The text below is a transcript of the Convo with Kyle podcast. Bold text is Kyle Bell. Standard text is Dylan LeBlanc.
Thanks for listening to Convo with Kyle. My name is Kyle Bell.
As a writer, an author, and journalist, my work has always been about telling stories. But now, I want to tell a different story. I want to tell your story.
The goal of this project is to share with you the stories of ordinary people who do extraordinary work. They may be your neighbors, your friends, your coworkers who want to make their communities, and this world, a better place for all of us. So let’s start a conversation.
Today, we’re joined by Dylan LeBlanc, a PhD candidate in history at the University of Notre Dame. So, Dylan, is seeking a PhD what you expected it to be?
So, yeah, it’s a funny question, because in some ways, nothing is ever what you expect it to be, especially when you build it up in your mind as much as I did. I mean, I think– I remember, when I was in fourth grade, my parents went to a parent teacher conference. And they came back, and I was just starting to rebel, because, frankly, I didn’t want to do them.
There was one project, it was a butterfly. We had to, like, color the individual components, and then cut it out, and assemble it. My classmates were doing it. I just didn’t want to do it. So I threw it in my desk and didn’t do it. And that started a downward spiral in my grades that year.
And so, my parents went to talk to the teacher. And apparently she told them, “Dylan will do really well in college. We’ve just got to get him there.” Because if I wasn’t interested in it, I wasn’t going to do it. I wasn’t just going to obey orders and just do it.
So when I got to college, it was. It was everything I wanted it to be. I could study what I wanted to study. The course load itself was whatever you wanted it to be.
I finally got to a point where I could study purely what interested me. And it sort of became an obsession. And
as I got into my particular discipline, history, I sort of– you catch onto a project, and you keep pushing that project, and you chase it down until it serves its fullest extent.
What got you interested in history?
I think– I think it was my great grandmother, to be honest with you. My mother always had a real passion for history. She was just sort of a run-of-the-mill history buff in a lot of ways. And so, I think when I grew up, I was always given a sense of– she was always reading books, like by David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, sort of really well-known, popular historians.
But I think also, my great grandmother, her parents are from Poland. And so, that’s the immigrant generation– the immigrant side of my family. And I was always fascinated by her connection with the past. So she would answer those questions but could never fully answer them, because she was in her late 80’s at this time and didn’t have a perfect memory.
So what she told me would be really fascinating about her life. So where did your parents come from? What did they do for a living? You know, she could tell me what they did for a living. Where did they come from in Poland? She knew that they left from Gdansk, the port town, but didn’t necessarily know where they had been before or what they did before then.
And so, every question I asked her about her past and about our family’s past led to more questions. And everything that she answered also left plenty of things unanswered. And I think through interviewing her– I literally would sit there with a tape recorder when I was in grade school and ask her all these questions about our family’s past. And we did that for a series of years.
And I still have them, and I haven’t systematically gone through them yet, but I want to one day. And I think it was in that context that I really got in touch with the past. It created for me and raised for me questions that I couldn’t yet answer that wanted to find– I wanted to find the tools to be able to answer them. So I think that’s probably where it started.
Did you say your great grandmother?
My great grandmother, yes. Yeah, so she was– she passed– when did she pass? She passed in like 2009 in her 90’s. So my family, they turned around kids real quick. Yeah, so they– she was born in 1919.
Her family had been here– been in South Bend since right around the turn of the century. Her father had stowed away on a ship from Gdansk and they were going to throw him overboard, at least that’s what family legend says. But they sent him to work in the boiler room instead, and that’s where he learned about engines. And he came here, and he was a mechanic, and sort of a tinkerer, an inventor.
And, apparently, family legend says that he had created something for the steam engine, some sort of new thing that was going to vastly improve the steam engine, right around, like, 1928 or something. But the Great Depression hit. He couldn’t afford to go to Washington to get the patent filed. And so, he lost the opportunity. And the family interpretation is that we would have all been trust fund babies if he could have just gone to Washington and the Depression hadn’t have hit.
So you would have ended up at Harvard instead of Notre Dame?
You know, some East Coast nobility, moved from the Great Lakes over. Yeah, so that’s where my mother’s side of the family is really rooted in South Bend that way.
What do your parents do?
My mother is in real estate. My father is– he resells Cisco, like, network gear, both in the South Bend area. And they’ve stuck around. Most people in my family have kids when they’re in their early 20’s, and so, generations move really quickly. Yeah.
So you’re the exception then.
Yeah, I am. Yeah, right. That’s what happens when you pursue education farther and farther and farther. You put off other things in life.
As I’m sure you’re well aware, the cost of higher education is on a lot of people’s minds. How are you paying for your schooling? And what do you think of the cost of college today?
Yeah, I mean, so I’m one of the lucky ones, like, extraordinarily lucky one. So I don’t have any education debt. And that puts me in a very slim minority for a lot of, I think, Millennials in this country.
My parents, through their sheer will and sacrifice, paid my tuition in undergrad. I compensated for that a little bit by getting about half in scholarships, and then they made up the other half. They just paid for it in cash. And, I mean, that was right at the heart of the recession, too.
So the amount of scrimping, and saving, and sacrificing they did– and I don’t think it’s really ever hit me fully sort of how much they sacrificed to make my undergraduate education free for me. I mean, I can’t overestimate the value of that as a start.
