A historian explains the surprising link between evangelicalism and the rhetoric at raucous school board meetings

At one recent school board meeting in suburban Philadelphia, a woman wearing a shirt with the slogan "StopMedicalTyranny" concluded her anti-masking testimony by arguing that trans-positive books teach children that they may "choose" their gender. Then she offered a prayer, "in Jesus name," asking among other things that God "guard our children's minds from harmful instruction." She believed that her ultimate freedom to make choices for herself and her children, in other words, was imperiled by teachers who imposed ideas she opposed. Similar protests against mask and vaccine mandates have erupted in school districts across the United States.

Religious conversion, an especially transformative sort of personal decision, is fundamental to these politics of "freedom" and "choice." White evangelical Protestants, in particular, have crafted an argument for conversion as the paramount choice or decision, creating an identity that determines an individual's spiritual as well as political beliefs. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, evangelical Protestantism was a still-marginal movement on the cusp of greater popularity and power. Evangelical leaders realized that born-again conversions could meld the ideas of being saved, privileging whiteness, and opposing LGBTQ rights.

This history of born-again conversion and American politics helps explain why a surprising number of public comments against school mask mandates include tirades against LGBTQ-inclusive curricula.

Many of the individuals and groups organizing in opposition to mask and vaccination mandates are tied to conservative evangelical and Christian nationalist groups. Taught that they are defending American values and fighting a tyrannical, coercive mandate by un-Christian authorities, they rise to defend what they believe is their Constitutional right to disobey public health policies.

The idea of the born-again conversion as we understand it today originates with eighteenth-century Methodists, who first popularized the spontaneous conversion. Over the next two centuries, Protestant revivals created ecstatic converts who were born again in Christ. In the 1940s and 1950s, celebrity preacher Billy Graham introduced the idea of making a "decision for Christ" during his mid-twentieth-century crusades and in his convert-seeking magazine, Decision. Passionately anti-Communist, Graham nudged his conservative evangelical followers to conflate their Christian faith with American freedoms and to understand Communism as coercive mind-control.

The particular mix of born-again conversion, anti-gay animus, and the defense of American "freedoms" emerged in the 1960s and 1970s. The overwhelmingly white leaders of conservative evangelical organizations widely criticized the social movements of the era, from Black civil rights to women's and gay liberation. Looking for ways to exert greater influence over American politics, they landed on a narrative that merged the idea of choosing Christ and defending freedom.

White evangelical leaders recognized that one way they could gain legitimacy was by showcasing the startling conversions of ex-cons and iconoclasts. A fast-growing evangelical media industry celebrated these converts and promoted their stories. Christian publishers and broadcasters plugged the California hippies who became Jesus People and the conversions of notorious political operatives such as Charles ("Chuck") Colson, the convicted former aide to President Richard Nixon. Prominent born-again conversions were upheld as proof of evangelicalism's legitimacy.

Evangelical leaders leaned on the concept of choice to distance themselves from contemporaneous expressions of religious fervor in new religious movements. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, for one, found youthful followers among many of the same seekers who flocked to mass baptisms in the Pacific Ocean. Evangelicals stressed the profound differences between being "brainwashed" into a "cult" and being born again. One experience was the result of coercion; the other, of choice.

Fears of brainwashing and coercion had been amplified in American culture since the earliest years of the Cold War. By the 1960s and 1970s, mainstream books and films abounded with "Manchurian candidates" and "body snatchers." They made visible a host of anxieties about the danger of external ideologies that might take hold of an individual's mind and force it to adopt new values and beliefs.

Queer desire struck white evangelical leaders as emblematic of the sort of "choice" that nefarious actors could force upon the supple minds of the young. Building on decades of anti-gay rhetoric from pulpit and pew, ex-gay ministries emerged in the 1970s to warn that gay men and lesbians "recruited" naïve youth and forced them to choose a gay lifestyle. The only solution, ex-gay programs insisted, was simultaneous conversion to Jesus Christ and to heterosexuality.

The contrast between freely chosen faith and coercive, damaging ideologies shaped the Christian right's ex-gay politics. Evangelical Protestants and their allies organized campaigns (many of which succeeded) to prohibit queer people from employment as public school teachers, lest they "brainwash" their students. While an outsider (or anthropologist) might conclude that evangelical proselytizing has more than a passing resemblance to such recruitment, evangelicals insisted that their witness offered the only choice that preserved individual freedom.

This historical background helps explain why so many anti-mask-mandate and anti-vaccine activists are white Christians who lace their testimony before school boards with condemnations of transgender-positive curricula. Today, evangelicals tend to be those most opposed to very concept of transgender identity, let alone trans rights. According to a Pew Research Study from 2017, 84 percent of white evangelical Protestants said that "gender is determined by sex at birth," and 61% said American society had "gone too far" in accepting transgender people. Those numbers were much higher than for Christians generally (63% gender is determined by sex at birth; 39% "gone too far") and for the unaffiliated (37% and 57%, respectively). They align closely with differences between how Republicans and Democrats answered the same questions.

This opposition puts lives at risk. Trans-affirming experiences in school (not to mention at home) can be life-saving for nonbinary and gender-expansive young people. In a 2018 study, the American Academy of Pediatrics found that nearly 42 percent of trans and nonbinary adolescents had attempted suicide, compared to 14 percent for adolescents overall. The following year, the Trevor Project reported the results of its own survey, finding that the support of even one adult reduced suicide attempts among LGBTQ young people by 40 percent.

Activists shout over school board officials about mask and vaccine mandates, and they denigrate books and curricula that might be life-saving for trans and nonbinary youth. Yet they insist that white, heterosexual Christians are the real victims. That thinking, too, has a history in 1970s white evangelicalism. By contrasting the hard-won freedoms of the born-again convert to the easy mass conformity of secular culture, conservative evangelicals portray their faith as a marginalized but superior bastion of truth.

The idea that "freedom" boils down to "choice" has an obvious resonance in neoliberal economics. But it also flourishes in the merger of conservative Christian faith and conservative American politics. The history of born-again conversion reveals the deep and entangled roots of conservative Christian antagonism toward queer people, their conflation of faith and freedom, and their perception of their own victimhood.


Rebecca L. Davis is the Miller Family Endowed Early Career Professor of History at the University of Delaware and the author of the new book Public Confessions: The Religious Conversions that Changed American Politics (University of North Carolina Press).

This article was originally published at History News Network

How NY covered up a massacre—and helped spark mass incarceration

I come bearing the second of two parts exploring the Attica Prison uprising and its legacy today. In Blood in the Water, Heather Ann Thompson recounts the connection between New York's coverup of brutality at Attica and the rise of mass incarceration. In our episode, we try to do her arguments and the sacrifices of Attica's prisoners justice:

You can also watch the full episode on Instagram here. And ICYMI, you can view Part I on the uprising here.

Today's story comes from Blood in the Water by Heather Ann Thompson.

See you in two weeks with our next episode!

New discoveries chip away at myths about Viking shipbuilding

In the midst of World War II, with the Nazis extolling their Viking heritage, the Swedish writer Frans G. Bengtsson began writing "a story that people could enjoy reading, like The Three Musketeers or the Odyssey."

Bengtsson had made his literary reputation with the biography of an 18th-century king. But for this story he tried a new genre, the historical novel, and a new period of time. His Vikings are common men, smart, witty, and open-minded. "When encountering a Jew who allies with the Vikings and leads them to treasure beyond their dreams, they are duly grateful," notes one critic. "Bengtsson in effect throws the Viking heritage back in the Nazis' face."

His effect on that Viking heritage, however, was not benign. His story, Rode Orm, is one of the most-read and most-loved books in Swedish, and has been translated into over twenty languages; in English it's The Long Ships.

Part of the story takes place on the East Way, which the red-haired Orm travels in a lapstrake ship with 24 pairs of oars. Based on the Oseberg ship's 15 pairs of oars or the Gokstad ship's 16, such a mighty vessel would stretch nearly 100 feet long and weigh 16 to 18 tons, empty. To cross the many portages between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, Red Orm's "cheerful crew" threw great logs in front of the prow and hauled the boat along these rollers "in exchange for swigs of 'dragging beer,'" Bengtsson wrote.

This, say experimental archaeologists, is "unproven," "improbable," and—after several tries with replica ships—"not possible."

But Bengtsson's fiction burned itself into popular memory. Early scholars were convinced, too: A drawing of dozens of men attempting to roll a mighty ship on loose logs illustrates the eastern voyages in the classic compendium The Viking from 1966.

"Seldom has anything been surrounded by so much myth and fantasy" as the Viking ship, notes Gunilla Larsson whose 2007 Ph.D. thesis, Ship and Society: Maritime Ideology in Late Iron Age Sweden, has completely changed our understanding of the Vikings' eastern voyages.

Like the myth of the Viking housewife with her keys, the myth of the mighty Viking ship is so common it's taken to be true. But the facts do not back it up.

In the 1990s, archaeologists attempted several times to take replica Viking ships between rivers or across isthmuses using the log-rolling method. They failed. They scaled down their ships. They still failed. Their ships were a half to a third the length of Red Orm's mighty ship. They weighed only one to two tons, not 16 tons. Yet they could not be cheerfully hauled by their crews, no matter how much beer was provided. The task was inefficient even when horses—or wheels or winches or wagons—were added.

We think bigger is better, but it's not.

The beautiful Oseberg ship with its spiral prow and the sleek Gokstad ship, praised as an "ideal form" and "a poem carved in wood," have been considered the classic Viking ships from the time they were first unearthed. Images of these Norwegian ships grace uncountable books on Viking Age history, uncountable museum exhibitions, uncountable souvenirs in Scandinavian gift shops.

But a third ship of equal importance for understanding the Viking Age was discovered in 1898, after Gokstad (1880) and before Oseberg (1903), by a Swedish farmer digging a ditch to dry out a boggy meadow. He axed through the wreck and laid his drain pipes. The landowner, a bit of an antiquarian, decided to rescue the boat and pulled the pieces of old wood out of the ground. His collection founded a local museum, but the boat pieces lay ignored in the attic—unmarked, unnumbered, with no drawings to say how they had lain in the earth when found—until 1980, when a radiocarbon survey of the museum's contents dated them to the 11th century. Their great age was confirmed by tree-ring data, which found the wood for the boat had been cut before 1070.

In the 1990s, archaeologist Gunilla Larsson took on the task of puzzling the pieces back into a boat. She had bits of much of the hull: of the keel, the stem and stern and five wide strakes, even some of the wooden rail attached to the gunwale. She had most of the frames, one bite, and two knees. About 2 feet in the middle of the boat was missing: where the ditch went through. The iron rivets had rusted away, but the rivet holes in the wood were easy to see and, since the distance between them varied, the parts could only go together one way. The wood itself had been flattened by time, but it was still sturdy enough to be soaked in hot water and bent into shape—the same technique the original boatbuilder had used.

When she had solved this 3D jigsaw puzzle, she engaged the National Maritime Museum in Stockholm to help her mount the pieces on an iron frame; the Viks Boat went on display in 1996. Then she created a replica, Talja, and tested it by sailing, rowing, and portaging around Lake Malaren. Talja glided up shallow streams, its pliable planks bending and sliding over rocks. With only the power of its crew, it was easily portaged from one watershed to the next, from Lake Malaren to Lake Vanern in the west, itself draining into the Kattegat.

