Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Importance of Questions

Today’s topic in my historiography class was supposed to be causation – why does stuff happen? But we got astray, because the chapter on causation in our textbook started off with a riff on the importance of questions, which led to a discussion of bias. Most people think of bias as someone having an axe to grind or some product to sell. We see it every day, from politicians to advertisers. We think ourselves pretty savvy, snickering at the blurbs on movie ads from reviewers no one has ever heard of, sneering at the half-truths from the politicians we love to hate. But seeing bias on that level is trivial – any five year old can spot the obvious stuff.

I routinely get book reviews from students telling me that the author was “objective and unbiased.” What they mean is that the author was measured in tone, neither praising the subject at hand to high heavens nor demanding its damnation. Most scholarly authors of course don’t do that – we got that beaten out of us in grad school. But bias very much remains. The place where bias is most influential is not in our adjectives but in our questions. It is when we decide what to write about, what to research, what questions to ask, that our presuppositions become clear. If I bother to write a book called Religion in America, I am asserting that religion in America is important and worth researching. You may say that of course it is, but note I have not written a book called Atheism in America, or Humanism in America. Indeed, Prentice Hall publishes a textbook called Religion in America – there is no corresponding title on atheism (PZ Meyers might want to look into that).

So if you really want to know where bias lies in academic or journalistic circles, don’t just look at what is written, think also about what is not written. Frank Rich’s new book, The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth From 9/11 to Katrina makes exactly this point. In the run up to the Iraq war, the information was out there that the intelligence for WMDs in Iraq was weak and shoddy. Most of the media, the Knight-Ridder papers being an exception, just weren’t asking the right questions. Indeed, the White House was in the same boat. They focused on asking what evidence there was for WMDs in Iraq, and vacuumed up every scrap they could find. They didn’t ask the opposite question - what evidence is there against the existence of WMDs in Iraq? This is how the CIA got caught flatfooted by the collapse of the Soviet Union – our agents and analysts studied the ways the USSR was powerful and dangerous, not the ways in which it was a house of cards. Once again we didn’t ask the right questions. Please, before we start bombing Iran, could somebody start asking the right ones?

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How Should Historians Read Blogs?

When I started this blog, one of the things I wanted to do was to think about blogs from an historian’s point of view. I’ve been doing some of that, but it’s more difficult than I first thought. Part of this is because of the sheer diversity of the form, something like trying to write about post-it notes from an historian’s point of view. More directly, though, there is the newness of the form. For older genres, there are techniques and strategies well-established for dissecting this text or that text. How to read a newspaper, a diplomatic telegram, an almanac, or a president’s letters – these are all topics well understood and much experienced by working historians.

Blogs resemble journals or diaries on one level, newspapers on another, but are clearly neither. For those kinds of texts, I already know how to approach them. With a newspaper, there are several things I know as a researcher. I know, for example, how newspapers are produced and why (something, of course, that is different in different time periods). I know never to confuse the thinking and the knowledge of the newspaper with that of its audience. I know there are certain questions I have to ask. What kind of ideological position does the op-ed page take? What kind of wall exists between the op-ed page and the news section? What kind of wall exists between the reporters and the advertising sales reps? Who is the target audience? One of the most important things to know about diaries is that, despite what most people think, diaries are meant to be read, and should never be thought of as uncensored stream of consciousness from the soul of the author. So one question to ask with a diary – who did the diarist expect was going to read this? What did they expect to achieve by having that person or audience read their diary?

But blogs? What are the rules for an historian reading a blog? What are the questions to ask? I imagine that the first impulse of most historians will be to treat blogs primarily as diaries. But there are some serious issues with this. Diaries do not usually reach an audience immediately upon being written, entry upon entry. Diaries are not (usually) interactive. Nor do diaries have web links, and thus do not have dead web links either (something that will definitely drive future researchers bananas). Unless the diarist is a person of prominence, most people do not expect a particularly large audience for their diary. Most diarists also expect to be able to control who reads their diary, at least in their own lifetimes. Blogs are not diaires.

