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You know, I don’t dispute what Phil Nugent says about Henry Hyde insofar as he’s critiquing Henry Hyde. But I don’t think that’s the symbolic turning point in the modern Republican party. I’d vote for the nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

What we know is, of course, he got “Borked.” And everyone wrung their hands over how he got mistreated. Let’s even grant that point. You know what, though?

This is the guy who fired Archibald Cox.

Finally, the President turned to Solicitor General Robert H. Bork, who by law becomes acting Attorney General when the Attorney General and deputy attorney general are absent, and he carried out the President’s order to fire Cox.

Remember, Elliott Richardson wouldn’t do it. William Ruckelshaus wouldn’t do it. Those guys were Republicans. But, they thought, they wouldn’t obstruct justice, not today, anyway.

Bork would, though.

Flash forward a couple decades, and the guy’s fit to serve on the Supreme Court, except the Democrats were mean about his maybe stance on abortion.

This is simple. You want to make an argument about Bork? The man was unfit for the Court because he obeyed Nixon and stood in the way of the processes of the law, unlike two of his higher minded Republican colleagues. At the very least, that puts him on the Executive Branch team, and indicates he’s uncareful about legal procedure. In other words, not a great jurist.

Something happened between the Saturday Night Massacre and the Bork nomination, where the guy who helped engineer one of the most shameful episodes and indeed colossal public-relations disasters of Watergate, becomes a Republican martyr.

Scott McLemee’s post on someone else’s post of “the most badass Bible verses” reminds me why I enjoyed reading the OT as a child. (That’s “the OT” as in “You know you’re in the OT when…” Another game to play!)

But of course the most badass Bible verse is not actually a Bible verse, at all:

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides with the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon those with great vengeance and with furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know that my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

It is a mash-up and a riffing upon of several verses (see the “Sidebar” here).

Historian, you say. Nope, I’m a futurist. At least for the moment. And here’s what I see: the GPS is the next ubiquitous gadget, the toy/tool that everyone will have within five years. And here’s why: with a GPS, you never have to be lost again, never have to ask for directions again (what will the gender stereotypers do?), never have to contend with the anxiety of wondering if you really know where you’re going or where you are.

Three months ago, while visiting my hometown of Cleveland, a friend from graduate school happened to be there as well. Together we drove to a restaurant for a bad meal (f-ing Cleveland), and then he needed to get a gift for the children of his hosts. He said that we’d go to X, a toy store that I’d never heard of in a part of town to which I’d never been. I began sweating, a combination of worry over getting lost and profound host anxiety, because I should have known everything about C-town. He said, seeing my discomfort: “Don’t worry; I’ve got a GPS.” To which I replied: “Why? What are you, planning an invasion or something? Or are you a door-to-door widget salesman? Or just obsessed with the latest latest?” I’m funny, by the way. Anyway, his electronic navigator took us right to where he wanted to go, no muss no fuss. I bought one the next day. From Costco. Which pays its employees a living wage and gives them health care.

And I love my GPS. My five-year-old son calls it, because of the lovely mechanical female voice, my “girlfriend.” And my wife thinks it’s great. Over the summer, I took it with me on a roadtrip to Canada. Ottawa, which otherwise would have seemed overwhelming (nobody, by the way, has ever been overwhelmed by milquetoast Ottawa before), was easily comprehended.

But of course, given my neuroses and scholarly interests, I have to ask: what’s the catch? Technological dependence, I think, along with creeping imperialism. Another electronic doodad just makes me ever more reliant on stuff to keep my head above water. And maps, which have always been part of the imperialist project (see Graham Burnett or Susan Schulten, among others, if you don’t believe me), are now even more so. Using satellites, originally put in place for military purposes, only adds to the sense of dread. Plus there’s the whole surveillance state. This surely makes it easier for The Man to watch me. And keep me down.

More than that, though, I wonder what never getting lost means for people’s perceptions of the non-human world. We already have, because of an incredible array of technologies, an outsized sense of our mastery of nature — sorry enivonrmental history community, but that word is just too convenient to ignore. Steamboats made the Mississippi Valley seem small. Railroads collapsed space and time in the West. Automobilies privatized and democratized these advantages. Air travel has apparently shrunk the globe to the size of a jawbreaker. And the internet means that we’re all the Borg, right? So now what? Not only am I never alone (my trusty cellphone), but I never misplace myself. Unknown locales, which once would have seemed daunting, reminding me of my insignificance in a world much bigger and more labyrinthine than I could ever really hope to fathom, now fit inside a little box that I can bring with me anywhere and afix to my dashboard. I can even upload another set of maps so that I don’t get lost in the woods. The epistemological ramifications are pretty breathtaking.

