Myth, Ideology, and Public History

Gunfighter NationIn a few short days, the first year of graduate school will be all over for me. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be on my way towards graduating and a new job in the field around this time next year. I’ve been bogged down in an intense amount of work throughout the past week, so it will feel really good when all is said and done Tuesday night.

Over the past three weeks, I’ve been reading Richard Slotkin’s 1992 publication Gunfigher Nation: The Myth of the Frontier in Twentieth-Century America. The book is dense. It clocks in at over 800 pages and covers roughly one hundred years of American cultural history, starting with Frederick Jackson Turner’s 1893 claim that the American Frontier had closed, and that America’s status as a land of abundance, innovation, democracy, and freedom would begin to erode because of this closing. Some believed that the Frontier-when it was “open” for expansion–had acted as a source of “exemplary tales that provided a model of the workings of natural, social, and moral law in history,” according to Slotkin. The Frontier had been symbolic of American culture as a whole. Its closing led to the creation of new myths about the West and its history, expansion, and American identity.

For the past few years, I’ve taken an interest in studying memory and how it compares, contrasts, and intersects with history. Slotkin’s work alerts me to the importance of also taking myth and ideology into account when studying the ways in which people remember the past. All four concepts–myth, ideology, memory, and history–shape the ways in which people make sense of their contemporary worlds. Myth and ideology play crucial roles in defining a given society or group’s culture: how they classify, interpret, give meaning to, and experience symbols. Slotkin’s central argument is that American culture has been largely defined by the myths and ideologies that have emerged around one important symbol: violence. “What is distinctly ‘American’ is not necessarily the amount or kind of violence that characterizes our history but the mythic significance we have assigned to the kinds of violence we have actually experienced…and the political uses to which we put that symbolism.” (p. 13)

So, what exactly is a myth? Slotkin defines it on page 5:

Myths are stories drawn from a society’s history that have acquired through persistent usage the power of symbolizing that society’s ideology and of dramatizing its moral consciousness–with all the complexities and contradictions that consciousness nay contain. Over time, through frequent retellings and deployments as a source of interpretive metaphors, the original mythic story is increasingly conventionalized and abstracted until it is reduced to a deeply encoded and resonant set of symbols, “icons,” “keywords,” or historical cliches. In this form, myth becomes a basic constituent of linguistic meaning and of the processes of both personal and social “remembering.”

Myths are stories. They are not necessarily false, but neither are they history. We mythologize our past all of the time. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard politicians in Indiana rant on about Indiana’s legacy and their faith in the virtuous “common-sense Hoosiers” that populate the state today. There may be an element of truth and sincerity in those comments, but they are myths too. They represent symbols, keywords, and historical cliches that are used to score political points while also shaping how we remember the past.

Myths also create ideology. What is ideology? (Page 626)

[Ideology] refers to a core of common beliefs, maintained by a broad social consensus, embodied in general statements [based more on faith than fact] about the world and its parts, and in particular about nations and other human in-groups, that are believed to be true and then acted on whenever circumstances suggest or require a common response.

So, if I’m reading this correctly, myths are stories that shape our ideologies, which define our understanding of the world and its parts.

Towards the end of the book (p. 650-651), Slotkin reflects on the ways in which myth and ideology shaped American society’s views during several political crises from 1975-1992. I don’t know how true these claims are, but they are good food for thought, and I couldn’t help but think of several recent crises in American politics today. This is long, but worthwhile:

The most significant political referent of [Hollywood films in the mid 1970s] was not the Vietnam War but the new crisis in America’s relations with the Third World symbolized by the series of hostage crises that began after the Iranian Revolutionary Guards seized our Tehran embassy in 1979. The mythic imperative implicit in any hostage “crisis”–that we must rescue or avenge the captive at all costs–has given such events a fatal attraction for public concern, media attention, and political opportunism. Carter’s failure to rescue the Tehran hostages helped bring down his administration, and Reagan’s obsession with the Beirut hostages distorted our policy in the Levant and encouraged the CIA and the NSC to undertake a series of scandalously illegal covert actions that tainted the last years of Reagan’s Presidency.

More recently, the Bush [G.H.W. Bush] administration’s “War on Drugs” has invoked the traditional myths of savage war to rationalize a policy in which various applications of force and violence have a central role. Here the Myth of the Frontier plays its classic role: we define and confront this crisis and the profound questions it raises about our society and about the international order, by deploying the metaphor of “war” and locating the root of our problem in the power of a “savage,” captive-taking enemy. Once invoked, the war-metaphor governs the terms in which we respond to changing circumstances… What begins as a demand for symbolic violence ends in actual bloodshed [and]… vigilante-style actions by public officials and covert operatives who defy public law and constitutional principles in order to “do what a man’s gotta do.”


I don’t have much to add to Slotkin’s claims, but I’ll conclude by stating that Gunfighter Nation got me thinking about myth, ideology, and public history. Public historians are taught to recreate an “authentic” experience for our audiences. We are supposed to work through the mythic clutters of the past and give it to our audiences straight. But public history also involves storytelling. How much of that storytelling is history, and how much of it is myth? Should public historians embrace mythic history when addressing their audiences? Perhaps most importantly, do audiences visit National Parks, historic homes, museums, and other sites to hear myths or to hear history? Of course, there are many “audiences” with various desires that visit these sites, but public historians must nevertheless be cognizant of the need to address the myths of the past in their interpretations in addition to actual history. We may tire of the constant need to debunk the myths of the past, but one of the key roles all historians play is reducing the errors and misunderstandings that cloud popular culture’s understanding of history. By doing that, we play a small part in creating and fostering a well-informed society.


