U.S. Intellectual History Blog

USIH and the Shadow of the Lynching Tree (Guest Post by Edward J. Blum)

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Edward J. Blum, who is Professor of History at San Diego State University, co-author with Paul Harvey of The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America (2012),  author of W. E. B. Du Bois, American Prophet (2007), and Reforging the White Republic: Race, Religion, and American Nationalism, 1865-1898 (2005), editor of the Christian Century’s Then & Now blog, and an invited plenary participant at the 2014 S-USIH conference held in October in Indianapolis.)

I felt confused and slightly angry. My lungs seemed to tighten. After Dr. Kathryn Lofton’s fascinating USIH keynote address on the playful inscrutability of Bob Dylan on “religion,” a question from the crowd gripped my conscience. It went something like this, “should we lynch him?” I cannot recall Dr. Lofton’s answer, perhaps because it seemed the air had been sucked out of the room. Perhaps the questioner meant it sarcastically. Perhaps it was a joke or a provocation. On their face, the words were a threat of violence, but the person certainly did not mean we or anyone else should end Mr. Dylan’s life. The darkness I felt seemed yet another extension of the lynching tree’s long shadows.

I had spent weeks preparing my USIH remarks for a panel the next day on “What is U.S. Intellectual History.” I was going to argue, first, that U.S. intellectual history should not emulate some path-breaking religious historians who tend to make universal claims about human nature with archival sets conditioned by race and gender. I was going to suggest that Charles Taylor’s Secular Age is not only a segregated text at times haunted by race, but also a segregating work because of how scholars have embraced and debated it on its terms. I was going to ask how George Marden’s recent Twilight of the American Enlightenment would look different if he included African American writers more seriously as critics of 1950s American culture. “[I]t is human nature to look back on an earlier era, especially the days of one’s youth, as being more coherent than the disruptive times of later years,” Marsden writes of his childhood, although he fails to acknowledge his privileges of being white in that United States. I was prepared to ask those at the conference “for children who witnessed lynchings and then, in their adult years, remember that world as hellish, such as is the case of theologian James Cone, are they somehow not in line with ‘human nature’? Is the problem with them or with Marsden’s personal and scholarly imagination?” After that, I was going to suggest that perspectives from material culture could be layered into U.S. intellectual history for great impact. My example would be Henry Box Brown and the many boxes of his world – the literal one that carried him to liberty, the figurative ones in visual culture, and the ways Frederick Douglass used Brown’s box to suggest that there could be power in keeping some ideas secret. I wish now that I had used lynch ropes as my example.

Ideas of nooses have been tied to realities of their uses, and those of us at the conference in Indianapolis did not have to look far for an example. The history was there, right under our feet. The conference hotel stood beside the city’s railroad depot. More than eighty years before this lynching reference in 2014, local residents had boarded trains and traveled eighty miles to Marion, Indiana to help, watch, photograph, and be photographed at the lynching of Tom Shipp and Abram Smith. One photograph has become iconic. In it, a couple holds hands. One man points to the background, where the bodies of two African American young men hang.

In the place we now sat and heard a scholar reference lynching, eighty years earlier women and men chatted about sandwiches and seating arrangements. They paid their fares and off they went. Knotted together were the quotidian and the dramatic, the physical and the intellectual, the social and spiritual. The space we occupied in 2014 was a place, for me, touched by these painful legacies.

How could “lynching” be a joke, or sarcastic statement, or provocative posturing at this conference? Was it symptomatic of an approach to intellectual history that is not only disembodied but also callous? How should the community of scholars respond, if at all? Should all ideas and comments be entertained in the spirit of free inquiry? Or, in an effort to have the organization be a safe space for those from diverse backgrounds, should members of the community challenge this kind of rhetoric? Universities have their heritage of racial injustice; intellectual history played its role in establishing and upholding racial structures; some scholars reinforce past injustices with their intellectual choices and executions today. Personally, I am less inclined to attend conferences where racially-charged concepts like this are put to work as sarcasm, jokes, or provocations. I am a firm believer that if desegregated societies need desegregated scholarship and desegregated syllabi. But then again, I’ve never termed myself an “intellectual historian.”

