Monday, May 30, 2005


On Memorial Day

Memorial Day has its origins in the aftermath of the Civil War, but its origins offer lessons for a nation still at war today. Northerners and Southerners had established the custom of celebrating "Decoration Days" as early as 1865 and 1866. These were days for garlanding the graves of fallen soldiers, for picnics, parades and the dedication of monuments, for remembering loss. But early on, Memorial Day was useful for forgetting as well as for remembering, and its dual aspects need remembering today.

As historian David Blight shows in Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, the earliest Memorial Days were concerned primarily with making sense of the unprecedented death and destruction that the Civil War had wrought. In those earliest celebrations, with memories of the war's wounds still fresh and open, Northerners and Southerners had different ways of making sense of their scarred battlefields, ruined cities, and over 600,000 deaths. For many Northerners, the death and destruction were made meaningful by the ideals that had been championed by the Union--loyalty, nationalism, and emancipation. Southerners had their own mythical ways of making meaning out of defeat, and former Confederates quickly assembled the major components of what would later be known as the Lost Cause ideology. In Southern Memorial Days, soldiers were portrayed as chivalrous defenders of their homes and families, and secession became coded as a valiant movement of resistance to Northern tyranny and aggression. In the immediate aftermath of the War, Memorial Day therefore served as a convenient index of how different memories of the war and its meanings could be. How Americans chose to make sense of the war, to themselves and to others, depended on how they viewed the war in the first place.

Blight also shows, however, that over time the rituals of Memorial Day became less sectional and divergent. In the 1870s, as resistance to radical Reconstruction became more organized and virulent in the South, and as commitment to Reconstruction became more disparate and lax in the North, Memorial Day increasingly became a ritual of reconciliation. Northerners and Southerners celebrated the day together, staging patriotic displays of national reunion. The Blue and the Gray were both praised for their valor and sacrifice, and both colors faded into red, white, and blue.

But that blurring of the lines between blue and gray went hand in hand with the retrenchment of color lines in the South, as state governments and paramilitary chapters of the KKK disfranchised black citizens and terrorized African American communities. From the perspective of the dwindling number of Radical Republicans in the North, the sentimental pathos of Memorial Day was dangerous because it covered the secessionism and racism of the South with a patina of respectability. Reconciliation became a code word for retreat from the promises of Reconstruction and racial egalitarianism.

Thus, in 1878, Frederick Douglass delivered a famous speech on Memorial Day admonishing vacillating Northern politicians that "there was a right side in the late war."
Fellow-citizens, [he said,] I am not here to fan the flame of sectional animosity, to revive old issues, or to stir up strife between races; but no candid man, looking at the political situation of the hour, can fail to see that we are still afflicted by the painful sequences both of slavery and of the late rebellion. In the spirit of the noble man [Lincoln] whose image now looks down upon us we should have "charity toward all, and malice toward none." In the language of our greatest soldier, twice honored with the Presidency of the nation, "Let us have peace." Yes, let us have peace, but let us have liberty, law, and justice first. Let us have the Constitution, with its thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth amendments, fairly interpreted, faithfully executed, and cheerfully obeyed in the fullness of their spirit and the completeness of their letter. Men can do many things in this world, some easily and some with difficulty; but here are some things which men cannot do or be. When they are here they cannot be there. When the supreme law of the land is systematically set at naught; when humanity is insulted and the rights of the weak are trampled in the dust by a lawless power; when society is divided into two classes, as oppressed and oppressor, there is no power, and there can be no power, while the instincts of manhood remain as they are, which can provide solid peace.
In a section on the "Significance of Decoration Day," Douglass went on to criticize the false sense of sentimentality that had crept into the day's observance, reiterating the original Northern interpretation of the War as the right one:
Good, wise, and generous men at the North, in power and out of power, for whose good intentions and patriotism we must all have the highest respect, doubt the wisdom of observing this memorial day, and would have us forget and forgive, strew flowers alike and lovingly, on rebel and on loyal graves. This sentiment is noble and generous, worthy of all honor as such; but it is only a sentiment after all, and must submit to its own rational limitations. There was a right side and a wrong side in the late war, which no sentiment ought to cause us to forget, and while to-day we should have malice toward none, and charity toward all, it is no part of our duty to confound right with wrong, or loyalty with treason. If the observance of this memorial day has any apology, office, or significance, it is derived from the moral character of the war, from the far-reaching, unchangeable, and eternal principles in dispute, and for which our sons and brothers encountered hardship, danger, and death. [Quotes taken from The Frederick Douglass Papers, volume 4.]
Douglass's speech is a rousing reminder that memorialization often, if not always, obscures right and wrong in a haze of sentimentality. He rightly stresses that it is noble and generous to remember deaths and to honor the selflessness of sacrifice. But he rejects the idea that such honoring of the dead requires being silent about matters of right and wrong. That false dichotomy still needs rejecting today. On this Memorial Day, with the United States still very much at war, there are many men and women, both in and out of power, who would have us forget the false promises and faulty premises on which the war in Iraq was fought, and who would have us overlook the fact that international law and the principles of humanity have been systematically "set at naught" in our detention centers. We need Douglass to remind us that patriotism and memorialization do not require us to forget these things. Rather, the noblest kind of patriotism will hold our nation to the high moral standards of "far-reaching, unchangeable, and eternal principles."

