Thanksgiving Day for Oral Historians: An End to IRB Oversight

Historians are a strange lot. We sit in the archives and chuckle while reading a 19th century bon mot, shed a tear for the long-dead recipient of a love letter, and get angry over the machinations of politicians who haven’t won an election in decades or centuries. But not all history is done in dusty archives. 20th century historians often write about the living or at least those who remain in living memory. I have been reading Markku Ruotsila’s excellent new biography of Carl McIntire and was reminded of the incalculable value of oral history for modern historians. Ruotsila was able to interview McIntire’s son, members of his church, and other family and friends who helped Ruotsila fill in the gaps in the (substantial) documentary record left behind by McIntire. They also provide the pithy anecdotes that make a monograph more readable. (My grandfather, who served as a deacon in McIntire’s church, once said of his pastor that when it came to counting church membership McIntire had the gift of the Biblical prophet Elisha, who had a knack for inflating numbers.)

Unfortunately American historians who want to use oral history in their research face significant hurdles. Since 1991 oral history has been regulated as a kind of scientific research by the federal government. The goal of the regulations is to prevent the abuse of test subjects and there is indeed a long, sordid history of medical researchers taking advantage of marginalized communities. But while the rules make a great deal of sense when applied to actual scientists, there is an immense, qualitative difference between a pharmaceutical researcher testing new drugs on volunteers and a historian sitting down for an interview.

For the past two decades, oral historians have had to navigate a long, time-consuming, and red-tape laden process run by the Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) hosted at every major university. Thankfully, even under the old regime, oral history was generally exempted from IRB oversight. Even so, oral historians had to submit paperwork to their IRBs to receive an exemption, which often included release forms signed by interviewees and months spent waiting for the exemption to be approved.

Any time you raise the costs to do a kind of research, people will do less of it. It’s not rocket science, er, rocket history? Oral history still makes sense for certain projects for which there is relatively little documentary evidence and which involves events recent enough that many of the major participants are still alive. The process does, however, discourage historians looking to add an oral history element or two to their project while relying primarily on archival evidence for the bulk of their research. It was a problem for part-time oral historians.

I’ll proffer myself as an example. In examining the role of radio broadcasting in the rise of the New Christian Right, I argue that grassroots activists in the 1960s-70s were motivated to engage in politics by a steady diet of conservative radio shows hosted by the likes of Carl McIntire, Billy James Hargis, and Dan Smoot. As Michelle Nickerson has detailed, mid-twentieth century conservative activists were disproportionately middle-class women. They could afford to be housewives, they were educated, and, I argue, they could tune into Right-wing radio all day every day. When they turned the radio off, their activism started. Conservative women made such a ruckus starting book clubs, boycotting Communist-produced goods, picketing school boards, and going door-to-door for conservative political candidates that they show up in confidential White House memoranda during the Kennedy Administration. (Included in my dissertation! Cool, right?!)

To bolster my argument, I sought an interview with Alice Moore, a West Virginia housewife who started a massive protest movement in Kanawha County in 1974 to oppose state-mandated curriculum standards. A few details in William Martin’s description of Moore’s story in his book With God on Our Sidemade me wonder if Moore’s decision to engage in formal political activism was at least partly motivated by her consumption of conservative radio. If so, it would be a compelling connection between broadcasting and an episode widely regarded as a significant moment in the conservative counter-revolution. So I made contact with a friend of Alice Moore’s and began to work towards getting a formal interview with her.

However, when I started looking into the process for applying for an IRB exemption and realized how much effort would go into adding something that, while compelling, was not the core of my dissertation, I chickened out. As a time-crunched graduate student, it simply wasn’t worth adding an oral history element to my dissertation when I had plenty of documentary evidence at hand. I believe my project would have been stronger if I could have included Moore’s story. But even had an interview with Moore not helped my particular project, I would have given the interview record to an oral history archive, thus giving other historians a significant historical resource that could have been useful in areas beyond the scope of my own work.

So last month, when it was announced that the federal government was considering altering its regulations to exclude oral history from IRB oversight, I rejoiced as did many others in the field. So far as I know the federal government hasn’t acted yet, but that possibility is worth adding to our Thanksgiving lists.

Thoughts on the Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics

icpp_logoI just returned from the Iowa Conference on Presidential Politics (ICPP) hosted by Dordt College in far northwestern Iowa. For an inaugural effort, the academic side of the conference went quite smoothly thanks to the efficiency and hospitality of Liz Moss and Jeff Taylor. I particularly enjoyed hearing Daniel K. Williams present a portion of his soon to be published history of the pro-life movement. My own paper, “The Reuther Memorandum: How the Kennedy Brothers Muted Conservative Radio Broadcasting in the 1960s,” went off without much of a hitch and the discussion afterwards helped me think through how I’m framing my arguments about the origins of the New Right.

That’s what you expect from an academic conference, but the ICPP was a particularly unique experience because of the two presidential candidates who spoke at the conference. Blending an academic conference with a campaign stop is something you really can only do in Iowa, I suppose.

IMG_8014 (1)On the first night, Laurence Lessig spoke to the group about the need for public funding of elections in order to combat congressional corruption. I’m not sure I buy into his proposed solution, but I will say that if every candidate were as thoughtful as Lessig the level of political discourse in America would be greatly elevated. Pity the Democratic Party wouldn’t let him on the debate platform. In any case, I solemnly vow to seriously consider voting for any politician who prefaces his stump speech about fixing American government with the line, “I don’t think we can.” (As of November 2, you can no longer hold me to that promise since Lessig just dropped out of the race. I’m going to assume it was our fault.)

