Patriots’ Day

As a New Englander, Patriots’ Day is a day I can’t help but notice.  The Sox play at 11:05 in the morning.  The Boston Marathon happens.  But as a Non-Mass and Non-Maine New Englander, it is not a day I celebrate.  I am fascinated by holidays like Patriots’ Day, though.  They add a lot of character.  As we become more and more homogenous, it’s nice to see real regional differences.

Mardi Gras has to be the most famous of these regional holidays.  I’d guess that Patriots’ Day is second because of the two major sporting events that are involved*.  But there are lots of these regional holidays.  For instance, there’s Casimir Pulaski Day in Illinois.  He was a revolutionary war hero.  I have no idea why Illinois lays claim to him.  Midsummer is celebrated in Minnesota.  That just goes to show that a lot of Scandinavians settled there.  Meck-Dec Day is celebrated in North Carolina.   This one’s kind of funny because they are celebrating the first declaration of independence, but historians can’t decide if it was really a declaration of independence or when it was written.  And there is Seward’s Day in Alaska, which is just wonderfully on the nose.

So, to all of my Massachusetts and Maine friends, enjoy your Patriots’ Day.  I hope the rain doesn’t ruin things for you.  And to everyone else, enjoy whatever special days you have that the rest of us don’t notice whenever they may happen.

*I haven’t forgotten about the bombing.  Patriots’ Day was a big deal before that, and I’m choosing to stay positive.


Jackie Robinson Day

April 15, 1947 was the day Jackie Robinson played his first Major League Baseball game.  For the past ten or so years, Major League Baseball has celebrated the date as Jackie Robinson Day.  It’s a nice day for baseball.  There are ceremonies before all the games.  All the players wear Jackie Robinson’s number, 42, as tribute and the jerseys are auctioned off to raise money for the Jackie Robinson Foundation.  The only problem I have with the day is that outside of baseball fans, I think most people are oblivious to it.

In popular culture and most history classes, Jackie Robinson is his own thing.  He is the man who broke baseball’s color barrier, but he isn’t mentioned along with Rosa Parks, Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King.  That’s really too bad.  This isn’t to take anything away from all of the other great civil rights leaders, but Jackie Robinson did something really special and really important.  He forced white America to deal with a black man as an equal in a way that no one had before.

Jackie Robinson was an undeniably great baseball player.  Of course there had been other blacks who were undeniably great in their fields before Robinson, but, this bears repeating, he was undeniably great at baseball.  Charlie Parker was an undeniably great musician and saxophone player.  Zora Neale Hurston was an undeniably great writer.  But these other fields were easy for white Americans to dismiss or marginalize.  Baseball, on the other hand, was America’s pastime.  And that is saying so much more than that baseball was the most popular sport in America.  Football is currently the most popular sport in America, but it doesn’t even come close to claiming America’s heart and soul like baseball did.  For a black man to play with white players in Major League Baseball, and be better than the white players, could not be marginalized or dismissed.  It had to be processed.

Naturally, that processing didn’t always go smoothly (I’m trying for understatement of the century there).  By being better than white people at something so central to America threatened many people.  The fact that Robinson handled everything that was thrown at him with dignity, pride and grace enhanced the importance of his achievement.  He literally converted hard core racists.  He didn’t just make white people feel guilty, he forced white people to recognize the humanity in black people.  That is an amazing achievement.

On this, and future, Jackie Robinson Days, I hope people outside of baseball remember Jackie Robinson’s legacy.  He used his incredible athleticism to become a true hero.  He is as responsible as anyone for the progress we have made.  I hope people can look to his example to continue that progress in the future.

My Presidents

Today is Presidents Day.  I want to do something a little different.  Rather than ranking the presidents or trying to find some historical quirk to talk about, I want to talk about my presidents.  I have been alive during seven administrations.  I want born during Ford and am in the middle of Obama.  It will be another generation or two before history can do a good job with these men (it’s really too bad they are all men), but it may be interesting to look at the impressions they have made.

In many ways Gerald Ford is the ultimate placeholder president.  Since I was born during his time in office and he only had one abbreviated term, I obviously don’t remember his presidency.  He served from 1974-1977.  That’s not a lot of time to get things done.  His most famous legacy is pardoning Nixon.  That is not a good thing, although it is completely understandable.  Less famously, he did appoint John Paul Stevens to the Supreme Court.  That is a good thing.  Given that he came into an impossible situation, I’d say I have an overall favorable opinion of him.

