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Jon Lauck Remembers Historian John Miller

Lori Walsh: The unexpected death of historian John Miller leaves a potential gap in the telling of our history. We are going to remember John Miller today and we're going to start off with a conversation with his friend Jon Lauck. John Miller was known as the leading South Dakota historian, and he was beloved by many students who have flooded the internet with memories and tributes. Jon Lauck is an adjunct professor of history and political science at the University of South Dakota, founding president of the Midwestern History Association, associate editor of the Middle West Review, and the author of several books, including The Lost Region: Toward a Revival of Midwestern History.

Jon Lauck joins us today to remember John Miller. Jon, welcome. Thank you for being here.

Jon Lauck: Thanks, Lori. Thanks for taking the time to remember John.

Lori Walsh: I'm so sorry. I was so sorry to hear of his loss. Democracy and the Informed Citizen is the book that when I read it I like ran out of highlight. I just kept highlighting things until the highlighter was empty. He was that kind of author where you're just... He was so good at putting things into perspective. For you, he was more than that. He was a dear friend. Tell us a little bit about how you first met him. How far back did you go?

Jon Lauck: Well, I think it was 1989 at SDSU in Brookings. We first came across each other and I started taking his classes. He was an outstanding teacher and researcher and just a magnetic person and you were just drawn in. Pretty soon we were working on several projects together. He happened to be doing something related to South Dakota politics and I was writing my senior thesis on Karl Mundt. We would drive down to Madison and do research in the Karl Mundt archives. We also worked on bringing the great historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to Brookings, and we had a grand time. This is the era before the internet and iPhone, so people would come out to hear lectures.

We filled up Volstorff Ballroom in Brookings on campus and had dinner afterwards. It was a grand affair and that was the kind of evening that John Miller loved.

Lori Walsh: I guess in the time of COVID-19, it bears repeating that he died of a heart attack. Normally we don't necessarily think too much about the cause of death, but as we look at so many people getting sick with this disease, it was a surprise. So much is lost when anyone dies. It's so personal. He leaves behind a family, but there's something else broader here and that the way he looked at the state, the way he looked at history is also gone, and that's worth talking about too.

Jon Lauck: Well, I should say, yeah, it's important to clarify the record he didn't die of COVID. He was a very avid golfer. In fact, the Brookings register asked me to write something about his time in Brookings, so I thought, I'll just call out to the golf course and I'll bet everyone there remembers him and has a story about John. Sure enough, the manager was like, "I knew this guy very well. He was here every day at the crack of dawn and he would finish his 18 holes before most people arrived. He talked about history all the time," but he remembered very well their last conversation. The next morning when John got up early to go out to Edgebrook, he had a heart attack.

He had a heart attack about 15 years ago, I remember this, but he was very conscientious about getting some exercise, walking, riding his bike. He knew that there were hard issues, but it didn't slow him down at all. He was very active and he was up at the crack of dawn working on his research and exercising. One of his big callings in life, as you said Lori, was the cause of South Dakota history. This is South Dakota public radio. You have a lot of people listening to this station who care about the history of our state, our state's heritage. John was the leading exponent of studying what went before us in South Dakota and keeping those memories alive.

I have to say, with the passing of John, that whole endeavor, that whole field of study is in great jeopardy because there just aren't that many people out there working the way and spreading the gospel about the history of South Dakota unfortunately.

Lori Walsh: What kind of thinker was he? How did his mind work in all the times that you just maybe had a lunch with him or worked on a research project or a book with him, an anthology or something? How did his mind work?

Jon Lauck: Well, his mind was... He used to say, "I'm a two-handed historian. On the one hand this and on the other hand that." He would weigh all the evidence and he would try and balance them out. We would often I guess disagree on this sometimes. I would say, "John, you should take a stronger stand and say my thesis is X and this is the evidence supporting it," but he was very reluctant to do that. He liked the layout out all the evidence of both sides. If the picture remained muddy and unclear and there was a lot of ambiguity about what a situation meant or what a figure represented, he would just say that. That, of course, is a lost art.

It's part of the lost art of nuance and complexity that I think we need a lot more of today. John Miller was a representative of that kind of thinking.

