Wednesday, March 18, 2015

On Selma, Historiography and Movie Reviews

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.

That is advice I constantly tell my students. Indeed, I have often argued that while the dissertation is a vital proving ground for doing history, for bringing all of the training into practice and making your own contribution, the general (or comprehensive) exams are the central proving ground for the profession. For it is in that process that graduate students, aspiring historians, learn about the depth of literature and the development of historiographical arguments. And it is in that process that most of us came to learn to be incredibly wary of books bearing the subtitle "The Untold Story Of . . ." because there are few truly untold stories, and even fewer untold stories that sell themselves as such.

I was reminded of this several weeks ago when I saw Chris Nashawaty's Entertainment Weekly review of Selma. Now, I usually like Nashatawy's reviews. He's smart and he writes well. But in that review he argued something silly: "British actor David Oyelowo . . .  miraculously rescues the flesh-and-blood man from the myth. He reveals to us the King who’s not in our history books — his humor, his human failings, and his self-doubt." It is a silly argument made all the worse by the fact that as a pronouncement it reveals Nashatawy's almost aggressive ignorance in which he purports to speak about "history books" he has not only not read, but clearly does not even know exists.

 Far from revealing something about King absent from "our history books" Selma reinforces a King familiar to many. Nashatawy cannot have read any of the many (dozens of? Hundreds of?) books on King and the Civil Rights Movement that have been published over the course of quite literally three decades. King's humor, human failings, and self-doubt are nothing new to more than a generation of historians who have even dipped their toe into a widely published, widely reviewed, and widely praised literature that has hardly been confined to the shelves of university libraries. No one would expect Nashatawy to be familiar with this literature except when he explicitly writes as if it does not exist.

Be humble before the historiography. Don't make grand pronouncements about a literature you do not know.


As for Selma -- I really did think it was a fine, powerful movie. The director Ava Du Vernay did a generally effective job but she made some odd choices with exposition and on at least one occasion decided to fill a largely unnecessary scene with Michal Bay pyrotechnics -- I have no idea why she chose, in an otherwise closely rendered film focusing on the events surrounding the Selma March, to depict the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham except as emotional manipulation -- 1964, which she almost entirely skips over between the bombing and the events of Selma, was not exactly devoid of far more relevant events to the struggle for voting rights. I thought the casting of Oprah was gimmicky and distracting. But otherwise the acting really was spectacular almost across the board and it was in that arena that I believe that the film really did get snubbed during awards season. Du Vernay really did commit historical malpractice in depicting LBJ, and no, I do not believe that filmmakers get to hide behind the cloak of artistic license once they choose to take on historical topics, something Du Vernay and her defenders have tried to do since this criticism emerged. Her depiction of LBJ did not jibe with even the most critical, revisionist interpretations of his role in dealing with the demand for voting rights. Historical liberties in filling in gaps or trying to cover a lot of material quickly is one thing. No film can do justice for history's depth and expanse like a book can (my guess is that the word count for the script probably amounted to that of a longish chapter in a book) but she went beyond this and tainted an otherwise quite faithful rendering of important events, events important enough to warrant an honest, fair rendering. 

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Ambivalence of Forgiveness

I have a contribution to Columbia University's Dialogues on Historical Justice and Memory Network Working Paper Series: “The Ambivalence of Forgiveness: Dirk Coetzee, Eugene de Kock, and South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.” Please go check it out if you are interested.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A Modest Proposal for College Football

So Ohio State beat Oregon in the closest to what the highest level of college football has ever had to a legitimate process for determining a national champion. This is better than the BCS, which was significantly better than the old bowl system. But it is not good enough. The two best teams in the Big 12 were shut out of the conversation based on back room machinations and of course teams from the smaller conferences were kept out entirely. The system is thus improved but still needs tweaking.

Hereby I present two proposals, one somewhat substantial but still in keeping with the overall structure of the contemporary college football landscape, while the second is more radical (and to my mind would be a whole lot more fun).

Solution 1: A 16 Team Playoff

It is perplexing to me that anyone could seriously embrace either a four- or even an eight-team playoff for one simple reason: There are ten BCS conferences. (In either of my scenarios the four independents -- BYU, Notre Dame, Army, and Navy -- would have to join a conference.) How can there not be at least ten places in the playoff system?

Thus it seems absurd to have a system that pretty much automatically excludes the winners of six of these -- possibly more if a major conference were to receive two slots in the final four, which could easily have happened this season when SEC West love was in full effect. And given how many of the programs in these second-tier conferences are state institutions, it seems unconscionable to hold them to the expensive (and almost universally money-losing) standards of the highest level of college football if you are not going to guarantee them a share in the process. So either drop the MAC, AAC, Conference USA, Mountain West, and Sun Belt down to the FCS level or guarantee them a seat at the table.

