Reviewed: “Revising the Holocaust” (January 28, 2020), Hosted by the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University

(Photo taken by author on May 26th, 2019, at the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, Germany. The memorial opened on May 10th, 2005 and was designed by the architect Peter Eisenman. The exhibit features a field of 2,710 concrete “stelae” (upright stone columns), which rest on an uneven surface that covers 19,023 square meters. The memorial is located in central Berlin on Cora-Berliner-Straβe and the website for the memorial can be found here.)

By Kyle Scripko

On the night of January 28th, 2020, only a day after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest held its fourth installment of their Revisionist History conversation series, “Revising the Holocaust,” in the Driscoll Auditorium at Villanova University. At the beginning of this lecture, Jason Steinhauer, the Director for the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and mediator of the discussion, stated that, although the Revisionist History events seek to challenge historical topics, “we vigorously reject any effort to deny a well-documented history of that campaign of systematic mass murder.” The panel collectively embraced the idea that “revisionism” must avoid Holocaust denial and that “any honest intellectual discussion of the evolving scholarship on the Holocaust must start by acknowledging the basic historical fact of the Holocaust.”

panel image

(Screenshot by author, from the Villanova University video of the Revising the Holocaust Panel. This image shows the panelists, including: Dr. Paul Steege (far left), Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Lepage Center at Villanova University; Dr. Devin Pendas (second from the left), Professor of History and the current Director of Graduate Studies in the Boston College Department of History; Dr. Jennifer Rich (second from the right), Associate Professor of Sociology at Rowan University and the Executive Director of the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights; and Jason Steinhauer (far right), Director of the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest).

Steinhauer then introduced the first panelist, Dr. Jennifer Rich, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Rowan University. Dr. Rich focuses on Holocaust and genocide education and she is the Executive Director of the Rowan Center for the Study of Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights. The next panelist introduced was Dr. Devin Pendas of Boston College. Dr. Pendas is a Professor of History and the current Director of Graduate Studies in the Boston College Department of History. His research focus is on the criminal trials and the Denazification process of post-WWII Germany and Holocaust historiography. The last panelist introduced was Dr. Paul Steege, an Associate Professor of History and Faculty Director of the Lepage Center at Villanova University. Dr. Steege is a historian of everyday life and Berlin with a particular focus on violence and the ways it was integrated into the lives of ordinary people during the twentieth century.

The first half of the discussion focused on the historiographical debates of the Holocaust. Pendas began the discussion with what he called the “two strands of Holocaust historiography.” He stated that through much of the post-war era, the historiography of the Holocaust was largely broken into a “history of Jews” and a “history of the perpetrators.” Pendas claimed that, for a while, these two types of histories were “relatively agenda-driven” and often pinned against one another. It was not until the early 2000s, with the work Saul Friedländer, that the history of the Holocaust gained the perspective of “integrated histories of the Holocaust.” As Pendas asserted, “these were not separate events” but “were aspects of the same story.” He also brought up situating the Holocaust within the broader studies of genocide, which itself has sparked controversy among historians, as debates continue today about the differences and similarities between the Holocaust and other genocides.

Rich then joined the conversation with her view of how the Holocaust fits within the broader discussion of genocide. She asserted that the Holocaust cannot be situated in a binary of one or the other, asserting that “the Holocaust is both one of many and unique in its own way.” She then went on to discuss the difference between learning “from” the Holocaust and learning “about” the Holocaust, a point that served as a theme for other discussions later that night. The former is about learning and attaching “nebulous lessons” from the Holocaust to everyday life, while the latter is about the facts of the Holocaust. Both methodologies have their values and pitfalls, but Rich emphasized that the general term “human rights encompasses all of it,” and gives people “a broader umbrella in which to think about these things.”

Steege joined the discussion with his perspective on how the debates within scholarly circles manifest themselves within public discussion and interest. He specifically referred to the “Goldhagen controversy” that took place following the publishing of Daniel Goldhagen’s book, Hitler’s Willing Executioners. This book was a response to Christopher Browning’s book, Ordinary Men. The two Historians used many of the same primary sources but came to very different conclusions. Browning believes that the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 should be humanized and that historians should observe the pressures of a group setting when asking how ordinary men became mass killers.[1] Meanwhile, Goldhagen argues that, due to the nature of German society and antisemitism, a vast majority of ordinary Germans were prepared and willing to kill Jews.[2] A public debate filmed by C-Span at the Holocaust Research Institute in 1996 highlights the controversy starring these two historians and the question of what to call the perpetrators.

The second half of the panel discussion focused on public memory and teaching the Holocaust. The medium of film as an educational tool for teaching the Holocaust came into the conversation and Rich talked about her work with the movie “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.” Rich claimed that this movie is the number one movie watched in American classrooms for Holocaust education. However, this is simply because it is PG-13 and short enough to be shown in the average American classroom. Rich emphasized that, as a tool of Holocaust education, “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” is “almost completely ahistorical” as most of the events that happened in this film could have never happened during the Holocaust. Rich went on to say that the only “silver lining” of this movie is that it gets students interested in the Holocaust. Nevertheless, she fears that through watching the movie, students will feel “cleansed” and then “done” with learning about the Holocaust.

At this point, Pendas chimed in with his take on the risks of teaching and learning “from” the Holocaust. He felt that using “universalizing fables” of the Holocaust are problematic as they do little more than tell a moral tale for students to just “be nice” with a “backdrop of the Holocaust.” Rich came back into the conversation with another problem that comes out of teaching the Holocaust: teachers asking their students “how many people here think you would be a rescuer?” She affirmed that this is problematic as every kid in the class would raise their hand at the question. These types of questions fail to look at the gray areas of the Holocaust, such as the decisions people made to rescue or denounce their neighbors. Rich also countered Pendas’ point about the “be nice” lesson of the Holocaust and clarified that lessons about nationalism, racism, and xenophobia can still be learned “from” the Holocaust.

Steege came back into the conversation with the grounding statement that one of the most important things to consider with the Holocaust is the realization that “this, in fact, is possible.” He claimed that we have this assumption that we can identify with the victims of the Holocaust and therefore give ourselves the moral high ground. Steege brought up the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., as an appropriate example. The museum gives each visitor an identity card of someone who was a victim of the Holocaust and, although it is a humanizing experience, Steege suggested that the museum should give out identity cards without the guest knowing whether the person was a victim or a perpetrator. He said that this idea is a “provocative” one, but that it would “underscore the ways in which the lines between complicity and resistance are blurred,” and that this would help visitors “delve into these gray areas as opposed to acting as if they were absolute moral certainties.”

Steinhauer shifted the conversation to the confrontational questions people bring to the sites of the Holocaust and how this necessitates an educational challenge to combat denial and calls forth a need for effective teaching strategies. Steege spoke of the recent reports of students who were going to camps and asking questions linked to denial, as well as his first time visiting Auschwitz and the surreal feeling of hearing the phrase “Taxi? Taxi to Auschwitz? Taxi?” He said that this really gets at the “question of obligation” and how at one end people go to the camps to learn while others feel this sense of obligation to “check the box” on their European tour. “The lessons [at the camps] don’t go without saying,” said Steege. “And I think that’s precisely where historians and educators come in.” Rich suggested that one way to teach the Holocaust is by taking new scholarship and marrying it with effective pedagogic strategies. She argued that teachers should be using new integrated technologies, such as Instagram and YouTube, to teach about the Holocaust; as teachers, “we have an obligation for meeting our students where they are.”

This timely discussion of “Revising the Holocaust” was well informed and may have left the audience questioning some of their previous assumptions of what “revising” the Holocaust actually looks like. As Pendas asserted, the term “revisionist” has been “poached” by Holocaust deniers in order to downplay and lie about the facts of the Holocaust. Discussions similar to the ones held by the Lepage Center have potential for reclaiming the practice of revisionist history. The panel did not stray away from the facts of the Holocaust, in fact, they embraced the idea that there are still more facts to be discovered about the Holocaust. Before opening up the floor for questions from the audience, Steinhauer concluded the talk with a statement that not only gets at the constant pursuit of new information about the Holocaust, but also the difficult nature of revisionist history itself: “There is a whole universe of documents that we still have not fully explored… the documents and the artifacts are tremendous educational opportunities, but they also have pitfalls and challenges.”

