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Wednesday night at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, I’ll be introducing—probably with a very, very short introduction—a double bill of Our Daily Bread and The Plow that Broke the Plains. You can find details here.

They’re pretty remarkable films, released only two years apart, but what a two years. The wild, really kind of crazy and fantastic hope1 in Our Daily Bread yields to the brutal, dismal—I don’t know if I want to say realistic per se, but certainly more realistic and inconclusive picture of The Plow that Broke the Plains. Just as, broadly speaking, you could say the New Deal went from the idea of We Can (and Should) Do Anything to We Need to Work within Clear Limits over the same period.

Really, I guess you should watch Vidor’s fable first and then Lorentz’s documentary.

Anyway, I’ll have something to say in this line tomorrow night.

1Which is described as leftist. But do you notice in the scene where they talk about what form of government they want to have, they reject democracy and socialism, and conclude, it’s a big job and we need a big man to run it? Hmmm.

Dear Texas Legislature,

I am given to understand that you are considering making it legal for students over the age of 21 to carry concealed weapons on campus.   The thought is that doing so would prevent mass murders like the one that happened at Virginia Tech.

It’s a pleasant daydream for these Walther Mittys.  One can imagine any number of ways, all out of bad action movies.  The tall young professor with the twinkling blue eyes, his class interrupted by a gunman, athletically rolls under the desk, brings up his weapon, and fires two shots into the torso of the assailant… the alternachick literature prof who had been a pacifist until she learned the error of her ways in Guatemala, pulls her weapon from her organic hemp rucksack, and wounds the gunman in the leg…. the elderly don with the tweed blazer and bowtie, calmly firing his antique revolver, ejaculating “You shall not interrupt my lecture on Charlemagne, you cur!”

(“It says, ‘Puppies bark for it’, on the box.”)

Read the rest of this entry »

The latest evidence? He’s doing some sleuthing over at the Times about a Civil-War-era photograph. The first of what will be a five-part series is linked above.

Here’s the hook:

The soldier’s body was found near the center of Gettysburg with no identification — no regimental numbers on his cap, no corps badge on his jacket, no letters, no diary. Nothing save for an ambrotype (an early type of photograph popular in the late 1850s and 1860s) of three small children clutched in his hand. Within a few days the ambrotype came into the possession of Benjamin Schriver, a tavern keeper in the small town of Graeffenburg, about 13 miles west of Gettysburg. The details of how Schriver came into possession of the ambrotype have been lost to history. But the rest of the story survives, a story in which this photograph of three small children was used for both good and wicked purposes. First, the good.

It goes on from there. Though so far only to Part Two, which can be found here.

More precisely, it turns out that this is the right year to be applying to college if you’re the moderately talented child of exceptionally wealthy parents. Honestly, I had no idea there were so many ways around need-blind admissions.

Teaching composition exclusively leads to (1) a greater appreciation for the pedestrian complexity of correctly subordinated clauses and (2) a bone-tiredness for the unmerited praise of student peer reviews.  As someone with a penchant for paragraph-length sentences, I find (1) wholly salutary; but (2) irks me endlessly.  Why?  In one of my undergraduate History of the English Language course, the professor handed out slips of paper on which he had written a single sentence and told everyone to decipher what it meant, because he wanted us to present the sentence and the paraphrase to the class in ten minutes.  My sentence read:

