My New Book!

My New Book!
My New Book!

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

June 30, 2021: Talking Of Thee I Sing: The Boston Athenaeum

 [Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]

On an excellent audience question that helped me think through a very helpful analogy.

I first read Michael Kammen’s magisterial The Mystic Chords of Memory (1991) for my grad comps, and ever since I’ve made extensive use of his central, paired but contrasting categories of remembrance and commemoration (including in posts for this blog). To quote from how I paraphrase Kammen’s two categories in that hyperlinked blog post: “remembrance, which would describe genuine attempts to remember the past in all its complexity; and commemoration, which would categorize those efforts that are more simplifying and mythologizing, and usually more tied to present concerns than to the past itself.” While of course there’s far more of a nuanced spectrum than that (as Kammen himself analyzes at length in his vital book), I think those two categories continue to do a lot of meaningful scholarly and cultural work, including in our current debates over whether and how to teach American history.

I knew that the category of commemoration had a lot in common with my book’s category of mythic patriotism (about which I wrote in Monday’s post). But thanks to a wonderful audience question after my May 18 virtual book talk at the Boston Athenaeum, I was able to further develop that idea and (more specifically) to come up with a very useful analogy through which to explain it. While I greatly missed the chance to deliver a talk in person at the Athenaeum (still the most beautiful place I’ve ever been able to share my work), I knew that a virtual talk for that community would likewise bring out an impressive, engaged, thoughtful audience, and the attendees didn’t disappoint. They unsurprisingly came up with a great group of questions and responses, and the best was actually asked by a longtime Twitter friend of mine: Beth Folsom, the Program Manager at History Cambridge. Following up on my highlighting of William Apess’ “Eulogy on King Philip” as an example of 19th century critical patriotism, Beth asked whether eulogies more broadly can be defined as central spaces for patriotic expressions.

They certainly can, and given that I didn’t yet talk about such occasions at length in the book, I look forward to thinking through them more fully as I move forward. But Beth’s excellent question also allowed me, both in my immediate response and especially as I’ve continued to think about her frame in the month since, to think about whether mythic patriotism itself could be seen as a eulogizing perspective on American history. Partly that’s because mythic patriotism, like Kammen’s concept of commemoration, features a celebratory perspective on the past which is likewise very central to the tone and work of eulogies. But what Beth’s question and this analogy have really helped me think through is how much mythic patriotism depends on a vision of the past and the nation alike as having passed, as something dead and gone and thus set in stone (rather than constantly being constructed and reconstructed, as categories like active and critical patriotism would insist). And just as a eulogizer would be bothered if their funereal narrative were challenged by those more critical of the deceased, so have our contemporary mythic patriots been so bothered by more critical patriotic takes on the national (not-)dead body.

Last book talk reflection tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

June 29, 2021: Talking Of Thee I Sing: Toadstool Bookshop

[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]

On the limits and benefits of virtual talks.

In my post on my August 2019 book talk for We the People at Peterborough (NH)’s wonderful Toadstool Bookshop, I wrote about one of my favorite parts of giving such talks: the particularly inspiring conversations that often take place before and after them. As usual when I highlight a prior post in my first paragraph, I’ll end here and ask you to check out that post if you would and then come on back for today’s thoughts.

Welcome back! My March 27th virtual book talk for Toadstool was my first opportunity to directly compare a virtual talk to an in-person one, and it was precisely the absence of these informal, pre- and post-talk conversations that I felt most distinctly. I did have the chance to chat for a few minutes before the talk with the wonderful Toadstool staff member (Katrina Feraco) who moderated the talk, and there were a couple excellent audience questions at the end of the talk. But both of those moments remained somewhat formal or at least somewhat part of the talk’s frame—whereas the truly informal, separate conversations I wrote about in that prior post can (it seems to me) only happen when I’m sitting in an in-person space like a bookstore, my book next to me, chatting about it with people outside of the context of the talk itself. I’m not sure those kinds of conversations can happen at a virtual talk, and I’ve missed them throughout this spring’s series of such talks.

At the same time, virtual book talks have their advantages, possibilities that make me hope some version of them (or at least a concurrent streaming option for in-person talks) can carry forward into a post-pandemic future. Many are similar to what I highlighted in this post on virtual conferences, around the general theme of accessibility; given that one of my audience members for the Toadstool virtual talk was a scholar and twitter friend of mine who lives in New York City, Joanna Mobley, I’m quite sure that accessibility was a good thing in this case. And if that’s a benefit for the audience (and thus for the speaker as well of course), I would also say that there’s at least one direct benefit to the speaker of preparing a virtual book talk—it really forces us to think about what and how our slides will communicate, to focus on them as a key component of the talk (rather than, for example, just visual accompaniment, which I’ll admit is how I used to think about the slides). That skill remains a work in progress for me, but it’s one I know has improved a good deal thanks to the series of virtual talks I’ve prepared and delivered for Of Thee I Sing.

Next book talk reflection tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?

Monday, June 28, 2021

June 28, 2021: Talking Of Thee I Sing: GCE Lab School

[Over the last few months, I’ve had the chance to talk about my new book in a number of settings, and as always every such talk has led to distinct and interesting follow-up questions and ideas. So this week I’ll reflect on those continuing conversations, leading up to a special July 4th weekend post on the state of patriotism in 2021!]

On how the coincidental timing of the year’s first book talk helped me further develop my ideas about mythic patriotism.