But if, on the one hand, we should remember Douglass' admonitions about Memorial Day, there is another sense in which we cannot--and perhaps should not--recover his confidence about the nobility and righteousness of war. For it does not follow from the fact that "there was a right side" in the Civil War that all wars have clearly delineated "sides." And one ironic consequence of postbellum Northern nationalism may be that it used the righteousness of the Union cause as a prima facie rationalization for subsequent American wars. Over time, most Americans have vindicated Douglass' judgment that "there was a right side" in the Civil War, but many have also adapted the emancipationist interpretation of the Civil War into a judgment that all American wars have a right side and wrong side, and that our side is always the right one. Thus, in the President's Memorial Day weekend radio address, we are told that "throughout our history, America has fought not to conquer but to liberate." The liberating narrative of the Civil War has, over time, become the narrative for all American wars.

Our problem, in other words, is not the same problem that Douglass addressed in 1878. Then, the problem was that many Americans were obscuring distinctions difference between right and wrong in favor of reconciliation. Now, the problem is more that Americans are too confident in the unquestioned rightness of our wars. We are trained, by the cultural legacy of arguments like Douglass's, to look suspiciously on any advocates for peace and reconciliation as agents of the "wrong side." Indeed, our Memorial Day observance has shed all the vestiges of reconciliation that marked the Decoration Days of the 1870s: we celebrate the day only to remember our own veterans, our own deaths, our own suffering and sacrifice and loss. We could stand to remember the deaths and suffering and loss of our enemies as well.

That is harder for us to do, perhaps, than it was for the veterans of the Civil War. Reconciliation between North and South was fueled by the common presumption that the Civil War was a conflict between brothers and between countrymen. That emphasis on the kinship between the two sides was already evident in Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address: "Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God." Today, we are no longer possessed by the illusion that this is true even of all Americans. We read different Bibles, we read the same Bible differently, or we don't read the Bible at all. We don't pray to the same God, and we don't all pray. And if we cannot believe the myth of homogeneity even of ourselves as a nation, it is clearly even more difficult to posit a kinship between ourselves and our national enemies on the basis of shared culture, religion, language, or public life. As a result, if we are to have reconciliation and peace with our enemies today, it will not be on the basis of honoring a shared national compact or remembering shared national experiences. It will be, rather, on the basis of common humanity. To those whose country is the world, every war is a civil war, whether the two sides pray to the same God or not.

Thursday, May 26, 2005


Google pushing the envelope?

As a follow up to my earlier post about Google Print, some publishing companies are starting to raise questions about whether the program is a violation of copyright laws. You can read articles on the subject from the Chronicle of Higher Education, Business Week, and the New York Times. (Thanks to Jonathan Dresner for the last link.)

As for pushing the legal envelope, check this out at Google Blogoscoped. My initial reaction is kinda like what you'd say as a kid when your friend stuck his hand in the cookie jar. "Ummmm ... You're gonna get in trouuuuuble!"

UPDATE: All of my advice below about how to get into Google Print has just become irrelevant. I learn from Google Blogoscoped that there is now a portal page.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005


A mess o' funn

I'm still chuckling over this "redneck" translation of Mode for Caleb. Among other things, it translates paragraphs like the following, from my post on John Brown:
There wuz probably nevuh ah day 'n Garrison's adult life when there wuz not ah bounty on his'n head somewhere 'n thar dang South, hot damn! But wuz bubba somehow less courageous than Brown because, unlike thar dang Old Man, bubba wuz unwillin' tuh lop uvf thar dang heads uv Southerners?
Referring to Garrison as "bubba"? C'mon, Leroy! You gotta laugh at this'n.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005


Dealing with deadlines

Some timely advice from The Craft of Research, by Wayne Booth, Gregory Colomb, and Joseph Williams, p. 186:
Deadlines always come too soon, leaving us longing for another month, or week, or even just one more day. (The three of us fought deadlines for this book, when we first wrote it and again with this edition.) In fact, some researchers seem never to be able to finish; they think they have to keep working until their report, article, dissertation, or book is perfect. No such perfect document exists, ever has, or ever will. All you can do is to make your report as complete and as close to right as you can, given the time available. When you do that, think to yourself:
After my best efforts, here is what I believe to be true--not the whole or final truth, but a truth important to me and I hope to you, a truth that I have supported as fully as time and my abilities have allowed, so that you might find in my argument good reason to consider, even to accept it, and perhaps even to reconsider what you believe.
I may need to start repeating that last paragraph as a mantra to myself.