And then, right out of undergrad, I applied to PhD programs and was lucky enough to end up Notre Dame, where everyone is funded for five years with a basic living expenses stipend. And that’s standard throughout graduate school, whether it’s the social sciences, the sciences, or the humanities. Most PhD candidates are funded for small salaries, in the form of stipends, just for living expenses.
And then, there’s another layer of fortune there that South Bend is such a cheap place to live. And so, graduate students at Notre Dame — with their stipends — can actually lead decent lives. So through a series of just sheer blessings and luck, with a little bit of work on my end, I haven’t had to pay for any bit of higher education.
I see my friends struggle with it every day. I see my closest friends that I went to college with are struggling to establish themselves in life, because while I’m paying a mortgage for a house that I bought, they are renting while also paying a mortgage for their education, essentially. They’re paying the same amount of money that I’m paying every month, because they had to take 30, 40, 60, 80, 90 thousand dollars out over the course of four or five years to get a bachelor’s degree.
Before they have to dig themselves out of a hole of a mortgage, they have to dig themselves out of a hole of a student loan.
Yeah, exactly. And so, the cruel irony is that we moved past the ’70s and ’80s where you could just sort of go to high school, right, and go get a well-paying union job at a factory or do what my dad did, which is, he got an associate’s degree and moved to Washington DC and just started working in sales– in computer sales. His associate’s was in electrical engineering, so he knew basic things about electrical engineering, but he started selling computers to the government in Washington DC in the ’80s. And that was all he needed.
Today, there’s the perception and the reality that to get anywhere beyond factory jobs– which we obviously need– but to get anywhere in this yuppy world that we have idealized, you know, work a 9 to 5, wear a suit every day, and have benefits, and be able to support a family, if that’s the ideal, the BA– or the BS– has been the ideal for that. It’s been the gatekeeper.
But the irony is that gatekeeper is setting people farther back than they would be set back if they had just stopped after high school and taken up a trade. You know, I know some people who are pursuing trades right now and who are apprentices to, you know, electricians or to plumbers. And they seem like the ones who have figured out the right path, in a lot of ways, at least financially.
Because they’re learning a skill, and–
They’re getting paid while they’re doing it.
They’re getting paid to do it.
And why we can’t establish that for the other skills that we need in our society– the financial skills, the business skills, the intellectual skills that range beyond the market, like historians, political scientists, people who research to improve society in all manner of different ways. We need to approach it, maybe, in a way that the trades approach it slightly.
That’s no real solution. But I see– yeah, my friends struggle all the time. I can’t even count how many people I know who are just swamped with student loan debt. And this is not a unique story. The unique story might be the fact that I’m sitting here telling you that I don’t have debt. That’s shocking. That’s like a rare bird.
Especially since you went to a private university.
Right, and that– the only people for whom that happens is someone who is ultra privileged. Which, I don’t know if I would consider myself ultra privileged, or someone who has a family that just decides that that’s the ideal that they’re going to provide for their children and works as hard as possible to make sure that that happens.
And even those who believe that, that they want to do that for their children, necessarily can’t do it. And so, it’s– yeah, I mean, I consider– that’s a roundabout way to say that I consider myself so deeply fortune in that regard. And we have to fix the problem.
The only thing that I would say about how we might go about doing it is it has to come from every end. Universities have to change the way they do things. Students have to change the way they think about education. Businesses have to change the way they think about what is an acceptable standard of experience for hiring someone.
And, as voters, we need to think about how we want our government to intervene in this, and what we want them to do, and what the state’s role is. Because it can’t happen– our political discourse today says it has to come from one end or the other, right? You just can’t be a classics major anymore if you want to have a job, unless you have money. And that’s not the right way to think.
But the other right way to think isn’t necessarily to say that, well, we’ll just have the taxpayer foot the bill, right? Or universities are going to layoff faculty and we’re going to shut down departments that aren’t necessarily marketable. We can’t put the burden on one sector of society. It has to come from every sector in a sort of coherent group. And I don’t know who’s going to be able to make that possible.
Why do you think liberal arts degrees — broadly speaking, not just history but political science and everything else — why are they still valuable compared to, say, STEM degrees?
I think in one way we’re going to see increased value in the liberal arts over the next couple decades is that I think in the past 10 years we’ve just started to produce so many more finance degrees, and business degrees, and engineering degrees, which we all need. We need STEM degrees and we need business people. We need people with that set of knowledge and that set of skills. But they’re also becoming a dime a dozen.
I mean, we’ve seen this, I think, with the legal market with people coming out of law school and not necessarily finding the high-paying jobs that they immediately thought they would get just because they have a JD. I mean, part of that’s the economy. Part of that is the fact that there’s a surplus of these degrees on the market. So if our culture continues to devalue the liberal arts like it has been, there are going to be fewer and fewer of these people who get these degrees.
What can we do? If we’re going to become a more scarce commodity, what are the things that we liberal arts people provide? And I think on one level, it’s a set of soft skills, as we’re told to call it. You can’t walk into a Fortune 500 company right now, and look at their budget, and look at their financials, and tell them whatever problem they’re in.
But what the liberal arts teaches you is how to think broadly — whether in terms of time or in terms of understanding the diversity of experiences that exist in our world. It teaches you how to think quickly, on your foot, to evaluate large, disparate amounts of evidence and quickly assemble them together in ways that are understandable to a broad group of people.
