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Both the American and British chief delegates to the Bretton Woods conference were tall bald men, but there the similarity between them came to an end, and even in respect of their height they stood differently. Henry Morgenthau, Jr., hung on his own frame like a picture crookedly strung on a hook, while John Maynard Keynes wore his stature as comfortably as his tailored suits. Although Keynes was the older man, his powerful new ideas made Morgenthau look ever more like a relic. As Secretary of the Treasury since 1934, Morgenthau had helped engineer the New Deal. But as Keynesianism swept the policymaking landscape, Morgenthau became more old-fashioned, insisting that whatever Keynes might claim about deficit spending, the government ought to try a balanced budget—though between the Depression and the Second World War Morgenthau never presided over one. A cruelly witty Cambridge first who indulged his refined tastes in champagne, men, and women, Keynes enjoyed the comforts of the English upper class. Morgenthau was a relative outsider in America: a Jew who attended a state university but failed to graduate and instead became a farmer. It was only because he really took his farm seriously that he enjoyed a rapport with his Dutchess County neighbor, Franklin Roosevelt.

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Sometimes as historians we have reason to sum up our careers to date and make a projection forward as to what we’re doing next. Here’s mine. I don’t think this will really interest people for discussion, so I’m putting it below the fold by backdating it 72 hours, and people who read the blog on the web probably won’t notice it. Those of you who get these posts on RSS will of course see it presented as if it were fresh and intriguing; sorry about that.

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In the Report of the Public Lands Commission published 1905, you will find this discreet description of land fraud beginning on page v:

Under the act of June 3, 1878, generally known as the timber and stone act, there has lately been an unusual increase in the number of entries, which can not be accounted for by an increase in the demands of commerce or by any unusual settlement of the localities in which the greater part of the entries were made. … The law was enacted to meet the demands of settlers, miners, and others for timber and stone for building, mining, and other purposes. There is much evidence, however, going to show that many entries have been made for purposes not contemplated by Congress. … The Commission believes that Congress did not intend that this law should be used for the acquisition of large tracts of valuable timber land by individuals or corporations, but it has been used for such purposes. … [M]any of these entries were made by nonresidents of the State in which the land is situated, who could not use the land nor the timber upon it themselves, and it is apparent that they were made for speculative purposes and will eventually follow the course made by many previous similar entries and become part of some large timber holding.1

The Timber and Stone Act was supposed to provide settlers with timber and stone from lands neighboring their claims, offering such lands not suitable for farming for sale in tracts sized up to 160 acres at $2.50 an acre.

Misappropriating timber lands was big business in the Pacific Northwest, involving pillars of the community like Senator John H. Mitchell, and Representatives John Williamson and Binger Hermann, who assisted investors in finding timber lands they might find suitable, whether or not they were entitled to such lands under the Timber and Stone Act.

Under Theodore Roosevelt, agents of the Secret Service—among them, William “Billy” Burns, who would later become a celebrity private detective and be disgraced as director of the Bureau of Investigation for involvement with the Teapot Dome scandal—worked with prosecutor Francis Heney to bring cases against the fraudsters. They obtained a variety of convictions, including Williamson and Mitchell (though not Hermann).

In 1912, applications for pardon in some of the convictions came before the Justice Department headed by George Wickersham for President William Howard Taft. And Taft did indeed issue some pardons, most notably to one Willard Jones:

… [I]t is perfectly clear that his conviction was effected by the most barefaced and unfair use of all the machinery for drawing a jury that has been disclosed to me in all my experience in the Federal court. It gives sufficient reason to justify the pardon of Mr. Jones, as well as the condemnation of the methods of Mr. Heney and Mr. Burns. …

Sincerely yours,

Wm. H. Taft

Now, astute readers will have thought, as indeed Congressman Israel Foster mildly says here, “1912 was the year there was quite a contest between Taft and Roosevelt, was there not?”

His interlocutor rather hilariously replies, “I do not recall.” Indeed, it was an unprecedentedly and unrepeatedly epic contest. And Theodore Roosevelt, bitter to the last about its outcome, wrote in his Autobiography,

One [sic] of the most conspicuous of the men whom they had succeeded in convicting was pardoned by President Taft—in spite of the fact that the presiding Judge, Judge Hunt, had held that the evidence amply warranted the conviction, and had sentenced the man to imprisonment. As was natural, the one hundred and forty-six land-fraud defendants in oregon, who included the foremost machine political leaders in the State, furnished the backbone of the opposition to me in the Presidential contest of 1912. … [H]alf of the delegates elected from Oregon under instructions to vote for me, sided with my opponents in the National Convention—and as regards some of them I became convinced that the mainspring of their motive lay in the intrigue for securing the pardon of certain of the men whose conviction Heney had secured.

