You are currently browsing the monthly archive for May 2009.

Louis Warren once again helps us understand the historical roots of California’s current crisis. Thanks, Louis.

California’s crisis is such that the number one manufacturing and farming state is unable to sell its bonds. As I explained in my last post, this condition stems in part from constitutional requirements of the supermajority.

Some commentators on the right prefer a different explanation. This is the useful canard that California is congenitally left, and that liberal policies lead inevitably to financial collapse.

To be sure, the left is not blameless in this debacle. But much of California’s political upheaval of the last decade and a half has been driven by the collapse of the state’s once-formidable Republican Party. Alarmingly, national Republicans now seem to follow their lead. Progressives may think this cause for celebration – – but if the Republican Party in the U.S. becomes what it is in California, America has some hard days ahead. Read the rest of this entry »

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As Abraham Lincoln would say. And it’s with Lincoln, on the highly honorable cover, that you’ll find Ari in this week’s TLS.

Even after winning the presidency, Barack Obama continues to channel Abraham Lincoln. Obama arrived in Washington via the same train route that Lincoln did in 1861. He swore the oath of office on Lincoln’s bible. He chose the same lunch that Lincoln ate on his inauguration day. And with the nation mired in a dizzying array of crises, Obama says that he looks to Lincoln for inspiration. Ron Paul, meanwhile, did not secure the Republican nomination, despite the passion of his supporters. Nevertheless, he, too, continues to use Lincoln for political purposes. On April 15, Paul and hundreds of thousands of limited-government activists took to the streets to rail about the long reach of federal authority. In addition to claiming that income tax is unconstitutional, leaders of these so-called Tea Parties raised the spectre of secession. Rick Perry, the Republican governor of Texas, warned that if pushed, the Lone Star state might decide to leave the Union. And when political commentators heaped scorn on Perry, Paul defended him, noting that, “it is very American to talk about secession”. Perhaps, but Lincoln deserves a more generous 200th birthday present.

We will say nothing here of the 32nd president.

On this day in 1987, a West German teenager flew 400 miles across the Soviet Union in a small plane to land at the heart of what Ronald Reagan called the evil empire.  He said he wanted to strike a blow for world peace, and, bizarrely enough, he succeeded.

Mathias Rust was a 19-year-old bank clerk in Hamburg when he got his idea to deliver a 20-page manifesto on world peace to Mikhail Gorbachev.  He hoped that he could prove the good intentions of the Soviet Union, and thus help end the Cold War, by flying unmolested over its territory.

He started his odyssey by flying to Reykjavik, the site of the historic Reagan-Gorbachev summit a few months earlier.  Reagan’s rejection of Gorbachev’s offer to rid the world of nuclear weapons had depressed Rust, but then spurred him to action.  After visiting the site of the conference, the young pilot flew to Helsinki, filed a fake flight plan for Stockholm, and set off southeastward on his adventure.

It was bold, but also crazy.  Four years earlier, the Soviets had shot down a Korean Air Lines jet that had wandered into their airspace, killing 269 people.  Rust knew he might meet a similar fate.  So he brought along a motorcycle helmet in case he needed to make an emergency landing. Read the rest of this entry »

Newest mental toy:

  1. Go to Google.
  2. Type in the beginning of a common phrase (e.g., “how do I..”, “where are…”, “is barack…”)
  3. Look at the drop-down list of suggested searches.
  4. If appropriate, laugh riotously.
  5. e.g.,
..and I'm reasonably sure Google's suggestions are based on the frequency of the search...

..and I'm reasonably sure Google's suggestions are based on the frequency of the search terms being used...

(Also interesting, but less amusing, the number of times the suggestion for $foo is “…pregnant.”)

Post your finds in comments!

California state Senator Leland Yee:

Enough is enough; it is time for the UC administration to stop acting like a private institution…. Only five other public universities in the country have a similar status, with UC receiving the greatest level of autonomy. This completely outdated model results in the Regents thinking they are above the law. They continuously violate the public trust and disrespect students and taxpayers.

UC:

California might have trouble marketing its bonds in the current fiscal crisis, but UC has a AA1/AA rating. The state budget may have fallen over a cliff, but UC has managed its resources prudently in a tough environment. It has been able to preserve its world class status — a thrumming engine of educational opportunity, scientific advance and economic stimulus — even as it has absorbed a steady onslaught of cuts dictated from Sacramento.

