Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Disunity in South Africa (Self Indulgence Edition)

The Foreign Policy Association recently published my latest opinion piece, "Disunity in South Africa." It explores one of my evergreen topics, the possibility that the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) will break away from the African National Congress' (ANC) Tripartite Alliance.

[Cross-posted at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog.]

In the Changer: New(ish, Mostly) Stuff Edition

It has been quite a while since I imposed my musical tastes on you for one of my "in the changer" posts. The title itself is anachronistic in many ways. Yes, I still buy cd's, though my music listening is becoming increasingly digital even if I have not been able to make the transition to actually buying my music digitally. I like the idea of having hard copies of music, and someday when my iTunes crashes and my iPod dies or it all mysteriously gets erased I'll be thankful for being the guy who still has my music in some tangible configuration.

This is all stuff that I've listened to a lot in the second half or so of 2009. I imagine this will be a multi-post edition. (And just a reminder: for those of you wondering why the grades end up being so high, these are filtered reviews of music I've been listening to. When people start sending me music indiscriminantly to review, I'll be able to bear fangs. Until then, this is generally stuff I liked over the last few months, even if all of it did not come out this year). Without further ado, here is the first batch:

Amadou & Mariam -- Welcome to Mali: This is my favorite West African music produced by a blind married couple since at least their last album. And it should be yours too. What the hell is it with Mali? Per capita that vast but sparsely populated West African country must produce more great music per capita than any country on earth. A polyrhythmic confluence of blues and pop and jazz and highlife and rock and a melange of African styles, Welcome to Mali continues the run this duo has had over the last decade or so when they first exploded into public consciousness (they have been recording together since the mid-1970s). Use this as your introduction to them and work backward. Grade: A

Arctic Monkeys -- 'Humbug': I think it is a law that all writers who tackle the Arctic Monkeys must refer to them as "lads from Sheffield," so consider that requirement fulfilled. This is their third album and it's good. It also represents a modest but clear attempt at departure. Arctic Monkeys have done well with snide and cynical postpunk-pop songs about suburban pub life and poseurs and the various dipshits one runs across in daily life, especially in suburban pubs. And there is still more than a hint of that here. But 'Humbug' feels a bit brooding, a bit down tempo, a bit sludgy, all of which can probably at least in part be attributed to the production of Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme. And given that the lads from Sheffield are no longer really lads and they have moved their worldview from Sheffield, change was to be expected. Lead singer Alex Turner writes his own lyrics and he knows his way around a clever phrase. ("What came first, the chicken or the dickhead?" is intended to be rhetorical. I think.) The question becomes whether this will remain a very good little band or whether it will grow to the scale that they promise. 'Humbug' tells me that this is a band in the process of becoming. The question remains: What will they become? Grade: B+

Bon Iver -- For Emma, Forever Ago: I have one question for Bon Iver and Damian Rice and Cat Power and to a lesser extent Fleet Foxes and Animal Collective and their ilk (Grizzly Bear, eg.) and a whole host of other bands and artists I really do like: What the fuck's up with recording in a whisper? I'll get three minutes into a Damian Rice song before I realize: This shit isn't going to get any louder; it's not all part of a languid introduction that's going to go somewhere. So, Bon, maybe Emma left (I'm assuming she did -- why else would you devote such a mopey effort to her?) because you wouldn't fucking speak up. It's ok to be both introspective and audible. If I want to fall asleep to you or have you as background music, I know how to turn the volume knob (they still have those, right?) down. But now if I put in an AC/DC album, which I am wont to do, glass in my home will shatter when I turn it on because I had to have your damned music cranked up just to hear it at all over the dryer whirring away in the other room. So: Good songs? Check. Nifty instrumentation and interesting vocals? Yep. Folk-indie rock hybrid? Oh yes. A few glorious moments? Yessir. But given that any ambient noise whatsoever makes this album nearly unlistenable, please, pal, next time turn it up just a little? You can be bummed out. Just do it a little louder. Grade: B

Jeff Buckley -- Grace: It's hard to believe that it has been more than 15 years since Buckley's lone studio album in his lifetime came out, scoring tail for a million savvy guys who could get this onto their stereo when they got a girl back to their rooms. The story is familiar: Buckley, the insanely talented progeny of the insanely talented Tim Buckley, revealed his endless promise with this album, only to die tragically swimming in a chennel near the Mississippi, eerily reminiscent of his father's own equally mysterious passing (well, dad died of a drug overdose, but give me some narrative license here). I did not really arrive at this album until about 1999 when I had a girlfriend who was in love with it introduced me to it (thus turning the table on the savvy guys). My thoughts now are just about what my thoughts were then: This guy is insanely talented and the music is in some ways uncategorizable. But it does not quite have the songs. It has moments that are quite sublime within what are supposed to be the songs, and the sings, such as they are, are geared toward these moments of sublime talent. But the whole does not quite cohere. But then came track #6. Hellelujah. You probably know the Leonard Cohen original. The Jeff Buckley version brings tears to my eyes every time. It is one of my single favorite renderings of any kind of music ever. It is nearly perfect, and in the light of what would later transpire, heartbreaking. Grade: B+, Hallelujah: A+

Neko Case -- Middle Cyclone: Neko Case is like the super-cool, super-hot chick in your favorite bar, the place where all of the indie bands play when they come into town. Just when you muster up the courage to say something to her, the break between bands is done and she steps on stage as the lead singer of the second band, the one that comes on before the headlining act, a band whose music, but obviously not the personnel, you know. Middle Cyclone is her sixth solo album, something all the more shocking when you realize that she also is part of the glorious collective that is The New Pornographers (and in fact the quality of a New Pornographers album is directly related to the amount of Neko Case contained therein). There was a time when case could easily be slotted into the alt-country/y'alternative category, but Middle Cyclone transcends that limiting category, much as does Wilco's career trajectory after their first album. And like Wilco, Neko Case produces guitar-and-singer-driven rock and pop, in the best traditions of both rock and pop music. She has a clear, strong voice that sings clear, strong songs. But don't kid yourself -- she's going home with someone else tonight, unless she chooses to go home alone. Grade: B+

Dirty Projectors -- Bitte Orca: How you feel about this album will be directly related to how you feel about "complicated" or "experimental" music. Because Dirty Projectors is a pretty self-consciously difficult band. I am fine with complicated, or at least complex, but "experimental" oftentimes ain't my bag and so I shied away from this album, recommended to me all over the place, for much of the year. This is a band, after all, whose last full-length album recreated a Black Flag album from memory, which strikes me as a bit too meet-cute. Nonetheless, I succumbed, and while the album has not blown my mind it is one that improves on multiple listenings. I could still do without some of the atonality. And sometimes the playing around with key signatures comes across as a bit gratuitous. And in the end I suspect that a lot of people who like this album actually like people knowing they like this album more than they actually like this album. Grade: C+

At the FPA Blogs (Semi-Self Indulgence Alert)

There are a great deal of changes under way at the Foreign Policy Association Blogs. We are consolidating the largest network of global affairs-related blogs into a series of categores. My Africa Blog will now be in the category of "Africa and the Middle East" and will include Africa, Egypt (not up yet), Iraq, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and Middle East. I will be serving as both Senior Blogger and the Senior Editor for this category. I hope you'll continue to check out my Africa blog, the blogs in my category, and the network as a whole.

The newest addition to these blogs is Reza Akhlaghi, the first addition under my watch. He is our new blogger on Iran and his first post is must-read stuff. Here is my introduction of Reza at the Iran Blog.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

I wish you all a wonderful Christmas, and a happy holiday season. If it's your thing, I hope that Santa Claus brings you everything that you asked for and a few things that you did not.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Taking on the Dumb Jock Stereotype (Again)

At Critical Mass, the blog for the National Book Critics Circle's Board of Directors, Deirdra McAfee has a post with which I take issue. I responded in the comments with the following:

I want to take issue with the following assertion in this post:

“A culture that idolizes physical skill (sports of all kinds) and has no use for intellectual skill (the smart or knowledgeable stigmatized as nerds), that places physical passion above all possible other passions, except perhaps that for winning, is not one that believes books are important.”

This is just plain silly. It is possible, just possible, that millions of Americans can value both sports and books. Folks like Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway and George Plimpton and John Updike and Doris Kearns Goodwin (the list could go on for pages) all managed to value (and write about) sports and yet still somehow also to care about books. The creation of false dichotomies and strawpersons in a post that would seem to celebrate the intellectual life is ironic, because it shows poor analytical skills and sloppy argumentation, the opposite of what intellectuals are supposed to value.

