Anti-Racism and the Folk Revival

George Floyd’s murder and the protests it sparked have forced people to ask themselves important and uncomfortable questions about race and racism. Communities big and small have issued statements of solidarity including some traditional dance teams. My team, Still River Sword, met to discuss the issue. We quickly agreed that we wanted to donate money to organizations working for racial justice, issue a statement expressing our beliefs as a group, and invite other teams to match our donation. That was the easy part. The hard part was agreeing on a statement. In particular, we had a range of beliefs about the history of our tradition. To what extent was it racist or white supremacist? How important is it to explicitly recognize any past racism in our statement? Would making provocative claims about our community’s past harm our ability to raise money in the present? Is it more important to raise money or to invite other groups to have the same tough conversation that we were having? 

We wanted to be an anti-racist team, but we had differing opinions about the best way to do that. Anti-racism is a concept that fights against the idea that simply not being racist is enough. The National Museum of African American History And Culture explains anti-racism like this:

No one is born racist or antiracist; these result from the choices we make. Being antiracist results from a conscious decision to make frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily. These choices require ongoing self-awareness and self-reflection as we move through life. In the absence of making antiracist choices, we (un)consciously uphold aspects of white supremacy, white-dominant culture, and unequal institutions and society. Being racist or antiracist is not about who you are; it is about what you do. (National Museum of African American History And Culture website)

In the days after we first met, I was motivated to do some reading about these topics and decided to write about what I learned. As members of the wider folk music and dance world, I encourage you to work within your own teams and communities to start similar conversations. My hope is that this can be a helpful companion piece to those discussions. My conclusion is that being members of our particular folk tradition means we do need to be explicit about our past and the ways in which that past continues to affect our present in order to begin to be anti-racist in the future. Here’s why.

Modern longsword, morris, rapper, and English Country dance traditions stem from a single cultural movement. The most important figure in that movement was Cecil Sharp. Sharp is fairly well known, and I won’t try to recap his entire biography here. He went into English towns and collected songs and dances that he felt had been passed down through an oral tradition over generations and that were at risk of being forgotten. He also came to the United States and traveled through Appalachia, where he again collected songs. His analysis was that these songs were of English origin and had, in the wild mountains of America, been preserved in an earlier form even than those he collected in England.

The context of Sharp’s collecting is important. He collected at a time of rapid change in both England and the United States. Both societies were rapidly industrializing and urbanizing. England was involved in the start of the imperial competition between European countries that would eventually lead to World War I. The United States was at the tail end of the largest wave of immigration in its history. This wave “between 1880 and 1914, brought over 20 million European immigrants to the United States, an average of 650,000 a year at a time when the United States had 75 million residents. Most southern and eastern European immigrants arriving via New York’s Ellis Island found factory jobs in Northeastern and Midwestern cities.” (Trends in Migration to the U.S. from the Population Reference Bureau website)

Sharp and the first folk revival were not music and dance enthusiasts unaffected by their political context. Quite the opposite. The folk revival was a political act. Sharp was a Fabian – a political group in English politics that promoted social reform for the purposes of imperialism. Although this may seem like a strange combination of beliefs, it’s not dissimilar from Progressive era beliefs in the United States. We remember the Progressive era for social reform in the areas of education, medicine, and government but it had a dark side as well – and I’m not just talking about temperance. Historian James S. Pula describes the darker side like this:

While the Progressive Era is generally viewed as a period of social, political, and economic reform, the alliance between restrictionists, Progressives, and organized labor brought different results for southern and Eastern European immigrants. For them, it resulted in a restriction of further immigration and institutionalization of demeaning ethnic stereotypes propagated by authors such as Madison Grant who, in his 1916 work The Passing of the Great Race, argued that the pure superior American racial stock was being diluted by the influx of “new” immigrants from the Mediterranean, the Balkans, and the Polish ghettos.

(“The Progressives, the Immigrant, and the Workplace: Defining Public Perceptions, 1900-1914” by James S. Pula, Polish American Studies Vol. 52, No. 2 (Autumn, 1995) Page 69)

Race was never far from the surface in Fabian or Progressive politics. Note how race is invoked by the Fabians in the English political context as a necessary hedge against competition within Europe and by Progressives in the American context as a bludgeon against immigration.

The basic attitude of the Fabians toward the problems of empire and social reform was, for practical purposes, indistinguishable from that of the… government. The Fabians, too, were concerned about the rearing of an ‘imperial race’ to help meet the German challenge.

