Friday, October 31, 2008

Past Time

Take a trip back in time as The Atlantic endorses Abraham Lincoln and argues that Truman and the Democrats can win in 1948.

On Political Books

The National Book Critics Circle has begun a new quarterly feature on its blog, Critical Mass, called "NBCC Reads." The organization asked its membership to comment on the best books on politics in honor of the ongoing (and seemingly neverending) election. Yours truly is quoted in the first edition. I sent in commentary on the five books I am using in my course on the modern presidency and presidential elections this tearm (a hybrid course half devoted to history and half to looking at this election) and while the NBCC used none of that, some of my comments on two other books were quoted.

From Colony to Superpower

In this Sunday's New York Times Book Review Josef Joffe reviews George Herring's ambitious contribution to the Oxford History of the United States, From Colony to Superpower: U.S. Foreign Relations Since 1776. Joffe concludes that while Herring's synthesis is not perfect, "We have long been waiting for a single-volume history like this one, and “From Colony to Superpower” deserves a place on the bookshelf, if only for sheer effort and sweep."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Billsville Bound

I am bound for Homecoming at Williams this weekend, so posting may continue to be light. Somehow I'm sure you'll get by.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Bound to a Toddlin' Town

I am bound for Chicago to attend an "Energy Freedom Summit" being held by the organization Set America Free, which is affiliated with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, with which I was a fellow a few years back. I will be representing UTPB, which is developing an Energy Studies program, in hopes of bringing back some ideas. In between sessions -- and the list of participants is impressive; I'll be taking lots of notes, I'm sure -- I imagine there will be time for deep dish pizza, brats, hot dogs with vegetables on them, and other heart-healthy-living options. I will post as I can.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Leuchtenburg on Bush-as-Hoover

If William Leuchtenburg says something about American politics, you should pay serious heed. He is almost certainly right. At The New Republic Leuchtenberg addresses the comparison that some are making between Herbert Hoover and George W. Bush. Bush comes out on the short end of the comparison.

I have been lucky to get to know Leuchtenburg over the last few years, to the point where I consider him a friend and something of a mentor. There is no finer historian or human being.

Elections Past and Present

MSNBC has a worthwhile online feature called "Turning Points," which takes an in-depth focus on a series of elections. Start with the 1980 election and then follow the links to other series. This should keep you busy for a while.

Then, when you're prepared to return to 2008, which will be the subject of its own inevitable features in years to come, you may want to look at the series of essays in The Washington Monthly on this year's election. The Stakes 2008 includes essays by eight prominent writers, including Jonathan Alter, Kevin Drum, Gregg Easterbrook, James Fallows, Nicholas Lemann, Stephanie Mencimer, Timothy Noah, and Nicholas Thompson.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Race Rears its Head

The Republican party is not a racist party. But American conservatism is the ideological home of racism, and most racists are conservatives, even if most conservatives, as with most members of the GOP, are not racists. And today the vast majority of American conservatives are Republicans. Just as the Democratic party has a racist history to bear (and to a far greater extent and depth than the Republicans could ever dream of at that), so too does today's Republican party, built at least in part on a Southern base of whites disaffected by the national Democratic party's attention to civil rights in the postwar era. This is a complex issue, of course, immune to reductionism, but the broad contours as I have laid them out hold.

Race has come to the fore in the 2008 campaign in the way that most of us could have expected. The racial attacks have not been frontal, and their racial nature has at least been couched in deniable manifestations. But racial, and oftentimes racist, they have been. John McCain is not a racist, but he has aligned with racists because, as McCain has shown, winning now trumps honor and it certainly trumps whatever true beliefs he once held.

Thus Charles Krauthammer's fatuous article accusing Obama of playing the race card (and that's what he does even though all of his examples are of others, many unaffiliated with Obama, alleging racializing the campaign) is particularly rich, but not especially surprising. Conservatives have managed to create a moral relativism whereby accusing someone of racism is a breach of decorum every bit as bad as racism itself and is thus itself subject to condemnation. This is actually a pretty clever gambit intended to enable certain kinds of words and behavior while at the same time chilling criticism. It is also demogaguery of the rankest sort.

