Category Archives: history and current events

December 21, 2012, 10:03 pm

A Community of Arms

(Margaret Sankey, a military history colleague of mine who specializes in the 18th century, made a lovely point yesterday about the effect of musket technology on community and so I immediately thought “Guest post!” Here it is).

The Surrender of the Town of Ulm, 1805” gives a good sense
of the tight-packed formations made necessary
by the musket

The muzzle-loader in my hands was really heavy, and I was fumbling with the percussion cap as the sergeant bellowed out drill commands. I completed the step and looked left and right quickly, to see if I had kept up with the colleagues on either side of me, and was relieved to be right with them. After what seemed like interminable tries, no one had dropped caps in the grass, or lagged too far behind, or gotten flustered. We were ready. We were ready.

I’m very familiar with guns. The bolt-action rifle I use for target shooting pushes me…

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December 20, 2012, 7:34 pm

Her Sight Was Not Long And Her Weight Was Not Small: A Gun of the Founders

Just to remind everyone what the Founders had in mind with “keep and bear arms,” this is a not untypical weapon of the time of the American Constitutional era, the British “Brown Bess:”


Built and used for over a century, the Brown Bess was a .75 smooth-bore musket. In the hands of a well-trained user, it could fire 3-4 shots a minute. It was terribly inaccurate, with a maximum effective range of about 100 yards and, practically speaking, much less. It weighed more than 10 pounds, and stood just under five feet tall. Because it used loose gunpowder, both for firing the shot and for igniting the charge, it was unreliable in all but the best (i.e. least windy and rainy) conditions. When fired, it gave forth a large cloud of smoke both from the front barrel and, less so, from the priming hole at the back, and kicked back with a heavy recoil. Those characteristics often caused…

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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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September 5, 2012, 12:44 am

The Madness and Stupor of History.

A serendipitous confluence: This week This American Life re-ran “Fear of Sleep,” which begins with Ira Glass meditating on the dangers of that altered state, in which we – whatever and whoever we are – vanish, perhaps to dream strange dreams, walk perilously, even die; from which we can wake to unexpected faces and changed places. The recent New Yorker includes Oliver Sacks’s “Altered States,” a memoir – maybe a confessional – of his youthful enthusiasm for mind-altering substances (it was, he says, the 1960s and for some of the time, for him, it was California: even so, he seems to have been an avid and various consumer). Sacks reports on the thin difference – a few chemical micrograms – between our ordinary selves and psychosis, schizophrenia, hallucination, or an insinuation of heaven. In an amphetamine haze he absorbed Liveing on Megrim and as a result wrote his own Migraine

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August 31, 2012, 3:37 pm

Eastwood brings the red meat.

So, everyone noticed that Clint Eastwood at the RNC appeared determined to portray a cranky old man – scolding an invisible President Obama, represented by an empty chair. Eastwood seemed often incoherent, and fairly goofy.

But it seems also worth noting that Eastwood’s imaginary Barack Obama was angry, inarticulate, foul-mouthed – uppity, even; in need of correcting by an older white man. And Eastwood dispatched him with a movie line he used to cow an African American punk.

I’m just saying.

August 25, 2012, 12:57 am

Paul Ryan’s monetary policy is as unserious as his fiscal policy.

Perhaps Paul Ryan is a gigantic fraud, or perhaps it is everyone who claims to see wisdom in him; perhaps – we should admit a range of possibilities, as our political and pundit class contains many and various mountebanks – both. But if ever there were an undeserved reputation for economic seriousness, it is Ryan’s. Consider the Congressman’s views on the dollar, to which Paul Krugman has recently called attention. Ryan observes that “There is nothing more insidious that a country can do to its citizens than debase its currency.”

Let us pause first, if only briefly, to consider Ryan’s absolutism on this point: Nothing more insidious? Really? Not, perhaps, eroding civil liberties until the President can, at will, assassinate an American citizen?

But no: let’s not permit what might perhaps have been forgivable hyperbole to deter us from investigating the point at issue. Perhaps Ryan …

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August 20, 2012, 9:38 pm

Seven Questions And Comments I Might Write If This Salon Article On “America’s Worst Historians” Was A Student Paper And I Was Grading It.

This article.

1. Why do you assert that journalists aren’t able “to investigate in depth”? Whether they do it well or badly, isn’t that exactly what they’re trained to do?

2. You claim to be talking about journalists, but, as you note, your two lead examples (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria) are both political science Ph.Ds. Are you critiquing journalism or political science?

3. You cite Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwins. How does Hoffer’s discussion of Joseph Ellis in the same book affect your argument? How does Jon Wiener’s approach in Historians in Trouble differ from Hoffer’s?

4. In your comment “David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated,” what is the connection to SI intended to evoke?