Anyway, I’m still thinking barley formed thoughts about this. More poorly thought out posts on this subject to come.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

The Answer to Nuclear Terror is Not Torture

If you want to be frightened, read this article, which outlines quite succinctly the danger of nuclear terrorism. The good news is it can be stopped. Securing the sites where nuclear weapons are held and where bomb-capable uranium and plutonium is found is a project within our grasp. The bad news is our president is George W. Bush, leader of the Republicans. The plan that Graham Allison outlines is doable. It involves a fair amount of spending on security upgrades, heavy lifting on diplomacy with the states that already have nuclear weapons, and even more difficult diplomatic work on the questions of Korea and Iran. Of course, this is not an issue that the Republicans and Bush have taken very seriously since Bush came to the White House. The very first budget proposal Bush sent to Congress requested a deep cut in the Nunn-Lugar program, which mainly spends money to help Russia secure its nuclear programs from theft and terrorism, and to dismantle facilities and weapons. The Bush Administration also immediately upon coming to power adopted a confrontational stance with Korea that has gone absolutely nowhere – indeed, North Korea is a far more serious nuclear threat now than it was six years ago. And to top it off, Bush’ preposterously mismanaged war in Iraq has left Iran more powerful, emboldened, and a whole lot harder to deal with. The fact that it is swimming in oil money, something helped along by Bush’s lack of commitment to reducing our dependence on oil, is icing on the cake.

And diplomacy? Bush is depending on our ability to torture enough terror suspects so that if someone out there is planning an attack, we can stop them before they push the button. I suppose he imagines himself as George Clooney romping around with Nicole Kidman in The Peacemaker. I’d rather not wait on just-in-time heroics. Diplomacy and high tech security measures are not sexy. They don’t let you swagger around like John Wayne and don’t make much for heroic sound bites. But the best path to preventing terrorists from setting off a nuclear bomb in the United States is to make sure that every weapon and every pound of fissile material is accounted for and secure. That takes a lot of very difficult diplomacy, and I don’t trust this Bush to do it.

Friday, September 15, 2006

In Which I Go Out on a Limb, and Oppose Evil

A little earlier this evening, I happened to catch David Brooks discussing on NewsHour the Senate’s rejection of the Bush Administration’s efforts to seek wide latitude to interrogate terrorism suspects under a “reinterpretation” of the Geneva Conventions. Brooks had this to say about the conflict between the White House and the Senators who refuse to go along:

It's happening, first, because, despite best efforts over months, they haven't been able to come together, in part because the White House has not done a good job over the years of having congressional relations, but in part because both McCain and Bush feel this in their core, McCain, that you don't torture, Bush, that I have to prepare the way for presidents 50 years from now to do what they need to do. [snip]

I think they think, a, it's a matter of national honor, national pride. This goes to the core of a lot of people. And a lot of people may think what I think, is that maybe you do get some information out of torture, but there's an ideological conflict, and it's important to have a little moral clarity in the world, in a little moral standing in the world to fight the broader war.

Did I just hear David Brooks say that torture is an ideological matter? Oh of course not. Surely he knows better. But then he went on to say this:
Now, the White House case, they do have a case. One, as the president said, it's the Geneva Convention is vague. Two, that, you know, when our soldiers are -- our Marines are captured, they're not going to be treated fine. The idea that there's going to be any reciprocity is nonsense. And, third, that we're in a different technological age, that if we capture somebody, they know about some plot that's about to kill millions of people, don't you want us to be able to do whatever we need to do?
Mr. Brooks, torture is not an ideological issue. It is the difference between right and wrong. The reason that we regard the terrorists as evil is because they commit evil acts, and because of this we have the moral authority to track them down, bring them to justice, and kill them if need be. But their evil acts do not justify our evil acts. It is not right for Billy to beat up on the kindergarten kids just because Tommy does, and it is not acceptable for us to commit evil because the terrorists do. These are the moral lessons that we teach children, not adults. Adults who do not recognize that torture is evil are morally bankrupt. To even dignify the subject by debating it is a sign of moral bankruptcy. Infanticide is not an ideological issue. Rape is not an ideological issue. Torture is not an ideological issue. There is nothing to debate.

