Tuesday, November 30, 2004


Backing up

Looking back on the month that was, I realize that things here at Mode have been pretty maudlin of late. This has not been intentional, but it is perhaps not hard to explain. In the month to come, however, I do intend to at least leaven my lachrymose posts with lighter moods. I also hereby resolve to cut down on ridiculous words like "lachrymose."

As usual, it helps lighten my step to be listening to some jazz. In fact, my mood has not even been ruined by the fact that this post was accidentally erased after it was almost completed. No, Blogger, you will not get the best of me tonight, because today I purchased a used copy of Billie Holiday's classic Songs for Distingue Lovers, and now I'm having a listen. Who sells an album like this? This is the kind of pearl you sell a field for, not the kind you foul with an orange sticker and file in the same row with Kenny G, where it will be cast, as it were, before swine. But since in this case I am the lucky swine, I thank you, Nameless Former Owner, for your momentary lapse of judgment. If you don't want them, I'll take care of "Sweets" and Web and Lady Day and their Verve Master Edition. God bless the child that's got its own copy, because they can't take mine away from me. (Hey, I promised to watch the ten-dollar words; for now you'll have to pardon the snooty jazz allusions and puns.)

Julie has just bought a new flash drive for her keychain. I've been thinking of asking Santa for one myself. The seed was planted earlier in the month when I read about Sepoy's meticulous procedures for backing up his files. That got me thinking about the "redundancy" -- or lack thereof -- in my own data storage. Currently, my most irreplaceable dissertation materials are saved in three places: on the hard drive of my laptop, on my quickly obsolescing Iomega Zip drive, and on a file-sharing campus network. I also have print-outs of most drafts and notes. But all except one of these storage spaces is located within the walls of my apartment. And what would happen if an aging Russian satellite fell out of orbit and crashed directly into my building? And what would happen if this catastrope were to befall me (told you puns were still fair game) on precisely the same day that the campus network was infected by some particularly hardy breed of Trojan horse. At least I would know, with my keychain snugly tucked in my pocket, that as long as I am in one piece, so is my dissertation. With such peace of mind, I could share with Thane Plambeck the patience of Job: "You shall know that your tent is safe, and you shall inspect your fold and miss nothing."

Lest these scenarios seem outlandish, I actually have empirical reasons to be especially careful with backing things up. At our last apartment complex, there were two fires in our row of buildings within about two months of each other. (This is why it is our complex no longer.) One of the fires was two floors below the apartment immediately next door to ours. I remember being awakened in the middle of the night by banging on the door and finding the room filled with haze. A police officer was shouting to get out. In these situations, you learn a lot about yourself by what you do next. After ensuring that my wife and I were up and on our way out the door, I distinctly remember standing in my living room, pajama-clad in front of a serious policeman, hysterically calling out the name of my cat. That's one I will likely never live down. I'm not sure what's sadder, though: my pitiful falsetto yelling "Where's my cat?", or the thought that if I were to find myself in such a situation again, I would most likely head first for my laptop and filebox. At least if I had a flash drive, I'd have less to carry. Perhaps I could hang one on my cat's collar. Then I'd really be ready to go.



With family in town for Thanksgiving, we went down to Washington, D.C., to see the sights. I've seen the major memorials before, but I actually don't mind seeing them again. If monuments are supposed to spark reflection, they really require multiple visits. The first time you see the Lincoln Memorial or the Vietnam War Memorial, it is primarily through the viewfinder of a camera, and it is always on-the-way-to yet another memorial. The reflecting pool does most of the reflecting.

The Vietnam War Memorial remains, for me, the most powerful site on the National Mall. It is beautifully and terribly simple. The black marble wall juts into the earth, like a cauterized wound on the land. And if you begin at one end of the wall and walk along the length of it, the face of it steadily grows taller until it reaches an apex in the middle. The effect of this walk is staggering, because the names of the dead proliferate rapidly. At the beginning, there are few enough names that you can read a few here and there. You can fathom the loss of this father, or this brother, or this son, for the grieving family. But by the time you get to the middle, there are so many names, so many lives, in such ghastly profusion, that the words themselves become indistinct, and you suddenly see, in the full face of the wall, your own reflection staring back at you. With your own body abruptly staring you in the face from behind the graven letters, you see how unfathomable is the waste of war, the loss of life.

There is a stark contrast between the effect of that wall and the apparent effect of the relatively new World War II Memorial, which is placed at the opposite end of the reflecting pool from the seated figure of Walt Whitman's lost captain. The wall impresses upon the viewer the incalculable suffering of war, the way one death's ripples join the waves of other deaths until it is futile to flee the tide. But the World War II Memorial, despite its large central fountain and small reflecting pool, conveys nothing of this dark tumult that war always brings in its wake. Rather, the water in the context of the Memorial is more reminiscent of a baptismal font, as though a nation going to war is like going down to the river to pray. War is viewed through the lens of this monument as a regenerative force for good, a way of demonstrating (in the words of George Marshall carved into a pillar) that one nation's flag can represent both freedom and overwhelming force.

The mood, in other words, is celebratory. It is made more so by the fact that hundreds of people mill about in the central area, which is surrounded by fifty Romanesque pillars of the kind you can see in ruins at the Forum in Rome. Each pillar is inscribed with the name of a state and hung with an iron wreath. They alternate between a wreath of oak and a wreath of grain, which symbolize respectively the industrial strength and agricultural abundance of America during the war. According to an online description of the bas-relief panels that line the entrance of the memorial, the purpose of these pictures and sculptures is to "depict the all-out mobilization of America’s agricultural, industrial, military, and human resources that transformed the country into the arsenal of democracy as well as the breadbasket of the world." And congregated between these pillars of power are crowds of people who look happy to be here, in stark contrast to the quiet file of viewers at the wall just a few hundred yards away, who wish they could turn away.

