Thursday, July 31, 2003
History and writing. Kristine Brorson posted earlier this week about a Paul Ricoeur essay in which he links rhetoric and historiography. She writes, summarizing Ricoeur: "There will always be a movement between the explanation and the writing, back and forth, and this is the narrative form. The narrative form is both the way of explaining and of writing." I'd argue, I think (and I don't think I'm contradicting Kristine here), that this process of explaining and writing, is more than just a matter of narrative form, not just a way of presenting history, but also a way of discovering. I'm reminded of a historian I was once told about (if I ever knew who it was, I no longer remember) who said that he never knew his story until he was finished writing it. The process of doing history seems to me to be intertwined completely with storytelling.
Advertising. Brett Marston links to my question about the opposite meanings of table and moot and raises the stakes by offering a beer to the person who can provide an explaination. Since Brett's offer only applies to those in DC for the rest of the month, I'll extend the offer to those in Boston.
Brett also worries that I may think he's trying to steal my thunder. No worries: I'm just pleased that he's linking to my blog, thus potentially increasing my readership.
Hitting home. On my way to the T this morning, my way was blocked by cops and police wire. Apparently, I was told, a man was beaten to death with a large rock--this about three or four blocks from my apartment. So far, the AP at least isn't reporting any more than that. I don't quite know how to respond to something like this in my neighborhood. On one hand, just because someone was killed near me (assuming that's what happened) doesn't make me any less safe than I was two days ago. And in fact, I don't really feel any less safe. But it is my not feeling less safe that makes me feel a bit strange. After all, it seems as if someone was killed on a street I frequent; shouldn't that make me worry for my own safety?
UPDATE: The Boston Globe has a longer article about the murder.
Wednesday, July 30, 2003
Jack Kerouac and baseball. After nearly a year of living in Boston, I haven't managed to drag myself to a Red Sox game, despite the baseball mania that pervades this city. That should tell you something about how little I care about baseball. But the announcement that the Lowell Spinners are going to be handing out Jack Kerouac bobble-heads might get me to a ballgame afterall. (Except that it's essentially sold out.) What I particularly like about this story is the way that it combines every possible part of Lowell's history: the Spinners' name, of course, celebrates the heritage of textile mills in the city, Kerouac was born and educated in Lowell, and even the name of the stadium, LeLacheur Park, recognizes the Quebecois migration to New England milltowns.
Tuesday, July 29, 2003
Dean on labor. Thanks to a loyal reader and Howard Dean staffer, I note that Dean has finally posted on his website his labor policy. I've posted before about Dean's need to attract the labor movement to his candidacy if he's really going to succeed, so I'm glad to see that he's taken this first step.
Dean (or whoever wrote this document) knows the right things to say, certainly. He shows he understands the problem with corporate globalization: that it is the lack of labor unions abroad that makes globalization damaging. He notes two specific anti-worker measures by Bush--the repeal of ergonomics standards and the gutting of overtime protection--and promises to undo the damage. Then he lists five problems with current US labor law that he would fix, specifically listing the problems that unions often face while organizing, and he emphasizes card count arrangements, which is labor's current favorite tool to overcoming the inherent unfairness of the standard process.
So, Dean can talk the talk. But can he walk the walk? Will he be able to excite labor activists the way he's excited peace activists? And will he show up for important battles, like the upcoming Verizon strike?
Monday, July 28, 2003
Catholics and cooperatives -- but not in Nova Scotia. Sunday's Globe had a series of three hagiographic stories about the new archbishop of Boston, Sean O'Malley. The best of these was an article about the tenant organize O'Malley did while a priest in Washington. I'm not religious, so I have a hard time empathizing with people who are led by priests, but over and over again one sees the tremendous ability that priests have to unite and inspire their flock. Like any leadership, this can be used for ill, but it can also be used for tremendous good. Social Catholicism, while often tained with nasty anti-communism, has a remarkable record of encouraging unity and solidarity. O'Malley's story in DC is well worth reading.
Why I'm scared to go to Paris. Those of my readers who know me know I'm planning on going to France sometime this fall to live for a long time (six months, a year, depending on when I leave). Most of the time I'm terrified to do this. Why you ask? This is why--in this This American Life episode, David Sedaris explains why life in Paris, if you don't know French, is just daily humiliation, one after another. I've been trying to read some about Americans in Paris--not of the Hemingway kind, but of the people-like-me kind--and I get different views. Sedaris writes of how difficult everything is; Adam Gopnik depicts it as wonderful, but then, he knew French. But it's Sedaris' description of life in Paris on TAL that has set the tone and made me frightened.
News from Massachusetts. This is quite a story: eight years ago, Aaron Feuerstein became a hero to some after he refused to lay off any workers at Malden Mills after the building burned down. Now the company's bankrupt, and Feuerstein's about to lose control of the company unless he can raise $92 million. The AP (via the Boston Globe) has a nice story about it. Of course, it's not just about the old man who was nice to people eight years ago. If creditors take over the company, they'd likely shut down the Lawrence plan, further devistating the city, which is one of the poorest in the commonwealth and has a 14.2% unemployment rate.
This too, is quite a story, even if it's somewhat old news: A Massachusetts legislator circulated a flier telling the (untrue) story of General Pershing executing rebels in the Philippines with bullets soaked in pigs' blood, and suggesting that we ought to do the same in Iraq: "And for the next 42 years, there was not a single Muslim extremist attack anywhere in the world," the flier said. You won't be surprised to know that a rucus ensued, with civil rights and Muslim groups crying foul. Guy Glovis, the bigot in question, has refused to publicly apologize, nevermind resign. Sheesh. Articles here and here.
Friday, July 25, 2003
More about the British Empire and history. I realized that I didn't really adequately address Josh's post about my post about the British Empire. Josh is correct to point out that despite my protestations about indvidual agency, when writing about the ideology of empire I wrote a generalization about culture, an inherently groups phenomenon. I don't think Josh is right to call me Marxist (I prefer to think of myself as sort of post-Marxist). People see, interpret, and interact with the world in ways determined by the culture in which they live. Our response to external stimuli comes comes to some degree from what we have been taught by the culture around us. This is, I suppose, a somewhat structural view. But the point is that the culture doesn't just spring from nowhere, or from some scientifically predictable historical rule. It comes from people, who have contributed to culture for their own specific reasons.
Ok. Enough of this for now. I fear I'm beginning to bore people (although, in fact, I believe yesterday was a record-setting day for visitors).
Thursday, July 24, 2003
More on history. I've gotten some nice responses about my post on historical methodology. I respond to them at length here. This post is long and a bit rambling, so if you don't have time or patience I suggest skipping down to the last paragraph. A friend and reader writes in part:
I want to disagree with the idea that "people live their lives as stories." People most certainly don't. We TELL out lives as stories, we may even remember our lives as stories, but the full living of any life - the myriad details, the confusion, the many things going on at any one time - is so much beyond the the confines of any one or several stories. Stories are finite. Our lives are not.
I disagree and stand by my original assertion that people live their lives as stories. Lives are linear, with a beginning, middle, and end--as good a definition as a story as I can imagine. There may be multiple versions of the story of my life (for instance, there's my political development, my intellectual development, my emotional development, etc.) but the grand narrative of my life would take into account all of these, because they all happen in a specific, chronological order in which prior experiences alter my perception for present experiences. The grandest narrative would be sort of Borgesian: taking exactly as much time to tell as it takes to live, and containing all the detail of everything I do in my life.
This doesn't mean that all history should or must be microhistory (although I am, in fact, a big fan of the genre). A common problem is that microhistories focus on the different, on the unusual, since it is those stories that get preserved. Thus The Cheese and the Worms, while it describes the world of a early-modern Italian miller, is really describing a rather remarkably unsual miller, because other millers weren't hauled before the inquisition. The most masterful practioners, like Natalie Zemon Davis in her Return of Martin Guerre, get around this somewhat by drawing lessons from lots of different stories to try to describe what probably happened to a single person. But there is still only limited utility to telling a single person's story.
Josh Cherniss, in two posts also critiques my post by suggesting a tension he sees in my own writing about the British Empire. He writes first that history ought not only recreate the past but also explain and contextualize it. (Josh, channelling Berlin, actually uses a whole string of verbs to describe what historians do, but I think contextualize sums them all up.) Then, using my own post on the British Empire, he shows the tension between histories that examine only the indivdual and histories that examine only the structure.