In fact, the Republican National Convention was held just the week after Jones’s pardon—though Taft’s review of the cases extended well into late 1912.

So here’s the mystery: was Roosevelt’s belief that the pardons were politically motivated a correct one? On Roosevelt’s side, the timing is interesting. And most of the time I side with the sentiment of Thomas Gore—”I much prefer the strenuosity of Roosevelt to the sinuosity of Taft”—even if I have a hard time associating that much adiposity with a characteristic sinuosity.

On Taft’s side, Billy Burns was not known for observing the niceties when dealing with juries. And generally, one suspects Taft took the law pretty seriously. Still, you never can tell.

Or maybe you can: does someone know all about this, and I just haven’t seen it?


1Report of the Public Lands Commission with appendix. Serial Set vol. no. 4766, session vol. no. 4. 58th Congress, 3rd session. S.Doc 189.

See also John Messing, “Public Lands, Politics, and Progressives: The Oregon Land Fraud Trials, 1903-1910,” Pacific Historical Review 35, no. 1 (February 1966):35-66.

I came to political awareness (well, relatively speaking) in the late 1970s, so one of the first foreign “uprisings” I can remember following was the Danzig shipyard strike, culminating Aug. 31, 1980, in the official recognition formation of the trade union Solidarity (Solidarność). It was tremendously stirring to follow from abroad, not least because of good graphic design — in the Polish tradition, starting with the beautiful, “casual” but unmistakable Solidarity logo itself, by Jerzy (Jurek) Janiszewszki. As several have lately commented, the struggle there and elsewhere in the Soviet bloc had a certain polarity with respect to the United States: the regime(s) were broadly anti-American, the popular movements were to some degree philo-American, etc. Yet even then, vicarious participation at the level possible to me in Los Angeles seemed practically pointless.

How much more so today with the struggle in Iran! My sympathies are with the demonstrators against the theft of the election, and to the extent (not great) that I understand what’s going on, my thoughts. We are not Gary Cooper, nor were meant to be.

Elizabeth Alexander’s inaugural poem has drawn generally negative reviews (though the Facebook fan club has attracted 500-some members). My feelings about it are mixed — but reading the discussion at Ta-Nehisi Coates’ place here and here I felt torn, defensive, even protective. So many readers seem to be beating up on Alexander almost personally, rather than trying to read the poems well. (Adam Kirsch and Rudolph Delson address broader tendencies which they see or imagine in Alexander. Margaret Soltan attacks from the aesthetic right, and Ron Silliman indirectly from the left. Etc.) She hardly needs my defense (being not only a grownup but a lit professor), but I still want to try to draw out the virtues of the poem, to show it’s worth not scorning.

To begin with, I’ll acknowledge that the poem was written for the eye. The verse is syllabic, composed in lines of about 10 syllables each. (That’s the length of iambic pentameter, but she doesn’t use that effect.) The lines are grouped in tercets, with one lone line at the end. There are sentence breaks at the ends of many lines, and of most of the tercets. In other words, there’s a strong formal grid, achieved through means that were inaudible in her performance.

(And she uses the grid intricately: in

Someone is stitching up a hem, darning
a hole in a uniform, patching a tire,
repairing the things in need of repair.

see how the four -ings are placed in the lines: near the beginning, at the end, near the end, and at the beginning.)

And the choice of words is timid, sometimes banal, starting right with the first line. There’s a certain amount of padding, as if to fill out lines — the doubling in “noise and bramble, thorn and din” is redundant. And the language is self-conscious, perhaps particularly in the way the text repeatedly proclaims itself a “praise song” rather than just praising.

But most importantly, the poem puts in view at once, in relation to one another, a number of serious thoughts on the occasion — on what it may mean, for many people, that for the first time a member of a minority group has taken our highest office. In crude and partial paraphrase:

  • Our ancestors suffered
  • which is a painful memory
  • but they suffered and labored for something;
  • Here we are at a great day
  • Let us move forward with love
  • so great that it will not efface that memory (“pre-empt grievance”) but encompass it.

