Friday, January 30, 2009

The First FML Review: Self Indulgence Alert

I received my first review (alas, already archived, so you'd have to pay for it) of Freedom's Main Line. The review appeared in the Chattanooga Free Press and is overwhelmingly positive, so I'm thrilled. The press will send out reviews and such once a month, so it would have been a real bummer to have to sit on a negative review for several weeks. here is the closing paragraph of the review:
Catsam, in compiling a fascinating history is not presenting solely black history or Southern history or civil rights history. he is presenting an ever-evolving American history, a concept underscored by the presentation of the book and reinforced by our recent election, which has presented us with a moment to look back and forward to the next stage of "Freedom's Main Line."

Yeah, I can live with that.

Not For Vegetarians: Friday Goodness Alert

Take loads of bacon and as much pork and what do you get, other than yummy awesomeness? A glorious new epicurial phenomenon known simply as The Bacon Explosion. Go. Make it now.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

RIP, John Updike, Baseball Fan

John Updike, a colossus in American letters by any measure, died Tuesday. He was 76. Updike was a baseball fan. And he contributed what is almost certainly the greatest single essay about the sport, an impressive accomplishment given the deep interconnections between baseball and writers. "Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu" is a paean to Ted Williams, Fenway Park, and the game itself.

What a lousy week this has been for book lovers.

RIP Book World

The rumors are true. The Washington Post is abandoning the Sunday Book World as a stand-alone section and will be integrating it with other sections of the newspaper. This is terrible news for book lovers and especially for those of us who feel that serious writing about books is important.

When I lived in Washington, and whenever I travel there, which is fairly regularly, I have always looked forward to Book World as a staple. It always provided a non-New York centered look at books, and often was every bit as good as its New York Times counterpart, and on some Sundays could be significantly better. Much will be lost in this transition. And virtually nothing gained. I'm not quite in mourning. But I'm also not far from it.

Gladwell Takes a Beating

If you like a good old fashioned literary beatdown (and you know that you do) you'll thoroughly enjoy Isaac Chotiner's recent evisceration of Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers that really serves as a repudiation of Gladwell's entire ouevre. I tend to enjoy, but not place a great deal of stock in, Gladwell's magazine articles, but have not yet read any of his books, two of which are sitting on my bedside shelf to be read at some future date. I have been uneasy about what I have read about the books, and Chotiner's review does not do much to soothe my wariness. But it sure is fun to read! Mean stuff so often is.

Misusing Quotation "Marks"

If you have ever graded student papers, or simply had to wade through a lot of bad writing, you've seen it: The profligate quotation mark. The single-most common comment I probably make on student papers is to circle unnecessary quotation marks and ask: "why"? This might become required reading for my students. (It will go along with this reminder, which I pointed out a few weeks ago, that the inapt quotation mark can also be used hamhandedly for ideological purposes.)

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Virginia Festival of the Book (Self Indulgence Alert)

I will be participating in this year's Virginia Festival of the Book on a panel called "Stories from the Civil Rights Movement." My panel is on Thursday, March 19th, at noon at the UVA Bookstore. It probably goes without saying that I'll be promoting Freedom's Main Line. But I'll say it anyway. (And yeah, that's the worst picture ever.)

A Difference of Opinion on Oscar

My goodness, how's this for diametrically opposed views on the just-announced Oscar Nominations?: They either mark the triumph of quality or a tremendous disappointment that reflected a bad movie year. Because of the late-year timing of virtually all of the best picture nominees, and their even later arrival here in West Texas, this is the first year I can ever remember when I have not seen a single best picture nominee by nomination announcement time.

A Little Tearjerker

If you are an animal lover the fact that you know what's coming will in no way soften the blow when you read this Sportsguy story about "Dooze," his beloved family dog.

Friday, January 23, 2009

At the FPA Africa Blog (Self Indulgence Alert)

Just a quick note to direct you toward the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog where I have been busy covering a whole host of events ranging from Somalia to Guinea to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and beyond, and of course lots of coverage of the Zimbabwe crisis and South African politics. Please check it out.

Baseball 'Round the Corner

On Valentine's Day pitchers and catchers can report for spring training. Thus the countdown can begin soon. Now is as good a time as ever to point out that the American League East race is going to be epic in 2009.