A sixteen-team playoff would solve this problem (and would be the biggest collegiate sporting event in America, far surpassing March Madness). Each conference winner would get an automatic playoff slot, leaving six places for at-large berths. And yes, the last team out will always stake a claim to deserving a shot at the last space, but with every conference winner claiming a space no team could plausibly claim to "deserve" a shot at a national title. Nonetheless the at-large berths could go to the five power conferences with one remaining truly at-large spot remaining.

And don't let anyone use the argument that this would get in the way of final exams -- the NCAA holds a playoff system at every other level, including Division III where in many cases academic standards and expectations run laps around their FBS counterparts. And March Madness takes place during a month when almost every campus in the country has midterm exams and projects scheduled at some point.  The NCAA offers a true and comprehensive national championship process for every sport at every level. The idea that the most prominent of these sports at the highest level is just to complex is absurd.

Solution 2: An 8 Team Playoff, With Conference Realignment and Promotion and Relegation

This is actually my preferred solution, but I don't think it could happen. In this scenario we pair conferences, one power conference with one of the smaller conferences (I would match the ACC with the AAC, the Big Ten and MAC, the SEC and Sun Belt, the Big 12 and Conference USA, and the PAC 12 and Mountain West.) Then you create five tiers, much like in association football (ie soccer). And in so doing you create a promotion and relegation model within these five groupings.

Obviously this would represent a dramatic, indeed radical shift. And every year some of the big boys would lose their spot in the privileged conference and would drop down, with a minnow taking its place, but that would also create real competition. Why should Colorado, with its horrible football program, be guaranteed a piece of the PAC 12 pie while Boise State knows that even going undefeated does not guarantee anything in the face of the cartel that runs the FBS?

This system, much like promotion and relegation in world soccer would also make for many more meaningful games at the end of the season as teams at the lower level fight for promotion and teams at the bottom of the major tiers would have every reason to play well at the end of the season to guarantee their place in the top tier. Indeed, this system could even be expanded to accommodate the FCS, though that might take time, as you'd have to tier those conferences as well. In the end, though, we would have a much more exciting and fun system that would allow teams to play at the level they belong, the level they have earned.

In this realigned, restructured college football world an eight-team playoff could be fine, with the winners of the five top tiers getting automatic berths and three at-large slots. Naturally after a few years the world would clamor for 16 teams, which would be fine, but eight teams would nonetheless fit fairly well. in some ways after winning in this tiered process the national championship tournament would be a lot like the Champions League(s) that exist in global soccer, UEFA's being the most respected.


Thursday, January 01, 2015

Welcome 2015! (Good Riddance 2014)

Happy New Year!

While from a personal vantage point 2014 was a fine one for me and mine, it sure seemed like an annus horribilus for society at large. perhaps 2015 will be better. I will make an effort to write more about it here even if no one will actually be here to read it.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Beyond the Pitch

I hope you'll consider downloading my Kindle Single Beyond the Pitch: The Spirit, Culture and Politics of Brazil's 2014 World Cup. It represents a consolidation and expansion of my writing on the World Cup this summer for American Independent Media and Football is Coming Home.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Circus Without Bread

Football is Coming Home published my "Circus Without Bread: Reflections on Brazil 2014," which touches on just some of the World Cup-related topics I have been covering for the last several weeks for American Independent Media.

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Brazil Bound

In a few days I'll be heading to Brazil for the 2014 World Cup. This is primarily a pleasure trip, but between my academic interests in sport, society, and politics and the fact that I'll be writing about the experience for a Texas newspaper group (I'll share links as I can) there is certainly a professional component involved (or that's my story, anyway).

I'm especially interested in comparing and contrasting the experience I had in South Africa with that in Brazil. Obviously not much will ever pass 2010 for me in terms of its meaning professionally and personally, but it should still be a wonderful opportunity.

I'm going to be based in Porto Alegre with my friend Jaime and his family, and as of now have tickets to three group stage games -- France-Honduras, South Korea-Algeria, and the one we are most anticipating, Nigeria-Argentina. I'll be supporting the Super Eagles, and all of the African sides while they will be all about Argentina. Then we have tickets to one of the knockout games, which will pit the winner of Group G (The Group of Death -- Germany, Portugal, Ghana, and the US) and the second place finisher in Group H (Belgium, Algeria, Russia, and South Korea).

I'll post occasionally and will try to link some of my pieces as I go.