Thursday, August 31, 2006

What is History?

If I'm going to teach anyone to think like an historian, we first have to tackle this question - what is history? Well, here's a baker's dozen of possibilities:

  1. the things that happened in the past.
  2. a record of things that happened in the past, written as it was happening.
  3. a record of things that happened in the past, written after-the-fact.
  4. any individual's thoughts, feelings, opinions about the past.
  5. a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on past events.
  6. a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on records of past events.
  7. an academic discipline carried out by people with graduate degrees in history.
  8. a set of lessons drawn from past events to guide us in the future.
  9. a long list of names and dates.
  10. ideas, concepts, art forms, etc., that are now out-of-date.
  11. the unfolding of God's plan.
  12. a section of the bookstore with a whole lot of books on the Civil War.
  13. bunk.

People think they know what history is, and I think most carry around several of these definitions in their head at once, and others, too. I think the one I most favor is #7, and not just because of what I do. It's the least problematical - I can actually show you real, live human beings who work in universities, call themselves historians, and who more or less agree on a set of disciplinary practices. The rest I either disagree with, or would have a very hard time proving. Notice the difference between #5 and #6. Most people probably think historical writing is #5, or at least is supposed to be, but really, it's closer to #6. The past is gone, however present it may be. We have only traces, and we try to put together the jigsaw puzzle with only a few of the pieces. I pound away at this idea with students. The ones who get it usually wind up asking, "Wait a minute, how do we know what we read is true?" Aaaaahhhhh, well, now that's a question worth asking.

Don't expect me to answer it. (More on this later.)

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Pandora Doth Betray Me

I like Pandora. It's a cool way to create your own radio station, based on your previous music choices. Sometimes it will surprise you, coming up with stuff you might not have thought of, and in music, surprises can often be good things. But Gloria Trevi? "Estrella de la Manana"? Apparently the bastard love child of my penchant for electronica and Ely Guerra. And the less said about the time Pandora offered up a Hillary Duff tune, the better. (She has albums? Who knew? I think I'm in the wrong demographic.) On that note, I offer a couple of my favorite Ely Guerra tunes - two fairly different ones that show off her versatility:
De La Calle


Rumsfeld and the Munich Analogy

Speaking to an audience at the American Legion’s annual convention yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld made a classic blunder:

Drawing parallels to efforts by some nations to appease Adolf Hitler before World War II, Rumsfeld said it would be "folly" for the United States to ignore the rising dangers posed by a new enemy that he called "serious, lethal and relentless."
There’s a term for this – it’s called the Munich Analogy. You remember those pictures of Neville Chamberlain, returning from his Munich meeting with Hitler, announcing that there was “peace in our time”? We all know what happened next.

Throughout the Cold War, when anyone suggested that we should negotiate with the Soviets, there was always someone who would assert that this was impossible. One can not negotiate with dictators! They see that only as a sign of weakness – give them an inch and they’ll take a mile. Dictators only understand force! Remember Munich!

The fundamental problem with historical analogy is that all historical events are contingent on a very high number of variables which can not be reproduced. Analogies can never give us hard and fast rules for predicting the future. The only certain lesson learned at Munich was that you can not negotiate with Hitler. This told us nothing about whether we could negotiate with the Soviets. Of course, there was always a fair amount of cognitive dissonance involved. The Munich Analogy was favored by anti-Communist “hawks” who were frequently very prepared to engage in “constructive engagement” with authoritarian regimes, so long as they were anti-Communist. So the Munich Analogy was never even fully accepted by the people who used it.

In Rumsfeld’s case, there’s a second problem. No one is in fact suggesting “appeasement” of the terrorists. Critics of Rumsfeld and the Bush Administration generally argue the problem is not that we are fighting terrorism, but that we are fighting it badly, first and formost by sapping our military strength in a country that, at least before the war began, was not an important player in world terrorism. So Rumsfeld’s use of the Munich Analogy is wrong on all counts. And then there’s this:
Rumsfeld obliquely acknowledged mistakes and setbacks in Iraq, quoting the French statesman Georges Clemenceau as calling all wars "a series of catastrophes that results in victory."
That’s right. The Secretary of Defense is taking solace in the words of the man who led France during World War I, a monumental disaster of a war that is the very definition of pointless slaughter. That’s one analogy he seems bent on fulfilling, one we can certainly do without.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thinking Like an Historian

I started my historiography class today. I announced to the students that I would teach them how to think like an historian. Tall order – but doable. First of all, it’d better be doable, or my job as a history professor is rather pointless. But doable also because I have seen it happen. The secret is not a hard one, though one it took me a couple of semesters of teaching classes like this to catch on to. You can tell them the steps of critical analysis from an historian’s point of view all day long: “Examine the kinds of sources the author uses; think about the kind of language the author uses to describe different subjects; think of these two different books as conversation – are they arguing, saying the same thing, what?” And many more such questions. You can tell them to ask these questions all day long, all semester long, and you won’t get much of anywhere. You have to show them. You have to lead them by the hand, example by example, until it sinks in. With some, it’s a slow osmosis, while for others, it just clicks one day, and you can see the wheels suddenly start to turn. Anyway, I plan to post on some of these issues in coming weeks. Blogging about historiography – yeah, that’ll get me to the top of the Technorati rankings!

Minority History is American History

As per my earlier criticism of this this ridiculous essay by Warner Todd Huston, there's a great diary over on DailyKos that is both an in-your-face smackdown of Sen. George Allen (R-VA), with his "macaca" and "welcome to America" comments, and a reminder of the important roles played in U.S. history by people whose ancestors came from somewhere other than Europe. Allen does not seem to understand that Americans come in many colors, and their history is important to all of us. RamR's diary tells it like it is.

The AP Version of History

OK, I've got morning classes, but I can't let this bit of nonsense from the Associated Press pass without comment:

On this date: In 1533, the last Incan King of Peru, Atahualpa, was murdered on orders of Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro.
Um, well, not exactly. First of all, he was the emperor of Tawantinsuyu, otherwise known as the Incan Empire, which included a whole lot more than modern Peru. Further, he wasn't the last person to hold the title of Sapa Inca (official title of the emperors) - that honor goes to Tupac Amaru (the one who died in 1572 - not Tupac Amuru II, or, for that matter, Tupac Amaru Shakur). It's all a little complicated, more than I can go into right now, but the Spanish alternately propped up and fought against a series of heirs to Atahualpa before finishing off Tupac Amaru. Atahualpa represents the end of a truly sovereign, powerful Incan Empire, but he wasn’t the final end. History tends to be messier than that - AP's error is just one more piece of evidence that a "names and dates" concept of history is deeply flawed.

Monday, August 28, 2006

The Mess in Mexico

There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post this morning about the role of religion in Mexico’s political crisis. What? You say you didn’t know there was a political crisis in Mexico? Not surprising. Our media has been doing an astonishingly bad job of covering this story. The presidential election was very close, and Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the apparent loser, has refused to accept the announced results. Followers of the populist, left-of-center former mayor of Mexico City have been staging protests all over Mexico. They have made prominent use of images of the Virgen de Guadelupe, something which has angered Cardinal Norberto Rivera, who has called the protestors “crazies.” Church and state issues are an even more serious game than here in the U.S., as the article points out, and even resulted in a war, the Cristero Revolt in the 1920s.