For more information on teaching the Holocaust visit the websites for Facing History and Ourselves and the Shoah Foundation.

Unfortunately, the last two Revisionist History events, “Revising Women’s Suffrage” and “Revising the Planet,” were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. However, you can still find the video for the panel discussion of “Revising the Holocaust,” as well as the previous three Revisionist History events here.

[1] Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 2017), 184-185.

[2] Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 399-400.

 

Reviewed: The 11th Annual Lore Kephart Lecture, “Democracy in Chains,” by Nancy MacLean

(Image from villanova.edu).

By Kyle Scripko

“It has become ever more obvious that American politics are in profound crisis, both in Washington and the states, hurtling downwards as we meet,” stated Nancy MacLean in the opening lines of her talk, “Democracy in Chains,” for the 11th Annual Lore Kephart Lecture. [1] The crisis MacLean referred to that night is a developing and long-planned attack on American democracy by the radical right. In her talk, MacLean primarily addressed what has gone mostly unnoticed in recent American political history: the billionaire-funded Libertarian Right and, more specifically, the influence of Charles Koch and James McGill Buchanan. Nancy MacLean spoke to her audience that night to inform them of her argument; the capitalist right has been working on a “stealth plan” over the last fifty years to fundamentally change the modern democratic system of governance of the United States of America.

In her recent book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, MacLean grapples with what she calls a possible “fifth-column assault on American democratic governance.”[2] MacLean states in her book that the term “fifth column” invokes the idea of “stealth supporters” who engage “in propaganda and even sabotage to prepare the way for its conquest.”[3] MacLean argued in her lecture that Charles Koch, the billionaire CEO of Koch Industries, is currently funding a movement within the Libertarian Right with a “cold-eyed calculated strategy.” She claimed that Koch learned from the rhetoric of the academic economist, James Buchanan, and that Koch hopes to transform our modern political institutions into a system that runs on what MacLean called, “free-reign capitalism and economic liberty.” However, there is a danger that lingers within this type of rhetoric. For Koch’s “stealth plan” to work, he must follow Buchanan’s advice very closely; “democracy must be enchained.”

The argument Nancy MacLean proposes in her book has stirred up serious controversy in both the political and academic spheres. Jennifer Burns from Stanford University calls MacLean’s book, “not a book of scholarship, but of partisanship, written to reinforce existing divides and confirm existing biases.”[4] Burns believes that MacLean enforces a strict binary political system rather than promoting a more open conversation of intellectual and political thought. On the other hand, Mel van Elteren of Tilburg University calls MacLean’s book “timely and highly relevant for a deeper understanding of the current political scene,” and claims that Democracy in Chains “adds a crucial storyline to the complex and multicausal conservative counterrevolution.”[5] No matter how controversial her argument may be, MacLean’s book carries serious implications for the future of American democracy.

During the lecture, MacLean followed a path similar to her book and gave much attention to Buchanan’s work during the late 1950s and 1960s. She stated that, when learning about Buchanan and Libertarianism, she came to learn about their perception of “public interest” and the “common good” of democracy. In the lecture, MacLean quoted Buchanan from a 2007 interview where he claimed, “‘that’s what I wanted to tear down, the hypocrisy of calling something in the public interest.’” She continued with the idea of “destroying” the public interest with her perception of Libertarianism. She argued that, for a Libertarian like James Buchanan, “there is no such thing as the common good.” MacLean went on to draw from an exemplary case that highlights the dangers of Buchanan’s rhetoric: Chile. In 1980, Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean government invited James Buchanan to Santiago to help create the “Constitution of Liberty;” a constitution that MacLean claimed to be made up of “locks and bolts” and that protects capitalists from government. She went on to warn the audience that this system of “locks and bolts” is coming to the United States thanks to Charles Koch and the billionaires who fund the Libertarian Right.

As for Charles Koch, MacLean is clearly worried about the scope of Koch Industries’ reach. MacLean claimed in her lecture that, when all connected, the “Koch Project” involves hundreds of organizations around the world that are “working to radically alter government and society, to bring this kind of free-reign capitalism into being without being honest with the people.” She argued that the type of government Koch is pushing for is that of mid-twentieth-century Virginia, one defined by oligarchy and racial segregation. MacLean believes that Koch’s vision would be a Libertarian’s dream, one laced with “rigged rules” of gerrymandering and voting suppression. This is the system, promoted by the Libertarian Right, which MacLean believes will leave our modern “democracy in chains.”

Toward the end of the lecture, MacLean told the audience that she discovered this topic through a series of circumstances. After reading reports of public-school closings in Prince Edward County, Virginia during the 1950s, MacLean came across James Buchanan. He was the Chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Virginia, and MacLean was surprised to find that he was in full economic support of the opening of what she called “white segregation academies,” or privatized schools, in Virginia. In 2013, Buchannan died and MacLean was given access to the historian’s dream, Buchanan’s untouched private archive at George Mason University. In this archive, she found files that revealed a complex system of collaborations headed by Charles Koch. MacLean discovered that this system used Buchanan’s ideas and involved politically engaged donors looking to change public policies with what MacLean referred to as a “stealth strategy.” By connecting the puzzle pieces she found in that archive, MacLean presents her audience with a new, shocking, and unsettling story.

Many of MacLean’s critics think her analysis was meant to spark divisiveness in an already desperate and tumultuous political climate. Although her work has faced criticism, MacLean has uncovered a system that has been in the making since the 1950s and has been progressing relatively undetected since then. Charles Koch, James Buchanan, and their influence on contemporary national and international politics is not something to dismiss. Her argument is one that anyone concerned with politics and American democracy needs to consider. Nancy MacLean concluded the lecture with a question that left the audience in an unnerving silence: “Is what this cause seeks, the kind of world that we want to live in, and bequeath to our children and our grandchildren?”

You can watch the entirety of Nancy MacLean’s Lecture, “Democracy in Chains,” here.

[1] Nancy MacLean, “Democracy in Chains,” The Lore Kephart ’86 Distinguished Historian Lecture Series (Lecture, Villanova University, Villanova, PA, September 26, 2019).

[2] Nancy MacLean, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America (New York: Penguin Books, 2018), xxxii.

[3] MacLean, xxxiii.

[4] Jennifer Burns, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America By Nancy MacLean,” History of Political Economy 50, no. 3 (2018): 648, http://doi.org/10.1215/00182702-7023786.

[5] Mel van Elteren, “Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America Nancy MacLean. Viking, 2017,” Journal of American Culture 41, no. 2, (2018): 225, https://doi.org/10.1111/jacc.12881.

Reviewed: “Revising the Cold War” (November 6th, 2019), Hosted by the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University

(Photo by Katarina Andersen. Image shows the “Revising the Cold War” panel).

By Michelle Chan

Consider the Cold War, a conflict of global scale that depended on fears of uncertainty and prompted national scrambling to maintain and strengthen imperial control. The actions and ideologies of hegemonic powers during the Cold War are felt in the 21st century. Those who lived through the Cold War continue to go about their lives in the world dramatically changed by the era, and important historical questions are yet to be answered. How deep does the Cold War go into global citizens’ minds, actions, institutions, and states? The Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest hosted the 3rd installment of the Revisionist History series, “Revising the Cold War,” on Wednesday, November 6th, 2019. The panel discussion explored some of the core questions and ways people have breathed meaning and debate into the Cold War.

