31 July 2005 - Sunday

Notes on CfD: Chapter 3

In the third chapter of The Case for Democracy, Natan Sharansky attempts to demonstrate that open societies are inherently better for security than despotisms are. Despite the appearance of stability provided by the dictator's iron fist, the author argues, tyrannies actually encourage belligerence because when governments lack the support of their own people, they need external enemies to divert attention away from their own problems.

The chapter is entitled "Dognat Y Peregnat" after Stalin's contest with the West -- "catch and overcome" -- in which the Soviet people were mobilized to fight the economic power of the capitalist nations. This campaign exploited patriotism and fear, blaming collectivist economic failures on outside sabotage. This program of deliberately manufacturing hostility carried over into military invasions of neighboring countries, which of course were necessary for national security. Thus, Stalin's dictatorship, perhaps the most effective in history, was not an aid but rather a grave threat to international stability. His was not the only despotism to follow such a strategy:

Because external enemies are an effective means of maintaining internal stability, governments in countries as diverse as Cuba, North Korea, and Iran all regard inculcating hatred towards outsiders as critical to their rule. By carefully indoctrinating their subjects, fear societies can keep them mobilized against an enemy and transform potential adversaries within their societies into supporters. (84)
In comparison, Sharansky says, democracies are quite peaceful -- possibly too peaceful:
In response to their voters, most democratic leaders will be inhibited by a pacific reflex, be slow to act, and be overly cautious. This propensity for appeasement can be extremely dangerous if potential threats that could have been nipped in the bud are instead allowed to grow more dangerous. (80)
So far, so good. Democracy often provides a check on militarism. However, this last observation about hesitation could also be applied internally. And this is the kind of insecurity I am really worried about.

Right now, countries like Afghanistan and Iraq are struggling with powerful -- and in some cases, popular -- domestic elements that threaten their freedom. Old wounds have been ripped open, and the fragile new elected governments are struggling to act decisively. Some Americans working as advisors in the transition to democracy have expressed grave concern about the lack of security, which they believe threatens the future of the country. Without security, democracy cannot survive, and the resulting chaos might be even worse than the brutal rule of Saddam was.

Oddly enough, Sharansky seems to agree:

Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place -- such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties -- can free elections be held. ... Until the overwhelming majority of Iraqis and Afghans live without fear of speaking their minds, elections are just as likely to weaken efforts to build democracy as they are to strengthen them. (74)
Sharansky notes that national elections were not called for four years in Germany after the fall of the Third Reich.* He argues that Afghanistan and Iraq present a similar situation; until the people are safe to express their opinions freely, elections could be counterproductive.

So Sharansky believes that internal security (protection for those who wish to speak their minds) is a prerequisite for democracy. This seems to invert the relationship between democracy and security he has described elsewhere. Actually, I think he is including security in the definition of democracy, which probably makes his assertion that "all free societies will guarantee security and peace" into a tautology. Perhaps he makes a distinction between internal (domestic) and external (international) security in these discussions. My view, however, is that the line between internal and external security is getting very hard to draw.

Sharansky confirms that he is including security in the idea of freedom. "The dangers that the skeptics have in mind," he writes, "have nothing to do with democracy per se. At most, they deal with the dangers involved in the transition to democracy" (75). So if a nation (revolutionary France, for example) establishes a constitution and elections, then quickly reverts to a form of tyranny (the Terror and Napoleon), it was never a democracy at all under Sharansky's definition. He is defining away the problem by refusing to recognize as democratic any but fully stable states.

I'm not sure such a definition is usable in foreign policy. Why? Because it is precisely the transitions and failures that some of us fear the most. Allow me to indulge in analogy. Suppose I said, "I need to drive to the store," and someone else said, "It's too dangerous; the roads are iced over." Could I argue that the store was perfectly warm, so it would be silly to worry about ice?

So, in the end, when Sharansky frames the democratic question this way, I believe he is arguing straight past many of his opponents. After all, nobody in the American foreign service would support Iran over the United Kingdom. But that's rarely the sort of alternative we face in our foreign relations. We don't have to pick between full-fledged tyranny and stable democracy. Instead, we face dillemmas like Afghanistan in the 1980s, where many of the people fighting Soviet dictatorship were Islamic extremists. Considering how much more success we had negotiating with Gorbachev than with Bin Laden, one wonders whether Sharansky's prescription for the success of democracy would have required the United States to give active support to the Soviets.


* Although it does not compromise Sharansky's argument, this is an oversimplication. Federal elections were delayed in postwar Germany partly because federal unity was impossible for some time (and was never fully achieved until 1990); the joint Western/Soviet occupation posed obvious difficulties. There were widespread misgivings, but the first local elections in the US zone took place just eight months after the surrender. I do not believe this threatens Sharansky's argument, however; the US military occupation of Germany lasted until 1955. Likewise, it is worth noting that in postwar Japan, national elections were held just seven months after the surrender -- but also that General MacArthur imposed a US-drafted constitution on the government and that the American occupation lasted another six years.

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30 July 2005 - Saturday

Representing war

In the 30 July issue of the evangelical publication World, Gene Edward Veith sharply criticizes the new FX series Over There. Unfortunately, his analysis of the rhetoric of the show, which includes some good points, is marred by a faulty perspective on history and storytelling.

The series follows the lives of fictional soldiers in Iraq, with the goal, it seems, of avoiding larger political questions. The conflict is used merely as the setting for grim drama, following the lead of some contemporary law enforcement shows (co-creator Steven Bochco is known for his work on Hill Street Blues, NYPD Blue, and L.A. Law).

However, Veith rejects the view that the show is apolitical:

But to portray a war without any of its ideals is to portray that war as meaningless. If the reasons for the war are just "politics," if war is nothing more than a struggle for survival, who could support it?

Michael Medved has pointed out the change in war movies. The movies about World War II made five decades ago did not necessarily glamorize war or shrink from how terrible it is. But they presented the GIs as fighting for a cause that gave meaning and value to their sacrifices. The old war movies -- think The Longest Day -- were on the side of the Americans and of America. The soldiers were heroes because the war was worth fighting.

