Wednesday, December 20, 2006


As I recently blathered on about, I think that part of being a "good" historian is to tone down the rhetoric and hyperbole while debating both the historical and contemporary. Also, it is also wise to avoid getting sucked into believing that there are always simple (reductionist) explanations for historical causation. Add to these the related temptation of scapegoating as explained by Mary Eberstadt.
... a flight from political reality has indeed been underway on both the left and the right in America in the years since that event, as well as accelerating into more advanced forms in much of Europe. To switch metaphors, in the wake of the 9/11 attack -- and later, related Islamist attacks on civilians, most notably in Spain and Britain -- many Western observers have responded not by absorbing what we now know to be true about our world, but rather by transposing those brute facts into other, safer, more familiar keys.
In other words, instead of focusing on the potential world-changing force that is radical Islam, many in the west are taking a sort of perverse comfort in turning towards familiar scapegoats.

Eberstadt explains that some on the right have taken to blaming "immigrants" for all of America's ills, while some on the left (including some libertarian's) have glommed onto the idea that "christianists" and/or "fundamentalists" are marching America toward Gomorrah. Then there is the popular Bush scapegoat, which many in the general public and the intellectual class find particularly appealling. But, Eberstadt explains, there are problems with this:
[One example is] Frank Rich's The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth from 9/11 to Katrina (Penguin Press). Like so much else now dominating the nonfiction aisles, it apprehends one large truth -- that the current balance between reality and rhetoric has been altered in a way deleterious to us. It then scrambles that message, again like the other scapegoaters, into a version more palatable than what the actual one would require. In this case, the scramble ends in focusing blame and hatred onto one single man -- George Bush -- who also shares a key feature of attraction alongside other scapegoats: He is not going to strike back.

Like others who are Bush-haters simpliciter, Rich is too bilious to make a systematic argument. The result is a burning effigy of a book whose smoke obscures one fundamental point: Whatever else George W. Bush is about, what the record does seem to show and what even many of his enemies feel forced to concede is that he does actually believe in what he is doing. Because it can't allow itself to go there, The Greatest Story Ever Sold becomes as two-dimensional as its subject...

The trouble with putting Bush personally at the center of what ails us is much like the related trouble of relocating the illegals or the theocrats there instead: i.e., it tries to explain too much. In this, too, the parallelism of the scapegoats can be seen. He is a child of privilege who believes in nothing. No, he is an ideological Christian possessed of an unwavering and therefore dangerous faith. Which is it? He is a tool of the oil interests, of the neoconservatives, of the Christians; no, he is a puppet master of them all; no again, he is himself a puppet of Karl Rove. He is "someone who likes to compete and win at all costs" (Frank Rich); he is someone who has had everything handed to him and doesn't know what it is like to struggle (also Rich). And so on.
There are also those--Eberstadt points to a recent issue of Foreign Affairs--who have concluded that "9/11 was not that big a deal after all." Then there is Europe, which has closed its eyes to the Islamist threat in its own backyard and instead resorted to a ramping up of anti-American rhetoric. Yet, Eberstadt thinks that anti-Americanism may be nothing more than misplaced anger:
Perhaps these days, on the Continent, the widespread, all-explaining urge to lay everything at the door of the U.S. has little to do with America proper. Perhaps it does not have much to do either with the post-Cold War unipolar world. Perhaps it is not even really about Iraq.

No, perhaps the anti-Americanism of today is best understood instead as a way of being furious in public with somebody for the insecurities and anxieties wrought by Islamist terrorism in this world, including in increasingly Muslim Europe -- an option made even more attractive by the safe bet that Americans, unlike some other people, are unlikely to respond to this rhetoric, let alone to editorial cartoons, by burning cars, slitting throats, or issuing death threats in places like Paris and Amsterdam and Regensburg and London.

In the end, people are comfortable with scapegoats because they can understand them. They are "problems" that have been solved before. Throw out the illegals, demonize the motives of religious people, blame Bush or America for everything or put our head in the sand. All are easier than dealing with an entity that simply doesn't think about life and society like the West.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

American Historical Association Against the War

Historians Against the War is going to present a resolution at the Business Meeting of the annual American Historical Association confab in Atlanta. Here's the proposed resolution:
Resolution on United States Government Practices Inimical to the Values of the Historical Profession (this resolution did not appear in the print version of the December Perspectives)

Whereas, The American Historical Association’s Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct emphasize the importance of open inquiry to the pursuit of historical knowledge;

Whereas, the American Historical Association adopted a resolution in January 2004 re-affirming the principles of free speech, open debate of foreign policy, and open access to government records in furthering the work of the historical profession;

Whereas during the war in Iraq and the so-called war on terror, the current Administration has violated the above-mentioned standards and principles through the following practices:
*excluding well-recognized foreign scholars;
*condemning as “revisionism” the search for truth about pre-war intelligence;
*re-classifying previously unclassified government documents;
*suspending in certain cases the centuries-old writ of habeas corpus and substituting indefinite administrative detention without specified criminal charges or access to a court of law;
*using interrogation techniques at Guantanamo, Abu-Ghraib, Bagram, and other locations incompatible with respect for the dignity of all persons required by a civilized society;

Whereas a free society and the unfettered intellectual inquiry essential to the practice of historical research, writing, and teaching are imperiled by the practices described above; and

Whereas, the foregoing practices are inextricably linked to the war in which the United States is presently engaged in Iraq; now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the American Historical Association urges its members through publication of this resolution in Perspectives and other appropriate outlets:

  1. To take a public stand as citizens on behalf of the values necessary to the practice of our profession; and

  2. To do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion.
Now, it is curious that the "anti-war" resolution was somehow left out of the printed version of Perspectives, the AHA's monthly magazine while a rather mundane Informed Meetings Exchange resolution and a more important (and less controversial) "Resolution Opposing the Use of Speech Codes to Restrict Academic Freedom" were included. But I don't want to conspiracy monger...perhaps there was a technical delay or something.

I added the hyperlinks in a good faith effort to help explain the "story" that lay behind some of the specific charges. Specifically, I can understand why the AHA would be concerned with the first three issues listed as justifications for part 1. of the resolution. But I don't get the particular significance that the 4th and 5th justifications--in concert with part 2 of the resolution--have to practising History. Don't get me wrong, the AHA and its memebers have every right to make a political statement, but, to put it bluntly, I don't think anyone particularly cares whether or not the AHA wants people "[t]o do whatever they can to bring the Iraq war to a speedy conclusion." In fact, I doubt if most people find the AHA any more or less worth listening to on the subject. To Joe Sixpack, this statement is about as relevant as if the local little league said the same thing. Just another bunch of pointy-heads throwing in their 2 cents. But I guess if it makes everyone feel good...

Friday, December 15, 2006

The Historian's Responsibility

In "Democracy and Greatness," Harvard University professor Harvey Mansfield offers "an argument for the use of great books in our education, based on the need for greatness in human life." It is this "need for greatness" on which Mansfield focuses and he explains that the "[t]wo obstacles to education in greatness loom before us, modern science and modern democracy." Of these, I'd like to focus on modern science and social science in particular. I take my cue from Mansfield, who believes:
Social science, moreover, has difficulty in understanding human greatness. It looks for the cause of greatness in the circumstances of mass movements or trends that make greatness inevitable, hence not really great. It is based on a simplistic psychology of maximizing the power of one's preferences or of overcoming one's necessities. It is blind to the psychology of greatness because it cannot see actions that sacrifice self-interest to espouse a cause. It has no inkling of human spiritedness, the quality of soul discussed by Plato, called thymos, that prompts us to assert a principle by which to live--and for which to die--as opposed to surviving by any means possible.

Though social scientists would hate to admit it, social science is still a form of Social Darwinism which suffers from the attempt to explain the evolution of man by a principle, the principle of survival, that is manifestly untrue to the facts of human life, and above all to human greatness. Any education that wants to appreciate greatness would have to be critical of social science.

Now, I don't necessarily agree with Mansfield here, and that is because I'm not sure whether he is lumping History in with the Social Sciences. But I think what he has to say is interesting in how it relates to the thoughts of Ohio University professor Kevin Mattson.

