Friday, April 28, 2006


Jazz primer

A friend recently emailed me to ask about which ten or fifteen jazz albums I would recommend to get his collection started. Actually, he asked me to list "the classics," but if I tried to make a list like that, I'd never finish it. So I'm interpreting the request much more narrowly. Instead of thinking about which albums a collection would have to include, I started to think a bit about which albums I heard early on. If these albums drew me in, then maybe they would work the same way for someone else.

Not necessarily, though. Tastes are different, and I suspect every jazz fan charts a different path into the music. My own entry points clustered around particular decades (the 1950s and the 1960s) and I initially neglected classic big band leaders like Duke Ellington and Count Basie. It also took me a while to branch into more recent artists and more avant-garde music. But I think a lot of people come to jazz through rock-jazz fusion artists like Weather Report or Pat Metheny and then work backwards to the period where I began. Others get introduced to Ellington, Louis Armstrong and the like and work forward to the kinds of albums I've listed below.

Nonetheless, having cleared my throat and aired some qualifiers, here are ten albums that I think serve as a reasonably good Jazz Primer (or at least a reasonably good recollection of some of my earliest finds). It's not a primer in the sense of providing an elementary survey; more of a primer in the sense that it might ignite interest in other albums. (I've cheated a little bit by grafting some of those other albums onto the main ten.) It's lengthy, yes, but let this be a lesson: don't ask a jazz fan to pontificate on jazz unless you want an earful!

At Basin Street / Clifford Brown and Max Roach (Emarcy) - The band that recorded this album (with Brown on trumpet, Roach on drums, and Sonny Rollins on tenor saxophone) is a perfect guide to the 1950s, a transitional decade in jazz history. It bridged the genres of bebop and hard bop. In general, the boundaries between "bebop" and "bop" are blurry, but this is an album that at least gives some pretty clear examples from both sides of the divide. For example, if you like tracks such as "What is This Thing Called Love?" and "I'll Remember April," then you're probably going to like classic bepop -- a style pioneered by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie that placed a premium on virtuosity, blistering tempos, and technical variations on a standard set of chord changes. On the other hand, tracks like "Step Lightly (Junior's Arrival)" and "Powell's Prances" look ahead to the hard bop of groups like Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and artists like Bud Powell (for whom "Powell's Prances" is named). Incidentally, Powell's trio album, The Scene Changes, was also one of my first jazz albums. Hard bop is hard to define: one of those "know it when you hear it" kind of things. Two characteristics leap to mind, though: hard-swinging rhythms (I find myself voluntarily tapping my feet or nodding my head) that often stop and change on a dime, and more complicated harmonies. In other words, groovy.

Saxophone Colossus / Sonny Rollins (Prestige) - An album in the same vein as the first. (Rollins appears on both.) As the title of the album suggests, the man is a giant on tenor saxophone. You can't really go wrong with anything he recorded. (It was hard to choose between this and Freedom Suite, one of the earliest albums I owned.) Rollins is generally renowned for being able to improvise for very long stretches without becoming redundant or losing the melody. "St. Thomas" is also an important track because it mixes Caribbean and Afro-Cuban sounds with traditional jazz instrumentation, thus anticipating Latin Jazz before it had really arrived. (If you like this, you might move on to Joe Henderson's Page One.)

Kind of Blue / Miles Davis (Columbia) - You'll find this album near or at the top of almost every list of Greatest Jazz Albums Ever, but even after listening to it for years, you'll have a hard time quibbling with that choice. It's one of the first widely successful examples of "modal jazz." From what I can gather, with my limited amount of musical training, this means that on each song Miles simply gave his band members a few unconventional chords within which to improvise and set them loose. The result, to an untrained ear like mine, might more appropriately be called "mood-al jazz," since it sets the bar for ambient music and can be a perfect remedy when your mood is "kind of blue." The album also represents a move away from bebop that was fundamentally different from "hard bop." Kind of Blue, in common parlance, is an early example of "post-bop," a style that more radically deconstructs the rhythms and harmonies of swing and bebop music than hard bop did. Whatever you call it, it is luminous, beautiful, and deeply poignant music. (Although Kind of Blue represented a departure for Miles from the band he had been recording with in the early 1950s, the albums produced for Prestige by that earlier quintet are also must haves, especially Relaxin', Workin', and Cookin'. I also highly recommend this box set that collects all of the music recorded for Columbia by Miles and Coltrane together, including Kind of Blue. I would also be deemed a heretic in some circles for saying this, but I think Cannonball Adderley's alto sax fits better on the Kind of Blue session than Coltrane's tenor sax, and Somethin' Else, another collaboration between Adderley and Davis, is something else you should hear.)

Blue Train / John Coltrane (Blue Note) - This is Coltrane's first and only recording as a leader for Blue Note Records (although he appears as a side-man on many other albums for this legendary label). If the Brown / Roach band straddled the bebop and hard bop divide, this is an album that dances around the boundaries between hard bop and "post bop." It is an especially excellent example of Coltrane's early use of a technique he would later become famous (and, to some critics, infamous) for using -- an approach to solo-ing that tried to create cascading "sheets of sound" instead of sticking to a linear melody. Like the best bop albums, Blue Train is drenched in the blues and never stops swinging. [NB: As Dacoit points out in the comments below, I could have listed Coltrane's Giant Steps here instead. Giant Steps was one of several great albums that Coltrane recorded as leader for Atlantic Records, and if you like it, I'd also recommend Coltrane's Sound and Coltrane Plays the Blues.]

Songs for Distingue Lovers / Billie Holiday (Verve) - It's nearly impossible to recommend a single album by Billie Holiday without recommending the whole oeuvre. But if you can find it, this underrated album is as good an introduction as any single CD. It also features musicians like Roy Eldridge and Ben Webster who were the heroes of the swing era before bebop exploded on the scene. So the album is a good way to whet your appetite for classic Ellington and Basie albums. It doesn't really include Bille Holiday's most legendary performances (on songs like "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit"), but there are numerous "greatest hits" albums that collect tracks like these. The best that I've found, if you have the money to spend, is the two-disc Ultimate Billie Holiday Collection, which also includes a DVD of live performances and radio interviews with Lady Day.

Song for My Father / Horace Silver (Blue Note) - Another of the earliest albums I owned, this is a hard bop classic that showcases Joe Henderson on tenor sax. Silver is an infectious pianist, and I could easily have listed his other quintet albums for Blue Note here, especially Blowin' the Blues Away and Finger Poppin'. If you like one of these three albums, you'll like them all.

The Sidewinder / Lee Morgan (Blue Note) - Not generally listed as one of the classic hard bop albums, but it makes the list again because it is one of the earliest jazz albums I owned. Again, it features Joe Henderson (if the title of my blog didn't clue you in, I'm a big fan) and also a young Billy Higgins, one of my favorite drummers. A Blue Note album with Lee Morgan on trumpet is pretty much a safe bet anytime, and if you like this album, then you'll want to start exploring Morgan's larger body of work, along with similar albums recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers(especially The Big Beat and Moanin') or Hank Mobley and Dexter Gordon, each of whom recorded a string of classic bop albums for Blue Note in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sunday at the Village Vanguard / Bill Evans (Riverside) - This is the first half of a two-album recording of a classic live concert by Evans' trio at the Village Vanguard. (The other is the equally excellent Waltz for Debby.) Evans was the moody, melancholy pianist who helped make Kind of Blue a classic (and also contributed to the more obscure but also wonderful Oliver Nelson album, The Blues and the Abstract Truth, which was cast in a similar mold). But in my mind, Evans is at his best in a trio setting, and particular with this trio of Paul Motian on drums and Scott LeFaro on bass. LeFaro was killed in a tragic car accident shortly after this album was made, and IMHO, Evans never found a better trio, although he recorded some excellent albums in the 1970s and 1980s. LeFaro's bass work is sui generis in many ways, and these albums are worth having just to hear his interaction with Evans' piano.

