DC insider on the 10 most crucial days of the Obama presidency

Other than being able to string a sentence together, empathy is the most important quality in a speechwriter. The ability or at least the attempt to understand your audience, to walk in their shoes for a little while, even if empathy will never be a perfect match for experience.—Cody Keenan, Grace

Ten days in June 2015 were some of the most intense during the presidency of Barack Obama. The president was awaiting US Supreme Court decisions on the fate of the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality. And, on June 17, a hate-fueled white supremacist shot to death nine African American worshippers at a historic church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Chief White House speechwriter Cody Keenan focuses on this extraordinary period in his revelatory and lively new book Grace: President Obama and Ten Days in the Battle for America (Mariner Books).

In response to this perfect storm of historic events, Mr. Keenan drafted memorable speeches and a heartfelt and now immortal eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pinckney and other victims of the Charleston violence. And that address moved beyond a eulogy with the president’s powerful plea for unity and reconciliation and his surprising segue as he led the congregation and the nation in singing “Amazing Grace.”

In Grace, Mr. Keenan recounts highlights of his career as a speechwriter as he describes the tumultuous ten days. The reader immediately senses the demands of working for a president who was himself the former editor of the Harvard Law Review and among the most celebrated writers and orators of the recent history. As Mr. Keenan puts it, “To be a speechwriter for Barack Obama is f---ing terrifying.” Mr. Keenan worked “to his limits” in his high-pressure position to provide President Obama with the best drafts possible. And it’s obvious from Grace that the two men were gifted collaborators who worked together with great mutual respect and admiration.

As he provides a behind-the-scenes perspective on White House operations, Mr. Keenan introduces key presidential aides such as Valerie Jarrett, Jen Psaki, Ben Rhodes, Jon Favreau and his speechwriting team. He also intersperses the book with the story of his romance with esteemed presidential fact-checker Kristen Bartoloni, who often challenged and corrected his writing. They married at the White House in 2016.

By 2015, President Obama had delivered more than a dozen eulogies for the victims of gun violence, including for those who died in the massacre where Representative Gabby Giffords was seriously wounded in Arizona and the horrific gunshot murders of 20 children and five adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Mr. Keenan wrote those eulogies as well as the president’s now famous speech honoring the fiftieth anniversary of the 1965 March on Selma for voting rights and those peaceful protesters including civil rights icon, Representative John Lewis, who endured a bloody attack by police.

Mr. Keenan writes powerfully of the pain and sorrow that he and the president experienced in addressing yet another mass shooting in June 2015, that time with the added dimension of racist violence. The description in Grace of the creation of the president’s address for the funeral of beloved Reverend Clementa Pinckney is a case study in collaboration in the speech drafting process.

During the same sad week, Mr. Keenan wrote statements for the president to deliver if the Supreme Court gutted the Affordable Care Act and ended marriage equality. We now know that those speeches on the Court decisions weren’t necessary. And the eulogy for Reverend Pinckney will be remembered as one of the great presidential addresses. Mr. Keenan concedes that this eulogy was his most difficult assignment after working on more than three thousand speeches for President Obama.

Mr. Keenan’s heartfelt and moving memoir Grace shows how a gifted president and his devoted team worked together tirelessly for a more fair, more tolerant, and more just nation.

Mr. Keenan is best known as an acclaimed speechwriter. He studied political science at Northwestern University and, after graduation worked in the office of US Senator Ted Kennedy. After several years in that role, he earned a master's degree in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. He subsequently secured a full-time position with Barack Obama's presidential campaign in Chicago in 2008.

When President Obama took office in 2009, Mr. Keenan became deputy director of speechwriting in the White House. He was promoted to chief White House speechwriter during the president’s second term. He also collaborated with President Obama on writing projects from the end of his term in 2017 until 2020. He has said that he wrote his dream speech just four days before Obama left office—welcoming the World Champion Chicago Cubs to the White House.

Mr. Keenan is currently a partner at the speechwriting firm Fenway Strategies and, as a visiting professor at his alma mater Northwestern University, he teaches a popular course on political speechwriting. Today, he and Kristen live in New York City with their daughter, Grace.

Mr. Keenan graciously responded by email to a long series of questions on his new book and his work.

Robin Lindley: Congratulations Mr. Keenan on your engaging new book Grace, a revelatory exploration of your work as chief speechwriter for President Obama at an incredibly turbulent time. Before getting to that period, I wanted to ask about your background. You majored in political science at Northwestern University. What sparked your interest in politics?

Cody Keenan: Well, I enrolled at Northwestern as a pre-med student. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon after a football injury forced a knee reconstruction. Chemistry 101 weeded me right out, though. I just wanted to take biology.

But politics had always been an interest. My parents often argued about politics at the dinner table – my mom was a Kennedy Democrat from Indiana; my dad was a Reagan Republican from California – and whatever could make them so animated was something worth exploring. One value they both hammered into me, though, was the idea that I should do whatever I could to make sure more people had the same kind of opportunities I did growing up – and by the time I graduated from college, only one political party cared about that.

Robin Lindley: Did you have academic or other training in speechwriting?

Cody Keenan: No. Writing was something that always came naturally, and I think that came from being a voracious reader. I won every summer competition at the local public library. You can’t be a good writer without being a great reader.

Robin Lindley: You interned for legendary Senator Ted Kennedy after college. Did your duties in that role include speechwriting?

Cody Keenan: Not as part of the internship, or even the first position after that. Three months as an intern got me hired to answer his phones. I ended up working for him for almost four years in four different roles.

In 2004, when I was on his staff for the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, the Democratic National Convention was in Boston, his hometown. We all took a week off work to volunteer. I was on the arena floor the night that Barack Obama gave the speech that made him famous. He walked into the arena anonymous; he walked out 17 minutes later a global megastar. It shows you what a good speech can do.

Once we were back in Washington, I must have talked about that speech a lot, because that’s when my boss asked if I could write a speech. I don’t know if he meant did I have the time or did I know how, but it didn’t matter – I lied and said yes.

Robin Lindley: Senator Kennedy was known as a great legislator in the Senate who could work across the aisle. Did you work with him or his staff on any significant projects? What did you learn from that internship?

Cody Keenan: As an intern, one of my tasks was to read and route mail that came to the office. Perfect strangers were writing a senator – often one who wasn’t even their senator – to ask for help. There’s an act of hope involved in that. Even when it was a tough letter to read, even when you could see that the writer had wiped a tear from the page, they hoped that someone on the other end would care enough to help. I learned right away just how important this stuff is.

Later, as a staffer, I worked on all sorts of legislation. Kennedy was involved in everything. Health care, minimum wage, education, immigration, the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, Supreme Court nominations – we were always busy. And with good mentors, I learned that just as important as the policy itself was often the way you communicated it.

Robin Lindley: What attracted you to working for President Obama during his first presidential campaign in 2007? Did you work as a speechwriter before his election?

Cody Keenan: Well, what struck me about that 2004 speech was that he described politics the way I wanted it to be – as this collective endeavor in which we could do extraordinary things that we couldn’t do alone. His only speechwriter at the time, Jon Favreau, called me early in the campaign and asked if I wanted to join the speechwriting team he was putting together. I said yes.

Robin Lindley: What did you learn or do to prepare for work as a speechwriter for President Obama, one of our most celebrated American writers and thinkers even then? Did you go back and read works of some of the great White House writers such as Ted Sorensen, Bill Moyers, and Peggy Noonan? Did you read speeches by the likes of Lincoln, FDR, JFK, Churchill, and other memorable leaders?

Cody Keenan: I didn’t. I’d already read the canon of presidential hits, but to be a speechwriter for someone means writing for that specific person, helping him or her sound not like anybody else, but rather the best version of himself or herself.

Robin Lindley: I read that you didn’t personally meet President Obama until his first day at the White House in 2009. Yet, you had been working for him for a year and a half. What do you remember about your first meeting and your early days at the White House?

Cody Keenan: Yep – he visited Chicago headquarters maybe three times during the campaign. He was out campaigning! And when he did visit, it was for strategy sessions with his top aides and to address the entire staff at once, not to meet with his most junior speechwriter.

On our first day at the White House, he called me into the Oval Office because he’d seen my name at the top of speech drafts and he just wanted to put a face to the name. Those early days were drinking from a firehose: the economy was falling apart, millions of Americans had lost their jobs and their homes in just the four months before he took office, and millions more would in the first few months after. There was no honeymoon; we were busy trying to turn that firehose onto the fire.

Robin Lindley: Did you immediately start as a speechwriter once President Obama began work at the White House?

Cody Keenan: I did.

Robin Lindley: How does one prepare for a job that requires knowing the voice and propensities of the person they are writing for?

Cody Keenan: Well, I had a year and a half foundation from the campaign. I’d read his books to absorb his worldview, listened to the audio versions to absorb his cadence, and paid close attention to his edits. He was a writer. He was our chief speechwriter. And he was our top editor. I learned a lot just by poring over his edits to our drafts.

Robin Lindley: How did your relationship with President Obama evolve over his eight years in office? You wrote that working for this acclaimed writer could be terrifying. It seems he offered good advice to you such as having a drink and listening to Miles Davis or John Coltrane. Or reading James Baldwin. Did you see him as a kind of coach or mentor?

Cody Keenan: I was the junior writer on the team for the first two years, sitting across the driveway in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Then a series of high-profile speeches got me promoted to deputy director of speechwriting, and I moved into a West Wing office with Jon Favreau. Once he left after the second inaugural, I took over as chief speechwriter. So naturally, our relationship evolved – I went from seeing Obama every couple weeks to every week to every day.

I saw him as my boss. I guess as a writing coach of sorts. And sometimes even as an uncle or older brother who loved to dispense advice. He hosted my wife and our families and our best friends at the White House on our wedding day. It was his idea. He didn’t have to do that.

Robin Lindley: Are there other bits of President Obama’s advice that stick with you?

Cody Keenan: “Don’t impart motives to people.” That’s advice we could use more of.

Robin Lindley: Indeed. A big question, but can you give a sense of the speechwriting process? What sparks the process? Who is involved? What’s it like to collaborate with a team of writers and other staff?

Cody Keenan: He viewed speechwriting as a collaboration. He just wanted us to give him something he could work with. We wrote 3,477 speeches and statements in the White House, and believe it or not, he edited most of the speeches, even if lightly. But he couldn’t be deeply involved with all of them.

For any speech of consequence, though, we’d start by sitting down with him and asking “what’s the story we’re trying to tell?” Then the speechwriting team would talk over each speech, helping each other get started. Then we’d all go back to our own laptops and draft whatever speech we’d been assigned. The drafting was not a collaborative process. The revising was – with each other, but more importantly with him.

Robin Lindley: What’s the fact checking process for a speech draft before it goes to the president? It’s interesting that your future wife Kristen was one of the very diligent fact-checkers you relied on.

Cody Keenan: Yeah, she literally got paid to tell me I was wrong. Every day. For years. It was her team’s job to fireproof the president – to make sure he never said something he shouldn’t, with someone he shouldn’t be with, at a place he shouldn’t be visiting. They prevented countless alternate timelines where we’d have to do some cleanup in the press. They saved us from ourselves again and again.

Robin Lindley: Congratulations on your marriage to Kristen with the magnificent White House wedding. Your blossoming romance runs like a red thread through your book. You note that President Obama would stay up late at night to review and edit drafts of speeches he would give the next day. And you often received late night calls from him or met with him in the wee hours. How did those final hours work with a speech? It seems the president would often edit to the time of delivery.

Cody Keenan: He always edited in the wee hours of the morning. It’s when he preferred to work. It was rare that we were editing right up until delivery. If we were flying somewhere for a speech, he’d always go over it one or two final times on the plane. But he didn’t like chaos. In fact, the reason he edited so heavily, so often, was because he wanted the speech exactly the way he wanted it. Sometimes it was perfectionism. But it’s really just preparation.

Robin Lindley: What did you think when the president ad libbed or changed something from your draft as he spoke? I think you said something to the effect that he was a better speechwriter than all of his writing staff.

Cody Keenan: I loved it. I can’t think of a time I cringed at an adlib. He had a knack for it. It could be a little white-knuckled if he did it at the end of the speech when there’s no text for him to come back to. In that case, he’d have to build a new runway while he was speaking on which to land the plane.

Robin Lindley: When does humor come into the mix? Do you write for events such as the White House Correspondents Dinner? President Obama had some zingers for his eventual birther successor at these events.

Cody Keenan: Those were our most collaborative sets of remarks. The entire team would pitch jokes, and we’d reach out to professional comedy writers to solicit their help. We’d start out with about 200 jokes and whittle them down to the 20 funniest. Sometimes, none of your jokes would make the cut. You’ve got to have a thick skin.

Robin Lindley: And you and the other speechwriters did not use a template such as this speech is on the economy or this speech is political, so we’ll use the file template X or Y. You were responsible for more than three thousand speeches, yet it seems each speech was approached as a unique project.

Cody Keenan: Yes and no. We never used a template. But while each individual speech should tell a story, so should all speeches. What I mean by that is, we were mindful that every speech we wrote fit into a longer narrative arc – both of his presidency and his entire political career.

Robin Lindley: You worked for the president through his eight years in office. How did you come to focus on ten days in 2015 in Grace as the president dealt with the horrific 2015 mass murder of nine Black parishioners by an avowed white supremacist at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The president then also was preparing to address two impending Supreme Court decisions that would determine the fate of the Affordable Care Act and marriage equality.

Cody Keenan: Yeah. People will remember all of the stories and all of the events in this book. They won’t remember that they all happened in the same ten-day span. I mean, that in and of itself is a story that demands to be told. In addition to a massacre carried out by a self-radicalized white supremacist, there was a very real chance that the Supreme Court would say no, people who work two or three jobs don’t deserve help affording health insurance; no, gay Americans don’t get to get married like the rest of us; all of those people are now second-class citizens. And the first Black president has to serve as the public narrator and provide some moral clarity for all of this.

Someone once described it as ten days too implausible for an entire season of The West Wing. But it’s also what those events symbolized and how they fit in the broader, centuries-long story of America – whether or not we’re actually going to live up to the ideals we profess to believe in. Whether we’re going to stand up to white supremacy, and bigotry, and people who profit from inequality and violence. And that week, the answers were all “yes.”

