Friday, March 31, 2006


Friday shuffle

Been a long time since I've done one of these, so here goes:

1. "You've Got Her in Your Pocket," by The White Stripes, from Elephant
2. "Ants Marching" (live), by Dave Matthews Band, from Remember Two Things
3. "Come Down In Time," by Elton John, from Tumbleweed Connection
4. "So Much," by The Sundays, from Static and Silence
5. "Gravity," by Alison Krauss & Union Station, from Lonely Runs Both Ways
6. "End of the Day," by Beck, from Sea Change
7. "The Golden Dream," by Erin McKeown, from We Will Become Like Birds
8. "Kamera," by Wilco, from Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
9. "Black Cadillac," by Roseanne Cash, from Black Cadillac
10. "Big Yellow Taxi," by Joni Mitchell, from Miles of Aisles [Live]


On nations and immigrants

It may become apparent quickly that I've been watching too many reruns of The West Wing. Nonetheless, this is how it seems to me today: Immigration is a policy issue that proves just how salient the nation-state remains, even in our putatively global age. Not all, of course, see it that way. Some would argue that the global migration of millions of people is steadily eroding the sovereignty of nation-states, who are ill-equipped to stop or control such massive diasporas. And some would argue that since we are therefore entering a postnational age in which transnational flows of people, capital, and goods will displace the power of the modern state, we should also cease to be so concerned with the rights that inhere in being a "citizen" of a nation. Instead, according to this view, we should become more concerned with the rights that inhere in being a member of the human species. We should view individuals first and foremost as citizens of the world, not as citizens of a particular nation-state.

But as recent debates over illegal immigration have shown, we still live in a world where human rights are most likely to be secured by the granting of citizenship rights--or, conversely, a world in which human rights are often most threatened by the denial of civil rights. It's of little value to declare an illegal immigrant in Los Angeles a citizen of the world when Congress is threatening to make that same immigrant a felon for failing to become a citizen of the United States and is threatening, moreover, to prosecute its own citizens for aiding a certain class of non-citizens. The salient issue here is whether one belongs to a particular national community or not. And in this context, if you want to protect a person's human rights, you had best argue, not for the irrelevance of national citizenship altogether, but rather for an expanded and flexible definition of the national community that finds a place for illegal immigrants under the legal umbrella of the United States.

In short, notwithstanding the myriad forces of globalization, the distribution of civil rights in a democratic nation-state is one of the primary places where the rubber meets the road for a believer in the value of human rights. Put it this way: if you want, in the immediate short term, to defend the right of a Californian to give wages to an undocumented worker trying to feed an impoverished family of four, which is your best practical move? To appeal to the United Nations for the recognition of that right? Or to argue for laws within the United States that will protect that right? If the answer seems obvious, then it is also obvious that the idea of national citizenship has not gone the way of the dinosaurs yet. Whatever its shortcomings, the nation still plays a powerful mediating role in relationships between people.

If determining the contours of national communities still matters, even in a world criss-crossed by diasporic migrations, then there is still a place in the liberal universe for a certain kind of nationalism. On most days, I'm divided within myself on this point, but recent debates over illegal immigration highlight for me why I don't want to let go entirely of the idea that American nationalism can be a pragmatic good. It may strike many opponents of the House Republicans' immigration plan that American nationalism is precisely the problem with their rhetoric and their proposals: it's nationalism that underwrites the poisonous sneers about unassimilated Mexicans; nationalism that stirs up xenophobic fears about immigrants; nationalism that serves as a mask for a deeper racism that dares not speak its name. To be sure, nationalism does often do those things; it never is and never has been an unqualified good. But insofar as nations still matter, it is a mistake to conclude that nationalism is always an unqualified evil. Instead, it seems to me, the better thing to do is to articulate and then defend to the utmost a kind of nationalism that is humble rather than chauvinistic and hospitable rather than xenophobic.

We need not to dismiss the value of nationalism, but instead to detail and celebrate a vision of the nation that strives to become progressively more and more inclusive, a nation that strains itself to what seems like the breaking point to accommodate new compatriots. What if our nationalism trumpeted the virtues of this kind of nation: a nation that shoulders mutual burdens and sacrifices collectively, not for the sake of putting boots on foreign ground in order to "spread democracy," but instead for the sake of realizing and advertising democratic ideals in the way we treat the foreigners who put their boots on our ground.