Crescent / John Coltrane (Impulse) - One of the albums recorded by Coltrane with the trinity of McCoy Tyner on piano, Elvin Jones on drums, and Jimmy Garrison -- the Classic Quartet. A Love Supreme is rightly regarded as this group's masterpiece, but I actually like Crescent, which was recorded just before Love Supreme, nearly as much. I heard them in the order they were recorded, and in some ways I also think Crescent is more accessible at first listen then Love Supreme because so many of the tracks are grounded in the blues. The middle three songs alone would stand together as a better album than many other artists could ever hope to record. Coltrane's late body of work, which was inaugurated by his albums with this quartet, is controversial and tends to inspire either love or hate. But Crescent is a good litmus test, I think, for whether you'll be interested in hearing more.

Miles Smiles / Miles Davis (Columbia) - Post-bop par excellence. Davis is generally thought to have recorded with two great quintets -- the one featuring John Coltrane that recorded the albums leading up to Kind of Blue, and the one that recorded this album, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on drums, and Wayne Shorter as tenor saxophonist. The quintet is highly regarded partly because it had, in Hancock and Shorter, two of the most intriguing composers of their generation. The presence of Tony Williams also proved to be fateful for Miles, since Tony's influence interested Miles in the intersection between jazz and rock and roll. Their collaboration paved the way for the next phase of Davis's career, which experimented with electronic instruments and rock-like rhythms. (Exhibit A: In a Silent Way.) Miles Smiles is one of a quartet of albums that really go together: I could just as easily have listed E.S.P., Sorceror or Nefertiti. This band also launched Hancock, Shorter, and Carter into spectacular solo careers. Two of my "what would you take to a desert island?" albums are probably Maiden Voyage by Hancock and Speak No Evil by Shorter.

Well, it's a start, even though I'm horrified by some of the omissions here -- Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk to name only two. But there's much, much more advice for new jazz listeners on this page at All About Jazz. After making my list, I checked it against some of the lists and guides over there and think mine stands up reasonably well.

I'd also add two pieces of buying advice for starting a collection, based on my experience rather than on any expertise. First, one of my surefire habits early on was to acquire albums released in the Rudy Van Gelder Series by Blue Note. (The albums are prominently marked "RVG" on the cover and spine.) Van Gelder was a legendary recording engineer who manned the booth for the label's most famous albums, and this series (which is remastered, very reasonably priced, and often on sale at places like Borders) is a veritable hall of fame. I would recommend, in general, starting with the albums released early in the series, since Blue Note made sure to start with the truly great albums. Lately, they seem to be scraping the back of the vault, and whereas RVG releases used to be marketed as a kind of Blue Ribbon series, now the series includes virtually every re-release by Blue Note. Second, early on I often consulted The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD before buying albums. The authors can be pretty stingy with stars for albums that I love, and they also bestow a lot of praise on some albums that I don't. But in general, their advice can help steer someone just starting a collection, particularly because they mark a handful of especially essential albums with a "crown" symbol. All Music Guide is also generally reliable for jazz reviews.

Happy listening!

Wednesday, April 26, 2006


The case for abolishing nuclear weapons

My recent post on abolishing nuclear weapons prompted a long exchange over on Cliopatria with Alan Allport, who convinced me that I needed to make a clearer and more convincing case for the abolitionist position. So here goes.

I start with the premise that the use of a nuclear weapon is never morally justified. Some disagree with that premise, most notably those who believe that dropping the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki helped end World War II and prevented the casualties that would have been suffered by an invasion force in Japan. That justification, however, relies solely on consequentialist moral reasoning -- that the results of an action are the only things that bear on its justification. And at best, consequentialism merely postpones moral deliberation to a later stage (since we would now only find ourselves asking, not which acts are morally good, but which results are). Besides, it is possible to acknowledge that some evils are averted by other evils, without conceding that either evil was morally justified itself.

My premise about nuclear weapons is easy to accept if you already accept the premise that violence is more often unjustified than not. Human societies have not always accepted that premise, but it has been esteemed one of the marks of civilization that we should seek to resolve conflicts peacefully. Even those who stop short of a pacifist position tend to believe that violence must be used as a last resort -- that there is such a thing, for instance, as a just war and an unjust war, or a murder and an act of manslaughter committed in self-defense. We take for granted that violence has to be justified carefully to be tolerable. Moreover, all of our society's justifications for violence depend on the assumption that violence can be controlled and directed, proportionately and precisely, at a particular person or group of people -- the invading army, for instance, or the aggressor who induces our violent act of self-defense.

The use of nuclear weapons, however, could never be justified by the kinds of calculus that justify, say, a defensive war or a citizen arrest, because the violence they unleash is necessarily uncontrolled, disproportionate, and imprecise. A nuclear weapon is incapable of discriminating between combatant or noncombatant (a crucial distinction in any just war theory), as it also incapable of discriminating between guilty or innocent. This is not only because the yield of even a small nuclear weapon is so explosive that it is impossible to direct, but also because the technology itself involves the release of harmful radioactive materials whose patterns of dispersion cannot even be predicted with great accuracy. I believe that the indiscriminate nature of nuclear violence undermines any attempt to justify its use.

To that point can be added other strikes against nuclear weapons. In addition to believing that violence can only be justified when its victim is deemed somehow "deserving," our society tends to believe that even justified violence must stay within limits of scale and kind. We believe, for instance, that certain kinds of punishment are cruel and unusual, and that certain amounts of force are excessive. By any reasonable definition, I believe, a nuclear weapon would have to be classified as a cruel and unusual form of weapon that unleashes excessive amounts of force. Nor is the destructive power of a nuclear weapon limited to the fatalities and casualties it would immediately cause; it also wreaks unjustifiable harm on the ecological landscape, making its use not only homicidal but also indirectly suicidal.

One could argue, of course, that all kinds of military weapons wreak ecological harm, and that war cannot avoid being cruel and unusual, that accepting war means "collateral damage" to civilian and ecological life. Those points are some of the reasons why I incline strongly towards pacifism. But suppose you don't incline the way I do. You still believe that militaries should take steps to minimize such collateral damage. And even from my point of view, with my strong inclination towards pacifism, I can acknowledge with real and sincere gratitude the steps that the U. S. military in particular takes in this regard. I do believe that most commanders in the field try to clear aerial targets of civilians, for instance. And while I am suspicious of claims that evidence of torture at places like Abu Ghraib point simply to a "few bad apples," I also believe that American servicemen and servicewomen are not in the habit of torturing people, since I know some of them personally. A non-pacifist should and does see the honorable restraint shown by soldiers in not torturing combatants or harming civilians as morally praiseworthy. But for that very reason, even a non-pacifist can reject the justified use of nuclear weapons: the casualties such weapons inflict on survivors cannot be described as anything but torturous, and once again, whereas in the case of most weapons, steps might be taken to limit harm to civilians, in the case of nuclear weapons such steps are not only improbable but would also be strategically counterproductive.

If it is impossible for the use of a nuclear weapon ever to be justified, that seems to me a strong prima facie reason for abolishing nuclear weapons. How many other artificial things do we keep around or cover with legal protection even when we know there is no conceivable scenario in which those things could be justifiably used? (Seriously, I tried to think of an example of such a thing and could not.) On the other hand, we routinely pass laws that criminalize the possession of materials (like certain biochemical agents, for instance, or explosive devices, or backyard superconductors) whose imaginable range of justified uses is extremely small. Those considerations, to me, add up to a strong presumption against the very possession of nuclear weapons being morally justified. There may be a moral distinction between the possession and use of nuclear weapons, such that we could describe the user of them as somehow incurring "more guilt" than mere possessors, but this is a slender distinction on which to hang an argument against abolition.