Some Tools to Add to Your Digital Toolbox

I have recently been on the hunt for good, practical digital tools that can used by all types of historians and humanists. Throughout this semester I’ve had the chance to learn about a wide range of digital technology being used in the field, but I’ve struggled to find tools that are practical for my scholarly needs. For instance, I think topic modeling is really interesting, but none of my projects in the near future would require me to use it.

Here is a collection of digital tools that I believe can be used in scholarly research, museums, universities, and the k-12 classroom. In the interest of finances, I limited my search to tools that are available for free download. I found many of these tools through Bamboo DiRT, an online repository of digital tools funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Credit should also be given to some of my classmates in Digital History, who found several of these tools and shared their knowledge of these tools with the rest of the class.

Creating Interactive Works

PressBooks allows users of WordPress to convert their blog posts into a wide range of formats, including PDF, Kindle Book, and eBook. Teachers who have their students blogging could possibly use this program to compile their students’ work into book format at the end of the semester, or something similar to that.

– When I was teaching, we encouraged some our students to try out Prezi rather than PowerPoint to make their presentations. Generally speaking, their work was more interactive and visual than PowerPoint. There is a bit of a learning curve with this software.

Historypin allows users to search for cities on Google Maps and then pin their own pictures to sites that they select. Users can then create their own “tours” by linking multiple sites together and mapping sites over a wide range of land. The program is a bit wonky, but could be a really great learning tool for students.

Drupal Gardens and Wix are great programs for building your own website. Omeka is also a solid program that seems geared more towards profession institutions and big data collections. I’m still learning about it and am considering the possibility of using it on some future projects. Users of Omeka can also take advantage of Neatline to create interactive narratives, maps, and timelines.

Sophie is a neat program for creating interactive books.

– Those who have a large, digitized collection of documents can create interactive graphs, maps, and charts with Viewshare.

Brainstorming is a simple mind mapping software that allows users to map out their ideas visually. Coggle and Cmap do much of the same.

Text 2 Mind Map takes a text and translates it into a mind map. I didn’t have much success with it, but it’s worth checking out.

Keeping Track of Information

– If you have a Mac, BibDesk lets you edit and manage your bibliography/works cited.

DocumentCloud uses Cloud technology to let users interact with their sources by allowing them to find specific dates, conduct concordance searches, highlight notable text, and publish work.

Zotero is a great tool for keeping track of resources and annotating work. I use it myself, although I am still learning how to use the program to its full potential.

Edit Flow lets individuals and teams of people keep track of their information on WordPress.

Dropbox is a well-known tool that uses cloud technology to let people store and share information online.

Visualization Tools

– Both and allow users the ability to convert excel spreadsheets into interactive visualizations, among other things. For my thesis, I am looking at possibly using these programs to create visualizations to document the rate of immigration in Indiana from 1870-1920 using census records, many of which can be found through the University of Virginia.

– There is an abundance of tools for creating timelines. You can check out a small list of 8 effective programs here.

3D Printing

– Another Student in class told us about 3D printing, which is very, very cool. While not as practical as the other digital tools I’ve listed, I think there is great potential for this technology in the future. Imagine going to a museum’s website and printing out their exhibits for personal or classroom use! To see some examples of items that can be printed in 3D, check out Thingiverse.

Trimble SketchUp allows users to create 3D visualizations, and I think they may be able to print their creations in 3D as well, but don’t quote me on that. The program reminds me a lot of AutoCad, although I’ve been told that some CAD designers say the program is too rigid and doesn’t allow for more precise measuring in its design software. I’m linking readers to the free version of SketchUp, but you can upgrade to the Pro version if you have $495 lying around.

Here’s a video showing off some items from a 3D Print Show in London last year. This stuff is just nuts…

News and Notes, April 21, 2013

I am looking forward to a busy of week of classes, three presentations, and one party. Here are some noteworthy articles and tidbits of information worth sharing.

– Readers will notice that I have added a new page entitled “CV” onto the top menu bar of this website. I’ve realized that while this is a strictly personal blog with no affiliations to any academic or professional institution, it is nonetheless a good idea to use this space to market my skills and post my Curriculum Vitae for public viewing and consumption. Yesterday, I created an account on Scribd, converted my CV to a PDF, uploaded the PDF to Scribd, and embedded the document onto this newly created page. The CV is admittedly small compared to other historians who have had more experience in the field than me, but I am hoping that will change soon. One benefit of putting the CV online is that it will force me to do a better job of updating it on a frequent basis 🙂

– I spent a lot of time this week on the hunt for good, practical digital tools that can be used to enhance my studies in the field of history. I will have more thoughts to share on this in a future post, but for the time being I’ll mention that finding digital tools relevant to my needs was actually much harder that I anticipated. However, I did come across a neat web design program called Wix that would be a great tool to use in a classroom setting, in my opinion. I taught myself how to use the program and actually ended up creating a simple website dedicated to my musical endeavors. You can see (and hear!) it here. Make sure to give the site a minute to load.

