Tuesday, August 30, 2005


California warning

Yesterday the new mouse I ordered for the Powerbook, with nifty-keeno retractable USB cord, arrived in the mail. Happy with it so far, although when I opened the little manual to the last page, I saw this warning sticker, evidently added after the manuals had been printed:
The cord on this product contains lead, a chemical known to the State of California to cause cancer and birth defects or other reproductive harm. Wash hands after handling.
I'll leave it to the epistemologists to decide whether a State can know things. What I'm wondering is whether California knows something I don't. Most of what I can track down on the web suggests that the main hazard--such as there is--from leaded electronic cords is from ingestion. In other words, I shouldn't eat the mouse cord, and I should wash my hands before eating other things. Still ...


The first twenty minutes

Yesterday was the first day of class for the Introduction to U. S. History that I am teaching this fall. (Here's the syllabus I'm using; suggestions for future iterations are welcome!)

In all of the classes that I've taught so far, I've tried to follow this rule of thumb: On the first day of class, do not pass out the syllabus until halfway through the period. It's my belief that for those first twenty or thirty minutes, the attention and engagement of my students is about as undivided as it is ever going to be. But I know that the moment I pass out my syllabus, that attention will immediately be divided and diverted: red-tape questions about requirements for the course, poring over the syllabus to see if there's a paper. That's what most students expect for the first day of class, but that's another reason why those first twenty or thirty minutes are so potentially precious: they are some of the few minutes of the semester where I am virtually guaranteed the element of surprise.

The first twenty or thirty minutes of the semester are fertile soil for planting seeds of The Big Idea that I want students to leave the course with. By their nature, the first twenty minutes aren't good for going over minutiae; they are good for making a case to the students that what we will be doing is important and interesting. As I've talked about before in a post about my philosophy of teaching, one of The Big Ideas I want any student in my class to leave with is an understanding that talking about history is always a matter of selective emphasis. It doesn't take long to realize this on reflection: it is impossible to write a history that includes everything that just happened in the world in the last five minutes, much less in the last five or fifteen centuries, so when historians sit down to write a narrative of the past, they are always forced to make hard choices about what to include, choices guided by the problem they are trying to solve and by the boundaries of their subject (also chosen) that they have laid out.

But while that point may seem obvious on reflection, I don't want to take for granted that my students have so reflected (since I know there was surely a point in my life when I didn't reflect on these things much either). And I don't want to even begin a history course with the impression possibly floating around in some student's mind that this class will cover Everything You Need to Know about American history, that the boundaries placed on this course by the semester are somehow absolute. (New Kid on the Hallway has also recently talked about the importance of dispelling this idea.)

In an effort to convey these points in the first twenty minutes of class, here's what I did yesterday. After introducing myself and letting students know that I would be passing out the syllabus later in the class, I asked everyone to get out a sheet of paper. You have two minutes, I said, to write a history of the last five years. In response to any questions about what should be included ("our personal history? American history?") I simply say that there are no limitations: just a history of the last five years in two minutes. These won't be handed in so there's no need to worry about complete sentences: just write as much as you can or think you should. (I modified this from a similar drill that my wife, a brilliant high school social studies teacher, has used to great effect in her own classroom.)

After the two-minute drill is up, I make a list with students on the board of the kinds of things that made it into their histories--which events? which places and countries? what kinds of people? I make the list as exhaustive as possible, but then point out that it usually includes mostly the headline news of the last five years. If I'm lucky, a few events in students' personal lives make the list, along with more local connections to the headline news--the Olympics is mentioned, for instance, but since we're in Maryland, so is local hero Michael Phelps.

The point of this exercise, of course, is then to notice how much didn't make the list, and couldn't make the list, given the constraints of time that I placed on the students. But then I ask students whether everything could have made the list if I had made other rules for the drill--given them twenty minutes, for instance, or two years; limited the assignment to the history of the United States; asked them to write the history of the last fifty years instead of the last five; etc.