Even with pinched budgets, UC still can attract top leaders to its 10 campuses and five medical centers, and can do so despite the easily verified fact that we compensate them well below the national average for comparable institutions.

By contrast, consider what state control has meant for California’s once world class, but now declining, K-12 public education effort. As Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, observed during a recent visit: “Honestly, I think California has lost its way, and I think the long-term consequences of that are very troubling.”

You know what they say about Mom and Dad: They started to fight when the money got tight, and they just didn’t count on the tears.

From the Telegraph, in between stories on MPs’ expenses:

At least one picture shows an American soldier apparently raping a female prisoner while another is said to show a male translator raping a male detainee.

Further photographs are said to depict sexual assaults on prisoners with objects including a truncheon, wire and a phosphorescent tube.

Another apparently shows a female prisoner having her clothing forcibly removed to expose her breasts.

Detail of the content emerged from Major General Antonio Taguba, the former army officer who conducted an inquiry into the Abu Ghraib jail in Iraq.

Allegations of rape and abuse were included in his 2004 report but the fact there were photographs was never revealed. He has now confirmed their existence in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

The graphic nature of some of the images may explain the US President’s attempts to block the release of an estimated 2,000 photographs from prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan despite an earlier promise to allow them to be published.

Maj Gen Taguba, who retired in January 2007, said he supported the President’s decision, adding: “These pictures show torture, abuse, rape and every indecency.

“I am not sure what purpose their release would serve other than a legal one and the consequence would be to imperil our troops, the only protectors of our foreign policy, when we most need them, and British troops who are trying to build security in Afghanistan…”

This phrasing, “other than a legal one”, puzzles me. First, I do not think there is no other purpose. Truth has a value all its own and so does documentation of truth. Justice has a separate value than merely “legal”. There are assuredly other reasons. Second, what is wrong with serving a legal purpose?

Second, I do not know that “the consequence would be” etc. It seems to me that a consequence might be etc. Context of presentation matters. Do you release the photos while demanding justice? While seeking truth and reconciliation? Do you do so forthrightly or reluctantly? Or are they leaked?

UPDATED to add, Nick Baumann wants to know if it’s so, why have there been no courts martial?

g21931.jpgOn this day in 1942, the USS Yorktown limped back into Pearl Harbor after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The aircraft carrier had been heavily damaged in the encounter, still a better result than that of her fellow carrier, the USS Lexington, which had been sent to the bottom. Coral Sea had been a tactical defeat for the United States–the sunken Japanese light carrier Shoho hardly an even trade for the massive Lexington–but a strategic defeat for the Japanese. The planned Japanese invasion of Port Moresby, on the southern coast of Papua New Guinea, had been called off, and the two fleet carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku had been damaged enough that they would not be available for the next month’s planned attack on Midway.

The question was whether the Yorktown would be. Things did not look good on the day she slowly eased into Pearl Harbor, an oil slick trailing behind her. She moved through a navy base still shattered by the Japanese attack of 7 December 1941 and sailors gathered on her stern to salute the USS Arizona as they passed the sunken battleship’s infrastructure, still rising above the water. Read the rest of this entry »

As I am not a scholar of the law, I do not have much to add to the conversation concerning Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court.  Kevin Drum is almost assuredly correct about the end result following the mandatory political theater; Kieran Healy provides us with the program notes.

So in lieu of analysis, I have for you a mental toy inspired in part by the end of the spring semester and joyful graduation ceremonies everywhere and the rise once again, dissected here, of the zombie affirmative action meme.  (It says “GRAAADESSSS! GRAAAAADES!”)

Imagine you’re a political pundit.   Your little girl has just graduated from Yale Law School, where she distinguished herself at the Yale Law Journal.  Four years earlier you had wept with joy as your little girl, first in her family to go to college, graduated summa cum laude from Princeton.  You feel as if you would burst with pride at all she has accomplished.  You wish your father had lived to see this day….

…and as you hug her, you whisper in her ear your respica te, hominem te memento, that really, Princeton is nothing, Yale is nothing, and she’s must be an affirmative action student who never really accomplished anything at all.  You haven’t bragged to your friends.  You haven’t mentioned it.  Why would you?