A second Viks Boat replica, Fornkare, was built in 2012 and taken on the Vikings' East Way from Lake Malaren to Novgorod the first year, then south, by rivers and lakes, some 250 miles through Russia the second year. Concludes Fornkare's builder and captain, Lennart Widerberg, "The vessel proved itself capable of traveling this ancient route" from Birka to Byzantium.

The Viks Boat is 31 feet long—longer than two earlier replicas that failed the East Way portage test—and about 7 feet wide, comfortable for a crew of 8 to 10. Its replicas passed the portage test for two reasons. First, they were built, like the original, with strakes that were radially split, not sawn. The resulting board is easy to bend and hard to break—at less than half an inch thick. The resulting boat is equally seaworthy at almost half the weight of the same size boat built with the same lapstrake technique, but using sawn boards. Empty, the Viks Boat replicas weigh only half a ton—about as much as a horse.

The second reason the Viks Boat replicas proved adequate for the East Way was that archaeologists had set aside Frans Bengtsson's fantastical log-rolling technique for crossing from stream to stream.

By studying the ways the Sami had portaged their dugout canoes through the waterways of Sweden and Finland throughout history, the archaeologists began to see signs of similar portage-ways around Lake Malaren. They built some themselves and had teams race replica ships through an obstacle course of portage types: smooth grassy paths, log-lined roads or ditches (with the logs aligned in the direction of travel), and bogs layered with branches. A team of two adults and seven 17-year-olds finished a winding, half-mile course with Talja in an hour. When the portage was straight over 4-inch-thick logs sunk into the mud so they didn't shift, the boat raced at 150 feet a minute.

The beauty of the Gokstad ship, its poetic quality, comes from its curves, the hull swelling out from the gunwale then tightly back in, making a distinctive V-shape down to the deep, straight keel. These concave curves improve the ship's sailing ability at sea. But the keel cuts too deep to float a shallow, stony stream like those that connect the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Over a portage, even the minimal keel of the Viks Boat replicas needed to be protected with an easily replaceable covering of birch, as had been found on the original. The Old Norse name for this false keel was drag. To "set a drag under someone's pride" was to encourage arrogance.

Historians and archaeologists of the Viking Age have long benefited from an ideological false keel. With the Viks Boat taking its rightful place as an exemplar of the Viking ship, it's time to knock off that damaged drag and replace it. Says Larsson, "We should get used to a completely different picture of the Scandinavian traveling eastward in the Viking Age, one that is far from the traditional image of the male Viking warrior in the prow of a big warship."

Nancy Marie Brown is the author of The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women.

Were the 9/11 attacks preventable? A historian explains

It has now been twenty years since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 plunged the nation into shock, consternation, grief, and fear. Amid the despair over the loss of nearly three thousand lives and the anxieties about further strikes, many questions arose over how such a devastating blow on American soil could have happened. The most important of them was also the most elusive: were the attacks preventable? After two decades of investigation, the answer remains an equivocal "perhaps."

Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were well aware that the Islamist militant Osama bin Laden and his Al Qaeda network posed a serious threat to American interests and lives. Clinton compared him to the wealthy, ruthless villains in James Bond movies. To combat the dangers that Al Qaeda created, he and his advisers considered a wide range of military and diplomatic options that ranged from kidnapping bin Laden to U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan. But the use of cruise missiles against Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan in 1998 produced acutely disappointing results. Other military alternatives seemed too risky or too likely to fail and diplomatic initiatives proved fruitless.

During the transition after the 2000 presidential election, Clinton and other national security officials delivered stark warnings to the incoming Bush administration that bin Laden and his network were a "tremendous threat." The immediacy of the problem was heightened by Al Qaeda's bombing of the destroyer USS Cole in the harbor of Aden, Yemen in October 2000, which caused massive damage to the ship and claimed the lives of 17 crew members. Clinton and his advisers strongly recommended prompt consideration of the options they had weighed.

Bush and high-level national security officials were not greatly impressed. They regarded terrorism as an important but not top-priority problem. The president later revealed that he did not feel a "sense of urgency" about bin Laden and that his "blood was not . . . boiling."

The Bush administration viewed Clinton's campaign against Al Qaeda as weak and ineffective, and it was dismissive of the advice it received. Rather than drawing on the experiences of its predecessor, it embarked on the preparation of a "more comprehensive approach" that National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice believed would be more successful. During the spring and summer of 2001, it worked at an unhurried pace, even in the face of dire warnings from the U.S. intelligence community that Al Qaeda was planning attacks that could be "spectacular" and "inflict mass casualties," perhaps in the continental United States.

Eight months after he took office, Bush's White House completed its comprehensive plan to combat Al Qaeda. The steps it included in the form of a National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD) were strikingly similar to the options the administration had inherited from Clinton. The final draft of the NSPD called for greater assistance to anti-Taliban groups in Afghanistan, diplomatic pressure on the Taliban to stop providing bin Laden safe haven, enhanced covert activities in Afghanistan, budget increases for counterterrorism, and as a last resort, direct military intervention by the United States. This proposal was little different in its essentials than what the Clinton administration had outlined, and it offered no novel suggestions on how to carry out its objectives more successfully. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage later commented that there was "stunning continuity" in the approaches of the two administrations.

The NSPD landed on Bush's desk for signature on September 10, 2001.

The troubling question that arises is: could the calamities that occurred the following day have been prevented if the NSPD had been approved and issued earlier? There is no way of answering this question definitively; it is unavoidably counterfactual. Yet it needs to be considered. The 9/11 plot was not so foolproof that it could not have been foiled by greater anticipation and modest defensive measures.

The threat that Al Qaeda presented was well known in general terms within the national security apparatus of the federal government, even if specific information about possible attacks was missing. But responsible officials and agencies did not do enough to confront the problem. A presidential statement like the NSPD of September 10, if distributed sooner, could have called attention to the dangers of potential terrorists present in the United States. The CIA and the FBI failed to track the whereabouts or investigate the activities of two known Al Qaeda operatives who lived openly in California for about 20 months, took flying lessons, and participated in the hijackings on 9/11.

On July 5, 2001, high-level officials from seven agencies received a briefing from the National Security Council's National Coordinator for Counterterrorism, Richard A. Clarke. He cited the dangers that Al Qaeda presented and the possibility that it "might try to hit us at home." The agencies responsible for homeland security did not react in meaningful ways to the warning, largely because a terrorist strike seemed far less likely in the territorial United States than abroad. Perhaps an earlier NSPD, armed with the weight of presidential authority, would have sharpened the focus on the risks of a terrorist plot within America and galvanized security officials and agencies into effective action. Perhaps, for example, the Federal Aviation Administration would have tightened airline boarding procedures or made terrorists' access to cockpits more difficult. The FBI instructed its field offices to make certain they were ready to collect evidence in the event of a terrorist assault, but it did not order them to take any special steps to prevent an attack from occurring.

Even if the "what-if" queries surrounding the failures that allowed 9/11 to happen cannot be answered, we can agree with Condoleezza Rice's heartfelt admission in her memoirs: "I did everything I could. I was convinced of that intellectually. But, given the severity of what occurred, I clearly hadn't done enough." Earlier adoption of the NSPD might not have made a difference. But the haunting thought remains that it might have spared America the agony of 9/11.


J. Samuel Walker has served as a historian for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission and is the author of the just-published book The Day that Shook America: A Concise History of 9/11 (University Press of Kansas).

New discoveries chip away at myths about Viking shipbuilding

In the midst of World War II, with the Nazis extolling their Viking heritage, the Swedish writer Frans G. Bengtsson began writing "a story that people could enjoy reading, like The Three Musketeers or the Odyssey."

Bengtsson had made his literary reputation with the biography of an 18th-century king. But for this story he tried a new genre, the historical novel, and a new period of time. His Vikings are common men, smart, witty, and open-minded. "When encountering a Jew who allies with the Vikings and leads them to treasure beyond their dreams, they are duly grateful," notes one critic. "Bengtsson in effect throws the Viking heritage back in the Nazis' face."

His effect on that Viking heritage, however, was not benign. His story, Rode Orm, is one of the most-read and most-loved books in Swedish, and has been translated into over twenty languages; in English it's The Long Ships.

Part of the story takes place on the East Way, which the red-haired Orm travels in a lapstrake ship with 24 pairs of oars. Based on the Oseberg ship's 15 pairs of oars or the Gokstad ship's 16, such a mighty vessel would stretch nearly 100 feet long and weigh 16 to 18 tons, empty. To cross the many portages between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, Red Orm's "cheerful crew" threw great logs in front of the prow and hauled the boat along these rollers "in exchange for swigs of 'dragging beer,'" Bengtsson wrote.

This, say experimental archaeologists, is "unproven," "improbable," and—after several tries with replica ships—"not possible."

But Bengtsson's fiction burned itself into popular memory. Early scholars were convinced, too: A drawing of dozens of men attempting to roll a mighty ship on loose logs illustrates the eastern voyages in the classic compendium The Viking from 1966.

"Seldom has anything been surrounded by so much myth and fantasy" as the Viking ship, notes Gunilla Larsson whose 2007 Ph.D. thesis, Ship and Society: Maritime Ideology in Late Iron Age Sweden, has completely changed our understanding of the Vikings' eastern voyages.

Like the myth of the Viking housewife with her keys, the myth of the mighty Viking ship is so common it's taken to be true. But the facts do not back it up.

In the 1990s, archaeologists attempted several times to take replica Viking ships between rivers or across isthmuses using the log-rolling method. They failed. They scaled down their ships. They still failed. Their ships were a half to a third the length of Red Orm's mighty ship. They weighed only one to two tons, not 16 tons. Yet they could not be cheerfully hauled by their crews, no matter how much beer was provided. The task was inefficient even when horses—or wheels or winches or wagons—were added.

We think bigger is better, but it's not.

The beautiful Oseberg ship with its spiral prow and the sleek Gokstad ship, praised as an "ideal form" and "a poem carved in wood," have been considered the classic Viking ships from the time they were first unearthed. Images of these Norwegian ships grace uncountable books on Viking Age history, uncountable museum exhibitions, uncountable souvenirs in Scandinavian gift shops.

But a third ship of equal importance for understanding the Viking Age was discovered in 1898, after Gokstad (1880) and before Oseberg (1903), by a Swedish farmer digging a ditch to dry out a boggy meadow. He axed through the wreck and laid his drain pipes. The landowner, a bit of an antiquarian, decided to rescue the boat and pulled the pieces of old wood out of the ground. His collection founded a local museum, but the boat pieces lay ignored in the attic—unmarked, unnumbered, with no drawings to say how they had lain in the earth when found—until 1980, when a radiocarbon survey of the museum's contents dated them to the 11th century. Their great age was confirmed by tree-ring data, which found the wood for the boat had been cut before 1070.

