Happy American Thanksgiving. I hope you are well and have much to be thankful for, even in these weird, weird times.
(I’ve written this letter for you, but also for me, as you will see. I hope it’s OK if I also post this on Facebook and my blog.)
I also hope it’s OK if I call you Geoff! By the time I finally graduated from Queen’s in 1995, having taken every History course you taught and even sticking around an extra year in order to do an undergraduate thesis with you, I think we were probably close enough that I really could have stopped calling you “Professor Smith.” But I was too shy, and I idolized you too much, to ever quite manage it in person.
So it was great to find you on Facebook, under an assumed name but (as far as I can tell by the photos) entirely unaged since 1995. I am deeply ambivalent about Facebook, the way it turns us all into click-monkeys, infecting not just the public sphere but our closest relationships with algorithms of marketing and surveillance. That said, a machine that puts you back in touch with the people who had the most impact on your life is not a wholly terrible invention.
I’ve been meaning to email you since you reached out a few months ago. To tell the truth, I’ve been meaning to email you for just about as long as I’ve used email. You were such a big influence on me, and I’ve used and thought about things you taught me almost every day for the last twenty-plus years. But my deep desire to impress you, combined with the ordinary crush of life, meant that those emails rarely got written and even more rarely got sent. Now, alas, I have occasion to write: a James Bond villain has captured the White House. And he’s not even a cool Bond villain, he’s like one of the cheesy ones from the late Roger Moore era, a greedy orange toddler billionaire, in cahoots with the Russians (see? it doesn’t even make enough sense for a Bond movie), who lives in a golden skyscraper.
All over America, black and brown and Muslim children are too frightened to go to school. The scumbags are lining up for cabinet positions, and all evidence suggests that our 70-year-old boy-king always believes whatever the last white male he’s talked to has told him. The survival of democracy seems in genuine doubt. The best-case scenario, I mean the absolute best I can imagine, is four years of incompetent kleptocracy, stripping the United States of America down for parts. The worst-case scenario? Take your pick: show trials and purges, concentration camps, mushroom clouds… All those 20th century nightmares that were supposed to be dead and buried.
A question I’ve wanted to ask you for years suddenly feels far more urgent: How do you teach U.S. History at a time like this?
I will be teaching our second-year U.S. History course next term: it’s your basic survey, from Reconstruction to the present. Most of my teaching at Western has been in smaller seminars. But two years ago, somewhere between reading Piketty’s Capital and the murder of Tamir Rice, I asked to be assigned the big survey course. I wanted, I’ll admit, a bigger audience. And the survey also seemed more significant, just a little bit more useful. If I could throw my arms around American history writ large, I thought, if I could come up with my own narrative that made some sense of how the United States got to this point and where it is going, it felt like that could be my way of saying something, or doing something, meaningful for a country I love.
Now, in the days after Donald Trump’s election, that impulse—to narrate, to explain, to find lessons in history for the present and the future—feels utterly crucial but also miserably inadequate.
How do you teach a history that ends with the ascension of Donald Trump, but doesn’t make a mockery of all the stories that precede it? How do you construct a narrative that’s true and useful and critical enough for these times, yet remains hopeful enough that you can bear to tell it, week after week, to a room of 18-year-old kids? How do you teach the Civil Rights Movement, the New Deal, hell, even World War II, in light of the sickening third-act twist that everybody now knows is on the way?
I know you’re retired: making sense of U.S. history is my problem now. I’m not asking or expecting you to write me anything in return. I’m certainly not expecting you to solve the Problem of Trump for me. But you must have thought about this question, as a committed dissenter, a skeptic, an inveterate rabble rouser, teaching U.S. history for more than thirty years. How did it feel to teach U.S. history while Nixon bombed Cambodia? Or during the L.A. riots? Or when Reagan seemed ready to loose the ICBMs?
It’s not like I hadn’t thought about this before November 8. I’m not “shocked, shocked” to learn that Americans could vote for a racist strongman, or that the arc of American history does not always bend toward justice. I know my history. But I did hope for better in 2016 and I am horribly disappointed.
Herbert Butterfield called out Whig history eighty years ago, but it doesn’t go away without a fight. It’s surprisingly hard to break from the old liberal progress narrative, for emotional reasons as much as political ones. Because a survey course needs a narrative arc, and something in us craves happy endings. Even those of us with deep doubts feel the gravitational pull of the story where things always gradually get better.
I’ve often done what many left or left-liberal historians do. I can talk a good game about “America’s core ideals” and construct a story that ping-pongs back and forth between the times Americans have managed to live up to those ideals and the (many) times they’ve fallen short. I guess that’s “teaching the controversy”—you keep the liberal progress narrative as a spine, and just problematize it all along the way. Lots of ironic contradictions, lots of rueful tsk-tsking, lots of two-steps-forward, one-step-back. But now, in the Days of Trump, I’m really, seriously, asking: is that whole “ideals vs reality” frame sustainable? Or is it all just an ingenious contraption of liberal historians to keep their dream vision of America separate from the reality, to avoid admitting what a calamity American history has been from the start?
