Saturday, January 30, 2010

Honey, Can You Take Out the Trash?

There are thousands of writers and intellectuals who would kill to have just one of their opinion pieces appear in The New York Times. And they would confess to another crime they did not commit to have that piece appear in the Sunday "Week in Review" section. Count me in as one of those people.

Which is why it is so incredibly dispiriting to read a piece like this one, by Sandra Tsing Loh, in last week's Sunday Times. The purpose of the column, from what I can tell, is to brag that she makes more than the man in her life; to allow her to concoct an idealized and self-indulgent picture of a romanticized 1950s scene domestic bliss; and in ways that are not clear to tie it all into the difficulties of modern life. This is a column we've all read ten thousand times before. Surely the Times received a hundred potential contributions this week that the editors did not even deign to recognize with a response that were more substantial and more coherent than this flatulent garbage.

Howard Zinn, Not a Good Historian, RIP

Perhaps now is not the time. And so I'll gladly time stamp this for any future date that readers find more appropriate. But with Howard Zinn's passing this week I think we need to keep one salient fact in mind: He just was not a very good historian.

Zinn was an incredibly popular historian whose advocates somehow pretended had been overlooked despite the fact that he wrote one of the all-time best-selling works of history in A People's History of the United States. But popular is not the same as good. Bad books sell all the time while good books languish on shelves and in Amazon's warehouse. This is especially the case with works of history, where the best-selling book on a subject has literally nothing to do with its quality as a work of history.

A People's History is not only not very good, it is quite bad (this 2004 takedown by Michael Kazin in Dissent is a pretty damning indictment). It is thesis-driven history that is selective with its evidence and manages to be condescending and to deny agency to the very people it purports to celebrate (essentially: You've all been duped by corporate interests and the elites). It is cartoonish in its shallowness and lack of complexity.

Zinn was a polemicist. He could be a remarkably good reporter. (His insider's account of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee is still useful for historians even if it is not in any meaningful way a work of history.) And he wrote well. But as a historian he fell far short. And he could be an incredibly shoddy thinker. His simplistic leftism (and by any measure I am what would have been called in another time "a man of the left") substituted ideology for historiography and agitprop for scholarship.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Buyer's Disappointment

We have all heard of buyer's remorse. Hell, we've all experienced it. You walk from the store, and the post-purchase euphoria fades quickly and you ask yourself: Did I really need this? Or: Should I have spent that much on this?

But there is something worse. Buyer's disappointment. We all know it. The movie you really looked forward to seeing that sucks. The book everyone is raving about that you cannot get into. The cd that you read about that fails to match the reviews.

We all live with buyer's remorse because it's our own damned fault. But buyer's disappointment? Well, that's someone else's fault. The director, the author, the musician: They disappointed you. Worse, they fooled you, or the hype machine fooled you.

I think I might be a victim of the hype machine. A while back I bought an ep by a South African quarter whose buzz was enormous. Blk Jks are supposed to be everything I like about music: A little bit indie, a little bit rock, a little jazzy. They play to my work by being South African, and to my curiosity by transcending the provincial South African music scene (hell, it seems they surpassed the South African music scene -- I had never seen or even heard of them until the past fall, well after my last trip to South Africa.

So I spent the ten bucks on their ep, Mystery. The ep aspect may be part of the problem. Four songs is not enough to get a feel for a band, especially one with eclectic influences. And to be fair, I did not know what to expect. Would I hear standard South African rock (which more often than not is pretty derivative)? Would there be Kwaito influences? Hip hop? Mbaqanga? I had no idea.

I still am not sure exactly how to describe Blk Jks. But if I had to come up with a sonic parallel, I would say that they sound an awful lot like TV on the Radio, a much hyped band that I like, but whose sonic experimentation can go awry and veer toward the atonal. But it did not grab me, and I continue to feel disappointed, if not in them (they promised me nothing, really) then in myself for not quite feeling gripped, which is always how one wants to feel when taking in new music (or for that matter books or movies).

