Archive for the 'History' Category

If you like your U.S. history in spoon-sized morsels, here it is.

Saturday, July 21st, 2007

An infographic on “The Wealthiest Americans Ever” at the New York Times. Fun! Informational!

(Ongoing subtext: History is your friend!)

(Hat tip: John Holbo.)

The Company comes clean?

Monday, June 25th, 2007

Just a place holder for possible further discussion later: the CIA is set to release a huge trove of documents — dubbed the “family jewels” — that cast a highly unflattering light on its activities during the 1970s. This should be a boon to scholars who share my specialty of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

An Associated Press story.

Press release with commentary from the (non-governmental) National Security Archive.


“Mistakes were made.”

Saturday, June 9th, 2007

In the comments to my earlier post on the passive voice, Austin Kleon pointed to this 1994 essay by Charles Baxter:

Dysfunctional Narratives, Or “Mistakes Were Made”

Baxter raises good points in the essay, which I read with interest even though I’m far more concerned with analyzing historical narratives like Richard Nixon’s than literary narratives like Jane Smiley’s (even though I admired A Thousand Acres). On the fictional front, I would note that I’m pleased to see that literary fiction has gone in some interesting directions since Baxter’s essay first appeared. In fact, since Austin posted his comment, he and I have discussed Michael Chabon’s essay (relevant long quote available here) on the ossified condition of the American short story, and what some writers of the first rank are doing to de-ossify it.

(In a neat little coincidence, I also just finished reading The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, for which I will post a short review soon. The short version: I liked it, and it’s a far cry from the sort of narrative Baxter fillets in his essay.)

One more thought about this narrative of being put upon — a narrative that is still very much with us. Why does it persist? I hypothesize that this has to do with the extreme, deluxe comfort of the book-reading classes in the U.S., or at least of the literary-fiction reading class. We are so far separated from real lack that it’s hard for us to grasp the reality, e.g. of Hard Times, or of Germinal. Mind you, Dickens and Zola were writing, in large part, for audiences who also did not suffer from crippling poverty, but those writers could expect that some large slice of their readers would know from crippling poverty, either by direct experience or by proximal exposure. These days? Our lives simply are not that hard, and so we have the luxury of — or maybe we assuage our guilt by — talking about how hard things are for us. We kvetch about non-gourmet (free) coffee in the break room, or the high price of gasoline that we can still easily afford. Feh.

So what does this have to do with historical narrative, or with teaching undergraduates to use the active voice? As for the former, I think that Baxter has some good leads, though a disaffected academic historian might go farther in the direction of explaning how modern theory (literary, sociological, philosophical, etc.) sometimes decenters historical narrative so thoroughly that there’s no narrative left. This is even done on purpose, and (though I’m slinging ideas together promiscuously here, so far after my bedtime) there is a larger rift between theory-driven historians and “narrative” historians — i.e. the David McCullough types who are read in much larger numbers by the educated book-buying public.

As for teaching undergraduates, I certainly have heard the narrative of being put upon any number of times from my students, though this is usually in regard to their grades on papers and tests. But getting back to the passive voice, I think that with or without the presence of the dysfunctional narratives that Baxter dissects, students continue to use the passive voice for the same basic reason as ever: they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Think of it: what do you say when you’re relating news so fresh that it’s still not well understood? “A factory has exploded.” This is passive — the factory didn’t blow itself up. Later you may find out that it wasn’t an accident, and so you say, “Somebody blew up a factory.” Later still, you’ll start getting more precise, thus: “The police say that terrorists blew up the factory.” That ascribes agency and it cites a source. This level of expression, however, requires certitude about several things: the event, the agent, and who is interpreting them. That level of certitude is often missing in the work of undergraduates (among many others — no need to pick on them exclusively), simply because they don’t grasp the various moving parts of the matter at hand. Thus, “The Mexican-American War broke out,” instead of “As his correspondence makes clear, President Polk was determined to have a war with Mexico.” The students don’t bring President Polk into the picture . . . because they do not know that he was in the picture. Wars just happen sometimes, or so the students think.

