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This year’s Bancroft Prizes (nsfw) have just been announced. And I’m delighted to say that Thomas Andrews, friend of this blog and of this blogger, has won for his outstanding book, Killing for Coal. The other winners are Pekka Hämäläinen, for his extraordinary The Comanche Empire, and Drew Gilpin Faust, for This Republic of Suffering. If you’re interested, I reviewed Faust’s book here.


In 1921 Marc Bloch published a review essay in the Revue de synthèse historique on the propagation of false news in wartime. As far as I know it’s not been published in English, though I think bits of it turn up in the Historian’s Craft, it’s reprinted in Ecrits de guerre, and it’s available as a (very short) book in French. As Carole Fink points out, here Bloch is doing some important spade-work into the critical analysis of myths to reveal what they say about the culture that produces them. Bloch is not interested in propaganda or lies, which he regards as trivial and obvious, but rather in the error that is propagated as fact.
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Mitch Benn, “Happy Birthday War”, still apposite after all these years.


On or around this day in history, Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, having the terminally bad manners to interrupt the progress of World War II, destroy several Italian villages, and inspire a wedding proposal.


The volcano is, of course, most famous for its eruption in AD 79, which destroyed the Roman town of Pompeii, an event recorded by Pliny the Younger. But it has erupted periodically since then, with the eruptions coming more frequently in the modern era. The 65 years since the 1944 eruption is the longest time in three hundred years that Mount Vesuvius has gone without an eruption.

The 1944 eruption ranked a 3 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index, one below the AD 79 eruption. It came as Allied forces were fighting their way up the Italian boot, having landed at Salerno, just to the south, in late 1943. Read the rest of this entry »

On his authority as Admiral of the battlestar Galactica, Edward James Olmos addresses a crowd in the United Nations chamber and gets them to condemn the use of the constructed term [edited] “race” with a shout of “So say we all!”

Apart from the, I believe, indisputable general awesomeness of this moment, I’m not sure there’s that much else to say. The poor UN official who set Olmos off by using the word “races”—in quotation marks—was pretty good-humored about it.

Links explaining the occasion here.

Abu Muqawama is one of the best sources out there on counterinsurgency and insurgency theory and practice (along with the Small Wars Journal). They are still prone, however, to the “Extremely Serious People” syndrome. This is the illness where being wrong about Iraq in 2003 is better than having been right about Iraq in 2003, because it reflects one’s deep seriousness about foreign policy. Symptoms include going on national television with a somewhat sincere apology, continued regular appearances on cable news shows, and (in its worst form), believing that the next six months will be crucial (aka the Friedman unit).

The syndrome manifested itself the other day at Abu Muqawama with the great surprise that a left-winger (and a female one, to boot) might, actually, shockingly, know what they’re talking about in the realm of foreign and military policy. Sample quote:

And out of nowhere, Rachel Maddow — Rachel bleeping Maddow! — calls my boss to task and asks him if being a strategic thinker means more than tweaking our operational design. Damn! When pressed, to be fair, John gives his fellow Rhodes Scholar a pretty good answer about the costs of failure in Afghanistan. But who would have thought that lefty smart-ass on MSNBC would be the one asking the key questions? (Rumor has it that Afghanistan is actually one of Maddow’s pet subjects. Good on her, I say.)

It was apparently such a shock that Rachel bleeping Maddow! might actually know something about matters strategic that multiple exclamation points were required. The consequences of this syndrome are numerous. For example–as Robert Farley highlights–the United States spends an insane amount of money on the defense budget compared to the rest of the world. The discussion of the defense budget, however, is funneled (by extremely serious people) into specific channels that allow little in the way of reality to intrude:

Today, however, debate over the defense budget almost never results from the question “How much do we need to spend?”, or even “Should we spend more or less?”, but rather “How much more should we spend?” And this is simply insane, given the massive advantage that the United States enjoys over any potential competitor, and the security gains that the United States has accumulated since the end of the Cold War.

It is, as Farley notes, an imperial defense budget, and rarely have those two adjectives been more paradoxical than they are at the moment.

A while back I was fortunate enough to go to a very pleasant conference at a very pleasant place on the centennial of Herbert Croly’s Promise of American Life. It was for me an unusually thought-provoking conference. I’m putting my paper from it here so I don’t lose it.