As nearly everyone says, writing a poem for an inauguration, or any momentous official occasion, is a mug’s game — it’s almost impossible to do well. And surely everyone has a favorite exception. Mine is John Ashbery’s “Pyrography”, commissioned by the Department of the Interior for its bicentennial exhibition, “America 1976”. It’s a magnificently inclusive ramble, as sincerely kitschy as Rushmore (or at least North by Northwest).

Part of me, this week, wished the old surreal master (still writing at 81) had been given the chance instead. But I have to admit that Ashbery could never have done what Alexander did — to tell home truths in perspective.

Jay DeFeo, during the removal of The Rose

On November 9, 1965, a crew from Bekins Moving Company arrived at 2322 Fillmore Street, San Francisco. In an apartment on the second floor, they cautiously unmounted an enormous painting — eight feet by eleven and weighing literally a ton — lowered it to the floor and packed it into a wooden crate. A carpenter cut out a window and part of the façade; the movers gently slid the painting out this slot onto the platform of a crane, then lowered it to the sidewalk and into the truck. The artist hovered, nervously smoking, clowning for a friend’s camera as her life’s work, unmanageable and well-nigh uncontainable, was shipped away.

Jay DeFeo was born in 1929, in Hanover, New Hampshire. She grew up in the Bay Area, and studied art at Berkeley, earning her MFA in 1951. After a year in Europe, she returned to Berkeley; in 1954, she married the painter Wally Hedrick, and they moved to San Francisco. Hedrick and others founded the Six Gallery, remembered today for the first reading of “Howl”. He and DeFeo established themselves on Fillmore Street, and for the next ten years, a rotating cast of San Francisco’s painting and writing bohemia rented other apartments in the building.

Through the 1950s, DeFeo painted productively, making a name for herself in the second wave of Abstract Expressionism. She had paintings in a group show in Los Angeles in 1959; then, she and Hedrick were invited to participate in “Sixteen Americans”, an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art in New York, alongside the likes of Johns, Rauschenberg and Stella. The curator, Dorothy Miller, wanted to include Deathrose, a large new painting, but DeFeo said it wasn’t ready. She and Hedrick didn’t attend — with true bohemian insouciance, they gave away the airplane tickets MOMA sent them — and in any case, by the time of the opening, DeFeo was already deep in work, extending her new painting beyond anything she’d done before.

She worked at it all day, every day, for the next five years. The basic design was set early on — an abstract sunburst or cloudburst radiating from a point a bit above eye level — but the surface kept changing, and growing. Photographs of its various stages show many different textures. Sometimes she carved into the growing surface, but mostly she built, layer on layer of paint, even before the last layer had properly dried. At one point, the paint spread outward off the canvas and onto the wall around it: she jerry-rigged a new frame around it to accommodate the new scale, and kept working.

She might never have finished The Rose (as it came to be called) without the intervention of fate. In March 1965, Walter Hopps of the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon) asked to show it. And then in September, the landlord at Fillmore Street served an eviction notice. Quickly, she accepted Hopps’ offer. The day after the painting was moved, DeFeo and Hedrick vacated the building, and separated. DeFeo followed the painting to Pasadena, and worked at it a few months longer before breaking off for good.

She returned to the Bay Area, but to Marin County, rather than San Francisco; she dropped out of the art scene, and didn’t pick up a brush for the next three years. She resumed painting in 1970, and continued painting, photography, and teaching (at Mills College) until her death in 1989, of cancer. (It’s hard not to suspect that the years of work on The Rose, living on paint fumes and Christian Brothers brandy, contributed.)

The painting itself returned to San Francisco in 1969. It was exhibited at the San Francisco Art Institute, but soon began to sag badly. To slow the damage, the Art Institute wrapped it up and plastered it into the wall, until the resources could be found to restore it properly. Finally, after DeFeo’s death, the Whitney Museum took on the project. The painting was excavated and carefully restored, with a new steel frame inside the layers and layers of paint. It first appeared in its new form at the Whitney on November 9, 1995, thirty years to the day after it was untimely ripped from its birthplace on Fillmore.

I saw it a year later, on loan at the Berkeley Art Museum. For such a massive, extravagant effort, it’s surprisingly reticent at first — the sunburst is muted, white on mostly gray. In the crevasses of the surface, though, other colors peek through, hinting at what’s buried beneath. The effect is at once overwhelming and shy.

