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This comes to us courtesy of Matt W, into whose personal e-mail inbox I’ll be directing the entire comment avalance.


I despise myself for writing this post.* But not as much as I despise myself for having tuned in to watch CNBC’s coverage of last night’s Iowa caucuses. I haven’t watched cable news since Kerry’s swiftboating. Come to think of it, I’ve only watched network news twice since 2004: both times in the wake of Katrina.

Still, like so many of my friends — and perhaps some of the readers of this site — I’m addicted to electoral politics. I can’t get enough information on the subject and never tire of talking about the campaigns, the candidates, and especially their prospective legislative agendas. So, like any addict, even though I knew that it would be self-destructive to do so, I turned on the television last night.

And, after four years away, nothing has changed. Check that, things seem to have gotten worse. If that’s even possible. I say this even though there’s a so-called meme in the blogosphere that I find tedious: that the leading political pundits in the mainstream media are “villagers,” meaning that they exist within an establishment echo-chamber, deafened by the clamor of blow-dried group-think and the din of their own professional self-interests. It’s not that I believe this is wrong; it’s just that the constant repetition of the critique wears on me.

But my heavens, Digby and Atrios are so very right. Diving back into the coverage last night was like shooting up bad smack.** There was, in the hours that I watched, no mention of issues at all. Or at least there was so little on the subject that it got drowned out by all of the sound and fury. I learned, most often from Chris Matthews, that Obama won because young women find him dreamy. Women, you see, are incapable of making decisions based on anything but the tingle a handsome Black man produces in their loins. I found out that Mike Huckabee lost a lot of weight and now runs marathons. Which news, I should add, provided fodder for a lot of really cumbersome — and apparently irresistable — metaphors. I learned that Obama is “incredibly handsome”*** and “magnetic”**** and wears beautifully tailored suits. (I also learned, I guess, that Chris Matthews is an aesthete, a real student of the masculine form. Which is fine, of course, but a bit jarring as he plays the role of pugnacious populist on tv.). I learned that John McCain, favorite of the villagers, did very well by winning 13% of the vote. McCain is on the hunt. Along with his 13% of the Republican caucus goers. The nomination is his. And I learned that Chris Matthews knows the word “dramatical.” As in, “Obama’s projectile [seriously] victory is dramatical.”

But here’s what I didn’t learn: anything at all about what any of the leading candidates think about issues. I didn’t, for instance, learn about Obama’s plans for health care (quite a controversial subject, if you ask Paul Krugman). I didn’t learn about Huckabee’s favored tax policies (so regressive as to be genuinely frightening; Christian charity notwithstanding). And I didn’t learn about McCain’s all-war-all-the-time foreign policy. Oh, and forget learning about Hillary, Edwards, and Romney. They’re losers. Toast. Fading specks in McCain’s rear-view mirror.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised by any of this. But after my four-year hiatus from television news, I was shocked. So, bloggers of the blogosphere, you have my apology. Punditland is one nasty village. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to live there. All of that said, I’ll probably tune in less than a week from now for the coverage of New Hampshire. My name is Ari, and I’m an addict.

* Because it’s boring. And conventional wisdom. And boring conventional wisdom. But Eric, way back when we started this blog, suggested that it could serve as a kind of diary. So consider this my entry for the day after the Iowa caucuses. Okay?

** I have no idea if this is actually true, Mr. DEA agent. I’m extending a metaphor.

*** Perhaps a paraphrase. Actually, very likely a paraphrase. But maybe not.

**** Not a paraphrase. Unless it is. On second thought, perhaps a paraphrase.


On this day* in 1870, laborers broke ground for the Brooklyn Bridge. Construction would continue for more than a decade, until finally, in 1883, the span opened to the public, a triumph associated with its designers, John and Washington Roebling. It was, at that time, the longest suspension bridge in the world.

The Brooklyn Bridge is a technical marvel, an achievement of unparalleled ingenuity and good fortune. It would not have been possible without steel, the miracle material of the day. Nor could it have been completed without the labor of hundreds of workers, including more than twenty men who died building it.

But if the bridge can be celebrated as an engineering icon, an architectural treasure, or a monument to American labor, it may be even more interesting as a cultural touchstone, the best example of what Perry Miller, Leo Marx, and John Kasson have all called the “technological sublime.” David Nye later borrowed that phrase from Marx, his teacher, when he wrote this book. In it, Nye suggests that:

In a physical world that is increasingly desacralized, the sublime represents a way to reinvest the landscape and the works of men with transcendent significance.

The sublime, Nye argues, was particularly important for early-nineteenth century Americans. Casting about for a way to define a nation seemingly bereft of any history and culture — Indians had no written records; plus, they were savages and so didn’t count — many Americans turned to the natural landscape, celebrating environmental features such as Niagara Falls, the Mississippi River, or, somewhat later, the Rockies as evidence that God favored their young republic.

