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(Inactive) Welcome To My World


Happy Chanukka to all of those who celebrate it. As for me, imagine a technically inept academic caught in a tangle of Christmas lights and reaching for his keyboard as a desperate act of self-liberation. I grew up in a rather traditional German-American family which allowed no tree in the house before Christmas Eve and it promptly came down on New Year's Day. All the technical and logistical problems get crammed into a short span. Don't even ask about the family crises when I haven't been able to make the bloody tree stand up for a whole week.

Over at Easily Distracted, Tim Burke expands on his thoughts about"The Return of the King" with a second essay about genre and the problem of what I would call"disciplinary discipleship." Odd that I'd never thought how those two words had the same root. Followers of the same discipline would be disciples, but Burke sees the problem in thinking and working that way. Sure, we need to learn from the learned in apprenticeship, but a follower cannot transcend the achievement of the leader. That's the problem of derivative scholarship and derivative literature. No wonder that the Swiss theologian Karl Barth denied that he was a"Barthian." Lately, I have to kick myself and say:"Don't try to be a Burkean or a Johnsonian. They'll always be better Tim Burkes and KC Johnsons than you can ever hope to be."

Fortunately, my own apprenticeship as a historian was an easy mantle. My dissertation director allowed, even encouraged, me to disagree with him -- to"revise" him, if you will. So, on the one hand, I've never experienced the horror stories of those who ran afoul of rigid taskmasters and, on the other, I've never understood the cry against"revision," as if it were ipso facto distortion. In many, if not most, cases, to do worthy history is necessarily to"revise." Nor do I understand the umbrage some historians take at being challenged. To be challenged, after all, means that the good Lord or fate or happenstance has allowed you to live so long that some reasonably intelligent historian thought that you had once said something that was worthy of debate and has finally gotten the challenge into print. Many historians never have the pleasure of lived long enough to see themselves"revised." What's wrong with that?

At Atlanta's recent AAR convention, I introduced myself to Oberlin's A. G. Miller. On hearing my name, he smiled and referred obliquely to his new biography, Elevating the Race: Theophilous G. Steward, Black Theology, and the Making of an African American Civil Society, 1865-1924. I first encountered T. G. Steward's legacy forty years ago, when I was interning as an assistant pastor for the summer of Macon, Georgia's First Baptist Church, an African American congregation. Just up Cotton Avenue from us was Steward Chapel A. M. E. Church. In that building named for its early pastor, I heard Martin Luther King, Sr., raise some righteous hell with Macon's white folks. Years later, I wrote a bit about T. G. Steward in The Social Gospel in Black and White: American Racial Reform, 1885-1912.

Miller was kind enough to send me a copy of his fine new book and, behold, I was revised. The larger context for his disagreement with me is this. I surveyed a spectrum of white attitudes in race relations at the turn of the century and identified spokesmen for each position: radical assimilationism (Josiah Strong), conservative assimilationism (Josiah Royce), conservative separatism (Edgar Gardner Murphy), and radical separatism (Thomas Dixon). Based on a definition of what"racism" is, I said that only the separatists, Murphy and Dixon, might rightly be called racists. That definition held that"racism is a pattern of thought that relates mind to matter by making culture a function of physiology." Racial separatists held that people of African descent could not and should not try fully to exemplify high culture as defined by the canons of western civilization. Racial assimilationists held that people of African descent both could and should expect to do so.

My friend, A. G. Miller, challenges my argument that a radical assimilationist, such as Josiah Strong, is not rightly understood as a racist. He and many others by now and by implication would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate. For one thing, it allows for the possibility that some African Americans are racists. If"true culture" is rooted in an Africanist frame, those who reify biological descent would say that we white folk are just out of luck or, at best, in a separate sphere. I cannot fully appreciate the blues, for example, because I am not an African American. Secondly, and by extension, I think Miller would argue that my definition of racism is inadequate because it takes no account of power or structural relationships. Only when racial prejudice wields power is it truly racist. Racial prejudice lacking power is no significant threat.