Today it’s out of sight again, packed away in a metal cage in the Whitney’s storage facility. When I inquired this summer, they told me there’s no way to see it. These days in the City, we’re hearing a lot about the proposal of Donald Fisher, founder of The Gap, to build a museum in the Presidio for his collection of modern and contemporary art. I would suggest to Fisher, once he gets the site he wants, that he make room in the building for The Rose — the greatest artwork ever made in San Francisco, and in need of a good home.

In the meantime, for a taste of the painting, you can’t do better than Bruce Conner’s beautiful short film of the removal, The White Rose (with Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain for a score). I also recommend Jane Green and Leah Levy, Jay DeFeo and The Rose (2003) — great photos and useful writing.

[Updated to correct a serious misstatement at the end: the painting is inaccessible, not decaying again.]

If you watched the video on Understanding the Financial Crisis, you know I got asked a question something like, when did the RFC retire its bank stock. And I said, well, they’d got rid of about a quarter of it in 1935-36, but I don’t know how long it took to get rid of all of it.

I couldn’t find the answer in any obvious place, so I spent a couple hours this morning pulling it out of the Federal Reserve Bulletin 1932 onwards, and a couple of later audit reports tendered to Congress. I include it here for your interest. (Of course once I post it, I’m confident someone will point out that this is readily available in such-and-such standard reference work, but hey, such is the wages of research.) Most of the figures are as of Oct 31 of the year; the last two figures are as of June 30 and include a bit more than just the preferred stock—also notes and debentures.

Here’s what an audit of the RFC said on the subject in 1950:

The balance of investments in bank stock, notes, and debentures of $157,655,807 [at 1947] represents the unliquidated portion of over $1,125,000,000 of such investments made mainly during 1933 and 1934. At the time the Corporation made investments in bank and trust companies it was anticipated they would be retired over a period of 20 years. On this basis approximately 70 percent would have been retired at June 30, 1947; actually 86 percent had been retired at that date.1

The RFC went into liquidation itself upon an act of 1953.


1Serial Set Vol. No. 11426, Session Vol. No.22, 81st Congress, 2nd Session, H.Doc. 468, Report on audit of Reconstruction Finance Corporation and subsidiaries, p. 52.

This is a lesson in reading the notes.

Begin with

Carter, Susan B. , “Labor force, employment, and unemployment: 1890–1990.” Table Ba470-477 in Historical Statistics of the United States, Earliest Times to the Present: Millennial Edition, edited by Susan B. Carter, Scott Sigmund Gartner, Michael R. Haines, Alan L. Olmstead, Richard Sutch, and Gavin Wright. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

Read the footnotes! Then have a look at

Weir, David R. “A Century of U.S. Unemployment, 1890-1990: Revised Estimates and Evidence for Stabilization.” Research in Economic History 14 (1992): 301-346.

And, well, you could stop right there, but that would be missing the fun. But inasmuch as neither of these sources is easy to get hold of, let me explain why this is such a fun topic.

Used to be, the unemployment series for the 1930s looked like this:

This is from a series constructed by the distinguished economist Stanley Lebergott in 1964.1

And wow, that looks bad, doesn’t it? The recession of 1937-38 almost completely wipes out any gains of the previous few years. It’s almost as if the New Deal didn’t do anything for anyone, much.

A lot of people looked at these numbers without reading the notes on how they were constructed and concluded just that.

Then in 1976, an economist named Michael R. Darby wrote an article with the delightfully self-explanatory title, “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid.”2 What Darby did, you see, was read the notes. Here’s what Lebergott had to say about counting unemployment in the 1930s:

These estimates for the years prior to 1940 are intended to measure the number of persons who are totally unemployed, having no work at all. For the 1930’s this concept, however, does include one large group of persons who had both work and income from work—those on emergency work. In the United States we are concerned with measuring lack of regular work and do not minimize the total by excluding persons with made work or emergency jobs. This contrasts sharply, for example, with the German practice during the 1930’s when persons in the labor-force camps were classed as employed, and Soviet practice which includes employment in labor camps, if it includes it at all, as employment.3

Did you catch that? People who painted murals for the WPA fall into the same category as internees in Mauthausen or the gulag. So they count as unemployed!

One could say a few things about that.

(1) Wow, that’s a lot of ideology to cram into a single data series;
(2) if you’re using the unemployment data to answer the question, “did the New Deal help people,” then this data set is going to give you the wrong answer, because it’s going to show people suffering unemployment who in real life had a job, as Lebergott says;
(3) but what if people in emergency work acted like the unemployed—i.e., they were looking for a job and
(4) what about the “real” economy—the private industrial economy—how did it do?