The rhetoric of one side of the immigration debates says that we cannot afford to have 11 million illegal immigrants because immigrant abuses of the "welfare state" will bankrupt us. But let's be clear about what's bankrupting us right now: it's not that we're giving away oodles of medicine, money, and tuition waivers to the poor among us. What's straining our coffers to the breaking point is not the "welfare state," but the warring state, whose costs now annually dwarf the costs of our increasingly anemic social welfare programs. If we want to make room for illegal immigrants in our economy and in the welfare state, the obvious first step is not to remove people from our country but to remove ourselves from other people's countries.

Why should we move over so that 11 million uninvited guests can sit down at the table? For the same reason that President Bush argues we should be in Iraq or Afghanistan. Because as a nation we are committed to the idea that all men are created equal, entitled by inalienable right to the pursuit of happiness. Republicans and their critics need not differ on that essentially nationalistic point. The crucial divide between Right and Left need not be, as is so often assumed, that the one stands for patriotism and the other stands for rootless cosmopolitanism and anti-Americanism. Rather, the crucial divide comes from a difference of opinion on the best way of marshaling our limited national resources to realize the ideals to which we are committed as a nation. Some say we should wield our power to demolish governments and create new ones dedicated to the principle that all men are created equal, to expand the boundaries of our ideological influence in the world. I say we should wield our power, instead, to push our principles to their farthest conceivable limits here. We can first demonstrate our commitment to the equality of all men and women by treating equally all those men and women who fall within the purview of our national sovereignty, even as we continue to declare that the principle itself is not limited by that purview.

Notice that what I'm not questioning here is that the United States is a great nation and can be an even greater one. I'm not denying, as critics of our military ventures abroad often are accused of doing, that the aspirations of the United States are in many ways admirable, or that in many ways they express the common aspirations of all human beings for freedom from tyranny, human dignity, and personal security. I'm not, in other words, pooh-poohing nationalism itself but instead urging the channeling of such nationalist feelings in other directions. I do not want to be mistaken for claiming (and I don't think frequent readers will mistake me for claiming) that the United States is a perfect representative of the ideals it claims to represent. Far from it. Its history is a record of democratic successes overshadowed by horrible failures. But because getting our national ideals right still matters so insistently to real people living within our borders, our task should be to move ourselves more and more from under the shadow of our failures, to redeem our checkered past--if such a thing is possible--by reaching for a charitable future. And to do that, cultivating a sense of togetherness as a national community can be a boon rather than a bane.

This is a point similar to the one that historian David Hollinger made in his 1995 book, Postethnic America, a slim volume reissued in 2000 that still has much to say to us in 2006. Although his primary interlocutors were defenders of multiculturalism in the 1980s and 1990s, Hollinger was also trying to stake out a qualified sense in which nationalism and the nation are worth saving and savoring. For him, the primary challenge we face as a national community is in trying to answer the question of how wide we should draw the circle of the "we," and our highest challenge as a nation is to draw that circle as widely as possible without demanding that everyone within it surrender their affiliation with smaller ethnic, cultural, religious, or linguistic groups. In an eloquent postscript to the 2000 edition of the book, Hollinger defended the value of a "national solidarity tight enough to mobilize action on common challenges and loose enough to militate against a replay of the chauvinisms of the past." While decrying a kind of American exceptionalism that exempts the United States from the common bar of nations, or that envelops all of the nation's actions in a mantle of schmaltz and self-congratulation, Hollinger nonetheless argued that "the United States now finds itself in a position to develop and act upon a cultural image as a national solidarity committed--but often failing--to incorporate individuals from a great variety of communities of descent, on equal but not homogeneous terms, into a society with democratic aspirations inherited largely from England."

As Hollinger immediately states, "there is much more to the United States than this," and historical narratives of the nation can find nearly infinite ways of complicating that one-sentence summary. But if we had to stake the flag to one sentence, there are worse ones available. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that this is the nation we are proud of and the nation that we want to improve: a nation that tries to incorporate as many different individuals as possible into a democratic society without forcing those individuals into a stultifying homogeneity. If that's our job as a nation (and certainly it's not our job alone; we are a nation among nations aspiring to democracy, not the nation chosen above all nations to achieve it), then perhaps we should see the fact of 11 million unincorporated individuals in our midst not as our greatest problem, but as our greatest opportunity.

Slightly edited at 8:31 p.m.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006


Google Reader

As fate would have it, my first week of life after the defense ended with more of a whimper than a bang. I've been battling some kind of flu bug since Saturday, so blogging and most other waking activities have been on hold.

When I have managed to stagger from the couch to the computer, I've been giving Google Reader a try, thanks to Wilson's recommendation. I had been using Bloglines to receive RSS feeds, but lately I've found it to be very buggy. I like Google Reader so far, especially because it lists individual items in the sidebar, rather than simply listing feeds. It also makes it really easy to highlight particular posts and then publish them in my sidebar here. So now you should find a short list of things I've recently read over there to the left.