Josh is completely correct to point to this tension, in history generally and in my own work. Broad, non-narrative histories are very important references for my research because they explain the world into which I'm delving, and they explain the milleau that my characters are living in. Collingwood writes in his autobiography of trying to place himself in Nelson's shoes, arguing that he can't understand Nelson's actions unless he has completely assimilated Nelson's worldview. One of the ways for a historian to do this is to take advantage of all the non-narrative histories that explain Nelson's world, things like (hypothetically) cultural and social histories of the British Navy, histories describing the schools that Nelson went to, etc. Non-narrative work is important, if for no other reason than to give narrative historians an understanding of the historical milleau.
However, where they often fall short is in suggesting that the world they describe happened for purely structural reasons. The human world is created by humans, and the conditions under which we live (and under which Nelson lived) exist because certain people made certain decisions in the past. That sentiment, which I left out of my earlier post, is I think at the core of my preferred method of history. To put it another way, things don't just happen of their own free will, they happen because of specific actions and decisions taken by people. Sometimes they're big actions and decisions, sometimes they're small actions and decisions; sometimes they're actions taken by major political players, and sometimes they're actions taken by the every-day people. Culture and society are created by masses of people, all of whom act for specific reasons. Ideally, we'd learn what all of those reasons were, and therefore we'd understand why culture and society were the way they were. Of course, that gets again into that Borgesian problem of the map being as big as the country it describes. (Ok, actually, I think that's an Eco essay, but it's still Borgesian.) The best we can do is try to approximate through aggregation and picking representatives why people acted the way they did.
As for the British Empire: millions of people participated in the British Empire, for in millions (or perhaps thousands) of different ways, and for millions of different reasons. On the lowest level, people had different motivations for joining the army or the colonial service or for migrating to the settler colonies: some wanted adventure, some wanted riches, some wanted glory, some wanted sex, some wanted power, some wanted to civilize the natives, some wanted to spread the word of God, some people wanted stability. For many people it was probably a combination of several of these things. Equally, different people had different reasons for directing colonial policy the way they did: some people, surely, were racists who wanted to subjugate brown-skinned people for the hell of it, some people wanted to uplift those people and teach them civilization, some people wanted to sell manufactured goods to them, some people (many of the same as the prior group) wanted cheap raw materials to turned into manufactured goods, some people wanted to spread the word of God, some people wanted to show up the French and the Germans. Again, for a lot of people it was probably a combination of these things. How these things intersected is one of the things I plan to devote my career to studying. But to say that there are all these personal motivations is not the suggest that they are the real reasons (and we know better now) and that the stated goal of civilizing the natives was merely cover. Everyone has their own ideology; there's a saw that goes "I have facts, you have opinions, he has ideology." To say that participants in the British Empire had an ideology of civilizing their colonial subjects doesn't really speak to their individual motivations. Rather, it speaks to the lens through which they saw and understood their own actions. Contrary to what Josh was suggesting, I'm staying that we don't know better than they, and that we have to assume that their stated ideology was honest.
My real interest in the theory of history isn't a matter of narrative or not narrative, or how much analysis there should be compared to how much story. In my mind, these are things that can determine how good a read a work of history is, how influential it becomes, and what it's audience is. But you can write good history that's not narrative, and you can write bad narrative history. My division is much more between structure and agency. They key in my mind is how you see change coming about. I think it's important for history to focus on individual agency, to remember that in any given time, the world is or was as it is or was because of specific decisions and actions people took.
A fun game with words that I like to play is to come up with words that are spelled and pronounced the same, yet have opposite meanings. For instance, you can sanction an action (ie approve of it) or you can put sanctions on a country (thus expressing your disapproval). These meanings are close to opposites, but not exactly. I think there are others of this ilk, but I can't think of them right now. To do better, we have to look at the difference between American English and other types (ie British or British Empire) of English.
Brett Marston recently pointed to a Hindustan Times article headlined "SC moots common civil code," reporting how the Indian Supreme Court recently raised the question of creating such a code. Similarly last night while reading How Right You Are, Jeeves, I came across a line in which Bertie asks his friend Kipper, "Well, shall I? the point is a very moot one"--by which he means relevant and in question. But in the United States the word moot has just the opposite meaning: a moot court is a game, and question is deemed moot when no longer relevant. Similarly, look at the word table: in Canadian (and therefore I presume British) usage, when an MP tables a bill, he or she is presenting it for consideration; in the US, when Congress votes to table a bill, it's deciding to stop considering it.
What possible accounts for this, particularly the exactly opposite meanings in the US for words used elsewhere? Does anyone have any idea?
Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Globalization. Brian Ulrich has a post about how we can go about raising wages (that is, decreasing poverty) around the world; he's responding to Amy Lamboley's discussion about Dick Gephardt's proposal of an "international minimum wage." Brian suggests that rather than legislating that countries impose labor and environmental protections, that we require that US companies operating abroad adhere to minimum standards regardless of the law in the countries in which they operate.
Brian's proposal has some logistical flaws. First, applicability: In an age in which companies can easily move their official headquarters off-shore to avoid taxes (see, for instance, the notorious examples of Tyco and StanleyWorks), why would any company stay incorporated in the US and remain subject to these regulations? Not only would this defeat the aim of the rules, but encouraging off-shore incorporations is bad for the US because it decreases tax revenue and things like SEC protections for investors. Also, most of the work that's done for US manufacturers abroad isn't actually done by US companies. Textile sweatshops, for instance, are almost only subcontracted out to smaller companies. A US multinational, for instance, will often contract with a subsidiary of a Taiwanese company doing business in El Salvador. How would a rule regulating standards for US companies apply in such a case? The second flaw is enforcement. How would the US enforce these rules abroad? Send Labor Department factory inspectors to Bangladesh? We can hardly manage do inspect our own plants domestically as it is. More likely, we'd require companies to report back on private inspections schemes. Essentially, PricewaterhouseCoopers or someone would contract with a US company to go and inspect their oversees subcontractors (this is the scheme proposed by the Fair Labor Association, a sham anti-sweatshop group backed by industry and the US government). But these private inspections are notoriously weak, since the factories often know to expect them, and they don't always know what to look for. And, like big accounting firms, they know who is paying the bills and don't like to antagonize the companies they work for. (Also, I'm fairly certain that Brian's plan would run afoul of the WTO, which would prohibit it as a non-tarrif barrier to trade.)
But the bigger problems with Brian's suggestion is philosophical. It's essentially saying, "We in the US know what's best for you, we know the appropriate wages, the appropriate conditions, the appropriate way you should be living and working. We're going to send in our experts to make sure you're doing it the way we think you should." Instead, we should be making sure that people working in plants that make our consumer goods have the ability to set their own standards. Workers shoudl be able to say, "this isn't enough to live on," or "these conditions are too dangerous" or whatever, and then have the legal right and practical ability to demand changes. This means ensuring that the companies that we admit into our trading clubs have to protect and foster unionization. Unions are how industrial abuses in this country are exposed, and they're how workers in this country drastically increased their standards of living. My proposal (among others on the globalization front) would be that countries that do not have legislation protecting independent and democratic labor unions don't get the benefits of free trade.
[On a note unrelated except in inspiration, Brian also has a post about IB Singer. I look forward to his comments on Satan in Gorey, having written about it myself--specifically, its descriptions of Jewish masculinity--a few years ago.]
Freeing Burma. The boys at OxBlog have been supporting a bill in Congress to impose strict sanctions on Burma, and have been criticizing those who support engagement, or whose who have simply been meek on the subject. UNITE agrees with them. Click here to read an action alert urging Fred's, Inc., to pull out of Burma.
Tuesday, July 22, 2003
Double trouble. Two of my favorite Yale alumni, Max Page and Eve Weinbaum, were quoted in the Times today, in an article about the political and economic buffetting being withstood by the University of Massachusetts. One of the problems UMass has is that its president is Billy Bulger, the former state senate president and brother of Whitey Bulger, a notorious mobster. Lots of people dislike Billy, because he ran the senate with an iron fist for something like 17 years, and now that there's controversy about whether or not he knows where his fugative brother is hiding, it's become a liability for UMass. The other article about the Bulgers in today's Times is an Editorial Observer piece by Brent Staples, in which he compares his experience with Billy Bulger's. Even if you don't care a wit about UMass or the Bulgers, it's worth reading Staples' piece.
