Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

December 31, 2008

The Holidays are a Time for Sharing . . .

Filed under: Holidays,Music,Playlists — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:18 pm

. . . more of the my thematic playlists. In this case, my now long-running series of home-made holiday CDs. They have nothing much to do with history or politics, so these will be appearing on my other blog.

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December 29, 2008

Disproportionality in Gaza

Filed under: American Indians,Foreign policy,Historians — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 2:25 am

I do not pretend to be an expert on this particular topic or much related to it, but I do wonder how any reaction other than horror is possible at Israel’s decision to launch massive, grossly disproportionate military strikes against what we might call, after John Marshall, one of their domestic dependent nations? And just in advance of a new American presidency that might not be so supportive of such neocon-approved, explicitly bullying tactics.  Juan Cole said it:

French President Nicolas Sarkozy, outgoing president of the European Union, issued among the more measured responses: “The President of the Republic expresses his lively concern at the escalation of violence in the south of Israel and in the Gaza Strip. He firmly condemns the irresponsible provocations that have led to this situation as well as the use of disproportionate force. The president of the republic deplores the significant loss of civilian life and expresses his condolences to the innocent victims and their families.”

Sarkozy “requests an immediate cessation of rocket fire directed at Israel as well as of Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and he calls on the parties to exercise self-restraint. He reminds everyone that there is no military solution to Gaza, and demands the implementation of a durable truce.”

This statement, which I seem to be the only news source to present in full in English, seems to me to be the best issued by any head of state on this particular incident, and shames the insensitive and one-sided statement issued on behalf of the US by Gordon Johndroe.

Israel blames Hamas for primitive homemade rocket attacks on the nearby Israeli city of Sederot. In 2001-2008, these rockets killed about 15 Israelis and injured 433, and they have damaged property. In the same period, Gazan mortar attacks on Israel have killed 8 Israelis.

Since the Second Intifada broke out in 2000, Israelis have killed nearly 5000 Palestinians, nearly a thousand of them minors. Since fall of 2007, Israel has kept the 1.5 million Gazans under a blockade, interdicting food, fuel and medical supplies to one degree or another. Wreaking collective punishment on civilian populations such as hospital patients denied needed electricity is a crime of war.

The Israelis on Saturday killed 5% of all the Palestinians they have killed since the beginning of 2001! 230 people were slaughtered in a day, over 70 of them innocent civilians. In contrast, from the ceasefire Hamas announced in June, 2008 until Saturday, no Israelis had been killed by Hamas. The infliction of this sort of death toll is known in the law of war as a disproportionate response, and it is a war crime.

Described in such terms, is there any pre-21st century U.S. government that would not have condemned such an action, at least when it was not being conducted against indigenous peoples by the U.S. itself? I would be happy to entertain other terms, but anyone challenging Cole’s description really needs to address the disproportionality issue. Sending fighter jets and tanks against police stations and neighborhoods from which guys have lobbed home-made rockets really does seem to get into the vicinity of infamous historical mismatches like Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia or Andrew Jackson’s wars on the Creeks and Seminoles (especially the Battle of Horseshoe Bend where only the U.S. had cannon).

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December 23, 2008

Rocking the Colonial Period, songs 1-5

Filed under: American Indians,Colonial Period,Music,Playlists,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:18 pm

As revealed formerly in this space, one of my many hobbies is making thematic playlists (and CDs) to listen to while I work, drive, or do pretty much anything else. Partly it is just a way to organize all the digital music that accumulates on one’s hard drive, without resorting to rating everything so that some software can mathematically reproduce my tastes. (Frankly, rating every song is too much like grading or serving on the salary committee.) The themes range from simple to really geeky, and naturally one of them is the American. Blogs are for sharing, and so are the holidays, so here we go.

I am make no representations about the historical value of these songs. Not that many musicians are very accurate historians — oh my no. Yet sometimes they do evoke the right feeling, and even the mistakes are often interesting in terms of what they reveal about popular understanding of history.

