31 October 2005 - Monday

The Cliopatria Awards

The blogosphere's flagship history site, Cliopatria, has unveiled an award for excellence in historical blogging. The award has six categories: best group blog, best individual blog, best new blog, best post, best series of posts, and best writing.

Judging will be handled by three distinguished committees of history bloggers. They will make their decisions in December, with the winners to be announced at the American Historical Association convention in Philadelphia. During November, we are asked to make nominations for the various categories. It sounds like a great deal of fun.

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27 October 2005 - Thursday

Syntax as poison pill?

Texas has a constitutional amendment election on 8 November. The second proposition on the ballot is the one getting the most attention: it would amend the state constitution to prohibit not only gay marriage but anything resembling gay marriage as a legal status.

I was alarmed to discover what the proposed amendment actually says -- not because of political disagreement but because of an astounding logic problem.

Article I, Texas Constitution, is amended by adding Section 32 to read as follows:

Sec. 32.

(a) Marriage in this state shall consist only of
the union of one man and one woman.

(b) This state or a political subdivision of this state may
not create or recognize any legal status identical or similar to
marriage.

"This state may not recognize any legal status identical or similar to marriage"? Not for anybody?

The intended meaning of (b) is fairly clear, of course, because of (a). I suppose a particularly enterprising judge might decide to nullify all marriage in Texas on the basis of this awkward phrasing, but I find it unlikely. (In other words, I don't buy this.)

Still, how many committees and interest groups let this sentence go by without objecting to its structure?

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25 October 2005 - Tuesday

Which Is to Say

A draft.

Every morning the same boring innovation.
I do not recognize this dispensation,
Nor does it (let's be frank) me.

I was lying.
I came into this age a lost crying child
And grew to love it
Because it called me grandson
And gave me a home
With crayons and a desk
And knew I would one day be interesting.

But now my garden does not have a gate,
Nor my house a portico.
Strangers climb in through the windows
And out through the gopher holes,
Leaving no forwarding address.

Every road (you may have heard)
Goes to the same place
Because they all (after all)
Lead Somewhere. This is clever.

But I have been clever too:
My God, that's a long way down.

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21 October 2005 - Friday

Righteousness in a vacuum

At the Unreconstructed Niebuhrian's request, I present an excerpt from this week's readings in Intellectual History:

It is significant, too, that the very part of the country in which the churches insist upon "regenerate membership" and recruit such a membership by persistent revivals is most grievously corrupted by the sin of race hatred. Protestantism -- and insofar as Roman Catholicism has departed from the best medievalism, Catholicism, too -- has no understanding of the complex factors of environment out of which personality emerges. It is always "saving" individuals, but not saving them from the greed and the hatred into which they are tempted by the society in which they live. Protestantism, it might be said, does not seem to know that the soul lives in a body, and that the body is part of a world in which the laws of the jungle still prevail.

Perhaps it might not be irrelevant to add that its failure to understand the relation between the physical and the spiritual not only tempts Protestantism to create righteousness in a vacuum but to develop piety without adequate symbol. That is why the church services of extreme Protestant sects tend to become secularized once the first naive spontaneity departs from their religious life. In Europe nonconformist Protestants tend more and more to embrace the once despised beauty of symbol and dignity of form in order to save worship from dullness and futility. In America nonconformist Protestantism, with less cultural background, tries to avert dullness by vulgar theatricality. The Quakers alone escape this fate because their exclusion of symbol is so rigorous that silence itself becomes symbol. If worship is to serve manís ethical as well as religious needs, it must give him a sense of humble submission to the absolute. Humility is lacking in Protestant worship as it is missing in Protestant civilization. If this humility is medievalism, we cannot save civilization without medievalism.

This article, by Christian intellectual Reinhold Niebuhr, was published in 1926 in Christian Century.

Niebuhr's observations came at a moment when a crisis of authority was being felt acutely by Western churches. Both fundamentalism and theological modernism were making names for themselves as (rival) religious responses to the new era. Niebuhr rejected both, arguing that the best answer to "secularized civilization" was a return to an older ("medieval") understanding of the Church's role in society.

I question this position; the Church guarded its medieval authority in part by being authoritarian, vesting the society's ethical systems in a limited priesthood rather than in individuals. (Note the condemnation of "vulgar" models of worship.) Given some of his political opinions, I doubt that Niebuhr would advocate adopting this model in its entirety -- so I am not entirely sure what we should make of this article's recommendation.

On the other hand, I agree that Protestantism has sometimes shown a tendency toward privatization. When every believer stresses his own interpretation of the Bible and his own encounter with Christ (as important as these things are), the community of believers often seems to suffer fragmentation. (This strikes me as possibly relevant to some of the Southern churches' longtime complicity in racism.) A return to the symbolism of the medieval Church, problematic as it might be in some respects, could at least reintroduce respect for mystery, discouraging certain forms of glibness. Common ground may lie in what we do not understand.

