Monday, May 29, 2006


More links

I've been happily busy over the last week, first with walking the stage at the Hopkins commencement ceremony (woo-hoo!) and then with entertaining company. Today I've managed to catch up a bit on blogs, and this list of links is the result:

Like many others in the history blogosphere, I'm excited about the debut of a new group blog at HNN: Revise and Dissent.

Via one of the H-Net mailing lists, I discovered this page of online history lectures. It includes a video lecture by Cassandra Pybus and will soon include a lecture by Simon Schama, both of whom were mentioned in my last post. There are also lectures by Joyce Chaplin, Taylor Branch, and many others.

One of the things I've been doing since last Tuesday is playing with my new digital camera. So I was especially interested in Evan Roberts' extensive advice about using a digital camera for archival research.

Adam Kotsko has a provocative piece on the limitations of blogging as an academic medium. Adam recommends this rule of thumb for bloggers: "nothing can exceed the level of rigor of a conversation at the pub after class." One of my blogfathers, Jason Kuznicki (who also walked the stage with me last week), made exactly that recommendation to me when I got started. I think one of the reasons why blogging can sometimes be limited as a medium for academic discourse is its regularity and the pace at which conversations take place. The impulse to post regularly (on which the survival of the blogosphere depends) can sometimes cause bloggers to confuse having something to say with having to say something.

I speak here of myself most of all. "More often than not," warned Blaise Pascal, "curiosity is merely vanity. We only want to know something in order to talk about it." That's a bit of an overstatement, but it identifies a pitfall of blogging that can be easy to stumble into.

Monday, May 22, 2006


The colored expatriates of the American Revolution

I'm a little behind the curve in linking to this, but Harvard historian Jill Lepore had an interesting review in the New Yorker earlier this month. The two books under review, by Simon Schama and Cassandra Pybus, document the lives of the thousands of enslaved Americans who fled behind British lines during the Revolutionary War. Both books sound well worth the read; I flipped through the Pybus volume at a bookstore recently and would like to read more, especially after Evan's recommendation of Pybus's other work.

An early paragraph in Lepore's review also caught my eye. Lepore argues that those slaves who left American shores with the British "also left American history. Or, rather, they have been left out of it. Theirs is not an undocumented story ... it’s just one that has rarely been told, for a raft of interesting, if opposing, reasons."

Lepore somewhat overstates her historiographical case here. Sylvia Frey's important book on slave resistance during the Revolutionary War is now 15 years old, and the works of Benjamin Quarles and Herbert Aptheker on the same subject are even older. (Judging from my quick scan, Pybus acknowledges this long tradition of scholarship even as she revises earlier estimates about how many slaves escaped to British lines.)

But Lepore's claim is even more of an overstatement if she intended to say that amnesia about those slaves who joined the British had already set in during the Revolutionary generation. The earliest generations of Americans had the stories of those slaves very much in mind. This was because, in the first place, debates about whether American slaveowners would be compensated for their losses during the War loomed large in the early diplomatic history of the United States. But white Americans also lost plenty of sleep in the early nineteenth century because of the example of flight that Revolutionary slaves had set: perennial fears of war with Britain were always compounded in the antebellum period by fears that such a war would inspire a general slave revolt or a sudden surge of runaways. Twenty-first century Americans may forget about the colored expatriates of the American Revolution, but nineteenth-century Americans could not.

But I think what Lepore means is that the story of these expatriates has not, until now, been told in a way that appreciates their dramatic heroism. The reason she gives for this oversight, though, is curious:
A major [reason the expatriates' story has not been told] is that nineteenth-century African-American abolitionists decided that they would do better by telling the story of the many blacks who fought on the patriot side during the Revolution, and had therefore earned for their race the right to freedom and full citizenship and an end to Jim Crow. “Not a few of our fathers suffered and bled” in the cause of American independence, Peter Williams, Jr., declared in a Fourth of July oration in New York in 1830. (Williams’s own father, who had joined American troops in defiance of his Loyalist master, later managed to purchase his freedom and went on to help found the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church.) When the Boston abolitionist William Cooper Nell published “The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution,” in 1855, Harriet Beecher Stowe supplied an introduction:

"The colored race have been generally considered by their enemies, and sometimes even by their friends, as deficient in energy and courage. Their virtues have been supposed to be principally negative ones. This little collection of interesting incidents, made by a colored man, will redeem the character of the race from this misconception."

