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.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

What if 9/11 Never Happened?

I’ve just read New York Magazine’s fascinating feature, “What if 9/11 Never Happened?” In it, a number of people were asked to imagine that different world in which four planes were not commandeered by hijackers and sent on their deadly journeys. Of course, speculating about counterfactual history (the technical term for “what if?”) tells us nothing about history. Mostly, it tells us about the psychology of the author - their perspective on events, their understanding of what matters, their personal quirks.

I tend to agree with the writers in the piece who imagine a world not terribly different from the one we are in – different details, but shaped by social, political, and economic forces into more-or-less the same place we are now. Most of the writers who talk about politics in their piece assume that Bush would not have gotten a second term, or alternately, that his bullhorn moment would have taken place in New Orleans, not New York. Maybe, there’s no knowing. It is entirely possible, as Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic suggests, that without 9/11, there would have been 9/12, or some other date, that bin Ladin really was determined to attack within the U.S., and September 11, 2006 would be different only in that the five year anniversary would still be a few weeks, months, or a year or two away.

For me, the most surprising piece came from real estate appraiser Jonathan Miller:

September 11 prompted this housing boom. Just before 9/11 we were in a recession; housing prices began to fall and volume really dropped off. We would have seen a continuation of a slide throughout much of the next two years. A run-up occurred as the result of the Fed’s post-9/11 action to drop interest rates, which led to a sharp decrease in mortgage rates. It’s that decrease that ultimately led to the price appreciation we’ve seen.
I was stunned at the parochrialism, but then I thought, no, this is no different from Thomas Friedman’s piece obsessing about China – these essays are about the personal focus of each author, not about history. And, this is New York Maganize – in New York, what 9/11 did to the real estate market is very important to a lot of people.

Notably, only Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant, makes the obvious statement – 3000 people would still be alive.

Friday, September 08, 2006

9/11 and The Movie Analogy

Tom Engelhardt has written an intriguing article for The Nation entitled “9/11 in a Movie-Made World.” The thrust of the article is that it was through the lens of Hollywood movies that many Americans understood what was happening on that terrible day and during its immediate aftermath. I remember some of the things Engelhardt writes about – references to Independence Day, Godzilla movies, and The Towering Inferno. The Tennessean being my hometown paper, I also remember seeing The Day After headline that Engelhardt references. I remember thinking how strange all these references were, how terribly out-of-place they were. This wasn’t a movie, and the day's events could not be understood in Hollywood terms.

As Engelhardt suggests, these references have consequences. In the recent dust-up over Donald Rumsfeld’s use of the Munich Analogy in discussing critics of the Bush Administration’s policies in Iraq and in combating terror, most of Rumsfeld’s critics focused on the idea that comparing his and Bush’s critics to Nazi appeasers was inaccurate and unjustified. I myself made that complaint. But there’s another issue here, and that’s how that analogy shapes Rumsfeld’s own thinking.

The analogies we use to discuss historic events are not simple turns of phrase. As Engelhardt suggests, these analogies have real power. They frame those events in such a way as to suggest how we should respond to them, and further, to limit how we respond to them. If you argue, for example, that Islamic militants are like the fascists of World War II, then the only reasonable response is to annihilate them, as that was how we defeated fascism the first time around. Bush and Rumsfeld know this, of course – their use of such language is no accident.

Maybe I was bothered by the movie analogies used five years ago because I’m not much of a movie-goer. But I think it was more my historian’s training kicking in – movies are too simple to encapsulate 9/11. Note that Oliver Stone, in his recent 9/11 movie, chose to focus on the stories of just two men, men who spent much of that day trapped in the rubble. Even with all the resources of Hollywood magic, Stone, no stranger to ambitious movie making, decided that the big picture was much too large, much too complex to even dare to approach.