After this I talked a little bit about the required textbook for the course, which is America: A Narrative History, Brief Sixth Edition, by George Brown Tindall and David E. Shi. When I signed on to teach this course, I was at first unhappy to learn that all of the students taking U. S. history in the department would be using the same textbooks, and that the books had already been ordered so that I could not choose which one I wanted to use (or indeed, whether I wanted to use a textbook at all). But now I'm starting to think having a textbook for the class--perhaps especially one that would not have been my first choice--can be pedagogically useful. Just as Timothy Burke has advised against using airtight monographs in history classes, perhaps it's good to use a textbook precisely because it's possible to point out to students the necessary gaps and gaffes that a textbook includes, and to get them thinking about the contingency of historical writing.

So I pointed out that even textbook writers have to make difficult choices to boil down the past into the simulacra of a book. I asked students to get out their textbooks and I drew their attention to the cover. The title declares that this is a history of "America." But how is "America" defined? (Geographically? Then why not South America too? Politically? Then what about "America" before the "United States of America"?) The title also specifies that this is a "narrative" history. (Are there other ways of telling history? How would the book be different if it were a "documentary" history, for instance?). Narratives include characters, settings, turning points--all elements that a narrator has to select when constructing a particular story. Finally, I even have students notice that this textbook is a "sixth edition" (why would we need new and multiple editions for a book about stuff that happened centuries ago?) and that it is a "brief" edition.

That means what we have is an abbreviation of two historians' abbreviation of the past--or that part of it that they have carved out as their subject matter by using words like "America" and turning points like the Columbian contact with the "New World." (The "textbook analysis" idea I've cribbed from a favorite English professor as an undergraduate, who did something similar on the first day of a Shakespeare class by making us think about what it meant to be reading the "Norton" edition of Shakespeare, "based on the Oxford edition." I remember it being eye-opening to actually look at the cover of the textbook as if it were a bearer of meaning too, instead of just something to hold pages--the real bearers of meaning--together.)

Only after all this did I pass out the syllabus. That allowed me, too, to help give the assignments for the course a pedagogical rationale. For example, for the major writing portion of the course, students will be selecting one book from a list of six works of history that I have selected. Over the course of the semester, they will be reading that book and writing about it in some discussion boards I've set up on Blackboard for the course. Had I passed out the syllabus first, that would have just looked like hard work. (And I realize that to many of the students it probably still does.) But now that I've talked a bit about The Big Idea of the course, I can make the case that this assignment reinforces that. If all historians make choices and selections when telling narratives of the past, then that means we need more than a textbook. Subjects or people that receive a sentence in the textbook (or, of course, no sentences at all) have entire narratives written about them, a point worth stressing with students. I also like the fact that students have to make a choice about what to read, leaving the other books unread; hopefully that reinforces, somewhere, that in choosing to read this historian's narrative, there are still many narratives to be read, and many more stories to be told.

There is no end to the narratives that we can choose to tell about the past. Our choices will be constrained, of course, by the sources left to us (there are some stories that cannot be told) and by what the sources themselves tell us. But there will still be more stories that can be told, even after we've spent our entire lives telling stories about the past--in part because by the end of our lives there will be more "past" to tell about. It's possible to make this point in a dour way, by emphasizing the futility of it all (why attempt to write or teach history if you can't "get it all in"?) or by being cynical about historical writing (if all historians make choices, then how can I trust what any one narrative tells me?). But what excites me most about history is precisely the knowledge that we will not run out of narratives to tell. One reason I'm a fan of jazz is because I know that I will never reach a point where I have heard all the jazz there is to hear: there is always another album, another take, another rendition to keep my mind awake. I'm a fan of history, I think, for the same reasons.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Friday, August 26, 2005


Friday Shuffle for Michael Brecker

Recently I learned that the great tenor saxophonist, Michael Brecker, has been diagnosed with a grave case of bone marrow cancer. (Hat-tip: Jazz and Blues Music Reviews.) His family is currently searching worldwide for potential blood and bone marrow donors to save his life, and is also encouraging contributions to The Marrow Foundation, which helps fund testing for those who would like to be added to an international registry of potential donors. These financial contributions, of course, assist not just Brecker's family, but other families in the same position. (And speaking of families that could use some help, I should have linked to this before now.)

