Monday, December 31, 2012

Beyond Beijing: 2012 People of the Year

Last night (or this morning Beijing time) I once again appeared on China Radio International's "Today: Beyond Beijing" show. It was their 2012 People of the Year program and so the discussion was wide-reaching. It is also two-hours long, twice the length of their normal show (and a long time to be on the phone with Beijing!)

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope your 2012 was great but that your 2013 is better.

Monday, December 24, 2012

On Mangaung, the ANC, and South African Politics

I've written a few posts in the last week or so over at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog, all on the ANC's Electoral Conference in Mangaung that saw Jacob Zuma re-elected as ANC President. The individual posts are here, here, and here.

Happy Christmas!

I actually think I like the British "Happy Christmas" better than "Merry Christmas," and frankly I am even fonder of the more inclusive "Happy Holidays." In any case, my goal is to start writing here again. I know I've said that before, but I'm going to give it one more shot.

In the meantime, while you hold your breath, have a great holiday. I'm in San Antonio where we are deep in the midst of the annual holiday chaos that overtakes the in laws.

Friday, September 28, 2012

US Relations With Africa -- Self Indulgence Alert

It happened a while ago, but in August I did my second appearance on China Radio International's "Today Show." The topic was "US Relations with Africa" and in addition to myself the guest's included John Bailey, South Africa's ETV correspondent to Beijing, and Liu Guijin, the former Chinese Ambassador to South Africa. You can listen to it here.

And while you're at it, check out my latest FPA Africa Blog post, "What Do You Do About a Problem Like Malema," which looks at the political ramifications of the legal charges that expelled ANC Youth League President Julius Malema faces. Malema, once a supporter of President Jacob Zuma now sees himself as the populist antagonist against Zuma leading into the ANC's elective conference at Mangaung in December.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Of Marikana, Malema, and Mangaung

I just posted "Of Marikana, Malema, and Mangaung: South Africa's Faultlines" at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog. Please go read it. 

Monday, September 03, 2012

Sassy Mae Martinez: August 1994 - August 2012

Sassy was imperious. She was diffident. And she was always in charge.

There are two kinds of people. There are people for whom a pet is a member of the family. And then there is everyone else.

In our household the pets are not only members of the household, they lead the way.

Sassy entered Ana's life in 1994. And at that point Sassy took control.

She was that kind of cat.

Ana would lie in bed. Sassy would come by. Ana would roll over, oftentimes half awake. Sassy would lie on Ana's tummy. 

That would be the pattern. Every night.

That's how kitties work.  They take charge. They rule the roost. This kind of unconditional love seems to work in one direction. 


We brought Sassy to the Vet expecting some neutral outcome.  Maybe her kidney function had dropped slightly. She had, after all, been suffering for some time. So we would feed her more, make her drink more, give her more medicine.

That's not how it works.


Sassy's kidney function has dropped.

We need to take a test.

The result is too high.

We'll give you a few minutes...


It happens that quickly.

You love your cat. Your cat is sick. Good bye.


Ana loved Sassy. She loved her unconditionally. It was the purest form of love.

The doctor made the injection. Ana wailed "I love you Sassy."

I have never been so sad, so helpless. But the last thing Sassy heard, and Ana said, is "I love You."


And that last wail, that last love, really is all that matters.

Sassy loved Ana. Ana loved Sassy. And they loved one another unconditionally.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

From China to Columbia (Misc. Self Indulgence)

Last week I appeared on China Radio International's "Today" show to discuss political reforms in South Africa. I also was quoted recently in an article about the state of contemporary Africa in the Colombian news and opinion magazine Semana. (This piece is in Spanish.)

Monday, July 02, 2012

South African Politics

I'm alive and well and am heading into the last week of my South Africa trip. You can follow my writings on South African politics with a smattering of details about my travels here.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Book Review Ethics and the Times

I'm leaving for my annual Southern Africa trip tomorrow and am just trying to deal with a lot of catching up. For a couple of weeks I've had a couple of reviews from the Sunday New York Times Book Review sitting in my tabs. One is Jim Bouton's review of a history of the New York Yankees. The other is Al Sharpton's review of a biography of James Brown. I get the Times asking famous people to write reviews for them. And I certainly can understand why even famous people would be happy to review for the Times.