There are lots of problems with our culture with regard to books. But a passion for sports has nothing to do with it. Blaming jocks is commonplace amongst too many intellectuals, which does not make it any less dumb.

I want to augment this a little bit here. When I was in grad school there were lots of social divisions. One of the more pernicious ones came between jocks (which included former athletes but also simply fans of sports) and non-jocks. And of course the non-jocks possessed that air of superiority that McAfee reveals in her post. Which was somewhat problematic since almost universally the jocks were also the better graduate students in our program. But the very stereotype allowed the non-jocks to feel superior despite the fact thet their superiority was unearned and undeserved. There is something bizarre about certain circles in intellectual life that allows being anti-athlete to be not only acceptable, but to be heralded.

When I wrote that the list of intellectuals who demonstrably care about sports could go on for pages, I was not kidding. Stephen Jay Gould and Gay Talese. David Halberstam and George Will. Michael Lewis and David Foster Wallace. Stewart O'Nan and Frederick Exley. Not to mention those academics who write about sports -- Chuck Korr and Charlie Alexander and James Carroll and Amy Bass and dozens of others spring to mind. And the ranks of those who are predominantly sportswriters yet who write well enough to transcend the stereotypes of that genre warrants more than scorn -- Bill Simmons and Sally Jenkins and Bob Ryan and Bud Collins and John Feinstein and Dick Schaap and Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon and Rick Telander and John Ed Bradley and myriad others. (Unless I am misreading McAfee's website and Amazon and Worldcat, she has not ever actually published a book, unlike all of these people, with their crazy sports affinities.)

The idea that sports is the enemy of books or the intellectual life is a muddleheaded argument put forward by people who have decided they are the enemy of sports and who have elevated their prejudice to the realm of virtue. But it's not virtue. It's ignorance. And it is not to be lauded. It is to be scorned.

As a perhaps relevant aside, or at least for the sake of full disclosure, I am a member of the National Book Critics Circle. I also have written a couple of scholarly journal articles on sports, have written at least a dozen reviews of books on sports, am working on a project that may become a book on sports, and have published a book on a sports-related topic. I was one of the jocks in my graduate program, and in some circles of detractors was seen as the jock ringleader. I also care deeply for books, for book culture, and for American intellectual life. False dichotomies and strawmen are dumb. They are also deeply intellectually dishonest and indeed are anti-intellectual.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

6 in 10 for 3

Bob Ryan reminds us all that the decade now concluding has been a damned fine one for Boston sports. Three championships for the Patriots, two for the Red Sox, and one for the Celtics is a good run. Not many cities have won six titles in a decade, never mind having three teams win rings in an (admittedly arbitrary) ten-year span.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Patricia Marx is an Ass

You want to know why a lot of people think the east coast (read: New York) intellectual class are effete assholes? How about these opening two sentences from Patricia Marx's brief "On and Off the Avenue" piece in The New Yorker on the arts and crafts store Michael's:

New York is rich in culture, cuisine, and commerce. The suburbs have parking spots and fast food, and they also have Michael’s, the largest arts-and-crafts supply chain in North America.

I love cities. I love the east coast. Outside of its sports teams (and fans) I love New York. I live in West Texas, decidedly not an enclave of the east coast elites. But I am associated with of those folks by background, by politics, by temperament and by preference. Patricia Marx, you are the reason why a mendacious drizzlewit like Sarah Palin can plausibly differentiate "real America" from her stereotype of a segment of the east coast. I hope you drown in a yachting accident. I hate nothing more than when my own side frags me with their idiocy.

Pre-Holiday Links

Super-duper pre-holiday quick hits from things that have caught my eye of late:

I'm very much interested in reading John Milton Cooper's massive new biography of Woodrow Wilson.

If you want to get stuff you almost always have to pay for it. Taxes are not a form of creeping socialism. They are a sign of a responsible society. There is a huge difference.

Spin has a slideshow of its 40 Best Albums of 2009. Begin debating now. (I must be getting old. I sort of miss the days when reading a simple list, preferably with annotations forming some sort of argument, was enough to kickstart a debate. The slideshow googaw takles a lot of time, is inconvenient, does not actually facilitate anything, but it does have images. And it takes up more bandwidth. So that's something.)

Most of the climate change doubters are basically fools. But you knew that already. I hope.

The quality of Cornel West's work has, in the minds of many, gone seriously downhill. The trajectory pretty much is in direct negative relationship with his public fame.

Invictus was very good and reasonably historically accurate. I'm working on an essay on the movie, the book on which it is based, and another book on South African sport. Hopefully I'll have good news on that front down the road.

A Nation Forged in War, The Cover

I've been remiss in not posting this until now:

Freakin' Awesome. It'll be out in spring 2010. Congratulations, Tom.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Ready For My Close Up! (Self Indulgence For Something I Did Not Really Accomplish Edition!)

A few weeks back I flew out to LA to play the role of talking head for a documentary on the Freedom Rides that The American Experience is producing with respected director Stanley Nelson at the helm. It was quite the opportunity, they treated me well, I got some good stories, and I hoped that it went well enough for me to get some face time for what was scheduled to be the 2011 release marking the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides. I was pleased to hear at the Southern Historical Association's annual meeting in Louisville that the rough cut of the documentary looks great and that as it stood at that point, a month or so ago, I will indeed get a little screen time.

I got even better news last week. Freedom Riders will be one of 16 documentaries (out of more than 860 submitted) and will makes its World Premiere in the US Documentaries Competition at next year's Sundance Film Festival, which runs from January 21-31, 2010 in Park City, Utah. Obviously my participation has zero role in Freedom Riders being accepted for Sundance I (and may have been a detriment). Still, it's a nifty little thrill even to be associated with something like this. I guess it's time for me to get some head shots!

Monday, December 07, 2009

Mega Self-Indulgence Alert

There has been no lack of analysis of the state of the Republican Party by fairly prominent folks. In my latest History News Service op-ed (which has not yet gone up on the "Recent Articles" page for some reason) I weigh in on the state of the GOP. I try looking back to another era of deep divide within the Republican Party and show how the lessons the far right needs to learn from Ronald Reagan seem not to be the ones they are learning. So far it has been picked up by the Durham (NC) Herald Sun, the Albany (NY) Times Union, and the LA Progressive.

It has also appeared on websites ranging from History News Network to The Dallas Morning News to USA Today to (Knoxville, TN), to Florida Today.

As long as I'm cranking up the self indulgence, I also may as well mention that on Friday, April 23, 2010 I'll be giving a talk at the Newberry Library's Dr. William M. Scholl Center for American History and Culture as part of the 2009-2010 Chicago Seminar on Sport and Culture. The title of my talk, part of a larger project on sports, race, and politics in South Africa since 1994, is "Stopped at the Try Line?: Rugby, Race, and Nationalism in Post-Apartheid South Africa." I have an article with a similar title coming out in the next couple of months.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Herf v. Wolin: Heavyweights Square Off

This article on "the long, toxic afterlife of Nazi propaganda in the Arab world" by my friend and former professor Jeffrey Herf in The Chronicle of Higher Education prompted a, let's say "spirited" rejoinder from the historian Richard Wolin. The Chronicle then brought the two together, in a manner of speaking, for an "exchange." Read it all.

The State of State Universities

The New York Times recently conducted a discussion between a number of prominent academics on the state of public universities. The jumping-off point was the state of California's public universities and starts with the following question: "As they deal with tighter budgets, what should public universities do to balance fiscal responsibility and equal opportunity?"

Among the participants was Richard Vedder, an economist and economic historian from Ohio University where I received my PhD. I know Professor Vedder but never took a class with him at the Contemporary History Institute, with which he is affiliated as a professor and I was affiliated as a student. I disagree with much that he says but I am always glad to see OU folks getting such attention.

Monday, November 30, 2009

TNR Tosses Around the Pigskin

When I think of football I think of . . . The New Republic. Well, not really. But it turns out that every so often the venerable liberal thought magazine has considered the gidiron. Take a walk through TNR's football archives as you gear up for tonight's Pats-Saints clash.

My prediction: Patriots 38 Saints 31.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Marfa, Texas (And Thanksgiving Greetings)

If you are ever in my neck of the woods, look me up. We'll visit Marfa, down in Big Bend country.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

Quid Quo Pro(file) (Self Indulgence Alert)

Here's the deal: If you blurb one of my books, and The New York Times does a little lifestyles of the rich and famous profile of you (Note: No causal relation between the blurb and the feature), I'm going to link that profile on dcat. Because I'm that kind of guy.

