Saturday, July 31, 2004


Selective emphasis in history

"Selective emphasis, with accompanying omission and rejection, is the heart-beat of mental life. To object to the operation is to discard all thinking. But in ordinary matters and in scientific inquiries, we always retain the sense that the material chosen is selected for a purpose; there is no idea of denying what is left out, for what is omitted is merely that which is not relevant to the particular problem and purpose in hand." (John Dewey)

At Cliopatria yesterday, Timothy Burke had an excellent post responding to a recent thread of arguments (woven into Cliopatria by KC Johnson) that political historians are being crowded out of the academy by social and cultural history.

Below I quote an exemplary excerpt from Burke's post:
There is a real issue involved in the old conflict between political and social history that is badly served when either side reduces it to being about the status of white men living or dead. Considered more thoughtfully, questions like, “How do we best know the past, by studying the broad patterns and structures of everyday life that shape the lives of most human beings in a given era, or by studying the particular events and actions of powerful individuals?” are real questions and not easily resolved. ... You can’t just suggest that there’s something obviously inappropriate about deciding that the more important fact of American history is the imperial expansion of the United States as opposed to the history of the Constitution. That’s a real argument, and it has to be made in real terms, with satisfying rigor, with mutual respect and appreciation on either side.
I agree with this paragraph, but I would also slightly amend it in a way that I think is consistent with Burke's overall argument. Rather than asking "how we best know the past" in toto, the real question that every historian has to ask is how to best answer a particular historical problem. What we study depends on what we want to know. For some questions about the past, studying "everyday life" is essential; for other questions, the "actions of powerful individuals" must be examined.

As in any academic enterprise, historians have to be selective in their methods, but always with an appreciation that other methods are equally viable for other problems. Which problems are in most urgent need of solving is another question, and Burke is right to suggest that we need less finger-pointing and more serious discussion of this issue. But even if we were to ask this meta-question, we would not avoid selective emphasis. The past is too complex, its subject matter too vast, for us to ever believe that we have found the most important segment of it. I was originally attracted to history because historians seem to realize this, and their transparency about the necessary selectivity of intellectual life helps remind us that life itself is irreducibly complex, and that understanding it fully will always elude our grasp. We can say of history what John Dewey argued of philosophy--that when we selectively emphasize something, "there is no idea of denying what is left out, for what is omitted is merely that which is not relevant to the particular problem at hand."

Of course, Dewey went on to say (following the quote above), that "in philosophies, this limiting condition is often wholly ignored. It is not noted and remembered that the favored subject-matter is chosen for a purpose and that what is left out is just as real and important in its own characteristic context." The same, alas, is often true in histories. Bravo to Burke for reminding historians not to forget that emphasis is always selective.

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


Age segregation

Paul Musgrave has a thoughtful and heartening post on the harms of age segregation in industrial society, and the corresponding benefits of regular interaction between adults and children. It was a great post to read on a day when (as my other posts attest), I was indulging my unruly streak of negativity. I need to do better about keeping that streak in check.

At Duke Divinity School, Amy Laura Hall is doing some great thinking and writing about how we conceive of conception and parenthood. A perfect example is her interesting review [PDF] of the recent movie, Cheaper by the Dozen.

The post was also timely for me because my wife and I are currently enjoying a visit from my sister-in-law's family and our wonderful nephew and niece. One of the added benefits of having a niece, I discovered today, is that it keeps you up-dated on the latest collectible toy craze. Apparently, it's Mighty Beanz. The official website tells you more than you ever wanted to know about them, and includes a truly bizarre Flash movie about where the Beanz supposedly came from. It vaguely resembles how an anime artist might depict the theory of Cosmic Ancestry.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


Tempest Island

On Friday night my wife and I went with some friends to see an outdoor production of Shakespeare's The Tempest, but midway through the second act, the play was stopped because of some tempests moving through the area (true story). I generally don't like to be left hanging, so on Sunday I pulled down my trusty Norton Shakespeare from college and finished the play.