Still, no matter the unintended consequences and looming threats, including having my GPS hector me for missing a turn, it’s only a matter of time until we all own and rely on one. (Seriously, you should buy stock in Garmin/Magellan/Tom Tom now.) Then it’s just a short trip to an increased sense that we really can control nature, along with all manner of pathway dependencies. But at least we’ll be able to get around Ottawa. Or wherever else we find ourselves.

I never noticed before, but Lloyd Dobler is the slacker version of Mario Savio. Compare.

Dobler: “I don’t want to sell anything, buy anything, or process anything as a career. I don’t want to sell anything bought or processed, or buy anything sold or processed, or process anything sold, bought, or processed, or repair anything sold, bought, or processed.”

Savio: “we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to have any process put upon us, don’t mean to be made into any product, don’t mean to end up being bought….”

No, not the way she might have an impact on down-ticket races or how she might mobilize women voters. Instead, I mean what she’s already doing to the discourse, at least based on one admittedly idiosyncratic data point.

I started reading Andrew Sullivan’s blog about five years ago. At least I think it was five years ago. I know that he was in the process of renouncing his pro-Bush line, though he retained his vestigal anti-Muslim streak and a related tendency to defend Christopher Hitchens (“Hitch,” to Sullivan). Sullivan was then an interesting read for me: genuinely conservative on many issues, especially as related to the size of government, and thus just beginning to rail about the tyranny of the Bush White House — as opposed to his previous rants about the tyranny of the liberal establishment. Sullivan became, over time, saner and saner — in my view, at least — as he became more and more anti-Bush, though he retained an odd edge. The Iraq debacle outraged him, the Katrina fiasco made him scream, and horror against the institutionalization of torture became his signature issue. I have to admit that I thought him right often enough and interesting even more consistently than that.

As a result, I couldn’t quite fathom why two Erics that I respect, my co-blooger, Rauchway, and Alterman, who refers to Sullivan as Little Roy Cohn (that’s nasty stuff, I think, no matter how you slice it) despise him so much. But then Hillary Clinton began actively campaigning for the presidency, and the wheels came off my personal Andrew Sullivan bandwagon. The man has gone insane lately, reverting to taking cheap shots at liberals and spewing racial pseudoscience that would make Samuel Cartwright and Josiah Nott proud. I’ve deleted Sullivan from my bookmarked blogs, and I won’t ever link to him again. That’s a promise.

For about twelve seconds this morning I considered what had happened to Sullivan. Then I decided that I didn’t really care. But after that it occurred to me that this is what we have to look forward to if HRC becomes the Democratic nominee. Many conservatives, driven to the center (or closer to sanity, if one is honest), by President Bush’s excesses will lose their minds anew, returning to the fold of social darwinists, warmongers, bigots, and tax-cutting fatcats from whence they came. The Clinton family has that effect on people, drawing out powerful and irrational loathing nearly as often as not. Polls have shown this to be the case.

I have to say that I don’t relish having a front-row seat as this particular drama unfolds. I’m a big fan of partisanship. But I can live without seeing personal hatred on display in the public sphere. Still, watching Andrew Sullivan scuttle back to the lunatic fringe has made me more not less sympathetic to Hlilary. In the same way that the terrorists win if I don’t fly the major airlines or go shopping the day after Thanksgiving, I think the Andrew Sullivans of the world, small bullies all, will win if I don’t at least spend a moment defending HRC’s candidacy. I may not like her very much; but that’s very different from hating her.

Just before the Thanksgiving recess, my colleague Kathy Olmsted gave a paper in the department on her current research project, a history of conspiracy theories in the United States. The quality of the paper — quite high — and my behavior at the presentation — apparently not very good — are beside the point here. Instead, I want to focus on the audience’s response.