Bruscino Bait

The New York Times published a somewhat peculiar op-ed this past weekend. I cannot be certain, but it seems that in "How World War II Wasn't Won" David P. Colley, the author of Decision at Strasbourg: Ike’s Strategic Mistake to Halt the Sixth Army Group at the Rhine in 1944, gets a very high-profile opportunity to lay out the thesis of his book, a gig many, many, many of us would love to have the opportunity to take.

As a result, though, Colley gets to make a pretty history-centered argument. I have no idea as to the merits (or novelty) of the argument, though I have to assume that by going after Eisenhower Colley is positioning himself in some sort of revisionist camp. Hopefully someone who knows more about this than I do will weigh in. (Calling Tom, Tom Please Report For Duty!)

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

One Last Cheer for the Huskies

Noertheastern University is cutting its football program and it is doing so because of money (or the lack thereof). I always hate seeing any college sports cut, because I do see sports as bringing a lot more to the table than they take from it. At the same time, in the ranking of priorities at most colleges and universities we need a little perspective. Football is important. It is not essential. And in the case of the Northeastern program it appears that "high costs, lack of fan interest, and inadequate facilities doomed the program" and that the loss of the program will be a gain for Northeastern's student body.

Growing Paine

It appears that conservatives who are embracing Thomas Paine may not quite understand him. Yes, I realize I'm grabbing at low-hanging fruit when I assert ignorance on the part of Glen Beck and Sarah Palin. But it's not my fault that low-hanging fruit has become the face of modern conservatism.

Are You Freaking Kidding Me?

So the majority of Republicans don't think Obama legitimately won the election and that somehow ACORN stole it. This is just completely idiotic and unhinged. But I also really do not believe that it is true. This is one of those questions that is so reliant upon party identification and sample size and . . . . but seriously -- are you fucking kidding me? How is it possible that a single human being could think something so monumentally stupid never mind even a poor and surely not representative sample? Even if the margin of error were 30% that would be batshit crazy.

You Take That Back, Sir.

This article in Spin vexed me. Beyond being largely incoherent, it is based on a complete Strawman. Who, precisely, is arguing that "Radiohead can do no wrong"? I love Radiohead. They are in my all-time top five. But I am happy to entertain arguments that their recent output has been too heavily doused in electronica, or that Thom Yorke's vision has overwhelmed that of the rest of the band, or that they should be more prolific, or whatever. I would disagree with some of those points, I would agree with others. But if Chris Norris' article is any indication, the critics of Radiohead are in a lot worse shape than even I thought, and I am of the belief that their argument is untenable to begin with.

Plus, Radiohead is fucking awesome.

Slow News Day in the Permian Basin (Self Indulgence Alert!)

You know it's a slooooooooowwww news day in West Texas when this is on the front page of the Midland Reporter-Telegram!

In the Service of Clio

For those of you in the historical profession, and especially early in your careers, I direct you to "In the Service of Clio," a blog that describes itself as providing "essays on career management in the historical profession." The professor who runs the blog recruits history PhD's working in various aspects of the profession -- various subdisciplines in the professoriate and in different types of schools and departments, archivists and librarians, public historians, foreign service officers, and the like.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Stoke-on-Trent Goes Green!

As many of you know, I spent a good hunk of my spring/summer as a fallow at the David Bruce Centre for American Studies at the University of Kent in England. The nearest town to the self-contained university is Stoke-on-Trent. I'm pleased to report that Stoke-on-Trent is set to become the first city to sign up to the country's "10:10" pledge to cut its carbon emissions by 10% during 2010 and thus in a way to become Britain's first "Green City."

Friday, November 20, 2009

Impact: Factor

For those of you in academia, and especially in the humanities, you will find this Stefan Collini article in the Times Literary Supplement on the ways in which research is being assessed in the United Kingdom particularly important.

Trusting America

I simply do not understand the outcry against exposing Khalid Shaikh Mohammed to a criminal trial in New York City. Indeed most of the arguments are either irrelevant or overstated (and of course not a few of them are the result of the fact that if Obama said it was day at noontime, the vast swath of the right would proclaim it to be night). Charles Krauthammer sums up the argument as well as anyone -- which is to say, not particularly well -- in today's Washington Post:

September 11, 2001 had to speak for itself. A decade later, the deed will be given voice. KSM has gratuitously been presented with the greatest propaganda platform imaginable -- a civilian trial in the media capital of the world -- from which to proclaim the glory of jihad and the criminality of infidel America.

I have no idea what "September 11, 2001 had to speak for itself" means, and neither do you, because it is nonsense, words that are intended to be portentous and meaningful but that are instead empty and useless. But that's not the point. The point, it seems, is that Charles Krauthammer and his ilk have no faith in the very things that make us better than the KSMs of this world. They have no faith in our ability to protect a courtroom in New York City. They have no faith that our truth is better than the jihadist's propaganda. They have no faith that our judicial system can prevail.

For many on the right -- and Krauthammer is only exhibit A -- the only real factor in terrorism is that it is a useful cudgel with which to whack those they disagree over the head. In the wake of that awful tragedy on 9/11 conservatives and Republicans were quick to point out that the failures of intelligence and security were the fault of no party and no politician, or rather, of all parties and all politicians, a useful conceit for them when they occupied the White House and both houses of Congress. But ever since that moment when suddenly accountability was so difficult to glean the right has been looking for ways to paint Democrats and liberals as soft on terrorism and weak on foreign policy. And if that means disparaging the American system, so be it. When Democrats and liberals criticized foreign policy during the staggering run of incompetence that was Bush years, the right was quick to play the un-American card, so quick to impugn the patriotism of those who disagreed with them. But apparently patriotism, like everything else, is contingent upon the prevailing political winds.

I think our truth is better than the jihadist propaganda. Clearly conservatives do not. That's a shame. There was a time when he seemed to love this country. It's amazing what Democrats in the White House and on Capitol Hill will do to a man's patriotism. Who knew that conservative love of country was only skin deep?

Put Khalid Shaikh Mohammed on trial. Give his poisonous rantings the widest audience possible. Not only is it the right thing to do in terms of upholding America's values. It also is the right thing to do because unlike Charles Krauthammer, I believe both that our ideas are better than the jihadists' and that any public airing of those ideas is a win for the United States of America.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Academics and Media

The Chronicle of Higher Education asked a number of academics about "issues of education, communications, and news and cultural literacy" and "how the decline of those news media will affect higher education." Their answers are thoughtful and very much worth considering.

I am one of those people who laments the decline, and probably eventual death, of the print newspaper. But I do not mistake the physical presence of print and cheap paper with a loss of good things to read, viable sources of opinion, or varying viewpoints. There will always be demand for these things, and the best of today's print media will adjust, the worst will fail, and that's the way the system is supposed to work. Yes, I'd miss a real honest-to-goodness Sunday newspaper, but I also believe that even a handful of those will survive, even if in morphed, national form. But the best papers are basically national in nature anyhow. The Sunday New York Times still carries with it as metro section, but let's be real -- the average reader of the Sunday Times does not give a damn about bond issues in Eastchester.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Ending the Hypocrisy

Sigh. So when George W. Bush was president, it was un-American and undemocratic to filibuster judicial nominees. But now it is apparently ok for Republicans to entertain doing so against Obama's nominees or proposed bills.

I feel about the filibuster largely what I feel about the Electoral College. Both are in desperate need of reform, but no matter when you do it the motives will seem to stem from sheer politics. In the wake of 2000 reforming the Electoral College would have seemed like nothing more than a Democratic Party reaction to the 2000 election, rather than seeing the failures of the 2000 election as impetus for reform. Changing filibuster rules would almost certainly be even more problematic, though if a party got up to 65 or so votes in the Senate they could just pound it through, but then they would have enough votes to override filibusters, and would want to reserve that right for the future.

There is so much self-interest involved that hypocrisy almost inevitably follows. But there is almost nothing democratic and not much more that is republican (small d, small r) about allowing a minority to thwart the will of the elected majority out of sheer political obstructionism. I'd happily support needing a a super-majority on some issues, and on others, such as civil rights, the will of the majority certainly is secondary to Constitutional and other rights. But on their face the Electoral College and filibuster serve to protect the few from anything other than republican democracy. Let's try to get rid of these remnants of the 19th century. There are no slaveowners whose rights we have to be cowed into protecting lest they blow the whole project apart.

