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: LA Review of Books (5-2-12)
Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom's most recent books are China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know, available in paperback and Kindle editions from Oxford University Press, and the forthcoming University of California Press anthology Chinese Characters: Profiles of Fast-Changing Lives in a Fast-Changing Land, which he co-edited with Angilee Shah. Wasserstrom is Chair of the History Department at the University of California, Irvine.
One of the many things that I like about the Los Angeles Review of Books is that we have a designated editor for noir. Be it hard-boiled, true crime or international espionage, I have always enjoyed unraveling the puzzles of a good whodunit. But the real force of such stories, at least when set in distant times or foreign places one has never been, is how they expose common patterns of life within a previously unfamiliar setting.
Looking back at my freshman year in college, I can honestly say that encounters with a detective novel and a true crime work helped steer me toward my chosen profession. No, I don’t solve — or commit — crimes for a living. But I might never have ended up with my actual day job of teaching and writing about Chinese history if I hadn’t been so entranced with the first class I took on China, and the assigned reading that went with it. One of the books was a novel featuring Judge Dee, a magistrate with a talent for deduction based on an actual bureaucrat who lived during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). Reading The Chinese Bell Murders, by Robert Van Gulik, I was transported more than a millennium to a setting in which — to cite just one example that that has always stuck with me — the beggars were organized into a formal guild. The other book was The Death of Woman Wang, an elegantly crafted work of historical re-creation by Jonathan Spence, which begins with an earthquake, ends with a husband strangling his wife, and uses both of these dramatic events, as well as local folktales and mundane aspects of quotidian existence, to evoke the social and cultural dynamics of life in a Chinese county in the seventeenth century.
Lately, however, simply following the news about China has been enough to get me thinking about clues, suspects, poison and other standbys of my favorite sort of fiction, along with the plot devices and characters found in a related genre, the novel of intrigue and espionage. Enter the curious recent chain of events involving Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai: a year ago, this now-disgraced couple seemed to be living a charmed existence. Bo Xilai was Party Secretary of Chongqing — a giant metropolis in western China — and a member of the Politburo. Often described as a “Princeling” due to his status as the son of a revolutionary hero, Bo Yibo (who had been a prominent comrade in arms of Mao Zedong), he employed a variety of high profile tactics, from launching an aggressive drive to rid his city of organized crime to sponsoring the mass singing of “red songs” (Mao era anthems). Needless to say, Bo Xilai was ambitious, and sought to secure a spot on the all-powerful Standing Committee—the most important body within the Politburo and one that will have openings to fill this fall....
Thinking about comparisons to Enron and Watergate point to what is most meaningful about China’s biggest political scandal of the year. The tragedy of what is unfolding in China lies not so much in revelations about abuses of power taking place, as these can and do happen in so many political systems, but rather that those that occur in China still cannot be dealt with via mechanisms such as the Watergate hearings and Freedom of Information Act....
Posted on: Friday, May 4, 2012 - 10:42
SOURCE: NYT (4-26-12)
Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University, is the editor, with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Fred Israel, of “History of American Presidential Elections, 1789-2008,” fourth edition.
Mitt Romney’s apparent nomination proves that Republican voters are more pragmatic and centrist than their reputation suggests. The Republican candidates this year fought a classic political battle. Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul campaigned as purists, echoing Henry Clay’s famous expression from 1844, “I’d rather be right than president.” The realist Romney updated the belief of nineteenth-century partisans that a candidate’s most important ability is what they called his “availability,” as in “his ability to avail” – and prevail.
Gingrich and Santorum frequently justified their extremism by invoking the modern Republican demigod, Ronald Reagan. Gingrich is just now giving up on campaigning as a “Reagan conservative” against Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate.” In March, Santorum visited a Reaganite holy site – the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield, Calif., which produced Reagan’s favorite jelly beans. “They’re asking you, people of principle, to compromise your principles and to be for someone who is less corely convicted than Ronald Reagan because we need to win,” Santorum said. He had a pragmatic argument too: “Every time we run someone that the moderate establishment of the Republican Party said we need to win, we lose.”
Santorum’s diction – corely convicted? – is as flawed as his historical memory. Republican voters have rejected culture wars and fanaticism in presidential campaigns repeatedly – they know culture warriors don’t win. Despite the talk about the rightward lurch of their party, a majority of Republicans have learned Reagan’s central political lesson. A Republican candidate can only win by wooing the center, and a president must govern as a national leader, not a factional chief or a cultural crusader....
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 17:13
SOURCE: National Review (4-30-12)
Victor Davis Hanson is a classicist and historian at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and the author most recently of The End of Sparta
We recently saw lots of sit-down strikes and demonstrations — the various efforts in Wisconsin, the Occupy movements, and student efforts to oppose tuition hikes. None of them mattered much or changed anything. There is a sit-down strike, however, that has paralyzed the country and has been largely ignored by the media.
Most economists since 2009 have been completely wrong in their forecasts, reminding us that their supposedly data-driven discipline is more an art than a science. After all, a great deal of money is invested and spent — or not — based largely on perceptions, hunches, and emotions rather than a 100 percent certainty of profit or loss. And the message Americans are getting is that the Obama administration is hostile to investment and business, and thus should be waited out.
Barack Obama’s original economic team — Austan Goolsbee, Christina Romer, Larry Summers, Peter Orszag — have long fled the administration, and have proved mostly wrong in all their therapies and prognostications of 2009. Despite the stimulus of borrowing over $5 trillion in less than four years, near-zero interest rates, and chronic deficits, the U.S. economy is in the weakest recovery since the Great Depression and mired in the longest streak of continuous unemployment of 8 percent or higher — 38 months — since the 1930s. The Mexican economy is growing more rapidly than is ours. Why did not massive annual $1 trillion–plus deficits spark a recovery, as government claimed an ever larger percentage of GDP, and new public-works projects were heralded by the administration?...
