Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Reverend Al Gore an the Travelling Global Warming Show

By now, most have heard of the report that Veep Al Gore's mansion in Tennessee consumes way more energy than, oh, about twenty bourgeoisie's houses combined. But the High Reverend of the Cult of Manmade Global Warming has waved the charges of hypocrisy away by saying he purchases "carbon offsets" (from his own company) so that he is actually "carbon neutral." Some have likened this to indulgences, or the practice of conscription substitution during the Civil War or even a resurrection of the medieval sumptuary laws. All are pretty good historical analogies, but the last comes pretty close to being the one that people should most fear. Via "The Virginian":
Sumptuary laws (from Latin sumtuariae leges) were laws that regulated and reinforced social hierarchies and morals through restrictions on clothing, food, and luxury expenditures. They were an easy way to identify social rank and privilege, and were usually used for social discrimination. This frequently meant preventing commoners from imitating the appearance of aristocrats, and sometimes also to stigmatize disfavored groups. In the Late Middle Ages sumptuary laws were instated as a way for the nobility to cap the conspicuous consumption of the up-and-coming bourgeoisie of medieval cities.
How does it compare to now?
Note that the people who are at the forefront of the environmental movement, men like Al Gore and the Hollywood glitterati who gave him a standing ovation for this environmental stands were not even momentarily inconvenienced by the rules they have tried to have the rest of the planet adopt. The arrived by private plane and stretch limousine, to over-lighted and air-conditioned auditoriums, to see and be seen by millions of Americans via carbon destroying video systems without even a thought to the impact of their wretched excess on the planet.

But hypocrisy is really not the danger here. We are all hypocrites, each of us pretending to be better than we are. The danger is that the use of “carbon offsets” will create two things that are morally monstrous: a de-facto sumptuary law and the impoverishments of the poor and powerless of this planet.

The creation of an aristocratic elite that differentiates itself from the hoi polloi by its ability to buy “carbon offsets” while the rest of the planet is forced by environmental laws into a smaller and smaller carbon straightjacket is not so far fetched.
Well, it might be a little hyperbolic, but the point is made.

History is replete with movement leaders who don't practice what they preach. In this, Al Gore is not unique. He sort of reminds me of those fallen preachers of the '80s and '90's. Lots of bluster and self-righteousness and a whole lot of money rolling in. And what happened when they were "exposed" as hypocrites? Well, some fell, but some issued their mea culpa and came back, if not as strong as before. This isn't happening with the Reverend Al Gore, he hasn't really "fallen." Instead, he's just chosen to legitimize instead of apologize. And, at least for his brethren, that's enough.

Monday, February 26, 2007

If I were a horse....

As they say here in Rhode Island, "Not for nuthin', but...." if I were a horse, it'd be this:

The Comtois Horse:

The Comtois is a very old breed that is thought to have descended from horses brought to France by the Burgundians, a people from northern Germany that immigrated in the fourth century. The Franche-Comté and the Jura Mountains on the border of France and Switzerland are the original breeding ground of the Comtois breed.

In the sixteenth century, the Comtois was used to improve the horses of Burgundy and became famous as a cavalry and artillery horse. Louis XIV's used this breed in his armies, as did Napoleon on his campaign into Russia.

During the nineteenth century the Comtois was breed with other draft breeds like the Norman, Boulonnais and Percheron. Since 1905 a stronger horse with improved legs has emerged from using small Ardennais sires.

Today, the Comtois is bred in the mountainous regions of the Massif Central, the Pyrenees and the Alps for which they are perfectly suited. The Comtois has good qualities of endurance, hardiness and balance in these rugged landscapes. The breed is still widely used for hauling wood in the high pine forests of the Jura and for work on the hilly vineyards of the Arbois area. The Comtois is second only to the Breton draft horse in numbers in France.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Changing Religiosity of the Founders

At NRO, John Derbyshire posted that he was wary of attempts to overly-Christianize the Founders (as part of his general antipathy towards anyone who attempts to recruit dead guys and the opinions they held to any given cause) . He also asked Richard Brookhiser for his opinion, which Brookhiser has now offered:
Geez, I left the the room early on Friday and all hell broke loose.