We need new analogies. September 11 was not December 7, and al Qaeda is not the German Nazi party. When I think of the violent house of mirrors that is terrorism and the war on terror, I think of something like The Usual Suspects: no one really knows what’s going on, the police are hampered by language and cultural barriers, people are sent to fight an enemy they don’t understand and wind up fighting someone else altogether, the people you like get killed by mysterious forces, the bad guy gets away, and the chief detective is befuddled and angry, wanting to lash out but not knowing where to strike. On second thought, anybody up for The Princess Bride?

Trying to Remember the World Trade Center

Via the AP and the Washington Post, Amy Westfeldt has penned an interesting article about efforts to preserve historical artifacts from the World Trade Center. Wreckage from the buildings, artifacts from the stores and offices housed there, and reminders of the people who worked and died there are all being stored in a giant hanger at JFK airport. This collection is meant in large part to preserve objects for later display at a World Trade Center memorial and at museums around the world.

Memorializing is tricky. Memorials try to fix in place a particular understanding, a certain viewpoint about the events they memorialize. But the meaning of any historical event changes across time, and so too do the memorials to those events. Memorials to Confederate war heroes, for example, are viewed quite differently now than they were when they were erected, even by those who think well of the Confederate cause. We can never know how the future will view the past, or how it will view us. Bart Voorsanger, who directed the process of collecting these artifacts, asks the right question, but it is a difficult one:

"I wasn't interested in our particular generation. They've already seen it," said Voorsanger. "If your grandchildren came to visit, would it mean anything to them?"
Yes, it certainly will, but what? Depending on its size and design, any World Trade Center memorial might simply mean a nice place to sit and escape the city bustle. Designed differently, it might mean “wow, this is a big space,” in the way the cathedrals of Europe do to many visitors.

This might seem offensive to us, but the reality is that generations who did not live through those moments will never experience a World Trade Center memorial the way we do, anymore than I feel the way about a World War I memorial the way a surviving veteran might. Alice Greenwald, the director of the planned World Trade Center Memorial Museum, notes in the AP article that what objects are used in the memorial will depend on what story the memorial is designed to tell. There is already a great deal of struggle over that issue, but no matter what vision wins out, the long-term meaning of a memorial is anyone’s guess. The builders of the Lincoln Memorial had no idea it would become an iconic background with a million different meanings in countless movies and TV shows, and we don’t know what the future will think of the World Trade Center memorial until we get there.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Truth is Hard; Lies are Much Too Easy

I haven’t weighed in on the controversy over the ABC 9/11 film because I don’t have any new information – I can only repeat what is widely available at Eschaton, DailyKos, Firedoglake, and elsewhere. But the attitudes and obvious bias of ABC/Disney in this affair compels me to speak about this, wearing my historian’s hat.

I hate it when people lie about history.

I’m a professional historian. I have specialized training, a title, a paycheck, membership in various professional organizations and a few publications to my name. Because of this, I feel a strong personal and professional responsibility to historical truth. Now, “truth,” when talking about history, is complicated. We might all agree on certain facts – Custer and his men were wiped out at Little Bighorn – but what do those facts signify? And even getting the empirical facts straight can be tricky – did Richard III have the two princes in the Tower killed or not?

But some pieces of empirical information are easier to pin down than others. By their own admission, the film ABC/Disney plans to show contains improvised and “composite” scenes - read “fiction” – even though they are claiming the film is based on the 9/11 Commission Report. They are presenting this as “true,” as the real thing, when they openly admit that not all of it is. And the fictionalized parts are not trivial – some of them clearly depict the Clinton Administration as making a deliberate choice not to kill or capture bin Ladin when they had easy opportunities to do so. That’s a very serious charge, and needs serious evidence to back it up.

