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This class was the first I’ve ever taken that focused exclusively on popular politics rather than the more commonly studied history of the country’s elites. Someone in class summed it up well when they said that this class was all about the kinds of topics that usually have one or two class periods devoted to them in a normal class, or take up one section of a textbook. I definitely think it is a good thing that there seems to be a shift today in academia toward doing more popular history. The elite figures we typically hear about are the ones generally making decisions and holding power, and so obviously they will always be important to study. However, it is difficult as a historian to claim to truly know an era if you do not have some idea of how non-elites such as minorities, women, and the working class expressed themselves politically.
What is also exciting about the field of popular history is how much it will be able to grow in the coming years due to advances in technology. People attempting to study popular politics today are quite limited in their access to firsthand accounts from non-elites. However, imagine somebody studying our current time period fifty years from now. They will likely have access to huge archives of social media and Internet activity. Imagine the use of looking back on old facebook and twitter posts (a thought that admittedly I’m sure scares a lot of us now) as a historian. On these sites, users from all walks of life frequently post about their political views and feelings on current events. With that in mind, it seems that the field of popular history has nowhere to go but up.
I will do my best to not divulge too much of the plot of the movie. I simply plan on explaining what the movie adds to the historical representation of slavery, and what it might tell about how slaves contributed to political speech in the mid-nineteenth century.
12 Years a Slave is not a cathartic film. Those who attend expecting a sense of closure on their feelings towards slavery or its history in the United States will be disappointed. There is no allegory to modern America, nor is it a Marxist critique of capitalism. Its goal is to move today’s depictions of slavery away from the “feel-good” category of movies, such as Lincoln, Amistad, or Glory (and arguably Django Unchained), and make us reflect critically and realistically on the facets of slavery. Interestingly, it is largely a British film, with British actors (including Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup) in leading roles and a British director (Steve McQueen- and no, not “The Cooler King”). While the British themselves have a unique history with slavery and abolition, this film falls squarely within the American realm.
The script, in contrast to the dramatizations of many nineteenth-century stories, clings closely to Northup’s memoir released in 1855. Fourteen years earlier, he was kidnapped in a deceptive business deal in New York and was sold under the name ‘Platt’ in New Orleans. Northup’s peculiar situation in his enslavement gave him unique advantages compared to other slaves, such as literacy, musical talents, and a knowledge of the outside world. Despite these advantages, he still faced a brutal enslavement in Louisiana for twelve years. Any attempt he made to write a letter, let alone send it northward, could have fatal consequences if he was caught. His main weapon, however, was his intelligence. Northup knew how to utilize potential advocates who would give him a chance at freedom; his strongest political speech spoke through their actions. However, very few other enslaved peoples had the ability to appeal for outside assistance in their plight. Northup was an exceptional case in this system.
12 Years a Slave is not a popcorn flick. There’s no traditional chronological structure, or really a climax, to mark the progress of the film. Despite the remarkable dialogue and cinematography, my movie-going self was dissatisfied. However, I later realized that that was the point. The film is supposed to alter how slavery is depicted modernly. While the slavery debate in Congress may have had drama, excitement, and a palpable climax (note Lincoln), the lives of most enslaved people did not. McQueen aims not to entertain, but to provide a re-education of what slavery really was in the cotton fields of the Deep South. He removes its representation from the halls of power and puts it at the ground level- an idea that the members of this class have learned to appreciate.
From Shade and Brown’s articles, it seems that until recently the common man and the working class at large has been neglected by both the political elites and historians of the last 50 years. Political leaders preferred that the citizenry remain uninformed and the historians preferred to look at the political leaders as representatives for the citizenry. I see a connection here. As Brown points out, the commercial sector has become the most powerful factor in molding political and social opinions. Perhaps the newest political history is a way to better understand the “pseudomodern” present by trying to understand the significance of the disconnect between the populace and decision makers. The emphasis here is on what the people do when their representatives aren’t asking for their opinions.
I felt that Brown’s article provided an excellent end to our discussions on early American politics. It sobers us up to remind us that we aren’t so different from the citizens of yesterday and we still grapple with similar problems in a new world. In conjunction with his argument, I liked the question posed by Michael, which was “Are we Davidson students informed/critically minded to be able to choose public officials wisely?” There are many things that I can excel at where students of other schools couldn’t because of Davidson’s curriculum. However, I don’t believe most of us are truly informed enough because politics are so broad and complex. The same goes for people back in the day. They had their politicians to simplify their options the way the commercial media has done for us.
