Is American unity only possible when confronting a common threat? Thoughts on reading about the Revolutionary War

After completing the second of two long academic books on the Revolutionary War period and teaching about groups, organizations, and social networks recently in Introduction to Sociology, I had a thought about what can bring residents of the United States together: a common outside threat or enemy. For many groups, knowing what or who they are against is helpful in forging their own identity and connections.

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Before, during, and after the American War of Independence, the colonists on the Eastern seaboard of the United States banded together to register complaints, revolt, fight, and then form a new country. This was no easy task; different groups had immigrated to the United States, ties to particular colonies were often stronger than any sense of common cause, and regional differences mattered. During the war, not all residents in the United States supported the colonial side and a good number fought for the British. After the war, it took significant effort to develop a centralized government that could tie all of the colonies together. Ultimately, the war against Britain led to enough collective effort to form a new nation.

Arguably, these patterns have continued throughout American history. There are moments when Americans are united. After Pearl Harbor, the country was devoted to the war effort. The quest to take over the frontier from the Appalachians westward required the efforts of many. The Cold War was fairly all-encompassing. For a short period after 9/11, Americans came together.

But, the opposite tendency is also very present as well. The long presence of slavery that culminated in a bloody Civil War and insufficient efforts to address the ongoing issues afterward. Acrimonious political divides. Different actors looking out more for their own interests rather than the common good. The polarization and outrage of today.

If today the United States is in a period marked by more disunity than unity, is there a common threat that could again bring people together? Hopefully, a war is not required. There might be no shortage of suggestions from different sides about what should be unifying: fighting racism and inequality, climate change, individual freedom, reproductive rights, a commitment to capitalism, to welcome immigrants or not, religious liberty, fighting diseases, the surveillance state, and so on. Such unity has happened before and it could happen again in ways that might be difficult to foresee in the moment.

(Related earlier post: the relatively few things 90% of Americans agree on.)

9/11 occurred during a different era

As the United States marks the 20th anniversary of the attacks on September 11, 2001, it also provides a reminder that the events happened a while ago. American society and the world were different then. Here are a few scattered thoughts on how this passage of time influences how Americans view that day.

The Ground Zero Memorial in July 2012

-I saw a statistic that roughly 1/4 of Americans alive today were not alive on September 11, 2001. I have been aware of this for at least a few years as the college students I teach were either very young or not yet alive then. To a significant number of Americans, 9/11 is history.

-So much has happened since then that makes it all seem like a different era. The response to the attacks kicked off the War on Terror and the consequences are still being felt (see recent events in Afghanistan). Political polarization increased. The housing bubble burst and more economic instability seems present. Two presidents served their time in office and did so in very different ways.

-The commemorations often stress the quick coming together for rescue and cleanup efforts alongside the expressions of unity among members of Congress and Americans. This did not last long.

-We now have official memorials in numerous locations, including at the sites of the attacks and in communities around the country. Will these be altered or viewed differently as years go by?

Future commemorations will face these issues even more. The United States is not new to such change – how D-Day and Pearl Harbor are marked differs with the increasing age of those alive at the time and World War II might seem like eons ago, the memory of the Civil War has been a conflict for over a century – but subsequent decisions and events could solidify or change 9/11 narratives in ways that might be hard to predict.

Why I would choose to read a 700+ page book versus an 11 page summary on an important historical period

I recently read two histories of a similar time period and both texts addressed the North American aspects of the Seven Years’ War. However, the texts had very different lengths. One book was over 700 pages and included many details. The other book included a summary of the same war in 11 pages. Which was the better read?

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Much of this answer depends on what I hoped to accomplish in my reading. Months ago, I had stumbled onto the Wikipedia page for the Seven Years’ War and realized I knew relatively little about it. The North American branch of this conflict involved relatively few troops yet had very important implications for the subsequent history of the United States. I searched out some recommendations on notable academic histories that addressed this period and received a few books from my library. I wanted to know more and now I had options.

I enjoyed reading the 700+ page book. Did I need all the details in my life? Probably not, but much of what I read was fascinating and provided insights that shorter summaries could not. I am glad that I read all of this so that at least at one point in life I could say I tried to take in all of this knowledge.

The 11 page summary was also interesting and well-written. It also took much less time. I recognized the high points of the conflict from the much longer narrative. These high points made a lot more sense given all the details I had read not too long before.