Another thing there is that fixeth a grievous scandal upon that nation in matter of philargyrie, or love of money, and it is this: There hath been in London, and repairing to it, for these many years together, a knot of Scotish bankers, collybists, or coine-coursers, of traffickers in merchandise to and againe, and of men of other professions, who by hook and crook, fas et nefas, slight and might, (all being as fish their net could catch), having feathered their nests to some purpose, look so idolatrously upon their Dagon of wealth, and so closely, (like the earth’s dull center), hug all unto themselves, that for no respect of vertue, honour, kindred, patriotism, or whatever else, (be it never so recommendable), will they depart from so much as one single peny, whose emission doth not, without any hazard of loss, in a very short time superlucrate beyond all conscience an additionall increase to the heap of that stock which they so much adore; which churlish and tenacious humor hath made many that were not acquainted with any else of that country, to imagine all their compatriots infected with the same leprosie of a wretched peevishness, whereof those quomodocunquizing clusterfists and rapacious varlets have given of late such cannibal-like proofs, by their inhumanity and obdurate carriage towards some, (whose shoe-strings they are not worthy to unty), that were it not that a more able pen than mine will assuredly not faile to jerk them on all sides, in case, by their better demeanour for the future, they endeavour not to wipe off the blot wherewith their native country, by their sordid avarice and miserable baseness, hath been so foully stained, I would at this very instant blaze them out in their names and surnames, notwithstanding the vizard of Presbyterian zeal wherewith they maske themselves, that like so many wolves, foxes, or Athenian Timons, they might in all times coming be debarred the benefit of any honest conversation.

That would be from the EKΣKYBAΛAYPON of Thomas Urquhart, best known for his translations of Rabelais.* In Urquhart, Rabelais found less a translator than a kindred spirit; but in Urquhart’s prose, I found an unparaphraseable wall of words, before which I stood befuddled but impressed.  Granted, I should have been impressed, so the analogy to peer reviews is imperfect; but my comprehension and subsequent paraphrase of Urquhart amounted to what I abhor in peer reviews: salivation at the sight of a dependent clause containing multiple polysyllabes and a “Good!” slapped in the margins—as if knowing big words and including them complex sentences means someone’s saying anything meaningful.  But now that I teach composition exclusively, I see similar instances of unmerited praise everywhere:

When most former major leaguers write memoirs, you wonder why they bothered; with Ron Darling—Yale graduate, former New York Met and Oakland A, and current Mets broadcaster—you wonder why it took him so long. What other former athlete could write a sentence like this even with assistance from a professional writer (Daniel Paisner): “This right here [his legendary college pitching duel against St. Johns star Frank Viola**] was one of the great epiphanies for me as a competitive athlete, only it took a while for it to resonate.” Most former pitchers can’t resonate even with help.

Just so you know, my love of béisbol knows no limits; moreover, my love of the Mets generally, and Ron Darling in particular—both as a player and announcer—is unimpeachable.  But for the San Fransisco Chronicle to praise a Yale graduate who double-majored in French and Southeast Asian history and who speaks both Chinese and French fluently—to praise him (if it was him and not his co-writer) for using the words “epiphany” and “resonate” makes me want to quodlibetificate into demission this clusterheaded intelligentry, the miserable baseness of whose expectations ought to debar them from the profession of letters.


*But who should be remembered for titling the second volume of his Logopandecteision; or an Introduction to the Universal Language thus: Chrestasebeia; or, Impious Dealing of Creditors Wherein the Severity of the Creditors of the Author’s Family is Desired to Be Removed, as a Main Impediment to the Production of this Universal Language, and Publication of Other No Less Considerable Treatises.

**The bracketed link takes you to 95 percent of Roger Angell’s “The Web of the Game,” a contender for the best essay about baseball ever written.


On this week in history, the German Army launched its last-ditch 1918 offensive, aimed at breaking the Entente lines in northwestern France and marching to Paris. The offensive was something of a throw of the dice, an attempt by the German High Command to try and win the war before the full flood of American soldiers crashed across the Atlantic. It nearly worked.

Otto Dix, Stormtroopers Advancing Under Gas (1924)

The Western Front in WWI had been a largely static war since the freewheeling days of 1914. In this, it resembled less battles and battlefields than sieges and fortifications. The trench system that stretched from Switzerland to the English Channel meant that the traditional methods of open warfare–flanking maneuvers, for example–had become essentially impossible. What was left were frontal assaults, with all the expected sanguinary implications. The central tactical question, from 1914 onward, had been how to get an attack across No Man’s Land, from one trench system to another, and then hold it, all without losing too many casualties in the process. The years 1916-1917 were experimental, as all the armies tried a variety of ways to mount assaults. Some were unsuccessful: the German gas attack at Ypres in 1915 momentarily opened a gap in the British line, but the German troops were mostly held by a combination of dogged Canadian defenders and the difficulties of moving up into their own gas. Some were successful: in 1917, the British mounted successful assaults at Messines Ridge and Cambrai, broke through German lines using, for the former, carefully organized artillery bombardments and “bite and hold” tactics and, for the latter, using mass ranks of armored vehicles, “tanks.” Some were disasters: at the Somme and Verdun in 1916, and Passchendaele in 1917, British and German assaults had turned in cauldrons that boiled hundreds of thousands alive. This mixture of successes, failures, and catastrophes had killed millions and stretched the war out without result.