What’s been amusing me in the past few days is the contrast between the hypothetical parent who would be thrilled to tears to have a child with half of those accomplishments, the hypothetical response of the friends and community of those parents, and the rush to paint Sotomayor as someone who isn’t very bright, rather common really, a dime a dozen, part of the new detestable affirmative action policy for the Supreme Court. Whatever the reasons to oppose Sotomayor legitimately, one of them is not that she isn’t qualified.

I swear you could get pundits to declare that salt is sweet if they thought there was an advantage in it.

Over at my other digs, I’m hosting a book event on Jenny Davidson’s new book. Many of you will (or should) be familiar with her from her blog Light Reading, which is like Arts & Letters Daily, only good. You can read three-ish chapters of Breeding online, and you should—especially if you’re a fan of John McPhee.

I’m contributing a couple of posts, all of which relate to what Eric said about my work way back when: that there’s a way in which intellectual history straddles the border between literary studies and history, and that you historians have an obligation to make sure us literary rubes do a decent job of it. (I’m paraphrasing.)

It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools, they say. Jorge Colombo drew this week’s New Yorker cover on his iPhone.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

A UC library contemplates dropping some research resources, as only one of what will assuredly be many belt-tightening measures. What’s superfluous to your research agenda?

The pick of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court will be analyzed to death over the next several days. Her legal opinions will be picked over at great length by the qualified and unqualified, in ways useful and cringeworthy. Her public utterances will be parsed with the concentration worthy of Biblical scholars and then will be transformed into whatever spin the examiner wants.

There’s no need to add preemptively to that hashing, but I wanted to make one point in the discussion. Sotomayor’s pick is–on a political level–an act of genius and will position the Democrats to do well in 2010 and Obama to win reelection in 2012. Why? That the Judge is Hispanic places her nomination and confirmation in one of the great shifting fault lines in current American politics. Karl Rove made a concerted effort to woo the Hispanic vote in 2004 and was met with relative success. Where Al Gore had won 65% of the Hispanic vote in 2000, John Kerry won only 55%. The Hispanic vote in Florida, which voted 56% for Bush, helped him carry that state. That was largely undone in 2005-2006 when the GOP collectively went Minuteman Project jg12808.jpg on the subject of illegal immigration. That pushed large numbers of Hispanics back into the Democratic camp in 2006 and 2008. Obama won the Hispanic vote by 67-31% over McCain, a surprising total given McCain’s friendliness to immigration reform and his roots in the southwest.

Sotomayor’s pick should help solidify that shift, for two distinct reasons. First is the pick itself, which should raise Obama’s standing among Hispanics even further. But the second is the likely Republican reaction. The GOP is going to go after Sotomayor hard during the confirmation. They can’t not. It’s in their DNA, it’s too attractive a way further to rile up the base, and Supreme Court picks have simply become highly-partisan and politicized moments. And they’re going to do it in all the ham-fisted and seemingly racist ways at which the modern GOP excels. This is a red meat moment for the insane wing of the Republican Party and they are certainly not going to avoid chowing down. The fight will consume most of the summer, and its legacy will last at least to election 2010 and likely to November 2012. Sotomayor’s legacy, if she is confirmed, is thus likely to be both judicial and political.

On this day sixty-five years ago, American forces broke out of the Anzio beachhead and began the long process of pushing the Germans out of Italy.  In American military history, the invasion is known as a poorly executed near disaster.  In my family’s history, it is remembered as the moment when my father came to terms with the role of  chance in an individual’s life.

Read the rest of this entry »

Michael Kazin on Guttenplan on Stone:

Stone, like many intellectuals of his generation—his fellow Jews in particular—long believed that Communism, whatever its faults, was the best hope for a future free of ruthless competition, racial hatred, and war. Not until he visited the USSR in 1956 did he declare the whole enterprise to be bankrupt. He then confessed in his Weekly, “I feel like a swimmer underwater who must rise to the surface or his lungs will burst. . . . This is not a good society and it is not led by honest men.[”] Of course, by that time, Soviet leaders were finally admitting that Stalin had been a tyrant, and rebels across Eastern Europe were organizing resistance to the regimes imposed on them by the Red Army.

