Tuesday, August 1, 2017

The Lincolns Live On: Taking the Fight to the Enemy

A very troubling trend that's been occurring for the last several years, and often appears in headlines, are Muslims from the Western world either going to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State or pledging their allegiance to it and staging domestic terrorist attacks. These people are both teenagers and adults, men and women, and many are citizens of America, the UK, France, etc. It's estimated that well over 27,000 foreigners have traveled to ISIS's  "caliphate" to fight for them, and that study is a year old and doesn't even account for those who pledge their loyalty then stage a terrorist attack at home.

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However, while disturbing and dangerous indeed, the good news is that ISIS members are not the only ones fighting not to mention there's plenty of ISIS recruits who aren't exactly crack troops (discretion advised). Right from the start of the new conflict in the Middle East, volunteers in the hundreds from all across the world have gone to take the fight against ISIS. Although the initial report was from a year ago, it states 300 fighters from 26 countries, almost entirely from the West, have joined anti-ISIS forces. There are well over a hundred Americans there. The volunteers have diverse backgrounds, have different motivations for fighting, and have extraordinary experiences.

Many are Iraq war veterans, returning to finish the work they started almost fifteen years ago, or have found they can't return to civilian life. Some are anarchists, hoping to kick out ISIS and build their own stateless society. All to at least some degree seem motivated to protect Christians and other civilians in the area, especially women, and fight evil. To me one of the most interesting stories is Kevin 'Christian' Howard's. A former soldier who served in Iraq, he befriended many people in minority ethnic groups in the region only to find out they were killed by ISIS several years later. He returned to bring justice to those who killed his friends and the hundreds of others killed in terrorist attacks across the globe.

Though I'll admit there's plenty of darkness in this man he does write the locations of terrorist attacks on his bullets after all, and who knows how well he readjusted to civilian life? the devotion he feels to those oppressed in the region and the absence of rabid hatred towards his enemy if quite formidable. Moreover, the absolute hope that he has in the defeat of the Islamic State and the cool confidence he has that various ethnic and religious groups can coexist in peace is a potent antidote to the pervasive cynicism of today. And I mean, it's not like he's just talking about helping these people, he's actually doing it.

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However, Howard and his partners are not the first to take part in "the Good Fight" when their country wouldn't. They follow in footsteps of thousands of their countrymen over the last century who fought the bad guys before it was cool. While scores of volunteers joined the French or British military during the World Wars, the most famous Americans to ever fight in a foreign war was when their government didn't jump in at all: The Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War.

No one thought there would be a war in Spain at the time. In fact, Spain was seen as a success story in the world. With the Depression in full swing, it seemed increasingly likely that every developed country in the world was going to swing either far right (like in Germany or Italy) or far left (like in the Soviet Union.) But by 1935, the democratically elected Liberal/Socialist/Communist coalition—the Popular Front—was lifting thousands out of poverty without falling to an extreme. However, General Francisco Franco led a revolt against the government for their assaults on the Ancien Regime. Before long, Hitler and Mussolini started pouring in men, machines, and money into Franco's hands in order to test out what they'd been cooking up over the years. The Spanish Civil War proved to be a "rehearsal" for the Second World War.

The world responded in kind. Although the fascist attempt at a hostile takeover shocked the international community and turned them against fascism, few were willing to actually stand up to them at this point and help the government. Thanks Neville. As a result, an estimated 35,000 people, mostly from Europe, smuggled themselves into Spain and fought on behalf of the government in International Brigades. These included roughly 2,800 American volunteers, many of whom were leftists, Jews, and people of color who served together. All were motivated by a sincere desire to fight evil and stop the spread of fascism across the world.

