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An Historian’s History of Howard Zinn by goosecommerce
January 30, 2010, 5:13 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Or, Still Starting in on the Bibliography

I never spoke to Professor Howard Zinn, though I did hear him lecture once, in college.

It was a disappointment; I felt I had grown since getting fired from my first job at fourteen for reading The People’s History at work (his books among others, hiding in a stopped elevator between floors), but that he had not grown with me. His arguments were still the same, the world still very simple.

Even more boring were the sad attempts at rhetorical fireworks my fellow audience members made, kowtows with nine syllables instead of nine bows. I’ve only grown further apart from his work as I’ve continued to hoe my own row in history, for reasons that Michael Kazin’s 2004 piece on it in Dissent, which many have cited this week, explain better than I could.

But that doesn’t mean his work — especially A People’s History — isn’t important, either to me or to the profession or to the American public. If you’ll excuse my borrowing yet another writer’s words to explain myself, I think Scott Eric Kaufman’s take is entirely the right one. Zinn’s book “…isn’t meant to replace traditional histories so much as supplement them.” Kazin’s right in a thousand ways, but despite his strident totalizing tone, Zinn is really only one ingredient in a big stew; at least, he explained himself in those terms occasionally.

Furthermore, A People’s History:

…represents a stage in one’s intellectual development.

It was never intended to arrest it.

Unlike, say, Ayn Rand.

And that — even more than the content of the work itself, though that too is important, if incomplete — is what makes Zinn such a great writer of history, to me and so many others.

Rest in peace, Prof. Zinn. And thank you.

Image cite: Austin Kleon, “‘If you don’t know history…’,” Flickr, CC License

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Tenure by goosecommerce
January 27, 2010, 10:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

It’s a wonderful thing.

No, but actually, I spit out coffee I was laughing so hard.

Image cite: sea turtle, “Caution: Jazz Hands When Wet!,” Flickr, CC License

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History is Awesome by goosecommerce
January 25, 2010, 11:03 am
Filed under: The Past is a Foreign...Something

Or, Just Look at this Awesome Lincoln

Just look at it.

Rob MacDougall has some words of wisdom for a rainy morning:

I’ve been trying to come up with a mission statement for this blog: to figure out if and why I want to keep writing it, to boil what it’s all about down to one or two sentences. I haven’t gotten there yet, but one thing I’ve always known is this: History ought to be awesome.

And may I say: it always is when he does it.

He also has some awesome ideas about history t-shirts.

Image Cite: Stuck in Customs, “Comfortable on the Fourth,” Flickr, CC License

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Sweet Steam Powered Digital Curation by goosecommerce
January 24, 2010, 9:31 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Or, I read the web today, oh boy

Update: Here’s a link to the orig. post for FB readers.

Some links:

  • Nick Bilton, ” ‘Controlled Serendipity’ Liberates the Web,” Bits, NYT

    Curating finds on the web is the new black. Everyone’s doing it.

  • Cathy Davidson, “Why is the Information Age Without the Humanities Like the Industrial Revolution Without the Steam Engine?,” HASTAC*, 24 January 2010.

    Steam engine references are like catnip to me, so of course this one I couldn’t let go. The analogy here doesn’t quite work — steam doesn’t help us understand the meaning of the industrial revolution, and anyway it’s arguable that steam wasn’t what the IR was about, per se. But the claim that the Info Age doesn’t make any damn sense without the tools the humanities offer is one that rings true.

  • Fabio Rojas,”how to save the humanities,”, 24 January 2010.

    An interesting piece, if a tad condescending and a bit fuzzy on what “the humanities” are. Suggestions 1 (“slash doctoral programs”) and 2 (“increase masters programs”) are good as far as they go, but what exactly is going to get universities or departments to act? And get enough of them to act in concert to have an effect? Has an orgtheorist really forgotten about incentives? Suggestion 3 is less helpful, as a commenter (more kindly) points out, because it is ill-informed about the problems with the idea of reclaiming ‘the canon.’

