Why I’m a Fan of Drunk History

“You make life worth living.”
“Love this!”
“Can’t wait!”
“Wish it was on every night!”

Believe it or not, these are comments about history. Not the latest monograph shaking up the historical narrative, or a popular professor’s seminar, rather these are reactions to the television show Drunk History. If you’re not familiar with it, it goes like this: each episode tells three stories, usually revolving around a city, but sometimes a concept, like their “Sports” episode. An actor/comedian learns a story about a historical character, gets loaded, and recounts the story to the best of their ability. Costumed actors then reenact the retelling, and when the narrator quotes someone, the actors lip-synch the words. It is that simple. But the result is hilarious.


Part of what makes the stories so amusing is the fact that the drunken narrator uses contemporary language to describe people and events. Much of this language is vulgar. When the British take over Washington D.C. in the war of 1812, the narrator, and the costumed actor say, “British assholes are about to come take a giant dump on Washington.” The narrator describing the 19th century, “This is the 1800s. No one has any money. People were, like, sweeping the streets. And maybe you’d find, like, a crust of bacon. And you’d eat it.” African-American entrepreneur and abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant is described as the “head bitch in charge.” This language is familiar and not stuffy at all. It is the way friends who are very comfortable around each other talk. Seeing the costumed actors speak in this voice provides the comedy, and also makes the character accessible. It all feels like a drunken friend trying to explain something that happened to them last week.

The stories are always biographical, and are always either about a person you probably haven’t heard of but who has done some amazing things, or about someone familiar who did something surprising. Minorities and women are very often featured, as are gay, Lesbian, and working class people. This show is aimed at an audience educated with textbooks mediated by the state of Texas via the culture wars, and it does a great job highlighting the fact that our history is complex and intersectional. It also humanizes the “great men” of history. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson are backbiting jerks, and George Washington lives in a “fucked up wooden teethed, white hair powdered wig, goddamn fucking male chauvinist world.”

As for the people most people haven’t heard of, one episode featured an enslaved Robert Smalls who creates an opportunity to flee to the Union during the Civil War, and recruits other African-Americans into the Union army, flying in the face of those who buy the Lost Cause story of loyal Confederate slaves. Another features Sybil Ludington who goes on a midnight ride to round up the militia during the Revolution, outdoing Paul Revere by miles. Baron Von Stueben, gay man, teaches the Continental Army how to fight and become a disciplined force, blowing up the idea that gay men are less than masculine. There are too many stories like this to mention here. Show creator Derek Waters clearly has a mission both to entertain and to teach with this series. So what’s not to love?

Admittedly, this show does not provide the nuanced arguments of which academic historians are so fond. And being mostly biographical, the stories are limited because they can’t really cover wider events and historical processes. But people watch this, and they learn from this, much like they learn from Ken Burns’ miniseries. The difference here is that Drunk History does not claim that its stories happened exactly as they are retold. We are all in on the joke, which is more honest than claiming to know exactly what happened. Have historians not wanted to show a complex history that includes more actors than just the rich white men since the days of the New Social History? Aren’t they suspicious of claims to objective truth? The stories presented are not just made up, they are all fairly solid in the events that happened, timeline, etc. They just don’t claim to be exacting recreations.

Perhaps you object to the drunkenness, but realize that it is the fact that the narrators are drunk that allows them to talk about controversial subjects, and, as in vino veritas, it gives the narrator’s feelings about a subject more weight. Most of the narrators are very passionate about the stories they’re telling.

Does learning history have to be boring to be valuable? I hope none of us believe that. Perhaps we should embrace the show and incorporate it into teaching, as a jumping off point for more nuanced discussion, especially about how people of the past relate to people and power today. And we should be happy that students (and young people in general) are learning history in alternate ways, and finding it delightful.

Review of The Minutemen and Their World – Robert A. Gross

The Minutemen and Their World by John Gross was written in 1976, at the height of the popularity of the New Social History. While others used legal documents, inventories, and other sources to produce town studies designed to tease out the lived experience of non-elites, Gross’ work was more ambitious. He wanted to place everyday people into the context of the American Revolution. Concord, Massachusetts was an obvious choice of town to study, since it played such an important role in the start of the war. When Gross combined his social history with the standard political history of the revolution, something new emerged that was different from both social and political history; it became a study of the ways in which everyday people become politicized enough to revolt.