Robin Lindley: With the Charleston massacre, the president had to address another mass shooting and he was tired of giving eulogies after the murders at Sandy Hook and all of the other heartbreaking mass shootings during his term in office. How was his speech at Mother Emmanuel Church different from previous addresses? What was your role in creating this memorable speech? How did the speech go beyond a eulogy to become a message of reconciliation?

Cody Keenan: We had done over a dozen eulogies after mass shootings at that point. And this goes back a few years, the shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, where 20 little kids were murdered in their classrooms, along with six of their educators, was right after he’d been reelected.

And he put aside his second term agenda right out of the gate to try to do something about guns, because what an abdication of leadership that would be if he didn’t. And he had a little boost by Joe Manchin and Pat Toomey, an arch conservative from Pennsylvania with an A-rating from the NRA. They both had one. They decided to work together on a background checks bill. And even though we knew the odds in the Senate would be long, that gives you something to try for. And so, we traveled the country for a few months. He made it a centerpiece of his State of the Union address. Big, emotional, powerful ending. And in the end, in April, Republicans blocked a vote on it with the parents of the Newtown kids watching from the gallery.

And that’s about as cynical as I’ve ever seen Barack Obama. Yet he went out and spoke in the Rose Garden with those families. I handed him a draft of the speech and he said, look out, I'm going to use this as a as a template, but I’m just going to wing it. And he came in after that speech into the outer Oval Office, which is this room just off the oval where his assistants sit, and he was almost yelling once the door closed, he said, “what am I going to do the next time this happens? What am I going to say? I don’t want to speak. If we’ve decided as a country that we’re not going to do anything about this, then I don’t want to be the one who closes the cycle every time with a eulogy that gives the country permission to move on.”

Ultimately, we did decide to do a eulogy after Charleston, and it was his idea to build the structure of the speech around the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.”

Robin Lindley: I think everyone was surprised and moved when President Obama sang “Amazing Grace” during the Charleston speech. Were you surprised or was that part of the plan for the speech?

Cody Keenan: That, too, was his idea. He told me on Marine One that morning that, if it felt right in the arena, he might sing it.

Robin Lindley: You now teach speechwriting at your alma mater Northwestern University. Do you have any other advice for prospective speech writers?

Cody Keenan: It’s fun, training a new generation of speechwriters and trying to convince them that public service is worth it. What I didn’t expect was that my students would end up teaching me quite a bit in return. There’s an impatience to their generation that mine didn’t have to have. Politics and the pace of change is now existential for them in a way it hasn’t been since schoolkids were doing duck and cover drills during the Cold War. They’re doing those duck and cover drills again because of guns. They can see an end to their future because of climate change.

And let me tell you, when they see a party more into policing books than policing assault weapons; when they see a party more exercised about drag queens than about climate change – they feel a real disdain there. I want them to harness it, though, in a productive way. And part of that means telling them the truth. To tell them that change has always taken time isn’t fun. To tell them that they’re not always going to win isn’t fun. To tell them that even when they vote in every election, they’ll never elect a leader who delivers everything they want. Well, that’s just not inspiring. But it’s also true.

Nobody ever promised us these things. That’s democracy. But here’s the thing about democracy: we get to refresh it whenever we want. Older generations aren’t entitled to their full tenure. So, while I counsel patience and realism, I also fan the flames of their impatience and idealism. I tell them to join a campaign now, to start an advocacy group now, to run for office now. Stay at it not just until the people in power are more representative of what America actually is, but until they’re the ones in power themselves. Then make the system your own. Faster, smarter, more responsive to the needs of a modern, pluralistic democracy. And one way to do that is through my cardinal rule of speechwriting: help more leaders talk like actual human beings.

Robin Lindley: You also continue to work as a speechwriter and you note that you worked with President Obama after his tenure in office. Did you consult with the president on writing projects such as his monumental memoir Promised Land?

Cody Keenan: I worked for him full-time for four years after we left the White House, ultimately leaving after the 2020 election so that I could devote my time to writing Grace.

Robin Lindley: What sorts of clients do your work with as a speechwriter now?

Cody Keenan: All kinds. Progressive candidates, nonprofit, academic, and corporate. Our rule is that each client has to be putting more into the world – hopefully much more – than it’s taking out. But the best part of it is to be surrounded by a team of idealistic young speechwriters again. I missed that over the four years after the White House.

Robin Lindley: Would you consider working with a president at the White House again?

Cody Keenan: Maybe. Depends on who it is. For a speechwriter, it really, really depends on who it is. Speeches require a deeper relationship than a lot of other staff positions. But I’m also older and have a young daughter. Both of those things make the grind of the White House much less attractive.

Robin Lindley: It seems we’re more divided now than during the Obama years. I never thought I’d see Nazi rallies in America in the 21st century. Where do you find hope for our democracy at this fraught time?

Cody Keenan: My students. While politics as it is may make them cynical, they’re not cynical about America and its possibilities. Somehow, they’re not as plagued by fear or suspicion as older generations; they’re more tolerant of differences between race and culture and gender and orientation, not only comfortable navigating all these different worlds but impatient to make them all fairer, more inclusive, and just plain better. They’re consumed with the idea that they can change things. They just want to do it faster.

Robin Lindley: Is there anything you’d like to add for readers about your book or your work?

Cody Keenan: You’re going to love Grace. I wrote it because it’s a hell of a story and it’s the most intimate look at Obama’s approach to speechwriting that exists.

But I also wrote it, as I told Stephen Colbert when he had me on, to blow up people’s cynicism about our politics. Because politics isn’t some rigid system we’re trapped under. It’s us. It’s only as good as we are. That’s why I was so happy when Obama called it “an antidote to cynicism that will make you believe again.”

But I was just as happy to read a review that described it this way: “Grace is a refreshing departure from the flood of scandalous ‘literary’ flotsam that typically washes up in the wake of the transfer of power. This book might not make breaking-news headlines, but it just might restore a little faith in the presidency and the backstage men and women who work around the clock to fulfill the chief executive’s promises to the American people.” The publicist at the publishing house didn’t love the part about “breaking-news headlines,” because that’s what sells books – but I was proud to write it the way I did. There’s no sleazy tell-all in this book, but there are a bunch of great never-before-told stories about what it’s like to sit alone with Obama and unlock the right words for a fraught moment.

Robin Lindley: Thank you Cody for your generosity and thoughtful comments. Your book captures the reality of work in the tense and often exhilarating environment of the White House with a president who was devoted to creating a more just and tolerant nation. Best wishes on your continuing work and congratulations on Grace.

Robin Lindley is a Seattle-based attorney, writer, illustrator, and features editor for the History News Network (historynewsnetwork.org). His work also has appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Bill Moyers.com, Re-Markings, Salon.com, Crosscut, Documentary, ABA Journal, Huffington Post, and more. Most of his legal work has been in public service. He served as a staff attorney with the US House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations and investigated the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His writing often focuses on the history of human rights, social justice, conflict, medicine, visual culture, and art. Robin’s email: robinlindley@gmail.com.

Behind Ayn Rand's defense of an anti-union massacre

In July 1943, former Hollywood screenwriter Ayn Rand was still tracking responses, critical and commercial, to her first major novel, The Fountainhead. It had been published two months earlier by Bobbs-Merrill after being rejected by a dozen other companies. Rand had written two previous novels, along with two stage plays, none of which proved successful. Now The Fountainhead was off to a slow start with audiences and reviewers.

While this was transpiring, Rand received in the mail a set of galleys for the memoir (eventually titled Boot Straps) by Tom M. Girdler, chairman of Republic Steel, which operated several massive plants in the Midwest and Pennsylvania. Many Americans had probably already forgotten the most tragic incident that Girdler was associated with, almost exactly six years earlier. If Rand was among them, her memory (and high estimate of Girdler) was surely revived in reading those galleys. Soon she would model a key character in her most famous novel, Atlas Shrugged, partly on Girdler.

Near the end of May 1937, workers who had been on strike for several days at Republic Steel in Southeast Chicago had called for a Memorial Day picnic on the wide open field several blocks from the plant entrance to build support. Tom Girdler wouldn’t even recognize the union, famously vowing that he would retire and go back to growing apples before he’d do that. At least 1500 workers and family members, including many women and children, turned out for the picnic. After the festivities, organizers called on the crowd to march to the gates of the plant where they might establish a mass, legal, picket.

Halfway there, the marchers, at least 500 strong, were halted by a large contingent of Chicago police and ordered to disperse. A heated discussion ensued. A few rocks were thrown in the direction of the police. Suddenly, some of the police drew their pistols and opened fire on the protesters at point blank range, and then as the marchers fled. They chased after the survivors, clubbing many of them.

Forty in the crowd were shot, with ten dead within two weeks. Dozens of the survivors were arrested and lifted into paddy wagons without medical attention. Only a handful of police required treatment for minor injuries.

Despite these one-sided results, local and national newspapers, right up to The New York Times and Washington Post, almost uniformly portrayed the marchers as a “mob” intent on rioting—that is, as the perpetrators of this tragedy. Some falsely suggested that the unionists fired first.

The only footage of the incident is quite graphic, showing the police shooting and then clubbing marchers; it was suppressed by Paramount News, a leading newsreel company.

Then the Progressive Party senator from Wisconsin, Robert LaFollette, Jr. convened a sensational three-day hearing into the tragedy. The Paramount footage was screened in its entirety—and then in slow motion (you can watch it here)--providing more proof of police malfeasance. It emerged that Republic Steel had collaborated with police on this day, allowing them to set up headquarters inside their plant and supplying them with tear gas and axe handles to supplement their billy clubs.

When the LaFollette committee released its report (most of it, along with witness testimony, printed for the first time in my new book on the Massacre), it harshly criticized the police: “We conclude that the consequences of the Memorial Day encounter were clearly avoidable by the police. The action of the responsible authorities in setting the seal of their approval upon the conduct of the police not only fails to place responsibility where responsibility properly belongs but will invite the repetition of similar incidents in the future.”

Ayn Rand clearly did not agree. On July 12, 1943, she typed a five-page letter to Republic boss Girdler after reading his galleys. “Allow me to express my deepest admiration for the way in which you have lived your life,” Rand wrote from New York City, “for your gallant fight of 1937, for the courage you displayed then and are displaying again now when you attempt a truly heroic deed—a defense of the industrialist….” Then she offered to send him a copy of her novel.

“The basic falsehood which the world has accepted is the doctrine that altruism is the ultimate ideal,” she related. “That is, service to others as a justification and the placing of others above self as a virtue. Such an ideal is not merely impossible, it is immoral and vicious. And there is no hope for the world until enough of us come to realize this. Man’s first duty is not to others, but to himself…

“I have presented my whole thesis against altruism in The Fountainhead….Its hero is the kind of man you appear to be, if I can judge by your book, the kind of man who built America, the creator and uncompromising individualist.”

But Rand also admitted that “it shocked me to read you, a great industrialist, saying in self-justification that you are just as good as a social worker. You are not. You are much better. But you will never prove it until we have a new code of values.

“You had the courage to stand on your rights and your convictions in 1937, while others crawled, compromised, and submitted. You were one of the few who made a stand. You are doing it again now when you come out openly in defense of the industrialist. So I think you are one of few men who will have the courage to understand and propagate the kind of moral code we need if the industrialists, and the rest of us, are to be saved. A new and consistent code of individualism.”

She concluded the letter “with deep appreciation for your achievement and that which you represent.”

Girdler replied on July 27, 1937, that he had just purchased The Fountainhead. A few months later, he met Rand in New York and told her that he had read and enjoyed novel, which pleased her immensely, and he suggested they meet for lunch.

This apparently did not take place, but she would, a short time later, create one of the key characters in Atlas Shrugged, troubled steel industrialist Hank Rearden, based partly on Girdler.

Greg Mitchell’s new film Memorial Day Massacre: Workers Die, Film Buried, premiered over PBS stations in May and can now be watched by everyone via PBS.org and PBS apps. He has also written a companion book with the same title. He is the author of a dozen previous books.

Pundits are obsessed with this off-the-shelf explanation for Trump's rise — but they should be cautious

If someone ever managed to copyright the word “resentment,” the owner would enjoy a steady stream of revenue, especially from columnists and opinion writers. Take those of the venerable New York Times. “The Resentment Fueling the Republican Party is Not Coming from the Suburbs,” reads the headline of a Thomas Edsall column from earlier this year. (January 25, 2023) Just a day later, Edsall’s Times colleague Paul Krugman declared, “Rural resentment has become a fact of American politics.” (January 26, 2023). Earlier that month, Bret Stephens wrote, in a colloquy with David Brooks, “The problem is that Trump turned the [Republican] party into a single-purpose vehicle for cultural resentments,” adding: “It doesn’t help that coastal elites do so much on their own to feed those resentments.” (Jan. 15, 2023) And in August of last year, Jamelle Bouie struck the same chord: “Republicans would like to offer you some resentment.” (August 22, 2022)

Given these assertions, it is no surprise to discover that the rush to evoke resentment coincided with the election of Trump in 2016. It quickly became an off-the-shelf explanation for a political phenomenon that defied all rational expectations.David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, vilified the victorious candidate as a “slick performer” who essentially duped his followers by being “more than willing to assume their resentments, their fury, their sense of a new world that conspired against their interests.” And days after the election, Leon Wieseltier, writing in the Washington Post, seized upon it as the apt word to describe the present moment: “Resentment, even when it has a basis in experience, is one of the ugliest political emotions, and it has been the source of horrors,” he declared. Others followed suit.

What are we to make of the place of “resentment” in the echo chamber of a significant segment of the commentariat? Does its frequent, casual, sometimes unthinking deployment really offer any insight into the motivations and values of the millions of Americans who voted the former president into office and support him still? It’s like inflation: when we use something too frequently its value is diminished. Might it be time to place a moratorium on “resentment?”

Perhaps not. But we might at least become more aware of its potential meanings and implications, especially those that risk overshooting the mark of what commentators intend to convey.

We might recall, for example, that at least since Friedrich Nietzsche it has usually been understood as a profoundly demeaning characterization of people convinced of their unjust victimization, consumed by bitterness and envy, governed by a twisted sense of the reasons for their fate. “Nothing on earth consumes a man more quickly than the passion of resentment,” he wrote in Ecce Homo. And in The Genealogy of Morality, where he cast the emotion as fundamental to the debased morality of the slaves, he says of the resentful man, “His soul squints.”