Monday, May 23, 2005


Lakoff on theology and politics

A few months ago there was a great deal of chatter across the blogosphere about George Lakoff, who had everyone thinking about elephants when they weren't supposed to be. Lakoff's seductively simple argument was that political progressives simply need to do a better job "framing" policy issues in a way that plays to the strength of progressive values. What didn't get as much play was Lakoff's views about cognitive sociology, which were gleefully and expertly picked apart by Chris, a cognitive scientist who blogs at Mixing Memory. (See here for a list of posts on the subject.) These views were apparently spelled out at greater length in Lakoff's earlier book, Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think. At the center of that book (which I haven't read) was the claim that both liberals and conservatives understand the nation metaphorically as a family, but that liberals view the state as a Nurturant Parent, while conservatives see it as a Strict Father. From such a simple difference, Lakoff apparently wants us to believe, you can derive most of what you need to know about the way that liberals and conservatives think about politics.

I wasn't aware, though, that Lakoff thinks you can frame almost any liberal/conservative divide by using the Nurturant Parent versus Strict Father metaphor. Did you know, for instance, that theological debates also boil down to this simple dichotomy? In an online forum at Lakoff's Rockridge Institute, he has recently argued that ...
the difference between conservative and progressive Christianity is whether God is seen as a strict father or nurturant parent.

The strict father God is punitive: Follow His commandments and you go to heaven. Disobey and you go to hell. Since you’re all sinners, He’ll give you a second chance. His son has suffered so much he has built up enough moral credit to pay for the sins of everybody. If you accept Jesus as your savior, He’ll wipe the slate clean as if you’ve been born again; but this time you’d better get it right or else. Do what your church says and you’ll go to heaven; disobey and you’ll go to hell.

The nurturant God offers Grace, which is metaphorical nurturance. To get grace, you have to be close to God; you can’t earn Grace; it’s given freely and unconditionally; it must be accepted actively; it fills and nourishes you, protects you, heals you, makes you a moral person. Moral Politics is the link between theology and politics. Conservative theology and politics are both structured around strict father morality, just as progressive theology and politics are both structured around nurturant parent.

What I found is that conservative Christians understand their theology and its relation to politics but that progressive Christians have trouble articulating theirs.
The fuller exposition is in Chapter 14 of Moral Politics, avaliable here. (In the chapter, Lakoff does admit that this view about what makes conservative Christians think conservatively is a "guess," and he begs our indulgence for his "oversimplification" of Christian theology, "which will of necessity sound like the text of a comic book called, 'Christ for Beginners.'")

Elsewhere in the Rockridge Forums, there is a response to Lakoff from "a historian's perspective." Dean Grodzins, the author of what will long be the definitive biography of the Transcendentalist minister Theodore Parker, argues that while Lakoff's posited link between theology and politics does not always hold up historically, it often does hold. In fact, Grodzins suggests that Lakoff's idea of organizing theology around the poles of "Strict Father" and "Nurturant Parent" metaphors, instead of around the poles of liberalism and orthodoxy, might make sense of more religious history in America. For instance, although eighteenth-century New England Calvinists all agreed on basic doctrinal creeds, they developed different views of God the Father that either stressed his Strict or Nurturant nature, and by the nineteenth century, those divergent metaphors led to actual splits in American churches that ramified in the political sphere. Progressive Christians who preferred the model of God as a Nurturant Parent flocked into antebellum movements to reform education and abolish slavery, while those who preferred the Strict Father view tended to favor the conservative theology and politics of proslavery advocates.

Grodzins makes his case by pointing to the historical convergence of the "Nurturant Parent" theology worked out by Protestants like Horace Bushnell and the "Nurturant Parent" politics of reformers like Horace Mann, Elizabeth Palmer Peabody, and Samuel Gridley Howe. But he doesn't chart other points on the map of antebellum reform that would complicate Lakoff's attempt to connect the dots between progressive theology and politics. For instance, it was entirely possible for some antebellum reformers to see God as a Nurturant Parent but to see the state as authoritarian and thus ungodly. A small but vocal group of radical abolitionists thought that all human government was sinful precisely because a state could not be nurturant in the way that God was. (See Lewis Perry's classic book on these Christian anarchists.) These were people, in other words, who had a Nurturant Parent view of God and a political posture that Lakoff and Grodzins would probably label "progressive," but who also failed to see the state as a Nurturant Parent.

If it is possible to be theologically progressive, opposed to conservative politics, and socially reformist without making the metaphorical link between God as Nurturant Parent and the state as Nurturant Parent, then I'm having a hard time seeing what kind of explanatory power Lakoff's metaphors can offer us, either historically or politically.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

UPDATE: Brandon at Siris and Chris at Mixing Memory respond to Lakoff more fully than I did here.