One might draw a less slender distinction between agents who can be trusted with nuclear weapons and those who cannot. Analogously, for example, our society generally recognizes that a person of a certain age and criminal record can be trusted to own a gun, while other persons cannot. But that analogy breaks down in the case of nuclear weapons, because when we speak of those who can be trusted with guns, we mean those who can be trusted only to use the weapon justifiably. And it is because we can imagine such scales of trust that we accept the possession of guns as morally feasible. Those scales of trust, however, depend fundamentally on there being an accepted range of justifications for the use of guns. Since there is no justifiable use for nuclear weapons, what do we mean when we refer to an agent who can be trusted with such weapons? In this case we actually mean those who can be trusted never to use the weapons, not someone who can be trusted to use them "in the right way" or "at the right time," since there is no such way or time.

In addition to the prima facie reasons for abolition, such a step also makes sense in light of principles that, again, we already acknowledge in more quotidian spheres. There is, for example, our sense that a person who endangers a child's well-being is to some extent morally culpable, even if that person does not actually abuse the child. Given the destructive power of nuclear weapons, a power that would be just as destructive if unleashed accidentally as intentionally, I think a case can be made that their mere possession is a culpable form of reckless endangerment.


There is a compelling objection, however, to this last conclusion, and a compelling alternative to nuclear abolitionism. One could argue, as Alan has, that (a) whereas nuclear weapons can never be justifiably used, and (b) whereas it is impossible to abolish the technical know-how that makes nuclear weapons possible, therefore (c) the best thing for a state to do is possess a nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to their use by other states.

This case was made most forthrightly, of course, by the architects of American and Russian nuclear strategies in the Cold War. The theory is that a balance of nuclear power between two states will prevent either state from launching a nuclear strike. The mutually assured destruction (MAD) that would result from such a strike checks the impulse of either to pull the trigger. Even the proponents of this doctrine have to admit there's a degree of lunacy to it, since it requires both sides to made credible threats that they will do the very thing that their nuclear policy is supposed to prevent -- that is, launch a first strike. The Cuban missile crisis showed just how dangerous and ultimately unsustainable that high-stakes game of "chicken" can be. Nonetheless, the case can be made that in a nuclear age, nuclear policies that take MAD as their starting point are the best we can hope for. If so, building nuclear arsenals is not reckless endangerment, but a rational safeguard. And that possibility has to be taken seriously by the abolitionist, since it also begins with the presumption that the actual use of nuclear weapons is unjustifiable and must be prevented at all costs. As I will argue below, however, I believe a nuclear policy of balancing arsenals is more likely, not less, than abolition to result in their eventual use, especially in our post-Cold War world. (And in making that case, I'll be following closely some of the persuasive arguments for nuclear abolitionism made by Jonathan Schell in his book, The Unconquerable World.)

Before I argue for that conclusion, though, it's worth noting a slightly tangential debate in the discussion over at Cliopatria, where Alan has raised the possibility that nuclear weapons not only act as checks against their own use, but also help to deter nuclear powers from waging conventional wars with each other. Alan writes:
Would a world without nuclear weapons be necessarily 'better' than the one we have? Frightening as the implications of MAD may be, it is arguable that the risk of truly catastrophic retaliation has proven rather more successful in keeping the Great Powers in check than the much lower risk of conventional retaliation ever did. If the A-Bomb had never been invented would the US and the USSR have been as likely to refrain from open warfare during the late 1940s onwards? One might not look back on the Cold War that we actually got with unalloyed nostalgia, yet still accept that there were much less desirable alternative outcomes.
My initial response was that while the Cold War prevented conventional war between the Great Powers, it also facilitated indirect wars between the Powers in places like Vietnam, Korea, and Latin America. (And, I might add here, that in defining the priorities of American and Russian foreign policy for decades, the Cold War also contributed to the world's neglect of regions, like Africa, which were deemed as off the board in the chess game between democracy and communism. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think a fair assessment of the consequences of the Cold War would have to include a wrestling with the genocidal and devastating hot wars that have taken place over the past several decades in places like the Congo and the former Yugoslavia.)

Alan replied that, as bad as these hot wars were, their horror would have paled in comparison to an outright conventional war between the Soviet Union and the United States. Perhaps that is so: debates about counterfactuals know no end. But I'm not sure I see the utility of drawing up a balance sheet of fatalities, with one column for the number of those who died in the "hot" Cold War and with one column for estimates about the number of those who would have died in a war between the Great Powers. For however much the A-bomb contributed to maintaining peace between Russia and the United States, surely all can agree that it was an intolerable kind of peace. It was a peace founded less on true peace -- an absence of conflict combined with friendly cooperation -- than on the cultivation of mass terror. There was a lack of conventional war, yes, but that did not constitute peace. At least, it's not the kind of peace that I want to bequeath to my children as the legacy of this generation.

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that a balance of nuclear terror does help prevent both nuclear and conventional wars because it maintains an unstable armistice between nuclear powers. If this line of argument is correct, then doesn't it lead inevitably to the conclusion that the proliferation of nuclear weapons, far from something to be feared, is a positive good? If the Cold War was (in some sense) a success story, then should we encourage the reproduction of its conditions in other conflict situations? Does the possession of nuclear weapons by both India and Pakistan, for instance, prevent war between the two just as it did between Russia and the United States? Instead of making the destruction promised by nuclear weapons less assured, shouldn't we go about making the assured destruction more mutual, so that MAD can do its psychological and political work more effectively?

Jonathan Schell makes the case against this kind of pro-proliferation reasoning more concisely than I could, so I'll simply cite some of his reasons for rejecting it. First, the logic behind creating a "balance of terror" assumes a bipolar, Great Powers world in which we no longer live. It is conceivable, I suppose, for two states to try to match each other in an arms race, but it is hard to imagine how eight or ten or twenty states could calibrate the balance of nuclear power among them so that the doctrine of MAD would be effective. Moreover, it should be underlined that the geographical distance between Russia and the United States was one of the only reasons why MAD made sense to strategists, since it meant that both states could develop "launch on warning" missiles that would activate before a first strike by either arrived. Even then (and, I should add, even now), the amount of warning each state could have was terrifyingly short -- each head of state could count on one hand the number of minutes he had to decide whether to launch after being informed of a first launch. But further proliferation would make even that amount of warning impossible: in the case of India and Pakistan, for instance, a first strike would likely be the only strike, which is perhaps one reason why nuclear weapons on the subcontinent have not perceptibly lessened the likelihood of conventional war.

Encouraging proliferation, thirdly, would make controlling proliferation virtually impossible. If arms control treaties have been difficult to negotiate between the two great powers, negotiating multilateral reduction treaties between multiple powers is nearly inconceivable. The alternatives we have here are not between abolition and a carefully regulated proliferation coupled with the reduction of present arsenals, but between abolition and untrammeled proliferation. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the proliferation of more nuclear weapons merely increases the risk of those weapons falling into the hands of terrorists, for whom non-proliferation and reduction treaties mean nothing.

The reality of global terrorism is the most decisive reason why the potential lessons of the Cold War have little, if any, applicability in the twenty-first century. MAD depended not only on the presence of identifiable Great Powers who could stare at each other seriously across the table while also making reduction deals under it. But it hardly needs to be said that the kinds of terrorists who are the most eager to obtain nuclear weapons have no apparent fear of their own destruction. Once you run up against an enemy for whom suicide is not only not an evil, but a consummation devoutly to be wished, the logic of MAD dissolves. Keeping nuclear weapons out of such hands therefore has to be a priority of any foreign policy in the present age, and seriously advocating further proliferation would only undermine that task.