The guest speakers present were: Alex Wellerstein, Assistant Professor at Stevens Institute of Technology; Meredith Oyen, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland; and Manu Bhagavan, Professor of History at Hunter College. Commentary was given by Villanova’s own David M. Barrett, Professor of Political Science. Wellerstein delved into the psychological aspect of the Cold War, which weaponized fear and emphasized the nation’s demonstrations of “developmental” prowess and informational secrecy. Various nations were demonstrating their “developmental” status by exhibiting technological advancements, while advocating that their own ideology was superior and keeping governmental inner workings hidden. The panelist’s discussion broke the bilateral dynamic of United States versus the Soviet Union by moving beyond the narrative of the iconic battle between capitalist and communist ideals armed with world-shaking artillery of the modern era, which was merely a portion of the conflicts brought upon by the Cold War, as the conflict was global and legacies of the Cold War are felt internationally.

To start, Paul Steege, the faculty director of the Lepage Center and mediator of the night’s event, set the tone of the discussion, as the act of historians revisiting and revising topics is often accompanied with “…a whiff of the dangerous.” The Cold War is far from a case closed scenario regarding its historical influence, especially as scholars increasingly unveil valuable connections from the Cold War to better understand the modern era. What’s more, the tendency for the Cold War to be branded with a layer of tense theatrics to illustrate the era of multi-national anxiety gives further insight into the psychological front (as fear became a politicized spectacle) and ideologies of the Cold War. One of the best practices to address an era built on tension and uncertainty is to offer something concrete, namely find some solid ground to build the conversation. Steege, thus, began the conversation, asking, “Who won the Cold War?”

The speakers all emphasized the value of readdressing the concept of the Cold War itself, by first challenging the preconceptions assigned to the Cold War. Bhagavan addressed the question by describing the scope of affected landscapes to include India and other countries previously thought to be unrelated to the conflict. He challenges common perspectives about the Cold War, as he went beyond nation-states, and suggested scholars include all people in a “Cold War World.” Bhagavan, instead, made an argument about the purpose of conflict, stating “the winner is imperialism.” Afterward, Oyen suggested the usefulness of using the “Cold War” as a tool of analysis. While global, the Cold War has limitations and he argued “…they’re connected to it but not determined by it,” thereby changing the conflict from an entity to a lens. Addressing the looming presence of nuclear weapons in Cold War rhetoric, Wellerstein turned the focus from the material threat towards the conflict’s birth of proxy wars and resulting casualties despite the “cold” status.

The Cold War encompasses a wide range of historical, political, and intellectual complexities. For Oyen, flexing the broad terminology is a “refinement” that scholars should pursue. As connections continue to pop up, and add to the behemoth of Cold War forces, they prompt the question: how should historians redraw their methodological parameters? As global as Cold War discussions are, Bhagavan stressed “field specificity.” Each nation experienced the Cold War in a different way. Bhagavan, who specializes in Indian Cold War history, highlighted the shift India experienced from being unrelated to the Cold War to becoming a central part of the narrative. The change from ‘unrelated’ to ‘related’ status entailed historians regarding India as a new access point to paper trails. India became relevant due to the nation’s participation in violent discourse and was deeply affected by Cold War imperialist agendas.

Steege led the conversation into the realm of violence, beyond “imagined violence,” as exhibited in nation-states in Africa, Asia, and other areas that suffered casualties from Cold War forces. Nevertheless, Oyen offered advice – “Embrace the power of ‘and.’” Rather than adopting an “either-or” perspective, the word “and” connects the interplay between the nations as effected by both Cold War activities and imperialist endeavors. The effects that led to violence were widespread and interconnected. Oyen emphasized the need to restore agency to the people, as opposed to granting the “Cold War” concept center stage, and restoring individuals to a “subject” status of analysis as opposed to “object.” Wellerstein further elaborated on the idea of agency with “loose power” – the use of the Cold War by those in the past as a vehicle to garner political support on a national level. Amidst discussions of key figures, Wellerstein offered a lite motif to analyze individuals and the tone of the Cold War – a battle of idealism and realism. As a reference to the beginning of the conversation, Barrett highlighted a large societal component embedded into the psyche of Cold War peoples, the influence of a genuine fear of global annihilation and the value of “winning” for the public and the nation.

What do we do with the aftermath? One of the major fronts of the Cold War resided in intimate spaces, within homes, like never before due to the growth of technology. The people witnessed the world more than ever. Nevertheless, the historian is also a product of cultural and social circumstances. The discussion unveiled some key pillars of the Cold War era: conquests of imperialism, ideological struggles of realism versus idealism, and the effects of society grappling with potential annihilation in the face of nuclear war. The question of the aftermath may lead to further inquiries, so what are the takeaways? How do we calculate the casualties of a Cold War? What are the roles of the people beyond the national level? Revisiting the Cold War gives historians the opportunity to test preconceptions of winning and losing, thereby tracing how deeper roots of the era feed global forces of diplomacy, ideology, and immigration. The “Revising the Cold War” discussion established that violence as a means of exercising power, also in the form of perceived threats, not only defined the era but shapes how we understand and live in our world today.

The videos of the first three panel discussions, as well as information about the next three panels for the spring semester of 2020, can be found here.

Reviewed: “Revising the Civil War” (October 30, 2019), Hosted by the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University

(Image from nps.org. This photo shows Confederate reenactors at the Centennial of Pickett’s Charge at Gettysburg National Military Park on July 3rd, 1963).

By Keeley Tulio

Over 150 years have passed since the end of the American Civil War, yet the causes, consequences, and memory of the war are still a hot topic of conversation for the American public. A massive debate arose in recent years about the fate of Confederate monuments as Americans contested what to do with these physical commemorations of the Confederacy and its values, and many people protested for the removal of these monuments. In 2015, 21-year-old Dylan Roof murdered nine African American people at the Emmanual AME Church in Charlestown, South Carolina. When photos of Roof posing with a Confederate battle flag appeared online, a debate about the removal of the flag and Confederate monuments from public grounds heightened. White supremacists held hundreds of rallies across the nation in the months following. At the 2017 Unite the Right rally, white supremacists gathered to defend the General Lee statue in Charlottesville, VA, and justified their actions with “Lost Cause” rhetoric, and one anti-racist counter-protestor was murdered.[1] The wave of fervent debate and violence surrounding Confederate commemoration in recent years illustrates how contentions about Civil War memory has social and political ramifications in the present. On October 30, 2019, the Albert Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest hosted the second of its six-part “Revisionist History” series, “Revising the Civil War.” The invited scholars discussed how historians’ lived experiences and present context can influence the historiography of the Civil War.

Jason Steinhauer, Director of the Lepage Center, moderated the event. The panel featured three Civil War scholars: Rachel Shelden, Director of the George and Ann Richards Civil War Era Center at Penn State University; Jill Ogline Titus, Associate Director of Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College; and Steven T. Phan, National Park Ranger and historian for the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Forty-five minutes into the panel discussion, Judith Giesberg, Villanova Professor of History and Director of the Last Seen Project, joined the conversation.

Using the revisionist theme of the event, the panelists spoke about how revisions of the Civil War narrative occurred over time and how those revisions influenced the historiography of the Civil War. Shelden remarked how quickly after the last shot of the war was fired, there was an effort to control the narrative of the Civil War. She elaborated that white Southerners created the “Lost Cause” narrative to revise slavery’s role in the causes of the war. This myth has several parts, including the belief that slavery did not cause the conflict, African Americans enjoyed and benefited from slavery, that the South would have given up slavery, and that the South was not defeated fairly.

Phan built on Shelden’s thoughts by explaining how contemporary politics controlled the narrative of the war. As a National Parks Ranger, he witnessed how contemporary politics influenced visitor interactions with Civil War sites. One visitor remarked to Phan that his previous visit to one of the Civil War Defenses of Washington sites occurred when segregation was still in effect in the 1960s. As a part of the National Parks, the Civil War sites in Washington DC were not exempt from realities like segregation. Experiencing the site under segregation reinforced for that visitor that racial tensions influenced the war and persisted in the 1960s. This visitor could not learn about the war without considering the racial context that he lived in as well.

