Category Archives: History

History: More Than Just the Past


What is a historian?

Quite simply, a historian is one who studies and explains history.

Yet, that answer is deceivingly simple, because it’s a definition that hinges on the meanings of three key words – study, explain, and history.

History is a funny word that carries a double meaning. It can mean both the past, and what historians have written about the past. For example, the history of the American Revolutionary Era is one of events like the Boston ‘Massacre,’ the Stamp Act, non-importation boycotts, committees of correspondence, violent protest and destruction of property, economic motivations and relationships, and fierce debates over new ideas about governance, popular sovereignty, or the meaning of human freedom. These are things that occurred in the past, so they are history.

Yet, the historian does not merely chronicle such events. The historian’s effort to study the past entails a careful examination of the historical record, which includes both the evidence left behind from the historical period under consideration (i.e., primary sources), and what others have written about those events (secondary sources). Historians apply numerous methods as part of this examination – literary analysis, statistical evaluations of data sets (like voting records, for instance), anthropological-type methods of observation, logic, scientific analysis of cause-effect relationships, and many others.

The goal of applying these various methods to the historical record is to better understand, and thus better explain what these events and moments in the past mean. Explaining the past is to give it meaning, and these explanations are History – the body of scholarship produced by historians (the second meaning of the word I described earlier).

Historians are therefore interpreters who give the past coherence, rescuing the it from the jumble of “one damn thing after another.”[1] Or as historian John Arnold put it, “The past is…chaotic, uncoordinated, and complex as life. History is about making sense of that mess.”[2]

Making sense of the mess means understanding it from multiple richterperspectives, as well. The history of westward expansion, for instance, is one of perspective. The perspective is even embedded in the phrase, “westward expansion.” For whom was this a “westward” movement? Who and what was “expanding” in that direction? How might western settlement and expansion be characterized differently if we were, as Daniel Richter’s title suggests, Facing East from Indian Country?[3] What would we call it then? Encroachment? Invasion? An eastern wave of immigrants unwilling to assimilate to the existing culture?

This issue of perspective is an important one, because it helps us develop the ability to empathize with others who look, act, and think differently than us, both in the past and the present. And that ability is fundamental to maintaining civil debate and resolving differences in a democratic society. Democracy cannot function when large groups of people uncompromisingly treat the differing viewpoints of vast swaths of the body politic as completely illegitimate. The historical mode of thinking, as one rooted in the interpretation of evidence from various perspectives, is a check against such dogmatic, unyielding, and ultimately undemocratic tendencies.


This talk of History as interpretive, or its dependence on perspective, can make it seem as if History is arbitrary. While it is true that the claims and conclusions which historians draw from their studies are not final proofs, but rather suggestive insights, it does not follow that all historical explanations are equally valid. There are conventions and standards that must be met. Pertinent evidence cannot be ignored or left out of one’s analysis. The selection of evidence must be reasonably sufficient to answer the historical question being pursued. Evidence and methods must be thoroughly documented so that the validity of a historian’s interpretation can be reviewed by his or her peers, as well as by any other reader of that work. Scholarly historical claims are not arbitrary because historians are bound by these standards and the documentary record of the past.

People make claims about the past all the time, often to validate the status quo or to justify a departure from it. Politicians are especially prone to this use of history. Yet, unlike the historian who begins with a historical question, people who seek to employ history in this manner typically begin with an assumption, usually based on opinion or a de-contextualized, highly selective piece of historical “evidence.” For example, some people claim that the Republican Party in the United States has been the ‘true’ party of Civil Rights because it was the party of emancipation, or because it was a Republican (Eisenhower) who deployed troops to Little Rock in support of school de-segregation.

However, that claim ignores certain contexts and other events in the past – the intra-party divisions between “New Dealers” and “Solid South” Democrats; Truman’s (Democrat) order to integrate the armed services; Kennedy’s, then Johnson’s (Democrats) support for civil rights legislation; the political realignment that occurred when many southern Democrats, like Strom Thurmond, left the party, eventually migrating to the Republican Party; or Nixon’s “Southern Strategy” (what evidence shows to be a concerted effort to convert a good portion of Democrats into Republican voters by appealing to many white southerner’s resentment of the Civil Rights Movement and the dismantling of “Jim Crow” laws).

Which political party presently advocates policy in the interest of African American communities and individuals today is a debatable question, but equating either present-day party with their nineteenth, or even mid-twentieth century incarnations ignores too much evidence, provides too little context, and fails to acknowledge significant change over time. It is, in short, bad history.