– Sam Wineburg is a professor at Stanford who wrote an excellent book about “thinking historically” that I hope to read again sometime this summer. In this Op-ed in the Seattle Times, Wineburg’s daughter Shoshanna laments the loss of personal interaction that has come with the rise of smartphones and other digital technologies in our lives. There is something beautiful in the lines, “You can share a margarita with your friend. Give your iPhone a shot of tequila, and it will die.”

– The Digital Public Library of America is up and running, and I am pretty impressed. I think it will only get better once more institutions choose to partner with DPLA and the digitized collection increases. You check it out here.

– William J. Reese shows us that standardized testing has actually been a staple of American education for a much longer than many of us may have realized. Reese has written a lot about the history of education in America and in 1998 he edited a collection of essays about education in Indiana entitled Hoosier Schools: Past and Present that I am utilizing for my thesis research.

– Speaking of education, Frank Bruni highlights the tensions underlying higher education in Texas these days.

– An argument on why 8-year-olds should be coding.

The Journal of Digital Humanities is an online, open access scholarly publication that is now a part of my regular reading, although I must admit that I don’t always understand what they are talking about. You can check it out here.

I hope everyone has a great week ahead of the them. Cheers.

History, Journalism, and Sharing Authority

At work today there was an interesting discussion regarding the media coverage of the tragic Boston Marathon bombings. Some people expressed great outrage at the fact that so much misinformation has been thrown out by the major media moguls (especially CNN) and it was suggested that the general public and their interactions on social media (specifically Twitter) were to blame for perpetuating much of this misinformation. Every person thinks they’re a reporter now. Professional training is unnecessary to “report the news.” As a result, these attitudes have led to a genuine distrust and loss of authority in the journalistic profession, perhaps even a loss of the “truth” of journalism. It was also suggested to me that back in the day there were only four TV stations, all staffed by professional journalists that always “double checked” their sources before reporting.

I couldn’t help but think of how relevant this discourse over journalistic authority is to the field of history. We are having the same discussions about the proper relationship between professional historians and the general public. I wholeheartedly agree with those who say that anyone can “do history,” but to what extent should people receive some sort of formal training in historical methods, if at all? With the preponderance of tweets, blogs, and websites about history that are created by non-professionals on a daily basis, how do professional historians maintain some sort of authority or “legitimacy” in this rapidly expanding information age? Should they fight to maintain authority? Do professional historians even matter anymore (did they ever in the first place?) How do we balance the desires to share our expertise and achieve historical accuracy with the goal of ensuring that all voices and perspectives are heard when looking at the past?

The concerns about misinformation expressed in the first paragraph are real and legitimate, but we will never return to the days of only four TV stations, nor was there ever a time when the media ever got their “facts” completely right. Looking at the field of history, it is more and more evident to me that the professionals should use their expertise to empower non-professionals with the tools to conduct their own explorations into the past using the best historical research methods. I have no clear answer as to the best practices for “sharing authority” with the public, but I am really taking Kevin Levin’s observations on the changing nature of historic interpretation to heart. In this passage Levin referred to interpretations at Civil War battle sites, but these words go far beyond the battlefield interpretation. To wit:

Public historians (broadly speaking) should be pleased with where they find themselves right now, given the history of interpretation at Civil War sites, but we would do well to remember that any claims to authority vanish on the interwebs.  The amount of time visitors spend at historic sites and museums with intelligent and qualified guides pales in comparison with the amount of time spent online.  What I would like to see in the coming years is for public historians and museum educators to shift their focus somewhat from content delivery to the teaching of skills that assist people in the gathering and assessment of historical content, especially online.  Empowering history enthusiasts at historic sites and museums and through their websites must include finding creative ways to teach how to properly interpret a primary source and how to evaluate the historical content of a website.

I am not for a moment diminishing the importance of place or the power of the connections that visitors forge at historic sites such as Gettysburg.  If anything, I am trying to reinforce its importance.  What I am suggesting we need to acknowledge is that the learning process of visitors begins long before stepping foot on a historic site and will continue long after the stories told fade away.  That process has become more and more for the average reader much more difficult to navigate owing to the democratization of history that has taken place as a result of the revolution in digital technology.  As history educators we need to rethink what it means to do public history or what it means to serve the public.

Well said.

Does Digital Technology Encourage Data Democratization?

big-dataA recent classroom discussion regarding digital technology–more specifically, who has access to this technology–has been lurking in my head over the past 24 hours. Here’s why.

My interactions with digital technology during my time in high school (2002-2006) were fairly unremarkable for someone who was raised in Midwest Suburban-town, USA. There was no such thing as a SMARTboard and, with regards to my Social Studies classes, we never utilized digital technology in any capacity whatsoever. All tests were done on paper and all educational material came in the form of big, bulky textbooks written circa 1995. Yet my school did have a computer lab (which was greatly utilized by the science teachers, but hardly anyone else, which is telling) and I was encouraged at home to use computers, the internet, and all digital technology to my advantage.

It was interesting hearing some of my classmates share their experiences during high school, which were not the same as mine. One person remarked that they went to a fairly affluent high school that will be completely eliminating paper textbooks and giving all of their students iPads next year. Conversely, another person told us they went to a rural high school that had next to nothing in terms of technology and history textbooks that were written in the 1960s. Considering that we’ve all graduated from high school within the past seven or so years, I would surmise that this digital divide remains a fixture in our educational landscape today.

