“USDA employee accused of running prostitution ring” — a statistician no less. As Jefferson said, “Corruption of morals in the mass counters of cultivators is a phaenomenon of which no our age nor and nation has furnished an example.”
January 17, 2009
January 16, 2009
One of the Early Republic-themed (or -named) bands mentioned in an earlier post are on tour. That’s right, The Henry Clay People are coming to a city near you. (They seem to have chosen the Des Moines rather than Columbia/St. Louis route across, often an either/or matter, so I may have to give them a miss.) I am not entirely sold on these guys musically, but maybe someone’s Dad is a historian, so we should support them. Listen here, and below. The album the HCP is touring behind is here. Unfortunately they are not touring with the not previously-mentioned The Whigs, who are also on the road. (Listen to the Whiggery here.) This band does have amusing link that allows you to “Join the Whig Party,” which seems to involve period-inaccurate costumes. Both these band seem to espouse fairly traditional rock values, which is somewhat Whig-like.
January 15, 2009
This not a real proverb, but a political principle that it does not take much of an historian to see applies to the attitudes of pretty much every colonial people or small nation whose territory has been invaded since the dawn of modern nationalism, at least. Nobody likes getting their homes bombed, their cities overrun by foreign troops, their friends, neighbors, and relatives traumatized, maimed, or killed. People remember that stuff, and they tend not to look kindly on the politicians and officials who get installed or helped into power by the invaders, perhaps especially if the officials of the new regime are natives of the invaded territory.
Shall we recall a U.S. example? Let’s. In American schools, we used to learn a name for what the defeated Confederates called those who staffed the Reconstruction regimes: “scalawags,” “carpetbaggers,” and lots of worse things. We were not taught to admire those fellows. As we know from Eric Foner and other post-”revisionist” historians of Reconstruction, many of these officials were not grafters and traitors, but honest reformers trying to help the people of the South and improve their society and economy. Nevertheless, despite these noble intentions, the new regimes required the federal government’s protection to be stable and inspired a rather famous terrorist insurgency called the Ku Klux Klan. Once outside support was withdrawn, the South was immediately “redeemed” by the same people who started the CIvil War in the first place.
Of course, the more relevant example for the present-day issues of this type would be the politics of every post-colonial nation one can think of except Canada, Australia, and New Zealand: the sure path to political popularity and power in such countries was virulent opposition to the continuing influence of the old colonial power, even if such opposition was likely to be counter-productive. There was this early American politician called Jefferson who ended up president in no small degreee because he was the leading opponent of a non-anti-British foreign policy.
So, given this sort of historical experience, why would any policy-maker expect massively destructive invasions by overwhelmingly superior forces in isolated, beaten-down places like Gaza and Iraq to result in the people of those places warmly accepting regimes that the invaders helped to install? Yet the failure of the Iraqi people to do just this is Dick Cheney’s only regret about the Iraq War — and not because he was wrong to expect it, but because of their supposedly damaged psyches.
Even more incredibly, the Israelis apparently thought that crushing Gaza was going to give their favored party, the secular Palestinian Authority, the chance to win power back from Hamas. From the New York Times:
My friend DHM has alerted us to the latest adventures of Dr. McNinja, a former student of the clone of Benjamin Franklin. The tales are written and drawn by Chris Hastings and inked by Kent Archer (click on the picture below to see the host site).
I think Jefferson just sent little starbursts through the screen. We’ll stay on top of this developing story….
January 14, 2009
I watched “The Visitor” last night, which I recommend for anyone looking to catch up on their Oscar-bait before the nominations are announced. It’s not the most uplifting portrayal of the life of a college professor, but the acting is great, and the movie also deals with some important themes.
The movie plays with American iconography, particularly the iconography of post-9/11 New York City, in a really striking way. On the one hand, you have characters who embrace the symbols and meaning of America in touching ways (the Statue of Liberty, the embrace of diversity, etc.); on the other, the movie mocks this iconography by showing aspects of the United States at its worst: soullessly bureaucratic, callously xenophobic, arbitrary and perhaps even tyrannical.
