Historians at the Movies (October 2020)

Dr. Walter D. Greason

Social media has changed the ways scholars approach the creation and distribution of knowledge in profound ways.  Facebook pages for new monographs reach thousands of readers within a few days. Instagram posts generate questions about content and methods across disciplinary boundaries. LinkedIn searches help new institutions find promising candidates faster than anyone considered possible. However, Twitter has been singular in its impact on academic discussion in the public sphere. In 2012, few serious scholars used the platform to communicate about scholarly research. Historians, as a profession, prefer books and journals. Even the use of vital tools like JSTOR and Project Muse was controversial at first. If television and films are risky resources because of their tendency to omit details or emphasize the dramatic, how much less reliable would Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram be? The brevity of these formats alone reject any pretense of objectivity, rendering any possibility of scholarly value unlikely. Unless the participants possess skills in computer science or media studies that are less common or valued in the profession, these criticisms might have prevailed. Instead, over the next two years, initiatives like Saturday School produced a regular following and even attracted the attention of the Washington Post. Still, online use of social media by academics was uneven, at best. Indeed, in many institutions, it was actively discouraged. In 2014, a group of intellectual historians began to explore the possibilities of daily engagement in academic conversations. These discussions led to the creation of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS).  Led by Christopher Cameron, Keisha Blain, and Ibram Kendi, this society attracted a few dozen scholars who actively used social media as part of their research agendas.  Their initial blogs created a frenzy of demand by 2016, as the public responded to the chance to participate in informal conversations about scholarly topics.

T. Thomas Fortune, c. 1900

A turning point came in August 2017 when the “Unite the Right” rally caused social unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia. The killing of Heather Heyer by a rally participant ignited an international outcry against white supremacy. Social media amplified the sense of injustice and unity against the threat of fascism around the world. The AAIHS formula of publishing online syllabi about controversial topics was immediately employed to force a global confrontation with racial violence in American history. Millions of people around the world responded and a ‘racial violence syllabus’ was translated into seven languages in two weeks. Professional organizations took note of the increased public engagement as both the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians embraced AAIHS and several other social media networks of emerging scholars. Within two years, Ibram Kendi and Keisha Blain had emerged as the leaders of a new generation of academics whose work transformed the culture of academic journals, popular journalism, and multimedia platforms for mass audiences. Since 2018, social media has become one of the required areas of engagement for academics in every discipline.

The immediacy of production, especially in retaining the rigor of peer review, has opened the doors to vast new areas of intellectual collaboration.  Jason Herbert, tweeting from his @herberthistory handle, is one of the leading authorities on the power of these media as he created a massive online community of scholars around the concept of “Historians at the Movies.” These weekly conversations give scholars and teachers time to explore the successes and failures of historical research through the lens of popular media, especially film. Over the last two years, these exchanges have inspired countless hours of laughter and collaboration in a staid profession in dire need of both. Herbert innovated a format that had emerged among educators in elementary and secondary schools – the online chat. By choosing a popular film, then identifying a hashtag to share the conversation, scholars could exchange ideas and jokes in real time. These conversations would build a strong sense of community that many academics do not enjoy in their daily work. As a result, a core audience developed around the HATM tag. Herbert could host every week, but also invite specialists to discuss particular thematic aspects of almost any film. 

Four themes shaped the reflection on the success of the concept – pedagogy, specialization, reach/sustainability, and streaming. The foundation of the social media community is a group of teachers and instructors who value the spontaneity of knowledgeable engagement through an informal window of cinema. So often, they focus on the primary and secondary sources that rightly shape student knowledge of historical content. Film brings sound and motion into the experience in ways that written text cannot. Even the power of still images fall short of the ability of a Hollywood production to create a new memory that might inspire a lifetime of learning. The power of this initial connection is reinforced with the range of specializations that the experts bring to each session. Every professional organization struggles to invite a broad cohort of new participants to stay vital. In HATM, rare insights from the edges of multiple fields spark new questions and insights every minute of the time shared together. Perhaps most importantly, the silent witnesses of these exchanges are far larger on social media than they could be in a conference room or convention center. The HATM viewing of the Marvel Studios’ film, Black Panther, reached over 180 million viral interactions on September 6, 2020. The digital crowd represented almost half of the population of the United States. Few traditional scholarly products have this level of success in reaching mass audiences. As a result, public engagement with historical topics increases. The nature of a streaming service, like Netflix or Amazon Prime, allows for powerful resonances to develop among vast audiences, so that the quality of historical analysis can inspire people who never had a chance to appreciate the joy of the “life of the mind” in other parts of their lives.