To be sure, digital technology has provided the impetus for some remarkable efforts to democratize data, by which I mean the ability for all people in society to have access to voluminous collections of data (books, articles, graphs, and perhaps most importantly, information). In their book Digital History: A Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the Web, Dan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig point out on page 4 that:

Online accessibility means, moreover, that the documentary record of the past is open to people who rarely had entree before. The analog Library of Congress has never welcomed high school students–its reading rooms, no less its special collections, routinely turn them away. Now the library’s American Memory website allows high school students to enter the virtual archives on the same terms of access as the most most senior historian or member of Congress.

This is great and truly exciting for those of us who have grown tired of solely relying on a bland, passive textbook to guide our lesson plans in the classroom (although I think the textbook itself should still be used, albeit in a different role). Yet I feel that my ongoing discussions with students and teachers around the country suggest that perhaps digital technology is widening the gaps between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” The schools that had the money years ago had the nicest classrooms and the newest textbooks. We are now seeing today that the schools with money are the first ones to get SMARTboards, iPads, and easy access to these online resources. Meanwhile, the poor schools continue to rely on old textbooks from the 1960s and are lacking funds to buy digital technology now or in the foreseeable future. Thus, as we increasingly rely on digital technology as an integral part of our lives, those who grow up without access to or education in these technologies end up being thrown into a workforce in which their skills fail to match those desired by employers in all types of fields. Furthermore, it doesn’t help when websites with valuable research and information put up paywalls that restrict access to a limited number of “paying customers” who can afford the frequently excessive fees these sites charge.

This discussion on the digital divide is particularly relevant right now. Several states are considering the possibility of dropping the General Education Development (GED) exam amidst great changes in the test format and cost. The creators of the GED want to remove the pencil and paper aspect of the test and go completely digital. The cost of the test will be doubled in many states to $120, and in Missouri the test will cost $140. The President and CEO of the GED Testing Service has rationalized this by stating that, “the GED was in dangerous position of no longer being a reflection of what high schools were graduating,” which is true to a certain extent. Yet an employee of the Missouri Career Center aptly summarized the challenges of digitization by replying that for many GED students, “Transportation is a challenge. Eating is a challenge. For them, coming up with $140 for an assessment, it’s basically telling them, ‘Forget about ever getting this part of your life complete.'”

I’ve been reminded this semester that we must look at books as a technology as well. I don’t know a lot about the history the book, but I can imagine that many hours of study have gone into questioning whether or not the advent of the book and the Gutenberg press in the 15th century has contributed to a democratization of access to data and information throughout history. We’re having that same discussion with digital technology now, and there are no easy answers. More than anything, I’ve been taught to study and understand the power interests behind the creators of digital technology. Textbook companies have adopted digitization and are now creating textbooks for iPads, but these companies can now charge exorbitant fees every year to the schools that buy this software, rather than having the schools buy paper textbooks every five or ten years. Likewise, companies that created standardized tests for our students have a financial interest in going paperless and offering their tests on computers exclusively, which leads to increased costs and jobs for people with computer and programming skills, which are often filled by people who had access to computers when they were younger.

Who, if anyone, loses out in this process? Are we actually using digital technology as a tool for democratization, or is the opposite actually occurring?

The Reciprocal Relationship Between the Past and Present

A few months ago, my historical methods class was assigned to read Michael Baxandall’s 1985 work Patterns of Intention: On the Historical Explanation of PicturesBaxandall was one of the foremost art critics/historians of the last half of the twentieth century, and his books are required reading at almost every prestigious art school in the country, I’ve been told. So, as many readers will be able to imagine, the book is an extremely hard read, not for the faint of heart. Even tougher, the book was assigned to us not for its content on art criticism, but for the methods and tools Baxandall used to frame his arguments. Reading for method, not content.

Just because an argument is hard to understand, however, does not mean that it is invalid. As I move along with researching the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, I find myself looking at the organization differently, and I think Baxandall is largely responsible for this. Perhaps the most poignant argument made in the book regards the question of “influence” and how art critics have typically construed this term. Let us look at a few brief excerpts from pages 58-62:

“Influence” is a curse of art criticism primarily because of its wrong-headed grammatical prejudice about who is the agent and who the patient: it seems to reverse the active/passive relation which the historical actor experiences and the inferential beholder will wish to take into account. If one says that X influenced Y it does seem that one is saying that X did something to Y rather than that Y did something to X. But in the consideration of good pictures and painters the second is always the more lively reality… If we think of Y rather than X as the agent, the vocabulary is much richer and more attractively diversified: draw on, resort to, avail oneself of…adapt, misunderstand, refer to…

The Classic Humean image of causality that seems to colour many accounts of influence is one billiard ball, X, hitting another, Y. An image that might work better for the case would be not two billiard-balls but the field offered by a billiard table. On this table would be very many balls…and the table is an Italian one without pockets. Above all, the cue-ball, that which hits another is not X, but Y. What happens in the field, each time Y refers to an X, is a rearrangement… Arts are positional games and each time an artist is influenced he rewrites his art’s history a little.

The more I think about it, the more profound these statements become for me. What Baxandall refers to is the fact that there exists a reciprocal relationship between things. He specifically refers to the reciprocal relationship as it relates to the arts, but the same relationship exists for people and their memories, and that is how a study of art criticism relates to the study of a bunch of old Civil War veterans.

