Thursday, July 21, 2005


A blog was born

Today is the one-year birthday of this blog. I've had mixed feelings about it before and still do from time to time, but overall, it's been a great year, most of all because of the interesting and generous group of people that I've gotten to know. So I guess this might be as a good time as any to publish some paragraphs that I've had in my draft folder for a long time. It's basically nothing more than the introduction to a post that never was.

* * *

In a comment thread at Cliopatria a while back, Mark Grimsley described blogs as "experiments in civil discourse." I like that line very much.

All of us who blog have an interest in seeing these experiments succeed, especially since one of the major metanarratives about blogging in the mainstream media hypothesizes that these experiments have already failed. They tell us that blogging represents in microcosm the polarized state of the public sphere in general. Certainly we cannot deny that the fruits of social and political discord are all around us. But are blogs no more than the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored?

Again, we all have an interest in proving they are not. We could shirk the personal and collective responsibility that this experiment foists upon us. We could laugh at the very idea of blogs as experiments in "civil discourse," or protest that demonstrating the civility of discourse is someone else's job. But I submit, at the risk of sounding melodramatic, that the fate of democratic discourse rests on us.

By "us," though, I don't just mean bloggers. I mean that every time any of us exercises the right to speak in a context of discursive freedom, we also take on a weighty responsibility to interlocutors past, present, and future. In a book I've been reading off and on for the past year by Princeton philosopher Jeffrey Stout, Democracy and Tradition, Stout even argues that democratic citizenship requires a certain kind of "piety" -- a profound sense of gratitude for the communities that have produced us, and a gratuitous interest in the communities that will succeed us.

As Stout argues, even so militant an atheist as Dewey could regard with a kind of awe the profundity of "democracy" as an idea. As Dewey put it, in terms redolent of religious hopes, the idea of democracy "remains barren save as it is incarnated in human relationships." For that reason, much rides on every experiment in civil discourse, no matter how small, because the collapse of these experiments would expose democracy as a futile idea. If the grapes of wrath are all that we can produce in our conversations with one another, then the idea of democracy is fruitless. That prospect should be sufficiently troubling to inspire a kind of fear and trembling. If we fail to incarnate democracy in our relationships, democracy does not exist. There is no other measure of its truth, say Dewey and Stout, than its really working right now.

Stout's book stresses the importance of democratic reason-giving; as a discursive ideal, democracy means, at the bare minimum, having enough respect for our interlocutors to listen seriously to their reasons for belief, and to honor their requests for own reasons. Giving one's reasons for believing something, even at the risk of ridicule or rejection, is what keeps democratic conversation going; when we stop exchanging reasons, there's nothing left to say. Thus, at every moment, we have to start where we are now and try to build this flying machine all over again. If it crashes to the ground occasionally, we can't waste time lamenting our failure; we have to incorporate the needed design changes and get this thing back up in the air.

Democracy and Tradition is also intended as a response to a number of Christian thinkers, like Stanley Hauerwas and John Milbank, who contend that the kind of secular piety described by Dewey and Stout is vaguely incompatible with Christian piety. Stout's not so sure, and I'm not either. The rule of democratic conversation is basically the Golden Rule: you treat other interlocutors the way you yourself want to be treated. And if anything, Christian piety ought to buttress faith in conversation rather than undermine it, since its animating stories and beliefs invest all people with significance. Respect for your interlocutor is a form of neighborly love, and it needs to be said again and again that there is nothing impious about listening to and learning from people with whom you at first disagree.

When the apostle Paul spoke in Athens, the putative birthplace of democracy, he saw nothing wrong with abiding by broadly democratic rules: the philosophers on Mars Hill asked him to explain himself; he complied; the philosophers said they would like to hear him again sometime. The conversation continued, even though some decided to leave it. And Paul did not have such a zero-sum view of discourse that he could not search for value in the thinking of his interlocutors. He quoted what "some of your own poets have said." He respected people enough to listen to their poets, and that's the kind of piety that democracy demands.

As Dewey, one of democracy's own poets, has said, "Only when we start from a community as a fact, grasp the fact in thought so as to clarify and enhance its constituent elements, can we reach an idea of democracy which is not utopian." In the blogosphere, I believe, we have a community in fact. Only when we grasp that fact and try to enhance it do we become a community in idea as well.

* * *

Glancing back at the year that has been, I know I haven't always lived up to these high-falutin' ideals; expressing piety always risks exposing hypocrisy. There have been posts, I think, where my own voice is the main one I've been listening to, or when I've been more interested in giving a piece of my mind than receiving a piece of yours. But if there is a kind of piety involved in conversation--both a humility in the face of a conversation that is much bigger than ourselves, and a respect for the deep and irreducible worth of every interlocutor--then that piety also includes the hope that there are better things to come. I am truly grateful to you for stopping by and hope you'll come again.

Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Day and Douglass

Earlier this week I finished The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. There's a good collection of her writings online, including her statement of conscientious objection to the entry of the United States into World War II. Although Day's position is and was extremely unpopular, it's hard not to admire this:
We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.

But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brother, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.
There's a humility here even about her conviction ("we will try to be peacemakers"), a generosity toward those with whom she disagreed. I also like the way her last line deftly contrasts "the order of intention" with "the order of execution." One of Day's editorials opposing nuclear testing also includes this:
Some readers, and old friends too, ask us why we do not protest Russian tests as well as English and American. We can only say that we have -- over and over. In the two talks I gave on May Day before left wing groups, I stressed the numbers of unannounced nuclear tests made in Russia. Why don’[']t we picket the Russian embassy, another wants to know. For one thing, we have only one chronic picketer, Ammon Hennacy, and for another, we believe in taking the beam out of our own eye, we believe in loving our enemy, and not contributing to the sum total of hatred and fear of him already in the world.
Both of these quotes also reminded me, in a tangential way, of something I recently read in The Frederick Douglass Papers. While touring the British Isles in 1846, Douglass gave several speeches before evangelical peace societies outlining his opposition to war, one of which included this:
Some people contend that they can fight in love. I have heard individuals say they could go to war in love. Yes, this foul reproach has been brought upon Christianity, and ministers have been heard to say that they could go to war in love. This was answered very well by an advocate of peace in the United States, and I am happy to inform the good people here that advocates of peace are multiplying in the United States. (Cheers.) An advocate of peace was arguing the question with a brother who was a minister of the gospel. The minister was against it; in fact, they were both ministers. He was asked, 'If he believed Christianity was a religion of love? If the spirit of Christ breathed love?' He admitted it--he said, 'God is love.' 'Then,' said the other, 'all that dwell in him should dwell in love.' This he admitted at once. 'Then we should do nothing but what can be done in entire consistency with love?' Of course this must be granted. 'Well,' said he, 'can you go to war in love?' 'Oh! yes.' (Laughter and cheers.) 'Can you kill an enemy in love?' 'Oh! yes. I can conceive of circumstances when I should be bound by love to kill him.' 'What, throw bomb-shells, shoot cannon, use the sword in love?' 'Yes.' 'Well,' said my good friend, 'if you can do all these things in love, what can you do in hate?' (Laughter and cheers.) [1:263]
To wrap up this thread of free associations, last night we watched the second episode of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which covered Pizarro's conquest of the Incas. After capturing the Incan emperor Atahualpa, Pizarro's men told their frightened prisoner not to worry: Christians only killed in the heat of battle.

Atahualpa was later garrotted. Lovingly, no doubt.

Friday, July 15, 2005


History Carnival XII

I bring you the twelfth incarnation of the biweekly History Carnival. But first, a grateful tip of the hat to everyone who sent in nominations. In the interest of brevity, I could not include all of the nominations, but hopefully there is enough here for reading and reflection. Enjoy!

Cliopatria hosted a symposium on an article by Gary Nash summarizing his recently published book on the American Revolution. Marc at Spinning Clio joins the discussion.

Jason Kuznicki at Positive Liberty gives a draft of his first lecture to a future class on the Western intellectual tradition.

Sharon Howard at Early Modern Notes throws a costume party.

The Elfin Ethicist reviews the first episode of the "Made for TV" version of Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel.

Jonathan Reynolds reports on a World History Association meeting in Morocco.

Nathanael at The Rhine River revisits the underappreciated "municipal revolutions" that helped make the national French Revolution possible and suggests that the bourgeoisie were actually the "avant garde of politics in Europe" until the middle of the nineteenth century.

The Carnival Blue Ribbon for most innovative use of the blog medium goes to Susan Kitchens, who is "liveblogging" the testing of the A-bomb in New Mexico.

Mark Grimsley at Blog Them Out of the Stone Age is in the middle of a fascinating series on the American Civil War as a "people's war." Start here.

Konrad Mitchell Lawson peruses a wartime Chinese dictionary. But others have gotten to it before him, and they brought their black markers.

A pseudonymous article in the Chronicle of Higher Education warned job seekers against blogging. The article was weighed and found wanting by several blogging historians, including Timothy Burke, Manan Ahmed, Alan Baumler, and numerous others.

The new issue of Common-Place includes essays on Tom Paine as an inventor, a Mormon performance of an Incan melodrama with Brigham Young in the starring role, and my own essay on blogging in the early republic.

Jim Davila at PaleoJudaica uses the contemporary "Jews for Jesus" movement as a prompt for thinking about the broad continuum of Jewish messianic movements in antiquity.

