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‘public history’ Category

  1. A Memoir of Modern Turkey

    January 1, 2015 by Holly Thomas

    cover photo


    I am blogging from my other Website,, until further notice in order to promote my book: It’s Cold Here: A Memoir of Modern Turkey.

  2. Maps, Timelines, Visual Displays

    August 22, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    Maps & Timelines


    I found this in my inbox this morning via Maria Popova, who writes for Brain Pickings, and I’m putting on my Christmas list. Popova writes that Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline, by Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton, is a “lavish collection of illustrated timelines [tracing] the history of graphic representations of time in Europe and the United States from 1450 to the present, featuring everything from medieval manuscripts to websites to a chronological board game developed by Mark Twain.”

    What is a graphic representation of time? One wonderful example from the book is something someone called a HISTOMAP, which illustrates 4,000 years of world history as seen through the dominant empires beginning with the Egyptians, Iranians, and Chinese (among others). The graphic looks like rivulets in the sand. You can see how big the empires were by how much horizontal space they take up. The dates run down the left side so that you can also see changes over time, and the beginnings and endings of empires, which is a little heart-stopping. Here it is:



    I also really appreciate Edward R. Tufte’s book, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, and feel that exhibit and book designers dealing in organizational history could make better use of his ideas. Here is probably the most famous visual display of quantitative information ever made:

    Napoleon marches on Russia.

    Napoleon marches on Russia and returns home.






  3. Exhibition Review: Ai Wei Wei in Brooklyn

    June 16, 2014 by Holly Thomas



    I haven’t had a chance to discuss the exhibition I saw last month when I was visiting New York on Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei, “According to What?”. I was aggrieved to miss Kara Walker’s much talked about exhibit in the old Domino Sugar Factory the same trip, but the Kara Walker “mammy Sphinx” show, A Subtlety, was not open when I was there. I love when visual artists are engaged with history in meaningful ways. They reach the public more than the average public historian usually does. They challenge people to think about history in ways the academic historian only does if her work is widely read. They are able to convey so much with, sometimes, one idea or one piece, and demonstrate how important history is to current events, and so to our lives and identities.

    Ai Wei Wei does this over and over again in his work at the Brooklyn show, and because he is Chinese and working in Beijing in a climate of constant oppression, (the 25-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre just passed last week, and the official line is total denial of it), he challenges the Chinese authorities at every turn. One of the most affecting pieces concerns the earthquake in Sichuan in 2008 that killed thousands of school children due to shoddy building construction. Not only are the authorities responsible for the construction of the buildings, but no one is held accountable, and the government through its silence simply denies wrongdoing while grieving parents have no where to turn. Ai Wei Wei has sought to redress this by collecting names himself, which he lists on a wall in the exhibit, and has also constructed an image of the 8.0 earthquake using straightened rebar that had been mangled in the quake.

    Another really haunting piece, or series, actually, of six dioramas, concerns the direct experience of Chinese oppression by the artist himself (part of one is pictured, above). It is called S.A.C.R.E.D., and when you peek through the small, jail-like window of each box, it’s hard not to feel the oppressiveness of confinement. Two guards stand over Ai Wei Wei’s every act, however personal, from eating to sleeping to using the toilet, for months. It’s powerful stuff, and reminds us, or me anyway, how important art is as a voice of protest, and in terms of history, as an act of remembering.



  4. Self Publishing Still Isn’t Publishing

    June 10, 2014 by Holly Thomas


    I could discuss publishing history, but that’s been done a lot, of course, especially the demise of the bookstore, and, most recently, the ongoing scandals with Amazon. Today I want to lay out my near misadventure into self-publishing instead. Not history exactly, but still current. (I have finished my second book, a work of narrative nonfiction combined with memoir, but this post concerns my first, an historical novel. I will market both beginning next week.)

    I began my self-publishing near-adventure with Northshire Bookstore in Vermont, which has the Espresso Book Machine (on my friend Thor Sigvaldson’s recommendation; he helped to launch the EBM), and assumed I could get hard copies of the book as Northshire is a POD publisher, as well as sell on Amazon. (Northshire offers to upload to Amazon, but this is a red herring. You can just do it yourself. Also, Northshire, and I’d bet other printers of POD services, does not really do anything in terms of design that they say they do in their marketing materials. They simply line up the material to print.) Worse, however, and this is true of ALL self-published books: they don’t sell (fewer than  100 on average), and they don’t get distribution in bookstores (Ingram).

