Sunday, June 28, 2009

South Africa Diary #3

At the Africa Blog I have posted South Africa Diary #3 in which I recount a day that saw the Good (the Springboks winning a heart-stopping match to take the British and Irish Lions series with a game to go), the Bad (hitting the travel wall after spending eight of the last nine weeks, and when all is said and done, nine of ten, in a different time zone than my home), and the Ugly )the aftermath of a scene of nearly unimaginable violence).

Saturday, June 27, 2009

South Africa Diary #2

My second installment of my South African diary is now up at the Foreign Policy Association Africa Blog. In it I discuss today's Springbok-British and Irish Lions rugby match and the South African response to Michael Jackson's death.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

South Africa Diary #1

After several days without internet, I have emerged with my first South Africa diary at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog. In the entry I discuss being a victim of crime upon arrival in the country, the Southern African Historical Society biennial meeting, a friend's tragic loss, and the setting in which I watched the US-Spain game, among other things. Please give it a look. Tonight a friend rolls in to South Africa for his first trip here, so I'll be playing host, something I've gotten to do a few times before and that always allows me to experience the country in new ways and through new eyes.

I'll close with a topical joke that I also repeat at the Africa Blog Diary entry: My taxi driver told me this on the way to Pretoria after I arrived (keep in kind that South Africa could only play Iraq to a draw in their meeting to open the tournament): What do the United States and South Africa have in common? Neither one can beat Iraq.

Friday, June 19, 2009

South Africa Bound

I am heading to South Africa tomorrow for what has become my annual return trip there. I'll be balancing work -- the South African Historical Society's biennial meeting starts Monday, and I am giving a paper there, and I have some research to do in the Joberg-Pretoria region as well as in Cape Town -- with play, including meeting up with one of my best friends who has never been to South Africa before.

I plan to write South Africa diaries that are akin to my Keele Diaries from last month. Though I may be mainly writing them for the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog. I will either crosspost here or possibly link to those posts with a brief description or summary.

I am, as always, looking forward to my return to a country I deeply love. I hope to catch live one of the clashes between the Springboks and the touring British Lions and maybe even try to see one of the Confederations Cup football matches next week when the games move to the knockout rounds. But the first stop is the SAHS at the University of South Africa's Sunnyside campus in Pretoria.

Thoughts on Iran

A longtime reader and friend sent me the following email the other day about the ongoing situation in Iran:

I have been spending a fair amount of my newspaper/internet time reading about the protests in Iran and what strikes me is the way that the press and photo/video journalism have been used in previous protests (civil rights movement as the first and most powerful) to accelerate change and how it has the potential to make meaningful change in Iran as well. I thought you might be well-positioned to be thoughtful on the subject given your background and focus. The one thing that it is so difficult to get a grasp on is how much "Americanized" spin is being put on the protests. Given that Americans have such a skewed conception of the middle east and Iran in particular, it is tough for me to know if the protests are the precursor to meaningful change or are just two different sides of what amounts to a relatively minor disagreement over the pace of gradual reforms, and whether this is Soweto or Tianamen Square.

Here are the thoughts I sent to him, though looking at it, I do not know if I answered the last part of his question, and so I will do so toward the end of the post:

1) I think it is clear that both the protesters and the state are well aware of the power of media. This explains why the state has been so deeply committed to crushing not only dissent, but especially to controlling the media access. Outside reporters have been banned, the media, circumscribed already, has been virtually shut down. There is no doubt that the protesters, meanwhile, are trying to counter the crackdown by using new media -- the state has tried to respond by shutting down blogs and the like, and so we see the Twitter aspect. What I wonder about that is just how pervasive the Twitter aspect is -- I cannot help but wonder, for example, whether or not Andrew Sullivan (who turned his blog into virtually all Iran all the time) is overstating the actual concrete importance of Twitter. But it is clear that those using the new (and otherwise pretty annoying and self indulgent) technology see it as one way to control the story as best they can.

2) As for the comparative framework, obviously it is hard to tell now. But certainly the awareness of the importance of getting the story -- and as important the images -- out to the larger world indicates that they are cognizant of how important images are. During the Civil Rights Movement, as you well now and alluded to, the media played a vital role, and more to the point, the civil rights activists knew this. During the Freedom Rides the protesters were well aware of the important of images, indeed, of promoting the sorts of conflicts that would garner attention, and thus sympathy. If the media was not there to cover it, it did not happen. The CRM was tremendously successful at this, but the segregationists learned as well. two examples will suffice. During the Freedom Rides when one of the first batches of students and their allies were dropped off at Parchman Farm in Mississippi, a couple tried to go limp and use the nonviolent technique. The police said, in effect, what the hell are you guys doing? There are no cameras here. John Lewis conceded that they had a point. The second example comes with the Albany campaign. Sheriff Laurie Pritchett had read about and paid attention to the contours of the movement and especially to King's nonviolence, including reading King's books. As a result, he knew that a Bull Connor-esque confrontation was the surest way to draw media attention and thus bring the crisis to a boil. So there was little no no violence under his watch. Arrests were orderly, even polite. And the media did not descend on Albany, changing the narrative of that struggle considerably.