Mattson's "History", in the latest issue of Democracy, is a must read for those of us who look to the past with the hope that it can help us understand the present. The sub-title of the piece, "[t]hose who don't know history are doomed to distort it–and our political discourse," is an accurate thesis statement. For example, Mattson uses recent historical analogies offered by Donald Rumsfeld and Jacob Weisberg, both of which he believes were facile and not rigorous enough to withstand serious historical scrutiny, as a jumping off point for a well-considered essay on the role of the historian in contemporary political discourse (so go read it!).

But if such analogies are so specious, why do politicians and pundits continue to deploy them? Simply put, because they can. Today the public, even the educated public, has little knowledge of history, or even an appreciation of history as anything other than a grab bag of unrelated facts to be picked from as one sees fit...But even in their ignorance, audiences are still sufficiently impressed by history’s power that even the weakest analogies provide immediate faux expertise, an instant credibility. Thus history is both poorly understood and everywhere present; we shape our public discourse with a discipline we don’t understand.

And where are the professional historians who are trained to understand the past and could scrutinize such claims? They’re in academia, churning out esoteric articles that move fast onto resumes but rarely into public debate.

Mattson then turns to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. (no politically impartial historian he!) to provide historians with a history lesson: historians should attempt to use history within contemporary political debates. If not us, then who?:
Four months before his then-boss, John F. Kennedy, was assassinated, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. argued in the Atlantic that when scholars abandon engaged history and leave public life behind, they empower "prophetic historians" who replace complexity with a big overarching idea (Schlesinger had in mind Marxism). Today, scholars are leaving behind the public world not to communist theory but to the History Channel, where the imperative of entertainment trumps veracity, where shows about absurd conspiracy theories run alongside more serious fare, all formatted to work in between commercials. Or they leave it behind to blockbuster historians–think David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, or the recently deceased Stephen Ambrose–whose books, though widely bought, lack analytical power and critical insight. But most worrisome of all (and here is where Schlesinger was most prescient), professional historians have left a void to be filled by radical historians, who eschew nuance and objectivity in favor of simplistic morality tales.
I think Mattson is too tough on the "blockbuster historians," but his fears of the proliferation of history as a "simplistic morality tale" are, I believe, well-founded. I also agree that History as entertainment has a tendency to stoop down to the lowest common denominator. Unfortunately, there are more people interested in the "history" of UFOs then in Enlightenment thought. (Besides, there was no film or movie cameras back then!) But I digress. As Mattson explains, "it wasn't always this way." There was a time when the likes of "C. Vann Woodward, Henry Steele Commager, Richard Hofstadter, and Schlesinger himself" actively maintained a foot in the past and the present and the public was better off for the work they produced.

From here, Mattson offers a comparative book review of Howard Zinn's A People's History and C. Vann Woodward's Strange Career of Jim Crow to offer his perspective on the responsible contemporization of History. He shows that Zinn's "sweeping, ideology-heavy narrative that leaves no room for contingency or nuance" only serves to simplify history for the left and made it simpler for those on the right to hold Zinn up as a cipher for all that is wrong with the liberal academy.
Rather than ignoring Zinn, they place him at the center of the American historiography, just to show how widespread his approach has become...And once Zinn is accepted as the model historian, it’s easy for the right to prepare the necessary takedown.
Contrast Zinn's simplistic, "blame-it-on-the-man" approach to Woodward's more nuanced and even-handed method, as displayed in Jim Crow:

When he explained the historical rise of segregation, he knew enough to explain his story’s complexity and contingency...Though Woodward was clearly an opponent of segregation and racism, his story didn’t unfold as a morality play of good versus evil but rather as a clash of "real choices," some less harmful than others. He explained: "The policies of proscription, segregation, and disenfranchisement that are often described as immutable ‘folkways’ of the South, impervious alike to legislative reform and armed intervention, are of a more recent origin."

...Woodward’s real contribution, though, was to show that the central philosophical pivots of history–the intersection of social, economic, and political trends with the contingency inherent in all human endeavor–had great relevance for the present. Woodward didn’t seek facile analogies; he sought a clear and thorough understanding of past events as a defining factor of the present...

Woodward showed how the past was complex and made up of the acts of varied players making choices that were in no way inevitable; he would have seen as silly the telling of a narrative in which always virtuous people battle an always villainous power elite. Though he certainly sided with those who wanted to achieve justice, he didn’t toss aside the importance of scrutinizing the past in order to accomplish a better world.

Mattson conludes:
Our culture nurtures instantaneous debate and over-the-top diatribes, rather than thoughtful rumination. But this is precisely what makes Woodward’s legacy all the more important. As the liberal historian Alan Brinkley (sounding conservative to some, perhaps) pointed out in his book Liberalism and Its Discontents, "Reminding our personality-obsessed and result-oriented culture that there are forces shaping our world beyond the actions and characters of individuals–and that we will be more successful if we adjust our expectations and our goals to the reality of those forces, and to the difficulty of our fully understanding them–is one of the things [historians] are best equipped to do." Our culture could use reminding of this right now.
This seems to be a refutation of Mansfield's earlier-mentioned, broader critique of the tendency of the social sciences to focus on the inevitability of social movements and thus reduce the importance of the individual. However, I think that Mansfield and Mattson (assuming that he's sympathetic to Brinkley point of view--he did quote it, after all)--though coming at the problem from different sides--are offering the same solution.

Mansfield and Mattson (and Brinkley) are each correct. It seems to be human nature to want to reduce explanations of historical causation to the most simple explanation (and all the better if served with a large dose of cynicism). If it's not all Bush's fault or the liberal media's, well, then it's the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the CFR or the Masons (always the Masons...). Mansfield and Mattson both argue against the simplification of historical analysis.

For Mansfield, it can't always be about movements: sometimes individuals--Mansfield's "great men"--really do make a difference. For Mattson (and Brinkley), even powerful individuals can't control everything and events overtake them, no matter what they try to do to prevent it. Contra to the tendency to oversimplify, responsible historians can show the nuances and complicatons and contingencies that led to the particular characteristics of a given historical event and how it was caused. Usually it had to do with both great men or women and large forces. It's never as simple as it seems.

Thus, as Mattson explains, historians need to buck up and wade in to the public dialogue. In particular, here in the blogosphere, we blogging historians probably need to cut back on the pithy jeremiads-as-blog posts that we tend to pump out. All such posts do is feed the beast. They are grist for the ideological mill and only exacerbate the problem that Mattson describes.

Perhaps one solution would be for us history bloggers to concentrate more on being accurate and fair with how we do our history and less on using it to further political agendas--especially to score quick political points. Or maybe, at least, we should just be more aware of how our history related posts may be used irresponsibly. For instance, if we see a bad historical analogy, instead of going right for the jugular, spewing invective and hyperbole against the poster, we should deal with it in a more professional manner. I know that invective is "sexy" and hyperbole "sells," but I can't help but think that a measured response would be regarded more seriously and respectfully by those with whom you differ.*

I think this all stems from one of the pitfalls of the online world; namely a lack of civility in debate. The remoteness of the keyboard and monitor provides the sort of insulation not encountered when debating face to face. And that insularity too often results in uncharacteristic boldness (or rudeness). Now, before I get accused of going all rainbows and ponies, I want to say that I'm not opposed to rigorous debate and questioning of facts, theories, etc. Instead, historians should try to give each other the benefit of the doubt and accept the sincerity of those involved in the dialogue.

Just because we disagree, doesn't mean I'm Satan or you're Hitler. We just disagree (reminds me of a song). It's the well-intentioned debate over that disagreement that will serve to educate others, perhaps even non-historians, and show that determining historical causation is far from a simple task that ends up with a simple answer.


*I don't know how many times I've seen a potentially good on-line historical discussion sidetracked immediately by one or another commenter casting negative aspersions on the motives of someone with whom they disagree. It's History 101 isn't it: assume that the "source" is genuine, ie; they really believe what they say.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Concert of Democracies: Global Politics Played to a Different Tune

America unbound alienated allies, empowered adversaries and divided Americans" and has returned to multi
Democracies understand that international peace and justice in an era of global politics rest on protecting the rights of individuals. Nation-state sovereignty can no longer be the sole organizing principle of international politics. Since what happens within a state matters to people living outside it, tackling these internal developments cooperatively is vital to the security and well-being of all. Threats to security arising within states are matters of concern to the commons, and so must yield to legitimate cooperative action arising from the commons. Democracies are open to cooperation to preserve the common good—it is the very essence of how they govern within their own societies, after all—in a way that non-democracies very often are not.
Their three general steps are:
First, the Concert would be a vehicle for helping democracies confront their mutual security challenges...