Brandon at Siris uses Alexander Hamilton to note the broad continuum of political beliefs among the Founding Fathers.

A speech by John Quincy Adams was brushed off for twenty-first-century use by Ralph Luker, Linus Kafka, and Brandon at Siris.

The Little Professor explores what it means to put the "historical" in historical fiction.

Alun has started to develop a promising site that scans RSS feeds from history and anthropology journals for the titles of recently published articles. It's called Damasus.

The Apocalyptic Historian reflects on scholarly celebrity and recalls a chance meeting with the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote.

Jonathan Dresner takes Paul Harvey to task for a tendentious reading of history and doesn't sugar-coat things.

A Supreme Court justice retired, leaving a wartime president to wonder where he would find a replacement that was suitably ... liberal? See Eric Muller for details.

Barista revisits a mystery on the voyage of Captain James Cook.

At Left2Right, James Oakes hears echoes of Lynne Cheney in Philadelphia's new high school standards for African and African American history.

Sheila at Relaxing on the Bayou discusses a recent survey of history museums on the web, and shares results from her own research on the subject.

At Thanks for Not Being a Zombie, GZombie looks at the problem of canon formation from the perspective of a book historian. At Acephalous, Scott Eric Kaufman responds from the perspective of a headless tennis player. GZombie also does a bit of sleuthing in a rare books reading room.

Richard Nokes uses the history of exploration to show why, when it comes to justifying space travel, imagination fails.

Geitner Simmons at Regions of Mind surveys the reactions to and the history behind a "blackface" Mexican comic book character that has appeared on an official postage stamp. See also Global Voices Online and Mark in Mexico.

At Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman notes a new biography of David Livingstone, who, despite being a famous missionary and explorer, had little success as either a missionary or a explorer.

The next History Carnival will be hosted on the First of August (the anniversary, I might add, of slave emancipation in the British West Indies) by Will Franklin at WILLisms. Send nominations to willisms[at]gmail[dot]com.

The next Carnivalesque, which will focus on ancient and medieval history, will also be held in early August at The Cranky Professor. Send nominations to professor[at]crankyprofessor[dot]com.

Wednesday, July 13, 2005


Last reminder for the Carnival

History Carnival Button Don't forget to send me your nominations for the twelfth History Carnival, which will be held this Friday, July 15, here at Mode for Caleb. If you've seen an outstanding post on history, published since July 1, please let me know about it by late Thursday evening by emailing the link to calebmcd -at-

Monday, July 11, 2005


Apple, here I come

So I've decided. Sometime in the next couple of weeks I'm going to buy a PowerBook. My current computer is in serious need of an upgrade (the sad stats: 4 Gb hard drive, 64 Mb RAM, Windows 98 because the system can't even handle XP), and although I've always been a PC user, OS X is too enticing to resist any longer. Be gone, Blue Screen of Death! Hello, Tiger!

I admit I've had twinges of doubt, especially when I see PC laptops with the PowerBook's hardware specs for almost half the price. And I've also worried, as I'm sure every first time Mac buyer does, about compatibility issues with my files. One of the big things holding me back was the fact that I use a bibliographic software program called Citation, which has no Mac version. But from what I can tell, Macintosh even has that covered, thanks to VirtualPC. Apparently this program actually allows you to install and run Windows on your Mac, so that you can still run recalcitrant Windows holdouts like Citation. (By the way, does anyone out there actually have experience with this prorgam? All the reviews and screen shots I've seen look excellent. The only drawback seems to be that it slows down the system a bit, but I can't imagine that my dinky little Citation software will eat that much. Most of the reviews say that you only notice a difference if you try to run high-res video games and graphics software in VirtualPC, which I don't plan to do.)

The difficult decision has been deciding between a 12-inch and 15-inch Powerbook. I'm leaning pretty decisively towards the 15-inch because I use my current laptop more as a desktop replacement. I'm worried that the lower resolution of the 12-inch would strain my eyes, and looking at my dissertation all day is eye strain enough. So I think I'm going with the 15-inch, 1.5 Ghz processor, Combo Drive, 256 Mb RAM 512 MB RAM [oops! that makes a difference!], and 80 Gb hard drive (I get giddy when I type that; remember, I've been living with a computer that has less storage space than my MP3 player--four times less, in fact!)

Okay, all you Mac-users out there. I'm standing on the borders of Mordor, about to fling Windows into the abyss. Feel free to reassure me that this is the right thing to do, and please weigh in with any purchasing advice.