I think it teaches you empathy. I think reading literature, reading history teaches you about the diversity of experiences in our world and makes you a better voter. It allows you to take stock of your own values, to expose yourself of the values that exist in other parts of the world and in other people’s minds.
And it doesn’t let you just spectate. I think when you get a liberal arts degree, you’re forced to analyze those things. And you’re forced to reckon with them, and place yourself in relation to them. And I think empathy and understanding in a global world is essential. And I think we’re seeing the erosion of it, in a lot of ways, in different parts of the world.
So let’s talk a little bit more about history, specifically. I hear a lot of people say these days — you know, they question the value of studying history. What’s your response to that?
It could be a cliche, right? The cliche is, if you don’t study your history, you’re condemned to repeat it. And I don’t want that to be my full answer to that question, but in some ways you have to start with that, because every dictator starts to accumulate power in the same way.
In our capitalist society in the United States, every recession has started in a similar way with people speculating on wealth that didn’t exist. Right, it starts in 1819. The 1880s and ’90s it happens again. It happens in the 1920s. It happens in the ’80s. It happens in 2008-2009, right?
Patterns emerge in history. So for policymakers, I don’t think there’s a policymaker that is working right now that would tell you that they do their work in a temporal context, that they do their work without thinking about the past or the future and trying to place current policy initiatives in a broader spectrum of time.
As voters, if you don’t have an understanding of not only your country’s basic history but your candidate’s own past. I think this is one thing that Trump got a free pass on, in a lot of ways. One of the tactics against him was to bring up all of these negative things about his past and all these character flaws that have been presented with a lot of evidence over a long career.
But people say, well, maybe he’s not that person anymore or, well, I don’t know what’s in his heart. And then he takes office, and you see the team that he assembles, and you see the scandals that continue to pile up, and there are a lot of people currently saying, “I told you so.”
And there’s a sense in which if you understand someone’s background, you can– you can’t predict, but it gives you a decent sense about where things are going. That’s more political than I would probably like to go with that response, but–
Why don’t you tell us some more about your research. You specialize in the slave trade, right?
I do, yeah. So my work is primarily on the 18th century British empire. I look at specifically Charleston, South Carolina, or the Lowcountry, in broad strokes. And I’m interested in the connections that developed during the 18th century between Charleston, South Carolina and the Gambia River Valley in West Africa.
And those connections were built entirely upon the Transatlantic slave trade. So in that context, I look at government officials, minor government officials. So a lot of times we talk about the colonial period and we talk about the state, we’re talking about governors, and we’re talking about elected assemblies. In many ways, these elected assemblies are the ones who hold onto their English liberties, and eventually members of these assemblies will go on to form the Continental Congresses, right? And so, there’s this sort of– historians have been fascinated by the cling to liberty in these assemblies.
And yet, the slaves have no liberty.
Right, right. There’s obviously that huge contrast and the irony. And historians have understood that for a long time, that in early America, the place where freedom meant the most and where people clung to freedom hardest were the places where the majority of the population were slaves, and that slavery says something about how we perceive freedom. And that if you’re living in a place where most people aren’t free, you’re going to be much more deeply attached to your own liberty.
So that’s the broad context that I look at. But I look at government officials below the level of governors and assemblies. I look at minor people who seem to make no sense and have no purpose in our understanding of really anything in this time, like customs collectors, secretaries, all these minor government officials.
And I use them to really ask questions about what’s the relationship between slavery and empire in the 18th century, and what’s the relationship between personal wealth, corruption, ambition, and slavery at this period as well? And so, what I look at is these government officials, how they try to acquire power, how they try to use power — both in the Gambia River Valley, where the British had a small formal presence in a fort in the middle of the river, essentially — and then a much larger formal presence in a place like Charleston. How these individuals use state commissions not only to support slave society — because in some ways their– in many ways their individual duties and responsibilities — working in bureaucratic offices or working on the docks to inspect incoming goods, that labor is entirely about supporting the plantation complex. But it’s also, for them, making them a lot of money.
And a lot of them are corrupt. They’re using their position on the docks as custom collectors to engage in illegal trading and to smuggle. They’re using their positions in basically what are public record offices to embezzle money and property. And they’re using their position on courts as– whether as clerks of the court or as judges themselves– to get their friends acquitted and level charges against their enemies. And so, there’s a lot of intrigue and corruption that’s going on in this context, too.
So really my project is trying to study how these imperial slave trade connections persist over the course of the 18th century, but how the individual ambitions of people who have a minor degree of state power make this all happen. But it’s very, very much in its formative stages right now. I’m just writing my first chapter, so we’ll see. I’ll have a better answer for you in two years.
What drew you to the slave trade?
I think it’s the city of Charleston. I’ve vacationed there a lot as a kid, and I continue to go there every year with my family. It’s a place that I think my family is really attached to. We love the city. We love that place. It’s a place that has good memories.
But at the same time, it’s a place with a dark history. And it’s the place where I first– if I encountered history with my great grandmother in person, I also encountered it in a different way in person in Charleston. So the fascination that I developed with asking my grandmother questions and trying to strive for more answers with our family history, when I got to Charleston, you see these buildings.
