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Though this article in today’s New York Times relates to items taken in a different war, it raises issues connected to the Boxer Uprising as well:

China is stepping up the pressure on Christie’s auction house to withdraw two bronzes from its sale of Yves Saint Laurent’s vast collection next week in Paris, saying they were looted from the imperial Summer Palace near Beijing nearly 150 years ago.

The two Qing dynasty bronze animal heads, one depicting a rabbit and the other a rat, are believed to have been part of a set comprising 12 animals from the Chinese zodiac that were created for the imperial gardens during the reign of Emperor Qianlong in the 18th century.

China views the relics as a significant part of its cultural heritage and a symbol of how Western powers encroached on the country during the Opium Wars. The relics were displayed as fountainheads at the Old Summer Palace, known in Chinese as Yuanmingyuan, until it was destroyed and sacked by British and French forces in 1860.

At a press briefing in Beijing last week, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry said the two bronzes should be returned to China because they had been taken by “invaders.” And a group of Chinese lawyers says it plans to file a lawsuit this week in Paris seeking to halt or disrupt the sale. But Christie’s says the sale is legal and plans to go ahead with the auction on Monday through Wednesday in Paris, where the two bronze items could fetch as much as $10 million to $13 million apiece.

In both Tianjin and Beijing, there was extensive looting in the summer of 1900. As one American Marine remembered:

Soldiers of all nations joined the orgy…Men of the allies staggered through the streets, arms and backs piled high with silks and furs, and brocades, with gold and silver and jewels.[1]

A brisk trade in looted goods broke out, with open air markets buying and selling goods.

This sometimes led to particularly odd moments. Read the rest of this entry »

This set of presidential rankings, as Steve Benen points out, is not all that useful except as a conversation-starter.

Bearing that in mind, I’ll simply note the absurdity of keeping William Henry Harrison on the list. Ol’ Tip’s misplacement is thrown into high relief by virtue of his being ranked lower (39) than George W. Bush (a gentleman’s 36), which I’d expect even Bush partisans to recognize as a silly comparison. I have no quarrel with ranking Bush ahead, for the time being, of the three presidents — Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan — who set the stage for the Civil War; and I’m even willing to keep Andrew Johnson and Warren Harding on a lower rung for now, though I’d expect him to overtake Harding fairly soon.

But in all seriousness, we need to give Harrison the equivalent of a “No Basis” grade for his 32 days in office. It’s like he bought the books; showed up the first day, read the syllabus, completed his introductory assignment — a long and ponderous essay about his plans for the future and his thoughts on a republican system of government — and then just bailed out on the rest of the semester. Is that really so bad as to deserve 39th place? Sure, you have to knock him for “Performance in the Context of His Times,” performances that had conventionally including surviving to the end of four years. But can you really evaluate the guy in terms of “Moral Authority” or “Relations with Congress”? And so far as “Setting an Agenda” is concerned, Harrison is vastly underrated. Length and poor prose aside, there’s much to dislike about Harrison’s inaugural address — he spends several Broderian paragraphs complaining indirectly about the shrill tone of abolitionism, for example — but he offered some thoughtful words regarding the temptations of power and vowed that under no circumstances would he ever seek a second term in office. Then, as if to prove his point, he went ahead and decided not to even serve his first. And people were seriously bummed out about his death.

As President, Harrison died pure as the driven snow. It diminishes all of us to keep him in the rankings.

cross-posted at Lawyers, Guns and Money, with the exception of an episode of Drunk History that WordPress seems determined to prohibit me from embedding

In the latest news in the California budget saga, the state Senate is still one vote shy of the two-thirds supermajority needed to pass the budget.  Last night, as he finally ended the weekend lockdown and let his members go home for a few hours, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg got angry at State Senator Sam Aanestad in particular and the Republicans in general:

Here’s a presidents’ day post: I took this photo of President Reagan, right around the time he was making fun of me.

The final round of that year’s Bee came down to Eric Rauchway, thirteen, from St. Petersburg, Florida, and Blake Giddens, thirteen, from Alamogordo, New Mexico…. After Eric spelled ratatouille with a final i, Blake added the proper e then took a guess—a correct one—on his final word, Purim, to become champion.

