Publick Occurrences 2.0

January 29, 2009

Rocking the Colonial Period, Songs 6-14

Filed under: Colonial Period,Music,Playlists,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 10:49 pm

Times are hard so it’s time for some music, early American history rock, that is.

[Continued from a previous post.] Here we move into the Spanish Conquest section, which theme has allowed rock musicians to smuggle in some Spanish guitar and brass along with their power chords and hippie pieties. First, however, we have two more Columbus-themed tunes, an old one that is really about the historical Columbus, by Todd Rundgren’s imitation British Invasion band Nazz, and a much more recent number by Vermont roots-rocker Grace Potter that uses CC metaphorically to denote having “found the edge of the world.” Unless she’s talking about living near Canada, I am not sure I could vouch for the straight-ahead Ms. Potter’s claim of edginess on an artistic level, but the song is not uncatchy.

6. Nazz – Christopher Columbus (3:23)

7. Grace Potter and The Nocturnals – Mr. Columbus (3:38)

Now we move on to the conquistadors proper. Interestingly, a common theme is the Spaniards’ confusion and defeat, which sadly did not happen often enough in real life, at least not to the ones who became famous. I have a feeling lot of the musicians were trying for that Aguirre, the Wrath of God feeling without actually remembering the name.

8. The Boo RadleysSpaniard (4:01) — rather excellent also-rans from the early 1990s alternative rock scene as it was becoming “commercial alternative. This is followed by two chestnuts of 1970s AOR radio.

9. Procol Harum – Conquistador (5:11) — the orchestral version featured on Procol’s Greatest Hits and in regular rotation on Kansas City radio back in the day, in this delightful clip someone has set it to scenes from Herzog’a Aguirre.

12. Neil Young – Cortez The Killer (7:30) — Of course, this had to be here, if only as a reminder of having my young music geek’s mind blown by Decade back in the day. A 3-record set in a package was like an inch thick, or so it seemed! The Collected Masterworks over a count ‘em 10-year career! Who but Neil could be so ambitious, so long-winded, and yet so shamblingly casual? (I realize writing this that Neil Young must be one of the secret influences on my whole aesthetic, and I do have one.)

Like many of old Neil’s forays into history, this epic is perhaps best approached without focusing too much on the lyrics. I am sorry to report that Neil has misled some of the rock-listening public into thinking that “The Aztecs were peaceful, representing sort of a utopian nonviolent society.” With human sacrifice! Oddly Neil does mention the Aztec penchant for human sacrifice while also claiming that “Hate was just a legend/And war was never known.” That would have been news to the many peoples chafing under Aztec rule, the ones who joined up with the Spaniards to overthrow the Aztecs. And yet Cortez was indeed a killer, so the facts on Mr. Young’s side there, anyhow.

13. Splitsville - Ponce de Leon (2:15) — Hard to believe, I know, but this is indeed a boppy little ditty about the conqueror of Puerto Rico and “discoverer” of Florida, who was not looking for the Fountain of Youth but did enjoy siccing his dog on the local Indians.

14. The High DialsThe Lost Explorer (5:25) — This is a nice bit of neo-psychedelia that I have here representing the French colonies, because the band is from Quebec and Neil Young has not recorded a tune called “Champlain the Negotiator.” I am going to dedicate it to Réné Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, the French explorer of the Mississippi who got so lost with his broken compass and his jumping to geographic conclusions that his men had to kill him when they missed the mouth of the Mississippi and wandered into Texas instead. It could happen to the best of us.



Read ‘em and Weep

Filed under: Economy,Government,Media — Benjamin Carp @ 7:16 am

Following hot on the heels of my post yesterday, where I wondered how historians (and journalists) can get support for their best work and find an audience in today’s climate, today we receive news that the Washington Post‘s Book World will cease to exist as a separate print section.

So not that anyone’s counting, but: independent bookstores all over the country have closed.  Libraries are slashing budgets.  Academic presses have been hurting for quite some time, and now corporate publishing isn’t looking so hot, either.  Amazon’s Kindle may or may not herald the death of printed books.  The flourishing internet used-book market means that most people need never buy a book in the first place.  And even if you do manage to get a publisher to sell your book, how will anyone know about it if mainstream book review sections are also being closed off?

