What is something that you hope students get out of your classes?
I hope that at the very least they leave my class at the end of the semester having a new appreciation for history or a new kind of excitement or enthusiasm for history. More than anything, I really hope that they leave with a sense of history as the form of social criticism that I like to think of history as functioning as, or at least is for me, and is what attracts me to history. What I think attracts me the most to history is this notion that things were different than they are today and they can be different in the future. That both gives me hope and terror because as a historian, I know that things can always improve, but things can always get worse. I hope that I bestow students with an appreciation for both sides of that coin. These days it is hard to come away from thinking about the present or the past with a lot of hope because things are very challenging. I do try to give students that sense by the end of the semester that history can be not just kind of informative and educational and enlightening, but hopefully inspiring. It can inspire them to think about how things, not just their lives, but how society, politics, and culture can be different.
Last semester you were involved in organizing the OLLI Panels in 1968. Seeing as we just passed the 50th anniversary of the student protests of 1968, how do you feel that those compare to the student protests of today?
I think that the women's marches and the #MeToo movement are incredibly extraordinary, but not incredibly new in the sense that many of the problems that they are talking about are problems that women's liberation were talking about fifty years ago. What seems to me to be really qualitatively new about protests today are protests around climate change. There is a woman, I think her name is Greta Thunberg, and she is a Swedish high school student, she’s very young, and she launched this movement to have schools go on strike. This is truly a global movement; it is spreading to the United States. And I think that, maybe even more than the March For Our Lives, is really exciting but also incredibly urgent. Because we’re not talking about, I mean climate change - I’m always afraid to talk to my students about this because I do not want them to feel overwhelmed, and I feel that there’s a sense in which you can become incapacitated, or you can feel paralyzed about the problem, and I understand that - but confronting climate change is not just the issue of our time, or of your generation, it has to do with the future of the possibility of the species to reproduce itself in what we would call a scale of civilization. Fifty, sixty, seventy, eighty, ninety years from now, according to all the estimates about what two, three, four degrees Fahrenheit changes will do to the planet, it's impossible to think that there are not going to be total challenges to our ability to have food, or space for all the people would be living on the planet - or refugees. There would be increased competition over resources which may in many ways be more limited than they are today. And I think that that’s a very - I don’t want to be dystopian - but it's going to be a very difficult planet to inhabit and live on. I mean I have children, so I’m concerned about them and their children if they have children, but more than that I'm just concerned about the capacity of a human being to have a decent existence and life. We are very privileged in the United States from the beginning, and probably the United States and the West and the industrialized countries with all the resources that they have will be in a better position to adapt to the changing environment. But even we will suffer in these countries, and we will suffer much less than people in countries with fewer resources who will be facing much more severe climate transformations. So, that’s what really keeps me up at night and makes me concerned and I think that’s different than fifty years ago. There’s something very different about that. It’s more like that generation’s confrontation with nuclear weapons than it is the confrontation with patriarchy, or US foreign policy, or the University system or something. These are kind of existential issues about the future of the species as a whole. So I wish that more students at Simon’s Rock were more engaged with these issues. But I think I understand that the scope of these issues is so colossal it's so enormous that it in itself produces a kind of paralysis and make action kind of difficult to plot or to understand what to do about it. It’s understandable, but it's not an excuse.
I recall that you brought in Betsy Esch who recently wrote on the relationship between race and capitalism to speak last semester, and I know that you have a background in the history of capitalism, so I was wondering if you could give a historian’s perspective on capitalism, the history of capitalism, and the current anti-capitalist movement.