Kathy talked about the so-called Jersey Girls, the 9/11 widows who have crafted their own counternarrative to challenge the Bush administration’s official story of the World Trade Center attacks. At the end of her presentation, Kathy suggested that the Jersey Girls have succeeded because polls show that 30% of the American people believe in some broadly defined 9/11 conspiracy theory involving the Bush White House: either LIHOP or MIHOP, in the former case that the president’s men allowed the attacks to happen (Let It Happen On Purpose) or in the latter that they facilitated the towers’ destruction (Made It Happen On Purpose). Whether LIHOP or MIHOP, the point was to drum up support for the Iraq war.

Now this is where things got interesting. After spending an hour collectively laughing at the conspiracy theorists (“conspiracists,” I learned from Kathy, is the proper term of art), the audience, made up largely of members of the history department faculty and graduate students, all faced an uncomfortable truth: most of us are, depending on how you slice such things, now part of the 30%.

And I have to tell you, this is one of the things that has most outraged me during the past seven years: every time I’ve pooh-poohed some out-there allegation about President Bush’s misdeeds, telling myself that the conspiracists are getting hysterical again, time has proven me wrong and the people wearing tinfoil hats right. Stealing elections, falsifying intelligence, outing covert operatives, ignoring climate change, placing worthless cronies in positions of power, institutionalizing torture, “legalizing” warrantless wiretaps, failing to throw a drowning city a flotation device, too much graft to count, and on and on.

As for MIHOP and LIHOP, I really don’t know. I once would have laughed at anyone who suggested that the President of the United States had allowed an attack on American soil. But now I’m not so sure. Maybe I’m in the LIHOP camp. That I’m even considering such a thing leaves me cold. My only solace? Based on the response to Kathy’s talk, I’m in pretty good company.

NPR did a story this morning — the day before Thanksgiving — about the South and football. They mentioned that the South is good at football because it has a lot of rural people. (Unlike, for example, California.) They did not mention that football help the South overcome its resistance to that damn Yankee holiday, Thanksgiving. Which I believe Steven Pope says in Patriotic Games.

Apart possibly from that title, this is not a snarky post, but one actually about historical research and stuff, deriving from the paper I gave to the Harvard International History Seminar.
Read the rest of this entry »

Having difficulty with writing can make one very clean and sleek. Geoffrey Perkins on Douglas Adams:

His other favourite way of putting off writing the next bit is to have a bath. When a deadline is really pressing he can have as many as five baths a day. Consequently, the later the script the cleaner he gets. You can’t fault him for personal hygiene in a crisis.

And Adams himself:

… truthful explanations of how writers get ideas tend to be rather dull:

I sat and stared out of the window for a while, trying to think of a good name for a character. I told myself that, as a reward, I would let myself go and make a Bovril sandwich once I’d thought of it.
I stared out of the window some more and thought that probably what I really needed to help get the creative juices going was to have a Bovril sandwich now, which presented me with a problem I could only successfully resolve by thinking it over in the bath.
An hour, a bath, and three Bovril sandwiches, another bath and a cup of coffee later, I realised that I still hadn’t thought of a good name for a character, and decided that I would try calling him Zaphod Beeblebrox and see if that worked.
I sat and stared out the window for a while, trying to think of something for him to say….

This latter narration, by the way, is the reason why I tend to worry about the use of “I” in nonfictional writing. If you really used “I” to tell us about what you did when you wrote, it would involve a lot of baths and sandwiches and, in the case of historians, economy class tickets to variously scruffy places. But historians using “I” don’t tell us about that. So the historians’ “I” is constructed. And being constructed is just as much an artifice as the omniscient voice. And so what have you gained by saying “I”?

Both quotations from The Original Hitchhiker Radio Scripts (New York: Harmony, 1985); they’re on pages 8 and 13 respectively.

Not to pile on Matthew Yglesias again, but there’s something more to be said about his gaffe. And that’s this: Americans, even smart ones, know almost nothing about geography. And that has consequences in the realm of public opinion and policy.

Ask almost any social scientist or humanist about the health of their discipline, and they’ll begin wringing their hands and explaing how history, sociology, comparative literature, or whatever they do for a living is dying on the vine. And they’ll be right, at least in some ways. Unless they’re economists, and then they need to shut up and count their money. But geography, as a discipline, really is in deep trouble. Departments have been getting cut, left and right, at major universities for more than a decade. Which speaks of a real crisis for the discipline and big problems for the people of this country.

