Monday, February 27, 2006

Back Off Of Bode

I would find it amusing how so many people who could not explain the difference between the Super G and the Giant Slalom and who could not tell you the configuration of the Combined event battering poor Bode Miller's Olympic performance if I did not feel somewhat let down by the whole sad situation. After all, Bode was from New Hampshire, and was prepared to become the biggest Granite State athletic star since Carlton Fisk. But instead, as we all have been told, usually in smirking tones, Bode got shut out. He left Italy without a medal. And he seems so damned unrepentrant about it, we are reminded, that somehow he goes down as one of the biggest losers in the history of the Olympics, if not all of sports, if not all of humankind, depending on who is doing the hyperventilating.

So I am here, if not to defend Bode's honor, then at least to scream: "Enough!"

Bode Miller did not proclaim himself the golden boy or star of this Olympics. I never saw him make brash predictions. I never heard him talk trash about his opponents. And neither did you. The fact is that the media anointed Miller as the star in waiting, and for at least some good reasons -- he was the defending overall World Cup alpine champion and he had the sort of depth of talent and versatility that he was a legitimate threat in all of the alpine events (Downhill, Super G, Giant Slalom, Slalom, and combined, which calls for one downhill run and two trips down the slalom course). And when Miller failed to medal, the same media that anointed him the star proclaimed him a loser and worse.

Yet what did Miller do that was so awful? He enjoyed himself -- imagine that. A guy makes the Olympics, decides to make the most of it, and decides, on his own, in an individual sport, that while he would love to win, he would not do so at the expense of the experience. And when he comes up short, after skiing in his typical hellbent for leather style, he is not apologetic, largely because he does not owe any of us a damned thing. Here is the deal: It is one thiong to celebrate the US Olympic team. It is quite another honestly to equate the Olympic effort with patriotism, with proxy war. Bode Miller is a fine skier, and one who may well come out of the Olympics hungry to win the World Cup again, either in individual events or overall. And I hope that he does. But unlike, say, soldiers, Bode Miller does not owe the Amereican people a thing. He does not owe us a gold medal. He does not owe us any particular approach to his sport. He does not owe us some sportswriter's concept of humility or of self-flagellation after giving it his best but coming up short (is finishing 4th in the world, or 6th in the world, somehow shameful? That's what Bode did in two of his events, in a sport where the difference between 1st and 6th is usually well less than a second?).

Some are making a big deal out of his Nike contract, as if independent of the Olympics Bode Miller has not earned endorsement deals, and as if those critics are anywhere near as good in their profession as Miller is at his (and as if Olympic athletes always live up to the expectations we impose upon them).

Bode Miller tried and failed. And he may not have responded to that failure in the way that some focus group sitting at home and, more likely than not, NOT watching the Olympics, would have liked. But in the end, so what? He is young. He will probably be there in Vancouver in 2010. And I, for one, will be rooting for him.

Two other quick Olympic notes:

I am somewhat tired of hearing about what a failure this Olympics was for the US team because we did not meet our medal count from Salt Lake City. Home Olympic teams always surpass their regular standards. But beyond that, the 25 medals we brought home far surpassed the second highest total Americans have ever accumulated in a winter games. And it was the second most medals in these games, behind Germany, a traditional winter Olympics powerhouse. When people brand these games a disappointment, what I am hearing from them is three things: They know the US hockey team did not win anything. They heard about Bode Miller and are jumping on that bandwagon. They are freaking morons.

Finally, enough about Shani Davis and the speedskating relay team. Speedskating relays are not like the relays in track and field, where the teams work together leading up to the games. From all I can tell, the process in that sport is very much ad hoc and traditionally the teams are thrown together. Hedrick's desire to maximize his own medal tallies is no reason to throw Davis under the bus. Shani Davis does not owe anyone anything. He did not pull out after promising to be part of the relay. He did not pull out after training together with a set group of guys for four years. He did not pull out at all -- he never committed to the relay event. Meanwhile he accomplished something significant -- not only by winning a gold medal, which for any athlete has to be the pinnacle of a lifetime's worth of work, but by doing so and in the process becoming the first black athlete to win an Olympic medal at the Winter Games. Let's leave the man alone, and let's admire what he did in the events in which he did skate, and not hold against him what happened in an event in which he never intended to.

Send Clinton to Iraq?

This is precisely the idea that Andrew Sullivan proposes today. I think it is a good one.

In any other circumstance -- if we were talking about the Sudan, say -- I would pose an even bolder option: Send both Clinton and George H. W. Bush, but the reality is that the President's father, whatever his cache in foreign policy, would not be a viable choice in Iraq for obvious reasons. Sending Clinton seems like wise, innovative counsel. Such a step would allow the President to appear above party, would provide Iraqis with a familiar face for which they seem to hold at least some respect, and would allow Clinton to play to some of his strengths. As divisive a figure as Clinton is at home, in the rest of the world he is possibly the most respected and admired leader we have had in some time. He certainly is more popular than any president we have had in recent memory. Clearly the status quo is not working -- why not give this a shot?

Well, for one thing, this administration has not shown much inclination toward either deviating from their script, nor has it shown a willingness toward innovation. During an election year, politicos in the GOP will be unlikely to want to place a Democrat in a position to appear to be a difference-maker in Iraq. Bush is likey to be especially disinclined to send his immediate predecessor to break a logjam of this administration's making.

Still, wouldn't it be nice if Presidents showed a willingness to show real boldness, as opposed to the boldness of a speechwriter's pen? And it seems obvious that the current approach has not worked, is not working, and in decreasingly likely to work in the near future. If diplomacy is still on the table, is there a better option than Cinton?

Furthermore, imagine if the Democrats had to be part of the process, and not just stand on the side and criticize? Wouldn't that be something?

Friday, February 24, 2006


Blogging's been light lately -- we had a job candidate in this week, I have huge deadlines impending, and tomorrow I am off to Seguin, Texas and Texas Lutheran University via San Antonio, where I will be making my first public appearance with my new project on comparative US-South African protests in the 1950s at the conference of the World History Association of Texas (WHAT). I likely won't be back and running until Monday.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Far From the Mountain

My best friends, Matt (from high school) and his wife Heather, have done something unassailably cool and brave. They have given up their comfortable middle-class life in Asheville, North Carolina to spend a year working with children at an orphanage in Guatamala. Matt will bring his nursing skills to bear as one of the only medical professionals around and both he and heather will serve as all around caretakers, medical staff, babysitters, bottle washers, Indian braves, and jacks of all trades. On the first post of their new blog, Far From the Mountain which they set up to chronicle the coming year's adventure, and which is now proudly on the dcat blogroll, they lay out their rationale:
My wife and I are certainly not technology people, and creating this blog almost wiped me out. But how else to share about two otherwise normal middle-class folks quitting their jobs, dropping everything and migrating to stranger environs. Our family thinks we're wacky. We may be wacky, but we don't care. This is a love story about not selling our dreams short, about going thousands of miles out of our way to grow and blossom into something more complete, more giving than we can imagine now. Why else would anyone rent their house, sell the only reliable car they have, flipoff desireable jobs in a town, Asheville, N.C., where desireable jobs don't exist, and move in with 150 children in the swelter of the Guatemalan jungle. Yeah, we're wacky.

