Fantastic History Lesson — highly recommended

I salute Jeremy Scahill for his excellent podcast Intercepted, and for his most recent one in particular.   Best history lesson I’ve had in a long time.

Americans are famous for not knowing much about our history, not caring about what happened here, or anywhere else. twenty years ago, five months ago, a hundred years ago, two hundred years, five hundred — what difference could the past possibly make now that it’s over?    We are, as a society, pretty much doomed, as in that classic phrase about the lessons of history, to repeat the same mistakes over and over if we neither care about nor learn from the triumphs and calamities of the past.   

This looking back works in trying to improve our personal lives too, of course, weighing our present decisions against the way past decisions turned out, good and bad.   History, the unfolding of what happened in the past under certain conditions, is our best (and really only) guide to what might happen under similar present conditions.   A study of well-reasoned history can point us to what we need to do differently this time to avoid an unwanted result.

Jeremy Scahill is a hard-nosed journalist with a keen interest in history.  He always places his stories in the larger context of what came before.   It is impossible to understand complex situations without the insight that only historical context provides.    News story: man savagely beats up another man, is in turn savagely beaten by angry mob.    Does the context matter?  Most people would say it does.   

Factoid:  one hundred and fifty seven years ago (almost eight score and seven years ago) Lincoln freed the slaves.   Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 is one of those shorthand markers, like 1492, 1620 and 1776, that most American school children are taught about, memorize.   These dates serve as magical, isolated moments of the past when great things happened.   1492 Columbus discovers America, Protestant pilgrims fleeing religious persecution land on a rock in the New World in 1620, Thomas Jefferson proclaims all men created equal in 1776, Lincoln frees the slaves 1863.  Knowing these widely tested Cliff’s Notes factoids is knowing virtually nothing about anything that happened in 1492, 1620, 1776, 1863.

The discussions Jeremy Scahill had the other day with two Pulitizer Prize-winning authors, historians and Yale professors David Blight and Greg Grandin, are the most illuminating and fascinating expositions of American history I’ve heard in a long time.   I cannot recommend listening to this hour highly enough.

Jeremy’s most recent Intercepted podcast is called What Reconstruction and the New Deal Can Teach Us About What Comes After the Pandemic Presidency [1].  David Blight lays out the history of Reconstruction, the years after the Civil War, in a way I’ve never heard before (and I have done some reading and research about this era). 

For example:  Lincoln’s position was that the states that seceded from the Union and took up arms against it had not had a constitutional right to secede and therefore there was no need to formally readmit them to the Union after the war.   The position of the slain president’s militant party in Congress was that no state who took up arms against the government could be readmitted to the Union without swearing allegiance to the newly amended U.S. Constitution.  That amended constitution reflected the decisive outcomes of the Civil War.   

The U.S. Constitution  now explicitly outlawed slavery (with exceptions, of course),  guaranteed that states could not abridge the rights, privileges and immunities of federal citizenship (with massive, Supreme Court imposed, restrictions, of course), and guaranteed the right to vote to male former slaves (with exceptions, of course).   

The tension between these positions, Lincoln’s and Congress’s (Lincoln’s, of course, would have meaningfully evolved as the master politician worked), White Supremacist President Andrew Johnson’s and Congress’s,  winds up at the heart of the eternal “States Rights” controversy, left unsettled by our bloodiest war, an angry debate that rages to this day, as the current president urges quarantined citizens of Blue States to take up arms against tyrannical  government restrictions on their liberty.

Greg Grandin, in discussing the humane innovations of the New Deal,  picks up this characteristically American notion of liberty as freedom from coercion.   Andrew Jackson, our current president’s favorite (a man who would have prevented the Civil War, had he lived long enough, according to Trump) made his fortune as a slave trader.   He was marching a column of chained slaves to market in 1811 when he was stopped by a government regulator who asked to see his papers.   This coercive demand outraged the hot-tempered Jackson, who refused to show this bureaucrat any papers and conducted a year-long campaign (Old Hickory was also a lawyer) that resulted in the firing of the regulator. 

The principle, according to Jackson, was that he, a Free White Man, had the absolute right to be free of government coercion (as opposed to the human chattels he was lawfully marching to market, of course).  The same principle is advanced by Libertarians and many Republicans today:  liberty consists in freedom from all government coercion.

The demands of the present crisis we face are almost unbearable to consider.  Great imagination will be required to find solutions to the several gigantic, deep, deadly problems we face.   Looking at examples from history, of things that worked well and things that failed spectacularly, is more important in this moment than in most historical moments.   We need the inspiration of historical leaps of collective creativity that brought about better things.  If not now, when?  If not us, who?



[1]  The  Intercept’s description of the discussion:

THE 2020 ELECTION is six months away, more than 80,000 Americans have been killed by coronavirus, and official unemployment is inching toward 20 percent. This week on Intercepted: An in-depth historical look at some of the great crises in U.S. history and how the president, Congress, and social movements have responded. David Blight, Yale history professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” discusses the era of Reconstruction, the swift dismantling of its hard-fought gains, and the enduring power of white supremacy. As Joe Biden talks of building a presidency in the spirit of FDR and the New Deal, Greg Grandin, whose book “The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America” won the 2020 Pulitzer in nonfiction, discusses the battle for the New Deal, who was left out of its gains, and analyzes what such a program would look like in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Transcript coming soon.


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