Monday, September 29, 2008

So You Think You Remember the Fifties?

George and Robert Leonard, founding members of the Fifties retro group Sha Na Na, examine the scholarly interest in how their singing group helped change the way Americans remembered the decade of the 1950's.

In the last few years, an unlikely group of scholars has been studying Columbia’s Sha Na Na as a test case: meta-historians, theoreticians of cultural history itself. In 2004, Rutgers University Press published a bold new book by Goucher professor Daniel Marcus, Happy Days and Wonder Years: The Fifties and Sixties in Contemporary Cultural Politics. In 2006, Elizabeth E. Guffey, a Stanford Ph.D. and associate professor at SUNY Purchase, published Retro: The Culture of Revival (London and Chicago: Reaktion Books distributed by the University of Chicago Press, Both books contain extensive studies of Sha Na Na’s “Fabricated Fifties” (Guffey’s term) because Marcus and Guffey — working quite independently — discovered Sha Na Na and Columbia College, in 1969, playing an unusual role in 20th century American history.

More precisely, in inventing it.

Read the whole thing for an interesting case study on the differences between history and preferred memory.

The Civil War in Four Minutes

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review: Failures of the Presidents

Thomas J. Craughwell (with M. William Phelps), Failures of the Presidents: From the Whiskey Rebellion and War of 1812 to the Bay of Pis and War in Iraq.

Every president has his failures and successes (well, maybe not Andrew Johnson) and Thomas J. Craughwell has presented some interesting Presidential decisions in the interest of showing the former. He starts out explaining how Washington's reaction to the Whiskey Rebellion and Adams' acceptance of the Alien and Sedition Acts were major contributing factors to the fall of the Federalists and the rise of Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans. Jefferson also comes under criticism (the Embargo Act) as do many others up through George W. Bush (Iraq). Interestingly, Presidents Nixon (the bombing of Cambodia and Watergate) and Carter (Iran hostages and Energy Crisis/"Malaise") earn the dubious distinction of having two major failures addressed by Craughwell.

Craughwell does a good job of laying the historical context for the layman on the way to explaining why each of his examples were, indeed, failure. However, sometimes he pushes too hard in one direction. Did the Whiskey tax, the impetus for the Rebellion, and the Alien and Sedition Acts contribute to the end of the Federalist Party? Yes. But so did the propaganda and hysteria fomented by Jefferson and his D/Rs. Craughwell does mention this, but the emphasis is clearly on the actions of the then-current Presidents (Washington and Adams), not on the actions of the one who sought that office (Jefferson) and his supporters.

However, in other instances he's spot on, such as when he takes Andrew Jackson to task for the Trail of Tears, FDR for the Japanese internment and Jimmy Carter for the Iranian hostage crisis. He also presents a few obscure decisions as historical turning points, thus enabling a new perspective on an old issue. One such example is his account of President Grant's attempt to annex Santo Domingo. Grant's idea was to relieve the pressure between newly freed slaves and whites in the newly-conquered South by allowing the emigration of freed blacks to Santo Domingo. Craughwell's explanation--that this sent the signal that Grant himself believed that there would never be a reconciliation between the races in the South--is intriguing and warrants deeper analysis.

Craughwell begins his book explaining that "weighing the successes and failures of a presidency takes time." Nonetheless, he still attempts to analyze the "failure" of more contemporary events such as those by Nixon, Carter, Iran-Contra and the War in Iraq. (He also explains in the Forward that he, his co-author and editors couldn't agree as to whether the Clinton sex scandals did serious harm to the nation).

There are no citations or bibliography, but a review of the "Suggested Reading" list offers clues as to Craughwell's source material and may help explain the tone and nature of his conclusions for a couple of these later chapters. For instance, the reading list he suggests for the topic of George W. Bush and Iraq consists of these 9 items:

Paul Berman's, Terror and Liberalism
Rajiv Chandrasekaran's, Imperial Life in the Emerald City
Andrew Cockbrun's, Rumsfeld: His Rise, Fall, and Catastrophic Legacy
Karen DeYoung's, Soldier: The Life of Colin Powell
Robert W. Drapers, Dead Certain
David Hare's anti-war play, Stuff Happens
Michael Isikoff and David Corn's, Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal and Selling of the Iraq War
Bob Woodward's, State of Denial
Valerie Plame Wilson's, Fair Game

An informed reader will recognize that this is not exactly a reading list where one would find an unbiased--much less a sympathetic--account of the Iraq War. Perhaps Craughwell should have followed his own advice, resisted temptation and left more for a sequel?

In fact, a sequel would be welcome. Setting aside the more contemporary accounts, Craughwell offers an interesting presentation and analysis of many events. There are many more that are deserving analysis. Would he be so bold as to argue that dropping the Bomb on Hiroshima was a failure? Or what about the War with Mexico?

Obviously, there is room to argue over every "failure" presented, and that's what is so fun about the book. It would be a great conversation-starter in history courses for older high school or undergraduate students and, for the non-scholar, it makes for thoughtful and entertaining reading.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Review: A Declaration of Energy Independence

Jay Hakes, A Declaration of Energy Independence: How Freedom from Foreign Oil Can Improve National Security, Our Economy, and the Environment

Jay Hakes was the Head of the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton for eight years and currently oversees the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library and Museum.

Hakes begins by recounting the last 40 years of energy policy, from oil embargoes, to President Carter's plan to get America off of foreign oil to (as Hakes portrays it) the failure to follow up on the aforementioned plan by Carter's presidential successors. Basically, throughout this recent-history lesson, Hakes portrays the plans laid out by Carter (and some of those by President Ford) as a missed opportunity, one that should have been seized upon but wasn't. This recounting is interesting and thorough and, a quibble here or there aside, contains valuable background for the proposals that Hakes offers in the second part of the book.

