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California’s measles outbreak has now reached more than 70 cases. 1

Populations especially at risk are those born after 1957 and vaccinated between 1963-1967 or not vaccinated. People born before 1957 would have been exposed to measles naturally and are ok; those not exposed to the virus in the wild will be vulnerable. People vaccinated 1963-1967 might have got the “killed virus” vaccine, which the Centers for Disease Control now say is ineffective, and they will be vulnerable.

Unvaccinated people will be vulnerable2 for what ought to be obvious reasons.

California permits unvaccinated students to enroll in public schools if their parents file a form saying their beliefs do not permit vaccination.

The percentage of unvaccinated students in Sacramento-area schools is over fifty percent in some cases.

As the historian Robert Johnston remarks, scholars used to treat anti-vaccination activists as “the deluded, the misguided, the ignorant, the irrationally fearful” but now they command ‘If not sympathy, at least a modicum of respect.”

I suppose we should respect those whom we can rationally fear.


1This is the outbreak that the press keep saying, correctly if punctiliously, began at “Disneyland Park and Disneyland California Adventure,” as if there were some important meaningful reason they couldn’t say “Disneyland”; Disneyland is offering a pretty good discount right now, by the way.

2A correspondent, I think correctly, points out in comments that all are potentially vulnerable once we drop below a percentage where we have “herd immunity.”

I still haven’t whittled that blog post down to size. In fact it’s now bigger. Meantime here’s another something on the web: a TLS essay I wrote on Martin Wolf’s The Shifts and the Shocks. There’s no paywall. Here’s a snippet, which provides the piece its rather nice illustration:

In the 2011 film Margin Call, which dramatizes the onset of our dismal era, the banker character played by Jeremy Irons delivers a monologue with which he attempts to justify his ruthless self-interest. Events like this just happen, he says. He lists a series of dates corresponding to financial panics, the modern part of which runs like this: “1819, 1837, 1857, 1884, 1901, 1907, 1929, 1937” – and then Irons pauses slightly before continuing – “1974, 1987 . . . .”. It is a slight pause, but there is room in it: room for, after the war, what the French call les trente glorieuses, the decades of widespread economic growth and prosperity. That gap in the string of crises undermines the Irons character’s argument: the disasters do not have to happen. During the period in that pause, banking was tightly regulated, capital movements were controlled, exchange rates pegged (if adjustable). As Wolf says, “finance was repressed. That certainly prevented crises”.

In the print edition the essay is called “Missing dates,” which I actually like a bit better, and which derives from this section.

I started writing a blog post yesterday but it’s now up to 1500 words and I don’t know what to do with is, so instead I’ll urge you: Plan your Saturday night now! Here’s a preview: In a world …

Aww yeah, baby: C-SPAN 3.1 Saturday, January 24, at 8pm and midnight, Eastern time. Or 5pm and 9pm, here on the edge of the American West.

This is a lecture2 from the World War II class that Ari and I debuted as a co-taught course in 2012, but which this year I taught all by my lonesome; I’m sure it shows. The subject is some of the various ways in which the motive of revenge overtook the strategy of the Axis and the Allies.

At some point after airing the full video will be here and also you’ll be able to get a podcast and listen to me holler at you while you drive.


1The connoisseur’s C-SPAN.
2Yes, C-SPAN 3’s Saturday night programming is a filmed college lecture; look, either you’re the audience for this or you aren’t.

Here’s a post I wrote way back when. I think things have changed quite a bit in the past seven years. Whether because recent events have laid bare the emptiness of the rhetoric of a post-racial America, because the President of the United States is African American, because popular culture, including films like Selma, has begun to force audiences to reexamine some of comforting myths of American history, I really don’t know. Regardless, other than a few dead links that I can’t seem to fix, there’s still a bit of worthwhile stuff in the post.

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The Martin Luther King of American memory serves this nation as the safe Civil Rights leader. When shrunk to fit within the confines of soundbite history, the pages of a textbook, or the scenes of a primary school pageant, King is cleansed of anger, of ego, of sexuality, and even, perhaps, of some of his humanity.

Counterpoised against the ostensibly violent Malcolm X, who supposedly would have forced America to change its ways by using “any means necessary,” King comes off as a cuddly moderate — a figure who loved everyone, enemies included, even whites who subjugated black people. Although there’s some truth lurking behind this myth, there was more (about both X and King) to the story: complexities and nuances that escape most popular recollections. Martin Luther King, no matter how people remember him now, was not nearly so safe as most of us believe.

