Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Obama and Africa

At the Foreign Policy Association you can see my latest "Viewpoints" article, "On Obama and Africa," in which I give my take on the Dinesh D'Souza-Newt Gingrich idiocy in which they asserted that Obama is informed by a "Kenyan anti-colonialist world view."

[Cross-posted at the FPA Africa Blog.]

Cold War Cultures Conference in Austin (Self Indulgence Alert)

Tomorrow I’ll be heading off to Austin for the Cold War Cultures: Transnational and Interdisciplinary Perspectives conference being held at UT Austin. I will give my paper, “Destructive Engagement: The United States, South Africa and the Cold War in the 1980s,” in one of the several Africa-themed panels. If you will be anywhere near Austin, come by — this sponsored conference is open to the public and has has no registration or other fees.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Debunking the Kennedy-Nixon TV Myth

At Slate David Greenberg challenges much of the accumulated mythology and misunderstanding surrounding the first Kennedy-Nixon debate in 1960. His basic argument: the election did not hinge on the contrast in appearance between the two men on television.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

On Negative Reviews

At TNR Leon Wieseltier has a truly outstanding defense of negative book reviews.

My favorite paragraph:

I was not aware that it is a heresy to hold that Freedom is not a masterpiece. There is something churlish about my friend’s insistence upon critical unanimity. Franzen’s book, after all, is fantastically popular. It is commercially immune from literary criticism. I am pleased that Franzen’s profits will accrue to a company that may be counted upon to apply them to the production of serious books by serious writers that will not attain similarly to the proportions of a pandemic. But if it is indeed a heresy to differ about Freedom, then I confess to being inclined against it. In his slyly invigorating essay on “the pleasure of hating,” Hazlitt complained that “the reputation of some books is raw and unaired,” and noted that “the popularity of the most successful writers operates to wean us from them, by the cant and fuss that is made about them, by hearing their names everlastingly repeated, and by the number of ignorant and indiscriminate admirers they draw after them.” Celebrity is not a literary value, and I do not believe in the wisdom of crowds. I think that crowds—well-read ones, too—are foolish and fickle. They are especially foolish when they regard themselves as a coterie. Their tastes need to be scrutinized with a hermeneutical hostility, because they are so easily invented and so easily manipulated. This is especially the case in a society consecrated supremely to promotion—that swoons over the pseudo-sagacity of Malcolm Gladwell, and regards people and the expressions of their souls as brands, and confuses techniques for marketing with techniques for living. The sales of Freedom say nothing about the qualities of Freedom. Has the book struck a chord? Of course. But that is anthropology, not literature; and nothing is more forgiving than anthropology.

I tend to write a whole lot more positive reviews than negative ones at least in part because there really are a lot of books that warrant more attention than they get. There is a myth that academic historians do not write well and that they focus only on arcane topics. This is silliness, but it is silliness that has not been able to puncture the myth. I avoid gratuitous negativity (in book reviews and also, more importantly, in the blind peer review process, which is riddled with flaws and ought to be reconsidered). And if I'm going to be more critical than not it is going to tend to be toward books that have gotten too much attention and thus have become overrated (see here for my personal favorite example).

Book reviewing is still important and books still matter and I suspect that even in a culture of handwringing about the alleged demise of both they will continue to flourish albeit in shifting mediums in the future. I'll happily place a bet that books, actual books with printed pages and alluring covers, will continue to endure even as other options emerge for consuming them in the much inferior downloaded form.

[We are off to Dallas for this. Hope to see some of you there.]

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Freedom Riders -- Dallas Screening

Freedom Riders, the Stanley Nelson-directed documentary that yours truly appears in as a talking head, will be making its Texas debut (and, I believe, lone scheduled performance) at the Angelika Theater in Dallas tomorrow, September 23, at 8:00 as part of the Dallas Videofest. I'll be there, so if you are or can be in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, please do try to find me.

And of course if you don't already own it, Freedom's Main Line is available in hardcover and as a Kindle download.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Bobcat v. Buckeye

Rufus Bobcat, the mascot of one of my alma maters, started a fight with Brutus Buckeye before the Ohio-Ohio State clash in Columbus on Saturday. I'm so proud.

UPDATE: Dude's not even an OU student.

That Pesky Comma

Here is just another reminder that commas are the most vexing of all punctuation marks.

Trouble(s) Brewing?

It is easy to forget just how intractable the conflict in Northern Ireland once seemed. There was a time not long ago when The Troubles were on par with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in terms of intensity and seeming hopelessness. I am not certain that the typical informed observer in, say, 1985, would have said that the Troubles would be settled first.

