I still haven’t whittled that blog post down to size. In fact it’s now bigger. Meantime here’s another something on the web: a TLS essay I wrote on Martin Wolf’s The Shifts and the Shocks. There’s no paywall. Here’s a snippet, which provides the piece its rather nice illustration:
In the 2011 film Margin Call, which dramatizes the onset of our dismal era, the banker character played by Jeremy Irons delivers a monologue with which he attempts to justify his ruthless self-interest. Events like this just happen, he says. He lists a series of dates corresponding to financial panics, the modern part of which runs like this: “1819, 1837, 1857, 1884, 1901, 1907, 1929, 1937” – and then Irons pauses slightly before continuing – “1974, 1987 . . . .”. It is a slight pause, but there is room in it: room for, after the war, what the French call les trente glorieuses, the decades of widespread economic growth and prosperity. That gap in the string of crises undermines the Irons character’s argument: the disasters do not have to happen. During the period in that pause, banking was tightly regulated, capital movements were controlled, exchange rates pegged (if adjustable). As Wolf says, “finance was repressed. That certainly prevented crises”.
In the print edition the essay is called “Missing dates,” which I actually like a bit better, and which derives from this section.
I started writing a blog post yesterday but it’s now up to 1500 words and I don’t know what to do with is, so instead I’ll urge you: Plan your Saturday night now! Here’s a preview: In a world …
Aww yeah, baby: C-SPAN 3.1 Saturday, January 24, at 8pm and midnight, Eastern time. Or 5pm and 9pm, here on the edge of the American West.
This is a lecture2 from the World War II class that Ari and I debuted as a co-taught course in 2012, but which this year I taught all by my lonesome; I’m sure it shows. The subject is some of the various ways in which the motive of revenge overtook the strategy of the Axis and the Allies.
1The connoisseur’s C-SPAN.
2Yes, C-SPAN 3’s Saturday night programming is a filmed college lecture; look, either you’re the audience for this or you aren’t.
Here’s a post I wrote way back when. I think things have changed quite a bit in the past seven years. Whether because recent events have laid bare the emptiness of the rhetoric of a post-racial America, because the President of the United States is African American, because popular culture, including films like Selma, has begun to force audiences to reexamine some of comforting myths of American history, I really don’t know. Regardless, other than a few dead links that I can’t seem to fix, there’s still a bit of worthwhile stuff in the post.
The Martin Luther King of American memory serves this nation as the safe Civil Rights leader. When shrunk to fit within the confines of soundbite history, the pages of a textbook, or the scenes of a primary school pageant, King is cleansed of anger, of ego, of sexuality, and even, perhaps, of some of his humanity.
Counterpoised against the ostensibly violent Malcolm X, who supposedly would have forced America to change its ways by using “any means necessary,” King comes off as a cuddly moderate — a figure who loved everyone, enemies included, even whites who subjugated black people. Although there’s some truth lurking behind this myth, there was more (about both X and King) to the story: complexities and nuances that escape most popular recollections. Martin Luther King, no matter how people remember him now, was not nearly so safe as most of us believe.
On March 12, 1968, less than a month before he was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee, King visited the wealthy Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe. Largely white, Grosse Pointe was — and to some extent still is — a bastion of establishment power. By that point in his career, King had embraced issues that moved well beyond the struggle against de jure segregation in the South. He had begun focusing most of his energy on inequality nationwide — de facto issues of poverty, job discrimination, fair housing, and, as Matthew Yglesias notes, the Vietnam war.
We took the kids to see Selma, and I think you should see it too. (I mean, my God: it’s got both Stephen Root and Wendell Pierce.) Its historical liberties notwithstanding, it’s a great piece of historical fiction. As a sometime practitioner of both history and historical fiction, let me explain why.
First, here’s John Steinbeck on the scholar and the truth; the fisherman and the fish:
the Mexican sierra has “XVII-15-IX” spines in the dorsal fin. These can easily be counted. But if the sierra strikes hard on the line so that our hands are burned, if the fish sounds and nearly escapes and finally comes in over the rail, his colors pulsing and his tail beating the air, a whole new relational externality has come into being—an entity which is more than the sum of the fish plus the fisherman. The only way to count the spines of the sierra unaffected by this second relational reality is to sit in a laboratory, open an evil-smelling jar, remove a stiff colorless fish from a formalin solution, count the spines, and write the truth “D.XVII-15-IX.” There you have recorded a reality which cannot be assailed—probably the least important reality concerning either the fish or yourself.
