Author Archives: Nicolas Hoffmann

Five Thirty Eight – How We Categorize Tragedies Like Orlando

I know that this is unusual for what I usually post here, but this is an interesting article. Looking at the data of the media and why certain words are said is highly interesting to me. Whether it come from George Carlin or Norm Chomsky, it is interesting to look at euphemistic language as a way to identify the problems of political policy. However, what is important here is that the Five Thirty Eight group make an attempt to show that the use of different terms is vague and often done with great deliberate thought. Additionally, Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations is used here and aptly described as to why invoking him is so dangerous.

Orlando

The day after the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history, we discuss the many layers of tragedy, the political response, and how we categorize incidents like this.

Duck Amuck

downloadAfter sharing a couple bleak and dark things over the last couple posts, I thought I’d share something genuinely funny and lighthearted. Like many of you, I learned my classical music, movie tropes, and Opera from none other than Looney Tunes. However, in 1951, Chuck Jones took a step further.

In a moment of pure, absurdity and high-minded art Chuck Jones decided to take Daffy Duck into the realm of absurdism and Surrealism. With developing artists like Dali helping Alfred Hitchcock designed scenes, it seems that Looney Tunes may be the perfect venue to lampoon such things. As a kid I love this cartoon, but as an adult I am amazed by it. While still funny, it’s amazing how meta the humor is and how well it portrays the art form.

In 1994, it was voted the second-best cartoon of all time by the Animation Guild of America and was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry.

Looney Toons – Duck Amuck

Watch the video “Looney Toons – Duck Amuck” uploaded by JomJul on Dailymotion.

Top5s – Chernobyl Nuclear Disaster

Most of you out there know, at least if you’re smart enough to spend your time following a history blog, that most of the Internet is rife with BS passing itself off as fact. YouTube is simultaneously the best and the worst this. While the ability for it to upload countless hours of speeches, primary documents, and well thought out information makes it one of the most powerful resources for teachers and researchers alike, so much of it is conspiratorial and poorly thought out that it sickens me. Fake documentaries that update every time they are disproven, like Loose Change only encourage the kind of distrust that makes honest people seem like criminals. So when there is something that is well researched and well done on YouTube I hope to lot it so that it gets the credibility and encouragement it deserves.

One of the most terrifying things of the last half-century is a Chernobyl disaster. By mentioning nuclear power, I’m already going to mobilize several groups of people. This is not meant to be a screed against nuclear power, which with our current consumption needs is probably going to be part of the equation for years to come, it is also meant to show what can happen if such power goes unchecked and unregulated. However, as a teacher of the Cold War era is sometimes difficult to help kids get into the mindset of that era.

Top5s is a YouTube page that often deals with the macabre, who like Rob Dyke, generally focuses on how terrifying real life can be, however Top5s (whose name and identity are hidden, so I will refer to him only as Top5s), does the occasional documentary on real life events. In particular, his discussion of Chernobyl is particularly interesting and chilling.

Separation of Powers

One of the most important aspects of our Constitution is something that we all learned we were in elementary school, the separation of powers. Recently, in constitutional/presidential debates, several things have come up that make me think of this political structure.

Though there were many forms of mixed government going all the way back to Aristotle and even Polybius argued that Roman Republic was a mixed form of government, what we think of as multiple parts of government really is developed by first John Calvin, who develops the notion of a bipartite government between democracy and the aristocracy in the 16th century and is ultimately mirrored in the British tradition. However, if you had a good political science teacher in high school, you probably know that the true separation of powers is listed in our Constitution comes from the French nobleman Montesquieu.

In his book the Spirit of Laws, Montesquieu divides up all political power into three parts; executive, legislative, and judicial. In our country we make them slightly more complicated, mirroring other facets of the world at the time. While we do have the executive (the president and cabinet), the Congress mirrors English Parliament by being bicameral with a House of Representatives and the Senate, and the federal court systems with the Supreme Court at the top. We even make it more complicated with our tiered federal system which we call federalism; which gives power to the states and local governments individually. Though much more complicated than I have time to get into here, though if you are Presbyterian you may recognize the structures within structures (this is not coincidental), this mirrors the complexities of social and religious governments in Europe. While within a nation there were monarchs, there was also the religious monarch of the papacy that ruled over most of Europe, and include Protestant nations the monarch was also often the religious head.