On March 12, 1968, less than a month before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, King visited the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. Largely white, Grosse Pointe was — and to some extent still is — a bastion of establishment power. By that point in his career, King had embraced issues that moved well beyond the struggle against de jure segregation in the South. He had begun focusing most of his energy on inequality nationwide — de facto issues of poverty, job discrimination, fair housing, and, as Matthew Yglesias notes, the Vietnam war.

Read the rest of this entry »

We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.

First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:

the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.

It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.

(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)

So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.

Beyond that we daren’t go.

But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.

Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.

So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)

And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.

I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.

(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)

But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.

The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”

As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.

Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.

But it is a shame.

Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.

(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)

The National History Day queries have gotten out of hand. I say this as someone who: a) is an employee of a public institution and takes his obligations to the public very seriously; b) participated in and learned a great deal from the National History Day competition; c) likes working with anyone, including middle school and high school students, interested in the past.

All of that said, everyone in the profession now gets huge numbers of requests from students who want us to weigh in on topics about which we know very little. Worse still, these students want us to reply via e-mail.

Here’s a typical letter:

Dear Mr. Kelman:

My name is [redacted]. I’m a student at [redacted]. I’m participating in National History Day. As part of my assignment, I have to interview an expert about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Please reply to these five questions.

[questions redacted to preserve the student’s confidentiality]

Thanks,

[redacted]

There’s something to annoy nearly everyone there, right? Regardless, what are we supposed to do about this kind of thing? My current policy is to beg off politely if I don’t know anything about the topic at hand, and to offer to do a phone interview if I do have the relevant expertise. But that makes me feel churlish in the first instance and somewhat creepy in the second.

Seriously, what’s a guilty Jew to do?

On this day in 1940 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill imposing fines on county or state officials who negligently failed to protect persons in their custody from seizure by a mob who injured or killed those persons – or, as it was better known, an anti-lynching bill.1

“Why is President Roosevelt so strangely silent on this bill?” asked Franklin Roosevelt’s own local Congressman, Representative Hamilton Fish, Republican of New York.2

Scarcely a soul did not know the answer to Fish’s question. The bill split the Democratic Party. Sponsored by Joseph Gavagan, a Democrat and the Congressman for Harlem, the bill had nearly universal support in the North and none in the South. The vote in the House was 252 to 131 in favor. No Southerner voted for the bill; Democrats from the North, Midwest, and West favored it by nearly five to one.

Similar bills had passed in 1937 and 1938. They met their demise in the Senate, whose filibuster rules permitted a Southern minority to kill the bills.

The NAACP campaigned vigorously for the anti-lynching bills. Its leader, Walter White, noted “the states have continued as they have in the past, to do nothing about lynching. The federal government must act.”3

Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, supported the bill. So did any number of high profile Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt.

Gallup polls showed Americans closely divided but favoring the measure, with 50% in favor, 41% against, and 9% with no opinion.4

Senator Pat Harrison, Democrat of Mississippi, addressed himself to the president, saying, “We see the people of the South confronted with the terrible situation of a Democratic majority betraying the trust of the Southern people.… The next thing, in all probability, will be to provide that miscegenation of the races cannot be prohibited, and when that has accomplished … to say that every colored man in every Southern State should take part in the primaries in the State!”5

That outcome remained far in the future. It was 1940; the Gavagan bill had no chance when the president viewed the fight against Nazism as his chief priority.

He had seen the world that way, really, since the moment Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933. Roosevelt then told Rexford Tugwell that Hitler’s “black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances” and his rise was a “portent of evil for the United States.”

And so from the moment he took office, Roosevelt was racing the clock; recovery from Depression meant not only ending the crisis and restoring prosperity, but restoring the United States to a physical and moral strength sufficient to fight Nazi Germany.

But to do it, as Tugwell said, “He had to compromise with Hitlerites in our own electorate.”6


1“Anti-lynching Bill is Passed by House,” NYT 1/11/40, p. 17.
2“Quick Passage of Measure,” Chicago Defender 1/13/40, p. 1.
3Cited in Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 221.
4Gallup Poll, Jan, 1940. Retrieved Jan-10-2015 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html
5Cited in Sitkoff, 220.
6Rexford Tugwell Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. See also the brilliant Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself (Liveright, 2013).

Ahem. Is this thing on?

This is officially an award-winning blog

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