Even if you are not a jazz fan, chances are you have heard Brecker play, since he has worked as a sideman for countless popular musicians, from John Lennon to Joni Mitchell, from James Brown to Chaka Khan, from Paul Simon to Carly Simon.

Last night I sent a brief email to Mr. Brecker through his website to let him know that he and his family are in my thoughts and prayers. It was a small thing to do, too small. But I wanted to let him know that I'll never forget seeing him perform at Meyerhoff Symphony Hall in Baltimore with Herbie Hancock, as part of the tour that produced the album, Live at Massey Hall. I especially won't forget his solo rendition of John Coltrane's "Naima," a stunning tour de force that was even more impressive and moving (as I remember it) than the version that made it onto the album.

After he finished the piece and the thunderous applause died down, I remember a voice from the balcony shouting, "Play it again!" The audience laughed, and Mr. Brecker jokingly leaned into the microphone again as if he was about to comply. I know I speak on behalf of all of Mr. Brecker's fans in looking forward to hearing him "play it again."

This week's shuffle contains some songs from my iTunes folder with Michael Brecker on sax.

1. "Delta City Blues," by Michael Brecker, from Two Blocks from The Edge
2. "Slippery When Wet," by Chick Corea, from Three Quartets
3. "Niño," by Michael Brecker, from Two Blocks from the Edge
4. "Bye George," by Michael Brecker, from Two Blocks from the Edge
5. "I Want You," by Horace Silver, from The Hardbop Grandpop
6. "Seven Days," by Michael Brecker, from The Nearness of You: The Ballad Book
7. "How Long 'Til the Sun," by Michael Brecker, from Two Blocks from the Edge
8. "Hairy Canary," by Chick Corea, from Three Quartets
9. "Diggin' on Dexter," by Horace Silver, from The Hardbop Grandpop
10. "Misstery," by Herbie Hancock et al., from Live at Massey Hall
11. "Naima," by Michael Brecker (solo), from Live at Massey Hall

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Thursday, August 25, 2005


The reaction to Robertson

There is absolutely nothing defensible about what Pat Robertson said on Monday. His remarks deserve the kind of response they have gotten from Reverend Graylan Scott Haglar and Rep. Barbara Lee, who rightly said that "the call for murder from someone who claims to be a man of God is an insult to people of faith everywhere.”

I also think, however, that these kinds of public pile-ons, where everyone and his dog hastens to agree that so-and-so is a dog, have limited value. Yes, Robertson's remarks deserve to be--must be--condemned by every right-thinking person. But that's just the thing: because everyone agrees about that, condemning Robertson's remarks easily becomes a reassuring kind of confirmation that "I am a right-thinking person." And when that happens, when criticism becomes so unanimous and overweening that the offender stands alone with his sin, the ability to examine ourselves quickly weakens. The same kind of thing happened, I suggested, with the comments of Sen. Dick Durbin earlier this summer. The condemnation there was not nearly as unanimous as the condemnation of Robertson's comments seem to be. But in Durbin's case, too, the collective rush to say that we Americans, in all our righteous fury, simply will not stand for that, makes us rush right past the uncomfortable question of what we do stand for, what we have stood for in the past.

The responses of government officials to Robertson's remarks have been unanimous. They do "not represent the policy of the United States." Assassination of democratically elected leaders is "against the law. Our department doesn't do that type of thing." But what is the policy of the United States? What kinds of things are done in our name? Are they morally superior to the wrong of murdering a head of state who is regarded as a threat to our security? Those are the kinds of disturbing questions that are easily put out of mind during fifteen-minute hates, no matter at whom they are directed.

Here is the stated national security policy of the Bush administration: the United States does not have to suffer an attack before striking militarily at a target deemed to pose an imminent threat to the nation. "The greater the threat, the greater is the risk of inaction—and the more compelling the case for taking anticipatory action to defend ourselves, even if uncertainty remains as to the time and place of the enemy’s attack. To forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act preemptively."