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The Lincolns earned much fame and respect, both among their hardened European allies and at home. They fought in every major battle, and with distinction at Jarama and in the Brunete Offensive. But it wasn't enough. Within just a few years, the fascist-backed rebels finally gained the upper hand, and the materiĆ©l-starved International Brigades were forced to withdraw. 70% of the Lincolns had been killed or wounded. Though battered, divided among themselves, and disillusioned with the West, the Lincolns were not beaten. Their stories were soon immortalized in Ernst Hemingway's seminal work For Whom the Bell Tolls and in George Orwell's memoir of the conflict. Within just a few years, they got their chance to help drive a stake in the heart of fascism. And although they were harassed by HUAC and the FBI in the repressive 50s, by the 60s had become renown for their past and continuing commitment to "The Good Fight." Though all gone, they live on in the mythos of American history, so much so that even John McCain, hardly a leftist, is a fan

While the Lincolns and their allies were ultimately unsuccessful at expelling Franco's forces, they were still instrumental in the fight against fascism. Their efforts brought worldwide attention and condemnation to fascist expansionism, and sounded the alarms to coming worldwide war. Many Lincolns served their country with distinction in WWII and later became voices for global justice. And finally, their legacy lives on in those willing to risk their lives and livelihood to protect innocents across the globe. In fact, the anti-ISIS fighters are on track to actually succeed in their goal, something the Lincolns could never do. But as Howard says, once the Islamic State is defeated, then the real work begins. The world failed last time. With people like Howard on the frontlines, we have better reason to hope it won't fail again.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Interview with Bob Galante: Part II

This is the second part of an interview I've conducted with the historian and teacher Bob Galante. To read the first part, click here.

On Fake News

It's no secret that our society has had political tumult in the last two years. There is no doubt that our discourse has become radicalized. I do think that social media has a lot to do with that. We are in a new phase of our history, and the new kinds of communication technologies have arisen that have changed people's relationship to information and ideas. It is a worrisome trend that families are split over political questions and friendships seem to be dissolving at this point as well. It is saddening to think that Americans now may be resembling the Sunnis and Shia.

Part of the problem with fake news is that any kook with a modem and a camera can create any story they want and broadcast it to the world in just a few moments. There have been some documented cases in the New York Times a couple months ago, in November, about how fake news spreads throughout the Internet. As Mark Twain once observed, a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth can get its shoes on. I think we're seeing that idea writ large in the instantaneous global communications that we now have. Add to that the emotional human desire to believe what we want to believe. It seems in our society today, the stories people want to tell themselves matter more than the realities they're enduring.

Teachers need to elevate the discourse with their students. To present to the students ideas of greater sophistication, more detailed factual bases, court issues and problems, to keep the students reading, writing, and thinking. While for some people it's a dark moment that our society has political tumble, it can also be a gold mine of teachable moments for teachers.

One thing teachers can do to help on this is to keep the students grounded in core questions within their curriculum, [in order to make] students truly interested in the problems. Look for ways to create consensus over things like crime and punishment, the budget, alliances overseas, war and peace. There is still much consensus in American society. The foundations of our institutions are strong. America's Constitution is durable, it has proven the test of time. Through many dark times [like] 1862 [and] 1942. These were dark times as well and we did not know the outcomes of the day’s events either and America turned out okay. Keep the students grounded in their roots as Americans in our unifying principles.

On Facts vs. Ideas in History Education

Too many of America's history teachers are just dragging their students through a parade of dates and facts. Teachers are packaging their students. Do you recall that video of that young man that berated his teacher for not teaching? He urged his teacher to stimulate the students and "touch their hearts." Some people say the boy was insolent, but others say you know he deserves a medal.

In any case there can be too much emphasis on just facts and the [bare] information of history. What teachers need to do is give students the ideas of glue that hold the facts together in the first place. In an age where students can Google anything, get any piece of information or nearly any document they want, it is essential that we teach them how to think.

The role of the history teacher is to show students how to build arguments, to anticipate and refute counterclaims, to integrate the best and most relevant factual records.

