You are currently browsing the monthly archive for June 2009.
The same conservatives who mere months ago applauded their candidate’s rendition of “Barbara Ann” are now criticizing Obama for refusing to meddle in internal Iranian affairs: “[He] has only a smidgen of a chance left to get on the right side of history—either he starts acting like the leader of the free world, or he’s a quisling of thugocracies everywhere.” To say that Obama risks putting himself on the wrong side of history suggests that you know enough about that history to distinguish between its sides, even though you don’t even know there are always more than two of them. Consider how incoherently conservatives have responded to official Iranian propaganda:
Iran accused the United States on Wednesday of “intolerable” meddling in its internal affairs, alleging for the first time that Washington has fueled a bitter post-election dispute . . . The Iranian government summoned the Swiss ambassador, who represents U.S. interests in Iran, to complain about American interference, state-run Press TV reported. The English-language channel quoted the government as calling Western interference “intolerable.”
That government forces accuse America of meddling in the face of Obama’s tepid public statements is not, as conservatives would have it, evidence that because the accusation will be made, we might as well meddle. It indicates that the Iranian government recognizes how politically efficacious the accusation of American intervention in Iranian electoral politics is, which means Victor David Hanson and like–minded conservatives are urging Obama to take a principled stand by playing directly into the hands of the Iranian regime. Ahmadinejad and his supporters would love nothing more than for Obama to read the lines they scripted for him.
But why are conservatives encouraging Obama to do exactly that? Because, unlike him, they are deeply and proudly ignorant of the weight of history. This ignorance is what leads Karl to complain that German Chancellor Merkel and French President Sarkozy beat Obama to the moral high ground, even though he quotes the reason the French and Germans can condemn the apparent electoral fraud and America cannot:
“Either way we are going to be dealing with an Iranian regime that has historically been hostile to the United States,” [Obama] added.
Because Germany and France do not have a history of meddling in Iranian electoral politics, they can criticize the election results without creating the appearance that they have a vested interest in their outcome. The Wall Street Journal is similarly clueless:
Yesterday he invoked the CIA’s role in the 1953 coup against Iranian leader Mohammad Mossadeq to explain his reticence. “Now, it’s not productive, given the history of the U.S.-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling—the U.S. President meddling in Iranian elections,” Mr. Obama said. As far as we can tell, the CIA or other government agencies aren’t directing the protests or bankrolling Mr. Mousavi.
The issue isn’t whether America’s actually bankrolling the opposition party, but whether it appears to be; if it does, it undermines the legitimacy of the same movement the conservatives ostensibly support. The editorial staff at the WSJ doesn’t understand the depth of Iranian mistrust of American policy especially on the issue of Iranian elections. But the most eloquent proponent of elevating ignorance to the status of fact is the de facto voice of American conservativism:
And he said yesterday, “[i]t’s not productive, given the history of US-Iranian relations, to be seen as meddling.” We have to know what this means, “given the history of US-Iranian relations.” What history? Is he talking about the coup when we put the Shah in there in ’53 that he apologized for? Is that what he means? Is he so handcuffed to defend liberty and those who seek it because of what happened 65 years ago? What’s holding Obama back from standing up for freedom? Standing up for freedom is “meddling”? It has to be understood. What was he talking about? What is this history? What is it?
That Limbaugh’s argument moves by dint of unanswered rhetorical questions is damning enough—neither he nor his audience knows the answers to those questions—but the fact that, even if he knew what had happened, he would still consider it irrelevant because it happened 65 years ago. This claim that history can expire is indicative of a strain of stupid to which those who regularly complain about the “re-FDRing of America [via] the New New Deal” should be immune. Limbaugh fears nothing more than the revival of policies more than 65 years old, yet is incapable of understanding why the Iranian people may harbor a grudge against a nation that took liberties with its internal governance until 1979?
Limbaugh’s questions amount to little more than magical thinking thrust into face of empirical evidence. We know that Ahmadinejad and his allies believe the appearance of American meddling is a powerful political cudgel; to this fact, conservatives respond that 1953 was a long time ago. We know that Ahmadinejad and his allies are actively working to manufacture evidence of American meddling; to this fact, conservatives reply that Obama should do their work for them.