But with the Vietnam War, Mr. Medved observes, that all changed. With the anti-war sentiments of the cultural elite, Hollywood began portraying war -- even "good wars" such as World War II -- as meaningless and absurd. The soldier was portrayed as an existential hero, struggling -- and often failing -- to keep his humanity in a world of senseless violence. (Think Catch-22 for World War II; M*A*S*H for the Korean War; Apocalypse Now for Vietnam.) In the more recent war movies, patriotism is a joke, leaders are corrupt, and idealism is a foolish illusion.

In the new mindset, even pacifism changes. The old pacifism was based precisely on moral ideals. The new pacifism is grounded in cynicism. Ideals and moral values do not exist, so there is nothing worth fighting and dying for.

I have not seen any of Over There, and probably never will. The graphic violence aside, most reviewers seem to agree that the series is not very realistic. The few snatches of dialogue I have heard or read suggest that the script is very weak and that the soliders are caricatures. And I have a sneaky feeling that the show will be pure soap opera before long.

Furthermore, I sympathize with some of Veith's analysis. It is entirely likely that the weakness of the show results largely from the political perspective of the show's creators.

However, I do not like Veith's analysis either of politico-cinematic history or of the motivation for contemporary anti-war activism.

It is an oversimplification to ascribe the evolution in war films solely to political beliefs. The change is part of a larger shift in audience expectations. For example, Americans watching police shows today would object to the idealized portrayals of law enforcement agents in J. Edgar Hoover's America (remember, kids, crime and communism don't pay ... which reminds me to mention that the genres' target demographics have also changed). That does not mean the makers of today's shows dislike the police. Likewise, viewers today, no matter how proud they are of the American role in the Second World War, would find some of the films produced during that era ridiculous. The threshold for the suspension of disbelief has shifted a bit.

Well before Vietnam became a cultural crisis, audiences wanted more subtle treatments. The Longest Day (1962), which Veith lauds for its patriotism, actually presents a fairly sympathetic picture of individuals within the German military. The film does presuppose a noble purpose in the Allied invasion, yet Richard Burton's most memorable line is, "He [a German]'s dead. I'm crippled. You're lost. Do you suppose it's always like that?" Even right after the war ended, some films were patriotically ambiguous. Films like Twelve O'Clock High (1949) and The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), both starring Gregory Peck, depict the recent conflict as bewildering and dehumanizing. The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) won seven Oscars for showing the tragic aftermath of the war in everyday America. And the magnificently absurdist Bridge on the River Kwai was released in 1957. These darker postwar movies came well before the breakdown in national consensus that developed during Vietnam. None gives much indication of the wider purposes of World War II. True, it is unlikely that any of them would have been made during the war itself, but they are all compatible with the belief that the war was just.

In a few cases, cynicism made it into circulation even during World War II. For a good example of this, we can look to the print media. During the Second World War, the brilliant cartoons of Bill Mauldin were full of gallows humor -- and were adored by soldiers and civilians alike. These cartoons mock the cheerful face put on the war by American propaganda, from the perspective of someone who saw the war up close. They show little awareness of any larger meaning. Mauldin himself wrote, "I haven't tried to picture this war in a big, broad-minded way. I'm not old enough to understand what it's all about. My reactions are those of a young guy who has been exposed to some of it, and I try to put those reactions in my drawings." Veith's commentary on Over There suggests that this attitude is mischievous: "In the more recent war movies, patriotism is a joke, leaders are corrupt, and idealism is a foolish illusion." That could almost describe Mauldin's take on World War II at the time. Were his cartoons improper?

What I find especially interesting is that part of Veith's complaint is similar to the opinion of a reviewer for The New Yorker. Nancy Franklin writes: "To judge by the first three episodes, 'Over There' seems to be saying only, or mainly, that war is hell. There's an overall pointlessness to the show thatís rather shocking, ..." That sounds very much like Veith's pro-war take. But the review continues: "... considering the outrageous lies and arrogance that got us into the war. But pointlessness may be inevitable in a country where, at the moment, to risk telling the truth -- beyond the truth that soldiers die in war and things are tough on the home front, too -- is to be condemned as unpatriotic."

Such an analysis shows how clueless Veith is to assert that current anti-war opinion is grounded in the belief that "ideals and moral values do not exist, so there is nothing worth fighting and dying for." That is nonsense, and insulting nonsense too. One need only note the moral-absolutist complaints made by the Left about torture or the legal basis for invasion (and the moral-relativist defenses made by a few on the Right) to recognize this as cultivated blindness.

Franklin's column also illustrates my objection to the "support the troops" rhetoric of the Right. Because we are at war and the troops face such horrible circumstances, the logic goes, we should not engage in debate over the larger political wisdom of going to war in the first place. Yet it seems many on the Right believe that to portray those horrible circumstances without putting the war in its political context is also a disservice to the troops. (Besides Veith's commentary here, witness what happened when Nightline broadcast the names of all of the troops killed in Iraq.) So there are only two permissible ways to talk about the war at all: either to show the hellishness and praise the policy, or not to show the hellishness and still to praise the policy. Either way, there is to be no challenge to the view that the war is wise policy.

Veith is correct, of course, to note that this show has biases. Every narrative has biases. But sometimes a narrative has conflicting biases. Veith notes that "even anti-war war stories exploit the action and excitement of war." I think this thrill makes many war movies pro-war by default. If the only policy we see is that of the battlefield, where American soldiers are getting shot, we obviously want the Americans to shoot back until they win. In the absence of any other information about the policy context of the conflict, a war movie makes most of us want the Americans to fight, period. I do not know whether this is true of Over There, but it is true far too often even in the real-life media. Remember the excitement of seeing B-52s batter Baghdad a couple of years ago? It was very hard to see those fireworks on TV and not be happy about the bloodshed.

[This post has been edited slightly for clarity and precision since I posted it this afternoon.]