I scheduled my January 7th Soapbox talk for Chicago’s Global Citizenship Experience Lab School (an innovative and impressive high school) in late 2020, when the Head of School Cabell King (inspired by my USIH column and specifically the idea of “the patriotism we need”) reached out to invite me to give a talk to the school’s students and faculty. Of course I already knew at that time that any talk about the contested history of American patriotism would have to engage with the unfolding contemporary debates around that and so many related issues, and indeed had been thinking about those contemporary connections since I wrote the book’s Conclusion—but I’d be lying if I said I had any idea that I’d be giving my talk the day after an insurrection of Americans claiming to be patriots attacked the US Capitol building.

Obviously my talk was far from the first thing on my mind as I watched the events of January 6th unfold (or read about them on social media, at least—I was with my younger son getting his allergy shots that afternoon). But that evening I began to think through the fact that I would need to engage with those events in my talk, spurred on by a particular, hugely telling quote I encountered the next morning in an excellent Nation magazine story on the insurrection. The reporter, Andrew McCormick, was following around a number of the day’s rioters/domestic terrorists, and as police began to fire tear gas at the rioters, he writes, “‘This is not America,’ a woman said to a small group, her voice shaking. She was crying, hysterical. ‘They’re shooting at us. They’re supposed to shoot BLM, but they’re shooting the patriots.’” I was already aware that many of the January 6th rioters thought of themselves as patriots, but I was nonetheless struck by such an overt use of the term and knew I had found a quote for my opening slide.

Gradually I realized I had more than that, however—that this quote, singular as it no doubt is, at the same time reflects a core element of the form I patriotism I call mythic patriotism. I define that patriotism as in part the creation of a mythic vision of American history and identity, writing in my book’s intro that it features “narratives that allow for a concurrent embrace of the historical United States but that do so by excluding certain aspects of, and too often communities from, our history.” But as I’ve continued to think about this form of patriotism, I’ve realized that it likewise and relatedly excludes those contemporary Americans who do not participate in the celebrations of this mythic America. And that’s what we see particularly clearly in the January 6th quote—that the speaker and her fellow rioters are patriots in direct contrast to a group like “BLM” (Black Lives Matter protesters), who are thus overtly defined as unpatriotic, even as outside of America, due I would argue to their challenge to the mythic patriotic narrative (as well as their race/culture, because to be clear mythic patriotism is almost always overtly white supremacist as well). All ideas I’ve continued to develop, helped by this first book talk and its coincidental but crucial timing.

Next book talk reflection tomorrow,


PS. Thoughts on this reflection? Ideas for other settings or audiences with whom I could share the book?

Saturday, June 26, 2021

June 26-27, 2021: Kurtis Kendall’s Guest Post on Athlete Activism

[Kurtis is a freelance writer specializing in blog writing, article writing and editing services. His prominent topics include pieces on sports and eSports. When not writing you can find him hiking throughout the New England wilderness or chilling with his girlfriend’s Saint Bernards.]

                   If Athletes Must “Shut up and dribble,” Then Who is Allowed to Speak on Social Issues?

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd last summer, a noticeable shift occurred nationwide in the perception of professional athletes voicing their opinions on social issues. The NBA displayed “Black Lives Matter” on their court throughout the 2020 playoffs in the bubble. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell finally embraced Colin Kaepernick after years of leading a league that black balled him. The MLB gave their blessing for players to kneel before the first pitch of games, and for “Black Lives Matter” statements to be present on shirts and the pitching mound. The WNBA partnered with its player's association to form a Social Justice Council to advance social issues. Even the NCAA allowed student-athletes to wear patches on their uniforms in support of social issues.

Before this shift, and still in many circles around the country today, some people believed athletes should remain silent on these problems and focus solely on their sport and nothing else. Not only is this a dehumanizing stance, but ignores the obvious fact that athletes, like all of us, are more than performers.

The claim has been made over and over again, that athletes should stick to their domain and leave politics and social issues aside. But if that is the case, then who is allowed to discuss issues that affect people from all different walks of life? Can a grocery store worker? A custodian? A 7th-grade math teacher? An artist? Or do these individuals also have to ‘shut up and work?’ Can they only have opinions and comments on the duties they perform and nothing else?

Should only politicians talk about politics? Why does an individual’s employment dictate the topics they are allowed to discuss? These athletes are people too, and many of them are American citizens. Not to say you have to be an American citizen to speak on these issues, but by being one, they have a right to vote, to protest, to voice what direction they think our country should be headed. These individuals have a platform due to their abilities, yet they are decried as problematic when they use that platform to speak on issues that matter for millions around the country.

Michael Jordan famously once said “Republicans wear sneakers, too,” during his playing days. He knowingly avoided being an activist on social issues, even though he had the platform to bring attention to or make change on any topic he wanted to discuss. Whether he did this for monetary purposes or to avoid scrutiny or something else entirely is only truly known to him. He has said he always saw himself as a basketball player, not a role model. But Jordan shouldn’t be pointed out as a figure to say “see, that’s how an athlete should act.” Jordan has every right not to speak out on issues if he wants to strictly focus on his playing career or his business ventures. But in the same vein, he and every other person also have a right to speak out on issues they deem important enough to voice.

To the detractors, it's not as if this is a new phenomenon in the world of professional sports. Bill Russell, the architect of the original Celtics dynasty was known as much for his activism as for his play on the court. He, along with boxing legend Muhammed Ali, NFL superstar Jim Brown and collegiate athlete at the time Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabar) spoke on these issues during a summit meeting in 1967 where the black athletes came to support Ali and his stance on the Vietnam War.

And these athletes did so during the turbulent 1960s when protesting for civil rights might risk your life and livelihood. They helped to push the nation forward, to advance the conversation, to make progress on issues involving race and equality. For any individual who says athletes should only focus on sports, they also seem to be suggesting that movements athletes have previously helped advance should be disregarded as well.