Second, the Concert would promote economic growth and development...

Third, the Concert would promote democracy and human rights...
Their proposal is much more detailed than this very brief summary and they do understand that it is a long road to actualizing their vision. In one sense, it's a broader version of the Anglosphere idea. I don't know if it's possible, but it worth a shot.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Defining History and Adding A Warning Label

As most historians probably do, I have a habit of accumulating various articles that have piqued my interest over the years. In particular, I have a penchant for ripping book reviews out of magazines and journals. Well, every now and then I wade through the detritus. What often happens is that about 1/3 of the articles and reviews don't seem quite so germane or important as before. Of the rest, a few are digested and set aside for further reflection, but others warrant immediate action. That is what I'm doing now.

One such clipping was a book review of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom by Conrad Black, written by Forrest McDonald for the November 24, 2003 edition of National Review. I originally had kept the review because of McDonald's rather acerbic explanation of what makes a historian:
What historians do is make generalizations. They study and tke notes from the relevant documents and secondary literature. As they ingest the data, they digest them and reduce them to general propositions. When they sit down to write they select and report only that which makes cogent the story they are telling or the analysis they are offering. Two other kinds of folks who study the past go about their tasks differently. Antiquarians delight in learning details for their own sake and are likely to report them accurately and fully, if somewhat randomly. Authors of academic history characteristically record their research on note cards, arrange them in chronological order, and write by turning the cards over one by one. The results in either case are well-nigh unreadable.
Quite some time after reading McDonald's review, I picked up the book in the bargain bin of a local discount chain. (Mostly because it was big and thick and cheap and had to do with history, I must confess). I had forgotten what McDonald had written about Black's FDR:
Conrad Black's unconsionably long biography of Franklin Roosevelt shares almost none of the characteristics of genuine history and fall halfway between the work of antiquarians and academicians. Like them, he includes every detail, however irrelevant, though he is not always accurate and sometimes arranges his note cards out of sequence.
I have now tucked McDonald's review inside the book as a "warning label." I wonder if this might not be a good practice to follow in general? Does anyone else do such a thing? Seems like keeping a critique of a book that one might fall in love with may be a good hedge against literary or historical cupidity.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Historian Resigns over Carter Screed

I previously referred to Alan Dershowitz's scathing review of former President Jimmy Carter's Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. Dershowitz took Carter to task for playing fast and loose--if not outright ignoring--history. Now, Dr. Kenneth Stein, Professor of Contemporary Middle Eastern History, Political Science, and Israeli Studies at Emory as well as the Director of the Middle East Research Program and Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel has resigned (via John Podhoretz) as Middle East Fellow of the Carter Center at Emory.
This ends my 23 year association with an institution that in some small way I helped shape and develop. My joint academic position in Emory College in the History and Political Science Departments, and, as Director of the Emory Institute for the Study of Modern Israel remains unchanged.

Many still believe that I have an active association with the Center and, act as an adviser to President Carter, neither is the case. President Carter has intermittently continued to come to the Arab-Israeli Conflict class I teach in Emory College. He gives undergraduate students a fine first hand recollection of the Begin-Sadat negotiations of the late 1970s. Since I left the Center physically thirteen years ago, the Middle East program of the Center has waned as has my status as a Carter Center Fellow. For the record, I had nothing to do with the research, preparation, writing, or review of President Carter's recent publication. Any material which he used from the book we did together in 1984, The Blood of Abraham, he used unilaterally.

President Carter's book on the Middle East, a title too inflammatory to even print, is not based on unvarnished analyses; it is replete with factual errors, copied materials not cited, superficialities, glaring omissions, and simply invented segments. Aside from the one-sided nature of the book, meant to provoke, there are recollections cited from meetings where I was the third person in the room, and my notes of those meetings show little similarity to points claimed in the book. Being a former President does not give one a unique privilege to invent information or to unpack it with cuts, deftly slanted to provide a particular outlook. Having little access to Arabic and Hebrew sources, I believe, clearly handicapped his understanding and analyses of how history has unfolded over the last decade. Falsehoods, if repeated often enough become meta-truths, and they then can become the erroneous baseline for shaping and reinforcing attitudes and for policy-making. The history and interpretation of the Arab-Israeli conflict is already drowning in half-truths, suppositions, and self-serving myths; more are not necessary. In due course, I shall detail these points and reflect on their origins.

{emphasis added}

I'm not familiar with Dr. Stein's work, but I would imagine that his c.v. is strong enough to withstand any attacks of him being some sort of neocon hack. I'll be interested to see what he provides as evidence of President Carter's skewed scholarship.

UPDATE (12/7/06): Jake Tapper adds:

Speaking to the NEW YORK TIMES Tulane historian Douglas Brinkley, author of the 1988 Carter biography, "The Unfinished Presidency," paints the dispute as more ideological than ethical.
"They've never been on the same page in the Middle East. They've been in an almost constant state of disagreement. Carter has used him as a sounding board but apparently Carter went too far and the sparring partner decided to bloody him up," Brinkley said. "Ken Stein ... doesn't trust the Palestinians as much as Carter."

As a college student, I interned for Dr. Stein at the Carter Center in 1988. He's a stand-up guy, one committed to trying to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and one certainly open to the Palestinian point of view.

My work for Stein revolved around research about THE BENELUX STATES -- the economic union that allows Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxemboug to function together while existing separately. I also researched ways in which Israel and the Palestinians were intertwined infrastructurally -- water supplies, for instance. This is not the work of a man turning a deaf ear to the needs of the Palestinians -- it's the work of a man researching ways to achieve peace.

Medieval Weather

The "Medieval Warm Period" is one of those scientific/political footballs that is constantly being passed around. As a medievalist, I'm familiar with the historical evidence (or interpretation) that suggests the weather must have been nicer c. 1000 A.D. because why else would the Vikings believe that Iceland and Greenland would have viable farming land. Of course, it was only viable, not necessarily very productive. Then there is the research of NOAA and the findings of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which both indicate that the Medieval Warm Period wasn't really that much warmer and that, contrary to being a global event, was much more regionalized.

The reason that the MWP is important is because those who are skeptical of human-created global warming believe that the MWP and the Little Ice Age indicate that changes in global temperatures occurred well before 20th century industrialization. While NOAA admits that attempts pin down temperature patterns in periods as early (and earlier) than 1000 A.D. are tough because of the lack of reliable data, they also point out that the warming that has ocurred in the 20th century easily eclipses any previous rise. Of course, that is, any measure rise.

What does this all mean? Science as politics ain't going away and, frankly, I'm not too interested in that debate. Sometimes it seems that the role played by contingency is forgotten in history and the MWP debated offers an important reminder that weather can affect history in multiple ways. What if the MWP continued and even got hotter? Would we all be talking about our Viking forefathers here in the U.S.? Or would more--and better--wine be coming out of Britain?

Friday, December 01, 2006

Slate publishes a Bushitler piece

Frederick Smoler at the American Heritage Blog is rather surprised that a mainstream (web) 'zine like Slate would stoop to publishing a Bush=Hitler piece. Especially one that is filled with poor historical analogies:
Diane McWhorter published a piece sneering at the tendency to avoid comparing the Bush administration to the Nazis. She wonders why “nobody seems eager to delve too deeply into what exactly it was about George W. Bush that the voters so roundly rejected . . . polite discussion of that question does not contain any derivative of the words fascism, propaganda, or dictatorship. God forbid Nazi or Hitler.” Early on, Ms. McWhorter points out that the Bush administration, like the Nazis, engages in propaganda. I do not think this successfully isolates the more distinctive qualities of National Socialism.

Ms. McWhorter handsomely acknowledges that the Bush people have avoided exterminating the Jews, but insists that this does not get them off the hook. She concludes by assuming the point at issue: The United States is like Nazi Germany because ordinary Americans went along with Bush for a number of years. Before that dazzling display of circular reasoning, she makes a number of other comparisons, and one core of her argument focuses on the brief threat to change the Senate’s rules on the filibuster, which, had it happened, “struck me as a functional analog of the Enabling Act of 1933, which consolidated the German government under Chancellor Hitler and effectively dissolved the Reichstag as a parliamentary body.” For this analogy to hold, you have to assume, at a minimum, that in the event the Republicans had changed the filibuster rules on confirming Federal judges, there would never again have been an election in the United States. And to assume this, you have to be an idiot.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

A Consensus on Un-serious Europe

Left, Right and Center agree, European leaders are a bunch of unserious wannabes:

MARA LIASSON: [T]he U.S. wants the European and other NATO countries to pony up more. That's, I think, been a perennial problem. You and I have covered a lot of summits where the Europeans talk big, they want to be a counterweight to the United States, but as you heard Nick Burns just say, they're not willing to spend the proportion of their GDP on defense the way we do.