    With regard to Northshire with the EBM, it became quickly clear that their business model was geared at best to someone printing very few books. I was going to spend $700 for their Premier Package. But the problem was this: Northshire takes 45 cents for every page printed, plus $5 for every book. For a 300-page book, that is $13.50 plus $5, or $18.50 per book. While Amazon normally takes two-thirds of the price of every book ordered, it takes 20 percent via Shires Press (Northshire). With no hope of bookstore distribution as a self-published author, all sales would have been driven through Amazon. I would have needed to inflate the sale price of the book to more than $25. Imagine, a new author trying to sell a paperback book for a hardcover price or more! And I would still have made only $1 per book profit.

    I then decided to look at Amazon, but ran into several salient facts: 1) I would need to format the book, do all of the professional editing and design, etc., in order for it to look and read as it should; 2) Amazon takes two-thirds profit/book sold; 3) promotion is still an issue; and 4) no bookstore distribution.

    So POD publishing was out, and so was Amazon. I turned my attention to the third and last self-publishing idea: the so-called self-publishing house. These are springing up all over. However, the average self-published book sells fewer than 100 copies, as I stated above–no matter how you promote it. And, again, self-published books do not get distributed through Ingram, so even after buying the professional services these houses offer ($5,000 gets you in the door, but $20,000 can disappear quickly for basic design and editing), you still won’t be sold in bookstores. There may be a tiny fraction of these left, but they remain vital, at least to a Portlander like me who grew up going to Powell’s.

    None of these options makes economic or any other kind of sense, unless you are doing a family history or a neighborhood bird watching book project. I have returned to the idea, not to mention hope, of traditional publishing: finding an agent, and publishing my book the old-fashioned way, through a real publishing house, in spite of the bleak environment for books. I’m not sure why I ever entertained any other idea in the first place.




  5. Public History Needs to Grow Beyond the Academy

    June 6, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    King Kong


    I came across this post from the National Council on Public History today, which is in turn from the New York History Blog: “What’s unfortunate, of course, is that different groups of historians have long shown a tendency to become preoccupied with their own issues and their own organizations. University scholars get together to share research and debate lofty ideas, for example, museum professionals talk among themselves about artifacts and exhibitions, teachers create and exchange lesson plans, and preservationists discuss compliance with federal regulations. In this sense, New York’s historians function in a large but disconnected community—not unlike those found in other states or even at the national level.”


    Face it. For as long as archivists tend only to their archives, for as long as curators preoccupy themselves with their collections, for as long as scholars write only for their peers, and for as long as local historians fail to address the larger context in which their history unfolds, the history community will never realize its untapped potential for making a real difference in people’s lives.”

    Well, no kidding. As any history M.A. can assure you, the market is against the non-Ph.d, no matter her real-world experience in most cases. (Exceptions are in historic preservation and archiving, and sometimes, museum work, but specific advanced degrees exist for all of those subject, and the historian-as-generalist gets largely left out.) It’s a scam, one that I have hesitated to write about publicly, but one that I believe is anywhere a public history M.A. is offered. Not that these aren’t good in an of themselves. My life has been greatly enriched by my own program at American University in Washington, D.C. The question is do the promises held out to degree candidates about professional work stack up? The answer is largely no. Having an M.A. in history, and only 12 percent of Americans have an M.A. in any subject, can be held against you as if you couldn’t be asked to complete a Ph.d, never mind that there a few tenure-track positions open anywhere in universities, or the time and expense of acquiring one. And never mind the fact that many, many Ph.d’s lack real-world job experience, and so, for example, cannot write well or on deadline, have never managed people, and may not be comfortable interviewing people for oral history projects, to name a few examples.

    For someone as passionate about history as I am, who never wanted to teach but instead has sought to reach the public, it’s a pretty frustrating reality. Public history is still based on an academic model and lives largely behind the desks of academics.