Best not to mention those who fled to the British. Having abandoned the United States, they not only were of no use in redeeming “the character of the race”; they had failed to earn the “passport” to citizenship that Nell believed patriot service conferred.
Lepore is right to call attention here to the ways that African American writers often used the patriotic service of black Revolutionary soldiers as arguments for full citizenship. But those arguments should be placed in a larger context. One reason writers like Peter Williams, Jr., needed to stress their loyalty to the United States was because, in the 1820s and 1830s, many ostensibly antislavery Americans were also colonizationists, who wanted to expatriate free African Americans to Liberia or some other distant colony. In the battle with colonizationism, the example of voluntary expatriates during the Revolution was a dangerous card to play. For the same reason, black emigrationists in the 1830s were often excoriated by other African American writers for deserting the pursuit of American citizenship by moving to Africa or elsewhere. (Consider the case of John Brown Russwurm.)

The influence of colonizationism in the early antislavery movement needs to be remembered here, if only because it indicates that African American historians did not make their choices about what to emphasize in a social vacuum. Their polemical choices were constrained in part by the arguments they were arrayed against. If it was "best not to mention those who fled to the British," it was less because writers like Nell thought that such flight disqualified black persons from full American citizenship and more because it might conceivably strengthen the hand of those who wanted to remove all black people from American shores.

What's striking, though, is that even with the liabilities that writers like Nell faced, many African American writers did mention those slaves who fled to the British, despite Lepore's claims to the contrary. In fact, even William Cooper Nell, in his famous "Colored Patriots of the American Revolution," mentioned the colored expatriates too. If you scroll down to page 298 of Nell's work, you'll find an extended discussion of the subject:
Many of the slaves who engaged in the battle [of New Orleans, during the War of 1812,] were induced to do so from promises of freedom; but the sequel proved that a false hope had been held out to them, numbers being ordered to the cotton-fields to resume their unrequited toil, for the benefit of those for whom their own lives had been jeoparded on the bloody field of battle. The British took advantage of these violated pledges, and induced many colored Americans, panting for the freedom which, theirs as a birthright, had been confirmed by deeds of valor and patriotism, to accept free homes under the banner of England.

ANTHONY GILL was one of the soldiers remanded to work again for his master, when he was accosted by General Packenham, who, learning that he was a slave, told him to put down his hoe, follow him, and become a free man. He did so; and is now undisputed owner of fifty-two acres of free soil, in St. Johns, N. B. His son resides in Boston, Mass.

This is but one of numerous instances, of which there are abundant testimonies.

"When the British evacuated Charleston, in 1782, (says Ramsay, in his History of South Carolina,) Governor Matthews demanded the restoration of some thousands of negroes who were within their lines. These, however, were but a small part of the whole taken away at the evacuation, but that number is very inconsiderable when compared with the thousands that were lost from the first to the last of the war. It has been computed by good judges, that, between the years 1775 and 1783, the State of South Carolina lost TWENTY-FIVE THOUSAND NEGROES." [At least a fifth part of all the slaves in the State at the beginning of the war.]

... And the same candid historian, describing the invasion of next year says:--"The slaves a second time flocked to the British Army."

Dr. Ramsay, being a native and resident of Charleston, enjoyed every facility for ascertaining the facts in the case; but his testimony does not stand alone; Col. Lee, of Virginia, in his "Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department," confirms the statement.

"Lord Dunmore, Governor of Virginia, (says Burke, in his History of Virginia,) after escaping from Williamsburg, in 1775, to a vessel in James River, offered liberty to those slaves who would join him. It appears, from the history, that one hundred of them were soon after enumerated among his forces. How many more joined him does not appear."

Mr. Jefferson, then Secretary of State, in a letter to Hammond, Minister of Great Britain, dated Philadelphia, December 15, 1791, says:--"On withdrawing the troops from New York, a large embarkation of negroes, the property of the inhabitants of the United States, took place. A very great number was carried off in private vessels, without admitting the inspection of the American Commissioners."

... The same important admission was made in debate, on the floor of Congress, 30th March, 1790, some time after the war, by Mr. Burke, a Representative from South Carolina. "There is not a gentleman," said he, "on this floor, who is a stranger to the feeble situation of our State, when we entered into the war to oppose the British power. We were not only without money, without an army or military stores, but were few in number, and likely to be entangled with our domestics, in case the enemy invaded us."

