Monday, January 06, 2003

Why We Dislike the Avant-Garde
In preparing research on the artistic response to the Great Depression (it's for a conference I'm presenting at), I've run across intersting ideas that I think have some currency for today's world. Let me flesh this out.

It seems to me that many of the staple American authors taught at both the high school and college level wrote much in the twenties. Names like Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Stein, Pound, cummings, Eliot, and even Cather, Sinclair Lewis, Dreiser, Dos Passos....the list goes on. Conversely, the list from the thirties is shorter: John Steinbeck, a few playwrights such as Kazan, Wilder...that's all I can come up with for now. Why exactly is this? Less serious writing in the thirties? Bountiful masterpieces in the twenties by the truckload?

Perhaps. Presumably, literature is taught for its presumed relevance to the present. For me the relevance of literature emanating from these two decades has been illuminated by a fascinating book: Malcolm Cowley's Exile's Return.

Exile's Return traces the "Lost Generation" of writers as they grew up just after the turn of the century through childhood, the Great War, college, and into their early careers as exiles in separate Bohemian communities in the US and Europe. As a member of this generation himself, Cowley relates his own life story to trace this generation's intellectual development. Most of the writers that became expatriates during the twenties were raised in rural communities. According to Cowley, their college educations taught them to disparage their own national and local culture, instead preferring artistic work that transcended "localities, nations, or classes." As a result, they essentially became rootless characters, more spectators of wordly events.

The literature that resulted in the next decade thus turned inward, reflecting upon psychological issues. If the writer wrote about the larger world, it usually described the protagonist's ultimate isolation from its impersonality. Authors became preoccupied with precision of language. Today, authors such as Stein, Eliot, Hemingway, and Faulkner, not to mention international authors such as Joyce, Valery, or Proust have well earned reputations on the difficulty of their works. (Having read the Sound and the Fury in college, I do not recommened it for a light Saturday read. That said, it is a wonderful novel).

What these "rootless" expatriates were searching for all along was a home. They were exiled not just literally, but figuratively: from traditions and cultures of their birthplace, "from society itself, from any society to which they could honestly contribute and from which they could draw the strength that lies in shared convictions."

Written in the early thirties, Cowley's autobiographical sketch of a generation sought to reintegrate those writers with America. The Great Depression became the catalyst for such a reintegration. Faced with such calamitous events that challenged core American values, the previously exiled authors could help America transcend it's problems by actively transforming society itself. This sentiment lay at the heart of the American intellectual classes's flirtation with Socialism, though in many different forms, many of them as far from doctrinaire as could be.

Yet if we go by novels that are considered American classics today, by any standards, relatively few emerge from the collectivist 1930's in comparison to the introspective twenties. Why is this? My theory is that on one level, the writing of the twenties is more universal, directed towards and written about behaviors, emotions, and feelings that transcend a particular time period. The writing is mostly apolitical. Literature, or for that matter just about anything from the arts during the 1930's, is anything but apolitical. As such, it can be seen as anachronistic, even irrelevant, in today's world. .

Yet there is another interpretation as well. In as much as literature from the twenties was introspective, psychological, and drawing on themes of alienation, it dealt little with problems facing ordinary Americans, as intellectuals from the thirties would have seen it. It was largely disconnected from the "herd." As a result, much of it is still hard to master, understand, or approach today. I would say that it is worth the effort, but it is clearly not for everyone. Much of it is "art for art's sake."

I am clearly overgeneralizing here. Yet I raise another question. When combined with other works such as "Catcher in the Rye," "The Stranger," or "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," also to be found on many high school and college syllabi, the alienation theme - the inherent dichotomy between amorphous, vulgar society versus the enlightened, becomes more apparent. I believe this appeals to avant-garde sensibilities.

So I was reminded of the brouhaha over the various designs for the World Trade Center in NYC. Like many, I found not one suitable as a replacement. In this respect I agree with Steven Malanga in his City Journal article that each of them represent arrogant impositions of individual artistic expressions on an unwilling metropolis. Their clear lack of regard betrays the offensive nature of peeping toms and sexual miscreants, for that is essentially what these architects are imposing upon that city. Like some literature from the twenties, it is this sentiment that makes art inaccessible, unnecessarily in my opinion.

Monday, December 02, 2002

Letter to Geitner Simmons

I am sorry it's taken me this long to get back to you. The semester is winding down and between papers and the Thanksgiving break, I haven't been doing much.

However, I did see the first redneck post on your website tonight (you promise more), and I thought I'd add on. In my research on Snuffy Jenkins, a Carolina banjo player and "hillbilly" musician, I've found that the term "Hillbilly" created ambivalent reactions. Some hated it, but others thought that it was just fine, a perfect moniker/nickname for themselves. These people embraced the rural aspects of their native southern culture in direct opposition to perceived threats from the Northern cities. Encroaching national phenonomenon threatened their regional distinctiveness. As a result, some took what was otherwise a threat and embraced it as the embodiment of what was laudable and superior in their culture to the dominant trends. Although we are seventy-to-eighty years removed from this specific phenomenon, I imagine certain amounts of this same argument still resonate across the South, or any regionally distinctive population for that matter, and also for those who use the term 'redneck' in a nonbelligerent manner.

