Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: VDH's Private Papers (3-3-11)
One of the most surreal experiences of my life — even apart from having a ruptured appendix and emergency surgery in a Gaddafi-government clinic — was a spring assignment in Libya to lecture on the Roman ruins there (which are quite impressive, since the neglect and ensuing 40 years of sand have, in counterintuitive fashion, been a protective cocoon from Gaddafi’s far greater ravages).
It was like no other country I have ever visited: wet garbage and sewage in the streets; an oil-exporter with massive pot-holes and no asphalt to fix them; almost every room, office, or hallway in Tripoli with peeling paint, exposed wiring, and something broken; the airport a disaster; almost every human action a possible violation of some government statute.
And, of course, Gaddafi’s picture was everywhere — sometimes as the protector of Islam, sometimes a sort of new-age Stalin, sometimes as the spiritual leader of black Africa, always presented with a nauseating green backdrop. In fact, books, shirts, even simple packaging was green. Citizens were terrified and talked in whispers, often relating some of the strangest rumors imaginable: past calls to burn all violins, past calls for every citizen to raise chickens, past calls for bonuses for marrying black African nationals. I arrived the day Lionel Ritchie was playing a 20th-anniversary anti-American concert commemorating Gaddafi’s heroic resistance to the Reagan bombing.
In sum, Gaddafi seems to have managed to destroy almost everything he touched: infrastructure, normal human interaction, the energy industry, the media — every aspect of life bore his destructive handprint....
Posted on: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 18:01
SOURCE: CS Monitor (3-2-11)
A few days ago, I ran into a student whom I hadn’t seen since the first day of class. With a slightly embarrassed smile, he told me that he had dropped my course. “Too much work,” he grinned. “I thought education classes were supposed to be guts.”
Alas, he’s right. A “gut” is an easy course, and ed school courses are guts, for the most part. That’s also the part we omit from our debate on teacher preparation, which focuses largely on the “skills” that future instructors need – and pays little attention to their intellectual development....
But nobody in this debate made any mention of the great elephant in the room: Ed school courses are too easy. No matter what we call these classes – or what teaching skills they transmit – they don’t challenge students’ intellects as much as other courses do.
And now we have the data to prove it. According to “Academically Adrift,” a new book by my New York University colleague Richard Arum and the University of Virginia’s Josipa Roksa, just 45 percent of students in education and social work reported taking a course in the previous semester requiring more than 20 pages of writing, while 61 percent took a class with more than 40 pages of reading per week. By comparison, 68 percent of social science and humanities students took a class with 20 pages of writing, and 88 percent had a class with 40 pages of weekly reading....
Posted on: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 11:14
SOURCE: CS Monitor (3-2-11)
In the past week or so, a lot of Western press has been given over to the question, “Is China the next Egypt?” Why this question is receiving so much attention puzzles me. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking: We’d like to see every country under authoritarian rule become more democratic. But looking at China today, even if I squint really hard, I don’t see a government at risk of being toppled by mass protests soon....
First, and most obvious, under the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) China has enjoyed 30 years of uninterrupted economic development. GDP has grown at an average annual rate of nearly 10 percent for the past two and half decades. Children live much better than their parents, who, in turn, live much better than their parents. Pundits may point to the fact that Egypt’s GDP has experienced solid growth in recent years as well. But growth there has been half that of China; and more telling is the percentage of Egyptians still living under the poverty line, a whopping 20 percent, compared to China’s 3 percent.
Wisely, too, the Chinese government has dedicated much of its new wealth to building up the country’s infrastructure. By pouring money and resources into the road and highway system, subway lines, high-speed rail, power grids, telecommunications, schools and education, and water supplies, for example, the CCP has sought to improve China’s standard of living. In these projects, Chinese people find some tangible signs of a government that is giving back to the country. In Egypt, the popular perception was that former President Hosni Mubarak used the country’s growing prosperity mostly simply to enrich himself, his family, and his cronies....
