Publick Occurrences Extra
Occasional historically-oriented comments on current events and other subjects.

Also see "Notes of a Left-Wing Cub Scout" at History News Network

5 September 2002
9-11 Fever
I received a inquiry from the campus press office yesterday seeking history professors to be interviewed for a local reporter doing a story "on Sept. 11 being the equivalent to his generation that Pearl Harbor was for his grandparents."
     I emailed back an answer, echoing what I wrote in Common-Place last October,  that I am sure will shock readers of this blog terribly with its bluntness: "The answer to the question, of course is no. We'll remember the date and we will mourn the dead, but so far WWII this ain't. Where's the sacrifice, where's the rationing,  where's  the mobilization of 100,000s of men,  and the revving up of wartime industries? Our Great Depression seems to be starting rather than ending. We remember Pearl Harbor because it brought us into WWII, and WWII sparked massive social changes and population movements. We're talking things like the exodus to the suburbs, the Cold War, the sexual revolution, and the civil rights movement. 9-11 changed the New York skyline and airport security procedures, but our leaders are pretty much on the same course they were before 9-11: cutting taxes, transferring wealth to wealthy, gutting as many environmental protections and government services as they can, and going to war with the guy we didn't get the last time."
     In the end, I might have added, how this generation feels about 9-11 will be determined more just how crappy a place the country and the world become over the rest of this decade. Just how sick they get of the yearly 9-11 media orgy that we will be getting for the foreseeable future may have some impact as well.
27 August 2002
Wal-Mart's America
Common-Place copy editor Ben Irvin sent me a jaw-dropping AP story about the Ku Klux Klan sticking little advertising cards inside patriotic books at an Alabama Wal-Mart, including the Lynne Cheney Patriotic Primer that I just wrote about in Common-Place. I suspect the KKK knew what it was doing  pitching its ''message of hope and deliverance to America'' in a Wal-Mart. We have noticed some other little hints about the nature of at least some of Sam Walton's  clientele. Here in central Missouri, you can't buy nasal decongestant off the shelf at Wal-Mart, and even the pharmacist surrenders it rather unwillingly. The problem is that pseudophedrine is the prime ingredient in meth,  a powerful form of speed that seems to be the number-one crime problem at the moment among rural whites here in the Midwest. Reading the Kansas City Star and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one gets the impression that every other trailer and ramshackle house in the countryside must be a meth lab waiting to explode, which the highly volatile compound of chemicals used to turn Sudafed into meth apparently does with ridiculous ease. Target doesn't guard the decongestant; the grocery stores don't seem to bother either. Apparently the meth "cooks" are loyal Wal-Mart shoppers.
21 August 2002
Change of Venue
Starting August 20th, my primary blog moved to History News Network. Some of the items will be posted here, too, but generally this space will be reserved for comments that relate more directly to the Common-Place column. There is also still some stuff on "
TIME PUNDIT," at Blogger.coma wonderful service with a somewhat less appropriate audience than HNN. I will probably not be adding anything more to that blog for a while.
The Natural Aristocracy Redux?
I notice that something called the Great Books Foundation is sponsoring community discussions on the question, "Is there an American aristocracy?" The text is a famous Adams-Jefferson letter on the topic of "natural" aristocrats, the American kind, you know, who deserve their privileges. I wonder, is this program a challenging bit of intellectual inquiry, or a search for some intellectual grounding to the elitism that is clearly abroad in many boardrooms and suburbs and capitals these days. After all, this is an era when eliminating an estate tax that affects only millionaires can be sold (to Republican voters, anyway) as some kind of populist move to right a wrong. Upward redistribution of income has hardly ever been more openly advocated than right now. Many prosperous Americans really do seem to feel that they are better than everyone else. Is there an American aristocracy? Kevin Phillips says yes, of course, but not in the airy philosophical (and thus more attractive) sense that the Great Books Foundation seems to intend their question.

