Monday, December 29, 2008

Medieval Scottish "Rap"

According to Professor Ferenc Szasz, contemporary "rap battles" (which I thought originated from "the dozens") "derive from the ancient Caledonian art of 'flyting'."

According to the theory, Scottish slave owners took the tradition with them to the United States, where it was adopted and developed by slaves, emerging many years later as rap.

Professor Szasz is convinced there is a clear link between this tradition for settling scores in Scotland and rap battles, which were famously portrayed in Eminem's 2002 movie 8 Mile.

He said: "The Scots have a lengthy tradition of flyting - intense verbal jousting, often laced with vulgarity, that is similar to the dozens that one finds among contemporary inner-city African-American youth.

"Both cultures accord high marks to satire. The skilled use of satire takes this verbal jousting to its ultimate level - one step short of a fist fight."

The academic, who specialises in American and Scottish culture at the University of New Mexico, made the link in a new study examining the historical context of Robert Burn's work.

The most famous surviving example of flyting comes from a 16th-century piece in which two rival poets hurl increasingly obscene rhyming insults at one another before the Court of King James IV.

Titled the Flyting Of Dunbar And Kennedy, it has been described by academics as "just over 500 lines of filth".

Professor Szasz cites an American civil war poem, printed in the New York Vanity Fair magazine on November 9, 1861, as the first recorded example of the battles being used in the United States.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Burgundians Blog

I mentioned my new Burgundians in the Mist blog earlier. Turns out I had inadvertently restricted access. That's been rectified and it's now open to the public. The Burgundians are the central topic, but I aim to also talk a lot about the Germanic tribes of Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Bush Legacy? Too Soon to Tell

Patrick Reddy has a fair recounting of the Bush Presidency and how history will view it. His conclusion (emphasis added):

What will be very difficult for Bush’s historic reputation to overcome is that the country is in worse shape than when he came in; that he will likely suffer in comparison to his two immediate successors, his father and Bill Clinton; and that he governed very differently than he campaigned. In 2000, Bush ran as “a uniter, not a divider” and on a “humble” foreign policy! It’s true that voters didn’t get the moderate course from Bush they expected, but this is somewhat due to events.

Right now, people are focusing on the recession, possible national bankruptcy and Iraq, so the president is leaving town quite unpopular. But since economic cycles come and go, the guess here is that the legacy all comes down to the Bush Doctrine. If Iraq becomes a stable democracy and staunch U. S. ally, if Bush’s nation-building works as well as Truman’s in Germany and Japan, then historians will upgrade him. It could be 20, 30 or even 50 years before we get a final verdict on his Iraq policy. His long-term reputation is very dependent on future events. The odds do not look good now, but things can change.

Bush may well be someday seen as the “father of Arab democracy.” By definition, the new government in Iraq is a vast improvement over Saddam. If the Iraq situation turns around, historians will write that it was an occasionally mistake-prone administration that still got the big issues right. If not, they’ll judge him to have squandered thousands of lives and trillions of dollars on a foolish policy. If Iraq never turns around, that — combined with the financial mismanagement — will probably leave Bush in the bottom quartile of presidents. But if it does, he’ll be raised to the middle of the pack. This is one presidency that will almost surely require the passage of many years before we can get a true final perspective.

Monday, December 15, 2008

"A certain kind of hubris"

From the Politico:
[T]here are early rumblings of a backlash to Obama's ostentatious embrace of all things Lincoln, with his not-so-subtle invitations to compare the 44th president to the 16th, the "Savior of the Union."

Simply put, some scholars think the comparisons have gone a bit over the top hat.

Sean Wilentz, a scholar in American history at Princeton, said many presidents have sought to frame themselves in the historical legacies of illustrious predecessors, but he couldn't find any examples quite so brazen.

"Sure, they've looked back to Washington and even, at times, Jackson. Reagan echoed and at times swiped FDR's rhetoric," said Wilentz. "But there's never been anything like this, and on this scale. Ever."

Eric Foner, a Columbia historian who has written extensively on the Civil War era, agreed that comparing one's self to Lincoln sets a rather high bar for success, and could come off like "a certain kind of hubris."

"It'd be a bit like a basketball player turning up before his first game and saying, 'I'm kind of modeling myself on Michael Jordan,'" he said. "If you can do it, fine. If you're LeBron James, that'll work. But people may make that comparison to your disadvantage."

As it happens, Obama may find this an entirely apt comparison.

"I'm LeBron, baby," he told a Chicago Tribune reporter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. "I can play on this level. I got some game."

That kind of preening highlights a risk that many presidents have encountered as they gaze in history's mirror.
Of course, one must remember that Wilentz is persona non grata in the historical profession. Don't know about Foner.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Blogroll updated

I took the shears to the blogroll and links (to the right) pruned a lot and planted a couple new ones.

Oh, and I clipped the post ":" part of the blog title.....just "Spinning Clio" now.

Monday, December 08, 2008

NEW PROJECT - Burgundians in the Mist

I've decided to go in a new direction and start blogging about that area of history most near and dear to my heart--the history of the Burgundians of late antiquity. Not sure if I'll have anything new to add to the scholarship, but my goal is to educate and explain why the period that is now called Late Antiquity is so fascinating. I'll provide sources (both dead tree and online) as I go and will cover the historiography as well as "the facts."

This isn't to say the I'm done around here, but over the past year, I've felt less compelled to focus on "where history and politics meet." Suffice it to say "they do" and "they always will."

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

History Needs to be More Accessible for Historians

Tim Lacy is worried that historians are engaged in "a dichotomous conversation" based on their ability to pay for (and thus access) historical sources. This follows a similar concern he expressed about the costs involved in doing good intellectual history. In short, Tim thinks there is a class problem whereby better-financed historians have access to journals that lesser-financed, and usually younger, historians do not. At the same time, the latter are generally more reliant upon--and willing to use--on-line (read "free") sources. The essence of his point is this:
It seems to me then that digital subscription issues tend to detrimentally affect non peer-reviewed output by history professionals more than other kinds of writing. This means writing on subjects where historians are acting as public intellectuals. Of course this also extends to audience---print and online audiences are only seeing writings by those who work in each medium. It's an obvious point, but it is important to remind ourselves of the consequences.

If historians can't afford the time, energy, and money to go to their home institution's library to read print subscription output, their non-peer reviewed, public-intellectual work will likely be based on easily accessible web resources, resulting in two tracks of professional conversation about larger subjects.
Tim is seeking input, so here's mine: You bet it's a problem, especially for independent types like me. As a non-academic making my living in an entirely separate field, there's no way I can regularly keep up with the latest in scholarship. However, I also understand that I'm significantly in the minority and that the entire profession needn't change to suite me!

That being said, it is worth considering how younger historians on an academic track regard these access and financial roadblocks. As a profession, historians had better work towards easier and more cost-effective individual access to journals. A new generation that is used to operating on their own (ie; without having to be "affiliated") and having vast amounts of information at their fingertips is coming fast and they correctly expect that the "scholarly superstructure" of their profession is up-to-date and "user friendly." Right now, their in for some considerable disappointment.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Review: In a Time of War

Bill Murphy, Jr., In a Time of War: The Proud and Perilous Journey of West Point's Class of 2002.