32 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thank you so much for this guest post, and for recalling to our attention a moment that we collectively should have addressed as it occurred or shortly thereafter. I was present at this time also, and like you, I was too shocked to respond. But I also was eager to place it as something entirely random and disconnected from any other part of the conference or our field, and I deeply appreciate the way that you have called us back to think about the ways that disconnection is not true, even in terms of the physical space we were occupying. Thank you.

  2. Professor Blum,

    With Andy, I thank you for bringing this to the attention of blog readers and those who attended the conference. I was in the plenary, but was preoccupied with other thoughts and didn’t fully attend to the comment or commenter. I often miss things because I’m deep in thought about a prior topic or point brought up in a session.

    Question: To build on your last paragraph, what do you think the community of scholars in attendance *should* have done about the comment? When you answer, please contextualize your normative statement in relation to how other professional societies should (or could) respond.

    Here are some options (as I see them off-the-cuff):

    a) Shame the commenter, immediately or after.
    b) Kick attendee out of conference.
    c) Remove attendee from the session (or ask person to leave session).
    d) Engage the comment publicly and immediately.
    e) Engage commenter after session (publicly or privately?).
    f) Nothing

    …What have I forgotten?

    In any case, I see numerous problems with most all of these courses of action. In most cases a moderator is, or would be needed—if not a kind of session sentinel (for order, which is unusual). If not a moderator, who should take these things on her/himself? You? A Society or conference officer?

    Also, you wrote: “Personally, I am less inclined to attend conferences where racially-charged concepts like this are put to work as sarcasm, jokes, or provocations.”

    As far as I know, this was the only instance of this at the conference. Did you hear another? If not, is once too much? Is S-USIH being measured by a higher standard than, say, OAH or AHA on this count?

    As I question you and take a somewhat defensive tone, I want to EMPHASIZE the following: The comment was, indeed, in poor taste. I would not have made a joke or provocation that involved lynching. It’s a terrible and ugly thing to employ rhetorically—with seeming casualness. I disapprove.

    That said, I’m unclear how the Society or conference organizers should have proceeded. Since future S-USIH conference organizers do read (and write at) this blog, perhaps your suggestions will make it to them.

    Most sincerely,

    Tim Lacy

    PS: To be clear, I’m making this comment as a Society member and not in relation to my position as Publications Chair. – TL

  3. Come on, Ed, are you really going to attack the entire discipline of intellectual history because of one snarky comment from an audience member reacting to Lofton’s claim that Bob Dylan was a heretic? (And if I remember correctly, that was the context, which makes the comment jarring and inappropriate but not random and out of the blue.) That’s like holding the whole art of stand-up comedy in to account because of one tasteless heckler at a comedy club. Should the comment have been addressed at the time? Probably. And if so, I would have liked it to be in the exact way you do in all but the very last paragraph of this post. So thank you for that. But to disengage from a community of scholars because of one inappropriate comment from an audience member at a conference? If that’s the bar, I’m not sure you’ll find any academic community comfortable. Yes, historians have and continue to be culpable of poor choices, including ignoring the contributions of black thinkers for far too long. But that we’re all a bunch of racists laughing at the violence of history and not working each and every day to assess and rectify the wrongs of the past? Well, that’s not the same conference I went to.

  4. Dear Dr. Lacy, excellent points. I want to first say that I had a wonderful time overall at the conference. I learned a great deal and enjoyed many panels. Also, I am a HUGE fan of USIH publications and the blog. My reflection was written with hopes for the best for and with USIH.
    I hope you will notice I never said what should be done. Personally, I do not favor shame. Censure seems appropriate to me for other professional violations, such as plagiarism. I could imagine a moderator interjecting something like “thank you for the question; I wonder if the rhetoric is not the most appropriate so could you possibly re-word it?’
    I am not sure what other organizations do or what their protocols are. As a critical race theorist and historians of race and religion throughout U.S. history, I have noticed that many women and men in the past and now suggest that silence is a form of complicity. So I took the action that I think those folks would encourage: voicing dissent in public, honoring those historically wronged, and asking questions in a serious and kind manner. For those who were at the plenary I was on, I brought this up but did not state it in direct relationship to the earlier question.
    My broader point is not about the rhetoric of the question; instead, I wonder if it is symptomatic. Many scholars take issue with racial issues in society writ large (Ferguson et al) but segregation in scholarly publications pass without notice. Comments about “race riots” in Taylor’s works (he uses the line twice) get little attention. So my question remains: what shall scholars do in the face of racialization in our domains? Seems to me that a blog like this is an ideal place to hash out these issues, learn the professional skills that help me and us to be better professionals, and debate kindly and courteously very important matters like this.