Guttenplan is careful to note that Stone traveled the wide, relaxed orbit of the Popular Front rather than within the far smaller and more rigorous nucleus of journalists who hewed to the American CP. He reported and wrote opinion pieces for the New Republic, the New York Post, and The Nation—never for the Daily Worker or the New Masses—and was always passionate about exposing “people who push other people around,” as the motto of one of his outlets, the New York City daily PM, put it. His journalistic reputation depended on mining key sources within the government as well as among radical activists. Guttenplan astutely traces Stone’s long hot-and-cold relationship with Harold Ickes, the interior secretary who was a mainstay of the New Deal. In his diary, Ickes called the reporter “a clever little Jew . . . [who] seems to know pretty well what is going on here in Washington and is a fearless writer.” There was little trust on either side, but in the age-old dance of politicians and the press, each man proved quite useful to the other.

The Popular Front helped make the United States a more tolerant, more democratic society—and put pressure on New Dealers like Ickes to dismantle barriers between people the government deemed worthy of its help and those it ignored. Knowing that the tyrants in the Kremlin smiled on its activities does not negate the fine work of writers like Stone and of such artists as Dorothea Lange, Paul Robeson, and Orson Welles. As Guttenplan makes clear, the movement mattered more to America than did the party that spawned it….

Still, one thing is not in doubt: Stone longed all his adult life for a socialist future—and yet came to believe that every government that professed to share that dream ended up betraying it. Perhaps the best way for Stone’s many admirers to emulate him in our postsocialist world is to be as skeptical about those in power who seem to agree with you as about those whom you rightly detest.

[Editor’s note: Louis Warren, our colleague and friend, returns to write about why you should care that California has decided to self immolate.]

[Editor’s note II: This post has been updated to reflect author’s changes.]

While the scolding and the tut-tutting goes viral — “California, such a shame those weird, flaky people can’t live within their means” — it’s time for some serious reflection about how the nation’s richest, most populous state got where it is. California, home to one in eight Americans, has a GDP bigger than Canada’s. And it’s in the middle of an on-going fiscal calamity which threatens to rip our legislature apart (again). This week, the governor went to the White House to beg for federal backing of state bonds, a move which threatens to make California’s predicament a national drama.

So, whatever the solutions to California’s problems, rest assured those problems are coming soon to a theater near you, because unlike any other place, the Golden State is where the future is now. In a sense, California is the un-Las Vegas. What happens here does not stay here, it goes global. The growth of independent political voters? Auto emission regulations? The tax revolt and modern conservatism? We saw them all first in LA and San Francisco. Watts erupted in flames before any other American ghetto in the 1960s. Harvey Milk led the charge for gay rights on our televisions first. The tech boom was here first. And so was the bust.

So what explains California’s budget crisis, and what can we learn from it? In truth, the reason California has been unable to balance its budget has little to do with being an outlier, and more to do with some small, structural peculiarities that simply don’t suit a modern American state. Our politicians are about as partisan as Americans in general (read “very”). Our state tax rate is marginally higher than most others (but it is not the highest), and the level of our spending on public education and other services is also somewhat higher. So what gives?

The root of our problem is our state constitution, which requires a two-thirds majority to raise taxes or pass a budget. In some ways, this is peculiar. No other state requires two-thirds majorities to perform those two vital functions (although Rhode Island and Arkansas both require 66% to raise taxes, their budgets pass on simple majority votes). In other words, to pass a budget every year in California requires the same level of amity and consensus other states require for a constitutional amendment.

Where did the supermajority originate? Although many blame Proposition 13 (passed in 1978), California’s constitution has in fact been tilted this way for a very long time. The state first passed a constitutional amendment requiring two-thirds majorities to approve budgets back in 1933. The rule kicked in only when budgets increased by 5% or more over a previous year. But since most budgets did increase by at least that much (California was growing by leaps and bounds), it kicked in a lot.

Even then, budgets passed with little trouble. California Republicans fought to restrain expenditures, then voted to raise taxes to cover what the budget required. Democrats fought for public education (including the nation’s most extensive system of higher education). In the 1950s and ‘60s, California took on more debt than any state in history to fund massive public works, including highways, university campuses, and the state aqueduct system (which together did much to create the wonders of LA and San Diego as we know them).

All this spending was funded by taxes and bonds, which voters approved at the ballot box. This despite the fact that in 1962, voters and legislators united to “streamline” the budget process and require two-thirds majorities for ALL state budgets. Still, Republicans and Democrats typically hammered out deals, with Republicans voting for taxes only after exacting concessions from Democrats.

So it went for another decade or so, when the rise of movement conservatism changed the terms of debate. Republicans never liked taxes, but they saw them as an unfortunate necessity. By the 1970s, conservatives increasingly sounded like the leader of California’s tax rebellion, Howard Jarvis, who condemned all taxes as “felony grand theft.” With passage of his Proposition 13, voters mandated that all tax increases required two-thirds majorities, just like state budgets.

