Friday, January 18, 2013

Recent Reads: Inauguration Edition

David Maraniss, Barack Obama: The Story.

My most important take away from this book is learning how much President Obama consciously shaped his own identity through a series of myths. Most of the myths are based on events that took place. But, Maraniss discovered that his reconstructions of the events differed in some ways from those told by Obama in Dreams of My Father. Some stories are told out of sequence with altered effects. Characters in the Dreams of My Father are composites of real individuals. Finally, some meanings are given greater weight in the memoir than they might have actually had at the time. This was no shock to me. As a biographer, I see conscious mythmaking to some extent or another in every biography. Moreover, we are not all St. Paul on the Damascus road. Revelation can come slower, and events of the past can be revaluated later in life granting it greater influence.

I really liked how Maraniss traced the genealogy of Obama’s maternal and paternal lines from Kansas and Kenya to their intersection in Hawaii, itself a multicultural melting pot. Maraniss visited the scenes of Obama’s life in Africa, Indonesia, and North America and talked to those who knew the president, his parents, and other key figures in the book. These travels resulted in lots of primary material and some good photographs that appear in the gallery. I found the most interesting parts of the book to be about the senior Barack (pronounced Bar-rick, not BUH-rock) Obama who, as a member of the founding generation of post-colonial Africans, participated in a unique historical moment, the formation of a nation. He might have played a more significant role had not alcohol driven him to ruination. One of the major thesis of the books is that the son was so much better off without the physical presence (he appears to have always been a mental presence) of the ill tempered, demanding, self-absorbed, arrogant, and abusive alcoholic father in his life. Despite the mixed race genealogy and the lack of parents, there was a lot of ordinariness to the future president’s life. He was not terribly interested in school work, hung out with friends, was absorbed in sports (especially basketball) and girls. And being a child of the 70s he and his friends in the “Choom Gang” smoked a lot of pot. I am not sure how many of us would want our teenage years given such scrutiny.

James Kloppenberg, Reading Obama

As where Maraniss wrote a very personal biography of the inner thoughts of our 44th president, James Kloppenberg constructed an intellectual biography of Barack Obama to explain his political philosophy. I loved this book. It is a great demonstration of how ideas substantively shape our thinking. Instead of finding Obama to be a Kenyan anti-imperialist, Marxist, socialist, or whatever else has appeared on the bookstands in the last four years, Kloppenberg finds Obama to be a pragmatic progressive in the tradition of Woodrow Wilson and a Madisonian who considers democracy a battleground of ideas requiring give and take. I accept this thesis. More interestingly, Kloppenberg finds the roots to both his progressivism and his pragmatism in the works he knows Obama has read. Reading this made me realize why Obama has given those on both the right and left political fits. He is not ideologically rigid. To be pragmatic is to look at an issue in the light of the current situation and environment. It is the art of what is possible. The president has used a phrase about not letting the perfect becoming the enemy of the possible. This allows just enough daylight for his enemies to pour in every crackpot theory and for his disappointed friends to doubt his sincerity to their cause.

David Corn, Showdown

This makes the case that Obama has been a successful president. He did not always do what his friends have wanted him to do, but he has succeeded in getting as much done as was possible in the political environment. Instead, of seeing the financial negotiations with the Republican House leadership in 2010 and 2011 as failures and capitulations, Corn argues the president deftly fashioned a second stimulus (but not called as such) and secured some of his administration’s top goals (such as an historic arms control treaty with Russia).

Monday, January 14, 2013

To Google as in to search for an Elk

First a little background: On January 1st a Boulder police officer shot and killed an elk, affectionately known in the community as “Big Boy.” According to several accounts the officer allegedly violated a department policy about discharging a weapon without permission. Furthermore, there were photographs of the officer holding the head and rack of the elk as a hunter would pose with a champion trophy (he wasn’t called “Big Boy” for nothing). Finally, the officer asked another officer (who allegedly called in sick that day) to haul the carcass to a taxidermist where it was butchered into meat. The citizens of this community, and the larger Boulder population, are outraged that such a peaceful biotic citizen as “Big Boy” could have been gunned down in the name of public safety. There is a very interesting story in all this about our relationship to “wildlife” in suburban communities. Outrage has led to town meetings, a memorial, a ballad, and a protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. My own opinion is that if the officer is proven guilty of violating department regulations and Colorado wildlife laws, he should be held accountable.

Now (finally) for the main point I wanted to make: The local news interviewed a young man in his early 20s who observed the protest march through the Pearl Street Mall. He told the reporter that he wanted to see what the rest of the country thought about the “Big Boy” incident so he “googled it.” I know others have commented on how the word google has become a verb. If nothing else, it is an example of how not only technology effects language, but also how adaptable the English language is to revision. As a teacher, however, I am a little alarmed and frustrated by this new addition to our lexicon. Don't get me wrong. Google is my search engine of choice, and I consider it the best tool on the web. Google means to search the internet, but, it has surreptitiously replaced the term research, a much more deliberate inquiry into an object. Google means to look up a topic like George Washington on the internet and be directed to the Wikipedia page, a couple of other short biographies (on many topics these multiple webpage merely repeat each other word-for-word), along with a local high school, and the famous bridge connecting New York and New Jersey. That skimming through a couple of thin internet biographies passes as research among college freshman these days (at least at the community college level) marks some degeneration of an essential skill. Firmly dedicated to the concept of a liberal arts education, I firmly believe research skills are important for a functioning democracy.