Historical methodology. Rob will be pleased to hear, I think, that today I started slogging through Rogers Smith's Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History, which is well known for arguing that there are multiple traditions in American politics--especially (only?) a democratic, communitarian tradition; a liberal, republican vision; and an ascriptive illiberal tradition. As Smith sees it, these traditions are constantly battling it out in American politics, with different ones coming up on top at different times but, unfortunatly, the illiberal tendencies to be racist, patriarchal, and xenophobic often win out. (Yes, yes, I know this is a stunningly reductive summary of Smith's argument.) Smith says this can be most clearly seen in changing ideas about citizenship, so he went about systematically analyzing all the laws and court cases relating to citizenship in the 19th century. (I gather he plans on doing the same thing for the 20th century.) It's a tough book, both for the way it's written and for it's size (at x + 506 pages, as we say in the library world, plus another 202 pages of notes and index, it's a bit heavy, especially in library binding). But it's fascinating, and I think it may enlighten me some on the questions I was asking below about the similarities between the 1890s and 1950s.
Another reason that it's hard to read is that it's pretty straight legal history. The main sources are court decisions, legislation, and Congressional debates, with some secondary sources thrown in. Smith's focus on the law, I think, distorts some of his argument. Surely what makes up American political tradition is not just the high politics of courts and Congress. It's also what people are thinking and saying on the street. Karen Sawislak covers much the same ground in her book on post-Fire Chicago, but she does it from a much lower perspective, addressing how every-day Chicagoans disputed and defined the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Since Smith looks only at the law, he misses movements and conceptions of citizenship that never made it up that far--for instance, Albert Parson's use of Radical Republican rhetoric in his anarchism.
Which brings me, rather tangentially, to the title of this post, about historical methodology. At her new blog, Historiological Notes, Kristine Brorson has posted several times about the role of story-telling in history, both in the context of British newspaper criticisms that television history is too story driven, and in the context of what I gather is a Norweigian historiography textbook, Paul Knutsen's Analytisk Narrasjon. In her first post on Knutsen, she writes of his definition of history: "History is analytical narration, and by analytical narration he would like to emphasise three factors of historical writing. 1)analytical research, 2)narrative presentation, and 3)critical discussion with other historical works. This means that a historical text will always be somewhere between a theoretical text and a story, and will always be in the context of previous and future historiography."
Last year, as I was writing my senior thesis and taking several courses on historical methods, I thought about such things a lot, but I admit I haven't so much over the past year. I generally think that history should be about how people experience and perform the past, and that as such it should emphasize the agency of individuals. In my mind, this makes the story-telling feature of history imperative, because stories show the reader how a person acted, and how that action did or did not change their experience later on. People live their lives as stories, and I think it's important for historians to reflect that. Broad statistical histories, while sometimes inevitable, deprive the historical actors of their individuality and agency.
I'm glad I've discovered Kristine's blog, and I hope that her writing wil encourage me to think about this more. So expect similar musings later.
What's the worst possible crime? The grand jury report about the Boston archdiocese sex scandal won't come out until tomorrow, but by yesterday everyone already knew the most important thing it would contain, or rather not contain: neither Bernard Law nor any of the suffragan bishops will be criminally indicted. It won't surprise anyone that this disappoints many victims, who aren't satisfied with Law's resignation and want him to truly suffer.
This morning on WBUR, Delores Handy interviewed Paul Martinek, the editor of Lawyers' Weekly, USA, and asked him a series of questions about the statute of limitations, especially in light of the Supreme Court ruling striking down the California extension of time limits for sex abuse cases. Martinek got a bit huffy at Handy's suggestion that child sex abuse was so horrible that we should dispense with the statute of limitations, saying that it was a matter of basic fairness to allow the accused to defend themselves. He overstated his case a bit by saying that it was replacing the ethos of "Better to let ninety-nine guilty people go free than allow one innocent person be convicted" with "Better to let ninety-nine innocent people be convicted than allow one guilty person go free." While I'm as concerned with defendants' rights as the next leftist, I think it's more of a case of "Better to let an innoncent person or two be convicted than let ninety-nine guilty people go free." I'm against that, too, but it's more honest than what Martinke said.
The conversation with Martinek got me thinking about Bigger Thomas. Bigger, you may recall, was the protagonist of Native Son who is accused of raping and murdering a white woman when, in fact, all he did was murder her. For a black man like Bigger, the rape charge was the worse one--worse to have raped a white woman than to have murdered her. Murder, famously, is the crime that has no statute of limitations; nowadays we generally consider it the worst crime possible. Rape is a horrible, horrible crime, but I think that most of us agree that murder is worse. Rape victims can live a happy, productive life after their are attacked; murder victims, by definition, can't. The questions that Hayden was asking Martinek about ending the statute of limitations for child sex abuse made me think that perhaps we're going back to the time when sex crimes were considered worse than murder.
I think this reflects the pecularly American fear of sex. We're famous for allowing depictions of tremendous violence on the TV but cringing and hiding the children when it comes to sex, in seeming contrast to the European way, which is the opposite.
Three cheers for Boston College and MIT. Both schools have decided to fight the RIAA's demands that they identify students who use file-sharing programs. The Boston Globe reports that the universities argue that under the Buckley Amendment, they are required to notify students before passing on personal information to third parties.
Monday, July 21, 2003
Free speech on airplanes. Via Declan McCullagh, here is a story about John Gilmore, a man who was prevented from flying because he wore a pin that said "Suspected Terrorist"--a political statement. (Link thanks to Larry Lessig.) I'm pretty sympathetic to his argument about showing identification to fly, because I'm at a loss to understand how establish identity establishes motive, nevermind the assumption that showing a driver's license actually establishes the identiy of someone who wants to fool the system. Proving to the person checking me into the flight that I'm Jacob Remes doesn't prove one way or the other whether I'm a terrorist (in general) or a terrorist (specifically planning a terrorist act on that flight). Thus the rest of us (that is, the non-terrorists) submit to a loss of privacy for no apparent benefit.
John Gilmore says that he doesn't object to passports, I guess because he thinks that governments regulating the flow of people in and out of themselves is a legitimate use of identity. (Although, theoretically, we could have passports that identify our citizenship without establishing our personal identities.) My understanding is that passports only became widespread around World War I. The expansion of the state around that era is remarkable, and the project of establishing everyone's identity and nationality seems intimately tied to the Progressive projects of ordering society scientifically. I wonder what future generations will think about the expansions of the state in response to terrorism.
[Note: the fact that this seems to be ID-day here on Waldheim is entirely unintentional. That this is the second posting recently to talk about the Progressives is also unintentional, although less surprising, since they're something I think about most days. Also, having successfully gotten myself listed on Crooked Timber's blogroll as a history blog (hurrah!), I'm trying to redirect the focus onto more historical subjects.]
Just say no to Alan Dershowitz? A political controversy (the CBC terms it a brouhaha) has erupted on Parliament Hill over the government's decision to invite Alan Dershowitz to lead a forum on whether Canada should use biometrics in creating a potential national ID. Critics from both the left and the right say that because Dershowitz is on record supporting biometrics, hiring him to lead the forum is unfair political interference.
Sunday, July 20, 2003
What's up with the 1890s and the 1950s and what does that have to do with the 2000s? The Times today reprinted excerpts from the historians' amicus brief in Lawrence v. Texas. One of the key arguments is that the discrimination against and persecution of homosexuals is not an ancient thing, but rather was stepped up in two discreet eras in American history, the end of the 19th century and the 1950s. This got me thinking about other things that happened in those eras. (Before I get started, I should make clear two things. First, what I'm about to write is completely speculative. While I've discussed the literature on the rise of the post-war right with various people, and I'm generally familiar with the historiography, I haven't read the key works myself; similarly, while I'm currently researching the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era for two different projects, the racial reaction of that period is not my specialty. This post is very much thinking out loud. Second, I haven't actually read the full historians' brief, just the excerpt in the Times. The full brief, available here as a pdf, is 46 pages long, and I may read through it later and revise or add to what I'm about to write. Interestingly, I didn't know it at the time, but the person with whom I've most recently talked about the rise of the conservative movement with is one of the historians who signed the brief.)
The historians write, "the number of sodomy prosecutions increased sharply in the last two decades of the 19th century." They link this increase to the rise of the anti-vice movement in which reformers "impose[d] their vision of the proper social order and sexual morality" through increasing state intervention. Persecution of gays then increased again in the Depression, and then especially in the 1950s. Joseph McCarthy demanded an investigation of gays in the State Department; in 1953 Eisenhower ordered the firing of all homosexuals employed by the federal government; "In the District of Columbia [arrests during raids of gay bars and parties] topped 1,000 per year during the early 1950's; in Philadelphia, misdemeanor charges against lesbians and homosexuals averaged 100 per month."
