Vic Henningsen

Commentator

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.

For commentaries from Vic from before April 2013, visit the VPR Archive.

Theodore Roosevelt called the Presidency “a bully pulpit” – a wonderful platform from which to proclaim policy and influence major events and issues.

Initially, I thought of “America First” as a return to 1930’s isolationism.But in practice, it now seems more consistent with unilateralism: defining and pursuing American interests regardless of their impact overseas.

Henningsen: Embargo

Apr 2, 2018

President Trump’s recent effort to protect American industry by imposing prohibitive tariffs on Chinese imports isn’t the first time an American president has attempted to translate economic ideology into public policy. And I hope current efforts don’t turn out as poorly as they did then.

The volcanic eruption of Tambora, in today’s Indonesia, produced an early modern example of climate change, causing catastrophic weather events that gave 1816 the title “year without a summer.”

It’s Town Meeting time. But so what? Why should we care?

Historian Kenneth Clark argued that, to survive, a civilization requires one thing above all: confidence. Confidence in itself; confidence in its culture and laws; confidence in the individual and collective capacities of its citizens to shape the future.

Soon after the Pilgrims landed, Plymouth’s William Bradford described a colony beset by dangers: What could they see but a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men. . . [A]ll things stand upon them with a weatherbeaten face, and the whole country, full of woods and thickets, represented a wild and savage hue.

Joel Ryan / AP

Searching for perspective on today’s national climate of reckless self-interest some historians find an apt comparison in another decade of unparalleled greed and corruption, the so-called “Roaring Twenties."

When cultural historian Kenneth Clark sought to highlight the most representative example of the 18th century Enlightenment, he singled out a twenty-eight volume French reference work with the unwieldy title Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. It was an extraordinary accomplishment - a readily accessible summary of the range of human knowledge at the time.

When cultural historian Kenneth Clark sought to highlight the most representative example of the 18th century Enlightenment, he singled out a twenty-eight volume French reference work with the unwieldy title Encyclopedia, or a Systematic Dictionary of the Sciences, Arts, and Crafts. It was an extraordinary accomplishment - a readily accessible summary of the range of human knowledge at the time.

Troubled times lead to grand schemes.

Recently, pundits like David Brooks of The New York Times have called for a new national history to be taught in schools as a way preserving American unity.

The so-called tax reform law reminds me of a nightmarish revision of Robin Hood, with the Sheriff of Nottingham skillfully manipulating the good citizens of Sherwood into believing his rapacious policies will actually benefit them.

“When they line up for a firing squad they form a circle.” So the late Democratic Congressman Mo Udall despaired when discussing his party’s disorganization some years ago. Today this seems to apply to both major parties, which are in a state of disarray not seen since the 1850's.

With their eighteen-hour film on Vietnam airing on PBS, filmmakers Lynn Novick and Ken Burns remind us that this was a war that never goes away – in part because it was never clear at the time how it came about in the first place.

I know I’m not the only history teacher who’s been wrestling with profound doubts about what we’ve done or, perhaps, what we haven’t. Given the erosion of civility, even of rationality, and the increasing divisiveness that characterize our national discourse, we can’t avoid wondering if our work has been so poor that we’ve contributed to today’s civic chaos.

Midsummer 1785, and the new nation was drowning in a sea of debt, disorganization, and political and social division.

If there’s anything angering liberals more than Donald Trump, it’s his loyal base of unquestioning supporters. “How can people be so blind?” they ask.

I’ve often wondered about the standards we expect political candidates to meet. Not the formal requirements of age, citizenship, or length of residence; but the intangibles – a kind of “litmus test” of qualities that candidates must pass before we entrust them with public office.

On an open summit not far from me is an inscription painstakingly carved in stone: Now I Am With You Always.

Despite calls for the president’s removal either by impeachment or invoking the 25th amendment, neither’s likely.

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