Friday, February 29, 2008

Thursday, February 21, 2008

O'Sullivan Offers a Conservative Case for Obama

For my money, National Review's John O'Sullivan does a better job explaining the historical reasons for electing Obama than do the Historians for Obama. He does so by assuming that a more unified and stable nation is the bedrock on which American conservatism is built and that and Obama Presidency wouldn't be so bad for conservatives.
A political event is in the conservative interest if it strengthens and stabilizes the country. At times that greater strength may be to the disadvantage of the conservative party or come at some (temporary) cost in conservative principles. But when the smoke of battle clears, conservatives will see, sometimes with surprise, that the nation is better for the change from a conservative standpoint....

It is important not to be starry-eyed about the conservative interest. It is rooted in prudence rather than any more idealistic virtue. It is an amoral basis of calculation, sometime allied with justice, sometimes indifferent to it, but always seeking social stability, as my two American examples will demonstrate.

The first one is the abandonment of Reconstruction after the Civil War in order to reintegrate the south into the United States. That object was achieved but at the cost of the U.S. allowing the installation of Jim Crow laws throughout the south....So the rights of black America were sacrificed for 70 years to the object of reintegrating the south in the federal republic. And whatever we may now think of that bargain, its object was achieved....

My second example is the reversal of the first: namely, the civil-rights revolution of the 1950s and 1960s. It was clear after the Second World War that the post-Reconstruction bargain was now itself unsustainable. Most Americans, including some in the south, recognized that the black Americans who had served alongside them in the Second World War were denied elementary rights in part of the country that they had fought to defend.... Jim Crow was reversed....

What does the conservative interest indicate on this occasion? It seems possible and even likely that a victory by Barack Obama would be the climax of this long policy of fully integrating black and minority America into the nation and putting the querulous politics of race behind us. As I have argued elsewhere, the mere fact of a President Obama would strengthen and stabilize America just as a Polish pope undermined Soviet rule in Eastern Europe. Black and minority America would be fully integrated into the nation.... Americans would feel better about themselves and the world would feel very differently about America. The conservative interest, as defined above, would therefore smile upon a vote for Obama.
O'Sullivan also explains that actual political work also needs to be done to elect Republican (and Democratic) legislators who will mitigate against some of the executive tendencies of a President Obama that conservatives will disagree with.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008


Manan Ahmed points to both Danah Boyd's decision to publish in only Open Access Journals and Harvard's decision to require that all scholars affiliated with it allow free publication of their work. Thus inspired, he has decided to instigate a "Free JSTOR" campaign. Why? As Manan writes:
One of my biggest complaint about our academic world is about the inaccessibility of research to anyone without institutional affiliation or a hefty bank account. The impact of which is that, academic work in the humanities remains largely confined to a handful of readers and commentators.
I couldn't agree more. As a non-affiliated, "independent" historian, I can't access JSTOR from home because I can't justify paying the single-user fee. Of course, I can do so from one of the many libraries around, but having to take a trip to the stacks sort of takes the spontaneity out of history blogging. Being able to access them online for free, or even a minimal charge, would certainly be better!

Friday, February 08, 2008

Dark Ages, Shmark Ages / Sidonuis, the first neocon?

That popular conceptions of history tend to lag scholarly thought by a couple decades is nothing new. Witness this article in The Independent, "New light on the Dark Ages: Who are you calling barbaric?". For scholars of the period (late antique/earl MA), the discussion is nothing new and the article mentions Gibbon and alludes to "other interpretations." The re-examination was prompted by a new exhibit at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice, Italy. Sounds like good stuff. Unfortunately, the author saw fit to characterize the revisionist vs. traditional historiography this way:
But what if the barbarians weren't all that barbaric after all? What if the black/white, good/bad, God's chosen versus axis of evil, neo-conservative type explanation for this historical event is just as much state propaganda as the claim that Saddam Hussein was an hour away from bombarding us all with nuclear missiles?
Pathetic, really. Believe it or not, everything doesn't come back to Bushitler. Does this mean that we can now peg Sidonius Apollinaris as the first neo-con?

Anyway, here's the meat:
... what the new exhibition lays finally to rest is the notion that the barbarians were barbaric. True, they were often blond, worshipped their own gods, lacked cities with sewerage systems, heated floors, bathhouses and aqueducts. Often they were nomads. But the idea that they were in some absolute sense less civilised was Roman state propaganda. Crueller than the Romans? Hardly possible. More violent, more militaristic than the most militaristic state in history? Hard to conceive.

Once one steps back from the paranoid them-and-us, self-and-other way of looking at it, one sees that rather than the cataclysmic end of a great civilisation and its replacement by the forces of darkness, something far more compelling and creative was under way: the creation (as the curators of this exhibition put it) of Europe as we know it, welded together by Christianity, and with deeply rooted memories of Roman heritage which make dramatic returns to our collective consciousness every few hundred years: during the Renaissance, for example.

"The Barbarian kingdoms," writes Jean-Jacques Aillagon in the catalogue, "gradually drew a new political map of Europe, dividing it between the Ostrogoths and the Lombards in Italy, the Franks in western Germany, Belgium and France, the Visigoths in Languedoc, Aquitaine and the Iberian peninsula."