Gross argues that colonial Americans saw themselves in local terms. In other words, their social position was mediated through local relationships. And in late 18th century Concord, there were cracks in the social cohesion. Part of this is the nature of the New England town, where taxpayers supported religion and everyone was expected to participate to a degree. By this time elites were full church members, but most people were not. As economic pressures expanded town boundaries, going to church meetings became a huge burden on those in remote areas, yet they were unable to get support to form their own churches because they were still expected to fund the main town church, which mainly benefited the elite. It is in this circumstance that revolutionary rumblings from Boston reached Concord. Gross argues that these divisions allowed everyday people to confront traditional authority. Coupled with Britain’s desire to more tightly control colonial affairs, Concordians became revolutionaries.

The newfound ability to question traditional authority did not turn the world upside down. In fact Concordians kept and respected social strata in their militias and elsewhere, but it did make them more attuned to abuses of elite power and the ways in which it could circumscribe their own lives. They wanted elite power to be good and right, as was the contemporary ideal, and would do anything to defend such power. Only when they felt their own rights were being abused would they complain, and ultimately revolt.

Even when they decided to resist the restrictions placed upon them from London, they still desired to keep their community whole. Pressure was placed on those who resisted embargoes to comply. The political ideals of the day meant that elites who wished to resist revolt could not even argue their point as that would have seemed self-interested, which would have put one’s elite status into question. Divisions, therefore, were negotiated away rather than argued for their own sake. Revolutionary rumblings actually united the town more solidly than it had been in the previous decades as these negotiations appeased those in the outskirts who were asserting their rights against the town core.

Concord became, as a result of its geography, the place where the Massachusetts government chose to stockpile arms. Thus the townspeople participated in a militarization of their town. Militia musters increased greatly in frequency, and took place in the center of town. While elite status still meant an elevated status in the militia, Gross points out that compared to British regulars who had deep class divisions when compared to officers, the local nature of the Concord militia meant that the divisions were far more subtle and actually increased town cohesion as all the locals were expected to defend their town.

Gross sees the restrictions of the town structure, and the lack of availability of new land, as important in making young people resist parental authority. If one wanted to inherit parental land when the town was new and the farms still fertile, it was important to obey one’s parents. But as farmland was worn out, and dividing up town farms further would not give a person the means to support himself, this obedience to parental authority waned. Entering a trade was an insecure proposition, as it relied on indebtedness and the fluctuations of the market. Gross sees the insecurity of young people’s prospects as being important to the move toward revolt, as elders saw the world they expected to pass on to their sons disappearing, and sons resisted the figurative authority of the crown as they resisted the authority of their fathers.

When the first shots were fired at Concord, the town became a place where American identity was created against British identity. British regulars raped; Minutemen scalped. Women used cunning to protect American interests, while the British threatened to kill their newborns. In the end American ingenuity saved the common goods so that the Minutemen could fight another day, and the British atrocities were borne and survived.

After the battle, Concordians began to see themselves as part of a wider world intent on revolution. As the war dragged on structural changes occurred that would permanently alter the townspeople and how they saw themselves. Young, landless men serving in the army saw parts of the country they would not have otherwise seen. Students from Harvard College relocated temporarily to Concord and brought with them exciting new social prospects. Economic changes shook up the class hierarchy of the town. The birthrate slowed. Occupations changed to focus on the war effort. Even the deference afforded to elites in most instances changed. But at the end of the war, the same problems with the availability and fertility of the land still existed, and young people, having experienced the outside world, still left.

Gross shows how older forms of town cohesion changed as elites started voluntary associations and asserted their authority through them instead of the community. The community suffered because of this as membership in one meant a distancing from those not associated. Young people, in the face of economic prosperity, altered traditions and threw off older styles completely, even those that had supported the revolution that allowed them to do so. The revolution was one that sought to protect the status quo, but Gross argues that the demonstrated ability to throw off authority that was no longer working altered the way the next generation saw their world, and allowed them to remake it.