In the 1990s, archaeologist Gunilla Larsson took on the task of puzzling the pieces back into a boat. She had bits of much of the hull: of the keel, the stem and stern and five wide strakes, even some of the wooden rail attached to the gunwale. She had most of the frames, one bite, and two knees. About 2 feet in the middle of the boat was missing: where the ditch went through. The iron rivets had rusted away, but the rivet holes in the wood were easy to see and, since the distance between them varied, the parts could only go together one way. The wood itself had been flattened by time, but it was still sturdy enough to be soaked in hot water and bent into shape—the same technique the original boatbuilder had used.

When she had solved this 3D jigsaw puzzle, she engaged the National Maritime Museum in Stockholm to help her mount the pieces on an iron frame; the Viks Boat went on display in 1996. Then she created a replica, Talja, and tested it by sailing, rowing, and portaging around Lake Malaren. Talja glided up shallow streams, its pliable planks bending and sliding over rocks. With only the power of its crew, it was easily portaged from one watershed to the next, from Lake Malaren to Lake Vanern in the west, itself draining into the Kattegat.

A second Viks Boat replica, Fornkare, was built in 2012 and taken on the Vikings' East Way from Lake Malaren to Novgorod the first year, then south, by rivers and lakes, some 250 miles through Russia the second year. Concludes Fornkare's builder and captain, Lennart Widerberg, "The vessel proved itself capable of traveling this ancient route" from Birka to Byzantium.

The Viks Boat is 31 feet long—longer than two earlier replicas that failed the East Way portage test—and about 7 feet wide, comfortable for a crew of 8 to 10. Its replicas passed the portage test for two reasons. First, they were built, like the original, with strakes that were radially split, not sawn. The resulting board is easy to bend and hard to break—at less than half an inch thick. The resulting boat is equally seaworthy at almost half the weight of the same size boat built with the same lapstrake technique, but using sawn boards. Empty, the Viks Boat replicas weigh only half a ton—about as much as a horse.

The second reason the Viks Boat replicas proved adequate for the East Way was that archaeologists had set aside Frans Bengtsson's fantastical log-rolling technique for crossing from stream to stream.

By studying the ways the Sami had portaged their dugout canoes through the waterways of Sweden and Finland throughout history, the archaeologists began to see signs of similar portage-ways around Lake Malaren. They built some themselves and had teams race replica ships through an obstacle course of portage types: smooth grassy paths, log-lined roads or ditches (with the logs aligned in the direction of travel), and bogs layered with branches. A team of two adults and seven 17-year-olds finished a winding, half-mile course with Talja in an hour. When the portage was straight over 4-inch-thick logs sunk into the mud so they didn't shift, the boat raced at 150 feet a minute.

The beauty of the Gokstad ship, its poetic quality, comes from its curves, the hull swelling out from the gunwale then tightly back in, making a distinctive V-shape down to the deep, straight keel. These concave curves improve the ship's sailing ability at sea. But the keel cuts too deep to float a shallow, stony stream like those that connect the Baltic to the Black Sea.

Over a portage, even the minimal keel of the Viks Boat replicas needed to be protected with an easily replaceable covering of birch, as had been found on the original. The Old Norse name for this false keel was drag. To "set a drag under someone's pride" was to encourage arrogance.

Historians and archaeologists of the Viking Age have long benefited from an ideological false keel. With the Viks Boat taking its rightful place as an exemplar of the Viking ship, it's time to knock off that damaged drag and replace it. Says Larsson, "We should get used to a completely different picture of the Scandinavian traveling eastward in the Viking Age, one that is far from the traditional image of the male Viking warrior in the prow of a big warship."


Nancy Marie Brown is the author of The Real Valkyrie: The Hidden History of Viking Warrior Women, coming from St. Martin's Press on August 31.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Three badasses of the Revolutionary Era that your textbooks never told you about

Now that the kids are back in school and many will soon study the American Revolution, University of South Carolina historian Woody Holton, author of Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution, due out in October, wants to introduce you to three badass American Revolutionaries your textbooks never told you about.

Joseph Harris

Not all enslaved Americans of the colonial era grew rice and tobacco. All along the East Coast, Blacks were forced to serve as river pilots, entrusted with the safety of ship, cargo, and crew. During the American Revolution, numerous African American pilots used their skills to win their freedom. In July 1775, one of them, Joseph Harris of Hampton, Virginia, escaped and offered his services to Mathew Squire, captain of HMS Otter, who desperately needed help navigating Chesapeake Bay.

On September 2, a hurricane convulsed the Atlantic coast, driving Squire's and Harris's ship aground near Hampton. Harris borrowed a canoe from a slave and paddled his captain across the mile-wide mouth of the James River to the safety of the British fleet, anchored near the modern Norfolk Naval Shipyard.

The Patriots who controlled Hampton seized Squire's grounded vessel. When he demanded it back, they insisted that he first return the property he had stolen: his "Ethiopian director," Joseph Harris. He refused, and on October 27, a squadron of small Royal Navy craft attacked Hampton in what would become the first Revolutionary War battle fought south of New England.

The captain of Joseph Harris's boat drove it too close to Hamptons' defenders, who captured it and most of its crew—but not Harris or his captain, who swam to another of the attacking vessels. That made twice in two months that Harris had escorted his captain to safety. Now that he and other fugitive slaves, including those serving in an "Ethiopian Regiment," had proved their value, Lord Dunmore, the last royal governor of Virginia, made the Anglo-African alliance official. On November 15, 1775, he issued an emancipation proclamation similar to the one Lincoln would publish four score and seven years later. In it, he promised freedom to any Patriot's slave "able and willing" to bear arms for his king. Thousands heeded the call.

Dunmore's offer to African Americans infuriated whites, especially in the South. They blamed the governor, not the slaves, and the Anglo-African alliance became the single most important factor driving white southerners from merely seeking autonomy within the British empire to demanding total separation from the nation that had, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, "excited domestic insurrections amongst us."

About the time Congress adopted the Declaration, Joseph Harris died aboard a British warship in Chesapeake Bay, apparently of disease.

Guyasuta

In 1753, when George Washington first crossed the Appalachian Mountains to the region around modern Pittsburgh, it was to deliver an eviction notice. A French army had occupied what is now western Pennsylvania, and Washington's British employers wanted them gone.

Accompanying Washington on the last leg of his western trek was a Seneca warrior named Guyasuta. His job was to hunt game for the British, and his and Washington's paths would cross again.

In the French and Indian War, which started the very next year, the Senecas sided with France. In July 1755, when a nominally French army consisting mostly of Native Americans decimated Gen. George Braddock's expeditionary force eight miles east of the future site of Pittsburg, two of the survivors, on opposite sides, were Guyasuta and Washington.

Guyasuta also joined in Pontiac's Uprising (1763-1764), a Native American revolt against the British. But he played an even larger role in negotiating a settlement that was favorable to the natives. In a May 1765 conference, he observed that the British had only treated indigenous Americans fairly when they had to compete with the French for their support. "As soon as you conquered the French," he reminded a British Indian agent, "you did not care how you treated us, as you then did not think us worth your notice."

The removal of the French threat enabled the British to crack down on their own American colonists as well, and in the ensuing Revolutionary War, the Senecas fought on their side. Indeed, in 1782, when Parliament decided to make peace with the former colonists and asked the Senecas to do the same, Guyasuta held out, leading a mixed band of native warriors and white Loyalists in the last major incursion into Pennsylvania—at Hanna's Town on July 13, 1782.

Esther DeBerdt Reed

You know Abigail Adams and Betsy Ross, but what about the Philadelphian who founded America's first national organization of women, loosened the purse-strings of Lafayette, stood her ground against George Washington, and got posthumously plagiarized by Thomas Jefferson?

Esther DeBerdt Reed was born in Britain and came to America only in 1770 with her new husband, Pennsylvania's Joseph Reed, whom she had met during his years studying law in London. Five years later, Joseph became an aide to George Washington but then forfeited his confidence by criticizing him in a letter to another Continental Army officer that fell into Washington's hands.

By early 1780, Joseph was president of the Pennsylvania executive council, the highest position in the state. But he was still trying to angle his way back into his former commander's good graces. Esther proposed to advance that cause with a grand gesture on behalf of the beleaguered, even mutinous, Continental soldiers. The women of Philadelphia would go door-to-door collecting funds from other women to be disbursed to the troops. They soon found hundreds of donors, including the fabulously wealthy Lafayette, who gave a thousand guineas on behalf of his wife back in France.

Washington welcomed the women's campaign, but he also suggested changes. The funds should be deposited in a Philadelphia bank recently founded by Joseph's political rivals; it urgently needed support. And when the women were ready to make their gift, they should not just hand the money to the soldiers, who might use it to get drunk. Instead, the women should buy cloth and sew shirts for the troops, most of whose clothes were in tatters.

Esther boldly informed the commander-in-chief that she did not like either of his changes. Since the Philadelphia bank was new, its banknotes would be worth less than the money she and the other women deposited. Moreover, merely fitting the soldiers out with shirts, which the army owed them as their employer, would defeat the women's whole purpose of giving each man an "extraordinary gift."

Washington gave in to Esther's objection to using her husband's enemies' bank. But he was clearly rattled at her refusal to give the soldiers shirts instead of cash. He once more insisted on that change.

Part of Esther's purpose in undertaking the campaign had been to improve her husband's relationship with the commanding general, and both Reeds realized that it now threatened to do just the opposite. Esther gave in, and by the end of 1780, she and the other women had sewn 2,000 of them.

Esther Reed did not live to witness this accomplishment. She died on September 18 at the age of thirty-three, apparently of dysentery. In a rare eighteenth-century obituary for a woman that actually mentioned her accomplishments, the Pennsylvania Gazette, Benjamin Franklin's old newspaper, described the women's campaign in loving detail and speculated that Reed may have damaged her health by "imposing on herself too great a part of the task."

At the start of the campaign, Reed had written a broadside (single-sheet document) justifying the women's extraordinary activism. She pointed to the examples of European queens who had extended "the empire of liberty"—a phrase no one had previously used except as a synonym for Heaven. Reed and the other women later spread their movement into other states by sending her broadside to the governors' wives, including Martha Jefferson, partner of Thomas. Perhaps it is a coincidence that Governor Jefferson, who also received the Philadelphia broadside from another source, wrote a letter later that year in which he is universally credited with coining a description of the United States that is still frequently quoted today: "empire of liberty."


Woody Holton, author of Liberty is Sweet: The Hidden History of the American Revolution (Simon and Schuster, 2001), is the Peter and Bonnie McCausland Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Twenty years of flawed assumptions led to failure in Afghanistan

"What we are seeing now is truly shocking and shows we missed something fundamental and systemic in our intel, military and diplomatic service over the decades — deeper than a single (horrible) decision. Something at the very core that unraveled 20 years in only days."

In the emotional week following Kabul's fall to the Taliban, these were the words of a close colleague who spent years advising senior U.S. military and the Afghan government. Countless explanations emerged attributing the well trained and equipped Afghan Army's loss to a barbaric insurgent militia, citing an antagonistically factional, corrupt, and illiterate army plagued by poor morale, lacking any incentive to keep fighting, and a long-sustained over-reliance on U.S. close-air support. Poor governance by the power-hungry Afghan elites in Kabul, the same ones who consistently ignored military and security reforms, was freshly scrutinized. Finger pointing in the District abounded, identifying intel failures, lack of a conditions-based withdrawal, a consistent strategy, or a military culture unable to admit failure.

