Roundup: Talking About HistoryFollow RU: Talking About History on RSS and Twitter
This is where we excerpt articles about history that appear in the media. Among the subjects included on this page are: anniversaries of historical events, legacies of presidents, cutting-edge research, and historical disputes.
Jamie Wilson, in the Guardian (July 19, 2004):
Adolf Hitler bends down to look at the map laid out before him on the oak table. His piercing eyes stare intently as a general points a black-gloved hand to show troop movements on the eastern front. As the camera pans and the Fuhrer leans on his right arm to get a better view there is a blinding orange flash followed by a ball of smoke as the picture blurs.
It is the documentary-maker's ultimate fantasy: never-before-seen footage of one of the most famous moments in 20th-century history - the assassination attempt against Hitler at his Rastenburg headquarters in eastern Prussia.
The quality is such - from the colour of the film to the graininess of the images - that it could even have been taken by the Fuhrer's private cameraman, Walter Frentz. But the clip was not shot inside the Wolf's Lair in July 1944. In fact this scene was never filmed at all.
Instead it was made for the Discovery Channel in the Soho editing suites of the Moving Picture Company, Britain's most successful creator of computer-generated imagery.
For the programme-makers, the project heralds the next generation of television history programmes and the "holy grail" of CGI - bringing historical events to life so realistically that the audience believes that it is watching genuine archive footage.
But the Virtual History strand - which will have a global launch in the autumn, the first time a Discovery programme made in the UK has received such an accolade - is set to ignite an argument among both historians and documentary-makers about the ethics of interspersing CGI with archive film.
According to the Discovery Channel, the technique has the potential to change the way viewers watch his torical documentaries in the future and will create an entirely new genre of documentary making.
The first in what the makers hope will be a series of virtual history programmes will attempt to stage the events of July 20 1944 from the perspective of the four main wartime leaders. So as well as seeing Hitler sitting dazed and bloodied beside the table that saved his life, there will be scenes of Churchill working in bed in his pyjamas, Roosevelt having a heart attack and Stalin ordering attacks on the eastern front.
The feature-length programme, which is still in production (the Guardian was given a sneak preview of several scenes last week) uses real archive footage to support the "archive reconstructions". Historians, such as Andrew Roberts (whose books include Hitler and Churchill), were brought in to advise and to maintain historical accuracy.
Actors with physical similarities to the key protagonists acted out the "missing" parts of the story before technical experts used CGI to recreate the faces of the wartime leaders and transformed the modern film into footage which runs seamlessly with the original archive clips.
"Our feeling is that whenever you see an historical re-enactment with an actor you have to suspend disbelief and it deviates from the power of what you are watching, whereas with this it's like mainlining straight into history; that's what it feels like when you watch it," says David Abraham, general manager of Discovery Networks Europe.
Charles Brand, managing director of Tiger Aspect, the production company behind the new programme, says the making of the series was inspired by the success of the BBC series Walking with Dinosaurs. "Audiences are very hungry for new tricks all the time, and there was a programme that suddenly got three or four times the size of audience watching a programme about prehistoric animals," he says.
"Hopefully it gives you a wider audience than a specialist history audience to really engage in a very important subject. I think coming up with a new technique like this is a fantastically strong way of getting that new audience in."
But it has taken nearly three years to get to the point where they are happy with the realism of the product. The technical demands of trying to recreate well-known faces using CGI should not be underestimated, says David Jefferies, CEO of the Moving Picture Company. "The one thing humans are most acutely aware of is the precise proportions of other people's faces, and if you deviate by even the smallest amount you are suddenly looking at a close relative and not the person themselves."
It took the programme-makers and technicians months of trial and error to identify and recreate the movements that make a person's face look real. But what about those who claim this type of programme will lead to the distortion of history, with the possibility that fake archive footage will be passed off as real? Documentary film-maker Roger Graef, who was recently awarded a Bafta fellowship, thinks that the idea is "very dodgy" and warns that it could have serious ramifications.
"Capturing reality, whether it's obscure archive or observational film is a slightly unpredictable task," he says. "If you are going out looking for home videos of the Nazi period or filming things as they happen, these are both unpredictable activities in ways that shareholders and accountants dislike. It is up to the people at the top of broadcasting and the regulators to insist on the flexibility and willingness to back the authentic in order to resist the easy temptation of putting everything into an artificial box. That is the difference between reality and reality television."
However, there are several historians who approve the use of CGI. Richard Evans, professor of modern history at the University of Cambridge, says: "It can do almost anything and if it helps make the past come alive, and if it is done carefully and responsibly on the basis of good research, and as long as programme-makers flag up what they are doing then this can only be a good thing."...
Noel C. Paul, in the Christian Science Monitor (July 22, 2004):
There's more to Boston politics than John Kerry and the Kennedys. Now, as the city becomes America's political center for a brief moment next week, historians and others are digging through the past to glean insights into a nation's birth.
What they're finding is forcing a reassessment of how the city shaped US politics - and how the past may echo in pronouncements from the podium next week.
Already, a list of Boston's heroes reads like a roll call of America's past - from Puritans to transcendentalists to Irish bosses.
But no generation of Bostonians was more influential than that which tipped East Indian tea into the Atlantic. Yet as much as Bostonians would like to celebrate the Adamses and Otises, Hancocks and Reveres, historians have begun focusing on a long-neglected figure: the little guy.
Even here, where a coterie of agitators willed confrontation with the British, the ideology and actions of regular Bostonians proved decisive. Consider, for instance, some of these figures and factoids:
* Sure, Paul Revere was probably the nation's first celebrated spy, or at least its first early-warning system in a tricorn hat. But historian David Hackett Fischer points out that at least 80 other riders set out on that famous night to warn of the British landing.
* Common folks declared their independence in town meetings - months before the Second Continental Congress followed suit.
* George Robert Twelves Hewes, a shoemaker, was present at some of the Revolution's most important moments. He was in the crowd at the Boston Massacre in 1770 and on board the Dartmouth during the Tea Party of 1773.
Experts have long portrayed such people as part of a mob. But new histories offer a far different perspective. "It was people like Hewes who really made things happen," says Alfred Young, a Hewes expert at Northern Illinois University.Hewes based his change in heart on the sight of a British soldier beating a woman, and another cuffing a small boy.
Historians also have a new appreciation for the sheer number of people who joined the movement. Three thousand attended a protest after the Boston Massacre. More than 5,000 went to the Old South Meeting House in preparation for the Tea Party.
The Revolution's spirit, many historians argue, emerged from the people. "Sam Adams had to write from the Continental Congress to get the Revolution to slow down," says Ray Raphael, author of "A People's History of the American Revolution."
Nor can it be characterized by the quiet sanctity of Independence Hall, where lawyers in knee-britches deconstructed the idea of monarchy. The city's emotions were raw, and often swelled into violence.
But this side of the Revolution is largely absent from popular memory. Consider the lost legacy of Boston's Liberty Tree - an enormously popular symbol in its day. At the corner of Washington and Essex streets, the tree was a gathering point for protests. It was here that royal governors were hung in effigy, then paraded around town. But many believe it portrays the violence that officials would just as soon repress. Now, only a tiny plaque remains....