    • Prof. Blum,

      I didn’t reply immediately yesterday because I wanted (a) to see where the conversation went, but also (b) to think more about the situation and the scene of the conference. I love some of the conversation below (esp. Michael Kramer’s contribution), but I’m going to return to the practical and the seemingly ‘academic quotidian’.

      I know you’re not advocating for a *particular* action, but I think you’d like to see (correct me if I’m wrong) a moderator for every panel, plenary, and keynote that involves both controversial topics and Q&A. You’re not advocating for administrative heavy-handedness, but rather for a person (third-party) who can intervene when questions, comments, and debates take a wrong, or sour, turn. This seems especially important during underscored events (plenaries, keynote) that cover contentious topics (e.g. religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality). This is not an unreasonable request, to me anyway. It may occasionally be impractical or impossible, but the effort should be made to have a moderator.

      Returning to the 2014 event, could the Society (or any society) have reasonably anticipated that a keynote on Bob Dylan’s religious views might take a controversial turn? Perhaps. According to what I laid out above, religion as a topic could be a flag to conference organizers. Also, alcohol was served at a reception before the event. That said, without having previewed Lofton’s content, I can’t say whether I would’ve anticipated what might generate negative or ambiguous questions and comments. And the wildcard, as Michael pointed out, was the tone, pace, and freewheeling feel of Professor Lofton’s talk. So we have three factors that worked against a well-moderated post-talk discussion: potentially controversial topic, alcohol, and tone/style. In hindsight, it seems easy to say that a third-party moderator should’ve been active and ready to intervene. But hindsight is always 20/20, right?

      To summarize, the lessons seem to be, for future S-USIH conferences (and events put on by other societies), that all events pertaining to controversial topics should have a designated moderator. And attention should be paid to events scheduled after receptions, as well as to the particular content of a talk or subjects anticipated in panels.

      In addition, it occurred to me this morning, as I pondered your post and the greater context of the conference, that many have felt increasingly watchful over the past year as passive/implicit racism has come under greater scrutiny. It is entirely appropriate that we scrutinize ourselves (activities, statements, etc.) in relation to the kinds of systemic racism that continues to allow for institutional violence to black bodies. We should scrub the policies enable comments delivered with less-than-appropriate care. – TL

  5. Dear Kevin, at no point did I disavow the entire community or meeting. I simply stated I would be “less inclined.” And I am not sure it was my or your or anyone else’s responsibility to respond to the question at the time. It was part of a Q&A over Prof. Lofton’s keynote address. Perhaps other people discussed it over dinner; perhaps others are including the example in articles they are writing; perhaps people are responding in many ways. This blog piece is simply my little way of responding. Lynching is a serious matter to me – now and in the past. All I’m asking for is more intellectual inquiry.

  6. What would I have done?

    Most likely nothing at all.

    Though I probably would have nodded and smiled a little smile in recognition of the Dylan allusion the individual was making with the remark “should we lynch him?” I also would have somehow acknowledged to him or her how impressed I was by their knowledge of Dylan.

    At Dylan’s famous December 3, 1965, press conference at KQED-TV (a public television station in the Bay area), he was asked by poet Allen Ginsberg: “Do you think there will ever be a time when you’ll be hung as a thief?”

    To which Dylan responded: “You weren’t supposed to say that.”

    Strong laughter by Dylan and Ginsberg and the audience accompanied the exchange.

    Context is everything. Relax.

    Dylan also references “postcards of the hanging” in his song Desolation Row.

    They’re selling postcards of the hanging
    They’re painting the passports brown
    The beauty parlor is filled with sailors
    The circus is in town.

    I’m off to listen to Dylan’s Seven Curses – you know the one where the horse thief gets hanged even though his daughter has given herself to the judge in return for his freedom.

    Peace.

