Monday, June 25, 2012

R.I.P Lonesome George

In 1899 Theodore Roosevelt wrote to ornithologist Frank Chapman, "When I hear of the destruction of a species I feel just as if all the works of some great writer had perished; as if we had lost all instead of only part of Polybius or Livy." The death of Lonesome George, the last pinta tortoise, is such a lamentable loss. How lonely it must be to be the last of your kind.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Ill Fares the Land

File this under recent reads. I recently finished Tony Judt's Ill Fares the Land. This his the second work of his I have read. He is a great stylist and very adroit at tying themes together. I think his Post War is required reading for anyone interested in the 20th Century. Ill Fares the Land is a lamentation on the decline of the welfare state over the last quarter century of the twentieth and first decade of the twenty-first centuries. The theme that resonated most with me is that social democracy was fashioned in response to both the revolutionary left and greed of the plutocrats (sound familiar SHGAPE fans?). Thus it might seem out of place in a world in which communist revolution seems a quaint historical notion, but he retorts that the greed of the plutocrats was not swept into the ash bin of history. One threat, he argues, is enough to justify the maintenance of the social welfare state. He makes Gramsci -like arguments that big business has established such an hegemony in the last few decades that we don't realize how pervasive it is and how threatening it can be to individual liberty, quality of life, and democracy. Too many assumptions go unchallenged, he argues. He argued that the clock on social reform is being turned back so quickly it is as if the 20th century did not happen. What an extraordinary idea. The first thing that popped into my mind was Bill Buckley's comment that the conservative movement stands athwart the tracks of time yelling stop at the moving train. Now the train, at least according to Judt, has reversed direction. This, I think provides some great fodder for classroom discussions (which I will try in the fall in my US 2 survey). First, how accurate is it? The medicare prescription benefit is of recent vintage as is the new healthcare law (aka Obama or Obameny care). Judt cites the welfare reform law of 1996 (he has no use at all for Clinton or Blair) and the European privatization of hitherto public services as examples of decline. Either way, this, I think, can be a good discussion point for the Progressive Era. Start at the beginning and then ask students what they think about it 100 years later. Second, and more to Buckley's point, can the 20th century be disentangled? Was the search for order that created social democracy also the same search for order that produced totalitarianism, global war, and mass death? In other words, can the good be separated from the bad in historical experience? Finally, if Judt is correct, does it stand to reason that we revert to the Gilded Age?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Favorite Historical Legislators

I originally posted this on my FaceBook page in September 2009. Now that Ted Kennedy has passed on to his post-Senate career, it is time consider some other legislative titans in American history, lest we think that Kennedy was the only Senator in the history of the US Constitution who ever made a difference. So here are a couple of my favorites from days gone by: 1. John Randolph of Virginia. He served from the 1790s to the 1820s. Randolph was the first maverick in American history. A supporter of Jefferson when Jefferson became president in 1801, Randolph later demanded Jefferson do more to restrict the size of the federal government. Randolph led the impeachment efforts against Federailst judges. A colorful character, he strode up and down the aisles of the Senate during one of his three or four hour speeches (they all did that without teleprompters) dressed in riding regalia, slapping his riding crop on nearby desks to emphasize his points, and taking draughts of liquor from a barrel one of his poor slaves carried behind him. 2. James Madison of Virginia. Madison served a short time in the 1790s, but his role was critical. He shepparded the Bill of Rights through Congress as he promised he would during the Constutitional ratification process, and, although he and Hamilton worked together to achieve ratification of a strong national government, Madison set about to create an interpretation for a smaller, states-centered national government. 3. Henry Clay of Kentucky. Clay served from about 1810 to 1850 in both the house and the senate. I would argue that Clay was the most important legislator, second perhaps only to Madison. Clay had his hands in all the important legislation of his tenure on such topics as banking (when the country was building a banking a system) and a tariff (how we financed the government and protected our industries). More importantly, Clay brokered three critical compromises: 1820, 1833, and 1850 when the country could have been deeply torn by sectional strife over the question of slavery. 4. Stephen Douglas of Illinois. This is the Douglas of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates. In 1854 Douglas wanted to become president and he decided he could do this by winning over the southerner slaveholders and the northern Jacksonians by extending popular sovereighty (let the settlers and not Congress decide if there would be slavery in the territory) to the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. It was a bad idea becase the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had already settled slavery in that territory and Douglas had to revoke it. His Kansas-Nebraska Bill did more to bring about the Civil War than anything else in the 1850s. It turned the north against the Democrats and turned the south to Democrats (meaning that the parties became strictly sectiional which led to further polarization) and the popular sovereignty formula led to a civil war in Kansas that only made matters ten times worse. And Douglas never got to be president! 5.Charles Summner of Massachussets, late 1840s-1870s. Sumner was more than a windbag. He stood up for civil rights before the Civil War (and took a physical beating for it on the Senate floor), during the Civil War (pushed Lincoln towards Emancipation and for the 13th Amendment), and during Reconstruction (through the Civil Rights Acts and the 14th Amendment). Unfortunately his death marked the end of Reconstruction. His last bill passed, the posthumous Civil Rights Act of 1875, was watered down and then further weakned by the US Supreme Court.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Japan and Oregon United by a Tsunami