Sunday, May 22, 2005


Preemptive nostalgia

If and when viable electronic books do arrive, will my future children look at my collection of cardboard, paper and glue the way I look at collections of vinyl records?

I will tell them: Using a stylus to annotate electronic books is not the same as moving my pencil across the margins of a page. They will smile but privately roll their eyes, the way I nod without agreeing when someone tells me that A Love Supreme was more supreme on vinyl, when the scratch of the needle reminded you of every prior spin.

In fact, this thinking about my future children and their rolling eyes helps me understand the defenders of the album. One day, I will share their nostalgia for the irreproducible experience of opening an unblemished gem.

Friday, May 20, 2005


The Friday Shuffle Strikes Back

1. "Falling," by Glen Phillips, from Winter Pays for Summer
2. "Broke the Furniture," by Earlimart from Treble and Tremble
3. "All I Want is You," by U2, from Best of 1980-1990
4. "Meet Me in the Morning," by Bob Dylan, from Blood on the Tracks
5. "Sugar Boy," by Beth Orton, from Trailer Park
6. "La Lune," from the eponymous Mutual Admiration Society
7. "Mary," by Sarah McLachlan, from Fumbling Toward Ecstacy
8. "Further," by The Moon Seven Times, from Sunburnt
9. "That Was Another Country," by The Innocence Mission, from Glow
10. "The Beautiful Sea," by Hem, from Eveningland

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005


The keyword revolution

Over the last couple of weeks I've been learning how to play with Google Print. Although the Print database is certainly not exhaustive, I've been blown away by how many books that interest me--from both trade and academic publishers--are available for full-text searching. And I've been even more impressed by the interface. You can see full-page images of published material, with your keywords highlighted on the page.

Of course, to have access to this resource, you have to be somewhat savvy, because there is not yet a portal page on Google's site for searching books. If you don't already know it, you can tap the vast resources of Google Print in one of at least two ways:

(1) When searching at Google, begin your search string with the word "book" or "books" and then enter your query as usual. If Google Print has book pages that match your query, you should see about two or three "book results" listed above your search. (Example.) You can either click on the individual results or on the headline that sends you to all of your book results. (Example.)

From there you can search within particular books (check the sidebar of an individual result page), look at the index and table of contents for a book, and even scroll through about two or three pages around your result page. Once you are within Google Print, you can also "search all books" by using the form entry box located either at the top of the page or at the bottom. (Hat-tip: Search Engine Watch.)

(2) Another way to get into Google Print is to use this link and then enter your search at the top of the page. (Hat-tip: NT Gateway.)

The scholarly possibilities here are staggering. Google Print makes it possible, for instance, to search for published books that cite a certain book or article--a feature that was difficult to do before without access to some kind of citation-tracking database. Most of all, Google Print makes it possible to see whether there are books that mention a particular name or word, even in passing--something that was nearly impossible to do before.

For instance, if I want to see books that mention the Kentucky abolitionist "Cassius M. Clay," I just do this and get 76 hits. In the "real" world, as they say, I would have had to determine that those 76 books were relevant to Clay, find them on the shelf, and then hope that the book's author or editor had listed "Clay" in the index. All of this was possible before, of course, for academic journals and other kinds of periodical literature. And it was even possible in digital collections of historical books, like the Making of America site or the Samuel May Anti-Slavery Collection at Cornell. But with Google Print, the digital keyword revolution has truly arrived, and the end is not in sight.

What should we make of this revolution, and how revolutionary is it? In the latest issue of Perspectives, there's an article by Carlo Ginzburg considering that question. (There are also two fantastic articles on history blogging by my fellow Cliopatriarchs, Ralph Luker and Manan Ahmed.) Ginzburg argues persuasively that keyword searching in library catalogs is good for scholarship, primarily because "the computer multiplies the possibilities that an unforeseen fact will take us by surprise." (In the above search, for instance, I was surprised to see Clay mentioned in The Education of Henry Adams as one of the morose young man's diplomatic "masters." It turns out that Clay is listed in the index of my printed copy of Education, but I don't know that I would have looked there intentionally for a mention of Clay.)

Of course, that capacity for surprise is not limitless, because we must have some reason for entering in the keywords that we do, and usually our intuitions here are guided by our prior research or the work of others. But it is significant that keyword searches allow us to navigate through texts largely without the mediation of editors, authors, and publishers.

On the other hand, the excitement of surprise can be misleading to a researcher. The temptation when doing keyword searches is always to think that your results are more representative than they are. (This is something I've mused about before.) If I look in the printed index to a book and see one page listed for Clay out of 450 or 500, I can make a rough and ready judgment about how important he is in the context of that book. But when I look at a Google results page, I depend on Google's relevancy algorithms to make that determination for me, and it's easy to forget that when I'm looking at a long list of hits. (I can still tell in Google Print how many times a word appears in a book, and how many pages the book has, but the linearity and ephemerality of a results list can be seductive. It doesn't have the same weight in your hand that the actual book does, and perhaps, subconsciously, that actual, physical extension of the book in space helps our brains make determinations about proportionality and significance.) For all the virtues of keyword searching, then, this revolution warrants some careful reflection.