The very first political memory I have involves Jimmy Carter.  When I was in kindergarten, Jimmy Carter was running for reelection.  My parents are very political, but didn’t feel that the evening news was appropriate for little kids.  So I knew almost nothing about what was going on.  My teacher had an election in our class.  We could choose between Jimmy Carter, John B. Anderson and Ronald Reagan.  I voted for Anderson.  I don’t know if it was the white hair or the glasses, but he looked like the guy for me.  Of course, Reagan won easily.  I got home and told my mom about our election.  She said I should have voted for Carter.  Even if I had a real vote, it wouldn’t have helped Carter very much.  I’m not sure there has ever been a president with worse luck.  Perhaps Andrew Johnson had worse luck, but it’s close.  He took over a country still reeling from Watergate.  He had to deal with an oil shortage and energy crisis.  And he had the Iran hostage crisis.  He spent his entire four years dealing with messes that weren’t his fault.  He is one of the only politicians that I really believe is honest.  Unfortunately, that’s not enough.  He was an ineffective president.  Of course, sadly enough, that still puts him firmly in the top half of my presidents.

Ronald Reagan was also part of my first political memory since he is the one who beat Carter.  Honestly, I’m completely baffled by his reputation.  As far as I can tell, Reagan’s presidency was an unmitigated disaster.  The one thing that might have mitigated it was the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor to the Supreme Court.  She was the first woman to serve on the high court and that was great.  Unfortunately, he also appointed Scalia, so his judicial appointments are kind of a wash.  He completely blew up any semblance of sound fiscal policy.  Iran Contra was blatantly illegal.  And if he really didn’t know about it, it just shows that he was grossly incompetent.  He gets a lot of credit for the end of the Cold War, but it’s not like Gorbachev tore down that wall because Reagan asked nicely.  The Soviet Union was collapsing under its own weight at that point.  Reagan just happened to be there (actually Bush happened to be there, but for whatever reason Reagan gets all the credit).  And then there was the War on Drugs.  We’re still paying for this.  Try as I might, other than Sandra Day O’Connor, I can’t come up with a single nice thing to say about him.

I have completely mixed feelings about George Bush.  He showed a willingness to compromise (it was forced compromise, but he did compromise).  He raised taxes because he had to do something to try to fix Reagan’s mistakes.  He did get Hussein out of Kuwait.  And he implemented a successful cap and trade system to stop acid rain.  On the other hand, he appointed Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court.  Those good things are legitimate goods, but Clarence Thomas has gone a long way towards setting civil rights and feminism back fifty years.

Bill Clinton holds the distinction of being elected in the first presidential election that I was allowed to vote in.  It was 1996 when he beat Dole for his second term.  Clinton clearly did more good than bad.  FMLA was big.  As was appointing Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the Supreme Court.  He balanced the federal budget.  He did a decent job of handling all of the crisis that developed after the fall of the Soviet Union.  But he did make some big mistakes.  The Defense of Marriage act was a big mistake.  I loved his desire to allow gays in the military, but Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell was a bad result from a bad implementation.  And then there were all of the personal scandals.  I often wonder how a guy who is so smart can be so stupid.  Everyone knew the Republicans were looking for anything they could find to make his life difficult, and he kept handing them things.  But, like I said, there was clearly more good than bad.

What can I say about George W. Bush that hasn’t already been said?  He reacted badly to the two biggest non-economic crisis of his administration, 9/11 and Katrina.  He destroyed the economy.  He started a war of aggression.  He tortured people.  He appointed Alito and Roberts to the Supreme Court.  He refused to deal with climate change.  But I still have a lot more good to say about Bush than Reagan.  He legitimately helped Africa deal with its AIDS crisis.  His attempt to deal with immigration really wasn’t bad.  He was a lame duck by the time of the recession, and he had a lot to do with causing the recession, but he did pass TARP.  He created the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  And he did have a pretty diverse cabinet, it’s just too bad they were also pretty incompetent.  Bush is sort of the anti-Clinton.  Clinton made some big mistakes, but did more good than bad.  Bush did some good things, but did more bad than good.

