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History Against the Grain
105 minutes | Jul 1, 2022
Whether we regale you with tales of an early morning fishing trip or a relaxing solstice sound bath, we at HAG are here to help you find an escape from the summertime blues. If you are feeling a certain dreadful deja vu, and find it hard to tell the difference between real world war crimes and aging actor fighter pilots, or decide which is scarier, special effects dinosaurs or black robed Supreme Court Inquisitors, you’re not crazy, summertime surreal is here and history really is in retrograde. But don’t believe them when they say there ain’t no cure for those summertime blues. We got your tonic right here! So join us on episode 57 as we sample a special brew of history rich counterstories and drink to your good health.
124 minutes | May 20, 2022
“Stories are wondrous things,” says the writer Thomas King, “And they are dangerous, for once a story is told, it cannot be called back. Once told, it is loose in the world. So you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories you are told.” Another mass killing of innocent people in America has been perpetrated with an appeal to history. Touting an idea called ‘Replacement Theory,” right-wing political pundits, politicians, and now, again, domestic terrorists have loosed the poisonous story of white nationalism to violently project who they say “we really are as a nation.” No longer limited to the lunatic fringe of racial supremacists, unfiltered white nationalism has found a home in the comfortable lap of the GOP and mainstream conservative media. As we suggest in today’s episode, such extremist claims are different only by degree from the long-standing white nationalist, standard mainstream history of the nation. And if we don’t immediately recognize that, it is only because the stories we usually tell ourselves, have been carefully formatted as designer memories, safely romanticized for the mainstream understanding of who “we really are as a nation.” No matter how familiar those designer memories may seem, a closer look often reveals them to be born of a checkered past, with stories tailored and curated to serve the needs of certain narrow interests. These designer memories usually involve some variation on the ‘us versus them’ story emplotment, a bewildering narrative binary that makes more palatable the nation’s long history of violence, war, and domestic terrorism. In other nations as well, that same appeal to an imagined historical exclusivity and ‘us versus them’ storyline, has engendered similar pathologies of violence. The national stories we tell ourselves, it would seem, are killing us.
97 minutes | Mar 25, 2022
...And No Lessons Were Learned
We invite you to listen in with Episode 55, and celebrate the 2-year anniversary of History Against the Grain. It’s been quite a trip, from quarantine beards to creeping agoraphobia, and through it all a real time accounting of life in the apocalypse. We may look a little scruffier after all this, but that’s just because we have saved our straight razors for the shaving of bad history. And in this episode we reflect on the many lessons unlearned as the world once again plays host to another state-sponsored war of destruction. Heart wrenching scenes of humanity bleed into the mediasphere, where banal and myopic commentary intones history with providential conviction. It seems the reports of History’s death back in the 90’s were greatly exaggerated. Triumphalist national narratives live on like history zombies amid the ashes of war, and in the endless deja vu of national sermonizing, the masters of war exonerate and convict each other as men of the same shared hypocrisy.
112 minutes | Feb 11, 2022
Make the Ritual Last Forever
Violence has been central to the national and imperial projects of the modern age. State-sponsored violence has often targeted peoples deemed as subaltern and subordinate, especially dispossessed peoples, native peoples, enslaved peoples, and colonized peoples. Not that you would necessarily get that from the national and imperial history narratives that modern states cultivate, narratives that bewilder and obscure the true costs of such violence in deference to claims of progress. Even when inflicted tragedies are acknowledged, and sins confessed, a certain historical narcissism may redirect the focus away from the true human costs to the supposedly magnanimous quality of the confession, or frame it all as just so much unfortunate but unavoidable collateral damage along the road to progress. Like the directions on a shampoo bottle, there follows an endless ritual of atrocity, memory, forgetting, and repeat.
127 minutes | Jan 7, 2022
Secular, Sacred, and Profane
Attention class, today we are having a quiz. It is a winner-take-all-quiz, so that if you answer the question correctly you’ll pass the podcast with a perfect grade. If, however, you should select the wrong answer then you will fail and be condemned to live out the remainder of your days listening exclusively to self-help podcasts. Don’t worry, it’s multiple choice so you have a decent 1 in 4 chance of guessing correctly. The question is: Which of the following correctly describes an essential element of virtually any imperial or national history? A. Secular. B. Sacred. C. Profane. D. All of the above. Did not answer “D. All of the Above”?Well don’t feel bad, listening to podcasts is a worthwhile way to live your life. Recording this episode as we are on the anniversary of the January 6, 2021 Capitol Insurrection, we felt obligated to make sense of the inevitable swelling up of nausea that memories of the day are sure to inspire, and the proportional part played by the national history and imperial history stories we tell ourselves in making and keeping us sick. Our diagnosis? Those stories are toxic and we are being poisoned. Our prescription? Tell truer and better stories. Think of us as your friendly neighborhood history pharmacists, and from Emperor Aurangzeb to George Washington, we have the dosage you need to cure your history headache.
