Saturday, October 30, 2004

Sometimes you just have to get away from it all

Futuro House

For years this module has been on Hatteras, poised for sudden departure. I'm thinking tonight would be a good time, during Hallowe'en's witching hour.

Hey Mr. Spaceman?

Serial vote suppression

Via Atrios, Jack Hitt's radio piece on "This American Life" on active and criminal voter suppression is posted in advance of its airing. It's almost beyond belief, except that, of course, it isn't. Hitt thinks it's hopeful that so much of what's going on is known in advance of the election--as if that's enough to make it right. But the long shadow of Jim Crow can't be outrun in a weekend.

Thursday, October 28, 2004

Faint praise

It's an open question how much newspaper endorsements matter, but in case they do, it isn't enough just to keep score. Some of the Bush endorsements are downright tortured. Like this one from the Denver Post, which should be read in full to be believed, but here's a small sample:

Our support for Bush is tempered by unease over the poor choices and results of his first term. To succeed in his second-term, Bush must begin by taking responsibility for U.S. failures in Iraq, admit his mistakes and adjust U.S. strategy. Big time, as his running mate might say.

It generated more than 700 responses, all of them critical, like this one:

The Post's endorsement of George W. Bush is one of the best condemnations of his administration that I've seen. It's a grand litany of failures, all of which you acknowledge. Rereading the article carefully, I found one positive word about Bush: "decisiveness."
Decisiveness? This man decided to invade Iraq, cut taxes, loosen environmental laws, suppress stem-cell research, etc., long before he became president, and never changed his mind nor admitted any mistake in face of manifest evidence, and never will. And in face of this stubbornness, you offer suggestions that he should do all things differently in his second term, expecting, I suppose, that he will, and therefore you endorse him.
Then there's the wobbly Salt Lake Tribune:

Tribune readers know that this newspaper has been consistently critical of a number of the president's policies, particularly his war in Iraq, his tax cuts for the rich and his abysmal environmental record.

A careful reader at the American Prospect notes that both papers are owned by Republican media mogul Dean Singleton, thus raising the interesting issue of the publisher's control over the editor's voice. How many editors in how many chains have had to hold their noses with one hand while pecking out this particular endorsement with the other? As the American Prospect blogger points out, at least one newspaper is straightforward about it.
At the National Newspaper Association Convention in Denver last month, where the future of journalism was much on our minds, I singled out Mr. Singleton for having a clue. Yet I soon realized that his version of media interactivity was pretty top-down. There's much food for thought here, and not all of it favors the triumphalist narrative.
UPDATE: The Cleveland Plain Dealer couldn't reach a deal.

Down for the recount

The way things are shaping up in Ohio and Florida, it's hard to know whether to laugh or cry.

Wednesday, October 27, 2004

Democracy matters

Jonathan Schell is under no illusion.

Each country that plunges into nightmare--whether Germany under Hitler, the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks, Chile under Pinochet, or, for that matter, Iraq under Saddam Hussein--travels there along its own path. The American political system--based on free elections, the rights of citizens, and the rule of law--is, though under the severest pressure, still available for use. If it is lost, and the full American nightmare descends, there will be many causes. They will include the militarization of foreign policy, global imperial ambition, the loss of balance among the branches of government, the erosion of civil liberties, and the overwhelming influence of corporate money and power over political life--all present before Osama bin Laden made his appearance. But at every step of the way the skids will be greased by the national capacity, conferred by the media and exploited by politicians, to produce and consume illusion, which, though hardly an American monopoly, may be the specific form of corruption most dangerous to American democracy.

Tuesday, October 26, 2004

Fall morning, Pisgah National Forest

Black Mountain, NC

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow's springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

--G.M. Hopkins

Room for improvement

New from James Lileks: Interior Desecrations: Hideous Homes from the Horrible '70s.

And if earth tones and macrame touch something deep in your soul, don't miss Wes Clark's Avocado Memories.

The writing life

A man named Dan has written a novel. He believes it is a good novel. He has a family to raise, and he believes his novel can be his ticket to prosperity. He believes that although he is an unknown, if a well-known novelist were to publish it under her/his name, the well-known novelist would make a lot of money.

Dan has a novel idea: offer the manuscript for sale, and market it to the well-known novelists. Do it on eBay. No takers? Well, relist it. Still no takers. "[T]hat's OK," says Dan. "I still have my two boys and my soon to be daughter Megan, so life will go on for me, in stride."

(Via Positive Liberty.)

Monday, October 25, 2004

Too much reality?

T.S. Eliot wrote, "human kind / Cannot bear too much reality" (Four Quartets).

Jay Rosen wonders if it's true, and he's looking for help in making some connections.

Saturday, October 23, 2004

Why "patriot acts" matter

To return to the lists, selective or not as they may be, of the military service records of politicians: I think some of the commentators over at Eric's site are missing the point. It's not to say that those who have served are more "patriotic" than those who have not. It's about integrity and the willingness to risk your own life--or not--when you are asking others to risk their lives for your sake. It's pretty much that simple.

John McCain's implicit comparison to World War I seems apt.

That war did not give rise to some of the greatest anti-war poetry of all time without reason. It's not much remembered now that some of that poetry was written by Carl Sandburg. In a later war and a later time he became mainstream America's darling, but there was another Carl Sandburg who wrote poetry like this:

Across their tables they fixed it up,
Behind their doors away from the mob.
And the guns did a job that nicked off millions.
The guns blew seven million off the map.
The guns sent seven million west.
Seven million shoving up the daisies.
Across their tables they fixed it up,
The liars who lie to nations.

--"The Liars," Smoke and Steel (1920).

An early version of this poem contained as an epigraph a comment from a speech by Woodrow Wilson: "The forces of the world do not threaten; they operate. The great tides do not give notice that they are going to rise and run. They rise in their majesty and those who stand in their way are overwhelmed."

Friday, October 22, 2004

Two cities

Atlanta and San Francisco, then and now. Plus ca change . . . some scary differences, and similarities.

