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Culture Wars and Studying History (II)

[ 128 ] February 19, 2015 |

Abe_simpson

Gordon Wood is an esteemed historian of the American Revolution. He’s probably most famous for The Radicalism of the American Revolution, which was popular but not universally acclaimed due to the fact that the American Revolution was primarily radical only if you accept Gordon Wood’s rather stretched definition of the word “radical.” That Wood’s version of radicalism does not include black people or Native Americans or women or hardly anyone but elite white men is, to say the least, problematic. But Wood publishes widely, frequently writing long reviews of new books on the Revolution and Constitution in the New York Review of Books, editing volumes on the American Revolution for the Library of America, and contributing to many other elite publications.

Wood has found a new publishing outlet and that is The Weekly Standard. His discussion of his dissertation advisor Bernard Bailyn is little more than a cranky old white man screed against how new generations of historians talk about the past. He has a litany of complaints–too much race! too much gender! too much other countries! not enough big stories! historians trying to use the past for social change!–that for whatever merit (and I don’t think the complaints have much merit at all) they might have, basically come down to Gordon Wood believing the solution to these problems is seeing the past and writing about the past precisely in the way Gordon Wood sees the past and writes about the past. To say this is an unfortunate essay is a severe understatement.

Let’s break down a few passages here to elucidate the points.

In one of his essays, Bailyn quotes Isaiah Berlin’s reactions to American universities and American students during his visit to Harvard in the late 1940s. In contrast to Oxbridge, said Berlin, America’s universities and students were “painfully aware of the social and economic miseries of their society.” They found it hard to justify studying, say, the early Greek epic while the poor went hungry and blacks were denied fundamental rights. How, Berlin wondered, could disinterested scholarship, disinterested history-writing, flourish in such morally painful circumstances?

Nearly 70 years later, it has gotten worse. College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.

How can we write about history if we care about inequality! Don’t we know that inequality doesn’t have a history worth writing about!?!

And note that the “whole of the nation’s past” does not include race or gender; rather such subjects are the enemy of telling that whole. The whole of the nation’s past is the kind of big sweeping story of American elites that Gordon Wood writes about.

But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be. That kind of narrative history of the nation, they say, is not only inherently triumphalist but has a teleological bias built into it. Those who write narrative histories necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome, and that, the moral critics believe, is bound to glorify the nation. So instead of writing full-scale narrative histories, the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past.

Yes, writing about race and gender comes from historians who are no longer interested in how the United States came to be. Because what could be relevant about race and gender in understanding this question? Now, Wood is defining “how the United States came to be” in a very specific way, i.e., the political, economic, and military decisions that literally created the United States during the Revolutionary and Constitutional periods. Once again, Wood completely dismisses the inequalities of that generation as essentially irrelevant for answering this question, instead saying that those who study those issues are telling “fragmentary and essentially anachronistic” stories. Yet one could easily lob the same charge as Wood for also telling a fragmentary, if not necessarily anachronistic, story that because historians “necessarily have to choose and assign significance to events in terms of a known outcome,” which counter to what Wood seems thinks, every single historian has to do. In his case, those choices have led him to ignore inequality and oppression entirely.

Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being.

This is of course ridiculous. It is entirely possible to tell a big narrative history centering the treatment of women, Native Americans, and slaves. It is not hard at all to create a coherent national narrative that centers on racism. That the United States is and always has been a white supremacist nation despite efforts by many people, including whites, to change that, is in fact a compelling national narrative. I will also remind Wood of one Howard Zinn, who certainly wrote a coherent national narrative that a lot of people love. That history might not celebrate America though–and that’s Wood’s problem with it

For many of them, the United States is no longer the focus of interest. Under the influence of the burgeoning subject of Atlantic history, which Bailyn’s International Seminar on the Atlantic World greatly encouraged, the boundaries of the colonial period of America have become mushy and indistinct. The William and Mary Quarterly, the principal journal in early American history, now publishes articles on mestizos in 16th-century colonial Peru, patriarchal rule in post-revolutionary Montreal, the early life of Toussaint Louverture, and slaves in 16th-century Castile. The journal no longer concentrates exclusively on the origins of the United States. Without some kind of historical GPS, it is in danger of losing its way.