I cannot help but wonder what Krauthammer thinks about GOP fundraisers joking about Obama's assassination or Republican officials in California distributing what I am certain they believed to be hilarious postcards depicting Obama on a food stamp voucher surrounded by foodstuffs such as fried chicken, watermelon, ribs, and Kool Aid. But of course this has nothing at all to do with racial stereotypes! How stupid do they think we are?

But the height of hypocrisy on the issue of racism comes in the wake of Colin Powell's epochal endorsement of Obama, which naturally led to Rush Limbaugh accusing Powell of racism. This yet again reveals an amazing amount of relativism that is all too common in the playbook of some conservatives. They are quite willing to claim moral equivalency between white racism, built on a historical foundation of white supremacy, and alleged assertions of "black racism," which is nowhere to be found in Powell's endorsement, even if that does not prevent the Limbaughs of this world from spinning their vitriol.

Of course there is another way to think of these matters. My tendency is to become enraged. But at The Atlantic, Matthew Quirk welcomes GOP race-baiting. It reveals the other side for what it is, after all, and when "That One" wins, it will be fun to see the response.

in the midst of all of this comes John McWhorter's piece in The New Republic in which he discourages readers from blaming racism if Obama loses. Matthew Yglesias quite effectively pillories McWhorter's peculiar preemptive strike on an issue that surely will account for some tiny slice of the opposition to Obama, whether it proves decisive or not.

Ironically enough, some of the same conservatives tapdancing around the race issue will be the first to use an Obama victory to claim that we are past race and racism. Having lived, traveled and worked in South Africa during the Mandela and Mbeki years I can assure you that a comparable assertion about racism being over because the country has black leadership would be laughable were it not both demonstrably false and blithely offensive.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Rays 2008 AL Champs

Congratulations to the Rays. They played great baseball, were utterly imperturbable over the duration of the series and a scintillating ALCS, and, yes, were the better team.

I am feeling that old pre-2004 queasiness in the gut, a combination of sadness and hurt and loss and anger and annoyance (leaving the bases loaded in the 8th will haunt me all offseason). I guess that shows that I still love the Red Sox and that after 2004 and 2007 I did not become a devil-may-care fan. The 2008 Red Sox had a very good season. Just not good enough.

Tampa will beat the Phillies. It may not be that close. I'll be rooting for them.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

On Blogging

Andrew Sullivan has a fantastic article at The Atlantic about blogging. I'm pretty lousy in terms of cultivating dcat, and my Foreign Policy Association blogs (on South Africa and Africa) are unorthodox -- I distill news stories and provide longer commentary. I'm sure my editors hate me because I do not play all of the games geared toward drawing eyes -- short, frequent posts, with multiple links to other bloggers, assiduous attention to the quid pro quo of blogging, and the like.

One of the things I like about Sullivan is his unabashed defense of a genre that still can garner eyerolling. Some time ago I received business cards from the Foreign Policy Association that simply give my title as "blogger," and it seemed a little silly to me, almost embarrassing. Since I have written a number of analytical pieces for them, I prefer the term "writer" or something along those lines. And yet this medium, however imperfectly I do it (as you well know), largely reflects the prevailing direction of media today and in the future. Sullivan's article provides a pretty good articulation of what blogging means and why it can matter, albeit mostly from the vantage point of the high-end professionals like himself.

Siegel on Literature's Salvation

In this weekend's New York Times Book Review Lee Siegel takes on the grandiloquent trope that reading literature can make you a better person. After several examples, Siegel writes
I hope you are at least partly convinced by the power of my examples. Somehow, we’ve been sold a bill of goods about how literature empowers us. But the idea that great literature can improve our lives in any way is a con as old as culture itself. The University of Chicago’s Great Books course? Think Tammany Hall. “Willing suspension of disbelief”? Code for: distract him while I lift his wallet. The government regulates drugs, alcohol and (finally) bad lending practices. How long can we continue to allow the totally laissez-faire dissemination of literature? Not even a warning from the surgeon general or the attorney general, or some sort of general, on the back of every book?

Siegel's a crank, but he's my kind of crank -- critical but with tongue near enough to cheek to mitigate his most tendentious pronouncements.

Friday, October 17, 2008

On W

In case you were wondering (and I know you were not) I have zero interest in seeing this. I do not even have the energy to bury or praise Oliver Stone, though as Tootle always rightly says, historians have every right to resent Stone simply for the time we have to take to correct him. Let's just say that Stone's claims to be a "historian" are laughable.