MORE WALKS down memory lane: Paris and New York. Why do these photos fascinate so?

Thursday, October 21, 2004

Patriot acts

Via an email correspondent comes this exercise in "compare and contrast." Could it be true?


* Richard Gephardt: Air National Guard, 1965-71.
* David Bonior: Staff Sgt., Air Force 1968-72.
* Tom Daschle: 1st Lt., Air Force SAC 1969-72.
* Al Gore: enlisted Aug. 1969; sent to Vietnam Jan. 1971 as an army journalist in 20th Engineer Brigade.
* Bob Kerrey: Lt. j.g. Navy 1966-69; Medal of Honor, Vietnam.
* Daniel Inouye: Army 1943-47; Medal of Honor, WWII.
* John Kerry: Lt., Navy 1966-70; Silver Star, Bronze Star with Combat V, Purple Hearts.
* Charles Rangel: Staff Sgt., Army 1948-52; Bronze Star, Korea.
* Max Cleland: Captain, Army 1965-68; Silver Star & Bronze Star, Vietnam.
* Ted Kennedy: Army, 1951-53.
* Tom Harkin: Lt., Navy, 1962-67; Naval Reserve, 1968-74.
* Jack Reed: Army Ranger, 1971-1979; Captain, Army Reserve 1979-91.
* Fritz Hollings: Army officer in WWII; Bronze Star and seven campaign ribbons.
* Leonard Boswell: Lt. Col., Army 1956-76; Vietnam, DFCs, Bronze Stars, and Soldier's Medal.
* Pete Peterson: Air Force Captain, POW. Purple Heart, Silver Star and Legion of Merit.
* Mike Thompson: Staff sergeant, 173rd Airborne, Purple Heart.
* Bill McBride: Candidate for Fla. Governor. Marine in Vietnam; Bronze Star with Combat V.
* Gray Davis: Army Captain in Vietnam, Bronze Star.
* Pete Stark: Air Force 1955-57
* Chuck Robb: Vietnam
* Howell Heflin: Silver Star
* George McGovern: Silver Star & DFC during WWII.
* Bill Clinton: Did not serve. Student deferments. Entered draft but received #311.
* Jimmy Carter: Seven years in the Navy.
* Walter Mondale: Army 1951-1953
* John Glenn: WWII and Korea; six DFCs and Air Medal with 18 Clusters.
* Tom Lantos: Served in Hungarian underground in WWII. Saved by Raoul Wallenberg.

* Dick Cheney: did not serve. Several deferments, the last by marriage.
* Dennis Hastert: did not serve.
* Tom Delay: did not serve.
* Roy Blunt: did not serve.
* Bill Frist: did not serve.
* Mitch McConnell: did not serve.
* Rick Santorum: did not serve.
* Trent Lott: did not serve.
* John Ashcroft: did not serve. Seven deferments to teach business.
* Jeb Bush: did not serve.
* Karl Rove: did not serve.
* Saxby Chambliss: did not serve. "Bad knee." The man who attacked Max Cleland's patriotism.
* Paul Wolfowitz: did not serve.
* Vin Weber: did not serve.
* Richard Perle: did not serve.
* Douglas Feith: did not serve.
* Eliot Abrams: did not serve
* Richard Shelby: did not serve.
* Jon! Kyl: did not serve.
* Tim Hutchison: did not serve.
* Christopher Cox: did not serve.
* Newt Gingrich: did not serve.
* Don Rumsfeld: served in Navy (1954-57) as flight instructor.
* George W. Bush: failed to complete his six-year National Guard; got assigned to Alabama so he could campaign for family friend running for U.S. Senate; failed to show up for required medical exam, disappeared from duty.
* Ronald Reagan: due to poor eyesight, served in a non-combat role making movies.
* B-1 Bob Dornan: Consciously enlisted after fighting was over in Korea.
* Phil Gramm: did not serve.
* John McCain: Silver Star, Bronze Star, Legion of Merit, Purple Heart and Distinguished Flying Cross.
* Dana Rohrabacher: did not serve.
* John M. McHugh: did not serve.
* JC Watts: did not serve.
* Jack Kemp: did not serve. "Knee problem," although continued in NFL for 8 years.
* Dan Quayle: Journalism unit of the Indiana National Guard.
* Rudy Giuliani: did not serve.
* George Pataki: did not serve.
* Spencer Abraham: did not serve.
* John Engler: did not serve.
* Lindsey Graham: National Guard lawyer.
* Arnold Schwarzenegger: AWOL from Austrian army base.
Pundits & Preachers

* Sean Hannity: did not serve.
* Rush Limbaugh: did not serve (4-F with a 'pilonidal cyst.' yes,, a boil on his buttocks)
* Bill O'Reilly: did not serve.
* Michael Savage: did not serve.
* George Will: did not serve.
* Chris Matthews: did not serve.
* Paul Gigot: did not serve.
* Bill Bennett: did not serve.
* Pat Buchanan: did not serve.
* John Wayne: did not serve.
* Bill Kristol: did not serve.
* Kenneth Starr: did not serve.
* Antonin Scalia: did not serve.
* Clarence Thomas: did not serve.
* Ralph Reed: did not serve.
* Michael Medved: did not serve.
* Charlie Daniels: did not serve.
* Ted Nugent: did not serve. (He only shoots at things that don't shoot back.)

UPDATE: Aren't the internets wonderful? You ask if something is true and you get immediate answers. Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour. Of course, the answers are mostly over at Eric Muller's site, not here, but that's OK! I think Eric's response to the revised information is right: it turns out that "neither party has any monopoly on military service, or on patriotism."

Possibly military service is more important to being elected to national office than it is to, say, becoming a pundit, a pamphelteer, or even a judge.

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Taking the Latex gloves off

A powerful salvo in one of the year's most-underreported stories, the Bush administration's manipulation of scientific research, is launched in today's New York Times.

[P]olitical action by scientists has not been so forceful since 1964, when Barry Goldwater's statements promoting the deployment of battlefield nuclear weapons spawned the creation of the 100,000-member group Scientists and Engineers for Johnson.