This got me thinking about what else was happeing in the 1890s and the 1950s. The 1890s are famously a period of reaction in the south about race. It was when blacks lost their right to vote in many places, it was when segregation was reimposed, and when the Jim Crow era began. In the north, the same reform movement that worked to impose sexual rules also worked to "Americanize" new immigrants, essentially forcing newcomers to trade their ethnicity for the rights of American citizenship and, under the guise of muncipal reform, wrest control of cities from immigrants. The 1950s we're more familiar with, but let's recall the remarkable reaction embodied in the insertion of "under God" into the pledge of allegiance, the imposition of the Confederate flag onto many southern state flags, and, of course, McCarthyism and all it entailed. But these were also periods of remarkable progress. The Progressives and the reformers who preceeded them, for all their faults, were still progressive, and they worked for a minimum wage, for the improvement of slums, for the regulation of trusts and pure food. The '50s , too, saw a lot of progress. Industrial workers became middle class. Children were given significantly more freedom, which then blossomed into the '60s. We got the beginnings of the Civil Rights Movement. Fascinating parallels, I think.
So what links the '90s and the '50s? Among other things, I think we see a response to great changes in what was perceived as traditional, Anglo society, and there was the perception (real or imagined) that there was a dangerous threat to the well being of the United States that was coming, potentially from inside our own ranks. The 1880s saw tremendous immigration and a remarkable demographic shift as Catholic and Jewish immigrants arrived in the US. In the south, there was an increased need to deal with the threat caused by free blacks, of whom there was a new generation coming of age who were for the first time born free. In the 1950s, there was the response to the internal migration of the '20s and '30s--blacks coming north, Oakies and others moving to California--and the social upheval caused by World War II, in which people from different regions, classes, and ethnicities met each other often for the first time.
As for the threat: in the 1890s, there was tremendous fear of labor uphevals and, particularly anarchism. In 1886, the time with which I'm most familiar, the rich were truly worried that there might be a bloody revolution in this country. After Haymarket, not only were seven innocent men killed for being anarchists, but there was a concerted effort to destroy the anarchist movement in the United States. In the 1890s, people remained terrified of anarchist terrorists, a fear that only grew after an anarchist assasinated McKinley in 1901. The 1950s, of course, had communism. It shouldn't come as a surprise that McCarthy was going after gays in the State Department. It's important to remember that perhaps the most lasting legacy of McCarthyism is that it prevented interracial organizing and thus delayed the civil rights movement for 10 years and forever stunted the labor movement. Again, I've not read the scholarship, but there's an interesting body of work describing how the far right of '50s and '60s moved from being merely anti-communist to being anti-civil rights and anti-"counterculture"--that is, how the right managed to be both libertarian when it came to economics but authoritarian when it came to anything social. (Race, as ever in this country, plays a big role in this.)
So what does that mean for now? I'm not sure. But how's this for starters. There's a widespread fear of a threat to the country's government and way of life, and in particular a fear that that danger may already lie among us in the form of Muslim immigrants or non-immigrant aliens. There's the reaction to a remarkable shift in demographics since 1964, and to the results of the civil rights movement, both for blacks and for others who followed (the '70s women's movement, the '80s and '90s disabilities movement, etc.). I don't think that means that we're about to start living in the 1890s or 1950s again. I don't really know what any of this means. But while historical analogies are often dangerous, historical parallels are often interesting and instructive.
Democracy and the British Empire. David Adesnik is once again sounding the Iraq Is Not Vietnam trumpet over at Oxblog. Debatable, perhaps, but the vehicle he uses today is a bit unfair. In the Week in Review section, John Kifner presents a cautionary tale from the British occupation of Iraq after World War I. David accuses him of bringing up the Vietnam specter by mentioning the horrific British bombing of Iraq after a rebellion; I'm honestly not sure where David gets this from, since Vietnam is neither mentioned nor, in my reading, alluded to in the article. That said, like many such newspaper articles claiming or implying a historical parallel, I think that Kifner's is rather reductionist and a bit unfair to the British.
But not as unfair as David is, who writes: "The most glaring oversight in the NYT essay is its willful blindness on the question of democratization." He's right, but not in the direction he suggests. A cornerstone of the "liberal" imperialism of the late 19th and early 20th century was that the Empire was, in fact, teaching democracy to people who didn't yet have it. In theory, all of Britain's colonies were on their way to responsible self-government; all that was needed were some lessons in how to do it. If the white settlement colonies reached dominion status before other colonies, well, that was probably because of the Teutonic gene for good government. But even for darker-skinned colonies, the British imagined they were only there temporarily and unwillingly, imposing order until the natives could do it themselves. I say "imagined" because it isn't really true--the British were there to create markets for their products, to get cheap cotton for their mills, to retain dominance in Europe, to provide an outlet for British population growth and political struggles, and for a host of other reasons. But it's important to remember that Britons, like most people, believed their in their own ideology. Many imperialists really and truly thought that the Empire was a millstone around the country's neck, acquired in a fit of absent-mindedness, to be retained only as long as was needed. If the world kept calling on them to maintain order abroad, well, they would just have to take on more colonies. It hurts us more than it hurts you. On Iraq in particular, acquired at the very end of Britain's imperial dominance, it's important to remember that Mesopotamia wasn't in fact a colony. It was a League of Nations Mandate. While in practice this didn't make much difference, in ideology the distinction is key. Mandates were specifically created by the League after World War I so that the victors could move backwards countries, always previously ruled by someone else, into responsible self-government.
We hear a lot of the same ideology from Americans now. We're only being the world's policeman because no one else will do it. We don't want to occupy Iraq or Afghanistan, but we have to in order to maintain geopolitical stability. We have to teach these backwards people--who have never had democracy before--how to have responsible government, even if in the meantime that means government by decree or by indirect rule through compliant natives. Do we mean all these things? Maybe. But so did the British, and we know where that led them.
Immigration narratives. AP reporter David Crary writes here (at CNN; I found the article, I'm a bit embarassed to admit, because it popped up on AOL when I logged on) about Americans who are deciding to move to Canada because they deem it to be more liberal and welcoming that the US. It's a bit of a silly article, I admit, and it repeats many of the same themes as the Post article I linked to 20 days ago. What I find compelling about it thought is that the language used my these emigrants echoes rather remarkably the stereotyped language used by immigrants to the US, both in the wave of immigration from 1880 to 1923 and the current, post-1964 wave.
One man, whose gay partner's student visa to the US is expiring, is immigrating so that he and his partner can stay together. "It's a challenge, it's scary," he said. "We'll have to drop everything we know here, go up there and figure it out." Another emigrant, identified as a life-long southerner, worries about how cold it will be in his new country. Sounds just like excited, worried, and hopeful immigrants of generations past.
Race and the police. For many years, we've heard about "driving while black"--the phenomenon of blacks being pulled over more often than whites and then, having been pulled over, searched more often. It's humiliating and it points to basic bias within police departments. Today's Boston Globe, in a disturbing but important article, goes another step. In Massachusetts, the Globe finds, once speeders are pulled over, they're more likely to be let off with a warning if they're white, or if they're older, or if they're young women. None of this is particularly surprising, but it's still disturbing to see it documented. This isn't just an intangible issue of respect and humiliation; there's an economic component. Massachusetts speeding tickets start at $100 and go up from there, and then there's the added cost of insurance. The article compares the phenomenon, not unfairly, to subtle employment, housing, and loan discrimination. The article is very long, so here are some highlights:
- Latino and black men are more likely to be ticketed than white men or women of any race. Minority women are more likely to be ticketed than white men. Whites and women get even fewer tickets in suburbs and small towns.
- White drivers get fewer tickets in their home towns, but black drivers don't.
- Older drivers don't get ticketed as much, especially whites.
- Young women get warnings, but women's advantage disappears as they get older.
- These differences hold no matter how egregious the offence, and they hold for other (non-speeding) moving violations.
- All these things are only true for local police--state police give more tickets, and they do it more fairly.
- Minority police officers have a greater disparity in their treatment of minority drivers than do white officers.
UPDATE: Brett Marston has a more indepth discussion of the Gobe study.