Sunday, July 10, 2005


More doubts

In a comment to my post below, a reader suggests that the corollary to doubting war is also doubting peace. If anything I said gave the impression that I never doubt peace, let me dispel that idea immediately. I doubt peace all the time, and especially in the wake of violence like last week's bombings in London. The murder of innocents always leaves me riddled with doubts about any commitment to nonviolence of any kind. I find myself clutching at convictions that suddenly seem slippery, and I intended to convey the experience of spiraling from doubt to resolution and back to doubt in my post. Immediately after I had posted, in fact, I wished I had not, and the only thing that kept me from taking the post down was the knowledge that it had already been released into the wide world of RSS.

Timothy Burke has written an eloquent and powerful response to my post, and Ralph Luker has added some more powerful thoughts and links to the conversation. I'm still pondering all that has been said, including the things that I said, and because this discussion is so wide-ranging I won't pretend that this post is a satisfactory or sufficient response. But I'm thankful for the conversation.

The more I read Burke's post and some of the comments to my post below, the more I see how imprecise and misleading certain parts of my post were. For instance, a large part of Burke's response is devoted to establishing that violence is always an expression of human agency, and that no explanation of the "root causes" behind terrorist acts diminishes the personal responsibility of terrorists for their murders. I could not agree more. I agree that acts of violence are never forced or totally determined by a perpetrator's social environment. I do think, of course, that agency is constrained in significant ways by complex social and political structures, structures created in part by the acts of other agents. But I don't hold that terrorists are driven ineluctably toward violence in such a way that absolves them of guilt.

I think I caused unnecessary confusion by referring back to my post on the tsunami. My intention in that post was not to compare terrorism to the tsunami, or to imply that a terrorist is forced to commit violence in the same way that tidal waves are forced to move by the shifting of tectonic plates. I think such comparisons between natural processes and social relationships are almost always misleading, precisely because they do tend to efface human agency. Rather, in that post my intention was to compare the international responses to the tsunami with responses to terrorism, and to argue that the choice to respond violently to innocent deaths is also always a choice, an expression of human agency.

So, far from wishing to deny that murder is a deliberate act, for which the murderer alone is ultimately responsible, I agree that violence is always a deliberate act, no matter which party commits it. That is the limited sense in which I mean that there is no difference between our acts of violence and those of terrorists: both are choices, neither are necessary. We are responsible for our acts of violence as surely as terrorists are responsible for theirs.

* * *

A brief detour is in order here: Burke suggests that my particular doubts about war lead down the garden path to concluding that our antagonists have no agency, no capacity to make choices other than the ones they actually make. But I often find the reverse to be the case. Those who are most confident that we must make war with terrorists usually imply that we have no choice. We have no choice, the argument usually goes, because if we do not liquidate our enemies, they will liquidate us. We presume, in other words, that terrorists are sui generis as purveyors of violence. We could choose to spare them, but they are automatons who will continue to kill even if we refuse to kill in return. (Often lurking behind this view is the idea that religious belief represents the surrender of personal agency to some suprahuman force; religion is what makes them robotic and places them beyond the pale of instrumental reason, so that even if we modified our actions to the extent that absolutely any grievance they had would be totally irrational, they would continue to kill in the name of their god.)

The reasoning behind critiques of nonviolence or pacifism is often counterfactual: if we were to lay down our arms, they would not. A pacifist response to violence would thus lead to nothing but dead pacifists. In some cases, no doubt, that is, has been, and would be the case. There is a horrifying scene in the deuterocanonical Book of First Maccabees, in which a group of Jews fleeing Greek armies stationed in Jerusalem is massacred because they refuse to fight on the Sabbath.
The enemy quickly attacked them. But they did not answer them or hurl a stone at them or block up their hiding-places, for they said, ‘Let us all die in our innocence; heaven and earth testify for us that you are killing us unjustly.’ So they attacked them on the sabbath, and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand people.
There was a reason why that story was included by the authors of the Maccabees, who were essentially writing a glowing chronicle of those Maccabean revolutionaries who resolved instead to fight back, even on the sabbath. See, say the defenders of violence. You don't fight back, and your enemies massacre you.

The force of such evidence and such arguments is certainly hard to deny, and it is the primary reason why I also doubt peace. But I wonder at the fact that the same kinds of evidence never seem to tell as strongly against war. A thousand deaths, suffered by those who refuse to retaliate, is usually accepted by everyone as prima facie evidence against the rationality or virtue of nonviolence. But tens of thousands of deaths suffered in wars do not similarly discredit the logic of retaliation--or at least, do not discredit it enough to sway the burden of proof to the critic of nonviolence.