Now It Can Be Told: The Bush-Carter Connection
Back in the mid-1980s, I co-wrote one of the very first news media articles noting that former President Jimmy Carter was making a comeback from his malaise days of 1980. (You could look it up: "He's Back," The New Republic, 19 Jan. 1987, pp. 13-14)  Jimmy himself has not been in the headlines too much lately, but nevertheless the news has been giving me occasional weird Carter era flashbacks. Though the two presidents have some surface similarities -- they were both southern governors who came in after an impeachment promising to bring character back to the White House -- I realize that two men could hardly be more different than Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush:  the brainy micromanager and the micromanaged airhead. Moreover, the Shrub ideology (tax cuts uber alles, energy conservation is for sissies, etc.) took shape in opposition to Carter.
       Nevertheless, there are these flashbacks. Both Carter and Bush II faced a serious, complex crisis that challenged traditional American lifestyles and values (energy,  terrorism). They both floundered around trying to find a solution before settling on the revolutionary scheme of reorganizing existing departments into a new cabinet agency (Energy and Homeland Security). Both also saw the economy go bad on them, and the country suffered serious blows at the hands of Middle Eastern Islamists in both presidencies.
       In foreign affairs, both Carter and Bush brought a new self-righteousness, setting up (in Weekly Standard  editor William Kristol's description of the Bush "shoot-first" doctrine) "a morally grounded foreign policy that seeks aggressively and unapologetically to advance American principles around the world."  Of course, the moralistic justifications led in different directions. Carter pursued a "human rights" policy that stepped (a bit) away from the Cold War practice of supporting beastly dictators around the world as long as they threw in with us rather than the Soviets. (Carter's moralism also led him to embrace the Cold War pretty fiercely after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, beginning the sad saga of our involvement with the "freedom fighters" that we had to bomb out of power in 2001.)  Conservative "realists" like Jeanne Kirkpatrick
and probably lots of William Kristol's friends, associates, and family members, attacked Carter's version of a "morally grounded foreign policy" as hopelessly naive in the wily, amoral world of international politics. 
       It's grimly amusing now to see conservatives huffing and puffing about their high ideals and the bankruptcy of realism. Here's more of  Kristol in defense of "moral clarity" in foreign policy: "Some, mostly foreign policy 'realists,' hate it because they're appalled by the thought that the character of regimes is key to foreign policy. Some, cosmopolitan sophisticates of all stripes, hate talk of good and evil."* This is certainly a switch from the Reagan years when Kristol and his ilk were just coming into influence. Some readers may remember the arguments over "constructive engagement" with the apartheid-based government of South Africa: the "character of regimes" was pretty low on the list of arguments conservatives used then in resisting economic sanctions on South Africa. Not to mention the many virtues they used to be able to find in pet anti-Communist dictators like Allende, Somoza, Mobutu, etc., not to mention their former embrace of Saddam. 
       It's tempting to think of the new conservative "moral clarity" as a legacy of the moral chest-thumping mode they adopted during the Clinton years. But that would probably be to take it all too seriously. As Thomas Friedman points out today, "regime character" is not really the standard for "regime change" even now -- (otherwise there would be some Saudi princes looking for new palaces): 
"The Bush team is advocating democracy only in authoritarian regimes that oppose America, not in authoritarian regimes that are ostensibly pro-American — even though it is America's support for the autocratic regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia that has made many of their citizens so anti-American and contributed to the fact that 15 Saudis and one Egyptian played key roles in 9/11."
Conservative pundits love the canard about how only Republican officials and conservative pundits understand or will talk about good and evil. Hey, I’ll talk about evil, starting with the evilest first, and sticking with the political figures category. There is a lot of evil to go around. Stalin and Hitler and Pol Pot were evil. Saddam and Osama bin Laden are evil. But so were the pro-American dictators mentioned above, and so were Nixon and Kissinger for dropping so many bombs in the name of our honor. I am pretty convinced that John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis belong on the dark side of the ledger. In a different, lower league, I would have to rate many in the corporate criminal class as evil, for using their power to enrich themselves while stealing the dreams and livelihoods of tens of thousands of their employees and small investors. Bush and Cheney I am not sure about -- I am certainly not ready to declare them good.
20 August 2002
Annals of the "Liberal" Press:  Rich and Krugman for the Defense
A handful of brilliant op-ed writers are pretty much the saving grace for those of us who hope the liberal media elite still lives somewhere deep in the heart of the New York Times. Frank Rich's wonderfully bitter yet insightful piece over the weekend contained what may be the single nastiest line, in a good way, yet directed at John Ashcroft. Lampooning Bush administration efforts to deflect attention from their failures fighting terrorism and recession, Rich mentioned that the Attorney General had suddenly announced the "first ever White House conference on missing and exploited children" in order to catch some of the headlines from several recent abduction cases. Rich commented, "It takes an exploiter to know one." 
      Paul Krugman has been pundit on the spot throughout the recent economic troubles, and seems to have been awakened from his neoliberal slumbers (his punditry career originated at Slate) by the Robin-Hood-in-reverse horrors we have witnessed over the past year-and-half. Krugman's expertise as an academic economist have put in a position to perceive Bushian boodling in places that few others in the establishment media can and then describe complex maneuvers like the ace textbook writer that I believe he is. Today's column wasn't so much a matter of economic insight as letting his understanding of Bush's upward-redistributionist economic agenda cast light on his other policies, specifically budget withholdings affecting veterans, firefighters, and coal miners that were ordered even as Bush and other conservatives were rushing to pretend that they cared deeply about mine safety in the wake of the recent Pennsylvania disaster and rescue. Unlike most leading Democratic politicians and "centrist" pundits, Krugman was willing to argue that the dreaded "populist" strategy -- pointing out to ordinary Americans that this administration is out to hoodwink, fleece, and disempower them -- is not only good politics, but exactly what our current realities demand. 
17 August 2002
Annals of the "Liberal"  Press: The Times Leaves Us in the Lurch
New York Times "Week in Review" piece on the political fallout from the stock market decline gives us just a little taste of just how conservative a force even the bastions of the so-called liberal press have become. We learn about "a rift between those Democrats . . . who want to pursue a populist us-versus-them strategy for retaking the House and the White House, and pro-business centrists . . . who want to avoid a lurch leftward." See, those Democrats who actually want to rethink the party's pro-business tilt in recent years, which has made them complicit in the radical deregulation, privatization, and market fundamentalism that have gotten us to fix we are now in, are guilty of mindless "lurching." What could be more mindless and distasteful than actually responding to changed circumstances or the actual problems faced by their constituents? What, show some partisan backbone and offer actual alternatives to Republican policies? Talk openly about who benefits from current economic trends and policies and who doesn't? Recognize that the interests of "investors" and the interests of working Americans don't always coincide? Mention the fact that we are now dealing with the most anti-democratic administration since John Adams, and possibly the most nakedly self-interested and cynical one ever? Why, that would be an icky "us-versus-them strategy." And we know, especially now, that Wall Street always has everyone's best interests at heart. It's just mean to suggest otherwise. And don't even get me started on the pallid caricature of "populism" that the media rolls out every time a Democrat raises his or her voice, rare as such occasions are.
16 August 2002
Lewis and Clark: "America's Lamest Heroes"?
That's what Slate  writer David Plotz claims in a column posted today. While the piece reeks of Slate's knee-jerk contrarianism and sundry cultural/regional and neoliberal biases, Plotz makes an excellent point when he argues that "our fascination with Lewis and Clark is much more about us than about them. The expedition is a useful American mythology: How a pair of hardy souls and their happy-go-lucky multiculti flotilla discovered Eden, befriended the Indian, and invented the American West. The myth of Lewis and Clark papers over the grittier story of how the United States conquered the land, tribe by slaughtered, betrayed tribe. " The last part reveals a common eastern assumption that Indians are all gone, but the larger argument seems sound. Lewis and Clark are the last frontier hero story that enlightened modern Americans still feel authorized to love unconditionally. Daniel Boone,  Davy Crockett,  Andrew Jackson, John C. Fremont, Kit Carson, General Custer and the rest have all been downgraded into ambiguity for their Indian fighting and land stealing. But instead of revising the basic American narrative in their minds, people (and most journalists, it seems) have clung to Lewis and Clark as the basis for allowing the old story of westward-moving freedom and progress to progress "undaunted" into the 21st century, only now with blacks and women and French-Canadians (and dogs!) right there beside the pathfinding white guys.  
"Sandbox of Iwo Jima" Update

Reader Scott Stoermer called my attention to something far more egregious than the Cheney primer, a Heritage Foundation handbook for conservatives on how to dragoon the Founders into the service of their agenda. The Founders' Almanac  is actually being sold by a conservative book service in a package deal with right-wing talking hair Ann Coulter's fantasia on the "liberal lies," Slander.  (Did you know that "The spirit of the First Amendment has been effectively repealed for conservative speech"?
That must be the explanation for all the jack-booted thugs on the Fox News Channel.) I am not sure whether the book service is trying to provide contrasting approaches to history, or similarly flexible and instrumental ones, by packaging Coulter together with a slice-and-dice of "Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Hamilton and the other giants who created our republic." I imagine her fans won't be able to tell the difference.
15 August 2002
"A Time of War," Not for War
I suspect one reason that the administration and their allies would not welcome a declaration of war on Iraq has to do with the fact that an actual state of war would constrain their actions in ways that their preference, a vague but handily dire-sounding "time of war," does not. As this excellent Los Angeles Times op-ed points out, Ashcroft's Justice Department has a plan to create camps where anyone they declare an "enemy combatant," including U.S. citizens, can be held. Declare war and those people become P.O.W.'s and would actually gain some rights under international law, a highly annoying concept to our present leaders. 
14 August 2002
The Historians' Petition: An Exchange
The first message was from a recipient of the petition, whose name I will leave out:

"Subject: let's not defend Saddam"
"Action against Iraq would be an extension of approval already given in 1990, which was endorsed by the United Nations. But more to point: why should we be opposed to toppling a murderous regime which exports terrorism and supports a hideous form of Islam (which often views women, gays, and non-believers as infidels and reward the killing of same). Try explaining your views to a Kurd I know whose ears and testicles were cut off by Saddam's henchmen. And explain to Israelis who live within firing distance of his chemical weapons and nuclear bombs. Let's not be reflexive liberal anti-war critics for once. The world would be a better place without Saddam. Heavy-handed US action? Yes. Justified? Yes."