Lori Walsh: On the other hand, in the clip we're going to play here in a few moments, he also talks about how he's not really into the postmodern idea of there not being any truth. There are facts and each person is not entitled to their own set of facts or their own sense of reality. He was also very clear on some things are not ambiguous and we shouldn't just let up modernization convinces otherwise, right?

Jon Lauck: Well, yeah. I mean, that is true. He believed in finding the facts and collecting the evidence, and he believed there was a truth out there to be found. You had to work for it and find it. He's not one of these people who have emerged in academia in the last 20 or 30 years who believe there is no truth and it's impossible to find truth and there's no such thing as true. I mean, this postmodern way has done so much damage to many fields of inquiry and just our intellectual life in general. John and I obviously agreed on that from the beginning and that's one of the reasons we were so simpatico I think.

Lori Walsh: What are some of the favorite memories that you have of him now? I mean, it's the early days and I almost hate to ask you that question because it's painful to remember some of those good times, or at least it's melancholy, but tell me some of those stories or tell me a story from one of those memories that sort of is quintessential John Miller.

Jon Lauck: Well, John Miller was always game for anything. We would talk on the phone and we would say, "Well, there's this interesting conference down at KU next week. Maybe we should go to that." Pretty soon we'd be making the plans and we'd be on the road and going down there to be a part of the conversation, whatever it was. I can remember just a few months ago we were talking about the Iowa caucuses because that was coming up. He was like, "I've never been to the Iowa caucuses. We should go." John and I and my eight year old son, who had never seen any politics, got in the car and went over to Sioux Center. We watched the caucuses in one of the precincts in Sioux Center, and it was a grand time.

He brought his note cards and he made a whole list of ideas that could become a future article in very John Miller fashion.

Lori Walsh: He just released another book as well. I think it's on my desk. I hadn't gotten a chance to look at it yet, but he was definitely on my list of as soon as I read this and probably burned through another highlighter. I was sure he will be willing to join us. He was writing very recently.

Jon Lauck: Yes. I just received my copy with a nice note in the front a few days before he died. He had emailed me one morning and said, "Hey, I just dropped my new book in the mail to you. Take a look. Let me know what you think," and we were going to get together and talk about it. But one of the things he emphasizes in that book is we need an informed citizenry. Being an informed citizen, perhaps the most important thing you can do is learn your history, learn about your country and state so you know how to make decisions about making things better. That's what he spent his whole life doing, trying to teach people history and context and give them a sense of the past, so we don't just operate in a vacuum all the time. That was his mission.

Lucky for us, he emphasized as part of that the history of South Dakota. We're all better off for that. We really do need to talk about all the work he did on South Dakota, his three books on Laura Ingalls Wilder and all the people he wrote about in South Dakota like George McGovern and the artist Harvey Dunn and the Nobel prize winner Theodore Schultz. All of these people are critical to the history of our state. It was really only John Miller keeping that flame alive and reminding us to learn more about these people.

Lori Walsh: What needs to happen in the days ahead, not only to preserve his books and his papers, but to preserve his way of thought and make a more robust study of history in the state really in his honor and in his memory.

Jon Lauck: Well, one thing that John and I talked about hundreds of times over 30 years is how we need a new standard history of South Dakota. The current book we're using was essentially written during the 1950s. It was written by Herbert Schell, a great historian at the university of South Dakota, but it's way out of date. I think Herbert Schell first moved to South Dakota to start teaching in the 1920s, and he taught the history of South Dakota at USD. He based that book on his lectures from that course. It's a great book, but it's just out of date. John and I have talked about how do we move the ball forward on this and get this new book written.

I think one of the greatest monuments we could leave the John Miller is to get that new history of South Dakota planned and organized and published out there so we can all benefit from it, so Lori Walsh can have it on her shelf right there in her studio and pull it down and say, "Ah, that's what this was about." I was just thinking about that the other day. If we had a good, big, comprehensive history of South Dakota, we could pull down that big book, open up to the page on the Spanish flu right at the end of World War I and read the two or three pages about it and be able to make some comparisons and talk about the current situation we're in and draw some parallels. That's why you need the standard comprehensive history of your state, and we don't have that.