Herbert’s skill in drawing informed participants is unmatched. In his discussion about the utility of counterfactuals in historical analysis, he moved quickly to the heart of the profession in North America – the Civil War. His desire to engage in the contingencies that shaped the outcomes, as well as the possibilities of small changes yielding massive historical differences, revealed a deep, abiding energy that defines a true historian. Take, for example, the film “Confederate States of America.” It begins with the premise that the Confederacy won the Civil War. Then, the process of civil rights reforms was delayed a full century until the John F. Kennedy administration. This conceptual rift between history (as millions understand it) and the fictional timeline invites a suspension of disbelief that allows both exploration and entertainment. The artistic process of filmmaking also invites historical scrutiny through the process of oversimplifying the complexity of individual and collective decision-making across time. HATM goes further.  By historicizing fiction, it enables a form of literary criticism that challenges the audience to find the remnants of fact that shape narrative.  Where CSA distorted history for entertainment purposes, HATM grounds the entertainment experience in the rigorous application of historical analysis.  The debates around how we confront the most difficult questions about past human experiences drives a hunger for knowledge that touches every field of inquiry. This shared determination across every voice in the HATM conversations helps to shape a warm and affirming community, especially through the expression of disagreement. In the end, Herbert offers his audiences a form of historiography through media. PBS explored this line of inquiry in an older film titled “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property.” The entire project focused on the questions that Herbert raises every week through social media.  The filmmaker challenged an historian to examine the telling and re-telling of Turner’s revolt over time and across contexts. As a result, as the historian explained the shifting use of language and storytelling as the authors and audience remembered (and forgot) details, the filmmaker captured the process of historical analysis as a visual product. The contradictions and the clarity stand together on film. Unlike a singular narrative that rejects pieces of evidence in order to convince an audience about its objective truth, the PBS film also allows the tensions of ambiguity to persist. It leaves the audience to struggle with the layers of truth that historians constantly encounter through the archives.

HATM negotiates this terrain every week, moment by moment, as historians encounter scholars from different disciplines who share resources and analysis that rarely appear in history classrooms.  The openness and spontaneity of the conversations are entirely unpredictable, and the learning that occurs as a result is deeper – and, in some cases, more enduring.  As multiple stories are told from multiple perspectives, a broader grasp of historical truth emerges. It is never complete, but it is fuller, richer, and more inspirational through platforms like “Historians at the Movies.”

Asset Value in Mexico, 1800-2000


Unlike both the United States and Canada, Mexico (New Spain) represents the negative impacts of economic development over the last two centuries. While the macroeconomic patterns of absolute wealth growth are apparent, the concentration of this wealth in a single location (Mexico City) as well as the massive loss of natural resource capital (starting with the Baja peninsula and extending east and north, in addition to losses across central America, South America, and the Caribbean) reveals the extraordinarily deep problems with gross domestic product as a measure of economic development. In contrast, asset value analysis reveals the contradictions of capital accumulation clearly in the uneven processes of Mexican national industrialization.

In 1800, New Spain was part of the declining Spanish empire which had consolidated in the late sixteenth century. Given the specific political context of the emergence of professional economics as part of the patterns of late nineteenth century European imperialism and American global industrial ambition, nearly all Anglophone scholars have lost sight of the dominance of the Spanish (and Portuguese) imperial systems in the western hemisphere prior to 1750. At the heart of the Spanish New World was the plantation colony in Havana, Cuba. Worth nearly $2 billion (inflation-adjusted) in 1800, it was the dominant agricultural market, rivaled only by San Domingue prior to the Haitian Revolution. The century of strife and economic collapse that defined Mexico, Central America, and South America after 1820 is often misunderstood as a series of struggles for democratic independence. Asset value analysis helps to foster an understanding about the conflict of imperial systems across these geographies where conservative investors often retreated from the forces of industrialization in the nascent United States, especially after 1865. Mexico and the former provinces of the Lusophone New World provide a limitless terrain to better understand the limitations of free market ideologies. It is precisely their histories as local fiefdoms that preserved arbitrary governmental authorities through a mask of religious justification that shows the horrors of Thomas Jefferson’s (and Andrew Jackson’s and Abraham Lincoln’s) hagiographies of agrarian democratic republics.
At the start of the twentieth century, the success of American foreign investment in Mexico shows the capacity of capital to create a massive urban infrastructure in Mexico City. Unlike Havana, American investment in physical infrastructure was not constrained by the immediate presence of the Caribbean sea and surrounding hills. Mexico City was a late nineteenth century vision of industrial sprawl. The downtown hosted numerous banks and natural resource extraction films, especially in coal and oil. Notably, the emergence of public utilities (centralized fresh water, waste water, subways, and electricity) did not occur. This fact limited the market growth in central Mexico and reinforced the local political fragmentation that defined the entire region. The asset growth to $43 billion was significant for the immediate area, but lagged significantly behind both New York and, the more comparable example, Toronto. Mexico remained a state more committed to its agricultural roots with only small flashes of disorganized industrial investment in 1900. The weakness of this political economic structure led to massive financial collapse after 1920 and no signs of real recovery for five decades.


