сколько лет, сколько зим

I’m a huge fan of re-photography – the practice of re-staging old photographs as precisely as possible and then comparing the earlier and later. Third View, focusing on the American west, is a good example. But these shots of St. Petersburg today/Leningrad during the seige take the concept to a whole new level. It’s like you can see through time (with English text here, which might actually be the original posting location – I’m not sure).


analogy watch

How long until the Truman:Pendergast::Obama:Blagojevich analogy shows up in the major media? Never mind if the person making the analogy does a good job with differences and historical specifics. I’d just be amazed if it’s not made at all.

activism and web 0.2

It seems that Obama has been reading Lincoln; this is encouraging. Some of Obama’s reading about Lincoln may be less encouraging. I am not getting ready to lead a nation or form a cabinet; I have been reading Wendell Phillips. Phillips, you may recall, is the only non-politician profiled in Hofstadter’s American Political Tradition: his type is the “agitator” (something Obama once was, not so incidentally).

I’m reading Phillips mostly because I’ve meant to do so ever since I was a TA in a course on the nineteenth century U.S. whose instructor confessed admiration for him, and I saw a reference to Phillips in something else I read just recently. Many of his speeches are now online, but unfortunately not in easily copy-and-pastable form. I’ve only read a few so far, but I can already say that Phillips is worth a look for anyone interested not just in his history, but in political and social movements and agitation in general.

Here’s Phillips in “Public Opinion” (1851) on the theory of change:

We are apt to feel ourselves overshadowed in the presence of colossal institutions. We are apt, in coming up to a meeting of this kind, to ask what a few hundred or a few thousand persons can do against the weight of government, the mountainous odds of majorities, the influence of the press, the power of the pulpit, the organization of parties, the omnipotence of wealth. At times, to carry a favorite purpose, leading statesmen have endeavored to cajole the people into the idea that this age was like the past, and that a “rub-a-dub agitation,” as ours is contemptuously styled, was only to be despised.

The time has been when, as our friend observed, from the steps of the Revere House — yes, and from the depots of New York railroads — Mr. Webster has described this Antislavery Movement as a succession of lectures in school houses, — the mere efforts of a few hundred men and women to talk together, excite each other, arouse the public, and its only result a little noise. He knew better. He knew better the times in which he lived. No matter where you meet a dozen earnest men pledged to a new idea — wherever you have met them, you have met the beginning of a Revolution.

Revolutions are not made: they come. A revolution is as natural a growth as an oak. It comes out of the past. Its foundations are laid far back. The child feels; he grows into a man, and thinks; another, perhaps, speaks, and the world acts out the thought. And this is the history of modern society. Men undervalue the Antislavery Movement, because they imagine you can always put your finger on some illustrious moment in history, and say, here commenced the great change which has come over the nation. Not so. The beginning of great changes is like the rise of the Mississippi. A child must stoop and gather away the pebbles to find it. But soon it swells broader and broader, bears on its ample bosom the navies of a mighty republic, fills the Gulf, and divides a Continent.

“Rub-a-dub agitation” might be sort of a mid-nineteenth century version of “bloggers in their pajamas.” Later in that same speech Phillips takes up the subject of technology and organization:

In working these great changes, in such an age as ours, the so-called statesman has far less influence than the many little men who, at various points, are silently maturing a regeneration of public opinion. This is a reading and thinking age, and great interests at stake quicken the general intellect. Stagnant times have been when a great mind, anchored in error, might snag the slow-moving current of society. Such is not our era. Nothing but Freedom, Justice and Truth is of any permanent advantage to the mass of mankind. To these society, left to itself, is always tending.

In our day, great questions about them have called forth all the energies of the common mind. Error suffers sad treatment in the shock of eager intellects. “Everybody,” said Talleyrand, “is cleverer than anybody”; and any name, however illustrious, which links itself to abuses, is sure to be overwhelmed by the impetuous current of that society which, (thanks to the press and a reading public) is potent, always, to clear its own channel. Thanks to the PrintingPress, the people now do their own thinking, and statesmen, as they are styled — men in office, — have ceased to be either the leaders or the clogs of society.