Some more photos of Aarhus. From a café, of a street near the university, and two of the university.
What attracted me to this image was the glamorous name of this Miss Seattle — Peggins Madieux. But the more I look at it, the more questions it raises. Does the cow over Miss Seattle’s head imply that the cans are of milk (e.g. sweetened condensed, to mellow the harsh of the coffee from that urn)? Would the number over her customer’s head have raised an eyebrow in 1927 (the year of my father’s birth)? But most of all, what value did UW think was added by links, on the descriptive text, to search queries for the likes of “U” and “S” (on the honorific of U.S. Senator Warren Magnuson, to whom she was briefly married)?
The “traditional forms of history are dying” meme is strong within conservative precincts, and, oddly, the New York Times. “Traditional” in this case usually means one of a choice of political, diplomatic, economic or military history. The regular story is that these important kinds of history are being excluded from academia by (unstated but usually implied) less important forms of history that involve politically correct topics like race and gender. The articles are written from the viewpoint of the traditional forms of history, and those quoted represent those forms. Input from those historians practicing the PC forms are largely ignored.
A canonical example of this came a few years ago, in the National Review. John Miller wrote “Sounding Taps: Why Military History is being retired,” which took as its starting point the inability of the University of Wisconsin to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair in Military History. Miller’s article is typical of the breed. It nodded to the “official reason” why the Chair hasn’t been filled, but then pivoted to the “real” explanation:
The ostensible reason for the delay is that the university wants to raise even more money, so that it can attract a top-notch senior scholar. There may be another factor as well: Wisconsin doesn’t actually want a military historian on its faculty. It hasn’t had one since 1992, when Edward M. Coffman retired. “His survey course on U.S. military history used to overflow with students,” says Richard Zeitlin, one of Coffman’s former graduate teaching assistants. “It was one of the most popular courses on campus.” Since Coffman left, however, it has been taught only a couple of times, and never by a member of the permanent faculty.
And even the military history that some are doing was not acceptable to Miller because their military history took as its main focus social and cultural concerns. Thus had military history been “infiltrated” by social history to the cost of the real kind of military history, operational military history (this ignored–as Mark Grimsley pointed out) that Mac Coffman, Wisconsin’s emeritus military historian, was actually a social historian of the American Army. Never mind the facts, we have a narrative to write.
But this post is not mainly about Miller’s article. That came out a while ago, and others have done a good job of shredding it: Grimsley’s post mentioned above, and a number of others by him, which are gathered here. There was also a useful discussion on H-War.
No, this post is about the way in which the narrative overcomes the reality. This is nowhere in evidence more than in the most recent article of the genre, Patricia Cohen’s piece in the New York Times. The article starts off with the standard lead-in:
To the pessimists evidence that the field of diplomatic history is on the decline is everywhere. Job openings on the nation’s college campuses are scarce, while bread-and-butter courses like the Origins of War and American Foreign Policy are dropping from history department postings. And now, in what seems an almost gratuitous insult, Diplomatic History, the sole journal devoted to the subject, has proposed changing its title.
For many in the field this latest suggestion is emblematic of a broader problem: the shrinking importance not only of diplomatic history but also of traditional specialties like economic, military and constitutional history
It goes on in this vein, quoting senior diplomatic historians and a lone graduate student, mostly commiserating the state of the field. All in all, it’s a pretty standard example of the type. Read the rest of this entry »
Matthew Yglesias has discovered afresh the massively inequitable US Senate. As longtime readers of this blog know, it’s historically been even worse than Yglesias notes: the party in power has rigged the course of admissions to keep itself in power. In 1889-90, Republicans rolled Democrats and got six new territories admitted as new states—not the most populous territories, but the most Republican-leaning territories, at least in five cases: Idaho, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, and Wyoming.
But, as Heather Cox Richardson points out in a recent email, five out of six wasn’t good enough for the enterprising Republicans of the fifty-first Congress.
Read the rest of this entry »
Okay, before I get started, let me make absolutely clear that I did not write this post in pursuit of my official duties. You’ll see why.