MORT KONDRACKE: The United States spends about 3.8 percent of GDP on defense, the whole rest of NATO spends 1.9 percent. . . . And our friends, the French, you know, have specifically refused to get involved in Afghanistan. They've got 20,000 men that they have on standby duty for use someplace, and when they were asked specifically to join up and go help out in Afghanistan, they said, "No, we're going to hold these back in case they're needed in Kosovo." You know, typically French.

BARNES: [T]he Germans, the Italians and the Spanish, even when they come, they have a rule. No combat. They don't want to fight. So it's left to the Americans, the Canadians, and the Dutch, actually, are pretty good. And then the Australians, who aren't even members of NATO are the ones who are actually doing the fighting. And the Canadians have lost 34 soldiers in recent months, so they've really done a good job.

Look, the Europeans have been free-riders now for 60 years. It's going to are hard to get them off the dole, it really is. And it'll almost be small amounts of money, percentage-wise. [bold from NRO]

OK, I know I'm immediately endangering any credibility I may have with many because this comes from FOX (evil evil evil) via NRO (evil evil evil), but frankly, I don't care. So what if these observations were made on FOX, the comments all ring true to me and it's not like it's the first time similar points have been made (here, here, here). However, the wonderful succinctness of the above is that we have someone from Left (Liasson), Middle (Kondracke) and Right (Barnes) all agreeing that "Europe"--that generalized group of nations that is comprised mostly of the Cold War "west"--talks big and carries a twig.
Not all of them, to be sure, but too many of them.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Dershowitz Takes President Carter to Task

In "The World According to Carter," Alan Dershowitz (via ALD) finds much wrong with President Jimmy Carter's "ahistorical" retelling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict that runs through the former President's new book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.

Sometimes you really can tell a book by its cover. President Jimmy Carter's decision to title his new anti-Israel screed "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" (Simon & Schuster, 288 pages, $27) tells it all. His use of the loaded word "apartheid," suggesting an analogy to the hated policies of South Africa, is especially outrageous, considering his acknowledgment buried near the end of his shallow and superficial book that what is going on in Israel today "is unlike that in South Africa—not racism, but the acquisition of land." Nor does he explain that Israel's motivation for holding on to land it captured in a defensive war is the prevention of terrorism. Israel has tried, on several occasions, to exchange land for peace, and what it got instead was terrorism, rockets, and kidnappings launched from the returned land.

In fact, Palestinian-Arab terrorism is virtually missing from Mr. Carter's entire historical account, which blames nearly everything on Israel and almost nothing on the Palestinians...There is no mention of the long history of Palestinian terrorism before the occupation, or of the Munich massacre and others inspired byYasser Arafat. There is not even a reference to the Karine A, the boatful of terrorist weapons ordered by Arafat in January 2002.

Mr. Carter's book is so filled with simple mistakes of fact and deliberate omissions that were it a brief filed in a court of law, it would be struck and its author sanctioned for misleading the court. Mr. Carter too is guilty of misleading the court of public opinion. A mere listing of all of Mr. Carter's mistakes and omissions would fill a volume the size of his book.
After listing a few of the "mistakes and omissions," Dershowitz continues:

And it's not just the facts; it's the tone as well. It's obvious that Mr. Carter just doesn't like Israel or Israelis. He lectured Golda Meir on Israeli's "secular" nature, warning her that "Israel was punished whenever its leaders turned away from devout worship of God." He admits that he did not like Menachem Begin. He has little good to say about any Israelis — except those few who agree with him. But he apparently got along swimmingly with the very secular Syrian mass-murderer Hafez al-Assad. Mr. Carter and his wife Rosalynn also had a fine time with the equally secular Arafat — a man who has the blood of hundreds of Americans and Israelis on his hands:

Rosalynn and I met with Yasir Arafat in Gaza City, where he was staying with his wife, Suha, and their little daughter. The baby, dressed in a beautiful pink suit, came readily to sit on my lap, where I practiced the same wiles that had been successful with our children and grandchildren. A lot of photographs were taken, and then the photographers asked that Arafat hold his daughter for a while. When he took her, the child screamed loudly and reached out her hands to me, bringing jovial admonitions to the presidential candidate to stay at home enough to become acquainted with is own child.

There is something quite disturbing about these pictures.

"Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" is so biased that it inevitably raises the question of what would motivate a decent man like Jimmy Carter to write such an indecent book. Whatever Mr. Carter's motives may be, his authorship of this ahistorical, one-sided, and simplistic brief against Israel forever disqualifies him from playing any positive role in fairly resolving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. That is a tragedy because the Carter Center, which has done much good in the world, could have been a force for peace if Jimmy Carter were as generous in spirit to the Israelis as he is to the Palestinians.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Conservatives Back Ideology with Cash

Ralph Luker points to a new book by Syracuse University professor Arthur C. Brooks called Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. According to this story:
When it comes to helping the needy, Brooks writes: "For too long, liberals have been claiming they are the most virtuous members of American society. Although they usually give less to charity, they have nevertheless lambasted conservatives for their callousness in the face of social injustice."

...The book's basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money...

"These are not the sort of conclusions I ever thought I would reach when I started looking at charitable giving in graduate school, 10 years ago," he writes in the introduction. "I have to admit I probably would have hated what I have to say in this book."

Still, he says it forcefully, pointing out that liberals give less than conservatives in every way imaginable, including volunteer hours and donated blood.

...Harvey Mansfield, professor of government at Harvard University and 2004 recipient of the National Humanities Medal, does not know Brooks personally but has read the book.

"His main finding is quite startling, that the people who talk the most about caring actually fork over the least," he said. "But beyond this finding I thought his analysis was extremely good, especially for an economist. He thinks very well about the reason for this and reflects about politics and morals in a way most economists do their best to avoid."
Brooks seems very reluctant to embrace his findings. I would bet it's because he isn't too keen on the idea of the political hammer it could become for social (religious) conservatives. I also think he'll get his wish of having other academics putting his findings through rigorous analysis! Finally, Ralph poses a good question: "do people on the left actually say: 'I gave at the IRS.'?"

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Religion and the Founders: Going Beyond the "Top Six"

In 2001, Michael Novak wrote in Faith and the American Founding: Illustrating Religion's Influence:

For a hundred years scholars have stressed the principles that come from the Enlightenment and from John Locke in particular. But there are also first principles that come to us from Judaism and Christianity, especially from Judaism. Indeed, it is important to recognize that most of what our Founders talked about (when they talked politically) came from the Jewish Testament, not the Christian. The Protestant Christians who led the way in establishing the principles of this country were uncommonly attached to the Jewish Testament.

Scholars often mistakenly refer to the god of the Founders as a deist god. But the Founders talked about God in terms that are radically Jewish: Creator, Lawgiver, Governor, Judge, and Providence. These were the names they most commonly used for Him, notably in the Declaration of Independence. For the most part, these are not names that could have come from the Greeks or Romans, but only from the Jewish Testament. Perhaps the Founders avoided Christian language because they didn’t want to divide one another, since different colonies were founded under different Christian inspirations. In any case, all found common language in the language of the Jewish Testament. It is important for citizens today whose main inspiration is the Enlightenment and Reason to grasp the religious elements in the founding, which have been understated for a hundred years.

More recently, Novak has written about how the focus has been on the supposed irreligiosity of the "big six" founders (Jefferson, Madison, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and Washington). He's willing to admit that Jefferson, Franklin and Monroe were the least religious of the top 100 Founders, but also makes an argument against the assumptions for the other three. He also mentions that Gordon Wood has been making much the same case. According to Novak:
[Wood] has not found a single atheist during the Founding period (not even Tom Paine), and certainly not among the Founders. Second, he finds even the least religious of the Founders considerably more religious than the average professor at American universities today. Ours is a far, far more secular age, our leaders and our people are far more ignorant of religious ideas. Third, he finds that Jefferson—the Founder most attended to today—was an outlier among the Founders.

