Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

May 27, 2009

Great Minds Think Alike

Filed under: Obama Administration,Political culture,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:00 am

Not that I claim to be a great mind. Too much TV as a kid. (I owe my scintillating vocabulary all to Stan Lee and Marvel Comics.) At any rate, I wanted to highlight a couple of items sent in by readers:

1. Down in the previous post’s comments, Josh Brown reveals that the Republicans are invoking much BIGGER terror fears than even I previously suspected. Go look at the full-sized version. It’s much funnier than my post.

2. At the very respectable U.S. Intellectual History blog, they are discussing the politics of the new Star Trek reboot, even providing a sort of review of the scholarly literature on the young, vigorous [as in, roughly the same age as your host] science fiction franchise. It seems that the popular culture studies universe only recently got the memo about the original series being a tissue of American Cold War self-regard wrapped in the brightly colored synthetic fabric of liberal internationalism.  Did they miss the Kennedy-esque opening credit narration about how “we must be bold” to go “on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which man has ever embarked?

Now me, I am pretty sure the first time I actually heard JFK’s “New Frontier” speech or cracked a book on the Liberal Consensus, I was thinking, “That was just what Capt. Kirk would have said.” The discussion on the Intellectual History site has turned on whether New Kirk/Spock or the Avenging Romulan Mining Ship Captain represented George W. Bush throwing away his ancestral values in the name of revenge. Not sure about that myself — J.J. Abrams seems pretty eager to avoid any discernible political subtext or social commentary. The Federation’s quiet, if still largely white-guy-led, multiculturalism was present but updated nicely; Uhura and Spock got to make out more than Kirk, and not under mind control or reality alteration of any kind.

The new Star Trek also features a subtle subversion of the currently most prevalent form of cinematic racism, the typecasting of presumed Muslim actors as terrorists. The noble, steely captain of the first ship we saw destroyed, who sacrifices his life trying to save his crew, was played by Faran Tahir, a Pakistani-American actor that American audiences would probably instantly pick out as a terrorist if he showed up in any other action movie.  (In fact, he played the main terrorist villain in last year’s early summer hit Iron Man.) I’m not familiar enough with latter-day Trek lore to know whether that was Star Fleet’s first Muslim captain, but it was a nice touch in any case.

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May 24, 2009

Will They Bring Supervillains to Your Town Next?

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

Just in time for a planned follow-up post to the one last week on fantasy-based politics, we have the spasm of fictionally-inspired idiocy over the Gitmo closure. Check that, according to the keyboard waggers at the New York Times, idiocy is now called a “singular political opportunity” for the Republicans.

Gitmo prisoner as envisioned by John McCain and friends

Gitmo prisoner as envisioned by John McCain and friends

“Where are we going to send them?” Mr. McCain said in an interview on Fox News, just days after the inauguration. “That decision I would have made before I’d announced the closure.” Referring to the not-in-my-back-yard uproar over the proposed nuclear waste site in Nevada, he added: “You think Yucca Mountain is a Nimby problem? Wait until you see this one.”

. . . The conflagration has been fanned by the determined focus of Republican leaders, fed by the alarms of talk-show populists and aided by the miscalculation of a new president who set a date for a closing without announcing a detailed plan for the inmates. The debate now threatens to make it much harder for Mr. Obama to keep his campaign promise.

Armed with polling data that show a narrow majority of support for keeping the prison open and deep fear about the detainees, Republicans in Congress started laying plans even before the inauguration to make the debate over Guantánamo Bay a question of local community safety instead of one about national character and principles.

Talk radio and cable news hosts warned viewers that dangerous terrorists might end up in a neighborhood jail, with Sean Hannity of Fox News even broadcasting an online video from House Republican leaders that juxtaposed the security of the detainee camps with images of the twin towers in flames. And from California and Virginia to the small town of Hardin, Mont., Democratic lawmakers began fending off questions about whether they would admit terrorism suspects into their own communities.

Since presumably not even “talk-show populists” are claiming that Obama is going to place the “detainees” as 3rd-grade teachers in those local communities, the ever-so-deep fears in question would seem to turn almost wholly on the action movie and comic books trope of the superhuman killer that no prison can hold: through some combination of manipulation, luck, and mad skills, the mad dog will get loose and continue his criminal career, wiping out all his path. (Perhaps some sort of radiation-based powers will be involved, as McCain seems to suggest. Radioactive Man from the Iron Man comics [see image] was a Chinese Communist, which is pretty much the same thing, or plays the same function, in the GOP POV.)