111 minutes | Nov 19, 2021
Walking the Dog
86 years ago the Black activist and historian W.E.B. Du Bois published a breakthrough work of historical scholarship called Black Reconstruction, which set about demolishing the reigning story of white nationalist nostalgia framed around the storytelling conceit called the Old South. Black Reconstruction was a righteous call for America to acknowledge its great historical debt to Black Lives, and published at a time of racial violence and rigid segregation. Today, our episode, records on the occasion of yet another breakthrough publication in historical storytelling called The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. Arguably the greatest effort to tell the “big story” of Black lives in American history since Du Bois, we devote our episode to consider the lifecycles of stories, the birth, death, and rebirth of histories that break new ground and inspire new understandings of the human project, from the Dawn of Everything to the reckoning for racial justice. Our conclusion? We must not wait another 86 years for the story wheel to turn, these new stories must find a central place in the storytelling imagination of the nation, if we are ever to have the nation we wish.
105 minutes | Oct 29, 2021
Here at HAG we have to stay light on our feet, in tip-top shape, because those public statues of anointed heroes which stand frozen to time and analysis, are never more difficult to pin down and even harder to catch, then when they are just standing still. You wouldn’t think so. After all, challenge a statue to a blinking contest, and you’re bound to lose. Challenge it to a game of tag and you are bound to win. So unkinetic are they, that pigeons always know just where to find them. So unchanging are they, that passersby barely need to look up. Yet we know that history is just never frozen in time, and no matter how stiff the statue, the closer we look the more elusive its meaning becomes. Never mind the heroic and motionless exterior, the action is going on within, where the truth and facts of the story offer a constantly moving target of historical meaning. And for that, we must chase that meaning like track stars. Statues and the stories they purport are not for us to worship with unquestioned devotion and reverence as “history,” but to interrogate for the hidden meanings. Because It is the meaning we are after, not the stolid exterior. We want to know what sort of story it tells, and whether that story is told truthfully and with meaning, whether it is a story that keeps us sick, or a story that makes us well. And for that, we must interrogate the statue, the story, and the history they hide, lest we remain captive to that statue’s unblinking, impassive authority.
94 minutes | Oct 8, 2021
When we tell a story about the past are we liberating our understandings or building a set of prison walls to keep our understandings captive? Does historical knowledge become our passport to explore or, like a bad 007 plot, serve as our license to kill. And if we build up a set of institutions and systems to enshrine and police that knowledge and codify its ways of storytelling, how do we prevent it from becoming a Frankenstein’s monster of the same stories repeated in a cycle of self-enforcing orthodoxy? Well, for starters, open the windows and unlock the doors, and breathe that autumn air. A whole world of stories awaits us out there, and even with episode 50 of History Against the Grain, may it always be true that our baskets of knowledge never fill up.
105 minutes | Aug 13, 2021
Escaping the Sovereignty Trap
If a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is the only item on the menu, and you know a peanut butter and jelly sandwich is not going to do you any good, what are your options? Do you just keep pretending that this is the best of all possible meals? Or do you dress it up with lots of tasty add-ons, like maybe some pepperoni and curry? Or, and here’s what we are thinking, maybe you create a new menu entirely, one that addresses our nutritional needs and culinary tastes. So it is with history. We’ve been chewing on the same history menu for too long, a history sandwiched around the claims of sovereignty and flavored with the condiments of power. No matter how much we try to improve it, make it spicier or more exotic, more diverse or more inclusive, it still has us justifying the same old systems of power and privilege. We call it the sovereignty trap - and we cannot chew our way out of the problems it has made for us by sticking to the same narrative menu. In other words, we shouldn’t expect a peanut butter and jelly sandwich to be something it was never designed to be. We need a new menu. We need a new basis for history. We need new stories to tell.