The other day, faculty members at the University of California, Davis, received a memorandum from the Committee on Academic Freedom and Responsibility concluding,
In light of the present deep economic recession and dramatic cuts under discussion at UC Davis, faculty participating in shared governance are in a position in which they may voice strong views and concerns that could lead to lawful but punitive reaction by the administration, including denial of merits and even dismissal. Given the legal and policy realities at hand, we highly recommend that you use caution, restraint, and judgment in your speech and actions in all job-related duties.
Where did that come from? you might ask. Well, it seems to have gone like this.
Read the rest of this entry »
A former student of mine from Iran heard from his brother for the first time in a couple of days. When my student bemoaned the cautiousness of Obama administration’s statements, his brother confirmed one aspect of Spencer Ackerman’s account of the administration’s behavior, saying that government forces are already accusing protesters of collaborating with the U.S., and that protesters are actually worried that Obama will make an explicit show of support, as that would restore some credibility to what the government has said about the election and, more importantly, could undermine a reform coalition in which some factions are none-too-fond of America.
Everyone prematurely condemning the administration’s apparent silence on this matter may want to rethink the offensive idea that he’s merely “voting ‘present.’” I’m not saying we should take my student’s brother’s word on this as definitive, but it does make one point absolutely clear: most of the people complaining about the administration’s response are more concerned with playing American politics than the situation on the ground in Iran.
This past week, the attacks on Sotomayor have turned from what she’s said to how she’s said it. Conservatives began by hammering away at the “weird, unidiomatic constructions and errors of punctuation and grammar [in] her infamous 2001 ‘Wise Latina’ speech.” Now, I advocate writing conference papers that “contain few expensive words and no Faulknerian feats of subordination” on the grounds that no human being—not even the academic ones—can parse grammatically complex arrangements of jargon on the fly, so I’m more attuned than most to the fact that what passes for grammatical in English as she is spoke doesn’t pass muster in English as she is wrote. You can imagine, then, why I chafed at Heather McDonald’s criticism of Sotomayor’s unscripted speeches for containing errors endemic to spoken language. Just because an unscripted speech is transcribed after the fact doesn’t make it written; or, as per my talk, just because it can be put to paper doesn’t mean it was meant to be read there.
Judging the quality of her prose from her speeches, as McDonald and fellow Bench Memos writer Ed Whelan did, is an intellectually dishonest exercise for the simple reason that nobody (outside of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) speaks in paragraphs. Not that this stops the other member of the Bench Memos team, Matthew J. Franck, from claiming Sotomayor “writes” sentences that were clearly spoken aloud; or that those sentences “begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all, or double back and contradict themselves,” i.e. that the transcription of her unscripted speech transcribed sentences that were clearly spoken aloud.
When I taught literary journalism, I always included Mark Singer’s profile of Errol Morris on the syllabus because it works both as an introduction to New Yorker-style profiles and a meta-methodological essay on how to approach transcriptions critically and responsibly. Here’s Singer transcribing Florence Rasmussen’s speech in Morris’s Gates of Heaven (1978):
If I could only get out. Drive my car. I’d get another car. Ya . . . and my son, if he was only better to me. After I bought him that car. He’s got a nice car. I bought it myself just a short time ago. I don’t know. These kids—the more you do for them . . . He’ s my grandson, but I raised him from two years old . . . I don’t see him very often. And he just got the car. I didn’t pay for all of it. I gave him four hundred dollars.
Singer responds to her outpouring by noting that
[w]ith an arresting instinct for symmetry, Florence Rasmussen manages to contradict most of what she has to say. It seems that she knows certain things, but then, in the next moment, she trots out contrary information[:] I’d like to drive my car; but I might not even have a car any longer, might have to buy a new one. I bought my son—O.K., he’s not my son, he’s my grandson—a new car; well, I didn’t pay for the whole thing, I gave him four hundred dollars, but anyway I want my money back.
