Syllabus Fall 2019: History of Now, advanced seminar


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History 600: The History of Now

Professor Patrick Iber


History is the study of change over time, and requires hindsight to generate insight. Most history courses stop short of the present, and historians are frequently wary of applying historical analysis to our own times, before we have access to private sources and before we have the critical distance that helps us see what matters and what is ephemeral. But recent years have given many people the sense of living through historic times, and clamoring for historical context that will help them to understand the momentous changes in politics, society and culture that they observe around them. This experimental course seeks to explore the last twenty years or so from a historical point of view, using the historian’s craft to gain perspective on the present.


The course will consider major developments—primarily but not exclusively in U.S. history—of the last twenty years, including 9/11 and the War on Terror, the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, and political and cultural changes on the right and the left that have been created and shaped by those events. We will practice looking at current events and developing the research skills to place them in historical context. We will practice reading the world around us as a primary source. We will explore the promise and limits of historical analogy. And we will work to understand ourselves as actors in history, shaped by our own historical context. Finally, we will look forward, to try to think about what the future may find significant about our own time.


The final project of this course is a major research paper involving primary sources. Students will choose something important from their lifetime and explain its background and historical development. Graduate students will also write a short version of the longer essay to present your findings to a larger audience, as if you were writing for a newspaper or magazine. There are weekly readings and short writing assignments in the first half of the semester.


I would like to acknowledge the contributions of Marlana Margaria, Peter Shulman, Kathleen Belew, Margaret O’Mara, and Seth Cotlar, who have all contributed ideas that have improved this syllabus. All decisions about what to include are my own. This 3-credit course has 3 hours of group meetings per week.  The course also carries the expectation that you will spend an average of at least 2 hours outside of class for every hour in the classroom. In other words, in addition to class time, plan to allot an average of at least 6 hours per week for reading, writing, and preparing for discussions for this class.



Week 1, September 10: The History of Now

What is “The History of Now”?

What authority do historians have to talk about the present?




Additional resources:

If you’re looking for podcasts connecting history to the present:


Nicole Hemmer also edits the “Made by History” vertical at the Washington Post, which posts daily analysis by historians that address issues in the news:


If you’re looking for a general summary of recent U.S. history with an eye on the present, Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer’s Fault Linesis a great place to go. It is based on their course “U.S. History since 1974.”



Week 2, September 17: War on Terror


The writing assignment this week focuses on asking historical questions. Look at a major newspaper and choose a story that you think is significant. What kinds of historical questions could you ask about that event? How could we set this event in historical context? There are always multiple historical contexts that could fit. Generate five questions in at least three of the areas of political, social, economic, intellectual, and cultural history. (Bonus non-points if you can think of one in each of the categories.) Once you have identified those questions, write one paragraph about the one you personally find most interesting. How would you begin to go about researching it? Identify one book, one journal article, and one database that might help you get started. 250-500 words.




  • Mary Dudziak, “What is a War on Terror?” from War•Time: An Idea, Its History, Its Consequences(New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 95-132.


  • Melvyn P. Leffler, “Bush’s Foreign Policy,” Foreign Policy 144 (Sep. – Oct. 2004), pp. 22-24+26-28.


  • Melvyn P. Leffler, “The Foreign Policies of the George W. Bush Administration: Memoirs, History, Legacy,” Diplomatic History37, no. 2 (2013): 190-216.


  • John Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor | Hiroshima | 9-11 | Iraq(New York: Norton, 2010), pp. 62-94; 394-436.


  • Andrew McKevitt, “Watching the War made us Immune: The Popular Culture of the Wars,” from Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Beth Bailey and Richard Immerman, 238-258.




Additional resources have been included in the event that you get absorbed by this week’s topic and would like to explore it further. They are not required and you can pick and choose among what interests you.