This year, 48 Nobel laureates dropped all pretense of nonpartisanship as they signed a letter endorsing Senator John Kerry. "Unlike previous administrations, Republican and Democratic alike, the Bush administration has ignored unbiased scientific advice in the policy making that is so important to our collective welfare," they wrote. The critics include members of past Republican administrations.

Dr. James Hansen, a NASA climate expert who has been cited by the Bush administration in support of its policies, is now one of the critics.

Under the Bush administration, he said, "they're picking and choosing information according to the answer that they want to get, and they've appointed so many people who are just focused on this that they really are having an impact on the day-to-day flow of information."

It's disturbing testimony from the reality-based community.

"Our Who's-Asleep-Score is now up in the Zillions!"

Rest easy, Chapel Hill friends: the Triangle area is No. 4 on the list of best cities for good sleep. (But it's not as high as Austin on the "happiness index.")

Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Magical surrealism

Jeff Sharlet asks, "is George W. Bush the first magical president of the United States?"

Believing, it seems, is more important to the President than the substance of his belief. Jesus Christ's particular teachings--well, those are good, too. But what really matters is that if you believe you can do something, you can.

The seven-point solution

The PowerPoint solution, of course. How would we live with out it?! one could wonder after enough Town Council meetings. After last night's public hearing, with its usual array of tidy computer slides, I decided to check out PowerPoint version of the Gettysburg Address, created by Peter Norvig, which has been around for several years. See for yourself.

"[I]nvented in 1984, that iconic year of Orwellian mind control," wrote Julia Keller in the Chicago Tribune last year, PowerPoint "seems poised for world domination."

The easiest thing to say about PowerPoint is that it sucks the life out of real rhetoric. But it does more than that. When a complex topic is reduced to seven bullet points, or even a series of seven points, the surface result is that it looks complete, it looks solved. For certain, it is no longer complex. Quoted in Keller's story, Sherry Turkle says,

I don't want to make PowerPoint the motor for an apocalyptic future. But it's part of a general trend. It's one element among others that keep us from complexity. We face a very complex world. History is quite complex. Current events and literature are complex. Students are thinking and doing presentations on complicated things, and we need them to be able to think about them in complicated ways.

PowerPoint is not a step in the right direction. It's an exemplar of a technology we should be quite skeptical about as a pedagogical tool.

In a New Yorker article a few years ago, a Stanford professor pointed out that while PowerPoint "lifts the floor"--enabling more speakers to make their points more effectively--it also "lowers the ceiling": "What you miss is the process. The classes I remember most, the professors I remember most, were the ones where you could watch how they thought. You don't remember what they said, the details. It was 'What an elegant way to wrap around a problem!' PowerPoint takes that away. PowerPoint gives you the outcome, but it removes the process."

Peter Norvig says this is the very problem he wanted to highlight by translating Lincoln into PowerPoint. "Homogeneity is great for milk, but not for ideas," he writes. "Use visual aids to convey visual information: photographs, charts, or diagrams. But do not use them to give the impression that the matter is solved, wrapped up in a few bullet points."

UPDATE: Get your entries in by Nov. 2 for the PowerPoint to the People contest (via kottke).

UPDATE 2: Ed Cone on Pat Robertson and the Higher PowerPoint.

Saturday, October 16, 2004

Courting history

Wish I'd been in Edenton last week for the reopening of the historic Chowan County Courthouse. It would have been fascinating, if not really historically accurate, to see the N.C. Supreme Court in session there. Built in 1767 when Edenton was an important Revolutionary-era town, this was a busy local court for a couple hundred years.
The oldest Court House in North Carolina, [it] is an architectural gem of national reputation. A sketch of its life reads like a panoramic review of the life of North Carolina: the hardships of the early colony, the struggles of revolution, civil war and reconstruction; all finally unfolding into the commonwealth that is the Old North State of today. Through six conflicts the call to arms has resounded within its walls; it can recall the inauguration of every President of the United States; Governors from the time of Josiah Martin have spoken from its rostrum; Princes and Presidents have danced on its floors and the most illustrious lawyers of the State have pleaded their causes before its bar.

It was here in 1829 that a jury found a poor white man named John Mann guilty of assault for shooting a rented slave as she ran off from being whipped by him, a decision overturned by Thomas Ruffin and immortalized by Harriet Beecher Stowe in her novel Dred and in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin--and still widely studied.

This courthouse loomed large in the life of Harriet Jacobs, who escaped Edenton to become "a quiet revolutionary" on her own terms.

Surprisingly, but fittingly, a picture of the Chowan County Courthouse is featured in a recent essay by Wendell Berry on the subject of land use and the environment. It's an example of "old buildings [that] look good because they were built by people who respected themselves and wanted the respect of their neighbors"--an example we can learn from.

Friday, October 15, 2004

No Finnish in sight

A report from a far-flung correspondent.

UPDATE: Confirmation closer to home. Counterspin points to John McCain's introduction to the TNT Classic version of Paths of Glory: "Tell me if you don't see a strong, yet veiled criticism of the war in Iraq and President Bush.

Thursday, October 14, 2004

Imagine . . .

Yesterday when my book club discussed Blood Done Sign My Name, a powerful history of a racial murder up the road in Oxford, N.C., in 1970, beautifully told by historian-witness Tim Tyson, we were privileged to have the author himself with us. A professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin, he's in residence this year at the National Humanities Center. In fact, he's staying in a home just down the street from us.

Even today, stories like this one touch a nerve in cities and towns all across the South. Though few of them will find a chronicler as skilled and compassionate as Tyson, hundreds of such stories are waiting to be told.

On July 4, 2004, the Lexington Herald-Leader issued an apology for failing to cover the civil rights movement in what we would now call real time. Not an oversight or accidental misjudgment at all, it was a deliberately "cautious approach"--so successful that a member of my book club, now a historian in her own right, didn't know what was going on under her nose while she was in college right there in Lexington.

So here's a thought experiment: what if, forty to fifty years ago, twenty-first century computer technology had been available?

