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I like Mary Beard’s TLS blog. But this time I fear she has Gone Too Far. Or, perhaps more likely, she’s pulling our collective leg — though I don’t remember her pulling it in quite this manner before. Even out here at the veriest Edge, the cityscape is clotted with victors’ memories of the War of Eastern Aggression. Just yesterday I was out picknicking with fellow parents of future yuppies at the Black Point Battery; and of course the map is full of streets named for Vicksburg, Grant, Lincoln and the Union. (Not to speak of the Confederate general from Big Sur.)

Need we quote Faulkner again?

Image by Flickr user maduarte used under a Creative Commons license.


It’s the time of the semester where nervous students are writing their first philosophy paper, and among my advice to them is the maxim to avoid the temptation to start an essay with any variation on the phrase “Since the dawn of time…” unless they’re actually talking about the dawn of time, which they won’t be, and I know, since I wrote the paper topics.  Why?  It’s a lazy habit, a turn of phrase meant to do nothing more than get the writerly wheels turning.

But it also makes your argument weaker, as this essay shows:

Yet if reason were to be readmitted to the debate, we might find something in the history of military honor to justify the principle now enshrined in the law decreeing that “homosexuality is incompatible with military service.” We know that soldiering–I mean not training or support or peacekeeping or any of the myriad other things soldiers do, but facing enemy bullets–is inextricably bound up with ideas of masculinity. We also know that most heterosexual males’ ideas of masculinity are inextricably bound up with what we now call sexual orientation. In other words, “being a man” typically does mean for soldiers both being brave, stoic, etc.–and being heterosexual. Another way to put this is to say that honor, which is by the testimony of soldiers throughout the ages of the essence of military service, includes the honor of being known for heterosexuality, and that, for most heterosexual males, shame attends a reputation as much for homosexuality as for weakness or cowardice.

Come on, Plato, don’t let me down.  Take it away, Phaedrus!

The beloved too, when he is found in any disgraceful situation, has the same feeling about his lover. And if there were only some way of contriving that a state or an army should be made up of lovers and their loves, they would be the very best governors of their own city, abstaining from all dishonour, and emulating one another in honour; and when fighting at each other’s side, although a mere handful, they would overcome the world. For what lover would not choose rather to be seen by all mankind than by his beloved, either when abandoning his post or throwing away his arms? He would be ready to die a thousand deaths rather than endure this. Or who would desert his beloved or fail him in the hour of danger? The veriest coward would become an inspired hero, equal to the bravest, at such a time; Love would inspire him. That courage which, as Homer says, the god breathes into the souls of some heroes, Love of his own nature infuses into the lover.

Now, Phaedrus is not the brightest crayon in the box, as he is young and rather silly, but according to Plutarch, the idea that homosexual soldiers would be a braver, tightly bound fighting unit was taken seriously by people who read Plato.  The Sacred Band of Thebes was composed of 150 erastes-eramenos couples, and they were fierce enough to beat a Spartan force three times its size at Tegyra, and again at Leuctra, securing Theban independence from Sparta.  (It bears pointing out that the Spartans were probably not heterosexual enough for the contemporary American conservative either, but it’s cruel to spoil their enjoyment of 300.)

The Sacred Band was annihilated by the phalanxes of Philip II of Macedon, but then again, so was everyone else, eventually. The young Alexander broke through their lines; until that point, the Band had been thought to be invincible.

Let’s be clear that the worst thing about an essay that argues that gays could be good American soldiers except for the problem of them being gay is not that it gets the history wrong. (Via Sullivan, who makes the more appropriate response.)  But the assumption that early 21st century American conservative mores have been on the triumphant, manly, very very straight, winning side throughout all of human history since the dawn of man?  Not true.

Jim Henley’s nice post appreciating the concept of “social insurance” moves me to provide this link to, if not its original definition, then its early full definition, from I. M. Rubinow’s invaluable Social Insurance, (1916; orig. 1913):

… social insurance is that policy of organized society to furnish that protection to one part of the population, which some other part may need less, or, if needing, is able to purchase voluntarily through private insurance. … The term “social insurance” is as yet very little understood by the vast majority of English-speaking nations. … All insurance is a substitution of social, co-operative provision for individual provision. Technically, this substitution of social effort for individual effort, is known as the theory of distribution of losses and the subsequent elimination of risk. … There is an individual advantage is substituting a very small definite money loss for the possibility of a very large financial loss. … It has sometimes been argued, however, that while there is the individual gain, socially insurance brings no such gain, for the amount of total loss is not decreased, and that inasmuch as in actual practice the cost of combined insurance is much higher than the actual loss, socially insurance represents a waste…. But can human happiness or misery be measured so easily by the simple addition of dollars and cents? … Thus, the social advantages of distribution of loss are equally applicable to all forms of insurance. …

