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Treason in Defense of Scientific Management

[ 133 ] November 1, 2013 |

I must admit that I don’t find this at all surprising:

Caitlin C. Rosenthal didn’t intend to write a book about slavery. She set out to tackle something much more mundane: the history of business practices. But when she started researching account books from the mid-1800s, a period of major economic development during the rise of industrialization in the United States, Rosenthal stumbled across an unexpected source of innovation.

Rosenthal, a Harvard-Newcomen Fellow in business history at Harvard Business School, found that southern plantation owners kept complex and meticulous records, measuring the productivity of their slaves and carefully monitoring their profits—often using even more sophisticated methods than manufacturers in the North. Several of the slave owners’ practices, such as incentivizing workers (in this case, to get them to pick more cotton) and depreciating their worth through the years, are widely used in business management today.

Though it appears this is all news to historians of business, historians of slavery have been pointing this out more or less since the 1970s. In an oft-cited 1973 article in the Journal of Economic History, R. Keith Aufhauser pointed out that the task system — usually regarded as less brutal than gang labor — enabled plantation overseers to calibrate particular jobs to the capabilities of particular slaves, and that the meager forms of autonomy available to the enslaved within the task system (e.g., small garden plots and other “rewards” for obedient labor) enabled managers to assert greater control over the enslaved. Historians since the 1970s pretty well demolished Eugene Genovese’s assertion slavery was a feudal anomaly within an emerging bourgeois capitalist economy, and I can’t think of any recent work on slavery that hasn’t emphasized slavery’s ruthless capitalist aspects. Then again, classic business histories like Alfred Chandler’s Visible Hand and Daniel Wren’s Evolution of Management Thought had utterly nothing to say about the genealogical relationship between slavery and scientific management, so I suppose it’s a promising sign that business historians like Rosenthal are finally catching up….


Today in “Wingnuts Reading Tweets”

[ 51 ] December 19, 2012 |

I’m just going to have to assume that in ordinary, grammatically complex conversations with actual human beings, these folks are simply unable to carry on for longer than five minutes without pissing themselves with rage.

So summarize:

  1. Joyce Carol Oates wonders NRA members might become outraged enough to support new gun laws if — using “if” in a first conditional clause —”sizable numbers” of them had their heads mounted on sticks experienced gun violence in their own lives.
  2. Marg Helgenberger notes — using the auxiliary modal “can” when she clearly meant to use the related auxiliary modal “could” — that we could “only hope” that if such unforeseen horrors were to actually transpire, experience might prove a tonic to ideology. As Adorno wrote once, “The splinter in your eye is the best microscope magnifying glass.”*


* Note: I am TOTALLY NOT calling for everyone to immediately begin stabbing NRA members in the eye.**

** OK, maybe I am just a little.***


[Added: And I neglected to mention that in Helgenberger’s tweet, she specifically concluded that NRA gang-bangers would be unswayed by experience. Thus, even if someone were to line them up, offer them a handful of cornmeal, and shoot them like old country mules, they would still advocate for unrestricted gun rights. So far from inciting violence, we have someone glumly noting that it would nevertheless serve no useful pedagogical aim. If, that is, someone were actually to demand blood. Which would, of course, be completely rude and irresponsible.]

The stupidest fucking thing you’ll read in the next five minutes

[ 47 ] December 14, 2012 |

Shorter Ace of Spades:

We could prevent mass shootings by laughing at the perpetrators’ tiny penises.

I’m not sure how many lobes of my brain I need to excise in order to understand this, but apparently what ails our national culture is a collective failure to ridicule people based on heterosexist fables about satisfying the wimmin. Remarkable.