  7. I do not know what other organizations do, but I applaud USIH leadership and publishing not only for being willing to run a post like this, but also to encourage open discussions of itself as an organization and its meetings. That strikes me as rare and welcome. Three cheers to Ben Alpers for facilitating my post and to the organization for listening to questions.

  8. Ed, I didn’t laugh and thought the comment was out of place and inappropriate. Yes, James Cone would have been enraged. For those interested they should read his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Made me think about lynching in a whole new light.

    Your comment ” I am a firm believer that desegregated societies need desegregated scholarship and desegregated syllabi;” the recent formation of the African-American Intellectual History Society is disheartening and does not bode well for the future. I can only guess at the motivation. For me African-American history is American history writ large and essential to understanding ourselves. We will not learn unless we learn together in the mess of it all. So sorry you were disappointed with us.

  9. Oh, and Kevin, I never said that anyone laughed. I do not recall hearing any laughter, and as we know from so much scholarship, laughter is complicated. In fact, laughter is one element of Ellison’s INVISIBLE MAN at the end, which I discussed the next day too. The narrator laughs at the lost Mr. Norton. Let me reiterate, the conference was fantastic at so many levels; Cara Burnidge and Mark Edwards had a terrific program put together; the “meetings of the minds” were splendid too.

  10. Indeed. NOBODY laughed at the remark. Nobody. It was shocking, and utterly out of place, and from where I sat there was an audible collective gasp in the room.

    The guest speaker — though this was not her circus, and we were not her clowns — handled the moment with incredible aplomb. Indeed, she handled it in a very pastoral way — not the only way it could be handled, but a very good way, I thought. That is, there on the spot she asked the questioner to explain what he meant by his remark. He repeated the outrageous comment, but then he appended it with something like, “you know, just like the crowds turned on Jesus, the crowds are turning on Dylan.” It was something like that, evoking notions of a once-loyal fan base turning into a mob shouting, “Crucify him.” That space that Lofton gave the questioner allowed the questioner to backpedal from his very inflammatory wording, and it allowed Lofton to not only catch her breath before responding, but also to help the rest of us breathe again.

  11. Dear Edward Blum–

    Thanks for this extraordinarily thoughtful post that reminds us of how the quotidian, the traumatic, and the analytic mingle together to create contexts in which the forces of race, power, and history take shape all around us. I was sitting right behind the person who made that comment, and it made me uncomfortable as well. At the time, I suspected it was in reference to the infamous moment when an audience member in the UK called Dylan “Judas” in 1966. But the comment was delivered jarringly out of context, and it struck me as a joke in quite poor taste precisely because the word choice was so fraught and loaded.

    It is worth noting that even as an inappropriate comment, however, it was, as you suggest, delivered with a healthy dose of sarcasm. My sense was that the implication of the shouted-out comment was precisely that no, we should not persecute Dylan. In fact, I took it as a lame effort to join with—perhaps also spar with—Kathryn Lofton’s highly performative rhetorical style in her keynote about Dylan and issues of doubt and belief in contemporary American culture. Indeed, as your own very performative (and I thought provocative and important) comments the next day also evidenced, our delivery, our form, our tone of intellectual history analysis matters enormously.

    While I think there are larger structural challenges that an organization such as SUSIH faces (and must continue to address actively) when it comes to inclusivity and access, it strikes me that how we give voice to interpretive ideas is also quite crucial. Tone matters. But the issue might have been not only with the commenter’s poorly-phrased joke, but also with the style of K. Lofton’s keynote address. I’m still grappling as much with aspects of her deliver as with the content of her keynote myself. It was exhilarating, but I think (testing this idea out) that she performed a demand of a kind of complicity with her that sometimes made members of the audience feel uncomfortable. In a good way. By raising the stakes of belief and doubt up to an almost fever pitch. Often through various kinds of in-jokes that insisted the audience participate with her or against her interpretations of Dylan. Very interesting to try to unpack that mode of address—and to be clear, I do so with great respect and admiration for Kathryn.