Posted on: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 11:06
SOURCE: National Review (3-3-11)
America seems trapped in an exploding Middle East minefield.
Revolts are breaking out amid the choke points of world commerce. Shiite populations are now restive in the Gulf monarchies. Not far away, Iran’s youth are sick and tired of the country’s seventh-century theocracy. Astride the Suez Canal, Egyptian demonstrators just threw out the Mubarak regime. On the coast of the southern Mediterranean, Tunisia and Libya are in upheaval, just a few hundred miles from Europe.
The politics of rebellion are often bewildering. Theocrats in Iran, kings in the Gulf states and Jordan, dictators in Egypt and Tunisia, and thugs in Libya are all gone or threatened. Some, such as Mubarak, were often pro-American. Others, such as Libya’s Qaddafi, hate the United States. Calls for reform now come from a bewildering menu of protestors: Muslim extremists, secular pro-Western liberals, hard-core terrorists, and everyday people who just want a better life.
Strategic concerns frame almost every one of these upheavals. Israel may soon have enemies on all of its borders. Iran is close to getting a nuclear weapon. All the unrest reminds us that today’s supposed friend is tomorrow’s possible enemy — with no certainty about who will end up with a deposed strongman’s arsenal of weapons...
Posted on: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 11:03
SOURCE: NYT (2-23-11)
TWO images serve as bookends to the four-decades-old rule of Libya’s ruler, Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. The first is the picture taken a few days after the Sept. 1, 1969, coup that brought him to power: it shows a handsome, pencil-thin revolutionary in military uniform, kneeling in the desert sand to pray. The other was taken two days ago: Colonel Qaddafi in bedouin garb as an uprising sparked by the arrest of a human rights lawyer in Benghazi continued to overtake the country, defiantly and incoherently defending his self-styled revolution, vowing to struggle on until death.
Between those two shots lie 42 years of iron-fisted rule, and thousands of photos that show him slowly turning from a young firebrand to a mastermind of international terrorism; from ambitious new ruler, bent on restoring the grandeur of Arab nationalism after the assassination of his hero President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt to international pariah; from would-be philosopher to clownish figure whose demagoguery was derided by friend and foe alike. And, finally, after years of sanctions by the United States and the international community, a much older but equally combative Colonel Qaddafi was seemingly rehabilitated by the West.
After the 1969 revolution, Western leaders initially believed that the new Libyan regime would follow in the kingdom’s footsteps, with a pro-Western bent to its policies. It quickly became clear, however, that Colonel Qaddafi was no ordinary Arab leader who would live by the conventions of international behavior or decorum.
Once Colonel Qaddafi assumed power, his message was unambiguous: he cast himself and Libya as a bulwark against what he perceived as the predations of the West. The brutality of the Italian colonial period — which had lasted from 1911 through 1943 and led to the deaths of perhaps half of the population of Libya’s eastern province — would become for him an enduring obsession. The Italians had destroyed whatever embryonic bureaucratic and administrative structures had been in place before they invaded, so Libya had few elements of modern statehood. And the monarchy — headed by King Idris I, who showed no love for ruling a unified Libya — had for almost 20 years largely left matters as they were when the Italians left....
Posted on: Wednesday, March 2, 2011 - 17:42
SOURCE: The Atlantic (3-1-11)
Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.]
B. R. Myers's much-discussed condemnation of foodies and the writers who enable them is, in many ways, a masterpiece of invective. Globe-trotting gourmets, sanctimonious Slow Foodsters, and gonzo adventure eaters all come in for their share of Myers's signature drubbing. Critics of the piece have chided him for cherry-picking examples in order to caricature the food movement. This seems like a fair enough assessment. But the point of a polemic isn't to be balanced. It's to provoke thoughts, spark discussion, and, in some cases, even strengthen the movement it's criticizing. It's in this spirit—the spirit of continuing a dialogue—that I leap into this scrum.