The context of the 1960s changed how people commemorated the war, as Titus referenced with her discussion of the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. Politicians, social reformers, historians, and other members of the public celebrated the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg in 1963 for their own uses. The purposes of the commemoration included: the effort to foster and portray unity as a nation in the Cold War, to serve as a base for people to draw upon to fight back against the supposed tyranny of the federal government, and to exist as a light for a just and unified society. These uses of the 1963 celebration of the Battle of Gettysburg all had arguments and evidence to support their purposes; however, each purpose served our society differently, primarily in ways that were racially exclusive.

The panelists asserted that revisions of Civil War historiography need to expand the narrative to include the actions of people of color as participants of the war. Giesberg mentioned that enslaved peoples themselves helped cause the conflict, as they ran away from their “masters” and undermined the economy that depended on them. Phan suggested that historians of the Civil War need to consider Asian Americans when discussing the war. He recounted how there are dozens of accounts of Asian Americans serving in the Union Army and Navy. For Phan, including these stories from the war helped him foster connections between visitors and the narrative of the Civil War, for the racially diverse visitor populations could contemplate the Civil War as a multiracial conflict, and multiracial history.

The historiography of the Civil War will continue to evolve. Titus asserted that public interest in the Civil War is changing, not dying out. People are still willing to question the war and its causes, which sparks new modes of scholarly inquiry. America during the Civil War was diverse, and there are still more stories of the Civil War to tell. The role of pubic historians, according to Titus, is to help create conversations where people can understand how the narratives of the Civil War are about battles for power. To control the story of the past is to influence the present. The Lepage Center’s “Revising the Civil War” speakers challenged how we can conceptualize the social and political utility of the Civil War narrative and what that utility means for our present.

[1] “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, February 1, 2019. https://www.splcenter.org/20190201/whose-heritage-public-symbols-confederacy.

The videos of the first three panel discussions, as well as information about the next three panels for the spring semester of 2020, can be found here.

Reviewed: “Revising Early America” (September 18, 2019), Hosted by the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest at Villanova University

(Image from nps.gov. This painting, by Sydney King, depicts the sale of enslaved African peoples in Jamestown in 1619, which was 93 years after enslaved African peoples were brought to South Carolina by the Spanish).

By Kyle Scripko

“Our mission,” affirmed Jason Steinhauer at the first installment of Revisionist History on 18 September 2019, “is to bring history to bear on contemporary issues… If you look in contemporary culture, you will find references to revisionist history in many places.” As the Director for the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and mediator of the “Revising Early America” panel, Steinhauer opened the talk by asking the audience questions about the complications of the term “revisionist history,” including: Who here thinks the term ‘revisionist history’ has negative connotations? Who here thinks it has positive connotations? Revisionist history, as Steinhauer implied, has a complicated past that demands careful attention to detail and responsible revisions from historians. Although the topic of the panel was “Revising Early America,” the overarching theme of the discussion, as well as the five other installments of Revisionist History for the academic year, was to probe the question, “what is revisionist history?”

Featured on the panel were Philip C. Mead, the Director of Curatorial Affairs and Chief Historian at the Museum of the American Revolution; Ana Lucia Araujo, a member of the International Scientific Committee of the UNESCO Slave Route Project and Professor of History at Howard University; and Karin Wulf, the Executive Director of the Omohundro Institute at the College of William and Mary and co-founder of Women Also Know History. The panel was met with comments by Maghan Keita, the Founding Director of the Africana Studies and Global Interdisciplinary Studies programs and Professor of History and Global Interdisciplinary Studies at Villanova University.

The first half of the panel discussion focused on the theme of history from below, or history of the common person. The discussion started with the topic of the 400th anniversary of 1619, the year of the first documented arrival of enslaved Africans in the colony of Virginia. However symbolic this date may be, Ana Lucia Araujo pointed out that “slavery and the Atlantic slave trade… were going on for more than a century at that moment [1619].” If one forgets about the actions and movements of Africans in the Americas prior to this date, such as the people Araujo studies in seventeenth-century Brazil, then one forgets an important piece of early American history.

While on the topic of forgotten early American history from below, Karin Wulf chimed into the conversation by referring to her work against the “East Coast bias.” She recognized that “the American story… is not all rooted in a beginning in Jamestown or Plymouth or Philadelphia.” Rather, Wulf is a historian of early America who believes that looking at places like North Dakota and Colorado during the early American period is just as important as the first colonies. She fights for their histories and argues that they are foundational to the early American story. Without them, “we miss the richness and diversity which has been at the foundation of the American story from the very beginning.”

Philip Mead believes that the early American story also misses the “richness and diversity” of the everyday American Revolutionary soldier. He argued that “the revolutionaries themselves were revisionists… they were creating a narrative of the American Revolution during the Revolution itself.” His dissertation at Harvard largely focuses on the everyday soldier in the Revolutionary Army and how their diaries reflect the outlook of not highly political and ideological revolutionaries, but of ordinary people describing their day-to-day struggle during the American Revolution. Mead went on to suggest that the idea of “revisionist history” was a concept that was in play in early America, “even the American Revolutionaries didn’t agree when the Revolution was or when it happened.”

The second half of the panel discussion focused on coming to terms with the uncomfortable fact that the early American story is a fatal one. Steinhauer states that “the early American story is violent, and it includes bloodshed; it includes individuals who were killed or enslaved or who suffered.” After discussing the illegal slave trade that occurred following the abolishment of the legal slave trade, Araujo continued with this point of coming to terms with the violent past of the early Americas. “We are the product of this violence…” stated Araujo, “I think that it is important we recognize that. To be able to come to terms with this past… and not construct a history that tends to glorify certain individuals… [we must understand] this difficult past… [so that we can] deal with the problems that persist in the present.”

Wulf carried the conversation forward following Araujo’s point and called early American history the “most important topic to study” when it comes to discussing the foundation of democracy and the American experience. She believes that understanding instances of violence in early American history is important as it reminds the American people that “democracy is something we struggle for every single day… It’s not something that was handed to us.” Mead hit on a similar note as Wulf when he stated that recognizing and studying violence in early America shows just how “fragile the American democratic experiment is… it gives you a sense of how new it is.”

About an hour into the discussion, the panel was joined by Maghan Keita. “History is an interpretive art…” stated Keita, “it is subject to this question of revision.” Related to the discussions of the other panelists, Keita proposed to reanalyze another topic of early America: the question of “symbolism in historical production.” He introduced the idea of “bondsmanship” as a strong example, arguing that “most of us who come at the very beginning are in some form of unfree labor relationship.” However, much like the topics that were explored by the other historians on the panel, Keita recognized that this relationship is “a symbol that we don’t explore.” Responsibly revising the historiography and language of the early American story to reflect a more whole and inclusive picture is a movement that Keita, as well as the other three panelists, strive for and highlight in their own writings.

With the goal of bringing in scholars who have worked on revising “key points” in history, the Lepage Center hit the nail on the head with the first panel discussion of Revisionist History. As Karin Wulf pointed out in the discussion, “the point of revisionism is that it is a recognition of how powerful history is and how powerfully it works in our lives all the time.” Not only was this discussion an illuminating one about the unexplored parts of the early American story, but it was also a call for the adoption of a more positive outlook on the term “revisionist history.” With such a strong start to the series, the “Revising Early America” event, as well as the live panels of “Revising the Civil War” from October and “Revising the Cold War” from November, are a must-see for anyone interested in the discussion of revising history.

The videos of the first three panel discussions, as well as information about the next three panels for the spring semester of 2020, can be found here.

Sister Cora Marie Billings – Philadelphia’s Pioneering Black Nun

Villanova launched Black History Month on Feb 4 at 8PM in the St. Thomas of Villanova Church. Continuing our theme of great Black Women in the Civil Rights Movement, Sister Cora Marie Billings gave a talk that opened many eyes to the difficulties of pioneering change in the American Roman Catholic Church. She did so in a way that only someone with her clout, wit, and simultaneously soft-spoken and forthright manner could. Born the only child in a Black Catholic family of a desegregationist legacy, Sister Cora went on to a prosperous career in furthering the fight for freedom, desegregation, and the rights of women in America through the Catholic church, and she continues doing that work today.