Bill Murphy writes:
Todd Bryant and his classmates in the West Point class of 2002 were the heirs apparent to a military in crisis. In the wake of Vietnam, the leaders of the first army in American history to lose a war faced a stark strategic choice. They could study the war intently, learning and applying its lessons so they would never be caught flat-footed again. Or, they could decide that Vietnam was simply the product of a strange confluence of unfortunate geography, misguided tactics, and a lack of political will at home: an unnerving episode, but unlikely ever to be repeated. With a few notable exceptions, the leadership of the late-twentieth-century U.S. military chose the latter, more comfortable course. The Army set aside its Vietnam-style missions against insurgents and guerrillas, and instead prepared almost exclusively to fight the hordes of Soviet tanks that they expected would one day invade western Europe.
Because of these decisions, members of the West Point Class of 2002 would find themselves on the front lines of war in which neither they nor the majority of their commanders were prepared. Instead, belatedly, they were forced to learn on-the-job while military and political leaders made misstep after misstep until the arrival of General David Petraeus and the implementation of a new strategy and new tactics. But that is only the backdrop to Murphy's work. At the heart lay the individual and collective stories of some of the cadets of the West Point Class of 2002. Young men and women who entered the Academy in 1998, at a time when:
A great gulf had opened between those who served in the military and those who didn't. Americans no longer believed they had to serve to be good citizens. Instead, they simply had to "support the troops," whatever that might mean.
With no Cold War and no other major conflict on the radar, the Army was searching for its identity and the bicentennial class of 2002--dubbed the Golden Children--were to be in the vanguard of the new Army. They entered with careers in mind that weren't necessarily related to war fighting. And perhaps it was the seemingly remote chance of ever fighting in a big war that enabled romantic thoughts of battlefield glory. Yet, no matter the individual motives for entering the Academy, the cadets emerged with a sense of duty and a camaraderie with their classmates that was deeper than personal ambition.

The reality of the Iraq War scraped the luster off of the battlefield medals that had danced in the heads of so many of these young Army officers. And decisions made higher up in the chain of command, such as taking the tanks away from a cavalry unit prior to their deployment to Iraq, were met with disbelief, consternation and a can-do attitude. They may not have approved of the decisions being made, but they followed orders and made due. If for nothing else, then for each other and, more importantly, for the men under their command. In the end, that was the ultimate goal of the platoon leader: to bring all of his men back from patrol. How it may or may not have helped the policy of the United States government was secondary. Especially when they had doubts as to the overall strategy and observed the gap between the rhetoric and the reality they encountered. As one soldier wrote, "These people don't want democracy...It is totally against their culture. They do, however, want capitalism."

The war affected their outlook on a career in the Army, too. To one young officer:
[T]he idea of making a twenty-year professional commitment to a large, bureaucratic organization--even one with as honorable and important a role as the U.S. Army--was foreign to most people of his generation....Of his West Point classmates, he could hardly think of any who were talking about staying in past five years. But they were all worried about the stop-loss policy...
And the arguments used by higher-ranking officers to try to persuade younger officers to make a career of the Army fell on many a deaf ear:
Today's field-grade officers had had it easy when they were [his] age. You could walk around Fort Hood and see plenty of majors and lieutenant colonels without a combat patch on the right sleeve, meaning that in ten or fifteen years in the Army they hadn't once deployed to war. What right did they have to judge him and his cohort?
But there were also members of the class of 2002 who valued their place in the Army and believed in its mission:
Visiting his family...he felt he was forever defending his choices: going to West Point, serving in the Army, fightin in Iraq. Civilians didn't always understand why the military mattered to him so much. He, his classmates, and his fellow soldiers had given their all for the nation....[He] understood that a moajority of his countrymen no longer thought the war in Iraq was worth fighting, but he [and others thought] America had learned from its mistakes and was no following a viable strategy [under General David Petreaus].
As another soldier, injured in Afghanistan, explained to a group of friends from Europe and America:
The U.S. invasion had been launched with the best intentions, he told them, and by liberating the country from Saddam, America had intended to bring prosperity to the Iraqi people. Obviously things haven't gone as well as we hoped...but he was convinced if the United States pulled out now, the result would be utter chaos. Having created a power vacuum...America had an obligation to stay until it was certain that whatever emerged in the wake of the U.S. military would bring postive change to the country.
Finally, on his way to his third deployment, a soldier was able to remain optimistic, no matter his personal sacrifice:
"What do you think about the surge?" the man asked.

"It has achieved a lot, " Will said, but then added that he was worried that the next president might be unreasonably optimistic about how quicly American troops could be withdrawn. Iraq seemed to have all but disappeared as a political issu. In polls, far more people now said their chief concern in the 2008 election was the economy, or health care.

"In Bush's defense--" Will started to say. [His wife] was amazed to hear these words come out of his mouth.

But the man started speaking at the same time. "Everyone wants the war to be over," he said.

"Americans want everything instantly," Will agreed, shaking his head. Then he added: "I think we'll be there for ten years or more."
Murphy does a fine job of stepping back and letting the soldiers and their spouses tell their stories. The impact that decisions made up the chain of command have on these men and women are often disappointing and tragic. Especially to a group of officers who entered West Point in one environment and concomitant professional expectations but graduated into a world where war was at hand. As one Class of 2002 member observed, the cadets who entered West Point after 9/11 were different than his class:
He and his class had committed to the Army during peacetime. The cadets now attending West Point knew from their first day that they were probably going to serve in Iraq--or some other war zone--after they graduated.

"It is one thing to have to go to war...It is quite another to volunteer for it."
But whatever their expectations, they heeded the call to duty and some gave the ultimate sacrifice. Their personal stories have been well served by Murphy's re-telling.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Obama Already Among the Best?

It took historians a full term of George W. Bush's presidency before they declared he was "the worst president ever." Now, only days after the election, at least one prominent historian is declaring that the presidency of Barack Obama will be "unforgettable" (h/t).
Like Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D.Roosevelt, Harry Truman, John F.Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan - the most memorable of the 18 presidents who served in the last century - Obama seems likely to become an unforgettable personality who presided over a transforming administration....

If Obama's campaign that brought him from relative obscurity in Illinois to the White House in so brief a time is any true measure of the man, we can have every hope that he will acquit himself admirably in the days ahead - and claim a place in the pantheon of America's most distinguished presidents.
There's no doubt that the election of Barack Obama is already historic. But the confidence and the stake-claiming already being made by historians regarding his Presidency gives me pause. In the coming years, through the various trials and tribulations that confront every President, I suspect that many of the "Historians for Obama" will be less than willing to admit their man have been wrong over this or that. Instead, we'll have contemporary "history" being written to justify his decisions and--by extension--the wisdom of those historians who so very publicly supported him. The reputation of the profession will be at stake, you see.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Cliopatria History Blogging Awards

Nominations for The Cliopatria Awards for the best history blogging are open through November. Final selections will be made by panels of history bloggers and announced at the American Historical Association Annual Meeting in early January. Previous winners can be found here, and Cliopatria's History Blogroll can be found here.

Categories: Best Group Blog, Best Individual Blog, Best New Blog, Best Post, Best Series of Posts, Best Writer

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

President Obama

Obviously, the historical importance of the moment is unmistakable. An African-American President has been elected through the normal means we've always followed: through a vociferous debate over ideas and principles. Even those of us who oppose President-elect Obama on the issues can appreciate the skill and talent and weight of Obama's ideas that carried the day. Few thought this moment possible, but America is about possibilities. Americans have proved yet again that we are a land of opportunity, that we do live up to our ideals--if sometimes we take too long--and that we truly are the greatest nation in the world.