In more recent times, commentators have usually defined this psychological disposition in similar terms. It is the “villain of the passions,” according to the philosopher of emotions Robert Solomon. It poisons “the whole of subjectivity with its venom… maintaining its keen and vicious focus on each of the myriad of petty offenses it senses against itself.” One doesn’t have to embrace this rather Nietzschean view to appreciate that resentment is an emotion that few people are eager to “own.”

Or we might also realize that resentment has often been used to delegitimize people who merely exhibit a profound dissatisfaction with the status quo, who insist that they are being denied their just desserts. The literary scholar Frederic Jameson sees recourse to resentment in explaining protestors’ motivations as “little more than an expression of annoyance at seemingly gratuitous lower-class agitation, at the apparently quite unnecessary rocking of the social boat.” Too often, to fixate on resentment is to ignore or underplay the real grievances that stand behind this usually unappealing emotional state. It is to mistake the symptom for the cause.

On the other hand, we might consider that there are different modes of resentment, some indeed not so much a function of envy, or bitterness, or feeling cheated by fate, but rather righteous indications of an injustice that must not be ignored. And here it is precisely the irritating, clamorous tone of resentment that serves this purpose. “In the midst of the world’s silence, our resentment holds its finger raised,” wrote the Auschwitz survivor Jean Améry in 1966: his lonely protest against the blithe alacrity of his contemporaries to put the past behind them, especially when it came to the Shoah. In the face of this tendency, he writes, “I ‘stuck out’…I persevered in my resentments.”

The moral philosopher Amélie Oksenberg Rorty warned that if we slight or ignore expressions of resentment, we are like the physician who dismisses the symptoms of a suffering patient. And in the experience of various “Truth and Reconciliation Tribunals” around the world, it has often been former victims’ insistent expressions of resentment that have called a temporary halt to the proceedings—which almost always aimed at achieving the “closure” of forgiveness—until their grievances were adequately acknowledged.

Finally, those quick to brand others with the label of resentment ought to think again whether they are so immune from the same ascription. One thing that distinguishes resentment from other kindred emotions, such as anger, bitterness, or enervating envy, is that it usually signals a moral injury—a conviction that you have been wronged in a way that contravenes some basic notions or standards that should normally govern what people expect for themselves and from others. In our current climate, the tendency is to think of resentment as the farthest thing from “moral”—often, given some of its uglier manifestations, with justification. But anyone with a sense of self-worth has to be at least prone to the kind of moral aggrievement which gives rise to resentment.

I am not arguing for banishing “resentment” from our current lexicon. It’s clearly useful in illuminating the passions and grievances that animate many people in the US and elsewhere, especially on the right. But let’s deploy it less as a means of reproach and more in the quest for insight, perhaps even empathy.

Robert A. Schneider is Professor of History at Indiana University and the author, most recently, of The Return of Resentment: The Rise and Decline and Rise Again of a Political Emotion (University of Chicago Press, 2023).

This article was originally published at History News Network

An overlooked factor behind Eleanor Roosevelt's successful leadership


The couple from Atlanta who sent the demanding telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt weren’t alone in their criticism of the First Lady.

From the time Eleanor Roosevelt entered the White House in 1933, she sharply divided public opinion. Traditionally, First Ladies were supposed to be discreet figures in the presidential background. They stayed close to the White House, primarily overseeing social functions, and took no active part in public life. When Eleanor stepped into the role, she was well established as a writer, educator, political advocate, and traveler. And yet even she, a daring early advocate of commercial air travel and a frequent flier who wanted to become a pilot, was expected to stay grounded at the White House.

Instead, travel became a key factor in Eleanor’s success as First Lady.

Within days of FDR’s inauguration, she flew from Newark, New Jersey, to Washington, D.C., on a bumpy flight buffeted by strong winds, and was officially on record as the first president’s wife to travel by air. The next year, she took a flight from Miami to Puerto Rico at her husband’s behest to report on labor and living conditions on the island. The fact that she flew over water enhanced her reputation as fearless and unconventional.

All the while, the nation, unused to First Ladies “darting about,” watched her “with mingled admiration and alarm,” stated a news reporter. When Eleanor wasn’t taking to the skies, she was often traveling by train or behind the wheel of her car. (She won a showdown with the Secret Service over driving her own car and going about unaccompanied.) Gas station attendants between the capital and New York City kept an eye out for her famous blue roadster, while a man in Maine refused to believe she was the president’s wife because she drove her own car.

But Eleanor didn’t travel merely for the thrill of it. An innate love of the road inherited from her adventurous father, who once spent part of his inheritance on a trek to India and the Himalayas, melded with a curiosity for knowledge and a desire to get to know people from all walks of life. “Instead of going in search of beauty or remarkable artistic collections, or any of the things for which we usually travel to strange places,” she said, “I traveled to see and meet people.”

To the dismay of traditionalists like the Atlanta couple, it was outside the White House where Eleanor decided that she could best help her husband, by being his “listening post.” It was vital, she believed, for politicians, and especially the president, to keep in touch with public opinion, “the moving force in a democ­racy.” It was also difficult for the commander-in-chief, siloed in Washington, to achieve this. And so she did it for him.

Eleanor’s self-made role fueled her strong sense of social responsibility and satisfied her wanderlust. “I want to know the whole country,” she said, “not a little part of it.” She earned a reputation for wanting to see things for herself, ceaselessly criss­crossing the United States giving speeches and inspecting New Deal initia­tives. She visited factories, schools, hospitals, homesteads, and migrant camps. One morning, Americans opened their newspapers to find out their First Lady had descended two and a half miles beneath the hills in rural Ohio to explore a coal mine. A longtime advocate for the rights of coal miners and other workers, she seized this chance to learn about their livelihood firsthand. She saw how coal was mined, entering a cham­ber where minutes earlier coal had been blasted from the walls, and dis­cussed wages and working conditions with hundreds of miners.

Eleanor was famous for her travels, or infamous depending on the perspective, and she routinely made headlines for them. She averaged an astounding 40,000 miles on the road each year seeking out Americans in their own communities. Everywhere she went, she asked people what they thought and what they needed. The information she gathered was used to exact change through her own means and platforms, as well as to aid the president and his policy advisers.

“You know my Missus gets around a lot,” Franklin boasted in a cabinet meeting. “She’s got great talent with people.”

Despite having the president’s backing, Eleanor’s intrepidness and independence continually created controversy. During the 1936 presidential election, as Franklin sought a second term, her travels were wielded as a political weapon by the opposition. Voters were assured that the Republican candidate’s wife, Mrs. Alf Landon, was a traditional wife and mother who would stay at home. Franklin won re-election in a landslide.

Five years and another successful re-election later, the United States officially entered World War II. With the onset of war, many Americans found themselves in far-flung locales well beyond the country’s borders, among them hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, and marines serving in the Pacific. Just as Eleanor had been doing for a decade, she would go to them, venturing into a theater of war unlike any other in history—one where fighting took place across great distances on water and in places with harsh, unfamiliar surroundings.

All of Eleanor’s fact-finding expertise and travel savvy culminated in a precedent-breaking trip to the Pacific theater in August 1943. And yet even for an experienced traveler like Eleanor, this undertaking was further, longer, and more arduous than anything she had previously done. And it was more dangerous. During the five-week trip, she covered 25,000 miles trekking to Hawaii, New Zealand, and Australia, through the South Pacific and into territory still under enemy air attack. Along the way she thanked hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops for their service, bolstered diplomatic ties with Allied nations New Zealand and Australia, and linked the fighting front with the home front by reporting the unvarnished truth about what she encountered to the president and to the American people.

A reporter at the time described Eleanor’s trip to the Pacific theater—and I believe this still stands—as “the most remarkable journey any president’s wife has ever made.”

Shannon McKenna Schmidt is the author of The First Lady of World War II: Eleanor Roosevelt’s Daring Journey to the Frontlines and Back (Sourcebooks/May 2). She is also the co-author of Novel Destinations: A Travel Guide to Literary Landmarks from Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West (National Geographic).

Confronting the roots of American-style fascism in one family's history

No one talks much about the populists these days. In the age of DeSantis and MTG we’re more likely to see the MAGA crowd, or at least some of their leaders, referred to as fascists. But back in 2016, Trump’s followers were routinely described as populists, though hardly anyone seemed sure of what that meant. Because my great-grandfather, Omer Madison Kem, was a founding member of the original Populist Party, formed in the 1890s from the Famers’ Alliance in the South and West in protest against the vast abuses and inequalities of the Gilded Age, I thought I did know something about it. I knew that the Populists had fought against political corruption and capitalist greed and for the rights of workers, farmers, and the poor.

When in 1892 Omer Kem and ten other Populists entered Congress as Senators and Representatives, mostly from the Plains states, they took radical and pro-worker positions in debates surrounding tariffs, taxes, and the rights of the poor. During the 1892 session Kem and the other Populists called for the forfeiture of railroad land grants, an eight-hour workday law, and the nationalization of transportation and finance. After Pinkerton agents killed at least seven strikers during the Homestead Strike that July, Kem supported a resolution to investigate the corporate use of violent strikebreakers. He advocated for direct election of U.S. Senators (rather than election by state legislatures), demanded safeguards against land speculation in the West so that “men of very meager means” could have the “privilege of making for [him]self and [his] family a home,” and in 1894, while the country faced a devastating depression, Kem argued passionately for a graduated income tax so that the rich would be compelled to support the needs of the vulnerable.

At a time when 9 percent of American families owned 71 percent of the country’s wealth, when the average industrial worker lived on $406 a year, and when striking workers were routinely beaten and shot at by hired thugs, the Populists had actively and energetically sought justice for the working poor. As Black Kansas Populist Benjamin F. Foster wrote, the Populists “are in favor of the masses and against monopolies. It is the party of the poor man ... and would give him a chance to live and heal his present misery.”

And yet, less than a decade after his time in Congress, my great-grandfather became a passionate advocate for eugenics, including the forced sterilization of people he considered “unfit to breed.” In the 1910s, ’20s, and ’30s, he eagerly trafficked in the scientific racism that has long influenced U.S. immigration and criminal justice policies, and both European and American fascism to this day.

What is the connection between the Populist cry for equality (“equal rights for all, special privileges for none!” was their slogan) and the turn toward a proto-fascist belief that some people are worthy of life and reproduction and others not? Was it simply that Omer Kem, along with much of the country, got caught up in the pseudo-science of the day (social Darwinism mixed with Mendelian genetics)? Or was there something deeper in Kem’s Populist roots that would lead him in 1926 to write a letter to the Oregonian in which he advocated (as he had many times in letters to family, friends, and other papers) for the forced sterilization of the poor, and then a decade later to go even further with a quasi-endorsement of infanticide?

That letter to the Oregonian earned Kem an admiring response from a man named Mr. Schuman, a member of a Portland-based fascist organization, the Nordic Aryan League of America, who addresses Omer “with Aryan greetings.” Kem finds the writer a little batty but does not hesitate to respond, noting that he and his interlocutor are in general agreement about the value of the “Great White Race” (with this phrase my great-grandfather makes me wonder if he’d been reading Madison Grant). “The time will come,” he writes, “when so-called white couples marry, they will not know whether their children will be black, white, ringed, streaked, striped, bronzed, or spotted. The only way now left by which this calamity can be averted, is to sterilize all participants in these mixed marriages.”

In a recent talk sponsored by the April Institute for Antifascist Research and Education, Cynthia Miller-Idriss spoke about the factors that can lead someone to become radicalized by White Nationalism or Fascism. Citing dates drawn from the biographies of participants in the January 6 insurrection, Miller-Idriss notes that those who are vulnerable to fascistic thinking (though she does not use that term) tend to be people who, having experienced precariousness, fear losing what power they do have (even if they are currently perfectly well-off): “I call it a kind of precariousness plus entitlement,” she says, “because in order to be afraid of something being taken away from you, you have to think you’re entitled to have it.”

Indeed, this quality defines my great-grandfather and many of the white agrarian Populists from plains states, the vast majority of whom had found their way to Kansas or Nebraska by way of the Homestead Act. As poor laborers from mostly the Midwest, they’d been promised the privilege and security of property, but for many it had not turned out that way. Unregulated railroads, falling crop prices, terrible weather conditions, and an aggressive lending industry meant that in 1890s Nebraska there was one mortgage for every three persons—thus, more than one per family—and most of the farms were mortgaged for all they were worth. It was in these conditions that the Populist party arose; white men, having been promised security at the expense of Native populations deemed unworthy or worse, found themselves nevertheless buried in unpayable debt.

The internal contradiction—between a desired and assumed independence and an actual, though decried, dependence—can be readily seen in the (familiar to us) phrase Kem used to describe his feelings upon first acquiring his homestead: “I had passed my 26th birthday somewhere on the way, acquired 320 acres of fine land and you may rest assured that I was one proud boy.” Plains Populism arose out of a condition in which the white settler-farmer was deeply insecure in his relation to the land, which was nonetheless the foundation of his identity (and his survival). In this context, it made a kind of perverse and dangerous sense that some settler-homesteaders like Kem would seek to relocate the source of their legitimacy from where they lived and what they did to who they thought they were, that is, from the land to the blood. When, in September of 2020, Donald Trump told a crowd of white supporters that they hailed from “good genes,” and referenced “the racehorse theory,” he was offering a clue to where the GOP would go next. One root to this frankly fascistic rhetoric lies in the soil of Kansas and Nebraska, in the settler-history of families like mine.

Julie Carr is a poet and Professor of English at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the author of Mud, Blood, and Ghosts: Populism, Eugenics, and Spiritualism in the American West, which will be published in May by University of Nebraska Press.

When truly stolen elections changed the course of American history

It has become a familiar cry over the past couple of years: The election was stolen! Fraud! We were robbed!

Former President Donald Trump and his supporters allege that election fraud in several states (Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and others) resulted in the electoral votes of those states going to Joe Biden, determining the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The claims brought Trump supporters to Washington, D. C. on January 6, 2021, and led to the attack on the Capitol. Similar claims about the 2022 midterm elections have been made, most notably by the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona.

While the recent election fraud allegations have been rejected by the courts due to lack of supporting evidence, there was a time in American history when elections were stolen, their outcomes determined by fraudulent votes, and their results certified by the federal government.

In 1854, Congress passed, and President Franklin Pierce signed into law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It reversed the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition on any northern expansion of slavery. Instead, whether slavery would exist in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be determined by what was called “popular sovereignty,” i.e., the people of a territory would vote on whether to have slavery or not. Nebraska, located farther north and sharing a border with the free state of Iowa, was, most believed, destined to reject slavery. But the status of slavery in Kansas, to Nebraska’s south and bordering on the slaveholding state of Missouri, was uncertain. Both the North and South rushed settlers into Kansas to try to gain the majority.