"The revolution will not be televised." . . . but what if it had been blogged?

Flicker of sanity

The sanest remark of the campaign so far was when Kerry said we need to get to a point where "terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance." It would have been really sane if our government (I almost wrote "we"--hold that thought for a minute) had reacted to Sept. 11 with a "state of emergency" combined with a police action aimed at finding and punishing al Qaida. Can anyone imagine that that could have happened, even under President Gore? Probably not.

But as Tom Friedman agrees, Kerry is right to put it like this now.

Now about that "we": it's how we Americans refer to our government and its actions, and logically so, because our government begins in us: "we, the people." We are a democracy. The state speaks through us. This seems natural enough, although lately for me it's a stretch. I stumble over it. Where am I in the "we" who invaided Iraq? and tolerates torture in prisons?

In a discussion once with Catherine Lutz about her wonderful book Homefront, she or someone pointed out that in other countries whose democratic roots are more problematic, including any country that has ever had a monarchy--France, for example--the citizens don't necessarily have this conception. In France today, long after the Sun King, people refer to "the state." Despite their voting privileges, for the French their government is a separate thing, with a life and a will of its own.

I recommend Homefront to anyone who wants to understand why, in reality, "we" could not have done anything but declare war after Sept. 11. Describing how far (though how insidiously) the militarization of our country has gone, she asks, "Are we all military dependents?"

Kerry's remark was sane--and brave.

Round three

Michael Berube nails it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

God help us

Last night's fascinating Frontline show on Bush and Kerry put me in mind of a stunning story in the New York Times that came out just days after Sept. 11. On Sept. 22, 2001, Frank Bruni reported in a "White House Memo" that the terrorist acts had "wholly transformed" Bush's "sense of himself and his presidency."

One of the president's close acquaintances outside the White House said Mr. Bush clearly feels he has encountered his reason for being, a conviction informed and shaped by the president's own strain of Christianity.

"I think, in his frame, this is what God has asked him to do," the acquaintance said. "It offers him enormous clarity."

. . .

People who have visited the White House in recent days said there was a changed, charged atmosphere there. One of them, Mark McKinnon, a senior adviser to Mr. Bush's presidential campaign, said that the president obviously feels that the business at hand "is the country's destiny--and his destiny."

Others who are close to the president said there was a discernible spiritual dimension to his thinking. A senior administration official recalled Mr. Bush's response on Thursday when one of the religious leaders said that Mr. Bush's leadership was part of God's plan.

"I accept the responsibility," the president said.

In his Frontline interview, Dallas News reporter Wayne Slater puts it like this:

In George Bush's world, he believes--as many evangelicals do--that we are engaged in a great drama, and this drama is one in which good is battling evil.

This war gave him a fundamental opportunity to live out something that is very real inside him theologically, and that is "They are the enemy." When he uses the word, "evildoers," he does so in way that resonates beyond rhetoric. It is theological. It is fundamental. It is black-and-white.
He does not give a second thought about the idea that they might have a point of view that ought to be considered. The radicals are the radicals. They are evil. They are the force, in effect, of Satan on Earth. He believes this.
So when he engaged in this conversation with the American people on how to deal in the early hours and the early days of 9/11, he was absolutely in his own element, because he knew he had to ultimately trust God, the fundamental force. He's said so since then--that you ask God what to do in these cases; not that you're following exactly what God says, but you believe that God will lead you. George Bush believed in this moment that he was God's man at a moment of crisis in a battle between good and evil on Earth.

The Revealer points out just how seriously Bush's "prophetic" understanding of his role differs from the way other presidents have engaged with their religious faith:
The key difference is this: Presidents since Franklin Roosevelt have spoken as petitioners of God, seeking blessing and guidance; this president positions himself as a prophet, issuing declarations of divine desires for the nation and world. Most fundamentally, Bush's language suggests that he speaks not only of God and to God, but also for God.

UPDATE and antidote: "Mr. Derrida reminded us that religion does not always give clear meaning, purpose and certainty by providing secure foundations. To the contrary, the great religious traditions are profoundly disturbing because they all call certainty and security into question. Belief not tempered by doubt poses a mortal danger."

Tuesday, October 12, 2004

But somebody's got to do it.

Just back from a two-hour council committee meeting followed by a four-hour council meeting. It's hard work.

(Another Creative Commons gem via Lessig.)

Monday, October 11, 2004

All your base are belong to them.

Politics (video clip via a Berube reader)


art (ditto via Media Trips, via Lessig).

Breaking the code

As bloggers roil over Bush's astonishing choice to revive a Supreme Court decision on slavery, as many toil to read the coded message in the Dred Scott moment, Eric Muller has a take that seems almost believable. Could it be?

UPDATE: Eric is on to something. Scalia pulled the same trick in his dissent in Stenberg v. Cahart (2000), a case striking down Nebraska's D&E abortion statute (via Lawyers, Guns & Money).

Still remembering Reconstruction

Following Jim Leloudis' narrative of UNC's Reconstruction history, Yonni Chapman made a compelling plea for "seeking historical truth at UNC." He's not asking to tear down the statue of Silent Sam, but rather to supplement the language it speaks:

Let us now look at the construction of memory at UNC. This is a process that reflects our values as well as historical facts. The question facing us today is whether we are going to demand honesty, no matter how painful. As we begin to reassess our history, and to think about making changes in the commemorative landscape, we should be clear on one thing: the movement for historical truth has nothing to do with censoring history. This is a straw man, or woman. It is because UNC’s history is already censored that we are here today.