You walk downtown and it’s basically like the 18th century all over again. These buildings have been preserved so beautifully and the plantations have been preserved so beautifully that you can step back in time without much effort. Once you get back there in time, you encounter a history that we don’t like to think about a lot but that we’re confronted with on a daily basis. We’re confronted with the legacies of this institution all the time.
And so, for me, Charleston was a place that really captured, I think, everything that we’re supposed to be thinking about as historians. We’re supposed to be thinking about a past that’s meaningful to understanding how we got to the present. But also, we’re supposed to be understanding a past that continues to rear its head in the present, and that we can’t deal with our present moment without reconciling ourselves with the past and reckoning with its consequences.
So it’s more than just being an antiquarian and saying, oh, look at how beautifully this city’s been preserved. It’s about going to a place that is, yes, beautiful in its own right and is a cultural treasure in its own right, but that presents problems for us and problems that historians have a place in terms of solving, in terms of having these conversations.
You look at the Emanuel shooting in 2015, that put Charleston, again, at the center of this discussion about racism in the United States, and the North Charleston shooting when the police officer shot him in the back. It placed that city again. It’s always been at the center point. It was the place where the South first seceded from the Union. It was the place where slaves first became a majority population in the 18th century. It was the first place that became a, quote unquote, black majority in colonial America, at least on the continent.
So it’s always been at the center of, I think, race relations in the United States. It’s always been at the center of not just race but also the other economic consequences of slavery. And now it’s at the center of, like, culinary excellence and tourism in the United States. So in blending all these positive and negative things in one place really for me raised so many questions that I just continue to look for answers. And that’s probably how I got on this project. I mean, that’s the story I’m going to tell today. It changes, depending on how I’m thinking about it.
Speaking of Charleston, South Carolina’s been at the center of many controversies over the years. Until just a few years ago, the Confederate flag flew at the state capitol. But more recently, we’ve been seeing a move to remove Confederate monuments in places like New Orleans. As a historian, what are your thoughts on the removal of Confederate symbols in the South?
Right, so the idea, is the Confederate flag heritage or hate? Yeah, and so as a historian who studies the South but as a pure Yankee, a guy who has lived the vast majority of his life in the Great Lakes region, I’m in a weird position to think about this. I’m not a Southerner. And so, I have critical distance in that world.
And, yeah, the Confederate flag is heritage, but it’s heritage that was built on the forced enslavement of millions of people. And so, if you’re going to have– if you’re going to say it’s heritage, you can’t cherry pick that heritage, right?
Yes, the Confederate States of America, it was a sovereign state that established itself through violence. And it tried to defend its sovereignty, and it lost. And that memory, the memory of that struggle, the memory of that way of life is a powerful, powerful tool for people in the South, white people in the South.
In many ways, the only reason that poor whites signed onto the whole slavery thing was because of the structures of white supremacy, that by their race, they were lifted up. And that supremacy doesn’t exist without the system of oppression that slavery was.
So for people, the flag and other elements of Confederate heritage provide a way to lift themselves up in a world where they see their privilege shrinking, in a world where they see their jobs going away. And they see it’s harder and harder for them to make ends meet every day.
I think for some people, the Confederate flag is reassuring. It’s reassuring for them in a world that’s becoming dominated by what they call political correctness gone mad. And it can be all of those things. That’s fine. You can say that’s what it is for you, but you can’t then turn around and say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery or that flag doesn’t, in fact, represent slavery and nothing but slavery.
What do you think of people who say that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery?
That they’re wrong. They’re wrong. The Civil War was about states’ rights. It absolutely was, but it was about states’ rights to choose whether or not they were going to have slavery or not, and whether or not slavery was going to push west and continue to push west.
That’s the core issue. The core issue was every single major political or legal issue in the Antebellum– yeah, it was absolutely about slavery. It was, and you can’t get around it. If you say it’s about states’ rights, it’s about states’ rights to have slavery.
And not only is that the historical consensus, but it’s backed up by the evidence. You read these documents– you read the papers of Jefferson Davis, right? The Confederacy was built on the principle that black Americans were subjugated to white Americans. That is the founding principle by one of its founding fathers explicitly saying this thing.
They were property.
Yeah, they were property. That’s 101 level stuff for this region and in that time period.
But we struggle with this as historians in terms of figuring out how to teach this. Because, in a lot of ways, when you’re trying to teach the first half of the US survey in college to college kids, you want to dismantle a lot of prejudices that they came into college with. One of those prejudices a lot of times is the Civil War was about states’ rights, not about slavery. So by dismantling it, you put slavery at the center.
At the same time, if you talk only about slavery in the first half of the 19th century leading up to the Civil War, you also do discount some of the more complex political realities that created that war. Why were the Lincoln-Douglas debates so heated? Because Lincoln and Douglas were trying to think out loud in a very nuanced way about how the state was to relate to slavery and how sovereignty was going to be distributed from the federal government to the states. And what’s the relationship between those powers? And there were a variety of different answers to that.
Ultimately, all of these things circled back to the problem of the fact that slavery had created a different region in the South, and that that region was separating in many ways from the North, that they were not only intertwined inexplicably but were pursuing two different courses of life by the 1830s. You want to present students with nuance, but sometimes that nuance does undermine the central message, which is the Civil War was about slavery.