At this point, the defender of war might say that once violence is committed, more violence will occur either way, so we might as well fight back to reduce the number of deaths. In the Maccabeean story, the refugees who abstained from violence on the sabbath might have died to the number of a thousand, but if they had fought back, maybe they would have only suffered half that many deaths. That's the basic logic, it seems to me, behind many defenses of the decision to wage war: fewer deaths will occur if we fight an implacable foe than if we lay down our arms. But in order for that logic to hold absolutely, we really do have to assume that the foe is absolutely implacable--so implacable that no overtures we make toward peace, no decision we make to refuse to fight, not even a utopian campaign to shock and awe our enemies by completely destroying our weapons instead of deploying them, would alter their decision to fight. In the end, it seems to me that the logic of war requires a more fundamental denial of the enemy's agency than the logic of nonviolence. It even ultimately results in the denial of our own agency and responsibility. We cannot choose other than to fight, because they will not choose other than to fight. War therefore is not chosen: it just is.

* * *

But to get back to Burke's post: I certainly do not want to deny the agency of terrorists, because neither do I want to deny our agency. They choose to attack us; we choose our response. They alone are responsible for their acts; we alone are responsible for our acts. How, then, should we act in response to their acts?

That's the question, and one possible answer is the one that President Bush gave from the G8 conference: when terrorism continues, the "war on terrorism" continues. My post was an expression of doubt that a war--systematic violence that by definition includes a willingness to kill--is the proper response to terrorism.

Burke's post attempts to assuage my doubts in two ways:

First, he argues that at some point violence--a departure from the rules of civility--is required because, to borrow his metaphor, someone refuses to play by the rules of the game of civil society, or even refuses to acknowledge that the game exists. When terrorists throw the game board across the room, to borrow Burke's metaphor again, the game of civility is suspended. The pieces are scattered on the floor, the rules are not in force, and we are left in a position where the only way to right the board and get back into the game is to subdue the malcontent by force. If I understand the game metaphor, it is a version of the metaphor of a social contract. Both imagine civilized society as something to which different parties mutually consent. One of the rules of the game--or stipulations of the contract--is that parties will not do sociopathic things like detonate bombs in a London subway tunnel. When someone does do that, Burke suggests, they have in some sense alienated themselves from civilized society, "seceded" from "modernity," and thus forfeited whatever right they have to appeal to the rules when we detonate a bomb in their Afghan cave.

This metaphor of civilization as a consensual social agreement obviously has a great deal to recommend it, and because it does, it is worth being very precise about when the game has been thrown across the room, when we've gone off the map, when the contract is null and void, when the rules are no longer in force. But it's not clear to me from Burke's post where that bright line is--the line where we have crossed from a civilized state of society into a state of war.

For instance, is it simply the murder of innocents that means the rules of the game are waived? Does any act of murder constitute a forfeiture of a person's right not to be killed? If you believe in capital punishment, you believe that it does, but even in that case, you don't believe all the rules are suspended. You probably believe, for instance, that even a murderer deserves due process before being executed.

But a rationale for war has to accept that even those rules are temporarily waived. Burke, for instance, says that while military action is not the only or even the primary way to prosecute the war on terrorism, a successful missile strike on Osama bin Laden's hideout would be an acceptable--indeed, desirable--outcome of such a war. Burke therefore seems to imply that there must be something about terrorism that is fundamentally different about "ordinary" acts of violence or murder: those ordinary acts of murder break the rules of civilization's game, whereas terrorism constitutes a failure to even acknowledge the game, making it acceptable--indeed, desirable if necessary--to kill a terrorist even without due process.

But what is it about terrorism that makes it so extraordinary as an act of murder? "The consequence of [terrorists'] actions," Burke says, "is a non-consensual, non-democratic constraint on the freedom of individuals to do what they like, a deprivation of their rights." But isn't any act of murder that? Burke says that the terrorists who committed the recent subway bombings have probably "been living in London for some time, breathing its air, seeing its people. Whatever the first steps they took on the path to setting those bombs, the path ends at war with freedom itself, in consciousness of innocence of their victims." Is that true of every murderer in London? Is every murder an act of war with freedom itself, that therefore frees us from the ordinary rules of civility that require us not to kill? (Perhaps Burke would place stress on the idea that terrorists kill "in consciousness of innocence of their victims," but for all we know about terrorists, I doubt we can speculate with any confidence about their internal states of consciousness regarding the innocence of their victims.)

I guess what I'm coming around to is this crucial paragraph in Burke's post:
To play a game, both parties consent to play by the rules. Yes, sometimes one party cheats, but there is a big difference between the kind of cheating that preserves the game’s essential terms and the kind of systematic contempt for the game that ultimately destroys it--or the spoiler who throws the board across the room when they’re going to lose. If one party sits down at the table to play, and obeys the rules, and the other person won’t even acknowledge the game at all, then there are no constraints on either player. There is no game.
I'm just not clear what the difference is between the cheater and the spoiler, or how we could define this with precision.