John got his PhD at the University of Wisconsin. In Wisconsin, they have a five volume history of the state. They have a state historical society that publishes lots of books, and they have the University of Wisconsin Press, which publishes lots of books. They have a university with a PhD program that generates lots of dissertations that become books about the state. South Dakota is lagging behind on that front. We just need to step it up. I don't think we need to spend millions of dollars. We can just use a lot of the institutions that are out there and reprioritize a little bit. This is not landing a man on the moon. This is just getting a new history of our state.

It's very much something that can be accomplished within five years or so. It'll be a great monument to John.

Lori Walsh: I want to give the rest of our time over to John Miller and the conversation we had, but first, I want to say thank you, Jon Lauck, and of course, you're welcome back. You have some works of your own that we still have to talk about. Let's not put that off for too long.

Jon Lauck: Sounds great, Lori. Thanks again for all you're doing. I know John and I went on public radio at noon probably a dozen times over the years, over the last 20 years, several times with you. We always had a great time, so thanks for all you do.

Lori Walsh: Thanks, Jon. John Miller spent more than three decades teaching history, and he leaves behind a loving family, a legion of devoted students, and a library of books. As we reflect on his passing here at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, one interview in particular comes to mind. He joined us to talk about his book, Democracy and the Informed Citizen. That was in 2018 before the impeachment of President Trump, before COVID-19. He talked about how to separate truth from falsehoods and how America might not be as exceptional as we sometimes think we are and his words resonate today. We'd like to bring you some of that interview today on In The Moment so you can hear not just John Miller's voice, but his words. He wrote this book for you, for all of us, and I asked him about that. Here's John Miller.

John Miller: Well, I wrote it for the citizens of South Dakota, but more than that, for everybody in the United States. While after the colon it says, a South Dakota perspective, the other seven... Chapter two is about South Dakota's political journalist speak and educational context. It's really about what's going on all over the United States. It's for the kinds of students I had in my classes and it's for my neighbors and friends who are perhaps like me, perplexed and discomforted by all of the news we hear on the television or see on social media every day.

Lori Walsh: We had a guest last week who said, "I don't think Americans should be as optimistic as they are about democracy right now," and that kind of took me aback. You argue a similar point, which is, as much as we don't want to admit it, democracy is not a given. What are some of the warning signs that you're seeing right now?

John Miller: Well, I think some of the warning signs are the political polarization that is going on in the United States that leads people to tend to look to news sources that confirm what they already know, that people are angry at politicians of the other side or even voters of the other side and are not in as much conversation with them. I'm worried about the fact that the United States we've always thought of as an exceptional country and I think it was and is, but we're not as exceptional as we perhaps think we are. When we look at what's going on around the rest of the world in Poland and Turkey and Russia and some Latin American countries and so forth, we see how fragile democracy is and we're reminded that the United States can be susceptible to the same kinds of challenges and threats that these other countries face.

Lori Walsh: When people use the word constitutional crisis regarding whatever is happening right now, you hear it kind of thrown out quite casually sometimes, what does that mean to you? What is an actual constitutional crisis?

John Miller: Well, we've had constitutional crisis before I think in the 1930s when you had a supreme court that was in contest with other two houses of congress in 1973 and four when we had the Watergate crisis. I think we've been moving in this direction for a long time because a lot of the old norms that used to regulate the behavior of our presidential candidates and people in the Oval Office, of our congresspeople are not being adhered to in the way that they were in the past. We seem to be too angry animals sort of grounding and snorting at each other. We hope that we don't get into too much of a fight.

Lori Walsh: Well, when we say that, somebody always comes along and says, "Well, here's a political cartoon from... Here's what people said about Abraham Lincoln, or here's what people were saying about FDR," how is it different now? Is it just the same thing only now there's Twitter and it can spread further? Or is the rhetoric really more divisive than any time in history?

John Miller: Well, anytime in history I don't think so-

Lori Walsh: That's broad.

John Miller: ...because even in the very earliest days of the Republic and that election of 1800 or when Andrew Jackson was running, certainly at the time of the Civil War I don't think we're anywhere near that kind of constitutional crisis and we hope not, and probably not even at the current time as bad as it was during the early 1930s, during the Great Depression or perhaps even we could compare it also to the McCarthy period in the late '40s, early 1950s. Then as we go through history, we remind ourselves of the Vietnam War and the kinds of things that were being said on both sides there.