The Best of Rickey Being Rickey

In honor of Rickey Henderson's induction into the Hall of Fame, here is an amusing ranking, from a few years back, of the Top 25 Rickey Henderson moments. Suffice it to say I'm looking forward to that speech in the summer.

Hat Tip to my buddy Bill.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Claiming Credit While Not Taking Blame

The Bush administration and its advocates like to point out the lack of any terrorist attacks on American soil after 9/11 as evidence of a crowning success in President Bush's Global War on Terrorism. Former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen argues as much in today's Washington Post. The argument is fine as far as it goes. In the wake of 9/11 many observers -- myself included -- expected other attacks to follow. They did not. Whether this is the result of Bush policies or an inability of al Qaeda (or anyone else) to follow up on their massive undertaking on that awful September morning is up for debate. But it is true that no attacks followed the terrorism of 9/11.

However, it seems rather shortsighted to simply look at that fact and claim it as a major accomplishment. After all, the Clinton administration went even longer without an attack on US soil from foreign terrorist groups after the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993. Furthermore, how is it possible to take credit for a lack of attacks after 9/11 without at the same time acknowledging that the administration did not stop the worst terrorist attack in American history? Bush's advocates cannot possibly have it both ways, denying any responsibility whatsoever for not preventing 9/11 but claiming a lack of attacks after 9/11 as the result of successful policy. 9/11 happened during the Bush presidency. That is an immutable fact. The failures on 9/11 were systemic, to be sure, and blaming Bush, or blaming Clinton, would be largely pointless. Until you start using the lack of attacks as a political chit. At which point, the rules of the game change.

Finally, the United States has allies. In part as a nearly direct result of their coordination with American policies, Spain and England suffered terrorist attacks after 9/11. (I was in England on the 7th of July, 2005.) Shallow triumphalism on terrorism needs to take into account that the Global War on terror (Bush's titular creation, not mine) was, well, global. To declaim an attack in London or Madrid because it does not fit the narrative qualifies as rank opportunism (and pretty crass abandonment of the significance of our allies). It hardly meets the standard of rigorous political analysis.

Mighty Mt. Washington

People from out west, and especially the Rocky Mountain region, look scornfully at mountains in the east coast. And when it comes to scale, it is true, that nothing out east can compare with even modest peaks in, say, Colorado. But as this New York Times feature reminds us all, New Hampshire's Mt. Washington might seem unimpressive compared to its western brethren, the northeast's highest peak is bad ass when it comes to weather conditions, which dwarf the mountains of the Rockies in severity as surely as those mountains dwarf Mt. Washington in sheer altitude.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Pats Will Be Just Fine, Thanks

Are you a Patriots fan? Don't find a bridge to jump from quite yet just because of all of the recent losses in the front office and coaching staff. Are you tenting your fingers like Mr. Burns, hissing "excellent" about the Patriots' impending demise? Not so fast. Don Banks at SI argues that there are plenty of reasons why New England will be just fine next year and beyond.

Obama's Shot at Greatness

George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt faced monumental challenges and rose to them. James Buchanan, Herbert Hoover, and George W. Bush faced comnparable challenges and failed in the face of them. Woodrow Wilson and Lyndon Johnson only partially succeeded in mastering the demands of their eras. Theodore Roosevelt and Bill Clinton always lamented never having that moment to meet. Dwight Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan (as well as Clinton and maybe Truman) probably fall between these categories, as both were popular presidents in modestly challenging times who probably succeeded more than they failed but who had notable shortcomings and never faced the singular events of depression, war, or a 9/11-type calamity. Context provides opportunity and challenges, and how a president responds to that opportunity and those challenges goes a long way in determining that president's place in history.