It is good to know what you are doing. The man with his pickled fish has set down one truth and has recorded in his experience many lies. The fish is not that color, that texture, that dead, nor does he smell that way…. [W]e were determined not to let a passion for unassailable little truths draw in the horizon and crowd the sky down on us.
(Yes, it’s a favorite passage.)
So clearly, it’s the business of the historian to count those spines (and get the count right). Historians go further, too: we traffic in permissible artifice. Call it cautious narrative, which indicates more often than it depicts: maybe, to press the analogy, we’re allowed to stuff and mount that fish in a lifelike posture that nevertheless permits the observer to see those spines and plainly ascertain their number.
Beyond that we daren’t go.
But purveyors of historical fiction aren’t trying to do that, at all: instead, they want to give us that other, otherwise unreachable, truth: the fisherman and the fish, the leap, the flash, the struggle. That too is true.
Historians can tell us it happened: fictionalizers can make us see it happening and feel the fight between angler and prey.
So, Selma gives us that fight, and how. The night march and the murder of Jimmie Lee Jackson are terrifying and heartbreaking. Bloody Sunday is grippingly staged and shot. David Oyelowo is a great King, Tom Wilkinson is a great Johnson, Oprah Winfrey can actually act, in case you didn’t remember. (Only why, in a movie that has Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon B. Johnson, and George Wallace, do they all have to be played by Brits?)
And I’m not greatly bothered by the depicted conflicts between King and the younger activists – Zeitz says the movie overplays them, but they were real.
I even think making Johnson a foot-dragger who has to have his mind changed is actually fine-ish, though. It didn’t happen this way, not in 1965. But it did pretty well happen. Johnson did help make the Civil Rights Act of 1957 weaker. And he did at last push the Voting Rights Act through. King’s activism helped propel him forward.
(And even in 1965, Johnson was still incredulous at the thought that he hadn’t done enough. “Could anybody do better? What do they want?” he asked.)
But. I do think it’s stepping over the line to make Johnson responsible for the infamous “suicide letter” to King. This is like telling us the fisherman leaped into the water and wrestled the fish into submission with his bare hands. I mean, someone did catch and kill that fish, but not like that.
The suicide letter (which appeared in Athan Theoharis’s From the Secret Files of J. Edgar Hoover and was recently analyzed in full by Beverly Gage) was a genuinely vicious thing. The FBI sent it to King, with tape-recordings of his sexual infidelities, saying “There is but one way out for you. You better take it before your filthy, abnormal fraudulent self is bared to the nation.”
As Zeitz points out, this letter had nothing to do either with Selma or with Johnson. But the movie has Johnson saying he needs to put King off, picking up the phone, and barking “Get me J. Edgar Hoover,” then cutting to Coretta Scott King listening to the tape with her husband. In the language of film, that’s as much as saying, Johnson ordered the sending of that letter and that tape.
Which is a shame, really; DuVernay doesn’t need Johnson to sink that low for the narrative to work. I suspect she did want to get in some evidence of King’s infidelities, and the complexity of his relationship with his wife, and this was the way to do it. To establish Hoover as acting independently from Johnson would have taken up too much screen time in a movie already packed with incident (Malcolm X is in it!); as it is, I’m not confident all viewers will remember Hoover from his single, brief, establishing scene.
But it is a shame.
Still, Lyndon Johnson was a big man with a secure place in history, and I bet wherever he is, he can take it. And you and yours should still see the movie. Which is fiction, if historical fiction.
(Also recommended: NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, with friend of this blog Gene Demby, discussing this question, too.)
The National History Day queries have gotten out of hand. I say this as someone who: a) is an employee of a public institution and takes his obligations to the public very seriously; b) participated in and learned a great deal from the National History Day competition; c) likes working with anyone, including middle school and high school students, interested in the past.
All of that said, everyone in the profession now gets huge numbers of requests from students who want us to weigh in on topics about which we know very little. Worse still, these students want us to reply via e-mail.
