The Mirage of the Desert Fox: Erwin Rommel and the Whitewashing of the Nazi Past

Erwin Rommel comes as close to being a household name in America as a Nazi general can get. In 2008, for example, military historian Charles Messenger published a biography, Rommel: Leadership Lessons from the Desert Fox, that praised Rommel’s skill on the battlefield, arguing that his command style provided valuable lessons for the Gulf Wars of 1991 and 2003, as well as the U.S. war in Afghanistan.[1] The foreword, written by former NATO commander Wesley Clark, remarks that “no foreign general has ever quite inspired as much passion, curiosity and respect among Americans as German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.”[2] A biography from 2015 is even more effusive. Daniel Allen Butler begins Field … [Read more...]

A Brief History of Sanctuary Cities

As everyone with a Twitter feed already knows, Donald J. Trump is no friend of immigrants. In a spate of hot-headed executive orders this week, he slammed the door shut on refugees, banned visitors from seven Muslim countries, and promised to build a “Great Wall” physically separating us from Mexico. But his wrath extended past Mexican day laborers and Muslim asylum seekers to take aim at the traitors within. In an executive jeremiad, Trump torched “sanctuary jurisdictions” for “willfully” violating federal law and causing “immeasurable harm to the American people and to the very fabric of our Republic.” To such harmers of the Republican Fabric he threatens to withhold all federal funds, … [Read more...]

Settin’ the Woods on Fire in the Countercultural South

I recently contributed an essay to a volume that’s forthcoming from UNC Press called The Bohemian South.  You can count me as one who is skeptical of a tradition of bohemianism in the South, at least as it is now manifested and understood. Whatever bohemianism means, it is not skinny jeans and food trucks—a familiar scene one can find in the trendier lanes of Atlanta or Durham or Richmond these days.  Sure, there was North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, where Robert Creeley and John Cage cavorted in the 1950s, as well as a smattering of other avant-garde cultures in the history of the South. But the bohemianism of today’s urban creative class seems like just a hipper … [Read more...]

Plains, Projects, and Alleyways: The Problem of Environmental Determinism in Architecture & History

Years ago, I saw a man at a Quaker meeting stand up and say, “Who you are begins with where you are.” To some this assertion may be self-evident, while for others it says entirely too much. One could say identity started any number of places other than place itself—in genetics, in culture, in social interaction. As such, the Friends’ meeting house provides a good point of departure for a discussion of the notion that people’s ideas and behavior are shaped by their physical surroundings. This “environmental determinism,” like so many determinisms, has been decried as too causally simplistic, for intruding too much on the ability of people to make their own world rather than being made by … [Read more...]

SACRPH 2015: The Politics (and Non-Politics) of the Unplanned City in the US, UK, and Germany

Panels at conferences often feel like a hastily assembled mishmash of different things, like a fruit salad made by Mr. Magoo. Scholars who do not know each other and know less about each other’s research work together over email to try to slap together panel proposals that seem just plausible enough to pass muster with weary conference organizers, who have papers to grade, toddlers with runny noses, and annoying emails from students to answer. (In my best John Oliver voice: If the reading is listed next to the class date on the syllabus, you read it BEFORE CLASS on that day Jeremy!) But occasionally you get to see a panel where all the papers interlock in meaningful and intellectually … [Read more...]

Was the Constitution Racist? Sanders and Wilentz May Both Be Wrong

Bernie Sanders thinks America was founded on racist principles. Sean Wilentz, the Pulitzer Prize nominated historian, disagrees. “The myth,” wrote Wilentz in an op-ed published in the New York Times, “that the United States was founded on racial slavery persists, notably among scholars and activists on the left who are rightly angry at America’s racist past.” So who’s right? Neither. Bernie Sanders’s statement about America’s racist Founding was not a proper argument, nor was it really meant to be. Sanders’s concern is justice today, and whether it is income equality or racial injustice he is targeting, the past is more of a convenient backdrop than a site of serious inquiry. Sean … [Read more...]

Jeff Davis’s Ghost: The Long Battle over the Memory of the Civil War

History versus heritage? Memory versus history? Whose history and why? These questions are currently brewing a controversy at the University of Texas-Austin campus. The controversy swirls around a statue of Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederate States of America. The turn-of-the-century statue is being hotly contested because of its association with a certain memory of the Civil War and for the heritage it represents. To opponents of the statue, Davis represents a racist past – one incongruous with a multicultural present. Those battling to preserve the statue, namely the Sons of Confederate Veterans, claim that the Davis statue represents a piece of heritage. Contestations over … [Read more...]

The Thing Called Information: Understanding Alienation in the Post-Industrial Economy

“Here, and shockingly few other places in this country, men are paid to increase knowledge, to work toward no end but that.” “That’s very generous of General Forge and Foundry Company.” “Nothing generous about it. New knowledge is the most valuable commodity on earth. The more truth we have to work with, the richer we become." Had I been a Bokononist then, that statement would have made me howl. - Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Cat’s Cradle, 1963[1] The late Kurt Vonnegut loved to skewer the irrationality of both science and religion in his novels. In the acclaimed Cat’s Cradle, he invented Bokononism—a faith that encouraged its adherents to believe in lies or, at least, “harmless … [Read more...]

What Did the Three-Fifths Compromise Actually Do?

Occasionally, a student asks a question so basic, about a presumption so fundamental to the teaching of history, that an instructor is caught completely unaware. A friend of mine found this out in his US history survey—in teaching about the colonization of the Americas, he made the commonplace assertion that indigenous peoples were highly susceptible to diseases brought from the Old World. Of course, we all know that smallpox, measles, and yellow fever ravaged the New World—at times literally decimating local populations—while the Americas only really sent back syphilis and lung cancer in return. But why, one student asked, were Native Americans so highly vulnerable to diseases from … [Read more...]

Donkey Kong, the IRB, and the Perils of Doing “Recent” History

The past, it seems, keeps getting farther away—or, rather, what passes for a legitimate past does.  In the early 1940s, Richard Hofstadter wrote a celebrated dissertation that became Social Darwinism in American Thought, 1860-1915. His study ended little more than twenty years before the Columbia graduate student began casting about for a thesis topic, but few carped at the time that Hofstadter’s probing assessment of American political and intellectual culture was “too recent.” Yet I faced a different set of expectations when I started to work on the history of music piracy for my dissertation: isn't this a contemporary issue?  Wasn't Napster just a few years back?  Even if piracy … [Read more...]