(Imperialism and Social Reform: English Social-Imperial Thought 1895-1914 by Bernard Semmel P. 130)

In his A History of the American People, Progressive politician (and President of the United States when Sharp came to America,) Woodrow Wilson, wrote:

Throughout the century men of the sturdy stocks of the north of Europe had made up the main strain of foreign blood which was every year added to the vital working foce of the country… but now there came multitudes of men of the lowest class from the south of Italy and men of the meaner sort out of Hungary and Poland, men out of the ranks where there was neither skill nor energy nor any initiative of quick intelligence; and they came in numbers which increased from year to year, as if the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population…

(A History of the American People: Vol. V by Woodrow Wilson, 1901 Page 212-213) 

It is no surprise that Progressives in the United States and Fabians in England alike were believers in eugenics.

The effort of Sharp and his peers to collect and popularize music and dance had their core motivation in the politics of their time. In fact, the more I read about this, the more I see politics as the primary driver of their actions and music as the vessel. In his history of music in the context of the British military during World War I, Nicholas Hiley explains this:

According to Sharp, the peasant had not been touched by the development of urban culture, with its international influences, and thus remained a repository of racial characteristics and a possible source of inspiration for a truly English musical style. 

As an opponent of urbanization and industrialization, Sharp was eager to make a distinction between what he called the ‘town song’ and the ‘country song’. He dismissed the town song as ‘the debased street music of the vulgar’, and condemned as corrupt all those people who ‘vulgarise themselves and others by singing coarse music-hall songs’. 

The question of literacy was very important to the folk-song collectors, for they wanted to return to a time when society had been stable and deferential, and they associated that stability with oral rather than with written culture.

(Ploughboys and Soldiers: the folk song and the gramophone in the British Expeditionary Force 1914-1918 by Nicholas Hiley, Page 63)

Note how closely aligned Sharp’s musical motivations are with the ideology of the Fabians. Music-hall was a particular antipathy of Sharp’s because of its connection to the modern, urban identity which he saw as being not worthy of the “English race.” Gavin James Campbell, in Music and the Making of the New South makes the slightly subtle racism of the phrase, “debased street music of the vulgar” clear as a bell:

[Sharp] asserted that the “national type is always to be found in its purest, as well as in its most stable and permanent form, in the folk-arts of a nation,” but if there were no folk arts, there could be no “national type.” Sharp blamed immigration and modernization for destroying Anglo-Saxon folk traditions, and he recommended that public schools teach “the folksongs and folk-ballads of the race” so that children could “as quickly as possible enter into their racial inheritance. The songs would, he explained, “arouse that love of country and pride of race, the absence of which we now deplore.” In Sharp’s mind, racial identity and folk music were inseparable, and his commitment to the ballads was both personal and patriotic.

(Music and the Making of a New South by Gavin James Campbell, Page 110)

Sharp saw folk music as a way to solidify the white English Anglo-Saxon people and to stave off the threatening influence of the other. To be clear, this analysis is not the product of modern attitudes being imposed on historical events and people. Sharp’s motivations were no secret at the time. The New York Times covered a memorial for Sharp shortly after his death in 1924 and summarized his career like this:

Cecil Sharp’s work of rescuing the folk songs and folk dances was practically completed before his much regretted death last year… they came into it just in time to save what there was, for the conditions of modern life were steadily obliterating the love and knowledge of the old songs and the practice of them.

He found in these regions many hundred survivals of old English folk songs where none were supposed to exist and in a country where it was supposed that no folk songs could exist. He forged a connecting link in folk song between England and the United States.

In the Appalachians, as in the English countryside, Sharp was fortunate in the hour of his approach. The end is coming in the Southern mountains as it is in the English counties… the irresistible oncoming of the coal miners and the timber hewers and other industrial evangelists, tend to kill the singing of the old songs and the dancing of the old dances. Music hall ditties, “coon songs” as manufactured on Broadway, fox trots and jazz generally take the places of them. 

(An English Folk Song and Folk Dance Memorial to the Late Cecil Sharp New York Times, June 14, 1925, by Richard Aldrich)

However real Sharp’s interest in music was, and I believe it was real and significant, his political motivations drove his action and converted them into active racism. Here, narrated by Michael Yates, is an illustrative example from Sharp’s travels in the United States. It contains excerpts from Sharp’s diary and the diary of his colleague, Maud Karpeles, in italics:

On 1st August Sharp felt that the time had come for another move, this time back to Kentucky.

It now seems clear that this piece of country had ‘advanced’ too far on the down grade towards sophistication and that we are wasting our time and money in staying here.

There may, however, have been other factors which influenced Sharp in his decision:

We tramped – mainly uphill. When we reached the cove we found it peopled by niggers … All our troubles and spent energy for nought.

Maud Karpeles described the same encounter in slightly greater detail:

We arrived at a cove and got sight of log cabins that seemed just what we wanted. Called at one. A musical ‘Good Morning’, turned round and behold he was a negro. We had struck a negro settlement. Nothing for it but to toil back again.