By 1918, the Germans thought that they had figured out a way to do it. Read the rest of this entry »

[Cross-posted from The Jamestown Project]

When you have to agree to third party air strikes on your own territory, that’s a leading indicator:

All predator drone strikes have to be approved by the Pakistanis–and Zardari has approved four times as many in the past nine months as his predecessor, Pervez Musharraf, approved in the year before that.

From here.

Several comments to the Wild Things post discuss reading aloud to kids, which of course all good-hearted parents are meant to do for the tots.

But then there comes the stage when the children achieve escape velocity and launch into reading on their own, outstripping the need or wish to have you read to them. How do you help them find their way? Do you, at all?

I know Charles and Mary Beard constructed their house in part as an ideal school-out-of-school for their children—on a farm, and so in touch with country things; close to New York; stocked with nourishing books for the kids to read at leisure. Kind of a most benevolent Skinner box.

I know too in my own youth, I was awfully fond of … let’s call it “genre fiction” to be kind. At one point my father said, no, you won’t be writing a book report on … that, and gave me David Copperfield instead. Which of course I resented in the moment and later was grateful for.

In our house we had an Encyclopedia Britannica and the complete set of Will and Ariel Durant. Which maybe explains quite a lot.

How about you? Have you tried to guide your kids’ reading? Did your parents for you?

Litbrit, writing at cogitamus, celebrates the news that director Spike Jonze has adapted Where the Wild Things Are. While I echo her enthusiasm for the original source material, I’m not convinced by the above trailer that the film will satisfy my discerning tastes. For I share with the fans of Watchmen a sense that some printed texts are sacred and should not be rendered in moving pictures.

* See here.

Since it’s midterm time, you might find yourself on the business end of a request to improve a grade because “it’s really important that I get an A!” (I got one of these a little while ago: “I need to do well in your class because I’m not doing well in orgo!” My reply– why don’t you solve that problem by doing better in orgo?– was deemed unhelpful.) And you might be tempted to respond: that’s stupid, go away. Here’s how you can say something even better, namely, “I’d love to help you out, but the very nature of rational agency forbids it.” Or, here’s why Kant would tell you not to raise the grade.
Read the rest of this entry »

What happens when a liberal president cozies up to the banking class in his effort to get out of a world-historical economic crisis?

He was surprised and wounded at the way the upper classes turned on him…. Consider the situation in which he came to office. The economic machinery of the nation had broken down…. People who had anything to lose were frightened; they were willing to accept any way out that would leave them still in possession…. Although he had adopted many novel, perhaps risky expedients, he had avoided vital disturbances to the interests. For example, he had passed by an easy chance to solve the bank crisis by nationalization…. His basic policies for industry and agriculture had been designed after models supplied by great vested-interest groups. Of course, he had adopted several measures of relief and reform, but mainly of the sort that any wise and humane conservative would admit to be necessary….

Nothing that [he] had done warranted the vituperation he soon got in the conservative press or the obscenities that the … maniacs were bruiting about in their clubs and dining-rooms. Quite understandably he began to feel that the people who were castigating him were muddle-headed ingrates.

This is of course Hofstadter on FDR, pp. 434-435—the same passage where he explains, “It has often been said that he betrayed his class; but if by his class one means the whole policy-making, power-wielding stratum, it would be just as true to say his class betrayed him.”

The first half of March witnessed three themes mingling in the New York Times coverage of China. First was the “Open Door” policy of Secretary of State John Hay, an attempt to leverage open the Chinese markets for American manufacturers.

