My Conversation with Jill Lepore

by on June 14, 2017 at 7:57 am in Books, Current Affairs, Education, Film, History, Philosophy, Political Science, Religion, Television, The Arts, Travel, Uncategorized | Permalink

Here is the transcript and podcast (no video).  Jill and I discuss Mary Pickford, Dickens in America, why the early United States did not blossom culturally, Steve Bannon as a character from a 19th century painting, what the Tea Party got wrong and right, H.G. Wells, her working class background, Doctor Who and Gilligan’s Island, Elizabeth Bishop, what Americans don’t like about New England, Stuart Little, how she got her start as a secretary at HBS, and many other topics.  Highly intelligent throughout, though note it is not easy to excerpt.  Here is one good bit:

COWEN: You’ve argued at times that people overestimate the connectedness of the present with the American past. It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested, but it’s indeed stranger in some sense. If we could undo those mistaken intuitions about, “Oh this is like the 1960s” or “This is like Andrew Jackson,” whatever the analogy may be, what’s a concrete example of how that could improve our understanding of the current world?

LEPORE: I like to think about it in a different structural way. That completely understandable desire to find a historical analogy is just like to take an accordion and compress it.

COWEN: Yes.

LEPORE: They make then just like now. So, “Oh I know, Trump is just like Andrew Jackson. It’s the same move. He’s appealing to the people. He’s unwilling to enforce the rulings of the Supreme Court. He’s overriding Congress in order to get the mandate.” Whatever it is that you want to say about those two people. And that seems to me really quite kooky.

A different move that I find much more edifying and historically defensible is to pull open the accordion and stretch it open as far as you can, so you can see the distance between now and Andrew Jackson, the distance between Trump and Jackson, and try to understand what happened between those two characters and those two presidencies that helps us to see transformation. It’s a little bit like some of the controversy over how to interpret the Constitution. Because originalism, to me, is like squishing that accordion all the way together. “What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.

In 1987, when it was the 200th anniversary of the Constitutional Convention, there was a lot of hoopla. It was right after the Robert Bork nomination, and then originalism was very much the priority of the Reagan justice department under Edwin Meese, and there’s a lot of conversation about the filial piety of a bicentennial. And this is an exciting thing to think about, that 200th anniversary of the Constitution.

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.” And it’s that kind of thinking, that kind of historical thinking that contributes to our popular culture and to our discussions of the relationship between the past and the present, more than that desire to really collapse things and say, “Oh it’s 2008; this is just like 1932.” It’s not. It’s really not like 1932.

And:

LEPORE: I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.

Recommended…

1 prior_test2 June 14, 2017 at 8:11 am

‘I remained somewhat befuddled by how a lot of things happen in the world.’

Follow the money – or is that advice too historical?

2 Thor June 14, 2017 at 1:28 pm

Yes, this. The American middle class has been hollowed out financially. This is especially true of the lower middle class. So electorally, there has been some clutching at straws. Obama was a candidate of change too, before Trump. (Two relatively politically inexperienced outsiders in a row…)

So it’s not a stretch to say that a lot of Americans were worried about money in the last election.

Even trolls have had to move abroad to earn a living.

3 George Mason June 15, 2017 at 8:58 am

Thiel and Porter rehash basic economics when they tell us that certain kinds of surplus profits are only possible with some degree and form of monopoly power. Otherwise competition will eat up all that lunch. Likewise, in a kind of political observe to the EMH, certain kinds of gains (in power, money, etc.) can only be had consistently by the holders of insider information / esoteric understanding. If the understanding of how things really work becomes generally known, then that surplus of power disappears, and certain political scenarios – some of which are desirable or even essential – become effectively impossible. So it is probably inevitable that most people will stay befuddled about most things most of the time.

4 Sam Haysom June 14, 2017 at 8:26 am

I guess it is more interesting if less honest than if he had said, “No I’m going to watch soap operas all day.”

5 Art Deco June 14, 2017 at 4:49 pm

He told his clerks at one point that if he died, ‘just prop me up and keep on voting me’.