I encourage you to follow their adventures, to live vicariously through them as they undertake what will surely be a transformative experience, and one that millions of (tens of millions of?) Americans would profoundly envy and wish they had the cajones to do themselves.

The Sound of One Tear of Joy Trickling Down a Cheek

Can you even fathom what a bonanza it was for Sportsguy that the Clippers just signed Vin Baker? And just when he was getting along with Elgin Baylor . . .

And God Smiles . . .

. . . because pitchers and catchers have reported and position players start filtering in this week.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Too busy to comment now but discuss

Scholars rate worst presidential errors

More Africa: The Bad, the Good, the Ugly and the Insane

As usual, the news from Africa is more grim than good, but there are glimmers of hope amidst the maelstrom. I'm proud that one of my students (we'll call her Karen M. because, well, her first name and last initial are "Karen" and "M," respectively) is taking an active role in pushing awareness of the nightmare in Sudan (which is experiencing what the scholar Gerald Prunier has called the "ambiguous genocide") and she asked me for help in publicizing the ongoing efforts. Hers is a good and important task, and so I would encourage all of you to go to the Committee on Conscience of the United States Holocaust Museum, which sees nothing ambiguous about what they have declared to be a genocide.

Meanwhile there is bad news from the Horn of Africa, where a drought imperils the lives of millions in Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea. John Donnolly of the Boston Globe has the story here.

Also in the Globe, Ann Yao has a piece titled "After Genocide, A Ray of Hope" about Rwanda. What was unquestionably one of the most horrid stories from Africa in recent decades might also turn into one of the great lessons in reconciliation. We should never forget the former, but let's hold out hope for the latter.

Finally, I am not a psychologist. I don't even play one on tv. But is there any question that Robert Mugabe is more than a little mad? But at least he feels healthy. In a recent interview Mugabe declared that he has the bones of "someone of 30." Such is the state of affairs in Zimbabwe that upon reading the headline, I just assumed that he had the skeleton of a 30 year old somewhere in his antechamber. I'm not convinced that this is not what he actually means.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Africa News

It's heartening to see the New York Times devote two stories today to Africa, but it is a little bit disappointing that news stories from that continent are almost always grim. The first story tells of how President Bush, wisely I think, wants to increase NATO's role in the Sudan. Why did it take him so long? We've fiddled as Africans die. The second story involves corruption in Chad. Basically, oil riches that should be going to help the country's people have been diverted, mismanaged, misappropriated or just plain stolen.

Meanwhile this week's Mail & Guardian has a useful primer on the upcoming elections, telling where the parties stand on the major issues. As an added bonus, today's Zapiro depicts disgraced former Vice President in (how to put this delicately?) a tumescent state.

Friday, February 17, 2006

A Moral Conundrum

Does anyone else feel just a little dirty about the inclusion of all of the hippie sports in the winter Olympics? On the one hand, these fake sports exist solely to help us to pad our medal total. On the other hand, you've got to be kidding me.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

On the Bedside Table: African Books Edition

I have many leatherbound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany."

-- Ron Burgandy, Anchorman

Whenever I go to South Africa, I try to buy as many books as possible. There is a great deal of African writing, scholarly and otherwise, that either never gets to the United States, or that does arrive but is incredibly expensive (though books in South Africa tend to be pricey) or that simply do not come out in the United States until substantially later than here. And in any case, if you want to see where works on or from Africa rank in the book-buying hierarchy, go to your local book seller and check out the paucity of books they have on the subject. South Africa and the UK tend to be my most abundant opportunities to accumulate some of the best works on Africa, new or used. So here it is, "On the Bedside Table," African books edition.

(Note that I have not yet read all of these, so some of my comments will be based on what i know about the author, the significance of the book's publishing, the topic, and the like.)

Roger Southall and Henning Melber, Eds. Legacies of Power: Leadership Change and Former Presidents in African Politics Roger Southall is one of the most prominent, prolific and respected intellectuals in South Africa. He was in the politics department at Rhodes for several years, and now is a researcher for the Human Sciences Research Council. I know him somewhat, and was excited to see this book, as I have a long-term project on southern African democratization that I am embarking on in fits and starts amidst my other projects. The essays in this collection cover a wide geographic range, from Robert Mugabe to Julius Nyerere to Charles Taylor to Jerry Rawlings to Daniel arap Moi to Nelson Mandela, from Botswana to Zambia to Namibia to Malawi to Uganda to Nigeria. Legacies of Power is a vital contribution.

UNESCO International Scientific Committee for the Drafting of a General History of Africa, General History of Africa: Vol. IV Africa From the Twelfth to the Sixteenth Century I am slowly accumulating all of the volumes in this important project. My work does not extend anywhere near as far back as the 16th century (I am a modernist; I focus on a broad geographic swath, and very little happened before 1850 or so in my world; I am chronologically parochial and geographically cosmopolitan.) but obviously for a host of reasons, I need to be conversant with the general trends prior to where my work takes off. The books in the General History are not always the most riveting reads, but each chapter comes from one of the premier experts in the field, and this is as good a starting point as exists for the time period in question. I am now halfway to owning the entire series.

Zapiro, Bushwhacked: Cartoons from Sowetan, Mail & Guardian and Sunday Times Zapiro (Jonathan Shapiro) is hands down the finest political cartoonist in South Africa, and may be my favorite anywhere. Every time I go to South Africa I try to pick up one or two of his collections. I do not always agree with his views on foreign policy, especially when he discusses American policies that I am not certain he fully grasps, but what sort of person only reads and enjoys work that dovetails precisely with their own views? On the whole, Zapiro is brilliant, insightful and when necessary, scathing. There are few observers of the South African scene with comparable insight. Plus he brings the funny. (Zapiro’s daily strips and archives can be found here.)

Stephen Francis & Rico, Madam & Eve: Desperate Housemaids If Zapiro is my favorite political cartoonist, Madam & Eve star in my favorite daily strip, which follows the daily travails of a black maid and her white madam (and of course the gin & tonic besotted Mother Anderson, Madam’s mother). Brilliant stuff. (Although they have had some technical glitches of late, you can see what I mean by going to the Madam & Eve website.) When I buy my Zapiro I also pick up at least one Madam & Eve collection.