I love the images Yonni gives us as he reenvisions the campus:

Imagine, if you will, a campus transformed by a sense of social justice. Let’s walk across Franklin Street and enter the campus by Battle-Vance-Pettigrew. The first thing we would see is a statue of Dr. Martin Luther King reaching out to us to help “save the soul of America.” As we walk on, past Silent Sam, we would come to the statue in front of the Alumni Building honoring UNC’s Unsung Founders, the black workers, slave and free, who built Old East and other university buildings. Approaching Saunders Hall we would note a plaque stating that Saunders led the KKK during Reconstruction and served on the Executive Committee of the Board of Trustees at the time of the reopening. The plaque would acknowledge and repudiate the university’s participation in white supremacy and would invite all to enter Saunders Hall and view the permanent exhibit discussing the university’s role in slavery, the overthrow of Reconstruction, and the making of the Jim Crow state. Across the quad in Murphy we would visit a comparable display about the impact of the Civil Rights Movement, the Women’s Movement, and other democratic social movements on UNC. Upon entering Lenoir, we would see a plaque honoring the black workers and students who participated in the cafeteria workers strike of 1969. Featured prominently would be the two women who led that strike, Mary Smith and Elizabeth Brooks. Finally, approaching Davis Library, we would stop and read the words engraved on a black obelisk, written by the “Black Bard of Chapel Hill,” slave poet, George Moses Horton, who published the first book by an African American in the South in 1829. As we continued our walk around the campus, we would notice that the portraits and artwork on the walls honored the heritage and contributions of all those who were formerly limited and denied by the University of North Carolina. Their faces next to the faces of white leaders would send a clear message that UNC truly intends to become the university of all the people.

A campus with reminders like this would send a powerful message. It is the same message that Professor Leloudis' history brings us: our history was not inevitable. There were other directions it could have taken. Indeed, there are other directions it did take that we have, collectively, chosen to forget.

Saturday, October 09, 2004

For what does "the bell" toll?

Yonni Chapman stirred up a hornet's nest when he started asking questions about Cornelia Phillips Spencer. Revered as "the woman who rang the bell" atop UNC's South Building to celebrate the reopening, in 1875, of the university after a dark period, Spencer is who UNC turned to in 1992-93 (its bicentennial year) when searching for a name for a new award to be given to an accomplished university woman. The Cornelia Phillips Spencer Bell Award has been given annually ever since.

Chapman, a Ph.D. student in history at UNC, calls attention to Spencer's clear opposition to racial equality and her eager support of the overthrow of Reconstruction forces at the university. More than a "product of her times," he and others have said, she was a "white supremacist," an active force in reclaiming and perpetuating as much as possible of the pre-Civl War order. What happens when we forget our history? This spring, a group of university community citizens called for a moratorium on the Bell Award.

Chancellor Moeser responded by asking the Center for the Study of the American South to sponsor a "community conversation about Mrs. Spencer and her life and times." That conversation, at least the first stages of it, took place Oct. 1-2 in the form of a symposium called "Remembering Reconstruction at Carolina."

It was a productive, successful event that should have been better attended. Maybe 50 people gave up their Friday night and/or Saturday to enjoy the 19th century un-air conditioned ambience of Gerrard Hall.

Thomas Holt of the University of Chicago opened the conversation by asking us to consider the Reconstruction period across the South in ways that we surely did not learn it in grade school: from the point of view of the newly enfranchised black voters and politicians who tried to seize the moment. They did everything within their power to create a color-blind democracy, but alas, "they envisioned a nation that did not exist." Being the lions rather than the hunters in the course of events (to cite the proverb Michelle Laws later used), their story has not been fully told.

Reminding us more than once that history "has consequences," Holt told of how in 1957 a junior senator argued strenuously for progressive civil rights legislation on the floor of the Capitol. The senator's "defense" of the bill "was curious," Holt said. "The proposed enforcement provisions included some language referring to its legal precedents from Reconstruction. The young senator wanted to make it clear that the proposed laws had no connection whatsoever to those earlier Reconstruction precedents." Even to Hubert Humphrey, one of the most enlightened politicians of his time on race, Reconstruction was a stumbling block. The legislation that passed, Holt continued, was "fatally flawed" for lack of enforecment provisions--and his belief is that the specter of Reconstruction was one of the reasons for that failure.

Jim Leloudis gave a local version, an up-close picture of Reconstruction at UNC as part of the larger story in North Carolina. Of the many smart talks, this one seemed to me the most relevant to the question at hand. Because this history is so unfamiliar now, I'm including my notes below.

UNC's history is anything but simple; it is bound up with some of the most important questions in American life, not least about the meanings of citizenship and freedom and equality in a democratic society. It is contested, contentious, and still full of significance for our own time.

Where to start? By recognizing that on eve of Civil War North Carolina was much less a democracy than an oligarchy. Political and economic power rested in a network of wealthy slaveholding families; the principles of oligarchy were written into the state's constitution; there were property restrictions on voting until 1850s, and even later on the right to hold high office. Justices of the peace were appointed by the legislature (only two county officers were elected by county residents). So from Raleigh out, this elite formed a tightly knit ruling class.

This university stood at the head of that hierarchical system. They had no doubt about their mission, to make young men into masters. Sons of the slaveholding elite entered from every corner of the South. By 1850s nearly 40 percent of student body was from out of state. This college ranked second only to Yale in size. The university's leaders were uneasy with ideals of perfectionism and reform . . . they affirmed the fixity of human relationships and instilled the habit of command. Young men came to Chapel Hill to confirm their place in society, not to discover a prescription for remaking the world. They viewed learning as a body of established truths. The course of study was fixed. Recitation was the favorite method of instruction. By the time of graduation they had stored away Horace, Cicero, Virgil, Homer, . . . to seek knowledge in the authority of text before their own interrogation of the world. In a world where power was exercised through the word, in the pulpit, the bar, the legislative hall, graduates had acquired at the university the ability to speak and act as a man. This served alumni well in the years before the Civil War.

But the war and emancipation changed everything. When fighting began in 1861, President Swain committed himself to keeping UNC open. He succeeded in winning a draft exemption for may of the students. Even so, the faculty and student ranks dwindled. Remember that the Union strategy was to throttle the Confederacy, taking control of ports, etc. marching north, conquering the remaining inland territories. You see where North Carolina ends up; one of the last section to falls, and as a result it bore a brutally disproportionate share of the war's burden. Nearly one fifth of the Confederate army came from this state.