The major tests of each side’s strength occurred at the ballot box. The first election was held on November 29, 1854, to select a delegate to represent the territory in Congress. The rules for voting, as determined by the territory’s Pierce-appointed governor, Andrew Reeder, had been clear. To cast a ballot, an eligible voter must actually reside in the territory of Kansas, to the exclusion of any other domicile, and have the intention of remaining permanently.

So much for the rules. On election day, hordes of proslavery Missourians crossed the border into Kansas and voted illegally. Although most were not slaveholders, they had heard plenty of speeches from their leaders inciting them to do whatever was necessary to stop the “Yankee abolitionists” from making Kansas a free state. Dubbed “border ruffians” by free-staters, these men were menacing in appearance and behavior and arrived for election day armed with knives and guns, as well as with ample supplies of barreled whiskey. They came in groups across the border a couple of days before the election and, a day or so after turned around and went back to Missouri. Crowding the polling places, they demanded to vote and threatened poll judges who refused to let them do so. Some of the judges, in fear for their lives, quit on the spot; those who remained were helpless to prevent ballot boxes from being stuffed. Worse, the ruffians used intimidation and in some cases violence to keep legitimate slavery-opposing residents of Kansas from casting their ballots.

It worked. The proslavery candidate for Congress, John Whitfield, won the November election with almost 2,300 votes, compared to only around 300 for his closest challenger. Despite the widespread and obvious fraud, Governor Reeder let the results stand. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the victors proudly declared, established that the people would vote to decide all issues pertaining to slavery. And vote they had. A congressional investigation later determined that more than 1,700 votes had been fraudulently cast.

Four months later, on March 30, 1855, another election was held in Kansas to select a territorial legislature. This election was far more important than the earlier one, which had only chosen a delegate to represent the territory in Congress. The legislative body elected in March would write the territory’s laws, put it on a course for statehood, and have a large say in whether that would be with or without slavery. In the months since November, hundreds more settlers had arrived from New England and other northern states, most of whom opposed slavery. Free-staters were confident that, if the election were held fairly, a legislature with a majority opposing slavery would be chosen.

Once again, however, thousands of Missourians crossed the border and cast illegal ballots. A census of Kansas residents taken just a few weeks before had documented fewer than 3,000 eligible voters. Yet, more than 6,000 votes were cast and, of those, more than 5,400 were for proslavery candidates. All but a handful of the seats in the legislature went to them. As in November, many legitimate Kansas residents who opposed slavery were unable to vote, due to intimidation, threats, and violence. An appeal to Governor Reeder to toss out the results ended in a revote in only a few precincts, nowhere near enough to change the outcome. Fumed Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune, “[A] more stupendous fraud was never perpetrated since the invention of the ballot-box. The crew who will assemble under the title of the Kansas Territorial Legislature, by virtue of this outrage, will be a body of men whose acts no more respect will be due . . . than a Legislature chosen by a tribe of wander[ers] . . . .”

Although elected by fraud, the territorial legislature was recognized by President Pierce as the legitimate government of the Kansas Territory. When it met in the summer of 1855, harsh proslavery laws were passed. These not only made slavery legal in Kansas, but also imposed the death penalty for assisting a slave escape to freedom, and even made speaking or writing in opposition to slavery in Kansas a felony punishable by up to two years of imprisonment at hard labor.

The free-staters in Kansas dubbed these “bogus laws” enacted by a “bogus legislature.” They boycotted the machinery of the territorial government, adopted a policy of repudiating its laws, drafted a constitution for Kansas to enter the Union as a free state, and set up their own shadow government. President Pierce, who called these actions “revolutionary” and potentially “treasonable,” ordered the commanders of federal forts in the territory to suppress any armed resistance to enforcement of the laws. Over the next few years, much blood was shed in Kansas on both sides. The town of Lawrence, an antislavery enclave, was attacked by a proslavery mob, abolitionist John Brown massacred proslavery men and boys at Pottawatomie Creek, and there were battles between militia groups. Some estimates of the death toll run into the hundreds.

By 1859, settlers in Kansas opposing slavery were clearly in the majority. A new governor, Robert Walker, vowed that elections would be held fairly. When he threw out fraudulently cast votes in elections for the territorial legislature held that fall, the free-staters were finally in control. In January 1861, two months after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and after the secession of several states in the Deep South, Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state. Lincoln, a former one-term congressman from Illinois, had left politics in the late 1840s. It was his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that caused him to reenter to political arena in the mid-1850s and put him on a path to the White House. But for the controversy, election fraud, and violence in Kansas, Lincoln may well have been just a footnote to history.

Stan Haynes is the author of a new historical fiction book, And Union No More, which is set in Kansas in the 1850s and explores the battles there over slavery. Visit his website at www.stanhaynes.com.

A small village's history during the Third Reich raises big questions about complicity

At first sight it would seem unlikely that the Bavarian village of Oberstdorf has much to tell us about the Third Reich. Perched on the border with Austria, it is the most southern village in Germany, located 100 miles southwest of the nearest city, Munich. Yet, such was the grip of National Socialism on German society that even in this remote place there was scarcely any aspect of Nazi rule or of the Second World War that did not touch its 4000-odd inhabitants one way or another. Their accounts, in turn shocking, revealing and moving, lead us to ask that all-important question – “what would I have done?”

Like so many of their fellow citizens, Oberstdorfers—deeply Catholic and conservative by nature —were drawn to Hitler by his promise to implement strong government, to expunge the ignominy of the Treaty of Versailles, to defeat Communism, and to put Germany back where it belonged at the top table of nations. Only a couple of months after the Armistice, Quakers from England and America were already in Germany preaching their message of hope and reconciliation. Their reports on the countless conversations they held with ordinary Germans make it clear that even though people were cold and starving, even though they were stricken with grief and fearful of the violence erupting in so many cities, it was the humiliation of having their country treated like a pariah that pained them most. Humiliation as a driver of conflict has arguably been underestimated. Certainly, Putin’s fury at what he saw as the disgrace of the dissolution of the Soviet empire is often cited as a cause of his invasion of Ukraine.

Although a majority of villagers voted for Hitler in the March 1933 election, they were quite unprepared for the draconian measures imposed on them by their first Nazi mayor, an outsider who treated their traditions and institutions with open contempt. Indeed, Oberstdorf was not the only rural community that, while enthusiastically supporting Hitler, clashed with local Nazi officials. Nor, indeed, did the villagers have much time for the storm troopers (SA) whose aggression and noisy parades were so damaging to the tourist economy on which this once poor rural community now largely depended.

In common with many other small towns and villages, Oberstdorf’s residents exhibited a wide range of attitudes toward the regime. Unquestionably there were plenty of Nazis in the village, many of whom were to remain dedicated to Hitler to the bitter end and beyond. But there were others who, having started out as committed party-members, changed their minds as it became ever harder to ignore the true nature of the Third Reich.

Ludwig Fink, Oberstdorf’s second Nazi mayor, is a prime example. Initially seduced by Hitler’s determination to restore Germany’s prestige and prosperity, he, like so many others, assumed that once securely in power the Nazis’ more extreme policies and rhetoric would subside. When, on the contrary, they only worsened, we might ask why Fink did not protest or resign. The truth is that any such act of defiance would have condemned him to a concentration camp or the guillotine. And even had he been courageous enough to accept that fate, what would have become of his family? His wife and two sons (one of whom was epileptic) would have been left destitute. Fink’s response to his loss of faith in National Socialism, therefore, was to mitigate as much as possible the worst effects of Nazi rule in the village. He tried to protect the handful of Jews living there, and helped the local nuns when they were targeted by the regime. He defended villagers threatened with imprisonment for infringing any one of the Nazis’ countless petty rules and regulations, and in the last months of the war refused to carry out orders to execute villagers attempting to surrender.

The burning question is how much did Fink and his villagers know about Nazi atrocities—the concentration camps, the Holocaust, the torture and murder of homosexuals, Roma (known as Gypsies), the disabled and anyone else the Nazis didn’t like? In my view they knew a great deal. A teenager from the village was gassed in Hitler’s so-called “euthanasia” program because he was blind. Soldiers who had witnessed or had themselves perpetrated barbaric deeds were continually returning home on leave. At least some of them must have unburdened themselves to their families and friends. One man, Heinz Schubert, who claimed descent from the composer’s family, was responsible for organizing the murder of 700 Roma in the Crimea. What did he tell his wife and friends when he was back in Oberstdorf? Later at his Nuremberg trial, he stated, “we thought we were saving Western civilization.”

Then there were the assorted camps that existed close to the village—a Waffen-SS training camp, Dachau subcamps and several forced labor camps. Every day the villagers saw foreign slave workers being marched to and fro and can hardly have been unaware of the appalling conditions in which they lived. At Sonthofen, just 10 miles north of Oberstdorf, there stood a Nazi castle often visited by party bigwigs including Himmler, who went there specifically to brief local Nazis on the Final Solution.

Towards the end of the war, when Messerschmitt and BMW moved their operations out of Augsburg and Munich to escape the bombing, several manufactories were established in and around Oberstdorf. Furthermore, as the war progressed, Oberstdorf’s population doubled, first with evacuees from the bombing and then with refugees fleeing the Russians. All had terrible tales to tell.

While villagers loyal to Hitler blamed reports of atrocities on enemy propaganda, those who had detested the regime from the start needed little convincing they were true. Most Oberstdorfers, however, once they realized how catastrophically they had been duped, just wanted to keep their heads down and somehow stay alive until it was all over.

Immediately after the war when Oberstdorfers—like Germans everywhere—came close to starvation, they were too absorbed in trying to rebuild their lives to spend much time contemplating their own or Germany’s culpability. Their one overriding desire was to extinguish all memories of Hitler and National Socialism. Since then, Germany has been impeccable in examining its Nazi past, but there will always be more questions. In recent times the focus has shifted from the leading figures of the Third Reich to ordinary Germans, the dilemmas they faced, and the moral decisions they made in what can only be described as the most far-reaching tragedy and crime in human history.

Julia Boyd is the author of Travelers in the Third Reich: The Rise of Fascism through the Eyes of Everyday People.She is the co-author, with Angelika Patel, of A Village in the Third Reich: How Ordinary Lives were Transformed by the Rise of Fascism, publishing April 4 with Simon and Schuster.

The curious history of Ulysses Grant's great grandfather

During the summer of 1756, Lieutenant Quintin Kennedy led a motley band of British Regulars, Scottish Highlanders, Mohawk warriors, and Provincial troops on a scouting party in the dense woods north of Lake George in New York. At that time, British forces and their Indian allies were sporadically engaging in violent clashes with French troops and their Indian allies in this fiercely contested region as part of the French and Indian War that broke out in 1754. Kennedy, who fought in the devastating British defeat at the Battle of the Monongahela in July 1755, had subsequently adopted Indian dress and military tactics. It was even rumored that Kennedy had married an Iroquois woman.

In one account of the scouting party, a British journal reported that Kennedy went “a-scalping, in which he had some success.” Kennedy’s group of sixty soldiers spent forty days in the woods creating havoc in New France, burning homes and killing several French settlers. His men destroyed property worth between 8,000 and 10,000 £ sterling. Upon their return to Fort William Henry, at the southern tip of Lake George, they brought back “one scalp, and two prisoners, who were the tavern-keeper and his wife, whose house, with others, they also burnt.”

All of Kennedy’s party returned safely on September 20, 1756, except for three individuals: “Captain Grant of Connecticut, and a cadet of the regulars, and one of the Highlanders, —a poor drunken fellow, not able to travel, they left behind to surrender himself to the enemy.” Captain Grant’s body was never found, alas. A Connecticut newspaper declared that Noah Grant died on Sept. 20, 1756, “Killed near Lake Champlain.” Tragically, Noah’s younger brother Lieutenant Solomon Grant had been killed in June 1756, after his scouting party was attacked by Indians in western Massachusetts.

Captain Noah Grant’s brief military career has been forgotten, but he is still remembered today for being the great grandfather of Ulysses S. Grant, who would become the general-in-chief of the United States Army over one hundred years later. Noting Noah Grant’s military service, Jesse Root Grant said of his son Ulysses, “The General comes of good fighting stock.” Noah Grant’s life helps us better understand Ulysses S. Grant in another way as well.

Ever since Matthew Grant first arrived in the New World at Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1630, the Grant family had been instrumental in settling, exploiting, and defending the American frontier—first in the wilderness of Massachusetts and later in Connecticut, Upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Ohio. Ulysses S. Grant might have been ambivalent about slavery when the Civil War broke out in April 1861, but he never wavered in his support for the Union. The story of the Grant family had been inextricably linked to the westward expansion of America for over two centuries.

At 37 years old, Noah Grant of Tolland, Connecticut, volunteered for military service after the General Assembly of Connecticut authorized the mobilization of 1,000 troops in early 1755. Like the 23-year-old Colonel George Washington, who commanded a Virginia regiment after the Battle of Monongahela, he’d be fighting on behalf of the British Crown. Later that year, Lieutenant Noah Grant participated in an unsuccessful expedition to take Fort Crown Point on Lake Champlain. The evidence suggests Noah was a brave and trustworthy soldier. In May 1756, he received a gratuity from the Connecticut Assembly worth thirty Spanish milled dollars for “extraordinary services and good conduct ranging and scouting, the winter past, for the annoyance of the enemy near Crown Point.” He was also promoted to Captain of the Seventh Company, Second Connecticut Regiment in March 1756.

According to muster rolls written by Noah Grant, there were several African American soldiers in his company, as the names Prince Negro and Jupiter Negro clearly indicated. Solomon Scipio and Jonah Chapman were two additional men in Grant’s company that were likely African Americans. It’s a curious fact of history that Captain Noah Grant’s great-grandson would eventually expand opportunities for African American soldiers during the Civil War. There didn’t appear to be segregation among troops during the French and Indian War and it was widely acknowledged that Black troops were effective.

The fighting experienced by Noah Grant was shockingly violent. Scalping and other unspeakable atrocities were common during the French and Indian War. A few weeks before the disappearance of Noah Grant, eight carpenters were killed and two carters were scalped by Indians near Fort William Henry. And Grant’s scouting party returned from their expedition with at least one scalp of their own. During the war, both British and French authorities offered bounties for the scalps of their enemies. It’s conceivable that Noah Grant himself was scalped, though we have no evidence whatsoever on how he died.