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29 July 2005 - Friday

It's raining here

And, appropriately enough, the winners of this year's Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest have been announced.

The winning entry was inspired by the musical Chicago. It really is horrid.

Via the Little Professor.

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28 July 2005 - Thursday

Belligerent realism

Fantasy literature and I got off to a rocky start.

Remember how self-aware Peter Pan is? Remember the scene where Peter breaks the fourth wall, telling all the kids in the audience to applaud in order to save poor little Tinkerbell's life? "Clap! Clap! Clap!" Mary Martin begs us. And of course, all the kids clap.

'Cept me. Even today, when the mood strikes, I sometimes say to myself, "I don't believe in fairies" -- just for the satisfaction of causing one to drop dead somewhere.

I really enjoyed the play. But I repudiated the fairies.

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Politics and the young mind

Henry Adams, The Education of (1907), chapter three:

Life was not yet complicated. Every problem had a solution, even the negro. The boy went back to Boston [from Washington and nearby slave states in 1850] more political than ever, and his politics were no longer so modern as the eighteenth century, but took a strong tone of the seventeenth. Slavery drove the whole Puritan community back on its Puritanism. The boy thought as dogmatically as though he were one of his own ancestors. The Slave power took the place of Stuart kings and Roman popes. Education could go no further in that course, and ran off into emotion; but, as the boy gradually found his surroundings change, and felt himself no longer an isolated atom in a hostile universe, but a sort of herring-fry in a shoal of moving fish, he began to learn the first and easier lessons of practical politics. Thus far he had seen nothing but eighteenth-century statesmanship. America and he began, at the same time, to become aware of a new force under the innocent surface of party machinery. Even at that moment, a rather slow boy felt dimly conscious that he might meet some personal difficulties in trying to reconcile sixteenth-century principles and eighteenth-century statesmanship with nineteenth-century party organization.

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27 July 2005 - Wednesday

Search me.

Well, that was fun.

Update: Thanks to Ludwhig, I've had an even better idea.

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26 July 2005 - Tuesday

The gentleman's B

At Crooked Timber, Harry Brighouse is asking for solid evidence of grade inflation. Is intuition leading us astray? Fascinating discussion in the comments.

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Politicization and scholarship

I have suspected for some time now that no opponent can harm a cause as much as an advocate can. When either side of an argument makes an exaggerated or especially a defamatory claim (e.g., Bush is in league with the Bin Laden family, or nobody ever shot at John Kerry), he invites all people of good will to denounce him. It doesn't mean they will, but it is an open invitation.

In his column at Inside Higher Ed today, Scott McLemee explains why the politicization of academic life can hurt the politicizers. McLemee compares the intellectual legacy of his late conservative friend and colleague, David W. Miller, with that of David Horowitz.

Now, David Horowitz is the conservative activist who groups Saddam Hussein, Pol Pot, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., and Barack Obama on the same list of "individuals who seek to promote leftwing agendas through the political process." Horowitz also considers the late Ayatollah Khomeini a member of the "religious left" along with William Schulz, executive director of Amnesty International. This is all supposed to be very useful; as "a guide to the political left," Horowitz' site DiscoverTheNetwork "defines the left's (often hidden) programmatic agendas and it provides an understanding of its history and ideas."* The site also includes a section on academia.

A few days ago, Timothy Burke, whom I have always found very reasonable, wrote a response to Horowitz' book Unholy Alliance, which elaborates on the charges made on the Web site. Here's what Burke concluded:

Iím very prepared to hear that there is such a sentiment or spirit that romanticizes anti-Western beliefs and politics and produces a kind of anti-American self-loathing among some American intellectuals, which in turn has produced a blindness to the reality of the contemporary world and the challenges to human liberty. Indeed, in some much more precise and focused contexts, Iím not only prepared to believe this, but will and have argued it myself. But only with historical and substantive precision, only with intellectual care, only with curiosity, only with sensitivity, only with a sense of proportion, is such an argument worth making and worth hearing.

In the same publication, Horowitz responded by claiming not to have been writing rigorous intellectual history of the Left at all. His book was instead a description of "the religious character of the left -- its utopian hope and its nihilistic rage -- that determines the political choices it makes." Actual thought apparently plays a minimal part in the Left's ideas. So subtlety was unnecessary:

The left is an Anti-American cult. The same is true of its nihilism, which is universal in the left. I picked Chomsky as an exemplar of the nihilist strain in the left because for him it is obsessive. Todd Gitlin would not describe the United States as worse than Nazi Germany, the way Chomsky does. But I demonstrate from his own words (a privilege Professor Burke does not offer me) that he comes close enough. In particular, his view of America is so negative as to justify his opposition to a war for the freedom of 25 million Muslims and the future of democracy in the Middle East.
Close enough? Let's hope Horowitz doesn't write a book about any other religion. "Some Baptists may not say that Rome is the Antichrist, exactly, but they come close enough to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation."

So, back to Scott McLemee, who read both of these articles and drew some conclusions. He viewed Horowitz' rebuttal as "petulant, abusive, and interminable" -- and self-absorbed. Horowitz had responded to a call for serious analysis with an emotional outburst.

Whether you agree with this assessment of Horowitz' work or not, note well how McLemee says it has affected him, in contrast to the careful scholarship of his conservative friend:

Now, over the past couple of years, Iíve tried hard to honor the memory of David Miller, who, in the year before his death at the ridiculously young age of 35, taught me so much by his example ó by his decency, his modesty, and his wry indulgence of what he must have seen as muddled leftist attitudes. For one thing, itís meant striving to understand things, from time to time, as he might; to consider the strongest, most coherent forms of conservative argument.

To that end, my reading diet now includes a certain amount of right-wing intellectual output ó journals like The Modern Age and The Claremont Review of Books, for example, and books by Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Willmoore Kendall. Itís not necessary to enjoy this stuff, or to agree with it. But it does seem important as part of the process of thinking outside oneís familiar ruts.