3) in South Africa certainly the media was a factor as well, though much of the appeal was to the global media, as the apartheid state had the capacity to respond by cracking down on the media in the country. Interestingly, one of the main motivations for politicians during the Cold War was to prevent the American civil rights movement from becoming international news -- futile in the face of Bull Connor and others, during the 1963 campaign in his city but also during the Freedom Rides. Those events making front page news in the US was bad enough, but when that burning bus was splashed across newspapers the world over? As my friend Jaime would say, no goodo.

4) I'm not sure how much Americanized spin is being put on the events, certainly a lot from our vantage point. This is most obvious in the (to my mind silly) criticism of Obama that he has not been ardent in addressing the situation. This is not our fight. Though it has enormous ramifications for the US, that is a struggle that is still Iranian in nature. Obama recognizes this in a way that Bush/Cheney would not have and Netanyahu does not. Now does this mean we will never act? No. but it means bellicosity is not the right approach.

5) One thing that somewhat vexes me is the amount of attention this incident has gotten relative to other similar crises. I am especially thinking of Africa, in particular Kenya and Zimbabwe. Now those situations received their share of attention relative to African issues normally, but nothing compared to what this is getting. Andrew Sullivan giving his blog over? C'mon. I am not denigrating or downplaying the Iranian situation. I simply cannot see why it is so much more outsized than the situations in Zim or Kenya. Or I do, but I disagree -- the answer is tied to realpolitik. Iran has more strategic value in the minds of most people. And that belief may well be true. But intrinsically, the events in Africa are no less important or fraught or complex (or violent) than those in Iran.

That is my response to him. Now, as to the question of whether this qualifies as a precursor to meaningful change, I am not especially optimistic. The reader astutely posed two situations -- Soweto or Tiananman -- both of which certainly have some parallels. In the case of the Soweto Uprisings, the effect was to invigorate the anti-Apartheid movement that had been quiescent in the wake of the South African government's response to activists in the post-Sharpeville Massacre period. Soweto started a long process that led to the crises in the 1980s in South Africa and that in turn fueled the negotiations and ultimately the fall of apartheid and rise of Mandela and the ANC. Tiananman, meanwhile, simply showed the length the Chinese leaders would go to to maintain control and crush opposition. Though it is worth noting that post-Tiananman things have opened up considerably in China, even if it is far from a free nation, and even if the Chinese authorities rarely concern themselves with the niceties of human rights either within China or outside of it. My suspicions are that it will be more like Tiananman inasmuch as there are two factors reinforcing one another: The role of the state as an authoritarian presence and the role of religion as quite literally a higher power within Iranian politics. I hope, of course, that I am wrong.

Williams Keeps Kicking Ass

For the eleventh year in a row (and the 13th time in the 14 years of the competition) Williams College reigns supreme in the world of Division III college athletics. Williams has won the Directors Cup, which tabulates results across college athletic programs, yet again. Tellingly, the top three were Williams, Middlebury, and Amherst (BOO!), all NESCAC schools, all elite academic institutions. Brains and brawn go hand-in-hand at these schools. Perennially number one in the national liberal arts college rankings (the best at academics), number one in athletics (the best at sports), and number one in our hearts. Come fill your glasses up, to Williams! To Williams! To Williams!

Thursday, June 18, 2009

FML: Choice! (Self Indulgence Alert!)

Freedom's Main Line (which is available for as low as $14.99 on Amazon right now!) is reviewed (may be available only to those with institutional subscriptions, as I cannot even access the review from my home computer) in July's issue of Choice. Keith Volanto (the author of a fine book on the Agricultural Adjustment Administration in Texas) gave FML a nice recommendation, for which I am grateful. Choice is the monthly magazine/reviews compendium of the American library Association. I recently reviewed (ditto parenthetical aside above) an important book by a very prominent historian for Choice, and she told me in an email that my review was more important for her sales than the one she received in the New York Times, because libraries often wait for the Choice imprimatur before purchasing titles.

Splinter, Splendid

In a thread over at Sons of Sam Horn, poster OilCanShotTupac notes the following, from the incomparable Baseball Reference's page of Red Sox top ten batting rankings:

just went over to the Sox all-time leaders page for hitters at b-r to do some poking around for this, and this is so incredible, I have to post it.

This is the list of single season leaders for OBP in Red Sox history:

Rank Player OBP Year
1. Ted Williams .553 1941
2. Ted Williams .526 1957
3. Ted Williams .513 1954
4. Ted Williams .499 1942
5. Ted Williams .499 1947
6. Ted Williams .497 1946
7. Ted Williams .497 1948
8. Ted Williams .496 1955
9. Ted Williams .490 1949
10. Ted Williams .479 1956

That's right:

-Ted's tenth-best year is better than anyone else's best single season ever in Red Sox history.
-Dude had three years where he got on base HALF THE TIME OR MORE (and six more years where he got on base 49% of the time).