The play is set on a barely inhabited island that is ruled by the magical powers of Prospero, a conjurer and erstwhile duke of Milan. He was exiled there, along with his daughter Miranda, by a palace coup led by his brother. But Gonzalo, the man assigned to chase Prospero and Miranda off, showed kindness to them by giving them provisions and allowing Prospero to keep his beloved conjuring books. Long story short: while his evil brother (along with others, including Gonzalo) are passing by the island, he conjures up a tempest and his enemies are shipwrecked.

In one of the most famous speeches in the play, Gonzalo muses on what he would do if he were made king of the deserted island where he now finds himself. "Had I plantation of this isle, my lord,--" he says, "And were the king on't, what would I do?"

I' the commonwealth I would by contraries
Execute all things; for no kind of traffic
Would I admit; no name of magistrate;
Letters should not be known; riches, poverty,
And use of service, none; contract, succession,
Bourn, bound of land, tilth, vineyard, none;
No use of metal, corn, or wine, or oil;
No occupation; all men idle, all;
And women too, but innocent and pure;
No sovereignty;--

Yet he would be king on't.


The latter end of his commonwealth forgets the beginning.

All things in common nature should produce
Without sweat or endeavour: treason, felony,
Sword, pike, knife, gun, or need of any engine,
Would I not have; but nature should bring forth,
Of its own kind, all foison, all abundance,
To feed my innocent people.
(Tempest, 2.1)

Gonzalo's speech today reads like a naively utopian vision; when I first read it, I tended to agree with the snarky asides of Sebastian and Alonzo. But as I was reading Stephen Greenblatt's introduction in my Norton edition, I started to think a little bit about the long history of islands and undiscovered countries as palimpsests for utopian social thought. Think Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe. Think Thomas More and Utopia. Think of the Skipper and Gilligan's Island.

If islands present, in microcosm, what we think an ideal society is, be afraid. Say "island" to the average American and they'll probably say Survivor. There's a dystopian show if ever there was one. In Castaway, Tom Hanks is just trying to figure out how to get off his island; his only "subject" is a volleyball. And what about the various forms of the question, "If you were on a deserted island ...", as in,

" ... and could only take 5 CDs, what would they be?" (don't ask, I have no idea)
" ... and could only be with one person, who would it be?"
" ... where would it be?"

Now, obviously Gonzalo's fairly comprehensive vision of a perfect politicial society on his island was the product of a particular moment in time. (Maybe the glib character of our island visions comes from the essential implausibility of there being an undiscovered, uninhabited island anymore; that was a very real possibility in the seventeenth century.) But I think it says something that we don't really have developed island utopias anymore, unless you count an island where you make back-stabbing alliances to throw the other people off, possibly (but not probably) win a million dollars, listen to the same 5 CDs forever, and make friends with volleyballs.

Does the fact that we don't have island utopias mean we've lost the ability to imagine utopias? We know what we like about society, and what we don't like, but has the time passed when Gonzalos can rattle off visions of a holistic good society? Is that a bad thing?


Carrots for writing

I'm listening to a new reissue from the Rudy Van Gelder series at Blue Note. I bought it with another album (reviews forthcoming) this past weekend to reward myself for completing a chapter draft for my dissertation. Sometimes I need carrots (or jazz CDs) to motivate myself to meet self-imposed deadlines.

Part of the reason I do this is because of some sound advice I got from Eviatar Zerubavel's The Clockwork Muse: A Practical Guide to Writing Theses, Dissertations, and Books. Part of the challenge of writing a dissertation, he says, is that it seems like such a monumental and never-ending task. The satisfaction that comes from finishing something seems indefinitely deferred. So he recommends breaking the dissertation down into manageable chunks and celebrating when those smaller chunks are completed:

"Breaking down a single monumental task into a number of smaller and thus considerably less intimidating mini-tasks also enhances your sense of accomplishment. Instead of a single, delayed feeling of accomplishment you may get to experience only once every several months or even years upon completing an entire manuscript, you can have numerous such experiences while you are writing it. ... Such an experience will inevitably boost your confidence and further prevent you from breaking down at some point along the way and abandoning it altogether." (p. 39)

Plus, you have an ironclad excuse for indulging your jazz-buying-habit.

