Category Archives: critiquing the critics

April 7, 2014, 7:16 pm

Brain Rewires Itself, Panic at Eleven.

Neuroscientists are discovering that online reading rewires the brain in favor of high speed sorting and filtering, rather than deep concentrated reading:

To cognitive neuroscientists, [the rewiring] is the subject of great fascination and growing alarm. Humans, they warn, seem to be developing digital brains with new circuits for skimming through the torrent of information online. This alternative way of reading is competing with traditional deep reading circuitry developed over several millennia.

This “eye byte culture” (awesome phrase, by the way) becomes, of course, a source of panic. English professors are consulted. The result?

“They cannot read ‘Middlemarch.’ They cannot read William James or Henry James,” [the scientist] said. “I can’t tell you how many people have written to me about this phenomenon. The students no longer will or are perhaps incapable of…

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September 17, 2012, 1:10 pm

Presentism rules in screening world history.

Andrew Marr is telling the history of the world in eight hour-long episodes of television. He puts this work in line with a series of “big histories,” including Kenneth Clark’s Civilization and E. H. Gombrich’s A Little History of the World, among others. In this post for the BBC, he tries to explain who and what he left out and why, and shows that presentism is alive and well.

We’re no longer living in the Europe-first culture where Kenneth Clark so confidently stood. This had to properly reflect a world in which China, South America and India are the rising powers.

Also, I was determined that although the vast majority of history-making figures – the names we know, the rulers, the scientists – are men, this would also pay tribute to women’s contribution to history.

So, no Eurocentrism, no phallocentrism. Avoiding the DWM theory. Creditable, and bringing television history right…

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June 22, 2012, 5:06 pm

Some notes on Woodrow Wilson and the underappreciated harms Presidents can do.

Regular readers will know we frequently give time and attention to the best of presidents, with special regard to the underrated Franklin Roosevelt. But perhaps we should give equal time to the bad presidents whose badness goes insufficiently remarked – not just the mediocre presidents, but those whose harms go underappreciated.

Entirely coincidentally, I have an essay in the current Reviews in American History on Woodrow Wilson, apropos Cooper’s biography. Here’s the beginning of the essay, for the record:

In the 1912 election, the Democrats gained sixty-one seats to increase their majority in the House of Representatives and seven seats to get a majority in the Senate. Yet their presidential candidate, Woodrow Wilson, won fewer votes than William Jennings Bryan had in 1908, 1900, or 1896. Wilson also underperformed Democrats in Massachusetts, Ohio, Illinois, and elsewhere,…

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June 18, 2012, 5:18 pm

FDR: not the antichrist.

(Another in an irregularly produced series)

THE ARTICLE
Matthew Avery Sutton, “Was FDR the Antichrist? The Birth
of Fundamentalist Antiliberalism in a Global Age,” Journal of American History 98, no. 4 (March 2012): 1052-1074.

A NONTRIVIAL QUESTION RAISED
When and why did white evangelical Christians, or fundamentalists, become categorically opposed to American liberalism?

DISCUSSION
There is a journalistic rule that all headlines that ask questions are properly answered “no,” and this article is no exception; even to white evangelical Christians, it turns out, FDR was not the antichrist. According to Sutton, they thought he was moving in that direction, though.

This article fits in with the discovery that modern conservatism predates not only the alleged overreach of liberalism in the 1960s or early 1970s, but also World War II. As Sutton says, “As the actions of…

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June 15, 2012, 4:38 pm

On Scalzi’s Redshirts and historical narrative.

NO SPOILERS.

John Scalzi‘s Redshirts is great fun, and honestly, I read it because I expected it to be great fun, and I got what I expected. But it also made me think seriously about how historians handle narrative.

It is no spoiler to say that the book is about the peripheral characters who, in Star Trek, get killed to advance the plot – or really, not even to advance the plot, just to give a sense of great stakes to the story. Kirk, Spock, Chekhov and some random crewperson in a red shirt beam down to the planet. The person in the red shirt – the redshirt – is going to get killed, because they’re expendable and we need to know how deadly the threat is this week. The poor redshirts aren’t people, they’re cannon fodder – not for the Enterprise, mind you, but for the script-writers. Even if their details get filled out a bit, it’s only in the service of giving their deaths greater…

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June 13, 2012, 3:20 pm

Did They Read His Other Posts?

In an entertaining moment, the National Association of Scholars, parent organization of the California Association of Scholars, retweeted our own Eric Rauchway’s post on academic freedom.

Ironic? Clueless? You decide.

June 11, 2012, 8:08 pm

In which I say some things about railroads, and digital history, and other matters.

The TLS teases the article here.

June 9, 2012, 6:54 pm

Some notes on Prometheus and Jesus and Lawrence of Arabia.

MILDLY SPOILERY.

Prometheus wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the Star Wars prequels, but my saying that tells you about how good it was. And it tells you what kind of movie it is, too - it is after all a prequel, that exists to explain a lot of the weird stuff in Alien. The thing is, as Patton Oswalt shrewdly notes, just because we like ice cream doesn’t mean we’d like to eat a bag of rock salt. We don’t actually want to see Darth Vader as a little kid; we don’t, really, need to know where the Alien came from and what the space jockeys were unless it’s wrapped in a story bigger than “oh, that’s what that thing was.”

