Original Content for Audio: The 1619 Project and the Strange Background to Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation

Here’s about thirty minutes of my thoughts on a big bone of contention in the recent disputes over The New York Times Magazine‘s 1619 Project: the 1775 proclamation by the royal governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, freeing people held in slavery by the rebelling Virginia patriots.

https://soundcloud.com/user-590271797.

My first foray into original content for audio. I have some angles on the Dunmore thing that I haven’t heard discussed. The relationships among Dunmore, George Washington, Patrick Henry, and others were fraught and intense, and I think the up-close and personal texture of those relationships is relevant to the huge imperialist, racial, and other themes of those bizarre founding  moments. Lo-fi forever!

Oh: There’s an issue on SoundCloud where as soon as one track ends, you get pushed into another track. Which can be jarring. Or you’ll find your new jam.

Hillbilly Music, West Africa, and Clawhammer Banjo

Back about twenty years ago, that’s all I wanted to talk about. This is adapated from an article I published in The Atlantic in 1998:

. . . Country music is no mere reduction of British ballad and dance but a new music, invented here. The blues wasn’t heard in the West African states from which the enslaved were forcibly taken to the Caribbean and Atlantic colonies; it was a new music, invented here. By the 1920s — possibly even by the 1820s — American black and white folk musicians would have sounded unrecognizable to their African and European ancestors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. It’s not only that you can’t extricate blackness from whiteness in early recorded country music and blues: you can’t extricate folk art from hucksterism, North from South, or city from country.

. . . Histories of country, pop, and jazz have long underrated, to the point of total musical and historical distortion, the weird fact that the banjer — a West African stringed drum — became an emblem of poor white Appalachia. Sam Charters, searching Africa in the 1970s for “the roots of the blues,” had to confront the dearth of any obvious blues ancestry, but for generations unknown banjer had been played there. It had a gourd pot with a skin head, some long strings running up a wooden neck, with one short string for a high drone. That instrument came to this country with enslaved Africans, and at some point in the nineteenth-century white men and women of the Southern mountains started playing it. What Sam Charters really heard in Africa was the source not of blues but of Appalachian dance and song.

What made poor white Appalachians take up the banjo is a fascinating question. Whether they got banjo music from rural black players, from Yankee blackface showmen doing racist impressions of rural black players, from parlor-playing daughters of the Victorian urban bourgeoisie (banjo had a craze among that type too), or from all of the above, they did a lot more with it than play old British-Isles tunes. With a technique called “clawhammer,” derived from downstroking the African gourd banjers, these rural European-Americans invented a new American dance music, contributing to the commercial genre first called hillbilly, and then country; even while rural and urban African-Americans were putting down banjos and inventing new American musics too, dance and otherwise, picking up guitars and brass and reeds and pianos, elaborating the banjo’s rhythmic and sonic properties on every kind of European instrument. . . .

. . . Many white banjo players, clawhammerers and fingerpickers alike, credited black banjoists with having taught them to play. So to describe [Dock] Boggs’s playing as an improvement in melodic clarity over that of the white musicians Boggs had seen, and then to associate that imagined improvement with black playing, reflects a misunderstanding of the instrument crucial to the development of country, blues, jazz, and rock alike. Clawhammer banjo players don’t “clawhammer the strings up and down,” and they don’t produce “an undifferentiated flurry of sound,” as [Greil] Marcus claims; the briefest listen to the banjoists Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham, or Danny Barnes, of the band Bad Livers, will refute him. In clawhammer the stroke is forever downward, producing a sound that while rhythmically complex, texturally dense, and irresistibly percussive — the big beat is on the “one,” making for a kind of stiff, 2/4 funk — is at the same time highly melodic, with all the twists and turns and grace notes of the fiddle part, if lacking in sustain. . . .