No, Lincoln did not have a “secret plan” to liquidate slavery

[ 44 ] November 28, 2012 |

It’s probably not worth adding to Scott’s corrective observations on Connor Kilpatrick’s Jacobin post, but since I’m currently working on a manuscript about Lincoln in American fiction, I’m more or less helplessly drawn to the ways that Lincoln has been appropriated by historians as well as novelists and filmmakers for every conceivable political aim. As Donald Fehrenbacher once explained, “in the whole gamut of American politics, no reactionary is so blind, no revolutionary is so militant, no misfit so freakish that he cannot find a place in Abraham’s bosom.” So, for example, Thomas Dixon — author of the novels that inspired Griffith’s Birth of a Nation — wrote a hilariously unreadable novel asserting (in the 50th anniversary year of the Emancipation Proclamation, no less) that Lincoln was a lifelong white supremacist who would have either deported or segregated free blacks had he not been unwisely murdered. Kilpatrick’s regard for Lincoln, by comparison, is drawn from an extensive body of historical and imaginative literature arching back to the 1930s Popular Front that posed Lincoln as an instrument of class warfare — liquidating, as Kilpatrick notes, an enormous proportion of the nation’s wealth and presiding over the greatest social revolution in American history. (The “Red Lincoln” historiography survives today, in affectionate as well as neo-confederate varieties. Dixon’s white supremacist Lincoln has substantially less cultural vitality these days, at least so far as I’m able to tell.)

In any event, the “true” or “real” Lincoln is an elusive thing; he had, as one of his biographers noted, an “essential ambiguity” that makes him perpetually available for reinterpretation. So when someone insists, as Kilpatrick does, that Lincoln had a “secret plan” to abolish slavery when he entered the office in 1861, we have to wonder how he arrives at such a precise understanding of Lincoln’s motives. Kilpatrick quotes Lincoln as vowing that “the powder in this bombshell will keep dry and when the fuse is lit, I intend to have them [the South] touch it off themselves,” destroying slavery in the process.

The problem with this interpretation, of course, is the context for Lincoln’s words.

Read more…

The Wretched of the Earth

[ 79 ] November 13, 2012 |

Robert Barnwell Rhett would be embarrassed to learn that his self-parodying ideological heirs are, it seems, actually pleading with the Twelfth Imam to set them the fuck free already. The White House petitions — which you can read here — are just as faithful to the rhythms of grammatical and punctuational orthodoxy as you’d expect from people who can actually imagine an independent Kansan Republic. But for the love of Christ, these people could use some truth:

There’s only one way to be a first-class citizen. There’s only one way to be independent. There’s only one way to be free. It’s not something that someone gives to you. It’s something that you take. Nobody can give you independence. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything. If you’re a man, you take it. If you can’t take it, you don’t deserve it.

What do you say, people of Wyoming? It’s time to stop singing and start swinging.

(Now as for Alaskans, we’re a peaceful people who believe in fair dealing and compromise, and we’re not beyond politely asking for stuff. In that spirit, my students crafted this during tonight’s session, and we’re optimistic that it will receive a proper hearing.)

The gift that keeps on giving…

[ 31 ] September 20, 2012 |

Holy shit, can this presidential campaign please go on forever? Please don’t ever stop, Mitt. Please.

Meantime, Willard should take Bing Crosby’s lead and prove he’s really an heir to the Party of Lincoln.

Oh, God.

[ 67 ] September 5, 2012 |

Paul Ryan, among many others, is evidently dismayed that the 2012 Democratic Party platform has performed a third-trimester abortion on Baby Jesus, whereas the GOP platform has been cleverly inscribed on a tortilla miraculously bearing the toasted image of the Virgin Mary.

For shits, I devoted a needlessly long chunk of time this morning reviewing the archive of party platforms available through the invaluable American Presidency Project, and — well — here you go:

A few observations:

  1. The 2012 GOP platform is a total outlier, presumably designed to intimidate the Saracen hordes biding their time for Obama’s re-election.
  2. Judging entirely by the text of its platforms — for by their words, or works, or whatever, ye shall know them — the party clearly had no use for God from its founding through the 1960s. By my sophisticated calculations, the godlessness of the Republicans from 1856-1956 likely accounts for the successful passage of 93 percent of Progressive Era legislation and 97 percent of the New Deal.
  3. I have new-found, albeit limited, appreciation for the Nixon-era GOP.
  4. How did Reagan manage to win in 1980 with 66 percent less Jeebus than 1976?
  5. How did Bush manage to win in 2000 with 75 percent less Jeebus than 1996?
  6. I don’t know what that weird green dash is to the right of the graph, but fuck it! I made a graph!