Garry Wills, in the NY Review of Books (August 12, 2004):
So far, most readers of President Clinton's book seem to like the opening pages best, and no wonder. Scenes of childhood glow from many memoirs —by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Henry Adams, John Ruskin, John Henry Newman, and others. It is hard to dislike people when they are still vulnerable, before they have put on the armor of whatever career or catastrophe lies before them as adults. In fact, Gilbert Chesterton advised those who would love their enemies to imagine them as children. The soundness of this tactic is proved by its reverse, when people become irate at attempts to imagine the childhood or the youth of Hitler—as in protests at the Menno Meyjez film Max. So it is hard, even for his foes, to find Clinton objectionable as a child. Yet the roots of the trouble he later had lie there, in the very appeal of his youth.
Another reason we respond to narratives of childhood is that first sensations are widely shared by everyone— the ways we became aware of the world around us, of family, of school, of early friends. One might expect Clinton's pineywood world to be remote from people who did not grow up in the South. But since he experienced neither grinding poverty nor notable privilege, there is an everyman quality to what he is writing about. His relatives were not blue-collar laborers but service providers—as nurse (mother and grandmother), heavy equipment salesman (father), car dealer (first stepfather), hairdresser (second stepfather), food broker (third stepfather). This was no Dogpatch, as one can tell from the number of Clinton's childhood friends who went on to distinguished careers. (The daughters of one of his ministers became, respectively, the president of Wellesley and the ombudsman of The Washington Post.)
Admittedly, Clinton's family was notably fissiparous, with a litter of half-relatives filling the landscape— but even that is familiar to us in this time of frequent divorce and divided custodies. It may seem out of the ordinary for Clinton's father to have been married four times by the age of twenty-six, his first stepfather to have been married three times (twice to Clinton's mother), his second stepfather to have been married twice (with twenty-nine months in jail for fraud bridging the two). His mother, because of the mortality rate of her husbands, was married five times (though two of the times were to the same man). Clinton, who has had the gift of empathy throughout his life, remained astonishingly close to all the smashed elements of this marital kaleidoscope —even to his stepfather, whose abuse of his mother Clinton had to stop with physical interventions and calls to the police. He took time from college to give his stepfather loving care at the end of his life. The most recurrent refrain in this book is "I liked him," and it began at home.
Clinton usually looked at the bright side. What the jumble of marriages gave him as a boy was just more relatives to charm and be cosseted by. Later the same people would be a political asset. The first time he ran for office, "I had relatives in five of the district's twenty-one counties." Later still, he could rely on "a big vote in south Arkansas, where I had lots of relatives." One might think he was already preparing for a political career when he got along so well with all his scattered families. But he was, even then, a natural charmer, with an immediate gratification in being liked, not looking (yet) for remoter returns from politics. Clinton won others' affection for a reason Aristotle famously gave— we enjoy doing things that we do well....
Joseph Ellis, in Historically Speaking, the bulletin of the Historical Society (June 2004):
What is the current status of biography within the historical profession? I would say it is a bastard, or perhaps an orphan periodically adopted as a welfare case by history or English departments. The hegemonic power within the historical profession for the last thirty to forty years has been social history, which cuts against the biographical grain in multiple ways. It makes the collective rather than the individual life the primal unit of study. It privileges the periphery over the prominent figures at the political center, who become “dead white males” and their respective stories elitist narratives casually dismissed as “great man history,” even when the subject is a woman, or even when the story told undermines the entire notion that men make history. Any aspiring graduate student in history who expresses an interest in, say, Thomas Jefferson and his first term as president, rather than the Creole population that Jefferson appropriated for the United States in the Louisiana Purchase, has inadvertently committed professional suicide.
Is the dominance of social history a bad thing? I think it is bad for the profession of history because it stigmatizes the venerable tradition of life-writing, which in fact has a pedigree as long as or longer than history, dating back to the chronicles chiseled on the stone slabs of Egyptian pharaohs in 1400 B.C. It also sustains the myth that biography invariably imposes a simplistic set of assumptions about human agency, namely that men make history rather than the other way around, which is a patent falsehood. Its focus on the inarticulate and the ordinary is also rooted in the preposterous presumption that most students and readers already know the mainstream story of American history—an illusion that would not survive scrutiny for five minutes in any undergraduate classroom in the land. And like any methodological or ideological bias, it channels the full range of talent in the profession into one corral, rather than letting it wander free on the open range of its own choosing.
On the other hand, I don’t think it is a bad thing for biography. The intellectual health of biography, I would assert, is largely a function of its outlaw status. The question is not whether biography should be welcomed into the house of history, but whether biography should consent to the union which exposes it to the virulent perils of professionalization. If we all went to a Modern Language Association conference, we could see these perils displayed conspicuously in the jargon-choked and laughablypostured pursuits of the trivial, all packaged in literary categories specifically designed to be unintelligible to all but the chosen few. Historians are, I fear, blind to the same evidence when we are the chosen few. Biography, it seems to me, is better off as a “wild thing.”...
... Some would say that the late Stephen A. Ambrose is the finest model of a historian writing for the public at large. Ambrose did fine work but, toward the end, his books had difficulties (beyond plagiarism). First, he came gravely close to ancestor worship, a pro b l e m also coloring the work of some baby boomers who, embarrassed by their earlier opposition to the Vietnam War and to their fathers, now write excessively laudatory biographies of the “ greatest generation.” But Ambrose was perhaps guilty also of what we might call pandering, that is, telling the public only what it wants to hear: a lucrative but intellectually destructive “dumbing down” of scholarship. This has also affected the quality of some university presses whose first criterion for publication of a manuscript is no longer quality of content but marketability.
Civil War writing provides an example. Although thousands of volumes continue to be produced on that conflict, relatively few chart new paths or examine the less glamorous aspects of the struggle, such as widespread economic and social distress among the dependents of soldiers, or the role of disease in affecting the course of the war, a subject still relegated to “medical histories.” To humor the book buyers who see the war as a diverting board game, we have accounts that chart the actions of Company A of Regiment B during the third hour of the first day at Gettysburg .
This pandering, although perhaps the easiest route to influence with the public at large, is in some danger of making historians, along with theater and literature faculties, into the c o u rt jesters of academe, seen only as good for entertainment value and not vital to the healthy development of our society in the sense that science and business colleges are seen as pivotal to our cultural strength and well-being. This definition of humanists as e n t e rtainers comes at a time when our real participation in serious public dialogue about today’s issues has never been more vital. Take again my field of military history. The military actions of the U.S. impact every nation on the planet and drastically alter how Americans themselves think, live, and die. Yet the closer we come to the present on the timeline of history, the more “innocent” Americans are of the actual nature of warf a re. By innocence I mean a deliberate, cultivated refusal to look at the reality of conflict: many people are better informed about the Alamo than they are about the war in Iraq.