Similar testimony to the weakness engendered by slavery was also borne by Mr. Madison, in debate in Congress. "Every addition," said that distinguished gentleman, "they (Georgia and South Carolina) receive to their number of slaves, tends to weaken them, and render them less capable of self-defence."
These passages from Nell's work do double duty: in the first place, they demonstrate the inability of Founding Fathers like Jefferson and Madison to elide the flight of slaves to British lines from the historical record, and in the second place, they belie Lepore's claim that Nell thought it best not to even mention the example of these expatriates. As the context around these passages shows, Nell could use their example to the same argumentative ends for which he used the examples of colored patriots: to highlight the hypocrisy of an American nation that claimed to be a land of freedom while also being a land of slavery. Nell also played on popular fears of slave insurrections and slave disloyalty by warning that slavery was a military liability for the Southern states.

To be fair, Lepore is right that these references to the colored expatriates of the American Revolution were probably rarer in the works of black abolitionists than references to the colored patriots. But that discrepancy, I think, deserves some closer examination. To date, historiography on African American abolitionists has tended to erect a false binary: either they claimed the mantle of the American Revolution or they cast it off. The subtler historical story, which still needs to be told, is that black writers alternately identified themselves with the Revolution and rejected it, depending on the argument at hand. David Walker's Appeal, for instance, ends by quoting the Declaration of Independence at length and by staking a claim to its promises. At the same time, though, earlier parts of the Appeal implied that British promises of freedom were more authentic than American ones:
The English are the best friends the coloured people have upon earth. Though they have oppressed us a little and have colonies now in the West Indies, which oppress us sorely.--Yet notwithstanding they (the English) have done one hundred times more for the melioration of our condition, than all the other nations of the earth put together. The blacks cannot but respect the English as a nation, notwithstanding they have treated us a little cruel.

There is no intelligent black man who knows any thing, but esteems a real Englishman, let him see him in what part of the world he will--for they are the greatest benefactors we have upon earth. We have here and there, in other nations, good friends. But as a nation, the English are our friends. (Appeal, p. 47)
So Lepore's review has gotten me thinking. I think we still need a better understanding than we currently have of the way that African American abolitionists thought about the American Revolution. It is clear, at least, that their thinking was not monolithic or unchanging, but was instead complex and flexible. When it suited their purposes to praise the English as their "greatest benefactors," they did so, while they also emphasized their loyalty to America when it served other purposes (like refuting the arguments of colonizationists). At least in many cases, it seems evident that the first loyalty of writers like Walker and Nell was to the "coloured people." And their portrayals of both the patriots and the expatriates of the Revolution were defined, if not always singularly determined, by that priority.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006



The latest edition of the History Carnival is up at Airminded. Buckle your seatbelts!

Sepoy has a must-read manifesto for historians at Chapati Mystery. It is an extended riff on an essay by the recently deceased Jaroslav Pelikan, "The Historian as Polyglot" (JSTOR subscription required; the essay appears in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 137 [1993]).

Pelikan argues that "the historian's ability to move back and forth between past and present is analogous to the ability to handle more than one language, and ... the historian needs to be able to speak both 'past-ese' and 'present-ese.'" He then describes the historian as an interpreter, who tries to make the past "intelligible" to a present-day audience, primarily by enabling them to momentarily suspend their disbelief that our ancestors actually believed the things that they did. My own favorite quote from the Pelikan essay:

My own favorite quote from the Pelikan essay:
Almost no one, perhaps, is so completely bilingual or polyglot as to have shed every trace of accent in every language. ... So also ... there will still be a trace, or considerably more than a trace, of present-ese in the way any historian speaks past-ese. Pretending that it is not there is the self-delusion of objectivist historians in the past and in the present; but pretending that it vitiates the entire historical enterprise is the self-delusion of a solipsistic existentialism ... which is so turned in upon itself that it is incapable of suspending disbelief ...
Finally, Scrivener makes a good point about the apparent indifference of many Americans to President Bush's use of the NSA to keep tabs on their phone calls:
Any of the Republicans who're so busy defending the administration on this one and explaining why it's so important for the government to have such completely unchecked power willing to go on record that they believe future Democratic presidents should continue to have the power to spy on every single American citizen, including candidates from the GOP and journalists and CEOs and regular, everyday, law-abiding gun owners?
Snark aside, that's a serious question. It's one thing for the administration's defenders to say, "We don't have anything to hide." But what happens when the executive branch decides to change what it's looking for? Suppose a President decides that domestic gun violence is a threat to national security and starts to indiscriminately gather private phone records to trace networks of gun sales. Then, no doubt, some of the people who currently "have nothing to hide" suddenly would. And that's why this is a matter that should rise above partisan politics. This is why civil liberties have to be a matter of principle and procedural justice -- because administrations come and go, and they each bring their own agendas with them. If that agenda includes a desire to stamp out terrorists or guns or [fill in the blank], that's fine: but let the agenda be debated and executed in public view. If an administration has nothing to hide, it won't be so spooked by the scrutiny of its constituents.