What I'm about to say may open up a bigger can of worms than saying that I have doubts about war. But I might as well say that I also have doubts about a utilitarian vision of society as a contract or consensual game. The problem with such metaphors is that they don't give us a good answer for how to preserve civility if the fictive "consent" they imagine is withdrawn. At the very moment when we are in danger of running off the map--the moment when we most need a map to avoid getting lost--the map fails us. We walk around with what we think are stable ideas of where the edge of the map is and where it is not--school shooting: punishable by life imprisonment, serial killer: punishable by death with due process, terrorist attack: war--but on closer inspection, any definition of what makes terrorism a total withdrawal of consent seems to make anyone who commits a "non-consensual, non-democratic constraint on the freedom of individuals" seem like a spoiler too.

There are virtues, therefore, to a vision of civility as a kind of assent to certain rules, rather than a kind of consent, because on such a view the rules continue to guide us even when not everyone consents to them. Suppose one rule of civilization to which a civilized person must assent is that it is always wrong to kill another human being. In that case we would have no problem figuring out where to draw the line, no problem finding the edge of the map where we no longer have rules to guide us. The rule is simply and finally that we do not kill, no matter what is done to us. On this view of society, there would be no distinction between an "us" and a "them" that is relevant to the rule.

Burke says he sees no reason why forswearing violence should be a categorical imperative. He wants a world where there is no more Al-Qaeda (so do I), and he argues that one way to get to that world would be (among other things) to kill Osama bin Laden and some of his lieutenants. This is the second point at which Burke tries to assuage my doubts about war: it is an expedient to advance the Al-Qaeda-less future.

This comes close, in my mind, to saying that the end justifies the means: if we can get back to the game more quickly by exterminating spoilers, then we should. Burke doesn't say that, of course, and he offers a much more subtle account of the limited role of violence in our conflict with terrorists. But I worry that any argument in favor of violence--however limited--ultimately reduces to the argument that the end justifies the means. Moreover (and this is why it's dangerous to say that the end justifies the means) we don't even know that the means of violence will secure the end of a world without violence. A utilitarian rationale for war requires making a bet that war will produce peace, but thus far in the world's history, the house has won that bet every single time. So why do we keep going back to the same dealer's table?

Ralph Luker's post points to Randolph Bourne's "War is the Health of the State.". That essay was published posthumously after it was found wadded up in Bourne's trash bin, and frankly, I've been tempted to treat this post the same way. But if war is the health of the state, posting is the health of the blog. So I'll post despite my better judgment and ask for your further thoughts. I really am listening.

Thursday, July 07, 2005


Some doubts

John McGowan has an extremely thoughtful post on this morning's terrorist attacks in London. It raises a question I asked in the wake of January's tragic tsunami: Why can't we respond to manmade disasters in the same way we respond to natural ones? And the post is consonant, I think, with the aspiration of the Wendell Berry quote in my sidebar. Pacifists cannot always state with confidence that an absolute disavowal of violent force is the only realistic or pragmatic way to live in the world, but, like Berry and McGowan, I at least "wish to be a spokesman of the doubt that the great difficulties of our time can be solved by violence."

There are two ways to look at the death and destruction caused by a terrorist attack. The first is to see the attack as another tragic proof that violence destroys lives, answers no questions, opens holes in buses and hearts, dismembers. The first possible response, in other words, is to stare at the nauseating results of murder and mayhem, and to come away resolved not to resort to such murder and mayhem ourselves. The second way to look at a terrorist attack is to look quickly away from the attack itself and focus on the faceless terrorist behind it, to train our gaze on a shadowy enemy, instead of on the tangible presence or absence of suffering fellow human beings. This staring at the enemy naturally stokes our desire to do as we have been done by, to deal the death that we have been dealt. The first way of looking at a terrorist attack encourages a resolve to make peace, the second strengthens a resolve to make war.

Let us resolve to make peace. Let us resolve this in spite of how pretentious and quaint such a statement sounds, because peace is worth the appearance of pretense and the accusation of naivete. Let us resolve to make peace, and let us reject the insinuation that such resolve is somehow less sympathetic to the victims of violence than a resolution to kill and kill again. To disavow violence for the sake of revenge does not detract from the sorrow we feel for innocent deaths, because we could not feel more sorrow than we already do, no matter what response we determine to make. Whatever charges may be leveled at those who set their jaw in the direction of peace, stone-facedness is not among them. On the contrary, it is the empathetic capacity of the violent that must always be called into question, because those who are resolved to take an eye for an eye reveal that their empathy is limited to only certain examples of innocent dead. What needs to be called into question is not the motive of those who express doubts that violence can solve the problems of our time; rather, what needs to be called into question are the motives of those who can describe one violent death as a "barbaric" act and describe another violent death as "collateral damage."