By the Jacksonian period, though, Americans increasingly venerated features of the built as well as natural environments. They celebrated the emerging technologies that were, in their words, able to annihilate space and time — steamboats, canals, and railroads — bringing far-removed places into relatively close proximity. The Erie Canal, a hybrid landscape, for instance, symbolized how human creativity could complete God’s seemingly unfinished work, linking New York’s coast with the Great Lakes. Boosters tried to hide the hard work that underlay such endeavors, a strategy intended to increase the impact of the technological sublime.

After the Civil War, Americans especially venerated bridges being built around the nation, artifice that literally knit an increasingly pluralistic people together. James Eads spanned the Mississippi at St. Louis, opening his masterpiece to much patriotic fanfare on July 4, 1874. But no bridge of the era was more renowned or beloved than the one that crossed the East River between Brooklyn and Manhattan.

In 1883, Brooklyn’s mayor, Seth Low, employed rhetoric that had become relatively common when Americans praised their technological wonders:

The impression upon the visitor is one of astonishment that grows with every visit. No one who has been upon it can ever forget it. This great structure cannot be confined to the limits of local pride. The glory of it belongs to the race. Not one shall see it and not feel prouder to be a man…It is distinctly an American triumph. American genius designed it. American skill built it, and American workshops made it.

Nye quotes another observer describing the bridge as, “a trophy of triumph over any obstacle of Nature.” And there was the rub. By the 1870s — the era of steel rails, of steam, and of suspension bridges — it seemed that technology could overcome any hurdle that the natural world placed in the path of human progress.

Americans have rarely since retreated from such utopian views. An Edward Abbey or Ted Kaczynski notwithstanding, the technological sublime still typically grips the national imagination. And if we now recognize that the project of conquering nature is both an illusion and self-defeating, we can look back to 1870 to witness one of the moments in our history when that fever dream took deep root. Or we can stroll a leisurely mile across the Brooklyn Bridge, elevated more than one hundred feet above the turbid East River, and gaze upon the skylines of two great boroughs. But beware, the effect is the same now as it was then: a sense of awe mingled with opportunity. Anything seems possible in such a moment. Sublime!

* Wikipedia says it was today, not yesterday, so I’m going with that.

I had this great post for today. It was about the first day of construction on the Brooklyn Bridge. I was going to talk about the technological sublime, knitting together the boroughs, and the importance of steel in the nineteenth century. Then I double-checked my facts — always a good idea — and realized that the Roeblings broke ground yesterday. So my post is a day late and a dollar short.

The moral? History is really hard. Sigh.

I take Josh Marshall very seriously. So I’ve been reading him extra carefully lately. Very early in the primary season, he told his readers that Fred Thompson was a joke. And I believed him. And lo and behold, I’ve had many a good laugh courtesy of Thompson. Next, about a month ago, Josh began writing that Rudy! was going down. And I believed him. And it’s happening now. So today (maybe yesterday), Josh explained why Romney is on his last legs. And I believe him. We’ll see if the prediction comes true.

But where does this leave us? Mike Huckabee can’t really be the Republican nominee for president, can he? So we’ll have John McCain bearing the GOP standard. I have to say that prospect scares me. Because I think McCain can win the general. I know, I know, he’s 407 years old, has health issues, and supports going to war with any nation any time anywhere. Canada? Why not? Mexico? Duh? Still, the press just loves him. And people see him as a having the courage of his (very spooky) convictions.

Also, talk about history repeating itself. Are we re-living 2004, or what? An endless primary season, in which a presumptive favorite (Kerry then, McCain now) looks terrible but pulls it out at the end. If this is the result, someone remind me why we have primary campaigns.

Update: A quck lurker writes in to say that Yglesias just has to stop stealing my stuff. I’m kidding, of course, as his post seem to have gone up a few minutes before mine. But once again, our mind-meld is complete — and completely creepy. Particularly because he always gets there first and then sends a coded message to a receiver in my molar.

Update 2: Phil Nugent says he’s not so sure. As does one of Josh’s readers. Both make very good points, I think.

Some highlights from the history of the American political discourse.

First there was this:

An ad that, among other things, said: Please forget my position on civil rights and instead focus on your fears. My opponent is going to get you blown up. Into tiny bits of radioactive goo. And also your kids. Who just want to pull the petals from daisies. And where, I wonder, was the daisy lobby in 1964?

Then there was this:

Here we have a candidate saying: The Democratic nominee for president likes criminals. Especially African-American criminals. And some of them have afros and everything. We all know that African-American criminals with afros can’t be trusted. And neither can the presidential candidate who likes them.

And now we have this:

Now this one is a whole different kettle of fish, if you ask me. Or don’t bother asking me. Ask Josh Marshall, who points us to the text of this ad:

“An enemy without borders. Hate without boundaries. A people perverted. A religion betrayed. A nuclear power in chaos. Madmen bent on creating it. Leaders assassinated. Democracy attacked. And Osama bin Laden still making threats. In a world where the next crisis is a moment away… America needs a leader who’s ready.”