Friday, July 18, 2003
Corporate non-profits. YaleInsider issued a report yesterday accusing Yale University trustees and investment committee members of having conflicts of interest between their duties to Yale and their own wallets. (See coverage in the San Jose Mercury News and the New Haven Register; links from the YaleInsider blog, which for some reason doesn't have permalinks, but you can scroll down to July 17.) With the exception of the sections on Chengwei and Golden Gate Capital, I think that the report overstates its case a bit. But it does raise interesting questions about the whether big, rich non-profits had the same sort of ethical lapses in the 90s boom as did big, rich corporations. A Harvard fellow had to resign in the wake of Enron, and a group called HarvardWatch continues to shine light on Harvard's entanglements with corporate wrong-doers. This isn't just a question of having a particular malfesant on your board--in cases like Dede Brooks, the auction price-fixing Yale fellow, the offending trustee can simply resign quietly. This report, if taken at face value, points to a basic corruption of the system, in which members of the Yale Corporation are using their positions there to personally enrich themselves. If that's true, I admit that I've been wrong for the past five years about the way Yale operates. I've assumed--in the face of criticism from many friends--that those who run Yale really do want to run the best university they can, really are serving for selfless motives, even if the decisions they make are different from the ones I'd make, their their vision fo the "best university" is profoundly different from my own. Personal corruption--even the appearance of possible corruption--casts and entirely different light on the university.
Thursday, July 17, 2003
Spain remembers. Spain has a reputation for having tried to forget the Franco dictatorship once it passed. The Times arts section today has an article covering a new exhibit at the Prado about rescuing Spanish art from fascist bombs and marauding anti-fascists. Does this signal a shift in the way that Spain deals with its past?
In another section of the Times that my (potential) readers probably don't read, Circuits, there's an interesting article about new technologies being pioneered in Germany about recreating shredded documents. Worth reading.
Wednesday, July 16, 2003
David Adesnik writes a response to rising French anti-Semitism, which, while I think somewhat flawed, is worth reading. One thing stuck out in my reading. David writes that should such attacks happen in the US, "Hundreds of thousands of Jews would march on the Capitol and demand an end to anti-Semitism and all other forms of primitive racism." I wonder on what basis he makes the second half of that claim, that Jews would march to end "all other forms of primitive racism." (Also, what, exactly, is non-primitive racism?) Jews have played a very honorable role in social justice and civil rights movements in the past, but I fear that the organized Jewish community has, in at least the last 10 years, and perhaps the past 20 or even 30, turned very inward. In particular, Jewish groups responding to Jewish issues, or perceived Jewish issues like Israel, have become very insular. I'm not as sure as David is a protest against anti-semitism would at all protest other racisms.
Brilliant radio. Today was a slow posting day because (a) I actually had work that kept me busy and pretty much off the computer, and (b) I spent the day listening to This American Life back episodes. They're not really very easy to blog about, because they're only on line as entire shows, which is something like saying "There's a good article in Newsweek, here's a link to the entire issue, and you can't read the back page until you've read the entire thing." But each episode is only an hour, and they really are some of the best radio you can find anywhere. If you spend all day at a computer, or if you blog for hours at a time, I highly suggest you go to the archives page and listen to them as you pass the time. It will enhance any day. Some highlights from the few I listened to today.
This week's episode, as previously described, was a bunch of very short stories. In addition to the one about babysitting that I described already, there were some humerous gems, like a David Sedaris piece about whether it's appropriate to talk to people on the phone while sitting on the can. But the two most interesting ones weren't particuarly funny. One was by a boy in juvenile detention who heard that people were tampering with the food--for instance, that someone had peed in the pudding, or that there were shards of glass in the pancakes. He went to ask officials about this, and rather than just saying "No, that's not true, everything's fine, and here's why," they attacked him, accusing him of starting a riot, of being inappropriate and uppity, of violating discipline. Because the piece is from his (the kid's) point of view, it's not a story about how discipline is maintained in juvi, but rather the way that juvi tries, systematically, to beat the humanity out of detainees. It reminded me of nothing as much as Frederick Wiseman's classic 1968 documentary "High School", in which the teachers and administrators destroy any shred of creativity, personality, and spunk in their students. The other piece that caught my ear was Ira Glass's story about a hot dog factory that moved to a new, modern factory across town in Chicago, and when they got there discovered that the hot dogs just weren't as good as when they came from the old factory. No one could figure out why--was it the water in the new part of town? was it some contamination? In fact, they realized that it was because the new factory was too efficient: in the old plant, a man had carried all the product from one end of the factory to the other in a bizarrely irrational and inefficient system; when they rebuilt, they naturally cut out that trek. But lo and behold, the trek was actually important, so they had to build an extra room onto the new factory to simulate the old trek. In the TAL piece, Ira I think misses the point. He provides the moral of "sometimes you don't know where your success comes from." I've become something of a hedgehog (seeing only one big thing), but I see this as an example of a common problem with modernization and rationalization. The irrational, sometimes premodern, way of doing things is often better--better for the people doing them (think of how taylorization in factories), better for the environment, better for the product. One of my favorite examples of this comes from John Kenneth Galbraith's memior The Scotch, in which he describes the process of making maple syrup. In the old way, the syrup is boiled in an open vat, and lots of stuff--dirt, leaves, bugs, mice, mouse poop, whatever's around--falls in and boils with the sap. In a fit of modern hygiene and demand for purity, people started covering up the vats, so that soon they were only boiling pure maple sap. You won't be surprised to know that the new product was far inferior.
Another fabulous story came from the episode "Lost in Translation" (listen here). This was a story by Nancy Updike, in which she describes a private TV station in Bethlehem, on which there is a unusual show: translations of Israeli newscasts into Arabic. After suicide bombings, when Israeli TV becomes all-news, so does this station, becoming all Israeli news. The man who does this, the hero of the piece, learned Hebrew when he was in jail, like many men his age, during the first intifada. He told the story of a time he was in a hospital after being shot by Israeli soldiers and met a young Israeli man. The Israeli, learning that he was not a terrorist, apologized over and over again for his country's shooting him, and the mother of the Israeli essentially adopted the Palestinian, because the Palestian's parents couldn't come see him. He and this Israeli understood each other personally because they were able to communicate. His (the Palestinian's) children, on the other hand, know no Israelis, other than the soldiers at whom they throw rocks. They are entirely cut off from the Other, and so that Other becomes worse and worse in each day's imagination. He now wants to spread his understanding to others, which is why he does the TV show. He, like Updike, is concerned that Palestinians and Isrealis are two solitudes, unaware of each other, unaware of each other's myths, pain, and ideologies, and he's trying to help that, in his own small way. The story itself is very moving, but it leads to something that I think many of my (potential) readers will be uncomfortable with. The liberal orthodoxy right now, at least among Americans, seems to be advocating a two-state solution, that is, the Israeli's get their land and the Palestinians get theirs, presumably based something on the pre-67 boarders. But separating people rarely leads to peace (look at Pakistan and India). What seems to end emnity is being together, knowing each other, building ties of civil society. This means sending children to school together, living in the same neighborhoods together, that sort of thing. And while that might not happen ever, it certainly isn't going to happen if there's a two-state solution. It won't come be any surprise to my regular readers that I favor a one-state solution on a model of post-apartheid South Africa. I usually make argue that based on fairness. But here's an argument based on a lasting peace. [By the way, I apologize that the star of this piece is only referred to in this post as "the Palestinian" or "him" or somesuch. I simply can't remember his name and don't feel like listening to the radio show again to find out.]
Finally, in the show "I'm In Charge Now," Adam Davidson, who is serving as Marketplace's correspondent in Iraq, reported on the simple problems of communication between the American occupiers and Iraqis. (RealAudio here.) I'm not going to summarize the piece, but I do urge you to listen to it. By taking the perspective of every-day Iraqis--someone whose car was stolen, for instance, or teachers who want to complain that the new principal of their school is no good--Davidson demonstrates how the US occupiers are failing, very simply, to win the hearts and minds of Iraqis, and how are managing to turn against them even those who detested the Hussein government. Davidson isn't, or doesn't sound, anti-war, and he isn't using the typical anti-war rhetoric of civilians killed. It's simply a story of how difficult it is to live in Iraq right now, and how the US isn't making it any easier.
Tuesday, July 15, 2003
Tell your senator to save the 40-hour week I wrote a while ago about the attempt of the Bush administration to dismantle the overtime pay system in the United States. There's an attempt in Congress to undo the damage caused by the new Labor Department regulations. I reworked that post slightly (I thought it was one of my better posts, if I say so myself) and sent it today to my senators as part of a campaign by Jobs with Justice. I urge all my readers to do the same. You can send a message from this page, or do it yourself.
