Trump, Nasty women, the democratic process, Gore, and Patton & MacArthur

Was that debate last night great, or what?? It was a slug-fest from the start and made for entertaining television. It also gave us “Bad Hombres” and “Nasty woman,” two phrases that immediately caught on like wildfire and that will likely become the Halloween craze this year. I said before the debate season even began that I felt there was a really good chance that Trump would eventually be pushed to the point of calling Clinton the B word, but this was so much better. It demonstrated everything that is wrong with the man in a nutshell. First, that this is what he thinks of strong women, second, that he can’t restrain his worst impulses, and third, that he embraces and doubles down on them. It is amazing to me that when the phrase popped into his head, he not only couldn’t keep it from coming out, he actually leaned into the mic so that he could be plainly heard. Much was made about his challenge to the legitimacy of the election, but I honestly feel that this moment was the true coup de grâce to his candidacy, as it provided Clinton’s campaign with “the feminist rallying cry” that it needed (though to be fair, “nasty” has already been a feminist rallying cry). Indeed, “nasty women” across the country are embracing Trump’s insult like a badge of honor and are about to flex their muscles at the polls. Man, I wish Alice Paul could have lived to see this.

But as for Trump challenging the legitimacy of the election: I was frustrated by the lack of media commentators bringing up 1860.  Referring to the South’s secession would actually have helped them make their point about how dangerous Trump’s challenge to the democratic process is, and yet we heard nothing about the Civil War (nor Reconstruction’s rigged elections or the Election of 1876, for that matter). On the other hand, Trump’s defenders keep bringing up Gore’s activities in 2000, but the parallel simply does not exist. Gore took back his concession when it became clear that the votes in Florida were in dispute and that a recount was warranted (and called for by state law). Once that recount was stopped by the Supreme Court, Gore let the process go forward and did not challenge its legitimacy. In fact, he presided over the official vote of the electoral college and gaveled down the people that were trying to disrupt the count. But in my mind, here is the biggest difference: Gore did not question the legitimacy of the democratic process before the election even took place, as Trump has been doing for months now and on which he doubled down last night. And, as the nasty woman pointed out, Donald has a LONG history of challenging any process that does not favor him. (In fact, this pattern even goes back to a chemistry test he took in school). In his mind, the only way he ever loses ANYTHING is because of a rigged system. Sorry, Trump supporters, but Gore simply does not have a history like that.

And one more thing: I am getting so tired of Trump talking about how Douglas MacArthur and George Patton would be “spinning” in their graves if they saw how we are dealing with ISIS. Listen, MacArthur was an idiot who’s only claim to strategic competency was the Inchon Landings during the Korean War. Perhaps Trump loves him because the man publicly and egregiously challenged the decision of President Truman to not use the bomb on North Korea and Chinese troops (yeah, that would have been a GREAT idea), thus challenging the vitally important concept of military submission to civilian authority. And Patton? We all love George C. Scott’s portrayal, but please Donald, don’t just get your history from the movies.  The man doesn’t exactly match the myth. We could go over the dude’s long list of transgressions, but just pick up a textbook and read about the bumbling campaign he took a large role in directing against the Mexican “terrorist” (and truly Bad Hombre) Pancho Villa. (Spoiler: it was a huge fiasco). Oh, and then there was that time that MacArthur and Patton together led troops down Pennsylvania Avenue to attack a campsite of American WWI vets and their families, using cavalry, bayonets, and tear gas to disperse men, women, and children, continuing the assault even after President Hoover ordered it stopped. When it was all over, Eisenhower labeled MacArthur “a dumb son of a bitch.”

Here endeth the lesson.