The fact that this is, at heart, a social history means that individual actions are sometimes subsumed to statistical probabilities. While a cultural historian looks for all of the discursive possibilities, the social historian assumes that people act in the most probable ways based on data. This is a shortcoming of social history in my view, but does not lessen the quality of Gross’ work for the innovation that it was.

It may be this drive for probability that causes Gross to be rather critical of the practice of sustenance farming. While I agree that there were serious problems with the model, Gross’ distaste for the practice verges on the edge of proclaiming that market capitalism is the natural state of things. In this work, too, the absence of cultural history methods reduces women and the enslaved to statistical footnotes, since records on them are far less common. Gross did try to include these groups, but the coverage seems understandably thin based on the method.

Lastly, Gross’ reflection in the afterward that his fascination with the youth of Concord was related to the counter-cultural movement of youth in the 1960s is understandable, but I wonder if this would have been better served with some emotional distance. The cultural changes of the 1960s ultimately led to the conservative triumph of the 1980s and historians are exploring how that process occurred and showing how the youth movement was often very conservative. Since the radical nature of the American Revolution also turned rather conservative in the post-War era, this would be something worth exploring vis-à-vis youth culture of the late 18th century.

Robert A. Gross, The Minutemen and Their World, 25th edition (Hill and Wang, 2011).

What I Learned about William Byrd (and us) by Making Him Tweet

A couple of months ago I decided I wanted to learn PHP, since that is a common programming language for the web widely used by the Open Source community.  I like having an actual project in mind when learning a language, rather than relying on tutorials that often cover topics that aren’t that useful to Digital Humanities projects. Inspired by @samuelpepys and http://www.pepysdiary.com/, which is both a digital archive of Samuel Pepys and a Twitter feed that utilizes that archive, I thought it might be interesting if Virginia’s own 18th century diarist, William Byrd II, had a similar website and Twitter feed.

My first task was to get some diary entries into a database, which made me consider carefully how to structure that database. In the end the structure is a copy of the original, physical structure: a column for the diary name, the diary entry date, and the text of the entry in its entirety.

So far this has not caused me to think too much about the diary entries themselves, which follow a similar daily pattern – Breakfast and morning reading, visits and interactions, dinner, prayers (or not) and a pulse check on how the day went. When one reads Byrd’s diaries, these things are taken as Byrd intended, as a whole assessment of an entire day. While letters between people, even family members followed a rigid convention in the 18th century (see Sarah Persall’s Atlantic Families p. 70-79), Byrd’s diary entries also follow a convention although, being secret, it didn’t have to. Byrd was interested in keeping his entries both temporal and focused on tracking particular events, such as food, exercise, familial relations, business dealings, and prayers.

Byrd’s diaries are a unique primary source because they were written in a secret code and intended for Byrd’s personal use; no one else was going to read them. This diary has been a boon for historians of slavery and gender/sexuality, because while these topics were not spoken about much between people, Byrd felt free to write about them in his secret diary. But most readers, like Byrd himself, read the text as a daily whole. Yes, people have gone through and found all mentions of the enslaved, or all sexual encounters, but the rest of that day’s entry, and the surrounding entries usually contextualize these readings. By making William Byrd tweet I took away the context.

My tweeting strategy from a programmatic standpoint was to tweet whenever someone loads the page at http://www.williambyrdsays.net, which will display a random day’s diary entry. The script takes the diary entry and breaks it up into individual sentences. I then randomly select a sentence, and if it’s under 140 characters, I use the Twitter API to send it as a tweet from @williambyrdsays. Once I got this working the resulting Twitter feed astounded me. William Byrd II, different word use notwithstanding, could for the most part be any contemporary tweeter. He tweeted, as some do, about what he had for dinner, about the weather, and about his exercise habits. His tweets about interpersonal interactions were personal, but not overly reflective, as are many tweets where people are tweeting about hanging out with others, or being angry at others.