UPDATE: By the way, were I a labor union (or, to be more accurate, a decison-maker in a labor union) that has not yet endorsed a candidate, I'd be looking hard at how Democratic candidates dealt with this issue and with the upcoming strike at Verizon. And were I a candidate, I'd be begging CWA and IBEW (the two unions involved at Verizon) to let me help in any way I could, and I'd be out picketing the very first day the strikers are.
Monday, July 14, 2003
And speaking of nostalgia. Eric Tam got locked out of his New Haven apartment the other day. Although when I was in New Haven there were always enough people nearby that I never had to worry about getting locked out for the night, it still made me miss the city like crazy. This probably spells good things for Josh, since if it keeps up I'll probably go and visit, even if he does insist on continually trying to pick blog fights.
If you missed All Things Considered tonight, fire up Real Player and listen to Hank Rosenfeld's commentary Weingarten's Girlfriend. Radio by far is my favorite medium for most genres, and this piece, while not brilliant in the This American Life documentary way, really shows the strength of radio to tell stories. The story itself evoked a sort of summer nostalgia that reminded me of the time of summer evening about half an hour before the sun sets, when buildings glow pink.
While we're on the subject of radio, This American Life last week advertised itself as 30 Acts in 60 Minutes (although I think they actually only got through 16 acts or so). The real audio isn't up yet, but when it is, later this week, be sure to check it out. My favorite (and I'll try to link to it later) was a story about how women (because they babysat as girls) know that babysitters are allowed and expected to take food from the family refrigerator, and guys don't. I can't retell the story with dissolving into giggles.
Terrorism in New York. Burried in the Times Metro section this morning is a story about Farmingville, Long Island, where xenophobic vigilantes are terrorizing new immigrants, including, most recently, by firebombing a house. Scary indeed.
MORE, LATER: I'm not sure how to analyze what's happening in Farmingville. Surely day laborers who are being attacked aren't taking the jobs of the anti-immigrant vigilantes, so it can't be a matter of actually fearing for their jobs. Is it racism? Classism? A fear that having all these Latino workers in their town will lower their property values? What would the vigilantes themselves say?
Technical truth. The Times reports this morning that the administration is shifting its defense about lying in the State of the Union to saying that the claim (that the "British have learned...") was accurate. On Saturday, Brian Weatherson on Crooked Timber presciently argued that to say that the British learned something that was untrue is at best meaningless and at worst a falsehood and in any case certainly not technically true. In the comments, a reader aids by distinguishing between two meanings of to learn--meaning "to be taught" and "to discover." Thus one can say, "Tony Blair learned that the earth is flat," even though the earth isn't flat, because the PM was taught it by ignorant or malicious teachers. But to say "Tony Blair has learned that the earth is flat" is meaningless, since one can't discover a falsehood.
Bill Clinton got in a lot of trouble for giving an answer that depended on what the meaning of "is" was. Not only is this a matter (war) of much greater importance, but where Clinton's parsing actually made some sense in context (he was confirming the tense of the question), Bush's statement was simply a way to cover a lie.
Saturday, July 12, 2003
Guess who still likes Pat Robertson? Dan Drezner quotes a Washington Post article that reports that Pat Robertson's extraordinarily bad judgment in foreign policy (hailing Charles Taylor, for instance, or suggesting that Muslims were worse than Nazis) has made him even a pariah within the evangelical Christian community. So who still likes him? Apparently, Zionist Jews. Jewish Women Watching (one of my favorite groups) reminds us, just a year ago the Zionist Organization of America granted Robertson the "State of Israel Friendship Award." And apparently he's still being invited to speak at synagogues. What is they say about strange bedfellows?
Speaking of the Democratic primary. The major machinists' union, the IAM, voted to endorse Gephardt, making them the sixth union to endorse him, although they're the biggest so far. (Link via LabourStart.) I admit that I expected IAM (in particular) to hold for a bit, because I knew they were looking somewhat seriously at Dean (who, indeed, was the only other candidate to be considered). I'm a bit irritated at the IAM for two reasons. First, by endorsing so early, they're weakening the general labor endorsement, which will be stronger if it comes later and unified. Rather than endorse somone eight months before the first primary, better to wait a bit and see who remains viable. The second reason is that I think the IAM is wasting its endorsement, because I don't think that Gephardt is viable, given his poor fundraising and, worse, his dismal electoral track-record. In a parliamentary system, the opposition power would have sent Gephardt (playing the role of Opposition Leader jointly with Daschle) packing after the dismal failure of the 2002 election--not let him run for president! As I've argued before, I'd like to see labor form an electoral version of the Teamsters and Turtles coaltion and unite behind Dean. The IAM's premature nomination makes that just that much more difficult.
This Democratic primary season is unlike anything we've seen before. I think it's worth remembering as we read (and in some of our cases, start writing) pieces analyzing and predicting that there hasn't been a contested primary in either party since 1992. Since then a lot has changed: remember that in 1992 the internet was being used by a bunch of engineers and scientists; no one could remember when the House of Representatives wasn't controlled by the Democrats; there was still soft money; and, of course, there hadn't been September 11. I don't know what all these things necessarily mean, but the point is that things have changed a lot.
How history is done. Coverage and discussion of the newly-discovered Truman diary has focused on an entry in which he disparages Jews and another one in which he suggested that Eisenhower run for president as a Democrat in 1948. For more remarkable in my mind is that this is a newly-discovered Truman diary. The Washington Post says that the book had a misleading title "The Real Estate Board of New York, Inc., Diary and Manual 1947," and that there were 160 pages preprinted about the board. Apparently the diary sat on the shelf since 1965 and no one ever bothered to look at it until an archivist happened to notice Truman's writing. Seems like a great story of how history is done and about the serendipity of archival research.
Friday, July 11, 2003
James Joyce and farting. I promise that I won't keep posting links to Dan Savage. The theme of this blog is not history, politics, and sex. (Although, had I my druthers, that would probably be the theme of my life.) But this week's column is just too good to be passed up. Here is a letter from James Joyce to "[his] sweet little whorish Nora":
"You had an arse full of farts that night, darling, and I fucked them out of you, big fat fellows, long windy ones, quick little merry cracks and a lot of tiny little naughty farties ending in a long gush from your hole. It is wonderful to fuck a farting woman when every fuck drives one out of her. I think I would know Nora's fart anywhere. I think I could pick hers out in a roomful of farting women. It is a rather girlish noise not like the wet windy fart which I imagine fat wives have. It is sudden and dry and dirty like what a bold girl would let off in fun in a school dormitory at night. I hope Nora will let off no end of her farts in my face so that I may know their smell also."
More cooperative enterprise! No sooner had I had I lauded a reported trend of workers' cooperatives taking over bankrupt factories in Argentina, but I see a Times article (on Wednesday) about a similar thing right in New York. Seems surviving staffers of Windows on the World are starting a new restaurant in TriBeCa as a tribute to their coworkers killed on September 11. What makes this restaurant exciting, rather than maudlin, is that it's run as a cooperative, in which the workers make the decisions and share in the profits. This recognizes the knowledge that all workers have of their industry, and, of course, the idea that workers should share in the profit they produce. (As an aside, this venture is being helped along by the union that represented workers at Windows on the World, HERE, which for complex reasons I still think of as "my union.") This AP article says the workers are also "trying to improve general working conditions in restaurants," but is a little hazy on just how.
Dean and Liberia. David Adesnik claims that Ryan Booth "dismantles Howard Dean's comments on Liberia." (Booth's permalinks don't seem to be working, but scroll down to Thursday, July 3.) (Booth cites this AP article.) I beg to differ. I'll ignore Booth's suggestion that we liberals want to "turn the US into a province of a UN world government," becuase if I tell anyone of our secret plans they're going to confiscate my keys to the black heliocopter. The more serious suggestion is that the invasion of Iraq was to prevent an imminent danger, either to the United States, the region, or Iraq's people. The question of whether Iraq was a danger to the US is being resolved, I think, by the continued failure of anyone to find any proof that there were any dangerous weapons. (Even if they're hidden, by the way, how was Hussein a threat to us if, when attacked, he hid his weapons? If he were really interested in killing Americans, wouldn't he have used these weapons to kill them when they came and knocked on his door?) I'd argue that the Baathist regime in Iraq was less a threat to stability in the region than American policy toward the regime was--the hatred of sanctions against Iraq was what was driving anti-US sentiment as relates to Iraq. In contrast, the Liberian civil war directly threatens the stability of West Africa, as we've already seen in Sierra Leone. (Remember that Taylor has been indicted for war crimes in Sierra Leone, not in Liberia.) Finally, we have the question of whether Hussein posed an imminent threat to his people in the manner that continued civil war in Liberia does. Booth seems to make three specific allegations about Hussein's threat to his own people. First there's the mistreatment of his opponents, which is indisputable, but hardly on the level of a civil war. Second there's the use of the Iraqi Olympic Committee to torture people, again deplorable, not a civil war. And finally there's genocide, which of course does rise above a mere civil war. But--and here's what hawks seem to forget--our invasion of Iraq didn't stop any genocide. This wasn't the bombing of the tracks to Auschwitz. It's arguable that we should depose and try people who have in the past committed genocide, but that's a very different proposition than saying that we're going in to stop it now. Let's stop mixing up the two things. Punishing past genocide and stopping current civil war aren't comperable as military objectives.