Harry Dugmore, Stephen Francis, & Rico, Eds. Nelson Mandela: A Life in Cartoons To finish off my animated troika, I also picked up this marvelous collection of cartoonists’ vies of Mandela. The history of post-1960 South Africa comes across pretty well in this lavishly presented collection. I cannot wait to get to the South Africa portion of my modern Africa course just to share some of these images with my students. I picked this up when I was in Johannesburg and read through it while eating dinner at one of Melville’s fashionable bistros. Some of the drawings are so compelling they evoked tears. Powerful, witty, incisive stuff.

Tom Eaton & Luke Alfred, Eds. Touchlines & Deadlines: A Compendium of South African Sports Writing It was sort of inevitable that at least one sports book would crop up here, wasn’t it? Eaton and Alfred pull together a pretty representative sample of South African writing about sports, Interestingly most of the writing comes from the period after 1980, for which they have a pretty reasonable explanation. (Most South African sports writing before that time sort of sucked is the gist of it.) I also thought that their shout out to American sports writing would be of some interest:

For fifty years the United States has been the driving force behind modern literature in English, whether poetry, fiction or nonfiction; its writers more than filling the slippers left vacant by Commonwealth authors when they shuffled off into university syllabi. And the sports writers have been in the vanguard of their advance. Neville Cardus and his fellow doyens have their place, but nobody writes sport like the Americans. We look westward for all our other influences: surely one more cultural loan – this time a few pointers on how to write sizzling, intelligent prose about a game – couldn’t hurt.
USA!USA!USA! This collection does show that slowly, South Africans are catching up.

Kader Asmal, David Chidester, and Cassius Lubisi, Legacy of Freedom: The ANC’s Human Rights Tradition This is effectively an essential collection of documents from the ANC’s anti-apartheid struggle with a little bit of assessment. Sure, there is a hint of ANC self-congratulations attendant in this project (all three are longstanding ANC stalwarts, with Asmal having by far the highest profile) but those congratulations by and large happen to be warranted. I purchased this in the Johannesburg airport on my way out of the country for just under R50 ($8, give or take). This is another one that will be great ion the classroom and will be a useful resource for my own work.

John Malathronas, Rainbow Diary: A Journey in the New South Africa I have, in the last few years, become a voracious reader of travel writing. I plan to do some travel writing of my own in the not-so-distant future. There may be no better way than to get to know a region or a place than through someone with wanderlust and an ability to convey a place’s uniqueness, idiosyncrasies and pleasures on the page. I have not yet absorbed this one, but I am looking forward to it, if only to compare notes.

Paul Maylam, The Cult of Rhodes: Remembering an Imperialist in Africa This is not a book for anyone from the Rhodes lineage. Maylam, my advisor when I was at Rhodes and now someone I’d like to think I can count as a friend and mentor, delivers a blistering indictment of Rhodes, his life, and his legacy. Here is the last paragraph-pus of Maylam’s well-crafted, brief (159 pages of text) evisceration of the mighty colossus:

I come back to John Flynt’s judgment that ‘fundamentally’ Rhodes was ‘a rather mediocre person’, an assessment that, in part, prompted this study: how is it that such a mediocre person could have generated so many biographies, so much historical and fictional literature, so many monuments and memorials, so much commemorative naming, so many anniversary celebrations? The answers are to be found partly in Rhodes’ money and his bequest, partly in his own obsessive desire for immortality, and partly in his ability to gather around him a coterie of admirers who would initiate and sustain a long hagiographic tradition after his death.

Rhodes desired, and purchased, his own immortality.

This is a book that should garner a fairly wide audience, but if you have grand images of Rhodes because of the scholarship and university that bear his name, prepare for some debunking.

Adam Hochschild, The Mirror at Midnight: A Journey to the Heart of South Africa Published in 1991, this travelogue-cum-reportage captures South Africa when it was at a tipping point between civil war and peace. Hochschild is most famous for King Leopold’s Ghost, his best selling, highly regarded account of King Leopold II’s Congo (which my Modern Africa class is reading now). I have not read this yet either, but am looking forward to seeing how his assessments stand up.

Dan Jacobson, The Electronic Elephant: A Southern African Journey Another as yet unread travel book. Kimberley native Jacobson is supposed to weave journalism, history and travelogue into his recounting of a trek northward from South Africa. Hopefully these travel books will spur my next trip to South Africa, which may well come this summer.

Happy reading!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Herf at TNR Online

Over at The New Republic online, a friend and mentor of dcat, Jeff Herf, who knows a bit about European missile issues, has a piece titled "Memory Loss" in which he excoriates European nations for their hypocrisy on Israel's possession of nuclear weapons. On the offending clause in the International Atomic Energy Agency resolution regarding Iran's nuclear program, Herf writes:

But the clause is not merely bad geopolitical strategy; it is also the height of hypocrisy. Two of the governments that backed the language were Britain and France; and it was only a quarter of a century ago, during the battle over missile deployments in Europe, that those countries found themselves in a situation almost exactly analogous to Israel's role in the Iran debate. The stance taken by London and Paris then was the correct one--and the exact opposite of the position they have forced on Israel now.

This is a good and important argument. Please go read it.

By the way, Jeff's long awaited new book, The Jewish Enemy : Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust will be out this fall. When I last visited Professor Herf, he had just gotten his first glimpse at the cover. There is no doubt that this will be an outstanding, vital book. Why not pre-order it?

Don't Mess With Cheney

You can love Dick Cheney or you can hate him, but you cannot deny that the shooting fiasco is comedy gold.

Gold, Jerry!

Thanks to friend of dcat Kevin O'Connor for this.

Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer!

My review of Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer has been posted over at Arete, the listserv of the Sports Literature Association. I write a lot of reviews and do not make mention of them here, but I do so in this instance for two reasons. First, it is a wonderful book that will appeal to the sports-mad segment of dcat. Second, I'll be appearing with the author of RJYH, Warren St. John, at the Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville in March. (The ethical caveat: I was asked to do the review long before I ever even was offerred the chance to be part of the festival, and I was offerred that opportunity long before they hooked me up with St. John in the same reading and signing. I also have never met and do not know St. John. I am looking forward to meeting him, to be sure, but my review is based solely on my feeling for the book.)

There are a couple of glitches with the review that I swear are not mine. The editor (whom I hold in high regard and with whom I have had a good working relatonship) decided to take out my three footnotes, which explained further a few things, and one of the footnote numbers remains in the text. She also edited my first paragraph so that the last sentence is a bit awkward and may not even actually be a sentence. In any case, enjoy, and if the review so inspires you, I would encourage you to go get St. John's book (and I can think of a certain Red Sox book with which you can pair it to qualify for super saver shipping over at Amazon!).

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

In the Changer: State of South African Music Edition

It's been quite some time since dcat has provided "In the Changer," our semi-regular feature in which I provide capsule music reviews to make you a better human being. This edition will also serve as something of a "State of South African music" edition, as I will be reviewing the cds I bought while in South Africa and in so doing, providing something of a survey of the current South African music scene. (Listed in alphabetical order by artist's name.)