Wow. I think that one of the most exciting developments within American history but also the historical profession as a whole is this new field which is a history of capitalism or capitalism studies. It is both a return to questions of political economy, these classical questions of what is the relationship between the state and the economy, and getting us back to these kinds of big questions on the distribution of wealth, how the economy works, for whom the economy works, and I think that those are really really urgent questions for this moment in time. As you know we in the United States have returned to the levels of income and wealth inequality of the 1920s. Thomas Piketty, this french economist, talks about the “great compression.” There is a flattening of inequalities in wealth and income between the 1930s and the 1970s and 80s. But since the 1970s and 80s, we have returned to those kinds of historic level of inequality. And we see the results of this. I mean let's look at the United States since the Great Recession. We may be living right now in this historical level of unemployment, but wages have barely gone up. Real wages - when you account for inflation and productivity - real wages have barely gone up since the 1970s. So, in fact, what you have in the United States is a shrinking middle class. There is growing inequality between what used to be called the middle class and really what is now a middle class that is becoming proletarianized and then an upper middle class and an upper class where the levels of wealth and income inequality are just extraordinary. And you see in the news these elements of it. This scandal about bribing admissions for college students, we don't just have this culture of meritocracy, we have a culture of meritocracy built on plutocracy. Right? The wealthy really control the vast majority of wealth in this country. I think that under these conditions it is really, really important that we have a historical understanding of capitalism and to understand its workings. I haven't taught anything yet here at Simon's Rock, though I’m thinking of teaching a class on the history of American capitalism in the future that I have taught at NYU. I taught American capitalism in the world seminar and I TA’d for an amazing history of capitalism course at Columbia, taught by Betsy Blackmar who is an incredible historian of the 19th century. I think that there are so many great historians working on this: Sven Beckert, Ken Libertitio, Edward Baptist has written a book on slavery in capitalism. I mean there's a lot of great historians who are working on this issue and in a way that gets up beyond the boring elements of economic history to thinking about the culture of capitalism, thinking of capitalism as a culture. What are the ideas? What are the cultural institutions, symbols, and discourses that undergird capitalism as a social project? I think that there are some really interesting studies. There are studies now on debt, on finance, the history of insurance, the history of risk. There's a new history of the clerk that just came out. I’m more interested in the kind of international elements of it. I’m more animated around these questions on what's the relationship between the American empire and American capitalism in a global setting.
I’ve been told that you have a love for punk music, so I was wondering if you would talk on that a little bit.
Oh my god, well that’s just embarrassing because it's so obnoxious. It's really embarrassing. It's especially embarrassing that I still listen to it which is kind of goes to show how emotionally underdeveloped I am or something… Yeah, well when I was your age I was a very angsty teen and very into punk, but particularly what is called hardcore punk which is bands-like. Well, I don't know what your generation would recognize, but bands like Minor Threat, or Black Flag, or the Misfits, or something like that. And I used to go to all these punk shows and punk concerts and such. My brother was in a band. He was a drummer for a band called Last in Line that was based out of Westfield which is about an hour from here towards Springfield. There was an amazing, really amazing, punk and hardcore scene in Western Massachusetts that I was a part of. It was great! I mean these shows were crazy. People would throw fireworks and there were riots and it was a lot of fun. I put on a concert once at Hampshire College and it ended in a riot and people threw off and there were a thousand dollars in damages. It was actually a disaster. I had to pay for all the costs from the damage but it was a lot of fun. But, I'm glad I don't do that anymore because it's actually a very angsty kind of angry kind of music and I think that I was a very angry young man and I'm not that way anymore. I'm not pretty angsty, but I still like the music. I'm certainly glad that I don't dress like I used to. You know, I had a leather jacket with chains and studs and combat boots with handkerchiefs in them. I did have a blonde mohawk at one point, which is just very strange. I’m going to try to hide the photographs. Those are definitely not on my Facebook page.
You tend to put a lot of music into your classes and I was wondering, as a historian, how music history and music in history has affected you and the way you teach?