Monday, May 15, 2006


So long, West Wing

For diehard fans of the series, last night's finale was a bit anticlimactic. Instead of featuring the kind of rapid repartee and thoughtful dialogue that made the show great, the episode mostly featured swelling theme music and lingering close-ups. I'm willing to bet it was one of the shortest screenplays in the history of the series, so sparse was the dialogue.

So let me just get off my chest what every diehard fan of West Wing is thinking this morning: "Boooooooo, NBC. Booooooo. Not only have you pulled the plug on one of the best shows on television; you didn't have the decency to let the show's fans say goodbye." Apparently NBC cancelled plans for a one-hour retrospective because it didn't want to pay the actors to participate. So instead the series finale was preceded by a rerun of the pilot episode. Our local television critic pretty much nailed it: "A rerun is no way to send off a series that has brought such honor to a network for seven years." To add insult to injury, the show was followed by a two-hour season finale to the third-tier Law and Order franchise, Criminal Intent.

I'll miss West Wing, and not just for the usually stated reasons that it elevated the tone of political discourse and wasn't embarrassed by its intelligence. (One of the television reporters portrayed in last night's episode actually used the word "eschew.") I have to say I'll also miss its unabashed utopianism. I'm aware that the show was often criticized for presenting a naively idealistic vision of White House politics and for populating the West Wing with leftist fantasies. (Case in point: in the final episode, as White House staffers are packing up the Oval Office, the camera reveals that President Bartlett has a copy of a book by Michel Foucault on his bookshelf. It's fantastic enough to imagine that a book by a Frenchman would even be on the grounds of the present White House, much less a book in the Oval Office and much less a book by Foucault.)

But we need fantasies. We need utopias to show us what kinds of alternative realities are possible, especially when most of what we get on the airwaves these days falls under the rubric of "reality" television. Survivor island is a paltry substitute for Gonzalo's. Yes, the West Wing writers knew they were idealists, but that's why they didn't have to start every episode with a disclaimer about how the characters and storylines are all fictional, as many episodes of Law and Order do. The writers had no problem with the fact that they were writing fiction, and so they just concentrated on doing a fine job of writing fiction. And at their best, the fictions they constructed helped Americans visualize different possible worlds. Yes, it was utopian for newly elected Democratic President Matthew Santos to offer a cabinet-level position to his opponent, Republican Senator Arnold Vinick. (And yes, it was even more utopian for Vinick to accept.) But that's the function that West Wing served: it articulated the wildest dreams of its audience and then showed how those dreams, if actualized, wouldn't be so bad.

I'm not praising the utopianism of the West Wing just because it happened to be a liberal utopianism. (And to be honest, there were aspects of President Bartlett's presidency with which even a leftist could quibble mightily, especially his Clintonian eagerness to use air strikes to solve international crises.) I'm confident that the show would have served the same important function if the White House had been held by a Democrat for the last six years. And according to this column, the writers were actually planning to elevate Vinick, the John McCain-like Republican candidate, to the presidency if the show had not been cancelled. That would have been a fascinating transition, and I guarantee I would have kept tuning in. Our current political culture suffers not only from a lack of utopianism, but also from the fact that any utopian vision is immediately branded as the fevered dream of a present-day partisan. West Wing, for the most part, gave us well-realized utopias without shoe-horning them into our current political categories.

One of the good pieces of dialogue from last night's episode was between Santos and his wife just after they had attended an Inauguration Day mass. Pictured inside their limousine, Helen Santos turns to the President-Elect and says that the priest was pushing "that swords into ploughshares" thing pretty hard. Without missing a beat, Santos says, "That's what we need," or something to that effect. It might as well have been a bit of dialogue between an NBC executive and a West Wing writer. Utopian visions of swords turning into ploughshares may not sell shares, but they are definitely what we need.