What this tells me about both Byrd and contemporary Twitter users is that what was important for a man to record as a record of his personal life in the 18th century are strikingly similar to what people feel are things worth saying about their lives in the 21st.

Yes, the audience is different, but the idea that the same concerns are what people use to convey identity is amazing to me. And I never would have made the connection without doing this (rather silly) exercise.

There are some critics of the Digital Humanities who say that DH reifies distant reading, but in the case of this project the opposite happened. Sentences glossed over, considered unimportant because they are repeated so many times, become important when they stand on their own and are publicly revealed.


Commercialism, Politics, and Public History Historiography

In answering the question “who owns the past?” one must engage with two concepts, the first being the past, and the second being ideas of ownership. Recent scholarship in public history points to a broad idea of both of these terms. The past can be artifacts in the Smithsonian, landscapes, or even consumer goods meant to serve as a token of remembrance. Ownership can mean control over narratives through structures of authority, or control via the actual ownership of artifacts. In the late 20th century there was a change in what and who owned the past in all of these regards, with expertise losing ground to moneyed interests, and those with political might gaining power over those with less. This generally follows the rise of conservatism in the 20th century, and is not surprising if seen as part of this process.

In Possessed by the Past, David Lowenthal argues that heritage, the creation of a mythic past to do necessary cultural work to explain the present, is different from history. The key difference is that history, while also doing cultural work, is required to have sources and is based on research. While Lowenthal is clearly skeptical of the heritage industry, he also concedes that history is not strictly objective. History, too, is doing cultural work. The lines are blurry, but heritage, according to Lowenthal, “requires historical error.” In this way he shows that he is wary of the erosion of historian’s professional authority in constructing a past, but allowing that even the historian’s history is constructed.

David Glassberg’s series of essays in Sense of History is similar to Lowenthal’s argument in that it acknowledges that the history that people outside the profession are interested in differs from what professional historians are creating. He advises historians to look to their own humanity in order to bridge this gap. People, according to Glassberg, want to find personal connections to history, and historians are skeptical of the value of connecting with the past in a personal way. What he misses is that popular histories, like the Civil War miniseries, are popular because people are not only making personal connections, but that these personal connections are for the most part flattering. African Americans did not personally connect with this narrative, and therefore did not watch. Ken Burns had found a niche and filled a need; it was not meant to be for everyone.

Appealing to niche audiences becomes more problematic when the creator of the narrative is the Federal Government, which is supposed to represent everyone. Denise Meringolo’s history of the National Park Service shows that government is not immune to the changing nature of the American culture. National public history begins with the park service, but visions of what history meant was not strictly dictated by Washington, as workers and visitors on the ground made their own, useful narratives. When the field of public history began to be taught in universities, it created a tension between non-professional practitioners and professionals. Similar to Glassberg, she proposes public historians become attuned to the needs of the public. But there is a political aspect to the National Parks, and funding issues, that challenge the authority of university-trained public historians.

Robert Post, Seth Bruggeman, and Anne Whisnant have all recently written institutional histories of nationally owned public history sites, and all deal with change in direction of their institutions over time. Post’s work is about the Smithsonian’s American History and Air and Space museums, which at their inception were both under the umbrella of “technology.” Mid-century saw the advent of exhibit design. Exhibits were made appealing to visitors to entice more visitors to come through the doors. Late in the century, political and business interests intermingled to drive the direction of exhibits, pushing out trained historians. Political and business interests cannot be separated; in an age of austerity, and valorization of private enterprise, government and business become one and the same. Even purely political fights, such as over the Enola Gay exhibit, are staged in such a way as to imply that brand America might be tarnished if anything negative is said about the US in World War II.

Bruggeman shows how wealthy interests have long held power over public history sites in his study of Wakefield – George Washington’s birthplace. Wealthy, powerful women drove the narrative at the beginning, making the site appeal to their tastes and how they wanted to remember Washington. Later, when professional historians challenged the narrative, there were heated battles over the narrative of the site. Visitorship at this site is low, showing how the cultural work that the ladies set out to do early in the century does not resonate today, and attempts to show a more “authentic” site plan has failed to reignite visitors’ imaginations. In this way it is almost the reverse of Post’s and Linenthal’s narratives. Once moneyed interests left Wakefield, so did the visitors. This touches on Glassberg’s point about the need for public historian’s to get in touch with their humanity to tap into the cultural zeitgeist in order to improve a site’s appeal.