Clearly, Bob knows his stuff, both from personal experience and devoted study. I'm very grateful he was able to pass along so much knowledge to me, and by extension all of you. He is a rare voice of clarity and wisdom for the times we live in, but he's not just a man of words. Indeed, whether by researching and learning, teaching others, or refusing to accept the proliferation of BS in our lives, we can all follow in Bob's example for the rest of our lives. There's no time like the present!

Friday, July 28, 2017

Interview with Bob Galante: Part 1

Bob Galante has quite the resume. He has a Master of Arts in Teaching Social Studies from Fairleigh Dickinson University, is an adjunct professor of American history at Syracuse University, is a Two-Time Teacher of the year in Rumson, New Jersey, and has received the Philip Merrill Award from the University of Maryland in 2012, just to name a few. He also runs The History Dr.com, a consulting site for teachers as well as the Educators' Blog and the Boomerang Blog, the latter of which deals specifically with history. I reached out to him for his opinion on a range of subjects pertaining to history and how it is taught. As you can see, his brilliance in history is only matched by his passion for it. 

What attracts you to history?

I'm attracted to history because it's alive. It's all around us. The study of history allows us to perceive patterns in society. It enables us to go back and forth quickly between the present and the past. I believe very firmly that in the history of the world there are very few questions; they just keep playing out as ferociously as if it had never happened before. By studying history we can get out in front of the trends in society. We can see where society is going, so we can get out in front of those changes and make them work for us.

History allows us to take present controversies and see where they have happened before. We get to see previous examples of current issues and problems and then we get to see how it turned out in the past. We can then think [about] the results [and the lessons of them] and applying them [to] now. History is all around us.

Take something like Shays Rebellion in 1787. Revolutionary war soldiers were being thrown into the debtors prisons because they couldn't pay their bills. They were having farms foreclosed on by the courts, with their possessions seized and auctioned off. They rebelled against the system. Where do we see something like that right now? Think about the treatment of veterans coming home from our foreign wars. Should Congress exempt them from foreclosures if they fall behind on their mortgages? Something like Shays rebellion would get all of three sentences in an average history textbook for students but the issues of Shays rebellion are enormous. And they are all around us right now.

I'm attracted to history because it allows us to pick up a newspaper, read the current events and stories, and very quickly come to conclusions about what is at stake. The goal of history is to take today's problems and see where they've happened before. Or to take problems in history and determine current manifestations and current examples of them. History really matters.

I'm attracted to history because it makes us smarter and better people who were able to make more enlightened decisions about the human future by knowing its past.

Why start a blog?

I started The History Dr.com in July 2016 with the mission to share the meaning of democratic citizenship with others. While I no longer teach full time in the public schools, I still want to make a contribution to societal discourse. I want to help move some issues along in our society. 

The blog History Dr.com is a very exciting project, because it allows me to practice what I believe is important: that is, seeing of events around us in exploring how the past reveals examples and outcomes of the core problem. The blog allows me to try to go back and forth quickly between past and present, looking for similar motives of people, arrangements of power, and the interests of different factions of people. The blog allows me to try to be valuable to my readers in illuminating the connections between past and present, and hopefully writing in a clear and direct way.

Join us for Part II, coming soon!

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Stomping on History

Quick post for today.

So this morning President Trump announced over Twitter that transgender individuals are now barred from serving the American military "in any capacity." Trump's reasoning for this was that the military could no longer be burdened with "the tremendous medical costs and disruption that transgender in the military would entail." Most likely this was a favor to Vice President Pence, a longtime opponent of LGBT rights.

I know this sounds bad but I have news that will make this worse.

Who knows if this was by coincidence (it probably wasn't) but the day Trump chose to implement this ban is shocking. Because on July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981 to begin dismantling racial segregation in the military "as soon as possible." It remains a milestone for the history of the military and for the Civil Rights movement in America. 

And then Trump does the opposite kind of thing on its anniversary.

Normally I would post a picture of a facepalm or something but honestly this is kind of heartbreaking. I can't imagine what it's like for the trans serving, served, or thinking about serving, with their country's president basically saying they're worse than useless. 