UPDATE: Here’s another meaningless graph:

“So, professor: Would you say it’s time for everyone to panic?”

[ 8 ] July 24, 2012 |

Yes I would, Kent.

When the rat-muscled cyborg jellyfish rise up and devour your loved ones, you can thank me for at least trying to sound the alarm.

“I pity the poor in bondage that have none to help them: that is why I am here”

[ 79 ] July 13, 2012 |

I was sitting in a Juneau bar last night when Loomis messaged me about this absurdity by Arthur Herman, who currently appears to be packing away the silver cutlery in anticipation of the nation’s “Coming Civil War,” an irrepressible conflict to be staged between the “Makers” and Mudsills “Takers.” (And you, dear reader, are probably a Taker.) Herman’s article is for the most part a boneyard of conservative grievances about unions, welfare, and the mistreatment of the job creators, whose staggering wealth just barely compensates for the love and appreciation we cruelly withhold from them. He also goes to the predictable trouble of goofing up his numbers, insisting that 48 percent of Americans “are now on some form of government handout” when in fact the data actually show that half of all households have one or more individuals receiving cash payments, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare or Social Security.

But so far as the Civil War analogies go, Herman really distinguishes himself from the field of contemporary Republican lamentations. He’s no Paul LePage, but he does conclude, after wise and patient study of 20th and 21st century economic and sociological data, that “we’re a house divided again and another civil war is coming, with the 2012 election as its Gettysburg.” Which apparently means that while the war is “coming” — as in “not yet started” — we’re about to wage one of its decisive battles. So if I follow him properly, either the Makers or the Takers are about to invade (probably figuratively) the other’s territory, organize a poorly-conceived (and also likely figurative) charge up a vital hill, and get mowed down enormously before they’re allowed to withdraw and continue the fight for another two years. (That last part is probably literal. People really want their food stamps and subsidized student loans.)

Since I can’t imagine that Herman envisions the Makers losing or abandoning the struggle — and since he approvingly quotes (and misquotes) Abraham Lincoln — I’m supposing he sees the Makers carrying on the spirit of the Union. You know, like raising income taxes on the wealthy, subsidizing massive railroad and other public works projects, and essentially giving away hundreds of millions of acres to ranchers, miners, farmers, and . . . well, just read the Ryan Budget, and you’ll see that it’s pretty much the same thing. And since Republicans are constantly accusing liberals of keeping (blah) people enslaved rather than setting them loose into the splendor of the Northern textile mills, stockyards and iron foundries, we’re obviously wearing Confederate grey in this scenario, destined to lose the war of attrition the 53 Percenters have in store for us. (Don’t despair, though. In fifty years, the history books will be telling our side of the story. Long march through the institutions, motherfuckers!)

And yet Herman also wants the Makers to identify with the terror endured, circa 1859, by the Southern master class in the face of dangerous liberty fanatics and their Big Government abettors. “Like John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry,” Herman warns, “Obamacare has been a wakeup call to what’s at stake — just as the turbulent events in Wisconsin showed how far Democrats are willing to go to win.” Indeed. If you can’t spy the similarities between (a) early 1990s Republican health care policy suggestions, (b) perfectly legal, if rare, procedures to unseat elected officials, and (c) messianic plots to foment servile insurrection and carry out a protracted Appalachian guerrilla war, then you’re clearly not paying attention to the signs of the times. Much as Jefferson Davis decried the Brown escapade as “the invasion of a state by a murderous gang of abolitionists bent on inciting slaves to murder helpless women and children,” Republican governors like Jindal, Perry and Scott are answering the call of history and making sure helpless women and children aren’t violated by preventive checkups, tuberculosis vaccinations, or prenatal testing. Or maybe it’s more like George Wallace a century later, only with primary care clinics instead of Foster Auditorium. I don’t know. History is hard.