Secretary of State John Hay

Second was the continuing imperial rivalries over China itself, most particularly that of Russia and Japan. Third was the growing perception that the Dowager Empress of China was resolutely anti-foreign and trying to do everything she could to break such influence in China. In this latter, the Boxers–or “Bozers” as one unfortunate typo declared in mid-March–were seen as one part of her anti-foreign effort. [1]

Hay’s policy seemed to be on the brink of global adoption, or so the President of the University of California, Benjamin Ide Wheeler (a Cornellian), said in a speech in San Francisco on March 11, 1900:

In the course of the week, Secretary of State Hay will announce to the people a victory, not of war–call it of diplomacy, if you please–in that the ports of China will be opened to the commerce of the world. He has reached an understanding with Great Britain, France, Russia, and Germany, which does away with territorial spheres of influence. According to the terms of the agreement, there will be no longer any spheres of influence in the Flowery Kingdom….The idea is to make the ports free to the world’s commerce and give all nations a free hand in exploiting their markets. [2]

It should be noted, of course, that the “open door” did not refer to immigration, where the Chinese Exclusion Act (coming up for renewal in 1902) restricted the number of Chinese who could enter the United States. Read the rest of this entry »

(There was a post here.  Now it’s over here.  To me it resembled the first foray into something that might lead to something like this.  Apparently not.  No big deal.  But now you know why I have a complex.)

If you were teaching a methods/historiography course, what texts would you use? And yes, I know methods and historiography are two different things, thanks.

As I said in comments to Dave’s post, below, I can think of two essays in the “They (Almost Certainly) Never Said (Quite) That” genre.

Auerbach, Jerold S. “Woodrow Wilson’s ‘Prediction’ to Frank Cobb: Words Historians should Doubt Ever Got Spoken.” Journal of American History 54, no. 3 (December 1967): 608-617.

Somkin, Fred. “How Vanzetti Said Goodbye.” Journal of American History 68, no. 2 (September 1981): 298-312.

There’s a special pleasure in these essays, whose authors shy away from claiming to have proved a negative, but who tenaciously pursue clues and use deduction in as visible a way as possible to persuade you of their case.

So a while back, Rob linked to this piece at Duck of Minerva, where Charli Carpenter called attention to this essay arguing that a quotation oft-attributed to Edmund Burke was not, in fact, written by Edmund Burke. As Rob noted, the aphorism — some permutation of “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” — doesn’t even sound like something Burke would say or believe.  It was all quite interesting, and I was able to use Rob’s and Charli’s posts in my historical methods course as a first-day conversation piece.

Anyhow, I was reminded of all this last night as I was laughing at the ridiculous signage to be discovered at the Orlando “Tea Party,” where literally hundreds of people showed up to . . . um . . . go John Galt or something.  Amid the verbal and visual detritus, there was this contrived moment of photo-citizen-journalism:


The resemblance to the bogus Burke quotation strikes me as odd and suspicious.  And though I’m not a Jefferson scholar by any stretch, I’d never actually seen this idea attributed to him.  But the words show up all over the place, buttressing everything from neo-Confederate to human rights advocacy; you can even buy a t-shirt (worn, one supposes with some unintended irony, by a black dude) that clarifies a great American slaveholder’s one-step solution to defeating tyranny with audible acts of good conscience.

Problem is — as with the spiritually-identical Burke quotation — there doesn’t seem to be an original source.  There’s nothing like it that turns up in the Jefferson Digital Archive, and the list of books that include the quotation is not, shall we say, confidence-inspiring.   This fellow includes the quotation in the epigraph of his book, sewn awkwardly to another line that actually was written by Jefferson.  Chuck Norris, of all people, is the only person on the entire intertubes who appears to have provided a footnote for the quotation, but alas, the relevant pages are restricted in Google Books (and damned if I’m going to buy a copy of Black Belt Patriotism when my daughter’s collection of Thomas the Tank Engine collection still lacks the objectively awesome Mighty Mac.)