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Before I could return The Damnation of Theron Ware to my beloved library, I had to remove all the notes I’d stuck to its pages. It took me a while:


The resulting note wheel is as lovely as it is meaningless, because I remember absolutely nothing about The Damnation of Theron Ware. From my notes, I can almost reconstruct why I read it:

Theron enjoys the “primitive” pleasures of Catholic picnics; contrast to earlier (235-6) image of it as orderly machine; no, from sociological & intellectual perspective it’s orderly, from internal is primitive

If only I knew the antecedent of “it” I might be able to reconstruct my reason for reading the book. Am I the only one for whom the Five Year Rule applies? (And do I really want that question answered?)


*Notation borrowed from a letter Joyce wrote to his mother after arriving in Paris: “Your order for 3s 4d of Tuesday last was very welcome as I had been without food for 42 hours (forty-two).” How’s that for passive-aggression?

Happy St. Patrick’s day.

Jesse Jones, head of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, writes of how the New Deal dealt with an insurance company.

The RFC acquired voting control of Maryland Casualty in April, 1934, when we first bought preferred stock in the Company. At that time we sent Silliman Evans to Baltimore to take the presidency of the company and Edward G. Lowry, Jr., of our legal department, to be its vice president and special counsel, each being elected as director. Mr. Evans later became chairman of the board…. When we got into the company, the situation was so much worse than had been represented that we felt it necessary to replace the management.1

I imagine this would have some present-day relevance to a White House stuck with an insurance company whose position turned out much worse than represented.

Then there is this to consider:

For political reasons, Jesse Jones often toyed with the salaries of corporate management, especially if they were, in his mind, “over-paid” Wall Streeters. Jones and Roosevelt knew that RFC loans always had the potential of political trouble—stirring up liberal Democrats and progressive Republicans who were blaming businessmen for getting the country into such an economic mess. Salary reductions were one way of showing that RFC, even while it was pouring billions into private business, was not enriching corporate management. Amendments to the RFC Act in 1933 required Jones to certify the appropriateness of the salaries paid by every corporation accepting loans and investment money. Jones devised a declining scale of salary reductions. Corporate management receiving annual salaries of $150,000 or more would be cut to $60,000, $100,000 or more to $50,000, and other reductions accordingly.2

Which might also seem apposite.

UPDATED to add a special bonus New Deal version of how to deal with rude letters from corporate types—in this case, the chiefs of the New York Stock Exchange, asked by the SEC to reorganize in light of recent events.

… the matter of reorganization was referred to the Exchange’s Law Committeee—in other words, to Richard Whitney…. After due deliberation, the Law Committee concluded that reorganization … was impracticable, and that negotiations with the SEC should therefore be broken off. It drafted a harsh letter to [William O.] Douglas saying so…. [W]hen an Exchange lawyer delivered it to Douglas in Washington a few hours later, the SEC chairman merely nodded and said grimly, “All right, then, we’ll take the Exchange over.”3

1Jesse Jones, Fifty Billion Dollars, 158.

2James S. Olson, Saving Capitalism, 126.
3John Brooks, Once in Golconda, 245.

[Cross-posted at the Jamestown Project]

One of the many issues of counterinsurgency campaigns is that it’s never entirely clear when the war is over. There’s rarely a surrender, as such, or a ceremony that can be anointed as The Moment. There’s no V-E Day, V-J Day, or anything similar. The point of insurgencies is to delay or deny that moment; the goal of counterinsurgencies is less to win a grand decisive battle or campaign than to convince large number of insurgents to give up the effort or, better yet, come over to your side (cf. Anbar Awakening).

The result is that knowing when the war is over, when one side has won a military victory, is frequently deeply difficult. When Teddy Roosevelt declared victory in the Philippines on July 4, 1902, it had more to do with domestic politics than military realities. Ironically, winning can lead to a withdrawal (“bringing the soldiers home”), but withdrawal is also what nations waging counterinsurgencies often do when they’re losing. The potential for confusion is obvious. Nor does winning mean that the violence has ended. In fact, the violence can go on for decades after the moment the war has “ended.”

