Friday, September 30, 2005

On "Getting" Bill Bennett

Plenty has been said about Bill Bennett's out-of-context and supposedly "racist" statement, but I find the analysis offered by Jeff Goldstein to be particularly insightful. As he surmises:
None of this, given our partisan culture, is unexpected. But what gives these calculated and malicious rhetorical and performative ploys their political force is twofold: first, the willingness (in this case on the part of Democrats and the press, and now, the White House) to consider Bennett’s remarks outside of their argumentative context; and second, the idea that Bennett’s words are still his beyond his intent to use them in a certain way—which simply echoes the old Judith Butler axiom that “actions continue to act after the intentional subject has announced its completion,” which, while true, is nevertheless incidental, and becomes dangerous as an assertion when interpretation is released from the ground of appealing back to the speaker’s intent. That is, what is at stake here is the role the subject plays in the “meaning” of the act vs. the role played by contingency in giving that act its (subsequent) meaning(s)—or, to put it more specifically, what William Bennett meant vs. what his words can be made to look like they might mean by those in whose interests it is to damage him. In short, they are taking ownership of his words, resignifying them, then using that resignification to taint Bennett with the charge of racism.
I may be wrong, but doesn't this resignification stem from post-modernism? Or is that an oversimplification? If whatever we say can be turned and reapplied in ways we, the original speaker, never intended, what are the consequences if such a practice becomes widespread? Heck, what if we historians with a political "taint" unconsciously do this all the time. In fact, we may....?

Thursday, September 29, 2005

Pataki: No International Freedom Center at Ground Zero

After much debate, New York Governor George Pataki, who may have been following Senator Hillary Clinton's lead, finally nixed the placement of the International Freedom Center on the same grounds as the 9/11 Memorial. (Story). I didn't think it was a good idea to begin with. (Also see here). As I said then, I see the historical value of such an institution as it will inevitably foster some interesting (and heated) debate, but I thought that it was unwise to include such a potentially controversial entity within the same, solemn space as the 9/11 memorial. I'm glad it won't be. Perhaps it can be built someday, and if it is, I hope it follows the mission and purpose some of it's defenders outlined when they came under fire and not the ideas and philosophy of some of it's proponents, who seem to think "Freedom" is good, so long as America isn't involved. Of course there are times when our nation has fallen down, and they should be presented and discussed, but the trips and stumbles should not be magnified at the expense of the large steps the U.S. has taken to help secure freedom throughout the world. The presumption should be that the U.S. is and has been, generally and (especially) relatively speaking, a force for effecting freedom in the world, regardless of whether the true motivations, realpolitik, pragmatism, etc. of U.S. policy were explicitly designed to accomplish such goals or not.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

History: "Philosophy teaching by Experience."

I'd heard the line quoted in this post's title before, but Thomas Carlyle explains it better:
... History, as it lies at the root of all science, is ... the first distinct product of man’s spiritual nature; his earliest expression of what can be called Thought. It is a looking both before and after; as, indeed, the coming Time already waits, unseen, yet definitely shaped, predetermined, and inevitable, in the Time come; and only by the combination of both is the meaning of either completed. The Sibylline Books, though old, are not the oldest. Some nations have prophecy, some have not; but of all mankind, there is no tribe so rude that it has not attempted History, though several have not arithmetic enough to count Five. History has been written with quipo-threads, with feather-pictures, with wampum-belts; still oftener with earth-mounts and monumental stone-heaps, whether as pyramid or cairn; for the Celt and the Copt, the Red man as well as the White, lives between two eternities, and warring against Oblivion, he would fain unite himself in clear conscious relation, as in dim unconscious relation he is already united, with the whole Future and the whole Past.

A talent for History may be said to be born with us, as our chief inheritance. In a certain sense all men are historians. Is not every memory written quite full with Annals, wherein joy and mourning, conquest and loss manifoldly alternate; and, with or without philosophy, the whole fortunes of one little inward Kingdom, and all its politics, foreign and domestic, stand ineffaceably recorded? Our very speech is curiously historical. Most men, you may observe, speak only to narrate; not in imparting what they have thought, which indeed were often a very small matter, but in exhibiting what they have undergone or seen, which is a quite unlimited one, do talkers dilate. Cut us off from Narrative, how would the stream of conversation, even among the wisest, languish into detached handfuls, and among the foolish utterly evaporate! Thus, as we do nothing but enact History, we say little but recite it: nay, rather, in that widest sense, our whole spiritual life is built thereon. For, strictly considered, what is all Knowledge too but recorded Experience, and a product of History; of which, therefore, Reasoning and Belief, no less than Action and Passion, are essential materials?