5. Your example of the problems with McCullough’s work is the HBO series based on his biography of John Adams. Is he responsible for the…

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August 20, 2012, 4:34 pm

Winston Churchill thinks Paul Ryan says stupid things.

For historians, the fun of presidential election season comes when candidates start playing games with history. Often this takes the form of “you don’t know me, but remember that great guy? I’m like that guy.” The thing is, politicians generally don’t know squat about that guy; they’re just looting the iconography of civilization for their own momentary convenience.

Case in point: Paul Ryan tries to get voters to understand him by saying,

“You know what I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill. I have a bust of Winston Churchill in my office right now,” Ryan said. “Winston Churchill probably got it right when he said the Americans can be counted upon to do the right thing only after they’ve exhausted all the other possibilities, so I think we’re at that point. This is an inflection point, this is a choice of two futures.”

Winston Churchill, of course, did not have politics anything like…

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August 13, 2012, 4:05 pm

A stimulus is not a New Deal: on Mike Grunwald and the Obama record

Mike Grunwald has a post at FP summarizing his new book, The New New Deal. The basic argument (of both the post and the book) seems to me clear and unassailable: the President’s “stimulus package,” or the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, is an under appreciated success for two reasons.

First, as to recovery, the jobs stimulus averted much worse unemployment than we would otherwise have had; this is widely understood.

Second, as to reinvestment, it will bring real and lasting “change” — Grunwald uses this word deliberately, arguing that (unlike FDR) Obama has scrupulously kept his campaign promises. ARRA has transformed the energy sector, giving renewable energy a new lease on life; it modernized medical records, it put money into high-speed rail, and pushed high-speed internet out to poorer areas. This is the more original part of Grunwald’s book and the most valuable; it’s…

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August 1, 2012, 1:07 pm

Gore Vidal: pretty good historian, and a great character in US history.

I read Henry Adams before I read Gore Vidal, but I liked Vidal better. Both were funny, but only Vidal was having fun. Which is not something everyone understands, that you can have great fun at the apocalypse. It was perhaps his least American trait.

A critic complained about the versions of Henry Adams and Henry James that Vidal made up. Vidal responded, but they made me up. He shared with Adams an apparent sense that American politics ought to have belonged to him, and as it didn’t, American history would. As motives to write history go, it isn’t the worst. He knew that the affairs of the republic were run by a small group of people who wanted to protect its property. He judged each faction of the group more or less by its tendency to agree with him.

In consequence, he had mixed feelings about FDR, who employed his father and disagreed with his grandfather; he held enduringly…

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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 20, 2012, 3:33 am

The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed*

Silbey has explained the wonderful possibilities that await a technologically proficient historian who visits a technologically advanced archive.

I wish I could say that I only visit archives where my widely acknowledged technological prowess is encouraged and feted, but alas, this is not the case. There are still many archives in my world that remain firmly rooted in the twentieth century.  For example, UCLA special collections has a number of manuscript collections I need, but does not allow cameras in the reading room. So I find myself spending much of my time in the basement of Young library, frantically taking notes while the non-historians above enjoy the sunshine.

Then there’s the copyright problem for anyone doing newspaper research after 1923. Thanks to the Sonny Bono copyright act of 1998, everything produced since 1922 is under copyright protection, which means…

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June 14, 2012, 4:46 am

New students for an Orwellian tomorrow.

Seen on campus.

June 12, 2012, 1:18 am

On liberalism and history, and Kazin and Alterman & Mattson.

Not to pile on, but there’s also this, in the new Democracy. Unlike the aforementioned TLS essay, the whole thing is online; here’s a short excerpt:

The single moment that made postwar liberalism feel most like a cause worth fighting for came in the darkness of April 4, 1968, when an Indianapolis crowd, assembled to hear Robert F. Kennedy campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, instead met a man obliged to tell them that Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered. When Kennedy broke the news, a desperate wail burst from the throats of those gathered, a sound unlike any other, bespeaking the tide of anguish and anger about to rush over the republic, sweeping reason before it—but not yet, or not here, not if Kennedy had his way.

Speaking off the cuff, he claimed a shared sorrow—his own brother had been killed in the line of political duty, at a time when he had begun…

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May 17, 2012, 12:06 am

A Euroskeptical note, from the archives.

Seems appropriate unto the day, or week anyway. Robert Henry Brand, of the UK Treasury delegation in Washington, to John Maynard Keynes, March 3, 1945, about Jean Monnet returning to France

to ‘think’. He is deeply interested in the future political organisation of Western Europe, having in my opinion some not very well-thought views, and wants to clear his thoughts on this subject with the object of exercising some influence with regard to it later. To find a solution will certainly test even his persuasive powers.

It’s easy to snark, and it’s hard to call your shots, but just at the moment it seems a sadly apt sentiment.