What is astonishing is how little play this is getting in the U.S. Millions of López Obrador’s supporters are likely to reject the final result if his opponent Felipe Calderon is declared the winner and inaugurated in December. They remember well 1988, when Cuauhtémoc Cardenas, another left-of-center politician from López Obrador’s party almost certainly had the presidential election stolen from him by Carlos Salinas, who proved to be monumentally corrupt. The PRI, ruling party at the time, was strong enough to ride out the controversy and keep Mexico stable. The situation today is potentially more fragile, and the Mexican people more politically engaged. The potential for chaos is real, yet a quick perusal of LexisNexis shows only sporadic reporting in the U.S., unlike the almost hourly updates on the JonBenet Ramsey case. But hey, who cares about political instability on our border when there’s a little girl’s death to exploit?

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Bill Gates Continues To Take Over The World

If you’ve always longed to talk to your computer in the same language that the mighty Sapa Inca used to command his empire, then at last your dreams have been fulfilled. You can now download a patch that will translate the Windows menus and the like to Quechua, the native language of millions of Andeans. Few of these people have computers, but in time, they can be banging their heads and screaming in frustration as once again, their software crashes for no apparent reason. You can even get stickers to convert your keyboard to Quechua – here it is still August and your Christmas shopping worries are over! There’s one quote in the CNN story though that worries me just a bit:

"More than anything, I was surprised," said 21-year-old Dilma Arancibia, a Quechua speaker invited to a Thursday preview of the program. "If they hadn't done this with Quechua, and if we don't teach it to our children, the language would definitely cease to exist."
While Mr. Gates thankfully does not yet have the power to make a language spoken by millions disappear, Arancibia is correct – languages left out of of the computing world are threatened. So I’m ambivalent – kudos to Microsoft for taking this step, but let’s not forget that the Empire is never altruistic!

Hat tip to The Latin Americanist.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Me and Martha

No deep thoughts, as I'm still prepping for the party - I'm a whole lot more prepared than I usually am at this point - still, I imagine things will get pretty hectic in, oh, about three hours. For your listening pleasure, Cesaria Evora in a live version of "Sodade." The album version of this song is, I think, my very favorite piece of music. It ain't bad live, either.

Friday, August 25, 2006

Goin' to a Garden Party...

Or something like that - light posting today. I have a bunch of people coming over tomorrow for dinner, and, well, I'm not as prepared as Martha would be right now. So for your amusement, may I suggest the song stylings of George W. Bush:

Thursday, August 24, 2006

An Early History of Blogs

Rebecca Blood has been blogging for a long time - the archives on her site, Rebecca's Pocket, go back to April, 1999, which is the blogging equivalent of having taken up flying a few days after you first got word that the Wright Brothers had finally done it. She's also the author of The Weblog Handbook, one of the first, and by many accounts one of the best, guides for bloggers. I should order it. Do a Google search for "blog history" or "history of blogs" and you won't find much that is actually about the history of blogs. One thing you do find is her September, 2000 essay, "Weblogs: A History and Perspective."

It's surprisingly fresh, despite being six years old and despite how rapidly this medium is changing, and it's a quick but thoughtful rundown on the early steps that gave us the "blogospere" (I hate that word). I particularly like her thoughts on how blogging made her more aware of her own interests - coming up with new topics each day inevitably opens up new vistas. Those random thoughts that before came and went and were quikly forgotten, begin to take on focus after you‘ve written about them a few dozen times. And her final thought, about the value of blogs, gets at lot of what I'm interested in in terms of understanding blogs as a record of our times and as an extraordinary record of the thoughts of ordinary people (that is, people who are not Presidents or CEOs).

We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions. I strongly believe in the power of weblogs to transform both writers and readers from "audience" to "public" and from "consumer" to "creator." Weblogs are no panacea for the crippling effects of a media-saturated culture, but I believe they are one antidote.
I think that this is one of the ways future historians will understand blogs. We are being pummeled with even more data than we were in 2000, but with blogs, we have begun to talk back. For historians, it will be an embarrassment of riches. For us, it is, as Blood suggests, a small bit of sanity.

Articles Worth Reading - Easter Island and New Orleans

A couple of articles of note:

There’s a fascinating new article about Easter Island in American Scientist by Terry Hunt, who teaches anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. It details his research and that of others that seems to show that the traditional understanding of the island’s history is seriously flawed – humans may have come much later than previously believed, and rats, not humans, may have been the cause of deforestation.

I saw this other great article in my hometown paper, The Tennessean, about the new New Orleans phonebooks, but it’s not on their website, so I’m linking to the Long Beach Press Telegram instead. This article shows the kinds of information that researchers, including historians, can glean from non-traditional sources, like, say, phone books. Combined with call volume records from the local telephone service, we can learn a lot of things about how the recovery is going in New Orleans. Not surprisingly, home repair firms are doing gangbusters – and so are chiropractors. A lot of people, it seems, are throwing out their backs hauling construction material around. Remember, lift with your legs, not with your back!

The Problem of Property in U.S.-Cuban Relations

The BBC and a few other news outlets have picked up on recent statements by Raul Castro and U.S. State Department officials to suggest that there is a hint of rapprochement in the air. I doubt it, as the song and dance on both sides is a very old one. On the one hand, the U.S. says “maybe” to normalization, but only with political reform in Cuba. As the BBC reports:

Washington has renewed a four-year-old offer to lift its trade embargo on Cuba if Havana embraces democratic reforms. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said the offer was "still on the table" if the Cuban government would
"begin a political opening".
And on the other side, Raul says normalization would be fine, but the U.S. can make no demands that interfere with Cuba’s sovereignty.
At this juncture, they should be very clear that it is not possible to achieve anything in Cuba with impositions and threats. On the contrary, we have always been disposed to normalize relations on an equal plane. What we do not accept is the arrogant and interventionist policy frequently assumed by the current
administration of that country.
Same dance, different day.

One of the most difficult issues in any effort at normalization, both practically and emotionally, is the question of property ownership. The U.S. Foreign Claims Settlement Commission has registered property claims against the Cuban government worth between seven and eight billion dollars, both commercial and residential property. Many U.S. companies could potentially claim properties in Cuba, though with nearly fifty years of mergers and acquisitions, some of them would have to sue each other before they could sue Cuba. Many don’t want to bother, but some do (and wouldn’t you just know United Fruit would be one of them):
"There has always been a hope that, post-Castro, this claim would translate into something of value, and Chiquita's position has consistently been that we expect the claim to be honored," said Michael Mitchell, spokesman for Chiquita Brands International, the Cincinnati company that subsumed United Fruit.
Chiquita/UF’s claim is worth $87 million.

For many exiles, this is a central issue – they want their homes back. In almost every case, those homes have been occupied by other people for decades, people who the Cuban government has given property titles to. These homes are mostly subdivided and terribly dilapidated. They say smell has the strongest memories, and even though I’m sitting in Nashville, TN, I can smell the musty air typical of a Havana tenement right now. The exiles have their own memories, and their desires are quite understandable. But no Cuban government, whatever its makeup, is going to evict thousands of Cubans into the streets. Indeed, there are many exiles who recognize this, and even more of their children do. But there are enough who will insist on making claims that this issue could clog up the court system for years and slow down renewal of political and economic ties significantly.

When will you know that Havana and Washington are serious about rapprochement? When they start making serious moves to resolve the property claims issue.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Singapore, Dr. Sowell?

That Thomas Sowell is an embarrassment to academics everywhere is a given. I'm not even going to bother with his nonsensical rant about the left and crime. But this?