Under a limited, and the only practicable shape, History proper, that part of History which treats of remarkable action, has, in all modern as well as ancient times, ranked among the highest arts, and perhaps never stood higher than in these times of ours. For whereas, of old, the charm of History lay chiefly in gratifying our common appetite for the wonderful, for the unknown; and her office was but as that of a Minstrel and Story-teller, she has now further become a Schoolmistress, and professes to instruct in gratifying. Whether with the stateliness of that venerable character, she may not have taken up something of its austerity and frigidity; whether in the logical terseness of a Hume or Robertson, the graceful ease and gay pictorial heartiness of a Herodotus or Froissart may not be wanting, is not the question for us here. Enough that all learners, all inquiring minds of every order, are gathered round her footstool, and reverently pondering her lessons, as the true basis of Wisdom. Poetry, Divinity, Politics, Physics, have each their adherents and adversaries; each little guilt supporting a defensive and offensive war for its own special domain; while the domain of History is as a Free Emporium, where all these belligerents peaceably meet and furnish themselves; and Sentimentalist and Utilitarian, Sceptic and Theologian, with one voice advise us: Examine History, for it is “Philosophy teaching by Experience.”
Every once in a while, we historians need this reaffirmations. [via Political Theory Daily Review]

The Geographical Turn -- Remembering the Annales

Nathanael at Rhine River has an excellent series on the Annales and the role of Geography in doing history.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Nick Hartigan: Pigskin-Hauling Historian-in-Training

Nick Hartigan of Brown University is the model of what a student-athlete should be. Hartigan was profiled today in a piece by Providence Journal Sport's columnist Jim Donaldson.
You certainly should be impressed by the numbers Nick Hartigan has racked up on the football field for Brown University.

His 1,498 rushing yards as a sophomore in 2003 are a school record. He led the nation that year with an average of 149.8 rushing yards per game. He set another school record last season by rushing for 17 touchdowns. He carried the ball 323 times in 2004, also a Brown record, and second only to Ed Marinaro of Cornell in Ivy League history, while gaining 1,263 yards.

But the number that is most impressive, the one that truly is reason to sit up, take notice and shake your head in amazement and admiration is Hartigan's 3.91 grade-point average while double-majoring in political science and history.

Not only is he a candidate for the Walter Payton Award -- the equivalent of the Heisman Trophy for Division I-AA players -- but he also is a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship.

"I can honestly say he's one of the most impressive people I've ever met."

That's not Hartigan's football coach, Phil Estes, speaking. It's one of his political science professors, Jennifer Lawless.

In addition to advising Hartigan on his senior thesis, which he describes as being about "the alliance between Catholics and evangelical Christians in the political arena from the (John) Kennedy era to the present," and will run between 60 and 100 pages in length, Lawless also is a candidate in the state Democratic primary for the congressional seat held by Rep. James Langevin.

"Every assignment he's ever turned in has been in excellent," Lawless said. "Every deadline he's had, he has met with high quality work and enthusiasm.

"He's so well-rounded and incredibly humble. He's the kind of person you'd want in class, as a colleague, as a next-door neighbor -- the kind you'd want your daughter to marry."

Estes speaks of Hartigan in similarly glowing terms.

"He's such a good person. I'd love for my son to be just like Nick Hartigan," Estes said. "He has dedicated himself to being the best in the classroom, and the best on the field."

Hartigan truly is a student-athlete, although he unhesitatingly says that, when it's time for football, he's an athlete-student.

"I have time in my day, every day, when it's football time," he said. "When it's time to practice, or look at film, or go to meetings, there's nothing else going on for me except football. It's something I love.

"It's not just the sport that's fun, it's the guys. There's not one yard I gain that doesn't involve every guy on the offense. That creates a family atmosphere. Those relationships mean a lot to me.

"When I'm not doing those things, then it's time for me to get my schoolwork done. It's not easy. It's a lot of work. But I can do it through time-management and being able to focus. I didn't come to Brown just to play football. I came here to work hard academically and hopefully do well."

He has done exceptionally well, both academically and athletically -- in large part because he works just as hard in class as he does on the field.

