Looking Backward Into the Present

Using the Popular Culture of the Past to Help Answer Perplexing Questions in the Present

Archive for Political Questions

What Does it Mean to Be Objective?

So I have wanted to update my blog for awhile now but I’ve been, as they say, “busier than a one-armed paper hanger.”  That hasn’t changed.  However, when I was writing this review essay for class I thought it was particularly relevant to current issues Americans are facing in media circles, with the rise of partisan cable channels/blogs and also history circles, with the Texas history textbook controversy.  What does it mean to be objective?  Whose history is the correct history? If there is any “take-away” thought from this, it seems that many people confuse “objectivity” with “authority”.  Although it is a fine distinction between the concepts, my intellectual gut tells me that the two are different. 

Here’s the review:

Could Looking Backward be the Key to Reframing the Future of Post-Objective Thought in Historical Scholarship?

The title of my essay admittedly sounds parodoxical.   Yet, when I was reading Peter Novick’s 1999 edition of  That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession, I was struck by this passage: “Graduate or professional training [in History] worthy of the name hardly existed in the United States until the [nineteenth] century was well advanced” (Novick, 22).  This seemed to imply that Americans weren’t concerned with the integrity of the American historical record until the 1890s. As I read on, I was struck by another passage similar in tone:  “But the most important influence leading to the abandonment of the [Teutonic Germ] theory was Frederick Jackson Turner’s alternative explanation of the expanding frontier and the availability of free land as the foundation of American democratic institutions” (Novick, 88).  This led to a nagging question of my own which was never really answered in the book: “What about Americanist historical thought before Turner?”

It seems natural to assume that Americans in the antebellum years were concerned about the historical record in ways that would go beyond antiquarianism.  In the case of journalism during the antebellum period, which was seen in many circles as the definitive historical record, the goal was not “objectivity” but the best version of the truth arrived through vigorous public debate.  When the integrity of the debate was violated, it was referred to a system of public arbitration known as the code of honor, which sometimes led to dueling.  How history was perceived and interpreted played a critical role in this arbitration. 

To be clear, I am not advocating “history to the death”.   However, when Novick writes about “objectivity enthroned” in American historical thought, there seems to be the fewest voices participating in the debate.  Not surprisingly, in “objectivity besieged” when “the assault on objectivist epistemology…opened up a long-overdue consideration of what historical scholarship could and should do; what it couldn’t , and shouldn’t do” (Novick, 277) it seemed to destabilize the profession when more voices were added to the debate. 

What seems to be needed is a framework of arbitration that focuses not on convergence, or one historical theory supplanting the other, but whose endgame is vigorous debate.  

Modern history, although not perfect, in the end seems stronger with more voices and perspectives added to the discussion.  Although Novick in his conclusion suggests history as a profession has strayed farther than ever before from “the objective question.”  It would seem that we are closer than ever before to his definition of historical objectivity, which is not a single idea, “but rather a sprawling collection of assumptions, attitudes, aspirations, and antipathies” (Novick, 1).  With objectivity often getting confused with authority, perhaps historical truth is better served through vigorous debate.


Which U.S. state has the longest name?

I am almost embarrassed to say that until recently, I did not know the answer to this question.  But while researching the last post on commonwealth vs. state, I stumbled upon this interesting fact.  The real name of the state known popularly as “Rhode Island” is actually officially known as “Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”.

So not only is Rhode Island technically not an island, but Rhode Island is technically not the official state name.  Naturally, that left me wondering: how did the smallest state in the union get the longest name?

As the map clearly shows, Rhode Island is not actually an island

According to the book, State Names, Seals, Flags, and Symbols  by Barbara Smith Shearer:

When Dutch explorer Adrian Block came upon an island with red clay shores, he named it in his native tongue “Roodt Eylandt,” meaning “red island.” Under English rule, the name was anglicized in the then current spelling.

Rhode Island’s status as the smallest state lends it the nicknames Little Rhody and the Smallest State. Roger Williams, who founded Providence Plantation in 1636, is honored by the sobriquet the Land of Roger Williams.  Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, is also known as the Plantation State.

There you have the abbreviated version of the facts behind the naming of Rhode Island.  If you, like me,  didn’t know this information before, you can now breath a little easier.

What is the difference between a commonwealth and a state?

