Commonplace
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Publick Occurrences 2.0

July 26, 2009

The Royals and the King

Filed under: Missouri,Pasley Brothers,Sports — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:32 am

We were in Kansas City much of this past week celebrating my son Isaac’s 16th birthday. (Someday I will have to share our tragic tale of having to become parents in the 6th grade — so young we were — as soon as I make it up.)

The trip included our first visit to the renovated Kauffman Stadium, where the Royals seemed as though they might break their latest losing streak … but then managed to blow a 6-2 lead in the 8th inning. (That game was Wednesday. The streak finally ended tonight, Saturday.) For me, the Royals are the living face of economic decline in the Kansas City region. Only Wal-Mart seems to thrive around here. The Royals are owned by a man who made his money at Wal-Mart and now runs the team like Wal-Mart: a shiny setting in which to sell the cheapest, flimsiest products undemanding consumers will buy. How cheap and flimsy? The Royals’ putative “power”-”hitting” outfielder, Jose Guillen, the best free agent the owner would shell out for, sustained a season-ending leg injury putting on his shin guard the night we were there. Guillen was announced in the starting line-up, then pinch-hit for in the first inning. Baseball fan Isaac focused on Mark Buehrle’s perfect game and the Cardinals’ much-needed trade for Matt Holliday to stay in his birthday happy place.

During our visit, my Mom had on hand the official photographic record of the Missouri School of Mines 50-year reunion Isaac and I attended with my Dad in June, chronicled in my controversial post on Rolla a while back. Readers may recall that this event featured a personal appearance by the King, in the form of Elvis Tribute Artist Rich Vickers, who was in no way an impersonator like those other guys. Accidentally, I assure you, it seems that the official photographic record included a shot of a certain historian studiusly avoiding eye contact with E.T.A. Vickers or his merch-selling Queen:

One more Show-Me travel note. It seems to be a bad idea to label any post as “part 1” or to promise continuations, as I did in the Rolla post mentioned above. I wrote most of “part 2” on our swing through the Lead Belt back then, but only finally finished and posted it yesterday. Exercising my control over space and time on this blog, I backdated the post so the internal references would make sense, but you can read it here. And it involves some actual history.
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July 16, 2009

Don’t Mess with Us, Texas

Filed under: Christianity,Colonial Period,Conservatives,Education,Founders,Revolution — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 11:50 am

I am driving off to the Society for Historians of the Early Republic (SHEAR) annual meeting in beautiful downtown Springfield, Illinois, this morning. Worthwhile national history conferences in easy ground transportation range of mid-Missouri are something of a rarity, so I would not miss it. Perhaps I will “live blog” some of the proceedings. Also, perhaps I won’t.

Just one brief item before I go: Dan Mandell of Truman State called my attention to a Wall Street Journal article discussing the latest target for Texas shootin’ irons in the educational culture wars: our own field of U.S. history. This kind of history standards debate is not new, of course — we can say a little prayer of thanks that Lynne Cheney never got her own CIA hit squad, or whatever Dick’s most recently revealed scheme turns out to have been. Yet back in the day, it was usually conservatives complaining about what was left out of the National History Standards; in present-day Texas, they are looking to put a tendentiously right-wing Christian view of American history into the public schools. The agenda seems to go considerably beyond LCheney-like complaints about the insufficient love given to George Washington. I will supply some key passages for myself or others to take up in the comments or later. The whole thing is worth reading, if you are feeling calm:

The fight over school curriculum in Texas, recently focused on biology, has entered a new arena, with a brewing debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms.

The Texas Board of Education, which recently approved new science standards that made room for creationist critiques of evolution, is revising the state’s social studies curriculum. In early recommendations from outside experts appointed by the board, a divide has opened over how central religious theology should be to the teaching of history.

Three reviewers, appointed by social conservatives, have recommended revamping the K-12 curriculum to emphasize the roles of the Bible, the Christian faith, and the civic virtue of religion in the study of American history. Two of them want to remove or de-emphasize references to several historical figures who have become liberal icons, such as César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

“We’re in an all-out moral and spiritual civil war for the soul of America, and the record of American history is right at the heart of it,” said Rev. Peter Marshall, a Christian minister and one of the reviewers appointed by the conservative camp. . . .

The three reviewers appointed by the moderate and liberal board members are all professors of history or education at Texas universities, including Mr. de la Teja, a former state historian. The reviewers appointed by conservatives include two who run conservative Christian organizations: David Barton, founder of WallBuilders, a group that promotes America’s Christian heritage; and Rev. Marshall, who preaches that Watergate, the Vietnam War, and Hurricane Katrina were God’s judgments on the nation’s sexual immorality. The third is Daniel Dreisbach, a professor of public affairs at American University.