Note: I have broken up the speech text into more readable paragraph lengths. The hyperlinks, of course, are in the original – that’s just how far ahead of his times Phillips was.

only in America a democracy

With the talk of Obama’s election being something that could only happen in America, it’s no surprise to find people pointing out that, well, not only could “it” – meaning a similar electoral victory, of course – happen elsewhere, but “it” has in some cases already happened elsewhere. But this piece in Slate is a bit confused about what “it” is.

On one side, there are some good examples*:

The truth is that Obama-style chiefs of state—people who came out of stigmatized ethnic minorities or “foreign” enclaves to lead their governments—are an uncommon but regularly recurring part of history. Alberto Fujimori, who held both Peruvian and Japanese citizenship, was elected president of Peru in 1990. Sonia Gandhi, born Edvige Antonia Albina Maino in northern Italy, led her Congress Party to a resounding victory in India’s 2004 elections. Daniel arap Moi is from the Kalenjin people, not the Luo or Kikuyu who are the nation’s largest ethnic groups and its centers of political gravity. But this did not bar him being president of Kenya from 1978 to 2002.

To them you could probably add Evo Morales in Bolivia. And going back to the 19th century, there’s Benjamin Disraeli’s selection as Prime Minister of the UK.

But on the other side are the poor examples:

Last week, the New York Times told us Europe would not soon—indeed might never—see a political triumph like Obama’s. It described British politics as though Disraeli had never existed and painted a similar picture of mono-ethnic France.

Desolé, cher collegues, but one year after the far-off, sunny isle of Corsica was acquired by France in 1768, there was born there one Napoleon Bonaparte, whose heavy Italian accent made him seem even more exotic to la France profonde than his strange name.

I guess Napoleon did win a lot of campaigns.

Next up:

And speaking of German accents, the Times thumb-sucker also foresaw that there would be no German Obama any time soon. Bad timing for them: Three days later, Germany’s Greens elected Cem Ozdemir, an ethnic Turk, as their new leader.

And the Greens, being the ruling party of Germany, must make their leader the Chancellor, right? At least that example is still within the realm of electoral politics. Unlike, say,

Stalin, of course, wasn’t Russian.

Stalin vetted his advisers very thoroughly, it should be noted. And he rose from being just a humble secretary too.


It’s a matter of some debate whether Alexander the Great was ethnically Greek.

Some said he was too Greek; others, not Greek enough. And Greece was the birthplace of democracy, so he must have been elected.

That not enough for you? The path of liberty soon turned west from Greece. And what do we find?

Quite a few rulers of the Roman Empire came from underprivileged, barbarian families in North Africa, Syria, and the Balkans. The Times‘ portrait of ethnically blinkered European politics would have surprised not only Disraeli and Napoleon, but also, inter alios, such second- and third-century Roman emperors as Philippus (known as Philip the Arab for his ethnicity), Septimius Severus (father Roman, mother North African), and Diocletian (humble stock from Dalmatia, present-day Croatia).

Hey, did you know that the Mongols weren’t Chinese, and yet they ruled China for a while? And the Qing ruled China for even longer, and they weren’t Chinese either! And yet we call their emperors emperors of China.

But why stop there? What about Carl XIV Johan, King of Sweden and Norway, born Jean-Baptiste Bernadotte and once Marshal of France (more French than Napoleon, who appointed him)? And the 19th century Greek monarchy had not just the House of Wittelsbach but the House of Glücksburg (in fairness, the later monarchs seem to have been Greece-born).

Or maybe it would be a good idea to just stop with the good examples, give a bit more depth to the comparisons, and acknowledge that Obama’s victory was not unique, but still quite rare.