The quietest spot in the memorial is the commemorative wall, where 4,000 gold stars are suspended above a small pool of water, to represent the "more than 400,000 Americans who gave their lives." But this wall does not have near the force of the Vietnam wall, because it deliberately makes war fathomable. Had 400,000 stars lined the wall, or 400,000 names, there would be less emotional and physical space for exulting in victory, for praising our collective strength. The ratio of one star for 100 lives abbreviates the costs of war to make room for the glorious benefits of a "win" -- national prosperity, global dominance, a generation of greatness. And even if 400,000 stars or names were there, it would still provide a woefully inept approximation of the some 50,000,000 lives that the war claimed around the world.

A world that could create a memorial with 50,000,000 names carved into a wall would probably become a world without war. As it is, though, our selective memories of selected wars makes it only natural that we select war again and again. The narrative of the World War II Memorial, unlike the message of the Vietnam wall, is that war can be, on balance, good. Even more distressingly, the goodness of the war, according to the monument, is not that it stopped some otherwise unstoppable evil, but that it created an unstoppable juggernaut for freedom. And to tell that story, you have to attenuate the grief, you have to represent lives with featureless stars, you have to make the marble unreflective so that no one sees herself or her son staring back from behind the names of the dead.

Why must war memorials be either like the Vietnam wall or like the World War II memorial? Why do our bastions of public memory see reflection on the unjustifiable toll of war as incompatible with the celebration of the justifiable joy we feel once a war ends? Why can we not name all wars for what they are -- a terrible swath of death and destruction that sweeps away both good and evil? And why can we not be glad that some wars have swept away evils and still conclude that wars are evil nonetheless? As John Quiggin puts it, "It may be the lesser evil on rare occasions, but [war] is always a crime. On Remembrance Day and always, this is what we should remember." There is not a single crevice in the marble surfaces of the World War II Memorial from which the idea that war is a crime might protrude.

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Thursday, November 25, 2004


The fall of Turkey

[The following is a letter from the famous abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison to his friend Francis Jackson, written on November 26, 1841, the day after Thanksgiving, and included in Volume 3 of the Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, ed. Walter M. Merrill, p. 38-40.]

My Dear Friend:

I hasten to inform you of the downfall of Turkey! Yesterday, at 2 o'clock, precisely, a very gallant attack was made by our forces in all quarters at once, our Garrison being in prime spirits and excellent condition. From the very first moment, the victory was evidently ours. Grease, so long held in captivity, was immediately extricated, and its independence is, of course, settled beyond controversy. The right wing of the enemy's forces was carried by myself in person, without any loss, and the left by my eldest son, who displayed extraordinary zeal and valor. You may confidently announce that Turkey has not a leg left to stand upon! [...] The women and children, inspirited by the prospect of a successful onslaught, could not be restrained from taking part in the engagement, and they exhibited, through out, the firmness of veterans. [...] One of the boys said he would go "neck and nothing." Another was disposed to breast any danger, in order to gratify his warlike appetite. A third was inclined to occupy a posterior position, and "thereby hangs a tail!" [...] There was not a drop of blood shed on our side, and not a wound received, except a mere scratch which I incidentally inflicted on my finger by my own weapon, in the ardor of attack.

I hasten to communicate this intelligence to you, as it cannot fail to be gratifying; especially as you nobly incited us to the conflict, and avowed your readiness to "take the responsibility." We have unanimously come to the conclusion, that Francis Jackson is a better man and a better general than Andrew, and deserves incomparably more at the hands of his countrymen.

Hoping and believing that nothing will ever occur to blight your laurels, I remain, with Thanksgiving,

Your faithful and much obliged friend,
Wm. Lloyd Garrison [...]

P.S. My muse insists upon recording the event in rhyme -- as follows:

Shout, all ye nations! Turkey is no more!
  Complete, perpetual, is its overthrow!
  Thanks-giving day was struck the fatal blow: --
Let bells be rung, let cannon loudly roar,
And nothing human Turkey's fate deplore!
  Its pride and pomp are in the dust laid low --
  Grease is delivered from a fiery foe,
And all its tears and agonies are o'er!
Let Tyranny with terror now turn pale,
  (Fierce as a wolf, and sightless as an owl) --
Its end is near, (and "thereby hangs a tail,")
  And die it must, by fair means or by fowl!
Thy cause, O Liberty! can never fail,
  Though traitors curse, and demons rage and howl.

[Today I am thankful for the abolitionists, because studying them is so much pun.]

Tuesday, November 23, 2004


Book hoarding

Yesterday, while checking out at the library, a student employee informed me that I had forty-two (42) books one day overdue, for a fine of $6.00.

This was mildly upsetting, as are all fines, great or small. It is now extremely easy to renew my library books online, so had I simply clicked a button the day before yesterday, I would owe nothing. Using the library's comment box, I have inquired as to the feasibility of having renewal reminders emailed to patrons, for precisely this reason. They haven't gotten back to me, though, and I guess I don't blame them. There are not many easy ways for libraries to make money these days, and enforcing rules is one of the few.

But the news was also disconcerting for a different reason. It confronted me with the fact that I have reached a point in my life when having 42 books overdue is not unusual. It was almost like being told that I had just turned 42 -- a sort of unexpected mid-academic-life crisis. Currently, I have eighty-two (82) books checked out from the Milton S. Eisenhower library. The titles range from the more well-known (Dror Wahrman's Imagining the Middle Class; Czeslaw Milosz's Facing the River) to the more obscure (one volume of the Letters of John Greenleaf Whittier; the autobiography of William Lovett; Frances Acomb's Anglophobia in France, 1763-1789). Some might say that I am hoarding library books, and Some would be right.

In my defense, however, there are four good reasons to hoard library books:

(1) You are worried that if you return the book, it will fall forever down the memory hole. You checked the book out because you learned about it from a footnote while reading at the library. Instead of relying on some unreliable mnemonic process like, say, writing the title down, you felt sure that by having the thing itself, glaring at you from your bookshelf, it would eventually find its way into footnotes of your own. (This accounts for more than a few of the books I have out.)

