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On this day in history, the Japanese government surrendered to the Allies, ending World War II. And while there’s much to be said about the event, ideally by someone who has something of interest to say (Silbey? Are you out there somewhere?), I found this snippet from the Times‘s coverage interesting:

The President’s final announcement was to decree holidays tomorrow and Thursday for all Federal workers, who, he said, were the “hardest working and perhaps the least appreciated” by the public of all who had helped to wage the war.

We’ve been involved in either one or two wars for what, six years now? And it’s hard to imagine President Obama singling out federal employees, other than those in the armed forces, for their efforts during this time of crisis. And yes, I know, WWII made very different demands on the country. But still, things have changed, right? Although, perhaps not in every way, as the Times article also goes out of its way to call the nation’s capital dull: “usually bored Washington”. Heh.

Oh, then there was this alarming passage, which also brought me up short:

If the note had not come today the President was ready though reluctant to give the order that would have spread throughout Japan the hideous death and destruction that are the toll of the atomic bomb.

What catches my eye there is the implied menace: that Truman stood ready to drop more atomic bombs on Japanese cities (I presume) had he not received the note of surrender on this day in 1945. Was the author just being dramatic? Was he serving as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government, laying the groundwork for years of Cold War bluster? Or was that generally understood as the situation at the time?

Ben is rightThat produce is of variable quality, especially in a year with a tomato blight, should be the lesson learned from an imperfect heirloom tomato.

That said, if the epicures of a certain social standing decide to chase down perfect, reliable,  mass-market tomatoes instead of Cherokee Purples at the farmer’s market, I can only encourage them.   Yum.

(I thought about writing a post carefully considering trends and food choices, but then I had to eat a Green Zebra.  Tomatoes are finally here!)

In a belated comment on this post, David Brewster links to a photograph he took that neatly brings the conversation back to the subject of this blog:

This image also debunks one of those vicious smears about the pair.  (This other one?  Not so much.)

So, Yale UP is, for the moment at least, publishing a book about the controversy surrounding the in/famous Danish cartoons lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. But the press has refused to print the cartoons themselves — or any of the other images of Muhammad that the author included with her manuscript. I don’t find myself in an especially high dudgeon about this. Which is to say, I don’t think the terrorists have won, or that the press is guilty of anything so heinous as pre-9/11 thinking. But it seems like Yale’s move was either to publish the book with the relevant images — I’m assuming that images, though not precisely which ones, were part of the original contract between author and publisher — or not publish it at all. Regardless, it’s an odd and somewhat unsettling story.

[Editor’s note: Our friend Michael Elliot sends along the following request for help. And yes, at some point I really should respond to the Wilentz essay linked below. You know what else I really should do? Post a review of Nixonland.]

Like any self-respecting parent, my main goal is to indoctrinate educate my children so that they can share my own nuanced take on the world. My second goal is to avoid having to read the insipid dreck that passes for children’s literature at bedtime. For these reasons, I’m looking to pick up some books that will shove my five-year-old down the path toward becoming an American historian. (After reading Sean Wilentz, God knows I don’t want him to become a literary scholar.) So, any recommendations on books about U.S. history for the kindergarten set?

For the record, I’ve recently tried out a couple of short picture-books on Lincoln. My son was intrigued, but unfortunately found the assassination “too sad.” As Ari says, “What self-respecting five-year-old wants to be depressed?” Ari mistakes me for a parent who values his kid’s self-respect above his own.

this strikes me as a nice example of a simple but elegant piece. The author, Russ Buettner, sets scene with great economy, builds characters efficiently and vividly, trusts his readers to fill in some gaps in the tick-tock and build their own transitions where necessary, and renders a satisfying narrative arc. Mr. Buettner* is obviously a fan of John McPhee. But that’s a feature rather than a bug in my book.

* Times style.

On this day in 1965, violence raged in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles (contemporary coverage here and a more detailed tdih here). A few points about the newsreel above: First, the voiceover uses both “riot” and “insurrection” to describe the mayhem. The difference in moral valence between the two is pretty clear, so I was somewhat surprised to hear the word “insurrection” used at all.

Second, in other spots the narration remains more complicated than I would have expected: for instance, when, around the 40 second mark, we hear that “the looters…stole everything from liquor to playpens.” Maybe I’m off base, but I think looters who steal playpens sound reasonably sympathetic — as looters go, I mean. Of course they become a lot less sympathetic, it seems, in the next paragraph of the script, when it turns out that they’re shooting from rooftops at firefighters. Don’t mess with first responders, looters, if you want our sympathy!