President Obama faces the circumstances for greatness but the question remains whether he masters the moment, or the moment masters him. Supporters like me believe he is the man for these troubling times. The clock is ticking on his hundred days, a constructed but symbolically resonant creation that presidents since FDR have faced with varying degrees of success. Obama's challenge will be to maximize his mandate, to use the current goodwill he has garnered as a springboard, and to use not only the next hundred days but beyond to impose his will on events rather than allow events to overrun him.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

President Barack Hussein Obama

Some early, perhaps scattered, thoughts:

Throughout today's monumental, historic, inspiring, and emotional events, my thoughts have continued to wander back to two individuals other, of course, than Barack Obama. I have written thousands of words about both and probably exhausted nearly as many hours thinking about them. One is Congressman John Lewis. The other, bizarrely, perhaps, is Robert Mugabe.

John Lewis is one of the central figures in Freedom's Main Line, and is someone who has earned almost universal respect for his courage and convictions. One of the central figures in the Civil Rights Movement during the 1960s, Lewis never fulfilled the role of charismatic leader. But charismatic leadership was always only a tiny slice of what the Movement was all about, the visible tip of an often obscured massive operation that may have required a Martin Luther King, Jr. for public consumption but that needed determined leaders like John Lewis to make things run. As a Congressman Lewis has similarly spoken out for justice and human rights, rarely (he is a Congressman -- to say "never" would be to protest too much) grandstanding, and always impressing with his strength of character and commitment. Seeing John Lewis in such a visible seat during the inauguration proceedings gave me joy on a day that all of us can celebrate, but that most of us have to recognize means that much more to African Americans. Barack Obama is our president, but to deny pride of place to African Americans would be churlish at best.

And yet as I listened to Obama present a speech that by his standards was merely adequate, but that instantly re-elevated the level of presidential speechmaking exponentially, I also thought about Africa and Africans. About Kenya, to be sure, and Obama's heritage, of course. But also about how someone like a Robert Mugabe has so abandoned his claim to speak for his people. About how Mugabe's ruthlessly thuggish kleptocracy has forsaken the people of Zimbabwe, has abused power, has made a mockery of democracy. About how perhaps a President Obama will be able to stare down Mugabe and his demonically clever machinations whereby all criticisms derive from the fiendish colonial past. Obama's earnest beliefs about both democracy and freedom place into stark reality the barrenness of Mugabe's claims to the country he so promisingly took control of nearly three decades ago. The Age of Obama should spell the end of the Age of Mugabe and his ilk. Not through Obama's force of will or use of force, but rather simply by his very presence. No longer should a Robert Mugabe be able to hide behind his people and stake a claim to Africanness that allows him to abuse other Africans.

As I am writing this, I am watching the Obamas walk down Pennsylvania Avenue and am listening to David Gergen speak of his fears about the first couple walking openly down the streets of Washington, fears I have shared (and repressed) all day. And yet as I listen I hear not fear or anxiety, but unfettered joy. More than that, I hear relief. The relief of generations. The relief of hope. The relief of possibilities unleashed.

The Washington, DC we all see and read about is the Washington of wing tips and power ties and constant jockeying for power and status anxiety raised to the level of sacrament. But the Washington that Washingtonians experience is the original Chocolate City, a black city. The shrieks of joy are also the shouts of a people. Michelle Obama received the slings and arrows of self-righteous outrage when she commented on her feeling pride in her country for the first time, an assertion as unobjectionable as her critics were ferociously obtuse. It would be facile to claim that we have overcome the country's tortured, demonstrable, long, shameful past, or to allow conservatives to seize upon Obama's inauguration as evidence that racism is a factor no more. But a specific era of racism, long dying, is dead. We are not at Dr. King's mountaintop. But on this, one of the truly great days in American history, its peaks are clearer than ever they have been. And that's something.

[Crossposted at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog.]

FML and MLK Day: Self-Indulgence Alert (Redux)

This is just a gentle and self-indulgent reminder of the ongoing MLK Day sale at the University Press of Kentucky, which is featuring Freedom's Main Line at a nice price.

Monday, January 19, 2009

All The President (Elect's) Books

I am trying to wrap my head around the confluence of Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Barack Obama's inauguration, and hope to write something about it for tomorrow. Until then, I find another interesting confluence in that The New York Times has a feature on the books that have influenced Barack Obama. Washington Monthly, meanwhile, has a reading list for President Obama going forward.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Context Free Headline of the Year (So Far)

"Dogs Don't Use Condoms".

(Bonus: Pamela Anderson is prominently involved, but then again, of course she is.)