Lieutenant Kennedy’s scouting party that suffered the loss of Captain Grant exemplified a revolution in military tactics on the American frontier. Major General Edward Braddock’s defeat at the Battle of Monongahela impressed upon Kennedy that the British would need to have lighter, more mobile forces to defeat the French and their Indian allies, who had perfected the art of la petite guerre. Kennedy, who first arrived in Virginia in 1755 as a young officer with the 44th Regiment of Foot, was a pioneer in learning to fight in a new way that was more suitable to American conditions than a conventional European battlefield.

According to one account, “Lieut. Kennedy has married an Indian squaw…has learned the language, paints [himself] and dresses like an Indian, and it is thought will be of service by his new alliance. His wife goes with him, and carries his provisions on her back.” The innovative tactics adopted by Kennedy and others eventually helped win a British victory in the French and Indian War, which had tremendous consequences for American history. “Freed of European rivals,” Pekka Hamalainen writes in Indigenous Continent, “the British would treat the Indians as subjects.” The Grant brothers, Noah and Solomon, played their small part in this bloody contest to open up the frontier to American settlers, who would eventually dispossess the original owners of this land.

Shortly after the Civil War broke out, Ulysses S. Grant wrote his father Jesse, “Whatever have been my political opinions before I have but one sentiment now. That is we have a Government, and laws and a flag and they must all be sustained.” His support for the Union was sincere and deeply held. This shouldn’t surprise us. The Grant family had deep connections to the American experiment from the very beginning.

Ulysses famously declared, in the opening line of his memoirs: “My family is American, and has been for generations, in all its branches, direct and collateral.” One of his ancestors had landed in the New World a mere decade after the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. Captain Noah Grant, as we’ve seen, gave his life in 1756 for the promise of securing western lands for future expansion by colonists. His son—also named Noah—claimed to have fought for independence from Great Britain during the Revolutionary War. And his son Jesse—the father of Ulysses—built a thriving business from scratch on the frontier along the banks of the Ohio River. By 1860, the Grants had made great sacrifices for their country and had been richly rewarded for their efforts, too. The sacrifice of Captain Noah Grant, during the French and Indian War, may have consciously or unconsciously influenced Ulysses S. Grant, as he decided to rejoin the United States Army in April 1861.

John Reeves is an author based in Washington, DC. He has taught European and American history at various colleges in Chicago, the Bronx, and London. His articles on the Civil War have been featured in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, and on the History News Network. John’s most recent book is A Fire in the Wilderness: The First Battle Between Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee.

Historian highlights startling similarities between Jefferson Davis and Trump

On a cold, windy day in January 2016, Donald Trump spoke in a gym on the campus of the University of Northern Iowa, where I teach. I participated in a small protest against the candidate. We carried signs, with the slogan “bigots can’t be president” emblazoned on many of them. How little we knew.

Donald Trump became president not in spite of his bigotry, but because of it. Fifty years earlier George Wallace and Richard Nixon perfected the “dog whistle,” making appeals such as “law and order” that implicitly appealed to white anxiety among “blue-collar” workers while remaining unheard to those in country clubs and suburbs. But this was different: Trump’s overt racism differentiated him from other candidates. He openly attacked oppressed groups—especially Muslims, Hispanics, and women. Conventional wisdom suggested that these kinds of explicit appeals would be political suicide, because it alienated white suburban voters. Instead, open racism, for example equating Mexicans and rapists, gave him an authenticity that his followers embraced and still cherish.

On January 6, 2021, Trump led a rebellion against the results of the election. His actions were phenomenally dangerous. The House committee that investigated January 6 referred his case to the Justice Department for prosecution. In the view of the committee, the former president was implicated in four offenses: obstructing an official proceeding, making false statements, defrauding the United States, and, most important, “inciting an insurrection.”

It has been two years since the events of January 6, 2021, without much action against Trump. Now Trump has announced he will again run for the presidency. Things have gone far enough that the television networks are negotiating the format of the 2024 presidential debates with the GOP. Other Republicans, such as Ron DeSantis, seem likely to declare their candidacy. But if this moment passes without any consequences for Trump and his co-conspirators, we run the risk of signaling that the peaceful transfer of power is optional. Worse, a more competent president could succeed in holding the reins of power after losing an election.

At first glance, Trump seems completely unique. No one else has dared to overthrow an election and seize ruling power. No one except Jefferson Davis, who tried to use violence to overturn the election of Abraham Lincoln. Davis was not just the nineteenth century version of a crank on the internet. He had far more political experience than virtually anyone of his time. After leaving Mississippi, Davis excelled at everything he tried. His academic record included West Point, one of the most rigorous schools in the country. He fought in the Mexican war, became Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, and then served as a US Senator from Mississippi. Davis claimed that he did not want to be the president of the Confederacy (he would have preferred to be a general). Never known as a great orator, Davis opened his presidency with an inaugural speech in Montgomery, Alabama. It led long-time secessionist William Lowndes Yancey to declare “the man and the hour have met.”

A rough equivalence between Trump and Davis might at first seem wrong-headed. Thirty years ago, following the lead of Eugene Genovese, many historians saw the South as distinctive, neo-feudal, and paternalistic. It was a society fundamentally different and apart from the capitalist industrial North. In recent years, though, historians have highlighted the links between enslavers and the broader American economy. The slave economy included major bankers who financed slavery through mortgages and marketed its products in Northern textile factories. The most recent major biographer of Davis, William Cooper, had no great infatuation with theoretical hair-splitting. After a deep dive in the archives, Cooper got it right when he called his book Jefferson Davis, American.

Throughout Trump’s presidency, journalists have compared Trump to Davis, most notably for his racism and lawlessness. The Washington Post even called Trump “the last president of the Confederacy.”

Lincoln was loath to acknowledge that Davis led a sovereign country, and some historians have followed suit. Yet surely Davis did just that. Several events show the Union was forced to acknowledge the sovereignty of the Confederacy on a de facto basis. First, the Union and the Confederacy exchanged prisoners of war until 1863. Captured service members would pledge to return to the war only after being traded for a prisoner from the other side. The system broke down in 1863, but only after two years of tacit agreement. In the case of the steamer the Trent in 1861, the Union captured a British ship carrying two Confederate envoys. Under pressure from the British, Lincoln released the ship and its passengers, accepting Confederate nationalism in practice, if not in theory.

Andrew Johnson was not right about much, but when he said that “treason must be made odious and traitors must be punished” he spoke the truth. Secession, Lincoln had said, was the “essence of anarchy.” Call it anarchy, lawlessness, or disorder, it led to a war killing over 700,000. By allowing such a catastrophe to go unpunished, the country risked a repeat of rebellion.

After the war, Davis faced little punishment, given the scale of his crimes. In 1865 his confinement began in Fortress Monroe in Virginia. In response, his wife Varina Howell Davis became the center of a letter-writing campaign on his behalf. Gradually, his conditions improved: he was unshackled almost immediately, allowed to have tobacco, and visits from his wife. While many in the North wanted to see him hanged, many white southerners saw him as a martyr.

In May 1867 he was released on $100,000 bail, half of which came from two men, the railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and newspaper publisher Horace Greeley. The impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson slowed down a trial on Davis’s treason charges. Apparently the country was incapable of conducting two important proceedings at one time, perhaps because much of the northern public believed, falsely, that one or both men had a role in the conspiracy behind the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Johnson’s impeachment trial closed in May 1868. Later that year, Johnson pardoned Davis in time for Christmas.

Politicians of both parties in the North hoped that kind treatment of Davis, and by extension all Confederate leadership, would wrap up the disastrous Civil War. It is true that Davis stayed out of politics. In fact, after the passage of the 14th amendment, he was constitutionally barred from holding office. He tried to make a living in the insurance industry, but was only moderately successful. He then settled down on the Gulf Coast at Beauvoir, the home of the writer Sarah Dorsey. Davis’s wife, Varina, travelling in Europe, was initially unhappy about it. She became reconciled to the arrangement, since she did not have much choice.

At Beauvoir, Davis had the peace and quiet to write his memoirs, a massive two-volume tome devoted in large part to arguing the constitutionality of secession. I attempted to read the memoirs as a graduate student. There must be a more boring book written in the English language, but if there is, I have never found it.

Davis was not especially popular as a politician, but especially after his death in 1889, he excelled as a martyr. The Lost Cause movement flourished during the twenty-five years after the war, and peaked in the 1890s, just after his death. While the statue of him in Richmond has been torn down, his likeness is still carved into prominent places such as Stone Mountain in Georgia.

It is impossible to know exactly what would have happened if Davis remained confined in Fortress Monroe or been hanged for treason. Hundreds of thousands Union soldiers died in the war, and not a one gave their lives to protect Davis’s right to sell insurance. The mild treatment of Davis was mirrored by the oppression of people who had been enslaved.

Karl Marx said that history repeats itself, the first time as tragedy and the second time as farce. In 2015, Donald Trump seemed to be a farce. Again, in 2023, he has been dismissed again, not due to low poll numbers, but the power of magical thinking. He has been called the “prisoner of Mar-a-Lago,” because he rarely leaves his golf course development. But with help from Elon Musk, he has returned to Twitter and Facebook. He worked the phone during the interminable vote on making Kevin McCarthy speaker of the House. Trump remains the most powerful man in the Republican Party.

I won’t forget our tiny demonstration in the Iowa cold. Trump has been underrated before, and contrary to the signs we carried, bigots can be president. But if the Justice Department fails to act on his “incitement to insurrection,” it will do so not because the former president is innocent, but because Trump still has so many, and such unsavory, followers. If Justice fails to pursue his case, it will not prove his innocence, but just that Trump is too big to fail. Jefferson Davis deserved a fair trial, and so does Trump. The tragedy of Davis’s making, the Civil War, has ended. But Trump, who led his own tragedy, remains alive and well. It will take both political and legal effort to build a new national norm: that insurrectionists can’t be president.

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

This article was originally published at History News Network

How Jimmy Carter was actually one of the most consequential presidents in modern history

Editor's note: This story originally ran on September 3, 2019. Dates and events noted below reflect that.

There are at least two compelling reasons why this is a good time to reassess the presidency of Jimmy Carter. First, he is rapidly approaching his 95th birthday. On October 1, one month from today, he will solidify his record as America’s longest living former president. Second, during a brief but revealing dust-up between Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter recently, the President of the United States told us he thought his predecessor was a “terrible” and “forgotten” president. Having served four years in the Carter-Mondale White House, I believe strongly both assertions are dead wrong, and will argue here that Carter’s was one of the most consequential presidencies in recent history, particularly in his commitment to human rights.

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Recent discovery shows women scholars have been hiding in plain sight of history

The poignant discovery of an 8th-century Englishwoman scratching her name no less than 15 times upon a Latin manuscript reminds us that women have been leaving their mark upon literature since time immemorial.

The manuscript was unearthed last year by researchers at the Bodleian Library in Oxford and is a Latin copy of the Acts of the Apostles, written in England some time between AD 700 and AD 750. So, 1,300 years ago someone – we can only assume Eadburg herself – repeatedly inscribed her name in the margins of the text, surely a sign that she herself either created, used, or owned the manuscript.

Eadburg's name is now visible to us through the use of advanced "photometric stereo" technology that employs multi-dimensional scanning to bring to light drypoint inscriptions (ie her scratchings). This remarkable technology means Eadburg can finally be seen, over 1000 years later.

While scholars have typically dated the emergence of women writers in England to the later Middle Ages (around the 15th century), Eadburg’s writing of her name reminds us that women were engaging with texts much, much earlier than this.

Most scholars have lamented that it is scanty evidence that has rendered most of these female writers invisible. And we are—correctly—advised not to assume anything from a lack of evidence. As a recent Guardian editorial on the Eadburg discovery reminds us: “absence of evidence cannot necessarily be equated with absence of achievement.”

But I believe this is not a correct interpretation of Eadburg’s story. The difficulties with rendering women writers visible are manifold. But the primary obstacle is not a lack of evidence. Instead, it’s a lack of sufficiently creative approaches. The Bodleian discovery shows us that Eadburg was always there, hiding in plain sight. In other words, the evidence was not missing. It just took the right technology to be able to see her.

My own research into women writers in Africa in the twentieth century has striking parallels with Eadburg’s story. Scholars typically argue that significant women writers only became active in the later decades of the century, from the 1960s onwards. The commonly cited issue, once again, is “evidence” – what remaining manuscripts exist by women writers of the early twentieth century? Almost none at all.

Yet as with Eadburg and medieval literary women, what we need is not necessarily more evidence, but rather different approaches to the evidence we do have, coupled with a willingness to consider less conventional types of evidence.

Scientists have developed exciting photometric stereo technology – the ability to see a manuscript in 3D. Historians need to be similarly resourceful in our efforts to "see" literary women of the past. Denied opportunities to publish and formally affix their names to documents, many women's names have to be searched for in unusual and unconventional locations. Historians need to create our own equivalents of 3D imaging.

My own biography of Regina Twala, an unknown twentieth-century female writer is a case in point. Twala never managed to publish a single book during her lifetime. This was not for lack of producing content (she authored as many as five different manuscripts) nor for trying (she repeatedly approached local and international publishers, with no success).

So there is certainly no “evidence” in terms of published books with which to reconstruct Twala’s career as a writer.

But to only consider published work as the defining quality of a female writer is unnecessarily limiting. Publishing was a highly restrictive industry for twentieth-century women in South Africa – even more so for Black women negotiating the strictures of a sexist and racist society. To search for evidence in places where we already know we likely won’t find it is not an effective approach.

While Twala “failed” to publish, she wrote hundreds of articles and columns for newspapers across South Africa. She also wrote hundreds of letters throughout her lifetime, largely to her second husband, Dan Twala.

While neither journalism nor letters are usually considered “serious” literary output, my book argues that this is precisely the kind of evidence we ought to be considering in our efforts to chart the history of women writers in Africa.

While publishing presses were often closed to women, women were able to use the relatively more egalitarian forum of the newspaper to regularly air views, express opinions, and experiment with genre and style as well as content. And many women wrote using pseudonyms, shielding themselves from the censure of hostile men. Letters, moreover, were truly open to anyone, a humble platform that could nonetheless generate exciting literary experimentation.

And despite our stereotypes of letters as “private,” Twala’s letters were not only read by her husband, but circulated more widely in her community, passed around in a whole network of friends, family, and sometimes even to those whom she did not even know.