Tomorrow is another day, but for now, be proud.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Review: Lincoln's Admirals

Craig L. Symonds, Lincoln and his Admirals

Weeks into his presidency, Abraham Lincoln was confronted with his first naval question: What to do about Fort Sumter? First, should he re-supply it--and risk war--or not and concede defeat, thereby giving the secessionist South a valuable bit of propaganda? Was there a diplomatic solution? To help answer these questions, he turned to men, most of whom he barely knew, with military, naval and diplomatic expertise. He looked for conventional and unconventional solutions and, in the end, as he did so often, ultimately made the decision himself. An expedition was organized to help the fort. But his lack of experience, the disorganization of his nascent administration and deliberate nature doomed the expedition. Lincoln blamed himself, but learned from the experience. Lincoln's Vice-President Hannibal Hamlin agreed. Writes Symonds:
Hamlin argued that there were two Lincolns: the one who came from Illinois, inexperienced in wielding great power," and the one who emerged later as "the conqueror of a gigantice civil war, the emancipator of slaves, master of the political situation, and savior of the nation."
Lincoln improved upon his performance in matters naval by taking some those matters into his own hands. In the west, he championed a river campaign utilizing combined army and naval forces that could strike simultaneously at separate targets and force the South to split its military resources. While not as directly involved, he was similarly heartened by the success of Admiral David Farragut's taking of New Orleans and run up the Mississippi. These combined operations were part of the "Anaconda Plan" and succeeded in giving the North a toehold on both ends of the Mississippi as it ran through the South.

The other significant part of the Anaconda plan was the blockade of southern ports. Here, Lincoln first had to navigate admiralty law while his fleet was built or acquired. Thanks to "King Cotton," European nations had a vested interest in maintaining trade with the South. They would not submit to a "paper blockade": the North would have to have a real force in place. Yet, the logistics of putting a blockade in place seemed to worry Lincoln less than the legal gymnastics required to legitimize a blockade against the South, which Lincoln had contended was not an entity in and of itself. Symond's explains this well.

One of the best stories told by Symonds is that of Lincoln's visit to the Hampton Roads region of Virginia while the Merrimack and Monitor circled each other warily amidst the Union blockade. Lincoln's personal intervention and suggestions prompted both the taking of a key shore positions as well as, ultimately, the scuttling of the infamous Confederate ironclad.

Symond's also covers the role that "contraband" (freed slaves) played in the Navy and how, traditionally, the maritime service was more accustomed to having blacks among its ranks.
Absorbing the contrabands into the blockade fleet caused scarcely a ripple either among the public at large or within the navy. Historically, free blacks had made up some 15 percent of the navy's enlisted force. During the 1850s, the figure dropped to only about 5 percent; now it would grow again back up to 15 percent. Naval officers, always eager for more hands, generally welcomed the contrabands on board as simply so many more strong backs, and the white sailors welcomed them, too, mainly because the newcomers were generally assigned "the dirtiest, most strenuous, and most physically demanding jobs," thereby relieving white sailors of those duties....White officers and men alike took a certain delight in using the enemy's slaves against them.
Interestingly, according to Symonds, Lincoln's early success on the rivers of the West and in implementing the blockade
...may have encourage Lincoln to take a slightly harder line with McClellan, who was still stalled on the Virginia peninsula battling the mud and his own fears. Union forces were successful elsewhere, so why not in Virginia?
Elsewhere in the book, Symond's describes the political management Lincoln had to engage in to sooth fragile egos and get the right men in the right places as he deemed necessary. His support of the ordnance expert John A. Dahlgren often put him at odds with the navy establishment, but he believed in Dahlgren and promoted him to admiral even though he lacked seagoing experience. At higher levels, he constantly had to manage the relationship (or lack thereof) and differing agendas of Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles and Secretary of State William Seward.

Symonds covers other matters, such as the Trent affair and the hunt for the Confederate blockade runners (both involving the combustible Admiral Charles Wilkes, incidentally) as well as the messy aftermath of the "easing out" of Admiral Samuel Du Pont and the French invasion of Mexico.

Symonds has done a fine job of narrative history. While the focus is on the navy, he doesn't leave out the better known historical touchstones, which help to provide context for Civil War afficianados who may not be as familiar with naval timelines. The work is well-sourced and a valuable contribution to the existing Civil War literature. Symond's is to be commended.

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.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Gaddis Looks at the Bush "Doctrine"

Ralph Luker called attention to Ending Tyranny: The Past and Future of an Idea by John Lewis Gaddis, and (after dissing Victor Davis Hansen) offered that this "may be the first attempt at a positive reappraisal of the Bush administration's legacy in foreign policy." And Ralph followed that up with, "Can you say the Stanford/Yale [Hansen/Gaddis] axis of hackery?"

Anyway, while I know I'm not a bona fide academic historian, I read the piece and I don't see the "hackery."

Gaddis' central goal is to analyze whether there really is a "Bush Doctrine" and whether or not, if it does exist, it will be a flash in the pan or long-lasting; perhaps picked-up by succeeding generations (if not immediately). He surveys the successes and failures of other presidential "doctrines" in an attempt to place Bush's in context. Here's an (extended) example of the sort of analysis Gaddis is trying to provide:
The end of the Cold War left the United States in a position of dominance unrivaled since the days of the Roman Empire. Maintaining humility under such circumstances would have demanded the self-discipline of a saint—and the Americans, like the Romans, have never been particularly saintly. So all at once their efforts to encourage democracy, which had come across during the Cold War as constraining the power of dictators, now looked like an effort to concentrate power in their own hands.


And after... September 11, 2001, a wounded nation that was still the most powerful nation began insisting that its future security required the expansion of democracy everywhere. No wonder this frightened people elsewhere, even those also frightened by terrorism.

President Bush reflected this “one size fits all” mentality when he called for “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” That sounded like knowing what was best for the world. But then he added: “with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” That sounded like liberating people so that they could decide what was best for them; it was language of which the Founding Fathers, John Quincy Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Isaiah Berlin might have approved. So the President managed to compress, into a single sentence, the concepts of both positive and negative liberty.

This may have been a triumph for succinct speech writing, but it was not one for philosophical coherence. Promoting democracy, for the reasons I’ve mentioned, offers no guarantee of ending tyranny, just as ending tyranny offers no guarantee that the newly liberated will choose democracy. Telling people simultaneously that we know best and that they know best is likely to confuse them as well as us. But what if we were to read the President’s sentence as a political rather than a philosophical statement, as a way of respecting the recent past while shifting priorities for the future? A presidential speech, after all, cannot simply dismiss what has gone before, even as it suggests where we should now be going.

If the Bush Doctrine was meant in that sense—if ending tyranny is now to be the objective of the United States in world affairs—then this would amount to a course correction away from the 20th-century idea of promoting democracy as a solution for all the world’s problems, and back toward an older concept of seeking to liberate people so they can solve their own problems. It could be a navigational beacon for the future that reflects more accurately where we started and who we’ve been.

