I co-hosted a chat last night and now I am hooked

Earlier this week I joined Clubhouse, the voice-based social media platform where “chatrooms” are an audio-based experience. I hope Clubhouse software engineers are building in robust accessibility features for deaf and hard of hearing participants, because this is a fun platform.

I didn’t really know what to expect before I logged on. I listened in on a few conversations, popping from room to room, and at first I felt like I was tapping into old style telephone party lines, where anyone who picked up the receiver could overhear everyone else’s conversation.

Photo by Call Me Fred on Unsplash

But a friend of mine gave me another metaphor…

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How the format of American colonial newspapers explains Substack’s publishing model

Photo by Marco Djallo on Unsplash

We are at a moment of intense controversy over issues of free speech, the “marketplace of ideas,” the editorial functions of online publishing platforms, and the government’s interest (legitimate or illegitimate) in regulating the content or the content moderation of those platforms. As a historian, I find this an interesting moment to think about the form and function of the newspaper in the American colonies prior to the Revolutionary War, particularly when I consider the debates over the corporate decision-making of the owners of the newsletter platform Substack.

Between these two sentences yawns a significant temporal and explanatory chasm, so…

This Writer’s Life

Instead of envisioning the completed draft, work on addressing one problem

I wanted to fix this split in the bottom of the box before I moved on to anything else.

The writing slope I am restoring was not manufactured by a fine furniture maker. It was quickly and cheaply assembled. Some of the wood in the box had not even cured before it was pressed into service. In fact, I spent part of today straightening out a warped divider that had been papered over when the pine was still fresh. When I soaked the thin board for fifteen minutes to scrape off its coating of paper, the board’s long edges curled toward its center.

That put a kink — literally — in my restoration process. However, a quick internet search…

This Writer’s Life

Revive your writing voice by stripping some things away

This battered writing slope will never look like new again, but I can make it look better. Photo by author.

As I attempt the restoration of an antique writing slope, I am learning as I go about what works and what doesn’t when it comes to repairing what seems beyond salvaging. That holds true for this writing slope, and it holds true for my book manuscript. Each step in the process of restoring this writing tool offers a lesson that applies to restoring my writing. In this series of posts, I will share those lessons with you.

The writing slope I am restoring now is a lot like my (theoretically extant) book manuscript: a mess.

Like this battered writing slope…

This Writer’s Life

A search for better posture led me to new ways and new reasons for writing

A mid-19th century rosewood writing slope with a stunning walnut burl veneer

Because 2020 just wasn’t quite done with me, I began 2021 with a bulging disc and excruciating pain that radiated down to my ankle. I couldn’t stand up straight, I couldn’t walk, I practically couldn’t move without sobbing.

Some muscle relaxants and physical therapy took care of the immediate problem. “However,” said the doctor, “we need to address the underlying issue here. How much time do you spend sitting at a desk every day?”

I just laughed.

So we talked about various chair adjustments and cushions and keyboard rests that might help correct my posture while I am sitting at…

What is “Western Civilization”?

Rumors that “the Left” will “cancel” the British monarchy and destroy “Western democracy” are greatly exaggerated

A screengrab from the Heritage Foundation website advertising its March 25th event

The conservative Heritage Foundation recently advertised a March 25 virtual symposium titled with a collection of nouns, adjectives, and verbs that reads like a 2021 MadLib:

“The Crown Under Fire: Why the Left’s Campaign to Cancel the Monarchy and Undermine a Cornerstone of Western Democracy Will Fail”

Well, there’s really only one adjective here: “Western,” modifying the kind of democracy of which the British monarchy is supposedly the cornerstone.

As a historian of ideas who is currently working on a history of the idea of “Western Civilization,” I have some questions that are really more of a comment.

Looking at…

What Is “Western Civilization”?

Abolitionist print culture, the Crimean War, and middle-class life in 19th century America

The front and back covers of a book published by J.P. Jewett & Co., 1854

I have written before about how American abolitionists linked the territorial expansionism of “the slave power” with the territorial expansionism of Czarist Russia, drawing a connection between the Nebraska debate and the Crimean War in 1854. That linkage was not only rehtorical, but also visual, as news of the Crimean War and news of the Nebraska debate ran side by side on the same pages of the newspaper.

It is fruitful — and fun — to dig deeper into some of these juxtapositions and consider what they tell us about American thought and culture at the time. Here’s an example…

This Writer’s Life

A metaphor we use to write about the past can help us understand the present

Photo by Bud Helisson on Unsplash

The glasses are a metaphor. They symbolize an all-seeing but powerless God.

I learned this during my sophomore year of high school, when my English teacher walked us through The Great Gatsby.

English was my thing then. Still is. But you know what I mean: every high school student fits or is made to fit somewhere. Even the misfits belong to one another. The overlap between the misfits and the writers was significant at my high school, perhaps more than some other places, because my school served a sprawling, mostly rural district in a farm town where “culture” was hard…

What Is “Western Civilization”?

America’s Founding Fathers held the Middle Ages in contempt

Photo by Hannah Wernecke on Unsplash

Tracing the history of the concept of “Western Civilization” encompasses three problems: understanding the history of the idea of “the West,” tracing the history of the meaning of “civilization,” and understanding how, why, and when those two ideas joined and became a coherent concept in American thought and culture. If you ask people to define “Western Civilization” today, people may answer the question in different ways, but many people will agree that there is something called “Western Civilization” that has existed and developed and continued since the days of ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt or ancient Greece.

What I am…

American companies have been blaming workers for their own unhappiness since the late 1800s

Chefs walk out of the Ritz hotel in London to hear an address by Arthur Lewis MP after which they went on strike.
Chefs walk out of the Ritz hotel in London to hear an address by Arthur Lewis MP after which they went on strike.
Photo: Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

What exactly is a disgruntled employee? Is that a bad thing?

Corporations or organizations frequently use the term to explain away workers’ allegations of employer malfeasance. We’ve all heard things like, “This complaint doesn’t reflect our company culture; this is a controversy cooked up by a few disgruntled employees. Our workers are overwhelmingly happy with their jobs, their working conditions, and their pay. We know, because we ask them if they’re happy, and they assure us that they are.”

Even if they don’t use those exact words, employers have often tried to deflect accusations of harmful behavior by dismissing the…

L.D. Burnett

Writer, historian of American thought & culture. Editor of TheMudsill.substack.com, a little magazine publishing new & established authors. Book under contract.

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