Mexico in the late twentieth century became an outlet for continental economic consolidation. Where Canada became an extension of the New York, Philadelphia, and Boston macroeconomic system, Mexico became a source of labor for the Sunbelt post-industrial systems represented by Los Angeles, Phoenix, Houston, Miami, and Atlanta. Worth approximately $700 billion in asset value over the last twenty years, very little metropolitan development expanded in Mexico beyond its capital city. Even the array of smaller, resort towns remained peripheral and dependent on foreign investment and tourism. Yet, very few of the displaced working families from Canada and the United States took advantage of the potential opportunities of migration to Mexico in response to globalization. As a result, despite significant economic growth, Mexico remained the smallest of the North American economies. If working families, labor unions, and small businesses better understood asset value, Mexico could experience similar economic expansions that defined the industrial Midwest and the financial revolutions in both eastern Canada and the American sunbelt.
One final note. The Caribbean economies (and smaller related nations in South America) present very interesting opportunities, especially in the context of climate change. More attention to these nations and their economies would open doors for economic autonomy for working families throughout North America.

Asset Value in Canada, 1800-2000


While most of the advanced national economies around the world use the United States as a benchmark for commercial development, this commitment carries ideological baggage and methodological limitations that must be addressed. Asset value analysis reveals the social and geographic costs of macroeconomic theory, especially in the case of the United States. The contradictions of using enslaved Africans as both currency and infrastructure simultaneously is only one of the fundamental problems. Over time, this specific error was replicated during the process of industrialization in terms of immigrant labor populations as well as the manipulation of consumer networks over the last seventy years. An examination of the Canadian processes of commercialization reveals that there are other ways to approach market growth.

Canada (really the remainder of British North America) in 1800 covered the eastern Mississippi river valley, the Great Lakes region, with core settlements stretching north and east from Lake Erie to Nova Scotia. Over 95% of the physical infrastructure for the nation laid within two miles of a lake, river, or ocean. In 2010 dollars, the asset value of the country was just over $2 billion – barely 2 per cent of the United States at the same time. The core of early American commercial growth was Montreal (though a dozen smaller towns also contributed). In this pre-industrial setting, the importance of converting natural resources into physical infrastructure was everything. Canadian towns were little more than military installations to protect limited commercial activities in timber and furs.  This pattern persisted through the nineteenth century, limiting any fundamental movement towards industrialization and minimizing larger-scale patterns of urbanization.



By 1900, Toronto had emerged to emulate its American neighbor to the south – New York City. Canada’s political independence gave it a nominal claim to the western territories and introduced the possibilities of expansion across the Pacific Ocean. Its national asset value exceeded $152 billion. While this measure shows evidence of growth, the market expansion is anemic compared to the major world powers of the time (United Kingdom, United States, Germany, Japan, and Russia). Canada remained a small, stagnant, rural economy on a national scale with little physical or financial infrastructure to reward industrial investment. Toronto grew largely as an extension of the Buffalo metropolitan area, creating a “twin cities” effect similar to Philadelphia and Camden (or San Francisco and Oakland) at the end of the nineteenth century. At $36 billion in asset value, Toronto surged past Montreal as the economic center for the country. It became the first densely urbanized center in Canadian history and became the model for its commercial growth over the next century.




The main story of Canadian market expansion comes in the second half of the twentieth century. The emergence of the United States as a global superpower during the Cold War against the Soviet Union required the consolidation and protection of North America. Canada reaped the benefits of increased American military and financial investments in projecting its political authority around the world. In the early twenty-first century, 90 per cent of all Canadians live within 100 miles of the United States border. Further, 70 per cent of Canadians live in major metropolitan areas. The process of rapid industrialization and digitalization of the Canadian economy is a direct result of $1.7 trillion of direct private investment from the United States since 1946. Toronto, and later Vancouver, were the most direct local beneficiaries of this investment in terms of asset value. By 2000, Toronto’s asset value reached more than $1 trillion, while the Canadian national economy became a leading global partner worth $7.27 trillion. The massive economic growth of the twentieth century may foreshadow the kind of commercial expansion that the United States experienced between 1880 and 1920. If Canada can create better transportation and communication networks while attracting increasing numbers of skilled immigrants, it will be the key to geopolitical stability in both Asia and Europe in the twenty-first century.