Rick Santorum spoke the next night. He’s taller in person than he seems on camera and he’s quite good at retail politics, especially his repartee with questioners. He did not, however, seem to appreciate the question I asked him: “Senator Santorum, I’ve read some of your remarks on the immigration question and found the story of your grandfather quite compelling. He was an unskilled laborer, Catholic, and Italian and I think we’d all agree America was better off for his decision to bring the Santorum clan to the United States (although your primary opponents might still think the jury is out on the matter). Why don’t you then favor increasing the flow of legal immigrants into the United States by getting rid of national quotas and work visa requirements? Why not give the Sanchezes the same opportunity as the Santorums?”

His response was that no, he didn’t favor increased immigration. America needed workers in the early 20th century but not today. Immigrants today were taking jobs away from native-born Americans. Furthermore, he argued, there was no welfare state in place in the 1920s and thus incoming workers were not a drain on public finances as they are today. I wasn’t in a position to respond, of course–the guy in front of the room always has the conversational advantage–but if I could have responded I would’ve noted that he was parroting nativist arguments from a century ago even while explicitly denying that he was a nativist.

While the entertainment value of having political candidates perform for a bunch of skeptical academics is its own reward, I think there’s a real benefit to blending academic conference and campaign stop. Without intending to, the candidates illustrated some of the themes under consideration in the plenary sessions and panels. For example, Andrew Bacevich spoke about the catastrophic failures involved in the US maintaining Cold War foreign and military policy in the post-Cold War era. He mooted that if he could ask only two questions of each presidential candidate it would be, first, what they believed the lessons of the US’s wars in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq were and, second, how those lessons would shape their policies as the next President.

And during the Q&A with Rick Santorum one of the conference attendees asked him to respond to Bacevich’s questions from the night before. Santorum’s answers evinced the very mindset which Bacevich had criticized in his address. The episode illustrates the kind of fortuitous cross-penetration facilitated by holding a conference in Iowa during campaign season.

Happy Birthday to You and Good Riddance to US Copyright Law

Today a federal district court judge ruled that “Happy Birthday to You” is not under copyright and belongs in the public domain. The ostensible copyright holder, a subsidiary of Warner Music, has been collecting over $2 million a year from filmmakers, artists, and others using the song. The story has been portrayed as a David vs. Goliath struggle between a major record label and four small artists, but while the case makes a nice, little human interest story for pop culture-watch journalists, it highlights a broader problem with our copyright system.

Copyright protection in the United States was written into the US Constitution which sought to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” It’s worth noting that the purpose of the copyright system was to encourage innovation; rewarding the creator was a means to an end, not the end itself.

At first, copyright protection lasted for 14 years from the date it was granted with the option of an additional 14 year renewal so long as the creator was still alive and kicking. That comes out to a state-protected monopoly on that text or artwork lasting a maximum of 28 years. Congress believed that bolstering the potential for profit would encourage creators to experiment, while limiting the total length of copyright protection would prevent creators from resting on their laurels and allow others eventually to use their ideas once they’d reverted to the public domain.


But as the handy chart above demonstrates, since 1790 the length of copyright protection has ballooned, with the most recent change extending it to the full life of a creator plus fifty years. The motive isn’t surprising. There’s a great deal of money to be made by those who inherit copyrights. A bestselling book or song could make not only its creator very rich, but, assuming they live to a relatively ripe old age, the next two generations of their family. Corporations have been particularly strong proponents of extended copyright terms, especially the Walt Disney Corporation, which deploys fleets of lobbyists every time the copyright to Mickey Mouse comes close to expiration.


Copyright has turned into a kind of corporate welfare. While the standard for individual creators is life + seventy years, for works of “corporate authorship” it’s a flat 120 years. Given the high cost of enforcing copyright claims against infringement–the armies of lawyers and trial costs–the system disproportionately enriches large corporations while providing little benefit to smaller authors.

The major downside of a vastly extended copyright term is that it skews the balance between profit and innovation all out of whack. This isn’t to say that copyright should be done away with entirely, but it does suggest that copyright protections are so strong that they have begun to hinder rather than advance innovation. We are too far to the right on Alex Tabarrok’s curve (and copyright protections are longer/stronger than patent protections).


Take, for example, the perverse, unintended consequences of extended copyright provisions on book publishing. Books published prior to 1923 are all in the public domain today, but those from after 1923 were under extended copyrights. Even those books for which copyright may have lapsed still remain under a cloud of potential legal claims. This is why Google Books–that great boon to historians–is chock full of works from pre-1923, but few works from after that date are fully accessible.

As others have pointed out, the twentieth century is a “lost century” for American publishing. Few books from the mid-twentieth century are in print and widely available. While the elite of successful authors have become rich as a result, the works of smaller authors languish in obscurity. For the better part of a century, egregious copyright extensions have shrunk the American canon by discouraging niche literary interests.

Amazon pub domain

Think about it this way. The current system boosts sales and republications for a small number of bestselling books by discouraging the same for a much larger number of books published in smaller batches. It’s a transfer of profits and readers from the many to the few. I suspect that readers in the 19th century read a much more varied selection of books, but by the mid-20th century a larger mass audience consumed the same basic literary diet.

