The 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones’s account of U.S. history centered on the effects of slavery, has caught the public imagination. Some call it truth at last. Others call it anti-American and introduce bills to forbid its use in schools. For lawmakers to decide historical fact makes as much sense as for churchmen to inform Galileo the sun goes around the earth.
History, like science, pursues knowledge by an established process of uncovering, evaluating, and analyzing evidence. Interpretation goes beyond raw facts. Viewing the past through an unaccustomed lens broadens our understanding. New questions, newfound evidence, and fresh perspectives make it a never-ending process.
Whether a primary goal of the American Revolution was to preserve slavery, as Hannah-Jones asserts, is a question of fact, currently contested. Might a teacher use it to introduce historical method, from key documents to a final open-ended debate? PRO: A British jurist ruled in 1772 that a slave brought to England could not be held against his will, making colonial slaveholders fear abolition. CON: The 1772 ruling applied only to Britain; slavery remained entrenched in British-owned Jamaica and Trinidad. PRO: Governor Dunmore of Virginia in late 1775 promised freedom to any slave who fought to put down the rebellion. Many did. CON: Some colonial regiments also promised freedom to all who joined their cause. Dunmore’s promise, designed to harm rebel plantation-owners, did not extend to slaves held by Loyalists.
Image: Elleanor Eldridge, Continental Army foot soldiers. An estimated 20,000 African Americans joined the British army; about 9,000, including Eldridge’s father, joined the revolutionaries.
I wish Jennifer would come back to work.
Children can have imaginary friends. Why can’t grownups? Not a friend in my case (I’m blessed with real ones), but the assistant I crave when personal business gets messy: billing errors to correct, records out of whack, phone calls on endless hold, websites that malfunction. If it starts to overwhelm, I sometimes conjure up Jennifer to give me a break. My alter ego slogs through the pile with mechanical detachment. She doesn’t relish the tasks but hey, it’s a job. When Jennifer is done, I come back ready to face the world again.
Much we do now with push buttons and keyboards once involved interacting with humans, from the switchboard operator to the kid who pumped my gas. I don’t mean to romanticize the old way, which rested on low-wage labor. For routine, standardized transactions, the shift has brought us speed, efficiency, economies of scale, and nowadays the safety of social distancing. When matters get more complicated and live help is hard to find, I’d prefer a personal assistant take over.
A couple of Novembers ago I wrote how things kept breaking. Does more go wrong as the days get darker, or does darkness make frustrations feel more pervasive? This year even Jennifer doesn’t want to come back to work. Imaginary characters, like the rest of us, may have a will of their own.
The first very black faces I remember seeing were on the street corners of Morgantown, West Virginia, when I was very young. One day they disappeared. My mother explained the men were still present, going home from work, but they looked and dressed like everyone else after showers were installed at the coal mines.
I wouldn’t dress as an old-time coal miner for Halloween. Even a blackened face that isn’t blackface carries too much baggage. Nor would I play on other people’s suffering as a refugee, terrorist, prisoner, or Nazi; or an ethnic or marginalized group not my own; or what I know someone else to hold as sacred.
Most Halloween costumes of my childhood were homemade and represented not individuals but generics: witch, pirate, cowboy, Indian, princess, Gypsy, lion, ghost. In later years I learned that “Indian” wasn’t so cool—they are real people, still among us—and even later that the same held for “Gypsies,” or Roma. We rarely dressed as hayseed hillbillies in my Appalachian childhood, and that caricature still irks me.
Writers and readers play at being someone else all the time. Our scope may be wider than Halloween costumes, but the ground rules still apply. Avoid stereotypes, show respect for other people’s trauma, and take great care in portraying a culture not one’s own. Within these boundaries, reading about people of many sorts and backgrounds can not only show but even increase true empathy.
Image: Children in Halloween costumes at High Point, Seattle, 1943, Seattle Post-Intelligencer staff photographer
It ranks with “unprecedented” and “you’re muted” to conjure up the past year or two. When have we seen so much outrage in so many spheres of public life? Party A, outraged, declares Party B’s words or deeds an outrage and responds in a way that outrages Party B. It’s an outrage perpetual motion machine.