Finally, we have my current president, Barak Obama.  It’s way too early to tell, but overall I think he’s doing a fine job.  First of all, in case you hadn’t noticed, he’s black.  It is hard to overstate how big a deal, in a good way, that is.  He appointed Sotomayor and Kagan to the Supreme Court and they seem to be doing well.  He passed the Affordable Care Act, which is great.  He has restored America’s reputation in the world.  He is serious about climate change.  I am disappointed that he didn’t spend some of his initial political capital on climate change, especially when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.  And I would have liked some more substantive changes after the Great Recession.  But, overall, I think he is the best of my presidents.

So, those are my impressions.  I’m not a professional historian, just an interested observer.  But I do think these impressions are fair.

The Great Emancipator

Today is February 12th, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, so it seems appropriate to say a little something about him.  But, I don’t really have anything to say that hasn’t already been said a million times before.  So, I’m going to take a different tack and use Lincoln’s presidency as a jumping off point for a more general topic, historical reductionism.

Reductionism is a common practice in science and, with the success of science, has spread to the humanities.  A simple example of reductionism is saying that there is no “end of the rainbow” since a rainbow is merely an illusion caused by moisture refracting light.  By doing this, we are reducing a phenomenon, the rainbow, into its lower level components, light and moisture.  Sometimes reductionism makes sense.  If you want to build a rainbow maker, knowing what makes a rainbow is vital.  Sometimes reductionism completely misses the point.  If one were to write a poem because the beauty of a rainbow inspired her and her friend were to point out that the rainbow doesn’t really exist, it’s just light and water, it is the poet who is correct.

When it comes to historical reductionism, there are several flavors.  But they all try to say that the real reason for historic events is something other than the commonly accepted reason.  Now we can get back to Lincoln.  The commonly accepted reason for the Civil War is slavery.  This actually reminds me of The Simpsons where Apu is taking the US citizenship test and there is a question about the cause of the Civil War.  Apu starts a very long answer about all of the many causes and the proctor interrupts him and says, “Just say slavery.”  Lincoln was on record before being elected President that he was anti-slavery.  The reason the southern states revolted when he was elected was because they were afraid he would abolish slavery.  He did abolish slavery.  Lincoln thought the war was about slavery.  That is why he said to Harriett Beecher Stowe, “So, you’re the little lady who started this war.”*  For the historical reductionists, however, slavery is not the right answer.

The most famous faction of historical reductionists are the economic historians.  They believe that everything that happens happens for economic reasons.  The Civil War was actually about trade with England and tariffs.  Then, there are the Marxist historians** who believe that everything that happens is a result of class struggle.  They’ll tell us that the concentration of wealth lead to the Civil War.  There are Freudians who will tell us that Lincoln’s repressed homosexuality was really responsible.  There are conspiracy theorists who will say that the Masons were responsible (or maybe the Jews or aliens, conspiracy theorists can get pretty weird).  The point is all of these groups look past the glaringly obvious to find a hidden reason.

I believe there are several reasons for historical reductionism.  One reason is that history is complicated.  For the non-specialist, a lot of the details are not included.  Of course the Civil War had many different causes.  But, if a regular high school history class covered all of them, they would never even get to the Emancipation Proclamation before the school year ended.  When people later find out that they were presented with a simplified version of history, they feel lied to and look for the truth.  Another reason is people have agendas.  People who fly the Confederate flag would feel a bit awkward saying they still believe they should be allowed to own slaves, so they come up with ways of justifying the war without slavery.  It was about states’ rights or something.  And, I also think people engage in reductionism because it makes them feel smart.  They know something the rest of us don’t.

The main reason I so dislike historical reductionism is that I believe that history’s primary purpose is providing us with a narrative.  Of course that narrative should be based in actual fact, but it is the story in history that matters.  Abraham Lincoln’s greatest achievement was ending slavery in the United States of America.  Someone who says that Lincoln was fighting over tariffs and the slavery thing was just a side effect diminishes Lincoln’s legacy and, in doing so, diminishes our story.  Given all of the evidence that shows the war was about slavery, let us keep that story intact.

*I really wish people would stop using Uncle Tom as an insult.  The book opens with Uncle Tom helping slaves escape their master and ends with him being beaten to death for standing up to his master.  No one is less of an Uncle Tom than Uncle Tom.

**It’s really too bad that none of the Marxist ideologues seem to have any of Marx’s insight.