(“Cecil Sharp in America: collecting in the Appalachians” by Michael Yates. Berwick-upon-Tweed. 23.12.99)

What is important here is not the use of the ‘N’ word but rather that Sharp and Karpeles were actively ignoring the music of Black people. Again, context is important. Cultural genocide was an active part of chattel slavery in the United States. Enslaved people were intentionally separated from members of their own groups when they arrived and were restricted from singing or playing music except in churches that they were forced to attend. Ignoring Black musicians and claiming that the music they heard from white people was some kind of pure version of English music is a continuation of what slavery began.

The idea that songs collected from white Appalachians in the 1910s were not influenced by Black people is also fantastical at best. Black dancers and musicians have a wide influence on our tradition. Here are just a few tidbits from “Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection” by Philip A. Jamison who comments specifically on Sharp and Karpeles:

As early as 1690, slave fiddlers played for dances on plantations in Virginia (Virginia Writers’ Project 1940), and by the mid-eighteenth century, slave musicians were common at white social functions, both urban and rural, throughout the American colonies.

As early as the eighteenth century, in addition to playing for white dances, slaves began to dance the European dances themselves… One account from a South Carolina newspaper in 1772, mentions a “cabel” of about sixty slaves gathered near Charleston to dance “Country Dances.”

Although there have been African-Americans in the Appalachians since the 1700s, Karpeles remarked that when she and Sharp visited in 1917 there were “practically no Negroes in the mountains” (Karpeles 1967, 146). Even if she herself did not see blacks on her travels in western North Carolina and eastern Kentucky (which is hard to believe), they had been there for generations, and their influence in the region’s music and dance is undeniable. According to US Census figures compiled by William H. Turner, African-Americans made up twenty-one percent of the population of the Appalachian counties in Kentucky in 1830 (Turner 1985). By the time Sharp and Karpeles visited eastern Kentucky in the early twentieth century, the percentage of blacks in the population was lower, but the African-American practice of calling had become an established part of the mountain dance tradition, giving the southern Appalachian square dances a looser structure than the highly formal quadrilles that had been taught by the dancing masters. In looking for connections to English country dance, they failed to recognize the numerous African-American elements present in the dances they witnessed. In addition to dance calling, these include the presence of the banjo, hand clapping on the up beat, patting juba, and dance calls such as “yaller girls.”

(“Square Dance Calling: The African-American Connection” by Philip A. Jamison, Journal of Appalachian Studies Vol 9, Number 2 Pages 388, 390, 395)

Nor was influence even within our folk dance traditions a one way path from England to the United States. The English songs and dances that Sharp claimed were part of a pure English heritage had been influenced themselves by American slavery and racism. Rhett Krause relays a few intriguing examples of this in his article, “Morris Dance and America Prior to 1913”:

Long before the “traditional” English morris dances had been recorded, they had been influenced to some extent by popular American culture. At least three English morris tunes have American origins… Next is the Headington tune “Getting Upstairs.” The original version (“Such a Getting Upstairs”) was written and composed sometime in the early 1830’s by Joe Blackburn for blackface performers. The song travelled to England with American minstrel shows, and versions were soon published in London. Five decades later, Percy Manning would record a variant of the chorus as one of the songs of the Headington men:

Such a getting upstairs and playing on the fiddle,
Such a getting upstairs I never did see. 

In contrast to their Cotswold morris contemporaries, the great majority of border morris dancers blacked up. This often included blacking of the hands, which would seem unnecessary if disguise were the exclusive intent… Musical instruments frequently included the tambourine and bones, the traditional instruments of the minstrel show “endmen.”

It is most commonly thought that the origin and function of black-face in morris dancing lies in primitive disguise rather than an imitation of black men. However, this is not definitely the case. Accounts of the morris of Shakespeare’s time make no mention of blackface, while the border teams contemporary with minstrel shows typically blacked up. American minstrel shows, if not the actual origin of black face among morris dancers, at least contributed to its popularity.

(“Morris Dance and America Prior to 1913” by Rhett Krause pages 2-3)

Krause’s contention about the origin of blackface in morris dancing is debatable. After she read this essay, Jan Elliott shared a quotation from Thoinot Arbeau’s 1589 “Orchesography” which describes a young morris dancer of that time, “his face daubed with black” as he danced. Regardless, I think it is safe to say that American racism interacted with and perhaps renewed morris dancing’s tradition of blackface. The two traditions were certainly interacting in this country. Krause even found a “New York City poster [that] advertises a morris dance as part of a minstrel show given at the American Concert Hall at 444 Broadway.” from February or March 1861.

Although the first folk revival was a hundred years ago, many of its core elements are still alive today. Our community rejects urbanism and modernity as fiercely today as Sharp and his cohort did in their time (despite many of us living in cities and being tech workers of some sort — again, just like Sharp and his cohort). 