This unintentionally parrots the "justification" put into conservatives' mouths by the most recent This Modern World. Also see William Pfaff's withering analysis of just who is hot for war: the amateurs, not the military professionals. Here was my response to the message above:

"Why is it 'defending Saddam' to ask for a declaration of war? Surely this is not the UN's decision, even if we had an administration that respected international agreements, which we do not. I don't find Joyce's petition reflexively anti-war at all. Bush would certainly win a congressional vote for war if he bothered to ask, and he probably should if there is any truth to the claims that have been made about Saddam's weapons of mass destruction. Apart from the dangers of the preemptive attack policy and the undeniable evil of Saddam's regime, surely it is legitimate to ask that a campaign to destroy any foreign government be authorized through the channels our Constitution provides. This is especially true in a case where the threat is possible rather immediate, and where the attack in question is one that has been publicly "considered" as much as this one has."
12 August 2002
Historians' Petition to Congress on the Constitution and the Proposed War with Iraq
Along with lots of other historians, I received the following message over the weekend from Prof. Joyce Appleby, recently retired from UCLA and a former president of many important historical organizations. While clearly written from an antiwar perspective, the attached petition outlines a position that every who cares about the Constitution or the principles of our Founders should be able to support, no matter what their feelings about George W. Bush and the coming war:

"Dear Friends: 
Ellen DuBois and I have written the petition below hoping that you fellow American historians will join us in urging a full fledged Congressional vote, as the Constitution requires, on war with Iraq. We understand that this may not stop war with Iraq -- we are not sure anything can -- but it does provide us with a chance to stand up for the fundamental Constitutional principles of legislative decision on war-making. We are aware of the fast shifting nature of this crisis - last week Dick Armey criticized the rush to war with Iraq ! -- and are prepared to hold back the petition if the situation changes so drastically as to make it unnecessary. But presuming it remains relevant, we are planning to go to Washington September 25 to present it, if at all possible, to Majority Leader Thomas Daschle and Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert with all of your signatures on it! We welcome any of you who might wish to join us that day."




We, the undersigned American historians, urge our members of Congress to assume their Constitutional responsibility to debate and vote on whether or not to declare war on Iraq.

We do so because Americans deserve to hear their representatives deliberate about a possible war, lest such a momentous course of action be undertaken by the president alone after a public airing filled with rumors, leaks, and speculations.

We ask our senators and representatives to do this because Congress has not asserted its authority to declare war for over half a century, leaving the president solely in control of war powers to the detriment of our democracy and in clear violation of the Constitution.

We believe it is particularly urgent that Congress reassert its authority at this time since an attack on Iraq, if made, would be an American initiative. Since there was no discussion of Iraq during the 2000 presidential campaign, the election of George Bush cannot be claimed as a mandate for an attack. Only a debate by Americans' elected representatives can engage the public in a serious consideration of the costs, risks, and wisdom of such a war.