Someone get the fainting couch. The leading journal in U.S. colonial history and many historians of the period have now realized that the United States doesn’t exist in a vacuum and that the rest of the world exists. Somehow this is a problem for Wood. Having not read the William and Mary Quarterly for a decade, I have to say that if these are the types of essays it is publishing, I may have to start reading it.

The essay, and Gordon Wood’s positions and writing more broadly, have led to several other good (and disparate) discussions. L.D. Burnett places Wood’s argument in the context of the decline of the academy and pokes fun at John Fea’s plea for all the lefty historians to quit making fun of Wood. Michael Hattam, in a piece on Wood that came out last month, discusses the historiographical transformations of the study of early America and notes that Wood is wrong that no one talks about political elites anymore–they just don’t talk about them in the glowing and often uncritical terms Wood can resort to. Instead, those elites are placed in the broader context of all the other people in the nation Wood never discusses. Eran Zelnik completely dismisses Wood’s complaints about presentism, noting correctly that everyone is a presentist and none more so than those who claim not to be since they are usually comfortable with the inequalities of society. The consensus historians of the postwar period loved the mantle of objectivity, but they were as influenced by their times as anyone else. Zelnik writes:

If Wood had done that—had he told us that above all else he wants American history to uphold the current balance of power in the US by creating awe inspiring origin narratives—we would have had a much more interesting discussion. Instead, Wood seeks to throw sand in our eyes, and because our contemporary academic discourse does not allow us to assert that the present is and was the bottomline of any history that was ever written, we cannot have the kind of argument we should be having—a very political one.

Indeed. And I don’t think these questions of objectivity and taking passionate positions is something younger generations of historians really worry about. What power Wood has is not over the trajectory of American historiography today. His work is respected, but is not the only interpretation of the period that matters. His power is in reinforcing right-wing complaints about the study of history that we see in the Texas high school textbook debate or Oklahoma’s anti-Advanced Placement US History test bill. It’s within a broader national debate over whether we should celebrate the nation’s past or criticize it (of course, most professional historians do both but that’s not how conservatives see it). That such a famous and well-respected historian is contributing negatively to these issues is, well, sad.

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Washington and Lee Law School cuts salaries, downsizes faculty and staff, invades corpus of endowment

[ 39 ] February 19, 2015 |

From the university’s web site:

Beginning with the 2015-16 academic year, the school will enroll entering 1L classes of about 100 students, resulting in a full-time student body of about 300. For comparison’s sake, the current law school student body is 374 and includes the largest third-year class in school history. The Class of 2017, which entered last fall, had 101 members.

Tuition will increase at an annual rate of 2 percent per year.

Financial aid, which will continue to be allocated beyond historical norms, will gradually return to sustainable levels after a transition period.

In October 2014, the Board of Trustees authorized an increase in the payout from the law school’s endowment income to 7.5 percent through 2017-18. This will add about $3 million to the law school budget in 2015-16.

The goal for the Law School Annual Fund, which provides unrestricted operating funds, has been increased to $1.5 million for 2014-15.

The current student-faculty ratio (9:1) will be preserved, but with smaller enrollments the allocation for faculty compensation will be reduced by about 20 percent (equivalent to six positions) and will be achieved through attrition over the four-year period. In addition, some senior faculty salaries will have a one-time salary reduction of 2 percent with salaries frozen for all faculty during the three-year period.

Six administrative and staff positions will be reduced over a five-year period, and there will also be budget reductions for visiting and adjunct faculty.

Operating budgets will be reduced by 10 percent in 2015-16 with the exception of the library budget, which will grow by 2 percent.

Although the financial model currently shows operating deficits for 2014-15 through 2017-18, the law school budget is projected to be back in balance by the 2018-19 academic year.