Now, as it happens it looks like the answer to (3) is, mainly they didn’t—people who had an emergency job acted like they had a job (perhaps because they had a job) and probably shouldn’t count as unemployed.4

And if you don’t count these people who held jobs as unemployed, you get a different picture of unemployment in the 1930s. Below, a graph showing the same series as the above, then a new series—from Weir’s table D3, which also appears in Historical Statistics of the United States—that counts only people without jobs as unemployed.

Now, if you look at that, you might think wow, the Depression was really bad, but the New Deal really helped.

Weir also said, if you’re worried about item (4)—if you want to look only at the “real” economy, i.e., private nonfarm jobs—I’ll make it possible for you to do that too, constructing a series of private nonfarm unemployment and leaving the government out of it entirely. If we add that to our graph, we get this:

So again, here, we see significant improvement under the New Deal.

Now, if faced with these alternatives, you chose data based on Lebergott’s assumptions, you would be presenting the data that showed the New Deal in the worst possible light, wouldn’t you.


1Stanley Lebergott, Manpower in Economic Growth: The American Record since 1800 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), table A-3.
2Michael R. Darby, “Three-and-a-Half Million U.S. Employees Have Been Mislaid: Or, an Explanation of Unemployment, 1934-1941,” Journal of Political Economy 84, no. 1 (February 1976): 1-16.
3Cited in Darby, 3; Lebergott, 184-5.
4Robert A. Margo, “The Microeconomics of Depression Unemployment,” NBER Working Paper no. 18, December 1990.

Because I’ve been asked a couple times in the past few weeks, here’s a short reading list on the history of the Federal Reserve System.

Start with

Sanders, Elizabeth. Roots of Reform: Farmers, Workers, and the American State, 1877-1917. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Read pp. 236-266 and also 471n125.

With this in mind one may then profitably turn to some of the following, depending on your particular interests.

Friedman, Milton and Anna Jacobson Schwartz. A Monetary History of the United States, 1867-1960. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1963. Particularly chapters 4-8.

Galbraith, John Kenneth. Money: Whence it Came, Where it Went. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Particularly chapter 10.

Meltzer, Allan H. A History of the Federal Reserve, 1913-1951. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003.

Further:

Dewey, Davis Rich. Financial History of the United States. New York: Longmans, Green—you need the fifth or later edition. A classic and available in its entirety on Google Books.

And because the modern Federal Reserve is very much a product of the Great Depression,

Chandler, Lester V. American Monetary Policy, 1928-1941. New York: Harper & Row, 1971.

And if needs must: Edward Flaherty on Federal Reserve conspiracy theories.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, of course, but it seems to me a good way to start.

Sometime commenter and (as Henry Farrell says) one of the Internetses’ smartest guys Cosma Shalizi has kindly listed my Blessed Among Nations on his list of “Books To Read While the Algae Grows in Your Fur” (also known, perhaps less slothishly, as “Books I’ve read in the last month or so and feel I can recommend”). So I think it’s only fair to respond to his query, which is so astute that only my colleague Kathy Olmsted has previously raised it. To wit:

Rauchway seems to find it unproblematic that a certain set of institutions should form Back In The Day, when they fit conditions … and then tend to survive later, when they did not fit so well. But I would like some explanation of why adaptive processes had an easier time working in the earlier period, as opposed to the later one.

Here is what I think I think, if I understand the question correctly:

In the earlier period the US was subject to evolutionary pressures in its environment that encouraged it to develop certain policies (those having to do with controlling and directing immigration and capital investment) but not others (those laying the foundation for a modern welfare state).

At around 1920, that environment ceased to exist, and so did those evolutionary pressures. But they were not replaced by an immediately imperative new set of pressures, because in this new environment the US was not only, if you like, top predator, but top predator in a damaged ecosystem (if I remember my Alfred Crosby-esque arguments correctly).

So under these circumstances it did indeed keep its old habits, and there was no immediate direct pressure to change them. But the old habits did not make the US a particularly good steward of this environment, nor entail a restoration of its previous vigor. Instead they caused a progressive deterioration of the environment of the 1920s, and then a precipitous and disastrous collapse beginning in 1929.

Those of you wishing extra credit can flesh out the climate-change analogy on your own time.