Third, the score is all kinds of over-the-top awesome, sort of like Bernard Herrmann gone mad (there’s another Watts video, with even groovier music, here). Fourth, around the 1:20 mark, we hear about Martin Luther King, who’s portrayed as a kind of moderate Civil Rights superman, capable of quelling urban unrest using only the power of his soothing words. Of course, assuming that’s a quote from King, a source from just a few years later suggests those words could have been read in many ways. Fifth, boy those cops around the 2:00 mark are white.

Conservatives are outraged that members of the Service Employees International Union were allowed to attend Representative Russ Carnahan’s town hall, but conservatives were turned away. Similarly, liberals were outraged when they were denied entry to Representative Kevin Brady’s town hall, but the ninety conservative doctors whose hospital sponsored the event were allowed in. I would link to those outraged liberals, but I invented them. While I’m sure many liberals would complain if the sponsor of an event had seats reserved for its members, I can’t find them. I can, however, find many conservatives who know that the SEIU is sponsoring these town halls, but still write that “the [SEIU] union thugs had already been quietly ushered in through the back door, and had already taken seats that were reserved for them in the front.”

They are upset, first, that the sponsor of an event reserved seats for its members; and second, that when protesters prevented members of the group that sponsored the event from reaching the seats reserved for them, the group sponsoring the event might resort to ferrying its members to their reserved seats by an alternate route. Even without the excessive italics, that much should be obvious—only it isn’t, and while the quality of mainstream political discourse has never been that high, rarely has it been this low.

My standard for quality is not based on civility so much as the that of forensic debate. The rule to which all debaters abide is, plainly but multitudinously, “Never say anything they can use against you.” If you lack the reflexivity required to know whether your words will return to haunt you, you will lose often and spectacularly. That’s why, when the stakes are high, it’s best to be attacking what you believe or defending what you don’t. Your beliefs only impair your argument, because what matters is not what you know, but what you can prove. The last thing you want to do is hand your opponent the ammunition they need to accomplish your execution. In the 1990s, mainstream conservativism understood this well enough: it distanced itself from the Foster dramatics and focused on an affirmative offensive, be it about a Contract with Certain Americans or marital infidelities.

Absurdity mattered less than strategy, because as frustrating as those absurdities were, they sat well in the stomach because we knew that they were merely strategic: the machinations of Newton Leroy Gingrich were clearly machinations, and although we could and did call the man who married his high school math teacher two days after he turned eighteen a hypocrite, we never doubted his ability to excuse our dear Aunt Sally, nor did we care how exactly he pleased her, because we understood that no matter how or where he chose to do so, he knew order of her operations—uterine surgery in ’78, another in ’80, and four-hundred and forty dollars a month to provide for an ailing woman, his two children, and a dry cleaning bill for one. Whether or not he ever said his wife was neither “young enough or pretty enough to be the wife of a President, and besides, she has cancer,” we never doubted that he was capable of such a calculus. He was a pure political animal, predictable, and when he spoke stupidly, he did so to inflame his enemies into breaching super-dense patches of stupid that corrupted their every communiqué: “We are approaching bluster tape,” their communications officer would relay. “Permission to canister the light and holder the cup with scrap medicine?” As soon as the words left our lips, we understood the nature of the con in which we had cast ourselves as marks.

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Today  I:

1.  Thought of Aristotle’s failure to succeed Plato at the Academy in terms of a proto-tenure-denial, which makes the founding of the Lyceum a totally sweet vindication.

2. Reflected further that if Aristotle didn’t get tenure, it was probably due to teaching and not scholarship (“Outside letters compared his writing to rivers of gold.”)  Pondered what his evaluations must have been like  (“Paces too much during lecture.”)

3. Recalled, while reading Plato, a theory expounded by one of my undergraduate professors that, according to some scholars of ancient philosophy, Plato’s dialogues were originally intended to be performed.  This theory permits the interpretation of some parts of Plato as addressing the audience directly, and allows bits of dialogue to be taken as asides to the audience, or read as intended primarily for humorous effect rather than philosophical value (N.B. no clue whether this is a serious theory or even if I am remembering it properly.)

4. Reflected that as an undergraduate, I imagined the performance of Plato’s dialogues to be grand affairs like productions of Hamlet or Othello.  Declaim!  Expound!  By Zeus, Socrates, I know no longer what I did say!