Sister Cora Marie Billings was the granddaughter of John Aloysius Lee, Sr., and the first Black recipient of the Vercelli Award from the Archdiocese of Philadelphia and the Holy Name Society, a national confraternity. He also has a cultural center named for him in West Philadelphia. He was the first Black man allowed in Philadelphia’s Catholic high school league basketball in 1902. In fact, when the league tried to exclude Lee, his teammates decided they would boycott unless he was allowed to play.

Later, Lee’s daughter and Sister Cora’s aunt, Mary Paul Lee would have a similar experience of exclusion at West Catholic High in Philadelphia, but her teammates would not rally around her. By this specific example, the life experience of Cora’s family shows the ways in which progress against individual and institutional racism happens in fits and starts, and the civil and social history of this country is more complex than we sometimes allow.

Sister Cora’s aunts were both nuns – Mary Paul Lee and Mary Agnes Lee joined the Oblate Sisters of Providence, one of four orders in Pennsylvania taking Black women in the 1940s. The other orders which accepted Black sisters being the Franciscan Sisters of Mill Hill, Franciscan Handmaids of the Heart of Mary, and the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Sister Cora was candid and strong in telling her tale. She said that she has often been asked about how to maintain a relationship with a church that enslaved her ancestors. Sister Cora Marie argued that you cannot change most organizations from the outside, especially an organization like the Roman Catholic Church. She stated further that pushing the Church forward on civil issues is God’s work, and that God’s work, no matter how difficult, has to be done.

Sister Cora entered the RSM Motherhouse in Merion, PA on August 22, 1956. Her mother was fine with her decision to enter religious life; she had two sisters that were women religious, and her older brother was in the seminary until he had to leave to take care of their mom. Her father was not as excited, but he did tell her to always be the best she could be. She learned later that the only photograph he ever kept in his wallet was one of her in the old habit of the Sisters of Mercy. He was supportive and proud even though he was not explicitly encouraging.

Dr. Williams asked her about the circumstances surrounding the legacy of “being the first or the only” in so many realms of her life. Sister Cora responded half-jokingly that if she had known in her youth what she knows now, she probably would not be here. Lucky for us that she did not. She said that she was inspired by her aunts, and made her decision to enter religious life at her aunt’s going-away party. She was taught by seven different religious orders in school, and they all positively influenced her perspective on religious life. But, she said, “I don’t know that I knew or thought about all the repercussions.”

Asked about the warnings she might have experienced at the age of 17, she mentioned some peculiar circumstances. In 1956, before her entrance, she had to be interviewed three times as part of her application process, unique among her sisters.

The Sisters of Mercy were founded in Ireland in 1830, and first came to Philadelphia in 1861. Before 1945, all the Sisters of Mercy in this area were Irish, except for “fourteen or fifteen Germans.” Mother Bernard was the one to change all that – she brought in the first Italian, the first Lebanese, and the first African American sisters. In 1961, when Sister Cora was sent to Levittown, it was Mother Bernard that sent her. The Myers family were the first African Americans in Levittown in 1957; they left in 1961 after a cross was burned on their yard in March, the culmination of several years of abuse and harassment. Sister Cora moved to Levittown in August.

She taught one hundred (100) first grade students at St. Michael’s, all on her own. She never had trouble with students, declaring that racism is something children learn from adults, not something they come into the world with. She said that half of the school was physically in the area where Black families lived, in neighboring Bristol, but that there were no Black students in her classes.

A bit later in her career, Sister Cora was sent as the representative of the Sisters of Mercy to the August 1968 National Black Sisters Conference at Mount Mercy College. The conference was formed after women were excluded from the National Black Clergy Caucus which met in April of that year following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

When she moved to Virginia she realized the truth of the adage that “God closes one door and opens another.” Sister Cora was the first Black nun to be a Campus Minister at Virginia State University. When the leader of her home church of St. Elizabeth’s went to the monastery, Bishop Sullivan asked Sister Cora to run a church, making her the first African American woman to lead a Catholic church in the United States (and also making her a question on jeopardy). She was one of nine women in the position, two of whom were mothers and laypeople. Sister Cora was Pastoral Coordinator at St. Elizabeth’s from 1990 to 2004. She eventually worked for the state of Virginia as Deputy Director of the Human Rights Council.

In the Q&A, Sister Cora talked about the entrance age of women to religious orders, pointing-out that Sisters of Mercy, like most of their contemporaries, will no longer allow one to join until their 20s, whereas they used to allow teens to enter in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.

Sister Cora also spoke to the work she is now engaged in and the current political moment in Virginia, where the governor was recently outed for a photo he took in blackface with a friend dressed as a Klan member, and the lieutenant governor also confessed to wearing blackface at a party. She said that she voted for Ralph Shearer Northram to be governor, but that she believes he needs to resign. She said that people all over the country have trouble dealing with racism, tending to state defensively “I’m not a racist.”

Sister Cora said that the longer we wait to accept and assess, the longer it will take to solve the problems of exclusion and oppression in our society. She said that people need to be honest about where they are and how they feel, and to acknowledge privilege. She said that most people have some degree of privilege in one dimension or another, expressing her own privileged position as , giving her an opportunity to do things she otherwise would not have been able to do. She recommended the book The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wherein it is written that “the oppressed become the oppressors.” Force and hierarchy are imposed and refracted.

Sister Cora said that her vision of the church moving forward, and her message for people of color and people fighting for justice is to be hopeful and to have faith. She said we must live up to that faith and that we cannot think in terms of what “they” need to do, but rather in terms of “we,” to tell ourselves that “I have to be involved” in order to make the world a better place.

This summary of the events pales in comparison to Sister Cora’s own retelling of her story, available below:

The Second Annual History Career Day

by Andrea L. Spencer (@__aerdna___)

On Friday, February 8th, 2019, the Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest sponsored its second annual History Career Day.

The day began with a presentation by Emily Swafford, Director of Academic and Professional Affairs at the American Historical Association. Swafford acknowledged that it can be hard to explain what you learn in a history degree and articulate the skills you learned that can help you get a job. Swafford assuaged fears of not getting a job or not making money with statistics that the AHA collects. Swafford also focused on how to articulate the “soft skills” historians have into words and phrases employers want to hear. For example, history majors learn how change happens, how to find, process, and communicate information that is new to them, and how to make judgements and evaluations on complex issues.

After Dr. Swafford’s presentation, the Lepage Center provided lunch and an hour for attendees to informally network and she their experiences as history students–both undergraduate and graduate.

After lunch was a panel made up of 3 Villanova history alumni–Mark Kehres, Kathryn Szumanski, and Alain Duroseau–and moderated by Dr. Paul Steege. Each panelist described their career paths after Villanova and how their history degree helped them get where they are today.An audience member asked the panelists how their skills as a historian translate to their day-to-day job responsibilities. Duroseau replied that being a historian teaches you to be able to make an argument and support it convincingly, which is important in any job. Szumanski said that the most valuable skill she learned was how to put everything in context, which means learning from and understanding the past and how that informs present and future projects. Kehres believed that the most important skill he learned was clear and concise communication.

When asked specifically about applying to jobs, the panelists offered three main pieces of advice:

  1. Apply to any job within your interests. Many employers are interested in having all majors apply. They want diversity and creative thinking.
  2. Focus your job search by industry and then see how your skills apply.
  3. Know that, as a history major, you learn how to think about the world, how to problems solve, and how to communicate solutions.