Much of our song repertoire still celebrates and mourns along the same nostalgic lines of the first folk revival. We sing “hoorah for the life of a country boy” and mourn that “the horse’s day is gone.” Our communal sings honor people who have memorized their songs. A piece of paper may be allowed but looking at a phone is frowned upon. This has barely changed in over 100 years. Nicholas Hiley, Head of Information, British Universities Film & Video Council, writes of Sharp’s time:

The myth of the illiterate folk singer grew in strength. As might be expected, contemporary folk singers possessed not only manuscript notes of songs, but also collections of printed ballad sheets and newspaper clippings containing the words to songs in their repertoire. However, the collectors were so insistent upon folk memory that these resources were carefully concealed, as folk singers realized that it was better to appear to have a considerable memory than a large collection of ballads

(Ploughboys and Soldiers: the folk song and the gramophone in the British Expeditionary Force 1914-1918 by Nicholas Hiley, Page 64)

In “City Folk: A Narrative of Creating Community in America Through English Country Dance,” Stephanie Smith shares a fantastic and, to my experience, accurate encapsulation of our modern dance communities:

However, whether as performed at a regular community dance, a special event, or a camp such as Pinewoods, ECD can be seen as what Murrow describes as “a haven from the hurly burly and the high speed of American twenty-first century culture, where we all have our cell phones and emails and computers… a time to go back to an era of graciousness where people can relate to one another politely with elegance and grace.”

(“City Folk: A Narrative of Creating Community in America Through English Country Danceby Stephanie Smith, Page 189) 

There are many good reasons for rejecting modernity and urbanism but there are also a lot of racist reasons too. As a predominantly liberal community, many of us cringe when we hear President Trump refer to the “inner city” or describe cities like Atlanta and Chicago as “crime infested.” We know it for the poorly veiled racist language that it is. We have no patience for people who wrap themselves in the Confederate flag and claim to be celebrating only an amorphous tradition when we know that slavery was the bleeding core of the Confederacy and no amount of historical revision can change that. But we give ourselves a free pass for longing to put our cell phones away in our cabins at Pinewoods for a week. When we yearn for “an era of graciousness where people can relate to one another politely with elegance and grace?” Who are the people we are thinking of? How were people of color faring in those days?

These questions are of particular importance in the current political moment when our government is run by people whose primary slogan, “Make America Great Again,” calls for a similar return to an earlier time. When President Trump and his supporters call for this, we know they are talking about a time when racism, sexism, and hatred for LGBTQ+ people had free reign and when white men’s position of power was even more total. Meanwhile, just in the past few weeks in England, a white nationalist group has suggested a hostile takeover of Morris teams for race-based reasons almost identical to those of 100 years ago.

By no means am I suggesting an equivalence between our community of dancers and musicians and the red-hat wearing MAGA supporters (or whatever the hell the white nationalists in England are wearing). Our nostalgia-driven activities are not their nostalgia-driven activities and their dream of a backward looking social revolution have no parallel in our community. 

What I do believe is that, because of our tradition’s history of racism, because we continue to venerate many of the qualities from the first folk revival, because we have been joined in rejecting aspects of modernity and urbanism by a group of contemporary racists, it is even more important for us to take explicit steps to speak out against racism of all sorts, including the racism in our own tradition. We must examine our community’s feelings about modernity and urban living and either find ways to actively distinguish them from their historical and contemporary associations with racism or, frankly, drop them.

In When We Were Good: The Folk Revival, Robert Cantwell writes:

“Like blackface minstrelsy, folk revivalism is a form of social theater in which we develop the protocols for negotiating relations among groups and classes…”

(When We Were Good: The Folk Revival by Robert Cantwell, Page 54)

As active participants in an ongoing folk revival, we have the power to shape it. Our modern traditions began in racism but they don’t have to end there. Through words and action, we can use the strength of our community as an anti-racist force.

My sword team, Still River Sword, found our way to a consensus statement and I’m proud of our work. As a first step in this community process, we invite you to join us in making a statement and donating money. By no means are we or I any more authoritative or righteous on this topic than you, so we hope that you are having your own conversations and we look forward to reading what you come up with. As you can tell from this writing, I do hope that we are all able to acknowledge the past as an important part of our expressions of support for racial justice.

As for what comes next, your ideas are as good as ours! How can we make the “frequent, consistent, equitable choices daily” within our folk communities that being anti-racist requires? I look forward to working with you all on this.


Covid Covens

For better or for worse, we seem to be nearing the time when large parts of our country will “open up.” I’ve read a lot about what this means for government and business but very little about what it means for us as social animals. How do we navigate “reopening” our social lives? I have a lot of questions. So, as seems to be the way these days, I tried to answer them myself and came up with what might be a good idea with what definitely is a very silly name: the Covid Coven.

Why Covid Covens?