Nevertheless, Herman assures us that the “angels of our better nature [sic]” might yet prevail. “We’re not Greece yet — or on the brink of Bull Run.” (Um. Aren’t we about to fight Gettysburg?) But we can apparently “make a house divided whole once more” by electing the States’ Rights guy instead of the Free Stuff guy. What a relief.

Not likely as bad as Bill O’Reilly’s book, but still…

[ 140 ] July 10, 2012 |

this novel by Stephen L. Carter sounds horrendous.

. . . Carter, now a best-selling novelist, nonfiction author and professor at Yale Law School, has his own shelf of [Lincoln] books (including the [Carl] Sandburg tome, which remains a favorite) about Lincoln, whom he still regards as America’s greatest president. This week, that shelf will get a new addition: “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln,” an alternate-history legal thriller in which the president survives the attack at Ford’s Theatre only to face reprisals in Congress for what his political enemies describe as high crimes in his handling of the war: suspending habeas corpus (the principle that someone under arrest can’t be held for long without being brought before a judge), shutting down opposition newspapers and, most ominous of all, conspiring to establish a military government in the District of Columbia.

Perhaps I’m just not a fan of counter-factual historical fiction, but if you’re going to do it, you might as well start with a premise that’s even remotely plausible. I don’t know who exactly Carter has numbered among Lincoln’s “political enemies,” but it was almost universally the case that no one except Confederates and Northern Copperheads groaned for more than a moment about the extra-constitutionality of Lincoln’s policies; whether or not the limited, temporary suspension of habeas rights was a good idea, the fact remains that Congress later gave Lincoln precisely the authority he had sought at the war’s outset. And that Congress — which approved the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act by overwhelming majorities in 1863 — would be succeeded by an even more predominantly Republican assembly following the elections of 1864. This, Carter seems to want his readers to believe, would have been the Congress to initiate impeachment proceedings against a President recuperating from a pistol shot to the head. Weird.

It sounds as if at least a few of Carter’s villains are also drawn from the radical wing of Lincoln’s own party — folks like Benjamin Wade and Henry Davis, whose reconstruction bill Lincoln had pocket-vetoed in the summer of 1864 and who supported the third-party candidacy of John Frémont because they believed Lincoln was insufficiently aggressive along a variety of fronts — but that would make even less sense. About all Lincoln needed to do to bring the dissenters around was to boot Montgomery Blair from the Post Office in September 1864. Though it’s certainly true that many fellow Republicans viewed his preliminary thoughts on Reconstruction to be overly gentle toward the South, it’s also pretty clear that Lincoln was, at the time of his death, well to the left of the party median on crucial issues like black civil rights (including suffrage). The fantasy that Lincoln, had he lived, would have been “generous” and “friendly” toward the South eventually became a staple of Confederate and New South mythology before seeping into the mainstream of Lincoln memory, where it continues to reside. Given the trajectory of his philosophy and policy toward slavery and racial justice, I think it’s more likely that Lincoln would have followed a course similar to Ulysses S. Grant, whose rather quickly gave up his naive faith that Southern whites would acquiesce to the postwar order. By 1870, he was using the newly-created Department of Justice to chase down the Klan in South Carolina, and I’m sure Lincoln would have been cheering him along. (It sounds as if Carter in fact understands this about Lincoln, but it also doesn’t sound like this keeps him from imagining that the radicals would have hated him anyway.)