Then again, a return to symbol could itself be a form of subjectivism and individualism. Perhaps Niebuhr simply fell into a familiar trap: finding a moral fault in society and blaming it on a distasteful belief system, overlooking the failures of one's own system. Racism, after all, is not the only ethical inconsistency to plague supposedly Christian civilizations, and the Catholic regions of the world have tolerated their fair share of the world's evil. Fortunately, Niebuhr made up for this a little by stressing that "the laws of the jungle" still apply to the flesh, no matter who dominates Christian observance.

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18 October 2005 - Tuesday

Mencken on the role of the critic

H. L. Mencken attacks a species of didactic and conventional critics, those who "exhibit alarm immediately when they come into the presence of the extraordinary":

As practiced by all such learned and diligent but essentially ignorant and unimaginative men, criticism is little more than a branch of homiletics. They judge a work of art, not by its clarity and sincerity, not by the force and charm of its ideas, not by the technical virtuosity of the artist, not by his originality and artistic courage, but simply and solely by his orthodoxy. If he is what is called a "right thinker," if he devotes himself to advocating the transient platitudes in a sonorous manner, then he is worthy of respect. But if he lets fall the slightest hint that he is in doubt about any of them, then he is a scoundrel, and hence, by their theory, a bad artist. Such pious piffle is horribly familiar among us.
Then he proposes an alternative role for the critic:
A catalyzer, in chemistry, is a substance that helps two other substances to react. For example, consider the case of ordinary cane sugar and water. Dissolve the sugar in water and nothing happens. But add a few drops of acid and the sugar changes to glucose and fructose. Meanwhile, the acid itself is absolutely unchanged. All it does is to stir up the reaction between the water and the sugar. The process is called catalysis. The acid is a catalyzer.

Well, this is almost exactly the function of a genuine critic of the arts. It is his business to provoke the reaction between the work of art and the spectator. The spectator, untutored, stands unmoved; he sees the work of art, but it fails to make any intelligible impression on him; if he were spontaneously sensitive to it, there would be no need for criticism. But now comes the critic with his catalysis. He makes the work of art live for the spectator; he makes the spectator live for the work of art. Out of the process comes understanding, appreciation, intelligent enjoyment -- and that is precisely what the artist tried to produce.

H. L. Mencken, from Prejudices: First Series.

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17 October 2005 - Monday

A thousand lost golf balls

A present from myself arrived in the mail today.

'Complete' within 1909-1950, anyway

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15 October 2005 - Saturday

History Carnival XVIII

The eighteenth History Carnival is up at Acephalous. Entries I have checked so far include:

John McKay examines T. E. Lawrence's rediscovered plan for national borders in the Middle East. >>

K. M. Lawson compares different accounts of Japanese annexation of Korea. >>

Kristine Steenbergh reflects on a reference to "mourning in steel" in Shakespeare's Henry VI, making inferences about post-Reformation culture. >>

Phil Harland provides links for those interested in the Roman empire's cult of the emperors. >>

PK provides some woodcuts from a classic medieval volume on metallurgy. >>

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Fading light, converging paths


Continue reading "Fading light, converging paths" below the fold . . .

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13 October 2005 - Thursday

A plea for growing up

This is sad. I spent half an hour of my time yesterday trying to keep the expression "seeing-eye bitch" from being censored by our student newspaper.

The expression was used in a book review that I copy-edited. It is a direct quotation from the book under discussion. After listening to the reviewers, I am convinced that this expression is useful in the review as a way to capture an important aspect of the book. It seems, however, that some other people are nervous.

Now, this controversy is not that important by itself. Removing the expression will weaken the review -- if only by making it less interesting -- but the review is still excellent. However, I object as strongly as the reviewers to the excision of the phrase.

Who do we think will take offense at the inclusion? Seeing-eye dogs? Small children -- because so many of them read our book reviews? People with no vocabulary or sense of context whatsoever?

Or is this just a reflex? At a conservative Christian school, when we see a word like "bitch" in any context, we're supposed to drown it quietly to avoid contamination.

It is degrading. It is degrading because it implies an incredible ignorance and weakness of mind on the part of our readership. It is degrading because we are subjecting excellent staff writers to the sensitivities of an imaginary sanctimonious crank -- one highly unlikely, actually, to care about this novel. In a larger sense, it is degrading because it keeps us from interacting with our culture respectfully. We evangelicals love to make a show of putting conversational perfumed handkerchiefs to our noses, avoiding the odors of our neighbors.

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12 October 2005 - Wednesday

Santayana on history and modernity

George Santayana, "The Poetry of Barbarism" (from Interpretations of Poetry and Religion, 1900):

The memory of ancient disillusions has faded with time. Ignorance of the past has bred contempt for the lessons which the past might teach. Men prefer to repeat the old experiment without knowing that they repeat it.

I say advisedly ignorance of the past, in spite of the unprecedented historical erudition of our time; for life is an art not to be learned by observations and the most minute and comprehensive studies do not teach us what the spirit of man should have learned by its long living. We study the past as a dead object, as a ruin, not as an authority and as an experiment. One reason why history was less interesting to former ages was that they were less conscious of separation from the past. The perspective of time was less clear because the synthesis of experience was more complete. The mind does not easily discriminate the successive phases of an action in which it is still engaged; it does not arrange in a temporal series the elements of a single perception, but posits them all together as constituting a permanent and real object. Human nature and the life of the world were real and stable objects to the apprehension of our forefathers; the actors changed, but not the characters or the play. Men were then less studious of derivations because they were more conscious of identities. They thought of all reality as in a sense contemporary, and in considering the maxims of a philosopher or the style of a poet, they were not primarily concerned with settling his date and describing his environment. The standard by which they judged was eternal; the environment in which man found himself did not seem to them subject of any essential change.