And a lot of times, students will come away from a nuanced narrative of the Civil War and say, well, it was about slavery but it also was about all these different things. All these different things, in the end, came back to that institution.
So, I mean, I kind of think that Lincoln as a figure in history has been immortalized in a lot of ways. What do you make of the fact that he is made as the “Great Emancipator” when really, if you look at the history of it, he did not go into office with a set agenda to free the slaves of the South.
Right. Yeah, and that’s–
His goal was to preserve the Union.
Absolutely. Absolutely. And if that meant the South came back in with slavery, at a certain point, that was acceptable to him. I mean, I just finished assisting with my adviser’s big survey course, the first half of the US survey from the 17th century to the end of the Civil War, and so, a huge lecture course. And every Friday– you know, you have the large lecture courses, but every Friday you go have a discussion session with a graduate student.
So, yeah, that was one of the last things I talked about with my students that– we watched the film “Lincoln” after they read– had gone to lectures about Lincoln and had read different– they read portions of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and they really had a good textbook that they were using, but then saw the way Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln and the way Spielberg wants to set up his character, and I think it opened a lot of their eyes– that and reading the other texts that–
Lincoln is the only politician, I think both parties agree, was infallible in a lot of ways. Both parties want to claim him. And no matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you’re okay with Lincoln. Lincoln had a hell of a job to do, and he did it well.
But, I mean, Lincoln was also a man of his time. And he was a politician. He was thinking purely as a politician. How can I preserve this Union with as little strife and as little bloodshed as possible? And at a certain point in time, that meant the South coming back in with slaves.
And recognizing that is really important, to say that freedom and emancipation in this country is a tool, an ideological tool as much as it is an ideal of life, and that we want to ascribe easy connections between political figures of the past and the ideals of our current society. But history shows that that doesn’t work.
What does that mean for how we think about current political discourse? That’s an open question. And then, in some ways, that’s one of the struggles. Historians, our job is to complicate. Popular narratives are always too simple.
We’re supposed to complicate. But in some ways, complicating will sit uneasily with our individual politics. Because if I want to emphasize that slavery is a core institution in this country, in terms of the way that it shaped not only its history but its present-day thinking, I’m going to hammer that point home as much as possible. And that is true, and I believe that to be true. And I can back it up with evidence and with scholarship.
But if I want to be a good historian, in moments like the first half of the 19th century, I might want to be a little bit more nuanced and say that, yeah, there were other things on Americans’ minds politically besides slavery, and that there were other things that went into freeing the slaves besides just recognizing slavery as an abhorrent condition.
And as historians, we can sit there and understand that, yeah, we can have this nuanced understanding and divorce it from politics, but there will be people on other ends of the political spectrum who are very intelligent but will cherry pick complex notions and say, see? It was more complicated, therefore, people going on and on about slavery, you know, you should shut up. It’s over. It doesn’t have any ramifications anymore, because it was more complicated than that. It wasn’t this whole thing that this conflict was about, anyway. So we have to walk a fine line.
Well, I think in many ways, historical figures are whitewashed, both as villains and as heroes. You look at Mount Rushmore and other symbols of the United States, and we like to have these heroic figures and point to them as the good guys.
But part of your job as a historian is to point out that they were just– they were men.
They weren’t gods.
They had flaws.
I think one of the things that history puts you in touch with is something– I don’t want to get too philosophical, but human nature– I mean, I think historically, so I think human nature is not a static thing. For me, human nature is revealed over time through human actions. This is how we understand what something is. We watch it do what it does. And that can complicate your preconceived notions or it can reinforce them. And so, in that way, history is a hugely political tool.
But the positive way to spin that is that understanding the position, say, Lincoln was in when he took office, really thinking about that and thinking about the intense feelings and visceral emotions on both sides, and just sheer amounts of wealth and power that were at stake, and humans lives that were at stake in this conflict, and how he had to navigate that– if you don’t come out of that reading more empathetic, then you’re numb from, like, the chest up. Because that’s one of the things history should teach you is to be more cautious in your judgment, to be more empathetic, to think a little bit more deliberately and slowly about how you assign blame to people in certain instances or controversies. So yeah, I think that’s certainly one thing we can bring to the table.
So, you know, really the first draft of history is written by the news media.
And the media right now is under a lot of pressure. It’s under attack. The president of the United States says that the news media is the, quote, “enemy of the people.” As a historian, does that make your job more difficult, dealing not only with the fact that the media is under assault at the moment but also that there’s this surge in fake news?
Does it make it more difficult in what way?
So in evaluating our present-day–
–50, 100 years from now–
Sure. Well, I think– in one way, I think the rise in fake news makes historians’ jobs as teachers a lot easier. Because journalism, the news, rhetoric in public has always been politicized. And one of the first things we want to teach students as historians is identify the bias and the agenda in whatever you’re reading. Don’t take what you’re reading at face value, because the author has an agenda. The author has a certain socioeconomic context that explains why he or she is doing certain things.
So, I mean, that’s day one stuff, right? But it’s stuff that we want to keep reiterating over time. And what I’ve experienced in the past year teaching students at Notre Dame in the context of the election and the first 100 days of Trump’s administration is that it’s easier to emphasize bias in history when they’re seeing it all the time.