    What happens, I wonder, when the point of a keynote’s rhetorical style is, precisely, to push people out of their comfort zones tonally? Discomfort can be good if it pushes at deeply troubling questions that lurk below the surface. Belief, doubt, the religious dimensions of popular culture fandom and the role of the pop icon who is also a Barnumesque humbugging trickster…K. Lofton’s style itself pushed the audience members to confront their own existential (religious?) experiences of what it means to worship someone or something. She gave voice to these anxieties…and when anxieties surface, I suspect that often weird responses occur.

    But something else too. There is, to be sure, the question of how we as historians give voice to memory and historical interpretation (something you attended to very closely in your own plenary remarks). There is also something even stranger and more uncanny: as historians we may give voice to the past, but sometimes, I believe, other voices from the past suddenly erupt through us. And I felt like the use of that terrible, loaded word did just that in that moment. It was disturbing, poorly used. was disconcerting and damaging. It seemed to come from nowhere. Or maybe somewhere. Maybe it was the ghostly voice of Tom Shipp or Abram Smith, crashing in on the conference, reminding us that belief and doubt, power and history, are all around us—and in the end no joking matter.

  12. The politics of writing history, particularly African-American history, are deeper than we care to admit and exceedingly powerful. We dare not take it lightly. As for Lofton, she is a preacher, and if I may say, in the African-American tradition. That was a revival meeting that even the most cooly rational among could not escape the anxious bench. The shout of “lynch him” could be read as an exorcism of the racist demons among us.

  13. Ed,
    Thanks for walking it back a little in the comments, because I, too, read the initial post as an attack on the organization and on intellectual history itself. Perhaps I’m a little too sensitive, but the final two sentences don’t seem to lend themselves to an alternative reading: “I am a firm believer that if desegregated societies need desegregated scholarship and desegregated syllabi. But then again, I’ve never termed myself an “intellectual historian.”” What could possibly be the implication here except that people who do think of themselves as intellectual historians are in favor of segregated scholarship? And why the scare quotes on “intellectual historian” if not to in some sense diminish or mock the identity? I understand that the incident you describe was upsetting to you, but I can’t see what that has to do with SUSIH or intellectual history more generally. As others have noted, there was a lot of other exciting work and discussion going on at the conference. I’m glad you agree. I think everyone was happy to have you as a participant and contributor to our discussions, and I hope you will come back in the future.

    • Dr. Wickberg, let me say here publicly what I said to you at the conference – thank you for your hard work, thank you for the organization, and thank you for including me. I have the utmost regard for your scholarship and the labors of everyone in the organization.

  14. There are many ways to read my final sentences. I never said the organization did anything wrong; I never said intellectual history was racist. I did say it has played a part in racial past, which I don’t think is up for debate. I have argued that certain books termed intellectual history seem to suffer from underlying racialized imaginaries. If those sentences hit nerves, then perhaps it demonstrates even more strongly that word choice matters. And that word choice that involves death, murder, injustice needs to be held to account or at least subjected to scrutiny. Or are my two sentences more offensive than the statement at the meeting? Perhaps so. Perhaps no.

  15. Oh, the scare quotes marked what I have called myself on bios, for books, for interviews, etc. I label myself a “religious historian”, a “critical race theorist,” an “American historian.” I intended no slight of “intellectual history.” I think my record of reviewing works in that domain show I have a high regard for the field, have learned much from it, and have enjoyed engaging in the conversations.

  16. I don’t think I’ve ever been so seriously and publicly misunderstood, and I haven’t known whether, or how, to respond. Having been hung, I may as well confess.

    Things might have gone better if someone – anyone – friend, acquaintance or perfect stranger – at that moment, at any time during the rest of the conference, or in the nearly two months since, had been honest, forthright or simply curious enough to “engage” me, not the worst of Tim’s options. Once you recover from your shock and stunned silence, why not ask what the point was instead of going right into a chorus of denunciation? Speaking pastorally, isn’t it better to deal with the outrage and confusion instead of letting it fester?

    Blum imagines the speaker saying, “Thank you for the question; I wonder if the rhetoric is not the most appropriate so could you possibly re-word it?” I can imagine having said in response, “Glad to – and sorry if I’ve offended you – what I was trying to say was…” Too bad, but I was too surprised by my exclamation — a mimetic performative, product of a weird contagion — to put it that way. Of course Blum could have followed his own suggestion for the speaker instead of drumming up a degradation ceremony. [Is that the way religious historians act?!] We could have had a nice exchange — and who knows, may still down the road. From my point of view, much better than to have become the not-so-anonymous “racist” that almost discredited intellectual history! Come on!