However, all this is a step up/challenged by the old separation of powers. Looking at the oft repeated example of the French Revolution, the monarchy was against the old separation of powers, monarch, people, Army. In most traditional governments, was impossible to separate the monarchs from any other branch. They had the powers of executor, legislator, and judge. The only real check was the idea that the military could overthrow them, often placing a new king on the throne. By the French revolution, the third group made itself known. Destroying the bonds of feudalism, the people rose up and overthrew the government, splitting the military and mostly standing on their own.

In many Third World nations, the military is the branch that is the decider. When a king or ‘president’ is too powerful and the people threatened to rise up, it is the military that steps in and deposes the leader, so that people don’t gain too much power.  The reason this came up to me, or that there are several news articles recently on both the left and the right that are talking about the military in regards to presidential candidate Donald Trump. Articles on both the left  and the right are threatening that the military and intelligence sectors could well ignore Trump is elected. In an election year in which the people were so mobilized, it makes one wonder if the old separation of powers may rear its head again.

 

How to Interpret a “Smoking Gun”

Default.aspx_At one point, I will get into the complexity and self-terminating nature of the phrase “conspiracy theory,” but suffice to say these are the things that both intrigue me and get under my skin. In the nature of calling something a “conspiracy theory” the natural motivation, of course, is to ignore it. The problem is that by definition there is nothing inherently crazy about the concept of a conspiracy, it just means that a group has gotten together and planned something. We, in fact, know of several conspiracies that were true and some uncomfortably so, from the Catiline in ancient Rome to the Business Plot of the 1930s. Additionally, there is something terrifying  about the notion that everyone is out to get you. I will get into conspiratorial thinking in another post, but for the time being, there I want to address a specific theory I have heard many times before and is making the rounds again; the Death of Adolf Hitler.

While most people, thankfully, believe the horrors that the Nazis committed under Hitler, Himmler, and Goebbels actually happened, the nature of his end is frustrating to many. Dying by his own hand and getting no catharsis of seeing the body seems disproportionate with the crimes of the madman. This is made all the worse by the circus that the Nuremberg trials became.  Further, as Elie Wiesel searched for Nazis and found many escaped among the boys from Brazil and Argentina, questions began to arise about the true nature of Hitler’s end.

The official account about Hitler’s murder/co-suicide of his wife Eva Braun, the immolation of the bodies, the Soviet ransack and the decimation of the Furherbunker were all part of the official report and book written and painstakingly researched by Hugh Trevor-Roper in The Last Days of Hitler (1947) who was working for British Military Intelligence.  These claims were agreed to by the Soviets whose SMERSH claimed several trophies, including skull fragments.

However, panic sweeps through when documents such as the one above. If you read it at a glance, as those who maintain the anonymous blog did, you may think that this is evidence that Hitler escaped aboard a submarine and landed in Argentina, as many Hitler escaping theories contain. The document at hand seems to be one of those smoking guns.

According to the redacted copy in front of us, a man who met an FBI official in a restaurant in LA in September 1945. The man claimed to have helped six Argentine officials hide Hitler in the southern Andes mountains. To add to the mystery, the FBI asked for a followup meeting, but the man never returned and there were no police records or INS records. Spooooky. Maybe they got to them first! However, this would require both belief in this man.

There are some assumptions that I want you to drop. First, that just because this is an actual FBI document, that what it is documenting is real. This was right after the war, everything was written down and followed up on. We had been losing the war on intelligence, we didn’t want that to happen again. This does not mean the events were true. If you go to the FBI and claim you saw Elvis or that the the Bush family are Reptilians, they write it down. They may follow up, but that does not mean it is true. Most likely, the man got in too deep and backed out using a fake name. There is nothing more. Hitler died in the bunker, no matter how unsatisfying that was, but that is that.

Planet Money – Episode 693: Unpayable

For those of you who don’t know, Planet Money is an amazing podcast on economics that is a spin-off of the juggernaut that is This American Life. For those of you who further don’t know, economists and historians don’t always get along. Generally, this boils down to two things quantification and motivation. In economics, with the possible exception of behavioral economics, people are thought of as homo-economicus. This means that people act via incentive and economic (financial) motivation or given knowledge people will act in their economic self-interest at all times. Historians (again, generalizing) acknowledge more passionate, social, and societal reasons for action. The second issue of quantification is more tricky, Historians like to find stories and movements, but often have to conflate impact. Economists deal in terms (especially in macroeconomics, but in micro as well) in trends and bigger spaces (more generalizations, but not in necessarily a negative way). Finally, historians look to the past and make linkages to the present, economists look at trends and try to predict the future.