When there was going to be no more history, in those carefree days prior to September 11, 2001, not knowing how to find the rest of the world was just fine. But now, it’s a bad thing. Unless you really think Jack Bauer is going to keep you safe, it might make sense to be able to locate Iran on a map. And without a basic understanding of what a map is, how it works, and where to find one, you’re going to be out of luck. Hmm, now where is Iran? Near Africa, right? But where’s Africa? Is that the one shaped like a boot? You get the point.

It’s very easy to begin to sound like a scold when noting that Americans are ignorant about this or that. And once you sound like a scold people stop paying attention. But foreign and domestic policies almost always have an important spatial dimension. Without knowing that, for example, the Kurds are pretty near Turkey, which wants to gobble them up, you can’t really understand the Iraq conflict, the recent spat over the Armenian genocide, or some of the posturing that Iran has been doing in recent months. Not to mention what’s going on with Israeli/Palestine, a struggle founded, as much as anything, on cartography.

And without knowing where the Everglades are, you could even think that the morphology of the Miami metropolitan area is really cool. And that would be extremely silly.

Certain historians qualify as giants in the field. Obviously you want giants in your department. How do you get them?

Well, if you’re a moneyed and prestigious department, you can go shopping for them. But even then (I am let to believe by people who would know) it is actually very difficult to buy giants. They’re settled and respected and probably own houses. Moving is a pain. If you go after them when they’re already big kahunae they may feel entitled to ask for a lot — too much — in exchange for making a move.

So ideally you spot talent in an earlier phase. I put it to you, sir, you cannot do this in someone really junior. You can try. You can probably sniff out a fraud in a junior hire. But you can’t sort the merely competent from the junior giant.

Let’s pick an example. I will immodestly nominate my graduate advisor, George Fredrickson, as a giant. Fredrickson’s first book, The Inner Civil War, is a terrific old-school intellectual history, published in 1965. If you wanted to hire someone really good in the mid to late 1960s, you might hire George. But you wouldn’t have any serious knowledge he’d become a giant. Maybe not until he was prepared to give a job talk based on the next book, Black Image in the White Mind, published in 1971.

Even then, though, I think you’d have merely an excellent historian, who applied the tools of intellectual history to the problem of race with great sophistication and grace, who wrote fluidly and intelligently about knotty issues. But what made him a giant, I think, was the further step in the direction of comparative history, which wasn’t really evident till White Supremacy, ten years later, in 1981. As it happens, it wasn’t till after that book that Stanford hired him. So Stanford picked a full-grown giant (see above under places with money and prestige).

The lesson of the Fredrickson case seems to be that what makes a giant is taking giant steps — letting your research interests pull you along into mastering a broad swathe of history. Could you have picked Fredrickson as a giant before he’d taken those giant steps?

I think you could — I think on the basis of the ground covered between Inner Civil War and Black Image, you could say, here’s someone who’s off to a smashing start and is clearly going a long way. We may not know yet what he will become in ten years, but we should take the risk.

But how easy is it to get departments to take those risks? Should it become easier?

So, today’s the day that I pile on Matthew Yglesias, living up (down?) to my ostensible demographic predilection to find young whippersnappers annoying. Yglesias, in this post, notes: “There’s something pretty cool about the shape of the Miami-related sprawl when you pull it out to an appropriate distance.” Although I have no idea what that means, I’ll bite. Sure, it’s cool, if by cool you mean not really cool at all. And that shape becomes even less cool, or perhaps less surprising, if you know anything at all about the geographic constraints in the greater Miami area: there’s an ocean to one side of the urban corridor, and a really big swamp, including, for much of its length, The Everglades National Park, to the other.

Which totally rudimentary knowledge, it seems, Yglesias doesn’t have. He goes on: “I’d been interested to know what, if anything, is legally or practically preventing the city from just expanding further and further west if anyone happens to know.” Me, me, call on me (waving hand frantically in the air), I know, I know: there’s a swamp to the left of Miami on your map, Mr. Yglesias. It’s filled with birds and reptiles and mangroves and, well, swamptastic swamp.

Really, though, who cares? If Yglesias wants to spend his time gazing at satellite images of the city he happens to be visiting, so be it. It’s better than gazing at his own navel, I suppose. But the post does point out the hazards of blogging, particularly for pay: the pressure to post something, anything, to provide content is overwhelming. In this case, Yglesias spent twelve seconds looking a map, captured an image , and then posted his not-even-rising-to-the-level-of-inchoate thoughts on an issue about which he apparently knows nothing. He didn’t bother to do any homework, didn’t bother to ask the concierge in the hotel where he’s staying, apparently didn’t bother to take geography in college or pay attention in junior high. Ugh, why this annoys me is kinda hard to figure. But it does.