The Wire's Greatest Hits

Courtesy of Matthew Yglesias, via Radley Balko, great moments from The Wire, the greatest show in television history.

[Is it me, or has Blogger made it impossible to embed YouTube videos?]

Monday, November 16, 2009

Monday Linkiness

While I recover, you should check out:

AO Scott of The New York Times writes about the greatest movie moments of the past decade.

At The Boston Globe Renee Loth argues, rightly, I think, that Democrats should "call the filibuster bluff." Reconciliation seems smart to me -- assuming they have the 51 votes, ram that bill through. Let the Republicans whine about a democratic majority prevailing.

At Newsweek Niall Ferguson makes the provocative but dumb argument that 1979 was a more significant year than 1989. Hint: The Cold War was kind of a big deal.

The Unbearable Lightness (And Deep, Deep Dishonesty) of Sarah Palin

I hate a world in which smart conservatives are consigned to the periphery. There are two great intellectual/political traditions in contemporary American history. They are liberalism and conservatism. I'm a liberal. I find much of conservatism to be wrong. But conservatism is not immoral or un-American, no matter what the continuing prattling of Dick Cheney teaches us. Nor are the variations of these traditions somehow prima facie flawed.

I am also worried about a world in which Sarah Palin is the spokesperson for modern conservatism. But today the ruthlessly dishonest Sarah Palin represents the most vocal world of conservatism, yet we know that she is deeply and profoundly mendacious. And she is unwilling to be challenged.

Based on sheer politics a huge part of me hopes that Palin becomes the GOP brand. But the problem with that would be that Republicans would then be compelled to support her. I knew Ronald Reagan. I loathed Ronald Reagan. And yet Sarah Palin is no Ronald Reagan. I hope that America's right knows the difference. I fear that they don't.

Um . . .

Not to bitch about the officiating in a game whan the Patriots were clearly the better team, but: That was a fucking first down.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Up! Again

Here is what I wrote about the Pixar movie Up! After seeing it in the theater:
Up! is simply a beautiful movie. Toward the beginning it has what might be the single most emotionally powerful rendering of lived love between a couple as they grow old together. It is a movie about many things, not least of them loss, and it is poignant and funny and, yes, heart-breaking. It is perfectly suitable for -- indeed might be best appreciated by -- adults, but if you do not have kids, borrow someone else's so you are not the skeevie adult going to a Pixar movie.

After watching it on dvd as part of the Mrs. Dcat Birthday Bonanza yesterday, I double down on that sentiment. I will be profoundly disapponted if Up! (I think the exclamation point is part of the title) is not a finalist for best picture, animation be damned.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Aerosmith, RIP?

I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Aerosmith. Although traditionally labeled a Boston band, they actually got their start in the Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire, where I grew up. It's tough to be a kid growing up in the area without absorbing the bands full corpus. Furthermore, when Aerosmith was starting out, they were regulars in the local party scene so that the first time I planned to go to an Aerosmith concert my Mom was stunned that I'd pay $20 to see them when she saw them for free every weekend.

One great story (that I've heard from multiple sources) among myriads that people roughly my parents' age tell that created the band's local legend involves Steve Tyler hitting on my Mom. It's an anecdote that embodies both figures quite well. At a party one night Tyler was wearing nothing but a fur coat. He went up to my Mom and sort of embraced her, opened up his coat, and put himself on offer. My Mom's response? "Put it away, Steve."

So despite the fact that it has been a long, long time since Aerosmith put out anything even vaguely relevant, it was still something of a shock to know that the band may be no more. Always racked by fraught internal dynamics (they broke up once before in the early 1980s) it seems that Tyler has decided to walk that way.

Deadspin Giveth to the Sportsguy, Taketh Away Brutally

Just days after Deadspin founder Will Leitch wrote a nice piece recognizing the contributions of The Sportsguy Bill Simmons, the site publishes Charles Pierce's absolute takedown of Simmons' new book on the NBA. (Extra credit to Pierce for linking this glorious Molly Ivins evisceration of Camille Paglia.)

I know it is too grad-schoolish of me, but I find sympathy with both Leich and Pierce on Sportsguy.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009


So the Baby Boomers had 1968. Holy shit, have they told us, and told us, and told us of the wonders of 1968. Because in 1968 they changed the world, you see.

But of course they didn't. As a general rule of thumb, the baby boomers who tell you all about how they changed the world are not the ones who actually changed the world. So some ex hippie will prattle on about peace and love and someone like John Lewis, who really did change a particularly noxious corner of the world, doesn't feel the need constantly to reinforce that point. And John Lewis is a politician, for whom plugging his role in changing the world ought to be front-and-center. (It's actually remarkable how few of the Civil Rights Movement's activists act like your apodictic baby boomers, when the irony is that they are the ones who are most in a position to act like self-important, self-righteous, and self-indulgent twits. Ahhh, baby boomers, the dubious gift that keeps on giving, even when we make it clear we really don't like the gift.)

Don't get me wrong -- 1968 was a remarkable year, made all the more so because its currents were truly international. It's a year I love to teach. And it's a year that has come to symbolize both the best and worst of that strange decade. But for my generation, 1989 was every bit as important, with the added benefit of 1989 having been a time when the world really did re-order itself significantly.

Twenty years ago (gulp) I graduated from high school and headed off to Williams. Little did I know when I made the two-plus hour ride into an entirely different world that within a few months much of the world that I knew would transform itself. The Berlin Wall, the prevailing symbol and metaphor of the Cold War, would fall, and that collapse would itself provide a metaphor for the crumbling of the Eastern Bloc and the dawn of a new era. As 1989 gave way to 1990 FW de Klerk, who had risen from the ranks of Afrikaner Nationalism with a seemingly impeccable apartheid pedigree, released Nelson Mandela from prison and unbanned the ANC and PAC, setting the stage for epochal transformations in South Africa. The Simpsons made its debut in December 1989. And of course Milli Vanilli's first album, destined to win a Grammy in 1990, was released in the United States. Tectonic shifts all.

Much like 1968, the legacy of 1989 is "Still Up For Debate." Any series of events that causes The Boston Globe to heap praise upon a Bush (albeit the competent one) is clearly monumental.

Worth Spending Your D'oh!

I have not yet read John Ortved's The Simpsons: An Uncensored, Unauthorized History, but it certainly looks like something I'd be interested in.

By the way, I don't know if I buy the idea that the new seasons are worse than the so-called golden age. Golden Age mythologies are almost always shallow and wrong, and what I find is that The Simpsons gets better with age -- episodes that at first don't blend with our idealized images of good Simpsons suddenly fit perfectly once blended into syndication.

That said, as far as favorite moments go, I would have to go with any number of Mr. Burns lines, such as when Mr. Smithers proposed that they go out for Chinese, and Burns replies, "Bah, those people are all gristle," or when, after losing an election for Governor Burns looks at the hoi paloi and remarks "Look at those slackjawed troglodytes, Smithers. Yet if I were to have them killed I'd be the one to go to prison."

Plus, I am not certain I could teach my classes without The Simpsons as a reference. The Simpsons: Is there anything it can't do?

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


If you take the advice of Glenn Frankel in The Washington Post and decide to visit the Texas Panhandle, be sure to swing on down to Odessa. We'll have a drink and a meal.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Book Talk (With Special Bonus Self Indulgence!)

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently had an exchange between Mark Bauerlein and Priscilla Wald, heavy hitters in the world of literary scholarship, about Harvard University Press' recently released A New Literary History of America, which has been garnering a great deal of attention of late. It makes for a fascinating engagement with what by all accounts seems like a major publishing event.

Speaking of major publishing events (shamelessness follows!) this weekend at the Southern Historical Association's annual meeting the University Press of Kentucky will be holding various book signings for some of its authors. I will be signing copies of Freedom's Main Line on Saturday at noonish in the book exhibit. If you are in the Kentuckianaohio area, swing by!

Monday, November 02, 2009

WaMo Turns 40

Washington Monthly celebrates its 40th birthday this year. As part of the celebration, the magazine has posted some of its greatest hits, which you can access here. Among my favorites: Taylor Branch on Civil Rights in Southwest Georgia, the smugness of baby boomers, the dubiousness of Woodward and Bernstein's cozying up to certain sources, and an assessment of the magazine's "Bullseyes and Blunders" over the last four decades.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

And the Winner, By TKO . . .