Arno Carstens: The Hello Goodbye Boys: Arno Carstens was the frontman for the late Springbok Nude Girls, probably the most popular rock band in South African history. I have several Nude Girls albums, and must have seen them a dozen times in concert. I also had a beer with Carstens at Oppikoppi, South Africa's biggest rock festival, in 1997. There are rumors that the Nude Girls will be getting back together soon, but for now, fans will have to rely on Carsten's solo work. The Hello Good Bye Boys is Carsten's second solo release, and it is typical of his work. It is a solid, not great album suffused with hard rocking numbers and ballady-semi-rock. The slower songs get the air play, which is a source of frustration for Carstens, given that he has always said that one o his ambitions is to start a heavy-metal band called "Skullfucker." As an aside, one of my main criticisms of South Africa's rock bands is that, in addition to coming from a somewhat insular culture (there just are not a lot of them) thery also tend not to listen to as broad a selection of music as aspiring musicians in the States or the UK. Rock is, understandably, a niche commodity on South African radio, so there is not a whole lot of variety on the airwaves. Things are changing as a result of the internet and downloadable music, but this, to my mind, is still a problem. By way of example, one of my favorite bands in South Africa in the 1990s was a group called "The Led." they took their name from, you guessed it, Led Zeppelin. Despite the fact that I really enjoyed them and got to know them rather well, as a ganeral rule, if it's not 1976, your band's main influence probably ought not to be Robert Plant and company, great as those boys were. Grade: B

Freshlyground:Nomvula: Freshlyground is possibly the most beloved contemporary act in South Africa. More than a band, they are a cultural phenomenon, a living embodiment of the multiracial (or nonracial) dreams of the Rainbow Nation. It is difficult to categorize Freshlyground, especially for an American audience, but I suppose "jazzy Afropoppy crooning dark eyed soulful r&b via township jive" could work as well as any. Zolani Mahola has a goddess' voice. If there were any justice, Freshlyground would become huge, and would surpass Ladysmith Black Mambazo as South Africa's greatest cultural export. But ours is a world where that douchebag Scott Stapp, former lead singer of Creed, got to make a solo album, and that solo album has sold well. So my faith has been sorely tested. Grade: A-

Hugh Masakela: The Collection: Hugh Masakela might be South Africa's most famous jazz artist. South African jazz is at its best vibrant, lively, and mesmerizing. A polyglot mixture of American jazz, African beats, and township sensibility, the best jazz from Africa's southern tip is the equal of any in the world. Masakela is probably its best ambassador. Masakela is a brilliantly inventive trumpet player who stood against the apartheid state and as a consequence spent many years in exile. During that time he developed an international reputation and made contacts that allowed him to collaborate with some of the best musicians in the world. I have an old tape compilation of some of Masakela's best music, and while I like that somewhat better than this one, The Collection, or any collection of Masakela's music, makes for a pretty good introduction. Grade: A-

Katie Melua: Piece by Piece: I discovered Melua purely by happenstance. It was a steaming hot day in Pretoria, I had just returned from a long walk from the archives to my B&B, and I turned on SABC to see this lovely woman singing this lush, unapologetically gushy love song, "Nine Million Bicycles." Melua is a blues/jazz singer with a sweet, lush, if somehow endearingly imperfect, voice. She mixes refurbished standards with new songs, and did I mention that she is lovely? Ana hates most of my music, and she loves this. Odds are pretty good that "Nine Million Bicycles" could make for the first dance song if there is ever a dcat wedding extravaganza.Grade: A-

Various Artists: Cape Town Jazz: The discerning reader will note that I added the qualifier "at its best" when praising South African jazz. Too much of this collection has lite jazz written all over it. Some of the selections are fine examples of Cape Jazz. Too many sound like Kenny G's idea of "far out, boetie."I'll probably download and cull fairly extensively. Grade: C+

Various Artists: Kwaito Bash: Hits Volume 2: Kwaito is best described as a fusion of dancehall with a hip-hop attitude and an African dialect. Some Kwaito is very good. Some of it sucks. I was looking for another collection and could not find it and settled for this, which has both examples. If I had a little more money (South African cds are really expensive and by the end of my trip I was pretty cash poor) I'd have probably gone with one or two hip-hop collections rather than this. South African hip hop is actually quite good. Kwaito in some ways seems to have run its course and is in need of an infusion of telant, creativity, or daring.Grade: B-

Various Artists: The Spirit of Soweto: If there is an apodictic South African music, a style that embodies the history of protest, the fusion of international and local, rhythm and joy, it is Mbaqanga. Itself a fusion of styles -- most notably kwela and marabi, Zulu dance music, and American jazz, which at the time veered toward big band -- Mbaqanga saw itrs apex in the protest music embodied in the unsurpassed Indestruictible Beat of Soweto, an album that is probably on my top ten list of all time. The Spirit of Soweto is simultaneously a daring venture and a derivative knock off. It is a daring venture because it repackages old-school Mbaqanga into new-school flavorings, oftentimes with the old school artists revisiting or collaborating in remakes of their old classics. It can be derivative because too often the songs come across as old wine in leaky new skins. This is an album worth having only if you have not covered your bases with Mbaqanga's history. Grade: B-

Curious George

If you have kids, or if you have an affinity for well done, artfully animated movies, I would strongly recommend going to see Curious George. The two words that best describe the movie version of H. A. Rey's classic children's books do not tax the thesaurus and might unintentionally evoke treacle, but nonetheless, I stand by them: Curious George is both cute and sweet. It is unashamedly aimed at relatively young children, and while there are some funny moments, they are not of a piece with the recent trend in kids movies to keep adults in the game through a series of ironic or clever contemporary references and sly asides. The animation almost intentionally eschews computer generated kerfuffle except where it will truly enhance the visual experience, and the plot is both straightforward and timeless. as I reflect beack, with a few exceptions, this same movie might have been made in 1966.

Curious George is not perfect. For example, the decision to make the Man in the Yellow Hat something of a bumbling doofus was jarring to those of us who always envisioned him as a patient but competent foil to George, the truly human adult face in Curious George's life. Some might take issue with the fact that the movie strays somewhat from the books (I did not have a problem with this; my friend Jaime did.)

But minimal caveats aside, Jaime's little boy, Ben, loved it. So did Ana and Jaime. And so did I. Curious George will become a staple in every parent's dvd collection. If I know my girlfriend, it will become a staple in ours as well the Tuesday it is released in a few months.

Monday, February 13, 2006

When Cheney Dreams . . .