Of course, in that last paragraph I might as well be quoting from a Bush administration official. The Bush administration, like the Clinton administration before it, perceives the threat of nuclearized terrorists, working in conjunction with nuclearized "rogue states," as the most pressing danger we face. But both administrations have also believed it possible to pursue diplomatic agreement for non-proliferation without embracing nuclear abolitionism, and that is where our views part ways. The Bush administration, in particular, believes that the only way to prevent the further proliferation of nuclear weapons is, ultimately, to launch preemptive, conventional strikes on states close to acquiring them. But that strategy has numerous diplomatic and strategic pitfalls. Diplomatically, it weakens cooperative relationships even with our allies because it asserts our right to military hegemony, exercised unilaterally at moments of our choosing. And it also creates a diplomatic double standard whereby some states are allowed to develop nuclear weapons (indeed, are even, like Pakistan, welcomed into our diplomatic embrace for doing so) while others are denied them, even when they can make a case that possessing them is the only way to offset imbalances of nuclear power with their enemies.

Strategically, preemptive wars also encourage the very thing they are designed to prevent, since they give non-nuclear states an incentive to develop nuclear weapons more quickly and more secretively than before. Despite the administration's spin on Libya's apparent pliability after the fall of Baghdad, the lesson that our enemies learned from the Second Gulf War was that actually possessing weapons of mass destruction is the only way to avoid such invasions. And it is simply not possible to pursue multiple invasions and state-building projects at once, so that we can effectively be sure that we are preempting all our enemies from developing nuclear weapons -- especially since, diplomatically, our aggressive assertion of the right of preemption is causing our enemies to proliferate.

We come again, therefore, to the case for abolishing nuclear weapons as the only way to prevent their proliferation and use. Indeed, the global community has already recognized, in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, that abolition is the other side of non-proliferation. The NPT, which the United States signed but has been interpreting very selectively ever since, included the promise of non-nuclear states not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for the commitment of nuclear states to disarm. There is no reason why that kind of multilateral, negotiated disarmament treaty, combined with an international inspection regime that would verify the compliance of all parties, might not accomplish abolition -- if, that is, the United States has not already gone so far down the path of preemption (which the NPT acknowledges as a breach of its rules) as to undo the diplomatic work that has already been done.

The primary objection of nuclear states to disarmament is that inspections do not work, that "rogue states" will acquire nuclear weapons anyway and then supply them to terrorists who do not fear to use them. It's worth noting, though, that this objection admits, implicitly, that our own possession of nuclear weapons does not give us any solace any longer. If our fear is that terrorists will acquire nuclear weapons and target us with them, then our fear is based on the knowledge that the doctrine of MAD provides us with no security against stateless enemies. It's hard to see, then, why the fear of terrorists nuclearizing should count as a reason to delay our own disarmament, since that delay is doing nothing to prevent the efforts of our enemies to arm. Moreover, our claim that inspections do not work leaves much to be desired in the way of credibility. Another lesson from Iraq that we seem not to have learned yet is that for all of Saddam's bluffing, the inspection regime did its job well and prevented him from acquiring weapons of mass destruction in secret.

There is, however, a final reason that might be advanced against the abolition of nuclear weapons: that it is chimerical. Now that nuclear power has been discovered, it will be impossible to put the evil genie back in the bottle, and futile to try to do so. As Alan put it in the thread at Cliopatria:
The only end point of disarmament that would really ensure a lasting non-nuclear world would be the destruction of the knowledge of how to build a nuclear device at all. Since that seems to me not simply impractical but logically impossible at this stage then it hardly seems worth arguing about; it's a bit like saying that having discovered the New World the Europeans should have pretended that they didn't know it was there. The A-Bomb is "going to be around" forever whether I or you or anyone else likes it or not. Its existence is not a matter for worthwhile dispute; what is is whether we can create a situation where the likelihood of its use is kept to an absolute minimum.
Much like the argument that a world with the bomb may be better than one without, this argument accomplishes more than it wants to, for if the mere technical knowledge of a nuclear device makes it futile to pursue disarmament, it makes it equally futile to pursue non-proliferation or reduction of any kind. The argument from futility cannot be directed solely at the nuclear abolitionist; it amounts to an argument against action of any kind.

But it also simply doesn't follow that because the knowledge of how to build the "A-Bomb" will always be with us, the "A-Bomb" must therefore always be with us too. If that did follow, then it would be impossible to argue for the abolition of anything -- including slavery, or lynching, or abortion, or capital punishment -- since if something is around to be abolished, that means the knowledge of how to do it will always exist. We can't go back to a time in which the New World was not discovered and then forcibly populated with African slaves, but thankfully we live in a time when slavery has been abolished throughout the New World, even though the knowledge have how it was done is becoming more robust and detailed every day. I hope for a world in which nuclear weapons will be similarly slated for abolition.

Abolition, of course, does not mean extinction. Alan is right that even if all nuclear states fully disarmed -- not just by removing their weapons from deployment but by actually dismantling them -- the possibility of recreating and reassembling nuclear weapons will always remain with us. We cannot go back to a non-nuclear or pre-nuclear world. But, and this is a point that Schell also makes brilliantly, that knowledge itself would serve the same deterrent function that the weapons themselves are alleged to serve by the opponents of abolition. If the fear of MAD prevents nuclear weapons from being used, the same fear would operate (in a post-abolition world) against their redevelopment and redeployment. By abolishing nuclear weapons, we would not be extinguishing the possibility of nuclear weapons but would merely be stepping as far away from the brink as is conceivably possible in a post-Hiroshima world.

We already realize that we are too close to the brink, since even the Bush administration holds the belief (despite its contradictory support for the development of "tactical" nuclear weapons) that our nuclear arsenal does not need to be as large as it is to serve its much ballyhooed deterrent purposes. Neither does the arsenal need to be on hair-trigger alert, according to a nuclear posture review drafted by the Department of Defense. But if a nuclear weapons does not need to be on hair-trigger alert to be deterrent, then why does it need to be assembled? And if it does not need to be assembled, why do its parts need to be manufactured? If our goal really is, as Alan says, to keep the likelihood of a nuclear launch to an "absolute minimum," surely abolition is as absolute a minimum as we can conceive.


McLemee does the OAH

Scott McLemee has a funny and accurate report on the recent annual meeting of the OAH in Washington, D.C. Especially accurate were these paragraphs:
Between sessions, there was time to visit the exhibit hall. It was a chance to gaze upon recent offerings from the university presses. All the while, a small but very persistent voice whispered in my ear. “You don’t need more books,” the voice said. “Where would you put them?”

It sounded a lot like my wife.

Other conference-goers were wandering aisles, men and women of all ages; and some bore expressions suggesting that they, too, received similar wireless transmission from significant others back home. And yet those people picked up the new books, even so. I took courage from their example.
I was fortunate enough to meet Scott when I ran into him briefly at the Hilton. He was on his way to the session on "The Creation of the Christian Right" that he discusses in his column, but he took the time to give me one of his business cards. It reads, "Scott McLemee : Essayist at Large." How cool is that?

Monday, April 24, 2006


The half-way house

Max M. Kampelman, who served as an arms control diplomat in the Reagan administration, has a guest editorial in the New York Times arguing for the abolition of nuclear weapons. Kampelman makes a strong case for combining realism with idealism, instead of seeing them as mutually exclusive, and he persuasively argues that "the goal of globally eliminating all weapons of mass destruction" needs to be "put back at the top of our [foreign policy] agenda."

Unfortunately, as recent rumors surrounding contingency plans for air strikes on Iran demonstrate, the abolition of nuclear weapons -- including our own -- is not near the top of our agenda. And yet the Iran crisis also demonstrates precisely why it should be. So long as the United States is willing to countenance the military use of nuclear weapons (and the funding of research on nuclear bunker-busters at least shows that we do not discountenance such use), so long will other nations continue to possess an incentive for acquiring them. Our strong condemnations of the proliferation of nuclear weapons in states like Iran, coupled with our implicit threats to stop their proliferation, only convinces non-nuclear states to acquire them more quickly than ever as a deterrent to our acting on such threats. As I've argued before, "rational actors will not tolerate monopolies on asymmetrical power," and today the distribution of nuclear power in the world is radically asymmetrical.