More likely the scenario the Republicans want to suggest is some kind of Islamist version of Con Air. Unless you assume inevitable escape, it is hard to see a mechanism by which the Gitmo prisoners would threaten any American communities where they happen to be imprisoned. By this logic small-town Americans should be horrified at the idea of building any prisons in their communities, because that would amount to bringing rapists, murderers, and child molesters to live right there in River City or “the small town of Hardin, Mont.” On the contrary, small towns all over the country have competed to get prisons built to replace lost factory jobs.

In the real-life United States, escapes by well-known criminals or mass murderers from maximum-security prisons are incredibly rare, and long-term getaways almost unknown since Dillinger. Yet in fictional melodramas spectacular escapes have become almost the norm. Melodramas are usually only as good as their villains, and good villains are very difficult to create, so they tend to get reused. The trend probably started with comic-book supervillains who constantly came back for more. Where was Batman without the Joker every six months or so? Where was Spider-Man without the Green Goblin? (Actually, recurring villains probably goes back even further than that, to adventure comic strips in newspapers and the pulp novels that inspired them.)

The jailbreak habit was picked up in the 80s by a sequel-addicted Hollywood, and since then villains (and jeopardized heroes temporarily challenged by jail time) have been escaping as a regular, expected thing, even in non-sequels and non-serials. We in the audience know that any emphasis placed on the rigorousness of the prison’s security procedures is only setting us up to be more impressed with the character who inevitably breaks out. We’re just waiting to see how they do it. One of the most indelible and influential escape scenes ever filmed came in the period I am thinking of, involving one of filmdom’s most popular supervillains. That would be Dr. Hannibal Lecter in 1991′s Silence of the Lambs. [The film clip in this post keeps disappearing. Look it up on YouTube.]

Now that I think about it, the trope of the escaping villain goes right along with the modern conservative drive to diminish everything government does, even if it is something they agree with, like punishing criminals. According to decades of conservative propaganda, reinforced by popular culture, the constitutional protections of the American legal system only serve to let clever criminals thwart justice. The elaborate prison cells that the Hannibal Lecters of fiction escape so easily serve as a semi-conscious metaphor for a democratic government’s supposed powerlessness against evil.

Next time I come back to this political fantasy theme, I promise to have an early American history angle. Certainly the problem goes all the way back, even if Jefferson and Jackson did not get their political fantasies from the movies.

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Now playing: The Exploding Hearts – Boulevard Trash

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May 20, 2009

Historical Birthdays, May 20 edition [UPDATED]

Filed under: Business History,Early Republic — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 7:00 am

Facebook is constantly hectoring me about people’s birthdays, including that of my esteemed co-blogger, Professor Carp. Ben would probably not want me to festoon the site with clowns and balloons just for him, so I wondered, were there any famous early Americans (as opposed to early American-ists) born on May 20?  As turns out, none other than the lovely and talented  Stephen Girard, the Early Republic’s richest man and also the original limousine liberal — or to put it in period terms, its original carriage-and-six Democratic-Republican. With most merchants and financiers in the Federalist camp, Girard was a handy guy to have around when Republicans wanted to whip up an anti-Jay Treaty procession with the expected giant transparent cartoons lining the route. Those did not paint themselves, after all. His money was also helpful if you needed to a fight a second war with Great Britain after you let the national bank expire.

Here’s what Girard did in the latter case, in an excerpt from the very thorough site linked above:

After many attempts to shore up the finances of the Treasury Department, all of them failing, it became obvious to all government officials and Stephen Girard, that the United States would lose the war with the British unless a large infusion of money was made to the U.S. Treasury. In early 1813, the fears became fact: the U. S. Treasury had run out of money. Stephen Girard was the only one with the necessary cash to make the Treasury solvent once more. John Jacob Astor and a few other lesser financiers had committed to a part of the sum needed to help the Treasury, but their commitment fell far short of the sum needed to finance the war.

Without demanding the concessions from the government, concessions that he could readily have obtained, Girard displayed the courage and the patriotism that few others could or would. He risked his entire fortune in granting a loan to the Treasury in excess of eight million dollars. When his country was down and out, Girard came to the rescue.

Anyway, here’s a birthday salute to Stephen Girard’s millions, and Ben, of course, whose looks are holding up better than Girard’s.

P.S. It’s also the lovely and talented Dolley Madison’s birthday, as Ben points out, and Cher’s, whatever adjectives you want to use for her.