. . . don't you imagine that he wishes he'd gone duck hunting with Jack Abramoff or Nancy Pelosi or George Packer instead? I mean, if you're gonna "accidentally" shoot someone, don't you want to make it count? Then again, maybe Cheney's lawyer made a joke about troop counts or WMD's. "Hey, Dick, you shoot about as well as you prepare for wa. . . YEEE-OUCH!!!" At least that's what happened in my head.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Getting Screwed by the Dallas Morning News

Odessa suddenly got a little bit smaller and more isolated for me today.

One of my great pleasures in life is the morning paper delivered to my door. I realize that with the internet, the home-delivered newspaper is something of an anachronism. I read more of the Boston Globe everyday online than I do of my Dallas Morning News, which, in order to get here early in the morning, comes in the earliest edition that misses any news or sports after the early evening. Nonetheless, despite the fact that I read four newspapers online every day (add the Times, South African Mail & Guardian and Washington Post to the Globe, I value getting the Morning News, which is why I reacted with dismay this morning when there was a letter inserted in my paper announcing that the DMN is ceasing daily delivery to this part of West Texas. They asserted that the cost of delivery, including the cost of gas, is a main reason. To me, it still seems stupid to screw loyal customers. "You do not matter enough to us. You are not worth it." That's what they are saying to us, and it strikes me as tremendously shortsighted -- especially when they have not even atempted to raise their subscription rates, and especially when it is advertsing, and not subscriptions or news stand sales that makes up the bulk of a paper's revenues.

The local paper, the Odessa American is a perfectly fine local newspaper and serves the area well -- it surely helps that Midland also has a daily newspaper and so there is competition. But the OA is not an urban newspaper, does not have a national editorial reputation, does not have first-rate arts and books coverage. I'll probably subscribe now, but I am annoyed and am feeling somewhat claustrophobic here in Odessa, really for the first time since arriving here in January 2004.

If anyone from the Dallas Morning News ends up seeing this, could you explain the rationale for screwing loyal readers? When gas prices drop (as has been happening steadily for the last few weeks), will you still maintain this shortsighted policy? And can you really purport to be a national-caliber newspaper when you cut back on your efforts to be a regional newspaper?

Friday, February 10, 2006

Military History and the Academy

Over at Big Tent Extra Tom has a must read piece in defense of military history. Or, to be more precise, he has a clarion call to military historians to stop apologizing and explaining away what, other historians' ignorance to the contrary, is a vibrant field. I'm as guilty as anyone of having certain stereotypes about military history (and, as an aside to his aside, I would disagree with Tom when he asserts that the most important reasons for success or failure in Iraq will be military; I firmly believe that they will be diplomatic or political). And I certainly pick and choose my emphases when I teach (you have to cherrypick from any subdiscipline in a survey or period-driven class) and in my work on, say, terrorism. That said, Tom's piece really belongs in Perspectives or the OAH newsletter. Read it.

Kristof: Helpful Middleman or Cunning Demagogue?

Since Bill O'Reilly apparently cannot spare the time or money, Nicholas Kristof of the Times has offered to start a campaign to support an O'Reilly visit to Darfur to allow the Fox gasbag to use his powers for good. The article is one of those among the daft "Times Select" category, so if you are a subscriber it is available here, but I will try to provide the money excerpts. (Note to the legal staff at the Times: Remember "Bloom County" lawyer Steve Dallas' first rule of being a lawyer: "Never, ever sue a poor person."):

After Mr. O'Reilly denounced me in December as a "left-wing ideologue" (a charge that alarmed me, given his expertise on ideologues), I challenged him to defend traditional values by joining me on a trip to Darfur. I wrote: "You'll have to leave your studio, Bill. You'll encounter pure evil. If you're like me, you'll be scared ... and you'll finally be using your talents for an important cause."

A few days ago, I finally got my answer. Mr. O'Reilly declared in his column: "I do three hours of daily news analysis on TV and radio. There's no way I can go to Africa."

No need to give up so easily, Bill. With a satellite phone, you can do your show from anywhere.

But maybe Mr. O'Reilly's concern is cost, so I thought my readers might want to give him a hand. You can help sponsor a trip by Mr. O'Reilly to Darfur, where he can use his television savvy to thunder against something actually meriting his blustery rage.

So, what I have been wondering for a few days is simply this: Is this an act of demagoguery or not? My initial inclination is to assert that if it is not demagoguery, it at least represents a pretty good example of public grandstanding.

But then I remember the target. One can and should feel free to disagree with Kristof's conclusions on Darfur. But no one can doubt that his concern is genuine, and in being the single most visible spokesperson for action to stop the nightmare in Darfur, his has been a heroic voice. Kristof has been a lot more right than wrong in drawing attention and beating the drum of our global negligence in Darfur. O'Reilly, meanwhile, is a noxious bully who cannot even meet the standard for being called a journalist -- he is too busy to go out and investigate a story!

I may have said this before, but I am still waiting for O'Reilly to have his Jim Rome-Jim Everett moment. Many of you remember precisely what I am talking about. In 1994 the blustery Rome was interviewing Rams quarterback Jim Everett, and Rome kept calling him "Chris," a not so subtle hint that Everett was soft (Rome was, of course, equating him to the women's tennis player, Chrissy Evert). Everett warned Rome to knock it off, Rome went to that well one more time, and in a moment of sublime street justice, Everett knocked Rome on his ass, flipping over the table in the process. From that moment on, Rome tempered his bombast. Maybe only slightly, but discernibly. I am waiting for the loutish, bullying O'Reilly to receive similar comeuppance. He constantly insults, needles and menaces his guests. One of these days he is going to cast aspersions on the wrong guy. The fact that he bloviates on things about which he so apparently knows little will make that Jim Everett moment sweet. Kristof is simply calling O'Reilly out. That's not demagoguery. That's putting your (and willing readers') money where your mouth is.

My guess is that this will be less reminiscent of Jim Everett than of Axl Rose, who in the Guns 'N' Roses song "Get in the Ring" challenged Spin magazine publisher Bob Guccione Jr. to a fight (Money quotation: "Get in the ring, motherfucker, and I'll kick your bitchy little ass,") and then refused to respond when, in the pages of Spin, Guccione accepted.

O'Reilly has his chance. He can take Kristof's challenge. He can go to the Sudan with an open mind, learn that demonizing the other side does not actually make them demons, and then draw his own conclusions. Or he can cower in his studio, an Axl Rose for the Depends set. Kristof has given you an opportunity, Bill, and others are even willing to foot the bill. Here's your chance. Get in the ring, motherfucker.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Bleeding Red Book Signing

If you happen to be anywhere near the Odessa-Midland metroplex in the next two hours, or if you can get here between 2 and 3 Central Time, you will be able to make a book signing (and possible reading -- no one ever tells me these things) at the UTPB Bookstore on campus. This will kick off a mini-publicity tour that will take me to Charlottesville, Virginia for the Virginia Festival of the Book (where I'll be appearing with Warren St. John, who wrote the excellent book on being an insane Alabama football fan, Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer) and possibly a few stops during spring training in Florida and even a day at or near Fenway Park. (If you want to arrange for a signing near you, contact me by clicking on "dcat" under contributors, to the right, and I can get the ball rolling.)