1. George Washington—He mentioned Providence all the time, in public and in private. His Providence is no absentee watchmaker, but an active, superintending force. See the famous graf on religion and morality in the Farewell Address. No clergy at his death bed. More precise theological opinions shrouded in deep reticence.

2. Benjamin Franklin—Friend of George Whitefield, impressed with his preaching, but not converted. See his letter, a few months before his death, to Ezra Stiles, in which he says Jesus was the greatest moral teacher; whether or not he was the Son of God, Franklin is not sure, and won't bother to think about, since he expects to find out very soon. Anxious to be on good terms with all the churches in Philadelphia.

3. John Adams—Unitarian, tinged with philosophical skepticism in his old age. But one of his reasons for disdaining the French Revolution was his conviction that a nation of "atheists" could not pull it off.

4. James Madison—Had a nervous breakdown at Princeton, possibly related to loss of faith (his father was a bishop). I would be interested to hear from a Madisonian—is Alvin Felzenberg reading this?

5. Alexander Hamilton—pious in youth. See the Hurricane Letter, published age 15 in the local (Virgin Islands) newspaper. He got very caught up in his exciting life; then with the death in a duel of his eldest son Philip, age 19, he becomes devout once more. On his deathbed, after his duel, he seeks communion from the Episcopal Bishop of New York. It is refused, until he makes a clear condemnation of dueling, and expresses his forgiveness of Col. Burr.

6. Thomas Jefferson—unchurched Deist, much private scoffing at his clerical enemies. As a young man, he copies out Bolingrbroke's opinion that the morality of the Greeks was superior to that of Jesus. As President, is convinced that Jesus was superior to the Greeks. Jesus' reax not known, presuambly forgiving.
But why stop with these six? Samuel Adams? Patrick Henry? (In the last election of Henry's life, a Baptist preacher, trying to bring him down a peg, cried out, "Mr. Henry is not a God." Henry: "No, no indeed my friend. I am a poor worm of the dust, as fleeting and insubstantial as the shadow of the cloud that passes over yonder field and is seen no more." Not bad, for off the cuff.) Thomas Paine, of course, became an infamous mocker of the Bible. Yet his great Revolutionary polemics quote it.

I have followed religion through a number of lives now, and a greater number of biographies, and I can testify that posthumous kidnapping is performed as much by atheizing academics as by holy rollers.
Indeed, like everyone else, the Founders religious beliefs did not exist in a vacuum. They waxed and waned and changed as they grew older and real-life events affected their outlook on life. Sheesh, and to think they were so human?

Friday, February 16, 2007

Thinking Blogger Award

I've been "tagged" for the first time ever! But this one has some, er, thought behind it. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory picked me for a Thinking Blogger Award, which means that, in his estimation, I'm one of the 5 "thought provoking" blogs he reads:
The blog called Spinning Clio is a must stop for those looking to explore the space where politics and history intersect. No doubt there has been plenty to comment on over the past few years in that regard. You can be guaranteed that the posts are well crafted and while they do betray a bias on the part of the blogger the views are always fair and tightly argued. I love the "Reviewing the Reviewer" series; check out the latest installment critiquing a Woody Holton review.
I emailed Kevin already to thank him, but thanks again!

The next step is for me to pick 5 of my own. But first, where did this all start? Well, a fella called Ilker Yoldas was tired of blog memes (or tagging), but wanted to go out with a blaze of glory, so he came up with the Thinking Blogging Awards. These are the only rules:
The participation rules are simple:

1. If, and only if, you get tagged, write a post with links to 5 blogs that make you think,
2. Link to this post so that people can easily find the exact origin of the meme,
3. Optional: Proudly display the 'Thinking Blogger Award' with a link to the post that you wrote (here is an alternative silver version if gold doesn't fit your blog).