He continues on and asks many questions. He concludes by leaving options open:
President Bush may have proclaimed a doctrine for the 21st century comparable to the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and to the Truman Doctrine during the Cold War. Only historians not yet born will be able to say for sure. Even that possibility, however, should earn Bush’s memorable sentence greater scrutiny than it has so far received. For it raises an issue that future administrations—whether those of Obama, McCain or their successors—are going to have to resolve: If the goal of the United States is to be “ending tyranny in our world”, then is encouraging “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture” the best way to go about it?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Poor Wilentz

Sean Wilentz's head must be spinning. It must be tough to have been firmly ensconced within the fraternity of Democratic Party House Historians one day, and then marked as a pariah the next. Wilentz has an essay in Newsweek that has been savaged by historian/blogger/Obamaniacs (here, here and here, for example--h/t) everywhere. I'm not saying that the criticisms of Wilentz are or aren't legit, just that it must be weird to find yourself on the outs so quickly.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

It's All Medieval

Jeff Sypeck at Quid Plura explains that the people in the center of the Russia/Georgia conflict consider themselves to be contemporary Alans.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, with North Ossetia as part of Russia and South Ossetia lumped in with Georgia, the Ossetians looked to historians, philologists, and archaeologists to tell them who they were. Was “Ossetia,” a Georgian term filtered through Russian, the name they should use? Shouldn’t they call themselves “Alans”? As Victor Shnirelman explains, speakers of the two Ossetian dialects, Digor and Iron, argued over whose speech was more pure; North Ossetia became North Ossetia-Alania; and the Alan name was slapped on everything from soccer teams to supermarkets. Never mind that “Alans” may have been a term used only by outsiders; or that the name “Ossetia” probably comes from *ās, which the Alans used to refer to themselves; or that the original Alans were famously inclined to assimilate and be assimilated. The Alanian nationalism of the 1990s soon took on moral and racial overtones, especially as neighboring enemies tried on the name for size. The Ossetes should have looked westward for precedent and warning: Once you buttress your national identity with medievalism, expect politicized folklore to beguile the public —and to take on a life of its own.
Patrick Geary's thesis seems to still hold up, eh?

China's Modern Imperialism

Peter Navarro, author of The Coming China Wars (reviewed here), is critical of ABC's Bob Woodruff's recent "China Inside Out" documentary, calling it "So near to the truth, yet so far." To take just one example, Navarro writes:
The Angolan segment highlighted China’s economic development model in Africa. The myth perpetrated in this segment is that the development has actually provided a net benefit to the people of Africa.

In fact, the real truth China is practicing a very sophisticated 21st century version of imperialism in which China loans African countries billions of dollars in exchange for encumbering natural resources. These resources range from oil and natural gas to copper, cobalt, and titanium. As part of its debt encumbrance strategy, China gets to reduce its unemployment rate by using a large Chinese construction workforce to actually do the work – rather than relying so much on the native population.

In this segment, Woodruff makes repeated references to corruption. However, in a glaring omission, he fails to make explicit just how much of the billions in Chinese aid is actually siphoned off into offshore bank accounts held by the African elites. Nor does Woodruff highlight the intense poverty in the countries China is supposed to be “benefiting” -- other than offering a few images of slums.
Navarro also taked Woodruff to task for basically ignoring China's enabling role in the Darfur crisis.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Review: Your Government Failed You

Richard Clarke, Your Government Failed You: Breaking the Cycle of National Security Disasters
Your government failed you.
So said Richard Clarke to the American people during the 9/11 Commission hearings a few years back. Clarke's resume of over 30 years in the foreign policy arena speaks for itself and adds weight to his point of view. At times, his tales of frustration infuriate because they show just how much government did fail leading up to 9/11.

But, as reaction to his first book Against All Enemies: Inside America's War on Terror made evident, he can also be frustrating to those who are familiar with events he describes. And this familiarity with acute events can lead, ultimately, to a wholesale--albeit unwarranted--distrust of Clarke.

If I know that he's not being completely forthcoming on Event "A" for which I know a lot about, then how can I be sure he's not doing the same for Events "B, C and D" for which I'm not as familiar? And to the degree that his diagnoses and prescriptions rely upon his experience and expertise, as supported by his explanation of various events, then how seriously am I to take his ideas? In other words, are Clarke's ideas well-informed and worthwhile or just part of an exercise in legacy-protection? The answer, unsurprisingly, is all of the above.

When reading and analyzing a first-hand account of events, a reader should always be on the look out for bias; on the part of both the source and the reader. Ultimately, each of us have to rely on our sense of what seems like good, sound reasoning and argumentation. So, despite these reservations, there are still some things that even those most predisposed to distrust him can learn from Clarke.

Throughout Your Government Failed You, Clarke clearly names names and assesses blame. His reasoning seems sound and his grasp of the nuances of foreign affairs and diplomacy is worth noting as is his recognition of the role that contingency can play in outcomes. And while he doesn't let himself off the hook for some of the errors made, his phraseology can be passive/aggressive. For instance, the phrasing of his "apology" that gave title to this book leaves the impression that he's apologizing more for others than himself. In his opening to Chapter 5, Clarke explains that on the morning of 9/11
I knew that I had failed. In the days and years leading up to that awful moment I had failed to persuade two administrations to do enough to prevent the attacks that were now happening around me.
You see, the decision makers in government didn't listen to Clarke, which is why they failed. And he only failed because they didn't listen. That's a fairly obtuse way of taking blame. The question is then: should we listen to him? Based on my reading and analysis of the events that Clarke describes, I certainly am wary of accepting Clarke's version of events prima facia.

For instance, he notes "the refusal of the Bush administration to ratify the [Kyoto] protocol...(p.277)" and makes no mention of the Clinton administrations similar "refusal." Elsewhere, he explains how he thinks partisanship is bad for national security, something for which many would agree. But the examples of partisanship he provides are markedly one-sided.
I think the record is fairly indisputable that national security issues have been used for partisan electoral advantage in recent years: terrorism threats have been overhyped near elections, predictions have been made about terrorist attacks occurring if the other party wins, people's patriotism has been questioned. (p.340-41)
Common charges levied against the Republicans, all. No mention of the political rhetoric flying from the Democratic side--immediate withdrawal, illegal war, the Bush fascist state, etc.--which helped them sweep to Congressional power in 2006. I suppose if you believe one set of arguments, then they aren't partisan?

Much of the first part of the book is devoted to Clarke's restatement of many of the same charges he made in Against All Enemies. He still thinks Iraq is a distraction away from Afghanistan, which is an arguable point, especially with Osama bin Laden still loose. He also puts much blame for Iraq at the feet of the generals charged with preparing our forces for the invasion:
1) "Neither the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [General Richard Myers] nor the regional commander at CENTCOM [General Tommy Franks] dissented from the initial war plan..."
2) The generals didn't implement proper counter-insurgency activities though they were aware of analysis from the CIA and State department that predicted insurgent activity in post-invasion Iraq.
3) Related to #2, once it became clear that the President intended to invade Iraq, the Generals did not advise the President and Congress that they did not have enough troops to deal with an insurgency.
4) "Inadequate training" for American troops in Iraq.
5) Generals tacitly condoned torture, such as at Abu Grahib.
6) Generals didn't ensure that wounded troops were treated adequately (Walter Reed).
All of these points are worth debating. But elsewhere, Clarke essentially accuses General David Petraeus, architect of the proving-successful surge implemented in 2007, of moving the goalposts himself when his own counter-insurgency efforts were initially exhibiting slow returns. "It began to seem as if the reason for the surge, in Petraeus's mind, was to prove that his new counterinsurgency strategy could work."

The recent success in Iraq is making Clarke a victim of the time line. For he claims that Petraeus
[b]y defending a policy that in the larger sense was injurious to the United States and the Army, by arguing for staying on when he admitted that his own condition for the U.S. presence (real progress toward Iraqi unity) was not being met...raised new questions about what makes a general political.
When Clarke wrote these words, the effectiveness of the surge was still in doubt. But no matter the expertise that lay on the side of the predictor, reality has a way of ruining predictions.

Clarke has much else to say about a plethora of items related to national security and, not as impressively, global warming. As to the last, he essentially toes the Al Gore line. Nothing earth shattering (or warming?).

Further, it becomes clear that Clarke is a supporter of the Powell doctrine, though redefined for the times, which is entirely defensible. On the other hand, he also channels Thomas Franks (the academic, not the general) by basically asking "what's the matter with the military," because he can't understand why they have become so overwhelmingly Republican (though he notes that Democrats are gaining support).