But there are ethics attached to book reviewing. I'm a member of the National Book Critics Circle and in that organization's "Tips for Successful Book Reviewing" [This may be fire-walled to non-members] Rebecca Skloot writes:

Be Ethical and Considerate: "You need to convince editors they can trust you: When in doubt, avoid requesting assignments that could possibly be interpreted as a conflict. The key here is transparency and candor. Disclosure is important" (Elizabeth Talyor, editor of the Chicago Tribune book section). An editor finding out that you had a vested interest in an author or book you reviewed (like, it was written by a friend or enemy), is a sure way to kill your reviewing career.

She also points readers to John Updike's  "Six Rules for Reviewing Books", which includes the following:

Do not accept for review a book you are predisposed to dislike, or committed by friendship to like.
Which brings us back to the two reviews from a couple of weeks ago. Bouton's strikes me as the least egregious. But he did play for the Yankees and was their ace back when he was a fireballing star, before he had arm injuries and became most well known for being a peripheral knuckleballer and writer who most famously produced Ball Four. Still, there is a shocking number of former players who did not win a World Series title for the Yankees and who would not thus have any real interest in how that team is portrayed in a book they are reviewing. Pat Jordan, say.

But not at all borderline is the Times' decision to ask Sharpton to review R. J. Smith's biography of James Brown and Sharpton's willingness to accept the task. In that week's "Up Front" piece, Sharpton is profiled. An excerpt: 

In his review of “The One,” RJ Smith’s biography of James Brown, the Rev. Al Sharpton describes himself as having been “like a son” to the Godfather of Soul. “I grew up part of my life in Queens,” Sharpton said in a telephone interview, “and all the kids would look over the back fence when he had a mansion in St. Albans.” Brown and Sharpton met years later at various events, but it was in 1973, backstage at Newark Symphony Hall, when they truly first connected. Brown’s son Teddy had recently died, and Sharpton’s father had walked out on the family when he was still a boy. “I became a replacement for Teddy,” Sharpton said, while Brown “became the father I lost. The only memories I have of doing things with my father are going to the Apollo to see James Brown.” In 1982, Brown and Sharpton flew to Washington to lobby President Ronald Reagan on behalf of a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. On the way there, Brown said: “Do me a favor. I want you to style your hair like mine.” By the time they reached Washington, Sharpton recalled, “I had my hair styled like his,” and he promised to keep it like that for as long as Brown was alive.
Whether one invokes Skloot or Updike or simply common sense, Sharpton was a wildly inappropriate choice to review that book -- good or bad, critical of Brown or hagiographical -- and even after the offer it was wildly inappropriate of him to accept the review. Over the years I've had the opportunity to review books by close friends and former mentors and no matter how good I believe my critical compass to be, no matter how how dispassionate I might think I can be, there was no way I could accept the task. (A caveat: at a certain point within the historical profession it would be nearly impossible to avoid reviewing books by people with whom you have friendly and collegial relationships; this, however, is a far cry from reviewing the book of someone you consider like a father, or brother, or sister.) Maybe Bouton and Sharpton simply don't know better. But the editors of The New York Times Book Review damned well do.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Graceland (and its Controversies) at 25

Over at the Foreign Policy Association's Africa Blog I have a piece on Paul Simon's and Ladysmith Black Mambazo's Graceland at 25 in which I explore the controversies (re-examined in a new documentary that sadly I have not seen) over that album in light of the cultural boycott of Apartheid South Africa.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On Robert Caro

On May 1 the fourth volume of Robert Caro's massive and enthralling biography of Lyndon Johnson is scheduled to be released. This was to be the last volume, but as many of us suspected, there was simply no way the prolix Caro was going to cover LBJ's entire Vice Presidency, Presidency, and the few remaining years of his life in one volume given the depth of scope he devoted to LBJ's pre-presidential career. Recently Esquire and The New York Times Magazine both devoted extensive features to Caro and his work (which perhaps inevitably led to some significant overlap in both themes but also in anecdotes).