But now itís time to go another step. There is only one way to keep from reinforcing the worst impressions of the conservative movement. Henceforth, I will never read another word by David Horowitz.

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25 July 2005 - Monday

Darth Vader ...

... Is a plot of the Presbyterian Church.

Proof via Brandon.

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24 July 2005 - Sunday

A good topic for a paper

After 1797, the American republic found itself embroiled in a "quasi-war" with France, which briefly caused an interesting realignment in regional politics. With war fever at its height in 1798, voters in the [Democratic Republican] coastal south and the backcountry suddenly rallied to the [Federalist] government. In the Congressional elections of 1798, Federalists carried 68 out of 106 seats, including 20 seats below the Potomac and in the back settlements. Even counties that gave rise to the Whisky Rebellion now voted Federalist.

The war fever of '98 marked the beginning of a consistent pattern in American military history. From the quasi-war with France to the Vietnam War, the two southern cultures strongly supported every American war no matter what it was about or who it was against. Southern ideas of honor and the warrior ethic combined to create regional war fevers of great intensity in 1798, 1812, 1846, 1861, 1898, 1917, 1941, 1950 and 1965. Here is another subject that remains to be studied in detail.

David Hackett Fischer, Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America (New York: Oxford UP, 1989), 843.

The pattern seems to be holding up. (The biggest objection I can think of is that Fischer's inclusion of 1861 might be difficult to justify, considering the unusual circumstances of that particular war.) In the case of the Iraq invasion, I was struck by the enthusiasm of conservative Texans, who generally hate the UN in all of its forms, for a war carried out exclusively for the purpose of enforcing UN Security Council resolutions. War against enemyish people, qua war against enemyish people, got this region's support.

Of course, the fact that the war was ordered by a conservative president surely makes a difference. President Clinton's military actions were not as enthusiastically embraced. But as I recall, right-wing opposition to Clinton's military expeditions was weaker in this region than in some other areas. For Kosovo, which came closer to a traditional war than the other examples, I remember quite a bit of implicit support. Granted, I was young at the time, so my memory may be faulty.

In any case, I like this cultural-history explanation of the warlike tendencies of certain areas of the United States. Fischer traces the development of the areas settled by British borderers (immigrants who arrived in the American backcountry from northern England, southern Scotland, and northern Ireland in the eighteenth century). He rejects the idea that the material conditions of the frontier were the main reason for the belligerence of these settlements. Instead, he points out that the British borderlands were very violent long before the American frontier was -- and violent in the same ways, with blood feuds and frequent territorial wars.

The backcountry concept of liberty, in which individual independence was asserted with deadly force, has evolved and remains strong in the libertarian ideals of the southern and western United States. I think this element is often overlooked as a factor in the persistence of Confederate apologists; I know a lot of people without any detectable racist feelings who yet think the South had a legal right to secede from the Union.

I'm chasing rabbit trails now. This book has gotten me started on several lines of thought. I highly recommend it.

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23 July 2005 - Saturday


There's plagiarism, and there's desperate plagiarism. Here's how somebody got to this blog recently, via Yahoo: "Write a reflection paper on my long slow journey about my four years at Metro State College and describe the classes."

Well, I'm pretty sure I can't help you with that one. But if you happen to be in Bulgaria, and happen to google "oomph!" ... I'm slightly more relevant, apparently.

Anyway, I went to Half Price Books in Austin today. I was looking for a copy of The Education of Henry Adams. I found one. I also found:

Hildegard von Bingen -- a CD with 11 of her compositions. I was overjoyed.

Camus, L'ťtranger

Barzun, From Dawn to Decadence

Pierson, Tocqueville in America

Taylor and Haas, German: A Self-Teaching Guide (Have I ever mentioned how inconvenient it is to have nothing but Spanish and Greek offered at LETU?)

Collins Robert French Unabridged Dictionary

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21 July 2005 - Thursday

Notes on CfD: Chapter 2

There is a great deal to like in the second chapter of The Case for Democracy. Sharansky's main point is self-evident: the nature of "public opinion" in societies that repress dissent is fundamentally different from the nature of public opinion in open societies.

His argument centers on doublethink in closed societies. Interestingly, he uses the term to refer to conscious self-censorship of expression. This is different from Orwell's usage, which emphasized the effectiveness of state propaganda in forcing mental submission. Orwell called doublethink a way "to tell deliberate lies while genuinely believing in them." Sharansky, however, uses it to refer to a clear division between real belief and public pretense:

Doublethinkers, who must play a role their entire lives in order to survive, will have little problem hiding their true beliefs and still convincing an outsider of their sincerity. Their role playing is made easier by the fact that many outside observers have an idealogical bias that allows them to willingly suspend their disbelief and not see the effects of tyranny. (54)
In a sense, I suppose, Orwell's original usage of doublethink characterizes the latter group more than the former. I do not mean to criticize Sharansky on this ground. He was a dissenting member of Soviet society; I think he can be trusted as an observer of the psychology of repression. I merely mean to clarify the usage a little.

Arguing that a state of doublethink dominates individual and collective expression within "fear societies," Sharansky takes Western observers to task for embracing propaganda that many of the oppressed themselves only pretend to believe. Brainwashing always happens and always finds some success in fear societies, but "eventually, bitter experience belies the propaganda so that not even some of the people can be fooled all of the time" (59). Outsiders, therefore, are foolish to believe what they hear from oppressive regimes, even when the party line comes from ordinary people. As the author points out, the results of such credulity can be pathetic, as when a parade of Western intellectuals hailed the government of the USSR as a paragon of enlightenment during the 1930s.