I find that I use economics as a tool in my historical tool belt often, student seem to relate to it to an extent. However, I think it is interesting when current events take over. Planet Money is really good at linking past to present and in this case they are quite good. While Congress is waffling (at least upon writing this) and conservatives are digging in, this podcast does a good job explaining why Puerto Rico is in the financial crisis it is in and what comes next.

Commencement Address

Recently, I was asked to give the Commencement Address at the first school I taught, Oak Mountain Academy. Luckily for me, the speech went over well, but printed below is the speech I wrote. Now, those who know me know that this speech is about 85% of what I said, but here it is, enjoy.

 

My name is Nic Hoffmann and I used to teach here at Oak Mountain. I know that sounds very 12 Step, but you know, I left about two years ago and it’s always wonderful to be back on the Mountain and doing so, I want to make sure that I claimed my credentials. I would like to thank Paula and the Board for welcoming me, the students for inviting me, and Michael for introducing me, that introduction was so kind, it is like I wrote it.

I don’t know about my other teacher friends out there, but I’ve often thought about what I would say if given the opportunity to give a graduation address. It is a challenge each time and it is not one I take on lightly. I am used to speaking in public in lectures and before students, but that is building relationships, this is one shot. Though the students are too excited to pay attention, and the parents are trying to get pictures, I know that my former boss is paying close attention. However, it is a challenge because it is to not just one year I am summing up or words of wisdom I am generically trying to impart. It is years of knowing the students. Lecturing to classes of more than 100 college students, you hardly get to know any students and I will most likely never teach them again. However, at Oak Mountain you get to teach on the same students over and over again and before that, they filter up from the elementary school and middle school where they begin to have a legend of who you actually are. There is a weird amount of pressure that seems to be put on us. Perhaps it’s the intimate setting of the small classes and the proximity of teachers and students that is almost unheard of anywhere else.  Perhaps more than that, it’s also a simple kind of connection that we all have to this this place.

The students, many of which have been together since middle school if not earlier, are attached in a way that’s kind of interesting.  There is a created environment on the Mountain that allows them to do the kind of learning and growing that makes the Oak Mountain experience a unique experience. It seems like students have lived in this world for so long now that this is almost like a family reunion much more than it is a graduation.

While leaving the Mountain presents some challenges, and going to college can be scary, it is important to note that while we protected you here, we have given you the tools needed to succeed. Now, I know that these tools are difficult to quantify; when you think of an English, Science, Math, or Social Studies, you don’t necessarily think of real-world experience. Additionally, even on this faculty I know there were people who knew they wanted to be teachers all along and those that found teaching along the way. In my own CV, which is what pretentious people call their resume, I have teacher, lecturer, and conference speaker, the kind of things you would expect of a teacher, but while doing my graduate work I added consultant podcaster and book reseller dealing with large auctions to that list.

The tools I am referring to are twofold. First, you have to be willing to try things and to adapt. The fact that podcasting didn’t exist really a decade ago may make it seem novel, but now it is a multibillion dollar industry and I am soliciting grant money for it. Several teachers here had other professions first or will leave teach. Similarly, the career that most of you will do in the next five to ten years may not even exist yet and you will most likely change jobs more than once. Even if you are a professional like a doctor, lawyer, professor, or reverend, (one of those careers with letters after their name), you will most likely have a specialty or training that is only in its infancy now.

With all of this, you may wonder why learn all the miscellany anyway. Clearly, the universities have become extremely focused as well, stripping out the liberal arts classes that make the students beg the question “when will I ever use this.” I understand this frustration. However, this should be an opportunity. It is now nearly impossible to learn what you need in your career from university education, it is only to get you started.  If you are an MD, you might be a specialist as a doctor in a field that didn’t exist when you started med school you and will definitely get be using medicines and techniques that were developed after when your textbooks were printed, every case in law could set a precedent that can change how you practice, and your first business might be the kind that your business school professor may have never even have conceived of.