The task of the historian is like the grand task of all critical thinkers: to figure out how and why things come out a certain way. A psychologist looks at the decisions made by experts and asks, “But how did the paramedic know to check for that?” A chemist says, “But what caused this reaction?” A linguistic philosopher asks, “But how do we know we mean the same thing when we each talk about the color blue?” A historian unpacks past events the same way, and much of the process is the process of taking pains, fact by fact, to ensure that the pieces fit together in a way that makes sense. In my experience, undergraduates are not great at using their time well enough to carry out this exercise at a high level in a term paper. (Heaven knows I have a hard enough time doing it myself, and I ought to be old enough to know better.) And so they dodge. From the hurried student’s perspective, the passive voice affords a distinct advantage, since it gets you off the hook for knowing all the parts of a historical event, which could be summarized as “X did action Y that caused Z.” In active voice, you need to know X, Y, and Z. The passive voice relieves you of knowing X, and it might even save you from knowing Y. All you need to say is that Z happened.

Which is why I mark off for passive voice, and why historians have never been satisfied with the explanation that “Mistakes were made.”


Addendum: In that same comment thread, my friend Elizabeth wrote on what she sees as the spread of passive voice in our collective discourse. Which leads her to a question:

Having minored in linguistics, I have to wonder whether the “trend” reflects a passive mindset invading the ways in which we communicate with each other. Language, and changes therein, is, afer all, a product of the (tacitly) agreed-upon mentality of its speakers. So, does our current use of language reflect a general passivity of thoughts and assertions of our fellow citizens?

My answer: Yes.

Fascinating historical films online: Prelinger Collection

Sunday, February 11th, 2007

The Prelinger Collection, which I stumbled across this week, has hundreds of downloadable newsreel-type films.

[Prelinger Archives] goal remains to collect, preserve, and facilitate access to films of historic significance that haven’t been collected elsewhere. Included are films produced by and for many hundreds of important US corporations, nonprofit organizations, trade associations, community and interest groups, and educational institutions. Getty Images represents the collection for stock footage sale, and some 2,000 key titles are available here. As a whole, the collection currently contains over 10% of the total production of ephemeral films between 1927 and 1987, and it may be the most complete and varied collection in existence of films from these poorly preserved genres.

I expect this will be useful to me as I prepare lectures on 20th-century international history. I’m also particularly interested to watch the Prelinger’s films on the oil industry.

Interesting reading.

Saturday, October 21st, 2006

Bruce Jentleson has an interesting analysis at TPMCafe’s America Abroad blog; in it, he distinguishes between “credibility,” as used by presidents from LBJ to George W. Bush, and “resolve”. Now that Bush himself has made the comparison to the Tet offensive — and now that it’s clear just how badly the situation in Baghdad is deteriorating — it is vital that we get beyond ideologically driven phrasemaking (“stay the course”, “cut and run”, et cetera) and get down to the hard business of determining what is best for U.S. interests now, given that things are as they are.


Taking a page from Guy Kawasaki’s top-10 approach, Seth Godin offers “Top 10 Secrets of the Marketing Process”. I’m thinking about just how well these apply both to freelance writing and to the careerist facet of academia. I’m particularly challenged by the “Test, measure, and optimize” item. It’s a hallmark of the superstar achievers who are always learning something new to add to their mastery — and it’s incredibly hard to do when it relates to work that means a lot to you personally.


The American Historical Association’s new blog points to Best of History Web Sites, a treasure trove of online information that will be especially useful to history teachers, but is a junkie’s paradise for history buffs, too.


Some of Tom Friedman’s pet ideas strike me as hokum, but all in all I think he has an important take on what’s going on in the world. This post from WorldChanging summarizes a talk he gave about some of the most important things going on in the world right now. I found Friedman’s ideas on green technology and on energy use particularly interesting.

Friedman tells us that green industry is the growth industry for the 21st century. If you want a job, go into green design or consulting – there has to be growth in these secrots or we won’t have a planet.


In yesterday’s dead-tree edition of the Wall Street Journal, I read an interesting, slightly nauseating, feature titled “America’s Next Top Pundit”. (I’d link to it, but everything’s behind WSJ’s subscription wall.  Update, Monday morning:  My buddy Paul came through with a good link to the story.) The piece detailed the D-list-actor-type self-shilling that many pundits do as they try to get themselves on the radio and television to spread their views — or merely to flatter their own sense of importance. If you can lay hands on this piece (or are willing to pay the piper to see it online), give it a read. I think it says a lot about the divisive, media-driven tenor of today’s politics. For example: “Wannabes are sensing that overconfidence is a prerequisite for success, and ‘that there are only two positions in the world, yours and wrong,’ [journalism professor Andrew Cline] says.” Clearly some of the pundits out there have good heads on their shoulders and really do want to see the Republic prosper indefinitely; but too many of them see this as no more than a vector by which the all-important “I” can inflict close-minded views upon a willing public.