Joyce Appleby
 (310) 470-8946
29 June 2002
That Time of Year Again
I suspect I am not the only early American historian who gets a little unpleasantly bemused at this time of year, never more so now that we are "at war." I have some other things to share, but for now check out this pop-up ad that appeared with the New York Times this morning. I may just be over-reacting, but this seems quite typical of the way that the Founders and their works (especially the Constitution) get used in modern culture. The great white guys gave us a tiny fraction of the freedoms we enjoy today. Most of what we now value, including direct democracy, any strides toward racial and gender equality,  and workers' rights (including the weekend) had to be struggled for by ordinary Americans, often as not with the Founders' words and documents being deployed against them. As with the flag and the military, this practice of crediting more modern developments to the Founders' account has the effect of siphoning off the cultural prestige that ought be enjoyed by unions, socialists, feminists, civil rights activists, and the other progressive forces in American history, in order to further fuel the forces of conservatism and mindless patriotism. Not that all patriotism is mindless, or that patriotism for the U.S. isn't justified, but the kind that involves waving the flag to shut up critics or defeat reform surely is. Not to mention the idea running through current government policy, and this ad, that equates patriotism with consumption.
10 June 2002
News They Can't Use
We now know why the administration really wants to keep the names of their "war" prisoners secret: you can hold a press conference about one of them when they don't want people to pay attention to the news. Following last week's announcement of a new Cabinet department on the day that whistle-blowing FBI agent Colleen Rowley was testifying before Congress, we now get a suddenly revelation that would-be terrorist Jose Padilla was arrested in early May. This on the same day that other stories let us know that the U.S. is renouncing its Cold War policy of not striking first with nukuler weapons and that just about nothing is going to be done about Enron, while the 9/11 intelligence hearings go on. There is even a movie tie-in; the number one film right now is "The Sum of All Fears," a Tom Clancy number that appears to involve "a radiological dispersion device" or "dirty bomb" wasting Baltimore. Whaddya know, that exactly the kind of bomb that John Ashcroft has discovered this "known terrorist . . . exploring a plan to build and explode."
     It's not clear whether the administration claims that there was any substantive reason to relax their wall-to-wall secrecy on this occasion. It certainly doesn't seem like such great policework to make a big announcement like this is they hoped to use Padilla to find out more about such plans. On the other hand, it probably did a good job of making all moviegoers who just found out what a "dirty bomb" was over the weekend feel extra scared and dependent on the Bush administration.
I thought one really interesting moment in the "New York Times" story on this was where Paul Wolfowitz said Padilla was being held without charge "under the laws of war" -- you know, the ones that apply when we actually declare a war, as we have not done since 1941. The fight against terrorism may be a situation where some naked use of power is necessary, but one wishes that the Shrubbers wouldn't bother dressing these little power episodes up with lies like this, lies that are rapidly corroding what little public understanding seems to exist of the way that republics are supposed to conduct themselves.
9 June 2002 -- Immigration "Expert" from the Heartland
29 May 2002
I'm back for the summer. I probably should not try to do this in the last half of semesters when I am teaching. Anyway, I hope to be blogging more regularly over the next few months.
Clarence Darrow: A Man for Our Times?
One tries to resist the notion of "cycles" in American history, but sometimes the parallels are rather shocking. While most of the external circumstances were quite different, the Democratic Party was ideologically in much the same place a century ago that it is now: fruitlessly competing with the Republicans to see which party could be more supportive of corporate interests and less willing to defend the rights and interests of ordinary people. 
       A century ago, Democratic leaders saw William Jennings Bryan and William Randolph Hearst as terrifying radicals, and flexed the party organization's muscle to nominate such conservative ciphers as Alton B. Parker, James M. Cox, and John Davis, in the process suffering some of the worst election defeats in party history and ceding millions of voters to the Socialist, Populist, and Progressive parties. (Admittedly, Bryan was no world-beater at the polls himself.) Today we have the spectacle of leading Democrats tiptoeing around a "wartime president" whose record shows little actual war (and less success) coupled with many brazen power and money grabs for the interests that helped put him in office. While the industry that produced Bush and Cheney collapses in scandals that amply demonstrate the moral, intellectual, and literal bankruptcy of modern Republican anti-government extremism -- you know, the kind where business in encouraged to invent ways to play dice with vital national services like electricity and education -- Democrats pin their hopes on a bogus "what they did know and when they know it" scandal about the FBI and Sept. 11. (As though the Democrats had been harping about flight school safety for years!) The business press actually has been much harsher on Enron et al than the Democrats,  and much more willing to call for fundamental change. You know things are bad when you have to get your social criticism from Business Week and Fortune. Having learned to raise almost as much corporate money as the Republicans, it seems that the Democrats are loathe to frighten off their golden goose.
       Where does Clarence Darrow come into this? I happened to be reading David Nasaw's biography of William Randolph Hearst (The Chief) this morning, and ran across a quotation from Darrow's speech at the 1904 Democratic Convention, seconding Hearst's nomination for president. Of course, Hearst was a highly problematic individual whose "radicalism" at that period can be very easily doubted, yet he was willing to defend the rights of workers and criticize (other people's) corporate greed when few other figures in the national press or major party politics would do so. (Hearst was a congressman at the time,  and one of his outrageously radical proposals was a eight-hour day for government workers.) Democratic bosses had fixed the convention of favor of that colossus of American history, Judge Alton B. Parker,  and Darrow knew it, so his speech was more of a jeremiad on  the present state of his party than anything else. Darrow asked his colleagues to consider thinking, for once,  of their ostensible constituency: "the countless millions who do their work and live their lives without the aid of schemes or tricks . . . Sometime . . . when humanity and justice shall once more control the minds of men, this great party will come back from the golden idols and tempting fleshpots, and once more battle for the rights of man." 
      It would be nice to think that the Democrats might extricate themselves from today's corporate fleshpots in time for the centennial of Darrow's remarks. But I doubt it.
24 Feb. 2002
Not Again! A Letter to the New York Times
I must protest that the Times and the rest of the national news media stop allowing reviewers and columnists to indulge their habit of tossing off ignorant generalizations about current trends in academic disciplines, especially in the humanities. In today’s Book Review I read, for the umpteenth time, a writer (Jeff Shesol, in a review America’s First Dynasty by Richard Brookhiser) claiming that hero worship directed toward the great men of American history is actually not a crass play for the big pop-history bucks, but instead “a challenge to the conventional wisdom in the academy, where historians have visited upon the founding fathers the sins of the sons.”
         Does anyone at the Times bother to check statements like this? Does anyone there find it slightly inconsistent that the Times itself has published favorable reviews of numerous loving works on the founders by card-carrying academics, including the still much-beloved Joseph “Platoon Leader” Ellis? If reviewer Jeff Shesol or any Times fact checker had bothered to crack open a journal or consult someone who actually pays attention to what is going in the dirty old academy, they might have noticed that academics have produced numerous admiring biographies of the founders, and analyses of their political thought and statesmanship. John Ferling, Lance Banning, Forrest McDonald, Merrill Peterson, Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, Ralph Lerner, Peter Shaw, Joanne Freeman: try looking some of these author names up in the New York Public Library catalog and see what you come up with. The Adamses have long been favorites among academic historians, actually, though scholarly precepts have tended to prevent uncritical celebrations in the style of David McCullough and now, it appears, Richard Brookhiser. If there has been a bitterly critical work on a member of the Adams family published in the last 30 years – admiring biographies of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson excepted – I am not aware of it.
        Yes, the historical profession has discovered that there were other people living in the founding era besides the founders, and there is a lower percentage of the profession working on stuff like presidential politics and diplomacy than there used to be. “Leadership”-bedazzled journalists can be expected to find this trend disturbing, but really, how many times does the same old ground really need to be gone over? I for one can sleep at night knowing there are not many history departments out there offering courses on comparative presidential greatness.
        Thomas Jefferson is really the only founder who has attracted much real debunking in recent times, much of it based (as criticism of Jefferson has been since before he was president) on the gap between his soaring rhetoric and the reality of his life and policies. Soaring rhetoric and memorable phrases were not a problem for most of the other founders, particularly John Adams, so they have tended to be less vulnerable on that score. And while Jefferson still gets plenty of flak from what some would call politically correct quarters because of slavery and Sally Hemings, recently he has been drawing just as much fire from conservatives eager to champion the greatness of Jefferson rivals such as Hamilton and Adams.  
         The fact is that there is a lot of money to made in popular history these days, especially when it serves up American heroes, but many of the writers and reviewers of the new history bestsellers (most of them journalists or journalists at heart) seem to have some need to justify themselves and their googly-eyed books that requires taking a shot at those stuffed-shirt professors. Perhaps there is some half-submerged anxiety about selling people histories that are so sorely lacking in social and cultural context (beyond some half-invented “novelistic” details) and so thoroughly innocent of serious intellectual content (beyond shopworn generalities about the subject’s personality or “greatness” or “character” and perhaps some half-baked claim about the present-day political relevance of the aforementioned greatness or character). Thus some semi-mythical p.c. bias or off-the-rack notion of ivory tower hauteur must be invoked. Failing that, they always have the option of feigning gratification that finally someone has dared to write a readable history again, not like those dusty tomes full of impenetrable academese such as the reviewer may have heard about on The O’Reilly Factor. Gee, that’s what they said about the last 25 history bestsellers and wannabes.
8 Feb. 2002
Ambrose Update
Seems like Steve's problems are much deeper and wider than even I anticipated. See Time Pundit for some questions that have been raised about Undaunted Courage and "The Sins of Stephen Ambrose" for a blistering exposé of his Transcontinental Railroad book. History News Network has extensive coverage of the whole pop-history crisis.
4 Feb. 2002
Embattled Historians: Thoughts on the Pop-History Plagiarism Crisis
The news media giveth and the news media taketh away. It has been a rough couple of weeks for historians. After several years of building certain best-selling history writers into national treasures and touchstones of middlebrow conversation, major media outlets have begun giving them the other half of the celebrity treatment, wide publicity for their gaffes and moral failures. Of course, Doris Kearns Goodwin and Stephen Ambrose will probably go right on selling books despite the revelations of their sparing use of quotation marks; they may even retain their TV talking-head rights, but at least for a while their every appearance in the press is going to be saddled with extra adjectives and clauses. Ambrose has already achieved the rarefied status,  enjoyed by Whitewater figures and  Enron executives, of having the word "embattled" appended to his title in news stories, as in the Associated Press coverage of an Ambrose speech in St. Louis last week: "Embattled historian Stephen Ambrose admitted lifting several sentences in his best-selling books from other authors, although he said his footnotes adequately attributed the passages."  