These are significant issues, I think."Racism" and"racist" continue to be bandied about. We need to understand what people mean by them when they use the words. I still disagree with Miller because I think one must give definitional precision to them, lest they lose all utility. Like the Mother Hubbard dress of yesterday's modesty, they could cover everything, but touch on nothing. Miller does convince me that the problems of a" cultural assimilationist" position are as real as the problems of a" cultural separatist" one, but I still would like to hear a definition from him of what"racism" is. In any case, I am grateful for having lived long enough to witness having been revised.

For the moment, however, this revised historian needs to get to bed and deal with those tangled Christmas lights in the morning.

Posted by Ralph 2:30 a.m. EST


Already dominating the legal realm, The Volokh Conspiracy seems to have designs on western civilization.

Classical historians may be able to help out Eugene Volokh. He's looking for

items (products or processes) that satisfy all these criteria:
They were unknown to people in ancient Rome circa 150 B.C.
They could be manufactured with then-existing technology and then-available raw materials.
They would be at least modestly useful in that era.
Even a nontechnically minded person today -- say, a smart 12-year-old -- would know how to make and use them. This is particularly important, and one on which many suggestions seem to founder.
Their absence would be pretty clearly visible.
"Stirrups, whipped cream, cowpox as a vaccine for smallpox, penicillin, Arabic numerals, the abacus, sterile technique, distillation, the printing press, the scientific method, pasteurization, the horseshoe, the toothbrush, the compass, the wheelbarrow, glass lenses, gunpowder, soap, and horse plow collars" have been commonly suggested, but some of them don't meet all the criteria. The abacus is out because the Romans had it.

Sasha Volokh suggests that you have a look at Qveere Eye for Thye Medieval Man. And the 21st century guys thought they had full time work on their hands!

If you don't mind the spoilers, Cliopatria's Tim Burke has a critically appreciative review of"The Return of the King" at Easily Distracted.

Twenty-five years after I invented the A-bomb .... Well, ah, it wasn't exactly me who did it and he didn't actually invent it, but John Aristotle Phillips got an A on his Princeton term paper for his figuring out how to do it and life's been downhill ever since. You end up indiscriminately being a fund-raiser for Bush, Hillary Clinton, Trent Lott, and Joe Lieberman.

Posted by Ralph 5:00 a.m. EST


One of the major shifts in American politics over the past 40 years is the revitalization of political conservatism. Since the Goldwater debacle of 1964, conservative Republicans have scrambled to a dominant position in American politics. Both a Republican and, in many respects, at least, a conservative, I should be celebrating all that. I don't because I don't recognize what it represents as conservative in any meaningful sense of the word.

From the ruthless partisanship of a Tom DeLay, which knows no restraint, to the wreckless fiscal policies of the Bush administration and the crusading foreign policy of this administration, I see nothing but repudiation of core conservative values. The genius of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain combined couldn't have made up a better name for a conservative American republican. Alas, he isn't one. Balanced budgets? All too briefly remembered. International restraint? Please. Several days ago, I wrote about the dilemma of American liberalism, caught between the competing values of freedom and equality. The problem of"American conservativism" is that it isn't conservative at all. It is, in fact, quite radical and, I fear, wrecklessly so.

As I see it, the new American" conservatism" is an alliance of two core constituencies: A) believers in an unbridled capitalism as productive of the greatest good for"me" and B) religious traditionalists who feel threatened by social change. It is an uneasy alliance because the purposes of A do not well serve the needs of B. Ten years ago, I wrote that "industrial capitalism" has been"the radical force in American society, generating social change of unforeseen consequence, heedlessly disruptive of human community." We have no reason to think that post-industrial capitalism is any less so. Witness a jobless economic recovery that winks at illegal immigrants working for less than minimum wages here at home and outsources middle income jobs for 1/10th of their domestic cost abroad.

The very unconservative nature of American conservatism appears in Michael Crichton's critique of contemporary environmentalism. It is currently widely cited in" conservative" circles, by Richard Jensen's H-Conservative, by Glenn Reynold's Instapundit, by David Beito on Liberty & Power and elsewhere.

