History 275
Conspiracy and Dissent in 20th
c. America
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Introduction Lecture Schedule Extras Midterm Assignment Links Printable Version

A new links page has been added, called Extras. New material is being added constantly. More! More! We need more! Send us more!


YES, the HIST275 WebCT page is accessible as of 10/16! Too many nifty features to list! This page explains all.


Umberto Eco's article "Beyond Us and Them" has been added to the "Readings" section of the WebCT page.

Well, we made it through Y2K, or did we...? Did someone shoot down TWA Flight 800? Do we know yet who killed Princess Diana? Or who poisoned Elvis? Or who convinced JFK, Jr., that he could make it? Or who spiked Ben Johnson's wee-wee -- twice? Where is Chandra Levy? Why is Bill Clinton still smiling? Did Timothy McVeigh do it alone? Hey!!!!!!! Why???????? Who’s in Charge Here??

For much of its history the United States enjoyed by dint of geographical position and weak neighbors a near-unsullied position of free security. This circumstance of safety persisted well into the 20th century, ending only with the emergence of totalitarian dictatorships in Germany and the Soviet Union, the Second World War, and the cold war and threat of nuclear annhilation that followed. Yet from their colonial beginnings in the early 17th century, Americans evinced increasing concerns about enemies–both abroad and within national borders. History 275 will provide students opportunity to assess many ways in which Americans–on elite and popular levels–have defined, debated, and sought to maintain security against the most heinous adversaries.

As playwright David Mamet observed in 1995, "it is in our nature to credit the ridiculous for the sake of the momentary enjoyment [or relief] it affords," often "through the creation of a villain, whose presence stands between us and a Perfect World: this pornographer, this purveyor of filth, this destroyer of the family is he or she who used to be known by the name of communist, fellow traveler, labour agitator. Other historical names include nigger lover, papist, Yellow Peril, faggot, and Jew." In the culture wars of the very recent past, political discourse in the United States seems to find most effective expression in "us-against-them" terms (the title of one of the course texts). This should not be surprising. For political discourse–a discourse related to questions of power in society, intersecting all levels of culture–reflects American experience on all levels. A key hypothesis of History 275 holds that construction of internal and external enemies (and the connecting of the internal with the external–"The Other") have played important, sometime crucial roles in the history of the Republic.

By suggesting ways in which dissent in American life has both manifested and generated fears of conspiracy and subversion, History 275 seeks to accomplish several things. First, students should be aware that the course approaches the American past in a manner somewhat different than usual. Where "consensus" and neoconservative historians emphasize the manner in which Americans have been knit together by shared values and aspirations, History 275 argues that although these things are important in evaluating the Republic’s history, one also confronts in that saga remarkable diversities, conflicts, polarities, and disagreements. Consequently, in describing and analyzing the exaggerated ways in which American fringe groups, cults, demagogues, reformers, kooks (be careful with this one!), and mainstream politicians (and two former presidents, in particular), have perceived reality, the instructor hopes to illuminate the phenomenon the late historian Richard Hofstadter termed "the paranoid style" in American political and social life. In addition, by considering the nature and limits of protest during war and periods of domestic crisis, we shall point up a central problem faced by dissenting Americans since the arrival of the Puritans early in the seventeenth century–that of being labeled threats to the country’s security and welfare.

In order to appreciate the complex dimensions of conspiratorial world views and the various uses to which alleged conspiracies have been put both by dissenting Americans and by citizens (and government bodies) reacting against them, the student will also consider the ways in which race and ethnicity, economic and class conflict, gender and sexuality, and politics (key determinants of "power") have intersected in the twentieth century. The course is based on the assumption that the persistent tendency of Americans to blame assorted devils for real and imagined domestic and foreign policy problems suggests a great deal about the American national character, regional characteristics, the evolving values and goals of dominant and contending cultural groups, and–perhaps most important–the kinds of political, social, and cultural fissures that have characterized U.S. society. Thus an analysis of the interplay between dissent and the fear of subversion in American history helps illuminate the complicated relationship between individual and group behaviour, social and economic conditions, intellectual attitudes, and politics and diplomacy.

Course Mechanics: History 275 is designated a lecture course, but students may also attend Friday afternoon "bearpit" sessions, venues and times to be announced. These meetings will consider questions raised in lectures and readings, the mechanics and substance of writing essays, and issues of general interest related to the study of history. These meetings will allow you to explore problems in a smaller group, discuss your ideas with your peers, and prepare more systematically than you might for your examinations.

The paperback books and Xeroxed reprints listed here will serve as the core readings for the term. The books are available at the Campus Bookstore, and an effort has been made to place all required readings on reserve in Stauffer Library. Scheduled lectures and general readings for the term appear here. Additions and suggested references will also be made and announced during the course of the term. Specific assignments on which readings to emphasize for tutorial meetings will be made at the Monday lecture each week a tutorial is scheduled. I also call your attention to my web page, which contains course information, additional readings, links, and other interesting and intriguing material. The address for the "Real Geoff Smith" home page is http://post.queensu.ca/~smithgs.

I note also that although there is much garbage on the internet, there are also gems of information and myriad useful sites. If you know of sites and links that would be of interest to students in this course, please notify me. The internet is a huge potential resource, but it must be used with caution.

Course marks: Marks in History 275 will be computed in the following way–

Midterm essay: 50% (see this page)

Final exam: 50% (see this page)

Tutorial: "subjective plus" (up to 5 extra points)

Office Hours: My office hours are Friday afternoons from 1:30 to 3:30, in PHED 215, but I will make appointments at any mutually convenient time. I am always pleased to see you, and you can make arrangements, if necessary, by calling me at 533-6000 (x77800) or by e-mailing me at: smithgs@post.queensu.ca.



Introduction Lecture Schedule Extras Midterm Assignment Links Printable Version


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