Back in the 1980s, opponents of nuclear weapons sometimes referred to themselves as the "new abolitionist movement." There are plenty of ways in which the movement for the abolition of slavery differs from the movement for the abolition of nuclear weapons, and those differences would probably make any systematic historical comparison between the two spurious. (I hope this post won't be taken for such a comparison.) But at least in some respects, the comparison is apt, particularly when one is focusing on what both movements were up against in the battle for popular opinion.

In both cases, the abolitionists had to deal with a large number of people who were sympathetic to their arguments but not to their prescriptions. In the antebellum period, there were numerous critics of slavery who nonetheless argued only that the institution should not be allowed to expand into states where it did not already exist. There were more still who favored the abolition of the slave trade as a natural way to quash slavery itself, gradually and indirectly. Both of these groups saw the abolitionists -- those who called not just for non-expansion or non-trade, but for immediate emancipation -- as ridiculous fanatics who were endangering Southern men and women by fomenting slave insurrection. To take the power of slaveholding out of the Southerners' hands would dangerously place that power in the hands of so-called savages, who would allegedly terrorize and murder the moment the legal power of masters was surrendered.

But the abolitionists understood what the non-expansionists did not: that so long as the right to hold human beings as property was acknowledged in any part of the Union, those who claimed that right would assert it absolutely. South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun argued (logically, if coldly) that if slaves were legitimate forms of property in the South, then it was not clear why Southerners could not carry their property into any new state, just as Northerners were not restricted from expanding their property in cattle or carts into the West. (The famous decision of Judge Roger Taney in the Dred Scott case ratified Calhoun's argument.) Non-expansionists could retort with procedural arguments that Congress had the right to govern in the territories and that compromises had been made (in 1820 and 1850) that forbade slavery in certain territories; they could contest Taney's decision, in other words, as a matter of legal interpretation. But their moral argument against expansion was critically weakened by the fact that they acquiesced to the continuation of slavery at all, no matter how much they bemoaned its evils.

Non-proliferationists can argue, much like non-expansionists did, that nuclear weapons should simply remain in the states where they already are. But unless that argument is coupled with a strong argument for their total abolition -- even here -- we will continue to find ourselves dealing with latter-day Calhouns who claim for their states a sovereign right to possess weapons of mass destruction. Until that argument for total abolition is also made, loudly and clearly, laws for the abolition of trade in nuclear arms will (like the laws for the abolition of the slave trade) continue to be vulnerable to enforcement problems and charges of hypocrisy.

How can we aver that trading nukes is immoral without making the corollary claim that possessing them in the first place is? No more easily than someone who believed that holding human beings as property was immoral could consistently oppose the slave trade without opposing slavery. And how can we claim that those states who presently hold nuclear weapons -- by the mere accident of their historical discovery and development in certain wealthy countries -- have a right to hold them indefinitely, while those states who, by accident of history, are free of nuclear weapons cannot acquire them? No more easily than someone who opposed the proliferation of slaves in the West could support their continued bondage in the South. To be sure, the compromises that prevented slavery from expanding into the West accomplished a great good, just as every successful prevention of the proliferation of nuclear weapons is good. But as the famous Boston abolitionist Wendell Phillips once said, "let us not mistake the half-way house for the end of the journey." Let us not lower our sights from abolition to non-proliferation.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006


Avoiding the bends

[For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

Apropos of recent discussions on transnational history, here is an interesting article on the subject by Pierre-Yves Saunier of the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Saunier is editor, along with Akira Iriye, of The Palgrave Dictionary of Transnational History, due to appear in 2008. He strikes exactly the right note, I think, in the opening paragraphs of his article, which reports on a conference on transnational history held in Australia a couple of years ago:
The conference, which provided the basis for this review, was an exciting one. While it took place in Canberra (Australia) in September 2004, many of us participants had this euphorising feeling that we were taking part [in] some kind of ‘first’, and that we were able to contribute to shape a yet unmoulded historiographical pattern at a moment when historians begin to embrace a pattern that has been flourishing in other disciplines.[1] That is, indeed, a pleasant feeling to explore dimensions and perspectives without having to care too much for definitions, to venture care freely into fields and questions without respecting our respective subdisciplinary overspecialisations and to breathe the air of debate and discussion without being too much concerned by canons and the usual apparatus of our disciplined behaviours. As divers know, though, euphoria can also be dangerous: historical staggers can lead to a loss of balance and bearings. The most tempting of all those is probably to dismiss comparative, local, world or national histories as obsolete, and to build the fate or transnational history as the good side in a series of dichotomies (up to date/out of date, transnational/local, universal/parochial, relevant/irrelevant). This report, which does not escape those risks, nevertheless proposes some decompression stages to control some of them. Mostly, it will try to put this conference in context, by offering some links to the various proposals that, in different parts of the world, have made similar moves in the direction of a transnational perspective in history.

It is on purpose that the words of ‘a transnational perspective in history’ have just been used. It would have been easier to write ‘in the direction of a transnational history’. But it is not the orientation of this report to suggest that something called ‘transnational history’ should be the next big thing, something that would deserve to be presented as a new paradigm which destiny it is to overturn previous frameworks, an up and coming sub-discipline that would deserve its own institutional space. Rather, it is suggested here that ‘going transnational’ is about adopting a perspective, an angle. Going transnational is not moving to a different field of study, shifting allegiances and references. Rather, it is something that many historians can do to find a way to respond [to] questions that lay unanswered on their working desks [for] a while.

Saunier also argues later in the piece that transnational history, despite the sometimes sweeping pronouncements of its founding manifestoes, actually encourages (in practice) a reflective kind of epistemic humility:
... developing a transnational perspective also brings about a renewed humbleness, that which comes from the sheer sense that one is never able to assemble all the pieces, to pull all the strings, to build the complete line up of skills that are required. And after all, it is logistical common sense to realize that you won't be able to have the time, funding and energy to follow all the trails that are traceable from a transnational point of view. Thus the results of a transnational research may always have to do with a sense of failure and incompleteness: knowing about our limits should save us from disappointment, but also from the ego trips which sometimes push us historians to believe we have written the final and ultimate volume on a subject.
Finally, Saunier makes a good point about the way that historiographical movements are shaped, unavoidably, by institutional and professional structures. Instead of denying that fact, it's best to be aware of it:
... it would be a loss if the transnational angle was developed at the exp[e]nse of the local, national, comparative or world history perspectives. For sure, I also know that the transnational angle will have to make a place of its own in the current institutional structures of history as a trade, a discipline and a market. We have learned enough from the history and sociology of science to know that scientific disputes are also about academic positions, grants, publication opportunities. They are also rooted in the social and cultural trajectories of the protagonists. It is quite unlikely we can escape this. But the history of the social sciences and humanities are also full of so-called 'turns' where the practical opponents to a so-called 'new approach' are forced out on weak scientific grounds, in an exaggerated mutual game of opposition and denigration. I am naive enough, though, to think that one can try to introduce a different perspective without playing the usual academic tricks. It can also be an interesting experience to propose to be different without wanting to be hegemonic.
Read the whole thing.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006


April 18, 1906

It happened early in the morning and it lasted two minutes and twenty seconds, as I heard everyone say afterward. My father was sports editor of one of the San Francisco papers. There was a racetrack near our bungalow and stables where my father kept a horse. He said that the night before had been a sultry one and the horses were restless, neighing and stamping in their stalls, becoming increasingly nervous and panicky. The earthquake started with a deep rumbling and the convulsions of the earth started afterward, so that the earth became a sea which rocked our house in a most tumultuous manner. There was a large windmill and water tank in back of the house and I can remember the splashing of the water from the tank on the top of our roof. My father took my brothers from their beds and rushed to the front door, where my mother stood with my sister, whom she had snatched from beside me. I was left in a big brass bed, which rolled back and forth on a polished floor. Whether I realized what was happening I do not know, but I do know that the whole event was confused in my mind with something which might have occurred a few nights earlier, my mother fainting on the floor of my room on her way to the bathroom, and my father carrying her back to bed. The illness of my usually strong and cheerful mother and the earthquake were both part of the world's tragedy to me.