Wood has also argued that George Washington, while not being by any means an enthusiast or an evangelical in the modern sense, was probably one of the more religious of the Founders...
I don't offer all of this up to support some "Christian Nation" argument. But I do think things have a gone a bit too far in proclaiming that the Founders weren't really, you know, that religious and, by extension, they'd be somehow against referring to God in public. Historians have learned to contemporize their subjects in so many other areas of historical research. Yet, it seems to me that there is a deficit of contemporization with regards to how important religion was in both the daily life and the philosophy of the Founders.

Whether for political or ideological reasons, some scholars have improperly equated "religious" with "evangelical" (or "Christianist") . One can be religious, recognize its importance in setting up moral guideposts (especially in a Republic), but not seek to Establish an official religion. Some seem to think that any mention of God or reference to religion within the close proximity of the Public Square is just the first misstep down the slippery slope to a theocracy.

To wrap this up, I think Novak's call for more study of the religious aspects of the Founders philosophy (all of 'em, not just the big names) is a kick in the pants for young historians looking to make a mark.
We urgently need good studies of all of them, if we wish to have a fairer idea of “the faith of the Founders.” Let us suggest, for starters, studies about the depth of the Christian faith of Roger Sherman; Samuel Huntington; William Williams; the Carroll cousins Charles, Daniel, and John; Hugh Williamson; Robert Treat Paine; William Paca; John Dickinson; Rufus King; William Livingston; John Hancock; Benjamin Rush; Patrick Henry; James Wilson; and George Mason.
There's gotta be a thesis, dissertation (or three) in there somewhere....

Saturday, November 11, 2006

Friday, November 10, 2006

"The legend lives on from the Chippewa on down...

...of the big lake they called 'Gitche Gumee.'" Today is the 31st anniversary of the sinking of the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, which was immortalized by Gordon Lightfoot.

It is also the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps!

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Clifford Geertz

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has passed away.
Dr. Geertz's landmark contributions to social and cultural theory have been influential not only among anthropologists, but also among geographers, ecologists, political scientists, humanists, and historians. He worked on religion, especially Islam; on bazaar trade; on economic development; on traditional political structures; and on village and family life. A prolific author since the 1950s, Dr. Geertz's many books include The Religion of Java (1960); Islam Observed: Religious Development in Morocco and Indonesia (1968); The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (1973, 2000); Negara: The Theatre State in Nineteenth Century Bali (1980); and The Politics of Culture, Asian Identities in a Splintered World (2002). At the time of his death, Dr. Geertz was working on the general question of ethnic diversity and its implications in the modern world...

Dr. Geertz's deeply reflective and eloquent writings often provided profound and cogent insights on the scope of culture, the nature of anthropology and on the understanding of the social sciences in general. Noting that human beings are "symbolizing, conceptualizing, meaning-seeking animals," Geertz acknowledged and explored the innate desire of humanity to "make sense out of experience, to give it form and order." In Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author (1988), Geertz stated, "The next necessary neither the construction of a universal Esperanto-like culture...nor the invention of some vast technology of human management. It is to enlarge the possibility of intelligible discourse between people quite different from one another in interest, outlook, wealth, and power, and yet contained in a world where tumbled as they are into endless connection, it is increasingly difficult to get out of each other's way."
I was first exposed to Geertz's work through my studies of Bernard Bailyn's work on the ideological underpinnings of the American Revolution. Geertz's attempt to understand how humans "make sense out of experience, to give it form and order" went a long way towards explaining how ideology can be an important historical force.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Spinning Clio : Best of 2006

With nominations for the 2nd Annual Cliopatria Awards opening soon, I thought I'd offer up some of my best/favorite posts over the past year. Sure, I'd like some of 'em nominated (if they deserve it), but I also think it's a worthy exercise in and of itself. Blogging can get a little ephemeral and rediscovering one's own work may inspire further investigation down a forgotten path. Anyway, they are with a brief blurb about each:

Meet the new boss, will he turn out like the old boss?: Prompted by a Peggy Noonan column about the insular elite, I tied in a discussion of a "new elite," Glenn Reynold's Army of Davids, Alan Taylor's William Cooper's Town and Turner's frontier thesis.

I Like Medieval Women (Especially Queens) : An introduction to the study of medieval queens, with a few suggested readings.

A Positive Historical Baseline : I argue that we should be truthful about the missteps in America's past, but "[w]e should teach our kids to give their own nation and those who built it the benefit of the doubt" when first exposing them to American history.

The Historiography of the Early Middle Ages and National Homogeneity : After reading a piece by Götz Aly on re-contextualizing the Holocaust in which he mentions the medievalist Jacob Burchhardt, I delved into how current medievalists have shown that the concept of ethnically pure nation-states was a myth.

Qualifying Bennett's Jefferson: How Jefferson Was Able to Wage War on the Pirates : An excerpt from William Bennett's America: The Last Best Hope seemed to me to give too much credit to Thomas Jefferson--and to be too dismissive of the efforts of George Washington and John Adams--for how the U.S. finally dealt with the Barbary Pirates. In short, Jefferson used a Navy that he had previously and repeatedly tried to scuttle.

Historical Consumerism : Historian Stephen Fry spoke about why history matters and I explained why, and how, I discovered it matters to me.

And there you have 'em. The six bests post of the past year, IMHO.

Monday, October 23, 2006

Cliopatria Awards: 2006 -- Nominations Opening Soon

Ralph Luker has announced that nominations for The Cliopatria Awards, 2006 edition will be opened on November 1.
Nominations for the Best Individual Blog, Best Group Blog, Best New Blog, Best Post, Best Series of Posts, and Best Writer will be open through November. The eligibility time-frame for the Awards is 1 December 2005 through 30 November 2006. Nominations will be judged during December. Winners will be announced at the 4th Annual Banquet of the Cliopatricians at the AHA convention in Atlanta and, subsequently, here at Cliopatria in early January. Here are last year's winners.
I was honored to be nominated last year for my series on historiography. To make it easier for anyone who may be looking my way this year (wink wink), I'm going to compile a list of what I believe to be my "Greatest Hits" of history blog posts from the last year. Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The "Muslim Ages"?

Apparently, there is a move amongst the ubiquitous "group of academics" to get rid of the terms "Dark Ages" and "Middle Ages".
The ambitious project, backed by the British foreign office, aims to contest the very notion of a period that is known in the West as the Dark Ages, and highlight what has been called by Prince Charles of Wales as the "indebtedness" of Western civilisation to the Muslim world.

"We are told that nothing happened between the Roman Empire and [the Renaissance]. How can we accept that humanity went to sleep for that long?" asked Salim Al Hassani, the Iraqi-born British professor of mechanical engineering behind Muslim Heritage, which held a lecture about 1001 Muslim inventions at the Madinat Theatre on Tuesday, also featuring an address by the British consul general in Dubai, John Hawkins.

The term 'Dark Ages', Al Hassani told Gulf News, is losing ground and the period is more commonly referred to as the 'Middle Ages', which according to him is also misleading.

"'Middle Ages' refers to a period between two ages. Why don't we just give that period a name?" he asked, adding that the only appropriate name for the period would be the 'Islamic' or 'Muslim' age. Al Hassani said it is time for historians in the West to give due credit to Muslim academics.

Richard Brown, spokesperson for Muslim Heritage, said the response the programme has received has been overwhelming. A recent exhibition held by Muslim Heritage in Manchester, UK, attracted 80,000 visitors and was extended from three months to six, due to popular demand.

According to Brown, there is growing interest in the project's work in the West. Interestingly, he said, the largest number of requests for the exhibition came from the United States.

"'Middle Ages' refers to a period between two ages. Why don't we just give that period a name?" asks Al Hassani.
Sure....but wouldn't it strike today's medievalist as a bit disconnected to be called a "Muslim Age" scholar while they are studying, say, Eleanor of Aquitaine or St. Patrick? Others have attempted to rid us of this particular set of historiographical baggage and have failed. Heck, couldn't China lay claim to just as much "progress" during this time as the Muslim world? Maybe we should call it the "Eastern Age" or something. Anyway, I seriously doubt that such a generic appellation would catch on, but I'm nearly certain that naming an entire age after a specific culture isn't going to be widely accepted.