5.  Thought that perhaps a classic multi-camera sitcom might be the more appropriate analogue.  This makes the Socratic elenchus, for example, sort of like a character’s trademarked walk or entry line, something Socrates did that was fresh in the first few seasons, but later he had to do it once per episode to keep the diehard fans happy.  (“I dunno, Plato, throw in something about flute-playing or doctoring, we’re on a deadline here.”)

6. Tried to figure out where the laugh track would go.

ALCIBIADES (bursting in, drunk)

O Socrates, come squish in between me and Agathon, you lover of boys you!



Does anyone know of good sources on Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? Or on Helen Hunt Jackson’s A Century of Dishonor? I’m especially keen to find work that considers these books as part of broader reform movements. Oh, and if you’ve read anything especially interesting about the National Museum of the American Indian, I’ve love to hear about that as well. Thanks for your help.

The current claims by the so-called Birther movement that Barack Obama is not a “natural-born citizen” of the United States may seem part of the lunatic fringe. But the Birthers’ basic premise – that the U.S. president is actually the agent of an enemy conspiracy – has a long history in America, and it highlights the tension between American openness and American paranoia.

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In the comments on this post, people got to wondering: who was the first African American to grace the cover of Time? The answer, TF Smith suggests, was Walter White, then head of the NAACP, on the cover of the January 24, 1938 issue. It’s an interesting image for a host of reasons, I think, not least color: White’s, I mean. But I’m especially fascinated by the painting of an in-progress lynching that appears in the background. Kevin points out, in the comments of the aforementioned post, that, “The NAACP in 1938 was pressing hard for the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, so it was no accident that White (or the editors) pressed for the image.” No doubt that’s right. Still, I’m surprised that Time ran that cover. So if anyone knows more of the back story here, please post a comment. Thanks.

Paul Krugman writes,

There’s a famous Norman Rockwell painting titled “Freedom of Speech,” depicting an idealized American town meeting. The painting, part of a series illustrating F.D.R.’s “Four Freedoms,” shows an ordinary citizen expressing an unpopular opinion. His neighbors obviously don’t like what he’s saying, but they’re letting him speak his mind.

I don’t think a look at the painting bears Krugman out. The expressions are patient, true, but beyond that, neutral. The face we see best, the wrinkled one to the left (the speaker’s right), might even be smiling. (A couple of the more obscured faces seem to be gazing heavenward with an abstract rapture like the speaker’s own.)

In any case the “town halls” that have been disrupted lately are a bit different. In these literal town hall meetings of idealized memory, the town gathered to conduct its business, making decisions on the spot — in the recent cases, representatives are coming home to their constituents, to hear and present arguments about business that will be decided later, in Washington.

But Krugman’s reading of the painting, and his analogy, are not as important, I think, as the historical question. Have we Americans really been so tolerant of diverging opinion as he claims? Reading, say, Judith Thurman’s piece on Rose Wilder Lane, it sounds as though anger at liberals and liberal policy could run pretty high in 1933 — though I’ll admit that writing “I hoped that Roosevelt would be killed” is not the same as physical violence.


When I teach my seminar on monuments, museums, and memorials, I typically cover the Enola Gay controversy. But one of the challenges I face is getting my students to look “beneath the mushroom cloud” (borrowing a phrase from John Dower). So, given that it’s the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima (see here for contemporary coverage), I thought I’d mention that I once juxtaposed Barefoot Gen with the bombing scene from Above and Beyond as a way of accomplishing this goal. This approach has its share of problems, unfortunately, and since I’ll be teaching the course again in the fall, I’d be eager to hear other ideas.

By the way, Barefoot Gen is fascinating for a variety of reasons, almost certainly worth the time for its treatment of class, the role of bureaucracy in Japanese culture, and popular misgivings about the war, not to mention its brutal depiction of Hiroshima’s destruction. It’s not just a one-trick pony, in other words. Above and Beyond, on the other hand, is probably best avoided. No doubt I’m wrong on both counts, though, and will soon hear about it. I eagerly await your replies.

Jane Jacobs’s Death and Life of American Cities remains one of my favorite books ever. I first read it when I was doing research for the final chapter — on the fight over a proposed Mississippi riverfront expressway — of my New Orleans project. At the time, I remember being frustrated that nobody had written a biography of Jacobs, a niche since filled by this book. More annoying, I thought, was Robert Caro’s decision to write Jacobs out of The Power Broker, his evisceration of Robert Moses. Now, apparently, this deals with Jacobs’s relationship with Moses. Hurrah, all is right with the world! And really, if you’ve never read Jacobs, and you like cities at all, you should rush right out to the library.