We influence the past as much as the past influences us. President Barack Obama has repeatedly mentioned that Abraham Lincoln has been an “influence” on his life as a politician. By saying this, we get the impression that Lincoln is the active agent and Obama is the passive patient of a relationship in which we see the legacy of Abraham Lincoln continued into our world today. However, Baxandall reminds us that the Obama-Lincoln relationship goes both ways, and that the actions of Barack Obama also “influence” the way we see Abraham Lincoln. This is particularly relevant as President Obama receives increased criticism for his complicity in overseeing secret drone attacks that have killed thousands of people in other countries. Rather than seeing the actions of Lincoln during wartime as “influencing” Obama’s actions during wartime, perhaps we can use Obama’s actions to glean new insights into the ways in which we understand and interpret Lincoln’s actions as a wartime President.

Likewise, our memories of the past are constantly changing and influenced by new events that occur in our lives. Let us consider two examples.

A man meets a woman at a music concert, and they fall in love. The two eventually get married, and the music concert is later remembered as an amazing, unforgettable night, one in which a shared interest (music) greatly “influenced” the very constructs of the relationship. Perhaps one song from the concert evokes particularly strong memories of this relationship and is later used at the wedding. But the relationship later turns sour, and the two get divorced. The divorce would undoubtedly “influence” the creation of new memories about these past events. The music concert, the songs, all of it would evoke memories of sadness, bitterness, and perhaps many others. The present influences our memories of the past.

A soldier goes off to war. The war is miserable. Conditions are horrible, friends and loved ones are greatly missed, and fellow comrades die. The soldier, at least during the war and perhaps a few years afterwords, focuses his or her memories on the horrors of war. But new opportunities arise. The soldier is able to get funding to go to school. He or she also meets the right person, starts a family, and gets a great job. As the war fades further away, the soldier’s memories of the war change. He or she may focus their memories on how the war opened up new doors of opportunity during peacetime, or they may reflect on how the experience of war allowed for the passage into adulthood, or they may view the wartime service as a sort of heroic badge of honor or distinction. Perhaps the horrors of war would remain in that person’s mind, but the desire to make sense of the carnage and move on with life would undoubtedly change the memories of that experience over time.

Many historians have looked at how the memories of the Civil War shaped veterans’ views on events during the Gilded Age and Progressive Era (roughly 1880-1918, more or less). Fewer historians have attempted to understand how events such as the Pullman Car Strike of 1894 shaped veterans’ views of the Civil War. I hope to fill this historiographical void, but I’m still trying to determine how best to approach this. Furthermore, since I now understand that this reciprocal relationship exists, I am wondering if our memories of the past can ever be set in a fixed state in our minds. Michael Baxandall has me thinking that such a notion may be false. What do you think?


The Teachable Moment in “Accidental Racist”

Segregationists Protesting in MontgomeryI must admit that I was not expecting to spend any time commenting on Brad Paisley’s song “Accidental Racist,” which also features the rapper LL Cool J. After listening to the song, however, I couldn’t help but share a few thoughts on how people remember the past, how easy it is to conflate seemingly like terms that are not actually alike, and what it actually means to be from the “Southland.”

I think many of Paisley and J’s lyrics in this song perpetuate old racial and cultural stereotypes. I also think it was hopelessly naive and extremely ironic to title the song “Accidental Racist.” Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory has dismissed the song, stating, “I don’t have anything insightful to say about the song other than that the music and lyrics are both the work of amateurs.  To be honest, it seems to be much to do about nothing.” Likewise, Keith Harris, another historian whose work I enjoy, remarked on Facebook that “there has been a lot of whoop-dee-do over the recent Brad Paisley song concerning racism and southern heritage. My question: why is Brad Paisley relevant? Next.”

Forgive me for indulging in more discussion about the song then, but I think both of these comments miss the point entirely. Perhaps these are quick responses to the barrage of emails these busy people received from their followers asking for their opinions on the song. I don’t know. However, in my opinion, there is something to be learned here, and we should not completely dismiss this song. There are teachable moments worth exploring.

Just last month, I participated in a conference at Gettysburg regarding the future of Civil War history. One of the panels I attended focused on the question of “Civil War Memory” and the possible ways we can incorporate the concept of “Civil War Memory” into the classroom and museum settings. One commenter remarked that the study of memory has generated much interest in the scholarly world, but that this interest has not resonated with the general public. How do we fix this?

Well, guess what folks. “Accidental Racist” is a reflection of Civil War Memory. We can ignore it, but if we do so, we may lose a chance to engage with people about the nature of remembering the past.

The point is not that Paisley and LL Cool J are amateurs or that they are no longer relevant. To the contrary, whether you like them or not, they hold an immense amount of power in the music industry and our popular culture, much of which emerged from the fact that both are professional lyricists. They write songs for a living, songs that many people know the lyrics to by heart. That is power and influence. The point is to ask why such a song was written in the first place and explain why it is mistaken.