We were driving around greater Richmond, Virginia when someone asked my friend, who was a local, “Do they still allow public smoking in the state of Virginia.” 

His reply was, “Virginia isn’t a state. It’s a commonwealth.”

So naturally, our reply was, “What’s the difference between a state and a commonwealth?”

My friend didn’t know.  He was just pointing out that Virginia was “technically” referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

What’s more, we had three history majors in the car and no one could come up with a rational explanation as to the difference.  Adding fuel to the fire, one of my friends in the car was a native Kentuckian, and he pointed out that Kentucky was also referred to as a commonwealth and not a state. 

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map!

Quick! Can you spot all the commonwealth's on this map?

No one came up with answer that day, but the question still stuck in my head.  So I did some researching.  Pennsylvania, Virginia, Massachusetts and Kentucky are all officially referred to as commonwealths and not states. 

So I researched the legal definition of the term, “commonwealth”.  According to USLegal.com:

A commonwealth is a free state, or republic, characterized by a representative government. The states of the United States may each be considered commonwealths. Four states in the United States designate themselves commonwealths: Kentucky, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. The term is often used to describe the government of Great Britain.

The British Commonwealth is a voluntary association of former British colonies, dependencies and other territories – and Mozambique, which has no historical ties to Britain. It comprises 53 independent countries, representing around 30% of the world population, and serves to foster international cooperation and trade links between people around the world.

So it was that simple.  Legally in America, a state is commonwealth and a commonwealth is a state.  The two terms are interchangeable. 


If you happen to live in the American territories of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico or the Commonwealth of Northern Marina Islands, than it seems different rules apply and commonwealth is not considered a state, per se.  According to the commonwealth entry in Wikipedia, “In the terminology of the United States insular areas, a Commonwealth is a type of organized but unincorporated dependent territory.”  So to sum up, sometimes a commonwealth is not a commonwealth and sometimes it is.  But in America, a state is always a state.

Incidentally, in February 2009 the Virginia Legislature passed a ban on smoking in most of the “commonwealth’s” bars and restaurants.

What would happen if an aircraft accidentally dropped a nuclear weapon?

According to rough estimates, there are at least 30,000 nuclear weapons in existence.  It is probably safe to say that a large percentage of those devices have been transported by air at one point or another.  So what would the government do if a nuclear device was accidentally dropped from an aircraft and didn’t explode?


The answer is: probably nothing.  They would leave it there and do nothing.  Think I’m joking? Think again.


One of my favorite nuclear accidents (there are many) is the accidental dropping of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb off the coast of Tybee Island in Savannah, Georgia on February 5, 1958.  According to reports, the bomb was jettisoned in a mid-air collision and lost somewhere in the Wassaw Sound.  Fifty years and many searches later, they still have not found the bomb.  Seriously. 


Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island

Image of a Mark 15 hydrogen bomb similar to the one lost in the waters off Tybee Island



According to various reports, the Air Force maintains that the bomb, presumed to be entombed in mud and dirt, doesn’t pose a threat because it is missing a key capsule needed to produce a nuclear reaction.  However, according to Wikipedia, the Air Force maintains that it is probably better to leave the bomb entombed in the mud, because it might explode.  There is logic that Joseph Heller, author of Catch-22, can be proud of. 


Wikipedia has a detailed list of military accidents involving nuclear weapons, known as “broken arrows”.  However, just to prove that my Tybee bomb story is not just an anomaly I’ll share another one of my favorite broken arrow stories.


On January 24, 1961, an Air Force bomber over Goldsboro, North Carolina caught fire and exploded in mid-air ejecting two hydrogen bombs in the chaos.  Here is the Pentagon’s official account of the incident:


During a B-52 airborne alert mission structural failure of the right wing resulted in two weapons separating from the aircraft during aircraft breakup at 2,000 – 10,000 feet altitude. One bomb parachute deployed and the weapon received little impact damage. The other bomb fell free and broke apart upon impact. No explosion occurred. Five of the eight crew members survived. A portion of one weapon, containing uranium, could not be recovered despite excavation in the waterlogged farmland to a depth of 50 feet. The Air Force subsequently purchased an easement requiring permission for anyone to dig there. There is no detectable radiation and no hazard in the area.