If violence is barbaric, it is because the act itself is a departure from civility, not because a particular purveyor of violence is a barbarian while another is civilized. The civility of deeds are not judged separate and apart from the prior civility of the doer. Our civility, on the contrary, is judged in every present moment by our present deeds. We have no prior claim to civilization that cannot be called into question whenever we resort to a state--however temporary--in which some lives are judged worthy of being nasty, brutish, and short. No one deserves to be treated like a brute; no one deserves a life shorter than the already short lives that we are allotted; no nastiness excuses nastiness in return.

Because I feel this way (rightly or wrongly, pretentious or not), I must also be a spokesperson for the doubt that a war on terrorism is more civilized than terrorism itself. With all the feeling I can muster, I join with those who say that terrorist attacks are uncivil, destructive, evil. But I cannot join with those who go on to say that terrorists are themselves embodiments of evil, that the war on terror is a clash of civilizations instead of a mutual departure from the promise of peaceable civilization. I cannot go on to say that our "way of life" has been challenged; that "we" are not "them." What should distinguish us from them, if anything, is our rejection of a rhetoric that pits "us" against "them."

"We" are human beings, and any other antecedent for that pronoun is small and artificial in comparison. We should not respond to these attacks or any attacks by peering into the hearts of "them" and concluding that there is an irreducible kernel of evil there, against which our own hearts are impregnable. How ridiculous it is, for instance, to say that we are morally superior because we attempt to help people live in peace and banish poverty from the face of the earth, if that claim of moral superiority then justifies us in going to war, to wreak poverty and pain in another portion of the earth. Do we believe that, by our benevolent acts to some peoples of the earth, we accumulate licenses to visit shock and awe on other peoples of the earth? In comparison to that kind of pretense, the pretentiousness of pacifism will always be more sincere.

Let us resolve to make peace, even though that resolution will be mistaken by many as passivity. If the alternative is the activity of killing, of bombing a house for a bus, then let us be prepared to be called passive. But let us also be prepared to point out, as McGowan does, that peace can make claims on pragmatists at least as compelling as war. Have three years of war solved the difficulties of our time? Manifestly, no. Have three millennia of war brought us closer to peace? Will committing acts of violence that will be displayed on television screens in our enemies' homes help prevent these horrible scenes from being displayed on our television screens? Not if our enemies are anything like us, and they are.

Doubt war. If we cannot disavow it yet, if we cannot yet resolve to make peace, let us turn from sorrow to deepened skepticism about whether death-dealing is ever a civilized answer to the difficulties of our time. Let us doubt war.


History Carnival Call for Submissions

History Carnival Button The Big XII edition of the History Carnival will be hosted here at Mode for Caleb on July 15. Please "gmail" your nominations to "calebmcd" by the late evening of Bastille Day. Any posts on history are welcome! See the History Carnival homepage for more information.

Wednesday, July 06, 2005


Blogging in the Early Republic

While I was out of town the latest issue of Common-place went online, and it includes an essay I wrote on "Blogging in the Early Republic." Thanks to my fellow Cliopatria bloggers, Ralph Luker, Sharon Howard, and Jonathan Dresner, and others for linking! Feel free to use this post as an open thread for comments and criticisms; I'm interested in hearing from bloggers about my tentative interpretations of blogging, since "tentative" is exactly what they are.


I Meme, You Meme, We All Meme for Nice Memes

I'm back from a much-needed and relaxing vacation, and I'm now in the process of getting back in the saddle. Most of this afternoon was taken up with clearing my desk of a project I finished just before leaving--culling through library books to see which ones can be returned, filing notes and articles, etc.--and laying out my plans for the rest of the summer. I learned just before leaving that I'll be adjunct-ing for a course this fall; it was exciting news, but it makes it even more necessary (if that's possible) for me to be productive on the dissertation in the next two months.

On the same day I left, Scott McLeme(m)e graciously invited me to meme. I was also tapped to do The Book Meme a couple of weeks ago by Paul Musgrave and Jason at Gower Street. So, as Scott says, "Let's meme."

Here are Scott's questions:

(1) Imagine it’s 2015. You are visiting the library at a major research university. You go over to a computer terminal (or whatever it is they use in 2015) that gives you immediate access to any book or journal article on any topic you want. What do you look up? In other words, what do you hope somebody will have written in the meantime?

Wow. Scott plays hardball on the opening pitch. I found this to be the most difficult question of all, but I'm going to say that I look forward to a second novel from Edward Jones, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning The Known World.

(2) What is the strangest thing you’ve ever heard or seen at a conference? No names, please. Refer to "Professor X" or "Ms. Y" if you must. Double credit if you were directly affected. Triple if you then said or did something equally weird.

