be guys who are or look like Harlan Crow. I mean, not to, sort of, be too reductionist here.
Erin Bartram: I think the challenge of getting PragerU out of classrooms is sort of a larger political mobilization issue. But for me, in the classrooms where really great stuff is happening, a thing I think about a lot with respect to my own education, you know, I grew up in a town of about 2000 in Connecticut, my entire grade was about 30 kids. And I was a kid in the in the late ’80s, and ’90s and I got a lot of this stuff in school that was probably unbalanced, not too bad. But there was nothing in the rest of my civic life that reinforced that any of this history mattered. It had made its way from school into, like, the grownups didn’t know any of this stuff, and didn’t validate it as important history. And I think, on balance, I prefer that to what we have now where there’s more active kind of intervention.
But I do think there’s, we had it here in, in Connecticut, we have a project called the Witness Stones Project, which is based on a project in Germany, but essentially, it is, you know, people in a town students do research on the enslaved people in the town and then they install a plaque in the sidewalk, the public right of way, outside of the homes where they’ve been able to identify people lived. And it identifies their name and what we know about them and their job, to sort of emphasize like the craft that they had, the skill that they had. And there was one town in Connecticut, which I think was the first place that had these, it’s been done in a number of towns since, a couple of years after the Witness Stones happened, then the students in the high school wanted to change the mascot. And then George Floyd happened in there. And then you had one of those hostile takeover of the school board movements. And it was very clearly ‘Oh, no, my kids are having different thoughts from me. And they’re not idolizing, they’re not sort of idolizing and receiving this, passively, this idea of the past. They are reckoning with it in ways that I don’t like. And I’m gonna blame it on teachers, and I’m gonna blame it on whoever else because I don’t want to accept that my kids are young, active thinkers.
Adam: It’s the woke mind virus!
Nima: Ahead of their time, maybe?
Erin Bartram: Well, the same people who are like, ‘But I went and marched and I did something’ and I was like, ‘Yep, and then you stopped doing anything and now your kids are doing it.’ And I think we haven’t really, and we probably can’t yet, unpacked how much of this is, in fact, reactions to, well, what happens when you actually teach this stuff right, which was happening in more and more places. But what happens when you frame things well, and you get students engaged in thinking about this is that they have this nuance. And, in fact, really young kids, it’s really easy to do this with them. They’re like perfectly willing to understand that, like people do bad things. That that’s kind of within their framework of understanding and to get high schoolers engaged in this stuff and taking ownership of the legacies of the community that they were in, that is scary, scary stuff. And it’s why it started with high schools, because that’s where you can control things. And I always used to tell students, when they say, ‘Why do I have to take another history class, I already took one in high school?’, I’d say, ‘Well, in this one, we’re going to read Huey Newton talking to the Panthers about whether they should ally with women’s lib and gay rights organizations. Did you read that in high school? No, because you were a minor, and you weren’t allowed to read things like that.’ And now we obviously see that’s gone much further in Florida and things like this. But I think this moment as a backlash to what happens when young people do engage with and think, and I’m sure they are also the recipients of this kind of conversation-ending cliché, all the time, and they probably are less tired, and maybe could tell us some successful ways of pushing back. I think I’m maybe just done.
Nima: Well, you know, I mean, I think it’s, you know, it is so important to kind of, yeah, just realize both the kind of liberatory effects, obviously, but also the danger that de-mythologizing can do, you know, and that that’s why we love having educators and historians on the show, so really just cannot thank you enough for joining us today. We’ve been speaking with Dr. Erin Bartram, historian of 19th century women, religion and ideas. She is the Associate Director for Education at the Mark Twain House & Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, and also the co-founder and co-editor of Contingent Magazine. Erin, thanks so much again for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Erin Bartram: Thank you so much for having me.
Adam: Yeah, I think that, you know, in some ways I’m sensitive to the instinct of not being too self-satisfied with, like, one’s present morality, but I think that’s sort of not what we’re talking about. It’s kind of a separate thing. Because what we’re talking about is people’s popular conceptions of history. Again, I feel bad, we did a bait-and-switch, we had to cancel Mark Twain, Mark Twain is officially canceled.