And I will go farther. It is not just that those who seek to justify torture are morally bankrupt; they are also anti-American. The United States is not a set of lines on the map, it is an idea - the idea that a nation founded on the principles of liberty, justice, and freedom can survive and prosper. Those who seek to justify torture stand in opposition to that idea, and thus in opposition to America. They are too lazy and too stupid to understand that there is no conflict between our safety and our ideals, and we can not and must not jettison one to protect the other.

If you believe in what is good, and you believe in America, you can not accept torture. There is nothing to debate.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Does History Make You Tolerant?

In my historiography class today, we discussed what history is for. That is, not what the past is for, but what is the discipline of history for – why do we bother to study and write about the past? Both the students and the text we are using suggested many of the usual ideas. We study history to learn who we are; we study history to learn what mistakes not to make; we study history to correct falsehoods and bad historical analogies (are you listening, Mr. Rumsfeld?); we study history because it is fun. The text, however, suggested a possibility that I’d never really thought of before – that we study history to make us more aware and more tolerant of cultural differences, more accepting of people different from ourselves.


I’m not so sure about that. I think the idea is that if we learn what other people have suffered, the struggles they have gone through, that we will more willingly accept their right to be who they are, or we will be less likely to dismiss them should they not measure up to our own standards of wealth, of knowledge, of civilization. Or perhaps, if we know our own history and its less-than-stellar aspects, that we will be more forgiving of the shortcomings of others.


I think a person inclined to be sympathetic to people who are different might well react that way, but I also imagine a person not terribly sympathetic might react quite differently. If I know your ancestors have a long history of mistreating my ancestors, perhaps I will blame you for that. Perhaps I might want to do you harm as a result.

Americans are not a terribly historically minded people, the subject of much moaning and wailing, and I have certainly done my share. But there is a silver lining to this. Americans do not tend to hold historical grudges. We tend neither to blame nor praise people for what their ancestors did generations ago. If we did, we’d love the French and hate the British, our respective allies and enemies from the Revolution.

There are plenty of places where this is not true, regions that are overflowing with history, where ancient hatreds are the stuff of modern politics and modern murder. Bosnia, anyone? For that matter, what about Iraq, or the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis? These battles are as much fights over history as they are over modern issues, which is one of the things that makes them so intractable. Perhaps we are better off, always looking forward, rarely looking back. At least, as long as Americans are historically clueless, I’ll always have a job.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

What Does it Mean to be a Blogger?

I've been reading the essays in Uses of Blogs, which I recommend to anyone who has a serious interest in the blogging phenomenon. I’m not ready to delve deeply here into any of the essays, but one line in Alexander Halavais’s essay struck a chord for me. In “Scholarly Blogging: Moving toward the Visible College,” Halavais writes: “[S]o varied are the behaviors of bloggers that it is a bit surprising that the same term in used to cover them all.” (p. 117)

Indeed. In the recent dust-up over whether Pluto should be labeled a planet, the “anti-planet” faction argued, as they have for years, that Pluto is just too small to be put in the same rank as Earth, Jupiter, and the rest. But wait a minute – by that logic, is it not downright weird that we use the same term to refer to Earth and Jupiter? In fact, we don’t, exactly – Earth is a “terrestrial planet,” while Jupiter is a “gas giant” or a “Jovian planet.” The term planet itself means “moving star,” and is left over from the days when all we knew about Jupiter and Venus is that they looked just like that – like stars that moved.