Now, I'm aware that preemptive military strikes are theoretically distinguishable from assassinations. But it is harder to distinguish them than it should be. For example, is the difference that a military strike is preceded by a formal declaration of war? The American invasion of Iraq, defended by its architects as a preemptive strike against an imminent threat, was preceded by no such declaration, and one of its earliest events was a series of decapitation attempts on a head of state. Those assassination attempts were defended as consistent with the national security strategy of the United States as outlined by this administration; were they different from the talk of assassination now being condemned by administration officials as not the policy of the United States?

I'm aware that a careful account could be given that would distinguish between what Robertson is calling for in the case of Chavez and what the Bush administration actively tried to do in the case of Saddam Hussein. Presumably, for supporters of the Bush administration's policy on "preemptive strikes," the difference would hinge on Chavez's being democratically elected.

But here's my point: piling on Pat Robertson gives the administration an opportunity to wash its hands of such "inappropriate" remarks, to distance itself from the clear outer boundaries of acceptable policy, and thus to shield its policy from examination by saying that it at least does not stand for that. I'm not saying that the Bush administration is responsible for what Robertson said (Pat alone must answer for that). But if you systematically redefine our national security strategy to justify preemptive strikes against states and heads of states, if you erode respect for international law by refusing to participate in international criminal courts, if you routinely set aside conventions of warfare as not applicable to us while wryly noting that we abide by them anyway, if you arrogate and explicitly articulate the right to change regimes when they pose threats to us, even when the rest of the world is not convinced that they do ... if you do all these things over the course of four years, then it's a bit much to slack your jaw when Pat Robertson floats crazy proposals for assassination and say "Gosh golly gee, did he say that out loud? That's illegal! We don't do that! He's definitely not one of us."

If you're the Bush administration, you have to be willing to ask the harder question: once we start relaxing the accepted conventions of just warfare and flouting international law and institutions, can we be surprised that fringe elements of our constituency will start to push things this far? And if you're a concerned American, you have to be willing to ask: if I don't agree with Pat Robertson's national security strategy, do I agree with President Bush's? If so, what reasons do I have for viewing the two strategies as morally and legally distinct?

Monday, August 22, 2005


Tuckahoe Creek

I'm back from a wonderful anniversary weekend at the beach. On the return trip, we also made a slight detour near Easton, Maryland, to see this historical marker placed at Frederick Douglass's putative birthplace, on the banks of the Tuckahoe River.

I say putative only because, as with most historical markers, it's difficult to imagine how this particular spot could be fixed upon as the spot. Historical monuments and landmarks always play a delicate balancing act: on the one hand, their attraction to tourists, passers-by, and history nerds like myself stems from their claims to authenticity and immediacy ("you were there ..."), but on the other hand, those claims are always undermined by the experience of standing in those spots. You go to see the "real" John Brown's Fort, for instance, and discover that the building has been moved four times, reconstructed several times, and now rests 150 feet from its original spot, which has been buried by a railroad embankment. You go to see the "real" Dunker Church at Antietam and learn that it was completely destroyed by a storm, and that the current reconstructed building contains "some materials" (one brick? two? a beam?) from the original building.

Here's the plaque. You may be able to make out the sign for the "Tuckahoe River" in the bridge in the background. The bridge also has a sign dedicating it to Douglass.

And here's another view:

If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you'll see that there's an empty beer case in the lower left corner. Sigh.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Anniversary Shuffle

I know there is not evidence of it here, but I actually have been blogging lately. In the background, I'm working on two longish posts, one on Frederick Douglass's first tour of Great Britain, and one on the antebellum period's version of Godwin's Law. I've also finally gotten around to reading this book, in the hopes of reporting on it soon.

But time for working on the posts has been limited by work. This week I've been finalizing syllabi for the two courses I'm teaching this fall. Over here, I'm teaching my first survey of U. S. history to 1865. And over there, I'm teaching a seminar on African American intellectual history.

More importantly, today is our fifth wedding anniversary, so my best friend and I are headed out of town for the weekend to celebrate.