They may have, before this election, not only– I mean, there’s a sense, I think, among people that, well, CNN is sort of centrist, MSNBC is left, and Fox leans really far right. But, at the same time, I think there’s an illusion of objectivity in the way that we read the news sometimes that Trump has blown the doors off of.
He has been completely candid about how narratives become politicized. And while the narratives that he’s fighting many of us feel are more grounded in facts and more defensible, at the same time, he’s exposed the fact that both of these narratives are constructed. One is probably better constructed and constructed in a more reliable way.
But so in that way, we’ve started to have a debate about how you construct narratives. And narratives that were assumed to be fact, like crowd size, suddenly becoming inexplicably complicated and challenged. Even if you can see through the illusion and say, “you’re full of it,” it still shows you– it makes it easier, as teachers, for us to go into the classroom and say, “look at what he’s doing.”
You will see this throughout history. Think about if the author you’re reading has a similar agenda to Trump or to anybody in the news media that you’re seeing spinning an agenda. Where’s the spin? So the more sensitive we are to spin, the easier historians’ jobs as teachers become. In the future, yeah, I think historians are going to have–
What are historians going to make of Donald Trump’s Twitter account?
Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I love Twitter where it says whenever you’re tweeting at the president or the vice president, in his bio, it says tweets may be archived. And the Library of Congress, I think a couple of years ago–
–bought the Twitter archive. And so, there’s a self-consciousness about being part of an archive now as you’re tweeting. And some of these people really should reflect on that. But future historians are going to have to deal with social media, presuming that we maintain the information, presuming that the servers are still– that the databases and the archives of the internet actually do what they’re supposed to be doing. There’s a lot of work now to preserve the internet–
–in different formats to make sure that it’s accessible for historians.
Yeah, I mean, and there’s a lot of questions whether these things will actually exist in the same way that clay tablets exist.
Right. Right. So it could be a smorgasbord for historians, more evidence than any historian has ever had ever with more powerful technology to search it, and make sense of it, and analyze it in mass quantities, to do text mining, to do different sorts of analytics that would allow you to track patterns and understand what real, regular people were thinking every day, because you can go back and see what I was– who I was talking trash to on Facebook on June 1, 2006. That’s something that most historians have never had. So if we can maintain that, it’s going to be a great blessing for future historians.
But it’s also going to be a curse. Because how do you make sense of a society that is so self-absorbed, so cynical, so deeply consumed with producing and consuming at the same time? The amount of media content that we produce on a daily basis is just absurd. And so, historians will have the huge problem of having to make sense of all that and come up with a master narrative.
It’s information overload.
It’s information overload. We have that in universities, too. There’s more scholarship being produced than needs to be produced right now, because we can’t keep up with it. People can’t keep up with a lot of historical scholarship and make broad narratives out of it. That’s one of the crises of the field.
So how do you write a political history of Trump when you can put him in very intimate context with these Twitter trolls? I don’t know. I think it’s– I’m excited to see what happens. I think. The first great meme history is still waiting to be written. So that’s–
Are you going to be the author of that?
I actually really would love to be. It’s one of my ideas.
There you go.
I will plug it first on your podcast.
I’m actually completely serious when I talk about this book.
Yes. Yes, because I think memes are such a beautiful way to track popular culture and popular politics in the post-9/11 world. I think you can find everything you need there to make sense of–
Is it like today’s equivalent of a political cartoon?
Yeah, but it’s so much more democratized and it’s so much more malleable.
Yeah, it’s a political cartoon, but it’s also like– I’m trying to think. I don’t know if there’s– political cartoon is a good one.
What do you make of the coarseness of dialogue in today’s culture? And also, how corrosive do you think that is to a democracy?
To a democracy? Yeah, I think, hmm. I mean, in some ways, I’m not surprised by the coarseness of public discourse, because I think we’re just more aware of it now than we were in the past.
I mean, I read political documents from the 18th century that are just as crazy and just as shrill as Alex Jones, if not more shrill. Try to come after a slave owner’s right to own slaves, and you want to see shrill. That’s shrill. That’s like you’re trying to go after a man’s livelihood and a man’s ability to control other people, and own other people, and exploit them in any way he wants. He’s going to hold onto that as hard as he can.
Yeah, so I mean, I’m not surprised by the coarseness of our discourse. I think we are just more aware of it now. I think you can find radical, shrill dialogue in any period you’re looking for it.
But I think the problem does come with the democracy portion of that question, whereas not only are we a more democratic society than we ever have been– we’re not very democratic, but we are still more democratic than we have been. We have a higher level of participation. The internet’s bringing people together in ways that people have never been brought together before. Things are so much more visible. Our public sphere has been expanded exponentially. And so, yeah.
One of the ironic things is that as social media spreads and people participate more in democracy, it seems that the coarseness actually comes out and is more obvious.
Yeah. Yeah, I think so. Yeah, because I think– maybe that’s something about human nature. Now, again, not to get philosophical, all right, but maybe–
We don’t want any of that.
That’s my other degree, right? Just brush that degree off and–
I didn’t pursue that in graduate school for a reason.
But, yeah, I do think that in terms of human nature, what is human nature? Human nature is what humans do. And I think we’re just seeing it more, and more, and more, and more in our faces every day.
This has always been politics. Politics has always been intense. It’s always been coarse. It’s always been cynical. But there is a danger in everyone’s cynicism, everyone’s coarseness, everyone’s fanaticism being broadcast to everyone else in the world, and when you have a few strongmen who rise up to be able to exploit that.