A few athletes themselves have even stated they should stick to their sport, notably professional footballer Zlatan Ibrahimovic to LeBron James himself. Ibrahimovic said athletes should stick to “what they do best” and leave politics to politicians. In response, James pointed to the fact that many of the fans who watch sports are the people who face these social issues every day, yet lack a platform to bring awareness or create change.

“I will never shut up about things that are wrong. I preach about my people and I preach about equality, social justice, racism, voter suppression – things that go on in our community.

“Because I was a part of my community at one point and saw the things that were going on, and I know what’s still going on because I have a group of 300-plus kids at my school that are going through the same thing and they need a voice.”

Change and progress is created through continually speaking about issues, through avenues like civil disobedience. By talking about an issue and bringing awareness to it, and talking about it some more, and coming up with concrete solutions and actions to address it. Progress is not made by criticizing those who bring to our attention a less than perfect reality.

If the argument is athletes should stick to their domain, then you must apply that across the board, to everyone in their respective job. Construction workers can only talk about construction, lawyers can only discuss the law, factory workers can only talk machinery. In other words, no one, other than those already in charge, can debate the hurdles we must overcome as a society. This isn’t how the world works. We, every single one of us, are more than our profession. A person has a right to voice their concerns on any issue that is affecting the world they live in.

So, the next time you hear someone complain that an athlete has no right to speak out on social issues, simply ask them, then who does?

[Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think?]

June 26, 2021: June 2021 Recap

[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]

May 29-30: Sarah Satkowski’s Guest Post on T.C. Boyle: My second great May Guest Post from a student in Robin Field’s Immigration Fiction class at King’s College!

May 31: Remembering Memorial Day: My annual Memorial Day post on what we don’t remember about Memorial Day, and why we should.

June 1: Decoration Day Histories: Frederick Douglass: A Decoration Day series kicks off with one of the great American speeches.

June 2: Decoration Day Histories: Roger Pryor: The series continues with the invitation and speech that mark two shifts in American attitudes.

June 3: Decoration Day Histories: “Rodman the Keeper”: A short story that helps us remember a community for whom the holiday’s meanings didn’t shift, as the series commemorates on.

June 4: Decoration Day Histories: So What?: The series concludes with three reasons to remember Decoration Day alongside Memorial Day.

June 5-6: A Memorial Day Tribute: A special weekend post on the fallen soldiers and veterans’ communities whom we should also better remember.

June 7: Basketball Stories: James Naismith: A series for the NBA’s 75th birthday kicks off with three interesting contexts for the sport’s inventor.

June 8: Basketball Stories: Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell: The series continues with a clear distinction between two iconic greats—and why it’s not quite so clear.

June 9: Basketball Stories: Magic Johnson: Genuine high and low points for the legendary Lakers star, and what they both exemplify, as the series dribbles on.

June 10: Basketball Stories: MJ or LeBron—or Kareem?: Two layers to the GOAT debate, and the player I’d nominate instead.

June 11: Basketball Stories: WNBA Stars: The series concludes with five WNBA stars who help us remember the league’s past and present.

June 12-13: Crowd-sourced Basketball Stories: My latest crowd-sourced post, featuring thoughts from and tributes to fellow BasketballStudiers.

June 14: American Whistleblowers: Daniel Ellsberg: A series for the Pentagon Papers’ 50th anniversary kicks off with three stages in a lifelong fight for transparency and truth.

June 15: American Whistleblowers: Karen Silkwood: The whistleblower series continues with two well-known sides to Silkwood’s story, and one that needs more attention.

June 16: American Whistleblowers: Jeffrey Wigand: Two things Michael Mann’s movie gets right about Wigand, and one layer it’s important to add.

June 17: American Whistleblowers: Edward Snowden: Historical parallels to the 21st century whistleblower’s contradictions, and how to reconcile them.

June 18: American Whistleblowers: Chelsea Manning: The particularly fraught and vital role of wartime whistleblowers, as the series rolls on.

June 19-20: American Whistleblowers: Alexander Vindman: The series concludes with the opening paragraphs of my new book, on a critical patriotic contemporary whistleblower.

June 21: Vaccine Studying: Smallpox: For the 300th anniversary of Zabdiel Boylston’s first smallpox inoculations, three figures who deserve memory beyond the Boston doctor.

June 22: Vaccine Studying: John Franklin Enders: The series continues with two types of challenging collective histories we can better remember through the “Father of Modern Vaccines.”

June 23: Vaccine Studying: Polio: Three ways to engage more fully with the complex histories of the polio vaccine, as the series jabs on.

June 24: Vaccine Studying: The Measles: Three telling stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.

June 25: Vaccine Studying: Covid-19: The series concludes with my shortest and most pointed post ever.

4th of July book series starts Monday,


PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!

Friday, June 25, 2021

June 25, 2021: Vaccine Studying: Covid-19

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

Get it!

That’s it, that’s the post.

Seriously. If you’ve already gotten vaccinated, thank you! If you haven’t had a chance yet, please do so ASAP. You can find all the info you need here.

June Recap this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 24, 2021

June 24, 2021: Vaccine Studying: The Measles

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

On three telling stages in the history of a frustratingly persistent disease.

In the mid to late 19th century, outbreaks of the measles devastated two different South Pacific paradises. Beginning with a series of deadly epidemics in 1848-1849 (including whooping cough and influenza as well as measles), and continuing through much of the next decade, the disease took roughly one-fifth of Hawaii’s population. In 1875, the disease was introduced to the tropical island of Fiji by King Cakobau, upon his return from a diplomatic trip to Australia, and before it was contained it had killed 40,000 Fijians, roughly one-third of the small nation’s population. As these and many other outbreaks make clear, measles, often perceived here in the United States as nothing more than a potential childhood annoyance, has been as deadly a worldwide epidemic as any, and remains so: it is estimated to have killed roughly 200 million people between 1855 and 2005, and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 158,000 were killed in 2011 alone.