Before we go, here's a Friday shuffle:

1. "Circle," by Sarah McLachlan, from Fumbling Towards Ecstasy
2. "The Magdalene Laundries," by The Chieftains, with Joni Mitchell, from Tears of Stone
3. "From Sinai to Canaan -- Part II," by Chris Thile, from Not All Who Wander Are Lost
4. "A Whisper," by Coldplay, from A Rush of Blood to the Head
5. "Pepita," by Calexico, from Feast of Wire
6. "All the Right Reasons," by The Jayhawks, from This is Americana compilation
7. "What Is It," by Cassandra Wilson, from a Paste sampler
8. "Stay," by Alison Krauss, from Forget About It
9. "See You," by Foo Fighters, from The Colour and the Shape
10. "Pastures New," by Nickel Creek, from Nickel Creek

Monday, August 15, 2005


History Carnival

The latest History Carnival is up at Philobiblion!

Saturday, August 13, 2005


Revolutions never go backwards, right?

Google Print, which I talked about in an earlier post on the keyword revolution, has temporarily suspended its scanning of copyrighted library books due to complaints from publisher trade groups and copyright holders. Google will resume scanning in November, but in the interim, publishers can tell Google which books they do not want scanned and included in the Google Print index, much like web publishers can tell Google's spiders not to crawl their sites. See the Google Blog, the LA Times, and the NY Times for details.

It certainly seems like this conflict is not going to be resolved with legislation or a decision in court. The LA Times suggests that legal opinion on who would win a trial on the matter is divided.


The teacher, the class, and the wardrobe

Mel has two interesting posts wondering about what professors should (or should not) wear in the classroom, and she points to three recent articles in the Chronicle on the same subject. Mel's second post also points to Profgrrrrl's post on these pieces.

Like Mel, I don't think that one could formulate universal rules of dress for professors, in part because the kinds of things that clothes signify can depend on the part of the country you're in, what kind of school you're teaching at, what kinds of clothes your students wear, etc., etc. And I also agree with Mel that clothes are only one part of the many signals that we send to our students in the classroom--signals about what we are like, what our class will be like, what we expect of students, what we expect of ourselves, etc. etc. Still, after those considerations are taken into account, I also agree with Mel that
To claim that our dress and self-presentation has no impact on students is as false I think as it would be to say that it is the only thing that matters. It's one of many things that mix into the equation. But it is something that we have control over (I can't change my height, for instance) and is therefore worth thinking about.
The one thing I would add to Mel's points--and the points made by the Chronicle authors--is that our clothing as professors is not just about self-presentation, or at least it doesn't have to be. Most of the comments in these posts and articles have to do with what we communicate about ourselves by what we wear: are we trying to exude authority or accessibility? are we dressing to impress? are we trying to draw a clear and visible distinction between ourselves from our students?

But dress does not just communicate things about us; it can also communicate things about occasions. When I wear a tie and jacket to a wedding or a funeral, my clothing has less to do with recognizing me than it does with my recognition that these events are uniquely meaningful. I'm not primarily saying something about my self so much as I am saying something about the social setting I am in--its seriousness and significance.

In my experience teaching so far, I have usually worn at least a tie to class, and if not a tie then a jacket, and if not a tie or a jacket, at least a button-down shirt and slacks. When I reflect on why, I'm sure part of it has to do (as it has for Mel) with my closeness in age to my students. But I think it also has to do with my wanting to communicate to students that class is an important part of my day and week, that I take it seriously. There's certainly a way in which one could communicate this message in an overbearing way, but I don't think that dressing "up" a bit necessarily puts students off, especially when the other signals that one sends as a teacher make the classroom feel open and the instructor accessible.

A couple of years ago I read Parker Palmer's book The Courage to Teach, and it's one of those books that has risen in my estimation retrospectively; I appreciate things about it now that I didn't really get when I was reading it. One of the things Palmer stresses is that many of our choices as teachers can be governed either by fear or by courage. "As a teacher," says Palmer, "I am at my worst when fear takes the lead in me, whether that means teaching in fear of my students [e.g. worrying that they will see through the mask of authoritativeness that I put up] or manipulating their fears of me [e.g. putting up a mask of authoritativeness]." In contrast to letting fear take the lead in our teaching, Palmer urges us to let our teaching be shaped by what he calls the "grace of great things." When we teach a class, we are inviting our students to gather with us around the "great things" that our discipline studies--its motivating questions, its central themes, its practical applications. These are the things that drew us to our disciplines in the first place, but fear of students (or of administrators or colleagues) often distracts us from those "great things" and makes our selves the primary object of our focus as teachers.