Military Path to Citizenship

Writing in the Washington Post, Max Boot and Michael O'Hanlon propose a military path to citizenship and National Review's Stanley Kurtz thinks it's a good idea while John Derbyshire and Mark Krikorian do not. Kurtz offers some historical examples of non-citizens contributing to the national defense (and asks for more) and is supported by emailers (one, two, three) who explain that, indeed, this is already going on in the U.S. military (which Boot and O'Hanlon mention in their piece).

Derbyshire's specific complaint against the idea is this:
The difficulty Boot notes in increasing troop levels ought to be a clue that, while we're happy to sign on to kill Saddam or nuke Japan or burn Atlanta (sorry to you Georgians out there), not enough of our people are interested in playing nursemaid to a bunch of crazies to make that a sustainable policy. To ignore that, and call instead for the recruitment of foreign soldiers, stems from the same impulse as Brecht's crack about "dissolving the people and electing a new one" — if the American people aren't interested in signing up for police duty in Araby, lets find people who are.
My college roommate's family was a beneficiary of the military path to citizenship. A Filipino, his father enlisted in the Navy, did his time and wound up in San Diego as a U.S. citizen. I have no doubts that there are non-U.S. citizens who would jump at the chance to obtain expedited U.S. citizenship.

Searching for Local History

Sarah Sutton of the Warwick Beacon (a local paper) writes:
When Steve Insana, Buckeye Brook activist and champion of environmental preservation in the Conimicut area, stepped out of his truck with a chainsaw in hand, I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

I’d agreed to meet him Saturday morning at the fire station on West Shore Road and Sandy Lane, which was to be the starting point for his attempt to uncover a 200-year-old burial plot located somewhere in the brambles near Buckeye Brook. I hadn’t realized we’d be blazing a trail through tangles of vines, climbing over logs and ducking under branches to make our way to the site.
They found it!

Brown University Slavery Report

Around 3 years ago, Brown University president Ruth Simmons organized a commission to investigate the school's ties to slavery. As anyone who has read Charles Rappleye's Sons of Providence knows, the Brown brothers benefitted from the slave trade and some of that money undoubtedly went towards the founding and expansion of the University. Yesterday, the commission released its report. According to the Providence Journal:
About a third of the report focuses on Brown’s deep ties to slavery and the slave trade; a third explores modern day slavery and reparations; and the remainder is recommendations and footnotes.

The recommendations include:

•Publicly acknowledging the participation of Brown’s founders and benefactors in the slave trade by revising Brown’s history to incorporate its connection to slavery and by the creation of an on-campus memorial.

•Establishing a university center for research on slavery.

•Adopting a more transparent and socially responsible investment strategy and policy for accepting gifts.

•Recruiting more economically disadvantaged students and diverse faculty, and offering more financial aid to diverse and international students. This includes actively recruiting students from Africa and the West Indies, “the historic points of origin and destination for most of the people carried on Rhode Island slave ships.”
The ProJo also termed "surprising" the recommendation that "Brown intensify and consolidate its efforts to improve education in Rhode Island, particularly the public schools in Providence." I don't know if it's surprising, but it's certainly a case of putting your money where your angst is. Instead of simply saying your sorry, it sounds like Brown is going to take some of the millions they make/have in their endowment and help out under-priveleged kids in Providence.
“To appreciate the dimensions of the crisis, one need look no further than Providence, where 48 of the city’s 49 public schools currently fail to meet federally prescribed minimum standards for academic achievement,” the report states. “This situation represents a direct challenge to Brown University. One of the most obvious and meaningful ways for Brown to take responsibility for its past is by dedicating its resources to improving the quality of education available to the children of our city and state.”

Brown’s previous and current efforts — tutoring and mentoring programs, arts and literacy initiatives and teacher training programs — are well intentioned, but “highly decentralized,” “ill-coordinated,” and “chronically underfunded,” the report states.

“If Brown is to make a meaningful impact in local schools, it will require a sustained, substantial commitment of energy and resources for many years,” the report states.

The committee suggests that Brown create more classes for teachers and allow public school teachers to take one Brown course a semester free of charge. The group also wants the university to expand its Brown Summer High School program, which prepares Rhode Island students for college-level work. The committee recommends an increase in financing for the university’s master’s degree in teaching program, including full tuition waivers for students who commit to teaching in local public schools for three years. The group also recommends that Brown faculty offer enrichment courses in local schools and help schools develop new programs.

The committee urges the university to expand its new urban education policy program. The committee also advocates expanding internships for Brown undergraduates interested in teaching; coordinating with other colleges in Providence that are active in the schools; and providing administrative and staff support for the education initiatives.
Good for them. I hope the University follows through.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Medieval Expert Witness

In "How French TV fudged the death of Mohammed Al Durah", Boston University professor Richard Landes describes what he has discovered about the Al Durah film and how his expertise in the area of medieval blood libel has landed him in the middle of a court case involving the French TV station that has refused to allow critics view the original film.

I have become involved for two reasons. First of all, I noted almost immediately that Palestinians and anti-Zionists, insisting that Israel killed the boy on purpose, used Al Durah in a way familiar to medievalists--as a blood libel. This was the first blood libel of the twenty-first century, rendered global by cable and the Internet. Indeed, within a week, crowds the world over shouted "We want Jewish blood!" and "Death to the Jews!". For Europeans in particular, the libelous image came as balm to a troubled soul: "This death erases, annuls that of the little boy in the Warsaw Gherro," intoned Europe1 editorialist Catherine Nay. The Israelis were the new Nazis.

And second, when I saw the raw footage in the summer of 2003--especially when I saw the scene Enderlin had cut, wherein the boy(allegedly shot in the stomach, but holding his hand over his eyes) picks up his elbow and looks around--I realized that this was not a film of a boy dying, but a clumsily staged scene.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Tapera-DHH Survey of History Blogs

A couple weeks ago, I filled out a questionaire for the Tapera-DHH Survey of History Blogs, sponsored by Tapera and Digital History Hacks. They have now put their results online and are looking for more respondents. First, here is the questionaire:




First post (mm/dd/Y):


  1. Which history-related blogs do you visit most frequently? (1-5)
  2. What factors do you think are involved in your choice of blogs to read? (For example: quality of information, writing, institution, author profile, rankings, entertainment value…)
  3. What factors characterize your own blog? Which are most important?
  4. Have you changed the objectives of your blog since you created it?
The most interesting data is contained within this graphic of the links between history blogs (I love these web-like/linkage things!). From what they've compiled, I find it interesting that 3 of the history blogs that I indicated that I visited most frequently (Question 1) didn't respond to the survey themselves nor did they have any other links from other history bloggers. These were Blogenspiel (15), Albion's Seedlings (50) and In The Middle (51). (Supplemental data--including reference numbers--is in this spreadsheet). One of my "top 5" is The Rhine River (27), who also didn't respond to the survey, but is mentioned in the top 5 of The History Librarian (76) and Far Outliers (101). The final one of my top 5 is the King of All History Blogs, Cliopatria (17). Looking at the graph, it looks like I'm clustered with Far Outliers and Rhine River. Interesting.

Here are the Top 5 (according to the survey)

Digital History Hacks
Old is the New New
Early Modern Notes

No real surprise, though I think that DHH's involvement in the survey has biased the results a bit (no slight intended guys!). The rest of the top 5 seem right on, even Edwired, which I would deem more academic than history-related. After all, most history bloggers are in academia. Not me.

King Richard's Faire

To many here in southern New England, Autumn means it's time for King Richard's Faire:
...a vivid recreation of a 16th century English marketplace at festival time. Actors, dancers, puppeteers, jugglers, minstrels, mimes, magicians and musicians perform each weekend for the favor of his Royal Highness King Richard.

Royalty and beggars, highwaymen and guards, knights and wenches, swordsmen and soothsayers roam throughout the 80 acre wooded village while artisans hawk and display a wide array of unique hand-made wares.

The Royal Chefs prepare delectable edibles authentic to Renaissance times. Exotic animals, jousting knights on horseback, challenging games and Renaissance merriment round out a day at the Faire.
Now, don't blame the denizen's of poor Richard's Faire, they aren't the only ones participating in such "creative" anachronisms (thinly veiled reference to the SCA intended). In Murphysboro, Illinois, there was a similar "medieval" fair that included a pirate parrot!!! To be fair, none of the performers or organizers claim that historical accuracy is the primary goal nor do they claim to be exclusively medieval in content. For instance, the Illinois fair said it was medieval-Renaissance-early modern. In essence, these little festivals aren't medieval so much as they are "before America"--centric. So, for unbelievably high prices, one can be treated to anachronistic fashion--buxom beauties!--dashing knights--wooden swords!--and, well, a lot of fun. Just don't expect to encounter the bubonic plague, the Inquisition or a Crusader!!!