In these ways, early twentieth-century newspapers and letters in Africa reveal the full extent of the innovative literary work being undertaken by women, decades before the first books by female authors were published.

Finally, like Eadburg, Twala’s writing has been hiding in plain sight. But it has been rendered invisible due to being appropriated and passed off as his own by a renowned Swedish historian, Bengt Sundkler. In the 1950s, Sundkler hired Twala as his research assistant, paying her to undertake a study of religion in Eswatini. Twala diligently sent Sundkler pages and pages of research materials.

Two decades later, in 1976, Sundkler would publish Twala’s work – but under his name, not hers. Sundkler became famous for his pioneering work, Zulu Zion and Some Swazi Zionists. It was only when I compared the research notes Twala had sent Sundkler (kept in his archives in Uppsala Library in Sweden) with Sunkdler’s published book that I realized Sundkler had extensively plagiarized Twala’s material, frequently word-for-word.

Again, the issue here is not lack of evidence. Twala’s written words existed. But they were published under a European male scholar’s name, a product of a society and an academic infrastructure that operated according to racist and gendered hierarchies and rendered intellectual exploitation all too easy to accomplish.

To reiterate again, what was needed was a new approach to the existing evidence. In this case, I needed to sift through the archives of Sundkler’s research materials, read his notes against the grain in order to render visible the usually ignored processes by which scholars’ research is actually done and the nuts and bolts of how they put their arguments together. It is laborious to do this work, for sure.

But it is an approach that I am certain would yield similar discoveries for a whole host of “classic” scholarship of the twentieth century. These kinds of guerilla archival tactics would surely show that many largely male authors relied upon an army of unacknowledged female and Black intellectual labor for their published work.

Eadburg and Twala. Two women separated by over a millennium, by geography, and by race. But both alike in being literary pioneers for their times. And both demanding that we as researchers step up to the task of seeing what they left in plain sight. Their work is there for all to see - if only we find the right tools to open our eyes with.

Joel Marie Cabrita is associate professor of African History and director of the Center for African Studies at Stanford University. Written Out: The Silencing of Regina Gelana Twala is published by Ohio University Press and Wits University Press.

This article was originally published at History News Network

How we brought the radical history of pirates to life

The term graphic novel was first coined by artist Will Eisner for his 1978 book A Contract with God, a series of short graphic stories about impoverished Jews living in a tenement in New York City.

In 1992, Art Spiegelman’s genre-defining Maus: A Survivor’s Tale won a Pulitzer Prize. Maus was referred to as a graphic novel despite being non-fiction, in part to distinguish Maus from the generally short form of sequential art known as comics and to give legitimacy, commercially and intellectually, to an art form that had a somewhat lowbrow reputation. Graphic novel now refers to any kind of book of sequential art, whether it is a novel or non-fiction work.

The graphic novel form has power to communicate in ways that traditional history books do not by removing barriers for potential readers who find history boring or intimidating. In the case of wordless graphic novels, readers of all backgrounds, education, and language can engage.

I have spoken to high school teachers who said that some of their students are increasingly unable to read longer texts, like books. But young people do have a sophisticated understanding of visuals and text. Educators have found students are extremely receptive to graphic novels and their use is now essential in the process of teaching. These students will be the future activists, the future union leaders, the future voters. A lot rides on the power of graphic novels.

The story

Under the Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, A Graphic Novel explores the subculture and resistance of early eighteenth-century pirates and how they created a democracy onboard their ships. The pirates voted on who would hold ranks and other major decisions. This was at a time when poor people in the world did not have any right to vote. All plunder, food and drink were shared equally. The actions of the pirates were nothing short of a revolutionary challenge to the reigning social order. Unlike life as an ordinary sailor, pirates generally treated each other with dignity and respect.

Under the Banner of King Death features John Gwin, an enslaved African American who escaped bondage from a plantation in South Carolina, Ruben Dekker, a seaman of lowly of birth from Amsterdam and Mary Reed, a working-class American woman who dressed as a man.

These three became pirates and experienced a democracy that they would never have known as regular sailors. News of their dangerous experiment reached the men of property in London who decided that all pirates must be wiped out. The clever and ruthless Captain Snelgrave was assigned the task of tracking down and annihilating the pirates.

Writing the script

The process of writing Under the Banner of King Death began with Marcus Rediker’s detailed outline of the story based on his book Villains of All Nations. I broke down the outline into scenes much like a film script. I sent my draft script to Rediker and Paul Buhle, an historian with a body of work in graphic novels, who was acting as an adviser and editor. They responded with text and structural changes. The script went back and forth between us over the course of a few months.

The script reflected an approach to telling history known as “history from below,” which is defined as the narratives and perspectives of common people, the oppressed and the marginalized, rather than the ruling class.

It was important to convey that sailors became pirates in resistance to life on merchant and naval ships that involved deadly working conditions, cruelty, rotting food, starvation, and the brutality of the captain.

Historical research was constant during the writing of the script, particularly, questions of how people spoke in the 18th century.

After the script was finalized, my partner Wendy Atkinson and I acted it out to test the flow of the text, particularly the dialogue. It was extremely instructive to say the words out loud.

Visual research

Visual research involved finding out how people dressed in the 18th century, from the working class to the ruling class, lawyers, merchants, clergy, soldiers, sailors, and of course pirates. What did people eat, smoke and drink? What songs did they sing, how did they dance? What were taverns and coffee houses like?

I examined how pirates have been depicted over the last 300 years. Thanks to Paul Buhle I discovered the pirate art of Howard Pyle, who lived from 1854 to 1911. Pyle was known as the Father of American Illustration. I also studied the Piracycomic series published by EC in the 1950s, and films on pirates from the silent, sound and color eras. I did avoid Johnny Depp movies.

Drawing the book

I approached drawing Under the Banner of King Death with the idea of taking the reader to the 18th century. Most of my work in graphic novels has involved telling gritty, social justice history and for that I’ve used a raw, rough drawing technique that reflects the content.

For the art, I used watercolor paint, with brushes, pencils and pens. In some cases I cut up the drawings, reassembling them in a way that disrupts the static nature of a drawing on a page. My aim was to achieve a sense of movement.

I often looked at the work of Kathe Kollwitz and the murals of Diego Rivera before I started drawing for the day. But ultimately my raw art takes a punk rock approach much like an extended distorted chord. Just as the sound of that chord bleeds outward, so does the ink bleed across the page on to the next page and the next page.

One of my methods in the process of making a graphic novel is to make clay sculptures of characters, and even scale models of locations. Theseminiature versions help enormously for drawing by allowing me to try out multiple angles and shadows using a flashlight as a means to control the light source.

But in the case of Under The Banner of King Death, one of the main characters is an 18th century galleon. So, it seemed logical to build one. I found a suitable scale model kit of a galleon but this kit was listed as, frighteningly, Level 5 -- the highest level of complexity and difficulty. I hadn’t built a model since I was a 10-year-old, so this was a bit of a stretch. My partner Wendy agreed to help as she'd always wanted to build models when she was a girl, but curse those damn gender roles.

Thousands of pieces were assembled, glued and painted. Wendy became an expert at the painstaking work of threading the rigging using a trick she learned from sewing. It took us seven months to complete (in the 18th century, we could have sailed across the Atlantic in that time).

Having a scale model was indispensable in creating drawings from multiple angles that I couldn’t find in other sources. It also gave me a feel spatially for what it must have been like to live in that wooden world.

Does this book matter?

In a world of increasing authoritarianism, Under the Banner of King Death has an exceedingly contemporary and relevant story to tell. It’s an inspiring reminder of a time when those on the bottom fought back and achieved, against all odds, a democracy, if only for a short time. Under the Banner of King Death is rebellion in action, and one that activists can heed as the fight against exploitation continues 300 years later.

As Marcus Rediker pointed out, pirates were “thinkers and doers who saw that another world was possible.” Pirates show us that social justice and resistance to tyranny is not new, but has a long powerful history.

David Lester, along with Marcus Rediker and Paul Buhle created Prophet Against Slavery: Benjamin Lay, a graphic novel (Beacon 2021), and Under The Banner of King Death: Pirates of the Atlantic, A Graphic Novel (Beacon 2023). The crew is currently working on a third graphic novel, based on the 1741 uprising in New York City. Lester also illustrated the award-winning 1919: A Graphic History of the Winnipeg General Strike. His poster of anti-war protester Malachi Ritscher was exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. He is the guitarist in the rock duo Mecca Normal.

What's hiding in Putin's family history?

“Who is Mr. Putin?” This question, first posed in 1999, remains unanswered. Married? Children? Even basic information on Russia’s president is a state secret. Kremlin propaganda trumpets Vladimir’s humble origins, but offers meager details. For example, on October 27, 2022, Putin claimed his working class background allowed him to “delicately feel the pulse of common people.”

I question this legend by asserting that Putin benefited from a familial connection to a prominent member of the Soviet elite, Mikhail Eliseevich Putin (1894–1969). Mikhail helped establish “socialist competition,” a crucial institution for Stalinist modernization whereby workers were encouraged to contend for social recognition instead of wages. Once a “name familiar to all Soviets,” Mikhail Putin is a forgotten figure, and this is no coincidence.

The nineteenth-century thinker Marquis de Coustine held that Russia was a nation that strives to forget. George Orwell used the imagery of “memory holes” to describe Stalinist history. For Hannah Arendt, “the only rule of which everybody in a totalitarian state may be sure is that the more visible government agencies are, the less power they carry, and the less is known of the existence of an institution, the more powerful it will ultimately turn out to be.” Thus Russian constitutions and political parties are facades: real power resides, in the ruling families. Dynastic bloodlines are studiously concealed from public scrutiny.

Vladimir Putin, who now fights a war to prevent what he calls a “rewriting of history,” pathologically fears any examination into his own family. Since he became president, even the blandest of biographies have to be cleared by Kremlin handlers. Aleksey Navalny sits in prison over his “rude” investigations into Putin’s love life. In a 2020 interview, the journalist Andrei Kolesnikov, a main source for Putinology, could not say whether Putin had re-married: “I honestly don’t know, and it’s better not to know.” In Orwellian fashion, all the parish registers down to the sixteenth-century that mention Putin are off limits to researchers. Clearly, much is being hidden.

One taboo topic is Mikhail Putin. I have pieced together his biography from archival sources, interviews, Soviet newspapers and books. Apart from the reluctance of Russians to discuss this man on record, my investigation was made difficult because of Soviet falsifications in which Mikhail willingly participated. While Stalinist propaganda depicted Mikhail Putin as a vanguard Leninist, he was in reality a son of rural Russia.

Mikhail Putin: from Wrestling to Socialist Competition

According to Aleksandr Putin, the sole family chronicler and the President’s cousin, the Putins form a tight-knit clan [rod] who today number around 3000. All hail from Tver, a rural province that lies between Moscow and St. Petersburg. The Putins were serfs who were tied to patrimony-estates [votchinas]. A family legend holds that a smallpox outbreak in 1771 wiped out all the Putin line except a 13-year-old, Alesha. By end of the nineteenth century, the small Putin clan remained centered in a lightly populated region of Tver. The parish records for the local Pokrovskyaya church record a mere 148 births for the year 1910. The Tver villages inhabited by the Putin clan were small communities where everyone knew one another.

The Putin men, starting with Ivan Petrovich (1845–1918), the President’s paternal great-grandfather, were migrant workers who established a family-association (Artel) that supplied workers for restaurants in St. Petersburg. Establishing connections in the city, Ivan was followed by Spiridon, the President’s grandfather, and Mikhail Eliseevich, respectively. Mikhail’s father was a switchman for the Nikolaivskii Railroad at the Bezhetsk Station in Tver, about 140 km from the Putin homeland, Pominovo. With nine siblings, Misha, born on November 8, 1894, started work at age nine helping his father. Along the way, Misha received a few years of elementary education, presumably at the local Aleksando-Mariinskaya Church which had a total of 14 students. At twelve, Mikhail began traveling to St. Petersburg, lodging with Vladimir’s grandfather, Spiridon, on Gorokhovo Street. Born in Pominovo, Tver, at age sixteen, Spiridon apprenticed under a relative as a cook at the swanky Astoria. Thanks to Spiridon, Misha became a bus-boy at the near-by cafe of Jean Cubat.

As a teenager, the muscular Mikhail lugged cargo for a longshoreman artel in the rough-and-tumble beer manufacturing docks. During breaks, he would wrestle peasant-style (bor’bana opoiaskakh). Local sportsmen noticed Putin and invited him to work out at Sanitas, a gym precursor. Frequented by the great wrestlers of the era, Sanitas employed scientific methods developed by physiologist Peter Lesgaft, who wrote: “mental and physical activities should be in complete harmony, for only then is it possible to fully attain self-awareness.” Successful wrestlers gained fame doing tricks in the circus for semi-literate workers. Mikhail Putin, a middleweight, never reached Olympian heights, but fought some of the famous wrestlers of the era. The lads at the docks began calling Putin “Mishka the Wrestler.”

During the Civil War, as trade froze up, the dock artel organized show matches. In Tomsk, the workers wanted to see who could last the longest against the legendary Ivan Piddubny. Putin, out of fear, retreated. Piddubny, smiling, pulled him aside and told him: “Why are you chickening out? [Chto tikaish’?] Scary, yes, but fight!”[1] Putin took his advice to heart and lasted seven minutes in the ring against this Samson.

Mikhail Putin’s training was interrupted by war: he served in the Red Army from May 1920 to May 1922. In 1923, Mikhail Putin became a furnace stoker at a war-ravaged Leningrad factory, Red Vyborzhets. This factory, capable of producing a multitude of products at short notice, was crucial not only for industrialization, but also for the state propaganda. Notably, vanguard-workers forged the Lenin statue at the Finland Station.

The Bolsheviks soon faced the grim reality of a Marxist revolution in a peasant land of drunkenness and illiteracy. Putin, a “half-proletarian,” became quickly valued by Party bosses. Working the furnace, Putin drank 40 cups of water per shift to endure the heat. Between shifts, hearty Mikhail organized wrestling matches, thus gaining authority (avtoritet) among his illiterate mates. Impressed, the factory Party supervisor made him an agitator.