An older genre of food writing carefully avoided this pitfall. The writings of Jim Harrison, Calvin Trillin, and the late A.J. Liebling tend to do something today's foodie-writers rarely do: they celebrate gluttony as gluttony rather than twist it into a pretext for social and environmental justice (much less sound mosaics or television shows). These writers steer clear of the underlying ethical issues of food and agriculture because, given their dogged pursuit of sensual gratification, they're likely aware that it's impossible to be both slave to the palate and mother to the earth. They wear their salivations on their sleeves, tilt back their privileged gullets, and eat high on the hog without apology. Any concerns they might have about the sustainability of their behavior is left for others to ponder. I don't particularly care for their message. But I admire their honesty (and envy their literary skill).
In contrast, today's foodies choose to casually invest their quest for flavor with moral transcendence. They also fail to confront the very real possibility that one simply cannot eat ethically and, at the same time, fetishize taste. To really eat ethically more often than not means to avoid the primacy and exclusivity of taste. It means to forgo foods usually associated with"fine dining"—rich cheeses, meat, luscious desserts, and seafood dished out in fancy restaurants—in exchange for (as Mark Bittman's work quietly reiterates) a humble bowl of beans, greens, and whole grains cooked up at home (with the leftovers eaten all week for lunch). It means, in essence, embracing sacrifice, even asceticism. Any committed vegan will have some sense of what this entails....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 16:12
SOURCE: Newsweek (2-27-11)
The upheaval engulfing the Arab world presents the United States with two choices. Washington can either embrace change, stand on the sidelines, and accept whatever results. Or it can intervene, insert itself in the process, and try to shape the outcome. Advocating the latter would be to assume reserves of power, not to mention wisdom, at Washington’s disposal. At the moment, however, the U.S. possesses neither.
But history, too, argues for restraint. Consider what several decades of outside meddling in the Islamic world has accomplished. Out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire after World War I came a new map of the vast region, designed not to promote the well-being of its inhabitants, but to satisfy European (chiefly British) interests. The Allies drew boundaries, created nation-states, and installed monarchs to ensure Western access to oil and control of the Suez Canal.
British success proved fleeting, however. The many tasks proved expensive, and in the wake of World War II, cash-strapped Britain devolved its responsibilities onto the U.S., which had grown hungry for global leadership. Although American aims differed little from Great Britain’s, the Cold War enabled Washington to camouflage its purposes. It portrayed Iran’s Mohammad Mossadegh as a communist dupe to justify his overthrow, depicted Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser as a puppet of the Kremlin rather than as an Arab nationalist, and endorsed Israel’s image of itself as a lonely bastion of democracy in a sea of Soviet-armed authoritarians.
By the end of the 20th century, Washington’s ambitions had ballooned rapidly. Yet the unintended consequences of America’s informal empire, which began as a trickle, rushed on as an unwelcome flood. Chief among them: the emergence in Iran of an Islamic Republic deeply hostile to the United States; Israeli insecurities finding expression in a penchant for an excessive reliance on force, recklessly and aggressively employed; the rise of widespread anti-Americanism throughout much of the Islamic world; and the incubation of radical Islamist organizations committed to expelling the U.S., purging the region of its corrupt local rulers, and unifying the umma....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 13:22
SOURCE: Jacksonville Journal-Courier (3-1-11)
I have never paid union dues. I have been a white collar worker most of my life, in jobs where there are no unions. But I have benefited greatly from unions.
One of my first jobs was delivering mail for a summer. That was too short a time to join the mail carriers’ union, but I was paid the good wage that they had won through collective bargaining. In college, I worked summers digging ditches and making truck deliveries. The small businesses I worked for did not have unionized workers, but I still benefited from unions. Decades of activism by organized workers had won the 40-hour week, the minimum wage, protection in case of accidents, health insurance and many other benefits. No matter where I worked, the history of collective bargaining by unionized workers made a big difference in my pay, hours and conditions.