Actually, Goodwin and Ambrose are getting pretty lenient treatment. Most of the stories about them report their comically lame excuses without much challenge. Ambrose favors the old student saw that he must have got someone else's words mixed up with his own in his notes, and since he did not mean to do anything bad, his copying should not count as plagiarism; this is the intent or "don't hate me because I'm really careless" standard applied in many a student honor code hearing. The stories also usually manage to work in some swipe at the academic historians who have had their works raided or dared to complain about the practice. Generally academic historians are held to be boring and/or jealous, thus justifying the celebrity of popsters like Ambrose and Goodwin while also explaining away any criticism. Typically there is some version of the note that was often struck in last year's Joseph Ellis stories: the larger work of this people's historian has not been called into the question, and isn't it great that some historians finally aren't writing that abstruse academic rubbish. Ambrose even implies that his mission to tell people interesting stories somehow absolves him of the niggling academic requirement to cite his sources or say something original.

The false opposition that Ambrose sets up between entertaining history and fully-sourced, substantive, original history is unfortunate but obviously a rule of thumb in commercial publishing. There are plenty of good writers producing readable works in the historical profession these days. Some might even sell well if the reading public knew about them. It is not a lack of snobbery or refreshing willingness to write clearly that distinguishes Ambrose, Goodwin, and many other best-selling history writers from academic historians. It is their willingness to act as mere recyclers of old familiar stories, occasionally decanting the old material into slightly newer bottles. This may be why they seem to have such a penchant for plagiarism. If you don't care whether you are saying anything new, or covering a new subject, if it does not bother you to take all your information out of a stack of books your assistant checked out of the library, then it is really a very short step from recycling facts and ideas to recycling prose as well. Ambrose seems to think he was doing various obscure academics a favor by immortalizing their words in New York Times bestsellers.
11 Jan. 2002
Why can't reporters ever seem to make distinctions? A piece in today's "Times" retails the idea that the Enron mess should be understood as the "reawakening" of the Washington scandal machinery, and then tries to proceed on the assumption that the current situation is somehow analogous to the various Clinton accusations:

"A Familiar Capital Script"
 "The capital may once again face months, if not years, of yet another investigation of the White House featuring the volatile mix of money, influence, access and politics."
"Elements of a classic political scandal are here: A Texas corporation, led by Mr. Bush's most generous campaign contributor, files the largest bankruptcy petition in American history. A handful of executives are able to sell $1 billion worth of the company's stock before its collapse, but thousands of employees are barred from selling, losing their life's savings and retirement accounts."

Does anyone at the paper check over these stories for logic? How is there any equivalency between destroying the lives of thousands and anything Clinton was ever to supposed to have done? How can inviting contributors to White House parties and sleepovers be compared to contributors be allowed full access to and granted tremendous influence over policy-making? Frankly, it all looks makes a night in the Lincoln Bedroom look like a fairly innocuous perk for contributors, the illusion of access and influence, rather than the very real thing that Enron had for years wherever Bush was in control. There is very little about this Enron matter that is familiar from the Clinton scandals, though Republicans and their friends in the media will be doing all they can to sell that line, hoping that the public's weariness of their own previous scandal-mongering will lend some cover today. Saying that the emerging Enron scandal follows the same script is like saying that an episode of "Rat Patrol" followed the same script as "Lawrence of Arabia: because they both involving fighting in the desert. 
9 Jan. 2002
What do the Best-Seller Lists Mean?
Books for Political Conservatives Top Best-Seller Lists
"Can best-seller lists indicate the country's political leaning?" A New York Times writer thumbsucks a bit over the fact that the Times best-seller list is currently dominated by overtly right-wing books. One can only marvel at the way that the media, and especially the Times these days, fail to grasp the implications of basic demographic facts. Who has the money to throw at brand-new hardcover books, especially during a recession? The wealthier segments of the population, perhaps, especially those who have not been hurt much by the recent economic travails, or maybe even benefitted from upper-income skewed tax cuts and such? What segments of the population have always voted Republican (and usually conservative)? The same, and we may add here two other conservative-leaning groups that have the best access to the mega-bookstores and airport shops where Times best-sellers are sold: suburbanites and businesspeople. I am going to look up how often (or how long ago) liberal or radical books have made the best-seller charts, if they have at all. I am guessing that nonfiction best-sellers have always skewed conservative, only more typically in the form of get-right-with-capitalism business and self-help books. And best-sellers say nothing about public opinion if that term is to be given even a moderately democratic definition. The article linked above says that the number one best-seller this week, Bernard Goldberg's Bias, has 225,000 copies in print, but a tiny drop in a nation of 285 million people.
8 Jan. 2002
Two Senior Al Qaeda Fighters Captured : This is a headline from today's "New York Times." Like much of the formulaic language that journalists use, the phrase "senior fighter" is more interesting than illuminating. "Fighter" has emerged as the term of choice for the individual combatants that the U.S. has faced in most of the "rogue nation" interventions of the past decade or so. It bespeaks the conceptual difficulties that U.S. journalists and policymakers find themselves in when faced with the vast gulfs that exist between our nation and many others in the world, in terms of both wealth and what used to be called "political development." Basically many of the institutional methods of operation that have been developed in the European world either do not exist or have been artifically and weakly imposed over non-institutional political and social networks that determine how people in these societies actually live and think. War as we know it, something conducted by professional armies and kept separate from normal political and social alignments, is an institutional solution. So are constitutional governments. We know these things exist weakly or not at all in places like Afghanistan and Somalia, but we still it almost impossible to think or write about them without our usual institutional concepts and categories. The term "soldier" is reserved for uniformed members of professional armies, people who fight as part of an institution in the service of some state and political ideology that we can recognize as legitimate and reasonable. "Warrior" would be a closer to the mark, but that carries all sorts of good connotations (such as honor and courage) that cannot be associated with people already labeled as cowardly terrorists or who are known to employ such tactics as robbery or the in-person killing of non-combatants. So the weirdly generic "fighter" has come to fit the bill. Yet if "fighter" seems to recognize the social, non-institutional character of war in these places, "senior fighter" reveals how deep the conceptual and semantic confusion still is. Here we are fighting this now completely stateless and always only loosely instutionalized enemy ("declaring war on a noun," I believe Molly Ivins has called it); both the government and media have had the put the enemy through a punishing course of rhetorical solidification, talking about Al Qaeda as though it were a multinational corporation and its influential men like congressional aides. "Senior" fighters must be higher on the organizational chart, like divisional vice presidents or associate deans!
22 Oct. 2001

The evidence continues to pile up that the only that has really changed about the Bush administration fils is its approval ratings. The president has gotten better at reading his lines, but they are the same lines delivered with the same dogged resistance to reality, relying on sheer repetition and overwhelming force to get the message across. The two basic aspects of Bushworld that did seem to change after September 11, the drive for a missile defense shield and the penchant for unilateralism, are by now fully back, with the president hectoring Russian president Vladimir Putin about that dowdy old ABM Treaty while back home the nation roils with fears generated by such high-tech weapons as box cutters and paper envelopes. (Perhaps a laser-guided letter opener could be added?)