That is why stories such as this, in which the Real IRA threatens to resume the way of the bomb and the gun, are so galling. I am overwhelmingly sympathetic both to Catholic civil rights claims and Republican leanings in Northern Ireland. But I loathe the IRA and its Unionist counterparts. And there have been lots of hints of late that Trouble might be brewing in the Six Counties.

FIFA Rankings

Ok, so riddle me this: How is it that Uruguay is ranked behind England in FIFA's latest rankings? I don't expect the results of the World Cup to mean everything, but they should be the single most meaningful metric. Uruguay made the semi-finals in South Africa. England was eliminated in the first game of the knockout stage.

Spain and the Netherlands are, naturally, 1 and 2. The United States sits at 18. Ghana is the highest ranked African team at 20. South Africa has climbed 7 spots to #58. Papua New Guinea comes in last, at #203.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

On Jon Stewart

This pretty awesome New York Magazine article on Jon Stewart has been making the rounds, and rightfully so. Stewart's show is certainly about politics, but more importantly, it is probably the most trenchant media watchdog that we have.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Wieseltier's Mosque Notes

Leon Wieseltier, someone who cannot ever be accused of being soft headed or weak spined, has what is hands-down the best piece on the Cordoba Mosque controversy I have yet read.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Friday Afternoon Self Indulgence Alert

Dr. D

[Me at the Nigeria-South Korea Game at Durban's Moses Mabhida Stadium, June 2010]

I haven't posted any pictures from my World Cup expedition this past summer, and since my trip just got featured in the university's monthly newsletter I figured I'd share.

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Worthless NFL Predictions

Predictions. Why do I make them? The off chance of being right is more than offset by the reality that almost everyone's predictions about everything are a middling effort. Still, this is what I do. So with no further fanfare, here are my predictions for this year's NFL season. I'm going to list order of finish and my reasoning and then my playoff picks -- I'm not going to pick regular season records only to have the Thunderstick weigh in and tell me that my math is wrong. Wild Card teams get denoted with an asterisk.

1. Patriots -- D will be weak early on, but will cohere, the O will be strong, and they are able to play the disrespect card, Belichick's favorite card to play.
2. Dolphins* -- They improved more than the Jets did in the offseason and they are flying below the radar.
3. Jets -- Did I miss something? This team needed the Colts and Bengals both to roll over just to get to 9-7 and slip through to the playoffs last year. They had a nice run in the postseason and they have a really good D, but finding Rex Ryan amusing and wondering about how well the rest of the league will respond to his running his yap are two separate things.
4. Bills -- This is a terrible, terrible team. CJ Spiller will get used and abused, because they will not be able to throw the ball consistently.

1. Ravens
-- Now this might be the team that the Jets want to be. They will be stout on defense and will have a legitimate offense with loads of weapons. And I know that Ray Lewis and co. take issue with everyone anointing the Jets as champs in waiting.
2. Steelers* -- Peter King's choice for the Super Bowl might be lucky to make the playoffs. Roethlisberger's absence surely isn't going to help their cause.
3. Bengals -- But they may be the most amusing team in the league. Unless you're Carson Palmer when both TO and Ochocinco feel they aren't getting the ball enough in November.
4. Browns -- I just feel bad for my many friends who are Cleveland fans. How can you not?

1. Colts
-- Look, I'd love to be able plausibly to come up with some other scenario. But seeing Manning choke away another postseason has its own rewards.
2. Texans -- The Texans are always on the verge of becoming. For now they are still becoming a team that's not going to the playoffs.
3. Titans -- I wonder if Vince Young's gonna get handed a Heisman in the next few weeks.
4. Jaguars -- Hard to believe Jacksonville has an NFL team and LA doesn't.

1. Chargers
-- The best of a bad bunch out west.
2. Chiefs -- Consider this a vote of solidarity for Matt Cassell.
3. Raiders -- Just be less horrible, baby.
4. Broncos -- Not a stellar offseason, which follows a not stellar second half of last season. But at least they picked Tebow in the first round. That should bear lots of fruit . . .

1. Cowboys
-- It's always funny to approach a new football season and listen to Cowboys fans insist they are going undefeated and will win the Super Bowl. Michael Irvin isn't walking through that door (with scissors to stab a teammate in the throat).
2. Eagles* -- My guess is the McNabb trade will prove to be a wash for the Eagles, and that's probably a pretty good outcome for them.
3. Giants -- Boring and mediocre is no way to go through life, fellas.
4. Redskins -- The best part is that I am certain Skins fans started talking Super Bowl as soon as they acquired McNabb. It's in their dna. (I actually think this will be a pretty good division top to bottom).