Stay frosty friends. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

Fake Quote Found!

Believe me, I didn't plan this.

In a recent post, I discussed the perpetuation of fake quotes from historical figures on social media and how to spot them. To summarize, in my opinion the problem stands to be just as serious as fake news in the long run. Though there are plenty of cases of people mistakenly sharing fake quotes that are mostly benign, there are plenty of others who do it on purpose. The goal of these sharers is to appropriate an historical figure so they can justify their own point of view in the present, often distorting the figure and what they stood for. 

Enter Anthony Scaramucci.

For those who don't know, Scaramucci is the White House's new Communications Director. The appointment was so controversial that it caused the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer to resign, effectively ending one of the best SNL segments in years. His anger can be understandable, considering that Scaramucci, a Wall Street financier, doesn't seem to have much experience in the role he was given. Moreover though, perhaps Spicer's real beef with him was the fact that Scaramucci was once a Trump-basher who apparently decided to let bygones be bygones when opportunity knocked. Just another day in the Trump White House.

But the real story here has to do with Scaramucci's Twitter account. He's been trying and mostly failing to delete tweets that were critical of Trump and expressed views that were contrary to his. Though non-political, one that popped up and has not been deleted was this one: 

You already know where this is going, right? Yup, fake. Mark Twain never said that. I mean I was expecting to find a fake quote at some point after my post about it but come on! 

Should it be disconcerting that the Communications Director of the White House, whose job it is to be the conduit between the President and the press (and by extension the country), didn't bother to check his sources before he shared a quote he liked? You decide. 

Remember friends, BS is everywhere. Keep your eyes open for it, always. 

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Stepping Onto Normandy Beach

By now it was late afternoon. The cool fog that had proliferated since the early morning had almost completely burned off, and the sun glistened in the sky. Normally after so much travelling I’d start to get tired, but I left plenty in my reserve specially for the last section of the tour. I was softly excited, but a bit uneasy. I wasn’t sure what to expect, not from the place but from myself.

The van stopped, and my French tour guide and the three other passengers got out. We walked twenty yards to a road parallel to the sea. Then I finally saw it with my own eyes.

Omaha Beach.

Last semester I had the opportunity to study abroad in London. For my spring break (don’t worry, I did other stuff too) I got to finally to visit the number one place I always wanted to go to as a history buff: Normandy beach. I booked a tour in Bayeux, France, of the American sector of the D-Day landings from June 6, 1944. My only regret from the entire trip was that I didn’t spend more time there and visit the British and Canadian sectors as well.

It was a historian’s dream, and the experiences I had earlier that day already left me awestruck. I had been into the church of St. Mere-Eglise where the 82nd Airborne landed, Utah beach where my great-uncle landed 73 years ago, and the Point du Hoc where the US Army Rangers scaled the cliffs in order to destroy German heavy guns, to name a few. But I couldn’t really believe I had been to Normandy without visiting one of the most enduring and visceral symbol of the entire war, let alone the landings themselves. Now I was finally here.

Where I stood, there was a German bunker and war memorial to my left. To my immediate right was a road stretching behind the beach with a bluff and several houses laid out behind it. And in front of me was the beach. The first thing that strikes you about it is its sheer vastness. It’s both incredibly deep and wide, with the waves breaking off so far that there are hardly any tide pools at all. However, the water clearly washed up very close to shore, on account of the smoothness of the sand.

After a few words and some more gazing, heart pumping I finally stepped onto the beach. Perfect footprints were left in the sand and not a grain of it ended up in my shoes. Our tour guide led us to the middle of the beach about fifty yards in. For the next fifteen minutes, the tour guide shared more details and period photos of the invasion. With each minute I was able to imagine myself even more vividly in an American soldier’s shoes. It was astounding and spine-chilling.