My colleague, Oscar Chamberlain, may comment on the"science" in Crichton's address. I have no expertise in it. What fascinated me was Crichton's attack on the"religion" of environmentalism. That might even give religious traditionalists some pause. Crichton apparently believes that merely because one can discern in some environmentalists' operative assumptions a belief in a primal rightness of things which was somehow and subsequently relentlessly damaged that their beliefs can, in the name of"science," therefore be dismissed as"religious." Well, welcome to much of the whole western intellectual tradition, Mr. Crichton. Sure, the myth of a primal nature of things has its origins in the early Biblical narrative, but it is elemental to the western psyche. Variants of it are found in every major western intellect since Augustine. Hobbs, Locke, Marx, Darwin, Freud argue about the character of our primal selves and society, but they all take our primitive condition as a benchmark. Doing so isn't essentially unscientific. Science wishes to discover what that primal condition was and how it has changed.

What passes for" conservatism" in America isn't conservative at all. If it were, it would take the lead in efforts at" conservation." Don't count on unbridled post-industrial capitalism to do that.

Posted by Ralph 3:00 a.m. EST


High atop my bookshelves is a little shrine of three statues gathered around a tiny sample bale of cotton from the 1930s. One of the statues is of Eugene Talmadge, Georgia's white racist governor in the 1930s and 1940s. Emphasizing ol' Gene's red galluses, it was a gimmick given in return for campaign contributions. Incongruously, next to him stands an old cast iron tobacco humidor in the form of a robed Friar Tuck. His hands are folded across his capacious stomach in a pious pose. Next to him, glaring across that little cotton bale at ol' Gene Talmadge, is a cast iron bank in the form of Aunt Jemima. As a symbol, of course, she offends some people, but it's fairly clear from this Aunt Jemima's pose that she's ready to offend Eugene Talmadge. Her hands are on her hips and she is poised to speak some truth to power.

I was reminded of my little shrine yesterday when I read this story about Lauryn Hill denouncing corruption of the clergy at a Vatican-sponsored concert. Hill's pronouncement at the Vatican reminds me also of Eartha Kitt's denunciation of the Johnson administration's pursuit of the Viet Nam War when she was at a White House conference in 1968. Can you imagine the bodacious courage it would take to do such a thing? Some people call it rude and tasteless, but the prophets are always similarly dismissed.

More than that, we've recently been learning that African American women, more often than not, were the backbone of local civil rights movements all across the South. Finally, after Dr. King got his national holiday and two Pulitzer Prize winning biographies, we learn about the women who were on the ground and doing the work: Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, and toomanymore to name them all. We should have known all along and my Aunt Jemima is a constant reminder of it.

Posted by Ralph 5:00 a.m. EST


The British Library is releasing a series of CDs,"Spoken Word," which offers the recorded voices of major Anglo-American writers. The New York Times' Caryn James reviews the series here:

One of the great surprises is finding which writers actually do voices and which don't. When A. A. Milne reads from"Winnie-the-Pooh," his creations sound like Victorian gents — soothing, paternal Victorian gents reading a bedtime story, it's true, but rather Victorian nonetheless.
"He gave a little squeak of excitement," Milne reads about Piglet spotting a paw print, yet sounding not very excited at all.
He goes on:" `Oh, Pooh! Do you think it's a — a — a Woozle?'
" `It may be,' said Pooh. `Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn't.'" With Milne pronouncing it tis and t'isn't, Pooh's very proper voice in this 1929 recording is far from the high-pitched sweetness Sterling Holloway later gave him in so many Disney cartoons.
The best of the discs is the"Writers" volume, recorded mostly in the 20's and 30's. There you can hear Tolkien again, speaking Elvish from"The Lord of the Rings." But the happiest surprise must be Joyce, as cerebral and intimidating a literary genius as the world has ever known, and by all accounts not an easygoing guy. Who would have guessed he'd play a washerwoman so convincingly? He actually becomes two washerwomen with lilting Irish brogues who chat while doing laundry by the river."Throw the cobwebs from your eyes, woman, and spread your washing proper!" one says to the other as he reads from the"Anna Livia Plurabelle" section of"Finnegans Wake." In language that is always lyrical, and usually more complicated than that, his voice flows like the river whose rhythm he said he was imitating.
You can order the CDs at the British Library website.
Or, if literary food is more to your taste than literary sound at the holidays, try one of the recipes Simon Fanshawe culls from English literature for the Guardian. Their names,"Little Balls of Tripe a Man Might Eat For Ever,""Cold Crubeens,""Figgy-Dowdy,""Boiled Baby," and"Syllabub" don't sound too appealing, but we're talking food here, not sound, remember? I recommend Joyce's offering of sound, but not taste. Charles Dickens recommends the cheesecake; and Ian Fleming's James Bond, of course, the scrambled eggs. Thanks to Moby Lives for both tips.