I teach history because I see it as the lynchpin; the thing that holds the world and all knowledge together. However, when I teach it, what I want students to take away, other than Hoffmann is a really bad drawer and watch where you stop to ask for directions, it may start a world war, is that there is rarely a correct answer. History is gray area. When I was an undergrad, I had a microbiology professor who like to say there is no black and white in science, it’s all gray area, a 5 to 4 decision. Which in some ways is terrifying, because this is medicine and he’s the doctor, he’s the one is supposed to be treating me as a patient, I want him sure. However, think about it. You have four symptoms, it could be a common cold or, according to WebMD, it could be cancer. Five to Four. Now I realize that even some of the dates, facts, and figures that textbooks so love are wrong; if anyone states they can give you a precise, black or white, yes or no answer in most real situations, they are most likely not telling you the whole truth.

When I’m lecturing, and it doesn’t matter if it was in high school or in college, the most frustrating thing to me is people are so sure on something, generally, of course, that means that they are sure that I’m wrong. So sure, in fact, that they’re not even willing to look at other evidence. That is the second tool you hopefully learned to take to college, be willing to learn.

One of my favorite classes and, of course least favorite depending on the material, always was literature courses. I loved them and I hated them simultaneously, because you know you could hit me over the head with the Aeneid and that would be the closest I would get to understanding it, but there are those emotional cues and emotional moments that make me have a connection. It doesn’t matter if it’s Huck Finn realizing he can’t turn in Jim, or Biff understanding why Willie had to kill himself in Death of a Salesman, and whether or not Hamlet goes crazy or is just acting, it is these big emotional moments that we were asked to feel and interpret. Most English teachers I ever had hated multiple choice, they wanted us to explain and understand. They may have been the only ones laughing at Candide or Tartuffe, but we were expected to understand why.  It is this tool that we are challenged with the most in everyday life. Yes, math helps me every day, but in English we were encouraged to interpret. I fear that people assume with other things there should not be such interpretation.

In my mind, academic history is this nebulous thing with tweed and suede patches. They studied ancient Greece, Rome, and Persia. My studying of American History comparably is civics. Why things a century ago affect the current election, why the poor stay poor, and what does it mean to be a Democrat or a Republican. If these were documents in an English class there would be discussion and debate, but in real life people treat such things as black and white. Further, there are probably books that you have read and reread, each time getting something new out of them. In high school and college, there seemed to be some books I never could get away from. However, for some reason, if someone learned a simplified fact in an elementary or middle school textbook, they seem to think such things never change. I sometimes wish my dissertation could be translating a wallet sized piece of parchment and call it a day, because everything in American history becomes political and people seem to not like challenges. I know that if I construct my narrative out of thousands of pages of Civil War letters, diaries and orders, someone else can look at the same materials and come up with a completely different conclusion and I would have to engage them and I accept the challenge. So my call to you, of course, is to challenge as well.

I know that generally, people get told to follow your passions. Which is fine advice and necessary to fulfill the ever important 10,000 hours of deliberate practice so important to Malcolm Gladwell and Anders Ericsson’s idea of expertise. However, more important than that is be willing to learn and apply that learning. Going to most universities, you will need to take you basic 101s again, the same liberal art classes you took in high school; a math or two, a science here, a social studies course there, and an English. This is to replace the classical education we no longer deem super necessary, but for whom the term Academy is named (after Plato’s famous one).

The idea of taking these classes was always to teach people to question, to learn by surrounding them with the all-important knowledge that would allow them to be the critical thinkers that lead the world. When you leave here and even when you leave college, I will acknowledge that it may never come up that Chester Arthur became president after James Garfield (who hated Mondays), was assassinated, that his doctors most likely killed him, or that his assassin Charles Guiteau was kicked out of a sex cult three times. However, it does matter you will now look up that fact.

We are surrounded by people who state things as though they are facts that aren’t fact, opinions like they are facts that are also not facts, and call the people who fact check them liars. This is not discourse. It doesn’t matter whether you love or hate Ronald Reagan, think that Andrew Jackson or Harriet Tubman belongs on the front of the $20 bill, or politically identify as Democrat or Republican. Your job is to actually learn what that means.

Throughout this nation’s long and often delicate history, the most important question was who is American. The answer has changed over time, with racial components, gender components, and class components all boiling down to who deserves to call themselves one of us. In the end, we decided that the best way to make people we deem Americans, Americans was with education. Slowly, over time, we decided what was needed to learn to be a good citizen. This may seem either archaic or conspiratorial, but you can see it when you look at the news and apply for college. SAT, ACT, AP Exams, Graduation Exams, Common Core, none of which are designed to make you think, they are designed to make you memorize. Teaching to the test has become a mantra. In fact, as a state Georgia was doing so bad on the exams, we stopped taking them, but there are still end of course exams in eight fields. The idea was to guarantee you had the knowledge to become a good citizen in black and white. Your parents, at this point, may be the ones nodding. The world of graduation exams is one most of you never really knew. They put you in a place like Oak Mountain to avoid such things, that is your special advantage.