In 1865, after the evacuation of Richmond, etc., Sherman's troops began a final march toward Raleigh and Chapel Hill. Both were spared when Swain and Graham surrendered the university and capital to Sherman. Swain and North Carolina's old guard managed to cling to power during the early years of presidential Reconstruction, but in 1867 Republicans in Congress took matters into their own hands with passage of military Reconstruction. They set the state up for political upheaval, political revolution. They directed the military commanders in the states to set up elections. A special provision gave black men a limited right (pre 15th Amendment) to vote for delegates to this constitutional convention. The stage is set for revolution, and the seemingly impossible becomes imaginable.

A new state Republican party organized in 1867 brought together former slaves and roughly one fifth of white voters in North Carolina: a larger percentage of whites voting with blacks than in any other state. They recognized a certain complementarity of interests with free blacks. Many of them had come to conclude it was a rich man's fight. This alliance did not erase racism, which was far too deeply embedded for that. But it did hold out for both sides some hope, the promise of an enlarged political voice and grater economic opportunity, those very things that in everyday life made that abstract word "freedom" substantive, made it a lived reality. When voters went to the polls in late 1867 the results were astounding; the Republicans won 107 of 120 seats in the constitutional convention, and 15 of them were black. In 1868 they drafted a constitution to reflect that complementarity of interests; they gave all adult men the right to vote. They established a public school system which, while it remained segregated, promised for the first time to educate, at state expense, white and black children alike. Last but not least, this new constitution revolutionized state and county government, removed the property qualifications for office holders, etc. and let county commissioners be elected by citizens directly.

The context we need to keep in mind is this: there was no inevitable predetermined outcome to reconstruction, there was no one path. There were multiple options among which people did choose. Here's a reminder about making the assumption that "everyone was racist." That could mean very different things across a political spectrum. Race didn't go out of people's heads, but there were important differences, and for us to suggest that everyone was racist was to accord an achievement that white supremacists at their best would have hoped for. If that is the history that has come to us, it is perhaps their ultimate victory.

What's happened here is that political NC has been radically reconstructed. In 1868 William Woods Holden a Republican, was elected governor. Twenty legislators were black, and there were scores of black men in local office. That constitution also brought change to the university. It stripped the legislature of authority to elect trustees, giving it to a state board of election that was controlled by the Republican governor. In the words of Gov. Holden, this was a move to democratize and broaden the university. He wanted to remake it as a people's university open to all and no longer reserved for the few. The university's new trustees declared the support for co-education of men and women and committed themselves to establishment of school for freedmen in Raleigh, a branch of the university [which never opened]. Even so the trustees made no provision for admitting blacks to Chapel Hill and they later actively prohibited it, in response to shrill voices.

In June of 1868 Swain and his faculty were dismissed. Two months later Swain died in a horse accident. That horse had been a gift of Sherman to celebrate the marriage of his daughter to a Union general.

The replacement was Solomon Pool, a math professor from Eliazabeth City, son of Methodist minister, of strong Republican sympathies. Better to close this palace of aristocracy than to have it be the nursery of treason, he reasoned. When Pool and his colleagues opened the university in 1869, they joined a much larger battle over the shape of the South's future and the very meaning of the shape of democracy. They came under fire from critics, one of whom was Cornelia Phillips Spencer. So Cornelia and Samuel Phillips, sister and brother, reveal within bounds of a single family, the fact that there were alternative paths to this historical moment, alternative paths available in the post-Confederate past, and that individuals could make very different choices.

[Samuel Phillips, according to conference presenter Annette Wright, was a Republican who was forced to leave the state when the party lost power; he went to work in the Grant administration. He later joined Albion Tourgee, who had come to Greensboro as a "carpetbagger" in 1865, as one of the legal minds who crafted Homer Plessy's case.]

Cornelia, writing columns primarily in Raleigh Sentinel, a Democratic party organ, described Pool as an arrogant prig and renounced his faculty as motley collection of ex-Negro teachers. And worse. This was a most serious struggle. Pool and his allies shot back that the old UNC had been under control of oligarchs, but not now. The bad press was in many respects the least of the problems. For one thing, the university was bankrupt—because of Confederate bonds that were repudiated. Repudiation was a powerful class issue. By the same token it brought relief and comfort to middling white yeoman who now had assurance that they wouldn't be taxed to pay for a war that had already taken a heavy toll. The legislature might have made up the difference but they refused; they were determine to starve Pool and his faculty out of office.

Pool's university failed to attract sufficient students. The Democratic alumni boycotted the institution; only a handful sent their sons now, while many sent their schools to church schools. Chapel Hill stood near the epicenter of a violent insurgency in the late 1860s that was determined to unseat by force of arms and intimidation North Carolina's biracial form of government. The campaign of terror was focused here in the central piedmont; it was aimed at blacks but also at the whites who had committed racial treason. The KKK were riding openly through Chapel Hill by 1868. Gov. Holden launched a counter-attack, in 1870 calling martial law. But when he requested federal assistance, Grant refused. He and others were growing weary and wary of the unyielding turmoil in the South. That abandonment gave them the ammunition they needed to send a democratic majority to the legislature, to impeach and try Holden and remove him from office in 1871. This was the first successful impeachment of a governor in the United States. Democrats called it an act of redemption, redemption from the unwise doctrine of universal equality.

The trustees then voted to suspend classes and close the institution. Pool and his faculty slowly moved away from Chapel Hill. They were and continue to be actively forgotten in the recollection of the university and Reconstruction. As that memory was erased, so too was the awareness that Reconstruction in Chapel Hill could have ended any other way. After its closing came the forces of an insurgent Democratic party, which took the appointment of the trustees out of hands of board of education and returned it to the legislature. An amendment was ratified in the election of 1873, and in 1874 lawmakers appointed a board of 64 new trustees drawn primarily from ranks of Democratic leadership.