Applying this principle to present conflicts, Sharansky argues that the expressed opinions of some Arab publics should be viewed with suspicion. Among the Palestinians, for example, political expression should be evaluated carefully. Although the Palestinian Authority has been highly successful in molding the actual beliefs of its people, even in a "much more open societ[y]" than some (58), still Arafat's apparatus intimidated many Palestinians into doublethink:

After all, Arafat and the PA controlled the distribution system of food aid, a monopoly over many basic goods, the hundreds of millions of dollars of international aid that were supposed to go to improving conditions for Palestinians, tens of thousands of permits that allowed Palestinians to work in Israel, and much more. Many Palestinians had to express loyalty to Arafat and the PA if they hoped to feed their families. (59)
I am not sure, of course, whether or not this should be taken as a hopeful sign for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. On the one hand, the author tells us that Palestinian hatred of Israel is widespread and real; on the other hand, he tells us that it was reinforced by propaganda from a regime that kept power through fear. The author has hope. He suggests that the role of coercion in current Palestinian opinion actually indicates that independent thought is possible in Palestine; pointing to the situation in Iran, he notes that the Iranians are growing very restless under their repressive leaders even though they were the ones who originally put that government into place.

There may be a problem with this line of reasoning, however -- at least, a problem from the perspective of the West. Unless one accepts Sharansky's view that "all free societies will guarantee security and peace" (xxv), which I do not, one must remember that the Palestinian people could be free of coercion at home and still engage in rampant terrorism against Israel. Indeed, at this time, the most viable political opposition to the current PA leadership seems to be the terrorist group Hamas, which has already won some municipal elections.*

I return, however, to Sharansky's reference to Iran. Here again, he makes an interesting point:

The attitude of those living in fear societies toward of America is a reflection of their attitudes toward their own regime. If America is seen as supporting that regime, as in Saudi Arabia and Egypt, the people hate America. If America is seen as opposing the regime, as in Iran, the people admire it. A few months ago, a leader of a former Soviet Republic told me about his recent visit to Iran: "It reminded me of the Soviet Union. All the officials criticize and condemn America and all the people love America."

Even those who genuinely hate America do not necessarily hate free societies. Rather, part of their hatred is due to the perception that by supporting the nondemocratic regimes that are oppressing them, America is betraying the democratic values it claims to uphold. (60)

In this, the author is undermining some of the concepts espoused by America's leadership. Since 11 September, it has been commonplace in some circles to say that "terrorists hate freedom." Sharansky's analysis, however, suggests that our (largely Saudi and Egyptian) assailants in al Qaeda are attacking the US for precisely the reasons they say* they are attacking the US: because they identify the United States with oppressive government at home. Terrorism is a threat to freedom, of course, but that is not necessarily the terrorists' war aim. Furthermore, this suggests that if the War on Terror strengthens American ties to certain nondemocratic allies, as it has been doing, it may actually reinforce anti-Americanism.

This is an intriguing chapter. For me, it is interesting especially because it updates old lines of thought; in much of our discourse, the connections between the struggles of the Cold War and the struggles of the present day are crudely and erroneously drawn if they are drawn at all. Sharansky does not deal much with strategy in this chapter, but his social observations have some strategic implications. In any case, I enjoy the application of his experience to more recent global conflict.

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19 July 2005 - Tuesday

Judge Roberts

There is evidence that Roberts is not happy with Roe v. Wade, although it should probably be remembered that most of his record on that subject comes from his years as a functionary in Republican administrations. He may have been just doing his job. (Juan Non-Volokh commented on that here.) So far, everybody seems to agree that he is very, very good at doing his job.

I don't have anything insightful to say. I just wanted to get a post up today. I'm optimistic, if anybody would like to know.

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18 July 2005 - Monday

In others' words: book edition

Thanks to a basic knowledge of this interweb thingy, Tim Lambert has collected some pretty good evidence that John Lott (the "more guns, less crime" guy) has been defending his own work under different screen names. This is not a new allegation, but Lambert's work is particularly thorough. >>

Speaking of the communications age, Sharon Howard offers some ideas about why Harry Potter and similar book phenomena get fans so excited. >>

The New Yorker ventures into Roald Dahl's lair. >>

Tyler Williams covers the discovery of possible new Dead Sea scrolls. There are two fragments, apparently from Leviticus 23 and 24. They look genuine to Williams. >> Jim Davila still recommends caution. >>

Update: Regarding Harry Potter again, Jonathan Dresner explains why the books bother him a little:

I'm an historian, and a social historian at that, and I can't fathom how Rowling's world came to be, or how it functions. That drives me nuts. The students are always doing history papers, most of which are amusingly dreadful antiquarianism, but there's no discussion to speak of of anything that happened more than two generations ago. Worse, there's no sense of evolution, no sense of change. And that is wrong. >>

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17 July 2005 - Sunday


1. cats or dogs
2. blond(e) or brunet(te)
3. cable or network
4. chicken or beef
5. glasses or contacts
6. beach or mountains
7. Hepburn: Audrey or Katharine
8. lobotomy or Napoleon Dynamite
9. Amazon or interlibrary loan
10. Astaire or Kelly
11. Poirot or Wimsey
12. Chicago or New York
13. carpet or wood
14. blueberry or strawberry
15. theater: European or Pacific
16. diary or journal
17. desktop or laptop
18. film: American or foreign
19. Emerson or Thoreau
20. golf or tennis
21. Descartes or Pascal
22. copy or Xerox
23. Kleenex or tissue
24. rain or shine
25. Chef Boyardee or ramen

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16 July 2005 - Saturday

In others' words: jihad edition

In "My Enemyís Friend Is My Enemy" at Liberty & Power, Sudha Shenoy insists that jihadism must be recgonized as a political struggle within Islam.

At Chapati Mystery, Sepoy argues that school shootings and The Matrix can tell us something about the mentality that fosters terrorism.

William F. Buckley says that world war is easy. Changing minds is hard.

The Pew Global Attitudes Project finds that in Muslim countries, support for terrorism and confidence in bin Laden have generally been falling (especially since 2004, where the data are that specific).

"I Am the Very Model of a Modern Labour Minister" is a Flash lampoon of Britain's national ID cards.

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15 July 2005 - Friday

History Carnival XII

The twelfth History Carnival is up at Mode for Caleb! There's lots of historical and historiological goodness to be had.