Saturday, July 24, 2004



Word for the day: "paedomorphic," adj., meaning "retaining infantile characteristics, even when adult."  As in, "The female stout infantfish, the world's tiniest vertebrate, is paedomorphic."

America and slavery

The New York Times recently published this interesting article on the practical merger of the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History with the New-York Historical Society.  The article deals broadly with the issue of political and private influence over the preservation and presentation of historical archives.  It considers, for instance, the possibility that an upcoming exhibition on slavery at the N-YHS has been "recast" to reflect the viewpoint of trustee Lewis Lehrman, "as expressed in an interview in the society's journal."

Quoting from the Times: "'This was an institution supported throughout the world, but Americans took the initiative in destroying it,' Mr. Lehrman said in that interview, adding that he deplored the view that 'American history consists of one failure after another to deal with the issue of slavery.'"

Much as we might "deplore" the facts, it is frankly wrong to suggest that "Americans took the initiative" in destroying worldwide slavery.  Both the British and the French abolished slavery before the United States.  In the nineteenth century, the British also liked to talk as though they were the first to take the initiative against slavery, but this too was inaccurate; in the French colony of Saint Domingue (now Haiti), for instance, a successful revolution led by slaves in the 1790s resulted in emancipation long before the British abolition act of 1833.

The history of British emancipation also tells us that claiming to be the first emancipators can have highly ironic consequences; British self-congratulation for taking the "initiative" against slavery underwrote justifications for imperialism in Africa and elsewhere, often forcing the British into paradoxical detentes with indigenous forms of Islamic slavery in new portions of their empire.  This is why it's important not to misrepresent the chronology and pretend that one of the last nations to destroy slavery was actually one of the first.  The British pretended the same thing, to sometimes disastrous effect.


My dissertation, put briefly

Put briefly, my dissertation is about how antebellum American abolitionists wrestled intellectually with the ideals of cosmopolitanism and patriotism, and about how these ideals were entangled with their actual experiences as transnational activists. It is both a transnational history of American abolitionism, and a history of abolitionist transnationalism. I focus mainly on the radical acolytes of William Lloyd Garrison, who for over thirty years published the same motto on the masthead of his antislavery newspaper, the Liberator: "Our Country is the World -- Our Countrymen are All Mankind."

In a four-volume biography of their father, Garrisons' sons later identified this as their father's favorite slogan. The Garrisonians thought of themselves as pretty cosmopolitan people, and to a greater extent than many realize, they were. They often traveled overseas, both literally and imaginatively. They corresponded voluminously with friends abroad. They read and talked extensively about foreign affairs: the European revolutions of 1848, the Irish Repeal movement, British abolitionism, and other international issues ricocheted in their rhetoric. I want to know, in a general way, why abolitionists paid attention to such things and how they understood them.

But I'm even more concerned with the issues contained in the phrase: "Our Country is the World." The motto begs the questions: how did abolitionists think about their "country," how did they think about the "world," and how were these related? To put it in our contemporary argot, how did they weigh the comparative merits of patriotism and cosmopolitanism?

On the one hand, "Our Country is the World" was a way of expressing their antislavery principles, an imaginative expression of solidarity with the enslaved everywhere. And such principles were opposed to the facile patriotism that many Americans used to excuse slavery for the sake of national unity. (Another popular political slogan in antebellum political culture was "Our Country, Right or Wrong," which despite sharing the first two words with Garrison's favorite motto, swerved dramatically away from it in its final three.) Yet as I will also show, the Garrisonians did not repudiate patriotism altogether. They engaged in complex debates about when patriotism was justified, and when cosmopolitanism was more justified--debates which were informed by their own encounters with people and ideas outside the borders of the United States.