Blake and Eric and a few finalists were invited to meet the president in the White House Rose Garden, though it was the oddest presidential congratulation in Bee history. One of President Reagan’s goals (one that he never achieved) was to eliminate the federal department of education. Reporters at the Rose Garden event asked him if he still hoped to do this…. President Reagan never hesitated. “There’s too much Federal Government in education,” he replied.

However, lest the afternoon devolve into political infighting, he displayed his characteristically genial persona, offering his compliments to the Bee finalists, adding, “that’s compliment with ‘i,’ not complement with an ‘e.'”

James Maguire, American Bee: The National Spelling Bee and the Culture of Word Nerds (Rodale Books, 2006), 86.

For those of you who really, really enjoy this sort of thing, here’s a whole hour of me on C-SPAN’s Washington Journal talking about the New Deal. But certainly the highlight is the part when they show our blog!

In the comments to this post on last week’s Fish column, Jesse asks:

I read Fish often, but only from an uninformed perspective. I’m not an academic, so reading his pieces (and moreso the comments they elicit) provides a rare point of access into discussions on topics that otherwise I don’t get to discuss, quite frankly. But the comments reflect a consensus of Fish-crit. Can anyone offer a few bullet point criticisms of Fish or his most recurrent views? Is it mostly his pathos, or his actual positions? I may be begging “how” to read Fish, but only in the sense of a “how” among other “how’s”. Thanks!

Happy to oblige.   And since Fish has yet another poorly-argued barrel of drivel up today, timely, too!

The shortest way to express my annoyance with Fish is to say simply that he doesn’t answer Jesse’s fundamental question: what’s the academy like?   He has a rare opportunity and platform to explain the academy to laypeople, and he does it poorly.   The way I am going to describe this today: Fish consistently conflates tenure, academic freedom, and institutional culture.

Read the rest of this entry »

What better way to commemorate Valentine’s Day (um…again) by reading Plato’s dialogue concerning erotic love, Symposium? As an undergraduate in my very first philosophy class, I read the Symposium and the professor explained that not only did “symposium” mean something like “drinking party”, but that he had discovered in graduate school that the progression of speeches in praise of Love made more sense if accompanied by a bottle of wine or several.

Socrates and his interlocutors are celebrating the poet Agathon’s first victorious production with plans to get very drunk.   Hindering these plans are the fact that half the crowd is quite hungover, and so they decide instead to give speeches in praise of love.

The brilliance of this dialogue, to me, is in the wonderful characterization of all of the party guests.  Phaedrus, young and with an affect I’d describe as ‘airheaded’, begins with a rather simplistic praise of Love, as it makes everyone noble and brave and self-sacrificing and kind and virtuous!   (Ponycorns!) Older Pausanius distinguishes between common vulgar love and Heavenly Love.  The first is about sex; the second is about responsible sex where a man cares for his youthful intelligent beloved, does not take advantage of him, acts honorably, and acceptance of this Love is the sign of an enlightened society.

It is surely notable that Pausanius is Agathon’s lover.   (Come on, baby, I’m not like those other men…)

The physician Eryximachus delivers a very dry lecture that treats Love medically.  Hot, and cold, wet and dry.    Agathon composes a beautiful prose peroration on the spot.  And Socrates tells of what he learned of the form of Beauty from a wiser older woman, Mrs. Robinson, Diotima.    Then Alcibiades stumbles in drunk and hits on Socrates.

But on Valentine’s Day, I present to you the jewel (as far as I’m concerned) of the dialogue, Aristophanes’ speech, part just-so story, part a story of bumbling gods.  (Quotes below drawn from what I affectionately call Boy’s Own Monster Book of Plato, e.g., the giant Cooper anthology suitable both for the study of Plato and as a 1800 paged bludgeoning weapon.)

How were things back in the day, Aristophanes?

Read the rest of this entry »

California’s lawmakers meet tonight to try to resolve the worst budget crisis in the state’s history.  For more than six months, the majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger have tried to win the support of three Republicans in each house of the Legislature, which they need for the constitutionally mandated two-thirds vote to approve the budget. As a result, the California budget has been held hostage for more than half a year by six members of the minority party.

