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The corollary to what Eric describes in his excellent post is the scholar in the audience who, after hearing a talk or paper, “asks” a seven-minute question that isn’t a question at all. Instead, it’s an opportunity to say: “Here’s what I know. Here’s what you should have said. Here’s how very, very smart I am.”
For example, Speaker A gives a talk on, well, on FDR’s New Deal coalition. The talk is just fine, though, if we’re shooting for verisimilitude in our scene-setting, it’s probably not that great, because most talks aren’t. But then, during the Q & A, Scholar B stands up — these people almost always stand to “ask” their question — and begins nattering on about Habermas or Foucault or the rise of the proto-facists in Argentina under Peron or whatever. The best part is: Scholar B usually isn’t even self-aware enough to end their monologue with a few words delivered at a slightly higher pitch, the oral signifier of a question mark.
Okay dude, you’re really smart, I get it. And your pet rock is exceptionally cool. I’d even like to hear about it. But how about some other time. Because right now I’m trying to sleep through the talk without closing my eyes (I don’t want to be rude). And your colossal display of ego and cluelessness is keeping me awake.
Historians’ cardinal sins, no. 1. Commenting on a paper or reviewing a book or refereeing a manuscript and saying, in effect, “But you didn’t say what I would have said!”
This is too bloody common. There’s a type of whom I know a few examples, a very decent man whose specialty is, let’s say, transcendentalism. He has his own particular view of transcendentalism, which is wrong, but that’s fine. He also manages to think that EVERYTHING is explained by his version of transcendentalism. So at a panel on the Whig party, he’ll say “But this is about transcendentalism.” At a panel on the slave trade? “But this is about transcendentalism.” The Cold War? “But this is about transcendentalism.” You’re very nice, you know, but I wouldn’t want to sit next to you on a long airplane ride.
Or there’s the similar book review. I got two for my most recent book that were basically just like this. “This book doesn’t have enough about taxes in it.” Too jolly right, mate. Suppose it had: would it have substantially changed the argument? No, except for making it more boring. “This book doesn’t cover post-1945 history.” Amazingly enough, the book itself explains that it’s concerned with a phenomenon that first occurred in the period 1865-1914. Strange that it doesn’t wamble on about the post-’45.
Why didn’t I write the book you would have written? Because if I had, one of us would be out of a job.
Really, you should only say “but this book should have more about x” if having more about x would significantly change the argument or the story. Otherwise you’re just refocusing discussion on your pet rock.
Somebody do the right thing here: confiscate the city of Denver’s belt and shoelaces. Seriously, if you care at all, reach out to a friend in Denver. That place is the anti-Boston right now. Plus, it’s hard to breathe. And you have to moisturize constantly. Itchy.
I just went and saw our colleague Kathy Olmsted do a panel with Carlton Larson of the law school and Jeffrey Callison of Capital Public Radio (speaking of interviewers) on the Pentagon Papers. (Where were you, you deadbeat?)
Kathy was, as usual, very good, pointing out the links between the Pentagon Papers and Watergate and talking about the latest releases of the Nixon tapes, in which the 37th president explains that a conspiracy of Jews is out to get him. Because Ellsberg, though Christian, had a name ending in -berg, see? Kind of like the joke about how the Jews sank the Titanic. (“But an iceberg sank the Titanic!” “Eissberg, Greenberg, what’s the difference.”)
Larson was pretty good too, except when he tried to blame the Bush administration’s novel view of executive power on their lack of lawyers. Which may be a fair point, Bush and Cheney and Rove not being of the guild, but come on. Yoo, Gonzales, Ashcroft are all attorneys, and they didn’t exactly stick up for the Constitution.