Now, I'm very ambivalent about Liberia, and as loathe as I am to admit it, I think that the hints we're getting from the administration that we're going to support a West African peacekeeping force are on the right track. I don't like the idea of former colonial powers sending in troops whenever the natives get restless. (And yes, I know that the United States isn't technically Liberia's former colonial power, but the point stands.) Far better for regions to police themselves with the support of outside powers.
Addition to the blogroll. Many people have commented already about the debut of Crooked Timber. Given that few people who are reading this blog are unaware of Crooked Timber, I presume, I don't announce it here but rather exclaim over how much fun it is to read. It's going on my blogroll. As an aside, I am more than a little jealous that Josh is on Crooked Timber's blogroll. One day, perhaps...
"In every tragedy, there is something of the rediculous." So said Phil Ochs before launching into Talking Birmingham Jam. Linking to Get Your War On isn't particularly novel or original, but having followed the link from hahahaiammrsparklehahaha today, I happened upon the most recent page of strips, which are all knock knock jokes. For instance, "Knock knock" "Who's there?" "Afganistan" "Who?"
UPDATE: I'm listening now to the album I got the Phil Ochs quote from (Live at Newport), and I see I misquoted him. The actual line is: "Well, I think whenver there's a deep tragedy, there's also present something of the rediculous." Sorry, Phil.
Monarchism and Stalinism Josh Cherniss devotes three posts (1 2 3, although that might be in backwards order--I can't tell from Josh's blog) to criticizing me for being inconsistant in my worry that the "solidarity" movement in for Iranian democracy in this country is stocked with monarchists, but being perfectly willing to participate in the (supposedly) ANSWER-dominated anti-war movement. I have several answers, some of them matters of fact and some of them matters of philosophy. To get facts of out the way: in fact, counter to Josh's assertion, I did not attend any ANSWER-organized anti-war rallies, and while some of the reason for that was that I was busy or in the wrong city, a lot of it had to do with my discomfort with ANSWER. Second, I'm not refusing to participate in any work around Iranian democracy; indeed, had there been an action in Boston I may very well have attended, assuming that I didn't have work to do. I was just trying to raise questiosn about movements and movement building, particularly given that the crowd of Americans in the blogosphere who are pushing participation seem woefully naive about international solidarity movements.
But more substantively, there are serious questions that Josh raises about the difference between the monarchists and ANSWER. The first, and easiest difference is that while ANSWER and I had were working toward the same goals in the anti-war movement (end the war), monarchists and democracy advocates aren't working toward the same goal at all. One wants to replace one repressive dictatorship with another; the other group wants to replace a repressive dictatorship with democracy. I'm not convinced that the latter should be working at all with the former.
The heart of the matter, though, is what I think is a fundamental misunderstanding of the anti-war movement by Josh. Simply put, ANSWER did not dominate it. Had he attended any anti-war rallies or read any of the long (and somewhat boring) arguments on Indymedia, he would have known that. An example from a day-after rally I went to: ANSWER showed up with their sound system truck and tried to turn the action into one of their speech-a-thons. The majority of people there simply turned their backs and went on with their own rally. Later (or maybe this was a different action--I went to lots that week) as the ANSWER people were shouting their chants, the rest of the crowd drowned them out with our own. Indymedia was full of posts and counterposts about how to deal with ANSWER and prevent them from taking over the movement--or, sometimes, how to prevent them from taking over specific actions. This isn't particularly surprising, since the emnity between anarchists and Communists goes back to Marx throwing Bakunin out of the First International, but it's also not surprising given that the contemporary left in this country is constantly (and sometimes paralyizingly) reflective about their own organizations and their own style. We have a lot of experience examining ourselves about our tactics and our allies and how we're making sure that we're travelling with the people on whose behalf we're working.
Among other things, my fear is that the Americans getting involved in the Iranian democracy movement in the west have neither that inclination or that experience. I hope I'm wrong, and I hope that the movement really is for democracy, not the Shah.
UPDATE: In his search for inconsistancy, Josh also points to my participation supporting unions with whom I have personal differences. First, I say that disputes I have with leadership of a particular union is hardly of the same scale as the ideological differences between a democrat and a monarchist. Second, the answer is similar to the one about the anti-war movement. Supports of labor unions--particularly students, who are always wrapped up in a lot of theory--worry constantly about whether supporting union leadership is truly doing the best for the rank and file. That's one reason (but only one of several) that you see so much more solidarity work for progressive (read democratic) unions than for non-democratic unions--we have a better chance that working with leadership really is doing best by the rank and file.
Thursday, July 10, 2003
Democracy or monarchism?Gene Vilensky posts a description of the protest in New York in solidarity with democracy protests in Iran. He describes the heavily monarchist tilt of the crowd. Similarly, an article a while ago--I no longer remember when or where--described the satellite television stations that encouraged the protests in Iran last month as monarchist. While I certainly favor democracy in Iran, I have a hard time supporting any movement to bring back the Shah, who was certainly no friend to democracy or human rights. While this isn't my area of expertise, I have a hard time believing that the heroic student protestors in Iran want to bring back the monarchy, either. It disturbs me that it seems that the "solidarity" protests in the United States weren't truly solidarity protests, but rather groups piggy-backing on the democracy movement back in Iran.
On the left, responsible groups think long and hard about how we in the global north can work in solidarity with groups that need our support elsewhere. How do we, for instance, help in the fight against neo-liberalism and the FTAA in Latin America without driving those fights? One way we've done that is to rely on trusted organizations (like independent unions) and build networks of solidarity. It's why, for instance, anti-sweatshop groups don't advocate a boycott of sweatshop-made apparel unless and until the workers at the factory in question request such a move.
My question to people urging support of yesterday's western solidarity rallies is, what steps have been taken to ensure that they're really in solidarity with the in-country, Iranian movement? How are the organizers and participants making sure that they aren't trying to drive the movement from afar?
Google bombs. On Friday, I posted an excerpt of an email my sister sent me suggesting I search for "weapons of mass destruction" on Google. Today the Guardian has a short piece by the man who made the now famous result of that search. In itself the story of how it became popular quite by accident is interesting. But so is his suggestion that we bloggers are somehow screwing up Google. That's not something I've thought about before, and it's rather ironic since Google owns Blogger. Google works on the theory that if lots of people link to a site, that site must be an expert on that topic, and that site's links are then worth more. That's sort of how the blogosphere works, too--there are certain blogs that lots of people link to (and read), and then when one of those links to another blog, that second blog's "score" goes up. (This happened to me when I first started.)
If you appreciate the democratizing element of the internet--and blogs in particular--the "distortion" of Google by blogs seems exactly right. By an organic, democratic process, the blogosphere decides who the "experts" are, thus giving their links higher worth in PageRank (Google's search technology). I don't think this is distorting Google or giving it less value--if anything, I think it improves Google's rankings.
INSTANT UPDATE: What my suggestion above--that blogs help Google--requires is the belief that those of us in the blogosphere are actually qualified to decide who are the experts. If you think that the blogosphere has certain biases (male, American, conservative, whatever), our "expertise" will only reproduce these biases.
European tiffs. Today's Times article reporting the latest petty dispute between Germany and Italy reminds us that the two countries were on the opposite side of the Iraq question. They are also, I believe, generally on the opposite side of European constitutional questions, with Germany favoring a stronger, federal state, and Italy favoring a weaker centralized Europe. (I know I'm right about Germany's position; I confess I don't remember if I'm correct about Italy, and I certainly invite correction.)
My prediction is that as European expansion comes to a head and the constitution is debated and ratified, we're going to see more little fights like this and last week's fight. It's easier to have a major international incident about calling each other Nazis or ugly tourists than it is to have a meaningful debate about the method and meaning of European integration. I don't want to overemphasize the American dimention, but I think that things are not made easier by the intrustion of American foreign policy, in which the US creates divisions in Europe over its foreign policy.