  • Finally, here’s the best mnemonic device for the Presidents I’ve heard so far:

I love, love, love this acronym, it’s the first non-French-yet-cool-and-military-industrial-complex sounding humanities org I’ve heard. Sadly, it’s pronounced “hay stack,” instead of rhyming with a primary component of the Goa’uld fleet, which — and trust me on this — would make it way cooler.

Image cite: ian murchison, “59:365 Hot steaming cup of awesome,” Flickr, CC License

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As Threatened, er, Promised by goosecommerce
January 22, 2010, 5:26 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work | Tags: , , , ,

Or, Not Pervasive, but maybe Persuasive or Practical?

So here’s what I’ve come up with as an op-ed proposal. It lacks a strong policy argument, but hopefully uses that perspective trick to good effect.

For the forgetful, here’s the prompt again:

a proposal for a New York Times opinion piece which applies a major finding from your research to a current public policy problem. … it must describe a full op-ed that you might write, and explain its relevance to current events.

Any and all thoughts heartily welcomed.


“Not so Fast, We’ve Been Here Before”: An Op-Ed Proposal

In 1841, an ex-President and former Secretary of State declared his support for British forces in the “Opium War,” Britain’s war with China over Chinese trade restrictions and closed markets. Though many commentators, then and now, cited the opium trade as the casus belli, John Quincy Adams told a Boston audience that the motive went deeper : “The cause of the war is the Ko-tow! – the arrogant and insupportable pretensions of China, that she will hold commercial intercourse with the rest of mankind, not upon terms of equal reciprocity, but upon the insulting and degrading forms of the relation between lord and vassal.” In Adams’s view, the political despotism of China’s government found its worst expression in illiberal trade policies; and that these restrictions on foreign merchants, Americans prominently among them, justified war.

More recently, another Secretary of State gave a speech calling for all nations to recognize a basic “freedom to connect” to the internet. Made in light of Google’s decision to stop censoring search results in China, Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks were a pointed rebuke of Chinese policy. Condemning government censorship of the internet, Secretary Clinton argued that “from an economic standpoint, there is no distinction between censoring political speech and commercial speech.” By linking political and economic liberty together, and critiquing China on both fronts, Clinton’s remarks strongly echo Adams’s speech of almost 170 years before.

This op-ed will argue that U.S. officials would do well to understand the deep historical resonance of American calls for economic and political liberty in China. Though Chinese censorship is indefensible, an awareness of how American calls for reform in China themselves spring from complicated roots in national economic interest and Western imperialism can only improve Sino-American relations.

Image cite: The Suss-Man (gone for the weekend), “Project 366 – 78/366 Diplomacy,” Flickr, CC License

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Pervasive, Persuasive, and Practical by goosecommerce
January 21, 2010, 11:34 pm
Filed under: Now in Actual Work

Or, What’s a Paradigm Worth These Days?


Recently I’ve found myself completely blocked on a writing assignment.(1.) It’s for a fellowship application; the host institution brings together historians and social scientists under the rubric of understanding and influencing government policy, so it’s a bit of a chimera in terms of disciplinary focus.

The assignment in question calls for:

a proposal for a New York Times opinion piece which applies a major finding from your research to a current public policy problem. … it must describe a full op-ed that you might write, and explain its relevance to current events.

Some words pop out there, no? “Relevance,” “current events,” “a major finding from your research”… you can see how those might bring a historian to a standstill.

It’s not that I don’t want my research to be relevant or au courant. Quite the opposite. Here’s the problem, though: drawing big lessons, lessons big enough to cross time and space, is pretty much the antithesis of dissertation work, and, I think, historical thinking more generally.

Dissertations are about the super-specific. Historians are too, in a way: we’re in the business of explaining the unique, the contingent, the transformative event (or series of events). When context is king, the work is, by definition, not portable.