And so we have this term, “blogger,” derived from “blog,” in turn derived from “weblog.” (Side thought – if we hadn’t shortened “weblog,” what would we call people who write them? “Weblies?”) It made sense to have one word when it was still possible for one person to read all the weblogs out there, or most of them at least. At that point, blogging was a subculture not terribly different from the zines phenomenon of hand-made, photocopied magazines, where even people writing radically different things had a sense of being part of a special tribe. (Another side thought – what’s happened to zines in the Age of Blogging?)

But like the word “planet”, the word “blog” becomes increasingly inadequate as more “reverse chronologically sequential narratives with a networked audience” come into view. What I’m doing and what Markos Moulitsas is doing really don’t have much to do with each other – and we’re both far removed from most of what goes on over at MySpace. There is no “blogosphere,” and thank God, because I hate that word. Physicists speculate about the possibility of multiple universes, and talk about the “multiverse.” Well, I don’t know if there’s a multiverse out there in space, but we’ve definitely already grown one here on the Internet. What should we call it? The multisphere? All I know is that my historian colleagues of the future are going to go nuts trying to figure this out. Good thing I’ll be retired by then.

(PS – Boy, this post has made the spellchecker nuts – someone needs to inform Microsoft that there’s this word “blog” – wonder if they know?)

Monday, September 11, 2006

What Really Changed on 9/11?

Another thought about the New York Maganize article “What if 9/11 Never Happened?”: I said that I tended to agree with the authors who believe we would be more-or-less in the same place today if that tragedy had never happened. Why do I say this? Because I don't think very much changed on 9/11.

I remember how on that day, and the days soon after, so many people seemed to be saying the same thing - "This changes everything." It felt so strange to me, like I was living in a different country. How, I thought, could anybody be thinking that? How could they not have known that this was coming?

Throughout the '90s, and perhaps even earlier, I found it both odd and very lucky that we did not suffer the kind of terrorist attacks on our own soil that plagued so many countries. Yes the World Trade Center had been bombed, but that seemed like a shot in the dark. The worst attack had come from one of our own, in Oklahoma, but without any subsequent attacks from people like McVeigh, that too seemed a fluke. Someone had planted a bomb at the Olympics, and the Unabomber was floating around out there, but overall, on our own soil, things were quiet. Too quiet.

To say that everything changed on 9/11, you would have had to believe that the quiet before that day was a natural, normal thing. I thought it was the product of good luck and good work by the CIA, FBI, NSA and the like. I knew that there were people out there who did not like us. I knew that there were murderous groups that had us in their sights. I understood that the politics of terrorism made us target number one for a lot of people. I also knew that it wasn't all that hard to hit us. I didn't worry about planes hitting the WTC - I wasn't that prescient - but I did worry, and I still do, about a stray nuclear bomb in a shipping container on board a cargo ship heading into Boston harbor.

I had a few friends who saw things like I did. We would just look at each other and wonder when people said - "this changes everything." Did we suddenly have brand new enemies on 9/11 that had not been there before? No. Had we suddenly become involved in the contentious politics of the Middle East for the first time? No. Had we suddenly become the world's only superpower, and thus the biggest target around? No. Had we suddenly acquired a militarily so powerful that terrorism was the only realistic weapon available to those who would do us harm? No. So what were people talking about?

What changed is a lot of people who did not know these things suddenly became aware. For them, I suppose, everything did change. Maybe they thought the whole world loved us and were shocked to discover otherwise, but for the world at large, things were much the same after 9/11. Oh things changed for al Qaeda and the Taliban, certainly. Life changed for a lot of people in the U.S. military and the intelligence services, of course. And most assuredly, everything changed for the families of the 3000 people who should have still been alive. But the rest of the world? I don't think much changed for the Iraqis - Saddam was already in Bush's crosshairs on 9/10, before then even. And we were going to confront terrorism more and more, regardless. Maybe with less intensity, but we would have had to face it.

So what changed on 9/11? 3000 people died, first and foremost. Further, the perceptions of millions of Americans who thought they were safe and beloved by the world changed, clearly. But beyond that, we were already on the path to our present day on 9/10. And that's not much comfort to anyone.