I would suspect that most writers will respond as I did, with considerable awe about his process and his painstaking dedication to getting it all just right. But I suspect there will also be considerable envy (and admiration) for the way that he has been able to impose his will on a major publishing house even in an era where the bounded book seems besieged from all sides.

I'll be lined up on May 1 to pick up the latest volume. I would also push anyone interested in big (but perhaps not quite so ambitious) biographies of LBJ to consider Randall Woods' substantial one-volume biography of Johnson. One of the more interesting, and perhaps controversial, subplots in Woods' creation is that he refused to engage with Caro's work, something he explains in the introduction of a book that casts LBJ in a far more positive light than Caro does, especially in his first two volumes.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

A Prodigal Returns

I keep promising I'm going to write more at dcat. And then I don't. So here's something I wrote at the FPA Africa Blog on the Senegalese elections.

I am going to be returning as a prodigal son to Ohio University this weekend. I am on the program for a conference on Sports and Community Building in Africa and the Global South. Here are the conference details -- track me down and we'll get a drink or grab a bite.

Friday, March 09, 2012

The Five Greatest US Soccer Team Moments

In the wake of the United States soccer team's first-ever victory over Italy on February 29 (in Genoa, where the Italians had never lost), The Guardian's Sports Blog decided to compile the USA's Five Greatest Soccer Results. It's hard to quibble too much with the list (and really they take into account any alternative results, though it's hard to ignore the Algeria game in the 2010 World Cup that advanced them to the knockout stages) and I suspect that over time the win over Italy will recede, if slightly.

The list also brings a couple of thoughts to mind.

First: It's not exactly a rich history.

Second: Nonetheless, the trajectory is clear -- in the last twenty years or so, and especially in the last decade, the US has risen to become a legitimate second-or-third-tier presence in the Beautiful Game. And no, I don't intend that as a backhanded compliment. In a generation or so we have gone from being a backwater and punchline in the world's most popular game to being a team that can play with even elite teams without fear of being humiliated. Or at least without fear of being humiliated too badly.

Perhaps the biggest sign of the burgeoning respect our national team has earned? The Guardian blog post is not ironic, patronizing, or tongue-in-cheek and the comments are worth the read, which is truly rare in this day and age where bile is the default excretion online.

Finding Meaning From War

Tom has a splendidly written piece on art, literature, and the meaning of war over at The New Criterion. Go read it and pass it along.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Linktastic Voyage

Loads of stories that have caught my eye have begun to pile up on my tabs. My intent was to give each a full post, but with my pace of late, let's face it -- that wasn't gonna happen. So here are some links with commentary as apt:

You know what? President Obama has accomplished a hell of a lot, especially given the political context within which he has had to operate.

The Miller Center at UVA has started a blog, Riding The Tiger, that promises to look at the presidential election in historical context.

Cliopatria, the first among equals of the History News Network Blogs is closing its doors. Ralph Luker, paterfamilias of Cliopatria, did yeoman's work herding cats over there for more than 8 years. When he started blogging at HNN Ralph was one of a precious few professional historians who saw the potential for blogging as a medium of blending historical, political, social and cultural questions. In large part due to his nurturing thousands of historians now blog.

Ruy Teixeira thinks much of the hullaballoo about Independent voters is nonsense and he recently found himself reviewing an especially nonsensical book about Independent voters. Negative reviews are fun.

This about sums up my feelings.

Voter ID laws, created to create a solution to a problem that doesn't exist (but really simply created to make it harder for Democrats to vote), might just end up having unintended consequences.