The order is roughly chronological, but with some concern for how well the songs flow or contrast sonically. In other words, the numbers are not ratings, but the order they appear on the playlist that I actually listen to. I have had to separate the playlists into periods, so today we have just the start of the Colonial Period. There will be some repeats from the American Indian History playlist posted a while back.

  • 4. The Old HauntsThe Old World — somewhat gothic punk Americana, not sure what it means to be about, but I like it, the link goes to their MySpace page, where the song in question is available to play.
  • 5. The Knitters (also X) – The New World

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December 18, 2008

Thomas Jefferson and the Creation Museum: An Exchange

Filed under: Common-Place,Founders,Urban history — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:13 am

Finals week here, and many holiday duties as well, so I will have to content myself with limited posting for a bit. Today we have a follow-up to a post from two weeks ago on an unlikely link that was made between Thomas Jefferson and the anti-scientific Creation Museum outside Cincinnati.

Joseph Clarke, the author of the article that made the link, wrote me soon after the post went up and we had what I think was an interesting little exchange on the subject. With Clarke’s permission, I am going to share it here.

Clarke wrote:

Dear Dr Pasley:

I’ve just discovered your December 5 post about my article “Specters of a Young Earth” on northern Kentucky’s Creation Museum.

You object to “innocent Founders being dragged in to get blamed or credited for everything that a given writer likes or dislikes about American culture.” I’m not sure Jefferson would appreciate the implication that his efforts to shape American culture met with so little lasting success. The notion of Jefferson as one of the Creation Museum’s “intellectual progenitors” in a doctrinal sense is absurd, and I make no such claim. But surely mainstream America’s views on urbanism do owe a great deal to Jefferson, who, as an amateur architect, had particularly strong views on the question of what form settlement should take on the continent.

According to the great Italian architectural scholar Manfredo Tafuri–and I’d be interested to know whether you agree–Jefferson’s efforts to restrain industrial development in order to create an agrarian utopia is a persistent drive in the national psyche. Tafuri writes, in his book Architecture and Utopia:

“Hamilton interpreted the aims of the political situation–that had begun with the American Revolution–to be economic, and coldly and lucidly pursued an accelerated development of American financial and industrial capital. Jefferson, on the contrary, remained faithful to a democracy arrested at the level of a utopia. Agricultural economy, local and regional autonomy as pivots of the democratic system, and the restraining of industrial development all had an explicit significance for Jefferson. They were symbols of his fear in face of the processes set in motion by the Revolution. Essentially this was fear of the dangers of involution, of the transformation of democracy into a new authoritarianism, brought into being by capitalist competition, urban development, and the birth and growth of an urban proletariat. In this sense Jefferson was against the city and against the development of industrial economy. This is why he tried to impede the logical economic consequences of democracy. With him came into being ‘radical America,’ or rather the ambiguous conscience of American intellectuals, who acknowledge the foundations of the democratic system while opposing its concrete manifestations.”

I hope it’s apparent that I regard the Creation Museum as a benighted pastiche of many such aspects of American culture, and its invocation of the “Jeffersonian” agrarian impulse as entirely unwitting.

Joseph Clarke

I replied:

Mr. Clarke:

Thanks for writing. It took me a few minutes to connect the name! I actually liked your article quite a lot and possibly my  “intellectual progenitor” line was a little unfair. The passage on Jefferson just seemed to fall under one of the categories I try to police on the blog, deployments of the Founders (especially Jefferson) into arguments where they do not seem to fit very well. You may not have been quite clear enough if you meant to distinguish the Creation Museum’s “benighted pastiche” from Jefferson and Bryan’s celebrations of rural life. It came off as, “Here are the CM’s deep roots in American culture.” Jefferson gets used as a rough stand-in for “American Culture” so often — these days usually in a critical context where he stands in for American racism or expansionism or ruralism — that I usually feel compelled to remind people how Jefferson was seen and what he stood for as a public figure in own time: as man of the left (a Jacobin to his critics), dedicated to the progress of Enlightenment and democracy, within some of the limits of his time, but quite beyond others. Obviously in the longer run, and in terms of many of his specific writings and actions, a very different portrait of Jefferson can be painted, but to me they miss his essential significance for his period.

