Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Greatly Exaggerated death of the Humanities

The economy is tanking. And so naturally that brings about new concerns about the state of the humanities. Take a deep breath, folks. the humanities will be fine. We can imagine that college students are all mindless automotons looking to take nothing but business classes. But students still flock to history and English classes all across the country. They will be doing so in a eyar and they will be doing so in a decade and they will be doing so a century from now. The humanities, like the novel, and like rock & roll, always seem to be in a near-death state and yet always manage to defy the dire prognostications. A good rule of thumb is that the idea of a golden age is always a myth.

Vegas Bound

dcat will be flying to Las Vegas at 5:55 Central time and will be meeting two friends, including this guy. I'll post as I can but, you know, don't hold your breath.

The Greatest

This week's Sports Illustrated has a feature story on the incomparable Bobby Orr. You can have Wayne Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, this generation can have Sid the Kid or Alex Ovechkin. I'll start my all-time player draft with Boston's #4.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"What's My Name, Fool?"

As most of you know, I quite like Andrew Sullivan's blog and find him to be the best conservative pundit out there. But Leon Wieseltier at the New Republic absolutely eviscerates Sullivan in what is supposed to be a correction about a pretty picayune matter. From the first line to the last, Wieseltier pretty much gives Sullivan a serious beatdown. It's a bit like a Jack Johnson fight, or when Mohammed Ali humiliated Floyd Patterson in 1965 for the latter's continuing to refer to Ali dismissively as "Cassius." The humiliation comes in the refusal to deliver a knockout because the beating is all the worse and more humiliating when you make the beating last. I half expected Wieseltier to punctuate each paragraph with "What's My Name, Fool?" as Ali did throughout the 1965 Patterson fight.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Speak Loudly AND Carry a Big Stick

Over at The Washington Post Anne Applebaum wishes American leaders would shut their yaps about human rights and simply act on addressing those issues instead. I have no problem with speaking up if action follows. What is intolerable is staking a self-righteous claim to commitment to human rights and then not backing it up, as in, say, Darfur.

Friday, February 20, 2009

The New Look

It was time for a new look at dcat. I'm still rolling with the hideous green hues toward which I've come to grow affectionate, but decided to go with something a bit different. I'm curious what you think, though I had to transfer all of the book and publication links manually, so I'm not likely to change it again anytime soon.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

On Student Entitlement

As I prepare to grade a batch of exams that I just received, and a pile of papers that I should have finished more than a week ago, I cannot stop thinking about this Michelle Cottle post at The Plank , which she develops from this New York Times article, both of which take on the entitlement that many college students feel when it comes to grades. Their attitude can be summed up thusly: "I come to class and do all the work, I deserve an A." Which is to say that they believe that simply fulfilling the basic expectations of the class warrants an A. Read both pieces, and shake your head in a combination of disbelief and exasperation at both the sense of entitlement and the absence of the idea of quality in the minds of too many of these students, who have grown up in the academic equivalent of Lake Woebegone and who, upon coming to college, are stunned, but more to the point, outraged, that they are not all above average.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cheesy Pasta Goodness

Mmmmmmmm, mac and cheese! (With recipes!)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Ranking the Presidents, Again

Over at Cliopatria KC Johnson brings his insight to C-SPAN's second survey of presidential leadership. He is particularly interested in exploring why there was so much relative volatility in the assessments from the last survey to this one. Some of his examples do not bother me: Why did President Clinton leap past George H.W. Bush? I dunno -- probably because by just about any measure he was a more successful, a better, a more important president? But his larger point about the temporal, indeed presentist, nature of these rankings is well worth remembering.

These exercises, however methodologically sound or flawed, are best viewed as parlor games and cocktail party fodder and are not worth much more. I've always been more interested in presidential impact than on presidential "greatness." That said, here is my "top ten" list, with all of the vagaries that term implies, with the recognition of my own clear biases -- I am a 20th century historian and I am a liberal and a Democrat -- and which could be different tomorrow and may have been different yesterday:

1) Abraham Lincoln
2) Franklin Roosevelt
3) George Washington
4) Harry Truman
5) Theodore Roosevelt
6) Lyndon Johnson
7) Woodrow Wilson
8) Thomas Jefferson
9) Dwight Eisenhower
10) Andrew Jackson

One lesson I draw from coming up with my own list is that the depth chart for United States Presidents does not go all that deep. That surely speaks to the nature of the job more than it does to the men who have held it. The presidency is a position almost built to conquer those who attain it.


This weekend Michael Lewis took his Moneyball approach to this fantastic New York Times magazine piece on the Houston Rockets' Shane Battier. Moneyball, inarguably one of the most important, and certainly most misunderstood, books ever written about sports showed the ways in which a new generation of baseball front office people, embodied in Oakland's Billy Beane, were finding and exploiting inefficiencies in the marketplace for baseball players, thus allowing small market teams to compete against those with far superior resources. Lewis has taken a similar approach, through the lens of the incredibly sympathetic Ole Miss football player Michael Oher, to football and especially the left tackle position, and now to Battier and basketball.