  • After 9/11, it was far from immediately clear what had happened. The 9/11 Commission Report provided the results of the investigation of the Congressional committee set up to investigate. This is the graphic version: Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colón, The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation(New York: Hill and Wang, 2006).
  • The National Security Archive has worked to declassify government records relating to U.S. policy in Iraq; here, the results of this work are presented
  • A good short interpretation: Terry Anderson, “9/11: Bush’s response,” from Understanding the U.S. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, edited by Beth Bailey and Richard Immerman, 54-74 (and the rest of the volume).
  • A historian of the Philippines looks back the use of torture during the U.S. effort to put down the Philippine insurgency after 1898: Paul Kramer, “The Water Cure: Debating Torture and Counterinsurgency—A Century Ago,” The New Yorker, February 25, 2008,
  • Lawrence Wright, The Looming Tower: Al-Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, (New York: Vintage, 2007).
  • Veteran and conservative Andrew Bacevich has been on a long journey to understand U.S. foreign policy, and it has led to interesting places: Andrew J. Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East(New York: Random House, 2016).
  • Susan Faludi, The Terror Dream: Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007)
  • Journalists on the ground of the early years in Iraq: Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Imperial Life in the Emerald City(New York: Vintage, 2007); George Packer, The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq(New York: FSG, 2006); Thomas E. Ricks, Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005(New York: Penguin, 2007); Dexter Filkins, The Forever War(New York: Vintage, 2008).
  • Journalists on Afghanistan: before 9/11, Ahmed Rashid was one of the few paying attention. After 9/11, his book became almost required reading. Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000). Steve Coll won the Pulitzer Prize for his book, which looked at the longer history of CIA involvement in Afghanistan: Steve Coll, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001(New York: Penguin, 2004). Anand Gopal tried to understand the war from the Afghan point of view: Anand Gopal, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War through Afghan Eyes(New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014)
  • Several documentaries: a profile of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld: Errol Morris,The Unknown Knowns (2013); examinations of the use of torture: Errol Morris, Standard Operating Procedure (2008), Alex Gibney, Taxi to the Dark Side (2008); a look at the early years of the occupation of Iraq: Charles Ferguson, No End in Sight (2007), Bush’s War (Frontline):







Week 3, September 24: The Financial Crisis


Writing assignment this week: All of us are potential subjects for future historical study. In 50 or 500 years someone could stumble across your diary and use it to try and understand the world and time you lived in. What would your story say? What could someone learn from it? For class, prepare your own autobiography. How would you explain your life to another person? How would you explain how you have arrived at your current self? You may include whatever details and events that you wish in your account. There is no list of things you must include. Simply focus on what you feel is important for people to know about you. You can use first or third-person point of view in your writing, and may conduct oral history interviews of relatives if you like. 500-750 words.


Course materials this week



  • Eric Rauchway, “Neither a Depression nor a New Deal: Bailout, Stimulus, and the Economy,” pp. 30-44 in The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).







Additional resources:

  • Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World
  • Jennifer Taub, Other People’s Houses: How Decades of Bailouts, Captive Regulators, and Toxic Bankers Made Home Mortgages a Thrilling Business, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014).
  • Louis Hyman, Borrow: The American Way of Debt
  • Louis Hyman, Temp
  • An economist compares the Great Recession and the Great Depression: Barry Eichengreen, Hall of Mirrors
  • South Park, season 13 episode 3, March 25, 2009, “Margaritaville,” clip
  • A Marxist perspective on the underlying causes of the crisis: Robert Brenner, “What is good for Goldman Sachs is Good for the Country,” (2009),
  • An economist who looks at the broader picture of intra- and inter-national inequality: Branko Milanovic, The Haves and the Have-nots
  • Without using the word, a vibrant narrative history of American neoliberalism, though the lens of a chicken plant fire: Bryant Simon, The Hamlet Fire
  • A classic article from the Great Recession, full of typical rhetorical flourish/excess: Matt Taibbi, “Great American Bubble Machine,”
  • The surprise bestseller that many own and few have read is an economist’s look at historical shifts in inequality, and a warning that inequality does not fall of its own accord: Thomas Piketty, Capital in the 21stCentury (Cambridge: Harvard University Press,
  • Raghuram Rajan, Fault Lines: How Hidden Fractures Still Threaten the World Economy
  • The readable and award-winning book, turned into a film by Adam McKay, that tries to explain the financial crisis from the perspective of the people who made a huge amount of money correctly betting that the market was set up for a fall: Michael Lewis, The Big Short, (New York: Norton, 2010).
  • Martin Wolf, The Shifts and the Shocks: How the Financial Crisis has Changed Our Future
  • Bethany McLean and Jospeh Nocera, All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis
  • A documentary about the family of a Florida real-estate magnate trying to build an 85,000 square foot home when the bottom drops out of the real estate market: Lauren Greenfield, The Queen of Versailles(2012)




Week 4, October 1: Transformations in Right-wing Politics


Writing assignment: this week we want to practice reading the world around us as a primary source, the way that a historian reads the sources of the past. When we read, watch, or listen to something from the past, we try to learn as much about it as possible. First, and most obviously: what does it say? But also: what does it notsay? What is the purpose of the document? What do we know about its author? What do we know about its audience? What kind of perspective does it represent? What kind of language does it use? What kind of feelings does it try to generate? What does it tell us about the time in which it was produced?


All of these questions can be asked about contemporary sources just as they can be asked as the products of the past. The world is full of primary sources: music videos, newspaper articles, advertisements, tweets, books, movies, houses, your uncle at Thanksgiving, consumer goods. All of these can be “read” with the right frame of mind and the right training.