  1. Whether or not it’s a good idea, people will begin to socialize in person again soon.
  2. Everyone has a different tolerance for risk, even within families, friend groups, and relationships and that is okay. This is and always will be true – no one is right, almost no one is wrong.
  3. Socializing in person will put each of us in close quarters with people who have a lower tolerance for risk than us and people who have a higher tolerance for risk.
  4. These imbalances will cause friction.
  5. We can guard against the worst of the social consequences and protect ourselves and our communities if we plan ahead and are deliberate about how we begin to see each other in person.
  6. To that end, I propose we create Covid Covens.

What is a Covid Coven?

  1. A Covid Coven is an explicit agreement among people that establishes an agreed upon standard for behavior during the periods between social isolation and a fully available and effective vaccine.
  2. A Covid Coven must have easily understood and specific guidelines for behavior. This could be called the Covid Coven Compact.
  3. There should be a protocol for what to do when a person’s exposure risk rises above what is generally accepted regardless of how or why it happened.
  4. Covens should also have procedures for movement in and out of the Coven to accommodate shifting decisions about risk, break ups, etc., and normal needs for social variety.

Open Questions

Does everyone in a Covid Coven need to have the same rules for behavior? 

I would like to imagine that not everyone must agree to the exact same behavior, but everyone must accept the risk that comes with forming a Coven with each other. If I don’t wear a mask when I walk down the street and you do, you must be willing to accept the risk that comes from being in a Coven with me. We both need to inform the group if our personal policies change. 

This is more important when considering people with essential jobs. If you work at a grocery store or hospital and I am able to work from home, our exposure risk is radically different. If I am willing to accept your risk, then we should be able to be in a Coven together. On the other hand, does this unacceptably raise everyone’s risk in our Coven and — if people are socializing throughout society — our community? Do we need to ask essential workers to create Covens of their own? 

This honestly seems like the single hardest question and I have no idea what the right answer is. It feels totally messed up to separate essential workers from their nonessential worker friends, particularly because in many cases, this splits down race/class lines and the last thing we need is another factor that widens that divide. It also seems wildly irresponsible to break social isolation and immediately commingle everyone who has been able to socially isolate with everyone who has not been able to. Maybe the truth of this is that it will get worked out organically in the process of creating Covens. People who are able to socially isolate and who have lower tolerance for risk will be unwilling to accept the risk of people who have essential jobs and will form their own Covens.

What is the right number of people to have in a Covid Coven?

There are probably mathematicians or anthropologists or epidemiologists who should answer this question. Obviously, the risk goes up as a Coven gets bigger. Two people wearing masks when they take a walk and then hugging or kissing each other in the privacy of their home have a small chance of getting the virus. 200 people walking with masks and then hugging or kissing each other in the privacy of a medium size ballroom are much more likely to get the virus and with bigger consequences for local healthcare systems.

In addition to risk, you also have to consider the likelihood that smaller Covens will have an easier time organizing around similar choices.

Should we consider immunity from having recovered from Covid-19 in our Covens?

No. Whether a person has had Covid-19 and recovered should not play any role in designing a Covid Coven. The science on immunity from Covid-19 is far from settled and so far it suggests that:

  • People who have recovered from Covid-19 may not all be immune from catching it again
  • If there is some immunity conveyed by having had the virus, it may be of varying strength
  • We don’t know how long the immunity against Covid-19 lasts – it could be weeks or months but it’s not likely to be forever

Beyond simply not understanding the medical aspects of immunity, there are very good historical and social reasons not to give special privileges to people who have survived. Creating special classes of people is generally a bad idea and has had really awful consequences for evidence, read “The Dangerous History of Immunoprivilege” by Professor Olivarius. Practically, rewarding people for having had the virus creates an incentive for people to either lie and risk contracting and spreading the virus or intentionally expose themselves risking their own health and others.

As someone who believes they’ve had Covid-19 and recovered, I would love to believe this means I’m free to visit all my friends and give them big hugs, but this is neither wise nor fair.

How do I choose between my family and my friends? Do I have to? Can I be in two Covens?

Yes and no. It seems clear that people cannot be in two Covens. Imagine if this were okay. A group of six friends creates a Coven. Each of them also spends time with their extended family. That’s six more Covens that are now inextricably exposed to the original Coven. Seven Covens, all of whose exposure is now intertwined. My extended family and your extended family has not discussed or agreed on acceptable behaviors.

That said, it’s important that people are able to spend time with family and friends outside of their Coven. This is where having a strong “airlock” protocol comes in. If you are planning to drive down to North Carolina to visit your sister, you should self-isolate for 10-14 days beforehand, even from your Coven, and then do the same when you return. Your trip should be public knowledge within your Coven and totally uncontroversial. Similarly, if you decide to make a more permanent shift from one Coven to another, you should follow the outgoing protocol from your first Coven and the incoming protocol for your new Coven.

5. What tools would we need to run a Covid Coven?

It seems to me, you’d need three things – a form that helps you gather information about behaviors and risk tolerance, a Covid Coven Compact, and a Covid Calendar for tracking movement in and out of the Coven as well as those “airlock” moments.