  6. Gaston Glock: American Fringe Benefits

    May 10, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    Gaston Glock


    One wonders why Gaston Glock, pictured above with the wife who is 50 years his junior, and an Austrian born in Vienna in 1929, cares so deeply about American Second Amendment rights, at least the ahistorical view of them since about thirty years ago. Of course, the answer is enormous-but-enormous profits. In January 2010, Business Week reported, after Obama became president, “Gaston Glock played on [the] anxiety [of extremists] in an open letter to customers.” Glock wrote: “As shooters and gun owners, we must band together with even greater zeal than in the past. We are not going to roll over and have our guns taken away because some of our misguided neighbors, no matter who they are.” We are not going to roll over and have our guns taken away, really? Wherever the two lovebirds are lunching in the photograph above, you can be sure it is not in an American bunker in Idaho.

    According to ABC News, accused Aurora movie house shooter James Holmes legally bought thousands of bullets, explosive chemicals and four guns months before prosecutors say he opened fire on a crowded movie theater. He started his buying spree only two years ago (May 10, 2012) with the online purchase of tear gas grenades. From then until July 14, Holmes legally bought nearly 6,300 rounds of ammunition, two Glock .40-caliber pistols, a .223-caliber semi-automatic rifle from Smith & Wesson, a 12-gauge Remington 870 Express Tactical shotgun, ballistic protection clothing, beam laser lights, bomb-making material, and handcuffs. Holmes bought of all this both online and in person. At the time, there was no legal process to keep a dangerous person from buying all of the above items legally in Colorado.

    Remington, established in 1816 in New York, is today owned by private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, which created a holding company, the so-called Freedom Group, Inc. (FGI) of arms makers, including the brands Bushmaster, DPMS, and Remington Arms, in 2006. FGI is the largest firearms and ammunition maker in the world. On December 18, 2012, following the Sand Hook Elementary School shooting, Cerberus announced its intention to divest Freedom Group after the powerful California pension board, a stakeholder, said it planned to strip all stakes held in firearms that make weapons banned by state law. Founded in 1992, the firm has $20 billion under management.

    Freedom Group CEO, George Kollitides, is a former managing director for Cerberus who led the FGI deal. He is a board member of the NRA, and chairman of Tier 1 Group, a special forces training business.

    No deal has yet been made with regard to the sale of FGI. From Reuters: “…major Wall Street firms [have] been unwilling to finance a bid for Freedom Group.” Still, the stocks of publicly traded weapons manufacturers have recovered since the Sandy Hook disaster. These include Smith & Wesson Holding Corp., Sturm Ruger & Co. Freedom Group’s rose 20 percent in the first half of 2013- an enormous amount – to $931.9 million.

    The Smith & Wesson Holmes used in Aurora was the M&P 15 (M&P for Military and Police), the company’s AR-15 assault weapon. Smith & Wesson says that it offers its assault rifles “in a variety of configurations tailored to specific shooting applications and styles,” Holems used a 100-drum magazine, which reportedly malfunctioned, but only after he had fired 45 rounds into the crowd of moviegoers. (See my story on Aurora shooting victim Alex Sullivan and his family, here.)

    Meanwhile, just between 2008-2012, the NRA alongside the ever-secretive and K0ch-backed American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) backed 99 laws rolling back gun safety regulations in 37 states. What’s more, eleven years ago (2003), Colorado passed its conceal carry measure. By the end of 2012, Colorado had handed out roughly 120,000 concealed carry permits. Then in March 2013, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that concealed weapons are legal on the state’s college campuses – one of five states explicitly allowing them in spite of the carnage across college campuses and in schools at every grade level, and in spite of two of the most gruesome mass shootings in American history taking place in the Denver area. As one source put it: “If former neauroscience student James Holmes were still attending the University of Colorado today, the movie theater killer-who had no criminal history and obtained his weapons legally-could have gotten a permit to tote his pair of .40 caliber Glocks straight into the student union.”

    Glock, known for its market-changing semi-automatic pistol, is, as I said above, from Austria, where private possession of handguns is permitted with only special authorization, and where automatic assault weapons are prohibited. Gaston Glock has made a fortune since entering the American market in the 1980s, but company finances remain murky as Glock is notoriously secretive and has created a complex and opaque structure of holding companies and trusts for Glock-affiliated entities around the world. Its American subsidiary is in Cobb County, Georgia, outside of Atlanta, where one of its former top officials, Paul Jannuzzo, a leading gun industry voice in the late 1990s and early 2000s, has been accused of theft and embezzlement.