In the academic world, we run into these sorts of issues all the time: how much knowledge do I need to proceed? Would a one page summary be sufficient or should I devote years to studying this? We publish different length materials, ranging from encyclopedia entries and shorter notes to longer articles and books. One cannot read and study everything so we must be judicious in what we spend our time on. Yet, the joys of diving deeply into material is one of the best parts of study and research.

Having read both texts, I am still in favor of reading the much longer text. I may go years before reading anything on the Seven Years’ War and the longer text gave me plenty to consider. I had the time to spend on it and I may not make the same decision regarding another subject area given different circumstances. But, for two weeks this summer, reading a lot about the Seven Years’ War was a good decision.

When television shows help interpret history

What responsibility do television shows have to accurately depicting history? Take the case of The Crown:

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Historical dramas might similarly warp our attitude toward history, encouraging us to expect that cause and effect are obvious, or that world events hinge on single decisions by identifiable individuals. Academics have been trying to demolish the great-man theory of history for more than a century; television dramas put it back together, brick by brick.

What matters here is that we are having the right arguments about these ethical and dramatic decisions, not lobbing grenades at each other from opposing trenches of the culture war. Reasonable people can disagree over artistic license and the writer’s duty of care to her or his subjects. And none of this would be an issue if so many people didn’t love The Crown. Dowden is right to argue that the show is so popular that its interpretation of history will become the definitive one for millions of viewers.

That is something Netflix could mitigate, if it wanted to. Not with a pointless disclaimer, but with an accompanying documentary, rounding out the stories told in the drama. (There is a Crown podcast, featuring Morgan, but I mean something packaged more obviously alongside the main series.) There is certainly an appetite for one: Three unrelated Diana documentaries now clog up my Netflix home screen, and newspapers have published multiple articles separating fact from fiction.

Ultimately, it is not illegitimate to create narratives out of real lives. In fact, a good historical drama has to do so. But when we talk about the monarchy, modern Britain, and the legacy of divisive politicians like Thatcher, The Crown should be the start of a conversation, not the last word.

Television, and mass media more broadly, has the potential to shape how people udnerstand the world. This is not only because people find it a compelling window to the world; the sheer amount of time Americans spend watching TV on a daily basis means that television depictions have at least some influence.

Given this, it is interesting to consider whether Netflix and other producers and distributors of television should do more to depict history accurately. How possible is this? Here are a few problems that might arise:

  1. Balancing a historical drama with an accompanying documentary might help. But, documentaries are also told from particular points of view. And how many viewers will watch all of both?
  2. History is an ongoing narrative. The Crown comes from a particular point of view in a particular time that may or may not with other depictions before and after. Imagine some time passes after Queen Elizabeth dies and another director with a different vision comes along – how different is the story in facts and tone?
  3. Other mediums could present different realities in different ways. History often requires working with a variety of sources, not just visuals. How about at least giving viewers additional resources to consult?
  4. How much should TV viewers know or be expected to know about particular phenomena they observe?

Public understandings of history, academic understandings of history, and other interpretations of history have the potential to interact with and shape each other. How exactly The Crown helps shape the ongoing conversation about the monarchy, Queen Elizabeth, and all the involved actors remains to be seen – and studied.

The rise of a sermon phrase – “a city on a hill” – to explain American exceptionalism

An English professor describes how a sermon by John Winthrop in 1630 came to describe the United States:

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In 1630, John Winthrop, the first Puritan governor of Massachusetts Bay, declared that “we shall be as a city upon a hill.” When President Ronald Reagan used Winthrop’s words to describe America, he helped transform “A Model of Christian Charity” into a foundational text of American culture. In its own day, Winthrop’s sermon went unrecorded, unpublished, and almost entirely unnoticed. It was found and first published in 1838—at which point it continued to be ignored for another century…

Winthrop’s sermon is a communal statement of love—a “model of Christian charity,” exactly as it is called. The question behind his sermon is simple: What do we owe each other? And Winthrop’s answer is the same as Paul’s: whatever redemptive love requires…

The phrase “city on a hill” also has a fascinating and largely unknown 17th century context. The phrase comes from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (specifically Matthew 5:14), and in the 1600s, it was Roman Catholics, not Puritans, who loved it most. They used Matthew 5:14 to prove Protestantism false and Catholicism true. The Catholic Church, they said, was the only one visible church since the time of Christ (Jesus “set it on a hill”). Protestants, in contrast, described the true church as small or hidden, turning to Luke 12:32 and Revelation 12. When it came to Matthew 5:14, they had to reinterpret this verse to pry it from Catholic hands. Instead of the universal church being a “city on a hill,” Protestants like Winthrop claimed that “city on a hill” applied locally, to this place or that, wherever the true light of the gospel shone. Because the phrase did not refer to one universal church, it could be reapplied to individual congregations, towns, cities, and eventually—as we have come to see—a nation…