(2) You actually use the books on an everyday basis for reference and research. And you can feel reasonably confident that no one else in your department (or perhaps even in the world) has just cause to reclaim them from you. When you do receive a recall notice on these books, and are forced to painfully strip the volumes of your Post-It Notes and loose-leaf papers, you can justifiably mutter to yourself that the offending and nameless patron better have a good reason for this. In this category, I personally place all six volumes of the Letters of William Lloyd Garrison, three volumes of the Black Abolitionist Papers, Dwight Dumond's 1961 bibliography of antislavery pamphlets, a four-volume biography of Garrison, written by two of his sons, and various other arcane volumes that I have rescued from the accumulation of dust. Or at least I have reserved for them the peculiar distinction of accumulating my dust, certainly a weight of glory.

(3) There are books that you hoard so that others cannot hoard them. These are the books that went missing from the library for months at a time, even though they were shown in the catalog as checked in, meaning that someone or something was insidiously hiding the books somewhere within the library, making them impossible for you to find. So you had to have the library order second copies, and now you cling to those second copies, even if you are not presently using them, to prevent them from the oblivion of being "lost / withdrawn." You dutifully renew your temporary ownership of them in order to preserve their status as common property. There is really only one set of items in this category right now: four volumes of the Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One.

(4) Finally, there are the books you hoard because you are teaching yourself about something new. These are the books whose call numbers you have scribbled on countless index cards, napkins, and scraps of paper -- books known and unknown, authors famed and forgotten, whose subjects are yet to be discovered. This is my favorite kind of hoarding, because it comes closest to the literal meaning of the word -- you store these books up for the survival of your mind, to ensure that you will not run out of things to learn during the long winters ahead.

Monday, November 22, 2004


Plagiarism article

I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's interesting essay on plagiarism in the New Yorker. It's definitely worth a read, though I still haven't reached settled judgments about it. But I've promised myself that this blog is open to unsettled judgments, so here goes ...

Gladwell's comparison between musical plagiarism and verbal plagiarism is a provocative one. Musical borrowing, as he points out, happens all the time, and the history of music is the better for it. What we call "the blues" is really a series of chord changes that has been beautifully pilfered countless times. One could certainly make a case that this pilfering was often literal: widespread commercial success did not come to the blues until it was performed often by white musicians, to the material loss of the original African American musicians who created the music. So one could argue, I suppose, that there are structural problems of "theft" and inequity built into "the blues." But if we took the same view of "intellectual property" in music that we do when it comes to words, then "the blues" would never have been copied into innumerable psychadelic rock songs and classic jazz standards. Indeed, part of the magic of "the blues" is creative copying. And although Gladwell doesn't point it out at length, so is the magic of jazz. The bebop genre was essentially formed around creative uses of the same chord changes from "I Got Rhythm."

What is true of blues and jazz is true of most music--if you listen hard enough to any song, you can almost always hear bits and pieces of other songs. Gladwell gives a few examples, but more could be offered ad infinitum. But if our intuitions are that this is acceptable in music, our instincts go in the opposite direction when it comes to the written word. This is despite the fact that phrases and cadences that are now commonplace in our ordinary language were coined by some person at some point in time. Who said "point in time," a phrase that had to have been invented relatively recently because the idea of there being points in time is itself an idea of recent coinage. And who first thought of phrases being "coined"? Someone said it first: did I just plagiarize him or her?

Obviously, no. But it's less obvious why. I'm not talking here about legal and professional definitions of plagiarism. If I were, then it would arguably be easier to decide whether I plagiarized or not. Instead of offering clear guidelines for detecting plagiarism, Gladwell's article made me think about the larger question of how snippets of language and words insinuate themselves into our writing, just like "I Got Rhythm" pops up all the time in jazz. It would be impossible to trace these snippets back to their original authors, even though in many cases there must have been an original author. There must be a threshold, determined largely by time, that determines when a phrase or a way of writing is in the "public domain." (I don't have to track down who first said "public domain," for instance.) But even this threshold is hard to define.

Our urge to define the threshold is also a relatively recent phenomenon in history. In the early nineteenth century, there were clearly concepts of intellectual property and conventions of attribution, but there were also much more fluid understandings of what phrases were borrowed, or simply commonplace, and what phrases belonged uniquely to a particular writer. You can "hear" the same kinds of chord changes all the time in antebellum newspapers, for instance, just as you can pick out "rhythm changes" in Charlie Parker's tunes. And attempts to fix those chord changes to a particular author are often fruitless.

For example, who said "government of the people, by the people, for the people"? Lincoln, right? Well, yes, but Theodore Parker had also said before Lincoln that the "great political idea of America" is "a government of all, for all, and by all." At the end of the first volume of his Parker biography, Dean Grodzins thus credits Parker with coining the phrase that was immortalized in the Gettysburg Address. But a Hungarian historian I read recently, Steven Bela Vardy, credits Lajos Kossuth, the great Hungarian revolutionary, as Lincoln's inspiration. In 1852, while touring the United States, Kossuth said democracy was "All for the people, and all by the people. Nothing about the people, without the people," a construction that Vardy says was "borrowed in a slightly altered form by President Lincoln." It's not impossible: Lincoln was a fervent admirer of Kossuth during his tour, as was Parker. But how could such a question really be settled? And how would we set the bounds for the questioning? (Who first started referring to "the people" with a definite article? And how far back in the Western canon can we trace the habit of stringing the prepositions "for," "by," and "of" together?) Wouldn't answering these questions be like trying to figure out who first "said" the blues?

Thursday, November 18, 2004


The problem with non-proliferation

Paul Musgrave, whose personal blog has recently gotten a very nice makeover, has joined some friends to start a new group blog called In the Agora. Keep an eye on it. If Paul's post on non-proliferation is an indication of what we can expect, then ITA is destined for great things.

Paul is much more qualified to speak on policy subjects than I. But when his post lamented the lack of a "natural peacenik constituency" in his party, I heard him calling my name. I hope he'll pardon my lack of knowledge on these subjects while I stuff my pipe with some peacenik dreams. A few thoughts on his post:

First, non-proliferation cannot be seen outside the context of other diplomatic policies, which means we should judge the Bush administration not solely on its efforts to secure nuclear material, but also on its competence in supporting international institutions that distribute power among nation-states. By publicly scorning other treaties and institutions with broad-based international support -- Kyoto, the ICC, the UN, for example -- the President has already squandered much-needed diplomatic capital.