I would go further: the new, much more direct evolutionary pressures of the 1930s did indeed work on the US just as one would imagine they should, and encouraged changes in American institutions accordingly. But if we want to talk about that, we need to talk about a different book.

At the American Political Science Association annual meeting, in Boston’s Hynes convention center, room 107.

7:58 All the panelists have their laptops up and open. Henry has brought donuts to entice the audience.

For an 8AM panel, there’s pretty good attendance—30-or-so people [by 8:15, more like 35; if this trickling keeps up, I’ll have the biggest audience of the panelists] in a room that might hold 50—I think we call this the Krugman effect. Or else it’s the donuts.

Krugman will talk first, then Pierson, McCarty and me.

Perlstein sees my laptop screen and says, “Hi Mom!”
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Since some folks asked, James Gregory on “variable 666” and white migration from the South:

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Beginning in the late 1960s, the Democratic Party lost its once-solid southern bloc to the Republicans. In truth historians often overstate the solidity of the South. Democrats of the South split from their national brethren whenever the party took a step toward its more cosmopolitan wing. It happened in 1928, when the Democrats nominated a Catholic of mixed ancestry to the presidency; in 1948, when President Truman moved a short step or two toward “securing these rights,” as championed by Hubert Humphrey; in 1960, when the Democrats nominated another Catholic who was somewhat less indifferent to Civil Rights than the white South would have liked; in 1964, by which time the Johnson administration had committed itself to “enforcing the right to vote”; and in 1968, when the Democrats could no longer pretend they weren’t serious about this Civil Rights business and nominated Humphrey his own self.

We thus know that a significant number of white voters in the South would desert the national Democratic Party—even for a Republican, as they did in 1964—if it wavered in its commitment to white supremacy.

What’s more, ever since Kevin Phillips predicted, “The more Negroes who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are”—which is to say, ever since Nixon’s “southern strategy”—it’s been commonplace to assume that the Republicans picked up where the Democrats left off in courting bigoted whites, in the South and elsewhere. Hence Rick Perlstein’s observations; hence Reagan’s pilgrimage to Philadelphia, Mississippi; hence Lee Atwater explaining that “you can’t say ‘nigger’ — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff”; and all, all, all that stuff down to “Harold, call me,” and “Obama’s Baby Mama.”

But wait, now. Along come some political scientists to tell us this Republican racism is a bit of a side show, that the real story of the GOP’s new southern eminence has to do with the emergence, at long last, of a New South, ushered (ironically) into being by Democratic programs of New Deal and wartime mobilization. As people in the South got richer, they got more Republican, for the same reasons that people get Republican anywhere else—they want to keep their taxes low and protect their own interests.1
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(Being the first in what I pray will not be a series, as I like my sanity and would prefer to keep it intact.)

The Real World holds the dubious honor of being first in the post-1990 tsunami of reality television.  The premise was simple: seven strangers were picked to live in a house &c. &c. &c. and start being real.  The show never tried to live up to its name.  Canny viewers could watch the manufactured controversies being produced in the booth weeks before hostilities spontaneously erupted. 

But!

The pretense of the show was that it was unscripted and unrehearsed.  It was not some sitcom filmed in a West Hollywood back-lot in which a middle-class family dealt with generic adolescent, senescent, menopausal and mid-life crises to the pitch-corrected laughter of the ideal studio audience.  It was real

So you can imagine my surprise when I flipped on the latest installment of The Real World and discovered it was being filmed in a West Hollywood back-lot.  In a move forever granting Fredric Jameson the right to claim he told us so, The Real World: Hollywood is filmed in the same building in which CBS once shot I Love Lucy. 

Should we tell him this?  What are the odds he watches The Real World?  It’s not like he even values empirical verification.

(Previous installments of this silliness include Disadventure, Disaddendum, Dismoralized, & Disinsomnia.)

Copyright (c) 1980, 1982, 1983, 2006 Sekocom, Inc. All rights reserved.
SPYWARE VIRUS! is a registered trademark of Sekocom, Inc.
Revision 23 / Serial number 8940726

In Apartment Complex

> go to library website

Before you is the UCI Library website. To your left are the crumbling remains of an ancient civilization.

> really?

No.

> open newspaper database asshole

Firefox will not open crap links to spoofed addresses.

> is library is safe open newspaper database

Firefox declines invitations to virus orgies on principle. Perhaps a more gullible browser would be more to your liking.

> open internet explorer

You feel more vulnerable already. Before you is the UCI Library website. To your left is the a visual representation of what is about to happen to your computer.