Within living memory, Britain was one of the most law-abiding nations on the face of the earth. When Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew visited London right after World War II, he was so impressed with the honesty of the British and their respect for law and order that he returned home determined to make Singapore the same way. Today it is Singapore that is one of the most law-abiding nations in the world while Britain's crime rate has risen to the point where, for the first time, it now exceeds the crime rate in the United States.
Singapore, Dr. Sowell? Human rights abusing Singapore? Migrant worker abusing Singapore? Singapore, which even Bush's State Department describes as a kind of authoritarianism light?

Read that State Department description of Singapore - this is Sowell's idea of paradise. If you pay attention to Bush and Alberto Gonzalez, you know it's their vision of paradise, too. Thomas Sowell - an authoritarian for all seasons.

History - Not Just a Bunch of Dates

I would not ordinarily write about Australian educational policy. What the heck do I know about Australian educational policy? Nothing. But I do know a thing or two about history. There’s a bit of a tug of war in Australia right now between people who want to teach history as a stand alone subject and those who want to teach it under the umbrella of "Studies of Society and its Environment," which I imagine is what Americans call “Social Studies.” The reasons for opposition to teaching history separately caught my eye. Here’s what Rod Welford, Education Minister for Queensland, and Ljiljanna Ravlich, West Australian Education Minister, had to say.

After the summit, Mr. Welford said it would be "educational vandalism" for the federal Government to force the separate study of history on the states. "To talk about history as a stand-alone subject, as a list of events, is an educational absurdity," he said. [snip]

Ms Ravlich dismissed the knowledge of key historical dates as unimportant and was reported yesterday as saying it was akin to not knowing "the internal workings of a computer". She said the advent of the internet and search engines, such as Google, meant students had those dates at their fingertips.

Oh dear. Ravlich and Welford are confusing history with antiquarianism. Antiquarianism is a bit of historical jargon – it means collecting bits of historical information like you would collect antiques, buffing them up and putting them on display like Grandmother’s silver. Most people who do genealogy are doing antiquarianism. Of course antiquarianism shouldn’t be taught to poor little Australian kids – that’s boring as all get out. But history is not antiquarianism. It’s much more than a bunch of dates. History is interpretation and analysis. It’s critical thinking applied to the pageant of the past. History asks the question, "Why?" What do these people think I do all day – sing little mnemonic songs about important dates? “Oh in 1066/William got his kicks/And in 1492, Chris sailed the ocean blue…” (So much for my songwriting career.)

This is why so many kids hate history. People like Ravlich and Welford think history is just memorizing a bunch of stuff, and that’s what they promote as “history” in classrooms. Ravelich apparently think it would be OK to teach “history” in grades 9 and 10, but if what she has in mind is rote memorization, I’d prefer she not bother. I’d rather get college students who’ve never had a day of that kind of “history.” Even if they didn’t know one single thing about the past, at least they wouldn’t walk in the room loathing the very idea of history.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Blogger Beta

I switched, though it doesn't look like it. You can do a half switch, which is what I've done. HTML editing is still not available, and it turned out I was going to need that for some features I had added. We'll see - if the fully developed version of Blogger Beta doesn't work for me, I'm switching to Typepad or Wordpress. Or something else - suggestions?

Elitist History is Uninformed History

Skimming through the Internet, I stumbled upon this essay by Warner Todd Huston lamenting the “fetishizing” of minority history. It’s a typical example of the genre – a swipe at Charles Beard that distorts the man’s work, an assertion that White Anglo Saxons are responsible for all that is good and true in our history, and the claim that “PC revisionists” are just out to dethrone the white man, out of spite, apparently.

What intrigues me though is the repeated claim that non-white history in the United States is a minor, superfluous topic (he even call it “minutiae”), that merely distracts students from the important stories and adds little to our understanding of U.S. history. Well, Mr. Huston, this is exactly why textbooks and educators need to emphasize minority history – to insure that people don’t come to hold such narrow and uninformed perspectives as yours.

Indians, Africans, Hispanics, and Asians did much more than “add flavors to the stew” – they shaped this country in fundamental ways though their struggles, their labor, their cultures and language and food. How different the history of this country would have been had the Indians not been here – would there even have been a Revolution if the colonists hadn’t been so resentful of the Proclamation Act of 1763 banning them from moving into Indian territory? How would the economy and culture of the South have developed without African slaves - would there have been a Civil War without slavery and the plantation economy? Would the cotton economy have developed at all without those slaves? And what would I be eating if West African cuisine had never entered the South? What about the Southwest – what would it look like today if the Spanish had not founded San Francisco and Santa Fe?

The belief that only “Anglo-Saxons” made significant contributions to the history of this country is highly myopic. It’s also based on a very old-fashioned “kings and queens” kind of history, where only leading elites are discussed and the teeming masses are ignored. It fits of course with modern conservativism, which is extraordinarily elitist in its viewpoint, but it is wildly inaccurate.

And one last thing – believe it or not, Mr. Huston, it is in fact possible to mention the dates of the Civil War and discuss the role of black troops – it's amazing how many topics you can cover in a semester!

My Name in Lights

Imagine my delight when I saw this headline:

See, the "T" in "Dr. T" stands for "Theron," and my research is on Cuba....

Anyway, East of Havana looks like it might be interesting. I'll reserve judgment on the politics until I've seen it - what a concept!

We Don't Need No Stinking U.S. News and World Report!

We know what students really care about - party on! Must be loads of fun to teach early morning classes at UT-Austin.

Talk about a mixed blessing. The University of Texas spokesman Don Hale did the usual sniffing about how UT is really known for its academics, and then tried to dismiss the whole thing:

“It's good water cooler conversation, but is there a basis in fact? Debatable," said spokesman Don Hale. "I think we're known as one of the nation's leading public research universities, and that's really our reputation."Besides, he said, there might have been extenuating circumstances this year: "The students who filled out this survey might have remembered the parties we had after we won the national football championship, and maybe that's what got us to No. 1."
Did I say "academics? Note the language - "leading public research universities." That's actually jargon - being classified as a research university means in essence that they have a lot of PhD programs. Still I have a feeling that the spokespeople at my school would also say something about teaching.

Monday, August 21, 2006

High priced textbooks

The Detroit Free Press had a story yesterday on the problem of high priced textbooks and some of the ways students are trying to deal with it. There are some retailers, notably online ones, that are trying to capitalize on this crisis, but the root problem remains. And a crisis it most certainly is. When I was an undergrad, back in the late 80s, my most expensive textbooks were those big fat books for chemistry and calculus (I may be an historian now, but my first undergrad major was electrical engineering). At that point, those books ranged from $50 to $70, and I only had to buy one or two of those - most books were half that much. My most expensive book bills were $120-$150 a quarter, and once I got past those big auditorium classes, my book bill dropped below $100/quarter. The textbook I assigned in my World Civ I class (Stone Age to Counterreformation) this fall, a paperback half volume (containing the first 23 chapters of the 44-chapter hardback version) is $87 from Amazon. I'm sure our book store charges a few dollars more. At those prices, a student can easily have a $400 or $500 textbook bill each semester. There's a reason some of my students don't buy their books. What happened?