I want to point out two notable themes within the song lyrics. Then I’d like to provide some ideas on how we could use these themes to start a discussion in a classroom or museum setting about the ways in which people create memories about the past. The first theme reflects the tensions between pride for homeland and the realization that the history of this homeland has a dark side. To quote a few lines from the chorus:

I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

Paisley acknowledges that the past is everywhere around us in the present. We create memories about the past, and those memories influence how we interact with each other. While our memories of the past sometimes give us great joy and comfort, they can also prevent us from moving on with our lives and from developing a better understanding of people who have had different experiences from us. In my opinion, Paisley views the memories of the past as a problem, a barrier that prevents different people from truly understanding each other. If we can just forget about everything and stop using our memories as tools for judgement and prejudice, maybe we can avoid misunderstandings and “accidental racism” in the future. It is clear that Paisley has thought about prejudice long and hard, and these particular lines reflect the anxieties of many Americans, especially White Southerners. I think it would do us well to acknowledge that fact before dismissing the song completely.

Second, we get this business about the Confederate flag, namely the ways people attribute meanings to symbols:

When I put on that [Confederate flag] t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan

This is one of several instances in which I think Paisley is mistaken. To me, the Confederate flag is one example of the fact that memory and representation change in meaning over time. Once upon a time, Confederate Vice-President Alexander Stephens rallied behind the Confederate flag to justify the creation of a nation founded on the basis of slavery. 100 years later, many people opposed to segregation in the South waved the Confederate flag to represent that intense opposition and invoke the memories of the Civil War, as evidenced by the picture above. Somewhere along the line, Lynyrd Skynyrd adopted the Confederate flag (as did many others) in order to promote its business interests, namely the selling of albums, concert tickets, and t-shirts. The flag probably means something else today. Paisley seems to think that by creating new meanings and memories of the Confederate flag, other meanings and memories are eliminated. “I’m just talking about Skynyrd,” he implies. Such a process, however, is impossible. The Confederate flag takes on new meanings over time, but those meanings are layered on top of old ones, and it is next to impossible to remove the old meanings without the new ones falling apart. Yes, you might be talking about Lynyrd Skynyrd, but someone else might be thinking about George Wallace, Jim Crow, and Alex Stephens. Despite Paisley’s wishes, we cannot escape the past, nor should we. You can wear that Skynyrd shirt if you want, but make sure you understand how that symbol has been used before. And just to be sure, this whole discussion applies to our beloved American flag as well, not just the Confederate one.

So how do we make this discussion practical for educational purposes? It seems to me that “Accidental Racist” provides an opportunity for teachers to introduce the study of memory into the classroom and a chance for students to share their ideas on how to improve upon some of the poor word choices of Paisley and LL Cool J. Several activities can be created around two central queries (although many more can be created):

1. What sort of emotions do you feel when you think about the past? Happiness? Sadness? Both?

2. Describe a way or ways in which different people can do a better job of understanding each other.

Students could then pick one of these themes and choose from several different creative outlets in which to express themselves. They could write a revised version of “accidental racist” (with a new title as well) with lyrics that reflect the student’s relationship with the past. They could create a YouTube video documentary, or they could write a reflective essay on racism today. I personally think it would be neat for students to study the history of their family and then use that research to reflect on something “bad” that may have happened with an ancestor. Maybe someone owned slaves before the Civil War. Maybe a Great-Grandfather deserted the field during WWII. Maybe Grandpa did drugs during Vietnam. Maybe someone engaged in a shady business deal or did something horrible to another family member. How do we deal with these dark episodes while loving our family members as if they were perfect? Likewise, how do we deal with the dark episodes of American history and maintain a degree of pride for it while keeping our moral compass straight? To what extent should we hold the past accountable for our troubles today, and to what extent do we owe the past a degree of forgiveness and sympathy?

These are just a few ideas. I could be wrong. But it seems that “Accidental Racism” is a teachable moment. Memories are created everyday, and they are teachable. “Controversy” excites me because “controversy” in general is teachable. Sure, not all controversial topics are worth discussing. I could really give a damn where Beyonce and Jay-Z spent their anniversary, for instance. But having honest discussions about important topics is what we do in the humanities. We humanize people. We intend to create a culture of understanding and empathy between a diverse range of people. “Accidential Racism” failed as a song, but, like many other things in life that may seem unimportant, we could learn something from it if we tried hard enough.

“Accidental Racist?”

… or simply racist? It is clear that the legacy of the Civil War is still with us 150 years after the first shots were fired. For all of its poor word choices and cringe-worthy moments, Brad Paisley and LL Cool J’s song actually provides a glimpse into something quite revelatory. Memories are created, not self-evident. Oftentimes the memories we create about our past are used as coping mechanisms to make sense of events in our past that make us feel bad about our history and our ancestors who may have been complicit in perpetuating that history. Sometimes the goal of our memories is to also forget the past, as evidenced in the lyrics “let bygones be bygones.”

There are other interesting word choices in the song as well. The statement “Caught between Southern Pride and Southern Blame” is something many white Southerners have had to address at some point in their lives, I’d assume. Being a border/slave state native who has pride in being from that state, it’s something I’ve certainly thought about before.

It is interesting how Brad Paisley conflates the “Confederacy” with the “South,” which is something many people do without realizing that they are two separate things. Paisley himself actually represents this dichotomy quite well. He was born in West Virginia, a state that was created during the Civil War (1863) in response to Virginia’s secession from the United States. Not wanting to secede from the U.S., these 41 Virginia counties formed their own state and supplied many troops to the Union military (which also suggests that a conflation between “Union” and “North” exists as well). Thus, West Virginia does not equal “Confederacy,” although most would argue that it is a part of the “South.”