> what?

Nothing.

> open newspaper database

YOU HAVE A SMALL PENIS! WOMEN LAUGH AT IT! VIEW PORNOGRAPHY! STAY HARD FOR HOURS! YOU MIGHT ALREADY BE A WINNER!

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But you can call me Scott. You may remember me from my star turns as “electrician” in Brick (2005) or “electrician: Los Angeles” in The Kid Stays in the Picture (2003), but that’s not the real me. This is the real me. (But this will be my legacy.) I know what you’re thinking. Why would Ari and Eric invite a guy who studies literature to join them on the edge of the American West?

I don’t know either.

I don’t “do” history. I’m an historicist. Understanding the difference between the two would require I provide you a detailed account of why the items on this list are on it, but such an account would desecrate the very thing it describes. (Sins of non-omission make the Baby Greenblatt cry.) This is because historicism is less about evidence and attentiveness and archives and more about Hayden White and Michel Foucault giving me permission to make shit up.*

I want to thank Ari and Eric for giving me the opportunity to play truant at two group blogs until I finish my dissertation. I’m truly honored they esteem my drivel enough to let it sully their good names, and will do my best to disappoint their justifiably low expectations.


* Consider my dissertation. Done? Now consider the fact H.G. Wells wrote a book about the future in which he claims nothing needs to be done about the “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency,” because the ethical system of the New Republic will employ “the method that nature has followed hitherto in the shaping of the world, whereby weakness was prevented from propagating weakness” (298). How is that not social Darwinism? Or this:

For a multitude of contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonor, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incontinence and stupidity, the men of the New Republic will have little pity and less benevolence. (300)

How is that not social Darwinism? Because I say so.

Eric Alterman1 wrote a book called When Presidents Lie, in which he argues,

If history teaches us anything, it is that Presidents cannot lie about major political events that have potentially serious ramifications—particularly those relating to war and peace—with impunity. In almost all cases, the problem or issue that gives rise to the lie refuses to go away, even while the lie complicates the President’s ability to address it. He must now address not only the problem itself but also the ancillary problem his lie has created…. The point here is that in telling the truth to the nation, Presidents may often have to deal with complex, difficult and frequently dangerous problems they would no doubt prefer to avoid. But at least these are genuine problems that would have arisen irrespective of the leader’s actions. This is, after all, inherent in the job description. But once a President takes it upon himself to lie to the country about important matters, he necessarily creates an independent dynamic that would not otherwise have come about, and we are all the worse for it.

Because Eric is even more of a modernist than I, his ur-lie is Yalta.

Had FDR told the truth about Yalta to the country, it is far more likely that the United States would have participated in the creation of the kind of world community he envisioned when he made his secret agreements.

In this book, and in his earlier Who Speaks for America?, Eric makes a strong case for openness and truth-telling in constructing American foreign policy.

With those ideas in mind, let us consider a case that Woodrow Wilson’s lies about the secret treaties constitute a consequential error similar to, though preceding, Roosevelt’s at Yalta, an error that Wilson might have corrected had he been open and truthful.

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This blog and many like it try to clamber over the wall between scholarly cloisters and citizens’ agora. I know many of my professional colleagues disapprove heartily of such efforts, while others believe passionately we should pursue them.

I confess I do not have a thoroughly thought through theory of why I stand in the latter camp. In honesty perhaps this blog and other non-scholarly publications I do as much from reflex as forethought.

But I’m trying to think through the problem. Below the fold, a step in this process (and no doubt a real hum-dinger of a fun blog entry) — the reading schedule for my graduate seminar this quarter, whose theme is the history and structure of modern intellectual life.

And, you’ll note, I’m doing something here I’ve done in the last few graduate seminars — leaving a space for student choice in the last week. You can help, too! Any nominations you’d like to make for a reading or set of readings (usually a book; if not, a book-equivalent set of articles) for someone who belongs under “practice” would be welcome.

It’s not a History department course, for what it’s worth; it’s in a program called Social Theory and Comparative History (which you can read a bit about here: http://chsc.ucdavis.edu).