6 msgkings June 14, 2017 at 4:54 pm

That explains why Clarence Thomas never speaks.

7 RV June 14, 2017 at 8:41 am

Is “Recommended…” a lower rating than “Self-recommended?”

8 rayward June 14, 2017 at 8:49 am

Anachronism is what Lepore is identifying. If it’s hard to avoid anachronism when considering early America, imagine how hard it is to avoid anachronism when considering the ancient world. It really was different then. And lest we forget, anachronism isn’t just an offense of conservatives, it’s equally applicable to liberals. How so? By viewing the behavior of Jefferson, Washington, and others through a 21st century lens.

9 sunburnt June 14, 2017 at 6:25 pm

Yes, synchronism is the antipode to anachronism. Cronyism is possible where anathema pawns bimodal frans-de Waals, wherein a certain chromism secretes and offers false conclusions from fulsome statements. Are trump’s statements a)foolsome, b)fulsome c*code d)wholesome e)juxtaposition

10 RSF June 14, 2017 at 8:49 am

“What would James Madison think?” is the question that originalists want to ask. Whereas I want to know what happened between when Madison thought that and here where we are now. And that’s a very different kind of constitutional interpretation.”

I’m no legal scholar (although neither is Lepore AFAIK), but I’m pretty sure look to the original meaning of the words in the Constitution (what they meant when enacted), not mind reading of Madison.

I’m not sure what the point of Amendments are if you can just reinterpret the existing words as you see appropriate.

11 Ricardo June 14, 2017 at 3:11 pm

Agreed.

My favorite example of this is the evolution of the word girl. Suppose the U.S. constitution said something specifically about “girls,” and then suppose, in subsequent centuries, the definition of “girl” shifted. Would it be appropriate to use the new definition? To me it feels like the answer is no.

By extrapolation, what Madison thought is really quite important.

12 Bernard Guerrero June 14, 2017 at 6:56 pm

+1

13 Brian Donohue June 14, 2017 at 8:54 am

Gary Wills described Lincoln’s view as basically: the Constitution is concrete, the Declaration of Independence is aspirational, and the American project is to move toward the aspiration.

To this end, I think both the compression and expansion of the accordion can be useful.

14 Butler T. Reynolds June 14, 2017 at 10:15 am

Interesting point about the past. As I get close to 50 years old, I’m astonished at how different day-to-day life is and our worldview is compared to just 20 years ago.

We really have no real grasp of what life was like for others 100+ years ago.

15 Pshrnk June 14, 2017 at 12:14 pm

“We really have no real grasp of what life was like for others 100+ years ago.”

I know! Its hard to fathom how slow dial up internet service must have been on telegraph lines. The graphics must have sucked!

16 JK Brown June 14, 2017 at 4:32 pm

I was recently looking at a Georgia Tech class on transmission lines, specifically time-domain transmission lines which they really didn’t teach even as recent as the 1990s, focusing on the phase-domain sinusoidal radio waves and ac power transmission. But the time-domain is now very important and brought back the teaching of the Telegraph Equations developed in the 19th century. For now, digital signaling is essentially very, very fast telegraph signals, although with different encoding than the duty cycle Morse Code encoding.

17 JK Brown June 14, 2017 at 4:23 pm

I recommend
-‘The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950′ (1952), Frederick Allen Lewis
to get a feel for just how much life changed in the first 50 years of the 20th century. Then his descriptions of contemporary life in 1950 after he surveys the past is another country when you contrast it to even the 1990s.

Here is what I found an eye opening description of the horse “culture”. I don’t view old westerns the same way anymore. Especially noticing the lack of a third track when the ride down a road.