The fact that the disease has come to be perceived so differently in late 20th century America (and beyond) is due directly to two interconnected individuals. In 1954, medical study of David Edmonston, a 13 year old infected with the disease (one of many affected by an outbreak at a Boston private school), allowed for the virus that causes it to be isolated for the first time; the efforts of one young researcher, Dr. Thomas Peebles, were instrumental in achieving this success (as was the work of Tuesday’s subject, John Franklin Enders). Subsequent work over the next decade to develop a vaccine culminated in the 1963 successful creation of one by Maurice Hilleman, a researcher and vaccination specialist working at Merck; Hilleman’s vaccine (eventually folded into what is now known as the MMR [Measles Mumps Rubella] shot) has been estimated to prevent up to 1 million deaths each year. To my mind, few developments capture the best of the 20th century better than vaccines, and their combination of science, technology, research and collaboration, and international efforts to improve lives and communities; by any measure, Hilleman and the MMR certainly have to occupy prominent spots on that list.

Which brings us to now, and a particularly frustrating 21st century trend. As those WHO estimates indicate, measles has never been eradicated; but it has nonetheless made a striking recent return to our conversations, thanks in no small measure to a new American community: the anti-vaccinaters. This community has been around and making its controversial case for nearly two decades, aided and abetted by a fraudulent researcher and his hoax of a scientific study, but a recent outbreak of measles, caused it seems by the presence of unvaccinated and infected individuals at California’s Disneyland, has brought the community and the disease together in our collective consciousness. There are lots of ways to argue against this extreme and dangerous perspective, but to my mind chief among them would have to be a better understanding of each of these prior two stages: the long-term history and effects of measles, and the hugely destructive force of outbreaks such as those in Hawaii and Fiji; and the vital breakthroughs and successes of the vaccines, and the way they have turned measles into something manageable instead. It’s difficult for me to imagine anyone who would want a return to that earlier stage in the arc of this epidemic.

Last VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

June 23, 2021: Vaccine Studying: Polio

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

Following up my points about Jonas Salk in yesterday’s post, three ways to present and engage a fuller, more nuanced historical narrative of the polio vaccine.

First and foremost, it’s important to remember just how widespread and destructive polio remained well into the mid-20th century. If you’re like me, perhaps you associate it more with the first few decades of the 20th century, the era in which Franklin Roosevelt contracted the disease for example. But the United States reported more than 25,000 annual cases of polio throughout the early 1950s, with 58,000 cases (and 3200 deaths) reported in 1952 alone. This wasn’t just a lingering medical issue or a vestige of earlier outbreaks; polio remained a full-fledged, annual epidemic (it struck with particular force every summer, it seems) in the same year that The Honeymooners debuted, 1955. (To put it another way, one that hits close to home in every sense: my parents were born in 1948, meaning that throughout their childhood, polio was a very real threat.) The collective efforts to develop a vaccine, that is, represented urgent work in response to a genuine and ongoing crisis.

I discussed those collective 1950s efforts yesterday, but it’s worth noting that they had really begun a couple decades earlier, to strikingly calamitous effects. Two different teams announced progress on a polio vaccine at the American Public Health Association meeting in November 1935, and both were attacked and denounced by their colleagues in extreme ways: Temple University researcher John Kolmer, whose attenuated vaccine had led to 5 deaths and 10 paralyses out of 10,000 child subjects, was publicly called a murderer after his presentation; New York Health Department researcher Maurice Brodie, whose formaldehyde-killed vaccine had apparently not led to any deaths (and was reported to be 88% effective at preventing subjects from getting polio), was immediately fired from his job and died tragically of a heart attack just three years later (at the age of 35). I have no doubt that these early vaccines weren’t yet effective or safe enough, but the virulent attacks on these researchers (by colleagues who should have been sympathetic to their efforts, not by fear-mongering media voices or the like) makes clear that the fears of vaccines were in key ways at least as substantial as those of this ongoing, deadly epidemic.

Nearly two decades later, Enders, Salk, and the other researchers, scientists, and physicians about whom I wrote yesterday did develop safe and effective polio vaccines, helping largely eradicate the disease by the early 1960s. But the vaccines themselves weren’t enough to effect that change—it took extensive campaigns to convince the public of the safety and efficacy of those vaccines, campaigns that relied, as this excellent recent Scientific American article traces, on the support (and very public vaccinations) of celebrities like Elvis Presley. As that article notes, we are of course in the midst of our prominent, public push for vaccinations (about which more in a couple days), so we could learn a lot from the hugely successful (if quite multi-decade and fraught) history of the polio vaccine.

Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

June 22, 2021: Vaccine Studying: John Franklin Enders

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

On two types of challenging collective histories we can better remember through the story of the “Father of Modern Vaccines” (well, one of them anyway—in researching this post I learned that Maurice Hilleman is known by that nickname as well).

In many ways, John Franklin Enders’ story is profoundly inspiring, and an example of how a life of privilege can still help produce important collective progress. Enders’ father John Ostrom Enders (1869-1958) was the CEO of Hartford National Bank as well as a civic leader and Connecticut State Representative, and upon his death in 1958 would leave his son $19 million; that son, John Franklin Enders (1897-1985), attended Yale University and seemed predetermined for a similarly privileged life. Yet he took a leave of absence from Yale to volunteer for the World War I US Army Air Corps in 1918 (he did finish his college education upon the war’s end), and that moment foreshadowed a life of communal service, both through his groundbreaking work in immunology at Children’s Hospital Boston and (especially) through his pioneering, Nobel Prize-winning contributions to the 20th century development of vaccines, especially the measles vaccine but also in the field more broadly (leading to that aforementioned nickname).