Gordon Wood — Again


Here’s an excerpt from Founding Finance (2012). It’s about the outsized influence — perhaps less on the academy than on commonly held public ideas about the founding — wielded by the elder postwar consensus historians, with a special focus on the work of Gordon Wood. I’m posting it in response to recent Twitter discussion of Wood’s criticism of the New York Times 1619 Project, in an interview Wood gave to the Trotskytist site World Socialist Web Site.

Ironies abound. I wrote Founding Finance during the days of the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. As this excerpt makes obvious, I was trying to re-frame the entire U.S. founding around the class and economic conflict that Wood’s work has been dedicated to minimizing. Now the 1619 Project is reframing the founding around racial slavery. The WSWS people dislike that framing because they see it as undermining class-struggle interpretations (like mine), so Wood now gives WSWS aid and comfort by doing to the slavery-centering effort what he’s spent a career doing to the class-struggle-centering effort they promote. And WSWS gives Wood aid and comfort in return. . . . 

Strange bedfellows, etc.

The section preceding this excerpt focuses on the fatal erasure of class and ecomomics and their politics in popular biographies by David McCullough and Ron Chernow. Now I shift gears: 

. . .  It may seem as if I’m frowning on popular history because it relies on narrative, instead of offering academic analysis and argument. No. Not me. Some readers, critics, and historians do make a sharp distinction, reasonably enough, between what they classify as “heritage,” on the one hand, which would include some of the popular biographies, and serious history on the other. Yet to get at certain hard truths, my money will always be on pop, at its best, and dramaturgy, properly applied, over high training and elaborate argumentation. I like action. Not the Vin Diesel kind (not necessarily), the Sophocles kind.

The problem I have with today’s popular narrative history is that so much of it fails to benefit from what’s especially illuminating about the popular and narrative modes. I don’t think English heritage is all Shakespeare was after in “King Lear.” I miss the terror and pity.

And yet it’s really in certain aspects of professional academic history that I think the real culprit may be found and charged with causing our general vagueness about conflicts over founding-era financial and economic issues. If scholars were more inclined to delve into such issues, maybe popular authors would be too. Even on the list of scholars I’ve cited in support of my narratives, only the least well-known focus on early American struggles between wealthy founders and non-wealthy free white people. The elder academic historians of the founding era who are best known by the informed general public, the ones whose viewpoints have been so widely disseminated, repeated, and even lionized in the past fifty years — Richard Hofstadter, Douglass Adair, Edmund Morgan, Gordon Wood, to cut a swath — are the ones whose moods and conclusions find their way most readily into public and popular history, and those historians have spent more than a half-century weaving a very tricky denial of the real-world economics and the real-world politics of the period that they study and present to us. Continue reading

Donald Trump and George Washington at Mount Vernon

Bradburn “was desperately trying to get [Trump] interested in” Washington’s house, said a source familiar with the visit, so he spoke in terms Trump understands best — telling the president that Washington was an 18th century real-estate titan who had acquired property throughout Virginia and what would come to be known as Washington, D.C.

— hilarious Politico article on Trump’s visit to Mount Vernon

That piece is funny. An underlying, even funnier thing, to me: if he really wanted to excite Trump’s admiration for George Washington, Bradburn blew it. The record of Washington’s career as both president and real-estate speculator — and of the inextricability of those two roles — offers much to intrigue and impress a Donald Trump. It’s not edifying, and Bradburn, as CEO of Mount Vernon, can’t go there, but I’m just the boy to fill Trump in:

— As an up-and-coming real-estate speculator and developer, Washington had zero regard for the law. He fearlessly seized advantage after advantage by breaking, working around, and eluding legal requirements while privately expressing disdain for them. Smart!

— He was shrewd and adroit in using personal connections with government officials to draw public wealth into fake projects supposedly benefiting the less well-off but actually dedicated to enriching himself and his upscale partners.

— He ruthlessly ripped off the upscale partners too — secretly jiggering surveys to give them the less valuable and him the more valuable assets. Very tough.
Continue reading

The Fizzling Zingers

Created in the basement of a church in the 1960’s, Saint Ann’s was built on the idea that the children of poets and playwrights, most of whom happened to be quite wealthy, could be catapulted into Ivy League schools while still enjoying a freewheeling school culture that took a lax approach to drugs and sex, especially in the school’s early years.