Saturday, March 25, 2006


Some old canards

I've heard some strong arguments against pacifism before, but I didn't find many of them in Cal Thomas's recent diatribe against Christian Peacemaker Teams. (Found via Jesus Politics.) Instead, in a week when CPT members are rejoicing over the return of three hostages from Iraq, what Thomas offers are mainly some old canards about pacifists that I don't find very convincing:
Strange thing about these peace movements: They rarely mobilize to oppose the killing, torture and imprisonment practiced by dictators. It is only when their own country attempts to end the oppression that the activists become active against America, not the initiators of evil. ...

Perhaps if Christian Peacemaker Teams had gone to Iraq during Saddam Hussein's murderous regime, or to China while Mao Tse-tung was slaughtering millions, or to Moscow while Josef Stalin practiced genocide on his people, or to any number of other capitals of carnage, they might be taken more seriously, though under those regimes they might have disappeared much quicker.
Pacifism, at least as professed by CPT members, holds that violence in all cases is an unjustifiable evil. So by definition a pacifist would denounce Saddam Hussein, Mao Tse-tung, and Josef Stalin as readily as any purveyor of violence. Disagree with that position if you like, but you can't argue that such absolute pacifists are too discriminating in their denunciations of murder and war. You would have a hard time finding a CPT member, I think, who would try to defend the brutality of Stalin or Mao, or who would argue that non-violent intervention in their regimes was not necessary.

Since CPT was founded in 1984, Thomas has set up a pretty impossible standard for judging the organization's seriousness if he wants to see evidence that they stood up to Stalin or Mao. I suppose Thomas has a better case for arguing that CPT members should have gone to Iraq to stand up to Hussein. It is worth noting, at least, that CPT delegates arrived in Iraq in October 2002, before the U.S.-led invasion. I don't know about CPT's activities in Iraq before then; I know about as much about the organization as you can find out from recent news items. But my object here is not to defend CPT in particular, but to question the underlying argument that Thomas is making about "these peace movements." His argument seems to be: Why are you pacifists always picking on us? Dictator X or Terrorist Y is violent too. Why not denounce their actions as well?

Pacifists do denounce the actions of Dictator X and Terrorist Y. A principled pacifist makes no exceptions for violence of any kind. On the contrary, it's the non-pacifist who has to give some account of why only some violence is justified, and why some evil dictators can be allowed to stand--even to be supported--while others must be toppled immediately. It's the non-pacifist, particularly one who believes in the Bush administration's doctrine of preemptive war, who has to explain why we make war on particular "capitals of carnage" and not on others.

I can oversimplify my point this way: If there were as many dedicated CPT members as there are soldiers in the world, I have little doubt they would be in the Sudan as well as Iraq, in China as well as Gaza. At least nothing about their principles would inhibit such a program of standing up for peace in every context. But an American advocate of preemptive war, for whom violence is sometimes justified, does have to give a rationale for being in Iraq instead of Sudan, particularly since the resources to which the United States has access are exponentially greater than those of CPT teams. If the United States government was willing to apply the doctrine of preemptive war consistently in every country where there is a murderous regime, then its principles would be easier to take seriously too.

There are good arguments that might be made to explain why certain regimes are more in need of violent overthrow than others. And there are compelling arguments against pacifism that stress the moral difference between, say, the unintentional killing of innocents and their intentional execution. (Although as I've said before, I have some doubts about those arguments too.) But Thomas doesn't make these arguments, and critics of pacifism seldom do. The easier response is to say, as Thomas does, that a pacifist is merely accommodating evil, whereas an advocate of war is doing something about it:
Peace, like happiness, is a byproduct, not a goal that can be unilaterally attained. Peace happens when evil is vanquished. ...

Peace "activism" may make its practitioners feel good or validate their belief that they are doing the will of God, but evil cannot be accommodated. Evil must be defeated if peace on Earth is to exist. That Mr. Fox and his colleagues could not, or would not, see this is most tragic of all.
As David Miller, a former CPT member, points out in response to Thomas, pacifists do not disagree with the end of vanquishing evil. They simply disagree that violence and evil can be vanquished with violence and evil. Pacifists, as Miller says, are not "blind idealists." They realize the risks that they are taking by "getting in the way" of violence and have few illusions that peace will always vanquish evil. Surely it's more illusory to think, as Thomas appears to, that evil can be "defeated" finally by the exercise of force. The more likely byproduct of force, it seems to me, has usually been not the vanquishing of evil, but rather its displacement into other contexts and modes. You set out to vanquish evil in Bosnia and find it cropping up in Rwanda. You set out to vanquish evil in Iraq and find it spreading in Africa. You set out to vanquish evil in Afghanistan and find it raising its ugly head in your own jails. It is certainly arguable that force has sometimes contained or diminished force, at least temporarily. But if Thomas's critique of pacifism is that force is justified because it can actually obliterate evil altogether, then he is setting an impossible standard not just for CPT, but also for himself.