Just as we began talking about race and gender near the end of the course, Shade talks about how it should figure into the newest political history near the end of his article. The new political history had emphasized ordinary politics in these narratives. With the newest histories being written from the perspective of the disenfranchised people, we can better understand how race and gender factor into politics today.
Both Shade and Brown write their pieces in a way that demonstrates the growing complexity of both American history and politics – on through charting the development of American political history and the other through the analysis of “informed citizenry” in the United States. While I agree with my colleagues that Shade’s “Déjà Vu All Over Again” was undoubtedly dense, I think it sheds important light on the development of American political histories and how a “New New Political History…provides hope for the revitalization of American political history (404).” While arguing that the newest form of political history emphasizes “culture” and is largely devoid of any “quantification of their analyses,” Shade illustrates this newest political history also incorporates previous political histories (400-401). Through his analysis of several works contained in Beyond the Founders, Shade makes clear that the newest political history is not a definitive departure from the traditional or even the first New Political History. Rather, it takes some of the strategies employed by the previous histories – for example, Pasley’s traditional and neo-Progressive characteristics in his work – to emphasize different perspectives of a similar historical narrative (397). I think that Shade sees this amalgamation of qualities from earlier political histories as the aforementioned “hope” he sees for the future of American political history.
In reading Shade, I also agree with Michael that Shade’s commentary in many ways reflects what we have done throughout this course. While beginning the class with a very traditional view of political history, we have become cognizant of political history even in the “public sphere,” a quality Shade states is shared by almost all the newest political historians (398). In the past few weeks as we have incorporated religious history, women’s history, and the history of black Americans, we have crafted ourselves into New New Political Historians and explored the nuances American politics for different members of society, as well as the way these nuances limited or shaped political voices.
I also found Brown’s “Looking Backward” and engaging piece of scholarship as I reflect on this semester. Most interesting was his argument about the development of the “commercial sector” as the “most powerful educator and molder of informed citizenry” in the United States (203). I thought his argument about t the commercial sector becoming a “crude demagoguery” was most effective because it lifted some of his criticism off of American citizens and onto government officials. He claims that there is a fear that government officials have become “too responsive” to the messages conveyed by the commercial sector as opposed to moral institutions like the church (204). Thus, public officials are reinforcing the creation of an uninformed populace by succumbing to its uninformed demands. One criticism I have of Brown is that he finds that “comparisons across time” of an informed citizenry “cannot be definitive” (202). While I comprehend his argument, he concludes that throughout American history, there has not been a monolithic definition of an “informed citizenry” (205). In order to convincingly demonstrate this claim, Brown would have had to embark on some form of comparison of interpretations – much like Shade did in outlining American political history – of an informed citizenry in American history. It seems contradictory that instead, Brown casts doubt on the very grounds upon which he establishes his argument. With this in mind, Brown ultimately writes a very powerful and pertinent piece that calls into question the current state of American informed citizenry and challenges the populace to change political culture.
Planet Money, one of my favorite NPR productions, is a weekly podcast which looks at some of today’s economic issues. In one episode, they decided to figure out some of the policies on which economists from across the political spectrum tend to agree. Here’s the link to the blog post about it: http://www.npr.org/2012/10/17/163104599/planet-moneys-fake-presidential-candidate They even made a fake candidate to advocate these ideas, and a fake political ad. We do not see many of the positions that they advocate in mainstream politics, from either the Democrats or the Republicans, because they tend to be highly unpopular. Yet, they are the solutions on which economic experts agree.
In Brown’s “Epilogue,” he asks several important questions, which center around the issue of an educated population, informed enough to make important policy decisions to guide the nation. The most interesting question, centers around “the democratic idea that citizens informed on the merits of a particular issue should organize to elect officials to do their bidding, not to serve as guides and guardians” (206). Though I believe that idea to be a great ideal for society to aim for–the governance by bureaucrats who only do the bidding of the electorate–I also believe it to be an implausible goal. Elected officials often have to make decisions that they were not elected to make; not only that, but those officials rely on experts who spend their careers studying the issues in question. Can we really expect the citizenry of this nation to be educated and informed enough to make the decision, in aggregate, for the official? Are not they swayed, as the official is, by the testimony of experts?
Furthermore, I agree with Brown that talk radio, television and the hegemony of the commercial sector obfuscate the decisions from which the electorate chooses. Middle and working classes tend to use elites as heuristics for their decision making, agreeing with those who resonate with them most deeply, often on an instinctual level. As much as they might claim that they believe in certain policy decisions, they are most likely regurgitating an opinion foisted upon them by their favorite self-described comedian (read Rush Limbaugh). The Planet Money policy proposals will mostly never be achieved, because right and left wing ideologues are too busy criticizing and nit picking speeches, or trying to decide who won a presidential debate. The media is part of the commercial sector, and they are, as Brown argues, both serving and shaping consumer desires. Most politically conscious citizens do not want to discuss policy, they just want to be upset about what the other side did.