Stone and I are on the same side of the aisle in that we will both be voting Democrat in this election, and in all of them. But you do not necessarily have to waste time on everyone on your side of the aisle. I'll simply nod in recognition and move on to more important things. (Though it does seem that no one will go to this movie who is not already convinced of its premises. And it might breed some resentment among not only the doubters, who are unlikely to vote for Obama anyway, but also from those cherished independent voters. This leads me to see a whole lot of solipsism in this movie's pre-election release date. Ultimately W seems to be as much about Oliver Stone as about its putative subject. In other words: It's a typical Oliver Stone movie!)

Richard Wright: Self Indulgence Edition

The African American Museum in Dallas will be hosting a symposium and celebration of the life and work of Richard Wright on November 7 & 8. There will be two panels at the museum on November 8 and I will be one of the guest speakers. I am not a Wright scholar, but the preface to Freedom's Main Line uses Wright's Native Son as a springboard to discuss the Civil Rights Movement. I expanded that work for my presentation in order to reflect upon Wright's relationship with civil rights more generally.

If you live in or will be anywhere near Dallas on November 8, I hope you will consider attending. The other speakers, in any case, will be legitimate Richard Wright experts.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

The Peril of Anecdotes

OK, let us see: Joe the plumber and independent voter wants to buy the plumbing company he works for, which earns $250,000+ a year, and he is concerned about the tax burden for which he will be responsible.

Shall we deconstruct the sentence?

"Joe" - His name is Sam (But ok, given what follows I'll assume that he might be known as Joe, as that seems to be his middle name).

"the independent" - He is a registered Republican.

"plumber" - He is unlicensed.

"wants to buy the plumbing company he works for" -- But which is not apparently for sale, which Joe is not actually trying to buy, and which Joe could not afford to buy on his $40,000 income. Oh, and that damned licensing issue again.

"which earns $250,000+ a year" - Actually it's about $100,000, which is important given the supposed magic number of $250,000 based on Obama's tax plan.

"and he is concerned about the tax burden for which he will be responsible." - Obviously (well, maybe not so - people usually are unclear on the arcane tax code) any rate hike for those incomes above $250,000 would only count against the money earned above $250,000. But beyond that, my favorite part of all of this is that Joe has a tax lien against him. So he is not paying his taxes now.

So here is what is accurate in the sentence:

"Voter plumbing company he works for, and he is concerned." Actually, I think Sarah Palin uttered that exact sentence in her debate in response to a question about foreign policy.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Go to the Polls

Hands down the best polling aggregating website out there is the data-rich Fivethirtyeight, the brainchild of, among others, Nate Silver (also a founder of the incomparable Baseball Prospectus -- and Silver is only thirty). Prospects look very good for Barack Obama right now. The GOP will convince themselves that McCain hit the ball out of the park. He didn't. Nor did Barack Obama. But Obama's up by several runs in the late innings. A tie in a debate like this is no good for the team down big, and none of the polling data indicates that this was a tie, McCain-supporter spin notwithstanding.

It's A Boy!

At 1:30 this morning Thunderstick and Mrs. Thunderstick had a beautiful baby boy ("Thundertwig"?). Both Mom and Baby are doing great.

From Dad: "Upon hearing that the Red Sox were down 3-1 to the Rays in the ALCS he immediately tried to crawl back into where he came from but once he learned that the Yankees couldn't even make the playoffs, he decided this wouldn't be a bad world to live in after all."

Congratulations and best wishes.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Sleeper 1 Brooks 0

Over at Talking Points Memo Cafe Jim Sleeper puts the smack down on David Brooks. A sample:
He pirouettes like this constantly to maintain some intellectual self-respect, on the one hand, and to hold onto his market niche as a conservative Republican apologist, on the other. He has tried to square this circle with forced geniality throughout Republicans' Iraq War lying, torture and warrantless surveillance, borrow-and-borrow, spend-and-spend fiscal policy, bottomless corruption, and, lately, national socialism. But John McCain is stopping Brooks' game.

