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Possibly the right response to Gordon Wood’s “History in Context” in The Weekly Standard – a “get off my lawn essay,” as one historian says – is parody. After all Wood does begin the essay by saying his mentor Bernard Bailyn is woefully under-appreciated, and then proceeds to mention that Bailyn has two Pulitzers.1 What else can one do but mock?

Well, one can take Wood earnestly, as is one’s wont, and ask, what happened to the younger Gordon Wood? How would he fare before the stern tribunal of Weekly Standard Wood?

I ask because Wood the elder expresses dissatisfaction with those historians “obsessed with inequality,” who

see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. They criticize Bailyn’s work for being too exquisitely attuned “to the temper of an earlier time” and, thus, for failing “to address the dilemmas of its own day.”…

These historians need to read and absorb Bailyn’s essay on “Context in History,” published in this collection for the first time. Perhaps then they would be less eager to judge the past by the values of the present and less keen to use history to solve our present problems. In some sense, of course, they are not really interested in the past as the past at all.

But, as another Bailyn student pointed out to me, Wood was not always so scornful of judging and using the past for present purposes, nor so principled about letting the past be past. Consider this important passage from Wood’s remarkable first book, Creation of the American Republic, 1776-1787:

Considering the Federalist desire for a high-toned government filled with better sorts of people, there is something decidedly disingenuous about the democratic radicalism of their arguments.… In effect they appropriated and exploited the language that more rightfully belonged to their opponents. The result was the beginning of a hiatus in American politics between ideology and motives that never again closed. By using the most popular and democratic rhetoric available to explain and justify their aristocratic system, the Federalists helped to foreclose the development of an American intellectual tradition in which differing ideas of politics would be intimately and genuinely related to differing social interests.… and thereby contributed to the creation of that encompassing liberal tradition which has mitigated and often obscured the real social antagonisms of American politics.… the Federalists fixed the terms for the future discussion of American politics.

Listen to what Wood the younger is saying, here: “disingenuous” surely sounds morally critical, as does “appropriated and exploited.”

Talking about what might “never again” be, and even about “the future” certainly doesn’t sound like thinking about “the past as the past.”

And bringing up “differing social interests” and “real social antagonisms” sounds like it might entail concern about, if not obsession with, inequality.

Perhaps Wood the younger would have to get off Wood the elder’s lawn.

I am actually more interested in what Wood the younger would say to his older self, concerned as he was with arguments that foreclosed discussion of genuine social antagonism. I have never really found persuasive Wood the younger’s argument that 1787 marked some kind of end-of-Eden, after which honest political discourse was never again possible in the United States. Rather, I think the Federalists’ disingenuous behavior has constantly to be emulated and that initial foreclosure reenacted to keep differing social interests unexpressed.


1A feat rarely matched, and then only by the likes of another giant among colonial historians, Alan Taylor.

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The Muppets provided joy from start to finish. I knew we were in good hands from the first big musical number – part of which is above – “Life’s a Happy Song.” It gets a full, MGM-musical style choreographical treatment. It states the movie’s major theme (it will be reprised in the finale). And it also sets up the story’s major problems – Walter needs to reach Muppethood, Gary needs to reach manhood. It’s a nice piece of writing work. And the lines, “Life’s a fillet of fish … Yes, it is” still make me laugh.

Most of all, though, the movie suggested to me that the Muppets would serve us best by returning to variety television; the movie made me want to watch new episodes of The Muppet Show and made me confident it could succeed. Jack Black and Zach Gallifianakis would be great guests, as would Jason Segel and Amy Adams. The existence of Funny or Die and College Humor suggests today’s comedians and actors are game enough for goofy bits.

This should happen.

(Well it had to be something like that.)

I have three thoughts on This American Life‘s retraction of its episode, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory.” If you do not involve yourself with public radio, Apple, or the Internet, briefly: Read the rest of this entry »

In the current New Yorker one can see, within four pages, three celebrated gender-benders get taken apart by two critics.

First John Lahr says Cynthia Nixon is, well, not really smart enough to star in Wit:

The good luck of the original production and of the 2001 film version was that they featured tart, alert, commanding actresses – Kathleen Chalfant and Emma Thompson – who could embody the psychological profile of the droll, arrogant, solitary, bluestocking professor. The bad luck of this revival … is that it does not. Cynthia Nixon, who is known to one and all as Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City,” plays Vivian without Chalfant’s and Thompson’s rebarbative wallop.

