Democracy and the Silly Season
NEWS FROM NON-BORING HOUSE: Why I Try NOT to Tell You What To Think About The Present, PLUS Nonnie Mike Plays NBH Museum Bingo in Sweden
How Long Is This Post? 3,600 words, about 15 minutes.
In Today’s Issue of News from Non-Boring House:
My Substack Newsletter Recommend of the Week: WorkCraft/Life by journalist and NYT bestselling popular history author Neal Bascomb
FEATURE: The Silly Season
Nonnie Mike Plays Non-Boring History 2022 Summer Museum Bingo in Sweden!
Fan Mail from a Historian!
NEW: How to Copy and Send Pieces of My Posts
Nonnie Lynn Entertains Family and Friends with NBH
I Goofed! Museum Tickets
Newsletter Recommendation Spotlight: WorkCraft/Life
Journalist Neal Bascomb is author of the kind of popular history I love: Gripping, informed, intrepid. Oh, and entertainingly written!
Now, in his wide-ranging and fascinating Substack newsletter, Neal takes us into the world of work and creativity, featuring people ranging from plumbers to fashion queen Anna Wintour. Plus, of course, history. Take a look around WorkCraft/Life starting here, and sign up to read Neal’s fascinating posts:
News in The Silly Season
The Silly Season is the name Brits give to the height of summer, when the UK Parliament is in recess, and newspapers resort to the kind of stories that, in the States, we associate most with Jeanne Moos on CNN: Fluffy, trivial stuff about talking dogs, and whatnot. It’s odd, if you think about it, because of course, significant developments continue to happen locally, nationally, and around the world. And honestly, with the state of go-go-go 24/7 news on our screens, and the weirdness of so much of it, I’m starting to feel like the Silly Season is year round.
However, I wondered if now was a good time to give my most dedicated readers and myself a bit of a break from my weightier posts on history, since odds are good that you’re also doing your best to decompress this summer.
Spoiler: I decided not to.
Yes, ok, we all need a break, but that doesn’t have to mean me lying on a beach with a frosty drink—tempting though that is. I figure you can pick and choose whether to read my emails as they arrive, or catch up at your leisure on the NBH site. Me? I’m a compulsive writer, so I like to take my break by flexing my humor/fiction muscles occasionally. That's why I continue to balance relatively heavy Annette Tells Tales posts (like We’re Doomed!) with Annette on the Road posts, and very silly (yet not as daft as they look) pieces like Hello, Friend! It’s Me, George.
Perhaps you wonder whether, surely, I can take a break by just pontificating in short pieces based on the news? If there’s so much news—and there is, as you know—you may wonder why I almost never comment on it?
Hey, I’m not short of an opinion or twenty, as my family and the Non-Boring House Gnomes will tell you. But I try to restrain myself at NBH. That’s because —provocative opinion alert!—academic historians aren’t oracles. We’re no more qualified than other educated people to assess what’s happening in real time, and certainly less than the best journalists, who keep their ears to the ground, and talk to a lot of people outside universities.
Sure, historians can add to the conversations swirling around us. Historians can offer context: We can talk about the history of an issue, or similar events in the past, even though they’re never, ever the same, because every historical development is unique. See? Saying things like this helps explain why we’re not invited to parties: We make people’s brains hurt. But, really, how the heck would I —or any historian—know what’s going on right now? I mean, we can’t even be sure we’re not barking up the wrong trees, based on the limited info we have in a volatile climate.
To truly have a clue what’s actually happening in the present, historians, alas, need to wait until the present is in the past. If we comment in real time, we’re not being historians, but pundits. That’s because we depend on documents that likely won’t surface for decades. To do our jobs properly in trying to understand the past, we must have the behind-the-scenes stuff: The diaries and letters nobody else was supposed to read, the conversations to which we were not privy.
Even though we do wait, it’s a challenge to get at documents, to put it mildly. One historian friend has even found some pretty shocking evidence of a very clever cover-up in the 17th century. You wouldn’t think the powers that be would have worried about the press or Twitter or public opinion in the 1600s, but there you go.
Speaking of public opinion . . . I know that this isn’t the impression you get from the media, high school, or each other, but academic history isn’t just about the powerful, the rich, and the famous, leaving ordinary people for Silly Season trivia stories.
To have any sort of grasp on what’s going on, historians have learned in the decades since WWII, we need a much wider perspective than just looking at what one politician said to another. Maybe this is just because we have lived through the rise of democracy since WWII, but I find, when I contemplate old-school top-down history, I see huge holes in it.
Taking everyone seriously, not just the celebs, produces a history that’s not only more relatable, but more credible. Historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich worked with a sparse diary written by Martha Ballard, an 18th century midwife in Maine, a document that other historians had dismissed in trivia.