Conned by New Labour spin!

The shame of it! It seems that the drop in crime this winter that I ascribed below to the reformed licensing laws may have in fact been partly due to an entirely coincidental six-week scheme to increase police presence in binge-drinking troublespots. So its too soon to tell what effect the new laws have had (cautious eyes are on this summer's World Cup), but its clear that giving the police an extra £2.5 million helps reduce the crime rate.

I'm still right.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Licensing Laws Update

Some of you may remember my post of many moons ago about the upcoming change in England's licensing laws. Well, inspired by the front page of the Independent today, I thought I'd let everyone know how the blood and vomit soaked drunken apocalypse, that was predicted by so many in the press and in opposition parties, is progressing over here. Well, its not. It never happened. Tony Blair and I were right, everbody else (Mr. Huzzey) was wrong. Serious violent crime dropped by 21% following the change, staggered closing times have reduced taxi-rank flashpoints and given the Police the chance to deal more effectively with the incidents that do occur. Personally, in January I glassed 47% less people than I did in October, have enjoyed being able to leave the house later, and have had the novel experience of leaving a pub before it closes. It would be nice, however, if the Brighton Bus Company modified its schedule to match our new continental lifestyle.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Israel v. Iran: More Reader Mail Edition

As long as I am answering emails:

Holmes writes:

This Iran situation seems pretty volatile . . .  Here's a quick one for you . . .:  Israel vs. Iran - who wins?  Based on sheer military capabilities. From what I understand Israel has one badass military, I think my old boss and I were discussing that a few years ago or something, but Israel is a country you don't want to mess around with.

My Answer:

(Purely one on one?) Israel in a romp. Israel has nukes, for one thing. Israel is not afraid to fight. The biggest problem would be that the land in between Israel in Iran is hostile territory for Israel and what we would almost inevitably see would be a war between several nations and Israel. Hamas and Hizbollah would join in, and it would be a conflagration. Israel would win, but at what cost? And of course, we'd get sucked in. Ugh -- this is why we have to crush Iran's nuclear hopes now.

Strange Bedfellows and Historical Judgment

Long time dcat/Rebunk reader Chris Pettit sent me this link from the Guardian about the links between apartheid South Africa and Israel. While you all know how I reject the Israel = Apartheid analogy, that is not to say that Israel does not have some things for which to answer with regard to its relationship with South Africa, especially in the 1980s when most of the rest of the world was finally and belatedy turning its back on the securocrats in Pretoria. Here is a somewhat edited version of what I wrote back to Chris:

You know how I feel about the Israel-Apartheid analogy, so I won't get into that element of this article, but the other main point that it seems to raise is one I never received a satisfactory answer about when I was in Israel -- namely, Israel's relationship with the apartheid regime. That is a matter of foreign policy, but one that Israel lives with uncomfortably if they recognize it at all -- When I asked about those ties in one of our briefings, one high-ranking military official heard my question and simply turned away from me and went to someone else's question, which told me all I needed to know. I would have disagreed, but I would have at least respected an answer that I suspect would be the accurate one: We were a beleaguered state, South Africa was willing to support us, the anti-apartheid movement was anti-Israel, and so realpolitik dictated that we utilize contacts with South Africa's regime. We realize now that it was a dangerous, maybe even wrong alliance, but keep in mind that the ANC made similarly awkward alliaces with Libya and Cuba because of their own self interest -- that is what countries (or aspiring liberation leaders) do.

Some further commentary: Unlike many, I am willing to accept the reasons why South Africa is friendlier to Cuba and Libya than I might prefer. From the vantage point of both the liberation movements and the current South African state, Libya and Cuba were on the right side of the most important issue that mattered to them -- supporting the struggle against a regime every bit as evil and wrong (worse, I'd argue) as Cuba and Libya, apartheid South Africa. It is easy to see a world where there is simply good and evil and all sides align neatly. But that is not the world in which we live. The United States sure enough propped up enough evil regimes in Africa alone (Mobutu Sese Seku, Come On Down!) and as I recall, we allied with Stalin, the paradigmatically evil figure of the twentieth century, for what we perceived rightly as a temporal but larger good. Furthermore, throughout the Cold War we were willing to have summits with the various Soviet leaders. Even Ronald Reagan met with the "Evil Empire." It would be perplexing and absurd to deny other peoples the right to make uncomfortable alliances for the issues that are every bit as profoundly important to them. But at the same time, that means that we must not beat the drum against Israel now for Israel's sins then. Israel did what it felt that it had to do for its survival in a hostile Middle East in the 1980s, and we certainly are allowed to judge them as historical actors. We are also entitled to expect honest answers to questions about past relationships, whether from our own leaders or Israel's with regard to their coziness with Pretoria. We can judge, but we need to judge fairly, realizing that the conclusions we draw might not be purely condemnatory or blindly celebratory, but rather ambivalent, because international relations are usually messier than we might want to acknowledge when we are being holier than thou.

Cartoon Jihad Symposium

The National Review Online recently held a "Symposium" on what they are aptly calling the "Cartoon Jihad." There is much worthwhile commentary there, even if we get some of the inevitable "I can be more outraged than thy" posturing. Tip of the hat to Judith Klinghoffer.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Don't You CCCP Me

I would suspect that we will not soon see a massive influx of college students wearing replicas of the 1936 German Olympic team's uniforms, jerseys, sweats or anything else. All but the daftest hipster is aware that the 1936 German Olympic team represented Nazi Germany, and they know that Nazis = Bad.

Why is it, then, that one of the biggest retro jersey trends is wearing sweats or hockey jerseys or t-shirts or whatever else festooned with the old Soviet-era "CCCP"? I'm not much interested in coming to a conclusion as to which regime was worse, the Nazis or the Soviets. And I find that students tend to be more interested in being cool than making political statements -- I doubt highly that the preponderace of Red Army hockey jerseys is a sign of latent leftist tendencies as opposed to simply thinking the jerseys give them style cache. Still, I find it disquieting that one of the two apodictically evil regimes in the twentieth century world gets such a free pass by people who would be rightfully appalled if someone wore a swastika or enjoyed showing off their Klan memorabilia. Plus, with the winter Olympics coming up, I cannot help but get a little bit nostalgic over the time when Americans could rally around our Olympians as they did proxy battle with the baddies on the other side of the Iron Curtain.

The Not So Super Bowl

I suppose if you are a Pittsburgh fan, last night's game was great and will forever burn in your memory. For the rest of us the game was a sloppy mess that could pretend to be close in the end by virtue of the fact that it was theoretically possible for Seattle to do something they had not done all night -- score twice in succession (and convert a two point play).