As Hakes explains, though, there is a problem with implementing necessarily long-term energy plans:
There are several valuable lessons from this forgotten story of regaining energy independence. First, there are no quick fixes, byt there are fixes. It generally takes at least two to six years for positive effects of federal legislation to have much impact (and longer for investments in research and development). Any politician who promises immediate results is porbably going to make things worse.

Second, there are no silver bullets for winning energy independence, but there is plenty of silver buckshot. Some trumpeted solutions to the energy crisis, such as making liquid transportation fuels from coal, played no role at all. Even the larges contributors could not turn around a major trend by themselves. Those who want to wage "the moral equivalent of war" must attack on many fronts.

There is one problem with winning a war. People soon want to settle back to life as usual, and complacency sets in. After losing energy independence in 1970, it took America a dozen years to regain it. It would take 17 years to lose it.
But Hakes proceeds to give it a try, though only after taking the Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush administrations to task for letting Carter's plans slip away. However, Hakes thinks the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 "will likely be seen as an important turning point and the end of a 26-year era of energy complacency." Well, maybe we can hope, but Hakes also explains that there are some partisan blinders that need to be removed before any hope of progress can realistically be felt.

On the Left, Hakes explains, many "rule out most sources of energy." Coal, oil, nuclear, windmills and dams all have been rhetorically shot down by the environmental left. And while acute arguments against each form of energy may "make sense" on their own, "In combination," Hakes writes, "they create an almost impossible situation." He states that "the ideology of the Left often castigates any increases in energy prices" believing that big business is gouging consumers. Hakes believes that "price increases are often best explained by the normal fluctuations of commodity markets or added costs." In summary, Hakes writes of the Left that "Both the insistence that energy prices should never rise and the demonization of major corporations often provide excuses for avoiding tough decisions about energy."

On the Right, Hakes explains that ideologues "tend to abhor any government action that raises energy prices or slows economic growth." Further, "this...shut the door on most new government measures to protect the environment or national security interests." He also accuses the Right of "sloppy thinking about free markets" when they don't "recognize the external costs of fossil fuels--the costs to national security, the economy, and the environment not included in retail prices." He also accuses conservatives of selective memory in that they overstate the effect that deregulation and more effective distribution had on energy prices without recognizing the government policies, most put in place by President Carter, "that promoted conservation and fuel-shifting away from oil."

Hakes also thinks the Right "tend to dismiss ideas they do not like with the simple assertion they were advance by someone they do not like." He offers Al Gore as an object lesson, but here he manifestly overreaches and is guilty of a reductionism all his own. The arguments against Al Gore and his Inconvenient Truth are much deeper than personal animosity. But perhaps Hakes is dismissing them because he doesn't like many on the ideological Right?

The last third of the book contains a series of chapters devoted to various solutions: we should increase our emergency reserves, develop the "car of the future", alternative fuels, "an electric future", implement acceptable energy taxes, "make energy conservation a patriotic duty" and "throw some Hail Marys." All and all, Hakes has several good ideas, many of which have been discussed by others and some of which are likely to be acted upon.

He concludes with an exhortation for both politicians and voters to take his suggestions (or others) and implement them fully. Yet, the same problem remains: even if we begin to implement these policies--and they begin to work--will we be able to keep our collective eyes on the ball long enough to see it all through? Hakes thinks we can if we accept it as a patriotic duty. That all depends on exactly how much we're asked to do for our country.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Unspinnning Clio

79.2 percent of historians self-identify as Democrats (h/t). Many even going so far as to actively campaign for the Democratic Party nominee this year. And that is perfectly fine, patriotic and all that. And yet, we are supposed to believe that when history is written, the biases and predispositions will be self-considered and the unvarnished, and historical "truth" will be produced about the current times in which we live. Right. I'll try to remember that in 20 years. (And I know how loaded all of that prior phraseology was....meh.)

I guess I'm at the "tipping point." If it isn't obvious by now, I've been in a slow process of disengagement with the professional history bloggers out there. I don't comment at HNN or engage other bloggers nearly as much as I used to. Partly because I just don't looking at things the same way an academic does (because I'll never be one--they're right about one thing; it doesn't pay enough!). I guess I just can't relate. I've also stepped back because of a change in priorities. Family and other interests have taken precedence.

I started history blogging because I liked History. I still do. But arguing over the minutiae and marshaling historical arguments to defend political stances has gotten tiresome and predictable. There really is no chance of persuasion or concession when historians talk politics. Cherry-picking historical arguments is easy for all of us and essentially non-productive. Face it, the sides have been drawn, and that's that. Hey, it's OK, but it's just a waste of my time. I can't keep up and, frankly, just don't care anymore.

So, the 79.2% of historians who call themselves Democrats can continue to talk to themselves and bemoan the poor rubes in the hinterlands who get tricked all of the time. Make fun of Bush ( only have a few more months) and think about which reductionist foil you can next set your sights on. Whatever. I'm out. I'll just review some books and post now and then about history when the mood strikes. I'm going to try to keep the contemporary politics far away from here. Spinning Clio is done worrying about the Spinning. I'm going to focus on "the Clio" from here on out.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A People's Documentary

Matt Damon is adapting Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States” into a documentary. That's just great. Way to puncture that stereotypical, Hollywood=leftist-America-haters balloon, Matt. Historians are split on the work, but every undergrad history wannabe goes through their own love affair with Zinn's "classic" work. I guess Mr. Damon is still channeling "Good Will Hunting" himself.