Radley Balko

I went to see Radley Balko at Vanderbilt tonight. He was taller than I expected. I’m going to write something up for Pith, but I wanted to say, on the side, that I was in awe of his ability to engage ill-phrased questions that had some nugget of something interesting at their core while just shutting down some of the conspiratorial nonsense about like 9/11 and Pat Tillman.

I would never in a million years have the finesse to pull that off.

Two History Things

1. If you want to make an argument against Thomas Jefferson not being the father of some or all of Sally Hemings’ children, “Thomas Jefferson then was 64-years-old, making him an unlikely paternity candidate” does not cut it. Sixty-four year old men have sex, with women quite a bit younger than them, all the time. And 64-year-old men rape women easily, too. But that aside, in order to discount the “Thomas Jefferson was the father of Sally Heming’s children” theory, it is not enough to cry “It could have been ANY Jefferson male.” Because here’s the thing–Hemings’ children believed they were Jefferson’s children. Her grandchildren believed they were Jefferson’s grandchildren. Their contemporaries also believed this to be true. So, this isn’t a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had no enslaved children and these contemporary historians are attempting to overturn that.” This is a matter of “Everyone knew Jefferson had enslaved children, historians and white family members attempted to build a case for why that should not be acknowledged or believed, and now historians are giving credibility once again to the original claims.”

Why should we not believe the Hemings family? Make that case, if it is to be made. Why would the Hemings family lie about this or how is it possible that they’ve been mistaken about it all this time? And how do you know they’re wrong? If someone says “Thomas Jefferson is my dad” and then almost 200 years later, we find that his family shares DNA characteristics with the Jefferson family, we have to cut the bullshit with Occam’s Razor, not try to nominate any other Jefferson for fatherhood.

Plus, any other Jeffferson’s willingness to socialize in the slave cabins at night doesn’t tell us anything. Sally was a house slave and it’s more than likely her duties kept her in the house until late at night. Depending on what she was doing with/for the children, she may have even slept in the house. You know, where Thomas Jefferson was. Plus, Campbell says nothing about which set of slave cabins Randolph Jefferson hung out in. Along Mulberry Row? Back with the field hands?

There’s skepticism and then there’s ridiculous. “It could have been any Jefferson” without addressing why the Hemingses would say otherwise is ridiculous.

2. Speaking of ridiculousness, sometimes I’m in favor of it. So, this is a case in which I am in disagreement with the marvelous Gordon Belt (who you should be following on Twitter, because it’s all history goodness all the time). Ghost stories are great ways to get people interested in history. And ghost hunting is the main way we have of telling and passing along the very ghost stories that get people interested in history. Ghost stories are also important because they are important clues for telling us what people need from the past and what their misgivings and misconceptions about the past are.

Yes, it’s folklore more than it’s history and, in the case of ghost hunters, it’s folklore as performance. But would you dissuade a museum from having a storyteller come in and tell stories about Davy Crockett? I doubt it. So why the discomfort with this form of folklore? When the “ghost” of Davy Crockett was at the Tennessee State Museum telling stories, he was able to clear up a lot of misconceptions–in truth, he wanted to be called David, that he didn’t wear a coonskin cap.This presents similar opportunities.

Folklore is the close sibling of history and an understanding of one can help you understand the other. Historical places are often seen as “dead” places, places where nothing happens any more. But ghost hunts return museums and cultural heritage sites to the living as places where things do happen, where new experiences can be had, where new folklore is accumulated.

How is that a bad thing, even if it doesn’t serve obvious historical purposes?

I’m biased, because I write ghost stories and I sit at the TSLA or scouring old books to make sure that my ghost stories have a good historical foundation. But ghost stories are some of our most intimate connections to history, even if they are often the least-historically accurate.

It seems unfortunate for historians to be wigged out by that rather than seeing it as an opportunity.

A Not-Bad Miley Cyrus Song

The Butcher claims that this is evidence that any musician can be improved with pot smoking, either the musician’s or the audience’s. The musician’s, in this case. I’m not saying that this is a good song. But I’m used to Miley Cyrus songs being really bad. And this is truly not-bad. I can hear a little Tanya Tucker echo in there and the style of the song really suits her voice.

As hard as it is for actors to go from child-star to respected adult actor, the road from singing child-star (or just from that Disney model) to respected adult musician seems to be even more difficult. But this sounds like a way, you know?

And there are worse ways to build a career than as a Bob Dylan cover artist.