Why is California the only state besides Rhode Island and Arkansas to require a supermajority to pass its budget? As Fred Silva explains in this excellent article in Western City magazine, the two-thirds requirement emerged out of a state funding crisis in the Depression.  After voters rejected an initiative authorizing an income and sales tax, public officials wrote a constitutional amendment that allowed the Legislature to raise taxes and, at the same time, established a tight spending limit for state government.  The amendment stipulated that the spending cap could be lifted by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature.  In 1962, voters approved a new initiative that eliminated the spending cap but required a two-thirds vote for every budget.

The pressure on the Democrats to compromise on the proposed budget is tremendous.  As the crisis continues, state workers have taken a 10 percent pay cut, construction work has halted on aging bridges and crumbling roads, and schools and universities have laid off instructors and slashed their expenses.  The pressure on Republicans to compromise is nil. There are few competitive legislative districts in California.  This means that the Republicans have no incentive to compromise on spending or taxes; indeed, such a compromise could well doom their careers. Each day that passes without a budget helps to “starve the beast,” which serves their ideology and helps their political futures. (Ironically, though, as the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the Republican districts receive far more in state services than they pay in taxes.  What’s the matter with Fresno?)

As a result, we sit and await the Legislature’s vote on what nearly everyone agrees is a terrible budget, with tax increases for ordinary Californians but windfalls for multinational corporations; with the prospect of short-term revenue increases offset by the potential long-term disaster of a new, permanent spending cap.

The University of California will survive the crisis, in part because only about a third of its budget comes from the state.  But its incoming students will be forced to work more hours to pay for their “tuition-free” education (there’s still no tuition at the UC; only “fees”);  and they will come from increasingly impoverished, struggling schools.  Thus does the best public university system in the world – the democratic, meritocratic dream of the late Gov. Pat Brown, with his master plan for free higher education for every accomplished California child — continue its slide into mediocrity.

Farley wants to know—SEK tries to deliver.

Thesis:  The only thing more annoying than Valentine’s Day advertisements and garish displays of red and pink* are the complaints about the holiday where people endorse the very commercial and patriarchal values promoted by commercials that they purport to reject by getting upset over the day.

Slightly more defensible thesis:  Since Valentine’s Day is, by and large, a holiday that while not fake**, unmoored from other cultural traditions, there is very little social cost to ignoring it.  Thus, do not let it make you upset!  This one is up to you, so to speak.

Most defensible thesis:  I’m being a dick.  (No wonder I’m not getting any flowers!!!) But I find it curious that one effect of the day is return everyone*** involved to the popular caricature of the 1950s; either one is the popular cheerleader getting flowers from the quarterback, or one is her plain best friend whom no one loves, or a geek who gets sand kicked in the face while being shoved into the locker who has no one to love.  Everyone adopts the attitudes appropriate to those roles, even if they would not normally endorse them.

Poem for putting up with my indefensible thesis:

MISER Catulle, desinas ineptire,
et quod vides perisse perditum ducas.
fulsere quondam candidi tibi soles,
cum ventitabas quo puella ducebat
amata nobis quantum amabitur nulla.
ibi illa multa tum iocosa fiebant,
quae tu volebas nec puella nolebat.
fulsere vere candidi tibi soles.
nunc iam illa non volt: tu quoque inpotens noli,
nec quae fugit sectare, nec miser uiue,
sed obstinata mente perfer, obdura.
vale, puella. iam Catullus obdurat,
nec te requiret nec rogabit inuitam.
at tu dolebis, cum rogaberis nulla.
scelesta, uae te, quae tibi manet uita!
quis nunc te adibit? cui videberis bella?
quem nunc amabis? cuius esse diceris?
quem basiabis? cui labella mordebis?
at tu, Catulle, destinatus obdura.

Catullus needs a hug and a box of chocolate.  Or some sex.

*These colors clash.  Badly.

**As opposed to all of the other holidays, which reflect the Platonic forms of observance.****

***Universe of Discourse: those annoying me.

****In favor of Valentine’s Day: the Platonic forms do not normally involve half-priced chocolate.

The Chinese minister to Washington, Wu Tingfang, continued on what seems to have been a sustained wooing of the American elites, attempting to make his (and his wife’s) personal charm strengthen China’s international weakness. After his late January appearance at the American Asiatic Association dinner, he appeared again at Delmonico’s steakhouse, but this time for the 28th Anniversary dinner of the 475626. New York Public Library Silk Association. [1]