And then Josh asks:

The whole people is perverted? Depending on how you interpret the ad, Rudy’s either saying that Muslims as a people have been ‘perverted’ or the people of Pakistan are perverted.

Either way, that seems more than a little problematic.

I’m not sure ‘perverted’ is a word that Rudy really wants to be pumping into the campaign either [sic] at the moment. But there does seem to be a more serious issue here. The premise of all our anti-terrorism efforts — from the sanest variants to total-spectrum Islamofascism malarkey — is that we’re not at war with Muslims in general but with a particular breed of Islamic extremism. But this ad isn’t saying some people. It’s saying ‘a people’, i.e., all of ’em. And that seems to mean pretty clearly that the whole community is ‘perverted’.

So, we move from the abstract (Johnson raising the spectre of nuclear holocaust to remind voters that even though Goldwater opposed the Civil Rights Act, he didn’t know how to deal with the Commies) to the specific (Bush I using Willie Horton to whip up Negrophobia among white voters, who then spurned Dukakis) to the blanket generalization (Rudy! suggesting that only he can protect this nation from the Muslim hordes just waiting to slit our throats in the dead of night).

Happy Iowa Caucus Day!

Outfits have been ironed. Easy answers have been memorized. Flop sweat has begun flowing. Tonight, hundreds of job candidates will sleep poorly. The ritualized humiliation** that is the AHA interview process begins tomorrow.

In honor of this hallowed event, I suggest an exchange of stories. Not of the ghostly variety, please, but of interviews gone awry (or well, if you must).

Here are the rules: no names, beyond your own***; no identifying details****; and no cruelty, unless it’s very funny. In short, let’s not humiliate anyone — except ourselves. So I’ll start with two examples from this time-honored genre.

1) At an AHA meeting some years ago, I was interviewed by a committee composed of several top-flight historians: very, very smart and accomplished scholars. I was young and quite nervous. I really wanted the job. But I had no idea what I was talking about. So, about eight minutes into the interview, after I’d answered the opening question about my research and a few follow-ups, I noticed that one member of the committee was fast asleep. Not dozing, mind you, but absolutely sacked out, mouth agape. I was not invited to campus.

2) This one is about an on-campus interview. After giving my job talk, in which I suggested that nature, broadly defined, impinges on the production urban public spaces, a leading member***** of the host department asked me: “You’re not really a historian, are you?” This was, you must understand, the very first question out of the gate in the Q&A. “Um,” I said, “um.” And then a third time, as though to underscore my lameness: “um.” I was not offered the position.

Anyone else? Step up, people, don’t make me wallow in my humiliation.

* The American Historical Assocation’s annual meeting, at which institutions interview candidates on the their so-called long short-lists. Said list is then culled to fewer people, who are then invited to campus for more comprehensive interviews.

** It’s not always horrible. Really, it can be quite fun okay.

*** Anonymity is also fine. As are stories from disciplines other than history. Or, dare I say it, from outside the academy entirely.

**** For example, everyone knows that the history department at Brown has a mole in the shape of Henry Clay on its left shoulder blade.

***** A super-duper star. The author of works that I still very much admire.


On this day in 1974, Richard Nixon responded to the Arab oil embargo by signing the Emergency Highway Conservation Act. The law offered the states a choice: impose a 55 mph maximum speed limit or forego federal highway funds. The national limit remained in effect for more than a decade, annoying my dad*, who ignored it whenever he got behind the wheel**. My mom, by contrast, never drove more than 52 mph, infuriating dad even more than the posted limit did. Between their arguments over an appropriate pace and the thick clouds of smoke wafting from their cigarettes***, long road trips were a blast. Anyway, in 1987 and 1988, with fuel prices lower and gas lines unheard of, Congress amended the law to allow for speeds up to 65 mph. Then, in 1995, legislators repealed the federal limit entirely****.

The history of the 55 mph speed limit reminds us that the Republican Party once embraced conservation. As this Bill Cronon op-ed points out, Nixon, for all of his paranoia and war mongering*****, was relatively green. Beginning with Ronald Regan, though, the GOP sold what was left of its soul to petroleum companies and placated its libertarian wing by crafting energy policies relentlessly focused on production rather than consumption. The idea of something so simple as a federal speed limit now receives hardly any attention at all. Dad is relieved. And I have to admit that when I used to drive across the vast expanses of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana pretty regularly, I often ignored fuel economy in service of getting there. Fast. But with climate change now a foregone conclusion, and oil still flirting with $100/barrel, isn’t it time to talk about changing not just how much we drive but how fast? Who would have thought that Richard Nixon would have led the way******?

* Among other motorists.

** Including on the tree-lined streets of Cleveland’s eastern suburbs. Yes, that blur was my father. Sorry if your pet paid the price for his impatience.

*** He: Parliaments. She: Larks.

**** Dad still considers this the nation’s most important holiday.

***** Bill, who’s much more diplomatic than I am, doesn’t mention Nixon’s personality quirks and policy nightmares; he focuses on the positives.