You can find such reflection in a recent article by David Bell in The New Republic on "The Bookless Future." (Full disclosure: Professor Bell is the incoming Director of Graduate Studies in the Johns Hopkins history department, where I am pursuing said graduate studies.) Unfortunately, and perhaps ironically, "The Bookless Future" is only available online to subscribers. But I found the full text by using Hopkins' institutional subscription to Lexis Nexis and strongly recommend it if you can find a copy.

The bulk of the article (if, following my musings above, it is not a category mistake to talk about the "bulk" of hypertext) wonders about the future of electronic books, and it canvasses several kinds of technology, currently in development, that will hopefully make electronic books easier to read. I think Bell is right that the only thing missing is a vehicle for text that is as optimal for reading as a printed book. The technology to scan full-page images of books and make them searchable is clearly already upon us; it won't be too much longer, I predict, before you can pay a fee and pull a book from Google Print onto your PDA or some other electronic device.

But Bell also expresses warranted concern about the deleterious effects these changes might have on the practice of reading.
The very nature of the computer presents a different problem. If physical discomfort discourages the reading of [online] texts sequentially, from start to finish, computers make it spectacularly easy to move through texts in other ways--in particular, by searching for particular pieces of information. Reading in this strategic, targeted manner can feel empowering. Instead of surrendering to the organizing logic of the book you are reading, you can approach it with your own questions and glean precisely what you want from it. You are the master, not some dead author. And this is precisely where the greatest dangers lie, because when reading, you should not be the master. Information is not knowledge; searching is not reading; and surrendering to the organizing logic of a book is, after all, the way one learns.

If my own experience is any guide, "search-driven" reading can make for depressingly sloppy scholarship. Recently, I decided to examine the way in which the radical eighteenth-century thinker d'Holbach discussed warfare. I could have read his book Universal Morality in the rare-book room of my university library, but I decided instead to download a copy (it took about two minutes). And then, faced with a text hundreds of pages long, instead of reading from start to finish, I searched for the words "war" and "peace." I found a great many juicy quotations, which I conveniently cut and pasted directly into my notes. But at the end, I had very little idea of why d'Holbach had written his book in the first place. If I had had to read the physical book, I could still have skimmed, cut, and pasted, but I would have been forced to confront the text as a whole at some basic level. The computer encouraged me to read in exactly the wrong way, leaving me with little but a series of disembodied passages.
This has often been my troubling experience as well: Henry Adams makes a great quip about Clay, for instance--as a teacher, Clay had "no equal though possibly some rivals." But having previously submitted myself to the organizing logic of Adams' book by reading it cover to cover, I know better than to take Adams' quips at face value. (Sure enough, according to an editor's footnote, Adams referred to Clay in private as a "noisy jackass.") I wonder, though, whether I'm as careful with books that I haven't read. The keyword revolution at least means that I need to be especially careful--I need to balance the subversive virtues of keyword search (the "surprise" of which Ginzburg speaks) with the virtues of "surrendering to the organizing logic of a book."

All of this got me wondering, though, about whether the dangers of "strategic, targeted" reading are really that new. After all, the printed index compiled by an author or editor presents the reader with the same potential for targeted reading, and it is the rare researcher who does not rely heavily on these indexes to quickly jump to parts of a book that are relevant to his or her research. (Here are three papers online that allude to the similarity between online and offline indexes.)

The index, like the codex, predates the printed book. According to Guglielmo Cavallo and Roger Chartier in their edited collection, The History of Reading in the West,
Even beyond its immediate derivation from the manuscript, the book--both before and after Gutenberg--and the manuscript were similar objects composed of sheets folded and gathered into quires and assembled within one binding or cover. It is thus hardly surprising that all the systems of reference that have somewhat hastily been credited to printing existed well before its invention. One of these was the use of signatures and catchwords to help assemble the pages in the right order. Other signalling devices aided reading: folios, columns, or lines might be numbered; the page could be divided up more visibly by the use of devices such as ornamented initials, rubrics and marginal letters; an analytical (rather than a simple spatial) relationship between the text and its glosses could be set up; different characters or different colours of ink could be used to distinguish between text and commentary. Thanks to its organization in quires and to its clear divisions, the codex, whether manuscript or printed, was easy to index. Concordances, alphabetical tables and systematic indexes were common practice even in the age of the manuscript, and it was in monastic scriptoria and stationers' workshops that these modes for the organization of written material were invented. Printers picked them up later. (p. 23)
And programmers picked them up even later. It would be an interesting research question to see (and maybe a medieval historian can correct me if this has already been done) whether the invention of the index in the age of manuscript provoked the same kinds of anxieties we feel today about targeted access to texts. One of the contributors to the Cavallo and Chartier volume, Jacqueline Hamesse, suggests that scholastic modes of reading were shaped in part by these innovations. Unlike monastic readers, scholastics could jump from page to page and cross-reference works without the same kind of intensive, devotional reading:
"Here we enter into a new world that suggests modern reading habits. After the pioneering labours of the Cistercians to organize the content of a manuscript, other aids appeared and flourished: the table of contents, the concept index, concordances of terms, alphabetically arranged analytical tables, summaries and abridgements. Even the great twelfth-century summae were abridged: they were admittedly easier to handle when reduced to a single volume. The abridgements were a pale reflection of the originals, however.