To try to entice professors to order them and students to read them, publishers have filled books with huge amounts of color, images, and all kinds of features. They've also invested heavily in online materials, and textbooks increasingly come with CDs or passwords for online access. Some of the online stuff is useful - I find using the Internet is an easy and cheap way to give my students access to primary documents, though I don't need an expensive publisher’s site to do that. Many things are online already. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a good place to look for them. All those bells and whistles are distracting, too. Try reading one of these textbooks - all the inserts, images and maps have become too much, making it hard for the eye to follow the text, for the reader to know what they are supposed to be reading. Some of this kind of thing is good, but there is a limit. They are no longer books that you read. They've become more a hybrid cross between a book and an online newspaper - vaguely narrative, yet jumpy and episodic, easily leading you in ten different directions at once and thus leading you nowhere. I'm sorely tempted to get out of the game altogether and just assign some cheap classics, the kind of things you can get for a few bucks - maybe Sun Tzu's Art of War for China, and The Iliad for the West. Or I could take Jonathan Reynolds’s experiment to its obvious conclusion and have students bring whatever old World Civ book the could find cheap somewhere. Could make for interesting class discussions.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

This Can't Be Good

From Agence France Presse by way of the Mumbai Mirror:

Venezuela and Cuba are now going to get the same kind of exceptional treatment from our intelligence services that Iran and Korea already do, getting special intelligence managers that no other countries get. I don't like the looks of this. And why is it that I have to learn about this from the Mumbai Mirror? (Thanks, Dotso!) The only other place I found this was the Gulf Times out of Qatar. Isn't the fact that the Bush Administration views Venezuela to be as great a concern as Iran important news? At least as much as who killed JonBenet?

The Decline of the West

There’s a great but disturbing op-ed in the Washington Post today about the poor vocabulary of college students. Michael Skube, who teaches at Elon University in North Carolina, laments that his students don't know "impetus," or "brevity," or, for that matter, "novel."

How does one explain the inability of college students to read or write at even a high school level? One explanation, which owes as much to the culture as to the schools, is that kids don't read for pleasure.
You may be thinking you've never heard of Elon and it must be a lousy school. No, it's a small, quality liberal arts college. I actually interviewed there once and was quite impressed. The fact is, students don't read any more. Heck, I have students who, largely for financial reasons, don't even buy their textbooks. And their lack of reading limits not only their vocabulary, but their critical thinking skills. I'm certain that this has a lot to do with why the increasingly conservative media gets away with so many lies and distortions. People who don't read will not develop the skills needed to see through the mendacity. It makes them terrible students and poorly informed voters. And I don't have a clue what to do about it.

Exam desperation

I don’t teach science, but the history equivalents of these answers have crossed my desk before.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

The War on Drugs - now with Tartar Control!

From the front page of The New York Times:

The latest chapter in America’s long war on drugs — a six-year, $4.7 billion effort to slash Colombia’s coca crop — has left the price, quality and availability of cocaine on American streets virtually unchanged.
How many times do we have to be told that the war on drugs is a failure? Here's my deeply original thought that never occurred to anyone before - instead of spending billions to fuel chaos in Columbia, lets spend billions in America to treat addiction. What, that's not original? People have been saying that for years? But, but, how is that possible? You mean we're continuing this failed, destructive policy despite knowing there are viable alternatives? Gee, next thing you're going to tell me we not only invaded Iraq, but we did it with half the troops you need to do the job right. I have much more faith in my leaders then that and I won't listen to any more nonsense!

Smuggling Not-so Illegal Immigrants

One of the oddest results of our Cuba policy (and there are many, many odd results) is the human trafficking game in the Florida Straits, which the Christian Science Monitor notes is back in business after a brief pause in the wake of Castro's illness. Just like with any other group of would-be immigrants without visas, there are the desperate refugees, border patrols (carried out mainly by the Coast guard), smugglers with their exorbitant fees, high speed chases, and even violence and death. Ah, but the ending can be very different. We have a "wet foot, dry foot," rule - Cubans caught at sea get sent home, while Cubans who make it to land are rarely sent back, and can become legal permanent residents of the United States in one year. This gives a whole new meaning to "race to the border!" U.S. authorities are making a show of cracking down, but as long as Fidel is alive and Florida is a swing state, the policy will remain in place. So welcome to America, our unnamed 20 new residents. The Florida Straits' most dangerous game continues.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Friday Night Random 10


1. Zeca Pagodinho - "Severina Xique-Xique"
2. Niyaz - "Ghazal"
3. Peter Gabriel - "Washing of the Waters"
4. Julieta Venegas - "Todo inventamos"
5. Oswaldo Montenegro - "Olhar de tela"
6. Seal - "Don't Cry"
7. Lyle Lovett - "I know you know"
8. Conjunto Jardin - "La bruja"
9. Liz Phair - "Fantasize"
10. KLF - "Justified and Ancient"

Your Daily Dicator News: Cuba and Chile Update

The Washington Post is keeping us up to date on our Latin American dictators today. Down in Chile, the Supreme Court has stripped Augusto Pinochet of immunity in a $27 million tax fraud case. In a word – good. They got Capone on tax evasion, and it’s good enough for Pinochet. I know, the wingers will scream, “But he saved Chile from Allende!” Look, overthrowing Allende was a political act, and only the sovereign people of Chile can decide whether it was justified or not. But the 17 years of brutal, criminal dictatorship were not justified by anything that happened during the brief reign of Allende. No matter what your enemy does, you are still under obligation to adhere to the rule of law. You are not justified in torturing terrorists. You are not justified in wantonly killing civilians because your enemy has done the same. As was explained to most of us at a young age, “He did it first!” is not a sound moral argument.

A bit closer to home, Raul Castro has emerged from his hibernation and seen the United States’ shadow. Raul told the Cubans that shortly after his brother’s illness became public, he called up tens of thousands of militia and reservists. Why? "We could not rule out the risk of somebody going crazy, or even crazier, within the U.S. government."

Dear Washington D.C.: Did you notice what just happened here? The Cuban government faces a crisis and what does it do? It tries to scare the Cuban people into thinking the United States might do something “crazy.” Do you know what everyone in Cuba calls the embargo? “El bloqueo”? What’s a “bloqueo? It’s a blockade. What’s a blockade? Why, it’s an act of war. Who actually benefits from the embargo? It’s not Washington, and it’s not the exiles. The embargo has failed mightily to oust Fidel Castro. It sure as heck ain’t the Cuban people who have benefited. Who then? One man- Fidel Castro. From the beginning, Fidel has told the Cubans that the United States was at war with Cuba, and the embargo has been exhibit “A.” Why is the economy so bad? El bloqueo. Why can’t we have elections? El bloqueo. Why must we repress dissent? El bloqueo – don’t you people know we’re at war?

Drop the embargo. I know your feelings got hurt back in 1959, but that was a long time ago. The embargo is Fidel’s crutch. It gives him an excuse for everything that’s wrong, and lets him strut about as the nationalist hero facing down the big, bad imperialist yanquis. Get rid of the embargo, and flood the island with Americans, with American dollars, and with American values. Make the old man irrelevant.

It’s past time – drop the embargo.