This posture of innocence about the current nature of war predates the sanitizing of the Vietnam War, which wrote out the startling truth about the mutual savage destru ctiveness of that encounter between alien cult u res. In World War II, for example, civilians objected to the publishing of pictures of America’s dead and mutilated soldiers; they did not wish to read or hear about the detailed nature of combat. One result of this closemindedness is that combat veterans often feel they cannot talk honestly about their experiences, what they have seen and what they have done, with a resultant cost to them in physical and mental health. This innocence also means that we can accept oxymorons like “humane bombing in Kosovo”—inexplicable when applied to a B-52 carpet bombing run—and a whole vocabulary of complacent euphemisms such as “collateral damage.” Body bags are brought home in the night and cameras are not allowed; the president carefully avoids the funerals....
David Beito and Charles W. Nuckolls, in Reason (July 19, 2004):
During the last decade, the League of the South and other"southern heritage" groups have fought to preserve the state flags of Georgia and Mississippi. Some members of the League have demanded that universities hire Southern-born professors. Others have promoted antebellum style dances. Nearly all are quick to champion their"heroes," including Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis, against any slights.
The jargon of group rights and identity politics, normally the domain of the politically correct, permeates their pronouncements. In Georgia, a member of the League boasts that"our Southern heritage celebrates true diversity...and true multiculturalism." Another from Virginia asks"in an age of political correctness, teaching tolerance of others and multiculturalism...when will the people of the south be permitted to honor their heritage?" Similarly, the national president of the League declares that if"Southerners were any other people in the world, the campaign to rob them of their symbols, their history, and their cultural identity would be termed cultural genocide." The League stresses the Celtic background of many Southerners as a defining feature of this" cultural identity."
A few years ago an incident brought home to one of the authors some striking parallels between Confederate multiculturalists of this type and leftwing multiculturalists. During a long conversation about race and culture, a white professor at the University of Alabama, lamented that so few blacks were observing Kwanzaa.
This professor was a member of the Coalition for Diversity and Inclusiveness, a group that" celebrates" such"multicultural" crusades as mandatory diversity training and reparations. Her zeal was not dampened by the argument that local blacks, like whites, were Christians of a traditional sort and that Kwanzaa was foreign to their outlook. Though she acknowledged that the holiday was the brainchild of an American college professor of dubious character, she still held out the hope that African American students might take it seriously.
Her brief for Kwanzaa illustrates the hollowness and artificiality of much of what passes today for multiculturalism. This professor's agenda of promoting" cultural awareness," and thus differences between blacks and whites, had become so all encompassing that she did not hesitate to impose it from the top down. Much the same can be said for the Confederate multiculturalists who work so hard to immortalize state flags that are usually no older than the 1950s. Like her, they desperately want to create and" celebrate" cultural distinctions and then deploy them for political purposes. They also view the world through the lens of group, rather than individual, rights....
In the 18th century, Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab and an army of 600 troops showed up at a tomb in the Arabian Desert, where one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad was buried under an elaborate dome. On his deathbed the prophet had cursed Jews and Christians for turning the graves of their apostles into places of worship. Yet over the 11 centuries since Muhammad founded Islam, Muslims had come to do just that, making the tombs of the religion's early disciples into pilgrimage sites.
So while the troops kept horrified onlookers at bay, al-Wahhab (whose name means "the bestower") and his followers ripped the dome down. The Wahhabis eventually went on to destroy shrines and minarets throughout Islamdom. They even attempted to raze the dome over the prophet's own tomb in Medina.
Sometimes called the Luther of Islam, Wahhab created a religious movement that insisted on a return to the first principles of the Quran and the Hadith, the sayings of the prophet. Wahhab preached tawhid, or absolute monotheism, and railed against shirk, the act of associating anything with God, for example by venerating saints. He warred against fellow Muslims, whom he denounced as apostates. He wanted to tear down, sometimes literally, centuries of accretions to Islam, to rid the religion of its accumulated legal traditions, mysticism and (in his eyes) blasphemous practices.
Wahhab also made an enduring alliance with the al-Saud family, a Bedouin tribe that combined a religious mandate with a marauding army to capture most of the Arabian peninsula, including (after Wahhab's death) Mecca, the holiest city in Islam. The Wahhabis forced men into mosques at prayer time, burned books and banned smoking. They eventually ran afoul of the Ottoman Empire and were driven from Mecca in 1813 -- only to return a century later as the rulers of the new state of Saudi Arabia, where their creed became the official religion.
As a rather marginal sect of Islam, Wahhabism would be of slight interest to the world save for the fact that Saudi Arabia controls both Mecca, where every able Muslim must make a pilgrimage at least once, and the largest oil reserves in the world, the profits from which are used to spread its brand of faith around the world. That includes the U.S., where by some estimates half to three-quarters of all mosques are under Wahhabi control.
Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were nurtured on the Wahhabi creed. "The most extreme, separatist, and violent form of Islam," author Stephen Schwartz called it in a Senate hearing last year, where he described a network of interlinked Islamic foundations and associations reminiscent of the American Communist Party and its front groups during the Cold War....
Now Wahhab has found a rare defender. Natana J. Delong-Bas, a scholar at Georgetown University, has written the first extensive explication of the theology. To call "Wahhabi Islam" (Oxford University Press, 370 pages, $35) revisionist is an understatement. Ms. Delong-Bas presents Wahhab, a man who personally stoned a woman to death for adultery, as a proto-feminist. There is, she asserts, no straight line from Wahhab to al Qaeda.
"His insistence on adherence to Quranic values," she writes, "like the maximum preservation of human life even in the midst of jihad as holy war, tolerance for other religions, and support for a balance of rights between men and women, results in a very different worldview from that of contemporary militant extremists."...
Where on earth this form of Wahhabi Islam ever existed she doesn't say. Her conclusion might be more persuasive if she had chosen to discuss the development and practice of Wahhabi theology in Saudi Arabia, which she doesn't. Ms. Delong-Bas merely insists that the sect was hijacked after Wahhab's death. She is more successful in arguing that bin Laden took little from Wahhab. Still, one is left to wonder how such a purportedly humane thinker as Wahhab could do anything to inspire such crazed followers, both in his own day and ours.
Stanley Kutler, in the Nation (August 2, 2004):
Former Presidents have a difficult, even awkward, role. They cope in different ways, but if the past half-century is any guide, we can be certain of one thing: They write their memoirs. Usually, these are variants of campaign biographies, only now their campaign is for History. Ex-Presidents battle to define their legacy, and their memoirs are the opening salvo.
The accounts compiled by Lyndon Johnson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush have little value as historical sources. They are relentlessly celebratory, merely chronicling successes. Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower at least sporadically offered revelations, with occasional introspective backward glances. But leave it to Richard Nixon to offer the most interesting, useful account. Nixon, being Nixon, could not help but reveal himself, often in spite of himself. For example, describing John Dean's devastating Senate testimony in June 1973, Nixon wrote: "Dean's account of the crucial March 21 meeting was more accurate than my own had been. I did not see it then, but in the end it would make less difference that I was not as involved as Dean had alleged than that I was not as uninvolved as I had claimed."