1. Packers
-- Not sure I buy the Aaron Rodgers MVP talk, but this will complete the cycle of Rodgers supplanting Favre on the team, in the division, and in the conference.
2. Vikings -- The Saints will kick the shit out of the Vikings tonight and I suspect that will begin an ugly final season (seriously) for Favre.
3. Bears -- Closer to 4th than to 2nd.
4. Lions -- One of these years this won't be an automatic choice.

1. Saints
-- This team isn't winning the Super Bowl again, but they are likely to win the division again and for now they remain pretty likable.
2. Falcons* -- I think last year, not two years ago, was the outlier. This will be a pretty good team. And this is also a vote for Matt Ryan.
3. Panthers -- They should have a good 1-2 running attack, and Matt Moore is fairly serviceable. They aren't good enough for the postseason, but they are also not awful.
4. Buccaneers -- If you do not live within 100 miles of the Tampa-St. Pete metropolitan region you cannot tell me five specific things about the Tampa Bay Bucs.

1. 49ers
-- Holy shit this is a woeful division.
2. Seahawks -- I mean awful. (Though to be fair, the whole "Pete Carroll was a terrible head coach in the NFL" narrative is kind of bullshit.)
3. Cardinals -- Matt Leinart must have been really awful in the locker room because his numbers were better than Derek Anderson's. I still think Leinart's going to be a serviceable NFL quarterback.
4. Rams -- Sam Bradford will be good someday. But this team is going to make this first year unpleasant for him.

Wild Card Round:
Colts over Dolphins, Patriots over Steelers
Divisional Round:
Ravens over Colts, Patriots over Chargers
Conference Championship: Ravens over Patriots (yes, I do think this is a first for me, picking against the Pats. My heart says they can do it. But since no one on earth is picking the Pats there is no way that I can pick them to win it all and not come across as even more of a homer than usual.)


Wild Card Round:
Eagles over 49ers, Cowboys over Falcons
Divisional Round: Packers over Cowboys, Saints over Eagles
Conference Championship: Packers over Saints

Super Bowl: Ravens over Packers

Kickoff in just a few minutes. WOO HOO!

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Stupid is As Stupid Does

You remember my argument that it is completely idiotic to try to make political generalizations abut a sport (you know, like associating soccer with socialism despite the fact that the National Football League is by just about any definition the most socialist professional sports league on earth)? Well, conservatives are at it again. Now they are claiming baseball as a conservative sport.

Is it stupidity? Is it rank dishonesty? At a certain point with modern-day conservatives it really isn't cost-effective to make the distinction, now is it?

Friday, September 03, 2010

Can't Crazy Just Be Crazy?

It's become the standard operating procedure on both sides of the political spectrum when someone does something crazy, criminal, twisted, or otherwise condemnable: Go look for a clear political motivation that will make the other side look bad.

This is So. Fucking. Tiresome. And it happens every time. We've reached the point where we view everything through a politicized, ideologically clouded lens so that conservatives have not only decided that conservatives don't like soccer, but that it's socialist, an utterly inane argument on just about every level but one that numerous pundits proffered during the World Cup without batting an eyelash.

So this James Lee fella goes postal at a cable network headquarters and . . . you guessed it. The search for his political agenda that damns half the politically sentient population was on. Thankfully Michelle Cottle brings some common sense, which will of course get lost amidst the yammering:

But, to state the obvious, we’re not forced to pick sides. Lee wasn’t an ideologue driven by his own political extremism to do something drastic. He was, first and foremost, batshit crazy. We’re talking about someone who so lost touch with reality that he thought the best way to save the planet was to force a television network to run game shows promoting the ideals of “human sterilization and infertility.” (Can’t you just envision the “Jeopardy” spin-off? Thanks so much, Alex! I’ll take chemical castration for $400.)

The guy was a nutter. He had bizarre ideas that don't fit neatly into the left-right, Democrat-Republican paradigm, and even if he did, so what? is that really all it takes? A crazy liberal shoots a bunch of folks and thus we're all tainted? A crazy conservative shoots a bunch of folks and the entire endeavor of conservatism is invalidated? That's reductionist idiocy that smacks of nothing more than substanceless "gotcha!" politics.