101 minutes | Jul 30, 2021
The Province of Mutiny
Join us for Episode 48 The Province of Mutiny. In a week where the Olympic Games play out like the Age of Empire’s hangover, we here at History Against the Grain offer you a tonic of truth. With every medal ceremony the Olympics remind us just how ingrained the performance of nationalism is in modern life. So it is in history as well. Yet if national histories have been the standard template, they have most often told self-justifying stories of sovereignty with the emphasis on power and those who wield it. And much like one too many medley relays or an overdose of beach volleyball, these sovereignty-based histories become sterile with the telling. The solution? Ditch the sovereignty narratives in favor of real lived experiences, featuring not presidents and potentates but rather the cords of human community. This week we discuss why music tells us more about the communities we build than millionaires and military battles, and how from Africa to Appalachia we can follow the vital musical chords of the past to see how Black lives and Black music have shaped the American experience.
84 minutes | Jul 16, 2021
Summer Replay--The Anarchy of History 7/24/20
Summer travel got in the way of recording a new episode this week so as a placeholder we are reposting one of our favorite episodes from last summer. In Episode 18 we talked with University of California Davis professor Ali Anooshahr about his books Turkestan and the Rise of Eurasian Empires: A Study of Politics and Invented Traditions; and The Ghazi Sultans and the Frontiers of Islam. Not only did this episode release almost exactly a year ago, but the ideas that we discuss with Ali tie in very nicely with the sorts of conversations we have been having in recent episodes. Enjoy!
84 minutes | Jul 2, 2021
True crime TV shows back in the day offered sober disclaimers assuring anxious listeners that “names have been changed to protect the innocent.” As our listeners know, here on HAG we prefer calling things by their true names, and those who commit the crimes, are most definitely getting called out. That guarantee holds true even when the criminal accomplices are historians. Our guest this week is the distinguished Stanford University professor, Priya Satia, whose extraordinary book Time’s Monster makes the case that “historians were, for a long time, not only the scribes of empire but also its architects.” Historical writing has often fed the historical imaginations of statesmen, generals, and businessmen whose business it was to feed the growth of empires and national expansion, often with destructive results, from war to genocide. History itself, in other words, is no innocent in history, but rather as the subtitle of Professor Satiya’s book proclaims, history also makes history. Join us for an episode with Priya Satia, one of our vital scholarly voices.
86 minutes | Jun 18, 2021
What Happened Was...
This week the HAG news team covers the latest staged performance of the long-running tragicomedy known as U.S. History. We watch as historical veracity gets bum-rushed by the flag waving drugstore cowboys of the Arizona legislature. These dude ranch dudes down in the Valley of the Sun are threatening a $5,000 fine for any public school teacher willing to teach the truth about the bloody and racist past of American history. “Out damned spot! Out, I say!” cry the history sanitizers. Sorry dudes, but you gotta know, that whether or not you can keep it out of the official dude ranch narrative, it seems that blood just does not want to wash away. And that’s the thing about sanitizing historical narratives, they’re always full of Freudian slips and just badly bandaged enough to keep the inconvenient truths alive and out of the censors’ reach. Once again, Josh draws back the big curtain to expose history’s hustlers, showing how the apologists of Spanish Empire invented a new genre of historical narrative that set the stage for today’s national histories. It all sounds pretty familiar as conquest gets rebranded as discovery, plunderers are recast as heroes, and from New Spain to New Orleans, the chorus of power never tires of singing how god is on their side.
91 minutes | Jun 4, 2021
The Good, Bad, Everything
Where do hidden things get found, where does the margin become the center, and where does the light shine in the dark? In Episode 45 that’s where! From Tulsa to Tiananmen, from Timbuktu to Trinidad, your HAG history team has got the good, the bad, everything. So throw on your favorite I❤️Diouboye t-shirt, grab some popcorn, and settle in as we lay down the history gauntlet to all the memory goons and nostalgia narcissists who want to induce you into historical coma. Because you know...here at HAG...our eyes are always wide open.
104 minutes | May 28, 2021
Truth Without Meaning
"What is the meaning of this?!" Not simply a question for the affronted patriarch anymore, but a question we should be more often asking of the histories we tell. Or in the words of filmmaker Raoul Peck, “we search for truth when we should search for meaning.” We are too often poorly served by histories that hang on claims of truth but offer only confused, distorted, or dishonest meanings. Take the familiar story from the U.S. standard version history of the enslaver who famously wrote that all men are created equal. Truth or falsity is not at issue here, the basic facts of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence are well enough established. It is rather how that standard version U.S history invests meaning in his words while eliding the obvious contradiction of enslavement, a contradiction with which Jefferson himself was all too familiar and involved. The result? We have inherited a national history whose purported meaning is not only at odds with its own truth but incapable of resolving the tangle of contradictions that is the historical legacy of American enslavement. As Raoul Peck reminds us, it is time we tell not just truer but also more meaningful histories.