Friday, May 12, 2006


Friday shuffle

1. "I Want to be Happy," by Monk, from Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins
2. "My Ship," by Roland Kirk, from I Talk to the Spirits
3. "Little One," by Herbie Hancock, from Maiden Voyage
4. "Blues Changes," by Ray Bryant
5. "Summer Night," by Keith Jarrett, from Tokyo '96
6. "Just One of Those Things," by Billie Holiday, from Songs for Distingue Lovers
7. "Equinox," by John Coltrane, from Coltrane's Sound
8. "Mingus Fingus No. 2," by Charles Mingus, from Pre-Bird
9. "Airegin," by Miles Davis, from Cookin' with the Miles Davis Quintet
10. "My Sin," by Hank Mobley, from The Turnaround


Transnational history posts

I recently discovered, thanks to my Statcounter, that Mode for Caleb pops up as the top hit for "transnational history" both in Google and in Yahoo. To be honest, I'm a little horrified by the prospect that searchers might stumble over here looking for authoritative ruminations on the subject, especially since the Number One hit was my earliest and sketchiest post on the subject.

This is the way it often happens with blog posts: the ones you hammer out quickly end up rising in the search engines for various reasons, at which point you wish you had spent more time on them in the first place. Supportive as I am of academic blogging, this is one reason why I'm not as keen on blogs as an ultimate replacement for journals, books, and the like. The capital investment required for such traditional publications doesn't automatically or necessarily make them better than the work you can find online, but it certainly makes the production of them more deliberate.

At any rate, in case future surfers come here for information and commentary on transnational history, I thought it would be helpful at least to collect a list of my posts on the subject, partly so that no single one of them is taken as my final word and partly to underline the lengthy stretch of time that separates them. In chronological order, here they are:

September-October 2004
Transnational history
Globalization versus "globalization"

April 2006
Transnational political history
More on transnational history
Avoiding the bends
(Also, see the Cliopatria symposium on transnational history.)


The cult of information

Most modern Americans place an extraordinary amount of trust in the executive branch to wield an extraordinary amount of power. And in many cases, I suspect, that trust is predicated on a basic presumption: that the government has more information than civilians do, and is therefore in a better position to make informed decisions about national security.

I suspect that Americans have silenced countless niggling doubts about the Bush administration's policies by appealing to that presumption: "I don't really see what Secretary Powell sees in that picture of trailers, but he probably has more information than he's able to share with the public." "Sure, the UN's inspectors haven't found any WMD in Iraq, but the President would not be pushing for war unless he knew something that we don't." "It makes me nervous that people are being held indefinitely at Gauntanamo Bay, but the government has information that points to their guilt." "I'm not worried about my phone being wiretapped because I have nothing to hide, and the government already knows who it needs to listen to."

To be fair, these arguments are not unreasonable on their face. The government does possess information that is not public, and Americans have long grown accustomed to accepting what our early nineteenth-century forbears could never accept: that it is sometimes a good thing for the government to be opaque, that sometimes decision-makers must act on information that cannot be disclosed to people at large. (Try convincing an antebellum Anti-Mason of that.)

But the problem with the above rationalizations starts to show when we learn more about how the government gets its information, when we start to see the sausages being made. For example, we start to find out about wrongful renditions of terrorist suspects that were based on an intelligence official's "hunch" rather than on indisputable information. Even more unsettling, it starts to become clear that even when a government official puts aside her hunches and chooses to act on the information she has, mistakes can still be made: a person is wrongfully arrested, for instance, because his name matches one on a list of terrorist suspects, or because it looks awfully like a name on the list. (Remember this?)

These kinds of revelations not only reveal that the government's decisions are not always made in a context of information surplus. They also expose the fact that information alone does not make fallible human beings somehow infallible. If my wife sends me to the grocery store with a list that includes a request for a frozen Stauffer's macaroni and cheese meal, because said meals are on sale this week, one could reasonably suppose that I am armed with all the information I need to make the correct purchase. Yet I could still come home with the wrong meal if I reached into the freezer case with the sale sign and picked up the "family size" package, instead of the individually sized meal that my wife wanted to take in her lunch to work. (If this story sounds a little too realistic to be a hypothetical scenario, that's because it isn't.) Was I informed? Yes. I was certainly in a better position to purchase what my wife wanted than you would have been if you were told to go into the store without the list I had. But did that information make me infallible? No. At the risk of making a crude analogy, just because the government has a really long list of information, annotated in incredible detail, does not mean they will always grab the right thing when they reach into the freezer.