Here’s a typical letter:
Dear Mr. Kelman:
My name is [redacted]. I’m a student at [redacted]. I’m participating in National History Day. As part of my assignment, I have to interview an expert about the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan. Please reply to these five questions.
[questions redacted to preserve the student’s confidentiality]
There’s something to annoy nearly everyone there, right? Regardless, what are we supposed to do about this kind of thing? My current policy is to beg off politely if I don’t know anything about the topic at hand, and to offer to do a phone interview if I do have the relevant expertise. But that makes me feel churlish in the first instance and somewhat creepy in the second.
Seriously, what’s a guilty Jew to do?
On this day in 1940 the United States House of Representatives passed a bill imposing fines on county or state officials who negligently failed to protect persons in their custody from seizure by a mob who injured or killed those persons – or, as it was better known, an anti-lynching bill.1
“Why is President Roosevelt so strangely silent on this bill?” asked Franklin Roosevelt’s own local Congressman, Representative Hamilton Fish, Republican of New York.2
Scarcely a soul did not know the answer to Fish’s question. The bill split the Democratic Party. Sponsored by Joseph Gavagan, a Democrat and the Congressman for Harlem, the bill had nearly universal support in the North and none in the South. The vote in the House was 252 to 131 in favor. No Southerner voted for the bill; Democrats from the North, Midwest, and West favored it by nearly five to one.
Similar bills had passed in 1937 and 1938. They met their demise in the Senate, whose filibuster rules permitted a Southern minority to kill the bills.
The NAACP campaigned vigorously for the anti-lynching bills. Its leader, Walter White, noted “the states have continued as they have in the past, to do nothing about lynching. The federal government must act.”3
Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, supported the bill. So did any number of high profile Democrats, including Eleanor Roosevelt.
Gallup polls showed Americans closely divided but favoring the measure, with 50% in favor, 41% against, and 9% with no opinion.4
Senator Pat Harrison, Democrat of Mississippi, addressed himself to the president, saying, “We see the people of the South confronted with the terrible situation of a Democratic majority betraying the trust of the Southern people.… The next thing, in all probability, will be to provide that miscegenation of the races cannot be prohibited, and when that has accomplished … to say that every colored man in every Southern State should take part in the primaries in the State!”5
That outcome remained far in the future. It was 1940; the Gavagan bill had no chance when the president viewed the fight against Nazism as his chief priority.
He had seen the world that way, really, since the moment Adolf Hitler became German chancellor in January 1933. Roosevelt then told Rexford Tugwell that Hitler’s “black sorcery appealed to the worst in men; it supported their hates and ridiculed their tolerances” and his rise was a “portent of evil for the United States.”
And so from the moment he took office, Roosevelt was racing the clock; recovery from Depression meant not only ending the crisis and restoring prosperity, but restoring the United States to a physical and moral strength sufficient to fight Nazi Germany.
But to do it, as Tugwell said, “He had to compromise with Hitlerites in our own electorate.”6
1“Anti-lynching Bill is Passed by House,” NYT 1/11/40, p. 17.
2“Quick Passage of Measure,” Chicago Defender 1/13/40, p. 1.
3Cited in Harvard Sitkoff, A New Deal for Blacks, 221.
4Gallup Poll, Jan, 1940. Retrieved Jan-10-2015 from the iPOLL Databank, The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, University of Connecticut. http://www.ropercenter.uconn.edu/data_access/ipoll/ipoll.html
5Cited in Sitkoff, 220.
6Rexford Tugwell Papers, Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library. See also the brilliant Ira Katznelson, Fear Itself (Liveright, 2013).
Ahem. Is this thing on?
I have a new author’s website: arikelman.org. All are welcome.
It’s moving day at EotAW. After calling WordPress our home for the past four years, we’re shifting to more academic-specific digs: the Chronicle of Higher Education. They’ve asked us to become part of their Blog Network, along with luminaries like the Tenured Radical, and who are we to refuse such esteemed company? Nobody, that’s who.
The new Edge is at:
Come on by. Check out the new place. Grab a beer. We promise the same skewed but deeply historical view of the world, full of disappointment and Muppets.