Thursday, March 23, 2006


The non-defensive defense

The first week after the defense has been great: I flew home to visit family for a few days, read from this, this, and this, watched old West Wing episodes on DVD, wandered aimlessly through some bookstores, and played online chess. Sure, there have been a few fleeting moments of phantom dissertation pain, of knowing that the appendage is gone but feeling like it is still there. And there are still a few typos to fix and lines to add before turning in the final copy of the dissertation to the binder. But there is life after the defense, and it is sweet.

Even the defense, though, was more sweet than bitter, and in comments below, the Academic Coach asks why. She writes:
I'd love to hear more about why the defense was so rewarding. So many students I work with are worried about the defense when it is so often an opportunity to hear seasoned opinions about how to shape the diss into good articles or a marketable book.
I certainly felt my share of anxiety before the defense. I had to be regularly reminded by my advisor (and, Lord knows, by my wife) that a little trepidation was normal. But I'm fortunate to be in a program that already views the defense less as an ordeal by fire and more as "an opportunity to hear seasoned opinions" from senior scholars about my ongoing work. In fact, the dissertation guidelines published by the University begin by saying that although the dissertation is "the culmination of the graduate degree," it is only the "beginning of one's scholarly work," a dialectic synthesis that I've tried to wrap my head around before. One reason the defense was so rewarding was because my committee members clearly agreed with those guidelines. They were genuinely interested in constructive criticism, and their graciousness had little to do with me.

I do think, however, that it helped for me to come to the defense with the same view of the dissertation as both a culmination and a beginning. In my very brief opening comments, I described the dissertation as a "freeze frame" in a still developing project. And instead of summarizing the dissertation, I tried to suggest what I saw as the most likely trajectory of the project after the defense, noting the points where I felt like more research and reflection would be needed. In other words, I tried to invite "seasoned opinions" and indicate my openness to them.

There is a thin line between giving a defense and being defensive. Giving a defense means explaining how you came to take up a particular position. But defensiveness gives the impression that you refuse to abandon that position or to move onto a better one. As much as possible, I tried to avoid giving that impression and instead focused on making my decisions about the dissertation intelligible to the committee. On the advice of my advisor, I also made some opening comments about the history of the project, which helped me answer some more particular questions during the defense itself. For instance, at the very beginning I tried to note which of the dissertation's themes and arguments were of the most recent vintage and how they had gradually come to the fore, because explaining the provenance of your arguments usually makes clear which parts of them are still provisional. It helped me to explain that the dissertation had proceeded through two distinct phases in which I had framed the central questions of the thesis quite differently, because sometimes an argument or a citation that raised questions for the committee turned out to be an artifact of an earlier question I had been asking that had been submerged in later drafts. Most of all, explaining the history of the project helped underline the sense in which it was a work still in movement, which in turn helped me resist the temptation to be defensive when I was asked a challenging question.

That's not to say that every challenging question could be explained away with a simple "I wrote that back before I realized X." Some of the questions were really difficult: that's why they still call it a defense. After all, if defending a dissertation is different from being defensive about it, one still cannot simply concede every point. Defensiveness is an easy position to fall into, but so is surrender. There were enough eyewitnesses on hand who could tell you that from time to time I fell into both traps. But when the defense was going well, I think it was when the discussion managed to steer between those extremes. I also think the Academic Coach is right to imply (as I think she is doing) that much of that depended on perception: perhaps because I was anxious, I spent a lot of time trying to convince myself to see the defense as a workshop instead of an inquisition, and perhaps perceiving it that way helped make it that way.

I certainly think this holds true for most of the other defenses and seminars I've seen: if the candidate presents the work as both defensible and revisable, then the committee or the audience is most likely to be positive and constructive. The only times I've ever seen the claws really come out in an academic setting have been when presenters brooked no dissent, admitted no mistakes, or acted as though the work had sprung fully formed from their heads. Having performed scholarly work themselves, most academic audiences have a hard time taking such seamless presentations seriously and promptly set about trying to find as many seams in the work as they can.