There is another reason, however, why the "appeal to information" is a flawed justification for some kinds of government behavior. Even if we were to accept that some government actions can be justified on the basis of better information, we can't appeal to the government's superior information to justify the means it uses to gather information. You can't simply dismiss random data mining like the NSA's phone number database by saying that the people behind the program know more than we do, because the data mining is the process by which they come to know more. The government is casting its nets this wide not because it has more information than we do, but precisely because its information is so incomplete.

Likewise, you can't simply justify the indefinite incarceration of Guantanamo inmates by saying that the government has more information, when at the same time the government's defense for their incarceration is that it needs more information. The NSA's mining of phone records, the alleged secret raids into Iran to scout for evidence of WMDs, the CIA's secret rendition of countless suspects--these kinds of things are uncomfortable reminders of the government's own information deficit. Yet I suspect they are routinely, subconsciously justified by the presumption that the government has more information than we do. The reasoning, stripped to its barest logic, starts to look like a paradox: the government can use any means to get information because of the information it has.

All of this reflection has put me in a speculative mood: Why is the popular faith in the government's better "information" so powerful as to be almost incorrigible? Perhaps some answers can be found by thinking about broader cultural trends. The most-watched dramas on TV--C.S.I., Law and Order, 24, etc.--all reinforce the popular idea that the relevant experts have easy access to staggering amounts of information. Hollywood helps us construct our fantasy of the rooms that exist behind the closed doors: in those rooms, we fantasize, there are banks of gleaming computers whose screens practically radiate data. (They never look exactly like our computers, of course; the computers in those rooms are already a generation ahead of the ones we have.) There are tools that allow medical examiners to solve a murder on the merest of forensic clues. When President Bartlett enters the Situation Room and sits down, he is immediately bombarded by a stream of information, by everything he needs to make a decision.

Before you read further, let me remind you that I'm already in a speculative mood. But as long as I'm speculating, I sometimes wonder what future historians will identify as our generation's "cult." The antebellum period had its "cult of domesticity"; the late nineteenth century its "cult of masculinity." The cultural habits and discourses of earlier generations were shot through, we now understand, with hundreds of unspoken rules and assumptions that their contemporaries only dimly perceived.

I wonder if our age is shaped by a similar "cult of information." I wonder if future historians will be more aware than we are of the blindspots that our faith in the seemingly benign power of information produces. Our forbears waxed poetic about the sublime powers of steel and steam, about the progress ushered in by an industrial age. We can see in retrospect, as some visionaries saw at the time, that the Age of Industry (for all its real advances) had its darker aspects. And perhaps, when future historians are trying to understand the justifications that have been offered for the Bush administration's grasp at executive power, they will see those justifications partly as the detritus of our culture's sanguine hopes in the power of Information Technology.

We rave of the power of the Internet to put information at our fingertips, for example, of the ability of computers and reports and new media to surround us in a protective mantle of information. But is there not a dark side to this Information Age? Isn't there a sense in which the culture itself (and not just the Bush administration in particular) is responsible for making access to information seem like a summum bonum, like an end that justifies any means? For all the good that modern empiricism has brought into the world, this is one of its potentially poisoned fruits: the idea that we can ultimately use information to build an impregnable bulwark against error. And when that false idea is joined with our post-industrial faith in technology, the result is a faith that information technology is the surest path to security.

Perhaps the only way to unsettle the "appeal to information" that justifies all kinds of illicit government behavior is to unsettle, more fundamentally, the "appeal to information" itself, which serves in many ways as the defining appeal of our age. In earlier days, conversations could be settled just by appealing to the divine right of kings, or the separate spheres in which men and women belonged. You mentioned certain values--like obedience to established authority, or to the preservation of feminine virtue--and arguments came to an end, not because those values were logically invincible but because they were taken for granted as the ultimate sources from which certain ethical and moral decisions flowed. It was the very ability of these things to serve as conversation stoppers that makes it reasonable for historians to speak of the cult of absolutism or the cult of domesticity.

Are we living in an age when conversations can be similarly settled, just by appealing to the beneficent ideal of total information awareness? And given the incantatory odes that many of us sing to the all-seeing eyes of Google Earth, or the transformative power of RSS, or the keyword revolution, should we be surprised when those same incantations are mouthed, in slightly different forms, to cover a multitude of sins?

Wednesday, May 10, 2006


Interpreter needed

I'm a big fan of Paste Magazine, particularly because of its excellent monthly sampler CDs. Thanks to those CDs, it's easy to be introduced to marvelous music like Neko Case's single, "Star Witness," off of her new album, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood.

