Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Disappointment Redux

In the introduction to my book, I said something to the effect of my being the "Richard Dawkins of American History." I would like to retract that analogy now because his ass-haberdashery has gotten worse.

It is not that I object to his abrasiveness - quite the opposite: I embrace abrasiveness. After all, I am both a cartoonist and a fan of satire. Mark Twain had called laughter humanity's greatest weapon:

 Power, money, persuasion, supplication, persecution—these can lift at a colossal humbug—push it a little—weaken it a little, century by century; but only laughter can blow it to rags and atoms at a blast. Against the assault of laughter nothing can stand.

But I distinguish between assholish tone and assholish content. The former is often both entertaining and necessary for the reason I gave above.  Although, I suppose I should not be surprised by the high correlation between the two. Likewise, Bill Maher has been disappointing more and more - from his whining about his taxes to his misogynistic analogy on Israel's recent invasion of Gaza. Full disclosure: I also praise Maher in my book when contrasting his libertarianism with Penn Jillette's.

I had asked a friend about Dawkins' ass-haberdashery earlier when there were less egregious quotes out there. After some discussion, I decided to leave it in. I took a conscious risk and it was a bad call.

My exact words were:
If I convert a conservative, that is a bonus but I am not banking on it. I am somewhat brusque and I expect they will react to my evidence the same way Creationists react to dinosaur bones. So, I suppose it is my intention to be the Richard Dawkins of American history by bluntly presenting long-established facts: The founders were mostly Deists – deal with it. The Civil War was fought over slavery – deal with it. This is not a “reach across the aisle” sort of book. Both the title and thesis effectively prevent that. 

Plus, Richard Dawkins disses art and history? You can well imagine what I think of that. Yeah, fuck that guy. Cartoon History of the Universe creator Larry Gonnick should go medieval on his ass. As Matt Groening had once put it, "It is unwise to annoy cartoonists."

EDIT: The Dawkins bit has been dropped.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Evolving Opinion on Palestine

A lot of folks have taken note of Jon Stewart's evenhanded coverage of Israel's current incursion into Gaza. The details can be read in 's overview on the Daily Beast, "How Jon Stewart Made It Okay to Care About Palestinian Suffering." And over at Salon, David Weigel wrote a similar piece entitled "When You’ve Lost Jon Stewart, You’ve Lost Middle America." 

I believe there is cause for optimism on this bleak issue. Jon Stewart definitely deserves huge props for his courage, but I point to something else that nobody I know of has mentioned yet.

The glimmer of hope is this: Recent experience.

For eight years, anyone who opposed George W. Bush and the Iraq War was accused of hating America or not supporting the troops. President Barack Obama is now midway through his second term, but the memory is still very fresh. Hyperbole like that does not fade quickly. G.W. Bush said, "You are either with us or you are with the enemy." Eventually, that either/or rhetoric wore out and lost traction with the American public. I think that same dynamic is starting to happen on Americans' thinking about Palestine. For decades, Jews who criticized Israel where called "self-hating" and Gentiles who did were called anti-Semitic - a situation that Jon Stewart illustrated in this brilliant segment.

Stateside, these absurd accusations allowed conservative institutions like the National Review to harbor Holocaust deniers as long as the publication itself remained hawkishly pro-Israel. Likewise, right wing Evangelicals unconditionally support all of Israel's actions - not out of any great love or respect for the Jewish people but because they believe the existence of Israel is a precondition for Jesus' return, at which time they expect all Jews to convert to Christianity.

A great many Israelis see their current government basically the same way anti-war Americans saw G.W. Bush and the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. There are even conscientious objectors in the Israeli Defense Forces who refuse to take part. These Israelis obviously do not desire their own deaths any more than the U.S. peace movement supported Al Qaeda. They do, however, see their government's actions as excessive, immoral, and counterproductive. My guess is that Americans are finally seeing these parallels.

Not conservative voters, of course. A 2012 poll found that 63% of Republicans still think that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when we invaded Iraq in 2003, so I am not holding my breath for those with a hard-on for the Apocalypse. But the rest of the electorate is recognizing the right's appetite for bellicose fabrications, false dichotomies, motivated reasoning, and perpetual rage-think.

Granted, we Americans collectively went a little crazy after 9-11. Anger leads to the dark side, and like Yoda said to Luke, progressives had to say, "The cave! Remember your failure at the cave!" We still do.

Of course, I am not saying we should frame the argument as a spiritual failing. Instead, we should make the more straightforward argument that anger makes you stupid. Or, as Ben Franklin put it in Poor Richard's Almanac, "Take this remark from Richard poor and lame, Whate'er's begun in anger ends in shame."

Angry stupidity seems to be finally falling out of fashion. At least now it is a bit easier to call it out.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Native Land

Speaking of leftist patriots, do you want to watch a B&W WPA movie about America made by unapologetic reds like Paul Robeson?* A movie that, like Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas, breaks it all down and explains what America is truly all about?

Of course you do! Because it kicks the living shit out of the phony patriotism of unhinged charlatans like Glenn Beck. (Although I would not put it past Beck to try to co-opt this along with all the other New Deal iconography he has shamelessly strip-mined.) It was filmed in 1942 and titled Native Land

Parts of the narrative are politically problematic. Native Americans would have a valid critique, which makes the tile a little ironic. And it is admittedly pretty preachy. But on the whole it nails it. 