One thing I need to think more about is whether this distinction could have relevance to my wardrobe choices. Am I dressing "up" to keep the fear at bay? The fear that my students will not respect me, that they will discover gaps in my knowledge, that my colleagues will think of me as a subaltern rather than a peer? Or am I dressing "up" for the same reason I dress up to go to a wedding--because when I teach, I want to communicate to my students that we are in the presence of "great things"? If sometimes I know the answer has more to do with fear, I want at least to aspire to be a teacher for whom the "grace of great things" casts out fear.

I wonder, on the other hand, whether my freedom to muse on these things is in part a luxury. I'm aware that clothing and self-presentation does have to do with local politics and power structures within different universities; I'm sure I am to some extent free from the kind of surveillance, formal or informal, that is focused on the wardrobes of other academics. That's why I wouldn't want to make these reflections into some kind of categorical imperative. But I do think it's interesting that discussions of our sartorial choices as professors tend to center almost exclusively on what they communicate to our students about ourselves. Is it possible that our clothes also send a signal to our students (again, only one signal among many) about how we regard class as a "special occasion" of sorts, special because of the significance that we invest in our areas of study? I'm not saying that sense of significance can only be conveyed by dressing "up," but I do think it can be a reason for dressing "up" that is at least partly distinguishable from a desire to perform a certain self-image in the classroom.


Friday (Central Time) Shuffle

Here's a shuffle that is belated because we just got back from seeing The March of the Penguins. Amazing film.

1. "Floating" by Sun Kil Moon, from Ghosts of the Great Highway
2. "Painter Song" by Norah Jones, from Come Away With Me
3. "Wires in the Sky" by Dawn Kinnard, from a Paste sampler
4. "Don't Let Me Down," by The Beatles
5. "Skin Is, My," by Andrew Bird, from The Mysterious Production of Eggs
6. "P. S. (New Version)" by Toad the Wet Sprocket, from P. S.
7. "Stay," by Alison Krauss, from Forget About It
8. "The Naming of Things," by Andrew Bird, from The Mysterious Production of Eggs
9. "Cold Ground," by Rusty Truck, from a Paste sampler
10. "With or Without You," by U2, from Joshua Tree

Thursday, August 11, 2005



I dream of a quiet man
who explains nothing and defends
nothing, but only knows
where the rarest wildflowers
are blooming, and who goes,
and finds that he is smiling
not by his own will.

-- Wendell Berry, from Given: Poems

* * *

"Uncertainty as to life's purpose is much in vogue today. So too are the relativistic notions that would consign life's purpose to a matter of taste. The agony of life is uncertainty and the rationalization is that uncertainty is certain. However, the plain truth is that for all our anguish we treasure uncertainty. Doubt forestalls action. The problem with life's purpose is that we know damn well what it is but are unwilling to face the changes in our lives that a commitment to self-transcendence, to being the best human being we could possibly be, would entail. It wearies us just thinking about it. So we rationalize that it's all "relative," or that we're already doing enough and don't have time. Worst of all we rationalize that those who do accept the challenges inherent in self-transcendence are uniquely gifted and specially graced."

-- August Turak, from "Brother John"

* * *

"Americans, unhappily, have the most remarkable ability to alchemize all bitter truths into an innocuous but piquant confection and to transform their moral contradictions, or public discussion of such contradictions, into a proud decoration, such as are given for heroism on the field of battle."

-- James Baldwin, from "Many Thousands Gone," in Notes of a Native Son

* * *

"To be impenitent is not (or not always) to be bold and hardened in vice, a Byronic villain shouting defiance; it is more often to be afraid of looking at yourself and afraid of changing yourself."