A little while back Aaron Bady, blogging at Cliopatria, took on an argument by John McWhorter. This is a rough chronology of events: John McWhorter kicks the snot out of a straw man that he created about African American Studies. Aaron Bady, a real man, steps up in the place of the straw man. Bady proceeds to kick the snot out of McWhorter. Well done, sir.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

At Least I Have My Heal . . . Oh, Wait

I'm back from my epic trip from the Petroplex to the Phoenix area, out east to Washington, DC for the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) conference, and back here. I think I touched down in at least eight cities courtesy of Southwest's sometimes circuitous routes, but I made it back in one piece. Well, sort of. On Friday night/Saturday morning I awoke to tonsils swollen to four times their normal size. It was like swallowing a punching bag. Gagging on one's own epiglottis is not a fun experience. I got a shot yesterday and they are now only twice normal size, so hopefully I'm on the way to full recovery.

Until then, and until I dig my way out from under this pile that has accumulated, I'll leave you with this post from the FPA Africa blog in which I analyze the current state of the ANC and of South African politics more generally. I am trying to spin this into an op-ed, and if I do, you'll be among the first to know.

Monday, October 19, 2009

On the Road Again (Phoenix to DC Edition Self Indulgence Alert!)

I have a heavy travel week coming up. I am off to the Phoenix-area this week for the first few days (Let me just say this: U2) and then am heading straight to Washington, DC where I am giving a paper on democratization in Namibia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa at the Association for the Middle East and Africa's (ASMEA) annual meeting. I'll post as I can.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Least Shocking Revelation Ever

Just read in this week's Entertainment Weekly (article not yet available online) an explanation as to why it is apt that the documentary drawing from Jackson's rehearsals for his planned tour will come out around Halloween:
"Halloween was Michael's favorite holiday."

Really?!? A holiday when young children just show up at the doorstep dressed in costumes was Michael Jackson's favorite holiday? I, for one, am shocked.

(Too soon?)

Friday, October 16, 2009

Loving v. Virginia, 2009 Edition

Think issues of race are not still with us? Well, consider this story for as long as your stomach can handle it:

A Louisiana justice of the peace has refused a marriage license to an interracial couple. he's not a racist, mind you (we know this because he says so) but he's just thinking of the children:

"I don't do interracial marriages because I don't want to put children in a situation they didn't bring on themselves," Bardwell said. "In my heart, I feel the children will later suffer."

Apparently being a justice of the peace in Tangipoa Parish also confers on one great wisdom about the ways of marriage. Because, you see, in addition to his expertise on race, Keith Bardwell knows that interracial marriages do not last long. Again, we know this because he says so.

Loving v. Virginia settled this question in 1967, and even that decision came a century too late. Welcome to "post-racial" America, 2009.

[Hat Tip to my former student, Mary.]

Black Dynamite!

Oh, yes. Oh, dear God, yes!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Cleveland, Brown

John McWhorter: Not a fan of The Cleveland Show. From what I've seen, neither am I, and for many of the same reasons McWhorter cites. For those unfamiliar with McWhorter's work, he is usually described as a black conservative, though I do not think he embraces the label, and he very rarely "plays the race card" (itself an accusation almost always levied by people who have done or said something racist, but that's a post for another day) making his argument that The Cleveland Show is "Family Guy in Blackface" especially biting.

Take a Lookie Look at Tom's Bookie Book

Tom's book is coming to us in the spring. Consider this just an amuse bouche.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Defending Tenure, Defending the University

In a letter in Sunday's New York Times Book Review Peggy Troupin made as nice a defense of both university education and the tenure process as you'll see in a limited space. I will quote in full:

I went to Harvard with Michael Shapiro (hello, Michael!) and would like to answer his letter to the editor (Sept. 20) in response to Drew Gilpin Faust’s Sept. 6 essay, in which much frustration was manifest. Since graduation I have worked in academia, university administration and the private sector. The university is essentially a medieval institution, a bazaar of intellectual goods hawked by hoary promulgators of many divergent truths. It mysteriously produces, after four years, educated people — university graduates. No one has ever figured out another way to do this. However, the university cannot survive without government funding (replacing the church support of medieval times), contingent upon compliance with an array of complex regulations and laws. This has given rise to an entrenched quasi-governmental bureaucracy of managers.

The tenure system — antiquated, ritualistic and of course unfair — by its very quirkiness protects the academic side from being engulfed by the administrative side, as does the independence of departments. Without these inefficiencies, universities would become little better than branches of government, and the variegated thread to our cultural past would be broken. As long as we don’t tamper too much with the core model, we can limp along and pass something of value on to our children, so they can complain bitterly, in their turn, about the cumbersome, inefficient, unfair and bizarre institution called “the university” (and become educated in the process).

Tenure protects the many so that it can protect the few who most need protecting. There are two kinds of political immersions that can get a professor into trouble. The most obvious of these is simply their politics-qua-politics and how that might have an effect on research, writing, and teaching. But there is also the protection that professors need to be able to speak up within their own world -- academic politics themselves. Especially at smaller institutions it is easy for faculty to have run-ins with administrators over issues of academic policy. And while the outside world oftentimes imagines the academic hierarchy as clear -- naturally a Dean outranks a professor, right? -- the reality is that the demarcation is never that clear, and tenure protects a professor who might be every bit as professionally accomplished, and in many (many, many, many) cases more so than someone who chose to become a dean or VP from being steamrolled based on the real but dubious hierarchy. Professors should not have to forsake teaching and writing to be influential, and tenure in part protects shared governance and standing up against those who no longer speak for what happens in the classroom and in the archives and labs, or who speak with the vision of an administrator.

Updike's Papers

I am not the world's biggest fan of literary criticism as it too often manifests itself in American universities (ie: po-mo/post-structuralist blather). But good writing about books and authors is just about the most important thing imaginable within the walls of a university (other than the teaching, reading, and writing history, of course). Were I an early stage American literature graduate student in Harvard's English department I'd be making a beeline to Houghton Library, Harvard's main repository for archives, rare books, and the like, to check out John Updike's newly acquired papers.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The NRO's Descent Into Badness

The sun will rise, the sun will set, and The National Review will continue its descent into farce. National Review Online’s editorial about President Obama winning the Nobel Prize is far from the worst effort NRO has put forward lately. Faint praise aside, we’re going to look at this magnificent piece of scat bit by bit. As is my custom, I will blockquote theirs and preface mine with ***:

Well, that didn’t take long. But it was almost inevitable: the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Barack Obama. As “the world” hated Pres. George W. Bush, “the world” loves President Obama.

*** Scare quotations marks: the domain of shitty college writers and, well, shitty journalists. Good start.

What do we mean by “the world”? We mean the editors of Le Monde, Der Spiegel, and the Guardian. The faculty at Brown University.

*** Brown University? What the fuck? This is an odd non-sequiter. But I see where you are going here. You’re going to list “stuff we don’t like” knowing your readers will all follow you, nodding in rhythm.

The secretariat of the United Nations. We mean Lord Malloch-Brown, not Václav Klaus.

***Oooh – name dropping. NRO hates the rest of the world. Except when it does not.

When President Bush visited Iraq for the last time, a foe of his threw a shoe at him. The shoe-thrower was taken to be “the world.”

*** By whom? One citation, please. I would like one fucking citation asserting that the shoe thrower = the world. Oh, sorry, “The world.”

Hugo Chávez even made laughing reference to him recently at the U.N.

*** This is incoherent. To whom is the “him” referring to in this sentence? We must assume Bush, even though between “him” and Bush come both Chavez and the shoe-thrower, not to mention the passive construction “was taken” which must allude to some subject of some sort, though sentence structure is not a strength in this particular editorial.

Many Iraqis admire and appreciate President Bush. They do not count as “the world.”

*** This is just a peculiar sentence. I am sure some Iraqis admire President Bush. But since it is NRO that is making such hay out of this “the world” conceit, it is perhaps not surprising that they are able to come up with a vague example in opposition. Kudos for defeating that straw man you so bravely created, editors! Now kick him when he’s down.

Very much counting as “the world” is the Nobel Peace Prize Committee.

*** Ok. This is really getting to be bizarre. We are talking about the Nobel Prize. So the Nobel Prize Committee is going to play a role. Yet rather than simply go after the Nobel Prize Committee to begin with, the chosen subject of this editorial is “the world.”

They practically define it.

*** For fuck’s sake, learn how to use pronouns. And as importantly, how not to. This editorial (see how it works?) is a complete jumble.

Every year since 1901, the peace prize has been given by a committee of five Norwegians. They are appointed by the Norwegian parliament, the Storting. The Nobel Peace Prize always reflects the consensus of Norwegian politics.