"The same qualities, the same drive, that leads him to excellence on the football field," said Lawless, "is what leads him to work hard in the classroom."

"Because I have to be really intense on the football field," Hartigan said, "it's not that hard for me to be just as intense about what I'm studying. It becomes a habit."

If Hartigan doesn't go to Oxford next year on a Rhodes Scholarship -- he says he's "kind of embarrassed" that people know he's applying, because it's so difficult to win one, and the odds are against him -- he plans on going to law school.
Very impressive young man, but as to the last bit, maybe someone can get to him before we get (another) lawyer!

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

LibraryThing

Miriam Elizabeth Burstein pointed me in direction of Library Thing. Sheesh, just what I needed when I have a language exam and oral comps coming up in the next few months. But I'm too much of a book geek to ignore it. In fact, I had just started doing it myself using MS Access, now I won't have to. Caleb McDaniel comments that it will be more valuable when the data becomes exportable, but hopefully that's only a matter of time. I'll have to keep repeating the mantra: "Time management, time management, time management."

Monday, September 19, 2005

Historical Method: A New Emphasis

Peter Kirby has added to the discussion on Historical Method to which I have contributed in the past. Peter did me one better, though, and turned his wonderful post into a Wikipedia article! Additionally, he was kind enough to reference an earlier version of my Historical Method series that I had put up (and still remains) at my old Historical Sources On Line web site. Thanks to him for continuing to focus on this "forgotten" aspect of history.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Historical Critique or Disguised Polemic: Werther vs. Hanson

There has been a little attention (here, here and here, too) given to a piece written by the pseudonymous writer Werther who presents a case as to why Victor Davis Hanson, “court historian” of the Bush administration and other “neocons”, is the "worst historian since Parson Weems." By now, we are all used to attacks and defenses of the prolific Prof. Hanson, and while I didn’t intend to defend Hanson (he’s big enough to take care of himself if he so chooses), I did make a remark in another forum that some of Werther’s critique seemed to hold Hanson’s commentary to the standard reserved for scholarly works. I wrote that I thought that holding a piece of historical commentary to the standards of a scholarly piece--as exhibited by Werther's snide comment about "Mr. Hanson's . . . extended and unsourced whine”—was both gratuitous and disingenuous. As any consumer of commentary knows, rare is the op-ed that has footnotes. Yet, Werther’s criticism of Hanson’s piece as being “unsourced,” while gratuitous, was not really the core of Werther’s critique.

Unfortunately, my initial musings on the subject were made in passing (ahem, at work) and after only a quick reading of both Werther's and Hanson's pieces. I was subsequently enlightened by other historians as to the error of my ways. In essence, even if Hanson and other historians shouldn’t be expected to cite sources and footnote their commentary pieces, they should still be held to the accepted professional standard of historians. If Hanson or any other historian is going to, at the least, imply that his historical proficiency is cause for taking his commentary seriously, then his peers have a right and a duty to hold him to the standards of the profession. In the end, I have come to believe that it wasn’t that I had ever disagreed with such a thing, but more that I was focusing too much on Werther’s “sourcing” comment and not enough on the wider picture. As such, I re-read Werther’s piece and found that while he did seem to have a few valid points concerning Hanson’s history, some of his tactics were still unseemly and misleading.

While I did indeed have a problem with both the tone and the tactics used by the bravely anonymous Werther, I was more intrigued by his tendency to always infer from Hanson’s writing exactly what would put Hanson in the worst light and thus prove Werther’s larger point that, well, Hanson sucks as a historian. I was not the only one to observe such. J.F. Beck also noted "that Hanson isn't actually quoted" by Werther in his screed. Further, Beck noted that
Werther misrepresents. . . Hanson's work. The focus of Hanson's article is the downplaying by revisionist historians of the US role in World War II, not the general neglect of the US role.
All in all, much of Werther’s "historical critique" is really polemic (2nd comment down) disguised as literary/historical criticism. Throughout, Werther sets up many of his Hanson-skewering petards by hoisting upon us what he thinks Hanson must have been thinking as he was writing. Sometimes his inferences as to Hanson’s apparent thought process seem solid enough (as in his discussion of the taking of Iwo Jima), but at other times it seems as if, in his attempt to refute all of the Hanson’s historical interpretations—apparently Hanson has never gotten anything right to Werther's mind (I can make infererences too!)—he sometimes reaches too far.