But every so often, one of the Paste reviewers starts speaking in strange tongues. Here, for instance, is William Bowers' review of Case's new album, pulled from the April/May issue:
In the same way Liam Neeson functions in the film world as gravitas-for-hire, the guest list for Neko Case's new album reads like a receipt from the tumbleweed-skiffle department of a Tuscon-area Rent-A-Cred; gracing this project are locals Howe Gelb, and Calexico, plus out-of-towners Kelly Hogan, Dexter Romweber and Garth Hudson, to name a few. Case, of course, still approximates a Northwestern Patsy Cline with a graduate degree, and while the stories she tells are mournful, her delivery remains buoyant. If an odd spiritual ("John Saw That Number") didn't reveal her hand, you couldn't be blamed for thinking Case was working to establish a new kind of magical-realist gospel, or Optimism Gothic. Despite the risk-avoidant, "for-grown-ups" tone of the arrangements, wrenching tunes such as "Dirty Knife" and "Lion's Jaws" easily teleport the listener to a mystical denim prom with a very dusty welcome mat and decorations inspired by an outsider artist's personal, widow-clogged Narnia.


Karon on Iran

I can't remember who it was, but someone in my corner of the blogosphere recently introduced me to Rootless Cosmopolitan, the blog of South African journalist Tony Karon. Over the last week, Karon has had some really interesting commentary on Iran-U.S. relations--here, there, everywhere.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006


Nineteenth-century American history

Lately I've been working on planning the courses I'll be teaching in the fall. One of them -- a survey of United States history in the nineteenth century -- has been fun to think about because the periodization of the course is slightly different from the usual U. S. survey.

The bookends for a typical survey course tend to be the Revolution or the colonization of North America, on the one hand, and the Civil War or Reconstruction on the other. You start circa 1600 or circa 1776 and end in 1865 or 1877. That periodization, needless to say, helps select the kinds of themes that come to the fore: the entrenchment and eventual abolition of slavery, the simultaneous growth of nationalism and sectionalism, the transformation of the United States from an agrarian republic into a modern industrial nation, to name only a few. But what themes might come to the fore in a course that confines itself to the nineteenth century? What happens to a nineteenth-century course if you try to span the Civil War Era instead of stopping or beginning with it?

That's the question I've been puzzling over for the past several days, and asking it has been fruitful and fun. Mostly I've been thinking about what the "bookends" for the nineteenth century proper would be if we were to suspend the normal impulse to start with the Revolution and end with the Civil War. Then I've been thinking about how the major themes of a survey course might change if these unconventional bookends were substituted for the usual suspects. Here are the two most intriguing sets of bookends I've come up with:
With these bookends in mind, I've been sketching out a course that would focus on two related themes: (1) the expansion and growth of the American nation-state, and (2) struggles over the expansion and contraction of the national community.

These themes are, of course, intimately related to one another: expansion into the West provoked political debates about whether Native Americans could be assimilated into the nation, and the aggressive expansionism that underwrote the Mexican-American War set in motion the fateful debates about slavery and the political status of African Americans that would result in Civil War. Moreover, it was often the expansion of the territorial nation-state (frequently through military conflicts like the Mexican-American War and the Spanish-American War) that raised questions for white Americans about whether new populations of people (Mexicans, Filipinos, and Chinese, for instance) could or should be included in the nation. I've been thinking about books to assign that might spotlight the intersections between these two themes, and I've come up with at least four possibilities. (If I choose this particular quartet of books, they would also help bring out a third theme for the course: the relationship between politics and culture.)

Of course, there are major themes in nineteenth-century history not directly addressed by the two narrative foci that I'm thinking of. But many of them can be usefully folded into these larger themes. It's impossible to consider the continental expansion of the United States without considering industrialization and the cultural and political debates they unleashed about urbanization, immigration, and labor. (Consider, for example, the complex relationship between "Free Soil" ideology and "Free Labor" ideology in the antebellum period. And it's also worth noting that industrialization helped mark off the distance between Jeffersonian ideas about expansion and the imperialism of Mahan and Roosevelt at the end of the century: whereas Jefferson saw the Louisiana Purchase as a golden opportunity for the expansion of an agrarian republic, end-of-the-century expansionists had steel and steam-power on the brain.) At the same time, it's impossible to consider industrialization apart from debates about who would be included within the national community. (Consider, for example, the dense relationship between anti-labor views and nativist xenophobia, particularly in the wake of the Haymarket riots, or the roots of the democratizing Populist movement in the social and political dislocations caused by industrialization.)