Students in one history class at my alma mater are making campaign ads rather than writing final papers. I love this idea:

There’s a catch, though. The students can only use images, quotes, documents, and music from the era. They cannot use anything that came afterwards. An image of the White House burning in 1812 would not work for the election of 1808. They cannot use images of Leutze’s famous Washington Crossing the Delaware, a product more reflective of the 1840s than the 1770s. Their assignment is to capture the spirit of the age – not the spirit of our historical memory.
I might have to appropriate this idea and adjust it for my students.

At the Chronicle Leonard Cassuto argues that the comprehensive exam needs to be changes because it does not seamlessly fuel the way toward writing a dissertation. The problem with this solution is that it assumes rather than proves the seamlessness. The fact is that the comprehensive exams are rather different from the dissertation -- and frankly I've always argued that in many ways the comprehensive exams are what separates history PhD's from laymen -- learning to respect both the history and the historiography is vital. There is a lot of material out there. I am of the belief that before one does original work one should immerse oneself in the books and articles that have come before. And in so doing get to really know the history as well.

In which I say some stuff about the new UT system post-tenure review policy.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Facts Matter

If you are reading this blog* then you probably believe that facts matter. You know that determining facts is not as easy as it might seem but it is really important for any writer trying to deal with the real, trying to deal with whatever it is that we might call "truth," or at least a version of truth. We cannot know everything. We might get things wrong despite our best intentions. But we do our best. And if you are like me you look askance at best and call bullshit more probably when people prattle on about fiction being more true than nonfiction because that assertion is nonsense.

Perhaps this is why I got so angry in the last week or so when I read about a new book. Or I should say, when I read about the content and debate that makes up a new book, The Lifespan of a Fact, which is credited to John D'Agata and Jim Fingal. I say "credited to" because the book is an odd creature, from what I can discern (note that I am not reviewing the book, which I have not read, but the conflict related to it, which you can read enough about here and here to form a pretty solid opinion). It effectively consists of the correspondence and other elements that a historian might call "primary source evidence" of the interactions of an author, D'Agata, and the young man tasked to be his fact checker, Fingal.

D'Agata, who teaches writing at the Iowa Writer's Workshop (and you'll soon come to see why I am chagrined to say that he teaches "non-fiction") wrote a story about a suicide in Las Vegas that is, as the best stories are, about more than the thing at hand, which is to say that it is a reflection on suicide and Las Vegas and death and, ironically enough, truth and facts. Fingal went to work with his fact checking, and from early on it was clear that something was wrong -- D'Agata had changed the names of businesses and schools and had apparently changed scores of facts for no reason other than pretentious twaddle about his "art." Tellingly, D'Agata had submitted the piece to Harper's and the fact checkers had revealed the same issues and had the scruples to pass on the piece.

John D'Agata (and no, I had not heard of him either) was not, it turned out, big enough to bully Harper's.

So he moved on to The Believer, a literary magazine of which I have been a devotee for more than seven years. That is where Fingal got hold of what D'Agata insisted was an "essay," and thus a higher calling, as opposed to a simple work of non-fiction, a distinction that is decidedly without a difference in my mind, and I too am a fan of the essay as a form of expression. Sadly, though, while Fingal was able to get some of the intentional errors in D'Agata's piece rewritten, many remained.

Apparently John D'Agata, of whom you and I had never heard, is big enough to bully The Believer.

The piece that resulted is good. But it is not so good that basic rules of writing and evidence should not have applied to its author. D'Agata claims that he does not owe the victim of the suicide he uses as a springboard or the victim's parents or history or nonfiction or The Believer or his editors or his audience fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down. Worse still, he was a world class bully to Fingal who was, it should be pointed out, simply doing his job for a magazine for which D'Agata wanted to be published. And, perhaps ironically, in doing his job Fingal was attempting to do a sort justice to the victim of the suicide D'Agata uses as a springboard, to the victim's parents to history to nonfiction to The Believer to his editors and to his audience by maintaining fealty to those facts, those realities, that can be pinned down.