The good news is that you need less diplomatic capital on the issue of non-proliferation than you do on other foreign policy matters, because the threat of nuclear weapons equally endangers those who have them, those against whom they might be used, and even those who neither have them nor are likely to be their direct targets. In other words, all of us. Yet I fear the President and those advising him do not appreciate this fact. And to be fair, it is not clear there are Democrats who fully appreciate it either. Discussions on nuclear non-proliferation always need to begin by dispensing with pleasant euphemisms like "weapons of mass destruction," a phrase that has been emptied of its rhetorical power by too frequent use. Now familiar acronyms like WMD do not do justice to the capacity these weapons have to annihilate entire civilian populations. We are dealing here with a technological power that is absolutely asymmetrical -- it holds out the possibility not just of "mass" destruction, but of "total" destruction. The idea of perpetual "defense" against weapons of total destruction is chimerical: that's where we have to begin.

If we do begin there, then the terms of these debates will take on a very different shape, even different from the one that Paul gives them in his post. "Non-proliferation" itself shapes the issue as one of preventing nuclear material from falling into "the wrong hands," which implies of course that there are "right hands" (namely, ours and those of the "free world"). Most non-proliferation plans on both sides of the aisle are founded not on the guiding presumption that nuclear weapons are a common threat to all, but only that they are a threat in the hands of a few. Tolkein would be disappointed, I think, if he knew how popular the Lord of the Rings had become without actually making the impression he intended -- that there are certain evils which cannot be contained. They must be destroyed. To be blunt, they must be abolished.

This is probably the point in the post where many eyes will roll. Be realistic, you might say. Unflinching realism, however, means acknowledging what kind of a weapon we are dealing with here. And it also means recognizing that rational actors will not tolerate monopolies on asymmetrical power. It is fundamentally unrealistic to think that the end goal of non-proliferation is to return to an immediate postwar status quo, in which nuclear weapons have been limited to "mature democracies." To think non-nuclear states will ever be content with such a state of affairs -- that's what deserves a roll of the eyes.

Still, I am not as naive as you think. I would sleep better tonight if I knew the U.S. military had secured those 3700 loose tons of plutonium and uranium, and I would sleep much less well if I knew that they had been secured by Pakistan, Iran, or North Korea. Moreover, reasonable people (with whom I like to think I belong) are aware that in the short term, our nuclear policy will have to proceed mainly with stockpile reduction, securing loose material, and non-proliferation treaties and test bans on the nation-state level. But a policy that is both morally sound and expedient will state the goal of total abolition as frequently as possible. We must not confuse baby steps with the actual destination.

One sign of such confusion, as Paul rightly points out, is to believe that counterproliferation is a military strategy, rather than a diplomatic one. Yet Paul goes on to say that even diplomatic policies on nuclear weapons "work best when backed up by the world's military superpower." I question whether the recent past has shown that to be so. Paul outlines the dire situation in which we find ourselves -- non-proliferation efforts being rolled back around the globe, Iran and North Korea both demonstrably closer to nuclear weapons, and both Russia and the United States developing new kinds of nuclear weapons -- but he does not sufficiently connect these straits to the hyper-militarism of the Bush administration's foreign policy. If Iran and North Korea have learned anything from Iraq, it is that the faster they can get nuclear weapons, the better they can deter a preemptive strike.

(Incidentally, although Paul doesn't mention it, the idea that Libya saw Iraq as a warning strikes me as delusional: if anything, the lesson of Libya to states like Iran and North Korea is also that having nuclear weapons is good. It means having the most powerful bargaining chip in the world. It gives you an automatic "Pass Go" card with the United States if you ever need to get out of jail. Our national security strategy itself, quite apart from its stated position on non-proliferation, is a standing incentive for proliferation.)

Thus, when Paul calls at the end of his post for a return of the presidency to its Cold War status as "the Leader of the Free World," I do not feel at ease. To see a return to the Cold War as the goal of our non-proliferation efforts is to go backwards to the conditions that have ultimately brought us to the present. At the time, just containing nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union, where "mutually assured destruction" would prevent their being used, seemed like a good idea, since who could have conceived that it would fall apart so dramatically and become so destabilized that its nuclear program would be dispersed? But who is to say that our nuclear materials, now seen as safe because they are in the "right hands," will not also be similarly insecure at some point in our children's future?

If the answer to that question is a simple "it will never be so," that only reveals the problem: at the root of our current non-proliferation policies is an unfounded and often unstated hubris, an unwavering confidence in the immortality of the United States and its consequent right to hold all the cards in the nuclear game. But with weapons as absolutely mortal as nuclear ones, we can't afford to believe that any detente will be permanent. That's why the only realistic and honest goal is ultimately to get rid of the weapons altogether. I don't hear enough people saying that.


Four score and seven slides

Counterfactual of the day: If Abraham Lincoln had been raised on Power Point presentations instead of on Pericles, what would the Gettysburg Address have looked like? (Hat tip: Gutless Pacifist.)


Range of volumes

"Fortunately for music, as for all other manifestations of life, it has so far been impossible to homogenize temperament. Even, for example, in a time of unusual tension, such as the present, there are those who somehow sustain an open, lyrical, non-competitive approach to being alive." -- Nat Hentoff, in original liner notes to Duke Pearson's Sweet Honey Bee (1966)

This weekend, I bought some jazz. Fine, swinging jazz is usually good for whatever ails me. So although I flirted with buying new re-releases by Freddie Hubbard and Donald Byrd, both fairly experimental for their time, I ended up coming home with Duke Pearson and Dexter Gordon. I've been hooked on the Pearson album for the last few days, and Nat Hentoff's notes go a long way towards explaining why. There's been quite a bit of tension and anger in the air lately, and I was in need of a different "temperament." I settled on Sweet Honey Bee when I read Pearson quoted in the liner: "I'm not mad at anybody."