Unions are not and never have been assemblies of angels. Many unions, notably the Teamsters, have a long history of corruption, especially by organized crime. Some union officials have lined their pockets, made backroom deals with bosses and rigged elections. In this way, unions are like businesses and governments: Occasionally they are dishonest and rip off their members, customers or voters....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 11:29
SOURCE: Huffington Post (2-28-11)
Is Katy Perry changing what it means to be a man?
It all seemed to start this past fall on Glee when Blaine Anderson played by the self-identified straight actor Darren Criss serenaded Kurt Hummel, played by Chris Colfer, who earned a Golden Globe award for his palpable portrayal of gay teen angst. Since Kurt had been bullied at his public high school in small town Ohio, he went on a search to find a school that had a zero tolerance policy on bullying. He uncovers an aristocratic prep school: imagine Dead Poets Society meets the allure of Great Gatsby. Kurt stumbles upon Blaine Anderson, think Gatsby, a confident, charismatic and handsome figure, who in the typical fashion of a TV musical invites Kurt to glee club practice. The scene unfolds in the enticing deep mahogany decorated halls of a prep school, evoking the iconic castle of teenage boy bonding: dark wooden bookshelves, navy blazers and preppy haircuts. Think Dead Poets Society.
If Kurt had not already been swept away by the invitation, then Blaine's musical outburst left him stunned. The idea that a guy is signing to another guy on network TV in a high school setting is groundbreaking. It is even more powerful, if we exit the study hall-cum-music video and consider recent events, particularly the media's reporting of gay suicides and teenage bulling. Blaine singing to Kurt more than likely made many gay people across the United States realize that marriage equality may not have yet been achieved, but something radical had just unfolded on the Fox Network. By having teenage boys actually seducing each other publicly with a popular pop song iconoclastically revolted against the mantra of prep schools as a bastion if not incubator of masculinity and heterosexuality and irreverently flipped it into a "safe space" for homosexual desire.
Even more profoundly, in this homage to Katy Perry, the representation of gay men on the silver screen had transformed radically. No longer were gay men simply represented as sexually promiscuous, their bars and clubs exposed as the backdrop to crime scenes on Law and Order. No longer were gay men told the only place they could sing was belting out some antiquated show tune on a Broadway stage. No longer were gay men shown on TV or film as dying of AIDS or fighting for equal rights. Instead, they experienced the pinnacle of teenagehood: the high school crush. They finally were able to come out as a people who had for generations in high schools, prep schools, and boarding schools had "teenage dreams" of the charismatic, popular boy making a move on them. It is the TV version of Christopher Rice's A Density of Souls, when the awkward gay kid scores with the high school football star.
This episode of Glee set off fireworks for fair Kurt, but it should not go unnoticed that Blaine sang Katy Perry's "Teenage Dream." Unlike Lady Gaga's songs that speak to listeners across racial, gender, sexual, age and many other lines, this particular song by Perry is the embodiment of heterosexuality -- there are no utterances, hints or subtexts in this particular song that are found in Gaga or even Madonna that could subversively speak to a gay listener. There are such themes, of course, in other songs by the California siren, such as in her breakout hit, "I Kissed a Girl". Yet in "Teenage Dream," a gay or alternative subtext does not exist, it is instead a heterosexual anthem of teenage lust played out on a California beach. But that's all the more reason why it blew Kurt and audiences away, because Blaine had deftly managed to take a purely female voice and whip into his own seductive, masculine version. And in so doing Blaine broke through standard gender conventions by adapting a female song and making it cool in the process. The reverse is often true. Women sing and adapt men's songs all the time, but in a culture that heavily polices male behavior, men don't sing women's songs. And when they do, they are often performed under the banner of camp and drag and never channeled through the masculinity and virility born out of prep schools and male bonding.