But I'm going to give Blk Jks another chance. They have a full album that came out last fall, After Robots, and I'm going to hope that a full disc of songs will capture me in a way that Mystery's small handful did not. So, Blk Jks, maybe it was not you, it was me. But if After Robots disappoints? Then I think maybe it will have been you.

Premature Celebration

Ed Kilgore tells those of you anticipating Republican dominance in November's midterm elections to slo yo roll. It's good advice. For one thing, November is a lifetime away in American politics. For another, here is a guess: Republicans clean up if unemployment is near double digits. It is a pretty even race if unemployment drops near 5 or 6%. The calculus really is just about that simple.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Reagan and Modern Conservatism (With Bonus Self Indulgence!)

At TNR William Galston asks a quite reasonable question: what sort of reception would Ronald Reagan's actual policies and actual ideas receive in today's conservative movement? Galston's post gives me the opportunity to remind you of my History News Service op-ed from a couple of months, back, which is finally posted on their website even though it went out to newspapers and websites back in November. I asked many of the same sorts of questions in putting together the piece.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

NBCC Book Award Finalists

The National Book Critics Circle (of which I am a member) has announced its book award finalists for 2009. Very few of the books that I nominated managed to make the cut. I'm ok with that in most fields, such as poetry (where I did nominate Louise Gluck) and even in fiction (I simply cannot believe, however, that any of those five books was as good as, never mind better than, Colum McCann's Let the Brave World Spin). But I have a real hard time with some of the nonfiction selections, and particularly with some of the works of history that were ignored over those that were chosen. (Springing to mind immediately is Gordon Woods' Empire of Liberty, or Pat Sullivan's book on the NAACP, or Robert Norrell's Up From History -- and this is without even looking at my shelves and reminding myself of some of the great new books I have read this year.)

Monday, January 25, 2010

Down Goes WaPo!

The New Republic has a lengthy and withering profile on the decline of The Washington Post. Donald Graham, chairman of the board of The Washington Post Company responded with a letter so tepid and so picayune that it only serves to make the TNR profile all the more damning.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Rule

If you are going to write a review about three books on basketball, as Andrew Ervin did for yesterday's Washington Post, you simply cannot write a sentence such as this one about a book on Ivy League basketball:
Understandably, perhaps, it's not every season that an Ivy League team participates in the hysteria surrounding the annual March Madness tournament, yet the teams share a long and exciting history of extremely competitive basketball.
. . . and then complain about "the terrible writing in The Book of Basketball: The NBA According to the Sports Guy."

Read the excerpted sentence. I have no idea what it means. For one thing, what is its subject? And since the regular season Ivy League champion receives an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament every year, the sentence seems factually wrong if it says what I think it is trying to say. I know it's sort of unfair to cherry pick one sentence from a review like this. It's a bit like criticizing someone for grammar or a spelling error or a typo in a blog comment. But when you lead off your discussion of a book by saying it is terribly written, you really cannot afford a shit-storm of a sentence like that in your 800 words.

The Oxford American Loves Books

The Oxford American ("The Southern Magazine of Good Writing") is one of my favorite magazines. Its burgeoning online component is fast coming to match its print content. For example, check out "Books We Love" in which "editors gush about some recent books that knocked our respective socks off."

I can vouch for Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin. I nominated it for the fiction category for this year's National Book Critics Circle Awards. Despite being set in 1974 it is in many ways our greatest 9/11 novel.

Freedom Riders Preview (Self Indulgence Alert)

Yeah, I'd say this looks pretty awesome:

Given my small part in the documentary, I cannot wait to see the whole thing. If you are so inclined, you can always get a head start by reading this . . .

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Me on TV Re: Terrorism (Self Indulgence Alert)

On a couple of occasions in the last few weeks I have been featured in stories on terrorism at our local ABC affiliate. You can see the first of these stories (with both online text and the videos) here (in a story on terrorists using technology such as Facebook for recruiting). I am still waiting for the second, on my Global Terrorism class this semester, to go online. .