I'd like not to be mad at anybody. Some might say that is a cop-out, a fleeing from the lists of political combat. Plenty of jazz artists, I suspect, could have said the same to Pearson in 1966, another time of "unusual tension." Melodies and ballads seem in bad taste at such times. Such times call for squeals and squeaks from angry horns, for pounding on piano keys and disregarding harmony. Real progressives have no time for chord progressions. I see the point. Would not a tune like "Sweet Honey Bee," which opens with a funky flute line, have sounded a bit too sweet in the year that James Meredith was murdered and the Black Panthers were founded? A flute line.

Does it sound too sweet now, in the year of "f-bombs" on the Senate floor and car bombs in the streets of Baghdad? Perhaps. But I'm inclined to agree with Hentoff that music is a saving grace precisely because it can offer a different pitch, even at a fevered time. Call me a sentimental so-and-so, but this week I needed a track like "After the Rain." It's an exquisite Pearson ballad with, yes, another flute solo by James Spaulding. It's worth the price of the album. That song also made me pull out this Sarah Vaughan record, because right around the 2:30 mark, Pearson quotes a phrase that reminded me of her take on "Jim" ("... doesn't bring me any flowers."). And Ron Carter's bass work on the Pearson album also gave me an excuse to dust off his spare and beautiful duet album with guitarist Jim Hall, Alone Together, a title that seems appropriate for our divided times. These albums have been rotating in and out of my laptop all week. But all of them scream out that they are not screaming. They are not mad at anybody.

There is even something reassuringly dialogical about the Pearson album. The call-and-response swing of "Big Bertha," which begins with a Basie-like intro, is conversational. The horns say one thing, and then the piano repeats it back, to make sure he's heard correctly. The horns repeat, but in a slightly different form: yes, you heard right, but now hear this. Then the piano talks back, not in a merely repetitive way, but with a new take on the conversation. A few more back and forths lead to an open space where the soloists get to speak their minds, but then the group summarizes and concludes. If only democracy sounded so good.

I know I'm sounding like Wynton Marsalis, which is ironic. Marsalis usually gets on my nerves, with his constant Ken-Burns mantra about how jazz is America, how jazz is democracy, how jazz is Louis Armstrong, and how that means Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor and the late Coltrane are anti-democratic and anti-American. Nonetheless, there's something to wishing our national conversation were more like the melodic give-and-take of Pearson's jazz, a conversation that combines passionate talking with equally concentrated listening. The problem I have with Marsalis is his attempt to homogenize the temperament of jazz, his tendency to be rigid about the rules for what counts as true dialogue and what does not. I'm not calling for that, anymore than I would call for a homogenization of our national conversations. There's a time for angry jazz, and there's a time to speak softly, as in a morning sunrise.

Perhaps this is a time for angry jazz, and for anger. I don't want to write Coleman or Taylor out of the jazz canon, just as I don't want to silence outrage now. But neither do I want to silence silence. I don't want jazz that is always the same temperature. I rail against constant railing. I'll listen to the shouts above the gale, but also give me "After the Rain."

Earlier this year, while I was in Boston, I had a chance to see Jim Hall play at Harvard. The seating was open and the admission was general. I managed to arrive about an hour early, and that was early enough to land me a seat in the front row. I was literally feet away from where Hall was standing on the stage. It was the best seat in the house, because Hall still uses a small personal amplifier to perform. In the program notes for the concert, he explained why:

"It isn't that I want to play soft all the time, it's that I want a wide range of volumes, someplace to go. 'Loud' doesn't mean anything if everybody is loud. The same with 'soft.'"

Monday, November 15, 2004


About me

I recently completed my doctoral degree in history at Johns Hopkins University. I came to Baltimore by way of Sinton, Texas (where I was born and grew up), San Antonio, Texas (where I adolesced), and College Station, Texas (where I received my B.A. in history and my M.A. in philosophy from Texas A&M University). Beginning in September, I will be an assistant professor of history at the University of Denver. Further particulars can be found in my curriculum vitae.

The history of how I became an historian goes all the way back to my eighth-grade history teacher, Mr. Montgomery, who printed Calvin and Hobbes cartoons on our exams and delivered a still memorable lecture on the defeat of the Spanish Armada. I remember being assigned to write two papers on historical "mysteries" -- whether Davy Crockett surrendered himself at the Alamo, and whether Meriwether Lewis committed suicide. We were given primary documents and asked to take a position. I learned at that early stage that, in the words of Dutch historian Pieter Geyl, history is an argument without end.

Mr. Mont, as he was wont to be called, also began every class by having us write a brief essay on the "Thought for the Day" that was written on the chalkboard, usually a quotation by someone like Confucius ("Confuse-us," we called him). That daily experience also impressed on me that studying history inevitably leads to questions about what it means to be human. One has to be careful to avoid anachronism while asking these questions. But not to ask them at all would be worse: it would make history nothing more than an antiquarian hobby.

My parents deserve the largest share of credit for my interest in books and history. One summer in my elementary years, they brilliantly bribed me into reading a list of classic books like Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and John Steinbeck's The Acts of King Arthur, promising that if I finished the list they would buy me a Sega Master System. Now, the video game console is somewhere on the dustbin of history, and the books remain.

A few words of qualification about this blog: I reserve the right to change my mind about things, because I think of most posts as improvisations -- essays rather than pieces of scholarship. I also write effusive posts about my love for jazz. Some might find the extent of my enthusiasm for this music slightly embarrassing, but my position is this: if you know of something that gives you sheer delight, why not share the love? I also post occasionally on politics, religion, and other subjects that strike my fancy. But as the blog has developed since 2004, it has become increasingly focused on history, teaching, and my academic interests.

Revised 15 April 2006

So long, Mr. Secretary

Colin Powell resigned today, as expected. I suppose many will take this to be confirmation that Powell has wanted out for a long time. The Post says that he has "sparred for four years with the more hawkish members of President Bush's war cabinet."