In the end, 300 million people informed well enough to make good policy decisions is not a feasible goal. Elites have always made and will always continue to control policy. As Brown concludes, and I agree, people must look for those “sterling qualities” of “learning, judgment and integrity” in their public officials, and hope that those officials can discern the best policy choices.
Alex argues that the media limits the electorate’s ability to become educated and informed on political issues. Unfortunately, I believe that this influence is an inevitable outcome of the commercial sector’s desire to influence and control the populace. Yet, we would likely fare no better under a more socialist system, since state controlled media doesn’t seem to work any better at informing people. Perhaps NPR is the model for the future, an entity funded mostly by the donations of the people. In the spirit of our nation, media by the people, for the people.
In “Epilogue” by Richard D. Brown, he examines the necessity and importance of an informed citizenry. He transitions between expressing sentiments that the US is destined for a future where the current, ignorant generation will ruin the country and the idea that the people in our society are actually prepared to run the country, despite our cynical notions of modern intellectual America. It is interesting to see the transformation his paper undergoes in regards to quotations (heavy in the beginning) and conclusiveness (not so much at the end).
He begins with they typical condemnation of modern America as a “Nation of Nitwits”, harnessing a common bleak perception of the country’s future in the hands of our youth who apparently are scholastically inferior to their predecessors. He touts a “cultural illiteracy” as the potential downfall of the nation as there will be no one to administer the country and its values if they do not have the adequate the education to prepare them for such a role. Brown then turns to the idea that “American workers are in the world’s upper echelon for productivity” which he ascertains must count for something in a world where time is money and the measuring stick for nations is GDP not happiness or any other type of immaterial determinant. At this point, his credibility wanes as he uses sweeping phrases such as, “most people recognize that American society…” Which type of people is he referencing? Is he going for an international perspective or is he just focusing on the self-awareness of Americans? I am not a fan of ambiguous writing among historians especially when it is a means for an argument.
There seems to be a bit of a contradiction in his argumentation when he claims that Americans during America’s early republic were “comparatively well informed because they read newspapers and books and paid closer attention to political contests than they do.” He asserts that people at this golden age prioritized academic pursuit and knowledgeable pursuits in favor of the frivolities that modern Americans indulge in. He later claims that the people in that age however were often manipulated by politicians who thought “people want information and are constantly liable to be misled.” It is a reversal from his previous theory that Americans centuries ago were sufficiently educated to make decisions for the government and posterity. Apparently, politicians were pretty “dirty” figures, as he labels them, centuries ago as well.
This week Michael wrote about how the “talking heads” of society are put on a pedestal for the common man in contrast to the early America. I agree that the concept of individual common citizens making up their mind without the intervention of a politician would be liberating. The need for a sovereign electorate free from the entrapments of modern media and what Brown mentions as “talk radio” inhibit the populace’s ability to educate themselves and form their own opinions without interference from an outside source. The modern world does pose many distractions which may factor into Brown’s fear of the future.
Richard D. Brown’s “Epilogue-Looking Backward: The Idea of an Informed Citizenry at the end of the Twentieth Century” raises some very interesting points as to how Americans view their political leaders. “The fact that politicians, likes used car salesmen are often ranked at the bottom of the public’s hierarchy of trust and respect suggests that the restoration of deference may be fanciful.” Where are the characters such as Washington, Hamilton, and Franklin who are the hallmarks of American prosperity in the society of today? Well, as Brown puts in his epilogue, they don’t exist because the American public has created a society that values the talking head figures of the world and does not seek the unbiased truth on a matter. Where are the citizens who went out of their way to promote the voice of the people whether that be in the streets or the pub? Well the American society has invested so much on an intellectual/political few that the common man has been so mislead by the said talking heads that they cannot inform their own opinion. Now while this little game of question and answer I have picked up in Brown’s epilogue seems to speak down to the state of America today he on page 205 draws his points on the lack of citizen role in politics to the original concept of America. The common man shouldn’t be allowed to make/dictate society because they simply are too inferior to grasp concepts necessary for success.