Friday, March 17, 2006


I came, I saw, I finished!

Well, it's official. I'm going to have to change my "About Me" page to reflect this happy news: as of today, I am no longer a graduate student. The defense turned out to be a great intellectual experience, thanks to my gracious and extremely helpful committee members. And hard as it is to believe, the long road to the Ph.D. has actually come to an end!

That's not the only big change coming to the "about" page. I'm also excited to report that this fall I will be starting as an assistant professor of history at the University of Denver. To land a job in a department with such welcoming colleagues and such enthusiastic students was much more than I had a right to expect, and I can't wait to get started.

For now, though, it's time to exhale. Thanks to all of you who stopped by in the last couple of weeks with good wishes! Hopefully this means the Great Blog Silence can also finally come to an end!

Thursday, March 16, 2006


Jazz geek-out

Before 2005 becomes too much of a distant memory, I have been wanting to mention what a bumper year it was for jazz fans. As numerous columnists noted, the three best releases of the year were all classic albums recorded decades ago, only to be lost in various vaults until 2005.

The critics' consensus favorite for the year was a 1957 recording at Carnegie Hall by a legendary quartet led by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane. Before this release, jazz fans and musicologists had only a handful of tracks to document this collaboration, even though the band was universally seen as a turning point in the careers of both Monk and Coltrane. If you don't believe in serendipity, try this one on for size: the Monk-Coltrane record was unearthed when an archivist at the Library of Congress just happened to find it sitting in a nondescript box deep in bowels of the Library. It was a little bit more serendipitous when a couple of Bedouin shepherds threw a rock into a random cave and discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls, but only a little. To diehard historians of jazz, finding this recording has been like finding a Q text for the Gospel of John.

The two other jazz discoveries from 2005 don't justify quite as much hyperbole, but they were archaeological gems in their own right. Here was Fred Kaplan's summary over at Slate:
It's a mere, if wondrous, coincidence that those three recordings of yore were all discovered this year. And they are discoveries; nobody had even known they existed. Dizzy Gillespie-Charlie Parker, New York, Town Hall, June 22, 1945 (Uptown Jazz), recorded shortly after the two fathers of be-bop formed their quintet with Max Roach on drums, is as electrifying as anything they would set down ever again. Thelonious Monk Quartet With John Coltrane at Carnegie Hall (Blue Note), made in November 1957 shortly before that group broke up, finds Monk playing his most archly elegant piano and Coltrane his most relaxed yet searching tenor sax. John Coltrane's One Down, One Up: Live at the Half Note (Impulse!), recorded in the spring of 1965, in a Manhattan club that Trane used as a sort of workshop, captures his great quartet streaking on the knife-edge between structure and freedom.
All three of these albums have gotten a lot of play chez McDaniel during the Great Blog Silence. Aside from The Historic Significance of all three, all of them go far towards proving the dictum that the best jazz albums are live jazz albums, a point that Fred Kaplan made at length in another column.

Kaplan's column had to do mainly with the musical value of live albums, but one of the things that makes a live jazz album great for me is the audience. I love the ambient noise of a jazz club or concert hall. To me, the tinkling of glasses heard on Sunday at the Village Vanguard is as important to the album as Scott LeFaro or Paul Motian, just as this other Vanguard classic simply would not be the same without Sonny Rollins' witty exchange with the audience about whether "Old Devil Moon" was from the score of Finian's Rainbow or Kiss Me, Kate.

It occurs to me that my jazz geekiness and my history geekiness are related here: I get jazzed by the radical uniqueness of historical moments. And nothing underlines the irreproducible quality of a musical performance more than the interjection of an audience: even if a band could get together again and copy its own improvisation, note for note, it could never get back the ca-ching of the cash register that often interrupts the Miles Davis Quintet at the Plugged Nickel, or the patron who was indignantly shushing a fellow patron during Wayne Shorter's solo on "Yesterdays." So here's a shout out to the shouting, hooting, and hollering on the The In Crowd. I applaud you, anonymous person on The Out of Towners who accidentally clapped during a particularly quiet solo by Jack DeJohnette: you deserved to be listed in the credits. To the audiences on Without a Song and Live at the House of Tribes: without you, they wouldn't have been the "Best Albums of 2005 Actually Recorded in This Millennium."