Nearly 48 years later, the bomb is still there.  Talk about littering. 

What is a “Faithless Elector” in the U.S. Presidential Election?

Many people know that Americans in 2008 do not directly elect the president with their vote cast on Election Day. According to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), when a vote is cast in the general election, it is to direct their State electors to cast a vote in the Electoral College for a certain candidate. On Election Day, state electors “pledge” their vote for a specific candidate. Then on December 15, the electors will meet in each state to select the president and vice president. The president of the Senate, the archivist of the United States and other officials must receive their electoral votes by December 24 and on January 6, Congress meets in joint session to count them.


But what if the elector in your state pledges to vote for the candidate who won the popular vote in that area, but changes his or her mind when it comes to actually casting their vote within the Electoral College? After all, there is no Constitutional provision or Federal law that requires electors to vote according to the popular vote of the state. Many states have their own laws binding electors who pledge their votes to vote for the parties’ nominees or be subject to fines and/or be disqualified from electoral voting. However, there are 21 states that have no such laws.


Those electors who vote differently in the Electoral College from their Election Day pledge are called “faithless electors.” According to the Wikipedia entry on faithless electors, on about 158 occasions electors have cast their votes for president or vice president in a manner different from that prescribed by the legislature of the state they represented.


Some of those occasions are just simple mistakes, but other instances throughout history have been a coordinated effort by one or many to advance a personal agenda. Here are some faithless electors’ greatest hits according to www.FairVote.org:



It is important to note that faithless electors have never changed the outcome of the election…so far. But that doesn’t mean the system isn’t vulnerable to manipulation. On the eve of this historic Election Day, do you know who will be representing your voice in the Electoral College?


When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism

When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism









Is the Cultural Background of U.S. Presidential Candidates Historically a Factor When it Comes to Presidential Elections?

In one week the United States of America will have had an historic election.   Either Sarah Palin will be the country’s first female vice president or Barack Obama will be its first African-American president.   Whether you vote Republican, Democrat or Third Party, there is no denying that it has been an exciting time for American elections. 

But how culturally significant would a Barack Obama presidency be if he were elected? It might be very significant if you subscribe to the theories of cultural historian David Hackett Fischer.  In his 1989 book, Albion’s Seed, Fischer concluded that every president except two has been descended from one or more of the four original English cultural streams (Puritans, Cavaliers, Quakers and Scots-Irish) that formed the United States of America. According to Fischer, the two exceptions were Martin Van Buren and John F. Kennedy.  Van Buren was of Dutch decent and John F. Kennedy was Irish-Catholic.  It would seem then that beyond Obama, the man, being an exceptional leader and uniquely qualified administrator, his African-American heritage would seem to be a cultural revolution.  After all, his father Barack Obama, Sr. was from Kenya. 


But stop the presses.  It is well known that the family of Obama’s mother, Stanley Ann Durham, can be traced to one of those four English cultural streams.  Obama’s great-great-great grandfather Falmouth Kearney emigrated from Northern Ireland circa 1850 during the Potato Blight and settled somewhere in Ohio.  So ironically, Barack Obama would in fact be the twenty-fourth president of Irish/Northern Irish/Scots-Irish ancestry.  So it might be said, that an Obama presidency would be breaking one cultural stereotype while perpetuating another. 


In the end, however, it might be better said that Obama’s candidacy is uniquely American, the right balance between tradition and revolution that this country was founded on—neither of which are in danger of disappearing should Obama be elected. 


When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism

When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism

Would the American Government Ever Need Bailed Out Like Wall Street in 2008?

Would the American Government Ever Need Bailed Out Like Wall Street in 2008? This question was inspired by government seizure of the failed Washington Mutual and the selling of a majority of its operations to JPMorgan Chase on September 23.  It should also be noted that JPMorgan Chase also bought Bear Stearns, one of the largest global investment banks, when it collapsed in early 2008 under the strain of the sub-prime mortgage crises.  The deal was brokered by the Federal Reserve


This incident reminded me of the actual person, John Pierpoint Morgan, the robber baron financier, who was probably best known for buying out Andrew Carnegie and creating U.S. Steel, the first billion dollar company.  Here is a popular picture of him sitting in a chair. 



Notice how the way the reflection of the metallic arm chair looks like he’s holding a dagger.