The fact that Enders isn’t better known (at least outside of the medical and scientific communities) is a reflection of one of the challenging histories I want to highlight in this post: our tendency to remember individual “inventors” or pioneers, often those who build on the work of others, rather than the more collective histories that truly constitute innovation and progress. I’ll have more to say about this in tomorrow’s post, but that trend seems clearly to be the case when it comes to the polio vaccine; Jonas Salk was indeed one of the scientists working toward that vaccine, but his work built on that of many others, including a well-established team featuring Enders and his fellow virologists Thomas Huckle Weller and Frederick Chapman Robbins. The trio’s work won them the 1954 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, so it’s not as if it and they weren’t acknowledged; but since Salk had publicly announced his successful development of a polio vaccine a year earlier, he became the famous face and name forever (at least to this point) associated with the vaccine.

History is damn complicated, however (that could really be the slogan for this blog), and the other largely forgotten, challenging history I want to highlight puts Enders in a far worse light. In the same year that Enders won that Nobel, he and his colleague Thomas C. Peebles isolated the measles virus in an 11 year old patient, and Enders began working on a vaccine for that highly contagious childhood illness (on which more later in the week as well). Such a vaccine was announced by the New York Times in September 1961, and Enders generously wrote to the paper to downplay his own role and acknowledge the contributions of colleagues. Which is all well and good, but there was another community who contributed to that process: the 1500 mentally disabled New York children on whom Enders and his colleagues performed experimental trials. As that complex hyperlinked newsletter details, at least some of those children, like 1966-1967 Poster Child Kim Fisher, had been affected by measles, making their role in the vaccine’s development symbolically significant to be sure. But it’s still quite difficult to say how much a voice these children had in their own role in these medical experiments, experiments that had no certainty of a positive outcome for them. Just one more layer to the complex histories of the Father of Modern Vaccines.

Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Monday, June 21, 2021

June 21, 2021: Vaccine Studying: Smallpox

[June 26th marks the 300th anniversary of Boston physician Zabdiel Boylston’s first inoculations against the raging smallpox epidemic. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Boylston and other vaccine figures and histories, leading up to Friday’s post on the Covid vaccine!]

On three figures who deserve to be part of the (complex) story of smallpox inoculations alongside Boylston.

1)      Onesimus: I’ve written before about how the enslaved woman Tituba helps us better remember not just another side to the Salem Witch Trials, but also the consistent presence of enslaved people (especially African Americans, but also Native Americans) throughout colonial New England. Tituba’s experience, like all those affected by the events in Salem, was both horrific and extreme, but it does reflect this larger New England and American community—as does the life and influence of Onesimus, an enslaved African American who was brought to New England in the early 18th century, was gifted to Cotton Mather by his Boston congregation around 1706 (and given the name Onesimus by Mather at that time), and through his knowledge of and experiences with inoculation became a vital source of information for the application of that concept by Boylston 15 years later.

2)      Cotton Mather: I’ve also written before about Mather’s contributions to the development of smallpox inoculations, and how it significantly shifts his story from his frustrating role in the Salem Witch Trials. At that point I don’t believe I knew the story of Onesimus, however, which is partly a reflection of my own need to continue learning, but also a reminder that even in their more inspiring stories white men tend to dominate our narratives of history in ways that need challenging and changing. Moreover, while it seems that Onesimus offered his knowledge freely to Mather (and in so doing changed the course of history), it’s nonetheless important to note that Puritan minister Cotton Mather, one of early America’s most influential religious thinkers and leaders, was also a slaveowner. That’s all part of the smallpox story too.

3)      John Boylston: When local physician Zabdiel Boylston learned from Mather of the concept and possibilities of inoculation, he decided to try the process out, producing a great deal of controversy among his fellow Bostonians, to the point where he had to hide out in a secret space in his house for some time to avoid threats. While Boylston thus took a significant risk in experimenting with inoculation, the far greater risk still was undertaken by the three people he initially inoculated with a small dose of smallpox. Two of them, to continue the thread of my prior paragraphs, were unnamed enslaved men who deserve a central place in the story alongside Onesimus. The third was Boylston’s 12 year old son John, who while far from enslaved likewise likely had little choice in the matter. Given the fatal threat posed by smallpox, I understand why Zabdiel sought to inoculate his son, who seemingly survived and lived into adulthood; but the least we can do is commemorate young John Boylston as part of this complex smallpox story.

Next VaccineStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Vaccine histories or contexts you’d highlight?

Saturday, June 19, 2021

June 19-20, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Alexander Vindman

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to this weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

To pay tribute to this recent, profoundly inspiring whistleblower, here are the opening few paragraphs of my new book on American patriotism:

On November 19th, 2019, Army Lt. Colonel and National Security Council (NSC) official Alexander Vindman testified before the House of Representa­tives’ impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. Vindman, who had first-hand knowledge of the telephone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, offered testimony that was highly damaging to the president, and so Trump’s defenders and allies went on the attack against Vindman. They did so in large part by using his story as a Ukrainian American immigrant to directly impugn his patriotism and implicitly accuse him of treason: after Fox News host Laura Ingraham highlighted Vindman’s background in relation­ship to his work as a Ukraine expert for the NSC, law professor and former Bush administration official John Yoo replied, “I find that astounding, and some people might call that espionage”; and the next morning CNN contribu­tor and former Republican Congressman Sean Duffy went further, claiming, “I don’t know that he’s concerned about American policy, but his main mis­sion was to make sure that the Ukraine got those weapons . . . He’s entitled to his opinion. He has an affinity for the Ukraine, he speaks Ukrainian, and he came from the country.” Unstated but clearly present in these responses is the idea that Vindman’s criticism of the president had marked him as unpa­triotic and even un-American, opening up these broader questions about his affinities and allegiances. 

