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Thursday, January 21 at 9.21 p.m. This was the twenty-first minute of the twenty-first hour of the twenty-first day of the twenty-first year of the twenty-first century.

I would say that the chances are good that I will not be around for 10.22 p.m. on January 22, 2122. Nor am I venerable enough to remember January 20, 1920, so it seems safe to say that such an auspicious moment will not be repeated in my lifetime nor I suspect in most of yours.

At this point, I should point out that I am a historian…

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Joe Biden’s first 100 Days have sped by and even on the other side of the Atlantic and with a global pandemic raging, one can hear the sighs, mainly of relief. But have things changed?

Certainly, mornings are no longer governed by the late night angry tweet. However, it seems frankly bizarre that Biden is already being mentioned alongside FDR, the only president to win four elections and whose first 100 Days was marked in 1933 by a Congress eager to pass a flood of major legislation. Biden has no such Congress and definitely can’t match FDR’s electoral record. I…

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Donald Trump has wrapped himself in scandal with the same grace and enthusiasm that he once showed when embracing the American flag. I am writing a history of presidential scandals from Nixon to Trump and now that I have reached the “Donald,” I need to go back to basics and ask: what does it take to make a scandal?

My publisher had suggested that I tackle the major political scandals in American history, but I managed to persuade her that this would require a multi-volume encyclopedia. I also pointed out that most scandals occurred at the local level, and rarely…

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Historians, like me, feel especially at home in archives, although plenty of other scholars also use them. We look forward to our visits and get frustrated when they aren’t possible (like now!) While there are catalogues and finders’ guides to assist us, part of the fun is that you don’t know what you will find. Below are a few examples of archival surprises that I have had in my time.

Using trustworthy contemporaneous sources is basic to historical research, but it’s easier said than done. For historians of the distant past, the records that remain can be scant and partial…

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PLUG INTO YOUR NETWORK: Social Capital and the Pandemic

Do you know your network? Not your mobile phone or internet provider or your digital TV company. It’s your social network I’m interested in. Even the anonymous crowd at a sports event is actually a tangle of social networks. Take a moment to write on a piece of paper a list of all the people to whom you have talked today. Consider the list and then add the names of anyone whom you talked to yesterday, and so on, until you have your social contacts for the week. Now, identify those…

February 12 was the anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. He would have been 212 years old, no age at all in Darwinian terms. He remains a major figure, but as you will see, hardly a bundle of laughs.

I once heard a professor of intellectual history declare that the Victorian era produced three giants with whose ideas modern man had still to wrestle: Marx, Freud, and Darwin. One can argue for others to be added, but these three are hard to displace. Each is more cited than read, and quite often misunderstood. It is famously reported that when Karl Marx…

Mask wearing has become the “new normal” in Italy in these new plague days. The rules are that you wear them outside the home. If someone has to enter your home, it is recommended that you and they wear masks. In light infection zones (Zona Gialla) where you are permitted to carry passengers who are not immediate members of your household, both driver and passengers have to be masked. Of course, you also wear masks on public transportation and in shops and other public places. This Italian approach contrasts sharply with the slow acceptance of mask-wearing in the Anglophone world…

Predictably as a Republican, Donald Trump compared himself to Abraham Lincoln, the greatest of Republican presidents; usually in the context of claims that his policies have especially benefited African Americans. In a recent article in the Atlantic Monthly, historian Andrew Lang has shown the sharp contrast between honest Abe’s and Dishonest Donald’s approach to the electoral process that is fundamental to democracy. Unlike Trump’s denial of Joe Biden’s victory, Lincoln not only insisted that the secession of southern states that followed his 1860 victory was unconstitutional, he also refused to back calls to postpone the election of 1864, despite widespread…

Sometimes a conceptual framework developed for one subject sheds light on another. While co-editing the volume Gender in the Civil Rights Movement (1999) with Sharon Monteith, it became clear to me that the essays submitted dealt exclusively with the relatively neglected role of women in the movement whereas the larger framework of gender also offered a valuable critical perspective on masculinity. Accordingly, I chose to write my own essay on the tensions between Martin Luther King’s espousal of nonviolence and the potent appeal of conventional masculinity for multiple generations of African American men. …

Peter Ling

Historian and biographer but thankfully with a sense of humor

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