Still, for many years, leading Republicans could contain their most conservative brethren and hammer out deals in the old-fashioned way. As late as 1991, a Republican governor (Pete Wilson) championed a tax increase and budget cuts to close a deficit. In 1994 he won re-election.

But already the tide was turning. As Wilson discovered during his abortive presidential campaign in 1995, the “No New Taxes Pledge” had become a litmus test which he had failed. This hostility to all taxes is now conservatism’s defining feature. It is also, historically speaking, quite new. More than anything else, this is what killed the consensus that drove California’s 66% majorities.

The proof is in the pudding. The state has had the same supermajority requirements for budgets for the last 47 years. But only for about the last two decades has the budget become a source of continual drama, with legislators deadlocking 18 years out of the last 22. There has been chronic division in the last ten. We are a long way from the consensus that built the Golden State.

But it’s worth observing that we’re not beyond consensus. Today, California’s state assembly is less than 40% Republican, a situation that is not likely to change much in favor of Republicans (for reasons I’ll discuss in a later post). They are stalwarts for tax cuts, but over 60% of the state’s voters have opted for higher taxes and more public services. In any other state, this wouldn’t even be an argument. But in California, it’s a crisis because of the supermajority amendment to the constitution. The state is not “dysfunctional.” It’s not “flaky.” But the constitution no longer suits political realities, and it seems bound for some kind of change. The Bay Area Council, a group of prominent San Francisco business leaders, has proposed a state constitutional convention to require only a simple majority for new budgets and taxes. Their idea appears to be gaining ground.

This all might seem a peculiar California story, but to any observant American it is a sign of the times, a symptom of the country’s divisions. The U.S. Congress has no supermajority requirement, but California’s travail is echoed in the Senate, where rules require 60 votes to end a filibuster. Democrats now control 59 seats, Republicans have 40. The empty seat is Minnesota’s, where Democrat Al Franken appears to have eked out a victory over Republican Norm Coleman in the 2008 election. That was six months ago. Since then, Republican operatives have poured money into legal appeals, tying up the business of the country, stalling health care reform, threatening a filibuster of the president’s Supreme Court nominee and many other big initiatives, to buy their flagging party some time. From the Pacific to Minnesota to the nation’s capital, California blazes a path into the future — like it or not.

The first rule of improv comedy is, “don’t deny.”1 If your partner says something about you, it’s true; if you don’t like it, work around it. If you stop and say, “No, I’m not a beet farmer, I’m a rocket scientist,” then the scene loses all interest for the audience and becomes two annoying actors squabbling.

I hereby arbitrarily assert by the authority vested in me as a guy with a blog, this rule applies equally to introductions to academic talks. If someone mispronounces your name, let it go. If they get the title of your book wrong, you can if you really must find a way to mention it properly yourself, without explicitly correcting your host. If they say you’re an expert in x and that’s why you’re giving this talk, and it turns out your talk isn’t really about x, you can probably find a way to say, “Yes, I have interests in x, and those led me naturally to the material in this talk.”

Obviously, this whole post falls under the heading of dicta or at best free advice, and maybe there are outlying cases where it’s really necessary to correct the introduction, but seriously: it’s jarring to the audience if you spend the first few minutes of your talk explaining that the apparently gracious introduction you just received is all wrong and that really your theoretical inheritance is a bit different from what they heard in the lead-in.


1Also, I should mention, I’m not very good at improv comedy. I just remember the rules.

Chuckle:

Imagine, if you will, a football field of standard dimensions. The faculty in Computer Science and Engineering, Mathematics and Statistics, along with a smattering of faculty from other sciences and a few in the Humanities, are sitting in the stands, spectating. The rest of the faculty are crowded together down on the field, wearing football helmets and running into each other at random, over and over and over again. There are no referees.

Such is the electronic behavior of the LSU faculty this afternoon, after geniuses in the registrar’s office decided that all 5000 faculty at LSU needed to be added to an unmoderated listserv. Yes, you read that correctly: an unmoderated listserv. We may never understand how the office arrived at this decision, especially in consideration of the fact (announced proudly on the listserv when it sent its first broadcast this morning) that the listserv would be used infrequently to make general announcements (which we already get through the usual university e-mail broadcast system used by, yes, the registrar).