So let the microscopic inspection of his public statements about the resignation begin. For example, when Powell said in an official briefing today that he and the President had "good and fulsome discussions" about his decision, which of the four definitions of "fulsome" did he have in mind? Did he mean the discussions were "characterized by abundance: COPIOUS"? Or were they, per the second definition, "aesthetically, morally, or generally offensive"? (Examples given by Merriam-Webster: "fulsome lies and nauseous flattery -- William Congreve; the devil take thee for a ... fulsome rogue -- George Villiers.") Or were the conversations "fulsome" in that they exceeded the "bounds of good taste"? There is plenty here for conspiracy theorists to mull over.

A large part of me wants to believe that Powell was the one naysayer in a cabinet full of yes-men, but I'm not sure how wishful that thinking is. His resignation letter is certainly "fulsome" regarding the President, as in "excessively complimentary or flattering." If Powell had felt as strongly opposed to the war as some seem to believe, especially once the poor quality of our military intelligence was exposed, he could have done much more with an earlier resignation. It seems clear to me that this is an ordinary resignation, perhaps agreed upon from the moment that Powell agreed to sign on in the first place.

Very little evidence exists in his letter (full image, PDF) for overweening regrets. "I am pleased to have been part of a team that launched the Global War Against Terror, liberated the Afghan and Iraqi people, brought the attention of the world to the problem of proliferation, reaffirmed our alliances, adjusted to the Post Cold War world and undertook major initiatives to deal with the problem of poverty and disease in the developing world." (Incidentally, that's some fine capitalization work on Global War Against Terror. Maybe that's what Democrats need to do. Forget about "framing," just capitalize things like The Problem Of Poverty And Disease.)

Perhaps an optimistic defender of Powell could dig through this sentence to find surreptitious evidence of his discontent with the President. "See, he said a team launched the GWAT; he was just part of the team." Some of the phrases ("reaffirmed our alliances," "brought the attention of the world to the problem of proliferation") are so counterintuitive that surely Powell knows how untrue they are. Yes, that's it: he knows how misleading these phrases sound, so he's using them with an eye towards reverse psychology. The real Powell is in the last half of the sentence, when he talks about the POPAD; the first part is just what Bush's people told him to say.

I'm not sure. I have no reason to doubt that the Secretary is an honorable man, who has probably had to suffer fools for some time within his own administration. And it would be hard for anyone, peering through the official-ese of briefings and memos, to give a confident judgment of his true motives. Nonetheless, I'm disappointed. For all the loyalty Powell must feel towards the Bush family, here was an opportunity for public criticism that he did not have to pass up. The election is over, the dynasty is secured. (Aha, is that more surreptitious evidence in the first line of the letter? "Now that the election is over ..." See, he was just waiting!)

But why did he wait? And why does he continue to flatter? What does he have to lose now by voicing his concerns? He certainly had a fine model in a resignation letter that was sent to him. Perhaps he is waiting until he is fully out of office to unburden his "heavy heart," like John Brady Kiesling did. But in the meantime, I'm left to wonder whether his concerns about the President's foreign policy ever went as deep as I wish they did.

Friday, November 12, 2004



If one objective of medical school is to teach doctors how to make life and death decisions on three hours of sleep, is teaching historians how to "multi-task" one objective of graduate school?

As long as I'm on the subject of vocational training, here are some hilarious examples of what not to do at your MLA job interview. Funny, yet not funny. The academic job search, alas, is full of such internal contradictions. It does not appear to be on the verge of collapsing beneath the weight of them. (Thanks to Jerz.)


Powerful arguments

What makes an argument or a certain cultural discourse "powerful"? I'm only asking because I find myself reaching for that adjective quite frequently when doing historical writing, and I'm not the only one. Historians will frequently write along these lines: "In Nth-century America, many believed in the ideology of classical republicanism. So when Group X or Thinker Y connected Cause Z to the republican ideal of virtue, they/he/she constructed a powerful case for Z."

Less hypothetically, here is a line from Chapter 1 of my dissertation. I argue that the successes of British abolitionists in the 1830s made it possible for American abolitionists to make "a powerful three-step argument: Britain was a powerful anti-slavery nation; Britain was the progenitor of the American nation; ergo, America would before long follow in its footsteps." The question is: How do I know that argument was "powerful"? Clearly, I don't simply mean to say something about it's logical validity. Not all valid arguments are powerful, because not all valid arguments are sound. And not even all sound arguments are efficacious. So how do we judge whether an historical argument was "powerful"?

A minimalist definition would be that powerful arguments are ones that persuade large numbers of people, but this is clearly unsatisfactory. When I described the argument above as "powerful," I do not mean that it convinced many Americans to be abolitionists. (But I might mean that abolitionists believed it would convince Americans to be abolitionists, which is a different point.) Cultural and intellectual historians would be in deep trouble if they had to argue that every significant argument in history succeeded in gaining some quorum of adherents. But cultural and intellectual history would also be in bad shape if we could simply say that any argument we find in the archives was "powerful" to people at the time, just because it was made. Blogging historians especially know better than to think that.

I think the kind of "power" I have in mind has more to do with "rhetoric" than it does with logic. But "rhetorical" power, needless to say, is also an elusive quarry. The word "rhetoric," though, at least gets us much closer to an answer for the problem I'm posing. Like Socrates said in Plato's Republic, referring to the pursuit of justice, "The time then has arrived, Glaucon, when, like huntsmen, we should surround the cover, and look sharp that justice does not steal away, and pass out of sight and escape us; for beyond a doubt she is somewhere in this country: watch therefore and strive to catch a sight of her, and if you see her first, let me know." An answer to the question of what makes arguments "powerful" is somewhere here in the land of rhetoric. If you see the answer first, please let me know.