In another historical parallel, a popular figure in early twentieth century entertainment was the Toby, a red-headed, freckle faced traveling show character that hated sin, loved mother, home, and heaven, and was natively bright, if uneducated. He was so loved by rural audiences that a whole sub-genre of Toby theatre grew out of the traveling show medium. To these rural audiences, he represented their culture in caricature in response to the same encroaching threats to their regional culture. And by regional culture I do not simply mean the Confederate flag or racism, but a particular brand of religiousness, a folk heritage, and an economic way of life that the industrial revolution was swiftly changing (after a relatively stable, and long, period of time when the south was predominantly agricultural).

Chris Scott

Wednesday, November 13, 2002

History Channel Admits To Profiting From Nazi Documentaries
NEW YORK—The History Channel confessed Monday that it used Nazi footage to fatten its coffers. "The time has come to bring our network's shameful legacy to light," History Channel president Warren Brabender said. "Over the past 10 years, more than $300 million in ad revenue has been generated through the airing of Nazi documentaries." The channel will likely be required to pay reparations to Americans who viewed the atrocities." - from The Onion.

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Discriminatory hiring policies at UPenn
Follow this link to go to Prof. Erin O'Conner's blog, specifically to a post where she actually puts up some official text to Penn's "Gender Equity Report." It's an excellent post that will get you thinking.

Friday, November 08, 2002

Taking Sides?
By virtual of subscribing to H-Public, a listserv that distributes notes of interest to scholars in the field of public history, I receive the wekkly (or so) Update put out by the National Coordinating Committee for the Promotion of History. In toto, this is how they covered the Bellesiles affair.
BELLESILES RESIGNS FROM EMORY UNIVERSITY -- On October 25, 2002 Emory University announced that Michael Bellesiles­ author of the controversial, Bancroft Prize winning book, Arming America: The Origins of a National Gun Culture resigned from his position as professor of history after 14 years at the Atlanta institution. Commenting on the sometimes nasty two year dispute about his research on the infrequency of firearms in early America, the Emory professor asserted that he simply "could not continue to teach in what [he] felt is a hostile environment." Bellesiles' resignation follows on the heels of a recent investigation into the "scholarly integrity" of his controversial book. After publication in 1999, the conservative press, the National Rifle Association, and eventually several historical scholars questioned some of Bellesiles' research methodologies and hence his conclusions. In May 2002 the National Endowment for the Humanities entered the fray by taking the Newberry Library to task for its awarding Professor Bellesiles a NEH-supported fellowship "without due consideration of the serious charges raised within the scholarly community about his work." (See "NEH Withdraws Name From Fellowship" in NCC Washington Update, Vol 8, #21, May 23, 2002 and "Newberry Library Responds to NEH Criticism" in ibid, Vol 8, #22, May 31, 2002). Once what has been characterized as "the Bellesiles controversy" became a question of scholarly care and integrity in the documentation, presentation and analysis of archival sources, Emory University appointed a committee of three highly respected historians to conduct a probe. The committee worked from May 5 to July 1 evaluating and researching allegations that Bellesiles engaged in the "intentional fabrication and falsification of research data" and "other serious deviations from accepted practices" of the historical profession "in the carrying out of and reporting results from research" with regard to probate records, 18th and 19th century wills, and militia census records. The distinguished independent investigative committee ­ composed of Princeton University's Stanley N. Katz, University of Chicago's Hanna H. Gray, and Harvard University's Laurel Thatcher Ulrich ­ applied Emory University's misconduct guidelines and the American Historical Association's "Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct." The committee focused its investigation narrowly on five questions relating to Bellesiles' use of probate records that are reflected in three paragraphs and a table in a bulky, six hundred-page book. The committee found no "intentional fabrication or falsification of research data," found no evidence of "a deliberate attempt to mislead," but concluded that Bellesiles demonstrated "carelessness in the gathering and presentation of archival records," and that he did "engage in serious deviations from accepted practices in carrying out [and] reporting results from research." The committee speculated that "unfamiliarity with quantitative methods or plain incompetence" could explain some of the known deficiencies [in his breakdown of data. Furthermore, they concluded that Bellesiles "casual method of recording data. . . [his] extremely sloppy documentation [and] carelessness" has resulted in an "unprofessional and misleading work." In his response to the report, Bellesiles admits to being "careless," he acknowledges "errors of transcription" (and has promised to correct them in the upcoming second edition of the book), and concurs that scholars probably would not be able to replicate his research. Nevertheless, he asserts that "the probate records could be eliminated entirely and the thesis of the book would still stand." Given the ferocity of the attacks against him, he fears that "every scholar who challenges received truth" will be investigated and "before long, no challenging scholarly books are published." For the Emory report and related articles of interest on this issue, tap into the History News Network's webpage, . With the committee's report now in the public domain, conservative organizations and gun rights groups are invigorated and are now calling on Columbia University to rescind the Bancroft prize it awarded to Bellesiles in 2001 for his, in more than one way, controversial book.