Bush-is-dumb jokes have become verboten, as we are asked to stand in the awe of the way he has risen to the occasion, yet the basic balance of intellectual forces in the administration obviously remains what it has always seemed to be. Bush is sent off for photo ops and the same old same old in China, while Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld handle the actual commander-in-chief duties. Cheney appears in public rarely now and always under heavy guard, one of the few honest signals that the administration has given about whose leadership is most vital in the present crisis. Meanwhile, the "liberal press" enthuses over how well the Shrub has risen to the occasion and ponders whether he will be able to "achieve" those ABM revisions. Over the past few days, they have even found a way to criticize Al Gore, some of whose anonymous ex-consultants and once and future rivals now claim to believe might not have done as good a job.
High-tech weapons that show why we need  missile defense, as long the rogue nations use priority mail. 
18 Oct. 2001
Where Fat Cats Dare
      It looks like I may need to take back some of what I said in my last Common-Place column. This really is a new kind of war. In past wars leaders have called for shared sacrifice as the country mobilized to meet the demands of the conflict. Young men were asked to fight, and most other people and institutions were asked to do their share as well. Some political freedoms were restricted, but so were economic freedoms. Taxes were raised and bonds were issued to pay for soldiers and war materiel, while citizens were urged or forced to conserve resources that might be needed for the war effort. Industries that supplied the military or performed functions vital to the security and productivity of the nation, such as transportation and communications, were placed under close government supervision (as when F.D.R. had railroad executives drafted into the army), if not nationalized outright. While sometimes painful and frustrating, these methods worked fairly well in both world wars, ultimately propelling the national morale and the national economy to great feats of strength.
      The present crisis shows its newness in the headlong flight from any demands for significant public sacrifice, the very concept of which modern-day Republicans have been shunning and ridiculing since the days of Jimmy Carter's "national malaise" speech. While deploying rhetoric that would have been considered hyperbolic even in the darkest days of World War II, the Bush administration has asked Americans to carry on consuming as if nothing had happened. The method proposed for financing the current conflict must be a truly novel one in the annals of warfare: more tax cuts. (Frighteningly, this would seem to indicate that the Republicans really do believe that voodoo economics works, where many of us had comforted ourselves with the thought that it was all just a ploy to hamstring the welfare state by artificially increasing the federal deficit.)
       At same time, sacrifices are being made, but not even remotely shared. Instead, almost all of the costs are being borne by ordinary Americans, the same people who are supposed to spend us out of recession. Hundreds of thousands of people have lost their jobs, though working in industries critical to the rest of the economy, as corporations have been allowed to continue focusing solely on financial results over national need or the common good. Nor have these contractions always been a matter of dire necessity, though executive press conferences always try to give that impression. In my region, Kansas City-based Sprint just laid off 6,000 people despite signing up a record number of customers during the past quarter. Wall Street expectations seemed to have played as large a role in this as any concrete impact from the crisis. While the human toll of such proactive "cost structure" adjustments is bad enough in peacetime, it is infinitely worse during a war on terrorism, in which it has been explicitly stated that the terrorists will win if we let them plunge our nation into fear and uncertainty. Osama bin Laden must feel pretty good when he read the American business pages these days.
        On other hand, if the Pentagon decides to form an elite squad of CEOs to parachute into Afghanistan and search caves, I will stop my complaining. They can make a hard-hitting film about it, with a title like The Dirty Forbes 400 or Where Fat Cats Dare.
3 Oct. 2001
What Historians are For, II: An Exchange from the Common-Place "Republic of Letters" Forum

Stephen R. Marks
3 October 2001, 6:12 AM
WTC crisis

Re: "...And Now For Something Completely Similar" by Jeffrey L. Pasley. I am very curious as to how Mr. Pasley would recommend that we solve the present crisis. He is very quick to criticise, but offers precious few positive suggestions that would lead to a better, safer world, wherein there no longer existed hatred towards America and murderous attacks on America were no longer wholeheartedly cheered by certain groups and populations. This tendency to analize rather than solve and resolve is one of the more depressing tendencies of many academics; it is a pity that such academics do not employ their extensive learning and intellects to making the world a better place, instead of simply offering their opinion as to why it is so bad.

Jeff Pasley
3 October 2001, 11:19 AM
WTC crisis
I have no idea how to "solve the present crisis"; I doubt there are too many early American historians who have a lot of expertise on fighting terrorism. Moreover my focus was on the cultural reaction to the crisis rather than the specifics of the "new war," if such it is. I am well convinced, however, that the crisis will not be "solved" by historians or anyone else shelving their intellects and waving the flag until further notice. Suspending judgment is precisely what has gotten the country into trouble on previous occasions, and one hopeful sign at present is that neither the people nor the Congress have done that, at least not completely. In my view, a world clearly understood is a better place, and we academics would be forsaking our duty if we stopped offering analysis in a time of crisis. There is plenty of uncritical celebration and inspiration available on television, and contrary to the apparent beliefs of some, I see no need for us to offer more of the same, so long as we remain respectful.

 I would offer a couple of prescriptive thoughts, if that will make Mr. Marks feel better. We should strongly and permanently increase the security at airports and other potential terrorist targets, such as water treatment plants and nuclear reactors. Ample federal funds and training should be provided, on an ongoing basis. Such a program might even be used as a jobs program to alleviate the current economic troubles in a way that will help ordinary people in a direct and tangible fashion -- unlike, say, the capital gains tax cut that some Republicans are already proposing. We should continue to investigate the attacks and then take whatever steps are necessary to bring those responsible to justice, including military action if the administration is truly committed to seeing it through to the end. But we should also moderate our rhetoric about crusades and new wars and eradicating evil; we should not repeat the mistakes that helped create Osama bin Laden and the Taliban by making common cause with anyone -- such as the tottering dictators, would-be monarchs, and self-appointed "freedom fighters" we have already signed to our current team -- who says they support us, without regard to their actual beliefs and practices. (I do not look forward to bankrolling the Shah of Afghanistan and the secret police establishment he will need to deal with the Osamists he will have in his midst no matter what happens to bin Laden himself.) And we should not fundamentally change our system to fight the battle against terrorism, thereby proving those who think democracies are weak and fragile to be absolutely right.