The final session of the day was a workshop by Jhaakira Jacobs, the Assistant Director of Career Development at Villanova’s Career Center. Jacobs primary focused on how to write a great cover letter. Her advice was:

  • Begin with an intro paragraph about how you heard about the position. This is a good place for name-dropping any connections you have to the company.
    • Tell the reader why this organization appeals to you. Do your research, and decide if the company aligns with your values and interests.
  • In the second paragraph, pull from the transferable skills you learned in the classroom, from your research paper, and your presentations.
    • Here, you should mention 2-3 qualifications/experiences, what you took away from them, and how that is applicable to this organization.
  • In the third paragraph, you want to reiterate your interests and tell them you will follow up soon.

Jacobs also said to follow up on a job posting 2 weeks after the close date. If you are struggling to describe yourself in your cover letter, get feedback from supervisors and professors about your strengths and talents. When writing your letter, a good way to start is to pick out the key words in the post and brainstorm how you are qualified for them.

All in all, it was a successful and informative day that left attendees feeling positive about their position as job candidates after graduation. The Lepage Center always welcomes feedback on all its events, so please drop by SAC 410 or email lepage@villanova.edu with your comments!

——

 

If you want to learn more about getting a job as a history major, here are some sites to check out:

https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/aha-career-center

https://www.historians.org/jobs-and-professional-development/career-resources

https://villanova.peoplegrove.com/page/about

https://www1.villanova.edu/villanova/provost/careers/plan/onlineresources.html

 

Histories of Democracy Pt 2: Global Perspectives – Revolutions and Empire (Roundtable and Q&A)

(All pictures taken from the Lepage Center website)

On November 12, 2018, the Lepage Center continued the conversation about perspectives on democracy, hosting scholars from across the country who study the emergence of representative government across the world. In the first part of our coverage, we recapped the introductory statements. Here we will summarize some of the cross-talk and the question-and-answer portion of the event.

To begin with, Dr. Feinberg rejected the idea of graduating to democracy, quoting Vaclav Havel – a Soviet-era dissident and then the Czech Republic’s first president. In an address to the U.S. Congress he made in 1990, he said, “as long as people are people, democracy in the full sense of the word will always remain an ideal. One may approach democracy as one would a horizon, in ways that may be better or worse, but which can never fully be attained. In this sense, you too are only approaching democracy.” Democracy is a process which pushes us toward further questions of representation.

Ms. Ortashvili agreed with contesting the idea of that graduation. She said this idea fermented a lot of cynicism in post-Soviet countries where they face new issues for which they are unprepared and unwarned, and that this explains some of the regression in places like Hungary and Poland. There continues to be an aspirational character to EU and NATO membership for countries like Ukraine, but that when you receive the protections involved there remains the question of whether the grass is truly greener. The alternative, though, remains Russian dominance.

This brought Dr. Steege to ask about how possibilities are limited in the creation of and participation in a state. Dr. Gaffield pointed to a racialized concept of civilization in the nineteenth century which precluded the early-twentieth century idea of ‘modernization’ or this late twentieth/early twenty-first century idea of ‘graduation.’ Elites in major powers questioned the ability of Haiti’s population to self-govern, just as they would later question the ability of the citizens in post-colonial states and sometimes post-Soviet countries. Dr. Abugideiri addressed the issue that our inability to conceive of Islamism as something neutral or positive as opposed to collapsing it into “terrorism” excludes people from politics and creates the opportunity or space for radicalism. [1]

Dr. Feinberg pointed out our predisposition in the West to presume that democracy is what every person, place, and nation-state necessarily aspires to limits our understanding of global political plurality. There are places that have advanced and progressed without assuming American political ideals. She also said that there is an institutional inability for theoretical democracy to take emotion into account, and that a lot of conflicts arise from the emotional human urge to run over the rules of democracy to expedite individual wants. Dr. Gaffield pointed-out how the Haitian case, the common dependence on family and community socioeconomic systems was seen as hazardous to the state. The emphasis on individualism which is championed in democracy has an opportunity to be destructive because of the way it can be used to disrupt nongovernmental support systems.

maia

Ms. Ortashvili said that the dark side of democracy is that it is a menu – all post-Soviet states claim to be democracies in the words of their constitutions, but they are all varying levels of authoritarian. They create “managed democracies” which coerce popular choice through limiting the freedom and fairness of elections as well as limiting the possible entrants. Dr. Feinberg said that the people of Czechoslovakia in 1989 wanted democracy as well as socialism – which is in stark opposition to the Western imagination which ties democracy to capitalism. Dr. Feinberg was observing that some of the cynicism in post-Soviet states toward democracy has to do with the way in which people like the citizens of the former Czechoslovakia were force-fed capitalism alongside the representative government they wanted. Much as the manipulation of the democratic menu to grant legitimacy to authoritarian states is a dark side of democracy, so is its association with economic systems which do not fulfill everyone’s needs.

Dr. Abugideiri pointed-out that government and scholarly discussions of the Middle East often address the region with a problematic lack of understanding for the diverse people, cultures, and political histories of the spaces. The upside for the people there tends to be that democracy is often understood as a utilitarian facility for creating economic opportunity. It is just not necessarily romanticized ideals.

Dr. Gaffield tied Haiti in to this story of misunderstanding by arguing that Haiti’s revolution has long been panned as a failure and deprived of meaning. Dr. Feinberg posited that the portrayal of history is relative to the agendas of governments to perpetuating a certain narrative, philosophy and ideology, something contemporary historians – and probably most people that think about society – always have in mind.

The crowd question-and-answer session began with an audience member asking about the compatibility nationalism has or lacks with democracy. Dr. Feinberg explained that the basic tension is that nationalism is inherently exclusive while democracy is ideally inclusive. She and Ms. Ortashvili both expressed the issues of ethnic tensions in diverse spaces, a common problem among imperialized or post-imperial spaces. Dr. Feinberg pointed-out that Czechs have a tendency to see democracy as an inherent cultural trait but in so doing they gloss over minorities like Hungarians and Germans in their country, and sometimes they benevolently incorporate these groups but sometimes it leads to repression. Ms. Ortashvili said that “nationalism” for her elicited thoughts of civil wars and lack of compromise. In Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia this is often a case of people living within territories of disputed national ownership for three decades. Dr. Feinberg saw it as representative of the tension between the needs of the state and the needs of the individual, and nationalism as a way to promote state needs over individual needs when using the rhetoric and practice of competition between nations.

Dr. Steege asked Dr. Abugideiri about the way that nationalism fit into the democratic dream in post-Ottoman states in the Interwar period. Dr. Abugideiri discussed the emergence of nationalism in the early twentieth century as utile for resistance to imperial power, and the curiosity of nationalists claiming secular nationalist democracy as a philosophical rallying point considering the point of contact for people of the Middle East with western democracy would have largely come in a non-democratic, imperialist expression. These people were in turn able to use western imperialism as a point of distinction for reimagining democracy.

 

abugideiri

A student in the crowd asked about the necessity of the state in democracy and the philosophical tradition of the state as a perpetuator of inequality and oppression. He asked if it were possible or advisable for the state be shorn from democracy, and what happens when it is? Dr. Abugideiri answered this by pointing to radical Islamists, some of whom do not necessarily see the world in terms of nation-states so much as a space for a Caliphate, a pan-Islamic empire. She pointed back to the idea that there might be people in the world that do not preconceive that American/Western liberal democratic ideals are something aspire to. Dr. Steege pointed to the way that non-state actors in Haiti were critical to the independence movement there, where Dr. Gaffield pointed to the myth of Haiti being completely isolated until the country was acknowledge by France.

Dr. Gaffield said that de facto recognition of the country came through legal and illegal trade with trades from other countries – naming the Dutch and Danish empires, Britain, and the United States – before the formal recognition by the French. These mercantilists were in fact also petitioning their governments to recognize the country for their own business endeavors, informally engaging in a non-political or semi-political state-building project; they were “unofficial consuls.” Dr. Feinberg concluded that, as the first president of Czechoslovakia (Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk) said, it is the duty of the true democrat not to act democratically only in parliament, but in everyday life because democracy is not just a form of government but a way of life. The onus for maintaining democracy rests with everyone, all of us whom have the responsibility of creating a truly democratic society.