First of all, by overuse of the phrase "conservative organizations" in this segment makes it appear as if this is merely a heavily-partisan attempt by those ee-viilll conservative gun-nuts to undermine genuine scholarship and the history profession in general, not to mention all that is good and well with society. Second, it's taking the side of the obvious loser in this debate, furthering the "Witch-hunt" mentality. Indeed, the newsletter continually places the term "scholarly integrity" in quotes marks, implying that this isn't about Bellesiles' mistakes at all.

As a budding public historian and academic scholar, I take deep offense at the tone of this article. First off, as several scholars and bloggers such as Glenn Reynolds, Eugene Volokh, Clayton Cramer, and the History News Network have pointed out, this is exactly, indeed only, about "scholarly integrity." When you think about it, the only thing that separates serious scholars from charlatans is the veneer of respectability and trust that basically, we're not fudging the numbers. Without this respect, thousands of individuals have thus thrown their lives, their money, and the reputations down the drain. Even if you side with the investigating committee, Bellesiles' carelessness is absolutely despicable and deserves the highest condemnation from his peers, for he has de-legitimized and damaged the historical profession for political ends.

Secondly, this piece shows the gap between professional and amateur historians remains wide. As a public historian straddling the middle, attempting to bridge the gap, this is troubling. It's bad when a respected body in the field of academic history cannot bring itself to congratulate those whose work exposed the errors in Dr. Bellesiles' book. It's even worse that they cannot do this because the ideological blinders they've put on are too heavy to remove. I'm not sure what Dr. Bellesiles was thinking, but given the enormous political weight of the topic, and the ramifications it has for the Second Amendment debate, how could he not think that his data would be checked?

Perhaps the worst sin of all is that Dr. Bellesiles has damaged what would otherwise be a respectable field to take up. It's common belief in this country that the colonists' were a gun-totin' crowd. If someone can write a book using valid data refuting this point, it would be a major watershed in second amendment and firearms scholarship, and a valuable addition to the debate at that; instead, Dr. Bellesiles has tainted whatever scholarship will follow him. The NCCPH doesn't get it: this isn't about politics, and it doesn't matter if most of Bellesiles' work is legitimate; he either falsified, forged, or otherwise fucked up his data on a very important matter when serious scholarship, especially on this political issue, demands as near 100% error-free as is humanly possible. Dr. Bellesiles' carelessness shows nothing by a deep contempt for the historical profession and scholarship as a whole.

Thursday, November 07, 2002

Geitner Simmons of the blog Regions of Mind restates my thoughts with amazing exactness on the swing vote, and also what's wrong with the "liberal" position on the role of government as I (apparently, we) see it. A must read, if you really care what I think. ;o)
Study: Slavery's effects lasted just 2 generations
That's the headline for this article in the Dartmouth online reporting on a study done by Dartmouth economist Bruce Sacerdote. He notes,
There's nothing positive you can say about slavery...But what the study shows is how little slavery actually has to do with today's problems. It seems rather unlikely that slavery itself caused a lot of the racism problems present in the U.S. today.
However the article also quotes Sacerdote "that emancipation itself did little to reduce economic disparities between blacks and whites. He said the results of his study indicate that other social factors must account for current social inequities between African-Americans and whites."
Indeed this is an important study. I have to agree however that it's a bit like comparing apples to oranges. On the whole free blacks weren't exactly rolling in dough, still part of the lowest caste in American society. The grandchildren of slaves could have been born anywhere between 1900-1930 [my guessing], which was the period of Jim Crow segregation.
I'm not familiar with the scholarship, but certainly there also were advances in black entrepreneurship (sp?) at this time, with segregation creating separate black neighborhoods, such as Atlanta's Auburn Avenue business district, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was born, among others. And I remember from one class that I took that the largest economic gain for African Americans happened between 1940-1960, before the era of governmental assistance. It would be interesting to see how African Americans would have done in the next forty years with a dramatically altered welfare state in this country.
OK, so Muhammed and Malvo killed lots of people in cold blood with an apparent religious motive. Still. I'm uncomfortable with this decision to try them in Viriginia first simply because they're more likely to get the death penalty there. Innocent before proven guilty? Anyone? Yeah, I believe they did it, too, but c'mon; if our bloodthirst for revenge is so high, let's just rip 'em out and string 'em up, leave a bomb in their cell, castrate them with olive forks, whatever.
In my opinion this should be a federal case, simply because they've killed so many over so large a range. I don't know the law, and I haven't really been following the story since their capture, so honestly I do not even know if what they're accused of committing falls under federal jurisdiction. But it makes sense to me.

Wednesday, November 06, 2002

Claudia Rossett slams an Azerbaijani
Claudia Rosset writes in today's Opinion Journal about the grooming of a dictator-in-training, though in my opinion it's a little low on the facts. Mind you thatwhat the facts are, if indeed anyone does, which could very well explain why she doesn't give them while also raising the alarm bells that much more.