Thursday, January 15, 2009

FML and MLK Day: Self-Indulgence Alert

In honor of the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday the University Press of Kentucky is having a special sale featuring a handful of books related to the Civil Rights Movement. Freedom's Main Line is one of the featured titles and is available now for a substantial discount of $30. It would make a great MLK Day/Black History Month/Valentine's Day gift, dontcha think?

Debating FDR and the New Deal

It is natural that Americans are looking to history to try to make some sense of the current economic {pick one: crisis, malaise, recession, impending depression, clusterfuck} and in that context the logical place to look is the New Deal. And naturally any look at the New Deal is going to get us going on all sorts of politicized tangents. Two recent articles, one in The New York Times the other in The Boston Globe give a sense of some of this discussion.

I am teaching my US 1929-1945: Depression and War class this semester, and I think it is no coincidence that it is packed this time around, with more students than seats or tabletops. The last time I taught this class, two years ago, it had fewer than 15 students. Last semester when I taught the first of my three-course modern US trilogy, covering the period from 1877-1929, a dozen students showed up for the final exam. Suddenly, though, students are clamoring to take this class, and it seems the reason is obvious. They want to try to make some sense of the world around them, and this class its on the two major issues of our time: economic crisis on the home front and American wars abroad.

I find most of the FDR/New deal arguments largely uninteresting. Conservatives and Republicans have taken a reasonable, indeed factually indisputable argument -- the New Deal did not end the Great Depression -- and turned it into an unreasonable, wrong one, namely that the New Deal failed. If we start out from the basic principle that there really is something to the idea of the "Three R's" of the New Deal: relief, reform, recovery, we understand that FDR's programs certainly addressed two of these with some remarkable successes even if the recovery phase never really kicked in. I have never heard an even vaguely viable argument about how the wonders of a market that had quite clearly failed, and had seen the economy hit its nadir during the Hoover administration, was going to magically come up with the millions of jobs that various New Deal relief programs provided. Nor has anyone arguing New Deal failure adequately explained FDR's successful re-elections, especially the 1936 landslide. The New Deal was an imperfect response to a nearly unfathomable catastrophe. Those who point out that the Second World War, and not the New Deal, ended the Great Depression have a point, though they also probably ought to acknowledge that had FDR had his druthers we would have been far more engaged not only in that conflict, but in its run-up, and that the economic benefits thus derived would have come far sooner.

The quest for a usable past is understandable. But the desire to use a cartoonish version of that past to brandish ideology today both abuses and diminishes the past in ways that will inevitably do harm both to history and to the future.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Great Minds Think Alike (Self Indulgence Edition)

Barack Obama has concluded that it is not important to kill Osama bin laden if we can contain him. I know of somebody who embraced the idea of containment with regard to bin Laden some time ago. You're welcome, Mr. President-Elect!

Idiocy Alert: GOP Showing its Colors Edition

Seen on a (piece of shit, by the way) car today, five days BEFORE Barack Obama's inauguration: An "Impeach Obama" bumper sticker. You stay classy, conservatives!

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Rice to Cooperstown

There are no loyalties like childhood loyalties. So my happiness that Jim Rice gained entry to the Hall of Fame surprises even me. Here is one-time Rice antagonist Dan Shaughnessy's take. Shaughnessy became a vocal advocate of Rice's entry into Cooperstown. Boston Globe sportswriter Nick Cafardo's story is here. And here, from a poster at Sons of Sam Horn, is a nice gathering of other articles on Rice's election. When I was a kid I was sure I would succeed Jim Rice as the leftfielder for the Boston Red Sox. In my mind he was a God. Now he is set to be enshrined in baseball's Valhalla.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Jim Rice's Last Shot

Tomorrow baseball fans will discover which legends will be enshrined in the 2009 class of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. Tomorrow, Jim Rice will find out if he will gain entrance into that hallowed Hall in his last year of eligibility (through the traditional process.) Twice in the past I have addressed this issue directly, in December 2005 and December 2007 and I touched upon the question of his induction in March 2006. Today Bob Ryan tackles the question, showing how difficult a "borderline" case can be.