As viewers of The Fog of War (2003) know, this technique works as powerfully on former Secretaries of Defense as elderly Floridians, not because either is particularly muddleheaded, but because Morris takes advantage of the infelicitous glitches that accompany the spontaneous production of spoken language. McDonald, Whelan, and Franck seem not to understand how language works. They scoured “virtually all [Sotomayor’s unscripted] speeches on the Senate website” and discovered damning evidence that they were, in fact, unscripted speeches; then, they lambasted those transcripts of her unscripted speeches for failing to meet the standards demanded of the written word, which proved to them that Sotomayor is “a mediocrity as a writer.” Whelan even suggests she’s a hypocrite for “present[ing] herself as a stickler for good grammar” when her speeches contain constructions that would be ungainly, if not outright ungrammatical, on the page. How about we hoist Whelan by his own petard?
Well, it’s an unguarded moment where she says what folks on the left think which, their job is to use judicial robes to make sound policy and the law is largely a vessel for them to fill with their own preferences.
Sure, very much along the same lines, talking about what he calls the criterion but which selecting judges.
Well, how is that honoring people who put their lives at risk in public service and, look, at 9/11 we understood for a while what firefighters do.
Whelan clearly offends Franck’s standards: he “writes sentences that begin with a thought and trail off without saying much of anything after all.” The first sentence subordinates a clause about as clunkily as you can imagine; then you read the second sentence, observe that it doesn’t even include the subordinate clause it introduces, and marvel at the paucity of your imagination. I suppose that second sentence meets Franck’s standard on a technicality—the sentence defies the laws of grammar and stops before it has a chance to trail off without saying much of anything—but that third sentence turns on a dime “and, look,” informs us that we know “what firefighters do.” Does that count as “much of anything”?
They do eventually get around to criticizing Sotomayor’s prose on the basis of what she’s actually written: they find that while it’s not “ungrammatical,” it is “tedious and ‘impenetrable.'” That link leads to Stephanie Mencimer’s article in Mother Jones, in which she pings Sotomayor’s prose for “rarely hit[ting a] sort of breezy cadence [because she] devotes the bulk of her legal analysis to quotes from statutes, regulations, and other opinions ad nauseam[.]” How she’ll legislate from the bench when she’s busy citing dull precedent is as mysterious to me as, for example, how a prose-scold could write “quote” instead of “quotation” in the middle of a complaint or believe Diane Wood’s summary of Merchant of Venice signifies much of anything in the Age of Wikipedia.
In the end, the case against Sotomayor basically amounts to this: on the one hand, her speeches betray all the ungrammatical tics common to spoken language, and if you treat those speeches as prose, you must conclude that she’s a poor writer; on the other, the prose of her legal opinions isn’t ungrammatical, but because it betrays the tedious tics common to lawyerly prose, you must conclude she’s a poor writer. You see where this is headed. If word leaked out that “Ed Whelan” was actually Sotomayor’s pseudonym, the Bench Memos team would argue that, because Whelanmayor did all that I documented above, you must conclude that s/he’s a poor writer. Were it then revealed that Whelanmayor did Diane Wood one better and actually wrote Merchant of Venice, the Bench Memos team would claim that, in light of the difficulty of Shakespelanmayor’s prose, the Western Canon requires immediate revision and you must conclude s/he’s a poor writer . . .
I guess Neil’s “Naming Fail” says it all.
The snark about whether erstwhile torture advocates want to torture terrorist Scott Roeder is legitimate snark, of course, but it is sometimes worth drawing out into the open what lies underneath the apparent hypocrisy. Remember this famous passage from Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, in which James Wormold (who’s British) is chatting with Captain Segura (who’s Cuban)?
“Did you torture him?”
Captain Segura laughed. “No. He doesn’t belong to the torturable class.”…
“The poor in my own country, in any Latin American country. The poor of Central Europe and the Orient. Of course in your welfare states you have no poor, so you are untorturable. In Cuba the police can deal as harshly as they like with émigrés from Latin America and the Baltic States, but not with visitors from your country or Scandinavia. It is an instinctive matter on both sides. Catholics are more torturable than Protestants, just as they are more criminal…. One reason why the West hates the great Communist states is that they don’t recognise class-distinctions. Sometimes they torture the wrong people. So too of course did Hitler and shocked the world. Nobody cares what goes on in our prisons, or the prisons of Lisbon or Caracas, but Hitler was too promiscuous. It was rather as though in your country a chauffeur had slept with a peeress.”
“We’re not shocked by that any longer.”