You are now entering a world where your ability to think critically is key and it is what will make you a star. You will be celebrated for challenging and seeking. You have the opportunity to be an expert learner and put in your 10,000 hours of study and learning. It is not just for those in liberal art fields; it is in engineering and law, medicine and business, science and math, all people who challenge and think creatively and critically of results. Even the sciences need more of a critical eye and meta-analysis.  If you can tell me if dark chocolate and red wine are good or bad for me, I will give you tenure. It is not just media reporting on science that is contradictory, it is textbooks that are decades out of date before they print, politicians and economists saying things they believe, with numbers to prove it that are utterly out of sync, and people expecting what they tell you never to be questioned. However, that is their job. It is up to you to educate yourselves. It doesn’t matter if you learned your history from me, Mr. Louttit, Mr. Tuttle, a lecture hall professor or John Green on Crash Course; you have to be willing to think critically about all of it.

In the end, it is important that all of us are willing to do this. As students, your job is to learn as much as possible, to engage and grow. Even as academics, we learn and we listen. I recently took my PhD exams. After reading 200 books, writing 53 pages over three eight hour days, the first thing said in my two hours long oral defense was, “now, Mr. Hoffmann, that is not how I would have interpreted it.” Don’t worry, I passed, but the struggle is what made it feel worth it. As you go forward, make sure you are willing to challenge and to learn so that you feel like you have earned it too. Thank you.

 

GAH on Air

Thanks to the support of David Parker, Dudeletter Podcasting (my podcasting arm) was a part of this year’s Georgia Association of Historians annual conference. While there, I interviewed Ben Parten and talked about his paper on The Confessions of Nat Turner. This project will expand over time, but the first episode is up on the Georgia Association of Historians website. 

Enjoy,

Nic

 

The Atomic Cafe (1982)

The Atomic Cafe is an amazing documentary like no other. Made by Jayne Loader, Kevin Rafferty and Pierce Rafferty, it takes footage from Defense Department propaganda, declassified military footage, news reports, and commercial entertainments/ads to show the scope and terror of the Atomic Age. At the moment, it is up in full on Vimeo. I have shown this to both High School and College Students. It is scary, funny, and overall enjoyable. Watch it while it is still free!

 

The Atomic Cafe from koba on Vimeo.

Donald Duck in Der Fuehrer’s Face

Like most humanities teachers know, when writing and designing lessons, it is best to relate to the *-shudder-* humanity. Therefore, it is often not a bad idea to introduce culture. While the 1960’s have been the center of such cultural education for years because of incredible music and graphic imagery. Other eras work well too. Having taught at both the high school and university level, I have found that cartoons, especially funny ones stick.

When teaching World War II, I come across a standard conundrum. On one hand, yes, thanks to movies, video games, and other culture (including a fairly consistent historical message from elementary through college of the horrors of the Holocaust) most people know how bad the Nazi’s are. However, like most history, this is myopic. I am not saying that the Nazi’s aren’t evil, they were, but this fails to address some of the complexities of the question.

For example, yes the Nazi’s and Hitler were in charge of Germany at the time, but why the branding of Nazis? Were the Germans on board? How does someone like Hitler come to power and stay there when Mussolini fell and was killed by Italians? A lot of this comes from post-War remembering and rewriting. At the time, though there was an attempt to recreate the War in terms of Race.

While the racial “inferiority” of the Japanese was understood to Americans and the “swarthiness” of Italians was untrustworthy, the Germans had been accepted into culture with the notable exception of World War I. Therefore, when World War II came, racial epithets about the Japanese can be seen in highly racialized cartoons like the Warner Brothers Looney Toons short Tokio Jokio or Tokio Woes. However, the Germans were more difficult. While Warner Brothers slotted a dopey German into an Elmer Fudd role in a Bugs Bunny cartoon in Hare Meets Herr, the real star is Der Fuhrer’s Face. While both play with the cult of personality around Hitler, Der Fuhrer’s Face has it in spades.

Originally called Donald in Nutziland, Donald Duck wakes up in Nazi Germany in this hilarious and Academy Award winning short in 1943. Leonard Maltin introduces Der Fuhrer’s Face.