-- Rowan Williams, from The Truce of God

* * *

"It is a good lesson--though it may often be a hard one--for a man who has dreamed of literary fame, and of making for himself a rank among the world's dignitaries by such means, to step outside the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at."

-- Nathaniel Hawthorne, from The Scarlet Letter

Wednesday, August 10, 2005


Reply to Sandefur

In a post over at Positive Liberty, Timothy Sandefur writes:
I’ve never been sympathetic to the argument that our occupation of Iraq is bad because it “aids in the radicalization” of locals. This would seem to suggest that if we just ignored them, they wouldn’t want to kill us and their own people, which I find very doubtful. These people are “radicalized” by political and religious leaders who lie to them. It is no more our fault for “radicalizing” them than it is our fault for “radicalizing” criminals when we send a SWAT team in after a bank robber.
Sandefur is not alone, I think, in doubting that those who are already terrorists would immediately stop being terrorists if we brought an immediate end to our occupation of Iraq. But Sandefur, like some others, seems to go a step farther. He doubts that those who have become terrorists since our occupation of Iraq started have been influenced at all in their decision by our occupation. In other words, he thinks, or seems to me to think, that whatever the processes are that turn non-terrorists into terrorists, those processes have no causal relationship whatsoever to our actions. The only event that has any causal relationship to the making of terrorists is that their "political and religious leaders ... lie to them."

Implicit in this view is an extremely cynical view of human behavior that I do not think Sandefur accepts. On his view, a certain group of people--he uses the unspecific "them," and the antecedent is not clear--are so captive to the lies that are told them that they are powerless to resist their own deception, incapable of discovering that something is an untruth. That, at least, seems to be the grounds on which Sandefur assumes that nothing we do can change what they do, because so long as they are told lies, they will be radicalized.

This theory of terrorism, though, is far too underdetermined. Other "locals" in Iraq heard lies from their political and religious leaders and yet have not become terrorists. So as a causal explanation for the radicalization of "locals" into insurgents, the fact that terrorists were lied to has an extremely modest amount of explanatory power. Yet Sandefur gives it so much explanatory power that it justifies dismissing any suggestion that our own occupation has had any role at all in radicalizing "locals." Indeed, these unspecific "lies," told to an unspecific "them," are such a powerful cause of what makes terrorists become terrorists that we can be "doubtful" that anything we do--even if we did nothing at all--would stop the chain reaction: Leaders tell the locals lies; locals believe lies; locals become terrorists.

Can Sandefur really mean that this is what the "radicalization" of terrorists boils down to? Does he think that the "locals" affected either directly or indirectly by our occupation of Iraq are so subservient to social structures, so credulous that their only motive for action is obedience to a command? For someone as committed to the classical liberal view of human nature as I know Sandefur is, that seems an odd thing to believe about any rational human person, much less an entire group of people.

Monday, August 08, 2005


Apple update

As I briefly mentioned in a comment below, I've been having sporadic problems with the wireless network that I set up with my new Powerbook. The problem seemed, at first, to be a defective Airport Express base station, because for no apparent reason, my computer would occasionally lose contact with the base station. Sometimes it was even unable to find the base station again after it had been reset. And even when it could, I ended up having to reconfigure all of my Internet connection settings, reinstall the USB printer that was plugged into the base station, etc. Not ideal.

So at first I thought it was the base station, which I took back to the Apple store on Friday night and exchanged for a new one. But then this afternoon, after humming along fine for almost three days (which would have been the new record), the base station disappeared again. I called Apple support again, now convinced that the base station itself was not defective, and was connected to a "product specialist." (Despite my problems, by the way, I've been very impressed by Apple's support line.) He hypothesized (and it looks like he was right) that there are too many wireless networks nearby competing for the attention of my base station. To make a long story short, he had me plug the base station directly into the computer with an Ethernet cable and configure it so that it remained permanently on one channel, instead of scanning automatically for an open channel. I think that might have done the trick ... or at least I hope so.

Sorry for the techno-babble, but this really has been consuming far too many of my waking moments over the past several days. I've also been working longer hours on the dissertation as the semester approaches, so ... between getting set up with the new computer and tinkering with chapters, it's been difficult to find time to blog.