Prior to last year, the school’s total JD enrollment was consistently between 390-405 JD students, so this plan represents about a 25% reduction in the student body relative to historical norms.

W&L got a lot of good press a few years ago for transforming their third year of law school into an “experiential” externship-based program. The program didn’t result in more jobs for their graduates, however, and now the school’s central administration is bringing down the budget hammer.

Similar stories are now playing out all over legal academia.

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Cato Comedy Classics

[ 108 ] February 19, 2015 |

So what’s the funniest thing about this?

  • The fact that former Cato interns wanted no part of the troofer lawsuit;
  • The title implying that Politico hacked into Cannon’s email, rather than the massively more likely possibility that the email was provided by one of the recipients, or
  • Cannon complaining about the Cato institute being described as “right-leaning.”

I’d say they’re all winners.  Like any great comedy routine, the elements build on each other.

[Via here and here.]

…thanks to Malaclypse in comments, LGM can offer as a worldwide exclusive the text of Cannon’s letter:

REQUEST FOR URGENT LEGAL RELATIONSHIP

FIRST, I MUST SOLICIT YOUR STRICTEST CONFIDENCE IN THIS TRANSACTION. THIS IS BY VIRTUE OF ITS NATURE AS BEING UTTERLY CONFIDENTIAL AND ‘TOP SECRET’. I AM SURE AND HAVE CONFIDENCE OF YOUR ABILITY AND RELIABILITY TO PROSECUTE A TRANSACTION OF THIS GREAT MAGNITUDE INVOLVING A PENDING TRANSACTION REQUIRING MAXIIMUM CONFIDENCE. FEEL FREE TO FORWARD THIS E-MAIL TO OTHERS WHO MAY BE INTERESTED, JUST NOT THOSE FUCKERS AT POLITICO.

WE ARE TOP OFFICIAL OF TOTALLY NONPARTISAN THINKS TANK WHO ARE INTERESTED IN STOPPING ISLAMO-SOCIALISH SHARIA HEALTH CARE LAW. IN ORDER TO COMMENCE THIS BUSINESS WE SOLICIT YOUR ASSISTANCE TO ENABLE US TRANSFER INTO YOUR ACCOUNT THE SAID TRAPPED HEALTH CARE.

WE ARE LOOKING FORWARD TO DOING THIS BUSINESS WITH YOU AND SOLICIT YOUR CONFIDENTIALITY IN THIS TRANSATION. PLEASE ACKNOWLEDGE THE RECEIPT OF THIS LETTER USING THE ABOVE TEL/FAX NUMBERS. I WILL SEND YOU DETAILED INFORMATION OF THIS PENDING PROJECT WHEN I HAVE HEARD FROM YOU.

YOURS FAITHFULLY,

MICHAEL F CANNON

…a very useful follow-up from Richard Mayhew. 

 

 

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Mercy Mercy Jerome Kersey

[ 5 ] February 19, 2015 |

This is tragic:

 Jerome Kersey, a fan favorite during his decade-plus career with thePortland Trail Blazers and a veteran of 17 NBA seasons, died Wednesday. He was 52.

The Trail Blazers confirmed that Kersey had died but didn’t provide details. A team ambassador, Kersey appeared Tuesday with fellow former Blazers Terry Porter and Brian Grant at Madison High School in Portland in celebration of African American History Month.

“Today we lost an incredible person and one of the most beloved players to ever wear a Trail Blazers uniform,” Blazers owner Paul Allen said in a statement. “My thoughts and condolences are with the Kersey family. He will be missed by all of us. It’s a terrible loss.”

Like most of the rest of the players from his era, Jerome Kersey was an important figure in the Portland sports and social scene. By all accounts he was an incredibly nice guy, generous with time and money. It’s particularly tragic given that we’ve now lost 2/5ths of the great 1990-1992 team, way, way too young.

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David Frum wants to know why a gift to the Clinton Foundation isn’t a bribe to the current Secretary of State

[ 144 ] February 19, 2015 |

Ah the charms of Twitter-level analysis:

In what way were gifts to Clinton Foundation not a gigantic bribe to a serving Secretary of State & highly likely future president?