Imagine you’re where I am, which would be closer to the cliffs than where the first soldiers landed. You would be knee-deep in water, weighed down by loads of equipment. Ahead of you are mines, anti-tank emplacements, and barbed wire. Each minute, more and more Germans are pouring machine gun fire straight on you from the bunkers ahead. And perhaps worst of all is the sheer distance you have to go—hundreds of yards ahead of you into the fire. If you can't imagine it, maybe this will help. I could not stop thinking about how $%&*#@ I would have been.

As I turned and looked out towards the sea and thought about the countless lives’ lost on this beach. Prior to arriving, I figured if there was going to be a single time I would straight-up break down and cry it would be now. But what I was going through instead surprised me. I can’t quite explain it, perhaps it was mindfulness or just an enormous sense of gravity. I would describe it like as if you were standing at the top of a mountain and looking upon the world below. You can’t judge it or connect it to anything or really think about it at all very much. All you can do is just take it all in.

The next thing I did surprised me even more. I took several steps away from my group. I remembered I had a zip lock bag in my pack. Without thinking I reached down and grabbed a handful of sand, and then another and another. The sand was golden brown and seemed to have broken shells in it, wet from the sea. I closed the bag, put in in my pack, then walked off the beach, catching up to my tour guide.

We still did other things for the tour, including visiting the gorgeous American cemetery just behind the beach. That was incredible too, but nothing I did after—or really, ever—will compare to stepping on Omaha beach myself that day and seeing it with my own eyes. That sand sits in the bag on my bookshelf, still wet with the water from the English Channel. It's a reminder to me of what I experienced that day and what those men did for you and me all those years ago. I will never remove it. 

Friday, July 21, 2017

The Most Important Deleted Scenes in American History: 10 Days Review

I really enjoyed sharing with you all my review of my favorite non-fiction book, The Great Big Book of Horrible Things: The Definitive Chronicle of History's 100 Worst Atrocities. So I decided to give a review of my second-favorite non-fiction book: 10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America by Steven M. Gillon. (I think it's safe to say I do like lists, numbers, and analysis in my history books). This book is definitely more mainstream and doesn't push the envelope nearly as much as Horrible Things, but it comes from the same place of historical rediscovery and reinterpretation.

I first encountered 10 Days as part of my summer reading for my US history class in high school, and I'm certain that I'm the only person who not only read the book cover to cover but kept it long after high school. It's a companion to the History Channel special of the same name. The book (and subsequently the series) is straightforward in its aim, which is to demonstrate to the reader that American history is a lot more complex and extensive than most people would think. It breaks down ten days in American history that went under the radar in national memory, but is hugely important to its development.

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For example, few would doubt that December 7, 1941 is one of the most important dates in American history, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and our entrance into WWII. But perhaps an equally if not more important date would be August 2, 1939. This is when the world's foremost scientist and German expatriate Albert Einstein sent a letter to President Franklin Roosevelt. It warned him about the likelihood and the danger of Germany developing Uranium-based weapon and recommended that the US try to beat them to it. Now aware of the destructive power of a nuclear weapon, Roosevelt soon authorized an American-led project to develop one before the Axis could, later named the Manhattan Project. This letter from Einstein proved to be the push that led the world into the Atomic Age, with Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the Cold War.

This is just one example of the kinds of events that this book convincingly argues are just as crucial to American history as more famous dates. To be sure, reading it hardly makes you an expert in any of these ten days or the general subjects associated with them. It functions more as a brief overview than an in-depth analysis. However, that's not the aim of the book (and to be fair it does offer suggestions for further reading and a plethora of sources). The book is all about making you see that even lesser-known history is still hugely influential both then and now. When you walk away from reading it, you feel that you understand the fabric and the course of American history much better, and you're all the more grateful for it. Indeed, one could directly draw a line from the Scopes Monkey Trial to climate-change deniers today, for instance. 

If I do become a professional historian, these are the books I want to write: not so much in-depth dissections of a specific subject but rather evidence-backed arguments to the reader that makes them see history differently. To me, this is the most important aspect of history, making the connections and helping others see them. I hope you all agree.