I think when I was really politically active I really listened to a lot more political music. I mean I went through an era in my young life when I listened to a lot of Pete Seeger, I listened to a lot of Phil Ochs, I listened to Utah Phillips. I listened to a lot of protest music. So, I sort of know a lot about that music and used to draw a lot of inspiration from that and because of that, I've always enjoyed playing music in my classes. I TA’d a class on the Vietnam War many years ago and I always started my classes with music. I think its just - I mean I'm not a historian of music - but I think music can be a way to access how history is experienced and how people express themselves in the past in a way. It really captures in the way that art does - poetry, paintings - in a really evocative, colorful, vivid way a historical moment, historical consciousness, or a historical problem. I think that's just a great way to access the past when you can. Of course, the problem with it is that it's kind of biased towards modern history when we have recordings. There aren't that many authentic recordings of workers songs from 1812 or something so people find the scores and play the music, but the problem really comes to be where do you find the authentic recordings I think for some music. And sometimes it is just really difficult to find music that relates to a particular historical problem. So I used to use music a lot more than I do now. In fact, this makes me feel bad about the course on the 60s. I have not played much music! We did listen to Jimi Hendrix [“the Star Spangled Banner”], but I had wanted to play the Bob Dylan song “The Times They Are A-Changing” and I don't think we even got to it that class so that’s frustrating. I'll have to work on that.
So on the topic of the ‘60s class, you focus a lot on movies and are known for showing a lot of movies. Why do you choose to include films in your classes?
I really enjoy the medium. I'd rather watch a movie than read a novel, I’m kind of a media person in that way. And, I don't want to sound patronizing or condescending and don't interpret it that way, but I think that there's also an advantage for using it for students of your generation in a sense. I think people born since 2000 have grown up so saturated with images, not that that wasn’t present in previous generations. In my generation it was television. I mean my parents just put us all in front of the television and that was their form of babysitting. But I think you folks, you seem almost born with an iPad like you all have these devices and you're attached to these screens and that's good and bad. I mean it's obviously bad in all the ways that I think we're talking about, but it's also good because you're very sophisticated cynosures of the image, of what the surrealists used to call the “spectacle”. And I think that there's something spectacular about film and the image that also really speaks to history too. Like, yes, there are documentaries, and many of them are atrocious, there are some really awful documentaries, but even more than that there are films that capture a moment. Like we're going to watch this film in The Global ‘60s called Soylent Green which is kind of a sci-fi film about the perils of overpopulation. In the 70s there was this kind of neo-Malthusian moment where people were terrified that there would be something called the population bomb, that the Earth would be overrun with people. I just think that film captures that paranoid, kind of anti-human mood in the popular psyche in the 70s in a way that, like I could read a passage from Paul Ehrlich's book, but that wouldn’t actually capture the zeitgeist in the same way that this bizarre sci-fi film would. Or, you know, we are going to show Mad Max as a way to think through the oil crisis - the energy crisis in the 1970s. The oil crisis was kind of like this apocalyptic moment where Americans were fighting each other over gas tanks at gas stations. It captures that mood in a way that reading a passage from Panic at the Pump, a new book was written about the energy crisis, wouldn’t really speak to that kind of mood in the same way. So, I think that film can be really powerful pedagogically, though maybe I use it too much…
Thoughts on films that have been coming out recently that cover historical topic. There was BlackKKlansmen recently, Selma a couple of years ago, there's a movie on school desegregation (that will not be showing in GB unfortunately)?
Well, my opinion is this: historians are the worst people to take to the movies. Because we’re so boring, what we will essentially do is this “X did happen but Y didn’t” or “Z didn’t happen exactly the way that the film depicts” and I think that that's just, well nobody wants to do that. We’re kind of killjoys when you take historians to the movies. But I think, you know, I think Hollywood and even better independent filmmakers, they can do a pretty good job with history. And I think it’s better for the culture that they continue to try to make films about history than if they don’t. If they didn’t make any at all I think it would be bad for the public and bad for the culture. I’d rather have them make the attempt than not make the attempt, however, yes, sometimes you can get particularly bad films, right? I have not seen this film Green Book, I’m eager to see it so I don’t want to be too critical, but obviously one criticism that’s being made of that film is that it looks at this phenomenon of African Americans traveling through the South, and being forced to go to segregated hotels and facilities and venues for performing, it looks at that through the white gaze. There’s this white character, I guess it’s the driver, and you know, I think that was a missed opportunity. That was a missed opportunity for Hollywood to make a film that would be from a non-white gaze, from a non-white perspective, and I think that’s important. Sometimes I think filmmakers do get it wrong. They make aesthetic choices or they make production choices that I think deserve some criticism, though I’d much rather have them making movies than not. Something I’m eager to see is, there's a film about Peterloo that’s coming out. Peterloo was a worker’s protest in England in 1819 where the British soldiers fired on the men and women who were at the protest and it is a very famous moment in both British history and in working-class history, so I’m keen to see that film. But again, I don’t know if it’s showing anywhere around here.