Ulrich unpacked the diary's riches, put them in context, and showed how the diary, in its everydayness, revealed that women’s apparently mundane economic exchanges of goods and labor were at the heart of New England’s economy at the end of the 1700s.
The resulting book, A Midwife’s Tale, is a massive classic, and was a bestseller, too, especially among women who saw themselves in Ballard, always juggling paid employment and family responsibilities. But most importantly, A Midwife’s Tale is also one of many works of history in recent decades that have shown how history isn’t just the famous, but about all of us. And not as an afterthought. And the same is true, notice my nifty transition here, of democracy.
Just because I’m a historian doesn’t mean I only live in the past, try though I might! To try to understand what’s happening around me now, for my own interest and curiosity, I put on my inner journalist, and go talk to people: Historians, sure, but anyone, really. I’ve learned more from janitors and nurses than I have from TV pundits.
Why would I talk to ordinary people? Partly because I’m from the lower-middle class, and not a total snob. Partly because, as the late historian and my adviser John Allen Phillips put it, perception is reality: What folk think is going on is highly influential, and especially in a democracy. Brilliant historian Timothy Breen (also not from a rich background, and a total genius) has suggested that it’s through public opinion that ordinary people create change in history. Hmm. That explains why so much money has been poured into influencing how we all think. Koch. Koch. Sorry, I have a bit of a Koch. I mean, cough. A-ah-Putin! And a sneeze, too.
History for democracy has to look different from history for a top-down society. A history that simply says “Here are important people. Memorize things about them” won’t do. But that message has struggled to be heard, not least because there are powerful folks, people who think democracy has gone too far, and the people whose salaries they pay, who would rather it wasn’t. Koch! Koch! Ah-Putin! Boy, that’s a persistent cough I have. Hope it’s not the COVID. Or something worse.
History is slow to change, although change it does, and always has, not because historians are making things up, but because the world changes, and our concerns and questions change with it. As a teen in England in the 70s, the curriculum I learned was focused on modern Britain (that was defined as from 1485 to 1945, I kid you not), and, although it was definitely moving toward a broader perspective, it was still very top-heavy, all about kings and prime ministers, bills going through Parliament, and the like.
And yet I was extremely lucky: I had two extraordinary history teachers, both personally very conservative, both very well-read men who had a knack for theatre. They made us feel as though we were there, standing in Hampton Court, Downing Street, the Tower of London, or any other place of power, alongside the men (and occasional women, like Elizabeth I) making the decisions, and asking them awkward questions.
My teachers encouraged us to look at things from the sweeping perspectives of those in charge, the winners, yes, but also to consider the losers. The sight of the estranged Queen Caroline hammering at the doors of Westminster Abbey during her husband George IV's coronation, when they were slammed against her, seemed funny at the time, but that image stayed with me. I came to think of it as tragic: Privilege, I decided, is never watertight. Indeed, a society in which only a few claim all the spoils is not only miserable for the majority, but even for the privileged.
Even so, despite our classes taking a view of history from the top, it was in these deep and rigorous lessons (as well as fantastic BBC documentaries, and other ways of learning) that I got significant glimpses of a (then) new and different way of thinking about the past. My high school education didn’t just mean sitting through class (fun though that was) and it certainly didn’t involve rubbish corporate textbooks.
By the time we were sixteen, those of us who opted to keep studying history into the last two years of school read actual historians’ work, and although were directed to go forth and read, nobody told us what to read. We were to follow our trained instincts, and our curiosity. Admittedly, I was a bit flummoxed by this, and my reading at times took me out of the curriculum altogether, to an interest, for example, in the US Civil Rights movement, which was a massive movement for democracy, and the New Deal, for which Americans turned out in huge numbers, electing FDR four times, for a decent standard of living. Democracy fascinated me, but this also helps explains why, while I got an A on the government A Level exam in English, I only managed a C in history.
Never mind The important thing is that in classes, on the BBC, and, especially, in books, I was starting to see how ordinary people shaped events, and how the powerful never stopped pushing back. On Shoulder to Shoulder, BBC TV’s 1974 docudrama about the militant British suffragette movement (now mysteriously unavailable, good luck finding it) I saw early 20th century women—many of them posh ladies— chucking rocks through shop windows to protest their lack of a vote. Big influence: I was ten at the time, and promptly cleared our mobile library’s surprisingly large stock of kids’ books on women’s suffrage.
I read of citizens of Britain’s colonies pushing back against the Empire, participating in massive demonstrations. I read how Britons and the Empire’s citizens sacrificed their lives—unwillingly and needlessly—on the orders of the clueless in World War I. I saw how the people in charge in Manchester in 1819 sent the cavalry to cut down men, women, and children who protested peacefully for democracy on St. Peters Fields, a shameful episode that was nicknamed “Peterloo”, a reference to Waterloo, the massive battle that had ended the Napoleonic Wars. But Peterloo was no battle. It was a massacre. And in my class’s detailed studies of pro-democracy movements in Britain in the early 19th century, we were there.