When I’ve heard historians explain the practical aspects of their research, it usually hinges on perspective. The past is a foreign country, they say, they do things differently there — and we can learn from that. History teaches us about the oddly contingent and jury-rigged origins of things in our own world — what I think of “naming the monster,” the fantasy/horror/folklore trope that knowing the name of a devil gives you the power to exorcise it, a technique being used to very good effect in the history of sexuality and gender at the moment (think of the difference between “marriage the eternal traditional bulwark of human society,” and “marriage the socially constructed category that is always changing” in a courtroom, and I think you’ll see what I mean). Likewise, the foreignness of the past, especially the past of one’s own culture, is an object lesson in how diverse human institutions, motives, and actions are (or rather, were).

In a practical sense, then, historians usually explain their work as the building blocks for something new — by reminding us of what possibilities once existed (a form of naming the monster) — or, more commonly, as a caution against hubris and self-satisfaction. Both are exercises in perspective; knowing where you came from, and what other choices there are out there.

These are good lessons, I think. But it doesn’t get you very far to figuring out what early American ideas about the China trade can say about public policy today.


The always-interesting Tim Burke has been ruminating on a related topic lately. Thinking on the practical bases for popular anti-intellectualism, he’s frustrated with the answers his fellow humanists have come up to explain the value of their knowledge. What’s important about knowing about Hawthorne, or the Constitutional Convention, anyway?

That this is a question at all is, in part, due to the success of the humanist project over the last half-century or so, and the collapse of what Burke terms “ramrod” forms cultural authority — not a bad thing, on balance (“good riddance,” Burke says). But the problem of how to explain the value of this kind of knowledge remains: “educators haven’t arrived at a substitute rationale that’s both persuasive and pervasive.”

Burke argues that this value can be demonstrated in a couple of different ways. One is through sheer enthusiasm for the subject — but passion is hard to instill through training, and even more difficult to generalize. Another answer comes out of the literacy (aka “critical thinking skills”) that humanist work teaches. Burke describes this explanation as a focus on “practicality.”

This is a new iteration of the very old idea that humanist knowledge enriches the storehouse of the mind; Burke’s spin is novel in that it is focused on the problems of a information-rich age, where the ability to “read” in different media and environments, and make judgements about that content — which is now far more important than accumulating content itself (that’s easy).

Any way you put it, though, the ends are the same: a richer, more well-lived life:

Cultural and historical literacy enriches your rhetorical and interpersonal skills. It helps you imagine other people, which is the key to so very much in life: to love well, to raise children well, to live in community well, to self-develop, to choose when and how to fight for yourself and your beliefs.


Burke’s solution to the problem of finding ways to make humanist knowledge relevant is, I think, just a more broadly stated version of the historian’s go-to answer for the value of historical work. But instead of using specific content to demonstrate perspective, it’s the literacy and rhetorical skills developed through repeated efforts of that sort that provide the value.

Perhaps not precisely relevant to my problem of figuring out how my research is relevant to the theoretical readers of my op-ed piece. But thinking in terms of pervasive, persuasive, and practical is a good start. You can decide for yourselves how well my actual proposal meets that standard tomorrow.

To be continued…

1.) A shocking revelation from a blogger who has quarter-long gaps between posts, I know.

2.)Tim Burke,”Hester Prynne, Schmester Prynne, or Sarah Palin’s Ressentiment Clubhouse,”Easily Distracted, 19 January 2010.

Image cite: Gabriela Camerotti, “Practical Magic,” Flickr, CC License

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A Terrible Thing To Say In a Good Speech by goosecommerce
January 21, 2010, 11:08 pm
Filed under: Our Glorious National Heritage | Tags: , , , ,

The Newseum is a monument to some of our most precious freedoms, and I’m grateful for this opportunity to discuss how those freedoms apply to the challenges of the 21st century.

~Hillary Clinton, “Remarks on Internet Freedom,” The Newseum (Washington, DC), January 21, 2010

I don’t care what else the “Newseum” does, it will never make up for the that travesty of a name. It’s a monument to journalism in the same way the Las Vegas strip is a monument to old world refinement, with perhaps the added distinction of being a tombstone for a dead industry that perhaps deserved better.

That said, Secretary Clinton’s speech on China and Google, is well worth reading or watching. More on that later.

Image cite: .michael.newman. “Bronze Fonz profile,” Flickr, CC License

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