The historian in me can’t help wondering how that played into the creation of the post-WW2 era of consensus. Media historians have explored the role played by network control of the airwaves, but I’m not sure I’ve seen similar work done on how the shrinking horizons of book publication worked in a similar fashion by encouraging mass consumption of literature. How might that have affected mid-20th century American culture?

And on the flip side, if the implosion of network control led to the explosion of innovation that we associate with cable television today–with channels and shows dedicated to every possible taste, ideology, religion, and ethnicity–could the same be true if the copyright system were pruned back? I can’t help but suppose that without the copyright-induced barrier to niche publication, genre fiction might have looked less (ostensibly) white and male. If so, that would make the current imbroglio in the world of science fiction a legacy of unintended legal consequences rather than a referendum on who gets to identify as a “nerd.”

Visualizing American Religious History

ARDA Timeline

This summer I continued my work for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). ARDA’s director is Roger Finke, a sociologist specializing in religion. Long before the current interest in digital humanities or the resurrection of quantitative history from the ash heap of econometrics, Roger was challenging religious historians to grapple with hard data. The ARDA website is the repository of a vast amount of information about religion in America, from denominational statistics to survey responses. You can find out which state has the most churches (Texas, of course), look up your denominational family tree,  or, and this is my personal favorite, discover that a belief in bigfoot is positively correlated with not regularly attending church.

The latest additions to the ARDA website are several interactive timelines of American religious history that have been made possible by generous funding from the Lilly Endowment. For the past several summers I have been working on these timelines along with the rest of the ARDA timeline development team. Three summers ago we compiled lists of ~500 events and people from a range of religious traditions. My contribution to the timeline has been to write up descriptions for those events and people. Some articles are merely a few dozen words while others run much longer. Thus far I have written approximately 120 separate entries for the timeline. It’s been an invaluable learning experience, both from witnessing Roger’s ability to harness the creative energies of a small team while running a grant project and in firming up my grasp of American religious history.

I’m proud of the work our team has done and now that the first few timelines have gone public I can show it off. If you have a few moments, try navigating around the Baptist or Catholic timelines. More timelines will be going up over the coming year. Our hope is that these timelines will be a valuable classroom resource for high school and college teachers. It could easily be used as the centerpiece of a homework assignment, something like playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, er, Roger Williams.” Through a web of internal links between people and events, we are also aiming for the kind of serendipitous discoveries you have while clicking your way through wikipedia. Sure, you’ve heard of the First Great Awakening, but did you know about Samson Occom, a Native American Presbyterian who was a leader in the Mohegan tribe, met English hymn-writer John Newton, and founded a new, pan-tribal Indian community that still exists today? Fascinating, right? I hope you have as least as much fun with this timeline as we did!

Samson Occom, or, the Native American Presbyterian You’ve Probably Never Heard Of (But Should Have)

Credit: Dartmouth Library

I’ve been working on an interactive timeline of American religious history for the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA). I’ll post soon about ARDA and all the cool data-related stuff you can find out with it, but for now I’ll share with you a post I drafted about Samson Occom, or, as I think of him, the coolest Presbyterian ever.

Samson Occom was born in 1723 as part of the Mohegan Indian tribe. He claimed descent from the line of the great Mohegan sachem Uncas, who fought against the expansion of English settlement in New England during the Pequot and King Philip’s Wars in the seventeenth century.

Given the Mohegan proximity to the Connecticut colony, they were an early target for missionary efforts during the First Great Awakening. Occom later described the Awakening as hearing a “Strange Rumor among the English, that there were Extraordinary Ministers Preaching from place to Place and a Strange Concern among the White People.” David Brainerd spent a year living with the tribe before leaving for New Jersey, but it was an evangelist named James Davenport whose preaching led to Occom’s conversion as a teenager.

Occom, hungry for education, went to live with Congregationalist minister Eleazar Wheelock for four years and learned to read and write in English, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Occom’s aptitude for learning encouraged Wheelock to open a charity school for Indians in 1754. In 1766 Occom traveled to England to raise funds with which to expand Wheelock’s school. While there he preached on more than 300 occasions and raised the extraordinary amount of a least 11,000 pounds.

When Occom returned to Connecticutt, however, he found that Wheelock had failed to care for Occom’s wife Mary and their children. Furthermore, Wheelock decided to use the funds to start a school for the education of white settlers. Adding insult to injury, the school, Dartmouth College, was named after a wealthy, noble donor. Occom subsequently left Wheelock’s association and sent him a blistering letter with a Latin play on words: “I am very Jealous that instead of your Semenary Becoming alma Mater, she will be too alba mater to Suckle the Tawnees.” (“Alba mater” means “white mother.”)

Occom’s mistreatment by Wheelock was standard for Indian converts to Christianity. Although evangelical proponents of the First Great Awakening prized Indian missions, after their conversion they often continued to treat them as second-class brethren. For instance, Occom was paid barely a fifth of the salary given to a white fellow missionary, “because,” as he put it, “I am an Indian.” Occom’s concern for the rights of marginalized Indians spilled over into opposition to slavery. The young poet and slave Phillis Wheatley, impressed by Occom’s publication of a sermon condemning slavery, wrote to him saying, “In every human Breast, God has implanted a Principle, which we call Love of Freedom; it is impatient of Oppression, and pants for Deliverance.”