Here are my five "Thinking Bloggers":

1) Light Seeking Light - Whether he knows it or not, Dale Light is a blogging mentor of mine. His insightful analysis of current events is steeped in his knowledge of history and it all comes from a right of center perspective--something rare in the history profession, to be sure. But he doesn't just dig into "thick" history topics. You never know when a movie or theatre review or a bit of poetry or even a swimsuit model will show up. Always entertaining and informative.

2) The Rhine River - Nathanael Robinson makes me think. Really deep thoughts about geography and history and literature and history and an occasional personal story. I envy his ability to cross academic disciplines and pull common threads together. The result is often a new and thought-provoking post about a topic that you had previously thought had been part of well-trod historical ground. Nothing else to say but hop in a boat and float down the Rhine, you'll be happy you did.

3) Blogenspiel - Another Damned Medievalist is an anonymous professor at a Big University on the East Coast with an interest in early medieval history. Many (if not most) of her posts deal with her life in academia, which give a non-academic historian like myself a view into how the "other side" lives. As a fellow medievalist, what really keeps me coming back are her (too rare!) posts on early medieval history. In fact, the scarcity of those posts are the only reason I'd damn her!

4) History Is Elementary - I love reading the pedagogical insights from this Georgia teacher on such things like the French and Indian War or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (and here). Other than early medieval stuff, I also have a special interest in American History from Colonial times through the Early Republic and she posts quite a bit about these topics, including a whole bunch on the American Revolution. Finally, her Wordless Wednesday postings feature images of just about anything, most with some historical link. But you've gotta guess!

5) Cacciaguida - A recent find, I probably like his posts because he's a medievalist, a conservative Catholic and a Dad just like me. Plus he's pithy. I like pithy (probably because I rarely am).

There you have 'em, 5 blogs I like to read that offer up some o' that food for thought.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

When Old Maps are New

It's always fun when you find that old trunk in the attic, isn't it? Usually, though, the expectations of what could be inside far exceed the reality of mothballs and mildewy clothes. That wasn't the case at Brown University:

... a trio of Brown University librarians...recently opened the equivalent of a great-grandmother’s long-neglected chest in an attic at the John Hay Library and uncovered a treasure trove of maps — some older than 400 years — that open a window into a wide sweep of United States and world history.

“We knew we had some significant maps but we had never cataloged them in a way that was modern and up to date,” says Sam Streit, associate university librarian for scholarly resources. Brown is in the middle of a project that will allow researchers to view the maps over the Internet.

While the university’s interest is in helping scholarly researchers, a sampling of the maps will be shown to the public. The exhibit is running at the Hay Library from March 26 to April 25. The exhibit will be displayed from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays and is free and open to the public.

The library also has a link to the story, and includes a contact point for info.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Reviewing the Reviewer: Holton on Nash's The Unknown American Revolution

{Nota Bene: This is the first of an on-again, off-again series in which I plan on "Reviewing the Review" of history books that deal with a topic in which I am familiar. I'm doing it for fun and also because it'll help me keep my foot in my formerly academic interests, which are now just interesting to me in and of themselves.}

Woody Holton, University of Richmond, Review of Gary B. Nash, The Unknown American Revolution: The Unruly Birth of Democracy and the Struggle to Create America, (New York: Viking, 2005), in American Historical Review, vol.III, no.3, June 2006; p.827.

In approaching a Review of this review, I decided to focus on two pretty awful uses of hyperbole and one flawed point of analysis. Let's begin:

Hyperbole Alert #1: "When a synthesis elicits fatwas from two giants of the profession (Gordon S. Wood and Edmund S. Morgan) in two of the most popular magazines that review history (New Republic and New York Review of Books), you know the author is onto something." The reason for the Hyperbole Alert is the use of the term fatwa. Are you kidding me? Giving Holton the benefit of the doubt, I'd say he's trying to be contemporary and cute. (You see, wink wink, those tired, old historians are just as intolerant as fundamentalist Muslim clerics who can't tolerate modernity). But the cynical side of me detects an effort to associate criticism of Nash's work with contemporary unpleasantness. Especially given...