The conservative reviewers say they believe that children must learn that America’s founding principles are biblical. For instance, they say the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution stems from a scriptural understanding of man’s fall and inherent sinfulness, or “radical depravity,” which means he can be governed only by an intricate system of checks and balances.

Colonial historians, would you like to take a guess about what figure some of the Texas reviewers wanted removed from the curriculum, apparently as part of this biblical program? From the specific suggestions listed at the end of the story:

  • Delete Anne Hutchinson from a list of colonial leaders

Students learn about colonial history in the fifth grade, and three reviewers suggested that the standards not include Anne Hutchinson, a 17th century figure, among a list of significant leaders. Ms. Hutchinson was exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for teaching religious views at odds with the officially sanctioned faith.

So rebellious female Christians just don’t count when it comes to America’s biblical principles, and/or Puritan orthodoxy is alive and well deep in the heart of Texas. I don’t think that’s what Bob Wills intended, do you?

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July 15, 2009

Putting the Hitler Channel in Perspective

Filed under: Education,Historians,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:09 am

In the past week or so, Alexander Street Press has sent me several emails touting my free one-month “Scholar’s Pass” to an online resource called American History in Video, which they evidently want to sell to universities. Looking into this, I see that the product is chiefly old newsreels and History Channel videos, definitely more in the mild general interest category than anything with much academic educational value. For my favorite period, the Early Republic, AHIV seems to consist entirely of History Channel material and episodes of A&E’s Biography, almost all of it concerned with refighting the Revolutionary War or celebrating the Founders, basic cable-style. There are only three titles listed under “Early National Era,” and one of those is really a Revolution title (about Paul “The Midnight Rider” Revere).*

Now, I must admit at the outset that I have never been a huge fan of the History Channel. The somewhat higher-brow PBS stuff works just fine for college students and usually shaves off fewer IQ points. How much do costumed guys running across a field and the substitution of breathless Basic-Cable-Narrator Guy for the stentorian vocal stylings of Edward Herrmann or David McCullough really add? Anyway, the newer PBS documentaries have got the costumed guys now too, but at least the public TV docs have gone through grant processes that force the producers to seriously consult historians.

Alexander Street’s attempt to package History Channel material for libraries made me want to check if I had missed out on some increase in the channel’s educational ambitions. Back in the early days of cable, the History Channel seemed to be nothing but reruns of old World War II documentaries, and I have heard even non-historians laugh about it being the “Hitler Channel.” (Indeed, Urban Dictionary agrees that “Hitler Channel” is now official street argot.) But maybe things had changed? I do remember Newt Gingrich or someone touting the History Channel as one of the key reasons for the coming obsolescence of academic history books and courses and faculty, so perhaps one should check.

Things have indeed changed, as my screenshot from Monday’s History Channel home page attests. (Click it if you want to be able to read it.) There seems to be only one WWII series running now, “Patton 360,” which I can only hope places a CGI George C. Scott in some immersive 3-D environments where he can smack down Nazi vampires or his own loafing troops.

However, “Patton 360″ is pretty much it for history most nights on The History Channel and “History.com” (they own us, friends) these days.  The rest of the offerings seem to indicate that the network’s programming niche is not infotainment about the past, but instead manly workplace-based reality shows for guys who like their basic cable as Big As All Outdoors. We noticed from the promos during the Cardinals broadcasts that the History Channel seemed to be very engrossed in the oh-so-historical doings of the Ice Road Truckers, from which we learn that it seems to take a big man to provide the friction that the big rigs need to stay on those ice roads. Then there was Ax Men, a competitive logging show, followed by Deep Sea Salvage and Tougher in Alaska. Clearly Sarah Palin should set up her forthcoming helicopter hunting and moose dressing show right here on THC. I hope that is an appellation THC will soon adopt, following in the focus-losing, initializing tradition of other basic cable outlets like AMC, TLC,  and TNN, none of which involve many classic movies, learning, or Nashville music anymore, respectively. For the pasty indoor but still manly set, I see they are premiering a new show set in a pawn shop, just in time for the recession.