Perhaps unsurprisingly, presidential memoirs are usually dull, uninformative and embarrassingly self-congratulatory. Now comes William Jefferson Clinton, one of our best-educated, most intelligent Presidents, a man known to spare few words when discussing himself--or anything. To be sure, his memoir launches his campaign for history. But to dismiss My Life as a whiff of grapeshot, as have the instant first reviews, underestimates the man. Most relentlessly try to fit the book into the Age of Oprah, carefully scouring index entries for Monica, Paula and Gennifer, and concluding that Clinton has written a long, dull book, once again squandering his talent.
Give him a break; Clinton has many tales to tell, particularly a rich, sometimes moving account of his years before the public life, fit for future analytical historians and biographers. Clinton, true to form, is enchanting and infuriating, fascinating and perplexing, with some lies and evasions, as well as some truth and revelations; and always accommodating, eager to please. The personal and the political are intertwined. Vintage Clinton.
Howard Zinn, in the Progressive (August 2004):
As I write this, the sounds of the World War II Memorial celebration in Washington, D.C., are still in my head. I was invited by the Smithsonian Institution to be on one of the panels, and the person who called to invite me said that the theme would be "War Stories." I told him that I would come, but not to tell "war stories," rather to talk about World War II and its meaning for us today. Fine, he said.
I made my way into a scene that looked like a movie set for a Cecil B. DeMille extravaganza--huge tents pitched here and there, hawkers with souvenirs, thousands of visitors, many of them clearly World War II veterans, some in old uniforms, sporting military caps, wearing their medals. In the tent designated for my panel, I joined my fellow panelist, an African American woman who had served with the WACS (Women's Army Corps) in World War II, and who would speak about her personal experiences in a racially segregated army.
I was introduced as a veteran of the Army Air Corps, a bombardier who had flown combat missions over Europe in the last months of the war. I wasn't sure how this audience would react to what I had to say about the war, in that atmosphere of celebration, in the honoring of the dead, in the glow of a great victory accompanied by countless acts of military heroism.
This, roughly, is what I said: "I'm here to honor the two guys who were my closest buddies in the Air Corps--Joe Perry and Ed Plotkin, both of whom were killed in the last weeks of the war. And to honor all the others who died in that war. But I'm not here to honor war itself. I'm not here to honor the men in Washington who send the young to war. I'm certainly not here to honor those in authority who are now waging an immoral war in Iraq."
I went on: "World War II is not simply and purely a 'good war.' It was accompanied by too many atrocities on our side--too many bombings of civilian populations. There were too many betrayals of the principles for which the war was supposed to have been fought.
"Yes, World War II had a strong moral aspect to it--the defeat of fascism. But I deeply resent the way the so-called good war has been used to cast its glow over all the immoral wars we have fought in the past fifty years: in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Grenada, Panama, Iraq, Afghanistan. I certainly don't want our government to use the triumphal excitement surrounding World War II to cover up the horrors now taking place in Iraq.
"I don't want to honor military heroism--that conceals too much death and suffering. I want to honor those who all these years have opposed the horror of war."
The audience applauded. But I wasn't sure what that meant. I knew I was going against the grain of orthodoxy, the romanticization of the war in movies and television and now in the war memorial celebrations in the nation's capital.
There was a question-and-answer period. The first person to walk up front was a veteran of World War II, wearing parts of his old uniform. He spoke into the microphone: "I was wounded in World War II and have a Purple Heart to show for it. If President Bush were here right now I would throw that medal in his face."
There was a moment of what I think was shock at the force of his statement.
Then applause. I wondered if I was seeing a phenomenon that recurs often in
society--when one voice speaks out against the conventional wisdom, and is recognized
as speaking truth, people are drawn out of their previous silence....
Michael Connor, in the Australian (July 9, 2004):
[Michael Connor is an honorary research associate in the school of history and classics at the University of Tasmania.]
JUST now, the Australian past is a dangerous place to be. I pointed out in The Bulletin (August 26, 2003) that there is an error in the historiography of terra nullius (a supposed rationale for settlement without indigenous compensation) -- and I've been made out as a racist right-winger. I pointed to errors in the historiography of political narratives of the 1820s -- and they gave me a PhD.
What is going on?
The history wars have nothing to do with truth or intellectual inquiry. The history wars have everything to do with middle-class careerism.
Terra nullius, which until fairly recently teachers and academics really believed was the language of Captain James Cook and Governor Arthur Phillip, was a term almost unknown until the 1970s and did not come out of our colonial past.
All the history books, lectures, articles and courses that used it were in error. Taking it away is exciting, for it means a return to the archives; it calls for a complete reappraisal of our nation's beginnings. But for those historians who began all their books and papers with terra nullius, this means that the base on which they constructed their careers is faulty.
Question the validity of terra nullius and you query the authority of those historical narratives built on it. Take out terra nullius and the history writing of a generation has lost its certainty.
Keith Windschuttle's criticisms of Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan frighten Australian historians because so much has been borrowed from these two academics and built into the works of others. Shake any book of history and the Reynolds-Ryan footnotes fall like a blinding snow. There is far more at stake than just the books of these two historians. By questioning two career historians, Windschuttle is threatening an entrenched generation.
Modern academic history writing combines archival selections and the writings of other historians. In a letter to The Bulletin, professor Alan Atkinson wrote: "We rely very much on those who have gone before us, until someone makes a point of checking out that particular piece of detail. So we move forward."
This really is the way history writing is taught and carried out. We have got into the present mess by not checking the authorities on which we relied. This is the reason a book such as Stuart Macintyre's A Concise History of Australia is so full of mistakes. Historians deal with a mass of detail. It is normal to make slips, but grave problems occur when we add in the blunders of others.
In the history wars, new histories are opposing old historians. The key elements in the new histories are a return to archival research and a questioning of rigidly accepted theories. The academics most threatened by new histories are not lonely scholars sneezing away the archival dust, for these are people who have grants to employ research assistants to do the work. They are affluent careerists with useful and pleasant professional and social contacts with publishers, journalists, arts bodies, grant organisations and professional history bodies, and they exert dominating power over their students.
Old history attacks on dissident voices are taxpayer funded. The "get Windschuttle" conferences were paid for by us. The articles, books, letters to the editor are prepared in university time, on university salaries, using university computers. Those history academics involved in fighting the history wars may have a besieged mentality, but they are a well-heeled and well-connected nomenclature.
The subtext to all this is acutely apparent to any honours or postgraduate
history student. If they have to work with an enthusiastic soldier in the history
wars, their grades and a possible career demand conformity to the lecturer's
line or the choice of a research topic so dull that the barriers won't be raised
Diana McCurdy, in the New Zealand Herald (July 10, 2004):
Every week, 19 researchers and historians at the Waitangi Tribunal painstakingly unearth new information about New Zealand's disappearing past.
As they investigate Maori claims against the Crown, the researchers document aspects of history never before recorded on paper.
In an improbable twist, the tribunal - one of New Zealand's more controversial institutions - has become a nursery for the rewriting of New Zealand's history.
It seems a laudable enterprise. But questions are emerging about the academic validity of the history the tribunal is producing.