“It is a great danger for everyone when what is shocking changes.” (pp. 164-165 in the collected edition)
What Greene, and Segura, are wittily gliding over here is that the torturable class consists almost entirely of poor people, most of them with brown or yellow skins. Not the citizens of welfare states. Which raises the question, what about Americans? We don’t exactly have a welfare state, do we. And apparently some of us are torturable, to those who believe in torture. Just not ones who look like Scott Roeder or James von Brunn.
I’ve been reading John Vaillant’s The Golden Spruce, about the strange eco-vandalism incident in 1997 on Haida Gwaii (aka the Queen Charlotte Islands), northern British Columbia. (If you’re interested, the New Yorker article he distilled from it is a better read.) Mostly I’m indulging a mild obsession with a remote corner of the map — now even more tantalizingly quasi-accessible, of course, via Google Earth and such. But in browsing around, I encountered what might be the most beautiful map I’ve ever seen on the Internet, and certainly one of the most effective in conveying its message.
The map shows the extent of logging, both historical and geographical, on the islands since 1900. It was produced by the Gowgaia Institute, of Queen Charlotte on the islands. Definitely click through for larger versions (without the superposed town names).
Updated to restrain some overheated language.
Spell checkers have eliminated the vast majority of spelling errors in student papers. What has replaced the standard misspelling is the “correctly spelled but not the right word” error. Or, if you want to be all Latinate and pedantic, you could call them “Homophone Errors.” The word is spelled as it should be, so the spellchecker doesn’t pick it up, but the usage is wrong. The classic one, for me, is the frequent confusion between “their,” “there,” and “they’re.”
My favorite such errors are peculiar to military history. The first is the substitution of the word “calvary” for the word “cavalry,” as in “The calvary charged across the field.” Given that “calvary” means the “place where Jesus was crucified” and translates roughly as “place of skulls,” the mental image that this brings upon reading is quite disturbing.
|Deadly at Short Range|
My other favorite, and the particular subject of the title today, is the substitution of “canon” for “cannon,” as in “The canon belched flame and shot at the enemy lines.” Since the major meanings for “canon” (besides being a camera company) are “an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture” or “a clergyman belonging to the chapter or the staff of a cathedral or collegiate church,” this also creates an impressive vision.
Why do I mention this today? Because the New York Times, blast the dark and
necrophagus necrophagous souls of their copy editors, have managed to let the latter such error slip into today’s edition. In a review of William Gurstelle’s Absinthe and Flamethrowers: Projects and Ruminations on the Art of Living Dangerously, which is apparently about the best ways to blow one’s self up in the garage and was inspired by a David Brooks’ (!?…@#$#!) column, the Times puts in the middle of the review in larger letters (what are those interjections called?) the phrase “How to make your own gunpowder and a canon to match.”
I read it. I spat coffee. I screamed. I annoyed my wife. Luckily, she is a good and patient woman, so I survived to write this post. The error is not present in the online copy, so (because we are a full service blog), I include a photo:
It’s bad enough that the paper of record has declared the split infinitive acceptable. Now, my students can argue vociferously that “canon” is an reasonable alternate spelling of “cannon.”* The Times says so!
*This assumes that any of them read the Times.
So, now that nobody cares anymore, about that Star Trek movie.
Read the rest of this entry »
There’s a newly prominent argument on the right that holds that if only we overturned Roe, happy Americans free of insidious judicial activism would ensure that women had reasonable access to abortion, like in Europe. Since this isn’t the case, the poor anti-abortion Americans, barred from the political process, have no choice but to murder doctors (though everyone condemns it, tsk tsk tsk.) Scott Lemieux has an excellent takedown that everyone should read, as does hilzoy. I have but two things to add:
1) It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that anti-abortion groups and pro-choice groups are on the same page, and merely disagree over the method of implementation, legislative or judicial. There are states with trigger laws. This is not a proposal being offered as a compromise, even were it not offered at gunpoint.