The truth is that we know that the people behind the film have Republican ties, and we must conclude that the anti-Clinton stance is deliberate, and deliberately timed. Oliver Stone’s film, JFK, bothered me because it perpetuated a version of history that is not supported in any way by the evidence. As Americans are not deeply historically-minded, I was concerned that his film would convince many people of a set of “facts” that were without basis. But I also believe that Stone genuinely believes that Kennedy was, or probably was, killed as the result of a conspiracy. If I recall correctly, the scenes in which the conspiracy was portrayed were presented as speculation, not unvarnished fact. I’d give him a low grade if he turned that film in as a term paper, but I probably wouldn’t flunk him. Bad historical analysis is not necessarily dishonest historical analysis.

ABD/Disney and the producers of the 9/11 film are up to something else. Even if you argue that the “facts are in dispute,” the principals are all alive and available for rebuttal. Stone couldn’t ask Jack Ruby for his perspective, but ABC/Disney is presenting a “j’accuse” against the Clinton Administration without any evidence to back them up and without any acknowledgement that the officials involved have vigorously disputed the claims the film makes. As I write this ABC is backpedaling, claiming the film is “unfinished.” (Funny – it wasn’t “unfinished” enough to prevent sending it to Rush Limbaugh.) Let us hope that their revisions lead to a more honest portrayal, one that at least recognizes that the version of events in the first draft have been hotly disputed by the players involved. We can not go back and change time itself, but we can rewrite history to make it something utterly alien to any honest version of the truth. Let’s hope that doesn’t happen this time.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Sounds About Right

I am nerdier than 70% of all people. Are you nerdier? Click here to find out!

Seems the science bloggers are having a nerd-off - can't let them have all the fun!

Who Were Those People, Anyway?

People use history for all kinds of purposes, not a few of which are nefarious. I know next to nothing about Korean history, but I recognize what’s going on in this article about disputes between China and South Korea over the identity of early inhabitants of the Korean peninsula. Research recently published in China continues a very old assertion that what we call Korea was really just an extension of China from around 2000 BC to around 1000 AD. Korea, not surprisingly, rejects this notion. (Oh, and what’s up with being able to listen to the story read by either a female or a male announcer?)

Assertions about the identity of historical peoples almost always are linked to present-day claims about territorial rights or political power. In the Balkans, many people expend a great deal of energy trying to prove that this person or that person was a “Serb,” or a “Bulgarian,” or an “Albanian,” so as to claim rights to some scrap of land in the here and now. In the Middle East, you can find people who will tell you that there is no such thing as a “Palestinian,” and there never was. You can also find people who will tell you that there is no historical evidence whatsoever of any Jewish or Hebrew kingdoms in the ancient past. The motivations behind these claims are obvious.

The problem with claims like these is that quite often the terms we use today were unfamiliar or meaningless to people in the past. The term “Indian” (in the American, not South Asian sense) had no meaning whatsoever, indeed, did not exist, before the Europeans arrived in the Western Hemisphere. There were no substitute terms for it either. The peoples of the Americas had no word to distinguish themselves from Europeans, Africans, and Asians because they did not know those other people existed. The words they would have used to describe all the peoples of the Americas probably would have translated into English as “human,” because for them, the Americas were the entire world.

In our country, people today argue over whether the Founding Fathers were Christian. Well, define “Christian.” Were the ancient Egyptians black? Well, define “black.” People mix and mingle, cultures mix and mingle, and there are no pure strains, genetically nor culturally, that stretch back over the centuries. It’s a fools errand, but as long as people believe that whatever their great-great-grandfather did justifies whatever they are doing now, people will keep arguing about these things.

As Goes Billings, So Goes the Nation (I Hope)

I’m shocked, really. What is there to say? Students are apparently knocking down the door at Montana State University-Billings to become history majors. Someone find out what’s in the water in the dorms and send some of it my way – we could use it!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Why We have Tenure

Tenure is a funny thing, and not always easy to justify to people outside of academe. Heck, it can be hard to justify to people inside, too – I certainly have encountered individuals who should not have it. One reason people have trouble with it is they don’t understand it – many non-academics are unaware, for example, that those who fail to get tenure are fired as a result – or, more precisely, their contracts are not renewed. On the other had, at my own school, we do not have a system of merit raises, so there’s a real question as to why anyone should make any extra effort once they get tenure – pride, I suppose. Any system of tenure that does not include real accountability is prone to produce at least a few disasters.