In a new book, The Waitangi Tribunal and New Zealand History, Victoria University historian Dr Giselle Byrnes lays damning charges against the tribunal, describing its attempts to write history as a "noble, but ultimately flawed experiment".
The tribunal, she says, is not writing "objective history". Rather, the reports it produces are deeply political and overwhelmingly focused on the present. It commits the ultimate faux pas of judging the past by the standards of the present.
"As an historian, I believe history is inherently political, but the tribunal does not acknowledge that it has a philosophy or even that it is writing history, instead repeatedly saying it is simply issuing a report as a Commission of Inquiry."
In some cases, the political bent of the tribunal is strongly evident. In its 1996 Taranaki report, for example, the tribunal openly responds to the Government's fiscal-envelope policy of the previous year.
"It was clearly saying in that report ... that this claim is just going to blow that kind of thinking apart. It really tried to challenge that mentality that there should be a cap on treaty settlements."
Tribunal history also has a strong Maori bias, Dr Byrnes says. Maori characters and stories are given much more emphasis and weight than Pakeha characters and stories. "The reports increasingly champion or advocate the Maori cause."
This is not the first time an historian has questioned the academic integrity of the history produced by the Waitangi Tribunal. Other historians - including Keith Sorrenson, Michael Belgrave and Bill Oliver - have raised similar concerns.
Other academics are also concerned, but reluctant to say anything publicly, Dr Byrnes says.
"I know that many historians have felt some kind of disquiet about the
sort of history the tribunal has been producing over the past few years. They
haven't spoken out about it because most historians have liberal political leanings
and they don't want to be seen as undermining or criticising the whole process."...
David Smith and Walter Harris, in the Guardian (July 11, 2004):
INGA HAAG vividly remembers shaking the hand of Adolf Hitler - and spending the next five years plotting to kill him. Men close to her were executed after the failed plan to assassinate the Fuhrer 60 years ago next week. But Inga survived and, now nearing 86 and a grande dame of London embassy gatherings, is virtually alone in having memories of the botched attempt to decapitate the Third Reich.
On 20 July, 1944, Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg, a German count, planted a briefcase containing a bomb under an oak table during a meeting at Hitler's headquarters in East Prussia. It exploded, wounding many, but Hitler escaped with damaged ear drums, burns to his left side and a missing trouser leg. Stauffenberg was executed without trial. Other 'July plotters', including Inga's cousin, Adam von Trott, and her former boss, Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, were killed.
Sipping cava in her discreetly furnished apartment in Marylebone, central London, Inga last week gave a rare interview recalling her days in the German resistance and her meeting with the man it wanted dead.
'I remember Hitler had very bad skin,' she said. 'He had bad manners and no charm. He was not good-looking: he had a chicken-skin neck with large pores. He was almost revolting.
'I was at a social occasion for diplomats, just at the outbreak of war, and Hitler went around. I was standing next to the Belgian ambassador and his wife, and she was stretching out her hand, but he didn't want it and turned to my hand. I was a very unprominent woman there, but he wanted to make the point he was not shaking the hand of the wife of the Belgian ambassador.'
She continued: 'I've tried to think, now what makes this man so attractive to the masses? You could understand little Goebbels: although he was rather an unprepossessing person and physically not much, he was quite brilliant and had more attraction that Hitler. Goring was fat, but he had a certain personality and presence and one could understand a certain amount of attraction. As a child I'd seen Mussolini two or three times, and you could understand in a way why people were impressed.
'Hitler had none of that about him. I am still absolutely puzzled how he could get where he was. I've talked to many people who've seen Hitler quite often, and talked to him and so on, and hardly any ever saw in him the attraction. I couldn't ask Eva Braun. It must have been people got fascinated by power.'
Inga, who still describes herself as Prussian, was raised to be fiercely anti-Nazi by her parents, Otto, a lawyer and banker, and Bertha, and sent to school in London. 'My father said: "German teachers all tend to be Nazi and I don't want my daughter being exposed to that indoctrination".'
But just before the outbreak of war she returned to Germany and became a secretary to Canaris, head of the Abwehr, the military intelligence service. His nickname for the beautiful 21-year-old was 'The Painted Doll'.
After the invasion of France, she followed him to Paris and delivered passports to Jews and other persecuted minorities whom Canaris wanted to protect. 'He said, you look like a French school-leaver so you can go without alerting the French police, who were rather in favour of the Nazis. I took passports to various people and most survived.'
The admiral was among German military and civilians involved in a number of major plots against Hitler, who seemed to have an animal instinct for danger and always escaped.
Inga recalled: 'Canaris said Germany will never be forgiven unless some action is taken against these criminals. The plots were in the minds of most of my friends most of the time. I knew almost everybody in the July 1944 plot and also happened to be good friends with them. My husband, Werner Haag - we married in 1942 - was among them.
'But it was a case of trying to get someone close to Hitler who could do it. General Halder, who was the Chief of General Staff at one point, always said: "Whenever I go and see the Fuhrer, I've got a loaded pistol in my pocket." I wish he had used it at that point, but the organisation had not yet developed. You lived in fear you were going to be arrested, so I took my father's advice to try to know as little as possible, because what you didn't know you couldn't talk about and betray under torture.'
Steve Crawshaw, in the (London) Independent (July 13, 2004):
For 60 years, Germany has been feeling worried. Worried by its own criminal history, worried by the judgement of others - and worried that the lure of Adolf Hitler is not yet dead. Few Germans would seriously argue that modern German democracy is endangered. None the less, the just- in-case taboos remain in place, above all when it comes to the dictator himself.
Elsewhere in Europe, it is easy to find copies of Mein Kampf on the shelves. In the words of the English-language edition, "It remains necessary reading for those who care to safeguard democracy." In Germany, where it was once compulsory reading, it is considered too sensitive to put on sale. Even the dictator's image is subject to powerful taboos. English-language books on the Third Reich often have photographs of the Fuhrer on the cover. When those same books are translated into German, the pictures of Hitler and the swastikas vanish, to be replaced with something more anodyne. Several decades after the war, a German commentator explained why he believed the ban on Mein Kampf to be essential: "The bacillus is too lively, the danger of infection too acute." Even in the 21st century, that fearful logic - though rarely made so explicit - remains in place.
Now, however, remarkable change is on the way. Two new German films both put the Fuhrer unashamedly centre screen. Heinrich Breloer has filmed a huge documentary drama focusing on the role of Albert Speer, Hitler's star architect. Speer and He will be screened on German television in the spring, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of Hitler's death.
As Der Spiegel points out, Breloer's three-part, EUR12m (pounds 8.5m) documentary series breaks with a long German tradition: "If the dictator appeared at all, then only for a few seconds and usually without words." Demystification is the key. In preparation for the role, Tobias Moretti, who plays Hitler, listened for hours to a unique tape recording, secretly recorded by a Finnish radio technician in 1942: Hitler not as the demagogic orator, but speaking in the voice of an ordinary human being. A second film, Bernd Eichinger's The Downfall, focuses on the last days in the bunker. Bruno Ganz, star of Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire, takes the role of Hitler.