All in all, this is a "thick" book. There is a lot to digest and a lot to think about. Clarke's writing isn't florid or light. Instead, he hits you time and again with anecdotes and antidotes that spring from the mind of the man who apologized to the American people on behalf of the U.S. Government. In the end, his is a voice that warrants a listen. Perhaps the best way to get a balanced view of some of the events is to read Clarke's book in combination with Douglas Feith's War and Decision. To quote Ronald Reagan, "Trust, but verify."

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Going to School on the Barbary Wars

I've done a few substantive posts about the Barbary Wars in the past. Michael Medved is the latest (here's another) to use them to buttress his particular position in contemporary arguments about the War in Iraq and the GWOT. Here are his 7 points.
1. The U.S. often goes to war when it is not directly attacked. One of the dumbest lines about the Iraq War claims that “this was the first time we ever attacked a nation that hadn’t attacked us.” Obviously, Barbary raids against private shipping hardly constituted a direct invasion of the American homeland, but founding fathers Jefferson and Madison nonetheless felt the need to strike back. Of more than 140 conflicts in which American troops have fought on foreign soil, only one (World War II, obviously) represented a response to an unambiguous attack on America itself. Iraq and Afghanistan are part of a long-standing tradition of fighting for U.S. interests, and not just to defend the homeland.

2. Most conflicts unfold without a Declaration of War. Jefferson informed Congress of his determination to hit back against the North African sponsors of terrorism (piracy), but during four years of fighting never sought a declaration of war. In fact, only five times in American history did Congress actually declare war – the War of 1812, the Mexican War, The Spanish American War, World War I and World War II. None of the 135 other struggles in which U.S. troops fought in the far corners of the earth saw Congress formally declare war—and these undeclared conflicts (including Korea, Vietnam, the First Gulf War, and many more) involved a total of millions of troops and more than a hundred thousand total battlefield deaths.

3. Islamic enmity toward the US is rooted in the Muslim religion, not recent American policy. In 1786, America’s Ambassador to France, Thomas Jefferson, joined our Ambassador in London, John Adams, to negotiate with the Ambassador from Tripoli, Sidi Haji Abdrahaman. The Americans asked their counterpart why the North African nations made war against the United States, a power “who had done them no injury", and according the report filed by Jefferson and Adams the Tripolitan diplomat replied: “It was written in their Koran, that all nations which had not acknowledged the Prophet were sinners, whom it was the right and duty of the faithful to plunder and enslave; and that every mussulman who was slain in this warfare was sure to go to paradise.”

4. Cruel Treatment of enemies by Muslim extremists is a long-standing tradition. In 1793, Algerian pirates captured the merchant brig Polly and paraded the enslaved crewmen through jeering crowds in the streets of Algiers. Dey Hassan Pasha, the local ruler, bellowed triumphantly: “Now I have got you, you Christian dogs, you shall eat stones.” American slaves indeed spent their years of captivity breaking rocks. According to Max Boot in his fine book The Savage Wars of Peace: “A slave who spoke disrespectfully to a Muslim could be roasted alive, crucified, or impaled (a stake was driven through the arms until it came out at the back of the neck). A special agony was reserved for a slave who killed a Muslim – he would be cast over the city walls and left to dangle on giant iron hooks for days before expiring of his wounds.”

5. There’s nothing new in far-flung American wars to defend U.S. economic interests. Every war in American history involved an economic motivation – at least in part, and nearly all of our great leaders saw nothing disgraceful in going to battle to defend the commercial vitality of the country. Jefferson and Madison felt no shame in mobilizing – and sacrificing – ships and ground forces to protect the integrity of commercial shipping interests in the distant Mediterranean.

Fortunately for them, they never had to contend with demonstrators who shouted “No blood for shipping!”

6. Even leaders who have worried about the growth of the U.S. military establishment came to see the necessity of robust and formidable armed forces. Jefferson and Madison both wanted to shrink and restrain the standing army and initially opposed the determination by President Adams to build an expensive new American Navy. When Jefferson succeeded Adams as president, however, he quickly and gratefully used the ships his predecessor built. The Barbary Wars taught the nation that there is no real substitute for military power, and professional forces that stand ready for anything.

7. America has always played “the cop of the world.” In part, Jefferson and Madison justified the sacrifices of the Barbary Wars as a defense of civilization, not just the protection of U.S. interests – and the European powers granted new respect to the upstart nation that finally tamed the North African pirates. Jefferson and Madison may not have fought for a New World Order but they most certainly sought a more orderly world. Many American conflicts over the last 200 years have involved an effort to enfort to enforce international rules and norms as much as to advance national interests. Wide-ranging and occasionally bloody expeditions throughout Central America, China, the Philippines, Africa and even Russia after the Revolution used American forces to prevent internal and international chaos.

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Plimouth Plantation Vandalized

This is just too bad.
Plymouth police say vandals broke into Plimoth Plantation, damaged eight houses, smashed fence sections and stole furs and other items from the replica Pilgrim village.

Police say the living history museum's property manager discovered the damage when she arrived early Saturday morning. A security guard was on duty overnight, but did not report any disturbances.

Police say one or more vandals broke the locks on the houses, smashed crockery and left hatchet marks on the inside walls. They uprooted plants, stole reproduction armor, several beaver and otter furs, and other household items.

Plantation officials gave no damage estimate and are conducting visitor tours as usual. Police say staff cleaning up after the vandalism may have destroyed evidence.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Review: The Road to Monticello

Kevin J. Hayes, The Road to Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson.

This book could easily have been titled, "Jefferson the Bibliophile," but the author's inspiration for the actual title was to pay homage to John Livingston Lowe's study of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Road to Xanadu. Hayes' literary and intellectual biography uses the books Jefferson loved--as well as those read or possessed by the people taught, met or impacted Jefferson--to chart the intellectual provenance of the Sage of Monticello.

Unsurprisingly, the list of books cataloged by Hayes is immense and impressive. But the insight that Hayes derives from his study of the Sage's reading list (as well as those Jefferson compiled for others), particularly the marginalia found in the books themselves, are the key that unlocks the door to the Jeffersonian mind.

Hayes consistently points out that "Jefferson preferred the life of the mind" and one would have to agree: how else could on man read and write so copiously if he didn't prize intellectual pursuits over most else? The importance of Bacon, Locke and Newton to Jefferson are unsurprising. But Jefferson was also particularly keen for Aesop's fables
...especially those that were useful as political allegories, like the one about the miller, his son, and their ass. By trying to please everyone, the miller ends up pleasing no one and loses his ass in the bargain.
It wasn't always the serious, or at least the factual, book that piqued the Jeffersonian mind
Fiction, Jefferson observed, could fulfill the purpose of teaching moral virtue better than fact. History was too uneven--few episodes in history could excite the "sympathetic emotion of virtue" at its highest level. Fiction, alternatively, could evoke a reader's sympathy because imaginary characters can be fashioned in a way real personages cannot. Fictional characters can illustrate and exemplify "every moral rule of life. Thus a lively and lasting sense of filial more effectually impressed on the mind of a son or daughter by reading King Lear, than by all the ry volumes of ethics and divinity that ever were written."
Thus did emotion, or a good yarn, help the mind see its way to logic.

