Middlebury, Murray, and the Problem of False Equivalence

Imagine, if you will, this scene. The university’s annual symposium has begun, an event that promises to advance the mission of the institution by tackling subjects of depth and complexity in the human condition. This year’s theme is “Remembering the Shoah: Saying ‘Never Again’ to Genocide,” challenging students and the university community to confront some of the darkest chapters of modern human history. And now, striding to the podium to deliver the keynote address, comes…David Irving. Irving’s presence was vehemently protested by numerous campus and community organizations, including Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League, but college’s president firmly believes that students should be challenged by opinions “outside their comfort zone.” To those students who protested the fact that a conference on the Holocaust was being keynoted by the most notorious holocaust-denier in the Western world, the local newspaper’s editorial board scoffed at their need for a so-called “safe space.” “The real world doesn’t always conform to your precious beliefs,” the newspaper editorialized; “you’d best learn that now.” One of the university’s professors defended the choice of Irving as a keynote speaker, declaring “nothing is more sacred than the right of free and unfettered academic discourse in the university. In this marketplace of ideas, bad ideas will naturally by subsumed by good ones-that’s how it always works.” 

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An American Family Story in Ten Parts

1. In 1621, Thomas Prence arrived in Plymouth Colony and claimed “one akre” of land in the new settlement. Thirteen years later, a combination of ambition and a reputation for being one of the most ardent Separatist Puritans in a colony full of Separatist Puritans led to his election as governor, and he would remain a member of Plymouth’s political elite from that point forward. After the 1657 death of William Bradford-Plymouth’s original governor and more than any other man the motor that drove the colony-Prence once again became governor. Continue reading “An American Family Story in Ten Parts”

November 9

There will be legions of posts, articles, thinkpieces, and essays this morning and throughout the day wondering how “we” could have gotten everything so wrong, how things came to this, how a majority of the United States electorate chose….that. There will be attempts at scholarly analysis, visceral personal reactions, laments, and entirely too many smug, see you pointy-headed types should have listened to real people screeds.

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What Is To Be Done

A little over a week ago, I had the honor of attending the New York Film Festival premiere of 13th, a documentary directed by Ava DuVernay that confronts the issues of race, incarceration, and justice in the United States. As one of the talking heads (a historian’s life goal, to be honest) in the film, I was intellectually aware of the phenomena, statistics, mindsets, and events the film addresses. But it wasn’t until I viewed the film–a relentless, unflinching, prophetic indictment of the structures of racism and inequality upon which our entire society rests–that I truly felt what I had before only known. In the activities that accompanied the premiere–including this historian setting a new standard for awkward walks on the red carpet–a sense of urgency seemed to pervade the proceedings. Yes, there was celebration; 13th is the first documentary to open the NYFF, Ava DuVernay is also the first woman filmmaker of color to earn that distinction, and the film is a Netflix production and will thus have a huge platform for its vitally important story. So celebration was certainly in order. I was proud to participate in those celebrations, and deeply humbled to have been asked to participate in such an urgently powerful work of art. But there was urgency, too. Now that this story is out there, in all of its raw, agonizing, poignant glory, what next? Continue reading “What Is To Be Done”

Punting on Higher-Ed Reform; or, Austerity is For Other People

In the pre-Civil War United States, there was a burgeoning literature and rhetoric that sang the praises of chattel slavery with increasing gusto in response to the abolitionist critique that also flourished in those years. These defenders (almost all of them southern whites) of enslaving African Americans resorted to the argument that slavery was a “positive good,” a benefit to both slave and master. Indeed, they contended, it was the very sheet anchor of social harmony in the moonlight-and-magnolias Old South. The childlike, inferior slave needed the structure and paternalistic care of a kind but stern master to survive in the modern world. These arguments, of course, were laughably absurd both then and now. But it gave the increasingly desperate defenders of an increasingly untenable worldview the comfort and assurance they needed to submerge their anxieties. Abraham Lincoln, with his usual trenchant wit, saw right through this proslavery charade, noting that “although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.”* Continue reading “Punting on Higher-Ed Reform; or, Austerity is For Other People”