Defining Race - It's Not What You Think It Is

There's a very interesting thread going on right now over at Pandagon about how people think and talk about race. The thread is inspired by a post from Pam Spaulding about the boneheaded claim by Tramm Hudson, who is running for the U.S. Congressional seat in Florida’s 13th district, that blacks can't swim. As an historian of Latin America, I have a particular take on this kind of thing. As I posted in that thread, Latino cultures generally think quite differently about race then we do. In many countries, the emphasis is on skin tone. Rather than having a bipolar or tri-polar world, with everyone shoe-horned into one group or the other, people in these societies live in a complex racial environment with infinite gradations. Carl Degler called this "the mulatto escape hatch," and suggested there was less racial solidarity in a country like Brazil because light-skinned people of African descent think of themselves as a distinct group from darker skinned Afro-Brazilians, and identify more with white Brazilians. Some of Degler's conclusions have been strongly debated, but the point that Latino cultures define race differently than we do is critical. Light skinned mulattos, who would be called black in the U.S., might well be called "white" in Haiti or the Dominican Republic. For that matter, people from those countries who think of themselves as "white" would likely be thought of as "black" here.

There was a time in this country when people talked about the "Irish race," the "English race," the "German race," and genuinely believed in such things. Now that idea has largely gone poof. Race is culturally defined. Race is an idea. It exists in our head. We define it as we choose, and we can redefine it as we choose. We decide what to think and say about it, and we can choose to think and say different things. The historical legacy of racism is a real, concrete thing, but the idea "race" is a cipher, a will-o'-the wisp that confuses our brains precisely because it does not conform to empirical reality. The more people who understand this, the closer we can all come to sanity.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Olbermann the Historian

It is rare that anyone in TV news bothers to make an historical case about anything. Here Keith Olbermann shows what could be done if the media took the time to think about the past and not assume that old news is irrelevant. I saw it, and I'm sold, but then, I remember the past, too.

Cuba? Ideology? I'm shocked!

Go Pundit Go has raised questions about Reuters using Marc Frank as its Havana correspondent, questions picked up by Instapundit and Newsbusters. Frank apparently has a background working for the People’s Daily World, a publication of the Communist Party, USA. While GPG does allow that Frank’s “current articles are not explicitly pro-Cuban to the point of journalist fraud,” it’s clear that all three see a real problem with Reuter’s employing Mr. Frank. Let’s look at what Frank actually wrote that bothered our friends on the right:

Cuba remained calm on Sunday as people engaged in voluntary work, cleaned neighbourhoods and donated blood in Mr Castro’s honour. Throughout the leadership crisis, people have gone about their daily business and enjoyed summer holidays, though there is an unmistakable undercurrent of anxiety over the future without Fidel - the only leader most Cubans have ever known.
GPG declares that this shows Frank has a “soft spot for soft reporting on the people’s paradise of Cuba.” Greg Sheffiled at Newbusters called it a “glowing review.” I wonder if they’ve ever been to Cuba. When you talk to people in Cuba, you find a wide range of opinions about Fidel and the regime. Just like here, Cubans have mixed and nuanced opinions about their government. I have little doubt that since Fidel handed power over to Raul, Cubans have been continuing on with their lives, but are also anxious about the future, regardless of their political leaning. Some of them probably were doing things in Fidel’s honor – other were doing what they needed to get by. And Frank probably saw what he wanted to see. People sweep streets in Havana every day – it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with how they feel about el Viejo. As an historian, I always want to know as much as possible about the ideological background of the author of any source I’m using. But the complaints of GPG and the others highlight one of the more ironic developments on the right in recent years – they’ve all become postmodernists. It doesn’t matter what is said, but who says it. If information comes from an ideologically trusted source, like one of the handful of scientists who see no human cause for global warming, then it’s golden. But if it comes from the tens of thousands of scientists who think otherwise, then it’s not to be trusted. Frank’s ideological background does mean we need to read him critically – but then that’s true about everyone we read.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Accountability in Higher Ed

Tomorrow the meetings start, followed by a few days of registration, and then classes begin. It’s that time of year again. Question is – what exactly will I and my colleagues and my students accomplish this year? There’s a great article in the September Washington Monthly by Kevin Carey called “Is Our Students Learning?” that gets at just that question – and the inability of most people to answer it.

There are no widely available measures of how much learning occurs inside the classroom, or of how much students benefit from their education. This makes the process of selecting a college a bit like throwing darts at a stock table. It also means that colleges and universities…feel little pressure to ensure that students learn.
Carey’s article is aimed mainly at elite schools, pointing out that their reluctance to publish data on student outcomes makes it impossible to assess whether their high-priced services are really worth it. But elite schools are not the only ones where this is an issue. At all levels, it’s very hard to get real data that would enable prospective students to judge whether a particular school will in fact provide them with a good education. I can’t believe that this will last. As tuition rises everywhere (more about that in a later post), parents, students, and legislators are understandably demanding to know if all that money is accomplishing anything. It’s just a matter of time before every school in the country has to start publishing data on teaching effectiveness – and that’s when things will start hitting the fan, so to speak.

I for one welcome it. We need to have our feet held to fire. Sure, it’ll be more work for me and my students, but I got into this business to teach, dang it (oh, and to have summers off). Accountability is a must, and it will spur better teaching everywhere. And here’s where I have a small bit of agreement with the wingnuts. I don’t think competition can improve public schools like they think it will, but I do think it will work for higher education (it’s a question of universal vs. selective enrollment, mainly). Publish those scores – I’m ready.

Blogger Drives Me Nuts

Why did I pick Blogger? Because I didn't do enough research. Seems I have to put a photo in a post before I can add it to my profile. Enjoy. P.S. - The photographer is the brilliant artist and new mom, Stacia Spragg. No website that I know of, but Google her name and you'll find lots of great work. Like this.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Getting Back our Credibility After Bush

Robert Farely has a great post at Lawyers, Gun$, and Money about the French ability to outmaneuver the United States in the U.N. This one line, though, got me thinking.

Chirac has also done an impressive job of resurrecting French cred in the Islamic world, no small task for a country once bitterly reviled for its colonial brutality in Syria and Algeria.
One thing I tell my students - the only thing history teaches us is that nothing is forever (except maybe China). Once the current band of rouges in the White House is gone, we've got a long road ahead of us to clean up the mess. But if the French can restore their credibility in the Islamic world after Algeria, maybe we can, too. Of course, that war was over in 1962.

Blogging in the Wind

Today I, once again, got a couple of credit card offers. I did what most people do with them - I threw them away. Credit card mailings, for the most part, are ephemera. In historical jargon, that word refers to those documents that are rarely preserved, usually because they are considered unimportant in their own time. Laundry lists, receipts, newspaper inserts, flyers stuck under your windshield wipers, junk mail - all ephemera, generally lost to time. Such documents though, because of their rarity, can be extremely valuable. The menu of a medieval lord's dinner, to say nothing of a peasant's dinner, is an exceptionally valuable document simply because it allows us a window on daily life that we can rarely see. And I guarantee that when the little boy in the picture is old enough to start working on his dissertation, "Household Debt and the Great Crash of 2014," he'll want to see those credit card offers to understand just how they suckered all those people into financial ruin.

This is my concern about blogs. While blog records are in fact being preserved on giant servers all over the world, electronic records, even when people want to keep them, have a limited shelf-life - and I'm not convinced that, say, ten years out, twenty years out, anyone will think it important to preserve these records, anyway. If this extraordinary record of the voices of millions of ordinary people is indeed going to survive, we must all make a concentrated effort to see that it happens. There are a lot of issues here - I intend to write about them much more.

By the way, one of the best ways to preserve a document is to throw it away. Biodegradation in most landfills, notably those that are dry and protected from the water table (actually, it's generally the other way around), is quite slow. Some of our most important sources for ancient documents have been landfills. I highly recommend Rubbish!: The Archaeology of Garbage by William L. Rathje and Cullen Murphy for anyone who wants to know more.