After the U.S. dedicated two decades and trillions of dollars to defeat the Taliban, one must ask: why were the world's superpower's best efforts and superior military might insufficient? During my time as the Political-Military Advisor to U.S. commanders in Eastern Afghanistan, I witnessed the Taliban's ability to swiftly defeat the Afghan Army in the provincial capital of Kunduz in 2015. Even then, problems plaguing the Afghan Army, such as high AWOL numbers or "ghost soldiers," and the Taliban's capabilities, were evident. But there is much, much more to it than simple metrics.

Recent justifications and excuses fail to consider the central flawed assumption underpinning U.S. efforts from day one: that the majority of Afghans were as opposed to Taliban governance as the Coalition. But local anti-Taliban uprisings are no more indicative of an entire nation's political leanings than a mob storming the U.S. Capitol. We looked through our Western lens, anticipating the population's embrace of a new government, believing we would be the liberator of a nation from its fundamentalist oppressors.

The West's perceptions of Taliban human rights atrocities inflicted on the Afghan population are substantially graver than leading Afghan elders' perceptions—specifically those Elders who negotiated Jalalabad's handover, which took place hours before Kabul's fall and met with minimal resistance. How could this happen? Jalalabad is the 5th largest city in the country and home of the 201st Corps, a top-performing Afghan unit, as well as the home of the Ktah Khas—one of the most elite special forces divisions in the country, consisting of army, police, and intelligence agency units. Just as in 1996, when the Taliban was welcomed as fellow Pashtuns filling a void and quelling the warring warlord factions created by Russia's departure years prior, now also many cities have quickly surrendered to them. This is largely due to the same deeply rooted, patriarchal, conservative cultural and social conditions remaining throughout the last quarter of a century there.

Ridding Afghanistan of the Taliban is akin to eradicating components of a 1,700 year old "code of life." For decades, the militant group has been intricately woven into the fibers of society – to include creating shadow governments where the state structure collapsed and facilitating transport of the country's booming drug trade presided over by provincial leaders and esteemed village Elders. For many Afghans with roots in a culture drastically different than ours, Taliban governance was simply not as barbaric as what we saw through our Western lens. Or at least not worth sacrificing their lives to prevent.

Long before the Taliban emerged, there were tribal policies of gender segregation (purdah), represented by burkah clad women. These policies, considered draconian by the West, dominated the countryside of this patriarchal society. Confined to caring for families and working the fields, women gave little thought to pursuing Parliamentary offices or higher education where interaction with men might occur. Their burkah provides a gender barrier and purdah safeguards honor while ensuring they remain as intended: protected and invisible. While there were variances in severity dependent on region and socio-economic status, the Taliban's barring of women from schools was not new but an imposition of conservative cultural village norms onto city women in Kabul or Kandahar. This did not suddenly change with the Taliban's fall in 2001; Afghanistan does not now have an entire generation of educated and liberated women. In reality, only 29% of girls age 15 and older are literate today (compared to 55% of males). Similarly, honor crimes also continued to occur throughout the country over the last two decades; as recently as May of 2020 18-year-old Nazela was murdered after running away with her boyfriend in Badakhshan. As extreme as the militant group's gender ideology is, it is not the sole source of responsibility for human rights abuses and oppression of women. Accordingly, opposition to the Taliban based on social repression could never serve as a basis for widespread opposition to its rule.

Like the Taliban, 40% of Afghans are Pashtun, a fiercely independent people long ruled by Pashtunwali. This ancient tribal code and way of life is similar to the strict interpretation of Islamic Law the insurgency promulgates. Their ideology ensured centuries of tribal survival and its custom, or tribal, law dominates the country's informal justice systems. The Taliban have historically represented a unique blend of Deobandi Islam, Saudi Wahhabism, and tribal Pashtun beliefs and values. The punishments they administer have been present for centuries and, at times under Shari'a, were less brutal than tribal justice of stoning or honor killings. By incorporating their extremist interpretation of Shari'a in conjunction with tribal law policies the rural population had already been accustomed to, the Taliban minimized opposition throughout much of the country.

Following the 2021 Kabul takeover, President Biden accurately stated, "You can't give them the will to fight." There are reports of stories half a world away in remote Mexican highland towns like Pantelho in Chiapas Province, where indigenous vigilantes armed with makeshift weapons have been successful in driving out powerful drug cartels terrorizing their communities. In the absence of effective state security forces, advanced weapons, or training, they are only armed with the will to free their communities from militant oppression. Yet the Afghan Army, trained and armed with over 22,000 Humvees, 51,000 tactical vehicles, 600,000 key weapons, and 200 rotary and fixed-wing aircraft, opted to hand over the country. It's clear that for many in Afghanistan, the Taliban threat was not dire enough to warrant defiance or resistance.

This is not to deny that many Afghans did sacrifice their lives in battle over the years, including those desperately rushing to the Kabul airport attempting to escape feared political retribution. A brilliant commander I served under recently publicly wrote, "I had served with some true Afghan heroes and had too many episodes of Afghan leaders and people who actually were genuine, who didn't want a return of the Taliban. They wanted prosperity for their family and were humble. They were patriots in their own way. I now know and accept that these honorable, noble Afghans were actually very unrepresentative." Whether these individuals were inspired to fight for their country, their families or a better life, remains unknown. And pockets of historical resistance remain, such as the Panjshir Valley, led by the son of famed Northern Alliance fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud, who continues his father's legacy against the Taliban. These unfortunately are not the majority of a 332,000 strong military, which was provided with the capability and capacity to win.

We wrongly assumed the majority of the Afghan Army, representative of the Afghan people, was as opposed to the Taliban as we in the West, and especially that a predominantly male army would suddenly fight for freedoms for Afghan women - freedoms many never possessed. We assumed they'd wage war rather than allow rule by an extremist interpretation of a religion they already practice. We assumed their training and capabilities equaled motivation. But no amount of intelligence assets, military strategies, nation building efforts, or financial assistance could force the Afghans to fight for a Western version of peace and prosperity. This is not a U.S. loss, but an Afghan one.

Luiza Carter deployed to serve as a Political-Military Advisor in East Afghanistan during 2015-2016, receiving the Medals of Outstanding Civilian Service, Global War on Terrorism and the Non-Article 5 NATO for Service with NATO in Relation to the Resolute Support Mission. She received an MA in International Security Studies from Columbia University and a BA in Political Science from Pace University after personally witnessing the events of 9/11 in her home of downtown Manhattan.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any agency of the U.S. government.

This article was originally published at History News Network

A preeminent scholar on Nazism explains whether it makes sense to refer to Trump-loving populists as ‘fascists’

Historian Richard J. Evans is a preeminent scholar on Hitler and Nazi Germany, most pointedly through his trilogy on the history of the Third Reich. His most recent work, "The Hitler Conspiracies: The Stab in the Back - The Reichstag Fire - Rudolf Hess - The Escape from the Bunker," takes on the key conspiracy theories generated out of the Hitler era. Aaron J. Leonard recently conducted an interview with him via email to discuss his work, the current invoking of fascism in some quarters, and the contrast between solid historiography and work amplifying and propagating conspiracy theories.

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Why do you think Hitler and his murderous regime — which ought to be repellent — loom so large in the popular imagination?

They loom so large in the public imagination precisely because they are so repellent. Hitler has come to stand as a kind of substitute for Satan in an increasingly secular world: he is the epitome of evil. When we think of Hitler, we think of dictatorship, war and genocide, of cultural repression, racism and the looting of art on an unprecedented scale. The more the Holocaust has become part of mainstream public memory, the more it has brought Hitler into the center of public attention as its originator.

Your chapter detailing the "Stab in the Back" myth, which claims the German army was sabotaged from victory in World War I by various anti-patriotic left-wing forces, made me think of a Vietnam veteran I encountered a few years back who was adamant that in that war, the US was forced to fight with 'one hand tied behind its back.' It seems one of the features of many of these conspiracy theories or 'alternative histories' is to take a loss or weakness, and turn it into something less. Is that accurate, or is there something else going on?

The idea that a war – or an election – wasn't really lost, but betrayed by a backstairs conspiracy, is an easy and perennially attractive way (to some people at least) of explaining defeat: defeat, after all, is very difficult and painful to admit. It also disqualifies a whole section of society as not really part of it, whether that's the Jews or the socialists in Germany in 1918, or the Democrats in America in 2020.

In your book Lying About Hitler — which recounts the libel suit brought by David Irving against historian Deborah Lipstadt, a trial in which you testified — you literally had to chase down footnotes to show how he manipulated evidence to minimize and deny the Holocaust. Irving is arguably more insidious than some of those you challenge in your current work because he was seen as a scholar, rather than a crackpot — and yet, his methodology is not far removed from the crassest of conspiracists. How would you contrast the two methods employed between conspiracy-based ones – which are not wholly devoid of evidence — versus those based on the method of honest historians?

Conspiracy theorists very frequently imitate the methods of honest historians: You will find their works weighed down with footnotes and crammed with elaborate, solid-looking detail. Only when you subject them to detailed scrutiny does it become clear that the detail isn't solid at all – it's full of deliberate errors, falsifications, manipulations, misquotations, mistranslations, calculated omissions and manufactured connections, speculation, innuendo and supposition. Irving's Holocaust denial work was full of mistakes, as the judge in the libel action he brought against Deborah Lipstadt in 2000 noted, but they were not honest mistakes, since they all went to support his arguments. Honest mistakes are random in their effect; his were not. Honest historians know they have to abandon their arguments when the evidence turns out to disprove them; dishonest historians and conspiracy theorists bend the evidence to fit the argument.

Quite a few people, particularly on the left, have taken to invoking the word 'fascism' or otherwise draw parallels to the National Socialists of the 1930s & 40s, to describe various current phenomena. What do you see as the limits – and benefits if any — of such historical analogies?

Fascism is one of those concepts that can seem almost infinitely elastic; it's just too tempting for polemical purposes to accuse any authoritarian politician of being like Hitler, or any populist movement of being fascist. But we have to remember that fascism was a militaristic movement, aiming at war and conflict, territorial expansion and empire. Fascists put every citizen into uniform, drilled the people into uniformity and obedience in training camps, and subordinated private life, business companies, and institutions of all kinds to the state. Fascists were ultimately genocidal, whether it was the Nazis exterminating the Jews, or the Italian Fascists exterminating the Ethiopians (among other things, by using poison gas). Nazism and Fascism also put science at the center of their belief systems, in particular, racial and eugenic 'science', and regarded religion as a leftover from medieval times that would soon disappear. In all these respects it differed from 21st-century populism, which is hostile to the state, anti-scientific, and opposed to militarism both within the country and outside it. The classic fascist mass consisted of endless marching columns of identically uniformed men; today's populist mass, as in the storming of the US Capitol on January 6th, 2021, consist of thousands of informally and in some cases eccentrically attired individuals heaving about in a chaotic heap, violent and aggressive but not organized in any military way. The problem with calling today's right populism 'fascist' is that it's fighting today's battles with the weapons of the 1920s and 1930s. Time has moved on since then.

I am constantly astonished, and not a little frustrated, that so much taken for 'common knowledge' has already been countered by professional historians and yet it seems we live in a world where too often "alternative history" operates as actual history in the popular imagination. How can that ever change, or at least not command such power?