There are, though, some parts of Prometheus that are truly excellent. Michael Fassbender is the main one. His performance as the android David is excellent. Fassbender should have been in a decent adaptation of an Asimovian robot story; he knows how to wrestle …

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May 25, 2012, 12:53 pm

My new course will be titled “US History: The Awesomeness of Awesome Americans.”

Updated to add, “Hello, Paul Krugman readers!”1

“A Crisis of Competence,” which bills itself as “A Report Prepared for the Regents of the University of California by the California Association of Scholars, A Division of the National Association of Scholars,” (hereafter CAS, for short) has garnered a great deal of attention. It was, apparently, the basis for Rick Santorum’s laughably false claims that California’s universities do not teach US history – though to be fair to the report, Santorum evidently misunderstood what was in it. It was the subject of an April 1 news story (no, not an April Fool’s) in the Los Angeles Times. And it was the basis for a May 20 op-ed in the LA Times. To be fair to the LA Times, its own editorial, on April 7, was skeptical of the report, describing it as “a mélange of anecdotes.”

This is correct: the paper’s methodology is highly suspect,…

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May 22, 2012, 7:09 pm

This American Epistemological Crisis.

I cannot understand the alleged crisis now reportedly plaguing This American Life – a program I have loved and listened to since its beginning. Indeed, even before I liked it, I liked Ira Glass’s reporting on NPR and even his stint hosting Talk of the Nation. I am, I think it’s fair to say, a TAL nerd. And the reason is the same reason people become nerds for anything – they believe they’ve found a group of people who share the same sensibility. But this sudden po-faced shock that David Sedaris’s stories might not be strictly factual reportage makes no sense in this sensibility, and leads me to wonder if I have been listening to a different program than TAL has been producing.

I always thought TAL aired stories chosen for their goodness as stories, and they might be true or not. Each episode of TAL is divided into “Acts” – which is something you do with a theatrical production, not…

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February 5, 2012, 9:20 pm

Ouch(es).

In the current New Yorker one can see, within four pages, three celebrated gender-benders get taken apart by two critics.

First John Lahr says Cynthia Nixon is, well, not really smart enough to star in Wit:

The good luck of the original production and of the 2001 film version was that they featured tart, alert, commanding actresses – Kathleen Chalfant and Emma Thompson – who could embody the psychological profile of the droll, arrogant, solitary, bluestocking professor. The bad luck of this revival … is that it does not. Cynthia Nixon, who is known to one and all as Miranda Hobbes in “Sex and the City,” plays Vivian without Chalfant’s and Thompson’s rebarbative wallop.

Let’s pause here to say (a) who wants to follow Emma Thompson in a role? and (b) what Lahr doesn’t say is that relative to the other three lead characters in “Sex and the City,” Miranda was the intellectual, which…

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January 19, 2012, 12:23 pm

It is a noteworthy specimen of pundit lit.

David Greenberg’s review of Chris Matthew’s new Kennedy biography is, like everything Greenberg writes, worth reading. It’s a wonderful takedown, I think, because it’s not entirely captivated by the search for the perfect snark (they’re wily, snarks are, and should be hunted at dawn and dusk, when they typically rest).

(more…)

December 12, 2011, 12:05 pm

What is an anthology?

Helen Vendler’s review of the Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, edited by Rita Dove, is quite a piece of work. (It’s been widely noted in the blogosphere, e.g. here, by I think the same Anderson seen commenting on likeminded blogs.)

Dove’s response is well worth reading. But not having been gored directly, the rest of us may wonder if Vendler hasn’t just missed the point. Do we expect of an anthology that it will supply a complete and final list of the “poems to remember?” That’s from the headline, but it does reflect Vendler’s thinking –

No century in the evolution of poetry in English ever had 175 poets worth reading, so why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value?

How flatly she equates “lasting value” with being “worth reading”! For me, these are pretty different categories –  especially for recent work, part of whose…

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August 1, 2009, 2:50 pm

Cultural capital.

After reading this, Yglesias’s reviewlet of Funny People, as well as David Denby’s* recent rave, I wish that I could go see the film. Alas, I don’t go to the movies; I have kids. Anyway, it’s this line of Yglesias’s that caught my attention:

It also follows Knocked Up by offering a bracingly conservative vision of family life and obligation. It’s not a point of view I agree with, but it’s well articulated and done so in a way that’s divorced from the hypocrisy and petty moralizing of mainstream social conservatism.

What interests me here, beyond my own pathetic circumstances, is the question of how much more cultural traction conservatism would have if there were more legitimately talented conservative artists. I’m not saying there are none, mind you, but there really seem to be very few that can compete in an unfettered market of ideas, images, and songs with…

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February 4, 2009, 11:01 am

So you liked it, then?

Slate has a funny piece up about negative reviews of great composers. Viz:

This din of brasses, tin pans and kettles, this Chinese or Caribbean clatter with wood sticks and ear-cutting scalping knives … [t]his reveling in the destruction of all tonal essence, raging satanic fury in the orchestra, this demoniacal lewd caterwauling, scandal-mongering, gun-toting music … the darling of feeble-minded royalty, …of the court flunkeys covered with reptilian slime, and of the blasé hysterical female court parasites … inflated, in an insanely destructive self-aggrandizement, by Mephistopheles’ mephitic and most venomous hellish miasma, into Beelzebub’s Court Composer and General Director of Hell’s Music—Wagner!

I wish I could get away with that sort of thing in the review I’m currently writing.