As I come up for tenure for the second time (I gave it up once before to leave an institution I was very unhappy at), I am however reminded of why we have tenure in the first place. Out of Iran, we hear that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is calling for liberal and secular professors to be purged from Iran’s universities. Already many have been forced out – now Ahmadinejad wants conservative students to agitate for further purges. Tenure, whatever its flaws, is designed to prevent just this. Tenure does not protect me from budget-based layoffs. It does not protect me if I’m caught sleeping with students, or if I shoot someone on the campus lawn. It does not protect me if I am manifestly not doing my job. But if the voters in the great state of Tennessee decide to elect a whole host of wingnuts to the legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, I can’t be fired for my politics or my religion. For that matter, I can’t be fired because the Governor decides that postmodernism is the only way while I remain wedded to a fuddy-duddy form of empiricism. I whistle past the graveyard reading a story like this. Tenure could be abolished at any time, and I doubt there would be much public outcry. But some form of tenure must continue into the future to prevent scenes like the one in Iran from happening here.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Our Insane Cuba Policy, Havana Club Edition

Most people are under the impression that we really don’t have any dealings with Cuba, but in fact our continued entanglements with Cuba, on all levels, are many. The first time I went to Cuba, I was surprised to see some recognizable U.S. products, notably Coca-Cola. You can get a Cuba Libre in Cuba (rum and Coke), though, given the symbolism, I don’t think that’s what it’s called in Havana. The Coke I saw, of course, was not manufactured in the U.S., but by a firm in another country that licensed the product.

The U.S. and Cuba have generally respected each other’s trademark laws. Now though we may find ourselves in a trademark war with Cuba, as the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has recently ruled Cuba’s right to the Havana Club name invalid, opening the door for Bacardi to begin selling rum under that name. Bacardi has invested heavily in lobbying for changes in U.S. law to make this possible, notably with large donations to the Republican Party, including the disgraced Tom Delay (R-TX). Last year’s “Bacardi Bill,” sponsored by Rep. Tom Feeney (R-FL), paved the way for the ruling in Bacardi’s favor.

This of course opens the door for retaliation. There’s nothing to stop Cuba from manufacturing blue jeans, slapping a “Levi’s” label on them, and selling them cheap to anyone who will buy them. There’s a reason we’ve respected Cuban trademark law till now, and why many U.S. firms have registered their own trademarks in Cuba, even if they can’t sell anything there. But for some people, it does not matter – all that matter is sticking it to Fidel. Said Feeney:

And any time I can take a shot at Fidel Castro and his minions, I do it. This is another well-deserved pummeling.
So look for Havana Club to show up at a liquor store near you. And keep an eye out for U.S. firms being forced to spend millions to defend their copyrights abroad if Havana decides to retaliate. So goes our ever nutty Cuba policy.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Graduates Who are Not Ready for College

I’m a bit late posting on this, but there was very interesting article in The New York Times yesterday concerning the number of students at junior colleges who required remedial work. This isn’t just a problem for two-year schools, as this problem also appears in four-year schools. Many students who graduate from high school are shocked to find that their skills in writing, reading, and math are not sufficient for college work. The article points out that some of the students who need remedial work are people who got good grades, even honors, in grade school. What’s going on here?

There are some obvious possible answers. Grade inflation, coupled with a lack of rigor, would be obvious suspects, and undoubtedly these play a factor. But there are some other factors I think are at work here. One is the increased emphasis in our education system on standardized testing. Teachers and school systems increasingly find that their livelihoods and their funding depend on how students perform on these tests. Let me tell you – if you told me my paycheck depended on how well students were doing on a particular test, I’m going to teach that test, probably to the exclusion of everything else. Students whose education revolves around learning these tests do not get the kind of well-rounded education required to develop the critical thinking skills that are needed for college work, which is probably one of the things that is hurting them.