And maybe this is why. How, please tell me, is that any different from the pundits that Yglesias mocks all the time? How is posting utter nonsense, without taking even a minute to consider the substance of a post, different from writing a crap-ass column and publishing it in the Times Op-Ed page? The Yglesias post does much less damage, I’ll grant you, than a ridiculous smear about John Edwards’s haircut. but it demonstrates the same lazy habits that Yglesias supposedly abhors. Blogging is hard, in other words. But being Matthew Yglesias, seems pretty easy.

Update: I just noticed that Yglesias’s commenters are mocking him. Authors getting called on their foolishness in real time; score one for blogging. Good stuff.

What does it say about me that I’m far more impressed that my colleague, Andres Resendez, just received an A- review from Entertainment Weekly for his new book than I have been when other colleagues have gotten glowing notices in scholarly journals? I suppose I’d rather have a Pulitzer Prize or a Bancroft, but short of that, a great review in EW is pretty near the top of my external validation wish list.

Pathetic, I know.

Kung Fu Monkey:

I’m always amused at libertarians, because they so love markets but never seem to understand how business actually works.

It’s something that historians of the nineteenth century all know, but could explain a little better: if there’s one thing a businessman hates, it’s an open market. Because you have to compete! For heaven’s sake, it’s not something they keep a secret, people. Just read the old Moody’s, where they complain bitterly about “crazy competition” and try to set up cartels and monopolies with whatever speed, ferocity, and secrecy the current contours of the law allow or require.

The role of unions as a countervailing force is to keep the market functioning, given this reality of business behavior. The role of a regulator is to keep the unions functioning as a countervailing force.

Also, libertarians are just anarchists with a socially acceptable name, aren’t they?

In response to the below.

1. How could anyone leave off the Big Red Machine? Now that, my friend, was a powerhouse. Rose, Bench, Foster, Perez, Griffey, Morgan, Concepcion — walloping the Red Sox in what was probably the best Series ever, and the Yankees in what was merely an emotionally gratifying Series.

2. By assertion (to borrow from our guest of a few weeks ago) I say that parity came about in History departments because of the bad job market. First rate people went to, let’s not be unkind but, second rate places because they were grateful to get anything at all. And many of them learned to like it and stayed, or else never had an opportunity to move up.

3. The post brings up measurable accomplishment and then drops it. But it’s key to the distinction between sports and history departments. Top teams can’t happily cling to players with lousy batting and fielding averages. But top history departments can do the equivalent — clinging to someone who, objectively speaking, isn’t any good — who hasn’t published in decades — by saying they’re Good, because they’re Here. And people who are not Here are not Good. Because they’re not Here. See?

Many years ago, when I was still a boy and not yet the man I am today, I really loved sports. I mean, I loved ’em. Basketball especially. I knew the rosters of every NBA team, could recite the starting five for almost every major college team, and actually paid attention to high school scouting services. And this was before the internet, so that was saying something. To give you a sense of how much this mania (fanaticism?) clouded my judgement, I was one of at least eight people around the United States who hailed the advent of the The National, the daily sports newspaper that briefly existed in the late 80s, as a great day for humankind.

One of the things that was most appealing, in my memory at least, about sports way back then, was the presence of truly great teams. In football, which I also liked, the Steelers and Cowboys dominated, only to be supplanted by the 49ers a few years later. I didn’t really follow baseball when I was a kid, so I have no idea who was good (and the point here isn’t to google up the information). But in basketball, the Celtics and Lakers were great. And then the Pistons. And then the Bulls. Or maybe it was the Bulls, then the Pistons, and then the Bulls again. Regardless, the above teams just dominated the competition, prompting annual arguments about “the best team ever,” arguments that could never really be won. In the intervening years, while I was in graduate school and then an assistant professor, the era of the dynasties ended. Parity, if we recall Pete Rozelle’s football fever dream — eventually realized for a time under Paul Tagliabue — ruled the day. And, I think, sports were the worse for it. But now, it seems, powerhouses have returned: the Spurs, the Patriots, the Yankees and Red Sox, even the Celtics look like they might be extraordinary again (though only time will tell if the deal Massholes collectively have apparently cut with the devil delivers them yet another championship in yet another major sport).