Ever since it has become clear that McCain is unstable and incompetent as commander-in-chief of his own campaign, not least by choosing his horror show of a running mate, Brooks has been squirming and stumbling furiously toward a reckoning that should be of some interest to every Times reader and would-be public intellectual.

This time, the choice facing Brooks is too stark and time-bound for his usual gyrations. He can maintain his intellectual self-respect only by breaking openly with McCain/Palin in the next couple of weeks.

It comes as no shock that David Brooks has little intellectual core. But as we watch him and other conservative columnists squirm as they wrestle with their intellectual barrenness, let us keep in mind that there are three weeks left in this campaign.

I would thus encourage my fellow Democrats not to be too effusive yet and not to start the touchdown celebration before we reach the goal line. Our party has snatched defeat from the jaws of victory before. The polling data looks good for Obama supporters, but I would be willing to bet that those numbers tighten, that the gap closes, in the next three weeks.

Were the election to be held tomorrow, Obama would win handily, quite possibly in a landslide. But election cycles have their own nearly-organic development, and when hubris begins to build I try to remind myself of the 1948 election, when all polling data indicated that New York Governor Thomas Dewey was bound to win handily, a sentiment that prevailed until election night, when the pollsters were humiliated. Polling is methodologically better today and we have much more data to work with, especially for those of us who like to look at aggregates rather than place our faith in any single poll. But now is not the time to be planning victory dances for an endzone we have not yet reached and it certainly is not the time for complacency to prevail.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bland Boys

Joan Anderman is not impressed by an anodyne generation of male singer-songwriters. She blames John Mayer. (I kind of like John Mayer because while he sings earnest songs he is pretty talented and he does not take himself too seriously. That said, I take Anderman's point.)

Debating Whether Sarah Palin is Fucking Retarded or Just a Moron is Not Cost Effective

I have hit this mark before and I will hit it again now: We keep hearing about the so-called Independents in this election. Yet some one has to say it: What kind of utter fucking retard does not know where he or she stands at this point in the election cycle?

Look, John McCain is a mendacious opportunist who, in choosing Sarah Palin, utterly abandoned everything he once claimed to care about. Foreign affairs? Off the table. Nor can any serious case can be made for Sarah Palin giving a shit about anything related to policy within the United States. Why are we catering to these utter fucking morons? Why has the GOP become the party of not only stupidity (the last eight years have made that clear) but of willful ignorance?

I seriously challenge any conservative to explain to me this race, McCain's approach, the Sarah Palin phenomenon, or simply a rationale for a victory that, at least for now, seems elusive. Obama is smarter than McCain. But we've long known that. Would that we had the McCain from 2000. Instead, we have a McCain who loathes himself from eight years ago.

One might ask the obvious question: Why would anyone want to be president now? Other than so that Sarah Palin, Pied Piper of the fuckwit brigade, cannot be?

Remember when Republicans had integrity? OK, me neither. But remember when they pretended to? Vaguely? Me too.

Oh -- and if you actually know how to get Osama bin Laden, how exactly is it putting country before self not to, you know, make that plan clear? Granted: President Bush could fuck up adding the chocolate chunks to a chocolate chunk cookie recipe. Still: If you know how to solve the problem, shouldn't you either share the solution or recognize and acknowledge that the current regime always finds banana peels on which to slip?

Obama > McCain. But then sentient people have known that for a while.

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

From the Alamo City to the Crescent City

Today I head to San Antonio to bring our little godson/nephew, who has been staying with us for the last ten days or so, back to San Antonio. Then it's off to New Orleans for the Southern Historical Association's annual meeting. If any of you will be in New Orleans, track me down. I'll be staying at the Marriott on Canal, right down the way from the Sheraton, and will inevitably be aimlessly wandering the book exhibit much of the time.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

The Lore of the Smoot

If you've ever walked the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge from Cambridge to Boston you know of "smoots," a strange system of measurement that is part of Boston lore. Here is the story of a fraternity pledge at MIT and the establishment of the "smoot."

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The College Sporting Life

Were I a student at Bates College (A proud member of the New England Small College Athletic Conference) I do believe I would be clamoring to take this course.

Saturday, October 04, 2008


Dan Shaughnessy thinks a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series matchup "has to happen." I can live with that, though Manny would scare the hell out of me every time he came to the plate.