    I’m glad a couple of people could see my unfortunate choice of terms was at least “not random and out of the blue,” considering the topic on its face was not race, but knowledge and belief; and maybe as Michael Kramer again said, Lofton “performed a demand of a kind of complicity.” I wasn’t the only one swept up in the moment, which was wonderful and electric, probably something we need more of, though I’m not sure we can handle the added risks.

    I’ve known very little about Bob Dylan since about 1961, but I looked at the Tom Junod Esquire piece quoted in Lofton’s handout, and some other lines stood out –

    “What the hell is there to say?” he has asked, adding that no matter what he says, we would want him to say more. We would want him to lead us. We would want him to tell us the meanings of his songs. We would want him to play his songs the same way every night, the same way he played them on his records. We would want him to join our causes. We would want him to deliver prophecies. We would want him to tell us about his family, and if he didn’t answer, we’d reserve the right to go through his garbage cans.

    What’s worse, as someone in the article said, he gives “zero fucks” about being loved, or understood, or salving our neediness. Right or wrong, that’s how the virtual presence of Dylan came across to me, and I was moved by how deeply challenging, no, threatening, that makes him, perhaps especially to people like us, who really want to know, to believe their efforts are more than projections of our needs, desire, fears. Maybe we can’t stand not knowing whether it’s a blank nihilism or a comic gnosis, or both, or whether it makes any difference.

    However dark, I liked it, because it seemed I heard much of what I’ve long thought. But what a crash for me, hot off the Burkean excitement, persuaded for a short while that perspective by incongruity, the endless play of metaphors, might at least move us toward a comic frame of acceptance.

    • Oh, and so you know, as I was writing this piece, several folks asked if I wanted to ‘know’ who the speaker was. I answered ‘no’ each time. In Indianapolis, I could not even see who voiced the words I merely heard them. Speaker and word are not the same; intent and impression are not the same; racially-charged language and racist person are not the same.

  17. Dear Dr. Fine, I’m sorry that you feel “hung” and called “a racist”. At no point did I write that. Nor have I ever spoken those words in jest or any other matter. For me, “who” made the statement is not the same as the content of the statement. The words uttered matter, to me, and not necessarily the speaker. I think I acknowledged a multiplicity of potential meanings and others have commented upon that. Original intent, to me, is like belief: unknowable. For me, as a scholar of race and its history, were words have mattered, where rhetorical shouts of “lynch him” have led to actual lynchings, the words are meaningful. In Black No More, George Schuyler discusses how race and violence impact every aspect of American society – even play, even sarcasm, even being swept up in a moment. So, I would ask, reading my essay: why do you read it as indictment of you when my questions are simply those, questions? I did not call the speaker the name you feel called; I never suggested any violence rhetorically or otherwise against the speaker. I did not bring “lynch” to the moment. I merely interrogated it. Is that not what scholars do (for I, alas, am not a pastor)?

  18. For those who do not think these issues matter, even in academia, then see why my friend James Cone had to cancel a lecture in Ohio in 2012 because of threats to his life and body. And his topic… “the lynching tree.”
    http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2012/09/26/theologian-cancels-appearance.html

    Dr. Cone is a mentor of mine; he’s a family friend; he has witnessed racial violence and threats of it as a child, young person, adult, and now senior scholar.

    • The newspaper account is at odds with yours.

      It says: “In a telephone interview today, Cone said that an explicit threat was not stated…”

      You say: “…because of threats to his life and body.”

      As Bob Dylan sang in his Oscar-winning song Things Have Changed:

      Standing on the gallows with my head in a noose
      Any minute now I’m expecting all hell to break loose

      Peace

  19. Prof. Blum,

    Nobody said these things don’t matter.