My City is Cool

Just ask Kiplinger's.

Does Castro Like it This Way?

It's not often you seem someone in print moving away from the predictable storylines about Cuba. [eds. note - Gee, this is turning into an all-Cuba blog. Need to hit some other topics.] Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post makes a suggestion you don't often see in print:

It finally dawned on me that Fidel Castro likes Cuba the way it is, a glorious shambles with myriad inefficiencies and problems...I think he likes a system in which everyone has a roof, though it's leaky, and surgeons live next to bricklayers in crumbling tenements.
This is Fidel as an idealistic socialist - better to be poor together than to have the rich lording it over everyone else. It's an interesting idea. I'm used to thinking of Fidel first and foremost as a self-described nationalist, someone willing to sacrifice economic prosperity in order to defy the United States. Robinson seems to support the idea that Castro did not pursue the Chinese model, economic reform coupled with continued authoritarianism, because he was "appalled by what he saw in modern China -- a growing gap between rich and poor.” I tend to believe that has something to with it. I also think that Fidel realizes that a Cuba with free market reforms is a Cuba potentially flooded with U.S. dollars, U.S. investors, U.S. tourists, and U.S. values. I say "potentially" because I'm not sure we'd be smart enough to drop the embargo. In such a Cuba, Fidel would be increasingly irrelevant, and he knows it. If only the people who set our Cuba policy could figure that out.

Monday, August 14, 2006

If They Had Just Asked the Historians

Or some other academic who studies Cuba. The New York Times has a piece today about how the stability of Cuba's government in the aftermath of Fidel Castro's illness is surprising some experts.

The decline of Fidel Castro, who turned 80 on Sunday and appeared in photographs for the first time since his unspecified intestinal surgery last month, was supposed to be a kind of second Cuban revolution. The notion, put forward by Cuba specialists for years, was that the entire system hung on one man.
Which specialists? Ginger Thompson, who penned the article, doesn't tell us. While certainly Fidel looms large in Cuba, and his hyperactivity and micromanagement are well documented, the idea that he alone manages and controls that country is a serious distortion. Whenever I go to Cuba, someone inevitably asks me when I get back, "Did you see Fidel?" (I did - once. He whizzed by in his motorcade.) But Fidel depends on the loyalty of the military and the Party to govern Cuba. It is that loyalty, and the ability of any successor to inherit that loyalty, that determines the stability of the regime. His current health crisis suggests that the regime is more stable than his most optimistic opponents had hoped. Damián Fernández, an academic who understands Cuba better than most, notes the consequences of this misunderstanding.
"We were ill-prepared for the eventuality of continuity rather than change,” said Damián Fernández, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, referring to policy makers in Washington and Miami. “All our policies have been built on a foundation of wishful thinking. Now we are confronted with reality, and it’s not what we had hoped it would be.”
I don't know what will happen when Fidel leaves the stage for good. Nobody does. But I do know who will decide what happens. It will be the middle level Party cadres and military officers, people who have come of age since the Revolution. These people have not enjoyed the prosperity of the Miami Cubans, nor, for the most part, have they been able to benefit much personally from the tourism dollars that have poured into the country in recent years. Their willingness to sacrifice for Fidel, for the ideals of the Revolution, or perhaps simply to do what they must to survive in a police state, has kept the regime in power through difficult times. Whether that will continue post-Fidel is anybody's guess.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Young Fidel

And here I thought there was nothing to write about. The New York Times has printed some excerpts from a series of letters Fidel Castro wrote while in prison after the attack on the Moncada barracks. These letters have recently been translated and will soon be published in new collection. The anti-Castroites will have fun with some of them, this quote in particular.

Third, maintain a deceptively soft touch and smile with everyone. Follow the same strategy that we followed during the trial; defend our points of view without raising resentments. There will be enough time later to squash all the cockroaches together.
No doubt his critics will see in this proof that he had always planned to install a Soviet style dictatorship in Cuba, all claims to the contrary. I for one find any efforts to discern what Fidel believed and when he believed it to be pointless. The only man who truly knows has proven himself to be highly unreliable witness - we can only judge by what he actually did, and when he did it. It is the portrait of young Fidel as a misogynist that is more interesting to me. His deep anger that his wife, left alone with their young son, while Fidel was in jail, would take a job with the government he so loathed, is a sight to behold.
This is a machination against me: the basest, most cowardly, most indecent, the vilest and intolerable. Mirta is too level-headed to have ever allowed herself to be seduced by her family, agreeing to appear in the Government employee roster, no matter how hard her economic situation. I am sure she has been miserably slandered... Only an effeminate like Hermida at the lowest degree of sexual degeneration would resort to these methods, of such inconceivable indecency and unmanliness.
For Fidel, it was his honor that mattered, not his wife's ability to put food on the table. That Fidel is an extraordinary egoist is hardly a secret, though I suspect this attitude towards his wife had as much to do with traditional machismo as it did with his own personality. His homophobia is also likely a cultural artifact as much as a personal one, and sheds a small amount of light on the Cuban regime's generally hostile attitude towards homosexuals. We should not, of course, assume that the writings of a man at 27 teach us much about that man at 80. The value of these letters for understanding the present is limited, but they will no doubt be dissected thoroughly down in Miami nonetheless.

Can Fundamentalism be Cured?

Not much blogging inspiration right now. I would, however, like to recommend reading Orcinus right now, where Sara Robinson is guest blogging on authoritarian personalities. I'm intrigued by her post on ex-fundamentalists, and what causes them to leave that brand of religion. There has been much research on authoritarian personalities since World War II, and Robinson also posts on John Dean's new book about that research and the light it sheds on modern conservatism. Robinson's post on people who leave fundamentalism raises an interesting question - in all this research on both the "leader" and "follower" flavor of what psychologists call "social dominance orientation," has there been research on "curing," or at least redirecting in a more constructive fashion, the "followers"? Ah, the conservatives and the fundamentalists would go nuts at that thought, wouldn't they? Research money to cure conservatism? That would be interesting, indeed.

Saturday, August 12, 2006

Our Biological Foreign Policy

Out of the Washington Post, we hear that Thomas A. Shannon Jr., assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, sees the beginning of the end in Cuba. Conceding that the U.S. government doesn't know much about Fidel Castro's condition, Shannon argued that Fidel's absence from view was a sign that his illness was serious, and that efforts at a transition were already underway.

But Shannon predicted the regime would have a rocky time outlasting Castro. "Ultimately, this transfer won't work," he said. "Ultimately, there's no political figure inside of Cuba who matches Fidel Castro."
One of the most preposterous aspects of our policy towards Cuba is that it is strictly biological - we are waiting for the old man to die, and we aren't going to take one constructive step until he does. As if it weren't bad enough that we were stuck with a failed policy, we’re also incompetent about it. After all these years of waiting for Fidel to die, shouldn't we have better intelligence on his health? Seriously, if our entire policy towards Cuba is based on Fidel's heartbeat, shouldn't we know a whole lot about that heartbeat? I'm shocked, actually. When Tony Snow confidently stated a few days ago that Fidel was not dead, I assumed it was based on inside information. But that makes me guilty of believing for one moment that this administration was both competent and truthful - my bad.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Friday Night Random Ten

From the 200 CD Changer (I'm behind the times):

1. Dar Williams - "Another Mystery"
2. Wynton Marsalis - "The Song is You"
3. Curve - "Galaxy"
4. Ozomatli - "Eva"
5. Scottish Ensemble - J.S. Bach Concerto for Violin in E major (Allegro assai)
6. U2 - "Sunday Bloody Sunday (live)"
7. The Mavericks (w/ Trisha Yearwood) - "Something Stupid"
8. Squeeze - "King George Street"
9. Terence Trent d'Arby - "I'll Never Turn My Back on You"
10. Cheik Lo - "N'Dokh"

What, nothing Brazilian?