The form might have questions like “When you go for a walk in your neighborhood, do you wear a mask? Are you quarantining objects that enter your house?” These would help match people with varying behaviors and levels of risk tolerance to identify useful groupings.

All of this could be accomplished with any number of software options. If people are interested in helping, we could come up with some templates to start with.

After I wrote this, I saw this article from CNN 

( outlining what some European governments are calling “bubbles.” I like my name better 🙂


United States Cabinet Unit

This six day unit contains a few elements of pedagogy I am particularly interested in. It starts with a simulation intended to help students understand why a national leader might want or need trusted advisors with particular expertise to delegate large tasks to. Only after they experience that need, do we introduce the reality of the cabinet.

Students choose a cabinet department they are interested in and research it. Their individual work goes through a Google form so that it can easily be shaped into a tangible product –  a cabinet reference guide for the entire class. Students next use this guide to answer questions about the entire cabinet, an activity which encourages them learning from each other.

The last section of the unit focuses on how the role of the cabinet has shifted over time. Students develop their understanding and opinions about this topic while practicing critical reading, information synthesis, and essay writing skills.

American Government and Politics • Cabinet Unit

Educational Philosophy

What is school for?


Educational Philosophy

How should teachers and schools use data?

Educational Philosophy

Why study history?

“Why do we have to take this stuff? Why do we have to learn about all these dead guys (and women)? Who cares?”

By most estimates, 110 billion people have been alive. They’ve done a LOT of stuff. No one cares about everything that’s ever happened or is happening.

On the other hand, no one cares about nothing. Even the most nihilistic (someone who believes life is meaningless) person cares about something. Maybe it’s what their parents were like before they were born or how black clothing got to be cool.

So, we can agree that some things, but not all things are worth caring about.

History, as we do it in our class, is the study of things that have happened which are important to you.

They can be important for any number of reasons. Maybe they teach you something you didn’t know about yourself. Or help you discover something about how you and your family got to where you are today. Or they inspire you. Or help you connect better with a friend. Or you might just think something is cool. Any of those are good reasons to know something about the past.

If you think what you’re studying in history isn’t important, that means that either you’re studying the wrong things or you haven’t figured out how they are important to you yet. Sometimes it can take days or even years before you realize how something you learned applies to your life.

In our history class, you’ll have the freedom to choose what you want to study a lot. The rest of the time, when we study something as a class, you can be sure that I tried my best to pick something which I think will be important and interesting.

Remember though that our class has a lot of students in it. Sometimes what’s important to most of you won’t be to a few. At those times, if you’re in the few, you can try your best to understand why it’s important to other people, even if it isn’t to you. Also, you should tell me that you didn’t find it relevant. Maybe I can convince you that it is, but if I can’t, that’s important for me to know for next year too.


Dazzle Camouflage





Is Trump a Fascist? What is Fascism?

President Donald Trump is a frightening and upsetting prospect. I have been trying to separate what is upsetting because a Republican won from what is frightening because a Trump won — and we don’t know exactly what a Trump is. Loss of access to abortion and contraception, inaction on climate change, another four years without gun regulation, loss of guaranteed access to healthcare are all firmly in the Republican victory column insofar as all of those issues would be similar under a President Cruz, Rubio, or JEB!.

Right at the top of the Trump list for me, and I’m sure for many of us, is a word that’s been thrown around a lot lately: fascism. Fascismin America? The descent of our country into some dystopian Hitleresque future seems unbelievable but if this election has done anything, it’s shaken my confidence in being able to sort the possible from the impossible. I decided I had to learn more about fascism, stat. So, I read The Anatomy of Fascism by Robert O. Paxton from 2004 and kept notes. I mentioned that I was doing this to some friends and they expressed interest in hearing what I learned. I may not be a natural activist, but I sure know how to read a book and report back to those of you who are!

Here’s the tl;dr. Trump looks and sounds and smells like a fascist leader in a lot of ways but the context of our country and how he came to power are comfortingly non-fascist.

What is fascism?

Although Paxton puts off defining fascism until the very end of his book, I’ll plop the definition in right up front:

Fascism may be defined as a form of political behavior marked by obsessive preoccupation with community decline, humiliation, or victimhood and by compensatory cults of unity, energy, and purity, in which a mass-based party of committed nationalist militants, working in uneasy but effective collaboration with traditional elites, abandons democratic liberties and pursues with redemptive violence and without ethical or legal restraints goals of internal cleansing and external expansion. (p. 218)

How well does Trump fit this definition? Let’s look into it more deeply.

Does Trump sound like a fascist?

If Trump’s defining characteristic as a political figure is the ease with which he contradicts himself, he does share this in common with other fascists.