After parting with Wheelock, Occom continued to minister to multiple Indian tribes. He wrote prolifically during this period and, inspired by a several day-long sojourn with English hymn-writer John Newton, published a hymnbook in 1774 designed for distribution among Indian Christians.

Throughout his ministry, Occom served as a leader among the Mohegan, for example handling land disputes between the tribe and the Connecticutt colony. After the American Revolution, he lead a coalition of seven Indian tribes to form a new community called “Brothertown” for Indian Christians in upstate New York. In 1792 Occom founded a Presbyterian Church in Brothertown but died shortly afterwards. During the War of 1812 white New Yorkers, worried about the Iroquois allies of the British and thus suspicious of Indians in general, forced the Brothertown community to move to Wisconsin in keeping with Congressional wishes that all tribes be relocated out of the East. The Brothertown Indian Nation still exists today although it is entangled in a long-running legal battle for recognition from the federal government.

If you enjoyed reading this, there’s a lot more where it came from. Check out some of the completed timelines, like this one for Baptists.

What’s striking to me is that I can’t find any recent, scholarly biography of Occom. (Much of the information above I culled from Margaret Szasz, Indian Education in the American Colonies, 1607-1783.) It’s unfortunate because in a sense it repeats the harms committed against Occom by Wheelock. His contemporaries treated him as an inferior, overlooking his contributions to the First Great Awakening. Now we are doing likewise. Occom has all but disappeared from histories of Presbyterianism. Given the relatively poor track record of Presbyterians on issues of race during the 19th century, we should recover the overlooked history of Occom and other marginalized voices from the century prior. He represents a path not taken by the mainstream of American Presbyterianism. I’d love to see P&R Publishing or one of the other church history publishing houses commission a biography of Occom.

The Cold War Meaning of “To Kill a Mockingbird” & “Go Set a Watchman” as Literary Trolling

Photo Credit:

Photo Credit:

Allison Miller has posted an insightful essay over at the American Historical Association’s blog. The brouhaha over the release of Go Set a Watchman is a product of a pretty fundamental misreading of the underlying themes of To Kill a Mockingbird. Here’s an excerpt:

As beloved as it may be, To Kill a Mockingbird itself has never been free of controversy. There is no doubt a kind of mystique emanating from its evergreen status as a book that some local school boards seek to ban. According to the American Library Association, this has often been due to the book’s frank presentation of rape and incest, as well as its use of profanity. But the forces behind censorship haven’t always been conservative; some teachers and parents have objected to the book’s portrayal of the South’s black citizens as kind-hearted, simple, and passive, not to mention Lee’s historically accurate but seemingly casual use of derogatory language. Literary critics have said as much, too. To Kill a Mockingbird is about white people, it uplifts white people, it makes middle-class white people feel better about racism by projecting it onto “common” white southerners.

But these arguments suggest a superior way of analyzing To Kill a Mockingbird—as a primary source, not a “timeless” depiction of the South, coming of age, or the virtues of tolerance. As much as it is an allegory of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s, it is also “about” the Cold War.

I love the new book title, Go Set a Watchman. It’s an allusion (and a pretty obscure one at that) to the Biblical book of Isaiah chapter 21. The prophet Isaiah is predicting the coming desolation of Babylon, the capitol of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. The Northern Kingdom of Israel based at Samaria had already fallen to the Assyrians and the Southern Kingdom at Jerusalem seemed sure to follow. Israel trembled at the seemingly unassailable power of Assyria. Isaiah says that God told him to “Go, set a watchman,” referencing Isaiah’s own prophetic understanding of coming events. And “the watchman” reports that he has seen messengers riding from a ruined Babylon saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.” Babylon’s destruction was Israel’s salvation.

The first layer of significance for the title is a comment on the modern day equivalent of mighty Babylon, the Pax Americana. Who in the mid-twentieth century doubted that American power was nearly unassailable? And yet at America’s Babylonish core was a corruption, a system of racial inequality that threatened to undermine American might. America’s gods of consensus liberalism would be shattered to the ground. Of course, in that destruction is the seed of America’s salvation.

That’s a pretty hefty allusion, but I wonder if Harper Lee is also having a bit of a laugh with the title. Lee must’ve known that people would react viscerally to her pegging Atticus Finch as a racist. And yet isn’t she just tearing down an idol? She smoothed over Atticus’s racism in To Kill a Mockingbird, something which likely aided the success of the book because it allowed readers to tacitly deny the pervasiveness of southern racism. But now the seemingly unimpeachable character of Atticus Finch has been shown to be corrupt at its core. Yet this nuanced, morally ambiguous version of Atticus Finch is truer than the avatar of justice we erected.

If I’m reading that right, what an epic act of literary trolling! Props to Miss Lee!

Fixing the Interstate Highway System; or, Why Ike Shouldn’t Have Copied the Nazis

Reihan Salam has a new essay at Slate summarizing the history of the Interstate Highway System and the political dysfunction preventing proper maintenance today. Here’s an excerpt, but it’s worth reading in full.