When the earth settled, the house was a shambles, dishes broken all over the floor, books out of their bookcases, chandeliers down, chimneys fallen, the house cracked from roof to ground. But there was no fire in Oakland. The flames and cloud bank of smoke could be seen across the bay and all the next day the refugees poured over by ferry and boat. Idora Park and the racetrack made camping grounds for them. All the neighbors joined my mother in serving the homeless. Every stitch of available clothes was given away. All the day following the disaster there were more tremblings of the earth and there was fear in the air. We had always been considered Easterners by our neighbors and one of them told my other he would rather have San Francisco's earthquakes than our eastern thunder and lightning storms any day!

-- Dorothy Day, from The Long Loneliness, pp. 21-22

What I remember most plainly about the earthquake was the human warmth and kindliness of everyone afterward. For days, refugees poured out of burning San Francisco and camped in Idora Park and the racetrack in Oakland. People came in their nightclothes; there were newborn babies.

Mother had always complained before about how clannish California people were, how if you were from the East they snubbed you and were loath to make friends. But after the earthquake everyone's heart was enlarged by Christian charity. All the hard crust of worldly reserve and prudence was shed. Each person was a little child in friendliness and warmth. ...

While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. They realized their own helplessness while nature 'travaileth and groaneth.' It was as though they were united in Christian solidarity. It makes one think of how people could, if they would, care for each other in times of stress, unjudgingly, with pity and with love.

-- Dorothy Day, from The Long Way Home, in Selected Writings, pp. 10-11

Monday, April 17, 2006


History links

Rebecca has a great new edition of the History Carnival up, and Cliopatria is hosting a symposium on transnational history.

Friday, April 14, 2006


More on transnational history

[For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

Transnational history has recently been the subject of some excellent posts by KC Johnson, Rob MacDougall, Eric Rauchway, and Evan Roberts. Since I'm currently out of town, I have not been able to follow the discussion as closely as I would like to. But there is much food for thought in these posts, and there promises to be more in an upcoming symposium on Cliopatria about transnational history.

In the meantime, I do have some cursory thoughts about the posts listed above. First, KC Johnson's post shares Rauchway's initial concern that transnational history is trying to displace political history. Johnson worries that transnational history, as advocated by scholars like Thomas Bender, "represents one way to rationalize the academy’s having driven political, diplomatic, military, and constitutional history out of the discipline." I've already argued that I do not think transnational history is necessarily inimical to political history, but instead is one way of doing political history -- a method that helps answer some, though not all, of the questions political historians ask. But I might add that transnational historians are also far from hostile to political historians within the discipline, nor are they necessarily committed to driving political history out of the academy. On the contrary, some transnational historians criticize community studies and microhistories -- the classic examples of new social and cultural history -- that focus too narrowly on local contexts and subnational historical forces. To that extent, transnational history might also be read as a qualified critique of the ascendancy of new social history and an appeal to bring the state (and the transnational) back into the discipline.

That's not to say, of course, that transnational historians want to drive social history out of the discipline either. As I've said before, I think it's a mistake to read the critical interventions of transnational history as a veiled attempt to vanquish other modes of doing history. And in some contexts, transnational historians can prove to be sympathetic to the insights of social and cultural historians.

For example, Rob's post concludes with the very good point that "when impersonal forces like globalization and trans-nationalism get invoked, it is very easy to lose sight of actual historical actors and actions." Rob worries about transnational historians who betray a certain "fuzziness about actors and actions, power and causation, that is troubling whether or not it is intentional."

That worry is perfectly valid, and it should serve as a caution to transnational historians not to invoke faceless abstractions whenever they find something hard to explain, thus creating a kind of Globalization of the Gaps. At the same time, it's worth noting that this same concern about the "fuzziness" of talking about "impersonal forces" rather than actual persons has often been lobbed into the foxholes of social and cultural historians. What made many historians wary of the new cultural historians who were writing their manifestoes in the 1970s and 1980s was their seeming unconcern for things like causation and explanation, and their apparent satisfaction with historical narratives that simply tried to interpret and understand cultural and social forms, even if that meant eschewing the historian's supposed obligation to trace "change over time."

But as David Hollinger once wrote in a now classic essay on intellectual history, "a truism that seems always in need of repetition is that providing causal explanations is only one of the things historians do." It's also only one of the things that transnational historians do. While we should be on guard against transnational historians who try to answer questions about "influence" simply by gesturing wildly in the direction of "globalization," their gesticulations should not distract us from the other kinds of things that transnational historians might do. One task, for instance, that transnational historians seem to take as their own is to contextualize the history of the United States by setting it alongside the histories of other nation states, in order to show that the United States was not somehow immune from the historical forces -- both personal and impersonal, national and transnational -- that shaped other nation states.

The point of that contextualization, by the way, is not to argue that the United States was no different from other nation states. As Rauchway argues in his latest post, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that in many ways the United States is "peculiar," and studying transnational forces like globalization often simply underlines how peculiar the history of American politics and state-building has been. I don't think transnational historians must necessarily demur. The "American exceptionalism" that transnational historians hope to undermine is not the proposition that the United States is "different" from other nation states. That nation-states are different is a truism; if they were not distinguishable, then there would be no such thing as a "nation-state."

What transnational historians want to contest is the idea that the forces that made the United States distinct from other nations were themselves unique and unconnected to the kinds of forces that shaped the distinct character of other nations. That is the exceptionalism that bothers transnational historians: the idea, as Daniel Rodgers described it in his contribution to this book, that the United States, as a providentially chosen nation, has simply been exempt from the kinds of historical processes that affected other nations, as though Americans simply walked through history on dry ground while the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean rose up like walls around them.

I want to conclude by saying that I do not intend to defend from all criticisms "transnational history" -- a term that is hard to define, much less to defend. I heartily amen what Evan Roberts says in his brilliant post on the life cycles of historical fields, which provides a stadial outline of the phases through which every new movement among historians seems to pass. Evan urges transnational historians to move beyond the "manifesto" phase of its life cycle into the "contributionist" phase. As he puts it, "one way forward for transnational historians is to stop assuming that the transnational was really that important, but set out to 'measure' its influence anyway." That seems exactly right to me. Perhaps necessarily, manifestoes for new historical fields have to deal in abstractions and even in exaggerations, if only to clear institutional and intellectual space for new research projects to fill. But once those projects have begun, the need to wave banners for The New Thing diminishes, and it becomes more important for the new kids on the block to retreat back into the difficult spade work that all historians share in common.

I've found, even in the life cycle of my own research project, that defining it as "transnational history" has become less important to me than simply understanding how transnational networks among abolitionists worked, why they were important to abolitionists, and why debates about slavery in the United States make more sense when these networks are taken into account. It's still important professionally to wear the moniker of a transnational historian, if only because (thanks to the high visibility of manifestoes for the field) that term serves as a convenient and easily recognizable shorthand for the kind of things I'm interested in as a scholar. But I wear the term lightly, and I think most historians should wear their adjectives ("political," "social," "cultural") lightly. That way those terms can be cast off easily when the sources lead them in new directions. For most of my graduate student career, the working subtitle of my dissertation was "Transnational Currents in American Abolitionism." But in the finished project, the subtitle became "Radical American Abolitionists Abroad," and my discussion of transnational history -- which had once occupied many pages of my introduction -- receded into a historiographical footnote. But to follow up on Evan's point, the retirement of a new field's manifestoes to the footnotes is not a bad thing, and may be the best possible thing that can happen to it.

P.S. Eric Rauchway has another post clarifying what he means when he says the United States is exceptional.