The Internet and social media are largely though not exclusively responsible for undermining belief in truth and objectivity. Society has become increasingly polarized through the rise of 'identity politics' – my truth is not the same as your truth (though in fact there can never be two opposing truths; only one of them can ever be the real truth). The spread of hyper-relativism through the dominance in universities of postmodernist culture has also played its part. The mass media, above all television and the movie, have blurred the boundaries between truth and fiction. Holding social media companies to account for the lies they allow to be spread is a beginning. But more needs to be done.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Right-wing hysteria has reached a boiling point

Although right-wingers like Rudy Giuliani argue that left-wing cancel culture is dangerous to free speech, the ongoing right-wing movement to ban Critical Race Theory (CRT) from school curriculums fits into the right's long history of attacks on progressives' free speech. The Texas Senate bill removing Martin Luther King, Jr's "I Have a Dream" speech, Native American history, and the history of white supremacy from public school curriculums may be blocked from passing right now, but it has made waves throughout the internet. This bill comes amidst nationwide right-wing outrage over CRT, which Fox News reportedly mentioned nearly 1300 times between March and June this year.

This hysteria reached a boiling point last month when a Virginia school board meeting was shut down by right-wing protestors over a curriculum that allegedly promotes CRT, although Loudoun County Schools officials publicly stated that CRT is not part of their curriculum. The ongoing distress over CRT is fueled by a massive, right-wing media-backed movement to control school curriculums. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, for example, recently called for teachers to wear body cameras to monitor CRT teaching, despite previously arguing in favor of free speech on campuses.

The panic over CRT may seem to have come out of nowhere, with media coverage of it skyrocketing in recent months, but progressive movements in academia have caused alarm for decades. This began with conspiracy theories about critical theory (CT), a method of systemic critique which was the predecessor of CRT. These conspiracy theories focus on the developers of CT, the Frankfurt School thinkers, who were mostly Jewish, and claim that they infiltrated American universities with the goal of destroying Western culture and implementing "Cultural Marxism."

While these theories may seem far-fetched, they are still promoted today by right-wing thinkers like Ben Shapiro and Jordan Peterson. Frankfurt School historian Martin Jay traced these conspiracy theories back to LaRouche movement writer Michael Minnicino's essay that relies on little to no source material to make false, exaggerated claims. Minnicino claims, without evidence, that "the heirs of Marcuse and Adorno completely dominate the universities" and teach their students "'Politically Correct' ritual exercises." The essay reduces the Frankfurt School's complex "intellectual history into a sound-bite sized package available to be plugged into a paranoid narrative," according to Jay. Despite the suspicious beginnings of this conspiracy theory, right-wing thinkers like Jeffrey A. Tucker and Mike Gonzalez continue to blame the Frankfurt School thinkers for today's attacks on free speech, going as far as to suggest executive action to prevent their influence.

While the evidence supporting CT conspiracy theories is dubious, there is historical evidence to suggest that the Frankfurt School thinkers were far too divided to have devised such a world-changing plot. One must only look towards Adorno and Marcuse's final letters to each other—their correspondence on the German student movement in the 1960s—to see these divisions on full display.

In these letters, the two thinkers debated whether it was justified for Adorno to have called the police on a group of students who occupied his classroom demanding that he engage in self-criticism. While Adorno dismisses the students and their demands as "pure Stalinism," Marcuse aligns himself with the students and their goals, finding it more helpful to aid the movement than disparage it. These thinkers differ in one key aspect: while Marcuse finds solidarity with the students in their goals, and is less concerned with how they achieve them, Adorno is repulsed by the means. How can a group that cannot even agree on which movements are good for society have possibly conducted such a mass, societal shift? The historical, fact-based evidence makes it clear—they didn't.

Some figures on the right have cancelled the Frankfurt School, reducing their complex history into buzzwords, and rendering their ideas meaningless. This is just one example of how right-wing figures cancel things that counter their worldview through misinformation. CT conspiracy theories fit with former Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka's claim that the Green New Deal will take your hamburgers, despite the proposal making no mention of meat. The theories also fit with the Governor of South Dakota Kristi Noem's claim that we need to defend the "soul of our nation" against gay rapper Lil Nas X, just because he released Satan-themed shoes. We saw this pattern of regressive fear-mongering at its worst last month when there were two-stabbings at a protest at a Los Angeles spa, spurred by a transphobic hoax. There is a pattern of misinformed reactionary cancelling in which even former President Barack Obama has been tied to the recent outrage over CRT. And these cancelling efforts clearly have had a wide-reaching effect, with 26 states making steps against CRT just recently.

Although reactionary cancelling is doing some damage, we can fight it through progressive cancelling. While reactionary cancelling serves oppression, pushing racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic agendas, progressive cancelling advocates consequences for socially unjust actions and amplifies marginalized voices.

In his essay "Repressive Tolerance", Marcuse says that to realize universal tolerance, we first need to escape from our repressive society. One part of doing this is, instead of tolerating all opinions equally, to retract tolerance from opinions that perpetuate violence and oppression. Marcuse calls on us to fight the forces that serve oppression. We cannot play into the pocket of the oppressor like the Loudoun School Board meeting protestors. Instead, we must resist oppression like the 1960s student protestors who used progressive cancelling against perceived injustices like the United States' involvement in Vietnam.

Progressive cancelling is the same form of cancelling that hit J.K. Rowling, Harvey Weinstein, or even Christopher Columbus—one that centers marginalized people and says "enough" to violence and oppression. On a wide-enough scale, we could achieve what Marcuse called a "Great Refusal." To change our societal trajectory to one towards Marcuse's "opposite of hell," we need to fight reactionary cancelling through progressive cancelling.

Leah Allen is Assistant Professor of Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies at Grinnell College.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Is Trump the new Hitler? Here's what a historian of Nazi Germany has to say

A Sharpie-drawn mustache embellishes Trump's face on a poster. A Hitler caricature wears a MAGA hat. Satirists ridicule both of them. Academics ponder strong man analogies. A new Netflix documentary pairs the Donald and the Führer. The similarities between the flamboyant leaders in critics' crosshairs, however, blind us to a crucial contrast. Hitler, a charismatic leader, was also an astute politician. Trump channels his supporters' mood, but lacks even the rudimentary ability to govern.

The differences begin with the different messages by which each attracted masses of followers. Hitler muted his rabid racism and promised to combat the Great Depression with massive government investment in social welfare, rearmament, and infrastructure. The Trumpist GOP rejects big government and relies on white nationalism to sustain loyalists' allegiance.

Adolf Hitler built a mass following by promoting economic and civic revival, not, at first, antisemitism. Trump, an incompetent would-be Führer, has released white rage and, even if he were to vanish, his loyalists would remain on high alert. It's comforting to associate good governance with liberal democracy. A backward glance, however, alerts us to an inconvenient history.

To us, the virulence of Hitler's Judeophobia is clear. It was not so obvious, however, to most of the approximately 30 percent of Germans who voted Nazi in the run up to Hitler's takeover. A decade earlier, when Hitler was in prison after the ludicrous failure of his "beer hall" coup, he fulminated in Mein Kampf about Jews as "bloodsuckers," "tapeworms" and "parasites," who should "be exterminated." His delusional hatred roused party radicals, but hardly anyone read Mein Kampf, and the Nazi Party remained on the crackpot fringe. But after the 1928 election yielded only three percent of the vote, Hitler rebranded his public self from rebellious upstart to responsible leader.

The "new" Hitler raged against Bolshevism, the victors of World War I, and corrupt politicians whom he blamed for Germany's ruin. He still celebrated "Aryan" superiority. But he mentioned Jews less often in public, and, when he did, his language resembled Henry Ford's complaints about "destructive" Jewish influence in the media, the stock market, and the Soviet Union. In Germany, where Jews constituted less than one percent of the population, "the Jewish question" seemed like a side issue. More relevant to most voters were the Nazi Party positions on hot-button issues that were popularized by more than 100 mass-market pamphlets. In addition to these rather humdrum works, other genres, like young adult fiction, campfire poetry, a humor magazine, songbooks, and picture albums, contributed to the party's mainstream sheen in the early 1930s.

To voters who boarded the Nazi bandwagon after 1928, Hitler presented himself as a capable outsider who pledged to end legislative gridlock, repel Bolshevism, fight joblessness with massive government expenditures, and expand the pensions and universal health care that Germans took for granted. As unemployment climbed to 30 percent between 1928 and 1932, voters went to the polls in five national elections and propelled the Nazi Party from ninth to first place. In January 1933 the German President appointed Hitler chancellor. When arsonists set the Reichstag building ablaze, Josef Goebbels launched a propaganda blitz about a Bolshevik revolution that justified mass arrests of Marxist leaders. In mid-March, after more repression, tighter censorship, and negotiations with non-Nazi conservatives, the Reichstag voted to give Hitler dictatorial power.

Hitler consolidated Nazi power through bureaucratic incursions, media censorship, state-sanctioned concentration camps, banishment of rival parties and labor unions, and, in June 1934, the murder of violence-prone dissidents in his own party. By late 1936 investment in government programs (including rearmament) revived the economy, and diplomatic successes boosted national pride. Only then, when his popularity was secure, did Hitler escalate the so-called "legal" persecution of Jewish Germans through stringent educational and occupational quotas, "Aryan oversight" of Jewish-owned businesses, and prohibitions against "mixed-race" marriages.

In short, Nazi voters mostly got what they wanted -- "Aryan" revival and a robust social state. Few of them anticipated the November 1938 pogrom and the exterminatory war against "international Jewry" that gathered force with the invasion of Poland in 1939.

Hitler ended the depression in Germany with the kinds of federal programs the GOP rejects. Although Trump promises "our historic, patriotic, and beautiful movement to Make America Great Again has only just begun," his performance as president casts doubt on his ability to deliver material support to his core following, white families plagued by low wages, rising rents, and food scarcity.

President Trump defaulted on his economic populism and, instead, delivered a tax bonanza for the super-rich and bungled his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In the thrall of super-wealthy donors, most Republicans in Congress reject Biden's infrastructure program, which is supported by 83% of Americans, as well as higher corporate taxes to pay for it, supported by 66 percent of Americans. Without alternative proposals, Trump can only goad GOP lawmakers, "don't let the Radical Left play you for weak fools and losers!" After failing to overturn Biden's election by bullying government officials and inciting mob violence, Trump falls back on promises to protect the status of white Christian Americans.

When Trump tells cheering crowds, "you are the real people, you are the people who built this country," he endorses the systemic racism that remains in place a half a century after civil rights legislation threatened to dismantle it. While denouncing federal regulation and social as well as infrastructure programs, Trump revs up white victimhood and relies on emotional gratification to sustain the loyalty of his aggrieved low-wage and middle class base.

Biden bets that voters will reward his administration's effective COVID response, rapid economic recovery, and financial support for low-income families, which disproportionately benefits red state voters. Unlike citizens in mono-ethnic Germany, whose political loyalties were influenced by class, white Americans' allegiance is increasingly shaped by racial identity. And historians note that white Southern voters tend to value preserving their privilege above federal programs like Medicaid expansion that benefit everyone. The Biden administration delivers effective governance. The Trumpist GOP, increasingly, is rooted in systemic racism dating back 400 years. Given the Constitution's skewed distribution of power and a Supreme Court likely to uphold voter suppression, elections will be close.