Part of the problem, though it is not much of a problem, is the fact that you are writing as much about the architecture and siting of the Creation Museum building as its “scientific” content. Jefferson may be more relevant to the former than to the latter, though I wonder about that too. Certainly Jefferson’s own orderly Palladian style, with its domed centers and wings, seems more traditional museum than the anti-monumental office park style you talk about quite insightfully in the article. My own guess would be that the origins of the Creation Museum’s worldview should be located much more recently. I tend to see W.J. Bryan’s synthesis of Jeffersonianism with religious fundamentalism as a failure that portended the decisive rightward shift of American evangelical Christianity and “agrarianism”/ruralism as they confronted the mass society of the 20th century.

We really should have this discussion publicly. I would be happy to post your comment on my blog, or a fuller response that I could promote to a guest post, if you are interested.

Yours,
Jeff Pasley

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December 14, 2008

A Culture Threatening to Dog

Filed under: Media — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:11 am

Straining to keep the Rod Blagojevich story bubbling until such time as something else actually happens, and to imbue it with presidential significance (the only sort of significance the national political media seems to recognize), the New York Times yesterday resorted to a trope I call the “disappearing subject.” This is where the media’s desperate efforts to flog a story get elided by personifying (or in this case, animalizing) the story so that it can appear to be harassing the target all on its own: classically, questions the media obsessively raise are said to “dog” the candidate or official. This was the strategy the Times and many other outlets used to keep non-events like Whitewater and Travelgate going as scandals during the Clinton years. So here we are again, with Kate Zernike introducing her little piece on Illinois’s history of corruption with a truly stellar bit of chin-stroking non-analysis of a vague strictly mental and perceptual event that has not yet occurred, even on that meta level :

In Illinois, a Virtual Expectation of Corruption – NYTimes.com
. . . Now the culture of his adopted home state threatens to dog President-elect Barack Obama, whose vacated seat in the Senate Mr. Blagojevich is accused of putting up for auction, much as swampy Arkansas politics dogged the last young Democratic politician elected on a platform of change, Bill Clinton.

Prosecutors say Mr. Obama is not a subject of the investigation. And he has been a champion of ethics reform in the Illinois Legislature and in the Senate. But some Republicans have seized the opportunity to try to tie him to the worst side of Illinois politics.

Get that? The dogging, though only threatened, has been perpetrated not even by the story, but the thin pretext for writing it in a way that might touch president-elect Barack Obama (“the culture of his adopted home state”). I hate it when adopted home state cultures do that. Oh yes, and the very fact that the media used the same rhetorical tactics against Clinton, actually links Obama to the Clinton scandals, in the sense that NYT can bring up the two in the same sentence.

Who can take “ideas” like these seriously without being professionally invested in keeping American politics stupid?

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December 12, 2008

Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, Annette Gordon-Reed, and the “New York Times”

Filed under: Black history,Historians,Media,scandals,Women's History — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:41 pm

Belatedly, from over Thanksgiving, let me blog congratulations to my SHEAR colleague Annette Gordon-Reed on her recent National Book Award, for The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family.  It is always good to see these mainstream history book awards going to academic historian rather than journalists or popularizers, but in this case the award is particularly well-deserved.

I do feel obliged to comment on Gordon-Reed’s recent mentions in the New York Times, which have shown a strange discomfort with the basic approach of this book and her earlier one, Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy (University of Virginia Press, 1997). I would define that approach as treating Thomas Jefferson, Sally Hemings, and their relatives as a really complicated family rather than as a political scandal or national shame. Accordingly, Gordon-Reed is more inclined to see Tom and Sally as a real relationship rather than a simple matter of exploitation or victimization.