In 1875 the trustees reopened the university according to a plan that really defined the UNC we know today: six colleges, made up of departments, etc. They replaced a fixed course of study with new forms of electives, instructions, infused with the critical spirit of modern science and original investigation. Why? To keep pace with late 19th century march of knowledge, invention, discovery. Their new university was no longer a warehouse for eternal truths but a great metropolis whose ships would explore unknown seas, so the university would explore (create) a marketplace of ideas. . . . economic advancements, a powerful dynamo of change. It was charged with creating a dynamic new South and integrating it back into the life of the nation. But that new South bore many of the hallmarks of the old, particularly in the ways it was built on racial and class inequality. During 1890s they were confronted once more with dynamics of white-black alliance—the Fusion party—brought together by shared suffering. North Carolina was the only state in which such an alliance seized control of both legislature and executive branch.

If they stood a chance, their best chance was here in North Carolina. Again the challenge was met with intimidation and violence. Two UNC graduates, Charles Aycock and Josephus Daniels, were key actors. They championed an amendment to the state constitution, in 1900, that stripped right to vote from black men, and in doing so constrained the lives of black and white citizens alike. This was a loss for all North Carolinians. There would be no biracial politics now that half of any such alliance could no longer vote. Disfranchisement marked the final victory in a counterrevolution that had begun as soon as the civil war ended, and for the first half of the twentieth century, what were its consequences? One-party government. Limited opportunities to challenge the ills that defined the South as a region apart: poverty, illiteracy, ill health, etc. For those who dared to see, this era of white supremacy showed that no people are fully free where some remain unfree.

That's our legacy. At times UNC distinguished itself as a citadel of justice and free inquiry: think of Howard Odom, Arthur Raper, Paul Green, Frank Porter Graham. At other times, though, the university could be slow to change, preferring the comfort of gradualism over more active advocacy. That's our history. Good and ignoble, tested and fraught with contradiction. A history that demands on the one hand that we be clear-eyed and unflinching in our moral judgment; at the same time also a history that warns against self-satisfaction in the exercise of that judgment, that warns against hubris, that counsels humility, lest in the act of that judgment we lose sight of the most valuable thing in these tales: their power to illuminate our own propensity for sin. It's a history that calls for self-examination, one with which we must come to terms . . . to free ourselves to make our own history in our own way.

The conference reached an abrupt and inconclusive end. What to do now? The Chancellor did not ask for a recommendation or even a response. Some people suggested taking our commentary and posting it on a web site. I hope the conversation will continue.

UPDATE 10/19/06: Welcome, Meredith students. As a result of this conference, Chancellor Moeser gave a grant for the creation of a new, comprehensive web site telling a much fuller version of UNC's history than we are used to hearing. The site was launched last week. It's worth visitng.

Friday, October 08, 2004

Who needs an earpiece? Just hone the message.

Even before the suspicion that the President was hearing voices, his rhetoric was being carefully studied. Writing before the first debate, Stanley Fish reported that his freshman English class was giving Bush the rhetorical edge. But that debate changed things. Stephen Greenblatt said Bush could have succeeded like Antony except that the candid camera caught him in "an astonishing range of emotions: confusion, annoyance and something like rage."

That's what happens when he gets off message. My former student Jonathan Riehl published an article in the Congressional Quarterly about the Republican convention. He noted the "relentless repetition" of the message, the "remarkably similar vocabulary and phraseology."

Now this video clip just in (via Jonathan). Who needs a "passive transducer" anyway?

Thursday, October 07, 2004


A message to my two or three readers: my iBook is in the shop getting a new logic board. There is nothing like seeing your screen disintegrate before your eyes! I hope to be back in business before too long.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

Don't read this blog

I don't know if I should tell you this. Since the Republican Convention, even through the debate the other night, I've been keeping something from you. Michael Berube's blog is not for everyone. Think carefully before you read too far. It's an acquired taste for those of us who've overdosed on cultural studies courses. Who else can fake a column from the Weekly Standard and get away with it (not)?

Now there is significantly bad news. Berube has been nominated as one of the "Best Political Bloggers Most of Blogdom Hasn't Heard Of." Readers are already complaining that this unwanted attention will just attract more readers who will flood the comments sections with pointless drivel, launching a whole series of unfortunate events.

Historical revisionism

Yesterday toward the end of UNC's symposium on "Remembering Reconstruction," about which more later, historian Edward T. Linenthal, in the course of talking about his involvement with the National Park Service in a ten-year project of transforming the Custer Battlefield National Monument into the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, said of course this was historical revisionism--"A historian would have to be senile not to be doing revisionism" all the time.

Today's example I find here via the History News Network:

This last week, Washington Post columnist Al Kamen reported on an emerging controversy over the release of a new version of a video presentation at the Lincoln Memorial. According to Kamen, last year, the National Park Service (NPS), under pressure from conservative religious groups, announced that a video presentation shown to visitors at the memorial would be modified to create a more "politically balanced" version.

The old eight-minute video presentation that had been screened since 1995, opens with Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream Speech" and President Abraham Lincoln's condemnation of slavery. However, the video also shows demonstrations at the memorial against the Vietnam War and others favoring abortion, gay, and women's rights. Conservative groups objected and thought the video presentation needed a better balance of Republican presidents and inclusion of footage of pro-Gulf-War demonstrations that also took place at the memorial.

Kamen reports that the NPS has now spent almost $200,000 to make two new versions of this video. However, neither version has been released yet. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), an NPS watchdog group, claims that NPS is withholding the release of the new version until after the Presidential election in November to avoid controversy. According to Jeff Ruch, PEER executive director, the first version was finish months ago but it failed to meet the standards of higher up officials, so a second version was created; it also is being withheld from release. Ruch suspects that it most likely "slashes feminists, war protesters and gays from American history." The NPS, however, is claiming that this is not the case.

NPS spokesperson Bill Line states there is "no basis in fact" to the allegation of electoral shenanigans. According to Lane, the final version is still not finished..."When it's ready, we'll let people know."

Friday, October 01, 2004

Moral saints and storytelling

My neighbor Susan Wolf is an award-winning philosophy professor who has been called "one of the most original and distinguished philosophers of her generation." Her a 1982 essay "Moral Saints" is well known (among philsophers) and widely taught.