It is, to be blunt, utter bullshit to assert, as D'Agata repeatedly does that good nonfiction is in opposition to the art of good writing, and anyone reading this can make a list of dozens and were you to bother hundreds of writers of nonfiction -- say historians and journalists and, yes, essayists -- who wipe the floor with John D'Agata of whom you and I had never heard prior to the past few days.

*And if you are still reading I probably don't deserve you as a reader as I've been horrible at posting here for the last year or so.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Chipolopolo Slays Les Elephants

Over at the FPA Africa Blog I am still trying to wrap my head around Zambia's victory in the African Cup of Nations. That stands as not only one of the great all time upsets, but as one of the great all-time sports stories.

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

The Road to Carolina

If you're going to be anywhere near the Research Triangle in North Carolina this weekend, I'd encourage you to swing by the South East Regional Seminar in African Studies (SERSAS) and the South East Africanist Network (SEAN) Conference. The main program will take place on Saturday at the University of North Carolina's Fedex Global Education Center. The conference theme is "Border Crossings, Migrations, and Interventions," but panels will deviate from those themes. I'm on the panel and would love to meet any readers who might be in the area.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The Economist v. The Economist

At the FPA Africa Blog I show how The Economist loses a debate against itself (and rather badly) on the issue of South African politics and the ANC. It's a thing to behold.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On African Football

Over at the FPA's Africa Blog I address Jonathan Wilson's take on the state of African football. If Wilson is not the greatest living football (soccer, whatever -- the "football" versus "soccer" terminology debate is one of the dumbest, most pernicious, and most jingoistic in all of sport) writer in the world today he's in the conversation, but I think he has this one wrong.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Stuff to Read

I'm on my way to the American Historical Association annual meeting in Chicago (I'm going to be pretty scarce, but if you want to connect, track me down via email, my cell number if you have it, or in the comments and we can get a drink) but one of my resolutions for the next year is to post more frequently here at dcat. In that spirit, here are a few things you should read:

One of the most celebrated books of recent months is John Lewis Gaddis' long-awaited biography of George Kennan, which came out at the end of the year and will stand as a landmark work for the next generation. Of the many reviews of the book that you will want to read (reviews being vital to larger conversation that books should inspire) put Lon Hamby's Wall Street Journal review at the top of your list.

And since you're in a reading mood, go read Tom Bruscino's excellent Claremont Review of Books essay on Vietnam War historiography. You'll find much to agree with and possibly as much to dispute, the sign of a provocative argument. (Hint: He's not a fan of the baby boomers.)

The end of the year produces more than enough best-of lists to fill up your time. I thought Pitchfork's Top 50 Albums of 2011 would have a little something for everyone -- loads of pretentious rock-crit scribbling for those of you not inclined toward quite so much obscurantism, and a pretty good list of stuff to track down for those on the other side. I feel as if I buy loads of music and try to keep up on as much new stuff as possible and I only own 6 of the top 50. I'm sure I'll catch up (I'm sometimes a somewhat late adopter) but I like lists like this because I get sick of hearing those regular pronouncements about the death of music.

Finally, when does a writer become a writer? It's a good question, especially for those of us who consider ourselves writers and who don't fully earn money from our publications. Seek solace in the fact that the majority of us have to bring in dirty cash money through more than the power of our words.

South Africa: Year in Review

I have just posted my Year in Review post over at the Foreign Policy Association. Because we have a nice roster of bloggers covering the continent under my watch, I was able to focus this year's post on South Africa's 2011 with some looking forward to 2012.

Happy New Year everyone.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

I Want You Back/Tonight

A musical interlude.

Yeay Me!! Kind Of! Not Really. (Just Buy My Book Already)

Woo Hoo! The documentary in which I was the functional equivalent of "Waiter #2" was named one of The New York Times' Top 10 tv programs for 2011.

By the way, my credentials for that documentary are this. In paperback. Or your various Kindle-y, Nook-y (heh, nookie) things.

Explosives at MAF?

Oh, this is not good news.