Though perfectly consistent with the dominant post-1960s strain of historical research and writing on American slavery, which has emphasized slaves’ ability to carve out spaces out of independence and resistance even within such an oppressive, coercive institution, Gordon-Reed’s approach to Jefferson and Hemings seems not to sit terribly well with some white liberals, possibly of a certain age. In early October, there was a rather back-handed (though officially positive) review by Eric Foner, then this odd interview from a few days ago:

Questions for Annette Gordon-Reed – History Lesson – Interview – NYTimes.com
Your book reminds us that black and white is not as clear-cut as separatists like to pretend. Sally Hemings was the daughter of a white father and a slave mother, and three of her children grew up to live as whites.
People talk about Obama as if he were some new thing.

Right, the first interracial man!
It’s astonishing. Sex between the races was more common in the 18th century than it is now.

How do you know?
Based on the children. Slave owners had children with enslaved women.

But the women were mostly raped, weren’t they?
Undoubtedly, the vast majority of enslaved women who had children by slave masters were raped. But there were also situations where men and women of different races genuinely liked one another. Where do people think the rainbow of colors of black people comes from? Most black people in America have some white ancestry.

In that regard, Jefferson and Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society.
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.

Both the NYT interview and Foner’s review were a bit fixated on the idea of defining all interracial sex within slavery as violently coerced. While that view is probably accurate in the largest sense, and certainly consistent with the moral precepts most modern Americans believe and practice, it might not always be so helpful in understanding the messiness of human relations in a time before the equality and autonomy of all individuals had been legally and socially accepted. Foner’s recommendation in the review seemed to be, when faced with a situation as messy and ambiguous as the one between Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, “punt”:

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December 11, 2008

Fridge Magnates

Filed under: Democracy,Economy,energy,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:16 pm

Via Josh Marshall, who got it from a New Yorker blog post, comes an argument from Steven Chu, Obama’s pick for Energy Secretary, that seems very consonant with my Thanksgiving weekend post about the role of excessive “democracy” (of the interest group lobbying kind) in the ruination of the U.S. auto industry. It seems that at least one sector of U.S. manufacturing greatly improved itself when government stopped heeding its wishes.

Consider, Chu said, the refrigerator.Refrigerators consume a lot of energy; all alone, they account for almost fifteen per cent of the average home’s electricity use. In the mid nineteen-seventies, California—the state Chu now lives in—set about establishing the country’s first refrigerator-efficiency standards. Refrigerator manufacturers, of course, fought them. The standards couldn’t be met, they said, at anything like a price consumers could afford. California imposed the standards anyway, and then what happened, as Chu observed, is that “the manufacturers had to assign the job to the engineers, instead of to the lobbyists.” The following decade, standards were imposed for refrigerators nationwide. Since then, the size of the average American refrigerator has increased by more than ten per cent, while the price, in inflation-adjusted dollars, has been cut in half. Meanwhile, energy use has dropped by two-thirds.

It is unclear whether the American refrigerator industry is better off economically than the automakers, but it would be hard for them not to be.

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One of my few criticisms . . . cancelled!!

Filed under: Congress,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:08 am

A deep thought, as Josh Marshall says: one of my few serious objections to the Obama transition so far was the president-elect’s haste to resign from the Senate with such big issues pending there. Now, I have to say, how terrible would it have been to have Blago’s senate seat auction come out right after the inauguration? Better to get it out of the way during the holidays.

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December 10, 2008

Blago-ed out and speechless

Filed under: Obama Administration,scandals — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:21 am

I spent much of yesterday afternoon trying to think of some glib historical gloss on this particular day’s stunning news: a sitting governor of the same party trying to sell off the President-elect’s old Senate seat, days after one of most historic elections of our lifetime, in a period of gravest national crisis. It’s still not coming to me.

I will say that the whole tale impresses me with Barack Obama even more. The NYT has a story that seems to want to enmesh Obama in the sordidness of Chicago politics (in the vaguest possibly way), but more clearly presents a man who had the character and the political acumen to navigate that world while rising far above it.

Beyond the irony of its outcome, Mr. Obama’s unusual decision to inject himself into a statewide issue during the height of his presidential campaign was a reminder that despite his historic ascendancy to the White House, he has never quite escaped the murky and insular world of Illinois politics. It is a world he has long navigated, to the consternation of his critics, by engaging in a kind of realpolitik, Chicago-style, which allowed him to draw strength from his relationships with important players without becoming compromised by their many weaknesses.