*Unfortunately, many of these leaders were more successful in elections than in governing.

civilian leadership

Timothy Noah wonders why, since 1964, presidential candidates who were war heroes have been so unsuccessful:

With the sole exception of George H.W. Bush in 1988—who won by waging the dirtiest presidential campaign of the modern era and then served only one term—no war hero has won the presidency since John F. Kennedy beat Nixon in 1960. Before Kennedy, there was Dwight Eisenhower, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe. Before Eisenhower came a century and a half of American history during which war heroes and battlefield commanders routinely won the presidency, starting with George Washington and continuing through Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Teddy Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman. Between TR and Truman came a dry spell of 36 years during which no sitting president had served in the military. But that anomaly can be explained partly by the fact that for nearly half that time the president was a single person—Franklin D. Roosevelt. Moreover, both Roosevelt and his predecessor, Herbert Hoover, had performed enormously significant civilian duties in World War I, Roosevelt as assistant secretary of the Navy and Hoover as a highly enterprising organizer of famine relief, first as a private citizen and later as an appointee of President Woodrow Wilson. The Oval Office’s current drought of military leaders, then, would seem historically unique.

Noah then runs through a few possible explanations, which I don’t find particularly satisfying, even when I agree with them. Part of the problem is that I’m not sure if this is the right question.

Noah suggests that it was historically the norm for presidents to have been war heroes, but he’s only able to name 14 who fit his description (which he never really defines); add Hoover and FDR – and I think he has a better case for Hoover than for FDR – and you still have just 16.* That’s a substantial number, to be sure, enough to say that presidents who were war heroes have been a recurring feature in American politics, but hardly enough to say it’s also unusual for presidents not to be war heroes.

Now take a look at the wars involved:

  • Revolutionary War: 1 (Washington)
  • War of 1812 and related Indian wars: 2 (Jackson, Harrison grand-pere)
  • Mexican-American War: 1 (Taylor)
  • Civil War: 5 (Grant, Hayes, Garfield, Harrison (petit-fils), McKinley)
  • Spanish-American War: 1 (TR)
  • World War I: 2 or 3 (Truman, Hoover, maybe FDR)
  • World War II: 3 (Eisenhower, Kennedy, Bush pere)

Notice any pattern here? The Civil War accounts for at least one third of all war heroes; it plus the two world wars account for two thirds. So the supposed norm largely comes down to the effects of three wars, each of which involved unusually large mobilizations – and you still have to stretch to get more than one president out of the first World War.** Moreover, each of the remaining wars were not just significant victories for the United States but seen as turning points in the country’s history and development. Given that the United States hasn’t been involved in a war on the scale of the Civil or the two World Wars since 1945, and that the main candidate for a smaller, turning point war is Vietnam, it’s hardly surprising that there haven’t been more war hero presidents in recent times.


*If you expand the category to include all Presidents with any prior military service you get to about 30 – depending on how you treat those who served in the militia/national guard but did not serve in active combat. But Noah specifically rules out that kind of expansion when he writes

Presidents Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, and Ronald Reagan were all World War II veterans, but their service records were unexceptional.

Most of the increase comes from the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and World War II. All of the Civil War vets are already on the hero list. And no, Fillmore’s Civil War service doesn’t count towards his presidential electability.

**And it’s only by stretching that you break up the 36 years between TR and Truman without a war hero president. By the way, does Noah really expect us to go along with his math when he claims that FDR’s 12 years took up “nearly half” of that period?

the beginning of time

Paul Krugman writes:

I wish people wouldn’t say that Fannie and Freddie have been “nationalized.” I mean, it’s basically accurate, but it conveys the wrong impression.

The fact is that Fannie Mae was originally a government agency; it was privatized in 1968, not for any good economic reason, but to move its debt off the federal balance sheet (and Freddie was created 2 years later as a competitor.) Private ownership of Fannie and Freddie never made any real sense, and was always a crisis waiting to happen.

So what we’re really seeing now is deprivatization.