As Frank Schirrmacher, the publisher of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, has noted, the release of the films will mark an important turning point. "A type of pictorial fear was at work here; a dread of turning the man who has dominated German imagination to the present day into a product of artistic imagination. This is over now." Schirrmacher suggests that these are "the most important historical projects in many years".
These changes do not take place in isolation. Germany's new relaxation is everywhere - in film, literature, and politics. The old taboos are crumbling month by month, day by day. Confrontation with the past, and confrontation with German worries about the past, are inextricably intertwined.
The story of Germany since 1945 has, in many ways, been a story of changing taboos with regard to Hitler and his legacy. Initially, those taboos sought to avoid acknowledging the depth of the crimes that so many Germans had, by their action or inaction, allowed to take place. Reading the West German school- books of the 1950s and 1960s is to expose oneself to a tissue of half-truths, at best. Hitler himself is portrayed in an almost rosy light - the peacemaker, whose efforts were thwarted by a war-hungry Churchill, to whom Hitler "offered peace in vain". (Churchill "knew that England had time, and that the United States would help".)
Where Hitler's crimes are alluded to in passing, the reader is constantly assured that Germans knew little or nothing of what was happening - and that they could, in any case, have done nothing even if they had known. The mass murder of millions, planned with such unique thoroughness, is often passed over in barely a sentence. The German resistance movement, so terribly isolated, receives copious coverage, as does German suffering. Thus, a long catalogue of casualties in the Second World War in a 1956 schoolbook (including, for example, the number of Germans who lost a limb) concludes with the brief postscript: "In addition came the victims who were killed in the concentration camps, the labour camps, the death chambers etc." Whereupon the author returns to safer ground, telling us how much property was destroyed. One book talks at length of the "horrific suffering, such as the world no longer believed possible in the twentieth century". The reference is not to the Holocaust or any other aspect of Nazi crimes, but to what the Germans themselves had gone through.
The fathers-and-children revolution of 1968 and the years that followed - a generational confrontation more dramatic in Germany than anywhere else in Europe or the United States - began to chip away at the lies. The 1968 effect was by no means immediate. (The Baader-Meinhof terrorism of the 1970s, which theoretically demanded more openness about the past, perhaps slowed down the process of change.) When Basil Fawlty goosestepped his way past the German guests in the Fawlty Towers dining room, muttering (not quite sotto voce) "Don't mention the war", he was partly right, despite his buffoonishness, to believe that the Germans were still in denial at that time, in 1975.
Only at the end of the Seventies did the greater openness began to be real. In 1977 came the publication of What I Have Heard about Adolf Hitler, a 350-page book consisting of quotations from a series of school essays on the above theme. The answer to the question was: not much. Hitler was Swiss, Dutch, or Italian; he lived in the 17th century, the 19th century, the 1950s; he was a First World War general, the founder of the East German Communist Party, a leader of German democracy. The ignorance was easily explained. The subtitle of the book, which had a dramatic impact when it was published, was simple: "Consequences of a Taboo." Two years later, the screening of Holocaust - a US television mini-series derided elsewhere as "genocide shrunken to the level of Bonanza with music appropriate to Love Story" - brought the human impact of Hitler's crimes into German homes for the first time. In the words of one of several German books devoted to the extraordinary Holocaust effect: "A whole nation began - as a result of a television film - suddenly to discuss openly the darkest chapter of its history."
The underlying reason for this new openness, which grew through the 1980s,
was the change of generations. The children of those who had committed crimes,
or who had stood by while crimes were committed, were eager to confront the
past in a way that their parents were so reluctant to do....
Andrew Cunningham, in the Daily Telegraph (July 14, 2004):
[Dr. Andrew Cunningham teaches at Charterhouse.]
Fifty years ago, their names tripped off the tongue: Clive of India, Wolfe of Quebec, Captain Cook, Mungo Park, Livingstone and Stanley, Baden-Powell of Mafeking, Kitchener of Khartoum. Every schoolchild grew up knowing these imperial greats. On the wall of most classrooms was a map of the world, one-third coloured pink, as a reminder.
Now, 50 years of progressive education and misguided history teaching have done what these figures' opponents never quite managed - killed them off. Ask any teenager today about the illustrious names on this list and you'll meet with a complete blank. As far as history teaching in schools is concerned, the British Empire may as well not have happened. Our children are never taught about it.
These are the unsurprising findings of Ofsted, which complained this week that schools spend "insufficient time" learning about the Empire. "Insufficient time"? Surely, the understatement of the year. Ofsted's inspectors found that pupils aged 11 to 16 receive a mere three or four lessons on the subject in five full years at school.
The Empire barely features on the GCSE syllabuses, which devote most of their attention to trendy topics, such as Hitler, Stalin, the General Strike and Cold War. Our teenagers know all about the Nazis and trade unionism, but nothing about the Empire upon which the sun, once so famously, never set.
What little information does filter through tends to be sickeningly one-sided: condemning the British Empire as some brutal aberration. One BBC website aimed at schoolchildren came up with this analysis: "The Empire came into greatness by killing lots of people... and stealing their countries." The reality, of course, is that the British Empire was special largely because it was based on commerce, not conquest.
As Ofsted argues: "Pupils should know about the Empire." Why not put it more strongly? It should be top of the syllabus. Yes, of course the Empire can be a sensitive subject (though not, perhaps, as sensitive as its detractors would have us believe) and should be taught in the context of its own, vastly different world order. Pupils should be aware that its legacy can be interpreted differently, according to beliefs and background. They should also realise (as if they need reminding) that imperialism - whether British, French or American - is no longer acceptable. But, in addition to being the biggest Empire the world has ever seen, ours was also the most benign. It deserves better than to be consigned to oblivion, 100 years after its Edwardian heyday....
Now, more forward-thinking historians, such as Niall Ferguson, are at last giving the Empire credit for its many achievements. As Ferguson says in a recent book:"The Empire maintained a global peace, unmatched before or since." We should be ashamed of the fact that the Empire is no longer taught in schools. Imagine the French being so coy and uncaring about their imperial past. Far from being embarrassed, we have a duty to remember the British Empire with some pride.
Richard Steven Street, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (July 16, 2004):
[Richard Steven Street is a journalist and historian. This article is adapted from his book Photographing Farmworkers in California, just published by Stanford University Press. He is also the author of Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford University Press, 2004).]
Scholars are sometimes vague about the exact origins of a book, especially when the research and writing span more than half their lifetime. Not me. Although I devoted 30 years to this study, I can still recall its violent and bloody birth.
On Tuesday, July 31, 1973, while beginning my career as an agricultural photographer, I followed the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) in the Coachella and San Joaquin valleys of California. The year had been a disaster for the UFW. In January, the union had held more than 150 contracts covering 50,000 workers. Seven months later, it was down to 12 contracts and 6,500 workers. Now striking grape pickers were engaging in massive civil disobedience. They intended to win back lost contracts and overturn the way courts and law-enforcement officials used injunctions to restrict picketing, and they were putting their bodies on the line, submitting to mass arrests and clogging rural jails. During one of those confrontations, I witnessed the aftermath of two deputies dragging a 16-year-old farmworker named Marta Rodriguez out of a vineyard. She was struggling to free herself and screaming for help.