*** This strikes me as generalization, but again, it also strikes me as seeming more damning than it really is. I am not certain what is so shocking about a Norwegian body reflecting the consensus of Norway.

And that consensus is, in a word — a word the Norwegians might well choose — “progressive.”

*** Just when I thought the writing could not get any worse . . . .

Others might call it left-wing.

*** I wonder who these "others" might be.

In any case, the Nobel Peace Prize almost never disappoints the editors of Le Monde, the faculty at Brown, etc.

*** This is the second reference to Brown. This makes absolutely no sense in the context of an editorial about the nefariousness of “the world.” Yet NRO is doubling down on their inapt argument.

The committee has said, “Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. In the past year Obama has been a key person for important initiatives in the U.N. for nuclear disarmament and to set a completely new agenda for the Muslim world and East-West relations.”

*** Naturally the least objectionable paragraph in this entire piece is almost entirely a quotation.

That is true (at least in part). The Nobel Committee appreciates Obama for his repudiation of all things Bush.

*** Well, repudiating all things Bush makes sense both on the merits and in the politics. Nonetheless, this reductionist argument brings us right back to that straw man again. Poor bastard, being revived only to be beaten up again.

The new president has frozen out America’s allies in Eastern Europe, causing great consternation among them.

*** Actually, the new president has done no such thing. What he did was scrap a program that has never for one brief and shining second shown any signs of working in favor of allocating resources to something that might work. It seems perplexing that now conservatives want to set the bar of international relations down to “consternation” when it comes to dealing with the rest of the world. Or “the world.”

He has put “daylight” between America and its No. 1 Middle Eastern ally, Israel.

*** Perhaps. Or perhaps he has “put daylight” between America and the utterly unjustifiable policy of continuing to build settlements in the West Bank. These are not the same things. Binyamin Netanyahu is not Israel. And Obama’s view is one that has support in many Israeli circles.

He kept almost mum when Iranian democrats massed in the streets to demand a more decent life — the American focus is on negotiating with the regime.

*** This is reductionist piffle. The internal politics of Iran are first and foremost an Iranian matter. Obama spoke out – not loudly enough for some, to be sure – against the crackdowns on the opposition. The American focus is not on negotiating with the regime – that is a tactic, one of several in the arsenal, which also includes the sanctions that the administration just helped impose. This is the sort of profound dishonesty that has come to characterize The National Review.

He gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Mary Robinson, the U.N. official who presided over Durban, that hate-Israel jamboree.

*** Yep. Many of us opposed that move, though reducing Mary Robinson to the Durban conference ignores a far more complex person with a far more complex history. Asserting that the most important thing we need to know about Robinson is her role in Durban is akin to asserting that the most important thing we need to know about Ted Williams was that he was a lousy bunter.

He yukked it up with Chávez, giving him a soul-brother handshake and calling him “mi amigo.”

*** He did no such fucking thing. He engaged in the niceties of diplomacy. Sometimes that involves holding hands with Arab heads of state, sometimes that apparently involves peering into the soul of despots, and sometimes it involves using rudimentary Spanish and not being a dick to foreign heads of state. And who the fuck uses the term “soul-brother handshake” in the year 2009? Honkies, I guess. (Honkies who write for magazines that opposed the Civil Rights Act. But that’s tracing a history of the magazine’s relationship with race that can wait for another day. But don't think I am not on to your little game, NRO.)

He went along with an invitation to Cuba to rejoin the Organization of American States — this despite that fact that the OAS is supposed to be for democracies, not police states.

*** Have you seen the countries on the OAS member list? Haiti? Venezuela? I thought conservatives were the ones who took stock of the real world. That “supposed to” shit is pure “progressive” squishiness I tells ya. Our Cuba policy has been stupid for more than a generation by the way.

He had America rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, under Bush, we bowed out of: because it was dominated by such lovely regimes as the ones in Cuba, Zimbabwe, China, Syria, and Sudan; because it existed almost solely to defame Israel.

*** The UN Human Rights Council sucks. It also is almost certainly not going anywhere. Better to be on it and reform from within. We get it though – you’re the one true voice for Israel.

All these moves of Obama, the Nobel Committee appreciates immensely.

*** Holy fucked up syntax, Batman, what is the subject of that sentence?

This is an American president in their own image, the kind of president they will cheer and honor.

*** I know this is supposed to be an insult. It’s not. Just FYI.

For them, Obama is a dream president, just as Bush was a nightmare president. He is the first “post-American president,” as John Bolton and others have said.

*** Ah, yes, the old impugning his Americanness trope. And naturally John Bolton is the most useful person to use to define a president he opposes.

For “the world,” that is a dream president.

*** Seriously – did they farm out the writing of this thing to an intern? And not their best one?

Our Declaration of Independence speaks of “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” A decent respect is not a need for approval.

*** And since no one is saying that it is, I have no idea why this quotation and the assertion that follows is included in this essay.

Besides, who is mankind? Merely the Nobel Committee and the shoe-thrower, or Bush-loving Iraqis, too?

*** To whom is this question aimed? Again: Give one citation, just one, from the administration, or indeed from the Nobel Committee, implying that Iraqis do not matter or bolstering the case of the show thrower. You cannot just make shit up. Well, sadly, you can and do. But it’s still made up.

We might ask another question: Whose approval would President Obama rather have: that of the Nobel Committee or that of the Rotary Club in Butte?

*** Well, yes, as far as false dichotomies go, this is a particularly terrible one. Why is Obama being asked to choose?

In recent years, the Nobel Committee has done everything possible to express its abhorrence of Bush and his ways.

*** To which I say: Good job Nobel Committee. George W. Bush was a shitty president. Let’s go have a drink. As long as the Rotary Club of Butte does not want to go – they get priority.

In 2001, they gave the peace prize to Kofi Annan and the U.N. The message, in part, was: “America, you’d better not respond to 9/11 by yourselves, or too aggressively.”

*** Maybe it was. Maybe it wasn’t. Going virtually alone in the wrong war at the wrong time was all kinds of dumb, though. I’m no huge Kofi Annan fan, though, so: whatever.

The next year, they gave the prize to Jimmy Carter, and, here, the chairman of the committee was refreshingly candid: saying that they were honoring Carter in order to give Bush “a kick in the leg,” or, in our own parlance, a black eye.

*** What, are your readers so fucking dumb that they would not have been able to figure out that complex leg-kicking metaphor? Actually, strike that question as unnecessary.

A more honorable president might have refused that award, if given for the purpose of bashing the current president.

*** This is certainly my favorite argument: That others should reject the Nobel Peace Prize. This is the equivalent of being pissed at your favorite indie band for having an album that sells a lot of copies and thus spoiling your view of their purity. Jimmy Carter does lots of things that drive me mad. I oppose many of his politics, including many of his views on Israel. But taken as a whole, the man has given his all for humanity. Dispute his receiving the Nobel if you’d like. But to ascribe malign motives for something like this reveals someone as being small and petty. Sand it ain’t Carter.

Another black eye came in 2005, when the committee gave the award to Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency. ElBaradei has said explicitly that his goal — his only “brief,” as he has put it — is to prevent military action against Iran. Accordingly, he has repeatedly downplayed that country’s nuclear progress. And the IAEA has repeatedly looked foolish, and blind. In Beijing the other day, ElBaradei said that the number-one threat to peace in the Middle East is . . . Israel, and its nukes.

*** More reductionism. When you use words like “only,” a single exception destroys your case. Given that ElBaradei took his post with the IAEA in 1997, the argument that his sole concern has to do with the Bush administration or its successors is a Goldbergian use of history, which is to say: wrong. Furthermore, the IAEA did work to try to prevent the spread of nukes after 9/11. Again: debate the case on its merits. Don’t lie and misrepresent just to make your case easier to win in the echo chamber. (Especially when you have a decent case.)

In 2007, the Nobel Committee went with Al Gore and the U.N.’s global-warming people.

*** Um, yes. Is there an argument here, or have you just given up?

And now, in 2009, Obama.

*** I have no objections to this sentence. Well, it does not really have a subject. Or a verb. But it’s probably still the best crafted sentence in the essay.

This award will cause people — will cause “the world” — to say that America is back in the fold, back in the good graces of “the world.” After a season apart, under the cowboy Bush, America is a citizen of “the world” once again. In the Nobel Committee sense of “the world,” we are.