A sample of the entries:

Nathanael Robinson writes that the bourgeoisie in nineteenth-century Europe was more radical than we often assume. >>

Susan Kitchens liveblogs the Trinity atomic bomb test. >>

In a trademark multi-part post, Mark Grimsley examines the American Civil War as "a people's war." >>

Brandon Watson looks at Alexander Hamilton's religious beliefs and tragic demise. >>

Alun illustrates the usefulness of RSS to historians. >>

Barista investigates a mysterious prank aboard the ship of James Cook. >>

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14 July 2005 - Thursday


It's, uh ... it's Bastille Day again. As some of you may know, this is the anniversary of --


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13 July 2005 - Wednesday

Finding my place

This afternoon I headed back to the American Historical Association's site. I was hoping to do two things: first, to confirm or call into question my top grad-school choices, and second, to find a few slightly less prestigious schools that still pertain to my interests.

Allow me to recommend a couple of features of the AHA's site, especially since some of my readers are undergraduates in history.

First, you can search graduate programs by field of specialization. Select "trans-Atlantic" from a pulldown menu, for example, and you will get just two results: UT Arlington and the University of Toledo. The individual records for these schools will give you a lot more information about their history departments.

An even cooler feature, however, is the directory of dissertations in progress. With this, you could retrieve the titles of 17 dissertations currently being written by students at UT Arlington (along with the names of the advisors). Alternatively, you could search all dissertations for "transatlantic"; that would show you 18 projects at 10 institutions -- again, UT Arlington figures prominently. You could even find all of the dissertations overseen by a particular advisor -- very helpful once your search gets that detailed.

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Plotting the past

Miriam Burstein is reading novels about Anne Boleyn, and she is writing down some thoughts about the relationship between historical fiction and the history that allegedly undergirds it:

So far, all of the novels have imposed some very twentieth-century notions about marriage for love, public vs. private behavior, and domestic space as an ideally depoliticized "private sphere" on sixteenth-century maneuverings that firmly resist any such scripts. I'm not an early modernist, but I cannot see how Henry VIII's married life can be rewritten as a "private" affair; all of his machinations in that area make hash of our own public/private distinctions.

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12 July 2005 - Tuesday

Guns, Germs, and Steel

I watched the first part of the National Geographic special (starring, and based on the book by, Jared Diamond) on PBS last night. Unfortunately, I was not very pleased with the documentary.

I did find Diamond himself impressive, of course. The program tried harder than necessary to accomplish that. What did not impress me were the vagueness and self-importance of the film.

Glacially paced, the program constantly reminded the audience of how revolutionary and "audacious" its concepts were. It presented these concepts in what I found a simplistic fashion, without much specific evidence. The film backed up its conclusions mainly with other conclusions, with anecdotes, or with generalizations. And lots of stock footage.

Of course, this first segment focused on prehistory, so the means by which scholars reach their conclusions are arcane. Yet when Diamond got specific, the program got a lot stronger. The first interesting part of the film was his identification of the 14 large animals that have been domesticated (they almost all come from Eurasia). It was simple enough for him to present that information, but its specificity and objectivity provided the first real support for his thesis.

Meanwhile, the narrator was making what I thought were inflated claims. Material explanations are not exactly a new thing in the historiography of northern prosperity. Diamond has obviously done some valuable work, but I don't think he invented the concept of factor endowments.

What bothered me more, though, was that the narrator kept claiming new factors as the end-all of Diamond's work. First, the source of all prosperity was the domestication of plants ("audacious" in its simplicity!). Then, domesticated plants and large domesticated animals, the two sources. Our two sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; and, next week, guns, germs, and steel. Five. Our five sources are domesticated plants; large domesticated animals; guns, germs, and steel; and an almost fanatical devotion to the pope. Amongst our sources ....

Also annoying was the frequent identification of North America with Eurasia, even though the natural resources were so different for so long. The program kept getting ahead of itself, claiming that particular natural resources are the source of the United States' prosperity even while showing a historic scarcity of those resources in the New World. So how did domesticated plants and animals reach America? The prosperity of the United States suggests a significant role for human agency -- at least in the motivation and technology for transportation -- but this was ignored.

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11 July 2005 - Monday

Dude, where's my passport?

"U.S. officials told him his passport was destroyed in the course of testing its authenticity."

Quite a feat.

Anyway, this is yet another contradiction of the myth that the liberty only of non-citizens is in jeopardy. (His extremely fragile US passport aside, this man served three years in the US Navy.) According to the lawsuit filed by the ACLU (PDF), he was held for nearly a month after the FBI cleared him. I wonder what would have happened if we didn't have all these pinkos running around, whining about due process.

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Pacifism has slain its thousands, retaliation its tens of thousands

Caleb McDaniel and Timothy Burke continue their fascinating conversation on war, peace, human agency, and the nature of modern civilization.


But I worry that any argument in favor of violence--however limited--ultimately reduces to the argument that the end justifies the means. Moreover (and this is why it's dangerous to say that the end justifies the means) we don't even know that the means of violence will secure the end of a world without violence. A utilitarian rationale for war requires making a bet that war will produce peace, but thus far in the world's history, the house has won that bet every single time.
... I think I'd be entitled to claim World War II as a case in which the bet against the house was won, where aggression was met with aggression and that counterfactually, had it not been met with aggression, the "peace" which would have resulted would have not been worthy of the name. This goes back to my unease about whether peace per se is a goal: peace under Nazi or Stalinist hegemony is not peace worth having, even if it were the absence of conflict.

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10 July 2005 - Sunday

My kind of geekery

Mark Shea has written a source-criticism analysis of The Lord of the Rings:

The conflicting ethnic, social and religious groups which preserved these stories all had their own agendas, as did the "Tolkien" (T) and "Peter Jackson" (PJ) redactors, who are often in conflict with each other as well but whose conflicting accounts of the same events reveals a great deal about the political and religious situations which helped to form our popular notions about Middle Earth and the so-called "War of the Ring.". Into this mix are also thrown a great deal of folk materials about a supposed magic "ring" and some obscure figures named "Frodo" and "Sam". In all likelihood, these latter figures are totems meant to personify the popularity of Aragorn with the rural classes.
Via the Teaching Assistant.