One ray of hope: One of the CNN producers interviewed for the piece “has an Internet reporter ‘scouring the blogs,’ partly to look for non-partisans who can articulate the middle ground in an engaging way. He says he’d love to find the great American ‘centrist pundit.’ ”

Now, I do feel a certain party allegiance, but I believe I hold it, as much as anything, because it’s been forced on me by the strident ideology of the other party. That being said, I’m disgusted with the way that both parties have handled their business in the past, oh, little while. So, um, not for nothing, but if CNN comes and asks you if you know a level-headed type who knows the issues and has experience on live national television, maybe you could mention my name? I’m just sayin’ . . .

Visualizing history.

Friday, October 6th, 2006

Someday, all college teachers will have easy access to dynamic maps that will improve their ability to explain history to media-overfed students. Meanwhile, we can enjoy projects like this one:

Maps-of-War: Imperial History of the Middle East

Yeah, okay, maybe it’s simplistic, but it taught me something — and I’m halfway through a Ph.D. in history.

(Hat tip to Redneck Mother.)

Fascinating posters from USSR.

Saturday, September 30th, 2006

This Flickr collection contains nearly 1,500 crisp images of propaganda and advertising posters from the Soviet Union.  My Russian is so rusty as to be nonexistent, but the visuals here are fascinating.

Conspiracy theories.

Thursday, September 21st, 2006

A friend of mine sometimes sends me links (with his own justly incredulous or outraged commentary) to stories that relate the efforts of certain college professors and others to pin the blame for the 9/11/2001 mass murder on the sitting Administration. My friend sends them as evidence of the idiocy of some otherwise very smart people — and he’s right.

Every single 9/11 conspiracy theory I’ve seen instantly — instantly — fails the test of Occam’s Razor. That is, they are far too complex to be credible.

Alexander Cockburn has written a demolition of this sort of nuttiness in his usual ascerbic style. It’s worth a read.

The 9/11 Conspiracy Nuts

(Tip of the hat to Thad Williamson.)

Recommendation: The American Story

Friday, September 15th, 2006

My pal Chris Barton put me onto this one, and Amazon just delivered it yesterday:

The American Story
By Jennifer Armstrong, Illustrated by Roger Roth
(ISBN 0375812563)

Rather than re-review it, I encourage you to read Chris’s review of it. I’ve only skimmed it so far, but I can tell you that my 5-year-old spent the first half-hour of his day looking at the pictures in it (since he doesn’t read yet), and my 8-year-old fiction addict has already gobbled down the first couple of stories in it. So, good stuff, and it helps me hook the kids on history early — which is as it should be.

Tenure gone to waste?

Tuesday, August 22nd, 2006

In the latest issue of the Organization of American Historians’ newsletter, OAH president Richard White asks, “What Are We Afraid Of?” In particular, he’s thinking of the lack of open controversy between scholars at the annual meetings of the OAH.

For my part, I have found collegiality to abound in the historical profession, and especially in my own department. This collegiality seems to go hand in hand with a desire to study history without tearing down others who espouse different interpretations of it.

But the problem of shying from controversy goes deeper, and White hits the nail on the head here:

There is a culture of caution, a prickly over-professionalization, that has begun to influence all of us. We have become each others’ hostages. The culture of universities encourages this.

Mind you, I’m not singling out my own department for censure here. I’ve certainly heard plenty of civil disagreements in my department’s seminars and lectures. But from what I have seen throughout my (pretty short) career at various schools and conferences and in related settings, White is right about the overall–and damaging–lack of controversy in the profession. Or rather, the controversies are there, but we historians too often shy away from grappling with them out in the open.

In a profession where we should wear our wounds proudly and confront our critics gladly, we prefer to be safe and guarded and fear that we have enemies who can cost us our reputations. Younger historians learn that honest intellectual exchange and criticism can harm careers. . . . For those of us more senior, and safer, the fear is less understandable.

Let me not speak for my entire profession but instead speak only for myself: I hope that the expertise I am patiently (?) acquiring in my doctoral program will go hand in hand with the courage of my convictions–the courage to speak out, even in the face of discomfort, to convey the historical meanings that my research and teaching uncovers.