Here’s Douglas Brinkley, in the linked article:

Douglas Brinkley, the historian, suggested that the book industry and book reviews deserved some kind of public bailout. “I think that just like public television — I think book review sections almost need to get subsidized to keep the intellectual life in America alive,” Mr. Brinkley said. “So if we can do that for radio, and we could do it for television, why can’t we do it for the book industry, which is terribly suffering right now?”

I’m not sure government subsidy for books and book reviews is necessarily the right answer (and besides, the government’s got its own problems right now).  But things certainly do look grim, don’t they?


January 28, 2009

Up on the Wire

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Historians,Media,Popular culture — Benjamin Carp @ 9:23 pm

This is a little like day-old bread (if not canned bread–ew), but I finally finished watching the fifth and final season of the HBO series The Wire on DVD.  Like many people who don’t much care for television, I think it’s the best show ever to have been on television: a perfect cast, multi-layered storytelling, a rich perspective on urban life, actual moral ambiguity: you’ve heard it all before.  One thing’s for sure: if you haven’t dedicated yourself to watching the series from beginning to end, you’re missing out.

Anyway, I wasn’t ready to let the show go, so I watched one of the special companion features.  Season Five had dealt with (among other things) the newsroom.  In the companion feature, David Simon (the show’s executive producer) addresses the issue of sensationalism vs. complexity in daily journalism:

The ultimate act of reportage would be to really surround something that is endemic and complex, and to make it understandable so that more people could address themselves to solving that problem than ever before.  And that never happens.

The feature then cuts to a scene from Season 5, where staff members in the Baltimore Sun newsroom are discussing how to cover the city schools.

Scott (smarmy reporter): You don’t need a lot of context to examine what goes on…

Gus (beleaguered metro editor): Really? I think you need a lot of context to examine anything.

Context!  What more could a historian ask for?  Historians often scoff at journalists’ notion that they’re writing the “first draft of history.”  “Is that so?” we think.  “Well no wonder it seems so badly in need of revision.”  The immediacy of journalism and its failure to address issues in their full context sometimes strike us as inadequate.  (Then again, they probably think most historians are turgid and hesitant writers, and they probably have a point.)

In the end, the two endeavors of journalism and history scholarship aren’t too far apart in their goals.  Unfortunately, the two endeavors also share some of the same problems: How can journalists and historians attract attention-deficient readers to our stories in an electronic age with so many other distractions?  How do we support good journalism and good history—both essential to a healthy democracy—when good journalism and good scholarship aren’t always responsive to market demands?  There aren’t easy answers to those questions, but then again, the problems portrayed in The Wire also resist easy answers.


January 25, 2009

They had me going there

Filed under: American Indians,Humor — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:14 pm

Algonkian Indian Influences on Yankee Foodways“:
I saw this public lecture announcement come over one of the early American history email lists and assumed the worst, that someone was blaming New England’s indigenous peoples for Moxie and canned bread, possibly by way of crediting them. But I guess not. Phew! That would be adding insult to injury if I ever saw it.

Actually that lecture sounds quite interesting, and if I lived in Connecticut, I would go to it. The phrase “Yankee foodways” just gave me flashbacks to some of our early experiments with the local, um, cuisine when we first moved out there.


January 23, 2009

A Commodious Space for Commodities

Filed under: Common-Place,Economy,Humor — Benjamin Carp @ 2:45 pm

Common-place publishes the occasional “Object Lessons” column with good reason: knowing your material culture is important.  For instance, when cataloging the office furniture purchases of ex-Merrill-Lynch CEO John Thain, The Consumerist‘s Ben Popken makes a horrible mistake, and then corrects himself with the help of a little eighteenth-century know-how.

(hat tip, BPM)


January 21, 2009

Other Voices

Filed under: Obama Administration,speeches — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:45 am

I feel as though I am in the proper Obamanian mode of getting beyond the old politics, but the old politics side of me has to agree with David Sanger of the NYT, and even MoDo, that the part of the speech where Obama got in Bush’s face right in front of his face must be appreciated.

A couple of civilian (non-historian) friends also chimed in with their thoughts on Obama’s speech, through the magic of Facebook. My more positive friend C says:

One of the lines that struck me was “The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works.” I thought that was a great way to say that he’s going to approach problems from a very different perspective than we’ve seen recently. I feel like we’ve been dealing with Reagan’s world view for 20+ years, and we finally have someone that can move us past that.