OK, so maybe I need to kill the liberal in my head. Rip off the blinders. Tell the cold, bleak truth. But I just don’t know if I have it in me. I can’t tell 18-year-olds that there’s no progress. I can’t tell them not to have hope. It’s a question of temperament as much as politics. You’re a Baby Boomer, I’m Generation X. My generation knows how to be droll, detached, ironic. We find earnest, zealous, apocalyptic much harder to sustain. I always wanted to be Richard Hofstadter; I’m not cut out to be Howard Zinn. But which does the world need right now? Or does it need either?
I met the journalist Chris Hedges a few years ago. We brought him to Western for a talk, the gist of which was, “fascism is coming to America, and soon.” The room was packed with rapt, horrified students. In the Q&A afterwards, every question from the audience was some variation on “well, what can we do to prevent this calamity?” and to every question, his answer was “nothing.” Hedges was smart, and courteous to the students, and his bleak forecast is holding up pretty well so far. But I recoiled from the hopelessness of his vision. The satisfaction of being able to say “I told you so” when things go to shit is not, for me, much consolation for going through life like that.
At another talk, by the wonderful media historian Dan Schiller, it was me who raised my hand to ask, “ok, but what is to be done?” Dan said: “I’d like to draw attention to the emotional substrate of your question. You are, I think, asking me for hope. But let me ask you: how much hope is appropriate?”
How much hope is appropriate? That’s been ringing in my ears all week.
They are airing Nazi salutes on CNN, with a chyron about some shitheel who wonders “whether Jews are human.” How much hope is appropriate?
I see that Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education has ties to a group that calls for the abolition of child labor laws. How much hope is appropriate?
And, as you saw on Facebook, my wife Lisa was recently diagnosed with breast cancer. I’m writing this letter at the chemo ward beside her bed. She’s doing great so far, but still: how much hope is appropriate?
Cornel West says that just “having” hope, at this moment, is “too abstract, too detached, too spectatorial.” Instead, he says, “we must be a hope, a participant and a force for good as we face this catastrophe.”
Probably the best course I took at Queen’s was your lecture class on “Conspiracy & Dissent in U.S. History.” It was hugely popular, and rightly so: your charisma, your humor, your insight, plus only the fun bits of American history. And you were the first historian I knew who really questioned that old liberal progress narrative. I remember wrestling with your book, To Save A Nation (about American fascists, anti-Semites, and right-wing extremists—everything old is new again!), especially the epilogue, where you indict American liberals for their own complicity in that story.
I will admit that at the time I liked the “Conspiracy” parts of your class more than the “Dissent” parts. The “Conspiracy” half of the class was all the craziness and irrationality in American history that then delighted me: witch trials, the Illuminati, Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars dreams. “Dissent” seemed too much like work, something for my serious, activist friends who wrote for Surface. (I was, you might recall, a Golden Words guy, more interested in cracking wise than earnest political combat.) To me then the United States was a great, hilarious spectacle, captivating but maybe not all the way real. It was something I watched on TV. But ten years in the United States changed me. I lived in three states and visited forty-eight. I made wonderful American friends, I fell in love with a magnificent American girl, and we made some amazing American kids. I found that I loved America, and that I cared about it desperately.
Your last lecture of “Conspiracy and Dissent” in April 1995 was the very last class I attended at Queen’s. You ended the class with a masterful piece of Baby Boomer showmanship that I’ll never forget. As the lecture wound up, you turned on Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out,” but kept talking over the music.
People you’ve got the power over what we do
You can sit there and wait
Or you can pull us through
The song, of course, is about the life of a touring rock band, but I assumed you were using it to say something about teaching, maybe about how teaching feels to a natural-born performer like yourself.
We got time to think of the ones we love
While the miles roll away
But the only time that seems too short
Is the time we get to play
You timed it perfectly, so that your lecture built over the instrumentals and crested at the climax, ending right before Browne segues into his cover of “Stay,” which kept playing as our class filed out of the lecture hall and off to the rest of our lives. I just sat in my chair until the entire song ended—and it’s a long song! I felt like I could see closing credits scrolling over my years at Queen’s.
And what you were talking as the music played was the need for both critical thinking and hope in a world that’s always threatening to go mad. You told us: “Always be skeptics. But don’t become cynics.”
I’ve thought about that for twenty years, too, and I’ve tried to live up to it. I heard somebody on the radio say that hope without critical thinking is naïveté, but critical thinking without hope is cynicism. And I thought: they’re stealing from Geoff Smith.
It’s going to be awfully hard to steer between the rocks of naïveté and cynicism for the next four, eight, who knows how many years. But I’ll keep trying. And I’ll keep using and thinking about all you taught me, by word and example, twenty years ago.
Happy Thanksgiving, Geoff. And thanks.
(Originally published on the Facebook. You can read lots of nice comments and reactions there.)