None of this was so long ago in historical terms, neither my secondary education, or the fight over democracy in Britain. The large pro-democracy meeting of supporters of the Chartist movement you see at the top of this page was among the earliest photographs taken in the world, in 1848. These people in their flat caps and stovepipe hats look alien to us, nearly two centuries later, but what concerned them then still concerns many of us now, even if we’re not sure of the questions, much less the answers. How do we have freedom in any meaningful sense, as bullets fly in the US, and Brits queue for charity food “parcels”? What does freedom even mean, when what we are empowered to know is so little?
Here’s one of my biases that I make a point to reveal: Just like Winston Churchill, I think democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others. It’s clearly under threat now, here and around the world, but it will take decades—at least, and if ever— to understand how breathtakingly complex the threat is, and the sources of that threat, and its consequences. That’s one reason why I don’t usually weigh in on current events.
By the time we know more, if we know more, if present trends continue (and those are big ifs), perhaps history as a profession will have been decimated, and especially the 20th century professional history that doesn’t flinch when the bulk of the evidence takes us in a different direction than we expected. More and more, I fear, people claiming to be historians will not trained as such, or subject to rigorous peer review, and will start with answers rather than questions. And those trained historians who will hang on in the academy are most likely highly privileged, highly-educated, but not always quite understanding the view from anywhere except the top. Good grief, those of us from lower-middle or working-class backgrounds only just made it into the profession! That didn’t last long, did it?
To be of any value to a democracy, history must be taught not just as “material” to be “mastered” (ugh, that’s so gross), but as a way of thinking of and talking about the past, firmly anchored in historians’ work that makes that past as real and as complicated as the present. And it is. Notice I don’t say “was”. Because historians see it everywhere. We can see dead people, I tell you.
Oh, wait, this is all a bit heavy for the Silly Season, isn’t it?
Look, I know you likely come to NBH for a bit of light relief from the news, or a bit of the comfort that comes from enjoying the discomfort of people in the past. Hey, so do I! I’m a historian with a deeply British sense of humor! But there’s a reason I called this newsletter Non-Boring History, and not Fun History. And while I write at my computer about the past, know that the present sits heavily on my shoulders. I can’t ignore it. It affects what and how I write. But I won’t pretend that I understand it. That’s not how I see my job as a historian. How I see it is something I can’t just explain in a Tweet. That’s why I depend on us to try to piece our fractured attention spans back together now that the Internets have laid waste to them, and to bear with me.
This is why I thank you, Nonnies, my paid subscribers, from the bottom of my heart: You’re supporting me to do my thing, to write freely, to follow my instincts, and share how I think, and how it changes. And honestly, if it weren’t for you, I would already have had to give up: I don’t need much income, but I absolutely do need something. So thank you so much for your support, which mostly goes toward the staggering book budget at Non-Boring House, and kibble for the Gnomes in the basement who handle the business side of things.
Oh, and Silly Season or not, I’m going to keep mixing things up. It keeps us both on our toes. So now here’s some lighter reading.
Non-Boring History Summer Museum Bingo: Nonnie Mike in Sweden
Nonnies are an intrepid bunch! Nonnie Mike Nielsen, in Georgia, USA, sent me photos from his recent trip with his wife Sheila to Sweden, where they are playing NBH Summer Museum Bingo! I was struck by the definite resemblances between Upplanssmuseet open-air museum they visited, about 19th century farm life, and some of Old World Wisconsin’s buildings: Not a shock, since many Scandinavians settled here in the upper Midwest.
And here’s Sheila at the museum with a Swedish farmhouse that features a grass roof! Here in Wisconsin, we have a massively Americanized tribute to this Swedish tradition: Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant (massive portions) and Butik (gift shop) featuring a grass roof with—wait for it—goats on it.
Mike sent me this next picture from the Gamla Uppsala Museum (which looks awesome) with a cool story:
“Saint Erik, the Swedish king who was interrupted at church with a message that the Danes were about to attack. Erik finished his worship service and . . .”
Ooh! I waited with bated breath for His Majesty’s heroic, epic response to this news. Then Mike finished his sentence:
“ . . . was killed upon exiting the church.”
Oh. Ah. Oh dear.
Well, you know what? This is the kind of no-nonsense national history I can get on board with Well done, Sweden, for being real about the past. I salute the unlucky Saint-King Erik!
I also salute Nonnie Mike and the lovely Sheila for sharing their fantastic Swedish adventure with us. Thanks, both!
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