That's just ridiculous.

Ridiculous indeed, especially given that the Red Sox have almost always had dominant lineups. As awesome as Ted Williams was, if he played in this era when on base percentage is properly valued (Williams was often criticized for his walks) he would be worshiped as a God among men.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Arms Race

I say it all the time, but it is always worth reiterating: There is no such thing as too much starting pitching. This is worth remembering as John Smoltz prepares to make his Red Sox debut in a seemingly too-crowded Sox rotation. At his fine Boston Globe blog, "Mazz," Tony Massarotti agrees:
Too much pitching? No, no, no. You can never have too much. You can have an abundance, perhaps. Maybe even a stockpile. But you can never, ever have too much.

He also sketches out some of the seemingly endless options that the Sox have as the season's engine revs and begins to accelerate.

The pennant race is under way, and in the American League East it looks more and more as if the natural order has been restored and the Red Sox and Yankees will be fighting it out to the finish, though the Wild Card is almost certain to go to whichever team gets second. With the NBA Finals done (no comment) and the NHL finals in the rear-view mirror, baseball gets to take center stage. I love a lot of sports. But baseball will probably always be first among equals for me, so I always look forward to summers when baseball gets pride of place in the American sporting firmament.

That said I am very excited about South Africa hosting the Confederations Cup as something of a tune-up for the World Cup next year. Go Bafana Bafana! And this weekend marks the beginning of the British Lions rugby tour of South Africa -- I'm arriving in Joburg this weekend, just in time to dive into some great sports.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Constructing the Monolith

On June 18 at 4:30 pm eastern time my friend Marc Selverstone will be a guest on the radio show "Charlottesville Right Now" on which he will be discussing his wonderful new book, Constructing the Monolith: The United States, Great Britain, and International Communism, 1945-1950. I have heard Marc speak about this book and I can assure you that his appearance will be first-rate.

[You will be able to hear the podcast by clicking on the link that will be posted on the CRN home page linked above.]

Monday, June 15, 2009

Commercial Break

Sunsweet Philippine-grown dried mango is excellent. I do not know if it is actually good for you, but if it's just a charade, it's a yummy one.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Highway Bound: Self Indulgence Alert

Because we chose to spend a few extra days in Arizona we now face the daunting prospect of making the long trans-desert drive back to West Texas in one fell swoop. We have done it before and will survive it, but between the length of the drive itself and the fact that we will lose two hours by crossing two time zones west-to-east, it makes for a pretty gruelling day. It will be nice to be back home, but we are bummed to be leaving. I should be back in something resembling regular writing by tomorrow afternoon.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Up! For the Hangover

If Land of the Lost was awful, and it was, both Up! and The Hangover were fantastic. The Hangover might be the funniest movie in the history of movies. I kid you not. Now, it is humor of a particular stripe (Brow: Low). But it is no less brilliant for that. I am still not certain if it depicts the greatest Vegas trip ever or the worst, but I do know that I could have been convinced to hop in a car the second it was done for a couple of days in that desert playground.

And 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.

We also saw Drag Me to Hell. It was perfectly cromulent.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Land, Lost

Trust me: Do not go see Land of the Lost. It is awful. Will Ferrell has a few worthwhile moments where he basically riffs, but otherwise it is transcendentally horrible.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

For Rangers Fans

The Red Sox will be playing host to the Texas Rangers this weekend as something of an amuse bouche before the Yankees come to town. I thought my readers who are Rangers fans (and I know there are a few of you) would enjoy this gem from today's offering from Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy:

The Rangers are leading the West and the Sox will get a look at them at Fenway this weekend. But it's hard to take Texas seriously. The Rangers are the only team in major league baseball to never win a playoff series. They will tank. Sooner or later. Always do.

Now, I do take the Rangers seriously. They have a very good young ballclub. For the first time, well, maybe ever, they have pitching to go along with hitting. And I need the Red Sox to win eacch of the three series the teams play this year -- never mind a possible playoff matchup -- if only not to hear it from my students (yes, Cannon and Jeremy, I'm thinking of you in particular).

Lowering Arizona - Self Indulgence Alert

We are heading to Arizona to see good friends for our anniversary. Since posting will be light (hey, I was a madman in England -- cut me some slack!) you might want to buy Freedom's Main Line, which Amazon is selling at a nifty little discount (plus some of the other new and used options are a true bargain).

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

FreeRice: Even More Addictive

FreeRice (which I have written about before) is an absolutely addictive website that has gotten even better. In addition to its vocabulary game, it has added a whole host of other ways to test your brain, eat up enormous amounts of time, and allow you to donate ten grains of rice for every correct answer. Last night I played the geography game for the first time, and if anything, it is more addictive than he vocab game. You can rationalize the two hours you are about to kill by the fact that when all is said and done you will help donate a meal or two to the UN World Food Program.