*** The funny thing is that there is an argument here that a better writer and more intellectually honest editorial board could have put together. And it could be a good one. But the scare quotation marks, the unwillingness to consider that global opinion toward the United States has improved dramatically with the emergence of Obama (or what some would call “facts” – I can use those little quotation marks too!) and the bizarre and random hopping from lily pad to lily pad have all obscured that argument.

The committee would never have given the award to Ronald Reagan, much as he did for peace, and much as Mrs. Reagan may have wanted it for him. (The committee did award Gorbachev, however.)

*** Gorbachev did more than Reagan did on the issue at hand. And Reagan countenanced Apartheid South Africa and noxious regimes throughout South America. But a Reagan-Gorbachev pairing would have been a good one – and in the future that is the approach the Nobel Committee would take, only to take incredible grief for it.

Years ago, National Review made the editorial quip that the Nobel Peace Prize, every year, should be given to the Defense Department: because the American military was the world’s foremost guarantor of peace.

*** Blah blah blah. It wasn’t as clever as you thought it was then and did not warrant repeating now. In any case, who is the Commander in Chief of the military right now? Or is 2009 the one year it does not hold despite your invoking it now?

A few days ago, there was a rumor that Harry Wu, the anti-Communist dissident from China, would win the peace prize. That was terribly unlikely. Would the committee ever honor Oscar Biscet, the Afro-Cuban political prisoner who is a symbol of hope, defiance, and decency in that country? A virtual impossibility.

*** Counterfactuals are fun. Because they are incontrovertible. Lots of people don’t win the award. John Lewis is a personal favorite of mine. He will never win it. That does not make the exercise an ignoble one.

President Bush gave a Medal of Freedom to Biscet (in absentia, of course); Obama gave one to Mary Robinson. That neatly illustrates the difference between those two presidents, and between types who win the Nobel prize and those who don’t.

*** No. No it doesn’t. It does no such thing. What it does is shows that the editors at NRO sure can cherry pick to make the most fucktarded of arguments in a piece full of developmentally challenged assertions.

Alfred Nobel, a great man, wanted his prize to go to “champions of peace,” men and women who genuinely contributed to peace in the world. He deplored the “absurd and futile efforts of windbags who are capable of thwarting the best of aims.” Can Barack Obama really make a contribution to peace, the way the Reagans of the world genuinely do? Reagan got no peace prize, but he made a huge positive difference, and the world, along with “the world,” should know that Oslo doesn’t always know best.

*** Why was Reagan then not the foundation of this piece? Why did he not appear in the first paragraph? How the fuck can the editors of the National Review have no idea how to structure a fucking opinion piece? (Ronald Reagan vetoed the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1985 and individuals in his administration brokered illegal arms for hostages deals with . . . wait for it . . . wait for it . . . Iran!!!!)

Friday, October 09, 2009

Obama's Nobel

Oh, this is not going to help the crazy coming from the right: Barack Obama has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. There is a chorus already emerging even on the left that he should turn it down. I think that's probably easier said than done, however. For one thing, it's always easy to tell someone else to turn down a Nobel Prize. But for another, you probably don't want to slap the Nobel Committee in the face by rejecting it. My advice, not that anyone is taking it: Take the prize as a gesture of the peace we want and use it as whatever leverage you can to succeed in bringing about peace or at least a world that resorts to diplomay first rather than last.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

"A Good Pan of Chicken"

The New York Times had a great feature a while back on small-town West Texas football.

Hat Tip to my student, Cannon.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

The Olympian Ideal!!! (Self-Indulgence Alert)

On page 7a of the print edition of today's Odessa American readers saw this, under the title: "Reading, Riding." (The image is copyright protected so I cannot post it. Odd, since one would think I would get some proprietary claim over a photograph of myself.)

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Thom Yorke's ??????

The New York Times has the skinny on Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke's new side project, which as of yet is untitled and is going under the presumably temporary moniker ??????. I liked Yorke's solo album and almost certainly will like this new band's output, but I nonetheless would prefer that Radiohead put out a new damned album, thank you very much.

Monday, October 05, 2009

The Past Isn't Everything

A college with a history-only curriculum? As a history professor who is known to privilege my discipline above all others, I'm supposed to love this idea, right? Not so fast. I am a firm believer in a liberal arts education and believe that history ought to be front-and-center in such a curriculum. But I do not think that history ought to be alone. Literature, sciences, the arts, social sciences -- these too matter. I cannot imagine a university that only produces history majors being a university I would want to attend, or that I could imagine wanting to send kids to attend. I realize that the school in question is a junior-senior college, which changes the dynamic somewhat, but the idea of a single-discipline college or university crashes headlong into my love of a true liberal arts education.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Containing the Radicals

Via Andrew Sullivan, Andrew Bacevich has proposed a policy of containment toward radical Islam. It's a policy you might suspect that I would agree with. Why might you suspect this? Because I made a similar argument in an op-ed piece for History News Network. In January 2006.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dangerous Right-Wing Nutter Alert!

Think the right wing has sunk as low as it can go? Don't bank on it. At Newsmax John L. Perry advocates a coup against President Obama without advocating a coup against Obama. To wit (or witless, as the case may be):
Military intervention is what Obama’s exponentially accelerating agenda for “fundamental change” toward a Marxist state is inviting upon America. A coup is not an ideal option, but Obama’s radical ideal is not acceptable or reversible.

Unthinkable? Then think up an alternative, non-violent solution to the Obama problem. Just don’t shrug and say, “We can always worry about that later.”

In the 2008 election, that was the wistful, self-indulgent, indifferent reliance on abnegation of personal responsibility that has sunk the nation into this morass.

This is batshit crazy, except that too many on the right are swallowing this guano without enough sane conservatives speaking out against it. The Big Lie has become a huge part of the right's arsenal and they have no compunctions with using it. Obama does not just disagree with them politically. These disagreements have now somehow become dangerous to the point where people who purport to be serious and love this country are providing justification for a military coup.

UPDATE: This noxious piece has been pulled. But you can see the text here.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Stadiums and Terrorism

The government has expanded a terrorism warning from transit systems to include US stadiums, hotels, and entertainment complexes. I have long believed that stadiums are incredibly vulnerable sites for potential attacks. But I have also argued that we need to be smart about our approach to potential attacks at sporting events. Identifying stadiums as logical locales for attack is merely the first step. What comes next is, in the end, what really matters.

Still Alive

Sorry for the silence. I'm sure you're devastated. I spent the weekend trekking between Odessa, San Antonio, and Austin for the UT game (loads of fun), we brought back our nephew/godson, who has kept us entertained but busy this week, and I am flying out to New Hampshire tomorrow for a wedding, a couple of days in the old home town, and a day and overnight in Boston. Next week it looks like I might be flying to LA for the sort of pathetic grasp at pseudo-fame that only a professional historian would pursue unashamedly. I'll post as I can.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Mean Fun Is Still Fun

You like a good blistering review because, well, you're that kind of person. And good for you, I say. A review of a bad book is often better than a review of a good book. With a bad book, the reviewer has so much more that they can do with the language, with the various elements of badness, and with unleashing their inner demons. Withering reviews are fun to read.

If that is the case (admit it: it is) then some of the most fun I have had in a long, long time came when I read Leon Wieseltier's thumping of Normon Podhoretz's Why Are Jews Liberals? I am torn as to which section to excerpt, because really the whole thing is state of the art. I suppose you could start with this:

Norman Podhoretz loves his people and loves his country, and I salute him for it, since I love the same people and the same country. But this is a dreary book. Its author has a completely axiomatic mind that is quite content to maintain itself in a permanent condition of apocalyptic excitation. His perspective is so settled, so confirmed, that it is a wonder he is not too bored to write. The veracity of everything he believes is so overwhelmingly obvious to him that he no longer troubles to argue for it. Instead there is only bewilderment that others do not see it, too. “Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a document of his bewilderment; and there is a Henry Higgins-­like poignancy to his discovery that his brethren are not more like himself. But the refusal of others to assent to his beliefs is portrayed by Podhoretz not as a principled disagreement that is worthy of respect, but as a human failing. Jews are liberals, he concludes, as a consequence of “willful blindness and denial.” He has a philosophy. They have a psychology.