The Founders & political fighting; PBS has a treat for Hamilton fans; Hitler’s birthplace to be demolished; More on Birth of a Nation; Creepy Halloween costumes of yesteryear


Founding Fathers Fight Club

Every semester in my US history course I always go off on a diatribe about how politicians often refer to our Founding Fathers and their vision for America, as if our founders intended for us to be bound by their values and ideas about government power, and as if they all agreed with each other on those things.  (In fact, I got on my soapbox about this in my classes just today.)  I point out that those dudes didn’t want women to vote, made it legal to own African Americans as slaves, and required white men to own land in order to vote. Where would we be today if we still adhered to their values and political beliefs?  So I really like this very timely piece by Alan Taylor (a historian I very much admire) in the New York Times in which he too points out the ridiculousness of how we often use the Founders to make some political point about what our government should and shouldn’t be (of course there is nothing new about using the Founders like this). I love Taylor’s conclusion, but I would add one thing: those guys created a form of government that is meant to always be what We the People want it to be, and that is something we’ve debated and changed from their time to ours.

Speaking of the Founders: Friday night on PBS they are premiering a documentary on both Alexander Hamilton and the making of the Broadway musical (which highlights the political differences between Hamilton and Jefferson). Reviews of the show have been very positive (like this one), so it looks like we all need to set our DVR’s on Friday night.

Did you see that Austria is set to demolish the house that was Hitler’s birthplace? It has never been an official tourist attraction, but has garnered interest from curiosity seekers and Neo-Nazis. So they are going to wipe it out. Hmmm, all kinds of thoughts pop into my head about tourist sites in the US that revere heroes of the Confederacy and the hell that would be raised if they were demolished. But I’ll leave that one alone.

Over on Civil War Pop Christian McWhirter weighs in on The Birth of a Nation (2016). He clearly wrestled with whether or not to endorse the film, but ultimately concludes that the flawed film might (hopefully) turn out to be a needed first step toward films that deal with slave rebellions in more complex and accurate ways. It is a fair assessment, and I feel a much more objective one than the film has been getting in other places.

And for my Halloween season posting today: what is creepier than creepy Halloween costumes? Vintage black and while photos of creepy Halloween costumes in the early 20th and late 19th centuries. There is a new book out with a collection of these photos, but check out the sampling here. Yikes.

Is the election over? Can the Republicans rise from the dead?; Last gasp of the Lost Cause; Saving Dorothy’s slippers; What do Ghost stories reveal about our history?


Is the election over? Maybe not, but we have now reached a point in which no candidate in recorded poll history has ever overcome a deficit like Trump’s.

Speaking of Trump: Talking Points Memo has an interview with a few historians discussing how “Trump has already fouled the American democratic experiment.” From threatening to jail his competitor if he wins (which I actually think many commentators made too much of), to trying to de-legitimize the election results preemptively in case he loses (which I don’t think we have made enough of), Trump has done much to make a mockery of our democratic process. Will there be a long term price even after he loses?

Last night I was watching a 1939 Bob Hope movie, in which someone asked if he believed in people “rising from the dead.” With his perfect timing, the master comedian responded, “you mean like the Republicans?” That’s one of those jokes in an old movie that you can only get if you know the history, but it made me think about current events. We have seen a lot of people commenting lately about how the Republican party will be dead after their defeat in November, but in the 20th century alone the party came back from the grave three times.  I wouldn’t shovel dirt on the GOP just yet.

And speaking of causes rising from the dead . . .

Did you see the one about the Sons of Confederate Veterans breaking ground for a museum in Tennessee that will provide a Lost Cause interpretation of the Civil War? Criticizing all the efforts across the nation to discredit the Confederacy, one of the leaders proclaimed, “that is coming to an end,” and rejoiced that their museum “will be out of the reach of the long arm of political correctness. This will be ours.” As far as I am concerned, they can have it. I like my history museums to be based on solid research, interpretations, and facts. Have fun with your little fantasy world, SCV.

As for news from a legit museum: With limited funds coming from Congress, the Smithsonian American History Museum is turning to film buffs and other fans to help conserve Dorothy’s red slippers from The Wizard of Oz. They need $300,000 for the project and a new display case. I’m guessing they’ll get it.