. . . oh wait, this has already been topped in this 24-hour cycle’s race for most ridiculous statement by a Prominent Conservative:

Rudy Giuliani went straight for the jugular Wednesday night during a private group dinner here featuring Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker by openly questioning whether President Barack Obama “loves America.”

The former New York mayor, speaking in front of the 2016 Republican presidential contender and about 60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types, directly challenged Obama’s patriotism, discussing what he called weak foreign policy decisions and questionable public remarks when confronting terrorists.

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

With Walker sitting just a few seats away, Giuliani continued by saying that “with all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out.”

The day is young.

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Game of Thrones podcast: Season 1, Episode 10 — “Fire and Blood”

[ 2 ] February 19, 2015 |

Two podcasts in two days? Aren’t you lucky?

Here are the links Steven discusses in this podcast:

  • Bran VII (Bran’s dream and the Kings of Winter)
  • Sansa VI (the final deconstruction, Joffrey the childish psychopath, what if she pushed him)
  • Catelyn XI (the King in the North)
  • Tyrion IX (the Lannister position after the Battle of the Camps, Tyrion made acting Hand)
  • Dany IX (the case against Mirri Maz Dur, waking the dragon, the prophecy)
  • Jon IX (Jon’s choice, Mormont’s critique of fantasy)
  • Dany X (the music of dragons)
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Pullman

[ 26 ] February 19, 2015 |

As I have urged for some time, President Obama will be naming the Pullman site a national monument today. This is a great thing for those who are interested in remembering both American labor history and African-American history. There is such great potential for this site. It is home of the classic 1894 Pullman strike as well as the amazing union the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters which, led by A. Philip Randolph, became one of the most important civil rights and labor rights organizations in the United States during the 1930s and 1940s.

Obama will also be declaring a Japanese internment camp site in Hawaii and a beautiful canyon in Colorado national monuments as well. Very glad for both of these as well, although the Japanese-American experience is in fact more than just concentration camp sites, of which multiple already have federally protected status.

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Please Drive Carefully

[ 16 ] February 18, 2015 |

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Rita Hayworth gives up her car bumpers to support the war effort in World War II.

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Think Local!

[ 14 ] February 18, 2015 |

Why won’t Obama just let local cops do their job, especially when they seem to understand their job as the enforcement of a nasty system of racial inequality?

The Justice Department is preparing to bring a lawsuit against the Ferguson, Missouri, police department over a pattern of racially discriminatory tactics used by officers, if the police department does not agree to make changes on its own, sources tell CNN.

Attorney General Eric Holder said this week he expects to announce the results of the department’s investigation of the shooting death of Michael Brown and a broader probe of the Ferguson Police Department before he leaves office in the coming weeks.

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So This is How Far We’ve Fallen

[ 55 ] February 18, 2015 |

Classes at the University of Kentucky have now been cancelled four out of five days this week.

It’s the first time in over a decade that classes have been cancelled two days in a row. Frankly, there’s no way that President Mitt Romney would have allowed this on his watch.

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What the Trans-Pacific Partnership Is Really About

[ 6 ] February 18, 2015 |

Robert Reich understands that the Trans-Pacific Partnership really isn’t about trade, which is already very free and open. It’s about corporate control over the world:

Recent trade agreements have been wins for big corporations and Wall Street, along with their executives and major shareholders. They get better access to foreign markets and billions of consumers.

They also get better protection for their intellectual property — patents, trademarks, and copyrights. And for their overseas factories, equipment, and financial assets.

But those deals haven’t been wins for most Americans.

The fact is, trade agreements are no longer really about trade. Worldwide tariffs are already low. Big American corporations no longer make many products in the United States for export abroad.

The biggest things big American corporations sell overseas are ideas, designs, franchises, brands, engineering solutions, instructions, and software.