For example, Hanson wrote:
Revisionism holds a strange attraction for the winners of World War II. American textbooks discuss World War II as if a Patton, Le May, or Nimitz did not exist, as if the war was essentially the Japanese internment and Hiroshima. That blinkered and politically correct focus explains why so many Americans under 30 are simply ignorant about the nature and course of World War II itself. Similarly, the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden.
To which Werther comments:
We have before us at this moment our daughter's high school history textbook. Contra Hanson, there is no mention of the internment of Japanese-American civilians. Mr. Hanson's strange obsession with this subject invites speculation. Does his complaint about the alleged academic emphasis on this episode mean he would have opposed internment, or that it was merely a regrettable but necessary expedient best left unmentioned?
In addition to putting thoughts into Hanson’s head, Werther embarks on an attempt to skewer Hanson for philosophical or ideological inconsistency based on the assumed premise he, Werther, has already set up. All of this misses the point. Many of these episodes, like Hiroshima to which Hanson refers, have been the focus of much historical debate. Hanson is not commenting either on the value of the debate or even taking sides. Instead, he is pointing to episodes that could be reasonably interpreted as being instances of “bad behavior” on the part of the Allies. Hanson does this to bolster his assertion that “…the supposedly biased West discusses the contribution of others far more than our former enemies — or Russian and Chinese allies — credit the British or Americans” and that
most Americans never learned the standard narrative of War II — only what was wrong about it. Whereas it is salutary that an American 17-year-old knows something of the Japanese relocation ordered by liberals such as Earl Warren and FDR, or of the creation and the dropping of the atomic bomb by successive Democratic administrations, they might wish to examine what went on in Nanking, Baatan, Wake Island, Guadalcanal, Manila, or Manchuria…
Now, I agree with Werther and think there is something to his observation that Hanson seems to enjoy having it both ways regarding the bad notes sung by Democrats in wartime—but Werther’s attempt to catch Hanson in some sort of shell game is based on nothing more than assumptions that he, Werther, made in the first place. Also, as Beck noted, Werther never actually divulges the textbook to which he refers, thus rendering any source-checking of him impossible.

In another example contra Hanson, Werther states that:
On the other hand, the textbook [his daughter's unsourced one, again] contains a long extract from Reichsf├╝hrer S.S. Heinrich Himmler's 4 October 1943 speech in Posen outlining the intent of the German government to undertake its Final Solution. Hanson, by contrast, suggests that the Liberal obsession with World War II revisionism and the alleged faults of the United States have resulted in the diminution of appreciation for the Axis' killing of innocent civilians. Really?

The number of books, articles, films, commemorations, and newly-opened museums having the holocaust as its subject is a veritable deluge. Somehow, this fact has escaped Mr. Hanson's curiosity.
But Hanson says no such thing. He doesn’t mention the Holocaust at all and explicitly refers to other mass killings and the tendency of the heirs to those governments who perpetrated said killings to give such incidences short shrift.
…the post-Soviet Russian government will not speak of the Stalin-Hitler non-aggression pact, the absorption of the Baltic states, the murder of millions of German citizens in April through June 1945 in Eastern Europe, and the mass execution of Polish officers. If we were to listen to the Chinese, World War II was about the gallant work of Mao’s partisans, who in fact used the war to gain power, and then went on to kill 50 million of their own citizens — about the same number lost in all of World War II. Japan likewise has never come to terms with the millions of Asian civilians its armies butchered or its systematic brutality waged against American POWs.
Werther's attempt to use the Holocaust as proof that atrocities by the Axis have not been ignored is slippery writing. Hanson is specifically comparing how people, historians and governments, of the old Allies are engaged in legitimate scholarly debate over events in which some feel their native nations may have fallen short—Japanese Internment, Hiroshima, Hamburg and Dresden bombings—while the same cannot be said of the governments of other WWII participants. I would note that here, Hanson has performed a bit of a slight-of-hand himself by refocusing his criticism of revisionists. Just because the governments or people of Germany or Russia have not focused on such things, doesn’t mean that historians haven’t. But Werther is so wrapped up in trying to explode Hanson’s history in it’s entirety that he misses a chance point out how Hanson himself is guilty of conflation. Perhaps conflators cannot identify fellow travelers?