This week I want you to spend an hour looking at a right-wing news or opinion source. This could be an hour of television: Fox News, for example. It could be a talk radio show. Or you spend time on a web site, like Breitbart, or the more intellectual National Review, or the libertarian Reasonmagazine, Quilette, a YouTube channel like PraegerU, or something else that interests you. After you’ve spent an hour watching, reading, or listening, analyze it like a primary source. Consider the totality of the publication: what do its ads tell you about its audience? What do its messages tell you about their authors? What does it care about? What does it not care about? What kind of worldview underlies its project? What marks this as a product of its time, and what does it tell us about the political right at this time? In a couple of weeks we will do the same exercise for left-wing sources. You don’t have to answer all of the questions, just the ones that make sense in context. 500 words, approximately.


Reading this week:


  • Nicole Hemmer, Chapter 12 from Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics, pp. 252-276.


  • Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin, “The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism,” Perspectives on Politics9, no. 1 (March 2011).


  • Documentary:Alt-right: Days of Ragedocumentary, Netflix





Additional resources



Week 5, October 8: Trends in Modern Politics


Writing assignment: The political rise of the guy with a cameo in Home Alone 2: Lost in New Yorkto the most powerful position in the world has caused an almost unprecedented boom in the demand for historical study that can help us understand what we are living through. Analogies have been found in abundance: there are comparisons to Adolf Hitler, to Benito Mussolini, to Juan Domingo Perón. Others have pushed back, saying that the analogies do not hold together or that looking outside of the U.S. for comparison does not enlighten but obscures, and that what we really need to understand is not “populism” or “fascism” but America’s own political and racial history. Those who take this point of view, whether from critical or admiring perspectives, look for other analogies: Andrew Jackson, George Wallace, Richard Nixon.

For this writing assignment, the goal is notfor you to make a case for one particular analogy over another. I want you to find at least two pieces that do make a comparison of the 45thpresident with some other figure in history. One should make the case for similarity, while the other should make the case for dissimilaritywith the same figure. Write a short paper analyzing the historical reasoningbehind each argument. What is the basis for comparison? Are the authors considering personality, political positions, political style (including the use of media), the nature and demographics of the political movement in support, the economic conditions shaping public opinion, social changes establishing the potential for backlash, and so on? How do the case for and the case against the comparison differ in the logics that they use? Please write 500-750 words.






  • Dylan Riley, “What is Trump?” New Left Review114 (November-December 2018): 5-31.


  • Federico Finchelstein, From Fascism to Populism in History, pp. 1-30, 247-256.


Additional resources



Week 6, October 15: Transformations in Left-wing Politics


Writing assignment: two weeks ago we spent time reading right-wing news as a primary source. This week I want you to do the same exercise, but with a left-wing source. Please find something that is really on the left, not just center-left. If you want to watch an hour of MSNBC, that’s fine, but if you do so then you should also listen to this critique of MSNBC from the left ( If you want a video source, you might watch Democracy Now; you could listen to an episode of the “dirtbag left” podcast Chapo Trap House, the more staid Left Anchor, a YouTube channel like ContraPoints, or you could spend time with one of the many left-wing magazines that dot the landscape: Jacobin, Dissent, The Baffler, n+1, In These Times,or Current Affairs. Then analyze it as a primary source, asking the same kinds of questions that we did two weeks ago. Once again, approximately 500 words.


Reading this week:


  • Eric Foner, “Why is there no socialism in the United States?” History Workshop 17 (Spring 1984): 57-80.


  • Michael Kazin, “Criticize and Thrive: The American Left in the Obama Years,” pp. 246-260 in The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.



  • Peniel Joseph, “Barack Obama and the Movement for Black Lives,” pp. 127-143 in The Presidency of Barack Obama: A First Historical Assessment(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018.


  • Rachel Lears, Knock Down the House (documentary, Netflix, 2019)






Additional resources






Week 7, October 22: Monuments and Memory


Writing assignment: It is time to start thinking about your final project. This week, write a brief proposal about the topic that you would like to examine in greater depth. Describe the area you wish to study, the major question that you will try to answer with your research, how you will be situating your topic in history, and the primary sources and secondary sources that you will use. For the topic to be viable, there must be a clearly defined set of primary sources—an archive—even if your archive is online or cobbled together creatively. 500 words.
This week’s reading has to do with monuments and historical memory. Weather permitting, we may be meeting outside this week.


  • Sanford Levinson, “Polarization, Identity Politics, and Political Memorialization,” in Written in Stone, pp. 125-202


  • Karen Cox, “Confederate Defeat and Cultural Expressions of Memory, 1877-1940” in J. Macleod (ed.), Defeat and Memory: Cultural Histories of Military Defeat in the Modern Era(London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), pp. 175-194.



