Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #12, in which at last we get to “Alexander Hamilton: An American Musical”!

The premise for this selection from about a decade of essays is here.

OK, we’ve arrived at last: the first of two massive, unpredictable cultural and political events that seemed to rear up like Grendel, followed by what my eighth-grade students used to call “Grendel’s mom,” out of the mucky subconscious of these selected essays, which I began writing in ’08, events that have seemed to push my themes into explosion. Like, “See, I was right, but wait, no, I didn’t want to be this right, that’s huge, agggh!” Fade to black.

“Hamilton: an American Musical” transferred to Broadway in ’15, and for a while I was truly speechless. As you know if you’ve even glanced back at these essays, public misconstrual of Hamilton had been my obsessive theme since even before ’08. I’d construed public misconstrual of Hamilton as the secret illness at the heart of the body politic. Like Kevin McCarthy at the end of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” I’d been trying heroically, futilely, to warn you off. The Hamilton cult led us astray. The financial crisis. The foreclosure crisis. Hank Paulson. Tim Geithner …

… and now … this? The most popular phenomenon since the invention of popular phenomena? People who’d never even heard of Hamilton now obsessed by him?

I had no words. I couldn’t even.

Nice people would come up to me and say, “Hey, how about that Hamilton musical, pretty wild, that’s kind of in your wheelhouse, right?” and I’d simply goggle at them, amazed. It wasn’t happening. For a long time, I think I actually believed I could just ignore the whole thing. Maybe it would go away.

Hence this, from ’16. My first, tentative effort to admit that the musical phenomenon exists — and to shift responsibility for the dire misconceptions it writes large, and their disastrous effects on American civics, away from its author and toward pop and scholarly history themselves. “Historian, Heal Thyself.” 

Next up, also from ’16, but very brief: another angle on the same topic.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #11

The premise for this selection from about a decade of essays is here.

Today I’m pushing this collection out of 2014 and into 2015, with two briefer pieces, thus putting off, as long as possible, arriving to that fateful year of ’16, when two things I was unknowingly poking at, in these essays on bad American history’s weird impact on American civics, exploded into life.

When I posted these two essays in ’15, still to come was the unimaginable ascendency of Donald Trump. And even as I posted them, “Hamilton: an American Musical” was transferring to Broadway, and to the universe. Those two events would make me feel like an inarticulate version of Cassandra and leave me nearly speechless (well, nearly nearly). That’s a Cassandra who, instead of saying, “I advise against taking this large wooden horse into our city” can only say “I don’t know, man, I just get a bad feeling there’s something kinda weird going on out there somewhere.”

Only a few more essays left in this collection. They will come from the years ’16-18, climactically strange ones for me, given my subject in these essays.

But back in those ignorant days of ’15, I posted one of my rare sideswipes at right-wing history idiocy (I usually reserve critical intelligence for what matters, the liberal consensus): “Ted Cruz and Patrick Henry.” (Remember Ted Cruz?) And I got into the goofball public debate about who should be on the currency with “Hamilton and the Tenner.” 

Next up is 2016, and a certain founding father is starring on the Great White Way.


Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #10

The premise for this collection of about a decade of essays is here.

Today’s re-post is another piece from Boston Review, published in 2014. As I said in yesterday’s post, we’re accelerating now toward those dual crises in American civics that my essays somehow contemplated yet totally failed to predict: the two hottest of all topics, “Hamilton: An American Musical” and the presidency of Donald Trump.

I think subterranean interconnections between those two explosive phenomena are to be found deep within the themes of this collection of essays.

(Or, as Hank Snow put it, when he was writing about acceleration: “Ninety miles an hour down a dead-end street.”)

In the present — 2019 — Justice Roberts is being cast as the centrist swing vote on the Supreme Court. So this 2014 piece explores how Roberts has redefined American democracy in favor of great wealth and power by analyzing American democracy structurally, not historically. Once again, bad history, bad civics. And in this case bad law. Here it is, then: “What Does the ‘McCutcheon’ Decision Say about Democracy?”

Next, two quicker swipes, one at right-wing fake history, the other at false comparisons between Hamilton and Jackson, here.

Bad History: Essays Toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #9

The premise for this collection of a decade of essays is here.

Today I realized that the collection is about to start hurtling toward the two phenomena that, while they were both totally unpredictable, at least by me, when I was writing these essays, seemed to explode straight out of the stuff I was wrestling with and pushed my whole thing into its freakout climax.

Those twinned, explosive phenomena are: 1) “Hamilton: An American Musical”; and 2) the presidency of Donald Trump.

We’re getting there.

But not quite yet. Today’s post, from the blissful ignorance of 2013, takes a break from beating up on the liberal consensus and beats up instead on Grover Norquist’s distorted view of George Washington. Here it is: “Washington’s Birthday and Public Debt.”

Next up will be a post from ’14. As I said, we’re accelerating — toward the abyss.


Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #8

The premise for this collection of a decade of essays is here. Today’s re-post, from Boston Review, late 2012, is on liberalism’s misguided effort to adopt its own form of what’s long been known, in conservative circles, as originalism.

The immediate political context of the day involved passage of the Affordable Care Act, the Roberts court’s upholding its constitutionality, the Tea Party movement’s so-called “constitutional conservatism,” and left-liberal criticism of Obama, with direct reference to what were then new books: Drift, by Rachel Maddow; The Mendacity of Hope by Roger Hodge; Republic, Lost, by Lawrence Lessig; and Covenant of Liberty by Michael Patrick Leahy. The underlying history issue: modern, misleading projections on James Madison by smart thinkers across the political spectrum. (Only four years ago — wow. Again, seems like a long time.) Having spent so much time on Hamilton, this was my first foray into criticizing the anti-Hamilton forces, both liberal and conservative, who think there’s a founding-era antidote to Hamiltonianism in Madison-Jeffersonianism.

Here it is:  “Founding Fathers, Founding Villains.”

Next in the collection here.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #7

The premise for this collection of a decade of essays is here. Sheer historiographical nerdery this, #7, from 2012: how and why, after WWII, founding-history scholarship bailed on the political history of 18th-century class struggle and took up the intellectual history of 18th-century political ideas: “Douglass Adair and the Triumph of Founding Ideas over Founding Action” (wow, great title).

The next in the series is here.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #6

(The premise for this collection is here.) Here’s the blog post from 2011 in which I first realized that my broad-spectrum criticism of American founding history — from the rise of the postwar liberal consensus in the scholarly profession itself to the history-tourism industry to bestselling founding-father books to political speeches and so on — is really about a failed American civics. And that instead of blaming the people for supposedly not knowing anything, we should be blaming the intelligentsia that forever bemoans the people’s supposedly not knowing anything. I think this one may have especially weird resonances, post 2016: “The Constitution, the Citizens, and the Futility of Teaching Civics.”

Next in the series is here.

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #5

The premise for these posts is here. This is the fifth entry in the series: another long read from Boston Review, orginally published in 2010.

Here I think I’m making my first specific lob at liberal commentary itself — favored liberal modes of thought, really — for failing, in the wake of a rise in right-wing populism, to address the historical origins of what’s called liberalism and what’s called “populism” (a term so loaded now that I find it almost impossible to use clearly). Some of what’s in this essay will seem weird in light of how things have really developed — the focus on Sarah Palin, for one thing — and yet I think a lot of it may play, in debate over sources of the current crisis, anyway.

“Liberalism has long defined itself from a position of expertise and wisdom that it justifies as meritocracy, and for which it keeps reflexively congratulating itself.” To some, of course, the “paranoia” of a Chip Berlet or a Frank Rich may seem now to be fully realized.

Anyway, here it is: “Real Americans.

(Next item in the series: here.)

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #4

The premise for these posts is here. This is the fourth entry in the series: three briefer blog posts from 2010:

— On John Yoo, George W. Bush, and the painful history of presidential overreach (with reference as well to the case of one of the Guantanamo prisoners).

 On President Obama’s enthusiastic endorsement of some truly bad-history TV.

— And, very briefly, on Obama’s inexplicable description of the history of progressivism in Supreme Court decisions.

One thing I’m somewhat startled to see going on in the 2008-2010 essays is a quandary over President Obama as a constitutional scholar and “historian-in-chief”– I think I threw up my hands on that one pretty quick.

Also, since we’re talking ’08-’10, I can feel the presence of the financial and foreclosure crises, never referred to directly in these history essays and posts, yet thanks to the Tea Party and Occupy soon to get me into the big discussion of regressiveness in Alexander Hamilton’s founding-era finance policy that I’ve been involved in, on and off, ever since.

Funny to recall now that the Hamilton fetish was already well underway in Bush-Obama economic-policy circles — Henry Paulson, the Brookings Institution, Peter Orszag, etc. — when the musical wasn’t a gleam in anyone’s eye.

(Next item in the collection: here.)

Bad History: Essays toward the Crisis (2008-2018), #3

The premise for these posts is here. This is the third in the series: another longread, also originally published in Boston Review, at the end of that big year of ’08 (the trip will soon speed up, I promise).

This is “Constitutional Conventions,” on the abject failure of the National Constitution Center, which had recently opened. This was the most mainstream of mainstream history-tourism destinations, with a board staffed by professional historians and legal scholars, and man, talk about a toxic effect on public understanding of the nation’s origins. This kind of big institutional effort is one reason we don’t have a real civics. Ten years later, we can see the effects of that absence everywhere we look.

The essay also contains inchoate beginnings of the critique of the postwar U.S. history consensus that I mounted in the 2012 book Founding Finance (much of the historiography in the version linked above– references to Gordon Wood, Edmund Morgan, Jesse Lemisch — I ended up cutting from the version published in book form in Inventing American History, in ’09, by Boston Review and MIT Press).

(Next item is here.)