    Your statement above about identifying the person who made the comment is not entirely correct. I don’t know about your conversations with my colleagues, but when you first corresponded with me about a guest post (Thanksgiving day?), I was concerned about the ethics of giving you the email address/contact info of the person who made the comment in case you wanted to talk to him; I felt that I couldn’t do that without contacting the person in question first. But you told me (and others, I guess) that you didn’t need/want to know who it was, and it wouldn’t make a difference to your analysis. I think you’ve explained your reasons for that stance above, but I don’t like the implication that my colleagues and I were chomping at the bit to “out” somebody to you. In fact, I had the opposite concern.

    Now, maybe it would have been good for one of us to contact Bill and say, “Hey, there’s a guest post going up about that jarring comment you made in the plenary.” Maybe one of us did? But I didn’t contact him. So I’ll own that mistake, since I was the first to respond to your query about writing a guest post before I put you in touch with the editor.

    So, Bill, I’m sorry. Should have given you a heads up.

    Like I said above, once Lofton gave you the space to explain your terms in the Q&A, it was clear what you were trying to get at, and that you were alluding to a Passion-Week-esque fickle and angry fanbase, who — not getting the “miracles” they wanted from Dylan — might turn on him in their sense of betrayal. That’s what I took from your explication at the time. It was a pastoral response from Lofton in the sense that instead of immediately, prophetically condemning what was a very jarring statement, she made everyone pause, and made you pause and dig beneath your words right then and there. And as Prof. Blum acknowledges above, that seems to be the part he didn’t hear — he didn’t hear the follow-up. So maybe thinking through that on-the-spot exegesis of your problematic utterance would have made a difference in this post? I don’t know.

    Of the readings offered here in the comments on your word choice itself in relation to your meaning — saying what you did as opposed to, say, shouting, “Why don’t we crucify him!”, and that awful elision in American history/thought between lynching and crucifixion — it seems to me that Michael’s is maybe the most generative, in terms of getting at registers of discourse that, rather than being chosen, perhaps “choose to be spoken,” if that makes any sense. As to coming up to you afterwards to query you (or chew you out, or whatever) for blurting something out — well, I (and I suppose maybe other people?) figured you knew well enough from the room’s/speaker’s response that your comment was upsetting, and you didn’t need to be reminded of the fact.

    But it probably would have been better for one of us to give you a heads up that this guest post was coming. Not that a pastoral mien is anybody’s actual or explicit job in the secular academy, much less in S-USIH — but some secular approximation of that general approach might be helpful from time to time, and it seems to me that this was one of those times. In that regard, maybe it would have been better to press Prof. Blum a little bit about speaking to you before analyzing your discourse. But maybe not. I honestly don’t know.

    • “chomping at the bit”? again, not my words. My words: “several folks asked if I wanted to ‘know’ who the speaker was.” That’s all. I’m not sure how that is not a true statement, but I have not brought the “true” into the conversation either. “What is truth” is a question, thankfully, I have yet to be asked and given its history, it is not one I wish to attempt.

    • I’m very curious about this discussion that I’m interrogating a precise word used and mapping histories around it. Others have thoughtfully added other ways to interpret those words (Schultz on heresy; Kramer on sarcasm and performativity). And yet, words and phrases that I never uttered or wrote are being placed onto my perspective. I never called anyone a “racist”; I never “outed” anyone; I never “chomped” on anything. These are word choices of others; not mine.

  20. This discussion brings to mind the time a client of mine who was dismayed to find that the door to his guest house was left unlocked by one of my employees. The owner described it as an unconscionable act. I apologized for oversight and didn’t debate his use of the word unconscionable though the implication of the word stuck in my craw. I suspect he intended the word careless or something similar but unconscionable implied without conscience, as though it were some form of social pathology to forget to lock a door right next to the owner’s main house that was located on 40+ acres in a rural location. This was not an illiterate man and it’s possible that his hyperbole was intended to emphasize his displeasure than to make judgment on the moral character of my employee and knowing this fellow it wouldn’t surprise me if he wasn’t trying get me to shave off some percentage of the bill to quale his indignation.
    The dustup at the blog reminds me of this story. The intended and the unintended power of words. What was Dylan’s intended meaning in his songs? What was his meaning when he refused to seriously discuss his art and proceed to deflect and evade? Did Dr. Lofton mean to call into question his sincerity accentuating his contradictions and his apparent slippery use of language to disparage him or as a test case of trying to set parameters on a historical subject? Lofton’s tour de force presentation provoked and inspired a more than receptive audience, it inspired one gentleman to ask “should we lynch him”? It was both a rhetorical question and a provocation to the speaker, is Dylan playing us for fools that we should be done with him and throw him to the wolves, is this your message? This is my interpretation of the question with the added understanding that I spoke with Bill afterword, as he is a good friend and we were both energized by Lofton’s performance. There was no discussion of, implications or overtones of race in our conversation. There was no anger as one might have if one were an avid fan of Dylan there was only an animated fascination with the presentation. So it seems we are at an impasse as to how understand this small event, is it applicable to look at the word “lynch” from the long view and judge this case as a historical piece of a larger narrative or do we see it contextually as an episode immediately relevant to the circumstances that preceded?