So to invoke a scholarly term of art, can I call bullshit here?  Or do I need to buy Chuck Norris’ book and follow him down the rabbit hole?

…in comments Ralph Luker points to this follow-up to the Burke article (linked in the first sentence) which is also quite excellent…. And since it includes the Jefferson quote among those permutations attributed to Burke, it would have saved me a bit of time…

Like lots of other people, I find this amusing.

A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Brutalism may be “underloved,” as Christopher Shea recently described it, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone at UC Irvine who would argue against the notion that brutalist buildings come “across as oppressive and dreary.” How oppressive are they? Remember my earlier post about where the grade inflation study was performed? You know what else happened there?


I am, as the kids say, seriously:


So if you don’t know why brutalism feels oppressive, ask an ape.  Why do I point this out?  To prove that my campus runs brutal circles around Ari and Eric’s.  How much more brutal is it?  Here’s a picture of the statue they erected in my backyard last week:


I imagine they sat down and said:

“You know, Irvine’s already pretty darn brutal, but it’s not brutal enough.  What can we do?  Jenkins!”

“Statue of a pony, sir?”

“Ridiculous.  Ponies aren’t brutal.  Smith!”

“What about an orc, sir?”

“An orc?  I don’t know what that is, Smith, but it sounds Anglo-Saxon.  I think I like it!”

“What if we stuck an orc on a pony, sir?”

“What is it with you and ponies, Jenkins?”

“If I can interject, sir, Jenkins might have a point.  What if we mount the orc on a Volvo-sized wolf?  Wouldn’t that be pretty darn brutal?”

“Could we show it eating Jenkin’s pony?”

“I don’t see why not.”

That’s some hardcore brutality.

It’s hard to exaggerate the incoherence of the WSJ editorial, “FDR’s Conservative 100 Days”. The authors write that Obama’s program “has been likened by the president himself to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous first 100 days. But FDR did not launch his New Deal with a program that roiled financial markets.” No: he shut down the banks, and reopened about eighty percent of them with federal assurance that they were sound. This helped restore confidence in the American financial system.

And, FDR said, “I hope you can see from this elemental recital of what your government is doing that there is nothing complex, or radical in the process.”

The authors also quote Raymond Moley saying, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly that the policies which vanquished the bank crisis were thoroughly conservative.” And then they add mention of the Economy Act, which cut the budget dramatically.

Now, you might note, as Ed Kilgore does, that you want to be careful quoting Moley, who “left the Roosevelt administration midway through 1933, and then devoted much of the rest of his long career to New Deal-bashing, contemporary and revisionist.”

Or you might want to use your common sense. Yes, it is in some sense “conservative” to save the banking system as FDR did—it helped, as Moley also said, save capitalism. But is it in any sense more conservative than what Obama’s doing to save the banking system? No; Obama’s so far avoided shutting down all the country’s banks for a week and keeping 20 percent closed for even longer. Which, by the way, is no recommendation of Obama’s policy; with each day it seems a less conservative measure might be a good idea.

But set all that aside: most hilariously, the WSJ authors’ measure of Roosevelt’s conservative success is that “By July 3, the Dow Jones Industrial Average was 93% above its close on March 3, the day before Inauguration Day in 1933.” Yet their account of the hundred days stops with the Economy Act, on March 14. Between March 14 and July 3, you had also (among other measures) the

  • Civilian Conservation Corps / Reforestation Relief Act, which employed young men chiefly for the maintenance of public lands;
  • Agricultural Adjustment Act, which taxed processors to subsidize reduction of farm crops;
  • Federal Emergency Relief Act, which allocated $500m as unemployment relief to the states;
  • Tennessee Valley Authority Act, which established federal management of the Tennessee River and its watershed, to generate lower electricity rates (among other purposes);
  • Banking Act of 1933, which among other things separated commercial and investment banking;
  • National Industrial Recovery Act, which created federally sanctioned industry cartels to set prices and wages and which strengthened the right to unionize.

I look forward to the WSJ editorial explaining how these conservative policies contributed to the market rally evident by July 3, 1933.

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