It boasts brilliant cinematography by the legendary photographer Paul Strand and an orchestral score by composer Marc Blitzstein - that dude who Hank Azaria had played in Cradle Will Rock

Watch it. It starts out all ponderous and cheesy, but stick with it. Hell, embrace it.


* I am not, nor ever have been, a member of the Communist Party. Although, I am a Wobbly.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

A Fortuitous Fourth

This past Fourth of July holiday weekend saw a couple of great posts by other people that align quite nicely with my previous post and my book as a whole.

A friend of mine reposted a great 2010 Steve Rendall article entitled, "The Right's Library of Fake Quotes: Putting Words in Dead People’s Mouths." I have been a fan of FAIR for many years, but somehow I had missed this particular piece. I cited many of their articles in my book, including these two which I ritually post every Martin Luther King Day.

Richard Riis posted one called "Independence Day Special: Thirteen Facts About America Conservatives Would Like You to Forget." Item one reminds me of that song in the musical 1776 that Richard Nixon got dropped from the 1972 movie version. In it, the opponents of independence sing their praises of conservatism - "To the right, ever to the right - never to the left." It was put back in for the DVD release. Here is the audio.

And finally, speaking of things I had missed, Bill Moyers & Co. had posted an excerpt of historian Jill Lepore's great 2010 book The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle Over American History. She notes, among other things, that during the 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, it was the left that was claiming the rhetoric of the American Revolution and they had formed a "TEA Party" before - except that their acronym stood for "Tax Equity for Americans" rather than "Taxed Enough Already." They protested against tax loopholes for the rich.

I have just started her book and I am kicking myself for not finding it sooner. I read almost a third of it in one sitting and I am a slow reader who likes to take lots of notes. Forget my book - buy her's!

Just kidding. Buy mine too. Since you are already there and everything.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

That Quote is Totally Legit

WARNING: NERD ALERT - All Others Kindly Skip

It is no newsflash that the Internet is awash with bogus quotes. People especially enjoy putting words in the founding fathers' mouths. The left is nowhere near as guilty of this postmortem oral surgery as the right is. (This is probably because most leftists like change and do not think we should live the same way we did two centuries ago.) But there is also no denying that they do it too from time to time.

Therefore, I have made a point to trace all quotes back to their primary sources whenever possible. For you non-history majors, "primary sources" means official published collections of the historic figure's papers. When I quote secondary sources, i.e. the words of historians rather than historic figures, it is because the historian's opinion or presentation is my focus. But then I cite the historic figure's quote elsewhere.

For example, in the introduction to my book, I quoted social historian Stephanie Coontz quoting James Madison. In that instance, I cited to her book. But I when I later explore that Madison quote even further, I cite to Madison's papers. In the first instance, my point was to show that academics are already familiar with this material even if popular culture is not. In the second instance, my focus is on Madison's thought.

Quote sourcing can be fascinating detective work. Scott Campbell's attempt to track down an elusive Justice Louis D. Brandeis quote that Ralph Nader was fond of shows how ambiguous things can be. So this post is sort of the historical equivalent of a "behind the scenes peek" DVD extra.

You saw the nerd alert at the top, right?

In the course of writing my book, I ran across many quotes that I could not verify and therefore could not use. They might be consistent with other things that the figure has said elsewhere, but as the saying goes, "Close only counts in horse shoes and hand grenades."

This Thomas Jefferson quote in particular eluded verification for quite some time. I am happy to report that it is quite legitimate:

I hope we shall take warning from the example and crush in it’s [sic.] birth the aristocracy of our monied [sic.] corporations which dare already to challenge our government to a trial of strength and bid defiance to the laws of our country.

- Thomas Jefferson, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1899), 10:69.

Rather than toil for no profit, I will be lazy and just cut and paste my end note:

I was initially skeptical about this quote when I ran across it because corporations had not yet gained the great power that they wield today. Banks were the exception, so Jefferson was probably talking about banks (and he blasted banks a lot). But he usually just said “banks” rather than “corporations” so the quote seemed fairly fishy. Moreover, I had already seen several uncited variants that frustrated my every effort to verify them. One person, thinking he or she could improve on Jefferson’s prose, had apparently replaced the word “birth” with “infancy,” further complicating my search. Often such tweaks made the language seem dubiously modern. Jefferson was famously fond of rambling at length and the variants I had seen were suspiciously pithy. If a quote is short and to the point, it is probably not one of Mr. Jefferson’s. I had also seen numerous Frankenstein variants – quotes stitched together with parts of other quotes. Some elusive variants turn out to be legitimate because a historical figure had a favorite phrase that frequently reappears in their works. Today, we call them “buzz words.” Although a variant may be consistent with other verified quotes, consistency is insufficient by itself. Each quote must be individually verified in a published collection of historical papers and this quote finally fits the bill. For example, except for the use of the word “corporations,” this quote is quite similar to the quote I used immediately previous to it: Both speak of a moneyed aristocracy trying to subvert the government. But until I found a source, I could not use this quote no matter how similar it sounded to the previous one. This is an anal-retentive business.

So, if you are going to use this quote, please provide the full citation and do not correct the grammar or tweak the text in any way.

And send people here. I would appreciate the traffic.