Fortunately, my fellow bloggers at Cliopatria are not stuck in any such lull. Go check out the latest Cliopatria symposium and marvel at the site's fancy new design! (The design is the work of Jeremy at ClioWeb.) Jason Kuznicki has also been busy turning Positive Liberty into a fine-looking group blog with an all-star cast.

P.S. I also followed Streak's advice and bought a Radtech screen protector for the Powerbook, which arrived today. Very nice! (FYI, I ordered it from AllAboutThe Accessories, found via Froogle, which had a slightly lower price. The shipping and service were both speedy.)

Sunday, August 07, 2005



I hadn't thought of diagnosing my recent sluggishness on the blog this way, but it bears consideration. (Thanks, Tony.)

Saturday, August 06, 2005


Moral/Magical realism

Over the last couple of days I've been reading some of the novellas in Richard Wright's first book, Uncle Tom's Children. "Fire and Cloud," in particular, was gripping, in a grabs-your-lapels and won't-let-go kind of way.

If I made a list of the works of fiction that have insisted on my reading them, I would probably find that most of them can be described as dramatizations of moral decision. And Wright does this particularly well: "Fire and Cloud," for instance, revolves around a central character who is torn by choices and relationships that compete for his attention and demand his action. Put it that way, and it sounds like a shrug-your-shoulders kind of story. But trust me, you won't be able to look away.

The devices that Wright uses to narrate his character's moral crisis are not hard to figure out. Early in the story, the pastor in "Fire and Cloud" comes home to find five parties waiting for him in his church--his family, his starving congregants, a group of deacons that are divided in their loyalties to the pastor, two members of the Communist Party with whom he has been meeting, and, finally, the mayor of the town, who has come to scare the pastor into abandoning the Communists. They are all in the church at the exact same time, leaving the pastor to figure out how to keep each group from seeing the other. His divided mind is represented so literally that it almost seems too easy, too unrealistic, to dramatize the pastor's moral indecision in such a straightforward way.

But is it really that unrealistic? Perhaps this is what life really is like--moral perplexity and conflict crowds in on us, forcing us (in many cases) to do like the pastor, to usher different groups of people, each representing a different aspect of our conscientious selves, into different rooms and corners of our lives, hoping to avoid the moral confrontation that we know is unavoidable but nonetheless want to avoid. It may seem "unrealistic" for Wright to place the different sides of the pastor's life in such literal proximity, unrealistic in the same way that "magical realism" seems hard to believe. Indeed, it's almost as hard to believe that the pastor has the mayor in one room and the Communists in another room as it would be to believe Wright if he made the pastor have a conversation with a talking crucifix. And yet, just as surely as this moral confrontation seems unreal, it seems real--the real-est thing of all.

I speak here from a position of complete ignorance about most literary criticism, but it strikes me that the contradiction at the heart of "magical realism"--that it suspends the reader's disbelief at the same time that it strives for, and achieves, a breathtaking verisimilitude--is also the contradiction that makes Wright's form of "moral realism" so effective, just as it is also effective (I think) in writers like Flannery O'Connor or Dostoevsky or Graham Greene. You almost can't believe that their characters are really involved in such palpable moral dilemmas, and yet those dramatized moral decisions come so close to capturing your lived experience that you can't not believe the story. More than that, you can't put it down or stop turning the pages.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Apple, here I am!

I mentioned that I had been contemplating buying a PowerBook. Last night, I finally acted! This is my new PowerBook G4's inaugural post.

To state the obvious: I have not been posting. The lull started the day after my blogiversary, when I went to Philadelphia for the annual SHEAR meeting, which was excellent. SHEAR's reputation for collegiality precedes it, and I was not disappointed. Last week I was busy catching up after the conference. This past weekend, a wonderful visit from family was a welcome break from work. We took a trip to Harpers Ferry (yes, that Harpers Ferry) and Antietam on Monday, and yesterday was my birthday (not to mention the date of my new birth as a happy Apple customer).

So things have been busy but good. To state the ambiguous: Posts forthcoming.

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