Congressional Medievalism

John Tierney:
Suppose Nike’s founder, Phil Knight, asked taxpayers to subsidize a program for 16-year-olds to leave their homes to become “squires” running errands at Nike headquarters. Or suppose, before his death, Sam Walton had asked Congress to build a dormitory in Arkansas to house teenage “serfs” spending a semester away from their schools to work on a Wal-Mart loading dock.

These executives would become national jokes. They’d be denounced for trying to revive 19th-century child-labor practices and 12th-century feudalism. There would be no public money appropriated for Knight’s Squires or Sam’s Serfs.

Yet Congress sees nothing strange about dragging teenagers from their families and schools to become pages, one step below a squire in the feudal food chain. They’re not being forced to wear Prince Valiant haircuts, but they have to do scut work that’s probably even less useful than what they could learn at Nike or Wal-Mart.
How true.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Military History Foundation

Mark Grimsley has tired of the "hand wringing" and proactively started The Military History Foundation:
I have created The Military History Foundation in response to my perception that at present, a dearth of ideas and strategies exists concerning the advancement of military history as an academic field. The tone among many senior scholars in the field -- including those who hold, or have held, leadership positions -- is strikingly defeatist. Along with their rank-and-file counterparts, they complain about the marginalization of the field, blaming it on a blind prejudice against miltary history among academics in other fields.

This may be true. It is also irrelevant.

I happen to think the thesis of an unreasoning hostility toward the field is overblown. But even if it is not, this does not relieve us of the responsibility for developing and executing plans to strengthen the academic military history. Since others do not seem to be shouldering the burden, I've decided to embark on the work myself....

...I am going to do what I can to generate constructive plans and insist that the leadership of the Society for Military History either adopt them or develop constructive plans of its own.

That is the immediate task of The Military History Foundation. At the moment, it consists of a domain name purchased for $23.90 and a few web pages.

But it won't stay that way.

Instead of perpetuating a debate whereby many continue to talk past each other, Grimsley has provided a potential avenue for change. Kudos for the proactive approach!

A Royal A**hole

JJC at In the Middle explains the significance of King Alfred's hemorrhoids by examining his biography. Of course, his biographer's name was....Asser.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Vanishing Military Historians? Not Really

Mark Grimsley takes issue with John Miller's piece about vanishing military historians, which I commented upon earlier this week. [Full disclosure: I asked Grimsley for is take on the piece--and apparently I wasn't the only one]. In short, Grimsley thinks Miller's partisanship has skewed his analysis and that miller purposedly ignored the successful military history programs at such "liberal bastions" as Duke and UNC. Grimsley also did his own research into the University of Wisconsin situation that Miller used as an open to his piece. As they say, "read it all", and this follow up (and there will be more from Grimsley, I'd imagine).

UPDATE: John Miller has responded:
How clever of him to have uncovered my sinister conspiracy not to mention Duke or UNC! As it happens, I did quote UNC's ROTC commander, who is also a professor of military science at the school. I suppose I could have written that Duke and UNC have great programs—a couple of my sources said as much. More often, however, I heard OSU, Texas A&M, and Kansas State mentioned, so those are the ones I cited in the piece (along with West Point, which is a special case). But these are highly subjective judgments and professors get jealous about such things, so I'll say right now, on the record, that Duke and UNC have quality programs in military history.
Grimsley continues to post about it, including putting up a comment from a reader, which echoes my own feelings on this matter:

Having read Miller’s piece, the responses herein, and being a recently retired faculty member, I must say that the whole thing here seems to be a matter of umbrage taken unnecessarily. I cannot discern in Miller’s piece any disrespect for the field of military history, and to presume that he’s trying to implement some secret plan to kill it off simply to be able to make a point about the liberal biases of academia leads straight to paranoia.

It seems that Miller’s piece was incomplete, and no doubt he regrets any significant omissions — but looking upon you as persons who understand that any conveyance of facts about an event or circumstances by necessity must be limited, I would expect more understanding of this to be displayed.

The commenter also sketched a rough guideline how to approach the subject more analytically, which Grimsley has fleshed out.

Unfortunately, I think Grimsley seemed predisposed to assume the worst about Miller's motivation for writing the article and approached the matter too tendentiously in his initial response. In an email to Miller, Grimsley stated that:
My recent posts on both Cliopatria, the big history blog, and my own individual blog devoted to academic military history, respond to your September 26 article, “Sounding Taps.” The tone I have taken is contentious but I hope not abusive. Basically your article struck me as deliberately constructed so as to catastrophize the position military history has within the academy.
Grimsley's piece is not "abusive", but it's contentiousness is surrounded by a large amount of flippancy. It seems to me that the best way to engage in a debate over an issue is to--at least initially--take the argument at face value, offer correctives or refutations and proceed. By assuming the worst of Miller's motivation, I think Grimsley has needlessly applied a bellows to a fire that--according to him--need not have been kindled in the first place. Both have good points, and a healthy, respectful dialogue would probably be more useful and productive. (I'm off the stump now).

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Vanishing Military Historians

John J. Miller (via PDTR) investigates why military historians are become scarce on college campi. He quotes Mary Habeck, a military historian at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., who blames the "tenured radicals" of the 1960's, who prefer studying "the kind of social history [they] want to support." Thus, according to Miller, these academics concentrated on social history instead of "diplomatic, intellectual, and maritime history — but perhaps none have suffered so many casualties as the 'drums and trumpets' crowd."

Miller has surveyed American colleges and universities and explains:
At first glance, military history appears to have maintained beachheads on a lot of campuses. Out of 153 universities that award doctorates in history, 99 of them — almost 65 percent — have at least one professor who claims a research interest in war, according to S. Mike Pavelec, a military historian at Hawaii Pacific University. But this figure masks another problem: Social history has started to infiltrate military history, Trojan Horse–style. Rather than examining battles, leaders, and weapons, it looks at the impact of war upon culture. And so classes that are supposedly about the Second World War blow by the Blitzkrieg, the Bismarck, and the Bulge in order to celebrate the proto-feminism of Rosie the Riveter, condemn the national disgrace of Japanese-American internment, and ask that favorite faculty-lounge head-scratcher: Should the United States have dropped the bomb? “It’s becoming harder and harder to find experts in operational military history,” says Dennis Showalter of Colorado College. “All this social history is like Hamlet without the prince of Denmark.”
Miller also gives examples of endowed military history chairs that are going unfilled (University of Wisconsin); accomplished military historians who are retiring and not being replaced (Gerald Linderman and John Shy at Michigan); or replaced by non-military historians (James MacPherson's prospective replacement at Princeton is an expert in gender studies); and institutions that are refusing endowments for a military history chair at all (Dartmouth).

It's not just the universities that have turned away from military history. At least one of the mainstream historical scholarly publications has been ignoring straight military history, too.
Another reason for the shortage of scholars is that military historians have been shut out of The American Historical Review, the most prestigious academic journal for history professors. Last year, John A. Lynn [who states he is a Liberal Democrat--ed.] of the University of Illinois surveyed the last 150 issues of the AHR, which comes out five times annually. During this 30-year period, he couldn’t find a single article that discussed the conduct of World War II. Other ignored wars included the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. There was a single article on the English Civil War, dealing with atrocities committed therein. Lynn located precisely two articles on the U.S. Civil War. One of these also dealt with atrocities. “I guess military atrocities are attractive to the editors,” he says. The only article on World War I focused on female soldiers in the Russian army. “I suspect the editors liked it because it was about women, not because it was about war.” The lead article in the most recent issue of the AHR is about wigs in 18th-century France.
Miller does qualify that the military academies are still strong in military history and also menitions that some public universities, including Kansas State, Ohio State, and Texas A&M, have strong, well-respected military history programs. However, he also explains that military historians are forced to find refuge at second-tier schools and in the military itself.

Miller may seem a bit snarky towards the social historians, but the point of his article isn't so much to attack what is being studied as it is to call attention to what isn't. Military history--traditional military history--is important because of the lessons it teaches:
“Knowledge of military history is an essential prerequisite for an informed national debate about security and statecraft,” says Michael Desch, a political scientist at the Bush School of Government and Public Service in Texas. Many voters, for instance, don’t know how to contextualize the nearly 23,000 U.S. military casualties in Iraq since 2003. That’s a pretty big number. But it’s also roughly the level of casualties suffered at Antietam in just one day, and a small fraction of the more than 200,000 casualties endured in Vietnam.