Anne Whisnant’s Super Scenic Motorway also shows how commercial and political interests shape public historic spaces, but in her account of the creation of the Blue Ridge Parkway, it is national powers that mostly dictate over local interests. The exception is when local people are able to either play the system, in the case of Grandfather Mountain, or to present a united political front, in the case of the Cherokee. As with Wakefield, commercial interests shaped the Blue Ridge from the beginning, with regions only signing on with promises of tourism and development dollars. But national government’s push to keep the highway free from commercial interests thwarted many plans. Moreover, the national narrative of Appalachian people being stuck in time and backward was furthered and reinforced by the creation of the highway. Middle-class city dwellers wanted to visit the parkway to see picturesque hillbillies and did not want to see anything that might make them question their presumptions. As Whisnant and Bruggeman show, commercial interests in public historic spaces are nothing new.

Julia King, too, shows how St. Mary’s City is designed to appeal to visitors who have a particular view of the past that they do not want challenged. In leaving the assumptions of certain groups unchallenged, other groups’ stories are necessarily left out. Again, much of the dictating of the narrative comes from political interests, which in this case dictate how a space must remain decidedly non-commercial in order to maintain a landscape vision that will adhere to certain romantic remembering of the past. King argues that multivalent narratives are necessary for people to make that personal connection to historic sites that Glassberg argues for. But with interests keen on, somewhat ironically, keeping out commercial interests, the usefulness of the area for many is constrained.

Tammy Gordon’s Spirit of 1976 argues that the American Bicentennial celebration was seen as being cheapened by crass commercialism – one could get bicentennial themed anything – but by the 1980s, commercial interests having a hand in national celebrations was perfectly acceptable. The idea of a celebration that is national in scope, and pure in that it is free of commercial interests, was still a desire that some had in the 1970s. The conservative turn of the 1980s, however, made this kind of pure celebration impossible. It would never be funded. But is a pure national celebration even possible? If one looks at the experience Whisnant lays out concerning the Blue Ridge, it is clear that national interests are largely urban and middle-class. Again, some are left out. In Gordon’s account of the Bicentennial, many groups found ways to celebrate in their own ways, even if they were not directly interested in the American Revolution. And part of what allowed this was the commercial marketing of the celebration.

Contemporary public historians must contend with a government that is not interested in funding their projects. Public/private partnerships are considered the ideal way to fund projects. As such, it is often necessary to bend to commercial interests. But rather than seeing this as merely a grab for authority, public historians can look at sites where commercial and donor interests have been successful in helping people connect with sites and artifacts. Glassberg’s assertion that historians should look to their own humanity to find ways to connect with the public applies to political and commercial interests as well. We are all human, and living in a time when identities are largely created and reinforced by commercial choices and possibilities. And connecting with these commercially-produced identities is what make people visit sites.