“But horses were everywhere, pulling surreys, democrats, buggies, cabs, delivery wagons of every sort on Main Street, and pulling harvesters on the tractorless farms out in the countryside. ”

“The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage Iife were part of the universal American experience: he c!op-clop of horses’ hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of he brake being applied to ease the horse on the downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one’s breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of  carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses’ hoofs; the special maIe ordeal of getting out of the carriage and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing  horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornful glance. During the Northern winter the jingle of sleigh bells was everywhere. On summer evenings, along the tree-lined streets of innumerable American towns, families sitting on their front porches would watch the fine carriages of the town as they drove pst for a proud evening’s jaunt and the cognoscenti would wait eagerly for the glimpse of the banker’s trotting pair or the sporting lawyer’s 2:40 pacer. And one of the magnificent sights of urban life was that of the fire engine, pulled by three galloping horses, careening down a city street with its bell clanging.”

18 Axa June 14, 2017 at 10:25 am

I liked the part when she talked about working in companies falling apart. Why some people can thrive in some conditions while others get depressed?

19 Alan Goldhammer June 14, 2017 at 10:42 am

Just listened to it while on my morning walk and what a wonderful conversation. It’s always nice to see people who start from humble backgrounds rise to the top. I wonder what she thinks about the works of Horatio Alger?

20 Mike June 14, 2017 at 11:05 am

Excellent conversation. Especially the bit about snobs and TV. Thank you.

21 Philo June 14, 2017 at 12:12 pm

Trump is like Andrew Jackson in some ways, and different in some ways. Pointing to commonalities is no less valid than pointing to divergences.

22 dearieme June 14, 2017 at 1:34 pm

“It’s not just that the past is a foreign country as Peter Laslett suggested”: was it really Laslett? I had thought it was from a well-known novel. We live and learn.

23 small_stakes June 14, 2017 at 4:13 pm

I thought “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there” was the opening line of The Go-Between by LP Hartley, but I’m not sure what the Straussian reading of Tyler’s post would be.

24 dearieme June 14, 2017 at 5:19 pm

Can it be, can it conceivably be, that our host is ignorant of one of the most famous opening lines of – what? – the last century?

Serves him right for skim-reading.

Can we persuade him that it was D J Trump who wrote “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”?
Nah, even he must know it was Louis Armstrong.

25 kushnerbomb June 14, 2017 at 2:12 pm

If you want a vision of the future, imagine being forced to choose between John Dewey and Mark Zuckerberg—forever.

26 Li Zhi June 14, 2017 at 3:18 pm

Dewey vs Zuckerberg? …riiight….why not Dahmer vs Churchill? What a load. If you want to have a useful contrast consider Zuckerberg vs J.P. Morgan or perhaps Dewey vs Bannon. I fail to see anything useful about contrasting Dewey and Zuckerberg. Of course, I understand that TC and Lepore are speaking code, but still at some point they need to be called on it. Comparing a dead philosopher academic with a living billionaire entrepreneur makes zero sense to me. Did Lepore really say “That’s the plug that fills up that vacuum”?? And TC agreed with her??? She is comparing Silicon Valley with “the liberal East Coast establishment”??? Wow, just wow. Actually, come to think of it, doesn’t that just echo their previous comments on the length of time it took for “America” to blossom? And did you get Lepore’s bemoaning of the unfairness of women being judged by their appearance and then this:”…wearing the kind of baggy coat, and he’s got the bulbous red nose…” Glad she’s not one of the “do what I say, not what I do” types!

27 Art Deco June 14, 2017 at 4:43 pm

Thurgood Marshall, as you know, the first African American Supreme Court justice who’d argued Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 — he was asked, “Are you going to participate in the hoopla, the bicentennial hoopla of the Constitution?” He gives this incredibly powerful speech in which he says, “No. You know what I’m willing to celebrate, not that document, which was flawed. Let’s just understand the ways in which it was flawed. I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.”

By 1987, Thurgood Marshall was a triumph of the taxidermist’s art. He wasn’t giving any ‘powerful speeches’. He might have been good for some front porch yarns if lubricated with Winstons and Wild Turkey.

28 Miranda Jones June 15, 2017 at 12:39 am

Try Justice Marshall’s dissent in Illinois v. Perkins.