My book moves from the 1600s through the American Revolution and the making of the first national history textbooks in the 1800s to the claims and impact of the influential German sociologist Max Weber in the early 1900s. But for me, the most enjoyable chapters to write were on Perry Miller, a Harvard scholar who had a giant influence on the way we understand the Pilgrims and Puritans today. It was Perry Miller, an atheist, who above all made John Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon central to the American story. He did so not just to set the US apart from the USSR, but also to challenge American society, which he saw as having fallen from its Puritan origins. Just a few years before Miller died, the Harvard-educated John F. Kennedy became the first president to use Winthrop’s “city on a hill” sermon in a speech. When Reagan picked it up, it became famous—a linchpin in larger narratives of American exceptionalism.

Another example of how civil religion develops: several centuries after a sermon is given, it is picked up and interpreted by political leaders and others who want to tie several strands of social life together. Implied above is that another politician in another time period – say Grover Cleveland in the late 1800s – may not have been able to prompt the spread of this connection in American life. Ronald Reagan, who tried to be optimistic about American life, helps give the quote, which had some public airing because of John F. Kennedy, new life in a particular context.

The 17th century context of the meaning of a “city on a hill” is fascinating given what the phrase came to represent. If Winthrop meant to use the phrase in contrast to Catholic interpretations, the fact that the phrase came to represent a powerful America is a twist. The Protestant interpretation discussed above applied to a small context. When Americans use the phrase today, they tend to mean a powerful city on the hill, casting light on the countryside below or holding a fortified position or occupying the high ground. The American bastion of freedom and Christendom has replaced the prior holders of this title.

This phrase also gives more credence to cities than Americans have over the course of their history. Even with some important cities on a global stage, Americans are generally anti-urban and instead embrace suburban life. Updating the phrase, perhaps Americans would rather say “the suburban megachurch on the hill” or the “quiet yet stately suburb on the hill.”

Communities and character in one slide

In putting together material for the upcoming semester, I found myself summarizing my work on studying the character of particular suburbs. Here is the slide that explains the process:

CommunitiesCharacterSlide

A quick explanation of the (simplified) process depicted on the slide:

  1. Every community or neighborhood has characteristics and circumstances at its founding. These starting traits can prove influential down the road.
  2. Once started, the community continues through inertia. People live their lives.
  3. There are points in time – which I call “character moments” in a 2013 article – where the inertia of communities are disrupted. This often comes in the form of external forces that place pressure on a community. For example, my 2013 article looked at what happened when three suburbs felt suburbanization pressure in the Chicago region after World War II. This led to internal discussions in each suburb about how they wanted to respond and what they viewed as their future. One of the suburbs, Naperville, decided to lean into the growth: they annexed a lot of land, developed guidelines for growth, and experienced multiple decades of explosive growth (read more in my 2016 article on the difficulties explaining these changes in Naperville).
  4. Different decisions in communities will lead to different future paths.
  5. Then, the inertia, external forces, and internal discussions and decisions repeat as circumstances arise. These key decisions build on each other over time which leads communities to be different places and feel different. This is an iterative process and communities can change course.

The ways this plays out in unique communities can differ greatly even as the process looks similar.

(To read more of what helped me think about this starting in graduate school as I looked to enact my interests in urban sociology and the sociology of culture, see this 2000 article titled “History Repeats Itself, But How? City Character, Urban Tradition, and the Accomplishment of Place.”)

Living through history or sociological processes

With rapid changes in the world, it can be easy to see how this might be a notable historical moment that people in the future will look back on.

But, I cannot help think of the sociological processes that we are seeing at play right now. Pandemics and diseases have come before yet not in the era of such globalization, Internet and smartphones, and particular political, economic, and social conditions. There will be history about this all but here are just a few of the sociological processes we are truly seeing in action:

-Globalization. The travel and interconnectedness that is normal now has particular implications for diseases as well as the consequences.

-The shift toward the Internet and smartphones enables new methods for work as well as the possibility of information and knowledge to go all sorts of directions.