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Clementine Churchill

After I wrote about Troublesome Young Men, a friendly correspondent posted me Roy Jenkins’s excellent Churchill: A Biography, which I am greatly enjoying and hope to say more about at length. For now, though, I am struck by how underrated was Clementine Churchill, Winston’s wife. Even Jenkins says sniffily, “There were many contemporary references to her great beauty, which does not however entirely come through in photographs.” (134) Look to the right; taste not a matter of dispute, different strokes and all that, but still. Others were even meaner, and wronger. Violet Asquith (later Bonham Carter [in answer to your question: yes]) on the news of their pairing: “Whether he [Winston Churchill] will ultimately mind her being as stupid as an owl I don’t know — it is a danger no doubt….” (138)

Here are two letters from her to Winston, during the Great War. Both come just after Churchill ended a leave in Britain and returned to France, where he was briefly leading a battalion, and where he didn’t really need to be.

First, about the possibility he might quit soldiering and return to London to resume his quest for political power.

I am so torn and lacerated over you. If I say ‘stay where you are’ a wicked bullet may find you which you would but for me escape…. If I were sure you would come through unscathed I would say: ‘wait, wait, have patience, don’t pluck the fruit before it is ripe — Everything will come to you if you don’t snatch at it.’ — To be great one’s actions must be able to be understood by simple people. Your motive for going to the Front was easy to understand — Your motive for coming back requires explanation. (302-3)

Second, after Churchill spent a lot of time pointlessly speechifying and damaging his reputation in the Commons, and then headed back across the Channel.

These grave public anxieties are very wearing. When next I see you I hope there will be a little time for us both alone. We are still young, but Time flies, stealing love away and leaving only friendship which is very peaceful but not very stimulating or warming. (308)

That’s one smart owl, really.

Sometimes even your index does interpretive work. The title of this post is a real index entry from Henry Adams’s History of the United States, which does not handle Thomas Jefferson and the Purchase tenderly.

Adams first shows Napoleon in the bath — “the water of which was opaque with mixture of eau de Cologne,” thank heaven for small favors — mocking his brother Lucien, who objects that the cession of Louisiana would be unconstitutional without consulting the Chambers.

Constitution! unconstitutional! republic! national sovereignty! — big words! great phrases!… Ah, it becomes you well, Sir Knight of the Constitution, to talk so to me! You had not the same respect for the Chambers on the 18th Brumaire!

Thus did Napoleon dismiss fraternal scruples — boldly, as a despot should. Contrast Adams’s portrait of Jefferson, who writes that conscience and his strict construction of the Constitution require him to get an amendment to buy Louisiana.

I had rather ask an enlargement of power from the nation, where it is found necessary, than to assume it by a construction which would make our powers boundless. Our peculiar security is in the possession of a written Constitution. Let us not make it a blank paper by construction.

But then he treads quietly on his inner Jiminy Cricket:

If, however, our friends shall think differently, certainly I shall acquiesce with satisfaction, confiding that the good sense of our country will correct the evil of construction when it shall produce ill effects.

So much for scruples. Adams interprets the case thus:

Within three years of his inauguration [after a tied election, recall] Jefferson bought a foreign colony without its consent and against its will, annexed it to the United States by an act which he said made blank paper of the Constitution; and then he who had found his predecessors too monarchical, and the Constitution too liberal in powers,–he who had nearly dissolved the bonds of society rather than allow his predecessor to order a dangerous alien out of the country in a time of threatened war, [yes, that’s Adams family special pleading] –made himself monarch of the new territory, and wielded over it, against its protests, the powers of its old kings. Such an experience was final; no century of slow and half-understood experience could be needed to prove that the hopes of humanity lay thenceforward, not in attempting to restrain the government from doing whatever the majority should think necessary, but in raising the people themselves till they should think nothing necessary but was good.

You should hear Adams guffawing to himself on writing that last clause.

Okay, so Adams is having a bit of fun sticking skewers into the vastly hypocritical states’-rights project, and who doesn’t enjoy that? But is he prepared to say Jefferson shouldn’t have bought Louisiana? Adams himself points out that any delay might have led Napoleon in his whimsy to withdraw the offer.

Still. It does seem at least plausible that a chance might have arisen to buy Louisiana on more scrupulous and Constitutionally favorable terms. After all, it was changing hands pretty much every other day, wasn’t it? If you’re going to condemn Polk for hasty, racist, and unwarranted pursuit of manifest destiny, shouldn’t you likewise condemn Jefferson? These rushed and lawless annexations seem rarely to have turned out well. As it was, the Purchase contributed to a near-secession via the Burr conspiracy.

Below, a rarely seen Federalist Party-sponsored educational video on the Louisiana Purchase.

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