"I don't know whether there are any moral saints," she begins. "But if there are, I am glad that neither I nor those about whom I care most are among them." What she means by a moral saint is someone whose life is dedicated to "improving the welfare of others or of society as a whole." High-minded but humorless, such rare people seem unbalanced:

For there comes a point in the listing of virtues that a moral saint is likely to have where one might naturally begin to wonder whether the moral saint isn't, after all, too good—if not too good for his own good, at least too good for his own well-being. For the moral virtues, given that they are, by hypothesis, all present in the same individual, and to an extreme degree, are apt to crowd out the nonmoral virtues, as well as many of the interests and personal characteristics that we generally think contribute to a healthy, well-rounded, richly developed character.

It isn't simply that the moral saint doesn't have time for foolishness.

There is a more substantial tension between having any of these qualities unashamedly and being a moral saint. These qualities [the "nonmoral virtues"] might be described as going against the moral grain. For example, a cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit in others, requires that one take an attitude of resignation and pessimism toward the flaws and vices to be found in the world. A moral saint, on the other hand, has reason to take an attitude in opposition to this--he should try to look for the best in people, give them the benefit of the doubt as long as possible, try to improve regrettable situations as long as there is any hope of success. This suggests that, although a moral saint might well enjoy a good episode of Father Knows Best, he may not in good conscience be able to laugh at a Marx Brothers movie or enjoy a play by George Bernard Shaw.

In Mountains Beyond Mountains, Tracy Kidder portrays Dr. Paul Farmer as a moral saint--a compelling one to be sure, and not without humor, but a man with a mission so serious, a purpose so grand, that it is hard to respond other than with feelings of distant admiration and inadequacy. The jacket blurb captures the tone of the book:

At the center of Mountains Beyond Mountains stands Paul Farmer. Doctor, Harvard professor, renowned infectious-disease specialist, anthropologist, the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" grant, world-class Robin Hood, Farmer was brought up in a bus and on a boat, and in medical school found his life’s calling: to diagnose and cure infectious diseases and to bring the lifesaving tools of modern medicine to those who need them most. This magnificent book shows how radical change can be fostered in situations that seem insurmountable, and it also shows how a meaningful life can be created, as Farmer—brilliant, charismatic, charming, both a leader in international health and a doctor who finds time to make house calls in Boston and the mountains of Haiti—blasts through convention to get results.

Mountains Beyond Mountains takes us from Harvard to Haiti, Peru, Cuba, and Russia as Farmer changes minds and practices through his dedication to the philosophy that "the only real nation is humanity"--a philosophy that is embodied in the small public charity he founded, Partners In Health. He enlists the help of the Gates Foundation, George Soros, the U.N.’s World Health Organization, and others in his quest to cure the world. At the heart of this book is the example of a life based on hope, and on an understanding of the truth of the Haitian proverb "Beyond mountains there are mountains": as you solve one problem, another problem presents itself, and so you go on and try to solve that one too.

All of this, and more, is borne out earnestly on the pages within.

What a surprise, then, to be treated to a talk by the real Paul Farmer last night at Binkley Baptist Church in Chapel Hill. Kidder and Farmer both spoke in a reading sponsored by the North Carolina Writers Network that was also a benefit for Partners in Health. Kidder, who read first, was utterly upstaged by Farmer, who was at once self-effacing and sarcastic, full of deadly wit. This is not a "moral saint" on a mountaintop, scanning mountain beyond mountain, though he has walked more mountains than it seems healthy to imagine. Farmer is engaging and approachable, really nothing like the picture that Kidder's book conveys.

That he is, in fact, the same morally grounded person was clear enough, for example when he talked about the recent devastation in Haiti wrought by Jeanne, over 2,000 lives lost. He said he tires of people remarking on what "Mother Nature" has done there. Pointing out that only six lives were lost in Florida, he says it's more like "Father Power." He simply cannot understand the American government's series of policy positions toward Haiti over the years, and he further cannot understand how it can be so different from the empathy and understanding that he encounters from American citizens everywhere he goes. This is the Paul Farmer I read about, but his sparkle and spunk were unexpected.

Remember one thing Wolf says above: "a cynical or sarcastic wit, or a sense of humor that appreciates this kind of wit in others, requires that one take an attitude of resignation and pessimism toward the flaws and vices to be found in the world." Perhaps mockery is Farmer's way of coping with a world in which he figures, in the end, his heroic efforts might sputter out to failure (a possibility that is broached in the book).

With Kidder's take on Farmer proven unreliable or at most incomplete, it might be better to read Farmer's own books, books with titles like Pathologies of Power, Infections and Inequalities, AIDS and Accusation. The questions he can't let go of are structural: how are "social processes and events . . . translated into personal stress and disease"? "By what mechanisms, precisely, do social forces ranging from poverty to racism become embodied as individual experience?" (1)

Pathologies of Power is practically unmediated, "a cry for those whose own shouts go unheard. It is a bitter dose of medicine doled out on behalf of the nameless, faceless millions who have no medicines of their own," said the Boston Globe. Farmer quotes Brecht:

When we come to you
Our rags are torn off us
And you listen all over our naked body.
As to the cause of our illness
One glance at our rags would
Tell you more. It is the same cause that wears out
Our bodies and our clothes.

The pain in our shoulder comes
You say, from the damp; and this is also the reason
For the stain on the wall of our flat.
So tell us:
Where does the damp come from?

Bertolt Brecht, "A Worker's Speech to a Doctor" (2)

It's not a far stretch from Brecht to Beckett, to the self-conscious absurdity of the effort: "I can't go on. I will go on." It's assuring somehow to know that Farmer will go laughing all the way.

UPDATE: Paul Jones has a nice account with more details. Anton Zuiker also reports on the reading, coming to it from the perspective of having been on the edge of Haiti himself, at the Dominican border town of Dajabon. He links to a gallery of some amazing photos by Duke pre-med student Steve Andrawes of his foray into Dajabon. Be sure to scroll all the way to the end (a few blank spaces might make you think there aren't any more).