Given the flaming letters to its editors, it's a wonder that the American Historical Association's Perspectives reached me in the mail this week. Paul Moreno of Hillsdale College accuses the"hack historians" who filed an amicus brief in Lawrence v Texas of"prostitution of scholarship for political ends," Philip Ranlet of Hunter College accuses Eric Foner of distorting history in an obituary of James Shinton, and E. Taylor Atkins of Northern Illinois University denounces the AHA and the Oral History Association for their roles in the federal government's decision to remove oral history projects from institutional review. Bruce Craig, Foner, and Linda Shopes and Donald Ritchie get equal space to respond. We will, undoubtedly, resolve all those issues over beers at January's AHA convention in D. C. Or, maybe not. One advantage of its enormity is that you may not even see the person you've most recently attacked. You may not even find the people you do want to see. At its worst, however, an AHA convention is a happy family reunion compared to an American Studies Association convention. Leo Marx takes a long look at American Studies and suggests a better way into its future.

By the way, I see that political correctness won't keep the AHA from giving Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia its inaugural Theodore Roosevelt-Woodrow Wilson Award for Civil Service and Jim McPherson will hold his nose long enough to do the honors. Sure, the Senate's King of Pork has ground some sausage in History's direction, but Perspectives doesn't remind its readers that Byrd is a former member of the Ku Klux Klan who was still using the word"nigger" on national television without a wince as recently as two years ago. For more on Byrd's klansmanship, see here. For once, I think I'll out"pc" the AHA and boycott the session.

If you love books, read Andre Bernard's"Fear of Book Assassination Haunts Bibliophile's Musings" in the New York Observer.

Posted by Ralph 5:00 a.m. EST


My colleague, KC Johnson, elaborates on his argument against the politicization of the classroom, a point made here, in an article for the National Association of Scholar's Online Forum. Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass has more. As I understand it, KC's point is not that the classroom should be politicized in one direction or another, but that it should hew to a free market of ideas.

Two of my favorite Lutherans, David Beito and Allen Brill, may have to agree to disagree about whether Martin Luther is an Ayn"Randian hero." Beito replies to Brill here. [Editor: Pretend that you were not a Methodist agent provocateur and that it was not you who"nearly gagged" at David's suggestion.]

Robert David Sullivan analyzes prospects in next year's presidential election for CommonWealth. Forget reds and blues, he says. The United States is 10 regions and the results will be decided by and within them. Lots of interesting and odd details in this analysis.

According to this report in the Guardian, England's National Heritage memorial fund will give Oxford's Bodleian Library a gift sufficient to purchase the Abinger Papers, preventing an auction's dispersing them. The papers include Mary Shelley's autograph manuscript of"Frankenstein," letters and papers of her parents, 32 volumes of William Godwin's journal, and correspondence with William Hazelit, Thomas Malthus, and Percy Shelley.

How did the word"idiot," which originally meant"an independent person with ideas of his own," come to mean a person with deficient intellect? Stephen Bayley writes in celebration of opinions against" conventional wisdom".

If you are reading Cliopatria and you are not reading Mildly Malevolent, you should be.

Posted by Ralph 12:30 a.m. EST


Over at The Volokh Conspiracy, David Bernstein points to a specific instance of the dilemma of liberalism's metaphor. In what is clearly not a personal attack, he points out the irony that Professor Larry Temkin of Rutgers, one of the world's leading authorities on"equality," graduated first in his class at Wisconsin and has been showered with distinctive honors and awards ever since.