Reaction Paper to Memorial Mania

Michelle Davison
February 10, 2014

Review of Memorial Mania

Erika Doss’ Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America describes and analyzes the relatively new desire in the US to memorialize events. She argues that these memorials are intended to evoke emotional responses in those who visit them. They are conceived by those who feel the emotional response to the events they are memorializing should be remembered. In Doss’ view, memorials can tell us a lot about those who create them in that they expose who and what is deserving of commemoration, and who and what is either subsumed or ignored. The best memorials, according to Doss, are those which are able to show multivalent interests and serve a wide public.
Doss acknowledges that this mania for memorials is tied to a mania for statues that existed from the mid-19th century until the early 20th century. This mania was decidedly top-down, and was an attempt by the powerful to create a consensus about what it meant to be an American in the wake of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It is no accident that most of these statues celebrate white manhood, and immigrant groups used memorials to their men to assert a claim to their equality to non-immigrant white men. African-Americans, too, erected statues honoring important figures, but these were mostly self-funded endeavors, while white men were commemorated with public money. Martial manhood was especially celebrated, and many of these depicted an abstract war participant rather than an individual. It took a questioning of what it meant to be an American, and the allowing of competing views, to quell the enthusiasm for commemorative statues.
Today Americans have taken this statue mania and modified it to fit the need to create “the symbolic expression of particular concerns.” There are key differences between statue mania and memorial mania. First, statues were usually figurative while memorials can be figurative or more abstract. Second, the top down nature of statue mania is mitigated by the fact that diverse groups seek to memorialize, and this is not to necessarily gain consensus, but instead is meant to legitimize their concerns as being worthy of memorializing. Doss argues that the term “memorial” is preferred over “monument” today precisely because monuments are meant to be seen only one way, while memorials allow one to evaluate their own place and feelings in the events being memorialized.
The rest of Doss’ book is divided into sections based on the emotions various memorials are meant to inspire. In the chapter on “Grief,” Doss argues that “unexpected, violent, and televisualized death” results in the phenomenon known as the “temporary memorial.” Doss finds these memorials fairly formulaic in composition, with teddy bears, flowers, and hand-written notes being ubiquitous, and for that reason are the contemporary method of communal mourning. Doss seems skeptical of the ability of things purchased to deal with grief. Her emphasis is on loss, not remembrance. In Doss’ view, the purchase of items to place on temporary memorials encourages remembrance in an unhealthy way. This critique of the way the contemporary public deals with tragic events seems particularly harsh, as Doss comments on the cheapness and availability of items typically used in these memorials. That they are so typically used does seem to point to the effectiveness of the cultural work that temporary memorials to tragedy does.
Doss is critical of the cooption of tragedies by certain groups, but the religious right in particular. She believes that “grief’s affective potential in America lies in its ability to mobilize social and political action, and to orchestrate productive change.” When the religious right wields this power, however, it is not considered by Doss to be an acceptable action. The 20th century has witnessed the rise of conservatism, and in some instances conservatism’s adherents have the cultural authority over certain circumstances. Yes, there is contention when it comes to sudden, unexpected tragedy, but many who are Christians look to faith to reassure them. While one may not agree with the political agenda put forward, one cannot dismiss the people who are true believers. Are they not entitled to their feelings and identities?
Doss is also critical of the pressure put on some institutions to catalog and preserve the consumer goods that make up temporary memorials. Since these goods are cheap, mass-produced consumer goods, and are not made of “precious materials,” she does not think them worthy of the bother of a “museum-trained archivist.” One wonders if she would find consumer goods worthy of museums at all, in any circumstance, since most things contemporary Americans value and base their identities on are mass-produced and usually cheap. The cheapness and widespread availability of digital media is also critiqued. The 9/11 Digital Archive is called out for particular criticism, as it is not concerned with verification of stories uploaded to the site. Doss calls this “critically vacuous” and goes on to say, “by refusing the risk of interpretation it fails to interrogate how and why (and which) experiences and feelings constitute self and national identity.” But this does not seem to be the project of the 9/11 Digital Archive, which seems to be more interested in discursive possibility than the making of identities.