  • Another reading TBA






Additional resources:


  • The Confederate monuments syllabus, compiled by historian Kevin M. Levin, is incredibly comprehensive, including references to books, articles, and resources of many different types
  • Podcast: “The Worst Thing We’ve Ever Done,” On the Media, June 1, 2018,
  • “Graven Image,” short film by Sierra Pettengill about Stone Mountain, Georgia,
  • A National Book Award winner: Ibram Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, 2016
  • An old book looking at the structure of textbook markets and other reasons that certain things are taught (while others are occluded) through American public education: James Loewen, Lies my Teacher Told Me
  • A follow-up to Lies my Teacher Told Me looking at the lies told by historical monuments across the U.S.: James Loewen, Lies Across America: What our Historic Sites Get Wrong (New York: New Press, 1999).
  • The curriculum wars of decades past: Elizabeth McRae, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Karen Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South was Created in American Popular Culture, Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2011. (And many other works by the same author.)
  • Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech addressing removal of Confederate statues, 2017,





Week 8, October 29: The Past in the Present – Thinking about the Long Now


Writing assignment: This final reflection is a bit different. This week, we want to consider the historical specificity of our own times. To do that, I want you to go back and consider a piece of culture (in the broad sense) from your life. For this week, revisit a culture object from your teenage years (e.g. a movie, play, clothing trend, dance craze, song, piece of art, toy, etc.).  What values does it express? Whose values? What conditions made possible its creation, distribution, and consumption? Does this artifact tell the story of an individual, sub-group, or population? Does this piece of culture represent a continuation of, break with, or reconfiguration of longer historical and cultural trends? What marks it as belonging to a specific point in time? What does it tell us about the society that produced it? What assumptions does it make about the audience? What does it take for granted? What I am asking you to do here is to try to historicize something very recent, and in the process to understand your own historical perspective. Approximately 500 words. (This article may be helpful:


Then, for the readings, we are going to think about the present from the point of view of the long past, and our potential future:





Additional resources:


  • Bill McKibben, “The End of Nature” New Yorker(September 11, 1989),
  • A consideration of the ways in which the structure of energy markets has shaped our politics—coal required human power and was vulnerable to strikes, making democracy possible, while oil production is capital-intensive, favoring authoritarianism: Timothy Mitchell, Carbon Democracy: Political Power in the Age of Oil(London: Verso, 2011).
  • A distinguished environmental historian breaks down the category of “wilderness” from an historical lens: William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1995), 69-90. A book-length model of how to think about the environment as a historian: William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West, New York: Norton, 1992.
  • Richard Rhodes, Energy
  • The annotated version of the Benjamin Wallace-Wells article that became The Uninhabitable Earth,
  • Joshua P. Howe and Paul S. Sutter (eds.), Making Climate Change History: Documents from Global Warming’s Past
  • A history of the scientists who described global warming and how they reached their conclusions: Spencer Weart, The Discovery of Global Warmingand a website that supplements the text
  • Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
  • Elizabeth Kolbert, Field Notes from a Catastrophe, Bloomsbury USA, 2007.
  • Documentary: Frontline, Climate of Doubt(2012), transcript:
  • Nathaniel Rich, Losing Earth: A Recent History, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019, and online interactive feature:
  • Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century (Princeton, 2017). An argument from a classicist that there are four things that have historically reduced inequality: war, revolution, state collapse, and disease.





Additional topics that the class may decide to prioritize over one of those listed above:




Immigration and The Border


  • Óscar Martínez, A History of Violence, especially “Our Bottomless Well,” 95-107, “The Tamed Coyotes,” 191-210 and “Men Who Sell Women,” 211-236
  • Óscar Martínez, The Beast
  • Sonja Wolf, “Mara Salvatrucha: The Most Dangerous Street Gang in the Americas?,” Latin American Politics and Society 54, no. 1 (Spring 2012): 65-99.
  • Greg Grandin, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America; and an excerpt of Grandin’s manuscript
  • Valeria Luiselli, Tell Me How it Ends
  • Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects
  • Sam Quinones, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic
  • Miguel Levario, Militarizing the Border: When Mexicans Became the Enemy
  • Kelly Lytle Hernández, Migra! A History of the U.S. Border Patrol


The Internet



Week 9, November 5: Paper research
Week 10, November 12: Paper research


Week 11, November 19: Paper research

Week 12, November 26: Paper research [Thanksgiving week]


Week 13, December 3: Paper draft due.


Week 14, December 10: Paper revisions; meetings with instructor about grades.


Grades in this course will be based on 13% participation, 68% final paper, and 19% preparatory work and assignments. Commitment, engagement, and self-assessment and -reflection will be noted. You must meet with the instructor about your grade at the end of the semester.


Final paper due. December 19 is last day of semester.









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