Most historians (I think) try to convey these ironies to their students and their readers. I was myself caught short when reading this piece by NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen (which you should check out if you have a passion for media criticism):
The sphere of consensus is the “motherhood and apple pie” of politics, the things on which everyone is thought to agree. Propositions that are seen as uncontroversial to the point of boring, true to the point of self-evident, or so widely-held that they’re almost universal lie within this sphere. …
Consensus in American politics begins, of course, with the United States Constitution, but it includes other propositions too, like “Lincoln was a great president,” and “it doesn’t matter where you come from, you can succeed in America.” Whereas journalists equate ideology with the clash of programs and parties in the debate sphere, academics know that the consensus or background sphere is almost pure ideology: the American creed.
Wait—”Lincoln was a great president”? Didn’t I just say that in a post this week? Anyway, Rosen goes on to show how difficult it has been, in the American mass media, for people to air viewpoints perceived as being outside the conventional wisdom. He writes that the internet is weakening journalists’ ability to define the boundaries of legitimate debate—which is a good thing, because journalists had never acknowledged their role in defining the debate.
Academics also struggle with “spheres of consensus,” although American historians tend to be particularly skeptical of “the American creed.” In any case, it’s food for thought.
January 12, 2009
Via Matthew Yglesias, here’s a sharply worded article by University of Baltimore law professor Garrett Epps in The Atlantic, entitled, “The Founders’ Great Mistake.” Well, that’s just catnip for us here at Publick Occurrences. Epps argues that the Constitution, in its current form, gives presidents appalling license to do the country harm.
One quote that struck me:
Intoxicated by the image of the hero-president, unencumbered by any direct political check, stubborn presidents . . . have no incentive to change course.
This gets at Jeff’s media criticism in the post below. It’s not just presidents who believe their own hype, but a media and public that feeds an almost monarchical conception of the presidency in all its majesty. Now, somewhere Brendan McConville is probably saying, “I told you so,” although that’s a gross simplification of his thesis.
Epps has a few suggestions for reforming the presidency. First, we should get rid of the electoral college, and shorten the “interregnum” period between the election and the inauguration. Secondly, the powers of the presidency ought to be specifically enumerated. Third (and here things get a little weird), if a president’s party loses seats in Congress, he should be forced to shuffle his Cabinet. Finally, the executive should be split—perhaps by separately electing an independent attorney general during the midterm elections.
Epps isn’t the first person to suggest a radical overhaul to the Constitution—there have been a number of books with that thesis in recent years. But heck, Epps’s article is shorter. Let’s have at it.
Which provisions of the Constitution would you change, and what features would you add?
Sharp-eyed readers, and aren’t you all, will have noticed a new name attached to some recent posts. In response to last week’s help wanted notice, Prof. Benjamin Carp of Tufts University is joining me here as a guest blogger to try out the whole “Publick Occurrences” experience. With any luck, he may even stay a while.
Ben is a University of Virginia Ph.D. whose book Rebels Rising: Cities and the American Revolution was published by Oxford University Press in 2007. (I see from Amazon that the paperback edition hits the streets this coming March.) He is currently completing a much-needed new study of the Boston Tea Party. I think I will let Ben tell anything more he wants readers to know about himself himself, but I feel lucky that such a distinguished young scholar is interested in helping out with our quirky little enterprise here. Welcome!
January 11, 2009
My last post referred to Lincoln, FDR, and JFK as “pretty good presidents,” but heck, Lincoln and FDR were great presidents, while JFK never even had the chance to finish out his first term. I’ll let 20th-century historians debate JFK’s greatness, but I hope we can at least agree that there’s always been something a little fishy about the mythmaking surrounding “Camelot” and the Kennedys as an “American aristocracy.”
Ted Sorensen exemplified this during the panel at the New York Times. When asked who New York Governor David Paterson should choose to fill Hillary Clinton’s vacated senate seat, Sorensen replied, “I always rely on DNA.”
Really? How did that work out for the Hapsburgs?
Now this line also got a laugh. And at the lordly New York Times, you rather worry that they were laughing with him rather than at him. But does Sorensen choose his doctors and airline pilots this way? Sorensen, of course, refers to Caroline Kennedy’s bid for Paterson to name her to the seat. And at the end of the day, you can’t really blame him for his preference.
Still, it’s irritating. I’m neither the first nor the smartest person to say this, but if Caroline Kennedy wants to demonstrate her fitness to hold a Democratic seat as junior senator for New York, she should run for the office in 2010. In the meantime, Paterson should pick a placeholder. It’s bad enough when Senate seats become dynastic, but you should at least burnish your résumé by showing you can face the electorate and win.