As an economist, Krugman should know that for most non-historians history began sometime in the 1950s and 1960s, depending on what events led to things becoming the way they are now (or just recently were). Therefore, for purposes of discussing Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, history began in 1968.

the forging of historians

Lies, Frauds and Hoaxes

Historians are trained to examine all sources carefully, looking for subtle biases, omissions, and silences. But sometimes we are confronted with sources that lie outright or that are themselves fraudulent. How should we approach such sources? How do we determine authenticity and accuracy? How and why are some lies promptly discredited while others remain believable for years? Primary sources will include memoirs, diaries, correspondence, newspapers, maps, and other materials of questionable veracity.

I had a chance to design and teach my own course in grad school, but I never took advantage of it. However, before deciding to put it off for a while – which turned out to mean never teaching it at all – I came up with the draft course description above. It’s probably too vague as to period and place: I likely would have focused mostly on examples from U.S. history, since that was my specialization – but there’s no reason someone couldn’t make a course like this cover all sorts of times and places.

The emphasis of this sort of class was supposed to be on working with sources. My idea was to have, if possible – along with general readings on frauds, forgeries and hoaxes – a few weeks revolve around a particular type of source:

  1. Is seeing believing?: visual sources (maybe doctored photography and/or maps)
  2. The truth and nothing but the truth: legal sources
  3. To thine own self be true: diaries and memoirs

and so on, hopefully all with clever unit names. I suspect it would have been quite difficult to organize the material like that, and I probably would have fallen back on covering particular cases.

I also had the idea of including forgeries and hoaxes in the readings without marking them as such. The idea was to see if students could figure it out for themselves. But it never occurred to me to have them create a hoax of their own. (via)

crafty historians

Thinking more about this

An undamaged (so to speak) brain perceives direct experience as continuous, but direct experience is not the same as history. Silas Weir Mitchell (in the linked post) wrote about injured Civil War veterans; Marc Bloch uses the following example in The Historian’s Craft:

Let us suppose that a military commander has just won a victory. That, immediately, he sets to work writing an account with his own hand. That it was he who conceived the plan of the battle, and that it was he who directed it. And finally that, thanks to the moderate size of the field (for in order to sharpen the argument, we are imagining a battle of former times, drawn up in a confined space), he has been able to see almost the entire conflict develop before his eyes. Nevertheless, we cannot doubt that, in more than one essential episode, he will be forced to refer to the reports of his lieutenants. In acting thus as narrator, he would only be behaving as he had a few hours before in the action. Then as commander, regulating the movements of his troops to the swaying tide of battle, what sort of information shall we think to have served him best? Was it the rather confused scenes viewed through his binoculars, or the reports brought in hot haste by the couriers and aides-de-camp? Seldom can a leader of troops be his own observer. Meanwhile, even in so favorable a hypothesis as this, what has become of that marvel of “direct” observation which is claimed as the prerogative of the studies of the present?

No doubt the commander’s experience of the battle was continuous; no doubt his account of the battle will fail to replicate that continuity. But it is not accurate to say that the former is the product of a healthy brain while the latter, no matter how thoroughly constructed, is doomed to resemble the product of a damaged one. The commander, in producing his account, is trying to capture more than what he experienced – more than what any single participant in the battle experienced, and indeed, more than any single person could have experienced. If history always fails to reproduce the past as it appeared to the people who lived in it, it is not just because historians’ access to the past is necessarily limited, it is also because historians are asked to do things no historical actor ever does when the past is still the present, and no living person does when the past is recalled as memory – history, at least in the form we know it today, is fundamentally unnatural.

Later Bloch writes:

Because the individual, narrowly restricted by his senses and power of concentration, never perceives more than a tiny patch of the vast tapestry of events, deeds, and words which form the destinies of a group, and because, moreover, he possesses an immediate awareness of only his own mental state, all knowledge of mankind, to whatever time it applies, will always derive a large part of its evidence from others. In this respect, the student of the present is scarcely any better off than the historian of the past.

If what historians do is more like producing than reproducing, why pay so much attention to the so-called irreproducibility of the past?