Hitler built a mass following by promoting economic and civic revival, not the anti-Semitism that power would allow him to indulge. Trump, an incompetent would-be Führer, has released white rage. If he were to vanish, his loyalists would remain on high alert.


Claudia Koonz is the Peabody Family Professor emerita in the Department of History at Duke University and author of The Nazi Conscience (Harvard University Press).

This article was originally published at History News Network

Nothing I learned as a historian over 45 years prepared me for this moment

This blog post was written by Rick Shenkman, the founder of George Washington University's History News Network, and the author of Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics (Basic Books).


I spent the last 45 years studying the history of this country. But after the last 4 years I can truly say I didn't understand it, cynical though I often was about the ugly disfiguring patches that no Band-Aid could hide.

McCarthyism – sure. Racism – of course. Xenophobia – duh. Misogyny – hell yes. America had it all.

But a mass cult built around an old man known for lying and grifting who bronzes his face each day? Didn't see that happening. Nor did I anticipate that tens of millions would refuse a free vaccine that could save others' lives – and their own.

And cynical as I was I never thought that the politicians these millions elected would be so cowed by their chosen leader that almost every one of them would go along with his wild schemes and lies.

It's said that the past is a foreign country. But with each passing day I can't escape the feeling that it's the present I don't understand. Knowing our history hasn't made it easier to come to terms with the present. If anything, it's been a hindrance.

It's gotten in the way of me seeing what is in front of my own eyes. It's made me want to excuse what's happening or to downplay it.

Realizing that this country is not what I thought it was is disillusioning. Which is strange. I spent my whole career trying to see things clearly as they are and not as I'd wish them to be.

I wrote three books bursting the myths of American history. Then I wrote a book showing the unsavory lengths to which presidents went to gain power and keep it.

After George W. Bush, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, convinced Americans that the leader of Iraq was connected somehow to 9-11, I wrote a book calling out Americans for their gullibility: Just How Stupid Are We?

Because I wanted to understand the underlying forces shaping Americans' support for Bush's war I spent the next seven years searching for answers in the scientific literature concerning human behavior.

In the course of my study I read books and papers on Evolutionary Psychology, social psychology, and even neuroscience. In the book I wrote summarizing my research – Political Animals: How Our Stone-Age Brain Gets in the Way of Smart Politics – I devoted the bulk of the pages to a discussion of our susceptibility to lies.

The literature shows that human beings are capable, productive -- and often plain wrong. They think they are good at detecting lies but aren't. They believe they have empathy for others but often don't. They are confident they can read other people but often can't. This is true of human beings around the world living in vastly different environments.

And still nothing I learned prepared me for the country I find myself living in today. History had convinced me that Americans wouldn't elect a wild demagogue as president and wouldn't stand by him after it was proven (over and over again) that he lies to them. History was wrong.

It's heartbreaking.

I haven't felt the urge to write lately, but this piece needed to be written and so I wrote it. It concerns, at bottom, the debate historians have been having about Donald Trump: Is he sui generis or inevitable? As a historian I have always believed that everything has a history and that events don't just happen. Through careful analysis of the past we can demonstrate how the events that capture the headlines emerge from changes over time in a particular place.

Sometimes, to be sure, contingency is the cause. Nothing's inevitable, after all. Individual human beings acting in one way rather than another can affect the course of history, sometimes with positive outcomes (think FDR) and sometimes with bad outcomes (think Hitler).

But even taking into account the serendipity of events it always seemed clear to me that history seldom conjures up a genuine surprise. Things happen for a reason that can be fully accounted for after a careful review. Thus, even 9-11, though a shock, was not a surprise. Terrorists had been blowing up buildings and killing people for decades in the Middle East. On numerous occasions they had hijacked airplanes. That no one until Osama bin Laden had been brazen or daring enough to think of crashing a hijacked plane into a building until 9-11 hardly changed the calculus of history. So shocked as I was by 9-11 it didn't force me to rethink my views about the way history happens.

Donald Trump's presidency has.

While I can reassure myself that in his racist demagoguery Trump is like George Wallace, and in his prevaricating he's like Joe McCarthy, and that the GOP's exploitation of race runs like a strong thread through the history of the past half century (since the passage of the Voting Rights Act), and that on numerous occasions Americans have demonized outsiders from the Irish in the 1840s to Chinese in the 1880s to Japanese-Americans in the 1940s, nothing prepared me for the embrace and continuing adoration of Donald Trump by a major political party.

That still stumps me. So, for that matter, does the ongoing resistance to the Covid-19 vaccines.

Some historians, such as Heather Cox Richardson in How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America, see strong parallels between the forces of oligarchy in the 19th century and those today in the 21st, noting the parallels between the ideology of southern slaveholders, western silver mine owners and Trumpie Republicans. These parallels are striking, no doubt. In the old South and the Wild West oligarchs celebrated rule by the rich. Who does that sound like? But it seems too simple to me to draw a straight line through American history from oligarchs in the past to those of the present. While I highly respect Richardson's work and am in awe of her research and broad knowledge I'm more impressed by the differences between then and now than the similarities. Something has changed.

Still, history is not irrelevant. It is helpful to know that our history is replete with instances of racism, xenophobia, and other signs of moral depravity. We'd really feel lost if we weren't aware of Jim Crow, Juan Crow, and McCarthyism. (Which is why it's vital that school children are exposed to the truth about American history, at least in the higher grades.) And while white people by and large haven't faced the assaults on democracy we are seeing now and can anticipate in the future, black Americans have, and familiarizing ourselves with their experience can teach us lessons about resistance and endurance. What history has taught white Americans is that the unfolding of history is the unfolding of human freedom, from the broadening of the suffrage to males without property to female suffrage and gay marriage. What black Americans have learned is that rights can be taken away. That is the lesson they learned when whites put an end to Reconstruction.

To those who think a coup couldn't happen here in America there's the unpleasant fact that we've already had one. In 1898 white Redeemers in Wilmington, North Carolina violently staged a coup against a coalition of blacks and white Populists who had managed to win an election to take control of city government. A knowledge of history is therefore not nothing.

But the present challenge requires us to look with fresh eyes on our country. As Lincoln said, writing in a different time but in one which resonates today, "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country."

Postscript 8/13/21

Rereading my own post several days after I wrote it I realized that I didn't fully address an obvious question. Did I really misread the past? Maybe I understood American history correctly. Maybe in the past a Donald Trump was impossible for a variety of reasons: the elite's control over our politics and media, the strength of the party gatekeepers, the absence of paths to power by people existing outside the normal political structures, the enduring assumption that each new generation will do better than the preceding generation, the self-confidence of white people, the absence of a grievance-based culture, etc.

Once the circumstances that shaped our politics changed -- once the gatekeepers lost control, once social media empowered the extreme ranks of voters, once the white majority concluded they live in a zero sum society and that every step forward for minorities is a step backward for the majority -- our society changed and with it our politics and our history. In other words, maybe I understood this country just fine but the country changed.

Our task is to learn to live in the country we actually live in. This won't be easy.

Republicans abandon the 'Big Tent' and adopt a much more sinister electoral strategy

Historically, major political parties in America are diverse organizations as they are divided into wings and sometimes factions with their own interests. To be successful, the parties every four years must sublimate their internal differences and unite behind a presidential candidate. This process has been commonly called "threading the needle," appealing to the vast moderate population in the center of the political spectrum while maintaining the support of the more extreme voters further from the center. In the Post-World War II era, the Republicans became adept at the process of uniting its conservatives, moderates, and liberals while even satisfying the rightwing fringe. The Republicans became a "big tent." But today, the party has abandoned its broad appeal to the center in favor of using an Electoral College advantage, gerrymandering, voter suppression and appealing mostly to white voters. How did this happen and what does it mean for the future?

By the early 1950s, the Republicans had lost five consecutive presidential elections. Hoping to reverse the trend in 1952, the party nominated a war-hero moderate, General Dwight Eisenhower. Conservatives backing Senator Robert Taft of Ohio for the nomination were bitterly disappointed but had nowhere else to go, and liberal Republicans were largely satisfied. The Republican Party's rightwing fringe was less concerned with economic issues and more interested in the anti-Communist crusade led by Joseph McCarthy. Eisenhower deplored McCarthy's tactics and his attacks against Eisenhower's World War II commanding officer, George Marshall. But when Eisenhower went to Wisconsin campaigning for president, he gave a speech endorsing McCarthy for re-election to the Senate and making no mention of Marshall. That was good enough to thread the needle, keeping the support of Republican moderates and winning many conservatives of both parties while satisfying the McCarthyite fringe. McCarthy called Eisenhower's nationally televised speech in Milwaukee "wonderful."

In 1960, the GOP nominee Richard Nixon also attempted to unite the party by threading the needle. Nixon's past as a cold warrior let him keep anti-Communist conspiracy theorists in line without embracing a radical-right domestic agenda, as he attempted to come across as reasonable as Eisenhower, keeping the big tent intact. Nixon hoped to unite the Republicans and win considerable support from independents as Eisenhower did. Failing to garner enough independent votes or Southern conservative Democratic votes, Nixon narrowly lost the popular vote and the Electoral College.

A break in the Republicans' inclusive approach occurred in 1964, when the party nominee chose not to create a big tent, resulting in electoral failure. That year, the party's conservative wing won the presidential nomination with a message of considerably less government and virulently anti-Communist foreign policy. In Barry Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention he said, "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!" The lines were written for Goldwater by political historian, professor, and columnist Harry Jaffa.

The most powerful rightwing anti-Communist organization promoting conspiracy theories was the John Birch Society, founded by candy mogul Robert Welch who claimed that the U.S. Government was under control of the Communist Party. Goldwater renounced Welch as being "removed from reality" but commended the Birch Society and its "upstanding citizens." Goldwater accepted campaign donations from Birchers. With no attempt to attract moderate or liberal Republicans, Goldwater won only 39 percent of the popular vote, his home state of Arizona, and five Southern states where few African-Americans had the right to vote. Most Americans perceived a takeover of the Republican Party by the right wing fringe. By rejecting moderation the big tent was diminished.

By 1968, the Republican Party still included conservatives, moderates, and liberals. However, due to tumultuous times the presidential election landscape was unique. Many Americans, some influenced by racism, were adversely reacting to racial disorders, antiwar protesters, and the counterculture. Appealing to what he called the "silent majority," Richard Nixon devised a "Southern Strategy" for attracting white Southerners, but speaking in more moderate tones in the North. He carried enough states in that region to win the election and the next. He appealed to enough moderates and even Republican liberals.

By 1976, conservatism was beginning once again to dominate the Republican Party, particularly because the primary system gave conservatives a greater voice in choosing the nominee. President Ford was hard pressed by the right wing led by Ronald Reagan. Ford survived by trying to mollify the extreme conservatives by emphasizing his impressive record of vetoing Democratic legislation, and he quit using the word "detente," which conservatives called appeasement of the Soviet Union. Ford's history as a respected Congressional leader won moderate Republican votes, conservatives, and the rightwing fringe, which was almost enough to produce a victory with 48 percent of the popular vote. The big tent was almost big enough for victory.