Just over a century earlier, however, former president Teddy Roosevelt be­gan his 1918 Metropolitan magazine article “Lincoln and Free Speech” with these lines: “Patriotism means to stand by the country. It does not mean to stand by the President or any other public official save exactly to the degree in which he himself stands by the country . . . In either event it is unpatriotic not to tell the truth—whether about the President or anyone else.” And in the prepared statement with which he began his testimony, Alexander Vindman expresses his own vision of patriotism clearly. “I have dedicated my entire professional life to the United States of America,” he begins. “As a young man I decided that I wanted to spend my life serving the nation that gave my family refuge from authoritarian oppression, and for the last twenty years it has been an honor to represent and protect this great country.” He contextual­izes his ability to offer such honest public testimony as part of “the privilege of being an American citizen and public servant.” And he ends with his fa­ther, whose “courageous decision” to leave the U.S.S.R. and move his family to the United States had, Vindman argues, “inspired a deep sense of gratitude in my brothers and myself and instilled in us a sense of duty and service.” Addressing his father directly with his closing words, Vindman makes a mov­ing and compelling case for Roosevelt’s point about the essential patriotism of telling the truth: “Dad, my sitting here today . . . is proof that you made the right decision forty years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Unfortunately, Vindman paid a significant price for his truth-telling—after Trump was acquitted by Senate Republicans in February 2020, he had both Vindman and his twin brother Yevgeny (a JAG officer and attorney on the NSC staff) removed from their positions and escorted out of the White House by security. While that action clearly constituted direct payback by Trump against a figure who had criticized him, it was applauded by Trump’s supporters as a necessary step to remove figures who were not sufficiently patriotic to serve in such important national roles. As Tennessee Senator Marsha Blackburn Tweeted about Vindman, “how patriotic is it to badmouth and ridicule our great nation in front of Russia, America’s greatest enemy?” Although the last phrase of Blackburn’s Tweet jumps out, it is her contrast between “our great nation” on the one hand and “badmouth[ing] and ridicule” on the other that constitutes the core of her attack on Vindman’s patriotism.”

Next series starts Monday,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

Friday, June 18, 2021

June 18, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Chelsea Manning

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On the particularly fraught and particularly vital role of wartime whistleblowers.

The whistleblowers about whom I’ve written so far this week fall into two broad categories, categories which I’d say encompass the vast majority of folks who take such actions: whistleblowers who outed governmental secrets (as with Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden) and those who took action against powerful corporations (as with Karen Silkwood and Jeffrey Wigand). There are plenty of similarities between both types (not least because the government and such corporations so often align, not only in those specific cases and industries but in their interests and efforts overall), and also some key differences (including the respective questions of legality and forms of criminal charges that come with each type of whistleblowing). But there’s also a third type, one that somewhat parallels the governmental whistleblowers but brings with it its own distinct questions, not just of legality but of the fraught relationship between patriotism and morality: whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning who bring to light military, wartime secrets and lies.

Manning was assigned to an Army unit in Iraq as an intelligence analyst when she began leaking classified information in early 2010, both to Wikileaks and to her online acquaintance Adrian Lamo (subsequently found dead under somewhat mysterious circumstances); that information included videos of military actions, hundreds of thousands of diplomatic cables, and Army reports that came to be known as the “Iraq War Logs” and the “Afghan War Diary.” Leaking this sensitive and classified material would likely have been treated as a crime had anyone done it, but because Manning was part of the US military in a war zone at the time, her actions carried yet another layer of weight. That extra level was illustrated by the most serious of the 22 charges leveled against Manning by the Army’s Criminal Investigation Command after her May 2010 arrest: aiding the enemy, a charge synonymous to treason and which could thus result in a death sentence. Manning was acquitted on that charge but convicted on the others (10 of which she had already pled guilty to), leading to a 35-year sentence at Leavenworth’s U.S. Disciplinary Barracks (a sentence commuted by President Obama in January 2017, after which Manning was released; she subsequently spent another year in jail, between March 2019 and March 2020, for contempt after refusing to testify before a grand jury investigating Julian Assange).

There’s no doubt that leaking classified information during and about a war is its own form of whistleblowing, and one that can’t simply be paralleled to the other forms I’ve discussed; I’m not suggesting that Manning should have been convicted of aiding the enemy (indeed I don’t believe she should have), but the very existence of the question reflects this distinction, as does the fact that her arrest, trial, and imprisonment were at the hands of the military rather than the criminal justice system. But at the same time, those distinctions themselves make precisely clear why figures like Manning play a vital role in our collective histories: because wars lend themselves so easily and fully to ideas of shared and absolute patriotism, of “supporting the troops” and “politics stopping at the water’s edge” and the rest of it, it is that much easier for illegal actions to take place without awareness (much less consequence). What Manning did, in the face of those longstanding and ongoing realities, wasn’t just tremendously brave (although it certainly was); it was a vital embodiment of the necessity of whistleblowing if every aspect of our society, including if not especially our military, is to function with transparency and integrity.