****** I’m not saying he was a hero or anything, so spare me the Nixon-was-a-war-criminal e-mails. Because I know. But he apparently loved him some caribou. As long as they weren’t Jewish. Or Democrats. Or Jewish Democrats.

Editor’s Note: Although all of the details of the above stories are 100% accurate (except where they’re not), I love my mother and father dearly. So no guilt, please.


On this day, in 1863, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — a symbolic gesture that launched a thousand misconceptions about U.S. history.

Here’s what the Proclamation didn’t do: abolish slavery. For that, the nation had to wait nearly three more years, until the ratification of the 13th Amendment.

And here’s another thing it didn’t do: free many slaves. Because of how Lincoln worded the Proclamation, it wasn’t intended to; it had no teeth. It freed only those slaves residing in the rebellious states of the Confederacy. That might sound bold. But it was within the Confederacy’s confines that the Union government had no power of enforcement. And even then, there were limiting conditions. Slaves in those parts of the South controlled by Union forces would have to wait for liberty. As for slaves in the Border States, the Proclamation didn’t apply to them, either.

Still, the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t meaningless. If democracy is a habit of the heart, freedom is, in some ways, a condition of the mind. Americans had to believe that the Civil War was being fought over freedom before it could be.

From the period of secession that followed the 1860 election, through the start of the conflict, Lincoln had insisted, in private and public, that he would fight only to preserve the Union. But by autumn of 1862, his views had begun changing; he had decided that the Union could no longer be reconsituted as it had existed prior to the war. The South’s antebellum social and economic order, built upon the foundation of slavery, likely had to fall before the nation could become whole again.

Lincoln, though, ever the diplomat, offered the people of the Confederacy a final chance to preserve their way of life — at least for a time. On September 22, 1862, less than a week after the Battle of Antietam ended in something approximating victory for the North, Lincoln issued the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation. If the rebels didn’t rejoin the Union by year’s end, he warned, their slaves would be free. The rebels didn’t. But most of their slaves still weren’t — free, that is.

And yet, with the Proclamation, Lincoln took a step toward making abolition part of the Union’s war aims. If that didn’t sit well with many Northerners, some others celebrated the evolving cause. At the same time, the Proclamation struck a blow against the Southern war effort. As more and more slaves crossed Union lines to fight for their freedom, the Confederacy hermorrhaged critical labor and capital.

So, even if the Emancipation Proclamation didn’t free the slaves, it moved in that direction, turning the Civil War into a moral as well as a military struggle. So raise a glass to President Lincoln’s memory: hair of the dog on this New Year’s Day.


On this day, in 1995, Calvin and his friend, a stuffed tiger named Hobbes, toboganned off into history. This site seems to be the comprehensive archive. I hope you weren’t planning on getting anything done today.

Several lurkers have written in to note that Pretty Bird Woman House, a women’s shelter on the Standing Rock Reservation, still needs plenty of help. So, if you’ve resolved to secure your legacy in the coming year by giving away some your gazillions to worthy causes, or if you just want to learn more about how some remarkable people in Indian Country have transfigured a terribly sad episode into something inspirational, you might want to click on the above link.

Another lurker points to this site, which promises, if you’ll take the time to test your vocabulary, to improve people’s lives — even if your New Year’s plans include drinking a case of Cristal. While soaking your troubles away. In a platinum tub filled with thousand-dollar bills. (I’m looking at you, Silbey).

Finally, these folks are on the radical end of the spectrum, which may or may not be your cup of tea. But they’re getting their hands dirty in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward. So, like ’em or not, they deserve some respect.

Now back to our regularly scheduled program of history and, um, other stuff. Oh wait, there’s just one more thing before I forget: may this next year be filled with joy and good health for you and your loved ones. Peace feels like a longshot, I suppose, but there’s no harm in dreaming. Right? Happy New Year.

wounded knee

Louis Warren is also known as “Theory Man.” His most recent book, Buffalo Bill’s America, won a host of prizes last year, including the American Historical Association’s “Beveridge Award…given annually for the best book in English on the history of the United States, Latin America, or Canada from 1492 to the present.” That’s an easy get, obviously. Being asked to write for this blog, on the other hand, is something to crow about. I’ve invited Louis to stop by and say a few words because I’m lazy he’s currently writing about the Ghost Dance. And given that I’ve blogged a bit about the need for a reinterpretation of the Indian Wars, the following post is particularly welcome. So thanks, Louis, for taking the time to do this.

“Wounded Knee” — Louis Warren

On this day in 1890, the United States Seventh Cavalry massacred dozens of Minneconjou Sioux beside Wounded Knee Creek in South Dakota. With all the discussion of the Civil War and its causes, it’s worth taking a minute to think about the causes and meaning of the Wounded Knee Massacre, which many consider the last major engagement of the Indian Wars.