I am not sure how much more we could ask for in a politician from a place like that. The names Truman and Lincoln come to mind. FDR, too.

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December 5, 2008

Seems Like Really Old Times: O Canada!

Filed under: "Seems Like Old Times",Colonial Period,Democracy — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 6:05 pm

“Prorogue”: a word that appeared in the New York Times and other media outlets yesterday that I am fairly sure I never saw before outside of colonial history books, and I mean old-school colonial history books like that comps-list standard of yesteryear, Royal Government in America by Leonard W. Labaree (1930). It turns out that “royal government in America” still exists outside of Dick Cheney’s fondest imaginings:

OTTAWA — Canada’s parliamentary opposition reacted with outrage on Thursday after Prime Minister Stephen Harper shut down the legislature until Jan. 26, seeking to forestall a no-confidence vote that he was sure to lose and, possibly, provoking a constitutional crisis.

Mr. Harper acted after getting the approval of Governor General Michaëlle Jean, who represents Queen Elizabeth II as the nation’s head of state. If his request had been rejected, he would have had to choose between stepping down or facing the no-confidence vote on Monday.

The opposition fiercely criticized the decision to suspend Parliament, accusing Mr. Harper of undermining the nation’s democracy. “We have to say to Canadians, ‘Is this the kind of government you want?’ ” said Bob Rae, a member of the opposition Liberal Party. “Do we want a party in place that is so undemocratic that it will not meet the House of Commons?” . . .

Technically, what Mr. Harper did was to “prorogue” Parliament, a move that stops all actions on bills and the body’s other business, and thus goes well beyond an adjournment (which was not available to Mr. Harper in any event, as it requires parliamentary approval). It is not unprecedented — prorogation is used occasionally to introduce a new legislative agenda — but this is the first time any Parliament members or constitutional scholars here could recall the maneuver being used in the midst of a political crisis and over the objections of Parliament.

Mr. Harper declared the parliamentary suspension after a two-and-a-half hour meeting in Ottawa with Ms. Jean. While no governor general has ever previously rejected a prime minister’s request to prorogue Parliament, several constitutional scholars said Mr. Harper was the first one to have asked permission when he did not have the support of the legislature.

In colonial times, prorogation was one of the many sources of conflict between the elected colonial legislatures and the royal governors appointed from London. Proroguing (and dissolving) parliaments were among the traditional monarchical powers that English kings mostly lost after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89, along with the ability to veto legislation, create courts, and remove judges. Colonial American leaders came to resent the fact that their often unprepossessing or untrustworthy governors, many of whom were stand-ins for absentee officials or owed their position to some influential relative or political favor performed back in the mother country, wielded greater powers than the King himself.

Another comps classic, Bernard Bailyn’s Origins of American Politics made the argument the royal governors’ use of their “swollen” powers led to chronic political instability and unrest in many colonies because the governors usually had neither the patronage resources (money and offices to hand out) nor the firm support (either in the local population or the home government) to fully back them up. To borrow the metaphor of another great interpreter of American life, Steve Earle, the royal governors’ power to mess with the elected legislatures were like “a cap and ball Colt,” a dangerously weak sort of weapon that was easy to use but tended not to actually stop your enemies. “It’ll get you into trouble but it can’t get you out.”

Eventually the Americans who formed the United States rejected the imperial connection that made such contradictory institutions as the royal governorships possible, and after some experiments with extremely weak or even plural executives, settled generally on a system that restored a few of the kingly powers, in a limited form, but only to elected officials like a state governor or the president.

Canada chose a different path, obviously, but for most of the past century their retention of British imperial  institutions like the Governor-General has just seemed quaint. This week, not so much. Let’s hope that Prime Minister Harper, who had to resort to this archaic device after some earlier ill-advised power moves against his opposite, does not get out of the trouble he has now gotten Canadian democracy into. Or perhaps Canada just needs to end its quasi-colonial status once and for all, eh?

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