[Fascism] sought to appeal mainly to the emotions by the use of ritual, carefully stage-managed ceremonies, and intensely charged rhetoric. The role programs and doctrine play in it is, on closer inspection, fundamentally unlike the role they play in conservatism, liberalism, and socialism. Fascism does not rest explicitly upon an elaborated philosophical system, but rather upon popular feelings about master races, their unjust lot, and their rightful predominance over inferior peoples.

In a way utterly unlike the classical “isms,” the rightness of fascism does not depend on the truth of any of the propositions advanced in its name. Fascism is “true” insofar as it helps fulfill the destiny of a chosen race or people or blood, locked with other peoples in a Darwinian struggle, and not in the light of some abstract and universal reason… Fascism’s deliberate replacement of reasoned debate with immediate sensual experience transformed politics, as the exiled German critic Walter Benjamin was the first to point out, into aesthetics. (p. 16)

Like the fascist leaders of the 1930s, part of Trump’s appeal is his celebrity and the connection he creates with people at rallies. How this will play out as Trump becomes president is still to be seen.

Nevertheless, fascist leaders enjoyed a kind of supremacy that was not quite like leadership in other kinds of regime. The Fuhrer and the Duce could claim legitimacy neither by election nor conquest. It rested on charisma, a mysterious direct communication with the Volk or razza that needs no mediation by priests or party chieftains. Their charisma resembled media-era celebrity “stardom,” raised to a higher power by its say over war and death. It rested on a claim to a unique and mystical status as the incarnation of the people’s will and the bearer of the people’s destiny. (p. 127)

This was written in 2004, so Paxton’s use of “media-era celebrity” is not creepy in and of itself, but it’s a bit chilling nonetheless.

Did Trump come to power for the same reasons as the fascists did?

This one is tricky. We don’t really know why Trump won. Every day, I read a different story with a different take on this. It was the economy! It wasn’t the economy. It was racism. He appealed to working class people… but his supporters were rich. Oy! By the way, this has been an issue for people studying fascism as well:

It has also been tempting to interpret fascism by its social composition… that fascism is an expression of lower-middle-class resentments. In Lipset’s formulation, fascism is an “extremism of the center” based on the rage of once-independent shopkeepers, artisans, peasants, and other members of the “old” middle classes now squeezed between better-organized industrial workers and big businessmen, and losing out in rapid social and economic change. Recent empirical research, however, casts doubt on the localization of fascist recruitment in any one social stratum. It shows the multiplicity of fascism’s social supports and its relative success in creating a composite movement that cut across all classes. (p. 210)

Regardless of the difficulties involved, there is a general consensus about the context that enables fascists to come to power. There are a few elements.

First is a sense that democracy and liberalism have failed:

One of the most important preconditions was a faltering liberal order. Fascisms grew from back rooms to the public arena most easily where the existing government functioned badly, or not at all. (p. 77)

The democratic and socialist Lefts, still united in 1848, had to split apart before fascism could become possible. The Left also had to lose its position as the automatic recourse for all partisans of change — the dreamers and the angry, among the middle class as well as the working class. Fascism is therefore inconceivable in the absence of a mature and expanding socialist Left. Indeed fascists can find their space only after socialism has become powerful enough to have had some share in governing, and thus to have disillusioned part of its traditional working-class and intellectual clientele. (p. 43)

Second is a serious crisis or, in the case of fascism in the 1930s, two crises:

Even though the two crises within which the two fascist leaders achieved office — World War I’s aftershocks and the Great Depression — were different, they had common elements. Both confronted governments with problems of economic dislocation and foreign humiliation that seemed insoluble by traditional party politics; a deadlock of constitutional government (produced in part by political polarization that fascists helped abet); a militant Left growing rapidly and threatening to be the chief beneficiary of the crisis; and conservative leaders who refused to work with even the reformist elements of the Left, and who felt threatened in their capacity to continue to govern against the Left without fresh reinforcements.

Later in the book, Paxton looks beyond the 1930s and generalizes the type of situation that would allow for a rise of fascism:

The well-known warning signals — extreme nationalist propaganda and hate crimes — are important but insufficient. Knowing what we do about the fascist cycle, we can find more ominous warning signals in situations of political deadlock in the face of crisis, threatened conservatives looking for tougher allies, ready to give up due process and the rule of law, seeking mass support by nationalist and racialist demagoguery. Fascists are close to power when conservatives begin to borrow their techniques, appeal to their “mobilizing passions,” and try to co-opt the fascist following. (p. 205)

Fascist leaders profit from these crises:

Early fascist movements exploited the protests of the victims of rapid industrialization and globalization — modernization’s losers, using, to be sure, the most modern styles and uses of propaganda. (p. 12)

What happens when a fascist movement gains power in a country?

Well, for one thing, they start having to make some real choices.