Let's get it out of the way now: I was wrong, the masses were right. Except did anyone else notice that with the exception of three plays, Seattle had their way last night? And did anyone notice the succession of awful refereeing decisions that went against the Seahawks while none went against Pittsburgh? On three occasions after penalties had negated big Seahawk plays, John Madden said something to the effect of "That was not a good call." All three times he was right. Now don't get me wrong, good teams need to overcome those kinds of calls, and Seattle could not do it, but were I a Seahawks fan I'd have all the justification in the world to feel a bit put upon.

In any case, I maintain that last year's Patriots would have pounded either of those teams last night. So would last year's eagles or the Panthers from the year before. Oh well -- winter Olympics, March Madness and pitchers and catchers reporting should get us through the next month-and-a-half.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

The Super Bowl

I've spent most of the last twelve hours analyzing today's game. If by "analyzing," we mean "watching Anchorman" (twice), sleeping, and talking to Tom for three hours about people we don't like and why we don't like them. All of this has given me a sense of peace about Super Bowl XL.

And that sense of peace has led me not to revise my belief one bit -- Pittsburgh should not be favored, and I do not think they are going to win. I realize that I am in the minority here, that there are approximately seven people outside of Washington state (By the way, how embarrassing is it that Washington has to qualify itself as "Washington state" lest people assume you are talking about, well, Washington?) and Oregon -- or as Steven Colbert calls it, "California's Canada" -- picking Seattle.

The Jerome Bettis story is fascinating. It is compelling. I'm sure that Bettis is the saint that the media has made him out to be in the last two weeks. (You know who else is a saint? Dorothy Mantooth. That's who.) He probably rescues kittens and volunteers at senior centers and sews cozies for the blind during the offseason. And I am quite certain that his sainthood is pretty much irrelevent. Sure, Pittsburgh players say that they want to win it for Jerome. That's sweet and touching and it doesn't mean squat. It will have zero impact on the game -- Seattle's guys want to win too, and once the first hit is laid, I will assume that both teams are equally motivated, and that all of the pregame folderol was just that. If Joey Porter is somehow more motivated by his verbal pissing contest this week, Pittsburgh is in trouble. Teams that want to win the Super Bowl have plenty of motivation. Beyond that, has any guy who rushed for 368 yards and averaged 3.3 yards a carry ever been so hyped going into the ultimate game? I like Bettis. But enough already.

I like Seattle's balance. I like that they have the best offensive line. I like that they have the best running back and most experienced quarterback on the field. I like that they are not coming in as the Cinderella story -- I would estimate that 90% of the time, the "team of destiny" actually does not win once they run into the "better team." The very reason why the 2001 Patriots were such a compelling story is because they were the underdog that won. Usually the plucky underdog gets waxed. The fact that Pittsburgh is the favorite does not change the fact that by any reasonable measure they ought not to be, even if the AFC was by far the better conference this season.

I have had 27-21 in my head for a week now. That makes sense to me. Take the points, take Seattle, and don't look back. And if you have Tom's crack dip recipe and beer, it won't even matter if the game is not good and the commercials disappointing.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

A Monumentally Bad Idea

A fringe ally of the African National Congress, the South African National Civics Organisation (Sanco), has started making noise about pushing for a third term for Thabo Mbeki. This is a colossally, monumentally, stupidly bad idea. To be fair to Mbeki and the ANC, this is not an idea that comes from them, but I do hope this is not Mbeki's way of floating a trial balloon. If it is, I hope that it bursts instantly. One of post-colonial Africa's curses has been Big Man Syndrome, whereby leaders, almost always from the independence era, believe that they are indispensible and thus refuse to yield power or else engage in chicanery and heavy-handedness to change or manipulate the Constitution and thus make their naked grab for power "legal" in the narrowest sense.

In 1940 a Republican slogan was "Washington wouldn't, Grant couldn't, Roosevelt shouldn't" in opposing a third term for FDR. Whatever the merits of re-opening the discussion of the two-term limit in American presidency -- and, speaking as a historian, I am an ardent supporter of all of FDR's terms -- given the circumstances in Sub-Saharan Africa, let us get a new slogan going: "Mandela wouldn't, Mbeki shouldn't."

Friday, February 03, 2006

Parity, the "Super Seven," and the NFL

I'm holding off on writing about the Super Bowl -- I will try to post something either tomorrow or Sunday morning, but I am standing by my belief that Seattle is better than everyone thinks and that they will bring a title to the Pacific Northwest.

I was intrigued by a Tim Cowlishaw column and accompanying chart in the Dallas Morning News the other day. The gist: For all of the talk about parity in the NFL, it actually lags behind most of the other professional sports leagues on this front despite the fact that baseball, for example, has a huge disparity between the haves and the have-nots. The chart is most telling -- seven teams have won 2/3 of all Super Bowls, and unless they are facing one another, they rarely lose. In fact, the seven teams have five total losses in the Super Bowl against teams that are not on that list of seven. (Eg: The Patriots have won three Super Bowls, and while they have lost twice, one of those losses was to the Packers, who are also part of that elite group of three-time Super Bowl winners; similarly, while the Cowboys have won five and lost three Super Bowls, two of their losses were to the peer-group Steelers).

Where I see the NFL's parity still being a factor is when it comes to the teams that have made it to but not won the Super Bowl -- just think of the last few years -- we have seen Philadelphia, Carolina and Atlanta make it to the big game, we saw the Rams come out of nowhere to make it to two Super Bowls, one which they won, and one which they lost. And when the Rams won they beat Tennessee, and of course they lost to the Pats in what is my favorite Super Bowl ever. The year that the Raiders (one of the teams among the Super Seven) lost, they did so to the Bucs, and of course there was the Ravens-Giants Super Bowl best remembered for being the Super Bowl we all would like to forget. Now this year we have the Steelers, also on the list of seven, taking on Seattle, this year's upstart. So while the rule seems to be that parity does not extend to the winner of the ultimate game, almost every year there will be an upstart in the game.

(It also seems fair at this point to address the fact that the "modern era" of football seems to trace back to the AFL-NFL merger and thus to the Super Bowl. This is all well and good, but we probably ought to note that there were NFL championship games long before that, and so while the Super Seven principle is an interesting one, there are several teams that have three or more championships -- yes, Tom and Don, including Cleveland -- and Green Bay's numbers are even more staggering when placed in that context.)

Come and Get Me Islamic Extremists

As a service to free speech, dcat presents the following images, via Seb's Blag:

By the way, I think Seb (whom I do not know, to my knowledge) sums it up pretty well: "Personally, I'm sick to death of seeing rampant militant Islamic extremists hijacking the headlines. Tolerant Muslims, I have all day for. Extremists can fuck off."