For the intellectual historian, the meat-and-potato portions of the book are those in which Hayes traces the literary and philosophical influences of acute Jeffersonian works. Name a piece of writing produced by Jefferson and Hayes will trace its intellectual and literary genealogy. But he does so within the context of the times in which Jefferson was writing and illustrates how Jefferson did more than simply collate and regurgitate information. Jefferson's writing is filled with wisdom gained from reading, but also from his ability to observe and reason.

Jefferson was more than just a man of books, he was also, indelibly, a man--perhaps the man--of his time. Hayes puts Jefferson within historical and intellectual context and illustrates how this impressive thinker was able to build upon past literary works to help create a new and hopefully better nation. There is much here for the scholar and the layperson to digest. Road to Monticello is an important addition to anyone's, even Jefferson's, library.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Colonial America, or America's Medieval Period

Trevor Burnard, in a piece on the importance of geography over time for historians of Colonial America explains why this is so:
Why are early Americanists so obsessed with region—with geography, in short—rather than with chronology? Why is early America generally organized by space rather than time, at least until the Revolution comes along? In part, of course, the reason for such fixation upon space is because the colonial period is the very important prologue to the main event, which is the formation of the nation state and of United States history proper. The colonial period is thus the medieval section of American history.
Interesting. And it might explain why, as an Americanist, I'm mostly attracted to the Colonial and Revolutionary eras in addition to my "minor" of early Medieval History. Must be that beginnings/transitions appeal to me.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Medieval Shark Week

What is it about sharks? Welp, whatever, but Jeff Sypek at "Quid Plura" has decided to host "Medieval Shark Week". My favorite "entry":

Medieval Shark Week is about fun!

If you’re a gamer, you’ll want to play TIMESHARK II: Medieval Shark Strike Force, in which you become a time-traveling shark transported back to medieval Germany to feast on clones of Adolf Hitler....

Download the game for Mac or PC here. You’ll find instructions on the second page of this thread, where the game’s author reveals that TIMESHARK is an acronym for “Time-travelling Intimidation and Mastication Expert: Sharks Have Ample Reason to Kill.”


Thursday, July 24, 2008

Review: Tosh's "Historians on History" and "Pursuit of History"

The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (3rd Edition) and Historians on History: An Anthology by John Tosh

Early in The Pursuit of History, Tosh explains that "[h]ow the past is known and how it is applied to present need are open to widely varying approaches." Pursuit is a solid effort by Tosh to trace the origins of historical study and the methodologies that have evolved over time. He explains the difference between popular history and academic history and describes the importance of the latter.

The first half of Pursuit is dedicated to showing how historians should properly do their work, including how to find and use sources as well as how to write and interpret historical findings. All are well covered. The second half of the book is much more philosophical in tone. Tosh tackles a number of questions relating to objectivity, true knowledge and the reliability of so-called facts.

Simply put, he describes the battle between those who believe history is a cumulative discipline and those who view it as a relative and interpretive exercise as well as all of those with positions in between. Most importantly, he defends the discipline's viability and importance against those who attack it, including the postmodernists (though he doesn't dismiss all of the postmodernist contributions to the field). His notes and references are plentiful and he is fair with each of the "schools" of history.

Historians on History grew as an outgrowth of Pursuit and is essentially primary source material for the aforementioned work. It is comprised of excerpts from historiographical works on the field of history with brief input from Tosh. He lays the foundation for the book by describing the traditional reasons for studying history as well as the innovations and dialectic debates of the past 30 years.

He introduces each section with a brief biography of the author from whose work he has excerpted as well as an explanation of the particular historical philosophy which will be covered in that section. He then steps back and allows historians to illustrate their thoughts on a particular methodology or philosophy.

Not all sections are filled with works championing a certain method. For instance, the sections on Social Sciences and Postmodernism each contain relatively spirited articles defending or attacking these methods and Tosh doesn't interfere as he allows the reader to make up his own mind.

Tosh ends his compilation with a defense of the field of historical study. Tosh's writing is relatively clear and concise, though the same cannot be said for some of the excerpted writings. Though not always an enjoyable read, Historians on History is still a valuable work as it illuminates the thought processes of some of the field's finest minds.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Review: Simplexity

Jeffrey Kluger: Simplexity: Why Simple Things Become Complex (and How Complex Things Can Be Made Simple)

What, or who, is more effective at guessing the needs of a particular book-buyer? Amazon with its buildings of servers and aggregation of data based on demographics and past purchasing patterns? Or a small book, traditional book store with a knowledgeable trained at picking up the little cues that allow them to anticipate a customers needs? And which is more complex; or simple? Neither or both? How we can try to determine the answers to these questions and many others stretching from topics as diverse as how humans react in crisis to why bad sports teams beat better ones is the task Jeffrey Kluger sets out to explain in Simplexity.

Throughout his search, he returns to the researchers of the Sante Fe Institute, quite literally a think tank, which was founded by Nobel Prize (physics) winner Murray Gell-Mann. But the "complexity scientists" and scholars at SFI are engaged in all sorts of thought, including various experiments and studies. All to try to better understand why things work the way they do.
Complexity scientists like to talk about the ideas of pure chaos and pure robustness--and both are exceedingly simple things. An empty room pumped full of air molecules may not be a particularly interesting place, but it is an extraordinary active one, with the molecules swirling in all directions at once, dispersing chaotically to every possible crack and corner. On the other hand, a lump of carbon chilled to what scientists call absolute zero--or the point at which molecular motion is the slowest it can possibly be--is neither interesting nor active. The carbon is exceedingly static, or robust, as complexity researchers call it; the room is exceedingly chaotic. What neither of them is, however, is complex, offering only spinning disorder at one end and flash frozen order at the other.

Where you'd fine real complexity would be somewhere between these two states, the point at which the molecules begin to climb from disorder, sorting themselves into something interesting and organized...but catching themselves before they descend down the other side of the complexity hill, sliding into something lumpish and fixed. (p.27-9)
This is the so-called "Complexity Arc" and Kluger refers to it again and again as helpful tool in helping to analyze various topics. Using this tool, the stock market appears relatively simple; it usually finds itself in chaos or remarkably stable, very rarely in between. But the models are deceiving, and markets are affected by Adam Smith's "invisible hand" guided by "invisible brains," as Kluger puts it.
Capitalism functions reasonably well and communism flopped so badly because one system includes human needs, motivations, and occasional wisdom in its equations and the other stripped them out. Many complexity theorists studying stock trades argue that collective human brainpower is an underestimated thing, and the more minds you put to work in a market, the better you're all likely to do.
Here, Kluger turns to Brown University's Brook Harrington, who gives the jellybeans-in-a-jar guessing game as an example and boils it down: "It's the old story of the wisdom of the crowds." Using this as a guide, Harrington has shown that, time after time, investment clubs are more successful than individuals in earning money off of stock investments.

Kluger also explains that investors can also act in a moral way. If they don't like what a company has done--an oil spill, doing business with dictators, Enron--they may not favor them as much as earnings or potential would otherwise indicate. Traders are like most people and have an inherent desire to take part in a "fair deal." Kluger's illustration of this principle is eye-opening: if given the opportunity to get a share of $100, most people will reject anything too far away from a 50/50 split. For instance, they'd reject $20 if that meant the other person would get $80. Better nothing than letting someone else get more.

Ahh. Human nature.

It is the variable that most vexes complexity scientists and one they are vigorously seeking to study and quantify and qualify. A hopeless quest? Perhaps, but the little bits of data learned along the way have helped engineers and planners and others design better products, make safer buildings and, yes, decide if baseball or football are the more complex sport. You'll have to read the book to find out.