The other thing I think that is happening here is that it is my experience that students do not read enough. Even good students are not reading much for pleasure now, and they read newspapers less and less. Yes, they’re on-line and are “txt msgng” each other like mad, but not enough to enable them to develop strong vocabularies, good critical thinking skills, or a broad cultural knowledge. I’m not sure what the answer is here, but in the short run at least, colleges need to put ever more emphasis on reading and writing. This may seem obvious, but I think we’re up against something critical.

If I were the curriculum god, I would put every student in a reading and writing seminar every semester, with a reading list for the whole institution that every student would be expected to finish before graduation. This is not a call to teach all the Dead White Males – I’m less concerned about the precise works that are being read, more concerned that the process of reading and analysis is taking place, and that students and professors can rely on a common set of cultural references from which to do analysis. If I were the curriculum god.

Now Fully In Beta Blogger

Well, I made the shift, which is why there's a new look. I want to customize this more, but I need to poke around a bit to figure out how to do the things I want. Best thing so far - tags! Or labels, as Blogger calls them, for some odd reason.

Friday, September 01, 2006

In Which I Revel in My Pretentiousness!

Hey great, Warner Todd Huston has taken me to task, and called me pretentious to boot! This is great – I get what, 30 hits a day, and he bothers with little old me – thanks Warner! WTH thinks my post criticizing his essay called "ABC -- Feteshizing 'Minority' History" was way off base, and ain’t shy to say why. Well, I guess the only thing to do is go through this point by point.

1. First, let’s get an important issue out of the way. My name is Theron Corse, and I teach at Tennessee State University – not exactly the ivory tower, but a decent job. Not hiding really – I’ve only been doing this for a few weeks and wanted to update my professional website before I linked to it – so there you go.

2. Now, let’s delve into the critique:

This blogger goes on and on with his assumptions ad nauseum, but never once contacted me to begin a dialog to see if his leftist, tripe would bear out.
“Ad naseum” implies a long, reptitive screed, but that’s in the eye of the beholder. And contact him – well, nobody reads this blog, but point taken. The next time I critique one of your essays, Warner, I’ll do you the courtesy of a notice, as you did for me.

2. About those assumptions – I made two main claims about WTH’s essay, one explicit, one implied. The first one was this:
What intrigues me though is the repeated claim that non-white history in the United States is a minor, superfluous topic (he even calls it “minutiae”), that merely distracts students from the important stories and adds little to our understanding of U.S. history.
That was based on certain quotes of his:
The United States of America was not founded by Blacks, Asians, or "Latinos", even though each added to the flavor of the stew. White, Anglo-Saxons where who won the battles to make the United States possible. [snip] For that matter, few Asians even lived outside California for many years in our early Republic. They just weren't a factor in our founding and growth, railroad-building aside. [snip] To waste time with all these "minority" views of history in our grade schools cheats our hildren out of learning the basics while they focus on the less important minutia. [snip] To people like Texeira, history should be about "diversity", not about presenting a program based on what is important and formative before presenting the minutia.
And there were others. Yes, WTH does say that there were non Anglo-Saxon’s in the stew, but he’s also very clear about that he considers these groups to be secondary, at best. Again, his word was “minutiae.”

The second claim I made, by implication, about WTH was that he held a certain narrow belief. I wrote:
The belief that only “Anglo-Saxons” made significant contributions to the history of this country is highly myopic.
Well, “only” perhaps was strong – he did allow that the Chinese helped build railroads, for example. But he was abundantly clear that Anglo-Saxons founded this country and “won the battles to make the United States possible.” WTH clearly disagrees, but I think that based on his essay, these two points stand.