Rejecting Israel-As-Apartheid (Again)

David Hirsch has an important commentary from South Africa's Mail & Guardian (via Engage) in which he addresses and refutes the Israel = Apartheid analogy. Here is a sample:
The Israel-apartheid analogy expresses moral outrage effectively but it is also counterproductive to Palestinian liberation and it encourages ways of thinking which are threatening to democratic politics. It portrays Israel as an evil, like the apartheid regime, and so implies that Palestinian freedom requires the dismantling of Israel – an aspiration which the overwhelming majority of Jews strongly oppose – and with justification.

The analogy is also a short cut to the conclusion that Israelis should be boycotted. In truth, a mass movement for the exclusion of Jews, even if not all Jews, from the academic, cultural, sporting and economic life of humanity resonates with an altogether different memory from the boycott of white South Africa.

There is a temptation to treat the Middle East as an empty vessel which we can fill with our own issues. In England thinking is often influenced by colonial guilt; in Germany Israel is understood through the lens of the Holocaust; in Ireland the Palestinians become Republicans and the Israelis Unionists. In Poland many sympathize with Israel as a small democratic nation threatened by tyrannical neighbours. In South Africa the conflict is increasingly thought of in relation to apartheid.

Israel cannot forever hold on to Gaza and the West Bank. A two state (or perhaps three state) solution has to come. But the Israel-as-Apartheid analogy is historically vacuous, a polemic without a serious intellectual foundation, and a barrier to coming to grips with the very real problems in Israel, Gaza and the West Bank. A future Palestinian state or state must emerge, but not without Israel being able to be secure and safe from the states that surround it.

Sportsguy on Manny, Epically

Sportsguy has an absolute tour de force essay on Manny leaving the Red Sox that falls into the must-read category. It is very long, and shows Sportsguy playing to his strengths, which he does too infrequently. I also would be willing to bet that for Simmons this article represents an homage to the recently departed David Foster Wallace -- the epic scale, the 39 footnotes -- though he does not tip his hand on that. I also agree with Simmons to some degree -- while he seems a bit too charitable to Manny about the slugger's departure, I too find myself rooting for him, still liking him, and lamenting that he is not part of the Sox run this fall.

Scool House Rock

If you are a late-era Baby Boomer or fall in Generation X, School House Rock holds a sacred place in your heart. Saturday mornings, embodied by the Smurfs and especially Bugs Bunney-Road Runner were framed by these animated music videos that, well, made learning fun! Recently I was in Target and saw a new Election Edition of School House Rock and thought it would be fun to show some of the clips in my class on the Modern Presidency and Presidential Elections. But then I rounded a corner and my wife noticed that for $2 less I could actually get the entire School House Rock collection. Giddyup!

Talk about a trip down memory lane. "Conjunction Junction," "Noun is a Person, Place or Thing," "Lolly, Lolly, Lolly Get Your Adverbs Here," The Adjective Song (probably my favorite -- what a melody!), and dozens of others come flooding down the memory banks. What is remarkable is how well written the songs are, how infectious the melodies, how varied the genres. We have our little godson/nephew with us for about ten days, and so this morning I got up and once the boy was up we put on the dvd to play through the whole history of School House Rock. The grammar songs are the best, the ones that really bring me back to Satruday mornings in the 1970s and early 1980s.

"Verb! That's What's Happenin'!"

Michael Cera: Supergood

The New York Times has a fine feature on Michael Cera of Arrested Development, Juno, Superbad, and Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist. His roles all come across as very samey for non-fans, I'm sure, but underneath it is clear that he is smart and talented and at some point he'll brilliantly play a serial killer and make it clear that he'll be a semi-star (the best kind of star, if you think about it) for a long time. For what it is worth, I'm still pissed that Arrested Development was cancelled.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Holidays to Avoid

Feeling wanderlust? In the Times of London Sam Jordison (author of the book Sod That! - 103 Things Not To Do Before You Die) has an amusing annotated list of "twenty holidays you should never take."

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Friday Night Lights on Satellite

The New York Times has a favorable review of the new season of Friday Night Lights, which most of us will not be able to see until January, as in a unique deal the show will spend the fall on DirectTV before shifting to NBC in January. It appears that the show has lost none of its nuance or verite. Damn most of you for not watching it from the outset so that we could all see season three on network television now.