Lots of Muppets.
The New York Times, April 28, 2012:
Presidents running for re-election typically boast of programs they created, people they helped or laws they signed. They talk about rising test scores or falling deficits or expanding job rolls. President Obama is increasingly taking the unusual route of bragging about how he killed a man.
To be sure, that man was Osama bin Laden, and he is not mourned among either the president’s supporters or detractors. But in the days leading up to the first anniversary of the raid that finally caught up to the Qaeda mastermind, Mr. Obama has made a concerted, if to some indecorous, effort to trumpet the killing as perhaps the central accomplishment of his presidency.
The article does nod to previous Presidents running on their toughness, but then goes completely off the rails when talking about a recent Obama interview in the Situation Room:
Tony Fratto, a deputy press secretary under Mr. Bush, said that it was “unseemly” to use the room for such a purpose. “I don’t believe it ever would have occurred to us to conduct an interview in the Situation Room,” he said, “and don’t believe we would have considered it appropriate.”
Mr. Fratto (and Times), I give you the USS Abraham Lincoln from the New York Times, May 16, 2003:
George W. Bush’s ”Top Gun” landing on the deck of the carrier Abraham Lincoln will be remembered as one of the most audacious moments of presidential theater in American history. But it was only the latest example of how the Bush administration, going far beyond the foundations in stagecraft set by the Reagan White House, is using the powers of television and technology to promote a presidency like never before.
Officials of past Democratic and Republican administrations marvel at how the White House does not seem to miss an opportunity to showcase Mr. Bush in dramatic and perfectly lighted settings.
Media strategists noted afterward that Mr. Sforza and his aides had choreographed every aspect of the event, even down to the members of the Lincoln crew arrayed in coordinated shirt colors over Mr. Bush’s right shoulder and the ”Mission Accomplished” banner placed to perfectly capture the president and the celebratory two words in a single shot. The speech was specifically timed for what image makers call ”magic hour light,” which cast a golden glow on Mr. Bush.
The New York Times, June 21, 2004:
The story of how President George W. Bush ended up with Saddam Hussein’s pistol mounted in his private study off the Oval Office has dribbled out in the last few weeks, and it is a good one.
In that context, Saddam’s pistol is a bookend of sorts, the prize of a president who viewed the badge as reason for waging two wars.
To the Delta Force that brought it back, the gun is a piece of history representing nothing less than mission complete. “These kinds of experiences you only have a few times in your life, and they’re very powerful,” said Major General David Grange, a retired commander in the Delta Force during the Gulf War. “It’s ‘Sir, we got him.”‘
As to whether Bush will ever give the gun to the Iraqis, he didn’t say.
Politics was so much more dignified in the Bush administration.
It’s not always the victors writing the history, in this case, or the historical markers:
On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873, marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South. Marker is at the intersection of Main Street (Louisiana Route 8) and 2nd Street (Louisiana Route 8) on Main Street.
Or maybe it was the victors writing, sadly enough.
At any rate, those Confederates were writing markers all over the place.
From the Gettysburg battlefield:
I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to detect where the above writer’s Confederate sympathies crept out.
We had a discussion about ship naming in the thread on the USS Lyndon Baines Johnson and I thought I would post a link to this lovely article by the Naval Historical Center, which pulls in (among others) Alfred the Great:
As if to emphasize the ties that many Americans still felt to Britain, the first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred in honor of Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex who is credited with building the first English naval force. Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and heroes (Hancock and General Greene). Others commemorated the young nation’s ideals and institutions (Constitution, Independence, Congress). A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to the French Navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War frigate named Bourbon saluted the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American places (Boston, Virginia). Small warships– brigs and schooners–bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character traits (Enterprise, Diligent). Others had classical names (Syren, Argus) or names of small creatures with a potent sting (Hornet, Wasp).
Still hoping for a USS Ethelred the Unready.
RIP Levon Helm, who was not only of course the voice of The Band, but also of The Right Stuff, the voice warning softly,
There was a demon that lived in the air. They said whoever challenged him would die. Their controls would freeze up, their planes would buffet wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at Mach 1 on the meter, seven hundred and fifty miles an hour, where the air could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no man could ever pass. They called it the sound barrier.