That’s from The New York Times, in a recent article on my alma mater, Saint Ann’s School. Like others lately, the school has been investigating allegations of sexual misconduct, dating from the 1970’s into the late 1990’s. You can learn the results of the investigation by reading multiple news reports. Here’s one, with far more informative coverage than the Times piece.

I quote the sentence above for what I think it exposes about the article in which it appears, dovetailing with my recent impressions of unfortunate editorial tendencies in the paper as a whole. My thoughts are predicated on my total lack of objectivity. As an early Saint Ann’s graduate, a former teacher there, and the spouse of a former top administrator, I harbor some conflicted attitudes toward the immediate subject and the school itself.

So I find it startling and dismaying to encounter, in a Times news report on an important and painful subject, evidence of attitudes at least as conflicted as mine. One of the reporters is a Saint Ann’s graduate (a far more recent one than I). Problems with credibility would arise anyway from an editor’s assigning an alum this piece. They become fatal in the part I quote, which collapses into sheer nonsense, misrepresented as informative backstory.

It’s funny: one way to take the sentence is that it’s kind of parody Saint-Annsy — the sort of ironic witticism that people might imagine high-school students there making in an effort to skewer their own privilege with a display of knowingness. Everyone at the Times involved in writing and editing the piece knows that no assertion after the opening phrase can be supported as fact. People of good will may disagree on its effectiveness as a dig; as history, as economics, as demographics, as written expression, the proposition can’t withstand a moment’s scrutiny. A gleeful descent into absurdity trivializes a serious subject.

Yet I fear that the glee and the descent typify an emerging editorial approach. It’s possible that without satirical fabulation, this story, as reported more straightforwardly elsewhere, might have seemed to some at the paper to lack editorial interest, in comparison with recent stories on related issues at schools that don’t enjoy the notoriously freewheeling culture of Saint Ann’s. The sentence I’m quoting only takes to extremes a giddy irresponsibility marking the whole piece, as it deploys scattershot items ripped from the headlines, unconnected either to one another or to the story at hand. Its not just those supposedly sex-and-drug-addled kids of the rich, supposedly sleazing their way into Ivy League schools (in New York, not Hollywood, so these parents are rich … poets?). We also have the IQ test. There’s also a commemorative plaque. With a name. On a building. There’s even Lena Dunham. These hooks, tossed in with evident hope of driving widespread, emotionally triggered attention, not to the case under report but to the piece itself, turn the story into a keyword-and-metadata-driven Web page, embarrassingly overoptimized for page views in the outrage economy, more like a porn portal than a newspaper.

This is one of a number of recent stories, throughout the paper, that have given me an impression that editorial staff is encouraging writers to make these these clickbaity attempts at zingers, often fizzling, as here, and guised in the declarative syntax of news, to bizarre and misleading effect. The result, for this story: reporting by the tabloids was more informative than reporting by the Times. As a lifelong dependent of the notion that there’s some degree of maturity, judgment, and integrity to the paper I read every day, for information on issues I’m personally involved in and on those I’m not, I dissent.

Alexander Hamilton vs. the Whiskey Rebels. Yet Again

“Hamilton: an American Musical” doesn’t mention the Whiskey Rebellion and the military suppression of western Pennsylvania that brought Alexander Hamilton’s creative phase to its climax. An earlier version of the play did have a Whiskey Rebellion section, but since the rebellion and its relationship to Hamilton’s national economic plan formed the subject of my first book, I can only be glad that that part of the show got cut. Leaving out the public-finance efforts that made Hamilton who he was may be understandable in creating a work of musical theater — but without some such realistic economic framing there would be no way to get any sense of what the Whiskey Rebellion and its suppression were about.