In the pre-interstate era, most of America’s superhighways were turnpikes, financed by tolls. Because these roads had to pay for themselves, there was a powerful incentive to avoid building more road than was strictly necessary. Early plans for a national highway system involved tolls as well. Yet lawmakers in the Deep South and sparsely populated Western states objected to the idea, fearing that their highways wouldn’t generate enough toll revenue to make them financially viable. Thus was born the idea of financing the entire Interstate Highway System through a federal tax on gasoline, which would redistribute resources from states that generate a lot of gasoline tax revenue to those that generate very little. This new federal tax would fund a Highway Trust Fund, and through it the federal government would meet 90 percent of the cost of new highway construction, including local highway construction. Since the Interstate Highway System was almost entirely funded by the federal government, local policymakers found it hard to resist going along with plans that tore neighborhoods apart. Who in their right mind would turn down “free” money? Who would turn it down if the neighborhoods that were being destroyed were full of people who didn’t have a ton of political power, as was frequently the case?

Ike’s fascination with the German autobahn may sound strange today. But during the 1930s there was a routine exchange of ideas between National Socialists in Germany and technocratic progressives in America and Great Britain. I have a favorite anecdote which illustrates that exchange although it transpired during WW2. In the early 1940s the British government commissioned a book titled the Beveridge Report, which was the blueprint for domestic reforms that would be enacted by British socialists following the war. It was something like the British version of the New Deal. When the Soviets captured the Fuhrerbunker in Berlin in 1945 they found summaries of the Beveridge Report among the captured documents. Nazi officials were discouraged from bringing up this “consistent system…superior to the current German social insurance in almost all points,” but if asked about it they were to claim that the report was “obvious proof that our enemies are taking over national-socialistic ideas.”

That sense of admiration went both ways. Spend time in the archives of more than a few New Deal functionaries and you’ll find letters glowing with admiration for fascist technical genius. They might moot concerns over Germany’s anti-semitic social policy and expansionism, especially after 1938, but they longed for the kind of power the regime had in setting economic policy. Set in that context, Ike’s open admiration for the autobahn makes more sense. The Nazis, or so the logic went, may have been evil people, but they built great things. Every time I walk up the mall toward Pattee Library with its harsh neo-classical lines, I’m reminded of that technological, cultural, and ideological exchange. It’s like taking a stroll to the Zeppelinfeld at Nuremberg! (Construction took place from 1935-1939 at Nuremberg and 1937-1940 at State College.)

Pattee Library, Rights:

Eisenhower might have talked a good game when it came to criticizing the military-industrial complex, but he was its architect. The interstate highway system was an example of the kind of federal largesse laid out for defense initiatives during the 1950s. Ike wanted a road system that could quickly transport troops and tanks to repel a Communist invasion. Beyond the usual guff about shovel-ready jobs and the realities of pork barrel politics, broader social consequences were generally unintentional.

However, those unintended social consequences were immense. Installing highway belts around cities decreased the time it would take to commute to work from outside the city. With the advent of cars people were already moving out to the new suburbs, but the highway system turned the flow into a flood. The people who could most afford the move, and a car, and a new house were disproportionately middle-class and white. And as both white and black middle classes moved out of the city center, most major US cities suffered from a generation of inner city decay. Highways weren’t the only government-induced variables to unintentionally fuel suburbanization and white flight–federal housing subsidies and redlining practices deserve a hefty share of the blame–but they played an enabling role.

I wonder how the highway system is taught in high school history textbooks today. As I remember it from my grade school years, Eisenhower’s highways were treated like the Hoover Dam or the transcontinental railroad, lauded as symbols of American ingenuity, determination, and prosperity. I’m not sure that narrative had space for the negative unintended consequences of what amounts to an incredible federal subsidy for automobile transportation. It makes sense that it’s time for historians to reevaluate how they tell that tale. After all, Richard White (book, article) and others have revised the exceptionalist narrative about the transcontinental railroad by revealing the sketchy politics, graft, and general wastefulness associated with its construction. It shouldn’t be any harder to do the same for the interstate highway system.

The Obama Administration Responds to a Petition for Edward Snowden’s Pardon


Back in 2013 I signed one of the White House’s “We the People” petitions calling for a “full, free, and absolute pardon for any crimes” committed by Edward Snowden relating to his “blowing the whistle on secret NSA surveillance programs.” I believe that in twenty years or so historians will draw a direct line between Snowden’s action and those of other famous, vindicated whistle-blowers like Daniel Ellsberg and the Media Eight.

This morning the White House responded to the petition. It was deeply disappointing. Here’s the statement from Lisa Monaco, Obama’s adviser on Homeland Security and Counterterrorism:

“Since taking office, President Obama has worked with Congress to secure appropriate reforms that balance the protection of civil liberties with the ability of national security professionals to secure information vital to keep Americans safe.

As the President said in announcing recent intelligence reforms, “We have to make some important decisions about how to protect ourselves and sustain our leadership in the world, while upholding the civil liberties and privacy protections that our ideals and our Constitution require.”

Instead of constructively addressing these issues, Mr. Snowden’s dangerous decision to steal and disclose classified information had severe consequences for the security of our country and the people who work day in and day out to protect it.

If he felt his actions were consistent with civil disobedience, then he should do what those who have taken issue with their own government do: Challenge it, speak out, engage in a constructive act of protest, and — importantly — accept the consequences of his actions. He should come home to the United States, and be judged by a jury of his peers — not hide behind the cover of an authoritarian regime. Right now, he’s running away from the consequences of his actions.