The Bolshevik conundrum was how to transform rowdy peasants into proletarians. What was needed was a way to present factory life in a fun, theatrical light. In Stalinist fashion, the solution would be found by supposedly turning back to Lenin. According to Lenin’s essay “How to Organize Competition” workers must initiate a ruthless terror. The bourgeoisie were “parasites” who “must be dealt with mercilessly.” Stalin had “How to Organize Competition” published in Pravda in 1929 to justify forced industrialization. Lenin in his pamphlet suggested the Bolsheviks experiment with different methods to motivate the “half-proletarians.”

Although Putin’s effort was one out of many, Red Vyborzhets was canonized to become the template for industrialization. According to legend, later taught to every Soviet schoolchild, Putin read Lenin’s work to his brigade. “So great was the impression of Lenin’s simple words that everyone was lost in thought.” The workers exclaimed: “How can Leninist thoughts be realized?” There was a heated dispute, but Putin remembered the advice of Piddubny: “Don’t chicken out!”

Putin suggested: “Let’s write a contract! We will compete with each other, and challenge our fellows.”

“And win a prize?” A fellow worker, Kruglov, simplistically exclaimed.

“It’s not who wins,” Putin objected, “this is not our principle. But to finish the job faster, better.” Putin found a student notebook and drew up the first contract of socialist competition on March 15, 1929.

In reality, this worker initiative was staged-managed from above. The Party sent skilled propagandists to Vyborzhezs to concoct a story. At first, 186 workers, under strict supervision, were to “compete.” The Party bosses asked skilled machine operators to formalize their obligations in a written contract, but they refused. By April, the Party had browbeaten several brigades to sign contracts. Putin’s brigade was the only one that agreed to wage reductions. They signed, not in March, but on 13 May.

Stalin soon proclaimed, “competition is a communist method of building socialism based on the maximum activity of millions of workers.” Indeed, this “grass-roots initiative” was a Stalinist masterstroke: Actual proletarians, professionals, who realized that “socialist competition” was preposterous and counter-productive, were marginalized. To boot, many of these seasoned workers were Trotskyites. Young provincials, such as Putin, would be elevated through “competition” while owing their allegiance to Stalin. Thus, Stalin forged a pivotal political base.

Socialist competition fostered a carnival atmosphere that focused on social recognition rather than economics. A key to acclimatizing peasants to factory life, competition spread thought the socialist world, and is still prominent in North Korea. The name “Putin” entered the Ukrainian discourse thanks to “sotsialistychne zmahannia.”

While not the “initiator” of competition, Mikhail Putin was no mere cog in the machine. The athletic Putin embodied the Bolshevik ideal of the “new” worker. A shirtless Putin served as the model for the I.D. Shadr sculpture “Cobblestone: Weapon of the Proletariat,” a 1927 glorification of macho proletarians. Sergei Kirov, who voiced worries about the influx of unruly peasants to the factories, would have found Putin an invaluable enforcer. Mikhail Putin received visits from Kirov who was instrumental in propagating socialist competition.

After “initiating” socialist competition, Putin was soon entrusted with another sensitive mission, agitating for collectivization. In fall 1930, Putin’s brigade left for a village, Nizhnee Chuevo, in Tambov. Putin went to the houses of the poorest peasants to explain the benefits of collectivization. In true Putin style, Mikhail embellished his tale by recounting how he was attacked by three wolfhounds unleashed by the kulaks.

Mikhail Putin was well compensated for his services. In 1931, he was awarded the Soviets’ highest honor, the Order of Lenin. Graduating from the School of Trade Unions in 1933, he managed a Leningrad construction trust. Moving into an elite apartment, dubbed “fairy tale,” next to the Kirov Theater, Mikhail married a beautiful young woman, 16 years his junior. During a pivotal (and still enigmatic) moment in Soviet history, Putin in 1934 chaired Sergei Kirov’s funeral. This, no doubt, endowed him with a powerful aura.

During the war, Mikhail Putin heroically supervised construction projects in Leningrad, often close to the front lines. Even during wartime, Mikhail returned to his factory, Vyborzhets, to celebrate militarized anniversaries of Socialist Competition.

After World War II, Mikhail Putin became a trusted elder. In Pravda he was lionized along with the miner Alexei Stakhanov. While Stakhanov’s debauchery so angered the Party that he was stripped of his Moscow furnishings and quietly retuned to the Donbass, Putin, living “a humble life,” continued agitating up to age 75. Unlike other labor heroes, Putin was consulted by scholars. A typical propaganda piece relates: “Time passed and the labor veterans aged, but they never forget their factories. A gray-haired man with the Order of Lenin on his chest often visited Vyborzhets: Putin. The shop was changing before his eyes: no cramped, dark cells anymore. Powerful, high-performance tube mills stand along the wide, bright aisles: Putin’s profession has disappeared.” Putin became known for his impassioned talks.

Putin thus became a valuable tool for indoctrination. “The participation of the veterans of the Revolution and labor […] is extremely important in educating working youth on revolutionary and labor traditions.” University students would be bused to Vyborzhets and “introduced to the latest equipment” and sometimes Putin himself. On November 25, 1958, on the eve of the 21st Party Congress at the storied Tauride Palace, 1,500 people gathered for a meeting broadcast by radio that showcased Putin. In encyclopedias, “Putin” appeared next to Alexander Pushkin. A “1929” installment of the Soviet TV program Our Biography (1978) and a film Spring of Labor (1975) focused on Mikhail.


During the famine years of the 30s, as a way for Mikhail Putin to return a favor, Spiridon (the President’s grandfather) was set up in Moscow at the Gorki Palace to cook for Party bosses, including Stalin.[1] Instead of moving in with Spiridon, the President’s father Vladimir and his wife Maria left Tver for Leningrad, presumably because of Mikhail. During the blockade, Putin’s mother, according to the President, “lived with a relative on the embankment of the Fontanka River.” This, assuredly, would be with Mikhail Putin. In 1942, his apartment at the Skazka House was destroyed by bombing so that Mikhail moved to a nearby apartment, at 109 Fontanka St. Off and on, Vladimir’s family continued living with “relatives” until Vladimir landed a good job at the Egorov factory and they were given an apartment on Baskov Lane. (In “yet another coincidence, to which we have become accustomed,” Russian state-controlled media reported in 2004 that Mikhail Putin’s grandson, Viktor, was living on Baskov Lane.) We know that relatives of Mikhail’s wife became well acquainted with both the President’s father and grandfather. Vladimir talked little with his father, who was scarred by the war. But he used to visit a “relative”—perhaps Mikhail?—who recounted family history (by 1995, around one hundred Putins lived in St Petersburg, but from 1930 to 1970, there were only two or three Putin households in the city).

While nepotism was officially discouraged, the Soviets did promote “worker dynasties.” Propaganda articles highlighted the “wonderful” Vyborzhets families. Mikhail Putin was regarded as a paterfamilias of the “school of communist labor.” At Vyborzhets, according to Soviet propaganda, family dynasties enjoyed the “authority and deep respect of the collective. The display of such glorious labour traditions of hereditary working families in lecture and propaganda work is important in educating young people and instilling in them a love of work.” Mikhail’s efforts to guide struggling Vladimir would thus have received official blessing. Under the radar, nepotism became entrenched in the Party ranks as seen with Leonid Brezhnev’s own daughter, Galina.

Inter-generational sports was also a part of Soviet indoctrination. Mikhail “kept in touch with his native factory,” helping to build a good club and stadium. From time to time, Mikhail met his old Sanitas wrestling mate Sergei Dashkevich (1896–1953). Dashkevich took Judo courses under the legendary Vasily Oshchepkov. In order to set oneself up teaching Judo in Leningrad, it would certainly have been helpful to be connected with someone with Putin’s sway. Mikhail Putin may have been instrumental in helping Dashkevich’s pupil, Anatolii Rakhlin establish the Judo Club currently located across the street from Vyborzhets factory. In the 1960s Soviet police state, the idea of a Judo (or Sambo) club, directed by a Jew and open to the public, would have been unheard of. Tellingly, Rakhlin’s club was not in some basement but was first located in the renowned Yusupov Palace, the site of Rasputin’s murder, and a four-minute walk from Mikhail’s house. This unique club was named “Pipe-builder” (Trubostroitel’)—Mikhail’s profession.

Times had changed: in place of peasant-brawlers, cultural heroes became scientists and scholars. Vladimir was estranged from his father and adrift at school. It is reasonable to assume that he would have thrown himself at the chance to follow in the footsteps of the iconic Misha the Wrestler. Certainly, martial arts shaped Putin’s personality. This straightened out the spoiled Vladimir, but training and the 40-minute trolleybus commute left little time for study. Rakhlin, acknowledging Putin’s limited academic potential, recommended that he enter community technical college (Vtuz); at school Putin had received many Cs (troiki) which would have barred him from entering university.

Instead, Putin inexplicably got in the international division of the law faculty at Leningrad University, a notorious bastion of golden youth. Here students interacted with foreigners, read banned “petty-bourgeois” scholars, and took subjects such as “State Law in Bourgeois Countries.” All this was strictly limited to “verified” youth, and certainly not open to a nobody who was also a brawler and who fraternized with Jews, at a time when the 1967 Arab-Israeli War had caused a wave of anti-Semitism. Clearly, Putin’s entrance required connections (blat). It must have been Mikhail Putin who pulled the strings. Mikhail, old Leningraders whisper, wrote the required recommendation letter for Putin to enter the KGB.[1] Mikhail Putin, who died in 1969, was lionized in the front pages of Pravda: few would question the last wishes of this legendary man. According to Dmitrii Gantserov, a recruiter working in the 3rd department of the 5th Chief Directorate of the KGB, Putin inexplicably, from his freshman year, was considered a prime candidate out of an already elite group of law faculty students. The Leningrad KGB headquarters gave a green light to Putin’s candidacy based on a review of family relations (proverka dal’nikh rodstvennikov). For the final acceptance, during Putin’s last year of study in 1974, Gantserov was ordered to make a thorough review of Putin’s family background by personally interviewing family members (without naming himself, Vladimir Putin himself has admitted that connections (blat) are what made a KGB career in those days). The shadow of Mikhail would continue to give Putin a leg up. Key members of the Putin elite such as Valentina Matvienko would have heard Grigorii Romanov, the first secretary in Leningrad, herald Mikhail Putin as a hero who “our whole country follows today.”

As is the case for the majority of post-socialist societies, the leader’s princeling status is essential for acting as guardian and arbitrator over the ruling dynasties. This is what drove Putin’s rise to power. Amid a reactionary backlash, Putin protected the legacy of his former boss, the Mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, as well the business and political interests of his wife, Liudmila Narusova, and daughter Kseniia. Based on this reputation, Valentin Yumashev, Tat’iana Yeltsin, and other members of Boris Yeltsin’s family urged the president to select Putin as successor in 1999.

As with the President’s appearance and gait, Vladimir’s career closely hews to Mikhail’s: from macho wrestler, to wily political insider, to Party sage. The model of socialist competition—the notion that political theatre can replace trade-union politics and market forces—epitomizes Putin’s authoritarianism. Facing turmoil in his war with Ukraine, Vladimir Putin continues to turn to the people he trusts, his Leningrad Judo partners and their children.

[1] In 2022, Putin named as his mentors: two school teachers, Tamara Chizhova and Vera Gurevich, and his trainer Anatoli Rakhlin. None of these would be able to provide a recommendation authoritative enough to get into the KGB.

[1] In paranoid Russian society, the leader’s cook is no humble job. Putin’s chef, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a critical member of the elite.

[1] In strikingly similar language, Vladimir Putin often tells school children that his mentor, Anatoly Rakhlin, urged him to “fight to the end.”

Chris Monday is associate professor of Russian History at Dongseo University, South Korea.

'Anti-woke' crusaders came for my grandfather 50 years ago

On April 22nd, 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed House Bill 7 (popularly called the “Stop WOKE” Act). Christopher Rufo then took to the podium. After praising the Governor and the bill, Rufo denounced Critical Race Theory (CRT) in schools on three points: CRT segregates students based on race, teaches white heterosexual males that they are fundamentally oppressive, and paints America as a place where racial minorities have no possibility of success.

While the bogeyman of CRT is a new iteration, Rufo's objections fit into the long history of the politics of American education. Like his predecessors, Rufo misrepresents ideas critical of conservative hegemony in order to maintain it. “I am quite intentionally,” Rufo tweeted, “redefining what ‘critical race theory’ means in the public mind, expanding it as a catchall for the new orthodoxy. People won’t read Derrick Bell, but when their kid is labeled an ‘oppressor’ in first grade, that’s now CRT.” But if the public does read Bell, they will see the fallacious humbug Rufo has concocted. “America offers something real for black people,” Bell writes in Silent Covenants, “...the pragmatic approach that we must follow is simply to take a hard-eyed view of racism as it is, and of our subordinate role in it. We must realize with our slave forebears that the struggle for freedom is, at bottom, a manifestation of our humanity that survives and grows stronger through resistance to oppression even if we never overcome that oppression.” Rufo’s deliberate obfuscation of CRT furthers the American lost cause of white resentment. Attaching the politics of education to the politics of whiteness places Rufo’s actions within a longer historical pattern.

In 1972, Search for Freedom: America and Its People came up for review at a public hearing in Texas for statewide textbook adoption. Noted Texan conservatives Mel and Norma Gabler derided the fifth-grade social studies text for several reasons. First, they alleged, it questioned American values and patriotism. Second, it encouraged civil disobedience. Third, it championed Robin Hood economics (taxing the rich and giving to the poor). Fourth, it committed blasphemy for comparing the ideas of Thoreau, Gandhi, and King with those attributed to Jesus in the Gospels. Fifth, it glorified Andy Warhol and, worst of all, only mentioned George Washington in passing but devoted six-and-a-half pages to Marilyn Monroe. After the hearing, the Texas legislators agreed with the Gablers’ objections and effectively banned the textbook from Texas classrooms. Because of Texas's outsized role in textbook adoption, the textbook did not make it into any other classrooms.

William Jay Jacobs, my grandfather, wrote the book.

My personal connection to this history helps me see how Rufo carries the Gablers’ legacy into the twenty-first century. Acting as guardians of the American republic, Rufo and the Gablers turn complex ideas into soundbites and use those soundbites to make claims about radical indoctrination in schools. They portray this indoctrination as so dangerous that censorship is the only possible solution. The Gablers and Rufo, in their way, share Plato’s conviction that “the young are not able to distinguish what is and what is not...for which reason, maybe, we should do our utmost that the first stories that they hear should be composed as to bring the fairest lessons of virtue to their ears.” Should any story question or contradict the conservative virtues the Gablers and Rufo hold so dear, “it becomes [their] task, then, it seems, if [they] are able, to select which and what kind of natures are suited for the guardianship of a state.”