Saturday, April 08, 2006


Disturbing news

Trillwing of the Clutter Museum reports some disturbing news. At least one person has found her blog by searching for "caleb mcdaniel's man boobs."

I'm not sure what is most disturbing: that this search results in over 500 hits on Google; that a couple of the hits (though only a couple) seem to refer to me and not some other "Caleb McDaniel"; or that, having run the search, someone actually clicked through to Trillwing's post.

For the record: if anyone comes here looking for my man boobs, move along. These aren't the boobs you're looking for.

Friday, April 07, 2006


Friday shuffle

This week's Friday Shuffle is dedicated to the memory of Jackie McLean, who died a week ago at the age of 73. (Or 74? Media reports have been curiously divergent on this point.) McLean plays alto sax on all of these tracks.

1. "Francisco," by Jackie McLean, from Capuchin Swing (1960)
2. "Kahlil The Prophet," by Jackie McLean, from Destination Out! (1963)
3. "Nakatini Suite," by Lee Morgan, from Lee-Way (1960)
4. "Enitnerrut," by Jackie McLean, from A Fickle Sonance (1961)
5. "Fidel," by Jackie McLean, from Jackie's Bag (1959)
6. "Cryin' Blues," by Charles Mingus, from Blues and Roots (1959)
7. "I Hear a Rhapsody," by Jackie McLean, from Action (1964)
8. "Omega," by Jackie McLean, from Let Freedom Ring (1962)
9. "Sippin' at Bells," by Sonny Clark, from Cool Struttin' (1958)
10. "Eco," by Jackie McLean, from Right Now! (1965)

Even devoted fans of McLean concede that his tone is not for everyone, as this column by Mark Stryker points out. (Hat tip: Rifftides.) It certainly took me a while to acquire the taste for McLean's slightly sharp sound, which often veers from the tune as if it were, like the title of one of his early Blue Note albums, a "fickle sonance." On his early albums recorded in the heyday of hard bop--albums like Capuchin Swing or Jackie's Bag--this sharpness was not quite as pronounced as it would later become, in part because you're usually too busy tapping your foot and nodding your head during McLean's solos to care how they would stand up to the unforgiving sternness of a tuning fork. Anyone who likes Art Blakey or Lee Morgan or Horace Silver can easily like the Jackie McLean of A Fickle Sonance or Cool Struttin'.

But McLean's later albums, which fused his hard bop instincts with a burgeoning interest in "free jazz," do not always offer you an immediate invitation to tap your toes. And since some of these albums--like Let Freedom Ring and Right Now!--featured McLean as the lone horn with a rhythm section, the listener is forced on every track, for virtually every minute, to confront his cutting sound and his tendency to reach for the highest registers. I have to confess that these albums, and tracks like "Omega" and "Eco," made me distinctly uncomfortable when I first heard them.

But they have grown on me. And far from getting on my nerves, these albums have now gotten deep under my skin. The reason, I think, is that McLean's music is clearly motivated by deep and purposive feeling. I never get the sense, as I do with some "free jazz" musicians, that McLean is running aimlessly up and down his instrument just because he can't decide what he wants to say. Instead, he seemed to value the free expression of free jazz only when he had something to express that could not be said in an orderly, harmonious way. McLean's solos are not exercises in expression for the mere sake of expression (which by definition express nothing). The solos have an object to express; their intent is to communicate. To be sure, it's not music that is always easy to listen to, because of the occasional screeching, the sharpness, the bitterness of the tone. But perhaps listening to McLean is challenging because what he wants to say is not always easy to hear. There should be a place in music for the expression of hard things and hard emotions, and McLean found that place--without, I should add, ever ceasing to swing. Even at his freest and most out of tune, he remains impossible to tune out.

After last Friday's news I've been listening to McLean all week long, and a few days ago I pulled out the liner notes to Let Freedom Ring, which McLean wrote himself. Forms of the word "expression" appear no fewer than half a dozen times in the short notes. The key paragraph, I think, is the following one, when McLean writes:
I feel that emotion has taken an important step in expression on the horn. Emotion has always been present, but today it has a new importance. Toward the end of Lady Day's career, her voice was just a shadow of what it had been, yet she still put a song over; her singing voice was gone, leaving emotion her only tool of expression.
McLean's voice may also be gone now. But as far as I'm concerned, he can still "put a song over." Before you tell me I'm wrong, put on Destination Out! or Action and listen to the emotion. Listen to "Poor Eric," the elegiac second track on the classic Right Now! and try not to be moved.

Thursday, April 06, 2006


Proslavery Constitution?

A debate has recently broken out on H-SHEAR and H-SLAVERY about whether the Constitution is a "proslavery" document. (Click on the links above and scroll down to see the relevant threads.)

It's a perennial debate among historians, just as it was among abolitionists and anti-abolitionists in the early nineteenth century. But it's also a debate that seems to end in stalemate whenever it is argued. Even the late historian Don Fehrenbacher, who criticized historians like Paul Finkelman for arguing that the Constitution was proslavery, ultimately concluded in The Slaveholding Republic that "the case for an antislavery Constitution is just as strong as the case for a proslavery Constitution, but both depend on special pleading that ignores part of the evidence" (p. 46).

There's a lot of truth in that conclusion, but while reading through the posts on H-SHEAR and H-SLAVERY, I began to wonder whether the problem is not so much special pleading as it is imprecision. As some posters pointed out, it's not clear exactly what we are asking when we raise the question of whether the Constitution was "proslavery" or "antislavery." Usually that straightforward question conceals a welter of more particular questions, including but not limited to:
The answers to some of these questions do not necessarily bear on the answers to others. And very often it seems as though the defenders and critics of the "proslavery" Constitution are not disagreeing directly so much as they are asking different questions. Perhaps both sides would be better served by specifying exactly which of these valid questions they are addressing, instead of asking generally whether the Constitution was "proslavery" or "antislavery."

Another reason for avoiding those general terms, at least in this kind of debate, is that the words "proslavery" and "antislavery" are notoriously thorny. The forms of the words make them seem as though they represent two antithetical positions, but in fact the range of early American opinions about slavery were much more complex and much less bipolar. For example, many articulate eighteenth century Americans declared slavery a moral and political evil (for a variety of reasons that seldom if ever included a belief in the equality of people of color with whites) but also declared that emancipation would be an even greater evil. Yet if being philosophically "antislavery" did not necessarily render someone "pro-abolition," how should we characterize people who believed slavery was unjustifiable but also unalterable? "Proslavery" is too blunt a word for that nuanced position, no matter how indefensible the position is.

Consider also that many Northerners in the early republic who believed slavery was a great moral evil also believed it was unnecessary for the federal government to take action against it because the institution would eventually wither on its own. Were these people "antislavery," because they believed slavery to be wrong, or "proslavery," because they tolerated its existence for the time being? What about those who argued that the federal government should not prevent slavery from expanding into western territories because the diffusion of the slave population would hasten the institution's downfall? Misguided though such a forecast was, how should we characterize those who made it? In such a case, the bare words "antislavery" and "proslavery" may be more confusing than they are clarifying.

There certainly are contexts in which the words "antislavery" and "proslavery" are clarifying and appropriate. Immediatist abolitionists, who believed that slavery was a moral evil and began calling in the 1830s for immediate emancipation, were clearly "antislavery" in every sense of that term. Likewise, there were Southern ideologues in the antebellum period who clearly deserve the moniker "proslavery"--those who argued that slavery was a positive good and opposed any measure to emancipate slaves or limit the legal rights of masters. But such robust defenses of slavery as a necessary good were exceedingly scarce in the 1780s when the Constitution was drafted, and no critic of slavery was calling for an immediate end to slavery even in the North.