In fact, there is a continuum of time when a combatant like the United States might declare the war to have ended and bring the troops home. That could be when the war is going badly and the U.S. feels it no longer worth waging (as happened in Vietnam), it could be when the war has reached some form of stalemate that the U.S. does not feel can be broken (Malaysia, for the British), or it could be when the situation has reached a comparatively stable point that looks like as much of a victory as is possible (Greece in the late 1940s).

Having said that, this is pretty much as close as one gets to military victory in a counterinsurgency: Iraq, 2009. Read the rest of this entry »

Via DeLong, Ross Douthat, make-out king of Cambridge:

One successful foray ended on the guest bed of a high school friend’s parents, with a girl who resembled a chunkier Reese Witherspoon drunkenly masticating my neck and cheeks. It had taken some time to reach this point–“Do most Harvard guys take so long to get what they want?” she had asked, pushing her tongue into my mouth. I wasn’t sure what to say, but then I wasn’t sure this was what I wanted. My throat was dry from too much vodka, and her breasts, spilling out of pink pajamas, threatened my ability to breathe. I was supposed to be excited, but I was bored and somewhat disgusted with myself, with her, with the whole business… and then whatever residual enthusiasm I felt for the venture dissipated, with shocking speed, as she nibbled at my ear and whispered–“You know, I’m on the pill…”

That poor woman. She makes the tragic, incomprehensible mistake of finding Douthat attractive, and she’s rewarded with ridicule and a role as symbol of what’s corrupt and decadent about our age. Among the eternal verities I hold dear: be nice to people who want to have sex with you.

More broadly, what steams me about the passage, apart from the spilling breasts and the masticating, is this: like all of us, Ross can choose to have sex only with people who regard having sex with some special reverence, or he can choose to to have casual sex with a nice blonde girl in the basement, but what he really shouldn’t do is act the latter way while being the judgmental bitch of the former way.

Inside Higher Ed has a March Madness bracket determining winners by academic performance.

To select the winners, we used the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate — a nationally comparable score that gives points to teams whose athletes stay in good standing academically and stay enrolled from semester to semester. (Last year, the NCAA began using the scores to impose penalties on teams that underperform academically.) In instances where matched-up teams had the same Academic Progress Rate, we broke ties using the NCAA’s Graduation Success Rate — which, unlike the federal graduation rate, considers transfers and subtracts athletes who leave college prior to graduation “as long as they would have been academically eligible to compete had they remained.”

Cornell loses to BYU. I am so ashamed.

Finishing up a research trip to the archives in London, I have a number of notes.

  • When you are walking down the street in the center of London (aka the “Tourist Zone”), if a large group of tourists stop suddenly, causing you to have to either a) cannon into them, or b) jump sideways to avoid them, they are almost invariably Germans. Today, Covent Garden, tomorrow, Lebensraum.
  • The most exciting moments of several days at the National Army Museum Templer Study Center were a) discovering a picture of Japanese officers with freshly-decapitated Chinese prisoners in front of them, and b) the moment an elderly gentleman, getting his collection of militaria appraised, unwrapped the hand grenade. (Archivist: “Has that been disarmed?” Gentleman: “I suppose so. It hasn’t gone off in 40 years.”)
  • The congestion charge has reduced traffic in London enormously and made it much more livable. It has also made the bus system usable again.
  • The Public Records Office (which the British have renamed the “National Archives” not realizing that no serious historian will call it anything but the “PRO.” Silly British.) has revamped its ordering and document production process so remarkably that it actually makes it a pleasure to use.
  • The Tank At The End Of The Road Where I Used To Live And Now Visit: Still there. Its name is ‘Stompie.’ It’s currently painted with white stripes, aka ‘The Lion King.’
  • British Prime Ministers cannot seem to manage their relations with U.S. Presidents to the satisfaction of the British. First, Blair was Bush’s poodle. Now, Gordon Brown isn’t getting good enough gifts from Obama.
  • British pubs are heaven for beer drinkers. Even the nastiest, lowest, sleaziest pub has something good on tap. It’s embarrassing just thinking about mass-produced American beer over here.

Another Boxer Post this coming week.