If you had to recommend good historical films what would you recommend, and what films would you absolutely not recommend?
Oh, well, that’s a tough question. I think that one of the greatest films, or actually I think that some of the best historical films are done by this filmmaker John Sayles - they have the particular misfortune of being too close to the facts and that makes them depressing. I think that filmmakers sometimes do have a responsibility to bend the facts a little bit to leave audiences with a feeling of optimism and hope about the future and being engaged politically, but he is a master filmmaker and there are two movies that I would recommend that I think everybody should watch, one is called Maitowon and it's about the coal wars in West Virginia right after World War I and it’s an incredible story of the tragedy of violence and also the possibility for interracial and intercultural solidarity among working-class people and I think that that's an extraordinary film, and then there's this film called Amigo which is about the Philippine-American War, which is what my book and my dissertation is about, and that’s an incredible film. He did a great job. It's very dark but it's also very funny. It's almost like a dark comedy and that’s a great film. Films not to watch… that is difficult. There are sometimes these films, particularly they’re films that you want to be radical or something like that, they can sometimes be too didactic, they can be too kind of like instructional in a kind of boring or dry way. Was it Selma? I think I may be conflating this film Selma with something else that was not well done. What other films? This film Roma that came out. I don’t know if you saw that. It won awards. Was it about Mexico during the repression after the Olympic games, 69,70? Yes. It really captures wonderfully the oppression of poor indigenous domestic workers working in bourgeois households in Mexico, it had some historical content. It was also really modern it that it was very much focused around her story and it doesn’t give you any context for what’s going on in Mexico, it didn’t give you any context for the struggle of the students, the struggle of the peasants, the struggle of working class people, the domination of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, it didn’t give you much of like a historical context for what was going on, so it is very easy to be sympathetic to the woman character, the main character, but it was also very difficult to know kind of what was going on in Mexico at the time. So I don’t know, you know? Then again that’s a boring historian saying that like films don’t inform the public but obviously filmmakers make films that take place in the past and their goal in doing that is not to educate the public about the past, its to tell a good story. So that’s maybe where history and storytelling have a tension. Good historians are good narratives, but history is not just a story right, history is not just a good story, it's also about context, and meaning, and contingency and all those kinds of things which intersect with stories but also depart from storytelling. So yeah, that’s a tough question.
To finish up: words of advice for those studying history, or for those interested in history more generally.
Study hard, read. History is a lot about reading, and in general, in history classes, we assign more reading and more writing, so it’s hard. But, so this: if you don’t enjoy all the readings that are assigned in history classes or you want to study something else, there is a history of everything. History is not just what I study, the history of foreign relations, or the history of political economy, or the history of politics. History can be the study of anything in the past, and so I encourage students if you’re interested in history but you don’t see the history that interests you represented in the classes here, go to the library. Come talk to me about what history you’re interested in. I will find for you and with you the literature that you’re interested in studying. For example, I know some things about women’s history. I went to graduate school and I was an undergrad so I know a few things, but I’m not an expert in women’s history, and so if you’re interested in the history of women or the history of feminism certainly we can do an independent study or we can find something that is interesting to that student. But certainly, don’t feel limited by what is in the catalog. History is not just a world, it’s a whole universe of many many many different worlds of study, the different worlds of the past. And that’s almost infinite - what you can study. I encourage students to think really broadly about what they want, about what in the past kind of excites them, and different ways to study that here, at other colleges and universities, and I hope through their whole lifetime.
Morgan Plog is the Director of Interviews of the Weekly Cad.