Video of the event:

 

[1] There was a question I wanted to ask but did not have the chance to: Christianity is seen so often as essential to the American character, so why do we have a tendency to exclude Islam from the political conversation? Moreover, in Eastern Europe and Central Eurasia, is there a parallel to the hold of religion on politics? I think the ongoing Moscow-Constantinople schism speaks to this issue somewhat.

MLK Keynote: The Legacy of Dr. King and the History of Antiracism

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

The keynote speech for Villanova’s Martin Luther King Week was given by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi last Wednesday, January 23, at the Connelly Center’s Villanova Room. Dr. Kendi is the founding director of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center at American University in Washington, D.C. In 2016, his New York Times-bestselling book Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racial Ideas in America won the National Book Award.

One major theme of the presentation was that progress against racism has not been socially ubiquitous and unchallenged; rather, its history runs parallel to a history of racism which is increasingly, insidiously masked and sophisticated. Dr. Kendi also argued that one’s actions and intentions could be racist or antiracist but not “not-a-racist;” there is no middle ground to perch oneself on.

But perhaps the most important theme was that racist thinking does not necessarily preclude racist policy. Dr. Kendi proposed that the reason why we have a racist society is not because policymakers are ignorant of the humanity of people with different ethnic backgrounds and somatic features than them. Rather, it is elite economic, political, and cultural self-interest that informs the creation of the legal rules that trap Black people in poverty and oppression.

Dr. Kendi stressed the importance of remembering that Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given at the March for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, D.C., was not the end of his story. In some ways it was a beginning. Dr. Kendi wants to learn and teach more about the King who was after Washington and Selma. That is the radical who was transformed into an anti-war advocate, who saw his impulse for a National Civil Rights Movement transformed into a World Human Rights Revolution.

Dr. Kendi stressed to us that this interrogation of Dr. King’s legacy required an understanding of the history of racial ideas, which is the history of Black America, and therefore America at large. He said that we are driven into complacency by accepting the ahistorical idea of a teleological march to progress because racist progress marches along with it.

Dr. Kendi inquired into the nature of ‘I’m-not-a-racism,’ clarifying that it is the denial of the existence of racism. This is not denial in a sense of fighting against racism, but a rhetorical denial which prevents action. The proponents of tactics of racial oppression have always claimed to be something other than racist.

In early modernity, enslavers relied on the Hamitic myth, claiming that Noah’s cursed son Ham was the ancestor of all Africans, and that therefore it was God’s law that we be enslaved.

When phrenology and physiognomy came about, pseudoscience was utilized to propel the idea that Africans were a lower subspecies, not quite human, and so it was not ethically or morally wrong to keep us in bondage.

Now, as mass incarceration is perpetuated by the War on Drugs and the expansion of for-profit prisons, the refrain is that the Black and Latinx people targeted by over-policing are dangerous people from dangerous neighborhoods.

In none of these instances is the system held responsible for the suffering it inflicts on people. In each case, the oppressed are considered beholden to an oppressive existence by intrinsic failures.

Either, as racists say, we are inferior people; or, as antiracists say, there are racist policies. Dr. Kendi argues that many Americans want to stand in the middle – they will accept that there are racist policies, but will shrug at them, and insist that these policies are not a sufficient impediment to warrant being challenged.

Dr. King would find this insufficient reasoning, as we all should. Dr. King believed that “when a people are mired in oppression, they realize deliverance only when they have accumulated the power to make change.” We have to accumulate that power, we have to make that change, and we must recognize these problems; as Dr. Kendi put it, the history of racism is one of denial, while that of antiracism is one of confession.

Dr. Kendi declared that Dr. King’s perspective of antiviolent protest was transformed by the civil unrest he saw from 1965 to 1967. Dr. King went to Watts in 1965 to condemn violence and was called a hypocrite. After seeing the Hough riots in Cleveland in 1966 and the Detroit Uprising in 1967 he realized he could not chide the oppressed about violence while his government was the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.” But when he criticized the U.S. government for the War in Vietnam and began his Poor People’s Campaign, he was met with incredulity and the questioning of his sanity. He was murdered not long after.

Dr. Kendi implored us to call for immediate equality, we need to call for more than we think is possible, and work for it until it is accomplished. We cannot despair, much as we need to not be naïve; in order to make change, we have to believe in it.

Dr. Kendi’s presentation seemed intended to provoke and inspire. I certainly felt inspired afterward. The questions were almost universally from students, but they seemed less interested in the past and the history of antiracism. They were concerned with building on Dr. King’s legacy and what to do now.

Dr. Kendi did not pretend to have all of the answers, but he put forward some possible solutions. The first question was about police shootings and how to curb them. Dr. Kendi said that police should be governed by the people that they serve: hiring, firing, and investigative power should be held in the hands of the citizens.

The transparency mechanisms currently in place should not be so easily rerouted – officers should not be able to turn body cameras off. Dr. Kendi also suggested that police should be paid better – more money should mean a higher requirement of qualifications and stricter scrutiny of who we allow to carry a guy and a badge.

In the Q&A, Dr. Kendi stated that the perception of “racist” as a “fixed category,” a tattoo which defines someone as a “bad person” has created a fear which prevents people from interrogating their actions and their privileges. Racist is a defining adjective that is not a reflection of a whole person but rather of what an individual sees and says in a given moment; it is correctible.

Dr. Kendi also responded to a question about the ability of our government to do anything besides perpetuate white supremacy. Dr. Kendi said that we are governed by power, which he defined as policymakers, and policy – the powers that have been have perpetuated racist policy, but antiracist policymakers can make antiracist policy.

Another question led Dr. Kendi to stress that people have been taught that we can only create change by educating people, and that some people that know that a system of oppression based on racial hierarchy which situates whites on top and Blacks at the bottom does not exist merely because of ignorance. While it may be possible to separate the consumers of such ideas from the ideas, it is not possible to separate their producers.

But Dr. Kendi also implored the questioner to challenge those uncomfortable with that rhetoric. Ask them to define what a racist idea is, and to define another basic concept. As Dr. Kendi put it, “a bird should be called a bird, a blue chair should be a blue chair, a racist idea should be called a racist idea.”

A student from the law school used Dr. King’s familiar quote on disappointment with the white moderate to ask how one compels that large, heterogenous, amorphous group to challenge racism. Dr. Kendi responded that those who straddle the racism-antiracism fence may believe somewhere within them that racism should change, but they are not willing to sacrifice anything to support policies which will create change. To inspire them to incite change, they have to be confronted about the ways in which their denial of racism is not based in reality and instructed in the ways that oppressive policies also affect them.

Shortly thereafter, Villanova University President Rev. Peter M. Donohue, OSA, PhD concluded the talk with a warm word of thanks to Dr. Kendi, saying that we definitely know how to talk about making a better world, but we often fail at living-up to that ambition. Father Peter told Dr. Kendi that there was room for him at Villanova if ever he gets tired of residing in the capital.

Hopefully we will see him again soon, and we will be practicing what we have been instructed. To take up the legacy of Dr. King, to make this a country worthy of his sacrifices and those of all the women and men, Black, white, and other that marched and struggled, lived and died with him, we must accept that racism has not gone quietly into the night. We must push it out of our society.

Climate Change Town Hall

by Kevin Fox Jr (@kevinfoxjr)

(Cover photo provided by Dr. Paul Rosier)

Global climate change is harder to deny every day, though some fix their mouths and policies to do it nonetheless. According to NASA, seventeen of the eighteen hottest years on record have taken place since 2001; the exception was 1998. It makes sense that the Villanova community is concerned about the phenomenon. From 1:30 PM to a little bit after 3 PM this past Friday, January 25th, Villanova University hosted a Climate Change Town Hall in the Connelly Center Cinema. The focal word of the day was “sustainability,” but it stands to reason that we could have further-investigated what that meant.