Here are my own quick thoughts: To argue that an argument is rhetorically powerful, the historian can try to show several things:

1. The argument conformed to historically specific ideas about rhetoric. I'll let you open this can of worms. How do we argue for specific ideas about rhetorical power, without first making a judgment that some arguments were exemplary instances of powerful rhetoric? Perhaps in some settings we could point to some rhetorician at the time who explicitly tried to formulate a theory of argument. (Think of Kenneth Cmiel's book on democratic speech, or Garry Wills' dissection of the Gettysburg Address.) But that would only be of limited general use, for how do we know the artisan or abolitionist on the street knew about those formal theories? In some cases we do have evidence of, say, Frederick Douglass studying The Columbian Orator, or Lincoln poring over Pericles, but we seldom have such evidence for the kind of popular intellectual or cultural history I'm talking about. It is more likely than not that most historical actors have a loose sense of what constitutes rhetorical power, and perhaps would even be unable to articulate their understanding if they were asked.

2. The argument was made frequently by its proponents. This is again only a rough approximation, but it's a start. When thinkers or writers in a particular community (e.g., abolitionists) picked up the same argument or trope again and again, that's at least partial evidence that they found it compelling. This may be an unfortunate analogy, but there is a kind of natural selection at work in most discursive communities: the "strong" arguments survive, the "weak" ones fade. Again, though, that's because I'm not measuring an argument's "strength" by some objective standard of its logical soundness. For the historian, is the fact that an argument was deemed strong by its contemporaries the only relevant indicator of an argument's strength?

3. The argument was targeted frequently by its opponents. For instance, if proslavery ideologues responded often to particular arguments made by abolitionists, that could be taken as partial evidence that they found those arguments especially in need of a response. Frankly, though, this is the criterion that I'm least sure about, at least as a generalization. Opponents often pick on what they find to be the weakest point of an argument, not the strongest. Even so, one way of thinking about an argument's "power" is still to think about how its opponents responded. Whether or not thinkers attack what they see as the strongest or the weakest link in the rhetorical armature of their opponents, they are usually making some kind of determination about the power of arguments.

4. The argument combined other demonstrably powerful strands of argument. This is obviously a self-referential definition, but I think it is the one that intellectual historians most often have operating in the back of their minds. We make statements about an argument's power because we trust, for instance, that others have made the case for "republicanism" as a powerful ideology. In the line I quoted above, I'm relying on the reader to believe that there was still a persistent strand of "Anglophilia" in antebellum America. Obviously, I also then have to make a case for "Anglophilia" as a powerful strand, which I do attempt. But at some point, historians reach a point at which they depend on other historians to have demonstrated the importance of cultural or intellectual trends. Most of our arguments about what is a "powerful" argument then take the form of showing how this or that discourse tapped into those already familiar rhetorical wells.

Well, fellow huntsmen, I've surrounded the quarry, but I'm still sitting in a blind. Any comments on tracking this subject down would be most welcome.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004


Tangential thoughts

A few quick thoughts, with only tangential connections to each other, before bed.

On Friday night, we went to see Friday Night Lights. An excellent sports movie -- one of the best I've seen -- and an excellent movie in general. Texas high school football is virtually a state religion. And the movie captures well the almost mystical way in which a sports team can be like a proxy for a community, especially a community that feels it has little else--no other relics to lure the few pilgrims that pass through. Even better, it captures the way a sports team, at certain moments of crisis on the gridiron, can temporarily become something more than the sum of its parts. In that sense, sports bear a revealing likeness to those exceptional moments in life when near strangers are thrown together and faced with extraordinary trial. In such times, no apology has to be made for sentiment. Love seems easier then.

Why does the "then" have to be fleeting? I've been reading Paul Elie's book on the "pilgrimage" of four American Catholic writers. It opens with Dorothy Day's experience of the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. "While the crisis lasted, people loved each other," Day writes in her autobiography, as reported by Elie. "It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly in pity and love." The same thing might be said of the immediate aftermath of September 11. Yet here we are, that crisis over, others come and gone, others ongoing, and others in waiting. The crisis never seems to last long enough for love to last with it. Tomorrow will be, for many, a "time of stress." Yet we will all, in a collective moment of surreal togetherness, each be strangely alone, sitting on our couches, staring at the TV, tense and fearful. Here's hoping the loneliness will not last long. Is it too much to ask that we "care for each other," even tomorrow?

A scenario struck me on the way home today, and I had it later spelled out for me. Suppose another election fiasco ensues, and begins winding its way to the Supreme Court. And suppose, before it gets there, William Rehnquist dies, leaving the President to make a recess appointment and cast a deciding vote for himself. Is this Karl Rove's October surprise? I shuddered to think of it, but I shuddered even more at what the "I" who could think such things had become. This must be the climax of how a long election season has become a time of loneliness. An aging body is wracked with cancer, and we see only a vacancy, a scenario instead of a man. When we cannot pause even to pity such a person, his life suddenly reduced to an accumulation of opinions, his body already a space to be filled, no wonder we feel cynical and scared and alienated from ourselves and each other.

Tonight I've been listening to John Coltrane's "Dear Lord," first released posthumously on Transition. I recommend it to your hearing. The liner notes to my Coltrane box set describe the tune this way: "One of Coltrane's most beautiful melodies, it is pervaded with optimism, wonder and a profound humility in both the tenor and piano choruses. Coltrane could be spiritual without obfuscation or poses of profundity, and this plain-spoken performance is one of his most universally appealing." I can think of no better kind of "appealing" to have in my head for tomorrow's transition.

Monday, November 01, 2004


History and technology

Jason has an interesting post on historians and technology, taken from a talk he recently gave at the Digital Library Federation's 2004 Fall Forum. For some responses to the post, see here and here (scroll down).

It's worth thinking about the relationship that historians have with their machines. We tend to take them for granted, even though only a generation ago writing a dissertation necessarily meant wading through a dense wilderness of index cards, correction fluid, and typewriter tape. (Or at least, so I hear.) Now, most of us do our writing on the computer. I've done typing work for a brilliant professor emeritus who still writes all of his books and articles long-hand on college-ruled notebook paper. Having forsworn the use of computers, he occasionally asked me questions about the difference between a "disk" and a "file," or reminded me to go back and re-number the pages of a revised typescript. But he is the exception, rather than the rule. Not only do many historians do their writing on the computer now, an increasing number collect and organize their research using a computer as well.