Why was it better to have powerhouses rather than parity? Assuming you accept the hypothesis at all, that is. The answer, I’m pretty sure, was twofold: first, theater. It was great fun to watch David and Goliath playing out on the teevee every week, though, since this was happening in the very cruel, very real world of big-time sports, David usually got his ass kicked. And second, and this one’s more interesting to me, the pursuit of greatness.

It’s a commonplace that sports are beloved because they include useful measuring sticks for excellence: statistics, which allow fans to quantify ability, something that’s far harder to get a handle on in most jobs, and harder still outside of our vocational lives. “Joe is the best father in the world,” is the kind of thing you hear all the time. But nobody knows if it’s true, even though Joe likely has a pretty serious investment in raising his kids. Joe would probably like to know if he’s the best, or even in the top ten, but he’ll never know for sure. I knew, by contast, that the ’86 Celtics were incredible, among the best ever, as were the ’96 Bulls (even though I wasn’t really paying that much attention at the time).

So here’s my question: if I’m right that concentrated power makes for better professional sports, allowing us seriously to ponder greatness, and then, in an ideal world, to shoot for such a thing in the more humble context of own lives, does the same hold true for history departments? Is it better for the profession if Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and some public interloper, say a Berkeley, a Michigan, or a UNC that manages to learn table manners, buy a nice jacket and tie, and sneak into the eating club for a time, dominate the field? That’s how it used to be, of course. In the era of the Steelers and Cowboys and Celtics and Lakers, everybody knew where the best historians could be found: Cambridge, New Haven, the Upper West Side of Manhattan, Palo Alto. But then, around the time parity came to pro sports, the same thing happened to history departments. Coincidence? Who knows.

It now seems that the above departments — along with a few others — are trying to usher in a new era of dominance. I wonder if it would be a similarly good thing in the world of academic history, as in professional athletics, if they succeed, if the concentration of power will give us all something to shoot for, a baseline for true excellence. Not to mention the theater. Or, if, as seems more likely right now, the move won’t work, if the era of parity is here to stay.

The once-dominant history depatments noted above will always have at least two advantages: a shine that’s hard to tarnish, no matter how much their prestige is no longer deserved; and deep pockets, which allow for quick reloading when stars retire. Still, it seems like the crapass job market of these past thirty years has ushered in an era of something like parity. Which isn’t to say that Wichita State or UC Davis now has a history department as good as Harvard. But it does mean that very talented people are now spread around the country. The once-upon-a-time powerhouses can, as ever, come and get these good people. And they often try to do just that. But they don’t always succeed. Even Harvard hasn’t always gotten their woman. Not to mention Berkeley, or the other public institutions, where structural constraints militate against easy greatness.

I suppose, despite my fondness for the ’86 Celtics, that I should say this will be great for the profession, the democratization of intellectual resources and all that. But then I start thinking about Dash, in my favorite scene from The Incredibles, whining to his mother, Elastigirl, that “if everybody is special, nobody is.”

I don’t want to join the Yglesias-bashers so legion among my demographic ranks. But I do want to take issue with this:

I’ve made this argument in the past, but this old campaign poster for William McKinley’s 1900 re-election campaign makes the point better than anything I could say. What you see here — “the American flag has not been planted in foreign soil to acquire more territory but for HUMANITY’S SAKE” — would be perfectly recognizable as a neoconservative slogan. And yet, it comes from the period we now think of as involving precisely the effort to plant the American flag to acquire more territory, specifically colonies in Puerto Rico and the Philippines plus informal empire elsewhere.

I hold no brief for the Philippine occupation, which was a terrible idea. I am much less keen on it than e.g. David Silbey, who still isn’t keen on it. But it was still much less grossly incompetent than Iraq.

I mean, no. 1. Theodore Roosevelt was much preferable as a neocon to any of the current lot. (a) He was honest: he risked his own hide and (b) He was honest: he changed his mind about the war when he realized it wasn’t such a hot idea.

I’m gonna go out on a limb, here, but I’m pro-honest. Fareed Zakaria is a lot closer to TR than any of the present administration.

Having just read this, I’m not sure what to make of my party affiliation anymore. If Dick Cheney shouldn’t be impeached, and if the spectacle of the hearings wouldn’t do the republic some good, we’ve lost our way. And I really do wonder how we’re going to find the righteous path again.