I think it’s clear what we get. We get Trump. We get Le Pen. We get Nigel. I mean, so much of the English-speaking world is, essentially, losing its collective mind right now because of the media technology that are available to disseminate views I think that were always already there and have always already been there.
It’s just easier for those views to spread now.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I’m saying nothing original here, but I think it bears repeating that we’re in touch with more views and more diversity than we ever have been before. And great, but there are going to be people who push back against that. And some of that diversity is going to be diversity is horrifying and terrible, and we should never have it, right? So how do we deal with that? In a democracy–
And some of that diversity is repugnant.
Some of that diversity’s– right, right. The only thing we should be intolerant towards is intolerance. That’s sort of– well, it’s free speech. It’s my religious liberty.
In some ways you’re right, but at a certain point, a political group like the left needs to say no! No. We’re putting our foot down at a certain level, right? And so, we love diversity, as long as you internalize certain values.
And I think a lot of people on the left don’t like to open up about that. We can be just as uncompromising. But I think the uncompromising thing– the things that liberals won’t compromise on, generally, are those things that tend to hurt society and tend to take us back to a place in time where more people were oppressed. And so, it’s okay to not tolerate that.
Our discourse has become coarse, but it’s also become simplistic, that our political spectrum– our public sphere is a debate between those who want tolerance and those who are intolerant, those who want diversity and those who want just white men running the world. And it actually isn’t that simple, because liberals have a politics of intolerance as well. In fact, that’s exactly what we run on in a lot of ways, that we’re not going to stand up for this behavior coming from a person like Trump or coming from state legislatures, in terms of what they do with religious liberty, and de-funding education, and de-funding women’s health organizations.
Dylan, can you talk a bit about your research in the field and the importance of getting your hands on primary sources?
Sure. That’s the bread and butter of historians. I mean, we are creatures who deal in old documents. And our evidence is textual, for the most part. And that evidence is held in archives that are becoming increasingly digitized, and therefore, more accessible to a wider population and also more accessible, just from the Starbucks at the corner without having to get on a plane and going somewhere. But travel for research is still really essential to the work.
So what I do, since I work on the 18th century British Empire, most of my work is centered in the archives in Britain, mainly the National Archives in London, the British Library in London as well. But then, also, since I work on South Carolina, there are some archives in Charleston and in Columbia, South Carolina that I go to as well.
You went to Jamaica, right?
I went to Jamaica. Yeah, that was an experimental part of my research. I was thinking that my project was going to be on Jamaica. And that was an eye-opener. There’s a lot of material in Jamaica that historians have used and continue to use.
But it’s certainly a different archival infrastructure than what exists in Charleston or the United Kingdom. So it’s a developing country. It’s a country that doesn’t have a huge amount of resources to devote to archives. So that means that they’re not very well preserved and they’re not very accessible.
So they’re very protective. So you can’t take pictures of the texts in the archives, despite the fact that they are sort of decaying and sort of hard to access, because researchers coming to Jamaica for archival research are stimulating the economy, and they’re participating in tourism, and that is visitors to the Kingston area that Jamaica can’t afford to lose.
So you see while the imperial archives, in places like Britain and the United States — those that are participating in empire currently or those that are part of empires from the past — basically, archives in developed countries are really at the forefront of digitizing these old texts and making them available to people online. Those that exist in developing countries are protected more, at least in my experience, as cultural resources that should be only accessible in that country, which in some ways makes a lot of sense. It makes it a little harder on the researcher but is something that we still need to respect and recognize.
So I went to Jamaica to do that for about a week. I poked around in the archives there, got a feel for things. I may go back, but the project has taken a different turn back up to South Carolina, in part because it’s just easier to access. And if you’re going to get a PhD done in five years, you’ve got to be able to get to your archives quickly to spend a lot of time there and get a lot of work done without necessarily having to go to five or six different countries. In my case, I only need to go to like three archives to do the project, and that’s concentrated enough to get it done in five years.
So, you know, we’re a couple of white guys having a conversation about slavery and Civil War history.
Both of us grew up in South Bend. We’re both pretty far removed from the topic that we’re covering.
Yeah. Where is our place in this conversation?
Because I’ve been asked this before.
If you’re going in the direction–
That is the direction I’m going.
One of the candid answers is that my project is actually about white men and the horrible things they do to people. So, in some ways, my project is about slavery and how white men in government profited off of it. But in other ways, my project is about white men in government and their corrupt activities. So, in that way, slavery is the essential context, yet it is still a context.
I haven’t necessarily figured out the specific relationship between my project and slavery. But from a pedagogical standpoint, as a teacher, it does put you in a weird position. I mean, I think as a white man, my presence in a classroom that’s talking about slavery is to facilitate a conversation about evidence, to facilitate a recognition of the contours of an institution and its continuing impacts on our society while also not inserting myself and my own politics into that.
As a professor, as an educator, it shouldn’t be about you. It should be about the subject matter. So the farther removed I am from my students’ minds, the better, at least in those sensitive topics. A course about slavery should never be about me as a white man.
I have to grapple with racial identity and racial politics in the class, and in the classroom, and in the subject matter itself. And so, it’s something that I haven’t necessarily totally worked out yet. I haven’t had any negative experiences doing it at Notre Dame. But, I mean, that’s a very white institution.