It is, I think, an instance of what Garry Wills identified 30 years ago in a brilliant critique of American liberalism, Nixon Agonistes, as the legacy of liberalism's metaphor of the race. We are caught between wanting the equality of the starting line and the meritorious result of the finishing line and, so, keep demanding that the race start all over again. We are caught between"freedom," which rewards merit, and"equality," which insists that all are meritorious. We can maximize equality by minimizing freedom, as in a prison; or we can maximize freedom by minimizing equality, as in a meritocracy.

I was reminded of that issue again in the thoughtful post by my colleague, KC Johnson, three days ago. I have no trouble agreeing with him that merit should be decisive in hiring, so long as we are rather deeply introspective about what we mean by merit. In my first full time teaching position, I was hired by a chairman who made no bones about the fact that he hired no one but a white, culturally Protestant, native-born, straight American male. In retrospect, I've sometimes thought that I should have resigned as soon as I knew that to be true. I didn't. Nor, of course, did any of my other, externally uniform, liberal colleagues, but I was reminded of it again when my other colleague, Tim Burke, wrote over on Invisible Adjunct that

the horizons of graduate school shrink down to a very short and narrow perspective, and disallow the very ideas and explorations that many people regard (properly) as the essence of intellectual inquiry. This will not happen in any obvious way: no ogre will appear to forbid you anything. It will happen invidiously, slowly, pervasively: no one will actually do it to you, and never will you be able to put your finger on exactly how and when it is being done. Slowly but surely, however, you will be cut to fit a very particular professionalized and disciplinary cloth, and become a willing participant in innumerable rituals of abjection. Slowly but surely, you'll begin to accept the intimate intertwining of your life and your work, and pernicious forms of virally spreading authority and power by numerous other people, some of them quite distant from you in social terms, over that intertwined work-life.
And so, here I am, at the end of a professional life's race, blessed with wonderful virtual colleagues, but wondering at the exigencies that compromised values dearly held and wishing that I might have been heroic.

Posted by Ralph 12:30 a.m. EST


The History News Network comment boards are not for everyone's taste. They are, occasionally, a little yeasty. After an early lengthy siege there, I noted that the quality of the debate ranged "somewhere between a dreary faculty meeting and the Jerry Springer Show." Yet, as Thomas Jefferson believed it would, the great demos occasionally churns up real talent.

A recent, unlikely debate raged, off topic as usual, over the inclination of some professional historians to refer to ourselves as"an historian." We (I profess myself to be ambidextrous on the issue, swinging both ways as the mood strikes me) were challenged by a group of grammartocracists, who mocked our ungrammatical pretensions. Appeal to all sorts of authority would not settle the issue. As I recall, my friends Jonathan Dresner at Hawaii and Derek Catsam at the University of Minnesota, Manketo, were most active in defending"our an." (If you are ever in a good bar fight, by the way, do hope that Derek Catsam is on your side.) Anyway, the grammartocracists finally got the last and best laugh with this post:

Subject: Professor Catsam Stars in A Play
Posted By: Grammarian Again
Date Posted: December 9, 2003, 8:58 PM
Professor Catsam is walking down the hall of a classroom building at Mankato when a student rushes toward him.
Student: Professor Catsam, I lost two of my books! I don't know what to do. I am so upset.
Professor: Gloria, now don't get too upset. Which books can't you locate?
Student: Oh Doctor Catsam, one is for economics and the other is for YOUR class?
Professor: Hmm. My class huh?
Student: And with exams coming on, and everything, I feel so abject and helpless.
Professor: Now let's see what I can do to assist you. Let's take a walk together on each of the three floors and see if we can't find them for you.
Student: Really?
Professor: Sure, we are here to help you.
Professor Catsam and Gloria are walking up the stairs, through the halls and up the stairs again when Professor Catsam stops suddenly.
Student: Doctor, what is happening, are you ok?
Professor: In the corner, LOOK , in the corner, LOOK I can see it! There is AN history book.
Student: A Whaat?
Professor: An history book! An history book. I found it for you.
Student: You are so kind dear professor, but should it not be"a" history book.
Professor: No Gloria, according to Bill Safire, It is"an history book."

