Geoff Johnson has been teaching American history since we were both graduate students at CUNY in the George W. Bush years. In this conversation, we talk about our respective political and cultural experiences coming of age in the 1990s, and reflect on the different paths that brought us both to the radical left. From beat poetry, Jim Morrison, and hip hop to anti-capitalism and anarchy, we try to connect our personal, very American lives with the larger historical forces surrounding us.
Kevin Gannon is a professor of history at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, where he also serves as the Director of the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Learning. You may also know him as one of the history experts featured in Ava DuVernay’s Netflix documentary 13th, and a very active figure in the #twitterstorian universe. In addition to his research on the history of race and justice in the Civil War and Reconstruction eras, he’s done a lot of thinking about how to reshape the way we teach and share American history. In this conversation we discuss the future of the discipline, from inclusive classroom strategies to the phenomenal growth of #twitterstorians, tracking how technology is transforming our idea of who and what a historian can be.
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of American class, race, and inequality, with a particular focus on the South during and after the Civil War. Her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South deftly navigates discourses on race, power, and capitalism, telling us what happens to “excess labor” under a slave economy. In this conversation, she talks about the South’s influence on her direction as a scholar, and explains how vital elements of the Southern political economy (from “right to work” to convict leasing) have spread to the rest of the country.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a political scientist and activist whose work focuses on the historical and current landscape of insurgent politics and anti-capitalism. As an outspoken left academic, Ciccariello-Maher is a favorite target of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, whose threats and harassment led to his resignation from Drexel University in 2017. In this conversation, he tells how his early life informed his political development, why Venezuela’s recent history is such a vital piece of understanding global politics, and how riots and other forms of militant resistance can be effective means of achieving social and economic justice.
Matthew Stanley is a historian and professor whose latest book, The Loyal West: Civil War and Reunion in Middle America explores how the politics of the Civil War moved through the regions of the Lower Middle West. His work shows us how ideologies evolve through space and time, and how the Civil War in particular has served as a container for American social and political attitudes well into the 21st century. With Confederate monuments being toppled by activists and organizers around the country, to the shock and outrage of white supremacists and “traditional” (wink) Americans everywhere, Stanley points out some vital historical context:
“People talk about preserving history. But the best argument against keeping these monuments in public places IS the historical argument. Most of these were not erected by Confederate veterans, they weren’t erected during the Civil War or even Reconstruction. They were erected during the Jim Crow era, and many of them explicitly re-encode the racial order through monumentation. So they’re designed to be a political statement. You can’t depoliticize a monument. A monument is inherently political.”
Maximillian Alvarez is a writer and academic whose work often explores the intersections of changing technological environments and the production of radical political philosophy. In this conversation, he talks about being surrounded by conservatives in Southern California during the 1990s, how the discovery of Russian literature expanded his political and intellectual worldview, and why it’s vital for academics to bridge the gap between the university and the wider public. Reflecting on Trump’s rise and the increasingly overt fascism of his troglodytic supporters, Alvarez invites us to consider the dark implications of social media’s powerful grip on the American mind:
“We are seeing and experiencing first-hand how the changing media environment in the 21st century shapes politics . . . When we’re writing the history of the beginning of the Trump era, we’re going to have plenty of work to do to figure out how his brand of populist ethnonationalism came to resonate with people, how the backlash to Obama materialized, the shifts on the right, etc. But we’re also going to have to ask other questions that are incredibly difficult.
What, for instance, are the political ramifications of a country’s increasingly pervasive loss of long term memory? [We’re] plugged into this hyperspeed of the immediate that social media and the digital news flow attunes [us] to, and I think this is having a very significant impact. The politics of resentment has found a place to flourish in a social media economy where the dopamine hits come from the responses of other people, that you get to see on your phone.”
Heather Cox Richardson is a historian of American politics with a number of important books on the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the ideological evolution of the Republican Party. Richardson’s work tracks the space between rhetoric and reality, showing us how political parties pull the levers of race and class to manipulate public opinion and gain power.
Richardson’s recent focus is the way American conservatism has influenced the direction of the Republican Party over the course of the past several decades. In this conversation, she explains how “movement conservatives” since the Buckley era pushed the GOP to embrace increasingly extreme candidates and positions, setting the table for the Trump nightmare:
“Americans figured out fairly early on that [Republican economic policies] didn’t really help them. So Republican language has gotten more and more crazy. For me, the real sign was when Carly Fiorina, in the debates in 2016, said that Democrats were literally killing babies so they could sell their body parts . . .
They’ve had to ratchet this language up more and more. So when Trump came in and said and did the horrific things he did, he was really simply playing that movement conservative narrative out to its logical end. It’s exactly the path we started on in 1951 with God and Man at Yale.”