Likewise, the image of Lincoln as a solitary figure, a voice of nobility and unappreciated bipartisan reason surrounded by idiots, purchased men and conspirators, is also boring and absurd. Lincoln was an ingenious politician who had been a devoted Whig and a devoted Republican, and he valued unity enough that I can’t imagine a scenario in which he’d lose influence over the various factions within his own party. But for some reason, Americans have always loved Sad Lincoln, eating a sandwich on a lonely park bench, abandoned by everyone but a grateful posterity. Carter’s novel seems to be animated by this same narrative, which (like Gentle Lincoln) also has its roots in early-20th century reconciliationist bullshit, which had everything to do with pretending that the war had nothing to do with emancipating black people and redrafting the terms of citizenship in a world without slaves. By surrounding Lincoln with enemies of every party affiliation and every ideological orientation, Americans allowed themselves to pretend that everyone but Lincoln — and certainly not the slave-holding and slavery-supporting South alone — shared blame for the war. Perversely enough, Lincoln memory eventually became an alibi for national amnesia about the war’s origins, costs and consequences.

Now, I obviously have no idea whether Carter’s portrayal of Lincoln is as bad as I’m imagining it is. (I recently finished an essay on Lincoln in the imagination of Southern white supremacists like Thomas Dixon, so I’m certain that I’ve read worse.) But he seems to be relying on some pretty obvious, durable cliches about Lincoln, which makes me think the book doesn’t deserve the attention it’s receiving this week. Then again, since Lincoln in literature is apparently my thing now, I suppose I’ll have to read it and find out. If I’m wrong, you’ll hear back from me in, like, six months. Or whatever.

So the goblins came

[ 26 ] May 8, 2012 |

If you were looking for a reason to crawl inside a dark hole today, Maurice Sendak’s death should do nicely. And if that doesn’t work, read or listen to his interview with Terry Gross last December. You’re welcome.

Beyond Where the Wild Things Are, I don’t believe I encountered much of his work as a child — apparently, I preferred motivational pablum like The Little Engine That Could — but parenthood has given me the chance to spend a lot of time in Sendak’s world, and if I’m grateful to my kids for nothing else, it’s that. Outside Over There — inspired partly by the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh, Jr. — has become my favorite of his books, and not by a thin margin. Without giving away too much, the story is essentially about an young girl named Ida who is charged with rescuing her baby sister from a pack of goblins who’ve carted her away for some nefarious matrimonial purpose. With her father off at sea and her mother stricken with immobilizing grief, Ida is entirely responsible for her sister’s fate. In an odd way, I love this book for some of the same reasons I love Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (two books that I’m not sure have ever been mentioned in the same sentence): As a parent, I want desperately to know that my kids will be OK when I’m not there, either for the moment or forever. The horror of it all is that I’ll never really know, but Sendak helped reassure me that it will all somehow work out.

Meantime, Dick Cheney’s stolen heart continues to serve its dark, illegitimate master. RIP.

Klosterman at his upmost Klostermaniest

[ 167 ] April 24, 2012 |

This is more Scott’s beat than mine, but evidently Chuck Klosterman — the nitwit who couldn’t spend 30 minutes or so actually listening to a tUnE-yArDs album (“wow, their lyrics are hard to decipher, and Merrill Garbus was a puppeteer once, and she looks androgynous, and that makes me feel funny in my tummy”) — is now willing to engage in an entire evening of urban anthropology to discern the mystery of Creed and Nickelback. It’s not quite Slate-level cultural contrarianism, but there’s a root ancestor there somewhere.

The day before the New York show, Kroeger appeared on a Philadelphia radio station4 and was asked (of course) why people hate Nickelback so vehemently. “Because we’re not hipsters,” he replied. It’s a reasonable answer, but not really accurate — the only thing hipsters unilaterally loathe is other hipsters, so Nickelback’s shorthaired unhipness should theoretically play to their advantage. A better answer as to why people dislike Nickelback is tautological: They hate them because they hate them. Sometimes it’s fun to hate things arbitrarily, and Nickelback has become an acceptable thing to hate. They’re technically rich and technically famous, so they just have to absorb the denigration and insist they don’t care. They have good songs and they have bad songs, and the bad songs are bad enough to build an anti-Nickelback argument, assuming you feel like that’s important. But it’s never required. It’s not like anyone is going to contradict your thesis. There’s no risk in hating Nickelback, and hating something always feels better than feeling nothing at all.

Oh, sweet suckling Jesus, do fuck off now.

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