Go deeper into the schedule and website, and you get to the pseudoscience shows, like a Bigfoot-hunting program called MonsterQuest. In fairness, I am sure they are hot on the trail of other cryptids as well.  MonsterQuest fans include bulletin board poster “Maldar34,” contributor of the following panegyric to the intelligence of History Channel viewers:

Dudewe know this already. Were not some dumb southern hicks that are drunk 98% of the time. We also can tell when somthing is fake or not. Look at the bigfoot reports thread both me and dontwatch have agreed on the fact that most of them are fake. There was one involving a bioligist biking through a forest in washington that seemed very credible if yuu want me to i can find it. But seriously were not some dumb rubes that have a meeting every night on how bigfoot impregnated my wife while i was being probed by aliens. Were just not idiots. We are people of science who belive the exsistence of somthing ou think doe not exsist. You dont have to be rude about it.

I wish that were a satire, but I’m fairly sure that it isn’t, because there were a lot more guys like that where he came from. They were arranging to go on hunts through the site.

It all kind of makes you long for the old Hitler Channel just a little bit. People were learning some history there, even if it was somewhat limited and possibly led to a few viewers getting just a little too interested in the Nazis, if you know what I mean.

It would be easy to dismiss the present pseudo-History Channel as popular nonsense that does not concern us “real” historians. Yet some academic commenting on Stan Katz’s recent Chronicle piece, which answered an alarmist NYT story about the decline of traditional history courses, seemed to regard the History Channel as a kind of saving grace for the world of boring academic knowledge, if not the whole culture. This seems to be what a frightening number of educated people think our discipline should be about:

As for history – it is the only interesting field I have found now that every other discipline is mired in identity politics, and entertainment is nothing but explosions and chick flicks. Hooray for the History Channel with its 360 degree battles! and other excellent programming. Kids do need to learn what history has to offer, and I tell you, when the kids get into the personalities that accompany world events, they like it.

Get the kids into personalities, that’s how we will get them to understand their world. Why didn’t we think of that?

*In fairness, one of the Early Republic shows that was available concerned Andrew Jackson’s conquest of Florida and seems to heavily feature incoming SHEAR president-elect Harry Watson. That one I may have to watch all the way through (even though it was part of a series called The Conquerors that seems to date back to early Iraq times and perhaps celebrates conquering stuff just a little bit).
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July 10, 2009

Things I learned from the Internet this week

Filed under: Colonial Period,Conservatives,GOP,Humor,Media,Popular culture — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 1:21 am

. . . when I probably should have been doing something else.

  • The Tea Party protesters do not even like the Republicans any more, if they ever did. They are also the number one source of “comment spam” on this blog, or at least of the stuff that gets through the filters. That is just how revolutionary they are. Teabaggers go where online slot machine and Canadian payday loan purveyors fear to tread. [Actually, I think the spammers must think the teabaggers are a little bit confused and thus a good target market for people who sell things by getting other people to click on links accidentally.]
  • Sarah Palin is in it for the money. Some conservative pundits do not approve, but Rush is all for it. Making money is the highest social good in their philosophy, right? So I guess they have to take the greedy with the bad.
  • People who comment on the American political scene for national publications should be forced to read a pile of several hundred student papers. Then they would not find Palin’s habit of speaking/writing “in half-expressed thoughts and internal contradictions” so singular. It’s more or less the norm as far as I can tell, here in the mid-ranges of higher education that Sarah could not quite hack. It’s also pretty common to just disappear from classes or change schools in mid-semester, with or without explanation. Of course, it takes a truly special person to take that approach to being governor of a state. That said, making fun of a populist leader’s syntax, as the MSM and liberal blogs like to do with Palin, just plays into their hands. Ask the Federalists how well the supercilious grammar criticism tactic worked against various upstart northern Democratic-Republicans.
  • Racist humor (and, one might add, racism) is fairly common, and often tolerated, in some conservative circles. Actually, I already knew that from personal experience, but it is quite revealing that some young white conservatives thought nothing of slapping that kind of thing up on Facebook.
  • You can learn colonial history on Hulu. I learned that  Captain John Smith worked out a lot and liked to hang around in Jamestown with his shirt off. It was surprisingly hot, dry, and dusty there in the Virginia Tidewater hills. Also, John Rolfe was his sidekick. And Pocahontas looked good in her miniskirt. Ahead of the curve fashion-wise, as well. To be honest, there’s something to be said for the 50s he-man version of John Smith over Colin Farrell’s big-eyed nature lover in Terence Malick’s The New World. Smith is a rather sensitive fellow for a globe-trotting mercenary in both versions, which probably says something about how Americans like to remember their conquering forebears: a little sentimental, with just a hint of tears as they regretfully wipe off the blood.