Now, I don't want to make it sound like mere antiquarianism is the reason why live albums are so important to jazz fans. Another reason has to do with the fact that jazz fans of my generation have usually exposed themselves to the great artists of the past haphazardly and episodically. We weren't there to hear the successive transformations of the music as they actually happened. Geoff Dyer makes this point brilliantly in the critical essay that concludes But Beautiful, his entrancing book on jazz:
Jorge Luis Borges has pointed out that Ulysses now seems to come--because we encounter it first--before The Odyssey, and in exactly the same way Miles comes before Armstrong, Coltrane before Hawkins. Typically, the person coming to jazz plunges in somewhere (Kind of Blue is a frequent starting point but for many it will, increasingly, be John Zorn or Courtney Pine) and then goes both forward and back. This is a shame since jazz is best appreciated chronologically (Parker seems less startling when we come to him via the screams of Pharoah Sanders). More generally, even if we have never actually heard their records, we hear Louis Armstrong, Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell in almost every piece of jazz we come across. When we do get around to listening to Bud Powell it is difficult to see what is so special about him: he sounds like any other pianist (though really what we mean is that every other pianist sounds like Bud Powell).
The listening itinerary that Dyer describes matches my own experience. I think my first jazz album was either Kind of Blue or Crescent, two very different places to jump into the river. But for a young listener like me, one of the things a live album can do is help to recuperate a sense of what was "startling" in someone like Parker or Coltrane. Here again, the audience adds to the value of the piece. On the best kinds of live album, you can hear the listeners reacting to the newness of the music. On the Town Hall recording of Dizzy and Parker released last year, you can sense the audience's enthusiasm for what was then a very new band gradually rising over the course of the concert. When the crowd gives a polite welcome to a young Max Roach on drums, but roars for the already familiar favorite Sidney Catlett, you immediately grasp how new this band was and how relatively obscure its now legendary members were. Likewise, when Coltrane unleashes a sprawling fifteen minute solo to kick off One Up, One Down, you can hear the palpable incredulity in the announcer's voice when he returns to give the next number.

Well, if after reading all of that, you still actually want to read some more about jazz, you are a reader after my own heart. Here's some other good stuff I've noted recently: The New York Times had a great interview with drummer Roy Haynes, who, by the way, recorded one of my favorite live trio albums in 2000. (Hat tip: Tim Niland.) Also in the Times, Ben Ratliff wrote a provocative column about the induction of Miles Davis into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And don't miss the response to the column by the members of The Bad Plus.

And yes, for those of you who are wondering, writing this post was a therapeutic way to keep the nerves down for tomorrow's Big Defense.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


Worth reading

Rob has the newest edition of the History Carnival at History:Other. And Kevin points out that Mark Grimsley has started a new group blog for Civil War historians called Civil Warriors.


Reason to wince

Annie Proulx is, er, not happy about the fact that Crash beat out Brokeback Mountain for Best Picture at the Oscars. (Via A&L Daily.) Of the two movies, I've only seen Crash, so I can't speak to the merits of the judges' decision. But I had a hard time finding Proulx's "rant" (her word, not mine) credible once she wrote this:
And rumour has it that Lions Gate inundated the academy voters with DVD copies of Trash - excuse me - Crash a few weeks before the ballot deadline. Next year we can look to the awards for controversial themes on the punishment of adulterers with a branding iron in the shape of the letter A, runaway slaves, and the debate over free silver.
There's the promised reason to wince: the suggestion that racism and the aftermath of slavery are "old news," as passé as Puritans and silverites. (One wonders, by the way, whether the public shaming of sinners or the dangers of free-wielding market capitalism are really old news either.) I have very little sympathy for the kind of argument that goes "your cause had its day in the sun, now it's time for mine." Often you hear this kind of rhetoric on the Right: witness the statements of Bush administration officials after Hurricane Katrina that racism was a troubled part of our history, statements which struck me as attempts to downplay Bush's handling of the New Orleans crisis as a peccadillo compared to the sins of the fathers.

But as Proulx demonstrates, you often also hear the whispered insinuation that we should just move on from the Left, although for a different reason. Progressives can sometimes fall prey to a rhetoric that serializes progress: first we dealt with slavery, then we dealt with racism, then we dealt with male chauvinism, now we deal with homophobia. That kind of point, even if made in jest, is usually ill-considered. It imagines that progress is a zero-sum game, that we can't deal with all of these evils at the same time, and it implies that old wounds are fully closed and no longer in need of our attention. The minute we begin to talk as if the principles of justice and equal treatment fall in and out of fashion like Oscar dresses or movies, we've begun to lose sight of the scope of those principles, not to mention the breathtaking amount of work that still needs to be done, on numerous fronts, to secure them.