To us the picturesque element in history is more striking because we feel ourselves the children of our own age only, an age which being itself singular and revolutionary, tends to read its own character into the past, and to regard all other periods as no less fragmentary and effervescent than itself. The changing and the permanent elements are, indeed, everywhere present, and the bias of the observer may emphasize the one or the other as it will: the only question is whether we find the significance of things in their variations or in their similarities.

Now the habit of regarding the past as effete and as merely a stepping-stone to something present or future, is unfavourable to any true apprehension of that element in the past which was vital and which remains eternal. It is a habit of thought that destroys the sense of the moral identity of all ages, by virtue of its very insistence on the mechanical derivation of one age from another. Existences that cause one another exclude one another; each is alien to the rest inasmuch as it is the product of new and different conditions. Ideas that cause nothing unite all things by giving them a common point of reference and a single standard of value.

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11 October 2005 - Tuesday

Snatch

Thanks to my mole on the library staff, who tipped me off to their presence on the book sale tables, I now own 22 issues of The Journal of American History from the 1990s. I paid $5.50.

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10 October 2005 - Monday

In light of recent events

Donate to the American Red Cross

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Updating

Google Labs has released a beta version of Google Reader for Web syndication feeds. So far, I like some aspects of the interface, but I think a lot needs to be done to make feeds easier to organize. It was a little buggy yesterday, but when it was working, it was really fast. I think I may recommend Google Reader for people who check their aggregator constantly.

You do use syndication to keep track of blogs, right?

Meanwhile:

Former Army chaplain James Yee describes his experiences as a prisoner of the United States.

National Review's David Frum explains why the Miers nomination is not a good thing for conservatives.

Ken Ristau reconstructs late twentieth- and early twenty-first-century America to demonstrate that George W. Bush did not exist (via PaleoJudaica). Note: I really think this is mainly historiographic, not political, satire.

The sheer outlandishness and improbability that you would have two presidents with the same names, engage in parallel international conflicts with the same enemy (and this second one as a "preemptive" invasion), and be surrounded by many of the same characters strains credulity. It is, therefore, manifestly obvious that this second George Bush never existed. The tradition is, in fact, what we historians call a doublet.

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5 October 2005 - Wednesday

Pedagogical atmospherics

A few education-related links for your enjoyment and edification.

Malcolm Gladwell's New Yorker review of Jerome Karabel's The Chosen highlights the social aspects of Ivy-League admission:

When the Office of Civil Rights at the federal education department investigated Harvard in the nineteen-eighties, they found handwritten notes scribbled in the margins of various candidatesí files. "This young woman could be one of the brightest applicants in the pool but there are several references to shyness," read one. Another comment reads, "Seems a tad frothy." One application -- and at this point you can almost hear it going to the bottom of the pile -- was notated, "Short with big ears."
In Orion, Lowell Monke argues that classroom computers are "Faustian bargain."

In Common-place, Thomas Augst reflects on the implications of an online resuscitation of P. T. Barnum's American Museum.

In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Henry Farrell argues that "the blogosphere represents the closest equivalent to the Republic of Letters that we have today" -- an opportunity for academics to rekindle the romance.

Via A&LD and Ralph Luker.

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3 October 2005 - Monday

First-person pronouns

I am very tired of anthropocentric worship music. I refuse to sing another chorus that celebrates my own determination to love God.

I do not mean to condemn all self-awareness in our church music. Certainly, a believer's relationship with Christ should be personal and immediate. Divine grace provokes a response in us, and our love entails a commitment that goes beyond propositional assent.

Yet the primary purpose of worship is to fix our attention on God -- precisely because God is immutable and we are not. Our feelings are transient even when they are directed properly.

My complaint was inspired by today's campus chapel service, which consisted entirely of praise choruses. It was actually put together fairly well; even so, I had to abstain from some of the songs.

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2 October 2005 - Sunday

Troll disposal

Afflicted by a commenter best known to them as the Troll of Sorrow, the authors at The Valve have developed an array of techniques for dealing with unmannerly Internet guests. Hilarity has ensued, and I am taking notes.

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History Carnival XVII

The seventeenth History Carnival is up at The Apocalyptic Historian. Here are a few of the likely-looking entries:

Misteraitch posts some images related to Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher's fascination with Egyptian obelisks. >>

Greg James Robinson and Eric Muller argue that a recently published World War II memorandum undercuts Michelle Malkin's defense of Japanese internment. >> | >>

Maharajadhiraj contemplates the esoteric meaning of a building called Lion's Orbit. >>

PK provides some scans of emblem books -- early modern ethical tracts relying on allegorical illustrations. >>

Hugo Holbing examines evolving views of mental illness and proper behavior. >>

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