In fact, as far as the Minneconjou and other Lakota (or Western) Sioux were concerned, the war with the U.S. had been over for a decade by the time of Wounded Knee. Defeated, starving, and confined to shrinking reservations, some had taken up a ritual dance which visionaries announced would bring on the return of Christ and resurrect the dead. Dubbed ‘the Ghost Dance’ by a sensationalist press, the revival made some authorities nervous and so they ordered all Indians to cease dancing and report to reservation headquarters.

Read the rest of this entry »

Progressives have been annoyed, for some time now, that pro-war pundits keep their jobs no matter how often they’re wrong: about Iraq, foreign policy more broadly, or, come to think of it, just about anything else that pops into their heads. Not only that, but said pundits maintain their prestige, as though their reputations exist independent of their work product. Which, I’ll grant you, is quite odd, because a pundit’s words and ideas should be the very foundation of their reputation. If their opinions are rotten, in other words, the foundation should crumble.

Alas, the relationship between cause and effect, in Punditland at least, has apparently been been severed. So it’s not surprising to hear that Bill Kristol is leaving Time for a post at the New York Times, bastion of American liberalism.

Matthew Yglesias writes about this today:

After all, everyone knows that conservative pundits don’t get held accountable for saying tons and tons of wrong stuff — that’s not how it works. Instead, you march through the institutions of conservatism by being loyal to the Cause, and then eventually mainstream organizations decide they need to contain representatives of the Cause and there you are on your perch. So it is in the newsweeklies, so it is on the op-ed pages, and so it is on the Sunday shows.

Now let me be clear: I completely agree with Yglesias (and not just because he linked to us yesterday — thanks!). And I, too, find the phenomenon absolutely maddening. Particularly when it comes to someone like Bill Kristol, who’s nothing but an appendage of the Republican Party: more than a factotum, but far less than a vibrant intellectual. But I wonder: is it only conservatives who are immune from consequences? Or is there just a permanent pundit class?

That’s a serious question, by the way. Are there any recent examples of opinion makers, regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum, who’ve been fired and relegated to obsurity for writing or saying silly things? Rather than, say, being cashiered for calling female basketball players “nappy-headed hos.”

Moving closer to home, are there historians who, after having established for themselves excellent (not just good, mind you) reputations, have completely fallen from grace? Tenure, of course, means that scholars have job security. So I’m thinking more of a case in which someone has truly lost intellectual standing after having once occupied a lofty perch. Such a fall, to make the comparison work, would have to be linked to a huge scholarly blunder — not illegal, immoral, or unethical conduct (which, as everyone knows, is the key to tenure).

Update (12:28 EST): I’ve just edited the first sentence of this post for style. It’s still not great, I know, but I can at least make my way through it now.

Editor’s Note: I’ve changed the title. Sorry if this offends anyone. I was in a hurry when I originally put this post up, and this title is a better tease. I hope.

The following comes courtesy of Ben Alpers, frequent commenter and gifted film historian. I was going to do the Peggy Eaton affair and John C. Calhoun’s resignation (on this day in 1832), which would have been: HOTT! But I’m tired of the Civil War, for the moment at least, and Calhoun kept bringing me back to nullification. So Ben bailed me out.

(Thanks to Ari for tossing me this guest slot!)

On this day in 1895, the brothers Auguste (1862-1954) and Louis Lumière (1864-1948) held what is usually said to be the first ever public screening of projected motion pictures at the Salon Indien in the basement of the Grand Café on the Boulevard de Capucins in Paris. The screening lasted a total of twenty minutes and consisted of ten films, including the now famous “La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyons” (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”), their very first film. Like the other films in the screening, it featured a short image from everyday life. The entire program of films screened that day can be viewed here.

The Lumières came from a family that had long been interested in the mechanical reproduction of images. Their father, Antoine Lumière (1840-1911) ran a factory that produced photographic plates. Auguste and Louis went to work in their father’s factory and eventually took over the business when he retired in 1892. It was Antoine who apparently first interested his sons in motion pictures when, in the autumn of 1894, he was inspired by a motion picture he had viewed in Thomas Alva Edison’s Kinetoscope, the peepshow device with which the Wizard of Menlo Park had introduced the world to motion pictures.

Antoine’s wonder at the Kinetoscope draws our attention to the importance of specifying exactly what happened for the first time in that Paris basement salon 112 years ago today.

Read the rest of this entry »

I’m in Florida right now, on vacation, staying in an apartment on the beach. The complex has a nice pool, so I can go back and forth from fresh to salt water with my son, who thinks he’s a fish. The problem is, the other day I got into an argument with someone, another dad, I’d just met at the pool. I don’t usually do that, pick fights with folks I hardly know. I prefer to wait an appropriate interval before making people hate me. But in this case I made an exception. I had no choice. The guy had it coming: after hearing that I’m a history professor, and that I teach the Civil War, he insisted that President Bush’s approach to disregard for habeas corpus is no different than Lincoln’s was. Right, he said? Right? And if I like the one (Lincoln), why don’t I support the other (Bush)?