In a modern democracy, though, which “lessons of virtue” and who “select[s] which and what kind of natures” should be taught to the young are open for public debate. The Gablers and Rufo have therefore worked to manipulate ideas, and how the public perceives those ideas, to justify both conservative curricula and their roles as legitimate guardians of the common-sense virtures of the American republic.

After the 1972 Search for Freedom hearings, as the right questioned the left’s patriotism and labeled any dissent as anti-American, the Gablers took to the press, seeding sensational soundbites. Headlines shouted: "The Sexy Textbook!" and "More MM than GW!" Mel and Norma then headed to "The Phil Donahue Show" and "60 Minutes" with my grandfather's textbook in hand. Proclaiming themselves as neutral textbook evaluators, they held the book up to the screen and claimed that my grandfather had swapped Marilyn Monroe for Martha Washington as mother of our country. But as my grandfather wrote in a retort,

"Marilyn" made for a good laugh. Yet what better contemporary symbol have we of the potential for barrenness in the American dream when, stripped of its inherent idealism, it is reduced to a mindless groping for money and fame? The Marilyn Monroe sketch raised questions for young readers about mass "spectatorism" and the commercial packaging of human vulnerabilities. It illustrated that not every story beginning with "Once upon a time" necessarily will end with the hero (or heroine) living "happily ever after."

Rather than juxtaposing the moral of my grandfather’s story with their objection, the Gablers simply skipped over my grandfather’s critical rendition of the American dream and turned it instead into made-for-TV moral panic. They used live television to warn the American public that dangerous ideas were in their textbooks. The Gablers posture—as common-sense Americans shocked by outrageous lessons—spoke to conservative Americans and encouraged them to join their effort to prevent subversive ideas from entering classrooms.

Before Rufo spoke on the podium with DeSantis, he began his crusade on Fox News with Tucker Carlson. On live television, Rufo claimed that CRT “has pervaded every institution in the federal government.” He further proclaimed, “I’ve discovered… that critical race theory has become in essence the default ideology of the federal bureaucracy and is now being weaponized against the American people.” With a captivated, frown-eyed Carlson watching, Rufo explicated findings from three “investigations” that purported to “show the kind of depth of this critical race theory occult indoctrination and the danger and destruction it can wreak.” First, he presented snippets from a seminar led by Howard Ross, who asked treasury department employees “to accept their white privilege...and accept all of the baggage that comes with this reducible essence of whiteness.” Second, Rufo described a weekly seminar on intersectionality held by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which aimed “to determine whether you are an oppressor or oppressed.” Third, Rufo detailed a “three-day re-education camp,” sponsored by the Sandia National Laboratories, to “deconstruct their white male culture and actually force them to write letters of apology to women and people of color.”

Rufo ended his diatribe with a call to action: “conservatives need to wake up that this is an existential threat to the United States...I call on the president to immediately issue this executive order and stamp out this destructive divisive pseudoscientific ideology at its root.” With his hyperbolic language, his tying CRT to anything that criticized the power of white American males, and his call for conservatives to “wake up” to defeat an “existential threat,” Rufo put his telegraphed approach to work.

The Carlson interview aired on the first of September; by the 4th a memo was sent by the Trump administration stating, “...according to press reports, employees across the Executive Branch have been required to attend trainings where they are told that ‘virtually all White people contribute to racism or where they are required to say that they ‘benefit from racism’.”

Extracting CRT from the halls of academia and claiming to find its pernicious presence across all federal agencies, Rufo and Carlson brewed moral panic to transform CRT into an existential bogeyman who was coming to destroy white America. In both cases, the Gablers and Rufo used television to gain support for their cause. They turned critical ideas of American society into a demon that must be slayed. By inflating distant employee training sessions and fifth-grade social studies textbooks into a vast anti-white, anti-American conspiracy, they encouraged viewers to see schools as a nearby battle front, they could, and must, fight on.

In an article titled “Ideological Book Banning is Rampant Nationally,” published in the Washington Post on October 16th, 1983, Alison Muscatine reported the following:

"Our children are totally controlled," said Norma Gabler, displaying a social studies textbook that devotes six pages to Marilyn Monroe but that makes only three references to George Washington. "Can you imagine a sex symbol being given more time than the father of our country? I don't think it's fair that our children be subjected to this kind of information. They are being totally indoctrinated to one philosophy.”

To try to fight the alleged indoctrination, the Gablers created the Educational Research Analysts—an explicitly Christian conservative organization--to review, revise, and censor any textbook that ran counter to their vision of what American children should be taught. In their attempt to guard the American child from subversive stories, the Gablers claimed children were being “totally indoctrinated to one philosophy.” Their censorious actions, however, did more to indoctrinate American children to one way of seeing the world than did my grandfather’s parable on Marilyn Monroe. Citing indoctrination, the Gablers justified their censorship to preserve their version of America as the only legitimate story American children should read.

Although Rufo himself has not censored textbooks, his actions led to legislation that did. The Florida Department of Education published a press release labeled “Florida Rejects Publishers’ Attempts to Indoctrinate Students.” In 5,895 pages, the department details two reasons for rejecting 41 percent of the textbooks that were reviewed. The textbooks either followed Common Core Standards (which the Florida Department of Education rejects), or the textbooks included CRT (defined, of course, in Rufo’s expansive terms). Like the Gablers, the Florida textbook evaluators assume controversial ideas in a text will indoctrinate the children reading them. Again, the Gablers and Rufo posture as guardians standing against a radical activist agenda, not as censors. They both throw their hands up, sit, and watch as other citizens act upon their calls to censor ideas. And when others call them censorious zealots, they simply dodge the charges by claiming they themselves did not censor ideas, even though their actions clearly encouraged others to do so.

In an exposé on the Gablers, Mel details how they understand this guardianship. “‘When they eliminate good books and put garbage in, they are the censors,’ he said. ‘All we do is point it out’.” Because they only reported the textbooks to the Texas Education Agency, the Gablers did not see themselves as censors. Semantically, they may be right. Practically, however, the Gablers’ actions effectively “canceled” certain ideas. Forget merit; for the Gablers, an idea should only be taught if it fits into an understanding of “good books” that happens to coincide with their conservative worldview. The good books argument is akin to the argument Plato’s Socrates makes in the Republic. Namely, those who have the power and guard the republic are the rightful persons to decide which stories and thereby which virtues the future guardians should learn. The problem is, however, neither the Gablers nor any other single entity in a modern democratic state has the sole right to decide what the next generation ought to know.

On Twitter, Rufo evoked this exact line of reasoning. He wrote, “there are no ‘book bans’ in America. Authors have a First Amendment right to publish whatever they want, but public libraries and schools are not obligated to subsidize them. Voters get to decide which texts—and ultimately, which values—public institutions transmit to children.” Rufo is right, to a point. The voters do make those decisions but do so, presumably, by understanding good faith arguments on both sides of an issue. But Rufo’s sensationalized, bad faith reporting—which turned CRT into something it is wholly not—prevents voters, especially children, from seeing both sides of the issue and forming their own opinion. Positioning himself as defender of America, Rufo’s reporting turns progressive ideas into anti-American rhetoric to excite the conservative base to enact censorship.

Let me be clear, the difference between the Gablers and Rufo is one of degree, not kind. The Gablers aimed at textbooks while Rufo aims at a broad and diffuse set of ideas and practices that are now dubbed “wokeness.” The Gablers raised hell at textbook adoption meetings while Rufo raises hell on the internet. Both position themselves as protectors against supposedly subversive ideas. Both (along with Plato), however, fall into the same faulty assumption. Critical or not, ideas do not simply transmit to children. Children, like adults, can reason. Thus, children--not just books, not just ideas--shape how they understand the world they live in.

In his response editorial, my grandfather leaves us with a prescient insight:

Meanwhile, it’s comforting to know that the issue of book banning continues to generate controversy. It means that at least someone, somewhere, still takes the written word seriously as a means of influencing the minds of young people.

Max Antonio Allen Jacobs is a PhD student at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, where he studies the history of education. Max also teaches middle school philosophy at George Jackson Academy.

Two unlikely champions of fundamentalist parties show it's more about power than faith: historian

The trend in world history since the Second World War has been toward secularism and away from religious control politically, socially and culturally. With Iran as a notable exception, most nations throughout the world have shifted to some extent toward Thomas Jefferson’s axiom of “separation of church and state.”

However two highly-developed nations have recently bucked the secular trend. Israel and the United States have elected leaders, namely Trump and Netanyahu, who attempted to reinvigorate religion in their respective societies in terms of law, culture and political policies. What is it about the political systems and culture of these countries that enabled religious constituencies to gain ascendancy with a promise of fundamentalist revival? What is it about these two men, Netanyahu and Trump that enabled their rise along with this revival?

In 1948, Israel was founded as the Jewish state. However its original leaders were secular Jews led by a large socialist party under David Ben-Gurion. Israel’s declaration of independence, The Declaration of the Establishment of the State of Israel, states that Israel is the birthplace of the Jewish people and the place where Jewish spiritual, religious, and cultural identity was shaped. This document also created a secular democracy along the lines of European democratic nation-states with freedom of religion. As a Jewish state however, religious political influence was always prevalent. For example, marriages had to be performed by Orthodox rabbis and businesses were encouraged to close on Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath.

The United States was also founded by people who belonged to a religion, mostly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants of the Anglican Church. But as in the case of Israel, these were secular people, not regular church-goers. They were deists, believing that God gave human beings the intelligence to solve their problems without prayer. Given their secular bent, the Founding Fathers drafted a Constitution in which religion was mentioned only once. Article VI Clause 3 states that there is no religious test for seeking public office. Later, the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution with the First Amendment providing that “Congress make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Separation of church and state was established.

From the founding of Israel until 1977, the secular Jews remained in power. These were people identifying as Jews with a generally low level of observance, other than the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Passover. The ruling Labor Party, with a coalition of secular parties, held a majority in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament.

Then came the pivotal general election of May 1977, signaling a turn toward religious fundamentalism. The Likud Party under Menachem Begin appealed to Mizrahi Jews, Middle Eastern and Central Asian Jews suffering under discrimination in Israeli society. This coalition that contained religious parties won a Knesset majority. The Likud campaign attracted the economically downtrodden, the more religiously observant Jews, and those fearful of the Arab world surrounding the Jewish state. The coalition would go on to elect more prime ministers, leading up to Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu.

Born to a secular Jewish family in Israel, Netanyahu has been prime minister twice, between 1996-1999 and 2009-2021. Now at age 73, he is returning to that office. Netanyahu is not religiously observant, and seemingly wears kippah and recites prayers only when it’s part of his job. However, he depends on Orthodox Jewish political support for his Knesset majority. The Orthodox are a significant political force as, according to the Pew Research Center, they comprise 18 percent of the Israeli population. In the recent election, Netanyahu combined with the Religious Zionist Party and other religious parties, which stand against any concessions to the Palestinians and for an end to Israel’s independent judiciary. Religious Zionist leader Itamar Ben-Gvir, a resident of a West Bank settlement and member of the Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) party, is the new government’s Minister of National Security.

America made a remarkably similar increase in religious fundamentalist influence in government at approximately the same time Israel did. In 1980, religious conservatives organizing in great numbers chose Ronald Reagan as their vehicle for ascendency as abortion became their chief issue. Their choice of candidates was odd, as Reagan, the once Hollywood womanizer, was never a churchgoer in his adult life. His opponent was Jimmy Carter, who had a history of going to a Baptist church every Sunday and teaching Sunday school. With inflation as the chief issue, Reagan won the presidency and pleased his conservative religious followers with his policies and judicial appointments. Religious conservatives remained a potent force in the Republican Party electing two presidents named Bush as in Israel where the religious parties continued electing prime ministers. Then came Trump.

Never a church-goer, and with little knowledge of Christian doctrine, Trump courted the religious base as they turned out in the presidential primaries. Early in his campaign, Trump visited Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s Liberty University. In his speech, Trump referred to a biblical passage from Second Corinthians etched on university buildings, but called it “Corinthians Two.” But that didn’t matter because Trump promised to protect Christianity. The fundamentalist base turned out for him in the primaries, seeing Trump as having the best chance to appoint judges to overturn Roe v. Wade and stop what the religious right calls the war on religion.

Two countries followed remarkably similar paths in an attempt to reverse secularism. In both countries, the religious right found leaders who were not religiously observant but were eager to win power, and promised to support their religious, cultural, and political ideology in order to do so. Netanyahu has had the political skill to rise in and hold power in his party, and when he took certain political and cultural positions, the religious right joined him to achieve power. When Trump, through his celebrity status, became a major candidate for the presidential nomination and took positions favored by the evangelical, fundamentalist, or religious right, the religious fundamentalists joined him and helped elect a president.

Furthermore in both countries, the religious fundamentalists wanted to achieve power and influence so badly that they overlooked the moral failings of their political leaders. As Netanyahu led his party in a general election, he was on trial for bribery among other forms of corruption. Netanyahu, who has been married three times and divorced twice, has had a marital history riddled with sex scandals. Trump has also had his legal problems, including having both his Trump University and Trump Foundation sued and closed. Currently, Trump confronts a myriad of criminal investigations involving his business affairs and his tenure in public office. Trump too has been married three times and divorced twice. His life is riddled with sex scandals involving a porn star and numerous accusations regarding sexual assault and even rape in one case. But the devoutly religious support these two men.

Finally, religious fundamentalism gained influence in Israel and the United States through political systems with peculiarities permitting a minority to gain power. In the latest election, Netanyahu’s Likud Party, which is not overtly religious, won 32 seats in the 120 seat Knesset. The religious parties won fewer than that. It is the combination of these parties that produced a majority, providing the fundamentalist right influence over government. Trump gained power by winning the presidential primaries with only 28.5 percent voter turnout. He won the presidency with 46 percent of the total vote; only 26 percent of the vote was from the religious fundamentalists or evangelicals. In Israel the Orthodox are a growing share of the population as they have more children, but still, as in the United States, it took undemocratic mechanisms for the religious right to gain great influence to overcome secularism. In Israel it is a parliamentary system where small religious parties combine with a larger party to form a government that provides them outsize power. In the United States, a primary system with a small voter turnout, combined with the Electoral College, can give a minority religious right ascendancy over secularism.

Donne Levy is a retired community college history instructor.