Because this kind of ‘bad history’ is ubiquitous in justifying or validating a host of circumstances or proposed actions, learning to think historically – addressing perspective, evaluating sources, and holding claims accountable to evidence, context, and methodology – is crucial to democratic citizenship in the modern age. This is a point which I have increasingly seen made in various venues, including Kevin Levin’s recent call for historical literacy in Smithsonian Magazine.

It is a call I would echo, because the world as it is now did not simply emerge as the result of disembodied forces. People have acted, reacted, and made choices that shaped the world in which we live. Understanding how and why specific choices were made, and identifying the consequences of those choices among varying groups of people, is vitally important. If we as a society can come to terms with those choices and actions, rather than vague references to “forces” like globalization, the market, or progress, then we take ownership of our ability to shape a different and better world through other choices and actions. In that regard, historical literacy is the empowerment and hope of our society.



[1] Owen Barfield, Unancestral Voice (London: Faber and Faber, 1965), 94.

[2] John Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 13.

[3] Daniel K. Richter, Facing East from Indian Country: A Native History of Early America, Revised (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003).

A Brief Explanation of Socialism – and What It’s Not

There seems to be a lot of confusion across the board about Socialism. Whether it is coming from those who claim socialism as their own, or those who cry out against it, misconceptions abound. Having read my fair share of political philosophy over the years, and more than my fair share of history, I thought I might offer an explanation as to: 1) why socialism is so misconstrued in popular discourse, 2) what socialism is and has been, and 3) what is NOT socialism.

Let me get one distracting and erroneous argument out of the way before we begin. It does not matter what a political candidate calls him/herself, and it does not matter what voters or the media call someone either. Words mean things. Those meanings do not cease to exist because people spectacularly misuse words with stunning frequency. How many times have you heard some one say “literally,” when they obviously mean “figuratively”? To my great surprise, my wife grew up calling green bell peppers, “mangos.” Green bell peppers are not mangos, though, no matter long and self-confidently she had referred to them as such. Likewise, whatever a politician like Bernie Sanders may call himself is kind of irrelevant.

The term socialism has been distorted in American discourse over the years, largely as a result of our nation’s interactions with Soviet Communism. Modern popular conceptions of socialism have been filtered through the experiences of Bolshevism, Marxist Leninism, Stalin, the rise of a Soviet empire, and decades of antagonistic Cold War. As a result of political rhetoric as much as anything else, many Americans equated the term socialism with the repressive, authoritarian regimes of Soviet communism. Thus, Americans came to use “socialist” and “communist” somewhat interchangeably during the Cold War, and often in ways that had very little relation to their actual meanings in political philosophy. The word “socialist” became little more than a blunt political instrument used to bludgeon the opposing party, regardless of whether a particular policy stance had anything to do with real socialism. It’s a practice still popular today. By merely equating the opposition’s policy with “socialism,” politicians could (and can) immediately put their rivals on the defensive and sow seeds of doubt in the minds of American voters.

Yet, socialism is not synonymous with authoritarian, Soviet-style communism. That’s not to say that there is no relationship between socialism and communism. There is a relationship there, but that is not saying much; there is also a relationship between capitalism and communism in political philosophy. To understand the relationship between capitalism, socialism, and communism, we inevitably have to address the political philosophy of Karl Marx. It may be surprising to some that Marx viewed capitalism as a vital and necessary stage of economic development. It was not the final stage of economic development for him, though. Marx argued that economic development would naturally proceed past capitalism. Socialism, as Marx viewed it, represented a transitional stage between capitalism and his more fanciful ideal of true common ownership (communism). The link between communism and socialism, therefore, was in the proposition that the means of production should not be undemocratically consolidated in the hands of a few “Robber Baron” capitalists, but instead they should be socially owned – by the state at first (socialism), and eventually held in common property (communism).

What does this mean, having social ownership of the means of production? Put simply, the “means of production” are those elements of economic productivity that are not labor – capital, infrastructure, and so on. Socialism, then, is the proposition that certain elements of these means of production should be controlled by the government.

A key historical feature of political socialism has been its goal of bringing vital sectors of the economy under public control. For instance, in its 1912 platform, the American Socialist Party advocated “collective ownership and democratic management of railroads, wire and wireless telegraphs and telephones, express service, steamboat lines, and all other social means of transportation and communication and of all large scale industries.” They also sought “the extension of the public domain to include mines, quarries, oil wells, forests and water power.” They proposed the collective ownership of patents as well. No contemporary politician (even a self-described Democratic Socialist like Bernie Sanders) would even think about suggesting this kind of stuff. No major political figure of the post World War II era has either campaigned or governed on the idea that the government should take ownership of Comcast, AT&T, Exxon, or United Airlines.