Photographers and news crews were everywhere. A news helicopter hovered overhead. But only one photographer, a tall, blond man named Bob Fitch, was in a position to get Marta's picture. Crouched behind the fender of a car, where police billy clubs could not reach, he recorded a sequence of images, several of which focused on Marta. Here was a photographer bearing witness, fully engaged, with minimal time to react, firing off a string of pictures. Both high art and on-the-spot photojournalism, the dramatic photographs of Marta -- and several equally dramatic shots of other farmworkers being arrested and dragged out of the vineyards -- haunted me for weeks thereafter. While covering the continuing strikes and the funerals of two murdered farmworkers, I could not forget that terrified young woman.
As I pondered that image, I became consumed by the goal of attempting a comprehensive inquiry into the photographic history of California farmworkers. It seems odd now that it did not occur to me or someone else even earlier. ...
In 1826, my great-great-grandfather, Robert Dimsdall Burr of Philadelphia, left the United States and traveled to Chile, where he settled on a remote southern island to make his fortune.
But even though I was born and grew up in South America, I knew from a very young age that I was part of an extremely old North American family and that I was associated with a very grand, very dashing character who had been a founding father, a hero of the American Revolution, a senator from New York and Thomas Jefferson's first vice president — but whose career had come to an ignominious end because he fought a duel with, and killed, Alexander Hamilton.
As a child in Chile, I didn't think very much about this story or about my fabled ancestor, Aaron Burr. I wasn't in touch with my North American family. It was all very distant, and besides, I was preoccupied with events in Chile.
But it turns out that I am one of Burr's closest living relatives, as I learned when I moved back to this country and reconnected with my relatives. That's why I was chosen to reenact the duel between Burr and Hamilton in Weehawken, N.J., today on its 200th anniversary.
At first, there were some questions about whether members of the Burr family should participate in the reenactment. What advantage is to be gained, some asked, by re-creating the very event that helped blacken Burr's memory? But I disagree.
I believe we should take every opportunity to promote the idea of Burr as a complex, three-dimensional person.
Burr was a hero of the battle of Quebec. He fought in Paramus, N.J., behind the British lines. He was at Valley Forge and he served on Gen. Washington's staff. He served in high positions in government and was involved in the great issues of his day. Yes, he could be strong-willed and opinionated, but this independent man's contributions to the founding of this country were considerable.
What happened between Burr and Hamilton has always been hard to understand; there's a lot of ambiguity in the story. They'd known each other, of course. Among other things, they practiced law in New York at the same time, had worked together on some cases, opposed one another in others. But for reasons that historians have not yet explained satisfactorily, Hamilton developed a deep animosity toward Burr and missed no opportunity to cast aspersions on his character and — for as long as 15 years before the duel — to place obstacles in the way of Burr's political career....
Those commentators who have recently proclaimed that Ronald Reagan's presidency was what sent communism into the dustbin of history seem to be over estimating the role that individuals play in history, and are also ignoring the role played by all American presidents from Harry Truman on who successfully contained the expansionist policies of the Soviet government.
One of the more intriguing theories has been put forth by students who assert that the Soviet system's fall was assured when the Czechoslovakian experiment with a more humane and tolerant form of Marxism was crushed by a Soviet military invasion.
In the Spring of 1968 the Government of Alexander Dubcek proclaimed that it wished to have what it described as"Socialism with a human face" in Czechoslovakia, and began to tolerate greater freedom of expression and even limited forms of political dissent. While Czech society reveled in its new found freedom and Dubcek became immensely popular, the other communist governments in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union became alarmed at the prospect of their citizenry demanding similar rights Dubcek, who was a dedicated communist, asserted that his reforms would serve to strengthen the communist system by making it more open, and believed that he could persuade the Soviet leadership to tolerate his policies as a result. But he was mistaken, and the Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and installed a hard lime communist government that was more to its liking.
If Dubcek's experiment had been permitted to continue it is possible that Czechoslovakia would have evolved, some historians believe, into a pluralist communist state that could have served as a model for the Soviet Union's own evolution towards political pluralism. When Mr. Gorbachev sought to reform Soviet society in a manner that was consistent with what Dubcek had attempted in Czechoslovakia, the Soviet system could not be saved by piece meal reforms at that time, and soon began to implode.
And it may be that the reasons for America's victory over the Soviet Union was rooted in the natures of their respective societies. Soviet society penalized individual initiative and restricted its citizens freedom in a variety of ways, while America was on the whole a tolerant society that permitted individual expression....
The Western world is decadent. Its emphasis on individualism is corrupt. Its materialism is dangerous. Its vision of modernity reflects not progress but regress. The West will destroy itself. But if it doesn't, its destruction should be helped along. True salvation can be found only by returning to ancient disciplines and beliefs.
Such views may not seem totally unfamiliar. Similar doctrines are held by Islamist terror groups and by those finding common cause with them. Writers like Paul Berman have already shown a connection between Islamist ideas and 20th-century Western Fascism, with its own atavistic hatreds of modernity. Some of these ideas have emerged on the political left, as well, appearing in Marxist thought and inspiring the anti-globalization movement. Their impact on the political and religious landscape has been profound.
But how did such ideas develop? One surprising source turns out to be a little-known group of 20th-century European intellectuals. They passed these ideas on to small groups of ardent followers, but their books and pamphlets gradually shaped a worldwide subculture of belief and devotion. Their loose-limbed movement, which began in the 1920's, has been called traditionalism.
The pioneers of traditionalism are not well known, but are now the subject of a new book by Mark Sedgwick, a historian of Islam who teaches at the American University in Cairo. He began writing"Against the Modern World: Traditionalism and the Secret Intellectual History of the 20th Century" (Oxford), thinking that it would be a study of Islam in the West, since many traditionalist figures were converts to Islam.
But he found that these conversions — many done in secret — were associated with broader religious theories. As he searched Web sites, sought reluctant interviewees and probed an esoteric culture, he also came upon traditionalism's intersection with Fascism, the influence of traditionalism on American religious studies and the influence of traditionalism on Islamic thought. The careers of its original advocates also turned out to be elaborately eccentric: magic and sorcery mixed with Hinduism and Sufism; scholarship mixed with calls for revolution; devotion mixed with cult.
Mr. Sedgwick's history of traditionalism, the first scholarly effort by an outsider, also sheds light on contemporary passions.
While the book is flawed by awkward organization and the need for more systematic examination of traditionalist ideas, it also makes clear how important this neglected movement is. On his Web site (www.traditionalists.org), Mr. Sedgwick lists more than 200 traditionalist organizations and Web sites in 34 countries. Even the arts now reflect traditionalist influence. The British composer, Sir John Tavener, whose seven-hour work,"The Veil of the Temple," will receive its United States premiere on July 24 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, writes religious minimalist music and praises traditionalist writers, describing one, Firthjof Schuon (1907-98), as he"in whose mystical presence I live."
