Tag Archives: Eric Foner

Brush off the Dust Best of the Web, Week of 8/7-8/12/11

This week’s recommended online reading includes Russian mobsters and faraway islands, a radical poet and his Great Books journey to the priesthood, a retrospective on the Berlin Wall, a practical guide to traveling by bike, the international popularity of America’s civic organizations, mischievous and vaguely illegal wordplay of our British-American forefathers, Britain’s role in the American Civil War, and a curious monument near Buckingham Palace remembering Yuri Gagarin.

1. The Billion-Dollar Shack

Written by Jack Hitt in December of 2000 for the New York Times Magazine, this is a fascinating piece about the fall of small tropical island, Nauru, destroyed by greed and transformed into a pariah when it became a crucial site for offshore banking… by the Russian mob.  Read it by clicking here.

2. Cloth Bound

Published in the The Core: College Magazine of the University of Chicago, written by Benjamin Recchie, “Cloth Bound” is the story of an American intellectual journey that began with humanistic atheism, continued through radical Marxism and ended with the Dominican Order.  Incorporating some of the luminaries of American literature, philosophy and intellectual heritage, this is a fascinating piece Father Benedict Ashley and his development in 1930s Chicago at the University.  To read it click here.

3. The Berlin Wall: A Secret History

This retrospective, marked by the 50th anniversary of the Berlin Wall, reflects on the construction and the city during 1961 and the Cold War; a great read and reflection.  Read it by clicking here.  You may also want to check out the English-language, interactive site at Der Spiegel‘s website by clicking here.

4. Traveling by Bike, Practically Speaking

The beach at Sandpoint, Idaho.

Bruce Weber, of the New York Times, is cycling across the country.  In doing, many people have asked about the practical side of his venture, which is the impetus for this post at on the publication’s “In Transit” blog.  In turns useful and humorous it is an instructive read in many ways!  Read it by clicking here.  You can also follow him on Twitter: @nytbruceweber.

5. The Lions of Lagos, the Rotarians of Rawalpindi

From The Washington Monthly, John Gravois writes about the decline of American civic organizations within the United States and the rise of these organizations internationally.  The numbers are surprising and Gravois is curious about what it tells us regarding American culture, today.  Particularly, interesting to me are the graphs which show a recent peak in U.S. membership right after 9/11, before the line graph heads back to sea level.  Read it by clicking here.

6. When America was a Lady

Now, this is a clever bit of fun wordplay!  Before there was Uncle Sam, there was Columbia.  In a post that traces the clever wordplay that foiled British law, and with references to Gulliver’s Travels, the Antiquarianation blogger reveals our softer persona and the origins of our association as Columbia.  Read it by clicking here.

7. C-Span’s “After Words” – A World on Fire

Watch this episode of “After Words” on Britain’s involvement in the Civil War.  Decorated American historian, Eric Foner, interviews the author of A World of Fire: British’s Crucial Role in the American Civil War, Amanda Foreman.  Click here and look in the sidebar on the right-hand side to view the program.

8. Yuri Gagarin: Mankind’s First Giant Leap

From the Economist’s Prospero blog, there is a post about a new statue that went up on the Mall leading to Buckingham Palace, remembering Yuri Gagarin.  In honor of Gagarin’s feat, the first man leaping beyond the bonds of Earth’s gravitational pull, the British Council put up the statue.  It is a curious piece, reminiscent of Soviet-style, government sponsored artwork, although better than that.  Read Prosepero’s take on it by clicking here.

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The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

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