Werther also comments that:
…one doubts, again contra Mr. Hanson, that there are many editorials in American newspapers decrying the bombing of Hamburg. The sole example we can find is a piece by the British (not American) author Niall Ferguson, which is more ambivalent than denunciatory.
This is another instance of Werther intentionally conflating things and twisting Hanson’s statement. While Hanson did write:
Indeed, most recent op-eds commemorating V-E day either blamed the United States for Hamburg or for the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, or for our supposed failure to credit the Russians for their sacrifices.
Later on, he elaborated more by writing, "the British have monthly debates on the immorality of their bombing Hamburg and Dresden." Nonetheless, Hanson may be guilty of not being clear enough as to which editorials he was referring, and it is easy to infer he reads only American ones (though not so much now in the digital age), but he does speak of the British debates over the Dresden bombings and there were in fact many editorials and articles (here, here, here, here, here, here, for example) that did appear on that subject.

Werther goes on to smugly write:
Having disposed of Mr. Hanson's assorted red herrings and straw men, the gravamen of his argument is bosh. Seven-eighths of all Wehrmacht combat-division-months (i.e., one division spending one month in combat) during World War II occurred on the Russian Front. It was the Red Army, as Churchill admitted, which ‘tore the guts out of the German Army.’ Without diminishing the courage of the assault troops of D-Day, the successful operation in Normandy would have been impossible in 1944 without Stalingrad and Kursk.

Can human imagination encompass the fact that there were 27 million Russian deaths in World War II? That fact was a demographic catastrophe from which Russia has never recovered. Yes, Stalin was a swine, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was an act of treachery. But that does not entitle comfortable court historians to simulate outrage at how the American role in World War II has allegedly been belittled by (uncited) Marxist scribblers. Equally, the memoirs of German veterans of the Russian Front generally regarded a posting to the West as virtual salvation compared to the relentless meat grinder of the East. Their testimony has more credibility regarding the Russian contribution to World War II than the jeremiad of a shallow intellect.
Apparently Werther missed the beginning part of Hanson’s piece.
It is true that the Russians paid a horrendous price. Perhaps two out of every three soldiers of the Wehrmacht fell on the Eastern Front. We in the West must always remember that such a tragic sacrifice allowed Hitler to be defeated with far less American British, Canadian, and Australian dead.
To Hanson’s claim that
the Anglo-Americans…had fewer casualties than did the Russians because we fought more wisely, were better equipped, and were not surprised to the same degree by a treacherous former ally that we had supplied.
Werther responds
Yes, the Red Army was horribly profligate with human life. But was the United States so daintily economical with its own sons because of its wise policies and whiz-bang technology, as Mr. Hanson says? Read Belton Y. Cooper's Death Traps, or Paul Fussell's Wartime. Both books are tours de force about the wartime experience, and both defy summary in the space allotted here.
To Werther’s list I’d also add With the Old Breed by E.B. Sledge. These accounts are invaluable in understanding war. Nonetheless, despite the tragedy portrayed in those works, when viewed on the macro-level, to my knowledge there has not been much debate over who was more careless with the lives of their fighting men, the Soviet Union or the U.S. This protest by Werther could be seen to add credence to Hanson’s assertion about some historians who, ”If they cannot find perfection in history, they see no good at all.”

Werther does add a very helpful reference to the role of oil in WWII, even though he implies that because Hanson did not mention it he has fallen short, which is not really fair (criticizing for the piece one didn’t write and all that). As mentioned before, Werther also has a good point about Iwo Jima contrary to Hanson’s assertions.

Werther and those who enjoyed his piece are correct: both Proper sourcing and research techniques are inded the lifeblood of historians and it is the responsibility of those in the field to hold each other to such standards. But is it not also professionally accepted that historical critique should also include specific passages--quotations--to which one can offer their opinion on the faults being described? Sure, he provided a link to Hanson's piece, but that was a half-measure. He sourced pretty specifically when it supported his argument, only broadly did he refer to the target of his critique, and failed to do so at all in one instance (the textbook). Thus, as a polemic, Werther's piece has much to commmend. As historical critique, however, he is guilty of adhering to the professional standards of history only when it was to his ideological advantage. I have attempted to do the opposite. Heck, I may be way off on my own assumptions and interpretations, but at the very least I have provided the direct context from which you, the reader, can make your own judgement by reading both sides (yes, albeit only portions) within the whole of a single piece. Werther did no such thing.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

History Carnival 15

Jeremy at ClioWeb is this month's host of the History Carnival. Looks like a good, eclectic mix.