Hyperbole Alert #2: Holton closes his review with this little ditty: "Maybe, just maybe, Wood and Morgan, who completed their reviews shortly before Hurrican Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, wish they could revise their rosy estimates of the society that emerged from the War of Independence in light of what those Category 4 winds laid bare. Nash's synthesis will require no such revision." This non sequitur is clearly intended to make some sort of political point. I'm not sure how much blame Washington, Jefferson, et al have to take for Katrina. I guess that since they, like the current President, are all white males, that's enough. I guess.

Now, as for the content of the review, given the apparent pro-Nash leaning of Holton, one should not be surprised to read such glowing passages as "Nash's painstaking documentation of case after case of insurgents confronting oppressors" and "[his] technique of piling on the stories may be the only antidote to Founding Fathers hagiography." And that's fine. Nash has built his reputation of arguing for a bottom-up Revolution and there are, doubtless, many who are sympathetic to this interpretation. For good reason. And clearly, Holton is one. And, like Nash, he knows who his enemies are:

Nash's book refutes Bernard Bailyn's notion that the "contagion of liberty" first developed in whit male Patriots and then spread to women and nonwhites. It was in 1733 that a group of New York widows declared, 'We the widows of this city protest the failure to invite us to court. We are housekeepers, pay our taxes, carry on trade and most of us are she Merchants' (p.135). Long before the Stamp Act protests, the "hunchbacked, dwarfish" Philadelphia vegetarian Benjamin Lay "made homespun clothes to avoid materials made by enslaved Africans...smashed his wife's teacups to discourage the use of slave-produced sugar," splattered fellow Quakers who resisted his abolitionist crusade with fake blood, and kidnapped a white child in order to give the "slave-keepers" a taste of their own medicine (pp.39-40).
According to Holton, Nash "never tries to make us believe the people he quotes spoke for all Americans." And that observation essentially undermines Holton's own attempt to undermine the work of Bailyn within this review. Bailyn's Ideological Origins of the American Revolution may well be one of the most misunderstood--yet paradigm-shifting--works ever published in American intellectual history. Nash's anecdotes are just that: a group of unrelated episodes that together prove no sense of unified action.

Yet, each example does portray a general sense that many Americans wanted and believed in liberty. But as Bailyn explained, it was only when an ideology of Liberty spread--one that could speak to rich and poor, white and black, male and female--that the notion of a Revolution--and a desire to take the necessary actions to affect it--began to take hold.

An ideology is a framework of ideas that, together, help to explain a society and culture: either one that is or one that is desired. As Bailyn argued, much of that ideology came from the pamphlets and books written by--sorry--often-anonymous white males. And, contra Nash and Holton, much of this literature was written around the time of the Glorious Revolution by radical English Whigs (in other words, before those Philly women).

What Nash's work shows is that many Americans from across the socio-economic spectrum had a gut-level need to stand up for their own liberty. The ideals that the Whig pamphleteers and other intellectuals, such as John Locke, wrote about were adapted by later writers in both Great Britain and the American colonies. But, specifically in the colonies, these ideas were so effective because they spoke to the pre-existing, yet only partially formed ideas and habits of a substantial portion of the American population--including those at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder on whom Nash focuses. Holton either doesn't understand this or chooses not to so that he can--by implication--knock down a Bailyn strawman that has been standing up and getting knocked down for 30 years or more.

The American Revolution was a complicated and dynamic event. There is no need to knock down one group to prop up another. Nash's underdog heroes are to be admired. But so are those who were able to construct the Revolutionary ideology--like Franklin and Jefferson and Adams--and who, it turns out, emerged as the leaders of that Revolution. All of them had their good and bad qualities. They were human, after all.