We live in a dangerous world. We continue to face grave security threats like terrorism, cyber-attacks, and nuclear proliferation that our intelligence community must have all the lawful tools it needs to address. The balance between our security and the civil liberties that our ideals and our Constitution require deserves robust debate and those who are willing to engage in it here at home.”

This is breathtakingly hypocritical logic. First, the government has offered no evidence that Snowden’s disclosures endangered any government operatives. Indeed, unlike the Wikileaks document dumps which did create real danger to American agents and foreign assets, Snowden and his friends at the Guardian have been very careful to not disclosure the names or identifying details of US agents. You can see that concern on Snowden’s mind if you watch the remarkable documentary Citizenfour

Second, I’ll also note that accusations of endangerment are the routine response to every public scandal involving government overreach. Simply put, it is in the bureaucratic best interests of corrupt and power-hungry government officials to exaggerate the scope of the dangers associated with disclosure of government wrongdoing. It was true during the scandals involving the Nixon White House and the Vietnam War and remains true today. (In part that’s because the same cast of characters that concealed, lied, and blustered its way through the Congressional investigations of the 1970s–including Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney–would later become the architects of the post-9/11 Patriot Act.)

Third, it relies on the assumption that anything that harms the US government is equivalent to harming the American people. It is a debatable proposition whether the leviathan that is the federal government truly governs by the people or for the people, but what is certain is that this logic has been employed against every major social movement in American history. For example, as Mary Dudziak points out in her book Cold War Civil Rights, civil rights activists faced criticism for undermining US moral authority during the nation’s standoff with the Soviet Union. Whenever MLK or Malcolm X compared US treatment of its minorities unfavorably to their treatment in Communist countries, why, they were aiding the enemy by parroting Communist propaganda! More moderate voices tempered that language while keeping the substance, arguing that racial equality could wait until after the Cold War had been won. (I like Nina Simone’s response to this “go slow” logic.) Replace “civil rights” with “civil liberties” and “Communism” with “terrorism” and you have the current rhetorical backlash against Snowden in a nutshell.

Pause and consider that the Obama administration is echoing the logic of the white supremacists who murdered, bombed, and intimidated in order to try and prevent someone like President Obama from ever holding that office.

Fourth, the statement criticizes Snowden for hiding “behind the cover of an authoritarian regime” yet fails to mention that Snowden was stranded in the Moscow airport because of the White House. The administration placed pressure on its allies and recipients of US foreign aid (read: almost everybody) to deny asylum to Snowden. It’s not like Snowden said, “Hmmm, which country do I want to live in exile in? Oh, Russia, it’s perfect! I love me some borscht!” Snowden applied to at least half a dozen different (and less authoritarian) regimes but each bowed under pressure from the Obama administration. Take for example the moment when the US strongarmed the Portuguese government into denying fuel to the President of Bolivia’s plane because of a rumor that Snowden was aboard. Can you imagine the fireworks that would ensue if another nation did that to Air Force One? The White House actively hemmed Snowden in, giving him no realistic option except residence in Russia, and then used his presence in Russia to dismiss Snowden’s loyalty to America. That phrase from the White House statement is audaciously mendacious.

Fifth, Snowden has been vindicated at least in part by the actions of all three branches of government, including Obama’s executive overhaul of the NSA’s rules in 2014, Congress’s revisions to parts of the Patriot Act in 2015, and the Second Circuit Court of Appeals recent ruling against bulk collection of metadata. It’s rich that the Obama administration was willing to acknowledge that the NSA overreached its authority, but now refuses to call Snowden a whistle-blower.

Finally, allow me to introduce you to a certain presidential candidate from 2007. He had a few things to say about illegal wiretapping and NSA overreach. If only we’d elected this guy! What a missed opportunity.

Alas Barry, we hardly knew ye.

American vs. Australian Country Music

I recently heard Keith Urban’s new song, “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.” It’s got a catchy tune and the title makes a great lyrical hook. The title itself evokes several recurrent themes in country music. John Deere is symbolic of grit, farm/country life, and general Americana. Many (too many?) country songs make the pickup truck that central symbol, but a John Deere tractor works just as well. Sandwiching our tractor is John Cougar (Mellencamp), an avatar of rock n’ roll rebellion, and John 3:16 as a reference to evangelical religiosity.(1) In any case, pick one or two of those three themes and you’ve pretty much summarized any American country song.

Which makes it deeply odd that Keith Urban sings it. He was born in New Zealand and spent his teenage years in Queensland, Australia. After minor success as a country singer Down Under, he moved to Nashville and to much greater success in the States. Indeed, as long as you only listened to his music, you wouldn’t know from his accent that he wasn’t born in America. This is a fairly common pattern, see Russell Crowe, Mel Gibson, and Nicole Kidman (Urban’s wife).

Still, it’s strange when Urban sings about quintessential American experiences that he never had. He couldn’t have been a “blue jean quarterback saying ‘I love you’ to the prom queen in a Chevy” because he would’ve been playing rugby and gone to a school formal. Australia did have John Deere by the time Urban was born, but via a merger with the more traditional Australian tractor company Chamberlain. And in Australia Urban would’ve been more likely to drive around in a ute rather than a pickup truck (and it probably would’ve been a Ford, Toyota, or Subaru rather than a Chevy). It’s self-explanatory why it’s odd for him to refer to the Mississippi, Mark Twain, Hemingway, Wheel of Fortune, and Texaco.