The Socialist Party of the past did not confine its goals solely to nationalizing certain industries, though. They also shared some goals in common with the other political parties. Those who are unfamiliar with the finer points of American political history might be surprised by a few of the elements found in the 1912 Socialist Party platform. The Socialists were arguing for things that we, regardless of party affiliation, take for granted in today’s world – a five day work week, restrictions on the use of child labor, the right of women to vote, and the “absolute freedom of press, speech and assemblage.” Does their support of such policies makes those things socialist? Of course not – a point to keep in mind in today’s political environment. These points express values that reach across party boundaries. They are not particular to socialism, and neither are regulations or public services that have traditionally drawn support from across the political spectrum.

Left unchecked, capital has a tendency to accumulate, leading to monopolies and a consolidation of power that undermines the very idea of free competition in the marketplace. Regulating that tendency has been championed by both major parties since the late 1800s. Just because the Socialist Party also supported such regulation does not mean that regulation itself is socialist. The same is true of public services. Many of the earliest water and sanitation services in the United States were privately owned, and we found out from experience that the private sector is actually quite bad at making these services accessible to all citizens. So we put the provision of water under the control of municipal governments and managed them as public utilities. That has some shades of socialism, but the truth is that in America even public utilities are not totally public. They are often operated as public-private ventures. In other instances, businesses use the apparatus of the state to extend their profit capabilities. That is far from socialism; that is neoliberalism. For example, even though they are private companies, UPS and FedEx depend on the United States Post Office to carry about one-quarter of the parcels they handle because those companies simply cannot make money delivering packages to distant rural areas.

None of these things are socialism, per se. If socialism does exist today, then it is a mere shadow of its former self. Socialism in America only exists now in political parlance as a synonym for taxes, public services, and regulation. However, I think it is safe to say that these things are not socialism. The public provision of schools, police, firemen, nurses, hospitals, roads, Social Security, Medicare, food or aviation inspectors, public libraries, parks, or the U.S. Military – these are not efforts to take state ownership of the means of production. They are efforts to, in the words laid down in the Constitution, “promote the general Welfare” of the members of our society.

And just to be clear, other services like food assistance and unemployment are not socialism either. If they are, then so are corporations. One of the most oft repeated claims about the virtues of capitalism is that it allows people the freedom to take a risk and reap the rewards of that risk. Yet, we have laws that give corporations special protections when their risks go bad, and the price of their failures often falls to the society at large. For example, when financial institutions started gambling with people’s money and retirement funds in derivative markets backed by questionable securities, they didn’t assume the risks of that venture themselves. Instead, American taxpayers bore the brunt of that risk through a government funded bailout in order to keep the global economy from collapsing. What is the “limited liability” of an LLC if not a socialization of the risks of entrepreneurial capitalism?

Socializing the risks for corporations through “limited liability” is no different in principle than socializing the risk of an average citizen. A factory worker whose company is looking to move production overseas faces the risk of unemployment. Why not have unemployment insurance to spread that risk out among us all, many of whom could easily face similar risks ourselves at one point or another? Or why not provide a free lunch to a child in a public school whose family is in poverty? I promise… it’s not socialism if you do.

“Compassion is not weakness, and concern for the unfortunate is not socialism.”
–Hubert H. Humphrey


Upcoming lesson… Neoliberalism (though you could probably just watch this video explanation)


The Wild West of Bottled Water

At a time when southern California residents are asked to ration their water usage due to prolonged drought, Nestlé is taking vast quantities of water from the area for its Arrowhead brand of bottled water. As the Desert Sun reports, no one is really sure how much water Nestlé is taking. The company operates on reservation lands in the Cabazon basin owned by the Morongo band of Mission Indians and are therefore exempt from the local water agency’s oversight and reporting requirements. Although the numbers have not been independently verified, the Morongo report 601 acre-feet of water diverted or pumped from Millard Canyon in 2013 – about 200 million gallons, or enough to supply 400 typical homes in the area. For the water agency and the parched local communities, the bottling operation is understandably a cause for concern.

Nestlé’s extraction of water despite potentially threatening ecological conditions highlights a hallmark of the culture of capitalism. For whatever economic benefits the capitalist culture may bestow, like other cultures it has its own set of values and beliefs regarding the natural world. In his classic study of the Dust Bowl, Donald Worster summed up those values thusly: First, “Nature must be seen as capital.” Second, “Man has a right, even an obligation, to use this capital for constant self-advancement.” Third, “The social order should permit and encourage this increase of personal wealth.” In other words, as Worster went on to say, “The community exists to help individuals get ahead and to absorb the environmental costs” of such pursuits.