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Now playing: The Welcome Wagon – Sold! To the Nice Rich Man

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May 19, 2009

Andrew Jackson: Sex Symbol for an Age

Filed under: Jacksonian Era,Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:00 am

It’s either a good thing that John William Ward and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. are dead, or it’s even sadder than I thought.  Jacksonian Democracy has finally been made into the sexy rock musical it was always yearning to become.  (So is that Amos Kendall in the leather jacket to the right of Jackson, and Martin Van Buren in the skinny tie and tennies on far left?) I have to say, much as I appreciate the academically appropriate low cost of living and general ease of life where I am, there are days when I wish were a little closer to New York. This “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson” is the kind of thing, among other more healthy things, I daydreamed about while reading my teenage history books. A courtroom drama about Bleeding Kansas! “The Iliad” set to Neil Young songs! (Those were different ideas.)  Anyway, someone please go review this for me.

Now, having enthused at the very notion of such a thing as Jacksonian Democracy Rock, the song you can play on Times web site, “‘Populism, Yea, Yea,’” does remind me of the final exam answers I used to get when I taught the all-of-American-history-from-Beringia-to-Bill-Clinton-in-one-semester course at Florida State, with many distant decades and movements mashed and mixed together by hapless freshman.  It is easy to confuse your angry loose-money farmers of the 1890s with your angry hard-money farmers of the 1830s; in the class, only that small amount of confusion would have probably netted you a “B.” Of course, these New York theater wags may have read Ron Formisano for their research; he retrofits the p-word back to the Revolution, so who could blame them for putting it in the title of their big number?  That same song has a chorus that goes “It’s the Age of. . .,  It’s the Age of . . . Jack-son” followed by “Take a stand against the elites” and what I think is something along the lines of “we will eat sweet democracy.” Sweet! Making one of my pet lecture points, the lyrics also make clear that, rockin’ as it might have been, democracy fueled and blithely rationalized Indian removal and violent expansionism.

In conclusion, between the two possible outcomes of a project like this, awesome or awesomely stupid, I am going with the former.
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Now playing: Les Sans Culottes – Coeur Vagabond

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May 18, 2009

Hey Mister Fantasy

Filed under: Conservatives,Political culture,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 5:29 pm

This one has been developing for a while . . .

Last week, I mentioned the abiding American belief in the superior efficiency of the private sector, contradicting all evidence. Since then, Dick Cheney and family’s torture offensive has raised a question I think historians do not deal with enough: the power of fantasy in American political life. I do not just mean Cheney’s fantasies about himself or the constitutional powers of his former office, or even the inconsistent tales the Cheneys have woven about Dick’s past actions. I mean the tendency to base whole policies and ideologies on made-up stories that we try to will into reality.

We knew that Cheney and the people around him were anything from nasty opponents to downright evil, depending upon one’s viewpoint, but the latest reports are lower than anything we have yet seen. Apparently Cheney’s office pushed to have not only terror suspects, but a legitimate Iraqi P.O.W., repeatedly tortured, harder than military interrogators thought was useful or humane. This torture was ordered from the highest office or second-highest office in the land, not to prevent a bombing or save troops, but instead to document a pet political talking point about the link between Al-Qaeda and Saddam, the link that Cheney kept mentioning despite the nonexistence of evidence to support it.

Cheney and company were trying to conjure two fantasies at once: the fantasy of a pan-Arab or pan-Muslim conspiracy against American civilization, somehow masterminded by failing military strongman Saddam Hussein, and the more sweeping and brutal fantasy that hidden truths can only emerge through force and pain. “Torture works” is really only one element of the second fantasy, which is part of the larger attraction in the conservative mind toward absolutist formulations and coercive solutions as the only “realistic” and lasting ones. It fits the dark, pessimistic, vestigially Calvinist view of human nature at the root of American conservatism.

Throwing Calvin in there may risk overintellectualizing, because the currently prevalent “torture works” fantasy (especially the willingness of nonconservative ideologues in the media and the public to entertain it) clearly derives from popular culture. Up through the 1960s, scenes of torture and “enhanced” interrogation were the province of only the most hard-boiled crime, spy, and war films. They were relatively rare, and almost always the audience was expected to identify with the person being interrogated. Tying people down and hurting them was for Nazis, psychotic criminals, and corrupt cops. Indeed, the use of torture was a key signifier of despicable villainy, showing the depravity and sick desperation of the people or civilization that used it. If my memory serves, in classic Hollywood films torture was generally associated with Asian enemies, from Fu Manchu to the Japanese to the Turks in Lawrence of Arabia.

That started to change with the reactionary crime films of the Nixon era, in which audiences were somewhat transgressively encouraged to identify with rough, rule-breaking cop characters like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, shooting and pistol-whipping his way to a truth only he had the “guts” to seek. This linkage between the lone hero’s true insight into the world’s evils and his willingness to shake off restraints and be brutal in exposing and destroying them helped form the key elements of the fantasy that guys like Cheney seem to be trying to live out.