29 Art Deco June 15, 2017 at 3:05 pm

http://caselaw.findlaw.com/us-supreme-court/496/292.htm

Mr. Justice Marshall’s verbiage (or that of whichever clerk was propping him up and voting him) is not powerful and the position he takes (that probative evidence freely admitted to an undercover police officers should be suppressed) is twee and predictable.

30 Art Deco June 14, 2017 at 4:48 pm

Marshall had no interest in law. Judicial opinions were just a way of seeing to it that his favored constituencies got what they wanted. One of his more egregious minority opinions was one which declared that people have a constitutional right to a Medicaid-funded abortion. That Lepore does not find this man’s tenure on the court something of an embarrassment gives you a sense of how diseased is the culture of academe. And, of course, she got no grilling whatsoever from the moderator.

31 msgkings June 14, 2017 at 5:03 pm

Trump had no interest in governing. Getting elected was just a way of seeing to it that his boundless ego got what it wanted. One of his more egregious minority opinions was one which declared that his predecessor had not been born in the United States. That Art Deco does not find this man’s election something of an embarrassment gives you a sense of how hypocritical is the culture of blind partisanship. And, of course, he will never have the perspicacity to see himself as he truly is.

32 ladderff June 14, 2017 at 10:32 pm

You’re an idiot.

33 msgkings June 14, 2017 at 11:47 pm
34 22 June 14, 2017 at 11:05 pm

That Art Deco has been injured by Jessica Chastain’s rejection is no one’s jurisdiction but his own judgement must rely the Trade & Co.

35 Art Deco June 15, 2017 at 3:10 pm

Before I’m injured by Jessica Chastain, I have to have some idea of who she is.

36 Rights-Culture is the highest culture June 15, 2017 at 12:25 am

“why the early United States did not blossom culturally”

What the hell are you talking about? The Bill of Rights is the greatest cultural achievement of any culture ever. The First Amendment alone has gotten higher praise than all of the works of all of the Renaissance artists combined. The Sistine Chapel looks like a mudhut compared to freedom of speech.

37 Kevin June 15, 2017 at 9:19 am

I will celebrate the 200 years since, the 200 years of struggle to make good on the promises of that document.

You think the last 200 years happen as they did without that “flawed’ document?

38 Brian Donohue June 15, 2017 at 10:25 am

I think I like Lepore. Something genuine and honest about her. Good interview. I think I’ll read some of her stuff.

39 Tony June 15, 2017 at 11:23 am

Jill Lepore, Worcester, Harvard. Admittedly, Lepore claims to come from “outside of” Worcester, but she id’s with it.

I believe and many people I’ve discussed this with agree there is very little or almost no intermarriage between Rust Belt environs (example: Worcester) and the Route 128/Brookline/Newton academic/professional regions of Massachusetts. It’s like the distance between Northern and Southern Italy genetically.

Politically, the gap was akin in character to the current gap between Trump and Clinton supporters, and as toxic. In the 1980s, including the Dukakis era and up to the 1990 election of Bill Weld over John Silber for governor, politics was dominated by the split. In the Weld – Silber contest, 85% of Cambridge, MA (~100k population) voted for Weld and 91% of Fall River (also ~100k population) voted for Silber. Weld was from Cambridge, but was also a libertarian Republican. Once in office, Weld famously got a tax cut passed by increasing the salaries of all Mass State House representatives.

I wonder if anyone is studying that period in Massachusetts for lessons today …

40 Conn Carroll June 15, 2017 at 2:59 pm

Was curious to read how Jill thinks the Tea Party got the Constitution wrong, so I skipped to that part of the interview first only to see that she gets the holding of NFIB vs Sebelius wrong.
If she can’t even accurately describe that case I’m not wasting any more time listening to anything she says.

41 Art Deco June 15, 2017 at 3:09 pm

Invoking ‘the Constitution’ is like saying ‘abracadabra’, and gives you what you want, which is the arbitrary annulment of legislation people in Jill Lepore’s social circle dislike. If you actually think it’s a law with semantic content (which might prevent Jill Lepore’s social circle from getting what they want), you’re ‘getting it wrong’.

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