Originally unrelated to rage, the word outrage comes from Latin ultra (“beyond”). An outrageous act goes beyond acceptable bounds. The outraged seek allies. Their righteous anger is contagious.
What makes a feeling of outrage so addictive? Is it the rush of adrenalin, the ego-boost of moral certitude, the sense of belonging in a group bound by shared passion? I don’t personally enjoy it, so I can only guess.
At its best, outrage generates action to right a grave injustice. Some exploit it to increase ratings or social media "likes." Among its dangers is a moral absolutism that wipes out any sense of proportion. To be certain of one’s innocence leaves no room for humility. Opponents seem scarcely human. Having God on your side makes any compromise a deal with the Devil.
Image: New York City draft riots of 1863.
Cleaning protocols are all the rage these days. “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” John Wesley preached in the late 1700s. The idea is much older, fusing moral purity with ancient taboos rooted in noticing what made people sick. That said, we all have distinct scents unrelated to health or godliness. Just ask a dog.
We can’t smell our ordinary selves; we habituate too quickly. Neither could our less-scrubbed ancestors. To ask whether they stank is like asking whether a falling tree makes a noise if no one hears it. Human noses then as now were attuned to difference, such as the warning stench of a sickroom or rotten meat. Street urchins and swineherds could smell each other but not themselves.
Our ancestors varied by culture, of course. Vikings bathed weekly and washed face and hands every day. European townsfolk frequented public baths until the arrival of the plague, when it became safer to stay dirty. Ancient Roman aristocrats used not only communal baths but lots of perfumes. I know less about the traditions of Africa, Asia, or the precolonial Americas. Diet alone could give any culture a distinctive aroma noticeable only to outsiders.
For elitists, xenophobes, and purveyors of deodorant, difference was and is the point. A sweet scent wasn’t about health or virtue, but the luxury of not having to work up a sweat. Distinctive cooking smells helped scapegoat immigrants and foreigners as dirty sources of infection. Showering daily may not make us any healthier than the ancestors who labored six days and bathed on the seventh, but it sells more soap.
Image: Archives of Ontario, c. 1910-14.
The year I lived in Africa long ago, we didn’t worry much about malaria. Mosquitoes that carried the parasite didn’t thrive on the cool, dry Eritrean plateau, 7200 feet above sea level. For rare jaunts to lower altitudes, we swallowed malaria pills before, during, and after—probably chloroquine, though I don’t remember for certain.
Deadly malaria evolved millions of years ago and spread to every inhabited continent. Controlling it in the United States was CDC’s original mission in 1946; the agency was based in Atlanta because most of the nation’s malaria was in the Southeast. CDC’s program centered on spraying home interiors with DDT. Encouraged by its success, the World Health Organization in 1955 undertook to eradicate the disease worldwide.
When I worked for Rotary on polio immunization in the 1980s, malaria killed perhaps a million people a year. In debates whether polio could be eradicated, advocates pointed to the recent eradication of smallpox as reason for hope. Naysayers pointed to WHO’s inability to eradicate malaria globally. The disease still kills more than 400,000 people annually, mostly in Africa, mostly young children.
WHO last week recommended a broad rollout of the world’s first malaria vaccine, developed by GlaxoSmithKline and oddly named RTS,S. The world’s first-ever vaccine against any parasitic illness, RTS,S is far from ideal. It requires a series of four injections. Efficacy is only 30 to 40 percent. Nevertheless, in combination with bed nets and antimalarial drugs, it should save tens of thousands of lives each year. Now that’s something to celebrate.
“There lives more faith in honest doubt,
Believe me, than in half the creeds.”
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Questions aren’t welcome to those in authority. Churches and totalitarian regimes have imprisoned or killed people who voice honest doubts. My sympathies are largely with the questioners, who challenge blind obedience and inspire fresh discoveries. The past year has me wondering, is there a point when questioning should stop?