Some of the other examples Kluger provides are wondrous, such as how a simple fungus in Indonesia helped prop-up a dictator. Others are frustrating, as he explains that it's difficult to get people--and the groups they form--to change their minds. It's true of bureaucracies and armies and political parties or ideologies. Through it all, Kluger does an excellent job of explaining how seemingly complicated things aren't as well as the opposite. He takes complex matters and makes them simple to understand in a very entertaining and engaging way. In short, this is a really cool book!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Review: The Coming China Wars

Peter Navarro, The Coming China Wars: Where They Will be Fought, How The Can Be Won.
The purpose of this book is to warn that unless strong actions are taken now both by China and the rest of the world, The Coming China Wars are destined to be fought over everything from decent jobs, livable wages, and leading-edge technologies to strategic resources such as oil, copper, and steel, and eventually to our most basic of all needs--bread, water, and air.
To achieve his purpose, Navarro explains and examines how various Chinese policies affect its people and government and those of the rest of the world. For example, the book is replete with examples of how China's government has set-up uneven economic playing fields domestically and globally through currency manipulation, protectionism, worker mistreatment, lax regulation--if any at all--and ignoring product piracy within its borders (80% of pirate products seized at U.S. borders come from China). Such practices have fueled China's economic growth at an unsustainable pace, according to Navarro. Throw in a growing appetite for natural resources, both its own and those of other countries, and China is a ravenous beast not easily sated. Its economic needs affect its judgment as the pressure to maintain the rate of economic growth encourages the maintenance of the same unfair and immoral practices.

Given the way China operates within its own borders, it is no surprise to learn that it makes no moral ties to its economic needs abroad; looking the other way when dealing with dictators in Africa or Iran or North Korea for natural resources in exchange for weapons or help with infrastructure, which in turn helps China extract the aforementioned resources. Environmental issues are also not high on their list of priorities. 18 of the 20 smoggiest cities are in China and that so-called "chog" finds its way into the air of its Asian neighbors and the West Coast of North America. Then there is the disastrous treatment of the Chinese waterways: the Yellow River is often also blue, green or red; the three Gorges Damn is proving to be an environmental and health disaster. One wonders if the coverage of the upcoming Beijing Olympics will reveal such things for the world to see.

Their willingness to take environmental short-cuts buys them economic growth because such a lax atmosphere proves too tempting to foreign companies. Here, Navarro makes an important historical point:
There is both a danger and a paradox here that should not be lost on any student of Chinese history aware of the "foreign humiliation" that China was subjected to in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The danger is that these powerful foreign economic interests are overpowering the political will of the central government, thereby rendering it impossible for China to get a handle on its own pollution problems. The paradox is that as China's Communist Party seeks to mold the country into a superpower, it is quickly losing control of its own destiny to powerful foreign economic interests.
Thus do foreign companies and countries (and their consumers) prop up Chinese economic practices. However, Navarro does suggest that such a climate is causing worker unrest upset over unpaid wages, revoked or reduced pensions and poor health. Then again, the Chinese government has also engaged in repression (Falun Gong, Tibet, Uighur), often with the implicit help of foreign companies (Yahoo! is singled out). This belligerence is also turning outward as China is amidst a dramatic military buildup with the apparent goal of power projection around the world and even into outer space. (An aside: this was the first time I'd heard that the moon may have rich deposits of Helium 3, a rare isotope that scientists believe could help with nuclear fusion.)

So what should we do about all of this? Navarro's concluding chapter offers some suggestions to both governments and to we the people. Focusing on his prescriptions for the individual, Navarro explains that we haven't really, truly been paying attention because of "the narcotic effect that cheap Chinese goods have had on us" or we've been more worried about the Middle East. Or, perhaps most importantly, there "is a general lack of awareness of the far-ranging implications of a world increasingly 'Made in China.'" As to this last, The Coming China Wars is a quick and succinct way to get up to speed. Cheap goods are good for the American consumer, but not if they are produced on playing field tilted as dramatically as portrayed by Navarro.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Baby-Mama Witches of Gloucester

The first thing I thought of when I read the story about the 17 wanna-be baby mamas of Gloucester, Massachusetts were the teenage girls who lay at the center of the Salem Witch Trials. No doubt, this was probably because of the proximity of Gloucester to Salem Village (now Danvers, Mass.). Now, I'm simply not well-versed enough in group psychology or the deeper history of the Salem Witch hysteria to draw any conclusions. I just found these parallels interesting (if they are indeed parallel!).

A little digging brought up some statistical similarities: there were 16 girls in Salem Village who claimed they were the victims of witchcraft, and most were teenagers; there are 17 new baby mama teenagers in Gloucester. Maybe both groups of girls were depressed by their surroundings, or at least picked up on the depression from their parents and community.

Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum theorized in Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft that the Salem Village witchcraft accusations were a sort of psychological projection that exposed tensions between the agrarian and economically poor Salem Village and its more economically successful neighbor Salem Town. As Philip Greven, Jr. wrote in his review of Salem Possessed (Reviews in American History, Vol.2, No.4, 1974; p.516):
Throughout their book, the underlying assumption which shapes their analysis of the Village and its inhabitants is that this community reflects a particular transitional point in a long-term historical process which was transforming precapitalist agrarian society into more urban, commercial, and capitalistic society. As they observe of [Reverend Samuel] Parriss and the Village, "All the elements of their respective histories were deeply rooted in the social realities of late seventeenth century western culture--a culture in which a subsistence, peasant-based economy was being subverted by mercantile capitalism" (p. 178).
The Time piece on the Gloucester 17 noted:
The past decade has been difficult for this mostly white, mostly blue-collar city (pop. 30,000). In Gloucester, perched on scenic Cape Ann, the economy has always depended on a strong fishing industry. But in recent years, such jobs have all but disappeared overseas, and with them much of the community's wherewithal. "Families are broken," says school superintendent Christopher Farmer. "Many of our young people are growing up directionless."

Amanda Ireland, who graduated from Gloucester High on June 8, thinks she knows why these girls wanted to get pregnant. Ireland, 18, gave birth her freshman year and says some of her now pregnant schoolmates regularly approached her in the hall, remarking how lucky she was to have a baby. "They're so excited to finally have someone to love them unconditionally," Ireland says.
Also, its apparent that both groups of teenage girls may have coordinated their actions. Although many believe that the Salem accusers were victims of mass hysteria, perhaps even chemically induced, there is also evidence that they were just "hav[ing] some sport."

Daniel Elliott: Deposition for Elizabeth Proctor

the testimony of Daniel elet aged 27 years or thear abouts who testifieth & saith that I being at the hous of leutennant ingasone one the 28 of march in the year 1692 thear being preasent one of the aflicted persons which cryed out and said thears goody procter William raiment juner being theare present told the garle he beleved she lyed for he saw nothing then goody ingerson told the garl she told aly for thear was nothing: then the garl said that she did it for sport they must have some sport

( Essex County Archives, Salem -- Witchcraft Vol. 1 Page 27 )

The Gloucester baby mamas consciously decided to get pregnant and raise their kids together.
By May, several students had returned multiple times to get pregnancy tests, and on hearing the results, "some girls seemed more upset when they weren't pregnant than when they were," [school principal Joseph] Sullivan says. All it took was a few simple questions before nearly half the expecting students, none older than 16, confessed to making a pact to get pregnant and raise their babies together.
And once each group embarked on their respective escapades, they knew that adults were in place to provide, shall we say, support. In the case of the Salem girls, society was predisposed to attribute their actions to supernatural causes:
At the time, however, there was another theory to explain the girls' symptoms. Cotton Mather had recently published a popular book, "Memorable Providences," describing the suspected witchcraft of an Irish washerwoman in Boston, and Betty [Parriss]'s behavior in some ways mirrored that of the afflicted person described in Mather's widely read and discussed book. It was easy to believe in 1692 in Salem, with an Indian war raging less than seventy miles away (and many refugees from the war in the area) that the devil was close at hand. Sudden and violent death occupied minds.