This is Common-place, so it seems fitting to give the floor to Common Sense (by Thomas Paine):
But it is not so much the absurdity as the evil of hereditary succession which concerns mankind. Did it ensure a race of good and wise men it would have the seal of divine authority, but as it opens a door to the foolish, the wicked; and the improper, it hath in it the nature of oppression. Men who look upon themselves born to reign, and others to obey, soon grow insolent; selected from the rest of mankind their minds are early poisoned by importance; and the world they act in differs so materially from the world at large, that they have but little opportunity of knowing its true interests, and when they succeed to the government are frequently the most ignorant and unfit of any throughout the dominions.
Furthermore, as someone at the panel pointed out, if you’re going to rely on DNA, then Andrew Cuomo would serve just as well, wouldn’t he? Once again, Paine has the last word:
However, it is needless to spend much time in exposing the folly of hereditary right, if there are any so weak as to believe it, let them promiscuously worship the ass and lion, and welcome. I shall neither copy their humility, nor disturb their devotion.
On Friday, the New York Times hosted a roundtable discussion with Harold Holzer, Jonathan Alter, and Ted Sorensen. It was a beautiful, cold day looking over the Hudson River from the 15th floor. The panelists discussed how Abraham Lincoln, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy dealt with crisis and war during their presidencies. (Christie’s also displayed the original copy of Lincoln’s victory speech of November 10, 1864, which can be yours for $3-4 million. The text of the speech itself is free.)
Jonathan Alter trucked out the famous Oliver Wendell Holmes quip that FDR had a “second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.” After observing that Barack Obama has a “first-class intellect,” he noted that Obama’s temperament, in the face of our current crises, is as yet untested. ”All presidents are blind dates,” Alter said, which got a laugh from the audience of jaded reporters and ad-salesmen.
Now, the idea of a date with Obama sounds like something Amber Lee Ettinger would say. She just couldn’t wait for 2008. But 2008 was just an election—now it’s 2009, and the guy’s got to run the country. Alter’s comment calls to mind this interesting New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell on the difficulty of predicting who will be a good professional quarterback or public school teacher. The same is true of picking an elected leader. Can Obama keep his cool even when the pocket starts to close in?
The electorate’s expectations for Obama are pretty high. Obama ran an impressive campaign in 2008, which is a pretty grueling executive responsibility in and of itself. So there’s every reason to think that the temperament of “No-Drama Obama” will suit the country just fine. On the other hand, the United States faces some pretty big challenges—and Obama can’t overcome them all with just, well, temperament.
The NYT chose three panelists who had written about Lincoln, FDR, and JFK. The take-away theme was: history gives us reason to hope. But then again, they cherry-picked three pretty good presidents for the discussion.
January 10, 2009
Literally. Or at least, jokes are all that the media can seem to find to write about the official counting of the electoral vote:
The Republican highlight of the afternoon: a lonely Rep. Mary Fallin (R-Okla.) clapping when it was announced that John McCain and Sarah Palin won the electoral votes from her home state.
But perhaps the funniest moment of the session: Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, sticking his fingers in his ears when the results were announced from his home state of South Carolina. McCain pulled that one out despite Clyburn’s efforts to get one more Southern state in Obama’s column.
It is hard to blame reporters or participants for taking this attitude, given the manifest pointlessness and vestigiality of the Electoral College as an institution. The automatic reverence for the Constitution that suffuses our culture has induced a considerable number of pundits and political scientists to defend the EC over the years, but most defenders and detractors seem to conflate the institution itself with the state-based apportionment mechanism embedded within it.
It seems to me that the weighting of the votes for president is a separate question from the operations of the institution. The thing the institutional EC was intended to do, act as one of the filters between local popular majorities (and parties) and the choice of the presidency, it never did properly even once. One of the things I have learned from my current research on the election of 1796 is that even back in the very earliest days of presidential electioneering, when presidential electors actually ran (or stood) under their own names, the primary matter discussed was not “Which local big-shot (elector candidate) do we trust to choose a president for us?” but “Which well-known national candidate will he support?” I have an example of an elector candidate in Maryland writing to the newspapers to deny a candidate affiliation that was already circulating in his neighborhood. In other words, no one ever gave a rodent’s behind about the electors or their non-existent college even when there was nothing else to vote for, presidentially speaking.