Of course, Urban didn’t write the song and, as he’s said in interviews, he absorbed a great deal of American culture from exported film, television, and music.(2) And it’s certainly true that America doesn’t own a monopoly on music celebrating place, family, and tradition. This post isn’t meant as a criticism of Urban; it is an opportunity to mention some of the distinctions between American and Australian country music.

But really I just want to talk about my favorite Australian country singer, John Williamson. I spent eight summers in Australia as a teenager. Two nuffy (good) mates introduced me to Williamson and I immediately fell for what seemed like a very exotic blend of influences for someone with very little exposure to global popular music.

Visiting the Outback in 1998

Visiting the Outback in 1998

The first thing I’d like to note is that in Australia, country music and folk music aren’t the almost completely distinct genres that they are in America. In the States, contemporary country music is strongly rock and pop influenced, plugged in, and rarely references anything pre-WW2. Folk music, on the other hand, eschews “over-produced” sound, roots itself in the blues and pre-WW2 country, and is the preserve of the hipsters and progressives who listen to NPR. (Full disclosure: my wife is a volunteer host for “The Folk Show.” I myself have a hermit beard and have been known to wear flannel year round.) American artists have played with the line between the two genres from time to time especially during the first folk revival (think Bob Dylan) and the second (think Mumford and Sons), but these moments are the exception that prove the rule.

In Australia, country and folk overlap more. John Williamson is a perfect example. Williamson usually performs on acoustic guitar, but he’s not averse to plugging in for albums. You’ll hear lots of harmonica and didgeridoo. He writes most of his own songs, which cover quite a few topics from early twentieth century Australian history. You’ll hear that mix in many of the examples of Williamson’s music that I’ll mention below, but you can certainly see it in his first hit single from 1970, “Old Man Emu.”

It’s not uncommon for Williamson to use the didgeridoo in his tracks and his embrace of the traditional aboriginal instrument indicates his wider advocacy for aboriginal rights. Even from my short time in Australia as a white man, I routinely overheard offensive sentiments about aboriginals. Imagine that all the animus in America towards blacks AND Native Americans was focused on one group and you’ll have some idea of what Australian aboriginals face. Which makes Williamson’s support for the aboriginal music scene all the more remarkable. American country music isn’t exactly known as a bastion of civil rights activism let alone for possessing any appreciation of Native American culture and music.

Like in America, Australian country music is deeply nationalistic. That nationalism is complicated however by Australia’s status as a member of the British commonwealth. Queen Elizabeth the Second is ceremonial head of state for Australia, albeit one with very little political power. That gives Australian nationalism a bit of bite that is lacking in American patriotic songs. Take John Williamson’s ardently republican “A Flag of Our Own,” in which he advocates for replacing the Australian national flag with its embedded British flag. The song just drips of Australiana. Framing story that appeals to beloved national hero? Ned Kelly, check. Epithets for foreigners? “Frogs,” “POMs,” “Yankees,” check, check, and check. And all are rooted in specific foreign policy clashes between Australia, Britain, France, and the US during the early 1990s. Like I said, this has way more bite than rather anodyne American songs like “God Bless the USA.”

“A Flag of Our Own” includes a touch of another motif in Williamson’s music: the importance of environmental conservation. One of my favorite songs is “Rip Rip Woodchip” in which Williamson describes the shortsighted, unsustainable destruction of Australian forests. It expresses a conservationist rather than preservationist ethos with its nostalgia for 19th century woodcutters, but it’s unlike anything in mainstream American country music.

Finally I’d like to touch on what I believe is a significant source of the difference between Australian and American nationalisms. For both nations country music is the musical expression of nationalist sentiment, a feeling that naturally flows into appreciation for the military service of their veterans. But the two nations have had very different encounters with war. American songs celebrating military service tend to highlight our victories over fascism and communism while downplaying colonial misadventures and defeats. Australians are much more attuned to the dark side of war.

Here’s a simple comparison that might help us understand the distinction between these national experiences. Ask an American about the most important moment in American military history and there’s a pretty good chance they’ll mention the D-Day landings in Normandy. American soldiers stormed the beaches while suffering awful casualties, but they successfully broke through Hitler’s “Atlantic Wall.”

Australians on the other hand also remember a beach landing, albeit one with a very different outcome. At the behest of over-confident British officials(3), some 78,000 Australian and New Zealand soldiers (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli in an ill-advised attempt to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war. The landings were a disaster as initial efforts became bogged down in the same kind of trench warfare that bedeviled the Western Front. Except at Gallipoli the allied soldiers were less well-supplied, had less artillery, and were fighting in much more rugged terrain. The generals just kept pouring more and more reinforcements into the meat grinder. After eight months of brutal fighting and more than 141,000 ANZAC casualties, the Allied forces withdrew in defeat. To put that in perspective, Australia suffered approximately the same number of battlefield deaths during WW1 as the United States despite having less than 1/18th the total population.

What does that kind of tragedy do to a nation’s remembrance of war? Well, they still celebrate their veterans just as vigorously but without the assumption that their soldiers died in the defense of Australia. Those young “Diggers of the Anzac” died instead in the service of a callous British government.(4) Instead of focusing on the “goodness” of the war, Australians honor the personal bravery and integrity of its soldiers. Under horrible conditions, these men fought for each other even as the generals sent them over the top into almost certain death.