Image of John Pierpoint Morgan: Notice how the way the reflection of the metallic arm chair looks like he’s holding a dagger.



At the height of Morgan’s power and influence, America was struggling through the Panic of 1907, which was caused by the failure of several prominent New York City banks that led to a chain reaction of bank failures across the country.  Sound familiar?  Apparently I was not alone in drawing that historical parallel.  Many financial newspapers across the Globe have reported this.  For example, Canadian writer Terrence Corcoran wrote in the September, 30, 2008, article, “Financial Markets Go and Down as they Should,” accessed through the online version of the Financial Post:


In 1907, J.P. Morgan almost singlehandedly rescued the United States and the world from a financial panic and possible depression. He did it by personally overseeing a series of bailouts of failing or troubled businesses. Of his efforts, the famed art critic Bernard Berenson (who had an affair with Morgan’s librarian) wrote: ‘Morgan should be represented as buttressing up the tottering fabric of finance the way Giotto painted St. Francis holding up the falling Church with his shoulder.’


The Federal Reserve was created in the wake of the Panic of 1907 in effort to provide liquidity to the markets in the periods of instability. 


What is not so well known, was that as a result of an earlier panic in 1883, J.P. Morgan was called upon by President Grover Cleveland to help bail out the U.S. Treasury, which was running out of money in lieu of a gold crisis.  According to the book, An American History by David Saville Muzzey:


Mr. Morgan arranged with the President to furnish the Treasury some $65,000,000 in gold in return for the government’s 4 per cent bonds.  The price Mr. Morgan charged for the gold secured him the bonds at a considerable lower figure than the public were paying for them at the time, and a cry went up from the Western Democrats and Populists that Cleveland had entered into an unholy alliance with the money lenders, and was squandering the country’s resources to enrich the bankers of New York and London.


So was this an unholy alliance or was J.P. Morgan the savior of the country?  In all the complexity and passage of time, we may never know for sure.  But we may look to the Centre for Research on Globalization for a little insight into both the Panic of 1907 and the Panic of 2008.


In the May 14, 2008 article, “The Secret Bailout of J. P. Morgan: How Insider Trading Looted Bear Stearns and the American Taxpayer,” Dr. Ellen Brown wrote: 


In the United States…John Pierpont Morgan again used rumor and innuendo to create a panic that would change the course of history. The panic of 1907 was triggered by rumors that two major banks were about to become insolvent. Later evidence pointed to the House of Morgan as the source of the rumors. The public, believing the rumors, proceeded to make them come true by staging a run on the banks. Morgan then nobly stepped in to avert the panic by importing $100 million in gold from his European sources. The public thus became convinced that the country needed a central banking system to stop future panics, overcoming strong congressional opposition to any bill allowing the nation’s money to be issued by a private central bank controlled by Wall Street; and the Federal Reserve Act was passed in 1913.


How does that factor into the American financial crisis nearly a century later?  In the same article, sheds some insight in her discussion of the demise of Bear Stearns in 2008: 


The “rescuer” was not actually JPMorgan but was the Federal Reserve, the “bankers’ bank” set up by J. Pierpont Morgan to backstop bank runs; and the party “rescued” was not Bear Stearns, which wound up being eaten alive. The Federal Reserve (or “Fed”) lent $25 billion to Bear Stearns and another $30 billion to JPMorgan, a total of $55 billion that all found its way into JPMorgan’s coffers. It was a very good deal for JPMorgan and a very bad deal for Bear’s shareholders, who saw their stock drop from a high of $156 to a low of $2 a share. Thirty percent of the company’s stock was held by the employees, and another big chunk was held by the pension funds of teachers and other public servants. The share price was later raised to $10 a share in response to shareholder outrage and threats of lawsuits, but it was still a very “hostile” takeover, one in which the shareholders had no vote.


So are we entering a second Gilded Age of American history or is this a genuine rescue of the markets?  The quickest way to answer that is to find out who is profiting from the 2008 financial crisis and follow the money. 


J.P. Morgan may have said it best, “A man always has two reasons for doing anything: a good reason and the real reason.”



When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism

When Was Killing a Journalist Not Considered Murder? Click on Image for More Information About My Book About the Connection Between Dueling and the Origin of American Journalism