It may have occurred to many of the readers, especially those who have some personal knowledge of the life of the vast army of wage-workers and people in similar economic conditions,—that to them the payment of an insurance premium, no matter how small, is not a matter of slight discomfort, but a very serious financial problem. … [They face] a selection between a possible deprivation in the future and a certain serious loss in the present which a payment of the premium requires. … [I]n the vast majority of cases, interruption of the wage-workers income soon leads to serious economical distress. … Sickness, accidents, invalidity, premature or normal old age, premature death, and finally unemployment,—such are the economic risks which stare in the face each and every workingman. Their economic consequences are very much more serious in his case, than in the middle classes. … But why necessarily insurance? … [T]he assertion that, in the case of the wage-earning class, individual saving may solve the problem of poverty, necessarily presupposes the existence of a surplus in the budget of the average wage-earner’s family. There was a time when that assertion could be glibly made for lack of accurate scientific material to contradict it. That time is fortunately gone. … [S]aving for all possible future emergencies must necessarily mean a very substantial reduction of a standard already sub-normal. …

Here, then, is the social problem underlying the need of insurance of the wage-earning millions. Their economic condition is precarious; the economic dangers threatening them many; and the degree of risk in each case is very high. Individual provision is insufficient, social provision through distribution of loss is necessary but costly, often much too costly. … Thus the state may begin by simply providing a safe insurance organization, devoid of the elements of profit. … It may take the next step and assume part or the entire cost of administration of the insurance institutions, and thus further reduce the cost. … It may take still one more step and directly subsidize insurance, thus assuming a part of the true cost, or it may impost such assumption of cost upon other elements of society, such as the employing class. … And it may finally counteract the unwillingness of the working class to pay even a small subsidized premium by making insurance compulsory. All this the modern state may and does do to develop social insurance, to furnish protection to those in need and are unable to purchase it in the open market.

Still quite depressingly timely, no?

Here’s another edition of “there is in fact good and nontrivial scholarship in modern historical journals” (we need a catchier name for this series; previously: 1, 2). Today’s installment addresses the question implicit in this post title: how wild was the West?


Randolph A. Roth, “Guns, Murder, and Probability: How Can We Decide Which Figures to Trust?” Reviews in American History 35, no. 2 (2007): 165-175. Accessed 8/20/09, here.


Was homicide really more common in the American West than elsewhere? How can we know?

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Ferdie Pacheco, “The Lector Reads to Women Cigar Workers” (Detail)

Today brings another installment of “there is too interesting and nontrivial scholarship in today’s scholarly history journals,” this one drawn from the flagship journal of US history. The article touches on two of my favorite topics. One, I’ll grant, is a favorite for purely sentimental reasons: my native heath. The other, though, is of long-standing scholarly interest to this blog: the New Deal.


Elna C. Green, “Relief from Relief: The Tampa Sewing-Room Strike of 1937 and the Right to Welfare,” Journal of American History 95, no. 4 (March 2009). Accessed July 7, 2009, here.


How did WPA workers think of themselves—as workers, or as recipients of welfare? How did their employer, the state, see them in return?
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Whatever one’s overall opinion of Jefferson the man and Jefferson the president, he could write. Here he is at work, with his strikeouts shown in parentheses:

they are permitting their (sovereign) chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our (own) common blood but Scotch & foreign mercenaries to (destroy us) invade and deluge us in blood. (this is too much to be borne even by relations. enough then be it to say, we are now done with them.) these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unfeeling brethren! we must endeavor to forget our former love for them and to hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. we might have been a (great) free & a (happy) great people together, but a communicat(ed)ion of (happiness) [g]randeur & of (grandeur) freedom it seems is be(neath)low their dignity. (we will climb then the roads to glory & happiness apart) be it so, since they will have it: the road to (glory &) (to) happiness & to glory is open to us too, we will climb it (in a separate state) apart from them & acquiesce in the necessity which (pro) denounces our (everlasting Adieu) eternal separation. (these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, & manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever these unjust) (unfeeling) (brethren.)

Notice how happiness gets struck, and struck, and finally lands in its spot next to glory. I’m especially taken by the struck sentiment, “this is too much to be borne even by relations”. Nice thought for a holiday weekend.

You’ll sometimes hear historians bemoaning the state of professional scholarship, saying there’s nothing interesting in the new issues of our journals and everyone’s fixated on trivia to the exclusion of important questions. And I like a good jeremiad as well as anyone. But I thought I’d begin a series of posts on journal articles that are interesting and nontrivial. (We’ll see how long it lasts.)


Sundiata Keita Cha-Jua and Clarence Lang, “The ‘Long Movement’ as Vampire: Temporal and Spatial Fallacies in Recent Black Freedom Studies,” Journal of African American History 92, no. 2 (Spring 2007): 265-288.

Link here, for those who can access it.
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This is officially an award-winning blog

HNN, Best group blog: "Witty and insightful, the Edge of the American West puts the group in group blog, with frequent contributions from an irreverent band.... Always entertaining, often enlightening, the blog features snazzy visuals—graphs, photos, videos—and zippy writing...."