As Jason points out, this does not mean Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie was exactly right when he said, in 1979, "Tomorrow's historian will have to be able to program a computer in order to survive." One reason he was wrong, according to Jason, is that he did not foresee the now common distinction between content providers and programmers. But Ladurie was also off the mark for two other reasons.

First, he took for granted that the primary impact of computers would be on historians' methods, rather than on their style. Styles themselves have been changed by the word processor, which make it possible to focus on the process of writing. Constant revisions, long footnotes, and multiple drafts are now easier to make. In fact, it is harder now to distinguish "drafts" from one another, since every one draft likely contains within it the traces of hundreds of drafts. This, at least, is my own experience.

Secondly, and more importantly, Ladurie's prediction was based on his roots in the Annales school, which placed a premium on quantitative analysis. There was a time when historians believed, like Ladurie, that historians would have to program computers because they would have to become proficient counters and statisticians. Many a cultural and intellectual historian quaked in his boots in that day, I can tell you. But lo, and behold, there was a cultural turn, and beyond. The subsequent historiographical interest in "texts" made Ladurie's projection seem premature.

That's not to say that the digital revolution has not affected historical methods for cultural and intellectual historians like myself. In many ways, I think the increasing availability of primary sources online still might revolutionize the kinds of historical questions we can ask, even if we are primarily interested in asking questions about texts. It is significant that American historians, whether professionals or not, now have access to a wide variety of full-image or full-text sources through gateways like the American Memory project at the Library of Congress, the Making of America collection at Michigan, and the extensive digital holdings at Cornell University, not to mention subscription-based services like ProQuest. If typewriters are now virtually extinct, microfilm machines are becoming endangered, thanks to the migration of important microfilm collections like the American Periodical Series and Early American Imprints into cyberspace.

The appearance of such collections online goes hand in hand with recent calls to "internationalize" the American history profession. They make it possible for historians to do research in "distant" archives without having to travel there themselves. A friend of mine who now teaches in Canada is working on an exciting project about early national Philadelphia, which literally would not be possible for him if sources were not online. If Akira Iriye is right that one explanation for exceptionalism in American history is the long hegemony of "uni-archival" research, then the Internet can help change that. (See his essay in this volume, which I've also commented on here.) One of the abolitionists I study, Maria Weston Chapman, aptly noted in 1848 that "'Our country right or wrong' is very apt to be the war-cry of those who have seen no country but their own." Likewise, the cris de coeur of historians are likely to change once they are able to see archives other than those in their own countries. (I don't want to be taken for a technological determinist here, however. It's telling that all of the online collections I've listed above relate to my own field and are based in my own country, and I'm much less familiar with international collections. The presence of international archives online does not guarantee nation-centered historians will seek them out.)

But there is a larger significance to these online collections. Many of them make possible "full-text" searches of obscure printed ephemera, periodicals, and books. That means you can run Boolean searches on texts in ways that were simply never possible to historians before computers. Let me give you one example. In doing research for my dissertation, I have had reason to think about how abolitionists and other nineteenth-century Americans thought about the effects of transportation technology on their perception of the world. The ascendancy of reliable transatlantic steamships in the middle of the nineteenth century led many to speculate figuratively about the shrinking size of the earth. While paging through many paeans to the steamship's speed, I began to notice that many commentators used the same trope over and over again: they said that steam had "annihilated" space and time.

Google allowed me to quickly discover that this was an allusion to a poem by Alexander Pope. That's already one virtue of online searching; sooner or later, by reading more and more texts, I would have discovered the Pope allusion. But the very nature of an allusion is that writers do not directly attribute the source, which means that this might have taken some time. Plus, had I not discovered early on that there was an Ur-text for all these "annihilation" metaphors, I would not have known to notice them. In order to discover this allusion, in other words, I would have had to possess already the arcane knowledge of Pope's quote. And even if I had been vaguely aware of the quote, ordinary reference works would have made it difficult to confirm the source. I would have had to know to look up "Pope, Alexander" in a quotation dictionary, for instance.

I was mildly curious about the prevalence of this illusion, in part because many globalization theorists use the same kind of language -- the "annihilation" of "time-space distanciation" -- to describe how transportation technology in the late twentieth century has "globalized" the world. Perhaps an air of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century romanticism and poesy remains in such pronouncements. At any rate, I was able to indulge my curiosity about this phrase by doing several Boolean searches in online collections like the ones I listed above. I could search for the word "annihilation" (or even variants, by searching for "annihilat*") NEAR words like "space" and "time." I could search for the exact phrase "annihilate space and time." And I could further refine my search by throwing in terms like "steam." These kinds of searches turned up a wealth of examples of the allusion being used in regard to steamships and related technological shifts like the telegraph. What's more, they turned up hits in otherwise obscure periodicals -- for which there are sometimes only a few issues extant -- that I never would have sought out on my own. This is one way in which online sources actually makes it possible to come up with research strategies that were not possible in the past.

But I will stop short of making a projection similar to Ladurie's. I don't think that tomorrow's historian will have to know Boolean in order to survive. In fact, I think a dose of quantitative history may be needed now in order to keep us honest about our methods and our sources. There is a sense in which online searching can be misleading for the historian, just as online searching in Google can be misleading for the everyday seeker of information. When your search term yields hundreds or thousands of hits, it is tempting to take that as prima facie evidence that your subject is significant or that your terms are representative. It helps to remember that Google only covers a small fraction of the total Internet, because so much of the Web is "invisible" to search engine spiders. Likewise, online databases of historical sources are just the tip of the archival iceberg, and one should always take a large number of hits in a database with a grain of salt. For instance, after happily using Cornell's Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Collection for some months, I started to notice gaping holes in its coverage. When I emailed a librarian to ask how much of the print collection was online, the answer was that only about 1 percent of the library's holdings had been scanned, even though that figure does not appear prominently on the website. Take that as a word to the wise.

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