I think that's as much as I want to say now; it's a springboard more than a complete statement. Rather than giving a complete outline of my dissertation in one post, I've decided to start with this brief and hopefully suggestive summary of a few of its themes. This will preserve what I hope will be the exploratory character of this blog; instead of putting all my cards on the table, I want to learn gradually what cards might be up my sleeve.

Later posts will show that these historical interests are reflective of my contemporary political concerns. Scholars often insist that academic scholarship should keep these things separate; this blog, I hope, will be a more flexible space. I might as well say that I see something not just of historical value in "Our Country is the World," but also something of moral value that is worth recovering and preserving today. Even now, Americans are engaged in complex debates about the value of thinking and feeling beyond the nation, as one collection of academic essays puts it. Is it possible to be both a cosmopolitan and a patriot? Are those who criticize America unpatriotic? And are those who are patriotic therefore less cosmopolitan?

Debates among political theorists about cosmopolitanism, globalization, and patriotism have spilled into the public sphere, especially since September 11, 2001. In the last week Linda Ronstadt has been hounded for calling Michael Moore a "great American patriot," and our current political climate has made defining love of country an important subject of debate. Garrison's contemporaries debated the same questions; some accused him of hating his country and others defended him as the only true patriot. I point this out not to equate Moore with Garrison, but to demonstrate that the possibility of a progressive patriotism is not something you can only read about in dusty books. Nor, conversely, is it something that you can only read about on a world-wide web; there is a longer history here that needs to be retold and understood.

At the root of my dissertation is a cluster of questions that has relevance still. What does it mean to love one's country? What does it mean to be a "citizen of the world"? I hope to historicize these questions as they entered the minds and lives of abolitionists, but I hope that by doing so I can understand something about ourselves and our world too.

Friday, July 23, 2004


Jazz Picks

From time to time, I will post some jazz picks on the sidebar.  These will usually be what I'm listening to now, with every once in a while a highly recommended classic.  I'll include links to the CDs' allmusic reviews, which tend to be very reliable.  But I'll also try to post some brief comments of my own.

Current picks include two trumpet features ...

Tomasz Stanko Quartet/Suspended Night.  A very mellow trumpet quartet from Poland.  I like Stanko's sound--spare like Miles, gutsy like Jackie McLean.  But the show stealer, I think, is the rhythm section, particularly pianist Marcin Wasilewski, whose voicings are extremely rich and evocative.  The allmusic review is on to something, though, when it suggests that the CD's ten "Suspended Variations" on a single theme aren't always varied enough, and are sometimes too suspended.  I bought this CD in part because I'd like to know more about European jazz.  In 2000 I happened to be in Cortona, Italy, during an open-air jazz festival there.  The show was really good, and I regret that I don't remember the artist's name.  He appeared mainly on European labels, and the fans definitely knew him.  There's a whole transatlantic scene there worth hearing, and it's interesting to me to hear what is usually thought of as quintessentially American music being played by appreciative musicians in other national traditions.

Freddie Hubbard/Ready for Freddie.  It is hard to remember what life was like before Blue Note's Rudy Van Gelder series.  Here's another classic from a time when artists didn't belong to labels, and incredible jam sessions could be cooked up on a moment's notice to record amazing all-star albums.


Spurs offseason

I am planning very soon to write a post that briefly outlines what my dissertation is about, since I foresee my academic concerns having a prominent place on this blog.  But tonight, as it's late, I just wanted to note that David Aldridge has ranked the Spurs (my hometown team, even though I'm currently in exile) No. 2 on the list of offseason winners.

I'll have to save for some other post my rationalizations for loving the Spurs as much as I do, even when I know how ridiculous it is that basketball players are paid as much as they are.  But one of my rationalizations has to do with the way the Spurs seem to build community even in a league that operates on rampant individualism (need I even mention Exhibit (L.) A?).