Over the past few days, Democratic partisans have been showing off their thinly veiled racial and gender anxieties. Which, by the way, aren’t quite the same thing as their slightly better hidden racism and sexism. On the one hand, people are worrying that the mainstream of the nation’s electorate isn’t ready for a woman president (see: here and here). So Hillary is doomed in the general election. She’s just too damn girlie for a nation that craves another manly man at the helm. Because, you know, that’s worked out so well for us these past seven years. Based on this line of argument, the inevitable Hillary might not even get the nomination. If, that is, Democratic voters express either their good sense — weighing electability — or their latent sexism by voting for John Edwards or Barack Obama in the primaries. But wait, Obama has a problem too. It seems voters aren’t ready for a black president either. (At the same time, of course, Obama isn’t black enough to win; talk about damned if you do and damned if you don’t).
Worse even than all of this free-floating anxiety coming to rest on the pages of my favorite blogs is the reaction of the candidates. Obama seems to be getting in touch with his inner homophobe: “Look, whitey, I’m just as worried about teh gays as you are.” And Hillary has been working overtime to demonstrate her machismo by designating every Iranian this side of the Shah a terrorist.
But the really disturbing thing about all of this fretting is that it’s as likely as not misplaced. In 1959-60, the mainstream of the Democratic establishment had its own anxieties, religious in that case. Party leaders worried that a Catholic could never be elected president of the United States. But when it came to the general election, the haunting image of flopsweat dripping from Richard Nixon’s jowls proved far scarier than the threat of Kennedy kissing the Pope’s ring. It helped that Kennedy addressed the issue head on, treating the American people like adults by telling them where his loyalties really lay (with his father and Richard Daley, duh).
All of this worrying, it seems to me, is how we insure that from now we only have Protestants or crackers elected president. Or some mix of the two. Somewhere Mitt Romney just got anxious. And John Edwards started smiling.
Andrew Sullivan, stealing ideas from Glenn Greenwald, today writes: “The drift toward a nakedly partisan military, operating primarily through partisan blogs and partisan journalists, is truly disturbing.” And while I agree with Sullivan (I didn’t enjoy writing that clause, by the way), it’s worth noting that the military has a long history of partisanship.
A few months back, I reviewed a couple of books for, well, for a place that I sometimes review books. The review hasn’t appeared, by the way, which is annoying me. Whatever. Anyway, one of the books, Jennifer Weber’s “Copperheads: The Rise and Fall of Lincoln’s Opponents in the North,” included a number of fascinating anecdotes about the ways that the Lincoln administration — and oh how Sullivan loves him some Lincoln — used the troops to advance its electoral prospects. Some of those stories, of soldiers furloughed home to serve as a not-very-subtle reminder of what was at stake when their communities voted, are pretty damn scary. Especially so because Weber suggests that people, including officials in the Army and the Republican/Union Party, understood that the presence of the troops would be, how to say this nicely, intimidating.
My point is, ’twas always so. Politicians wrap themselves in the flag and use the troops, whenever they can, to score political points. Is Sullivan right that this isn’t a good thing? Yes. And I, too, find it scary. I’m not suggesting that we should give President Bush a pass for his craven behavior. But it’s nothing new.
Obama, I read, has moved into a statistical tie with Hillary in Iowa. So now I’m wondering: when is it no longer going to be “too soon” to say what’s going to happen in this race? At this time four years ago, Dean was creaming Kerry. And it’s hard to even fathom how little most of us knew about William Jefferson Clinton at this point in the race in 1991. So when can I expect to handicap, with some certainty, who’ll be the nominee next year? Because I’m nothing if not a friend of the frontrunner. And I’m worried that the bandwagon may leave without me if I wait too long to put a bumper sticker on my baby jogger.
Seriously, Mr. Political Historian, I’m asking you. I know the primary calendar has been rejiggered, so the past may not be prelude. But what does history tell us about when a presidential primary crystallizes? C’mon man, get to googling.