And for my Halloween season posting for today (as if the SCV story wasn’t scary enough): NPR’s All Things Considered has an interview up today with writer Colin Dickey, who has a new book out called Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places. He argues that what our ghost stories are about (and not about), where they come from, and how they evolve, tell us much about our history. For instance, why are there no stories about ghosts of enslaved African Americans in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom?

Disunion book released; If Birth of a Nation flops,will we go back to “white savior” slave films?; NBC’s Timeless and Lincoln; History is not on the side of a Trump comeback; Nat Turner rebellion sites

A great Christmas gift for the Civil War buff in your life!

First off, a bit of shameless self-promotion: Today Oxford University Press has released a new book that I had a (very) small role in. If you recall, the New York Times had a series called “Disunion” which featured essays on the 150th anniversaries of many of the events of the Civil War. It was a widely praised and successful series, and now a selection of those short essays have been collected into a book. I am happy that one of the pieces I wrote is in it, and especially thrilled that it is on an event that I am particularly proud to have been able to write about–the attack of the 54th Massachusetts on Fort Wagner. But forget about my humble effort– there are some big time historians/writers that have many fine short essays in the book. I think it makes for a great addition to any Civil War buff’s library, so please keep it in mind for Christmas gifts!

So after my very lengthy review of The Birth of a Nation the other day, you know where I stand on the film. Today, Alyssa Sepinwall, Professor of History at California State University – San Marcos, has an interesting piece on the History New Network that also defends the movie despite its inaccuracies and the controversy surrounding its creator, Nate Parker. She too feels that it is an excellent movie on its own merits, but fears that if the film continues to flop, it will likely be a long time before we get another honest movie about slavery that does not view the institution from a “white savior” perspective. I think she is right, and I hope you’ll keep this in mind when deciding whether to see it and/or to advice other people not to.

Did you catch this week’s episode of NBC’s Timeless? It took our heroes back to the Lincoln assassination, and they had to ponder whether or not they should stop it from happening. It was mildly entertaining, but I was most happy to see it feature African American soldiers celebrating the end of the war and excited about the prospects for the future of their race. It was another small but important swipe at the Lost Cause, making it clear that Confederate defeat was a good thing for the nation and African Americans in particular. Of course we know how Reconstruction turned out, as did the show’s main characters, thus creating their dilemma as to whether or not to stop the killing of Lincoln. (Which was all the more poignant for the black member of our time travelling trio).  Say what you will about the show’s cheesy factor, it is well done and is exposing a large audience to historical questions. Take this reviewer for example, who confesses “if Timeless serves no other purpose, it’s already ginned up more enthusiasm within me to read up on important moments in American history than any of my teachers in high school ever did.” That, my friends, is the power of pop culture.

If you do not follow Nate Silver over on FiveThirtyEight, you are missing the best source for knowing exactly where all the polls in all the states stand. It isn’t looking good for Trump right now, and Silver argues that there is now no historical precedent for a comeback this late in the game. Don’t jinx it!

By now, I am sure that most of you have seen the news about how Hurricane Matthew unearthed some pieces of Civil War artillery ordnance. But if you missed it, check it out. 

Back in the early 2oth century, the first human to arrive at the South Pole, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen, lost his vessel when it sank off the coast of northern Canada. Now, Norwegian researchers have salvaged the ship and it is once again above the water after 80 years. It will soon sail home on a barge. It is a very sturdy looking ship!

OK, time for me to start posting lots of creepy stuff for Halloween. The other day I was looking up if there were any home sites that still remain that were involved in the Nat Turner rebellion. Sadly, there seems to now only be one (and it is not in the original location). Sadder still, just a few years ago there were a couple still standing, including the house where Turner made his only kill by his own hands, as well as the slave house that may have been the home of his wife, Cherry.  But they are now gone, which is a crying shame that major efforts were not made to try and salvage them long ago or especially more recently. Still,  I found this 2013 posting from Phillip Levy in which he describes what was still standing at that point, and it features a couple of photographs that will give you a shiver if you are well aware of the savage events that took place at those particular sites.