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9 July 2005 - Saturday

Fox host speaks indelicately

Nation shocked.

From the July 6 broadcast of Westwood One's The Radio Factor with Bill O'Reilly, guest-hosted by [Fox News host John] Gibson:
GIBSON: By the way, just wanted to tell you people, we missed -- the International Olympic Committee missed a golden opportunity today. If they had picked France, if they had picked France instead of London to hold the Olympics, it would have been the one time we could look forward to where we didn't worry about terrorism. They'd blow up Paris, and who cares?

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Notes on CfD: Chapter 1

The first chapter of The Case for Democracy, entitled "Is Freedom for Everyone?," presents Sharansky's belief that all societies desire and are capable of liberty. The author holds that freedom is not only "a universal desire" (18) but also a universal possibility.

The author does some good work in this chapter. He attacks ethnocentrism; to refute claims that some peoples are inherently unsuited to self-rule, he brings up a list of now-democratic societies that were once described that way.

Italy, Germany, Russia, Japan -- these nations once had many people convinced that democracy was alien to their national characters. Sharansky admits that the countries of the Middle East have been more stubborn, but points out, quoting Freedom House, that "'the majority of the world's Muslims live under democratically constituted governments'" (35), suggesting that Islam is not inherently incompatible with democracy. He admits that the absence of democracy in the Middle East itself is troubling. Even so, the histories of other cultures give him hope.

This universalism is a credit to Sharansky. So far, it has been the most enjoyable aspect of CfD. The author has done nothing to suggest a fear of The Other; if he is unlikely to ask "why do they hate us?" it is because he is unlikely to talk about "them" in the first place. I find this refreshing. Sharansky's universalist rhetoric of liberation is a lot more convincing than the mťlange of liberation, threat eradication, and revenge I find in the work of many war advocates. (Then again, the neoconservative elite generally seems to be better about this than the GOP rank and file.)

Continue reading "Notes on CfD: Chapter 1" below the fold . . .

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8 July 2005 - Friday

Weighing the risks

Everybody seems to be talking about an article by "Ivan Tribble" in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Bloggers Need Not Apply." It warns academics away from blogging:

Our blogger applicants came off reasonably well at the initial interview, but once we hung up the phone and called up their blogs, we got to know "the real them" -- better than we wanted, enough to conclude we didn't want to know more.
Naturally, this is of some concern to me. I started blogging early in my undergraduate career, and my identity has never been hard to figure out. Forget tenured v. untenured blogging; I haven't had my undergraduate research seminar yet.

On the other hand, I've always been miserable in interviews anyway. The context-free sales pitch described (recommended) in this article has never treated me kindly. I really don't think I have much to lose.

Furthermore, I think other LETU students may agree with me that any publicity for students in humanities programs as minimalistic as ours is good publicity. If we can demonstrate some degree of competence and familiarity with our fields, even tangentially, we will be doing ourselves a favor. That is why I haven't tried to bury this blog and start over anonymously. I actually want my name attached to something.

One other thing. I agree with Brandon entirely: "I'm not sure I'd want colleagues who are so far behind the times that they'd make such odd inferences. ... What sort of crazy, sour-faced, self-righteous department would that be?"

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"No right of secession from modernity"

Tim Burke responds to Caleb McDaniel's plea:

The defense of freedom and the aspiration for justice requires the possibility of violence, at least as long as you understand both freedom and justice to be things which are only meaningful on this earth, in this life, to us as living human beings. Putting peace in the same exalted place requires giving up much of what we now understand as a necessity for justice in the here and now.
An interesting observation. It suggests a paradox. Is not securing peace a fundamental aspect of justice? But can justice be guaranteed without the possibility of violence in its defense?

On the other hand, can peace be guaranteed without mercy? I as a Christian cannot easily distinguish guilt and innocence except in particular contexts; in general terms, "all have sinned" and "there is none righteous." Do any of us really want a just society, or are we really referring to different forms of mercy and grace, extended one to another and enforced by the state?

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7 July 2005 - Thursday

"Doubt war"

Caleb McDaniel has posted an appeal:

Let us resolve to make peace, even though that resolution will be mistaken by many as passivity. If the alternative is the activity of killing, of bombing a house for a bus, then let us be prepared to be called passive. But let us also be prepared to point out, as McGowan does, that peace can make claims on pragmatists at least as compelling as war. Have three years of war solved the difficulties of our time? Manifestly, no. Have three millennia of war brought us closer to peace?
I'm not going to comment at this time on the rightness or wrongness of this position. I will only say that I have not heard anything braver.

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Mind the gap

If New York is the city you don't want to mess with, London is the city you cannot ruffle. It is also well prepared for this sort of thing.

The AP, citing an unnamed American law enforcement source in contact with British officials, has now reported at least 40 deaths.

I enjoyed part of President Bush's remarks from the G8 summit:

On the one hand, we got people here who are working to alleviate poverty and to help rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS and that are working on ways to have a clean environment. And on the other hand, you've got people killing innocent people. And the contrast couldn't be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those of us who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who've got such evil in their heart that they will take the lives of innocent folks.
Let's try to keep up that distinction.

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6 July 2005 - Wednesday

Faith seeking understanding

You scored as Anselm. Anselm is the outstanding theologian of the medieval period. He sees man's primary problem as having failed to render unto God what we owe him, so God becomes man in Christ and gives God what he is due. You should read 'Cur Deus Homo?'



John Calvin


Karl Barth


Jonathan Edwards


Friedrich Schleiermacher


Charles Finney


J�rgen Moltmann


Paul Tillich


Martin Luther




Which theologian are you?
created with QuizFarm.com

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5 July 2005 - Tuesday

Notes on CfD: Introduction

Having been urged by not only the president of the United States but also my mother to read The Case for Democracy (Natan Sharansky with Ron Dermer), and even having been given a copy of the book by the mother of a friend, I have decided to inaugurate a series of blogposts about it. I will try to cover at least a chapter each week.