Critics of the war also have plenty to gain from a public that has a better understanding of older conflicts. “People might have realized that we have a poor track record of using the military to do nation-building in Third World countries,” says Desch. “The model isn’t Germany or Japan, but Nicaragua and the Philippines.” Finally, the population of Americans who have served in the military is shrinking, and with it their knowledge of what armies and navies do.

Anybody who has studied the history of war knows that it’s possible to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat — it happened at Shiloh, when a Confederate attack nearly routed the Union army, only to have General Grant drive them off the field of battle the next day. Perhaps military historians can stage a similar comeback. In their efforts to do so, they will be wise to remember something that Grant didn’t know back in 1862: An awful lot of brutal fighting lies ahead.
I think Miller's concerns about the dearth of military history courses offered to, say, your average undergraduate, is--while not unfounded--a bit overwrought. I can only point to my own personal experience.

I took courses titled "World War II" and "The Civil War" in which I think it could be reasonably expected that "military history" would be covered. In my World War II class, the professor (whom I'd describe as a diplomatic/social historian) came right out and said he wasn't going to focus on tactics (which was fine by me). Nonetheless, he did cover basic strategy and also touched on the "war is politics by other means..." methodological track. That being said, as he promised, he focused much less on battles than the social impact on the homefront, for instance. Miller is also on target in that we did investigate one of the very topics that he mentions as being a favorite: Hiroshima. The course was very well done and enjoyable and I learned a lot. But it was definitely presented from the perspective of social and diplomatic history, not military.

The Civil War course, on the other hand, was taught by a professor who was much more of a diplomatic/military historian. As such, he delved much deeper into tactics and battles, though he didn't neglect politics or diplomacy. He did, however, give relatively short shrift to social history. This course was also worthwhile, but, again, the dominant perspective was that of the discipline in which the professor specialized.

Thus, I believe that, when done properly, a general survey-type course--the kind most undergrads take--can effectively delve into tactics and battles as well as other areas (social, diplomatic, political). That's where I think Miller is a little off the mark. The traditional topics covered by military history are being taught as part of a larger, more comprehensive course that also covers history as studied via a wide variety of historical methodologies. That being said, he does make an important point.

Colleges and universities need to have military historians on campus who teach conventional military history courses as well as general surveys. First, and most in-line with Miller's critique, the continued popularity of books devoted to the military history of the Civil War and WWII show that there is a body of students out there who would be interested in straight forward military history courses. Thus, specific, upper level courses in military history would probably be well received and be attractive to many students.

Yet, to my mind, it is the role that military historians can play in the historical education of the broader student population that is more important. I saw many people interested in military history in my Civil War class. They were there for the guns and ended up learning about a whole lot more (yes, like about the "butter"). Similarly, there were people in my WWII class who were interested in the home front and Hiroshima, but also took away some knowledge about battles and a few tactics and how specific military capabilities and outcomes play a part in history.

What I'm getting at is that a military historian--just like a social or economic or diplomatic historian--brings a certain point of view to courses that deal with broader topics. It would be a shame if these perspectives are lost because they aren't popular enough amongst the academics or "sexy" enough for academic journals. The current impression is that any young historian simply can't make much headway with a specialization in military history. If there is no demand for this methodolgy, the supply will soon dry up and our understanding of war will be the worse for it.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Medieval Immersion for Kids

I wish they had this when I was a kid:
Hundreds of elementary and middle school students will "go medieval" for a day as the Historic Camelot Project, a Wisconsin educational nonprofit organization, holds two days of hands-on education at Fireman's Park in Fox Lake.

Beginning at 9 a.m. Wednesday and Thursday, Sept. 27 and 28, Camelot will host two two-hour blocks of educational presentations that present daily life in medieval Britain. Presentations will be followed by a short demonstration of knightly weapons and horsemanship.

Students will also become involved in medieval cooking, building wattle fences and walls, and dipping candles, as well as lectures on early medieval life and history.

This will be the first of its kind of "immersion" education in medieval history in the Midwest, giving students and teachers a small taste of what will be a daily offering at the medieval village museum Camelot is hoping to open in Southcentral Wisconsin.

"While there are abundant opportunities for students to visit historical, open-air museums depicting early life in Wisconsin and in Colonial America if you go back East, there are none of the pre-medieval and medieval village museums available as they are in Europe," said Lloyd Clark, Camelot executive director. "This is their history also, but one that is not given sufficient weight.

"What we hope to create with the Historic Camelot Village Museum is a recreation of typical pre-medieval life in Britain, much the same as Old World Wisconsin shows life in 1800s Wisconsin — with a small, traditional indoor museum to showcase the changes in British clothing, arms and armor, and typical items of daily life over the period from just after Rome left Britain to the Late Middle Ages."

. . . Clark hopes to kindle a new appreciation in children for their ancestors and to showcase not just the kings, knights, arms and armor but the lives of the "regular" people of the age.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Relevancy of the Middle Ages; or how a Medieval Source Got the Pope in Trouble

Pope Benedict has elicited Muslim outrage because he cited and quoted a medieval emperor's musings on Islam, faith and reason. (See!!! The Middle Ages can be relevant to today!!!) Here is the quote, stripped of all context:
"Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached."
Juan Cole asserts that the Pope was in error both theologically and historically in his citation:
The pope was trying to make the point that coercion of conscience is incompatible with genuine, reasoned faith. He used Islam as a symbol of the coercive demand for unreasoned faith.

But he has been misled by the medieval polemic on which he depended.

In fact, the Quran also urges reasoned faith and also forbids coercion in religion. The only violence urged in the Quran is in self-defense of the Muslim community against the attempts of the pagan Meccans to wipe it out.
The "medieval polemic" to which Cole refers is the work done by Theodore Khoury, whose translation of Manuel II's writings the Pope depended on.

Thomas F. Madden, historian of the Crusades (and he wrote a good review article on recent Crusade books here), has written about some of the important missing context that has been stripped away.
This is a tough lecture to boil down to one sentence, but if forced I would characterize it as: Theology belongs in the university because only by studying faith with reason will we find solutions to the problems of our time. However, if instead of reading the lecture we simply cut out everything except the words of Manuel II Palaeologus written six centuries ago, then we have a good justification for Pakistan’s parliament to unanimously condemn the pope. If we further pretend that it was Benedict, rather than a long-dead emperor, who expressed these sentiments we have a sound basis for the [subsequent Muslim outrage].
Andrew Morse is helpful in explaining why there is outrage in the Muslim world against what the Pope was talking about:

Although the furor over Pope Benedict’s [address] has centered on a perceived insult to the prophet Mohammed, I believe that the remarks were directed at a more recent figure, Sayyid Qutb, an Egyptian writer active in the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-20th century whose writings are widely read in the Islamic world today....many of Sayyid Qutb’s writings concern the split between faith and reason embodied in Western philosophy. According to Luke Loboda’s invaluable essay on Qutb’s work, Qutb believed that Christianity, under the influence of Greek philosophy and Roman tradition, had created a separation between faith and reason that was unnatural, unspiritual, and ungodly. In the Christianized West, maintaining social order became a purely rational process separated from religious faith, forcing people to continually deny the truth that faith and reason were inextricably linked, leaving them in disharmony with God’s creation.

In Qutb’s view, God had provided man with a system for uniting faith and reason in his day-to-day life – the system of Islamic law. Reason was acceptable when used for interpreting or implementing Islamic law, but not useful for discovering truths outside of its structure. Social orders claiming a rational basis and without relation to Islamic law and were especially unacceptable; Qutb viewed them as restrictions on and distractions from the precise instructions provided by God on how to exist harmoniously within the universe.

This is a complicated topic and I've only begun to really get into it myself. (In fact, after doing this post, I discovered that Wikipedia has an excellent summary of the debate!) But regardless of my own relative naivete on the subject, I can see that there are genuine debates concerning faith and reason and how the relate internally and externally to Christianity and Islam. Unfortunately, these worthy intellectual pursuits are subsumed by the reactions of the "Arab Street" who are nothing more than tools of radical imams or totalitarian governments who seek to use them for their own gain.