Let’s pause here to say (a) who wants to follow Emma Thompson in a role? and (b) what Lahr doesn’t say is that relative to the other three lead characters in “Sex and the City,” Miranda was the intellectual, which may be the source of the confusion here.

… she can’t see the wink in the words … Although Nixon, who has fought her own battle with cancer, is entirely believable as a patient, as an academic she never really convinces the audience that she knows what she’s talking about. Suzanne Bertish, as … Vivian’s … mentor … exudes a very specific intellectual gravity, which only compounds the sense of Nixon’s being outside her tole. Nixon is best when pain pushes Vivian beyond the words … and she whimpers for solace.

A left-handed compliment if ever there were one. Better when she whimpers! Moving on.

Anthony Lane on Madonna as director of W.E. – and really, there was never going to be a good outcome here, but:

Recent reports from Liverpool claimed that irate moviegoers had come out of “The Artist” complaining that there were no words in it, and asking for their money back. In the same spirit, I hereby demand a refund for “W.E.,” because of its outrageous lack of sex. What on earth is the point of a Madonna product, in any medium, if it contains not a single orgy? … It didn’t have to be this way. What Madonna should have done … is to buy the movie rights to “Full Service” (Grove Press), a new memoir by Scotty Bowers. He made his reputation by sleeping with everyone in Hollywood who wasn’t actually Lassie, and how he tells all. If you If you ever suspected that Spencer Tracy was bisexual and Tyrone Power a coprophiliac, and if you happen to believe everything you read, here is all the testimony you require. Bowers takes particular pride in the services that he performed for, and with, the Duke and Duchess on a visit to America: “Essentially, he was gay and she was a dyke.” Ah, happy days … Bowers’s reveries have fanned the flames, and it is a shame that Madonna should come along and douse them.

I’ve hidden one of Lane’s best lines in the last ellipse, just for fun.

Then Lane wheels about to dismiss Glenn Close, for Albert Nobbs.

… the problem with such indecision, as voiced by Close, is it makes Albert sound like a simpleton, regardless of the agonies that may be imposed upon society by the need for sexual choice. That is why “Albert Nobbs” awakes so bracingly whenever Janet McTeer marches into view. She plays Hubert Page … [b]y a merry coincidence, Hubert, too, turns out to be a woman underneath … she is no perhapser, but a thoroughgoing yes-woman, like Molly Bloom … Imagine a different film on a similar theme, with Hubert moved to center stage and Garcia replaced by Pedro Almodóvar, for whom cross-dressers in a Catholic country would be meat and drink. Poor Albert could then retreat into the shadows, where he so evidently belongs …

Gendered readings of these critiques, if any, are left as an exercise for the comments.

Over the past month, I’ve been finishing — as in, putting the final, no really, the final! — touches on my book. It’s been a huge pain because of the narrative structure I’ve adopted this go round. Lots of flashbacks means lots of moving parts. Change one thing, you have to change many things. Very annoying.

Anyway, because of my present circumstances (to recap: annoyed), I’ve been paying more attention even than usual to storytelling and editing. Which prompts two observations: first, J.K. Rowling should have edited her books. If another one of her characters “pants”, I’m going to assume Hermione or Gilderoy is trapped in a low-budget pr0n film (ick). And second, the opening twenty or so minutes of the Star Trek reboot is a model of narrative economy. Like the much-praised, and deservedly so, montage in Up (No, I’m not crying. But hang on a sec, okay? I have something caught in my eye.), the scenes, starting from when the lights go down until Kirk and crew begin their adventures on the Enterprise, are incredibly taut. The number of characters and story lines introduced (though they couldn’t wedge Scotty in until later) is admirable. I haven’t done that well with my book, I’m afraid. But then again, my budget was smaller than J.J. Abrams’s.

Oh, Holbo.  I know you’re not baiting me, but it feels like you are.