Part of research is to know the value of a source; they are not all created equal. In fact, teaching students how to evaluate the authority of a source is one of the toughest parts of teaching research. In the past, I handed out accepted webpages (the George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, for example) and other tips (no books marked “juv” or “YA” in the library catalog, for the most elementary example). This could be paired with a library orientation, including how to use the databases to find print citations (including book reviews to help evaluate your sources), and how to use the catalog search engine more effectively. The first part of the research paper was to submit an annotated bibliography. This gave me the opportunity to filter the sources and discuss with students as needed. This method ate up lots of class time (always a scarce commodity in a survey course) and I felt as if I was doing too much hand- holding. This past fall, I tried a different technique; one that I hoped would give the students some more responsibility towards their own learning. I allowed students to select their topic after some classroom discussion and then move to an annotated bibliography. The next phase of the project consisted of meetings with individual students. My intent was to provide some individual attention to each student and have a more detailed discussion on the project depending on the student's individual needs. While the meetings themselves went well, and I got to know the students better, it did not fulfill the function of teaching them how to do the research. Maybe in the future I should just tell them to "google" how to right a term paper!   

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

"Heading Home (1920): Babe Ruth and Normalcy

“He made a Nation of Leagues forget the League of Nations.” So opens the 1920 silent movie, Headin’ Home staring Babe Ruth. As a lover of baseball, silent movies, the early twentieth century, and the Yankees, I was naturally drawn to this movie when I saw it scheduled on TCM. The plot is fairly hokey and has no correlation to the real Babe’s life. The fictional Babe was the most modest lad who grew up in a wholesome small town, protected little girls and their dogs, lived with mom, and didn’t drink, or chase women. He struts around town whittling a baseball bat from a log (no, I am not making that up) with a baseball mitt permanently affixed to the belt loop on his trousers. So addicted to baseball, he comically delivers a chunk of ice, a fraction of its original size because he kept stopping at the sandlots along the way to join games. This varied, of course, with the rough and tumble, trouble filled, urban youth of the real Babe who was a well known womanizer and boozing playboy. Far from modest, Ruth most flamboyantly exemplified the lifestyle of conspicuous consumption identified with the “Roaring Twenties.” Moreover, Headin’ Home depicts the Sultan of Swat who was then just changing the entire course of baseball culture and history by glamorizing the home run. In one critical scene, Babe breaks a 14-14 tie by hitting a towering homerun that crashes through a church window five blocks from the sandlot. The real Babe did not make the major leagues on the strength of his hitting. He came up as a pitcher, and was probably the best southpaw of the late teens. Another one of Ruth’s impressive credentials.

The movie is full of corny sayings like, “he was one goat that never let out a bleat” and contained a few political references, such as when Babe used his own “14 points” to end a marital spat between a couple. Nonetheless, I can see this movie as not only an attempt to cash in on Ruth’s suddenly skyrocketing celebrity, but also as a cinematic call for a return to the small town, traditional values Warren G. Harding dubbed “Normalcy.”

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

"Czar" Reed

I recently finished Mr. Speaker! a biography of "Czar" Thomas Brackett Reed by James Grant. Reed represented Maine in Congress through most of the Gilded Age and served as Speaker of the House for  the 51st, 54th, and 55th Congresses in the 1890s. He was a large and imposing presence both physically and intellectually. Reed was a conventional Northeast Republican in economic matters, supporting both the protective tariff and the gold standard. More unorthodox positions included support for women's suffrage (despite his wife's opposition to it) and his anti-imperialism stance during the McKinley administration. His greatest contribution was to re-write the House rules during his first tenure as Speaker. Motivated by a strong belief in majority rule, Reed "broke" the filibuster in the House, which quickened the speed at which the lower chamber addressed legislation. Grant clearly hopes the current crop of politicians in Washington will draw from Reed's experience. Reed used his new rules effectively to pass an impressive number of bills during the (in)famous "billion dollar" 51st Congress, including the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, Sherman Anti-Trust Act, the Elections (a.k.a. "Force Bill"), and the McKinley Tariff. Grant hardly mentions the significant extension to the pension system, which attracts the attention of historians.

This is a work of popular history and Grant delves deep into the background of issues, such as the tariff, sometimes going to the early 18th century. The author is at his best when discussing economic and currency issues. These can be tricky topics and he handles them deftly. As a specialist in this era, I found these forays to be a diversion. In their place, I would have liked to have seen some deeper analysis of the issues and politics of the era. I realize I was not in Grant's intended audience, but I feel an awful lot of good scholarship has been done on the period and could have enhanced our understanding of Reed's era. Most of the books cited in the notes are older sources. Noticeably absent are the works of Sven Beckert, Richard Bensel, Charles Calhoun, Edward Crapol, Lewis Gould, Ari Hoogenboom, Jackson Lears, Allan Peskin, Joanne Reitano, Gretchen Ritter, Theda Skopol, Stephen Skowroneck, Mark Wahlren Summers, and Richard Welch, to cite some specific examples.