Becoming a successful participant in electoral or pressure-group politics forced young fascist movements to focus their words and actions more precisely. It became harder for them to indulge their initial freedom to mobilize a wide range of heterogenous complaints, and to voice the scattered resentments of everyone (except socialists) who felt aggrieved but unrepresented. They had to make choices. They had to give up the amorphous realms of indiscriminate protest and locate a definite political space in which they could obtain positive practical results. In order to form effective working relations with significant partners, they had to make themselves useful in measurable ways. They had to offer their followers concrete advantages and engage in specific actions whose beneficiaries and victims were obvious. (p. 55)

They violate every rule of politics, law, and constitutional rights they can.

The Reichstag Fire Decree suspended all legal protection of speech, assembly, property, and personal liberty, permitted the authorities to arrest suspected “terrorists” (i.e., communists) at will, and gave the federal government authority over the state government’s police power.

After that, few Germans were prepared to resist, in the absence of any help from the police, the judiciary, or other authorities, when Brownshirts erupted into courtrooms expelling Jewish lawyers and magistrates or sacked left-wing offices and newspapers. (p. 107)

They radically alter society by demanding that the public sphere supersede the private. Any private organization — corporate, religious, educational, social — would be replaced by a party organization. Traditional governmental bodies are not exempt from this drive. Fascist parties create parallel structures to first rival and then overshadow normal government functions. Even the army may be replaced by a party military.

Indeed, fascist regimes tried to redraw so radically the boundaries between private and public that the private sphere almost disappeared. Robert Ley, head of the Nazi Labor Office, said that in the Nazi state the only private individual was someone asleep. For some observers, this effort to have the public sphere swallow up the private sphere entirely is indeed the very essence of fascism. (p. 144)

Wait, so this sounds a lot like Trump is a fascist. Why isn’t he?

In writing about aspirational fascists who don’t quite make it to the level of horribleness that true fascists do, Paxton wrote this:

Most of these feeble imitations showed that it was not enough to don a colored shirt, march about, and beat up some local minority to conjure up the success of a Hitler or a Mussolini. It took a comparable crisis, a comparable opening of political space, comparable skill at alliance building, and comparable cooperation from existing elites. (p. 75)

I suspect that when it comes to fascism, Trump is one of these “feeble imitations”. Here are some significant differences between what I see in Trump and what Paxton describes as fascist.

First, although there has been some violence as part of the Trump campaign, violence is not an essential element the way it was for Mussolini and Hitler. The Italian and German fascist movements were fully militarized before they ever came to power. They were uniformed and armed and organized and violent in a way that Trump supporters are not.

Second, I don’t believe that the United States is currently experiencing a crisis like the ones in the 1920s in Europe. Our economy is not in dire trouble — at least not on the surface. Unemployment is at 4.6 percent. And even if you double that to account for people who aren’t included in the official statistic but wish they had jobs, it’s still nothing like the 30+ percent unemployment that Germany experienced in the 1920s. Likewise, inflation is just not a problem here. What you could buy for one mark in Germany in 1918, you needed one trillion (not a typo) marks in 1923. While people in the United States are angry about the economy, it’s just not comparable on a national scale.

Third, Trump has shown no inclination towards either of two of fascism’s biggest pillars: the destruction of private life and expansionist war. These are truly two of fascisms’s most striking qualities.

Particularly because so much of Trump’s support comes from libertarian leaning conservatives, he’s more likely to reduce the reach of the federal government than extend it beyond anything we’ve ever seen in this country. Based on his cabinet choices, he’s quite obviously not going to “drain the swamp” but neither do I believe that he even wants to have the swamp take over everyone’s lives.

While I am seriously worried about war, it’s because I don’t trust Trump not to stumble into a situation where war becomes inevitable (nice start with Taiwan) or not to overreact to some perceived slight and start one himself. I’m not worried that Trump is obsessed with extending the American empire militarily. He doesn’t even own most of the buildings he puts his name on, he’s much more likely to think of extending America through branding than war.

In the best possible scenario, Trump will be a horrible president. If fascism is the worst case scenario, I am heartened to now feel as though that’s not so likely. What seems more close-fetched is that Trump will try to run the United States as an authoritarian.

Although authoritarian regimes often trample civil liberties and are capable of murderous brutality, they do not share fascism’s urge to reduce the private sphere to nothing. (p. 217)

As reasonable people, we should do everything we can to resist the United States becoming authoritarian almost as much as we would fascistic. I’d love to end this reflection with some Yoda-like words of wisdom about how best to do that. Alas, I don’t know any more than you do, but I’m open to ideas. As for fascism, I’m willing to put it on the back-burner for now. What I’m going to watch for in the coming weeks and months is any hint of the encroachment of the public into the private. In this way, virtually any community activity is a bulwark against fascism. Until a significant portion of people in the United States are willing to put party allegiance before their allegiance to a mosque, church, or temple group, a book club, a dance troupe, a community theater, orchestra, or choir, a charity, or even a sports team, I hope that we will be safe from fascism.