John has a problem that everyone who has to teach history of early modern has to face.  The standard story explains 17th and 18th century philosophy as a debate between two epistemological factions.  The rationalists Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz meet the empiricists Locke, Berkeley, and Hume in the octagon!   Who will emerge victorious?  KANT!  Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

The virtues of the standard story are these.  Having a narrative that unites the whole period and builds towards contemporary thought helps give a survey course some thematic unity, which is important given the difficulty of the readings.  It’s also the standard story that almost every practicing philosopher has encountered, which makes it both very easy to teach and the conservative option.  Given that the students are almost certainly going to forget about most of the particulars after the final exam, if they’re left with a vague idea that Descartes is like the Matrix and Hume is like modern science and Kant said something but damned if I was doing the reading a week before finals, there’s not too much harm done.

The vice of the standard story is that it’s false.  As Holbo notes, Descartes’ philosophy, far from springing full-born from the head of Socrates, has much in common with the musty medieval theologians he criticizes.   None of the rationalists shunned empirical study, and the empiricists include Berkeley (which always struck me as a stretch of the framework.)  Making the whole period about warring factions in epistemology also means that certain writings of the moderns that don’t fit easily into that framework tend to get ignored.

So, Holbo’s solution:  frame the class on “Everything I Am Supposed To Teach You About [Early Modern Philosopher] is Wrong”, and mix contemporary treatments of similar problems into the early modern syllabus. He asks for inexpensive reading suggestions.

My criticisms and suggestions, mostly constructive but not sparing the snark, after the jump.

Read the rest of this entry »

Sometime the Times slides its cluelessness past slowly and subtly, in a way that leads to doubletakes rather than immediate outrage. Sometimes, however, the Times comes in through the front door and tracks mud across the carpet on its way to beat you over the head while bringing in a faint smell of rotting fish. This week, it was the latter:

  1. On July 30, the newspaper ran an article on how the Germans ease layoffs by having laid-off workers carried on payrolls that are funded partly by the laying-off company and partly by the government. They can get retraining and job help while in this position, and the psychological effect is apparently different and more beneficial than for those who are unemployed. All-in-all, an interesting and seemingly worthy attempt to deal with unemployment in a way that focuses on the health of the workers and the companies, rather than just the latter. How did the Times treat it? As if it were just a German attempt to massage the unemployment figures, one of Germany’s “creative ways to keep people off the jobless roles, whether they have work to do or not.” It continued to slip in the knife in the next paragraph. “Politicians laud the measures…as a bridge over the steepest period of economic collapse…but many economists argue that [it] could undermine confidence in the fall.” We can’t have that undermining of confidence; never mind that the Germans may actually be keeping people integrated into the workforce. In America, we fire people and if they stop looking for work, they just stop counting. That’ll learn them.
  2. Read the rest of this entry »

Having recently paid less attention to the situation in Afghanistan than to most other things, I didn’t realize that Karzai was no longer in our favor. (Sorry, “our”.) Also, I find the Times style of printing Vice President Biden’s FULL name irritating. Though I suppose I should count my blessings: at least they don’t spell out Robinette. And finally, the penultimate paragraph of this review reads:

The central plot mechanism of “Slumdog Millionaire”—Jamal (Dev Patel), a poor kid from Mumbai, overcomes his ragamuffin past and achieves fame, wealth, and selfhood by answering questions on a high-stakes game show—feels both cheesy and rigid. The movie is a Dickensian fable, but didn’t David Copperfield have to work his way up the ladder? As Jamal thinks over the questions put to him on the show, moments from his early life float through his mind, and some wrenching event delivers the right answer to him. Apart from a nagging implausibility—how could every question link up with an old memory?—I object to the way that the director, Danny Boyle, orchestrates Jamal’s life. Everything is seen in a flash—the boy’s mother is beaten to death, a man is set on fire, tiny goddesses appear out of nowhere—and nothing is prepared, explained, or understood. As slum children, Jamal and his friends are enchantingly beautiful, but the supersaturated color makes not just the kids but every surface and texture shine glamorously, including the piles of garbage that Jamal and his brother live among. Boyle has created what looks like a jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty—he uses the squalor and violence touristically, as an aspect of the fabulous.

I agree in part with the above sentiments. But if you made it to the last sentence of that paragraph, don’t you think Denby should have inverted the final clauses? “Boyle uses the squalor and violence touristically, as an aspect of the fabulous — he has created what looks like a jumpy, hyper-edited commercial for poverty.” It seems like such an obvious improvement that I’m not sure why the change wasn’t made. Probably I spend more time thinking about things like this, and less concentrating on important issues — like, say, Afghanistan — than I should.

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