Musings on The Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner’s rebellion


(-Disclaimer: I fully understand why many people are reluctant to see and support this movie given the  allegations swirling around Nate Parker’s past. My review, however, is focused on the film itself, and should not be seen as a statement about the alleged legal and moral transgressions of the film’s creator).

I have many thoughts about Nate Parker’s controversial new film, The Birth of a Nation, so bear with me. Before getting to the mild spoilers below, let me say right off that the film has a TON of historical inaccuracies that will anger and frustrate many historians, myself included. Yet the key to appreciating this very powerful film is to understand that it is “based” on a true story (as the opening credits proclaim), only using the broad outlines of Nat Turner’s rebellion to tell its largely fictional tale. While the most provocative aspects of the event are missing or obscured, other important dynamics of it are not, and the film delivers them exceptionally well.

I often have my classes read about the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, write an essay on it, and engage in a discussion of whether or not Nat Turner was a “hero.” Was he a murderer or a warrior in a justified war? This almost always leads to interesting exchanges. I had hoped that this film would leave audience members pondering the same thing, believing that if it did so, it would blow their minds and induce some deep and dark questions about antebellum slavery. Unfortunately, the film does not do that, giving us an interpretation of Turner that was embraced by 1960s black radicals–an almost wholly heroic man waging a war against slavery and the brutalization of black lives.

In doing so, Parker has to omit important historical details and distort others, stripping the Turner rebellion of what I think is its most important consideration: What does the hatred unleashed during the revolt reveal about the institution of slavery? Southampton County was dominated by small farms and enslaved blacks that had close personal connections with whites that most of them had known their whole lives. Their workload was relatively lighter than those on larger plantations, and especially in the Deep South. Many, like Nat, were routinely allowed to travel throughout the community to visit friends and family members on other farms, and masters were somewhat indulgent of minor transgressions. And yet, in a volcanic eruption of rage, enslaved blacks let loose a hellish and unspeakably horrific orgy of violence that involved the use of axes, clubs, and other instruments to decapitate and bludgeon some 60 whites into bloody pulps–a large number of them women and children (and in one instance, an infant in its cradle). Surely, such fury tells us much about the true evils of slavery. If we condemn Turner and his rebels, I often tell my students, we must in the same breath condemn the institution that created the anger and hatred revealed in the brutal nature of the murders.

Sadly, The Birth of a Nation does little to force audiences into the moral dilemma of considering whether or not Turner was a hero, because it opts for depicting all the standard slavery horrors that we normally get in movies (depicting an “every South” rather than the particular dynamics in Southampton), and the rebellion itself is given short shrift. We only see the whites that seemingly deserved it the most get killed.

Further, Turner is not depicted as motivated by a lifelong mystic faith that he was called to a higher purpose (though the opening scene and other vague dreamlike sequences suggest it). Rather than the supernatural voices and strange visions that Turner was convinced frequently spoke to him his whole life, it is the rape and brutal beating of his wife, the rape of a close friend’s wife, and a whipping he suffers, that instigate his rebellious plans. In truth, Turner’s motivations were deeper and more psychologically disturbing than the film demonstrates, which weakens what the movie could have said about the institution of slavery.

And yet, the film brilliantly presents a story that is powerful in and of itself. This is a excellent film, with beautiful cinematography, pitch perfect use of sound and music, and near uniformly superb acting. Much like the writings of Frederick Douglass, Nate Parker’s movie demonstrates that slavery tainted everything it touched, including seemingly “good” masters. More impressively, it successfully depicts how important black families and personal relationships were to enduring enslavement. The first hour of the movie centers on a tender love story that blooms within the confines of an evil system. The love offers a light in a dark world, and aside from Roots, we rarely see this depicted in films about slavery. Further, the film makes it clear that an enslaved individual’s quality of life was influenced by the type of master they had, and that this could vary from farm to farm. One scene that will long haunt me involves a sadistic master’s brutal treatment of a slave that refuses to eat, and it is all the more powerful because it does not involve the typical whipping scene we so often get. In the end, the film leaves us with an image of the Old South that is far from moonlight and magnolias.