Doss’ concerns about cheapness call out her belief in the power of consumerism to memorialize, but she does not seem to think memorials are valuable unless they are expensive to produce and require a Herculean effort to realize. It is the DIY ethos that she seems to have trouble with, yet it is this very sense of belief that the individual is important that pervades contemporary American culture. That digital methods are fairly cheap and easy for individuals to produces is called “narcissistic” by Doss. Again, if these methods did not serve a cultural purpose, they would not exist. These DIY methods showcase the range of identities that can be made of tragedies and give power to those who may never have it in institutionally mediated settings. Yes, some of these responses will be trite or downright ugly, but they exist and that is what matters. If you are looking for one, simple answer to the way people should feel about tragedy, this diversity is a problem, but the solution should not be to dismiss these efforts, rather it should be to explore the meaning behind it.
In her chapter on “Fear”, Doss points to the meaning of many memorials related to terrorist attacks. She argues that these are designed to remind citizens of their vulnerability, and the result is that Americans feel the need for more security, and that Americans are unified in this. Minimalist designs are used in this type of memorial “because of its theatricality, its emphasis on felt experience and audience engagement.” These traits are necessary to unify Americans. The stories of terrorism tend to leave out the terrorists, which makes nuanced thinking about terrorist acts impossible. Even putting the names of victims on these memorials is a political act according to Doss, designed to convey “a deceitful narrative of national consensus.” Again, Doss is critical in this chapter of those who respond to trauma by consuming souvenirs and memorabilia. But it is in this way we are conditioned to respond. By owning a souvenir, we are able to show that we identify with others who are feeling loss.
Memorials to war are analyzed in Doss’ chapter on “Gratitude.” She critiques most of these memorials, the World War II Memorial in Washington D.C. is the subject of particular criticism, on the basis that they make war seem like a noble sacrifice for which the public should be grateful. Again, this message intends to unify feelings about war, but later in the chapter she gives examples of war memorials that attempt to show the scale of loss in a real, public way. The narrative of war is contentious, which is why erecting permanent memorials only reflects the needs of some in the present, and these meanings will be diminished over time. Just as we are able to historicize statue mania, so will our future selves historicize various war memorials.
In her chapter on “Shame,” Doss finds some memorials that do nuanced work representing some aspects of the past that many would like to forget, and some others that miss the mark. Duluth’s memorial to three men who were lynched there gives these men the dignity they lost when a mob killed them and used their mangled bodies as spectacle. Other attempts at using memorialization to acknowledge America’s ugly, racist past have been less effective.
In the final chapter, Doss covers “Anger” by showing how communities resist narratives they feel are being imposed on them via memorials. This becomes a problem especially when there are multivalent histories that could be memorialized. The solution is not more memorials because “commemorative accrual must be accompanied b a critical reconsideration of historical memory itself.” But this political reconsideration is in itself a political act that can inspire contention. Reacting to anger about inclusion is where Doss feels real progress can be made, as long as contentious groups can discuss matters civilly.
Doss’ work attempts to show how “memorial mania” has worked in our culture in a political way to try to drive unity and common feeling. This has washed away any discussion about why the things being memorialized happened, leading instead to sanitized narratives. She sees hope in memorials that show many perspectives at once, while at the same time disparaging the importance of the individual’s response to events being memorialized. Consumer responses are also looked down upon for their supposed cheapness and inability to convey feeling the way that Doss feels art can. Yet each memorial is a consumer choice. The difference is those funding the projects make these choices, be they national or local governments, or private donors. Yes, memorialization is inherently political, but the belief that large, expensive memorials are more meaningful and useful to the public than individual responses, even if they are standardized responses, conveys elitism on the part of the author that seeks to limit the range of acceptable responses and feelings.