On March 11, 2011 a Tsunami struck the east coast of Japan with devastating effects. Over 15,000 people lost their lives with tens of thousands more injured or missing. Over a million buildings were damaged or destroyed. The economic cost is staggering, over $200 billion. Most of the world saw the devastating footage of the rising ocean swallowing up towns, washing away buildings, cars, boats, trucks, and anything else in its wake. Through television and the internet anyone in the world could see what the tsunami did to the people and communities in its path. The tsunami also triggered an ecological crisis. In the weeks that followed it looked possible that the world would face another Chernobylesque meltdown at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Thankfully, the world avoided that catastrophe, but it rose questions about the dangers of nuclear power. In May 2011 Germany announced that it would phase out its nuclear power plants over the next decade. One year later the tsunami is still causing ecological aftereffects. The tons of debris swept out to sea is washing up on the Oregon coast. The picture of the dock to the right came ashore earlier this week. Who knows what else will follow, but it is a sign that natural disasters can have a global impact. There are examples from the past, such as the eruption of Mount Tambora in Indonesia (then the Dutch East Indies) in 1815, which caused 1816 to be known as the year without a summer. But our lives are so much different in the 21st century. Economies are tied closely together and a significant reduction in consumption or even manufactured goods (depending on the area hit) will send economic aftershocks throughout the globe. Debris, too, can have impact on other nations, even ones thousands of miles away as the other side of the Pacific Ocean! It is not just garbage, but scientists are concerned about invasive species that might grab a ride. And, of course, as the examples of Chernobyl and Fukushima illustrate, our modern sources of energy (and we should add synthetic products and chemicals) can have serious ecological and human consequences if they are disbursed into the environment without control and at unsafe levels.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Recent Reads

I admit I have strayed a little off the Gilded Age/Progressive Era/Environmental topics lately in my reading. Did Jesus Exist? by Bart Ehrman. Ok this is really off topic, and I am not surely entirely why I picked it up in the first place. SPOILER ALERT!!!.... The answer is yes Jesus existed, but Ehrman, an admitted agnostic, argues that the historical Jesus was a Jewish apocalyptic preacher and not the Messiah of Christian Faith. Ehrman takes up his cudgel against an almost conspiratorial group of deniers (he refers to them as "mythicists") who claim that early Christians invented Jesus. I won't go into their arguments, but Ehrman effectively counters their assertions. He shows that much of their scholarship is based on poor reading of the sources. As an historian I found Ehrman's methodology most interesting. There are few sources outside the Gospels that can corroborate Jesus's life. He reads deep into the Gospels, letters, and Book of Acts, extrapolates sections of the missing "Q" gospel, to construct an oral tradition that can be dated to the mid-30s when Jesus was crucified. I don't know if I will ever have much of a reason to use this methodology in my own work, but it was neat to see a demonstration of it. Moreover, it does show how historians can squeeze yet more evidence from existing sources. The Pleasures of Reading in the Age of Distraction by Alan Jacobs. I love to read and I do enjoy reading books about reading. In this delightful book Jacobs makes the case for "whim." He asks us to read for pleasure and to pick those books we enjoy reading. Go young man to the world of print and get lost in a good story! It made me realize that as an historian I tend to read almost exclusively for information. Books are tools. I scavenge them for the data I want, their interpretations, arguments, and the like, and then move onto the next topic. I take copious notes and store them in a file cabinet. It must be admitted that the notes assist my understanding of the book, but I seldom consult them after I file them away. There are thousands of pages. All of the books I have read are catalogued in Zotero. For reasons that are not entirely clear even to myself, I also record most them in Mendeley, especially if I have a pdf download. Mendeley has the advantage of allowing me access this list from my cell phone (if I should be in a library without my laptop). Its great disadvantage is that it does not have Chicago Manual of Style for citations and is useless to me without it. Anyway, Jacobs reminded me that long ago I read only for pleasure. I started on page one, became absorbed in a story, and read to the last page, never thinking of skimming ahead or searching for reviews in numerous databases. Once in a while I still pick up some pleasure reading fiction, but Jacobs reminded me how long ago that was. I realized how much I miss that form of reading and I vow to add whim to my reading diet. The End by Ian Kershaw. As readers of this blog are aware, I find nazi era Germany a fascinating study in human behavior. Why did the German people follow Hitler? Was it something that could only happen at a particular time and place under extraordinary circumstances, or can that sort of insanity reoccur elsewhere? A corollary question is why didn't the German people see that the war was unwinable and that great pain awaited them? Especially when one considers that most of the German civilian and a disproportionate number of German military casualties came after the failed July 20th plot of 1944. Of course, the answer is complicated. Kershaw argues the Nazi regime, or at least the leader, remained fairly popular right up to early 1945. Perhaps there was a secret weapon? Perhaps his military genius would bring about a sudden victory (ala a successful outcome to the Battle of the Bulge)? Maybe people were terrified of challenging a brutal regime? All of these played some part in their loyalty, but there were two other factors. First, the regime, from the top to the bottom, realized there was no future for them in post-war Germany. They were as good as dead and they knew it. There was no incentive to change course. In fact, their desire to prevent their domestic enemies from enjoying any victory increased the violence inside the reich. Second, the nazi myth that the great stab in the back led to defeat in World War I deeply inculcated the population and military with an intense loyalty. No one wanted to be equated with the great villains of the prior generation. The failed July 20 bomb plot against Hitler only increased loyalty. This exposes as a lie the common claim by Germans after the war that the Allied doctrine of unconditional surrender prevented an early end to the war. That had nothing to do with it. On a more humorous note, I found the moment of surrender, when Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel stopped to salute the Allied delegation with his raised baton only to receive icy stares and silence. Maybe Hitler was correct when he once commented that the Field Marshal did not have the brains of a cinema usher. At the least he was delusional. Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz was even more delusional. He really thought he could remain as leader of the reich even after the surrender.