UPDATE: Fellow dcatter Roger writes something in the comments and contributes a link that deserves amplification:

I've come across this site, which is an archive of depictions of the prophet over the past several centuries, including the recent cartoons. It is interesting that cartoons depicting the prophet published over in recent years have not drawn anything like these protests, until such images are published as a deliberate defense (spelled right just for you dcat!) of freedom of speech and expression.

On The Bedside Table (Special Back To School Edition!)

It's been a while since we've had dcat's special books issue, "On the Bedside Table," where dcat writes bried blurbs about the books occupying that special place in his mind, heart, and boudoir. This edition will be devoted to the beginning of a new semester. Term time means that my reading habits change -- I assign a fairly heavy amount of reading, much of which stems from recent literature, so that always occupies a good amount of my reading time. I will follow this up with a post on the books I picked up in Africa.

The beginning of a new semester is always fresh and exciting. This one is no different. I am teaching three great classes, seem to have a pretty solid batch of students, and assigned some great books. I am most excited about my graduate seminar, Modern America, which I constructed around the theme "Liberalism, Conservatism, and Modern American Politics." I assigned seven books for this class:

Lewis Gould, The Modern American Presidency
Gregory Schneider, Ed., Conservatism in America Since 1930
Jonathan Schoenwald, A Time for Choosing
Alonzo Hamby, Liberalism and Its Challengers
Alan Brinkley, Liberalism and Its Discontents
Kevin Mattson, Intellectuals in Action
Lisa McGirr, Suburban Warriors

With the exception of Kevin Mattson's and Lisa McGirr's books, we will be reading sections of several books a week (on consecutive weeks mid-term we will read Mattson followed by McGirr.) I have organized the course chronologically and basically through the lens of national politics, with important exceptions. I use Gould to provide them with both an overview of the presidency in the twentieth century, but also to introduce them to an argument about modernization, for better and worse, in the executive branch. Schoenwald and Schneider serve the purpose of getting them to think seriously about conservatism while Hamby ("The Man," for those of you coming to us from Big Tent) and Brinkley will have them do the same about liberalism. Since they read these books in an intertwined fashion, the movements can talk to one another and neither gets more emphasis than the other. Mattson and McGirr provide insight into particular moents in the emergence of modern liberalism and modern conservatism respectively.

I am also teaching an upper division course in American history, US History 1877-1929. In it we are reading:

Michael McGerr, A Fierce Discontent
Frank Deford, The Old Ball Game
James Chace, 1912
Nathan Miller, Brave World Coming

For this class I try mto cover a broader thematic range. For those of you who know me and my work, there should be no surprise that I try to get them to think about sports as something more than a diversion. I figured that the Deford book would be useful on that point, giving them a sense of the era through a very readable, if not analytically deep, book. McGerr's book on Progressivism is vital, but is also structured in such a way that it is great for discussions. (I just finished a class meeting with them ten minutes ago; they are a lot more into the chapters dealing with booze and sex than they are on the anthracite coal strike of 1902. Funny that.) Chace's book on the 1912 election will bring one of the most fascinating political contests in American history to life for them, and Nathan Miller's book is one that I am just testing -- we'll see how it works.

Finally, in my modern Africa class, which in our latest overhaul of the major we turned from a 4000-level class to a 2000-level survey, we are reading:

Bill Berkeley, The Graves Are Not Yet Full
Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost
Martin Meredith, The Fate of Africa
VS Naipaul, A Bend in the River

Meredith's is a big, important book that came out over the summer and that serves as the closest thing to a textbook, though it is not at all "textbooky." Berkeley's book is one of my favorites, is beautifully written, carries an interesting argument, and is the one book I have repeated each time I have taught this class. (I almost always use wholly new reading lists in my classes, if only to keep my engagement level up.) In fact, when people ask me for one book to read to "understand Africa," Berkeley's is where I send them. Hochschild's book on the horrors of the Belgian Congo is magnificent. Meanwhile, Naipaul's novel gives the students a chance to grapple with issues while at the same time getting to see how novels can both enlighten history while at the same time carrying with them limitations.

So there is your Spring 2006 reading list. Coming up, more Africa books.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Oscar Nomination Commentary, Sort Of

I have to admit, in the frenzy of getting caught up from my trip and starting a new term and trying my damndest to hit a couple of book deadlineas and to get some seriously accruing other work done, I have not been able to see Munich yet. You may recall that in December I read Leon Wieseltier's review and was somewhat worried. Well, it seems that Spielberg recently described his critics as "fundamentalists." That really pissed off Mr. Wieseltier. I think that maybe pissing of Wieseltier was a mistake, as you can see from Wieseltier's response. Ouch.

As for the Academy Award nominations, I have to admit, I have not seen as many of the movies as I have wanted to, at least in part because so many saw their release come as the end of the year. "Good Night and Good Luck" was wonderful, and I am a bit shocked by all of the critics of its politics, the majority of whom admit to never having seen it. GNaGL is certainly not an apologia for communist inflitration of government, Hollywood, or anything else. But it is condemnation of a particular kind of smearing in which people were attacked and accused without evidence and where the very real threat of communist infiltration was not quelled as a result. My criticisms of McCarthy, and more importantly, his ilk, was not their goal, but rather their means, and perhaps more significantly, their incompetence. That there were real communists and a real communist threat is not up for serious debate. But that quite literally becomes almost irrelevent in the face of a communist scare that did little actually to bring those communists to light. (For what it's worth, this is one of my biggest problems with the Bush administration -- not its goals, but its means, and its competence and cynicism.)

The best thing about the DVD age is that most of the nominated movies are already available and I can watch them at home, or are still in theaters and I can go catch them on the big screen. In theory I am pleased with the fact that so many of the nominees are tied to historical films. But that a film is historical is not enough to make a historian happy. We actually want some sense of integrity to historical events as well.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

"That'll Shut You Up": (Inside Joke Edition)

Over at Slice of Life, my boy Rich tells a story about our foolproof airport security system. In your life you learn that there are friends you'll walk through the storm with and those you would not trust to be able to do so. It's safe to say that Rich falls into the stand-up category. Ask us over beers about The Nibsy Shuffle and its aftermath. Good times. At least in retrospect.

Ass Man

South Africans are understandably outraged over the punishment given to a teacher who tried to sign his name on some of his female students' buttocks. He received three years of correctional services supervision. According to one of his students (and yes, while I cannot help but find this funny, the girls were 12-13 years old, so it is also more than a bit creepy):
"He was telling us that he was very determined to put his signature on our bums."

The 34 year old teacher, Mafa Chauke, will also be blacklisted from the teaching profession in South Africa. We should probably credit the crack investigation unit in Port Elizabeth for getting to the bottom of this. (Sorry. So sorry.)