    Glock has 65 percent of the American law enforcement market, which means that American taxpayers are largely paying for Glock’s financial success — EVEN THE GUNS AND AMMO HOARDERS WHO REVILE THE POLICE.






  7. History is the Missing Part of the Puzzle in Everything We Do

    April 20, 2014 by Holly Thomas



    One theme that I’m developing in the book that I’m writing on Turkey is a tough one by any measure, and it has to do with the ways in which people form identity, and how history informs their identities, as well as  the many ways people react to their present circumstances, and how they see them as defined by history. Confused? Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei put it best a few years ago when he said, “History is always the missing part of the puzzle in everything we do.” Exactly.

    My book encompasses a lot of history: of modern Turkey, the Ottoman Empire, and therefore the Balkans and the Middle East, Islamic history, Central Asian history, and because of its geography, Turkey before the Ottomans: Asia Minor, and therefore ancient Rome and Greece and early Christianity. It’s been a great pleasure to dive into so many subjects, and at times, mind boggling. Scholars focus on any one of these areas and spend a lifetime trying to understand them, where was I, a generalist with a background in American history, to begin? Yet with constant study, themes emerged, and one loomed large: historical grievances and the feelings people carry with them of victimization, sometimes centuries later, and often through much myth making, a subject I’d thought about before, especially in conducting major projects on historic pre-Civil War bank earnings and their connections to slavery.

    A few instances from my new book: the denial of Armenian genocide by modern Turkey, where it is illegal to use the term, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary; resentment in the Balkans toward Turks (and Bosnian Muslims), where it boiled over most recently of course in the early and mid-1990s in the latest Balkan War; Turkish paranoia over any further loss of territory and distrust of everyone from the Kurds they oppress to Western and Russian powers they remain leery of; and Arab resentment of The West, and from one author’s point of view, the assertion that the Crusades were experienced as “an act of rape by Arabs.”

    I delve into all of these, and at great length, especially the last contention, because however ahistorical the assertion, the emotion is real and needs to be understood, I think, to begin to comprehend Arab (though not only Arab) Muslim grievances and the Middle East today, even as it descends, once again, into chaos.






  8. Sultan Selim, Vladimir Putin & Crimea

    March 20, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    Sultan Selim III   As I write in my book on the two years I spent with my family in Ankara, Turkey, there was an Ottoman sultan named Selim III (r. 1789-1807), pictured, who is considered a transitional figure in Ottoman history between the traditional ways in which Ottoman culture and society had sustained itself for centuries and the Western ones it would need to adopt to survive. Selim was an erudite man, fluent in Arabic and Persian, both devout and patriotic. He was also a musician and a poet, and wrote a lot of poetry about the Russian occupation of the Crimea, which is in the news again this week as Russian President Vladimir Putin has, once again, invaded the Black Sea peninsula, controlled lately by Ukraine. Hope was pinned on Selim to bring back the victorious days of the Ottoman Empire after he ascended the throne in 1789, the same year his Louis XVI faced the guillotine in France. Before he became the sultan, Selim used to write admiring letters to Louis that indicate that he appreciated France’s absolute monarchy and military organization, for in them, he “conveyed his wish for an alliance with France upon his accession to the throne. He also expressed admiration for European civilization, his determination to introduce reforms along European lines, and his hope of receiving aid from France,” according to the Turkish Cypriot scholar Niyazi Berkes, who also wrote his famous tract, “Why have we been stumbling along the road to modernization for two hundred years?” in 1964. I go on to say in my book: Selim’s admiring letters to Louis, and his request for assistance, are surprising – even astonishing – until you know that by the end of the eighteenth century the balance of power between the Ottomans and Europe had reversed to such an extent that the Ottomans were forced to engage with their traditional foe – Christian Europe – and, worse, to seek its advice, a trajectory that began then and continues to this day in modern Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union. It’s important to remember, though, that Selim was after military reform and bureaucratic efficiency, not the social changes the French Revolution promised. After two enormous losses against Catherine the Great’s Russia (the Turko-Russian Wars of 1768-1774 and 1787-1792), it finally became clear to the stagnating Ottomans that they no longer had the technological or organizational skills in battle to defend their territories, much less to conquer new lands. The Treaty of Kücük Kaynarca (1774) was especially disastrous to the Ottoman regime. The Russians gained southern Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, and the Crimea, giving the Russians crucial access to the Black Sea, and thereby potentially to the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, as well. Control over the Crimea also gave Russia reign of the Crimean Khanate, the small population of Tartars who were a vestige of the Mongolian invasions, and whom, up until then, the Ottomans had ruled over. This marked the first time the Ottomans lost Muslim territory to Christendom. In May, Putin told Crimean Tartars that their future belongs to Russia (or with Russia, I’m not sure which). The Tartars make up only 12 percent of the population, and the majority want to remain a part of Ukraine.