(more…)

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May 16, 2009

Housing Fits

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Black history,Economy,Urban history — Benjamin Carp @ 8:41 am
Mapping Foreclosures in the New York Region, Matthew Bloch and Janet Roberts, New York Times

Two articles in the NYT are worthy of attention as the impact of the economic crisis spreads.

First, Michael Powell and Janet Roberts, in “Minorities Hit Hardest by Foreclosures in New York,” do a great job describing the foreclosure crisis in the NYC metropolitan area.  They also nicely situate their story in the social and economic developments of the last 30-60 years or so.

If all this economic pain still seems rather abstract to you, then turn to the first-person account by Edmund L. Andrews, “My Personal Credit Crisis,” in this weekend’s magazine section.  Sure, it’s an in-house book promotion, but it also nicely captures the psychological effects of this kind of financial pain.  Take the emotions from Andrews and map them onto the larger-scale developments in the Powell/Roberts article, and it really brings home the power and viciousness of the recession.

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May 11, 2009

Privatization News Flash: Profits Cost Money

Filed under: Education,Government,Obama Administration — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:15 pm

Via Dean Baker at TPM Cafe, I learn that a light bulb has finally appeared over the heads of U.S. policymakers, including the Congress. It turns out that they have started to grasp the obvious fact that turning over government functions to business corporations costs more money because private businesses have to take their profits and high executive salaries in addition to doing the job they were tasked with in the first place:

Sallie Mae, the largest private issuer of student loans, is now proposing to accept a plan in which the government is the sole issuer of government guaranteed loans. Sallie Mae’s plan is that it continue to be given the opportunity to originate these loans, picking up fees in the process. This proposal is in response to the Obama administration’s plan to get the private sector out of the government guaranteed loan business. There is ample evidence that the involvement of private firms just adds costs — approximately $90 billion over ten years according to the Congressional Budget Office.

So 2+2+1 really is more than 2+2 after all. I have never understood how anyone who has ever seen how much it costs to fly “business class” or stay in a business-oriented hotel during the week could possibly think private business was more cost efficient than government. But here in the lean, mean world of public education, I feel like we have always known. Privatization only saves money if the private entity sets out to do a crappier job. Sallie Mae seems to have followed that strategy and still cost more.

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May 6, 2009

Still an Open Question after 600,000 Deaths

Filed under: Ben Carp's Posts,Civil War Era,Conservatives,Constitution,Jacksonian Era — Benjamin Carp @ 10:37 am

Via Matthew Yglesias (who ponders Confederate place names), Ed Kilgore discusses the “sovereignty resolutions” that have suddenly become popular, particularly (though not exclusively) in southern legislatures.  Atrios kicks in the snark.

Go read the posts, come back, discuss.

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May 1, 2009

Rocking Missouri History

Filed under: Missouri,Music,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 4:13 pm

Sorry to be away for a while. I had a feeling it was a bad idea to make any reference to “my next,” as I did in the last tea party post. The end of the semester just kind of bears down on us out here in the teaching trenches, especially when there are lectures to write and graduate students handing in chapters.  Out of my apparent masochistic tendencies, and the chance to get back together with one of my first historical loves, I agreed to take over our semi-required Missouri History course this semester. I have really enjoyed it, though by this point I am little worn out from having to download a new topic into my head every week and then process it into something intelligible (or not) for the students. The challenge and fun of doing the history of a particular place is that it has forced me to come much closer to “histoire totale” than I have ever had to in most of my other work. So I have had to learn or remind myself about riverboat technology, hemp production (not that kind), meatpacking, railroad land-jobbing, urban planning, organized crime, and myriad other social and economic details of Missouri’s past.

Music is one such topic I have spent a lot of time on, because certain branches of popular music — the kind they played in the many dive bars, brothels, and gambling dens found in seedy Missouri river and railroad towns — turn out to be the state’s principal contributions to world culture, Mark Twain notwithstanding. I am thinking of ragtime, which before some reading and listening in the last couple of weeks I knew nothing about if it did not come from The Sting soundtrack; Kansas City jazz (more like swing, really, and about which I knew even less); and early rock and roll.

Admittedly, the preceding reflections were little more than an excuse to share a couple of striking YouTube videos I ran across while looking for examples to play for students in the class.

First we have “blues shouter,” proto-rocker, and KC jazz fellow traveller Big Joe Turner, doing a song I did not even recognize as “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” so terribly neutered is the familiar Bill Haley version. If anyone knows who the bopping host is in this clip, or what year it was made, do tell:

Then we have St. Louis’s own Chuck Berry doing his first hit “Maybellene,” on what seems to be some kind of British (or German?) TV show that involves a manically cheerful audience sitting on the stage in tuxes and evening gowns. This is the kind of thing the Internet is really good for:

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