Friday, March 09, 2012

The Five Greatest US Soccer Team Moments

In the wake of the United States soccer team's first-ever victory over Italy on February 29 (in Genoa, where the Italians had never lost), The Guardian's Sports Blog decided to compile the USA's Five Greatest Soccer Results. It's hard to quibble too much with the list (and really they take into account any alternative results, though it's hard to ignore the Algeria game in the 2010 World Cup that advanced them to the knockout stages) and I suspect that over time the win over Italy will recede, if slightly.

The list also brings a couple of thoughts to mind.

First: It's not exactly a rich history.

Second: Nonetheless, the trajectory is clear -- in the last twenty years or so, and especially in the last decade, the US has risen to become a legitimate second-or-third-tier presence in the Beautiful Game. And no, I don't intend that as a backhanded compliment. In a generation or so we have gone from being a backwater and punchline in the world's most popular game to being a team that can play with even elite teams without fear of being humiliated. Or at least without fear of being humiliated too badly.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the burgeoning respect our national team has earned? The Guardian blog post is not ironic, patronizing, or tongue-in-cheek and the comments are worth the read, which is truly rare in this day and age where bile is the default excretion online.

Finding Meaning From War

Tom has a splendidly written piece on art, literature, and the meaning of war over at The New Criterion. Go read it and pass it along.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Linktastic Voyage

Loads of stories that have caught my eye have begun to pile up on my tabs. My intent was to give each a full post, but with my pace of late, let's face it -- that wasn't gonna happen. So here are some links with commentary as apt:

You know what? President Obama has accomplished a hell of a lot, especially given the political context within which he has had to operate.

The Miller Center at UVA has started a blog, Riding The Tiger, that promises to look at the presidential election in historical context.

Cliopatria, the first among equals of the History News Network Blogs is closing its doors. Ralph Luker, paterfamilias of Cliopatria, did yeoman's work herding cats over there for more than 8 years. When he started blogging at HNN Ralph was one of a precious few professional historians who saw the potential for blogging as a medium of blending historical, political, social and cultural questions. In large part due to his nurturing thousands of historians now blog.

Ruy Teixeira thinks much of the hullaballoo about Independent voters is nonsense and he recently found himself reviewing an especially nonsensical book about Independent voters. Negative reviews are fun.

This about sums up my feelings.

Voter ID laws, created to create a solution to a problem that doesn't exist (but really simply created to make it harder for Democrats to vote), might just end up having unintended consequences.

Students in one history class at my alma mater are making campaign ads rather than writing final papers. I love this idea:

There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.
I might have to appropriate this idea and adjust it for my students.

At the Chronicle Leonard Cassuto argues that the comprehensive exam needs to be changes because it does not seamlessly fuel the way toward writing a dissertation. The problem with this solution is that it assumes rather than proves the seamlessness. The fact is that the comprehensive exams are rather different from the dissertation -- and frankly I've always argued that in many ways the comprehensive exams are what separates history PhD's from laymen -- learning to respect both the history and the historiography is vital. There is a lot of material out there. I am of the belief that before one does original work one should immerse oneself in the books and articles that have come before. And in so doing get to really know the history as well.

In which I say some stuff about the new UT system post-tenure review policy.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Facts Matter

If you are reading this blog* then you probably believe that facts matter. You know that determining facts is not as easy as it might seem but it is really important for any writer trying to deal with the real, trying to deal with whatever it is that we might call "truth," or at least a version of truth. We cannot know everything. We might get things wrong despite our best intentions. But we do our best. And if you are like me you look askance at best and call bullshit more probably when people prattle on about fiction being more true than nonfiction because that assertion is nonsense.

Perhaps this is why I got so angry in the last week or so when I read about a new book. Or I should say, when I read about the content and debate that makes up a new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, which is credited to John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. I say "credited to" because the book is an odd creature, from what I can discern (note that I am not reviewing the book, which I have not read, but the conflict related to it, which you can read enough about here and here to form a pretty solid opinion). It effectively consists of the correspondence and other elements that a historian might call "primary source evidence" of the interactions of an author, D'Agata, and the young man tasked to be his fact checker, Fingal.

D'Agata, who teaches writing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop (and you'll soon come to see why I am chagrined to say that he teaches "non-fiction") wrote a story about a suicide in Las Vegas that is, as the best stories are, about more than the thing at hand, which is to say that it is a reflection on suicide and Las Vegas and death and, ironically enough, truth and facts. Fingal went to work with his fact checking, and from early on it was clear that something was wrong -- D'Agata had changed the names of businesses and schools and had apparently changed scores of facts for no reason other than pretentious twaddle about his "art." Tellingly, D'Agata had submitted the piece to Harper's and the fact checkers had revealed the same issues and had the scruples to pass on the piece.

John D'Agata (and no, I had not heard of him either) was not, it turned out, big enough to bully Harper's.

So he moved on to The Believer, a literary magazine of which I have been a devotee for more than seven years. That is where Fingal got hold of what D'Agata insisted was an "essay," and thus a higher calling, as opposed to a simple work of non-fiction, a distinction that is decidedly without a difference in my mind, and I too am a fan of the essay as a form of expression. Sadly, though, while Fingal was able to get some of the intentional errors in D'Agata's piece rewritten, many remained.

Apparently John D'Agata, of whom you and I had never heard, is big enough to bully The Believer.

The piece that resulted is good. But it is not so good that basic rules of writing and evidence should not have applied to its author. D'Agata claims that he does not owe the victim of the suicide he uses as a springboard or the victim's parents or history or nonfiction or The Believer or his editors or his audience fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down. Worse still, he was a world class bully to Fingal who was, it should be pointed out, simply doing his job for a magazine for which D'Agata wanted to be published. And, perhaps ironically, in doing his job Fingal was attempting to do a sort justice to the victim of the suicide D'Agata uses as a springboard, to the victim's parents to history to nonfiction to The Believer to his editors and to his audience by maintaining fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down.

It is, to be blunt, utter bullshit to assert, as D'Agata repeatedly does that good nonfiction is in opposition to the art of good writing, and anyone reading this can make a list of dozens and were you to bother hundreds of writers of nonfiction -- say historians and journalists and, yes, essayists -- who wipe the floor with John D'Agata of whom you and I had never heard prior to the past few days.

*And if you are still reading I probably don't deserve you as a reader as I've been horrible at posting here for the last year or so.