25 Sept. 2001
Post-Traumatic Growth Disorder
As further evidence that old eras die hard, note that the therapeutic culture for which the 1990s was so often criticized remains alive and well post-September 11.  The “healing” began almost immediately with stories of teddy bears and grief counselors heading for New York (often to find themselves merely underfoot) and unhelpful boxes on what to tell the children. One excellent piece of advice we saw was, explain that the reasons for the attacks were similar to the disagreements that children at school sometimes had with each other, but don't worry, honey, your classmates aren't terrorists! At the same time, there has been a series of stories about the way that non-victims and non-rescuers have “coped” with the terrorist attacks. Initially there were concerns expressed that we would all develop some of version of post-traumatic stress syndrome, but while that theme did not quite take, there have continued to be feature section self-help pieces on non-victims suffering from dread symptoms such as “irritability . . . and problems staying on task.”  The Kansas City Star  even had a sidebar on how to “keep an emotional even keel” in times of mass death. The Los Angeles Times has even discovered the therapeutic possibilities of “post-traumatic growth.” Witnessing an historic catastrophe, wrote a Times staff writer, even just on TV, had the power to “immediately reveal what really matters” and “alter lives in personal and positive ways.” The September 11 attacks had already allowed people who had been in therapy for years to put their issues in perspective for once; a Santa Monica software consultant “and self-described perfectionist” had learned not to sweat the little stuff and to spend more time with his family; a Des Moines newspaper editor and “recovering Norwegian” had finally made the totally unprecedented decision to move to California where he could better partake of “hiking, sailing, cycling and Bay Area cultural events.” That some Americans can assimilate even such a calamity as September 11 into their usual self-help strategies shows that we may not want to declare the previous era over just yet.
18 Sept. 2001
Capitalism and Liberty on a Break 
The chief guiding principle of U.S. foreign aid and trade policies over the past decade, and a constant mantra with most of the big media pundits, has been that democracy, Americanism, and capitalism were all part of the same indivisible package, if indeed they were not all part of the very same principle, variously stated as liberty or freedom itself. American aid and advice to former communist countries typically pushed capitalism much harder than political reforms, and demanded drastic programs of privatization and deregulation even at the cost of political stability.  Some of us historians have long been skeptical about the idea that that the pursuit of private profit and the struggle for political freedom are always on the same page, and this week the two American traditions seemed to go their separate ways rather decisively. Despite calls for investors not to sell stocks as an act of patriotism, and the presence of heroic NY firefighters at the opening bell, the Dow Jones average shed 600 points in the first 45 minutes of trading once the New York Stock Exchange reopened after the World Trade Center attack. The administration and the major media outlets furiously spun this as short of a crash, and praised investors for falling just short of blind panic. Yet these efforts to minimize the economic damage from the attack and market non-crash were ruthlessly undermined by the airline and aircraft industries, which announced massive layoffs (80,000 jobs to date) without even waiting to see whether the expected decline in air traffic would actually transpire. Probably we can expect further examples of corporate patriotism in the weeks to come. Did any major figure  criticize America's business leaders for thus magnifying the impact of terrorism or call them back to their duty? Not that I have seen. The duty apparently lies with us, the consuming, laid-off public, to help calm jangled corporate nerves. Even a union leader, faced with huge layoffs at Boeing,  responded by saying that "air travel is a way of life in this country, and citizens need to continue flying." It is quite a testament to the still-iron hold of 1990s hypercapitalism on American political thought that this kind of refusal to hold American business even slightly accountable for the social and political costs of its actions continues even in the present dire national circumstances.
17 Sept. 2001
Out of the Past
One of the most commonly expressed sentiments of the past week's saturation media coverage is that "everything has changed" because of last Tuesday. This is obviously true in a larger sense:  the deadliest disaster/attack in American history has undoubtedly destroyed our sense of invulnerability and brought the U.S. into the family of nations that have seen their population centers bombed or otherwise subject to wartime devastation, which is to say, all other nations. Politically and rhetorically, however, it seems that things have not so much changed as changed back. We have seen a return to Cold War rhetoric about the weakness of democracy in the face of a nondemocratic enemy, along with suggestions that we must be as bad as they are in order to win. As one of the now-ubiquitous TV terrorism experts put it the other night, "If you are going to kill a rat's nest in the sewer, you have to get in the sewer." We have Vietnam-era rhetoric about how the CIA and FBI lost the war with terrorism because liberals and radicals had forced them to fight with one hand tied behind their back. (After all, the CIA had been soooo successful in their presumably no-holds-barred battle with Castro and the Soviets before 1975.) There has even been a bit of Gerald Ford in the suggestions that we are going to "whip" terrorism now. We have Reagan-type rhetoric drawn from movies: Vice President Cheney saying that we are going to have use the "dark side" to win the war against terrorism. We have a hyper-inflated version of the already inflated Gulf War rhetoric in which our global military police force is going to bring about not just a New World Order, but actually "rid the world of evil-doers." Today President Bush hit several of these points at once, conflating a pop culture cliché with history a la Reagan, while describing U.S. foreign policy and military strategy in terms of frontier mythology, a la the Cold War and Vietnam (where enemy territory was known as "Indian country".)  As MSNBC put it, Bush invoked "the rough justice of America’s frontier days." The president observed, "There’s an old poster out West, as I recall, that said, ‘Wanted, Dead or Alive.’"  I have seen that poster, too, in the Cowboy Hall of Fame gift shop. (Just after this, the New York Post gave Bush's remark concrete form  by publishing a special pull-out Osama bin Laden wanted poster.) Or perhaps Bush was thinking of Steve McQueen's old TV series.
     The one area in which we have not seen a return to the past involves the notion of what sustained war actually means, or ought to. We have not seen any suggestion that this war might mean what war did before the present era: higher taxes, rationing, censorship [actually, the administration has hinted at that a bit], and full mobilization of the population. If they wanted to talk that kind of war talk, then things really would be different; but they're not. These are also the kind of measures that might be necessary if the administration is serious about going to war. The hoary conservative tough-guy talk is not nearly enough.
14 Sept. 2001
What Historians Are For
Playing out quietly in the media this week, there has been an interesting lesson in what our current culture wants out of historians.
        On Tuesday, the Boston Globe ran what must be the first journalistic investigation of an academic history book. (Someone please correct me at if this is wrong.) Globe reporters conducted their own review of the alleged errors, distortions, and fabrications in Michael Bellesiles's Arming America, and published a highly critical story timed to coincide with a Boston area appearance by one of Bellesiles's chief critics, James Lindgren of Northwestern University Law School. Before the terrorist attacks that morning, it had been a slow news month, and it seems quite possible that Bellesiles might have become the cable talking head issue du jour. Here was one of the conservatives' favorite devil-figures, the liberal "revisionist historian" apparently caught red-handed twisting our history for political purposes. The National Review chimed in as well, not only echoing the criticism of Bellesiles, but beating the drum for his publisher to renounce the book and Emory University to fire or discipline him. The Globe story, the National Review, and the many freelance critics active over the past months have found further faults in Bellesiles's efforts to defend himself on his web site. In other words, the standard procedures of the modern political scandal are being applied to an academic historian. If Bellesiles worked at a public university, one can only imagine that a legislative investigation would be in the offing. This all came only a few months after the same newspaper generated a personal scandal concerning Prof. Joseph Ellis of Mt. Holyoke College.
