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.

Torture: Still Does Not Work

Let's repeat it again: Torture does not work. On a rare occasion, someone might extract something from an individual they have tortured, but as policy, it is terribly inefficient and does not work. Oh -- and it violates both the law and every sense of morality that the country is supposed to represent, not to mention that it undermines the argument that we are better than our enemies.

ESPN Boston

For most of you the arrival of ESPN Boston will allow you to whine about east coast media bias (which is what the retards who talk about liberal media bias whine about when they are tired of not understanding media and politics). But for those of us from New England: Yes, Please.

Anthropologizing Ohio State

Orson of EDSBS goes all anthropologist on us on a Saturday gameday in Columbus. He nails the Ohio State fan quite well.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Coach Brooks

My friend and former Williams track teammate Ethan Brooks is using the knowledge and experience he gained in nearly a decade in the NFL to coach high school players in Connecticut. His older brother Fletcher is the head track and field coach at Williams and his sister Rebecca was a multi-sport athlete at Williams and now coaches basketball at the school where Ethan has begun what I hope will be a long coaching career.

Hat tip.

Friday, September 11, 2009

9/11 +8

This morning at UTPB we had a ceremony in commemoration of 9/11 at 9:11. It was brief but apropos ceremony. The color guard raised the flags of the United States and Texas, the University Chorus, of which I am a member, sang the National Anthem, our VP for Academic Affairs gave a short speech that was fitting for the occasion, the chorus and band performed and arrangement of God Bless America, a local clergyman (who appeared to be Indian or Pakistani) gave a prayer, the color guard lowered the flags, and it was done.

Our ceremony was done right -- it was tasteful, respectful, and lacked the bombast that so many think is a substitute for true commemoration. No politicians spoke and no causes were advanced. It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since that terrible morning. Take time to remember.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Ready For Some Football? Why Yes, Yes I Am

Tonight marks the first game of the new NFL season. It's also Thursday. What does that mean? It means welcome to the first installment of Big Daddy Drew's Thursday Afternoon NFL Dick Joke Jambaroo. You missed it. I missed it. Humankind missed it.

Predictions for this year's season that are sure to shame me:

AFC East
Pats 13-3
NY Jets 9-7
Miami 7-9
Buffalo 4-12

AFC North
Pittsburgh 11-5
Baltimore 10-6
Cincinnati 8-8
Cleveland 3-13

AFC South
Indianapolis 10-6
Jacksonville 9-7
Tennessee 9-7
Houston 8-8

AFC West
San Diego 10-6
Kansas City 6-10
Denver 5-11
Oakland 3-13

Ravens over Indy
Chargers over Jags

Patriots over Chargers
Steelers over Ravens

Pats over Steelers

NFC East
Philadelphia 10-6
NY Giants 10-6
Washington 9-7
Dallas 8-8

NFC North
Green Bay 11-5
Minnesota 10-6
Chicago 8-8
Detroit 3-13

NFC South
New Orleans 10-6
Carolina 9-7
Atlanta 8-8
Tampa Bay 6-10

NFC West
Arizona 9-7
Seattle 9-7
San Francisco 6-10
St. Louis 5-11

Minny over Arizona
Giants over Saints

Eagles over Minny
Packers over Giants

Packers over Eagles

Pats over Packers

Feel free to start your mockery!

EDITED: For arithmetic

Reviewing Books I Have Not Read

Other than an excerpt of the first chapter I have not yet read Fred Kaplan's new book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed, which does not mean that I do not have some early (and obviously tentative, at least in terms of the book itself) opinions about it. Journalists, and occasionally historians, love the conceit of focusing on a year and declaring it a turning point. 1959 is not customarily one of those years (is there room in the post-WWII pantheon of years after the dominance of 1968?) but Kaplan tries to make the case that it is. It's no wonder these sorts of books are popular among authors and readers. The writer gets to flex his or her muscles writing about politics and historical events but also about popular culture and sports and any quirky but (supposedly) telling little tidbit they discover in the microfilm reels. I am contemplating a comparable sort of project tied to a specific day in which three huge and only partially connected events took place at least in part as a way to break into that elusive world of agents, trade presses, and the sort of quasi-fame that such projects sometimes bring.

But the problem, of course, is that so often the conceit is wrong. Maybe reading the book in full will change my mind. But I doubt it. If you're a hammer all the world appears to be a nail, and if you're an author writing a thesis-driven history, all the world conforms to your thesis. Every year had its array of events and incidents and momentous events and pop culture moments that seemed to fuel the zeitgeist and those quirky but telling anecdotes that may have been quirky but whose value in tellingness is usually more clear to the author than to the historiography.

Picking 1959 as one such year in which "everything turned" is silly because in 1959 everything did not, in fact turn in or on 1959 any more than it did in 1958 or 1960. Historians are aware that breaking decades into neat little chunks has its utility, but they are also aware that decades are largely meaningless things. And so 1959 as a precursor to the 1960s is only useful inasmuch as you actually believe that "The 1960s" in the way that we think about it historically somehow began magically at midnight on January 1, 1960 (and ended at 11:59:59 on December 31, 1969). Most historians would reject this straitened way of thinking because, well, it is a silly way to think.

Consider this paragraph from the first chapter:

1959 was the year when the shockwaves of the new ripped the seams of daily life, when humanity stepped into the cosmos and also commandeered the conception of human life, when the world shrank but the knowledge needed to thrive in it expanded exponentially, when outsiders became insiders, when categories were crossed and taboos were trampled, when everything was changing and everyone knew it-when the world as we now know it began to take form.

Substanceless and vague, yes. But also mildly insane, or at least ahistorical. The allure of the turning-point year book is obvious. And books about a specific year or day or week or month are not in and of themselves illegitimate. But arguments that a given year marked a clear turning point in human history tend to be wrong precisely because the concept is so seductive.

Again, I have not read Kaplan's book (Kaplan has a PhD in political science but has spent most of the past few years working in journalism writing about international affairs, but by his own admission, mostly about pop culture. And pop culture clearly drives his understanding of 1959). But a problematic thesis is a problematic thesis. I will read the book. And it might be something worth using in a class (anything to get them to read is one of the mantras I have developed in this profession over the years). Or it might change my mind about books of this sort. But I'm being driven by my own thesis, which I can sum up in three words: I doubt it.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Conservative Insanity Watch

So, today's iteration of the once-respectable mainstream of conservatism has brought us in recent weeks the Birther Conspiracy, "Death Panels," "I want my country back," and Nazis, Nazis, Nazis (oh -- Hitler too). And then there is that old chestnut of "socialism," an accusation universally made by people with a grasp of history so shallow only they would be stupid enough to be able to find a way to drown in it. The latest in this deluge of idiocy is the outrage that the American president might actually want to speak to school children and encourage the virtues of work. Never mind, of course, that George HW Bush and Ronald Reagan did so (the latter with overt political messages).

There are voices of sanity on the right, of course. They are merely being drowned out by the insanity. And that insanity is making it nearly impossible to have a reasoned debate on issues, a debate that really does need to take place, not that the Glenn Beckification of the right would have you know that there is room for such reason.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Presidential Biography for Fame and Fortune

Want money? Fame? Women? Money? Then write a presidential biography! At The Atlantic, Ben Schwartz tells you how.