Historical Fantasy (part one of many)

One thing I want do on this blog is talk about the way people misuse history. I have nothing special to add to the discussion of Lieberman's defeat by Lamont, but I do want to chime in on this Lieberman quote that Mark Schmitt snagged.

“I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us — more evil, or as evil, as Nazism and probably more dangerous than the Soviet Communists we fought during the long Cold War,” Mr. Lieberman said.
Schmitt rightly calls him out on this, and I have nothing to add. But it's possible that Lieberman is not as unhinged as Schmitt suggests, for he may not be thinking of the real Soviets or real Nazis here. If I were generous, I'd say he's talking about them as abstract concepts, iconic representations of Evil and Danger. In this case, what he's really saying is:
“I’m worried that too many people, both in politics and out, don’t appreciate the seriousness of the threat to American security and the evil of the enemy that faces us — more evil, or as evil, as Evil and probably more dangerous than the Danger we fought during the long Cold War.”

Here, Nazis and Soviets are merely cardboard stand-ins, signs for something else, not meant to be taken literally. There is of course, another possibility, that what he had in mind was something else, altogether.

In which case, of course, he's completely right.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Standards of Evidence - Don't Panic!

There are threads over at Slacktivist and Pharyngula about the anniversary of Nagasaki, in which there's fairly intense debate over whether this bombing, and the one at Hiroshima, were justified. I stuck my nose in those threads, but I probably should have stayed out of it. Most of the debate at both places hinges on "counterfactuals." That's a bit of historical jargon. It refers to any speculation about alternate histories. Civil War buffs do a lot of this - what if Stonewall Jackson had not been killed? What if the war started in 1836? What if things had been different at Gettysburg? What if, what if, what if?

While many historians like playing these kind of games, in our professional lives, we usually stay well away from them. The problem is standards of evidence. There are no documents, no artifacts from that alternate timeline. We can't interview anyone who was there. We can only speculate. The threads at Slacktivist and Pharyngula could go on forever, if the participants are willing, because no one can ever prove or disprove speculative history. If you assert that bombing Hiroshima was wrong because there were other alternatives, or if you say it was right because other alternatives would not have worked, you can not prove your point. Your opponent can't disprove it, either - both positions are based on speculation. As issues that can not be proven or disproven aren't science, they're not history either. (Fred at Slacktivist, who started all this, bases his opposition not on speculation, but on the principle that it is always wrong to kill civilians.)

Standards of evidence are, of course, not just an issue for historians. This morning we're hearing in the news about a terrorist plot involving liquid explosives on airplanes that the British say they have broken up. I was listening to Tom Ashbrook, host of On Point, talking to Andrew Bacevich, Professor of International Relations at Boston University, about these arrests. Bacevich made the point that right now, we in the public don't know what the actual capabilities of the people arrested might have been, whether they could have in fact carried out what is reported to have been a very ambitious plot. Ashbrook is generally a skeptical, aggressive interviewer (good for him) and he immediately demanded to know if Bacevich thought the British authorities were exaggerating. Bacevich was taken aback, trying to make it clear that he simply stating a truism, that at that moment, there wasn't much the public really knew, and that indeed, the British probably don't know everything yet, either.

In effect, the British authorities are asking us to speculate about a counterfactual, about what would have happened had they not made these arrests. Clearly, we would rather speculate about plots that might have been than dissect plots that succeeded. The issue here is how the media operates. Speculation is the order of the day. Standards of evidence are out the window in many places. The talking head shows that dominate so much of cable news are heavily based on speculation. I am reminded of that poor girl who disappeared in Aruba - for a while, the cable channels, especially Fox, were in full-on, wild-eyed speculation, condemning Aruban authorities for not following up on every hair brained theory that occurred to Nancy Grace.

Speculation works to the advantage of authoritarians and reactionaries (which is most of the Republican party, these days). "Look, see, that vague impression in the ground? It might be nothing, but what if it were a bear track? We need to be afraid of the bears." Next thing you know, you're imagining a bear behind every tree and carrying a high-powered rifle - never mind that you live in downtown Cleveland. We can speculate up all kinds of scary, scary scenarios, which leads us to ever greater levels of fear. We are to be afraid, so we must throw out the Geneva convention. We are to be afraid, so we must forget our usual concerns about torture, about due process, about civil liberties, about the rule of law.

Speculating is easy. Standards of evidence take work. Fear is all to easy. Carefully weighing the evidence to find out what the real threats are is much harder, but it's the only way to keep from being blinded by fear.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Well, if Gerard Depardieu is against it....

This is curious. The Cuban government is cracking down on satellite TV (and no, that's not the Depardieu reference, but it'd be good enough for me). They're trying to prevent Cubans from picking up U.S. TV. Normally, the Cuban government cracks down whenever the U.S. puts the screws on, but this looks more like jittery nerves. They don't want the Cubans listening to people in Miami speculating about Fidel being dead, or speculation about dissention in the Cuban military or the Party, or any speculation about a post-Fidel democracy. More than Raul staying in hiding, this is a sure sign of nervousness amongst the Cuban leadership. (GD is down at the bottom of the linked story.)

The Great Unread

Looking at the introduction to Uses of Blogs again, the opening essay by Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs raises a vital point about misrepresentation of what the blogging universe is by much of the mainstream press. Viewed from CNN or Fox or The New York Times, the blogosphere is primarily opinion and news filter sites, places like DailyKos, Eschaton, Intsapundit, or God forbid, Little Green Footballs (not that I’m an Instapundit fan, either). But most people who blog, or have a page on Myspace or Facebook, or post to some Yahoo usergroup, are not doing that kind of thing. Much of the blog universe is much more quirky and personalized than that. Try clicking on "next blog" up on the banner if you don't know what I'm talking about.

Ok, so what? There are millions of blogs which almost no one reads (this being one of them - click on my Technocrati link at the bottom). They may be the bulk of the blog universe, but not in terms of readership. Well, I’m concerned about blogs as history, or better, as historical sources. This is the first time ever, in all of human history, that so much material from non-elite sources is available. This first blog generation has the opportunity to be better known to history than any that preceded. There are already political scientists studying DKos (I don’t know any examples, but I know my fellow academics, and I'm sure people are working on it) - but more attention needs to be paid to the folks lower down the food chain, which is one of the things Uses of Blogs does. It’s critical that academics take the great unread/barely read blogosphere seriously – and archivists, too. The mainstream media could help here, too. We could be the first generation to be fully known by history, if, if, if, all this is preserved.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Watching a Man Drown

There was a time when I could say I liked Christopher Hitchens. My father gave me a copy of Letters to a Young Contrarian, which I enjoyed a great deal. I particularly admired his skewering of Mother Teresa. But as many have noted, the slide had already begun by then, and he continues to spiral downward. Slate, perhaps for the same mysterious reasons they employ Mickey Kaus, keeps handing him more rope. His latest is an analysis of what's happening in Cuba right now. Cuba is my research field, so with some trepidation I took a gander. It's not that his analysis is insane - in simplest form, he asserts that Raul's ascension to the top slot, be it temporary or not, signals the culmination of a long build up of the political power of the military in Cuba. All well and good. But this, this is nonsense:

If there had been a military coup in any other Latin American or Caribbean country, even a fairly small or obscure one, I think it safe to say that it would have made the front page of the newspapers. But the military coup in Cuba—a nation linked to ours in many vital and historic ways—has not been reported at all.