My snarkier friend B emphasizes a line I should have:

Hey Jeff – you know, I look forward to 8 years of being disappointed in a president I thought could be better versus 8 years of being outraged at a president I didn’t think could be any worse. Obama as the great orator is almost as much a myth manufactured by his political adversaries as the notion that he is a radical liberal or socialist – he’ll never live up to the McCain hype. Yet I shed more than one or two tears when Aretha was singing – something real was going on today. You know, with Bush and the president (Cheney) sitting there on the same stage, I was reminded of Colbert’s roast from a few years ago more than once today as Obama spoke. One of those moments for me was the section that started:

“As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals.”

Hey Hey Goodbye


January 20, 2009

Grow Up, America: Choose Our Better History

Filed under: Obama Administration,Presidency,speeches — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:16 pm

I have long thought that now-President Obama’s reputation as an orator was little inflated, more by a media and public starved for a leader who could speak in complete sentences and cogent thoughts than by the man himself. That is an observation, not a criticism. My short speech-writing period left me with a very lively sense of how hard and ill-advised it is for a real modern human being to write or speak like a JFK film clip. Lots of Democratic politicians have hurt themselves rhetorically by trying to channel JFK. When they try MLK, it is generally even worse.

Today’s inaugural address was much like Obama’s convention acceptance speech in wisely avoiding Sorensenian flights of inspirational rhetoric and preacherly flourishes, but instead presenting liberal values and a post-imperial world view in forms that Americans raised on decades of Reaganism might be able to accept. Here is a passage that struck me:

We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things. The time has come to reaffirm our enduring spirit; to choose our better history; to carry forward that precious gift, that noble idea, passed on from generation to generation: the God-given promise that all are equal, all are free, and all deserve a chance to pursue their full measure of happiness.

In reaffirming the greatness of our nation, we understand that greatness is never a given. It must be earned. Our journey has never been one of short-cuts or settling for less. It has not been the path for the faint-hearted – for those who prefer leisure over work, or seek only the pleasures of riches and fame. Rather, it has been the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things – some celebrated but more often men and women obscure in their labor, who have carried us up the long, rugged path towards prosperity and freedom.

Nothing special there rhetorically — even the nice “better history” line turns out to be recycled from Obama’s late campaign stump speech. Yet what he was saying what rather noteworthy, coming from a U.S. president. Here and in other parts of the speech, the infantile exceptionalism that has become nearly our national creed was quietly but firmly rejected. Our freedom, wealth, and power relative to other nations do not exempt us from the exigencies of history or the rules of morality, Obama declared. Quite the contrary.  We are not authorized to “do as we please” just because we are America; our activities have an impact on other peoples that must be taken into account, and that accounting must modify our behavior. Poverty, injustice, fear, evil, and incompetence all exist in modern America and as part of our tradition. We can and must choose our “better history,” and also choose not to dwell on the worst, but the worst is still there, some it of sitting on the inaugural dais, in a wheelchair.

As in the convention speech, there was also a distinctly liberal economic message in Obama’s inaugural address, but delivered in so mild and sensible a fashion as to be almost impossible for all but the most hardened ideologues to disagree with. The free market is a powerful tool for generating wealth, but it cannot work properly without the “watchful eye” of government. Otherwise the market will “spin out of control.” The last line quoted above, about “the risk-takers, the doers, the makers of things” was one that many listeners (including Fox’s Brit Hume) probably heard as a shout-out to capitalist entrepreneurs. What it really was, or perhaps simultaneously acted as, was a little restatement of the labor theory of value that can be linked back to the producerism that has been the heart of so many past radical movements in American history. True wealth was not created by amassing “riches,” Obama argued, but instead by making things through our labors.

I make no claim that there is anything radical about Obama, or even Populist, and I worry about the Wall Street/Ivy League establishmentarians he has guiding his economic policy here at the outset. Yet he does represent and express the better part of our historical political tradition. I am happy that we chose it and look forward to the day when it does not take a national crisis to bring some of those better angels out.