Wednesday, July 09, 2003
Skin mag? Philosophical journal? Catalog? Does A&F Quarterly actually sell clothing? Or is it simply a way of generating free press? The Boston Globe reports that "left-wing Slovenian philosopher, cultural critic, and theoretical omnivore Slavoj Zizek" has written the captions in the most recent Abercrombie and Fitch catalog.
I recently stumbled upon Timothy Burke's blog "Easily Distracted." I recommend it to all. Among the interesting posts right now are a discussion of masculine priviledge in conversation and a critique of the suburban environmentalist, which would have been improved only with a discussion of the CapeWind controversy here in Massachusetts. Burke's posts are more like short essays, so this isn't really light, as-you-work reading, but it's worth devoting some time to.
Syndicalism in action. Yesterday's Times has one of the only pieces of happy news to come out of Argentina in a long time. Apparently, there's a trend of workers' cooperatives taking over bankrupt manufacturers and running the factories themselves. Factories (and other worksites) owned and controlled by democratic workers' organizations is at the key of my political vision, so this excites me. What excites me even further is that this is revolution by bankruptcy court. My usual example for such workers' councils were the "true" soviets formed after the Russian Revolution, but before the re-conquering of the empire by the Red Army. Better to have done it by peaceful means. Here's to hoping these experiments continue to flourish.
Tuesday, July 08, 2003
Neighborhoods and the 'war on terrorism.' There is a lot of discussion about what George Bush's "war on terrorism" has done to civil liberties and American foreign policy. There has been less, but still some, on the destructive role it has in the lives of immigrants. Saurav Sarkar, who has more of an effect on my intellectual development than he knows, writes in the new magazine The Next American City about what the "war on terrorism" has done to a Pakistani neighborhood in New York. It's a scary time to be a Muslim immigrant in the United States. My father, an immigration attorney whose client base is largely from Pakistan, reports that for the first time in his career, he has clients who come to him asking how to speed up their departure from the United States.
This post not appropriate for children. Many of you will remember, I'm sure, when Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum compared consexual gay sex to incest, bigamy, adultery, and "man-on-dog" sex. But many people have forgotten the statement, as news cycles continue, and while some people got upset, there wasn't nearly as much of an uproar as there was when, say, Trent Lott pronounced himself a segregationist. Happily, Dan Savage offers a perfect solution (or, rather a reader of his did): in order that Santorum's bigotry not be forgotten, the readers of Savage Love took the senator's name and turned it into a new sexual word. (There's a history of this--Savage Love readers previously declared that the act of anal sex in which a man is penetrated with a strap-on would be known as pegging, and rather remarkably this phrase has taken off.) After an election, Savage Love readers decided that the new meaning of the word santorum is "that frothy mixture of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." On one hand, we voters (yes, I participated) didn't much want Rick Santorum in our bedrooms, so we didn't want it to be a sex act we were likely to engage in, and besides, santorum sounds more like a noun than a verb; but on the other hand, santorum isn't something that people talk about very often. So, this week, Dan devoted his column to letters and stories about santorum. I think of this post as doing my civic duty to spread the word around. Enjoy!
A bold claim. In an unsigned obituary for Buddy Ebsen in today's Times, the author writes of the Beverly Hillbillies, "The show was initially ridiculed by many reviewers as the most abysmally lowbrow series in television history." One wonders what critic would be so bold as to make the same claim today about any show.
Monday, July 07, 2003
History and reconciliation. In another op-ed in Friday's Times, Stuart Eisenstadt makes a case for how to address past war-crimes by the Baathist regime in Iraq. Eisenstadt was the Clinton administration point man for Nazi-era reparations, a case in which I had some dealings (as a summer intern), an exercise I think did not turn out well for correcting the historical record or for the victims who were expecting meaningful reparations. He writes: "If their grievances are not addressed, Iraqi society will bear permanent scars and endure continuing frustrations, leading to growing resentment and cycles of retribution." Although I have some small quibbles with Eisenstadt's proposed program for Iraq, I don't disagree with his prognosis if nothing is done.
That begs the question, though: What about the US? The United States was undoubtedly founded on two nearly unimaginably massive crimes, African slavery and indigeneous genocide. It's now nearly universally accepted that countries with traumatic pasts need to deal with those pasts in order to rebuild; South Africa in the post-apartheid new dispensation is usually held up as the poster child of this belief that getting the truth out in the public is the first step toward building a fair society. Since, inarguably, the United States has never reckoned with its genocidal past, what does this say? In my mind, it either means that the accepted "truth" simply isn't so--that if you sweep your historical horrors under the rug for long enough, you'll be fine--or it means that we still need to address these wrongs. I think the continued social, political, and economic alienation of blacks and native peoples points to the need to address our history.
I don't know what form this should take. I recognize the dangers and difficulties of actual reparations in which individual blacks are handed a check to redress the harm caused to their forebears. But I think that the process to this dubious end have a postive role to play. American public memory believes slavery to be an exclusively southern phenomenon. We need to learn--and need our children to learn--not just about northern slavery but of the role that non-slaveholders played in the slave industry. Disclosures by (northern) insurance companies and the adversarial Yale Slavery Report from last year go far in teaching the lesson that one can benefit from a system of gross injustice and horror even when far away.
I like summer. From Cliff Eberhardt's song "Sugartown":
I used to live on pork and beans, now all I eat is fruit.
I'm going down to Sugartown where everybody thinks I'm cute."
Why preserve? In Friday's Times, when I wasn't posting, Anthony Tung wrote a brief op-ed quite reasonably objecting to raised fees for owners of historic properties. In general, I think it's a bad idea to discourage people to maintain and upgrade historic buildings, although I admit that I don't know anything about New York's specific policy in this case. My complain is about Tung's conception of the purpose of historic preservation. Here's Tung's final paragraph: "But the greater danger of these fees is the spirit they undermine — the hard-to-instill ethic of preservation. Without it, New York might be without its landmarks, majestic and humble — the Empire State Building, the Guggenheim, the tree-lined blocks of row houses in Greenwich Village and Brooklyn Heights. How could we ever replace such beauty? Lovely structures in the cityscape are testament to a life-affirming belief: that in the passing moment of our existence, we might make splendor of this clay. We should be helping, not taxing, those who do all of us the service of maintaining the city's architectural pride of place."
Um, "such beauty"? "Lovely structures"? "Architectural pride of place"? What do any of these things have to do with historic preservation? Perhaps architectural preservation is a good thing; I can certainly think of many pretty, old buildings I don't want destroyed as a matter of my personal taste. But a lot of those buildings aren't historically significant at all.
Too often, historic preservation, in the hands of people like Mr. Tung becomes a way of neighbors imposing their architectural taste on others. Worse, it becomes a way of NIMBY neighbors trying to control land use through the high-minded rhetoric of historic preservation. This sort of thing gives actual preservation a bad name. Actual preservation is about making sure that those places that create difference and that contributed to historic events and conditions stay around. We should preserve those places that show how people in the past worked, played, shopped, and did the rest of their daily business. We should, within limits, preserve those places that highlight key moments in architectural history. We should preserve those places at which important historical events happened. But to preserve something because people on the historic preservation board deem it "beautiful" or because neighbors are afraid that the building that will come next will cause more parking problems stunts development and hurts the cause of actual preservation. The landmarks that Tung cites in that final paragraph are worth preserving, but because they're historic, not because they're beautiful.
To explain, let me introduce you to the Avalon Theatre in Washington. It began life as a important neighborhood movie theatre, and was then bought by a series of chains. About ten years ago, a group of neighbors got it declared a historic landmark, preserving both the inside and outside. The owners were quite reasonably concerned that if the current movie theatre went out of business, they'd be stuck with a property that was useless. Neighbors countered that the Avalon was, first, a prime example (arguably the prime example in DC) early neighborhood theatres. It is also integral to the character of Chevy Chase DC, a feature whose preservation undoubtedly would preserve the history of how past generations had lived in and experienced the neighborhood. Several years ago, for reasons that are a bit cloudy, Cineplex Odeon did indeed close the theatre. Because the building was protected, it wasn't destroyed, and it wasn't turned into a bank. Instead, a group of neighbors created a nonprofit and has reopened the theatre. Not only is this a useful exercise in civil society, but it's a return to the community theatre that the Avalon was originally. Not only is the building preserved, but so is the neighborhood institution.