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 15:52
SOURCE: National Review (4-30-12)
Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Byzantine Empire’s long run — 1,100 years — may seem remote from the 21st century, but a reading of its history offers at least three timeless lessons. Understanding some of the fatal weaknesses in the Eastern Roman Empire may help clarify the political and economic problems that America faces today and the choices we have in responding to them.
Founded in 330 by the emperor Constantine, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was centered in Constantinople, the New Rome. By the fourth century, the empire had endured more than a century of instability, internecine warfare, and economic decline. In that context Rome’s eastern lands, arcing around Asia Minor, the Levant, and northern Africa, were especially attractive, being richer and more settled than the comparatively backward parts of western Europe. It was in part to assure continued access to these sources of wealth that Constantine relocated his capital. By A.D. 476, Rome had been overrun by barbarian tribes, and before long only Constantinople in the East had a seat for the emperors.
The first lesson for America to take from the history of Byzantium is about individualism and freedom. While it was no democracy, nonetheless Byzantium flourished when it allowed its citizens, and particularly its soldiers, greater individual freedom and responsibility. Beginning in the early 7th century, Emperor Heraclius moved from the traditional reliance on the provinces and their civilian governors and instead established large military zones, or “themes,” in Asia Minor, which was now the backbone of the empire. Centralization was maintained through the appointment of a single official with both civil and military responsibilities, but the real innovation of the themes was how the land was settled by imperial troops....
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 15:50
SOURCE: Salon (5-1-12)
Vast changes do not neatly follow the calendar, but it is already possible to say that the year 2011 was, as Anthony Barnett writes, “original.”
Not completely so, of course. As in 1848, 1968, and 1989, the insurgencies were many and they absorbed multitudes. As in all three, the protagonists were chiefly young. As in all three, the holders of power felt various degrees of panic. As in 1848 and 1968, they took place on more than one continent. As in 1968 and 1989, the insurgents were largely nonviolent, until the uprising in Libya. As in 1968, the targets were multiple, the identities of the movements alternately seductive and repellent in the eyes of outsiders, and often confusing.
The grandest originality was that in contrast to 1848’s uprisings across Europe and Latin America in behalf of nationalist and republican values against absolutist government and economic impoverishment, 2011 was chiefly nonviolent. The second, of course, is in the electronic means of communication: the smartphones, videos, social network and other internet linkages that sent the horrific images of the self-immolated Mohammad Bouazizi and his funeral procession flying throughout Tunisia; then the photograph of the mutilated face of the twenty-nine-year-old Egyptian businessman from Alexandria, taken in the morgue by his brother, around which formed the momentous Facebook page posted by the Google executive Wael Ghonim, “We Are All Khaled Said,” circulating throughout Egyptian cyberspace, along with the call to gather in Tahrir Square on January 25, so that cyberspace touched down on earth, and in the flesh, face to face, groups formed, found their affinities, intermingled, sized up their situations. Graphic images have become more graphic and they move faster; they horrify instantaneously. The cascades of images, horizontal contacts, and related events have sped up enormously. But this most visible of differences from past revolts can be exaggerated. Before there were online videos, there were gossip networks, secret societies, broadsides, posters, leaflets. The sluggishness of the past is an illusion. So is the isolation of history-makers from one another.
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 15:34
SOURCE: Philadelphia Inquirer (5-1-12)
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and lives in Narberth. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press). He can be reached at email@example.com.
In 1979, 6-year-old Etan Patz disappeared on his way to school in New York. Last month, a fruitless search for Patz’s remains in a SoHo basement prompted a national wave of nostalgia for the innocent days of yore. For most of our history, we told ourselves, kids were safe. Then we lost Etan.
But we lost our innocence long before, with the 1874 kidnapping of 4-year-old Charley Ross right here in Philadelphia. That was when Americans discovered they could never keep their children completely safe. And we’ve been living with the consequences ever since....
Fifty years later, when Richard Loeb and Nathan Leopold were arrested for abducting and murdering 14-year-old Bobby Franks in Chicago, a member of their defense team reported that Loeb had been inspired by “a crime that nobody could ever detect” — the kidnapping of Charley Ross. Eight years after that, when the aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son was abducted and killed, one newspaper ran reward posters for Charles Lindbergh Jr. and Charley Ross side by side.
“The men and women who were children in the days of the Charley Ross kidnapping can remember how their mothers warned them to stay in the house, never talk to strangers, and regard every old clothes man as a potential ogre who would carry them off and strangle them and cut them into little pieces,” the New Republic editorialized in 1932, a few days after the Lindbergh baby was found dead. “The Lindbergh case is likely to produce an even wider reaction.”...
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 14:02
SOURCE: The Nation (4-30-12)
Jon Wiener teaches US history at UC Irvine.
A May Day warning has been issued to the ten-campus University of California system by office of the president, Mark G. Yudoff: “Avoid all protests.”
This warning came in an e-mail, sent to all campuses, issued by Connexxus, the university’s travel management program, headed “Travel Alert—Protests across US Tuesday May 1st.”
“Various activist groups will stage protests, rallies, and marches across the US on May 1,” the president’s office reported. “The Occupy Wall Street movement has called for a general strike, asking participants to abstain from work and economic activity on the same date.”
The message, apparently sent to all students, faculty and staff, was addressed to “anyone” traveling to cities where demonstrations had been planned. Under “Impact,” the message declared, “Transport, business disruptions; possible scuffles with police.” The advice for May 1: “Allow additional time for ground transportation near protest sites. Avoid all demonstrations as a precaution.”...
Posted on: Tuesday, May 1, 2012 - 13:57