Every single one of 5000 faculty members has now received several hundred messages containing short little phrases like “sign me up!” later followed by “remove me from this list” and much later by “remove me from this goddamn list you fucking idiots!” (I saved that last one, and I keep rereading it because it makes me happy.)

Something like this happened once on a conference call; I wish I could recall the context, but there were literally hundreds of people involved, at least half of whom were not evidently aware of that fact. And so the first ten minutes were wasted as seemingly every other caller piped in and then announced his/her name and affiliation, to the cascading dismay of everyone else on the line. Eventually, all participants had to be muted so that the meeting could actually proceed.

Scott McLemee has a great interview with Jeet Heer, on the original Little Orphan Annie:

In 1931, Daddy Warbucks loses his fortune to unscrupulous Wall Street speculators, is blinded, and lives for a time as a street beggar. But after hitting bottom he regains his fighting spirit and outwits the Wall Street sharks who brought him and America low. By 1932, the villains in the strip are increasingly identified with the political left: snide bohemian intellectuals who mock traditional values, upper-crust class traitors who give money to communists, officious bureaucrats who hamper big business, corrupt labour union leaders who sabotage industry, demagogic politicians who stir up class envy in order to win elections, and busybody social workers who won’t let a poor orphan girl work for a living because of their silly child labor laws. Gray started to identify liberalism with elitism, a potent bit of political framing which continues to shape political discourse in American today.

[Following up on this post.]

The valor that garners a Medal of Honor has changed since the Civil War, when the award was first created. In fact, many of the ways that the Medal was previously given no longer hold. Perhaps the most obvious of these is that it is now extremely difficult–if not impossible–to get a Medal of Honor while surviving the acts of bravery. The military denies that this is an official requirement, though there is skepticism:

The U.S. military appears to have toughened its standards for bestowing the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest award for valor in battle, to exclude troops who survive their heroic acts, a California lawmaker charged Thursday.
Either troops are “not as brave as they used to be, which I don’t believe is true,” or the criteria for the award have been amended “so that you have to die” to receive it, Rep. Duncan D. Hunter, R-Calif., told the Army’s top civilian and uniformed leaders.
Hunter’s assertion during a House Armed Services Committee hearing drew a rebuke from Gen. George Casey, the former U.S. commander in Iraq who now serves as Army chief of staff. “There has been absolutely no effort” to limit the award to troops who’ve perished, Casey said.
Five Americans, all killed in action, have been awarded the Medal of Honor for service in Iraq or Afghanistan. The total is far lower than that of past wars; 244 troops received the Medal of Honor for heroism in the Vietnam War, for example.

The last seven Medals of Honor have been given posthumously. Read the rest of this entry »

Last week I gave a couple of talks, one at Cambridge on “New Deal Revisionism Revisited” and one at Århus (also known as Aarhus) on “Region, Nation, and Immigration”. I imagine the first talk would have little in it that is new to readers of this blog; the second talk drew on the research I’m now doing for my new book, about which I may have more to say in a while.

But for now a few notes.

1. Denmark is expensive. Holy smokes, I thought England was pricey, but Denmark leaves poor Blighty stumbling at the starting gate in the purchasing-power-parity stakes.

2. During one of many stints on planes-trains-and-automobiles, I watched the Channel Four/NOVA documentary on the Irving trial. It’s an interesting lesson, worth a post perhaps, on the dynamics of denialism and the obligations of historians to know when to quit in demanding proof of a case.

3. European undergraduates and indeed other university people still seem, in the main, quite puzzled by the United States and eager to have as simple an explanation as possible of, as one of my students put it once, “why is America so weird?”

4. It occurred to me to note that (arbitrary but fun!) the best document on how Europeans (at least, used to) see Americans is The Third Man. The twinned pair at the heart of the movie—Holly/Harry—have more in common than at first appears, and the naïve cowboy (check out Holly’s hat and coat, as well as his literary oeuvre) looks like a savior but does damage, just like the con man. Overfed, oversexed, overpaid and over here,1 they’re indistinguishable and in the case of Holly, indistinct; worse, they just don’t know when they’re not wanted.


1The other great European line about the Americans in the 1940s is, “The Brit walks around like he owns the place. The American walks around like he doesn’t give a damn who owns the place.” I don’t know where I got this—maybe from my grandfather? Can’t remember.

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