The rise of this new literary genre inevitably meant that reading was no longer direct: now a compiler served as an intermediary, and reading was filtered by selection. Reference to the book changed. Its contents were no longer studied for themselves with the aim of acquiring a certain wisdom, as Hugh of Saint Victor had recommended. Henceforth knowledge was primary, and it too precedence over everything else, even when it was fragmentary. Meditation gave way to utility in a profound shift of emphasis that completely changed the impact of reading.

Certain scholars are quite aware of the important role of these working tools for learning in the Middle Ages, but others have failed to grasp their influence among intellectuals. As any fourteenth-century inventory will show, florilegia, concordances and tables abounded, not only in the libraries of the religious Orders, but also in college and university libraries. Such compilations often replaced consultation and, a fortiori, direct reading of authors' works, and even though they constitute a second-tier literature, their sizeable role in the intellectual preparation of medieval men cannot be denied. Today we have such different methods for acquiring culture that it is difficult for us to comprehend that even the great writers of the age of scholasticism made use of these handy tools for easy access to documentation that was indispensable to their work. The large number of manuscripts that have come down to us bear witness to the use and dissemination of such compilations. (p. 110)
Of course, electronic keyword searching takes concordances to another level. But perhaps this is a good thing. The etymological roots of "concordance" are, after all, entangled with the roots of "concord," and it is sometimes good to introduce discordance into our readings of texts. If Ginzburg is right, then we have a real advantage over our scholastic forbears; unlike them, we don't have to rely on the compilations of other scholars, who might use indexes as a way to assert too much control over the text. But if Bell is right, then we also have a greater responsibility to handle that advantage with care, and to prevent our liberty from becoming license.

You can be the judge of whether I've done that here, because (in a burst of self-referentiality) I found the quotes from the Cavallo and Chartier book by using Google Print, and I've never read the whole thing. When bloggers advise readers to "read the whole thing," do they really mean it? And do we ever really follow that advice?

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Monday, May 16, 2005


History Carnival

The new History Carnival is up at Saint Nate's Blog, and it's chock full of posts. I've been somewhat remiss in linking to past issues of the History Carnival, which are always worth checking out.

Blogging still hasn't really returned to normal around here, what with ...

1. Grading final exams and papers for the Spring course.
2. Teaching a May intersession course on "Online Research," which meets on Tuesday and Thursday nights from 6:15 to 9:45, and then on Saturdays from 9 to 4.
3. Finishing up a dissertation chapter.
4. Researching and writing an article promised to what will hopefully be a forthcoming anthology on abolitionism in Philadelphia, due in early June.
5. Making revisions on a short essay, "Toward a History of Blogging," that will hopefully be appearing in a certain online history magazine later this year.

But hopefully I'll be able to hang out more here in the next few weeks. You know you're hooked on blogging when you start to miss it as much as I do.

Monday, May 09, 2005


John Brown and nonviolence

POSTSCRIPT: After reading this post, please continue to the comments, where I've moderated and modified my critique of the reviewers mentioned below.

A copy of David Reynolds' new biography of John Brown is on its way from Amazon. I'm anxious to read the book because I have already read several troubling reviews, including those by Barbara Ehrenreich in the New York Times, Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker, and Christopher Hitchens in the Atlantic Monthly. What bothers me about these reviews is their barely veiled implication that Brown, because of his willingness to kill for his convictions, had more radical and more authentic convictions than run-of-the-mill abolitionists who were not willing to kill.

All of the reviewers make clear that Reynolds wants to resuscitate Brown's reputation and to show that his violence was not maniacal or insane, but intelligible, radically egalitarian, and perhaps even necessary. Following the Transcendentalists' own celebration of Brown, Reynolds apparently portrays Brown as a hero. (In the best review I've read, David Blight reports that Reynolds casts Brown anachronistically as a "good terrorist.") But every hero needs a foil. And for the reviewers, as perhaps for Reynolds too, that part is furnished by Northern white abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison, who are portrayed as though they were lily-livered sissies and passive pacifists until Brown came along to steel their nerves.