But maybe I'm making too much of a rant. I do think Proulx makes a good point when she talks about the preference that Oscar voters tend to have for "mimicry, the conversion of a film actor into the spittin' image of a once-living celeb." I agree with her that it's worth honoring actors who invent characters with nothing but the raw material of words on a page. But to be fair, the Academy did honor such actors by choosing Crash, which has one of the best and most convincing ensemble casts I've ever seen, and which also has a subplot about a television producer who has an eye-opening collision with the entertainment world's demand for mimicry.

Monday, March 13, 2006


Guelzo on Lincoln

Well, the dissertation has been out of my hands for about a week now, and while waiting for D-Day I've been enjoying some time to read non-dissertation books, including the latest gem in John Mortimer's crown. Last week I also finally had a chance to read Allen Guelzo's Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, which has been on my to-do list for a long while. It did not disappoint.

Although it presents itself primarily as an "intellectual biography" or even a religious life of Lincoln, Redeemer President is also a serviceable one-volume biography that rivals David Donald's Lincoln for its scope and readability. Unfortunately, Guelzo's book sacrifices bibliographic notes for the sake of readability (a trade-off that is becoming increasingly and lamentably common in the publishing world). But the book's luminous and captivating prose (aside from a noticeable overuse of the word "quondam"; Google counts three instances but I'm willing to swear there were more) is not something to be lightly overlooked.

Three more specific things struck me about the book. The first was Guelzo's artful defense of the Very Idea of an "intellectual" biography of a man who was, above all, an antebellum politician. In making that defense, Guelzo also implicitly argues that intellectual histories of the antebellum period can be written--that it was not, as traditionally assumed, merely an era of ideology or practical politics, but also an era in which extremely abstract questions of theology and philosophy mattered to ordinary people:
We are too numbed [says Guelzo] by fanfares for the Common Man, by Ralph Waldo Emerson's sniffling laments about the absence of American scholars, by Hollywood glorifications of sharp-shooting hillbillies in coonskin caps, to hear the frantic solemnity with which the most isolated patriarch on the most godforsaken acre of wiregrass would sit up all the night alongside a wandering evangelist to discuss the intricacies of predestination and free will ... (p. 21).
I'm sympathetic to this recuperation of the vibrant intellectual lives of antebellum Americans who are traditionally seen as non-intellectuals or (notoriously) as anti-intellectual. That view often stems from an ahistorical equation of intellectualism with secularism, so that the arcane debates between traveling evangelists and isolated patriarchs are simply dismissed as unworthy of exposition. I've noted before how often radical abolitionists like Garrison are dismissed as anti-political, and in the same way, Garrisonians are often seen as nothing more than propagandists whose ideas were the products of a tangled mysticism or were simply tossed about like chaff in the winds of popular opinion, or whose intellectual lives--such as they were--merely served as projections of their own tortured personalities. As Guelzo notes, the cult of personality surrounding Lincoln often obscures the complexity of his thought, and similar complexities are often missed in the thinking of antebellum reformers. Orderly, systematic, consistent thinkers, the abolitionists were not. But thinkers--serious ones--they were. Their "minds" are therefore worthy of subtle description, even if or especially because they lacked consistency, which, to quote another of Emerson's "sniffling laments," is the hobgoblin of small minds.

The second thing that struck me about the book was Guelzo's convincing depiction of Lincoln's worldview as a kind of "Calvinized deism" (p. 447). If that phrase seems oxymoronic, one of the virtues of Guelzo's book is to show how such a position was intelligible for Victorian skeptics like Lincoln. (Without using that phrase, James Turner has also sensitively portrayed the tenacity of Calivinist modes of thinking even in the minds of nineteenth-century non-believers.) Thanks to the arguments of Paine-ite skeptics, Lincoln early in his life lost any abiding belief in organized religion or the God of the Old School Presbyterian churches that Lincoln's family attended. Instead, he adopted a view of the Divine Being as a distant designer, revealed in the world only through the mechanical and deterministic operations of natural law. The loss of his faith, as Guelzo shows, was never an easy pill for Lincoln to swallow. And from the Calvinism of his youth he also retained a latent belief in the inscrutability of divine providence--a belief that deepened and rose to the surface during the Civil War--and a prominent sense of his own worthlessness and humiliating insignificance. When Lincoln did vacillate in his skepticism and turn towards a belief in God, it was always a chastened belief in an impersonal and impassive God the Father. Lincoln never seemed able to believe in a redemptive personal Savior.