It's safe to say that Lewis has found his niche. His earliest books took a similar approach to financial sectors. It would be formulaic were it not stunningly clear just how easily conventional wisdom becomes dogma in so many varied but related -- hypercompetitive, big money -- realms. It does not hurt that Lewis is a hell of a writer -- workmanlike, but crisp, clear, and readable, and he easily conveys complicated ideas to make them so accessible that you do not even realize they are complicated. Hopefully this piece on Battier foreshadows a book on the topic.

Sunday, February 15, 2009


I loathe the fact that one holiday segues directly into another. Christmas sales begin before Thanksgiving, sometimes weeks before. Soon after New Years the Valentine's Day candy and profligate pink festoons all available store space. Halloween costumes and their pumpkin and witch, ghost and ghoulie brethren hit the shelves before Columbus Day. Enough is too much, and was long ago.

But let me tell you one thing -- seeing (and, of course, buying, in bulk) my first Cadbury Eggs the day after Valentine's Day? Hell. And. Yes.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

dcat's NCAA Basketball Coaching Debut (Self Indulgence Alert!)

For my entire time at my university I have been closely affiliated with our basketball program, and with the men's program in particular. I broadcast the play-by-play of the home games on radio and have been on numerous road trips with the team, at which point I have played a sort of jack-of-all-trades role, including serving as the most highly educated waterboy in all of college sports.

But tonight, due to a confluence of circumstances, which included the assistant coach having to miss a road trip to Austin and San Antonio and me happening to be in the Alamo City for the weekend, I took on a new role: Assistant basketball coach. I have a good deal of experience coaching track at the high school and college levels, but basketball coaching was new to me. I kept the stats, held the clipboard, looked up portentously at the scoreboard, yelled the encouragement, hollered at the refs, gave coach useful tidbits of information, shook hands with the refs before and the opposing team after the game, gathered the official stat sheets as I stood solemnly during time outs, and served as sounding board for coach before, during, and after what turned out to be a bad, bad loss, and -- this is most important -- responded with an appropriate blend of gravitas and hail-fellow-well-met when people called me "coach."

So, to all of you Division I programs about to can your head coach in the next month: I'm available at the right price. Just so you know.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Denying New Deal Denialists

Eric Rauchway takes on New Deal denialists in a post republished at History News Network. He drives a metaphor that he draws from Ronald Reagan into the ground, but otherwise, his arguments dovetails nicely with something I wrote last month in which I concluded that whatever its shortcomigs, the New Deal was quite remarkable, and that if we still place stock in the three R's of Relief, Reform, and Recovery, the New Deal was damned successful at the first, quite successful at the second, and middling (but not a failure) at the third.

Academia, The Economic Crisis, and What Professors Do

Over at The Cyber Hacienda Jaime has a post in which he links an open letter from an Arizona State University professor explaining what it is that professors do, clearing up some misconceptions along the way. I would further add that research expectations are not only prevelant at Research I universities such as ASU and that even in smaller institutions, such as mine, research is a serious expectation, and that when people don't get tenure here, as at a large swath of schools, it is almost universally because of a lack of research productivity.

The professor (who is not yet tenured) had to write anonymously because the university president has apparently put forth a dictum that faculty may not speak about the crisis. Were I a tenured professor at ASU, and especially were I in a discipline in which writing about politics or current affairs could plausibly be part of what I do -- ie: were I me -- I might challenge that demand of silence frontally in the name of both academic freedom and free speech. Of course that's easy for me to say here and now, as the crisis in Texas is nowhere near as dire as that in Arizona, and we are not facing such severe circumstances.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The NAACP at 100

Today marks the NAACP's 100th birthday. One can reasonably ask what purpose the organization serves today, but there is little question that the NAACP has been the preeminent civil rights organization in American history. By the 1960s the NAACP had come to seem passe, even conservative, by a generation of activists weaned on direct-action protests, but without the work of the NAACP, and especially its Legal Defense Fund, the prospects for success in challenging Jim Crow would have been diminished, the process would have taken far longer.

Everyone knows about the successes of the NAACP in fighting segregated education, which culminated in Brown v. Board. But the organization fought discrimination in its myriad guises, in diverse realms such the political arena and on public transportation. It is quite possible to assert that without SNCC or CORE there still would have been an NAACP, but without the NAACP there may never have been a SNCC or a CORE.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Phelps, Parker, and the Conservative Divide

Kathleen Parker weighs in on the silly Michael Phelps imbroglio and in the process reminds us that one of the many divisions within contemporary conservatives is that between those with libertarian inclinations (which is where Parker falls on this issue) and the insufferable moral scolds (think Sarah Palin, and frankly, too many who have held sway among the GOP for the last generation). Of course Parker became persona non grata on the right for her supposed apostasy on the Palin question, which just served as a reminder that you'll never err in underestimating the open-mindedness of most within the modern conservative movement.

Way to Go!