And thus the TPP really is about intellectual copyright, patents, and trademarks. It’s also about ensuring the global race to the bottom and increasing the profits for the 1 percent at the expense of the rest of world. It’s unfortunate that President Obama actually believes this is a good thing. Hopefully, enough Republicans just don’t want to give Obama any victory at all that this doesn’t pass Congress. Corporations don’t need more power over our lives.

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Israel Is Not Only Acted Upon. It Acts Upon Others

[ 94 ] February 18, 2015 |

Peter Beinart’s article bemoaning what has become of Elie Wiesel and his blind defense of right-wing Israeli policy toward the Middle East is right on the money.

But the deeper problem with Wiesel’s letter is the one Hertzberg identified three decades ago: Wiesel is acutely, and understandably, sensitive to the harm Jews suffer. Yet he is largely blind to the harm Jews cause. In his open letter, Wiesel notes that the Iranian threat is particularly vivid now because Jews will soon celebrate Purim, when they read about “a wicked man in Persia named Haman” who tried to “annihilate, murder and destroy the Jews.” But on Purim Jews also read about what happens after Haman’s fall from power, when Persia’s Jews “with the stroke of the sword, and slaughter, and destruction… slew of their foes seventy and five thousand.”

If the Book of Esther offers a haunting warning of the violence Jews can suffer, why does it not also warn us of the violence Jews can inflict? And if Wiesel is so alarmed by threats of nuclear annihilation, why does he keep embracing his former patron Sheldon Adelson, who in 2013 urged the United States to drop an “atomic weapon” in the Iranian desert, and then, if the Iranians don’t halt their nuclear program, drop one “in the middle of Tehran” so the Iranians are “wiped out.”

This tendency to whitewash Jewish behavior is a feature of Wiesel’s previous statements on Israel too. In 2010, when the Obama and Netanyahu governments tussled over settlement growth in East Jerusalem, Wiesel wrote a public letter celebrating Jewish control over Jerusalem because “for the first time in history, Jews, Christians and Muslims all may freely worship at their shrines. And, contrary to certain media reports, Jews, Christians and Muslims ARE allowed to build their homes anywhere in the city.”

Wiesel’s motivations for believing the best about Jewish control of the holy city may have been commendable. But his claims were blatantly untrue. In a detailed rebuttal, Daniel Seidemann, a lawyer specializing in Jerusalem land claims, noted that one-third of East Jerusalem and almost all of West Jerusalem is “state land,” available for residence only to Israeli citizens and Diaspora Jews eligible to become Israeli citizens. And since the “Palestinians of East Jerusalem, with rare exception, are in neither of these categories…Wiesel may purchase a home anywhere in East or West Jerusalem, [but] a Palestinian cannot.” Seidemann also dismantled Wiesel’s claims about religious access, noting that, “due to Israeli restrictions, today it is easier for a Palestinian Christian living just south of Jerusalem in Bethlehem to worship in Washington’s National Cathedral than to pray in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Today a Muslim living in Turkey has a better chance of getting to Jerusalem to pray at the Old City’s Al-Aqsa mosque than a Muslim living a few miles away in Ramallah.”

Again and again, Wiesel takes refuge in the Israel of his imagination, using it to block out the painful reckoning that might come from scrutinizing Israel as it actually is. “I can’t believe that Israeli soldiers murdered people or shot children. It just can’t be,” Wiesel said in 2010. But these are not questions of faith. Israel is a decent country composed of decent young men and women who, in the West Bank, are obliged to police people who lack basic rights. And in such circumstances, decent people do indecent things. “We are making the lives of millions unbearable,” declares one former Shin Bet head, Carmi Gillon, in the film “The Gatekeepers.” In the West Bank, Israel has become “a brutal occupation force,” notes another, Avraham Shalom. A third, Yuval Diskin, calls the occupation a “colonial regime.” These men don’t hate Israel; they have dedicated their lives to protecting it. But unlike Wiesel, they are discussing the real Israel, not the one they have constructed in their minds.

Really, it’s just sad to see a once heroic and great person fall into such reflexive defense of injustice.

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