Helm also played Ridley, the trusted friend of Chuck Yeager, as depicted by Sam Shepard. I thought it was a kind of subversive genius, casting those two countercultural Dylan-associated types as these otherwise strait-laced American heroes.
As Pierce says, and as seems appropriate in this particular sidelight on Helm’s career, Godspeed.
I couldn’t resist the scare quotes, sorry. A source may be a source, or it might be a practical joke:
The portrait of “Ensign Chuck Hord,” framed in the heavy gilt typical of government offices, may be the greatest—or perhaps only—prank in Pentagon art history. “Chuck Hord” can’t be found in Navy records of the day. It isn’t even a real painting. The textured, 30-year-old photo is actually of Capt. Eldridge Hord III, 53 years old, known to friends as “Tuck,” a military retiree with a beer belly and graying hair who lives in Burke, Va.
Even as I write, someone’s dissertation on the semiotics of paintings in the Pentagon is having a chapter revised, I’m sure.
The Navy has named the third ship in its class of state-of-the-art destroyers after the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, who served as a naval officer during World War II, the service said in a press release Monday.
“I am pleased to honor President Johnson with the naming of this ship,” Navy Secretary Ray Mabus said in a statement. “His dedication to a life of public service included bravely stepping forward to fight for his country during our entry into World War II.”
No word on whether the ship would have a tendency to report attacks by imaginary torpedo boats, but some folks have been unable to avoid the sniggering locker room humor that the name might inspire:
That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to ever name a Zumwalt destroyer the JOHNSON. Only Ray Mabus [Secretary of the Navy] is apparently so tone deaf as to not see the irony that during April 2012 – also known as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM) in the Navy – that the 18-22 year old enlisted sailors are going to almost certainly come up with some highly creative (and crude) JOHNSON jokes. OK, so the silver lining is that at least we won’t have a JOHNSON STRIKE GROUP in the Navy, but when a ship’s most prominent feature is often described as 6″ or 155mm, JOHNSON doesn’t quite strike me as the appropriate name.
I’m sure the person was concern-blogging about the USS George HW Bush when it was named.
The only remaining recent Presidents without ships named for them are now Nixon, Clinton, and Shrub. Nixon’s unlikely to get one, which means that naming the next carrier is going to be an interesting decision. My guess? They name it the Enterprise and push back the controversy.
Did anyone notice that Steve Rogers’s politics are basically those of PM?
Canada and Denmark, finding a way to avoid war:
The National Post has learned that Canada and Denmark are apparently this close to hammering out a deal over Hans Island, the vitally important strategic chokepoint that has kept these two warrior nations on the brink of mutual annihilation for the last eight years. With a little luck and perhaps some Annan-style shuttle diplomacy, our long national nightmare might soon be over.
The plan is brilliant for its simplicity. There will be no exchange of atomic energy monitors, no prisoner swaps, and no gradual pullbacks to the positions the countries held on the first day of the costly conflict. Neither side will have to disarm its military forces or surrender commanders for war crimes trials. Instead, the deal under discussion between Ottawa and Copenhagen would take Hans Island, a rock roughly a square kilometre in size and — get this — simply divide it in half.
Always good to see diplomacy triumph, especially over such a strategically vital piece of land. One observer described it as “little more than an upsized decorative stone of the sort intentionally landscaped into homeowners’ gardens. The thing seems almost as if it is trying to look boring.”
Well, so there, then.
When you teach a survey course, you make choices about what to emphasize, what to leave out and what your narrative or analytical through-line for the course will be. For example, for the introduction to US history since 1865, I emphasize the relation between sectionalism and the growth of federal power.
But for lecture you can’t just do a piece of that analytical narrative every time – that would be monotonous. So to change pace and liven things up, you have certain stories you like to tell, even if they slow the insistent forward motion of survey lectures. You say, maybe, here’s a story that helps to illustrate the themes I’ve been laying out; something with a little finer grain to let us see how these issues play out in individual lives.
For example, I use the murder of William McKinley (not surprising, I suppose), the Warren Court and the Brown case; Robert F. Kennedy’s appearance in Indianapolis in 1968.
What are your favorite drop-in stories and why?