It is easy to see why this remoteness of the scholar from the object of his knowledge makes so strong an impression upon many historical theorists. It is because they think of history primarily in terms of events, even of episodes – of a history which, rightly or wrongly (and it is immaterial at the moment) attaches an extreme importance to the exact reconstruction of the actions, words, or attitudes of a few personages, brought together for a relatively brief scene, in which as in a classic tragedy, are marshaled all the forces of the critical moment: the day of a revolution, a battle, or a diplomatic interview.

Bloch concludes the paragraph with an example that shows why the brain-damage analogy can sound so plausible:

It is related that on September 2, 1792, the head of the Princess de Lamballe was paraded on the end of a pike under the windows of the royal family. Is this true or false? M. Pierre Caron, who has written an admirably honest book on the September Massacres, does not venture an opinion. Had he been permitted to watch the ghastly cortege in person from a tower in the Temple, he would have known what to think – at least if, preserving his scholarly detachment in these circumstances (as might be expected), and properly mistrustful of his own memory, he had further taken the precaution of making a note of his obvervations on the spot. Unquestionably, in such cases, the historian is mortified by comparing his position with that of a reliable witness of a present event. He is as if at the rear of a column, in which the news travels from the head back through the ranks. It is not a good vantage-point from which to gather correct information. Not so very long ago, during a relief march at night, I saw the word passed down the length of a column in this manner. “Look out! Shell holes to the left!” The last man received it in the form, “To the left!” took a step in that direction, and fell in.

beaten tracks

Talk of how we’ve entered a new “gilded age” tends to center on questions of inequality, but it has also led a number of people to draw analogies (sometimes well, sometimes poorly) between the old Gilded Age and our time. I remember during the internet boom of the late 90s hearing people say that the internet – or the information superhighway, as they said back then – was a lot like the 19th century railroad: annihilation of time and space, generation of great fortunes, boom and bust, and so on. But lately it’s been looking like the 19th century railroad might be more like the 21st century railroad.

There’s political influence and looming battles over regulation:

Two western railroad companies are donating an unusually high amount — more than $1 million — to the Denver National Convention (DNC) host committee — at the same time that railroad regulation proponents say they’re close, for the first time in decades, to winning additional oversight of the rail industry.

The companies offering up their political support include Union Pacific (UP) and Burlington Northern Santa Fe’s (BNSF). Nebraska-based UP disclosed its $1 million donation to Democratic convention organizers; company officials have said that an additional donation has been made to the Republican National Convention, which will be held in Minneapolis-St. Paul, though they haven’t revealed that amount.

And there are likely to be fights over rates ahead:

Meanwhile, the railroad industry’s long-standing antitrust exemption has attracted the attention of lawmakers. They seek to eliminate the exemption and closely examine the rates railroads charge to haul freight, which the industry says would cripple its expansion at a critical time.

The railroads’ rate structure has also drawn the ire of some of their customers: Nearly 30 antitrust lawsuits have been filed against major railroads in recent months, including one by agri-giant Archer Daniels Midland last month, alleging collusion and price-fixing.

For some lawmakers and advocacy groups, today’s rail industry recalls that of the late 1800s, when the only ceiling on rates was the limit of a rail baron’s avarice. The railroads say today’s rates are reasonable and reflect something the industry has not had in decades: pricing power.

Meanwhile, what’s the Gilded Age internet? The telephone. Seriously, that’s a very well-drawn analogy, from the story of the replacement of “the people’s telephone” (or “telephone 2.0”) with “telephone 1.0”, to the sobering concluding speculation. I couldn’t help but think of net neutrality while reading it.


This would be completely unbelievable if it weren’t true. I wonder if there’s some larger historical context here, maybe of attempts to separate artistic works from their reputations – haven’t people sent off manuscripts of books already thought to be great only to have them consigned to the rejection bin? – or, going in another direction, of demonstrating how much taste and the appreciation of taste is shaped by background and context (or of making fun of people for lacking taste).