Thursday, July 22, 2004



"It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice.  For the righteous will never be moved; they will be remembered forever.  They are not afraid of evil tidings; their hearts are firm, secure in the Lord. ... They have distributed freely, they have given to the poor." Psalm 112:5-7, 9 (NRSV)

I was reminded of this psalm today while reading about the release of the 9/11 commission report.  Some of its tidings are not good.  It warns that the country's intelligence apparatus is still unprepared for the dangers posed by international terrorism, and that another attack by Al-Qaeda is not only possible, but probable.  All in all, the report is appropriately critical of American security practices.  But while reading about it, what concerned me most is that this report, like all the other tidings of doom and gloom emanating from the public sphere, does very little to challenge the idea of security itself as our new greatest good.

One day a history should be written about the American (or perhaps the modern) obsession with fear and security.  It's there in the jeremiads of Puritan divines; it's there in the Salem witch trials.  It's there in Jefferson's trembling before a just God about the fearof slave insurrection; there it is in FDR's "four freedoms."  And here we go again.  In the Rose Garden ceremony to receive the report, President Bush says "the most important duty we have is the security of our fellow countrymen."  In the current political and cultural climate, I suppose most people from both parties and all walks of life would agree.  The only substantial disagreements between, say, Kerry and Bush are about how best to execute this greatest of all obligations.

But is security the most important duty we have?  Making security a duty invests it with prima facie significance; it enjoins security for the sake of security.  The psalm I've quoted above contradicts such a picture of security: it describes the secure heart as a product of certain virtues.  If there are injunctions here, they have to do with things that, at first glance, have nothing to do with security: doing justice, giving generously to the poor, distributing freely.  At second glance, these duties seem not just irrelevant to current conceptions of security, but downright counterproductive.  The most common "security" fix in American politics is to spend more, not to give more away.  Thus, we continue to devote unprecedented amounts of our national budget to "security" while siphoning funds away from programs that give generously.  How often is the idea even broached that justice and generosity can secure the American heart?  Even those from the left who decry our neglect of social programs set these matters over against security, rather than linking them organically as the psalmist does.

The larger problem here, and the one that is most likely to escape notice, is that our definitions of security revolve around freedom from bodily harm.  We see the security of our hearts as a byproduct of physical security.  The fear our security is meant to banish is a fear of death.  And connected with that fear, with all fears about our mortality, is a fear of being forgotten, something the psalmist shrewdly notes.  You can stay alive, but only so long.  And staying alive doesn't guarantee that you won't be forgotten.  The only guarantee for that, the psalm suggests, are the aforementioned virtues of generosity and justice.  The key to being "remembered forever," and thus to being free from a fear of death, is to be righteous.  It is well with those who are.

The Bush administration has tried to weld together its professions of Christian faith with its priorities on homeland security.  (The same might be said of Israel's combination of security with faith, of the fence in Palestine with the wailing wall on the Temple Mount.)  This is a conjunction, however, that the scriptures of both the Hebrew and the Christian Bible confound.  As defined by American political culture, homeland security has nothing to do with the genuine security described here.  The causes of security are justice and generosity--not jailing hundreds of the usual suspects, not pouring money into military programs, not creating new cabinet posts and new departments.  According to the psalmist, to believe that takes faith and an extraordinary amount of hope in the Lord.  In its failure to embrace that faith fully, the Bush administration is proving not that it is guided too much by Christianity, but that its real hope in the promises of faith is in very short supply.

UPDATE: I should have noted that the 9/11 report includes acknowledgements that a fresh evaluation American policy must be part of any new security strategy.  See here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2004


Book reviews

As a new blogger, I spent a little while today looking at some other blogs.  I'm trying to learn the ropes.  Very quickly I learned that the lifeblood of blogs is other blogs.  I figure there is no better way to kick off this blog, then, than by noting something I read at Cliopatra about the art and etiquette of writing book reviews.  This is something on my mind lately, since I've just finished writing my first book review.  The do's and don'ts provided by John Leonard  seem like good rules of thumb.  A professor I know says that you never read a book as closely as when (a) you will have to teach it to undergraduates, or (b) you will have to write a review.

So this is a blog

Until today, I have been one of those people who is mildly fascinated by the blogging phenomenon but vaguely skeptical about the whole thing.  I'm trying it out primarily because I'm writing a dissertation, and at times, misery loves company.

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