Gopnik, for instance, calls William Lloyd Garrison "the white Martin Luther King, Jr.," but he adds a "but." "But Garrison, like Dr. King, was a pacifist, and, right up to the moment when the war broke out, he had no really practical plan for ending slavery, aside from 'separation' (i.e., the decoupling of the North from the South) and moral suasion." While Gopnik tars "moral suasion" with the usual brush--it was not "really practical"--Hitchens goes farther. After noting that Reynolds goes to great lengths to rationalize Brown's violent methods, Hitchens glibly says that the "superfluity" of such apologies is "easily demonstrated. Not only had the slaveholders perpetrated the preponderance of atrocities, and with impunity at that, but they had begun to boast that northerners and New Englanders were congenitally soft."

Hitchens seems to agree that non-Brown abolitionists were "soft"; he relishes Reynolds' comparison between Oliver Cromwell and Brown, and he refers to moderate antislavery Northerners as "invertebrate Lincolnians." Ehrenreich echoes the spineless pacifists theme, writing that "antislavery activists ... were often pacifists and usually the victims of their political opponents -- a relationship symbolized by a South Carolina congressman's crippling beating of the abolitionist Charles Sumner on the floor of the United States Senate. With his guns and pikes, Brown reversed the equation -- stiffening the backbones of Northern abolitionists, terrifying the white South." Even Gopnik, who goes relatively easy on the Garrisonians, cannot resist saying, "Where Garrison, though utterly passionate and courageous in his denunciations, was a thorough man of the North, with lawyerly-journalistic gifts of argument and irony, Brown was a man of romantic feeling." And, referring to an 1835 incident in which a violent crowd of rioters attempted to lynch the radical editor, Gopnik avers that "even Garrison, a man of unexampled courage, could not face down a mob in Boston but had to be saved by the police."

Umm ... he was facing a lynch mob that had managed to tie a noose around him. Is Gopnik really prepared to say that Garrison was less courageous than Brown because the police rescued him from his attackers? (Actually, that's not even entirely accurate: Garrison was lifted to safety by a couple of burly rioters who took pity on him. And he was driven away to safety by an unidentified black hackney-driver, who used his whip to keep the crowd at bay. The police assisted in Garrison's rescue only grudgingly, if at all, and when Garrison was brought for protection to City Hall, he was told that he could not stay there because his presence made the building unsafe.)

There was probably never a day in Garrison's adult life when there was not a bounty on his head somewhere in the South. But was he somehow less courageous than Brown because, unlike the Old Man, he was unwilling to lop off the heads of Southerners?

When historians compare radical reformers, it is certainly appropriate to ask about the practicability of their different methods and even to judge the consistency of their convictions, not because historians are the best judges of character, but because making those judgments can help reveal what their bedrock convictions were. But there seems to be something more going on in these comparisons between Brown and Garrison. What seems to be driving the resuscitation of Brown's reputation is not just an historical judgment but an ethical judgment about his superior courage and radicalism. Read between the lines and you'll find the essentially ahistorical insinuation that principled pacifists are really cowards; that those who choose liberty or death to its enemies are more radical than those who would rather die than kill; that meekness is weakness; that the vision of lions lying down with lambs is a pleasing fantasy invented by lambs; that, by a process of elimination, people turn to pacifism when they don't have "practical" plans for making society more just. Pacifists, to paraphrase Ehrenreich, are seen as "victims." Only the violent are thought of as valient.

Clearly these statements are moving outside the realm of purely historical analysis and into the realm of ethics. I'm not necessarily uncomfortable with that movement; I don't believe people who tell me they can study history without allowing their thoughts to at least drift in the direction of ethical reflection. But so long as we are headed in that direction, allow me to point out the irony of book reviewers consigning "moral suasion" to the dustbin of history and dead pacifists to the ship of fools. What are historians and writers, after all, if they are not persons who believe that the word is more powerful than the sword? And if they do not believe this, then why are they in a byline instead of on a frontline?

I realize that question might not be entirely fair. Not everyone who believes that violence is more radical than moral suasion is thereby obligated to take up arms and rid the world of its wrongs. But such reviewers are essentially castigating people like Garrison for failing to live up to their convictions, to stiffen their spines, to get their hands dirty or bloody. So forgive me if I can't avoid poking a bit at the inconsistency of "inverterbrate Hitchensians." (One could point out the same thing about the Transcendentalist scriveners who were most responsible for Brown's apotheosis. Was Emerson really more courageous than Garrison simply because his words celebrated antislavery violence?)

But that's not the main point I want to make here. Skeptical as I am of the ethical claim that violence is always more radical than nonviolence, I am even more concerned that this view is historically suspect, for at least two reasons.