These maxims constitute the internal logic of capitalism as it relates to the natural world. The consequences of that logic, however, do not play out equally everywhere. Place matters. The ecological conditions in one geographic area may absorb some the harshness of such imperatives. Elsewhere, where ecological conditions are less forgiving, acting according to these maxims results in brutal consequences for individuals and communities.

The West – that geographic area of the nation extending west of the 98th meridian, where average annual rainfall is below 20 inches – is exactly the kind of landscape where the ecological circumstances are less forgiving. It is a “marginal landscape,” meaning that it is an environment not particularly favorable to permanent human settlement, and such settlement is only maintained at great effort and is always tenuous. Look at a precipitation map of the United States and it becomes apparent that the West is categorically a different place than the rest of the country with a different set of environmental realities with which to contend.


Much of what we have come to know as the culture of the West was the result of adaptations made to those environmental realities. Walter Prescott Webb noted these adaptations and the world that made them necessary in his work, The Great Plains (1931). As Webb argued:

For two centuries American pioneers had been working out a technique for the utilization of the humid regions east of the Mississippi River. They had found solutions for their problems and were conquering the frontier at a steadily accelerating rate. Then in the early nineteenth century they crossed the Mississippi and came out on the Great Plains, an environment with which they had had no experience. The result was a complete though temporary breakdown of the machinery and ways of pioneering.

The kind of crops settlers could plant, their mode of transportation, the form and function of their houses, the style of husbandry and cattle raising, their weaponry, even their property laws – all had to be adapted in response to a new environmental reality. As Webb put it, the 98th meridian represented such a stark change in the lived reality of westward settlers that “practically every institution that was carried across it was either broken and remade or else greatly altered.”

Part of Worster’s argument in Dust Bowl was that the culture of capitalism, with its inherent set of values relating to the natural world, ultimately led to catastrophe when those values were applied to the marginal landscapes of the West. In response to a war ravaged Europe clamoring grain, increasing numbers of farmers (encouraged by grain speculators) plowed up the Great Plains at a rapacious pace in order to plant wheat. When the pendulum of alternating decades of drought and rain swung back toward extreme aridity in the late 1920s and 1930s, the wheat withered and died. The soil, once clothed by hardy native grasses, then lay bare and exposed to the blistering winds of the open lands. The result was the Dust Bowl, a disaster that destroyed lives and livelihoods, uprooted families and communities, traumatized a generation, and wreaked havoc on the nation’s agricultural economy.

Nestlé’s bottling operation in the Cabazon basin, while far from the scale of the Dust Bowl, is but one more example in the long history of the West where the pursuits of industries bent on ever expansive profits apply a logic ill-suited to a marginal landscape. Like other incidents in that long history, the corporation operates within a culture that sees nature as merely an instrument for further monetary gain – burdening the community at large with the  ecological costs of that pursuit.


“Two Americas,” One King

Standing in front of an audience gathered at Grosse Pointe High School, a suburb of Detroit, in March of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. proclaimed, “There are two Americas.” One America was flowing with the “milk of prosperity and the honey of equality,” while another America lay steeped in “a daily ugliness…that transforms the buoyancy of hope into the fatigue of despair.”[1] At the heart of the “other America,” according to King, was the economic problem: unemployment, underemployment, poor-paying, and poor quality jobs for a great number of the nation’s citizens – especially citizens of color.

In the decades since Dr. King made the “Two Americas” speech, median wages stagnated or declined for most Americans. Household incomes rose slightly, but only because more families became two-income homes (those increases, however, have been largely off-set by the rising cost of childcare for working parents). Low-wage, no benefit service jobs replaced better-paying manufacturing work. Housing prices and college tuition outpaced inflation, putting the promise of gainful employment and property beyond the grasp of an increasing number of Americans. And just as in King’s day, these painful circumstances disproportionately have affected citizens of color. In short, the gulf between the “two Americas” is expanding.