Talk of witchcraft increased when other playmates of Betty, including eleven-year-old Ann Putnam, seventeen-year-old Mercy Lewis, and Mary Walcott, began to exhibit similar unusual behavior. When his own nostrums failed to effect a cure, William Griggs, a doctor called to examine the girls, suggested that the girls' problems might have a supernatural origin. The widespread belief that witches targeted children made the doctor's diagnosis seem increasing likely.

Meanwhile, the number of girls afflicted continued to grow, rising to seven with the addition of Ann Putnam, Elizabeth Hubbard, Susannah Sheldon, and Mary Warren. According to historian Peter Hoffer, the girls "turned themselves from a circle of friends into a gang of juvenile delinquents." ( Many people of the period complained that young people lacked the piety and sense of purpose of the founders' generation.) The girls contorted into grotesque poses, fell down into frozen postures, and complained of biting and pinching sensations. In a village where everyone believed that the devil was real, close at hand, and acted in the real world, the suspected affliction of the girls became an obsession.
The Gloucester girls are surrounded by a support system of a different kind.
The high school has done perhaps too good a job of embracing young mothers. Sex-ed classes end freshman year at Gloucester, where teen parents are encouraged to take their children to a free on-site day-care center. Strollers mingle seamlessly in school hallways among cheerleaders and junior ROTC. "We're proud to help the mothers stay in school," says Sue Todd, CEO of Pathways for Children, which runs the day-care center.

But by May, after nurse practitioner Kim Daly had administered some 150 pregnancy tests at Gloucester High's student clinic, she and the clinic's medical director, Dr. Brian Orr, a local pediatrician, began to advocate prescribing contraceptives regardless of parental consent, a practice at about 15 public high schools in Massachusetts. Currently Gloucester teens must travel about 20 miles (30 km) to reach the nearest women's health clinic; younger girls have to get a ride or take the train and walk. But the notion of a school handing out birth control pills has met with hostility. Says Mayor Carolyn Kirk: "Dr. Orr and Ms. Daly have no right to decide this for our children." The pair resigned in protest on May 30.

There are also other reports attempting to link the episode to celebrity culture, "abstinence only" education or a reduction in sex education classes in Massachusetts.

I don't think it's a stretch to say that teenage girls are probably the clique-iest species in the world. Perhaps all that can be concluded is that the phenomena of girls behaving badly is really nothing new: its easier to act out against social mores with your peers than by yourself. And there really is safety in numbers. If you are a teenage girl and you and a group of your friends cross the line, many adults--including your own parents--will trip all over themselves to find alternative explanations for your behavior. If you do something stupid all by yourself, then you, young lady, were just being an idiot. But if you are wise enough to get a group together to engage in unacceptable behavior, then the temptation is to shift the burden of responsibility from the individuals to the larger society.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

US Navy To Raise Sunken Russian Sub

Providence, Rhode Island's sunken Russian submarine will finally be raised as part of a training exercise by the US Navy. The sub, which was used in a Harrison Ford movie and served as a floating museum on the Providence waterfront, has been underwater for a year after sinking during a storm. Unfortunately, it looks like its days as a museum may be over. The Providence Journal has details:

Next week, a team of Army and Navy salvage divers will pull the sunken Juliett 484 upright using heavy machinery. Once the sub is standing straight, they expect to raise it out of the water, probably on July 15.

While it’s a great training exercise for the military’s salvage divers, they may be among the last people who will ever set foot inside the Russian sub; its days as a museum boat are likely over, thanks to the rust and growth inside. They won’t know for sure until the submarine is refloated.

“If it’s in really bad shape, we have to be realistic, it’s been underwater for a year,” said Frank Lennon, president of the USS Saratoga Foundation, which operates the museum.

There’s still a chance the submarine could be restored, but that would likely be too expensive for the foundation. It’s possible that it could be beached somewhere, or that the military could have a hand in restoring it, but it’s equally likely it could end up as scrap, or sunken again to serve as an underwater reef.

One thing is certain: the Russian sub museum at Collier Point Park is a thing of the past. “That is not an option,” Lennon said.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

New Nathaniel Greene Bio Coming Next Week

A new book by Rhode Island author Gerald Carbone, Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, may finally put one of America's finest generals into the spotlight. Historians of the American Revolution know that Nathanael Greene, son of a Rhode Island Quaker family, was the most successful general in the Continental Army. But, he has been overshadowed by a certain other General (you know, Father of the Country and all that) and his victories came in the South, which has always been kind of the sub-plot to the Northeast-centric narrative of the AmRev.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Review: Sin in the Second City

Karen Abbott, Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America’s Soul.

Minna and Ada Everleigh owned the preeminent brothel in turn-of-the century Chicago and entertained prize-fighters and princes during the decade plus tenure as proprietors of the eponymous Everleigh Club. World famous, the establishment catered to well-monied men of expensive tastes—a conscious decision on the part of the sisters—and engendered jealousy (from competitors) and anger (from reformers) as well as revenue (for the sisters and the politicians they bribed). Oh, and they have been credited with helping to proliferate a certain term for coitus, based upon a pun on their name.

Abbott exposes their invented backstory for what it was, though there is still plenty of murkiness about their past. What is known is that the ladies set up shop in Chicago and found instant success. But they didn’t do so blindly. They weren’t your average prospective madams; they knew the importance of market research and selected Chicago after a nationwide canvassing of various cities. It was a good choice and they prospered so long as they bribed the right politicians and deflected attention away when various incidences could have caused them trouble.

Yet, they also went into business at the same time that a nascent Progressive movement was growing, encompassing everything from banning cigarettes and alcohol to advocating against prostitution. Obvoiusly the Everleighs were concerned mostly with the last and Abbott intersperses her story about the business of running the Everleigh Club with snippets regarding the growing movement against white slavery, which quickly became a proxy for the fight against prostitution.

As the years went by, the reformers became more aggressive and even resorted to exaggeration or outright lies in an effort to shut down red light districts across the nation. The Everleighs avoided trouble and continued to reap the rewards for supplying their vice. Eventually, however, the wrong Mayor got elected and the wrong review committee suggested that Chicago clamp down on prostitution. And what better target than the high-profile Everleigh Club to set the example? The end was quick, and despite initially thinking they could re-establish themselves, the Everleigh’s eventually retired in anonymity to New York City, living out their days amongst the remnants of their wealth.

To be sure, Abbot’s sympathies are clearly with the sinners rather than the saints in this story. This leads to a tendency to gloss over—or leave unmentioned—some of the consequences of the Everleigh sisters actions. There can be little doubt that their support for local politicians via bribes helped to seed and strengthen organized crime. And regardless of whether or not they ran a high class establishment, the sisters contributed to the corruption of many a person. Abbott does try to be fair to the reformers, but they are clearly the antagonists in this tale.

Sin in the Second City is a hybrid work. Abbott combines her knowledge of the historical record--backed by extensive research--with her interpretation of the words and psychology of the several “characters” who make up her story. This is not historical fiction, but Abbot offers up a substantive amount of speculation—from quotes, to divining motivation or thoughts, to describing impossible to know physical actions—to dissuade one from calling this a work of straight history. But her research shows in the attention to detail and the overall result is a highly readable and interesting story that allows the reader to appreciate one version of this interesting era.