Oh, the quote is from Jacobs, who, having grown tired of Moses, moved to Toronto for some peace and quiet. There, of course, she remained an urban crusader, fighting bad planning wherever she found it. I ♥ Jane Jacobs.

Unlike their counterparts on The Definite-Indefinite Article-Team, the Robin Hoods on John Rogers and Chris Downey’s Leverage aren’t joyful militarists whose idea of helping people invariably involves vans and walls. Because, unlike Leverage, that other show

was a guy’s show. It was male-driven. It was written by guys. It was directed by guys. It was acted by guys. It’s about what guys do. We talked the way guys talked. We were the boss. We were the God. We smoked when we wanted. We shot guns when we wanted. It was the last truly masculine show.

In the 1980s, heroism only came from the barrel of guns aimed by incompetent men at similarly scattershot adversaries—because for all the gunplay, no one was ever shot. When these world-historically poor shots grew tired of wasting ammunition, they would chase each other in vans until one of them found a wall in need of Kool-Aid, then someone would punch someone, everyone would laugh, and the day would somehow have been saved.

The Definite-Indefinite Article-Team was a male fantasy about a world in which simpleminded evil could be thwarted by brute force, the implication being that had the government allowed these clowns—who, the audience was to believe, were once ex-Special Forces—free rein in Vietnam, America would have won the war. How you win a war with soldiers who can barely hit the broad side of a barn with a van is beside the point: the 1980s needed manly men to manly deeds, and when they did, nothing made much sense, but everything worked out.

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This is everywhere. But that doesn’t make it wrong.

Via: The Internets.

As many of you know, the University of California is facing another round of brutal budget cuts. As a result, the UC has implemented a system of furloughs, whereby faculty and staff will see their salaries cut temporarily (currently the administration says a year, but we’ll see). The cuts are now a foregone conclusion. What remains is the question of how furloughs will be implemented by faculty. Our campus’s academic senate recently conducted an online poll. Respondents had two choices:

A) Recommend scheduling six to nine furlough days on currently calendared days of instruction.

B) Recommend scheduling of all furlough days on currently calendared intersession days when no formal instruction is scheduled.

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You might want to have a look at the seminar on George Scialabba’s What are Intellectuals Good For? over on CT. Introductory post; Bérubé; Jacoby.

Speaking of cowboy culture, here’s a chart of the murder rate in the US for most of the twentieth century.1

Douglas Eckberg presents the revised series because the early Census data under-reported homicides and didn’t cover the whole US; Eckberg’s estimates probably provide a more accurate picture of the murderous early c20.

The numbers indicate something long remarked on but little explained. Here’s Richard Hofstadter in his introduction to American Violence:

For the long span from about 1938 to the mid-1960’s, despite the external violence of World War II and the Korean War, the internal life of the country was unusually free of violent episodes. Industrial violence and lynching had almost disappeared. Rioting in the cities—despite the Harlem riot of 1935, the Detroit riot of 1943, and the Los Angeles zoot-suit riot of the same year—occurred less often than in many past periods. Americans who came of age during and after the 1930’s found it easy to forget how violent a people their forebears had been.

Later in the chapter, Hofstadter speculates as to why the US has a history of violence but little memory of it:

… one is impressed that most American violence—and this also illuminates its relationship to state power—has been initiated with a “conservative” bias. It has been unleashed against abolitionists, Catholics, radicals, workers and labor organizers, Negroes, Orientals, and other ethnic or racial or ideological minorities, and has been used ostensibly to protect the American, the Southern, the white Protestant, or simply the established middle-class way of life and morals. A high proportion of our violent actions has thus come from the top dogs or the middle dogs. Such has been the character of most mob and vigilante movements. This may help to explain why so little of it has been used against state authority, and why in turn it has been so easily and indulgently forgotten. Our new concern about violence today is, among other things, a response to a sharp increase in its volume, but it is also a response to its shifting role. Violence has now become, to a degree unprecedented in the United States, the outgrowth of forcible acts by dissidents and radicals who are expressing hostility to middle-class ways and to established power.

Hofstadter was writing in 1970, when he observed and worried about increased enthusiasm for violence on the left. I do not think this lasted much longer than 1970, yet the murder rate stayed pretty high afterward.

1From Historical Statistics of the US, series Ec190-191.

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