Posted by Ralph 12:30 a.m. EST


Moby Lives points to this article in the Guardian about General Sir Aylmer Haldane's hard to find 80 year old book, The Insurrection in Mesopotamia, 1920. Undoubtedly, Paul Bremer and Donald Rumsfeld would like to know how Haldane managed to put a regime in place in the middle eastern abstraction called Iraq because it lasted from 1920 until 1958. I found two copies of Haldane's book, one for Paul and one for Don at abe.com, but I'm warning you: as Josh Marshall paraphrases him, Edmund Morgan was right."History never repeats itself. It only seems like it does to those who don't know the details." The editors of Foreign Affairs recently quoted a phrase commonly attributed to Mark Twain:"history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes." I know. I know. Mark Twain probably never said any such thing, but we and the Iraqis should be so fortunate.

Posted by Ralph 6:30 p.m. EST


Ken MacLeod's essay, "The Pro-War Left and the Anti-War Right" at The Early Days of a Better Nation. Thanks to Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber for the tip.

Philip Marchand's "Bah, humbug, Scrooge Was Onto Something" in the Toronto Star on the virtue of not being a hypocrite. Thanks to Moby Lives for the tip.

Tim Burke and many others are carrying on a very lively discussion at Invisible Adjunct and here about, ah,"Should I Go To Graduate School?" There may be reason to think not.

Posted by Ralph 12:30 a.m. EST


Of all the history departments in the United States, the one at Brooklyn College was at the top of my list last year for scandal in the profession. It was chosen Miss Uncollegiality at the Miss AHA contest in Atlantic City. It did so by using the criteria of collegiality to do the dirty uncollegial deed. Apparently having learned nothing from the experience, administrators at BC are back at it and Erin O'Connor's Critical Mass has the story.

Posted by Ralph 3:00 p.m. EST


What ‘Ivory Tower'? Some of academe's critics like to dismiss it as a safe haven for the academically detached. Try living the last month at Emory University. A month ago, I blogged about Professor Paul B. Courtright's story here. The Emory Wheel has the latest update on the death threats that he's been getting from offended Hindus. The University community at large, however, has been in continuing discussion about anthropology professor Carol Worthman's off-hand use of the phrase"a nigger in the woodpile." I have blogged about the historical origins of the phrase and another controversy over its contemporary use. The Wheel's two lead articles, its editorial, and several op-eds offer excellent coverage of the developing controversy at Emory. Some of the University's African American faculty members point out that the investigation of the initial complaint was inadequate and believe that it points to systemic problems in race relations at Emory, but the University administration is resisting mandatory sensitivity training. Some"ivory tower"!

This is fun. Try "Which Historical Lunatic Are You?" In case you're wondering, I am Charles VI of France, also known as Charles the Mad or Charles the Well-Beloved. So is Sasha Volokh. It's slightly embarrassing, but the company is good.

Radical historian Howard Zinn, radical linguist Noam Chomsky, and conservative political scientist Harvey Mansfield have been exercising their free speech rights on controversial issues in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Long live free speech in academic communities! Of course, if you are Chomsky, you may have David Bernstein, Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, and Pejman Yousefzedah to answer to what you say.

The University of Chicago's Edward Cohn has been blogging up a storm at Mildly Malevolent. His blog is consistently good reading. Just scroll down.

Posted by Ralph 3:00 a.m. EST


It isn't that you are no longer"Welcome To My World ...," but I knew others who could spread a more generous banquet for us. So, "Welcome To My World ..." is transblogrifying into"Cliopatria". Please adjust your blogrolls and browsers accordingly. Our name, with its allusions, is found in James Joyce's Finnegans Wake. As with much else in Finnegans Wake, however, I'm not sure what it is doing there.

Our name vaguely recalls the memory of Cleopatra, her beauty, her mystery, and her contingent power. More directly, it invokes the name of Clio, one of the nine muses in Greek mythology. Clio the Proclaimer was the muse of history, who was credited with bringing the Phoenician alphabet to Greece. She is often depicted in western art with a scroll and a small library of books. In his work for the Spectator, Joseph Addison, who perfected the essay and pioneered the novel as English literary forms, used h