Or this, which is the next paragraph:
“Why Are Jews Liberals?” is a potted history followed by a re-potted memoir. The first half of the book, which tells the story of “how the Jews became liberals,” is narrated in “the impersonal voice of a historian — an amateur, to be sure, but one who has relied on a variety of professional authorities for help and guidance.” These chapters are mainly anthologies of congenial quotations. There is something a little risible about the solemnity with which Podhoretz presents encyclopedia articles as evidence of his erudition (“I relied most heavily on one of the great works of 20th-century Jewish scholarship, the Encyclopaedia Judaica”); there is even a reference, slightly embarrassed, to Wikipedia. From his footnotes you would think that the most significant Jewish historian of our time is Paul Johnson. And there is a decidedly insular reliance upon the pages of Commentary, the magazine he edited for 35 years. His parochialism can be startling: Samuel ha-Nagid, the astounding poet, warrior, statesman and scholar in Granada in the 11th century, reminds him of Henry Kissinger! Podhoretz seems to be living the Vilna Gaon’s adage — maybe he can find it in some encyclopedia — that the best way for a man to preserve his purity is never to leave his house.

Just read the whole thing.

Then there is the category of fine books about bad authors. Although not as pitch-perfect as Wieseltier's article (that is no insult -- I've never written anything as pitch-perfect as that glorious hit piece) Jonathan Chait uses a couple of unobjectionable books about Ayn Rand to skewer Rand and especially her followers who, in my experience, tend to be some of the dimmest folks on the planet. But then you'd have to be to think Rand produces readable literature.

Guadalupe National Park

Last weekend's Sunday New York Times Travel Section had a feature on the beautiful, rugged Guadalupe National Park, deep in the heart of West Texas. Come on out and pay a visit. Stop in Odessa. We'll get a taco.

BBQ, Northern Style!

Think you can only find great barbecue in the South, Texas (begin anew the debate: Is Texas Southern?) and Kansas City? Not true! The Boston Globe has combed New England and has come up with ten great places for meat meaty meat meat done right.

Not to Quibble . . .

This Jeffrey Rosen op-ed in The New York Times seems to work from a false premise, which is that Earl Warren has a bad historical reputation. He might have a bad reputation among some conservatives. But on the whole, Earl Warren not only does not have a bad reputation among historians and legal scholars, he is considered one of the great justices in American history. That sort of undermines Rosen's larger point.


The ESPN Gameday crew will be in Austin tomorrow for the Texas-Texas Tech game. It's not going to be as thrilling as last year's game, as Tech is nowhere near as strong and the Longhorns might be better than they were in 2008, but it will still tax the scoreboard operator. My guess? Texas 54 Texas Tech 35.

The best part? I'm gonna be there.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Devil’s Dictionary, American Politics, and the Constitution

I was the speaker for our Constitution Day events at UTPB today. Here is the brief address that I gave for any who might be interested (it was followed up by a great Q & A).

In the late 19th and early 20th century a man by the name of Ambrose Bierce, a journalist, author, and humorist, began penning satirical definitions of words in one of his newspaper columns. He defined a cynic as someone “whose faulty vision sees things as they are, not as they ought to be.” He defined contempt as “The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.” In 1906 these definitions were compiled into The Devil’s Dictionary, which consists of more than a thousand words and is structured just like a normal dictionary.

Bierce did not steer clear of the law and the legal profession. He defined a lawyer as “one skilled in circumvention of the law.” Justice is “a commodity which in a more or less adulterated condition the State sells to the citizen as a reward for his allegiance, taxes and personal service. And there are three definitions that he put forward that are apropos for my talk today. Speaking of the country’s two great political traditions, Bierce identified a Conservative as “a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.” That which is “lawful” is, according to Bierce, “compatible with the will of a judge having jurisdiction.” And, finally, an egoist is “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than me.”

I am intrigued by Bierce’s definitions because while cynical, in both the traditional and in his own definition of the word, they also speak some truths. We live in a cynical age. More to the point, we live in an age of ugly and divisive political dialogue. Without a grasp of history or meaning we accuse those with whom we have honest disagreements not merely of being wrong or misguided, but of being idiotic or evil, of being Nazis and Fascists and Socialists and Communists and terrorists and Klansmen. We accuse them of being Hitler or Stalin or Lenin or Satan. These accusations are wrong in both sense of the word – they are wrong in fact and interpretation, but they are also wrong ethically and morally. To be intentionally ironic, and even hypocritical, these accusers are unaware of how fascistic and Stalinist, how idiotic and evil they are.

Our judicial system is not immune from these trends. Indeed, on both sides of the political all and across all ranges of the ideological spectrum the inclination is to try to appropriate those aspects of Constitutional law and our judicial system that we like and to disregard those that we don’t. And so in that spirit, and with Bierce’s definition of both an egoist and lawfulness in mind, I offer my own entries into a Devil’s Dictionary for our fraught political climate.

An activist judge is “a judge who does not act to misinterpret the constitution in ways that I see fit.”

Original Intent is “how I can best misrepresent a complex history into a simplistic sound bite to convince the listener that I know how Thomas Jefferson would have felt about the internet.”

Unelected judges are “men and women in black robes with black hearts who act in ways contrary to my interests.”

And, alas, it seems that the Constitution is now “ a document that serves as a useful weapon to hit my Nazi-Stalinist-Socialist-Communist-Hitler-loving-Satanist of an enemy over the head with.”

But perhaps a little perspective is in order. In a world in which the noisiest and the obnoxious get the most attention irrespective of talent, merit, or the intelligence of one’s views on the issue about which they are screaming (I’m talking to you Kanye West, Joe the Plumber, and anyone who has ever appeared on a reality show) it is worth stepping back and recognizing a few salient points, particularly when it comes to our Constitution and those who interpret it.

Almost universally the men and women on the court are not just intelligent, but are brilliant and committed public servants all of whom could be making much more money and garnering much more fame while being called much nicer names. I have been in the room with a number of Supreme Court judges, and almost across the board they have been thoughtful, dazzlingly articulate, and able to sort through ideas of great complexity and with long and sometimes tortured histories. It is precisely the fact that we do not elect them that allows to them to contemplate, think, and sometimes protect the rights of the few when the Constitution and the principles of the country demand it.

The accusation of “Judicial activism” really is a bit of an empty one. Assuming that we really do believe that the courts, and particularly the Supreme Court, are part of the system of checks and balances and that the judicial branch is coequal with the legislative and the executive branches, then the Supreme Court is sometimes going to challenge both the legislature and the executive. As my own definition indicates, “activism” tends to be in the eye of the beholder. The other side engages in activism. My side engages in complex legal assessments.

And while close decisions draw all of the sound and fury and bring out some of the very worst in our politicized dialogue, the reality is that the vast majority of cases that go before the Supreme Court end up with unanimous and near unanimous decisions. The vast majority of cases are decided by unanimous, 8-1, or 7-2 majorities. Far, far fewer cases end up with a 5-4 result than we would think from the tone of discussion about the court.

It seems clear, then, that we need to take a step back. That the Constitution and the interpretations of it are too important to become part of the maelstrom of ugliness that too often defines American life in the year 2009. Disagreement is a vital and cherished part of American civic life. But that guy whose politics you disagree with? He’s not a Nazi. He’s not a Stalinist. He’s almost certainly not even actually an enemy. He simply disagrees with you. Is that really so evil?

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

FJM Spins the Dead

OMG Guys! OMG! OMG! OMG! The gang from the gone but never forgotten blog Fire Joe Morgan are guest blogging at Deadspin. No productivity for me today!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Yeay Me On TV! (Goes Without Saying -- Self Indulgence Alert)

The Civil Rights Movement panel I sat on at this year's Virginia Festival of the Book was broadcast on C-Span's Book TV. You can now access it here and either be reminded or discover for the first time just what a giant doofus I am. Thrill. A. Minute.

(Of course you knew it was coming: You can buy Freedom's Main Line here. Or here. Or here.)

Monday, September 14, 2009

Countdown to Kickoff

Three hours and (impatiently) counting down to the opening kickoff of the Boston Patriots' 2009 season, and thus the NFL season.

Conservatives in Academia

At The Chronicle of Higher education Mark Lilla calls for taking conservatism seriously, which leads to an exchange that basically amounts to: we agree. And agree we all should. But we still need to be careful. There is no widespread effort to keep conservatives out of graduate school. But at conservatives do not always feel welcome in academia. Meanwhile elite institutions tend to have humanities departments that lean toward the left. But religiously affiliated schools not only lean right, but unlike their liberal counterparts, such schools demand conservative politics of those who attend and work there. Brown and Duke are not all of academia. Oh -- and why cherry pick humanities departments? because business school faculties are every bit as conservative as humanities departments are liberal, with the added benefit of being far better funded despite the fact that most of the intellectual work that comes from business school is less than impressive.