So, Oxford UP has finally published Dan Howe’s opus, on the years 1815-1848, in its quasi-definitive “History of the United States” series. And the luminaries are already lining up to review the massive thing. Although “What Hath God Wrought” is pretty darn good, at least the first 200ish pages I read last night, the best part about the book is its own literary history. Howe took so long filling this gap in the Oxford series because he wasn’t supposed to in the first place. Charles Sellers originally had the commission. But when Sellers submitted “The Market Revolution” to C. Vann Woodward, then the series editor, Vann Woodward rejected it because it offended his delicate sensibilities (too many pages devoted to masturbation). Oxford published “Market Revolution” anyway, and it became a runaway hit — though many readers (okay, maybe just me) clamored for more not less sex.
Howe, meanwhile, has written a book short on onanism — though it’s length suggests self-love — but long on everything else. It is yet another magisterial history of the period, and it fits nicely with the other huge Oxford histories. It is also remarkably contentious, though always in a mannered sort of way. Howe never uses the phrase “market revolution,” a rather pointed ommission, and suggests that capitalism’s spread did much good along with the harm Sellers documented more than a decade ago. Most informed readers will greet such arguments with a “duh.” Which raises a question: when do we have enough histories of a period? When is it time to stop? The answer, I guess, is when we get it right. But with the publication of “What Hath God Wrought,” hot on the heels of Sean Wilentz’s “Rise of American Democracy,” I have to say that I’ve read enough about Andy Jackson for a lifetime. I’m not sure either Wilentz or Howe have got it right. But I do think it’s time to stop. At least for now.
Update: And here’s another question: can you think of anything that would suck worse than working on a book, say “What Hath God Wrought,” for, um, a really really long time, and then, just as you’re about to publish your masterpiece, having another author scoop you? I’m not saying that Wilentz pwned Howe. They wrote very different books. But probably not different enough to satisfy the Bancroft committee. Maybe Howe will win a Pulitzer. That would show Wilentz.
I do not know much about gods, but I think that Paxman is a kind of god — crusty, untamed and truculent. When we moved to England he was all over the airwaves, hosting Newsnight and University Challenge on BBC television and Start the Week on Radio 4. His great virtue was not caring a tinker’s cuss about anyone, cabinet ministers or toffee-nosed Oxbridge swots or war criminals. His run-in with Henry Kissinger was a thing of beauty and a joy to hear: “Did you feel a fraud accepting the Nobel prize?” He famously asked an evasive Michael Howard the same question a dozen times.
Perhaps best of all, he’s credited as saying something like “the appropriate relation of journalist to politician is that of dog to fireplug.” Though I can’t find a citation. And though he did not first say it, you can tell he’s often asking himself, “‘Why is this lying bastard lying to me?'”
If we’re lucky, he’ll soon cover some of the American beat.
But Paxman’s real accomplishment is not aggression or tenacity per se, but the ability to cast a pox on everyone’s house without seeming a ranting loony or a milquetoast moderate. This is most evident in his book On Royalty, where he’s able to mock small-r republicans as well as the monarchy themselves without losing his own distinctive voice. How does he do that? and why can’t more historians do that?
I have an idea that this is what makes Charles and Mary Beard’s Rise of American Civilization so appealing; they love the idea of America and most actual Americans but they have no time for hero worship and exhibit a strong conviction that all politicians and businessmen are rascals through and through. Maybe more history should sound like that.
I didn’t watch the game. Football should be played in the United States of America, as God intended. Football, by contrast, can be played in England. Meanwhile, the Patriots are destroying the Native Americans in the third quarter. It’s like the Gnadenhütten massacre all over again. Yeah, I said it: Gnadenhütten massacre. Suck it. I’m a historian. And I’ll drop the knowledge when and where I please. Seriously, though, it’s a good time to be a fan of New England sports. Massholes everywhere are celebrating. That’s not swearing, by the way.
I’m not sure this is going to work out unless I have complete artistic freedom. I’ll fax you a copy of my rider later today. In the meantime, you can begin picking all of the brown M&Ms out of a five-pound bag of the peanut variety. I said PEANUT dammit. What the hell is wrong with you? God, it’s hard to find good tech help these days.
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