In 1980, considerable needle threading was required as Ronald Reagan was the nominee. This was the man who once called the progressive tax a tool of the Communist Revolution. He seemed to be the trigger-happy man who in 1960 proclaimed that we were already at war with the Soviet Union. The Republicans were able, however, to preserve the big tent with Reagan as a disciplined, affable candidate who, in his debate with President Carter, promised to attempt negotiations with the Soviet Union with a goal of nuclear arms "reduction." The extreme conservatives who had always supported Reagan continued to do so. In addition, the religious right and many moderate Republicans contributed to Reagan's winning 44 states. The big tent was quite large

The Republican nominees 1988 – 2012, George H.W. Bush, Bob Dole, George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney had backgrounds in the Republican establishment. They had histories favorable to attracting moderate voters. Their task was to prove conservative and religious right bona fides. For example, George W. Bush promised to fight for a Constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and Romney promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act on "day one," although as Massachusetts governor he signed into law a similar measure. Although not always enough to get elected, these candidates won the conservatives, moderates and the rightwing fringe. Liberals--now called Progressives--were mainly disappearing from the Republican Party

The years 2016 and 2020 ended the big tent. Donald Trump, who ran for president without a political record, had only years of interviews without a discernible ideology. Trump chose to veer hard-right on religious and domestic issues as his path to the nomination and presidency. He showed no interest in a big tent. Yet he won due to a combination of whites' nervousness about the future and embrace of racism, an opponent with high negatives, and most of all, the Electoral College. Trump got 46 percent of the popular vote versus 48 percent for Hillary Clinton, which would ordinarily mean defeat. In 2020, Trump tried the same formula, but lost because too many whites in suburbs and rural areas deserted him. The big tent has been fully abandoned.

In conclusion, the Republican Party since World War II has been right of center, but its aim was to capture a broad center of the electorate while controlling its rightwing fringe. In 1964, with Goldwater's nomination the conservative wing became dominant. The party nominees from Nixon to Romney took positions on issues from economics to foreign policy to culture that were hard-right conservative. However, these nominees were able to win a respectable share of the moderate voters due to their establishment backgrounds and reputations or in the case of Reagan an ability to communicate trust. Yet the big tent was shrinking with fewer moderate voters and fewer people of color in the party. Republican leaders also realized that tactics such as voter suppression and gerrymandering were needed to make up for the now abandoned big tent. By 2016 the party was ripe to be captured by a man who had no interest in the big tent and saw angry conservative voters and religious right as his ticket to the White House. By 2021, the Republicans lost the presidency and both houses of Congress, but Trump and other party leaders have doubled down on those same tactics; it's apparent the Republicans no longer see the big tent as the solution.


Donne Levy is a retired community college history instructor.

This article was originally published at History News Network

This is what conservative opponents of critical race theory don't want you to know

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a lightning rod for conservative ire at any discussion of racism, anti-racism, or the non-white history of America. Across the country, bills in Republican-controlled legislatures have attempted to prevent the teaching of CRT, even though most of those against CRT struggle to define the term. CRT actually began as a legal theory which held simply that systemic racism was consciously created, and therefore, must be consciously dismantled. History reveals that the foundation of America, and of systemic racism, happened at the same time and from the same set of consciously created laws.

Around the 20th of August, 1619, the White Lion, an English ship sailing under a Dutch flag, docked off Old Point Comfort (near present-day Hampton), in the British colony of Virginia, to barter approximately 20 Africans for much needed food and supplies. The facts of the White Lion's arrival in Virginia, and her human cargo, are generally not in dispute. Whether those first Africans arriving in America were taken by colonists as slaves or as indentured servants is still debated. But by the end of the 17th century, a system of chattel slavery was in place in colonial America. How America got from uncertainty about the status of Africans, to certainty that they were slaves, is a transition that highlights the origins of systemic racism.

Three arguments have been put forth about whether the first Africans arriving in the colonies were treated as indentured servants or as slaves. One says that European racism predisposed American colonists to treat these Africans as slaves. Anthony and Isabella, for example, two Africans aboard the White Lion, were acquired by Captain William Tucker and listed at the bottom of his 1624/25 muster (census) entry, just above his real property, but below white indentured servants and native Americans.

A second argument counters that racism was not, at first, the decisive factor but that the availability of free labor was. "Before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them," historian Lerone Bennett wrote, "the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black [and native] bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures."

In this view, slavery was not born of racism, but racism was born of slavery. Early colonial laws had no provisions distinguishing African from European servants, until those laws began to change toward the middle of the 17th century, when Africans became subject to more brutal treatment than any other group. Proponents of this second argument point to cases like Elizabeth Key in 1656, or Phillip Corven in 1675, Black servants who sued in different court cases against their white masters for keeping them past the end of their indentures. Both Key and Corven won. If slavery was the law, Key and Corven would have had no standing in court much less any hope of prevailing.

Still, a third group stakes out slightly different ground. Separate Africans into two groups: the first generation that arrived before the middle of the 17th century, and those that arrived after. For the first generations of Africans, English and Dutch colonists had the concept of indefinite, but not inheritable, bondage. For those who came after, colonists applied the concept of lifetime, inheritable bondage. Here, the 1640 case of John Punch, a Black man caught with two other white servants attempting to run away, is often cited. As punishment, all the men received thirty lashes but the white servants had only one-year added to their indentures, while John Punch was ordered to serve his master "for the time of his natural life." For this reason, many consider John Punch the first real slave in America. Or was he the last Black indentured servant?

Clearly these cases show the ambiguity, or "loopholes," of the system separating servitude from slavery in early America. What is also clear is that one by one these loopholes were closed through conscious intent of colonial legislatures. In this reduction of ambiguity over the status of Africans, the closure of loopholes between servitude and slavery, are the roots of systemic racism.

Maryland enacted a first-of-its-kind law in 1664, specifically tying being Black to being a slave. "[A]ll Negroes or other slaves already within the Province And all Negroes and other slaves to be hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita." Durante Vita is a Latin phrase meaning for the duration of one's life.

Another loophole concerned the status of children. Colonial American law was initially derived from English common law, where the status of child (whether bound or free) followed the status of the father. But adherence to English common law posed problems in colonial America, such as revealed in the 1630 case of Hugh Davis, a white man sentencing to whipping "for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro..." Whipping proved no deterrent for such interracial unions between a free European and a bound African. If English common law was followed, then the child of such a liaison would be free. So, in the years following Davis' whipping the legislatures in Maryland and Virginia enacted statutes that the status of the child, whether slave or free, followed that of the mother.

But closing this loophole assumes that only the sexual exploits of European men needed containing. The famous, and well-documented case of Irish milkmaid, Molly Welsh, who worked off her indentures in Maryland, shows the reverse actually happened as well. Welsh purchased a slaved named Banna Ka, whom she eventually freed, then married. They had a girl named Mary, who was free. Mary married a runaway slaved named Thomas, and they had a boy named Benjamin, who was also free. And Benjamin Banneker, a clockmaker, astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor, became an important figure in African American history, having authored a letter to Thomas Jefferson lamenting the lofty ideals of liberty and equality contained in the nation's founding documents were not extended to all citizens regardless of color.

Closing the religious exemption was another way in which colonial legislatures sought to separate Blacks from whites, and force slavery only on people of African descent. One of the reasons Elizabeth Key prevailed in court was that she asserted she could not be held in slavery as a Christian. In fact, there was a widespread belief in early America that Christians holding other Christians in slavery went against core biblical teachings.

Most first generation Africans in colonial America came from the Angola-Congo region of West Africa, first taken there by the Portuguese. Christianity was well-known, and practiced by Africans in these regions as early as the 15th century. So, many Africans destined for slavery, or indentured servitude in America, were already baptized, or were christened by priests aboard Portuguese slave trading vessels.

Colonial legislatures got busy. Maryland updated the 1664 law, cited above, with a 1671 statute that specifically carved out a religious exception for people of African descent. Regardless of whether they had become Christian, or received the sacrament of baptism, they would "hereafter be adjudged, reputed, deemed, and taken to be and remain in servitude and bondage" forever. Acts like this led to a tortured, convoluted American Christianity, developed to support slavery, and this legacy of racism within American Christianity continues to this day.

Apprehension of runaway servants and slaves was still another area in which colonial legislatures targeted people of color for differential, oppressive treatment. While granting masters the right to send a posse after runaways, a 1672 Virginia statute called "An act for the apprehension and suppression of runawayes, negroes and slaves," granted immunity to any white person who killed or wounded a runaway person of color while in pursuit of them. It read:

"Be it enacted by the governour, councell and burgesses of this grand assembly, and by the authority thereof, that if any negroe, molatto, Indian slave, or servant for life, runaway and shalbe persued by warrant or hue and crye, it shall and may be lawfull for any person who shall endeavour to take them, upon the resistance of such negroe, mollatto, Indian slave, or servant for life, to kill or wound him or them soe resisting."

Acts like this became the basis for slave patrols, and for the police forces that arose from them. Today, we still deal with the consequences of "qualified immunity," stemming from ideas like these enacted in 1672, which shield police from prosecution in cases of violence and brutality, especially against people of color.

Protection of southern rights even found its way into the Constitution. The Second Amendment protects the right of militias (a polite term for "slave patrols") to organize and bear arms. The Fugitive Slave Clause (never repealed) guaranteed southern slaveholders that their slaves apprehended in the North would be returned. Even the Interstate Commerce Clause allowed Southerners traveling North with their slaves assurances those slaves would not automatically become free by setting foot in states that outlawed slavery.

Though enacted centuries ago, the laws cited above are representative of the many laws that came to define American jurisprudence, and have at their core, the repression and oppression of Black Americans, and other people of color. This is why Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, handed down a 7-2 verdict in the Dred Scott case, with the words that Blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This is why critical race theory states that systemic racism was consciously created, as these laws and their enforcement show they were.

But this is also why Republican legislators and their supporters lump anything and everything having to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion into the box of critical race theory, then try to keep it out of schools and public institutions. They're afraid of Americans being told the truth: that the foundation of America, and of systemic racism, happened at the same time and from the same consciously created laws. In this way, these individuals are actually living proof of the validity of critical race theory, because they seek to consciously enact laws today which perpetuate the racial inequality established by laws enacted hundreds of years ago.


Clyde W. Ford is the author of numerous books including Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives, and the Making of White Power and Wealth, due out next year from HarperCollins.

This article was originally published at History News Network

Historian: Republican culture war fight driven by need to hide a basic fact about American history

Critical Race Theory (CRT) has become a lightning rod for conservative ire at any discussion of racism, anti-racism, or the non-white history of America. Across the country, bills in Republican-controlled legislatures have attempted to prevent the teaching of CRT, even though most of those against CRT struggle to define the term. CRT actually began as a legal theory which held simply that systemic racism was consciously created, and therefore, must be consciously dismantled. History reveals that the foundation of America, and of systemic racism, happened at the same time and from the same set of consciously created laws.