Blogging grad students

My fellow Cliopat, Rebecca Goetz, did a great job explaining the virtues of academic blogging in her Chronicle column last fall. Now she has also been interviewed for a new article on blogging grad students in U.S. News and World Report. And in a post pointing to the article, she reflects a bit on the role that blogging played in her recent (and successful!) search for an academic job. Thanks, Rebecca, for helping to make the world safe for academic bloggers!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006



"Having a real hero means devoting yourself, subordinating yourself, and that's asking a bit too much of people these days. Devotion isn't trauma, but it does seem a bit severe, a bit medieval. Cult wackos come to mind. Devoted followers are anachronistic in a world made for devoted fans."

-- Thomas de Zengotita, Harper's (December 2004)


"One sermon in support of slavery--one clerical petition in favor of capital punishment--I believe, does more extensive damage to the souls of men, than the writings of a Volney or a Paine, a Voltaire or a Rousseau. For, in spite of the unreasonableness of it, people will judge of the Bible and of religion by the practices of those who profess to be guided by them; and thus it becomes as much the business of those who sincerely desire that mankind should come to experience the blessings of real Christianity, to expose those glaring inconsistencies in its professors, as to contend against the errors of its opponents."

-- British abolitionist Elizabeth Pease (1844)


"The mood of the Blues is almost always despondency, but when they are sung people laugh."

-- Langston Hughes

"Music makes you hungry for more of it. It never really gives you the whole number. It slaps and it embraces, it slaps and it embraces."

-- Toni Morrison


"National partiality is, of course, what the concept of cosmopolitanism is usually assumed to oppose, and yet the connection between the two is more complicated than this. Nationalism itself has much in common with its putative antithesis, cosmopolitanism: for nationalism, too, exhorts quite a loftily abstract level of allegiance--a vast, encompassing project that extends far beyond ourselves and our families."

-- Kwame Anthony Appiah, The Ethics of Identity, p. 239


"At best, our understanding of any historical moment is significantly wrong, and this should come as no surprise, since we have little grasp of any present moment. The present is elusive for the same reasons as is the past. There are no true boundaries around it, no limit to the number of factors at work in it."

-- Marilynne Robinson, The Death of Adam, pp. 4-5


"American Christians can blame secularists for many things but surely not for the trivialization of faith in the modern world: Christians in North America have surpassed all competitors in that booming business. Our patriotism has become a cult of self-worship consecrated by court prophets robed in pinstriped suits. Forgetting the difference between discipleship and patriotism, the God most Americans trust is a simulacrum of the holy and transcendent God, a reification of the American way of life."

-- Charles Marsh, The Beloved Community, p. 7


"The task of the critic is to prevent a shrinking of possible views of the world, to resist any tendency to fix the limits of what can be thought. And so any healthy peace movement will be vigorously productive of songs and stories ..."

-- Rowan Williams

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


Transnational political history

[For a complete list of my posts on transnational history, see here.]

A couple of months ago Eric Rauchway had a very interesting post, both at his own blog and at POTUS, on transnational history. Unfortunately, it appeared while I was in the thick of my Great Blog Silence, so I've only just had a chance in the last couple of days to read the post with care.

Rauchway's post cautions against the idea that transnational history somehow supplants the need for good political history. On the contrary, the more interested historians become in the historical processes that have made globalization possible, the more imperative it will become to focus on political history. "Political history," he says, "is all over the essential stuff of globalization." In the first part of his post, Rauchway shows that he means this literally: if we take the "stuff" of globalization to be the technologies that make long-distance travel and communication possible, then we can't take for granted how that "stuff" came to be. And very often the technological innovations that helped stitch the histories of distant nations together were enabled or inhibited by national politics. Using transatlantic cables as his primary example, Rauchway shows convincingly that "virtual reality depends on real reality. It runs over wires. Those wires get spooled, strung, sunk, and kept safe from cutting owing to political decisions."

Rauchway points to immigration policy as another example of why transnational historians cannot do without political history. As entranced as transnational historians may be with the border crossings and diasporic identities of migrant peoples, the movement of those people does not take place in a political vacuum. Immigration and the politics of immigration exist in an almost dialectical relationship: the "dislocation" of immigration sparks "discontent"; that discontent is voiced politically in struggles over immigration policy; that policy often reacts against the forces of globalization; and in the end, politics thus shapes the course of globalization. Historiographically, as much as politically, the fact of immigration shows that the nation-state is not dead yet, and that politics in a national context still deserve the attention even of the most transnational historians.

Although Rauchway uses some of my own definitions of transnational history as a springboard for his argument, I can't find much of anything in his post with which to disagree. As I remarked in my earlier post, transnational historians are often afflicted by the fact that there are more manifestoes for transnational history than there are actual examples of it, which sometimes means that transnational historians get stuck being asked to defend manifestoes that are, by their nature, often hyperbolic and excessively polemical. Some manifestoes for transnational history, for example, over-reach by making it sound as though the nation-state itself is unimportant or obsolescent to properly transnational historians. And Rauchway is absolutely right to react against that kind of claim. No transnational historian is worth his or her salt who does not concede that nation-states must be reckoned with by historians of the modern world, globalization notwithstanding. By the same token, I hold no brief for transnational historians who would argue that political history is bunkum.

It may even be misleading to speak of "transnational history" because that phrase seems to denote a field that stands in contradistinction to "political history" or "social history." It's better to think of transnational history as a posture or a methodological intervention that urges us to do political history and social history (and cultural history and intellectual history and so on) in a certain way. So a transnational historian would not disagree with Rauchway that politics is all over the stuff of globalization. But they would insist, conversely, that the forces of globalization (or, less anachronistically, the transnational circulation of people, goods, and ideas) are all over the stuff of politics.

Maybe it would be best here to move out of the realm of manifesto and into the realm of actual examples of transnational history. Take, for instance, Rauchway's point about immigration policy--that it shows why we can't understand "transnationalism without understanding the political processes that permit and promote it, that shape what kind of globalization we get and how long we get it for." Transnational historians of immigration would not disagree with that, I think, but they would want to add, in turn, that immigration policies and patterns of enforcement are not unaffected by transnationalism itself. For example, Madeline Hsu's book, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home, shows how Taishanese immigrants to California in the late 19th and early 20th centuries used transnational kinship networks to effectively limit the "ability of nation-states to control migration." If I'm remembering the book correctly, Hsu shows how, by circulating coded guidebooks and magazines back to friends and family in China, immigrants found ways to circumvent the seemingly impermeable Chinese Exclusion Laws by instructing other would-be immigrants about how to answer successfully the questions of immigration officials.

Hsu is not saying that exclusion laws and the political processes that made them are irrelevant to the history of Chinese immigration; what she is saying is that the power of those laws and political processes was to some extent attenuated by transnational networks themselves. The lesson here is not that transnational historians can do without political history, but that political historians also cannot take for granted the effectiveness of laws and policies to control and regulate transnational forces like immigration.

Another good example of that same lesson can be found in the most recent issue of the Journal of American History, which features an article by Thomas A. Guglielmo on Mexican and Mexican American activists in Texas during World War II. (A personal or institutional subscription to the History Cooperative is required to view the article.) Guglielmo shows how some very "high" politics--including the Good Neighbor Policy of the United States that tried to create a united South American and North American front against European fascism--created opportunities on the ground in Texas for Mexicans and Mexican Americans to lobby for anti-discrimination laws and civil rights protections in the state legislature. But he also shows how those political struggles were shaped by transnational networks of Mexicans and Mexican Americans. Some of the lobbying organizations that pressed for liberalized laws in Texas were based in Mexico. And the signal success of these activists occurred when Mexican groups, working with Mexican Americans, pressured Mexico to hold back migrant workers from Texas cotton fields if Austin refusedd to heed the demands of activists for civil rights.

Guglielmo's piece is another good example of how transnational political history might be done. At its best, such transnational history would be very sensitive to the power of nation-states and the importance of policy, but would also attune us to the ways that nation-states and national policies are themselves criss-crossed by transnational networks of people, goods, and ideas that often crucially affect the politics of nations.

(Cross-posted at Cliopatria.)

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