3. I don’t think I claimed that WTH wanted non-Anglo-Saxon history eliminated, as he states in his rebuttal. I did say that he thought it “minor” and “superfluous,” based on this quote:
To waste time with all these "minority" views of history in our grade schools cheats our children out of learning the basics while they focus on the less important minutia.
I call ‘em like I see ‘em.

4. In his rebuttal, WTH demands to know why we need to know about the Chinese having a hard time and about “Latinos” on U.S. soil before 1776. Well, that’s simple. Spaniards, or Mexicans, or whatever you want to call them, founded Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, California, Arizona, and Nevada, and were in Utah before the Mormons. And those railroads would not have been built as quickly without the Chinese, slowing down the settlement of the West. Nor would Pacific Coast culture be what it is today without their presence. This would be a different country without them. Our political history would be different without the backlash against them. What country would we be if these people had not been here? I have no idea. And WTH doesn’t answer these questions I raised:
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?
We would be a different country, certainly.

5. WTH pounces on my mention of the food of these different groups. Food very much shapes history. Just one exanple: the Europeans who came over learned to eat corn, and thus sought out land to plant it in, and organized their economy and settlement patterns around it. If they had stuck to wheat only, or had emphasized potatoes instead, we would have developed differently, as those plants have other requirements. And we would have developed more slowly, because wheat can not grow productively everywhere that corn can. No corn, fewer people. Food matters. (And no corn, no corn-based alcohols!)

6. Oh, and he suggests I’m an ivory-tower Marxist. Partly this is because I use the term “teeming masses,” which he says is a Communist term. Maybe, I don't know, but it’s also a common English phrase. Just try Googling it – 72,000 hits, not all of which are socialist. Ivory Tower? Hey, I went to a lot of trouble to get an Ivory Tower job! I could have made a lot more money doing something else. It’s not my fault if other people chose 9-5, two-weeks-of-vacation-per-year jobs! But seriously – I’m not a Marxist. Marx was a terrible historian. I am influenced by Antonio Gramsci’s ideas about hegemony, but that’s more about how elites rule through propaganda than about socialism. And Ivory Tower or not, I still have to pay my mortgage! And my research is on religion in Communist Cuba - and while my book won't be out till next fall, it's hardly pro-Castro.

So thanks for the link Warner. I disagree with your analysis, as you’ve probably noticed, but like they say in Hollywood, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. And trust me – a good teacher can cover “minority” history and the Gettysburg Address. Really, we can - I do it all the time.

Making the Elephant Disappear

There's a new history curriculum for grade schools in China, and it has a few obvious omissions:

Socialism has been reduced to a single, short chapter in the senior high school history course. Chinese communism before the economic reform that began in 1979 is covered in a sentence. The text mentions Mao Zedong only once — in a chapter on etiquette.
The current regime has long since jettisoned most of Mao's ideology, though they are not ready to denounce his atrocities. So they've settled on an oldie but goody - they're going to ignore him. And if this policy remains in place, Mao will fade from Chinese consciousness. This may seem ludicrous. Mao's legacy is ubiquitous in China - how could he be forgotten? But it's easy enough - my students today, born on average in the mid-1980s, not only do not remember Ronald Reagan - many have never heard of him. History, besides the things I listed in the previous post, is what we choose to remember. Those on the right who complain about an overemphasis on minority history in grade school curriculum, or who say there's too much talk about slavery, Indian removal, or the struggles of the early industrial working class, think that these things are unimportant in large part because they don't know much about them. They have, through the choices of their teachers and their own choices in reading, been exposed to a version of history that marginalizes these issues. When they are confronted with a different version of U.S. history, they see it as being incorrect. It is not what they "know" to be correct. If the current curriculum changes remain in place in China long enough, in a generation or so we'll be faced with a nation that "knows" that the legacy of Mao - who? - is trivial.

It's really that simple to remake the past. If you control the conversation about the past, you can turn the past into anything you want. You can even make Mao disappear.