Many of Hamilton’s new fans, among many others, have no way of knowing that the linchpin of his great plan of national finance was a tax on whiskey (the first-ever federal tax on a domestic product). Violent resistance to that tax and its purposes became the nation’s first-ever insurgency for democratic access to political and economic power. The rebels didn’t object to taxation, they weren’t against American nationhood, and they didn’t just like to sit around and drink (they did like that, but so did everybody else then). They objected to the tax as unfair because its proceeds were earmarked to pay interest on government bonds held by a small number of very rich Americans. Whose income from those bonds was, of course, untaxed. Also the tax discriminated against small whiskey producers and encouraged industry consolidation among big producers.

So the years 1791-1794 saw the famous founders Washington and Hamilton, in hopes of authoring a rich, expansive, dynamic nation based on concentrating wealth and building military power, pitted against the little-remembered white working-class populists of the day who wanted economic and political equality for the less- and unrich.

That conflict between Hamilton, as first Treasury Secretary and architect of the national economy, and the proponents of democratic approaches to public finance who included the whiskey rebels represents the central issue for the important part of Hamilton’s career. He was fighting those he and his allies disdained as social “levelers” and “the democracy” long before he was fighting his opponents in officialdom Jefferson and Madison. From Hamilton’s efforts to demolish movements for economic equality came the economic blueprint — its linchpin a tax on, yes, whiskey — for the dynamic, powerful, rich, expansive nation that the United States did go on to become.

This founding fight between Hamilton and the whiskey rebels isn’t merely “relevant,” as the nation argues anew about taxes, wealth, Wall Street, corruption, monopoly power, money in government, etc.; and as the culture explodes with hiphop Hamilton onstage in city after city; and as major politicians square off to accuse one another of socialism or plutocracy, extremism or corruption. This founding fight isn’t just one among a number of historical examples of elitism versus democracy, or moderation versus extremism, or any of the other oppositions that various political positions will always read in various ways. This fight, whichever side of it you’re on, at any given moment, is the founding fight: the fight that actually launched the country and left us in a state of perpetual conflict with one another over what the country’s supposed to be about, when it comes to credit, debt, taxation, property, wealth, money.

The founding fight is the thing about the founding.  Continue reading

AOC and the American Founding

After going back and forth on Twitter a bit with Eric Levitz about his article with the headline “AOC Thinks Concentrated Wealth Is Incompatible With Democracy. So Did Our Founders,” I thought I’d clarify my point of view. Really, I thought I’d use my objections to the line of thought exemplified by Levitz’s piece as a way of developing my own thought — at some length, it turns out — on egalitarianism and the nation’s founders, especially with regard to Jeffersonianism as a supposedly progressive antidote to Hamiltonianism.

Levitz’s linkage of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to founding American values rose out of the panting, 24/7 need of media platforms to gin comments made on other media platforms into further comments; and out of opinion writers’ ceaseless task of opining on whatever momentarily passes for breaking news, which often means somebody else’s ceaseless opining. Hence Levitz’s discussion of the American founding, in response to a predictably reactionary rant by Sean Hannity, calling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policies un-American.

But clickbait headlines aren’t the responsibility of writers. Levitz’s real point is more intelligent, informed, and nuanced than the headline’s suggestion that — contra Hannity — Ocasio-Cortez’s desire to use government power to restrain wealth and promote economic equality is actually grounded in philosophies, goals, and policies that brought the nation into being. For of course it’s true that, as Levitz says, “there’s nothing foreign or communistic about the idea that concentrated wealth is incompatible with democracy.” And of course it’s true that Hamilton, for one, despised democracy and promoted concentration of wealth as a national good — so in a funny way you can say that even he would have agreed that the two aren’t compatible.