Reaction Paper to A Generation Divided

Rebecca Klatch argues in A Generation Divided that the generation of people who were young adults in the 1960s were not a monolithic entity. She shows that there were a variety of political stances young people could adopt, including traditional conservatism. These young conservatives were able to create the conservative movement that has dominated American politics since the 1970s. People who identified with the other two groups she covers, libertarians and leftists, have largely left high politics behind, instead focusing on their own personal politics through their lifestyle and career. It was divisions amongst these latter groups that caused them to fall apart as organized political causes. Only traditional conservatism survived the tumultuous movements of the late 1960s.

Klatch acknowledges that not everyone in this generation was political, and she seeks to find out what set the young people who did base their identities largely on politics came to choose that method of identity formation. She shows how parents and other adults encouraged political activism by modeling it themselves, but later implies that it was peers who helped set an individual’s political identity, and then still later says that political identities could change. This line of reasoning is very confusing, and seems to apply causation to group dynamics, rather than larger cultural opportunities. This is possibly the result of Klatch’s training as a sociologist rather than a historian.

The author’s use of oral histories, and her obvious respect for her subjects, makes the tone of this work uncritical. The privilege of these subjects is never addressed, even though she does note how many entered graduate school at elite institutions after finding themselves adrift in the 1970s, while others easily obtained jobs with powerful politicians. Some of these people discuss with great earnestness the most correct flavors of Marxism, and the irony of this is never addressed. The conservatives wish to preserve traditional families and defend property rights, but Klatch never talks about what they thought might be threatening those rights.

Many of these elites, particularly the leftists and libertarians, made up the anti-war movement. These are the people that the young men coming back from the war in Vietnam could not find common ground with, and Klatch’s description of their motives makes this disconnect seem obvious. It seems the elite protesters had political litmus tests the returning soldiers would never be able to meet, and they seem to have their own ideas about why the war was bad that would be problematized by the input of actual soldiers.

Klatch’s work is a detailed account of the political movements she covers, but it could have been vastly improved by placing these movements within the larger culture. For example, she talks about how some of the politically-minded young people embraced the counterculture while others consciously rejected it. Klatch seems to think that the counterculture, because of its messy, contradictory nature is outside of politics. But it was another way for young people to create an identity, and even though this identity did not always match the ideologies tied to “left” and “right,” it is still a political identity in that it is a rejection of conventional values.

A Generation Divided is a useful book in understanding the motives of young people who joined organized political movements to create identities. The author’s desire to place these people into categories, even self-conceived categories, makes this work less useful when it comes to understanding how these people influenced, and were influenced by, the larger culture.

Reaction Paper to Stayin’ Alive

Jefferson Cowie’s Stayin’ Alive describes the differences between the idea of a working class in the 1930s and the 1970s. In the 1930s class-based identity, especially among the working class, was an acceptable and attractive one. The people who fought for working-class rights then did not just want increased incomes and job security, but also a better quality of life both in and out of the workplace. By the next economic downturn in the 1970s, the post-War boom had changed working-class identity profoundly. Race had long been used as a tactic by industrial employers to divide workers in order to better control them, but by the 1970s, the failure of the white, male working class to see themselves as having a common interest with black workers helped to end the idea of the desirability of a united working-class identity.

This book has ties to Lizabeth Cohen’s A Consumer’s Republic in that labor union members in the 1930s did not yet create identities through consumption. It was only through the War and Post-War eras that consumption became all important to identity. Thus the change in labor union demands in the 1970s for consistently higher wages, with no mention of changes to what were repetitive assembly line jobs that did not present much mental challenge. This points to fundamental cultural differences between workers of the two eras; one defined himself by his work, the other by his ability to consume. Consumption is an inherently individual process, whereas work is a group process. The latter obviously lends itself better to the ability to create an identity based on class rather than trying to assert individual rights.

The intersection of race and class calls to mind Kevin Kruse’s White Flight. With the advent of integrated workplaces, white workers no more wanted to bond with black workers in class solidarity than they wanted to share public facilities and neighborhoods. The belief that blacks might have been taking jobs away from better qualified whites through Affirmative Action programs further exacerbated intraclass tensions. This also caused some white workers to claim reverse discrimination as individuals who were turned down for specific jobs. This is profoundly different than the Civil Rights’ contention that an entire group encountered discrimination. The fact that the economic crisis of the 1970s and the forces of deindustrialization meant that the economy was bleeding jobs only made the situation seem worse for white workers. Rather than pointing to corporations, and the economic policies that favored them, they pointed to Affirmative Action as being the source of their woes.

This misplacement of blame is remarkable – Cowie speaks directly to the illogic of the arguments that workers themselves were to blame for downsizing and offshoring – but falls in line with the movement away from class identity to one of individual agency. Workers blamed themselves for demanding too much and believed in the argument that they were less efficient than foreign workers. They turned to union excesses as the beginning of this deindustrialization process, and thus class cooperation became synonymous with job loss for individuals.

Cowie shows how this turn away from class identity was not a foregone conclusion, and there were glimmers of hope in some union activities that seemed to emphasize quality of working life over higher wages and conspicuous consumption. But these glimmers faded as cultural forces demanded workers see themselves as individual actors in contention with one another, rather than a class of people. This ultimately hurt workers in everything from demanding living wages to quality of life issues.