Asset Value in the United States, 1800-2000


United States, 1800-2000

As demonstrated in “The American Economy” (2016), asset value analysis provides the tools to quantify the scope and scale of economic development in historical context. The initial world asset map revealed the concentrations of natural resources, physical infrastructure, and human capital around the world in 2012. The data sets demonstrating the evolution of global capital since 3500 BCE reveal the flaws in the neoliberal politics of late capitalism as well as the fundamental flaws in economic concepts like GDP. Using asset value provides an institutional investment praxis to create new forms of sustainable wealth creation that restore a global sense of common wealth that has been distorted for five centuries.


In this first snapshot, analysts can begin to understand the creation of the first (un)free markets in human history. The United States in 1800 stopped at the Mississippi River, and over 80% of the physical infrastructure for the nation laid within fifty miles of the Atlantic coast. In 2010 dollars, the asset value of the country was just over $119 billion. In comparison, Apple (as a corporation) is worth almost one trillion dollars alone in 2018. The core of early American commercial growth was Philadelphia (though Charleston was also very important). In this pre-industrial setting, the importance of converting natural resources into physical infrastructure is immediately apparent. The geographic features of the southeastern Pennsylvania region enabled the rapid creation of a thriving commercial center, surrounded by a variety of residential neighborhoods. The rigid geometry of the roadways reflected the idealism of a revolutionary generation in pursuit of a democratic society that rejected the privileges of imperial monarchy.


However, by 1900, a starkly different architecture shaped the booming, industrial metropolis of New York City. The consolidation of the continental United States, including the new acquired territories of Cuba and the Philippines, showed that the practices of free markets could incorporate the ambitions of industrial empire. The United States achieved an asset value exceeding $2 trillion by this point. That figure is roughly a quarter of the asset value of the United Kingdom at the same time, and approximately a third of the Australian economy in 2012. The emergence of massive national corporations, especially banks, railroads, and oil companies, caused the local asset value of New York City to reach $129 billion, dwarfing Philadelphia’s dominance a century earlier. The central control of assets through New York firms only trailed the power of London’s economic reach at its Victorian peak. Across the United States, Chicago, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Dallas followed the model that New York symbolized. The core of American asset value at the start of the twentieth century sustained small industrial centers like Newark, Trenton, Camden, Baltimore, Norfolk, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Detroit in addition to these larger cities. While Brooklyn, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx consolidated into the modern New York City, commercial and residential infrastructure remains concentrated along the East River. Long Island and the northern suburbs remained distant hinterlands in the countryside.


Over the next century, transportation and communications technologies would utterly transform the landscape and metropolitan design of the United States and the world. Foremost in this unprecedented revolution were the automobile and the television. They were the keys to the commercial emergence of the United States as a world superpower after the end of the Second World War. The United States was the unchallenged leader in the world economy by 2010 with over $123 trillion in asset value. New York remained the largest of the metropolitan economies within the country, worth almost $4 trillion in asset value. The second largest economy in the world was Japan ($20 trillion), and a dozen American cities were worth at least $1 trillion. Hundreds of American cities housed economies as large as Philadelphia has been 200 years earlier. In the specific case of New York, the emergent design of its economic system became known as the ‘megapolitan’. In lay terms, the region between Boston and Washington, D.C., became a massive city – the richest region in the world. Ten other megapolitans existed in the United States by 2010, and there were twelve more worldwide. Human capital became the distinguishing feature of megapolitan growth as service industries like medicine, finance, and software engineering became the dominant industries for growth in the twenty-first century.

Astonishingly, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, achieved a personal net worth of $139 billion in 2018. A single person today is richer than the wealthiest city in North America was a century earlier. This process is the accumulated power of (un)free market capitalism. By 2100, there will be a person worth a trillion dollars (or, perhaps, it will be measured in Bitcoin by that point). They will likely control the accumulation of personal data through social media, or, more likely, detailed genetic profiles of terrestrial life (human, animal, and plant) for both experimentation and marketing. There are even suggestions to repeat the colonial processes of the nineteenth century beneath the sea and across the solar system. Neoliberalism will commodify every cell and atom, every asteroid and planet, in the name of efficiency and productivity unless a revolutionary commitment to balance and dignity occurs.

United States, Asset Value, 1800-2000