Seriously, is there any individual more responsible than Vice President Cheney for the waking nightmare that is the ongoing Constitutional crisis through which we’re all shuffling? And yet, leading Democrats in the House today, once again cowering before the executive branch’s shockingly low approval ratings, overwhelmingly tried to kill a resolution to impeach the vice president. Only, believe it or not, they then had to watch as the Republican opposition revived the measure, thinking they’d humiliate the Democrats by forcing discussion of the issue.

And yes, I know that Kucinch sponsored the resolution. So his colleagues had good reason to run away and hide, thinking that he’d spray crazy all over them with his wacky antics. But still, is impeaching Cheney actually a bad idea? Not just on the merits, mind you, but on the politics? Is it?

And then there’s this: is there any issue around which the Democrats will rally and mount a serious fight. Even in the face of fierce attacks. S-Chip, you say. Okay, I’ll grant that it’s good policy, to be sure. But supporting health insurance for kids doesn’t really show me any guts. Says the Democratic leadership: “We want to help children.” Ooh, I’m impressed. And you also just love kittens, right? They are very cuddly. Except they sometimes make people sneeze, you know. And they occasionally scratch, I’m told. Oh, you want to revise your position on kittens? Okay. I guess I understand.

Although I know the phrase has been stripped of much of its meaning in today’s cultural climate, history really will judge these people harshly. The Democrats’ ongoing willingness to fund a war of choice — a conflict not only responsible for the deaths of untold tens of thousands of people, but also obviously counter to our national interests (whatever that means) — coupled with their passivity in the face of an administration that has made torture a cornerstone of its public policy, simply boggles the mind. And it’s all apparently in the name of politics.

So yes, George W. Bush is the worst president ever. And Dick Cheney may be among the worst people ever. But they haven’t acted alone. And I’m not just talking about the bootlickers in their own party. Democrats have controlled the legislative branch for almost a year now. And we’re no closer to restoring the rule of law today than we were before the mid-term elections. It really does seem like impeaching the vice president might be just the place to start. Or maybe the first step is abandoning the Democratic Party. I really don’t know anymore.

God bless Robert Darnton for beginning his discussion of letters of recommendation like this:

The main problem in writing letters of recommendation derives from a basic contradiction: the recommender wants to promote the candidate, yet at the same time he or she needs to convey the impression of giving an objective evaluation. I see no way around this problem. Unnuanced encomium will inspire disbelief, and unadorned frankness will be self-defeating. The most common strategy is to begin the recommendation with a barrage of praise and then to add nuances that can sound somewhat critical. On the whole, this works: the recipient is assumed to be savvy enough to discount for the rhetoric while understanding that the recommended is a less-than-perfect human being, like the rest of us. The trick is to get the balance right.

Too right. For the love of mike, people, everything we write is an artifice, a trick, and if well-performed, a tour de force — which is to say, a stunt. There is no shame in this — there is no point in professing shame at this — it is unavoidable. On the other hand, how can it be possible it’s necessary for Darnton to point this out — that roughly thirty years since “the linguistic turn” we have a profession infested with people who think that narrative can be the romantic effusion of a soul, presented unmediated to the reader? Jeez-o-pete.

Related anecdote: In a certain federal British university, the tutors sending students for instruction to experts in another field write what amount to internal letters of recommendation. They are brutally frank. Indeed, I believe there is an implicit competition to undersell your pupils. “Jones is a bit thick, but diligent.” “Johnson cannot focus on one thing for two minutes running and, as I taught his father, I can say he has the family tendency to value rowing higher than writing. Still, one does what one can.”

It doesn’t cost me anything to say so, as the likelihood of it ever coming up in my life is as near nil as can be, but Harper Lee getting the Medal of Freedom, along with Brian Lamb, for both of whom I have immense respect, from this president, for whom I don’t so much, is an object lesson in why one (where one is a non-politician) should never accept an invitation or award from any White House. (The tortured syntax accurately reflects my tortuous reasoning.)

Because who knows what the occupant thereof will do five minutes after you’ve gone? “President awards Kelman Medal of Freedom, defends waterboarding as ‘not torture.'” Swell headline to put in your scrapbook.

Also, you would probably have to get your medal along with the likes of Henry Hyde (for what, exactly?) as Lamb and Lee did.

All part of the case for a monarchy, to dissociate political power from the head of state.

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