First, nonviolence was not merely an instrumental strategy for many radical abolitionists; for many of them, it was integral to their most radical ideologies. If we view their pacifism as nothing more than a strategy or personal trait, then it is easier to portray that pacifism as a sign of whimsy or weakness. But in fact, for many Garrisonians, a commitment to "nonresistance" was much more than a mere strategy, and certainly more than a simple sign of courage or its lack. It was at the core of their critique of slavery, government, and much else. According to nonresistants, any exercise of violence was an unjust usurpation of God's authority, an immoral abuse of power. From their perspective, that was a large reason why slavery was wrong--it assigned to the master violent power that did not belong to him or her. For many Garrisonians, then, their renunciation of violence was of a piece with their renunciation of slavery. To call their pacifism a mere lack of spine ignores how it shaped their posture towards slavery and other violent abuses of power--like the treatment of Native Americans, the hawkish expansionism that sparked the Mexican War, and unequal marriages.

I could generalize this point to other theorists of nonviolence like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. For both men, nonviolence was not simply a strategy or a practical plan. Both argued that direct nonviolent action was more expedient than violence, but this was not their only defense of pacifism. Rather, the commitments that informed their pacifism also informed their views of the state, of the human person, of justice; to remove the pacifism would not just be to make a change of "plan," it would force thinkers like Gandhi and King to rethink their entire philosophies. It's also simply false in their cases, as in the case of the Garrisonians, to suggest that nonviolence put a brake on their radicalism. Some of their contemporaries certainly did suggest that--think John Brown or Malcolm X--but they were not necessarily right. Progressives today usually praise King in his later years for moving in more radical directions in his thinking about poverty and the war in Vietnam, but they often forget that this trajectory was an outgrowth of his philosophy of nonviolence. His radicalism, like Garrison's, did not view pacifism as a mere tool in the reformer's hand, but as part of the hand itself.

Second: not only is nonviolence often integral to radical programs; violence is often integral to conservative or reactionary worldviews. It may seem as though John Brown's belief that slaves and abolitionists needed to rise up in holy war against the South could only have radical and egalitarian overtones. But that very belief was also integral to the arguments of those who opposed racial equality and emancipation. In an article in the Journal of American History that recently won the ABC-CLIO Award from the OAH, my friend Francois Furstenberg has argued persuasively that the definition of "freedom" as "resistance" to oppression might actually have served to legitimate personal slavery, since it allowed defenders of the system to claim that slaves who did not resist their enslavement were somehow "choosing" their plight autonomously. Implicitly, I think, calling Garrisonians or Lincolnians "spineless" can potentially point in a similar direction, since it suggests that those who do not, like Brown, put their swords where their words are must not "want" freedom as much.

There are also gendered overtones to the idea that Brown was more genuinely radical than Garrison, since violent resistance was defined throughout the antebellum period (as it probably still is for many people today) as a "masculine" virtue, an act in which men prove that they are manly men. The word "sissy" itself carries that overtone, and to imply, even indirectly, that Garrison was a sissy also comes across as a derogative accusation of effeminacy. The connected implication is that women are incapable of proving their mettle the way that John Brown could. Hitchens' review opens with a paragraph that suggests I'm not making this up. He relates the story of Lincoln's telling Harriet Beecher Stowe that she was the woman who started the Civil War. Says Hitchens, "That fondly related anecdote [about Stowe] illustrates the persistent tendency to Parson Weemsishness in our culture. It was not all the tear-jerking sentiment of Uncle Tom's Cabin that catalyzed the War Between the States. It was, rather, the blood-spilling intransigence of John Brown, field-tested on the pitiless Kansas prairies and later deployed at Harpers Ferry." Women novelists become "tear-jerkers" and sentimentalists, on this view, and thus incapable of catalyzing social change. Rather, it's the "field-tested" violence of John Brown and his manly men that get the credit for emancipation.

In sum, while it certainly is appropriate for historians to compare and contrast Brown and Garrison, and to weigh the relative radicalism of their approaches to emancipation, it is historically misleading to suggest that their positions on violence are failproof indicators of their radical commitments. I'm looking forward to reading Reynolds because I think that Brown's reputation is in need of some resuscitating and subtle revising. But why is it that reputation-revivals in history must so often be zero-sum games, so that someone else's stock has to fall for someone else's stock to rise? In this case, I've suggested, it's unfair to praise Brown's radicalism at the expense of Garrison--at least if one is doing so by suggesting that Garrison's pacifism was nothing more than a lack of courage or clear thinking. It certainly is true that nonviolence sometimes is a sign of cowardice, but so is violence. It's always startling to me that despite the fact that most people accept detailed taxonomies of different kinds of violence, which range along a spectrum from justified and heroic violence to illicit abuse, very few of us have similarly well developed taxonomies of different kinds of pacifism, which can also range from the heroic to the thoughtless. I have suggested that a simple dichotomization of radicalism that places "fight" on the one hand and "flight" on the other does violence to history. I also think it does violence to our moral intuitions, but I don't need to make that argument to prove that, historically, (a) nonviolence is often integral to radicalism and that (b) violence is often integral to conservatism.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

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