  21. I am struck by LD’s insight—”that awful elision in American history/thought between lynching and crucifixion”—Yes, what is *that* about?!

    There is much here to ponder. Since intellectual history helps us recognize discourse analysis when we see it, let us register Edward Blum’s effort to examine the discourse here and not the speaker. That is a very important distinction. Bill Fine is, as many of us know from blog and conference, described well by his last name: a fine man and a gentle person with a keen intellect and a passion for engaging with the ideas and sensibilities of others. His choice of words was fraught, but in its way, he responded quite accurately to Lofton’s approach to Dylan, which was a bit sensationalistic rhetorically, but also had a real edge buried within it, bringing forth the real anxiety/anger/disappointment/interest that Dylan’s engagements with belief and doubt, trust and tricksterism, iconicity and betrayal, tend to elicit.

    There’s more here to the ways that Blum’s post touched a nerve. There’s the worry, to use another loaded term, that his questions are tar and feathering individuals and an organization. I don’t think they are. What’s causing the unease, I think (to repeat myself), is the way in which his post demonstrates how history shapes us, speaks through us, erupts from us in unexpected ways, even as we try to speak about the past with expertise and—aha, another loaded term erupting through my own rhetoric—mastery.

  22. Nuts. Nuts nuts nuts nuts nuts! I had a barnburner of a comment written. Man, it ended with a bang. I mean, I am (unduly!) proud of my handiwork in crafting this comment. So I have saved it. I will look at it sometimes when I’m doubting my power to take up the sword of truth and ride hell for leather to vanquish my rhetorical foes.

    Can’t post it. Can’t — won’t — go one more round. Don’t want to vanquish my foes. Don’t want any foes.

    It seems to me that there could be an awful lot at stake in this discussion. What could be at stake in this discussion is something powerful and deeply relational in the work of history, maybe even something transformational that can come from the work and from just the doing of it. I think most of us do our work not because we believe it can’t matter, but because we think it can. Somehow.

    But right now, Ed, it seems like it matters more to you to be able to judge us than to join us. I guess that’s the work you think you need to be doing — sitting in judgment, or at least calling us to account. You may think that you’ve invited the S-USIH, in this kind of public and performative way, to a time of self-examination. But as long as you position yourself as aloof and apart — wiser, more aware, so proudly not complicit in our discourse, so proudly not a member of this community, touching not the unclean thing — well, you may be doing something for you, but you’re not doing anything that’s going to help us much in the long run I think.

    I think you need to be willing to first count yourself as one of us before you can effectively call us to account. I really don’t know exactly what your vision of history is, why you do what you do — but it seems to me that it probably has something to do with the work of restoration, historical inquiry as a means of gathering together and repairing what has been lost and broken in the past, no matter how long ago, no matter by whom.

    We have room for that. We have room for you. And if you join us, you change us — you change us from a “you” to a “we,” a “we” that includes a particular perspective, a particular awareness, that we wouldn’t have without you. We are a good group, but we have our flaws as a discipline — and if you join us, they become your flaws too. (I think that’s really the heart of the matter for you, isn’t it?) But then that just means they’re our flaws to fix together. There are worse ways to spend one’s time.

  23. Many thanks to those who run the blog for allowing me another chance to post a piece here; many thanks to all who joined the discussion and for all that you taught me. Wishing you the best Decembers you can have, and when I run for a position at USIH, I hope you will consider me as seriously as I consider this organization, its meetings, its scholars, and its publications.

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