In September 2011, protestors calling themselves “Occupy Wall Street” rhetorically quantified the “two Americas” as the ninety-nine versus the one percent. Critics dismissed these protestors as envious and lazy with little grasp of the real world. Some politicians chastised their vocal protests as divisive, saying it was the product of a misguided logic – a logic that concluded the lack of wealth for some is the result of wealth unduly captured by others. In response to that logic, Senator Marco Rubio took to the Senate floor that December to say “We have never been a nation of haves and have-nots. We are a nation of haves and soon-to-haves, of people who have made it and people who will make it.”[2] Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana echoed the mantra of “haves and soon-to-haves” during the Republican Party’s televised response to the State of the Union Address the following month. The point, it seemed, was to rebuff talk of income inequality by arguing that it was only a matter of time before everyone made good on the American dream – so long as they were willing to work hard. All you need is time and the determination to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Dr. King dismissed the notion that time would eventually alleviate inequality, saying “human progress never rolls in on the wheels of inevitability.” He also rejected the pernicious myth of what he called the “bootstrap philosophy.” Congress, King noted, was more than willing to doll out federal subsidies to large scale farmers and businesses. Not much has changed on that front. Today, many lawmakers are similarly generous to corporate interests while simultaneously cutting aid to the most vulnerable members of our society. Take the enormous budget overages of the Pentagon’s contract with Lockheed-Martin to develop the F-35 fighter jet. Those budget overages attract little or no attention from the very legislators who, in the name of fiscal responsibility, trenchantly defend recent cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). This despite the fact that just the budget overages alone in the fighter program would pay for SNAP cuts two to three times over, or that most SNAP beneficiaries are children, the disabled, the elderly, and the working poor. To make matters worse, the warplane is to be manufactured in Britain, not the United States, so Americans in need not only lose food assistance but are robbed of manufacturing job opportunities as well.[3] Dr. King probably put it best when he said, “that appears to me to be a kind of socialism for the rich and rugged hard individualistic capitalism for the poor.”

Although King’s “two Americas” referred to economic and social conditions, perhaps the more critical cleavage, one that directly affects the success or failure of policy initiatives aimed at abating inequality, is a philosophical one. As a people, we seem to be divided into two camps: those who see the influence of structural factors in our lived circumstances, and those who disregard structural explanations for economic disparity. The champions of the “bootstrap philosophy” sometimes praise the pioneer spirit and individualism that settled the West and made America an industrial giant. Yet they ignore the land grants, irrigation works, coerced labor, legal innovations, and public investments in communication and transportation that made such growth possible. They fail to grasp the structural underpinnings of the success they admire, and so they also fail to see structural forces that contribute to poverty and want as well. Instead, anecdotes and nostalgic appeals to rugged American individualism confirm, in their eyes, that both success and failure are solely the result of personal character. Consequently, they reject government efforts to address inequality as aiding the undeserving.[4] Unemployment benefits, for instance, have come under the axe in recent months, justified on the grounds that they diminish a person’s motivation to find work. The abiding logic being that those who are out of work just don’t want to work – as if joblessness today were a choice rather than the mathematical reality of too few jobs for the number of people seeking employment.

Low pay, lack of education, homelessness, and prohibitively costly healthcare – these are not moral failings or God’s punishment. Only by recognizing that individual choices and opportunities are circumscribed by structural realities will we be able to adequately address the widening chasm between prosperity and scarcity in our country.

As our nation continues to wrestle with the increasingly polarized social divisions and economic inequality highlighted by Dr. King more than four decades ago, perhaps his prescriptions for change offer us some guidelines. As he instructed his audience at Grosse Pointe to do in 1968, we must dispel ourselves of the myths of inevitable progress and “bootstrap” individualism, understanding that there are forces beyond the individual contributing to poverty and want. We need to recognize the potential of government as an institution for improving our lives. We have to reorder our national priorities in a way that values the care of the vulnerable over the incessant desire for war. And we must summon the courage to take direct action in the face of injustice. These were the lessons King sought to impart near the end of his life.

Although the man is now gone, his words and vision are as applicable today as they were that March day in 1968. They are words of our time, and of our society. King’s description of “two Americas” is as much a portrait of where we are now as of where we were then, and his hopefulness for change can be our hopefulness; his dream can be our dream – if we choose to stop making King a token and honor the message as well as the man.

[1] Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Other America,” speech given at Grosse Pointe High School in Michigan, March 14, 1968, (accessed January 18, 2014). Unless otherwise noted, any quotes from King are taken from this speech.

[2] Sen. Marco Rubio, Congressional Record-Senate, December 16, 2011, S8708.

[3] Dave Gilson, “Is This Plane the Biggest Pentagon Rip-Off of All Time?” Mother Jones (December 13, 2013), (accessed January 18, 2014); Alistair Osborne, “Lockheed Martin’s controversial US warplane project to boost more than 500 British companies,” The Telegraph (January 19, 2014), (accssed January 19, 2014).

[4] Michael Katz, The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare (New York: Pantheon Books, 1989).