-Political and economic consequences of social actions. As just one example, social distancing can help combat the pandemic but it threatens many taken-for-granted interactions and settings. Small talk and being around other people should not be taken for granted; they are part of the social order.

-Health is a social issue, from its definition to how it plays out in individual lives and societies.

And this is just a start. There is already a lot of opinions out there about how the pandemic will change society once the disease disappears. We will have to wait and see. Sure, this will all be history at some point but for now there are a lot of sociological material to think through.

Presenting suburban growth and the role of race differently in high school textbooks

A longer look at state differences in history textbooks includes this bit about suburban growth:

HistoryTextbooksSuburbsJan1220no1

HistoryTextbooksSuburbsJan1220no2We cannot fully understand places and communities without knowing about how race and ethnicity plays a part in the story. It is clear that the past included a whole host of legal and informal structures existed from the beginning of suburbs to keep non-whites out. This included: redlining, sundown towns, refusing potential homeowners in Levittown, government policies that helped whites move from cities, and exclusionary zoning. I argue this is one of the reasons suburbanites like suburbs so much: they were able to exclude those they did not want to live near. Some of these techniques, and more recent ones, still work to help keep some suburbs more homogeneous even as more immigrants and non-white residents moved to suburbia and residential segregation has decreased.

Without widespread knowledge of how the American suburbs developed, perhaps this is why exist videos like “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs” exist. The suburbs may not be only about race – I list six other factors that matter as well though the seven factors are all intertwined – but suburbs are not simply the result of neutral free-market forces. Understanding what helped create the suburbs and gives social life in suburbs today its shape will help give future suburbanites, perhaps a majority of Americans, better operate within their context and potentially shape new kinds of suburbs.

Nixon’s liberal economic policies and other reminders that the major political parties can change

Media discourse about political parties as well as the public pronouncements of politicians tend to reify that certain policy positions are fixed between the two political parties. “Republicans always want to help the wealthy with their tax cuts.” “Democrats always fight for non-white residents.” And so on.

Yet, political parties change positions fairly regularly and often do so for political, rather than ideological, considerations. Here are two examples I found while reading American Sociology: From Pre-Disciplinary to Post-Normal by Stephen Turner.

Nixon proposed such things as minimum income rights and a national health care policy: both were rejected by the Democrats on the grounds that they should be more generous, and in the hope that they would be able to gain power and enact policies more to their liking. In any event, they got neither minimum incomes nor health care guarantees. Ted kennedy, the principal obstacle to the health care compromise offered by Nixon, later regretted his failure to accept it. (p. 55)

And an earlier example:

Race was a problem for reformers: on the one hand they were sympathetic to uplifting the Black masses; on the other they were inclined to regard them as in need of civilizing. The Progressive Party platform makers, including Jane Addams, were persuaded by their presidential candidate Theodore Roosevelt to omit any references to improving the conditions of Blacks, on the ground that this would cost the party politically – this was at a time win which the Republican Party, from which Roosevelt was splitting, was the party of Blacks. (p.24)

It might be easy to write this off as being in the past – anything past even just a few years ago is very difficult to discuss in media settings – but these two examples provide a reminder that political parties can indeed change dramatically. What Democrats and Republicans look like today is not the same as they were decades ago nor will they necessarily be the same ten or twenty years from now.

The case of Graceland: McMansion or not?

The term McMansion can sometimes be applied retroactively to eras where the moniker did not exist. For example, a description of Graceland in Memphis uses the term:

Graceland and the nearby newly opened tourist centre – clumsily titled Elvis Presley’s Memphis at Graceland – gets fans close to the King, but don’t dare touch anything. In bricks and mortar, the Georgian-inspired mansion is not really that big. These days, it’s more McMansion in scale than, well, a proper mansion.

According to Wikipedia, Graceland is over 17,000 square feet. The original part of the home was built in 1939 and only later did development encompass the large property (still over 13 acres).

This is still a very big house, even by today’s terms. I tend to apply the term McMansion when the size of the home is roughly between 3,000 and 10,000 square feet. Even then, homes of this size may not meet other traits of McMansions such as being too big for their lot (not a problem with Graceland), architecturally garish or poor quality (not a problem with Graceland), and associated with sprawl and luxury (maybe a bit applicable here). Perhaps Graceland might be McMansion in an interior related to pop culture and kitsch – but that is more likely a function of the home once belonging to a music superstar than it being a typical suburban McMansion.

Today, Graceland is still a mansion. Is it really that different than the large homes of entertainment stars and celebrities today?