Planning travel in 2009? You will want to consult the 2009 Washington Post "Way To Go Guide." It contains all kinds of useful tips for everyone ranging from the experienced traveler to the neophyte.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Busing and Boston

It may be the most infamous photo in Boston history, is certainly the most infamous of the post-1960s Civil Rights Movement, and still leaves a lousy mark on a city with a fraught racial history even if it also is a city that has also historically been a beacon for freedom and liberty, in both rhetoric and reality.

Ted Landsmark was an up-and-coming lawyer entering the political realm on April 5, 1976. He was running late for a meeting of the Boston Redevelopment Authority that he was set to chair. He had difficulty finding parking and was rushing to get to his meeting when he was set upon by white thugs, one brandishing an American flag, in front of City Hall. The moment marked the nadir of the city's busing crisis, indeed, a nadir in the city's history.

So it came as a surprise, I'm sure to many (it did to me) top read Landsmark's recent op-ed in which he called for an end to busing to try to achieve equalization in the racial composition of the schools in Boston. And yet his arguments are worth considering.

Busing is a more complex issue than either its opponents or its supporters are willing to acknowledge. When Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education allowed for busing to begin with it was deeply controversial, but not necessarily wrong. But once the court (wrongly, in my mind) decided in Milliken v. Bradley not to allow busing to cross city lines, and thus to give suburbanites the chance to opt out of the system, and to accelerate white flight, and to racialize the inner city, it meant that busing was virtually doomed to fail, at least in those cities that maintained limited geographic boundaries (unlike Charlotte, the home of the Swann decision ironically enough, which continued to expand so that the city and county lines became virtually indistinguishable) because it could not address the systemic geographic roots of so much segregation, especially in the North and particularly in cities and suburbs. The Milliken decision did not alone guarantee Boston's ugly mid-1970s fate, but it contributed. Today black Boston-area students who live in overwhelmingly black communities get up early in the morning to get on buses the majority of which will likely take them to schools that, wherever they are located, are likely to be made up of black and Hispanic students from elsewhere in the city. Ted Landsmark, the most visible victim of Boston's ugliest period, now opposes busing. His words are worth considering, but only after we understand the real reasons why busing failed.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

TPM Cafe Book Club

If you are looking for serious discussion about books, you could do worse than to bookmark the Talking Points Memo Cafe Book Club. Recent discussions have included Tony Badger, Alonzo Hamby, Andrew Bacevich, Nick Katzenbach, and many others.

Not to Say I Told You So . . .

I wrote the following as part of a post on Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron's home run record in 2007:
The chase is done, though the recriminations have just begun. The self-righteous await hopefully ARod taking the record away, because they who remained willfully blind suddenly have decided that ARod was never part of the scandal they never saw when it was happening yet see so clearly in outrage-fueled hindsight.

Well, now we have this.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Flight of the Conchords Landing Near You

Normally, like any person with a modicum (even if only just) of dignity, I avoid novelty acts. But despite this general stance, I love Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand folk duo that has stormed American hearts, largely through their brilliant eponymous HBO show. Bret and Jemaine are set to take flight (heh) on a nationwide tour.

Hat tip to the Thunderstick.

Encyclopedia Virginia (Incidental Self Indulgence Alert)

The Encyclopedia Virginia is now online. An effort of the incomparable Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (with which I was a fellow in 2004), the Encyclopedia is just one example of why the Foundation may well be the best state humanities organization of its kind. My modest contribution to the encyclopedia is an entry on the 1946 Supreme Court case Morgan v. Virginia, which directly led to the Journey of Reconciliation and Freedom Rides.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

On Newspapers

I represent one of those dying cultural anachronisms. I still value, no, cherish, the newspaper. I read a number of newspapers online, and get the vast majority of the information I consume on the internet, to be sure. But I still value the daily newspaper, whether it is the Odessa American delivered to my door every morning, The New York Times delivered on Sunday, the San Antonio Express-News when we are down there, or the ritual of making sure to grab the local paper when I am traveling, unless it comes to the door of a hotel room, which is always a nice surprise.

I grew up reading my local paper and The Boston Globe that my stepfather picked up every day. Without descending into cliche, I love the tactile, tangible element of the daily paper, and I do believe that there are things you catch while reading through the newspaper that you do not when browsing the handy headlines and choosing what to click on when it arrives in your email inbox.

But we keep hearing that the newspaper is dead, and all signs certainly point that way. I hope something happens to salvage the print newspaper, but within a generation I would guess that the daily paper will be greatly diminished, if not an entirely defunct species. In the latest New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore (whose regular work there is fantastic) has an article on early American newspapers in which a subtext is that the medium's very survival was always in question. The goal may be to reassure, though the realities of this market are rather different from the colonial and early national era. It may not be entirely reassuring, but her piece will at least remind you of the resilience of the daily (or weekly) printed word.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Somali Terrorism Connection

Are terrorists recruiting Somalians living in the United States? It appears so. And if so, for what purposes and to what ends? There is not enough here yet to draw firm conclusions, but there is enough to recognize that instability in the Horn of Africa has created ripe conditions for terrorist recruitment.