Nima: [Laughing] That was not that was not initially our plan. Apologies.
Adam: We canceled him for his half-assed opposition to slavery and also had being in the bed with Standard Oil. Kidding, you can still like Mark Twain, it’s okay. I think that there’s this reflexive knee-jerk, downplaying, again, ‘everyone had slaves last time,’ that’s not really true. And obviously, chattel slavery is different than other forms of slavery. And also, you can literally mark where poverty exists in this country and where slavery was. I mean, it’s, you know, there’s all these different things we still live with today. And we do have an inheritance. And how we negotiate the story of that inheritance makes a lot of people uncomfortable, for reasons where it doesn’t really need to make them uncomfortable.
Nima: And I think that’s exactly the point. Adam, as you mentioned, at the top of this episode. The idea of the amelioration of white guilt is everything here. It is why curriculum is being determined based on anti-guilt narratives. It’s the reason why PragerU videos are becoming standard public school fare, because they absolve power structures of existing, basically. They allow every judgment to be made on an individual, rather than systemic, structural, historical basis. And when you absolve individuals of their own guilt, it sounds like you’re just saying, ‘Look, history was history, we can’t change anything now. Don’t feel bad about it. And the moral arc of the universe will inevitably blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’
Adam: Well, because you are, you are cutting deep into people’s identity, right? Like, there’s this kind of like Yellowstone, ‘my daddy fought for this land and my daddy’s daddy fought for this land,’ and you come along, and you say, like ‘white privilege,’ and they’re like, ‘ah!” Like it, sort of, you know, sort of assaults the work they put in and the suffering they had, because you’re sort of glibly dismissing it. And it’s like, A, you know, get over it. But B, that isn’t really what’s being said, I think there’s this kind of knee-jerk opposition to any of those kinds of discussions, because again, they’re either place for their sense of identity, their sense of patriotism, right, the very sort of core of nationalism, a very romantic thing that dozens of countries have some sense of nationalist mythology, I think few are as hardcore as the US, but it’s such an important part of how we view ourselves. So, how you sort of begin to, how you rationalize colonial displacement, slavery, you have to have a moral narrative almost in proportion to the bad things, right?
Nima: The British have pretty solid mythology, as well.
Adam: Yeah, totally. Similar, civilizing missions, claptrap.
Nima: And that’s the thing like you can simultaneously I think, Adam, this is also part of it, the idea — and we’ve talked about this before — the idea that it’s okay for things to be complicated, and that and I don’t say that as like, ‘Oh, history is complex, like yada yada yada,’ but like, it is okay to allow yourself to think in some kind of, perhaps a little sophisticated way about the contradictions of human beings and of our own history collectively as a planet, you know, and talking about, let’s say, British mythology and history-making it is okay to be amazed and mesmerized and impressed by the fact that like thousands upon thousands of British sailors and their captains and commodores sailed across oceans, and braved, you know, Cape Horn, while also recognizing that a lot of them were, like, grotesquely racist and genocidal when they met Indigenous people in the lands that they were either “exploring,” or more accurately exploiting, to, you know, make sure that they got the gold instead of Spain getting the gold. And so, like, it’s okay, it’s okay for these things to be complex. You can be like, very amazed by Spanish Galleon ships, while also recognizing that genocide existed.
Adam: Well, it’s a question of who’s requiring you to approve of it. And again, we don’t, like, as far as I know, like leftist don’t just randomly wake up in the morning saying like, ‘What obscure historical figure am I going to [cancel],’ like these historical–
Nima: ‘Who am I going to cancel today? Torquemada’s out!’
Adam: Yeah, this obscure friar in the 14th century, like, these people being “cancelled” or like shoved down our throat a thousand times a day, I’m gonna belabor this point here, but like, there’s this idea that you’re only supposed to be grateful and say thank you for the ideological gruel that’s fed to you and, if you complain, you’re just being a hater or whatever.
Nima: That’s right. You always need to ask for some more. So that will do it for this episode of Citations Needed. Thank you all for listening, as always. Of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of the show through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is incredibly appreciated, as we are 100% listener funded. And, as always, a very special shout-out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are now by Mahnoor Imran. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, we’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed episode was released on Wednesday, September 27, 2023.