Around the 20th of August, 1619, the White Lion, an English ship sailing under a Dutch flag, docked off Old Point Comfort (near present-day Hampton), in the British colony of Virginia, to barter approximately 20 Africans for much needed food and supplies. The facts of the White Lion's arrival in Virginia, and her human cargo, are generally not in dispute. Whether those first Africans arriving in America were taken by colonists as slaves or as indentured servants is still debated. But by the end of the 17th century, a system of chattel slavery was in place in colonial America. How America got from uncertainly about the status of Africans, to certainty that they were slaves, is a transition that highlights the origins of systemic racism.

Three arguments have been put forth about whether the first Africans arriving in the colonies were treated as indentured servants or as slaves. One says that European racism predisposed American colonists to treat these Africans as slaves. Anthony and Isabella, for example, two Africans aboard the White Lion, were acquired by Captain William Tucker and listed at the bottom of his 1624/25 muster (census) entry, just above his real property, but below white indentured servants and native Americans.

A second argument counters that racism was not, at first, the decisive factor but that the availability of free labor was. "Before the invention of the Negro or the white man or the words and concepts to describe them," historian Lerone Bennett wrote, "the Colonial population consisted largely of a great mass of white and black [and native] bondsmen, who occupied roughly the same economic category and were treated with equal contempt by the lords of the plantations and legislatures."

In this view, slavery was not born of racism, but racism was born of slavery. Early colonial laws had no provisions distinguishing African from European servants, until those laws began to change toward the middle of the 17th century, when Africans became subject to more brutal treatment than any other group. Proponents of this second argument point to cases like Elizabeth Key in 1656, or Phillip Corven in 1675, Black servants who sued in different court cases against their white masters for keeping them past the end of their indentures. Both Key and Corven won. If slavery was the law, Key and Corven would have had no standing in court much less any hope of prevailing.

Still, a third group stakes out slightly different ground. Separate Africans into two groups: the first generation that arrived before the middle of the 17th century, and those that arrived after. For the first generations of Africans, English and Dutch colonists had the concept of indefinite, but not inheritable, bondage. For those who came after, colonists applied the concept of lifetime, inheritable bondage. Here, the 1640 case of John Punch, a Black man caught with two other white servants attempting to run away, is often cited. As punishment, all the men received thirty lashes but the white servants had only one-year added to their indentures, while John Punch was ordered to serve his master "for the time of his natural life." For this reason, many consider John Punch the first real slave in America. Or was he the last Black indentured servant?

Clearly these cases show the ambiguity, or "loopholes," of the system separating servitude from slavery in early America. What is also clear is that one by one these loopholes were closed through conscious intent of colonial legislatures. In this reduction of ambiguity over the status of Africans, the closure of loopholes between servitude and slavery, are the roots of systemic racism.

Maryland enacted a first-of-its-kind law in 1664, specifically tying being Black to being a slave. "[A]ll Negroes or other slaves already within the Province And all Negroes and other slaves to be hereafter imported into the Province shall serve Durante Vita." Durante Vita is a Latin phrase meaning for the duration of one's life.

Another loophole concerned the status of children. Colonial American law was initially derived from English common law, where the status of child (whether bound or free) followed the status of the father. But adherence to English common law posed problems in colonial America, such as revealed in the 1630 case of Hugh Davis, a white man sentencing to whipping "for abusing himself to the dishonor of God and shame of Christians, by defiling his body in lying with a negro..." Whipping proved no deterrent for such interracial unions between a free European and a bound African. If English common law was followed, then the child of such a liaison would be free. So, in the years following Davis' whipping the legislatures in Maryland and Virginia enacted statutes that the status of the child, whether slave or free, followed that of the mother.

But closing this loophole assumes that only the sexual exploits of European men needed containing. The famous, and well-documented case of Irish milkmaid, Molly Welsh, who worked off her indentures in Maryland, shows the reverse actually happened as well. Welsh purchased a slaved named Banna Ka, whom she eventually freed, then married. They had a girl named Mary, who was free. Mary married a runaway slaved named Thomas, and they had a boy named Benjamin, who was also free. And Benjamin Banneker, a clockmaker, astronomer, mathematician, and surveyor, became an important figure in African American history, having authored a letter to Thomas Jefferson lamenting the lofty ideals of liberty and equality contained in the nation's founding documents were not extended to all citizens regardless of color.

Closing the religious exemption was another way in which colonial legislatures sought to separate Blacks from whites, and force slavery only on people of African descent. One of the reasons Elizabeth Key prevailed in court was that she asserted she could not be held in slavery as a Christian. In fact, there was a widespread belief in early America that Christians holding other Christians in slavery went against core biblical teachings.

Most first generation Africans in colonial America came from the Angola-Congo region of West Africa, first taken there by the Portuguese. Christianity was well-known, and practiced by Africans in these regions as early as the 15th century. So, many Africans destined for slavery, or indentured servitude in America, were already baptized, or were christened by priests aboard Portuguese slave trading vessels.

Colonial legislatures got busy. Maryland updated the 1664 law, cited above, with a 1671 statute that specifically carved out a religious exception for people of African descent. Regardless of whether they had become Christian, or received the sacrament of baptism, they would "hereafter be adjudged, reputed, deemed, and taken to be and remain in servitude and bondage" forever. Acts like this led to a tortured, convoluted American Christianity, developed to support slavery, and this legacy of racism within American Christianity continues to this day.

Apprehension of runaway servants and slaves was still another area in which colonial legislatures targeted people of color for differential, oppressive treatment. While granting masters the right to send a posse after runaways, a 1672 Virginia statute called "An act for the apprehension and suppression of runawayes, negroes and slaves," granted immunity to any white person who killed or wounded a runaway person of color while in pursuit of them. It read:

"Be it enacted by the governour, councell and burgesses of this grand assembly, and by the authority thereof, that if any negroe, molatto, Indian slave, or servant for life, runaway and shalbe persued by warrant or hue and crye, it shall and may be lawfull for any person who shall endeavour to take them, upon the resistance of such negroe, mollatto, Indian slave, or servant for life, to kill or wound him or them soe resisting."

Acts like this became the basis for slave patrols, and for the police forces that arose from them. Today, we still deal with the consequences of "qualified immunity," stemming from ideas like these enacted in 1672, which shield police from prosecution in cases of violence and brutality, especially against people of color.

Protection of southern rights even found its way into the Constitution. The Second Amendment protects the right of militias (a polite term for "slave patrols") to organize and bear arms. The Fugitive Slave Clause (never repealed) guaranteed southern slaveholders that their slaves apprehended in the North would be returned. Even the Interstate Commerce Clause allowed Southerners traveling North with their slaves assurances those slaves would not automatically become free by setting foot in states that outlawed slavery.

Though enacted centuries ago, the laws cited above are representative of the many laws that came to define American jurisprudence, and have at their core, the repression and oppression of Black Americans, and other people of color. This is why Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, writing for the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, handed down a 7-2 verdict in the Dred Scott case, with the words that Blacks had "no rights which the white man was bound to respect." This is why critical race theory states that systemic racism was consciously created, as these laws and their enforcement show they were.

But this is also why Republican legislators and their supporters lump anything and everything having to do with diversity, equity, and inclusion into the box of critical race theory, then try to keep it out of schools and public institutions. They're afraid of Americans being told the truth: that the foundation of America, and of systemic racism, happened at the same time and from the same consciously created laws. In this way, these individuals are actually living proof of the validity of critical race theory, because they seek to consciously enact laws today which perpetuate the racial inequality established by laws enacted hundreds of years ago.

Clyde W. Ford is the author of numerous books including Of Blood and Sweat: Black Lives, and the Making of White Power and Wealth, due out next year from HarperCollins.

Iowa Republicans reject Enlightenment values with confusing law that infringes on free speech to protect feelings

The Iowa legislature has just passed a new law on teaching about racism in the Iowa schools. It is long, vague, and contradictory. It is a confusing, poorly drafted piece of legislation. It is clear, though, that it drastically restricts speech on the part of students and teachers. It is now law, but unlikely to have much legal impact as it is almost certainly unconstitutional and does not include tough enforcement measures.

Yet it still matters. We are losing many of our best college graduates to places like Chicago, Minneapolis, and Texas. Our civic leaders try to win new businesses in the state yet employers are unlikely to invest in a state that looks like Mississippi, only with cold weather.

Reading this new law felt like skimming the Terms of Service on a commercial website, or carefully reading the warranty on a new toaster oven. It left me wondering how such a mess received the support of GOP leaders.

Sadly, this law is purely political. It has arrived in the midst of a larger movement against Critical Race Theory (CRT) a doctrine almost solely taught in law schools. Yet it will damage faculty governance over teaching in universities, and, along with recent threats to academic tenure, make it difficult to recruit the best professors to our state. However, it meshes well with current Republican thinking in the age of Trump. Iowa has a long tradition of local control of education. However, this law gives most power to the legislature. On a variety of issues, from hog lots to COVID-19 masking, the Iowa GOP believes in local control, except when it doesn't.

The law seems to protect students against discrimination based on their "political ideology." That sounds laudable, but it does not effectively define "ideology," creating confusion. Other elements of the law seem equally problematic. For example, it prohibits teaching anything with the consequence that "any individual should feel discomfort, guilt, anguish, or any other form of psychological distress on account of that individual's race or sex."

I'm not a lawyer, but it appears that the legislature has just passed a law against hurt feelings. My students are adults, and I love hearing their varied opinions. But when they learn about slavery, Indian removal, or the Vietnam War, it might be distressing. Feel good history, which celebrates great men, might sound fine. Unfortunately, it obscures the fact that disagreement and dissent are crucial to our country's past.

Teaching about race and anti-racism has been central for the field of history for more than a century. It has always been controversial because it has always been uncomfortable. And that won't change. American history contains stories of thoughtfulness and heroism. It also contains stories of brutality and hatred.

We have to tell the uncomfortable stories, the stories of Jim Crow, slavery, and race riots. Why? Because we can do better. The history of Reconstruction or the Civil Rights movement shows us that we HAVE done better.

We have a set of principles based on equality, derived from the Enlightenment. That is, we value freedom. It is precisely because we are committed to freedom that talking about unfairness and inequality can be so painful.

It can also be tremendously liberating; it offers the opportunity to change; to move closer to that American ideal of freedom. Let's try to get there. But we will always be uncomfortable. It can feel like pushing a boulder up a hill, only to see it roll back to the bottom. But that boulder won't stay at the bottom. That is because Americans want real history--the stories that tell about our best moments and also our worst.

Twenty-five years ago, I moved to Iowa in order to teach history. I had been told three things about the state: it was cold in the winter, flat, and had a great system of education. Iowa winters are undeniably cold. It is not flat, and my first walk up College Hill in Cedar Falls cured me of that mistaken impression. And it did have a great system of education. UNI may be a small school, but I love the students. They are willing to think hard about the past. It is hard to define "Iowa nice," but our students have it and I am grateful for that. Is UNI still part of a great system of education, known across the country, and stretching from kindergarten to college? Maybe, but that tradition is hanging by a thread. A key step in saving it would be studying history, but not the warm and fuzzy fantasies that the legislature has created. There is a better way: let's give teachers and professors, who have studied the field, a chance to do their jobs without stifling control from the legislature and governor in Des Moines.


Wallace Hettle is a Professor of History at the University of Northern Iowa.

This article was originally published at History News Network

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