So I tried, as politely as I could — while also doing my best to keep my son from drowning (he’s a fish in his love for the water, not necessarily in his abilities, okay?) — to explain that, actually, I’ve got misgivings about Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus. In fact, I said, when I teach the Civil War to undergraduates, I devote parts of several lectures to the myriad ways in which civil liberties were besieged during the conflict. This is one among many cautionary tales I offer students who are often looking for a heroic narrative when they take my class.

But this wasn’t good enough for my new friend antagonist, who insisted that President Bush’s scorn for the Consitution is fired by the threat of Islamic extremism. Which threat, he insisted, “will destroy this country, destroy freedom EVERYWHERE, if we don’t do something about it NOW.” That’s a direct quote, by the way. I know for sure, because I still bear the mark on my chest where he poked me while shouting those memorable words. Ouch.

After kindly noting that President Bush seems to be destroying freedom in order to save it, I went on to try to explain that Lincoln actually faced a real threat to the republic. Whereas, in my view, President Bush does not (Unless you count Vice President Cheney. But I don’t think that’s what Pool Deck Guy (PDG) had in mind.). At least not from “Islamic extremism.” Which isn’t to say that extremism, in all of its guises, isn’t a very serious threat, perhaps even the serious threat of our time. Just not the same kind of threat that the Confederacy was to the Union — which is to say, existential. So I started to walk PDG through the meaning of inter arma enim silent leges, the key differences between Ex parte Merryman and Ex parte Milligan, and the finer points of the impact that the Copperheads and Clement Vallandigham (citing this excellent new book) had on Lincoln’s perception of the rule of law. But now I was splitting hairs. Or so it seemed to the by-then VERY angry PDG. We were arguing, I have to admit. Loudly. (At least in his case. I, by contrast, was calm, genteel even, and quite persuasive. You can ask anyone who was there.) In a pool. In Florida. Surrounded by swimming children. And scores of snowbirds trying not to notice the scary professor sporting the shaved head and his aggressive friend with the Long Island accent. So I walked away.

In part, I’m writing about this because the case above is another instance that has me thinking a lot about the uses of history in political arguments. The past, it seems, is most interesting when deployed as an instrument of persuasion. But nobody ever seems to be persuaded, no matter how compelling the evidence. What to do? I honestly don’t know. Blog, I guess, at least for the moment.

Also, returning to the recurring theme of the lattice of coincidence that weaves together the disparate threads of our lives: I’ve been reading the manuscript for my colleague Kathy Olmsted’s new book on the history of American conspiracy theories. It’s both a brilliant and unsettling work of scholarship, part of which has been discussed on this blog (here and here). Particularly troubling are the long sections on the many actual conspiracies perpetrated by J. Edgard Hoover against the American people. So this Times article comes as little surprise.

Here’s the lede paragraph for the story you’ll find behind the link:

A newly declassified document shows that J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, had a plan to suspend habeas corpus and imprison some 12,000 Americans he suspected of disloyalty.

Hoover hoped to round up and jail all of the people whose names appeared on his “suspct index,” a master list, compiled over the course of decades, of the many individuals he suspected of disloyalty. So, it appears that in 1950, President Harry Truman was one of the only things standing between this nation and an updated version of the nightmarish Palmer Raids of 1919-1921. Which begs the burning question, who will keep something like this from happening again? I wonder what PDG thinks. Maybe I’ll ask him later today. Or maybe not.

Editor’s Note: If you really want to know something about the Palmer Raids, go here and here and here and here. The eminent Professor Olmsted warns me that the above link is, perhaps, not entirely accurate. Stickler.

Update: I’ve just embedded a link above to a piece that Eric wrote some time ago on the substance of this glib post. But, given all the links I’ve arrayed before you, Eric’s essay might get lost. And that would be a shame. Because it’s good. So here’s that link again. As ever: Ari for glib, Eric for substance. Sigh.

On this day in history, regardless of the year, it seems that people were availing themselves of after-Christmas sales. They were at the mall: arguing with the jerk who tried to steal their parking space, fighting the crowds, and wondering if $19.95 really was a good deal for a rayon codpiece in a lovely shade of dusty plum.

Which explains why not much else happened on this day. Except that: In 1776, General Washington’s troops fought the Hessians at Trenton. This blog can always count on Washington for content. Thanks again, George. Also, the coffee percolator was patented in 1865. I’m guessing there’s actually an interesting post, about the Civil War and technological advance, lurking beneath that fact. But it would take a better, more dedicated blogger than I to run down the story. Come to think of it, I’d be curious to know more about the history of the after-Christmas sale. And sales generally. When did they become so common? Again, though, I don’t have the energy, or the resources while on vacation, to run down such things.

All of that said, keep watching this spot: Eric will be taking over the On This Day in History duties tomorrow. He’s got something good for us. No pressure, dude.