It would also be interesting to ask Paisley whether or not there are any black people included in his reference to the “Southland.” Who is allowed to call themselves a “Southerner?” What defines Southern identity? Aren’t there many Black Southerners as well? What is their version of the “Southland?” I also don’t appreciate LL Cool J’s reference to “Mr. White Man” or his ridiculous stereotypes about White people wearing Cowboy hats (or the assumption that that’s a bad thing) and all Black people coming from the ghetto and wearing saggy pants and do-rags. I understand that the intention of the song is to call for more understanding between different people, but it seems to me that it actually perpetuates hackneyed stereotypes about White and Black people instead. They seem to be arguing something along the lines of “Hey, this is the way we are, so let’s try to understand our stereotypes a little better.”

Enough from me. Listen to the song and make your own conclusions.

To the man that waited on me at the Starbucks down on Main, I hope you understand
When I put on that t-shirt, the only thing I meant to say is I’m a Skynyrd fan
The red flag on my chest somehow is like the elephant in the corner of the south
And I just walked him right in the room
Just a proud rebel son with an ‘ol can of worms
Lookin’ like I got a lot to learn but from my point of view

I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
We’re still pickin’ up the pieces, walkin’ on eggshells, fightin’ over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

They called it Reconstruction, fixed the buildings, dried some tears
We’re still siftin’ through the rubble after a hundred-fifty years
I try to put myself in your shoes and that’s a good place to begin
But it ain’t like I can walk a mile in someone else’s skin

‘Cause I’m a white man livin’ in the southland
Just like you I’m more than what you see
I’m proud of where I’m from but not everything we’ve done
And it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn’t start this nation
And we’re still paying for mistakes
That a bunch of folks made long before we came
And caught between southern pride and southern blame

Dear Mr. White Man, I wish you understood
What the world is really like when you’re livin’ in the hood
Just because my pants are saggin’ doesn’t mean I’m up to no good
You should try to get to know me, I really wish you would
Now my chains are gold but I’m still misunderstood
I wasn’t there when Sherman’s March turned the south into firewood
I want you to get paid but be a slave I never could
Feel like a new fangled Django, dodgin’ invisible white hoods
So when I see that white cowboy hat, I’m thinkin’ it’s not all good
I guess we’re both guilty of judgin’ the cover not the book
I’d love to buy you a beer, conversate and clear the air
But I see that red flag and I think you wish I wasn’t here

I’m just a white man
(If you don’t judge my do-rag)
Comin’ to you from the southland
(I won’t judge your red flag)
Tryin’ to understand what it’s like not to be

I’m proud of where I’m from
(If you don’t judge my gold chains)
But not everything we’ve done
(I’ll forget the iron chains)
it ain’t like you and me can re-write history
(Can’t re-write history baby)

Oh, Dixieland
(The relationship between the Mason-Dixon needs some fixin’)
I hope you understand what this is all about
(Quite frankly I’m a black Yankee but I’ve been thinkin’ about this lately)
I’m a son of the new south
(The past is the past, you feel me)
And I just want to make things right
(Let bygones be bygones)
Where all that’s left is southern pride
(RIP Robert E. Lee but I’ve gotta thank Abraham Lincoln for freeing me, know what I mean)
It’s real, it’s real
It’s truth

Thoughts on Day of DH 2013

Just this morning I learned that today was “Day of DH [Digital Humanities].” The About Page of Day of DH 2013 explains that the goal of the project was to determine “Just what do digital humanists really do?” Participants from around the world were encouraged to share their experiences and activities for one day (not even necessarily with digital technology), comment on each others experiences, and take a stab at defining what exactly DH is. Today was a busy day for me and I didn’t have the chance to live-tweet my experiences or create an account on the site matrix, so I’ll just share my experiences and thoughts here.

Today was good. I gave three tours of the Indiana State House, all of which were quite different from each other. The first group was composed of student pages who worked with their local legislator in the House of Representatives for the day. We give these page tours to students while the Indiana General Assembly is in session, and today many of the students came all the way from Gary, which is about three hours away from Indianapolis, very close to Chicago. The second group was composed of 4th graders from Lafayette, where Purdue University is located. The third group was composed of adult lawyers from Fort Wayne. So it was a pretty diverse day in terms of who came to the State House and where they were coming from.

I spent a few hours studying my readings and assignments for both my Digital History and Historical Methods classes. For the latter, I read portions of Richard Slotkin’s book Gunfighter Nation. Our assignments for Digital History can be found here. When I got to my Digital History class, we discussed the nature of databases, how they’ve evolved over time, and the interests of the people and institutions behind these databases. We talked about the pros and cons of Google Books for a while. It was mentioned that one of Google’s primary concerns was getting books onto their databases as quickly as possible, which means that their metadata (“data about data,” more or less) is lacking. Another person mentioned that Google Books keeps track of all the books a person looks up. I mentioned that while I use Google Books frequently, the idea of Google having that information at the tip of their fingers concerns me. I pointed to Google’s complicity in enforcing draconian censorship restrictions on internet usage in China (although this has recently changed, apparently), and I asked an open question wondering what would happen if the U.S. government suddenly demanded that Google hand over its records regarding users’ search queries on Google Books. Would the government ever want to see if someone was studying material that could be deemed a national security threat? Would Google comply in handing over this information? How is a “national security threat” defined these days, anyway?