Then, it was announced in the Times that he and his wife would attend Mardi Gras in New Orleans. “Rooms will be engaged for the party,” the Times announced, “which will consist of the Minister, his wife, and a retinue of thirty servants, at the St. Charles Hotel.” The article then moves from a straightforward account of the Minister’s future plans to a rhapsodic account of his and his wife’s popularity in Washington:

Minister Tingfang, of whom much has been said, is among the foremost of the foreign Minister at the capital, and both he and his wife are great favorites in Washington society. His wife is a representative of the high-class Chinese lady, and is finely educated. Her gowns, which are all of the prevailing Oriental style, are made in China, and have been the cause of much comment when she appeared in public. Both the Minister and his wife speak English fluently, and are entertaining conversationalists.”

The article finished by intimating that the Minister was the “confidential advisor” of a “great Chinese statesman. [2] Tingfang and his wife were, to the Times, exotics on display in normal surroundings, “entertaining conversationalists” dressed in the “prevailing Oriental style.”

Meanwhile, back in China… Read the rest of this entry »

I know this is a photographic cliché but I couldn’t pass up the chance to make it my own.

Had he not been cut down by an assassin’s bullet, Abraham Lincoln would have been 200 years old today. How’s that for a lede? Honestly, I feel like I should try to write something grand on this auspicious occasion, but as Frederick Douglass noted in 1876, “no man can say anything that is new of Abraham Lincoln.” Douglass was right. And that was in 1876. So you can imagine how hard it is to be original about Lincoln today. But that hasn’t stopped people, lots of people, from trying. In fact, I’ve just finished reading six new Lincoln books for a longish essay I’m writing to mark the bicentennial. I learned some interesting stuff from these books — especially from James Oakes’s The Radical and the Republican — but nothing that changes my basic impression of the man, his politics, or his presidency. Truth be told, it’s probably time for a multi-decade moratorium on Lincoln scholarship.

Because someone sent me an email asking why I didn’t share this here—I didn’t realize historians taught composition or were particularly interested in how it was taught—and I don’t turn down requests:

If I’m President Obama, I’m steering clear of Ford’s Theater, thank you very much. I mean, supporting arts and culture is one thing, but tempting fate is quite another.

Oh, no.  Not the stimulus package.  Battlestar Galactica.  I thought Zarek’s actions were out of character, and designed to ensure that they could wrap up the coup in two episodes, ensuring the audience knew who they were supposed to back.

Key evidence:  The Quorum are wimps.   More discussion (with spoilers*) after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

If a few years ago you had told me that neo-Confederates were everywhere, even occupying high political office, I would have gently replied that you should put down your dogeared copy of Tony Horwitz and take the rest cure.

But here, again, we have an elected official parroting Thomas Dixon. This time it’s Representative Bryan Stevenson, a Republican state rep. in Missouri. Yesterday Stevenson railed about about the Freedom of Choice Act on the floor of the Missouri House (you can find classy audio here), suggesting that:

What we are dealing with today is the greatest power grab by the federal government since the war of northern aggression…

It’s probably too late to encourage these people to re-secede, right?


During World War II, British soldiers resentful of American troops who they thought had too much money and too much pull with British women, christened the GIs some variation of “overpaid, overfed, oversexed, and over here.”* According to the USA Today, the second of those seems to becoming more true today:

The number of troops diagnosed as overweight or obese has more than doubled since the start of the Iraq war, yet another example of stress and strains of continuing combat deployments, according to a recent Pentagon study.

Nor is this the first report on such a weight gain. Read the rest of this entry »

The problems with getting on there on the Internet, the Facebook, and the Twitter:

For security reasons, the congressional delegation led by House Minority Leader John Boehner to Iraq today was supposed to be secret. Everything had been going fine in that regard. Even media outlets that knew of the trip, like the Congressional Quarterly, kept a lid on the news.

That was, until Rep. Peter Hoekstra twittered his arrival into Baghdad. “Just landed in Baghdad. I believe it may be first time I’ve had bb service in Iraq. 11th trip here,” he sent from his BlackBerry.

@petehoekstra: dude that was supposed to be a secret!!1!

via Henley.

Please address any further questions you have about the New Deal to President Barack Obama:

there are several who have suggested that FDR was wrong to intervene back in the New Deal. They’re fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.

You can throw in what SpongeBob’s buddy Patrick would call a “sentence enhancer” if you want.

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