A Corner of the Internet where History—and Civility—Flourish


Sara Mayeux is a JD and American history PhD student at Stanford University, and blogs at http://prisonlaw.wordpress.com

The Internet has become a cesspool of rancor, slander, and nonsense.  Or so goes the conventional wisdom.  And if you scan the reader comments appended to almost any news article or blog post, the conventional wisdom is easy to believe.  I recently published an op-ed in a large regional newspaper.  I was pleasantly surprised that some online commenters seemed to have actually read my article and responded to points that I had made.  But not surprisingly, many others preferred to attempt jokes about my family, lampoon my stupidity, or not so subtly suggest that I invite a rapist to live with me if I liked lawbreakers so much.  Actually, I didn’t read the comments myself, but that’s the summary I got from my less lily-livered brother, whom I appointed to dive into the swamp on my behalf and report back to me.

Though they rally in tri-corner hats and weep over Gone With the Wind, Americans are ignorant of what history really teaches.  That’s another piece of conventional wisdom—at least among historians.  David Lowenthal recently lamented the presentism that infects all corners of American culture:  instead of seeing the past as complexly and fundamentally different from our own time, “the public at large increasingly domesticates that past, refashioning it in modern terms, and then praising it for echoing with their own precepts or damning it for failing to conform to them.”

Through his blog at TheAtlantic.com, journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates has been quietly dismantling both of these conventional truths.  Against all odds, Coates has assembled an orderly corner of the Web that functions remarkably closely to a successful college seminar.  At his site, mostly anonymous commenters gather daily, but they’re not slinging zingers at one another or to regurgitating incoherent political talking points. Rather, they’re analyzing WPA oral histories of slavery and discussing Philip Dray’s Capitol Men.  They’re debating how to read primary sources, the interplay between history and memory, and the utility of race as a concept.  Each week, a virtual reading group assembles to discuss two chapters of James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom.

It may sound from this description like Coates’s blog is solely focused on history.  But that’s the marvelous thing:  it’s not. It’s as likely to feature a YouTube video of a 1980s rap classic as a history-related post—or a rumination on the World of Warcraft video game, or an analysis of the health care debate, or a commentary on police brutality.  Coates is a generalist culture blogger who takes his culture with a heavy dose of history—and in so doing, demonstrates daily that history’s gods have not all fled, after all.  In a post that I dare say David Lowenthal might appreciate, Coates discussed how resistant history is to our efforts to contain it and deploy it:

History is the monster.  And there is no escape.  You can't talk your way out of it—at every step we're confronted by our own laziness.  It warps our stories, reduces beautiful and complicated narratives about race, sports, agency into cartoonish fairy tales....

And for African-Americans, history really is the balm in Gilead.  I think a lot of us can come to some peace, can come to understand that whatever happened to us, there are limits on what anyone can do to make it right, and while those limits have to be pushed, some of this we're going to have to carry ourselves.  And then with an even broader sense we can understand that our suffering is not singular, that it isn't the only suffering.  And finally—and most important to me—we can understand ourselves as Zora Hurston did, as more then a litany of abuses, as more than a walking protest, as something apart and distinct from what someone else did to us.

As a moderator of comments, Coates resembles nothing so much as a particularly effective graduate teaching assistant moderating a discussion section.  For the most part, he allows the commenters to talk amongst—and teach—themselves. But he’s not hesitant to jump into the fray as needed, to respond to a commenter’s argument or ask a follow-up question.  He can often be found urging a particularly emotional commenter to supply some evidence, in the form of a quotation from a source or interlocutor.  He quotes liberally from his commenters in formulating his own thoughts, always with generous attribution.  Like the best teachers, he models intellectual curiosity and a humility about what he does not know.  In a series of posts entitled “Talk to Me Like I’m Stupid,” he has invited readers to explain to him the ins and outs of financial derivatives, the torture debate, and the history of hunting in America.

Very occasionally, Coates prunes a comment that oversteps the bounds of decorum or simply does not relate to the topic of the conversation, using the magic of the “delete” button.  Of course, graduate teaching assistants don’t have the luxury of simply removing from the classroom the proverbial student who won’t stop talking.  But we can learn from Coates’s admirable and remarkably successful efforts over the past few months to build a genuine intellectual community using a medium—the Internet—that many scholars have written off as hopelessly impersonal and unserious.  If he can achieve this feat with thousands of far-flung anonymous readers, then surely it is attainable not just in our small sections but even in our largest lecture courses.

As an aspiring historian, I’ve taken two points of inspiration from following Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog over the past few months.  First, professional historians need not wallow in their self-perceived irrelevance to the broader culture, as they are so wont to do.  Coates and his readers frequently cite not just James McPherson, David Blight, and Edmund Morris, but also more specialized scholars.  To be sure, Coates’s readers are a self-selecting group.  But they are a group, and a large one at that.  Even in our rancorous, ahistorical age, accessible and engaging history can and does find an eager audience not just among the academy, but among curious and smart readers from a wide range of cultural and professional backgrounds.

Second, the Internet is a house of many mansions.  Many of them are mildewed cesspools, lacking modern plumbing.  But some of them really do approximate what the Internet’s earliest evangelists promised:  virtual spaces where people who’ve never physically met can learn from each other.

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Maarja Krusten - 7/18/2010

I enjoyed this essay very much, thank you so much for posting it. (I was just shaking my head and feeling discouraged about another essay on the main page. Yours came as a breath of fresh air and cheered me up.) I've been very impressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates's site whenever I've looked in on it, both in terms of his blog essays and his commenters. You did well to point to his commentariat and engagement with them. I've never seen a history site which does as well as he does. I think we all could learn from him.