Those themes–individual heroism, soldierly comradery, all in the service of a questionable cause–are the subject of several Williamson songs, including “Diggers of the ANZAC.” Notice the mention of “men like Simpson,” a reference to Jack Simpson Kirkpatrick. Although his story quickly became myth, the real Simpson was a hero who ferried some 300 wounded soldiers down the steep cliffs at Gallipoli on the back of his trusty pack-mules before being shot in the back less than a month into the battle.

I really just can’t fathom an American country music star successfully combining these diverse instincts–folk music, indigenous rights, environmentalism, nationalism. We couldn’t handle a little criticism of the Iraq War let alone someone as interesting as John Williamson!


(1)  The sinner and saint juxtaposition is common in country songs and this song highlights that tension. What more perfect pairing than the personification of concupiscence, Marilyn Monroe, with the state of original innocence in the Garden of Eden??

(2) Hey, it’s a fact of empire from Hellenism through to Pax Americana.

(3) Including Winston Churchill, who was the rather strategically incompetent, warmongering First Lord of the Admiralty. I share the general Australian contempt for the man. American conservatives idolize him, but then Americans do tend to be as ignorant of WW1 as they are fixated on WW2, a weighting that works in Churchill’s favor.

(4) British officialdom never comes out looking good in Australian films and television. Here’s a clip of a young Mel Gibson in his first major movie role. Note the individual heroism and British incompetence. It’s as emotionally brutal an end to a film as I’ve seen. This quote from Gibson’s press tour does a nice job summarizing Australian cultural memory of the battle: “Gallipoli was the birth of a nation. It was the shattering of a dream for Australia. They had banded together to fight the Hun and died by the thousands in a dirty little trench war.”

Sybil Ludington and Replacement Mythology


I posted recently about a popular myth concerning eighteenth century preacher Samuel Davies. In the story, Davies beards the King of England in his own palace. The story helped nineteenth century evangelicals overlook the pro-British attitudes that the real Davies had espoused, attitudes that were very unpopular after the American Revolution. Myth making always serves a greater political or cultural purpose. We can advance our agenda by burnishing the memory of us and ours (and vilifying them and theirs). So it’s no surprise that nineteenth century evangelical republicans smoothed the rough edges off Samuel Davies.

The same can be said for the valorization of the “Founding Fathers.” There’s an entire cottage industry today that exists to uncritically reproduce early nineteenth century myths about the founders. Given the surprising rise of evangelical theology in the decades following the Revolution, these myths tended to write evangelical sentiments back into the memory of the founders. There’s a detailed historiographical debate over exactly what the religious beliefs of men like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were, but suffice it to say they were not evangelicals. (If you’re interested in the topic, I’d recommend starting with either Gregg Frazer or John Fea.)

But it’s worth mentioning that evangelicals aren’t the only ones guilty of spinning myths about the American founding. Given that today’s the Fourth of July, I’ve seen a number of friends post on social media about Sybil Ludington’s ride. In 1777 Sybil–the sixteen year old daughter of a Revolutionary militia colonel–rode forty miles (twice the distance ridden by Paul Revere!) to raise the militia in time to respond to a British thrust into New York. Because of her bravery, that militia unit aided the Revolutionary forces in driving the British back to Long Island. George Washington himself thanked the young girl for her service.

The story, however, is very poorly sourced. It was first written down in 1907, fully a hundred and thirty years after the event, by one of Sybil’s descendants. Both of those facts should raise red flags. There’s a complete lack of primary source documentation for the story; there’s not even any record of the Ludington’s militia being involved in that military action. Of course, it’s all but impossible to prove a negative, but while Sybil’s story might be true in whole or part, it’s best classified as myth rather than history.

The story was first published in 1907 with money provided by the Ludington family. What family wouldn’t want to highlight their ties to the American Revolutionaries? In 1961 the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution commissioned a statue of Sybil. What civic organization wouldn’t want to highlight their town’s ties to the American Revolutionaries? It was a useful myth.

Recently, the story has become even more popular. She is the heroine in children’s books, graphic novels, and she even got her own segment on the PBS show “Liberty’s Kids.” I think the “Liberty’s Kids” episode description suggests why there is a sudden revival of interest in Sybil Ludington:

James learns that all kinds of people can be heroes and that especially includes strong-minded courageous young ladies. Meanwhile Sarah sees Benedict Arnold battle for respect with the same passion he uses to battle the British. She becomes concerned that Arnold’s passions might do what the British cannot – defeat him.


Sixteen-year-old Sybil Ludington defies the standard view of what is proper for a young lady and makes her own courageous “midnight ride” in Westchester County, New York to help the rebels cause (4/26/77)….


Limitations that others place on us cannot stop one from achieving greatness if one’s mind is set on it.

Although reports of the death of evangelicalism in the United States have been greatly exaggerated, we do live in an increasingly post-Christian cultural milieu. Burnishing the credentials of evangelical heroes via myth-making is sooo last century. Instead, we use a new group of myths to advance progressive causes and ideals, like an egalitarian appreciation of the role of women in American history. Throw in a dash of self-esteem psychology, and boom, you have all the ingredients of Sybil Ludington’s ride.