The temptation is to say yes, stop when the questions turn dangerous. But danger has always been the excuse for burning heretics and cracking down on dissidents. How is danger to public health or trust in elections so different from danger to eternal salvation or national survival in time of crisis? Why do unending questions bother me in some cases and not others?
The relevant distinction, to me, is between questions in pursuit of truth and pseudo-questions to hold truth at bay. My sympathy is for questioners motivated by curiosity and a search for answers, questioners open to possibility and fresh insights. I have none for those who ask, “Isn’t the earth really flat?” again and again, indifferent to evidence. Who promote public distrust, then use that distrust to call the round earth hypothesis an open question. Who will insist the question remains open until someone proves the earth is flat.
Questioners in search of answers have my sympathy, whether or not I share their honest doubt. Dishonest doubters are a different matter. They disguise denial as uncertainty and immovable stances as questions, simply because they don’t like the answers.
Image: "Why does the ice float?” scientist Michael Faraday asked in one of his Christmas lectures.
Few hikers are on the Cross Plains segment of the Ice Age Trail at Hickory Hill, each a solitary walker like me. Our interactions are all the same. Without stopping, we step to our respective sides of the trail and say hello. They say, “Beautiful day, isn’t it?” or “Lovely day for a walk,” I concur, and we continue on our ways.
Years ago, in my study of Romani (Gypsy) culture of the horse-drawn-caravan era, one source said the Roma didn’t routinely comment on the weather. What’s the point? Anyone can see whether it’s sunny or raining.
So why do we mention it so regularly? To stay civil toward a neighbor or cousin whose opinions annoy us? To defer a difficult conversation? To tune out others, like Mabel’s sisters in The Pirates of Penzance, who shut their eyes and talk about the weather to allow her new romance some privacy? Although avoidance can be a motive, weather talk often expresses something more positive.
A friend used to describe “Nice day!” as meaning “I see you. Do you see me?” I’ll go one step further. It’s a celebration of what we have in common, too rare in these days of defining ourselves and others by our differences. Sure, how someone votes or worships or feels about masks is part of who they are—but so is their love of dogs or sweet corn or the rustle of autumn leaves. For those of us on the trail in this moment, what binds us is our shared delight in a lovely September day.
In April 1861, President Lincoln asked states to provide militiamen for three months to put down a rebellion. Kaiser Wilhelm II in August 1914 told departing troops, “You will be home before the leaves fall from the trees.” U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said of conflict in Iraq in early 2003, “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Each of those wars raged four years or longer.
The point isn’t that calamities drag out; the Gulf War of 1991 took only weeks. The point is that we can’t predict without a crystal ball or benefit of hindsight. Faced with Covid lockdowns in March 2020, I stocked up on canned goods in case this might continue all the way till June. By fall, that first illusion shattered, we spoke of getting back to normal soon after we had a vaccine. Summer 2021 looked promising until Delta came along. What next?
Covid-19 impacts more aspects of more Americans' lives more dramatically than any other crisis in my lifetime. Now as on the home front during World War II, resources are mobilized, events canceled, and travel restricted. Jobs are reshaped, office work done from home today, factory work done by women back then. Our supply chains are disrupted; their gasoline, butter, and sugar were rationed. We wear face masks; my East Coast parents hung blackout curtains.
Will the disruption go on for months? For years? Our World War II forebears had no way to know. Neither have we.
The first holiday of the Zurich, Switzerland, school year is Knabenschiessen-Montag.
“What?” I look up from the calendar, recalling too many American school tragedies. “Boy Shooting Monday?”
My translation is correct, they tell me, but the term is misleading; for the past thirty years, Zurich’s annual teen event has also involved girls. For boys, the shooting contest goes back at least to 1656 and was formalized in the late 1800s. Normally it’s preceded by a public festival the second weekend of September. This year the festival is cancelled for Covid, but Monday’s shooting will go ahead. Schools close for the day. Many workers get a half day off.
Switzerland has a high rate of gun ownership but very little gun violence, with no mass shootings since 2001. Privately held guns are strictly regulated. Mandatory military service for men ensures training. Switzerland shows a healthy gun culture is possible. Whether it is possible in the United States, I am not so sure.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.