       Tuesday's media output also offered a strikingly different use of a different type of historian. By the end of that awful day, many of the 9-odd channels running nonstop commercial-free coverage had turned reflective. Popular journalist-historians Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and David Halberstam were rolled out for segments that aired almost simultaneously on different channels. Treated reverentially by the interviewers, the assembled chroniclers offered some generically eloquent reassurances about how well American leaders and the American people had responded to past crises, inserting some salty quotations from FDR and Churchill. McCullough used Churchill's line that North Americans had not "journeyed across the centuries, across the oceans, across the mountains, across the prairies, because [they] are made of sugar candy." (The full quotation can be found on this web site of Churchillisms that should serve any historian asked to go on local TV in the next few weeks.) As in their bestselling books, McCullough and Goodwin offered a more detailed and profound-sounding version of familiar stories that Americans like to tell about themselves. This was probably the only appropriate thing to do on September 11, 2001, but it was a type of performance we have seen before on many less horrific occasions, such as nightly during the now-cakewalklike 2000 election crisis.
        This is what much of the media, and perhaps the public, seems to want out of historians right now: reassurance given color and apparent weight by the reflected grandeur of olden times. Writing about the Ellis scandal last June, political columnist Jules Witcover made it somewhat overly plain why it was that the media wanted us around. Historians like David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose “have become American icons of truth and dependability, ” Witcover wrote, because of their bestselling sagas about lovable, courageous leaders and “American gallantry” on the battlefield and the frontier trail. This work had “earned them special places in today's public life” that helped the media forget their old stereotype “of the reclusive and sheltered academic poring over obscure documents and rewarded mainly by the recognition of their colleagues and other bookworms.” Given this usually better disguised contempt for academic historians (whose penchant for obscure documents sometimes leads them to tell non-reassuring, complicated, or unfamiliar stories from the past, and sometimes things that cannot really be made into “sagas” at all), perhaps we should not be surprised to see academics become the first historians to come under media knife. 
        Of course, Ellis and Bellesiles both made some mistakes, by their own admission, and the interpretation above does not fit in every respect. Ellis tended to tell reassuring stories of leadership, too, and seemed headed for McCullough-Goodwin status himself before his autobiographical embroidery came to light. Bellesiles got considerable favorable media attention when his book first appeared last year. Yet as academics, both were much more exposed to possible criticism than the "American icons" of popular history.  Ellis got into trouble teaching: talking to students, trying to get them excited about history, and to keep them that way, hour after hour, and week after week. Bellesiles made a challenging, counterintuitive argument, and unlike a pundit or most popular historians, he had to document his findings and identify his sources as exhaustively as possible. Thus exposed, both Bellesiles and Ellis were much more liable to getting caught up in controversies or public mistakes; once they did, their icon licenses expired, and the media pounced, with a touch of righteous indignation that their trust had been abused by mere bookworms.
12 Sept. 2001
Analysis That Will Live in Infamy
Yesterday's events were so upsetting that it was physically impossible to do anything other than mourn or try to help. Today I felt close enough to rationality to be alarmed by much of the "analysis" of the attacks that I was hearing and reading in the media. I will bring up just one tonight. No one can blame the political leaders and journalists of our derivative age for leaning on Pearl Harbor metaphors and borrowing FDR-isms in their initial responses, but today we are witnessing the difficulties that many of our current pundits and politicians seem to have with historical thought and even meaningful language. Most everyone quoted in the media tonight seems to agree now that the September 11 attacks are already a bigger historical event, or simply "more serious" than, Pearl Harbor; NBC News even has a poll claiming that 66% of Americans agree on this point. The "bigger than Pearl Harbor" argument may well turn out to be true, if President Bush was serious about treating the harboring of any accused conspirator as a literal act of war, but some of the reasons that have been given for this belief are breathtakingly momentary and vapid. Occasionally someone refers to the fact that Pearl Harbor was important not because of how "we" felt about it, but because it launched U.S. involvement in a really world-historical event, a little thing called World War II. But this more reasonable standard of historical significance tends to be used as a slight caveat before launching into vague arguments about symbolism, speculation about body counts, the impact on the economy, or the future convenience of air travelers. 
       Pollster Frank Luntz scraped the bottom of this barrel on MSNBC tonight by explaining that "we" felt worse about this attack because "we" (this man appeared to be in his 30s or 40s) only heard about Pearl Harbor on the radio. (Luntz's secret as a pollster is clearly his revolutionary use of trans-chronological phone bank technology, by which he was able to take the pulse of the public not only today, but also back in 1941.) Two amazing historical discoveries here: WWII was a big yawner with the public apparently, and the problem was insufficient color television. Of course, we all know that radio never really caught on with the audience. There weren't even any pictures! Heck, some people may even have had to read about Pearl Harbor in the newspaper. It goes without saying that nobody ever paid much attention to anything in one of those. Also, Luntz opined, Hawaii was not even part of the United States back then, so who cared? Brian Williams nodded sagely at these remarks and then recycled the same arguments later himself. Clearly we historians are no longer needed, except for Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCullough to check the FDR and Churchill quotations.
7 Sept. 2001
Modern Slavery: The Danforth Mission
Two points about the modern "abolitionist" movement can be picked out of today's news. President Bush has appointed former Missouri senator John Danforth as a special envoy to Sudan, charged with trying to end the civil war there. In announcing the mission, both Bush and Danforth mentioned the slavery problem there almost offhandedly, treating a particular interpretation of the situation there as an accepted fact. The New York Times article makes even clearer to me the conservative political origins of the crusade being directed against Sudan. It is certainly striking to find Bush choosing to intervene diplomatically in this one situation after his administration has compiled such a lengthy record of unilateralism over so short a time in office. The article makes the Danforth appointment appear as a political sop to conservative Christian groups who are described as pushing for the U.S. to arm the southern rebels. I had not known that, but I did see that the level of belligerence increases markedly when one moves beyond iAbolish into more avowedly Christian antislavery sites.

©2002 by Jeffrey L. Pasley. Posting of these comments on other sites (with proper credit & a link to this page) is welcome.