But certainly I'd say in the last 20-30 years, we're way beyond anything that was going on there in terms of the language that is used, the words that are thrown at each other, the unwillingness of the two parties to engage in meaningful debate and deliberation in congress. What George Orwell said about political rhetoric back in the 1940s is certainly coming true today in that political language is becoming in the minds of many rather meaningless. People throw these episodes at each other. The only people who believe what they say are people who are already behind the speakers that are speaking them.

Lori Walsh: When you hear people push back on that notion, especially with the current president, they'll say, "Well, they're just words. He's just saying that. You have to understand, let Trump be Trump," but words matter. In what way do we need to really be thoughtful about those words in your view?

John Miller: I think so. Anybody who's a realist and who follows politics at all or who pays attention to what's going on in the world will tend to discount a little bit what any politician says, because you know that they're not just there to describe reality. They're there to press a point and to push for the advantage of their own party. I think we kind of read between the lines and understand that when a president or a presidential candidate or the speaker of the house or somebody says, "That our party has just completed the best session in our history," we say, "Well, yeah, okay." But at this point the time, it's getting to the point where the words themselves seem to carry no realistic connection to what's going on in the world.

I think it's just ramped up to the extent that people are discounting anything that's said by the other side.

Lori Walsh: Which it gets to this notion of truth and whether it exists anymore and how do we agree on facts when you often hear people say, "Well you can make those statistics say whatever you want them to say, or there's a set of alternative facts or that's just how it's being spun." What's the danger of really saying that we live in a post-truth society?

John Miller: Well, of course, 30 years in the academy and it's been a while since I've been out of teaching. When I started out in the 1960s in college and graduate school, we couldn't rely very largely on what our teachers were telling us, what our politicians were telling us within the bounds of reason as I've just said and what the experts were saying. Now we've moved into an entirely different era. I have a chapter in this book. I have 10 different challenges to democracy, and one of them, chapter three, deals with the shifting world of ideas and how over a period...

I would take this all the way back to the enlightenment and back into the 1800s and 1900s and on into the 2000s now that there has been this intellectual trend toward questioning words themselves and statements of fact, which to me I've always resisted this whole idea of postmodernism that sentences cannot be accepted as they're stated and truth is in the eyes of the beholder, that you can make your own truth, and so forth. I have a quotation at the beginning of the book. I have two pages of quotations and one is Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Everybody's entitled to their opinion, but they are not entitled to their own facts. This then gets to the question of, how do you determine what facts are?

Without extending this answer too far, I would say that you have just hit the nail on the head with your question. This book is not just about politics. It's not just about the constitution. It's not just about the future of American democracy. It's an epistemological question of how do we know, how do we separate truth from falsehood? The very first sentence of my book starts out... It doesn't say anything about politics. It doesn't say anything particularly about education or journalism. What it says is this book is based on the presumption that facts matter and that truth matters and that ultimately I think is where we are right now.

We as a society have to decide how we as individuals and how we as institutions are going to separate truth from falsehood.

Lori Walsh: That's how we begin because you go on to say in the early parts of the book that it's perfectly natural and expected that we would disagree on things. The challenge is how do we handle those disagreements? How do we navigate them and negotiate them in order for that to happen successfully? At some point, we have to agree on some facts.

John Miller: Right. Right. That's where I have by disagreement with the postmodernists, with the deconstructionists, with the post-truth people. Historians are I think wedded to the notion that there are facts out there, true statements about the world out there, about the world of reality, but we're also always the first to admit that our own determination of these truths, the best approximation of truth we can come up with are not necessary... They could say, "Would you stake your life on it? What would you stake your life on that this particular statement of fact is true?" Well, is 99.9% good enough for you or 99.8%?

John Miller: I think we're always trying to close that gap, but admitting that there's always a little bit of indeterminacy in the facts that we accept and believe, we're willing to pretty much stick a lot on it.

You can listen to rest of this conversation below as well as all our conversations with John Miller over the years.

Democracies Are Not Guaranteed To Last Forever

The Political Culture In South Dakota

Dakota Midday: John Miller And World War II Oral History

Dakota Midday: The Revival of Midwestern Studies

Interview with Author of "Small-Town Dreams"

"What Makes A South Dakotan?"