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July 9, 2009

Take that, Buffon!

Filed under: Foreign policy,science — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 12:36 pm
A post-worthy email from the other corner of the basement, from someone who has obviously spent too much time around me and Mr. Jefferson.
When I saw this photo on TPM, I couldn’t help but think of TJ’s defense of the vigor and diversity of American fauna as compared to its European counterparts:

There are others in the stream that are equally amusing…
Enjoy,
K
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July 6, 2009

Chopping Down Old Hickory

Filed under: Civil War Era,Conspiracy theory,Jacksonian Era,Television — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 3:16 pm

I imagine a lot of readers here already subscribe to H-SHEAR, the Early Republic historians’ email list, but for those who don’t, here is a notice for a bit of worthwhile historical television that is airing tonight, from Dan Feller, director of the Andrew Jackson Papers project:

This coming Monday, July 6, the PBS show “History Detectives” will air a segment featuring the work of the Andrew Jackson Papers project at the University of Tennessee Department of History.  The episode concerns a letter threatening Jackson’s assassination, signed with the name Junius Brutus Booth (a famous actor and father of Lincoln’s assassin John Wilkes Booth) and sent to Jackson on July 4, 1835.  Housed in the Library of Congress and long known to scholars, the letter has been presumed by Jackson biographers and political historians (following the lead of John Spencer Bassett, who printed it in his Correspondence of Andrew Jackson with Booth’s name in quotation marks) to be the work of a pseudonymous writer, while some Booth biographers and theater historians have accepted its authenticity but considered it a gag among friends. As “History Detectives” will show, the Jackson Papers staff were instrumental in proving that neither is correct.  Booth really wrote the letter, apparently in one of his legendary choleric rages.  He later apologized.  Killing presidents, or threatening to, seems to have run in the family.

I will be interested to see how the show handles the Booths. One of the cardinal points in my History of Conspiracy Theories course is that Lincoln’s was perhaps the only truly political assassination of all the presidential assassinations. I was not aware of the elder Booth’s threat against Jackson, but I would not have put the letter’s attribution in quotation marks. A guy named Brutus who named his son John Wilkes obviously had some extravagant, self-dramatizing ideas about fighting for freedom.

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July 4, 2009

A Fourth of July in Paine

Filed under: Founders — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 8:33 am

I am hoping the title of this post is only a pun. Here in America’s sixth freest state, the Fourth is something of a free-fire zone, and my boys and I are not immune to the charms of “blowing stuff up” (as Owen likes to put it). We almost always attend a public fireworks show in Weston, MO (my parents’ place of residence), where the big stuff is detonated literally on the other side of a high school football field from the place you sit. It’s all pretty awesome, until someone gets hurt, so wish us luck.

The Paine of the title refers to what appears to be the new, inadvertent Common-Place tradition of celebrating American Independence by bringing up perhaps the only true revolutionary among the front-line Founders, Thomas Paine. (One of the things I like about Paine is that he was far too dodgy a character to ever have the term “Founding Father” comfortably applied to him. Paternal he was not.) A little bit less than a year ago, I did a a post about unwelcome interventions in presidential elections that included a discussion and the text of Paine’s infamous open letter dissing George Washington. Now I see that the just-released July issue of Common-Place proper features a most welcome forum on Paine. In addition to an article by the great J.M. (Jason) Opal of McGill University, the forum includes two other articles from presenters at the conference on Paine that immediate past C-P editor Ed Gray and I attended in Milan last October: Matteo Battistini out of University of Bologna and Nathalie Caron, coeditor of one of France’s leading scholarly journals on American history and culture, the Revue française d’études américaines.The whole forum is well worth the time of any reader who wants something more substantive than Founder-worship and gunpowder for their Fourth of July delectation.

The Paine forum also seems like the opportune moment to foist upon the nets my own contribution to the Milan conference, entitled “Thomas Paine and the U.S. Election of 1796: In which it is discovered that George Washington was more popular than Jesus”. Some of this material will doubtless end up in the book I am writing on that first contested presidential election, but given space considerations and the high time-benefit ratio that would be involved in making a full journal article of this piece, I am going to present it here in only slightly revised form, just enough to fill a couple of gaps and make it flow better in written form. There are footnotes, but light by my standards, and just to take advantage of the digital medium, I have included a couple of primary sources in the .pdf. My hope is that readers in the comfort of their own web-surfing spots will get more out of it than I suspect the room full of Italian undergraduates did in Milan that day.