My argument has always been the same: Jim Rice was my favorite player growing up, and as a consequence would always get my vote. I know all of the rational arguments against him, but childhood loyalties are the fiercest loyalties, and in my mind Jim Ed Rice will always be the fiercest hitter around. I hope enough voters saw it that way this year, and that Rice will not be subject to the wait and the whims of the veteren's committee process some years down the line.

Friday, January 09, 2009

FML Update: Self Indulgence Alert

First off, let it be known that I have less than nothing to do with the pricing of Freedom's Main Line. My royalties, for example, do not change, and trust me when I say that no one wishes it carried a cheaper pricetag than I do. So I apologize to those of you who have bought my book from its Amazon page (though feel free to buy it from that page, which has dropped the price marginally) but Barnes and Noble has stepped up to the plate. You can buy it there for $40 ($36 if you have that B&N membership card).

The ball is in your court, Amazon.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

The Coach Jag Firing

I'm still in Washington DC with the issue of genocide occupying my days, but I wanted to comment very quickly on the bizarre Jeff Jagodzinsky firing at Boston College. Apparently a huge part of the issue comes down to BC Athletic Director Gene DiFilippo's sense of betrayal. In many ways this reminds me of the sense of betrayal that pervaded the dissoution of Bill Belichick and Eric Mangini's relationship when Mangini took the Jets coaching job. But isn't there some irony attached to Boston College reacting to Coach Jag's potential breach of contract by breaking their contract with him by firing him?

Friday, January 02, 2009

On The Road: Self Indulgence Alert

I am hitting the road for the next ten days or so. This weekend I'll be attending the 123rd annual meeting of the American Historical Association in New York, where I hope to see this for the first time. Then I will be heading to Washington, DC, to participate in the 2009 Jack and Anita Hess Seminar for Faculty (pdf) at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. (My own perspective and connection is the issue of genocide in Africa, an issue about which I have written a little and taught a bit more.) As always, I'll post as I can.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

Quotation Mark Promiscuity

Anyone who has graded student papers has grown accustomed to seeing the dreaded scare quotation marks. These are words or phrases placed within quotes that do not actually quote anything but rather are used when the author is unsure of the proper usage either of the word/phrase in question, believes that they are using a word ironically or else mockingly or, as commonly, simply does not grasp the proper usage of quotation marks. I expect this from undergraduates and try to curb this tendency. By the end of a typical semester I have made headway which is about as much as any professor can ask from a semester's work.

But I was amused to read Jonathan Chait's evisceration of the Wall Street Journal's "wildly promiscuous use of quotation marks." The editors of the WSJ certainly know better, and Chait uses the intentional usage of punctuation to achieve none-to-subtle ideological ends.

Herf on Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex

Friend and former professor of dcat Jeffrey Herf has an article in which he assesses the German film Der Baader-Meinhof Komplex and places it in the context of both historical memory and dealing with political radicalism.

Will 2009 be the Year of the Sports Fan?

At The New Republic Darren Rovell argues that because of the economic crisis 2009 is likely to be the "Year of the Sports Fan." Hopefully he is right. The trend in recent years has been to take fans for grantes, assuming that we will constantly show up, pay the exhorbitant ticket prices, the absurd concession costs, and leave the stadium with a mexed out credit card and handfuls of jerseys and hats and t-shirts and whatever else we can stuff into a shopping bag.

I would assume that there will be a great deal of regional variation, and that the places with the loyalist fan bases will benefit the least. After all, if fans are flocking to see the games in some cities, those owners are going to see little need to drop prices, add incentives, or provide bargains. In other words, if you're in Boston, don't expect most of these trends to help you more easily and cheaply see the Sox, C's, Pats, or resurgent Bruins. But in somewhat more marginal, or perhaps to be kinder, less entrenched, sports markets, Rovell just might be right.

Meanwhile it continues to be the decade of the Boston Sports Fan. If you need a reminder of the current state of Boston sports, see this Bob Ryan article in The Boston Globe.

Freedom's Main Line: Self Indulgence Alert

Freedom's Main Line is apparently available now on Amazon. I have not even seen my copy yet, but you can buy yours as a gift to yourself (or others) to welcome 2009! And, by the way, Happy New Year. But mostly buy the book.