The reason it hasn't been reported is because, to the best of anyone's knowledge, it hasn't happened yet. Is Fidel dead? Nobody knows. Was he pushed aside in palace coup and his illness has been staged? Nobody knows. Is Raul right now in a mad scramble to take advantage of Fidel's illness so as to pull off a palace coup? Nobody knows.

All of these things are possible of course. But Hitchens takes it for granted that the U.S. press is refusing to accept the obvious, when nothing, in fact, is obvious at all. I suppose picking on Hitchens is far too easy. But most American know nothing about Cuba, and so his uninformed declarations can shape a lot of people's thinking, at a moment when we need to be better informed about Cuba, not less. I have long said we need to be more creative in how we deal with Cuba, but not to the point of writing fiction.

Certified mostly good

According to the Germatriculator, this site is 80% Good, 20% Evil. Sounds about right.

This site is certified 20% EVIL by the Gematriculator

This site is certified 80% GOOD by the Gematriculator

Ah, coincidence

I was over catching up on Stranger Fruit, where one of John Lynch's posts made me realize that I had founded this blog on the fifth anniversary of the day George W. Bush was given the Presidential Daily Brief headlined, "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S."

Talk about historical implications. But then George has never been big on those.

From now on, I'm telling everyone I planned it that way.

Why do we blog?

A quote from the Pew Internet & American Life Project’s "Portrait of the internet’s new storytellers":

When asked whether they blogged for themselves or for their audience, more than half of bloggers (52%) responded that they blog for themselves. About a third (32%) of bloggers blog mostly to entertain or engage their audience, and another 14% volunteered that they blogged for both themselves and their audience equally. (p. 18)

Well, maybe not. Bloggers are diarists. One thing you learn when training as an historian is that diarists are writing for an audience. Oh sure, they’ll tell you it's private, but unless they burn their diary, they mean for someone else to read it. Always be aware of this when reading the diary or letters of some important historical figure – they knew you were going to read it. Do not think for a moment you are getting unfiltered material direct from their brains – it doesn’t work that way. Thomas Jefferson didn’t write his diaries for himself, he wrote them for you.

And bloggers are public diarists, for crying out loud. I think the phrasing of the question probably had an impact here, as the other main option was “to entertain or engage their audience.” A lot of bloggers may not in fact think of it precisely that way, but they do blog so that they will be read, and they write accordingly, putting forward whatever image they want to shape for themselves, obscuring whatever they want to hide.

Indeed, data elsewhere in the report makes that clear. The top two reasons bloggers gave as their motivations for blogging: 1) To express themselves creatively (52%) and 2) To document their personal experiences or share them with others (50%). (p.8) So it’s not so much that Pew got fooled, but they’ve interpreted some of their data a little screwy.

Buried at the bottom of the report is data that indicates some ways bloggers are very different from most Americans: 25% of Americans have college degrees, 37% of bloggers do; 13% of Americans are knowledge-based professionals, 38% of bloggers are; 16%% of Americans are full or part-time students, 38% of bloggers are. (p. 23) This reinforces the idea that class-wise, bloggers skew towards the professional middle class.

Who are the bloggers?

Blogs are a potential goldmine for historians, if they get preserved, if historians learn to take them seriously, if they get preserved, if they can be reasonably catalogued, if they get preserved – well, so much for that dead horse.

Setting aside the preservation issue, the first thing any historian wants to know about any document is who wrote it? The “why” behind the writing is a close second. So, who are the bloggers and why are they writing? Ok, it ain’t new, but I wasn’t blogging when the Pew Internet & American Life Project brought out their most recent survey of bloggers (PDF). Some of it is counterintuitive – bloggers are more racially and ethnically diverse than the larger population of internet users. Indeed, non-whites and English-speaking Hispanics are more likely to be bloggers than white Anglos. There’s a dissertation topic for some sociology grad student to figure out.

Bloggers skew young, with 54% under 30 – not a surprise, but I suspect that will change as the Myspace generation gets older – and they are evenly split on gender lines. There’s not much information in the Pew report about class, though the fact that half of bloggers live in the suburbs hints that they are strongly middle-class, which would match the broader population.

Who are the bloggers? Well, in the U.S., they seem to represent a good snapshot of Americans. For future historians seeking to study U.S. popular history in the early twenty-first century, this is great.

Next up – how Pew got had by its survey respondents.

Monday, August 07, 2006

New book: Uses of Blogs

Over at Crooked Timber, John Quiggin has noted the publication of Uses of Blogs, edited by Axel Bruns and Joanne Jacobs. Looking at the contributors and reading the online introductory essay, this book would appear to be an examination of blogs from the point of view primarily of sociologists, information specialists, economists, lawyers, and psychologists - not an historian in the bunch, as far as I can tell. Not a shock - blogging is only a few years old, not yet in the viewfinder of most historians. Heck, my own research area is on material 40 to 50 years old, which makes me a student of "contemporary history." But whenever historians get around to using blogs as sources, they will want to read just this kind of thing, because Uses of Blogs is an attempt to get at basic questions of authorship - who are the bloggers, who are the blog readers, and what are the writing and reading for? These are always the first questions an historian asks when examining a document for the first time. I want to say a lot about this, and I have few comments about the introductory essay in Uses of Blogs, but for now I will simply say I like the turn of phrase "mass amateurization of publishing," (p. 3), which is a pretty fit description of blogging.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Blogs and history

“…blogs as artifacts and documents of history….”

What the heck does that mean? A lot of things, only one of which I’ll explore now. Historians and paleontologists having something in common, and it’s not just that we study the past. Both professions seek to reconstruct entire worlds with only fragmentary evidence. I’ll concede that the paleontologists have it worse, but we historians face a dilemma, in that most people’s voices are lost to history. Overwhelmingly, the voices we hear are those of the elites, and even then, only a fraction of the elites. Nearer to the present, particularly in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, we have more sources from non-elite authors, diaries, letters, and the like, but even there, only a fraction of a few. Say you’re old enough to remember the Eighties – how much of the details of your own life do you remember? How many of them can you document? You think any historian will be able to document what you can’t? Maybe, but don’t count on it. But then there were blogs….

Do you remember what you had for lunch yesterday? How ‘bout last Thursday? Jane Espenson knows. Well, she knows what she had, not you. And so do I (about her, not myself). In fact, I know a whole lot about Jane, most notably, her lunch habits and, oh yeah, her take on the scriptwriting business. If her blog archives somehow make it to 2106, I guarantee some grad student will be doing their dissertation on Jane’s lunches, and whoever else out there is posting their daily lunch habits. (It’s a big if, I’d point out.)

And that’s the kind of thing I want to talk about. Next up – beginning a discussion on blogs as sources for studying popular history.

Today: Smoked chicken enchiladas. Yesterday - no clue.

A brief statement of purpose.

This blog is devoted to history, to blogs as artifacts and documents of history, to the implications of the past upon the present. Oh yeah, and whatever is bugging or exciting me on any given day.