(Posted from Heathrow Departure Lounge)

Via Savage Minds, I came across this article from the July 2008 edition of Qualitative Inquiry:


I know everyone wants to cry Sokal and loose the hounds of sense, but the title is what the title is.  I’m more curious about this:

I was fortunate to be mentored by Corrine Glesne, an absolutely wonderful ethnographer (Busier et al., 1997; Glesne, 1989, 1998, 2003; Martin & Glesne, 2002).

Do my eyes deceive me, or are those citations meant to substantiate the absolute wonderfulness of Corrine Glesne?  Is this a cheap scheme to up the number of times people are cited in professional indexes?  If so, how is it nobody’s—wait a minute.  I just had an idea.

Have I ever told you how awesome you are?  I haven’t?  Well then, it’s about time that I did.  It is my professional opinion that you are awesome.  By the authority invested in me by the University of California, I hereby declare that each and every one of you possess more awesomeness than anyone has any right to.  You can quote me on that.  In fact, I insist that you do.  Every time you appeal to your academic ethos, I’d like to see some variation of “Lest you doubt my authority, remember that reputable scholars have attested to my awesomeness (Kaufman 2009).” Feel free to practice in the comments.

For obvious reasons, I will x-post this everywhere.  The more citations I score, the more reputable I become; and the more reputable I become, the more my stamp of approval’s worth.  I think we have ourselves a win-win scenario here.  So what are you waiting for?  Start practicing already!

We’ve had several requests for some California drought blogging. But Eric is too busy installing leaks in his manse’s plumbing (Just because, that’s why.) to think about the issue. And every time I start writing something, it turns into warmed-over Marc Reisner. So we’ve asked a friend, who works on state water issues and writes about water and climate change at On the Public Record, to post something for us. She actually seems somewhat more optimistic than I would have guessed. Unless you’re a salmon. In which case, the news isn’t good. But assuming you’re not — a safe assumption, as our outreach to the anadromous fish demographic isn’t going well — you should pour yourself a tall glass of water and read what follows.

Are we still in a drought even though it rained?

Yes. We went into the winter with reservoirs empty from two dry years. We would have to have gotten 130% of an average year to bring us out of drought this year. Instead we got about 90% of an average year. The February rain took us from ‘starkly desperate’ to ‘gravely concerned’, but we are still in a drought. Besides, the governor declared a drought emergency. Might as well go with the legal proclamation.

What does that mean to me?

If you live in a city in California, you will probably pay more for your water (10-25% more). Last year, most urban districts asked their customers to conserve voluntarily. Most districts were disappointed with the response they got (5-10% reductions). This year they’ll ration water; the common ration seems to be twenty percent less than historic use. But California urban per capita water use is still three to five times higher than the health and safety standard of 40 gallons per person per day. For urban users, it means starting to pay attention to a resource they’ve previously taken for granted. This is still ‘switching appliances’ and ‘smarter watering’ and ‘fixing leaks’ territory, not genuine hardship.

If you’re a farmer in California, or dependent on farming, the story is very different. The combination of drought and enforcement of the Endangered Species Act means that farmers are getting almost no water from the water projects this year (that may be revised to getting 5% of their usual water, because of the February rains). For many of them, this drought means putting in wells and fallowing everything but their orchards. Cattle and dairies are thinning their herds, because dry pastures are too sparse to feed their cows. Farmworkers in the San Joaquin Valley are taking the hardest hit, with unemployment over thirty percent in some towns.

If you’re a salmon in California, this drought could well be the end of you. This year’s salmon returns were historic lows, and tepid reduced rivers may finish them off. However, if you’re a wildfire in California, dying forests in the Sierras are waiting for you!

Is this because of climate change? Is this the new normal?

We can’t say for sure that climate change is causing this drought. California’s hydrology has always been extremely variable. This drought is still within the variability recorded in the past hundred years. If you take a longer view than that, tree rings and pollen samples in soil cores can reconstruct paleo droughts that lasted for decades and centuries. We can’t know that this drought wouldn’t have happened in an unaltered climate.

We do know that this drought is roughly what the climate change models predict for California. The usual synthesis from the models is about a ten percent decline in precipitation, and more importantly, loss of the Sierra snowpack. The snowpack captured water for us, releasing it slowly over four months, giving us time to move it to reservoirs, cities and farms. Rainstorms in the mountains mean hard-to-capture floods instead. Whether or not climate change caused this drought, it does give us a taste of the future.

