Our own John Avlon declares himself a “proud history nerd.” We get his take on why it’s more important than ever for us to know our own history, what past eras might give us insight into today’s politics, and his participation in an upcoming episode of the new HISTORY show, Join or Die with Craig Ferguson.
Why are you drawn to history as a self-proclaimed “proud history nerd?” And what periods of history should we be looking to in order to better understand our present moment?
We at The Daily Beast are committed to the idea of making important stories interesting—that’s the highest bar. One of the reasons I love politics is that politics is history in the present tense. History’s essential to adding perspective for our politics.
When you look at D.C. today, it’s easy to forget Congress hasn’t always been this dysfunctional. We’ve had divided Congresses, but not a dysfunctional Congress. Now, we have people in politics who think “compromise” is a dirty word -- but the Constitution is founded on compromise, and the Founding Fathers were concerned about demagogues and the rise of strong men preaching the doctrine of “us against them.”
When we fixate on our divisions and differences, that’s never our best selves as a country. Democracy depends on the assumption of good will between fellow citizens. When you look back at history, we forget what parties people belonged to. That in itself is instructive. We should have strong debates, but they should be rooted in ideas, not demonizing people who disagree with us.
What do you think the place of Join or Die with Craig Ferguson is in our current media climate?
A lot of shows at the intersection of news and comedy have been gateway drugs to hard news—The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Real Time with Bill Maher. Join or Die's mission has a higher degree of difficulty, which is, how do you make history relevant and exciting? Harry Truman said that the only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know. And that’s one of the reasons we should be engaged in civic debates. At a time when funding for civics education is getting cut, how do you popularize a conversation about history?
When Join or Die engages in history’s greatest debates, with a combination of journalists and celebrities in front of a live audience, the larger hope is that people get curious and want to learn more. A show that makes history interesting, engaging, and accessible performs a civic purpose, as opposed to making us dumber, which is what so much of our media climate conspires to do. Just look: we’re seeing reality TV jump from the screen to the presidential campaign.
Are you surprised that Craig Ferguson is the person at the helm of the show?
It’s interesting. Craig is an immigrant, a naturalized citizen, so it’s cool that he’s the host. In my experience, the closer people are to the immigrant experience, the more patriotic they are. Immigrants don’t take this country for granted. My grandparents were immigrants, and their example gave me a sense of obligation to the opportunities they helped provide – and that’s a reason why even friends will accuse me of being almost cheesily patrotic. I plead guilty to that. Plus, Craig even got the “Join or Die!” tattoo, and to me, that’s the most relevant bit of American iconography.
Stream the latest “Join or Die with Craig Ferguson,” episode right here on The Daily Beast and watch new episodes Thursdays at 11/10c on HISTORY.