He continues: "If Europe was born in Athens, Jerusalem and Rome, many of its roots also lie in the peoples of the north and east of the European continent." The aim of the exhibition, he writes: "Is to reveal the profound and subtle mix between Graeco-Roman and Germanic roots from which European culture stems."

Thursday, February 07, 2008

Larson: "The Politics of History"

This column by Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson is pretty much in the Spinning Clio wheelhouse. In it, Larson attempts to answer the question, "Why do conservatives like history more than liberals?":
Liberal Democrats have always looked to the future with hope and embraced marginalized groups. When they look back, even to the deeds of their own former leaders, they see trails of tears like the one over which Andrew Jackson drove out the Cherokee. Blemishes on past presidents, even those who pointed the way toward future progress, tend to stain them wholly for at least some key elements within the Democratic coalition.

In contrast, conservative Republicans look to the past for inspiration but often to the future with trepidation. Originalists at heart, they tend to see only the shining city on a hill of earlier times and not its darker neighborhoods. George Washington's slaves are forgotten along with Adams's Alien and Sedition Acts. For some Republicans, both Lincoln and Robert E. Lee become models of Christian virtue as if they never ordered millions of men into battle against the other.

I'd say that, generally, that's about right. Conservatives believe in preserving the good things from the past and liberals believe in creating good things in the future. Then what happens is too many liberals throw the baby out with the bathwater in the name of "progress" while conservatives don't realize that changing the bath water every now and then is a healthy thing to do.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

'Most Famous' Americans?

Ralph Luker points to a USA Today story about the 10 "most famous" Americans according to our high schoolers. According to the piece:
Get a pencil and paper and jot down the 10 most famous Americans in history. No presidents or first ladies allowed.

Who tops your list?

Ask teenagers, and they overwhelmingly choose African-Americans and women, a study shows. It suggests that the "cultural curriculum" that most kids — and by extension, their parents — experience in school increasingly emphasizes the stories of Americans who are not necessarily dead, white or male.

Researchers gave blank paper and pencils to a diverse group of 2,000 high school juniors and seniors in all 50 states and told them: "Starting from Columbus to the present day, jot down the names of the most famous Americans in history."

In comments to Ralph's post, Jonathan Dresner makes the point that there is a difference between "most famous" and "most important." Anyway, here's the list:

1. Martin Luther King Jr.: 67%
2. Rosa Parks: 60%
3. Harriet Tubman: 44%
4. Susan B. Anthony: 34%
5. Benjamin Franklin: 29%
6. Amelia Earhart: 25%
7. Oprah Winfrey: 22%
8. Marilyn Monroe: 19%
9. Thomas Edison: 18%
10. Albert Einstein: 16%

A few historian's were quoted, too:

Sam Wineburg, the Stanford University education and history professor who led the study along with Chauncey Monte-Sano of the University of Maryland, says the prominence of black Americans signals "a profound change" in how we see history.

"Over the course of about 44 years, we've had a revolution in the people who we come to think about to represent the American story," Wineburg says.

"There's a kind of shift going on, from the narrative of the founders, which is the national mythic narrative, to the narrative of expanding rights," he says.

Yes, but how does he explain No. 7: Oprah Winfrey?

She has "a kind of symbolic status similar to Benjamin Franklin," Wineburg says. "These are people who have a kind of popularity and recognition because they're distinguished in so many venues."

Joy Hakim, author of A History of US, says taking out the presidents "isn't quite fair" but concedes that the list isn't too shabby.

"I sometimes ask students to imagine themselves in a classroom 500 years from now. What will their teacher say about the 20th century? What were its lasting accomplishments? Of course, we don't know where future historians will focus, but I'm guessing that the civil rights movement and the incredible scientific achievements will be the big stories."


Dennis Denenberg, author of 50 American Heroes Every Kid Should Meet, says it's no surprise the civil rights era still resonates. "Since it so redefined America post-World War II, I think educators feel it's truly a story young people need to know about because we're still struggling with it," he says. "The Cold War is over and gone. The civil rights movement is ongoing."

Hakim's point about leaving out the President's is important. There are no deader, whiter men than they and taking them out of the survey doesn't really give us an an idea of how much of our history pedagogy still revolves around them (whether you view that as a positive or a negative).

Finally, one thing that struck me immediately was the timing of the survey. It is Black History Month (and Women's History Month is in March) and we just had MLK day, so I wonder what role the timing of the survey had in the answers given. My guess is current pedagogical practice is such that topics dealing with both "...History Months" are being emphasized about now. (Wow, I got to use "pedagogy" twice in one post!)

UPDATE: Nathanael makes a good point, too:

I would point out that the instruction, “no presidents or first ladies allowed,” undercuts the popularity of many “dead white men.” Indeed, isn’t political power what dead white men are known for? Aren’t social justice and celebrity for the rest?

However, what about Lewis and Clarke? Or Neil Armstrong? Or Mark Twain? There are a lot of white guys who are both famous and not politicians. I also just noticed that the three white guys who made the list were all men of science (Franklin, Edison, Einstein). Is there something to current pedagogy that emphasizes the role of invention and science in US History? Even over, say, exploration?