Is this the new normal? I don’t think we’ll return to a time when there was so much water that it didn’t have to be managed carefully. Even if rain and snows return to normal, we’re expecting another twenty million people here in the next few decades. It isn’t hard to imagine that in retrospect, this drought will feel like a discontinuity, the last time when having a lawn was the default, the last time when meat grown on pasture and alfalfa was cheap, or the last time when California salmon were commercially fished.

But how people experience having less water in the future depends heavily on expectations and institutional decisions. Drought, to Californians, is never going to mean a four mile hike to fill a jug from a water truck. Compared to much of the world, what we experience as drought is luxurious. But people expect what they have now, and distributing less water to half again as many people is going to mean that we can’t use water the way we have. This drought has made it clear that with somewhat less water we can’t grow as much food as we have, have robust fish populations and be casual about urban use.

Right now, our collective expectations for water are competing and failing in a jangled mess. Courts, agencies, the governor and the legislature are deciding things left and right, with no overarching vision, authority or principles. There’s no guarantee that we’ll save our salmon runs or Delta smelt, and our efforts depend largely on the will of a single judge in Fresno. Farms are going under willy-nilly, with little or no aid to the growers or farm workers, and equally little consideration for what that means to the nation’s food supply. City water districts are working furiously to get people to believe that they must use less water somehow. Everyone from every angle is making any kind of argument to protect whatever privilege they’re used to.

It is kind of an exciting time, if you like water politicking and turbulence. For all the upheaval, though, even with this drought, the issue isn’t whether people will die of thirst. We are wealthy enough and will have enough water that the issues are whose lives will change most, who will pay for what, and what we prioritize and protect.

Historians consult sources that record past events, dismantle these sources into statements of fact, then reassemble these atoms into a synthesis of past events allegedly superior to the constituent sources. In the process we make many decisions: which sources to consult, which facts to distill from them, which facts to cull from the distillate and what emphasis to place on any of them. How do we make these decisions?

In October 1910, Carl L. Becker published “Detachment and the Writing of History” in the Atlantic Monthly, to reckon with this question.1
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Really, this is Neddy’s beat. But: liberals have put out the welcome mat for Ross Douthat, new columnist at the NYT, partly because he’s closer to reg’lar conservatives than, say, William Kristol was. Well exactly: just look at the launch party for Douthat’s book (critiquing the insular culture of Harvard) hosted by Elbridge Colby. Finally, our people will have a voice on the Times op-ed page.

by kid bitzer

I have been eaten
by the squid
that was in
the icebox

and which
was probably
you for breakfast.

Forgive me
it was so vicious
so slimy
and so cold.

(context and original.)

From the WSJ, Andrew Zimbalist on the economics of March madness.

… the schools themselves are usually the losers. According to the NCAA’s latest Revenues and Expenses report, in 2005-06 the median Division I men’s basketball team generated revenue of $480,000 and had operating costs of $1.33 million, yielding a net operating loss of $850,000. If capital expenses and full university overhead were included, these results would be even more dismal.

The most successful programs, of course, will do better (the top 10 basketball teams had revenues of more than $11 million), but even these programs frequently lose money when the accounting is done properly. Why?

Most of the 300-plus Division I schools aspire to make it to the March tournament. To do so, they have to spend big. Since they can’t go to a free-agent market to hire the best high-school players, they attempt to attract them in other ways…. they hire well-known coaches with a reputation for sending an occasional player to the NBA…. the head coaches of the 65 Division I teams in Madness had an average maximum compensation of $959,486, with the top paid coach earning a guaranteed salary of $2.1 million and a maximum salary of $3.4 million…. These guys are making almost as much as NBA coaches, even though their teams’ revenues generally are below one-tenth those in the senior circuit. The trick, of course, is that the players aren’t allowed to be paid, so the coaches, in essence, get the value produced by their recruits…. Equally startling, the average compensation of these 65 coaches is double or more that of the typical university president — a clear statement of the perverse priorities of these fine institutions of higher education.

Via Lee Sigelman at the Monkey Cage.

This is officially an award-winning blog

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