96 minutes | May 21, 2021
Who and What We Are
"We birthed a nation from nothing,” says Rick Santorum, the goggle-eyed Christian nut job and former U.S. Senator. For Santorum’s audience it is all too clear who he means by “we” - an imagined nation of white Christian people hermetically sealed in time and exclusively responsible for the authentic American identity. Well, from the nothingness of Rick Santorum’s historical mind to the machinations of China’s language authorities, the history police never tire of telling us who and what we really are. According to historian Prasenjit Duara, the nation-state “stakes its claim to sovereign authority, in part, as custodians of authenticity,” and we regularly see efforts by sovereigns and stewards of the national interest to determine the cultural norms that most authentically define us. Our guest this episode, Gina Anne Tam is the author of Dialect and Nationalism in China, 1860-1960, a fascinating look at how various sovereign interests and cultural arbiters in China’s nation-building project wielded language as a litmus for defining China’s ‘authentic’ identity. From melting pot to Middle Kingdom, we consider how claims of cultural authenticity reflect more often the interests of national marketing than the lived experience of people.
111 minutes | Apr 23, 2021
The Human System
During a week when a murder trial featuring a notorious police officer as defendant rendered its verdict, another broader verdict hung in the balance over the American justice system itself. Like all governing institutions, America’s policing and justice systems are products of a historical evolution , one that has defined the ongoing development of centralized states since the dawn of human governance just over five thousand years ago. Our guest this week is the distinguished historian Patrick Manning, whose recent book, A History of Humanity: The Evolution of the Human System, makes the case for seeing such institutions in the evolutionary long run of human history. Manning argues that humankind became the quintessentially institutional animal as an evolutionary outgrowth of our species sudden development of syntactic language 70,000 years ago. Yet because evolution rather than intelligent design forms the basis for human institutional development, one might reasonably ask: what happens when human institutions outlive their evolutionary usefulness? Are they subject to extinction or abolition, or do they simply continue in an evolutionary afterlife of corrosion and rot?
101 minutes | Apr 9, 2021
Once again bigotry is in vogue, and red state minions without shame are tripping all over one another to pass shamefaced voter suppression laws. Even Major League Baseball, no slouch itself in the annals of Jim Crow, has taken action in protest of Georgia’s recent effort to disenfranchise Black voters. Un-ironically, all of this plays out as the George Floyd murder trial is held in Minnesota, which has us thinking once again just how poorly suited are the standard version histories for explaining the enduring traditions of racial segregation, voter suppression, and police violence against Black bodies. You just can’t get here via the Mt. Rushmore express. So with Episode 41, Pentimento, we again look at the truer and more honest histories that lie underneath the superimposed and mythic images of the standard version history, to surface narratives that can actually explain how we got here and why we need truer and better histories to get us out of this god awful mess.
91 minutes | Mar 26, 2021
As the United States once again sees the dreadful legacy of a gun culture reap its deadly toll on the living, we pause to consider how the histories we inherit condition us to mis-remember the violence of the past. Often presented in the narrative guise of a patriotic nostalgia and exceptionalism, the historical violence of empire and nation building translates into the adoration of certain iconic ‘great men of history.’ These same men were themselves the chief architects of those violent projects, and yet within the nostalgic national and imperial narratives, they are imagined to be the personified ‘soul’ of the nation or empire. It is all part of a historical hustle we call the sovereignty trap, and with Episode 40 we begin our second year of History Against the Grain discussing the better histories that can liberate us from its dreadful legacies.
93 minutes | Mar 12, 2021
Our Year of Living Historically
In March of 2020, a year ago, we started a podcast, intending to capture and build upon a discussion of history we’d been having for years. It was a discussion mostly in short bursts, often in passing, outside our classrooms, in the doorways of our offices, and frequently in the hallways and stairwells of the building where we teach. Our intent was to use the calmer space afforded us by a podcast to discuss what Hayden White called in his seminal 1973 book Metahistory, the “nature and function of historical knowledge.” Apparently the podcast gods had another design, and calm would play no part. Just as we settled in for a fuzzy friendly little chatfest, a relentless historical tide began building outside our windows, and swept us all along on a course we’re still trying to understand. Let’s call it history in real time: a global pandemic, and mutinous quarantine, a racial justice moment with death and truth, a brooder’s coup d’etat with a brokered insurrection, statues tumbling like bowling pins, shock troops, city streets, and a moment of reckoning for the stories we tell ourselves and the stories yet to be told. We called it History Against the Grain, so maybe we didn’t really expect calm after all, but after our year of living historically, a little calm reflection in our 39th episode will have to suffice.
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