History Carnival

The 61st History Carnival is up at Historia i Media and covers a lot of fertile ground for history bloggers looking for something to read and blog about!

Also, the rumors are true ... Spinning Clio will be hosting the 62nd edition next month. Submissions welcome! And if you want to host, I'm sure Sharon would love to hear from you!

Friday, February 01, 2008

McCain as Modern Day TR

When he first ran for President in 2000, John McCain overtly compared himself to Teddy Roosevelt. And in that pre-9/11 world, at the "end of history," that comparison seemed to make a lot of sense. For instance, National Review's Rich Lowry wrote about how some believed that the 1990's and 1890's were comparable--particularly The Weekly Standard's David Brooks and William Kristol-- and that, like TR in the Gilded Age, the new millennium may be a fortuitous time for an iconoclast president with a desire to begin initiatives aimed at recapturing a sense of "national greatness". (Lowry believed there was no such need for that at the time. In short, it was time for an manager president--a la Harding--since there was no major event or crisis on hand. If only.)

This time around, McCain hasn't evoked the ghost of TR quite as much, but I think the comparison is still apt. Conservatives, liberals and libertarian's all seem to agree.

Wall Street Journal's Stephen Moore in November 2005:
Throughout our chat he has referred to Theodore Roosevelt in almost reverential terms and glows when I ask about him. He calls TR "my hero . . . and one of our greatest presidents," and at one point he excitedly searches through his briefcase and pulls out a book that he is reading on the famously tumultuous election of 1912. That was when TR bolted from the Republican Party (which Mr. McCain concedes was "a mistake") and formed the Bull Moose Party to dethrone William Taft. When I mention TR's trust-busting (which was mostly counterproductive economically), Mr. McCain really comes to life, exultantly points his finger in the air, smiles and cries out: "He called the trusts 'the malefactors of wealth.' "

And in this very moment it becomes clear to me that John McCain aspires to be a modern-day TR. The similarities are unmistakable: Both were war heroes, mavericks within their own party, reformers and defenders of the little guy.

But here in a nutshell lies the danger of the McCain view of the world. Where some see the vast virtue of entrepreneurial wealth-generators and job-producers, he too often sees "robber barons." He seems forever in search of the next Joe Camel, Charles Keating, Ken Lay or Jose Canseco (Mr. McCain has been a prominent crusader against steroids in baseball).

Slate's Jacob Weisberg:

McCain was not always the moderate, tolerant character I'm describing. He was a conservative before he was a liberal before he became a conservative again. McCain began his political career in the 1980s as an untroubled Reagan Republican. His outlook changed drastically, however, after he nearly went down in the Keating Five scandal, for which he blamed both himself and the money-politics system. In the early 1990s, McCain caught the reform bug and became the Senate's foremost advocate of campaign finance reform, as well as an outspoken opponent of corporate welfare and pork-barrel spending. His reform zeal opened the door to other heresies and formed the basis for his presidential run. Part of what was compelling about McCain as a candidate in the 2000 primaries was that he was a politician in genuine flux. On the campaign trail, you could see him losing faith in conservative orthodoxy on issues like poverty, income inequality, health care, and global warming, spurred by encounters with humans in New Hampshire and elsewhere.

This political evolution continued through Bush's first term. McCain rejected the president's fiscal recklessness and tax cuts skewed to the wealthy. He allied himself with Democratic colleagues on a variety of social issues, including HMO reform, environmentalism, and gun control. Democrats implored him to switch teams, as a couple of his advisers, frozen out by the right, actually did. But instead of accepting John Kerry's offer to become his running mate in 2004, McCain embraced Bush's re-election effort, and his searching phase largely came to an end. Since the president's second term began, McCain has been uncharacteristically calculating, building bridges to Bush and the evangelicals and choosing his battles far more selectively. But if you watch closely, you still catch plenty of signals that the old new McCain isn't dead, just hiding out. He continues to take on the president and his own party where it matters to him, on the use of torture in the war on terrorism and on immigration, where he sponsored a bill with Ted Kennedy to allow millions of illegal immigrants become citizens.

I'm not arguing that McCain is a liberal Trojan horse running in the wrong party. If you need to label him, he's a Teddy Roosevelt progressive—militant, crusading, reformist, and hostile to concentrated power. The Bull Moose has temporarily turned into a performing elephant. But the Moose will be back—around March 2008, if everything goes according to plan.

And Reason's Matt Welch:
McCain regards Teddy Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln as political idols; like them, he never hesitates in asserting that government power should be used to rekindle American (and Republican) pride in government. Unlike most neoconservative intellectuals, however, McCain is intimately familiar with the bluntest edge of state-sponsored force. A McCain presidency would put legislative flesh on David Brooks’ fuzzy pre-9/11 notions of “grand aspiration,” deploying a virtuous federal bureaucracy to purify unclean private transactions from the boardroom to the bedroom. And it would prosecute the nation’s post-9/11 wars with a militaristic zeal this country hasn’t seen in generations.

And some think we have an "imperial president" now? What will a McCain (or Clinton, part deux) bring?