But fortunately, this gender revolution is being televised, and Katy Perry seems to be the omnipresent narrator. Recently, at the University of Arkansas a group of guys, looking like fraternity brothers, posted a video on YouTube of them performing Perry's recent hit "Firework," a song that specifically aims to speak to kids, who feel marginalized for a number of reasons from challenges with obesity, terminal illness and homosexuality. Unlike "Teenage Dream," this song by Perry does in fact have a deep social message that was clearly heard by this group of guys, who on a snow day at the University of Arkansas opted to create a music video. Like Kurt, viewers of this video are stunned to observe that behind the closed doors of what appears to be a fraternity house, the college guys sing and dance along to Katy Perry. These guys prove that life may indeed imitate art. The humor and seduction of the video lies in the fact that guys don't dress up in order to perform the song, but instead the video derives its power from their authenticity. Some of the guys are unshaven, others wear plaid, and one is even shirtless. They parade around in their messy, worn-out house, where clothes pile up in the background and junk carpets the floor. Like drunken fraternity guys, they go nuts. They dance on the roof; roll around shirtless in the snow, and sing loudly with the windows down in their cars, disrupting the otherwise sedated college town. Inevitably, they provide insight into the interior of masculinity; it is an updated version of Girls Gone Wild. But there is a catch: there are no girls. They sing a highly popular girl's song, which until now was thought to be consumed mostly by those on the margins not those at the center of fraternity row.
So, is masculinity changing? When I was in college in the 1990s, white guys never danced, unless intoxicated and even then it was without rhythm and was often reduced to a head nod and body shrug in honor of Kurt Cobain's death. Even the breakout of the boy bands in the late 1990s did not signal such a radical transformation in male gender norms in the same way that these high school and college guys have innovatively transformed gender roles by ventriloquizing Katy Perry and choreographing snappy dance moves. So, something does seem to be definitely changing. According to historian Nicholas L. Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps, college men's identity has constantly been in flux and has been reconstituting itself throughout the past two centuries. Syrett explains how men in the second decade of the twentieth century broke out of their nineteenth-century molds that emulated literature and scholarship as the hallmarks of masculinity and instead began to define masculinity in terms of sexual conquest. Manliness, Syrett insightfully contends, has a history and each generation redefines what it means to be a guy.
So maybe, Katy Perry in a surprise twist is doing more to change gender identity than the highly theatrical Gaga, popping out of an egg and calling it "born again." Maybe the gender renaissance is happening because of the "California Gurl", who has produced the lyrics that have made it fun and acceptable for guys to sing songs made popular by girls. And maybe that's the "Teenage Dream"....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 11:28
SOURCE: Middle East Forum (3-1-11)
Turbulent times often breed nostalgia for a supposedly idyllic past. Viewing the upheavals sweeping the Middle East as a mass expression of outrage against oppression, eminent historian Bernard Lewis fondly recalled past regional order.
"The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization," he told The Jerusalem Post. "The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living."
I doubt past generations of Muslims would share this view. In the long history of the Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture. No sooner had the prophet Muhammad died than his successor, Abu Bakr, had to suppress a widespread revolt among the Arabian tribes. Twenty-three years later, the head of the umma, Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered by disgruntled rebels; his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was confronted for most of his reign with armed insurrections, most notably by the governor of Syria, Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufian, who went on to establish the Umayyad dynasty after Ali's assassination.
Mu'awiya's successors managed to hang onto power mainly by relying on physical force to prevent or quell revolts in the diverse corners of their empire. The same was true for the Abbasids during the long centuries of their sovereignty....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 11:23
SOURCE: Philadelphia Inquirer (3-1-11)
In 2001, high school English teacher Shirley Evans-Marshall gave her class a copy of the American Library Association's "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books." She asked her students to choose a book on the list and explain why it was controversial.
But the assignment itself was too controversial for Evans-Marshall's Ohio school district, which declined to renew her contract.
Evans-Marshall sued, claiming a violation of her First Amendment rights. And last year, a federal appeals court ruled that she didn't have any - at least not in her own classroom.
"The right to free speech ... does not extend to the in-class curricular speech of teachers in primary and secondary schools," the court declared.
That's why teachers still need collective bargaining, which lies at the heart of this winter's bitter battles over public-employee unions....
Posted on: Tuesday, March 1, 2011 - 11:21