2) Once again, I point out that there have been several abortion-related cases since Roe, notably Planned Parenthood vs. Casey. (And to get rid of the underlying problem you’d probably have to go back to Griswold.) Many, many marginal restrictions are permitted, as are some major regulations. To take the claim seriously that anti-abortion activists have been excluded from the political process and therefore must resort to terrorism, you have to ignore in the past 36 years since Roe and the seventeen since Casey, not only have there been a few Republican administrations and Republican-controlled Congresses, but Court appointments, too. The ban on intact D&E was upheld in 2007, thanks to two conservative court appointments made in the 2000s. What’s happened in the past year and a half that has disenfranchised these poor souls?
I think the onus should be on anti-abortion advocates to lay what they want, specifically, in detail, to ban or to permit, that they can’t accomplish now. What is it? No rosy talk of Europe, which contains all the things you want to…emulate.* What is it that you want that you haven’t been able to get? Why do you want it? Specifics. Around 91% of all abortions are already in the first trimester. What is it about remaining 9% that bothers you?
*I can imagine many ways that women’s reproductive freedom could be sufficiently protected even if abortion was outlawed after the first trimester. But I see that as somewhat beside the point. We’re not starting the U.S. from scratch, and any reversal of abortion rights would occur in our current context. Likewise, I know of many nations that do not have a Constitution with anything like our Bill of Rights that supports freedom of speech, but that wouldn’t mean I’d be sanguine if Obama suddenly headed up a campaign to get rid of the first Amendment.
Last, I noted that I increasingly left the most important out of sentences. What began as a seems to be getting worse and. Looking over what I today, I can’t help but at how deliberate it seems, as if I’m trying to make it impossible to edit what I. Granted, with every passing I’m a little older, but honestly, this can’t be what it’s like to be? Crafting sentences that only lack the most element required to understand them? On my list of fates worse than, this probably takes the.
Now that I about it, if I’m to run out of words, maybe I should in the sciences, where words don’t seem to be required:
Which is to say, it’s a bad sign that “despite Obama’s campaign promises, his approach to secrecy on issues of national security will likely not depart significantly from that of George Bush”. But you don’t want to take my word for it—read further down and look whose expert opinion TPM Muckraker leans on:
Kathryn Olmsted, a professor of history at UC Davis who has written extensively about the CIA’s track record of secrecy, agreed with Aftergood about the significance of the administration’s position on the interrogation tapes material.
“It’s a bad sign that they’re not going to break as much with the Bush administration as they had said they were going to,” Olmsted told TPMmuckraker. “I really want to give them the benefit of the doubt, but they certainly seem to be going down that path.”
Olmsted described the CIA’s position on the issue as more egregious than Obama’s decision to oppose the release of the Abu Ghraib photos. “You can make the argument that the photographs are so inflammatory that it’s going to help recruiting of terrorists” to release them, she said. “But just having the text of the interrogation, I think that’s really pushing it to say that that also is going to hurt national security.”…
Obama’s approach to issues of secrecy on national security doesn’t mimic Bush’s alone, it appears. Rather, said Olmsted, it’s broadly in keeping with “every other presidential administration” of modern times. But, she added, “it’s disappointing, because President Obama promised a whole new era in government transparency, and here they go again concealing this information.”
What’s that? You say you were thinking about taking off your bumper sticker? Put that craft razor away. I mean, if Kathy says so.
One of the big stories in US history is the creation of a nation out of a diverse group of sections—particularly by the convergence of the South on the rest of the country. We know this, at some rough level; the South was rich in the era of slavery1 then poor after the Civil War and then in the middle twentieth century began to look more like the rest of the country.
It would be nice to show it, wouldn’t it?
Read the rest of this entry »
Those are Fathers and Sons from the Brooks Brothers Father’s Day ad. But don’t you see? Don’t you?
I can only assume that the proposed return of the Eisenhower-era TV-fold is because of Mad Men. But what a strange way to shape fashion! Although it never would have occurred to Don Draper, it occurs to the ad-men for Brooks Brothers that maybe Americans want to look like the most alienated version of themselves.
You know who should be allowed to blog?
Presidents of things who graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law.
Presidents of things who graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law and then clerked for a Supreme Court Justice.
Presidents of things who graduated from Harvard and Harvard Law and then clerked for a Supreme Court Justices before working in the White House.
You know who shouldn’t be allowed to blog?