The on-stage panel was composed of thirteen members of the faculty, staff, and undergraduate student body that are concerned about the ongoing damage to the world’s climate and Villanova University’s contributions to that destruction. That people came out from all across campus – including across the tracks at the Charles Widger School of Law – showed solidarity across disciplines regarding the commitment of the university to contribute to transforming our way of life to be more sustainable. Dr. Paul Rosier of the History and Sustainability Studies Program and Dr. Jean Lutes from the English Department began with the introductions and a statement of purpose for the meeting.

Dr. Rosier pointed-out that, despite a wind power petition signed and sent to the President’s office in 2006, our university still runs on unsustainable fuel sources and, moreover, that as a Catholic University we have a collective responsibility to not destroy the planet we live on. He stressed that those with the least resources will suffer the most as we enter ever-more-disastrous periods of climate change. Dr. Lutes said that we are currently on pace to leave the world in a worse place than we found it and that the meeting was taking place to cultivate positive action, to put further weight behind an Action Proposal that has been sent to the Strategic Planning Committee because the New Strategic Plan does not account for climate change. The petition that was put forth thirteen years ago had a goal of carbon neutrality by 2050; the Action Proposal wants to move that up twenty years.

Dr. Amanda Grannas, who teaches Chemistry and is Associate Vice Provost for Research, was the first of the eleven speakers assembled to present. She spoke to the lifechanging experience of interacting with indigenous people in Barrow, Alaska, reminded us that “climate change has a real impact on real people.” Furthermore, Dr. Grannas warned us not to demonize those of our fellow Americans that are not [yet] on the same page with regard to climate change. The facts of the matter have long been obscured by the powers of a wealthy energy lobby.

Biology sophomore and chair of the Villanova Environmental Group, Alexa Schoeneborn argued that her experience has shown her that students across campus want to know the school is doing its part to combat climate change. Maeve Kavanaugh, a senior at the Villanova School of Business and member of the Student Sustainability Committee talked about the culture shock she experienced coming from California seeing, for instance, the preponderance of one-use materials at Villanova. She advocated that buildings should be metered individually for their power usage and that we should have an electric shuttle system. Kavanaugh said that the university needs to be a leader in sustainability as we are in research, scholarship, fellowship, and sports; and that sustainability should be included in every curriculum, rather than something students need to go out of the way to learn.

Dr. Ruth McDermott-Levy, Associate professor of Nursing and Director of the Center for Global and Public Health, told us about her experience doing research in Finland on a Fulbright grant. They have already had a rise of two degrees Celsius and they are not prepared, despite their affluence. Dr. McDermott-Levy said that, as environmental degradation continues, the quality and nutritional value of our food is decreasing. Dr. McDermott-Levy stressed that we need a system change, that this is an issue of human spirit, and that we need to challenge ourselves and our institutions to be willing to make those changes.

Dr. Samantha Chapman from Biology said that where she does research in northern Florida, the risen temperatures have transformed former salt marshes into mangrove fields. Dr. Chapman said that we must look into the humanities to see how we can adapt; we cannot look at flora and fauna as inspiring as they can be. We need to mitigate change; to use clean energy and to educate our students and communities.

Dr. Christopher Kilby, an Economics professor from the Villanova School of Business, whose research involves the environmental impact of the World Bank’s lending policies, called on the university to invest more resources in sustainability – to focus more classes, majors and minors, research, and funding for student projects in the area. Dr. Kilby also said that Villanova needs to incentivize responsible choices – we need to find ways to discount public transportation for students, to offer cheaper parking for electric vehicles rather than offering that parking at a premium. He also argued that the selection process for the Board of Trustees should take sustainability into account.

Dennis Gallagher, the Director of Parking and Transportation, said that he was completely in favor of acquiring electric vehicles, and that in his time here the university had shrunken the fleet of old vans and moved to newer, more fuel-efficient options. Mr. Gallagher pointed-out the gains his department has made with the Nova Van OnDemand app which has gone from running all night to pick up an average of nine students between 9PM and 1AM to an efficient service providing more transportation to more people. They have gone from 32 to 800 accounts with an average of 76 people picked up each night. One change he wants to make is putting solar panels on the tops of the parking garages, and Dr. Kilby mentioned putting them on some of the new buildings being built across Lancaster. The only trouble is Radnor Township’s refusal to make an exception to the ordinance limiting the building height.

Dr. Bill Lorenz, the Director of the Sustainable Engineering Program and the Chair of the Service Learning Community, stressed that climate change is the existential threat to our species. He said that it is required of all of us to adopt an ethos of sustainable living, inclusive of social wellbeing, so that we can create “enough, for all, forever.” Dr. Lorenz declared that the school is not in a leadership position at all, even when compared to other similar schools, and that we need to base our campus-wide goals on the UN’s sustainability goals. Dr. Lorenz said that the strategic plan needs to have an interconnected methodology of material quantitative measurements rather than an isolated qualitative one made of insubstantial statements chosen for their audible appeal. He directed students, faculty, and staff to get involved by contacting Matt Ashcroft at mashcro2@villanova.edu.

Dr. Barbara Wall, Professor of Philosophy and Vice President of Mission and Ministry, said that Earth is God’s gift and just as we have a responsibility to steward it we need to move beyond one-dimensional thinking to actively love it. She said also that we need to be an institution without walls and that we as individuals cannot stop at petitioning the board; we must change ourselves and the way we view the world. She stressed communicating with empathy and civility, acknowledging that we are all on different levels of understanding, passion, and education. Dr. Wall concluded that we need to think ahead seven generations, and that taking better care of the planet is not just something nice for us to do for our hypothetical grandchildren; it is an ethical responsibility. We cannot be numbed and we must practice hope.

It was encouraging to see so many people come out to talk about climate change. There was standing room only with both doors open and people in the alcove trying to pick up what they could. It was unfortunate that more students did not get to talk. The conversation from the crowd was largely dominated by faculty, though the educators were definitely the minority in the room. The bookends were the standouts.

A student opened the Q&A with a comment that a similar townhall had taken place in the same room when the decision to arm Public Safety was made. The board will ignore us if they can. He said that, if this was as important to us as it seemed to be then we needed to be willing to sacrifice something personally. His sentiment was echoed by several faculty members across the arts and sciences. We were called-upon by the panel to contact the board directly, not just through our petition but through individual emails.

Toward the end, a student asked the most sensible question anyone heard, a practical one – what are we doing to reduce food, plastic, and paper waste? The panel assured us that Tim Dietzler, the Director of Dining Hall Services, is one of the campus leaders on sustainability, and that he is all the time moving toward more plant-based foods.

I was personally left with two unanswered questions. One – how do we define sustainability? Do we mean to sustain our current way of life? Because that is not foreseeable in the long run.

The Environmental Science-specific definition of sustainability in the Random House Dictionary is “the quality of not being harmful to the environment or depleting natural resources, and thereby supporting long-term ecological balance.” If the core of this university’s mission to educate, unite, and care for people in a sustainable manner, we might need to be willing to make changes beyond raising parking and doing a better job with food waste. We might need less food; we might need to stop trying to expand.

My other question is simpler and more practical: what can we do about all of the lights that are on after everyone has gone home? We need to start at the obvious steps so we can move on to the larger systemic ones.

Below is the key passage from the 2006 proposal put forth by the Villanova Environmental Group:

“This petition signifies our support for a change in the environmental policy at Villanova University. Currently we are one of the few schools of our caliber in the state of Pennsylvania that is not purchasing a percentage of our energy from wind power. Wind power is a renewable, environmentally friendly method of obtaining energy. As young scholars and potential leaders in society it is our duty to be stewards of the environment and address the pertinent issue of environmental degradation. As members of a Catholic institution we also have a responsibility to adhere to the Catholic social teachings that involve environmental issues. Our actions should reflect our values. To not participate in progressive steps by purchasing wind power deprives the Villanova community of being part of a movement of concerned global citizens.”