History professors Joe Crespino and Matt Payne related their personal experiences discovering history and current events from a new perspective in a lecture titled “History in the News” on Sunday.
The event, part of a series for this year’s Founders Week, opened with a speech titled “Struggling with Strom: How I Came to Write About One of America’s Most Colorful and Controversial Politicians” by Crespino, an associate professor of history.
His interest in Strom Thurmond, who was notorious for his fight against civil rights legislation, began as he was writing his dissertation at George Mason University, Crespino said.
It was December 2002 when former Senator Trent Lott delivered the controversial statement claiming that the United States would be much better off if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948, and Crespino said he recalled research showing Lott had said the same thing in 1980. Thurmond was running as a candi- date of the States Rights Democratic Party, commonly referred to as “Dixiecrats.”
Crespino was thrust into the public eye as he presented his research to newspapers around the country, particularly after publishing an opinion piece in the New York Times
Despite the opportunity the events offered him, Crespino said, it was the reactions from both public and private spheres that interested him the most. News of Lott’s nearly identical statements in both 1980 and 2002 traveled quickly across the country.
On a smaller scale, the news also evoked discussion and perhaps some tension within his own family, as his father-in-law was prominent in Mississippi Republican circles at the time.
“Seeing how the public responded to what Trent Lott said made me know I wanted to write about Strom,” he said.
His anticipated political biography of Thurmond, nearing its completion after several years of work, is not typical of other works that exist about the politician, Crespino said.
“My story isn’t the same as books other journalists have written,” he said, explaining that his book rewrites the history of Thurmond because it is important to remember him not as one of the last demigods, but rather as a pioneer of the post-war conservatives.
Crespino said he hopes his book will help people understand Southern history and how it fits into the scope of national politics.
Payne, an associate professor of history, also spoke on the importance of looking at history from a different angle and a wider perspective.
His lecture, “Adventures in Absurdistan: Trying to Make Sense of the History of the ‘Stans,” dealt with the American treatment of Afghanistan.
Throughout history, Payne said, the Soviets and the Americans have “got Afghanistan wrong.”
“Reading the news, I’ve been struck by a sense of déjà vu, and déjà vu for a Soviet historian is never a good thing,” he joked.
Payne then explained the term “Absurdistan,” which he said comes from a 2006 novel by Gary Shteyngart about a man named Misha Vainberg, whose family was banned from the United States after Vainberg’s father killed a businessman.
While in the fictitious ex-Soviet republic of Absurdistan, the well-educated Vainberg goes about attempting to return to the South Bronx. Though Vainberg thinks he knows what he is doing, he really does not, for he eventually causes civil war in Absurdistan.
This ignorance was mirrored in Payne’s own experiences in Kazakhstan, where he resided for a year to conduct research for his dissertation, he said. During his stay, he researched state archives, which contained private, typically inaccessible information.
“They clearly didn’t want me there,” he said, adding that day-by-day, certain amenities were taken away from him, such as the heating, the furniture, his desk and more.
Eventually, Payne said, his chair and the light were taken away. Later, he said, he came to understand that there was no hostility, but rather a misunderstanding.
To the locals, Payne said, he had come off as rude because while he had treated the people in the state building as professional and official, custom called for more friendliness and even gifts.
“You just have to understand the people,” Payne said.
Understanding custom and context is vital in the discussion concerning Afghanistan as well, Payne said.
First, it is important to realize that there is no such place as Afghanistan, he said, explaining that it is divided by extreme geographic, political and ethnic complexity.
“It’s gigantic and mountainous; it’s impossible to hold on to that place,” he said, noting that this makes Afghanistan largely a rural country.
As such, Payne said, the discussion about Afghanistan must involve a certain level of understanding and humility, similar to understanding custom and tradition when in a foreign country.
Founders Week will continue through Feb. 6 with lectures, gallery openings and other events celebrating the arts and sciences at Emory.
— Contact Alice Chen.