Yet Levitz uses a disproportionately involved schooling of Hannity to mount a defense of Ocasio-Cortez as an exemplar of founding American values. So I’m now using an even more disproportionately involved dissent from Levitz to present my thoughts on the futility, for any real public engagement with progressivism and democracy, of roping the founders into those values. Politicians of every persuasion will never stop invoking imaginary founding precedents for their views. But intellectuals could stop, and I think if they did, the public discourse would improve, and so would our politics. Levitz’s take is a classic of its kind, yet far better informed than most, and so just as Hannity’s knee jerks in response to AOC, and Levitz’s in response to Hannity, mine jerks like this:

Levitz begins his effort to root Ocasio-Cortez’s progressivism in founding American values by invoking Thomas Paine, not via argument, but by linking to a Bill Moyers interview with the Paine scholar Harvey Kaye. The idea is to position the author of “Common Sense” as representative of egalitarian views supposedly evinced by “many of our republic’s founders,” as Levitz puts it. Since Paine’s radically egalitarian views made him persona non grata with almost every one of our republic’s founders, the mainstream founding-history establishment doesn’t even consistently include Paine as a founder: it endorses his (possibly overrated) contribution to independence via the pamphlet; it sometimes ignores and sometimes explicitly tut-tuts the economic radicalism that made him unique among the famous founders, and which aroused the open disdain of Adams as early as 1776, and of Washington by the early 1790’s at the latest. Paine served as an inspiration for and a supporter of the popular American insurrectionary movements that Henry Knox, sounding almost exactly like Hannity, feared were out to confiscate all of the elites’ property and redistribute it equally by tyrannical fiat.

Elites called the Constitutional Convention to put a stop to that stuff, and it was not for nothing that the Washington administration left Thomas Paine to die under the guillotine in Paris, refusing even to claim him as an American citizen. Paine escaped that fate only by luck, and when he did at last die, alone, drunk, and poverty-stricken back in New York, the tiny group of funeral mourners included not one comrade from the glory days, Federalist or Republican. If Paine is a hero, he’s a tragic one, precisely for being in no way representative of “many our republic’s founders.” His ideas are representative of exactly what the other founders were out to crush when forming the nation. In the process, Paine was crushed too.

Leapfrogging from Paine, whose real story offers no help in constructing an ethos of economic equality shared by a multitude of founders, Levitz jumps along the path set out by many hopefuls before him, landing on Jefferson, long the go-to person for locating egalitarianism in founding American thought. Glaring problems now arise, and Levitz is keenly aware of them. Continue reading

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #16, last essay, and last thoughts on the helplessness of liberal civics in the Trump crisis

The premise and starting point for this selection of a decade of essays, on bad history’s toxic effects on American civics, is here. By bad history I’ve meant a whole cluster of wrongheaded ways of “doing” American history, presenting it, studying it, debating it, invoking it, thinking about it, and I’ve embraced in the blunt characterization “bad” a wide range of cultural phenomena, from sectors of the scholarly history profession to museum exhibitions to political speeches to broadcasting to upscale journalism and beyond.

Today’s re-post, from the Spring ’18 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, will be the final entry in this selection of essays. In this essay, I explored Adams, Hamilton, and Federalist 78 to show how liberal history and civics have made themselves helpless in the Trump crisis: “Separation of Power.” 

To review the decade: We began in ’08, with candidate Obama’s fantasies about the Constitution; we end in ’18, with liberal civics’ inability to fight Trump. In between came hiphop Hamilton, first at the Obama White House, then on Broadway. While the decade can sometimes feel to me as if it went by in a blur — that’s a famous feature of aging — this particular memory trip has made the decade seem at least a century long. I seem to have gone through some actual intellectual/critical/artistic development. That’s good — for me. What happened to the country, and especially to our public discourse about the country, wasn’t good, though. And it didn’t start to go bad on Election Day 2016.

Now I have to end this run with a kind of anticlimax, because, really, a selection of essays like this needs an introduction and a conclusion. I’ll do that something like that at some point.

For now, I’ll round things off by quoting Waylon: “Are you sure Hank done it this way?” We need a change — in how our history has engaged the American public since the middle of the last century. Maybe even an outlaw movement . . .