In a brilliant argument that unfolds gradually--sometimes too gradually--over the course of the book, Guelzo argues that Lincoln's finest political virtues, best expressed in his famous promise of "malice toward none" and "charity for all," stemmed from his Calvinized deism. The rationale for charity, in Lincoln's mind, was not the evangelical sentimentalism of so many of his contemporaries, but rather his belief in an overweening determinism that made malice toward any as foolish as kicking a rock for stubbing your toe. I'm oversimplifying Guelzo's argument and Lincoln's philosophy here, but this insight opens up an avenue for thinking about another cultural and intellectual strain in antebellum America--besides evangelicalism--that amplified the growth of philanthropic sentiment. Traditionally, the rise of such philanthropy is credited almost wholly to the rejection of Old School Calvinism by the revivalists of the Second Great Awakening, and to the evangelical doctrine that individual people were perfectible and could shape their own destinies. But Guelzo shows convincingly how, in Lincoln's case, the conviction that people could not shape their own destinies could also support the Whiggish moralism and humanitarianism that underwrote much of the Republican Party's rhetoric. (Working farther backwards in time, it's worth noting that for a Calvinist like Jonathan Edwards, a view of human beings as hopelessly depraved was wholly compatible with a belief that universal benevolence was required of every believer and that self-interest was a base motive for behavior. Although it's heuristically useful to contrast Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" with the revivalism of Charles Finney, it risks erecting a schematic distinction between the two that makes Edwards into a spokesperson for malice toward all and charity for none, which he was not.)

To be sure, the Second Great Awakening's vindication of "free will" had much more to do with the explosion of philanthropic organizations and moralizing politics in the early nineteenth century than maverick positions like Lincoln's "Calivinized deism." But for just that reason, historians tend to overlook how nineteenth-century philosophies of determinism, born either of skepticism, Calivinism, or some hybrid of both, could also motivate philanthropic action. Aside from Lincoln, a good example of this is the "necessitarianism" that drove Owenite socialists into utopian communities in Britain and America during the early 1800s. Gregory Claeys has argued that Robert Owen's belief that individual character was formed wholly by "circumstances," rather than choice, was a critical component of the Owenites' movement culture, and helped communities survive internal differences and personality conflicts. If circumstances made the man, why feel malice toward any man? The unfortunate were to be pitied and uplifed more than blamed--but Owenites could reach that conclusion in common with an evangelical Christian without also adopting the latter's view of free will. (Guelzo, by the way, gives tantalizing notice on pp. 35-36 that before Lincoln's family to Illinois, they lived in close proximity to the short-lived New Harmony community in Indiana, which was founded by Owen the "quondam industrialist." He quotes a contemporary who remembered the adolescent Lincoln reading copies of Owenite newspapers.)

The final thing that struck me about Guelzo's book is connected with the second. Given the fact that Lincoln's selective appropriation of Calvinism and deism was so complicated, and given the fact that his own personal faith was far from conventionally Christian, Guelzo's book serves as another warning against the distressingly common practice of trying to prove that the United States is a Christian nation by appealing to the appearance of words like "God" and "providence" in the speeches of Great Americans like Lincoln. Those words do not always mean what you think they mean, whether in the writings of Jefferson or Lincoln. Still, Guelzo's book also shows, through a densely layered account of American Whiggish thought, the origins of this compulsion to claim Christianity as the nation's founding religion and to wrap the nation's heroes in the mantle of faith. Lincoln's assassinated body had not grown cold before Easter sermons across the country were trying to convert him in death into the Bible-believing born-again Christian that he never was in life. And there's an implicit lesson there, Guelzo seems to be saying, to similar attempts today. According to him, the very virtues that the believers in a "Christian nation" would want to praise in Lincoln--his humility, his moral uprightness, his honesty, his perseverance under trial, his submission to an inscrutable Divine will--were the products not of a conventional Christian faith but of a peculiarly nineteenth-century amalgam of unorthodox skepticism and Calvinistic sensibilities.

Of course, the practical fruits of Lincoln's Calvinized deism are not arguments in favor of its truth, anymore than proving that Lincoln was a closet evangelical Christian would, by itself, be an argument in favor of the truth of Christianity. What Guelzo's book teaches us is the peril of trying to settle debates about religion in the public sphere by appeal to iconic figures in the past, while also showing us the rich historical rewards to be had by situating nineteenth-century thinkers like Lincoln squarely within their historical context. But if appeals to Lincoln's faith do not settle debates about religion and public life in the present, Guelzo's portrayal of Lincoln does perhaps show that vibrant public discussions of abstract theological and philosophical ideas do not necessarily impoverish public life or evince an anti-intellectual posture. This may not be a Christian nation, but it is a nation in which debates about Christianity and religion have been central to public life. That doesn't appear to be changing anytime soon.

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