Can The Comment

Like many academics, I’ve spent many hours this summer in conference rooms with fluorescent lighting and insufficient air conditioning. For the most part, this has been a real pleasure—after a year of teaching, it is always invigorating to hear others present their research and engage in fruitful conversations. But one part of the experience always fills me with dread: the comment. Continue reading

Digital History in the Surveillance State

nsahqThree days ago, the Washington Post reported the results of an investigation into a large collection of files provided by Edward Snowden. Reviewing 160,000 intercepted electronic conversations and 8,000 other documents, which Snowden apparently accessed on NSA servers after that agency collected them, the Post’s reporters found that nearly half of them contained information pertaining to U.S. citizens. Overall, the article says, the sample showed that the government scooped up information on nine bystanders (as it were) for every “targeted” individual under electronic surveillance. On that basis, the reporters speculate that the NSA may have collected information on as many as 800,000 non-target individuals in 2013.

I don’t intend to comment here on the legality, ethics, or wisdom of the NSA’s programs or the Snowden leaks. But I do think this report is fascinating and important. And I think it’s worth considering from the standpoint of digital history.

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The Details Matter: On Ta-Nehisi Coates and Reparations

The attention Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay on reparations has received is remarkable and welcome. But like most of the folks he’s directly appealing to—educated, mainstream liberals who read The Atlantic—I approached his essay skeptically, assuming reparations was an impractical, even irresponsible way to redress the crimes of slavery and the way its legacy, racism, continues to disadvantage all African Americans today. But by the end of it, I was convinced. A major reason why is because by reparations Coates, or at least the leading advocates for reparations he quotes in approval, aren’t arguing for simple payouts to African Americans. Coates knows too well that, lacking a more rigorous understanding of our nation’s history with slavery, and the continuing problems of institutionalized racism, cash payouts risk becoming little more than “hush-money.” Continue reading

Taking Print from Print Culture & Leaving the Public Sphere Behind

Or how to make a causal argument about print, media, and communication in the eighteenth century

This post began as a brief response to Tom’s recent piece on the public sphere and to the conversation it generated in the comments section. As it turns out, brevity is not my strong suit, and I’ve got a few bones to pick. So all cards on the table: I’m more than a little invested in the importance of communication; I have a hard time watching print be stripped of its mechanistic or causal role; and I don’t believe we can possibly ever argue that changes in media didn’t cause social and political change.[1] Continue reading

Triggers in the Past

Over the past few weeks, a discussion about trigger warnings has percolated across the blogosphere. Educators, op-ed columnists, and pundits have debated the use of these warnings about potentially upsetting content on syllabi or in the classroom (and leave it to the Chronicle to publish a disdainful mockery of the concept). As I’ve developed my courses, both at the survey and upper levels, I have confronted some of these same questions about the past: Is there anything in history from which we should shield our students? Or, to put it more broadly, how should we approach material that some of our students may find offensive, hurtful, or painful?

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Notes on Thompson, Arendt, and Revolutionary Violence

In the first episode of HBO’s John Adams miniseries there’s a memorable scene (NB: it includes nudity) in which Adams is present at the tarring and feathering of a customs officer at Boston harbour. The purpose of the scene was to frame Adams as an outsider whose firm principles prevent him from ever being an organic leader of the American people—a theme that runs throughout the series. But it also does something else, which is to acknowledge early on that the American Revolution was an affair of violence. In a particularly poignant moment of the scene (2.02-2.07 in the clip), the director even chose to portray slaves in chains, looking on silently at the anger of the American mob. That is, he chose to remind us that violence in colonial and revolutionary America wasn’t just momentary and spectacular, but also pervasive and structural.[1] Continue reading

A Rumination on “Perhaps”: Demos, Editing, and First Book Projects

unredeemed captiveConfession: I hated John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive when I read it in graduate school. So much so that whenever my future roommate and I became frustrated by the vagaries of our PhD experience, we’d lapse into extended wailing cries of “EUNICE!” that stretched across apartments, parking lots, and doubtless a library lobby or two. I’m not sure why it seemed so funny to us, but then, comprehensive exams do strange things to graduate students’ psyches. Continue reading

Is Blogging Scholarship? Reflections on the OAH Panel

On Sunday, at the 2014 OAH Annual Meeting, I was part of a roundtable discussion entitled “Is Blogging Scholarship?” Several other participants have posted their thoughts on the subject; there was also a great deal of live-tweeting, and our own Joe Adelman has also joined (and developed!) the conversation. The discussion itself was fantastic, and was videotaped for later broadcasting. But in reflecting on the panel, I’ve found there are some points I wish to re-emphasize, and some problems I have with the way the entire roundtable was framed. Continue reading

Sinews of Power and Those Power Forgot

A Call to the Most Bland and Boring Pieces of Paper You’ve Ever Skipped Over in the Archives

VouchersReceipts

Vouchers! Receipts! Bills of exchange!

The paperwork of empire, particularly that of credit and finance, is probably not what gets most of us up in the morning. In the archives, we skip over the dull sections of the finding aids—warrants, no thanks!—and instead dive into correspondence and maps and bound volumes and clippings. The more adventurous of us might even call up account books—but those individual receipts? They’re lucky if we ever take them out of the box.

And why would we? Unless we live in a world of down-and-dirty finance or economics or material culture, they seem not only besides the point, but, even more, incredibly hollow. What do we get from reading a quick statement that someone was eventually paid for delivering a barrel of pickled cabbage in 1760? Especially when we can read in frantic detail the correspondence about how that barrel fell into the Mohawk River, burst open, got hauled back onto a bateau, arrived at Fort Stanwix, was re-opened, reeked, was declared unfit for consumption, continued to reek, was declared fit for consumption, reeked some more, ordered northward to Oswego, reeked still, and finally was delivered to a garrison comprised mostly of Germans who (our correspondents assumed) would think they’d been gifted sauerkraut.[1]

It’s the correspondence, we might argue, that gives us actors and action. In it, even a barrel—brown, wooden, boring—becomes something dynamic.

But who delivered that barrel? How long did it take him? Where did he begin his trip? Was he a merchant contractor, a militia man, a professional sled driver? And what did he get out of a journey, in the dead of winter, through the type of paralyzing cold you can only feel in upstate New York, with barrels of spoiled pickled cabbage?

Exceedingly important questions like these suddenly make the boring, bland, bureaucratic paperwork appear just a little (a very little?) more interesting. Continue reading

Was the American Revolution a Civil War?

William Ranney, Battle of Cowpens, 1845, oil, South Carolina State House“Every great revolution is a civil war,” as David Armitage has recently remarked. That insight could change the way we think about the American Revolution. Contemporaries understood it that way—or at least, they did at first. David Ramsay, the first patriot historian of the war, held that the Revolution was “originally a civil war in the estimation of both parties.” Mercy Otis Warren wrote that the fires of civil war were kindled as early as the Boston massacre. But in the narratives of these historians, the moment the United States declared independence was the moment the conflict stopped being a civil war. It was no longer being fought within a single imperial polity. Now it was a war between two nations.[1] Continue reading