Special post this weekend,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

Thursday, June 17, 2021

June 17, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Edward Snowden

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On historical parallels that contextualize two contrasting sides to the 21st century whistleblower, and how to reconcile the pair.

Not long after CIA and NSA subcontractor Edward Snowden revealed classified documents to a group of journalists in an effort to blow the whistle on illegal and unconstitutional government programs, the U.S. Department of Justice charged Snowden with violating the Espionage Act of 1917. In the excerpts from my new book in that last hyperlinked post, I argue at length for the multiple layers of exclusionary, discriminatory, mythic patriotism that precipitated and are embodied by the Espionage Act and its complement, the Sedition Act of 1918; while many of those elements have been dismantled over the years, others remain fully in force more than 100 years later. Those layers help remind us that “espionage” has always been tied to xenophobic and bigoted visions of particular American communities; while there’s no doubt that Snowden knew the risks he was taking when he released the documents (as all this week’s whistleblowers did when they took their actions), we need to be very careful to go along with charges under the Espionage Act without a full engagement with the histories surrounding that law.

At the same time, Snowden’s actions after he blew the whistle, and for the more than 8 years since, link him to a distinct historical context: the connections between American spies and Russia. The Russia to which Snowden fled seeking asylum in June 2013 and where he has remained ever since, gaining permanent resident status in October 2020, is not the Cold War Soviet Union with which alleged spies like Julius and Ethel Rosenberg worked, of course. But not only is Vladimir Putin’s Russia just as much of a hostile adversary to the US on the world stage, it’s also one that has repeatedly and prominently taken covert action against the US, including the repeated efforts at election hacking that have taken place during Snowden’s time in Russia. Snowden has claimed that he is not cooperating with Putin’s Russian government and intelligence services, and I have no reason to disbelieve him. But I likewise have no reason to disbelieve that Putin sees Snowden as a potential ally, as someone who is at least similarly opposed to the US government; authoritarian regimes don’t generally grant permanent residency to those they view as dissidents, after all.

It might seem that these two historical contexts can’t comfortably coexist—the first challenges the very idea of “espionage” as it’s been constructed; while the second notes that some Americans have apparently worked as spies on behalf of one of the nation’s most longstanding global foes. I can’t lie, Edward Snowden does indeed seem both to contain and to produce conflicted and contradictory layers. But so does American history, not only overall but also and especially when it comes to nuanced categories like spies—and, at least a good bit of the time, whistleblowers. It’s very important not to conflate those two categories, and I’m not in any way trying to do so here. But in the case of a whistleblower like Snowden from within the intelligence community, and one who subsequently moved to another nation whose intelligence community has been as opposed to the US’s as any over this decade, it’s fair to say that the category of spy is also part of the conversation—which then requires us to grapple with the history of that category and its construction, as well as with however we might or might not apply it to aspects of Snowden’s ongoing story. I don’t have any answers here, but rather complicated and crucial questions that this particular 21st century whistleblower forces us to engage.

Last WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

Wednesday, June 16, 2021

June 16, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Jeffrey Wigand

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On two things Michael Mann’s The Insider gets right about Wigand, and one layer it’s important to add.

Inspired by journalist Marie Brenner’s excellent 1996 Vanity Fair article “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” Michael Mann’s 1999 film The Insider tells the true story of tobacco company scientist turned whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (played perfectly by Russell Crowe in the film). One of the things that the film gets very right is (by all accounts—like most of my blog’s subjects, I obviously don’t know the man) Wigand’s genuine “everyman” identity and perspective, which is illustrated potently by his very gradual and in many ways reluctant decision to blow the whistle on tobacco company lies and malfeasance—long before he did so he had left his company (Brown & Williamson), taking a severance package and signing a very restrictive non-disclosure agreement in the process, and was working as a high school science teacher. Unlike Monday’s subject Daniel Ellsberg, who had been something of a lifelong foreign policy crusader, or Tuesday’s subject Karen Silkwood, who was a union organizer and activist before she decided to blow the whistle, Wigand was simply a scientist who got fed up with his work and industry and left it, apparently never intending to do anything more than that.

He ended up doing a great deal more than that because of his evolving relationship with CBS and 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, played by Al Pacino in another element of Wigand’s story that the film gets right. Bergman initially worked with Wigand as a scientist advisor for a different story, but gradually learned of Wigand’s intimate knowledge of secret and scandalous information and helped convince him to blow the whistle on B&W and tobacco companies more generally. Yet as he did so, Bergman had to struggle against CBS executives seeking to squash or neuter the story nearly as much as Wigand did against his former employers, which helps us remember a vital and sometimes overlooked level to whistleblowing: the way in which journalists not only support and complement the whistleblowers, but themselves have to play a similar role both within their industry and in contrast to the hierarchies of power in society more broadly. The journalists do not usually take on the same risks as the whistleblowers, but they are nonetheless interconnected: a duality exemplified by my favorite scene in the film, a phone call between Bergman and Wigand where the former is on a beach (and so in a beautiful spot, if there because he is on a forced “vacation” from his job) and the latter in a hotel room under guard due to threats to his life.

The film ends not too long after that moment, with the two characters more triumphant in their quest to air the full story. That’s not only understandable but inevitable, given the timing of the film’s production and release, but it does mean that there are additional layers to Wigand’s story and life that can now be added into the mix (along with his winning a 1996 Kentucky teacher of the year award, which I believe the film does mention in its closing text). To my mind the most important and inspiring such layer is the work he’s done since leaving teaching: founding and running the non-profit organization Smoke-Free Kids Inc., which is dedicated to helping young people avoid tobacco products. Often we think about the negative consequences and aftermaths for whistleblowers, which even when not as extreme as Karen Silkwood’s can indeed be destructive for far too many (including the remaining folks on whom I’ll focus in this series). But another part of the aftermath is their continued work to change both their world and the world as a whole for the better, and no whistleblower more inspiringly exemplifies that ongoing effort than does Jeffrey Wigand.

Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

June 15, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Karen Silkwood

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On two well-known and important sides to Silkwood’s story of whistleblowing and its consequences, and one that needs more attention.

Thanks in no small measure to Meryl Streep’s Academy Award-nominated performance as Silkwood in Mike Nichols’ 1983 film, some of the key elements of Karen Silkwood’s story are quite familiar, yet remain important for us to remember. Certainly the most famous is her mysterious death in a car crash, almost certainly a murder orchestrated in some form by the powers that be at the Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel fabrication site in Oklahoma against whom she was in the process of blowing the whistle. While we will likely never known for certain who killed Karen Silkwood (a familiar refrain from the period that became the name of a 1981 book on the case), there’s no doubt that her case reveals the genuine danger that whistleblowers face, especially when (as is so often the case) they go up against the nation’s biggest and most powerful corporate interests. Such danger can seem like the realm of conspiracy theorists or political thriller films, but Karen Silkwood reminds us that it’s all too real.

Of course, the danger to Karen Silkwood’s health and life had begun long before her death, and was at the heart of the source of her whistleblowing in the first place: the plutonium contamination to which she and (she alleged, and as has subsequently been confirmed) many of her coworkers at the site had been exposed. While the cause of Silkwood’s accident and death could not be proven, her contamination certainly could be and was, leading to a successful lawsuit by Silkwood’s family against Kerr-McGee (or rather, the company settled out of court for $1.38 million without admitting guilt, but I’d call that successful enough). This prominent and important detail of Silkwood’s story helps us remember that workplace health and safety concerns aren’t just part of the history of labor in the United States (which is often where we locate them, in the 19th century conditions that gave rise to the labor movement)—they have remained central to labor struggles and successes in the 20th century and into the 21st as well.

Speaking of the labor movement, that’s one aspect of Silkwood’s famous story that to my mind has not received enough attention: the role of union organizing and activism in her personal story and that of the site’s workers overall. When Silkwood got a divorce, moved to Oklahoma (from Texas) with her three children, and got a job at the Kerr-McGee site, she almost took part in a strike with the Oil, Chemical, & Atomic Workers Union; shortly thereafter she became the first woman elected to the site’s union bargaining committee and was assigned to investigate health and safety issues. Which is to say, both Silkwood’s contamination and her whistleblowing apparently took place not in her role as a worker (which is how I had always thought of them), but rather in her capacity as a labor representative and leader. As dangerous as work has always been in America, labor activism and leadership are at least as dangerous, and also of course comprise dangers undertaken for the communal benefit of one’s fellow workers (in that job and everywhere). Karen Silkwood braved those dangers for all her colleagues, and her life and death alike reflect that reality as much as any other side of work and whistleblowing.

Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?

Monday, June 14, 2021

June 14, 2021: American Whistleblowers: Daniel Ellsberg

[June 13th marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of the Pentagon Papers, a controversial moment made possible by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Ellsberg and other whistleblowers, leading up to a weekend post on one of the true heroes of the Trump era.]

On three inspiring stages in a lifelong fight for transparency and truth.

1)      The Pentagon Papers: Ellsberg, an economist and analyst who had moved from a position at the RAND Corporation to work with the US Defense Department in the Johnson administration, is best known for his vital role in sharing and disseminating the classified Vietnam War-related documents that collectively became known as the Pentagon Papers, a role that put not only his freedom but also his health and life in jeopardy. As he put it when he surrendered himself to US Attorneys, I felt that as an American citizen, as a responsible citizen, I could no longer cooperate in concealing this information from the American public. I did this clearly at my own jeopardy and I am prepared to answer to all the consequences of this decision.” In my new book I call Alexander Vindman’s whistleblowing (on which more later in the week) an embodiment of critical patriotism, and I’m not sure there’s any such action that rises to that exemplary definition better than Ellsberg’s.

2)      21st Century Whistleblowers: Ellsberg’s Vietnam-era whistleblowing was due not only to his sense of the federal government’s missteps and lies, but also to his principled opposition to the Vietnam War itself. That anti-war activism has continued throughout Ellsberg’s life, most notably in his vocal opposition to the Iraq War and the similar governmental lies which precipitated that conflict. And while Ellsberg himself was no longer in a position to blow the whistle on that governmental misconduct, he has become one of the most potent advocates for those figures who have done so in this 21st century moment, including Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. Manning in particular has suffered extensive penalties, including a great deal of jail time, for both her whistleblowing and her refusal to testify against fellow whistleblowers, and Ellsberg has been one of her most consistent and vocal supporters throughout those struggles.

3)      The Doomsday Machine: Ellsberg has linked those 21st century efforts to a more overarching campaign for transparency and truth, as illustrated by his role in the 2012 founding of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. But he has also continued to embody those goals through his own voice and writing, most notably in his 2017 book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. In that book Ellsberg partly adds to the histories around the Pentagon Papers, making the case that it was in his role as a nuclear war planner that we began to truly understand the horrors of US military and foreign policy and the need for whistleblowers to make public those secret ideas. But he also notes that while the Cold War may have ended, the threat of nuclear war remains as present as ever, if not indeed more so due to the large and often relatively unsecure nuclear arsenals scattered around the world. Doomsday is a scary and important work, which could describe a great deal of Ellsberg’s contributions to our collective conversations for 50 years now.

Next WhistleblowerStudying tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other whistleblowers you’d highlight?