The framers of America following the American Revolution recognized how easy the common man could be manipulated and thus established political boundaries (like the Electoral College) to keep this common man from disturbing the flow of the U.S. “Citizens should be sufficiently informed and critically minded to be able to choose public officials wisely.” So I am going to now pose a question, are we Davidson students informed/critically minded enough to choose our public officials? Personally despite the high view I have for myself and my education I honestly believe that there are issues I have such a lack of knowledge of, that my voting seems like a detriment to American society. Sadly, this view is shared by many classmates as we talked about this a few weeks ago. I certainly could become versed to choose public officials wisely but that would mean that I would have to take time out of my busy day to look up details of a candidate. But where would my first trip to figure out these politicians? The same talking heads that Brown says are hurting political understanding due to their bias. Why? Well, because it is easier to find information that way. It is time for individuals to no longer take the bias when it comes to political action and search for the truth of issues that matter. We as a society have become so warped by an idea of media that originality is a difficult thing to come by. We must being promoting individuals who have “taken the time to become informed and encourages private citizens to be informed as well. The call to action has been made, are we the soon to be new leaders in a political society ready to make the call?
I found Shade’s commentary at the end of Beyond the Founders intriguing for a variety of reasons. As AJ mentioned, it was certainly difficult to wade through at first, but I think that noting progress of the historical tradition moving from focusing around only a select group of leaders, to political parties, towards the everyday experiences of common people depicts an interesting series developments in the field of history and reiterates in many ways what our class sought to achieve this semester. The goal of engaging with popular politics, outside of official institutions of political authority, has become the focus of modern research in the field of history and Shade places it into a longer narrative of progress that has sought to achieve a more complete and accurate portrayal of history. A few questions that came to mind when I thought about these developments, namely how with this change in focus affect the memory of these events? Another was that if this is part of a larger process, what is the next step, what else could be better analyzed and what perspectives are we overlooking as historians? And most importantly, what are we going to name that next step, New New New Political History? (I jest, but a little creativity wouldn’t hurt, would it?) I don’t have answers to these questions, but I think they’re important to keep in mind as we write and research.
Regarding the other article on the informed citizenry, the thing that immediately popped into my head was the opening from the Newsroom (which I hopefully succeeded in attaching). While I think that Brown’s article raised a number of fair points on the importance of an informed citizenry and modern concerns of its decline, his analysis of such concerns as a historical phenomenon connect it Shade’s commentary quite well. Specifically, that while fears and shortcomings may be focused upon, a willingness to be critical of oneself is important in progressing towards a more idealized version of your goal, be it an accurate historical representation or a informed citizenry.
I think Ben’s last post and his points in class about “shaping” memory was a good transition into William Shade’s, “Commentary,” at the end of Beyond The Founders. Ben suggested that Douglass, as an outsider and through pen, was trying to shape and mend the memory of the Civil War. After the war, the history written about it was up in the air for the taking. As we read, Douglass viewed this as an opportunity to “never forget” what he believed was the main memories of the Civil War and Reconstruction. This opportunity and effort to shape and restore history on behalf of Douglass provides us with a good introduction into Shade’s comments on the types of histories, the historians themselves, and an insight into the newest political history wave showed throughout Beyond The Founders clippings of new approaches towards the political history of the Early Republic.
I began to read this commentary and was a little side-tracked by what Shade was talking about with these types of political history being thrown around. As a newcomer to this field as of recently, this information and conversation was foreign to me but by the end of this short commentary I began to understand why it is something of importance and deserves discussion. I did not know about the worry traditional historians have regarding the depleting field of political history, so I found it rather interesting that current historians and those of old are hoping and relying on the newest political historians to salvaged and restore political history. Shade discussions the differences in scholarship on political history from those deemed traditionalists, New Political Historians, and those recently labeled the New New Political Historians which leads into his comments on their subtle variances in language and methods of inquiry. As he delves into the newest political history being published he states, “Right now there is not enough published work to talk about a school of political history, but there is a feeling that something is going on” (394). Immediately, my focus was on what this feeling was and what were the newest historians doing that coined them “agents of change.”
As I continued to read, Shade was claiming that the new generation of political historians were writing and confronting the history of the early republic using different language and variants of topics and methods to study than the New Political Historians did forty years ago. From this I wanted to ask questions regarding why most of the literature identified from the newest political historians is on the early republic before 1820? Also, why these new historians returned to strikingly traditional methods in their analysis of early republic politics? Beyond The Founders represents quite different ways of doing history, but the excitement for the new studies for political historians is refreshing for historians of the past and present and also those like me who are newcomers. Shade left us with a promising notion as he states, “Above all, the energy and engagement of the newest political historians represented in this book provides hope for the revitalization of American political history” (404). As a history major, the ways in which these new historians are restoring old history and revitalizing the field seems pretty cool. I wonder what reasons these new historians have for going back to early republic politics and shining new light on old methods yet new variants in topics and interpretations. I guess we will find out.