Readers should feel free to comment on my article or the Paine forum more generally in this post’s comment thread.
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July 1, 2009

Department of Not Giving John Adams Too Much Credit

Filed under: Journalism history,Newspapers — Jeffrey L. Pasley @ 9:18 am

I followed a link from TPM to a Vanity Fair article on Sarah Palin that did not turn out to be quite as awesome as promised. To me, everything one needs to know about the reasons that woman should be kept out of high office is conveyed by any given 10-minute film clip of her, including the convention speech that set off her initial media stardom. The particulars may be more Alaskan and trashier than your typical right-wing suburban beauty queen, but Sarah Barracuda’s basic approach seems pretty familiar if you come from the sort of background that breeds lots of Republicans. I do! But more Palin-tology was not my reason for writing tonight.

In a passing remark at the end of the piece, VF reporter Todd Purdum tosses off a bit of faux-erudition in the course of trashing the mental powers of Palin’s GOP fanbase. I bolded the key sentence:

Palin has disappointed many of those who once had the highest hopes for her. She has stumbled over innumerable details. But as she said to Andrew Halcro years ago, “Does any of this really matter?” Palin has shown herself to have remarkable gut instincts about raw politics, and she has seen openings where others did not. And she has the good fortune to have traction within a political party that is bereft of strong leadership, and whose rank and file often demands qualities other than knowledge, experience, and an understanding that facts are, as John Adams said, stubborn things. It is, at the moment, a party in which the loudest and most singular voices, not burdened by responsibility, wield disproportionate power.

John Adams did use that proverb, apparently, and perhaps David McCullough or the HBO series put it in his mouth, but he did not originate it. [See Ben's explanation in the comments.] The fact is, “facts are stubborn things” was one of the most common catch-phrases in the newspapers of the Early Republic. Readex/Newsbank’s “America’s Historical Newspapers” database reports 1,403 occurrences, and that is probably low. I feel as though I have seen about 1,000 instances of it personally in the course of my research. The phrase was often used as a headline or recurring motif in essays exposing official malfeasance or contradicting another writer’s position based on everyday experience and the “common understanding of mankind.” The quoted line comes from, you guessed it, “Facts are Stubborn Things,” Number VII of Boston politician and merchant Benjamin Austin, Jr.’s 1786 essay series condemning the legal profession, written over the pen name “Honestus” in the Boston Independent Chronicle and published in book form as Observations on the Pernicious Practice of the Law.  Austin’s book probably popularized the phrase among early American printers, quite a few of whom harbored the feeling that the facts were probably against the existence of lawyers.

For me, “facts are stubborn things” encapsulates a certain Enlightenment attitude that was especially common on the political left of that time (and possibly all times), assuming that incontrovertible empirical data could be found on any question and that such facts would irresistibly lead public opinion in an enlightened direction by dispelling the mystifications and superstitions of earlier, barbarous ages. What’s interesting to me is that the phrase seemed to resonate just as much on the right of the Early Republic, where it would be directed against the allegedly dangerous speculations and innovations of Jacobin-Jeffersonian “philosophy.”  Hence around 1803 you could find itinerant Democratic-Republican editor John B. Colvin singing the Jefferson administration’s praises with the stubborn facts and Connecticut Federalist satirist David Daggett campaigning against Jefferson’s local supporters under the same title.

According to Bartlett’s Quotations and other sources on Google Books, supplemented by my actually looking up the originals (or trying), the proverb’s earliest publications occurred in the late 1740s, separately and in rather opposite meanings. The “liberal” usage of the phrase as an appeal to reason and information began with Connecticut clergyman and agricultural reformer Jared Eliot‘s 1749 Continuation of the essay upon field-husbandry, as it is or may be ordered in New England. “Facts are stubborn Things, which will not bow nor break,” the Rev. Mr. Eliot writes, appropriately enough in a footnote:

Right around the same time, English poet and translator Tobias Smollett satirized the phrase by giving it as dialogue to a character called Dr. Sangrado, a benighted Spanish physician who decries new-fangled medical theories such as the idea that blood was necessary for life. (Possibly he was one of those global warming skeptics we hear about, as well.) In Smollett’s formulation, the stubborn “facts” were the ones that the ignorant and inflexible refused to give up despite counterevidence. Here comes a Google Books science experiment, presenting the actual passage that Bartlett and the others seem to be referencing:

Ah, the “dangerous allurements of chemistry”! So we come back to to the modern conservative political mind after all, which may be breaking a little bit but certainly won’t bow. And the very stones also may have a few things to cry aloud about Sarah if her political career goes any further.
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