I had chicken nachos for dinner after class. They tasted awesome.

Here’s a picture of us in class, minus two of our cohorts who were unable to attend, sadly. I’m on the far right.

IUPUIDH 4-8-13
Nice Table, Eh?

I think the biggest success of Day of DH 2013 for me was that I even knew such an event existed in the first place. It seems that as I learn more about digital technology and the digital humanities, the more I realize the shortcomings of my education up to this point. I received a fine education at my undergrad institute, but I never once had a class that seriously analyzed the implications of digital technology in the study of history or education. Day of DH has existed for five years now, and we never would have participated in anything like this. The idea of learning about “distant reading” never existed. The idea of taking a class to learn how to better use digital technology in the classroom and educate students on how best to use these resources was never contemplated. In fact, when I first started my undergrad experience in 2006, my school didn’t even have the digital capabilities to allow students to sign up for classes online! We had to sign up in person at the main campus center, and some people who had specific classes and times in which they needed to take these classes sometimes spent the night at the campus center or got up at 3 or 4AM to get there early.

I think a large part of my shortcomings with digital technology, however, are self-imposed. Yes, I wasn’t really encouraged to embrace digital technology while in undergrad, but I also had an unhealthy skepticism about digital technology. I taught myself how to do basic HTML coding by creating wiki pages about bands like Time Lapse Consortium and hockey players like Jeff Nielsen (yes, very nerdy), but I rejected tools like Twitter and WordPress Blogs as frivolous and not worth my time. There were other elements of DH I was completely ignorant of, many of which I am still ignorant of today.

Going forward, I think the challenge for me in all facets of life–not just DH–is being more open to new ideas. Of course, not all new ideas are good ones, and skepticism is a good thing, within reason. But far too often I find myself saying “no” before even trying something. Day of DH 2013 reminds me to appreciate the views and ideas of others and to be open about moving out of my comfort zone, if only temporarily. Questions remain about how to best utilize digital technology in a way that enhances the study of the humanities. Questions also remain about the role of digital technology in the classroom (MOOCs, online courses vs. classroom courses) and how best to “share authority” between humanities institutions with an online presence and their audiences (crowd-sourcing projects, perhaps?). The good thing is that I’ve now got a stake in the game and can better position myself to help enact good measures going forward, and I’m excited for what the future holds. Better late than never, right?

“Why Guantánamo?” Exhibit Coming to IUPUI

Lately, I’ve been spending quite a bit of time working on a bibliographic essay for my Historical Methods class, which has prevented me from blogging for the past few days. This essay is extremely important because I’ve essentially laid out the general direction and research design of my master’s thesis on the Grand Army of the Republic, Department of Indiana, which I hope to start writing within the next month or two. I will share more info on that in future posts.

Yesterday, I spent a good chunk of my day at the IUPUI Student Center, Cultural Arts Gallery, helping to set up a traveling exhibit entitled “Why Guantánamo?” that several public history and museum studies students and myself helped to design. The project is being overseen by the Guantánamo Public Memory Project, but twelve universities across the United States, including IUPUI, collaborated to design and write the text for the exhibit. My class, which worked on the project last semester, created a panel entitled “Guantánamo Hits Home” for the exhibit.

We are going to be hosting an opening ceremony for the exhibit on Wednesday, April 10 at 6PM in the Cultural Arts Gallery. If you’re in the area, check it out. Those of you who want to learn more about the project can look here. A schedule of where the exhibit will be traveling over the next year and a half can be found here. There are also digital components to the project that were contributed by students from all over the country and are worth checking out. Yours truly contributed a short essay on interrogation and torture here. I also wrote an even shorter description of the tragic life of Adnan Latif for a timeline project here.

Here’s a picture of a part of the exhibit:

GTMO Exhibit at IUPUI

It was pretty neat working on a collaborative project like this. I was impressed by how well we worked together as a group, and with this being my first ever graduate-level class, I quickly realized that there are a lot of very, very smart people that challenge me to be a better thinker every day. I am truly privileged to work with some of the best at IUPUI.

The project did not come without its challenges, however. Perhaps most challenging for us was coming up with a clear exhibit text that could cogently describe complex topics such as habeas corpus and U.S. Supreme Court Cases like Rasul v. BushThere was also a bit of disconnect between us in the classroom and the powers that be in New York. We were intending to create an exhibit text that would be fairly political in nature and challenge our audience to think about the implications of continuing to have detainees at this base without giving them a chance to have their due process in a court of law. The final draft came out fine for the most part, and I think it will still challenge our readers to think about post 9/11 GTMO, but the text is more informational and factual rather than emotional and interpretive.

For me, the project demonstrated that when creating museum exhibits, no one will ever get everything they want onto the exhibit. That’s okay. But the process of “sharing authority” between exhibit designers and the voices/perspectives of those who experienced a particular historical event is tricky. In this case, a third dimension was added by having grad students create the bulk of the content for the exhibit. Trying to do justice to the perspectives of those who have experienced GTMO’s “culture” personally and balancing that with the needs and requirements of the GPMP showed me that while the term “shared authority” has become of buzzword of sorts in the humanities world, the process of actually putting “shared authority” into practice is much tougher than I first realized.