The news about Standing Rock breaks my heart, and I hope it is not getting overwhelmed in the public’s awareness by all the other insanity going on. Just a few weeks ago the protest movement’s success at getting the Army Corps of Engineers to halt the construction work was one of the only “feel good” stories of 2016, and most Americans seemed to agree. But now it is clear that the corps has received pressure from the Comrade-in-Chief to go ahead and allow the project to continue. As I mentioned when so-called president Trump first issued his executive order about the pipeline, this is shaping up to be a scary situation, as you can bet that the “Water Protectors” are not going to just go away. The number of arrests is growing quickly. Oh, and remember those US military veterans that pledged to help protect the protestors? They are returning and promise that this fight isn’t over. The tribes and the veterans have committed to nonviolent protests (and have a Washington march scheduled next month), at least for now. If their legal efforts can’t stop the construction, the tribes are promising that they will shut it down or later stop the operation of the pipeline. So what happens then? Meanwhile, the Putin-Puppet claims that he doesn’t know anyone that thinks this is a bad idea. WHAT? Listen, even if contamination of water was not an issue, the very fact that this is on land that the tribes consider to be sacred should be enough for everyone involved to want to see the pipeline diverted to somewhere else. Right? For years, I have ended my lecture on the Gilded Age violence between the US government and the indigenous populations of the great Plains with the sad tragedy at Wounded Knee. As I finished it up this semester, however, it is the first time I had to ponder with my classes whether or not Wounded Knee will continue to be the last violent chapter of the story. The difference, of course, is that this time the whole world would be watching. I hope.
As for other insanity: the silencing of Elizabeth Warren in the US senate the other day has got Americans talking about the “Gag Rule” from 1836, as well as the Caning of Charles Sumner and the legacy of Ben Tillman. Further, Ted Cruz offered a history lesson in which he insisted that the Democrats were the party of the KKK, and that has now led to a discussion about the ideological transformations in the two political parties over the course of US history. These are just the latest examples of how our current events are causing a renewed interest in history, but in a polarized/partisan way. You could argue that this national conversation and interest in our past is a good thing, even if it is partisan, because it drives people to read/research/ponder history and thus revives interest in it. On his always excellent blog, Nick Sacco is not buying it, and makes a passionate argument “that the value of studying history is not that it provides “answers” to contemporary problems or a solid blueprint for effective government policy in the future.” Instead, he feels the primary value of studying history is that it promotes and hones analytical skills. True, (and Lord knows that we need more of that and the open-mindedness that comes with it) although I do believe the past can be guide, no matter how imperfect or imprecise, for understanding the present and helping us to arrive at more informed answers to (and questions about) contemporary problems. In the end, however, I think that this renewed interest in history points out the value of professional historians. As we see partisans misuse and misinterpret history in ever growing numbers, it must be seen as a call-to-action for historians to inject ourselves into the national conversation, making sure that no one gets away with statements like Cruz’s. I don’t know how the rest of you that teach history feel, but in my twenty years of teaching, I have never felt the importance of my job more than I do right now.
But boy, we sure could use a laugh these days:
Tonight CNN premieres its new history series, The History of Comedy. I enjoyed their documentaries on the decades of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, so I am hopeful that this will be of the same high caliber. Sean Hayes (of Will and Grace) is the producer, and here’s a video interview with him discussing the series with Vanity Fair. “Everybody kind of looks to comedians and comedy for relief and a fresh breath about what is going on in the world,” he says. The series “is about discussing the influence comedy has on people in society. . . [exploring] what makes us laugh, why, and how that’s influenced our social and political landscape throughout history.” Count me in. It has also so far received good reviews, like this one from the New York Times. My only concern is that the focus seems to be only on modern comedy, and I wish it had a chronological structure to it. Not surprisingly, the first episode tonight is clearly meant as an attention grabber, as it focuses on the evolution of raunchy humor. That should reel them in. I hope it relies on more than just comedians as the “talking heads,” and leans a bit on academics, such as pop cultural historians. We shall see! In the meantime, here’s a teaser (complete with video clips) of 6 major moments when comedians shocked audiences by breaking barriers.