****Here come very mild spoilers in a discussion of the film’s inaccuracies. Skip to my last two paragraphs if you want to avoid spoilers ****

The historical inaccuracies, distortions, and omissions in this film are numerous and frustrating. Some are only minor, but still annoying. For instance, slave patrollers would not have tried to kill a surrendering runaway slave, nor raped and beaten a slave on her master’s property, as they would have then owed financial restitution to the master. Turner’s mother had been brought directly from Africa, but in the film she has no African accent, nor do we see her infuse her son’s religion with African traditions. We can forgive many of these inaccuracies, such as the simplification of Nat’s ownership. As property, he was transferred between masters several times, and yet the movie depicts him as the lifetime property of a man that he grew up playing with as a child. This is a case of a screenwriter justifiably condensing things for the sake of streamlining the story, and depicts a situation that was true for many slaves.

However, bigger problems involve the rebellion itself, which is largely sanitized (yes, it was even more brutal than what is seen on the screen). There is no orgy of violence that shows slaves chasing down, beating, and chopping to death women and children. The only slayings we see are folks that the film has depicted as wholly bad (except Nat’s owner, but he had recently angered Nat by requiring his friend’s wife to sleep with a visiting guest, and also had recently given Nat a brutal beating). In truth, a large percent of the victims were women and children, including those at a boarding school that the rebels butchered and threw on a pile. Further, Nat is shown directly involved in the killings, when in fact he murdered only one person (a woman he chased down and beat to death with a fence rail). Instead, we see him kill his master and a slave patroller that almost killed his father and that raped and beat his wife (neither of which actually happened). There is no moral dilemma in these killings, they are an act of justice.

Further, there is also a pitched battle in the town of Jerusalem that did not happen, as the militia was able to keep the rebels out of the city. Nat’s rebels are always under his control, steadfast, and resolute, when in fact, he lingered behind during their march of bloody vengeance and many of his cohorts fell into pillaging and drunkenness that slowed them down.

But the inaccuracy and omissions that weaken the film the most are in the ending. In the film, Nat turns himself in when he discovers that innocent blacks are being murdered until he is found. He heroically sacrifices himself by walking boldly into town to surrender to a mob. In fact, Turner hid for months in a couple of dugout spots in the woods, and was captured by accident by a man that stumbled upon him. Parker’s portrayal, of course, is meant to give Turner a heroic finale, but it does not match the reality.

Most frustrating of all is that the movie robs us of Nat’s courtroom and jail cell confessions. Here was the moment when we could hear Nat’s eloquent words about why he did it. Nate Parker’s screenplay could have quoted Turner directly, condemning an evil institution and revealing his belief in a divinely ordained mission to eradicate slavery. And yet, we get nothing but his (accurate) last words of “I’m ready,” and a Christ-like depiction of martyrdom at the end of a noose.

****Spoilers over***

Despite these historical inaccuracies, this is a film that gets a lot of things right. Yes, as other reviewers have pointed out, slave women are largely depicted as needing a savior and are not front-and-center during the rebellion—but much else about the rebellion is wrong, not just the omission of women. Still, enslaved women are an integral part of the film. They are portrayed as the core of slave families, responsible for instilling the self esteem and self worth that the institution of slavery seeks to destroy. The enslaved community and its culture is shown as important to survival by creating camaraderie, love, and hope, elements that are sadly missing in many current slave movies. Yes, the film needs more of this, as do many of our other presentations of slavery (and if you have read much of my writing you know this is one of my pet peeves), but this film is about a true instance of violent rebellion, not day-to-day slave resistance. Further, the broad details of Nat Turner’s rebellion are correctly depicted: Turner is motivated by the wrathful God of the Old Testament; his preaching gives him many advantages that other slaves did not have; yet he leads a rebellion that shatters the image of happy and contented slaves (as it did at the time). The Old South we see in the film is a strange, complex, nay schizophrenic world, with a mixture of sadistic and more benign masters, tender, affectionate, and sometimes joyful slave families, and yet a palpable sense of dread and foreboding hovers over it all.