The Times that Try Men’s Souls

Filed under: Founders,Obama Administration — Benjamin Carp @ 12:00 pm

President Obama (wow.) just gave his inaugural address, with an unattributed quote:

So let us mark this day with remembrance, of who we are and how far we have traveled. In the year of America’s birth, in the coldest of months, a small band of patriots huddled by dying campfires on the shores of an icy river. The capital was abandoned. The enemy was advancing. The snow was stained with blood. At a moment when the outcome of our revolution was most in doubt, the father of our nation ordered these words be read to the people:

“Let it be told to the future world…that in the depth of winter, when nothing but hope and virtue could survive…that the city and the country, alarmed at one common danger, came forth to meet [it].”

Obama seemed (at least to the tv talking heads) to imply that these were George Washington’s words, but the quote is from the first of Thomas Paine’s papers entitled The American Crisis.  I also think some people may have jumped to the conclusion that this was the Valley Forge winter, but Obama is referring to December 1776, when Washington was about to lose much of his army to expiring enlistments, and the Battles of Trenton and Princeton had not yet taken place.  The particular paragraph from which this quote is drawn is actually quite a belligerent passage.

Well, it’s a new administration, and an exciting day.  I’m looking forward to tomorrow, when the pomp will be over and the country can get to work.


January 18, 2009

Power and Responsibility: What Barack Obama Learned from Peter Parker

Filed under: Obama Administration,Political culture,Popular culture,Presidency — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:48 pm

We’re all aware that this is a huge moment in the social history of the presidency — first African-American president, first president born after 1960, etc. — but it’s also an interesting moment in the cultural history of the presidency. Doubtless most readers have seen the publicity about Barack Obama’s appearance in the current issue of Amazing Spider-Man, which Marvel Comics editor-in-chief Joe Quesada described as a “shout-out back” to a president-elect who was outed as a former comic collector some time ago. [Read some of the key panels here.] What we didn’t know was that the idiom of the comics our generation (“X ” or Jones or whatever) grew up with had become part of his political language. Actually, I suspected as much, but today we have proof.

My wife noticed the following in what was billed as Obama’s inauguration letter to his daughters, published in this morning’s Sunday newspaper supplement, Parade Magazine.

“I want every child to understand that the blessings these brave Americans fight for are not free-that with the great privilege of being a citizen of this nation comes great responsibility.”

This is a paraphrase of Spider-Man’s motto — “With great power comes great responsbility” first presented in Spidey’s origin story from Amazing Fantasy #15 [see below] and repeated frequently thereafter. It was the guiding philosophy not only for Peter, who gave up his career to stay home and help, er, organize his community, but for the whole Marvel superhero line.  Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the X-Men and the rest regularly fought right-wing demagogues, racists, neo-Nazis, war profiteers, and colonialists along with the Green Goblin and Doctor Doom, who come to think of it were good enemies for a liberal hero, too, an irresponsible businessman and an unreconstructed monarchist, respectively.

Sure that “responsibility” line was in the movie, too, but I feel quite certain that Obama first read it in the original. And he also may not be the only member of his generation to pick up some of his liberal ideas from the House of Ideas [one of Stan Lee's many nick-names for his company]. One idea in particular was that a decent person or nation had a duty to do something with whatever gifts it had been given — freedom, a sharp mind, spider-powers, a nuclear arsenal, or whatever — besides showing off.  I do believe today was the first time Parade Magazine ever choked me up.


Common-Place Politics Issue Heads to the Archives

Filed under: Common-Place — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:24 pm

Beyond the Valley of the Founders,” the Common-Place Politics Issue that tookup quite a bit of the last half of my 2008, has just been sent to the C-P archives by the first issue of 2009. Never fear, however, the politics is still available to read and comment on, and remains eternally relevant. We are not even done with the “Myths of the Lost Atlantis” series yet! Readers just discovering this blog should be particularly sure to go back and look the Politics Issue .

This is also a good moment to express our gratitude to outgoing Common-Place editor Ed Gray, whose efficiency, editorial skill and astounding patience and diplomacy in dealing with troublesome authors and guest editors has really kept this unique enterprise going the last 5 years. I am sure he is already enjoying his greatly-reduced email load.

Common-Place editor and blogger in Milan, celebrating completion of Common-Place Politics Issue conferring on Thomas Paine.
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