  9. Happy Birthday, Betty Friedan

    February 4, 2014 by Holly Thomas

    Betty Friedan

    From Ms. Magazine today:

    Betty Friedan was born and died on this date in 1921 and 2006. Her groundbreaking book The Feminine Mystique gave a name to the unspoken oppression women had been bearing in American society and is credited with sparking the feminist movement of the 1960s.”

    “The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women,” Friedan wrote in her book, which I read in my early twenties and return to from time to time but always remember deeply, though I was born after it was published.

    “It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question- “Is this all?”

  10. Beautiful People I Admire

    February 3, 2014 by Holly Thomas


    Even as everyone is reeling with the news of the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman today, another story about another great artist who died too young just aired on NPR. It is about Sam Cooke and especially his aching song, Change is Gonna Come, which is 50 years old this week.

    I happened to catch the first half of Gone With the Wind on Saturday night on TCM, which I haven’t seen for years. The actress Hattie McDaniel won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her portrait of Mammy the following spring, 1940, and it would be another twenty-four years before another African American won at the Oscars, Sidney Poitier for his role in Lilies of the Field, for which he was the first African American to receive Best Actor. When Gone With The Wind premiered at the Loew’s Grand Theater in Atlanta, Georgia, in December, 1939, Atlanta made sure to exclude the African American actors who had appeared in the film under their stark segregation laws. Clarke Gable nearly boycotted, but McDaniel apparently talked him into going.

    Gone With the Wind is, of course, laughable: little slave girls fanning the spoiled plantation daughters in their bloomers while they nap upstairs at a party; the KKK shown as the law-and-order party, men supposedly on the side of justice instead of the terrorists they were; even in the opening sequence, the gauzy shot of black slaves in the cotton fields, beckoning the viewer to partake in a nostalgia for the antebellum South as if there were no human cost to that civilization that matters, on the contrary, that the Old South was the only honorable civilization and the damned yankees destroyed it.

    Hattie McDaniel is probably best remembered today for her role in Gone With The Wind, but she was that elusive thing that so many actors (and musicians) seek to be in general: gainfully employed. Imagine the talent that would have required as an African American woman in the 1930s. “In addition to acting in many films, McDaniel was a professional singer-songwriter, comedian, stage actress, radio performer, and television star; she was the first black woman to sing on the radio in America. During her career, McDaniel appeared in over 300 films, although she received screen credits for only 80 or so.”

    What it means to be successful, to triumph over adversity – or not – is something we all think about. Philip Seymour Hoffman discussed this in an interview during the time that he played Willy Loman on Broadway two years ago.

    “You have a vision of where your life’s going to be and that doesn’t work out,” said Hoffman in the interview about Loman. “I think that’s something that’s always going to affect people.”

    But we hope that the artists who give us so much beauty and pain and understanding in their work, the great story tellers who allow us to see them and teach us about ourselves, will themselves always transcend life’s most entrenched problems.

    “It’s never that simple,” said Hoffman about life and the play, Death of a Salesman. “This play really seeps into why we’re here, what are we doing? Family, work, friends, hopes, dreams, careers. What’s happiness? What’s success? What does it mean? Is it important? How do you get it?”

    Those words are haunting me today.

    Rest in Peace, Philip Seymour Hoffman