One of the central documents of traditionalism is a relatively brief book, first published in 1927,"The Crisis of the Modern World." Its author, René Guénon (1886-1951), born in Blois, France, to Catholic parents, had been a student of mathematics but soon turned to theosophy, Masonry, medieval Christianity, Hinduism and, finally, Islam. Guénon moved to Cairo and later seemed to retreat into solitude, fearing evil sorcery....
On a recent bright, muggy morning in Manhattan, the screenwriter David Franzoni was reclining in a low-slung chair in the tapestry-strewn barroom at the Ritz-Carlton hotel, across from Central Park, talking about history. Franzoni, who writes big clanging period pictures like"Gladiator" and"Amistad," was wearing jeans, an open-collared shirt and a loose jacket, and waving about a mop of thick black-gray hair (the last time he seems to have put a comb to it was when he accepted the Oscar for"Gladiator").
He was cursing copiously. Reverence was nowhere in sight. Everything was up for revision.
Franzoni on former presidents:"Jefferson -- what a jerk that guy was. Jefferson was an animal." Years ago Franzoni wrote a biopic of George Washington in which he dismantles the third president.
Franzoni on famous battles of yore:"So I'm beginning to think maybe Scipio actually got the crap kicked out of him at Carthage." He is working on a script about the Carthaginian general Hannibal, who is commonly thought to have lost to Scipio.
On the Greatest Generation:"I can't find any stories I like in World War II." And Camelot:"These guys were the Wild Bunch, not some shiny little cans of metal cruising around the countryside rescuing bored housewives from distress. These guys were killers."
Franzoni, who is 55, was especially animated on this last topic. He was in New York for the premiere of"King Arthur," his latest film, a $100-million-plus Jerry Bruckheimer-produced retelling of the legend of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. Lerner & Loewe this is not:"I like to think about these knights as guys who came back from 'Nam. My description to Jerry was 'The fall of Saigon, the last chopper's on top of the embassy and they have to go, and these guys can't get out. They have to go up to the DMZ for one more run. Merlin's Ho Chi Minh, up there with his Viet Cong. We don't have him flying through the air talking to chipmunks.'"
Living the paradox of Hollywood's muckety-muck screenwriters, Franzoni, for all his clout, has seen his name in the credits of only a few films over his 25-year career, so premieres are always exciting for him. He'd brought along his wife and son, with whom he lives in Malibu.
Still, he was bothered. Disney had just cut"Arthur" to get a PG-13 rating, and he had no idea what the new print looked like."Here's what [ticks] me off about PG-13 -- you don't see the blood. You have people dying like in old Ronald Reagan movies again -- gloriously. PG-13 is like this '50s lobotimization of kids again. So a kid is from Iraq, and his family's been killed and he's lost a leg -- can he see an R-rated film?"
Lost legs -- this is how Franzoni sees history. His characters, when they're not busy being shackled in chains or declaiming on the rights of man, are usually dismembering each other. Franzoni believes that Arthur, for instance, was not a chivalrous medieval king but rather a tragic Roman mercenary with a weakness for humanist philosophy whose lot it was to be stuck in Britain while his empire fell around him. Assorted British cultural groups are objecting to the portrayal, as are some historians.
"The Celts despise our theory. We have a Celtic advisor on board, and he's always under fire." Franzoni was taking it in stride."Historians -- they're just drunk idiots in tweed." He likes to take a fatalist's view. In his eyes, America, like the Rome of"Gladiator," is an empire in decline."Ultimately we're going to fall," he said."This Patriot Act is the tenuous beginnings of the erosion of free speech. Rome fell -- it took a long time. We're going there, but it's a slow process. CNN was taken over by the Caesars a long time ago. You're not getting anything out of these people."
Franzoni may get his fascination with war from his father, a veteran who owned several companies, a gun maker among them, in Vermont, where Franzoni grew up. As a kid, he watched John Ford and Roger Corman movies."One night I stayed up really late, and 'All Quiet on the Western Front' was on. And I remember it was like I was hit with a hammer."
He studied paleontology at the University of Vermont and after college traveled to Germany, where he bought a cheap motorcycle. He rode it across Europe and western Asia. In Baghdad, he traded a book on the Irish Revolution with a traveling companion in return for"Those About to Die," a book about the Roman games. He was in thrall."The Romans had this unique vision of themselves -- they were born monsters and proud of it.
"Somewhere in India I decided I wanted to be a screenwriter," he added....
In its first academic year of operations, Students for Academic Freedom has become a nationwide campus movement dedicated to promoting intellectual diversity and to removing political partisanship from the classroom. SAF has inspired legislators in at least ten states and the U.S. Congress to take up the Academic Bill of Rights. Its website www.studentsforacademicfreedom.org has become a leading destination for college students across America. As the end of the school year approaches, it’s time to take stock of our record of accomplishment.
The creation of 135 chapters on as many college and university campuses across the country in just two school terms. Among the schools organized are Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Duke, Brown, UCLA, Berkeley, U. Wisconsin-Madison, Missouri, Emory, Georgia Tech, Michigan and American University.
These chapters are collecting documentation of political abuses in the classroom and advocating passage of the Academic Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights calls on colleges and universities to end discrimination in hiring practices based on political or religious beliefs and to promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom on campus. By exposing partisanship in the classroom to public scrutiny, SAF has helped to create nationwide awareness of widespread classroom indoctrination and partisan discrimination on college campuses.
United States Congressman Jack Kingston (R-GA) has introduced the Academic Bill of Rights as House Concurrent Resolution 318, which calls for colleges and universities to voluntarily end discrimination in hiring practices based on political or religious beliefs and to promote intellectual diversity on campus. Senator Jeff Sessions (R-AL) has agreed to sponsor similar legislation in the U.S. Senate in September....
Other achievements (partial list):
San Francisco State University reversed the expulsion of student Tatiana Menaker, a Russian Jewish refugee, who had been expelled for five years after comments she made objecting to a Palestinian campus demonstration at which activists shouted “Hitler didn’t finish the job.” She was not granted a hearing in her own defense, but instead was immediately escorted off campus by three uniformed campus police officers. Students for Academic Freedom organized a “Tatiana Menaker Defense Committee” which succeeded in negotiating her immediate reinstatement as a student.
At Metro State (Denver) student George Culpepper was banned from the Political Science Association by its faculty advisor Oneida Meranto, along with all College Republicans. When he testified about the episode to a Senate hearing for the Academic Bill of Rights, Professor Meranto publicly attacked him in the Denver Post, claiming that his testimony was sour grapes because he was failing her class. In fact, Culpepper was earning a B+ in her course until he voluntarily dropped it because of her bias. In making this false statement to the press, Meranto violated the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), which forbids teachers from discussing their students’ grades and educational progress publicly. SAF took up Culpepper’s defense, bringing widespread media attention and Meranto’s resignation as faculty advisor to the student Political Science Association.
At Georgia Tech, Ruth Malharto, a public policy major was told by her public policy professor that she would fail her course because she went to a conservative conference in Washington. SAF notified the dean of diversity at Georgia Tech, congressman Jack Kingston and the office of governor Sonny Perdue. All three intervened in behalf of the student who was allowed to withdraw from the course without penalty....