So I think the major themes that would need to be covered in a nineteenth century course can be dealt with under the rubric of themes I'm describing. The interesting thing about pushing these themes forward is the way it would encourage students (and myself) to think about whether the Civil War was a full-stop caesura in the rhythms of nineteenth-century America. The War was, of course, the major event of the century; the course would not contest that. But it's also worth exploring the things that the War did not permanently change or only changed momentarily (like the political disempowerment of African Americans in the South), the processes that the War accelerated instead of arresting (like industrialization in the North), and the unintended consequences of the War's emancipatory effects (like the mantle of legitimacy it gave to late-nineteenth-century imperialists convinced that American civilization would be a blessing to the benighted world).

Choosing 1800 and 1900 as the rough endpoints for the course is, of course, somewhat arbitrary. Thinking in terms of centuries at all is arbitrary. (I could interpret "century" more loosely and make the course's subject the "long" nineteenth century, from the Revolution to World War I, but that would require my being able to change the 10-week fall quarter into the "long" fall quarter.) But I don't mind students seeing that the periodization of history is open to question, that all historical narratives have to start and stop somewhere even though the processes they narrate spill over the boundaries of the story. (This is a point I've tried to stress before in this first-day exercise.) Ideally, the course could encourage a conversation about whether my "endpoints" are the right ones for the stories we'll be discussing, about what subjects get left out of a narrative organized in this way, and about whether the nineteenth century coheres as a historical period or instead should be carved up into smaller analytical chunks like the early national period, the antebellum period, the postbellum period, and the turn of the century.

Obviously, though, my thoughts about the course are still embryonic (particularly regarding the possible readings) and any feedback would be welcome.

Friday, May 05, 2006


Friday shuffle

1. "Bud on Bach," by Bud Powell, from Bud!
2. "Off Minor," by Thelonious Monk, from Thelonious Monk with John Coltrane
3. "Stolen Moments," by Oliver Nelson, from The Blues and the Abstract Truth
4. "After the Rain," by Duke Pearson, from Sweet Honey Bee
5. "Walkin' in Music," by Gary Burton, from Next Generation
6. "A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square," by Sonny Rollins, from Without a Song
7. "Knives Out," by Brad Mehldau Trio, from Day is Done
8. "Gypsy Blue," by Freddie Hubbard, from Open Sesame
9. "You Stepped Out of a Dream," by Dexter Gordon, from A Swingin' Affair
10. "Mildama," by Clifford Brown and Max Roach, from Brown and Roach, Inc.

Two new-ish albums showed up in this shuffle: Next Generation by Gary Burton and Day is Done by Brad Mehldau. Both are easy to recommend.

Burton is a vibraphonist whose 1998 album, Like Minds, is one of my favorite albums from recent years. That album featured Burton alongside titanic sidemen like Chick Corea and Roy Haynes -- players who needed no introduction. But Next Generation introduces Burton with an extremely young band of players who are just getting started. It's saying a lot, therefore, to say that this album compares in quality with Like Minds.

Brad Mehldau is routinely touted in the jazz media as this generation's Bill Evans or Keith Jarrett. It shouldn't be too much longer before he's simply this generation's Brad Mehldau. One reason he is frequently compared to Evans and Jarrett is his penchant for reinventing popular songs and standards. But whereas Evans and Jarrett liked to mine Broadway and Tin Pan Alley for ballads to jazz up, Mehldau prefers to turn to the repertoire of Radiohead. "Knives Out," the song that appears in this shuffle, is Mehldau's interesting take on one of the creepiest tracks on Radiohead's Amnesiac. On one of his other recent albums -- a solo record made Live in Tokyo -- Mehldau plays an epic version of "Paranoid Android," one of the singles from Radiohead's masterpiece, OK Computer.

Mehldau also likes to cover Nick Drake, but he can handle Gershwin too: the Tokyo album features a Jarrett-esque version of "Someone to Watch Over Me" with a beautiful introduction by Mehldau. Playing around with introductions to standards hearkens back to Bill Evans, whose famous composition, "Peace Piece," started off as an improvised introduction to "Some Other Time."

Argh! Now I've spent half of a post comparing Mehldau to Jarrett and Evans too! Trust me, though: he doesn't need the comparisons to warrant a listen.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


History Carnival

It's hard to believe that the History Carnival is already thirty episodes old. It just keeps getting better, though. Check out the latest Carnival, hosted by Jeremy at Clioweb.

Site Meter