Commenter Ben Alpers, who’s an excellent historian and good friend, writes:

I’m coming very late to this discussion and don’t have much to add (at this point at least) to the discussion of the Civil War (boring as it may seem, I share ari’s commitment to the current–and as always evolving–historical consensus on these issues, though I welcome an open discussion of alternate views).

But I did want to pick up on one comment by Rick B that raises an interesting side issue:

“The structure of our political system prevents any third party from being effective, so the choice is Republican and Democrat. The option is to choose the lesser of the two evils, and then try to take it over. That is what the religious right did with the Republicans, and now for the rest of us that is what will drive us to the Democratic Party.”

This comment struck me as fascinating for its apparent utter irrelevance. Ron Paul is running as a Republican. This conversation has nothing whatsoever to do with third party attempts.

And yet, I think this comment actually reaches the heart of what motivates a lot of Paul supporters…and the emptiness of the appeals of a lot of Paul detractors.

I’m unsympathetic to Ron Paul for a whole host of reasons, including the views highlighted in this post. But I am sympathetic to his supporters’ sense that the leading candidates of both major parties are militarists who are far too fond of executive power. The shame is that Ron Paul is virtually the only candidate so far to challenge these assumptions (Dennis Kucinich has, too, but seems to get no traction, even from progressive Democrats….why he doesn’t is, I think, an interesting topic for another day). Unfortunately, Paul challenges the neo-imperialist assumptions of the “mainstream” candidates from a place that I find unacceptable.

I mention Rick B’s little irrelevant excursus on third parties (whose role in US history is significantly more vital than he lets on, and whose exclusion has more to do with shallow, rather than deep, legal barriers erected by the major parties) because many Paul critics are less interested in (rightly) criticizing Paul than they are in building a case for progressives to, yet again, support a “lesser evil” party whose commit to war crimes such as torture should give progressive voters pause even if it falls somewhat short of the enthusiasm of most of the leading figures in the greater evil party.

That’s a very smart comment. And Ben’s point is worth considering for those of us who have been a bit flummoxed by the appeal of someone like Congressman Paul, who draws support from across the ideological spectrum. I’ve always believed that something like Ben wrote is true. But his comment is much more coherent and concise than my inchoate thoughts. So I thought I’d hoist it above the fold.

Blogging anything in the New Yorker is a total sucker’s bet. Lots of people consume the magazine cover to cover, and so the idea that I’ll bring something new to a reader’s attention is a long-shot. At best. Still, this article by Paul Rudnick, on the professional relationship between Raymond Carver and his editor at Knopf, Gordon Lish, is one of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in some time.

Here’s Rudnick’s lede paragraph, which is its own primer on good writing.

On the morning of July 8, 1980, Raymond Carver wrote an impassioned letter to Gordon Lish, his friend and editor at Alfred A. Knopf, begging his forgiveness but insisting that Lish “stop production” of Carver’s forthcoming collection of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Carver had been up all night reviewing Lish’s severe editorial cuts––two stories had been slashed by nearly seventy per cent, many by almost half; many descriptions and digressions were gone; endings had been truncated or rewritten––and he was unnerved to the point of desperation. A recovering alcoholic and a fragile spirit, Carver wrote that he was “confused, tired, paranoid, and afraid.” He feared exposure before his friends, who had read many of the stories in their earlier versions. If the book went forward, he said, he feared he might never write again; if he stopped it, he feared losing Lish’s love and friendship. And he feared, above all, a return to “those dark days,” not long before, when he was broken, defeated. “I’ll tell you the truth, my very sanity is on the line here,” he wrote to Lish.

It seems, based on Rudnick’s reporting at least, that Carver’s inimtable style — stripped of any fat, leaving only the sparest prose — wasn’t really his. It was Lish’s. Lish often cut huge chunks away from the stories Carver sent him, leaving behind what I’ve always understood to be Carver’s distinctive voice.

Read the rest of this entry »


On this day in 1868, Andrew Johnson, the disgraced president of the United States, gave the people of the former Confederacy a Christmas present: he issued blanket amnesty for anyone who had rebelled against the federal government during the Civil War. Johnson had earlier barely avoided conviction during impeachment proceedings and was about to leave office. So his pardon represented one of the last among many instances in which he thumbed his nose at congress, which, at the time, hoped to remake the South through the Reconstruction policies.

It’s easy and amusing enough to fight about the causes of the Civil War, though you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I agree entirely with Eric: beneath all of the arguments about states’ rights lurked slavery. Slavery was the reason that the nation split in two, the reason that 600,000 Americans died, the reason that North and South continue to squabble to this day about history. I also agree with Eric when he says that suggesting otherwise, though perhaps an amusing intellectual exercise, dishonors the memory of the dead — even if unintentionally.

We have these arguments, whether we know it or not, because the South won the peace. Southern Redeemers fought off efforts to upend their region’s social and economic order during the era of Reconstruction. At the same time, they won the memory fight. In the wake of the War, and especially after Reconstruction, most white Americans, regardless of whether they lived above or below the Mason-Dixon line, wanted to live peacefully, to consolidate or regain political power, or to get back to the business of doing business. They wanted no more conflict.