And so, these conversations will be different at different universities and in different regions. For example, I was having conversations with people, with graduate students at the University of Georgia when I was visiting there, deciding where I was going to go to do my PhD. And I asked them a few questions about, well, how do you teach slavery as a white man in the South in this context?
And I heard a litany of stories of awkward classroom confrontations between students of different backgrounds who had different preconceived notions about what the institution was in the South, what the war was about, what slave life was like. And these things become politicized very quickly there.
I haven’t had to deal with much of that in my career yet. But my approach is to let the evidence speak for itself and to remove my own identify from the conversation as much as possible, while also not backing down on the facts that historical consensus has shown us, and facilitating a conversation about race and about the legacies of this institution.
One of the things that people should walk away with — especially if they’re a white college student — from learning about slavery is they should be critically think about whiteness as much as they should be thinking about any other type of racial politics in the United States. They should be thinking about what white privilege means, and what white supremacy means, and what its origin is.
And so, one of the places that I’m well-positioned as a white man to speak candidly about is white supremacy. I can be candid to white students about the system of oppression that has created their privilege, and in that way–
Do you feel like you have an obligation?
I think we do. I mean, I think we have an obligation to– we have an obligation to present a narrative about the past that is consistent with the evidence but one that also gives students an opportunity to grow as citizens and as people by challenging their preconceived notions and by giving them complex pieces of evidence to analyze in a supportive but also a critical environment.
So we shouldn’t be talking about history in a vacuum. We should be engaging with problems that crop up in our present day as they related to the past. So we are having a renewed moment of racial discourse in this country, and we shouldn’t shy away from that.
My own racial identity as a white man is– my own privileged identity as a white, straight, cis male is– it’s in the room, but that’s all it is. It’s in the room. I have an obligation to check that at the door and to facilitate a conversation about the past.
But, at the end of the day, it’s all imperfect. And so, you get questions, yeah. How can you teach slavery as a white man? Well, I’m doing it. So that’s how, but I do it cautiously, and with respect, and with openness to different– to privileges that I have and to oppression that I haven’t perceived or experienced in my own life.
So you’re planning a trip to London over the summer. Can you tell us a little bit about what you hope to accomplish while you’re there?
Sure. So most of my time will be spent– well, it’s going to be a diverse trip. I’m going to spend June doing archival research for my next couple chapters in the dissertation, or the book as I need to be thinking about it. I need to be thinking about this as a book, not a dissertation.
So most of that time, I’ll be at the National Archives in London, which is just a huge repository of all the British government materials that have been generated for centuries. And I’ll be combing through that, primarily the South Carolina and Gambia River Valley documents, and gathering evidence for these next few chapters.
Most of this involves just opening folders and boxes, and taking pictures with my phone and just taking as many pictures as I can in a day, loading it up onto an external hard drive, and creating a mobile archive that I’ll go through later. There’ll be some programs that I’m involved with with Notre Dame as well.
Notre Dame has a relationship with Oxford and the University of Edinburgh. We send graduate students over to Britain every year to engage in a colloquium. We all submit a chapter, and it’s pre-circulated. Everybody reads everybody’s chapter and then has conversations about improving it and stuff like that. So it’s a conference, symposium sort of thing. So I’ll be doing that in both London, Edinburgh, and Oxford for a couple days, and then ending with a little bit of vacation. So it should be fun, about six weeks– six or seven weeks.
That sounds good.
What’s your ultimate goal that you hope to accomplish once you finish your PhD at Notre Dame?
A job would be nice. A job is the number one thing, right? So I started this whole process really idealistic. I’ve always just wanted to study what I wanted to study, and college gave me the opportunity to do that, and graduate school gave me the opportunity to do more of that.
And somewhere in these past few years, I realized I need to put food on the table. And the job market for academics right now is horrible. I’m told it’s always been horrible, but it’s more horrible now. So I have one fellow student who just got a tenure track job, which is very encouraging. Hopefully that’s the beginning of a pattern, not just a blip on the radar.
But, at the same time, I’m thinking openly about the future. And I used to think that I would go to grad school, and then I would get a tenure track job as a professor at a university, and then I would live the rest of my days in tenured bliss and that would be it. I’m more flexible these days. I also think that I want to be involved in public life a bit more than perhaps you would be allowed to be or have time to be as a faculty member.
Have you ever thought about running for office?
I have. I have. The time is not right yet. I have to find the place and the people. I have to build the connections and find the right opportunity. I think I’m not alone among Millennials in thinking about running for office in this current environment. I think that a lot of our fellow generation has been really frustrated and inspired at the same time by our political climate.
So I think I’m part of a surge in civic engagement but still looking for the right place to break into that. It’s hard to balance the isolation of academia and the relentless engagement of politics. So I’ve decided to finish one and then move on to the next one, if the opportunity presents itself.
I’m talking so much I’m sweating. You can start the podcast off with that.
Well, Dylan, thank you so much for joining us.
Well, thanks for having me. It was a great time.
I’d like to thank you again for listening to Convo with Kyle. Be sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for more episodes. You can also keep the conversation going on social media by visiting facebook.com/convowithkyle and twitter.com/convowithkyle. I’d love to hear from you.