The setting is Memphis. Graceland. The scene opens on the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians. The occasion: the awards ceremony and presidential address. The ceremony begins with a performance by the recent winner of something called History Day, on which junior high school students compete by giving dramatic interpretations of historical events. The winner is a young woman who performs a monologue as Joan of Arc. Well, sort of a monologue. A piped-in tape provides the voices of Joan's inquisitors, while Joan stands on the stage in front of a couple hundred Americanist historians and engages in a teary dialogue with the disembodied recording. After Joan is sentenced to die, the presidential address begins. (The performance itself was not bad, just incongruous. This may be one of those "you had to be there" things, but I definitely think I remember it qualifying as "strange." Maybe you were present and can back me up on this.)

(3) Name a writer, scholar, or otherwise worthy person you admire so much that meeting him or her would probably reduce you to awestruck silence.

This has happened to me before. Herbie Hancock. I saw him on the same tour that produced Live at Massey Hall, and afterwards, he and Michael Brecker unexpectedly announced that they would sign autographs in the lobby of the concert hall. I raced back to my car, found the only jazz CD on board (a compilation that luckily had a Herbie tune), and then raced back to wait in line, only to then be dumbfounded when I got to the front. All I remember is Herbie asking for my name, commenting that "Caleb is a very old name," and myself saying, slackjawed, "Uhhhhhh." The signed CD ("To Caleb. Herbie Hancock.") is now framed and within sight of my desk.

As for scholars, probably Charles Taylor. But from his writings I imagine him as the kind of person who would be disarming instead of intentionally intimidating.

(4) What are two or three blogs or other Web sites you often read that don’t seem to be on many people’s radar?

I hope that my answers won't seem like backhanded compliments; I don't trust my own radar enough to know who's flying under the radars of others. But I really like Evan Roberts' Coffee Grounds, the group blog Horizon and its spin-off MRBFK. (Bobby Farouk's MRBFK is like Frasier to Horizon's Cheers.)

Jason Kuznicki, Julie Meloni, and Paul Musgrave were among my blog's first friends, and although they all have many readers, they all deserve many more.

Since this is a place where I can make a plug, I'll also mention Carlos Stouffer's Jesus Politics, even though I know it's already on many people's radars. Carlos compiles invaluable links to stories on religion and politics in America, and what I admire about his blog is how he manages to bring together representative links from both the Religious Right and (for want of a better term) the Religious Non-Religious-Right. If you read Jesus Politics long enough, it becomes clear that Carlos identifies more with the latter than with the former. But he is able to be a discriminating linker without being transparently judgemental, which makes Jesus Politics one of those rare places in cyberspace where the readership is extremely ideologically diverse. In the comments, Carlos engages his readers with a graciousness and compassion that is eminently worthy of emulation.

I'd like to pass Scott's meme to Ralph Luker, another one of my first blog friends, Scrivener, and Jo(e), even though she's just done another meme.

And here's the fabled Book Meme, in its Musgravian iteration:

1. Number of books I own. Somewhere between 500 and 600.

2. Last book(s) I bought. A new Borders just opened near our apartment, and my wife and I recently took advantage of a "Buy 2, Get 1" free table to purchase Ian McEwan's Atonement, Myla Goldberg's Bee Season, and Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita.

3. Last book I read. Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation. Currently reading David Reynolds' John Brown, Abolitionist and Dorothy Day's The Long Loneliness, along with sundry books for the dissertation.

4. Books that mean a lot to me. Or, a very partial list of books I'm partial to. This is a hard question to answer because it's hard to say what "mean" means. Some of the books below mean something to me because they are still lodged deep in my self or because they animate my current interests; others are farther than they once were from my core beliefs or tastes, but they meant a lot when I read them first, so they still mean something now. Others seem to me like models for the kind of book I hope to one day be able to write. Still others are on the list mainly because of some association in my mind with a meaningful time or place or person, all of which are hard for me to separate from the experience of reading a book. In one way or another, they all left a mark.

Carl Becker, The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers
Walter Brueggemann, The Land
William Cronon, Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West
David Brion Davis, Slavery and Human Progress
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk
Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose
Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures
Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory
Winthrop Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Toward the Negro, 1550-1812
John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century
Helen Keller, The Story of My Life
Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ
Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird
C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity
Edmund Morgan, The Puritan Dilemma
Walker Percy, The Moviegoer
David Remnick, Lenin's Tomb
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age
Virgil, The Aeneid
Robert Penn Warren, All the King's Men
Garry Wills, Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America
John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus

I could keep going ... or not.

If you haven't been tagged, feel free to join in the general meme-ing (Scott McLemee suggests that "meme" can be a verb, but if so it's hard to figure out how to spell the gerund form).

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