I hesitate to ignore the preface and introduction to the book; they set the tone for the rest and provide an abstract of Sharansky's ideas:

I believe that all people are capable of creating a free society. I believe that all free societies will guarantee security and peace. And I believe that by linking international policy to building free socities, the free world can once again secure a better future for hundreds of millions of people around the world. (xxv)

However, it would be difficult to appraise these ideas without being able to examine specific examples. I think most modern people, from communists to Islamists, would agree that it is good to be "free" and that governments should try to advance the cause of freedom. If you don't believe me, find the writings of any anti-American; you won't have to look far to find terms like like "liberation" and "oppression." Therefore, I will critique only two aspects of the introduction before moving on to the first chapter.

Continue reading "Notes on CfD: Introduction" below the fold . . .

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4 July 2005 - Monday


Borrowing an old idea from my cousin, I present a bit of a lark.

The rule is that you must choose one or the other of each pair -- no "both." The reasoning, of course, is up to you. Leave your answers in the comments.

1. Comics or crossword

2. Coffee or tea

3. Dickens or Twain

4. IM or telephone

5. Illuminati or Templars

6. Baseball or soccer

7. Beethoven or Mozart

8. CNN or Fox

9. Town or country

10. Trafalgar or Waterloo

11. Flora or fauna

12. Last Crusade or Lost Ark

13. Hardcover or paperback

14. Pots or pans

15. Dimple or freckles

16. Almonds or pecans

17. Mayonnaise or mustard

18. Lee: guy or girl

19. Aristotle or Plato

20. Pen or pencil

21. Heads or tails

22. Sandals or shoes

23. NASCAR or philately

24. Eliot or Pound

25. Economics or physics

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Full of sound and fury

Unfortunately (in my opinion), our seating for Macbeth turned out to be the reverse of our seating for Midsummer; we found ourselves in the back row.

This was mainly a problem because the placement of a few of the stage lights made the rest of the auditorium too visible; I could see everything in the theater and found this distracting. Otherwise, the lighting was superb. The set was almost totally black except for a red moon that was obscured upon Duncan's murder and a red gash in the floor that widened as the action progressed. Smoke floated across the stage throughout the performance, accentuating the white beams of the lights.

Consistent with the scenery, the costumes were all in black, red, or white. As Sharpton noted afterward, there were hints of Asian influence in all of this; the armor and choreography strongly suggested samurai.

The experience was much different from the previous night's. I found Macbeth slightly less absorbing (and, of course, less amusing) than A Midsummer Night's Dream, but it had some very strong performances. A few scenes were genuinely creepy, and Lady Macbeth was particularly fanatical and seductive. I hope Wheeler will soon post more thorough reviews of both plays. Meantime, I think I can strongly recommend the Texas Shakespeare Festival to anyone interested.

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3 July 2005 - Sunday

The course of true love never did run smooth

The performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream last night was enthralling. I've never seen the comic aspects of a Shakespeare play brought out more effectively; I felt like a groundling having a good time rather than a yuppie trying to look intelligent. This was easily the best live performance I've seen in the area, enhanced by our second-row seats. Supposedly we get the same seats tonight.

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2 July 2005 - Saturday

Identifying the enemy

Chris Bray is a history grad student who was recently called to active duty. He has posted some initial observations on attitudes seen so far among fellow soldiers at Fort Benning:

I hesitate to begin drawing Big Conclusions based on two weeks of barracks chatter and PowerPoint presentations, but it does seem to me that there's a problem with the idea that American military power is the right tool for a pedagogy of liberation. We are partners in freedom with the fucking ragheads, teaching those sneaky little fuckers about the values of a constitutional republic. Something seems a little off, there.

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Frying Nemo

I arrived in Longview yesterday not long after two o'clock. It was still raining lightly; I had just driven through a thunderstorm in Henderson.

Guessing that the liberal arts offices at LeTourneau would still be open, I headed to Heath-Hardwick Hall. I found several people there, including Judy Walton, Dr. Watson, Prof. Payton, and Dr. Hummel. Even Dr. Olson showed up briefly. She seems to be feeling better -- well enough, at least, to pass around grandbaby photos.

I was in plenty of time, of course, for the first event on my schedule: supper courtesy of St. Michael and All Angels' Episcopal Church. The get-together was irresistibly high-concept. First, we would have a fish fry. Afterward, we would watch Finding Nemo under the stars. (The event was well-attended by small children, who seemed to take the continuity in stride.)

I probably ate too much; fish fry is a powerful experience. The movie, of course, was hilarious. Even better, though, was listening to the Drs. Watson talk. ETBU's Dr. Watson is as much fun as ours (her husband), who entertained us with stories about some of the less-well-received sermons he's preached.

Tonight's event will be A Midsummer Night's Dream. I look forward to it.

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1 July 2005 - Friday

History Carnival XI

I am heading up to East Texas for the weekend. I want to take in the Texas Shakespeare Festival, which I had to miss last year, in the company of friends who are still in the area. Rumor has it that the performances are very good. I'm forced into an unfortunate trade, though: I have to miss The Philadelphia Story and Woman of the Year at the Paramount. Hepburn, Shakespeare ... Shakespeare, Hepburn ....

Right. While I am on the road, please visit the eleventh History Carnival, tenderly woven together by the redoubtable Brandon Watson. This edition is particularly colorful and carnival-like. Among the posts included:

Eric Muller looks at a Boy Scout Jamboree that took place in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II >>

Manan Ahmed describes a Pakistani woman's fight for justice, which could be the start of something far greater. >>

Lauren looks at the iconography of St. Peter Martyr. >>

Orac reflects on the pitfalls of the argumentum ad Nazium. >>

It's just possible that the carnival includes an entry from your humble servant.

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