Aguila Bait

At TNR's The Book Tom Bissell reviews Elizabeth Fraterrigo's Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America. The opening graph:

The historian Elizabeth Fraterrigo asks us to accept a somewhat unlikely premise, which is this: A titty magazine that has been culturally irrelevant since the late 1970s was at the forefront of many of this nation’s most important social upheavals and reconfigurations. It is to her book’s credit—and, it must be said, to Playboy’s—that one closes her book largely convinced that she is right.

Hopefully this guy will weigh in, as he knows of which he speaks on this particular cultural question.

FML Review (Self Indulgence Alert!)

They like me! They really like me!

Monday, January 11, 2010

FPA Africa Year in Review (Self Indulgence Alert)

Over at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog I have published my (very long) annual Year in Review post. It includes my predictions for 2010 (and an assessment of my predictions for 2009).

TNR's The Book

In an age of declining print media when newspapers are shuttering their book pages and coverage of books generally seems to be less of a priority than ever we should always welcome any attempt to give serious writing about books a platform. The Book: An Online Review at The New Republic represents an attempt by TNR to expand on an area in which it has always been widely respected. Here is Isaac Chotiner's introduction to this exciting new effort.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

At the Movies: An Etiquette Primer

When did it become acceptable to talk during a movie in the theater? Today Mrs. Dcat and I went to see Sherlock Holmes, which we had both really wanted to see since its release but had not managed to fit into the schedule. She loathes going to crowded movie theaters and she absolutely hates the teen crowd, especially the one that flocks to the theater at the local mall. So we figured: It's a Thursday, 1:15 in the afternoon, school has started. We would have preferred the other multi-plex in town, but Sherlock Holmes is only playing at the mall. Still, we thought we were safe, especially when there were no more than thirty people seated when the lights went down and the previews came on.

We thought wrong. From almost the beginning a couple at the end of our row was yammering on. They were not kids. And they were not old people. I'd guess 50-something. I am no shrinking violet, so I asked them, loudly enough to encourage a public shaming from what I hoped would be an equally exercised vox populi, to "Stop Talking, Please!" They actually glared across the empty seats to me. And they talked for the remainder of the movie. Constantly. I said nothing else, not wanting to be a hypocrite and wanting to maintain the moral high ground, but I fumed for the next two hours or so. And they were not alone. Two guys, maybe a bit older than I am, on more than one occasion shared their comments with us all from nearly directly behind our heads.

Finally, Mrs. Dcat, who is not as aggressive as I am, finally had it. She went and fetched security. The security guard sat in the back. The two guys behind us, in his row (we sat second from back) did not realize he was there and started talking loudly. They got tossed. But that other couple somehow kept quiet for the two minutes the guard was there, and as soon as he left continued their conversation up into the closing credits. I literally had to wait until they left, because, and this is no hyperbole, there would have been physical violence. It was probably the most self-control I have ever shown in my life. I hate myself for it. These cretins talk throughout the whole movie, and if I punch the guy's lights out, I'd be the one to go to jail. This is an unjust world.

When did this behavior become commonplace? (And it is soul-crushingly common.) It ruined the movie for us and pretty much ensured that we do not go to the movies in the theater for a long, long time. Fortunately we have a great drive-in that does first-run double features for $5 a person, so we'll still get to see movies as they come out, but we will still miss many that we want to see and will be restricted to the time and circumstance that the format demands. No more matinees for us. No indie films, or documentaries, or short-run films that cannot be paired with fairly mainstream fare. Thank God for Netflix, I guess.

[I am exempting movies geared toward the kiddie crowd. Different situation, different rules, different expectations.]

What follows is the sort of advice that should be so obvious that no one has to say it. Or so I would have thought.: If you are one of those people who thinks it is ok occasionally to chat, or to compare notes, or to talk to the screen, or to share your brilliant witticism with us, or to ignore the "turn off your cell phones" rule, it is not. It is not ok. You are a fucking asshole.

Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Walk The Plank to Chait

Happy New Year. I hope 2010 is your best year yet.

Although I've read it less closely and linked it even less frequently in the last year or so, I was bummed out to see that The New Republic's Blog "The Plank" is closing its doors. The good thing is that Jonathan Chait, one of TNR's best and most astute writers, is starting his own blog, though it seems that it may just be a place for him to aggregate his magazine writing.