Reconciliation, then, seemed far more appealing — and far more profitable — than delving continually into the complicated and unresolved question of causation surrounding the War. As a result, in the same moment that Southern propagandists were producing the Myth of the Lost Cause, most Northerners accepted a narrative in which both Billy Yank and Johnny Reb had fought hard, fought bravely, and fought well during the War. What they had fought for, though, was a conversation best avoided. Heritage organizations, as David Blight and others have argued, led the charge in this memory fight. They erected monuments, published regimental histories, and gathered to remember the dead. And, to a remarkable extent, they avoided recriminations over which side bore the most repsonsiblity for the War. Again, reconciliation served the interests — economic, cultural, and political — of the majority of white Northerners and Southerners.

But, as the comments on a post I put up two days ago indicate, the fight over the meaning of the Civil War still lingers. And, it runs so deep that we can spend endless hours arguing about why we’re still fighting, going meta in other words. So let me suggest here that the blame lies, in large measure, with Andrew Johnson, easily our nation’s worst president (present company included). Johnson framed his 1868 amnesty order as a key step on the road to reconciliation. But he actually was propping up the South’s crumbling social order. Previous amnesties had been conditional, predicated on Southerners taking loyalty oaths. And while those oaths were hardly binding, they had cultural weight. The idea was: you want to rejoin the Union? Fine. But let’s first make certain that you acknowledge your rebellion.

Such an acknowledgement was important because the South at the time still might have been remade. Remade that is, had President Johnson not been such a successful obstructionist. The Christmas Amnesty, for example, included no loyalty oath, no requirement that Southerners reckon with their decision to have left the Union. Johnson’s failure of leadership, coupled with violence perpetrated by a slew of white terrorists — again, the Redeemers, who worked in service of the Southern Democratic Party — and the spineless rabble within the Republican-dominated congress, scuttled Reconstruction before it had a chance to succeed. The South retained most of its cultural institutions, continued to disfranchise its newly liberated African-American population, and reconsolidated political control of the region in the hands of a small minority of white elites, the former Slave Power.

And so, on this Christmas Day, it’s worth considering what Johnson was really up to when he issued his amnesty order in 1868 — and also when he had fought against congress earlier in his presidency. I’m not suggesting he had the coming battle over the War’s memory in mind. But the failure of Reconstruction, which, among other things, led directly to the the triumph of a reconciliationist narrative of the War, is one of the key reasons that people like Ron Paul and his supporters parrot neo-Confederate revisionist arguments. This is why they misuse the past, in other words, suggesting the we fought the Civil War over the issue of states’ rights.

On this day in history, in 1851, a huge fire swept through the Library of Congress, consuming more than two-thirds of its volumes, including much of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection. Which was more than a bit ironic, because Jefferson had sold* the LOC his books after British troops burned the Capitol Building, then the Library’s home, during the War of 1812.

Jefferson left his fingerprints all over the LOC. And not just because he ignored the archivists who asked him to wear white cotton gloves when handling the delicate manuscripts. (“Okay already. You’re the ‘Sage of Monticello.’ Whatever. Try not to smudge that copy of the Gutenberg Bible.”**) But also because his vision for the Library defined it in its early years.

Congress created the Library in 1800, at the tail end of John Adams’s presidency. But it wasn’t until 1802, when Jefferson signed the law clarifying the LOC’s purview, that it began to approximate the republic’s national library. This role was precisely what Jefferson envisioned. For in addition to believing in the power of knowledge, he, like many of his contemporaries, had an inferiority complex when it came to comparing the young republic to the nations of the Old World.

Sure, the U.S. had lumbering beasts like the bison, towering mountain ranges like the Rockies, and vast rivers like the Mississippi, all of which dwarfed their continental competitors. But where were America’s soaring cathedrals, its galleries of exquisite national art, its repositories of domestic literature? Where, in other words, was its history and culture? Cue the librarians.

The LOC recovered from the 1851 fire relatively quickly. But then it languished until after the Civil War. Starting in 1865, though, under Ainsworth Spofford,*** Jefferson’s vision for the LOC came into focus. The Library expanded its collections — including acquiring the holdings of the Smithsonian — and then moved into a new building in 1897. By 1900, it owned more than 1 million volumes. Today, the LOC is the largest library in the world****; it needs three buildings to hold its collection of 54 million manuscripts, 18 million books, 12 million photographs, 4.5 million maps, and 2.5 million audio recordings.

The only problem is that it’s still being run by firebugs.

* When you’re a former president, you really should find the generosity somewhere in your heart to, you know, donate your books to a non-profit federal institution.

** I know, I know, the LOC didn’t buy its copy of the Gutenberg Bible until 1930. If it’s restaurant-quality “facts” you want, I suggest starting your own blog

*** History’s coolest librarian. Until Mr. Giles, that is.

**** How d’ya like us now, Europe.

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