The Birth of a Nation is a fine and powerful film made with skill and passion. If you accept that it is merely based on a true story, and not actually the true story, you will be able to enjoy it and see it for what it is: another powerful and accurate depiction of the antebellum South that demolishes the lies of the Lost Cause and many of the Hollywood movies of the past.

Oh, and you’re gonna love that last shot just before the film fades to black.

Is the Birth of a Nation an “epic failure?”


The next big pop cultural hit on the Lost Cause goes nation-wide today. I’m going to try and see Birth of a Nation on Sunday so that I can post my thoughts about it on Monday. I hope everyone gets a chance to get to the theaters to check it out. In the meantime, there are several stories around the web today about the film, its place in Hollywood’s history of presenting slavery, its gender dynamic weaknesses, and the timing of the film given our current national divide on issues of race.  Reviews have been mixed, with some arguing that Turner comes off as too one dimensional and heroic. A review by Leslie M. Alexander, Professor of African American Studies at Ohio State, labels it an epic fail because of its interpretations and inaccuracies. Not promising! But I’m giving it a shot anyway. I hope you will too.

NBC’s Timeless was kinda fun; VP debate tonight; A better way to present conference papers?; Museum of African American History and Culture’s ticket system overwhelmed

Image result for nbc timeless

Next week on NBC’s Timeless our heroes meet Lincoln.

So I found myself enjoying NBC’s new time travel series, Timeless, last night. I don’t know if that passenger list for the return trip of the Hindenburg was accurate or not, but I don’t really care. Yes, the show is hokey, and it jumped into time travel too quickly, I thought. But it was a fun episode. Based on this interview with the show’s creators, it looks as though their aim is to keep it that way. Fun. I really like what they have to say in the interview about how television (and movies) these days seem to embrace the concept that to be good, you have to have dark and pessimistic themes. They want to buck that trend and return to more optimistic shows. Count me in. As for the history, check out what they have to say about the role of fate or free will in the show, the gender and race dynamics, as well as their belief that too much of history is presented from the perspective of “rich white dudes.”  I was going to continue watching anyway, but the interview sold me even more. I’m ready to suspend my disbelief every Monday night to watch the show and have some cheesy fun.  I’m looking forward to that Lincoln assassination episode next week because I’m betting it’ll be another pop cultural hit on the Lost Cause. If so, expect some longer comments about the show by me. Let’s see how it goes.

It will probably prove to be much less entertaining television, but the VP debate is tonight. Kaine is a big history buff, so I’ll be interested to see if he makes any points or references based in history. Lets listen for it. Did you know that the first VP debate was 40 years ago? Time lets us now how it went down.

Today on her blog, Megan Kate Nelson passes along some interesting thoughts she has been having about how to structure research paper presentations at history conferences. It is based on the model of “TED Talks,” and would definitely be better than just reading a research paper to your audience. (I think the model could also be used effectively in the classroom.) I’m also glad to learn that she auditioned for a potential new show that A&E is putting together for the History Channel in which they are going to get some honest-to-goodness historians to talk about history and current events. I was a bit too intimidated to audition (for now I am sticking to a local sports radio show talking about high school and college football), but I think she has exactly the personality that might work on such a show.

Looks like the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture is being overwhelmed with ticket requests, and it is causing some problems with their new system. If you want to get into the facility anytime this year, you are out of luck.